‘Life only gets better.’ John Coyle – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 37
John Coyle silver medalist at the 1994 Olympics in speed skating explains why he thought of him as a ‘one-timer, first loser’ for over a decade. He outlines why he left the Olympic program and train by himself, and how he got into public speaking after the end of his career.
Furthermore, we discuss
- His darkest moment
- His best moment
- What advice would he give a younger John Coyle
- The habits that make him a successful person and athlete
- His morning routine
- How to prepare for important moments
- How to overcome setbacks
- His role model
- The best advice he received
- How he skated an unofficial world record
- A typical training day
- The ‘2-year rule’ and what it means
- His interview nomination
- Where can people find John Coyle
Christian: In this interview, I’m joined by John Coyle. John was a silver medallist at the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer in Short Track Speed Skating.
Amongst his other most notable achievements, next to the Olympic silver medal, a bronze medal at the Winter University Games in 1993 and a bronze medal in 1995 in the Word Team Championships, In 1995 John skated an unofficial world record in 1000 meters and participated in 9 World Championships and came up to number 12 in the in the world ranking.
After his career, John has pursued an MBA and has worked as a business consultant, consulting to high profile firms like Goldman Sachs, AOL, Time Warner, just to name a few. From there, John has moved on and published some books about how to find your strength, innovation and design thinking, which we’re going to talk about that later.
And lastly, one thing I found really interesting, John has found a way to hack time.
John: Thank you, Christian. It’s good to be here.
His darkest moment
Christian: John, in your life as an athlete, what was your darkest moment?
John: My darkest moment was not making my second Olympic team in 1998 after training for another four years. After that, for about a decade, I really thought of myself as a ‘one-timer and a first loser’.
After not making my second Olympic team in 1998, I thought of myself as a ‘one-timer and a first loser’ for about a decade.
This meant, that I was a one-time-only Olympian and first loser, meaning the silver medal means you are the first loser. This sounds crazy now, but you’re so hyper-competitive that anything other than gold and multiple Olympics feels like a failure. Apparently, this is not uncommon amongst athletes, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Christian: I’ve also found that you missed the 1992 Olympics because of some, let’s call it sub-optimal training interventions?
John: Yes, that’s correct. I followed the Olympic program for two years and prepped for the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville. In 1990, for example, I was in California training on my own and I still managed to win the US trials for the World Championships in a non-Olympic year. And two years later, by following the Olympic Protocol with the Olympic team, I actually finished 30th at the US trials. So, it definitely did not work for me.
In 1990, I was training on my own and I still managed to win the US trials for the World Championships, and two years later, by following the Olympic Protocol with Olympic team, I actually finished 30th at the US trials. So, it definitely did not work for me.
Christian: And what did you learn from these moments?
John: Well, I had to relearn something. When I was growing up, I had a coach, who now in hindsight, everybody recognizes as a master coach. His name was Mike Walden. His focus was intensely on raise your strengths. He would say this over and over.
He would say that we should design for our strengths and design around our weaknesses. He also said that we should not try to fix them. But the Olympic program was sort of the opposite. It worked on fixing our weaknesses. That didn’t work for me.
Christian: Interesting. I also saw in your TED talk that your dad got you into skating and also made sure that you stick to skating in the beginning even though you weren’t that successful, right?
John: Correct. In fact, when I was 8 years old, my father and I, we did 13-century rides, which means I did thirteen 100 mile rides that summer, as an 8-year-old.
When I was 8 years old, my father and I, we did 13-century rides, which means I did thirteen 100 mile rides.
How many 8-year-olds got in that much time on the bike? Probably one. So I got my 10,000 hours in early, I’d say.
His best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
John: Actually, my best moment, maybe is a bit unusual, but it is sort of the core of what I do now. This will probably sound weird to some people. After I missed the Olympic Games 1998, I felt really embarrassed and humiliated that I did not make the team.
It turns out this is not uncommon, but is, in fact, quite common. For about 10 years I had nothing to do with the sport. I didn’t watch it. I didn’t talk to anybody about it. But then I got invited to be the analyst and commentator for the Torino 2006 Olympics.
Of course, I wasn’t going to say no to that, so I showed up. My job was to interview the parents, coaches, and skaters and get the backstories to feed to the commentators. And on the 16th day of 17 days of the Olympics, one of the parents of one of the skaters pulled me aside and about 20 seconds changed the entire trajectory of my life.
One of the parents of one of the skaters pulled me aside and about 20 seconds changed the entire trajectory of my life.
So there we were in Torino, at a restaurant and he told me that he needed to tell me something. He said that he wanted me to know, that I was responsible for them being there. I told him that I was not aware of what he was talking about.
He reminded me of an incident 12 years prior, where after winning the silver medal, I went to a reception in Michigan. He said that I placed my medal around his 11-year-old son’s neck. He said his son, Alex, had never skated before in his life. He continued and said the next day after the reception his son joined the Bay City Speed Skating Club. And tomorrow he would be skating in the gold medal final of the Olympic Games. That literally changed my life because I had nothing to do with sport.
He reminded me of an incident 12 years prior, where I went to a reception in Michigan. He said that I placed my medal around his 11-year-old son’s neck, his son had never skated before, but the day after the reception his son joined the Bay City Speed Skating Club. And tomorrow he would be skating in the gold medal final of the Olympic Games. That literally changed my life.
I got my daughter skating, I started coaching, I started announcing and most importantly, I started talking about my highs and especially lows for the first time. Now, this is all I do. I speak for a living and I tell this story all around the world. And so that was definitely probably one of the most important moments in my life.
Christian: That’s really cool. I’ve heard these stories before that children have one of these moments before puberty hits, around these ages of 10, 11 or 12.
John: The author Daniel Coyle calls it ‘moments of ignition’. There’s a lot that leads into it. He had to have been primed, he had to be ready, he had to be in a space where a small moment suddenly becomes big. It doesn’t happen purely by magic, but I would love to be able to figure out how to design those.
Christian: Oh, absolutely!
His advice to a younger John Coyle
Christian: If you could go back in time, 10, 20, 30 years, what advice would you give your younger you?
John Coyle: Oh, that’s a good one. I would say a surprising piece of advice is it only gets better, life only gets better. My 25-year-old self really thought that was it. I thought that it’s never going to get better. And I’m so much happier now. I’m so much more fulfilled now.
Life only gets better, I’m so much happier now, and I’m so much more fulfilled now.
Life is so much richer now. Every year gets better than the last. It’s amazing how awesome life and your impact on others can actually continue to grow. Life gets more interesting. So that’s what I would probably tell myself ‘Don’t think it’s about to end, it’s about to begin.’
That’s what I would probably tell myself ‘Don’t think it’s about to end, it’s about to begin.’
Christian: Talking to many high-level athletes, I’ve also heard that as an athlete you are very, very driven. It seems like there’s a difficulty of enjoying the process. After the career, a lot of people seem to look back and wished they had enjoyed the process a bit more.
John: Yes. I think I’m one of the lucky ones. After I quit the Olympic program, I started training by myself. I really love that actually, and so I definitely learned to appreciate the process along the way.
But you’re right. Apolo Ohno and I just did an interview a few days ago, he’s writing a book about the exit from professional and Olympic sport. Here are two quick stats for you.
- The average Olympic athlete faces about 10 years of on and off again depression. This is not surprising when you think about it because their identity is tied up with it.
- And here’s a more shocking one. The average NFL player, who by the way earned millions of dollars per year, is bankrupt. Seventy-eight percent of them are bankrupt within three years.
So it’s a hard transition when your identity is tied up with this lifestyle and sport. Sport is simple. Let’s face it. Turn left and go fast. That’s not complicated. Real life is complicated.
Let’s face it, sport is simple, real life is complicated.
Christian: So following up on your idea of finding strengths, you have been a successful cyclist as well, right?
John: That’s correct, yes.
Christian: Do you think, if you would have doubled down on one of the disciplines, whether short track skating or cycling, you could have been even more successful?
John: Well, I did eventually, I had to choose. I was doing both for a long time. My goal really was to compete in both sports and two different Olympics.
My goal really was to compete in both sports and two different Olympics.
But cycling at the time had gotten more and more professional and skating was still amateur. I was actually cycling for the Seven 11 team, which became Motorola, which became its current iteration. Jim Ochowicz was the same coach, still. When I turned 18 and I got into Stanford, Jim welcomed me to the senior team and told me I could join the professional team. He even told me he expected to see me in Dallas in February.
I told him that I was going to be at college at Stanford, so June would have been better. He advised that this was my decision point, and I had to choose my future career. So I chose education over cycling.
It was my decision point, and I had to choose my future career. So I chose education over cycling.
Then I doubled down on skating after that, because I could still do skating at the time. Now there’s no chance you could go to college full time, and be a US Olympic athlete, it’s not possible.
His success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful person or athlete?
John: Apolo asked me that last week and it’s only the second time I think I’ve ever been asked that. I had to really think. I will say, that I think that this is true and which is actually not true for the vast majority of both professional and Olympic athletes. I am willing to ask for help.
I am willing to ask for help.
When I retired, I was 30 years old, I never had a job, I didn’t have any money, and I also have a huge debt from both student loans and just paying for my skating career. I reached out to everybody I could think of asked for help to make the transition and to get a job.
I had several people come out and mentor me and teach me how to interview and to create a resume and to show up in a way that people would want to hire me. I got my first job, which was a 6-figure job and very unusual for a 30-year-old with no experience.
But I got into business consulting, which is a high paying with a difficult lifestyle. I worked 80 hours a week for the next seven years. But I think that’s one of the things that defines me. I am willing to ask for help. I’m not too proud to not reach out when I need support.
Christian: You said that this habit helped you to get into that job. But you are actually helping and inspiring people too. Is this habit something that helps you to make the transition to being a successful businessman and to further advance your career from being a consultant to being a speaker and author?
John: Yes, for sure. Over the years, I developed an inner circle or a group of mentors, that I would reach out to on every three months, six months or a year. I would ask for their advice given my current career path or set of learnings.
It was about four and a half years ago that one of them heard me tell a story in a meeting and he told me that my story would make a great TED talk. I told him that I don’t know how to do it, but he said that he would help me because he has done it himself. So he coached me a bit. I submitted my idea to Ted and they accepted it.
After it was recorded, some of my clients started asking me to do it for them. And now, fast forward to three and a half years later, this is all I do.
His morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine?
John: Oh, this is embarrassing. Yes, I do have a morning routine, but it’s just not the one that everybody else talks about. I sleep until whenever I sleep, which is usually about 10. I make a bulletproof coffee. I cook some eggs usually, and I don’t really do anything till about eleven. I’m a total night owl.
I sleep until whenever I sleep, which is usually about 10. I don’t really do anything till about eleven. I’m a total night owl.
I don’t do any real work probably before noon. And most of my real work starts at about 10:00 PM.
Christian: Interesting. How long do you work then?
John: It depends. The beauty of the work I am doing is my time is my own. If I’m not on stage, I can pretty much choose whatever I want to do and wherever I want to go. Last weekend I decided to fly to Jamaica because I could. I travel a lot for work and I also travel a lot when I’m not working because I like to travel.
The beauty of the work I am doing is my time is my own. I can pretty much choose whatever I want to do and wherever I want to go.
But there are times where I’ll work 14 hour days for 3, 4 or 5 weeks on end. I wrote the book in 3 weeks of 14 hour days. I didn’t move hardly. I just sat and wrote continuously, because it was just coming pouring out of me. So I just fell into that.
So it ebbs and flows and this is one of the things that I talk about. Continuous and chronic stress is extraordinarily bad for you. It’ll kill you. Episodic stress is extraordinary good for you. So diving deep into something for a week or two and then taking a big rest and going somewhere and chilling out, that’s the way to do it.
Continuous and chronic stress is extraordinarily bad for you, episodic stress is extraordinary good for you.
That’s the way sports are designed, sports got it right. You have super high-intensity races on the weekend. Then you recover and chill, have easy practices for a couple of days and heat it back up.
Sports do it right. And most work people don’t do it right. They’re chronically in stress and it’s actually really dangerous.
Christian: Yes, and I think that also ties in very well with what you’re speaking about. If you find your strength, you can get into that flow state. But if you have to operate on, let’s say weaknesses or points that are not your strengths, it’s so much harder in the drains to go through it.
John: Yes. If you play whack a mole of weaknesses all day, it just sucks the life out of you. It’s even hard to smile. It’s definitely difficult to get the energy to go hang out with friends or be creative.
But when you can find your area of where you do your best work and do at least some of that every day, it’s really energizing. Thoreau said it best when he said that most men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the songs still in them. Sadly, I think that’s true of a lot of people.
Thoreau said it best when he said that most men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the songs still in them.
Christian: I think so too. Yes.
John: Clearly not you though.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare for important moments?
John: I have always ritualized my preparation. So, for example, in skating, I got very nervous being near the ice or in what they call the heat box where you’re getting your skates on. So I was always the last one to show up. I was literally like finishing tying the bow when they call us the line. I didn’t want to spend time there and I had a pre-prep routine.
I have always ritualized my preparation. I got very nervous being near the ice, so I was always the last one to show up.
For talks, I don’t really get that nervous. I always do the same thing to take the uncertainty out of it. So I show up at a certain time. I don’t have to rehearse or anything. I keep myself in a quiet space for about 10 minutes prior, just so I’m ready to go and fully present. So I think rituals are really important for important moments.
I always do the same thing to take the uncertainty out of it.
Christian: Have you taken what you’ve learned as an athlete into your career now as well?
John: Oh, for sure. Sport and speaking are not entirely dissimilar. There’s a lot of prep in terms of writing the book or writing the speech. Then you got to show up and you’ve got to deliver and you have to deliver every single time.
Sport and speaking are not entirely dissimilar, you got to show up and you’ve got to deliver and you have to deliver every single time. You can never not deliver.
You can never not deliver because there are 500 people looking at you. You can’t screw that up. It hasn’t happened yet. I don’t think it will, but it could. So being ready to be on and ready to deliver every single time without fail, that’s critical because they’re paying you a lot of money to show up for an hour.
Christian: It has happened to me once. I had a complete blackout.
Christian: Luckily the audience was very junior people. So I started talking about something, and they looked at me and thought that I knew what I was talking about. But the truth is, I was so uncomfortable.
John: Oh my goodness! I do a talk, as you probably know, on time and time perception. When I do that talk, sometimes I actually fake like I’ve lost my thread and I’ll time it. I do it for 15 seconds and I’ll just sit there.
That 15 second seems like an eon to the audience because it’s so uncomfortable. And then I go and I get off stage and I show a sign. I first ask if anybody was uncomfortable. Everybody is laughing because at this point they start to realize that it’s a joke. Then I tell them that it was 15 seconds and not a minute, not 5, not 10 seconds. It gets back to that sort of time perception thing.
Christian: I saw that in your second TED talk and it was 8 seconds and it was really the first time I saw it. I had to wonder what was going on. It was so short, just 8 seconds, but it felt long.
John: Right. Last time I did it was last week. I did 15 seconds, which is twice as long. You can imagine! It felt like forever.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
John: Well, we talked before a little bit about asking for help. So that’s one thing. But the other thing that I think I’m pretty a skilled at, and I use that word intentionally because I think it is a skill, is getting perspective.
I think I’m pretty a skilled at getting perspective, and I use that word intentionally because I think getting perspective is a skill.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to get a job or a promotion. Or there’s a girl you really like or there’s a school you want to get into or anything that you’re pursuing with all of your energy. And there are not that many things in life, but these are three really big ones. It’s really easy to get into what I call a ‘hundred-zero mindset’, which means I’ll either get in and life will be awesome or I’ll fail and I’m a loser.
It’s really easy to get into what I call a ‘hundred-zero mindset’, which means I’ll either get in and life will be awesome or I’ll fail and I’m a loser.
This is so typical of athletes in particular. But the reality is life is never a ‘hundred-zero’, there are always odds. And this is where games and particularly video games, I think is really good. You start to think in percentages. I got a 70% chance of getting this job. I’ve got a 50% chance of this girl calling me back. I’ve got an 80% chance of getting this promotion.
As soon as you start to think in percentages, it actually changes your brain chemistry. When you do this, it is said that you gamify a situation by putting statistics to it. This is very new neuroscience. It is less than a year old. You can move something from hundred-zero.
A hundred zero, by the way, is your fight, flight or freeze response. That’s cortisol. That’s duking up the runaway. You’re amped up, your blood vessels contract, you’re ready for action and you also narrow your focus.
That’s all totally fine if a lion’s coming at you out of the jungle or if somebody’s got an ax and they’re running at you, but it’s very, very maladaptive for the complex problems of today.
A fight, flight or freeze response, is totally fine if a lion’s coming at you out of the jungle or if somebody’s got an ax and they’re running at you, but it’s very, very maladaptive for the complex problems of today.
So what you actually want is to do is to start thinking that you have a 50/ 50 shot. That changes cortisol to DHEA, which actually broadens your perspective and you get Oxytocin as well, which causes you to ask for help. So as soon as you can gamify a challenge and start thinking about your percent shot, you’re going to look for more opportunities and ask for help. And that’s way more adaptive. So this is really new stuff.
His role model
Christian: Do you have a role model?
John: That’s a good question, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that. I have a lot of them, particularly my mentors. Mike Walden was my coach growing up. He was the one who really anchored to raise your strengths, raise your strengths, raise your strengths. He’s obviously a huge role model.
By the way, he produced 10 Olympians, six World Champions and six Olympic medals. For a 40 years stretch, he had 28% of US podiums in cycling, both male and female of all ages, out of one club in Detroit. Amazing! So Mike for sure.
I would say, actually, another one would be Malcolm Gladwell. I don’t know him, but the inspiration to take complex things and turn them into narratives that ordinary people can understand, it took me a while to realize. It was actually my business partner, Monica, who helped me.
I would have impostor syndrome and ask myself ‘Why I should I be able to write a book?’ or ‘Why should I speak in front of people?’ I would tell myself, that I’m not a neuroscientist or a doctor or anything. But then, she would remind me that there was Malcolm Gladwell.
It’s a really valuable thing if you can take complicated information and distill it down to meaningful narratives for other people that they can actually understand. This is so because these white papers are inscrutable and quite impossible. So I’ve mostly gotten over my impostor syndrome, thanks to people like Malcolm Gladwell.
I’ve mostly gotten over my impostor syndrome, thanks to people like Malcolm Gladwell.
Christian: I love his books and yes, I like him. These people are role models because they have something you aspire to be?
John: Yes, I would say that’s correct. I don’t know about Mike, my coach growing up. I would never be a challenger like he was. He was a yeller. That’s not my mode. I’m more of a coach or encourager. But his incredible focus on how do you specify, find and then design for your unique strengths is something the world needs to hear. And it’s a big part of what I do every day.
His incredible focus on how do you specify, find and then design for your unique strengths is something the world needs to hear. And it’s a big part of what I do every day.
I’ll give you a quick anecdote about Mike, there were about 50 to 60 people on the team and for everybody on the team, Mike had a short pithy quote that he yelled at you a 1000 times. It sounded simple, to the point it almost sounded stupid.
I was 11 years old and he constantly kept shouting ‘You have to win it at the line!’ At 11 years of age, I kept thinking that was the only place to win it. But actually, it was very complicated. It took him a while to figure that out. But he ascertains my strengths and weaknesses.
So Mike translated the quote and told me that I have no aerobic motor or aerobic endurance, so he said that I needed to time my sprint in both cycling and skating in order to win by the smallest of margins. I was told that if I go too early, everybody would catch and go by me.
He also told me that if I go too late, then that would be too late. So, this is why he kept saying that I need to win at the line because that would have been my only shot. And hearing that 1 billion times as a kid, I mastered it winning over 400 races by tiny margins. I never won by any big margin.
Conversely, my teammate Frankie Andreu won a race once by 18 minutes. But his advice was exactly contrary to mine. Mike was funny in his own way.
His whole advice to Frankie was that he had to drop me. What he meant was that Frankie was not a sprinter so he needed to break away from all the sprinters, especially from me because I was the most notorious.
Otherwise, he said we would beat him at the line every time. That’s what Frankie did over and over and over. Nine towards the front and fourth in the Olympics. Frankie had an amazing career.
The best advice he has received
Christian: What is the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
John: Yes, that’s easy. It’s Mike Walden who told me to raise my strengths. He said I should very specifically find what they are first and then double down repeatedly on them. I would have never made an Olympic team if I hadn’t re-realized his advice after two years with the Olympic team.
To raise my strengths, I would have never made an Olympic team, if I hadn’t re-realized this advice.
And then I quit the team, not the sport and started training on my own and designing a new track for my own style and my own strengths. That same meet where I got 30th and got my backside kicked for the Olympic trials, 1 year to the day later is when I came back. In my first race back, I broke the US record by five seconds and skated faster than the world record by one second, in the same race. It was the same race, same me, but a better approach.
How he skated an unofficial world record
Christian: Why was it an unofficial world record?
John: Yes. In short track, there are two requirements for a world record. You have to have international judges present. There were none for this event because it was the US trials. Additionally, it can’t actually be in a time trial. It needs to be in a pack style event. This is a time trial they use to see the races.
To be honest, it’s potentially easier to skate a world record with a group, if you’ve got somebody leading it out. I was by myself, so I had no draft. But the other advantage to being on your own is there’s not a bunch of skaters scratching up the ice. So the ice was pretty, pretty darn good. It’s a little- it’s probably an even trade-off.
A typical training day
Christian: So back in the days, how did the typical training day look like?
John: I’ll tell you the training days when I left the team to train on my own. These days were particularly challenging because I needed to feed and clothe myself and provide housing for myself, as I wasn’t living at the Olympic Training Center anymore.
So, my routine was the same for three years. I got up at 6:30, ate breakfast, changed, put my skating stuff on, got in the car, drove to the ice rink at 7:00 and got there at 7:30. From 7:30 to 8:00, I set up all of the blocks, the pads, the ice and the water. I skated from 8:00 until 10:00.
I then took everything off the ice, put it away, went to the locker room, shower, changed and put on my suit, because I had a day job, I worked part-time for an engineering company. I drove and got there at 11:00 and worked from 11:00 till 3:30, which was four and a half hours plus lunch. It was really four hours.
Then I would get in my car and I would drive to Chicago, three hours away to go to Grad school at night at Kellogg. I’d get there at 6:30/6:45, the class started at 7:00 and went until 9:30. I would then drive two hours back to Milwaukee and I would do my weight workout or my jump workout from 11:30 to after midnight and then I’d sleep, and the next day I’d do it all over again. So I had those long days for three years.
Christian: Did you manage with little sleep?
John: I was getting about 7 hours, 6 and a half, which was enough for me at that time. It’s no longer enough for me now.
Christian: Okay. We all get older. I wanted to touch on your TED talks.
Christian: So for everyone who’s watching this or listening to that, John has done two TED talks. They truly value pack, so I don’t think we can summarize that here. But there are two things I would like to talk about because they really are interesting to me.
In your first TED talk “If at first you don’t succeed…” you had an interesting quote ‘If you’re willing to quit, you get perspective.’ Can you elaborate on that?
John: So, think about a relationship that might be drawing to a close. So you’ve been dating someone for a while and then you’re wondering whether this is going to work long term. Up until then you’re very emotionally charged and engaged and you’re trying to make it work.
The same as for sports, for a major in college or anything that’s really highly important to your future. You’re so close and you just can’t see the forest for all the trees. Then you’re thinking that maybe it should come to an end. Maybe I should switch majors. Maybe I should break up with this person. Or maybe I need to quit this job.
But then, when you back up, and you start to be able to see around the edges of this obstacle and get a little more objective. And when you can be objective about the challenge, a lot of times the right answer is to quit to do something else. But not always.
When you back up, you start to be able to see around the edges of the obstacle and get a little more objective. And when you can be objective about the challenge, a lot of times the right answer is to quit to do something else. But not always.
Sometimes you realize, that the person has so many great qualities and all you need to do is to adjust your perspective just a little. Or you realize that the job actually has all these perks that were not utilized. And so that ability to back up and analytically see a challenge, that mostly has been an emotional barrier for you.
It also allows you to have that brief moment of perspective in making an informed decision. It also allows you to ask other people who can help you to make good decisions. But if you just try to make all your decisions in the emotional short term, you’re probably going to fail to see the opportunity the way it really is.
If you just try to make all your decisions in the emotional short term, you’re probably going to fail to see the opportunity the way it really is.
Christian: Yes, I know from NLP, neuro-linguistic programming, that they work with what they call different positions, first, second and third position, where you look at something from literally different angles. Do you have any other tips for the people listening or watching how you can utilize it for yourself?
John: Yes. It’s a tricky thing. It’s really part of what I would call the design thinking protocol. The design thinking is just a method of creative problem-solving. But the design thinking mindset is a really unique one. It’s a trade-off between analytical detachment around what the problem is and then highly emotionally charged problem-solving.
The design thinking mindset is a really unique one, it’s a trade-off between analytical detachment around what the problem is, and then highly emotionally charged problem-solving.
Most people tend to be highly emotionally charged the whole time. ‘Oh, here’s a problem and here’s a solution’ kind of thing. Let’s go at it. I call it Maslow’s hammer and Occam’s razor. The simplest solution to any given problem is the right one, which is Occam’s razor, except when it’s not. And then Maslow’s hammer is, if all you have is a hammer, you’re going to treat everything like a nail.
If all you have is a hammer, you’re going to treat everything like a nail.
That’s the way people problem solve all the time. But what you really need to do is be detached, but ask yourself ‘Do I understand the problem?’ The phraseology, in English at least, is committed, but not attached. Meaning I’m committed to solving this problem, but I’m not attached to any particular mechanism to do so.
So as soon as you can bring the designer’s mindset, then you have stepped back, and you are looking at it from a bunch of different angles. And then, and only then you decide on a solution as the most viable. You pursue with all your vigor, but it fails and then I need to back up again and look at it analytically and detach.
You need to be committed, but not attached. Meaning, I’m committed to solving this problem, but I’m not attached to any particular mechanism to do so.
This is a hard balance and very difficult for people. All of us, I think, tend to be highly emotionally attached to outcomes. And that’s okay, outcomes is fine, but you don’t want to be emotionally attached to methodologies to get there if that makes sense.
The ‘2-year rule’ and what it means
Christian: The next one is very difficult for me to understand and it has a bit of a reaction of resistance in me, but I think it’s highly interesting. In your talk, you also said that we should abide by the two-year rule. If something doesn’t work for two years, you should quit.
John: People have asked me how they’d know when to quit. They don’t know, because you can’t be good at anything in a week. Maybe if you’re just supernaturally gifted with springing muscles, you might be reasonably good at high jumping. That’s a very rare thing.
But you can’t be a great writer, orator, speed skater or a gymnast and pretty much anything else without putting in the time. So we’re wired and we’re programmed. We’re actually operating under conditions since youth to never quit. You never give up; you never give in; quitters never prosper; good things come to those who wait. And this is great programming until it falls off the rails for adults.
Maybe at some point, you were supposed to be an artist or a painter or a mathematician or a philosopher or an orator or something and you’re doing accounting. You’re doing fairly at it, so you don’t quit because you’re programmed. I don’t quit this.
I’m going to keep trying and you’re a mid-level accountant for the rest of your life. You never got a chance to do what you’re doing. You, Christian, you’re putting on a podcast with Olympians from all around the world, because you chose to break from whatever it is you were doing before to take this risk. And most people, I think, don’t do that.
We’re programmed since youth to never quit. You never give up; you never give in; quitters never prosper; good things come to those who wait. And this is great programming until it falls off the rails for adults.
That’s why the ‘2-year rule’ is a reasonably good one. If you’re pursuing a major or relationship or a sport and you’re not seeing progress after about two years or even one or three years. It’s definitely not ten. You do not want to pursue something for 10 years with no progress?
You’ve just wasted an eighth of your life. That’s wasted time. So then, how would they know? I actually quit my job four times in eight years. So it was almost exactly perfect, but I didn’t actually leave. I just asked for an adjacent role.
First, I was in operations, that wasn’t really a good fit for me. So I moved over to strategy, which was a better fit for me, but it’s really analytical. So I moved over in innovation and so forth. So I kept tick tacking my way to things that are a closer fit to what I’m good at. It doesn’t mean fully quit, abandoned and go away.
The other things you can do is re-frame your approach or try a different way as I did with skating or you make it a hobby. There’s nothing wrong with something like golf. There’s nothing wrong at pursuing something you’re bad at. However, you just don’t want to make it your primary relationship or source of income.
There’s nothing wrong at pursuing something you’re bad at. However, you just don’t want to make it your primary relationship or source of income.
Christian: And then now, for the second TED talk on how to design moments that help you to live almost forever. I think that was highly interesting, especially for someone like me, who had difficulties understanding it in the beginning. I also think it was quite confronting. So basically you teach people experiential time?
Christian: So you have three variables, which is contraction, inversion, expansion. By that, you can increase the experiential time to how you perceive time. Do you teach that to people?
John: Yes. I’m working on a book right now. It’s the most important thing I’m working on now. The neuroscience is just exploding recently. There was almost nothing on this a few years ago. We really didn’t know how time perception or memory worked, but now we know a lot.
It’s the most important thing I’m working on now. The neuroscience is just exploding recently. There was almost nothing on this a few years ago, but now we know a lot.
I’ll give you the super short lesson. Our brains, right now, are sweeping memories from short term memory to long term memory about every two seconds. It’s the hippocampus, which is in your back brain that’s doing this. Now, it might not store everything. It might not store anything.
That’s what happens when you go on autopilot and you drive to work and you don’t know how you got there. Or it might store something but you can’t find it. So my argument is if you store something, and you can’t find it, it’s lost anyway, so it doesn’t count. So, the trick to time perception, to experiential time is what is stored, how much is stored and can you find it.
This has to do with recall ability, depths of data and whether it was stored at all. The hippocampus is an okay machine. It’s lazy. It will only store stuff if it’s kind of unique or different. So you’ll lose yourself into routine things. So routine is the enemy of time perception.
But this is where it gets interesting. The amygdala is another part of the brain. It sits right next to the hippocampus and it’s dormant a lot of the time. It’s a sentinel, that is, it’s waiting to wake up. But if something causes it to wake up, your frame rate goes from every two seconds to 10 times a second. So now you’re writing memories 20 times faster.
Amygdala memories are really notable for a couple of things. There are highly and nearly perfectly recallable. They store lots of data and you never lose them. Do you remember how long summers were when you were 8-years old? Summers of 8-years olds lasted forever, because their amygdala were on, basically 24/7.
This is unique. This is different. This is dangerous. This is scary. This is risky. This is amazing. This is joyful. It was on high alert all the time. So it’s just storing all this data and then we get a decade or two older and we feel life is safe and comfortable. You designed it this way. The hippocampus takes over and it gets lazy too and suddenly you’re not storing anything.
So the real trick to time expansion, which is related to memory expansion, is you have to use the amygdala to write memories. And that means that the greatest quote here is, “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone” if you’ve heard that before.
You’re not pushing some boundaries if you’re not taking some risks or if you don’t have some exposure to ups and downs in your life. We try to avoid this as adults, but then you’re actually not going to write it down. If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. If it didn’t happen, you weren’t alive and therefore you’re basically dead at 40.
Check out John’s second Ted Talk ‘How to design moments that help you live (almost) forever.’
Christian: That’s interesting. Do you teach people in retreats how to do this?
Christian: Out of interest, how long are these retreats?
John: So it’s three days and two nights, it’s actually 45 hours total, to which most people say they felt like they’ve been gone a month. Because we do it right and it’s experiential. I don’t want to give away all the secrets, but the last one we did, we put everybody on a bus after they registered, we blacked out all the windows in the front. I got on and said its 17 hours to Tijuana and there’s no bathroom. I’ll see you there.
And then we sent them off and they actually did not go to Tijuana. They went about 45 minutes up to a mountain, where the bus driver stopped, got out and ran away. And then they milled around for a while wondering what was going on.
They finally spilled out and they’re on top of the mountain. The sun’s about to set and then they saw the little trail, and they realize that’s probably the way they’re supposed to walk. And just as it crested the hill, the music lit up, the tents lit up and there was a long table dinner for 50 with a cellist.
And that’s the thing. You create these unique memorable tense moments. You have to have some tension. Then the amygdala is on and it’s writing and it’s writing and it’s writing and time expands. It totally works.
Christian: And what people learn they can take it with them and reproduce that?
John: Exactly. Well, I’m going to tell you real quickly, something that came out of this that might be significant. This will be the first time I’ve ever said this publicly. But if this is true, then your show will hold potentially one of the most important insights may be of the last 50 years. And I’m not joking if this is true. I don’t know it to be true.
This will be the first time I’ve ever say this publicly. But if this is true, then your show will hold potentially one of the most important insights maybe of the last 50 years. And I’m not joking.
There were two people at the summit with early-stage Alzheimer’s. Subsequent to the summit, both of them decided to buck tradition. By the way, Alzheimer’s patients are encouraged to create a routine and stay to the same safe routine and everything in the same place and do the same thing every day.
And I submit that it’s the exactly perfectly wrong advice. It’s sort of saying eat margarine. It’s exactly perfectly wrong. So they’ve both gone on a series of adventures over the last three months since. I don’t have the scores for the second person. But the first person got tested for short term recall just before the summit and it was 73%.
So, well below average, in terms of being able to recall things, which is normal for Alzheimer’s. And the perpetuated belief is there’s no solution. You can’t stop it, you can slow it, but there’s only one direction. And this is ubiquitous.
Two weeks ago he got tested and he’s at 96%. The other patient is experiencing the ability to recall much better than before. So this is only anecdotal at this place. If the amygdala is able to cut through and lay down new ways and lay down memory where the hippocampus can’t, then maybe that’s the trick.
So it is to get the mind to lay down these serious highways of memory recall that the hippocampus could then use to recall normal stuff as well. If this is true, it’s going to change the entire protocol for Alzheimer’s treatment. And I hope its right. Oh yes, I hope it’s right.
Christian: I hope so too. Where can people find more information about that?
John: Yes. The Art of Really Living or John K Coyle, they actually lead the same place. All my videos and my blogs are there. I write a lot about time, memory and strengths. The TED talks are there. Yes, you can find everything there.
His interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
John: Yes. I can think of a couple of guys and I’ll send you an email. Cody Royle is one such person. He’s not an Olympian, but he’s been basically coaching the pros and coaching the pro coaches for a long time.
Apolo Ohno would be a good one I think, especially considering the book he’s writing now about the exit from sport and how difficult is. I mean you’ve got Dan Jensen, the whole speed’s skating crew and all of those people. So you pick somebody. I’ll make the intro. Happy to help.
Christian: Yes, that would be great. Apolo has actually already been nominated by Gideon Massie.
John: I don’t even know who that is. What’s the name?
Christian: Giddeon Massie, he was a track cyclist, double Olympian, who competed at the 2004 Athens Olympics and 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. But yes, Apolo, I would like to speak to him. That would be cool.
John: Yes. The timing is good now, with this book coming out. Yes. And I’m sure there are others. If you send me an email and ask me, I’ll get you a list.
Christian: Oh, that would be awesome. That would be really awesome.
Where can you find John Coyle
Christian: Where else can people find you? What social profiles are you using?
John: I’m on Facebook as the time guy, John K. Coyle, the time guy. I’m on Instagram, its Coyle John K. Same with Twitter, Coyle John K, and LinkedIn, John K. Coyle.
John’s Social profiles
Christian: Awesome. John, thanks a lot for your time.
John: I thank you, that was good fun, buddy.