Rediscovering and Using Ancient Ideas: Part 1

The more control and rigidity you stumble for, the further away you get from what you want.  

The Japanese convey this idea through the saying: “The day you cease to travel, you will have arrived.” 

Sahil also captures the essence here: 

People deeply understood this idea thousands of years ago.  It even sits at the core of the major religions.  

In Christianity: “Not my will, but yours will be done.” Muslims say, “It is the will of Allah”.   Written in the Upanishads: “Brahman is the charioteer.”

In other words, you need to let go of the tiller of life to get the results you want.  Frantically searching and grasping at your desires and wants blinds you to the obvious secrets hidden right in front of your face.  Taking a step back and noticing what’s happening, thinking deeply without an agenda, helps you to connect the ideas needed to get you what you want. 

We’re just rediscovering this powerful idea in the 21st century, and we’ll dive deeper into why it works. 

There are two ways we can apply its teachings:

  1. Striving to live a satisfying and rich life
  2. In tactical applications across our daily lives, such as learning, problem solving, and leadership development

Let’s explore both of these!


How this applies to anything in life

Now, a clear distinction needs to be made: this does NOT mean that you shouldn’t have any goals.  It means that when you try to exert extreme control, you become lost in your goal, losing the ability to get what you set out to achieve.  From the other end, it also means that when you try too hard to define the perfect goal, you’re deaf the no-brainer opportunities screaming at you.  A singular focus that creates illusion, distraction, and rigidity affects both mindsets. 

Oftentimes this approach feels right: we want to reach the top.  The illusion of the perfect summit  is just so damn appealing! 

On the first day of my first “real” job, I asked how I could get promoted faster than the standard timeline allowed.  I had a goal of moving to the top.  But I had no idea what I actually wanted or why I had that goal, let alone the actual work needed to even be successful!  

Whatever you want in life - whether that’s a successful marriage, your own business, peace of mind - can only ensue from striving to be your authentic self, keeping an open mind, ignoring the Other.  

CS Lewis captures this idea brilliantly in his essay, “The Inner Ring.” The “Inner Ring” represents the fleeting satisfaction of belonging to a prestigious group: think that group of popular kids in middle school or a company’s Board.  There’s always somewhere (or someone) else that seems better than where you are now.  It’s an elusive, moving target.  You want to keep searching to find the perfect Inner Ring and gain entry.  But he warns about the dangers of this natural feeling.  

Lewis writes:

..this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement….Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing—the life that will come to you of its own accord. 

His message conveys the same fundamental idea we started off with in the beginning: the wrestling of control and struggle results in living a life you didn’t choose.  But if you follow your own thoughts and relinquish that control, you’ll stop and look around in surprise, finding yourself in the place you’ve always wanted to be.  

In high school, I had one singular focus: be cool.  And that meant playing on the lacrosse team.  I loved tennis and was way better at it, but of course I could only picture myself wearing those “cool” lacrosse sweatshirts.  I spent four years chasing that ideal, no longer knowing why or what for.  I reversed my strategy in college; I found entrepreneurship and startups enthralling, spending countless hours and time with and learning from interesting people that I liked.  Before I knew it, I had formed lifelong friends and started a company with them.  I had found the real Inner Ring.

Lewis sums this up, writing:

And if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. 

Leveraging this idea tactically

We’ve seen how this fundamental idea of allowing the world to come to us and living with authenticity and open mindedness enables us to get more of what we want out of life.

We can also take its core lessons and apply them tactically to three areas we all have to use in our daily lives:

  1. Learning
  2. Problem Solving
  3. Leading


My all time favorite online course is called Learning how to Learn.  It’s a course on learning tactics to improve knowledge retention and actually understand and “store” ideas for when they’re needed most.  

One of the most critical techniques for learning described in the course: spaced repetition.

The concept of spaced repetition is simple: your brain creates stronger associations to the content you’re trying to learn when you space the learning of that content apart.  For example, if you want to learn about the Renaissance and also how to play piano, you might alternate days learning about each rather than only focusing on one for weeks at a time.  To really drive the knowledge home, you’d continue to surface the information weeks or months into the future to strengthen the connections in your long term memory.  

Spaced repetition can also be combined with the other effective learning strategy of interleaving: the process of mixing up different types of problems or skills you want to learn to learn both effectively.

You can see where I’m going with this; two of the most effective strategies for learning suggest staying away from singularly focusing on one idea or goal.  The most effective learning occurs when you relinquish control and allow yourself to become immersed in completely different ideas over time.  

The fact that our brain physically embeds the strongest connections to concepts and ideas in the same way that philosophers and religions have described how to live a satisfying life is mind blowing. 

Problem Solving

Legend has it that Albert Einstein had a breakthrough in his theory of general relativity while thinking about music. 

Einstein clearly knew what many other great thinkers know: singularly focusing on one problem is a recipe for never solving that problem.  Switching contexts and letting your mind rest on a problem creates the conditions for groundbreaking discoveries.  

Writer and teacher David Perell sums this idea up well:

Josh Waitzkin, a master of learning and problem solving, takes this idea even further and explains how it can apply to all problems and stresses.  It’s the Art of Letting Go.  Tactically, in order to turn on intense focus and performance, you also have to be able to turn it off effectively and let your mind rest and relax.  

Waitzkin explains this on a podcast with Tim Ferriss:

“One more point. If you look at the greatest competitors in the world, the greatest physical like athletes, Marcelo Garcia, who I trained with for many years, who I own a jiu jitsu school with in the city, he’s probably the greatest grappler to ever live. If you watch Marcelo in a world championship, he would be sleeping literally minutes before a Mundials semi-final or final, sleeping. But you’ve never seen anyone turn on more intensely.”

He notes the incredible results you can achieve by releasing your control and deliberately choosing when and where to use it.  Most people approach problem solving by “operating at this kind of simmering six, or four, as opposed to the undulation between just deep relaxation and being at a 10.”

Those moments of relinquishing control of your life’s tiller create the conditions necessary to return to solve your most important problems with energy and new eyes,  


The most effective leadership advice I’ve heard: The best leaders induce behavior from other people around them without having to explicitly say anything.  

Think of your favorite boss who you’d fight for and pull an all-nighter for to get the job done right.  Contrast that to a boss who you avoid at all costs when leaving the office.  One inspires you to punch through the ceiling of your limits; the other inspires you to refine your LinkedIn at 5pm on the dot each day.    

These effective leaders don’t singularly focus on the steps to become a great leader; through their actions, becoming a great leader ensues.   A leader acts in a specific way that inherently inspires others to follow their lead.  Their behavior and commitment to their teammates and their sense of self-respect and work ethic inspires confidence in them and the goals of the project at large without having to explicitly demand it.  

I once worked with a guy who came into his own as a leader on our team simply because he embodied this ideal.  He never tried to lead: he just did. 

Some of the tactical strategies he used that propelled him and earned our respect and following:

  • Never asked teammates to do something he wouldn’t do himself
  • Set a high bar of work for that set the bar of work for the entire team that we all aspired to.  It created healthy competition
  • Provided space for other teammates to thrive without micromanaging
  • Admitted when he he was wrong and had the confidence to set a new course when given updated information 

Again, we see the same pattern; becoming comfortable giving up control, straying away from a blinding singular focus, and giving up the search and behaving authentically allows people to emerge as effective leaders.  

Tying it Together

We can utilize this old idea of “searching inhibits us from finding” in any part of our lives.  Once you understand it, you’ll start to recognize its value everywhere.  It can point you to a new career, divert you from an inauthentic path (like me in high school), or make clear the tactical skills needed to lead others and solve problems effectively (like Josh Waitzkin).

While many ancient ideas from philosophy or religion may appear absurd or lacking to us modern people, they often convey nuggets of truth that can help guide us in the future in different aspects of life. 

Next time you run into a problem you can’t quite solve, take a moment to note if you’re in active search mode.  You might just need to stop thinking and shift your attention elsewhere before the answer becomes clear.  

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