Your brain is a piece of hardware. Your thinking is the software.
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A lot of self-help advice has aged terribly.
Mental illness used to be weird and taboo when I battled her more than five years ago. I was embarrassed to tell anybody about the craziness going on in my head. A guy at work once asked me, “What’s it like to be you?”
I accidentally let out two words: “It’s torture.”
He thought I was joking. But that’s seriously what daily mental illness feels like. Torture. Nothing you do is good enough.
But what does it really feel like? Well, you stop trusting yourself. You stop trusting yourself to be happy. You stop trusting yourself to be responsible. You stop trusting yourself to avoid vices like alcohol and greasy hamburgers. You stop trusting yourself to find love, too. Because you stop loving yourself, so no other person can love you and they can’t explain why.
Why is mental illness so relevant? Mental illness is the new norm. After so long battling a pandemic and the disappointment of vaccines and lockdown, every person’s head is messed up in some way.
The good part about mental illness is you can recover. The best part about mental illness is the psychological transformation that follows. These are the superpowers you are left with.
You find yourself studying psychology.
Your brain is a piece of hardware. Your thinking is the software. Once you’ve battled mental illness you learn there is no instruction manual you are given to understand your brain’s software.
I ended up becoming fascinated with psychology. It started with my friend who was a finance guru. He forced me to study finance. The recurring lesson was the same in every book: investing comes down to psychology. He suggested to me that you could program your psychology to invest your money better.
Mental illness is like a glitch in your brain’s software. Once you’ve recovered from mental illness and you can stand back from your former life, you realize how crazy mental illness is. Mental illness creates illusions in your mind that are simply not true. The more you think about these illusions, the more these glitches warp your perception of reality.
I didn’t just want to recover from mental illness, I wanted to understand the mind that created it. So the natural thing I wanted to do was study psychology. I read tonnes of books on the topic.
The best lessons I discovered came from Tony Robbins. He’s not a psychologist, but he can cite the advice of many major studies on psychology with remarkable precision. Tony was able to curate the psychology lessons I needed to hear to start my journey. I discovered neuroplasticity through Tony’s work. It’s the simple idea you can rewire your entire brain if you choose to. “Age is not based on chronology, but psychology,” says Tony.
You can simply think your way to youth.
You seek out what you used to be afraid of.
Mental illness can feel like fear in disguise. Once I was well on the road to recovery, I started a document called “Fear List.” I wrote down all of my fears. Then I decided to tackle them one by one. My first fear was elevators. A confined space had the power to expose my mental illness. The deep fear in these situations was public exposure.
Having your mental illness be seen by another person is a scary thing. You try to hide your mental illness because you think people will destroy your life if they find out your secret. The superpower is when people find out your mental illness secret, then the transformation can begin.
The biggest fear I tackled was public speaking. It started with giving a 90-second speech to a Toastmasters Club of 15 people. It ended with me giving a speech at a place called Etihad Stadium to a massive group of bankers, many of whom I had worked with. Every boss I had ever had in my finance career was in that room. The chance of failure was enormous.
Two minutes before the speech I panicked. I didn’t want to go up on stage. I was literally shaking. The thought was, “What happens if my mental illness returns in front of all these people?” So I did something crazy. On the stage was a large golden bell used for charity auctions.
When my name was called to come on stage, I walked up, grabbed the bell, and started ringing it loudly. This was another psychological superpower I learned from Tony called a pattern interrupt. The interrupt stopped my negative thoughts so I could then give my speech. And I did … followed by a standing ovation.
You see inspiration as a survival tool.
Inspiration can be seen as a bunch of rah-rah nonsense. The smart intellectuals with fancy degrees promote pessimism. They rename their pessimism, ‘realism.’
Mental illness taught me to wage war with pessimism. I have actively sought out inspiration every day. I try to see the world “slightly better than it is.”
My practice involves watching random acts of kindness on Youtube, reading books featuring inspirational stories, and watching documentaries about strange stories that seek to uplift.
Inspiration is my survival tool because CNN News is my death march back towards mental illness.
If I watch enough news I start to believe viruses, wars, climate change, and the financial system are going to destroy our world and leave future generations with nothing. That narrative doesn’t support the work I want to do towards preventing that reality. I guess an element of “ignorance is bliss” can be useful when you’re prone to mental illness like I am.
You oddly want to see others win their battle.
My career had always been selfish with mental illness. Post mental illness I learned to work differently. I stopped chasing job titles, pay rises, bonuses, and praise from leaders. None of it made sense. Selfishness is what allowed me to become mentally ill. Selflessness is what helped me escape.
One day I started a new job. One of my direct reports looked like me, four years prior. I could see mental illness written on his face. I could see it in the way he slouched in his chair. I could see it in his awkwardness at company events. I could see it in the way he lacked eye contact with me in our 1–1s.
I finally said, “Are you okay man?”
Like a waterfall, he opened up. He shared his experience which he didn’t realize was mental illness. My eyes lit up. This was the moment I had been waiting for. The moment to help someone who used to me. We worked through it together. It’s not that I had all the answers. It’s that he was finally not living the experience alone anymore. He had another person on his team to argue with his brain’s thinking. And boy did we argue with his brain.
Over time he began to heal. He got professional help from a psychologist during work hours, which I hid from my own boss at the risk of getting fired. He started coming to social events. He even dared to quit his safe job working with me, and take an entirely different career path.
When you’re not focusing on yourself all the time, you start to think differently. Thinking different to your programming is a superpower.