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What the genius who lost big time can teach you about how to win

Sir Isaac Newton is known for discovering the laws of gravity and motion, but did you know that in 1720 he lost a sizeable chunk of his wealth in the stock market? Newton, one of the most brilliant scientists who ever lived, got swept up in the mania surrounding England’s South Sea Company. Initially he invested £7,000 and wisely cashed out £20,000. Then Sir Isaac, watching on the sidelines as the stock continued its meteoric rise, made the mistake of jumping back into South Sea. He plowed his entire £20,000 windfall back into company—the equivalent of $20 million in today’s money—and lost virtually all of it when the South Sea bubble burst a month later. Sir Isaac Newton, dumbfounded by the ups and downs of human behavior, grumbled that he “could calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of the people.” Benjamin Graham, the author of Warren Buffett’s favorite book, “The Intelligent Investor,” had a different perspective on Newton’s experience: “For indeed the investor’s chief problem—even his worst enemy—is likely to be himself.” We become our own worst enemies when we blame others for our actions and don’t make an attempt to understand what may be driving our strongest emotions. If Sir Isaac Newton had only examined his emotions with the same rigor he applied to his science, he would have recognized that greed was leading him to financial disaster. This week’s 5-Minute Recharge has a simple formula that will help safeguard you from making Sir Isaac’s mistake. The scenario: Have you ever behaved in way that made you wonder if you had been the innocent victim of demonic possession? Yes I have! This week I maniacally rang the doorbell as if I was being chased by a roving gang of multi-level marketers selling leggings with pattern-placement fails when my husband accidentally locked me out. What should I do?

To me, that sounds like an entirely reasonable response to being locked out of the house by your husband, but Robert Greene would likely disagree. Greene is a best-selling author and student of human nature. He recommends a simple practice of taking a few minutes each day to reflect on your most intense emotions, and ask yourself: why was I so angry, sad, frustrated, excited? Then ask yourself a critical follow-up question: Is this a pattern? Do you always respond in anger when a door in your life refuses to open?

Greene's advice sounds great in theory, but why is understanding the reasons for my emotions so difficult?

According to Greene’s Law of Irrationality, people are driven by emotions that consume more of their attention than rational thought. Your emotions come from the limbic region of your brain that is pre-language and separate from the rational pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex has the words to express your emotions, but can only guess at the recipe for flaming rage that the limbic system has cooked up, a recipe that often consists of ingredients from your childhood. That is so messed up! How am I supposed to figure out what's driving my emotions when the source of my emotions, like a Zoom call from Hell, is perpetually on mute?

It’s safe to say, without knowing anything about your childhood, that many times when you get upset, the reason is because you are taking things personally. For example, you believe on some limbic level that the driver who is tailgating you or the person who hasn’t responded to your email or the husband who locked you out is doing so purposely to annoy you, just as you were annoyed countless times as a child when you didn’t get what you wanted. We all believe to a greater or lesser degree depending on the depth of our narcissism, that we are the stars of our shows and everyone else is a bit player. Taking things personally is the egotistical price you pay for being the brightest star in your universe. If you could take a step back and realize that every bit player in your life is also a star with their own show in which you may not even qualify as an extra, you won’t take everything quite so personally, and will find other people a lot more interesting. Okay. I get it. I’m not the star of other people’s shows and shouldn’t take things personally. What’s the payoff for all this emotional detective work? When you don’t ignore, but rather explore your emotions, the payoff, according to Ryan Holiday—the man who has popularized Stoic philosophy in the 21st century (and is also a disciple of Robert Greene)—is that: - you develop a skill that enables you to become less reactive - you are better able to handle what life throws at you - ultimately, you befriend yourself. In Seneca’s letters he writes, “How do I know that I’m making progress? It’s because I’ve become a better friend to myself.” Other than the ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca, is there a more contemporary example of someone who has been able to manage their emotions and befriend themself?

Yes there is! A recent article from Irish Examiner tells a story about Eliud Kipchoge, the greatest marathon runner of all time. If you’ve ever run a marathon, you know that you must be exceptionally good at managing the ups and downs of your emotions, the exhilaration at the beginning of the race that will tempt you to run too fast, and the pain along the way that will make you want to quit. Kipchoge, despite his millions in earnings from running, leads an exceptionally simple life that keeps him on an even emotional keel. After he won the Olympic gold this summer, Kipchoge along with some fellow medalists waited for hours at the Tokyo airport to be transported to the stadium for their medal ceremonies. The medalists did what most people would do when they find themselves in a dull room with nothing to do: they picked up their phones and began scrolling. All except Kipchoge. He placed his phone in front of him, but never touched it, spending hours in contented silence.

To be like Kipchoge, to be able to spend so much time alone with your thoughts, you must befriend yourself. You can begin to build this lifelong friendship by taking just a few minutes a day to examine your extremes of emotion and ask the question WHY?

“Begin slowly, and see the power of thinking about your emotions rather than acting on them.” - Robert Green


Appropriately, Eliud Kipchoge gives us our recharge quote of the week:

“Small habits are what make me successful.”


You can find out more about how to become an emotional detective, the mental mastery of Eliud Kipchoge, and the story behind the South Sea bubble from:

1. Talks at Google featuring Robert Greene on “The Laws of Human Nature

2. Robert Greene’s Power, Seduction and War website (Yikes! That's intense.)

3. Ryan Holiday’s “The Obstacle is the Way” interview with Guy Raz of NPR

4. “Inside the Camp and the Mind of the World’s Greatest Marathon Runner,” Irish Examiner

5. The South Sea Bubble,” BBC4

May your emotional roller coaster turn into a merry-go-round,


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