Illustration

Getting into the industry

Amin A.

Chapter 15 of Entrepreneurial Story Series

By Amin Ariana — November 2019

Contents


Luke: I can't believe it! Yoda: That is why you fail.
Star Wars

Dear New Grad,

When the need arises to venture out into the high tech industry, two types of engineers emerge: those who become perfectionists about learning technical material to "win over" interviewers vs. those who "discover" the other side of their brain, capable of self-marketing.

When I started in my career looking for entry level positions and seeking job interviews, I was the first type of engineer. Things turned out okay I guess; through a series of happy accidents, inevitable frustrations, and persistence, I got knocked out of my default "perfect introvert learner" mode. Life forced me to learn to brand myself, get people interested, negotiate and "close" interviews. My having worked at two employers, each #1 in the world at the time, is probably evidence that even if you do it the hard way like I did, you'll probably be okay.[1] But I'm inclined to see great engineers get to the top of the pile faster, instead of learning to deal with social B.S. - There are not enough good engineers doing great work!

I wish the following article was written and the tools it mentions existed. I figured out this "obvious" stuff the hard way. Hopefully you don't have to. If you continue to run into challenges, contact me personally for advice. Feedback is also appreciated.


Write a two page resume

Write a new draft. Today. Now.

Just write it. Don't make excuses about how little post-degree experience you have. If you don't lay down your resume, you will not find out where the white-spaces are; and you won't focus your efforts on the gaps.

Don't worry about the experience chicken-or-egg problem during your entry level job search. I hear you say "how can I write about my experiences if nobody is willing to hire me yet to gain experience?" Just believe in this process. Write the darn thing down. If you can't think of what to write in a certain section, don't stop at the thinking stage. Skip that section and write the rest of it.

Revise it a few times to highlight the impacts you've made and the value you've created from past employers' (or university organizations') perspective. Don't just list your abilities; translate them to value that you created for other people. If you are really struggling with lack of stories to tell, you must start creating stories. Make up your own project. Tutor yourself in something from technical books. Then write about it. The employer can be fictional. Ever heard of "fake it before you make it"?


Get your own domain name

Register a domain with your full name, and publish your resume online. The age of paper resumes is almost over. The last person who asked for my paper resume was past the retirement age.

What you need is a searchable web site that shows up when recruiters are looking for your skills. This is why you need to write a resume from their perspective, not your own. Inevitably they'll be looking for a problem they're trying to solve with this entry level job, without knowing the exact skills required. You want your web site resume to show up in their results by covering their possible search terms. The keywords in your resume will do that.


Boost your reputation (Google PageRank SEO)

My proof-readers told me that they didn't understand this section, so I'll first explain what the heck Google PageRank is.

Google search engine was founded based on the principle that PhD white-paper thesis documents (and later, analogously, Internet Web Pages) have a reputation that can be measured by how many other documents cite them. For example, if nobody uses your research paper as a reference to argue anything, your paper probably didn't have much value. If, on the other hand, you wrote the Theory of Relativity like Einstein did, thousands of people will cite it. And based on so many citations, one can argue that that research paper was reputable.

In the Internet world, Google started ranking web pages based on how many other web pages pointed to them. The two co-founders, Sergei Brin and Larry Page, conveniently called this ranking mechanism Google PageRank: a play with the words Rank and Page (a pun for Web Page, and Larry Page). It turns out that this is a pretty good way for sorting your search results, when you search for anything. That's how Google beat Yahoo, since Yahoo used to have human beings manually rank the reputation of web pages.

What does this have to do with you, you ask?

When employers Google a certain skill and your resume contains that skill, it will show up in their search results. However, many candidates compete for those skills. Google ranks your resume in the search results based on its reputation, i.e. based on how many reputable web pages are pointing to your resume. If you and another candidate are in the running for a job, and the other candidate has more web pages pointing to their resume, they'll show up higher in search results; they'll be noticed first by recruiters; and they're much more likely than you to be contacted over and over for entry level positions. In other words, in the digital age, they're eating your lunch.

Use LinkedIn's "my homepage" field in your editable profile to point your LinkedIn Profile Page to your resume web site. This boosts your web site's rankings on Google and makes it come up higher in Google results. Use every opportunity you can get to have other reputable people point to your web site.

A techie friend asked me recently "that's so 10 years ago, that STILL works?" -- The answer is of course that still works. The only difference is that most people are so overwhelmed by junky social media news that they're burned out. They think to themselves "how am I ever going to stand out in this noise?" The answer is simple. You're not competing with noise. You're competing in a very niche channel, namely, in the search results for some very specific skill-related queries. Your colleagues are almost your only direct competitors in the entry level job search. Those of us more aware of Google PageRank get more "inbound marketing", also known as "sweet jobs that come to you".

Which reminds me of another principle you should keep in mind:

You will make the sale (succeed at job interviews) 95% of the time when you RECEIVE an unsolicited call from a prospective customer (employer). You will lose the sale (fail at job interviews or the screening process) 95% of the time when you MAKE an unsolicited call to a prospective customer (employer).
Jeffrey Gitomer, 21.5 Unbreakable Laws of Selling

Read that quote twice. Then read this section twice. Yes, exactly! Most of your job search performance doesn't even depend on your performance. It depends on whether you're approaching the process with the right framework in mind.

I now hope my non-techie proof readers are happy! (My lovely wife, ahem)


Invert your job search funnel

Connect to as many people in your industry as possible. Be indiscriminate; others are!


  • Connect to friends, because they know recruiters.

  • Connect to recruiters, because you're helping them find candidates when they need candidates (i.e. you and your friends).

  • Connect to respected people whom you can help: being connected with them increases the odds that people will want to connect with you. The higher ranking they are, the better. Have faith! It's lonely at the top. They will connect.


Maximize your network value

Why connect to people at all? Because firstly, you want to invert your relationship with job search. You want the entry level positions to find you, not spend all of your time finding the job. That's why you build a network. Instead of spending 100% of your time on job search, enlist 1% of the time of 100 recruiters. That's how successful business people operate. So should you.

And secondly, the law of Network Effect says that the power (or value) of your network is the square of the number of connections you have. Compare someone who has 100 connections with someone who has 1,000 connections:

The former can reach about 10,000 second-degree contacts (smaller than one large corporation). The latter can reach about 1,000,000 (almost all movers and shakers in an entire industry). 10x connections give you 100x leverage. Could you improve your manual job search by a 100x factor if you worked on it 24/7? No! Be lazy. That's how a good engineer works.

You might be surprised to find out that recruiters use the same algorithm to evaluate candidates that search engines use to evaluate web pages: Google PageRank. Your probability of getting a job interview depends on three metrics: (1) the size of the network that knows you, (2) the reputation of your network, and (3) the keywords in your resume.


Pay acute attention to what your network wants

Once you've reversed the search to an inbound one, you need to focus on actually providing the value that the recruiters are looking for.

Most folks, such as engineers, make the mistake of burning themselves out on trying to sell a skill that doesn't resonate. It's not that your skills are outdated or that you lack interpersonal skills. It's that recruiters and hiring managers have their own language for things that they're attracted to. Learn how to rephrase your values in their terms.

A well-known secret between book authors is that for the same exact fresh content, changing the book title can make or break the book's income success! That's human insanity, but it's true. People choose to pay for a book by its cover. Same is true for the set of skills you're marketing. Give them attractive names!

I advised a friend to change her resume title from "Astrophysics grad" to "Data Scientist". It's a different label for the same exact kind of work. But the difference in demand is phenomenal. Google PageRank cares about using highly-ranked keywords, but that's only because human-beings do. Learn to brand your skills the way people want.


Improve yourself after graduation

Almost 80% of what you need to know at your first job is stuff you'll need to learn after graduation. It's a myth that universities prepare you for the job market. They only prepare you for a lifetime of learning.

Once you get feedback on your first few application attempts, if the gap is technical rather than marketing-related, there is an easy solution. Often reading a 50-page $10.00 technical book related to your skills over a few weeks can put you years ahead of others competing for the same jobs.

I've known people who were miserable for six months at a time, wondering what critical skill they missed out on that their fellow students learned in university. I'll tell you exactly what that skill is: self-improvement after graduation.


Speak with authority about a niche area of your expertise

No expert, even your idol, knows everything.

If you've been working with a certain toolset or set of skills recently but briefly, you're already more of an expert than people who have had that same skill on their resume for years; because your knowledge is more up-to-date. The rest of the journey depends on attitude and some imagination.

The insecurity during screening and interviews usually stems from the impostor syndrome, observed in high-achievers. Instead of letting your own doubts lessen the value impression in the eyes of the recruiters, do the following:

Identify the final goal you're trying to achieve by going through this job interview -- suppose it's a 6-figure salary. Get yourself to completely believe that you already have it. Exercise visualizing over a couple of weeks exactly how it will be to have already achieved that goal. Talk to the recruiter as if you already have a 6-figure income from somewhere else. Don't lie. Just believe it. Talk with 6-figures in your back pocket. You will relax when reaching the end-goal of survival is no longer perceived at the mercy of the recruiter.

You might even find that they value your more relaxed approach, to the tune of raising their expectations about what they should pay you.


Fail quickly, fail often, like a shotgun

Too many people confuse being rejected with being "found out". The more we know, the more we doubt our own competence. [2]

Even a child knows that she's more likely to hit the bullseye by throwing multiple times in a row or at the same time. She won't give up and hide as soon as the first throw misses. Somehow when we grow up, we become less child-like, to our own economic loss.

It's simple statistics: with job interviews, most people put all their eggs in one basket. Friends with PhDs and advanced degrees are actually more likely to show up to as few as only one job interview per year (the one company they want to work for), fail, and then go back to another year of dissatisfaction. It's the effect of perfectionism through excellence, combined with lack of confidence because of knowledge: the smarter you become, the more you want to protect that self-image.

Instead, observe the following: if the odds of failing with one recruiter are as bad as 90% (or pick your own number), the odds of failing with 25 of them in a row are 90% ^ 25, i.e. 7%. In other words, if you tried 25 times in a row, you'd have 93% chance of failing at failing (note: succeeding!). This should be fantastic news, even to those of us with the terrible record of 90% failure. [3]

The shotgun approach (Breadth-First-Search for the engineer among us) applies as much in hunting birds as finding jobs and even raising millions of dollars to build a company. Find the most interested people first.


Never answer questions about your salary

The fastest way to kill your chances with a recruiter is to tell them how much you're making. There is no correct answer. As soon as you answer the question, you've turned yourself from a potential valuable candidate to a data-point for negotiating with other candidates.

Practice ways of not answering this question before going into job interviews, such as "Sorry, but I'm not comfortable sharing that information at this stage of the process. I'm looking for a fair market salary for the values that I bring to the table." Many recruiters are pushy ex-car-salesperson negotiators and are fishing for early data-points. If they repeat their question, simply repeat the above answer, until they're embarrassed and stop asking.

If they repeat the pattern over three times, simply give them a 5 second silent-treatment, then ask "are you making me a job offer?", then go back to repeating the above answer. It's ridiculous, but they completely expect this and respect you for being a powerful expert at negotiating. Negotiation doesn't start at the end. It starts at the beginning. And caving in to their question reduces their respect in your professional standing.

Never answer a salary question until you have a written offer -- this is your undeniable right.

Conclusion

The above formula may sound too simplistic. It's because success is simple; it's made of what you know, but not with faith. Success is reserved only for people who take the first step with faith. "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"; and most walls you perceive today are going to prove to have been imaginary, once you've taken those faithful first steps. [4]


Notes:



  1. Microsoft and Google


  2. The reverse is also true and is called Dunning-Kruger effect.


  3. This is exactly the method I used personally to climb from six months of unemployment immediately after graduation to a mid-level engineer at Microsoft, only 18 months later as my second job.


  4. The engineering networks that I've been closely involved with (University of Waterloo, Carnegie Mellon University, Microsoft, Google, Silicon Valley startups, etc) have hundreds of people seeking career advice. Almost all of the individuals that seek my advice have skipped all of these steps. When they're told about these steps, most acknowledge them with "a-ha" moments, but few, almost none, implement them seriously. The ones who do implement these have already got their dream jobs.

Haskell is a standardized, general-purpose purely functional programming language, with non-strict semantics and strong static typing. It is named after logician Haskell Curry.
Wikipedia

When I was at Microsoft, I met Sean E. Johnson, a high school intern. The mere fact that a high schooler was working inside the walls of the most successful company in the world at the time should illustrate why he's a genius. He introduced me to a world of new things before I ever got the startup fever, including Boba Tea, Stargate SG-1 and dynamic programming.

We had one of those discussions with him one day during which I knew he was arguing something that I would fully comprehend many years later (five years to be exact). He was arguing the merits of beauty in a language, which eventually became one of the many forces leading me down the path of becoming a Rubyist.

I kept his passionate email about the Haskell Language in my archives for retrospective analysis. Here it is, with all the virtues of its young author beaming between the lines:

----

"Hey Amin,

I mentioned Haskell while I was over at your place, but I did a poor job extolling its virtues.

Basically it is a purely functional, lazy programming language. This means that the order that you write things in doesn't matter. A few practical consequences of this are that there are no "if" statements or "while" or "for" loops. These loops are instead replaced by map, filter, fold, and recursion. Also, the laziness of the language means that handling infinite lists is quite easy. For example, if you want a function that returns all the prime numbers, its return type should be an infinite list of integers. This is ugly to do in most languages. In C# it would require the "yield" statement and iterators. Or the more traditional way would be to pass in a max value, and stop computation once you reach it. This is of course flawed because what if you do not know the max number without processing the list of primes.

Here is an simple (but inefficient) way to get the list of all primes in Haskell (primes is an infinite, ascending list of all the prime numbers):


primes :: [Integer]

primes = filter isPrime [2..]

isPrime :: Integer -> Bool
isPrime n = null (filter (\x -> x `mod` n == 0) [2..n-1])

You know everything in the code example above. The "mod" is the modulus operator (sometimes written as %).

Anyway, even though I didn't make a good case of Haskell while I was at your place, if you are interested, you should do the following tutorial: learnyouahaskell.com

If you find it isn't your thing, then 30 minutes wasted, oh well. But I did manage to convince (edited: one of our skeptical former colleagues) that Haskell is the prettiest programming language under the Sun, for what that's worth.

Enjoy,

Sean"

----

Last time I checked, Sean had left the software industry and was out somewhere with more smart people building rockets. Yes. Rockets.

He's the kind of person I love to work with.

Let's examine the inside story of the dropout billionaire:

World-changing technology is in embryonic stage, but nobody sees it. Bare-feet dude says to Hapless friend "should we go to college?" Hapless friend replies "nah, I'm gonna do my own thing." Bare-feet dude: "I think I'll go to college though."[1]



attach cover

Three years later, new technology suddenly comes out of embryonic stage and enters the lab. Bare-feet dude is the first person to see it. He jumps up and says "holy smokes, this is the future! I better quit college and get in on this!"[2] He drops out and starts using the new technology thing to improve an existing process, like talking to grandma across the country.[3]

Hapless friend also believes in constant contact with grandma and thinks it's going to be big, so he also starts a side-project to connect all people to their grandmas through two cans and a long string.

Two years later the bare-feet dude wows everyone with the thing he invented using new technology that just became possible in college. You can just think about grandma, and she appears on the wall looking at you in all three dimensions.

Phone companies, fax companies, chat companies, cell carriers, pager providers and the post office all show up to the trade show and in unison drop their jaws like OMFG, that's not possible! Bare-feet dude smiles, "it's buggy and grandma might disappear any second now, but yes, it is possible."

Eight million dollars of funding checks later, Bare-feet dude has hired all of his peers out of college that actually graduated. Together they call the company "Grandma Inc.". They create English, Japanese, French and Spanish manuals, and partner with media publishers to launch it in every channel across the globe.

Hapless friend shows up the next day crying "it was my idea! I knew Grandma was gonna be huge! In fact I told him about the Grandma idea!" -- several lawsuits settled later, Grandma Inc. files for IPO and Bare-feet dude becomes a billionaire.[4]

Bare-feet dude knows the next embryonic technology is right around the corner. So he throws some of his money into a new entity called Bare-feet Family Trust, and the rest in Bare-feet Holdings. The latter starts a startup fund, encouraging young entrepreneurs to walk away from college and work on their "holy smokes, this is the future!" insights.[5]

Everyone else gets it in their head that college is actually not worth the time, because people can drop out and still become billionaires; and that the world is an unjust place, especially to Hapless friend and his kind.

And the billionaire club continues to grow.[6]

The End.


Notes:



  1. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reeds College in 1972, the same year he sold the game Pong to ATARI. In future speeches, he said "If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts."


  2. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University in 1974, the same year he and Paul Allen saw the opportunity to start their own company (Microsoft) in the release of the MITS Altair 8800 CPU, which he learned about while using the school's computers. Harvard later awarded Gates an honorary doctorate degree.



  3. Elon Musk dropped out of Stanford University's Physics program in 1995, the same year the Internet was going to clearly change the world starting from Silicon Valley. He started several companies, including X .com, which later merged with PayPal and made him a millionaire. He later invested in other embryonic technologies related to Physics, like the Electric Engine (Tesla Motors) and the Rocket Engine (SpaceX). He has achieved several honorary doctorates since dropping out.


  4. The Grandma idea is a reference to lawsuits against Facebook by individuals who claimed they were the first ones to think of friendship online.


  5. Peter Thiel, former CEO of PayPal, and a proponent of dropping out of college, invested his money after the PayPal IPO into several embryonic companies. One of these companies was Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook. Mark dropped out of Harvard University, where he learned how to build Facebook, and grew the company to $100 Billion. Peter Thiel's 10% stake for his $500K investment is worth $10 Billion today.


  6. Peter Thiel, after Facebook's IPO liquidity event, started "The Thiel Fellowship", which invests in entrepreneurs with a clear new technological insight from college, who would choose to drop out. This confuses many people who think the message is college is not worth the time. College, in fact, is the catalyst to finding the billion dollar insight.

  1. Note to self: This article has too narrow a scope. Broaden it to when I was at entry level, all the way to now.

One of my roles in my new position at Adify is to interview computer scientists and software engineers who wish to join our team and company. When I look at nervous candidates, I remember being in their position. Not only I get excited for them, I also feel a huge sense of responsibility to be objective and fair.

One way I do this is by posing difficult technical questions that exclusively involve coding, while watching the candidate. I've been there; I don't expect you to be perfect. I just look at how your mind works when you're making design decisions, and what your first reactions are when you run into problems. For example, when I tell you "you have a bug, can you find it?" some candidates panic, and some fruitlessly keep rereading their code. The skilled ones just enter some input into their methods, as if unit testing manually, and that helps them discover the bug immediately.

I really wish I could simply guide the candidate towards the answer as if we were already part of a team; as if I was there to support them. But if I did that, we would never be able to differentiate and hire highly skilled people.

Another important aspect of my interviewing style is that I try to design my own questions. Most interview questions, meant to test fundamental computer science skills, are asked to death by now, and are enshrined in lists all over the Internet. I tend to collect the difficult questions I've been asked throughout my career, modify a well-known question to make it interesting, or design a new problem that abstracts away a challenge I've faced during a design phase. I am even willing to share my interview questions with you.

When you are watched over your shoulders while you are coding on the white-board, use the opportunity to verbalize your solution. Describe your thoughts in real-time, and tell me your design while you're working on it. It's a sign of a good engineer and it builds confidence. I have received passes by some great senior engineers in Microsoft, Google, Amazon and elsewhere before, by simply describing how I would solve the problem concisely, even though I didn't manage to complete coding it in time. When I see a smart design and a good effort, I show the same courtesy.

08/31/09, 11am

It has been 36 hours since I submitted my first CMU assignment, a software business characterization paper on Compuware Corporation. I must say even though I wrote it, it doesn't look like my writing. Not that it's great, but in fact it doesn't look anything like what I can usually manage to put together in my spare time in a week.

Although I don't consider the experience nearly as intense as serial all-nighters in University of Waterloo to crank out a new compiler or an OS, one thing is surely different: Before the assignment I barely had any time, even for my other responsibilities. Once I undertook it, my performance in other areas somehow improved.

I work 40 hours a week, spend 20 hours on the Software Management masters program and about 20 hours with my girlfriend Abby. I take all of those three commitments seriously. Figure in some sleep and commute times, and you're left with a negative balance of hours. In the one week since the orientation and leading up to the assignment, I was very stressed out. I've been watching my productivity fly in the low altitudes at work, and I've been feeling less energetic. When I met with my assignment team in the middle of the week, I was very anxious not to let them down. I was the proverbial cardio patient on a stress test treadmill, watching my own abnormal vitals.

Then I had a dream, right after sending out my paper for peer review and crashing on my bed at 3:30am on Thursday night. I dreamt in code: something that only happens to me after a whole day of prototyping, not a whole day of investigating the business model of a company. Almost in a state of trance, the best solution of a complex design problem at work was standing before my eyes so clearly that I thought I could take notes in my sleep. The anxious thoughts of "I'm not doing anything worthwhile with my spare time" had washed away. Because I was spending my spare time performing in other roles to the best of my ability, my subconscious was no longer competing for my attention on personal growth - I could focus on actual work.

Today I got more done than I have in one day in a long time.

According to First things First by Steven Covey, When you feel stressed out under a lot of responsibilities, most of the time a big part of the problem is that (1) you are not balancing your roles, and (2) you are focusing on the urgent and not the important. In the context of my career, the urgent has been to keep up with today's newest technologies, something that drains a lot of attention and energy. Additionally, I've often neglected my commitments as a friend, a partner, a focused employee and a person, to instead focus on the one role I have felt most passionate about: "entrepreneur". The image that comes to mind when I think about an entrepreneur is the Wright brothers' first functional flying airplane. And one thing stands out about the plane: It sure was flying light.

You can't fly to new heights with a lot of baggage. The roles you have not fulfilled are the baggage hanging from your shoulders. If you feel you need to be somewhere else, go there now. You will come back and do what you're doing a lot better, a lot faster and with a lot more satisfaction.

In my case, I have my 7pm-10pm planned out for me, everyday for the next two years. I'm lucky I'm going through it with 40 other people .

Publish: 21 Jun, 2013

And "It's so easy" to be social
"It's so easy" to be cool
Yeah it's easy to be hungry
When you ain't got shit to lose
And I wish that I could help you
With what you hope to find
But I'm still out here waiting
Watching reruns of my life
When you reach the point of breaking
Know it's gonna take some time
To heal the broken memories
That another man would need
Just to survive
Guns N’ Roses, Coma

Anxiety and depression are some of the biggest mis-treated epidemics in the Western society.


Understand the cause

Depression is an advanced form of anxiety gone untreated or mistreated, so I will talk about how to treat anxiety. Once you do, your source of depression should get cut off and it should slowly vanish.

Like with most "mindbody disorders", Western medicine fails to address anxiety and depression adequately because of misdiagnosis. Medicine expects all human body conditions to be chemically caused. This is a fallacy. And this fallacy causes doctors to confuse chemicals as the cause of anxiety and depression as opposed to its effect. Therefore, when you go to a doctor, you end up being prescribed medication for anxiety and depression. Only for a few conditions this makes sense. For majority of the conditions, this is simply misdiagnosis and mistreatment. Medicine treats the effects of anxiety and depression, not its causes.

Anxiety is a mind condition most frequently (with some brain-atrophy exceptions) caused by cognitive disorders. Simply stated, during your life time, through observation of certain events, you come to take certain "rules" for granted through thinking and belief. These rules might be observations such as "I'm never good at attracting a partner" or "I'm always last at my workplace / school", or "I never get a break". Your brain will then take these cognitive observations and use them to chemically optimize your body's processes to live up to the observed challenge. For example, when you're thinking "I'm always last", your brain kicks your heart into gear, which will make you sweat, because you brain wants you to run and be first -- even though in reality, it's not a physical match but a proverbial match in which you're last. Or when you say "I never get a break", your body tenses up and you become angry, because your brain is gearing you up to finish your job faster to catch a break, even though you meant "I never catch a break in life".


Cognitive distortion

The subtlety of cognitive disorders (of which anxiety is one) is that we end up not realizing the transition of these one-time personal or social observations into automatic subconscious thoughts. In other words, your brain is usually so smart that it can automate things for you, for example, when you discover how to stabilize yourself on a bike -- and it does the same thing for repeated observations: it starts saying the sentences in the back of your mind, without you having to use your mouth! It's critical for you to realize this: you're actually saying things to yourself in the back of your mind, without so much as a peep.

The key hack to completely reversing anxiety is to train yourself to stop the moment you're having anxious feelings and realize this: You're not having anxious feelings. You're having anxious thoughts. The distinction is night and day: feelings are treated by chemicals, vitamins and hugs. Thoughts are treated by thinking correctly.

Here's the kicker: The subconscious part of your brain, which is responsible for automating your thoughts and forming your personality, has evolved a long time ago. So long ago in fact, that it's childish in its level of intelligence. You let it hear from you "Gosh, why can't I catch a break in life" and its childish response is to think "Oh! Master is tired. Master needs a break ... let me turn on ALL the machines under my control to get everything done as quickly as possible so master and I can catch a break together." BOOM - your heart is suddenly in high gear, your muscles are tense or otherwise fatigued, you're hyper-ventilating, you're having a panic-attack and eventually if this pattern repeats itself frequently enough, you're giving up on life completely and going into depression. Why? Because the subconscious brain has the IQ of a moron, and you're feeding the moron confusing information. This confusing information enters your subconscious mind and gets mis-interpreted. This mis-interpretation is called Cognitive Distortion.


Treat yourself using key hacks

How to control your subconscious mind so that it can perform as per its natural specs and leave the chemicals in your body alone, so that you prove your doctor wrong, just through thinking:

Next time you're anxious, first realize that anxiety is not caused by feelings or chemicals. You're causing it, through your automated thoughts.

Stop for a second and think very clearly (this takes a tremendous amount of practice and you really need pen and paper for it to work) what was the thought you just had? For example, did you just think "I'll never get this business off the ground"? Did you think "I'll always be miserable at this job"? Write it down.

Now, check it against the following checklist, and see if it matches any of the following patterns:


All or Nothing Thinking

Do you frequently catch yourself using sentences that start with "always", "every", and "never"? Language is a powerful medium. People understand what you mean when you say "I'll always be miserable". It's an understandable exaggeration. But your subconscious doesn't understand it. It lacks the processing power of your conscious mind. It interprets such False Dilemma messages as True Dilemmas, which then kicks in all the wrong sub-systems in your body.

The key hack here is to recognize that if there are shades of gray in between, you should train yourself to speak verbally with those shades of gray included so that your subconscious childish mind hears the right messages. When you catch yourself thinking (i.e. saying in the back of your mind) "I'm always miserable at work", you should respond to that thought with "That's not factually true. I have had many days that have been quite good. Some days have been really hard, but I also have good days." Instead of "I'm always miserable at work", you should train yourself to think in terms that are instead factually true: "a few days per month I've had difficulty dealing with the workload". To you this might not sound very different, but to your subconscious mind, it's the difference between an emergency and an inconvenience. Your subconscious is dealing with these two messages like so: "always miserable? alert! alert! initiate melt-down so that we can remove ourselves from this situation" vs. "some days it's tough? okay, has today been tough yet? no? okay I don't have to do anything, carry on!"


Overgeneralization

Do you find yourself jumping to "observations" without sufficient evidence, solely based on a few past experiences? For example, do you generally avoid social situations because of a few past awkward experiences? Do you subconsciously tell yourself "This is just going to be one more of those awkward situations / bad days / etc" ?

The key hack if you do this often is to confront yourself, using pen and paper, and write down a response to the automatic thought: "You don't know anything about what's going to happen. Past experiences don't define future experiences. There's simply not enough evidence. I must go out and gather more experiences before generalizing". If your conscious mind doesn't act like a true scientist, your subconscious mind is happy to operate on false information. Act like a true scientist and don't jump to conclusions right before an experience.


Mental Filter

Are you the type of person who hears a bunch of encouragement and some criticism, and you completely tune out during the first part and only focus on the second part? This is called a mental filter. And it becomes automated. So later when you're thinking about that same feedback while sitting alone in a room, all you remember is the criticism. Then your subconscious braces for defensive maneuvering, i.e. let's not spend any energy on anything because heck, we need it to fix this project. And boom, you're sitting on the couch, fatigued from lack of energy, and sobbing because life sucks and the day is passing by. Why? Because you've allowed yourself the narcissistic life perspective of just looking for flaws so that you can maximize your time for improving them. The trouble is that those encouraging messages you dropped on the floor are necessary for your subconscious mind to reward your body for having gotten you closer to your goal.

The key hack is to realize it's not up to you to decide what part of the feedback is important. You should relay it fully to your subconscious. And you do that by focusing on BOTH the encouragement and the criticism, and mentioning both when recollecting the memory, not just one and not the other.


Disqualifying the Positive

Sometimes you don't have the mental filter and let yourself hear the encouragement. But have you noticed how sometimes you say to yourself or others "ah, that was nothing" or "yeah I achieved X and Y, but that doesn't really matter, there are so many smarter people / so much more to do"? Guess what. It matters. By internally and externally disqualifying your achievements or the fortunes that you've had, you're feeding your subconscious false information that the intuitive strategies it automated for you to get to that point were useless. So you end up not converting those strategies into internal learning and confidence. As a result, in the competitive landscape of today's world, you're constantly keeping your body in high-gear for performing at its peak. You don't let your subconscious regulate your body by relaying the positive feedback that really conveys "okay calm down, we achieved something, you don't have to run at 100 MPH anymore."

The key hack is to make a list of positive achievements or fortunes you've had in all the areas that you're anxious about.


Jumping to conclusions - Mind reading

Ever catch yourself or loved ones assuming the worst about what somebody else is thinking about you or what you did? You might catch yourself thinking "I published this article but readers are going to think it sucks" or "I worked my butt off but my manager won't think it's promotion worthy" or (usually to a spouse) "you think I don't do jack around the house!" -- Those are mind-reading. They're all based on a linguistic shortcut for "There's a chance that you might think". But we don't say that. We say "You think" or "They will think" to ourselves. The trouble with that is the subconscious mind confuses that with a fact. And so it responds with all the right defenses: gearing up for fight-or-flight (i.e. sweating, anger, tension, chronic pain with no specific location in the body, shortness of breath, and all the indignant confusion in the world). Why would you let this happen?

The key hack is simply to either vocalize things as "They might think", or better, ask people calmly what they think!


Jumping to conclusions - Fortune Telling

Similar to mind-reading, but related to reading the mind of life itself. Yes, it's that absurd: You tell yourself "I'm going to fail this test", or "I'm going to embarrass myself while speaking publicly" or "This year is going to be painful". You have no idea! The future hasn't come, but your body will start paying the liability for your negative prediction of the future NOW, if you don't change your internal dialog and automatic thoughts.

The key hack here is to write down the automatic fortune-telling thought, then confront it using a pen and observable facts.


Magnification or Minimization

Also known as "catastrophization"; you might recognize yourself in this. It's when you take a possible outcome, no matter what its probability (suppose you're not fortune telling and actually considering all probabilities) but then attributing an unreasonable impact cost to that possibility. As an example, you're frustrated with your boss who is just micro-managing and abusing you. You come home, you don't eat, you sometimes sigh before going to sleep, you have trouble waking up and you go to work to face all of it over again. Sometimes you have trouble getting out of bed for work. This is anxiety bordering depression. But why? If you ask yourself enough "why"s, you will realize your underlying fear is that possible though low-probability situation in which after you give your boss feedback, he or she might fire you instead of listening. The issue may not be how realistic you are about the probability, but rather about the impact. What's the worst that can happen in the unlikely scenario that you get fired? -- Is your life over? Will you default on the house? Or will you simply dip into savings for a month or two until you find your next job, perhaps a dream job? Not exploring each probable branch to really realistically evaluate its potential impact and instead assuming catastrophe in place of discomfort is an example of "magnification" mental distortion.

The key hack is to continue asking yourself "why" when you're feeling like crap, and once you discover the possibility that you're worried about, asking yourself "what's the worst that can happen?" -- Minimization on the other hand essentially refers to underestimating the impact that the boss's behavior is having on your daily life and psyche. A healthy person would strike the correct balance between bending over backwards for the boss vs. thinking of the prospect of being fired as catastrophic when it's only a discomfort and improbable at that.


Emotional Reasoning

Ever catch yourself giving up on something or someone, because it feels hopeless? Ever give up on yourself socially because you feel you're boring to others? Feelings are not facts. But sometimes in the absence of a measurement scale, we choose feelings to measure things. "I feel like I'm not valued at work, so I should work harder", or "I feel like something bad is going to happen today, so I should stay home", or "I feel over-weight today, my health is probably deteriorating and people think I look fat". Feelings are not facts.

The key hack here is to first realize that if you verbalize feelings as facts, your subconscious mind will certainly perceive them as facts. Then it kicks in all these body sub-systems to cope with that "fact" and soon enough, you've started a self-fulfilling prophecy because now because you're anxious and not going anywhere, you are starting to get chubbier and forgotten by friends. The false facts turn into true facts. When you can measure something like your weight, always choose the measurement over the feeling. When it's something that's not measurable, like feeling like you're boring, ask! "Do you think I'm boring?" "Uhhh, not at all?!", ... "Oh!".


Should Statements

Do you catch yourself starting a lot of sentences with "should"? "I should have performed better", or "Everyone should be on time", or "You shouldn't talk to me that way". Should statements are cognitive distortions because while in your conscious mind you're interpreting them as "it would be nice for everyone involved if X", your subconscious mind interprets them as "X will happen. If X doesn't happen, my survival is threatened and the person who caused X not to happen is morally responsible. For my survival, this responsible person must change their behavior." Just observe how wide that gap is! On the one hand, an inconvenience, on the other, subconsciously, you've kicked in your body in self-preservation survival gear. Is your face red? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you realize you're doing this to yourself?

The key hack here is every time you start a morally authoritative sentence with "Y should do X", you should write it down. Then give it a few seconds, catch your breath, and write down another sentence in front of it that reasons "Y is not morally obligated or responsible to do anything. It would be nice if Y did X, but I can't revolve my entire day around that. I should anticipate that Y might not do X, and have a plan for if that happens.


Labeling

Ever reduce yourself or someone else to their actions? Anything from "My boss is an a$$hole" to "I'm such a klutz" to "you're such a bad child" to "this president is a Socialist / Warmonger / ". It doesn't matter what the label is: Labels are cognitive distortions, disabling your subconscious mind to see the full reality about the labelled person including yourself. Your conscious mind may be able to deal with this linguistic subtlety, but your subconscious mind that controls your body turns labeling into an apocalyptic overgeneralization that threatens your very survival.

The key hack is whenever you catch yourself saying "Y is such an X", you should immediately correct yourself vocally (so that your subconscious mind can hear it) and say "actually Y is not an X, but Y does a lot of X things. It discomforts me a little, but it's not the end of the world. I'm still able to be happy."


Personalization

Ever hear the boss say "not everyone here is a top performer" and later think to yourself "I'm one of the under-performers"? That's personalization. The boss might not even have meant that as a criticism but rather, just the law of averages: not everyone can be above average. But you not only turned it into a negative thing, but also you made it about yourself. While our narcissistic conscious is always trying to make things about us, our self-preserving subconscious wants to reassure our survival. And as soon as it receives the cognitive distortion that something bad and personal was said about you, anxiety kicks in.

The key hack is to write down what started the train of thoughts, then trace it back to whether it's exactly what was said or whether you personalized something. If it was personalized, write an answer to yourself like "don't be a fool, that wasn't about me" so that your subconscious can hear it. If it was actually about you (very unlikely, and more-over, unlikely to cause anxiety), seek direct feedback. Direct criticism tends to induce anger rather than anxiety. It's usually the untrue cognitive distortions that cause the torment.


Blaming

This is the opposite of personalization. It could even be called externalization. Do you blame someone else for problems when you're also part of the problem? By doing so, you're actually not putting much pressure directly on your subconscious. The issue is that the thing for which you're blaming others is not going away. Therefore, you're keeping the door open for a lot of emotional distress that you perceive as coming from others, while they're actually (at least partly) caused by yourself.

The key hack here is to write down the criticism of you for which you're blaming others. Then see if you could possibly be involved in causing it. A spousal conflict is an example. The easiest thing to do is to tear pieces apart for which you can accept responsibility and blame. Ironically, acceptance of blame makes us feel better, not worse. It's simply the child-minded subconscious that's trying to protect us from accepting the blame, because we automatically are thinking "if I accept the blame, I have a flaw, and I cannot live with a flaw". Yes you can. Everyone is flawed. Just trying saying out-loud: "I want to say something: I realize I'm to blame for X, Y and Z. I don't know how to fix it, but I want to at least confront facts." The subtle thing about accepting blame is that you no longer have to subconsciously maintain shields (or high blood pressure for that matter). Confess that you were a lousy friend or parent. Tell coworkers that you don't think you've done your part in solving team problems and ask for ways of improving things together. Just ... drop the shield. It's doing more to your body than you realize.


Perfectionism and Fallacy of Self-Worth

I kept the best for last. Workaholics recognize this in themselves. When you have automatic thoughts such as "This result is not perfect. My whole career and reputation is pinned on this thing", you're actually kicking your entire body through cognitive distortion into full gear for survival mode. Your childish subconscious doesn't realize "your whole life" doesn't literally rely on this. It hears something as a child hears it: "If this project doesn't go well, I will be abandoned, starve and die very soon." It doesn't matter how much you think you have a grasp on your internal linguistics: that's what your body is defending. High achievers die of auto-immune physical disorders or experience chronic back pain and musculoskeletal or blood and heart problems more than most segments of the society. The physical conditions are tightly coupled with mindbody processes that are caused by cognitive distortions -- more simply put, you could avoid early death if you could change your internal automatic dialog!

The key hack is to write down your thoughts about your work at high times of stress, then write rebuttals that clarify how they're tied to perfectionism and your struggle for self-worth. And tell this to yourself loud and clear: There is no self-worth. Everyone is worth exactly equal and exactly ZERO. I'm worth nothing. My friends, parents, society, famous people, everyone is worth equal to each other and exactly nothing. I do what I do because I enjoy it, not because my worth depends on it. We will all die someday. Those who chase worth all their life will not find it, will die sooner, and will have wasted a whole human life chasing other people's opinion of themselves rather than their own passions and free will. Remember this: you're worth nothing. So am I. We're ALL worth ZERO. Do what you do because you love it. Five decades from now nobody cares. Exactly nobody. All that will remain is humanity, and perhaps you've done enough good to be reincarnated into a better version of it. What doesn't remain is you as you are now, and any association of your achievements with it. You -- will be gone. So do what you love today -- because this whole life thing might just be a big experiment to see which one of us is willing to imprison ourselves behind a desk for a lifelong achievement of "nothing". I'm not trying to be absurd though: You need to say all this out loud for the subconscious to lay off your body's chemistry. Repeat after me: "I am and I will always be worth zero. Exactly equal to everyone else."


Sources and more reading

I took the long way for figuring out these hacks. During my college years I was baffled at my inability to deal with anxiety. I even nearly completed a second major in Psychology just to figure out myself, because good old doctors certainly seemed clueless. Never trust a doctor (or even a psychiatrist) who prescribes medication without understanding the cause -- or one who uses the effects of a discomfort as a causal diagnosis. It turns out, because of this very problem, anxiety is an epidemic.

I came across the work of Professor Aaron T. Beck, an American Psychiatrist and the "Father of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy". Based on his work, I started reading such books as Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns (MD)

A book on the relationship between your mind, internal dialogs and the chronic backpain / RSI / carpal tunnel syndrome epidemic is The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain by Dr. John E. Sarno, which I discovered through California's KQED radio.

Much of the ideas I've referenced here come from the books above and the Wikipedia article on Cognitive Disorders which helped me remember the index.


Conclusion and final thoughts

It is absolutely incredible how the Western society after half a century is still ignoring proven cures like reading a freaking self-reflection book, and is instead funding and systematically prescribing expensive medication that has no scientific proof for curing the root cause of such problems as anxiety and depression. Remember, curing side-effects is not curing the root cause. Cough-medicine doesn't cure the common cold, it just eases it. But our society dishes out Prozac and Paxil as if they're the best thing since toast. (all this is barring serious brain disorders which are outside the scope of this thread).

I hope these writings help spread the knowledge.

Anxiety and Depression are psychological disorders. They are treated as if they're medical disorders. This misdiagnosis is perpetuated by the pharmaceutical industry and backed by tremendous amounts of drug-funded money, and should become modernized and furnished with the latest psychological findings. If we spent 10% of what we spend on drugs on programs that raise self-awareness, not only we'd be a healthier society, but much of the cost burden of lost productivity, chronic pain and medical support would also go back into getting the wheels of economy going again. Let's not misdiagnose.

Amin A.

Written by

Amin Ariana

A software entrepreneur from San Francisco