A lot of what you achieve in life comes down to how you think. Researcher, entrepreneur and author John Assaraf knows this firsthand, having worked a lot on his own mindset to get where he is now.
John is an expert in brain retraining and an advocate for mental wellness, who's come up with a range of strategies and tools to help people boost their brain power. Join him and James as they discuss John's latest book and how you can condition your brain for success.
01:05 – Sharing a past, skeletons and all. John Assaraf isn’t afraid to talk about his failures.
04:19 – Enter Mr. Brown. At 19, John was on a downhill slope. Then his first mentor appeared.
08:53 – When you don’t have a personal mentor. No mentor? no worries. Here’s where you can get positive behavior support.
11:46 – Everyone’s got their critics. All authors have their one-star reviews.
14:20 – The neuromechanical reason goals are hard to achieve. John explains our built-in resistance to risk.
20:37 – Can we actually produce new brain cells? Discover the encouraging fact about neurogenesis.
24:02 – Rewiring those negative pathways. Luckily, we’re not doomed to our counterproductive ways of thinking.
25:19 – Dealing with stress and anxiety. Stress is an excess of demand. Here’s how you handle it.
30:36 – If you can’t stop it, replace it. Hear how you can exchange a negative behavior for one that benefits you.
33:00 – Exercises for the mindset. James and John mention a few brainpower exercises from John’s book.
35:10 – What you’ll want to take away. If you’ve listened this far, here are some life-changing ideas for you to mull on.
Today’s episode is all about the mind, and with us to lend his extensive knowhow to the discussion is researcher, entrepreneur and author John Assaraf.
Sharing a past, skeletons and all
John’s latest book is Innercise: The New Science to Unlock Your Brain’s Hidden Power, of which he was kind enough to send James a copy. It was a good read, too, says James.
One thing that struck him in the book was John’s willingness to discuss what was less than pleasant about his past. He had his missteps, and as James put it, some significant setbacks in terms of relationships and business.
Why share that in his book?
The book, says John, is a reflection of his reality. Many people who write books and are on social media prefer to dwell only on their successes, the result being that people just want to be like them, forgetting that they too have their shortcomings. That’s real life.
John likes to use his own life, he says, as a petri dish. He’s an explorer of being happier, being healthier, being more on purpose, giving more, having more, sharing more, whatever the case is. And for him, if he’s going to take the accolades of the successes he has, he also has to own the failures that he’s had.
John has had challenges with his health and with relationships. He’s been divorced twice, and is now married to his sweetheart of 21 years – 16 years married. He’s had six businesses, and one was a major failure.
He thinks it’s important to realize that life’s journey is filled with ups, downs, highs, lows, ins, outs, stuff that works and that doesn’t. That normalizes the playing field. And the question then becomes, how did you overcome that? which is part of every real journey.
Enter Mr. Brown
When John was 19, as is common for young people, he wanted things – a house, a car, etc. At the same time though, he was carrying mental baggage. And it took an intervention to pull him out of that negative place.
He was working then in the shipping department of a computer company, making $1.65 an hour. He was also involved with a group of kids that sold drugs and did breaking and entries, as well as other illegal activities, to make money.
This was on the heels of his leaving high school at grade 11 after failing English and math. So he didn’t think he was smart enough, or good enough, to achieve success legally, because number one, nobody would hire him except people in the shipping department line of work.
John’s brother arranged for him to meet a man who was a very successful developer and broker of real estate offices. They met. The man’s name was Mr. Brown. After hearing John’s story and excuses, he asked, What are your bigger goals and dreams?
At the time, said John, he really didn’t have any. He said he’d like a car, and to move out of his parents’ house. And he’d like to get a decent job, to make more money. That was all nice and dandy, said Mr. Brown. But what were some of his bigger goals and dreams?
John didn’t know. Mr. Brown gave him a document that said it was the 1980 goal-setting guide. The first question was, at what age do you want to retire? John’s father wasn’t retired. He put down 45 years old.
It said, how much net worth do you want to have? Mr. Brown had to explain to John what net worth meant. John put down, $3 million.
Where do you want to travel? What kind of car do you want? What kind of clothes do you want? It asked all these questions, about three pages long. And Mr. Brown took the document, and read it. He said, these are some pretty good goals.
Then he asked one question, said John, and that question and its answer changed his life. Mr. Brown said, John, are you interested in achieving these goals and health and wealth and relationships and business and financial? Or are you committed?
John asked what the difference was.
Mr. Brown said, if you’re interested, you’ll allow your present circumstances or your past to control your thinking. If you’re interested, you’ll do what’s easy and convenient. If you’re interested, you’ll come up with stories and reasons and excuses why you can’t or why you won’t. And you’ll keep reinforcing the habits that keep giving you the same sh*tty results that you’re getting.
But if you are committed, you will upgrade your identity to match your destiny. You’ll upgrade your beliefs, your habits, your skills, your knowledge, your self-worth, so that the vision and goals that you have on these sheets of paper are a match. So are you interested, or are you committed?
John remembers being nervous. But he answered, I’m committed. Mr. Brown reached out his hand and said, in that case, I will be your mentor. John said, Wow, that’s great. What’s a mentor?
Mr. Brown explained. And that was the beginning. Over the next 18 months, John worked for him in his real estate company, on commission only. He started there not knowing anything about real estate, about selling, or about marketing. And he made $150,000, which back then was five times more than his father did.
That was the beginning of a mindset shift for John, from all the reasons why he couldn’t to why he could and how he would. And for the last 40 years, he got deep into the neuroscience and neuropsychology field.
Part of what John does every day now is behavioral neuroscience research, but applied to behavior, and how we can achieve greater levels of performance every single day, every week, every month by using our brain better.
When you don’t have a personal mentor
John was very lucky to have a Mr. Brown, says James. But what about those of us less fortunate? Is it too late?
Do you have a cell phone? asks John. Do you have a computer? Can you access YouTube? Can you access downloads of books or videos that are free? Think of this podcast, he says. Eight-hundred plus episodes of wisdom, knowledge, and expertise for free. In the absence of a resource like Mr. Brown, can we be resourceful?
Or say you want a Mr. Brown. What if you focused on finding a mentor, a coach? Whether you pay them or not is another story. But how can you find somebody to guide you, to help you save time, energy, money, and point you in the right direction, and show you how to upgrade you mindset, your skill set, and of course, your actions and the behaviors that can help you achieve the results you want?
That is the power every one of us has. It’s in the awareness that we have choice, that we can actually make better decisions. And when we are focusing on why we can’t, says John, we’re actually deactivating circuits in our brain that can help us achieve what we want.
Everyone’s got their critics
James learned quite a few things, he said, reading John’s book. A funny thing, though, he went to Amazon to check out the reviews for research, and a couple of one-star reviews caught his eye, saying the book was just a sales letter.
As a marketer, he said, he smiled, because of course that’s one of the reasons an entrepreneur would have a book, to lead people to their product or program. In John’s case, it leads to a software platform, Brain-A-Thon, where he and several other experts teach people how to use their brain better.
John’s friend Jack Canfield, who started Chicken Soup for the Soul, once said, John, the only purpose to write a book is to get paid to explain it.
And so within his book, of course, there’s ways for people to find out more about what he does. Some people don’t like that, which he can appreciate. But he thinks without any one-star reviews, we’re not doing a good job marketing.
James’s book has received its own one, two and three-star reviews. Never publish a book, he says, if you’re too delicate about the fact that not everyone’s going to love it.
He’s read John’s whole book, with a critical perspective. Would he learn something from the investment? And the answer was yes, there were enough exercises in it and enough information and action steps that you would.
“Without those one-star reviews, a five-star review wouldn’t be worth so much.”
This is a discussion he wouldn’t normally have with an author, but John is so open to both the good and the bad that he risked it. And without those one-star reviews, he would guess a five-star review wouldn’t be worth so much.
The neuromechanical reason goals are hard to achieve
Going into the concepts Innercise contains, James asks, why are goals so hard to achieve? Supposedly you work out where you’re at and what you want, and then figure out the steps to get it. But it doesn’t work as easily in real life.
Our entire life experience actually happens in our head, says John. Our brain has networks, like computer networks, and it has circuits. And certain networks cause us to behave in automatic ways. And that’s called the default mode network. That’s our automatic self.
And then we have these motivational circuits that activate neurochemicals that cause us to take action and be happy and high five each other and feel good.
When we set a goal, using our imagination, we’re actually activating what John calls the Einstein part of our brain. This part of the brain can imagine, can figure out strategies, tactics, timelines, tools, resources, who we need, why this will work, why that won’t work. And we can dream as big as we want.
But we also have another circuit, the right prefrontal cortex. John calls that the Frankenstein’s monster. The way that our brain has evolved, it’s focusing, number one, on safety and survival; number two, on avoidance of any pain or discomfort, like losing money, being embarrassed, being ashamed, being ridiculed, being judged, being disappointed. It’s trying to conserve energy in case of one and two. And then it tries to figure out, how am I going to gain some pleasure out of this?
So our bio computer’s decision-making is to dream big, but to avoid any pain or discomfort, and it does this rapidly. And this is layered on the fact that part of our brain has become habituated to certain thought, emotional, and behavioral patterns and results.
The reason change is so hard is we don’t develop patterns in one second. We develop patterns over a hundred days, 200 days, a year, two years, three years. So if all of a sudden, we want to lose weight, or we want to double or triple our income, we don’t have all of the patterns necessary to sustain the thinking and the emotional control required for sustaining those behaviors.
When we set goals, we’re using our conscious brain. But in order to achieve goals, we’re actually activating subconscious patterns automatically that may not be in sync with the vision and goals that we have.
In order to create a new pattern, to achieve the goals you want, you need to understand that it takes between 66 days and 365 days, according to the latest research, to create a new pattern that is reinforced so that it overrides the old pattern and becomes part of the automatic default mode network.
So goals are hard to achieve, unless we create a methodology to sustain a certain way of thinking, feeling or behaving. When we’re setting goals, we should say, Okay, now how am I going to make this new X, Y, or Z, a habitual pattern that overrides existing habits?
Can we actually produce new brain cells?
Another interesting thing, says James, is the topic of neurogenesis. This theme came up in a recent podcast episode we had, talking about how you can raise your kids better. And James has also seen research where nursing home patients were allowed to play video games, improved their memory and acuity.
Can John speak to the possibility that we can actually make neurons?
Sure, says John. Now, two things. First, think of your brain as having 100 billion brain cells. And consider that when we’re born, these cells start to make connections and talk to each other, and the connections that are reinforced become part of your habitual self.
Now, two. Were you born with any limiting beliefs? Were you born with any fears? Were you born with a disempowering self-image, or stories or excuses? The answer is no, we weren’t born with any of those. So we developed these neural connections, and the ones that got reinforced became permanent or soft-wired.
We now have the technology, with electron microscopes, to look deep inside a human brain. And not only can we see cells making connections, but we can see what scientists once did not believe possible. Neurogenesis is happening in the hippocampus part of the brain. Our brain is actually creating new cells.
And we can deliberately create new connections. We can deliberately reinforce the empowering positive construct of connections, as we learn to deactivate any of the disempowering, whether it’s belief patterns, fear patterns, financial setpoint patterns.
This means, says John, you and I don’t have to be victims of our parents, our environment, our grandparents, the marketplace. We can actually deliberately create and reinforce new empowering patterns that can match the vision and goals and dreams that we have.
John has been retraining his brain, he says, for 40 years. It started off with Mr. Brown, but he’s been doing it for 40 years, using it for health, for wealth, for relationship, for career, for business. That’s why he wrote his book, to show people that they can change.
That is a theme James holds dearly – that we can rewrite the software in our neck-top computer.
Dealing with stress and anxiety
There was an exercise in John’s book that James took a photo of and sent to one of his kids, having to do with anxiety. It was a sort of breathe in and breathe out means of resetting. Could John share that?
“The definition of stress is when demand exceeds current capacity.”
Stress, anxiety, and panic, says John, fall into the same category. The definition of stress is when demand exceeds current capacity. So when the demand, whether it’s financial demand, emotional demand, mental demand, physical demand, exceeds capacity, it creates what we call stress.
Under stressful situations, a neurochemical is released by the thalamus into our bloodstream. And the resulting emotion, the energy in motion, we call stress, we call anxiety. Left unchecked, we may call it panic.
When we are dealing with a neurochemical release into our bloodstream, the question becomes, is there a circuit or two that’s been activated in the brain? And when this circuit actually is activated, it’s called the sympathetic nervous system.
When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, it releases cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and maybe even adrenaline. And a little bit is okay, but a little bit too much will put us in a fight, flight or freeze emotional and behavioral state.
It’s been discovered that a stress state can be eased with six deep breaths in through the nose (John calls this Innercise Number One, Take 6: Calm the Circuits). This calms down the sympathetic nervous system circuit. Six deep breaths slowly in through your nose, like you’re breathing as slowly as you can, into your lungs, increase your diaphragm out.
And then breathe out like you’re breathing out through a straw through your mouth, slowly. In less than 90 seconds, this deactivates the anxiety, stress, panic, doubt, uncertainty circuit, fear circuit, and activates the parasympathetic system, which is the calm and response system. This puts you in a state of awareness.
And when you move to Innercise Number Two, which is around awareness of thoughts, emotions, feelings, sensations, and behaviors, and you do that without what John calls a judgment, blame, shame, guilt, or justification, just pure awareness, then you can set an intention, which means you’re setting your focus. And now you can set, what’s one action step you can move towards what you want, and away from what you don’t want?
It’s very similar, says James, to a technique he uses when he’s surfing in big waves, which is a Navy SEAL technique, a breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold, breath in. And whenever he feels his pulse starting to race and the adrenaline flowing, he just resets.
If you can’t stop it, replace it
One of the great techniques John talks about is, if you have a bad behavior, just find a replacement behavior.
“If you have a bad behavior, just find a replacement behavior.”
In the science of change, the science of habits, the science of behavior, says John, we are consistently predicting the future. Light comes in through our eyes, sound comes in through our ears. And whichever way it’s coming in, our brain is predicting in advance, Is this friend or foe? Is this going to hurt? Is this good? What’s the danger here? Our brain is predicting what may happen in advance, and releasing the neurochemicals of the prediction.
Every person who’s trying to change a habit knows that there’s something that triggers the habit. There’s the behavior, then there is the reward or the anticipation of the reward. The anticipation of reward, John says, is what drives the dopamine up more than the actual behavior itself.
But it’s been discovered that if you just create a replacement for that behavior for 66 days to 365 days, you’ll still be triggered by certain things, you’ll start to behave a different way, you’ll still get the same reward.
And since our brain works on avoidance of pain, but also loves to get the reward or the anticipation of the reward, when we are just a little bit smarter, we can develop these new empowering habits and let go of any destructive ones.
John has used this method to get off alcohol and refined sugar, to go from 233 pounds and 30 percent body fat to 195 pounds and a six pack at 60.
James has to agree, John looks good for 60.
Exercises for the mindset
There were a couple of other things James identified with in the book, things he’s validated older versions of. One is visualizations.
Luckily, he says, he had a Mr. Brown, who gifted him a box of cassette tapes when he was a young salesperson. One of the tapes was Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics. And that’s where he learned about visualizations and mental rehearsals and goal-seeking devices and the like. John’s book is like a modern, updated version of the same concepts.
One of the exercises he talks about, Back to the Future, is exactly the same exercise James uses for his coaching clients. And another one that he really liked was the Flip Flop.
Yeah, Actors Studio, says John.
Great coaching tools, says James. You can get the book, Innercise, if you want to find out what these techniques are and go through them. It’s available on johnassaraf.com, and on Amazon.
You’ll learn about other things, James says, like the smoke detector, and why setting too big a goal can sometimes mean you’re guaranteed not to get it. He thought that was interesting, that it turns out there’s a sweet spot.
And it’s different for everybody, says John. That’s the thing to know when we’re setting goals. If he sets a goal to make a million dollars in a day, that might not be unrealistic to him. It may not set off his fear signal. Somebody else might think it’s crazy.
So these mechanisms are triggered differently for everybody. But everybody’s brain works the exact same way. That’s the beauty, he says. The brain works the same, but the settings are different for each person.
What you’ll want to take away
In summary, what advice would John have for someone who has listened to this podcast all the way through? They’re obviously interested in this topic. What’s John’s best advice?
“If you can really imagine it, you can achieve it.”
Number one, says John, is if you can really imagine it, you can achieve it. Obviously, within the parameters of it being able to be done. At one point, President Kennedy said we’d put a human on the moon, and bring them back to Earth safely. We didn’t even have the technology or the mechanisms then by which to do that.
In Napoleon Hill’s classic Think And Grow Rich, we become what we think about most. We achieve what we think about most, we overcome what we focus on, we’re able to do so much more. And the essence of it is that you already have the organism, your brain, to be able to do that.
So if you have goals or dreams that you are committed to achieving, by upgrading your mindset, upgrading your skill set, and taking the right actions in the right order at the right time, chances are you could five, 10, 20x your life’s results by making a decision that that’s what you want to do, starting today. And how long will it take? Who cares? What’s the difference? If you’re going to be on the path to creating your life anyway, why not create a masterpiece?
The big takeaway for James is just a reminder, really, that we get to choose. You don’t have to be a victim of your past. You can choose from now on. Hopefully this episode will serve as a tool.
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