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Entrepreneur Vishen Lakhiani of Mindvalley & Blinkist Co-founder Niklas Jansen Talk Breaking Rules & Optimizing Everything

CEO of Mindvalley, Vishen Lakhiani, talks to Blinkist's Niklas Jansen about brules, being innovative, and optimizing everything.
by Ben Schuman-Stoler | Sep 12 2016
Vishen Lakhiani

Today’s podcast is something a little different. Not only do we have Vishen Lakhiani, one of the most forward-thinking CEOs in the world, but we also have him in conversation with Blinkist co-founder, Niklas Jansen. Niklas is a huge admirer of Vishen’s distinctive approaches to his companies, so we figured we’d unleash Niklas to ask Vishen whatever he wanted.

Vishen is the founder and CEO of Mindvalley, a transformational education company, and Afest, an invite-only festival for entrepreneurs and change-makers that takes place in exotic locations all over the globe. He’s also an author, and his book The Code of the Extraordinary Mind is just out and already a New York Times bestseller. (Read it on Blinkist here).

The two entrepreneurs talk about morning routines, exercise, and how to build the best possible company culture. They also discuss Vishen’s book, and his distinctive way of optimizing his life, focusing on what he calls Consciousness Engineering and Brules (or bullshit rules).

Oh, and as a complement to the new magazine edition on #AlwaysLearning, we have a giveaway! We have five signed copies of Vishen Lakhiani’s book and five memberships to Mindvalley to go with it.

Here’s what to do to win: download the Blinkist app, sign up, and open the blinks to The Code of The Extraordinary Mind. If you already have the Blinkist app, just open up the blinks to The Code of The Extraordinary Mind and you’re in the running!

And lastly, if you like what you hear today, please do hop on over to our iTunes page to subscribe to the podcast or give us a review!

Niklas Jansen: Welcome to the show and thanks for taking the time to do this. It’s not too long since we’ve hung out, right? We both spoke at Tech Open Air.

Vishen Lakhiani: Right, just like five weeks ago.

NJ: Yeah, it was really great, I really appreciated having the chance to talk about our companies and your book and one topic that stuck with me since then, and that I’d like to start off with here, is the concept of Brules. Because I feel like this defines a lot of your work these days. Maybe you could quickly explain what Brules are and give a real-world example”VL: Sure! A Brule is a word I coined in my book The Code of the Extraordinary Mind. Brule basically is shorthand for the words “Bullshit rule.” So, as we go through life, we tend to find that most human beings operate based more on imitation rather than rational choice. As we go through life, from the time we are kids, to teenagers, to young adults, to simplify functioning in the world we are imitation machines. Paul Mastern, a professor and economist said that how we function as human beings is we often choose to imitate the social signals that we see in our culture, in our parents, in our educators, rather than operate from true rational choice.

This explains how many things spread, for example certain cultural practices or fundamentalist religion. But it’s not just those extreme examples. When it comes to bullshit rules, or Brules, we often blindly follow things because it’s the way it’s been done from generation to generation. This applies as much in terms of how we practice spirituality to the way we read to the way we exercise to the way we feed ourselves. In all of these areas there are new, more outstanding, more efficient, scientifically-backed models that are emerging. But these things seldom get noticed. Instead, the vast majority of human beings continue to operate the way their forefathers did.

Now when you learn to question the Brules, and you learn to develop a process for identifying new ways, new systems, new models of functioning in the world – that’s when you truly start creating an extraordinary life in all dimensions.

NJ: That’s very interesting. Could you give a real-world example, like in yourself, where you questioned a Brule? And how you changed your life when you figured out that it was, as you say, actually a Bullshit rule, and how it helped you to live a better life”VL: Well, the first thing is that in almost any field, you pick it, goal-setting, meditation, exercise, nutrition, reading, parenting, sex – most of us operate based on fundamentally outdated models. Let’s just pick one of these fields. Let’s pick nutrition, for example. So, a lot of us believe that if we want to stay in shape we have to count our calories, we have to exercise. Well it turns out the latest research is showing that both of these are fundamentally untrue ideas. Calories, for example? Absolutely pointless. Your body is not an input-output machine; your body is a chemistry lab. It’s not about how much you eat it’s about what you eat.

So there are whole new diet programs emerging that are not based on calories at all and they’re getting better results than traditional diets –

NJ: Sorry, are you talking about the picture you shared on Facebook? Maybe you should just quickly explain, there is a picture of Vishen on FB and about nine weeks in between. It looks like two different people, right? Your body looks so much more defined these days, with just nine weeks in between. So is this what you’re leading up to”VL: Right, that was an example of hacking the body, of changing my body shape through a focus on nutrition. So here’s an example of a classic Brule: we think to stay in shape we have to exercise. So people have fundamentally flawed ideas of exercise. For example, aerobics, which was popular in the 80’s, one-hour long exercise sessions popular in the 90s, and in the last decade or so – turns out they’re highly inefficient.

vishen lakhiani weight loss aged 40

Since 2013, new studies have shown that one of the best ways to stay in shape is through minimum effective dose exercise, and in the last couple of years over 65 new studies have emerged further showing that if you want to keep your weight down, it’s not even about exercise, it’s 95% the food you eat. So again here’s a classic example: most people who are trying to stay in shape count calories and exercise. Turns out that’s a highly inefficient model. Rather you want to work on improving the food that you intake and the combinations of food that you intake, and exercising based on minimum effective dose exercise.

So, for example, for many years I was trying to get my body in shape, and I could not succeed. I was using outdated models. I was operating through the former Brules of health and nutrition. Today I’m in better shape at 40 than I was at 25 but it’s because I’m focused on new, updated models.

And this is true for every dimension of life. So I am fanatical about discovering updated models, in fact it is my favorite hobby. I’m continuously hacking myself, from how I read to how I parent to how I pray to how I meditate to how I run a team, and I just find that there’s so much excitement in studying, innovating, and playing with new emerging models. I guess that really is my obsession in life. I’m a massive human guinea pig.

NJ: We will make sure to post the picture in the show notes, so that everyone can see the difference between those nine weeks. But I feel there is so much to unpack, maybe could we talk a bit about your company and you applied the concept of Brules to the company? Because from the outside it looks like you do a lot of things differently than the typical company and I would be really interested in if you have basic principles that you apply in your business life, things that you do over and over again that help you to succeed with the company”VL: Absolutely, but firstly, before I go on, I just want to say that the work you guys do at Blinkist is so valuable because by giving people digestible summaries of books, you’re really eliminating a massive Brule. A lot of people think that to learn to grow, to seek new knowledge, especially knowledge you get from non-fiction books which is highly valuable knowledge, you got to read a book. And a book can take 8-10 hours to read. What you guys are doing is actually busting a major Brule of learning. You’re showing that people can learn fundamentally things through easily digestible content. So big kudos to what you guys are doing at Blinkist.

NJ: Thanks! Means a lot to us.

VL: So on to companies. For the longest time, companies looked at productivity hacks to boost their employees’ performance. These hacks might be time management, they might be management theories, they might be operational procedures, new strategies, processes and so on. But again, science is now starting to show that some of the biggest boosters to productivity have nothing to do with the things you’re learning in business school. Rather they have to do with practices that are rooted in happiness, love, and connection.

I know that sounds bizarre, right? Because happiness, love, and connection don’t typically sound like business terms. But the more you dig into this the more you understand that it’s just fascinating. For example, studies have shown that salespeople who are happy are 55% better at closing sales; doctors who are happy are 19% better at making a good diagnosis; and school kids who are happier do better at exams.

And then, newer studies show that happiness is highly hackable. Happiness has little to do with money or your position or how you look or how much sex you’re having. Happiness fundamentally, according to a recent study called the Very Happy People Study, at Harvard, has the biggest correlation to just one thing: the strength of your social connections. So (a) we know that happiness fuels productivity; (b) we know that happiness is highly correlated – a 0.7 correlation – with your strength of social connections.

“Happiness is highly hackable.”

So at Mindvalley, my company, we use this as our single biggest productivity tool. Starting at a root level, we understand that happiness is a way of life. We design our office, we design our furniture, we design the lights, the color, the mood of our office to create feelings of happiness. When you walk into Mindvalley you kind of get the feeling you’re at Disneyland or like a really fun playschool. It’s just beautiful, it’s colorful, it’s filled with plants and bright colors. It’s designed to inspire. Beautiful pieces of art, amazing interior design, because we know that happiness fuels productivity.

But again, the single biggest thing that leads to happiness is strength of social connections so at Mindvalley one of the biggest things we do is we get our employees to connect with each other in deep meaningful ways; massively deep meaningful ways. And other studies are starting to show, for example, Gallup showed that if you have a best friend at work you are 700% more engaged at your job, so we organize every two weeks a Culture Day where employees from different cultures get to throw us a little party and teach their culture through fun and games and drinks and food to the other employees.

We have rituals in the company, ways of celebrating, ways of assembling our staff, weekend parties, trips to get people to connect. For example, in two weeks my entire customer support team is flying to an island so they can bond and connect with each other. Because we know that these types of activities get them to connect in deep ways, create meaningful connections, thus boosting their engagement, their social connections, and their happiness.

So again, emerging models of organizational design, emerging models of productivity are showing that it is often the unexpected things that truly lead to leaps in human productivity. And this is something else that I’m experimenting with right now in our company. And it’s something that, if you’re an entrepreneur listening too, I would strongly encourage you to look into as well.

NJ: That’s very cool. I think we value culture and friendship at Blinkist very highly as well, but one thing we always try to figure out is balancing being focused, and focusing on goals, but then allow lots of room for fun and experimentation. How do you find a balance for that at Mindvalley? Is there a framework you use or how do you do that”VL: I love that you mention the word “framework.” Just so you know, I’m a framework junkie. I’m an engineer by training so I love talking about happiness and this fluffy stuff! But in my mind, everything evolves into patterns, frameworks, and algorithms.

So here’s a framework I use. There’s a study that showed, this study is by Shawn Achor he wrote the book The Happiness Advantage. He showed—and this was for American companies, so I don’t know if this is true for Europeans, I know you Europeans take a lot more vacation, but in America two weeks of holidays is considered good. Yet in America many people don’t fill up their full vacation days because they’re busy at work, they’re trying to attain their goals, but Shawn Achor in his study showed that if you take all 10 of your vacation days, all 10, you are 35% more likely to get a promotion. Think about that. A lot of people think that if you work your butt off to prove yourself to your boss, to work long hours, to stay back late, you are more likely to get a promotion – turns out that’s not true. If you take all 10 of your vacation days you’re 35% more likely to get a promotion.

But there’s a particular thing you have to do on your vacation: It is less true if you take a vacation and just stay at home to spend more time with the kids. You have to actually take a vacation. So in the study, Shawn Achor geotagged participants so they actually had to take a vacation, leave home, and there were a couple of conditions: they had to travel, and in the new environment, they had to either be there with a friend or make a friend. Remember: strength of social connections.

So I take that very very very seriously. I make sure I take at least three weeks or four weeks of vacation every year. So even though I’m crazy busy and I love my work I actually get out of my work 3-4 weeks a year. I love going on vacations with my wife and kids, or with friends. And when I come back, I feel like I’ve been fueled with a superpower. So that is one of the first ways I balance the insanity between work and play. Remember that: 35% more likely to get a promotion. You can read about that in Shawn’s book The Happiness Advantage.

NJ: What was your recent trip”VL: Man I take so many vacations now I’m losing track. Actually, you know what, it was in Berlin, that’s where we hung out!

NJ: Yeah, that wasn’t too long ago. So let me shift gears a little bit and let’s talk about your book and the concept of Consciousness Engineering. By the way, for everyone who’s listening, we’re going to do a giveaway of Vishen’s book. We’re going to give away five signed copies plus one-year access to the online course. We’ll put everything in the show notes.

So, your work was the topic of Consciousness Engineering. Could you just explain quickly what the concept is”VL: Well, we spoke about questioning bullshit rules, right? So when it comes to questioning rules, there are two different types of ideas that we question. The first is Models of Reality. Now a Model of Reality is a belief framework that we take on. We take on these beliefs from our fathers our preachers our mothers our teachers our industrial age education system, but often we also take this up from childhood indoctrination. As children we grow up with a meaning-making machine in our head, trying to create meaning of the world. And this meaning causes us to have certain beliefs. Some of these beliefs are good: “I’m special,” “I’m important,” “I’m loved.” But many of us grow up with beliefs that are disempowering: “I’m not important,” “I need to prove myself,” “Hard work is the only way to be successful,” “I am bad with men,” or “I am bad with women.” And so most human beings have several
– dozen actually – negative beliefs that you may not know it but these beliefs hold you back in life.

Many of these beliefs or as I call them Models of Reality are under the surface. You do not know you have them. Like when I was in my 20s I didn’t realize how much I was lacking in self-esteem, it just didn’t occur to me. But I realized I was working long hours, I was trying to become an entrepreneur, often not because I had a great idea or a mission to change something in the world but simply because I wanted to prove myself. It stemmed from a belief that I was not enough. Many of us have these beliefs, and that’s the first thing: Models of Reality.

Now, the second part of Consciousness Engineering is understanding that while your Models of Reality shape you, and you can change them, there’s a second component that also makes you who you are and these are your Systems for Living. Your Systems for Living are basically your operational procedures: it is how you eat, it is how you commute, it is how you parent, it is how you exercise, and many of us – the problem is – are operating based on systems which are highly outdated. So we are using outmoded forms of exercise, outmoded forms of parenting, outmoded forms of spirituality, and so Consciousness Engineering is simply the practice of thinking of yourself as a human operating system.

Now if you were a computer and you wanted to update yourself, what would you do? You would update your hardware, or update your software. So you might, let’s say, the computer in question is a smartphone. You might go from the iPhone 5 to the iPhone 6, that’s a hardware update. Or you might download more apps or update certain apps. A hardware update is almost analogous to a belief change, because just like a belief you can swap out that hardware and swap in good hardware. And your beliefs are things that are swappable, so I teach people how to swap beliefs. And process change is a software upgrade. You look at how you exercise and you’re like ok great, there’s a better way, boom, you download a new update for your software.

So Consciousness Engineering is simply the act of thinking of the human being as an upgradable machine and looking at beliefs, a.k.a. hardware, and processes, a.k.a. software, and continuously growing and updating your beliefs and processes.

NJ: I think in your book, you mention that you are an improvement junkie, and in your book you say you try to update one of your systems per month which I think is really something everyone should strive for. I personally try to optimize a lot of things as well, but I always have lazy periods in between. Do you know lazy periods? It sounds like you run like a machine and always improve yourself. Do you have these periods in your life where you just take it easy and live with the systems you have right now”VL: Absolutely, I mean that’s what I take vacations for, right”NJ: Ok, so vacation is the biggest hack to overcome laziness? Or are you doing anything else”VL: Well the thing is, I don’t believe in laziness. We talk about laziness like it’s some bad thing, but sometimes we just need to chill out and we do that as well. For example, I love curling up with a good book, I love drinking a glass of whiskey at night – I just had one before this call – I love watching a movie – before this call I was watching a cartoon movie that I really enjoyed with my wife and kids.

So you know, it’s not about being lazy, but here’s the thing: I’m currently an author, I’m a CEO, I have three other companies I’m starting. Tomorrow I’m flying out to Singapore for a three-day holiday. I’m able to do so much because I’ve optimized my life. And so my obsession with hacks, with precision, with updating my systems, basically gives me more time. It doesn’t take away from time, it gives me time to be lazy.

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg’s sister said in an interview that if you’re an entrepreneur, you get to choose three of the following five things: you can either have family, friends, fitness, your business, or sleep. You get to choose three out of five. Now I respect what she’s saying and this is a brilliant woman, Zuckerberg’s sister, but I have all five. I get seven hours of sleep a day, I have friends, I have family, I take care of my health, and I get to take care of multiple businesses – and I still have free time. But it’s because I’ve optimized things to a really beautiful level of precision.

NJ: That’s really interesting. Could you say, I know this is hard to answer but could you say where your concept of Consciousness Engineering had the biggest impact on your life? On the business side, in your personal life”VL: Well it’s had profound impact I’d say mostly on my personal life.

NJ: Cool. And did you ever fail rewriting a Brule? This has been on my mind since reading the book. Was there ever a rule where you said, ok there’s too much outside pressure, I can’t change it, I have to live with it”VL: You know, I’ll have to think back. I’m sure there have definitely been failures, for example before I found my current exercise regimen I experimented with maybe four or five different fitness programs. And out of the four or five fitness programs I’d say about three to four failed – one worked out, and that one is what I’m currently doing.

So I experiment a lot, not everything works, but with each experimentation I learn a little bit more and I get to refine. And now I’m able to stay fit. Before, for me to stay fit, I had to exercise maybe five hours a week. Now it takes me one hour a week and I can still maintain the fitness level I desire.

NJ: I think I remember in Berlin we talked about morning routines. So since it seems you reduced your workout time for every day, how does your morning routine look like? What are you doing in the first 60-90 minutes after waking up”VL: Well, what I do when I wake up, other than taking the kids to school, this is my morning routine: I start with a particular mediation process that I put together called the six phase meditation. It’s very popular now, over a million people do it, and it’s something that I designed. It’s based on six different principles of hacking mental abilities in our human mind. First phase is compassion, so I do a compassion ritual, then I do a gratitude ritual, then I do a forgiveness ritual. All three of these are designed to elevate my levels of happiness and bliss.

Then I focus on my future. I visualize my life three years ahead, then I visualize my day unfolding perfectly, and then I pray. All three of these are designed to make me feel optimistic, powerful, and to look forward towards the coming day.

Next I go and I exercise. Now that entire meditation takes about 20 minutes. Sometimes I go on to half an hour because I want to just sit back and breathe, right? Then I go on to exercise, now typically I use the Microsoft Band which is a really cool device and I do Tabata exercises. Tabata takes me four minutes so I do a very high-intensity four-minute exercise. Studies have shown that four minutes of Tabata can be as beneficial to your body as 20 minutes of regular exercise.

Next I go and have my optimized breakfast. Now my optimized breakfast takes me four minutes to make. It is a shake. I use JJ Virgin or GNC base powder, and then I add moringa, wheatgrass, Camu Camu, and chia seeds to it. It’s basically a super-fueled nutritional shake that elevates my brain processing – sometimes I add MCT oil to it – it elevates my brain processing, gives me energy, and just makes me fully energized for my morning, from the time I start my morning to lunch.

So that’s really what my morning ritual is. Now this is the most optimized ritual I know right now. In the future I may find something more optimized, but functioning like that keeps me fit, keeps me mentally alert, keeps me happy, keeps my body fueled, and allows me to just function really well on a day-to-day basis.

NJ: I think you told me in Berlin about Bulletproof coffee and I started doing Bulletproof coffee since then, and although it’s different than the shake you drink, it has the same effect. I can definitely agree with what you said. How much energy a drink in the morning can give you until lunch – I feel so much more energized when I come to work and more focused.

VL: That’s absolutely true. And one of the ingredients of Bulletproof coffee is MCT oil and I actually use Bulletproof-brand MCT oil in my shake.

NJ: I really love it and I think everyone in the team in Blinkist is getting very interested and soon we’ll have to have a Bulletproof coffee routine here every morning in the future.

Well, I have one last question: The topic of Blinkist magazine this month will be innovation and education and there’s one question we asked a lot of people. So what is one of the things you wish you had learned in school but didn’t learn”VL: The biggest thing that would’ve helped me and would’ve helped a lot of people, is the idea that we are enough. That we are loved, that we are sufficient, that we mean something. I grew up with very low self-esteem and I think a lot of us do. A lot of us growing up don’t think of ourselves as being enough. We don’t feel we’re important, we don’t feel we’re loved, we don’t feel we’re special. And I felt that way for most of my life.

And I think if school had simply taught me self-esteem, I would’ve actually been happier for a lot more years in my life. I only really started figuring this out in my mid-30s and I just wish I had figured it out when I was 15.

“I think if school had simply taught me self-esteem, I would’ve actually been happier for a lot more years in my life.”

NJ: Thanks for sharing that, that’s really cool. So we’re close to half an hour and you told me you put your kids to bed and it’s probably already very late in Malaysia right now. So let me thank you for your time.

VL: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

NJ: I hope we have the chance to hang out in AFest in November again, I’m really trying to be there this year.

Yeah, until then, thanks for your time, Vishen. Too everyone out there, if you like what you heard and if you want us to do more of these conversations, drop us an email to [email protected]. Until then, keep learning.

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