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For over a decade, David Tian, Ph.D., has helped hundreds of thousands of people from over 87 countries find happiness, success, and fulfillment in their social, professional, and love lives. His presentations – whether keynotes, seminars, or workshops – leave clients with insights into their behavior, psychology, and keys to their empowerment. His training methodologies are the result of over a decade of coaching and education of thousands of students around the world. Join him on the “DTPHD Podcast” as he explores deep questions of meaning, success, truth, love, and the good life. Subscribe now.
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HENRY CHONG is our special guest speaker on this episode. Henry is Director of Fusang Capital, a fund management company that manages the assets of multi-family offices. He is also a Director at the Portcullis Group, Asia’s biggest independent group of trust companies, providing comprehensive wealth administration to high-net-worth individuals, providing a one-stop shop for corporate, trustee, and fund administration services to individuals, family offices, philanthropies, private banks, and investment managers. Henry is a graduate of Oxford University with a B.A. (Hons) in Philosophy Politics & Economics and is a founder of the Oxford Economics Society. He also holds a M.Sc. in Behavioral Science from the London School of Economics and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSC). He will be sharing with us from his deep insights in behavioral economics, finance, health, and psychology.
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Episode 15 Show Notes
0:45 Why are invisible asymptotes important?
5:24 The smart way to approach your limitations
9:03 How can invisible asymptotes make a big difference in our personal lives?
14:07 How do you know where the asymptote is if it’s invisible?
18:08 How to find your personal limitations the right way
22:29 What to do if you haven’t found what you’re good at yet
26:55 David shares how he overcame the invisible asymptotes in his life
32:03 What to do when you hit your limitations
37:11 How can you turn your disadvantages into advantages?
40:16 Why should we think with the end in mind?
43:49 How focusing on just one thing can make or break you
What Limits Your Development? The Invisible Asymptotes of Your Life
David Tian Ph.D. and Henry Chong deliberate about the barriers we encounter in life that prevents us from fully achieving our goals.
David Tian Ph.D. and Henry Chong tell us how to look for that invisible asymptotes in our life.
We all have limitations, David Tian Ph.D. and Henry Chong discuss how we can approach them.
In this podcast episode, David Tian Ph.D. and Henry Chong also lay out what to expect after we discover those limitations.
David Tian: Welcome to the DTPHD podcast, I’m David Tian Ph.D. And for over ten years, I’ve been helping hundreds of thousands of people in over 87 countries attain success, happiness and fulfillment in life and love. That’s my introductory spiel. And I’m joined by my very good friend, Henry Chong. Please introduce yourself, Henry.
Henry Chong: Yes, hello. My name is Henry Chong and I am the CEO of the Fusang Group which does many things including investment management, and now a lot of blockchain technologies, and sometime collaborator here on this podcast where we talk about life, love and many other things besides. I think we are supposed to talk about invisible asymptotes.
David Tian: Yes, great title.
Henry Chong: I sent you an article a while ago by Eugene Wei, and I always enjoy his writings, and I’m sure that David will link to this in the show notes.
David Tian: Oh yes, I’ll make a note of that.
Henry Chong: The article really struck a chord with me, and it’s quite a long one and it talks about many things, primarily about the idea of these invisible asymptotes with regards to business. Eugene used to work for Amazon. He uses that as an example of how, many businesses, when they are in a high grow phase…
You’re growing 10% every month, 15% percent every month. Companies tend to just extrapolate this and they draw a straight line up. And they say, “I’m going to grow at this rate every month; within five years, we’ll have conquered the world.”
A bit like how E. coli doubles every however many minutes. And if it could just keep on doubling at that rate, in seven years, it will be the weight of the world. And obviously, that doesn’t actually happen. Just like E. coli, companies hit natural limits to their growth.
I remember a while ago, Slack as a company was growing so fast that they said, “Look, inevitably, it must be the case that at some point our growth is slow simply because, otherwise in 24 months, every single person in the planet will already be a user and there’ll be no one left right to get as new users.”
And Eugene talks specifically about Amazon as an example. Saying that, in the very early days of Amazon, when they were really pioneering the whole field of e-commerce, they thought that the biggest barrier to scale was actually shipping.
And they realized that the one thing everybody hates, it was paying for shipping. And even if you could, at least if you could bundle it into the price, that was one thing. But customers, at least back then, were just allergic to the idea of paying for shipping for online goods.
And so, they very quickly realized that, for Amazon to scale, they would have to solve that problem and figure out how to ship at scale at very little cost. And they solved this with two big ways. One was Amazon Prime, which is today massively successful.
Amazon Prime today has more members in the United States than the church does. An amazing not just collection of consumers, but also obviously of data on what consumers buy. But more importantly, it opened the door to the whole two-day free shipping and limited free shipping.
And that removed the biggest resistance point for all of consumers to shop online with Amazon. The second thing was they started making massive capital expenditures into distribution centers. So instead of relying on third-parties to help them facilitate all of this large shipping network, they built their own warehouses and today they’re moving into you know, famously, drones, and of course, their own planes.
So basically, owning more and more of this massive distribution network. Because to them, that is the best way to drive down costs, again, to allow them to ship quicker, cheaper and provide more consumer welfare. And he basically writes that, that was Amazon’s invisible asymptote: shipping.
And if they hadn’t dealt with that issue early on, and they just focused on, “Let’s be a better online marketplace,” at some point, they would have bumped into this issue where they could no longer ignore the issue of shipping.
But they would not have spent the money to invest into these physical distribution centers and the growth would have massively curtailed. They would have hit that invisible asymptote and stopped growing. And by removing this barrier early on, they could just keep growing, and growing, and growing in a straight line up.
And he basically goes on to argue that companies as a whole should think about this. Companies like Twitter, in the early days, again, they were growing so fast that they just assumed they will take over the world not realizing that Twitter as a platform appeals to a very specific segment of people.
People who like a text-heavy medium, people who like to read more than they like to look at images, say with Instagram, and the early users of the platform were exactly the same people that were building the platform. And so they thought, “Surely everybody will love this platform because I love this platform.”
And journalists, et cetera, do love it. But they, today, he argues, have already hit that invisible asymptote and that’s why they’re not growing anymore. They’ve already got all the users that are relevant. And because they never really stopped to think about that, that’s basically it.
The platform is great, but it’s not going to grow at the kind of pace it used to grow. And I think that’s a really interesting concept for all businesses to think about. Is there some rate limiting factor that at some point you will hit?
And if you do not deal with it now, when you stop thinking about it, either how to surpass it or even if that’s just it for the particular segment and you should be focusing on a different segment, I think that’s something that’s very important to think about.
And Amazon as a company, I think, is so successful today because they continuously think about that across all of their businesses. And I think one really interesting fact is just that, in 1997, when Jeff Bezos published his first shareholders letter when Amazon went public, that the mission statement of Amazon was, “Amazon wants to be a leading online retailer of books and the world’s most consumer-centric company.”
A couple of years later, they changed their mission statement to be, “Amazon wants to be the world’s online retailer.” Period, of everything, “and the world’s most consumer-centric company.”
And just about two years ago I think, they dropped that first bit as well, and now their mission statement is just, “Amazon wants to be the world’s most consumer-centric company.” Basically meaning that their target market is everything.
And Jeff Bezos argued that, because consumer demands are, he calls them, “Consumers are divinely discontent.” Consumers always want more. They always want cheaper, and more, and better. If you focus on filling those kind of consumer demands, which are ever increasing, you will never hit that upper bound, that asymptote, and continue to grow, in a sense, forever. At least, it’s Jeff Bezos’ argument. What are your thoughts, David?
David Tian: Yeah, so, first of all, I know there are quite a few people listening who haven’t done calculus in a long time and don’t know what– or forgotten what asymptote means. So just in case that’s you, you might’ve figured it out by now, but an asymptote is, well, let’s recall calculus.
And you usually will start learning calculus with a curve graph thing. And the curve will go straight up on one side, but never touch the zero point. And that’s an asymptotic curve. So what we’re talking about here is that at some point, the scale will increase but then there will be a limit and you won’t actually reach the goal that you thought would just be a straight line progression.
Henry Chong: And you might grow, but you’ll grow at a slower, and slower, and slower rate.
David Tian: And then it could plateau and then actually start to draw from there, like you see with Twitter. Just the plateau is actually a decline relative to the other competitors. That’s a great analogy to businesses. I think a lot about business these days as well. And the way I think of it, before I heard the term invisible asymptote, I thought of it as just limitations of scale. So you scale at certain point, at a certain rate, but like you say, rate limiting factors will determine that or will guarantee that you won’t continue to be able to scale at that point.
And that’s why, just even normal businesses, if you have figured out a business model that is profit positive, it puts out a profit, you could just basically reinvest all of the profit, and if it’s a straight line, you should be a billionaire in no time because of compounding. But of course, that never happens because there’s always some place where that breaks it down. So, that’s why you should, in some cases, scale conservatively so that you protect the downside. So, the invisible asymptote idea is even deeper than that because you can see this in all areas of life. It’s sort of like a Pareto principle, 80-20 kind of thing that you can start to see this everywhere. So, in your personal life, let’s bring it down to like — I don’t know how many people who listen to this actually own businesses, but everyone has a body.
And your body is better or worse, depending on how you treat it and what you do with it. So, one place you can see an invisible asymptote is in fitness, and this is a very important principle of fitness. So, when you first start working out, if you haven’t worked out in a long time, you’ll see a big rate of growth. You see a big spurt of growth. So, your body’s going from sedentary for years to suddenly getting some stimulation, especially progressive overload kind of stimulation. And especially if you’re getting the right nutrients, you’ll suddenly gain muscle.
And you might think, “Woah! This is great.” Well, some people actually never get that because they didn’t do it properly. But if you do it properly, beginning weightlifters or people training in physical fitness should experience a profound growth in the first month or so. So, you could gain three kilograms, or three pounds, or five pounds of muscle, and some fat loss along with that. That’s very reasonable if you haven’t worked out in a very long time because your body’s just in shock, like, “Woah, all right! Here we go.” And all of the stuff that’s been in your body as potential is now coming out.
But then very quickly, especially if you do the same work-out program over and over and over, you’ll see that your body actually will plateau. And it could happen as quick as four weeks in, or eight weeks, or depending on how much variety and diversity is in your work-out program. And then you’ll plateau. And if you don’t do something different. You’ll actually start to see a decline, and that might be where beginners in workouts quit. Because they think, “Oh, it’s not working or worked for a little while”, like my diet worked for a little while but then it plateaued. So, you have to shock the system.
Another way of thinking about this is cycling, so cycling nutrients. So, if you take the same supplement two weeks in a row, like let’s say, i don’t know what are some supplements these days. Clenbuterol, that helps you burn fat, and it’s often against the rules, because it’s in some ways a steroid. So, if you were to take that and you do it like two weeks or something to help you burn this fat, if you take it for too long, maybe three weeks or four weeks, the effects will not only wear off or they won’t be there anymore but you’ll need a much higher dosage if you were to get the same results. And then your body will actually start to get these detrimental side effects because of the high dosage.
So, in order to prevent this, you cycle off it. So, you take two weeks on it then you take two weeks off for your body to remember what it was like without it so that it doesn’t completely shut down. And then you take it again, and you might increase dosage at that point and you’ll still see an increase. So all of life is like that. So, when you work out, you must put into it a deload week. So, let’s say you do three hard weeks of workout and then you hit your asymptote. Because if you were to do the fourth or fifth week of the same work-out at the same pace, you’re actually not just going to hit a plateau, you could actually injure yourself or your body might start to shrink.
You can actually do some harm. And a lot of people they just keep with the same work-out. And I know people who have the same three workouts, the bro workout: chest, back, whatever. They just do part, and they do that same thing every week for years and wonder why they don’t see any change. Well, that’s because you hit the invisible asymptote much earlier, and you actually have already hit your limit. So, this is an example that, I think, a lot of people who are into fitness or have done some fitness would see.
They already understand, at a very basic level, how the physical body’s growth rate is limited and it happens pretty quickly, too. Another example of this is if you’re trying to lose weight or lose fat and you just starve yourself. The first 48 to 72 hours you’ll see some weight loss, probably a lot of it is water. You probably will see some fat loss, but then after a certain point, depending on your body, it could be anywhere from 48 to 72 or more hours, your body just shuts down and stores fat. Actually, it’s the opposite of what you were trying to do because you’ve hit the invisible asymptote.
So, one other thing that you were pointing out before we started recording was the invisible part of the asymptote. So, most people don’t know where the asymptote is in their lives. So one example is the fitness people or people who are trying to do fitness who don’t realize they’ve hit the asymptote or they’re at that limit. And they just keep doing the same workouts over and over or they keep doing the same crash diets over and over and being frustrated with the results. Well, how do you know where the invisible boundary is when it’s invisible?
Henry Chong: Well, I guess like in the case of Amazon, there are ways to project into the future and say, “Look we realized that shipping and fulfillment is a big issue now and at some point we will crash into this asymptote, we better look at it now.” But it’s difficult because when you are in that high growth phase, it always seems like everything will go on forever. And in many cases, it’s not until you hit the asymptote that you are brought back to reality. But I think that in life, there are a lot of things that if we sit in our quieter moments and are honest about it…
For example, I realized that, sadly, I will never be an all-star NBA player. With a lot of work and effort, I could probably be fairly good. But realistically, it is going to take a monumental amount of effort and last little bits just to make incremental improvements, and the chances of me ever being among the best in the world is very slim. And I say that not to be disheartening to people, but I think that in life, it is about resourcefulness more than it is about resources and about characteristics. But that resourcefulness needs to be applied in a particular way. Like in your workout example, yes, there are ways of overcoming these plateaus, for example by changing up your workout.
Just doing the same workout but harder, with more effort, isn’t always going to work. And the old fable of, “If you just try more, and try harder, everything, you’ll get there.” And it’s like, yes, effort matters, but you need to be willing to try different things until you reach your goal, to constantly keep trying and trying, not just banging your head against the wall in a straight line. And I think that I played basketball in high school because I enjoyed it, but I was always keenly aware of the fact that I was never really going to the NBA.
And I think that people need to think long and hard about that in their own lives. If you decide that you want to do something, that you find fulfillment in doing something, great. And you can get to 80% in a lot of things, as you say, because of the Pareto principle. People like Tim Ferriss have shown that it is possible to get much better at something in a much shorter period of time than most people think. But to take it from pretty good to best in the world, you can really only do that in a few things in your life. We’ve talked about this in the past, about focus.
Warren Buffett, as I’ve talked about in a previous podcast, has this great idea about, come up with a list of all your goals, pick the top three. And not only should you focus on the top three, the rest of your goals are you’re not allowed to do, not allowed to touch anymore list. Because realistically, to achieve just those top three goals already requires exclusive focus. So I think people need to be keenly aware of, what is most important to me, what do I want to do at the highest of levels, and what am I okay at being good at? But I recognize that I am going to hit these absolute tops and I’m never really going to be the best in the world at and I’m fine with that.
David Tian: Yeah, these asymptotes, these limitations, or the place at which you reach your limitations of scaling, or the rate at which you are growing are relative. So, one thing that’s interesting about the business example versus the personal example is that for a seven-footer, the possibility of being in the NBA is much higher than if you or I were to try it just by virtue of these natural advantages. And in business, if you have basically the same industry and the same business model, every business would end up with the same… If you kept all the variables constant, they should end up with the same invisible asymptote.
But in the individual cases, there’s so many possible factors and possible goals that could affect your limitations and your advantages and disadvantages that it’s really about knowing yourself. So, one way of finding out where the invisible asymptote is in your life, is you could look at people who are trying to get the goal that you’re trying to get. But this is a common thing, everyone loves to read biographies or watch documentaries or just learn about the lives of these other people, follow them on Instagram, or watch their vlogs and try to figure out how they do what they do.
But often they neglect the fact that, that person is not them and that there are very real differences. I’ve made that mistake pretty early in my life, all the way through until, I think I started figuring this out in early undergrad. But most of my role models, because I grew up in Canada, were Canadian, or American. They were white people. I’m not white. My family is very Chinese in the way that we interact at home, and our cultural upbringing, even though our setting was ‘Western’, our traditional family values and the Asian values in certain ways affected me to a great degree, especially even in things like food.
So, when I entered university, I had a lot of different interests. I loved studying history of many different peoples but I would be at a disadvantage if I were to major let’s say in African history versus if I were to major in Chinese history. Because since I was born, people were speaking Chinese at me, and for quite some of that time, I was speaking Chinese back at them. And I try to make sense of what I was hearing, as well as all of the cultural background that I was getting for the food, and the culture, and the visits back home.
And one of the factors that led into my decision to major in East Asian studies eventually, after trying out premed and all this, was because I was very interested in it, naturally, having watched lots of kung fu movies and Shaolin monk TV shows or whatever growing up, but also because it was my natural advantage. So, my asymptote for my natural limitation on growth was much farther than the average person at the school and at the university in Canada. So, I had this natural advantage. I basically enrolled in first year Chinese and I slept through it and got an A. I enrolled in second year Chinese, I have more or less slept through it and got an A. I started to hit my invisible asymptote which became very visible to me in the fourth year of undergrad Chinese where there were only 12 students, 10 of whom had come directly from Hong Kong.
And it would’ve been cancelled if the teacher did not accept those Cantonese students into the Mandarin class, so she let them in. But they basically had a very accented Mandarin but they read and write Chinese perfectly. And it was the two of us who are not native speakers of Chinese who were struggling, and they took pity on us and all that. Man, that’s my limitation. Like when the peer group in this class changes so that there’s like 10 out of 12 or native speakers of a different dialect, well then, I’m screwed.
But I made it that far, and the attrition rate in Chinese was incredible back then. I don’t know what it is like now. I started my first two years of Chinese in Quebec, so there was the, you know you say, hen hao, that’s ‘very good’. And they drop their H’s, so like, ‘otel’. And they’ll read it in the pinyin without the H, so you’ll hear ‘en ao’. So, you can extrapolate this forward and you’ll start to see where you’ll have to work a lot harder later on. And that’s just one easy example where I found that my personal limitations didn’t come until later.
And the same would’ve come if, like the same example were to be if, if you were seven-feet tall and trying to play basketball. You have just so many more advantages. And a lot of guys who are listening to this, or in the various groups that I manage, or who write to me are in… Well, they’re young. A bunch of them are in their 20s, a bunch of them are in their 30s, and some of them have not found what they’re good at yet, their natural advantages.
And one of the ways that I help them figure this out is by asking them the question of: What do you enjoy? But then the problem is, a lot of people enjoy things that they’re not that good at yet or that don’t pay yet. So, there’s a big yet on that because when I was growing up, a lot of my friends loved playing video games. And if they just stuck with it, they might be millionaire video game players right now. So, whatever you love, there’s probably some way to monetize that, especially if you get really good at it. And then the second question is, “What are you really good at?” And then a third question is, “What does the world value?” Does it value something you enjoy? Or something you’re good at? And if you can find the convergence of those three, what you really enjoy, what you’re good at, what the world values, then you’ll have like a dream career because you’re doing something that you enjoy or you’re good at. And if you’re good at it, but you don’t enjoy it, you’re also going to hit that limitation pretty quick, and it’ll be a psychological, emotional one unless you can find some aspect of it that you really enjoy and home in on that.
And if you really enjoy it but you suck at it, well, you’re going to be like on American Idol, one of those very embarrassing audition tapes. So, there are those as well. And how do you know whether you’re good at it? You can just get feedback from the world, like our experts telling you you’re good at it. Are you getting good grades at that? Are you getting people applauding at it? Or does somebody like it, your performance or what you’re doing? That should be pretty obvious. And what do you enjoy? That’s even more obvious. But I think like the number one thing out of those three is that most people, most dudes in their 20’s haven’t found something that they’re really good at yet. So Henry, do you have any advice for guys like that, who haven’t found what they’re really good at yet?
Henry Chong: Especially in today’s world, I think you better find skills that you can deploy, that you are really good at, whatever those things may be. I think you’re very right when you say you need to find feedback. It’s just like when you’re giving advice to a friend. It’s usually very clear. But when you’re looking at yourself, sometimes things can seem very murky. Talking about your video gamer example, I think that’s a good point in the sense that the highest paid video game players on Twitch or wherever are not the best video game players in the world.
So for example, if you really, really enjoy playing video games, but you realize you’re never going to be the best, there are lots of other ways to still go about it like being really good at live streaming of games or whatever the case may be. And I hope that all of this doesn’t dishearten people and they say, “You know what, because I’m not seven-foot tall, I’m just never going to play in the NBA.” The whole point is, again, that if you are resourceful and you are clear as to what you want to do… For example, I will never play in the NBA but maybe if I tried really hard, I could own a team. There are lots of ways of reaching the same goal.
And often you need to ask yourself, “What is my deeper goal?” Do I just enjoy the sport of basketball and want to be around it? Do I actually really want to be a center? What is the real goal here? In business, all of us have natural limitations. Nobody in the world is good at everything. And I think the people who are best at running businesses for example are people who are keenly aware of their natural limitations, on what they are and aren’t good at and find people who can help them. That’s called a team. You hire for the kind of roles that you’re not good at. And I think that in any aspect of life, people who can push the invisible asymptote, so to speak, and continue to grow are people who can see those asymptotes coming, and find help, find team members, find coaching to surpass that asymptote.
David Tian: Yeah. So, I’ll give you an example of how I passed one of the asymptotes of my life. At the third year, I was playing saxophone, and I took it really seriously because I really love the sound of it and jazz. In my third year, I was only in the 8th grade. I hit a barrier, a ceiling, a limitation which was on the solo that I was playing as first chair, first alto, I hit the top note as I’m ascending in this line. I’m standing up and it’s all leading up to this thing. And on the middle D note, it squeaks up more than an octave. And it would happen about 60-70% of the time and I had no idea why. And it happened. So, after enough mistakes like this. I went to the side, and the band continued their rehearsals, and I tried to figure it out. So, I said to my mom/dad, I need help and they found me a teacher. We actually went through a few different teachers, in ascending order of price. None of them could fix it, but eventually we got to the most expensive teacher in all of Toronto, and we went to his studio, and within three minutes, he had me play the line that was squeaking.
And then he said, “Huh, do that again.” And I played it again. And he touched something on my saxophone. And then he said, “Play it again.” And then it didn’t squeak. And I played again, and again, and again. It didn’t squeak, I’m like, “What did you do?” And he said, “Oh, your D note, the pad was sticking, so I just had to push it.” I literally asked three different domain experts, and then all of my music teachers of the school and all of this, no one knew, and it was just this one guy. So often, we’ll hit invisible asymptotes in our lives. And there’s some special expert knowledge that we’re lacking, and it could just be this little tweak. The idea of tweaks, to me, after that moment in life, and then there were a few others. In basketball, my shoes were too big.
Here’s another example of an asymptote. A well-meaning uncle bought me shoes for my body three years later, like adults tend to do that like, “Oh save money, buy it so he can grow into it.” Horrible idea for athletic shoes. So I wore these basketball shoes that were two sizes too big at least. I’m tripping over my feet because I only wore them for basketball. Like, I would bounce the ball off my foot, like all kinds of stupid mistakes. And then when I figured it out, and I’ve like, “Look I’m just going to wear my normal shoes, screw it.” And then I was like, I was playing better.
I’m like, “Man, I got to get better shoes in my size. I don’t care if you think I’m going to grow.” I finally convinced the parents to do that, and then I was doing a lot better and I was able to play lots of other sports with those shoes. And I didn’t know that that was a relative invisible asymptote, like I hit this limitation, no one could help me. No one would tell me to my face, “It’s because of your shoes.” That was just me saying, “Maybe it’s these shoes.” So, I guess the better example is the teacher and the saxophone. So, the idea of tweaks, these seemingly insignificant things are what you often will get from an expert. And after I learn that, a lot of people I notice when they go to a teacher, like a one-on-one coach or a private teacher, they’re looking for some big secret.
Like, there’s like one big secret and you open the tomb for Dr. Strange and you learn this spell, and then you can defeat all the bad guys. And early on in my life, I suppose high school level, I discovered that that’s never really the case because all of the big spells, so to speak, you learn from the textbook, you learn from the general classes and the group classes. The part that really sets you apart are the things that no one else is really having trouble with. You’ve got some unique idiosyncratic problem.
That’s always been the case for me. So I will always pay to get ahead if that area is important to me by getting the private coaching, or the private tutoring, or the private teacher. And the expert knowledge is always this little tweaking. There are many different little tweaks that I give to guys to be better with women that at the time, they think, “Huh, it’s so simple.” I said, “That’s right! It’s genius.” But at first if I don’t tell them that, they’re like, “Oh, such a simple thing.” I’m like, “Go out and try it.” And then they’ll just, even a little thing like pause two seconds longer at this juncture, or lean back three degrees more.
Tony Robbins talks about it in the terms of two millimeters, just a little two millimeter difference between feeling okay versus, “I’m going to take over,” and super confident. And these little tweaks make all the difference. And it’s like in that 80-20, it comes down to like 99-1. The one percent had figured out that there is, there is this limitation that they can get around if they figure out what that tweak is. For Amazon, we don’t think of it as a tweak anymore but probably when they started they’re like, “Let’s tweak shipping. Let’s start with super saver shipping, and then let’s try this thing, and then this thing, and then this thing.” And then it became, eventually, “We’re going to get the prime, get them on a membership,” and all of this.
So one thing we can do in life is, if we can figure out where our natural limitations, given that we love to do this thing, or decent at it, we don’t have any glaring disadvantages at getting good at it, if you’re hitting your limitations on it, then one of the best things you can do is to get expert, outside help and look for those tweaks.
Henry Chong: I completely agree. I mean, I think the asymptotes that are invisible to you are usually visible to someone else. You just need to find the right person. And I think it’s a very important point that, no matter what challenge you face or issue you have, someone, somewhere out there has probably faced the same challenge and figured it out. Even if they’re not a real life coach, for example. The reason why you think reading biographies is useful is that a lot of the problems you face in any endeavor, other people have faced before and they’ve probably found the way to solve them, and they’ve probably written a book about it.
And I think if anything, it’s very arrogant to think that your problems are so special and unique that no one else in history has ever had them. Most of the challenges we face in day to day life, other people have faced before and they solved them. You can look to those people to see how they did it. And just as a side to come back to the Amazon example, when they first started doing returns, they didn’t actually have a system that could track whether or not you bought something from them, like a book.
And so, if you just shipped back a book, they had to assume that you had bought it from them and therefore would refund you whatever the purchase price was. And it turns out that there was a woman who figured that out and was just buying boxes of these books and shipping them en masse back to Amazon. But I think that the point is that sometimes you just need to begin. And even if you haven’t figured it out all the way, you just need to say, “Look, we know that returns is a big thing and here is a solution. It’s not perfect but at least it’s one way of solving a significant pain point.”
And when you face that asymptote, sometimes you can be scary when you feel yourself plateauing. And sometimes, you just need to look for a solution, and leap in, and say, “You know what? Let’s try something different.”
David Tian: So in the projection idea, you really got me thinking when it came down to the whole testing as it went along. There are natural advantages that you have, that if you can figure out what those are, you should do those more so that the invisible asymptote will come up much later. In the Amazon example, it was sort of the opposite. They’re like, “Okay, our invisible limitation is going to be the shipping or is related to shipping. People won’t want to continue to buy from us in books only if we can’t ship them out faster or this one non-negotiable.”
And instead of saying, “Okay, let’s find another business to invest in.” They said, “How can we fix this disadvantage that currently is built into our company model?” And one thing you can think of as an individual is when you come up against a disadvantage or a limitation, you can get coaching, you can get expert help, you can get an outside perspective. In addition, if it’s just clearly a disadvantage, you can also ask yourself, “How can I either fix this disadvantage?” Maybe you need surgery? I don’t know. Maybe you need something drastic, maybe outside funding and giving up a lot of percentage, or whatever it is, like something more drastic than what you were considering, or how can you turn your disadvantage into an advantage?
One way to do that is hang a shingle on the thing that is your weakness. If you just have a very expensive product and you just can’t figure out how to get it any cheaper, and if you do, you’re into that watered down, diluted product area. So, if you have a very expensive product, one of the best things you can do is just say, you take your disadvantage, your perceived disadvantage, like, “This thing’s really expensive” and make that a headline like, “The most expensive watch you’ve ever seen.” And you’ll be able to sell just based on that. And what’ll happen is if you turn your disadvantages into advantages, or your perceived disadvantages into advantages, is that you’ll discover niches that were unmet, where there’s a lot more room for competition.
And the way forward often is, for individuals, instead of waiting in to the waters, of… Well, I mean if anyone else wants to at this point, compete with Amazon on online retail, it’ll be very difficult. Of course, in different parts of the world, this is actually happening, there’s a lot of competition. But it’s like, you’re swimming with the sharks. But if you, as an individual, don’t aspire to give up your personal life to become the number one, the gold medalist at something, and you just want to be pretty darn good at it, and enjoy a nice personal private life or social life, you can think of like, “Where can I fit into the whole picture so that my natural advantages or my perceived disadvantages can become advantages in that niche?”
And almost always, any disadvantage can become an advantage if you can just think about it in the right way. So I’d recently just finished watching this TV show called Daredevil. And anyway, I found it fascinating, if you know Daredevil, you know my point. But there’s always some way to turn that around and you’ve just got to figure it out. Well, the more direct lesson from the Amazon example is projection. So, reading biographies are amazing, and I try to read a biography always. So, I usually have three books going at the same time but they have to be three different genres or I’ll get them all mixed up.
I got some kind of fiction or biography, and then the non-fiction in business, and non-fiction in philosophy or psychology or something like that. That usually prevents them from getting jumbled up. And in the biographies, I discovered that I always am most interested in reading the part in his life that corresponds to my current age at which I’m reading it. So, I remember like being bored out of my mind reading about his teenage years, “I don’t care. I don’t care about his parents, whatever.” Now that I have more interest in psychology and I do care now, because I see what the author was trying to do there. But generally, I just skip that stuff like, I just breeze through it. And then I start to go really slowly when he’s at that point in his age, or he or she at the point in which I’m at.
And it might not directly correspond to the numerical age, but that phase in life that I find myself in. And then as we get further in the book, I’ll start to lose interest more. But ironically, that’s probably the time when I need to pay the most attention. Because it is important to know what you need to do right now and to look for examples of how people who succeeded were doing it. But then to know, if you do it the way they do it, one possible outcome… And we know it’s possible because it’s an actual outcome, is this. And what’s their life like at the 60-year mark or the 70-year mark. And I guess as I mature, I start to pay more attention to the parts of the biographies that are later in life.
And that’s one of those things where, in a business, you need to project five years. You shouldn’t be conducting business for now. I mean, there are plenty people who do this. I know a lot of people in internet marketing who are basically gunning for the now. They’re looking for some autoplay VSL that when you land on it sells you automatically and then they auto-enroll you in some scammy monthly thing that you didn’t know about because it was in their tiny terms and conditions. And you won’t figure it out until like the second or third month.
You get the credit card billing, you’re like, “What’s this $67.99 charge?” and then you refund. And so, these people are just doing merchant account arbitrage as they get refunds all the time. And I know a lot of people who do this. And they’re living for the now, and they’re not actually building a business. They’re just engaging in transactions. So, a business just like a life, or a life just like a business is best-lived with the end in mind. So not just the now, not just the current transaction, and not just how can you derive the most profit from this one customer right now, but what do you want your company or your life to be like in five years? Or what’s the long-term plan for the ten-year mark? And then to act according to that, the legacy, so to speak that you hope to leave in your life, or in your business, your company. This is something that it took me a while to figure out because there are a lot of people who don’t run their companies or lives like that.
So, this invisible asymptote thing, once you project further and far enough, you think, “Okay, if I continue to do this, five years from now, what will I need to do to get more business, or what will I need to do in my personal life? Will it be worth it?” And then you can start to see where the limitations will be and you can start to plan for those. I’ll leave with one example which is from my academic years, and I decided on a very bizarre major for my Ph.D. which was in the intersection of three different disciplines: in philosophy, in history and in Asian languages and cultures, and then in religious studies as well. And I knew that, in order for me, eight years later, before I started my grad program.
To actually get a job and to be hired in one of those departments. I would have to show that I paid my dues in that department. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many jobs for somebody like that. In addition, they could come from any of those four departments. So, I will have to be ready to answer questions from experts in all four of those departments to get the job, but I don’t know which four. And that means I’ll have to now specialize and get knowledge in four departments, four disciplines, whereas most people only do one. Knowing this, I started planning it all. So I planned out how I will do the equivalent of a Ph.D. in philosophy, and I portioned that into my schedule. I portioned how I will cover the religious studies stuff. I did all of this stuff.
In addition, the languages which is the most difficult. So, we had to cover the Buddhist languages, and then we had to do the Chinese, the Japanese, and the different classical versions of all of this including some classical Greek, and all of this. And if I didn’t figure that out, until halfway through my graduate program, like my adviser would say, “This happened to a lot of my colleagues back then.” The professor says, “Woah, woah, woah. If you want to do these types of jobs, you’ll need to do all of this reading, and do these essays, and sit for this exam.”
And then they tell them that halfway through the program. That student will either have to stay in school for another three years, or really limit what he was going to do, what he hoped to do. And planning ahead of time isn’t that hard. So like, you just need to get a clear goal in mind then plan backwards. The problem for a lot of young people is that not only are they not good at anything in particular yet, they also don’t have a clear idea of the goal beyond, I don’t know, like a Dan Bilzerian lifestyle thing. You can see the cars, and the mansions, and the bitches, and the yachts, whatever. It’s not clear what they’re going to do to get that if that’s what they want.
One piece of advice out of all of this is, pick something that you enjoy and are decent at and see how good you can get at it. It’d be great if the world valued that activity as well, especially in the now. So, if you want to make some money, just pick something that’s true of all three. And if you’re just decent at it, and especially if you’re just starting out in it, see how far you can get at it. That’s a life skill that I think will serve anybody. Because a lot of problems arise when people are dilettante, they’re just dabblers and they don’t see how good they can get at one thing. They just keep switching over to the new trendy thing.
What they see on Instagram, or YouTube, or whatever, “Oh, I’ll try this, I’ll try this, I’ll try this. I’ll switch to this platform. I’ll try this.” And then they end up not getting good at anything. Pick one thing, and get really, really good at that. Because learning how to get good at one thing, like actually really getting good at it, not just mediocre at it, but really getting good at it will actually unveil for you the principles for getting good at anything.
Henry Chong: And if nothing else, at least you’ll have a skill to your name.
David Tian: That’s right. Yes. There’s always a way to monetize any skill, so yeah.
Henry Chong: I just want to show something you talked about earlier about finding. I carry this coin with me most days. And if you could see that from Ryan Holiday, who says, “The obstacle is the way.” An old quote of Marcus Aurelius says that, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
I don’t know, I guess a lot of people hope that they will not have obstacles in their life. As you say, people just want the end point. Everybody wants the good life but not everybody’s willing to do what it takes to get the good life. And there’s this old Kenyan proverb that says, “Behind mountains are more mountains.” But I think a lot of people approach obstacles, or plateaus, or invisible asymptotes, thinking that, “Once I get past this one, there will never again be another plateau or an asymptote.” And of course, if you’re ever good at anything, you’ll realize that’s not true. There will always be more plateaus, and more invisible asymptotes, and more challenges. The trick is to realize that the challenge is what you’re supposed to be doing. The obstacle is the way through.
David Tian: Awesome, that’s an excellent point. That’s right. Even if you think you figured out the invisible asymptote, you’ll never know what’s coming around the corner. Alright. Well, great talking to you, Henry. Thanks so much to you guys for listening, the people listening. And you can learn more about me at DavidTianPHD.com. Join our private Facebook group for the DTPHD podcast. You can find the link for the group in the show notes to this episode. Where can they find you, Henry?
Henry Chong: You can look me up at my personal website at www.henrychong.com
David Tian: Yes, and you have a weekly newsletter.
Henry Chong: And I write a weekly newsletter every Sunday when I talk about many of the similar musings that we talk about here.
David Tian: Awesome. So that’ll all be in the show notes. Thank so much for listening. Hope to see you inside the private Facebook group. David Tian and Henry Chong signing out.