The ‘problem’ with meditation—I thought—was that it wasn’t ‘practical.’ . . . But I eventually reframed meditation as a way to relinquish control of my conscious mind so that my more powerful unconscious mind could take over

ADAM ROBINSON has made a lifelong study of outflanking and outsmarting the competition. He is a rated chess master and has been awarded a Life Master title by the United States Chess Federation. As a teenager, he was personally mentored by Bobby Fischer in the 18 months leading up to his winning the world championship. Then, in his first career, Adam developed a revolutionary approach to taking standardized tests as one of the two original co-founders of The Princeton Review. His paradigm-breaking—or “category killing,” as they say in publishing—test-prep book, Cracking the System: The SAT, is the only test-prep book to have ever become a New York Times bestseller. After selling his interest in The Princeton Review, Adam turned his attention in the early ’90s to the then-emerging field of artificial intelligence, developing a program that could analyze text and provide human-like commentary. He was later invited to join a well-known quant fund to develop statistical trading models, and since, he has established himself as an independent global macro advisor to the chief investment officers of a select group of the world’s most successful hedge funds and ultra-high-net-worth family offices.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
Our unconscious mind is working all the time, processing orders of magnitude more information, and with astoundingly greater facility, than is our conscious mind. Of course our entire education system, and indeed much of Western philosophy—is devoted to improving our conscious thinking and capacities rather than our unconscious ones.

I’ve read far and wide, consuming thousands of books. Five disparate books stand out from all the rest as the most influential, either in confirming my own intuitions or in suggesting promising avenues of inquiry in my quest to understand—or at least gain some control over—my unconscious thinking, to be able to tap into it on demand, and to direct it as far as possible.

And those books are Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg by Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler, and, perhaps most of all, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. These books have been so seminal to my thinking that I have read each at least three times straight through, and continually dip into them as the years pass as triggers for further insights and inspiration.

And what they have confirmed, as well as my own explorations of the unconscious have revealed, is, to paraphrase Hamlet, that there is far, far more in our unconscious mind than is dreamt of in our philosophy.

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
The understanding—which has become a habit—that has most improved my life in the last five years, dramatically so, is recognizing the importance of others in not only changing the world, but in enjoying it!

By nature I am an introvert. So much so that some friends revealed years after school that we had mutual high-school classmates who had never seen me speak.

By the time I graduated from graduate school—Oxford University after doing my undergraduate work at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania—I had emerged from my interior world to a great extent, but I was still 95/5 on the introvert/extrovert scale. I very much enjoyed the company of other people, but only for brief periods, beyond which I’d reach overload and need to seclude myself to recharge.

After college, in my career, my success in the world was the product of my insights and imagination and thinking, so I inhabited the world of ideas far more than I did the world of people. The more and better ideas I came up with, the more success I achieved.

So it came as a surprise relatively late in life, in fact only in the past year, that if you want to change the world, you have to enroll others in your plans and vision. Not only that, but the immense pleasures and satisfactions that can be derived from focusing on others, and the surprising discovery that the more I gave to others—which I’d always done—the more the universe gave me back in return.

Whereas in the past when I went outside and encountered others, I would invariably be lost in thought—now I am solely focused not inwardly, on my ideas, but outwardly, on connecting with others. I mentioned this discovery publicly for the first time in a live group podcast with Tim [Ferriss] in December 2016, and was inspired shortly thereafter to write a book, An Invitation to the Great Game: A Parable of Love, Magic, and Everyday Miracles, in which I articulate my three guiding rules of life. First, whenever possible, connect with others. Second, with enthusiasm, strive always to create fun and delight for others. And third, lean into each moment and encounter expecting magic—or miracles.

This discovery so profoundly altered my life path—revealing for the first time my true mission on this planet—that I now divide my life into two periods: pre- discovery of “others” and post-discovery. Now, I so eagerly look forward to leaving my home each day, wondering what magic I’ll create encountering others, that I can scarcely contain myself. My days now have a natural rhythm between introversion and extroversion that is akin to breathing: when I am alone, inhaling my ideas, and then exhaling with others.

The number of remarkable people and serendipities and successes that have come into my life since I adopted this awareness of others—which quickly developed into a reflexive habit of directing my attention solely on them when I am not alone—has been nothing short of astonishing.

What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?

I’ve made many investments in my life—of money, of time, of energy, of passion and emotion—and one of the best payoffs for the amount invested was learning to meditate.

I’ve always been driven, excited by the world, so my mind is continually racing at 1,000 miles per hour pursuing this question or that, creating this system or that. Nonstop. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, 366 on leap years.

Now all that nonstop mental and psychic stimulation gets exhausting, of course. And if you want to perform optimally, at anything, you need to find a way to recover from the stresses of that activity. So I knew I should find a way to “turn off” my mind and just relax, just enjoy—just be—for years, but I failed to find a way.

I tried everything. Yoga. Exercise. I even tried hypnosis. I researched the “best” hypnotist in New York City as a way to turn off my hyperactive mind, but after four attempted—and hugely expensive—sessions, the hypnotist gave up, saying, “Your mind is too active to submit to the hypnosis.” “Thanks a lot, Doc,” I told him, not concealing my annoyance, “that’s why I came to you!”

Then, about two years ago, my bestie Josh Waitzkin, recognizing that I couldn’t unwind, or disengage from my unrelenting analyzing of the world— especially the financial world—recommended that I take up meditation.

“Doesn’t work for me,” I said. “Can’t sit still long enough for any benefits of meditating to kick in.”

“Have you ever tried heart rate variability training? HRV training?” he asked. “No,” I said.
“Well, I strongly recommend that you do,” he said.
I told him I’d never even heard of HRV training. He said that you just focus

on your breathing, using biofeedback to measure the “smoothness” and the amplitude—variability—of your heart rate. The heart registers all of our real- time emotions and stresses, so a normal heartbeat is highly erratic, staying within a tight band around an average. The goal with the biofeedback training is to gain control over your own heart rate by focusing on your breathing, making your “jagged” heart rate smooth out like a sine curve and to widen its amplitude.

That sounded interesting, but it wasn’t until I reframed meditation that I submitted to trying it. The “problem” with meditation—I thought—was that it wasn’t “practical.” And worse, the time I spent meditating was time that I could have spent analyzing the world.

But I eventually reframed meditation as a way to relinquish control of my conscious mind so that my more powerful unconscious mind could take over, and my analysis of the world would improve.

Motivated by that reframing, I enthusiastically adopted biofeedback HRV training, and in a few weeks learned to quiet my mind after just a single deep, diaphragm belly breath—gaining the ability to achieve a Zen-like calm on demand.

Now, whenever I need to detach from the world or from the stresses of daily life and to allow my mind a rest, I simply get centered and inhale from my diaphragm. And I do so numerous times a day. A minute here. A few minutes there. At least once a day, I “waste” a larger 15-to 20-minute block of time meditating in this way. But it’s not wasted time, of course, since the enhanced creativity and productivity from these mini restorative sessions is worth far more than the time I spend being “unproductive” while meditating.

Meditation is one of the most practical, powerful, productivity-enhancing tools ever created, and learning to meditate is one of the best investments I ever made.

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
This purchase is not less than $100, but at $159, it is too close to pass up: the HeartMath Inner Balance biofeedback monitor. It detects your heart’s minutest rhythms and sends a graph to your smartphone, facilitating HRV training.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Virtually all investors have been told when they were younger—or implicitly believe, or have been tacitly encouraged to do so by the cookie-cutter curriculums of the business schools they all attend—that the more they understand the world, the better their investment results. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The more information we acquire and evaluate, the “better informed” we become, the better our decisions. Accumulating information, becoming “better informed,” is certainly an advantage in numerous, if not most, fields.

But not in the field of counterintuitive world of investing, where accumulating information can hurt your investment results.

In 1974, Paul Slovic—a world-class psychologist, and a peer of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman—decided to evaluate the effect of information on decision-making. This study should be taught at every business school in the country. Slovic gathered eight professional horse handicappers and announced, “I want to see how well you predict the winners of horse races.” Now, these handicappers were all seasoned professionals who made their livings solely on their gambling skills.

Slovic told them the test would consist of predicting 40 horse races in four

consecutive rounds. In the first round, each gambler would be given the five pieces of information he wanted on each horse, which would vary from handicapper to handicapper. One handicapper might want the years of experience the jockey had as one of his top five variables, while another might not care about that at all but want the fastest speed any given horse had achieved in the past year, or whatever.

Finally, in addition to asking the handicappers to predict the winner of each race, he asked each one also to state how confident he was in his prediction. Now, as it turns out, there were an average of ten horses in each race, so we would expect by blind chance—random guessing—each handicapper would be right 10 percent of the time, and that their confidence with a blind guess to be 10 percent.

So in round one, with just five pieces of information, the handicappers were 17 percent accurate, which is pretty good, 70 percent better than the 10 percent chance they started with when given zero pieces of information. And interestingly, their confidence was 19 percent—almost exactly as confident as they should have been. They were 17 percent accurate and 19 percent confident in their predictions.

In round two, they were given ten pieces of information. In round three, 20 pieces of information. And in the fourth and final round, 40 pieces of information. That’s a whole lot more than the five pieces of information they started with. Surprisingly, their accuracy had flatlined at 17 percent; they were no more accurate with the additional 35 pieces of information. Unfortunately, their confidence nearly doubled—to 34 percent! So the additional information made them no more accurate but a whole lot more confident. Which would have led them to increase the size of their bets and lose money as a result.

Beyond a certain minimum amount, additional information only feeds— leaving aside the considerable cost of and delay occasioned in acquiring it— what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” The information we gain that conflicts with our original assessment or conclusion, we conveniently ignore or dismiss, while the information that confirms our original decision makes us increasingly certain that our conclusion was correct.

So, to return to investing, the second problem with trying to understand the world is that it is simply far too complex to grasp, and the more dogged our attempts to understand the world, the more we earnestly want to “explain” events and trends in it, the more we become attached to our resulting beliefs— which are always more or less mistaken—blinding us to the financial trends that are actually unfolding. Worse, we think we understand the world, giving investors a false sense of confidence, when in fact we always more or less misunderstand it.

You hear it all the time from even the most seasoned investors and financial “experts” that this trend or that “doesn’t make sense.” “It doesn’t make sense that the dollar keeps going lower” or “it makes no sense that stocks keep going higher.” But what’s really going on when investors say that something makes no sense is that they have a dozen or whatever reasons why the trend should be moving in the opposite direction . . . yet it keeps moving in the current direction. So they believe the trend makes no sense. But what makes no sense is their model of the world. That’s what doesn’t make sense. The world always makes sense.

In fact, because financial trends involve human behavior and human beliefs on a global scale, the most powerful trends won’t make sense until it becomes too late to profit from them. By the time investors formulate an understanding that gives them the confidence to invest, the investment opportunity has already passed.

So when I hear sophisticated investors or financial commentators say, for example, that it makes no sense how energy stocks keep going lower, I know that energy stocks have a lot lower to go. Because all those investors are on the wrong side of the trade, in denial, probably doubling down on their original decision to buy energy stocks. Eventually they will throw in the towel and have to sell those energy stocks, driving prices lower still.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do? What questions do you ask yourself?
When I am feeling unfocused, the first question I ask myself is, “Am I rehearsing my best self?” And if the answer is no, I ask myself how can I reset. Each day presents us with 86,400 seconds, which means each day presents us with virtually countless opportunities to reset, recover our balance, and continue rehearsing our best selves.

If I realize my focus is off, and certainly when I’m experiencing any negative emotions, I ask myself, “Where should my attention be right now?”

Almost always, the answer is “my mission,” which is like a beacon that always beckons.

But sometimes I take on too many commitments. Because I sometimes have trouble saying no to others eager to work with me, I can become overcommitted and overwhelmed.

When that happens, rather than attempting to do everything badly, I ask myself, “What activity or commitment can I cut out right now that will free up the most time?” It reminds me of this news story I read ages ago about a small European town (I won’t say what country, lest I offend it unnecessarily) in which the postal workers had trouble keeping up with their deliveries.

On Monday they’d do their best to deliver the mail, but they’d have some pieces left over, which they’d add to Tuesday’s delivery pile. Tuesday they’d fall further behind, of course, and Wednesday and Thursday further still. By Friday, they’d have an enormous pile of undelivered mail, which they’d burn so they could start “fresh” on Monday. The process would repeat the next week, a small bonfire every Friday purging their delivery vans of that week’s undelivered mail.

Now that was a highly dubious way of “resetting” each week, which I don’t recommend! But the idea of having a fresh restart whenever overwhelmed is excellent. So, let’s say by noon on any given day I’m running behind, and it’s clear I’m in danger of becoming overwhelmed in short order. Rather than attempting to keep all of my afternoon appointments, which I’d reach later and later as the day progressed, I scan my calendar, asking myself which is the earliest appointment I can “burn” by postponing it to another day. I’d rather reschedule one appointment and make the other three on time than be late and frazzled for all four appointments that afternoon.

Speaking of which, each week I leave one day completely open and schedule a pretend trip out of the city so that I’m not tempted to fill it in any way, not even with meeting friends or other fun diversions. Then, if an emergency arises or I fall behind and become overwhelmed, I know I have a “free day” to use any way I’d like.

So, when I get overwhelmed trying to juggle too many balls simultaneously, I ask myself which one or two I can set down—for the moment—so I get caught up on all the others.

What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

In the old television show Candid Camera—reprised by Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d in more recent times—unsuspecting people were videotaped coping in real time with an insane prearranged situation, usually to great ensuing hilarity.

I get endless delight covertly “ambushing” unsuspecting strangers with random acts of kindness. So, for example, after ordering my iced latte, I’ll give a Starbucks barista a $20 bill and tell him to comp the person after the person behind me for whatever he or she wants, and to give that person the change as well. I don’t do the person behind me, who might suspect that I was the mystery benefactor.

Then I sip my latte from afar and watch the confusion give way to smiles when the random beneficiary realizes the unexpected bounty. Sometimes the person leaves all the change as a tip. Sometimes he or she will pay it forward and “gift” the next person a free coffee. But the beneficiary always leaves smiling broadly, and I know that I’ve unleashed a positive ripple effect into that person’s community and to anyone he or she encounters that day.

Spreading magic!

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