The Three Month Vacation Podcast: Vacations | Online Small Business | Sean D'Souza | Psychotactics







October 2016
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Imagine a client walked through the door and you could give them the power of X-ray vision. Would that client come back for more superpowers? Of course she would. So how do you create superpowers that attract clients? What three elements need to be in place for the superpower to work? Find out in this the third part of this series on "how to stand out even when the competition is outstanding". 

AirBNB was struggling? Was it just start up problems or was it something else? Find out how AirBNB, Zappos and other now-famous brands had to dig, or even stumble upon the biggest problem before they got their business off the ground. And yes, what you've got to do to find the biggest problem as well. It may seem like we know the biggest problem we're solving for our clients, but we're very far from the reality. Find out why this is the case and how to rectify the problem right away. 

If there's little or no competition, it's easy to be top dog. But what if there's oodles of competition? And what if the competition isn't just average, but utterly outstanding? What do you do to stand out in such a situation? Can you even make a mark? The answer is quite surprising

Most of us know of the concept of the "guardian angel". They come into our lives and they take care of us. The "kicking angel" is quite different. The angel shows up just to push us over the edge and then he/she disappears from our lives. How do we know when we're being kicked? And what "kicks" do we pay attention to and what do we ignore?

Direct download: Episode_112-How-The-Kicking-Angel-Helps-Grow-Your-Business.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm FJT

The moment we sit down to write an article, need a fair amount of research. Case studies, stories, they're all needed to create a solid article. Yet that very research causes us to spend so much time on our article, that we're exhausted. Is there a way to research without getting tired? In this two part series we explore the techniques I use to write extremely detailed articles. All of these articles are written without the overbearing exhaustion factor that seems to drive us crazy. Let's find out how to go about a strategy that works every single time.

Direct download: How_i_Write_4000-Word-Articles-Without-Getting-Exhausted-part2.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 4:16pm FJT

The biggest problem with article writing is the exhaustion factor. It's write, delete, write, delete and the endless cycle goes on. So how do you go about article writing? Can you really write articles and not get exhausted? In this series you get to see how I went from getting really frustrated, to writing 800 word articles and then 4000 word articles. What's the secret to such an enormous output? And how do you do it without getting exhausted? Let's find out how spacing the writing and the timer play an incredibly important role in writing.

Direct download: How_i_Write_4000-Word-Articles-Without-Getting-Exhausted-part1.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 4:16pm FJT

Having a vision is hard enough, but where most plans go off track is we scramble after every possible target. To keep our focus we have to have a hatchet person. But what is the role of the hatchet person? In Part 2 of this episode, we take a deeper look at focus.

Direct download: Episode_110-How_To_Make_The_Leap_From_a_Job_to_Business_Part_2.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm FJT

The leap may seem physical, but it's mostly mental. In your head you don't know if it's the right time to jump into being an entrepreneur. What about the mortgage, the family and the bills? And how do you deal with the fear? How do you stay steadfast to your vision? And what about focus? These are the questions that spin in your head over and over again. This episode isn't an answer to your question. No one can answer the questions, but you. However, it helps you understand how to keep true to your vision, how to keep your focus in a distracted world. And then, how to take that leap.


Today I sat down to install one of my most-used programs: Dragon Naturally Speaking.

I use Dragon a lot in the membership site, on our courses and also for e-mail. So when I got a notification that a newer version of Dragon was available, I paid my $99, downloaded the software and started to install it.

Except it wouldn’t install

The software informed me I needed to upgrade from Yosemite to El Capitan —which is the Mac’s current operating system. And therein lay the problem. All my computers were humming nicely on Yosemite, and there seemed no need to rock the boat and install a new operating system. At least if I were having some trouble with the existing system, it would be worth the trouble, but I was doing just fine.

Then along came this new version of Dragon and it was forcing me to do something that involved a whole lot of risk.

When you’re in a job, it’s like living in Yosemite land

It’s not the best thing ever and you know there’s a world of entrepreneurship you’d rather explore. But it’s safe in Yosemite-land so why make the leap into the unknown? And how do you know things will work out anyway? You don’t. That’s the whole point of being an entrepreneur. You have no clue if or when things will work out. The only thing you know for sure is that change is happening. That the Dragon wants to be let loose in your world and you’re holding back.

I understand there’s a huge difference between taking a leap from a job into the world of business. I know that the fear is a lot greater when you have a family, a mortgage, and bills to pay. Yet, there comes a time when your hand seems to be forced. You can stay where you are, or you can take the leap.

In this series we deal with three recurring questions

1) Managing the fear
2) Keeping the vision strong
3) Focus—And why you need a hatchet person

Part 1: Managing the Fear

I hated my job as a web designer.
I’d just immigrated to Auckland, New Zealand in Feb 2000 and my priority was to find a job. Compared with India, where I came from, Auckland was terribly expensive. And anyway, I couldn’t see myself starting up in business right away. To my utter amazement, I found a job that was going to pay me $50,000 a year to build websites.

By the second day, I was ready to quit.

My wife, Renuka, wasn’t so sure

To get a job that was reasonably well-paying was not an easy task. At the time she was still in India, and she asked me to hang on until she showed up in the following month and got a job of her own. “Then you can quit your job if you like, ” she told me.

However, things don’t exactly pan out the way we imagine

When Renuka got to New Zealand, she found it hard to find a job that fit her position. For the next few month, she bounced between temporary jobs and at least at the time, my job was the one that paid the bills—and the mortgage. Barely three months after we entered the country, we bought ourselves a house and had a mortgage of $200k.

The week after we bought the house, I was made redundant.
The fat, it seems, was in the proverbial fire.

What I experienced was a no-choice situation

It wasn’t entirely no-choice. I could have clambered back into the job market and got myself another job. After all, I was pretty good at Photoshop, illustration and had a decent track record in copywriting. Instead, I decided to say goodbye to the workplace once and for all.

Put yourself in my shoes for a second: new country, we had no family in New Zealand, Renuka had only temporary jobs (that she hated just as much). Plus there was that small matter of a $200,000 mortgage.

A no-choice situation doesn’t give you time to be fearful

All of the fear comes from waiting. While you’re waiting to quit your job, a thousand thoughts go through your head. You wonder if you’re making the right decision. You worry about your future and the future of your family. And you look for a bit of a safety net online.

This morning as I wrestled with the Yosemite vs. El Capitan operating system, I went through a similar tug of war. I looked for a safety net as I have for the past year or so. I read through the reviews. And there were over 5000 reviews, some new some old.

Some saying the upgrade was a breeze, others claiming it was an absolute nightmare. All of this build up fear and frustration. You’re put in a position where you don’t really know what to do or whom to trust.

And yet the outcome has already been decided well in advance

The reason you’re reading this article is because you too want to escape from that cubicle but you don’t know how. And no one can answer the question for you. No one can tell you the right time to quit. To find out if it’s going to work, you have to force a redundancy.

Bass guitarist, Paul Wolfe had a real problem back in 2008 or so

Paul was a bass player in a band that played at weddings and functions. While the going was good, the band was kept busy and profitable. Then along came the recession of the 2000s. Paul talks about a situation where the floor seemed to disappear under his feet.

Soon gig after gig began to dry up. Paul was in a state of limbo, unsure what to do next. Unlike my situation where I was in a job one day and out on the street the next, Paul’s situation dragged out for months. However, faced with no option and rising debt, he decided to teach what he knew.

And what did he know?

He knew how to play bass guitar. Paul then set about creating a simple site which talked about how to play bass guitar. Then he started buying some rudimentary equipment to record videos. Posting video after video online, he created a sort of catchment area.

Aspiring bass guitarists would see his videos, and Paul used a bit of his marketing knowledge to drive them to his website and list. Today, Paul Wolfe does just fine with his guitar site. He’s into writing fiction novels on the side, bikes to work and lives a life that’s different from the one he once knew.


Part 2: Having a no-choice situation is probably the only way to deal with fear

You have to take the plunge, and so you do. The longer you wait, the more fear keeps you paralysed. When a Psychotactics subscriber, Kai Huang, asked me to write about “how to make the leap” this was one of the first questions: how do you deal with the fear? And the answer is, you can’t.

Once I was made redundant, I enjoyed the quiet for a few days and then I started knocking on doors. I went back to what I knew best and decided to sell my cartoons to advertising agencies, magazines, and newspapers. I was lucky that the Internet was still an unviable place back then.

I was lucky that e-books and fancy software were still to take off. If that were the case, I might have built a website and sat around and waited for a stream of clients to come through the door.

But I didn’t have that luxury

And so I decided to go out and do what freelancers do to this day: they go out and meet clients. They get freelance assignments. They spend time working on those assignments and get paid. If you sit around hoping that something magical will happen, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be back in your cubicle faster than you think.

If that so-called guru is exploiting your fear and telling you that his program will certainly get you to sell thousands of books, then you’re buying into the wrong idea. And it’s the wrong idea because the failure rate is extremely high. You can’t just waltz into a business and expect everyone to pay attention.

I got work freelancing, I taught some people how to use Photoshop, and then slowly but surely I had my first presentation. That presentation was a disaster, and the fear came rushing back.

But with some practice that fear went away. I spoke at tiny events like at a Rotary club. And with every outing, I tried to sell the spindly version of The Brain Audit (back then it was just 20 pages). And the fear diminished.

In 2001, a year after we moved to Auckland, Renuka quit her job

She had a high paying job at the giant beauty and cosmetic giant, L’Oreal. She had a two-hour daily commute; a rancid workplace atmosphere and a boss that took credit for everything. If you’ve met Renuka you know she’s a happy, jumpy person with a mischievous smile on her face. Some days she’d come home with tears in her eyes.

Then one day, she had enough

She just quit. We were still saddled with our mortgage. With all the freelancing it wasn’t like I was earning a lot. But we decided we couldn’t deal with the jobs. We needed to cover our bills, and that’s what we’d do. We cut back on our spending (just $150 for entertainment per month), and we did what we needed to keep ourselves happy.

And yet, Renuka wasn’t quite done with her career.

Even back then we’d go for a walk every day. And every day it seemed like I asked her the same question: “What will you do if something happens to me?” I’d ask. And her response was the same every time. “I’ll just get a job.”

This is 2016.
That was 2001.

We were more scared when we had the jobs than when we had no safety net at all

I’m not saying your story will turn out like ours. I’m just saying that the fear is greatest where you are right now—in that job. That once you get out of that job you’ll have to do something. It won’t be easy, and it may take a year, and definitely more. But the fear, that will be gone.

Gone forever.

That brings us to the end of the first factor: Dealing with fear. But let’s say we make the leap. How do we then maintain a sense of vision and focus? Let’s get started with vision because that’s probably the one thing that will keep you going when things get tough.

Keeping the Vision

Let me give you the short version of my vision.
You probably know this, but back in 2000, my website had the embarrassing name of “million bucks.”

That, in short, was my vision.

And yet that wasn’t my vision at all

Back in India, when I got my first job at Chaitra Leo Burnett, I had a very kind and protective boss: Tannaz Kalyaniwalla. All around me, there were creative people whose company I enjoyed.

And yet, despite the generosity and warmth of the people around me, I yearned to be free to do what I liked, when I wanted to do it. Which meant that if it were a rainy day and I wanted to stay at home and do nothing, that’s exactly what I could do. If I asked for leave, my boss never said no, but I didn’t like the thought of asking.

My earliest vision was to simply be free to do whatever I pleased.

This vision clashes strongly with reality

In the first few years, I could do whatever I pleased, but I had to pay the price for goofing off. I had to make sure I met with potential ad agencies and editors (when I was a cartoonist). When I moved over to marketing, it was all about getting in touch with potential clients and some incredibly mindless meetings.

Meetings where you spent three hours debating whether the logo should go ⅛th of an inch to the left or right. Add early morning drives to make presentations and the endless needing to learn new skills and the vision seems to be nowhere in sight.

Vision starts off being a tiny spark of an idea

In 2004, we’d only been selling The Brain Audit online for little over a year. We’d done two workshops for companies, and one workshop of our own. The few people we had on our e-mail list weren’t always enough, and we reached out to networking groups and friends of friends.

Even so, there was no reason to be optimistic because we were still working quite a lot. We worked all week and then on weekends too. Getting a business off the ground seemed to quite rough, and it’s not like we had a lot of expenses.

We were operating from a spare bedroom

We didn’t even have a computer of our own. Renuka would sit at the computer for an hour; then it would be my turn. And then an hour later, it was her turn again. We didn’t go around buying fancy equipment; even the books we read were all from the library (and we read hundreds of them).

The vision was shriveling. In that year alone we seemed to be moving away from the reason why we started the business. We started it to get more free time, not to double our income or get a squillion clients.

Which is why 2004 became our benchmark year

We were going to do something incredibly crazy: we were going to take three months off—just like that! Your vision may not be to take three months off. It may be to buy that mansion on the hill and take over half the countryside.

You may revel in the fact that you have 100,000 people on your list. We didn’t care much for all those trappings. For us, the vision of the three-month vacation embodied who were—and who we are.

When we take three months off, we have to make the other nine months really count

As a result, we got more efficient. It might seem like it’s easy to just scoot off on vacation, but like any project, it takes a lot of planning. And then when you get back, you need another plan, because you’re so relaxed that you don’t feel like working for quite a while.

I’d like to say it was all in place right at the start—this vision of the three-month vacation. But it wasn’t. And we still keep tweaking the way we work and we take our vacations.

Most businesses lose sight of their tuna sandwich

You’ve probably read or heard about this tuna sandwich episode because it was covered in articles and podcasts before. There’s this story in the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes.
And how Calvin is drawing up his list for Santa Claus. At which point, Calvin turns to Hobbes and says: What would you like for Christmas?

And Hobbes says: I’d like a tuna sandwich. Calvin thinks Hobbes is crazy because Calvin has a list that seems to have rocket launchers, trains, boats, and a whole bunch of stuff he wants for Christmas. And all Hobbes wants is a tuna sandwich.

As is inevitable, Christmas morn arrives

And Calvin is now throwing a massive tantrum because Santa hasn’t brought him all he wanted. And Hobbes sits with a big smile on his face and says: “I got my tuna sandwich.”
The tuna sandwich of your life can be incredibly simple. Hold on to that vision. Never let it go.

We too have our tuna sandwich

But there’s no telling when the winds change. In 2005, Renuka had an accident in the garden that required hospitalisation and three months off work. In 2009, we took on a personal project to help a family member. That made a big dent in the way we did things. And I think about the tuna sandwich every single day, even after all these years.

I’m super-generous with my time and advice (I know that), but I also need that down time to recuperate, to learn or just to enjoy a rainy day (and yes, we both love rainy days. Sunny days can be kind of boring).

Vision is hard to hold on to when you’re making the leap.

It sounds insane to do what you set out to do when there’s so much other stuff to be done.

But we kept the vision simple and worked around it.

You know the funny part about that million bucks?

Today we could stop working, and we could live the life of The Three Month Vacation for the next thirty years or more. We ditched the million bucks idea, and it came right after us.

Instead, we focused on what was important, our work, our clients and our break time. And in doing so, we continue to create the products we want, go to places we want, do the things we want. The vision, if you keep it strong, will breakthrough at some point in time. It had taken almost four-five years before we felt comfortable regarding revenue and clientele.

Even then there were some ups and downs. But the vision was always robust and straightforward. Keep it simple so that you can focus on it every single day. So that you know exactly what your tuna sandwich is all about.

Which takes us to our third question—our third point: why focus is going to need a hatchet person.

Part 3: The Hatchet Person (And Why It Helps Focus)

When you’re making a leap into the unknown, fear is the biggest factor.
Fear of making enough.
Fear of justifying the decision you’ve just made.
Fear of not knowing enough—of wanting to learn more.
It makes you eager to press every “buy now” button online, just so that fear can go away.
But fear is only one part of the leap. The other is focus.

And focus to me, is less about persistence and more about “getting rid of the distractions”

Which takes me to my first mentor Dough Hitchcock—also my first hatchet person

I didn’t know much about marketing, and at the time, Jay Abraham was easily one of the most well-respected marketers on the planet. There were other marketers, no doubt, but Jay seemed to be more eager to teach; to give.

Among those hundreds of books I borrowed from the library, there was one by Jay Abraham. That led to me getting on his list, and buying a book—a big, thick, blue book—that cost $300. We knew so little that the first thirty pages of that book took us months to implement. But now we were well and truly on Jay Abraham’s list. I wanted everything he put out, so imagine the day I got this long sales letter (and yes, sales letters came in the mail back in 2003).

He was having a seminar and to get a seat I needed to pay $5000

I should have been horrified. I lived in New Zealand. I was paying off this huge mortgage. $5000 in US dollars was approximately $11,000 NZ dollars back then. Plus there would be airfares, accommodation, transport and food costs involved. Yet I was happy to go and I excitedly told Doug Hitchcock about it.

You know what happened next, right?

Doug brought down his hatchet. He forbade me (as kindly as he could) from embarking on such a silly adventure. “What are you going to learn that’s worth $10k-15k?” he said. In effect he wasn’t stopping me from learning or buying into products, but he was certainly helping me focus. And being a hatchet person is not just restricted to money—which is the biggest struggle at the start—but also to other aspects.

Most entrepreneurs tend to be restless

They want to do it all. And I wanted to learn everything, do everything and promise everything. And that’s where my wife, Renuka, took over where Doug left off. To this day, I’m the one who conjures up dozens of possible products, workshops etc. and she gently cancels it off the list.

t doesn’t mean we don’t push ourselves. We take the weekends off, take our breaks and our vacations, but when we’re at work we still put in a decently long day. I am so happy for those who say they spend just 15 minutes in the office, but I know that to create great work you have to labour over it and make it better all the time. And yet, this restless nature you need to have a hatchet person.

Someone in your networking group could help

Maybe a friend who you could meet. It could be a coach, but it doesn’t need to be a coach. In 5000bc itself we have a taking action forum and people post their three goals (yes, only three) and they work through it bit by bit. You’ll find that if you ask for help, you’ll get it, but expecting to figure out everything yourself is the hardest task of all.

Your hatchet person has to have a single role

To get you to cut the stuff that you don’t need, so you can focus on what you have to do. And trying to find a mentor like Doug, is a laudable task, but it’s often not necessary. Clients often mention that it would be wonderful to have a “Renuka” around, but when they say that, they’re missing the point.

The point is that you live in a world where you may not have Doug or Renuka

And that you still have to make the leap and keep the forward movement. You can’t hope and wish. You have to find someone who’s good at getting you to stick to the three things you need to do. Once you get that momentum, you can add more, as long as you’re only ever working on three things at any given time. And should we forget, it’s the job of that hatchet person to bring us back on track. Focus is about elimination—that’s it.

Most people are too scared to make the leap and rightly so

I was afraid to go through putting El Capitan—the new operating software—on my computer. And guess what? There was this nervous wait and then it turned out to be almost fine. One of my programs wouldn’t work but it could be easily replaced. And that’s what you’re going to find as well.

Despite this leap into the crazy world of entrepreneurship, you’ll find that some “programs” may not work. But you’ll manage and then start to prosper. Most of all, you’ll never want to go back to a job ever again.

However, let’s see what we’ve learned because these three points are important.


1) The leap into the unknown is always scary

If it’s any consolation, I made it extremely hard for myself. I moved countries, changed into a career where I had almost no experience and then added the burden of a mortgage on top it all. You may find that you don’t want to do something so crazy. And so you give yourself a deadline and put away some money so you can last six months to a year.

Or fate may step in and throw you in the deep end like it did with Paul Wolfe—and with me when I was made redundant. However, one thing is clear. The fear is greater when you’re waiting than when you’re in the thick of things. When you’re in the thick of the action, you have to start executing and changing strategy to keep above water.

Start with consulting but then also do a bit of training and leverage. Please don’t buy into this idea that you can simply buy a program and you will have endless clients and income. And if you make the mistake of buying into it, it’s a lesson well learned. Move on and go out there in the real world and meet clients. The internet is fine too, but it’s not the only source of work.

2) Your vision will be pretty clear at the start and then greed may set in

You can’t help it. You read how some guy is making millions and you want to do the same. Or you may start to work endlessly and the things you set out to do, like spend time with the family, or just have some downtime—all that will get lost in the pressure to get your work done. This battle with work never stops and you have pull out your vision from the rubble and put it up on the wall yet again.

Keep the vision simple. My personal vision is The Three Month Vacation. My work vision is to care, guide and protect my clients. I may go off the road when life brings on its challenges, but the simplicity of the vision brings me right back to where I need to be.

3) Finally get a hatchet person

All this talk about focus seems more about keeping your head on the task. But how can you do that if you keep scampering off in every direction? This is where a hatchet person comes into play. You don’t need a fancy coach. You don’t have to find the perfect mentor.

All you need to do is find a friend in your networking group (someone you can meet once a week) or someone in an online group (like 5000bc). And that’s all you really need. You want to focus on three things and the job of the hatchet person is to ask awkward questions, and to cut down that scampering.

In India I grew up listening to a fable: called the Monkey’s Curse

To catch a monkey, a trapper would put lots of warm, fragrant rice in an earthen pot. The mouth of the pot was small enough for the monkey to slip an open palm, but the moment he clutched the rice, he couldn’t free himself. To be free he needed to let go. But the monkey was desperate for the rice and stayed long enough for the trapper to throw a net. And then the monkey was trapped for life.

We had to battle the Monkey’s Curse many times. We wanted to hold onto what was safe, what we knew. It was no fun stepping into the unknown. I can’t speak for you, but I know that if I could go back in time, I would still be afraid.

Then, I’d jump.

Next Step:

1) Have a look at The Brain Audit to start your journey:

2) Join us at 5000bc and make the leap from a job to starting your own business.



Direct download: Episode_110_How_To_Make_The_Leap_From_a_Job_to_Business.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:07am FJT

So Kathy Sierra and her husband have a bestseller on their hands but we've only seen two of the ideas being explained. What is the third, if slightly confusing idea? Here's Part 2.

When Kathy Sierra sat down to write her book on JAVA, it wasn’t supposed to be a bestseller.

They had incredible odds with over 16,000 other books on JAVA already on Amazon. And yet they cut through the noise? How did they do it?

They didn’t pull the stunt that most Internet marketers do. Instead they focused on how people read and why they get to the finish line. The more the readers got to the end of the book, the more popular the book became in programming circles.


To find out about their open secret, let’s take a trip into Kathy Sierra land.

Part 1: Dependence on memory
Part 2: Not Identifying Confusion
Part 3: The Perfect Life


It was the around the year 2000

Technology companies that just months prior were considered extremely, reported huge losses and folded. These losses created a economic cascade which came to be known as the dotcom crash. Stuck in the middle of this seemingly thermonuclear disaster were thousands of programmers.

One of them was a woman called Kathy Sierra.

If you’ve ever dipped your toes into the programming language, JAVA, you’re likely to have heard of Kathy Sierra

Her book series “Headfirst Java” has sold well over a million copies. If you look back at the past ten years or more, there’s Sierra’s book—one of the longest running bestsellers of the decade.

Yet, Sierra isn’t like one of those in-your-face Internet marketers. Her blog is untended. She jumped off social media back in 2007 and only reluctantly got back online in 2013. She speaks at conferences, but it’s a rare treat.

But back to Sierra’s disaster story

According to Sierra, back in the late nineties and in the year 2000, anyone landing a job in a dotcom company could get stock options. And then along came the implosion of the dotcoms, and her shares were worth nothing. And this is what Sierra says: “Anyway, I needed a job. I am probably as old as most of your parents.

If you are trying to get a job as a programmer when you are competing against people who are half your age — and granted, I was not the most awesome programmer. I was very decent. And we needed regular income. I said we because, my husband, also a programmer, also the same age, same problem. And we had two kids and a dog.”

In short, Kathy Sierra was seemingly at a dead end when she wrote her first book, “Headfirst Java”.

Yet, Sierra believes in the concept of consumption. Consumption is when you create a product or service that’s so easy to understand and use, that progress is inevitable. Instead of floundering and flipping back to Page 3 or 6 or having to refer back, the reader is able to move forward confidently.

Today we’re going to dig deep into that concept of consumption from a Sierra-point-of-view

If you’ve followed Psychotactics, you’ll probably be more than aware that consumption has been a driving force of our business since 2006, possibly even earlier. However, I really like Kathy’s work. I really like her passion. I even like the name “a brain-friendly guide”—that’s the title on all her books.

And though I won’t ever bother with Java, there are three concepts of Sierra’s consumption model I’d like to share with you.

Ready? Well, here goes: Why do people/readers get stuck?

Factor 1: Dependence on memory
Factor 2: Not Identifying Confusion
Factor 3: The Perfect Life.

Let’s get cracking with the first element: dependence on memory.

Factor 1: Dependence on Memory

In a BBC documentary, Michel Thomas, master language teacher, looks around a classroom filled with desks. The sunlight is streaming through the windows, but Thomas’ face is slightly grim, as if he’s reaching for a painful memory.

“This reminds me of my own classrooms”, he says. “As a child, as a youngster in high school. And it was (education) always under stress. One had to associate learning with work, with concentration, with paying attention, with homework. Work, it’s all work. But learning shouldn’t be work. It should be excitement.

It should be pleasure. And one should experience a constant sense of progression with learning. That is learning to me. A teacher is someone who will facilitate and show how to learn.”

Thomas’ classroom looks very different from the traditional classroom

The desks are gone. The students help cart in their own furniture, mostly sofas. Plants show up, so does a carpet and the scene resembles a cozy version of your living room than a classroom.

Yet what Michel Thomas says at the start of every learning session is far more important

This is what he says: I’m going to set up a very important rule, a very important ground rule, and that rule is for you never to worry about remembering. Never to worry about remembering anything and therefore not to try.

Never “try to remember anything from one moment to the next. This is a method with the responsibility for your remembering and for learning is in the teaching. So if at any point there’s something you don’t remember, this is not your problem. It will be up to me to know why you don’t remember, individually, and what to do about it.”

Kathy Sierra calls this phenomenon “the Page Vaporiser” moment

So what is the Page Vaporiser moment? Sierra describes it this way: “Imagine that you’ve written a book, and when the user turns the page, the previous page vaporises. There is no going back.

No one can ever turn back. It’s not even an option. What would you do differently to make this work for them? If you knew they couldn’t go back? Or if it was a  video, they can’t—there is no rewind. It’s just one time. It’s like they’re sitting in a theatre, watching a movie. What would you do?

Michel Thomas died in 2005, but the message lingers on: Never “try to remember anything from one moment to the next. That’s almost exactly what Kathy Sierra is saying. That the dependence on memory is a problem. It means that you as a teacher, writer, video creator—you’ve not done your job as well as you should.

Kathy Sierra and her husband weren’t writers

They just loved Java so intimately. It was the one thing they adored and so they decided to write about it. They didn’t know squat about writing or publishing. They even ran headlong into a mountain of rejection slips until finally the publisher, O’Reilly decided to give them a chance.

But the real magic, or madness, is that they needed the money desperately. With both of them out of a job, they needed to get their revenue from the book sales alone.

When Sierra and her husband, sat down and expressed their source of income, they got a hearty laugh in return.

Their editor said: You’re going to have to be in the top two or three selling books for this programming language. So they look up Amazon and there are not 500, or a thousand results. There aren’t even 10,000.

There are a whopping 27,078 results. They decide to filter the search string to two words, “Java Programming”. And there are still 16,348 results.

“Nobody knew us. We weren’t writers. We had no marketing budget. And the whole Internet said it was just mostly luck.”

But Kathy and her husband knew that the book needed to work. They had kids. There was the dog and being middle-aged meant their prospects of work were terribly bleak. They started out the process by looking at the competition and it staggered them how many books were just fabulous.

They couldn’t beat over 16,000 books by making their book slightly better. So they went for a goal that most books—and I mean any books, not just Java Programming books—miss to this day. They set out to write a book where the page would vaporise the moment after you read it.

The problem was that most people weren’t finishing the books

“They were getting stuck. And everyone accepted that,” says Sierra. Nobody reads programming books all the way through. We thought… How can they actually possibly learn if they don’t keep reading it? It doesn’t matter how great the book is. We realised that a lot of these things don’t really matter if people don’t keep going.

So now we knew what it was that we’d have to do. We could compete on forward flow. Just getting people to keep going.”

Michel Thomas started training language students in a manner that requires no memorisation.

Kathy Sierra’s book—same thing. No need to memorise anything. It’s all forward movement. Of course if you’ve been following Psychotactics for a while, you’ll know how this forward movement works. All of the memorisation problems arise because of intimidation. If I ask you to go down to the store and buy me a bottle of full fat milk, you don’t have much to remember do you? There’s zero intimidation involved. But imagine you’re in a foreign country.

Now you have the burden of having to figure out the location of the store and trying to say full fat in German, or Italian or Hindi for that matter.

The moment you break down things into small bits, your client moves forward instead of being frozen on the previous page

When you look at why you seem to fly through reading The Brain Audit, you can see how the seven red bags create an analogy. Do you have to remember the analogy? No you don’t. But what about the red bags? As you progress through the book, every bag is not only explained in detail but every so often there are graphics and reminders of what you’ve learned.

Not only what you’ve learned but what you’re about to learn

The reason why you find Psychotactics books so easy to read is not because of some great or amazing writing. It’s because of the structure of the book; the way the cartoons remind you about what you’ve learned; the way the summary helps you remember; the way the graphics stick around, not just for decoration but with a perfectly good reason in mind.

That reason is the lack of dependence on memory

It’s not like we haven’t created bad products or training before. We have. When I first started out at Psychotactics, I remember giving a workshop in Auckland. The workshop was two days long, and had a barrage of information. One person literally fell asleep after lunch. And yet I ploughed on with the training. I felt it was my job to keep the workshop going until the very last minute. I felt that books needed to be 200 pages long.

And now I know better

The goal is not information. It’s skill. If you, as the client read Kathy Sierra’s books and don’t learn how to program in Java, she’s failed in her job. If you take on French or Italian or German and Michel Thomas doesn’t make you feel like a native speaker, he’s failed.

I started out with books that were 200 pages long. And sometimes the book needs that much depth and sometimes it doesn’t. The uniqueness course notes were a little over 90 pages (I think). And the Storytelling course notes were a lot less than that.

“We found people were going backwards” says Kathy Sierra. “And they were getting confused. And that takes us to our second point. What causes the confusion? Let’s find out.


Factor 2: Not Identifying Confusion

The moment you bring up the term, “Bermuda Triangle”, many of us think of the word “disappear”.

There’s a reason for why we associate disappearance with the Bermuda Triangle. Back in 1964, writer Vincent Gaddis wrote in the pulp magazine Argosy of the boundaries of the Bermuda Triangle: three vertices, in Miami, Florida peninsula, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and in the mid-Atlantic island of Bermuda. And it was in this “triangle” that planes and ships seemed to mysteriously disappear.

Imagine you’re a captain out at sea in the mid-Atlantic

You probably don’t believe a word about the Bermuda Triangle. You know it’s a myth. There’s no basis for ships or planes disappearing. Yet you know that should your vessel disappear, this would be the place where the crazy stuff happens. You know you’re in crazy waters and you’re expecting the worst and preparing for the best.

Kathy Sierra recognised the Bermuda Triangle of Java Programming

She knew that to-be programmers were getting hopelessly lost at certain points in time. The reason why they lost their way was because they didn’t know they were in rough seas. As you go through a book, for instance, you move ahead progressively. Then suddenly you find yourself struggling. And the way we work through the struggle is to try and barrel our way through the problem. But then the confusion persists and it’s at this point that we just give up.

When we conduct the Article Writing Course, there’s one point where everyone struggles

It’s called the First Fifty Words. The First Fifty Words are the opening portion of your article. We all know how hard it is to get started on an article, but even so, when you’re on a course, you expect that the guidance will keep you going. You’ve read the notes; listened to the audio; gone over the assignment. And the assignment isn’t just a hit and run. The assignment stretches over a whole week. Surely, that’s enough to understand and implement the lesson.

But it’s not. It’s rough work

And as a teacher, I should have realised it earlier. But until 2015, a whole nine years after I first offered the Article Writing Course, I didn’t have the insight to spot the problem. Only in 2015, did I allocate two whole weeks to the First Fifty Words. Only in 2016 did the First Fifty Words section move earlier in the course, instead of later. It was the roughest, toughest patch of ocean and I didn’t tell clients it was difficult.

And when I mean “tell”, I mean I did tell them. But it’s not enough to tell. You have to make changes so that the client doesn’t give up.

A book is different from a course

A book doesn’t have a teacher hovering around your assignment. You’re out on your own and you don’t realise that everyone is struggling at Page 45. You think it’s just you. And if you knew well in advance that Page 45-85 was going to be a Bermuda Triangle, you’d be more watchful, but you’d also know you’d finally be out of the Triangle. And that would give you the impetus to battle through.

This point—this one point—it’s a real pain for me as a teacher

As a teacher, a trainer, a writer—it’s like a big slap in the face. I know there are points in every course where you run into difficulty. Well, sometimes you know and sometimes you realise it when you see clients struggling. And yet, you’re not sure what to do. If you were to tell the client that they’re approaching a difficult patch, would it make things a lot harder? Or do you let them sail right into that stretch and get hammered?

And today I tend to agree with Kathy Sierra

I tell clients: this First Fifty Words stuff, it’s hard. It’s going to make you feel like you can never get to the other side. And yet it’s not you. You’re not the one that’s the problem. The problem is the problem. Of course, the way to get through a difficult learning is to make sure that you break things down into smaller bits. Like my badminton coach did when I was playing badminton back in 2008.

I struggled with overhead shots

The moment the opponent would hit the shuttlecock high in the air, there was a good chance I’d lose the point. Either I’d find the shot to hard to take, or my return was so poor that the opponent would smash it back onto my side of the court. What I didn’t know was that many rookie players struggle with the overhead shot. My coach told me so and proceeded to break up the shot into four stages.

Stage 1: Sight the shuttle and get under it.
Stage 2: Raise left hand up and grip the racquet a bit harder.
Stage 3: Step forward just a little bit, as if to smash (this puts your opponent on the defence).
Stage 4: Smash or just do a tiny drop shot (the opponent would be too far back to get to the drop shot).

In my estimate, we did this routine about 800 times

Not all at once, of course. We’d do it for a while, go back to playing a bit and then it was back to the four stages. At first I was completely foxed with all the four stages, but he’d always get me to do one thing at a time. To make sure I wasn’t distracted by the entire routine, he’d get me to hit an imaginary shuttlecock, over and over again. What you’re noticing here is what Kathy Sierra seems to emphasise upon.

You have to tell the client that what they’re about to embark upon is difficult.
You have to break it up into smaller bits, so that the client can manage the routine.

This step of identifying the confusion doesn’t make the learning easier. But the client knows the stage is temporary, and typical. And that struggling is appropriate. And it’s not just you, but everyone who struggles.

Confusion is part of the learning process

Kathy Sierra’s book started out as a rank outsider, then moved to a million copies. Today it’s closing in on two million copies. In the last decade she’s written just one other book—that’s it. That first book alone has helped her live the life she wants, with her kids and dog and from what I hear, horses.

Telling the client that they’re facing a potential Bermuda Triangle seems to be, um, so tiny.

It seems almost insignificant. And yet it’s what we all want, right? That’s the second point that Kathy Sierra figured in her journey to write a book that beat all those 16,000 books on Amazon.  Sure we dealt with the Page Vaporiser and making things so simple that the client doesn’t have to remember. And that when things get difficult we need to tell them and use isolation to break down the steps.

But it doesn’t stop there.

There’s a third point and it’s called “the rest of their life”.
What does that mean?

Factor 3: The Rest of Their Life

When I bought my fully electric car, the BMW i3, I was excited beyond words.

I’ll tell you why.

The car I drove before the i3 was a Toyota Corolla. Dark blue; never given us a day of trouble in close to ten years, but yes a Corolla. A Corolla with a CD player, no fancy bits and pieces and yes, not even a USB. Which is why I felt like Neil Armstrong going to the moon when I first got into the i3. All these whiz bang buttons, automated parking, and yes, the USB—and bluetooth.

Then my head went for a swim. Overwhelm filled my brain. And I had to read the manual.

This is precisely what Kathy Sierra has been railing against in the past 10 years or so

When you buy a camera, you get all these glossy representations of what the camera can do. Then you pick up that big juicy DSLR camera and you’re stuck in auto mode. So why won’t you go from auto mode to taking pictures like all those great photographers.

It’s because of the camera makers and car makers —and we the book writers and course creators. We pretend that the rest of our clients life doesn’t exist. We somehow expect that a client will buy our book, and that the dishes will get washed. While the client reads our book, the plants will get watered and a perfect three-course meal will be set so we can pick at our food—while reading that book.

We create products and services for unreal people

Instead of seeing them as a readers, we need to see our clients as users. When I buy a car, I need to use it, not read a manual. When I bought your amazing camera, I was already in auto mode, I didn’t need a fancy DSLR auto mode. I need to be thought of as a user, not a buyer, not a client, not a reader. I need to be able to use what I just bought.

But no, we run into stupid manuals (and I can assure you the BMW manual is a real downer)

So then we turn to the Internet. To access the fun features of my car on an app, I had to find the VIN number. That’s the Vehicle Identification Number (no I didn’t know what it meant). So I did a search on Google and guess what? I ran into a bunch of forums.

And I don’t know about you, but there are some real creeps on forums. A newbie like me was asking where to find the VIN number on the car. And these guys on the forums were mocking him. No one seemed to want to answer the question. They simply said, “it’s everywhere”.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my i3

I found how to use it with an amazing video on Youtube (made by BMW themselves). But I wish they’d have treated me more like a user than a buyer. And this is what you’ve got to realise when you create a product or service; a book or course; and yes, even a presentation or webinar.

I should be able to use your advice right after I experience your product or service. I don’t have time to go through yet another manual, because the garbage has to be taken out and dishes are waiting to be washed.

Kathy Sierra goes on and on about this user experience

So does Michel Thomas.

And this idea of “the responsibility of the learning” is important. It lies with the teacher, not the student. When they buy your book or do your course and they can’t get to the end, it’s because they have a life and you didn’t consider that life. You just created something that suits your needs and ego. When you consider that the clients have a life beyond your product, you design it differently.

You stop writing your books like they were a manual

You start writing it as you were talking to a friend at a cafe.

Of all the three points, Kathy Sierra covers, this one, about the “rest of their lives” is the most conceptual. It seems almost like it needs more breathing space and growing space. But there’s a germ of an idea which is why it’s here in this article. The idea that if your product isn’t sort of self-explanatory, then the rest of my life takes over. And I, as the buyer of your product, don’t get to enjoy it as much as I should or could.

Considering that users have a life makes you a more compassionate creator of products; courses; webinars and presentations. That you somehow need to write or create things in a way that bestow a superpower—just one superpower if needed—so that the client can use that power to get another power and another power. And this is despite life sneaking in.

Yes, this last point is a bit shaky. But it’s something we need to think about, because even if we were to ignore this last point, the entire message is strong. So let’s review what we’ve just learned, shall we?


Factor 1: Get yourself a page vaporiser.
Can I remember what you just said? If I have to go back several times, your message was probably too complex. To sort out the problem of memory, you can use graphics, cartoons, captions, and yes, a summary like this one.

Factor 2: The second point is remarkably simple: Tell the clients when they’re headed to dangerous waters.
Clients feel like they’re the only ones who are not getting it, when in fact everyone doesn’t get it. If something is difficult, tell them it’s difficult. Like for instance this last point about “having a life”, yes, the third point. I get the point conceptually, but it’s hard to understand what to do. So I have to let you know that it’s a difficult point and that it’s not just you.

Factor 3: Of course we get to the last point: the one I had the most trouble with. The distinction is between a user and client. Your client needs to be seen as a user so they can use that camera, use that software and not have to wade through a manual. They have a life and if your product or service is not easy, that life takes over.

Of all the three points above, there’s one point you can use right away: Telling your client when things are going to be difficult and then telling them when the all clear has been sounded. That is the simplest, most effective thing you can do today.


The responsibility for the learning lies with the teacher.
If you don’t understand something, it’s not your fault. It’s mine.

So said Michel Thomas.

As a parent, trainer, presenter, coach or writer, it’s easy to blame the student. Michel Thomas would disagree. I’d recommend you watch some of the videos on YouTube by Michel Thomas and also read Kathy Sierra’s non-Java book called “Badass: Making Users Awesome”.

Next Up: How We Sold $20,000 On Stage (In Under An Hour)