Are you tired of the same old self-help advice that doesn’t work? Well, so was David Levin (@fromdavidlevin), author of Raise Your Inner Game. In this episode, he talks about the three skills you really need in order to thrive in today’s distracting fast paced world.
By the end of this episode, you’ll know how to better control your negative thoughts and emotions. How to shout out distractions and stay focused and how to strengthen your willpower and self-control.
If you’re driven to be your best and to make a difference in the world or you just want to feel happier and more fulfilled. This episode is for you.
David Levin: It was like 1992, and I was just really struggling. I mean, it didn’t necessarily look like I was struggling. I’ve always been sort of an upbeat, optimistic sort of—my vibe comes off that way. My future wife, Margaret, and I had been together a couple of years. We had our first little house, I had a little studio in the basement.
It just looked like things were moving forward nicely.
But inside, it really felt like things were falling apart. I’d been a professional touring musician for 10, 15 years before that, but that had stopped. I was off the road and I was really sort of lost and drifting.
I had no idea. I was really losing my identity around that. I was spending money I didn’t have piling up debt. I just really felt like things were slipping out of control, and I had no idea how to do anything about it.
One day, this is a funny little story, I was just walking through our house in the middle of the day and I suddenly had the urge to weigh myself.
I was like, “I wonder what I weigh right now?” Which doesn’t sound that odd necessarily. I was on a diet at the time so I was thinking about my weight.
Here’s the thing, I had already weighed myself that morning and the night before and the morning before that. I really didn’t need to weigh myself right then, especially in the middle of the day. In fact, it was sort of ridiculous to want to weigh myself in the middle of the day, but the pull to do it was really strong and sort of urgent.
It Doesn’t Happen Overnight
David Levin: There was just something about that, sort of clicked me up into a meta level.
Just like, “What’s going on? Where is this pull coming from?” All of a sudden, I saw something I hadn’t really noticed before. It was like that scene in The Wizard of Oz. where Toto pulls back the curtain and you see the guy there pushing the button and pulling the levers, you know, the man behind the curtain.
It was absolutely clear to me in that moment that there was something else inside me. It actually felt like another person, and that this pull was coming from them.
“Seeing that just changed everything.”
It didn’t happen overnight. I mean, it took a while and years really in some areas to just to fully understand and implement some of the things and the implications of that. That moment is where the pivot started.
Looking back, I can honestly say everything I’m proud of in my life happened since then. At that time, in that struggle, I was just tense and testy and fearful and sort of desperate and depressed but keeping it to myself.
Slowly, it turned and turned until those feelings, I hardly even recognized them anymore. It’s kind of hard to articulate this, but that observation that there as some other thing in there. Again, at the time I thought of it was a person. I
For example, in this moment, I used to think the problem was my desire to weigh myself. I was like, “Crap, I’m getting this weird obsession, I better work on that.”
Then I would work on that and then something else would come up. When I finally clicked that the problem wasn’t the thing I was obsessing about but it was the guy pulling the levers. Now, I started to put my attention there and started to get control over myself and feel like I had some self-control.
I could make plans and I could set out to do this or that and I could do it and I could stick to it and follow through. That’s what started to really lay the ground and refer everything that came afterwards.
The Man Behind the Curtain
Charlie Hoehn: What would you say the guy pulling the levers actually was? Was it your ego? Was it insecurities? What would you say?
David Levin: Well, here’s the thing. I had to dig in to the book a little bit to explain this, but the basic premise of the book is it’s sort of an observation that there are kind of two versions of ourselves. One you can just think of as your best version in the framework of the book, I call this level four. Your level four self.
That’s an experience, it’s not something we have to create or aspire to, it’s a real common experience that we all have. It’s when you’re doing something really fast paced or fun. Like water skiing or ping pong or something or maybe you’re out in nature or maybe you’re with young kids or listening to some music.
We all have this kind of experience where we just feel we’re at our absolute best, energized and alive and vibrant. We feel great about ourselves. It’s just the best kind of place.
“That’s us at our best.”
Then, the second observation is that we’re usually not there and then the third related one is, we’re not really in control of when we’re there or not, it’s just sort of a mystery.
Sometimes it happens and we don’t really know how to get back. We’d love to because it felt so great, but other than just you know, going skiing again, there’s nothing we could think of to do about it.
The idea of the book of Raise Your Inner Game is that you can actually learn to do that.
You can learn to get control of that process and intentionally lift yourself up to being that best version of yourself, pretty much whenever you want or need and no matter what’s happening in your life.
Three Core Skills
David Levin: There are three core skills, three fundamental self-management skills that are the key to doing this, to intentionally lifting yourself up. They sound a little bit academic and maybe off-putting, but they’re actually quite simple and easy to develop. This cognitive control, the emotional self-regulation and impulse control.
Cognitive control is being able to just direct your attention, keep your thoughts where you want them rather than having them drift around.
Emotional self-regulation is being able to get some control of your emotional state rather than having it control you.
Impulse control is kind of similar being able to have control over your unconscious appetites and compulsions and desires and things.
Those are the three skills, and the reason they’re the key skills is because not having control in those areas is what keeps us from getting up there. Now we’re back to the answer to your question, what is the guy?
The guy is these three lower aspects of ourselves, our body, our emotions and our thoughts. They basically control our state, our normal kind of state.
“You get upset, you get angry, you get worried about something, you’re afraid.”
When you get – let’s say you’re angry. It really takes over. It really turns you into angry guy. When you distinguish that state from this sort of level four state we talk about, they really are completely different states—even to the extent that you could think of them as a different person, a different version of yourself.
Just recently I was talking to a woman who just read the book, and she said, “When I get mad, I’m mad for hours, sometimes days. Now that I’ve read this and I’ve learned this part, I can just cut that off now and bring myself back.”
That’s what we’re talking about. The way things tend to be now is the emotions, the thoughts, the physical impulses, they’re in control, they pull us down away from this place.
But when we can start to be more intentional with them and get some control back, we can pop ourselves out of there and get back to where we want to be.
See It and Stop It
Charlie Hoehn: How does this work? What is the framework?
David Levin: The book is in the two basic parts because there are kind of two tasks to it. The first is to just kind of get a feel for how all this works. Again, I said, sort of a mystery how we get to this level four place and why we can’t get there. And then we fleshed that out a little bit and say well, okay, it’s these lower aspects of ourselves pulling us away.
But even then, we still haven’t quite seen the mechanism.
The mechanism of this is in these tiny little moments where we’re faced with a choice. For example, I go to lunch and I’m trying to be better about not drinking Coke. I’ve kind of a low grade addiction for Coca-Cola, Coke Zero actually, but I’m trying to manage it. So I’m going to have water. I’m planning to have water with my lunch. Great.
Server comes over and says, “Something to drink with your lunch sir?” I say, “Yeah, I’ll have a Coke please.” Right?
There’s just that tiny little moment that goes by so fast, you don’t even notice what happened. But that’s when you made that choice. You had one intention, and you got pulled the other way.
The first step is to really get clear on how these impulses arise.
“You see it coming.”
Then once you see it, you can start to practice being more intentional with it, getting control over it.
Here’s an example of one of the skills I talk about in the book, it’s called a lift. It’s a little hard to describe but I’ll try and get it. Lift as in lift you up.
The idea of the lift is, okay, you got your intention going and all of a sudden, you notice that impulse on the Coke and you just say, “Not going there.” I mean, it sounds too simple but that’s really it.
You can practice even smaller ones like, here’s one I really like, I’m on a run and all of a sudden, I have the impulse to check the time. Doesn’t matter really one way or the other, it’s not really an important thing, but it’s an impulse.
I notice it and I choose not to.
It doesn’t sound like much, but what you’re doing there is a couple of things. You’re basically practicing impulse control.
You’re practicing being awake and intentional with things that you tend to be unconscious with. Right in the moment, it doesn’t really matter because you didn’t really had to check your time one way or the other. But the mechanism for getting control of these inner processes is the same whether it’s interesting like that or the biggest moments in your life.
They really do feel surprisingly good because it’s this little burst of consciousness, versus being unconscious in that moment. But over time, you get better and better and stronger.
Then when you are facing something really challenging in your life and it’s really turning you into someone you don’t want to be, you have the skill and the knowledge and the strength to set it aside and stay where you want to be.
Does that make sense?
Willpower Really Is Enough
Charlie Hoehn: This is something that it takes some time, right? It takes time for you to build up the muscle to say no.
David Levin: Well, yes and no. For example, if I were working with somebody, and their main problem that they were hoping to solve was you know, their appetite, their weight or something, I wouldn’t go after that first.
I wouldn’t start this with the goal of going straight after the massive willpower.
That’s one of the beauties about this. You can start with tiny little things that are just so easy to do. The only resistant tool is just that you don’t notice it. But the actual act itself, it’s all fine. I’ll do it, you know? I just hadn’t seen it.
For example, it could be as small as you’re going to put your toast in the toaster and you make a single piece of toast. You just observe it, you always put it on the left, no particular reason, it’s just a habit. So I’ll put it on the right.
There’s just the silliest little things, but again, the mechanism is the same.
“You can start to really build your awareness around these small impulses throughout your days.”
There’s value in them directly. They’re fun, they wake you up, they actually feel good, they’re an incredible tool for just kind of perking yourself up in the moment.
It’s kind of like going for a walk, you know?
You don’t have to go do that. If you start to observe some little impulses, just resist them one way or the other. It really perks you right up but again, over the long term, you’re just going to discover it is exactly a muscle.
It’s a willpower muscle.
You’re going to discover that you have sort of accidentally built up this massive willpower that you never imagined you could otherwise have.
One of the things that drives me crazy, when you hear people talk about things like goals and you know, weight loss and stuff like that, they’ll say willpower isn’t enough. You can’t count on willpower. And I know what they mean I think, but it just drives me nuts. Just like saying you can’t count on lift to fly an airplane.
It’s the only force that you can use for any action, any action is an act of will.
“It’s not that you can’t count on will, it’s just that you need more of it.”
And I think the problem is that people don’t think you can actually build will but you actually can and it’s surprisingly easy to do.
This is the way to do it. You take the same mechanism. You isolate the activity and you do it over and over and you get stronger. These little impulse moments are actually probably the most effective, direct, willpower developing thing you can do.
Inner Game in Practice
Charlie Hoehn: David, paint the picture of the goal here. What happens when we’ve developed our inner game skills?
David Levin: You know, it’s a great question. It’s a little hard to answer, because the general answer tends to sound awfully sort of generic motivational. But I’ll answer in a couple of ways.
One is to just think back to sort of that picture I painted at the beginning of our best self, when you have those experiences, when you just feel amazing. You’re just alive, and energized and open and relaxed and life just seems great, right?
If you bring that experience back into your mind and just think to yourself, what kind of person do you become when you feel like that? What sort of effect do you as a person, in that state have on other people in your life, what sort of impact do you have as a role model, as a parent, as a coworker?
If you think about it in your work, whatever your work is, when you are more creative and open and innovative and insightful, how does that affect the quality of your work? Your impact on the world through your work, your success and your career?
When you get a handle on these core skills we’re talking about, when you can self-regulate your physical, emotional and intellectual life, it unleashes the full measure of what you’re capable of.
“That’s going to manifest different in everybody’s life.”
Here’s one little example I just heard recently, a woman here in town. She’s a painter, she came to my workshop, she read the book and she came to the seminar and she pulled me aside a couple of weeks later. She was just so fired up.
She said, “I have this painting, I’ve been struggling with for a really long time, I just can never – I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem like it’s working, I can’t get myself back to all the stuff. I came back from the seminar and all these thoughts—it’s not working, I can’t get it, I’m no good—and all the distractions. I was able to just block that stuff out. I said, you know what? I’m going to work on this thing. I’m going to fix it. I dig in and the thoughts are still coming up and I keep pushing them back. I’m like no, I’m going to do this.”
And she finished it and she totally changed it and she loved it.
It also sold, which doesn’t happen that often for her. She was just super fired up. But that’s the kind of thing, and it’s different for everybody.
The things that are standing between you right now and what you know you’re capable of, all ultimately come down to these three things. If you can’t stay focused, if you get distracted, you’re not going to finish.
If you can’t control your emotions, you’re not going to be the person you want to be.
If you can’t control your impulses, you’re never going to have that sense of strength and confidence.
As soon as you can do them, all these barriers that you’ve been trying to figure out and crack the code on, they just start to fall away. It’s really the most amazing thing.
The Struggle Stays
Charlie Hoehn: What did it look like when the transformation started to occur? How did that unfold?
David Levin: You know, it’s interesting because again, we’re talking over pretty long arc of time. It’s been 25 years now. Yeah, it’s a good example because it reminds me of my coca cola thing too. Here’s what I’m trying to say.
When you start doing this work and you start to become more aware of your impulses and the triggers in your life and the things that are pulling you off track, it doesn’t mean they go away.
I still struggle with money, I still have bad impulses with money.
“I still struggle with whether I drink Coke Zero, literally every day.”
The struggle comes up, I want to do something. I’m like “No, you know what? I’m not going to do it.” You know, you come up with other mechanisms, you come up with other ways to alter your behavior. But it’s that awareness and the will in there that enables you to do it.
It’s an important point that when you learn to raise your inner game and you get these skills in place, it’s not that you’re no longer struggling with the struggles, it’s just that they don’t control you anymore.
I frame it all as gravity.
The gravity that’s working against you and working up at the level you want to be is never going to go away, you’re just able to find ways to rise above it.
Charlie Hoehn: I like to think of it as momentum as well, whatever gravity you have pulling against you, as soon as you can get yourself under control in the areas that you’re talking about, you can build momentum. Really strong momentum towards the things that you want, and suddenly, things are happening so quickly for you.
Sounds like this is what you’re talking about, is getting out of the gravity that’s holding you still or pulling you down.
David Levin: It’s absolutely true. And one of the things I really love about it is that it’s sort of a new way, and it’s a quicker, easier, more high leverage way. Here’s an example of what I mean, you know, you start to become aware of the negative thoughts, the discouraging, defeating thoughts, that we all have.
And the way to engage with that normally is to basically come up with a better counter argument, right?
You’ll hear a quote somebody says, and it’s just a new way to frame the struggle. It’s super helpful, they can be really great, but here’s the thing, this pure cognitive control I’m talking about. Cognitive control is not coming up with a better argument and continuing the debate. It’s shutting the debate down completely.
If the argument is somebody calling you on the phone and telling you you’re an idiot and you can’t do it, say, “You know what? I don’t know if I agree with that, I think that’s just an old issue of mine.”
“Just hang up.”
The amount of power and freedom in that is just remarkable.
I always talk about this stuff as core skills, it’s really the highest leverage area anybody can work in. If people are struggling with life today—and who isn’t? Life has gotten so crazy with the level of distraction and pressure and stress. These core skills we’re talking about are the skills we need to do, I really believe that.
The Heart of the Practice
Charlie Hoehn: Now, you talk about focused sitting in your book, is that just meditation?
David Levin: The book was to a great extent, written for people who are not comfortable with the way some of these ideas have been framed, a lot of stuff that came from the eastern, sort of, philosophies and meditations specifically.
It is the core insights in a lot of that stuff about being present and paying attention and all that stuff. They’re universal and everybody needs them.
I was talking with a guy who works in the Search Inside Yourself Department over at Google. There’s just huge mediation initiative within Google and their problem was that they were always overbooked and they couldn’t get enough people in who wanted to get in.
I said, “What percentage of people is that do you think who want to get in?”
This is Google, right? This is progressive, California, kind of the epicenter probably. He said, “Probably 15%.”
Similar conversation with the guy over at Linkedin, doing a meditation offering over there. “How many people do you think are interested?” 15%, sounds about right.
“This book is for the other 85%.”
I want to say this too, it’s not just retitling it. You know, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, meditation.
It’s really trying to strip away existing framing. What is it really? What are you really doing in this exercise?
When you hear about the mindfulness movement I guess or the people who are encouraging you to meditate—and I totally support all of that—that’s all they say. Meditate and that’s mindfulness and you need to do that. But in the book, this is the third thing I bring up.
The first things are more directly to the skills we talked about. The cognitive control, the self-regulation, the real practical skills, moment to moment throughout your day.
And then after that, I get into the sitting exercise, which is really just an accelerating exercise for the other skills.
When you get what you really need to do to pay attention and be present in the moment, now you can get that this sitting exercise is a really great way to anchor that and strengthen it and accelerate it. If you have the framework that all you really need to do is this sitting thing, it doesn’t really have the practical impact in the rest of your life that it can and should.
So I really felt strongly in this book that I wanted to strip away the language, the iconography, the religious sort of history of it and just, ”Okay, what is it?”
You are sitting and you’re focused. You are trying to practice this cognitive control where you’re not thinking of anything and, “Oh crap, I slipped off not even thinking about something, I need to pull myself back.” That’s what you’re doing.
Again, it wasn’t me trying to cleverly rebrand it for myself. It was trying to frame it in a way that spoke what it actually is and made it more accessible to people who are uncomfortable with the way it’s typically presented.
Charlie Hoehn: Excellent. The next question I have is how do we track our inner game progress? How can we measure it?
David Levin: I’ve got a part in the book about that, and sometimes I almost think it’s kind of silly. It is not something a lot of people are comfortable with. It is called The Inner Game Tracker, and it is something I do every day. I have done it for years.
I actually have a little spreadsheet that I look at pretty much every day, and each column is one behavior I am trying to do or not do.
Like for example, go for a walk or not drink Coke or whatever I am working on. And then every day I just come check, “Did I do that today? How did I do?” And I mark a little indicator whether I did it.
And so over time, I had this record of how engaged, how focused I have been during a certain period. More importantly, this thing is what keeps it in my mind. I think the biggest reason most people, they start something and it fades away, again you come back to that gravity analogy.
Gravity just pulls us away. It is how it works. We go back to the way things were, and we forget. We’re like, “Ah I guess, whatever.” With this sheet, over time you start to get hooked on filling it in and checking back. It just reminds you, it keeps it in your thoughts so you stay engaged in the months and years to come.
It’s just really and invaluable thing. And there’s other things that people can do, but this is what really worked for me over the years.
Success with David Levin
Charlie Hoehn: So David, I am curious what has been your favorite success story? You’ve been doing this for a while apart from your own of people maybe in the workshops that you’ve guided or readers that have raised their inner game?
David Levin: The favorite one, I mean I just mentioned the painter earlier, that’s a new one. I love that one but my favorite one is actually in the book. It’s a woman named Bridget, she’s a surgical nurse and she was actually a student in the very first.
There was a coaching program originally. She was an early coaching client, and I was actually nervous with her at first because when we met each other, she was already way into all kinds of personal development stuff.
She had done everything, things I have never heard of, she had done it all. I was like, “What am I possibly going to have in this that’s going to do anything for her?” You know?
But here’s the thing, and it just blew me away, she finished that original course, and in the months to follow, she went on to lose 58 pounds.
“We’d never talked about diet.”
She went on to finally get herself over this hump and apply and get accepted to this PHD program and then ultimately complete that program. We never talked about that.
So you know I tie it back – I mentioned earlier this idea that this is the high leverage stuff you can do working on these three core skills. She is a perfect illustration of that. She had done everything but she still couldn’t crack the code on these two things that matter the most to her.
Getting a handle on her appetites or impulses, getting a handle on those insecurities, or on getting into that course. Even though we never talked about either one of those things specifically, just developing those core skills, that ability to focus the thoughts, control the emotions, control the impulses, she went onto finally crack the code on those two biggest things on her life. God, I just love that story.
A Challenge for Readers
Charlie Hoehn: Let’s leave our listeners with two things, one is a quick challenge, maybe something they can do today or this week from your book that will have a positive impact. And also, how our listeners can get in touch with you and follow you.
David Levin: Excellent, first thing is something to do. One of the skills in the book, I’ve touched on it already here, but I didn’t really tell you what it was called. It’s this cognitive control thing where the thought comes up and you shut it down rather than engage with it.
In the book that’s called “No,Quiet.” As in quote marks like you are actually saying it to the person next to you, “No,Quiet.” So what I encourage people to do, listeners to do is just today and tomorrow start to just observe the thoughts that come up.
When you are trying to do something, whatever it is, and this negative thought comes up or you are trying to be present with somebody and you find yourself drifting off into thought…Just notice it.
Just as simple as it sounds just say, “Uh-uh no, not going there. No thank you.” However you want to frame it. Just start to shut down those thoughts rather than engage with them.
I think you’ll find it is just surprisingly easy to do, and you will just feel the difference immediately. It’s the one thing in the book that pretty much everybody gets right away and I hear so much about.