Top Entrepreneurs Don’t Just Engineer Success – They Reverse Engineer It

Start at the beginning sounds like good advice, and yet it isn't, says Tim Ferriss. He explains the value of the mastering the endgame, and of carving out empty space.

Tim Ferriss: One of the concepts that comes up over and over again with prolific creative minds that I've interviewed for the Tim Ferriss Show or for the book Tools of Titans is creating empty space. And one of the guests Josh Waitzkin, who never does any media, can I curse on this? He always texts me with profanity laden SMSs because I'm the only one who can pull him out of his cave to do media. But he is best known perhaps as the chest prodigy, and I'll explain why I put that in air quotes, besides how funny it looks on camera, that formed the basis or who formed the basis for Searching for Bobby Fischer, both the book and the movie. He was a very well known chess player and continues to be an incredible chess player. But he has applied his learning framework to more than chess. So he was a world champion in tai chi push hands, he was the first black belt in Brazilian jujitsu under the phenom probably the best of all time Marcelo Garcia, who trains in New York City and he's a nine-time world champion something like that. And he's now tackling paddle surfing and he can apply it to just about anything. He works with some of the top financial mines in the world, hedge fund managers and beyond, the best of the best; top one percent.

So, why? What are the principles that he shares? One of them is creating empty space, cultivating empty space as a way of life, and these are all tied together so I'll mention another one. Learning the macro from the micro and then beginning with the end in mind. And these all work together. So I'll explain in fact the last two first. Josh learned to play chess or I should say more accurately was coached by his first real coach in the opposite direction when compared to most training and most chess books. He was taught in reverse. What does that mean? He began with the end game and with very few pieces. So they cleared all the pieces off the board, instead of starting with openings, meaning what do you do first the first five to ten moves, he started with the ending game with king and pawn versus king. What does this do? Well this forces you to focus on principles like opposition, creating space, zugzwang, which is a principle of forcing your opponent to do anything that will destroy their position or anything they can possibly do will worsen their position. And these types of principles that you learn when there's an empty board with a few pieces accomplish a few things.

Number one, you are learning the macro, the principles that you can apply throughout the game of chess in almost any scenario through the micro, this end game situation. And these principles are adaptable. You become a machine that can bob and weave with the circumstances very effectively. Compared to that, as Josh would put it, if you're memorizing the openings, and this might be like memorizing recipes if you're learning to cook, you're effectively stealing the answers from the teacher's guidebook to a test and you'll be able to beat your friends for a while and maybe even be considered a pretty decent chess player, but on a deep level you don't understand the game and you will hit a ceiling and you will never progress past that and you'll get beaten by really good players. So that can be applied to, for instance, Brazilian jujitsu. Josh taught me basically all of the most important principles of jujitsu through one move, at the end the game, which is a choke called The Guillotine, which Marcello was famous for. His version was called The Marcelotine, but it's effectively like this you're choking someone's head in here and he has a weird way of doing it where he puts his forearm on top of your shoulder. It's pretty wicked. If you want to be put unconscious you can go to that gym and experience that yourself.

But that can also be applied to many, many other things. For instance, if you're trying to build a startup, this is a common trendy thing to do these days and I think everybody should start a business at some point. But in the startup game in say Silicon Valley where I live if you're going to go into the venture backed world, well you and your founder better think a lot about the end game and you should definitely have an agreement, at least a working agreement, tentative agreement on what type of exit, say acquisition offer is acceptable to you. If those end goal components aren't in place then it's just a slow motion train wreck waiting to happen. And how might you do that? Well, if you're trying to learn the macro from the micro you can think about what the acquisition agreement might look like. So you could talk to lawyers, get a sample template agreement and look at the provisions, look at the clauses and then reverse engineer it so that when you're forming the company, when you're hiring employees your decisions at that point make it possible to have that contract at the end.

This is another example. Micro, maybe it's a 10/20-page document. Macro, building a company that gets acquired by a much, much larger company. So that is learning the macro from the micro. Another example, just because I brought up cooking, would be say choosing a recipe that involves two or three primary techniques and perhaps three to five primary ingredients that apply in many, many, many different dishes. So you're learning principles of say flavor combination, principles of using convection versus shallow frying or sautéing versus steaming that apply across the board. And in doing so let's say you do it without a recipe, without a timer or I should say a meat thermometer or something like that, you're going to learn also to test the food to know whether it is done or not. That then applies to everything. But you can do it just a learning how to make Harissa crab cakes with the steam broccoli and I have no idea say candied yams something like that. So that's that.

And we're also talking about the ending game. So we've covered that. Creating or cultivating empty space is a way of life. This is very important to Josh Waitzkin who I mentioned, it's very important to people like Paul Graham, who's cofounder of Y Combinator, which is like the Navy SEALs Harvard of startup accelerators, keeping it simple let's just call it that for now. If you are a creator, if you are a maker and not a manager, this is important, which by the way is a decision so a lot of really good entrepreneurs start as a technician or a tactician they're very, very good at one thing then they end up in a managerial role that they hate. It doesn't mean you have to stay there, and you see a lot of folks like Evan Williams and others who then at some point realize this and return it to a more product focused role even if they are also the CEO of making some high-level 30,000-foot decisions.

Okay. But if you are a maker, if you've decided to be a maker, if you just happen to be a maker or creator let's call it three to five hour uninterrupted blocks of time are extremely critical if you want to connect the dots, if you want to have the space to allow yourself to have original ideas or at least original combinations of ideas you really need to block out that time and protect it at least once a week. So in Tools of Titans there are many people who do this, Remet Set, for instance, who has a very, very successful multi, multi million dollar business that he built out of a blog he started long ago in college, which was very, very niche in its focus, he blocks out I believe it's every Wednesday for three to five hours of time he'll block it out for learning. Noah Kagan another entrepreneur does the same thing. So on Wednesdays for me I have from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., this is pre-lunch, I have creation, that means writing, recording or some similar aspect of in my mind creating with my skillset and my assets. And it is extremely important that I do that before I'm barraged by inputs. In other words, and this is true of Josh as well, first thing in the morning he's doing journaling. Reid Hoffman, a billionaire, cofounder or founder of LinkedIn, same story. He will plant a seed in his mind the night before a problem he wants to solve, a project he wants to think about improving perhaps and then waking up, tabula rasa complete blank slate immediately working on that problem with journaling before any text messages, before any email, which is why, for instance, I don't have email set up on my phone. I do not have mail set up on my iPhone. I do not get to notifications. I also put my phone on airplane mode for a lot of reasons, for our body to explain some other physical ones, but onto airplane mode when I go to bed and it stays in airplane mode until I'm done with my creation period and then it comes on.

Because as soon as you go into bullet dodging or like Wonder Woman bullet blocking mode with everyone else's agenda for your time, which is very often the inbox or text messages, you're DOA, you're done. Your creativity is all for not in general. So for me, for many people who are say programming, for musicians, for creative types slack in the system, you have to create slack. You have to create space. You have to create large uninterrupted blocks of time and the only way to do that is to put it on your calendar. If it's not on your calendar it's not real, you need to put it in your calendar and defend it just like you would anything else.

Amid all the powerhouse, brilliant minds Tim Ferriss has interviewed for his podcast and new book Tools of Titans, one idea kept springing up: creating empty space. A second concept, by contrast, came up only once, through conversations with Joshua Waitzkin, an American chess player who takes an ‘endgame’ approach to every pursuit he undertakes. Ferriss explains these two concepts in detail, why they’re so vital, and how they can be applied across many fields.


Tim Ferriss' most recent book is Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.