Some Life Lessons And 10 Exercises To Gain Agency

Hercules needed 12

Back in March I gave a talk to a group of EU and Chinese university students. I shared some ideas on how to challenge self-limiting beliefs, grow courage, gain agency, and turn randomness into serendipity.

It was a bit of an unusual talk and I finally sat down to write about it.

It started with some personal eye-opening experiences and ended with a list of 10 practical things anyone can do to ‘grow’ on their own. The complete slides are below- the more personal part starts at page 22.

Learning Curves

Life is made of many learning curves. So it is critical to adopt a ‘growth mindset’ as early as possible (= anything can be learned vs. you are stuck at your inborn ‘talent’ level). It took me a while to realize (and internalize) that almost everything can be treated as a skill, not a ‘talent’. And yes, this includes artistic and social skills.


My last ‘job search’ was in 2001 and I haven’t written a resume since then. All later opportunities came from following my interests, helping people, building networks and ‘creating my own luck’. I detailed a bit below how this went, and how you can do it too.

Eye Openings

This is a list of some of my most important ‘realizations’, in chronological order.

  • ‘Intelligence’ goes beyond IQ. Thanks to a Danish martial arts partner in Japan. He hadn’t finished high-school, but he had much higher kinesthetic, emotional and social intelligence (and life experience, though of similar age) than I did.
  • You can be your own boss. I didn’t grow up around entrepreneurs, and it wasn’t much of a topic when I studied engineering. It dawned on me when my former girlfriend moved from Tokyo to Shanghai to start a pastry business (Japanese, female, 26, and not speaking Chinese). Two years after, I left my job and started a consulting business. I found out later she got featured among the ‘entrepreneurs of the year’ in the Nikkei Woman magazine, sold the business and moved on to teaching and other ventures.
  • Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Clarified the difference between assets and liabilities (as your car and the house you live in generally are). Active and passive income, and ‘escaping from the rat race’ (I’m not there yet).
  • Income economics. Personal thoughts on how to increase my income: either work longer hours, improve skills to charge more, or employ people. This lead me to start a consulting business in 2003, then hiring people and specializing in high-value projects.
  • Being proactive. Back in 2004 I reached out to a foreign video game company to support them in Korea and to get accepted in a EU training there. It worked.
  • Network building. From writing, joining/speaking/organizing events to helping others and building ‘good karma’. It’s the gift that keeps giving. It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you, and thinks good things about you!
  • Be around & invest in capable people. From 2007 I got closer to entrepreneurs and startups. While I didn’t (aside from one misguided attempt) develop the desire to build tech products myself, being around good people created many opportunities. Some I missed, some I caught.
  • More thoughts. Later on, I had further thoughts on decision-making (intellectual/passion/guts/desire), energy & emotions, purpose, the influence of our environment (‘systems’ vs ‘goals’) and about the ‘beginner’s mind’. I am preparing a series of short podcasts (blogs don’t seem to be the right format for this). This talk and post are a kind of ‘first draft’.

Orbits & Trajectories

Most people seem to follow a ‘ballistic’ trajectory in life. They are propelled with initial conditions and barely deviate until they reach their pre-determined orbit. Things like ethnicity, gender, nationality, social class matter enormously, which means the ‘you’ that is NOT pre-determined is in fact a small part of ‘you’.

But it is possible to change orbit. It generally requires a large amount of effort, and/or placing yourself in an environment where the change is easier (relocating is often easier than trying to change in your original surroundings).

How to Thrive

A few more ideas there, the core being that ‘you are in charge’.

Also, other people’s lives are on different trajectories and lives are a ‘package’ — Elon Musk is also Elon Musk because he was badly bullied as a child. The paradox is that struggle / early humiliation can help make people more driven… when it doesn’t disempower them for life. And yet, it might not make them ‘happier’, rather eager to prove themselves, and sometimes angry.

Last, to quote Jordan Peterson: ‘happiness’ might not be a valid goal. Rather, “improve yourself so that you (and others) don’t suffer more than you have to. Fix what you can, particularly things you do every day, within your domain of competence. You don’t just start tinkering away when you see a broken helicopter.” He further recommends to develop an “heroic willingness to encounter the unknown and articulate it, and share that with people. There is no nobler vision than that.”


The F&B industry has made us familiar with the concept of ‘junk food’. With enough salt, sugar, fat (and MSG), anything can taste delicious.

The problem is that taste and appearance are disconnected from the nutritional value.

Well guess what? The same applies to media, ideas, friends, relationships, thoughts and behaviors. Figuring out what we need from what we want also has a learning curve (and is a key difference between kids and adults).


I have given over 200 talks in conferences, and listened to many more. What I found is that while some fare well on the ‘inform / entertain / inspire’ metrics, they tend to lack practical steps to take action.

If what you read or hear doesn’t change you a bit, what’s the point? I wrote a list of actions that I think can help build self-awareness, courage and agency.

Here they are, from easy to hard, with the ‘why’:

  1. Fast for 24h (water only)
    Learning: you can eat tomorrow
    It is NOT to lose weight. It is to realize that you can be fine with the feeling of hunger for a full day. It will make you less anxious about having lunch or dinner like clockwork, and provide extra flexibility in your life. For the record, I have completed a 72 hours fast without much problem. I ended it with a burger and milkshake ;)
  2. Run for 1 hour
    Learning: you can always go home on your own
    Why run for an hour? To develop confidence in your physical abilities. You will be covering maybe 7km at your slowest pace (as slow as you can!), then 10km or more if you run faster. 10km is already about a half of a half-marathon! It’s fairly empowering. I have completed two half-marathons with minimal training, by running longer and longer distances at a slow pace. Anyone can do it.
  3. Go silent for 2 days
    Learning: discover your mind or listen
    It also doesn’t require much prep, on a weekend for instance. Ideally without internet, mobile, books or people around. Just you and your mind, to witness the chaos and flow of thoughts you don’t control (I did a few short retreats and a 10-days silent Vipassana retreat which was quite painful but helpful). It can also be interesting to instead do a ‘vow of silence’ and be around people to listen, and write instead of talk.
  4. Train hard on a new skill
    Learning: effort trumps talent + it’s ok to be a beginner
    The idea here is to discover that Motivation + diligence > Talent / Smart
    I tried various things over the years, including foreign languages (in particular Japanese, Korean and Mandarin), various martial arts (a long list, though I only received a black belt in shorinji kempo), windsurfing, life drawing, a few styles of yoga, and even the tango choreography of Scent of a Woman. I also gave a shot at other activities like wake boarding, kite surfing, barre (!) and pole dancing (!!). Just go by yourself to try things out. People are generally welcoming, you might discover new things to like, and change your views on many things. Note that the results can vary depending on your learning style and the teaching method, but 5-10 hours put into anything will produce results.
  5. Meet 3 people that matter to you
    Learning: people are ok to meet YOU
    Reach out (linkedin and twitter are good starts) to try and meet people you respect. It might take some time, require persistence and a creative approach. It’s a core skill in networking and building agency. I recommend going for 3 as it puts a bit less pressure on each single one. When I first did that to prepare my EU interview back in 2003 I realized people are much more accessible for lunch or coffee than I thought if you are not ‘asking’ anything beyond sharing their story/experience/advice.
  6. Write something & publish it
    Learning: your mind and research are enough to produce something
    Writing is thinking. It’s a really important skill to cultivate. Today, anyone can read up and write something on a topic they like. The next step is to get it accepted by a publication (it could be a specialized blog). It will contribute to cultivate a growth mindset, as well as agency.
  7. Organize an event
    Learning: you can lead
    On anything you like, and at any scale. From an informal meet-up in a bar to a larger event in a venue with checkin and all. Invite people, promote it. Another great chance to learn about what you like and build network. It’s much easier than people think, and it gets easier with practice. I have organized easily over 50 events of sizes ranging from less than 10 people to over 200. I recently found out that LinkedIn individual outreach to 1st and 2nd degree contacts worked quite well.
  8. Give a talk
    Learning: shyness can be overcome
    Public speaking is said to be many people’s greatest fears. It used to be for me as well. But it’s a skill. And as long as you speak about something you like and prepare the logic and flow, you’ll be fine. The audience wants you to do well! Note that standup comedy (which I’ve tried a couple of times too) is an entirely different exercise, and requires extreme levels of ‘growth mindset’ as you go on stage with no credibility, no backup and expecting reactions. Tough!
  9. Travel alone
    Learning: you can change, and take charge
    It’s not ‘tourism’. Reinvent yourself, meet people, decide everything on your own, solve problems and enjoy the unexpected. You can start with a few days, or few weeks, or do a longer sabbatical. Developing countries in South-East Asia are travel-friendly. It will also help you realize you can survive quite well with few possessions and at a rather low cost. Training Thai boxing in Phuket while eating clean and reading, writing, or doing whatever else? You can easily live there for less than US$1,000 per month!
  10. Sell something you made
    Learning: you don’t need a job to survive
    Ideally something project-based rather than time-based. Being able to generate revenue on your own (without a ‘job’) is massively empowering, as it puts you in a position to walk away from any job you don’t like. If you don’t have alternatives, you might feel anxious of being unemployed. Maybe everyone should develop some vocational skills they can fall back on too…

In closing

I hope some of those ideas will inspire you to take action to overcome some of your self-limiting beliefs. If you have suggestions on further ‘challenges’ or stories on what helped you improve your mindset and agency, you are welcome to share in the comments, via Twitter at @benjaminjoffe or email me at

Recommended Readings

To go further:

  1. How to fail and still win big — Scott Adams. About ‘systems’ vs. ‘goals’ and the ‘talent stack’.
  2. Learned optimism — Martin Seligman. How to change your mindset to avoid depression (from personal/pervasive/permanent)
  3. Persuasion (& Pre-suasion) — Robert Cialdini. A very useful skill to study.
  4. The 4-hour Body — Tim Ferriss. About unusual approaches to skill acquisition.
  5. Willpower doesn’t work — Benjamin Hardy. How your environment overwhelms willpower.
  6. 12 Rules for Life — Jordan Peterson (book, podcasts & lectures). To reduce the chaos in your life and find a meaningful purpose.

Partner @ SOSV — $700m VC fund for Deep Tech (biology, robotics, etc.) | Digital Naturalist | Keynote Speaker | Angel Investor

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