Justin Kan on Sitting With Discomfort, Spending Time in Your Zone of Genius, Non-attachment, and More – Below the Line With James Beshara

Key Takeaways

  • Spend time becoming aware of the scar tissue you’re carrying around from past experiences, and what maladaptive behaviors it might be leading you to perform in the present
  • Instead of pulling out your phone when discomfort presents itself, do your best to sit with it
  • Spend more time working on things in your zone of genius, rather than your zone of competence 
  • Be careful of excess coffee consumption – it’s very destructive to the adrenal glands
    • “A cup of coffee will have the same psychological impact on your body as swerving to avoid an accident on the highway. It’s that kind of acute stress.” – James Beshara
  • If you want to learn something, teach it

Books Mentioned

Products and Supplements Mentioned

  • This episode’s drink of choice – Liquid Death
  • “I’d say adaptogens are so phenomenally powerful for productivity because they de-stress you. In a world where we’re always in a heightened state of alertness, you can take two different herbs – ashwagandha and rhodiola – and you’ll be far more productive in your day because you’ll be a lot less anxious and stressed.” – James Beshara
  • James’ Current Morning Cocktail
    • Omega-3s, specifically DHA, for neuroprotection
    • Turmeric, which serves as a potent anti-inflammatory
    • CDP Choline for increasing blood flow to the brain, thus improving creative thinking

Intro

Why Justin Quit Drinking

  • He’s been sober for 6 months now
    • “I used drinking as an escape from the emotions that I didn’t want to deal with my entire life – anger, sadness, and anxiety” – Justin Kan
  • Just how bad was it?
    • Justin remembers getting blackout drunk in his early 20s nearly every other week

Ditch Your Maladaptive Behaviors

  • Besides drinking, Justin has been on a journey to ditch all his other maladaptive tendencies over the past 12-18 months
  • “Most of my life, I’ve been unconsciously reacting to scar tissue I’ve had since I was younger” – Justin Kan
    • Everyone has “scar tissue” based on their past experiences that they carry into their adult lives
  • A few examples:
    • Justin HATES doing paperwork/data entry-type work as well as calling people on the phone
      • Why? – When Justin was younger, these were tasks his mom assigned to him when he was helping her out at work (she owned her own mortgage business)
        • “Even today, if I have to call a restaurant… I’ll ask my wife to call. I can’t deal with it.”
    • And another: The idea of always “wanting more” (Justin calls it a “starvation mindset”)
      • After selling Twitch to Amazon for nearly $1 billion, Justin went out and started another company
      • Over the past few years, Justin has pondered the question: “Why do I feel like I need more? Why do I feel like I need to win the approval of other people, even more than I have?”
        • “All of these things go back to the experiences you had when you were younger. Often times, you’re operating as an adult and don’t even know they exist.” – Justin Kan
  • James isn’t immune to past scar tissue either – growing up as the youngest of 5 siblings, he now HATES authority

Sit With Your Discomfort

  • Buddha has said – “Every human being will experience 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows in their life”
  • As a repeat startup founder, another issue Justin has continually dealt with: anxiety/stress about the future 
    • This largely stems from the fact that Justin has always had his sense of self-worth wrapped up in whatever company he’s working on
    • To escape from these feelings in the past, Justin would frequently turn to alcohol
  • Justin’s advice to all:
    • With every negative emotion you’re experiencing, ask yourself: “Why am I feeling this? Is there a past experience that’s triggering this?”
    • In short – sit with your discomforts, don’t run from them
      • One easy way to do this – avoid pulling out your phone to escape negative emotions
        • (Before changing up his habits, Justin was racking up a screen time of 5.5 hours/day – being aware of this number can help you as well)
  • James recalls a line from his pastor:
    • “Everything in our life is so easy to curate – our Facebook feeds, what music we want to listen to, what show you want to watch, you name it. It’s so easy to curate everything that it’s becoming harder and harder to sit with discomfort. There’s an app to escape every type of discomfort. Hate commercials? Get Netflix. Hate silence? Listen to Spotify. Hate boredom? Cruise Instagram… We are so unaccustomed to sitting with discomfort because we never have to do it.”

How’s Atrium going?

  • “It’s going like every startup; there’s good, and there’s bad. Some things are going well, and some things need to go better.”
    • But, the more interesting question to Justin: “How am I dealing with the ups and downs?”
      • This relates to a question Neil Strauss likes to pose: Instead of asking someone, “How are you?” ask, “How are you treating yourself?” (you can control the latter, but not the former)

Spend More Time in Your Zone of Genius

  • Justin tries to focus on spending as much time as possible in his “zone of genius” and creating an organization (at Atrium) that supports this 
    • Your zone of genius includes all the things you’re good at that give you energy
    • “Most CEOs I know end up in their ‘zone of competence’ or ‘zone of excellence,’ which is things that they’re good at but don’t give them energy” – Justin Kan
      • By doing so, they create a job for themselves that they end up hating
  • What’s in Justin’s zone of genius?
    • Things that involve getting people excited about projects (this might include recruiting or fundraising)
    • Creating an optimal company culture
  • What’s in Justin’s zone of competence that he’s since pushed to the side?
    • “Some founders think they’re excellent operators, and most are not, but they don’t know it… I thought I was really good at reviewing people’s work and giving tactical or strategic feedback.”
      • After reading The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, Justin began doubting this
        • (The specific exercise in the book that led him to this conclusion: going through his deeply held beliefs and asking himself, “How might the opposite of what I believe possibly be true?”)

Throughout Justin’s career as a startup founder, what was the most challenging time?

  • In 2013, Justin was running a business called Exec (it was like TaskRabbit) and in the process of navigating the company through a pivot (they were becoming a house cleaning service)
    • Things just weren’t going well, and Justin was continually beating himself up about it
      • “I carried it all on my shoulders, and I was torturing myself all the time. It got to the point where I didn’t want to get out of bed. I felt sick every morning. I eventually started seeing a therapist.” – Justin Kan
  • What about James? Any challenging times?
    • The final 18 months of Tilt
      • “I just couldn’t look at my email anymore… It was like those rats in a lab who would get zapped randomly and get freaked out.” – James Beshara

Escaping the Noise

  • Over the past few months, Justin has focused on providing himself with tools for dealing with life’s negative situations:
    • He’s meditated for 262 days in a row, for roughly 40 minutes each day
    • He’s significantly reduced his phone use by deleting all the entertainment apps (YouTube, Twitter, etc.), email, Slack, shopping apps, and the internet browsers
      • He also turned his phone into grayscale mode… permanently!
    • Justin’s also been doing a lot of negative visualization exercises
      • What does it involve? – Simply imagining the worst-case scenarios (doing so allows you to realize they’re not all that bad) 

The Philosophy of Non-attachment

  • As background, this is a Buddhist idea that originates from the fact that all suffering is the result of attachment
  • Would Justin have been as successful if he weren’t as attached to outcomes earlier in his career?
    • “I think so, but it’s tough to prove” – Justin Kan
      • One reason why? – The idea of the “grass always being greener” led Justin to jump ship with a variety of startups quicker than he should have
      • When you’re not attached to the outcomes, you can make much more rational decisions
  • “If you want to learn something you should teach it” – Justin Kan
    • This is one of the reasons Justin tweets so much about non-attachment philosophy

How can CEOs and founders talk about their stress/burnout without scaring away customers and investors?

  • Talk specifically about past experiences 
    • “I don’t think people hold it against you to say you’ve experienced stress. Stress is part of the landscape of the modern business and professional world.” Justin Kan
    • People admire those who deal with their stress in healthy ways
  • Burnout is REAL
    • James, after Tilt was acquired by Airbnb, was so burned out that he would take a 90-minute nap every afternoon at the office (before he realized – “Holy sh**! I needed 90 minutes of sleep in the middle of my day because I was so burned out.”)

Beyond Coffee

  • This is James’ new book, co-authored with Dan Engel and Katherine Haynes, on nootropics, adaptogens (de-stressing compounds like ashwagandha), and mushrooms
    • On the new book website, you can read the first two chapters for free
  • One of the more significant topics discussed: how coffee is destructive to the adrenal glands (because of how much it spikes your cortisol levels)
    • “A cup of coffee will have the same psychological impact on your body as swerving to avoid an accident on the highway. It’s that kind of acute stress.”James Beshara
  • “Productivity is way more than energy or wakefulness… Productivity is energy, cognition, and direction.” James Beshara
    • This was one of James’ biggest learnings from writing the book
  • “I’d say adaptogens are so phenomenally powerful for productivity because they de-stress you. In a world where we’re always at a heightened state of alertness, you can take two different herbs – ashwagandha and rhodiola – and you’ll be far more productive in your day because you’ll be a lot less anxious and stressed.” – James Beshara
    • Note – most adaptogens take 6-7 days for their effects to take place
  • How did James come to write the book?
    • He had a bad coffee addiction, often drinking 6+ cups of coffee/day
      • One day, this led to an emergency room visit for a severely rapid heart rate
  • James also covers Adderall in the book
    • “Adderall is in that dangerous category. Especially in the last 3 years, there’s more and more research coming out about how neurotoxic it is. It’s doing medium and long-term damage to your neurology.” – James Beshara

James’ Current Morning Cocktail

  • Omega-3s, specifically DHA, for neuroprotection
  • Turmeric, which serves as a potent anti-inflammatory
    • “It’s as effective as Prozac at reducing anxiety and depression” – James Beshara
  • CDP Choline for increasing blood flow to the brain, thus improving creative thinking
    • Choline is naturally found in eggs
  • Bacopa for enhanced memory 
    • It’s an Ayurvedic herb that increases short-term recall upwards of 20% (but you probably have to take it ~2 weeks before noticing any effects)
  • Matcha green tea for caffeine
    • Green tea contains l-theanine (which extends the effects of caffeine)
    • Matcha is also a potent antioxidant

Additional Note

  • Justin is an Enneagram type 7
  • Justin’s mom is an immigrant from Malaysia
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