Which option do you prefer?
- I flip a coin. Heads, you get $100,000. Tails, you get nothing.
- I give you $10,000.
Of course, like any sane person, you’d take the $10,000. But maybe that isn’t so sane at all. In economics, there is this idea of expected value. You multiply the probability of an event by the potential payoff and get how much return you can statistically expect.
In this example, option one has an expected value of $50,000. Option two has an expected value of $10,000. The $40,000 difference is called risk premium. If you’re willing to take on risk, you stand to gain a much larger reward.
The reason most people aren’t is that they spend their entire lives chasing certainty. No matter how big the reward is, their desperate need for security has determined every outcome before they’re even presented with a choice.
In a 1951 book called The Wisdom of Insecurity, Alan Watts talks about the benefits of not craving certainty so much:
“I call it the ‘backwards law.’ When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it — which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, ‘Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.’”
Today, the world is more uncertain than ever before, which makes the skill Watts talks about — the ability to dance with insecurity — more valuable than it ever was.
The name of that skill is detachment.
It is the art of being okay when life sucks, because you’re removed from the expectation that it pans out a certain way. Detachment enables you to do great things.
Here are 12 ways you can use it to be more successful.
1. Detach Yourself From Your Goals
Think of your biggest goal. Now 10x the result. Feels scary, doesn’t it? But notice how you instantly approach reaching it differently? That’s because you can’t get a million dollars with the same thinking that’d get you $100,000.
Of course you don’t need either. When you detach yourself from your goals, you can swing for home runs instead of second base. Regardless of where you end up, you’ll have more to be proud of.
2. Detach Yourself From Knowledge
Another good thing about setting huge goals, then letting go, is that you won’t feel pressured to look smart in how you go about attaining them. You are now free to say the three most liberating words in the world: “I don’t know.”
Like a child, you can just look at the world, wonder, and try things.
3. Detach Yourself From People’s Opinions
Detachment also allows you to finally make use of the birth right you have never really dared to claim: it’s okay to say how you feel. Anywhere, any time.
When you’re removed from the imaginary pain of what other people think about you, you can always express your feelings. You’re not worried whether they will offend others, because that’s their problem, not yours.
4. Detach Yourself From Your Own Opinions
The only thing more damaging to our self-esteem than other people’s opinions are our own. But nowhere does it say you need to hold on to them.
Set your negative self-talk down in the middle of the room. Look at it. Okay. Can you just let it sit there? The same goes for what you learn. Billionaire Ray Dalio says it took the biggest crisis of his life to figure this out:
“Rather than thinking, ‘I’m right.’ I started to ask myself, ‘How do I know I’m right?’”
5. Detach Yourself From Today
The reason you don’t need to worry so much about being right is that you can always be right tomorrow. Heck, you can even contradict yourself. The world keeps turning. No matter if you have a great day or a shitty day.
When you don’t expect much from today, you can just do your work and watch what happens, because it’s as good as any work on the way to figuring out what you really want to do.
6. Detach Yourself From Tomorrow
That said, tomorrow’s a long way away. Who knows what’s going to happen? Chances are, it won’t be as bad as you think. Or as good as you’d like. Like Henry Ford said:
“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.” — Henry Ford
What you do today needn’t change the world, but you better do something.
7. Detach Yourself From Yesterday
Just like we can’t know where we’ll be tomorrow, it makes little sense to look too much at where we were yesterday. What’s done is done, good or bad. The lesson?
Time doesn’t matter. It just is. And it passes either way. There’s never a good reason to worry about it.
Don’t stress over today. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t blame yourself for yesterday. There’s only one place in which we can truly live, because everything happens there: the present.
8. Detach Yourself From Physical Discomfort
My great-grandpa delivered curtains — on a bike. He rode 30, 40, 50 miles a day sometimes. Meanwhile, we throw a tantrum when our eyeliner is off. Or we arrive sweating at the office.
Most of us sit and type and walk and maybe carry a shopping bag once in a while. Whatever physical pains you have, chances are, the 100 billion humans that have lived before you would not consider them pains at all.
Can you just let them pass? They’re going to pass.
9. Detach Yourself From Mental Discomfort
What’s even more uncomfortable than sweating in a meeting is knowing that you’re sweating in a meeting. That goes back, once again, to people’s opinions. But there’s other mental discomfort throughout the day.
Boring tasks, slow results, alluring distractions, perceived risk, complicated decisions, the list goes on. Our days are full of cognitive dissonance, which occurs when what we want conflicts with what we’ve got to do to get there.
Sitting with this discomfort, instead of hastily giving in to it, is a skill.
10. Detach Yourself From Greatness
In Germany, there’s a law that every homeowner must sweep the small stretch of sidewalk in front of their house. If everyone does it, the streets are clean. Life is like that.
When you’re not thinking about how great you are or how great you want to be, you can focus on taking care of your own shortcomings, rather than pointing out others’ and silently judging them in your mind.
Just keep sweeping.
11. Detach Yourself From Perfection
Take a look at all the aspects of life you want to master: love, money, work, family, friends, health, happiness. There are so many, of course you can’t tackle them all at once! No one can.
Once you accept that life has trade-offs and make them, rather than constantly trying to bypass the fact itself, it becomes a lot easier.
Chances are you can have anything, maybe even everything you want. Just not all at the same time.
12. Detach Yourself From Happiness
All of this might make it seem like detachment is a path towards happiness. It’s not. It’s a way of living life while you let happiness do its thing. Happiness comes and goes in cycles, like seasons. Always has, always will.
The trick is to not be devastated every time it’s not there.
Life is full of choices that resemble our example from the beginning. There’s nothing wrong with a little certainty. Sometimes, you have to take the secure path. But most of the time, we do it because it’s easy.
Every time we play it safe, we take a snapshot of our lives. We frame the status quo, but forever lose what might have been. If you do it too often, you end up with a lot of pictures that look awfully the same. A photocopy of a life, not the real thing.
Ironically, caring a little less helps you get more out of everything you care so much about. Detachment allows you to demand more and not settle.
Ask not for certainty, ask for the best. Detach yourself, then act accordingly.
You only get one life. Swing for the fences.