You can learn. You can study. But only when you take one specific step in your personal development will you see a significant ROI for your efforts. My guest this week, Benjamin Hardy, took that one step and catapulted his business to more than $1 million in revenue – a 10X jump – in just three years.
Benjamin, author the new book Willpower Doesn’t Work: Discover the Hidden Keys to Success, is a writer (the #1 author on Medium.com), PhD student, and keen observer of human psychology.
He’s always been pretty ambitious. But it took a pivotal moment a few years back to channel that ambition in the right way.
He shares his approach in this episode, along with…
- The Forcing Function Strategy for getting real results fast
- Ways to benefit the most from your mentors (yes, you need more than one)
- The best place to come up with your best ideas – it’s not the office
- How to use “escalation of commitment” to achieve your goals
- Avoiding the danger of ignoring your environment
- And more...
Listen now to Steve Gordon and Benjamin Hardy
Benjamin Hardy | How to Build a Million-Dollar Business in 3-Years
In this episode we're talking with Benjamin Hardy. Ben is the number one writer on Medium.com. His work has been read by over 50 million people. He went from zero to 300,000 email subscribers in two and a half years, which is absolutely amazing. During that time, he also created a seven-figure business and he completed the adoption of two children that he was fostering in a three-year process. You had to be unstoppable through that and through all that you've done in business, welcome to the Unstoppable CEO.
Thank you. I'm glad to be here with you.
I'm excited to talk about what you have going on. Before we get into the middle of everything, I'd love for you to give everybody a little bit of background and context for what got you to this point in your career.
I'm almost done with my PhD in organizational psychology. I started my PhD program in 2014. In January 2015, my wife and I became the foster parents of three kids and that was the impetus for me to start writing. From 2010 to 2015, I wanted to be a writer. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't do anything about it. In 2015 when we became foster parents, there was this intense pressure on me to support this family. I went from having zero kids to having three. There's a quote from Will Durant. He's a famous historian and he says, “The ability of the average person could be doubled if their situation demanded them.” Most people rise or fall to the demands of their situation.
Once we became foster parents, it created this pressure that led me to feel the urgency to start writing, so I started writing. I started investing in myself, and that's one of the big things that will come out as a theme in this episode is that once I started investing money into my goal to become a writer, I became a lot more committed. The first big investment was spending $800 on my website. That freaked me out in the beginning, then I bought a $197 online course that taught me how to write viral headlines. Those two small investments provoked me to start writing a lot, then I started to educate myself on the craft of how to build an audience and how to do all those things.
I started making bigger and bigger investments in myself. I spent $250 to buy twenty copies of a book from Jeff Goins. He's an online writer and to buy twenty copies of his book, that allowed me to have a 30-minute phone call with him. That 30-minute phone call changed the trajectory of my career. It allowed me to ask him very important questions which tweaked the direction I was going. During this course, I was writing more and more and learning how to get more traffic. Then it came time to write a book proposal. I spent $3,000 to hire Ryan Holiday to help me write a book proposal. Ryan Holiday is a best-selling author. I had wanted to write a book proposal for about a year, but it wasn't until I invested money and hired a mentor who I respected that could show me exactly how I did it, that I wrote the book proposal. There are just investments all along the way that led to increasing commitment. That's how I look at it.
There's a lot to unpack and go to school on right in there, but the first thing that jumped into my mind was if you're faced with a situation where you suddenly have to support a family of five, being a writer isn't the first place that most people would think of. I don't think anybody looks at that as being a lucrative or easy career. What was it about going down that route that called you?
I wanted to be a writer for a long time so I wasn't looking at it from the starving artist perspective. I've seen some of the writers who I admire make millions of dollars and it's not like I had the intention of making millions of dollars in the beginning. When I became a foster parent, I felt this huge pressure not only to support them, but I also felt this reality check that life was going to start moving fast. I was going to have to start supporting these kids, I just felt this weight that things are going to move forward and if I don't pursue this writing thing now, it's never going to happen.
It was this convergence of a lot of things. I felt this pressure to succeed because I had to succeed. My wife gave me an ultimatum. She gave me one year like, “You can buy this website, you can try this stuff for a year, but if you don't get results, you need to focus more on your PhD and get this stuff done.” When I was doing all my writing, I wasn't the best PhD student. I'm still going to finish my degree, but I started to allocate my energy and time towards that. When you're in a position where you need to make money, you figure out how to do. There's this idea that necessity is the mother of invention. In the book, Willpower Doesn't Work, they call that a forcing function. You put yourself in the situation that forces you to function in a specific way. That's what happened. I needed to make money, I created conditions that forced me to succeed, and then I had to make money so I learned how through writing. That's where I had to learn the marketing piece.
I’d love to come back to this idea of investment. It's interesting. It's one of the things I’ve noticed over the years. Every time I made a significant investment in myself, whether that's getting a mentor or investing to get around a group of people or acquire some knowledge, it's not immediate all the time, but there's always a jump that takes place after that. When I try to do it without making that monetary investment, I think that monetary investment is important, that the bump usually doesn't follow or at least not to the same degree. Talk about how making those investments. It sounds like when you made the first ones, they were big investments. Even though they're not a huge amount of money, those are big investments at the time. What does that do to your mindset as you make those investments?
This is great because this is what I’ve been studying through my PhD. My big question through my PhD is what's the difference between wanting to be entrepreneurs and real entrepreneurs. I spent my whole PhD research interviewing tons of wannabes versus tons of people who are actually real entrepreneurs. What I have found as the core difference between these two populations is that at some point, the real entrepreneurs start investing money in themselves. They start investing money in their job or in their career or their business or in their skill sets, and that investment lead to commitment. In economics, there's a concept called escalation of commitment. What happens is once you become invested in something, it becomes hard not to commit to that thing. It's based on a concept called sunk cost bias, which is an economic term, but with the more and more invested you become in anything financially, you start to wrap your identity around that thing. You start to go from seeing yourself as wanting to do something to actually seeing yourself as that thing. You begin to fully identify with it, you become committed to it. Then you start shifting your focus from the risks to the rewards. There's one other angle about investing in yourself that's different from commitments. Commitment is huge.
There's a quote from a guy named Dr. David Hawkins. He wrote a good book called Power Vs Force and he has also written a book called Letting Go. He says that the unconscious will only allow you to have what you believe you deserve, so if you look at a person's life, it's the product of what they unconsciously believe they can have in their life and what they believe they deserve.
What happens is when you invest money in yourself, whether it's your skills, your abilities, your relationships, your network, you shatter your subconscious paradigm about what you think is possible. You tell yourself, “I believe I can have it, I believe I deserve it,” and you shatter this subconscious paradigm that's limiting you, and then you put yourself in proximity to, let’s say, a mentor. For example, when I made that $250 phone call, not only did I shattered my beliefs that I should invest myself in my writing career, but I put myself in proximity to a writer who I admired and I was able to ask him questions face to face. When you watch yourself do stuff like this, you're convincing yourself that you're serious about it. You're no longer dreaming; you're doing. You're watching yourself invest money, you're watching yourself learn from mentors, and you're watching yourself do these things. From a psychology perspective, who you are is the product of your behavior.
In Western culture, we think that who we are is the product of our personality. We think that your personality is something you're born with and it leads you to behave in certain ways, but what the research shows is that it's actually your behavior that shapes your personality. How you behave on a regular basis determines how you view yourself. When you start investing money in yourself, when you start communicating with mentors and watching all this stuff happen, you're watching yourself do it and so you begin to identify with it. You're like, “I must be a writer,” and then you start acting that way. Those are just some of the ideas. I actually believe that when you invest in yourself in specific ways, it actually leads to a 10X increase. That's why I’ve invested in groups like Genius Network. Genius Network is a mastermind group that costs $25,000 to be a part of. It's extremely expensive, but one of the philosophies of Genius Network is that if you do not make at least $250,000 as a product of your $25,000 investment, if it doesn't at least return 10X, then you can't join again the next year because you didn't actually get out of the group what you should have. That's how I view investing in yourself. It has to be a 10X investment or it's not the right investment.
It's a fundamental principle for making progress. It’s away to engineer the game so that you'll win. Too often I see people running around trying to operate in a vacuum and do things on their own. In my experience, that leads to a whole lot more of what you've got. Again and again, I’ve watched it both in people we've worked with and in my own investments and in my friends and colleagues. It's this cool inflection point to watch when you make that investment and you make that jump because you're getting capability, but in addition to that, you're getting confidence and you're getting a new perspective, all of those are very valuable. You've created this business, you haven't been doing it all that long, you're now the number one writer on Medium, and built an enormous email list. How did all that come about? That doesn't happen overnight, but it's happened very quickly for you. What were some of the keys that contributed to that?
I'm going along with this idea of 10X thinking. In 2015 I was still working as a graduate assistant doing research and stuff, but it was halfway through that year that I decided to quit the job and pursue this thing. In 2015, I made $12,000 because that's what graduate students make, they have their tuition paid for. In 2016, I started to learn the methods of growth and I made $110,000 or $115,000, and in 2017 I made over a million. It's like you add a zero every year. How does that work? In the beginning, I was learning how to write viral headlines, but I didn't have the right call to action at the end of my articles. On Medium.com, you can stick calls to action at the end of your articles and send people to a website or a landing page and try to get them to opt in with a free giveaway. For the first several months I was sending people to my website and I was trying to offer them a free e-book. The problem with sending people to your website is that there are so many distractions, there are so many tabs, and there are so many options.
After I read Russell Brunson's book, Dot Com Secrets, I stopped sending people to my website and I started sending people to a landing page where they only had two options, either give me their email or leave the page. Once I made that shift, I went from getting about 1000 emails a month to getting 5,000 emails a month on the same amount of traffic for my blogs. Then I shifted from an eBook to a checklist. Rather than giving people a high-commitment offer, not everyone wants to read a full eBook, I started offering people a free checklist of the best activities to do in the morning or a cheat sheet on how to do this or that, small actionable giveaways. Once I made a shift from the eBook to the checklist, I went from 5,000 emails a month to 20,000 emails a month with the same amount of traffic. That shows a few things. It shows first off that it's not the amount of traffic that matters, although that does matter, but it's also how the giveaway is structured and where you're sending people. Don't send people to a website, send people to a landing page. Give them an actionable, simple, and easy giveaway that's compelling. Those were some of the big things I learned and then a lot of it was investing.
Once I wrote the book proposal at the beginning of 2017, I got a $220,000 book deal for my first book because I had 100,000 email subscribers at the time. Then I invested that whole book contract, all $220,000 of it, back into the business. I learned how to get a little bit of passive income, a couple thousand bucks a month or up to now 10,000 to 15,000 bucks a month passive income just on traffic from the blog. I invested my entire book deal, all 220 grand of it right back into the book. I hired Ryan Holiday again to help me write the book because I wanted to get better at writing, I hired a publicist, I joined Genius Network, and I joined several other masterminds to create this huge network to set up the conditions so that the game would win. One of the things that Cal Newport talks about is that to be so good you can't be ignored, you have to develop rare skills and abilities. The only way to do that is to get the right mentoring and education. You develop rare skills and abilities and then you develop a network that you can actually give those rare skills and abilities to.
That's one of the big things that most people mistake about investing in yourself is they think that when you invest money in a mentorship or relationship, you immediately think that you've paid them so they should start paying you back. It's all focused on reciprocity. What I’ve found is that the way to go 10Xis you invest money in a mentorship or in a mastermind and then you use your rare skills and abilities that you've developed to be an extreme giver, not a taker. You're paying money to give them stuff. I actually did that. I paid Ryan Holiday a lot of money and he's helped me a lot, but I’ve helped him potentially even more. I've helped get him tens of thousands of email subscribers on his Medium without him having to do much work and I'm happy to do it because he's the mentor I want. It's the same with people in Genius Network. When you pay people money and then you help them, they help you 10Xwhat you could ever imagine because they love you because you're a giver, not a taker. Those were some of the key things I learned.
Going back to the way that you've grown and built an audience, you talked about changing to the landing page. Before that ever happens and before you can ever get to 5,000 email subscribers in a month, you've got to have 5,000 people at least coming to a landing page where you're asking for an email address. The truth is, the vast majority of people who are ever listen to this don't have anywhere near 5,000 people coming to their website in a month. What can you share in a couple of minutes that drove that for you?
I'll go back to the beginning. I started writing online. I took this online course and the online course was from Jon Morrow. It's all about guest blogging. I don't even know if it's available anymore, but it was $197. Truth be told, I actually offer my own course now at this point. I have several hours on writing headlines and things like that, and the only way anyone can get access to those courses if they actually pre-order Willpower Doesn't Work. There's over ten hours of content. What I learned from that course was how to write compelling headlines, and compelling headlines are things that dare or pressure the person to click on it. They need to be highly emotional and interesting, but then obviously you need to provide amazing content so that people get to the bottom and they love it.
I'll give you a couple of examples. For example, I wrote an article called Want to Become a Multi-Millionaire? Do These Fifteen Things Immediately. There's a big number, there's the word multimillionaire and it's “do these things immediately.” It's immediate. There's another article, If You're Not Doing These Five Things, Your Life Is More Off Track Than You Think. There's got to be some intrigue, some emotion, and it's got to feel actionable. Whatever your audience is, it doesn't have to be related to self-improvement. You want to focus on numbers, you want to focus on emotion, and you want to focus on outcomes and outcomes people either want or they want to avoid. If you're in the weight loss category, it's like “Here are six simple steps to avoid belly fat,” or “Here's how to lose 30 pounds in 30 days.” Numbers like that actually work. The big article that blew me up and initially it was called Eight Things Every Person Should Do Before 8:00 AM. It was eight before eight. How did that happen? I took this online course in about May of 2015, and from May until the end of June, so it was about a month and a half, two months, I wrote about 50 articles and I was pitching them to a ton of places. I was writing two to three articles a day sometimes. I was learning how to write headlines and I was practicing a lot.
There are two key concepts here. One is that quantity is the path to quality. If you do a ton of stuff in a small amount of time, you start to develop some skills and some mastery. Number two is it's better to be prolific than perfect. It's better to pump stuff out even if it's not perfect. You can't be a perfectionist if you want to get good at something. You have to be willing to say something that you might regret a few years down the road if you change your mind. There’s stuff that I’ve written about and if you're a person who's constantly learning and growing, your worldview better be changing and you have to be willing to own that. I look back at some of the stuff I initially wrote and I wouldn't have written that today. It's better to be prolific than perfect and it's okay to change your mind if you're going to be continually growing. That's what happened is I wrote 50 articles in two months, one of them went viral, and then I took what I was learning and started to get better and better.
You develop rare skills and abilities, you do a lot of the work, and then you learn from your errors and you learn marketing. That's how you do it. I've coached and trained a lot of people in a lot of people will write 50 articles and they'll not get one to go viral. Again, I had a lot of pressure to succeed. There were a lot of external demands on me. I had a wife and three kids that depend on me, I had been studying again for five years. I wanted to be a writer from 2010 to 2015 so I had read thousands of books. I now had this external pressure to succeed and then I was investing in myself and I was pumping out tons of articles. If you combine all that together, eventually it kicked. It was the right place at the right time too. Medium was totally primed for someone like me to jump on and start blowing it up with self-improvement content that was different from stuff that they'd seen before. A lot of it was situational.
Sometimes those opportunities do come along, but the key takeaway is that focused action is critical. Having gone through a period of a couple of years where we wrote an email to our list every day, which is a lot of content that we put together, I became a better writer than I’ve ever been and it wouldn't have happened without that focused effort. What you're describing is the same, you've got to at some point do the work. I want to hear more about your book. I know you've got a new book coming out. You were gracious enough to share an advance copy with me and I’ve read it. It's fantastic. I would love for you to share with everybody a little bit about the book and why you wrote it.
A lot of my inspiration to write the book came from being a foster parent of three kids, also studying psychology and studying the power of environment. One of my favorite quotes in the book comes from Dr. Marshall Goldsmith. He is a psychologist, and he says that if we do not create and control our environment, our environment creates and controls us. One of the things that I’ve found in studying psychology is that western people, Americans and Europeans, we are very individualistic. We are very focused on ourselves and we almost entirely ignore the power of surroundings and about how the situation influences your thoughts, your behaviors, and even your identity.
Social psychologists have this idea called the fundamental attribution error. Let's say you're driving down the road and someone cuts you off. If someone cuts you off, you're likely to think like that's a bad person. You're not likely to think that person may be in a hurry because of some other factors. When someone does that, they commit what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. It's the fundamental decision making mistake that Western thinkers make. What the book is all about is that your environment is very powerful. You are the product of your environment, whether it's reactive or proactive, whether you've created an environment you want to be a part of, or whether you're grinding against an environment that you don't want to be a part of, and most people's environments are conflicting with their goals.
Most people's environments are pushing against them and that's why they have to use so much willpower. They have to use willpower in an environment where they have to constantly be trying to resist temptation, whether it's sugar or distraction on the Internet or buzzing on their phone. Most people's environments are set up for them to fail. Because of that, there's a constant use of willpower, and as willpower research finds it's like a muscle that depletes with use. The more decisions you make, the less good those decisions become. Willpower is a bad approach to life, and the reason people use it is because they're so focused on themselves rather than their surroundings. This book is all about how to create situations that force you to succeed, how to think more holistic about life, and how to be more mindful. To me, I think it's going to be a compelling book in 2018. It could be one of the biggest self-improvement books of the year because it's going to be compelling for people. It's going to change the conversation and flip the script a little bit. That's my goal, is that it helps people to actually make the changes they want. In my opinion, people are not going to make the change they want if they don't also change their environment. You can't change yourself if you don't change your environment, they are two parts of the exact same hole. That’s the premise and the book is a very strategic guide about how to change your life.
You talked about two types of environments in the book, high stress and high recovery. Can you explain the two and how they play a role?
In the world of weightlifting, let's say a person does a lot of intense resistance training. They do a lot of weightlifting. It's not during the weightlifting that a person actually gains muscle and gains strength, it’s actually while they're resting and it's while they're asleep. A lot of people don't get stronger because they don't rest enough. Also in the realm of creativity, most creative ideas don't happen while you were at your office. Research says only 6% of good ideas happen while you're at work. Most of those ideas happen while you are totally outside the work environment relaxing and resting. I call these types of environments enriched environments, and enriched environment is where there are lots of things that keep you totally engaged and focused in the moment.
In a high stress environment, you have a lot of responsibility, you're trying stuff you've never done before, it's difficult, and there are consequences. All of these components of the environment force you to be engaged and you're not distracted. That's almost the opposite of how most people's work environments are. Most people's work environments are low stress, low consequences, high distraction, low flow. The idea is that in both of these types of enriched environments, you're totally engaged and you're in a flow state because the environment is set up for that. If you're in a high pressure situation, you're going to be working very hard, but then you need to rest. Ultimately it's while you're resting and recovering that you're going to be getting not only your best ideas, but it's where the growth happens. There's an idea in organizational psychology, which is what I'm getting my PhD in, and it's called psychologically detaching from work. It talks about how people who don't actually detach from work, mentally, emotionally, and physically, they will have a hard time reattaching to work when they go back.
Most people in today's world, they're always plugged in, they always have their phone on, they're always checking their email, they're never fully on and they're never fully off. They're always midway in between. The idea of enriched environment is that when you're in a high-pressure and high-stakes situation, you're fully on. You are not distracted. When you're in a high-rest environment, you're fully off. You’re fully detach from work, you're fully detached from what you're doing, and you're totally engaged with your other life, whether that's resting or being with your family. In a high rest environment, you're just totally recovering. During that recovery you're setting yourself up to grow in all sorts of ways. In my opinion, those two environments are essential for growth and they're very rare. Very few people have a truly high rest environment and very few people have a truly high stress environment that's forcing them to succeed.
To make this practical for everybody listening, can you describe how you apply these in your own situation?
When it comes to high recovery, people need to optimize for high recovery first. Allow yourself off days, like free days. Dan Sullivan, the founder of Strategic Coach which is a really smart program, he talks about having focus days and having free days. He recommends all entrepreneurs take 150 free days a year. These focus in free days are the same ideas, high stress, high recovery environments. On a free day, you don't work you. If you get an email and you check it on a free day, it no longer counts as a free day. What that means is allow yourself to be off. Tim Farris calls it mini retirement. Take a few mini retirements regularly, give yourself a day where you go and rest and go have a fun day, or just a day where you're with your kids and your wife and you don't have your phone on you. Take a Sabbath, whatever it is. Give yourself time off and recover and engaged back into life. People are so addicted to work. That’s the first practicalities. If you actually give yourself time to rest and recover, you're going to get a lot of clarity. You're going to realize potentially that you're off path. Once you actually get clear, you realize, “I’ve been grinding on the wrong goals,” or “I’ve been doing the wrong things.” That's how you create a high rest environment, is you take off more time. When you're actually home, be home.
Another thing that Dan Sullivan says is wherever you are, make sure that's where you are. Wherever you are, that's where you should be. Be where you are and actually allow yourself more time off, but then when you're actually at work, delete the distractions. Do what you can to not browse the Internet, give yourself timelines. Parkinson's law, give yourself shorter timelines, increase the responsibility of what you're doing, take on different roles, invest in yourself more, invest in relationships, make your work more difficult. What happened to me was I was in a lot of ways forced into a high stress environment when I became a foster parent. The demands were very high and the consequences for failure were high. In the book The Millionaire Next Door, these two professors did a huge research study and they found that the people who become affluent and successful are the people who get paid for results.
Most employees, they don't get paid for results. They get paid for time on the clock, and that's not a high stress environment. You need to get paid for what you actually accomplished. If you want to be in that high level of environment, you need to get paid for what you achieve and there needs to be high level consequences for what you don't. Then you need to continually be trying things you've never done before. One of the people I talk about in the book is John Burke. He's a famous pianist and every album he writes, he tries stuff he's never done before. He writes songs that he doesn't have the capacity to play. That's one of the things that you do is you try stuff that you've never done before, that creates flow, and there's got to be high consequence for failure. Those are some things you could implement.
The book is one of the better self-help books I’ve ever read and I’ve read hundreds at this point in my career. What I love about is that it's compact. It's not this long, drawn out death march to the result. You get right to the point and you give practical advice and so well done. Where can folks find the book? What's the best place for them to go to find the book?
You can go to Amazon. I've provided a link for you, which is WillpowerDoesntWork.com/Books-Bonus-Giveaway.
I encourage you to go get the book. It is fantastic, particularly the way that Ben describes how to create your environments so that you're set up for success. I haven't seen that covered in that way anywhere else, and so I recommend that you go and get it. Ben, thanks so much for investing some time with me. This has been a lot of fun.
Thanks for your time.
About Benjamin Hardy
I'm Benjamin Hardy. After three long years fighting in court, my wife, Lauren, and I recently adopted our three kids!
You're probably here because of my writing. I write about self-improvement, motivation, learning, and entrepreneurship. Since late 2015, I've been the top writer on Medium.com.
The purpose of my writing is to help you live in alignment with your highest values and ambitions. To help you COMMIT to the life you really want to live.
Mentioned in the Show
- Benjamin Hardy
- Ryan Holiday
- Willpower Doesn't Work
- Power Vs Force
- Letting Go
- Genius Network
- Dot Com Secrets
- Cal Newport
- Jon Morrow
- Want to Become a Multi-Millionaire? Do These Fifteen Things Immediately
- If You're Not Doing These Five Things, Your Life Is More Off Track Than You Think
- Eight Things Every Person Should Do Before 8:00 AM
- Strategic Coach
- The Millionaire Next Door