Tom Rath

Tom Rath (@TomCRath) joined James Altucher to talk about mastery, learning, and how to love your job. Rath is on the podcast because he has a new book out, Are You Fully Charged?. He is also the author of Strengths Finder 2.0 and Eat Move Sleep, which James says he enjoyed.

Rath tells James that he even though he’s written several books and read many others, it’s hard for him to make sense of it and apply it to his daily life. He’s not the only one.

Michael Mauboussin and Maria Popova both said that their deep understandings are not just from reading, but from speaking and writing about those things. It’s why I created the Book Club here, because reading on your own without engaging with the book draws out only a wisp of the true value.

Rath’s journey of learning started very young, and with high stakes. When he was sixteen he had vision problems in one eye. A doctor told him that there were tumors growing on his eye, and he’d lose the eye. But that wasn’t the bad news. The bad news was that his tumor suppression genes didn’t work like they should, and he would be susceptible to cancer for the rest of his life.

“It got me really focused on all the things I could do to make a difference and treat each day as a moment to make a lasting impact,” Rath told James.

We often hear stories about how people change after events like this and scientists are starting to understand why. “Researchers have documented the phenomenon of posttraumatic bliss among patients confronting a terminal medical diagnosis,” writes Dr. Jane McGonigal in her book, Reality is Broken. “Something seems to click in their minds, empowering them to enjoy their lives more. It’s not just that they’ve realized how precious life is; there seems to be some kind of significant mental clearing that occurs along with a new ability to focus on positive goals.”

The diagnosis left Rath wondering how he was going to have a normal life. He soon realized there is no such thing. In his treatise, Principles, Ray Dalio writes:

“I learned that the popular picture of success—which is like a glossy photo of an ideal man or woman out of a Ralph Lauren catalog, with a bio attached listing all of their accomplishments like going to the best prep schools and an Ivy League college, and getting all the answers right on tests—is an inaccurate picture of the typical successful person. I met a number of great people and learned that none of them were born great—they all made lots of mistakes and had lots weaknesses—and that great people become great by looking at their mistakes and weaknesses and figuring out how to get around them.”

This is a point of emphasis for Dalio, the path to success is filled with challenges, no one walks down a red carpet. But like Ryan Holiday writes about in The Obstacle is The Way, this is good news.
Dalio again:

“Remember that identifying problems is like finding gems embedded in puzzles; if you solve the puzzles you will get the gems that will make your life much better.”

If we have to work hard at things to accomplish anything, what’s the best way to do it?

In Rath’s research and experience, the driver is intrinsic motivation. Money, Rath explains, is really important up to about $40,000 a year per household. Then its relation to well-being (note: “well-being” is a research catchall that includes “happiness”) tapers off to about $75,000 where it disappears completely.

We tend to muddle this equation because – says Rath – we buy stuff. James is on the record about aiming for experiences rather than things, and the research is pretty clear. Experience beats stuff six days a week and twice on Sunday.

Tim Ferriss explained on one of his podcasts that his entire family was taking a trip Not only did they get the anticipation for six months, but they also got the memories. Stuff typically doesn’t work this way.

Every smartphone I’ve had seems new and shiny out of the box but there is always some lag in the first week where I think, “Really? Didn’t I just buy this?”

Experience work the other way – we tend to forget about the mediocre parts and remember the best parts. Try it, what happened on your last experience to the beach, mountains, or theme park? My guess is that you easily remember the best parts.

Of course there will be some negative memories, what do we do with those? WE SHARE THEM! How crazy is that? Half of what James Altucher writes about are situations when things didn’t go well. Jon Acuff says that he specifically looks to turn negative experiences into stories he can use and lessons to be learned.

Alas, work is not vacation, but we can transfer these big ideas from why we love vacations into our work. Rath advises people to focus on their intrinsic motivation. What parts of your job do you do because you enjoy them?

Maria Popova was on a QA episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast and she shared this advice for someone who wanted to start a blog:

“Write for yourself, if you want to create something meaningful and fulfilling, something that lasts and speaks to people. The counterintuitive but really really necessary thing is that you must not write for people.”

Popova goes on to say that once you write for others – or write “content” – you lose the pure form of motivation you began with. This is important because that’s the very thing you need to be successful.

Later in the episode she answers a question from someone who wants to know the key attribute for success. Popova writes about people like Neil Gaiman, Susan Sontag, and Benjamin Franklin. The thread that runs through each of their stories, she says, is consistency. If you do the work each day, you’ll get better each day, and eventually you’ll have great work. Intrinsic motivation is the best way to do that work.

Going back to Ray Dalio, we can see this. Dalio’s net worth is 1.2 billion dollars, but that alone isn’t indicative. In the words of  the words of Seymour Schulich; “The word ‘billionaire’ is a very crude and inaccurate measure of how well I have played the game of life.”  But like Howard Marks, Dalio has ideas that we can apply to our lives: (emphasis mine)

“I believe the importance of good work habits is vastly underrated. There are lots of books written about good work habits, so I won’t digress into what I believe is effective. However, it is critical to know each day what you need to do and have the discipline to do it. People with good work habits have to-do lists that are reasonably prioritized, and they make themselves do what needs to be done.”

How to love your job

If you already love your job, good for you. There are a lot of people who just show up for the paycheck. What hacks can those people do to make their jobs a lot better?

1.Connect with a customer. Your job creates value, but for who? (Note: Are you sure your job creates value?) If you can connect with that person, you’ll have a chance to build up some internal motivation.

When call-center employees who were soliciting for a tuition fund, met a student who received the money they raised, they subsequently raised more money and reported their jobs as more enjoyable.

2.As someone you don’t like for a favor. Wha? How does asking your frenemy Francine from accounts receivable for help help you?

When Benjamin Franklin faced this same situation he asked his Francine if he could borrow a rare book from her. This request set up a sequence of thoughts, Franklin speculates:

  • “If I lend Franklin this book, I must not dislike him too much, else why would I let him borrow this book.”

Another tip is to include hand written post-it notes on your interoffice correspondence. Researchers have found that “TPS Reports” that include a handwritten note on the cover were returned completed almost twice as often compared to “Reports” without one.

3.Fake your friendships. As A.J. Jacobs and Gretchen Rubin have shared on the podcast and Penelope Trunk has written about, we can change our thoughts by first changing our actions. It’s what #2 pointed out specifically, but we can apply it more broadly for all parts of work. Bored at a meeting? Sit up and lean forward. Hate a certain task? Connect with a customer about it (see #1). It’s often a lot easier to change our actions before our thoughts.

4.Don’t fall for FAE. Fundamental Attribution Error is a psychological misstep where we tend to blame the person more than their condition. Jim is a jerk, Lauren is lazy, and Steve a slob. Instead we might want to take a step back and wonder why. Maybe Jim is a jerk because of something going on at home? Maybe Lauren thinks that working slower means working better. Everyone has story, find out the one of the people you work with.

Remember too, the words of Austin Kleon, “every job is still a job.” No matter where you work, there’s going to be something you won’t particularly like.


A key part of Rath’s work is about finding balance. Rath says that if we set the bar too high, as was the case for exercise recommendations, we turn people off.

Instead we should aim for a balance of the good and bad things in our life.

  • If you sit a lot, aim to walk a lot too.
  • If you eat an unhealthy lunch, aim to eat a healthy dinner.
  • If you have an unproductive morning, aim to have a productive afternoon.

If you’re having trouble balancing though, use the “bar too high” technique to reduce the things you don’t want to do.

  • Login to Facebook too much? Change your password to something long and don’t save it. If you have to type it in each time you’ll login less.
  • Each too much junk food? Quadruple bag it. When I buy licorice I actually put it in four gallon sized bags. It doesn’t take much to open each bag, but it’s enough of an obstacle that I don’t eat until I’m sick.
  • Don’t exercise enough? Know your tendency. Go back to the Gretchen Rubin interview and read her book, Better Than Before, to get some ideas for how to make it more enjoyable.

How to be a master

Mastery is something Rath has written quite a lot about in his books, and it sounds like he leans towards the importance of everyone finding their own talents – but not entirely. “It’s probably a triangulation of talent, practice, and luck,” Rather says.

The two talk about the 10K hour rule and both conclude it’s not so much of a rule as a metaphor. Rath says that if you have some natural talent in something, you may only need 5K hours to become world class at something. It goes along with Robert Greene’s thoughts that you don’t need deliberate practice for the hours to qualify. James Altucher adds that some world class people have achieved mastery because of the intersection of their merely good talents (like Scott Adams admits).

Simple hacks

Rath also shares a few simple hacks that make his life better.

  • Think about what notifications you need during important moments. If you are reading books to your kids, what do you need to come through? If you’re at a play with your spouse? Then set up your phone so those are the only notifications that get through all the time. Ryan Holiday took a step like this when he deleted Facebook from his phone.
  • Don’t be reactive to the work you do. As Adam Grant explained to James, the people who are most successful at their jobs do their work first.
  • Take walks. Walking may be the best lifehack there is. Daily Rituals is my favorite source of knowledge nuggets like these; Thomas Hobbes took a two-hour walk after breakfast to meditate, Rene Descartes would take his daily walk after lunch, Charles Dickens would leave promptly at 2:00 for a vigorous walk where he searched the countryside and streets of London for “pictures to build on.”

Oh yeah, the three keys to helping you learn and grow?

  1. Meaningful work.
  2. More positive than negative interactions
  3. Have enough energy to make a difference.

Thanks so much for reading. One caveat to experiences and things. If the thing lets you have an experience, it’s probably pretty good, especially if you can do it with others. Games are a great example of this. Playing board games and video games with others –  to a point, don’t go over 21hr/wk or bad things start to happen – largely brings positive effects. For a more down-to-earth example see Chris Janson’s Buy Me a Boat.

Can you do one thing for me? I’m in a reading rut right now and can’t get out. Can you tweet me (@MikeDariano) one book you’ve read in the last year that was especially good. Thanks.

5 thoughts on “Tom Rath”

  1. […] Tom Rath told Altucher that if you have some natural ability at something – Lebron James in basketball, Neil Gaiman with stories – that you may need fewer hours. Robert Greene said that your hours might not need to include deliberate practice at all. Scott Adams admits he’s mostly mediocre at individual skills but world-class when those things come together. […]


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