James Altucher
Choose Yourself
TEDxSanDiego 2014

A few weeks ago, I think I made a huge mistake, which is kind of normal for me. I didn’t know it was going to be a mistake. I’m one of those fathers who likes to brag to his 12 year-old daughter. I let my 12 year-old daughter read a book I wrote, which was a big mistake. She came to me a few days later. She’s a quick reader. I’m proud of her.

She said, “Daddy, I hated this book.” I said, “Molly, why did you hate this book? It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever written in my entire life.” She said, “Throughout the entire book, you’re always crying that you’re going to kill yourself. You’re crying on the floor. What’s wrong with you?”

And because I want to be a good example to my children, I said, “Honey, I wanted to tell the truth. At that time, I was feeling that down and out, and that low.” Then she said, “Daddy, that’s really mean.” I thought about it and I’m glad she said that.

The time that she was referring to was a very difficult time for me. I had built and sold a business that I had been proud of. Literally, in one summer, I was like a drunken rock star on steroids. I went from $15 million in the bank to $46 in the ATM machine. I had nothing left. I was losing my house. I was losing my marriage and my family.

I was so ashamed. I couldn’t talk to any of my friends, so I lost all my friends. I couldn’t deal with my parents. I couldn’t deal with anything. I was depressed. I really thought it would be better for my two little girls at the time to have a $4 million life insurance policy than to have a father.

Have you ever been in a situation where you start off with a wide funnel at the top of choices and ideas? But then, you get a little depressed. It starts to spiral down lower and lower until you feel like there is only one way out.

That’s how I felt. I really wanted to have other choices. I had two kids.
I really needed to have another choice. I went to a therapist. He said, “What can I do for you that will help you feel a little better?” I said, “The only thing you can do is write me a check for $1 million.” He said, “Trust me, that won’t help you.” He was right.

All the time, we have many choices in life. A great and wise man once said, “If you don’t make the choices in your own life then someone else is going to end up making them for you, and it won’t be good.” It might be a boss. It might be a professor. It might be your parents. It might be colleagues. It might be a company. Someone else is going to start making choices for you. They’re not going to be as good as the choices you can make yourself. Of course, that great and wise man was myself. I’m being very humble here.

I had failed and succeeded and failed. I had started over 20 businesses, 17 of them failed. We unfortunately live in this culture now that almost glorifies failure. We’re supposed to be so happy. “Fail fast.” It’s like failure pornography. We worship people who fail and then somehow succeed.

I can tell you, failure is really unpleasant. It’s much better to view it as an experiment. Thomas Edison didn’t fail 10,000 times when he was making an electric light bulb. He just experimented and then he made an electric light bulb. We don’t consider that the guy was lying on the street, about to kill himself, on the very first try. He tried 10,000 times.

I decided to look back as an experiment and say, “What was going right every time I was going up? What was going wrong every time I was going down?” I decided that there were four distinct things that were working for me. I’m going to add a fifth at the end of this talk. There were four distinct things that were working for me every time I was on my way up, and four things that were failing for me every time I was on the way down.

The first thing was physical. When I was lying on the floor feeling the worst, I was overweight. I was drinking. I was very unhealthy. I was sick all the time. If you have pneumonia or you’re stuck in bed all the time, you’re not going to go out and save the world. You have to sleep well. You have to eat well. You have to exercise.

That doesn’t mean that you drive two miles to the gym and then walk two miles on the treadmill, and then drive two miles home. The average professional violinist sleeps 8.6 hours a day. I’m going to do that, too. I decided that, every day, I was going to try to 1% improve how I was acting physically. I was going to walk more. I was going to eat a little better. I was going to sleep a little better. I was going to stop staring at computer screens as much. I was going to start to laugh a little bit more.

The average kid laughs 300 times a day. I could see that. When I go to one of my kid’s performances, the adults are all standing around. There is always an intermission. Who wants to go to a performance of a bunch of 13 year-olds? It’s the most boring thing in the world. The adults are all standing outside at intermission. The kids are running around, chasing each other and laughing.

The average kid laughs 300 times a day. The average adult laughs five times a day. What the heck happened? What did we do to ourselves? Part of the problem is all of these responsibilities and choices that other people have made for us. The first thing is keeping physically healthy.

Number two is emotional health. This was very important for me. All of my business and friendships were with people that I didn’t necessarily love and trust. I made a commitment. Every day, I was going to 1% improve on being around people I loved and trusted, and people who loved and trusted me. It started off very difficult. I didn’t know what to do. I was on the ground. When you’re on the ground, you can’t suddenly jump up and say, “Hey, life is great.” You’re on the ground.

Here’s the first thing I tried to do. It was my first experiment in being around people who love me. It always starts with an ad on Craigslist. I put an ad on Craigslist that said I had a head injury. After the head injury was over, I found out I was psychic. Anyone could write to me and ask me any question they want. I got hundreds of emails that day.

Of course, I threw out all the emails from men and only answered emails from women. When I tell people this story, the first thing they ask is, “Did you end up going out with any of the women?” I say, “Look at me. Of course I didn’t go out with any of the women.” But I did end up being friends with some of them.

It’s very important for me now to always be around people who I love and trust. The difference in my life has been remarkable, waking up and thinking, “I’m going to be around people who love me and who I love.” It sounds easy, but it’s not always easy. One time, somebody wrote me an email and said, “James, I love all your ideas. I’m trying them.

I’m coming up with business ideas left and right. One problem I have is, every Friday night, I go out drinking with my friends and they just trash all my ideas. What should I do?” I said, “It’s very simple. Stay home on Friday night.” I never heard from him again. It’s hard to do, these simple ideas.

Number three is spiritual. I don’t like using the word “spiritual” because it means something different for each person. I’m going to call it creative gratitude. This is not easy gratitude. I’m always grateful for my kids and my wife. That’s almost like emotional sugar. It’s a little too easy. Think of the phrase, “Complaining is draining.”

How many people just today have at least complained once? I know that I have. Raise your hand if you’ve complained at least once. Maybe you were in traffic on the way here and you said, “Honey, you just missed the ramp. We’re going to miss James Altucher’s talk.” This is an opportunity to solve difficult gratitude problems.

You could say to yourself, “I live in such a great and innovative city that everyone wants to be here, and that’s why there’s traffic.” Any time there is a problem and you feel the seeds of complaint coming up, think of how to turn it into gratitude. I guarantee you, it’s always there. Again, don’t change overnight. I’m just talking about 1% better every night.

Here is the fourth thing. Every day, I write down 10 ideas. Why do I do this? Think about your leg muscles. If you got into a bike accident and you were laid up in a hospital bed for two weeks, you would need physical therapy to walk again. That’s how fast the leg muscles atrophy. It’s the same thing with the idea muscle.

If you write down 10 ideas a day, I guarantee you, within six months, you’ll be an idea machine. In a year, that’s 3,650 ideas. Give yourself permission to have plenty of bad ideas. You’re going to have many bad ideas, but you will be an idea machine. This has changed my life.

This is not advice. We’re all smart, intelligent and talented people. This is what I did. My life has completely changed every six months almost 100%. It’s been remarkable. I’m going to add a fifth thing that’s really the most important thing. That is to give ideas to X. Come up with 10 ideas for X. Come up with ideas for 10 different companies or 10 different people.

Start sharing those ideas with no expectation of them sharing back with you. When you have no expectations, it’s amazing how easy you get to exceed those expectations. One out of 50 or 100 will want to get back to you. They did get back to me.

So much has changed in terms of financial, health, relationships, my networking and opportunities for the future just by creating this chain reaction of spreading ideas of the new currency of this new century. It’s been very exciting.

Finally, the universe has left us with only one gift. That is the gift of this one moment that we’re all sharing together. I’m so grateful. For instance, I haven’t peed in my pants during this moment that we’re sharing together. What do you do with this one moment? You have to make art with it. Then you have to share it. I’m really thankful that we’ve all been able to share this moment together. Thank you for letting me speak.