Sharma, better known as the author of the two-decade-old business fable, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, swears by the 20/20/20 formula which is the key to “the 5am habit".
A litigation lawyer in Canada who stopped practising at 33, Sharma says he has used a narrative style similar to the one in Ferrari in his latest book, which took him four years to write. He calls it a disruptive, yet tactical book that has an interesting, eccentric story that teaches people some very real values. Edited excerpts from an interview:
In the book you say ‘excuses are seducers and fears are lairs and doubts are thieves’. How do people with supposedly high potential fall prey to fears, excuses and doubts?
The majority of human beings are very good at self-deception. If you look at all the influences from our parents, peers, and society and all the messaging we get from technology we are conditioned to ‘be like this, think like that, fit in like this, use that handbag, drive this car’. It just goes on and on. Over the course of a lifetime, we are brainwashed and hypnotised. It’s not surprising that we forget who we are, or get confused. It takes a person who is awake and brave enough to do the inner work required to know themselves to say, ‘here’s the life I want, here are the values I want’. Not a lot of people do that. How many people do you know who get up in the morning and work on themselves, on their minds, hearts, health and soul so that they can exploit their potential. You will be surprised to hear how many people say I would like to get up early but… When I hear that language, I know it’s generally their ego and I don’t mean the ‘arrogant ego’. It’s their scared selves saying we are frightened of change. There is a line in the book that says ‘if we believe our excuses enough times, we believe they are true’. The reality is that if you want to get up early, you will find that way.
‘Many of us die at 30 and are buried at 80’, the Spellbinder, one of the characters says that in the book. That’s a bleak outlook…
You can change it and live well by being a part of The 5am Club. I am a huge evangelist of the concept because I know how it works. So how do you get out of it (the bleak state)? First of all you understand the 20/20/20 formula. When we’re little kids are we’re sparkling, full of wonder, and curious. As we go through life, with what happens, we get disappointed and fall. We get the messaging to be average, to be reasonable, and not dream too big. We start to contract and shut down. We play safe but then we are not fully alive. So why is The 5am Club powerful? When you wake up in the morning and for the first 20 minutes you exercise, the dopamine, and all the stuff that comes with it, it makes you feel alive. Now it’s 5.20am, you get to the second part, which is reflection. You can meditate, visualise who you want to be, record about your future in the journal record. In the final 20 minutes, you aim to grow. Human beings come back to life when we learn, expand our skills, and reconnect to hope. If you do that consistently, you are going to improve the quality of life.
Then these habits should be inculcated in childhood.
You read my mind. Imagine a world where children get up at five o’clock and spend an hour working on themselves before they start the day. The world will be a much better place. Mother Teresa said it so well when she said if all of us would sweep our own doorstep, the world would be clean. Mahatma Gandhi said we should work on ourselves as that’s where the true devils are. Work on yourself first as that influences who we are in the world.
You say that it takes at least 66 days to get any habit going. Are there other things that one can do to build a habit because a big fear with starting a habit is the fear of failure.
We all want to live great lives, but often we’re not willing to do what’s required to do so. That’s like an athlete who says I want to be the world champion, but I’m not willing to train and go to the gym.
Anyone can get up early and make it a habit, but stay with it at least for 66 days. Each habit goes through three phases: destruction, implementation and integration. The brain finds changes harder at first, messy in the middle and awareness in the end. The first 22 days are supposed to be hard, the next 22 are messy because you’re actually rewiring neural circuits and emotional pathways. It’s like home renovation, it will be messy. In the final 22 days, it gets easier and you can stay with the process.
The dichotomy of technology: how it disrupts our life and yet makes it better. You talk about that a lot in the book. In itself this is a huge concept. Did you have to marry this to the idea of the 5am club?
Am I marrying them or am I divorcing them? I think I am divorcing. You’re correct to acknowledge that I believe technology is a wonderful servant, it’s a terrible god. There’s a line in the book that addiction and distraction are the depths of your creative production. I use a term called cyber zombies. A lot of people are spending the best hours of their best days playing with their phones. It’s a divorce in a sense that if from 5am to 6am, the victory hour, you are free of technology, you can develop yourself.
Why do you say that people are now making more mistakes at work than before? Is technology the only one to blame for this?
There is research saying that the world we live in now, where you can get instant gratification, is creating a very shallow brain. Before we could sit for three or four hours and read a book, or have a long conversation. Now people can’t even sit for 60 seconds. I would say technology (is responsible) because now you know you have all these things that are very fast, so it’s a very busy and distracted world. Every time you check a text message on the phone, you’re taking some of your cognitive bandwidth and giving it to that distraction, which means you have less brain focus on the work you’re doing. Also, every time the phone rings, you give some of your attention to it and that means you are distracted all day. If you’re not going to be fully focused on the work you’re doing, you’re going to make more mistakes.
You bring in the idea that high impact performers should be hard to reach and should narrow their focus. But that’s contrary to our current times in which we are expected to widen our focus and do more.
I am saying be a purist. Don’t go wide, be deep. Be a specialist as opposed to a generalist. We live in a world that says do a thousand things well, but I’m suggesting create one Sistine Chapel ceiling. Rather than having 5,000 friends on social media, have three friends that you really get to know. Rather than having 10 priorities every day, have a smaller level priorities and be excellent in those priorities. The key to genius is simplicity, not complexity.
However, if everyone only does what they want to all the time, what about the other mundane tasks? Who will do them?
That depends. If you are an entrepreneur, you can do what you want and delegate the rest. If you are an employee, you may have to do some things you do not want to, but that does not mean you cannot take the concept and start purifying your life and strip away the mundane things to have more energy.
I wake up at 5.30am but, as a parent, my 20/20/20 formula is about getting my child out of bed, getting her ready for school. How can I ever be the part of the 5am club?
The idea of getting up early is a powerful idea. Some people work in shifts and it might not be as easy to get up at 5am to run the 20/20/20 formula. However, you can take the concept and customize it for our own situation.
Maybe in your case, you go to sleep a little bit earlier and get up earlier. The way you begin your day sets the tone for your entire day. If you take one hour to prepare your mindset, heart set, health set and soul set, you’re going to have consistently better days, weeks, months and years.
So it’s not necessarily about getting out of bed at 5am but just about following the 20/20/20 formula…
No, it’s centred around awaking up at 5am. It’s just that you mentioned your particular situation, hence. However, if you look at a lot of the great creative people, or geniuses at the world—they all have one thing in common: many of them got up at 5am.