Inner work

Everything starts on the inside.

What you do externally is always a reflection of what you do internally.

I’m most well-known for my advice on sales and growing startups. Here’s something few people realized about my advice: It’s much more about the way you should think and feel about things, rather than what you should say or do.

Thoughts and feelings before words and actions.

When people see me on stage, shouting, joking, and cursing in front of thousands of people, they assume I’m a very loud, outgoing, external-focused person. But I truly believe that 80% of everything I’ve done in life has been inner work. 80% of my time and energy is spent on inner work—but that’s what makes the other 20% impactful. It’s what made me successful in sales, it’s what allowed me to build a 50-person software startup where we do things our own way, rather than doing what everyone else in the space is doing.

Keep the screaming and cursing Steli in mind, and then be very clear about the following.

You apply inner work in two directions:

Outwards, through the Actions you take

I’m a big believer in feelings first, and thoughts first, before words and actions.

You do the work within yourself, before you externalize it and create success in the outer world. But all of this through a very practical and pragmatic filter, much more than theoretical or philosophical.

inwards, through the Results you get

Everything that happens on the outside you only known because of your own experiences and perceptions. And again, both experience and perception are processes that take place within you.

It’s your thoughts and feelings that translate events in the outer world into something you actually process.

So a lot of my advice was about “if this thing happens to you, then think about it this way, feel about it this way, analyze it this way.”

Pragmatic inner work: How internal actions lead to external results

Here’s an example from the archives of my sales teachings, something I shared in 2014 to help sales people get better at closing deals:

When you talk with a prospect and you qualified them, and determined: Yes, this person would benefit from buying what I have to offer. Then you should ask them to buy from you, and you should do so with confidence, enthusiasm, and conviction.

But if they tell you no, you should embrace that. Don’t be taken aback by it. Gladly receive the rejection you get, and see it as a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the prospect’s needs.

That’s one of the most important and fundamental things I want sales professionals to internalize in their approach to sales. It’s not about the words you use—it’s about the feelings you feel when asking for a yes, and responding to a no. It’s your inner feelings that determine the outcome of a sales conversation much more than the actual words you use.

But this applies not just in the context of sales—it applies in the bigger context of life. And that’s what I want to share more of here:

How to make INNER WORK work for you in whatever context is most meaningful in your own life.

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

[…]

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

[…]

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor Frankl

TK

How did i get into this inner work thing?

There was no conscious decision or clear intention on my part, no realization that inner work matters. It was just how my life played out from a very early age on.

I was just deeply unhappy about life and deeply unhappy about myself. I knew I was clueless. I knew I was full of shit. I knew I was wasting my life on meaningless stuff. I knew I wanted to feel different and be someone different, and most of all, I wanted to do something that matters. But I didn’t know how. Life was painfully confusing. But I believed that there must be people in this world who understood life better than I did, and I wanted to learn how they did it.

How did those people who lived a meaningful life do it?

For years I sought to answer this question. I grew and evolved myself through different stages of success, and eventually arrived at the conclusion that no one has figured life out.

We’re all clueless. We’re all dumb in some areas of our life. There’s an infinite potential of learning, because we’ll never know or understand everything there is to know and understand.

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”

Albert Einstein

I read an insane amount of self-help books, listened to all kinds of personal development CDs and DVDs on repeat, attended workshops, studied hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming, positive psychology, traveled around the world, got to know different countries and cultures, shared my life with people from different walks of life, pursued my dreams, and fell flat on my face more times than I care to count.

My biggest failure was probably Supercool School—a startup that I invested five years of my life into, fully believing with every fiber of my soul that this would be the most important thing I’d ever do with all of my life. When I finally had to accept that it would never turn into something, I was mentally, emotionally, physically, and financially bankrupt. I talked about that experience back in 2012 at TEDx New Haven.

But the one thing I kept doing was: I kept trying. I kept pursuing. Like in that Japanese proverb, I fell down 7 times, and got up 8. Except that I keep stumbling and falling, and I’ll keep getting up again for as long as I can.

Because inner work never stops.

There’s an external world, but we can experience it only internally

Every conversation we have we someone else, we in a way have with ourselves. This is not something I would have agreed with when I was younger, but the better I became at listening to other people, the more I realized how little I was actually listening to others, and how little I understood of what the other person was trying to convey.

It’s almost like in the movie Inception, where every person in that movie is just another alter ego of yourself.

How we see the world is a reflection of who we are and how we think much more than how the world actually is.

Everything outside you is a reflection of your own thinking.

Byron Katie

How we respond to the outer world and other people is mostly a reflection of how we project our inner self onto our map of the external world.

D. H. Lawrence

“The map appears to us more real than the land.”

D.H. Lawrence

And if we live on our own map more than in whatever “reality” is, then we better design ourselves some fucking amazing maps.

Why do I call it “work”?

You’ve probably heard of Timothy Gallwey’s book The Inner Game of Tennis. I love the idea of inner game. Of playfulness. But it’s not what it feels like to me. To me, it’s work. It requires discipline, thoughtfulness, and oftentimes I don’t feel like doing what’s required to progress. It’s much more sanding the floor and wax on, wax off, than playing a game.

It’s work. Not a game. Maybe someday in the future I’ll figure how to take a more playful approach, how to make it feel less heavy and more light—because it’s something I do admire in others when I see it. I love people who have both depth and a sense of playfulness and lightheartedness. But that’s not how I do things.

My Personal examples of inner work

Now to give you some more ideas of what inner work is for me, I’ll share some of my recent ones here:

Thinking my feelings, instead of feeling them

Sometime in late 2019 and early 2020, I realized that there were a lot of feelings I didn’t allow myself to actually feel anymore. Instead, I suppressed them, and ran them through a mental process that would allow me to manage them in a way that helped me to be functional without having to actually experience them.

I discussed this in a podcast episode in June 2020:

The kind of feelings I shut out were:

  • anxiety,
  • nervousness,
  • sadness,
  • melancholy,
  • and even joyfulness.

What all of these have in common is that I see them as emotions of weak people. And I never wanted to be perceived as weak.

I have two older brothers, and one of them sometimes has this silly humor that I both liked, but was also repelled by. Because it seemed a bit naive and vulnerable.

When in 2019 I was preparing the divorce from my wife, I was overcome by this very weird experience that I couldn’t quite put into words. Until I realized: This is anxiety! I’m feeling anxious about this.

If you would have asked me at that time when the last time was that I felt anxious, I couldn’t have told you. I genuinely believed that I never felt anxious.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why a little mental trick I learned in school stuck with me for so many years, and why I shared it many years later on the Close blog.

It’s great to have these kinds of techniques at your disposal. Make them part of your inner work toolset. But be discerning in your use of them. Just because you can transform anxiety into excitement doesn’t mean that you always should.

Sometimes feeling anxious is just what you should do, and by cutting yourself off that sensation, you miss out on an important insight.

So when I realized that I was suppressing some types of emotions categorically—that’s when the inner work started. I now needed to find ways to allow myself to experience these emotions again, and then actually be fully present and accept them when they seemed overwhelming.

Feeling my feelings fully again wasn’t easy. My mind always kept my heart in check.

And whenever a feeling got so intense that my mind felt it’s losing control, anxiety nausea kicked in.

We are disturbed not by what happens to us, but by our thoughts about what happens.

Epictetus

My default reaction would be to retreat into the safe harbor of my mind, of logical thought, of rationality, away from the stormy seas of my emotions. But if I’d kept doing the same thing that I’ve always done, how could I grow? How could I learn? How would I evolve like that?

To fully appreciate peace, you have to know turmoil.

– Darrell Foster

So I surrendered to these intense feelings, and it’s as if they put me to the test: They grew more intense, more overpowering, more threatening. The only thing that allowed me to stay with it was my desire to learn, and the courage to trust in my strength. I’d tell myself: “Whatever these feelings will teach you—you’ll be able to handle it.”

Mundi ex igne factus est. The world is made of fire. It’s a reminder that suffering and struggle are the ways to truth, to understanding… We learn the best through adverse situations.

Coach Jay Weiss

Once I faced my inner demons, instead of sheltering in the safety of my rational mind, once I allowed myself to feel my feelings fully—it set me free. Rather than throttling my emotions, I was able to experience and release them, tap into them as a source of energy. To tap into my inner force.

But again, this is where the inner work part kicks in. Because unlike in a fairy tale or Hollywood movie, there’s no “happily ever after” part. The inner work never stops. Old habits die hard. I’m still tempted to lock my feelings in a cage of rationality. My calm mind still wants to tame my wild heart.

But I keep doing the inner work. I’ll honor my strength with courage.

And by sharing my own inner work with you, I aim to encourage you to do the same: to keep pushing yourself. To not settle for what you’re already good at. To not just stay hungry, but to be starving.