Time to
Flinch or Fight?

By Giles Mountford

It’s about an instinct—the flinch—and why mastering it is vital. This book is about how to stop flinching. It’s about facing pain.

Julien Smith

Cover from The Flinch by Luca Pierro/Getty Images

Time to
Flinch
or
Fight?

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I remember being in my back yard screaming at my girlfriend, ‘I’ve no idea how to do that!’

The Flinch is a book that does not fuck around.

It pulls no punches and keeps taking shots until the last page. I love it. Partly because I hated the fact that I didn’t write it. When I first stumbled across the book sometime around 2013, the power and simplicity of the 30-page download blew me away.

Who is the book’s author, Julien Smith? A man of many incarnations he’s been a New York Times best-selling author, blogger, adventurer and entrepreneur. At the time of writing he’s the co-founder and Chairman of one of Canada’s most rapidly growing businesses: Breather. More on him and them later too.

The basic premise of The Flinch is that we are genetically programmed to flinch away from things that might hurt us. A good thing too you may think. Problem is, our evolution has been slow to catch up with the reality of modern life. The result is that we still react as if being hunted down by a sabre-tooth tiger when, in fact, the only threats those of us living in comfort and privilege usually face are; awkward conversations, looking foolish in front of our peers or the gaze of an expectant audience waiting for us to make a speech. Until 2020 came along and set that illusion straight.

Now that we’re living with the outfall of a global pandemic and the agonising attempts to secure equality for millions who suffer at the hands of prejudice, taking chances with a sabre-tooth may seem preferable to some of the challenges people are facing right now. However, that’s not to say that running away or curling up into a ball will help us learn to adjust, survive and maybe even thrive in the new order of things. Nor is seeking out comfort and safety, important as those things are, the only option available to us.  We need to be equipped to face the challenge, roll with the punches and, in time, land a few of our own. How does The Flinch measure up to the current climate?

When I first spoke to Julien, a couple of years ago, he summed up his book like this: “It’s about an instinct—the flinch—and why mastering it is vital. This book is about how to stop flinching. It’s about facing pain”. It’s a summary he expands on these days,

“The sub-text of the Flinch was always that you are safer than you think – you have the ability to go beyond where you feel safe and comfortable. That’s true but it’s also important to be aware that safety is neither a given, a constant or the same for different people. Everything is relative to the individual. In 2020 we’re witnessing protests across America and the world because millions of people don’t feel safe just stepping out of their homes. It’s important to come to grips with that. Many, many people feel deeply unsafe for all kinds of different reasons”.

Roll back to 2013. For several months, after first reading The Flinch, I appointed myself the book’s unofficial ambassador, recommending it to almost everyone I came into contact with. Five years later, I was talking to the then England Cricket coach and my long-term friend and mentor, Kevin Shine, who told me that I’d ‘changed his life’ several years previously. Turns out, it wasn’t something remarkable I’d done or said, but rather that I’d recommended The Flinch to him.

I immediately re-downloaded a copy and jumped back in to see if it had passed the test of time. Forgive my cynicism, but we’ve all gone back to bands, films and books that entranced our younger selves only for the present sophisticated-self (you know, the one we like to think we’ve become), to be bitterly disappointed. Fortunately, The Flinch, despite the deluge of ‘self-help competition in recent years, more than held its own.

When I first spoke to Julien, a couple of years ago, he summed up his book like this: “It’s about an instinct—the flinch—and why mastering it is vital. This book is about how to stop flinching. It’s about facing pain”. It’s a summary he expands on these days,

“The sub-text of the Flinch was always that you are safer than you think – you have the ability to go beyond where you feel safe and comfortable. That’s true but it’s also important to be aware that safety is neither a given, a constant or the same for different people. Everything is relative to the individual. In 2020 we’re witnessing protests across America and the world because millions of people don’t feel safe just stepping out of their homes. It’s important to come to grips with that. Many, many people feel deeply unsafe for all kinds of different reasons”.

Roll back to 2013. For several months, after first reading The Flinch, I appointed myself the book’s unofficial ambassador, recommending it to almost everyone I came into contact with. Five years later, I was talking to the then England Cricket coach and my long-term friend and mentor, Kevin Shine, who told me that I’d ‘changed his life’ several years previously. Turns out, it wasn’t something remarkable I’d done or said, but rather that I’d recommended The Flinch to him.

I immediately re-downloaded a copy and jumped back in to see if it had passed the test of time. Forgive my cynicism, but we’ve all gone back to bands, films and books that entranced our younger selves only for the present sophisticated-self (you know, the one we like to think we’ve become), to be bitterly disappointed. Fortunately, The Flinch, despite the deluge of ‘self-help competition in recent years, more than held its own.

It’s clear that millions of people in United States go out every day and they fear for their life.

Satisfied that I was dealing with a classic in the making I acted completely out of character, faced my own ‘flinch’, completed a rapid Google search and fired off an email to Julien Smith with the title ‘Long Shot’. I gave him the background to my own experiences with the book and asked if he’d be up for being interviewed for Dair Magazine.

To my surprise he replied and after a brief flurry of emails we hit the phones and have subsequently revisited those early conversations in light of what is happening in the world right now.  Proof that overcoming your own Flinch can reap huge benefits.

I was intrigued about Julien’s personal approach to writing the book. Was he all cerebral: projecting his imagined suffering self onto the page or was he more tactile: putting himself through physical suffering to explore his own limits? He definitely fell into the latter camp,

“I moved towards suffering as part of the process. I walked the Camino De Santiago, a Spanish pilgrimage route, which is about 800 kilometres. I had just finished writing my first book, which was a business book.  There were a lot of things I was doing physically at the time; power lifting, parkour. I was doing enormous amounts of intermittent fasting and lots of other obscure physical practices. I was connecting that part of me to a broader theme of what needs to happen to make a meaningful difference”.

I couldn’t help but introduce a diversion, “That’s quite a broad range. What prompted you to get into those things?”

“I was just fascinated by peak performance. I was 30 at the time and so I was at this threshold at which point my body would degrade naturally or I was on the cusp of building a life I was physically proud of. That mirrors the same thing psychologically – if you’re going to put in the bare minimum that could degrade into nothing or worse because of your habits. You’re going to reach this precipice where it’s up to you to decide ‘ok I’m going to go and do this’”.

This resonated with me but few people I encounter, outside of the elite sports world, take the decision to genuinely push themselves to be the best they can be. I made the point to Julien who acknowledged the rarity of pushing all the way,

“I really grappled a lot of those things at the same time – I was always very interested in what gets somebody out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary, in terms of performance in a broad sense. I knew that there were extreme commitments that needed to be made. I now have a long history of making extreme commitments that most people wouldn’t do. I’ve seen a lot of suffering from that, but I’ve also seen a lot of reward. I was fascinated by ‘edge work’ – being just on the unreasonable side, rather than what most people do – which is stay on the reasonable side. I was building a habit of doing that”.

I tried not to ‘blow smoke’ Julien’s way but the writer in me was as entranced as the part of me that works in elite sport, “The impact has been phenomenal, how did you make it so good?”

He had the grace to laugh at the question,

“Thank you – I re-read it as a challenge to myself now. At the time when I wrote my first book, I had a mentor called Seth Godin. I wanted to write a book that was similar to his ‘The Dip’ so he found himself editing this book and he said to me, ‘Julien, I want to let you know that you basically have this one shot to write a book this visceral and it will never happen again. Do you want it to be ok or do you want it to be the best thing you’ve ever done?’. I remember being in my back yard screaming at my girlfriend, ‘I’ve no idea how to do that!!’”

The ultimate answer involved one extremely long walk and his girlfriend who provided inspiration of her own,

“Most people in life have a mentor and in having a mentor, they are able to look at someone else and say ‘ok what should I do here?’. I’m an entrepreneur and maybe I always was but I didn’t know anyone to look to, so I wrote that book to myself. You can only write a book that rude if it’s to yourself”.

I laughed out loud at this whilst Julien continued,

“The only reason I had to speak to myself is that I didn’t have anyone around me to give me the talking to that I probably needed. I have carried that message with me – which is this constant thing of, ‘it’s supposed to be hard’. For example, my girlfriend, who is a powerlifter, was trying to beat her own records even when her body was telling her no. If you’re a normal human being who has not gone through these things you don’t know that it’s supposed to hurt and as a result you never actually figure out what you are capable of. Even those who have the good fortune of knowing only know in a few areas. Or you can say to yourself, ‘this is what my limit is today but I need to find out, in other areas’”.

He brought it back to the Camino De Santiago, “Maybe I was afraid and didn’t know it. I remember lying awake and thinking, ‘I don’t know how to solve it but I’m going to keep walking’. If you’re walking 30 kilometres a day whilst thinking about writing this book you are actually physically feeling it, because your body is breaking down. Every morning you have five to ten kilometres of walking and it takes months to recover after it – you’re physically living it”.

 

I moved towards suffering as part of the process.

At some point it just becomes a choice, which is based on what kind of person you want to be.

The idea of blending the physical and intellectual struggle is not too far away from the original concept of a pilgrimage, albeit the physical usually accompanied a spiritual rather than intellectual journey. To help bring him to earth with a bump, Seth Godin also gave Julien the option to make a million dollars or secure a million readers. He opted for the latter which is why he published it online for free. I’m glad he did. In doing so he also fulfilled one of the Flinch’s key challenges.

The world today seems very different from the early 2010’s.  Julien’s experiences and observations have seen him to remain true to the essence of the book but these days he offers a less confrontational framing than the ‘rude’  letter to himself,

“Facing the Flinch is up to you. What I took for granted at that time, and I find myself taking less for granted now is the ‘centre’: the circle of safety from which you need to operate.

When we watch all these protests, it’s clear that millions of people in United States go out every day and they fear for their life. Because of that potential violence, their circles of safety are meaningfully smaller than mine. Do you come home to a place where people respect to you or can you come home even to an inner world? That’s all that some people have”.

After publishing The Flinch Julien found himself questioning his own path,

“I could have just kept doing what I was doing for the rest of my life if I wanted. Or I could take the extreme risk and try this completely insane thing. In deciding to do it I didn’t really have a choice because I’d just written this book which dares people to do the thing that makes them uncomfortable. I would be the biggest hypocrite if I didn’t do it. To a degree The Flinch forced my hand – though it didn’t force me to succeed. I don’t think I would have gotten to this point of actually doing it if I hadn’t written that book”.

The risk he’s talking about is Breather, the flexible workspace provider he founded with long-time friend Caterina Rizzi in 2012. Within a few years, the ‘Uber for private workspaces’ was flourishing across Canada, North America and now Europe. He has moved from CEO to Chairman. Even in today’s troubled times the business is still flourishing.

Julien continues to relish facing his own flinches, most recently launching a coaching software business, but his outlook has been tempered by perspective,

“It is super exciting stuff that I get to do: this highly risk tolerant behaviour. I can go out and do kind of vaguely crazy shit out there in the world.  But I know I need a place of safety to operate from. You could feel safe or unsafe in any place, right? You have these deep places, often psychological environments, where people find strength and create their own circle of safety. I can’t speak to other people’s sense of safety, but I know It’s important for everyone to have their own safe space”.

In its own way, The Flinch has caused me a small degree of discomfort in the past when I failed to understand someone else’s sense of safety and risk. Despite her initial reluctance, I persuaded one of my higher performing team members to read the book. Finally, she agreed. The following week she handed in her notice saying that The Flinch had given her the courage she needed to make a career change.

Julien had the sensitivity to hedge his reaction when I told him this story until I assured him it was the best thing for the team member in question (and funny too). As a business leader and coach, he got it immediately,

“Another interesting thing is, I used to believe that you just had to push yourself beyond your own risk tolerance but actually I realise now, as any good coach will, that people have their own self-selecting methods. You can push them 10 to 20 percent out of that limit but you can’t push them 100%. Some people I work with now, it’s their first job and they are on the phones – so they just want to pick up the phone!

You go from there to someone who has their first major level up and you’re giving them a pay raise and you think they’re going to make a difference. It’s pretty interesting. I realised that in order to push those boundaries you need this realm of safety. You can’t just keep pushing and pushing. You have to decide yourself – your risk tolerance is appropriate to where you are. You can push 30% past that, but you can’t push 100% past that. It’s to do with how safe you feel and how supported you feel in light of all those negative things.

The Flinch is not a negative book but it’s very provoking. It says things like, ‘you’re actually much safer than you think you are’ but it doesn’t say, ‘find a safe place where you can try these things’.

At some point it just becomes a choice, which is based on what kind of person you want to be.

The idea of blending the physical and intellectual struggle is not too far away from the original concept of a pilgrimage, albeit the physical usually accompanied a spiritual rather than intellectual journey. To help bring him to earth with a bump, Seth Godin also gave Julien the option to make a million dollars or secure a million readers. He opted for the latter which is why he published it online for free. I’m glad he did. In doing so he also fulfilled one of the Flinch’s key challenges.

The world today seems very different from the early 2010’s.  Julien’s experiences and observations have seen him to remain true to the essence of the book but these days he offers a less confrontational framing than the ‘rude’  letter to himself,

“Facing the Flinch is up to you. What I took for granted at that time, and I find myself taking less for granted now is the ‘centre’: the circle of safety from which you need to operate.

When we watch all these protests, it’s clear that millions of people in United States go out every day and they fear for their life. Because of that potential violence, their circles of safety are meaningfully smaller than mine. Do you come home to a place where people respect to you or can you come home even to an inner world? That’s all that some people have”.

After publishing The Flinch Julien found himself questioning his own path,

“I could have just kept doing what I was doing for the rest of my life if I wanted. Or I could take the extreme risk and try this completely insane thing. In deciding to do it I didn’t really have a choice because I’d just written this book which dares people to do the thing that makes them uncomfortable. I would be the biggest hypocrite if I didn’t do it. To a degree The Flinch forced my hand – though it didn’t force me to succeed. I don’t think I would have gotten to this point of actually doing it if I hadn’t written that book”.

The risk he’s talking about is Breather, the flexible workspace provider he founded with long-time friend Caterina Rizzi in 2012. Within a few years, the ‘Uber for private workspaces’ was flourishing across Canada, North America and now Europe. He has moved from CEO to Chairman. Even in today’s troubled times the business is still flourishing.

Julien continues to relish facing his own flinches, most recently launching a coaching software business, but his outlook has been tempered by perspective,

“It is super exciting stuff that I get to do: this highly risk tolerant behaviour. I can go out and do kind of vaguely crazy shit out there in the world.  But I know I need a place of safety to operate from. You could feel safe or unsafe in any place, right? You have these deep places, often psychological environments, where people find strength and create their own circle of safety. I can’t speak to other people’s sense of safety, but I know It’s important for everyone to have their own safe space”.

In its own way, The Flinch has caused me a small degree of discomfort in the past when I failed to understand someone else’s sense of safety and risk. Despite her initial reluctance, I persuaded one of my higher performing team members to read the book. Finally, she agreed. The following week she handed in her notice saying that The Flinch had given her the courage she needed to make a career change.

Julien had the sensitivity to hedge his reaction when I told him this story until I assured him it was the best thing for the team member in question (and funny too). As a business leader and coach, he got it immediately,

“Another interesting thing is, I used to believe that you just had to push yourself beyond your own risk tolerance but actually I realise now, as any good coach will, that people have their own self-selecting methods. You can push them 10 to 20 percent out of that limit but you can’t push them 100%. Some people I work with now, it’s their first job and they are on the phones – so they just want to pick up the phone!

You go from there to someone who has their first major level up and you’re giving them a pay raise and you think they’re going to make a difference. It’s pretty interesting. I realised that in order to push those boundaries you need this realm of safety. You can’t just keep pushing and pushing. You have to decide yourself – your risk tolerance is appropriate to where you are. You can push 30% past that, but you can’t push 100% past that. It’s to do with how safe you feel and how supported you feel in light of all those negative things.

The Flinch is not a negative book but it’s very provoking. It says things like, ‘you’re actually much safer than you think you are’ but it doesn’t say, ‘find a safe place where you can try these things’.

As long as you’re in a place of discomfort I think that you will learn something.

You might not learn things that you’ll like but you definitely learn things.

You’re going to reach this precipice where it’s up to you to decide ‘ok I’m going to go and do this‘.

It seems I was on the right track highlighting the difference between the pilgrim author and Businessman. They’re both Julien Smith but they’re faced with very different challenges.  I ask how he deals with the level of feedback he gets in his current role versus the isolation of writing,

“Well, I think for me what happens is you get confronted. A friend once said that you are constantly grappling with your own inability to do things. If you do something by yourself there is a lot of room for denial but when you are surrounded by a lot of people, they will tell you if you’re doing something wrong. If you’re surrounded by confident people, as I am, everyone will challenge you”.

I’ve worked with many CEOs and, sadly, those I’d want to work for are in a small minority. Usually it’s because of their own lack of self-awareness. Does Julien, coming from the starting point of an author, see self-awareness as key to his success?

“In my view you get a lot of highly ambitious people who are arrogant and believe that they can take on the world but they have very low self-awareness. In my case I have a high level of self-awareness whilst at the same time keeping a sort of arrogance. So, I have this combination of self-awareness but at the same time I know ‘I’m going to figure this out’, which is an unusual combination”.

What we’re touching on is the failing of many, despite driving their businesses, to fulfil their personal potential. It begs the question, “How do you continue to be the best you can be?”. 

“As long as you’re in a place of discomfort I think that you will learn something. You might not learn things that you’ll like but you definitely learn things. The outer world is challenging and very well understood – you understand how gravity works and things like that but a lot of us haven’t learnt to look in the internal space”.

As 2020 has both increased discomfort through the impact of COVID-19 and raised awareness of the inequalities and disparity of resource, opportunity and support experienced by others The Flinch can be viewed through a different lens.

Julien’s reflections on the inequalities and disparity of experiences of people, often set in motion from birth, makes the Flinch even more powerful in my eyes: the challenges take on a whole other level of meaning dependent on the individual. This creates the unusual but stimulating effect of increasing empathy and challenge at the same time (remembering that the original ‘The Flinch’ subtext is that you have more room to move than you probably imagine). Which, in itself is a rarity – something I’ve only witnessed in the great sports coaches I’ve encountered.

You’re going to reach this precipice where it’s up to you to decide ‘ok I’m going to go and do this‘.

For now, there’s one last thing I want to know about The Flinch. The book immediately grabbed me all those years ago because it starts with one of the of the most visceral, stripped back sporting environments possible, “The Flinch starts in a boxing gym – is that a metaphor or is it real and something you observed?”.

Julien seems pleased that his answer won’t disappoint me,

“That’s a real gym – it’s called ‘Hard Knocks’ in Montreal. It really had a sign above the door that said ‘VIP entrance’. My girlfriend is a powerlifter and we were both lifting at this gym and it became this metaphor of: you can walk in the door or, you could not walk in the door and your mindset will dictate what you do inside”.

Now the opportunity to walk into Hard Knocks, or indeed any gym, is at best restricted we still have a decision to make. do we face our Flinch, or do we shy away?

I’d recommend the best way to answer that question is to grab yourself a copy of The Flinch, seek out your inner strength, find your own place of safety and if you’re able to do so, give it your best shot by taking on the first challenge in The Flinch. And let Julien and me know how it goes.

MADE YOU THINK?

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