Let me come clean from the outset. When it comes to Julien Smith’s ‘The Flinch’, I’m a bit of a fan-boy. When I first stumbled across the book sometime around 2013, the power and simplicity of the 30 page download blew me away.
For anyone that doesn’t know about The Flinch, the basic premise 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 net result is that we still react as if being hunted down by a sabre-tooth tiger when, in fact, the only threats we 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. Smith sums up his book more succinctly: “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”.
I’m very aware that this topic is an oft-tread path in the ‘self-help’ community. But few, if any, tackle the subject with the precision, substance and practicality that Julien Smith applies. And he decided to do it all for free. More on that later.
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.
Who is 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 CEO of one of Canada’s most rapidly growing business: Breather. More on him and them later too.
For several months, after first reading The Flinch, I appointed myself the books’ unofficial ambassador, recommending it to almost everyone I came into contact with until hospitalisation and time put it out of my mind. That is, until May 2018, when I was talking to my long term friend and mentor Kevin Shine and he told me that I’d ‘changed his life’ several years previously. Turns out, it wasn’t something remarkable I’d done or said (no surprise there), but rather that I’d recommended The Flinch to him. After saying goodbye to Shiney, 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 competition in recent years, more than holds its own.
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, enquiring if this was a genuine long-shot (it was) or if I entitled other emails the same way (I don’t. This was the first). After a brief flurry of emails we hit the phones and this is the outcome of our conversation.
Julien proved to be a charming, considered and insightful interviewee. Proof that overcoming your own Flinch can reap huge benefits.
I was intrigued as to why, as a very busy man, he agreed to undertake an interview with a complete stranger. So I asked him the obvious question, “Why did you say yes?”.
“I agreed to it because it’s a refreshing change of pace to my usual life. A lot of people have read that book and its one of the things I’m most proud of in terms of the effort / reward ratio that I’ve achieved. When I wrote it I did my best to increase the likelihood of the exact outcome you felt whilst reading it. Because I put a lot of suffering into it, when writing it, my point was to have that self-sacrifice be worthwhile. Because then you see the outcome”. Julien pauses, perhaps reflecting on a life on his previous life as an author, “The other thing is I run a large company, so this is a refreshing space to where I normally am”.
Because I put a lot of suffering into it, when writing it, my point was to have that self-sacrifice be worthwhile.
In line with Kevin Shine’s comments and my own mission to explore what it means to ‘be the best’ I’m intrigued about Julien’s personal approach to writing the book. Is he all cerebral: projecting his imagined suffering self onto the page or is he more tactile: putting himself through physical suffering to explore his own limits? He definitely falls 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 can’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 resonates 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 make the point to Julien who acknowledges the rarity of pushing all the way,
I was always very interested in what gets somebody out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary
“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 try not to ‘blow smoke’ Julien’s way but the writer in me is as entranced as the part of me that works in elite sport so I ask, in the least fawning way I can muster, “The impact has been phenomenal, how did you make it so good?”
He has 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 laugh out loud at this whilst Julien continues,
“The only reason I had to speak to myself is that 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 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 brings 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”.
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. (Click to read The Flinch)
We’ll pick this up in Part Two.