#134 Chris Sparks, Author of Experiment Without Limits: My Favorite Books, Tools, Habits and More | 20 Minute Playbook

In Episode #134, we deconstruct Chris Sparks's peak performance playbook—from his favorite book to the tiny habit that's had the biggest impact on his life. Chris Sparks is the author of Experiment Without Limits. We cover applying game theory to life, maintaining systems, and the self-signaling effect.
Last updated
August 13, 2023
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Chris Sparks is a retired professional poker player, recently ranked in the top 20 online cash game players in the world.
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#134 Chris Sparks, Author of Experiment Without Limits: My Favorite Books, Tools, Habits and More | 20 Minute Playbook


About Chris Sparks

Website | Twitter | Experiment Without Limits: Personal Experiments for Peak Performance and Productivity

“I think it really all comes down to trusting the process that accomplishing anything just takes a lot of time and iterative effort.” – Chris Sparks

Chris began his career as a high stakes poker player and became one of the Top 20 Online Poker Players in the world. To achieve that, he studied elite performers across disciplines and started optimizing every area of his life. Which led Chris to found Forcing Function and begin working with the world’s best founders, investors, executives, poker players, and even artists, to optimize their own performance and move more quickly toward their goals.


In this episode, we deconstruct Chris Sparks’s peak performance playbook—from his favorite book to the tiny habit that's had the biggest impact on his life. In it we cover:

  • (00:00:00) – Introduction
  • (00:03:15) – Applying game theory to life
  • (00:05:52) – Focusing on your thought process rather than the result
  • (00:10:12) – Deciding the game you want to play
  • (00:15:05) – Maintaining systems and avoiding habit debt
  • (00:19:39) – Optimizing for your top value
  • (00:31:05) – The self-signaling effect
  • (00:33:43) – Looking for superpowers in others
  • (00:45:56) – Trust the process and stay in the game

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Castbox, Pocket Casts, Player FM, Podcast Addict, iHeartRadio, or on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

An Idea Worth Trying

Chris always carries a notebook with him to jot down ideas and things he wants to remember; even if he doesn’t do anything with those notes later, he’s forming the habit of getting information out of his head so that he can think clearly. He opts for paper rather than digital only because digital devices can pop up distractions as you’re note-taking.

Our Favorite Quotes

Here are a few ideas we'll be thinking about weeks and months from now:

  • “I find one of the meta skills of life is looking for other people's superpowers. So this just mindset that every person that you meet has a hidden superpower and wow, wouldn't that be amazing if you could uncover it and they could teach you some of those aspects of your superpower?”
  • “Every decision we make is a values trade off, where you're having to decide that one value is more important than another value. And we say, hey, all of these things are really important, but at the end of the day that's what you're doing is saying, hey, I value this more.”
  • “Rather than worrying about the things that you aren't good at, how do you go deep around the things that you are really good at? What are the things that for you are pretty pedestrian that to others look like you're running up a wall? How can you do more of those activities?”
  • “Anytime you post something on social media, anytime that you go through any sort of application process to university, there are game mechanics embedded in everything that we do. And if you can understand the underlying structure, the intrinsic thread that ties all of these games together, you can be much more likely to achieve your goals and win in those games, whatever that means to you.”

Books Mentioned

The following books came up in this conversation with Chris Sparks:

Selected Links

We covered a lot of ground in this interview. Here are links to the stories, articles, and ideas discussed:


Daniel Scrivner (00:05):

Hello and welcome to another episode of 20 Minute Playbook, where each week we sit down with an elite performer from iconic founders to world renowned investors and bestselling authors to dive into the ideas, frameworks, and strategies that got them to the top of their field all in less than 20 minutes.

Daniel Scrivner (00:22):

I'm Daniel Scrivner, and on the show today I'm joined by Chris Sparks. Chris began his career as a high stakes poker player and became one of the top 20 online poker players in the world. To achieve that, he studied elite performers across disciplines and started optimizing every area of his life, which led Chris to found Forcing Function and began working with many of the world's best founders, investors, executives, poker players, and even artists to optimize their own performance and move more quickly towards their goals.

Daniel Scrivner (00:49):

Here's just a few quotes from Chris's clients. Zack Kanter, the founder of Stedi, which is backed by Stripe, Union Square Ventures and Bloomberg Beta, said, "Chris is a machine. Working with him as a startup founder is like having a cheat code. Mastering performance means mastering yourself. For the first time in my life, I feel like I can finish anything."

Daniel Scrivner (01:07):

And here's what high stakes poker player Garrett Adelstein said, "Performance coaching is everything I could have asked for, and then some. If you're looking to maximize your efficiency towards increasing your income and achieving your long-term goals, Chris is your guy."

Daniel Scrivner (01:21):

In this episode, you'll learn why Chris is fascinated with game theory, why any time we choose to pursue a goal, we're choosing to play a game, most of which have defined rules that we need to learn to maximize our chances of success. What Chris learned as a top 20 poker player, including why he stays focused on the process rather than the results he's receiving at any moment in time, and why he approaches every hand played as a learning opportunity.

Daniel Scrivner (01:47):

Why Chris's daily routines are extremely simple and why complicated routines are fragile and typically breakdown. Why Chris's top three values are wisdom, integrity, and adventure, what that means to him and how anyone can identify their own top three values. Chris's favorite micro habits. He shares his favorite books, including The Goal and The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, which no one on the show has mentioned before, and so much more.

Daniel Scrivner (02:13):

You could find the show notes and text transcript for this episode at outlieracademy.com/134. That's outlier academy.com/134. You can learn more about Chris's Team Performance Training, which happens twice a year at teamperformancetraining.com. You can learn more about Forcing Function at forcingfunction.com, and you can follow Chris on Twitter, @SparksRemarks. With that, let's dive into Chris Sparks' playbook.

Daniel Scrivner (02:41):

Chris, I'm thrilled to have you on 20 Minute Playbook. Thank you so much for making time and for joining me today.

Chris Sparks (02:46):

It's an honor, Daniel. I mean, man, to be back on a show, the caliber of yours, I must be doing something right. It's such an honor and I'm so excited for the opportunity today.

Daniel Scrivner (02:56):

Well, that's way too kind. For people listening that maybe don't have the context, when we launched Outlier Academy two years ago, way before 20 Minute Playbook, Chris was the very first guest who took a leap and said he'd be willing to join me and let me interview him, and you'll learn why in just a second. But I really appreciate the time, Chris.

Daniel Scrivner (03:15):

Let's jump right into the questions. I always love to start 20 Minute Playbook by asking about a recent fascination. What have you been fascinated or obsessed by recently? What can't you stop thinking about?

Chris Sparks (03:25):

A recent obsession of mine has been trying to apply the principles, underlying structure, methodology of games to the rest of what we would refer to as real life. This might surprise people who know me as I've been playing games for a couple of decades right now and I obviously spend a lot of my time and attention thinking about how to win in all forms of that, but starting to recognize that we play games all the time without recognizing it.

Chris Sparks (04:01):

Anytime you post something on social media, anytime that you go through any sort of application process to university, there are game mechanics embedded in everything that we do. And if you can understand the underlying structure, the intrinsic thread that ties all of these games together, you can be much more likely to achieve your goals and win in those games, whatever that means to you.

Daniel Scrivner (04:28):

Just really quickly on that, because game theory is a deep topic, if we went off on that tangent it'd take up probably the rest of the episode. For people listening that maybe are intrigued, is there anything you would point people to get a primer or an overview on game theory, whether that's a book or a blog post or a talk?

Chris Sparks (04:44):

Sure, yeah. If there was a way to compress game theory into a quick sound bite or a Medium post, I would love to do that. That requires a bigger brain than mine. The best place that I would point people to is a post that I did last year, which is a beast, a little bit of my magnum opus, it's called Play to Win: Meta-Skills in High-Stakes Poker.

Chris Sparks (05:06):

So taking a poker playing lens, particularly success at the highest limits of poker and looking at what are all of the underlying principles or as I like to think about it as the hidden dimensions of the game, you think about something like dark energy, the things that are not seen but are actually driving all of the success of the best players, breaking those down using poker as a lens and making a lot of connections to entrepreneurship and investing. It's weird to point people to a 5,000 word post as a first step, but that's my best distillation of what I understand right now on game theory.

Daniel Scrivner (05:44):

No, it's great. We will link to that in the show notes and for anyone listening, you can find the show notes at outlieracademy.com. Just click on this episode.

Daniel Scrivner (05:52):

That's also the perfect transition. Early in your career, you were enormously successful as a poker player. You ranked in the top 20 online poker players, which is fascinating. We'll talk in a second about what you're doing now, but it's a very prestigious circle. So I wanted to ask a couple questions related to poker.

Daniel Scrivner (06:08):

One is a little bit of maybe a softball throw, and it's for people listening that there's a lot of people that play poker as a hobby. For people listening that are all levels of skills, but generally more of a beginner in the pursuit or the game of poker, is there any lesson, trick, rule of thumb you would give them that would likely be able to improve their game even just a little bit?

Chris Sparks (06:31):

Sure. I think this applies to many things, is to focus on your thought process rather than the result. One of the key things that poker beats into you by getting financially punched in the face a bunch of times is that the universe is probabilistic and that many occurrences are due to various permutations of luck. So all you really have control of is your approach, the way that you think about things.

Chris Sparks (06:59):

So treating every single hand that you play as an opportunity to deconstruct your thinking process and to think about other ways that you could have played the hand that might also have worked, or to say all right, every time you bet, what are you trying to accomplish with this bet?

Chris Sparks (07:16):

Would a smaller size work? Would a larger size work even better? Are there other ways to win this hand? If you fold say, okay, you're folding this hand, are there other hands that you wouldn't fold? Is there something that your opponent could do that you would notice that would cause you to be less likely to fold?

Chris Sparks (07:31):

A lot of people just see every single hand and evaluate it in a vacuum, this is the only way to play this specific spot. But there's a lot of levers you can pull, a lot of different variables that you can tweak, that every hand becomes a learning opportunity.

Chris Sparks (07:49):

And that's what I see the people who go on to do really incredible things, as I would refer to them as top performers, is that every iteration, every performance moment becomes a learning moment because an opportunity to explore one dimension of their game. The title that usually people use is deliberate practice, like one specific dimension of their game that they can work on.

Chris Sparks (08:14):

And that usually means zooming in to some molecular level and trying to evaluate things from first principles, not taking anything as a preset assumption, being aware of the places where what we think is a fact is really an opinion. That's really, I find the key to having a really quick trajectory in any game or any pursuit for that matter, is to just zoom in and take every hand very seriously.

Daniel Scrivner (08:41):

So maybe as a way to distill that down, it almost, at least what I'm taking away from that is pull apart outputs from inputs or results from what you were able to do. Zoom in and focus just on inputs. And really try with every single decision, I guess to zoom down the stack and think about what you could have done differently in all the permutations. So it's like almost exploring alternate realities back in time.

Chris Sparks (09:03):

That's an amazing way to put it. What we're experiencing right now is only one permutation. So exploring all of the paths, the more things that you try, the more likely you are to stumble on a better path, something that works a little bit better. And that was really key to my progression as a poker player. I was just willing to be extremely and publicly wrong about something.

Chris Sparks (09:27):

Anytime as someone who's posted on Twitter has learned this firsthand, that's the best way to learn is to post your opinion on something and people will happily correct you. It's the same thing in poker is there's a lot of experimentation and being willing to try things and many of those things to fail and paying relatively expensive tuition for those failures. But that is really the only way to optimize and to converge on a strategy that works really well across a variety of situations that you'll encounter is just to be willing to be wrong.

Daniel Scrivner (09:59):

I love that framework and what you discussed there, because one, it's obviously applicable everywhere, any game, not just poker, in your work, in your life, in almost anything you can be able to focus on, but it obviously is clearly applicable in poker.

Daniel Scrivner (10:12):

I want to ask one more question, which is a little bit higher level. What's the biggest lesson you took away from all of your years playing poker? And for people listening, you still play poker. So this was something you did professionally at the height, but it's not something that you stopped doing ever. You're continuing to play competitive poker in many ways.

Daniel Scrivner (10:27):

So I guess the question is, when you look back on all of the experience you've had playing poker, what's the biggest lesson you've taken away that you've applied in your life, time and time and time again? And I know you just gave us a pretty great, juicy one, is there anything else like that, that has just been applicable in your life? And it could be a rule of thumb, it could be a mental model, it could be a story, just anything there that applies maybe more broadly.

Chris Sparks (10:50):

Absolutely. So my peak in poker for those listening was around the age of 21 to 23. I'm 35, so in poker years, I'm a dinosaur. I'm basically halfway into the grave, but I still find ways to outcompete and to win. I usually refer to myself as semi-retired. I'm currently in the middle of a planned sabbatical due to the summer months and just to take a break to travel, gallivant around Europe a little bit.

Chris Sparks (11:23):

I'm currently in Mexico, really going deep into my work with executives, investors. And these days when I play, I play primarily for fun with people that I really enjoy, but obviously I'm still trying to win, and if I could take home some money, that's even better.

Chris Sparks (11:39):

One of the key lessons that I apply over and over again from my days in poker, I would distill down by saying, are you playing the right game? So in poker, we would call this game selection. This is by far the biggest lever that you have in how much that you win because in poker, and I think in a lot of aspects in life, success is relativistic.

Chris Sparks (12:06):

So think about this, literally, if you are a little league baseball player, but you find yourself in a tee-ball league, you'll probably be the MVP. It doesn't mean you're an amazing baseball player, but you imagine to get in games that you are likely the best player.

Chris Sparks (12:21):

And the same is very much true in poker is a lot of the soft skills of poker revolve around how do you get into games with players who aren't as good as you. If you want to get better, obviously a lot of that's going to come from competing against and learning from players who are at your level or higher.

Chris Sparks (12:40):

And a lot of that is unavoidable, as where there are bad players, other good players will come. It's very much Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come. But knowing where is my source of advantage and how can I find ways to lever that advantage? Where are the places that I play best? How can I play in those places more often?

Chris Sparks (13:00):

And you extend this to entrepreneurship and all right, what am I really good at? What do I think is a really great opportunity? What is the intersection of that in terms of the field that I want to play in to maximize my chances of success?

Chris Sparks (13:13):

Think about this as an investor. What is a sector that I know the most, that I have the most asymmetric information, that I have the most interest in and willing to just go extremely deep into the crevices, into the balance sheets in order to uncover this information that I have a sustainable moat, a sustainable competitive advantage in this place?

Chris Sparks (13:37):

So that's really what I distill it down to is, where do you play? What game do you want to play? And as I said at the outset, recognizing all the times that you are playing games without even realizing it.

Chris Sparks (13:53):

So the way I like to summarize it is every time that you play in a game you don't have an advantage in, you dilute your advantage. So if I can only play in games that I win on average, I don't need to worry about the scoreboard, I don't need to worry about how much in my bank account, that'll take care of itself. All I need to convert for is that I'm putting myself in a position to succeed.

Chris Sparks (14:16):

And that's the same thing in my business, is picking something that I would literally do all day for free, but I happen to have some people who find it very valuable, who allow me to live a decent standard of living.

Chris Sparks (14:26):

And so that's what I'm trying to instill with clients is, all right, rather than worrying about the things that you aren't good at, how do you go deep around the things that you are really good at? What are the things that for you are pretty pedestrian that to others look like you're running up a wall? How can you do more of those activities? So this concept of game selection I find is really, really key.

Daniel Scrivner (14:48):

So well said. You mentioned in the beginning of your answer there, what I want to talk about next, which is you now spend most of your time coaching executives, founders, investors, all people that perform at a very high level, I think most people would say from the outside looking in, but these are people that want to perform at an even higher level.

Daniel Scrivner (15:05):

They're maybe facing a big challenge in the business that they're running. They're going through a big evolution in the startup that they're managing or their career is changing. And so I want to ask you a couple questions around peak performance for people that are already performing really well. I want to ask a couple that are specific to you.

Daniel Scrivner (15:23):

One of them that I wanted to ask was if people listening could shadow you for a day, as creepy as it might be, be with you when you wake up all the way until you end your day and just be a fly on the wall as you're going through your day, what do you think they might be surprised by in terms of habits, routines, the way you work, how scheduled you are, how not scheduled you are? Just if someone was from the outside looking in on your day to day schedule, what might they find remarkable and interesting?

Chris Sparks (15:51):

I love this. One of these things, if I could clone myself and one of these clones could be a television producer, the show that I would love to watch that in my mind does not exist would be shadow, is that you shadow someone for a day. And this could be someone who they owned a pizza parlor or a laundromat. I guess I keep coming up with food examples. I haven't had lunch yet. It could be a factory foreman, it could be a race car driver. The opportunities are endless.

Chris Sparks (16:27):

But there's so much to be learned from this day in a life because observation, there's so many questions that you wouldn't even think to ask until you see someone do it. And this is again, one of my fantasies that I would love to do as a service is I would love to fly to my client's house and just see where their desk is, see where their bed is.

Chris Sparks (16:50):

Again, not because I have this super curious about where they live, but there's so much that can be learned only through observation versus what someone tells you. There'd be a lot of really quick optimizations that I can make. Also, I would learn a lot more about what they find is important by the way they set up their setup, all that type of stuff.

Chris Sparks (17:08):

Putting that aside for a moment, I think the thing that would most surprise people who watch me for the day, the word that comes to mind is simplicity. I am very, very simple in the way that I do things. Simple in, I would say more of a Japanese sense of a stripping away all unnecessary complexity, trying to streamline and make everything as easy as possible.

Chris Sparks (17:38):

So people assume, hey, I've been obsessed about productivity and performance professionally for six years, unprofessionally for much longer than that and they would say, oh, my notes are ... I have this yellow notepad sitting next to me and I'm just writing things on it as it comes to mind. I don't have a really crazy second brain type thing where I'm detailing everything that I've ever said.

Chris Sparks (18:05):

Or they see things like my habits and be relatively basic, but things that I can do consistently every day, no matter where I am, no matter what tools that I have. I don't need these super robust systems because a key lesson that I have found over the years is that the more complexity you create, the more fragility that goes along with it, and that there's these maintenance costs with any system that you need to just put more and more input into the system just to keep getting the same level of value out of it.

Chris Sparks (18:42):

Anyone who's worked in a startup, particularly in a technical side, is very familiar with this concept of technical debt, and I think this is very true in terms of systems debt and habit debt, is that if you aren't maintaining your systems, they will become more and more obsolete, more irrelevant over time.

Chris Sparks (18:58):

So the secret to keeping things very, very simple and streamlined is that I can stay consistent and when I fall off, like everyone in the entire world does, it makes it very easy to get right back onto the horse. So I wouldn't do very well in these Casey Neistat type videos of like, wow, what a crazy routine.

Chris Sparks (19:20):

And how do you fit all those things into a day? It's pretty straightforward, but there's a lot of an intention and thought because I find that there's nothing that beats compound interest. And what I'm really optimizing for is having a really, really long timeline of compounding.

Daniel Scrivner (19:39):

So well said. What sorts of values and standards do you bring to your work every day? And what I mean by that is what's important to you about how you show up day to day in terms of how you show up for your partner at home, how you show up at work, how you show up for the company, how you show up for your clients? Just maybe talk for a second about values and standards and how you think about those.

Chris Sparks (20:01):

I love talking about values. One of my favorite exercises to assign and encourage, I call simply the top values exercise. This is adapted from a workbook that I love called The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, one of those management classics that I think has stood the test of time.

Chris Sparks (20:22):

And in a nutshell, what this exercise does is you first select all of the values that you think are important to you, things that you would identify with, and maybe you have a list of 20 or 50, people value a lot of things, but you have to systematically whittle those down to, hey, these are my top 10, these are my top five, these are my top three. Okay, now rank order those, this is my top value, this is my second value, this is my third value.

Chris Sparks (20:46):

And this starts to get really uncomfortable for people as they're saying, wait, I can't be a billionaire and spend a lot of time with my family? Well, you could, but a lot of other things are going to have to get sacrificed. So which one comes first? It's like, oh, you're saying that I can't work out for three hours a day and travel around the world all the time? Well, you could, but it's going to be very difficult.

Chris Sparks (21:10):

There's a lot of these. Every decision we make is a values trade off, where you're having to decide that one value is more important than another value. And we say, hey, all of these things are really important, but at the end of the day that's what you're doing is saying, hey, I value this more.

Chris Sparks (21:27):

So the obvious conclusion that I came to is, if we're making these values trade offs all the time, let's make them upfront so we can make trade off decisions that are most aligned with us. I find this super powerful is I say, hey, this is my top value, this is what comes first. Anytime this value is at stake, this is what I'm optimizing for, and then second and then third.

Chris Sparks (21:47):

So these three top values, these are mine. I check in on these once a quarter because values, priorities do shift and I think they should shift. Mine are wisdom, integrity, and adventure. And real briefly, because definitions are important, this is what these three mean to me.

Chris Sparks (22:06):

So wisdom is my mission. I think a lot of my purpose in life is to explore this question of what makes a good life. And the most important follow up to that is, okay, if we discover what a good life is, how do we live like that? And I think a lot of what I do, a lot of my presence and curiosity in the world is geared towards trying to answer this question or at least limit it down.

Chris Sparks (22:30):

The second is integrity. And this is a relatively new one on my list, but I recognize because I'm an extremely competitive guy, I was very susceptible to taking on the values and goals of others who I saw as successful, rather than getting in tune with my definitions of success, my inner scorecard.

Chris Sparks (22:50):

So this is my reinforcement of, all things being equal, I walk my own path, I run my experiments, I evaluate things from first principles, plus I'm a man of my word, I say what I'm going to do, all this type of stuff. But it really comes down to I am running my own race. There are no other competitors, this is a pure time trial. So integrity is staying true to myself.

Chris Sparks (23:12):

And then finally is adventure. And this has been an ongoing theme of my life for a long time. So I spent about half of the year traveling. I spent multiple years where all I did was travel. I do lots of things that I think are fun that push myself. It's really underrated to just stay in the game, to just be doing something for long enough in order to get lucky.

Chris Sparks (23:37):

So I find that if I'm having fun, if I'm treating something like an adventure, I'm a lot more likely to go deep into something to fully explore the boundaries of it, to fully explore the possibilities. So it's not only valuing, hey, doing adventure is doing things that push myself, that our growth oriented activity is really important, but also trying to bring a sense of fun and adventure to everything that I do.

Chris Sparks (24:01):

So these three values I find very helpful anytime I'm deciding what project to take on, who I want to work with, what do I prioritize in a given day, in a given week. It all comes back to what optimizes for these values the most. So if you want to check out that exercise, you can do it. It's on forcingfunction.com/topvalues.

Daniel Scrivner (24:19):

Perfect. And we will link to that in the show notes. Thank you for sharing those. Thank you for not only sharing obviously the top level keyword, but the definition behind it. I find those three, especially the second one you shared, really fascinating and deep and thoughtful.

Daniel Scrivner (24:34):

I want to ask one more question about you. This last one is, what tiny habit has had the biggest positive impact on your life or work?

Chris Sparks (24:42):

When I hear tiny habit, I think of micro habits, something that happens at a five second level that's just reactive. And the first one that came to mind is just everywhere I go, I have some form of a piece of paper with me. So I'll have a tiny notebook in my pocket or in my bag, or I have notebooks on my desk, in the kitchen, by the bed.

Chris Sparks (25:09):

And the whole idea is anytime I come up with an idea, something that, hey, this would be cool to check out or look into, or hey, I haven't talked to this person in a while, I should message them, or I need to buy some milk, whatever it is, I immediately note it down.

Chris Sparks (25:24):

And many of these pieces of paper I don't do anything with, I'll toss them. Sometimes I'll convert them into a to-do list, sometimes they'll lead to an action. But the whole thing is that I'm reinforcing this habit of offloading information from my brain into something that I can go back to later.

Chris Sparks (25:42):

A classic in productivity, Getting Things Done, he has this amazing line that the brain is a poor storage device. And I have found this to be so true in my life is that I want to maximize my mental RAM, all the bandwidth that I have in my head for being creative, for thinking about ideas rather than trying to remember things.

Chris Sparks (26:00):

So not only do I find that this allows me to be more focused in my work, to be more present in conversation because there aren't these threads in the back of my mind, hey, remember to do this, I should check out this other thing. But also it creates lots of prompts, lots of mental bookmarks for taking action. And if the same themes keep coming up in notes, I just keep moving it up in the prioritization hierarchy.

Chris Sparks (26:23):

So that's I find the first step to do anything is say, hey, maybe this is something that I might want to do. And there's just something about the physical act of writing it down that becomes tangible, objective and real. And that's all I'm trying to do is just minimize the distance between my brain and the pen.

Daniel Scrivner (26:42):

Two quick followup questions. I know obviously, for anyone not watching the video of this interview, you showed the pad of paper you have next to you and it's just a super unremarkable yellow pad of paper people could buy anywhere. Is there any difference in the pad that you bring with you? Any favorite notebook brand?

Daniel Scrivner (26:57):

And then can you maybe go a little bit deeper on why physical versus digital? Because I think most people have something similar, but most people I've talked to have maybe a notes document or something like that, or they use the Notes app. So I'm curious why physical for you?

Chris Sparks (27:12):

I'm notoriously tool agnostic, which is a fancy way of saying that I don't think it matters at all. So just like the saying, hey, the best diet is the diet you can stick with, the best tool is the tool that you like using, the one that you can stick with.

Chris Sparks (27:28):

I think the Notes app on the phone works just fine. My general, I wouldn't say objection to using it, but my hesitancy to using it as I see the phone as an attentional rabbit hole. And so often I open up the phone to take a note and before I know it, I find myself on social media or reading the news or doing something that I wouldn't have decided to do before I opened my phone.

Chris Sparks (27:54):

This is an ongoing experiment of mine that seems to pay a lot of dividends, is to remove all of the use cases that require using my phone. So I only want to use my phone for calling and occasionally for sending a text message if I'm not at my computer, and for using Maps. Anything other than that in general, I don't want to use my phone because I find that time outside of the phone on average is going to be more valuable than time inside of the phone.

Chris Sparks (28:24):

So that's my main objection to using phone and digital tools in general. It's not that they don't work, it's not that they aren't great. There's a lot of benefits to having things digitally saved that I'm sure many people have talked about, you can search there, you can access them wherever you are, even if you don't have your notebook, it's easier to organize, all that type of stuff. But me, I'm primarily optimizing for capture and I find any friction to taking a note makes it less likely that I'll take a note. I can always decide to do something with it later.

Chris Sparks (28:56):

One meta point around notebooks or pens or any tool in particular, I think you shared this with me, is part of the mindset of being a designer is being really sensitive to friction. And again, this can be a blessing and a curse. If you're constantly just ruminating about how things could be better and how annoying things are, well, that's not optimal obviously.

Chris Sparks (29:23):

But the flip benefit side of this is you can be really sensitive to this friction and this becomes a prompt to, all right, is there something that I can do to make this more streamlined? It's like things that seem like trivial inconveniences, I'll give you an example is my meditation pillow that I have here.

Chris Sparks (29:44):

It's a little bit too low to the ground and I can't get my hips above my knees. So when you're sitting for a half hour, I get a little bit of pain and discomfort and just that trivial inconvenience of my meditation cushion is maybe six inches too low, makes it that much less likely that I'm going to sit down and meditate, all things being equal.

Chris Sparks (30:08):

So a really silly thing like, oh, go out there and splurge, but if you're sensitive to these differences, hey, I can make this small change and make it that much more likely that the future version of myself does the things that I want myself to do. It's operating at this metal level of what do I want my future self to do? How can I make it more likely that I do that? What conditions support that?

Chris Sparks (30:30):

So there's a sense to, hey, if the tool that you're using doesn't bring you joy in this sense, maybe try using something else and see if that changes something. It's an opportunity to experiment, but recognizing that what works best for you is only what works best for you.

Daniel Scrivner (30:51):

Well, and maybe another way of saying that, or at least this is my own interpretation because I share that same point of view, is if you have habits that really matter to you or that you think are very effective or that you think are really helping you move the needle, then those are areas where splurging is a great thing.

Daniel Scrivner (31:05):

My example is, I don't know, over the last 18 months, one of the biggest areas I've really intentionally tried to move the needle in and it's worked is working out. And so in those areas I'll do two things at once, both demand myself to be disciplined and stick to what I've said I'm going to commit to and what I'm going to go and do, but then on the flip side, in order to support that, I give myself carte blanche to get an exercise bag that you like, go and find tools and exercise equipment and random little things that you find to make it more of a game.

Daniel Scrivner (31:37):

And I find that doing both of those things, I can only ... I don't know. I've definitely found a feedback loop, although it's a little bit foggy between when I'll indulge and support a goal that I want to go and do by doing it.

Chris Sparks (31:52):

I really want to comment on this. One of my favorite findings from psychology, this is one of the very rare findings of psychology from 1973 that is actually replicated and stood the test of time, it's called the self-signaling effect. And in a nutshell it's that our beliefs, our values, our attitudes about things follow from our behavior. So we can get ourselves to like, value, enjoy anything if we do it.

Chris Sparks (32:24):

A lot of people think, hey, I'm going to get myself to enjoy working out and then I'll work out. It's like, no, you work out and then your brain is like, hey, I must like working out because I'm doing it all the time. Now, if you take this a step further is if you can get yourself to start doing the thing, be consistent, internalize the benefits, you can stick with it, you can start to shift your identity. So you zoom out and you say, all right, if I want myself to want to work out, how can I make it more likely that I work out?

Chris Sparks (32:54):

And this is the same sort of thing is that you have all of these signals in your environment. You start having a bunch of books about fitness on your desk, you subscribe to fitness newsletters, you have workout equipment in your field of vision, you start making friends with body builders or join a body building gym, all of these things that signal to yourself, this is important to me, this is something that I value.

Chris Sparks (33:18):

And all of these signal reinforcements will keep nudging you at every junction to working out versus not working out, to being more intense when you work out rather than just mailing it in. So I find this so crazy and just beautiful is the realization that I can get myself to do anything and it's just a matter of deciding what I want to do and then creating those conditions.

Daniel Scrivner (33:43):

It's fascinating. I want to ask two closing questions. And the first one is, so you obviously have a background as a poker player. As you've said, you've played a number of different games in your career. Now you work with high performing founders, operators, executives, investors to help them level up even higher. So you've done a lot. One of the questions I wanted to ask is where you think you have an edge or a superpower, something you're just naturally wired for and are great at?

Daniel Scrivner (34:12):

So I guess the question would be what do you think of as your superpowers and how do those show up day to day in your life or your work? And I imagine these are probably meta skills because you have a quite diverse set of things that you've done and still do.

Chris Sparks (34:24):

I can't help but going meta by every question. So before I answer for myself, I find one of the meta skills of life is looking for other people's superpowers. So this just mindset that every person that you meet has a hidden superpower and wow, wouldn't that be amazing if you could uncover it and they could teach you some of those aspects of your superpower?

Chris Sparks (34:47):

And as I got into the podcasting game myself with Forcing Function Hour, that's my underlying goal is to uncover the other person's superpower, bring it to light and see how the light of day can help everyone benefit to see what generalizes. And when you're trying to uncover your own superpower, there's usually a disconnect between the things that you think you're extremely good at and the things that you are extremely good at, sometimes, not always.

Chris Sparks (35:15):

But that's why I find it's really valuable to go off feedback that you've gotten from other people in terms of, hey, when you did that, that was really impressive, or I really liked when you did that, or that was extremely valuable, or oh, that surprises me, I can't believe you know so much about that, or you made that look so easy. When you hear these types of unsolicited feedback from someone saying wow, maybe you should be doing more of that, consider, hey, maybe you should be doing more of that. Take those signals really seriously.

Chris Sparks (35:44):

I think if I had to summarize my superpowers as I see it, it would be pattern recognition. A lot of this is certainly innate. I mean, I can't help but how I'm wired, but a lot of this is also driven by I wanted to be one of the best poker players in the world. And poker playing in essence is really a lot of matching patterns, the situation that arises and then, hey, in this situation, this is the best play to make. And you have so many different patterns, but once you become in tuned to them, you start internalizing them, you almost play at this subconscious level. It becomes very intuitive and mystical almost.

Chris Sparks (36:25):

And I apply this pattern recognition lens to all of my work teaching and working directly with top performing clients is in essence, hey, I noticed that you're doing this a lot, is that working for you? Oh, okay, it is working for you. Great. How do we make sure you do more of that? How do you double down on that? Or, oh, that doesn't seem to be working so well. Well, why are you doing it? Okay, let's try to find ways that you don't do that as often.

Chris Sparks (36:54):

Recognizing the patterns that work for us and amplifying them, recognizing the patterns that don't work for us and dampening them, adding friction. And that's really at a meta level what I'm doing. And if I've evolved as a coach over the years, it's really just understanding that I'm taking this hammer and just applying it to opportunities over and over again.

Chris Sparks (37:17):

When I first started, I had all of this imposter syndrome. I still do, but much less than I used to where I was getting on a call with a client. Let's say that I know that their biggest challenge right now is hiring a managerial director, someone who can manage all of their engineers. And I would spend literally hours ahead of time reading the internet trying to get up to speed on what the best practice for hiring a director level engineering position was thinking that, hey, they're hiring me to give them the answer.

Chris Sparks (37:50):

And over the years and hundreds of these conversations, I realized that one, I'm not going to learn as much about this person, what they do in a few hours of reading the internet and their years of experience. So why are they coming to me? Recognized that they're coming to me for the system, not for my experience.

Chris Sparks (38:08):

And if I can help them recognize here are the things that are working, and then together we come up with a plan to do more of those things that are working. I also recognize, hey, here are the parts of the approach that aren't working. How do we iterate on that and create a system where it automatically improves over time?

Chris Sparks (38:23):

That's something that not only has an immense value in the moment, but it's a gift that keeps on giving. It's that classic difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them how to fish. It's like if I can show someone how to recognize these patterns and to thinking this way, then that's something they can take away with them for the rest of their lives.

Daniel Scrivner (38:43):

I want to ask two more questions. One is going to be about favorite books, but I want to add a little bit of a preamble before I get to the question. So you do one on one coaching, you also do a quarterly cohort-based class called Team Performance Training. Preparing for this, you shared with me your Wiki and a bunch of things of that team training course.

Daniel Scrivner (39:03):

And one of the things that's in there that I loved is you're just weaving in, every single call that you guys have for this cohort, favorite books that are relevant to the topic you're talking about each week. So I know that you have this massive archive of books that you've read that you pull from, that you then recommend to people to be able to move the needle in different areas.

Daniel Scrivner (39:21):

One of the questions I wanted to ask because knowing that you have this massive catalog, I'm sure you could probably list off 20 different books that might be interesting. So to try to narrow it down, what I wanted to ask is what books have had an outsized impact on your clients that are on that list?

Daniel Scrivner (39:37):

And so maybe along two different axes, either the books that you hear the most often, wow, that was amazing, wow, that was really helpful, or the books that people just haven't heard of that you can bring to the surface or that are maybe a couple of decades old that are still relevant, like Fifth Discipline Fieldbook that you recommended just a few minutes ago. Does anything come to mind in terms of favorite books along those axes?

Chris Sparks (39:59):

One really influential paper on me is sharing how beauty is information compression, so that what we find something intrinsically, mathematically beautiful is that it compresses a lot of information data into its most distilled form. And that's what I try to bring in a lot of the things I say that are reduced down to one-liners or maxims or principles is trying to take an entire body of work and compress that into a couple of sentences.

Chris Sparks (40:38):

And that's the way I see it, is I can give them the tip of the iceberg. And a lot of what I do is experimenting with metaphor, what's the right one that's going to land and to get them to actually try something to actually take some action. And then here's all the resources that went into this statement, into this lesson, and why not only I see that this works for a lot of my clients, but also there's a lot of science and experience backing this.

Chris Sparks (41:05):

So that's the idea behind the performance library that we created. You can find all of these resources that Daniel referenced at forcingfunction.com/library. And a lot of the curriculum in Team Performance Training is, I want to give the minimum necessary to get someone to try it, is recognizing that knowledge is not the bottleneck for most people, top performers especially, it's action. So if I can get someone to try it, I can get someone to improve it.

Chris Sparks (41:40):

I can easily give them feedback to see, hey, this is working for you, let's do more of that, this is not working for you, how do we do a little bit less of that, to continually double down on the things that worked and strip away the things that don't work.

Chris Sparks (41:52):

But it all begins with creating that experience. It's almost like the movie Inception where, hey, maybe I should try this, I am going to try this. Oh, that was an interesting thing, I learned something. Oh, that day actually went pretty well, I wonder if I did this more often, I wonder if I did this a little bit more, a little bit more intensely. So that's a little bit about how I think in terms of philosophy.

Chris Sparks (42:14):

A couple of book recommendations, as you said I can give many, my top recommended book is The Goal. So a really influential framework on me of theory of constraints and bottlenecks in particular. So understanding how do you identify the thing that is most holding you or your company back and concentrate all resources at that point, the recognition that most of the things we do don't matter, have no effect at all and are just a complete waste of time and resources. It's a pretty big red pill. And then you start to realize, well, what if I did more things that matter that actually have an impact? That could get really interesting. So The Goal's a really top recommendation.

Chris Sparks (43:01):

I'll also throw a off the wall one for you. I think a lot of people would expect that I'm extremely right brained, I mean left, right brain is not a thing, but more analytical, statistical minded. But over the years I've really been trying to cultivate the more creative side, and I think that we're all creators, we're all artists. So a book that's been extremely influential on me was a big part of the creation of Experiment Without Limits is called The Artist's Way.

Chris Sparks (43:31):

So this is a workbook that's essentially a 12 week program to remove your creative barriers and reclaim a sense of play in your creative work, whether this is building a product or writing or creating a screenplay, however you define that, finding ways to be playful and curious or remove all the barriers to output.

Chris Sparks (43:54):

This is something that I go through often. Two of my keystone habits are directly taken from The Artist's Way. So morning pages, which is freeform journaling first thing in the day, to just vomit all the things that are out in my brain onto the page, that I have all this mental bandwidth, as well as artist date, which is giving myself permission to go out and do things that are fun, to feed my inner child, to replenish my creative well.

Chris Sparks (44:23):

For me, that's going to a bookstore or a pet shop or a record store or just going for a walk around the neighborhood, but doing things that a lot of times would be considered, hey, this is procrastination or not productive, but are actually a very, very important part of the creative productive process is giving yourself time to not only process the ideas.

Chris Sparks (44:47):

A lot of creativity is like, hey, you put something in a desk and then you do some other stuff that's completely related and then you take it out of the desk and look at it again. But also replenishing by doing things that inspire me, that give me ideas, I continually bring new concepts, new inspiration to my work.

Chris Sparks (45:05):

So those three that you mentioned are things that I leave on my desk that I come back to time and time again, Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, The Artist's Way and The Goal.

Daniel Scrivner (45:15):

I love that answer and I love just how different The Artist's Way and The Goal could possibly be. For anyone that goes out and actually reads both of these books, they're both fantastic, but The Goal is effectively this fictionalized narrative that has a lot of deep, insightful information behind the scenes. And then The Artist's Way is obviously a little bit softer, but I love that.

Daniel Scrivner (45:36):

And one of the topics we're definitely going to talk about a lot more in our longer form conversation is the opposite of productivity. Things like what you just talked about to not necessarily do more and more and more, but actually take a step back and be able to replenish just everything about you to enable you to even do effective work and interesting work in the first place.

Daniel Scrivner (45:56):

Okay, last question. If you could go back to the start of your career and whisper some advice in your ear, some words of wisdom, what advice would you give to your younger self if you'd give any?

Chris Sparks (46:05):

Trust the process. I share this in the early going. A lot of these things I share, I forget and have to come back to. We talked about compound interest and staying in the game and just continuing to iterate and create systems that improve. And I think it really all comes down to trusting the process that accomplishing anything just takes a lot of time and iterative effort.

Chris Sparks (46:31):

So if I could breathe one idea into my younger self, it would essentially be to stick with it. Not that there's anything wrong with course correcting or quitting, if you're doing something that's not aligned, that's not bringing you fulfillment, but to just trust that, hey, if I keep doing the things that seem to have results, that get good feedback from other people, from my environment, that I can trust that the score will take care of itself.

Chris Sparks (47:01):

That's something that was so true in the world of poker, when 52% of the time you win, that means 48% of the time that you lose and you can easily string a handful of those together and you've gone from top of the world to maybe I'm just never going to play this game for the rest of my life. And it's crazy how fast that shift can come.

Chris Sparks (47:21):

Anyone who started a company knows that it is a very lonely road and there are a lot of days that you are just in the bottom of the well. So recognizing that, hey, this is going to happen, and to just trust that if I keep showing up, keep putting in the work, keep reflecting on what's working and doubling down on that, keep trying to create a plan that says, hey, I'm trying to do this today, how can I make it most likely that I do this today? If you keep iterating on that, a lot of these results will take care of yourself. So just trust the process, stay in the game.

Daniel Scrivner (47:57):

It's the perfect note to end on. Thank you so much for joining me, Chris. We'll link to everything that we talked about in the show notes. Chris, obviously, there's many resources on the forcingfunction.com that we'll link to including the blog post Chris described, the couple of books he recommended. And we'll also link to ways that you can work with Chris if you're interested, either through Team Performance Training or through one on one coaching. Thank you so much for the time, Chris.

Chris Sparks (48:18):

Thank you, Daniel.

Daniel Scrivner (48:21):

Thank you so much for listening. You can find the show notes and transcript for this episode at outlieracademy.com/134. That's outlieracademy.com/134. For more from Chris Sparks listen to episode 133, where he joins me on Outlier Academy as part of our Outlier Thinker series, to break down his team performance and productivity coaching work at the Forcing Function and to decode how he works with elite founders, investors, and even artists to optimize their performance, clarify their goals, and make more progress each day.

Daniel Scrivner (48:54):

In that episode, episode 133, we explore everything that Chris covers with elite founders, investors, and operators in his twice yearly program Team Performance Training, where he accepts just 12 students at a time and takes them through his eight week program.

Daniel Scrivner (49:09):

We walk through many of the powerful ideas in Chris's book, Experiment Without Limits, including how to clarify your values and why values are the key to making tough decisions and weighing trade off between different goals. How to set goals that minimize opportunity costs and maximize the expected value of your time, energy, and effort. How to think in systems, identify bottlenecks and create anti-fragile systems. Why your attention is so valuable and how to harness it to achieve your goals and so much more. That's just the tip of the iceberg. To listen to that episode, simply visit outlieracademy.com/133. That's outlieracademy.com/133.

Daniel Scrivner (49:47):

You can find videos of all of our interviews on YouTube at youtube.com/outlieracademy. On our channel, you'll find all of our full length interviews including this one, so make sure to subscribe. We post new videos and clips every single week. And if you haven't already, follow us on Twitter or almost any other social media platform, @outlieracademy. Thank you so much for listening. We'll see you right here with a brand new episode next Friday.

On Outlier Academy, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. 

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Daniel Scrivner and Mighty Publishing LLC own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Outlier Academy podcast, with all rights reserved, including Daniel’s right of publicity.

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