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Performing vs Being Real

Mustafa Sultan
Mustafa Sultan
Bullshitters suck. Here’s how not to be one.

Csikszentmihalyi describes high-performers as often being in flow states
When you’re giving your fullest attention to an activity or task that you are incredibly passionate about, singularly focused on, and totally immersed in, you may find yourself creating the conditions necessary to experience a flow state of mind. The mind’s usual chatter begins to fade away, placing us in a non-distracted zone. The feelings that would consume you under normal circumstances (inhibition, hunger, fatigue, or aches and pains) melt away, and all that matters is your dedication to your craft.
But what’s the polar opposite of a flow state? For me, it’s the performance state.
Not being in performance mode like an Audi R8 fitted with gunshot exhaust on Wilmslow Road 🔫🔫🔫 — but being in putting on a performance mode (POP mode).
POP mode means:
  • Heightened self awareness
  • Serving a third party vs your own interest
  • Not being authentic
I was recently in POP mode during a podcast interview. We were speaking about the guest’s new book (which I genuinely loved). But here was the problem:
  • I’d read the book, so I knew the answers to all of the questions I was asking
  • So I wasn’t asking questions from curiosity, but for the audience
  • I wasn’t actually creating any value in the world. Instead, the author was just regurgitating content he’d already written about
I did another interview which didn’t perform as well as I thought it would, but this time it was about WEB3/DAOs in healthcare. I was in flow because:
  • I knew nothing — and every question was like I was asking a mate to dumb something down for me
  • I was actually creating value in the world — (there isn’t much of this type of content available rn)
But here’s the paradox, the POP mode interview did really well — and the flow interview did OK.
POP mode is a seductive temptress. She gives short term rewards, but at the expense of longterm-ism.
Recently, a podcaster I really admire put out an interview titled The World Need More Fossil Fuels, Not Less.
I’m aggressively pro-free speech, so was excited to hear an unpopular take.
Except the guy was a total hack. Charlatan. Didn’t know his arse from his elbow — or in other words, did a Philosophy degree, and then wrote an anti-Green movement book without a shred of research.
The podcaster is growing like crazy (and puts out awesome content). But I’m guessing he published this interview for audience gains. POP mode engaged.
In creative work, there’s a pull to be more authoritative and more outrageous. Because it performs.
In these pitches there’s nothing to suggest the person has any original experience or research or insight to offer said advice. Instead they choose to quote other people who quote other people and the insights can often be traced back in a recursive loop. Their interest is not in making the reader’s life any better, it is in building their own profile as some kind of influencer or thought leader. Or, most frustratingly, they all reference the same company case studies (Hello, Apple and Pixar!), the same writers, or the same internet thinkers. I often encounter writers that share “success advice” learned from a blogger who was quoting a book that interviewed a notable prolific person.
Being quiet and slowly building mastery and expertise doesn’t pay off much at first. So many creatives must make a calculation: Do I want the short term, could-go-viral-at-any-second thrill of being a vocal expert in my field? Or am I more content playing the long game? More people are incentivized to choose the former — and it’s getting crowded in here.
POP mode isn’t just restricted to creative work though. It can mean:
  • Living up to your parent’s expectations, rather than your own
  • Sitting on a career treadmill you don’t really want to be in
  • Being a people-pleaser
A medical career within the NHS also feels like POP mode for me (Why I’m Leaving Medicine).
Playing the long game, and avoiding POP mode is risky though. Ultimately, as much as us millennials want it to — the market doesn’t care about our feelings.
‘Being real’ and leaving a comfortable career just because it doesn’t satisfy every hierarchy of need is an incredibly fortunate decision to be able to make.
Grace Beverley (Founder TALA/Shreddy) had a popping YouTube channel and was making millions selling workout PDFs to her audience. Then she dropped it all, firebombed her content and went ghost.
In this interview, she explained why—
How To Build A Multi-Million Dollar Empire In Your 20s - Grace Beverley
How To Build A Multi-Million Dollar Empire In Your 20s - Grace Beverley
Basically 1) she was in POP mode, serving her fans with content she didn’t like making and 2) realised her 5 minutes of fame would be up soon — better to play the long game and make a couple of real businesses.
There’s no guarantee that plugging out of POP mode is the answer. In fact, it could be the most entitled and destructive move we ever make.
But if an experiment about marshmellows and kids is to be believed, it just might be—
In this study, a child was offered a choice between one small but immediate reward, or two small rewards if they waited for a period of time. During this time, the researcher left the room for about 15 minutes and then returned. The reward was either a marshmallow or pretzel stick, depending on the child’s preference.
In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, BMI and other life measures.
Here’s one interview of me, and one I published—
Computational Medicine Podcast
#002 Lessons from podcasting and summarising medical AI research for doctors - Dr Mustafa Sultan
Big Picture Medicine Podcast
With warmest wishes,
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Mustafa Sultan
Mustafa Sultan @mustafasultan

Thoughts on healthcare, human optimisation and productivity. A little taste of what I'm thinking and reading about.

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