Get Real With Yourself

Why You’re Not Further Ahead Than You Hoped

Johnny T. Nguyen
10 min readDec 10, 2020


Before we dive into 2021, full of high hopes and confidence that surely things can’t go worse than they did in the dumpster fire that was 2020, let’s take a moment to understand what’s led us to this point in our lives.

If you’re like me, then chances are you’re considered successful and have most things figured out. But if you’re really like me, then there’s a hunger inside you to achieve more. Yet, the reason why you and I haven’t achieved more is because we don’t have it all figured out.

That’s why in this article we’ll dig into why we aren’t at that next level. Here’s a hint: we haven’t been brutally honest with ourselves.


“Garbage in, garbage out.”

First, let’s see what kind of person you are. When you think about why you haven’t been more successful (however you define it), which of these two options do you think:

  • Rationalization — Here’s a few common ones: “I have so many other responsibilities,” “I’ve had to compromise with others,” “I didn’t have resources that others had.”
  • Responsibility— Or do you see what has led to this point and take responsibility for them, learn from it, and adapt.

“Appreciate and give credit to people who are self-aware and learn from their errors.” — [2]

Once you’ve stopped rationalizing and take responsibility, the next step is to look at yourself to see what needs to change. Here’s a checklist for you. Maybe more than one applies to you, and if so, let’s get to work changing things.

  • “Garbage in, garbage out. Nothing in, nothing out.” — I love that line from Soren Kaplan, author of two bestselling award winning books, Leapfrogging and The Invisible Advantage. In other words, who do you surround yourself with? Are they good people who push you to greater heights? How about the kind of information you’re consuming — audiobooks, podcasts, news headlines, etc. Stop hanging out with drama kings and consuming junk content; invest in knowledge and healthy conversation.
  • “Get out of the gray zone.” — This advice from Maynard Webb, former COO of eBay, to me means stop being agnostic. Stop being ok with being adequate or good enough. Like Hamilton said, “if you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”
  • Divergent — No, I’m not talking about the YA books that inspired those movies that went nowhere. I’m talking about divergent and convergent thinking. How often when you’re having conversations with coworkers or friends do you come up with opposing thoughts versus just going along? Or how often can you iterate off their ideas to arrive at something better? Challenge or contribute more in a conversation.

If we’re going to give 2021 such high hopes, let’s make sure we’re personally prepared to get that next-level success.

How to be an Adventurer

In 2014, I arrived in the city of Kathmandu, Nepal, by myself on my first solo trip. With a population of 25M, it’s one of the least developed countries in the world, and I had come here for an adventure — both physically and mentally.

I’ll be honest, I was nervous as heck on my first day there. What if the lodging I booked was a scam? What if I got mugged, what would I do?!

Suffice it to say the adventure went well, complete with a trek in the Himalayas and a private meditation session at the Tiger Mountain Lodge of Pokhara. It was a journey that I needed to push myself to do, and in retrospect, it’s what has allowed me to think, “yeah, I can do that next crazy adventure.”

As we ramp down the year and get ready for 2021, we’re talking about digging deep and being honest with what’s driving our current success.

Side Note: During that Nepal trip, I was so consumed with planning the Nepal portion, I hadn’t really paid attention to my layovers en route. I thought I had a long layover in Dubai when in fact it was in Abu Dhabi! Oh, the look on the airport information dude’s face when I asked him, “how do I get to Dubai tower?”


Ask anybody what they want to do more of in the future (pre-pandemic and especially post-pandemic) and I bet at the top of that list is traveling. We travel because we want to see amazing sights, partake in different cultures, and experience something different. In other words, we want more adventure.

Below are a few reasons why you haven’t adventured as much as you’d like. More importantly, though, is what it reveals about yourself and how it may be holding you back from achieving success in other aspects of your life. Let’s dig deeper.

  • Type of Risk — At its core, any adventure worth having exposes you to some type of risk. But before you choose your adventure, you have to know which risks you’re ok with, and which ones you’d prefer to stay away from. Physical risks like skydiving and bungee jumping are especially hard for me to want to do. Whereas, mental and financial risks are more acceptable for me.
  • Ignorance & Control — You’re afraid to go on the adventure because you just don’t know enough about it. Questions like, “Will I be sleeping on the ground,” “Is there wifi nearby,” “Can I eat the food,” and “Will my credit card work,” are all valid. Luckily, I’m a planner and I plan the heck out of things. But have no fear, if you’re not, use a travel agent. They know what they’re doing and help alleviate your concerns. For my trip to Namibia and first time in Africa, I went with a travel agent just to doubly make sure it would go smoothly.
  • Sit With It — Perhaps my favorite advice these days, just sit with your worry or concern. Do something else for a while and then come back to your thoughts. I’ve found letting the concern permeate through my body and mind for a bit, allows me to make a decision that’s more in-tune with my mind and body. If the fear has subsided, then it was probably just the initial shock of change. If the fear is still there or has increased, then I know it’s real and should be mitigated.

I have no doubt 2021 is going to bring with it lots more opportunities to have adventures, and I challenge you (and myself) to push those limits. Thirty years from now when we look back on our lives, will we really regret ever pushing ourselves to redefine our boundaries?

What is Choice Architecture

I can’t tell you enough how many times I’ve been wrong, almost on a weekly basis! I’ve met people I thought could not be trusted who’ve ended up being wonderful people. I’ve made decisions on projects that end up going down the wrong path because I didn’t piece together the information correctly. And I’ve had relationships that went down the drain because my ego got in the way.

And yet, I feel like I’m pretty successful! But I realize that may be the separator between my current level of success and what it takes to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

My theory is, if I can make fewer bad decisions, then that will compound to increased success over time, like our 401Ks. So, as we get ready to wrap up this year and set goals for the next, let’s talk about something called choice architecture.


According to Mike Erwin, co-author of Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude, he’s found the below mindsets to be the worst in affecting our decisions making.

  • Decision fatigue — This is why we tend to make crappy decisions towards the end of the day.
  • A steady state of distraction — This is why there are apps on the phone to prevent the use of the phone.
  • Lack of input — When you’re making decisions based on insufficient information… probably due to a lack of connections or just laziness.
  • Multi-tasking — Read more here on why it’s no good!
  • Emotions — Yep, one bad fight at home will totally disrupt your mindset.
  • Analysis Paralysis — Too much information to consider!

I’d say all of the above are pretty obvious and we do what we can to mitigate those influences when making decisions. Yet, it’s not enough to know about them individually.

“Just as an architect thinks carefully about how to best design environments and physical spaces to avoid inefficiencies, managers can adopt choice architecture. Choice architecture, a term used by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, refers to the way in which people’s decisions can be influenced by how choices are presented to them.” — @francescagino @johnbeshears in @HarvardBiz

My next level advice to you is to implement your version of choice architecture.

“The way a choice is presented influences what a decision-maker chooses.” — @SpringerSocSci

In terms of my architecture, I’m designing a mental space where the optimum version of Johnny exists. This optimum version of Johnny is devoid of biases, detrimental mindsets, and distractions. This Johnny is calm, happy, and fully confident in his knowledge. So, before I make a decision of worth, I’ll “check in” with this Johnny and see what he thinks. The distance between normal Johnny and optimum Johnny is what needs to be understood and probably thrown out.

So what does a better choice architecture look like for you? Maybe you make them early in the morning when you’re full of mental strength and less distracted. Or perhaps it’s seeking advice from a diverse group of friends/colleagues. Whatever it is, let’s elevate our decision making and compound that effect going forward.

Compounding Bad Decisions

I’ve got a lot of habits that are healthy… and also not healthy. For example, I’ve got a habit of taking awhile to change my mind, once I’ve set it on something.

Years ago, when I first started to get into camping, I went to Yosemite and planned for a specific trail. Once I got to the park, I hadn’t realized how much time it would take to get to the trail head, and therefore it would be almost dark by the time I started. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to realize it would be unfeasible, and that I had to change plans to do something else. Let’s just say it was a good thing I had a headlamp!

I believe these small, unhealthy habits lead to long-term bad decision making.


Having worked in the space industry for most of my life, I understand the decision making at its most complex. When it comes to launching rockets, there are a million moving parts and one (figurative) button that launches it. How in the world does a person process all that information to arrive at a “GO for launch!” decision? As you know, the space industry is not without its failures, such as the tragic Challenger Shuttle in 1987 and the Columbia Shuttle in 2003.

  • Question: Do most of these stories feature one big, poorly-made decision, or is it more often a cascade of smaller poor decisions that lead to tragedy? [8]
  • Answer: More often it’s a series of small bad decisions, none of which would have caused a fatality on its own. In researching my book, I turned to the field of risk management. That’s where I learned that disasters are what happens when the holes in the Swiss cheese line up.

That’s from an interview with Neil Swidey, author of Trapped Under the Sea, who did extensive research on, “how people prepare for high-risk missions, and historically, nobody has done this preparation better than NASA.”

The bottom line is, when it comes to making decisions, there are several things we can do to make it way better. Adapted from The Big Lesson from Twelve Good Decisions by Thomas H. Davenport:

  • “Don’t do all the decision work yourself.” — If you have a significant other, that’s automatic, whether you like it or not! But similar to how a CEO has a Board of Directors, you need a Board of Mentors.
  • “Bring a big toolkit to your decision work.” — Some decisions call for massive amounts of data, others for personal recommendations. Use the right decision framework for the occasion.
  • “Systematically review your work.” — Here’s my favorite on the list. Take a real hard look at how well your decisions have turned out. If your batting average is low, then it’s time to drastically change how you make those types of decisions.

Remember, the better the decision we make now, the more it’ll compound over time like a 401K, turning into a massive amount of life wealth.

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  1. How To Measure Innovation (To Get Real Results) by Soren Kaplan
  2. A founder gets real: ‘I don’t think my startup is going to make it.’ by Maynard Webb
  3. The steps to shake yourself out of ‘small-picture’ thinking by Dina Smith
  4. Practice Does Not Necessarily Make Perfect When It Comes to Creativity by Patrick J. Kiger
  5. How to train your brain to be more adventurous by Arthur B Markman
  6. 6 Reasons We Make Bad Decisions, and What to Do About Them by Mike Erwin
  7. Identifying the Biases Behind Your Bad Decisions by John Beshears and Francesca Gino
  8. Learning from Bad Decisions in “Disaster Lit” by Daniel McGinn
  9. The Big Lesson from Twelve Good Decisions by Thomas H. Davenport
  10. Beyond nudges: Tools of a choice architecture by Eric J. Johnson & Suzanne B. Shu & Benedict G. C. Dellaert & Craig Fox & Daniel G. Goldstein & Gerald Häubl & Richard P. Larrick & John W. Payne & Ellen Peters & David Schkade & Brian Wansink & Elke U. Weber; Published online: 25 May 2012 by Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012



Johnny T. Nguyen

All about the adventure of positivity & productivity. I’ve turned into my parents and now wake up before 6 AM… & crush it. 🔅