How to tell if you have an OWW brain or a WOW brain. (And why it’s important.)

I have an OWW brain. It sucks. I'm a master of self-sabotage. I am my own worst enemy.

I want to saw off my scalp, pull out my brain, and kick it in the pituitary gland.

Because the pituitary gland has to be the brain's scrotum. I mean, look at the thing. What's it doing up there, looking like that?

I look at the thoughts and actions of the people I admire and aspire to be like…

Most of them don't have the kind of brain I have. Most of them look at the world differently than the way I do.

Down is up; up is down. Left is right; right is left. Cheese is evil; Jillian Michaels is smart.

They think the opposite of what I think.

Because they don't have OWW brains.

They have WOW brains.

So I've been working on this.

I've been trying to fix this.

I've been trying to turn my OWW brain into a WOW brain.



Nothing tastes sweeter than the promise of a better tomorrow. So most of us (especially in the thick of modern consumer culture) strive to obtain things we don't yet have.

In other words, put in terms more bland than Wonder Bread: we have goals.

I want to lose fat
I want to gain muscle
I want to do the splits
I want to make money

You can follow along with what's to come with a specific goal of yours (if you have one), but I'm going to use a universal example that'll serve as allegory for just about any goal.

Dark Tower


You're in the desert. You're miles away from a tower. (A Dark Tower….!?) You can barely see it in the distance.

You want to get to this Dark Tower. This is the goal.

If you're like most people, you put this goal in your back pocket and never think about it again. You're not going to be most people. So you have to answer the How? question.

How are you going to get to the Dark Tower? How are you going to achieve your goals?

The Dark Tower is south of you.

You're going to walk south.


Achieving your goals is simultaneously that simple and, well, absolutely not that simple. But this paradox of simplicity is a conversation for another day.

Fast forward to what matters:

You're taking action. You're walking.



The assumption: walking south will inevitably lead you to the Dark Tower. Meaning, realistically, you could put your head down and walk the entire way without ever looking up.

Few people would do such a thing because looking up provides valuable feedback on the process.

For instance, looking up makes sure you're going the right direction. This isn't such a HUGE issue with the Dark Tower example because there's no fog between your methods and goals. The tower is south, you're walking south. The goal is inevitable as long as you don't quit.

But imagine if someone blindfolded you, spun you in circles, and then said, “Walk to the Dark Tower.”

You'd need to look up. Unless you wouldn't mind going almost a s.i.x.t.h of the way across the country in the WRONG direction.

Looking up ensures you're headed in the right direction. It also tells you how far you've come and how far you still need to go.

Interpretation of feedback


Feedback, distilled, is simply information. Information in itself is objective. But it rarely remains objective once you add the gooey, sticky, moist human element. Because information is subject to our interpretation.

We have biological biases and cultural biases that influence how we process a given piece of information.

For instance, pain is information. We're biologically biased to interpret pain as a negative as opposed to a positive. This is why we remove our hand from a burning flame.

But there are some situations in which we cherish pain. No pain, no gain. Pain becomes a positive as opposed to a negative. This is why people get addicted to getting tattoos.

Beyond the immediate interpretation of the feedback, there's also refractory feedback — how the information reflects on us, personally.

For instance, if you get pulled over for driving drunk and you get a DUI, you might think, “I'm an idiot. I'm stupid.” This is shame — a reflection of who you are.

But you could also think, “I made a bad decision.” This is guilt — a reflection of the choices you make.

OWW and WOW brains


Consider the two layers of feedback. First, there's our interpretation of the information. Second, there's how said interpretation integrates into our self-image.

The subjective nature of interpretation is where the OWW brain differs from the WOW brain.

OWW brainers attach negative emotions and intrinsic demotivators onto feedback, even when they're “winning.” They're more prone to shame.

WOW brainers attach positive emotions and intrinsic motivators onto feedback, even when they're “losing.” They're more prone to guilt.

Imagine the following two scenarios.


You look up at the Dark Tower and you see that you've gotten closer. By all objective accounts, the feedback says: you're winning, you're on the right path, you're making progress, you're doing good.

But the OWW brainer says, “Fuck. It's still so far away. Look how much further I have to go. This sucks.”

The WOW brainer says, “Amazing! Look at how much closer I've come! I'm on the right path! I didn't make the wrong turn! I just have to keep chugging!”


You look up at the pyramid and see you've gotten further away. By all objective accounts, the feedback says: you're losing, you're on the wrong path, you didn't make progress, you're doing bad.

But the WOW brainer says, “Bummer. I went the wrong way. At least I know I what not to do! And now have a better sense of direction. I can parlay this information into figuring out what I need to do now.”

The OWW brainer says, “I suck. I'm an idiot. I've been going the wrong way. I'm never going to get to where I want to be.”




First, the OWW brainer always attaches intrinsic demotivators onto feedback turning it into phobic feedback. The WOW brainer does the opposite by attaching intrinsic motivators onto feedback turning it into phillic feedback.

Second, the OWW brainers start a lot of adventures because they want the product, but they stop a lot of adventures shortly after they start because the feedback they get within the process itself pushes a bunch of demotivating buttons. They find the process punishing.

Even when they win, they lose.

Third, the WOW brainers finish a lot of adventures because the feedback they get within the process itself pushes a bunch of motivating buttons. The process itself is rewarding. The product is simply a side effect.

Even when they lose, they win.



Product almost always requires process, which is why OWW brainers are at a severe disadvantage.

They want want the joy and happiness associated with the product, but there's a tremendous amount of punishment associated with the climb.

OWW brainers are martyrs for product.

WOW brainers are philanthropists for process.



What makes the void between OWW brains and WOW brains frustrating (for me) is that we all have both of these intrinsic gas pedal and break pedals inside of us.

We all have the same demotivators, just as we all have the same motivators.

The difference lives within the interpretation of the situation in front of us.

Jim sees skydiving as a risky unsafe behavior; Tim sees skydiving as an adventurous learning experience.

What accounts for the different interpretation? I'm sure genetics has something to do with it, as does our upbringing.

It's always nature and nurture.

Who's right? Who's wrong?

I don't know.

But here's what I do know.

Risky and safe


Many of the demotivators within us were designed for a primitive world. If you were a caveman and you broke your leg, you died. In a primitive world, broken bones are serious injuries.

But in today's world? A broken leg (or any broken bone) isn't going to kill you. I broke my foot in five different places. It sucked. It hurt. It was a miserable eight weeks. But I didn't die.

And I learned a lot from the injury. I came back to training with a different mindset, and I saw better gains in the following year than I did in the prior five years.

A lot of the things we think are risky aren't so risky. If we applied a very stoic WHAT'S THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN filter to every situation we fear, the answer would almost never be as bad as our brain imagines it to be.

For instance, what if, tomorrow, you lost all of your money and your current job? What would happen?

Most people wouldn't even become homeless. They'd live with friends and family until they found another job.

On the flip side, a lot of the things we think are safe aren't so safe anymore because we have GET OUT OF JAIL FREE cards.

I started tricking (freestyle acrobatics) as a dumb teenager. I had no experience. I had no safety training. No equipment. Just grass. This is a “risky” thing to do.

I ended up breaking my foot in multiple places when I was in a safer environment — a gymnastics facility. But broken bones in today's world aren't that big of a deal. GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD.

If I let fear totally talk me out of tricking, I wouldn't have the wealth of lessons I've learned from throwing my body upside down and all over the place.

(Don't get me wrong. Fear spun me around, bent me over, and did unspeakable things to me. My tricking life is shrouded in fear. But I worked hard to beat the fear that I did conquer.)

Risky is the new safe.

Safe is the new risky.

The winner effect


What makes the OWW brain a real bitch is the winner effect. The winner effect, in a nutshell, says: when you win, you win more; when you lose you lose more.

OWW brainers lose a lot. They start a lot of things because they're genuinely interested in products. But they quit a lot of those things because of the punishing process they realize they have to go through.

Losing becomes a part of their DNA.

Every subsequent loss bakes into their identity. They internalize their failure to the point of their subconscious whispering, “You know what's going to happen. You're going to get all motivated and hit it hard for the first week, and then you're going to quit.”

The prospect of starting anything new soon becomes demotivating.

OWW brained implications


Implications for us OWWers.

You are your own worst enemy. Because the only difference between an OWWer and a WOWer is perception — how you interpret information.

Be objective about feedback. Don't take it personally. Don't turn it into shame. Instead, think: “How interesting.” I went the wrong way, how interesting.

Spotlight learning and growing. I'm not saying losers should get a trophy, but there's almost always something positive to extract from feedback (even if the feedback is “negative”). Perhaps the fact that you're doing the thing, getting the feedback, is a win in itself.

Actually say, “WOW!” If you find yourself crumbling into a curmudgeon over feedback and feeling punished, say, “WOW!” and try to find something amazing associated with what you're doing.

Read in between the lines. I'm sure there's more quips and lessons that could fit in this tidy conclusion, but the meat and potatoes of what you need to know is above.

OWW brained implications


The next time you find yourself on an adventure, striving to get somewhere you've never been, ask yourself: am I saying “OWW” when I should be saying “WOW”?


I got this OWW and WOW brain model from Todd Herman. Credit goes to him. He's taught me a lot about performance psychology.

Trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of?

Maybe you’re a little lost right now.

Maybe you don’t have much motivation.

Maybe you don’t what program or diet to use.

I don’t know…

But what I do know is this:

Everything you need is inside of you.

You’re capable of more than know.

You just have to open your eyes.

My weekly column can help.

Just a small little honest note from me sent every Sunday.

Unless I’m hungover.

And then it comes Monday.

What I’m trying to say is that it’ll come Monday.

(These weekly columns don’t get posted to the site.)

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