Being Unpredictable Will Free You

I just got this email from a friend of mine: “in Mexico… got grazed by a bullet that wound up infected, and then I got a hernia, and then I started to bleed internally…”

There were more details: “drug cartels”… “corrupt cops”. I wrote him some questions to get more details. Assuming he’s still alive I hope he answers. He writes great books. He’s very unpredictable but I hope he doesn’t get himself killed.

You should avoid gangsters, being unpredictable as they are

I like things in my life to be unpredictable. I like to know that things that didn’t seem possible suddenly become possible.

In 1994 I never thought it would be possible, while doing some mindless programming at a job in Pittsburgh that a little over a year later I’d have a job at HBO interviewing transvestite prostitutes and drug dealers, or that two years after that I would be selling a software company that I started. Or that three years after that I would be dead broke and filled with so many regrets and trying to figure out ways to kill myself so that at least my two kids could live off the insurance policy.

 I have worked some unpredictable jobs

(some of my interviews)

Or that, as I sit here and write this, I’d be in Las Vegas about to give a talk about the economy. And tonight in San Francisco to meet Claudia and then give another talk on Monday in San Jose about how to take advantages of the scams in our society to become an entrepreneur.

We all want success. And although success does not equal money, we all need to support ourselves and to support our family. We’d all like to do good in the world.

Your brain doesn’t want you to do good in the world. I know this first hand.  Your brain wants you to say “I can’t” all the time so that you don’t do something so unpredictable it gets you killed. The brain,  your enemy, prizes its own safety first, and your happiness a distant second.

Your brain does not want you to be unpredictable.

(the enemy)

But there’s an easy way to defeat it. I’m going to be blunt when I name this method. It’s the “I can’t! You didn’t! Repeat!” Method. And it works but for unobvious reasons.

Step One: I Can’t

How many times have I said, “I can’t”

  • “I can’t because I didn’t get good at x, y, or z when I was younger”
  • “I can’t because I don’t have the right connections.”
  • “I can’t because I don’t have the money to do it”
  • “I can’t start a company because I have to make sure I support two kids”
  • “I can’t make a facebook app because I don’t know how to program”
  • “I can’t work for HBO because I’ve never done anything in the entertainment industry”
  • “I can’t relax until I sell my house first, which is like a chain around my neck”
  • “I can’t get spend time getting physically healthy until I solve the problems in my business first”
  • “I can’t write a novel because I don’t have the time and it won’t sell well anyway.”
  • “I can’t buy Yahoo, the entire company, because I don’t have a few billion dollars.”
  • “I can’t do this idea because the economy is bad. Italy might blow up.”
  • “I can’t write X, Y, or Z because I’m worried what my family, or what my colleagues, will say about me.”
  • “I can’t learn Spanish because I have to work 10 hours a day and then spend weekends cleaning my house.”
  • “I can’t daytrade because James said it’s too risky.”

One time I was standing in Victor Niederhoffer’s house at a party looking at a painting someone made of him and his father and I was thinking, “how come my family connections are not so strong? Did this prevent me from holding onto my success?” And how come nobody gave me a chance, like George Soros gave to him? Suddenly I got in the “I can’t succeed” mode. I got in a bad mood and even left the party. Once I left the party I immediately got stopped by a cop and given a ticket. I still owe Connecticut on this ticket. Probably with interest. Come and get me, Connecticut! And I came home and I just simply felt bad about myself.

The man has great connections, allowing him to be even more unpredictable.

(Soros, or as Victor used to call him, “the palindrome”)

We all have our “cant’s“. Start to list yours. Go from macro to micro. Macro is something like: “I can’t be happy until I have a million dollars” Micro might be something like, “I can’t sleep because I’m too worried about a meeting tomorrow” or “I can’t make this list of ‘can’ts’ becaus there’s nothing I can’t do” (figure that one out).

So that’s step one. Those can’ts are your boundaries. They are the walls to your cage. Don’t try to escape them. We are all expert cage-builders. Most people who tried to escape from Alcatraz died in the attempt. If you can’t do something you can’t do it. Don’t fight it.

But then how will this method work?

Here’s step 2: Do something unpredictable. 

Whenever you think of a “can’t” just do something you wouldn’t normally do. If you think, “I can’t learn quantum mechanics because I’m bad at math” then take out a pad and make a watercolor painting. Or call someone you haven’t spoken to in five years. Or be grateful for something that happened to you 20 years ago.

About a year ago I had a really bad day in the stock market. I was literally sweating it out, losing money, feeling sick, the whole thing that inevitably happens when you trade in the markets. Claudia was worried about me. I said, “let’s go swimming.” I hadn’t swum in about five years. She said, “where?” She didn’t know of any pool in the area. And neither did I. So I said, “let’s just get in our bathing suits and go in the river.” Let me tell you something about me: the river is dirty: there’s mud, there’s little fish, there’s seaweed. I need my chlorine!

But whatever. We got into our bathing suits. I had to find a bathing suit. I think I might’ve worn two pairs of underwear instead. And we went to a piece of the Hudson River five minutes away that had a tiny beach with rocks and sand. And we went swimming for an hour. It was fun and we laughed.

Life is short. That bad day in the market was bothering me then but in the long run it would have zero effect on me. But it’s hard to just say, “this will have zero effect on me”. So I went swimming instead. And I felt really good afterwards instead of suffering through a night of intense mental and emotional anguish.

In 2002, I was having a real bad period. I’ve written about it. But I was heading to dead zero, the economy was bad, and I had no possible way of supporting my family.

So I decided to learn all the seven letter words. Mollie had just been born and would cry every night. I would tape lists of seven letter words to her stroller at 2 in the morning and stroll her back and forth while she cried to try and settle her down. Meanwhile, I’d remember the lists. In Scrabble there are six letter combinations called “stems” that if you add almost any other letter to them you can form a legal seven letter word, which gets you a 50 point bonus in scrabble. So it’s worth remembering.

For instance, nine years later I still remember most of them. The most popular stem (because it has the most common letters) is SATINE. For instance, E  + SATINE is ETESIAN. X + SATINE is ANTISEX or SEXTAIN. And so on. Throw in some Q without U words (QAT, QI, QOPF, QANAT, for instance) and you’ll beat everyone you know at Scrabble (Thanksgiving is coming up! Don’t forget to bring the Scrabble set to your family outing).

So instead of worrying all night, I learned to play Scrabble. I then ran into a friend of mine I used to play poker with. He was a Scrabble player and had also just cashed out of Morgan Stanley with a hundred million or so. We played a few times (he crushed me) and gave me excellent advice on how to raise money for a hedge fund.

Now, Step number 3 is critical. Repeat! 

That’s all.

You might be thinking: “why does this work? I’m not going to be suddenly able to do all the things I can’t do. I still won’t be able to learn French overnight. Or make a million dollars next week.”

That’s ok. Who cares? You might be dead next week. Are you really going to care if you learned French or not?

The more you practice this, several things will happen:

A) You’ll recognize more quickly when you are putting a cage around yourself. In a life that is finite and just a single breath in the lifespan of the whole universe, this is unbelievably important. Most people say “I can’t” all day long. Doing this practice will help you avoid being one of those people.

B) You’ll start to explore over time what “can’t” really means in your life. It won’t be something that becomes a parasite on your consciousness like it is with everyone else. It will become separate from you. It will become something that leads to unpredictable things. Things that will make your life better. And maybe the life of those around you better. My kids certainly benefit when I go from “can’t” to “let’s paint watercolors”.

C) Over time, because of “A” and “B” the word “can’t” won’t have the same power over you. Instead of a metal cage, the cage will turn to paper or disappear altogether. You’ll think “can’t” and just laugh.

Just don’t go to Mexico and get shot.

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  • just what I needed to read today James. Thanks

  • James,

    I have a question for you mate. Do you think Huffpo’s success can be replicated in more specific industry verticals?

    I think it can but would love your take on this.



    P.s. I know it isnt Dear James day yet!

  • Hey! You’re in Vegas? Any chance you have 15 minutes and I can buy you a cup of coffee? That’d be great to meet up! I can even bring my chess board (I’m sure you can beat me in less than 2 of those minutes).

  • Love it, James.  Gonna have my kids read it in homeschool (the older ones).  Perfect.

  • Parmcharm

    GREAT Post, James! I always love how to take the unpredictable and break it down to doable and conquer all man-made imaginary obstacles! Here’s what I wrote about striking a balance with me and my brain: “Bad Brain”

  • GREAT Post, James! I always love how you take the unpredictable and break
    it down to doable and conquer all man-made imaginary obstacles! Here’s
    what I wrote about striking a balance with me and my brain: “Bad Brain”

  • Positive thinking in practice, very good post. Also I would say that it’s our mind more than just the brain that puts limits and embraces habitual patterns.

  • Onebornfree

    “About a year ago I had a really bad day in the stock market. I was
    literally sweating it out, losing money, feeling sick, the whole thing
    that inevitably happens when you trade in the markets.”

    James, that feeling is only inevitable because you were making bets with money you could not afford to lose.

    If you are going to continue your speculations, first divide your money into two “piles” : [1] money you cannot afford to lose [i.e. the important pile], [2] money you can afford to lose.

    If you have no money you can afford to lose, don’t make bets/speculations in stocks or anything else! Peace of mind will magically follow! On the other hand, if you enjoy lots of sweating and losing money, carry on as before! :- ) Regards, onebornfree

    • X-Smoking Bad Driver

      I could be completely wrong, I don’t believe this at all. If you want to become good at trading, trade with money you cannot afford to lose.  Don’t have any back up plan, if you have a back up plan, you have a higher probability of failing. I think you should question everything, especially things most people think are a truisms. Here is another reason why I believe this to be true, you have no idea what you are truly able to accomplish. Nature and necessity will bring better things out of you than choice ever could. Many people fail because their line is not straight enough. Another thing, what is this for anyway? So you fail, so you succeed? What is it all for anyway. It’s all dust. All these things in our heads, failure … success, win, lose. Just do our best to calm it all and let nature takes its course.

  • What a fab post.  

    You’ve given me a great spot to park (or activate, shall I say) the unpredictable streaks I keep trying to keep buried under an adult, zen-like consistency of “normal” behaviour.   Brilliant tool for the kids – it will help them through teen angst no doubt.

    I think I have fallen wildly and completely in heavy like with this blog.

    Thanks James. 

  • Mack

    You said:  “I have a talk on Monday in San Jose about how to take advantages of the scams in our society to become an entrepreneur.”

    Is there any chance we can get to see a video of that….sounds very interesting.

    • Matt Swanson

      I was going to post the exact same question.

    • charity

      My question too.  James how can we hear you or at least read what you are saying in San Jose.  On Youtube?

      • Max

        Also to add…..if you could give us links to videos of your talks in general that would be great

    • Anonymous

      Good call Mack.  I’m in San Jose and would love to come see you James.  What is the event, can anyone attend and how?

  • Mac

    Take comfort in the fact that the woman to Soros’s left tried her best to avoid being photographed with him. That, or she has wind and was caught off guard. The woman to his right doesn’t look all that thrilled to be with him either.

  • Clint Smith

    It seems an overwhelming theme here is circumventing problems by distracting your brain— in a direction that can be positive. This keeps our creativity from dying. Need that this week…

  • Billy

    Yo James, as always this was a great read. I want to email this post to my wife, but I don’t see a button for that.  Is there a way to do that from this page?


  • Lupemlopez57

    Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    Before the real estate market crash compelled me to buy a cheap beach house for my families vacations, I was a Mexican vacation fanatic. Paticularly Baja, north of the craziness in los Cabos but still in the deep southern half of the penninsula.

    I never had a “bullet grazing” experience. In fact, here is fairly typical Baja story… 

    Eating breakfast at a cheap cantina. Talking to a British couple with a 12 month old. Turns out they don’t speak a lick of Spanish. The day before, they were driving towards a remote beach in a 2WD rent-a-car and got stuck. Just the two of them, middle of the desert, with a baby. 

    So they get out of their car, grab a couple gallons of water out of the trunk, and hike a mile or so back to the hard tack. Sitting at the side of the road, water jugs, and baby. 

    Truck comes along. They flag it down. Mexican guy jumps out. They pantomine and gyrate, trying to explain their predicament. (Remember, no Spanish). They guy stares at them for a long while, smiles, puts his index finger in the air, and drives off.

    Back to sitting at the side of the road with the water jugs and the baby. Maybe they had some fruit rollups, I don’t know. Wondering what that Mexican guy meant with his index finger.

    Here comes the truck. It’s got three Mexicans in the cab, and 3 more in the truck bed.  All young men. They stop in front of our British couple, and wave their car keys at them, pantomining “give me”. So the Brits surrender the keys.

    The trucks turns down the arroyo, right next to our Brits, and cruise towards the beach. (4WD truck). 30 minutes later, here comes the rent-a-car up the arroyo, being towed by the truck, with a six pack of Mexicans running along beside it, pushing it along. The whole parade stops at the hard tack. The Brits are handed their keys, the Mexicans make goo-goo faces at the baby for a while, and everyone cruises off in their respective vehicles.

    Baja triple A. Lots of waiting, but no charge.

  • Thank you.  You knocked it out of the park with this one.  I’ve decided to eradicate the “I can’t”s from my mental space lately with fantastic results.  I’ve also been on the Grateful Diet with outstanding results.  

  • Liliespinosab

    Well, you have your own Spanish teacher at home. If I can learn English you can learn Spanish.

    • Sooz


  • jw


    Maybe the proverbial dumb question but do you mean, to use your example, never to attempt to learn quantum mechanics?

  • GSL

    Nice work. I hope to be at your talk in San Jose.

  • Anonymous

    my most used refrain at the moment is ‘in six months time you won’t even remember it happened so stop being angry/worrying/thinking about what ever it is’ simple but it seems to work…


  • Anonymous

    Best post in months James! The imposing list of can’ts is dwarfed by the infinite list of cans. Happiness lives in the second list.

  • Dude, you have some seriously strange days.  The boundaries concept is interesting – 

    • Anonymous

      Well put Joe. Our minds are our boundaries. Meditation and prayer have helped me great. We are all works in progress; usually very hard on ourselves. When we move from our self-concept of limitation to potential it is empowering. 

  • wow, this has to be the best post I have ever read!

  • Mark Cox 33

    Mr. Altucher:

    For some reason I have never allowed myself to listen to you. I put you in the “vain materialist” category I see on the BI website I use to frequent. Tonight, I decided to read a post of yours. 

    I am in a rough spot right now. Your testimony here has lifted my spirit and given me a new way to approach the negative emotions that limit my potential.

  • Anonymous


    thanks as always for your thought provoking posts. I can liberates us from the fear, and self-grasping that hold us back. When we go for it and are unpredictable, we can let go.

    It is inspiring that you have created a community of people on your blog who post thoughtful back and forth about how we can all grow and effect meaningful change in our lives. I hope that I can add to the conversation.

    Thanks to all for sharing!

  • Paul Trombley

    After reading the post, the story about The Little Engine That Could came to mind. Then I remembered Altucher’s metaphor about Alcatraz. Shel Silverstein’s The Little Blue Engine, however, seems appropriate, and it’s also an antidote to the cult of positive thinking.

    The Little Blue Engine
    by Shel Silverstein

    The little blue engine looked up at the hill.
    His light was weak, his whistle was shrill.
    He was tired and small, and the hill was tall,
    And his face blushed red as he softly said,
    “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

    So he started up with a chug and a strain,
    And he puffed and pulled with might and main.
    And slowly he climbed, a foot at a time,
    And his engine coughed as he whispered soft,
    “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

    With a squeak and a creak and a toot and a sigh,
    With an extra hope and an extra try,
    He would not stop — now he neared the top —
    And strong and proud he cried out loud,
    “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!”
    He was almost there, when — CRASH! SMASH! BASH!
    He slid down and mashed into engine hash
    On the rocks below… which goes to show
    If the track is tough and the hill is rough,
    THINKING you can just ain’t enough!

  • Hi James,

    I have to agree that the mind likes certainty and comfort and doesn’t care much for surprises. We need to be able to find a way to tell the mind to get out of the way so that we can enjoy and have a little bit of fun in life.

  • John

    Where and when are you going to be speaking in San Jose?  I’d like to attend.

    • Hi John, here’s a link to it:

  • Anonymous

    Stupidest rash of shit. But I read it and you got your hit. This is training for deluding oneself to becoming satisfied with your second, third and fourth and then wholly made up choices. As though life’s satisfaction will come by saying, whee, I can boil water. I always wanted to do that! I’m the bomb.

    • Faye

      Why not give your take on how to deal with life’s downturns instead if whining about what works for someone else.  

      • Anonymous

        Because James isn’t posting about life’s downturns. He is posting about how to deal with our can’t list. Second, I might not know how to deal with ones can’t list but I may know what doesn’t work.
        Pretending your can’t list will go away, quit bothering you or become cans by these methods will work like an aspirin on chronic pain. You get a temporary relief.

        • It’s more about catching yourself when you say “can’t”. The first step is awareness of how often “can’t” arises. This helps with that. WHat you do with it (i suggest doing something unpredictable) is up to you. But the more you catch yourself saying “can’t” the less chance it has of parasitically leeching your blood and energy. 

  • Ken

    Had a old guy neighbor about 15 years ago who used to say if your mind says you can’t do something it is your inner idiot talking to you. Somehow you must kill your inner idiot was his theory.

  • Anonymous

    Like the advice….Most of us nowadays don’t use the words ‘I can’t’. Most people use the words ‘I can’ but then end up sitting and doing nothing or they just become sporadic….

  • Dave

    Yeah. Where’s this speech in San Jose? Can anybody just attend?

    • Hi Dave, here’s the link to it. I think anyone can attend. Not sure:

  • Brent Hoag

    You should put up the link for Gary Moss’s site that does the Scrabble cards.

    He also has some accessories, such as 

    Here is a business that appears to have started itself.  I don’t know how large it is or how scalable, but it is alive. 

  • ProcrastinatorNumber1

    If only I could use the time I in which I say “I can’t….” doing the things I can do. I think this is just really a form of procrastination.

  • All the times my family played Scrabble and we never knew about STEMs. Amateurs.