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FT 126: Play Away the Anxiety with Charlie Hoehn

Charlie Hoehn, author, speaker, and head of author marketing at Book in a Box, is the real deal when it comes to marketing expertise and achieving outsized results. He has worked for and advised great minds like Ramit Sethi, Tim Ferris, Seth Godin, and Gary Vaynerchuck.

But behind the successes is a story of paralyzing anxiety. Charlie experienced terrifying panic attacks that made him think that he was going to die. One particular attack led Charlie to begin a long and difficult mission to cure himself of his anxiety, and ultimately to write the book Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety. Charlie shares that story and more importantly what worked for him for ultimately getting rid of his anxiety, getting his life back on track, and what he recommends for others in the same boat.

Disclaimer: Hopefully, you find this episode helpful for bringing this important topic into the open, but it is not intended as medical advice. Everyone’s situation is different and you should consult your doctor before acting on anything in this episode.

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Charlie shares with us:

Charlie is a speaker, an author, and a marketing strategist for other authors (best known for working with Tim Ferris to edit and launch 4-Hour Body, as well as his work with Ramit Sethi, Tucker Max, and as head of author marketing at Book in a Box).

Charlie graduated from Colorado State with a degree in marketing and another in media studies. But, in the 2008 recession, no one was hiring after months and months of applying to jobs. Living in his parent's basement, he decided to stop sending out his resume to anyone and everyone. Instead, he decided to start offering services to people he wanted to work with for free and do what he wanted to do. That way, he could start getting some experience and put together a portfolio.

He ended up working with Ramit Sethi from I Will Teach You to be Rich when it was still a relatively small blog. Charlie offered to help him do more video since he had a background in videography. After that, Ramit asked him to help him market his book. The book took off on its launch day (above Twilight on Amazon on the first day!).

Through Ramit Sethi, Charlie met Tim Ferris, and success ensued – check out Tim's post.

Stress and Anxiety

Charlie has wrote a lot about the topic, having suffered from stress and anxiety himself and having it take over, almost destroy, his life at times. Check out:

How did it start?

Between 22-25 years old, Charlie was working with Tim Ferris. Charlie ran a huge event for Tim Ferris, called Opening the Kimono, which brought together successful people in entrepreneurship, journalism, publishing, etc. from around the world, who paid a five figure ticket to attend the 4-day Napa Valley private seminar.

Charlie had never been an event planner before. And although he had a lot of help from an amazing planner, Susan Dupré, Charlie was overwhelmed with making sure everything would go smoothly.

Charlie was afraid of falling asleep during the four days because he thought that if he was unavailable at any point during the four days and something went wrong, it would fall apart. He decided to take a pill, modafinil (used to treat nacrolepsy), during the 4-day event, and slept for only hours over those four days. And no one knew. The event went great...

But, it wasn't good. After the 4-days, Charlie's body started shutting down. He felt like he was going crazy and dying. He had anxiety, panic, attacks. It became worse and worse. It culminated in one weekend, when a close family member passed away, a close friend attempted suicide, and the deadline for a major project (Tim Ferris's 4-Hour Chef) was pushed back. The deadline push back is important because Charlie had convinced himself that he could hold on for a few more months till the deadline. When it was pushed back, along with the other terrible things in his life, that was too much.

“I just kind of collapsed emotionally.”

Charlie took a week off and then decided to quit the project. Tim was great and understanding. But Charlie felt extremely guilty for leaving the project. He also felt ashamed, having his self-image of competency and capability shattered.

“I felt like I was living in constant dread. I felt like I was caught in my own living hell in my mind.”

The next year:

Charlie focused his life around trying to get over the sense of dread that had started dominating and debilitating his life. He tried yoga, meditation, deep-breathing exercises, therapy, gratitude journals, exercising, supplements, flotation tanks, naturopaths, psychedelic mushrooms, volunteering, praying, courses... he tried everything.

“I kinda hit a point where I wasn't suicidal, but I was thinking 'I get why people are suicidal.' If life feels this way all the time, why would you want to keep going?”

Then, he stumbled upon a book called “Play” by Stuart Brown, an evolutionary explanation describing why animals play and the benefits of play. The book changed his life.

Charlie had deprived himself of play for years. He had gotten these jobs with Ramit and Tim through a sense of curiosity and play and found himself in a dream job! For example, he had traveled around the country during a tour with Tucker Max as a videographer, sleep deprived the whole time, but loving it.

Even several months after the pressure of the event and quitting his job with Tim Ferris, and working with some friends to launch an app, which went extremely well business-wise, he still felt like a mess.

“I became very serious about numbers, about productivity, about success. There was no joy. I was just a productivity machine.”

Charlie laughs at and is concerned by the “hustle” lifestyle of working. It's an epidemic in our culture.

“If you are hustling because there is this hole that you need to fill of your guilt for not working enough or not doing enough, I think that is a miserable way to go through life. And I know first hand how debilitating and awful it was for me when I was looking at life through that lens. There was guilt for not doing enough, not earning enough, for not being more.”

There is a lot of sacrifice that comes with the choice to work constantly. And the question, Will it ever be enough? There are a few champions of this idea and a few charismatic people who sleep 4-hours a night and wake up with manic energy, but these are outliers. Most of us are not genetically wired for it.

So back to play.

The day after reading the book on play, which he had done in one sitting, he got an email from a potential client who wanted to meet for some coffee. Charlie responded saying, instead of meeting for coffee, let's go play catch in the park.

Charlie started treating meetings as opportunities to play. He started playing in a home-run derby and he started taking improv lessons. He felt like he was tapping into who he was again.

“You have this chatter in your mind where you are constantly judging yourself, you're saying no to everything, you're criticizing everything. Improv forces you to not do that. The number one rule of Improv is to say “yes”, “yes, and...””

Adding play into his routine really changed his life.

The Play History Exercise:

“Sit down with a piece of paper and just write down the things that you repeatedly and volunteerly turned to when you were bored as a kid.”

What did you do without any pressure or grading from anyone? By yourself? With friends? Call your friends. What do they remember?

Charlie's friends said that he used to do practical jokes.

Then start incorporating all this stuff into your routine. Doing these things make you feel more like yourself. You're loose, you're relaxed. You get better at it because it is fun and you care about it.

Quick fix?

No. It took over a year to figure this out.

Charlie was working enough to pay the bills, but also not doing the ridiculous 80-hours a week that he had been. But the 80-hours a week is really common in a lot of industries, start-ups or Wall Street for example.

Charle became more conscious of the amount of time he spent to rejuvenate. Such as sleeping and “recess”.

Aside, Finland students don't do any homework until they are 13 and they have 2 hours of recess every day. They don't have the same levels of mental health issues, they are doing great on a bunch of tests.

So, Charlie even started a group called “The Recess Project” in Austin. He would get together with his friends for 3 hours, once a week. The group grew and became a bigger thing. He was doing Improv for 3 hours a week and basketball for an hour and a half a week.

He was still working full time but also scheduled time for active play.

Part of this also meant not thinking about work when he wasn't at work. He was giving his mind a break.

“People who are experiencing overwhelm, it's just life. There's not that much riding on their shoulders. A lot of people have gone through this before. It's going to be ok.”

Mindfulness practice is also useful, and taking off for a reason, they work. You can try the app 10% Happier. For example, when you are feeling overwhelmed, recognize the feeling and label it as a feeling. Focus on one thing at a time, one task at a time.

Why so serious?

When you start becoming obsessed with the outcome, rather than enjoying the process, you will be disappointed.

Focus on the process rather than the destination.

Warren Buffet's recommendation is to take the job that you would do if you were independently wealthy because will be good at it. Charlie believes that such a job is one that you will find fun and enjoy doing.

Charlie used to feel guilty if he wasn't working, making money, doing something to be more successful. Then he gave himself permission to play.

Human beings are designed to play. It's how we learn empathy to get along with other members of our species and learn survival skills. It is a way to release stress and tension and reunite the group. Laughter is another important part of life.

You already give yourself permission to do all these other things that aren't work, sleep, going on dates, etc. Maybe there is some stigma about play that keeps you from it, maybe you are out of practice. But it is something that was part of you when you were little, you don't need permission.

Sign up for a class that is focused on play. Not about winning, not competitive. Put yourself around people who are there to laugh with you.

“You had these things growing up, that's my point. You did them. And you just stopped. So do them again.”

Ongoing Anxiety and Stress Management

Charlie spends a lot of time doing therapy which had a big impact, releasing things that he had been carrying around for a long time.

Charlie has also gotten better at sharing and finding help. He used to never talk about these things. Some of his best friends didn't know what he was going through because he felt embarrassed to share. Now he talks to one of his best friends every week.

He is married with a baby girl on the way.

Communication is a constant challenge, especially getting upset about something he feels he did or said that was stupid.

Charlie's life has changed a lot over the last few months so regularity in his schedule has changed tremendously. But he tries to maintain the sense of humor, love, and laughter.

“There is a quote from Ghandi that I think about every now and then, he said: 'If I didn't have a sense of humour, I would have long ago committed suicide.' If you can't laugh at this stuff, it makes it way harder.”

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