Billionaire Brad Jacobs: Meditation, thought experiments, and cognitive behavior therapy helped me succeed—and can do the same for you



Brad Jacobs headshot e1712186469448

The only time I’ve felt truly lost was 2007, when I stepped down from the chairman and CEO roles at United Rentals, the world’s largest equipment rental company. I started looking for my next big thing, but I couldn’t find it, and for the first and only time in my life, I became depressed. Maybe I was just coming down from the rush of success, but I’m an ambitious person by nature and a dealmaker by inclination. 

Now I had no deal going, no industry sector where I could envision working my magic. What was next for me? Around this time, a good friend confided in me about being plagued with suicidal thoughts. I desperately wanted to help, but instead felt powerless, because of my own unsettling disorientation and my ignorance about self-destructive impulses. To help both my friend and myself, I started reading what turned into a library of psychology books, which led me to a deep interest in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). 

I found an extremely knowledgeable CBT therapist and saw him twice a week for two years. Over that time, I learned a lot about why my mind works the way it does. Our thought processes are full of all sorts of cognitive distortions, from catastrophizing (thinking of small problems as enormous impediments) to perfectionism, where anything less than perfect execution causes intense frustration. Another common cognitive distortion is dichotomous thinking (having rigid or “all-or-nothing” views). 

Course-correcting

By learning to recognize these thought patterns and course-correcting accordingly, I’ve spared myself a lot of trouble. I learned, for example, to turn my internal chatter to my advantage by reframing negative thoughts as useful data rather than objective reality. I don’t take it for granted that I’m going to be successful. Unexpected stuff can happen at any time. A healthy fear of failure has kept me sharp. Inevitably, the process of running a business will test your bias toward hope or fear. Are you being too conservative about your projections? Is your fear keeping you from jumping into an opportunity? Is your anxiety fact-based, or are your biases spurring negative emotions? By keeping any biases at arm’s length from your decision-making, you’ll have a far better chance of success. 

When I notice I’m feeling anxious about something, I ask myself a basic CBT question: “What’s the worst that can happen, and how would I cope with that?” Or, “If a friend had a similar worry, how would I advise them to handle it?” By putting distance between myself personally and the source of the anxiety, I can think more objectively about positive outcomes. If we accept that life is imperfect, we’ll make fewer self-defeating demands for perfection on ourselves and others. 

Finally, I’ll share something that might spare you some time in rearranging your own brain. “Not beating myself up” has been a hard-learned lesson for me and those around me. I became much happier in my middle age when I stopped expecting unrealistic levels of perfection from myself and my family, my friends, and my co-workers, not to mention customers, vendors, and shareholders. The reality is that when you’re trying to make a few billion dollars, your team is likely running in multiple directions at a fast pace. Accept that some goof-ups are inevitable, and you’ll find that it’s much easier to maintain your mental equilibrium as you pursue big goals.

Positive emotions matter

If you want to see problems and opportunities differently, you’ve got to push yourself. Thought experiments can help rearrange your brain in specific ways so that your mind can go anywhere it needs to go and feel comfortable wherever it ends up. Albert Einstein was a consummate daydreamer; he preferred the term gedankenexperiments, the original German name for thought experiments. During one such gedankenexperiment, while he was picturing riding a beam of light and imagining what time and space would look like, Einstein came up with the relationship between energy and matter that he famously expressed in his equation E = mc2

Intentional daydreaming (or gedankenexperiment, mental synthesis, or whatever you want to call it) can change how we see our world, but thought experiments are not limited to genius scientists. Gifted artists, composers, and mathematicians use them for creative work or problem-solving, sometimes without realizing it. Hypnotherapists evoke vivid imaginings during trances. Yogis do it while practicing their inner exploration, and some religious orders access gedankenexperiments through contemplative prayer. 

Meditation has been my main hobby since I was a teenager. It’s helped me stay calm and think creatively in challenging circumstances. I usually spend about half an hour a day meditating—15 minutes in the morning, 15 minutes at night—and much of that time is spent in gedankenexperiments. For me, this creates a feeling of profound calmness, which is when many of my best decisions materialize. Some gedankenexperiments fill me with awe at the sheer magnificence of the universe. Or I think about how it felt to see a beautiful work of art, watch a sunrise, connect with a piece of music, or hold my child in my arms. Daydreaming exercises remind me that positive emotions matter, especially in chaotic business environments. 

Years ago, I invented a self-reflective mind/brain technique in which the brain actually experiences itself. I call it feeling the brain, and I believe it’s one of the most impactful things I’ve ever done to help myself and others. The technique is based on how the brain communicates with different parts of the body. Your elbow, for example, is a relatively simple body part. Your brain talks to your elbow through electro-chemical signals, but not as much as it talks to your hands, which are extraordinarily complex. There’s a ton of back-and-forth “dialogue” between your hands and your brain to make fine motor skills possible. When my energy is low, my favorite technique to rejuvenate and unleash creativity is to close my eyes and allow my attention to gently float in my brain. If you stare at your hands for a few minutes, the strong brain-hand connection can trigger dissociative, trancelike experiences. 

My feeling-the-brain technique is similar, but instead of putting my awareness on my hands, I put it on my brain. I close my eyes and gently allow my mind to merge with its physical counterpart, the brain, to “feel” it like a tactile sensation. The effect is a spontaneous explosion of rich and unusual experiences. Often, the boundaries of my senses get mixed up and I slip into synesthesia. I might see sounds, or hear colors, or smell emotions. If I’m tired or just not in the zone, I can close my eyes and feel my brain and be instantly energized. Feeling the brain is a powerful technique that can help you rejuvenate and be more creative. I encourage you to try it and see for yourself. It might even help you become a billionaire.

Brad Jacobs is author of How to Make a Few Billion Dollars, chairman of the board of directors of XPO, GXO, and RXO, managing partner of Jacobs Private Equity, and incoming chairman and CEO of QXO, a new entrant in the building products distribution industry. He has led over 500 deals in over 30 years of business building. 

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