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Searching for Tim Cook’s Energy Bar

A tale of how emulating others can get a little...out of hand.

In 2009, Wired ran a story on Tim Cook, the wizard behind the scenes at Apple. For years, the story of Apple’s success had always been firmly pegged to Steve Jobs’ design genius, and there were stories of how he boldly protected his ideas so they wouldn’t be corrupted by compromises from other departments. But then we began hearing about the less sexy part of Apple’s success: the rigorously honed supply chain that set Apple apart from their competitors. And of course, we began hearing about the guy behind that system: Tim Cook.

The article in Wired was written as Steve Jobs’ health forced him to hand over more and more of the day-to-day management responsibilities. Tim was the chosen heir and a mystique was starting to build up around him. He was now the man. The Wired article mentioned that details of Tim’s personal life were scarce, but this line jumped out at me, grabbed a hold of my psyche, and wouldn’t let go: 

Tim is relentless in terms of energy and like his boss, Cook is a health nut, chowing down on energy bars.” 

Suddenly, I was dying for an answer to the burning question, “What was the energy bar?” When Steve Jobs turned to Tim, Tim turned to this energy bar. These guys had transformed Apple from a loser company to the most valuable company in the world—and it was all on the back of this energy bar!

At the time, I had just launched my own one-man company which helps creative professionals hone their vision and connect with an audience. My wife and I had recently started a family, and she left her job to be home with our young son. It was a time where I felt fueled by inspiration, but like Tim Cook, I had to turn my vision into a practical reality of day-to-day success.

Yes, of course, we all know that we’re supposed to “Fail fast, fail often.” We’re supposed to try new things, learn quickly, and not give up our dreams. Success comes from being in the muddy scrum on the playing field, not sitting on the sidelines carefully calculating and never getting in the game.

But wouldn’t it be nice if things were a little bit easier than all that? Wouldn’t it be great to have Tim Cook’s energy bar?

Wouldn’t it be nice if things were a little bit easier than all that? Wouldn’t it be great to have Tim Cook’s energy bar?

In recent years, the practice of seeking out the maximum return of value for the smallest input has come to be called “hacking,” or “life hacking.” You can hack anything—your workout, success, your toast, even how you tie your shoes. It’s fun, empowering, and you can gain social cred by impressing your friends with innovative ideas they missed. “Are you still peeling your banana like THAT?! Let me show you this incredible life hack… you will never peal your banana that way again!”

Tim Cook’s energy bar felt like the ultimate life hack. I had to find it. I turned to Google. 

“Tim Cook energy bar.”

“Tim Cook bar.”

“Tim Cook (insert name of popular energy bars).”

“Tim Cook eat.”

When my Google search didn’t work, I launched an image search. When Tim arrived at an iPhone launch event to greet retail workers and customers, surely he would have to chow down on one of his energy bars, right?

No luck. 

The less I found, the more I became convinced that the energy bar was being kept secret because it was such a powerful game changer. There had to be an answer—and that’s when I realized I knew exactly where the answer to my question was:

In the trash bags outside Tim’s house.

Ignoring the cautionary buzz in my brain—“I’ve become a stalker”—I flashed on the truth that there were probably hundreds of wrappers just sitting there, waiting for me. I heard Ferris Bueller whispering, “You can never go too far” and like Indiana Jones in his quest for the Ark of the Covenant, I imagined hopping on a plane, slipping on some Levi’s 501’s and a mock black turtleneck, and casually strolling by Tim’s house on a random Tuesday morning, and… wait… this was in fact going too far.

“I’ve become a stalker”

In the moment when I realized that being a child of the 70s and 80s didn’t give me the problem-solving abilities I needed, I went back to searching the web and eventually stumbled upon a Quora thread seeking the same answer. This was a fellow seeker! A congregant of “The Church of Tim Cook’s Energy Bar!” 

I wasn’t alone in my hunt—and seeing this other guy’s desperation made me suddenly realize how futile my search was.

I went back to try to understand my folly—and was fascinated by what I had ignored. Even in the quote above from the Wired story, I left quite a bit out. It turns out, I’m an unreliable narrator, especially to myself. This is the full quote: 

Cook is a health nut, chowing down on energy bars and bicycling and weightlifting to keep himself in shape. When he is not working, hes working out.

Why did I ignore that fact that the energy bar was a tiny part of Tim’s overall health regimen? I suddenly understood that I had been asking the wrong question. I had been asking for shortcuts, for hacks, when what I needed to be asking about were daily practices that , over time, lead to powerful results.

Over the last four years, I’ve worked with hundreds of creative professionals behind the scenes helping them to turn their visions into reality. I’ve worked with writers and artists, photographers and graphic designers. What I have learned is that everyone shares the frustration of limited resources and everyone wants to find “the easy way.” But there is no easy way—and that truth can catch up with creative professionals, especially at mid-career.

There is no easy way—and that truth can catch up with creative professionals, especially at mid-career.

It’s all too easy to look at how hard you’re working and how far you still seem to be from the success you dreamed about. You’re tired, treading water, not making any real progress. And is it you, or does everyone else seem to have found inroads to success? Are all of them eating Tim Cook’s energy bar?!

The reality is that the amount of work coming at you isn’t going to change—but you can change the way you approach it, and your approach can yield significant results. It can, in fact, transform what you are able to achieve and put you closer to the satisfaction you seek in your work.

The correct question to ask is: How can I manage my energy for maximum benefit?

I have found a three-part process to become relentless in terms of energy, even without Tim Cook’s magical energy bar:

Step 1: Optimize for energy—not money or time.

It’s a mistake to scramble for more time or grab for more money. The fact of the matter is that you can never attain more than 24 hours in a day, and regardless of how much money you have, you will always be surrounded by those who have more.

If you are currently a working mother of three kids and feel overwhelmed by it all, think back to when you were 17 or 23 or 31. Did you feel any less overwhelmed then? Probably not…

Think back to when you were 17 or 23 or 31. Did you feel any less overwhelmed then?

You can make far bigger gains if you optimize for energy. Start with foundations: sleep, nutrition, movement, and mindfulness. This is the boring stuff that often gets lost amidst life’s daily schedule. Most people don’t get enough sleep, and what’s worse, they never address the issue. If your body and mind can’t rest, that means you are starting the day on half a tank of fuel. You are distracted, lethargic, and forced at the outset to begin pushing yourself through too much work without enough energy. The same equation holds true for eating well, moving, and finding time to become more aware of the fullness of existence beyond your daily work schedule.

Step 2: Do a communication re-boot

We are so busy doing things, so busy managing our own fears, that we rarely hone our ability to translate that to effectively communicate with those around us—and as a result we waste a massive amount of energy trying to explain ourselves, apologize, and even come to terms with our own emotions. We usually communicate deeply only when there is a problem.

“Can we have a talk?”
“Can you step into my office?”

We communicate deeply and honestly when we have to. But why not communicate this way more often—and save all that stress and energy from poor communication? I would recommend that you write down the names of the 10 most important people in your life (home and work) and identify simple ways to improve communication with them on a regular basis.

It doesn’t have to be complex, just an extra date night with your spouse, a monthly lunch with your boss, a few extra minutes touching base with colleague to understand what is most important to them. Remember, listening is at least half of all communication—but it’s the half that will save you a ton of energy down the road.

Step 3: Connect energy back to time.

To do this, start time blocking your calendar in a new way. Block for emotion, not just tasks, which allows you to achieve a sense of satisfaction, instead of overwhelm. For instance, if you have to work on a big slide deck for a presentation of your work, don’t just schedule an hour into your calendar if you are really worried about this task. Instead, DOUBLE the amount of time you think it will actually take. Place that block of time somewhere in the day where you normally feel the most confident, the most ready to take on the world.

The result will be a feeling of success, not just productivity.

In order to time block effectively, you first need to understand your own emotional habits and preferences as they relate to time. Do an energy audit, which gives you the data you need to begin making decisions around your actions. What are your best hours and how are you using them? Spend a week evaluating these things every hour of the day. “How do I feel?” “What do I feel like doing?” Find your sweet spots and block your calendar to maximize efficiencies.

P.S. I have found an energy bar that I love, though I still have no idea if it is the one Tim Cook eats. I’m pretty much at the point of buying Quest Protein Bars by the case load, and can highly recommend the Cookies & Cream flavor. Every time I take a bite, I like to think that I’m that much closer to Tim’s success. At the very least, I’ll have the crumbs on my mock black turtleneck to prove it.

For more on how to find more time and energy for the work that matters most to you, check out Dan Blank’s online course, Fearless Work.

Dan Blank

Dan Blank, the founder of WeGrowMedia, has helped hundreds of creative professionals and organizations such as Sesame Workshop, J. Walter Thompson, and Random House communicate their vision and maximize their impact.

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