How a little insight from the world’s greatest pickpocket could dramatically improve your judgment and intuition.
You know why “whitehat” hackers (most of them former “blackhat” or “outlaw” hackers) are the most coveted employees for cybersecurity firms, right? It’s because they know exactly what cybersecurity is up against.
The same principle applies in the physical world. Recently I had a fascinating conversation with Bob Arno – aka the “King of Pickpockets” – about how his skills as a stage pickpocket eventually made him a highly sought-after international safety expert.
My conversation with him really drove home something that I already knew, but hadn’t fully thought through: The people we can learn the most from are the people who are so familiar with our weaknesses and blind spots that they could confidently take advantage of them.
I’m going to share the four main principles I distilled from Bob’s knowledge right here – but first, a story that illustrates what I am talking about:
Not so long ago, a colleague who had been pickpocketed while traveling told me about a surprising perspective she gained from the experience. I’m going to paraphrase it a little here:
“I’m now officially a travel statistic – I was robbed. Last Friday. And this may sound strange, but I was left with a confusing feeling of respect for my robber.
I wasn’t physically assaulted, thankfully, and if it hadn’t been for the embarrassing situation that I was left with no money to pay for a bottle of champagne and a pile of empty oyster shells, I wouldn’t even have realized I was the victim of a crime.
Here’s how it happened.
I was sitting at an oyster bar, celebrating the end of the week and some good news I’d received earlier that day on a massive project I pitched to a client. Another patron came up to the bar and sat down next to me – a little too close maybe, but nothing that bothered me too much. It was a busy bar, after all.
He ordered a glass of wine and asked to change some banknotes. He took out of a big bundle of cash, gulped his wine down in three sips, and then left.
It seemed like unusual behavior for that kind of establishment, but I was traveling after all – maybe things just worked differently there.
Later, when I reached for my wallet to settle the bill – it was gone.
My wallet had marched out of the oyster bar with the wine-gulping guy, and I had no idea at all, until I watched the whole scene on the restaurant’s CCTV camera footage.
While I was busy noticing his bad sense of personal space and his hand fumbling a pile of cash, he was using his other hand to remove my wallet from my jacket pocket. His precision was incredible. I didn’t feel it, because I was concentrating on how he drank his wine and waved his money around.
It was eye-opening to see the scene play out, because it was obvious that he had totally figured me out as soon as he walked into the bar. Besides me sitting alone at the bar with an expensive pile of snacks and a bit too much alcohol, he knew not only that my guard was down, but also that I was illiterate in local social cues and body language.
To be honest, I almost felt like he kind of deserved all those soon-to-be cancelled cards and old receipts….”
I felt bad for my colleague, and slightly relieved that it didn’t happen to me …- and I remembered this story a few days after I spoke to Bob.
What he helped me understand is that it doesn’t all come down dexterity and distraction in the moment (although those are important). A successful thief has strategic skills, efficiency and a degree of focus that most of us can only envy.
So, I went and picked apart my newfound knowledge of the mindsets of street criminals, and hacked it to make it applicable to my own life. As promised, here are my four really practical principles that you can also follow to become a more observant, strategic thinker.
1. Don’t just take opportunities – take the RIGHT opportunities.
Imagine a pickpocket walking into a subway station and trying to rob 6 different people without carefully observing them ahead of time?
Disaster. For the thief. Security (and probably the 6 people he tried to rob) would be chasing him up the escalator in no time.
The non-criminal version of this is something so common in our everyday lives, especially amongst entrepreneurs: we think we have to take every opportunity that comes our way, just because they’re opportunities.
As our thief example demonstrates, not only is this impossible, but even trying is a surefire way to line yourself up for failure.
If we’re honest with ourselves, what most often drives a tendency to overcommit to “opportunities” is a difficulty with saying no.
And what often drives that, is insecurity. We’re afraid people won’t like us if we say no, that they won’t offer us opportunities in the future, or that they’ll see us as lazy or inept. Nothing could be further from the truth though!
Saying no, and deciding which opportunities to take and which to leave, is about knowing what you stand for and what you want, and having a plausible understanding of what you can achieve.
This should be the basis of our decisions about which opportunities to take, not fear!
2. Decide, commit, execute!
Once you do decide on an opportunity, go for it without hesitation!
How successful do you think an uncertain pickpocket is? Well, I’d wager no one ever gets the chance to find out, because indecision prevents action. A thief who waits too long to commit never gets round to making “the lift”, as pickpockets call the actual act of taking the wallet, or whatever it is they want to grab.
An effective pickpocket is selective about the opportunities they take, but once they’ve spotted the right one, they waste no time. They commit to their decision and execute, as efficiently as possible.
The crime-free take home? Finding the right opportunity means nothing if you don’t do something about it.
- Decide: own your choice and the reasons that informed it.
- Commit: once you’ve chosen a path, stay on it. Trust your decision and give it your best shot.
- Execute: the hardest part. Just get shit done.
3. But also… know when to pull out.
Okay, having said all that, you also have to be able to spot a sinking ship.
Or an undercover cop, in case of the pickpocket! Sometimes, you’ve decided, committed and are busy executing – when something derails badly.
As in not-fixable badly. No one wants to be a quitter, but it’s also important to be able to notice when a situation – a dead-end job with a sociopathic boss, a dud product, a trip to Fyre Festival – is only going to get worse. Don’t be a martyr. Bow out as graciously as possible and move on to the next thing.
4. Distraction will (almost) always cost you.
Sleight of hand – the type of trick that includes pickpocketing and magic illusions – only works because the person doing it is able to distract you from the real action.
The guy with the wad of cash and the wine didn’t need to come up with something really interesting to take my friend’s awareness away from what was happening in her personal space. He just needed to come up with something.
How easily are you distracted by things that aren’t even interesting, let alone important?
And do you have any idea of what this costs you on a daily basis? Last year Vox published an article claiming that the average phone user spends around 53 minutes per day on Instagram, and the same amount of time on Facebook as well! Snapchat comes a close third with 49 minutes per day.
That’s almost three hours you could be working on a goal, spending exercising, playing with your kids, reading a book, taking an online course, or even listening to a podcast! In real terms, distraction doesn’t only cost you time and money – it costs you your quality of life.
Makes sense, right? Since my eye-opening conversation with Bob, I’ve consciously been trying to apply these techniques in my daily life.
Sure I fail, all the time. But half the battle is just learning to observe yourself. If you can recognize your own patterns and blind spots before you succumb to them, you’re well on your way to becoming more strategic, successful and true to yourself.