Gretchen Rubin

“It’s Not True that We Can’t Change Our Outlook or that We’re Stuck Being Whomever We Think We Are.”

“It’s Not True that We Can’t Change Our Outlook or that We’re Stuck Being Whomever We Think We Are.”

Interview: Ben Feder.

At a time in his life when he was playing leading roles in big business, Ben Feder realized that he was losing touch with everything that had sustained him during his career. He became determined to re-order his priorities and spend time on the people and activities that meant the most to him -- so, with his wife and four kids, Ben Feder set off for Bali on a "sabbatical year" to focus on everything that was most important. This is the kind of adventure that many people fantasize about, but few people actually do.

He's written a book about his experience, and it's just hitting the shelves: Take Off Your Shoes: One Man's Journey From the Boardroom to Bali and Back.

Having written The Happiness Project, about my year-long experiment of happiness with myself as guinea pig, I love reading any book of self-experiment, especially one that's in the form of a "year of ___"

I couldn’t wait to talk to Ben about happiness, habits, and productivity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier?

Ben: I have three: meditation, yoga, and painting. Meditation centers my mind. Yoga does the same and adds body movement to the dialogue. Painting allows me to express creativity and appreciate beauty. And it brings me unimagined joy.

Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Ben: One day, a few years ago, I arrived home from work to discover my oldest son, Sam, then in 8th grade, barricaded in his room doing homework. I noted that lately his conversations with me had morphed to monosyllabic grunts as he sequestered himself ever more deeply. Suddenly, I realized that between his going off to a highly competitive high school and my travel schedule (I was CEO of a company with global operations), I was about to miss out on an important relationship. In a flash, I realized that this is where it happens. This is where men turn into the husbands and fathers they never intended to be. If I didn’t make a radical choice, my son would enter high school and then college and the time to connect more deeply would be lost forever. I couldn’t put off any longer what I had long dreamed about; to take an extended time off with my young family. So, I decided to take myself out of the game temporarily in order to explore, renew, and deepen the relationships with the people that mattered most to me. My wife, Victoria, and I pulled our four kids out of school and decamped to Bali, Indonesia, for a sabbatical. It was during this sabbatical that I began to gain a challenging healthy habit—learning to be still. And I learned to break an unhealthy habit—the mindset that I needed to continually notch up another achievement to find happiness. While it is nice to record another success on life’s imaginary scoreboard, I find it doesn’t on its own lead to growth and well-being.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about creating happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Ben: It turns out that happiness is a learnable skill. It’s not true that we can’t change our outlook or that we are stuck being whomever we think we are. Scientists have learned that the brain is vastly more plastic than long had been thought. By being mindful of our thoughts and deliberately turning them around to be more positive and optimistic, we can, over time, create new neural pathways so that our overall disposition is happier. In short, happiness is an inside job. Once you realize that happiness is a trainable skill, it becomes obvious that it is also a choice we make to be more happy or less. I definitely wish I knew this when I was 18, but it probably requires a little more self-awareness than most 18-year-olds are wired for.

Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Ben: International travel is necessary to fulfill my ambitions and career goals, and in many ways I enjoy the cultural and commercial adventure that comes with international business travel. That said, if it’s too frequent, it does tend to get in the way of healthy living. With rare exceptions, none of us can live some ideal life. We are all human. We all have obligations and responsibilities, and some of us are deeply ambitious. So, I try to strike a healthy balance.

Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

Ben: There is a quote I once heard that was attributed to the Dalai Lama, though I have not been able to find it online. Nonetheless, it’s a good one: “If you are unhappy with your life situation...change your mind.”

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