Interview: Neil Pasricha.
I've known Neil for years. We got acquainted long ago, through our blogs, when blogs still felt fresh and new. I was a big fan of his gratitude blog 1000 Awesome Things.
He's got a terrific podcast called 3 Books with Neil Pasricha—it's "by and for book lovers, writers, makers, sellers...and librarians." You can watch his TEDxToronto talk on "The Three A's of Awesome" here.
His next book in the "Book of Awesome Series" just hit the shelves: You Are Awesome: How to Navigate Change, Wrestle with Failure, and Live an Intentional Life.
No one knows "awesome" like Neil Pasricha, and in You Are Awesome, he explores how we can make our very lives more awesome. With real-life stories and a conversational style, he shows how we can move forward in the face of challenge to make our days more intentional and joyful.
I couldn't wait to talk to Neil about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What you are you thinking and writing about these days?
Neil: I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience. Why?
Well, I feel like our lives are too easy. Yes! Too easy. We live in the greatest era of abundance every in human history. Our cars drive us home while our cell phones entertain us while food dinner gets delivered to our front porch. We have it good. For most of us wars, famines, plagues—really, any form of true scarcity—are the stuff of history books.
We have more access to clean water. We have higher education rates. We have laws allowing us to marry who we want and live where we please. We have had a constantly lengthening lifespan due to health advancements.
So we live in the most abundant time ever in history and yet…we aren’t doing well. We aren’t. Depression? Up. Suicide? Up. Anxiety? Way up! Cell phones tell us we’re never good enough. One in three college students reports clinical anxiety. And loneliness rates have doubled since the 1980s.
Many of us seem to be living in an era of endless stress. But why? The root issue is we are no longer resilient.
These days when we bend—we break. When we spill, we shatter. When we crack, we splatter. We are turning into an army of porcelain dolls!
We no longer have the tools to navigate change and manage failure—or even perceived failure.
I think the issue right now is that we think the equation goes like this:
Less Failure = More Success.
But based on what you said about your strikeouts and losses, and what everybody says about their strikeouts and losses, it actually goes like this:
More Failure = More Success.
But how do we thicken our skin? How do we become stronger and develop this resilience?
That’s exactly what the book is about!
I spent the past four years thinking about this as Leslie and I have watched my first child grow into a five year old boy. I know his life is a lot cushier than mine was, and yet I want him to be able to handle the ups and downs (and really big downs) that life will always serve to him.
So in You Are Awesome I lay out the nine secrets in a step-by-step guidebook to building resilience. For each of them I share a personal story (an often humiliating personal story) and then use the research and science to develop a key model.
So give us the nine secrets!
The nine secrets are:
- Add a Dot-Dot-Dot
- Shift The Spotlight
- See it As A Step
- Tell Yourself A Different Story
- Lose More To Win More
- Reveal To Heal
- Find Small Ponds
- Go Untouchable
- Never, Never Stop
I’ll expand on Secret #6: Reveal To Heal.
In this secret I share a story of how I sat beside a stranger on the plane who, by the end of it, was confessing incredibly deep and personal reasons why he felt him and his wife weren’t a fit and why he think he may need to ask for a divorce. There were a lot of tears but he had a giant emotional release and fell back into his seat and signed and said “Thank you so much.”
After that experience I looked into the research and there’s a ton of science that supports the act of confession—that the way we process and move through a painful event is actually by sharing and confessing our emotions. The problem is that so few of us can afford or have access to a great therapist. And a compounding problem is the decline of the church with its built-in models of confession (not just the Catholic confession chamber but also Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, etc. have a confession practice.)
What’s the solution?
I call it two-minute-mornings and it’s a simple exercise that makes your mind stronger at the beginning of each day. After you wake up and before you get out of bed you jot down on a piece of paper:
- I will let go of…
- I am grateful for…
- I will focus on…
We are awake 1,000 minutes a day and research shows that if we can cultivate a stronger and positive mindset we are much more creative, productive, and happier.
What did you write as your two-minute morning resilience developing ritual this morning?
I am in book launch mode so my wife Leslie would tell you I’m a little more fritzed out than usual. Here’s what I wrote:
I will let go of … comparing myself to Tim Ferriss
I am grateful for … the smell of wet maple leaves on my driveway
I will focus on … delivering a great speech today
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Find small ponds.
In Secret #7 of You Are Awesome I share a tool that builds resilience (and helps you get happier) which I called the life-changing story I learned from a Harvard Dean.
So basically: In my first few months of attending Harvard Business School, while feeling horribly out of place, I was invited to a one on one lunch with the former dean who was generously covering a scholarship for me.
He asked how I was doing and I told him the truth. I was stressed about school because I was stressed about marks and I was stressed about marks because I was stressed about jobs and I was stressed about jobs because I was stressed about money.
He laughed and told me I was like a guy standing outside the fence of a beach looking in at all the beautiful people sunbathing inside. He said the problem is I’m standing with a thousand other people trying to win over the same few bathing beauties.
What was his advice?
Get off the beach.
Don’t follow the crowd.
Find the nerd at the library.
It was pretty revolutionary advice coming from a former dean of the school. Harvard has an entire department dedicated to finding jobs! Visioning exercises, fit assessments, beer nights with employers, first and second and third round interviews.
And this guy was telling me to light a match to it all.
He was telling me to call up the broken or bankrupt or down-on-their-luck companies because that would be smaller ponds which I could thrive in. Why? Because they needed help so they would have bigger jobs with real responsibility and lots of learning.
After that lunch I ditched the formal recruiting process altogether and cold-called a hundred off-the-beach companies. No McKinseys or Googles or Goldman Sachs! I called up the places who had hit a hard time.
I found a smaller-pond job, in HR at Walmart, and it helped my career thrive. I worked there for ten years, assisted two CEOs for four years, and left as a Director of Leadership Development.
The advice is rooted in a 1984 study by Herb Marsh and John W. Parker which showed that what we call our “academic self-concept” can increase for up to ten years after we leave the smaller pond we’re swimming in.
These days when I find myself struggling (which is often) I remind myself to find small ponds. Start speaking at the lower speaking fee. Golf from the tees closer to the hole. Enter the marathon in the slower category. Whatever! Just go to the small pond and let your increasing academic self-concept ratchet your confidence upwards slowly.
The world is too big today to do anything else.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
I mention this study tangentially in You Are Awesome but I want to give it a bit of a bigger spotlight here.
Remember how I just said I worked in HR at Walmart for ten years? Well, that showed me that vacation systems are totally broken. In every company! People don’t take their full allotment and those quote-unquote progressive “unlimited vacation” companies actually perversely suffer from more warrior mentality which many feel results in less time off.
So do you want to know what kind of vacation actually works and results in 33% greater creativity, 25% more self-reported happiness, and 13% greater productivity?
“These are your weeks off. You have to leave. You don’t have a choice. You can’t take your cell phone. And you aren’t allowed to contact the office in any way or you will lose your pay.”
I conducted this study with a small company and published the results in Harvard Business Review.
A lot of employers don’t want to hear this! But I believe that we will all be a lot happier (and have greater resilience) when mandatory vacation is adopted.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I wrote the first draft of You Are Awesome in three months.
Sure, it took another two years to go through five deep edits and work its way through the publishing cycle (a title! a cover! copyedits! You know the drill). But I wrote the whole book in three months!
I adopted a healthy habit which I call Untouchable Days.
It’s a concept I discuss in my new book but essentially there is something hurting our mental strength these days and you know what it is? The amplifying bombardment of our brains by endless texts, emails, alerts, social media scrolling, and cell phone addiction in general. We are endlessly comparing, we are always psychologically losing, and we are absolutely destroying our own ability to get anything done.
What are Untouchable Days?
They are days when I am literally 100% untouchable and unreachable and unconnected. By anyone! In any way! All day! And on those days you won’t be surprised to hear my productivity goes up around 10 times. (It’s not uncommon for me to write 5000 words when on a normal, interruption-filled day I’ll write maybe 500.)
In the book I share the surprising research around this and how actually completely failing at writing this new book was what drove me to take such an extreme measure. I then wrote a piece for HBR called “Why You Need An Untouchable Day Every Week” and went it went totally viral I knew that other people needed this, too.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Why do you ask, Gretchen? No, just kidding. I’m a Questioner. When I told you that a couple years ago you said “I’m not surprised!”
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Have you read the book (or seen the movie) Where’d You Go, Bernadette? If you haven’t, you should! It’s a masterpiece. The main character Bernadette essentially goes a bit mad because she’s an artist who isn’t making her art. Her creativity gets all jammed and and stuck and gunked up inside and it sort of overcooks her insides.
That interferes with my happiness.
Not making stuff. Not producing. Not being creative.
And it happens! It definitely happens. Ironically a long vacation can cause it so now my wife Leslie and I build in writing pockets for me on family vacations. And (of course) I always travel with a separate bag full of books.
Sometimes I’ll have a busy travel week of speeches and come home feeling like I had this idea brewing inside me which never made it out and now I’m going to stew on it all weekend until I write it down or whatever.
Work is healthy.
It’s why in The Happiness Equation I have an entire chapter called “Never Retire” where I debunk the horrible myth that retirement is a good thing. It’s not!
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.?
I’m kind of the opposite. I think and think and think and think and think before making a decision. My mom tells me that when I was a kid I’d sit and watch my sister on the playground equipment like ten times before I’d go on myself.
I am very slow and, very occasionally, thoughtful.
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
You were an incredible guest on my podcast 3 Books with Neil Pasricha where I’m spending fifteen years counting down the 1000 most formative books in the world. (For those curious, Gretchen’s three books were Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin and Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes.)
One book that changed my life was The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The book defines a black swan as a disproportionately huge event that comes as a surprise but which we totally rationalize in our rearview mirrors.
How did it change my life? Well, the book argues that you should make yourself open to black swan opportunities. That’s key! It’s the mental equivalent of putting a chip on every number before you spin the roulette wheel. Try everything! And then, when you find a winner, double down on that.
The black swan principle is why I go to weird parties where I don’t know anyone, why I sign up for dodgeball or softball leagues even though I suck, why I experiment and take more chances in my writing and my speaking and my art. Who’s to say what’s going to work, right?
This principle is even behind why I started 3 Books in the first place! My show has no ads so I make no money off it. But, thus far, a year into it, it’s netted me a public board position, endless interesting conversations (with you, Malcolm Gladwell, Angie Thomas, Judy Blume, David Sedaris, etc), and served as an incredible razor-sharp tool that constantly provokes and challenges and grows my own thinking.
The Black Swan helped shaped the thesis behind Secret #5 in You Are Awesome called “Lose More To Win More.”
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
Here are just a few of my favorites which I address directly in You Are Awesome and The Happiness Equation:
- Retirement is a good thing
- No, it’s dangerous and leads to loss of meaning
- You can’t control your happiness
- Actually, you can and you should and we know how to do it
- Burying your shame is best
- No, you need to learn 3 questions that help to tell yourself a different story
- It is bad to have one-night stands
- No, the average partner in a long-term loving relationship had over a dozen one-night stands
- Being more productive is a good goal
- No, we are overheating our brains and losing wild and creative space which result in our best ideas
- Social media is a great tool
- No, it’s a cause of great societal anxiety
- Frequent failing is a negative
- No, in fact it’s the only pathway to frequent learning and growth
One Last Thing
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