“I believe, in an era of infinite choice, the value of curation skyrockets.” – Neil Pasricha
Mark’s new book about the seven commitments of leadership has just come out. It is called “Staring Down the Wolf: 7 Leadership Commitments That Forge Elite Teams,” and is available now from Amazon and from staringdownthewolf.com. Commander Divine writes about many of the great leaders he met in SpecOps to give examples of the commitments that one has to make to the 7 key principles of Courage, Trust, Respect, Growth, Excellence, Resiliency and Alignment.
Neil Pasricha (@NeilPasricha) is an expert on human happiness and the author of several books, including “The Book of Awesome” and most recently “You Are Awesome: How to Navigate Change, Wrestle with Failure, and Live an Intentional Life.” Today he talks to Mark about how to live with greater intention and resilience.
- Resiliency starts in the morning with preparing yourself for the day
- Get a “real” break during the day where you completely disconnect from your work.
- Having a weird hobby that’s completely unconnected to what you do will make you better at what you regularly do
Find out what practical measures you can take to make yourself feel more resilient and in a better mood all the time.
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Hey folks this is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining me today. Super-appreciate your time, your attention and your support. Neil Pasricha… Did I say that right Neil?
Neil. You did.
Mark. Okay. Neil Pasricha is my guest today. I have interviewed him in the past. What an extraordinary individual… Neil is the founder of the institute for global happiness. He’s got one of the most popular TED Talks on this subject.
He has a former career or life as a corporate leadership guy working for Walmart and big organizations like that.
And as an author he’s written seven books which have sold over a million copies. That is quite a milestone. Something I’m chipping away at myself.
And his latest book which we’re gonna really dig into in this podcast is called “You are Awesome: How to Navigate Change, Wrestle with Failure, and Live an Intentional Life.”
Neil, thanks so much for your time and congratulations on getting that book done. I’m sure that was a labor of love, as well.
Neil. Thanks Mark. Thanks for having me. And congratulations on your book. We share the pain and the pleasure.
Mark. (laughing) How long is your normal process for getting a book like that out? Is it anything like mine?
Neil. Well it’s funny you say that, cause “The Book of Awesome” which was my very first book that came out in 2010 – honestly it was just literally my blog printed out and stapled together. So that was the easiest book I ever wrote. Because I had been writing a daily blog post for years.
And frankly that process was the same for my first three books – so “Book of Awesome,” “Book of Even More Awesome,” “Book of Holiday Awesome…” it’s like the editor just said “Can we just print off these ones, staple them together? You don’t have to do anything.”
I was like fantastic. Now that I’m actually writing books like as like “I’m gonna write a book.” now I’ve actually experienced like “oh this is how you do it.”
You spend three years thinking you’re doing nothing, coming up with rubber maids full of research in your basement trying to write a paragraph, and getting stumbled over one sentence. Having anxiety at night, because you can’t get your thoughts clear. Getting into a stressful fight with your wife, because you’re actually upset about your writing process being so crappy.
Yeah that’s my current process.
Mark. (laughing) That is awesome. Yeah, it’s like a practice right? When you’re in a book it consumes your life. And it’s such a relief to get the book published.
And then what do we do? We start thinking about the next one. What’s wrong with us?
Neil. Well this is a problem… This is one of the things I think I’d mentioned this year last time we talked – is that I believe every form of success rests on the triangle that I call that the triangle of success or the “three S’s of success.”
There is sales success. This is the people obsessed with like selling a million books. That’s like your ultimate be all, end all, right?
Then there’s social success – that is does the New York Times Book Review cover my book? Is it nominated for the Man Booker Prize? Or you know some sort of social success or my peer group.
And then there is self-success – the success you feel inside you. you. Evaluating you. And the reason I put those three points of types of success on the triangle is because you can’t have them all. You just can’t.
Look how many people hadn’t heard of the movie that just won “best picture” before it won it, right?
Yet meanwhile “Fast and the Furious 12” raked it in at the box office. This is the difference in social and sales success. What kind of success do you want? You have to ask the question at the beginning. If you’re listening this right now you’re like “I want to write a book.”
Let me ask you, why? Is it to sell a million copies? Is it to like get coverage? Is it to be regarded as an author? Or is it to be like I want to put down my grandmother’s memoirs for myself, for my kids to remember her words of wisdom.
Well, great. Just clarify what you want, so that you aren’t disappointed at the end when you don’t get what you’re looking for.
Mark. Yeah, I agree with that. And I might add that if you can start with the self and then see success in the other two, that’s great. But as long as you take care of your underlying need and your why for writing a book, then the project would be worthy. However painful.
Neil. Because you are so highly evolved. Most people are writing for the other two reasons cause they don’t got the first one.
Mark. (laughing) That’s true.
So let’s talk about why you wrote this book, and what’s the big idea in it first off?
Neil. Sure, absolutely. Well the new book “You are Awesome” is all about resilience. I believe that this is the skill that we need the most, today, and we have the least.
Okay, so I got off the stage about six months ago and a well-dressed guy – like a guy in this business suit with a briefcase kind of runs up to me. He’s like “Neil, what’s wrong with my son? What do I do about it?”
I said, “Well I don’t know. What’s wrong with your son?”
He’s like “my son graduated top of his class in high school. He was captain of the football team. He was on the Dean’s List. You know, your classic kind of like high achiever.”
“He goes on to Duke University. He gets a full scholarship. Again… He’s in like all these clubs and teams. He ends up getting a great job.”
I’m like “fantastic.”
He’s like “on his first day of work at his new company after just graduating on the Dean’s List from Duke, his boss sends him a rude email. And he quits. He calls me that night from his bed crying saying ‘I can’t go back there tomorrow.'”
And what was interesting, Mark, when I heard that anecdote – was I was like “that’s me.” like I know it sounds so weird to say that – but I’m like I get two likes on a photo, I think I got no friends. I get a rude email, I’m like destroyed for days.
We are turning into an army of porcelain dolls. We have never had thinner skin. Our anxiety rates are spiking, right? Dr. Jean Twenge – you’re in San Diego – at San Diego University. She has reported that anxiety rates are up 30 percent in the past five years. We just can’t handle it.
And so when I look around the world these days – and I’m talking about myself. I’m a 40 year old man. I feel some of this stuff.
But then I also hear stories and anecdotes like the one I just mentioned to you about the quote unquote “millennial generation.” I’m also a dad now. I’m starting to see little bits of pieces of this in my kid.
This is a function, I believe, of the fact that we grow up pretty good. I believe the issue is that we got clean water in our taps, you feel safe when you walk out your front door. No one’s getting conscripted into the army at the moment.
There’s no hardship, so as a result we no longer have evolved or developed the tools to handle hardship or to handle even perceived hardship, right?
And this is the problem. We can’t handle failure, we can’t handle perceived failure and I’m not shining the spotlight on all of you – I’m saying this is Neil Pasricha talking right now. I feel like I’m missing all this.
So I wrote this book as a nine step guide book to getting mentally tougher. To building up the resilience that I seem to be really lacking, and that I think is lacking amongst a lot of us.
Mark. That’s awesome. It’s near and dear to my heart. I mean that’s what Unbeatable Mind was all about and that has turned into a training program to help tens of thousands of people.
And you’re right. People are – I don’t want to use the term weak – but they lack skillful means to handle failure.
And so it can be trained. What I learned is it can be trained. And so that’s what you’re trying to do, is offer people some ideas on how to train resiliency back into their lives, I imagine.
Neil. Yes, exactly. I mean, this is the part of the problem… If you listen to a commencement speech these days, Mark… What do people say? The person who gets their honorary degree… They get a cap and the gown they go on stage and they say “follow your heart. Chase your dreams. Do what you love.”
I think that’s the start of the problem. I think what we need to be telling our young people is different… We should be saying a different thing… We should be saying “do you love it so much, you can take the pain and the punishment too?”
It’s a totally different way to frame it, but I think this is a really key question. Why? Well, you might want to be a rock star, but are you good with lugging amps to smoking nightclubs on Tuesdays for six years? Practicing a guitar solo in your basement so you have it memorized?
This is the unsexy part of learning and developing a skill in anything, right? But when we say chase your dreams, follow your heart… We’re steering people the wrong way. Then they get failure and they just check out, right?
To become a writer – we just hinted at the front of this conversation – you’re gonna have days, months, years where you feel terrible, because you cannot articulate your thoughts. I’m just talking nonfiction – you can’t get things on the page clear enough, you’re struggling with your research, you feel like this is the end…
Can you handle that? Are you good with that? Do you even maybe like that a little bit?
If so, you should be a writer. Think about that question in everything you do. Can you handle the pain and Punishment along the way?
Mark. Mm-hmm. That’s fascinating. So I want to talk about ideas for leaders, but also you mentioned that you’re a parent, I’m a parent like ideas for parents to help their kids develop some resiliency. And to appreciate the failures – your main mechanism for growth.
But let’s start with kind of some of the insights and things that have helped you develop more resiliency and become stronger as a human being.
Neil. Sure. First thing is it starts in the morning. Right now when I survey audiences, I ask this question on stage – I say “put up your hand if you sleep within 10 feet of your cell phone.” Almost every hand in the room goes up, right? Almost everybody sleeps within 10 feet of their cell phone.
And if I ask the audience “What do you do before right before you go to bed?”
“Check my cell phone.”
“What do you do first thing in the morning?”
“Check my cell phone.”
Well, listen to me: if you if you drank a bottle of wine before bed every night, slept within 10 feet of a bottle of wine, and woke up and drank a bottle of wine in the morning – we’d all call you an alcohol.
Mark. (laughing) You just described my evening and morning ritual. What are you talking about?
Neil. Somehow, we seem to be okay with the fact that we’re all phoneaholics now. We don’t see what this is doing to us. So I say you want to talk about mental strength? You want talk about resilience?
I say it starts in the morning. Plug your phone in a different room “oh, I need an alarm clock.”
Buy one. They’re ten dollars at Walmart.
So get that phone out of your bedroom. And then start your day with what I call a 2-minute morning mental strengthening practice. You grab a pen, you grab a piece of paper – real paper in a journal or a cue card… Whatever…
Mark. (laughing) Can you still buy paper?
Neil. I actually buy a hundred packs of cue cards from my local dollar store, right? That’s how I do it. And I’ve turned this into an actual journal – I call it two-minute morning – so what you do is you write down three things, Mark – “I will let go of,” okay, “I am grateful for” and then “I will focus on.”
I’ll take them one by one – “I will let go of.” I will let go the five pounds of gained over the holidays. I will let go of the fact that I yelled at my kid yesterday – I shouldn’t have, I felt like a bad dad. I will let go of comparing myself to Tim Ferriss, okay?
Whatever. You write it down. The journal “Science” magazine had a great report published by Brassen and colleagues that shows that when we minimize regrets as we get older, guess what? We live a more content and happier existence.
Problem is in society as – this is something I studied for “You are Awesome” – we used to get a lot of this from the church, okay? The Catholic confession chamber. And it’s not just Catholicism, but Buddhism, Mormonism, Judaism, Islam all have a form of confession built into the religious practice.
However, according to National Geographic the fastest growing religion in the world is “no religion.” and so when you toss out religion from your life in this increasingly secular society, guess what you lose? You lose a place to put the thing you’re sweating or worried about.
The first prompt in my two-minute morning mental strengthening practice is “I will let go of.” we know from research, this actually crystallizes and ejects that anxiety. It stops swimming in your subconscious all day.
That’s the first thing you gotta write down. And every morning, I got something because I wake up in the night and I’m like “oh, this is the thing I was worried about last night.”
And if you don’t think of something, take a second and think of something, because you’ll pull out from your brain the thing that’s so far back there, that you forgot you were even thinking about it.
Number two “I am grateful for.” you probably don’t need me to go into the research, but I will real quickly. Emmons and McCullough show that if you can write down ten things you’re grateful for at the end of each week, you’re not only happier, but physically healthier after a ten week period. The research shows that the gratitudes or the things you’re grateful for have to be specific so you can’t write down “my husband, my kid and my dog.”
You can’t. That’s too big. You have to write down “when my husband Antonio put the toilet seat down,” okay? When my three-year-old son gave me a picture from school. When my dog learned how to shake a paw. Specific. Now you’re priming the neural networks, you’re priming those little pathways to look at the positive. And we know your brain does not want to do that. Your brain naturally wants the fight-or-flight hormones that come out of your amygdala. You naturally want to rubber-neck, you naturally want the bad news… That’s our human nature. But you have to practice looking the other way.
And then the third and final thing on the list is “I will focus on” we are all suffering from decision fatigue today, and the tech economy that we’re living in – the social media sites that we’re checking out – feed into this craziness. And they give us an unlimited array of stuff to choose between. You ever tried choosing a movie on Netflix? How long does it take you to pick one? I mean, this is the problem. So “I will focus on,” helps carve a will do from your endless could do and should do. You avoid the decision-making you fatigue that you will otherwise suffer all day, by trying to over and over throughout the day ask yourself what your top priority is.
Here you take 30 seconds in the morning say “hmm, if I only did one thing today, what would it be? Like what would make me happy at night to cross off?” it might just be like go to the gym. It might just be like handing that report to my boss.
Then when you get to work, you don’t get buried in Microsoft Outlook – answer a million emails – and you just do the one thing you said you were gonna do.
In summary, this is a two minute morning practice. “I will let go of,” “I am grateful for,” and “I will focus on.” Mark, the average person is awake for 1,000 minutes a day so this exercise is 2 minutes to making the other 998 minutes a little mentally tougher and stronger.
Mark. It’s terrific. I love those 3 questions. I’m gonna add the “let go of,” I do the gratitude and I can be more specific with that, so thank for that – and I ask my tribe to identify their most important target – which is basically the “focus on.” but I love that “let go of,”
Because you’re right, I mean, if you hang on to those regrets, then they just kind of simmer in your subconscious. And you’re gonna end up projecting it on to somebody else like a shadow, little emotional grenade, sooner or later…
So if you can have a daily process of letting go and forgiving yourself or forgiving others who supposedly harmed you, then boy you just free up all that energy, don’t you?
Neil. Absolutely. It’s very powerful. And by the way – sorry to just rail on cell phones once again – if you aren’t looking at your cell phone screen within the last hour of the day – which reduces melatonin production – and the first hour of your day, you’re giving yourself pause to get yourself steered in the right direction.
Mark. That’s right. Yeah, morning and evening rituals are just super-powerful. I know a lot of people have talked about them. And we’ve had a few podcast guests who really drill into them.
But for me I call it winning in your mind before you step foot in the battlefield. And you’re right, 2 minutes can have a profound effect. People think “well, I don’t have time.”
You’ve pretty much blasted that out of the water. Everyone’s got 2 minutes or 5 minutes right?
But when you spend that five minutes, it can make the next five hours the most productive and focused in your life, right? These types of practices have a little bit of time invested to have a big, big bang. And that’s why to me it’s a no-brainer to implement it.
But habituating something like that is the tricky part.
Neil. Well, I could use your help on the evening stuff. Because I’ve been stumbling on this lately and my sleep has been affected. I have been finding… I like to wake up without an alarm clock… Which is challenging, because I have little kids. But I just keep moving my bedtime earlier and earlier and earlier, till I can sort of quote-unquote “naturally” wake up in the morning.
Mark. Yeah, well you need seven and a half hours of sleep every night. And it’s got to be quality sleep. To tell you the truth, it’s a tricky thing for everybody. Every listener struggles with sleep, and I actually have used supplements, right? So the sleep remedy is one that was developed by my friend Kirk Parsley, former Navy SEAL. It works magic in knocking you out.
It’s not a drug. It’s a completely natural supplement that leverages things like magnesium and other things that your brain needs to sleep. And boy man, it really helps. I don’t use it every night, but maybe three-four times a week.
And, yeah, same thing… What you said for most people… If you set the phone down at night and turn off the TV and read a book – right there. Sleep hygiene is gonna go through the roof.
Neil. So now… So you got let’s just say you get this right, right? You got good sleep or you’re working on it. Like I am – and a lot listeners probably are, then you start your day with this 2 minute morning practice, okay?
“I buy that Neil. Get rid of something I’m thinking about, focus on the positive, get my focus area.” now what about during the day?
And so this is the part, Mark that came up surprising actually in the research – I stumbled upon this amazing study that I want to share with you. And it comes with a big take-away. The take-away – I’ll just tell you that first – is have a weird hobby, okay? That’s the take-away.
The study was done on Nobel Prize winners actually. They looked at Nobel Prize winners and they compared Nobel Prize winners with their scientific peer group. “Now what makes these people different?”
Well one of the things that popped out of the research was they were 22 times more likely than their scientific peer group to have a strange or unusual hobby, far outside of their scientific discipline. Some of the examples mentioned in the white paper were things like starring in the local town play, blowing glass, teaching magic at kids’ birthday parties… Like they were doing things way out there.
Okay. Why? Well, because it helped them avoid something that we all are in danger of developing as we get older which is called “cognitive entrenchment.” as we get older, we naturally specialize – our jobs get more specialized, our work gets more specialized… Maybe we specialize in being a father or a mother or a certain person that people count on in our family. We could be even become specialized in our family roles, or extended family roles.
Well this is what researchers called “cognitive entrenchment.” you become more mentally fragile and you become less good at learning new things. Then another study that gets folded into this is that they gave brand-new tax accountants and veteran tax accountants a new piece of tax legislation to implement. The ones that were the veterans – the ones that were the senior people… Partners in the firms… You know, the ones getting paid the big bucks. They had more trouble than the younger ones to implement it.
And you kind of know this. You ever had a new doctor or a new… You know, I had this recently – a new optometrist checked my eyes. I loved it. The guy took an hour and a half and he like finally got my prescription right. It’s a hard thing to figure out and I’ve been going to so many different optometrists to figure out my eyes.
So sometimes the new is better than the old. How do you retain new? Have a weird hobby. Why? Because your learning rate is the steepest when you know the least.
And your brain is making ties between the new thing you’re learning and the thing you’re currently focused on right? Your subconscious isn’t necessarily aware that the axe-throwing class you’ve joined is helping you on your mathematics thesis or whatever you’re working on. But it is.
And so my challenge to all your listeners is what in your life can you sign up for that you just totally are horrible and suck at. And you have zero training or experience in. Whether that’s a painting class, whether that’s a language, whether it’s a cooking class – just be doing something way out there at all times. And even the examples I gave are probably not even weird enough… But just get out there… Just try something totally new.
I always say to people “well how’d you how’d you learn gym in grade 9?”
I don’t know about you Mark, but I’m from Toronto, Canada – that’s where I am now – but like, in grade 9 gym in Canada it’s like one week basketball, one week volleyball, one week soccer…
Mark. Yeah, you cycle through all these things and you’d have to learn it well enough to at least get through that week. And then you’d move on.
Neil. You move on. But how does an adult tell you but their current… Like you ask any 40 year-old or 50 year-old “hey, what kind of sports do you play?”
They’re like “jogging.” the end. Full stop. If they do anything or maybe they do like one thing.
So you got to put yourself in those newness areas more frequently. And have a weird hobby at all times.
Mark. I love that. And that gives you the added benefit – which you didn’t state – is that you’re failing, right? Whenever you start something new and gets harder and more complex, you’re constantly failing. And you’re never gonna be good at it or perfect at it, right? Until you get well into it.
And you’re putting yourself in new social situations, right? So Daniel Gilbert who wrote “Stumbling on Happiness,” kind of the OG positive psychology book – he says “if I can know everything about you – your health, your nationality, your income, your gender… None of that matters as much as the strength your relationships with your friends and family.”
And I don’t know about you, Mark, but for me as an adult – sometimes I’ve thought about how do you make good, deep friends as an adult? I think part of it is putting yourself in interesting places all the time.
Mark. Yeah, I agree. Well I practice this myself and just this year – or last year actually – I was kind of in a rut with my martial arts training. And I had been training for years this art that I kind of – not kind of – but I’d learned in the seals and became an instructor in it. And it’s based on San Soo Kung-Fu, and it’s just an extremely, intensely violent art. I mean, it’s basically had to dismember another human being mentally. And then take it to him, if you have to.
At any rate I was like “okay, I think I’ve got that,” you know I mean? At this point in my life, I don’t need to learn how to do that anymore. And I’m tired of looking at everyone like a target.
So I just literally walked away from it. And I picked up Aikido, which is the art of peace. And you would think that after 30 years of martial arts training, that I could walk in and master Aikido really quickly.
And it is not the case. I have to empty my cup, and put my white belt back on. And it’s scrambling my brain every day. And I love it, right?
Just fail forward every day. Trying to figure this stuff out. I have to unlearn a lot of habits. It’s been brilliant. But I think that would qualify as a weird hobby.
Neil. Oh, definitely. And the part of the sentence that I stumble upon myself – and I’d love for you to open up, for me and other people – is like “and I love it.” You know what I mean? You said “I’m scrambling my brain every day, “and I love it.”
Like, help me on the “and I love it” part.
Because, I write my books for myself. And then I try to follow what I say. But the “and I love it” part is difficult.
Mark. Right. Well that’s I think come… To me, that’s a practice that… You know, back to this idea of resiliency and being uncomfortable. It is a practice to learn to be comfortable with discomfort. And to begin to enjoy the benefits that accrue from stumbling, and failing, and learning, and picking yourself up and dusting yourself off. And trying again.
And – because in the SEAL Teams – we had to try new things all the time. And get just good enough – like we were talking about – before you move on to the next thing. That I developed this joy in like just doing stuff. And not mastering it, but knowing that you’re growing from it.
Which is like completely counter-intuitive. Most people can’t stand not being a master or something. Not being competent in something. And I see this in my own son. He’s just an amazing kid.
But if he didn’t feel competent in something, then he just shies from it. He won’t do it.
Whereas, this attitude we’re talking about is get comfortable being incompetent and just keep on learning and growing. And eventually the competence will come.
But if you try to be competent, then you’re gonna be severely frustrated with some of these more complicated things.
Neil. Exactly. And this also leads us both to agree that we shouldn’t over-specialize our children, right? Like that’s the other thing that’s happened for so long. Is that kids take violin lessons at age six, and they’re awesome at the violin when they’re 15. And they suck at everything else.
This is part of it. And this comes partly from a great book called “Range,” by David Epstein. I don’t know if you had him on yet, Mark, or not – but he really has a lot of research on this idea that the less specialized we are, the more successful we are later in life.
He even goes so far, for example, as to compare for example Roger Federer – who was a very late specializer – to someone like Tiger Woods. Who was a very early specializer. So there’s a lot there.
Mark. There is.
So tell me – let’s talk about how you can use some of these principles to become more resilient and generally more awesome, or happier throughout your day. You know, we talked about your morning routine.
What about the middle of the day and the boss comes and dumps something on you? Or send you that nasty email? What are some of the practices to maintain yourself as resilient and awesome during the days?
Neil. Sure. So I spent 10 years working at Walmart. And when I worked at Walmart, I had a number of roles. My last role was director of leadership development. I previously to that was the special assistant or project manager to our CEO – so these were always on jobs, right?
And even if I was so bold as to go out for lunch – rather than working at my desk through lunch – it was with another group of people from the company and we all had our cell phones. And we piled into someone’s Toyota Tercel and went out for like a chicken sandwich, but came back.
However – why am I mentioning all this? Because based on the research on resilience -what you actually need in the middle of your day sometime – is an unplugged moment. I call them “untouchable days” in my book. I advocate taking one per week.
A lot of people sort of scoff at my proposal – it’s too big, it’s too bold… You can do that because you’re a writer.”
No, no. I’m a writer cause I do that.
So for those listening that may be in a corporate setting – like I was and certainly that I can relate to – leave your cell phone on your desk at lunch. Don’t take it with you. So now you’re untethering yourself from the Matrix purposely. For an hour, you can handle that.
And don’t go out with your colleagues. Don’t all spend time together.
Why? Cause you’re just gonna talk about work the whole time.
And please go as far away as you can mentally. Whether that’s a walk in the woods, whether that’s taking a nap somewhere – I used to do this at Walmart – I’d like literally drive my car down to a creek and I’d just like take a nap. Undercover nap.
And we know from the research that if the longer you can keep yourself untethered from the matrix – more untouchable – guess what? Your thoughts scramble and ferment, and you come back with increased productivity for the afternoon.
Okay. So is anybody doing this right now? No. Is anybody able to take a day off or literally just don’t have a day where they’re not in contact? No.
But it’s the biggest thing we can do to increase your mental strength throughout the day.
So what do I do right now? Well, I do one untouchable day a week. What do I do? I tell my wife Leslie, I’m gonna be probably at this coffee shop, and if not, try me at this or that – so she has like a little emergency evolve, she can come look for me. If one of our kids like breaks their leg or something.
It doesn’t ever happen. But it’s important I do that for her peace of mind. Also for my idea that if something were to happen, she can reach out to me, okay?
This is important, because otherwise I’ll just check my phone all the time wondering if something happened. And then I lost my day.
I don’t take my phone. I leave it at home. I don’t go on the internet. I literally put a piece of tape over the part of my laptop that has the little internet symbol. At the top. I like literally cover that up, okay?
And guess what? These have ended up becoming my most deeply creative and productive days of all, right? I can write 10 times more.
I wrote an article for Harvard Business Review about this called “Why You Need an Untouchable Day and How to Get One,” and it became the most popular article on the whole website.
Okay this is a weird concept. You’re like “wait, you’re talking about building resilience. How does this help?”
I’m telling you we’re too connected. We are too plugged in. We’re living in echo chambers. We’re checking our cell phone. We’re looking at our cell phone over five hours a day – that’s real data – over five hours. The average knowledge worker gets 147 emails. According to D-score – which is a US market research firm – we touch our cell phones over 2,500 times a day. That’s a constant fondle, okay?
So a huge thing I’m recommending, when it comes to building your resilience, is get off the internet, get off your phone – feel that anxiety that comes up in your chest. You’ll feel it. Oh we all do, because you feel completely weird when you don’t have internet connection. Really you’re not touching everybody else like over text all the time.
But it will turn into a period that creates your best work. And that will enrich you mentally in so many ways. So a big thing I advocate is this idea of an untouchable day, and if you can’t do that, at least an untouchable afternoon once a week, if you can’t do that at least do an untouchable lunch. Don’t pile into the Toyota Tercel with five other people from work, when you all have your cell phones.
You’re not unplugging. You’re not getting any perspective.
Mark. Yeah, and I think people would probably have to work up to that, right? So going a whole day – most people don’t think they can take that time – but you’re right, you’d be way more productive, especially if you’re a creative.
But I like the idea of just starting with an hour at lunch, that makes a lot of sense. For me, lunch time is training time. So it’s a very, very rare day when I would actually go sit down at lunch anywhere, with anybody else.
So for me that’s what I call the circle time. So I circle that time and that’s my time to Train. And when I’m training, I’m unplugged. That’s another way to unplug. Is just to expand the scope of what you would call training, and have your physical exercise be training time. You don’t need to bring your phone into that.
But also have time where you’re training using tools like breath and meditation. And you certainly don’t want to be plugged in when you do that.
Neil. No and I know a lot of sort of senior leaders and stuff listen to your show, Mark. And for those listening that are in charge of a team of people at their work, be the role model. Okay?
Going to the gym at lunch will supercharge your productivity and your mental strength for the next five hours you come back to work in the office. But yet – I don’t know about your company culture – I’m speaking to the kind of quote-unquote listener here – but like at my company culture while I was at Walmart – great company, great culture – but it was kind of looked down upon a little bit. You know what I mean? Like it’s hard to just sort of take-off.
Because the perception is that you must not have enough to do. Or you don’t value how busy we are. Or you’re letting everybody… You know I mean?
So that’s the culture that I’ve been in. And even other companies are like that.
But yet, as a leader, it’s incumbent upon you to be the role model. Can you recommend people go out for a workout break? Can you help people get that time off? Can you even encourage an email free day? Where you’re the leader and you don’t send those late night and early morning email? Frankly, I know you feel bad about them too. After you send them.
You know, it doesn’t feel good to send someone an email at 11 p.m. Because the next morning you think “man, I was kind of a jerk.”
Right? That’s what you think, cause you were. But we all do it. So I’m just talking to myself here, at the same time.
Mark. (laughing) Right. What’s a little nitro? I saw that in your book. Tell us what that is.
Neil. I’ve got lots of little ones. Most of my stuff – as you can tell Mark – it’s very, very simple stuff. We just don’t do it.
A big one – ”a little nitro” – I will use the word little – that I recommend is remember I’ve… Here I have been railing on cell phones I’ve been talking about starting and finishing your day without screens.
Well, just to kind of build on that, what I actually also recommend starting or finishing your day with is 20 pages of fiction from a real book. And every word was important in that sentence. The reason it’s 20 pages, is because it’s a small and achievable goal. Okay? 20 pages is not that many pages. I’m not saying read the whole book – which, by the way, a third of Americans have not read a book in the last year. So like baby steps here.
And why did I say fiction? Because the 2011 Annual Review of Psychology shows that reading fiction – especially literary fiction… You know what happens? It helps you inhabit another conscience. So your mirror neurons open up. Parts of your brain responsible for empathy, compassion, understanding… You’re a different gender, in a different religion, in a different country, in a different time period. You relate to a whole other experience more. There’s a very famous quote from Game of Thrones where George RR Martin writes “a reader lives a thousand lives, before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
And I’m not plying my own wares here – look I said fiction, okay? They’ve done MRI scans at Emory University and the morning after people read fiction, all kinds of areas of the brain are still open the next day. Language centers, smell centers…
When you watch a movie on Netflix, someone else is the director… They choose the actors, the voices, the characters, the costumes, the background. When you read a book, that’s you, you know? You are the director, you are using all of your faculties to envision and live in that scene. Okay?
So why did I say from a real book? Well there’s research that shows that when you read on a device that can do anything else, you will. So you can’t read on an iPad. I don’t know Oprah’s going around talking to everybody how she’s reading on her iPad. I was like “really, Oprah?”
Mark. I don’t do that either. It’s impossible.
Neil. You can’t. It doesn’t work. Because your iPad… Unless you’re like in full lockdown mode… Your iPad is a device meant to distract you. A point of it is to wean your attention away from what you’re doing to whatever it wants you to do. Whatever the app is asking for permissions to notify you about.
So you can’t read on that. And we all have 11 hours of screen time a day already. I’m not talking just cell phones – I’m talking all screens. So give your eyes a rest and read it from a real book.
Single tasking is the new multitasking.
Mark. I love that. And I love reading. I’ve gotten into sci-fi. That’s my fiction that lights up my brain. It’s just fascinating, some of it. And some of these authors are like geniuses. I mean, they’re like inventing technology.
Neil. World creation.
Mark. Oh it’s creating entire worlds. But I’ve also found that I get the same or even a richer experience with audiobooks. What are your take on audiobooks? Does that kind of fit into
Neil. Yeah. I call audio books and eBooks beautiful mutants if you’re there, that’s great. That’s better than kind of what most of us do – which is reading the flotsam that is kind of the Internet you know I mean?
Like the University of California says we read a hundred thousand words a day. That’s more than we’ve ever read in history. So people that say they have no time – that’s a red herring. You really do – you’re just reading junk. You’re reading the Instagram comments. You’re reading that all day. Text notifications, alerts, emails…
No, I’m not saying to add to your pile. I’m saying subtract from your pile. This all came clear to me as I was researching and writing this book. I 10Xed my reading rate. I went from reading five books a year, which is my normal amount of books I was reading as an adult. Five, okay? Couple on vacation, a couple of my nightstand.
Then in one year I went to fifty. Fifty in one year. And I was so enamored with myself that I wrote an article on the plane one day saying “Eight Ways to Read A lot More Books” and they were simple things – canceling your newspaper subscription, cancel your news feed subscription, unfollow all new sites, install a bookshelf at your front door. Move the TV into the basement. Make a public commitment.
So I started an email list with which books I’ve read every month. All that kind of stuff. Basic stuff.
What happened? The article went to the top of Harvard Business Review – it stayed there for six months and I realized that it was cause of the title: “Eight Ways to Read a lot More Books.” no one knew who I was. They were like “well, I want to read more books.”
This is why and I’m excited to have you on Mark – and we can figure out the time when I’m in San Diego – that’s why I want you on “Three Books.” it’s why I started this podcast called “Three Books,” because I’ve decided that the biggest problem – I know this is the biggest problem in the book industry – is people don’t know what to read. If you go on amazon.com – say they didn’t know about you, didn’t know your podcast, they didn’t know anything about you, Mark. They wouldn’t be able to find your book.
Why? Cause there’s 200 million books for sale. And I didn’t make up that number. A million new books are published in English every year. A million. So most people you pick up whatever is in a pile at the airport, and then when you don’t like it you think “oh, I’m not a good reader. I don’t really like this. It’s too meh. It’s not really for me.”
No that’s not your fault. It’s the book industry’s fault. What they have failed to do is to help you find a book at your level, that’s intriguing to you, that you will enjoy, that will… You know. If you’re coming out of a divorce, there’s a book for you. If your child is suffering through addiction, there’s a book for you, and it might be fiction.
But we have not found a way in the publishing industry to pinpoint… We don’t have a sommelier for books. We need that solution.
So “Three Books” my podcast is me going around the world for 15 years asking people – like Malcolm Gladwell, like Judy Blume, like Mitch Albom… Whatever. “Which three books changed your lives?” I read the books, I interview them, and guess what? Then I find really good books. And that’s actually…
And Amazon’s partly to blame. They used to have something called the… Remember how it tells you all the books you should read? Underneath? They don’t have that anymore. It’s messed up, because they started making money off it, now they can’t get themselves off their own drug. Because it’s for sale now, you know? It’s become a revenue generating thing for them.
I read an article about this. I’m no expert, but this is what I understood is the problem. So unless you’re going to an independent bookstore and asking a bookseller who is good at recommending books, you probably are just getting whatever Oprah picks. And you might not like that, because everyone who recommends books is incentivized to recommend more literary or difficult stuff than they actually like, because it looks good on them.
And then we all end up feeling like idiots. And so a big part of my show is… I have a value system on my show… My number one value is “no book shame, no book guilt.”
I don’t care if you’re a grandma in Japan and all you read is young adult, great. Or graphic novels or comic books, great. Like, we aren’t judging reading. Judging reading is the problem.
Mark. Mm-hmm. I love that. You know, I try to read a book a week. I usually succeed, depending on what’s going on.
But I agree with you. It was not until I started this podcast that I really had a steady supply of really outstanding books to read. Cause it was like “what’s next?” you know what I mean?
Usually some esoteric spiritual text on yoga or Tibetan Buddhism or something like that. Which most people can’t slog through.
But anyways, yeah Amazon – just like all these other tech companies is the light and the dark you know what I mean? The light side is that you can self-publish a book and make money on it, the dark side is that of those million books, nine hundred and ninety five thousand of them are total crap. Shouldn’t be published.
Neil. Well, I believe in an era of infinite choice, the value of curation skyrockets. This is why people listen to your show. They trust you. Your guests, your questions, your view, your lens on the world. You know how many podcasts they’re are out there?
Mark. Yes, a lot.
Neil. It’s impossible. So you have to find the trusted, curated list that fits with you. It’s kind of why in the old days – and I’m still a fan of independent bookstores, so I shouldn’t say “in the old days” – but I don’t know if you ever did this, Mark, but you discovered the one person at the book store who’s like staff picks you like. That might be a Neil thing, but like you’re like “oh, whatever Derek recommends I go and view.”
There’s an old scene from Seinfeld – remember when George is like taking the staff picks for the videos he’s renting? Ok, I’m dating myself, but that’s a good trusted, curated list.
Look Bill Gates has GatesNotes – I sort of chastised Oprah earlier, but hey, she’s doing a great service to the world by like saying “read this one, read this one.” Reese Witherspoon “read this one, read this one.”
We need some trusted curated lists, otherwise it’s too difficult to move forward. Navigate.
Mark. Right, right.
We gotta wrap-up in a few minutes here, but you’re an expert on happiness. And you sound like a really happy guy, so let’s talk about or give some ideas on in case someone listening isn’t always happy. Doesn’t have any way to even influence their happiness.
What are a few things that individuals can do during the day or when they’re at home, besides what we’ve already talked about to improve their overall sense of well-being and happiness.
Neil. Sure Sonja Lyubomorsky is sort of a kingpin in this world of positive psychology. I recommend her work all the time. She wrote a very formative book on positive psychology called “The How of Happiness.” in it she posits a model which is like a pie chart of where your happiness comes from.
And guess what? 50% of it is genetic. If you have two kids you know this, because one of your kids is happier than the other, right?
10% is circumstances. No matter how stressed we might get about the company’s strategic turn, or what the president tweeted, or what’s in the news – ultimately circumstances make up 10% of our happiness according to this model she’s posited.
And then the remaining 40% – this is the part I want to focus on in your question – is what she calls intentional activities.
Okay, so say I’m talking to somebody who’s struggling. Having a rough day. Or maybe suffering through a mental health challenge. Like a form of depression or something.
Well, what I want you to remember is, you’re in charge of that forty percent. You’re in charge of what you sprinkle into the midst of your day. You might have a low genetic set-point. You might have terrible circumstances – maybe a friend or family member going through a health challenge, whatever.
But you own the 40%. Now, Mark, we get to your question. Which is “well, what am I supposed to do in the 40%?”
And I’ve mentioned a couple already. Reading twenty pages of fiction is a great example. But let me sprinkle in a few more. These are all research proven. I can talk about the research for days, but let me give you a few.
Here’s one. Singing in a choir, okay? A lot of research around this. I know it’s not that easy to do, if you’re not in a choir. But like if you are listening to this, and you are in a church choir – how do you feel after you’re done? You always feel awesome.
This is big. It’s social connection, it’s singing, it’s opening up your lungs – singing in a choir is big.
Okay. Journaling. Huge. Journaling is huge. Two-minute mornings: the practice I recommended earlier – that’s a form of journaling. But you can also freeform it. And this research was done at University of Texas. It helps your relationships with your friends and family, and your relationships with your partner.
Also there’s been research published in The Washington Post that shows that when patients with chronic neuromuscular pain Journal for six weeks, at the six-month Mark doctors can reduce their pain medication by up to 50%.
So now you’re thinking “well, what is journaling? Is that like grabbing one of those books from Barnes & Noble that has a cat on the front of it? $20 and blank paper? And you fill out one page and then you throw it in the garbage?”
Yeah kinda. But, what I really want you to do is free form it. So you can like write a list of all the things that happen to you, that were good during your day. Like, all the little highlights.
Or you can try to extricate the deeper emotions inside yourself. There’s research supporting both.
If your listeners are like me and you have trouble doing this, what I have actually taken to doing now is surrounding myself with journals. So I keep a copy of 2-minute mornings – that’s the bound version of what I just told you about – at the side of my bedside table. I also – this is a good little hack for you guys – I subscribe to a website called ahhlife.com. It’s a free, email, journaling service. You set the date, time and frequency you want. It sends you a prompt, plus a randomized past journal entry.
So I’ve set Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays at 9 p.m. So I get a prompt in an email. In the email prompt is one of my own journal entries. I think you can choose either randomized or the last one. So I choose randomize. So that provokes me to write, because I just see something I’ve written.
Then I reply to the email with my journal entry. Keeps it in central database, and more important, it’s also in my sent items if I want. So that email service is fantastic.
I also keep a long form word doc on my laptop. Just like free-form, kind of dump thoughts. And I’m not gonna lie to you, sometimes I’ll be in a hotel room… I get in at midnight in Vegas or something… I got a speech the next morning at 9 a.m. And I’m anxious.
Whether that’s through the flight or from the airport. I just feel wide awake. And yet I know I need to go to bed.
So I’ll open that Word document, and I’ll just free-form thoughts, things that I’m worried about, stressed about, thinking about… By the end of the write-up, I always feel better…
Roll my back and my feet around on a lacrosse ball, go to bed, you know what I’m saying?
So now I’m surrounding myself with journals. But it’s a way to get that process – those activities that we know works great to work.
Here’s a couple more. 20 minute nature walk in the woods. Trees release a chemical called phytoncides. When you breathe them in, it lowers your cortisol and adrenaline levels in your body. So a walk in a forest is better than a mall. It’s turning into a big concept called “forest bathing.” people are getting licenses in forest bathing – it’s like hiking, but you can become the forest bather now.
Mark. (laughing) Certified to take people into the wilderness.
Neil. Yeah the gas… Yes, so they’re called phytoncides. And if you just type in the word “phytoncides” and “New York Times,” you’ll come up with a lot of articles that are quoting you know big deeper research sources on the fact that when you breathe in this chemical from trees – again, your cortisol and your adrenaline both go down. In your body.
So I’m just using that because, we know that this is true – when you go for a walk, you feel good – but I use that data, because it helps convince the left brain skeptics, you know?
Also, usually when you’re walking in the forest, you don’t have your cell phones. Just to my earlier point.
Meditation is fantastic. If you’re able to take a five minute break or use calm or headspace or any of these apps, you’re welcome to.
Here’s one. I’ll give you one last one and then I can wrap it up. I’ve given you lots here, but here’s one last one. At your dinner table at night, with whoever you eat with. Go around the table and do a game called “Rose, rose, thorn, bud.” everybody says a rose from their day it’s a highlight of gratitude – “Hey, I got an assist in hockey practice.” “My boss gave me a compliment.” whatever.
Then everybody says another rose. Then everybody says a thorn. A thorn is something that did not go well. And this is important for the rest the family to listen and have empathy. And be like “Ooh, that sucks.” All you have to do is say “Ooh, that sucks.” that’s it. That’s your only job. Don’t offer advice. Don’t try to fix it.
Just say like “ooh, yikes.” that’s it.
Then a bud. Like a bud on the tree. A bud is something you are looking forward to. It could be tomorrow, it could be this weekend… “I got a sleepover with grandpa.” it could be “I want to rent a villa in Tuscany when I’m 100.”
Whatever. It’s something that you’re looking forward to. That simple game of going around the table and playing “rose, rose, thorn, bud,” is probably the single biggest thing I get emails about after my speeches. Because it’s a simple game. You just play it on your dinner table. You don’t need paper, you don’t need a pen. You don’t need to remember anything. Just rose, rose, thorn, bud.
Everyone’s cranky and people are all coming to the dinner table with their own baggage from the day. This is a great little level-set. And my wife and I do it with our little kids.
Mark. That is very cool. Contrast that to everyone sitting around the table on their iPhones.
Neil. Oh my gosh, yeah. Exactly. The device has to be far away.
Rose, rose, thorn, bud. And I purposely wedge the thorn the negative thing in the middle so that it’s surrounded by a positive thing and the thing you’re looking forward to.
Mark. That’s awesome. Neil, some great, great ideas. Really interesting, I’ve learned a ton just talking to you today about this stuff. So thanks for your time and good luck with the book.
The book is out. I’ve got a copy of it, so I know it’s out. “You Are Awesome: How to Navigate Change, Wrestle with Failure, and Live an Intentional Life.” Where would you like people to come learn more about you? Do you have a personal website or Instagram?
Neil. Yeah, personal website’s just neil.blog. Personal email is just [email protected]. And I always throw it out there’s the end of like a great conversation, because it’s like the people listening are like the awesome people at this point.
And then, just since I mentioned it earlier, for those that are interested in another podcast to go with this great one – my podcast is called “Three Books.” Mark Divine is a future guest.
Mark. Neil, thank you so much for your time, again. Really appreciate the work you’re doing and you are awesome. Hooyah.
Neil. Thank you so much for having me.
Mark. Yeah, it’s been my pleasure.
Alright folks, go check out Neil’s book “You are Awesome: How to Navigate Change, Wrestle with Failure and Live an Intentional Life.” Man, some great, great ideas. All of them really, really solid and grounded both in his research as well as practical experience. And you can check out his blog at neil.blog. As well as some of the other things that he talked about.
So appreciate your support. It’s a wrap for today. Thanks very much again for your time and attention. And I’ll see you next time on the Unbeatable Mind podcast.