Here’s a weird statement, my friend, Neil Pasricha, is simultaneously one of the free-est, and also most rules-based and systematized humans I know. He’s got a system or ritual or set of rules for just about everything from how many nights a month he can be away from his family – that’s written into his signed family contract by the way – to what he does the first two minutes of every day to how and we he can hang out with friends, wander the streets in solitude, workout. Even the very thing that exploded him into the public consciousness about a decade ago, his wildly-popular blog about tiny pleasures and awesome things, was pre-designed around a countdown from 1,000 to 1 day.
You might think this would make life feel rigid, boxed in, devoid of freedom and room to play. But, for Neil, it’s the exact opposite. All these systems and rules and rituals and routines remove so much decision-making burden it’s like he has tons more time to actually just do the things he loves and that make him smile. And that includes everything from playing with his wife and kids to traveling, speaking, writing a series of blockbuster books and more.
In fact, it’s given Neil the time and space to travel the world, give over 50 speeches a year, and host an Apple “Best of” award-winning podcast called 3 Books where he is on an ‘epic 15-year-long quest to uncover the 1000 most formative books in the world.’ And, along the way, he’s been able to write nine books and journals selling over 2,000,000 copies including The Book of Awesome, The Happiness Equation. And his new book – Our Book of Awesome: A Celebration of the Small Joys That Bring Us Together, for the first time ever, invites hundreds, actually, it might even be thousands of people into his writing and sharing and community-building process to share awesome things from people’s lives, large gobsmacking to short, sweet and funny, from all over the world.
It’s a wonderful read that I highly recommend, and today we’re diving deep into Neil’s compelling take on saying yes to systems as a way to bring more freedom and joy and space into your life and then inviting the community to share in both the awesomeness and the process of creation.
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Introduction: The first entry in the book of awesome was flipping to the side of the pillow and the first entry in this one is carrying the ice cube tray from the sink to the freezer without spilling. That’s really what I’m aiming for. Is that universal feeling of something that you just don’t talk about, but which we all share? And then hopefully it just pushes us a little bit to realizing and recognizing that we’re all the same. Because I really think that now’s the time where we need each other more than ever before too. So here’s a bit of a weird statement. My friend Neil Pasricha is simultaneously one of the freest and also most rules based and systematized humans that I know he’s got a system or a ritual or a set of rules for just about everything from how many nights a month he can be away from his family which is actually written and signed into a family contract to what he does, the first two minutes of every day to how Often he can hang out with friends or wander the streets alone in solitude, work out create, write. Even the very thing that exploded him into the public consciousness about a decade ago, his wildly popular blog about tiny pleasures and awesome things. It was pre designed around a countdown from a thousand to one days. So he knew the constraints before he said yes to it. And you might think that this would make Life feel kind of rigid, boxed in devoid of freedom or room to play. But for Neil, it is the exact opposite. All these systems and rules and rituals and routines, they remove so much decision making burden so much friction. It’s like he has tons more time and energy and bandwidth to actually just do the things he loves and the things that make him smile. And that includes everything from playing with his wife and kids to traveling. Speaking, writing a series of blockbuster books and more. In fact, it’s given Neil the time and space to travel the world give over fifty speeches a year. Host an Apple best of award winning podcast. Called three books, where he is on this epic fifteen year long quest to uncover the thousand most formative books in the world. And along the way, it’s given him the space to write nine books in journals, selling over two million copies, including the book of awesome, the happiness equation, and his new book, Our Book of Awesome. Where, for the first time ever, he invites hundreds, actually it might even be thousands of people into his writing and sharing and community building process to share awesome things from people’s lives. Large gobsmacking, things to short, sweet and funny things from all over the world. It’s a wonderful read that I highly recommend. And today we are diving into neil’s compelling take on saying Yes to systems as a way to bring more freedom and joy and space into your Life. And then also his take on the role and value and power of community and what happens when you invite them in to share both in the awesomeness and the process of creation. So excited to share this with you, I’m Jonathan Fields, nad this is Good Life Project.
Jonathan Fields: It’s always kind of interesting when I sit down to dive into ideas and topics with somebody who I consider chosen family, where we’ve spent a lot of time over a lot of years. Going deep into all sorts of different areas. You have a new book out, Rebecca awesome, which is a really fascinating I don’t want to call it a continuation, but it’s sort of like this evolution and expansion or something that you Started over a decade ago. And I do want to circle around to that, but I want to start out somewhere a little bit different and I think we’ll probably get to it because you wrote something to me and I hope you’re okay with me sharing this not too long ago. And what you wrote was that you have always felt somewhat troubled by the insanity of Life. And we’re not talking about over the last couple of years where everybody has been dropped into that Slipstream. We’re talking about something that seems like it’s existential for you. And it has been since you were a kid. Take me deeper into this.
Neil Pasricha: Oh my gosh. Yeah, I mean I remember being in the basement it’s, I’m forty three now. I remember being in the basement of my parents house with my first not girlfriend, but alone with a girl and the first Gulf. I went down for many, many years. And I remember starting to go on this talk about, you know what he thinks out there. How far does it go and, you know, are we just here and you know, what is it? And she was like, I never, I remember her face like, I never think about that. And I said, Oh my gosh, I think about that every day. I can’t, I’m mystified at what this is, what is this, what are we, where are we, what is the universe? The more we look, the less we know, and I kind of carry that with me, occasionally bump into quotes that I feel hit me in a way that resonate like the Mark Twain quote. I was dead for a million years and I’ll be dead for a million after this. What happens inside me, Jonathan, is that it ends up coming out in the sort of. Sometimes I think trite, a trivial way where I’m like, seize the moment, seize the day, write an awesome thing that yourself up. Do a little habit in the morning to kind of make it a great day, but below all of that is that exists. It’s definitely that existential, like, unknowing, that I think, permeates all of us at some point. And we typically plaster and pave over it with what we call, you know, a career or , or a, a series of, you know, a religions or, you know, whatever it is that you cling to, that gives some semblance of, you know, this is what this is. I still don’t have that for myself. I still, I’m still looking for what that is for me.
Jonathan Fields: I’m curious when this shows up for you as a kid, because I’ve seen you back. And for me, it showed up in sort of like drips and drabs, but not as this persistent through line or sort of like an undercurrent. But when that shows up for you as a kid at a younger age. Yeah. Because you’re only growing up in a place where like, there are like any number of other reasons for you to feel othered. There’s this sense of like, almost like existential quest bordering on angst. Add to that feeling of like people just don’t get me. Or I don’t get people or the world.
Neil Pasricha: Yeah. So yeah, yeah. My mom’s from Nairobi, Kenya, my dad’s from Emirates, Ah, India and an arranged marriage in England. They come to Canada, they settle in the suburbs because, I mean that’s from a village in India actually outside of Amritsar and the only brown kid in my School. You know, visually in, in any form of media or any type of cultural awareness. Our house smelled, we had gold elephants in the front hallway and nobody else had those, you know, and so there was, Yeah, there was a constant sense of othering, I think actually what may be the existential, you know, pondering dead is give me a zoom out that was actually pacifying and helpful and allowed me to feel like this, this town of oshawa, Ontario, Canada, this, this School, this, these people, they’re a speck too. And if indeed we all share the not knowing what this is i.e. the universe and kind of why we’re here and how we came about really. Then that’s actually a connecting force to me into my culture, into my relationships. And probably Jonathan props up the things that I’ve ended up amplifying through my, my work now, which is around simple pleasures. I mean, there’s a real good argument to be made that this guy’s so obsessed about simple pleasures as a, as a sort of a decoy. You know, away from chewing on the big things, maybe that’s why I kind of read the bit, you know, I kind of read the stuff. I kind of read that place, but I’m writing about, you know, hearing a stranger fart in an elevator like, Where’s that coming from? It’s, it’s a, it’s a pacifying force for me. It gives little joys and a stronger unifying sense of reality to me than I think I might otherwise have had.
Jonathan Fields: So it’s almost like in the unknowing, rather than dropping into a state of existential fear. From that you’re kind of like, Oh, but we’re all in there together.
Neil Pasricha: It’s scary though. I mean I do feel lonely in space. A lot too. I always resonated with that Jerry Seinfeld story that above the writer’s room of the TV show Seinfeld. He put up the then famous Hubble telescope photo, of all the other galaxies that were out in space. He did it because for him, it pacified him and said, you know what? We’re writing jokes for a TV show here. You know, but I heard Judd Apatow say that gives me stress. So maybe there are two, maybe there’s just sort of a little fork in the road on the reaction. And if I’m honest, I probably oscillate between those.
Jonathan Fields: and that oscillation is sort of like another through line for you, you know, because it lands this paradox, or at least sort of like acknowledging this sense of this and that, and that, and this like throughout your Life and this is, you know, when it’s almost like when you’re sort of like in the question of the bigger questions of like, what is everything the forever ness of the universe, which is I think, a phrase that you shared with me at one point. You know, the vastness of the unknowable and then on a day to day basis that Often drops down into just like this litany of paradoxes that you bump into all day every day that keep inviting you to say huh. How can these exist? And how can I exist, like with them?
Neil Pasricha: So I give a Ted Talk in two thousand and ten at TED Toronto and in the very end of that speech, I use the phrase. You’ll never be as young as you are right now. And I conjure up a visual of it’s really borrowed from Carl Sagan after you know, the pale blue dot speech that some people may know and some people may not read says, you know, everybody on that pale blue dot, every actor, every actress, every person you love everyone you ever will, are you kind of use my own writing of that and say they’re all gone, you know, in a hundred years. And at the end of the book, the first book, the book of awesome. It was the same thing. I have the same mental zoom out so I keep coming back to that in the work, but yeah, that, Yeah, the three hundred and ninety nine pages of the book is about, you know, wearing more mundo, on the dryer. So I guess if I’m hearing you write a, one of the paradox to pointing out is the infinite endlessness. And you know, the, the one second, many daily enjoyment that kind of, you know, sits on top of the endlessness that makes, that gives you pleasure, pleasure. You know, I think pleasure has been taken a bad rap the last few years. Jonathan, you know, we’ve been, everyone’s eyes on joy. And there’s a lot of real pleasure out here. pleasure’s got some good things do. And then other paradoxes we could go into, I think maybe all of our lives are like this, but you know, there’s areas of my Life where I’m, I’m constantly trying to put on top of this gray. That is everything I’m trying to layer on top systems and rules and designs, and I have a morning practice that takes two minutes and it’s just three questions and it’s all backed by research. And of course I share that and it resonates and people use it. And I use it myself at the end of the day. I also miss it a lot. And I also wake up cranky, at four a. M because there’s a kid crying and I also, you know, sometimes feel perhaps what’s the word shackled by the systems, you know, instead of freed by them. And I can’t really embrace that feeling because I’ve been really public and open about wanting to use the systems that you don’t want to kind of present to the world that’s like, you know, spinning kind of place. Having said that, of course, through conversations like this and the ones you have with me over the years, you grow, you grow from them and you keep trying to figure it out, to self-help bit by bit as we all are. And the more you know, the less, you know.
Jonathan Fields: I want to dive into this a little bit more because the notion of living a Life of paradox and small scale and the like, intimate, everyday, like fundamental decisions. And then really big vast, you know, like huge decisions. And then the notion of you just shared of building systems to deal with that is fascinating to me because on the one hand, you know, a lot of people look at like, well, if I systematize every part of my Life, if it has sort of like a rule for this or a process for this. I feel like what I’m doing is effectively like shrinking the size of the box in which I live. I’m constraining. I’m limiting my freedom the way that, that you’ve described it to me and maybe could walk me through this a little bit just in terms of the mindset of dealing with paradox. Through building systems is in the name of creating not constraint, but freedom. A sense of expansiveness.
Neil Pasricha: Okay, so let’s go way back to two thousand and eight. I launched a blog called one thousand awesome things dot com look even in the title. It’s called one thousand awesome things, almost any other blog at the time. I mean, I want to say almost everyone was infinite. Okay. Postsecret infinite stuff. What people like with a count up blog. He only finished when he was done, you know, failed blog. These are other blogs are popular in the day and age that mine came about. So I created a, first of all, I put a finite thing on there. And then again, my first post was one thousand. So I Started counting down. I also set up a system that it would publish a post every single night at twelve Oh, one AM in the WordPress and the WordPress backend. So I had this like little pressure point and what that did for me, Jonathan, was it created freedom because now all those endless decisions of what this blog is, how long it lasts. When it posts, how frequently those are. I never think about those. I never have to think about those at all, and I also don’t put ads on it. And I didn’t, I didn’t, I decided to leave the comments unedited and unfiltered. So there’s spam in there and there’s some occasionally nasty stuff. But it was also another decision to systemize, like I’m not going to manage the comments, but leave them open, you know, so I came up with the design of that originally and then it enabled for the next four years to write these posts. And just because I had a full time job too, I’m like coming home from work at five o’clock to start my kind of start my creative job. The freedom it provided was that I could focus on the art, that’s the really big freedom that it provided. And also, you know, to whatever extent there’s tremendous amounts of research about the sort of benefits of Public pressure. I was like, you know, maybe this is not the anxious young Indian Neil talking again. But like if I know my homeworks do Friday morning is going to be handed in on Friday morning. And so similarly, if I know that the system is publishing at twelve, Oh one a M every night. Well, I got to have the post written by then. And so I almost to set it up to like it was a servant in service of the part of me that always wants to kind of get the gold star. I try to Design it and then forget it . So I had to then I kind of had to forget that I came up with the design, you know, I had to, I had to kind of forget that I was the one that made these rules. Therefore I could break them. I like to think of them as the rules were made, and now I have to follow them. Because that is what I think. Let me do. Writing a thousand blog posts in a thousand days is hard. It’s the hardest creative thing I’ve ever done before or since still, I wouldn’t do it again. But in that way, like I know already before starting, that’s too challenging.
Jonathan Fields: Yeah. And it’s like what you did was you build a system that effectively removes as much decision making and administration and process from the experience so that you could just take all of your bandwidth and say like, okay, I just want to have one job come up with the thing for the day and not have to worry about anything else.
Neil Pasricha: I mean, isn’t that what we’re doing Often? You know, I mean, we kind of routinized ourselves even if it’s not, but in for people feet, take the same route to work the stuff at the same coffee shop. They’ll walk through the same door, the touch, the door on the same part of the handle. They’ll go to the bathroom at the same time, they’ll sit in the same desk and the same. So I just a little bit more overt about stuff like that. You know, you’re looking at me right now wearing it’s a Friday. As we talk, I’ve worn this sweatshirt every day the whole week and I only wash my sweatshirts on the weekend and then I’ll just switch to a different color hoodie, but you know, it’s like, it’s just, I’ve haven’t thought about all week what I’m going to wear and that’s freeing for me and especially, you know, less flash more in the story. I’m remarried and we have small children. It’s like, I have therefore, another five minutes per day. You know, to read a small story with a baby. I think of it that way. It’s what in your Life, do you value the most, and how can you design systems to give you more of that stuff? Often Times, you know, this conversation’s definitely way further along because you know, I’m, and I’m puzzling with myself as I talk to you. But oftentimes the questions are like, how do you get so much done? How do you do it? How do you have a blog and, and a podcast and the, how do you do it all? And so my answer has always been, the systems were a year ago and it sounds like is yet. So what are the costs of that? What are the ramifications of that? What’s the paradox of living? The systemized Life?
Jonathan Fields: Yeah, because I mean, there’s always, there’s a give and take with everything, right? You know, and we’ve talked about this, you know, like, eat a solid chunk of your Life and you’re living is, is, is speaking, and it has been for a very long time. And you know, and before Times you were, you were traveling a whole bunch, you switched over to a lot of virtual and now you’re sort of like doing more of a blend. And as you say, like you’re married, you have a house full of little kids, right. Now Yeah, you love what you do. You enjoy being out there. You enjoy speaking, enjoy writing, enjoy sharing the ideas and living in the world of ideas and you love your family, you love your wife, you love your kids. And so many people listening to this struggle, you know, like whether they feel like they love their work and they love their family or they love their passion or their devotion or whatever it is. They feel torn between this really or multiple different things. And the idea of systematizing it, it feels like, Oh my God, this is another layer of like things that I need like heaviness that I need to like it’s there’s rigidity and people just want freedom shared the way that you’ve dealt with this with your family and I think it’s fascinating. So like the notion of the family.
Neil Pasricha: Yeah, exactly. So I was going to say most ills that people feel around the stuff can be solved with a piece of paper and a pen and your signature at the bottom, even if it’s just yourself. And there’s a lot of research behind this. They did this wonderful interesting study at over the United Kingdom where they had people either get their next dentist appointment card and then they write down your next day or time of appointment. Or you write down the next day as varied as you can, as you can surmise. If you write it down, you’re way more likely to do it to go and not be late and not forget it. So for Leslie and I, we have written down a family contract in our family contract. It specifies that I can only be away from our family for four nights per month. And the blackout has we’ve blacked out July and August because the kids are off of school while four nights per month for days a month times ten months, a year is forty. And so we just made the mental choice that daddy or me, Neal being away for ten percent of the year. That was an okay number for us. Okay. We could deal with that. Twenty percent would feel too high. Fifty percent would feel too high. I always feel bad and I go to speaking of ads and I ask the, you know, the a.v. team kind of when they were last home and like they’ve been on the run for like twenty eight straight days. That was not going to work for us in our relationship and the relationship I want to have with my kids. So that number it turned into a really healthy number. It works out great the other way because once of course, people know, and I speak openly about these boundaries with, with, you know, with clients and so on. Well, once they know that it’s also a nice rule that people can follow on your behalf, right? They can help you follow your own rule because you’re public about it. Well that’s one thing and our family contract. Another thing our family contract, Jonathan is. We have to also four family days per month and we define family day as a day with nothing else. No screens, no in-laws, no birthday parties. No like it’s just us and those days are so nourishing, right? We’ll go on a hike, a long hike together or even if we just lie around the house together without interruptions, without you know, that is really healthy and for per month. Of course, it’s like one per week, but we might miss one and have to do two because there’s six year birthday party or whatever it is. That’s a really healthy piece of our puzzle. Okay. We also have four NNO and four LNO per month. I’m Neal, so NNO is Neal’s night off LNO is a Leslie night off. Literally this morning, Leslie said if you want to have your NNO this week, tonight’s a good night. She happens to have extra childcare coming over her sister’s coming over for tea or whatever it is. So tonight might be a good night for me to get my NNO, and we actually track these. So I might say I haven’t had an NNO in two weeks; an NNO is you get to this week and the know is I can do whatever I want. I can see a buddy for a dinner. I can go to a movie by myself. I can go get a massage, I can go, I can go hunker down and write if that’s what I wanted to do in the evening. But it enables a payment system if you are in a relationship or you’re co-parenting, because my NNO, it doesn’t cost anything. It’s paid for by the LNO, like I’m taking care of all the kids by myself when she’s off so they just find pay for each other and they create that’s important. Vital force in any relationship, which is news stories. You know, it’s a lot of news stories to tell to do each other because you’re sick of everything you’ve said. You know, so those four points I would say provide the basics for us. We also threw in another bullet point on vacation time that we want to have and specify that. And the big insight I had from working in H.R. at Walmart for ten years is that you should decide how much vacation you have, not the organization because there’s typically systems inside most organizations around unpaid leave. And sabbaticals, as you know, is you know, that you can designed to kind of just maybe get a little bit more if you want to. So we did this one. I was at Walmart and we’re still doing this today. So we put all this down on paper, we signed it, like we actually have Leslie Richardson, signature and Neal Pasricha. Things are at the bottom of the paper and I don’t even know where the paper is, but the fact that I know it exists and it’s somewhere in the house acts as a nice tethering force as I continue to make decisions. And I of course, break it of course there’s a big last month I was on the road, six nights or whatever, instead of four. But I’ll also lean into saying, Ah, for this next month, could it be two or could it at least be three? So we use it as a dashboard, you know, it’s a way to tell yourself if you’re going the right way.
Jonathan Fields: And what’s interesting also is that if you know that these are the rules, the constraints like this is the system in advance. Let’s say you have your four nights on the road a month that when you’re thinking about, what do I say yes to like when different inquiries, different opportunities, different like ways to contribute to go out on the road and like, spend that time come in. What do I say yes to and why? And then how do I structure that knowing that this is the frame I’m working in, which I would imagine is on the one hand. Yeah. It’s almost like this fun creative like exploration on its own. Like how do I put this together in a way where I can actually maximize my time, maximize my impact, maximize my creative expression in this short window that I have every month. And then like how do I say, yeah, like who do I decide what to say? Yes to and then how do I put it together? And then how do I communicate that to clients to say, this is why like, this is the only time that I’m available and this is how it has to happen. That’s got to be like because the family contract that you have with Leslie and your kids like then leads to sort of like you making very different decisions.
Neil Pasricha: Absolutely, and that’s just on the family side. I also have other things in place for my creative outlet, like I have a dashboard that says I need to write a chapter of a book every month that I need to interview and record to podcast from that I need, you know, I have other things I’m trying to do kind of creatively and some of those things jotted on my monthly dashboard are things like have one unique or interesting experience, you know, taking my seventy seven year old father to the flaming lips. Concert recently was this month, you know, is this month’s unique experience. And then of course I also have my physical things, you know, on terms of I want to have, you know, four workouts per week. And I want to have, you know, for cardio or, you know, what long walks for a week. And I define a long walk is like, you know, two hours or more outside, you know. So I put all these things in place because they help me prioritize my Life. You know, our mutual friend Derek Sivers. We call this the no or hell yes. Philosophy. Right? If it’s a hell, yes, you do it. And if it’s anything else, a maybe or I wanna or I should or I think I can, it all gets to still down back into the no bucket to Ultimately make room for you to live your Life, which I’ll remind us all is only thirty thousand days long in North America, which is higher than the global average of twenty five thousand days. So for whatever it is that this is this, This Life, whatever it is, it’s not long. We know that for sure. And these systems in my mind, free me to, you know, prioritize my time in such a way that it’s very valuable. And I know your, your listeners are big readers. I will say the essay on the Shortness of Life by Seneca, written two thousand years ago, which is available free because way out of copyright is a profound essay that I leave printed out in multiple copies in my suitcase on my bookshelf everywhere. And I just reread that whenever I need to remind myself about why I’m setting things up like this.
Jonathan Fields: Yeah, I agree that that one piece of writing is so powerful
Jonathan Fields: Couple of different directions I want to go with you. You brought up Derek. One of the few things I actually don’t agree with is the “hell yes” rule. And here’s why. And I’m curious how this lands with you. I kind of followed it for a long time. I was like, well of course that makes total sense like, Life is short, you know, I only want to do things, allocate energy to, you know, a fixed amount of bandwidth, a fixed amount of fixed amount of energy, a fixed amount of resources. The only thing I want to be able to do is say, like things that just touch me, my heart immediately explode me into it. That’s the only thing I want to be doing and then things drop into my life. Where the early days, it’s like, well it’s kind of interesting. It’s like a, hell maybe. Right. But I don’t quite know, like I don’t know enough about myself. I don’t know enough about it. And I might not be skilled enough to actually be able to interact with this opportunity on the level that makes me feel genuinely hell yes, like this is amazing. So like they’re some of the most things that have turned into the most profound things in my life have sustained for decades and decades. Started as hell maybes and had I said no to them. I’ve been living a very different life.
Neil Pasricha: I mean, I think you had Shonda Rhimes on Good Life Project>
Jonathan Fields: I haven’t yet, but hopefully one day.
Neil Pasricha: Oh, okay, well, she has that famous TED talk called the year of yes, where I think she was talking about how through a challenging period in her life she ended up saying yes to everything. And I will say Jonathan, far before I heard of this no or hell yes philosophy, by Derek Sivers. After my divorce and I moved downtown, I have three contacts on my phones and all my friends are married in the suburbs. You can better believe that I was saying Yes to anything, just anything because I didn’t know I didn’t have any thing. So when anyone asked me to go anywhere, I was like all in. And it was only later that I changed into no or hell yes, but it’s really a function of where you are. What you’re doing. Did you just move to a new town with a new job? Say yes. Yeah. Are you trying to having four little kids and a busy job and taking care of aging parents? No or hell yeah. You know, so, so I think part of it is just like, at least as another system, you know, it’s just choosing which rule you’re going to adopt, which time of your life. But I totally embrace the idea that the maybes can flourish and turn into things. I mean, ask anybody there how you met your partner story and there is a whole lot of maybes in those stories at the beginnings of them. And oftentimes they turn into the most important ones, long lasting relationship of your life.
Jonathan Fields: Yeah. Now, so right there with, especially on the relationship side, the other curiosity that I don’t think I’ve ever actually asked you about is with the level system position that you have and with what it gives you. And with a gaggle of little kids running around your house, they feel the effect of all of these choices that you’ve made. All of like the contracts, the rules, the systems, are they aware of them? And do you have a sense for like you wanting them to approach their lives that way too?
Neil Pasricha: Yeah, it’s interesting. You know, my eldest child is now eight years old and he has been taking a once a week music class. And when he did it last year, he wasn’t practicing at all. So I made a system for the wall, which as we discussed openly as a family, how often you know, he thinks he should practice. We came up with two times per week, fifteen minutes per time, Okay? And so I made an eight week grid with two dots in each and we had fun. I will emphasize coloring them in every time I did it. Well, at the end of the year he wanted to quit music. Yeah. Like music. Did the rehearsal did the performance, you know, played we will rock you on the drums and sang it. It was great. And he wanted to quit and that’s fine. There’s a lot of research that says you shouldn’t quit music, you know, depending on what you read. And so now Leslie’s in charge and her philosophy is very different and I will point out that my wife is a genius educator. Okay. So she is, her system is no system and it’s, it’s one of embracing a love of music and she just works into daily conversation in a natural way, him banging on the keys here and there and like the music will come on and we start dancing and like while what she’s doing Jonathan, it’s much more magical than the conscripted kind of thing I had on the wall. However, I didn’t think I had the ability to do what she’s doing, which is very softly, gently. All, I will say invisibly for my future child, and this is the last time you know, I will say invisibly to him. She has teaching him how to love music in a much more wider and you know, nurturing way than my system was really allowing for because it looked like work that you had to do and check off. And so it kind of went into that extrinsic motivator sort of category. You know, we know the research on this that if side note because it’s one of my favorite studies, you know, when, when eleven year old girls were given the job of teaching the piano to two girls beside them, the ones that were told to do it for the joy of teaching stayed longer were more patient and had better students than the ones who were given a movie ticket for it, the extrinsic motivator blocks our brains from seeing the intrinsic motivator. So how do we get our kids to flourish with intrinsic motivators? That was it, and I grew up in an East Indian immigrant household in the suburbs of Toronto. And you better believe my parents, that what’s the homework, what you get wrong on the test, which one. And if I got ninety seven out of one hundred on the test, what we sat down that night and it wasn’t in a strict or harsh way, there was no, there was no anger, it was simply well let, let us read and do all those ones again until you get them right. Look, let’s work on that. And so, perhaps in my brain, you know, what got developed was this idea that the only way to do, you know, in quotation marks the word do with the broadest sense of the word do, was to create some type of rigidity that forced the behavior. You know, and perhaps what I’ve missed as I, as I’m forty three now, and I hopefully have a lot of years left. But who knows is perhaps what I’ve missed. And what I want to embrace more is, you know, learning from my wife and those people around me who can, who have figured out how better to surf the waves. Rather than simply deciding whether or not to go in the water or not based on the weather or whatever it is, whatever the metaphor is that I’m doing, you know? So that’s kind of where I’m at now. And as always, you astutely figure out where I’m at and just kind of poke right there and so that’s what makes a good conversation.
Jonathan Fields: Yeah, it’s interesting also right because and part of what you’re describing between your approach and lesley’s approach is also this acknowledgement that there is no right way for every human. Yeah. You know, I think we love to kind of say like, show me the diet, show me the work out, show me the plan, show me like the productivity system, show me the methodology.
Neil Pasricha: Even the research or so how bad on having this research, as if the research can’t be disproven or otherwise shaped by some other study. Two seconds later.
Jonathan Fields: Yeah. I’m fascinated by that notion. And also we recently interviewed somebody who’s like this luminary in behavioral economics and science and all this stuff who had a wildly wildly popular book, millions of millions of copies sold, where a couple of years into it, had to remove an entire chapter of the book. Because the science and this person was a leading voice in that field, the science was completely disproven. My mind, I’m like if somebody who is one of the smartest people in the world in this particular domain, bought into the science on a level where they literally include an entire chapter about it in a book. How do we even look at the barrage of data and research that’s coming to us from really smart people and really like, well established labs and really well-funded and figure out what is real and what’s not. And I keep coming back to our own lived experience, you know, is the ultimate like that N of One is the ultimate determinant of what is right for us.
Neil Pasricha: And the wisdom of generations. Yeah. And so maybe the N of One comes from the wisdom of generations. And thank goodness our culture is starting to understand and embrace things like, you know, in indigenous medicine and how to take care of a forest, you know, from, from, from like thousands of year old ways as opposed to like, you know, planning a million of the same maple tree beside each other, whatever it is that we’ve been doing for the last last 40 years. But, but what I’m trying to say is part of the reason I think that I have been able to give speeches for a long time is if you were to cynically look at what I’m actually telling people, it’s basic stuff. It’s all so basic, you know, it’s things that like around physical activity around getting outside around reading books are, you know, Yes, I present them in a and a palatable, fun, and funny way with a story and a research study and a hockey line. But the end of the day, I’m telling you to read a book and I’m telling you to go inside, I’m telling you I, I do so in a way that provides the research for why we have NDD, nature deficit disorder and kids these days spend only seven percent of the time outside is the lowest level in history like you, you create those things because they help provide the temples that make the story. And the story is what we understand. But this N of One often is the stuff your grandmother said was right. There’s a reason that two thousand generations have existed before you and you know, they got to you. So they probably knew what they were doing. A bit. So we got to, we got to embrace a lot of that, I think a lot more in our culture and in our society. And I think we also have to hold on and remember that, you know, we only because I was on a, I’m embarrassed to admit this to you, but I was on the tick tock, feed of Peter Attia the other day. And he was interviewing a guy who was saying it’s critically important, have thirty grams of protein, right? When you wake up and here’s why, you know, here’s the reasons why. And the reasons you know, there’s words like lipids being thrown in like bio protein. Words I don’t even understand and Peter’s nodding and, and I don’t know either of these guys, so you know, kudos to them. But what was most interesting, Jonathan was the comments and the comments were like, but David Sinclair, you know, Harvard Medical School Longevity expert says this, but Tim Ferriss says that, and I was like, Oh there it is again, there’s the old headline in the newspaper, again, the one that says the New York Times reports that vitamin D, you know, we all need to have five thousand whatever megs of vitamin D. And the other paper on like literally saw this in the same. I wrote about this in the Happiness Equation, one of my books, which is I think the last time I was like Good Life Project. It’s like the trials are the same and they had a report on the same day saying, you don’t need vitamin D, the things wrong. And so once again, isn’t there a cliche for everything? And then it maybe again does get back to your N of One? Is that actions speak louder than words, or is it the pen is mightier than the sword, right? Like we could do that, is it the early bird gets the worm or is it good things come to those who wait and you could do this about everything. And so is it that we’re such a storytelling species that we cling to what makes sense? Or is it that we ultimately to get back to the very beginning.. ultimately we do not know. We simply do not know. And it’s under that big grand umbrella that we’re seeking to operate and live, what I call intentional lives.
Jonathan Fields: And so often we look to the wisdom and the experience of other people, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when we surrender our own lived experience, when we surrender our own intelligence to somebody like just wanting somebody to tell us, this is the thing that will save you that will help you that will make you more productive. That will create the most incredible relationship. You’ll like. I’m a huge fan of devouring knowledge like doing a lot of my own research and devouring research and talking to, I mean, spend over a decade doing this now talking to the wisest, most accomplished people in the world. And then at the same time, like one of the things that I’ve learned in this circles back to the way that you develop your systems. Is that when it comes time to actually creating the rules or the framework, or the system for you, the way you step into your life, your health, your relationships, right? The way that it functions best is when you don’t look for the most popular thing that’s been sort of like proven by science and then try and step into that. It’s when you take all of that knowledge and then you have like enough data points and your own lived experience in the form of data points and intuition and say, well, what actually is best for me? You think about the systems you’ve created, like you haven’t gone out and adopted a bunch of other people systems. You’ve said like what works for me and let me build it around that. Not let me step into some other like quote proven system that works for the vast majority of like X population of this, blah, blah, blah. And that I think is the, is the leap that so often we don’t make that is the difference between really good intentions and really ineffective or bad outcomes.
Neil Pasricha: Well, I think this is partly why our mutual friend, Susie Beattie says that the number one way she makes decisions is by closing her eyes, putting your head down and putting her hands on her stomach and trying to feel the answer within. And I think it’s partly why a book I wrote called the Happiness Equation, that I wrote in 2016, which in my mind, Jonathan was full of all kinds of charts and graphs that I made up out of thin air. I mean, I really remember making them all up, the three s’s of success, the four boxes of how to grow confidence. I mean, the space scribble I made all that stuff up. But the number one piece of feedback on that on our book is, yeah, this confirms everything I already knew. That, you know, I like, I like the book, it’s just a, it’s a, it’s a classic reminder, you know, and stuff like that. And I’m like, classic reminder, this was all new to me at the time that I wrote it in my early thirties, you know? And so there’s a big correlation between wisdom and age is what I’m trying to say. You know, at the end of the day to the point, it’s like, you just assemble more. But I think the thing you didn’t say, which I’d like to insert into this Conversation is, you know, it’s getting increasingly more difficult to listen to ourselves is just getting increasingly more difficult to hear that inner voice in the cacophony of everything. With what we’re deeming to be the noise, but you know, when Elon Musk Tweets something like, you know, twenty million tweets came out a second. I’m like, my reaction is like, Oh my gosh. Like, how grotesque you know? Like how, how unbecoming of us that, that’s what we’re doing, that’s just spewing everything all the times everywhere. Thoreau said re not the time is read the eternities, and there’s something eternal about your conversations, which I think is probably why they’ve attracted such a strong and loyal following. You get into the deeper issues that other than a cerebral podcast, like how often am I having conversations even like this? Not Often, I don’t have many friends like you. I need more.
Jonathan Fields: Everything that you shared around systems around paradoxes, this whole Conversation really just exploring and just your last thought around. It’s getting harder and harder to hear our own voices, like among the chatter that just both our own self chatter and discerning like what is real, what is valuable? Like, what do I follow in that? And then so much of that chatter is informed by what’s happening in the world around us and sort of like the lot of things that are coming into us. And yet we don’t want to cut ourselves off from culture, from society, from community. And I think which kind of like flows beautifully into like your new book, you know, because you’re somebody who has created a lot of really hard boundaries between you and the world around you and the social world you and the outer world view and a lot of like the things that people tell you, you have to do part of business. But there’s been this ongoing dialogue between you and this growing global community for what is it been twelve like it’s over a dozen years now?
Neil Pasricha: I started A Thousand Awesome Things in 2008 and the Book of Awesome came out in 2010.
Jonathan Fields: There is this dialogue structured and bounded. But there has been this dialogue going on with you with a global community of human beings as you navigate life, and there’s a back and forth and there’s a sharing. So I’m curious, you know, like as we have this Conversation, it’s sort of like on the eve of this next book, Our Book of Awesome coming out. And while it is sort of, you could see it in the, you know, like, within the larger franchise of books of awesome that you have, you have shared over this, this window of time. This feels different and it feels like your compulsion or your like your reason for doing This is different and it builds around this. It’s a much more relational thing where you are inviting everybody into this experience in a way that I haven’t seen before.
Neil Pasricha: Yeah, thanks for noticing that, you know, Waldinger, I think the same as the guy who runs the that longest ever study at Harvard. You know, he says you can essentially boil it down to social relationships; you strength your relation with your friends and family. Daniel Gilbert who wrote stumbling on happiness twenty six may be one of the most formative positive psychology books says the same says the same thing I think it’s quote, as if I knew everything there was to know about you, your health, your income, your nationality, your gender, your income, all of it would fall away in favor of the strength of your relationships with your friends and family. And I’ve always felt personally that books are the greatest form of compressed wisdom we have ever known, and they still hold that mantelpiece today. It was really satisfying when technologist Futurist Kevin Kelly said to me, Yeah, we still haven’t found anything better than books like, you know, this is a guy that kind of lives in that world and these like it still books, everything else, fractures decays, becomes obsolete like a book actually rides the waves of time. Would you believe it better than almost any other form of technology we’ve ever known? Even paper from two thousand years ago hasn’t decayed, try using a chip from ten years ago on anything. You can’t plug it in. There’s no slot like that old story about Isaacson doing Steve Jobs biography, and they couldn’t get a bunch of his old journals because he, even he would with the riches of Apple at his fingertips, couldn’t get his old files because it was just saved in the wrong format on some old floppy drive or whatever it was. Now, if we know that to be true about community, if we know that to be true, and we also know that books are the greatest form of compressed wasn’t, but they’re typically a relationship between you and in the nonfiction world, the narrator like the guy who writes the book in fiction and believe me, Johnathan, that I’ll wish I could write, you know, the way Dori Sanders writers, or Celeste Ng could write. I can’t yet. I mean , I’ll keep the door open to, Ah, maybe I’ll one day down the road. But for me as a nonfiction writer, I was like, how do you work in this idea of community being so freaking important to our sense of happiness? That’s the reason why we’re turning on Facebook, right? Because we want it to give us the social pleasure that it seems to almost always kind of do, but never really do based on the research. And so the idea underpinning Our Book of Awesome is it starts with me talking. But then there’s comments and the comments are real comments from real people that I’ve added and curated, but they’re, they’re not me. I did not ghostwrite them. And then it amplifies a little bit more into letters. And then there’s submissions from other people. And the way the book ends is this gigantic, slow, forming cacophony of awesome things from I hope you can hear the voices written from literally over ten thousand people who submitted them to me through my blog and my books. From the last time I have tried my best to keep it feeling like you’re in a room of people talking, even though you don’t have to be online. That was kind of the challenge of myself by and this is, this is for the book nerds out there, stripping out of the book, the acknowledgements, the dedication, the about, the author, the author, photo, the table of contents, the index. There’s nothing else in the way. I’ve always personally handled it when you drop thirty five dollars on a book and you get home. It says for Susie, I’m like, who’s Susie? I’m the one that bought this thing. So I’ve tried to strip off what I call this shrapnel, that naturally exists in a book and I’m not, you know, poo pooing it, for the experience of reading it like you’re there offline, but with other people
Jonathan Fields: So when you say yes to doing something like this, and I don’t know if you create an intention, whenever you say yes to writing a book and three years ago, talking with somebody who said they’ll never actually say yes to the process of writing a book unless they believe that not only will it have an effect on other people, but the very process of creating it will transform them individually as human beings. So when you say yes, having written a number of books already, when you say rest to writing this book and then to inviting the community into it, do you have an intention for that when you invest? Because this is a lot of energy that you’re, you’ve been clear like you bound your energy, you like make choices very, very intensely like this had to have been according to like your rubric a hell yes. So what’s the intention behind something like this that gets you there?
Neil Pasricha: Well, one thing that I should also share for all the makers out there, which I know there are many. Is that part of what this book did for me personally and the part of the reason why it was such a hell? Yes is because it gave me a break from the other book that I’ve been struggling to write for for years around trust. And I was able to give a SXSW talk on it. But what has happened in my basement? If I just stepped inside this room is I’ve got cue cards all over the walls. I’ve got stuff all over the floor. I’ve got things ripped out from newspapers and I’m drowning in this other book. So as a writer, that is an identity that I kind of kind of hold on to, I do think of myself as a writer who speaks, you know, not a speaker who writes, I kind of hold on to that loose grip, but that’s kind of who I think of myself as if I had to distill it down to one word on the occupation form on the on customs border crossing, I’d say writer. And when I went so deep on the trust book and couldn’t get out, Awesome, provided a ladder that I knew how to climb. And while climbing up there, like we talked about with wisdom, it turns out that I’ve changed, you know, in the times since I wrote the, remember I retired the Books of Awesome after the first two years. I thought that’s enough of that. I got to do other things, you know? And so it felt like I was comment. I guess I should change the metaphor. It’s a down a ladder, but I climb the ladder either way, whichever direction you want. And eventually I realized that I’ve changed so then the things themselves change and the format changed and look at the back of the book, remember I said it culminates in the voice. One of the things I’m most proud of is the whole back of the book is literally 200 All New Awesome Things from all these people that are written in one point. I don’t know how I still, I think someone’s going to say like, how did you get away with this because you can barely read it, but it does give you the sense of swimming amongst the sea of other people. And that provided the hell yea for me because I wanted to live there. I wanted to put my brain in that place. Take a break from this other thing that I can’t seem to figure out.
Jonathan Fields: I mean, that’s interesting. So it’s almost like this was, this was a respite from, you know, you’ve been deep into this other book for four years and it’s just like things are not coming easily. And you have the Awesome Community, which is still kind of been following along and, and it’s something that you know.
Neil Pasricha: yea, I have a daily email that goes out every night at midnight with the New Awesome Thing, right? It’s a smallish email, less but it’s got like, you know, five, five thousand people get that every single night. You know? So that keeps me honest.
Jonathan Fields: Yeah. And then with you as saying like, okay, so your primary identity from a professional standpoint is writer. Then saying has to create something where you know that like every other book that I’m aware of that you’ve written in the past is like Neil Pasricha author. Like that’s on the front of the book. When you then decide to say yes to writing something where you literally like the whole idea behind it is, I am going to share my thoughts for sure my stories and experiences. And I’m going to fold in as many thoughts and stories and experiences and observations from potentially thousands of people as possible. How does that affect your identity as the author or writer of this when you step into a project like this?
Neil Pasricha: It makes me feel more peaceful because I think of myself as you know, stepping back into the trees a little bit, you know, ashes to ashes in an ideal world. My name wouldn’t even be on the cover and I would be like the formulator of it. I would be putting it all together. I wanted there to be even more comments and submissions and letters. My publisher said, you know, people want to hear from you. This is your book. We even gotten to a little TIFF about putting “and friends” on the on the cover. I wanted to be like a stand up comedy poster. You know, it’s always like Sarah Silverman and friends, you know, they put the headliner on, but they’re trying to acknowledge the people that are there with them. I think the writer identity is already in already it’s flaking off a bat and you know it’s getting closer and closer to person and if it keeps evolving, it will probably get closer and closer to animal. I mean, you know, I’ve taken up birdwatching every time I go birdwatching, I feel less human in a good way and more alive in a good way. You know, I feel less species forward than I normally am. When I’m human all day, it’s nice to be in the forest with birds and realize they’ve been here way before us the be here, way after us around the whole earth. Oh, how relieving is that? Nothing I do matters. You know, it’s like, how relieving is that? That’s partly why the two minute morning practice that I do every morning. The very first question is I will let go of, I just happened to be someone, perhaps through my, you know, the intergenerational traumas that I carry or through that the ways that I grew up or through this, you know, kind of self creating world that I’ve made up someone who at the end of every day or the start of every morning wouldn’t, you know, I always got something to write down. It’s not like I’m like, hmm, like you’ve seen me many times to be like, how do I get more of this or that I’m always anxious about something. But the bird watching that the I will let go of which by the way is grounded in almost every you know, that’s almost every world religion has some form of confession or repentance or you know, a practice there. But we have the highest rate of secularism of all time. So alot of people don’t know this, that this is a practice that can be very helpful. It’s about distilling and getting that identity to loosen, loosening the identity. I don’t like LinkedIn for that, what I deemed to be like, the fake resumé ness of it all, you know that the endlessly labeling the endlessly creating of what you did and why and what your title is. It’s too bad that we have to live in a world where it’s too difficult to try to figure out who everybody is at a deep level when you talk to them for five minutes on the bus. But it’s so nice to hold on to that knowledge that that is who they are, that they’re as deeply complex as you are and to shirk those identities. So that we can live in a real, more connected and less divisive way.
Jonathan Fields: Yeah, which I think is something that whether you intended or not, you started with the original Book of Awesome and with the like, this, the recent iteration where you’re bringing in all these different people. Now we can start to see, oh, when people lead with like this is who I am from an accomplishment standpoint or from a status standpoint, you can’t get to the yeah, it’s really hard to get past the projection. But I think part of the brilliance of what you’ve done here is when you distill it down to the most essential observation about like something that is just genuinely pleasurable, that we usually don’t even think about that may actually happen every day. But it’s actually, we’re making it aware, and then you’re like you’re having all these people share something about themselves. But on that most essential level, it’s like what effectively it feels like to me is like you’re creating this tool to sort of re-humanize us in a communal way and start to recognize each other as like, Oh you too? Yeah, there’s something really beautiful and powerful about that.
Neil Pasricha: Oh, thank you for seeing that and illuminating parts of it that perhaps I didn’t even see myself. I still remember when Bill Clinton came to you know, Harvard yard and he gave that, that famous speech to have everybody, somebody that’s every year commencement. And he said ninety nine point nine percent of our DNA is the same as monkeys. Like he said, something just like that. And I was like, wow, that is so interesting that he would point that out as a way that we’re all more common than we are apart. And it’s unfortunate, I think that the algorithms are so incentivized to radicalize our thoughts to the extremes because our amygdala wants to look at the rage and the, and the, and the nudity and the sexuality, and that, and the extremism of all, all time. So as a result, what happens is we end up falling into camps and into tribes and into places where we have an us or them mentality and we can hold on to but we don’t need to hold on to that anymore. We don’t need to hold onto that anymore. It’s short, we don’t have much time. This is a, this says you could use the word brotherhood, you could use the word community, you could use the word connection. But I mean, all you got is just the people that are alive with you right now. Plus anyone else’s wisdom that you’ve happened to annex into a codified form. Whether that be Seneca from two thousand years ago, or a Good Life Project conversation that you might listen to in 2020 that was recorded in 2010. You know?
Jonathan Fields: Yeah, I mean that’s what it all comes sort of like, circling back to I remember reading this one of the entries in the book actually about driving down this old road with trees that kind of arc over and form this canopy and touch each other. And like the, the light speckling through it. And I grew up in the Northeast and like with all these old growth trees. And that was like and where I am actually in Boulder, Colorado right now. We’ve landed in a part of town where like the most majestic part about it to me like I can look to the right and I’m in the front range of the Rockies with these gorgeous mountains. But if I like, stand out in front of my house now right now because there are no leaves on the trees, but in the spring and the summer in the fall. And I just look like I literally would stand in the middle of my road and just like early in the morning and just like look down the block and see this canopy of green with the sun like the morning sun flickering through. And to me is so essential but also so magical. And then I read sort of like this observation in the book and I’m like, oh so it’s not a me thing, it’s a we thing like how cool is that? That we can connect at that level.
Neil Pasricha: There’s a reason why I put the first entry in the Book of Awesome was flipping to the cold side of the pillow. And the first entry in this one is carrying the ice cube tray from the sink to the freezer without spilling. And the reason I chose those ones in both situations was because I just thought that’s really what I’m aiming for is that universal feeling of something that you just don’t talk about. But which we all share. And then hopefully it just pushes us a little bit to realizing or recognizing that we’re all that we’re all the same. And it’s not going to be too long before I think we, I hope that we feel that way. Colors are all going to look pretty similar soon. Eventually, you know, or geographically where we’re mixing a lot more, we’re going to have to stay together in the face of I think the potential dangers that technology is posing to us and how we have to band as humans and be, I’m a big fan of, of Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff and those types of books that I think that there’s Johann Hari’s book, Still In Focus I really think that now’s the time where we need each other more than ever before too.
Jonathan FieldsL Yeah. And to be able to connect to see yourself in another, to the simplest, simplest observations that somehow move you, it bypasses any of these sort of like rational, logical cognitive defenses or any barriers that we put up and just says, Oh yeah, that’s me too. Super, super powerful, feels like there’s a good place for us to come full circle as well. So I have asked you this question, but as, as, as you’ve noted, it was quite a number of years ago and you have grown, I have grown the world has grown in this container, Good Life project, if I offer the phrase to live a Good Life, what comes up?
Neil Pasricha: It means that for as many minutes as possible in as many days as possible, you spend time loving yourself, loving the people around you. The people that are your family, people that are outside your front door, people that are across the world or across the universe, potentially. And sitting as long as you can in that place of love, while also forgiving yourself, as you will naturally will do as I naturally will do, for slipping out of it all the time. And just sort of walking your way back in. I will say, and I don’t say this lightly, I don’t know how to do this, but every time I talk to you, you do that to me. So thank you for that.
Jonathan Fields. Thank you.