You Are Awesome: An Interview With Bestselling Author Neil Pasricha

Neil Pasricha is the New York Times bestselling author of seven books which have sold over 1,000,000 copies and spent over 200 weeks on bestseller lists including The Book of Awesome—which stemmed from his viral blog1000 Awesome Things— The Happiness Equation, and his just-released You Are Awesome. He is also the host the award-winning podcast 3 Books where he is on a fifteen-year long quest to uncover the 1000 most formative books in the world. Neil also has one of the most popular TED Talks of all time with “The 3 A’s of Awesome”

At the core of everything Neil does is helping people answer the question, as he asks it below, “Life is 30,000 days long. That’s it! That’s all we get…How can you make sure you’re spending them well?” In our interview with Neil, he shares some of his top recommendations for answering that question, explains a dark period he went through that inspired his work on living intentionally, shares some exercises from his new book that can help people develop mental resilience, and much more. Please enjoy our interview with Neil Pasricha!

We know you’re a voracious reader. Have you read much of the Stoics? Do you have a favorite? Any quotes or exercises that have especially resonated with you? 

I’ve read a few! Couple things jump out.

First, I keep a Penguin Classics copy of On The Shortness Of Life by Seneca permanently in my suitcase. Along with a bathing suit and a lacrosse ball, it’s one of three permanent fixtures in there. And, interestingly, all three things are what I think of as Stress Reduction Aids. I use the ball to roll out achy muscles after long flights, the bathing suit to remind myself to jump in the pool and get some exercise, and the Seneca essay to helpfully force my mind to zoom out. I feel like I’m listening to a friend telling me to chill. Just chill! Protect your time like people protect their property and live a deeply intentional and fulfilling life.

What else? Well, a couple years ago I sent a note out to my monthly book club declaring that The Art of Living by Epictetus was my new official “Hotel Bedside Table Book.” What’s that? Well, it’s the book I would put in every hotel bedside table if I ran my own hotel chain. I think everyone should know what their HBTB is, don’t you? What’s yours? Never know when you might start a hotel chain! Anyway, when I wrote that, I was staying in The Taj in San Francisco on book tour. Indian hotel chain. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to open the bedside table and find a copy of The Vedas lying there. But it was strangely jarring! I’d only seen bibles before. Then it hit me. “Hmmm,” I thought, “It’s not the Bible, necessarily, it’s a thousands-of-years old guidebook of stories and lessons for people sleeping far from home.”

I decided that my thousands-of-years old guidebook of stories and lessons for people sleeping far from home is The Art Of Living. I have found such joy paging through this book of simple philosophical notes written by a slave born on the edges of the Roman Empire in 55 AD. It’s a perfect book to flip through before falling asleep or after waking up in the morning. You asked for favorite quotes. I really like this one:

“It is better to do wrong seldom and to own it, and to act right for the most part, than seldom to admit that you have done wrong and to do wrong often.” Epictetus Click To Tweet

At the core of everything you do—your blog, your books, your podcast, your talks—is inspiring others to live with intention, to live happier and fuller lives. Can you talk about what it means to live with intention and why spreading that message is so important to you? How did you get into this focus area?

Yes, absolutely.

Because life is 30,000 days long. That’s it! That’s all we get. So in addition to protecting our time (preach, Seneca!) there is nothing more important than living these few days we have with intention. We have to remember that you get a pot of (hopefully) 30,000 coins when you’re born and every single day you’re alive … you spend one.

How can you make sure you’re spending them well?

The way I started leaning into this concept was because about ten years ago my wife had told me she didn’t want to be married anymore and my closest friend suddenly took his own life. I was feeling incredibly dark and depressed. I didn’t like that feeling way. But I couldn’t stop it. I lost a ton of weight, I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t really eating.

One day after work I started a blog called 1000 Awesome Things as a way to cheer myself up. A simple goal of writing down (yes) 1000 awesome things for 1000 straight weekdays. My mood began to lift, the blog went viral, and when it was turned into The Book of Awesome I was invited to do a TED Talk at TEDxToronto. I put everything I had into that talk called “The 3 A’s of Awesome” and I feel like that’s where my ideas around living intentionally first began to coagulate.

You mention your blog 1000 Awesome Things which is all about savoring life’s simple pleasures. One way the Stoics sought to cultivate wisdom was to marvel at the mundane, to find beauty in everyday life. Why is that such a powerful practice to cultivate? Any tips for how people can make it a practice in their daily lives?

It’s a powerful practice to cultivate because it is life. It is. It is your life. Your life is not walking across the stage to get your college degree, the father-daughter dance at your wedding, signing the papers to buy your first home, or the healthy baby screeching in the delivery room. Sure! Those are great moments. Huge moments! But they only add up to a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of your life.

What fills up the rest? The mundane! Watching cream go into coffee. The smell of rain on a hot sidewalk. Flipping to the cold side of the pillow in the middle of the night. Squishing sand between your toes at the beach or feeling the grass under your feet in the backyard. Getting called up to the dinner buffet first at a wedding. The smell of frying onions when you walk into your house. When you hit the point in the book where you just can’t put it down. The crackle and pop from the fireplace. Hitting a string of green lights when you’re late for work. The sound of water lapping against the dock. Actually recognizing a squirrel.

And it goes on … and on …. and on.

How can people make it a practice? Well, let me share how I did it. When I started writing 1000 Awesome Things I honestly had like twelve things. Total! That’s it. And I mean I got a piece of paper and spent a long time trying to think of every single awesome thing I could … and I came up with about a dozen.

And yet, as the practice continued, while I constantly worried about running out of things to write about … the opposite happened. I became flooded with them! In my own head, in my notebooks and cell phone notes through the day, on little scraps of paper I jotted on everywhere, in messages sent to me from friends and strangers.

The practice itself actually became the big sun that dented my whole mental solar system. It changed how I thought completely. We know from a study by Emmons and McCullough that if you can write down even five things you’re grateful for at the end of the week you are markedly happier after a ten week period. And that’s just five!

So what’s the practice I suggest? Write them down. Actually write them down. Keep a little note in your cell phone called “awesome things” or “my little things I love list” or whatever works for you. Add to it when you see something. Reread it often. Start playing Rose-Rose-Thorn-Bud around your dinner table to get your family into it, too.

Maybe it will feel contrived or cheesy or trite at first.

But it will definitely work.

In The Happiness Equation, you talk about the dangers of seeking external validation. Your book can sell millions of copies, but you can still feel unfulfilled. The Stoics talk about detaching from results and outcomes (we control the input on a given project, for example, but not how critics or the market receive it). Have you tried to do that in your life? Is it something you’re thinking about with the new book?

Yes, I’m definitely still thinking about it.

I’m better than I used to be but still have a long way to go.

One of the issues today is that everything has been completely oversalted with metrics. Number of followers, number of friends, number of connections, Amazon rankings, bestseller list rankings. We get a tally Monday morning of the box office rankings, we can’t watch a movie without checking Rotten Tomatoes, we won’t eat at a restaurant with four Yelp reviews, we spy how many views a YouTube video has before deciding if it’s worth the sixty seconds it wants from us!

So what’s one thing I’m working on?

Trying to denumerify my life.

Yes, I made up that word. But you know what I mean. I’m trying to not count things.

How?

Well, often I have to lock myself out.

Like, I just create a system that doesn’t allow me to see (or get obsessed with) a certain number. So for my podcast 3 Books I asked my assistant to make up her own password to the Libsyn site which hosts all our podcast analytics, stats, and ranking information and I’ve also told her to never ever tell me this password no matter what. Sure, do I slip sometimes and check the iTunes ranking and then go brag about them on Twitter or whatever. Yes, sure. I do. But I’m trying.

How about that New York Times bestseller list? My job is writing and selling books! How can I not care about that? Well, I cancelled my New York Times subscription and never got the digital subscription. I removed the site from my bookmarks (along with all other news sites) so now I basically can’t check it. So I don’t.

Your new book You Are Awesome, which just released, is about how we’re living in a time where, despite unprecedented technological, medical, and scientific advancement, rates of clinical anxiety, depression, loneliness, and suicide are all at record highs. You talk about how we have lost the ability to handle failure. What do you attribute this to?

A big part of it is because we live in this age of unprecedented abundance.

How many people do you know who’ve lived through plague or famine or got shipped off to war lately? We have it good. Really good! Add to that our gold-star, participation-ribbon-for-everyone culture that many of us (including me) grew up in … and we have a recipe for extremely thin skin.  These days when you get two likes on your photo you feel like you have no friends. You get an angry email from your boss and you call in sick the next day. We are turning into an army of porcelain dolls!

Okay, so are there any exercises you can give our readers for developing this strength, this mental resilience?

Yes, a lot!

In You Are Awesome I write about setting up failure budgets to practice putting yourself in new losing situations, I write about setting one Untouchable Day for yourself each week to unplug from the matrix, I write about finding small ponds to ratchet up your academic self concept, and I write about starting each day with a two-minute morning mind strengthening practice.

Let me unpack that last one here.

What’s the two-minute morning practice?

Well, each morning, before you get out of bed, grab an index card and write down three prompts:

  • I will let go of…
  • I am grateful for …
  • I will focus on…

Then spend two minutes filling it out. (The average person is awake for 1000 minutes so it’s quite a high-leverage investment to strengthening your mind!)

What did I write down today?

  • I will let go of… worrying if my book will hit bestseller lists
  • I am grateful for … my 1-year-old son loving to brush my teeth
  • I will focus on… doing this interview for Daily Stoic

Why does it help?

On “I will let go of…”

Research published in Science magazine by the neuroscientists Stefanie Brassen and her colleagues backs up how healing it can be to reveal a tiny worry or anxiety. Their study, titled “Don’t Look Back in Anger!: Responsiveness to Missed Chances in Successful and Nonsuccessful Aging,” shows that minimizing regrets as we age creates greater contentment and happiness. The research also shows that holding on to regrets causes us to take more aggressive and risky actions in the future. So the healthiest and happiest people are aware of regrets they harbor and then choose to let them go.

On “I am grateful for . . .”

This is the Emmons and McCullough research I was referencing earlier. By forcing your brain to find little positives every day you’re training all those neural pathways to focus the right way. Our mind want to go to the negative! So we have to train and strengthen it each morning to look positive.

On “I will focus on…”

This is carving a tiny and achievable “will do” list from the endless “could do” and “should do” lists we all wake up with each day.

What books and writers have had the biggest influence on your thinking and how you live your life?

So many! I’ll share three that come to mind:

  • On The Shortness of Life by Seneca. There’s a reason I keep it permanently in my suitcase! An incredible mental zoom out that I read and reread. I already talked about this one.
  • The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb. Taught me that so much of life is random and the best we can often hope to do is broaden our chances for disproportionately huge ‘black swan’ opportunities. Said another way? Go to parties where you don’t know anyone. Throw a chip on every number before you spin the roulette wheel. Take small gambles over and over so that you fully open yourself up to the most That way, when something hits? You’re there! You’re ready. (Sidenote: This is why I started my podcast 3 Books. The show has no ads, no sponsors, no revenues. But it constantly puts me in conversations with people like, say, Malcolm Gladwell or David Sedaris or Ryan Holiday, which feel like black swan opportunities to learn and grow.)
  • How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid. A mindbending capitalistic novel written in second-person about the dangers of unfettered ambition. If you haven’t read anything by Mohsin Hamid, I recommend starting with The Reluctant Fundamentalist which is a super short and accessible read.

Could you leave the Daily Stoic community with one message or piece of advice? It could be a question to journal on, a philosophical practice to try, or just something to think about as they go about their day.

I love this question. Okay! Here’s a question to journal on:

Take 30,000 and subtract the number of days you’ve already lived. What number of days do you have left? What are two or three principles you want to live by over those days?

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