Here is the transcription of my interview with Oliver Burkeman. For more context, please read my blog entry introducing this interview.
Steve Shapiro: Hi, this is Steve Shapiro and I am thrilled today to have with me on the phone Oliver Burkeman who is the author of an absolutely awesome book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. So I’m thrilled to have you here because I’ve got to say, I read a lot of books and most of them don’t wow me and this is one which actually wowed me.
Oliver Burkeman: Oh, I’m very happy to hear that. Thank you so much.
SS: Yeah. And we’re not going to have time to go through all of the book but there are just some awesome concepts in here that I do want to dig into. If you’re not going to focus on positive thinking, I don’t think you’re advocating focus on negative thinking. How would you summarize it in sort of a nutshell?
OB: Well my starting point in this book is really just the idea that we have come to hugely overvalue these kinds of positive thinking techniques whether it’s, you know, visualizing success or setting ambitious goals or repeating affirmations to motivate yourself. Not that these things are always terrible. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But often all these efforts to try to feel happy and be successful are the very things that sabotage our attempts and that we can actually be trying too hard to be happy in that respect. So I look at a lot of different traditions and philosophy and approaches in psychology and business that all having in common I think this idea that we need to learn another skill, which is to turn towards uncertainty, to sometimes go forward without clear goals something you know and have written about. To embrace pessimism, failure, even, you know, the fact that we’re all going to die in the end, that we actually need to stop running all the time away from confronting these things and that actually it can be very fruitful for happiness but also for success in working elsewhere to be able to turn towards those things. So it is negative thinking in a way but it is a rebalancing rather than a rejection of one for the other.
SS: Right. It sort of reminds me of something which yeah, I mean in Buddhism they all talk about being present or maybe they don’t talk about it in Buddhism but the concept of being present, like actually being aware of what is, is I think really useful. You know, I’ve always been a believer that if I’m feeling bad about something instead of trying to feel good about it, sometimes the best thing I can do is sort of embrace that yuckiness and actually dig deeper into it. Somehow in the process of just allowing yourself to feel really crappy, I feel great out the other side. I mean is that sort of what you’re talking about?
OB: Yeah, it’s definitely, definitely closely related. I think one of the big problems with certainly traditional approaches to positive thinking is that they are not really about being happy. They are about squelching negativity. You know, they’re about trying to deny the reality of feelings that are not the ones that you desire to have the most. Then, yeah, I think that that sort of acceptance that is a very strong thread in Buddhism as you say is definitely part of it partly because you’ll be happier at the other end but also because even just being present with a negative emotion is a lot better than being locked in also come back with it, you know. I mean if you’re going to feel bad it’s better to just feel bad instead of also feeling bad about feeling bad. Does that makes sense?
SS: [Laughs] That actually makes a lot of sense in a sort of a scary way. This is actually probably a good segue into one of the concepts that you talk about, which I thought was really interesting is the whole stoicism. I loved that chapter first of all because it’s the antithesis in many respects of positive thinking but there is also just so much, I don’t know, it felt like freedom to me in reading that chapter. So can you just talk a little bit about, you know, what you think most people need to take away from the concept of stoicism and how they might apply it?
OB: Yeah, I’ll do my best. I mean this obviously goes back to Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius ancient Greek and Roman thinkers. Their sort of starting point actually seems almost to echo some of positive thinking, which is this idea that it is our beliefs about what happens in the world that distress us or that make us happy rather than the events themselves. You know, this is not necessarily news to anyone but the usual response to that I think in our culture today is then to say well therefore you’ve got to have the most upbeat beliefs that you possibly can in every situation because then you’ll feel good and be successful.
What I take away from stoicism is actually just knowing that there this little stage of beliefs about the world. Even if you don’t then turn them into happy belief, it’s an incredibly empowering and liberating insight because it enables you to choose to some extent not to be as hugely distressed or worried that you might otherwise be when things go wrong.
And they took this to some fairly extreme limits. You know, one of the techniques from stoicism that I love is called the premeditation of evils, which you might also think of as negative visualization instead of positive visualization. Picturing not how well things could go but how badly they could go and this is related to what modern psychologists talk about the defensive pessimism. You know, for a lot of people the real way to get rid of anxiety and be able to push forward to do interesting, scary new things is not to try constantly to convince yourself they’re going to work out and be perfect, but to actually think through the stages of how bad it would be if they didn’t work out. Because then usually you realize well okay it would be bad but it wouldn’t be like a nuclear war. Where actually I think we go through a lot of life assuming that if things went wrong, it would be absolutely catastrophic and it’s very useful to play through those scenarios and figure out that they would be bad, sure they wouldn’t be fun but it wouldn’t be catastrophic. And so that was sort of behind some of the exercises that I put myself through in that chapter on stoicism.
SS: And here’s what I love about this book is it blends sort of three different things. One is you’ve got a lot of science in there, a lot of great just stories and anecdotes of other people but then you also put yourself through a lot of this stuff. I mean one of the things you talked about was when you’re on the tube in London shouting out the names of the stops. And knowing you, I got to say I literally laughed out loud while reading that because I could not picture you doing that and I could also picture myself doing it and I was cringing.
OB: It’s awful. This comes from a psychologist called Albert Ellis. He basically developed it out of stoicism. He said if you have a big problem with embarrassment, which like all good British people I do, you should embarrass yourself deliberately and see what happens. One of the suggestions that he had, he applied this to the New York City subway but I did it on the London Underground, was to sit in the train car and just before each station approaches speak out loud the name of the station. Now I’m not going to tell you that I shouted it because that would be a step too far even for me. But I did speak out loud. The interesting thing about it is the way you think about it in advance it’s absolutely horrifying.
When you do it and you bring your beliefs into a direct encounter with reality, it’s still pretty horrible but it isn’t as horrifying as you thought it was going to be. Because you do this and a couple of people look at you like you’re crazy but you don’t get arrested, you don’t explode, you know, you’re not attacked with knifes. It’s a real kind of exercise in cutting your anxiety about the future down to size and seeing that, as Albert Ellis like to say, the worst thing about any future situation is almost always your exaggerated belief in its horror. And there’s something very empowering about that knowing that not only that things might go right but actually that if they went wrong, you’d cope.
SS: There’s the distinction that you had in there between something which is sort of bad and undesirable, and as you just said, something that is catastrophic. I think being able to distinguish that for one’s self is probably a pretty useful thing. Now how does this fit in with the “fake it ‘til you make” it type of belief that some people have which is – is it different, is it the same, I mean it feels different.
OB: I think that is related. You know, I think I have good and bad things to say, all good and bad opinions myself I guess about the idea of faking it until you make it. There’s definitely some ways in which that I think can be an unhelpful thing for people to sort of pretend to be full of good cheer when they’re feeling terrible inside. So I think that is a helpful thing or a fun way to live. But I do think that there’s a lot of value in this idea that you don’t actually need to feel like doing something in order to do it. I think if you look at a lot of the culture of motivational work, motivational speaking, you may disagree with some of this I don’t know. I’ll be interested to find out. But actually a lot of these techniques all do with not taking the action that you need to take but putting you in the right frame of mind to take that action. Making you feel like you want to do it.
One of the things, this is actually more related to Buddhism I think, but it was really interesting for me in the course of writing this book partly because it actually enabled me to overcome procrastination and get the book written is this realization that you don’t need to feel like doing something before you can act. You can just say okay, I don’t feel like this. I have lots of feelings of reluctance or fear or annoyance or whatever and at the same time without trying to get rid of them or change them, but at the same time I am also going to write a thousand words today because I know it needs to be done.
So there is a kind of great benefit I think in adding to your motivational techniques, the sort of anti-motivational technique, the realization that you don’t necessarily need to feel motivated before you can take action. Does that make sense?
SS: Absolutely. I got to say when I read that, it was sort of like a light bulb that went off because I keep on in some respects waiting for, like with gym, you know, I’m a person who doesn’t like to go to the gym. Just not my favorite thing. But I have some friends of mine they love to go to the gym but they tell me also there’s days where they really, really, really don’t want to go to the gym and they still go to the gym anyway.
SS: And that’s why they are in the shape that they’re in and they have the health that they have and I keep on waiting for this divine inspiration for me to say, “Yes, I now really want to go.” I think that’s probably one of the mistakes that I and others make is, just as you pointed out, waiting for that inspiration and needing to be pumped up to do something rather than just doing it.
OB: Right. And let me say I haven’t got to the end of reporting and writing this book and suddenly become perfected all these things myself. But it has been really helpful. I think somebody phrased it in a way that really resonated with me. You don’t have to want to go to the gym. You have to decide to go to the gym. You’re just making a decision and that kind of decision can be a very mundane thing. It’s just a question of moving your legs in the right direction out the door to the gym. It’s actually a lot less of a challenge in many ways than transforming your inner experience. That’s a much bigger deal and actually you just don’t need to worry about it.
SS: Right. There’s so much research out there… and another Brit that I like, Richard Wiseman, I don’t know if you have crossed paths with him before.
OB: Yes, I have.
SS: I love his stuff. I’ve seen him speak several times, read many of his books and I just read a little blurb in a magazine, I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it’s Richard quoting a study which basically said that people who don’t feel happy, if they just smile for a period of time, it would actually impact their emotions and they would start to feel happy. How does something like that fit in with what you found? And I’ll also give you just another thought which comes to my mind, it sounds like there’s a lot of different things which could work – either focusing on positive, focusing on negative. Maybe it’s all contextual, maybe it’s individual, maybe different techniques work for different people.
OB: Well that last point I think is always really important to remember. I think that there’s a terrible plague in anything that is related to self-help or personal development of saying, this is do only way to do it because it worked for me or this is the plan that will work for everyone in every place. Maybe all my book is in some ways is just to sort of the other side of the coin and people will want to take a few things from it and stick with some of the more traditional ones they already have and that’s totally fine by me. I think it’s really important to always stay as the reader in the driving seat, you know, and choose what makes sense to you rather than buy into somebody’s whole store of thought.
The study you talked about that Richard mentioned and that he talks about in I think his latest book is an idea that’s called facial feedback as I understand it, which is that the relationship between the body and the mind goes in both directions. So it’s not only that you feel happy and then you smile but also that to some extent if you smile, it will have the effect of making you feel happy. This is true. It has been backed up in some good peer reviewed studies as I understand it.
I think I might dissent a little bit in a nice, civil friendly British way from Richard, and say that I can see that that might be useful for a little pick me up here or there. I tend to feel that it still is just a different path to the same goal of transforming your emotions in a positive way and that actually I do think there’s some real power in that sort of stepping aside from that goal. Admittedly I guess I’m also talking about ways to be happy and successful. So it all ends up in the same place ultimately. But I do think that one of the things he talks about is this idea of forget positive thinking and try positive action. I think that that’s a really good way of thinking about it. Not necessarily smiling to make ourselves feel happy, but just doing the things that you know you want to do in your life and sort of having some faith that the good emotions will follow.
But, you know, if you think about it, it gets a bit philosophical. Even if they didn’t, if it’s the thing you know you want to be doing then you should probably do it anyway.
SS: Sounds like good advice.
SS: I find all this just so fascinating because it just shows also how complex we are as human beings.
SS: And we can look at it from a lot of different perspectives and I’m actually going to jump to one of the last parts of the book. The stoicism is in the early part, I want to dig into the failure chapter…the museum of failure and embracing errors. And the reason I want to go here now is because I think it’s still very relevant to the conversation that we just had when you were talking about, in the book, you talked about survival bias and the under sampling of bad situations or failed situations. And to me, I’ve always been a believer that any person who tells you why they were successful, even if they believe they’re telling the truth, still does not know the truth. And so to me this is just really fascinating. If you can just comment on this chapter in its totality, but maybe even just dig a little bit into this whole concept of the survivor bias and what that means and why it probably leads us to make some pretty bad decisions.
OB: Sure. I opened this chapter at a wonderful place, which has become known as, although they don’t like the name themselves, the Museum of Failed Products in Michigan, which is a huge private consumer research collection of products that didn’t make the cut. There are a few successes in there as well. But the point about this is that simply that if you collect as the original founder did a sample of everything that is released in the supermarket shelves, eventually you’re going to have almost entirely failures because almost all products fail. It’s just the probabilities of the game.
That basic idea, that most things fail and most of the time we don’t put them in museums, we just forget about them is a really powerful insight I think when you apply it to the world. Because then you see for example that, yeah, you may study a hundred multimillionaires and find that they all have some personality characteristic in common, but if you’re then going to say that that personality characteristic, maybe it’s frugality, helps you become a millionaire, you’re ignoring the fact that you didn’t also study countless other people who have the same characteristic but they never became multi-millionaires so they weren’t part of your sample.
Again as I say in the book, and as you say, even very well known entrepreneurs who write autobiographies explaining the secrets of their success, even if they are sincere, they don’t necessarily know those secrets because they only have one life to live. They didn’t run parallel versions of their lives where they had different personality characteristics. So for someone to say, well I had a willingness to take risks and I got up early and I did this or I did that and it made me a billionaire, you can never know that there aren’t lots of people who did the same things as well and didn’t.
Plus there’s just the factor of luck that I think is very, very difficult for all of us as humans, whether we have some success in our lives, to accept the extraordinarily large role that luck might play. It’s easy to blame luck when things go wrong but quite tricky to see that some of the advantages and the successes that we have might be luck based. So there’s this huge bias built into the whole of the way we think about success and the causes of success that just comes from the fact that failures fall into obscurity, we don’t like to think about failures. You don’t really feel like it’s worth your while to spend a few hours reading a book by someone who was a catastrophic failure and they probably wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to write the book in the first place. So there’s this kind of very great distortion I think in how we about success and failure.
SS: And there’s something you said that I thought was really just profound and I’m still thinking about it. There were quite a few things but this one just really had me thinking which is, you know, the conventional wisdom around failure is that it is an opportunity to learn and to help you be successful. But you said in there something to the effect of that sometimes failure is just freeing on its own regardless of whether or not it’s a stepping stone to success. Can you just expand on that a little bit more? Because to me it is a really profound concept.
OB: Yeah. This is sort of like the next level. After the explaining, the stuff that I just talked about in that chapter and then at the end sort of tried to pull the rug a little bit even from all that and say that, yeah, I think that – and this is an idea that is found in a lot of British writing and other spiritual writing – once you have failed or once you are in a situation of failure, there is a certain kind of relaxation because success to a certain extent is about clinging on constantly to the cliff ledge, if you like to use a metaphor, and then failure is about having fallen. The Zen writer Natalie Goldberg I quote, refers to Zen as the great failure. It’s this sort of idea that downfall is very authentic and freeing and brings you to the ground.
I’m not sure I am completely signed on to this. I’m not sure that if you offer me the opportunity tomorrow to lose everything, I don’t know, in fact I know I wouldn’t accept it. It’s a really hard idea but I do think that there is something in being able to just sort of perhaps with smaller failures it’s more feasible to sort of smile wryly at the fact that things didn’t work out not just always be thinking how can this lead to my next success but be okay with those downsides. Certainly if you think about old friends or colleagues or family, when things sort of went a bit wrong in some way, that’s often as much the source of the kind of fond memories to look back on as the great successes. I think anyway.
SS: I think sometimes your failures, or let’s not even call them failures, but the negative situations that you have in your life, are the greatest catalysts for change. Without it being necessarily lesson of learning. So it could be you get a heart attack.
SS; it was a heart attack but then it’s always funny if you talk to people who had some kind of the situation where they lost their job or they came down with a debilitating disease, somehow it just fundamentally shifted their outlook on life and what mattered and what was important and —
SS: It’s not so much a learning from it. “Okay, I’ve had a heart attack and I need to eat healthy,” but it just changes your perspective on stuff.
OB: Right. It’s that clarifying sense. It’s not that you necessarily take specific lessons from what’s happened to you and it’s that you understand more clearly what you understood all along about what really mattered in terms of how you want to spend your limited time.
SS; So with that it seems like a good segue to go into the last one, which I want to talk about, which is of course going to be my favorite, because that is in fact how we met. You may recall, Oliver, that several years ago in the Guardian, you wrote a review of another book, a book on goal setting and I don’t remember the exact word but you said something to the effect of that it was the most stress inducing book you ever read in your life. And then the last paragraph was something to the effect of that if you want to read Goal-Free Living by Steve Shapiro. Somebody in England sent it over to me and I contacted you, and that’s how we got connected. So obviously, the chapter on goals is going to be one which I’m excited to talk about with you, and I just loved what you had to say in there. So maybe you can just give a few thoughts on your perspective; what you’ve seen on goals and their usefulness or not usefulness.
OB: Sure. Let me say that my perspective is significantly informed by yours. So I’ll be interested if you do disagree in some ways, because I think it’s partly grown after reading your writing on that. I think that there’s sort of different strands to this argument. Partly it’s just to do with the idea that we really can over pursue goals. We can cling too tightly to goals and they can distort corporate or individual missions in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Then the other strand I think again goes sort of deeper and suggest that maybe we could benefit from a certain context anyway dispensing with them entirely.
I won’t try to tell the whole story, but (in the book) I begin that section looking at the 1996 Mt. Everest mountaineering disaster when a huge number of climbers died and nobody could really explain why. Looking at the work of the fascinating management scholar called Chris Kayes who basically using other psychological work among mountaineers and others, concludes in a partly speculative way I think you‘d agree, that what seems to have happened that year on Everest is that the goal that the climbers had of reaching the summit, obviously, became such a fundamental part of their identity that they were actually willing to pursue it beyond the limits of what was wise.
And that is obviously very extreme, life or death situation. But by analogy I think that there is the same psychological phenomenon that kicks in all over the place. Once you’ve committed to something, not only do you keep committing harder to it even once you may be ought to consider not doing, but negative information you get about why it’s a bad idea gets reinterpreted into reasons to stick with it even harder. So I think that’s a real case for the idea of holding your goals loosely not necessarily dispensing with them, but be able to stay open and loose enough to pursue other directions and to hear really whether the information you’re getting suggest that you should stick with them… or not.
The other side of it is this idea, which I think is probably very in tune with what you wrote in that book, is learning to be okay with feelings of uncertainty. Learning to be okay without really knowing exactly where you’re going, is a tremendously powerful thing when it comes to actually achieving interesting and innovative things. There’s been some fascinating work among entrepreneurs and other suggesting that actually this idea of sort of stubbornly sticking to a five-year business plan, this is not what people do when they achieve significant success. What they do is they manage to be okay with that kind of butterflies in the stomach sense that they don’t know much about the direction that they’re headed in. So that’s the overview.
SS: Yeah, and this fits in nicely with the other chapter we just talked about with failure, because we talked about survival bias but we didn’t talk about confirmation bias. And I think what happens in many cases is we get so attached to our goals, to our ideas, and that confirmation bias kicks in, and then regardless of – there’s just so many studies on this – that the brain is amazing at filtering out the things which don’t support our belief structure.
So if we get negative information, we will basically ignore it and keep on plowing forward and so, in your chapter on failures, my guess is a lot of them just became so wed to their ideas of their goals that they were blinded to any evidence that these were just bad things to do. I think that’s why a lot of – in the world of innovation, just tying it to back to what a lot of people who are going to listen to this are interested in – is, we always talk about the “yeah but” as the enemy of innovation but actually the “wow this is a great idea” is an equally dangerous thing because we get attached to things and knowing what to kill is really important.
OB: Right. Absolutely. I was just reading the other day, I mean it’s four to five years old now, but Peter Drucker’s famous book The Effective Executive which prefigures an awful lot of the wisdom in the decades since, I think, where he talks about the ways these missions and these goals get sort of embedded into organizations where people are effectively failing out the path. They are sometimes doing things if they thought about it, you, they’re doing it for the ego of the manager who doesn’t even work there anymore or there’s all these kind of logics get baked in. And then yes, as you say confirmation bias I think kicks in hugely. You see what you want to see, and you not only don’t see that it’s all going to go wrong, sometimes, and you want to give it, up. But you actually also don’t see bigger, better, more interesting opportunities because, I think I’m quoting you, opportunity knocks but sometimes very quietly.
OB: have to be willing to hear that, not to be so focused on the future that you don’t.
SS: Yes. And sometimes opportunity is banging on the door and you’re complaining to your neighbors about the noise. [Laughs]
OB: Yeah exactly.
SS: I have to say it was really interesting the timing of reading your book was perfect because this is around the time of the year where, and I talked about this in Goal-Free Living, that instead of having New Year’s resolutions, I’ll have a New Year’s theme which is basically a word or an expression that describes the game I want to play for that year.
And I started to think about what my theme would be for 2013. I’ve been doing so many different things and I’m working on so many different paths and there’s been this lack of certainty as to which path to go down – How do I move things? And how do I go into a different direction? – that I was going to have “clarity” as my theme. Then what was just so fascinating is that I was reading the part where you quote me, where I’m advocating this lack of clarity. And I got to realize that somehow I was getting caught up in that I had to have the answer. I was forgetting even what I believed at times. And that has become a source of stress for me, feeling as though I should have an answer, as opposed to being comfortable with things unfolding naturally. I feel actually relieved by not needing clarity.
OB: Yeah. Go back and read that Steve Shapiro book.
OB: I think you’re absolutely right and I also think that it amuses me also because part of the experience of writing this book, The Antidote, has been a continual need to relearn the things that I’m putting into that book. I think that actually that is hopefully part of the attitude that I try to convey in this is that being okay with imperfection includes being okay with imperfection when it comes to embracing imperfection. If you know what I mean. It’s like even the things that I’m talking about here, I fall off the wagon all the time but being okay with falling off the wagon is part of the point. So I can always use a reminder of the things that I wrote just to a few months ago.
SS: Yes, and it’ll be interesting to see, when you come up with the second edition. Especially with the epilogue where you talk about sort of where you’ve gone with all this and what your thoughts are, I’ll be curious to see how you adjust that. I do want to come back to the epilogue in a moment, but I do want to close out the chapter on goals just a bit, because it is interesting how it ties together a number of different pieces and maybe this is just my confirmation bias saying, “Hey the goal chapter is like the gold chapter.” But, it’s interesting because one of the beliefs that I’ve always held is that expectation is the source of almost all, if not all, dissatisfaction and disappointment in life. And the whole positive thinking ties into that, and the goal setting ties into that, and I think it even leads to some of the failure concepts. What’s your thought on that point of view?
OB: I think there’s a lot of truth in it. I think as we’ve often concluded some of these international happiness studies that always find that Danish people are the happiest on earth, or whatever, that it’s because they have modest expectations of life. One thing I run into talking about this book is some people who say, are you just saying that you should just expect much out of life. And I don’t think my conclusion is quite that bleak. I think that it’s something more to do with how you hold those expectations. It’s to do with not clinging to them. I think that some real hardcore Buddhist would probably say it’s about having no expectations. Not about having low ones, not about being resigned to a bad situation, not about staying in a work or relationship situation that you shouldn’t be staying in. But not being so angled into the future all the time. I think that’s what it is, not leaning so obsessively into how things are supposed to be at some point that isn’t now, that your whole life passes you by.
So it’s definitely through being conscious of what role expectations are playing in your life. I don’t think it needs to go to the point of just accepting that everything sucks. I think it’s actually in fact, it’s what I call in parts of the book, the negative part of happiness is a totally uplifting and happy thing. It’s not gloomy at all but it does involve a different path that does involve going through a lot more of the things we usually think of and write off as being negative.
SS: It’s interesting because you’ve talked a little bit about the Buddhism there and it sort of circles around to the whole concept of attachment.
OB: It is.
SS: I guess my thought is that it’s not so much having expectations or future aspirations or any of those things that’s necessarily bad. It’s sort of our attachment to it. I got some great advice from someone many, many years ago while I was writing the book. I was struggling with the attachment thing because what I realized is I wanted what I wanted and I couldn’t not want what I wanted. His suggestion was that in order to detach from something else, which might be something that you don’t want, the best thing you can do is attach yourself to something of a higher purpose and ideally something in the present moment. So for example in sales, instead of attaching yourself to the goal of the sale, attach yourself to serving the customer. Or when I try to stop drinking Diet Coke instead of trying to stop drinking diet Coke, I just decided, what I’ll do, is I’ll attach myself to drinking more water. And then if I wanted Diet Coke, I’ll have a Diet Coke. But I actually reduced my Diet Coke (consumption) massively overnight by just focusing on the water. So it just sort of feels like there are ways of shifting expectation not eliminating them, and not eliminating the goals, but actually shifting things to something that’s maybe that serves others or that is higher purpose.
OB: Absolutely. The shape of that argument you’re making connects to the thinking on habit change as well. What you’ve got to is find a different way of meeting the same need. If you’re eating junk food, it’s not good to just say you’re going to eat healthy food. You’ve got to figure out what it is that eating the junk food is giving you, and find a healthier way of meeting that need. So this all connects. I’m sure that there are Buddhist Monks with many decades of meditation behind them who would simply say, don’t attach to anything at all, but for the rest of us there’s all sorts of very practical ways that you can harness your natural tendency to want to attach to things, to want to have goals, to want to look to the future. But doing it in sort of conscious ways, like reaching out to other people, and that are in some sense higher and that are ultimately a lot more fulfilling.
SS: So what I’d like to do is close with the epilogue. I was waiting, as I was getting to the epilogue, I was hoping you would answer a question that was on my mind and you did. But time has passed since you wrote the book and so I’m curious as to whether or not your answer is different. Which is, what are the things that you’ve taken on in your life, whether they’re practices, habits or rituals but things that are in the book that you’re doing differently now, that you think have been most impactful? Because obviously at the end of the day each person will have different things that resonate with them and that’s the great thing with a book like this is it’s not everything that’s going to work. But I’m just curious for you what has worked, what are the areas where you’ve really seen the greatest impact and the things you want to continue to do?
OB: One of the not necessarily the most original of answers but one of them is the mindfulness meditation. I write in the book about going on a silent retreat and I do try to integrate that into my day. I don’t pretend that I do it absolutely faultlessly or every single day but that I think is – well there’s all sorts of benefits and obviously there’s all sorts of spiritual perspectives on it – but I think on the most mundane terms, that is just a very good brain exercise for being aware of what’s going on in your mind, and therefore being able to not always be carried off on unhelpful ways by stress or anxiety or thinking all the time about the future. So that’s literally just 15 or 20 minutes breath following in the morning.
Perhaps even more mundanely, the worst-case scenario thinking, the premeditation of evil. That’s something I use all the time. On almost any day if I find myself feeling stressed because I’m running to an appointment, or worrying about some piece of some article I’m writing if it’s going to be good enough for what’s required, whatever like that. It’s incredibly useful to just think in calm stoic terms…What’s the actual worst thing that could happen if this doesn’t work out. Then you know, you stop rushing quite so fast for the airplane or whatever, because you think well it would be bad but it wouldn’t be actually as catastrophic as my nervous system seems to believe at the moment. So that’s another very important thing.
And then another one, I guess, is just that question when it comes to bigger decisions, when it comes to making life or work/money decisions, to just be aware of the fact that I think we make them a lot of the time in order to eliminate the feeling of uncertainty rather than because they are the wisest decision for us at that point in our lives. But we’ll actually make some kind of move in life I can’t think of an example. But just in order to get rid of the butterflies in the stomach, and to actually realize that and to say well actually you know, maybe I need to take the decision that gives me more butterflies in the stomach is a really powerful thing. As I said earlier, I only get anything done as a writer by reminding myself that I don’t need to feel like doing it before I can do it. Otherwise I would get far less done.
SS: I’ve got to say this was fantastic. I mean the book was great. This interview was excellent. I love your perspectives on this, and again one of the things which I really liked is, you traveled a lot of places for this book and you met a lot of people and experienced a lot of things. It was just such a well-written book that has that dry sense of humor that you have, which I loved. And it’s a book, which I really, really would recommend to anyone and fortunately a lot of friends of mine are getting the book on my recommendation and I hope many, many more do, because it’s just a great book.
OB: I am very, very grateful for that and for your thoughts and for your “goal-free” processes that form part of it’ so thank you.
SS: Well thank you and I look forward to our getting together again sometime soon.
OB: I hope so. Thanks very much.