Neil Pasricha on Embracing Diverse Interests
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After 10 years of heading Leadership Development at Walmart, where he was responsible for CEO onboarding, executive development and intelligent management across all levels of the organization, Neil Pasricha now serves as director of the Institute for Global Happiness. He has dedicated the past 15 years of his life to developing leaders and creating global programs inside the world’s largest companies.
Listen in as Neil and I dive into:
- Why the overload of content is leading Neil to explore accessible wisdom.
- How to embrace diverse interests and gaps on your resumé and make them intriguing.
- The hard lesson of the 3S model of success.
- How to be more coach-like by pushing the “whys” a little deeper.
- Visit Neil’s website at GlobalHappiness.org.
- Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilPasricha.
- Check out Neil’s books on Amazon.com.
Michael: I’m Michael Bungay Stanier. This is the Coaching Habit podcast where I talk to cool people, writers, thinkers, leaders, managers, just people who I admire, and get them to share some of the insights and tactics that made their life powerful that they’ve used to manage themselves and they use to help others live lives of impact, doing great work whatever it might be.
I’m lucky enough to know some cool people. Some of them even live in my home town. This guest, Toronto fellow like me, Neil Pasricha. You may know him. He is a popular TED speaker. He’s done a couple of talks. His first TED Talk, ‘The 3 A’s of Awesome’ back in, I think, 2010, ranked as one of the ten most inspiring of all time. His second one, which is actually my favorite of the two, more recent called ‘How Do You Maximize Your Tiny Short Life?’ It’s a great provocative title. What I love about it is it’s the first TED listen. It’s not TED Talk but actually he asks questions the whole way through. Those of you who know me know how much I love a good question.
Neil has written five New York Times bestsellers, which I’m jealous of, really this phenomena called ‘The Book of Awesome’ which really took the world by storm. I love his latest book as well, which is called ‘The Happiness Equation’ and I’m pretty sure we’re going to get into that in this conversation.
Before he led the Institute of Global Happiness, full global happiness, which is what he does now, and makes a great impact in the world with his keynote speaking, Neil actually spent a decade running leadership development and working directly for two CEOs at Walmart, the world’s largest company. He was responsible for CEO onboarding, executive development, intelligent management across all levels of the organization.
Neil, my friend, how are you?
Neil Pasricha: I’m doing very well, Michael. How are you.
Michael: Very well. It wasn’t so long ago we were having a glass of wine together in one of the bars here in Toronto. This podcast immediately feels like a compromise on that but it’s going to have to be.
Neil Pasricha: Yeah it does. Well I love talking to you. You just buried me in lavish praise and, for all your listeners, every time we have talked for seven, eight years it’s been one of my favorite conversations. So I’m excited to chat.
Michael: I think you need to get out more often, would be my basis on that.
Neil Pasricha: Yeah, exactly.
Michael: We’ve talked about where you’ve come from, from Walmart, from the amazing success of ‘The Book of Awesome’ and the Awesome blog that it was based on. I’m curious to know: What’s the impact you’re seeking to have in your work these days? You know I talk about the different between good work and great work, great work: work that has more impact, work that has more meaning. How are you thinking of great work for you these days?
Neil Pasricha: Thanks, Michael. Well I can kind of boil it down to two words. First of all, these things evolve and they change. But the two words I’m dwelling on these days are called “accessible wisdom.” “Accessible wisdom.” I feel like I did that a bit with ‘The Book of Awesome.’ I did that when it comes to gratitude and observing positivity. Then with ‘The Happiness Equation’ I was trying my best to make the wisdom of happiness accessible. So I’m often think, and have been told by others, “This is your thing.”
You know? I’m not going to be the world’s best researcher. I’m not going to be the world’s best person delivering white paper…animations. What I’m going to be doing is being able to read a hundred of them and try to pull out the key messages. In this world of information overload, everything expanding at exponential rates, there’s just too much stuff. I mean, how many newsletters are you on?
Michael: Yeah, too many.
Neil Pasricha: I’m buried in, like, 17 a day. YouTube seems to want to feed me stuff, Google’s feeding me stuff, the newspapers are feeding me stuff, we are just drowning in information. Content can feel so accessible and so easy and so cheap; but good content, clear content, things that are story based, real-life based, practical based, I think, are harder and harder to find. So accessible wisdom is what I’m focusing on. The heroes in my world are people like Nassim Taleb, Black Swan, people like Tim Urban of ‘Wait But Why,’ people that are taking gigantic things and trying to put them in their own language. That’s what I’m hoping to continue to do.
Michael: What made the shift for you, or the refocus perhaps, from the whole focus around, which I know is still an ongoing thing for you, but moving into thinking about, and talking about, and making some of the science behind happiness more accessible?
Neil Pasricha: You know what’s funny? I read Gretchen Rubin’s new book a couple of nights ago, called ‘The Four Tendencies,’ and I loved it. I highly recommend it. It was amazing. I noticed on the back in the bio she described herself, Gretchen Rubin, as is one of the foremost authorities on human nature. I smiled when I read that because I’ve been blogger buddies with Gretchen for years, before the Happiness Project came out, before ‘The Book of Awesome’ came out. We were both plying our trade, trying to do these small little things, and she’s grown. She’s written books about habit. She’s written books about, now this book on tendencies, which is amazing. It’s beautiful. She’s just broader … She’s defined herself as the human nature, and I smiled because I was like “You know what? Maybe we reverse engineer our bios.” Right?
Michael: That’s right.
Neil Pasricha: You and me and everybody else, we just follow crazy random paths of interest and excitement where the bookstore might lead us, where a conversation might lead us, where the functions of time and interesting articles leads us, and then we’re, like, backwards trying to justify them into these squared LinkedIn profiles saying “Oh, and I’m the world’s foremost authority in positivity.”
That’s fine. I will answer to that label if people put it on me, but I wrestle with that question because it’s more malleable than that. Because it’s like, now it’s human nature, now it’s positivity, now it’s accessible wisdom, and if you ask me in five years, I’m going to be working on solving the world’s hunger problem. I don’t know. I let these interests lead me, but as long as we’re led by interests then I think that’s okay. We’re not trying to stuff ourselves into these narrow boxes so much. I want to have 12 different bios by the time I’m 50. What can I say.
Michael: I love that. There’s that Walt Whitman quote he’s so famous for: “I am composed of multitudes.” There is a sense that as we try and construct our professional selves in particular, how easy it is to hone that narrative so it feels like a single arc of destiny. I always think our lives are so much messier and so much more multi-faceted that it’s often a shame to diminish some of that.
You and I are both keynote speaker so we have that moment where we come onto stage and somebody introduces us. They have a pre-written introduction, and they say nice things about us. I just remember a quote from, I think it’s George Bernard Shaw, and it says something like “Never trust a man’s biography unless it’s filled with intrigue, disaster, and scandal.”
It’s so much more interesting to little rant about the power of having that diversity of interest.
Neil Pasricha: Yeah, and you’re good at doing them. I love your Amazon bio where you like “I got kicked out of school,” and “I got sued,” and all this stuff. I remember when I was coming up through school. They used to tell you “Oh be careful about gaps on your resume.” Do you remember this advice from 10, 20 years ago?
Neil Pasricha: It’s like “If you have the year off,” or “Blah, blah, blah,” really kind of hide it and be prepared to articulate how you were … You know? “Searching the Serengeti to help water …”
Neil Pasricha: You had to, like, put things around that. Now … I just did a bunch of interviewing myself, and now I’m most intrigued by those gaps. Right? Because I’m like “What did you do? Why? Why?” Then you get into the route of someone’s real personality, and that’s essentially what you’re hiring. So I say “Have lots of gaps in your resume and make them messy and interesting or weird,” because it’s the rise of the new poly math. People want others who are interested in tons of stuff, and ideally different than we are interested in so that we can learn from them.
Michael: Very nice. We’ve kind of been talking about this but there’s a quote you’ve heard me say before, and I’ll say it again because I love it so: “Inspiration is when your past suddenly make sense.” There’s that sense that looking back you can see the seeds of your future self, if you know where to look. I’m curious to know: What were one or two crossroads moments for you, moments where you’re like “Wow this has happened,” or “I’ve made this choice,” or “I’ve been put in this situation,” and in doing that things changed significantly for you?
Neil Pasricha: Yeah, I think … Do you remember that seen in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ where Andy Dufresne, the Tim Robbins character, is like … You know? He’s digging through the wall. By the way, spoiler alert for anyone who since 1993 has not seen ‘The Shawshank Redemption,’ but he gets out of jail and he … Then he … Then he’s through wall, and then he’s like-
Michael: Wait, what? Oh man.
Neil Pasricha: It is called ‘Redemption’ I guess in the title. He digs through the wall and eventually … Boom! There’s sunlight. You know? You kind of picture this guy after a year of digging through a clay wall, he gets out and that’s a beautiful moment. I think he’s, like, you know, rising up to the sky, the rain’s coming down him. Beautiful.
So I take your question as that sort of metaphor, that tipping point metaphor, of “When did things kind of bust through?” I used that example of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ because almost all of those moments in my life are when I’m just knocking on the same brick wall, or clay wall, for a thousand times till something pops.
I’ll give you two examples. These are what you asked me for. One is I read a book by Michael J. Rosen, ended by him, when I was a kid. It was called ‘Mirth of a Nation’ and it was filled with beautiful little essays, kind of like the New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs section, people like Dave Eggers, David Sedaris, Jon Stewart, Fran Lebowitz, stars of mine. At the back it says “If you want to submit your own mail them to me, Michael J. Rosen, at the Thurbur House,” you know? “American center of all great comedy,” or whatever.
Neil Pasricha: I submitted a couple of articles and they got published in the next book with other people of that stature. I’m not comparing myself to them but I was in the book with these guys. I loved that feeling because I’m like … My little funny articles I’m writing from my high school were suddenly selected by this editor to be put in this book that came out way before anything came out with my name on the cover. It was a proof point. I was like “I can get into this club.” An old boss of mine, CEO of Walmart Canada, used to always tell me: “You always think the geniuses are at the next level.” Full stop. Until you become a vice president you think “Well they’re all better than me.” Then you become an executive and you’re like “Well that’s where the real budget is.”
Michael: Yeah, exactly: “Now I see who’s the executive, obviously there not at this level so they must be at the next level.”
Neil Pasricha: Exactly. “These people are scum. Let me find the real geniuses.” That happened for me once and then the second time that happened for me was when my 20th blog post every, on 1000awesomethings.com … You know? Here I am writing about fat baseball players, and finding $5 in your coat pocket, and wearing warm underwear from out of the dryer … I’m writing these things to nobody, all right? My mom’s reading it, my dad’s reading it, maybe 10 of my friends are reading it. Then my 20th blog post ever gets picked up by fark.com. The dirty secret of course is that I submitted all my blog posts to fark.com and was the only they picked. But they picked it, they put it on the front page, and I got 50,000 hits that day. And it was enough of a readership change to be like “Oh, I can write to this public the size of a public audience.”
So these are extrinsic. I don’t love using these as examples because they’re things that happened to me rather than things I did. But being chosen to get into secret clubs was always nice, a little pat on the head. It helped me really, what the real issue is, gain confidence in myself. That was always the thing I was struggling with.
Michael: Yeah. There’s something about … It’s an interesting point … a fit place you point, which is around what’s extrinsic kind of happened to you. I do think there’s a way that you can make collecting the medals the things and, if so, you spend your whole life trying to collect the next medal. But then also I, you’re saying that collecting this medal is actually a way of reaffirming or maybe confirming something about who you can be so it can actually … It’s impacted actually internal, even though you get the shiny medal as well.
Neil Pasricha: Yeah. You don’t want to be the 60-year-old high school football player with the room full of trophies in their attic.
Neil Pasricha: What you want to do is take that trophy you get and use it as internal juice, some nitro, to just fire you up and be like “I can do this. Now what else can I do?” Then continue to get closer and closer to your truer passions, and let those continue to help you fly. I point at those two breakthroughs because they’re real but now, hopefully, I need less of those to do what I do.
Michael: So moving from those moments of crossroads moments, which were success moments for you, one of the things I’m always curious about, particularly with people who’ve had success … It’s very easy to look at you, for instance, Neil, and project a whole bunch of stuff about the great life you have, the way successes seem to come so easily and so early to you, all of that. But what I know from hanging out with people like you, and everybody, is that we all fight our own fights. And as I become more, if you like, self-aware of who I am I recognize that there are just constantly lessons I have to keep learning about myself. There are just patterns that I’m probably destined to repeat my entire life. Even if I’m doing it in more subtle and different ways, it’s the same basic pattern. I’m curious with you, as you reflect on yourself and your life, what’s the hard lesson you’ve had to learn or maybe you’ve had to keep learning?
Neil Pasricha: Fantastic question as always. There are lots and I would never put myself on a pedestal as someone who is doing everything right. I’m not even close to doing half of things right. I took the compost bag of garbage out this morning and cracked it. It cracked open on the side of the can and went down my leg. I ran to do this podcast. I’m, like … You know? I’m sweating through the pouring rain. You know? It’s been a hard day. I feel a lot of objection.
Here’s the thing. I think I shared it with you, a story, personally but not with your listeners, about how I went down to New York City recently. I was all excited because I did this non-profit-
Michael: Yes. You did tell me this story, yeah.
Neil Pasricha: Yeah. So let me share it with your listeners. I did this non-profit speech for this organization I really believe in called the Shine Movement. Those of you listening that are in LA or New York or London, I highly recommend getting on the mailing list for the Shine Movement because they just do great work like walk-ins and team. Awesome job. I go down to do this and I’m like “Oh I’ll just schedule five interesting meetings around this while I’m in New York City. My publisher’s there. One of my speaking agencies is there, a talent agency’s there. I’m sure the podcast people at Slate want to meet with me because we’ve been talking about this idea for a podcast.
You know what? I struck out on every meeting, like, literally they’re all busy. I’m like “Do you realize I’m in New York one day? Come on guys. Help me out.” But like “Sorry, we can make it. We can’t make it. We can’t make it.” I’m like that’s so much failure goes into that. So I go back to my three S’s model of success. This is a hard lesson. I think success actually rests on a triangle. There are three S’s on it:
There is social success. This is ‘Moonlight’ winning best picture. Okay? It’s critical love. It’s reviewed in the New York Times Book review. It’s getting praise from peers. Okay?
Then there is sales success. The first one’s social, the second one’s sales. This is Furious 7, that made $400 million at the box office but will never win the best picture. By the way, ‘Moonlight’ made $18 million. So it’s like, you see, you can’t have both and sales success is ‘The Book of Awesome’ shipping a million copies, dump truck of royalties gets backed into your driveway, and it all sounds good.
Then there’s self success. Self success is “How do you feel about yourself? Are you happy building a deck in your backyard for three months because it’s going to be awesome and you’re going to host barbecues?” That’s fine. You’re never going to sell that thing but it’s self-success. Same with baking a cake, planning a lesson, things you do for yourself, or finding meaningful insight into yourself, however you do that.
Neil Pasricha: The hard lesson for me is remembering that you can’t have all three of them, and being choiceful about which one I’m picking for which project. I may want my next book to be a sales success. I’m okay to admit that to you and to people, but I also may … You’d mentioned the Ted Listen. That didn’t go anywhere. I did it for me. I did that one because I wanted to go through a six-month journey of coming up with the best questions I could, and that was the Ted Listen that a handful of people watched. Right?
Neil Pasricha: That’s fine. But I have to be constantly remembering that not everything needs to be a hit, as defined by sales, and certainly I have to be more articulate about what I’m actually wanting.
Michael: I love that. It’s a perfect segue to the next question I want to ask you. We could dig into this because it’s such a rich topic, but just … I’m keeping my eye on the ticking clock. The final question I love to ask in this podcast series is when you’re helping someone, when you’re giving them guidance, when you’re in a place to being a coach, or coach-like, or just a friend, or a mentor, or a colleague, whatever it might be … I’m curious if there is a tool, or a process, or a model, or a resource that you keep coming back to. You’ve already shared a great one, which is the 3S model. But is there another one that’s a favorite of yours that you’re like “I pull this out of my pocket all the time,” because it seems to have a constant universal impact?
Neil Pasricha: Great question. You know what’s funny is that when I first heard this question, you told me you were going to ask me this, I was like “Man, I’m a real jerk. I don’t coach anyone.” I was like “I don’t help a single person. I’m going to have to fake this one because I don’t help a person.”
Then I thought about all my years in HR at Walmart and, if I’m honest, I probably interviewed, I don’t know, 250 people or more. Those are 45 minute to one hour interviews in a Walmart buying room, which if you haven’t seen it is like a bare bones square room with crappy lawn chairs in it. You sit across from someone face to face. You’ve never met them before, chances are good you won’t see them again, and you have to try to see if they’re a fit, or enough of a fit that you move them forward.
So there’s a lot of, I think, quiet coaching that happens there. The biggest thing I would do is say “Well why are you applying for this job?” Let’s say the job was called director of merchandising for toys, say the person’s going to be buying a lot of toys. They’d be like:
“Well I worked 10 years at Mattel and that became my specialty.” I’m like “But why?” Here’s what I do. I’m like “But why do you want to do this job?”
“Well I think I bring a lot to the table.”
“Okay, fine, but why do you want to do this job? What is it about this job that you want?”
Then they’re like:
“Well I played with toys a lot when I was a kid.” Then they kind of … You know? They go slower and if you did it right, then their eyes start to roll into the top of their heads. There’s a little longer pause, and then if you can just push another extra “why” or two without being, kind of … You have to walk the fine line of not being too oppressive. You know what I mean? You can’t push them too hard, but if you can be like “Why do you think that?” You almost always get to one of two places.
This is the beautiful thing. You get to the place where they have a really deep inner drive to do this, and it’s amazing, and it’s explosive, and they can so define it, and they can hit that part. Or they realize it’s kind of empty in the middle and there’s no real reason why they want this job, and the beautiful thing is you don’t want to hire that person. Second of all, they don’t even know if they want the job anymore. So they walk out in a bit of a daze and be like-
Michael: “What happened?”
Neil Pasricha: …Throw my application into the Local Transit Commission, or whatever I want to do. The point is if you just have the patience to push those “whys” a little deeper, you can get below the pretenses and ideally hit a geyser of passion or a vat of emptiness.
Michael: Yeah. I love that. I’ve heard that process called the ladder of inference, the five whys question. It’s funny, in the Coaching Habit book I’m like “Don’t ask why. It’s not a great question,” and I stand by that. Particularly in day to day conversations if you’re a manager or a leader, asking why can actually often put people a little bit on the defensive. But I think in a conversation like this it is so powerful for getting down to just a core basic insight, a fundamental truth, and I think that’s a really powerful coaching tool.
So, Neil, thank you. And thank you for this conversation. People are going to want to find out more about you so where should they go? Where would they look to find you wherever?
Neil Pasricha: Everything I’m doing is at globalhappiness.org. It’s got links to my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, books, everything like that, so globalhappiness.org is probably the one-stop shop.
Michael: Perfect. I’m just going to give a shout out. Neil talked about “Oh man, I’ve got too many newsletters.” I get Neil’s newsletter about the books he’s reading. He just basically goes “I’ve read a bunch of books this month,” because he’s a voracious reader, “Here are the books I liked. Here’s why.” I’d encourage people to, if you’re a reader, sign up for that because it’s well worth getting Neil’s perspective on. These are the books to get your head into.
Neil, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you, my friend.
Neil Pasricha: Thank you so much, Michael.