1 Big Idea to Think About

  • When we write our own life story, we can focus on the things that matter to us and live our lives in a way that builds true success and satisfaction.

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Ask (and answer) the questions Bruce proposes to conduct a meaning audit by looking at your past, present, and future.

1 Question to Ask

  • What is the toothache of your life?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • The #1 predictor of a child’s emotional well-being (2:52)
  • How to win the transitions of your life (7:41)
  • The danger of having linear expectations in a nonlinear life (8:59)
  • The creation of the career (11:25)
  • The problem with the linear narrative (13:34)
  • Why you can’t stigmatize transitions (14:59)
  • What the people who are happiest do (19:30)
  • How to conduct a meaning audit (20:10)
  • Questions to ask yourself when conducting your meaning audit (23:27)
  • The most powerful question you can ask to find your essential mission in life (33:00)
  • How to chase your own dreams and write your own story (37:41)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Connect with Bruce Feiler

Twitter | Instagram | Website | LinkedIn |

Greg McKeown:

Welcome back, everybody. I’m Greg McKeown. I’m your host, and I am here with you on this journey to learn to grow so that we can accomplish more but to do it without burning out. 

Today is part two of my interview with Bruce Feiler. Bruce is the author of six consecutive New York Times bestselling books. He’s a deep thinker, and he’s interviewed thousands of people to try to understand what really leads to a higher contribution. Here’s what it’s not: thinking of work as a single linear career where your job is to go higher and higher is not the way to maximize contribution. By the end of this episode, among other things, you will have what Bruce feels is the single most powerful question he has ever discovered for helping people to find what their real essential mission and calling in life is. Let’s get to it.

If you haven’t yet signed up for the 1 Minute Wednesday newsletter, I’d encourage you to take a moment to do that. Just go to gregmckeown.com/1mw and join more than 160,000 people who have already signed up and are receiving that newsletter every week. 

So I’m familiar with the Marshall Duke research. It was this research that gave me the language intergenerational self. Just the idea that even exists is, I think, quite profound because even as you make this important transition, from our conversation to narratives in work, I’m not at all convinced that everybody has figured out the first part. 

You know, when I ask people about this, I will say, okay, show of hands, who can just name the first and last name of your great-grandparents? Right? So everyone has eight great-grandparents, and all I’m asking is first and last name.

And you might get five people out of a group of 250, and I don’t even get them to prove that it’s true. So these are just the ones that are like, you know, putting their hands up for that. This is a tiny percentage of people that know even the first thing you would know if you knew anything about them. So, the loss of intergenerational knowledge and, with it, the loss of intergenerational self can hardly be overstated, I think. I didn’t know that you had found that it was the number one predictor. What did you say? Number one predictor of

Bruce Feiler:

The number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being. And they tested it against a raft of other studies, that is

Greg McKeown:

Completely connects with what I have learned anecdotally, but I just can’t wait to dig into that specific research now.

Bruce Feiler:

This is just one of the things that I happen to have done in my life. I’m the one that took this research from obscurity and popularized it in the world. And I’m grateful to have done it. And I’ve become very close to Marshall, and I, like you, also spend a fair bit of time, you know, talking to different groups of different backgrounds. And I have talked about this research quite a lot in different groups, and the number one question that I get when I do this is, what happens if my kid is adopted? How does it work? Is it passed down through the blood? 

Now, because I’ve become quite close to Marshall, in fact, I learned of this at his home in an intergenerational family dinner, I happen to know that Marshall and his wife Sarah have two natural-born children and an adopted child.

And it has nothing to do with blood. It has everything to do with how you talk about what your family is. Okay. And Marshall, because he’s got like the biggest twinkle in his eye of anybody that I know, he’s just retired after 50 years of teaching at Emory, says it doesn’t even matter if the story that you tell is true or not. 

So I had an experience when my kids were young where one of my kids went through a phase where she didn’t want to go to school. Okay. And she didn’t have access to her feelings at the time, so she couldn’t really talk about it. Right? This was not a problem with me. And it’s certainly not a problem with my wife, who went to Harvard and Yale Law School like she loved school, right?

And so we, we tried everything, and then one day she came home, and I said, you know what? I was just talking to my mom today, and she reminded me that when I was your age, I went through a period where I didn’t want to go to school. 

It was an entirely made-up story, but it was designed to show that she was not alone. That none of us are alone. I mean, and this is what Marshall said when I asked about this. He said there are three types of family narratives, and this gets really to the heart of what we’ve been talking about in this entire conversation. There’s an ascending narrative, right? We came from nothing. We worked hard. We have a lot. There’s a descending narrative. We had a lot. There was a war, recession, a pandemic, and we lost it all. Or there’s an oscillating family narrative. Okay? Your grandfather got off the boat, and he built a big company, and then his house burned down. His daughter was the first in her generation to go to college, and she became the vice president of a bank, and then she got breast cancer. The children who understand, the adults who understand that our lives are oscillating, understand that when they hit a rough patch, and they are gonna hit a rough patch, they know people; it is in their collective family narrative, in their intergenerational self that others they know also hit setbacks, got stuck, you know, lost a loved one, got sick, suffered through a downturn. That is what is essential. Breaking the expectation that every narrative is going to be up – rags to riches, up by your bootstraps, bigger salary, higher floor, better view. That’s the only story of success we’ve been telling Greg. And that’s the story that we have to de-normalize and renormalize. 

What my data show is that you’re going to go through 20 work quakes, 20 disruptive events in your work life where you’re gonna reevaluate. You’re going to have some sort of turn and move up or some sort of turn and move down. That’s what we have to normalize. You’re going to be disrupted. You’re gonna spend half of your life in a life transition, and we have to stop talking about these transitions as periods you have to grit and grind and resilience. Don’t even get me ranting on resilience. It’s a ridiculous diversion and negative idea because resilience suggests it comes from a spring. It suggests we’re gonna go, and we’re gonna bounce back to where we were. Nope. Some people might, but more of us are gonna bounce sideways or forward. That’s the story we need to normalize.

Greg McKeown:

You said something that a linear expectation in a non-linear life causes serious problems. And I think the answer to this question is also the answer to why does this matter? Why does all of this research, why does what you’ve written in the search matter? So from everything you’ve said, can you just get to the heart of that? Like, what happens to a person who has linear expectations in a non-linear life?

Bruce Feiler:

They make life decisions that do not focus on the meaningful life that they are seeking. They chase this outdated dream that they think they should be chasing. The decisions are the wrong decisions, and two years later, they’re back facing another example, another iteration of the same bad choice. 

Okay, let’s just take work because that’s what we’re talking about here in the case of the search. Okay? 70% of people are now saying that they are unhappy at work. Okay? These are numbers from 2023. A study was released last week as we taped this conversation that 75% of people are expecting to look for new work in the next 12 months. Okay? So we are at an unparalleled moment in the history of work in the United States, okay? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States government, a million people a week are quitting a job. Not laid off, are quitting a job. That’s 50 million people a year. That’s one-third of the workforce voluntarily leaving a job. That is twice as high as the number has ever been historically. Okay? 

We are saying there’s this idea of the great resignation that it came from the pandemic that’s total BS. That number has gone up every year except for one, since 2000. Okay? Something is happening in work that’s never happened in the history of work. What is that we are changing, that fewer people are searching merely for work anymore. More people are searching for work with meaning. We are shifting from what I call a means-based economy to a meaning-based economy, and you asked why it matters. 

I’ve just, we’ve just done the numbers. Three-quarters of us are unhappy with our career. While it turns out the problem is not with you. It’s with the idea of the career itself. It’s the linear trap. It’s the equivalent of the linear life. 

For most of human history, there never was a career. Most people lived where they worked and worked where they lived. The word career was never used before 150 years ago. What happened 150 years ago? Two things. Number one, people left rural areas and moved into cities, and then mass migration happened. So people moved from one country to another, and they settled in cities. So all these people needed something to do. So a guy named Frank Parsons in Boston in 1908, okay? Who was a guy who had himself 40 jobs in the course of his 30-year life. He sat down and created a mechanism where you would sit one of these rural farmers or immigrants or whatever down, ask ’em a series of questions to determine who they are, give them a list of jobs, and make a match.

He basically invented the idea of the career. And within two years, because of the vocational center that he opened, career counseling as a field begins, and the career was invented. Okay? And what’s the visual manifestation of that? The resume. And what is the resume? It is a linear construct of going from one job to one that comes. So that’s the next change. So these are all the inventive things, okay? 

This is, these are a lie. You have a career that’s a lie. You have, you know, you have a path that’s a lie. Even the idea that you have a job that’s also a lie, as you’ve written about in a lot of your work, because, in fact, people have multiple jobs these days. Only half of us even have a main job anymore. We have side jobs and hope jobs and ghost jobs, and all these terms we could talk about.

So the problem is, if you’ve bought into the linear narrative of a career when you go through a change, and my data show, it’s every 2.85 years, we have a work quake, as I call it, okay? And by the way, Xers have them more than boomers. Millennials have them more than Xers. Zers have them more than millennials. Women have them more than men. Diverse workers have them more than non-diverse workers, which means they’re only gonna increase. If you’re in a work quake. If you go buy into the narrative and just go chase the next job, you’ll get a job. And two and a half years from now, you will be unhappy again. And many are facing this choice because you’re not doing the internal work to determine what’s the story you want to tell. You’re chasing a myth of a story that no longer exists. That’s what’s at stake.

Greg McKeown:

There’s a movement that started in Silicon Valley called the Race to Nowhere, and it was because of young children in school committing suicide. And it’s been subscribed to just the stress level that some of these students are being put under, and the sense that if I don’t get the right grades, then I won’t go to the right university and then won’t get the right job. And so it’s, everything is dependent on this single moment. And, if I’m failing now, it’s all over and all the disappointment and everything. And it feels consistent with what you’re describing. Because I think what you are saying is that the problem with the linear narrative is that it turns these transitions into more disruptive, more like it does more damage than it needs to. And also, we don’t learn the right lessons from the transition. 

Bruce Feiler:

For sure. That’s correct.

Greg McKeown:

Those two things, like it’s worse than it needs to be in the transition, and we keep trying to get ourselves back on track to a narrative that isn’t helpful in the first place. Is that the gist of this? Is this why this matters so much?

Bruce Feiler:

First of all, it’s a pleasure to be in conversation with you. You’re an extraordinarily talented listener and, and, you know, kind of summarizer of what you’re hearing. And I just want to pause and admire that life skill. And I mean it genuinely. 

Here’s how I would put it. Okay, let’s just deal with the life quakes for a second, and then we’ll talk about the work quakes. Okay? We have three to five of these life quakes in the course of our lives. And the signature piece of data from my first book, Life is in the Transitions in this space, is that their average length is five years. So three to five times in our lifetime, four or five, six years, that’s 25 years. That’s half of our adult lives we spend in transition. If we stigmatize the transition, we are stigmatizing half of our lives, Greg.

And what we’ve done is, what you’ve just said is you’ve said, we’ve fetishized the stable periods that that is on track. There is no track. Every life is a different shape, okay? And some people don’t even look at their life as a track. They look at their life as a heart or a minibus, right? Or a piece of lettuce. 

So the idea of the track isn’t even the universal view. That’s point number one. Now, let’s turn to work where we’re gonna have 20 of these work quakes in the course of our lives. What, to me, is the signature piece of data of the search, and I have looked at 3000 work quakes, and I’ve studied where they began. And the majority of them, 55% of work quakes begin outside of the workplace. 55% of work quakes have nothing to do with work.

They have everything to do with our personal life, with our health, with, with something in our family. A loved one moves. We have a child with an anxiety disorder. We have a kid on the travel soccer team. Our mindset changes. We no longer want to be, say, as someone I interviewed, a corporate lawyer. We want to be a physical trainer. And this woman, Robin Aon, becomes the vice president of Peloton, okay? Or we have one of the highest jobs in the United States intelligence. And then we, as Eric Veles tells me the story, that’s one of the opening stories in The Search, okay? He is one of the highest-ranking people. He runs intelligence for the FBI. And he leaves there, and he goes to the Walt Disney Company. He runs security for the entire company. He’s making $800,000 a year, okay? And then he’s watching Finding Neverland on TV one night. That’s the documentary about Michael Jackson. And he said that happened to me. And it turns out he’s been keeping this secret for 50 years, even from his wife. 

Greg McKeown:

Well, it sounds like to some extent, he’s keeping it from himself.

Bruce Feiler:

Correct? And he says I  have this, a successful job. I make a lot of money, okay? I have the highest commendations from the White House for my national security work, okay? But I would drive home, and I would see people who were working at car washes or auto mechanics, and I would say they have what I don’t have, which is they’re happy, and I’m not, and I’m not prepared to do this. 

And Disney was great, gave him as much time, he walked away and said, I wanna deal with myself. I need to fix me. So if you are at preschool, in high school, in college at 24, constantly calculating the metric. And this is why he became so successful. He said I would be in a room of 14 people, and if 13 people said that Eric is the greatest colleague I’ve ever seen, if there was one who wasn’t saying that, I would like to focus on them.

55% of the changes in our work begin in our personal lives, in our families, in our heads, and in our bodies. So trying to stay on that track, you can’t anticipate when these external or internal events are going to happen because of the idea of the path; there is no path. There is no career. That’s lie number one. There is no path. That’s lie number two. There is no job. That’s lie number three. And there’s only one truth, that only you can write your story of success. Only you can figure out what is it. 

Maybe you want money, good for you, but you also might want service or self-expression, okay? Or to follow a spouse, okay? Or to mix multiple side jobs to do it. So the point is, what my book tries to do is give you, as I call them, 21 questions to define work.

You love how to do the work. And this, to me, is the greatest convergence in what you and I have been doing parallel. If there’s one thing I believe, Greg is that the people who are happiest and most successful and find the most meaning at work, they don’t climb; they dig. They do the internal work. They do what I call the personal archeology. In my book, I call, you call it a life audit. I call it a meaning audit. In my book, they do the internal excavation to find out the childhood ghosts, what they learn from their parents, you know, the stories that they’ve always been told. They do this excavation and figure out who they are, what story do they want to tell. That’s the only way to move forward. If not, you’ll just get another job in two and a half years from now, you’ll be back doing it again.

Greg McKeown:

So this leads us to the now what. We’ve covered the what and the so-what. But now what, now you’ve identified in the search some overarching questions. So the first question you ask, for example, is, who is your who? Can you explain the overarching questions and why you framed them that way?

Bruce Feiler:

Okay, so what are we talking about here? We’re saying that the old story, the old rules, no longer apply. The idea of following your passion when you’re young, you know, like sell it to your parents, set off down the path, like keep climbing until you reach the top. That doesn’t work anymore, okay? 20 times in your life, you’re gonna be knocked off of that path. There is no career, there’s no path, there’s no job. So what do you do when you are thrown off course? What do you do when you’re in a workweek? Okay? So the essence of this is what I call, you have to, you have to do the work, right? You have to conduct the meaning. Audit, as I say, you have to rewrite your own story. You can’t chase someone else’s dream. You have to chase your own dream.

Greg McKeown:

How do you conduct a meaning audit exactly?

Bruce Feiler:

So that’s what we’re talking about. How do you determine what is your dream? And, at its heart, there are three parts to it. Number one, what’s the difference between meaning and happiness? Happiness is what you feel in the moment. Meaning is about stitching together past, present, and future. Okay? So the essence of a meaning audit is to go back to the past. 

We all have these stories and expectations and parables and myths built inside of us, you know, from our parents, from our culture. So you have to go back and identify what is it that locked into you when you were young. So step one is to look at the past. Step two is to look at the present, like, where are you right now? And then step three is to look forward to the future. And so as you say, how do you tell a story?

Fortunately, there’s some knowledge about this, okay? And so, let’s go back to what Kipling said, right? Which is there are these six questions, right? Who, what, when, where, why, and how. The problem that we do is that we put how first, and we call our networks, right? And we post on, you know, social media, and that we go right to finding, and the problem is we’re successful, and we find a job, but we haven’t done the stuff that’s beyond that. 

So you’ve got to ask a series of questions. Who is your who? What is your what? When is your, when, where is your where, and so on. And my book kind of walks you through that process. But just to pick a couple. So let’s just take two questions from the past. I would say the first question I’m interested to know is, what were the upsides and downsides about work that you learned from your parents?

I started asking, what’d you learn from your parents? Everyone said the power of hard work. I’m like, okay, that’s fine. So like, what are the downsides? Oh, then it got interesting. Like, my parents worked so much. There was not family, or my father, in many cases, like, you know, started a bunch of companies, and they failed, you know? So it’s like, go work for someone else. Or my father worked for the same company for 40 years and got laid off, and so, therefore, I wanna do something. I don’t wanna work for somebody else. Like, what did you learn? Okay? Now, that’s not something that you choose; that’s what you inherit. If you want to get to what you chose, this is the most valuable question to ask. I’m, in fact, I’ll start with you, Greg, other than family. Who were your role models as a child?

Greg McKeown:

Yeah, I mean, I would say, I’m thinking now of a family friend who, you know, seemed to me to have a great marriage, a great family. So that was sort of a model of what I wanted. I’m thinking here of other authors, you know, before I ever thought I would be an author, I’d read their books even when I was quite young. And it wasn’t so much what they wrote about. It was more who they were. And again, I would say the similarity is the kind of marriage and family they were successful in other ways, but that seems to have been, I hadn’t really thought about that until now because that’s true. There are some church leaders that I admired and was mentored by. And the same thing is true. I was drawn to those that seem to explicitly have marriage and family that was the kind I would aspire to.

Bruce Feiler:

That’s beautiful. And that’s the question. It’s like, other than family, what role models did you have, and what did you admire about them? That’s the follow-up question. Okay? 

And the reason that this is so telling is that we don’t choose our parents. Okay? We inherit our parents, and then we have to learn the pros and cons from them. Our role models are the first decision and choice we ever make about work because we are choosing to connect ourselves with them. If you want to know what you should be doing now, look at what you were admiring back then and what did these things have in common. You led in all three cases with character, okay, with family, okay? And then you went to ideas, being a public person, okay? 

I know very little about you, actually, other than the things I’ve learned that you talked about. But I know you’re interested in, you know, in character, and I know that you’re interested in ideas, and your answer revealed that, and that’s why these are effective questions. Okay? So those are some questions about the past. And I have, you know, I have another 10 questions like that in The Search

And now, let’s talk about today. Then I would like you to know, like, you know, fill in this blank. I’m at a moment in my life when blank. Okay? How you answer that question. Some people will say, I’m in a moment in my life where I want to be a supportive spouse. I’m in a moment in my life when my children are young, and it’s not about me right now. It’s about being a character. I’m in a moment when I have an aging parent who needs my attention. So now is not a good time to have work that’s gonna take me away from home three weeks a month. Okay? I’m in a moment in my life when talks about where you are right now. Okay? 

Another question about today is, what kinds of stories do you like? Okay? And the kinds of stories that you consume turned out to be the kinds of – I talked to a man, a wonderful man named Isaiah Warner, right? Of, it’s one of the first stories I have in my book, who grew up literally picking cotton in Louisiana, in a black school where the whites used the textbooks. And when they got outdated in six years, the white schools got new textbooks, and the black schools got the hand-me-down textbooks, okay? He went to an HBCU. He became a chemistry professor. When he arrived at LSU 15 years ago, they had given four black students PhDs. Now he’s personally given a hundred black students, okay?

He’s the most decorated chemist of any race in America. And he told me when I asked him what kinds of stories, he said, I like detective stories because it’s all about solving problems. And that’s what I do in my work. 

So what kinds of stories do you like, do you like to consume? Because if you like, you know, Civil War videos versus if you watch Bridgerton versus This Old House, versus, you know, James Bond movies. These are all telling you a version of the kinds of stories you want to tell. So part of a meaning audit is questions about the past. Part of it is about the present, and then part of it is about the future, right? Answer this question. My purpose right now is blank. What is your why? Why is your why? What is the why that motivates you right now?

It might be making money, it might be giving back. It might be, you know, solving food insecurity. Okay? These kinds of questions are the deeper, harder question. And then the last question that I’ll just throw out here is, one of my favorites is, what’s the best advice you have for yourself right now? 

I asked people in their biggest workweek what was the best advice that they got. Okay? Then I asked them whether that advice agreed with what they were already saying to themselves or contradicted it. In three-quarters of cases, the advice people got reaffirmed what people were already saying to themselves. Often, what we need is not a kick in the butt, it’s a pat on the back. So ask yourself what advice you have for yourself. Listen to it, and then keep moving in that direction.

Greg McKeown:

There are two things I love about this. The first is that I have seen many, many, many self-reflective type exercises, but these feel fresh to me, and there’s a specificity about them. That’s encouraging, too, right? I mean this, I want to be the kind of person who I want to do work. That I’m in a moment in my life when I want to be in a place where my purpose right now is the best advice I have for myself now is I mean, these are deceptively simple. They’re clear, and they’re precise, but they get to the heart of the matter, which is the point of the exercise. And so many times when people are writing sort of, even things like, okay, write a mission statement and so on. It’s like the directionally, right? But what people end up with isn’t very actionable and isn’t really fit for purpose often. So I really, you know, I really like these questions. I think these are very helpful. 

And the second observation I have is it comes back to this story that you shared in the beginning about your father. And how you giving him a prompt every week in an email helped him come back from the brink. And what that means is that he found meaning again. That’s what I’m interpreting. I mean, he has a loss, a complete loss of meaning, and life without meaning is pure suffering. That’s all that’s left. And so meaning is the, let’s say, the primary vehicle, the only antidote I know of for addressing that suffering. And so if you lose all meaning, you don’t become some sort of blank slate. All you feel is pain in every aspect of your consciousness. So suicide suddenly becomes not anything but crazy because it’s the promise of relieving all of this pain, but you found an alternative way to relieve it for him. And one that was probably surprising, this idea of the prompt.

Bruce Feiler:

Well, let me, first of all, thank you for the kind words you’ve said about these questions. I’ve asked literally millions of questions in the last six years in the course of doing 1500 hours of life stories. And so, nothing is more important to me than questions. And the thing I would say about questions is there’s only one metric for evaluating a question, and that is the quality of the answer. Everything else doesn’t matter. Okay? If it’s about the vanity of how great the question is, that’s an irrelevancy. It only works if it gets to the matter that we’re talking about. And as I know, you’ve spent a lot of time on how to get to the essence of things and how to help people find meaning. And so, I just want to acknowledge and express gratitude and appreciation for recognizing all the work that went into these questions. That’s point number one. 

As for meaning, you’re exactly right. I mean, where did the meaning movement come from? The meaning movement came from, from Victor Frankl, right? In the middle of the Holocaust, saying, yeah, that you can live without anything, but you can’t live without meaning. And the issue, as you so beautifully just put it, is that it’s confronting pain. Like, one of my great ways of looking at the world is sort of a forgotten book that may not even have come across your radar screen, but it’s called Young Men and Fire. It was written by Norman McClain. It was about the fire jumpers, okay? In the upper Northwest, who would power shoot in when these wildfires would break out, and the firefighters, and then the wildfires would go mad. And the firefighters would try to outrun the fire. And any of the firefighters who outran the fire got killed. Only one group survived. What did they do? They burned their own fire and therefore ate up the fuel. And they ran toward the fire, and when the fire ran toward them, it jumped them because there was no fuel. To me, this is like my metaphor of life, run into the fire, confront the pain, go to the most difficult question

Greg McKeown:

For those who want to read. That is Young Men and Fire by Norman McClean, but continue with what it means to you.

Bruce Feiler:

I have asked, as I’ve said, millions of questions. I asked a question in this set of interviews, what I call the work story project, right? That led to the search that if you can ask one question right now, it would be this question. Right before I started this project, I read Hans Christian Anderson’s final fairytale, and it’s about a young boy who’s clearly a stand-in for Hans Christian Anderson, who’s got a way with words. And his auntie always says to him, you’ve gotta way with words. You’re gonna be a great poet. This young boy also suffers from a lot of toothaches, like his aunt. And one night, he ushers her back from the theater. It’s snowing. She has to stay with him, and he’s a young adult at this point, and he has this delirious dream when he’s visited by this old wisen woman.

And he calls her Auntie Toothache. And Auntie Toothache says to him every great poet has a great toothache. I love this. This may be the smartest thing I have ever read. Okay? And the name of this fairytale is Auntie Toothache

And I asked everyone in my interviews, as I will now ask you, Greg, did you have a toothache as a child? Did you have a problem that you wanted to resolve? Okay? A dispute you wanted to cure, you know, an itch you wanted to scratch, a dilemma you wanted to resolve? Did you have a toothache as a child?

Greg McKeown:

I think the toothache, for me, had to do with relationship pain. It had to do with what I was observing around me that I couldn’t fix. You know, as a child, there’s all sorts of problems you can’t fix as a child. You know, you can’t fix your family. You can’t fix your parents, you can’t fix their marriage. You can’t fix, you know, there’s so many problems. And I think that that’s part of the toothache is that you are faced with things that you can’t do anything about. 

Now, I think that was more, even more, formative than I’ve been previously aware of. I mean, all of these mentors that you asked me about, you know, they have a common thread. And even now, as I’m working on new research that feels like the most important project I’ve ever worked on professionally, has at the heart of it the idea of how do people solve the right problems with each other. You know, how do you actually deal, get to the, you know, face it, face the right problem, perceive the right problem, prioritize the right problem, and get to the heart of it so that you can actually resolve it and move forward? And what happens when people don’t do that is absolutely ridiculous. Because what happens when you don’t do that is that the problem just carries on. Even if you maintain a sort of equilibrium, it’s absurd. An unresolved problem, a serious, unresolved problem, even if you just maintain it, means that you are dealing with something for decades or an entire lifetime that could have been resolved maybe in a few hours, you know, or maybe in a few days or weeks or maybe at the most months or a couple of years. I mean, if the research and book I’m currently writing does not help to help people resolve the right problems in their most important relationships and to do it rapidly, which is important to me, then it’s like, well, what’s the point? There was no point in writing that book. There was no point in doing this research. It has other advantages, but if it can’t, that it won’t, it won’t do anything. And I am a little surprised at myself being able to sort of think about that toothache in that way from that far back.

Bruce Feiler:

That’s beautifully expressed. We were talking earlier, right? You told that story about Al Gore and getting him to go back to the grandparents. And, what I said in response was there’s no chance that later in that conversation, it didn’t come back. Because I have done this, Greg, for 1500 hours. I’ve sat in front of total strangers as you and I are meeting for the first time in this conversation, and I have asked these questions. And in 100% of the cases, there is this moment of individual discovery and then shared discovery that happens in this process, okay? And that’s why I said this is the best single question I’ve ever asked in 35 years of asking questions professionally, what is your toothache? Because the correlation with the meaningful work you want to be doing now is almost 100%. 

And there is a moment as I frame this in the search into the chapter called Why Is Your Why, which is what we’re talking about. I talk about chapter two in Paradise Lost, where you’ve got two angels, right? And you know, and should they lead this counter-offensive against heaven? And one of them says, you know, no, we should, you know, we should not do it right because we, you know, and that we should try to make peace, right? And so one says, we should turn our tortures into hared arms. We should turn our pain, you know, into fighting. And the other one says we should turn our torments in the length of time, and we shall let them become our elements. 

And that is the question that we are talking about. Are you gonna turn your pain into torture and fighting and liquor and affairs and, you know, proactive spending or whatever other way you happen to express your fears, whatever your hard arms are, or you’re gonna turn them into, you know, into your element. Okay? 

And I’ll, I should read from my book, here it is on page 248. “A question for all of us at some point in our lives is, do we do what our lesser angels want and turn our tortures into hurried arms? Or do we do what our better angels want and turn our torments into our essential elements?” 

That is the question that we’re talking about. Okay? Do you continue to chase that outdated dream, that linear career success, that story that’s been told for 150 years? Or do you write your own story? Do you do the digging? Do you do the work to excavate your pains and unearth your long-buried dreams and stop chasing someone else’s dream and chase your own dream and find meaning in the story of your own life?

Greg McKeown:

Well, that’s a beautiful place to land. And all I want to add is that when you contrast, did you have a toothache as a child question? And the answers that flow from that with how do I get to the next step on the ladder? 

The difference is outrageous, you know, it really is such a night and day difference when you ask the question, okay, next step on the ladder, it might have no bearing whatsoever on what is meaningful to you, literally none, because it’s just a game you got put into, you know. You woke up in the middle of a game, and you’re just trying to win. And what’s more pointless than winning the wrong game? And all the while, there is this asset deeply buried inside of you; you know, it’s pain, but it’s exactly the raw materials you need to be able to build a work life of meaning.

And of course, beyond that, because it doesn’t have to be limited to work life by any means, but a contribution that’s lifelong, that doesn’t have an expiration date, that doesn’t come with a, well, now you have retired, and now you’ve got to do some other weird thing for the rest of your life and pretend not to work. And all of the disaster that comes with that, I think, foolish concept. And instead, you can have a whole lifelong of meaning trying to alleviate this ache within yourself and also within other people. It’s a really profound question and a profound and beautiful conversation. It’s been great having you on the podcast. Thank you. 

Bruce Feiler:

Thank you, Greg. It’s been my pleasure.

Greg McKeown:

Well, thank you, really, thank you for listening. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every moment with Bruce Feiler. I hope that you have too. What is one idea that has stood out to you, and what’s one micro action that you can take in the next few minutes to put into action that idea? And who is somebody that you can share these ideas with? 

For the first five people who write a review of this episode on Apple Podcasts, you’ll receive completely free access to the Essentialism Academy. Just go to gregmckeown.com/podcastpromo for all the details. Thank you, and I’ll see you next time.