Just before we get started here with the podcast episode, here’s another invitation to every single person listening. If you haven’t yet signed up for the Less But Better course, it’s completely free. It has taken months to design. It comes with a workbook that you can print up and work through a series of 10 lessons and also a 30-day email course. You don’t get an email every day, thank goodness. That’s overwhelming. But you do get one every three or four days that supports the ongoing journey. Actually, it’s not even that. It’s where to start. If you have ever wondered where to start with Essentialism and with Effortless, this course is the answer. It’s completely free. It takes 10 seconds to sign up for. You go to gregmckeown.com, you scroll down a little way, and you sign up there. 10 seconds, you’re done. That’s the place to start. With that, let’s get to this episode.
This is part one of an interview with Mo Gawdat, or it’s sort of is that because it turned out to be a little different than we expected. What we were going to do was an interview swap. I go on his podcast, and then he comes on this podcast. We started with the conversation on his podcast, but the moment we began, it just took on a life of its own. That’s because there’s something about him, something about Mo from the very first moment that feels timeless, safe. He’s a deep and serious listener, and what followed was special, both for him and for me.
So instead of forcing then a second interview, I asked him, with his permission, we’re going to take that first conversation and divide it into two episodes. You’ll get to hear both parts on this podcast.
This is episode one, but who is Mo Gawdat? Here’s a career that seamlessly bridges technology and human well-being. Mo is the former chief business officer at Google X, which means that he’s been at the forefront of cutting-edge technological advancements. However, it’s his journey in the pursuit of happiness that truly defines him. So he has the exceptional intellect and business acumen that you can imagine, but his personal mission, sparked by immense personal tragedy, illuminates his even truer essence.
This journey culminated in his international best-selling book Solve for Happy, where he lays out a compelling framework for achieving and sustaining happiness. His approach is both scientific and deeply humane. It resonates with a global audience, making him a sought-after speaker and thought leader. Mo’s ability to synthesize complex concepts into actionable and life-changing strategies is superb. He’s not just a tech guru, he is a mentor and a guide. His initiatives include One Billion Happy and his popular podcast. These Are Beacons, if I can put it that way, that helps millions of people now who are seeking greater fulfillment and joy. But beyond all of that, Mo Gawdat is already, for me, a friend. Let’s get to part one of the conversation.
Welcome back, everyone. This is my first recording of 2024, a very essential, no pun intended, conversation for me because 2023 has been a bit of hoarding. I moved to a new place, and I traveled so much because of the noise that happened around AI last year that by the end of the year when I retreated back home, I realized I had so much in my life that I really didn’t want. I need less and, for those of you who have been part of my membership, Unstressable. We were discussing at the beginning of the year the webinar around New Year’s intentions and the theme of my year. So, of course, my intention for the year is peace. I’m trying to find peace with everything that’s happening in the world. Peace with my achievements so that I don’t kill myself trying to achieve more and really, really peace with the pace at which I’m going. And the theme that I chose for the year was less. I need to have less, I need to do less.
And my guest today is the boss on the topic, totally the boss on the topic, Greg McKeown, who published two books, both the New York Times Bestsellers Essentialism and Effortless. One is to teach us that less truly is more, and the other is to teach us to focus on doing what matters really, not doing too much but doing only what enriches our lives.
He is also the host of a wonderful podcast that I have been a guest on, so go look for my episode there, The Greg McKeown Podcast and truly an incredible thinker who, I think, makes a big difference, one that is essential for the start of my year.
Before you guys walked in, I actually think we’ll probably keep that bit where we were chatting. Before you walked in, we interrupted our conversation just to introduce Greg, and we were talking about books and how many books he has behind him, how many books I have behind me, and we were wondering what makes a book a success, a classic, and I said I have a theory. So my theory for Greg to shred, it is, interestingly, that books are a business of marketing. Bestsellers, interestingly, do not always happen because they’re amazing. They happen because they’re marketed really well because when you buy a book in the first week or the first few weeks of its publications, it’s because you heard about it because it was in the newspapers and TV and so on. It’s only those books that last the test of time, that over time keep selling more, that I believe succeed because they touched the reader somehow. So they recommended it to three more readers, who recommended it to seven, and Greg’s books combined sold more than two million copies. I am humbled because I think mine combined sold probably 800,000 or something. So I will get to you one day, Greg. Most of them are word of mouth. That’s my view, that’s my theory. What do you think?
Well, I mean that in a sense, what you just said like has to be true. So it is the net promoter score, even though we wouldn’t use that language in any sort of ancient text or anything. But of course, it’s whether people share and say this is a book you should read and over time, you know, over, let’s say, you know. The Lindy effect suggests that the longer a book is in print, the longer it will be in print. So that’s one mechanism for saying, for trying to think through which books survive. So it’s longer you have survived, the longer you will survive. That seems to be pretty consistent in the publishing industry, but it misses the heart of the question because the idea that, yes, the books that survive are the ones that people recommend, of course, must be true. But what the criteria is in each, in each era, for what books get recommended? It’s not like anybody gets together as like a formal process. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this other than other that it’s a mystery to some extent. Why have the classics become the classics? Yes, it’s because people think they’re classics. But what’s the real decision-making process?
And to give this a little bit of an interesting edge, I think I just spent a year at the University of Cambridge inadvertently and was accepted into a doctoral program there. And I mean, I don’t know, we’re sort of maybe we’re on subject, maybe we’re off subject, but the but. I went to a library training there where somebody said in passing well, listen, you know we’re introducing everybody that’s organizing the library right now. And they said, “Well, this person here is in charge of the decolonization of the library.” And I thought I didn’t talk about it at the time, I didn’t raise my hand or challenge or anything, but I just wondered about that. I sort of thought, well, what’s the criteria now? Well, what? That’s an interesting role to take, and I’m not making a political point, it’s just a, this is decision criteria. This is how does a single person go about selecting by a set of criteria that they must be, have identified which books should be there and which shouldn’t, after a millennia of a process we barely understand, has crafted and curated these classics. I don’t know who this person is, I don’t know what their qualification is, I certainly don’t know their criteria, or maybe I could estimate it from what they said. But there’s something about that that is uneasy for me. We need a collective. There’s a collective process that follows in the selection of books, and I, for one, want myself, my children, and grandchildren to have access to simply the best thinking, as people think it was over a long period of time. That’s what I want them to have access to the the best thinking possible.
Through this kind of ambiguous process, I think this applies very firmly to our approach to life in general. Right, I mean, in a very interesting way, that selection criteria of what has more worse and what has less worse is probably. When I was told by Todor, my producer, that we’re going to be talking, I was like, “Yes, I need to ask him that question,” because it’s quite interesting that, first of all, some of us, by definition, are hoarders, even if they have nothing right, and some of us, by definition, are sort of aspiring minimalists, even if they’re drowning in things, right. As I said, at the end of last year, I realized that I’m the latter. It’s not like my home is a mess, but when I didn’t travel as often, I used to, every Saturday, give 10 things away, right, so I would look through my home and every Saturday I would give 10 things away, but I counted the number of Saturdays that I wasn’t around. And I have to admit, and I think my biggest bug last year was because I was setting up a home and I had so few days at home.
I ended up ordering too much from online places, right? So I would go like, “I only have three days in Dubai, I am in London, now I need to get something to arrive to me before I leave, and then I order it, and then it’s not perfect, I don’t have time to return it,” and so on. So I’m working through this, but what do you think makes some of us want to keep more and some of us burdened by more?
Oh, there’s so many things to unpack in what you just shared. As well as trying to answer your question, let’s do this. Let’s just give a quick summary of essentialism for those who are new to it so that we ground ourselves in that because I’m already down this path of the books and all of those things, and I think they can all come together beautifully in answering your question too.
So, look, Essentialism is the disciplined pursuit of less. It is exploring what is essential, eliminating what is non-essential, and making systems in your life that make it as effortless as possible to then execute on what matters most on what remains, and that’s an ongoing process, so it’s a disciplined pursuit. So this is a summary of essentialism, and, as you rightly say, it can be applied across the board, across physical things, and also across the commitments in our lives and what we give our time to.
And so you know, coming to this question of why do we hold on to more or why do we want to eliminate more, I mean, I think it’s all about attachment, and there’s a range of attachment, you know. I have, for example, one of my children who feels really emotionally attached to almost anything that that comes into her life. Any little thing she can feel. It’s almost like she has a, I mean, she’s extremely sensitive to animals, for example, almost like a Doctor Dolittle. I mean, she has literally brought home baby squirrels before they’re injured, and like she’s extraordinary, and I feel like that, a similar thing goes on with the things in her life, so she feels an attachment to them, and so it’s almost like things become personified for her, and so the idea of getting rid of things. She can do it, but it’s a much more emotional process than it is for me, and so I think it’s to do with it’s your attachment to things, and I don’t see it, by the way, as inherently good or bad to be attached. I mean, you could, you could take Essentialism to a place that’s that it’s no longer Essentialism by just becoming so detached that you say no to everything and eliminate everything from your life. And sometimes you see people doing this when, maybe when their spouse has died or something, and then, and then they just get rid of everything, they purge everything, and suddenly they’ve thrown out all of the photographs and all of the things that really do actually matter and would matter for generations. They just are expunging everything, purging everything. Well, that’s not a very helpful place. That would be like that would be like something called “noism,” and that’s very different.
What I’m suggesting with Essentialism so I think that it’s what we want is to be able to not be tricked, and there are a series of heuristics that exist in our minds that can trick us in our selection process. So one of them is the endowment effect, and that suggests that we value things more simply because we own them. And so, with my daughter, very strong for some people, they, as I say, they could maybe do with a bit more attachment and connection and understanding why something could matter for generations after them, you know. So there could be growth on both ends.
But the endowment effect is a generally positive heuristic. It means we look after a home we own. It’s why nobody in the history of the whole world has ever, you know, washed their own rental car. You don’t own it, you don’t value it in the same way, and so what we want is not to be tricked. How do we avoid the trick of the endowment effect? We might say, “How much would I buy this item again now if I didn’t own it?”
So we release ourselves of the pressure of ownership and say, “Well, would I go and get it? And if, would I take the time to get it? Would I pay the money to get it? Or do I only value it simply because it already belongs to me?” And that’s a very helpful heuristic, both in physical elimination but also in commitments.
Hold on, because, honestly, as you were saying this, like a zillion items in my head were like, “No, I wouldn’t.” But the reason why I do this is because I despise waste, but that you’re going to be my therapist. Oh my God, I am exposing myself here, so in a, very in a, I’ll give you a very good example. I mean, I’m a very good handyman, like I’m a very good carpenter, I do mosaics, I do anything with my hands I do very well. And so I love my tools.
I need you at my place, Mo. Yes, absolutely.
Plumbing I do very well, but it annoys me, so let’s not do plumbing. But when I look at my tools, right, and you know, even my supplies, like you know, certain screws or certain nuts and bolts or whatever, I keep them for decades because I say, “Why throw them away? I’m eventually going to need them,” right? And in reality, I never need them. And whenever I need them I try to search for them. I don’t find them, so I rush to the hardware store and get more ones, right, and so the attachment here in my mind is just simply because they’re there, and I don’t want to waste them. You know, is that a bad thing?
Oh well, none of this, I think, is really about simple good and bad. It’s about selecting what is useful for us now so that we can make the highest contribution now and in the future. So it’s a selection between a good, like, maybe good, better, and best, as is language that is in a talk of the same name, an excellent talk by Dallin Oaks says that’s a criteria between you know, it’s not just bad and great, it’s all that middle stuff we have to also select, and so let’s take your example of these tools and the screws, particularly so for anybody listening or watching this.
Maybe their thing isn’t tools, but we all have a closet, and most people’s closets get overstuffed over time. Yeah, and there’s this moment. It’s a sort of magical moment, almost a mysterious moment anywhere, where somebody gets fed up with the state of affairs. They go into the closet, they take an item off the shelf as if to get rid of this thing. Finally, and in that moment of taking it off the shelf, that’s the mysterious moment they look at it, and they think, “Well,” just like you with the screws. Well, and you already articulated it, but I want to underscore it. There is a selection criteria being used there and the criteria, the default criteria for most people, is, could I ever use this possibly in the future? Maybe? And that’s so broad that is the answer to that question has to be yes, it is possible.
Exactly. It’s like I have this one little diaper that is still clean from when I was one year old and, who knows, like maybe somebody will visit me and they’ll have a child, and I’m joking, but that’s if you open it up, there’s always a yes.
Right, and so what we’re hopefully examining here is that there is a decision process taking place, and there is a criteria being used, and most of the time, criteria are invisible to us. And so we’re just living our life, making decisions However we make them. But as we start to get below, like the iceberg, the iceberg at the top, that’s the actual decision. But how are we making it, and how are we thinking about it? Underneath, we discover, oh my goodness, that criteria is so broad. We will never say no to anything. But look, if somebody’s happy with the way they’re making decisions, like if you’re happy with the state of affairs, with your screws, with your tools, great, I mean, you don’t have to change just because there’s a different way of making decisions. But if people start to feel overwhelmed with the screws of their life, overwhelmed with the closet that’s overpacked or, of course, this is all metaphorical for the commitments we make and the over commitments we make and the too many things we do if people start to feel the effects of non-essentialist decision making, then it’s time to look under the surface of the water, to the iceberg below, and to say well, what criteria do I currently use and what would I ideally use, if I could select it thoughtfully so somebody might say, “Well, have I used this item of clothing or this item, this screw? Have I used it in the last (well, for you, the last five years)?”
Okay, if the answer is no, maybe you eliminate everything that you haven’t used over five years, and somebody in his closet they could say that. Even more extreme, they could say, “Okay, in the last year, have I worn this?” You know they could use the question do I love it? You know the Marie Kondo question, does it spark joy?
And the goal, I suppose, of Essentialism is something like, can we use selection criteria that are more extreme than the norm of our time so that we can discern between the essential and the merely good or the merely well? I already own it; therefore, I keep it criteria so that you shift it. I mean, I sometimes use the idea of the 90% rule as a rule of thumb. You say we want only those things that are 10% or above important. That is, the essential, the very important so that there is room to utilize those things and invest in those things because whether we’re talking about the closet that gets too full is a limited amount of space or, more importantly, the closet of our lives in which we have this pathetically short amount of time on earth, this just truly minuscule moment. My hypothesis and position are that we have enough to do in the 90% and above activities to fill the remainder of our lives, and therefore, every time we say yes to something that is simply good, like a 60% item, or you know, every time I get distracted on social media which is like a 10%, it’s like not important, it’s unimportant, I am robbing myself from the time for what is truly essential and that, I think, is something like the burden of life, that you can’t make a tradeoff, free choice.
And it’s also the magic of life, too, because once you embrace it, which essentialists do, they don’t just acknowledge the reality of tradeoffs, they embrace it. There, in a way, an essentialist we become, we learn to love it because we suddenly, my goodness, look at the influence I can have on my life, look at what I can design. I literally can design through tradeoffs, a life that really matters, in the same way as I can select the clothes in my closet, to the point where everything in there sparks joy for me and really fits and works. And there’s something almost ritualistic in a good way of going into it and feeling that sense of selection and choice. A life similarly it’s a bit more messy in life, but similarly, we go. “No, I can make tradeoffs deliberately and increase the probability significantly that when I get to the end of my life I will be able to say I did what mattered.”
I can’t even tell you how well that landed with me. I mean, in a very interesting way. We all love the Marie Kondo question of Does it give you joy? Right, but the question really is, yeah, in a way, everything gives me a tiny minuscule, like a tiny bit of joy, right? And when you say, “No, no, hold on, you want the 10% that matter,” okay, and it’s not just joy but matter here.
I meet 10,000 people a year, right, but of all of them, all my love and respect for people who are at my work or who want to do a project together or whatever, I’d probably say Aya, my daughter is number one, Hannah, my wife is number one, and somewhere, if you rank them all up in the 10%, there could be like a few very close friends, my ex-wife, my mother, my brothers and so on and so forth which are really all together will add up, not in being a thousand people, but it could be like 10 people that are really the top 10% of my life, right?
And it’s quite interesting because when you were talking about swiping on Instagram, and I don’t swipe on Instagram, I responded to DMs on Instagram, and I love it because it gives me a very deep connection to people who read my work or listen to a podcast or whatever. But with all the love and respect for those who are listening, that takes away from my daughter’s time, right, and it’s such an interesting criteria when you say, hold on, there is a line, and you have to know what’s above the line and you have to know what’s below the line and you may allow what’s below the line every now and then, but that shouldn’t be the way you live. That’s such an interesting criteria.
So a few years ago, Eve, who I was just talking about, the Doctor Dolittle, she turned 14, and like to give a little more description of Eve. I mean, she’s always climbing the tallest trees she can find. She’s always out running barefoot outside, naming the chickens, catching lizards, and releasing them gently. She speaks constantly a flow of words. I mean, she’s read maybe, I don’t know, 250 books as a teenager at this point, and she is just so voluminous in her language, and she can’t stay angry for a second. All of this, okay. So then she turns 14, and instead of if you say, “Well, how are you?” Instead of a whole flow of things, it’s sort of one-word answers.
And when she’s doing chores, she was assigned to sweep the floor, and she was sweeping the floor really slowly, and I was like, what’s going on here and she seemed a little more physically awkward, and Anna and I, my wife and I, we were like, well, it’s probably pretty age-appropriate behavior, we’re not alarmists, and we’re like, okay, let’s just proceed. And then we took Eve to a routine physical therapy appointment, and she failed a reflex test, which you don’t have to be a doctor to sort of know that the body is designed not to be able to fail a reflex test, right, like that’s why you do the reflex test. And so the physical therapist took Anna aside and said, “Look, I would just recommend that you go and see a neurologist.”
And we didn’t have to be told twice, you know. And so what began there was not just a series of trips to neurologists, although that is what happened there also. That was sort of a tipping point moment anyway, in what I can only describe as a free fall in human capabilities. So there was this just serious free fall in executive function, like the control of executive function and her physical manipulation. So the whole right-hand side of her body slowed down so that it moved at a different pace to her left-hand side. It took her literally hours to finish a meal, literally hours.
And I remember, you know, she would write a journal every night and like almost irritatingly, to be frank, because it was like time for sleep, and she would just be still writing, still writing. And then I remember the last time I had her travel with me on a flight. I take one of my children with me about 80% of the time when I travel for keynotes and so on, and so she came with me, and the last time she came on a flight. I have a recording of her writing her name, because it took her two minutes to write Eve McKeown, took her 45 seconds to write the last three letters of McKeown. And you know, if you ever try to write that slowly, it’s almost impossible.
I mean, this is, and then, in the midst of all of this, every test comes back in the normal range, and so she is free, falling towards a coma and dying. And I remember a neurologist, 35 years in his field and a kind man too, and he just looked at us, and he just shrugs his shoulders. He’s like, “Look, I don’t know, you know, I don’t know what to tell you.”
And in the midst of that, right like that, is the stuff suffering is made of. You know, and I learned so many lessons from it, and I wish there was like a single thesis statement for the whole thing. I don’t have one, but a couple of the things that I learned. One is that I now have come to believe that suffering is universal. I think that almost everybody is suffering almost all of the time. That’s the first thing I’ve learned. And the reason we don’t know that is because we don’t know people well enough, or it’s not safe enough, and so they’re not sharing, and maybe life couldn’t function if everyone was sharing everything deep all the time, but still, it’s there, and it’s real.
A second thing I learned is that, I everything I’d ever been taught about gratitude was wrong. And that was interesting to me because I’d spent a lot of time in gratitude and keeping a gratitude journal every day, probably for the last, I don’t know, I think it’s coming up on 13 years without missing a day, you know like. So it’s not like I’m brand new to the idea of gratitude, but everything I’d been taught was the following, and I bet you have been, and I bet everybody listening or watching this has been too, and they’ve been taught that gratitude is to be thankful for the good things in their lives, and that’s wrong. It’s wrong because that’s not the definition of gratitude literally, even though that’s what we all say. If you look up the definition in a dictionary which I didn’t at the time, but I have done since that’s not what it is. But what I learned without the dictionary was that gratitude is being thankful for everything in life, and that’s not the same thing.
So, in the midst of the suffering, to be able to say, you know, I am thankful that Eve is suffering with an undiagnosed neurological condition that is stealing her picture of health, because and to leave a space open for why that might be. You know that will stick in your throat, and of course, that’s the point. That’s why gratitude is unbelievable. It’s an unbelievable thing. I call it radical gratitude now, but it’s actually just gratitude. I just have to name it because we all think we know what it is, and so what happened in that moment being able to do that is that it opened up the possibility, and we’ve heard this phrase before, but this idea that maybe this is not happening to us or even to Eve, but happening for us and for Eve, and that changes your state immediately because you know that’s what you’ve got. You’ve got suffering, or you’ve got purpose, that there’s meaning. And that’s it. I don’t think there’s another choice. That’s your choice in every moment.
And that had a material advantage because it helped us to, as Joseph Conrad wrote in The Heart of Darkness, “to remove one’s wavering foot over the cliff.” And we were able to sort of remove our wavering foot over the cliff of that suffering or hopelessness and imagine that there was meaning in this and that state allowed us to make better decisions and to not be so consumed with any of the rabbit holes we were going down. And that led to the meeting with the one person I don’t know, the one person who could possibly have done anything about it, which was a researcher in child movement disorders who had a nine-month waiting list. He suddenly freed up. A month went by, and we were able to meet with him.
And it only occurred to me literally last week, this very specific part of the story that I’m sharing here, that so he comes into the room with a whole team of people. They analyze her, they read all of that, I think they’ve already read her reports, but quickly reviewing them, and he did something. He said, “Okay, take this medicine, we’re going to treat you right now like micro treatment. Take this dopamine, go to have lunch, come back.”
When she came back, he did another test. We saw no difference. This is what’s amazing to me Now. I knew parts of this story, but what he observed was that the blinking of her eyes was at a different pace.
Oh my God.
This is a tiny micro, different, improved speed from an hour before, and this is the thing that hadn’t occurred to me, this like literal idea, like for the blink of an eye, she would fall into a coma and died. And then the plot thickens a little because he suggested immediate hospitalization, which she was immediately hospitalized, but the treating physician did not believe that she had encephalitis, which is what he was now hypothesizing, and would rather have treated her for a genetic condition, which means managing her death. And so that the whole time he was saying that, and even when we finally saw micro improvements ourselves for the first time in months, he still didn’t buy it. And so if he’d had that decision-making power, he would have shifted the treatment, and I really rather suspect she would have died.
So it’s been years now, and she is back, and she is whole again, and she’s well again at the time of this conversation. and all of this to say the following I know I’ve shared a few sort of thesis things because I’ve learned more than one thing from the lesson, but one of them is this I dropped her off recently for a mission for a year and a half in Brazil. It’s not high risk now in terms of health, it’s stabilized and more than stabilized. But as I drop her off, I have this kind of essentialist judgment day. I don’t know. I don’t know if to have a better term, but I could see her whole life flash before my eyes. I thought it was going to be a happy moment, sending her off, because it’s such a good and positive thing. It was not for me. It’s extremely painful, for about, I don’t know, about an hour, extremely painful, much more than I expected, and I had this sort of this sense of everything that had happened. And it was done now. Not my parenting, but her childhood is done and all the suffering she went through and all the experiences we went through, and I thought did I miss it? Did I miss it? Or was I there for it? Did I get it, or did I did I not get it? And to what extent did I get it or not get it? And I came out of that feeling relieved from the pain because I was like, no, we were there, and I was there for it. And we traveled together, we made memories together and we invested together. But my goodness, what if this moment, I was suddenly realizing I had missed it? What would that mean in this moment?
And the other thing, the final thing I learned in that, you know, this crescendo experience of learning is, is that life is not divided into relationships of 1X, 2X and 3X. They’re divided into relationships of 1X and 10X and 100X and 1000X, and my relationship with my wife and with my children, these are the 1000X relationships. Now there are 100X, and there are 10X, and all the X’s have a place. And they all because all people matter. People are certainly the primary criteria to evaluate other decisions in life. Relationships are the very point of life.
So there’s things that are less than 1X important, right, like all the, maybe the social media, or maybe just worrying, or I don’t know any number of things that you could say are truly nonessential, but there are a few things that are exponentially more important. They are the 1000X’s, and they are the test to me of like life itself. Can I live in such a way that I can have deep, quality and quantity experiences that are emotionally connected, deeply close, safely attached? This, to me, is as close to the test of life as I have been able to imagine or articulate. That’s really the final lesson that the experience with you taught me.
I, uh, I’m speechless. I really am speechless. I mean, my job as a podcaster is to listen to you and always, in the back of my mind, think what the next question is going to be. I didn’t because I honestly feel that this was a 1000X conversation. I mean, if you compare to my experience when losing Ali, there were two phases, two stages to losing Ali. One was when we knew that something went wrong but didn’t know what was going to happen. And then when we were told he was not going to make it, and, quite interestingly, it was harder when we didn’t.
I mean, I think most people know by now that both me and my ex and my daughter and all of us as a family, we have a very clear definition of death that doesn’t believe that Ali is in a bad place. That wasn’t it because we still miss him. We still want him in our life. He was really the pillar of our life. But that struggle of not knowing where he was going and what will happen was probably the toughest 10 hours of my life, and you had to go through that for years. The interesting, my God. You hit my heart when you said did I miss it? Because you know what I hope Eve will be a grandma and you will hug her when you’re in your 80s and she will be wonderful all her life. When Ali left, when you lose him, you hate what you missed, right?
So I remember vividly Nibel, my ex, sitting next to me around a week or so after Ali died, and she was holding a photo album, and she flipped through the photo album and looked at him as an infant and said, “He was so calm and peaceful, never really cried the joy of any child or any infant I’ve ever seen. But then he died,” she said, and I thought she was referring to then he died. Because he died. And then you go through the albums, and then she starts to look at his pictures when he was seven, and we were at Disney, and he was so much fun and so kind and always held his sister and very loving, and she was like what a wonderful child. She remembered how his kindergarten and grade one teacher used to; when we would pick him up, she would say, “He’s so respectable.” Which six-year-old is respectable? Right, but that was Ali.
And she recites that, and then she says, “And then he died.” And she looks at his pictures when he was 12 and then his pictures when he was 16 and he had his band and was so successful and so loved by everyone. And then she said, “And then he died.” And I suddenly realized that she was talking about each of them, that each of them died.
You get your child as an infant for a couple of years. You get them struggling with words for a year. You get them, every phase doesn’t last, and then they leave, and do you miss it. But what really hit my heart, Greg, is that I know the feeling of did I miss him? Did I miss part of that because he left? But you’re talking about the feeling of Did I miss it even through the suffering? Now that she stayed, and that’s so, that’s almost enlightenment if you ask me. I mean, this is truly, I always compare life to video games when I say the whole idea is to live fully through the game. It doesn’t matter if you win the level or not because 40 minutes later if you’ve missed the game and still won the level, what was the point?
And this hit me so hard, and the idea of you exponentially saying it’s 1x, 10x, 100x, and 1000x, that will remain in my heart forever because that’s really the way to look at it because, truly and honestly, there are relationships that are 1000x and there are relationships that are 100, and 100 is so big compared to the one, right, but the 1000 is so big compared to the 100, and I think I don’t know. I really think what you just did is you changed my life forever. This truly is what I’ve been looking for to drop all of the endless things that I have been doing and, honestly, not savoring, not fully being in them, just doing them because I have to do them.
Mo, what you just shared is so beautiful and I knew, coming into this conversation about Ali, and so to share that and to make that connection itself is powerful. And you went beyond that to that idea of each moment, each phase of a child’s life, for example, dying, is so real, and I think that is exactly what the pain was in that moment. I said to her we were all in the car driving as we were about to drop her off, and that’s when I suddenly just felt very emotional, and I don’t cry very much as, maybe because I grew up in England, I don’t know if that’s why, but I just couldn’t help it at all through this whole period, and I said to her out loud I’m like, “Eve, this is utterly ridiculous that we’re dropping you off right now. Aren’t you still three? Aren’t you still three wearing that one dress that you would never, ever you just wore every day, every day, was your go-to dress? Aren’t you still 10? Aren’t you still sick? Aren’t you still 14 and 15 and 16?”
And I really could feel that it was so peculiar, so painful to think she isn’t that anymore, and that is done. And now that doesn’t mean that you know I can’t miss the next phase. It’s not missing the next piece, of course, is the therefore what. But you’ve helped to thin slice what it is that we’re mourning in that moment, what it is we, it is done, whether we missed it or not. Those moments are gone now.
And what I think was what I think is beautiful about this conversation is something like this, like so there’s lots of things that are important and these things, a few things that are a 1000X, these few relationships, and all of that is true. And then I would add to that, like another criteria which is what matters most, is what lasts longest. I think that’s another way of thinking about evaluative criteria. It’s like the Lindy effect that we started with books but applied to relationships like that, which lasts longest, and nothing lasts longer than the intergenerational family. Like nothing. Cities, cities last longer than countries. Generally speaking, countries last longer than companies, but companies last longer than houses most of the time. But family is intergenerational. It’s way, way more resilient, way more resilient than cities and countries, and so, like that suggests where things are most important. But I think one can say, and I don’t think it’s just a semantic idea, that what matters most of all is what happens next. And I think there’s something really deep in that for us which is, you know, so, for you and for I, we’ve made the choices we’ve made and, of course, even though I concluded that in my test, in dropping off Eve, that I’d spent more time on what mattered than I got it right more often than not, that I hadn’t missed it, that doesn’t mean I never missed it. It doesn’t mean I got it right all the time. Of course. That’s not true. I mean, I’m off track all the time, and if I’m doing anything right, it’s that I’m evaluating it more often than the average person may be so that I get back on track a little faster.
So, like that’s the like I think there’s sort of two kinds of people in life. There are people who are lost, and there are people who know they are lost, and it’s how quickly can you get into the I know I’m lost phase so that you know what to do about it? My father, my father, never knew he could get lost anywhere and I have. He gave me that gift, um, that’s sort of directionally challenged, and but I remember distinctly as a child that he would, we would be lost, and he would say, “I feel it, I feel it’s down here,” and I learned that he didn’t feel. I don’t know what he felt, but he was lost.
Yeah, yeah, don’t trust that.
Yeah, exactly, and so and so. But of course, the thing is, as soon as you admit you’re lost, you know what to do. You know exactly what to do If you’re lost. You stop your ass. Directions pre GPS. So GPS, okay, you stop, and you put the directions in.
In our lives, it’s also true. As soon as you admit you’re lost, you go, “Okay, let me sit down and think, let me, it might not be easy to do, but let me ponder it. Let me look at my life, let me pray, let me meditate, let me examine. You know, we know what to do if we admit it.
Now, all of that, back to this idea that what matters most is what happens next. It’s this. It’s like everybody listening, you and I included, all of us we have some regrets, we have things we ought to do differently. The gift is this next moment. Yeah, we get to choose again. We get to choose now. Yeah, we can’t change the past. That is true. But I tell you something that’s so profound to me. This is deep, man, is that we cannot change the past, but we can change the meaning of the past. And if you can change the meaning of the past, I don’t know what the difference is between that and changing the past. I literally don’t know what the difference is. The meaning is what describes like if you read a book and the whole story goes one way, and then the next chapter changes everything, and the person you thought was good was bad, or the person you thought was bad was good, you know, everything changes before as well, the whole story changes, and so it’s what you do next that matters most.
Whatever people have lost, whatever people, whatever errors people have made, whatever trade-offs we’ve made towards the non-essential, let’s say, or that we’ve under-invested in the most important relationships in our lives, which is likely to be the case it’s what we do now. Next. What do we do in the next moment?
The now has been measured. It’s like been measured. It used to just be sort of a philosophical idea. We all live in the now, but now has been measured in a variety of ways, and by psychologists not least of all, and they found that there is a sort of neurological measurement to it, and it’s about between two and three seconds long. That’s what we mean when we say now. And so we all live in this perpetual two to three-second moment, where we have memories and so on that conjure a sense that the time moves forward and is long and all of this. But we live in this micro thing. And what do we do now, right now, how can we make a new trade-off, how can we start a new life? And that is, to me, an empowering part of this story.
I think this is profound in every possible way. Also, by the way, I think it’s profound when you said you can change the meaning of the past. Again on Ali’s story and I know it sounds almost as if I’m trying to tell myself something to feel better about it. But think about it this way. I know for a fact that Ali left our world to trigger me to do what I did with my life, right? I know that for a fact, but it’s not a fact. It is not. I mean, when you really really think about it, I could say, “Ali left our world to torture me. Or Ali left our world because the surgeon made a mistake,” right?
But at the end of Solve For Happy, I basically said when nothing is certain, and nothing ever is, you might as well choose what makes you happy, right? There is really no way you can put this through the scientific method and tell yourself, “No. By the way, through mathematics and scientific proof, it turns out that Ali did not leave to launch me on my mission, which helped millions, tens of millions of people find happiness right.”
But there is also no way you can scientifically prove otherwise right. You cannot prove for or against it. So you might as well look back at the past like you look back at Eve’s story, and you say gratitude is to accept all of life. All of life, including the struggle, the suffering, the joy, the brief moments when there was chocolate, and that small moment when you bit the pit of the olive and it hurt your tooth right. All of them are experiences. All of them can actually be interpreted into something I can be grateful for.
Yes, because this is it right, like in that moment, in this now it’s meaning or suffering.
Yeah, oh my God, that’s so profound. Man, it’s dropping those words and listen, people, everyone listening, please, in this moment, it’s either meaning or suffering. That’s so profound. If you’re looking back at a negative experience, you can either find meaning in it or you’ll just suffer.
And so I mean, I do think, in the final analysis, you have to make up your mind. I don’t know if it’s even making up your mind. That’s not quite right. You have to detect that there is meaning, or you don’t detect it, and you will be left with suffering. Like those are the choices, those are the preconditions.
Now you can deal with suffering in another way, where you can try to, which is to numb it, and that really, I think, is ultimately the path of the nonessentialist. Like in a kind of extreme way, that’s what the nonessentialist is doing is they’re saying I can immediately numb the sense of suffering or the sense of being lost. I can just immediately. I mean, that’s the promise, right? If I go onto YouTube, so let me be in the, YouTube is my social media, one of my social media vices, right? And the promises that you can go to immediately get something that’s exactly through an algorithm has been designed to be most grasping to me, most immediately consuming and not satisfying, not happy, not meaning, none of those things, but that’s the promise of it, and so you can immediately alleviate your sense of suffering, at least pretend to distract yourself from it, and so that’s sort of, I still think is the path of suffering, because it leads to what has been called, it’s not my terminology, I can’t remember who said it but the dark playground. You know, the whole time. This is not the way. You know this is only keeping you from what you will find again as soon as you stop doing it, and so I really do think it’s sort of it’s like this that is the choice, right, and it’s free. It is free. How would you say this? Yeah, I don’t mean predetermined, like in an eternal predetermination sense, like a religious terminology. I just mean you know that there is something deeply in our biology and our psychology that means these are our choices, suffering, or meaning. So when I think about Essentialism in this higher sense, let me take the conversation here I think about it. I think about how foolish so many of the philosophies of the last 40 or 50 years are. I’m going deep into this right now, but like, let’s riff on this.
So we all, everybody listening, knows Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you have you ever taken any introductory course in psychology, or none? If you’ve ever read almost any book on psychology, anything, you’ve seen this hierarchy, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s utilized everywhere, and at the highest point of the hierarchy of needs, he wrote self-actualization. Which is a little more than this, but it’s pretty much achievement ethic. It’s what do I individually want to achieve. And the thing that’s interesting to me about that is that’s wrong. It’s not the highest human need, but what’s interesting is that that’s what he thought. He thought that was wrong.
So before he died, and it’s far less well known that before he died, he wrote a final book, and in the final book he updated Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, right? So he changed what was at the top from self-actualization, like achievement ethic, to self-transcendence, which is, you know, it’s all about living with a higher sense of purpose and meaning, and it’s also embedded in there. The idea that you can become truly unified with somebody else and that that is what you should aspire for is deep. It’s actually like he didn’t use this language, but like I’m using it now deep dependence in a relationship, and that that was the highest aspiration. And it just didn’t get updated in any of the literature. And so the thing he’s most famous for himself did not believe by the time he died.
And the difference is not just this interesting anecdote about Maslow, it’s that we have been taught to live independently and separately from each other. We’ve been taught that the language of psychology has emphasized the risks of codependency. Think of the language codependency. You need each other too much, and that is the problem. To become enmeshed in a relationship. That’s not what you want. What you want is not to be dependent. You want to be independent, and if you ever get beyond that, it should be for interdependence, which is that I am fully whole myself, and you are fully whole yourself, and so then together we kind of cooperate in an almost corporate way. You know that we have a win-win together. So the contractual relationship, and that somehow this is the heightened, highest level of maturity in a relationship. That is wrong. That is actually wrong. We have data. Simultaneously, data has been created, starting with Bowlby, and I know that I’m riffing a long time on this now, but forgive me.
So Bowlby was raised in a gentleman’s home, an Englishman, and he was allowed to eat dinner with his family once he turned 11 or 12. Well, not eat the whole meal. He was able to join them for dessert, and he went to a boarding school after that, and the reason that the norms of the gentleman class as it relates to children was directly related to this kind of thinking about what makes a healthy, mature relationship. If you were emotionally connected with your child, you’re going to raise a nambi pambi child who can’t cope in the world, and that affected not just behavior and families but in policies too. If you were to drop off even a two or three-year-old child at a hospital, they would go in alone. You would leave them at the doors. If you were allowed to see them, it would be for one hour per week, and Bowlby became a psychologist eventually, and he was able to articulate what was wrong with all of this thinking, and he was the one who created attachment theory.
But that attachment theory is also now, even after he died, has been researched. Perhaps a thousand items of academic literature has been written on this and how it applies to adult relationships. He wasn’t even alive to see that work, but what we know now is that this idea of independence or self-actualization is as wrong as it can be as it comes to actual happiness. What we need is to be as not my term either, but effective dependence. How different that is than what we’ve been taught.
We need to need each other. We need to know that we are needed. We need to know that someone will be there for us, emotionally connected and that these things, there’s like a crescendo of all these ideas, because that’s what 1000x relationship looks like, that’s how important it is, but then you need to invest so that you really can rely on each other through absolutely whatever comes.
Well, there we have it, part one of this unusual conversation where Mo’s asking me the questions because this began on his podcast, but I hope that you have found already something special in him, something meaningful in the conversation.
What is something that stood out for you? What is one thing that you can do differently immediately following this conversation? And who is someone that you can share this conversation with so that the conversation can continue now that this conversation is coming to an end? Thank you, really thank you for listening, and I’ll see you next time.