1 Big Idea to Think About

  • You can’t change the past, but you can change what it means.

2 ways You Can Apply This

  • Write down what has happened in your life. List the observational facts that have caused or are causing you suffering.
  • Think about why those things cause you to suffer. What is the story that makes it hurt so much? Try to explore a new meaning.

3 Questions to Ask

  • What in the past has caused me pain or suffering?
  • How can I change what my painful experiences mean?
  • What stories have changed as my understanding has expanded?

Key Moments From The Show 

  • A fictional story that provides insight on the importance of meaning and understanding (2:47)
  • The transformative power of understanding (10:04)
  • The power of words (12:47)
  • Recovering from the suffering in our lives (14:31)
  • Premise one: You can’t change the past (15:28)
  • Premise two: Everything has endless meanings (16:18)
  • Premise three: You can’t change the past, but you can change what it means (17:16)
  • “Meaning is the antidote to suffering” (19:00)

Links You’ll Love From the Episode

Arrival IMDB

Jordan B. Peterson – Clinical Psychologist

The Slight Edge: Secret to a Successful Life by Jeff Olson

Greg McKeown (00:04):

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. I’m the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Essentialism and Effortless. And this is the newly minted Greg McKeown Podcast. I’m here for this journey to learn how to understand each other. Have you ever been in a conflict with someone that was so painful you wish you could go back and change it all? It could be with someone who hurt you badly. It could be with someone you hurt. It could be with someone who hurt someone you care about. Have these experiences ever made it hard to feel hope? Today, I will share a story, some things I am learning, and actionable advice. By the end of this episode, you will have a key to feeling hope again. You will hold a key to transforming the suffering of your life. Let’s get to it.

Greg McKeown (01:36):

Remember to teach the ideas in this podcast to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours of listening. Today’s story is fictional and comes from one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time. The movie is Arrival. And for those who aren’t familiar with the movie, I’m just going to read the IMDB summary of the movie to get us all on the same page. So spoilers ahead. The film starts with the voice of Dr. Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, speaking to someone. We see moments of Louise with her daughter, Hannah, from her birth through her childhood years, up until her death at a young age from a fatal disease, presumably cancer. Louise is a linguist and a language professor. She begins her lecture to a small class when the student’s phones go off. One student asks Louise to turn on the news. It is reported that at least 12 sites around the world, there are enormous extraterrestrial vessels touching down.

Greg McKeown (02:47):

The next day, Louise is visited in her office by Colonel Weber, played by Forest Whitaker, to utilize her linguistic skills to attempt to communicate with the aliens. At night, Weber shows up in a helicopter to escort Louise to the base. She joins them and meets a theoretical physicist named Ian Donnelley, played by Jeremy Renner. The team arrives at the Montana landing site while the other 11 sites around the world have bases set up as well and are continuously updating each other on any progress. Louise, Ian, and several others are brought up to the top of the pod, where the lack of gravity allows them to stand before the glass-like barrier that keeps the aliens back. Two aliens appear. They are surrounded by a mist, and they appear as large tentacled creatures later called heptapods. Louise attempts to communicate with them by writing “human” on a board.

Greg McKeown (03:49):

One of the creatures emits a black cloud that forms a circular symbol. In a bold move, Louise removes her hazmat suit, attempting to gain their trust. She presses her Palm to the barrier. One of the creatures extends a limb and presses it against the barrier in an imitation of Louise’s gesture. After Ian shucks his hazmat suit, he decides to call the two aliens, Abbot and Costello. Tensions arise around the country as uncertainty in the heptapods intentions has sparked panic, causing people to loot and riot. Meanwhile, as the sessions go on, the team records the symbols produced by the heptapods to determine which symbols are translations of the words that Louise has been teaching them, love, time, and so on. Later, when Louise touches them again, she starts to see visions of Hannah. China’s General Shang, played by Tzi Ma, doesn’t trust the aliens and has his team deviate from the set plan by seeing communication of the intelligence.

Greg McKeown (05:00):

They gather to the other world sites. The Chinese site attempts to communicate with the heptapods through a game of Majong. Louise starts to experience dreams in the alien language while still seeing memories of Hannah as a child. Showing Louise a drawing of her parents in a TV show she’s made up, Hannah asks Louise if it’s her fault that her father left. But Louise assures her that’s not the case. In the present, Louise questions the aliens as to who this girl is. The aliens deliver a message that is translated to “use weapon”, which generates even greater attention among the other sites. The Chinese deliver an ultimatum to the aliens. They have 24 hours to leave, or the military will initiate a strike, and several other sites gear up to do the same thing. While the sites all disconnect from each other, Louise tells Weber that they need to make sure the aliens know the difference between a weapon and a tool.

Greg McKeown (06:07):

So Louise and Ian go up to the vessel by themselves, unaware that some of the soldiers place a C4 bomb in there. As they try to communicate with the heptapods, Abbot starts to create a message with hundreds of tiny scattered symbols. As the bomb is ready to detonate, Abbot drops Louise and Ian from the vessel as it explodes. Neither are seriously injured, but both are unconscious. Louise awakens in the base camp, having suffered a mild concussion. With a strike set to happen, she and he embraced a decode Abbot’s message and deduces that many of the symbols for time are scattered, but he can’t exactly determine what it all means. Agent Halpern, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, then tells the others about how severe the situation is since Russia has reportedly executed one of their own in order to keep their intelligence secret. Louise rushes toward the vessel, which sends down a small pod to take her up to the ship.

Greg McKeown (07:11):

She comes face to face with Costello, who tells her that Abbot is dying from the explosion. Costello emits more black symbolic smoke causing Louise to remember Hannah again. Costello then helps Louise to realize that the heptapods language is meant to be their tool or rather a gift to the humans. By understanding their language, they are able to see into the future. It is revealed here that all of Louise’s memories of her daughter, Hannah weren’t flashbacks but flashforwards. Costello explains that they were sent to give humans their language so that they may help the aliens 3000 years into the future.

Greg McKeown (07:59):

Eighteen months into the future, Louise and Shang will meet face to face, and he will express gratitude for her work and efforts, which ended up convincing him just what the aliens’ true intentions were. Louise takes help and satellite phone and contacts Shang to his personal number. She and Ian lock themselves away as she tries to send a message in which she tells Shang his wife’s last dying words. The Chinese military decides to stand down as reports start flooding in from all over the world. The vessels all rise from the ground and leave Earth in a cloudy mist. Louise and Ian watch them leave. Ian says that the greatest thing about the whole incident wasn’t meeting the aliens; it was meeting Louise. Louise then sees more visions of herself with Hannah. But this time with Ian in the picture. They are to become a couple and will eventually become parents to Hannah. In the present, Louise and Ian embrace. And she tells him she forgot what it was like to be held by him.

Greg McKeown (09:04):

Why does this movie matter so much to me? It touches me so deeply when I watch it and at many different levels, but at one level, this movie is about the transformative power of understanding. It explores the different ways people respond to the same information. They have the same sounds, the same actions to judge, but the meaning they are deriving is so different. They are essentially hearing different things, seeing different things. One hears a threat so great he decides to bomb the aliens, even as they are trying to serve humanity. One hears a threat to divide and conquer humanity and plans to provoke all-out war.

Greg McKeown (09:54):

But Louise seeks first to understand. She doesn’t give it one shot. She keeps at it and keeps at it and keeps at it. In this story, we understand there is a way to understand that transforms the sender and the receiver. As my brother quoted to me recently, “A way not just to cover information but uncover its meaning. A way, not just to inform of the facts, but transform as we get what it means.” And that is what it means to understand. It is to perceive the intended meaning. So to understand each other is to understand each other’s intended meaning. So understanding and meaning are deeply interrelated ideas. Understanding each other means finding mutual meaning, which is a game-changer, but there’s even more here. In this fictional movie, we learn something true that can be life-changing. It’s this: Meaning is more powerful than time. Let’s go back to the questions from the beginning. Have you ever been in a conflict that was so painful you wish you could go back and change it all?

Greg McKeown (11:29):

It could be with someone who hurt you badly. It could be with someone you hurt. It could be with someone who hurt someone you care about. Have these experiences ever made it hard to feel hope? In a recent post on LinkedIn, I asked people to talk to me about the power of words. I had immediately 50 replies, and one of them came from Katie Stanger. She wrote this, “The power of words is completely authentic. My divorce four years ago from a verbally abusive spouse caused me such grief and trauma that my vocal cords have partial paralysis. Yes. My vocal cords literally freeze. This has impacted my job as a choir director, my talent as a singer, and my hobbies as a member of several choirs. The grief and trauma of an event, coupled with the power of all those hateful words, have literally ruined my voice.

Greg McKeown (12:31):

I won’t let it ruin my life though. I can put pen to paper. Write. Live. Dream.” So, shifting now from a fictional story, that speaks truth to a real and present story that also speaks truth. I want to carefully and precisely respond to Katie and, through her, all of us who experience suffering. First, I should say that abuse in all its forms, physical, emotional, mental, sexual, and verbal is abhorrent and wrong. And there’s no, but in that sentence. I just want to get that out there before any other response. And if you are listening to this and someone is abusing you, you can ask for help right now. Right now. You can pick up the phone and text a friend. Pause this right now and do it. Now let’s move to what we can do to recover from the inevitable conflicts of our lives. Perhaps you have not been in a verbally abusive relationship.

Greg McKeown (13:41):

Although, I fear that many people are because, as a society, we have not learned how to use language in a way that helps us to get our needs met and other people’s as well. So what I’m about to share for Katie can also apply to you as we recover from the suffering of our lives. I want to share three points that I think have the power to be transformative, that give us the hope to move forward from these challenges, these conflicts that have scarred us. Premise one, premise two, and a surprising conclusion. Premise one: You can’t change the past. So that’s self-evident. Time, we all know it moves forward indefinitely. And it’s not exactly obvious why that is the case. Sophisticated physicians have tried, among others to ask why it is the case. Now let me be captain obvious for a moment. That time moves only forward is a huge problem.

Greg McKeown (14:55):

And one of the reasons it’s such a big problem is that mistakes were made to us and by us, and we cannot undo them. We can’t unhear the things that were said to us. We can’t go back and unsay the things we said to other people. We cannot go back and undo past conflicts. That’s premise one. Premise two: Everything has endless meanings. Even the most benign concrete objects mean many things. A stop sign means a car needs to stop. Yes, but it also means there are local laws. It means state and federal laws exist to one person. It’s their job to put the stop sign up. To another, It means a job to repair them. It also means people are capable of self-governance. It means design and colors. It means cooperation. It means safety. It means danger. It means an endless number of things. Literally, even though this sounds like it’s hyperbole, an infinite number of things. It can mean anything. So everything has endless meanings. Premise three: You can’t change the past. So this leads to the surprisingly hopeful conclusion. You can’t change the past, but you can change what it means. That’s one of the greatest discoveries of my whole life. Anything in the past can come to mean almost anything in the future.

Greg McKeown (16:46):

And given that meaning is by definition the thing that shapes everything about our experience, this is the ultimately hopeful insight. The suffering you have experienced from conflicts can come to mean something new, can come to mean strength, forgiveness, healing. For Katie, this could mean the way she came to find her voice. So let’s go back to the question. Have you ever been in a conflict with someone that was so painful you wish you could go back and change it? I have. I’d go back and change all of them if I could. The most painful ones first. In all my wanting, what I want now is to do no harm. So we can’t do that, but we can change the meaning. Let’s review it again. Premise one: You can’t change the past. Premise two: Everything has endless meanings. Therefore you can’t change the past, but you can change what it means.

Greg McKeown (17:50):

There’s more to unpack here than I possibly can in a single episode. We’ll come back to this. But I do believe it that meaning is more important than time. And as Jordan Peterson has said, “Meaning is the antidote to suffering.” So if you have experienced suffering in the past, and of course you have. And if you are suffering now, and almost certainly you are. And if you see suffering in your future and for anyone who has ever worried about anything, what else is that? But suffering for the future? The antidote, the transformative idea, is meaning. To understand what something really means. We’re great storytellers. We often use stories to explain things that are going along, but we are often inaccurate and immature in those stories, to say it more bluntly. The stories we create are wrong. We’re as wrong as those groups in the arrival movie were about the aliens. We’re that wrong.

Greg McKeown (19:05):

We see stories of victimhood and villains, sometimes when there isn’t really either. And as we gain perspective, as we gain maturity, we see things differently. And those differences change us. They turn suffering into hope. Yes, meaning turns suffering into hope. Meaning is what turns a negative into a positive. And as I’ve said before, a person who can turn a negative into a positive can never be defeated. So what can you do right now to use meaning, to turn suffering into hope? We’ll make this tool available in the show notes and in the email that shares those show notes. But the basic idea is to write down what has happened in your life, the observational facts that have caused or are causing you suffering. In the second column, I want you to think about why those things cause you to suffer. What is the story that makes it hurt so much? And then to at least explore a new meaning?

Greg McKeown (20:25):

What could it mean in the future as you’ve healed, as you are transformed, as you’re changed? What could it mean? At least open yourself to that? Because I personally have experienced things that I came to the point of being sure about. That I had the story, right, and I have seen, I have become witness to the meaning completely changing, contorting experiences from suffering to healing to hope. And in this way, every past conflict, every form of suffering represents a serious opportunity to grow. And I don’t just mean that we choose what it means. I mean that we can detect what it means. Thank you for listening. If you would like to be part of a live series where we develop the skills to understand each other, please sign up at essentialism.com/negotiation. And I’ll let you know once we are ready to run the first series. Remember also to subscribe to this podcast now so that you can receive the next episode automatically. If you have found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcast. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive a signed copy of Effortless. Just send a photo of your review to info@gregmckeown.com. Using the language of the Slight Edge. What would happen if you and I got 1% better every day at understanding each other? That is a limitless feature.