The 3 E's of a Great Speech

I gave a brand new speech at SXSW yesterday.

So, I was nervous about it. I lost sleep over it. I spent weeks writing the speech out, editing it over and over again, making up slides, editing them over and over again, and then I practiced out loud in front of my wife and my parents and a few friends and even the guy sitting next to me on the airplane to Austin until I had the whole thing memorized.

I was stomach-churningly nervous for the speech even though I give over fifty speeches a year.

What helped?

Well, there is a model for giving speeches that helped me yesterday, that's helped me before, that always helps me, which I want to share today.

I think about this model all the time and it applies whether you’re giving a toast at a wedding, standing up in the boardroom, or delivering a big keynote address at the annual trade show.

We always know we need to get our act together.

The hard part is how.

So here are the 3 E’s to giving a great speech:


This is the base of the pyramid. Starting point. Table stakes. Want to know how entertained your audience will be by the time you get up to talk? In short, very. For starters, we all touch our phones over 2000 times a day and spend over 5 hours a day on them -- scrolling Instagram, watching SNL clips, reading fantasy football trash-talk, listening to podcasts. This is now your competition. So how do you beat it?

Well, you have one major advantage over the massive addiction that is the cell phone, and it is that you’re here. You’re live. You’re in the flesh. No one’s doing stand-up in the other corner. It’s all you. You get a deeper personal connection from the beginning. Nobody needs WiFi or has to tap a link to watch you. You get 30 seconds of free attention. (That’s a lot more than the average YouTube video gets.) 

So what do you need to do with that momentary leg up on your listeners’ attention? Reward it immediately. Show the audience the bonus they get by listening. Raise interest as you get onstage, create a laugh, and most importantly, be the most into your speech of anyone there. The audience can only rise to your level of excitement—nobody else’s—so no apologizing and no self-deprecating. Banned phrases include: “Now I don’t really know why I’m doing this!”, “I wrote this ten minutes ago so here goes…”, or “Well, how am I gonna follow that?!”

A good test is this: If your speech entertains one other person you’re close to (especially a friend or significant other) during a dry run, it will entertain a whole room.

Start with the toughest critic first.

(Normally I’ll try and open with a funny line but at SXSW yesterday I had this video made by my friends at Adjacent Possibilities to entertain before I walked onstage. Cheating? No. I say entertain any way you can.)


Humans are learning animals. We’re always growing our minds, abilities, and knowledge. Of course we are -- education makes us better at our jobs, better with our money, and better at relationships, so we tend to seek it out. But even when we aren’t actively learning, our brains are absorbing new information. Podcasts share how a chocolate company is changing the world or which books shaped David Sedaris. Even SNL clips give us perspectives on the news. In fact, why are you reading this article? I’m guessing it’s because you’re hoping to learn something. So ask yourself:

What is your speech teaching?

Make sure you can write out the answer to that question in fewer than 140 characters. If the essence of your message is too complicated to tweet, it’s too complicated period:

  • “I’m teaching our hundred closest friends which formative moments shaped my daughter’s beautiful personality” (wedding toast)

  • “I’m teaching my employees why they should feel proud about last year’s results and excited about next year’s goals” (all-hands meeting)

  • “I’m giving people new techniques to apply at work to improve their well-being” (a TEDx–style talk).


This one is the biggest trick of a good speech, the hardest to pull off, and admittedly the most ambiguous-sounding as a result. But “empowering” your listeners really all comes down to making them feel like these were all their thoughts. Theirs! Not yours.

Yes, you’re on stage.

But they have to feel like they own the message if they’re going to take it with them—and, ultimately, change their minds or behavior. Sure, people may ask for opinions, do research online, and read books to brush up on things. We all do that. But we only really do what we want to do.

So, the bottom line is: It can’t be your message, shared. It has to be their message, heard.

Your role is to lead listeners through a series of thoughts that build on each other as they progress, where they keep nodding and thinking to themselves, “Yes … yes … yes… ”

There are at least three reliable tools you can use to generate empowerment in your talk:

i) Pause and interact.

Can you use a flip chart where you write something down together with the audience? Can you leave pauses for the audience to jump in with their own answers? Can you do a short interactive exercise or experiment using the content you just shared? Their minds have to chew, not just swallow. Michael Bungay Stanier, author of a great book called The Coaching Habit, sometimes has listeners trade questions with the person sitting next to them.

ii) Find a lesson that’s doable, not just interesting.

We don’t want to hear how you climbed Kilimanjaro if we think we never will. When I talk about happiness I share major positive-psychology studies that show how you can improve your mindset in 20 minutes or less. Then I say, “You just have to do one, not all of them!” I’m trying to make the laundry list feel achievable. Is it harder to do this at a wedding? Maybe. But you know someone is nailing it at the wedding reception when you hear a story and think, “I want to start doing that.” 

iii) Keep it conversational.

It has to feel like a coffee-shop chat with your best friend, not like a charmer onstage tossing takeaways into the audience like candy at a parade. So? Memorize first. Paraphrase later. Don’t be too rigid. You listen to your friends, right? So that works better than a guru on a stage who may entertain and educate, but still falls short of empowering you to make changes in your life.

So that’s it. The 3 E’s to giving a great speech. The little meat grinder to run your speech through in order to make sure it passes the test. And how will you know if you nailed it? Count how many pieces of unsolicited feedback you get more than a month later. That’s real impact. Real change. You’re not asking what they “got” from your talk, you’re seeing what they remember.

Giving a great speech that entertains, educates, and empowers is a tall task.

Are you up for it?

You’re all the way down at the bottom so I’m guessing yes.

Congrats on making the commitment.

Now get out there and inspire others to commit to something, too.

I also did a video version of this article on Youtube:

An earlier version of this article appeared in Fast Company

13 Books To Read If You’re Anxious

Anyone who says they never get anxious is lying.

Sure, National Institute of Mental Health studies may say things like 1 in 3 people are affected by anxiety and 1 in 5 Americans in general suffers from clinical anxiety, but I’m not talking about official diagnosed anxiety. I get that’s real anxiety and I don’t want to disempower the word but I also think it applies to the more general definition of anxiety, that I feel, that I’m guessing you feel, too. 

I’m talking about spinning in your head while lying in your bed tossing and turning for a couple hours before falling asleep. I’m talking about sweating the big interview or big trip you have coming up to the point where it’s difficult to concentrate on anything else. I’m talking about thinking and overthinking and overthinking a decision till you ultimately just avoid the decision completely. 

I felt like this a lot when I was little.

I would get headaches all the time and need to miss piano lessons or Beavers. I slowly grew out of feeling anxiety so often but to this day despite, you know, writing and speaking full-time about living intentionally, I still get anxious bouts a few times a month.

What helps?

For me, a few things: journaling, going for a long walk, talking to my wife Leslie, doing a tough workout, calling up my parents, and… 


Yes, books help me move through anxious bouts so often that I thought I’d take a deep comb through my shelf and pull out the ones I find myself turning to again and again to nudge my brain forwards...

13. How To Love by Thich Nhat Hanh. 

The prolific Zen monk’s simple little paragraphs about compassionate love. Great applying to those you love… and great applying it to yourself. 

12. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosch. 

I worried this book could actually cause anxiety. Sort of like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm does for some people. So that’s a risk. But I included it because there’s something about feeling connected to others who feel anxious which can help my own anxiety melt away. Despite the super rudimentary Microsoft-Paint visual style the content is an amazing introspection on the human condition on topics such as mental illness, depression, and, yes, anxiety. (Sidenote: Hyperbole and a Half was one of Sarah Andersen’s three most formative books over on the 3 Books podcast.)

11. The Art of Living by Epictetus. 

I stayed in a hotel called The Taj in San Francisco during the book tour for The Happiness Equation. It was my first time staying in an Indian hotel chain so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I pulled open the top drawer of the bedside table and there was a copy of The Vedas lying there. But it was jarring. I’ve been used to seeing Bibles in hotel rooms my whole life. And then suddenly there was something else. “Hmmm,” I thought, “Maybe it’s not the Bible, per se, but a thousands-of-years old grounding and centering guidebook of stories and lessons for people far from home.” That got me thinking. What book would I put in the bedside table of my own hotel chain? (No, I don’t have one, but say I did! Maybe Pasricha&Pasricha? Our tagline: Least pronounceable hotel chain in the world.) (Btw, it’s pass-REACH-ah, in case you’re curious.) (No more brackets, promise.) What book would you include in your hotel chain’s bedside table? Me, pretty sure I’d go with The Art of Living by Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius and Seneca may command more of the Stoic philosophy spotlight, but I’ve found great joy paging through this two thousand year old book of simple philosophical notes written by a slave born on the edges of the Roman Empire in 55 AD. Perfect to flip through to wind your brain down before bed or to gently wake it up in the morning rather than looking at your cell phone (NSFW). Part of the appeal is that, despite being written so long ago, the book reads like an email you got this morning from a wise friend. Sample entry to share a taste: “It is better to do wrong seldom and to own it, and to act right for the most part, than seldom to admit that you have done wrong and to do wrong often.” (More sample entries can be found here.)

10. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. 

A completely simple guide to battling “Resistance” – the single word Pressfield uses to describe the set of emotions and barriers preventing you from doing work you love. For me anxiety gets swirled into this emotional stew. A helpful brain reframe. 

9. Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka. 

Beautiful children’s book showing how easy it is to connect and friendify. My wife Leslie has been using this book in her elementary school classroom for years. It’s super short with only a word or two per page. Literary minimalism! (It’s like: “Yo!” “Yes?” “You!” “Me?” “Yes, you!” “No fun.” “Oh?” “No friends.” “Oh! … Me?” “You?” “Me!” “...Yes!”, etc) Wonderfully emotive illustrations help it serve children and remind adults like me to always try and offer each other tender connection. That it’s not hard to be kind. And that kindness greases every other movement. Written and illustrated by Chris Raschka who’s also the wonderbrain behind the incredible A Ball for Daisy and The Hello Goodbye Window

8. How To Develop Self-Confidence & Influence People by Public Speaking by Dale Carnegie. 

Is your anxiety about giving a speech, an interview, or a date? I give a lot of speeches and sometimes I get anxiety right before a big one. Enter this book. This book is a lot less known than How To Win Friends and Influence People because, I think, it’s slightly less applicable but it’s gold, honestly. Timeless advice showing how to make a speech (or a conversation) all about the listener. That’s the key. Favorite chapters were templates with examples on how to open and close speeches (i.e., arouse curiosity, share a human interest story, share a shocking fact, etc.). Perfect for anyone shoulder-tapped for a toast at a wedding all the way up to the corporate honcho in the big hat. 

7. The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida and translated by David Mitchell. 

According to the introduction, this is the only book ever written about autism … by someone with autism. Japanese teenager Naoki Higashida wrote this book with a Japanese alphabet pad and an assistant, one character at a time, and you can feel that slow tenderness and passion as he answers question after question. Why do people with autism talk so loudly and weirdly? Why don’t you make eye contact while talking? What’s the reason you jump? I’ve loved David Mitchell since Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green so I originally found this book while searching for bibliographical scraps. Turns out it’s incredible for anxiety because it pulls off an epic consciousness leap. You really feel like you’re living in another mind. A huge injection of empathy helps our own problems feel less important when we’re done. Side history: David Mitchell shares how his son has severe autism and he, like many, struggled to identify, relate, and support his child… until he read this book. He then worked with his wife to translate it at the request of friends and the book found a giant Western audience after The Daily Show trumpeted it and it hit The New York Times bestseller list. 

6. What To Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn) by Seth Godin. 

This book is a shot of nitro. There’s no way you can read it and not feel your confidence and energy lift up for your next project. Flip through it in an hour or two. A visually beautiful book from the incredibly wise master Seth Godin on taking risks, starting businesses, and just doing it.

!. Think Like A Bronze Medalist, Not Silver by Derek Sivers. 

This one isn’t a book but a blog post. Still, I feel like it deserves an honorable mention on this list so I gave it an exclamation mark instead of a number. Helpful perspective when I have anxiety because it’s a reminder to sometimes focus on gratitude over ambition, on being thrilled you made it instead of being bummed you didn’t, and on simply having enough versus always wanting more. 

5. Civil Disobedience and Other Essays by Henry David Thoreau.

The title essay is great but the one I really want to talk about here isWalking (link goes to full text). A fiery piece on the philosophical, meditative, and creative benefits of… walking. Leslie and I picked our house based on what we could walk to and I try and do most of my meetings walking. (Here's a great TED Talk on walking meetings.) This essay was both a justification and reminder of the benefits. As Thoreau says: “We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities. Knowledge does not come to us by details, but in flashes of light from heaven.” (Sidenote: If you want to go deeper on this topic, I recommend the Nassim Taleb essay “Why I Do All This Walking” and Austin Kleon’s tagged blog posts on Walking.)

4. The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha. 

Can I recommend my own book? The reason I wrote it was because my wife asked me for a divorce and my best friend took his own life right around the same time. I was in shock. I was spinning. I had to find a new place to live. I started up in therapy for the first time. I looked for any way to help avoid slipping down to emotional rock bottom. The awesome things in The Book of Awesome were the bounce from the bottom for me and I wrote one every single day for four straight years on The best ones are in this book. (Here’s a TED Talk which shares more of this story.)

3. If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? by Kurt Vonnegut. 

Inspiring collection of commencement speeches by Kurt Vonnegut collected over forty years. Creates great perspective and incredibly grounding and centering. 

2. The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck by Mark Manson. 

Have you by chance heard of this book? I’m guessing yes given it’s been on top of bestseller lists for years. I remember when it first came out booksellers I spoke to said it was the f-bomb that attracted folks. Later I heard folks say it was tapping into the emerging counter-anxiety trend of not giving a f*ck. But now that I’ve read it I can say… no, it’s the book itself. Pure solid gold life advice and mind-expanding philosophy told in a disarming, accessible, warts-and-all way by a new master. There’s less “new news” here but some pretty epic distillations of concepts that can otherwise feel too ephemeral or inaccessible. (P.S. Mark Manson is an upcoming guest on 3 Books and he just announced his new book.) 

1. Mindset by Carol Dweck. 

Check out this scenario from Page 8 of this book: “One day, you go to a class that is really important to you and that you like a lot. The professor returns the midterm papers to the class. You got a C+. You’re very disappointed. That evening on the way back to your home, you find that you’ve gotten a parking ticket. Being really frustrated, you call your best friend to share your experience but are sort of brushed off.” According to Carol Dweck, if you have a fixed mindset you’d think “I’m a total failure” or “I feel like a reject.” And if you have a growth mindset, you’d think “I need to try harder in class, be more careful when parking the car, and wonder if my friend had a bad day.” She points out it was a midterm... not a final. A parking ticket... not a major infraction. Sort of brushed off... versus getting dumped or screamed at. I’ll admit I was totally in the first camp. This incredibly readable book helped me understand how to develop a growth mindset across all spectrums of my life from writing to marriage to parenting. Since I read this book I began speaking differently to my children. And to myself.

I also did a condensed video version of this article on Youtube:

#1001 When that person you haven’t seen in a while doesn’t guilt trip you for not seeing them in a while

Did you used to get your cheeks pinched?

When I was a kid Poona Auntie pinched my cheeks at family gatherings on the reg. And, as if the death grip on my ruby-reds wasn’t enough, she always accompanied it with some classic Indian head wobbles and lines like “Why don’t you ever visit me, beta gee? Why has it been so long? Why don’t you ever phone your Poona Auntie?”  

Guilt, pain, shame, and a quick feeling of being a bad nephew.

I guess it never struck me to take a break from fighting hammer brothers in my basement to phone up a distant aunt and start gabbing like we were sitting under permers at the beauty salon.

And what would have happened if I really did call up the aunt whose only conversation topic was how I didn’t call her? Would we have suddenly started swapping vindaloo recipes or debated the latest Bollywood star turn? Or would we have simply inched along a step to discussing how I never came to visit?

Much later on in life I owned a sandwich shop and sometimes had a customer walk in the door who I hadn’t seen in a little while.

What did I say to them? “Hey, where have you been?  Why don’t you ever visit your favorite sandwich shop anymore?”

I started noticing when I did that they’d quickly flash an apologetic smile, make a quick Mesquite Chicken order, and then disappear forever.

I’d hear the door ding and could almost see the swirling black cloud of shame hovering over them as they stepped inside their dented Honda Civic and drove straight out of my life.

It took a long time to realize the shame was because of me.

And that it was undeserved.

I had somehow grown into the Poona Auntie of Sandwiches.

Over time, I started to understand why they never came back. It was the same reason I never called my aunt.

Who can handle that kind of guilt?

Much easier to disappear completely.

Shame clouds came in those days because I wasn’t confident.

“I’m a non-caller, I’m a bad nephew, I’m not holding up my end of the relationship.”

Or maybe the snow globe lives we live in just had a shake and I didn’t realize that was okay, that was normal, that neither person was to blame.

Because guilt tripping is a form of emotional lashing out.

Research from the University of Auckland and the University of New Hampshire found that people who felt more hurt when receiving criticism from partners were more likely to respond dramatically in order to make their partner feel guilty. The more their feelings were hurt, the more guilt their partners experienced.

 When you say, “I know we haven’t seen each other in a while,” you’re essentially saying, “and it’s all your fault.”

But we’re forgetting we all live in a snow globe.

We shake up, we shake down, we fly sideways, we get around. Sometimes the shakes send us flying. And that doesn’t mean we did anything wrong. We have to grow to appreciate what we had and what we have. We have to learn to let go a little more of what could or should be.

Moments, days, this year, right here.

Tomorrows are never guaranteed so no need to spray them with Poona Auntie sayings or shake shame clouds over people when all you really mean to say is:

“I’m so glad to see you.”

“I feel lucky we got this.”

“Thanks for being in my life.”

“And thank you for being


 I wrote 1000 Awesome Things from 2008 – 2012 which turned into four books. This is my first new one online since then.

Why You Should Never, Ever Retire

“He’s dead.”

Staring in shock at my high school Guidance Department secretary, I thought that it couldn’t be true, it couldn’t be true, it couldn’t be true. I’d just talked to him last week.

“It happened so suddenly,” she whispered, tears shining through thick glasses, glossy red lips quivering silently in slow motion. “I am so sorry.”

Mr. Wilson was my guidance counselor. He had a shiny head holding two fluffy-cloud patches of gray hair on the sides and wore thick glasses and loose-fitting gray T-shirts while helping students with timetables, college applications, and personal problems.

Everybody loved Mr. Wilson.

I talked to him about summer jobs and he calmed me down during exams. He had a quiet, big-picture worldview that helped us get above ourselves and see beyond life in our hometown.

You could tell Mr. Wilson loved his job by the way his eyes twinkled as he bounced through the halls, spouting hellos and high-fiving students, calling everybody by name. He was always smiling, and our school was his home.

Back when I was in high school, the government had mandatory retirement. You turned sixty-five and poof! The government yanked you out of the workforce in a cloud of smoke and moved you straight on to old-age pension. You had no choice. And let’s face it — almost everybody wanted to retire way before sixty-five, anyway. TV ads preached “Freedom 55” with gray-haired couples skipping town to swim at the cottage, play golf, and sail into the sunset.

Retirement is a good thing. A great thing! What everybody wants, dreams about, wishes for, over and over and over and over . . . until it finally comes.

Do whatever, whenever, wherever . . . forever?

Sounds like a good deal!

The funny thing is that when Mr. Wilson retired . . . he didn’t look happy. None of us did. We had the big celebration with cake, music from the band, and teary speeches from former students. It was like the final scene in Mr. Holland’s Opus. Mr. Wilson said he was excited to be retiring, but his thin smile and wet eyes said the opposite.

But mandatory retirement came at age sixty-five . . . and so he retired.

The next week he had a heart attack and died.

The horrible idea the Germans had that ruined things for everybody

Every day there’s another article about how all of our retirements are doomed. Public pension promises in the U.S. vastly exceed their ability to pay. We now need nearly $400,000 at age 65 just to cover health care costs. And retirement itself increases your risk of depression by 40%.

For many of us, it’s starting to feel like the light at the end of the tunnel of life has been blocked by a triple-bolted steel door. Who’s to blame for this mess?

The Germans.

Yes, back in 1889, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck invented the idea of retirement, establishing the concept for the rest of us. “Those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state,” he said at the time. He wanted to address high youth unemployment by paying those 70 and older to leave the workforce, and other countries followed suit with retirement ages around 65 or 70.

But there is one big difference between 1889 Germany and the world we live in today: The average lifespan then was 70 years. Penicillin wasn’t discovered for forty years! Now we’re all living much, much longer. And many of us would like to retire much earlier. But the scary headlines — and the realities that we see around us — cast doubt on our ability to ever retire. The entire concept of retirement is starting to feel flimsy at best.

So what are we to do, short of working the rest of our days away?

What can we learn from the healthiest 100-year-olds in the world?

To get to the root of the issue, let’s look past the North American shorelines (where I live) all the way to the beautiful sandy islands of Okinawa, in the East China Sea. According to the Okinawa Centenarian Study, men and women in Okinawa live an average of seven years longer than Americans and have one of the longest disability-free life expectancies in the world.

Dan Buettner and fellow researchers from National Geographic studied why Okinawans live so long. What did they find out? Among other things, Okinawans eat off of smaller plates, stop eating when they’re 80% full, and have a beautiful setup wherein they’re put into social groups as babies to slowly grow old together.

But they also have an outlook on life that is very different from those in the West. While we think of retirement as the golden age of golf greens and cottage docks, guess what they call retirement in Okinawa?

They don’t. They don’t even have a word for it. Literally nothing in their language describes the concept of stopping work completely. Instead, one of the healthiest societies in the world has the word ikigai (pronounced like “icky guy”), which roughly translates to “the reason you wake up in the morning.”

It’s the thing that drives you most.

Toshimasa Sone and his colleagues at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine wondered whether having an ikigai could actually help extend longevity, health, and late-life stability, so they put the concept to a test. They spent seven years in Sendai, Japan, studying the longevity of more than 43,000 Japanese adults with regard to age, gender, education, body mass index, cigarette use, alcohol consumption, exercise, employment, perceived stress, history of disease, and even subjects’ self-rated scores of how healthy they were. Then they asked every single one of these 43,000 people, “Do you have an ikigai in your life?”

Participants reporting an ikigai at the beginning of the study were more likely to be married, educated, and employed. They had higher levels of self-rated health and lower levels of stress. At the end of the seven-year study, 95% of the folks with an ikigai were alive.
 Only 83% of those without an ikigai made it that long.

The 4 S’s

To put it another way: We don’t actually want to retire and do nothing. We just want to do something we love. And I’m not talking about endless days of back nines, fishing, and sailing into the sunset. While we might want some time to do those things, you’d be surprised to learn how quickly the bloom can come off of that type of rosy retirement. I believe that we’d all be better served by taking the concept of ikigai and distilling it into what I call the 4 S’s:

Social: Friends, peers, and coworkers who brighten our days and fulfill our social needs.

Structure: The alarm clock ringing because you have a reason to get up in the morning, and the resulting satisfaction you get from earned time off.

Stimulation: Keeping our minds challenged by learning something new each day.

Story: Being part of something bigger than ourselves by joining a group whose high-level purpose is something you couldn’t accomplish on your own.

Now, am I saying that if you’re six weeks away from your final punch-out after 30 years at the meatpacking plant, you should suddenly skewer your dreams and ramp up for 30 more? Of course not. What I’m saying is that retirement is a Western invention from days gone by that’s based on broken assumptions that we want — and can afford — to do nothing.

If you’re already struggling to pay bills and your career’s sitting on tectonic plates that are threatening to shift below the labor market, my recommendation is to dig deep into your natural passions to find a second act that aligns with your values.

There are far more problems and opportunities on this spinning planet than there are people to help with them so if you feel lost, follow your heart, find your ikigai, and remember the 4 S’s.

And stop worrying that you won’t ever be able to retire.

You’ll be far better off if you don’t.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Harvard Business Review

I expand on this idea in The Happiness Equation

8 More Ways To Read (A Lot) More Books

Do you want to read more books?

Most people I talk to say yes, yes, definitely yes. Then two seconds later they say “But I just don’t got that kind of time.”

Well, you know what? I’m calling shenanigans on that BS excuse.

Because the truth is we’re reading more words per day now than ever before. It’s just garbage reading. Texts and alerts and notifications and emails and headline skims and fly-by tickers and blog feeds and Twitter spews and Instagram comments.

Who has time for books anymore?

I know this pain because I’ve felt this pain. For most of my adult life I read five books a year tops. Few slow burners on my nightstand, couple on vacation if I was lucky.

But then three years ago I suddenly read fifty. Fifty books! In one year. I couldn’t believe it. I could suddenly feel books becoming this lead domino towards being a better husband, a better father, a better writer.

In fact, I was so enamoured with myself I even wrote an article about it for Harvard Business Review called “8 Ways To Read (A Lot) More Books This Year” where I summed up the little systems that helped me 10x my reading rate after decades of being a “don’t got that kind of time” whiner.

And then what?

Well, that article became the Most Popular article on Harvard Business Review for something like six months straight and when you type in “how to read more books” in Google it’s generally right near the top.

So it seems the desire to read more is somewhat universal.

Since then I’ve tried doubling down on reading myself. I send out a monthly book club with a summary of the books I’ve read and enjoyed each month and I now host a podcast all about books, too. I’m reading somewhere around 100 books a year now so I figured it was time for a Version 2.0 of that article sharing all the things I do to keep my reading rate high. An advanced version! Because sure, I hit slow patches, I hit bare patches, I slip into social media swirls and feel dirty afterwards.

But these are the eight things I do to get back on track.

8. Live inside a world of books. The first one is a mindset change. Most people have a bookshelf “over there”, you know? That’s where the books live. But one day last year my wife just dumped a pile of about ten picture books in the middle of our coffee table. What happened? Our kids started flipping through them all the time. So now we just rotate them and leave them there. Path-of-least-resistance principle! Just like how Google leaves alfalfa bars and tofu chips on the counter for employees while hiding the jelly beans in cookie jars. We’ve put the TV in the basement, installed a bookshelf near our front door, slipped books into carseat pouches, and, of course, placed one within reach of every toilet. (Want an epic toilet book? Try this.)  Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges says: “I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.”

7. Go red in bed. Yes, I’m talking about lighting up your bedroom like a bordello. How? Well, you gotta wear a red-light headband on your head like you’re in the jungles looking for the Predator. My wife Leslie generally falls asleep before I do and that’s when I strap my red reading light on my forehead and get my reading on. Why red? Michael Breus, PhD and author of The Power of When says that “The theory is that red light aids melatonin production.” And bright lights have the opposite effect according to The Sleep Health Foundation of Australia.  

6. Make your phone disgusting. Cell phones are a problem. Our phones are designed to be smooth, sexy, and irresistible. Don’t believe me? The book Irresistible by Adam Alter will quickly raise your awareness to the addictive designs going into smartphones. They’re pocket slot machines. So what’s the solution? Make it disgusting. Put your phone in black and white. Move all the apps off the main screen so it’s blank when you open it. Leave your cracked screen cracked. Move your charger to the basement so it’s an extra step in your low resilience nighttime and morning moments. (Cause you're never really proud of those 11pm emails, amirite?) Enable Night Shift to automatically block calls and texts after 7pm. Slowly, slowly, slowly prevent it from becoming such a seductive temptress. 

5. Go Dewey Decimal. How do you organize your books? By color? By when you bought them? By big random piles everywhere? There’s a reason every library is organized in the Dewey Decimal System. It makes sense. The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) System was created by Melvil Dewey in 1876. The DDC is the most widely used classification system in the world and is currently in use at libraries in over 140 countries. All books fall neatly into ever-more-thin-sliced categories around psychology and religion and science and art and everything. What’s the benefit? You make connections. You see where your big gaps are. (I couldn’t believe I only had three books in all of religion until I realized I only had two books in all of science! Who is Jesus? What is a tree? Don’t ask me!) I spent one Saturday putting my books in Dewey Decimal System and, in addition to scratching an incredibly deep organizational itch, I now find books faster, feel like my reading is more purposeful, and am more engaged in what I read, because I can sort of feel how it snaps into my brain. What tools do you need to do it? Just two! I bookmarked to look up Dewey Decimal Numbers for any books which don’t have a DDC code on the inside jacket and I use the Decimator app to look up what that number means. Oh, and I use a pencil to write the number and category inside the jacket. So three things including the pencil. I write the DDC code and the category in the inside jacket of each book. 

4. Listen to 3 Books. A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… and the man who never reads lives only one. Yes,  I stole that quote from Game of Thrones. But that quote begs a great follow-up question: Which thousand lives will you live? The average lifespan is about 1000 months long. (!) And estimates suggest around 1000 new books are published every single day. So on 3 Books I am spending fifteen years finding and reading the 1000 most formative books in the world. How? I’m sitting down and asking 333 of the most inspiring people I can find which three books most shaped their lives. I read the books in advance, do all the interviews in-person, have a strict no ads and no sponsors policy, and just get off discussing the big themes related to their books. Sample guests include David SedarisJudy BlumeChris Anderson of TED, and the world’s greatest Uber driver.

3. Unfollow all news. (Or Go Wiki.) Sure, sure, I preached before about how I cancelled all my magazine and newspaper subscriptions to focus solely on books. But you know where the news followed me? Online. They’re fishing for our eyeballs! So I had to get hardcore. Unfollow every news site on social media. Remove all bookmarks to news sites. Remove all passwords too! Now I get the news from skimming headlines at my local grocery store. Too hardcore? Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, told me he combs the front page of Wikipedia News each day. That’s it! No news sites, no news feeds. Why? Well, it’s quick and it’s Wikipedia. No left, no right, no leanings. It’s Wikipedia. When the news gets stripped out the space to read opens up. 

2. Read on something that doesn’t do anything else. In my chat with Seth Godin on 3 Books, he told me the research shows we don’t read on devices where we have the ability to multitask. Same path-of-least-resistance principle. If we can be interrupted, alerted, or notified, we will. Not good for diving deep into new worlds. So what do I suggest? Real books. Real pages. On dead trees. Yes, kill em, print on em, and disappear into your mind. Only real books let you be the full director of the show, after all. No voice replaces your mental voice, no formatting or display screen affects the artistic intentions of the writer. Sure, I get it if you need big font or you drive all day and prefer audiobooks, I get that, but I’m just saying if you wanna be a real book snob for the rest of your life just like me, well I’ve got a nice warm seat beside me. 

1. Find your Sarah. My favorite bookseller of all-time is Sarah Ramsey of Another Story Bookshop in Toronto. I walk in, I start blabbering, I start confessing, I share what I’m struggling with, she hmms and hahs and sizes me up as we wander around the store talking for half an hour. And then I walk out with an armload of books that completely fit my emotional state, where I want or need to grow, and those that resonate with me on a deeper level. If you believe humans are the best algorithm (like I do) then walking into your local independent bookstore, sizing up the Staff Picks wall to see who’s similar to you, and then asking them for personal picks is a great way to speed you up. (Here’s an ‘indie bookstore finder’ if you want a place to start.)

So are you ready to go? Do you need some final convincing?

If you need your left brain scratched, then check out the 2011 The Annual Review of Psychology which says that reading triggers our mirror neurons and opens up the parts of our brain responsible for developing empathy, compassion, and understanding. Makes you a better leader, teacher, parent, and sibling. Another study published in Science Magazine in 2013 found that reading literary fiction helps us improve our empathy and social functioning. And, lastly, an incredible 2013 study at Emory University, MRIs taken the morning after test subjects were asked to read sections of a novel showed an increase in connectivity in the left temporal cortex. What’s that? The area of the brain associated with receptivity for language. Priming the brain. And the MRIs were done the next day. Just imagine the long-term benefits of cracking open a book every day.

Most of us want to read more. And we can.

A couple years ago I shared 8 ways to read more books and now I'm share 8 more ways. Ditch the Instagram comments and news feeds and let's all try and slip more pages into all the cricks and corners of the day.

Happy reading.

10 Unconventional Gifts-ukkah To Give At Christmas-ukkah

Christmas is messed up.  

Lots are jammed, malls are rammed, and we race around in giant plastic cars to fill giant plastic bags with of giant plastic toys to set under giant plastic trees.

Toss another box on the pile! 

Now, I’m definitely guilty, too. But my wife and I are always trying to pull back, pare back, and get intentional about what we’re giving every year. Perfect’s over there, we’re over here, but still: here are ten unconventional gifts we have given or received in the past few years which have helped dial down the insanity while dialing up the intimacy: 

10. Old jewelry. Most things in your grandma’s closet don’t age well. Socks. Pantyhose. Reading glasses. Pink track pants. But jewelry is an exception. The story of a specific bracelet or pair of earrings only deepens, lengthens, and intensifies with time. “It’s the ring you grandfather bought me on our tenth anniversary” or “I bought these earrings for my prom back in Timmins.” The story of old jewelry is the story of the milestones in your life. Also applies to hoodies, watches, or anything else special you think someone else might love.

9. A batch of your homemade spaghetti sauce. Whip up a big batch of the good stuff and dollop it into jars for all your loved ones. Also works with salsa, jam, or granola. For bonus points cut out some little checkered cloths with pinking shears and wrap them around the lids with string. 

8. A travel water bottle. By some estimates there are now over a million people in airplanes at any given time. That’s like a lot. And I don’t know about you but running to my gate in the screen-n-perfume-n-dead-eyeballed tank that is The Modern Airport always makes me thirsty. So I buy some $8 bottle of water, chug it, and chuck the plastic brick it came in into the trash. Horrible! I may as well personally strangle a pickerel. But what’s the solution? Well, a travel water bottle that dangles on the outside of a backpack. Perfect for airport tap water fill-ups. And a nice reminder of a loved one when you’re far away. 

7. A different version of their favorite book. When I interviewed my favorite bookseller Sarah Ramsey for 3 Books she told me she had four copies of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. What? Why? Well! It’s her favorite book, they have different covers, one of them is signed, you get the idea. Why is this such a brilliant move? Because you already know they love it. Now they get an edition that’s different because of the cover or format or signature inside. It also ups your gift giving cred if you pored through endless used bookstore bins to find the gem. I just gave my friend Mark an original hardcover I found of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace because I knew he was a huge fan. (Sidenote: Mark wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck which is an incredible book. The wonderful Strand Bookstore in New York sells signed copies of it online.)

6. An upgrade of that free meditation or mindfulness app they already love. Do they Headspace? Are they into Do they use the Momentum Chrome extension? If you already know they love it then you can soup up their experience by buying the upgrade. They went freemium. You can go premium. 

5. A mix tape or personalized playlist with the track listing printed inside the card. Every single Christmas I eagerly look forward to my friend Mike’s “Best Of This Year” CD he painstakingly filters, produces, burns, and mails to me. Yes, I still listen to CDs, and I also toss his mix tape into a Spotify playlist to listen to while I’m traveling. Music says what words can’t. And, in an era of infinite choice, the value of curation skyrockets. If you want to get hardcore you can record it on a cassette and pair it with a used cassette player to play it on. And, if not, then making a custom playlist and writing up a pretty track listing in the card also works wonders. 

4. A gift certificate to your favorite independent bookstore. 2009 and 2015 is often called the “retail apocalypse” because of all the big chains that went belly up. But what happened to the number of independent bookstores in the US during that time? They actually grew by 35%. Ditch the screens and let’s get back into books. They’re back. With a vengeance! Now, I have a personal Life Rule when it comes to independent bookstores. Simply: I am not allowed to walk into one without buying something before I leave. That’s pushed my brain into all kinds of places I never thought it’d go. Bookstores are one of the most vital members of our local cultural communities and a gift certificate from one of them is the stocking stuffer of love. 

3. A hand-written love letter. Sounds daunting! That’s why it sticks out. A few things up front: The paper don’t matter, the pen don’t matter, crossing things off and rewriting them again and again don’t matter. No need for rhymes. No need for anything fancy. Just try to remove all the plaque between your heart and fingers and let it flow. What you remember about how we met, a few favorite memories from this year, and how you make me feel. Now, I debated not sharing this next part since it sounds a little cutesy but it’s true so I’m sharing it. My wife Leslie and I have been together for eight Christmases. We’ve never bought a single Christmas present for each other. We just write a letter to each other and that’s it. What would you rather have in 50 years? A pile of dusty electronics in your attic or a treasured collection of fifty love letters? Leslie even photographs them in case of tornado or typhoon. Again, length, style, format – none of it matters. According to a study published in the Journal of Psychological Science, when we express gratitude for others by writing them a handwritten letter, we underestimate how grateful recipients feel, overestimate how ‘awkward’ it is, and underestimate how positive they’ll feel. Don’t think about it. Just go for it. 

2. A homemade coupon booklet. I know you remember giving these to your mom when you were six and couldn’t afford to get her a sweater. “This coupon entitles the bearer to 1 free hug.” And those coupons were beautiful and sweet and I bet they made your mom cry and I bet she kept them. But then what happened? You started getting her muffin trays and sweaters. Lame! Bring back the homemade coupon. But now, as an adult, you can make it a whole booklet. We know experiences make us happier than things and the homemade coupon brings experiences to life. Foot massages! Homemade lasagna! Watching the kids! Two weeks of laundry! Make out sessions! Wait, I’m talking about your partner not your mom now. I should clarify. Hey, if you take the advice of bestselling author Kelly Oxford in GQ, then sexual favors in committed relationships are fair game, too. Spicing up marriages, strengthening relationships, getting right to the nucleosis of generosity, and saving money. Is there anything homemade coupons can’t do? 

1. A photo or essay book from all their friends and family. Okay, this here is the jackpot. When my friend Fred turned 30 years old I got an email from his wife Jen asking if I would write a little essay about what Fred means to me. So I did. And she collected similar essays from all his friends and family and put them into a book which is still one of his most prized possessions. Now, maybe this gift is better for their milestone birthday, rather than, you know, Jesus’s milestone birthday, but I think it needs to be mentioned because it takes a lot of time and effort to put together this type of gift. You might start planning for it this year and then place it under the tree in 2023. 

Christmas, Christmas, long grown from its religious roots straight and into our increasingly secular world. But how do we flee the pulsing dehydration headaches, endless Man Couches, and chop suey chicken ball stenches from mall food courts?

We do it by preserving the magical reminder of generosity and togetherness by choosing gifts easy on the environment, easy on the wallet, and extra on the intimacy … whenever we can.

3 Ways To Fight Cellphone Addiction In Schools

I was speaking at a principals’ conference recently. Want to take three guesses at what most of the questions were about? If you said “cellphones, cellphones, and more cellphones” you’re right.

“How do we pull students off devices?”

“How do we remove cellphones as a distraction and regain focus and attention in classrooms?”

“What can we do to cope with growing cellphone addiction and anxiety and other problems rising up?”

Well, first off, it is an addiction. We’ve talked before about how when everyone is addicted to something it looks like nobody is. It’s not the only thing! Caffeine, sugar, you guys know what I’m talking about. But, on phones, my old answer used to be to ban cellphones. Not allowed! Keep them away from classrooms, lunch rooms and hallways. But the tide has shifted. When I asked the room of 300 elementary and high school principals how many didn’t allow cellphones in classrooms … nobody put up their hand.

And then I stared a bit closer at all the conference tables around the room. What was sitting in front of everybody? Cellphones. Of course.

That’s when I realized.

Pandora’s Box is already opened.

You can’t stuff demons back in that easily.

It wasn’t even a few years ago I remember CEOs or conference MCs holding up cardboard boxes and asking everyone to toss their cellphone in before a big meeting began. But now all we do is tell people which hashtag to use.

Why are we so afraid to tell others to give up their phones? Because we don’t want to give them up ourselves.

And it’s not our fault as the devices are designed to be more and more irresistible and addictive and, since we are the most social species on the planet, our phones have become the primary connective tissue to our family, friends, coworkers, tribes, subreddits, fantasy football leagues, celebrity follows … all our social connections.

2017 study looked at how people with high and low nomophobic (no-more-phone-phobia) tendencies perceive and value their smartphones. The findings suggest that we see our phones as extensions of ourselves, which is what creates separation anxiety to our phones. That’s right — high cellphone users literally feel anxious when separated from their devices.

Clinical psychologist Brenda K. Wiederhold further elaborates on this subject: “Nomophobia, fear of missing out (FOMO), and fear of being offline (FOBO) — all anxieties born of our new high-tech lifestyles — may be treated similarly to other more traditional phobias. Exposure therapy, in this case turning off technology periodically, can teach individuals to reduce anxiety and become comfortable with periods of disconnectedness.”

But it ain’t that easy!

So what do we do?

Well, I have three suggestions.

1. Zones

After a moment one principal bravely put up her hand and said “You know, we’re trying something at our school. We have 25-minute nutrition breaks twice a day. And in those breaks we say cellphones aren’t allowed. The students sit at tables, face each other, and if we see a cellphone … we take it.”

“How’s it working?” I asked.

“Well, we end up taking a bunch of cellphones every day. It’s really hard for them. But most of them have figured out they can make it 25 minutes and be able to use their phones right afterwards.”

So if you can’t yank the drug, how about a cellphone free zone? It can be schedule-based or maybe location based. Like no cellphones in the library.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema is an Austin, Texas-based movie theatre chain that is growing in leaps and bounds. While movie theatres nationally experienced a 3.4 per cent drop in box office sales in 2010, Alamo saw a 2.6 per cent rise in sales, and if you include food and drink revenue, that number is up to 4.8 per cent.

What differentiates the Alamo from the rest? Well, it has set in place policies to improve the customer’s overall experience … including one no other movie theatre has: if you use your cellphone a bouncer kicks you out.

Like I said, the chain is growing in leaps and bounds.

2. Modelling

Are you complaining about students using cellphones with your phone sitting on your desk?

Last month the New York Times released an article on why Silicon Valley parents are becoming increasingly obsessed with keeping their children away from phones … and why many are now asking their nannies to sign “no cellphone” contracts to help keep technology away from their kids.

One Silicon Valley nanny said: “Most parents come home, and they’re still glued to their phones, and they’re not listening to a word these kids are saying … Now I’m the nanny ripping out the cords from the PlayStations.”

Are children using their phones more because their peers are … or because their parents are?

This all reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon I saw recently. Two women are sitting beside each other on a park bench. Each has a young girl beside them, presumably their daughters. One mom is holding a phone. Her daughter is looking at a phone. The other mom is holding a book. Her daughter is reading a book. And the caption is phone-holding mom asking book-holding mom: “How do you get your kid to read?”

3. Fasting

How often do you say “Wow, I drank too much at that wedding. No drinks till next weekend.” Or “I gained five pounds over the holidays. I’ll walk to work this month.” These fasts are little mental systems put in place to prevent slipping again. Systems always beat goals.

So if you’re leading a group of people (in a school, sure, but it also applies elsewhere) you can apply the fasting principle to the group.

How? Start by saying you’re going on a fast.

A Facebook fast, an Instagram fast, a “no social media apps on my cellphone” fast. You pick the fast!

Then ask who else is in, draw up a leader board, and track who lasts the longest. Throw in a prize if it helps. Use a website like or if it’s helpful.

Declare cell free zones! Model the behaviour! Take a fast!

Yes, our tools may be dull and rusty.

But we can win this war yet.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Star

The Power of 1000

I didn’t realize it at the time, but something special happened to me on June 20, 2008.

I was in a pretty depressive state with my marriage heading the wrong direction and my best friend suffering from severe mental illness. I needed an escape. An outlet. A place to go. A place to vent.

So, I typed “How to start a blog” into Google and pressed that “I’m feeling lucky” button, which no one ever presses. And 10 minutes later, I started up a tiny website called 1000 Awesome Things.

My idea was to write down 1000 awesome things for 1000 straight weekdays to cheer myself up.

Why 1000?

Well, 100 awesome things sounded too low. Too easy! I could whip that off in a few months and I’d be finished. I didn’t expect I’d have things figured out in my own head that quickly.

And one million awesome things sounded like too much. A million! How many years would that take? Oh, not many, just a couple thousand. Since I’m not Gandalf, I knew I was aiming too high.

So, 1000 was my baby bear bowl of porridge.

It sounded jussssssssst right.

For the next four years, for the next 1000 straight weekdays, I really did write 1000 awesome things on my blog. And while my marriage fell apart and my best friend sadly took his own life, that tiny blog became a salvation, a place to escape to, a place to disappear to.

On April 19, 2012, 1000 weekdays after I launched it, I announced the No. 1 awesome thing in a downtown bookstore beamed live to the CBC National News.

And then … that was it. I hit 1000. The project finished. The blog ended. And I moved on.

But something happened to me over the years.

And it’s something I never put a finger on until pretty recently.

The number 1000 kept appearing in my life.

I thought maybe it was just the famous Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. You know, when you keep seeing the same obscure word jump out at you after hearing about it for the first time. Does that happen to you? In 1994, a commenter on the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s online discussion board came up with the term after hearing the name of the ultra-left-wing German terrorist group twice in one day.

But the number 1000 felt deeper than that.

When researching The Happiness Equation, I looked a lot at lifespans around the world. I was trying to understand why people in Okinawa, Japan, for example, live seven more years than North Americans and have no word for retiring.

So, guess what our average lifespan is? Here’s the interesting thing. It’s 1000 months. Or just over 83 years.

“There’s that number again,” I thought to myself.

A year later, I was working on my journal 2 Minute Mornings. I found I was stressed out so I came up with a routine to help me chill. Each morning, I would wake up and answer three research-backed prompts to both clear and focus my mind:

  • 1. “I will let go of …”

  • 2. “I am grateful for …”

  • 3. “I will focus on …”

When part of your life is doing interviews with media, you get good insight from journalists. And that’s what happened. I was doing the TV, radio, and podcast circuit on this journal and a host said something that struck me. She said:

“Today, we welcome Neil Pasricha on the show. His challenge? You’re awake 1000 minutes every day. Could you take two of them to make the other 998 even better?”

Wait a minute.

You’re alive 1000 months.

You’re awake 1000 minutes a day.

What an incredibly helpful way to measure what you’re doing in life in the broadest possible sense.

Renovating your fixer-upper for three months? Feels awful. But maybe small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. After all, it’s only 3 of your 1000 months. Hate your 100-minute commute? Well, that makes sense. You’re only awake 1000 minutes a day, so you’re burning 200 or 20% of them in the car.

What’s another reason 1000 is such a powerful number?

Because it’s a moon shot number that’s actually realistic.

When you’re only alive for 1000 months (or roughly 30000 days), then doing something for 1000 of them is a massive commitment … that you can actually do.

Can you do 1000 morning runs?

Can you cook 1000 homemade dinners?

Can you teach 1000 students?

Can you help 1000 people?

Yes, you can. It will take you a while. But you can.

And why 1000?

Because it is clear and measurable and big and daunting … but reachable. I wanted to so many times to quit while writing 1000 Awesome Things. But I had that number, that commitment, those three big zeros staring me in the face.

Once I’d spent a year writing a few hundred awesome things, could I look at myself in the mirror if I quit? I decided I couldn’t, which is where duds like, say, #806 Ducks came from on my blog.

How do I use it in my life today?

I decided I wanted to try and read the 1000 most formative books in the world before I die. Easy math. About a book a month. I realized there was no list of 1000 books I could trust and no algorithm that could feed me these 1000 important, life-changing books.

So, I made my own. I decided to interview 333 people who I find inspiring and ask each of them for the three books which most changed their lives. Who? Authors like Judy Blume, David Sedaris, and Mitch Albom. Creatives like Sarah Anderson of Sarah’s Scribbles or Chris Anderson who runs TED. Or inspiring people I stumble upon like Vishwas Aggrawal, the world’s greatest Uber driver with a 4.99 rating and over 5,000 rides.

I record these conversations in a podcast called 3 Books with Neil Pasricha and I release one chapter on the exact minute of every new moon and full moon since March 31, 2018 till 5:52 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2031.

2031? Yes! That’s the magic of 1000.

It’s a moon shot — I may never make it. I started the project at 38 years old and I’ll be in my 50s when it’s over. But it’s 1000 books, so it will take me a long time. But I now know, and I now believe, in the power of 1000 to lead me there.

As George R.R. Martin wrote: “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies … the man who never reads lives only one.”

There it is again. A one with three zeros.

What can you do a thousand times?

Just sign up for doing 1000 of something and then get ready to drop your jaw and stare back at yourself as you accomplish your massive goal.

Good luck!

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Star

7 Customer Service Lessons From The World’s Greatest Uber Driver

Do you Uber?

I’ve probably hailed an Uber two or three times a day for the past couple years and every time I do I scroll down to check the driver’s rating and number of rides. Do you do that? I’m always curious so I’ve sort of made a little mental map over time of what the ratings mean. 4.3? May drive on wrong side of the road. 4.5? Get ready for loud GPS directions. 4.7? Messy trunk with no suitcase room.

But something different happened the night I hailed an Uber driven by a guy named Vishwas Aggrawal, who goes by Vish for short. He had a staggering 4.99 rating. 4.99! I couldn’t believe it. I’d never seen a 4.99 before. I just figured he was just a brand new driver with a handful of rides until I scrolled down and saw that he’d given almost 5,000.

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How was that possible?

Well, when I sat down in Vish’s car I realized how it was possible. The five-minute drive home blossomed into an interview I did with Vish the following week (in the back of his Uber, of course) for my podcast 3 Books with Neil Pasricha, where I discuss the three most formative books of inspiring people like Seth GodinJudy Blume, and Gretchen Rubin. Vish was officially the first Uber driver on the show, and he shared with me why he cares so deeply about his service quality–even though Uber has no leaderboard, ranking, or major incentives tied to it–and what he does in order to keep that service so high.


After Vish confirms his passenger’s name and destination, he always asks, “Do you have enough room back there?” while actually moving his seat up. So within 10 seconds he’s able to show — not tell — that he’s in the high-service game using a repeatable method to demonstrate this quickly.

After Vish moves his seat up, he says, “It will take 11 minutes to get to your destination. Does this sound good to you?” The purpose of the question is to establish the service being offered and find out if the passenger is in a rush. If they are, he’ll work hard to shave even a minute or two off the arrival time. If not, he knows the offering has been crystallized by both sides. The deal is confirmed.


Born and raised in Indore, a city in central India, Vish earned his MBA and held sales and marketing positions at Coca-Cola and New York Life, where he says, “I learned how to effectively deal with people” with tact and emotional intelligence. Eventually, Vish moved to Toronto and, like many immigrants, found it difficult to break into his adoptive country’s knowledge economy, despite his extensive corporate experience.

“Doing Uber was not my first choice,” he says, but he hasn’t lowered his work standards, even though the company doesn’t compensate him for it. “Why can’t you compare driving a car with flying an airplane? Like the pilot,” he points out. Both are fundamentally customer-service roles, requiring similar skill sets he developed earlier in his career. “One of my mantras,” Vish tells me, “is either I do the thing, or I don’t do the thing. But if I do the thing, I do it the best.”


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Despite the thousands of rides he’s given, Vish knows that “it’s always their first time with me.” He keeps wet wipes under his seat and cleans the floor mats between every ride. Why? “This car is my office. This is the only office I have in this business, so I’m supposed to keep it up, I’m supposed to maintain it, I’m supposed to clean it,” he explains. “Every day, even when I go home, I also take out the carpets, I clean them. If it is snowing or dirty, I wash them.”

As an Uber driver, Vish says, “I know I’m doing a service,” not just operating a vehicle. His passengers’ experience is really what they’re paying for, more than just getting safely from point A to B. Vish has his phone programmed to silent, and an auto-responder menu pops up on his screen to handle incoming texts and calls, allowing him to tap and send replies without losing focus on his passenger. The one I kept getting while trying to set up our interview said simply, “I am in a trip, please text me if needed” (followed by the smiley face and thumbs-up emojis).


Vish says that the classic self-help book The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz gave him “a formula in life always–the formula of ‘yes man’ and ‘no man’.” As Vish explains, Schwartz argues that “the human brain is like a factory  with two foremen: one is a ‘no man’ and the other is a ‘yes man’ . . . If you give the job to the ‘no man,’ your own mind will start finding logic and reasons to prove how can’t you do this job.”

“You know debate competitions?” he asks me. The debater “who is speaking in favor looks quite right, and the person who’s speaking against also has valid logic, so at the time you feel both are correct.” In other words, we all have a choice as to which parts of our own brains we charge with executing certain tasks and tackling challenges. After reading Schwartz’s book, Vish says, “I started working on my ‘yes man.’ That’s what I do at Uber as well.”

Vish lets customers alter routes if they choose. He even calls passengers at home to tell them their UberPool-ing friend was dropped off safely, and tries to accommodate small requests along the way.


Vish only eats raw vegetables and salad in his car to avoid smells or odors. His car needs to be a blank slate that passengers can immediately feel ownership of, not like they’re suddenly in somebody else’s kitchen. He has the same theory about sounds, which is why his radio is never playing when a customer climbs in. If they want the radio on? That’s fine. But he turns it off for the next person. And if they’re eating a garlic stir-fry or smell like smoke? That’s fine, too. But he sprays a lemon air freshener and opens all the windows to start fresh the next time.


Vish says that Uber wants drivers to say “What is your name?” to customers before they get in the Uber. He ignores that. Instead, he greeted me with, “Is it Neil?” and a big smile. In fact, the excitement in his voice made it more of a statement than a question: “Is it Neil!” Real name, right off the bat, plus an immediate flash of intimacy.

“I try to break the ice by appreciating people,” Vish explains. “When you appreciate someone, you are not giving a discomfort to him or her.” Instead, he’s found that these simple moments of warmth he creates are almost always reciprocated. “They will surely come back with a positive remark or a positive affirmation, sentence, or a line or a word to you.” He adds, “If you start with a smile, 99% of people will smile back.”


I asked Vish how he deals with drunk customers on busy Friday and Saturday nights. He surprised me by saying he doesn’t serve them. Drunk customers aren’t his target market. As soon as he lands one, he heads home. It’s a signal he’s serving folks outside of his customer spectrum and his day is done. (In fact, Vish also benches himself whenever he’s having an off day because he says driving is too risky–a judgment call that takes real self-awareness, especially in the gig economy, where there’s no direct boss to manage your performance.)

“The most important thing in your life is to enjoy what you’re doing,” Vish adds, and for him, it’s as simple as that. Driving an Uber wasn’t his first choice, and it isn’t what he intends to do indefinitely, but he’s doing more than just making the most of it.

He’s enjoying what he’s doing–and creating an unbelievably positive experience for everyone he interacts with in the process.

Can we all say the same?

An earlier version of this article appeared in Fast Company

Why You Need An Untouchable Day Every Week (And How To Get One)

I hate meetings.

They sit subconsciously in my brain, taking up space. I prepare for them in my notebooks. I travel to them, and then back again, in the middle of my work days. And what do most meetings usually result in? You guessed it — more meetings.

When I worked as Director of Leadership Development at Walmart, my days were full of meetings. Everybody’s were! And when I quit two years ago to strike out on my own as an author and keynote speaker, I thought my days full of meetings were behind me.

But I was wrong.

I now have research calls and phone interviews, lunches with literary agents and web developers, conference calls about book titles and publishing schedules, radio interviews, and media prep calls. And before every speech I give, there’s always a meeting with the client and meeting planner to clarify goals and logistics for the event.

Turns out meetings never really go away.

But the problem is I’m now measured almost solely on my creative output. And there’s no time for it! It’s not just me, either. As our world gets busier and our phones get beepier, the scarcest resource for all of us is becoming attention and creative output. And if you’re not taking time to put something new and beautiful out into the world, then your value is diminishing fast.

I used to be one of those “wake up at 4 a.m.” or “keep chugging ‘til 4 a.m.” guys who grinds away at work for hours while everybody else sleeps. It’s how I wrote a thousand blog posts in a thousand days at my blog But I now understand that you can only drive in the express lane for so long before the wheels come off.

I’m no longer that guy. Now when I get home after work, I soak in time with my wife and two little boys. Nothing is or will ever be as precious to me, and I resist insight from anyone who isn’t making space for loved ones. I realized that what I needed was a practical way to get more work done without taking more time. And, to be honest, I needed it fast. Why? Because in my first year as a full-time author, I actually started feeling my productivity slipping — even though I had quit my full-time job. It wasn’t just disheartening; it was also embarrassing. “So how’s the new book coming?” “Oh, now that I quit my job? Terribly!”

I finally found a solution that I feel has saved my career, my time, and my sanity. If you’re with me right now, I bet you need this solution too: I call it “Untouchable Days”.

These are days when I am literally 100% unreachable in any way…by anyone.

Untouchable Days have become my secret weapon to getting back on track. They’re how I complete my most creative and rewarding workTo share a rough comparison, on a day when I write between meetings, I’ll produce maybe 500 words a day. On an Untouchable Day, it’s not unusual for me to write 5,000 words. On these days, I’m 10 times more productive.

How do I carve out Untouchable Days?

I look at my calendar sixteen weeks ahead of time, and for each week, I block out an entire day as UNTOUCHABLE. I put it in all-caps just like that, too. UNTOUCHABLE. I don’t write in all-caps for anything else, but I allow UNTOUCHABLE days to just scream out to me.

Why sixteen weeks ahead? The number of weeks isn’t as important as the thinking behind it. For me, that’s after my speaking schedule is locked in — but, importantly, before anything else is. That’s a magic moment in my schedule. It’s the perfect time to plant the Untouchable Day flag before anything else can claim that spot.

On the actual Untouchable Day itself, I picture myself sitting in a bulletproof car surrounded by two-inches of thick impenetrable plastic on all sides. Nothing gets in. Nothing gets out. Meetings bounce off the windshield. Texts, alerts, and phone calls, too. My cell phone is in Airplane Mode all day. My laptop has Wi-Fi completely disabled. Not a single thing can bother me… and not a single thing does.

But I know what you’re thinking: What about emergencies?

The short answer is that there really never are any. The long answer is when my wife asked me about emergencies, she didn’t love my rant about how back in the day, nobody had cell phones, and we were all unreachable at times. As a compromise, I told her that when I started scheduling Untouchable Days, I’d open the door of my bulletproof car for an hour at lunchtime. When I did, I came face to face with the whizzing bullets of seventeen text messages, dozens of urgent-sounding emails, and endless robot-generated alerts and feeds — and precisely zero emergencies from my wife. So after a few months, we stopped doing that and instead I just started telling her where I’d be. That gave her peace of mind that if something horrible happened, she could call the place I was working or simply drive over and find me as a last resort.

I’ve now pulled off Untouchable Days for a year. Nothing horrible has ever happened, and we’ve both grown more comfortable with zero contact throughout the day.

So what do Untouchable Days look like up close?

I think of them as having two components.

There is the deep creative work. When you’re in the zone, you’re in a state of flow, and the big project you’re working on is getting accomplished step by step by step.

And then there are the nitros — little blasts of fuel you can use to prime your own pump if you hit a wall. These unproductive moments of frustration happen to all of us, and it’s less important to avoid them than to simply have a mental toolkit you can whip out when they happen. What are my tools? Heading to the gym for a workout. Grabbing a pack of almonds. Getting up and simply running down the street, or going on a nature walk. After all, Thoreau said “I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” And Hemingway stated “I would walk along the quais when I finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.” What else? A ten-minute meditation. Or switching to a new workspace. Or my wonder drug of precariously turning off Airplane Mode for ten minutes (while staying off of email and text) and leaving voicemails for my parents and close friends, telling them I love them. It works every time, and I get back to work quickly because, let’s be honest, nobody ever answers their phone.

So what happens if the bulletproof car really does get bumped? Say I get an incredible speaking invite or somebody much more important than me only has this one day to get together? Red alert: The Untouchable Day is under threat. What do I do?

I have a simple rule. Untouchable Days may never be deleted, but they can move between the bowling-lane bumpers of the weekends. They can’t jump weeks, though. They are more important than anything else I am doing, so if they need to move from a Wednesday to a Thursday or a Friday, that’s fine — even if I have to move four meetings to make room. The beauty of this approach is that when you plant the Untouchable Day flag on your calendar, it really does feel permanent in your mind. You start feeling the creative high you’ll get from such deep output as soon as you start booking them in.

Before I started using Untouchable Days, I treaded water — I wrote articles, I gave speeches. But something was missing. When I implemented Untouchable Days in 2017, magic happened. I wrote a new 50,000 word memoir, wrote and launched a new 60-minute keynote speech, drafted book proposals for my next three books, and completely planned and began recording my new podcast 3 Books — all while traveling and giving more speeches than I ever had before.

With a year of Untouchable Days under my belt, do I still go through the exercise of scheduling one Untouchable Day every single week?

The honest answer is no.

Now I schedule two.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review

Avoid Burnout By Asking This Question

In the late 1990s I began an undergrad business degree program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. After nearly flunking Economics 101 and striking out with a majority of sports and teams, I finally found my home among a group of interfaculty misfits at the Golden Words comedy newspaper.

Golden Words was the largest weekly humor newspaper in the country, an Onion-esque paper publishing 25 issues per year, with a new issue every Wednesday during the school year. For the next four years, I spent every Sunday hanging out with a group of people writing articles that made us all laugh. We got together around noon and wrote until the wee hours of Monday morning. I didn’t get paid a cent, but the thrill of creating, laughing, and seeing my work published gave me a great high.

I loved it so much that I took a job working at a New York City comedy writing startup during my last summer of college. I rented an apartment on the Lower East Side and started working in a Brooklyn loft with writers from The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. “Wow,” I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do what I love.”

But it was the worst job of my life.

Instead of having creative freedom to write whatever I wanted, I had to write, say, “800 words about getting dumped” for a client like Cosmopolitan. Instead of joking with friends naturally and finding chemistry writing with certain people, I was scheduled to write with others. Eventually my interest in comedy writing faded, and I decided I would never do it for money again.

When I started writing my blog, 1000 Awesome Things, in 2008, I said I’d never put ads on the website. I knew the ads would feel like work to me, and I worried that I might self-censor or try to appeal to advertisers. No income from the blog meant less time trying to manage the ads and more time focused on the writing, I figured.

I was smart about that…but not smart enough to ignore the other extrinsic motivators that kept showing up: stat counters, website awards, best-seller lists. It was all so visible, so measurable, and so tempting. Over time I found myself obsessing about stat counters breaking 1 million, 10 million, 50 million; about the book based on my blog staying on the best-seller lists for 10 weeks, 100 weeks, 200 weeks; about book sales breaking five figures, six figures, seven figures. The extrinsic motivators never ended, and I was slow to realize that I was burning myself out. I was eating poorly, sleeping rarely, and obsessing about whatever next number there was to obsess about.

I started worrying that the cycle — set goal, achieve goal, set goal, achieve goal, set goal, achieve goal — would never end. And I started forgetting why I started writing my blog in the first place. I was shaken by how quickly I had gotten caught up in the achievement trap.

Studies show that when we begin to value the rewards we get for doing a task, we lose our inherent interest in doing the task. The interest we have becomes lost in our minds, hidden away from our own brains, as the shiny external reward sits front and center and becomes the new object of our desire.

Keep in mind that there are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic is internal — you’re doing it because you want to. Extrinsic is external — you’re doing it because you get something for it. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, has performed some experiments on intrinsic and extrinsic motivators with college students. She asked the students to make “silly collages” and invent stories for them. Some were told they were getting rewards for their work, and some were not. What happened? Based on scores from independent judges, the least creative projects by far were done by students who were promised rewards for their work. Amabile said, “It may be that commissioned work will, in general, be less creative than work that is done out of pure interest.”

And it’s not just getting rewards that hurts quality.
 In another study conducted by Amabile, 72 creative writers at Brandeis University and Boston University were split into three groups of 24 and asked to write poetry. The first group was given extrinsic reasons for doing so — impressing teachers, making money, getting into fancy grad schools. The second group was given a list of intrinsic reasons — enjoying the feeling of expressing themselves, the fun of playing with words. The third group wasn’t given any reason. On the sidelines, Amabile put together a group of a dozen poet-judges, mixed up all the poems, and had the judges evaluate the work. Far and away, the lowest-quality poems were from those who had the list of extrinsic motivators.

James Garbarino, former president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, was curious about this phenomenon. He conducted a studyof fifth- and sixth-grade girls hired to tutor younger children. Some of the tutors were offered free movie tickets for doing a good job. What happened? The girls who were offered free movie tickets took longer to communicate ideas, got frustrated more easily, and did a worse job than the girls who were given nothing except the feeling of helping someone else.

The Garbarino study raises the question: Do extrinsic motivators affect us differently depending on age? Do we grow into this pattern — and can we grow out of it? According to a recent study by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, we may be hardwired to behave this way. Their work found that if infants as young as 20 months are extrinsically rewarded after helping another infant, they are less likely to help again than infants who received either no reward or simple social praise.

I was surprised by the studies, but they made sense to me. I loved writing for Golden Words. It was a joy, a thrill, a true love. With the paid writing startup in New York City, I lost all my energy and drive.

When you’re doing something for your own reasons, you do more, go further, and perform better. When you don’t feel like you’re competing with others, you compete only with yourself. For example, Professor Edward Deci of the University of Rochester conducted a study where he asked students to solve a puzzle. Some were told they were competing with other students and some were not. You can probably guess what happened. The students who were told they were competing with others simply stopped working once the other kids finished their puzzles, believing themselves to be out of the race. They ran out of reasons to do the puzzle. But those who weren’t told they were competing with others kept going once their peers finished.

Does all this mean you should just rip up your paycheck and work only on things you’re intrinsically motivated to do? No. But you should ask yourself, “Would I do this for free?” If your answer is yes, you’ve found something worth working on. If the answer is no, let paid work remain paid work and keep asking yourself what you would do simply for the pleasure you derive from doing it. Chances are, if you’re working solely for extrinsic reasons such as money, you’re bound to burn out sooner or later.

A slightly modified version of this article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.

How to Conquer Your Biggest Fears

We’re all scared of something.

Do you get heart palpitations at the idea of speaking in front of big groups at work? Are you worried you’ll never actually learn to swim? Do you stare at the ceiling, thinking you’ll never write that book you’ve been dreaming about for years?

Me, too. I’ve deeply felt all three of those exact fears, along with many others. But those fears are just a few I’ve started overcoming using a little happiness hack I can share with you.

Are you ready?

O.K., to start with, here is the thought process most of us follow when it comes to facing our fears:


Before you do anything, you have to feel like you can do it first—and then you have to actually want to do it second.

Take my fear of swimming. Developed from a childhood full of ear infections and never-ending sets of tubes, I grew into the 30-year-old guy perpetually hanging by the grill at the pool party. I was afraid of the water. Why? Because “I can’t swim. I’ll sink like a stone! I can’t tread water, jump into the deep end, nothing.” And “You know, I don’t really want to swim anyway. No big deal. I prefer reading at the beach. Getting wet, showering, showing off spaghetti-noodle arms? No thanks. I’ll do without.”

Yes, I never got to do it because I never thought I could do it and so I didn’t want to do it.

It’s the same way many of us think about running a marathon, giving a big presentation or writing a novel.

So what happens if we think about that process in a different order? The same set of words, but said a different way? Specifically, what happens if do it becomes the starting point instead of the end? Well, then it looks like this:


What happened with my fear of swimming?

Well, I started dating a beautiful woman who I fell in love with, fast. On our second date, she told me her family had a cottage on an island—and every morning in the summer, her little cousins and 80-year-old grandparents swam around the island together. And did I ever want to come?

That night, without thinking about whether I could do it or whether I wanted to do it, I just did it. I signed up for swimming lessons at the city pool. Shortly thereafter, I walked into the moldy locker room and listened to my heart thumping as I stepped onto the pool deck wearing a life jacket and goggles.

After that first 30 minutes of flutter-kicking in the shallow end and wearing a life jacket, guess what happened? I thought, “I can do this!” And so the next week, I wanted to do it. “Give me moldy locker rooms! Pass me the flutter board—in the deep end this time.” And after I had done it one week, I knew I could do it again.

How do you turn your biggest fear into your biggest success?

You place action in front of capability and motivation. You put do it before can do it and want to do it.

Turns out, it’s easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting. Those forced baby steps create the early belief in your abilities, which create the motivation—and a virtuous cycle quickly develops.

So go forward. Step into your fears. Because you’ll quickly see that, completely counter-intuitively, motivation does not actually cause action. Action causes motivation.

How to Add an Hour to a Day with Only One Small Change

I got my first office job in my early twenties.

For four months between school years in college I held the sexy job title of “summer intern” at a big consulting company in a downtown high-rise. Casey was my boss and the head of the project I was assigned to for the summer, which was for one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies.

One Monday morning, I was sitting in his glass-windowed corner office with the rising sun beaming onto the desk between us. More than three months of late-night stress and working on weekends had finally rolled up to right now.

We were minutes away from our big presentation.

Casey’s sense of humor had carried me through all the challenges and Chinese take-out boxes leading up to today, but he had just asked me a last-minute question that made me snap. My nerves were frayed. I had no energy left.

“Why do we have an assumption in here instead of an actual figure?” he asked.

“Because Roger didn’t write back to my three emails asking him for the right number and he never gave us a number where we could call him. I tried his assistant twice and never heard back, either. It’s like he forgot we existed. You know that.”

Roger was the highly touted CEO of the oil and gas company who everybody looked up to. He was highlighted in flashy magazine articles and known as a people leader who espoused work-life balance while nonchalantly beating his numbers every year. Meanwhile, employees at the company told us he ate lunch in the company cafeteria, drove a beat-up truck to work, and had dinner with his kids every night.

The man was a legend.

After our introductory meeting three months back I wrote Roger an email summarizing our meeting and next steps. He didn’t write back. I then took my laptop home every night in case Roger emailed with an urgent question or request. I checked email every half an hour just in case the CEO of the company ever emailed late at night asking for a project update the next morning. Just so if he ever needed something, anything, I’d be there.

But…there was nothing. In three months of working for him he didn’t write me a single email. He didn’t write Casey any emails, either. We dropped a few questions along the way but never heard back. And I had just told Casey my messages to his assistant weren’t returned, either. Now suddenly it was time for our big presentation and Casey was questioning why I didn’t have certain numbers.

I steadied my nerves as we stepped into the boardroom where Roger was sitting and chatting with our company president. He smiled and got up to shake our hands and thank us for the work we’ve done. “I’m so excited,” he said with a big grin. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate how hard you’ve been working. You guys are geniuses. I’m going to learn so much from this chat.”

The anger I felt about his unresponsiveness suddenly melted. I felt like a million bucks.

We jumped into the presentation and had a great discussion. It was casual, engaging, and open. He loved it. And I couldn’t believe how relaxed everything felt. He was talking to us like old friends. After the meeting was done there was so much trust between us. So as we were packing up, I thought about it for a split second, and decided to ask him one last question.

I couldn’t help myself.

“Roger, thanks so much for today. We had trouble checking some numbers by you in advance. And I know we didn’t hear from you on the additional questions we had. So, just for my own learning, can I ask why you don’t write or respond to emails? How do you do that?”

His eyes opened a bit and he seemed surprised by the question. But he wasn’t fazed.

“Neil,” he said, “there’s a problem with email. After you send one the responsibility of it goes away from you and becomes the responsibility of the other person. It’s a hot potato. An email is work given to you by somebody else.”

I nodded, thinking about all the emails I got from Casey and co-workers.“I do read emails, but the ones looking for something are always much less urgent than they seem. When I don’t respond, one of two things happens:

  1. The person figures it out on their own, or

  2. They email me again because it really was important.

“Sure, I send one or two emails a day but they usually say, ‘Give me a call,’ or, ‘Let’s chat about this.’ Unless they’re from my wife. I answer all of those.”

I was very confused.

How was the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company with thousands of employees not emailing?

He paused to look at me and sensed I didn’t get it.

“You know what,” he continued. “Since I don’t write many emails, I don’t receive many either. I probably only get five or ten emails a day.”

Five emails a day? Here I was working at a consulting company writing emails morning, noon, and night. It was the same for everyone. “My inbox has seven hundred emails,” my coworkers would say and sigh. “I did emails all Sunday afternoon.” There was no way around it. After all, our bosses sent urgent emails at 7:00 a.m. Saturday, late Sunday afternoon, or 11:00 p.m. Friday. I knew this was common in my company and others. McKinsey had even reported that office workers spend on average 28% of their time answering email. Almost a third. And Baydin, one of the world’s largest email management services, says the average person gets 147 emails a day. We were all attached to our cell phones and computers, firing emails around, working hard to get everything done. It was part of the job. And we all wanted to do a good job.

Suddenly it started to click why Roger was known to come to have lunch in the cafeteria with employees every day and drive home for dinner with his family every night.

He didn’t respond to hot potatoes.

He didn’t write back to emails and create email chains.

I looked up at Roger again, and he continued.

“Most of the time Neil,” he continued, “people really do figure it out on their own. They realize they know the answer, they keep on moving, they develop confidence for next time. They become better themselves. Your assumptions in the slides today weren’t perfect, but they worked perfectly well and you learned by doing them. Don’t get me wrong. I sometimes walk over to chat with a person or pick up the phone. But if I wrote back to the email, I’d be sending a hot potato. And nobody wants to be asked by the CEO to do something…never mind on an evening or weekend. Why? Because people would drop everything to reply. And they would expect me to reply to that. Basically, if I sent an email, it would never end.

“So I end it.”

How to Protect Your Most Valuable Asset

You have only one brain. And it focuses on only one thing at one time.

Your brain is the most incredible and complex object in the universe. We have never seen anything like it. We barely understand it. We use it, but we don’t know how we use it. When we kick, we pull our leg back and swing it forward. When we think, we just think. As Cliff once said on Cheers, “Interesting little article here.

It says the average human being only uses seventeen percent of his brain. Boy, you realize what that means? We don’t use a full, uh…sixty-four percent.”

Your brain is capable of infinite possibilities: producing great works of art, building businesses, raising children. Brains made The Starry Night and the Great Wall of China. The Beatles and the Bible. Brains made planes, trains, and automobiles. Brains make your life what it is and die when you do. The good news is for no money down, no annual fees, and no monthly interest, you get one free copy of the universe’s most complex and powerful object. It’s yours for life! The only bad news is there is no warranty, it requires daily charging, and even the longest-lasting models in the world last only forty thousand days. (The average model lasts twenty-five thousand days.)

Roger was the smartest guy at the company. No doubt about it. In the years since, he’s gone up and up and up. All while eating lunch in the cafeteria every day and dinner with his family every night. I had worked with Roger only three months when I learned how to add an hour to the day with only one small change.


Block access. Protect your brain. Guard it. Remove all entry points to your brain except a single one you can control. In addition to Roger’s approach to email, I learned later that he didn’t have a desk phone, personal email address, or any social media accounts. Fuel your brain and let it run wild by removing access points. Close the doors and lock the windows, but answer the bell.

What’s the bell? It’s your #1 top priority. What was Roger’s bell? Emails from the chairman of the board and his family. Not voicemail, not texts, not anything else. Have you ever shopped in a small town convenience store where they have a little bell on the front counter? They are busy stocking shelves. They are busy unpacking boxes. They are busy placing orders. But when you ring that bell they are right there, right away. That’s what it means to close the doors and lock the windows but answer the bell.

Let your brain produce great work, savor space, and power your  biggest ideas, most passionate efforts, and greatest accomplishments.