Read the full transcript of entrepreneur Derek Sivers’ TEDx Talk presentation: The “Good Enough” Life Choice at TEDxTaipei 2012 conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: The good enough life choice by Derek Sivers at TEDxTaipei 2012
Okay. I’m so excited to be in Taiwan. I’ve always wanted to come to Taiwan. And I would actually like to meet every single person here. So, in case I don’t get the time, I wanted to put my e-mail address up here so that everybody here can e-mail me and say hello.
The only thing is [Chinese language]. So, please e-mail me in French.
Okay, and next, I need the audience to do something for me. I need everybody to sing a long-low note. Go hummmmmmmm.
Little louder. Hummmmmm.
Okay, thank you.
So, to do a great talk in Taiwan, to live up to my excitement to be here, I’m going to talk about “The Meaning of Life.”
Are you ready to learn “the meaning of life?” I know the answer; are you ready?
Okay. What word do you think goes there? Life is what? Any ideas? Sound something? Anybody?
Okay, I’m going to propose a few ideas.
Let’s say that life is choice. Life is all about choice. We make a hundred little choices everyday. We make a hundred big choices in our life. And these little choices and the big choices we make change our entire life. They are what our life is our choices.
So if life is choice, how do you make good choices? Well here are some ideas.
Ignore Logic and Trust Emotion
First, learn to ignore logic and trust emotion. And what this means is, you know we have different parts of our brain, right? So, at the base of our brains, at the top of our spine is the ancient brain that we share in common with lizards and rabbits. And it’s called amygdala. So this emotional brain just stores instincts, fears, and gut feelings, right?
So at the front of our brain, we have the prefrontal cortex. That is a relative new development that handles logic, language and prediction, right? What’s interesting is that everything we learn gets processed through here and it’s processed but it’s permanently stored here as emotions. So we often like to think of ourselves as smart, rational beings, and whenever we have to make an important choice, we try to think it through very rationally. But the truth is that this thing in the front is pretty new, which is why a 5-dollar calculator is still better than this at math.
So the way that you make better choices in life is to understand this about your brain and understand that this gut-feeling is the culmination of everything you have ever learned in your life is stored as emotional gut reactions. And it’s been proven that people make better choices when they trust their gut-feeling on something that is usually more correct than when they try to over-think it and use their 5-dollar calculator brain.
Learn to Seek What is Only Good Enough
So next, how to make good choices: learn to seek what is only good enough. And what this means is in this modern world, we have more choices than ever. But if you try, because all of these choices, you try to make the best possible choice, and you drive yourself crazy trying to find the best option to do the best thing with your life to choose the best career, the best school, the best partner, then you’re going to make yourself miserable.
Whereas if you learn to understand this feeling of saying “this is good enough and I’m happy with this”, you actually make better choices and you feel better about it.
Learn to Embrace Limits
Next, learn to embrace limits. What this means is that every choice you have to make in life causes a little bit of pain. It’s a little tough when you have to make a choice. So while it’s true that we all need some choice in life, this doesn’t mean that more choice is better. So we find that we are actually happier when we let other people make some choices for us. This is why when you go to the doctor — say if you are very sick and you go to the doctor, you don’t want the doctor to say, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”
You say “no, tell me what to do!”
And this is also part of the appeal of religion. That religion says “follow these rules.” And it’s been proven over history that people like having rules, being told what to do. It relieves some of that for us.
Learn to Choose What’s Important, Not Urgent
So lastly, learn to choose what’s important not urgent. What this means is that, you know, what is urgent are the SMS messages, the phone calls, the texts, and the e-mails. These things are urgent.
But what is important is perhaps spending 1,000 hours learning a new skill that will really help you in your career or your life.
Or what’s important is giving your full attention to your child, or your partner or even a potential new business relationship. And what is important is taking time to get outside and slowly eat a meal of real food. But none of these things will ever be urgent but these are important. That’s how to make better choices.
So, let’s say that life is choice. What do you think? Pretty good argument?
Okay. Everybody, I need you to sing the note again. Hummmmmm. Okay, next idea.
What if life is time? We can say life is all about time. The meaning of life is time because life is defined by the time between when you’re born and when you die. That’s what we call life. So, the meaning of life is time.
If true, how can you use time wisely? First is to remember that it’s limited. So imagine if you only have 1 hour with an old friend that you haven’t seen in a long time, you’ll make very good use of that 1 hour.
Or imagine that if you find out tonight that you’ve only got 1 year left to live, you’ll make the most of this last year that you have, more than if you think that your life is infinite. So you can use time more wisely if you always remember that it’s limited.
Next, it is important to be mostly future focused. What this means — future focused means the people that are always working towards the future. They floss their teeth, they practice hard, they exercise, they study, they are putting more importance on the future than the present moment. The problem is that the people who do this are usually more successful in life and even happier except it often comes at the expense of things that require a present focus such as family and relationships. The classic case, you know, the CEO who has been married 6 times. Very successful but doesn’t get any attention to the present moment.
So, it’s important to be somewhat present focused. That means giving your full attention to what you are doing right now and not always have your head in the future. But if you do this too much, then those are the people that are notoriously, like they forget to brush their teeth, they are not as healthy, their bank accounts are empty because they’re never thinking of the future.
So, it’s important to only be somewhat present-focused. And it’s important to be somewhat past-focused. Meaning to remember your past is to live twice. And if you keep your life in the context of your past, it means you remember where you are in life and also you realize that being able to re-interpret the past events that happened to you is a very powerful thing, because it teaches you that you can rewrite your upcoming future as well.
And lastly, the zone is what we call that state where you are completely lost in what you are doing. The state of flow. They found that people at the end of their life that were the happiest are the ones that have spent the most time in the state of flow in the zone, loving their work.
So, that’s how to use time wisely. What do you think? Pretty good argument that the meaning of life is time? Okay.
Back to the note everybody! Hummmmmmm.
Now sing the major third. Hummmmmmmm.
Okay, next one. What if we said life is memory? Life has to be about memory because if you don’t remember your life, it’s like it never happened.
Think of that horrible feeling when somebody says, “What did you do last weekend?”
And you say, “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
And think of that horrible feeling when somebody says, “Wow! I haven’t seen you in years! What did you do last summer?”
And you say, “I don’t know.”
Now imagine how terrible that would feel at the end of your life if you can’t clearly remember what you did for 20 years? Maybe you just went to the same job every single day for 20 years. You can’t even remember it. That’s like it is if you lived — technically you live a long life, but you only experience a short life, because you can’t remember it.
So I’d say the meaning of life is memory. If that’s true, how do you make more memories? That’s important to always choose the changing option, to not get stuck into routines too much, to do what’s novel, to do the risky thing and move to a new country and learn a new language and get up on stage and do ridiculous things like standing on chairs.
So, back to the note everybody. The first note. Hummmmmmmmm.
The second note. Hummmmmmmmmmm.
Next one. Hummmmmmmmmmm.
Okay. What if we said, life is communication? Life is all about how we communicate with each other. We are all here together. A life spent in solitude, never communicating is not a life actually lived.
So if this is true, how do you communicate well? Well, think of the fables that we know through history. The stories that last for thousands of years. They often have a moral at the end. They have a point. But think that if it was just a point, the point would never travel through history; it has a story attached to it.
And also you have to learn about the cultural translations. A French friend of mine who’s been living in Asia for 20 years, lived in Korea, Japan, China. And I asked him about what he learned in this process. And he said “Do you know the English word ‘quality'”?
I said. “Yes”.
He said, “You are from America.”
I said, “Yes.”
He said if I say “quality”, you think that, that means “it works” right?
I said “Yeah, to me as my American opinion, when I hear the word “quality”, I think “it works.”
And he said “Well, guess what, in Korea, when you say the word “quality” it’s the same English word. But in Korea when you say “quality”, what you mean is “it’s brand new”.”
In Korea that’s what it means. Quality means “brand new.”
And he said in Japan, when you say “quality” that means it’s perfect. It has no mistakes, not a tiniest scratch. That’s what “quality” means in Japan.
He said that in China, when you say “quality”, you mean it gives you status. So he said that you’ve got to understand the cultural context, even if we all learn English as this common language. There’s still this cultural translation that changes the meaning of everything.
So, oh! Let’s sing! OK, First note – Hummmmmmmmm.
Third – hummmmmmmmmmm.
Flat 7 – hummmmmmmmmm.
What if life is happiness? How can you be happy? First, you have to approach it sideways. If you always ask yourself too much “How can I be happy?” you’re going to be miserable.
What if life is learning? We are all here at TED. We love to learn. How can you best learn? You have to learn the difference between the idea of the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset”.
The “fixed mindset” is when you think “I am good at something” or “I am bad at something.” This often comes from when we were children and your parents told you “Oh! You are so good at math!” You started to think, “I’m good at math”. And you think it’s fixed. But then as soon as you do poorly on one test, you think, “I’m not good at math. They were wrong.”
But if you understand the “growth mindset”. The growth mindset says that you can do anything with practice. What’s fascinating about this is they gave a test to a bunch of children where the test was intentionally easy at the beginning and then got impossibly hard. So it was designed so that they started it out full of confidence and then every child intentionally failed the test.
What’s interesting is they told half of the children these 6 words. They said “You must be good at this.” And they told the other half of the children: “You must have worked really hard.”
What’s fascinating is that the next time they took the test the 50% that were told “You must be good at this” they did 30% worse the next time. And because they failed the second half. The children that were told “You must have worked very hard” next time they took the test they did 20% better. So a 50% difference in performance, because of 6 little words they were told. This is the difference between the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset.”
So, last time. Hummmmmmmmmmmmmm.
Next one. Hummmmmmmm.
Next one. Hummmmmmmm.
What if the Buddhists say life is suffering? I am not even going to talk about it. What if you say that life is love? What if you say life is nothing but replicating DNA?
Okay, so let’s take a break for a minute.
So few years ago, I started learning some Chinese. I learned the simplified Chinese. And I’m just fascinated with the writing. And what I love the most about it is that I’m trying to memorize how to write these characters. Oh well! That’s no — wait hold on. It was translated. That’s funny! It’s somewhere between my computer and their computer, the simplified got turned into that.
Anyway. So, every time I was learning a character, I would try to think of the pieces that make up the character and say what does that mean? Why is that the character for “thanks” for “Xie” is “words”, “body” “inch”. Does that mean that to say “thanks” is the words you speak that give a body and inch a respectable space? I don’t know. That was the meaning I put into it right? That helped me remember it.
So, character for “you” is a “person” “bow” and “small.” So I think, okay, “you” is a person you give a small “bow” to. That’s how I remember it. That’s kind of the meaning I put into it.
I love this one, the character for “Ming”, for “name: “Evening” and “mouth.” I thought this was romantic. I thought that your name is the words that the other mouths speaks only in the evening. That’s the only person that knows my real name. That’s sexy.
And I thought this one was weird “appearance” is “tree” and “sheep.” So I thought about a sheep hiding behind the tree, then “ta da!” making its appearance. But it made me wonder what is the historical meaning behind this? Sorry, I’m going to go about one minute over.
Changing a subject. There was this band in the ‘80s called “Talking Heads.” And they had these really interesting lyrics. And I love their lyrics. And I read once in an interview with them, that the way that they wrote their lyrics is they would write evocative phrases on the little piece of paper. And then they would cut them up and they would throw them into a bowl and then they’d stir it around. And they’d pull out little pieces of paper one at a time. And they would put them in the order that they pulled them out, they put them into the song in that order. And the reason for doing this is they said that we wanted to have listener create the meaning to the song. That we always just assume that if somebody’s on stage singing something into a loud microphone, it must have meaning to them. And this was their artistic statement to say, “No, the audience chooses the meaning for themselves.”
So, I went back to my Chinese. And I found this dictionary called “Wan Lin Chinese Dictionary” that told the etymological history behind every character. And all those characters that I thought “the sheep”, “tree”. “ta-da”…it turned out that because I was learning the simplified Chinese, that all of these bits of the character have been replaced with just phonetic sound alikes. And all of this meaning that I put into it wasn’t there.
So, getting to the point. All of this had no meaning. I had projected all of the meaning into it. All of these things about the “tree” and the “sheep” and “Ta-da”, the “evening” and “mouth” and the sexy thing…none of that meaning was there. I had projected all of that meaning into it.
So it made me think in life about what else has no meaning. So what does it mean that all of your previous attempts at somethings have failed? And what does it mean that you went to a very prestigious well-known school? Or what does it mean that you’re a minority in your own country? Or anything else has no meaning at all. You projected all of that meaning into it. It has no inherent meaning.
So, back to the note. Hummmmmmmmmmmmmmm.
Wait. Hold that note little longer. What if we said that life is choice?
Next note. Hummmmmmmmmmm.
What if we said life is time?
Next note. Hummmmmmmmmm. Memory!
What if life is communication?
I’d say the answer is… Are you ready? The meaning of life…Life is just life. It has no inherent meaning at all. You just project whatever meaning suits you. But the most important thing and really the punch line of this whole talk is remember to remove whatever meaning is holding you back. Because they say that humans are 75% water, but I think that humans are also 99% unused potential. And most of us, the thing holding you back from where you are to where you want to be is always in your head. And it’s usually because you’ve put meaning on something that isn’t there.
So if you learn that life has no meaning, you can do whatever you want.