Neil Pasricha is a Canadian author, entrepreneur, podcaster, and public speaker characterized by his advocacy of positivity and simple pleasures. He is best known for his The Book of Awesome series, and “The Happiness Equation” which are international bestsellers.
In this heartfelt talk from TEDxToronto, he reveals the 3 secrets (all starting with A) to leading a life that’s truly awesome.
Thank you very much.
I am absolutely thankful and grateful for this opportunity and I feel massively underqualified, and I’m looking forward to spending the next 18 minutes with you doing 3 things: I really want to tell you the Awesome story, I want to take you through the 3 As of Awesome, and I want to leave you with a closing thought.
So the Awesome story:
It begins about 40 years ago, when my mom and my dad came to Canada. My mom left Nairobi, Kenya. My dad left a small village outside of Amritsar, India. And they got here in the late 1960s. They settled in a shady suburb about an hour east of Toronto, and they settled into a new life.
They saw their first dentist, they ate their first hamburger, and they had their first kids. My sister and I grew up here, and we had quiet, happy childhoods. We had close family, good friends, a quiet street.
We grew up taking for granted a lot of the things that my parents couldn’t take for granted when they grew up – things like power always on in our houses, things like schools across the street and hospitals down the road and popsicles in the backyard.
We grew up, and we grew older. I went to high school. I graduated. I moved out of the house, I got a job, I found a girl, I settled down – and I realize it sounds like a bad sitcom or a Cat Stevens’ song – but life was pretty good.
Life was pretty good. 2006 was a great year. Under clear blue skies in July in the wine region of Ontario, I got married, surrounded by 150 family and friends.
2007 was a great year. I graduated from school, and I went on a road trip with two of my closest friends. Here’s a picture of me and my friend, Chris, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean.
We actually saw seals out of our car window, and we pulled over to take a quick picture of them and then blocked them with our giant heads. So you can’t actually see them, but it was breathtaking, believe me.
2008 and 2009 were a little tougher. I know that they were tougher for a lot of people, not just me.
First of all, the news was so heavy. It’s still heavy now, and it was heavy before that, but when you flipped open a newspaper, when you turned on the TV, it was about ice caps melting, wars going on around the world, earthquakes, hurricanes and an economy that was wobbling on the brink of collapse, and then eventually did collapse, and so many of us losing our homes, or our jobs, or our retirements, or our livelihoods.
2008, 2009 were heavy years for me for another reason, too. I was going through a lot of personal problems at the time. My marriage wasn’t going well, and we just were growing further and further apart. One day my wife came home from work and summoned the courage, through a lot of tears, to have a very honest conversation.
And she said, “I don’t love you anymore,” and it was one of the most painful things I’d ever heard and certainly the most heartbreaking thing I’d ever heard, until only a month later, when I heard something even more heartbreaking.
My friend Chris, who I just showed you a picture of, had been battling mental illness for some time. And for those of you whose lives have been touched by mental illness, you know how challenging it can be. I spoke to him on the phone at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday night.
We talked about the TV show we watched that evening. And Monday morning, I found out that he disappeared. Very sadly, he took his own life. And it was a really heavy time.
And as these dark clouds were circling me, and I was finding it really, really difficult to think of anything good, I said to myself that I really needed a way to focus on the positive somehow.
So I came home from work one night, and I logged onto the computer, and I started up a tiny website called 1000awesomethings.com.
I was trying to remind myself of the simple, universal, little pleasures that we all love, but we just don’t talk about enough – things like waiters and waitresses who bring you free refills without asking, being the first table to get called up to the dinner buffet at a wedding, wearing warm underwear from just out of the dryer, or when cashiers open up a new check-out lane at the grocery store and you get to be first in line – even if you were last at the other line, swoop right in there.
And slowly over time, I started putting myself in a better mood. I mean, 50,000 blogs are started a day, and so my blog was just one of those 50,000. And nobody read it except for my mom.
Although I should say that my traffic did skyrocket and go up by 100% when she forwarded it to my dad. And then I got excited when it started getting tens of hits, and then I started getting excited when it started getting dozens and then hundreds and then thousands and then millions.
It started getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And then I got a phone call, and the voice at the other end of the line said, “You’ve just won the Best Blog In the World award.”
I was like, that sounds totally fake. Which African country do you want me to wire all my money to?
But it turns out, I jumped on a plane, and I ended up walking a red carpet between Sarah Silverman and Jimmy Fallon and Martha Stewart. And I went onstage to accept a Webby award for Best Blog.
And the surprise and just the amazement of that was only overshadowed by my return to Toronto, when, in my inbox, 10 literary agents were waiting for me to talk about putting this into a book.
Flash-forward to the next year and “The Book of Awesome” has now been number one on the bestseller list for 20 straight weeks.
But look, I said I wanted to do three things with you today. I said I wanted to tell you the Awesome story, I wanted to share with you the three As of Awesome, and I wanted to leave you with a closing thought.
So let’s talk about those three As.
Over the last few years, I haven’t had that much time to really think. But lately I have had the opportunity to take a step back and ask myself: “What is it over the last few years that helped me grow my website, but also grow myself?”
And I’ve summarized those things, for me personally, as three As. They are Attitude, Awareness and Authenticity.
I’d love to just talk about each one briefly.
So Attitude: Look, we’re all going to get lumps, and we’re all going to get bumps. None of us can predict the future, but we do know one thing about it and that’s that it ain’t gonna go according to plan. We will all have high highs and big days and proud moments of smiles on graduation stages, father-daughter dances at weddings and healthy babies screeching in the delivery room.
But between those high highs, we may also have some lumps and some bumps too. It’s sad, and it’s not pleasant to talk about, but your husband might leave you, your girlfriend could cheat, your headaches might be more serious than you thought, or your dog could get hit by a car on the street.
It’s not a happy thought, but your kids could get mixed up in gangs or bad scenes. Your mom could get cancer, your dad could get mean. And there are times in life when you will be tossed in the well, too, with twists in your stomach and with holes in your heart, and when that bad news washes over you, and when that pain sponges and soaks in, I just really hope you feel like you’ve always got two choices.
One, you can swirl and twirl and gloom and doom forever, or two, you can grieve and then face the future with newly sober eyes.
Having a great attitude is about choosing option number two, and choosing, no matter how difficult it is, no matter what pain hits you, choosing to move forward and move on and take baby steps into the future.
The second “A” is Awareness.
I love hanging out with three year-olds. I love the way that they see the world, because they’re seeing the world for the first time. I love the way that they can stare at a bug crossing the sidewalk. I love the way that they’ll stare slack-jawed at their first baseball game with wide eyes and a mitt on their hand, soaking in the crack of the bat and the crunch of the peanuts and the smell of the hotdogs.
I love the way that they’ll spend hours picking dandelions in the backyard and putting them into a nice centerpiece for Thanksgiving dinner. I love the way that they see the world, because they’re seeing the world for the first time.
Having a sense of awareness is just about embracing your inner three year-old. Because you all used to be three years old. That three-year-old boy is still part of you. That three-year-old girl is still part of you. They’re in there.
And being aware is just about remembering that you saw everything you’ve seen for the first time once, too.
So there was a time when it was your first time ever hitting a string of green lights on the way home from work. There was the first time you walked by the open door of a bakery and smelt the bakery air, or the first time you pulled a 20-dollar bill out of your old jacket pocket and said, “Found money.”
The last “A” is Authenticity.
And for this one, I want to tell you a quick story. Let’s go all the way back to 1932 when, on a peanut farm in Georgia, a little baby boy named Roosevelt Grier was born.
Roosevelt Grier, or Rosey Grier, as people used to call him, grew up and grew into a 300-pound, six-foot-five linebacker in the NFL. He’s number 76 in the picture. Here he is pictured with the “fearsome foursome.” These were four guys on the L.A. Rams in the 1960s you did not want to go up against.
They were tough football players doing what they love, which was crushing skulls and separating shoulders on the football field.
But Rosey Grier also had another passion. In his deeply authentic self, he also loved needlepoint. He loved knitting. He said that it calmed him down, it relaxed him, it took away his fear of flying and helped him meet chicks. That’s what he said.
I mean, he loved it so much that, after he retired from the NFL, he started joining clubs. And he even put out a book called “Rosey Grier’s Needlepoint for Men.” It’s a great cover.
If you notice, he’s actually needlepointing his own face. And so what I love about this story is that Rosey Grier is just such an authentic person, and that’s what authenticity is all about. It’s just about being you and being cool with that.
And I think when you’re authentic, you end up following your heart, and you put yourself in places and situations and in conversations that you love and that you enjoy.
You meet people that you like talking to. You go places you’ve dreamt about. And you end up following your heart and feeling very fulfilled.
So those are the three A’s.
For the closing thought, I want to take you all the way back to my parents coming to Canada. I don’t know what it would feel like coming to a new country when you’re in your mid-20s. I don’t know, because I never did it, but I would imagine that it would take a great attitude.
I would imagine that you’d have to be pretty aware of your surroundings and appreciating the small wonders that you’re starting to see in your new world.
And I think you’d have to be really authentic, you’d have to be really true to yourself in order to get through what you’re being exposed to.
I’d like to pause my TEDTalk for about 10 seconds right now, because you don’t get many opportunities in life to do something like this, and my parents are sitting in the front row. So I wanted to ask them to, if they don’t mind, stand up. And I just wanted to say thank you to you guys.
When I was growing up, my dad used to love telling the story of his first day in Canada. And it’s a great story, because what happened was he got off the plane at the Toronto airport, and he was welcomed by a non-profit group, which I’m sure someone in this room runs.
And this non-profit group had a big welcoming lunch for all the new immigrants to Canada. And my dad says he got off the plane and he went to this lunch and there was this huge spread. There was bread, there was those little, mini dill pickles, there was olives, those little white onions.
There was rolled up turkey cold cuts, rolled up ham cold cuts, rolled up roast beef cold cuts and little cubes of cheese. There was tuna salad sandwiches and egg salad sandwiches and salmon salad sandwiches.
There was lasagna, there was casseroles, there was brownies, there was butter tarts, and there was pies, lots and lots of pies.
And when my dad tells the story, he says, “The craziest thing was, I’d never seen any of that before, except bread. I didn’t know what was meat, what was vegetarian. I was eating olives with pie. I just couldn’t believe how many things you can get here.”
When I was five years old, my dad used to take me grocery shopping, and he would stare in wonder at the little stickers that are on the fruits and vegetables. He would say, “Look, can you believe they have a mango here from Mexico? They’ve got an apple here from South Africa. Can you believe they’ve got a date from Morocco?”
He’s like, “Do you know where Morocco even is?”
And I’d say, “I’m five. I don’t even know where I am. Is this A&P?”
And he’d say, “I don’t know where Morocco is either, but let’s find out.”
And so we’d buy the date, and we’d go home. And we’d actually take an atlas off the shelf, and we’d flip through until we found this mysterious country.
And when we did, my dad would say, “Can you believe someone climbed a tree over there, picked this thing off it, put it in a truck, drove it all the way to the docks and then sailed it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and then put it in another truck and drove that all the way to a tiny grocery store just outside our house, so they could sell it to us for 25 cents?”
And I’d say, “I don’t believe that.”
And he’s like, “I don’t believe it either. Things are amazing. There’s just so many things to be happy about.”
When I stop to think about it, he’s absolutely right. There are so many things to be happy about. We are the only species on the only life-giving rock in the entire universe that we’ve ever seen, capable of experiencing so many of these things.
I mean, we’re the only ones with architecture and agriculture. We’re the only ones with jewelry and democracy. We’ve got airplanes, highway lanes, interior design and horoscope signs. We’ve got fashion magazines, house party scenes. You can watch a horror movie with monsters.
You can go to a concert and hear guitars jamming. We’ve got books, buffets and radio waves, wedding brides and rollercoaster rides. You can sleep in clean sheets. You can go to the movies and get good seats. You can smell bakery air, walk around with rain hair, pop bubble wrap or take an illegal nap.
We’ve got all that, but we’ve only got 100 years to enjoy it. And that’s the sad part. The cashiers at your grocery store, the foreman at your plant, the guy tailgating you home on the highway, the telemarketer calling you during dinner, every teacher you’ve ever had, everyone that’s ever woken up beside you, every politician in every country, every actor in every movie, every single person in your family, everyone you love, everyone in this room and you will be dead in a hundred years.
Life is so great that we only get such a short time to experience and enjoy all those tiny little moments that make it so sweet. And that moment is right now, and those moments are counting down, and those moments are always, always, always fleeting.
You will never be as young as you are right now. And that’s why I believe that if you live your life with a great attitude, choosing to move forward and move on whenever life deals you a blow, living with a sense of awareness of the world around you, embracing your inner three year-old and seeing the tiny joys that make life so sweet and being authentic to yourself.
Being you and being cool with that, letting your heart lead you and putting yourself in experiences that satisfy you, then I think you’ll live a life that is rich and is satisfying, and I think you’ll live a life that is truly awesome.
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