Priya Parker: How to Quit Your Life (and Reboot) at TEDxUHasselt (Transcript)

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Priya Parker – Founder, Thrive Labs

There are many people in this world who are doing jobs out of fear. I know this, because privately they tell me so.

Now when you hear about people working in fear, images of child labor or prostitution rings may come to mind. But I’m not talking about those kinds of jobs. I’m talking about jobs people willingly take, even work incredibly hard for. I’m talking about some of the most prestigious jobs in the world: investment banking, management consulting, financial services, corporate law, private real estate, even computer programming.

Now when you ask most people: Why would somebody take this job? They might say well, they have desire. They desire power, like many of us. They desire money. They desire prestige. Other people might say they’re really intellectually curious. They want to be stimulated by other smart people. They want to build their skills; they want to build their drive, they want to build their capacities.

But what people often don’t take into account in their calculations is how much the choice to stay in many of these jobs is simply driven by fear.

I’m here today to talk to you about that fear. When I first started working with my clients, I was actually quite surprised by many of their fears. I mean what does an investment banker have to fear? When I spoke to a lot of them in interviews and in workshops many of them behind those glass and steel towers showed that they felt a lot more like this person: “I’m afraid of getting to a semi retirement point 30 years from now and having regrets that I didn’t follow certain passions. I’ve been very risk averse and I’ve definitely chosen a safer path and you only live once”.

What does a management consultant have to fear? The next mid-term review with a client. Maybe. But in my experience they’re actually worried about something rather different. Many people related with this: “I’m staying in consulting because there’s a fairly limited downside and upside and rather than swing for the fences with a very real chance of falling flat, but also a very real chance of doing something important”.

What does a corporate lawyer most afraid of? Losing the next case, perhaps. But actually many of them agreed that they felt a little bit more like this: “My biggest fear is that my idealism doesn’t match my choices”. These are what people tell me when I work with them.

Now I’m clearly not talking about people who love their jobs. I’m not talking about consultants who are fascinated by their cases. I’m not talking about consultants or finance people who are working on public sector opportunities that they’re extremely passionate about. I often get a lot of heat because people think I’m taking down entire industries and I’m not at all. I’m only talking about and only talking to the swing voters, if you will, the hundreds of young people I meet that tell me how much they hate their jobs and quotes like this: “in the process of working at this job I am quite unhappy, because I’m killing myself doing my best at something I don’t really want to do”.

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But why should we care if a lawyer is unhappy? Frankly in this economy, he is lucky to have a job. Why should we care if an investment banker is worried about whether or not her life is meaningless or worthwhile or what she’s doing is worthwhile? Well, because it might not be. And not because there’s anything inherently wrong with investment banking. But because if it’s driven by fear, there’s many more things she could be doing with her talent and her energy and her brains that might be more meaningful to her and might be more meaningful to the rest of us.

The irony here is that the fears and anxieties of some of our best and brightest aren’t just a private problem. They’re a public one. If you’re an amazing computer programmer you could spend your time creating credit default swaps for a bank, or you could be analyzing epidemiological data and helping prevent the next plague or predict the next plague.

But the thing that stops you is fear and the thing that fear prevents is progress — your own as well as for the rest of us. But I haven’t come here today to be a social critic. I’ve actually come here today to offer a few ways forward to help you quit your life and fortunately reboot.

My name is Priya Parker and I run a company called Thrive Labs that works with people with these kinds of fears and studies the nature of these fears to gather some insights and see how you can overcome them, and how you can quit your life and reboot.

Here are seven of them: The Obituary Test, The Passion Comic Strip, The Backward Elevator Test, The Life Sentence, The Dwindling Cash Experiment, The Habit Of Helping Others and seventh, The Farewell Party Invite. A lot of the experiments that I’ve developed is based on experiments I’ve learned and built on during my graduate work at MIT and Harvard. I call my sessions with clients labs. And in these labs we try quirky experiments based on the best research on neuroscience, business management, conflict resolution and the arts. To see if we can make big change feel small and achievable.

The driving question of every lab is this: What is the biggest need in the world that I might have the passion and the capacity to address? Now there’s two sides of this question. First, the internal: What is my passion? What drives me? What makes become alive? And second, and very importantly is the external: What is actually happening in the world? The goal of every lab is to align the internal with the external.

The Obituary Test

Here are seven of the most effective tools I’ve seen to help you quit your life and reboot. The first: take the Obituary Test and make sure you pass. Now what this means is literally to write down a 600-word obituary in the style of your favorite newspaper. A recent interview in The New York Times Magazine interviewed a guy named Jonathan Butler. He was a former banker and he’s now started one of the most popular flea markets in Brooklyn which is where I live. And in his interview he said this: “I am ambitious about making a lot of money but none of that stuff passed the Obituary Test. I didn’t want my obituary to read that I had been a vice president of Merrill Lynch for 40 years”.

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If you want to figure out what to do with your life, work back from your death. Rather than asking what kind of career do I want to get and building your life around that, ask the question: how do I want to have lived and start from there?

The Passion Comic Strip

Tool number two. The Passion Comic Strip. One of the biggest fears that people tell me often very quietly as it’s a dirty little secret is that they’re afraid they have no passions. And if they actually really dug they’d find that they’re just kind of bland. So draw a comic strip. Even if you’re not sure what you’re passionate about, I guarantee that there’s somebody in your life, likely people who have known you for a long time who do, interview five to ten people in your life, again somebody that’s known you for a long time like your grandparents or your parents possibly and ask them this question: When have you seen me most alive? Just simply. When have you seen me most passionate? How have you seen me develop my passions or let them go over the course of my life? And then draw it out in a comic strip form.

Drawing this out does a couple of things. First, it taps into a different part of the brain than writing does. And second, often seeing images is a lot more powerful than seeing words on a page. It’s a lot more memorable. Also drawing a comic strip if you’re anything like me it will end up in stick figures and you’re guaranteed not to take yourself too seriously in the process of quitting your life and rebooting.

Get Comfortable With Discomfort

Tool number three: get comfortable with discomfort. Quitting your life is not only incredibly scary. It’s also hugely awkward for yourself and for everybody around you. So one of the things I tell people is to literally build your discomfort muscles. And here are three ways to build them. First, the next time you’re in a bank or in a grocery store and you’re standing in line waiting rather than texting on your phone or tweeting, start singing and just see what happens. You don’t this thing really loudly but sing audibly and as people start looking around trying to figure out where it’s coming from, just continue to sing and notice what happens as your heart starts pounding. But hold it.

Tip number two: take yourself out to dinner alone. For some people this isn’t very scary but for many people you’ve probably never dined alone in a restaurant on purpose if you’re not on a business trip. So make a reservation, go to a restaurant and without reading material, without a telephone, without a phone and without apologizing to the waiter why you got stood up, have a full dinner alone and just see how it feels.