Chris Sauve on The Habits of Highly Boring People @ TEDxCarletonU – Transcript
Chris Sauve – Television Director
We’re going to start today with a quote by Gustave Lebel, and he said, “Be boring and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
And when I originally heard that quote, I thought it with a contradiction. It didn’t make any sense to me that you could be boring and exciting commonplace and original all at the same time. But I thought more about it, and I realized it wasn’t about being a boring person.
Boring people are unoriginal. They are unexcited. That’s the definition. It was about doing boring things, and that sometimes we could do boring things. We could put structures in our lives that made us less exciting in some way. But what they allowed us to do was they allowed us to focus. They allowed us to do more amazing things in other ways. So that structure wasn’t an inhibitor of creativity, as I thought it was. Structure was actually an enabler of creativity. It was an enabler of a more fulfilling life.
So I thought about boring people. Or at least, I thought about people who were boring in some ways but who did incredible things in other. And I looked for traits and behaviors that they had in common. And I found a few. I’m going to talk about them today. But I laughed when I found them, because they were so boring. They were so commonplace, so easy to implement, so obvious that I think we skip right by them. We try and be exciting right away. We don’t worry about doing that structure part, because that’s damn boring. But I’m here to tell you that that is the absolute key.
The first thing I found was that boring people who did amazing things wrote things down. Nothing exciting, that’s the way it should be.
And why do we have to write things down? Well, first, let’s think about how many things we can actually remember, because if we could remember everything, writing things down wouldn’t be a competitive advantage at all.
To show this, I am going to use a bit of a non-traditional example. This is Microsoft’s home page. They are an enormous corporation. They have hundreds of products, millions of customers. And when they’re describing themselves on their homepage, which is their face to the entire world, they do so in just six words. Microsoft knows it has more than that going on. But what they also know about us is that we are not smart, and in some cases we’re so comically unintelligent. They know that if they put 10 things here, by the time you reach the 10th we’d already have forgotten about the first three. They knew about this idea of the magical number.
This was George Miller, he wrote a research paper couple decades back now. And he argued that our short term memory, our working memory was limited to about five to nine items. So we think of these as mental juggling balls. As soon as we have more than five to nine things in the air, some of them start to drop off.
Now think about your schedule. If they’re anything like mine and I imagine a lot of yours are. There are dozens of events, meetings, appointments, classes, and you probably have a whole bunch of projects going on as well. And when I thought about this, I was amazed to find that since September of this year, I had started 182 projects. Six months, almost 200 things that I added to my life.
And I thought, well, I’m the kind of person who can actually write all this down. I’m probably a bit of an outlier in this respect. What I found when I looked closer was that on average people had about 50 simultaneous things going on. So every single one of you on average has 50 things, some of them are big, some of them are small. But they’re all wearing on your brain there. They’re all using that same five to nine items that you have for your working memory.
So it’s not too hard to come up with a fairly simple chart here. This is how many things we have to do, how many things we have to remember, and this is how many things we actually can, how many things our physiology lets us. And in between here we’ve got a big red gap. And I’ll call that read gap the danger zone.
And what’s the danger zone? The danger zone is every single time anyone has handed in an assignment late. Every single time they haven’t made it to a meeting on time. Every single time that they’ve had a project that they put off for a day, or a week or a month or a year. If every single time we’ve had more than those five to nine mental juggling balls and some of them started falling through the cracks.
So how do we manage this? Well, I’ll use a bit of an analogy. Mathematicians would bemoan the fact that we really can’t do mental math anymore. We’ve basically given that ability to calculate. But I see it in a different light. I think it’s incredibly smart that we let the calculator do all the calculating, because we’re really not that great at. Multiplication, division, that’s pretty tough stuff. But a calculator is perfect at, it will never make a mistake. So what we do is the division of labor. We tell the calculator to do the calculating and we do the actual math, because we’re the only ones who can.
And by the same token, we’re terrible at remembering what we have to do and when we have to do it. So the only logical thing then is to give that off to an external tool that can do it better than us. And we have these, and we’ve had them since we were in Grade 3 probably. They’re agenda, to do lists, calendar, notebook, simple boring things but they will never forget. Their working memory is effectively unlimited.
And when we off-board that information to them, what we can do is we can focus all of our attention, all of our energy on to just one or two projects at a time. We can remember every single thing about them and devote the energy that they deserve. So the first thing that boring people did was they wrote absolutely everything down.
Second thing is they reduced to the essential. I went to the grocery store and I took a picture, this is an aisle. And this is all toothpaste. And to be clear, toothpaste is something you put in your mouth and then you spit out. And we have dozens of brands of them.
Barry Schwartz talks about this idea of the paradox of choice and he looks at all of those brands of toothpaste and all the different things we can buy, and all the different restaurants we can go to, all the different games we could purchase. And he says that this actually doesn’t make our lives any better. And I think intuitively we know that’s true. We know that we now have too many choices that those choices start to hurt us, because we’re afraid of making the wrong choice. And sometimes we’re so afraid that we don’t make any choice at all. We just go with everything.
I don’t know how many of you recognize this outfit. It’s certainly something that I’m quite fond of. This is what Apple co-founder Steve Jobs wore almost every single day and to every single keynote for more than a decade. And obviously he was a bit of an eccentric guy but he is not the only one either. President Obama says that he only has two colors of suit, he’s got a blue suit and he’s got a gray suit.
And for a guy who wears a suit almost every single day of this life, that sounds like a pretty boring way to live. But what these guys knew about was this idea of mental energy pool. And researchers have shown that we only have a limited amount of mental energy that we can devote to decision-making. And every single time we make a decision, whether it’s big or small, it wears down on this mental energy pool.
And what’s the problem with this when we get to the big decision? The ones that really guide the entire outcome of our lives, we are so exhausted by choosing what to wear, what to eat, what to buy, what to watch on TV that we can’t make good decisions on the important thing.
So how do we manage this? Well, I command everything in my life with a two-by-two grid. In business, we love our two-by-two grid, and in this case, it’s actually pretty effective. If it’s something you don’t love and it’s something you don’t have to do, this is a pretty easy one. Just eliminate it. There’s no point in it being in your life at all.
The tougher one for most people is this next one. If it’s something you don’t love but it’s something you have to do, what are you going to do about that? Well, for me this is what I eat every day. I don’t care what I have for breakfast, lunch or dinner. So I think the only reasonable choice when you have things like that, that you’re forced to do but you don’t really care about, is we need to automate. We need to make the same choice every single time or we need to let someone else make the choice for us.
So people laugh at me when I say I eat chicken and potatoes pretty much every night for dinner. And I mean it is pretty funny, it makes it harder to eat out, that’s for sure. But what I get to do is I get to stop focusing on these bottom two and I get to focus on the top: the things that I love, whether I have to do them or not. And because I’m not worn down by all the decision-making on the mundane things I don’t care about, I’m able to give my entire self, every bit of energy I have to making the things I love amazingly. I get to do more of the things I love and I get to do them better than I could if I focused on the things I didn’t care about.
So the second thing that boring people did was they reduced to the essential.
So what we’ve talked about so far, then is we’ve talked about how boring people write things down and they reduced to the essential.
And the third thing is the absolute most important, and that’s that boring people stop and question. And what do I mean here? Well, there’s a big value that’s placed on spontaneity in society. People really believe that you have to go with your gut. You have to keep running. You have to jump in. But I think that’s one of the most foolish ways that we can possibly live. One of the reasons I think it is, is because there’s no way that we can possibly keep up with everything that’s happening around us. There is so much information flowing in that if we try and manage it all, we will fail on those first two things. We won’t be able to keep track of it all and we won’t be able to make sure that our lives are only filled with the things we love.
And to give you an idea of how much stuff actually flows in, this is a pretty interesting statistic. Every two days we create more data than we did from the dawn of man until the year 2003. Every two days.
Every day we upload 900,000 hours of video to YouTube, that’s 10 hours every single second. So if I as a 22-year-old male missed 14 hours off of YouTube, I would have to spend the entire remainder of my life catching up on what I missed. There’s absolutely no way that we can do it and by trying to do it, we lose out on the things that we really care about. So at some point we have to stop and take stock of what we have.
And when we take stock of what we have, we have to make sure that we continue to question. Because the problem with the first two things is that people do them extremely well and their life goes on autopilot. They think they don’t need to do anything else. But we have to continue to question those things. We have to make sure that they’re not stale. We have to make sure that they still have value to us and that we can still add value to them. John F Kennedy said that we need men who can dream of things that never were. I think everyone in this room would probably agree with that.
But the problem is that we need to have original thought, and we never get there on our first thought, because our first thought is always are worst thought. Our first thought is always what someone else thought. It’s always what we heard in the news. It’s always what our parents or professors or friends told us. In order to come up with something original, in order to rethink the status quo, we need to give it way more than our first thought. But because we’re so worried about keeping up with everything that’s coming at us, we usually don’t give it any more.
And this was really my story for a long time when I set my life on autopilot. I did the first two things amazingly. I made sure that there wasn’t anything in my life that I didn’t care for and I was so detailed in organizing my life that someone could have come right in and started living it for me without a problem. Step right in.
But that was the problem. The problem was that I set my life up for two or three years and I hadn’t thought whether those things still had value to me. I hadn’t questioned whether I could continue adding value, whether those things were still making me happy. So in order really round this out, we need to do the third thing that boring people do where they stop and they question.
So what we’ve talked about then is we need to think what’s important to us. We need to continually reevaluate to make sure that the things in our lives are still fresh and important. And once we do, we need to get rid of everything that we don’t love. And if we can’t get rid of it, we need to automate everything in between. And finally, we need to plan, organize and actually do the things we love. We can’t let our terrible brain sabotage us by letting some of those mental juggling balls fall through the crack.
And when we do this what happens is we do become boring. In a lot of ways our lives become less exciting and I think people, particularly young people are afraid of this. They’re afraid that they’ll get old, they’ll look boring. They’re afraid that by doing commonplace things, they’ll become commonplace people, that they’ll be forgettable, unremarkable. But that’s not what I’m afraid of. And it shouldn’t be what anyone else is afraid of either.
We should be afraid of living in a world where we’re not actually doing the things we love, where we’re not constantly reevaluating whether the things in our lives are actually important to us, and where we’re not setting up plans to actually do the things we love. That’s the world that I’m afraid of, because when we become a little bit more boring, we start to do some more amazing things.
Thank you very much.