The Value of Unhappiness: Tate Linden at TEDxHerndon (Full Transcript)

Tate Linden – Brand strategist at Stokefire

Last week I heard, for the first time, an interview my grandpa gave 15 years ago about growing up near San Francisco before the Golden Gate Bridge existed. Well, it was supposed to be about that, but for three minutes, right in the middle, it was entirely about me.

Now, this wasn’t random. He was trying to share something that he believed was important. He wanted to let the interviewer know how he felt about the fact that I, his grandson, am not a singer. I know that seems a little weird. It doesn’t seem worthy of mention, but maybe it was.

It feels really strange to say this, but the fact that I don’t sing has made me unhappy for about half my life because 20 years ago, I was a singer, and I was a good one. I was that annoying kid in school who got all the solos and leads. I did this mean imitation of Pavarotti, and doing that on stage in a production of South Pacific in high school got me a scholarship to UCLA, where I kicked ass as a performer and then had my ass kicked by music theory. My last public performance was at my graduation. I sang The Star Spangled Banner, Alma Mater, and I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy.

But I wasn’t done with music yet. I auditioned for the top music schools in the country, at graduate programs coast-to-coast, and the acceptance letters started pouring in. But I turned them all down. Two reasons for that. First, I was offered a job where I could put my philosophical morals and ethics training to good use, working in tech support for a cigarette company. And then… And second – it was a paying job, and I had a philosophy degree, don’t hate, okay. And second, I didn’t get into Juilliard.

If you don’t know what Juilliard is, it’s like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but it turns out world-class performers instead of chocolate I got in everywhere else, but I wasn’t holding that one golden ticket. And I believed that going anywhere else would be telling the world that I wasn’t good enough. And I thought that would be too painful to admit. I rejected those great schools because I wanted to avoid that pain.

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I had a place to stay, I had food to eat. I didn’t feel unhappy. I didn’t think my ego could take the blow, so I backed away, straight into that cubicle farm I know, in what world does that make sense? But a guy named Professor Joseph Forgas might suggest that it’s this world. Through decades of study, he’s found that being unhappy provides measurable benefits.

All it takes is feeling unhappy. His findings : unhappy people are more persuasive, they have better memory, better judgement, and are more motivated than the rest of us. It’s like unhappiness gives us superpowers, and happiness is our kryptonite, really. The professor found evidence that just like kryptonite happiness can sap our will. Happiness makes it more likely that we’ll create self-handicaps when we’re not sure that we can succeed.

Kind of like how I wasn’t sure I could get into Julliard. If only there’d been a way to guarantee that I wouldn’t get rejected. And then that kryptonite light bulb went off. You can’t get rejected if you never apply. And I didn’t.

But the younger me isn’t alone; we all do stupid stuff like this. We don’t put our name in for the promotion; we don’t chat up that person across the room that catches our eye. We don’t push beyond our comfort zone because we might get shot down, and that would hurt; it would make us unhappy. Screw whatever Professor. Superpowers were out there; no one likes to be crushed. Unhappiness is miserable.

We don’t even want to spend time with people who are unhappy because I don’t know, maybe unhappiness is contagious or something. But that reminds me, I haven’t actually said what happiness and unhappiness are. I’m not going to bore you with all the dictionary definitions. Happiness, unsurprisingly when you boil all – I’ve read through hundreds of these dictionaries – when you boil them all down they all say the same thing. [happiness good]. That Happiness is good, always good. But unhappiness? I couldn’t find a single dictionary that suggested anything other than bad. [unhappiness bad] Not one I’ve never found something that said it might be a good thing.

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Until I came across, well, to me something incredible. Hidden in a quote attributed to Gandhi, this brought me my first nugget of clarity. I can remember. And reading it is linked directly to my discovery of the value of unhappiness.

The quote reads, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony.” Gandhi didn’t tell us whether happiness was good or bad. He doesn’t have to. Because if we paid attention he showed us we can find out for ourselves. This is more than just a feel-good quote.

This is like the first clue to a secret recipe. You bake in happiness when the stuff that you believe, [words] [actions] [beliefs] the stuff that you relate to other people, and the stuff that you do, are aligned. [Gandhi’s Happiness Model] Which makes Gandhi’s happiness model look something like this. This is his model, but that’s the only happiness, right in the middle. It’s the only place where it can exist, the only place where all three ingredients are in harmony.

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