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

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.

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.

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.

It’s true for us as people, and for the organizations we work for, too. When a leader’s beliefs are aligned with everything the organization says and does, even behind closed doors? I know it sounds kind of goofy and woo-woo, but that’s a happy company. Just aligning two isn’t enough. If only two of the three ingredients like these areas around the edge, if only two of the ingredients are mixed correctly, but we’re missing the third, like, if I do what I say, my actions and words are aligned, that gives us consistency. But is that happiness? It’s missing the belief ingredient.

Think of someone who consistently does what they say for a job or a relationship that they don’t believe in. Whatever it is that they’re feeling, I’m pretty sure happiness isn’t it. But is it unhappiness? Gandhi didn’t write down a recipe for that, but using the same ingredients I came up with this [unhappiness is when what you think, what you say or what you do are discordant] Unhappiness is : when what you think, what you say, or what you do are discordant.

So, where Gandhi’s happiness model looked kind of happy here, mine is a little less cheerful, bringing in the grays. Happiness required all three ingredients to be mixed together. But I’m more generous, all you need is two. Unhappiness spontaneously bakes itself, when one or more ingredients, your beliefs, words, actions won’t blend with the others. Unhappiness isn’t just the middle; it’s the three overlaps.

Like in that first example, when we do what we say, we are consistent, [words, – consistent, actions] but now, when we don’t do what we say, we’re unreliable [Gandhi’s Happiness Model: words, – unreliable, actions] And just like that, assuming Gandhi and I are right, we’re unhappy. We don’t need anything else. And if Professor Forgas was right, too, we can start picking out our superhero costumes, because all those benefits to our memory, our willpower, our persuasiveness, they’re all ours. Or they can be if we allow ourselves to feel that unhappiness instead of ignoring it or avoiding it.

And feeling unhappy? It goes against just about everything we’re taught. Our founding fathers granted us pursuit of happiness as an inalienable or was it unalienable? I can never remember, right. We turn that frown upside down. When there was a scandal, it’s not about unhappiness. When a company gets hit with a scandal, we change the name, change the logo, everything is fine.

We are a nation of “don’t worry, be happy” people. But behind the smiles, we’re not. Diagnosing unhappiness isn’t hard. You just have to know where to look. There are six basic categories of unhappiness. I’ll get to where they come from in a moment. For a long time, I believed that one of my own heroes had none of these qualities. He seemed specific, motivated, truthful. All the opposite of what you’re seeing behind me. And then he had all seven of his Tour de France wins taken away from him.

In the process he revealed himself to be profoundly unhappy, and he exhibited every one of the six types of unhappiness behind me. And then there’s, for corporations, AIG. Some blame them for single-handedly sparking the recession six years ago. In the aftermath, the CEO sat down in front of Congress and said, “I think the AIG name is so thoroughly wounded and disgraced, that we’re probably going to have to change it.” Seriously, the name was disgraced.

AIG leadership, they’re fine, but the name, that has to go. Changing the name doesn’t resolve the unhappiness. It just makes them look more unreliable, secretive, and uncommitted than we already thought. My own unhappiness is harder to spot. Trashing my Juilliard application and never telling anyone, that’s secrecy and disengagement going back 20 years for me, and in denial the whole time.

The impact of my unhappiness hasn’t been as sensational, thankfully, as Armstrong and AIG, but now, I’m no Pavarotti, but imagine if he decided to do something like I did and went into accounting instead of opera. The world wouldn’t have some of the most beautiful music ever recorded, and we’d never know. Just because our own unhappiness isn’t visible or sensational doesn’t mean that it’s okay to let it stay that way.

[Signs of Unhappiness: vague, unreliable, secretive, disengaged, deceitful, denial] The signs of unhappiness might look random, but they’re not. They’re pulled directly from the areas of discord in my unhappiness model.

[Linden’s Unhappiness Model] Unhappiness is our body’s way of telling us that something’s wrong. It’s like when we put a hand on that stove no one has to tell us to take it off if it’s hot. That’s what the pain is for. But for some reason we stopped listening, and it was trying to tell us something. And that’s bad because it’s telling us to stop or start doing something, and until we listen and we adapt, the pain isn’t going away.

One organization hired us to help them find a way to avoid government oversight. It was an interesting problem. Loosely, most of their customers were buying and using way too much product, which sounds like a good thing until that wasted product ends up all over the place. And the government has to clean it up. The organization had already invested huge amounts of money and effort in promoting consumer responsibility, but nothing changed.

My job was to find a solution that would change the buyer’s behavior. And so I did In front of a board overseeing tens of billions in annual revenues, I summarized the problem, then asked something like this: “In your company, who makes more money, the sales person who sells the most, or the one who only sells what the buyer actually needs?” The reason that consumer responsibility campaign failed was because the salespeople were paid to kill it. Acknowledging unhappiness forces us to confront a reality that we don’t want to see. Not only are we unhappy, we lack integrity, structural integrity. The things that we believe, the things we say and do, they fit together so poorly that under the slightest amount of pressure, they collapse.

I’ve seen dozens of organizations and hundreds of people seek happiness, or try to maintain their integrity by turning their backs on unhappiness and walking away. And I’ve never seen it work. It can’t work because that’s not where happiness and integrity live. It’s as though if I wanted to see my grandpa, there he is, I’d go to his front porch and turn my back to the door, and walk in a straight line, away. No amount of walking away, at any speed or any effort, gets me where I want to go.

Happiness and integrity, they can’t be reached by walking away from unhappiness. Unhappiness is the front door. The only way to find them is to open the door and step through. For me, in a way, the way to my happiness, it is my grandpa’s literal front door. I remember he’d sit in his favorite chair, and demand that. I sing his favorite pieces from South Pacific when I was in town.

And I always would .In that interview I mentioned at the top, he talked about hearing me sing in South Pacific for the first time, and he said this, “He started to sing that first song in this bass voice, actually a gorgeous voice, and I started crying. I’d heard his voice before, and it was just an ordinary voice. All of the sudden he had this great voice! He got roaring applause.” He goes on to tell a story about arranging for me to sing for a former star and benefactor of the San Francisco Opera whose only condition was that if I wasn’t good, grandpa would get an earful.

When the man called back the next day after hearing me, he said, “He’s got a great voice, but he needs training. I’d be glad to help him.” Grandpa told a few other little stories about me before he said his last words about me to the interviewer “The voice is there, but he never pursued it. It’s been a shame. You have a God-given gift like that, you use it.”

My grandpa died five years ago. My oldest son is named after him, my youngest son has his initials. I only heard this two weeks ago for the first time, so I’m still getting used to it. Hearing his words brought me right back to the moment I dropped my Julliard application in the trash, an act that let to years of my life spent afraid to sing for anyone, not because I worried you won’t like it, but because I’m afraid that you will.

That you’ll think, like I do, that I can’t possibly have the impact as a strategist as I would’ve as a singer, that I made the wrong choice so long ago and have continued to make the wrong choices for so long, that now I can’t go back and fix it. This is my unhappiness I’ve been secretive, prior to tonight, I’ve been secretive about my reasons for not singing. I’ve denied to myself and others that it was important to me. And I disengaged myself from music, one of the things I enjoyed most in the world.

The cat’s out of the bag with the secrecy. I’m not in denial anymore, so that’s two down. But I’m still disengaged, I’m not singing. I’ve helped dozens of companies work through unhappiness, and it’s awe-inspiring to watch. Seeing these leaders confront their problems, the unhappiness, work through their issues one at a time, and come out the other side, with integrity, gives me goosebumps.

But somehow I never got around to doing it meaningfully for myself. You can see from tonight, on stage, you can kind of understand why. It’s not easy. Telling you the unhappiness is the doorway to happiness and integrity isn’t hard “Unhappiness is the doorway.” Great! Done! But showing you what it’s like has taken all the moisture out of my mouth. Hold on. It’s terrifying. All those years walking away from unhappiness, I know I’m no further away than when I started. And, yes, I’m painfully aware that I’m standing on a big punctuation mark right now, that means “Stop.” And as much as I don’t want it to be, I really don’t want to do this, I ran out of time, right? It’s been Joe? (Plays note on pitch pipe) If somehow you can hear me, thank you for the kick in the ass I have no clue if I can sing anymore, but I’m going to try to dust off the pipes.

So, this if for both of us I would’ve dedicated it to him but I need it too. As soon as that guy in here stops chopping onions Hold on. (Plays note on pitch pipe) Alright, let me give this a shot.

We’ll start slow (Singing) ♪ Some enchanted evening, ♪ when you find your true love, ♪ when you feel her call you ♪ across a crowded room, ♪ then fly to her side and make her your own, ♪ or all through your life ♪ you may dream all alone (Applause) [Theodore Lilienthal 1912 – 2009]