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5 Invaluable Lessons I Learned After Talking To World-Class Personal Growth Experts

Simplify’s Caitlin Schiller reflects on what she learned about life from interviewing some of the world’s most sought-after experts
by Caitlin Schiller | Aug 17 2017

By January 2017 we’d been making Blinkist’s interview podcast for nearly two years, speaking to authors and experts like Cal Newport, David Allen, and Arianna Huffington on the things they knew most about. Two things happen when you do enough of something: first, you get better at it, and second, patterns start to emerge. What we noticed was that, as much as these thinkers’ backgrounds and fields of expertise differed, they were all addressing the same challenge: the need to manage modern chaos.

Ben & Caitlin

The underlying reason for that seems pretty clear. There is an ever more deeply underscored imperative to do more, be more, and accomplish more in the average day—in the average life. Technology can help us take it on, but we still come up against a simple mortal truth: as much advancement as the world around us may demand, we’re still equipped with the same human hardware. We all have limits.

The art and skill is knowing how to joyfully thrive within them.

When we relaunched the Blinkist Podcast, we knew what we wanted to offer: smart ways to manage the chaos of modern life, conversationally delivered, straight from the brightest people we could talk to. We called it Simplify.

There is an ever more deeply underscored imperative to do more, be more, and accomplish more in the average day—in the average life.

The first season—which just wrapped up last week with more than 200,000 downloads—was tremendously fun, and tremendously educative, too. Here’s what I learned from grilling five experts about living better and streamlining the chaos of everyday life.

1. Happiness: Whom do you envy?

No matter how highfalutin’ your goals, they’re usually in service of one thing: feeling a little more satisfied with where you are. It seemed right to us, then, to launch Simplify with happiness and habits researcher, Gretchen Rubin.

Gretchen and I discussed popular theories on getting happier (plus our mutual love for crotchety 18th Century thinker, Samuel Johnson). But one thing from that really stuck with me was a question Gretchen recommended to help you get clear on what you should be doing with your life: “Whom do you envy?

If the mere idea of pondering that just made you clench up a little, a) it’s okay, and b) you’re not alone.

In the podcast, Gretchen explains that envy clues you into what you’re missing in your life and what you really value. And that’s what makes this very simple question both illuminating and about as comfortable as a tee shirt made of fire ants. But throw yourself into the pit of existential complexity and you’ll climb up to a much clearer horizon with concrete ideas of how your world could be better.

2. Relationships: Keep not breaking up

Figuring out what makes you happy is one thing. Figuring out how to be happy with another person intimately involved in 75+ percent of your waking life is another. This is something that I, at just over 30, am only just now learning to do. So when I asked one of my heroes, Dan Savage—a relatively radical relationship and sex advice columnist who’s been in the business for 30 years—how to simplify staying close, I wasn’t just asking for a friend.

We all have limits. The art and skill is knowing how to joyfully thrive within them.

Dan told me that his friends always ask how he and his husband of decades, Terry, manage to stay together, “We just keep not breaking up,” is the answer Dan always gives. It might seem glib, but there’s much more wisdom—and much more tenderness—behind the prescription than first meets the eye.

For Dan, “keep not breaking up” means coming to terms with the complex reality of another person’s being. It might mean you pay the price of admission—and you might have to accept that you’ll have difficult feelings about it. If you’re like Dan, paying the price of admission may mean that you end up wordlessly cleaning up after your partner because it ensures more harmony than bickering over it does.

“Keep not breaking up” is a typically Savageonian shorthand for loving compromise—and that’s something we could all use a little more of.

3. Productivity: Write it all down

When I asked David Allen, creator of the GTD method and author of books Getting Things Done, Making it All Work, and Ready for Anything, what he’d recommend people do to actually move forward and address the things that matter, he told me one thing: “Write it all down.” Then, he took an elegant sip of white wine and flashed me a secretive smile.

Like “Keep not breaking up,” David’s productivity tip is another piece of advice that seems laughably elemental. But being accountable moment to moment and asking yourself “Is this the most important thing I could be doing right now?” even David admits is not. “You need to externalise what you need to do in order to free up your intuitive decision-making process,” he explains in the podcast. “Then, you can start doing the things that matter.”

Write down every. single. thing in your life that has your attention, from buying dog food to someday becoming president of the United States.

Make no mistake—this usually isn’t the work of five minutes. David told me that, for most people, carrying out this process for the first time takes anywhere from three hours to three days. Why? You write down every. single. thing in your life that has your attention, from buying dog food to someday becoming president of the United States. I tried it myself when I returned from visiting David in Amsterdam and it took me a few hours. At first, it felt daunting. But if you give it a try you might find, like I did, that recording each thing to which you’ve committed your mind, your heart, and your energy is more than just a great way to manage life’s priorities. It’s also a nice reminder of how rich and varied a life you actually lead.

4. Nutrition: Salad is the main meal

How many green vegetables, beans, and berries do you typically eat in a day? According to Doctor Joel Fuhrman’s guidelines, it’s probably not enough.

Doctor Furhman is author of multiple New York Times bestsellers, a PBS darling, and creator of the Nutritarian diet—a plant-based nutritional program that has, he claims, cured diabetes, reversed cancer growth, and helped millions of people lose hundreds of pounds. Apiece.

The modern American diet, he explains, is clogged with a superfluity of unhealthy foods that create addiction and disease. When I asked him how he’d simplify it, he said the one thing to remember is this: “the salad is the main meal.” Start eating a giant green salad with nuts, numerous veggies, and a healthy dressing (Thousand Island, Ranch, and Creamy Parmesan—get outta my salad bar!) and you’ll be on your way to better health already.

5. Decisions: Can you make the best one?

None of us lives in a vacuum. This fact makes decision-making either stupidly easy or a monumental pain.

When I talked with Jonah Berger, Wharton Professor and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On and, more recently, Invisible Influence, a book about the unseen forces that affect all of our choices, it was with the goal of simplifying the tough work of making up my mind. When I asked Jonah what I should do to make sure I’m not making decisions based on others’ influence, but rather my own best interests, he delivered a sobering reply.

“The question is not “Should we not be influenced by others?” The question is, can we make the best decision? And sometimes the best decision may be following others and sometimes it may be going the other way. Influence is a powerful tool. By itself it’s neither positive or negative, we just have to understand how to use it.”

The route to simplicity is almost always straight through—not around—life’s more difficult parts.

What I hoped would be a simple question with a simple answer received a rather complex response from Professor Berger. And that may be the perfect way to wrap up Simplify, Season 1.

After five interviews, here’s what we know: Simplifying chaos is indeed possible. But the route to simplicity is almost always straight through—not around—life’s more difficult parts.

To figure out how to be happier in our own lives, we should inspect our darker feelings about the lives of others. To stay happy with our partners, we must accept the whorls of complexity that make them so lovably unique—and, sometimes, so lovably irritating. To know what’s important to do next, we need to be willing to take a candid look at everything that exists. To make choices that are good for us, we’ll sometimes make the choices that have been good for others, but we sometimes won’t. And sometimes, we just need to focus on the salad.

At the end of the day, the first step to simplifying chaos is to be brave enough to zoom out, look at it all, and tell yourself: “I’ve got this.”

For our part, Ben and I have accepted that we’re never going to fully escape chaos and complexity, but we’ll keep asking the right people for advice on making it fun.

See you all in Season 2. This is Caitlin, checking out.

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