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Ep. 138: Tal Ben-Shahar - How to Not Be So Perfect

February 08, 2021 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 138
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 138: Tal Ben-Shahar - How to Not Be So Perfect
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 138: Tal Ben-Shahar - How to Not Be So Perfect
Feb 08, 2021 Season 1 Episode 138
Sucheta Kamath

Yogi Berra once said, “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.” High achievers often bring perfection in their work; however, perfectionism can impede ongoing high achievement. The diligence in being perfect is time-consuming and exhausting and since humans can’t give up on the ideas of perfection, it’s prudent to remember that if left unchecked, perfectionistic tendencies can create barriers to transcendence.  

On this episode, renowned author whose books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages and popular lecturer whose undergraduate class at Harvard was the most attended in the history of Harvard, Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., discusses ways to shift from perfectionism to optimalism by rechanneling focus and bringing the same intensity of desires to achieve one’s goals. Since Executive Function involves activating the set of mental skills that facilitates the management of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions; letting go of a perfectionistic view does require higher-order executive control to redirect a rigid mindset and pivot to recognize the joys in imperfection. 

About Tal Ben-Shahar
Tal Ben-Shahar is an author and lecturer.  He taught two of the largest classes in Harvard University’s history, Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership.  Today, Tal consults and lectures around the world to executives in multi-national corporations, the general public, and at-risk populations.  The topics he lectures on include leadership, happiness, education, innovation, ethics, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, and mindfulness. His books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and have appeared on best-sellers lists around the world.

Tal is a serial entrepreneur, and is the co-founder and chief learning officer of Happiness Studies Academy, Potentialife, Maytiv, and Happier.TV.
An avid sportsman, Tal won the U.S. Intercollegiate and Israeli National squash championships.  Today, for exercise, he swims, dances, and practices Yoga.  He obtained his PhD in Organizational Behavior and BA in Philosophy and Psychology from Harvard.

About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Show Notes Transcript

Yogi Berra once said, “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.” High achievers often bring perfection in their work; however, perfectionism can impede ongoing high achievement. The diligence in being perfect is time-consuming and exhausting and since humans can’t give up on the ideas of perfection, it’s prudent to remember that if left unchecked, perfectionistic tendencies can create barriers to transcendence.  

On this episode, renowned author whose books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages and popular lecturer whose undergraduate class at Harvard was the most attended in the history of Harvard, Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., discusses ways to shift from perfectionism to optimalism by rechanneling focus and bringing the same intensity of desires to achieve one’s goals. Since Executive Function involves activating the set of mental skills that facilitates the management of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions; letting go of a perfectionistic view does require higher-order executive control to redirect a rigid mindset and pivot to recognize the joys in imperfection. 

About Tal Ben-Shahar
Tal Ben-Shahar is an author and lecturer.  He taught two of the largest classes in Harvard University’s history, Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership.  Today, Tal consults and lectures around the world to executives in multi-national corporations, the general public, and at-risk populations.  The topics he lectures on include leadership, happiness, education, innovation, ethics, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, and mindfulness. His books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and have appeared on best-sellers lists around the world.

Tal is a serial entrepreneur, and is the co-founder and chief learning officer of Happiness Studies Academy, Potentialife, Maytiv, and Happier.TV.
An avid sportsman, Tal won the U.S. Intercollegiate and Israeli National squash championships.  Today, for exercise, he swims, dances, and practices Yoga.  He obtained his PhD in Organizational Behavior and BA in Philosophy and Psychology from Harvard.

About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Sucheta Kamath: Welcome to another episode of Full PreFrontal. My mission is to help people understand that their brain's prefrontal cortex is wired to be the CEO of the brain ready to act as the chief executive officer, performing all the C-suite duties pursuing higher goals tracking and securing the future interest of self taking critical decisions and vetoing undesirable action however pleasurable they might be. And at its best, this Central Executive acts as the traffic, air traffic controller, repurposing tools, directing actions, calibrating emotions, tweaking behaviors and decisions in order to create a beautiful and harmonious symphony that leads to inner well being, as well as outer success. And my highly talented guests unveil the key features of the system that drive and propel it into the self regulated machine. their unique perspectives and expertise help promote the growth and development of this prefrontal cortex and so that we can collaborate, communicate and connect. So it's a great pleasure to invite a very, very special guest. I have many connections to this guest one particular connection, my guest is aware of the rest he is not. So it's, it's it's my great honor to have Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, who is an author and a lecturer he taught two of the largest classes at Harvard University's history, positive psychology and the psychology of leadership. Today, Tal consults and lectures around the world to executives in multinational corporations, the general public and at risk population. The topics of his lectures include leadership, happiness, education, innovation, ethics, self esteem, resilience, goal setting and mindfulness. He has multiple books, prolific writer and two particular books that I'm interested in kind of getting his insights on. One is the pursuit of perfect, which is amazing and happier. So learn the secrets of daily joy, and lasting fulfillment. And the personal connection is he it has blessed my young college student, my son Rahil, by teaching him a course in psychology, which has led to incredible conversations. And I remember the discussion we had when he first got on the waitlist to be able to take part. So we'll talk about that in a second. Welcome. Welcome to the podcast. Thank you for being here with me today.

 Tal Ben-Shahar: Thank you, Sucheta. It's a it's great to be here. And I must say it was so great to to get to know your son over the semester, and just the behind the scenes for the for the listeners, we have a deal here. I'm going to do this podcast, but I asked for parenting tips. So...

 Sucheta Kamath: Oh my goodness, I'm flattered and honored. And I will take it with a grain of salt and not hog all the credit. Some children are just born with great temperament and they make parents look good. So I live with that. But I will tell you a few things that one is he just, you know, in in every juncture of your life, you have certain charismatic adults who have incredible influence. And I think his decision to go into psychology and you being in his life has collided in such a beautiful way that he is inspired by your teaching style, which is he he says and I have quotes he says you introduce large topics, but you get into a simple, simple steps that lead to understanding the large topics which really made it extremely personable experience. You are so knowledgeable, which I told him the word you are a polymath. Rahil is just a Kamath. So I told him you need to become a polymath. And finally he said it's so funny. He says me and my girlfriend and I we practice this mutual appreciation with a loved one exercise that you taught him. And so I kind of sent him frowny faces. I said, and what about mom here? Why are you doing that with your mom every day. But anyways, it's it's a, it's really so fantastic to have an influential educator and none better than you. So I want to get started with with you. And since the topic is executive function, which entails self awareness, and then using that knowledge to guide oneself through the journey of life. I'm very curious about my guests and experts like you. When do you think you began to notice this flashing light facing inwards and that kind of information you gathered about yourself and how were you able to influence your own learning and thinking as a young person?

Tal Ben-Shahar: Yeah, you know, obviously we have as individuals, different tendencies and many people who end up going into psychology, usually lead examined lives. You know, the Socrates once wrote, The unexamined life is not worth living. Yes. And I will add to that, that the over examined life is often tedious. Sometimes on the on the over examined life, so I'm not just saying this as you know, as a compliment, or is a good thing, you know, there can be too much of a good thing. But I remember specifically one experience where I realized that, you know, I was, you know, captain of the ship, master of my destiny. And it happened when I when I was 14. And what would very much defined my childhood was with sports athletics, I was always a squash player, and later on play professional squash champion, at best, and, but way before then, when I was when I was 14, I really wanted to be a top player, and I played the competition, you know, age groups, and so on. And then I went to a to a championship, it was an international championship. And there I saw some of the best players in the world. And it was my first or second time seeing top squash, other than on TV or video. And I was sitting there and suddenly dawned on me, and I looked at these players who were a lot better than I was. And I said, I know how to get there. I know what I need to do, in order to become that player, five years, 10 years from now. And in fact, it seemed to me very simple. I said, all I have to do is, you know, I obviously have to have coaching to be coached. But I have to spend, you know, three, four or five hours a day on court, hitting the ball up and down. And, and then I will make it and, and I thought to myself, wow, it's easy. Now, not easy, physically, I knew that it would be very hard and, you know, working in the in the gym and running and playing, you know, physically hard, but easy in terms of the blueprint, and the best. And that's a ha moment stayed with me ever since, you know, even just before, you know, coming to this, to speak with you, my eldest son, who's 16. And he, he said to me, oh, Dad, I have so much work today. You know, I have math homework, and you know, film class homework and have a presentation. And I mean, he's preparing for his essay, oh, god, what am I going to do? And I said, I said, David, it's just work. That's all it is. And just do it one by one by one. And you'll see that at the end of the day, you will have so many check marks, you'll feel good about yourself. And, and I mean, it's, you know, all his work. And, you know, later on, I was exposed to work by Anders Ericsson. Ericsson, sorry, Anders Ericsson, who who talks about, you know, the path to to success, the 10,000 hours. But I think that, for me was a definitive moment. Because I know, till today, okay, so I want to write a book, all it is, is, you know, putting in the hours, you know, I want to study a new field, all it is, is, you know, getting to those books and reading them. It's only work.

Sucheta Kamath: Wow, that's, first of all, I mean, I think to me, that's a incredible insight. But secondly, it's a perspective you had, even though you're at the bottom of the hill to sounds to me that you had that aerial perspective on the landscape of learning. That, that's, again, is it's quite young wisdom, I really appreciate that. It's funny, you say that, I had this kind of understanding. I was, believe it or not, aspiring artists, but not a single original idea I loved I was very good at art producing art. So drawing, painting, all kinds of mediums. And so a select a group of I came from very, very tiny place in India, and exposure to entire high school class was 30 kids. So people come from 1400, you know, kids in high school, and I came from 30. So it's not a great perspective. But when I was in seventh grade, I got selected to be in the special class where, because I was talented. And at that time, I realized that there are some kids who are naturally able to imagine things without having to see them. That was not something part of my repertoire. I could see it and I could capture it, copy it, beautifully painted. And then I saw people completely out of imagination. That perspective gave me an insight that I am not that and every juncture of my life, a lot of things have reminded what I'm not, which has helped me a lot more than what I am.

Tal Ben-Shahar: I think finding the, you know, the combination or a balance between the two, you know, what am I Not? Yeah, no less important is what am I? Or who am I? Just like, we need to know, you know, what, what, what don't I want to do? And what do I want to do and both perspectives are important.

Sucheta Kamath: 

So true. And so let's talk about one topic. I think that's so relevant for these times. And I have had Anders Ericcson on our, my podcast, and I have a great friendship with him, I get to talk, talk with him. Every now and then. And I've had another researcher as Suniya Luthar, who talks about you, you're familiar with her work. And what's so fascinating is the amount of pressure there is on the kids, but also pressure in society in general education and teachers and parents as a culture we have put on becoming something which can then be measured as your achievement. And so I want to kind of talk about being a perfectionist and this tendency, so can you set the stage for us? Why where does this desire to be perfect come from? For starters?

Tal Ben-Shahar: Yes, so, um, you know, very often we inherit the desire to be to be perfect, Karen Horney, whose was a student of Freud and later broke away from Freud, back in the 1930s talked about perfectionism is a neuroses and neuroses with a genetic foundation, or at the very least a predisposition of force. So we have an inclination, and then on top of that inclination, we have reinforcement, and the reinforcement comes from our culture. I mean, what do we see in our culture, we see perfect role models, what we see it whether it's the cover of magazines, you know, I have quite a few students, mostly women who did the research on the impact of, of the of the covers of those magazines, on women's self esteem on their desire to be to be perfect. And you know, more and more men actually are struggling with, with body issues, because they're not perfect either. Or we have movies, what do we get in the movies, we get perfect looking, and perfectly living role models, having perfect relationships, and then to top it all off, but we have social media and social media, we see normal people allegedly not not movie stars, can lead perfect lives. And, and, and therefore we...

Sucheta Kamath: Or we are chosing to only post those moments that may depict having a perfect moment. 

Tal Ben-Shahar: Because I don't want to be the only one who's who has flaws. So I contribute to this great deception, which is very much responsible to for the great depression that we are experiencing as a culture. And so everything around us conspires towards you know, this, this unrealistic perfection. You know, one of the things that I often emphasize when when thinking about my parenting, but also when speaking to others about parenting is the work of Donald Winnicott. And when he caught his most famous work is on what he called the good enough mother. Yes, not the perfect mother, the good enough mother. And of course, you know, he wrote in the 50s 60s, so it was the mother. But today, many fathers are of course involved in child rearing. And the good enough parent is a very important concept because children do not need perfect a perfect role model. They need someone who's fallible, someone who struggles someone who learns from, from failures and from hardships. This is the kind of role model that that they need, so that they don't fall into the trap of, of trying to wanting to be perfect.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, I love that I think the Julius Siegel's concept of the charismatic adult, which is a one who from whom children gather strength from and to frame it the way you said it, that we don't gather strength from perfect people. We In fact, gather strength from those who have unconditional acceptance of the way we are, wherever we are, they meet us where we are,

Tal Ben-Shahar: of the way we are and the way they are. Yes, that's important, you know, to be the change in Gandhi's words we need so, you know, we're going through, you know, a pandemic, now it's, you know, very rough ride for most people. And very often during during this ride up, I've said to my kids, you know, you know, I need a night off or I'm really feeling down or can I talk to you about something that I went through at work? And because it's important for me that they have a real model not to say, Oh, my dad's a happiness professor. So I should be happy all the time. But rather to see that you know, I struggled to, and therefore giving them the permission to struggle as well.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, I, I feel you have left such a trail of breadcrumbs for them, because every book that you have written, you're so honest and candid. And even in this book, The perfect I think you talk about your own vulnerabilities as a perfectionist, striving to tame down the beast. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about your story about squash and the kind of messaging you got about excellence translates into perfect all the time?

Tal Ben-Shahar: Yeah, so you know, throughout my, my squash career, I had a constant knot in my stomach, and it was always there. And it Well, the only times when he went away, but only for a short while was after I had it perfect practice session, or after winning a tournament and feeling the relief of off at all. And I wonder these writing national championships I'm originally from from Israel, which was my dream come true. And I thought, okay, now the knot is going to go away finally. And it did go away for about four hours. And then it came back again. And then I said to myself, okay, now I have to be the world champion. And then it will go away. And you know, and I went over to to London and played professional squash. And I played with Jansher Khan, who was the world champion at the time, you know, got better and better. But my perfectionism was always my real nemesis wasn't the people in court, it was my internal perfectionism in one way. And one way was it I could not accept embrace imperfection, meaning every practice session had to be perfect if Jansher Khan the world champion trained in a certain way, I had to train in the same way. And of course, what that led to was not just unhappiness and, and, and psychological disease, but also physical injuries. So I got I got injured. And eventually, it was my perfectionism that that ended my career, my professional career. And, you know, I did I did learn a lot from from that experience, but not immediately. Because then my perfectionism from squash went to academics,

Sucheta Kamath: You're right about that, that's amazing.

Tal Ben-Shahar: I had to go and getting to, you know, the top university and be you know, get straight A's and every deviation from the straight and narrow was, was immediately punished psychologically. And at Harvard, I experienced the same thing, but I experienced playing squash a constant knot in my stomach. So yes, I felt a relief when I got in. But then in no time that returned, and suddenly I realized that I was I was, you know, the psychological reincarnation of Sisyphus, pushing a rock up the mountain, and then the rock being pushed back down. And then as I studied, this is why I actually changed my majors from computer science to psychology and philosophy is the more I studied, the more I realized, I'm not the only Sisyphus, there are millions, maybe billions of us around the world, you know, pushing this rock up and then being pushed back down. And I started to study it and more importantly started to, to learn from what some very, very wise men and women had to had to say about the topic.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, I think I'm going to give you a, I'm going to give you a quote that you write about. But before I do that, I was thinking about that ultimately, what I glean from is all life management is pain management. And and if we understand you, right, that perfectionists reject failure reject painful emotions, they reject success, and they reject reality. I mean, wow. And if they're in that mode, then they're certainly not going to be available for being personal, confident, like somebody who can you gather strength from, or propel yourself to do more, because whatever you do, it's never going to be enough. So to juxtapose this concept of perfectionism, you introduce this concept of optimalist, and you write that optimalist accepts reality, they accept that in the real world, some failures and sorrow is inevitable, that success has to be measured against standards that are actually attainable. I love this definition. So talk to us, who is an optimalist? And can that be somebody you raise or raise yourself to be

Tal Ben-Shahar: So first of all, it's important to understand that optimalism and perfectionism are on a continuum. So there's no one who's a perfect perfectionist. There's no one who is a perfect optimalist and we you know, we meander, we move along this continuum. And the challenge is how can we come closer Certain closer toward the optimalist and of that of that continuum. Now, what defines that optimalist? You see, the opposite of a perfectionist is not a slacker. And so perfectionism, as broadly understood, also has some upsides. Because if I mean by being a perfectionist that I'm responsible, and that I'm a hard worker, and that I do set high standards, then there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, you know, as people say, very often in work interviews, so what is your weakness, they're asked, and they said, I'm a perfectionist. And of course, they don't mean that as a weakness, but rather, they say, You can trust me hire me as getting done. Yeah, I'll get things done. I'm responsible. Yeah. And so this is the upside the upside of perfectionism. And it's also one of the reasons why people struggle to get rid of the unhealthy perfectionism because their subconscious is telling them that, you know, I want to be to remain a perfectionist, everything that I've achieved in life, for most of it is thanks to that. And so it's important to distinguish what psychologists call maladaptive perfectionism versus adaptive perfectionism. I've called it optimalism, but it's essentially a similar archetype. Now, the optimalist cares about success they care about, they work hard, they are responsible, and they also accept reality for what it is, this is, in a nutshell, accept reality for what it is, what does that mean, part of reality is that we fail. Part of reality is that in order to succeed, to fulfill our potential for success, failure is essential, you know, one of the mantras that I repeat over and over again, and you know, and I'm sure right here in our class, you know, could tear out his hair, the amount of times that I say is learn to fail or fail to learn?

Sucheta Kamath: Yes, he has mentioned that 

Tal Ben-Shahar: There is no other way to succeed another mantra that I repeat over and over again and again, to my students, to myself, to my kids, and to my you know, C-suite clients, I repeat, giving yourself the permission to be human. In other words, accepting embracing the full range of human emotions because that's reality. If, if my hope is to be happy all the time, not to experience sadness, or anger or envy or frustration, that's unrealistic. I'm bound to to be disappointed. The optimalist accepts, embraces reality, accepts and embraces failure, accepts and embraces painful emotions, and finally accepts and embraces success. You know, I worked for five years, my dream was winning these writing national champions are you not would, that's what I would literally dream about at night, lifting this trophy and lifting it, and I won. And the joy lasted for four hours. That's awful. Instead of appreciating it, appreciating myself, you know, patting myself on the back wall, you worked hard, nothing lasts for hours, and then back to the notch in the stomach. You know, that's, that's unhealthy. You know, so when people talk about perfectionism, and the, and they say, you know, it's actually not that bad. I'm not talking about the good side of perfectionism I'm talking about the perfectionism doesn't allow us to live life fully. Another manifestation of it is in relationships, you know, perfectionist can't take deviation from the straight and narrow. In other words, whenever they are criticized, ever so slightly, it's an attack on their sense of self. And what's the best form of defense, they attack back, and they get walls and barriers and it hurts relationships. It hurts in terms of our potential for success. It hurts our happiness levels.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, so many thoughts come to my mind. I listened to leadership podcast by Peter Bregman. And there are a lot of leaders who I'm sure you're familiar with his work to, and then your podcast on happiness institute that I think this idea that you have to be cutthroat or you have to be mean and obnoxious if you're telling the truth is a kind of an adaptive lifestyle. But I have been thinking a lot about that, that it comes from that perfectionist who has managed to achieve an epitome of his his or her own success, then they look at other people who are failing to do so as if they're failing life. And that's again comes to that that very rigid thinking about experiences of life and the second thing that came to my mind about the the thing You're saying about that trophy you held and the happiness lasted for four minutes. A lot of research has, oh sorry, four hours, which is huge. Compared to the one that was about to share with you was, I think what they did, I think you're familiar with this the experiment where they looked at two groups of people, one, who had, they lost the mobility of their left a one side because of either I think, accident or a stroke, and then group that one lottery. And they returned to baseline temperament didn't matter what their high was, how high the high took them, or how low the load took them. That has been very telling to me that how it's important for us to really kind of be pragmatic about it. And what I love about your work in this optimalist versus pessimist is not many people, many people when they talk about designing, or particularly in the space of executive function, they don't talk about reality. I think, for example, if you have and in my work when I work with people with disabilities, children or adults, and if you do have math, disability, that is your reality. So kind of tutoring yourself until the end of time, may not be the goal, the goal may be to lean into your disability and say, looks like some careers that involve heavy math may not be for me, but I can be still a full person, you know, that sometimes gets lost on people, which is kind of a shame.

Tal Ben-Shahar: Yeah. And you know, one of the key topics within the field of positive psychology or the Science of Happiness, is strength. And there's a lovely quote by Peter Drucker who spoke to the, I think, was the North American Disabilities Association. And he said the following, he says, it's not disabilities, but abilities that matter. And later on, he says, manage your weaknesses, while focusing on your strength and love that that's about recognizing reality. So you know, I'm, you know, I'm 5'-7", I'm probably never going to reach the NBA, certainly not at the age of 50, even though I would have loved to. So accept that, and then ask, okay, so what are my strengths? Well, my strengths lie, perhaps, you know, in writing or public speaking, or whatever it is, and then focus on that. What are my passions? You know, it's learning, it's, it's teaching, focus on on that. Now, does that mean that I ignore my weaknesses in my disabilities? Of course not. We need to take them into consideration because they're a part of reality. And then once I have the Gestalt, the reality, then I choose, where do I want to put my effort? Do I want to put my effort on, you know, five hours a day of basketball, or five hours a day off? Reading and writing?

Sucheta Kamath: That's, that's perfect. So what do you think about the concept concept of satisficing? You know, that research talks about which is the just, I guess, the the idea is that, that whatever results, or it's a type of decision making process, I guess, that strives to reach adequate rather than perfect outcomes. Is that something similar to the optimalist or is becoming an optimalist leads to satisficing? stage? 

Tal Ben-Shahar: Yeah, so the way I see it is that satisficing is being an optimalist without the excellence so satisficing can certainly contribute to psychological well being. However, it is not the the prescription for, for attaining success, success in the conventional sense of the word that is of you know, achieving, you know, achieving your goals, pursuing your dreams. Now, how are they connected, and they're connected in a in a very important way? You know, some people ask me, so, okay, you've been in this field for 30 years, that's when I started studying psychology. What has changed in your mind? What do you see as different today than then you saw when you were in your early 20s, and the main thing has to do with satisficing. Specifically, it's about expectations. So when I was younger, I thought that having high expectations, great expectations was the way to go. I see in every area of of life. Why because I knew also you know, the studies on expect high expectations from children, the Pygmalion effect. I know about hope theory I know about self efficacy, Bandura, you know, there's so much research showing if you have a high expectations, you'll be successful. And I applied this also to the realm of happiness, not just success.

Sucheta Kamath: I see.

Tal Ben-Shahar: That's a problem. Because if my expectation is there...

Sucheta Kamath: Sorry, so what's the distinction? In so are we, you can be successful and not happy? Is that what you're talking about? Or you can be happy but not successful?

Tal Ben-Shahar: Most successful people in the world are not happy. 

Sucheta Kamath: Yes, that's true. We know that. 

Tal Ben-Shahar: In fact, they are orthogonal meaning there is no connection. I see, I see, for most people between this success and happiness, so why do we need to make this distinction because if my expectation is that I will live happily ever after, I'll always be happy. But if I study the Science of Happiness and become an expert in it, then I'll be happy all the time. I'm bound to be disappointed, frustrated, unhappy. In fact, the foundation of happiness is allowing in unhappiness, accepting the fact that life is about ups and downs, and it's natural part of being alive. I'll give you another example. If I go into a relationship, and, you know, we're standing at the altar, or, you know, reading our vows. And my expectation there is Yes, we'll live happily ever after just like they do in the movies. And we never see it, you know, constant, constant, high, constant passion, lust and love, I'm bound to be disappointed, because in every relationship, even the best relationships, there are conflicts and disagreements and disappointment and frustration and anger. These expectations, these very high expectations are unrealistic, and therefore lead to unhappiness. So making this distinction between expectations when it comes to success, when having high expectations is important, whether it's you know, winning a tournament or getting into a school, that's fine. Having these high expectations. When it comes to happiness, our expectations need to be different, they need to be much more tied to to reality. Now, how are they connected? to also understand that even if I don't get into my top choice school, or, or my book doesn't do as well as I hoped, or I don't win this tournament. So I thought that too shall pass the example that you gave, you know, with people who, you know, who get hurt who have disabilities and people who win the lotteries. Yes, winning the lottery leads to a high, we very quickly go back to base level, yes, being paralyzed in an accident certainly leads to a low we relatively quickly bounce back.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, so, I think so, we talked about this. First of all, I love this idea that so begin with expectations, you set set expectations, straight connected to reality, then the second component is relationship to the failures in your life. And that also sounds like one primary step is accept or welcome or anticipate failures, do not think because to me, true learning will not happen if there is no failure. That means if there is no failure, that means you did not need to learn. Rather, I don't know if that was challenged you to learn something new. But you talk a lot a lot more in depth about failures. Where do people What do people get wrong about failure? Why are people so afraid to fail, almost, they want to inoculate themselves from failure. So they safeguard their own experiences and those that they're responsible for, which is so silly to me, like, failure is so amazing.

Tal Ben-Shahar: So when I when I talk about perfectionism, and specifically about the fear of failure element of perfectionism, I always begin the class by saying, okay, full disclosure, here are my objectives. My objectives for this class are our two. The first one is that you fail more, because I don't think you fail enough. Second, that you learn to embrace failure, rather than to reject it. Now, when I talk about embracing failure, I don't mean you know, enjoy enjoying it. I don't mean saying I'm so glad I failed, but rather recognize its value. Appreciate its value in in your life, because there is no other way to learn the most successful people throughout history. And this is based on research by Dean Simonton from, from UC Davis and many others. And the most successful people throughout history have also been the ones who have failed the most. And you see this among artists. You see this amongst scientists, you see this amongst a leaders in in organizations, failure and learning from failure. translates into into long term success, not just long, long term success. It also translates into resilience, psychological strength. So think think about this, this analogy. You know, okay, so so failure hurts clearly. However, imagine if you go to the gym, and you put such light weights that are so easy to lift. Why? Because you don't want it to hurt, you're not going to get stronger, you're not going to get healthier, better off, you need resistance, such experiences, difficult experiences, failures, hardship, these are the resistance the weights that life offers us, and it offers us and we can potentially grow from them.

Sucheta Kamath: So do you see an intersectionality? Between? So optimal is optimism and growth mindset, and optimism and grit? Where do they intersect?

Tal Ben-Shahar: Yeah, so first of all, in terms of the growth mindset, you know, that is, there's so many parallels between the growth mindset and the optimal list and the fixed mindset in the perfectionist. So it's absolutely one of the pillars of the archetype. And when we think about raising children, you know, drawing on the work of, of Carol Dweck is, is perhaps the most important thing that we can do in our classrooms for for educating optimalists. In terms of, you know, in terms of grit, you know, you're talking about passion, you're talking about perseverance, these are very much the outcomes of being an optimist. Because, you know, in one way, squash was my passion. That was very important for me, but it was very important for me, not because I loved playing as much as because I wanted to prove myself prove in what sense who might in turn capable,

Sucheta Kamath: or I'm better than

Tal Ben-Shahar: so both, both, but it was mostly prove myself to the world. You know, why? Why? Because I felt that my value was, and was directly related to my success. So you don't remember, you know, I just had a flashbulb memory. Now, I remember after losing a tournament, I was 17 was a tournament that I should have won. And you remember should have is a sign of a perfectionist? No, I'm just kidding. No, I, I end my book by saying My name is Tal. And I'm a perfectionist, perfectionist, always,

Sucheta Kamath: Just accidentally successful.

Tal Ben-Shahar: And so I remember getting out of this, you know, trauma. And when I say shoot, I was ranked number one, I lost to the number two seed in the final coming out and being sure that my girlfriend was going to leave me and the only reason if she does if she doesn't leave me, she doesn't need me because she feel sorry for me. So, you know, to that point that my self worth. And again, this is very common among perfectionist is associated with perfect outcome, in a tournament on an exam at work financially, whatever it is, that you assign importance to as a perfectionist.

Sucheta Kamath: So I'm going to ask you a little bit of a heady question. And so I'm an ardent student of Vedanta, and talk about self actualization, and to transcend our lower level motivations, and pursue higher level motivations, which is greater good to see something larger than self, which is what you're talking about. And you're encouraging all of us to think about that. So obviously, perfectionism can be a huge barrier in transcending and and, and I think one of the conversations I was having with some friends and one of the fears that they were having forget transcending, but they were talking about that they don't want to lower the standard. They don't want to be that unaccountable. I can be anybody. I don't want to be a hobo. So So kind of amazed if you're not focused, goal oriented, achieving, opposite of that is incredible, like slacker, useless, nobody. But to meet transcend is to recognize we all are going to, to me, like when I envision a mountain, I don't see a peak where only one person can stand at a time, so you have to knock him off so that you can take the place. It's like a plateau. Many people can stand together. How do we like what's the collective psyche, of bringing happiness where you become this person which invites Other people to do the same?

Tal Ben-Shahar: Yeah, you know that that's a that's a very important distinction that that you made. In our culture, there is a very clear and an ambiguous distinction between selfishness and selflessness. So if you go into you know, you open a thesaurus, and you look for synonyms for selfish, you will find words like self interest, immoral, evil, inconsiderate, bad. This is what's associated with selfishness, then you go on selflessness, and you look for synonyms or or definition of selflessness, you know, good, moral, generous, kind. So, we all don't like what we read about selfishness. And we certainly like what we read about selflessness. This distinction is unhelpful. In fact, it's destructive. Here is why. You see, when I pursue happiness, it is a selfish pursuit. Because I'm thinking about my own happiness. And, as I, you know, climb up and become happier and happier over the years, I'm helping myself. So that selfish, I see. And I'm also helping others. Because there is a lot of research showing that when I increase my levels of happiness, I do become more generous and benevolent towards others. When I'm happy when I feel good about myself, I'm more likely to give and to be kind. So selfishness leads to contribution to others. So is it really selfish? Well, he's certainly not selfish, in the sense of being evil and bad and inconsiderate. We have it wrong. Now, on the other hand, when I give when I help others when I'm caring toward others, that's nice. But is it selfless? Not really, because I feel better about myself when I help other people. So rather than creating this distinction between selfless and selfish, what we need is what I've come to see as an upward spiral of generosity, where I help myself and through helping myself I'm more likely to help others and by helping others, more likely to help help myself and on and on and on, which very much describes that mountain top that you described, let's all rise together, yes, in this connection between what we call selfishness and selflessness. And I've you know, I've, I thought I coined a new word, but I then googled it and found that other people have used it before me, rather than selfishness and selflessness, we should talk about self full ness, love that, which is the integration off the selfish gene, and the selfless gene, so to speak.

Sucheta Kamath: I love that this reminds me of Peter Emmons work in gratitude. That definition of gratitude or gratitude has two components to it. One is the affirmation of goodness, which is I am thankful, but acknowledgement that it's outside you. So if you don't say I am a thankful person, so suddenly it can give you a high, no, because of you. I am feeling this. So it's I'm not gay. Because you can really become arrogant by, like, I'm so self effacing. You know, I'm so humbled. No you're, you know, you're like literally being selfish, but calling yourself incredibly thankful and grateful. And I am a student of mindfulness. And one of the things that I'm noticing I'm doing a mindfulness meditation teacher certification with Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. It's gonna take me two years, but it's so I have a had a meditation practice for 12 years, and I entered this space. And I have done different kinds of work, which is with Vedanta, and then also with executive function. And then I arrived in this space and one of the dangers that some of the contemplative research science talks about that when you think about mindfulness, suddenly you become hyper focused on self. So if without having the compassion piece, you are going to lose perspective because then you're going to be centric, egocentric. Right? What are your thoughts about that people are now taking mindfulness so seriously, that they're not bringing that it has to be useful to others not self.

Tal Ben-Shahar: You know, I I don't think it's a coincidence that most of the Buddha statues are of him laughing heartfully because it's an indication you know, stop taking yourself so seriously. And what I often find in, in you know, I meditate daily as well. What I often find in in meditation classes and retreats is you know, it's so somber, it's so serious. And, and playfulness is, is is very important. And I want to say just something about playfulness. Because it's a central, you know, every morning I have, I have my reminders, reminders are my core values that I remind myself every morning, and one of the core values for me that I remind myself every day is permission to be human. But another one is playfulness. And the reason I do it, I actually I started it in back in 2000. And I think it was 2008 or maybe seven.

Sucheta Kamath: Are you a prankster?

Tal Ben-Shahar: I'm not a prankster. But I want

Sucheta Kamath: to hear how you are playful. This fabulous. Yeah,

Tal Ben-Shahar: let me let me let me share. So how I came to it was I got a manuscript in the mail, a very big manuscript from Stuart Brown. And I didn't know him then. But Dr. Stuart Brown is the play. Yes. He wrote a book manuscript on play. And he said, you know, can you read it and maybe blurb it if you like it. Now usually, when I get books to read and blurb, I, you know, I go, I go through it. And then if I like it, I blurb if I don't I decline cordially. And this book I couldn't put down, I read word for word. And at the end of it, you know, I was completely taken and realizing just how important players and I called my best friend, her name is Shirley. She's She's a child psychologist, and she's my go to person, whenever I have issues with relating to kids. And I said, Shirley I just read this book. You have to read it. It's amazing. But but it really got me thinking, and I'm concerned, and she said, Why are you concerned? And I said, Well, David, David was four years old. Then I said, you know, David is such a lovely kid. And he's wonderful. And he's also so serious, and he doesn't play enough. And now I realize how important play is he doesn't play enough. And suddenly, there was silence on the other side of the of the line. And I said, Hello, Shirley you there? And she said, Yeah, I'm here. And then a few seconds go by and she she asks me this question. She says, Tal do you play enough? Yes. And you know, it was one of those questions that changed your life. It was a rhetorical question. She knows me well, and you know, I'm so serious. And you know, I'm, you know, in my head and cognitive and live the over examined life. Yes. And, and, and, at that point, I resolved in I said, First I want to do it for myself, but, but even more so for my children. And I started to play more, you know, being the change that I wanted to see in David. And we have, we have a playful family, you know, in playing, you know, playing basketball together, or, you know, making tic Tock dances together. Yeah, please don't look me up. or, or, you know, being silly. Silly. Yes. So important. And that's okay. And, and that's important. So being playful is, is a very important part of happiness. And, and it takes us out of, you know, this self importance and you know, you know, very solipsistic existence.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, I think that's why I think you have such rave reviews, with your students, I think, to relate to young adults with incredible candor and honesty, and yet challenge them over head on, not be afraid of them, or, or motivate them when they have this generalized apathy about life. And I think you have a twinkle in your eyes and even in your writing, I think there is a great play on things you know, play on words, play on ideas, there is a tongue in cheek, I appreciate that deeply. As we end I do want to know quickly, you are the happiness guru. And and people are going to probably hate me for not taking all this time and talking about happiness, but I wanted to truly remove the barriers to happiness, because if they got rid of their perfectionism, they can actually arrive in the chambers of happiness. So you talk about these seven lessons at many lessons, but the seven broad lessons which is you can view I love that for the first one which is give yourself permission to be human, which is exactly what you just said. Just don't take yourself so seriously that you're you're you need to be Einstein or die You know, you can you don't need to invent a molecule you can be fine. But you also talk about that many parts. What are you what is what are a few of your favorite happiness recommendations for humble mere mortals like me?

Tal Ben-Shahar: So you know, the thing about these basics is that they are impressive. For all of us, so people ask me so Tal, what do you do now that, you know we're in quarantine and going through a difficult time and experiencing, you know, a global level of trauma? What do you do in that and I say to them, I go back to the basics, you know, I do more of them. But I go back to the basics, for example, physical exercise, there's so much research showing that regular physical exercise has the same effect. And our psychological well being is our most powerful psychiatric medication. So exercising three times a week, you know, 30 minutes each time, it could be swimming or walking, or best of all dancing or, or soccer, whatever your favorite sport is, you know, sports is, is important movement is important. And second, expressing gratitude, you know, the work by Emmons and McCullough before that's brought to us by Oprah herself. So you know, keeping a gratitude journal or going around the, you know, the dinner table and sharing things for which you're grateful. Writing a gratitude letter, these are all very powerful, simple, but powerful interventions. And keeping a journal in general, you know, writing about painful experiences, writing about what you're going through can help you make sense of, of your life number one predictor of happiness, relationships, quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us. And, and again, remember, there are no perfect relationships. But there are intimate, meaningful, deep relationships which are very important to, to cultivate, you know, you mentioned, such as a meditation, the research on meditation is literally and metaphorically mind boggling. And it doesn't have to be, you know, three hours of lotus position, silent meditation, it can be even, you know, five minutes focusing on the breath going in and out or listening to your favorite music mindfully without distraction. So these are some of the elements in it. And I have to end with one more which, which is not one of my big lessons, but it's something that I've just introduced recently into my life. So I came across Wim Hof. Wim Hof is best known as The Iceman.

Sucheta Kamath: Oh, yes, I know. Okay, I was thinking, what have I heard? Yes.

Tal Ben-Shahar: You know, the world record in terms of setting the most amount of time in ice water, which is over two hours, which I think is mind boggling. Yes. But but but even you know, beyond the sensationalism of it, he has very simple techniques. One of them is relatively straightforward, pranayama technique. So, you know, I'm a big fan of, of pranayama of playing with our breath. You know, it's such a powerful tool, but the second tool that he recommends, which have also taken up his cold showers. Yes. And it turns out, and, you know, this is something that I've just discovered him, you know, I was telling my wife this yesterday, I said, I can't believe that I haven't encountered it before. You know, I research happiness. And there's actually a lot of research on cold exposure on cold showers, both for physical health, as well as for psychological health. So this is, this is love it. I must say, many of my students are cursing me now as they're taking a cold shower. But I say to them, it's for a good cause. Happiness.

Sucheta Kamath: So I have to tell you two things about that. I love Love, love your recommendation. And, and thank you for receiving that I am looking forward to you kind of making emphatic case for it. So one, have you seen the recent documentary that has come on Netflix called My Octopus Teacher?

Tal Ben-Shahar: Beautiful, one of my favorite all time movies.

Sucheta Kamath: Oh my god. So he talks about how he acclimatize himself to so that his heart doesn't pound his he can actually become one with that ocean. And I just love that that story. And second thing is, so each year as part of my spiritual journey, I take a resolution that connect helps me connect my mind and body together. So last year's resolution was one year of cold shower. So I cannot tell you this is like terrible, but I could not wait for that one year to be over. And I must say I was very proud of myself for just cursing myself for taking a vow of that kind or a resolution and then eventually not really paying attention. And and then one time accidentally, we went to a restaurant and we were traveling somewhere and the setting was off of that. You know that How'd you have read in whatever or left and right? And it was just opposite and accidentally, I got the barrage of hot water, which was kind of a treat, but then I felt like I was betraying myself. So I'm like, No, no, no cold water. But that really gave me a great perspective. And, and I don't know if directly contributed to happiness or not, but it just taught me that I can develop patience, I can develop tolerance, and I can actually have a relationship of self created adversity that can last longer than real adversity bite.

Tal Ben-Shahar: Yes, no. So this is I mean, a few issues. One issue is so Wim Hof. And generally people who recommend cold exposure, don't say this is the only thing you should have. So you know, I still enjoy and I love, you know, a warm, or a hot shower. But at the end, you know, for 30 seconds or a minute, you know, go very cold or immerse yourself, you know, if you have, you know, a cold water source nearby, you know, immerse yourself for, you know, a minute, it doesn't have to be for a long time. So it's not about giving up pleasures, it's about adding a little bit of discomfort. Yes. Now this discomfort is important because as I you know, you go to the gym and you and you don't live weights, and there is no discomfort, you don't grow stronger. Modern Life has become so comfortable, that it's making us uncomfortable. Yes. Because, you know, we're always, you know, dressed up and you know, when kids leave their house parents are obsessed with them being, you know, that's not know we're over protective, whether it's with our clothes, whether it's in terms of their their struggles at school, you know, we're helicopter parents, no, let them struggle. We need to struggle as well and exclude that struggle. By the way, this has a lot to do. Of course, with Suniya Luthar's researches on the under privilege of privilege, we need to also let them struggle, and we need to struggle ourselves as well.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, I listen, I can talk to you for hours. And I do not mean to take up more time than I have a really appreciate this amazing banter. Before I let you go. What are two, your favorite book recommendations for our audience that have influenced you in some way? Or your work?

Tal Ben-Shahar: Yeah, so there are a few books that that really influenced me over the years. The first one is Nathaniel Brandon's, the Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. Nathaniel Brandon passed away a few years ago, he was a mentor, a teacher, I got to meet him after reading his book. And and it's it's a book that continues to, to me today. He talks there about self acceptance, he talks there about responsibility. He talks there about in integrity, about awareness, self awareness, and so many of the components that today that I teach and try to live. So that's the first book, Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. The second one, which is also a book that, that changed my life. for the better. It's a book by Jeffery Schwartz, who's a neuroscientist from UCLA. And Sucheta if you can invite him for your podcast. You will, you will thank me, really is he is incredible. And his work. His book, which I recommend, everyone is called, You are Not Your Brain. And he was one of the first people to show, let alone talk about neuroplasticity, you know, fascinating researcher, thinker person. So that's the second book and I know you asked for it, too, but but but I have to give another one. Yes, please. Which is Marva Collins, was a school teacher in inner city. Yes. And also passed away just a couple of years ago, a real role model to me. I'm also dedicating my my new book to to know her personally, I did get to meet her. Wow, was that maybe the highlights of my life was certainly one of the highlights. And, and she wrote a book called The Marva Collins Way, which is essentially an autobiography. We're not when I read that book, that's when I decided that my calling in life was to be a teacher.

Sucheta Kamath: Oh, wow. I use her as an ideal model teacher. In my workshops when I talk to parents, educators, and I use her story of how she inspired children. To the students when I work with I love Marva Collins' story, and these are amazing. I saw that you recommend your Six Pillars of Self-Esteem to yourself. As a required reading, that is one book that I have not read but Jeffery Schwartz book I have read and I'm feeling I'm halfway there. So you've given me more work to do. I really appreciate you being on this podcast. listeners, please. I'm going to add a lot of show notes for tells a website his courses. There's one coming up very soon or maybe started already. No, it's coming up.

Tal Ben-Shahar: There's always one that started in one that's coming up.

Sucheta Kamath: Okay, great, and I highly recommend. I'm actually waiting for your Masterclass By the way, I hope Masterclass people have contacted you. But thank you for tuning in today on Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function. Once again, if you love what you're listening to, please share the wealth and help us connect with more people. And stay strong, be bold, and take good decisions so that your frontal lobes guide you to become a happier more than you already are. Thank you for being here with me today.

Tal Ben-Shahar: Thank you