20 Secrets Genuinely Happy People Never Told You


Happiness is a choice, and genuinely happy people make the choice to be happy, everyday! But what you may not know is that happy people face challenges, just like ordinary folk, but they challenge themselves, constantly, to live the wonderful life they know they deserve; filled to the brim with laughter and a positive outlook.

We don’t need to tell you that life isn’t all roses, and will often times bring you to your knees, but it is during these moments that happy people go to work on getting happy. If they look like they have it all together, they probably do, but that’s just because they’ve discovered the secrets to true happiness, and it lies within them.

So if you’ve ever wondered, “Why are they so happy all the time?”, here are a few reasons, and secrets, why.

1. They’re not happy all the time.

Let’s be honest, nobody is happy all the time, and with good reason. It’s the down that shows us the beauty of the ups. The genuinely happy individual knows this and allows themselves to feel sad or down, naturally. Trying to force happiness is, well, forced. So they embrace the sadness, the tears and the obstacles and give themselves permission to just be. They are human after all.

2. They have learned to say no.

It sounds strange, but saying “no” doesn’t come easy for some people. Especially if you’re the type who loves to make others happy. However, genuinely happy people don’t buy into the idea of keeping others happy if you’r always down as a result. This is a sure fire way to stress and anxiety, and it kind of defeats the purpose of the whole happiness thing. Instead, they exercise their right to say no, and do so in an assertive manner, that neither takes away from their relationships, or their own happiness.

3. They haven’t led easy lives.

No genuinely happy person will tell you they’ve had it cushy! They may have been knocked down many times, but each time, they got up, refusing to stay down! The strength and gusto they mustered to get back up and keep fighting is what showed them the meaning of true happiness. If you can make it through the difficult times with a smile on your face, you’re winning, and who wouldn’t be happy with that!

4. They know what the bottom looks like.

They’ve been to the bottom more times than they can count, and they’ve worked their way back up. To mere mortals, landing at the bottom after great success would signal the end, but for the genuinely happy person, it’s just an opportunity to start afresh; to build a better and stronger foundation. They learnt a lot on the way up, and learnt a lot more on the way back down. No experience is wasted, and so they move forward armed with that knowledge!

5. They love their flaws.

For them, being perfectly imperfect, is perfect! They’ve come to terms with who they are and have accepted their flaws, warts and all. They know it is all just a part of what makes them special, and they love it! They understand there is no such thing as perfection, and have not only stopped chasing it, but discovered imperfections are just as brilliant!

6. They avoid stress in their lives.

Whether it’s through meditation, getting away, or through a creative outlet, genuinely happy people actively go out of their way to avoid anyunnecessary stressful situations, and move on from them as quickly as possible. This is in no way avoidance, but a strategy which allows them to concentrate on the things that truly matter, and stops annoying little stresses from turning into something far greater.

7. They exercise.

What better way to get happy than to do something that releases those naturally happy chemicals from within. They have tapped into the world of healthy living and exercise not just to look good, but because it makes them feel even better! Whether they’re running outdoors, or getting in those reps at the gym, the happy person knows the benefits of those wonderful endorphins.

8. They know they’re enough.

They don’t need the latest or the greatest, and they don’t attach their self-worth to external things. They’ve learnt that no one thing can make them happy or make them feel fulfilled. In relationships, they have a, “take me as I am” attitude. They may have battled with their self-worth in the past, chasing things they thought would make them a better person, but now they know they are perfect just the way they are.

9. They don’t judge.

They have no need or want in judging others, because they don’t like to be judged themselves. They prefer to let others live their lives as they wish. Worrying about what others are doing, or not doing, is unnecessary and time consuming, and only leaves the person judging with a false sense of superiority. The happy person has no need for that, and would prefer to use their time to uplift others rather than tear them down.

10. They know how to refocus.

Whatever problem they are facing, there is always another way to look at things. By refocusing, they can approach a difficult problem with fresh eyes. Refocusing offers new perspective, and with a new perspective comes a new solution.

11. They haven’t lost their childlike wonderment.

They are children at heart! They live, laugh and love with the infectious playfulness of a person untainted by a harsh world. It’s this approach to life that keeps them inquisitive and creative, and let’s face it, makes them so much fun to be around!

12. They deal with fear head on.

Fear has no place in the genuinely happy persons life. They are victorious in their quest for happiness and equip themselves with an arsenal of bravery, moving forward with happiness as their armour. Yes, it’s scary, but that’s all part of the dance. By facing their fears, they take back control of their lives, and nothing is allowed to come between them and their happiness.

13. They take risks.

Risk takers are happier folk! They know that stepping out from your comfort zone and navigating new territory is not only thrilling, but a sure way to experience the new and wonderful things life has to offer. What drives them is growth and the potential to learn more about who they are, and what they can accomplish. They know there’s a chance they may trip up or fall, but for them, failure is just another lovely life lesson.

14. They bear no grudges.

The happy person does not hold on to past hurts or anger. Instead they prefer to let go of the pain, and move on with life. There’s no better way to destroy happiness than to carry around old baggage that inevitably weighs you down. The genuinely happy person knows this and so they acknowledge the hurt and pain, forgive and dust themselves off, and move forward, happier and lighter.

15. They encourage others.

They are genuinely happy to see others happy and living their lives to their full potential. It genuinely makes them happy to see others thriving, and so they do all they can to support and encourage those they love and care about. They are also encouraged by others successes, not jealous. It’s a win-win!

16. They love to laugh.

The happy person sees the fun, and funny side of life and aims to always look on the bright side. They are truly joyous in laughter and can make even the stony faced individual crack a smile. They know there’s no better healer, along with time, than laughter. It not only lifts their spirits but does a lot to make an otherwise stressful situation easier to manage.

17. They are honest with themselves, first.

They can lie to others all they want, but they are all too aware of that little voice in their head; the one that reminds them they aren’t being entirely honest with themselves. Having the courage to admit things to yourself is the first step in being honest and comfortable with who you, before you can be honest with others. It’s scary, but it must be done. The genuinely happy person knows this is what’s required if they are to be their authentic selves, because there’s nothing like dishonesty to throw your happiness compass out of wack!

18. They ask for help.

They know that asking for help doesn’t make you weak, and so they don’t feel weak, or otherwise, in asking for help. Instead, they see it as an opportunity to get another perspective on an idea or a situation, or for someone to help share the heavy load. They realise they may not always have the answer, or strength, to do all things on their own and so welcome a helping hand, or friendly advice as though it were a gift. They know asking and receiving help takes nothing away from who they are, but can only add to their life and experiences.

19. They embrace differences.

There’s one thing all humans have in common: we are all different! Genuinely happy people are aware of these differences, be it race, religion sex, views or any other differences that may set us apart from one another. They do not try to negate those differences but rather, embrace them, and celebrate them. For the genuinely happy person, the world would be an utterly boring place if we were all the same!

20. They love life.

With all its ups and down, in and outs and highs and lows, life for the sincerely happy person is an adventure that we would all do well to appreciate. The scars and bruises makes us appreciate the smiles and glories more. Understanding this, they don’t fight life, but take it for what is. They do what they need to do to make life enjoyable, productive and worthwhile, but they know that to truly appreciate the journey, sometimes you have to sit back and enjoy the ride!


42 Practical Ways To Improve Yourself


Are you someone who likes to grow? Do you constantly seek to improve yourself and become better?

If you do, then we have something in common. I’m very passionate about personal growth. It was just 4 years ago when I discovered my passion for growing and helping others grow. At that time, I was 22 and in my final year of university. As I thought about the meaning of life, I realized there was nothing more meaningful than to pursue a life of development and betterment. It is through improving ourselves that we get the most out of life.

SEE ALSO: How to Better Yourself One Day at a Time

After 1.5 years of actively pursuing growth and helping others to grow through my personal development blog, I realize there is never an end to the journey of self improvement. The more I grow, the more I realize there is so much out there I don’t know, so much that I have to learn. For sure, there is always something about ourselves we can improve on. The human potential is limitless, so it’s impossible to reach a point of no growth. Whenever we think we are good, we can be even better.

As a passionate advocate of growth, I’m continuously looking for ways to self-improve. I’ve compiled 42 of my best tips which might be helpful in your personal growth journey. Some of them are simple steps which you can engage in immediately. Some are bigger steps which takes conscious effort to act on. Here they are:

  1. Read a book every day. Books are concentrated sources of wisdom. The more books you read, the more wisdom you expose yourself to. What are some books you can start reading to enrich yourself? Some books I’ve read and found useful are Think and Grow Rich, Who Moved My Cheese, 7 Habits, The Science of Getting Rich and Living the 80/20 Way. I’ve heard positive reviews for The Tipping Point, Outliers and The Difference Maker, so I’ll be checking them out soon.
  2. Learn a new language. As a Singaporean Chinese, my main languages are English, Mandarin and Hokkien (a Chinese dialect). Out of interest, I took up language courses in the past few years such as Japanese and Bahasa Indonesian. I realized learning a language is a whole new skill altogether and the process of acquainting with a new language and culture is a totally a mind-opening experience.
  3. Pick up a new hobby. Beyond just your usual favorite hobbies, is there something new you can pick up? Any new sport you can learn? Examples are fencing, golf, rock climbing, football, canoeing, or ice skating. Your new hobby can also be a recreational hobby. For example, pottery, Italian cooking, dancing, wine appreciation, web design, etc.  Learning something new requires you to stretch yourself in different aspects, whether physically, mentally or emotionally.
  4. Take up a new course. Is there any new course you can join? Courses are a great way to gain new knowledge and skills. It doesn’t have to be a long-term course – seminars or workshops serve their purpose too. I’ve been to a few workshops and they have helped me gain new insights which I had not considered before.
  5. Create an inspirational room. Your environment sets the mood and tone for you. If you are living in an inspirational environment, you are going to be inspired every day. In the past, I didn’t like my room at all because I thought it was messy and dull. A few years ago, I decided this was the end of it – I started on a “Mega Room Revamp” project and overhauled my room. The end result? A room I totally relish being in and inspires me to be at my peak every day.
  6. Overcome your fears. All of us have fears. Fear of uncertainty, fear of public speaking, fear of risk… All our fears  keep us in the same position and prevent us from growing. Recognize that your fears reflect areas where you can grow. I always think of fears as the compass for growth. If I have a fear about something, it represents something I’ve yet to address, and addressing it helps me to grow.
  7. Level up your skills. If you have played video games before especially RPGs, you’ll know the concept of leveling up – gaining experience so you can be better and stronger. As a blogger, I’m constantly leveling up my writing skills. As a speaker, I’m constantly leveling up my public engagement abilities. What skills can you level up?
  8. Wake up early. Waking up early (say, 5-6am) has been acknowledged by many (Anthony Robbins, Robin Sharma, among other self-help gurus) to improve your productivity and your quality of life. I feel it’s because when you wake up early, your mindset is already set to continue the momentum and proactively live out the day. Seth recently wrote a waking up early series which you should check out to help cultivate this habit.
  9. Have a weekly exercise routine. A better you starts with being in better physical shape. I personally make it a point to jog at least 3 times a week, at least 30 minutes each time. You may want to mix it up with jogging, gym lessons and swimming for variation.
  10. Start your life handbook. A life handbook is an idea I started 3 years ago. Basically, it’s a book which contains the essentials on how you can live your life to the fullest, such as your purpose, your values and goals. Sort of like your manual for your life. I started my life handbook since 2007 and it’s been a crucial enabler in my progress.
  11. Write a letter to your future self. What do you see yourself as 5 years from now? Will you be the same? Different?  What kind of person will you be? Write a letter to your future self – 1 year from now will be a good start – and seal it. Make a date in your calendar to open it 1 year from now. Then start working to become the person you want to open that letter.
  12. Get out of your comfort zone. Real growth comes with hard work and sweat. Being too comfortable doesn’t help us grow – it makes us stagnate. What is your comfort zone? Do you stay in most of the time? Do you keep to your own space when out with other people? Shake your routine up. Do something different. By exposing yourself to a new context, you’re literally growing as you learn to act in new circumstances.
  13. Put someone up to a challenge. Competition is one of the best ways to grow. Set a challenge (weight loss, exercise, financial challenge, etc) and compete with an interested friend to see who achieves the target first. Through the process, both of you will gain more than if you were to set off on the target alone.
  14. Identify your blind spots. Scientifically, blind spots refer to areas our eyes are not capable of seeing. In personal development terms, blind spots are things about ourselves we are unaware of. Discovering our blind spots help us discover our areas of improvement. One exercise I use to discover my blind spots is to identify all the things/events/people that trigger me in a day – trigger meaning making me feel annoyed/weird/affected. These represent my blind spots. It’s always fun to do the exercise because I discover new things about myself, even if I may already think I know my own blind spots (but then they wouldn’t be blind spots would they?). After that, I work on steps to address them.
  15. Ask for feedback. As much as we try to improve, we will always have blind spots. Asking for feedback gives us an additional perspective. Some people to approach will be friends, family, colleagues, boss, or even acquaintances, since they will have no preset bias and can give their feedback objectively.
  16. Stay focused with to-do lists. I start my day with a list of tasks I want to complete and this helps make me stay focused. In comparison, the days when I don’t do this end up being extremely unproductive. For example, part of my to-do list for today is to write a guest post atLifeHack.Org, and this is why I’m writing this now! Since my work requires me to use my computer all the time, I use Free Sticky Notes to manage my to-do lists. It’s really simple to use and it’s a freeware, so I recommend you check it out.
  17. Set Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs). I’m a big fan of setting BHAGs. BHAGs stretch you beyond your normal capacity since they are big and audacious – you wouldn’t think of attempting them normally. What are BHAGs you can embark on, which you’ll feel absolutely on top of the world once you complete them? Set them and start working on them.
  18. Acknowledge your flaws. Everyone has flaws. What’s most important is to understand them, acknowledge them, and address them. What do you think are your flaws? What are the flaws you can work on now? How do you want to address them?
  19. Get into action. The best way to learn and improve is to take action. What is something you have been meaning to do? How can you take action on it immediately? Waiting doesn’t get anything done. Taking action gives you immediate results to learn from.
  20. Learn from people who inspire you. Think about people you admire. People who inspire you. These people reflect certain qualities you want to have for yourself too. What are the qualities in them you want to have for yourself? How can you acquire these qualities?
  21. Quit a bad habit. Are there any bad habits you can lose? Oversleeping? Not exercising? Being late? Slouching? Nail biting? Smoking? Here’s some help on how you can quit a bad habit.
  22. Cultivate a new habit. Some good new habits to cultivate include reading books (#1), waking up early (#8), exercising (#9), reading a new personal development article a day (#40) and meditating. Is there any other new habit you can cultivate to improve yourself?
  23. Avoid negative people. As Jim Rohn says, “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with”. Wherever we go, there are bound to be negative people. Don’t spend too much of your time around them if you feel they drag you down.
  24. Learn to deal with difficult people. There are times when there are difficult people you can’t avoid, such as at your workplace, or when the person is part of your inner circle of contacts. Learn how to deal with them. These people management skills will go a long way in working with people in the future.
  25. Learn from your friends. Everyone has amazing qualities in them. It’s up to how we want to tap into them. With all the friends who surround you, they are going to have things you can learn from. Try thinking of a good friend right now. Think about just one quality they have which you want to adopt. How can you learn from them and adopt this skill for yourself? Speak to them if you need to – for sure, they will be more than happy to help!
  26. Start a journal. Journaling is a great way to gain better self-awareness. It’s a self-reflection process. As you write, clarify your thought process and read what you wrote from a third person’s perspective, you gain more insights about yourself. Your journal can be private or an online blog. I use my personal development blog as a personal journal too and I’ve learned a lot about myself through the past year of blogging.
  27. Start a blog about personal development. To help others grow, you need to first be walking the talk. There are expectations of you, both from yourself and from others, which you have to uphold. I run The Personal Excellence Blog, where I share my personal journey and insights on how to live a better life. Readers look toward my articles to improve themselves, which enforces to me that I need to keep improving, for myself and for the people I’m reaching out to.
  28. Get a mentor or coach. There’s no faster way to improve than to have someone work with you on your goals. Many of my clients approach me to coach them in their goals and they achieve significantly more results than if they had worked alone.
  29. Reduce the time you spend on chat programs. I realized having chat programs open at default result in a lot of wasted time. This time can be much better spent on other activities. The days when I don’t get on chat, I get a lot more done. I usually disable the auto start-up option in the chat programs and launch them when I do want to chat and really have the time for it.
  30. Learn chess (or any strategy game). I found chess is a terrific game to learn strategy and hone your brainpower. Not only do you have fun, you also get to exercise your analytical skills. You can also learn strategy from other board games or computer games, such as Othello, Chinese Chess, WarCraft, and so on.
  31. Stop watching TV. I’ve not been watching TV for pretty much 4 years and it’s been a very liberating experience. I realized most of the programs and advertisements on mainstream TV are usually of a lower consciousness and not very empowering. In return, the time I’ve freed up from not watching TV is now constructively used for other purposes, such as connecting with close friends, doing work I enjoy, exercising, etc.
  32. Start a 30-day challenge. Set a goal and give yourself 30 days to achieve this. Your goal can be to stick with a new habit or something you’ve always wanted to do but have not. 30 days is just enough time to strategize, plan, get into action, review and nail the goal.
  33. Meditate. Meditation helps to calm you and be more conscious. I also realized that during the nights when I meditate (before I sleep), I need lesser sleep. The clutter clearing process is very liberating.
  34. Join Toastmasters (Learn public speaking). Interestingly, public speaking is the #1 fear in the world, with #2 being death. After I started public speaking as a personal development speaker/trainer, I’ve learned a lot about how to communicate better, present myself and engage people. Toastmasters is an international organization that trains people in public speaking. Check out the Toastmaster clubs nearest to you here.
  35. Befriend top people in their fields. These people have achieved their results because they have the right attitudes, skill sets and know-how. How better to learn than from the people who have been there and done that? Gain new insights from them on how you can improve and achieve the same results for yourself.
  36. Let go of the past. Is there any grievance or unhappiness from the past which you have been holding on? If so, it’s time to let it go. Holding on to them prevents you from moving on and becoming a better person. Break away from the past, forgive yourself, and move on. Just recently, I finally moved on from a past heartbreak of 5 years ago. The effect was liberating and very empowering, and I have never been happier.
  37. Start a business venture. Is there anything you have an interest in? Why not turn it into a venture and make money while learning at the same time? Starting a new venture requires you to be learn business management skills, develop business acumen and have a competitive edge. The process of starting and developing my personal development business has equipped me with many skills, such as self-discipline, leadership, organization and management.
  38. Show kindness to people around you. You can never be too kind to someone. In fact, most of us don’t show enough kindness to people around us. Being kind helps us to cultivate other qualities such as compassion, patience, and love. As you get back to your day after reading this article later on, start exuding more kindness to the people around you, and see how they react. Not only that, notice how you feel as you behave kindly to others. Chances are, you will feel even better than yourself.
  39. Reach out to the people who hate you. If you ever stand for something, you are going to get haters. It’s easy to hate the people who hate us. It’s much more challenging to love them back. Being able to forgive, let go and show love to these people requires magnanimity and an open heart. Is there anyone who dislikes or hates you in your life? If so, reach out to them. Show them love. Seek a resolution and get closure on past grievances. Even if they refuses to reciprocate, love them all the same. It’s much more liberating than to hate them back.
  40. Take a break. Have you been working too hard? Self-improvement is also about recognizing our need to take a break to walk the longer mile ahead. You can’t be driving a car if it has no petrol. Take some time off for yourself every week. Relax, rejuvenate and charge yourself up for what’s up ahead.
  41. Read at least 1 personal development article a day. Some of my readers make it a point to read at least one personal development article every day, which I think is a great habit. There are many terrific personal development blogs out there, some of which you can check here.
  42. Commit to your personal growth. I can be writing list articles with 10 ways, 25 ways, 42 ways or even 1,000 ways to improve yourself, but if you’ve no intention to commit to your personal growth, it doesn’t matter what I write. Nothing is going to get through. We are responsible for our personal growth – not anyone else. Not your mom, your dad, your friend, me or LifeHack. Make the decision to commit to your personal growth and embrace yourself to a life-long journey of growth and change. Kick off your growth by picking a few of the steps above and working on them. The results may not be immediate, but I promise you that as long as you keep to it, you’ll start seeing positive changes in yourself and your life.

How to stop screwing yourself over

Bigger welcome! Hello, San Francisco! TEDx – oh my God, blinding light!

Hi, everybody! How are you? Fine?! Oh my gosh! Okay, so…

My name is Mel Robbins, and for the last 17 years, I have done nothing but help people get everything that they want. Within reason! My husband’s here. So, I’ve done it in the courtroom, in the boardroom, in the bedroom, in people’s living room, whatever room you want to be in, if I’m there, I will help you get whatever you want by any means necessary.

For the last three years – I host a syndicated radio show. Five days a week, I go live in 40 cities and I talk to men and women across America who feel stuck. Do you know that a third of Americans feel dissatisfied with their lives right now? That is a 100 million people! That’s insane! And I’ve come face to face with it in this new show that I’m doing, which is also insane, it’s called “In-laws”. I move in with families across America – You guessed it! – who are at war with their in-laws.

We move them into the same house, I verbally assassinate everybody, we open up Pandora’s box, and I get people to stop arguing about the donuts and who is hosting Thanksgiving dinner, and talk about the real stuff. And that’s what I want to talk to you about. I’m here for you.

I’m going to tell you everything I know in less than 18 minutes about how to get what you want. So I want you to take a millisecond right now and think about what you want. You! And I want you to be selfish. Screw Simon and the “We” thing. This is about me, right now! Sorry, Simon.

What do you want? And here’s the deal. I don’t want it to sound good to other people. Being healthy will not get your ass on a treadmill. Losing your manboobs, so you can hook up with somebody, now that’s motivation.

So, I want to know: What do you want? Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to triple your income? Do you want to start a nonprofit? Do you want to find love? What is it? Get it, right here. You know what it is, don’t analyze it to death, just pick something. That’s part of the problem. You won’t pick.

So, we’re going to be talking about how you get what you want. And frankly, getting what you want is simple. But notice I didn’t say it was easy. It’s very simple. In fact, if you think about it, we live in the most amazing moment in time. So that thing that you have up here, whatever it may be, you want to use healthy eating to cure your diabetes, you want to figure out how to take care of the elders and start a new hospice center, you want to move to Africa and build a school… Guess what? You can walk into a book store – right now! – and buy at least 10 books written by credentialed experts on how the hell you do it. You could Google it. And you could probably find at least, I don’t know – a thousand blogs documenting the step, by step, by step transformation that somebody else is already doing. You can find anybody online and cyber-stalk them!

You can just walk in their footsteps – just use the science of drafting. Follow what everyone else has done, because somebody is already doing it! So why don’t you have what you want, when you have all the information that you need, you have the contacts that you need, there are probably free tools online that allow you to start a business, or join a group, or do whatever the heck you want? It all comes down to one word: F*©#.

Shut the front door, you know what I’m talking about? The f-bomb. It’s everywhere. You hear it all the time. I honestly don’t understand what the appeal is of the word. I mean, you don’t sound smart when you say it. And it’s really not expressing how you really feel. It’s sort of a cheap shot to take. And of course you know I’m talking about the word “fine”.

“How you doing?” “Oh, I’m fine.” Oh, really? You are? Dragging around those extra forty pounds, you’re fine? Feeling like roommates with your spouse, and you’re fine? You haven’t had sex in four months, you’re fine? Really? I don’t think so!

But see, here’s the deal with saying that you’re fine: It’s actually genius. Because if you’re fine, you don’t have to do anything about it. But when you think about this word “fine”, it just makes me so angry. Here we are at a conference about being alive and you’re going to describe the experience of being alive as “fine”? What a flimsy and feeble word!

If you’re crappy, say you’re crappy. If you’re amazing say you’re amazing. Tell the truth. And this not only goes for the social construct: “Oh, I don’t want to burden you with the fact that I hate my life”, or: “Hey, I’m amazing. But that would make you feel terrible.” The bigger issue – The bigger issue with “fine” is that you say it to yourself. That thing that you want, I guarantee you, you’ve convinced yourself that you’re fine not having it. That’s why you’re not pushing yourself. It’s the areas in your life where you’ve given up. Where you’ve said, “Oh, I’m fine. My mom’s never going to change, so I just can’t have that conversation.” “I’m fine. We’ve got to wait until the kids graduate, before we get divorced, so we’ll just sleep in separate bedrooms.” “I’m fine. I lost my job, I can barely pay my bills, but whatever – It’s hard to get a job.”

One of the reasons why this word also just annoys me so much is, scientists have calculated – Oh yeah, I’m coming down! Scientists have calculated the odds of you being born. That’s right. They’ve crunched the numbers. I see you up there. They’ve crunched the numbers on you – Yeah, you guys standing up, you want to sit down for this. They’ve crunched the numbers on you being born. And they took into account all of the wars, and the natural disasters, and the dinosaurs, and everything else.

And do you realize that the odds, the odds of you, yeah, right here, put your computer away, stand up for me, Doug! So the odds of Doug here, turn around, say “hi” to everybody – the odds of Doug being born at the moment in time he was born, to the parents you were born to, with the DNA structure that you have, one in four hundred trillion! Isn’t that amazing?

Doug: I’m so lucky.

Mel: Yes! You’re not fine, you’re fantastic! You have life-changing ideas for a reason, and it’s not to torture yourself. Thank you. Thank you, Doug.

Christine was right when she said all of you could be on stage. Because all of you – we’re all in this category. One in four hundred trillion. All day long you have ideas that could change your life, that could change the world, that could change the way that you feel, and what do you do with them? Nothing. Hopefully I won’t moon you. You didn’t pay for that. And I want you to just think for a minute, because we all have – I love to use the analogy “the inner snooze button” – you have these amazing ideas that bubble up.

You’ve been watching people all day and I guarantee you, like ping pong balls – bam-bam-bam and every time you have an idea, what do you do? – Hit the snooze! What’s the first decision you made this morning? I bet it was to go back to bed. “Yeah, first decision today, I’m one in four hundred trillion, I’m going to go back to sleep.” And I get it. Your bed is comfortable! It’s cosy, it’s warm. If you’re lucky, you’ve got somebody that you love next to you, or in my case, I’ve got my husband and my two kids and possibly the dog. And the reason why I’m bringing up this first decision that you made today, and the inner snooze alarm, is because in any area of your life that you want to change, any – there’s one fact that you need to know.

Activation Energy

This one: You are never going to feel like it. Ever. No one’s coming, motivation isn’t happening, you’re never going to feel like it. Scientists call it Activation Energy. That’s what they call the force required to get you to change from what you’re doing on autopilot to do something new.

So try this test tomorrow. You think you’re so fancy, I know, you’re attending TED. Try this. Tomorrow morning, set your alarm for thirty minutes earlier. And then when it goes off, take those sheets, throw them off, and stand up and start your day. No snooze, no delay, no, “I’ll just wait here for five seconds because Mel’s not standing here” – Do it.

And the reason why I want you to do it is because you will come face to face with the physical, and I mean physical force that’s required to change your behavior. Do you think that somebody who needs to lose weight ever feels like going on a diet? Of course not. You think they ever feel like eating boiled chicken and peas instead of a croissant? I don’t think so. The activation energy required to get your ass away from your computer and out the front door, to go on the walk, you said that you were going to go on, is the exact same amount of force that it takes you to push yourself out of a warm bed and into a cold room.

What’s interesting about being an adult is that when you become eighteen, nobody tells you that it’s now going to be your job to parent yourself. And by “parent yourself”, I mean it’s your job to make yourself do the crap you don’t want to do, so you can be everything that you’re supposed to be. And you’re so damn busy waiting to feel like it. And you’re never going to.

My son never feels like getting off his DS. That’s my job. Get off the damn DS! Kendall, clean up the Barbies! If you’re going to have a nude party in my bathroom, at least clean it up. God, chew with your mouth closed. We’re not a barn, for crying out loud.

Alright, dinner is coming, get out of the pantry. As parents, and you were a kid, your parents make you do the things you don’t feel like doing. Because you won’t. Ever. Not now, not then, not ever! And even when you get good at something, you’ll figure out something else you don’t want to do. And then you’ll plato out, get bored, “I hate this job. Blah blah boring.” But will you look for a new one? No. You’ll just bitch about that one. It’s very, very simple to get what you want. But it’s not easy. You have to force yourself. And I mean force.

And the reason why I use the word “force” – when Roz was up here and talking about the emotion tracking, and she had the picture of two sides of the brain – I look at the brain the exact same way. Only I describe one side of your brain as autopilot and the other side as emergency brake. That’s the only two speeds you get: autopilot, emergency brake. And guess which one your brain likes better: autopilot.

You’ve had the experience where you’ve driven to work and you get there and you’re like, “Oh my God, I don’t remember ever driving here.” You weren’t drunk! That was your brain on autopilot. It was functioning just at this level. And the problem with your mind is that anytime you do anything that’s different from your normal routine, guess what your brain does — emergency brake! And it has that reaction for everything. Everything! You walk into the kitchen and see everybody’s left their breakfast dishes for you. And you think for the hundredth time, “I’m going to kill them. In fact I’m going to leave it here and I’m going to make them do it.”

But that’s not your normal routine, is it? So your mind goes: emergency brake! And you go right into autopilot. “I’ll just load it, and be pissed, and then not have sex. That’s what I’m going to do.” So, when I say “force”, anything that’s a break from your routine is going to require force. And if you think about your life, it’s kind of funny because we are kids and then we become adults, and we spend so much time trying to push our life into some sort of stable routine, and then we grow bored of it! You wake up at the same time every day, you have largely the same breakfast, you drive to work the same way, show up at work, look busy, avoid making calls, update Facebook, you attend a meeting and doodle the whole time, go back and update Facebook, make plans for the evening, you look busy some more, then drive home the same way, you eat largely the same dinner or a variety of it, you watch the same kind of media, and then you go to bed, and do the same thing all over again!

No wonder you’re bored out of your mind. It’s the routine that’s killing you. I have this theory about why people get stuck in life. So, most of you’ve probably taken your Basic Psych 101 class, and you’ve bumped into Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”? Well, your body is kind of cool. Because you have these basic needs. And your body is wired to send you signals. If you need food, what do you feel? If you need water, what do you feel? If you need sex, what do you feel? Thank you.

I think when you feel stuck or dissatisfied in your life, it’s a signal. And it’s not a signal that your life is broken. It’s a signal that one of your most basic needs are not being met. Your need for exploration. Everything about your life, about your body, grows. Your cells regenerate, your hair, your nails, everything grows for your entire life. And your soul needs exploration and growth. And the only way you’ll get it is by forcing yourself to be uncomfortable. Forcing yourself to get outside, out of your head. Thank you.

If you’re in your head, you’re behind enemy lines. That is not God talking, okay? It’s not. In fact, if I put a speaker on it and we broadcast what you say to yourself, we would institutionalize you. You would not hang out with people that talk to you the way you talk to yourself. So get out of your head. Your feelings! Your feelings are screwing you! I don’t care how you feel. I care about what you want.

And if you listen to how you feel, when it comes to what you want – you will not get it. Because you will never feel like it. And you need to get outside your comfort zone. It’s not about taking risks, it’s about getting outside your comfort zone. Those first three seconds when you push yourself out of bed, they blow. But once you’re up, it’s great. Those first three seconds when you’re sitting here in a stadium like this and somebody says, “Get up and come dance,” and you think, “Oh, I should do that,” and then you’re like, “Uhmm.” That experience that you had when you had the impulse to do it and then you didn’t do the activation energy required to force yourself, your emergency brake got pulled – “I’m sitting right here. I’m not going up with those crazy people, I don’t like to dance…”

What happened for me is I came up, and I bumped into Rachel, and then we started talking, and next thing you know, she’s tweeting. And we’re friends. And – boom! Get outside. That’s where the magic is. That’s where the one in four hundred trillion exists. So everything I do – oh, OK, this is the last part. Sorry.


So one more thing that you can use, I call it the Five-Second-Rule. Your mind can process a facial expression in 33 milliseconds. It can move pretty damn quick. The other thing that it does very quickly is if you have one of those little impulses that are pulling you, if you don’t marry it with an action within five seconds, you pull the emergency brake and kill the idea. Kill it!

If you have the impulse to get up and come dance while the band is playing, if you don’t stand up in five seconds, you’re going to pull the emergency brake. If you have an impulse about, you were inspired by somebody’s speech today, and you don’t do something within five seconds – write a note, send yourself a text – anything physical to marry it with the idea, you will pull the emergency brake and kill the idea.

Your problem isn’t ideas. Your problem is you don’t act on them. You kill them. It’s not my fault. It’s not anybody’s fault. You’re doing it to yourself. Stop it! I’m counting on you. One in four hundred trillion. You got stuff to do! And it’s not going to happen in your head.

So I want you to practice this today. When we go off to party, thank God it’s coming soon, because I think we all could use a cocktail, I want you to practice the five-second-rule. You see somebody and you think you have an impulse, they look interesting? Walk over there! You were inspired by somebody and you have a request? Make it! That’s why you’re here. Experiment with it, and I think you’ll be shocked about what happens.

And one more thing, I want you to know that everything that I do, whether it’s the radio show, or the television show, or the book that I wrote, or the column, it’s for you. And if there is anything that I can do, if I can do anything to make you do the things you don’t want to do, so you can have what you want, I will do it.

But you need to walk over, you need to open your mouth, and you need to make the request. You got it? Good. Go do it.

Thank you! Thank you, yes! Stand up!

You have the impulse, stand up! Thank you!

Think Fast, Talk Smart: Communication Techniques

Welcome! I’m very excited today to talk about effective speaking in spontaneous situations. I thank you all for joining us, even though the title of my talk is grammatically incorrect. I thought that might scare a few of you away. But I learned teaching here at the business school, catching people’s attention is hard. So, something as simple as that, I thought, might draw a few of you here, so this is going to be a highly interactive and participative workshop today. If you don’t feel comfortable participating that’s completely fine, but do know I’m going to ask you to talk to people next to you. There will be opportunities to stand up and practice some things because I believe the way we become effective communicators is by actually communicating.

So let’s get started right away. I’d like to ask you all to read this sentence, and as you read this sentence, what’s most important to me is that you count the number of fs that you find in this sentence, please. Count the number of fs. Keep it quiet to yourself. Give you just another couple seconds here.

Three, two, one.

Raise your hand please if you found three and only three f’s. Excellent, great.

Did anybody find four? Anybody find only five fs? Anybody find six? There’s six fs.

What two letter word ending in f did many of us miss? Oh. We’ll make sure to get this to you so you can torment your friends and family at a later date.

When I first was exposed to this over 12 years ago I only found three, and I felt really stupid. So, I like to start every workshop, every class I teach with to pass that feeling along. No, no. That’s not, that’s not why I do this.

I do this because this is a perfect analogy for what we’re going to be talking about today. The vast majority of us in this room, very smart people in this room, were not as effective as we could have been in this activity. We didn’t get it right.

And the same is true when it comes to speaking in public, particularly when spontaneous speaking. It’s little things that make a big difference in being affective. So today we’re going to talk about little things in terms of your approach, your attitude, your practice, that can change how you feel when you speak in public. And we’re going to be talking primarily about one type of public speaking. Not the type that you plan for in advance, the type that you actually spend time thinking about, you might even create slides for. These are the keynotes, the conference presentation, the formal toasts. That’s not what we are talking about today.

We are talking about spontaneous speaking. When you are in a situation that you are asked to speak off the cuff and in the moment. What we’re going through today is actually the result of a workshop I created here for the business school. Several years ago, a survey was taken among the students, and they said, what’s one of the — what are things we could do to help make you more successful here? And at the top of that list was this notion of responding to cold calls. Does everybody know what a cold call is? It’s where the mean professor like me looks at some student and says, what do you think? And there was a lot of panic, and a lot of silence.

Spontaneous Speaking

So as a result of that, this workshop was created, and a vast majority of first year students here at the GSB go through this workshop. So I’m going to walk you through sort of a hybrid version of what they do. The reality is that spontaneous speaking is actually more prevalent than planned speaking. Perhaps it’s giving introductions. You’re at a dinner and somebody says, you know so and so, would you mind introducing them?

Maybe it’s giving feedback. In the moment, your boss turns to you and says, would you tell me what you think?

It could be a surprise toast. Or finally, it could be during the Q and A session. And by the way, we will leave plenty of time at the end of our day today for Q and A. I’d love to hear the questions you have about this topic or other topics related to communicating.

So our agenda is simple: in order to be an effective communicator, regardless of if it’s planned or spontaneous, you need to have your anxiety under control. So we’ll start there.

Second, what we’re going to talk about is some ground rules for the interactivity we’ll have today and then finally we’re going to get into the heart of what we will be covering and again, as I said, lots of activity and I invite you to participate.

Anxiety management

So let’s get started with anxiety management. 85% of people tell us that they’re nervous when speaking in public. And I think the other 15% are lying. Okay? We could create a situation where we could make them nervous too. In fact, just this past week a study from Chapman University asked Americans, what are the things you fear most? And among being caught in a surprise terrorist attack, having identity, your identity stolen, was public speaking. Among the top five was speaking in front of others. This is a ubiquitous fear, and one that I believe we can learn to manage. And I use that wordmanage very carefully because I don’t think we ever want to overcome it. Anxiety actually helps us. It gives us energy, helps us focus, tells us what we’re doing is important. But we want to learn to manage it.

So I’d like to introduce you to a few techniques that can work and all of these techniques are based on academic research. But before we get there, I’d love to ask you what does it feel like when you’re sitting in the audience watching a nervous speaker present, how do you feel, just shout out a few things, how to do you feel?


Uncomfortable. I heard many of you going, yes, uncomfortable. It feels very awkward, doesn’t it? So what do we do? Now a couple of you probably like watching somebody suffer. Okay, but most of us don’t.

So what do we do? We sit there and we nod and we smile or we disengage. And to the nervous speaker looking out at his or her audience seeing a bunch of people nodding or disengaged, that does not help. Okay. So we need to manage our anxiety. Because fundamentally, your job as a communicator rather, regardless of if it’s planned or spontaneous, is to make your audience comfortable. Because if they’re comfortable they can receive your message. And when I say comfortable I am not referring to the fact that your message has to be sugar coated and nice for them to hear. It can be a harsh message. But they have to be in a place where they can receive it.

So it’s incumbent on you as a communicator to help your audience feel comfortable and we do that by managing our anxiety. So let me introduce you to a few techniques that I think you can use right away to help you feel more comfortable.

The first has to do with when you begin to feel those anxiety symptoms. For most people this happens in the initial minutes prior to speaking. In this situation what happens is many of us begin to feel whatever it is that happens to you. Maybe your stomach gets a little gurgly. Maybe your legs begin to shake. Maybe you begin to perspire. And then we start to say to ourselves, oh, my goodness, I’m nervous. Oh. They’re going to tell I’m nervous. This is not going to go well. And we start spiraling out of control.

So, research on mindful attention tells us that if, when we begin to feel those anxiety symptoms, we simply greet our anxiety and say hey, this is me feeling nervous. I’m about to do something of consequence. And simply by greeting your anxiety and acknowledging it, that it’s normal and natural. Heck, 85% of people tell us they have it. You actually can stem the tide of that anxiety spiraling out of control. It’s not necessarily going to reduce the anxiety but it will stop it from spinning out.

So the next time you begin to feel those anxiety signs, take a deep breath and say, this is me feeling anxious. I notice a few of you taking some notes. There’s a handout that will come at the end that has everything that I’m supposed to say, okay? Can’t guarantee I’m going to say it, but you’ll have it there.

In addition to this approach, a technique that works very well, and this is a technique that I helped do some research on way back when I was in graduate school, has to do with re-framing how you see the speaking situation. Most of us, when we are up presenting, planned or spontaneous, we feel that we have to do it right and we feel like we are performing. How many of you have ever acted, done singing or dancing, I am not going to ask for performances now, okay. Many of you have. We should note that we could do next year, maybe, a talent show of alums. It looks like we got the talent there. That’s great.

So when you perform, you know that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. If you don’t hit the right note or your right line at the right time, at the right place, you’ve made a mistake. It messes up the audience. It messes up the people on stage. But when you present, there is no right way. There’s certainly better and worse ways. But there is no one right way.

So we need to look at presenting as something other than performance. And what I’d like to suggest is what we need to see this is as is a conversation. Right now, I’m having a conversation with 100 plus people. Rather than saying I’m performing for you. But it’s not enough just to say, this is a conversation. I want to give you some concrete things you can do.

Start with questions

First, start with questions. Questions by their very nature are dialogic, they’re two way. What was one of the very first things I did here for you? I had you count the number of fs and raise your hands. I asked you a question. That gets your audience involved, it makes it feel to me as the presenter as if we’re in conversation. So, use questions. They can be rhetorical. They can be polling, perhaps I actually want to hear information from you.

In fact, I use questions when I create an outline for my presentations. Rather than writing bullet points, I list questions that I’m going to answer. And that puts me in that conversational mode. If you were to look at my notes for today’s talk, you’ll see it’s just a series of questions. Right now I’m answering the question, how do we manage our anxiety?

Use conversational language

Beyond questions, another very useful technique for making us conversational is to use conversational language. Many nervous speakers distance themselves physically. If you’ve ever seen a nervous speaker present, he or she will say something like this.Welcome, I am really excited to be here with you. They pull as far away from you as possible, because you threaten us, speakers. You make us nervous so we want to get away from you.

We do the same thing linguistically. We use language that distances ourselves. It’s not unusual to hear a nervous speaker say something like, one must consider the ramifications. Or, today we’re going to cover step one, step two, step three. That’s very distancing language.

To be more conversational, use conversational language. Instead of one must consider say, this is important to you, we all need to be concerned with. Do you hear that inclusive conversational language? Has to do with the pronouns. Instead of step 1, step, 2, step 3. First what we need to do is this, the second thing you should consider is here. Use conversational language. So being conversational can also help you manage your anxiety.

The third technique I’d like to share is research that I actually started when I was an undergraduate here, I was very fortunate to study with Phil Zimbardo of the Stanford Prison Experiment fame. Many people don’t know that Zim actually was instrumental in starting one of the very first shyness institutes in the world and especially in the country. And I did some research with him that looked at how your orientation to time influences how you react. And what we learned is if you can bring yourself into the present moment, rather than being worried about the future consequences, you can actually be less nervous. Most of us, when we present, are worried about the future consequences. My students are worried they’re not going to get the right grade. Some of you are worried you might not get the funding. You might not get the support. You might not get the laughs that you want. All of those are future states.

So if we can bring ourselves into the present moment, we’re not going to be as concerned about those future states and therefore we will be less nervous. There are lots of ways to become present oriented.

I know a professional speaker, he’s paid $10,000 an hour to speak. It’s a good gig. He gets very nervous. He’s up in front of crowds of thousands. Behind the stage what he does is 100 push-ups right before he comes out. You can’t be that physically active and not be in the present moment. Now, I’m not recommending all of us go to that level of exertion because he starts out of breath and sweaty, okay? But a walk around the building before you speak. That can do it.

There are other ways. If you’ve ever watched athletes perform and get ready to do their event, they listen to music. They focus on a song or a playlist that helps get them in the moment. You can do things as simple as counting backwards from 100 by tough number like 17. I’m going to pause because I know people in the room are trying. Yeah. Gets hard after that third or fourth one, I know.

My favorite way to get present-oriented is to say tongue twisters. Saying a tongue twister forces you to be in the moment. Otherwise you’ll say it wrong. And it has the added benefit of warming up your voice. Most nervous speakers don’t warm up their voice. They retreat inside themselves and start saying all these bad things to themselves. So, saying a tongue twister can help you be both present-oriented and warm up your voice.

Remember, I said today we’re going to have a lot of participation? I’m going to ask you to repeat after me my favorite tongue twister, and I like this tongue twister because if you say it wrong you say a naughty word, and I’m going to be listening to see if I hear any naughty words this morning. Okay?

Repeat after me. It’s only three phrases. I slit a sheet. A sheet I slit. And on that slitted sheet I sit. Very good, no shits. Excellent. Very good. Now in that moment, in that moment, you weren’t worried about, I’m in front of all these people, this is weird, this guy’s having me do this. You were so focused on saying it right and trying to figure out what the naughty word was that you were in the present moment. That’s how easy it is.

So it’s very possible for us to manage our anxiety. We can do it initially by greeting the anxiety when we begin to feel those signs. We can do it when we re-frame the situation as a conversation. And we do it when we become present oriented. Those are three of many tools that exist to help you manage your anxiety.

If you have questions about other ways, I’m happy to chat with you. And at the end, I’m going to point you to some resources that you can refer to to help you find additional sources for you.

How to feel more comfortable speaking in spontaneous situations

So let’s get started on the core part of what we’re doing today, which is how to feel more comfortable speaking in spontaneous situations.

Some very simple ground rules for you.

First, I’m going to identify four steps that I believe are critical to becoming effective at speaking in a spontaneous situation. With each of those steps, I’m going to ask you to participate in an activity. None of them are more painful than saying the tongue twister out loud. They may require you to stand up, they might require you to talk to the person next to you, but none of them are painful.

And then finally, I’m going to conclude with a phrase or saying that comes from the wonderful world of improvisation. Through the continuing studies program here at Stanford, for the past five years, I have co-taught a class with Adam Tobin. He is a lecturer in the Creative Arts Department. He teaches film and new media. And he’s an expert at improv. And we’ve partnered together to help people learn how to speak more spontaneously. We call it improvisationally speaking. And Adam has taught me wonderful phrases and ideas from improv that I want to impart to you, that really stick. That’s why I’m sharing them with you, to help you remember these techniques. And again at the end of all this, you’ll get a handout that has this listed.

So let’s get started.

The very first thing that gets in people’s way when it comes to spontaneous speaking, isthemselves. We get in our own way. We want to be perfect. We want to give the right answer. We want out toast to be incredibly memorable. These things are burdened by our effort, by our trying. The best thing we can do, the first step in our process, is to get ourselves out of the way. Easier said than done. Most of us in this room are in this room because we are type A personalities. We work hard, we think fast, we make sure that we get things right. But that can actually serve as a disservice as we try to speak in the moment.

I’d like to demonstrate a little of this for you, and I need your help to do that. So we’re going to do our first activity. We are going to do an activity that’s called shout the wrong name. In a moment, if you are able and willing, I’m going to ask you to stand. And I am going to ask you, for about 30 seconds, to look all around you in this environment, and you are going to point at different things. And I know it’s rude to point, but for this exercise, please point. I want you to point to things, and you are going to call the things you are pointing to, out loud, anything but what they really are.

So I might point to this and say, refrigerator. I might point to this and say, cat. I am pointing to anything in your environment around you. It can be the person sitting next to you, standing next to you. You will just shout, and shouting is important, the wrong name.

So in a moment I’m going to ask you to stand and do that. Please raise your hand if you already have the first five or six things you’re going to call out. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. We stockpile. You all are excellent gameplayers. I told you the game, shout the wrong name. And you have already begun figuring out how you’re going to master the game. That’s your brain trying to help you get it right.

I’d like to suggest, the only way you can get this activity wrong is by doing what you’ve just done. There is no way to get this wrong. Okay. Even if I call this a chair, no penalty will be bestowed upon you. Okay? Because I won’t know what you were pointing at. You could have been pointing at the floor under the chair, and you called the floor the chair and you were fine. The point is, we are planning and working to get it right. And there is no way to get it right. Just doing it gets it right.

Okay, so let’s try this now. We’re going to play this game twice. Again, it’s for 30 seconds. If you are willing and able, will you please stand up? You can do this seated, by the way. But if you’re willing and able, let’s stand up. Okay, in a moment I am about to say, go. And I would like for you to point at anything around here, including me. It’s okay to point at me. I hope it’s not a bad thing you say when you point at me. But point at different things, and loudly and proudly call them different than what they are.

Ready? Begin.

Porcupine. California, salt shaker, car, library, tennis racket, purple, orange, putrid. Hello. Time, time.

You can stay standing, because in mere moments, we’re going to do it again. So if you’re comfortable standing, we’re about to do it again. First, thank you. That was wonderful. I heard great words being called out. It was, it was fun. And some of you in the back were doing it in sync. So it looked like you were doing some 70s disco dance. It was awesome. Okay. This, this was great.

Now let me ask you just a few questions. Did you notice anything about the words that you were saying? Did we find patterns, perhaps? Maybe some of you were going through fruits and vegetables. A few of you were going through things that started with the letter A, right? That’s your brain saying, okay you told me not to stockpile, so I’m going to try to be a little more devious and I’m going to give you patterns, okay? Same problem.

When we teach that class I told you about, that improvisationally speaking class, we like to say, your brain is there to help you. These things it’s doing have helped you be successful, but like a windshield wiper, we just want to wipe those suggestions away and see what happens. Okay.

So we’re going to do this activity again. This time, try the best you can to thank your brain if it provides you with patterns or stockpiles and just say thank you brain. And disregard them. Okay, so let’s see what happens when we’re not stockpiling and we’re not playing off patterns. We’ll do this for only 15 seconds, see how this feels. Baby steps.

Ready begin. Kodak, Bicycle chain. Skate board. Bananas. Purple. Putrid. Time.

Please have a seat. Thank you again.

Did you notice a difference between the second time and the first time. Yes, was it a little easier that second time? No. That’s okay. We’re just starting. These skills are not like a light switch. It’s not like you learn these skills and then all of a sudden you can execute on them. This is a wonderful game. This is a wonderful game to train your brain to get out of its own way. You can play this game anywhere, anytime. I like to play this game when I’m sitting in traffic. Makes me feel better than the, I shout things out. They’re not the naughty things that I want to be shouting out. But I shout out things, and it helps. You’re training yourself to get out of your own way. You’re working against the muscle memory that you’ve developed over the course of your life with a brain that acts very fast to help you solve problems. But in essence, in spontaneous speaking situations, you put too much pressure on yourself trying to figure out how to get it right.

So a game like this teaches us to get out of our own way. It teaches us to see the things that we do that prevent us from acting spontaneously. In essence we are reacting rather than responding. To react means to act again. You’ve thought it and now you’re acting on it. That takes too long and it’s too thoughtful. We want to respond in a way that’s genuine and authentic.

So the maxims I would like for you to take from this, and again these maxims come from improvisation, is one of my favorite. Dare to be dull. And in a room like this, telling you dare to be dull is offensive, and I apologize. But this will help. Rather than striving for greatness, dare to be dull. And if you dare to be dull and allow yourself that, you will reach that greatness. It’s when you set greatness as your target, that it gets in the way of you ever getting there. Because you over evaluate, you over analyze, you freeze up.

So the first step in our process today, is to get out of our own way. Dare to be dull. Easier said than done. But once you practice, and a game just as simple as the one we practiced, is a great way to do it. But that’s not enough.

Getting out of our own way is important. But the second step of our process has us change how we see the situation we find ourselves in. We need to see the speaking opportunity that we are a part of as an opportunity, rather than a challenge and a threat. When I coach executives on Q and A skills, when they go in front of the media or whatever, investors. They see it as an adversarial experience, me versus them. And one of the first things I work on is change the way you approach it. A Q and A session, for example, is an opportunity for you. It’s an opportunity to clarify, it’s an opportunity to understand what people are thinking.

So if we look at it as an opportunity, it feels very different. We see it differently, and therefore we have more freedom to respond. When I feel that you are challenging me, I am going to do the bare minimum to respond and protect myself. If I see this as an opportunity where I have a chance to explain and expand, I’m going to interact differently with you.

So, spontaneous speaking situations are ones that afford you opportunities. So when you’re at a corporate dinner, and your boss turns to you and says, oh, you know him better than the rest. Would you mind introducing him? You say, great, thank you for the opportunity, rather than, auuhhh, right? I better get this right. So see things as an opportunity.

I have a game to play to help us with this. This is a fun one, the holidays are approaching, we all, in this room, are going to give and receive gifts. Here is how this game will work. It works best if you have a partner. So I am hoping you can work with somebody sitting next to you. If there is nobody sitting next to you, turn around, introduce yourself, great way to connect. If not, you can play this game by yourself. It’s just a little harder, and you can’t do the second part of the game. So, after I explain the game, this gives you a chance to get to know somebody.

Here’s how it works. If you have a partner, you and your partner are going to exchange imaginary gifts, okay? Pretend you have a gift. It can be a big gift, can be a small gift. And you will give your gift to your partner. Your partner will take the gift and open it up and will tell you what you gave them, because you have no — you just gave them a gift. So you are going to open up the box, and you’re going to look inside. And you are going to say the first thing that comes to your mind in the moment, not the thing you have all just thought of. Or the thing after that. Remember what we talked about before? That still plays, that’s still in play. Okay, you’re stockpiling.

Look in there. My favorite that I said, somebody gave me this, a gift during playing this game, I looked inside and I saw a frog leg. I don’t know why I saw a frog leg, but that’s what I said. That’s the first part of the activity.

Now, the opportunity is two-fold in this game. The opportunity is for you, the gift receiver, to name a gift. That’s kind of fun. That’s an opportunity. It’s not a threat. But the real opportunity is for the gift giver, because the gift giver then has to say. So you look and you say thank you for giving me a frog’s leg, and the person will, will look at you and say I knew you wanted a frog’s leg, because — So whatever you find the person who has received it is going to say absolutely, I’m so glad you’re happy, I got it for you because. So you have to respond to whatever they say. Right? What a great opportunity.

Now some of you are sitting there going, oh, that’s hard. I don’t want to do it, I might make a fool out of myself. Others of you are, if you’re following this advice, are saying, what a great opportunity. Right?

So, the game again is played like this. You and your partner will exchange, each will exchange a gift. One will start, then the other will follow. The first person will give a gift to the second person. Second person opens the box, however big the box is, and if the box is big, and you find a penny in it, perfect, doesn’t matter. The box is heavy and you find a feather in it, fine. It doesn’t, there’s no way to get it wrong. Okay? Whatever’s in the box is in the box. You can return it and get what you wanted later. Okay?

The person, then, you will name it. You will say thank you for the, whatever you saw in the box. The person who gave it to you will say, I’m so glad you’re excited. I got it for you because. And you will give a reason that you got them whatever they decided you gave them. Make sense?

All right. So, very quickly just, in five seconds, find a partner if you’re willing to do this with a partner. Everybody have a partner? Okay. All right. In your partnerships, in your partnerships, pick an A person and a B person. You may stand or sit, it’s totally up to you. Pick an A and pick a B. Okay? B goes first. All right. B, give A a gift. A thank them, and then B will name and give the reason they gave it to them.

If you have not switched, switch please. If you have not switched, switch please.

Let’s wrap it up in 30 seconds please. Let’s wrap it up.

All right. If we can all have our seats. If we can all take our seats please. I know I’m telling a room of many MBA alums to stop talking and that’s hard.

All right, ladies and gentlemen. Did you get what you wanted? Yes. Pretty neat, huh? You always get what you want.

Now for some of you this was really hard because you were really taking the challenge and not seeing what was in the box until you looked in there. Okay. Was anybody surprised by what you found in the box? What did you find sir, what was in the box? What? Oh, wow! Nice! Nice, if you’ve got a Ferrari you need a transmission. I like it.

Who else found something that was surprising? What did you find? A live unicorn! That’s a great gift. Right?

How was it as the gift giver? Were you surprised at what your partner found in the box? Isn’t it interesting that when we give an imaginary gift knowing that the person’s going to name it we already have in mind what they’re going to find? And when they say live unicorn, we go well that’s interesting. Right?

So the point of this game is, to one, remind ourselves we have to get out of our own way, like we talked about before, but to see this as an opportunity and to have fun. I love watching people play this game. The number of smiles that I saw amongst you and, and I have to admit when I first started some of you looked a little dour, a little doubting, okay? But in that last game you all were smiling and looked like you were having fun, so when you reframe the spontaneous speaking opportunity as an opportunity, as something that you co-create and share. All of a sudden, you are less nervous, less defensive, and you can accomplish something pretty darn good. In this case, a fun outcome.

This reminds us of perhaps the most famous of all improvisation sayings. Yes and. A lot of us live our communication lives saying no but. Yes and opens up a tremendous amount of opportunities. And this doesn’t mean you have to say yes and to a question somebody asks. This just means the approach you take to the situation. So you’re going to ask me questions, that’s an opportunity. Yes, and I will follow through, versus no and being defensive.

So, we’ve accomplished the first two steps of our process. First we get out of our own way, and we can reframe the situation as an opportunity.

The next phase is also hard, but very rewarding, and that is to slow down, and listen. You need to understand the demands of the requirement you find yourself in, in order to respond appropriately. But often, we jump ahead. We listen just enough to think we got it, and then we go ahead, starting — to think about what we’re going to respond and then we respond. We really need to listen. Because fundamentally, as a communicator, your job is to be in service of your audience. And if you don’t understand what your audience is asking or needs, you can’t fulfill that obligation. So we need to slow down and listen.

I have a fun game to play. In this game you are going to S-P-E-L-L E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G-Y-O-U S-A-Y T-O Y-O-U-R P-A-R-T-N-E-R.

I will translate. You’re going to get with the same partner you just worked with. And you are going to have a very brief conversation about something fun that you plan to do today. I know this is the most fun you are going to have all day. But the next fun thing you are going to do today. You are going to tell your partner what you are going to do that will be fun today. But you are going to do so by S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G I-T. Okay? So you’re going to spell it.

It’s okay if you are not a good speller. Look, you’ll see the benefit of doing this.

So, with the partner you just worked with, person A is going to go first this time. You are simply going to tell your partner. Actually you’re going to spell to your partner, what it is of fun, something of fun, that you’re going to do today. Okay? Do what you were really going to do for fun and not do things like F-E-E-D T-H-E C-A-T, right, just because you don’t want to spell, right?

So, you can use big words. All right, 30 seconds each. Spell to your partner something fun that you’re going to do today.

Would you like to play? Go ahead.

G-O-T A-T G-A-M-E. Oh my goodness say it again.

Spell it again.


G-O-T A-T G-A-M-E.

E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-T. I H-O-P-E T-H-A-T T-H-E-Y W-I-N.


Thank you.

That was very good.

Thank you.

If you have not switched, switch. Take 30 more seconds with the new partner spelling.

G-R-E-A-T exclamation point. T-H-A-N-K-Y-O-U. P-L-E-A-S-E. T-A-K-E Y-O-U-R S-E-A-T.

So what did we learn? What did we learn? Besides that we’re not so good at spelling. You have to pause between the words.

How did this change your interaction with the person you were interacting with? What did you have to do? Focus. Focus, and listen. And you can’t be thinking ahead. You have to be in the moment. When you listen and truly understand what the person is trying to say, then you can respond in a better way, a more targeted response. We often don’t listen.

So we start by getting out of our own way. We then reframe the situation as an opportunity. Those are things we do inside our head. But in the moment of interacting, we have to listen first, before we can respond to the spontaneous request. Perhaps my most favorite maxim comes from this activity. Don’t just do something, stand there. Listen. Listen, and then respond.

Now, how do we respond? That brings us to the fourth part of our process. And that is, we have to tell a story. We respond in a way that has a structure. All stories have structure. We have to respond in a structured way.

The key to successful spontaneous speaking and by the way planned speaking is having a structure. I would like to introduce you to two of the most prevalent and popular and useful structures you can use to communicate a message in a spontaneous situation.

But before we get there, we have to talk about the value of structure. It increases what is called processing fluency, the effectiveness of which, or through which we process information. We actually process structured information, roughly 40% more effectively and efficiently than information that’s not structured. I love looking out in this audience, because you will remember as I remember. Phone numbers. When you had to remember them if you wanted to call somebody. Okay. Young folks today don’t need to remember phone numbers. They just need to look at a picture, push a button and then the voice starts talking on the other end. Ten digit phone numbers, it’s actually hard to remember ten digit phone numbers. How did you do it? You chunked it into a structure. Three, three and four. Structure helps us remember.

The same is true when speaking spontaneously or in a planned situation. So let me introduce you to two useful structures. The first useful structure you have probably heard or used in some incarnation, it is the problem-solution-benefit structure. You start by talking about what the issue is, the problem. You then talk about a way of solving it, and then you talk about the benefits of following through on it. Very persuasive, very effective. Helps you as the speaker remember it, helps your audience know where you’re going with it.

When I was a tour guide on this campus, many, many, many years ago. What do you think the single most important thing they drilled into our head? It took a full quarter, by the way, to train to be a tour guide here. They used to line us up at one end of the quad, and have us walk backward, straight, and if you failed you had to start over. To this day, I can walk backwards in a straight line because of that.

As part of that training, what do you think the most important thing they taught us was? Never lose your tour group. I’m not joking. Never, that’s, never lose your tour group. The same is true as a presenter. Never lose your audience. The way you keep your audience on track is by providing structure. None of you would go on a tour with me if I said, hi, my name’s Matt. Let’s go. You want to know where you’re going, why you’re going there, how long it’s going to take? You need to set expectations and structure does that.

Problem, solution, benefit is a wonderful structure to have in your back pocket. It’s something that you can use quickly when you’re in the moment. It can be reframed so it’s not always a problem you’re talking about. Maybe it’s an opportunity. Maybe there’s a market opportunity you want to go out and capture. It’s not a problem that we’re not doing it. But maybe we’d be better off if we did. So it becomes opportunity, solution, which are the steps to achieve it. And then the benefit.

Another structure which works equally, equally well, is the what? So what? Now what? Structure. You start by talking about what it is, then you talk about why it’s important, and then what the next steps are. This is a wonderful formula for answering questions. For introducing people. So if, in the moment somebody asks me to introduce somebody, I change the what to who. I say who they are, why they’re important and what we’re going to do next. Maybe listen to them, maybe drink our wine, whatever. All right.

What, so what, now what.

The reality is this, when you are in spontaneous speaking situation, you have to do two things simultaneously. You have to figure out what to say and how to say it. These structures help you by telling you how to say it. If you can become comfortable with these structures, you can be in a situation where you can respond very ably to spontaneous speaking situations. We’re going to practice. Because that’s what we do.

Here’s the situation. Is everybody familiar with this child’s toy? It’s a slinky. Okay? You are going to sell this slinky to your partner using either problem, solution, benefit or opportunity, solution, benefit. What does the slinky provide you? Or you could use what, so what, now what? What is it? Why is it important? And the next steps might be to buy it, okay?

So by using that structure, see how already it helps you? It helps you focus. Get with your partner and we’re only going to have one partner sell to the other partner, okay? So get with your partner. One of you will volunteer to sell to the other, okay? Sell a slinky using problem, solution, benefit or what so what, now what?

Please begin.

So we have the handouts, but I’m also going to be doing the, the-

The microphone?

Mic. So.

When I debrief this, you can go ahead and pass them out. Does that make sense?

Okay, so after, after.

No no, mm-hm, after this activity.

Okay. And then.

After that.

30 more seconds, please. Excellent. Let’s all close the deal, seal the deal. I have never seen more people in one place doing this at the same time. I love it. I teach people to gesture and gesture big, it’s great. I love it.

So if you were the recipient of the sales pitch, thumbs up. Did they do a good job? Did they use the structure? Awesome. I’m recruiting you all for my next business as my salespeople.

Please try to ignore this, but as we’re speaking the handout I told you about is coming around. On the back of that handout, you’re going to see a list of structures, the two we talked about and several others, that can help you in spontaneous speaking situations. These structures help. Because they help you understand how you’re going to say what you say. Structure sets you free and I know that’s kind of ironic, but it’s true, if you have that structure then you are free to think about what it is you are going to say. It reduces the cognitive load of figuring out what you are saying, and how you are going to say it. All of this is on that handout, okay?

So what does this all mean? It means that we have, within our ability, the tools and the approaches, to help us in spontaneous speaking situations. The very first thing we have to do is manage our anxiety, because you can’t be an effective speaker if you don’t have your anxiety under control. And we talked about how you can do that by greeting your anxiety, reframing as a conversation, and being in the present moment.

Once you do that, you need to practice a series of four steps, that will help you speak spontaneously. First you get out of your own way. I would love it if all of you, on your way from here to the football game, point at things and call them the wrong name. It’ll be fun. If most of us do it, then it won’t be weird. If only one and two of us do it, it’ll be weird. Right.

Second. Give gifts. By that I mean see your interactions as ones of opportunity, not challenges.

Third, take the time to listen, listen. And then finally, use structures. And you have to practice these structures. I practice these structures on my kids. I have two kids. When they ask me questions, I usually answer them in what, so what, now what. They don’t know it. But, when they go over to their friends’ houses and they see their friends ask their dads questions, they don’t get what, so what, now what. So, you know, you have to practice. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will become.

Ultimately you have the opportunity before you to become more compelling, more confident, more connected as a speaker, if you leverage these techniques. If you’re interested in learning more, this is where I do a little plug. Okay, I’ve written a book. Many of the MBA students who take the strategic communication classes, here that I and others teach read it. It’s called Speaking Up Without Freaking Out. More importantly, there’s a website here that I curate called nofreakingspeaking.com. And it has lots of information that I’ve written, and others have written about how to become more effective at speaking. So that’s, that’s the end of my plug.

What I’d really like to do is, enter into a spontaneous speaking situation with you. And I would love to entertain any questions that you have. There are two people who are running around with microphones, so some of us who remember the Phil Donahue show. We’re going to do a little bit of that. If you have a question, the microphone will come, and I’m happy to answer it.

Question-and-answer session

Male Audience: Great. Can you talk about hostile situations?

Matt Abrahams: Hostile situations, yes. So when you find yourself in a challenging situation. First, It should not be a surprise to you. It should not be a surprise. Before you ever speak, you should think about what is the environment going to be like? So it shouldn’t surprise you that there might be some challenges in the room. When there are hostile situations that arise, you have to acknowledge it. So if somebody says, that’s a ridiculous idea, why did you come up with that? To simply say, so, the idea I came up with was, right? Acknowledge the emotion, I recommend not naming the emotion, right? So, you sound really angry, the person’s, I’m not angry, I’m frustrated. Now we’re arguing over their mental state, right? Emotional state.

So, so I say something like, I hear you have a lot of passion on this issue, or, I hear there’s great concern from you. So you acknowledge the emotion, because otherwise it sits in the room. And then reframe and respond the way that makes sense. So if somebody raises their hand and says, your product is ridiculously priced. Why do you charge so much? I might say I hear great concern, and what you’re really asking about is the value of our product, and I would give my value proposition, and then I would come back and say, and because of the value we provide we believe it’s priced fairly. So you answer the question about price, but you’ve reframed it in a way that you feel more comfortable answering it. So, the way to do this is to practice all the skills we just talked about. The only skill that I’m adding to this is the awareness in advance that you might be in that situation. First I have to truly listen to what I’m hearing, right? It’s very easy for me when I hear a challenging question, to get all defensive and not hear what the person’s asking. I see it as an opportunity to reframe and explain. Okay so, again, you have to practice. But, that’s how I think you address it.

Are there other questions? I see a question back here, yes, please.

Male Audience: Yes, first of all, thank you very much. Great, great presentation.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you.

Male Audience: For a lot of the speaking I do, I have remote audiences, audiences distributed all over the country, with telecom. Any tips for those kinds of audiences?

Matt Abrahams: So when you are speaking in a situation where not everybody is co-located, okay? In fact, at this very moment, there are people watching this presentation remotely. What you need to do is be mindful of it. Second, try to include engagement techniques where the audience actually has to do something. So, physical participation is what we did here with the games. You can ask your audience to imagine something, imagine what it would be like if, when we try to achieve a goal, rather than say here is the goal we are trying to achieve, say imagine what it would be like if. See what that does to you, it pulls you in, I can take polling questions, most of the technology that you are referring to has some kind of polling feature. You can open up some kind of Wiki or Google Doc, or some collaborative tool where people can be doing things and you can be monitoring that while you’re presenting. So I might take some breaks. I talk for ten, 15 minutes and say, okay, let’s apply this and let’s go into this Google Doc I’ve created, and I see what people are doing. So it’s about variety and it’s about engagement. Those are the ways that you really connect to people who are remote from you.

Okay, other questions? Who, you’re pointing oh — I’ve got to look for where the mic is.

Male Audience: This may be similar to the first question but I do a lot of expert witness testimony. What’s your recommendation for handling cross-examination? Specifically, specifically a hostile one.

Matt Abrahams: I feel like I’m being cross-examined. So in any speaking situation that you go into that has some planned element to it I recommend identifying certain themes that you think are important or believe need to come out. And then with each one of those themes have some examples and concrete evidence that you can use to support it. You don’t go in with memorized terms, or ways of saying it. You just have ideas and themes, and then you put them together as necessary. So, when I’m in a situation where people are interrogating me. I have certain themes that I want to get across, and make sure that I, I can do that in a way that fits the needs in the moment. If it’s hostile, again, you, the, the single best tool you have to buy yourself time and to help you answer a question efficiently is paraphrasing. The paraphrase is like the Swiss Army knife of communication. If you remember the show MacGyver, it’s your MacGyver tool, right?

So when a question comes in, the way you paraphrase it allows you the opportunity to reframe it, to think about your answer and, to pause and make sure you got it right. So when you’re under those situations, if you have an opportunity to paraphrase it, say, so what you’re really asking about is x, y and z. That gives you the opportunity to employ one of these techniques. Now I’ve never been an expert witness, because I’m not an expert on anything, but. Those tools I believe could be helpful.

The microphone is back there. Thank you.

Female Audience: Thank you so much. This has been so helpful and enjoyable this morning. Would you please show the last screen, so we can get down the name of the book you have written and the information?

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. I think they actually, you might even have an opportunity, it’s on the sheet too, everything I said is on the back of that sheet, but I am happy to have this behind me while I talk.

Other questions? Yes please?

Female Audience: Yes, I work with groups that represent many different cultural backgrounds. So are there any caveats or is this a universal strategy?

Matt Abrahams: So in terms of, from your perspective as the speaker, I believe this applies. But when you, whenever you communicate, part of the listening aspect is also thinking about as who is my audience and what are their expectations? So what are the cultural expectations of the audience that I’m presenting to? So there might be certain norms and rules that are expected. So when I travel and do talks I have to take into account where I’m doing the presentations. So I help present in the Ignite program. If you have not heard about the Ignite program here at the GSB it’s fantastic. And I just did a presentation standing in one of these awesome classrooms that have all these cameras and I just taught 35 people in Santiago Chile. And I needed to understand the cultural expectations of that area. And what they expect and what they’re willing to do, when I ask them to participate. So, it, it’s part of that listening step where you reflect on what are the expectations of the audience.

I think we have time for two more questions and then I’m going to hang around afterwards if anybody has individual questions. But, some of these folks really want me to keep on schedule.

Male Audience: I wanted to ask you a question. One of the things that you’ve done effectively in your talking. And I’ve seen other effective speakers do, is interject humor in their talk. How, what are the risks and rewards of trying to do that?

Matt Abrahams: Well first, thank you, and I appreciate all of you laughing. Those are, that’s the sum total of all my jokes, you’ve heard them, I’m not funny beyond those jokes. So humor is wonderfully connecting. It’s wonderfully connecting, it’s a great tool for connection, it is very, very risky. Cultural reasons get in the way, sometimes what you think is funny isn’t funny to other people.

What research tells us is that if you’re going to try to be funny, self-deprecating humor is your best bet, okay? Because it is the least risky, there is nothing worse than putting out a joke and having no response. It actually sets you back farther than if you would have gotten, where you would have gotten if the joke would have hit.

So basic fundamentals you need to think about with humor. One, is it funny, how do I know, I ask other people first. Second, what happens if it doesn’t work? Have a backup plan, right? And then third, if you’re worried about the answers to those first two, don’t do it, right?

One last question please. The microphone is right here. And then like I said, I will hang around afterwards. Yes, please.

Female Audience: I I’m sort of on the opposite side of this, since I’m a journalist. And I frequently have to ask spontaneous questions of people who have been through media training. So any tips for chinks in the armor, way to ask a question without being antagonistic, but get a facsimile of a straight answer.

Matt Abrahams: Well, so let me give you two answers. One is I have young boys, and the power of the why is great. Just ask why a couple times, and you can get through that first two layers of training. You know, why do you say that? How do you feel about that? The second bit is what I have found successful in getting people to — I do this to get people to answer in a more authentic way. What I’ll do is I’ll ask them to give advice. So what advice would you give somebody who’s challenged with this? Or what advice would you give to somebody in this situation? And by asking for the advice, it changes the relationship they have to me as the question asker. And I often get much more rich detailed information. So the power of the why, and then put them in a position of providing guidance, and that can really work.

With that, I’m going to thank you very much. I welcome you to ask questions later, and enjoy the rest of your reunion weekend.

Thank you.

You’re deciding your life right now.

00:11When I was in my 20s, I saw my very first psychotherapy client. I was a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at Berkeley. She was a 26-year-old woman named Alex.

00:25Now Alex walked into her first session wearing jeans and a big slouchy top, and she dropped onto the couch in my office and kicked off her flats and told me she was there to talk about guy problems. Now when I heard this, I was so relieved. My classmate got an arsonist for her first client.


00:46And I got a twentysomething who wanted to talk about boys. This I thought I could handle. But I didn’t handle it. With the funny stories that Alex would bring to session, it was easy for me just to nod my headwhile we kicked the can down the road. “Thirty’s the new 20,” Alex would say, and as far as I could tell, she was right. Work happened later, marriage happened later, kids happened later, even death happened later. Twentysomethings like Alex and I had nothing but time.

01:19But before long, my supervisor pushed me to push Alex about her love life. I pushed back. I said, “Sure, she’s dating down, she’s sleeping with a knucklehead, but it’s not like she’s going to marry the guy.” And then my supervisor said, “Not yet, but she might marry the next one. Besides, the best time to work on Alex’s marriage is before she has one.”

01:49That’s what psychologists call an “Aha!” moment. That was the moment I realized, 30 is not the new 20.Yes, people settle down later than they used to, but that didn’t make Alex’s 20s a developmental downtime. That made Alex’s 20s a developmental sweet spot, and we were sitting there, blowing it. That was when I realized that this sort of benign neglect was a real problem, and it had real consequences,not just for Alex and her love life but for the careers and the families and the futures of twentysomethings everywhere.

02:26There are 50 million twentysomethings in the United States right now. We’re talking about 15 percent of the population, or 100 percent if you consider that no one’s getting through adulthood without going through their 20s first.


02:42Raise your hand if you’re in your 20s. I really want to see some twentysomethings here. Oh, yay! You are all awesome. If you work with twentysomethings, you love a twentysomething, you’re losing sleep over twentysomethings, I want to see — Okay. Awesome, twentysomethings really matter.

03:00So, I specialize in twentysomethings because I believe that every single one of those 50 million twentysomethings deserves to know what psychologists, sociologists, neurologists and fertility specialists already know: that claiming your 20s is one of the simplest, yet most transformative, things you can do for work, for love, for your happiness, maybe even for the world.

03:27This is not my opinion. These are the facts. We know that 80 percent of life’s most defining moments take place by age 35. That means that eight out of 10 of the decisions and experiences and “Aha!” momentsthat make your life what it is will have happened by your mid-30s. People who are over 40, don’t panic.This crowd is going to be fine, I think. We know that the first 10 years of a career has an exponential impact on how much money you’re going to earn. We know that more than half of Americans are married or are living with or dating their future partner by 30. We know that the brain caps off its second and last growth spurt in your 20s as it rewires itself for adulthood, which means that whatever it is you want to change about yourself, now is the time to change it. We know that personality changes more during your 20s than at any other time in life, and we know that female fertility peaks at age 28, and things get tricky after age 35. So your 20s are the time to educate yourself about your body and your options.

04:43So when we think about child development, we all know that the first five years are a critical period for language and attachment in the brain. It’s a time when your ordinary, day-to-day life has an inordinate impact on who you will become. But what we hear less about is that there’s such a thing as adult development, and our 20s are that critical period of adult development.

05:10But this isn’t what twentysomethings are hearing. Newspapers talk about the changing timetable of adulthood. Researchers call the 20s an extended adolescence. Journalists coin silly nicknames for twentysomethings like “twixters” and “kidults.”

05:27(Laughing) It’s true!

05:29As a culture, we have trivialized what is actually the defining decade of adulthood.

05:38Leonard Bernstein said that to achieve great things, you need a plan and not quite enough time.

05:45(Laughing) Isn’t that true?

05:47So what do you think happens when you pat a twentysomething on the head and you say, “You have 10 extra years to start your life”? Nothing happens. You have robbed that person of his urgency and ambition, and absolutely nothing happens.

06:03And then every day, smart, interesting twentysomethings like you or like your sons and daughters come into my office and say things like this: “I know my boyfriend’s no good for me, but this relationship doesn’t count. I’m just killing time.” Or they say, “Everybody says as long as I get started on a career by the time I’m 30, I’ll be fine.”

06:28But then it starts to sound like this: “My 20s are almost over, and I have nothing to show for myself. I had a better résumé the day after I graduated from college.” And then it starts to sound like this: “Dating in my 20s was like musical chairs. Everybody was running around and having fun, but then sometime around 30 it was like the music turned off and everybody started sitting down. I didn’t want to be the only one left standing up, so sometimes I think I married my husband because he was the closest chair to me at 30.”

07:02Where are the twentysomethings here? Do not do that.


07:08Okay, now that sounds a little flip, but make no mistake, the stakes are very high. When a lot has been pushed to your 30s, there is enormous thirtysomething pressure to jump-start a career, pick a city, partner up, and have two or three kids in a much shorter period of time. Many of these things are incompatible, and as research is just starting to show, simply harder and more stressful to do all at once in our 30s.

07:37The post-millennial midlife crisis isn’t buying a red sports car. It’s realizing you can’t have that career you now want. It’s realizing you can’t have that child you now want, or you can’t give your child a sibling. Too many thirtysomethings and fortysomethings look at themselves, and at me, sitting across the room, and say about their 20s, “What was I doing? What was I thinking?” I want to change what twentysomethings are doing and thinking.

08:12Here’s a story about how that can go. It’s a story about a woman named Emma. At 25, Emma came to my office because she was, in her words, having an identity crisis. She said she thought she might like to work in art or entertainment, but she hadn’t decided yet, so she’d spent the last few years waiting tables instead. Because it was cheaper, she lived with a boyfriend who displayed his temper more than his ambition. And as hard as her 20s were, her early life had been even harder. She often cried in our sessions, but then would collect herself by saying, “You can’t pick your family, but you can pick your friends.”

08:56Well one day, Emma comes in and she hangs her head in her lap, and she sobbed for most of the hour.She’d just bought a new address book, and she’d spent the morning filling in her many contacts, but then she’d been left staring at that empty blank that comes after the words “In case of emergency, please call …” She was nearly hysterical when she looked at me and said, “Who’s going to be there for me if I get in a car wreck? Who’s going to take care of me if I have cancer?”

09:28Now in that moment, it took everything I had not to say, “I will.” But what Emma needed wasn’t some therapist who really, really cared. Emma needed a better life, and I knew this was her chance. I had learned too much since I first worked with Alex to just sit there while Emma’s defining decade went parading by.

09:52So over the next weeks and months, I told Emma three things that every twentysomething, male or female, deserves to hear.

10:02First, I told Emma to forget about having an identity crisis and get some identity capital. By “get identity capital,” I mean do something that adds value to who you are. Do something that’s an investment in who you might want to be next. I didn’t know the future of Emma’s career, and no one knows the future of work, but I do know this: Identity capital begets identity capital. So now is the time for that cross-country job, that internship, that startup you want to try. I’m not discounting twentysomething exploration here,but I am discounting exploration that’s not supposed to count, which, by the way, is not exploration.That’s procrastination. I told Emma to explore work and make it count.

10:57Second, I told Emma that the urban tribe is overrated. Best friends are great for giving rides to the airport,but twentysomethings who huddle together with like-minded peers limit who they know, what they know, how they think, how they speak, and where they work. That new piece of capital, that new person to datealmost always comes from outside the inner circle. New things come from what are called our weak ties,our friends of friends of friends. So yes, half of twentysomethings are un- or under-employed. But half aren’t, and weak ties are how you get yourself into that group. Half of new jobs are never posted, so reaching out to your neighbor’s boss is how you get that unposted job. It’s not cheating. It’s the science of how information spreads.

11:52Last but not least, Emma believed that you can’t pick your family, but you can pick your friends. Now this was true for her growing up, but as a twentysomething, soon Emma would pick her family when she partnered with someone and created a family of her own. I told Emma the time to start picking your family is now.

12:13Now you may be thinking that 30 is actually a better time to settle down than 20, or even 25, and I agree with you. But grabbing whoever you’re living with or sleeping with when everyone on Facebook starts walking down the aisle is not progress. The best time to work on your marriage is before you have one,and that means being as intentional with love as you are with work. Picking your family is about consciously choosing who and what you want rather than just making it work or killing time with whoever happens to be choosing you.

12:52So what happened to Emma? Well, we went through that address book, and she found an old roommate’s cousin who worked at an art museum in another state. That weak tie helped her get a job there. That job offer gave her the reason to leave that live-in boyfriend. Now, five years later, she’s a special events planner for museums. She’s married to a man she mindfully chose. She loves her new career, she loves her new family, and she sent me a card that said, “Now the emergency contact blanksdon’t seem big enough.”

13:28Now Emma’s story made that sound easy, but that’s what I love about working with twentysomethings.They are so easy to help. Twentysomethings are like airplanes just leaving LAX, bound for somewhere west. Right after takeoff, a slight change in course is the difference between landing in Alaska or Fiji.Likewise, at 21 or 25 or even 29, one good conversation, one good break, one good TED Talk, can have an enormous effect across years and even generations to come.

14:06So here’s an idea worth spreading to every twentysomething you know. It’s as simple as what I learned to say to Alex. It’s what I now have the privilege of saying to twentysomethings like Emma every single day: Thirty is not the new 20, so claim your adulthood, get some identity capital, use your weak ties, pick your family. Don’t be defined by what you didn’t know or didn’t do. You’re deciding your life right now.

14:38Thank you.


One must learn to love

“One must learn to love.— This is what happens to us in music: first one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life; then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearance and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity:—finally there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we wait for it, when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing: and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it.

But that is what happens to us not only in music: that is how we have learned to love all things that we now love. In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fairmindedness, and gentleness with what is strange; gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty:—that is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way: for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche