Happiness interview with Chris Yeh.
Chris has been building Internet businesses since 1995 (which, if I recall correctly, was about the time that I actually used the Internet for the first time). He’s the VP Marketing for PBWorks, the world’s leading provider of hosted collaboration solutions, and he played a role in starting many other Internet companies. He has two interesting blogs: Adventures in Capitalism and Ask the Harvard MBA. Because I so often remind myself to Enjoy the fun of failure, I was particularly interested in his recent post, Little bets and the power of quitting.
I was very curious to hear Chris’s perspective on happiness.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Chris: There are so many simple things that make me happy that it’s hard for me to choose! Exercising, going shopping with my wife, having the kids ask me for hugs…all of those things apply for me. So let me pick one random thing that your readers might also enjoy. I love TVTropes.org. It’s a giant wiki of all the recurring motifs you’ll find in movies, TV, literature, and so on. Things like Dramatic Gun Cock or Crowning Moment of Awesome. For someone like me who loves to read, it’s like narrative crack in its purest form. I could spend hours reading about all the tropes that turn up in Star Trek for example. [I LOVE TVTropes! I've linked to it before. Dangerously fun.]
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Happiness is much less about accomplishments and much more about relationships. I was one of those child prodigies who was hell-bent on achieving more than anyone else. When I was in high school, the local paper interviewed me, and I actually said the following: “When someone does better than me in a class, I take it as a personal insult, which drives me even harder to be the best.” Scary, I know. But now I realize that I’m happiest when I’m with someone I enjoy spending time with, and I structure my life to maximize those kinds of interactions.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I’ve worked hard on this, but I still find myself comparing my professional successes to others. Have you ever noticed that the first thing you check when you see a LinkedIn profile is what year the person graduated from college? If they graduated after me, but have achieved more “success,” I still feel a slight twinge. Must be that “personal insult” thing again. But I’ve worked hard to overcome these feelings. Edward Deci has a great book, Why We Do What We Do. In it, he shows that people who focus on extrinsic motivations like being “successful” in the eyes of others are less happy than those who focus on intrinsic motivations like personal growth and loving relationships—even when they achieve those successes they crave. This was a huge revelation for me, and prompted me to rethink my life and even write a blog post about The Meaning of Life.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Everyone who knows me knows that one of my favorite expressions is “Let’s see what happens.” I don’t believe in borrowing trouble or worrying about things that I can’t control. It can drive me wife up the wall at times, because she is a born worrier—must be that Catholic guilt! I also want to call attention to a great book that most people don’t know about. Po Bronson is a famous author, but I think his best book is one of the least well known: Why Do I Love These People? It’s all about families and their relationships, and it is phenomenal.
If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
The more reliable happiness boost is to call someone I always enjoy speaking with. I have a couple of friends who are beacons of positivity and happiness, and talking with them can’t help but lift my mood. If they’re not available, I usually go for a run—there’s nothing like working up a good sweat to clear the mind.
Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
The biggest thing that I see that detracts from people’s happiness is the tendency to compare themselves with others. But the subtlest thing that most people miss that detracts from their happiness is the tendency to “check the boxes” and half-ass things. As Yoda said, “Do or do not, there is no try.” When you half-ass something just to say you did it, you’re putting yourself in a subservient mentality—“I have to do this because someone told me to.” Decide what you want to or need to do, and then do it with all your power.
Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
You mean besides graduating from the 7th grade? Looking back, what’s interesting to me is that the few times in my life when I’ve felt less happy (I won’t say unhappy, because that’s incredibly rare and transitory) were right after graduating college, and right after finishing business school. I used to think that was because I missed the learning process, but I now realize that it was because in both cases, I suddenly left a community where I was surrounded by people I enjoyed spending time with to move across the country. In essence, I was lonely, and that loneliness was compounded by the withdrawal symptoms of leaving the welcoming confines of school and my friends. In both cases, I became happier after meeting new friends and spending more time with other people.
Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Absolutely. It’s like people who ask me, “Why are you so concerned about your diet? You’re in great shape.” The answer is, “Because that’s why I’m in great shape.” I’m happy because I work at being happy, though having a high natural level of happiness certainly helps. At first, I focused on figuring out what would make me happy. Now that I have a pretty good idea about that, I focus on making sure I do enough of the things that make me happy. [Yes, exactly! This is so important!] That means going out and setting up times to meet with people, calling friends randomly for no reason, and otherwise making sure that I give my personal relationships the attention they need to make me happy.
Ironically enough, a fair number of friends call me up when they are unhappy or dealing with problems in their lives so that I can lend a sympathetic ear. They often apologize afterward, saying things like, “I’m sorry to burden you,” or “You must be tired of hearing about my issues.” What I tell them is simple: Sometimes, the greatest gift you can give someone is to give them a chance to be the gift-giver. I enjoy helping others, and I don’t think I’m unusual in that.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
The very first time I started a company, it was during the dot-com boom. As boom turned to bust, it became apparent that the business wasn’t going to make it, and that I’d have to lay people off and find an honorable exit for the company. I was filled with anxiety. Like many young people, I had been on a constant upward trajectory professionally, and I’d never dealt with any kind of failure. What would people think? Would I be damaged goods? And laying people off was difficult and painful. And of course everyone would prefer to IPO and make billions. But I found that once I had made those tough decisions, I felt much more at peace. I had accepted reality, and no longer had to strain myself trying to deny it.
Rather than trying to hide my failures, I embraced them. At the first event I attended afterward, a peer group of young entrepreneurs, I told people, “I’ve lost $6 million of my investors’ money. Let me share what I learned.” When I introduced myself to people, and they asked me, “What do you do?” I would reply, “I am an unemployed bum.” And that willingness to accept reality and acknowledge helped me recover both my happiness and my career far more quickly than anyone might expect.
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