Learn more, know less

NEIL STRAUSS is an eight-time New York Times bestselling author. His books, The Game and Rules of the Game, for which he went undercover in a secret society of pickup artists, made him an international celebrity and an accidental hero to men around the world. In his follow-up book, The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, Strauss dives deep into the worlds of sex addiction, nonmonogamy, infidelity, and intimacy, and explores the hidden forces that cause people to choose each other, stay together, and break up. He most recently co-authored with Kevin Hart the instant #1 New York Times bestseller I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
The book that’s most influenced me is James Joyce’s Ulysses. I read it in senior year of high school, and it awakened me to the power and possibilities of language. It’s hypertext before hypertext existed. I reread it every three years, and each time it’s a different book.

The book I’ve given most as a gift is Under Saturn’s Shadow by James Hollis, a Jungian analyst. I’ve underlined ideas on every single page. The thrust of the book, in his words: “Men’s lives are as much governed by role expectations as are the lives of women. And the corollary is that those roles do not support, confirm, or resonate to the needs of men’s souls.”

The audiobook I’ve given away most is Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Though “nonviolent communication” is poorly named (it’s the equivalent of calling cuddling “nonmurderous touching”), the central idea is that, unbeknownst to us, there’s a lot of violence in the way we communicate with others—and with ourselves. That violence comes in the form of blaming, judging, criticizing, insulting, demanding, comparing, labeling, diagnosing, and punishing.

So when we speak in certain ways, not only do we not get heard, but we end up alienating others and ourselves. NVC has a magical way of instantly defusing potential conflicts with anyone, from a partner to a server to a friend to someone at work. One of its many great premises is that no two people’s needs are ever in conflict. It’s only the strategies for getting those needs met that are in conflict.

Disambiguation: The version you want is a 5-hour, 9-minute lecture. You can recognize it by the cover, which is a close-up of a hand flashing a peace sign. It starts slow, but then gets revolutionary. Do not get any versions of the printed book, which has the same title.

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
Tile Mate key finder on Amazon. It’s given me hours of my life back that were previously spent dashing around the house, looking for my keys. Works great with pets, too!

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
The best thing that ever happened to me was not getting accepted into journalism school. Because of that, I eventually ended up as a reporter and columnist at The New York Times. It allowed me to learn through experience rather than academics, and to take a route following my passion instead of how it’s “supposed to be done.”

Because of that, I realized that the outcome is not the outcome. In other words, what we think of as endpoints to a goal are really just forks in a road that is endlessly forking. In the big picture of our lives, we really don’t know whether a particular success or failure is actually helping or hurting us. So the metric I now use to judge my efforts and goals is: Did I do my best, given who I was and what I knew at that particular time? And what can I learn from the outcome to make my best better next time?

Note that criticism is not failure. If you’re not being criticized, you’re probably not doing anything exceptional.

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say?
“Learn more, know less.”

What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
The best investment was the time I put in as an unpaid intern at The Village Voice in NYC. I must have spent a year just opening mail and doing people’s expense reports, but I was so excited to be there. I probably interned there for years. They couldn’t get rid of me. I loved writing, but I wasn’t very good at it when I started. But by being around the writers and editors I admired, and spending all my free time reading back issues in the archives, I learned to be a writer, a critic, and a reporter.

In another question, I mentioned that the best failure was not getting into journalism school. This was my journalism school.

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
Without a doubt, finding a healthy community here in Malibu to work out with. Before, I’d go to the gym to achieve a certain weight or muscle goal, and I never stuck with it. Now I show up to see my friends, and we always exercise outdoors: at the beach, in a pool, on a lawn. We almost always end with a sauna/ice session. It’s the highlight of the day. I have no outcome I want from it, and I’ve never been in better shape in my life. It helped me realize that the secret to change and growth is not willpower, but positive community.

In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to?

We are in an arms race against distractions. Our devices and technology have gotten to know us so well that we now need devices and technology to protect us from them. Especially our time. So what’s helped me say no to distractions is the app Freedom on my computer, which I’ve set to block the Internet 22 hours a day, and a Kitchen Safe [now called kSafe], which is a timed safe I can drop my cell phone into.

What’s helped with saying no to others is asking myself first if I’m saying yes out of guilt or fear. If so, then it’s a polite no.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

Overwhelmed and unfocused seem like two different problems. I’m thinking that overwhelm is about mentally managing what’s coming from outside yourself, while unfocused is about mentally managing what’s going on inside.

Overall, what would work for both is to think of my mind as a computer, and the RAM is full. So best to shut it off for a little. For me, this means stepping away from work for anything from a cold shower to a surf to meditation to a breathing exercise outside to talking with someone I immensely enjoy.

Anything healthy that gets you out of your mind and into your body is ultimately good for your mind.

What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

Kracie Fuwarinka (Beauty Rose) Candy, Calbee Honey Butter Chips, Rick and Morty, doing Richie’s Plank Experience on the HTC VIVE with an actual elevated plank on the floor, Crack Butter from healthybutter.org, escape rooms, Tim Tam slams, picklebacks, skittykitts, saying age-inappropriate words like “lit,” pretending like I know what someone’s talking about when I really don’t, ending sentences with prepositions, and playing a game my wife and I made up where we play our music on shuffle and then take turns making up movie scenes that each song could be the soundtrack to. Kinda hard to explain. Best if you’re in the car with us.

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