Richard Semler on Asking Whys, An Empty Bucket List, and Being Present

In Episode #299 of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, Tim had a very interesting conversation with Ricardo Semler. During this 2-hour long podcast, Ricardo shared his stories, his business philosophy and his wisdom of life.

I spent 4 hours listening to it twice yesterday because there were so many good points to think about in this podcast. Here are some interesting points I’d like to share:

Asking 3 “Whys”

When he makes decisions, he asks “whys” 3 times to understand whether doing something is truly essential or not. When you ask 3 “whys” on things you want to do, you usually get down to the bottom of your reasons. For example, if I ask myself, why do I want to build a great business with great products? Because I want to bring value and have a positive impact on other people’s life. Why do I want to have a positive impact on other people’s life? Because I want to contribute to something bigger than myself and make the world a better place. And why do I want that? Because I can’t stand being useless and not contribute to moving humankind forward during my lifetime. By asking 3 “whys”, you get to see that the essential things you want to do eventually come down to your core beliefs and principles. It’s about being who you are.

It all comes down to philosophy

When he was teaching MIT MBA school, the recommended readings he gave his students are all philosophy books instead of business approach books. He used to read one of Franz Kafka’s work Before the Law to his students.

You are of 100% importance to your own life

He mentioned “you are of 100% importance to your own life” multiple times during the interview. No matter who or what you think you care so much about, you are the most important thing to yourself. If a speck of dust falls into your eye and you’re tearing like crazy, you can’t care about anything else other than getting the dust out of your eye at that moment. If you die, nothing else is left for you to care about. You see that “you are of 100% importance to your life” is not a selfish belief but a simple truth.

Fun facts

He burnt all of the books, awards, interview videos that relate to his past achievements when he turned 50 for two reasons: first is that he doesn’t need them for his ego anymore; second he doesn’t want his kids to think of their father as a “bigger than life” figure and have to live under this burden.

He has an empty bucket list. Instead, he has built certain processes that he loves to repeat doing again and again. He sets aside every Monday and Thursday for nothing else rather than what he really wants to do on that day.

He has been writing a book in his head for the past 2 years but he is hesitant to actually write that down because he doesn’t want to get caught up in his own promise to make this book successful.

On time and being present

He mentioned when people are comparing opportunities, they often measure them and think about which opportunity is the best to go after but forget that they have another option, which is not to pursue any of them but getting free time instead.

He thinks the meaning of life is to enjoy the passage of time. It’s so simple yet so hard to do. No matter what you have achieved in the past and what you are looking forward to in the future, you only live in the present. The only true success you can achieve is enjoying the moment. That moment will eventually become the past and a building block of your history, but a “good time in the past” is the kind of success that can never be taken away from you, not like fame or money. If he can put up a message to millions of people around the world via billboards, he will write down “Now” on there.

On social constraints and wisdom

His favorite documentary is Up Series. The documentary followed the lives of fourteen British children since 1964, when they were seven years old, for a span of 49 years until they were 56. His take away from the documentary:”In general, your chance of changing walks of life, changing class, changing the path from what context which you started with is a very very rare situation.” Thus, “the wonderful life is not in rising all the time until you’re at the top. There is nothing interesting at the top. It just seems absolutely wonderful when you’re looking from the bottom.”

If he can teach grade 9 kids in an economically disadvantaged area in the US, he wants to inspire them with the accumulated wisdom of humankind. “What I try to do most with them was to get them to realize the magic of the accumulated wisdom of humankind and that poking at this magic of what we’ve been able to do and think all this time, all the rest will take care of themselves.” He used teaching grade 6 kids about Einstein’s theory of relativity as an example. “This kind of stuff is to me what unlocks the whole possibility for people to think, boy, I can be anything do anything, etc. Because they’re looking at the magical response of what life looks like, what we’ve learned all along to this date and that is the key they can eventually use to free themselves.”

You can go to Tim Ferriss website to listen to this podcast and find relevant notes. Ricard also hosts his own podcast channel LeadWise about “challenging assumptions and changing the way we live and work”, which I am planning to check out soon.

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