Neil Pasricha's new book shows how wrestling with failure can make you 'awesome'

Neil Pasricha. Courtesy, Leia Vita Calgary

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For an author who has made a career out of writing about awesomeness, positivity, happiness and the need to embrace the simple pleasures in life, Neil Pasricha’s starting point for his latest book may seem a little, well, negative.

The bestselling author is on the line with Postmedia from a park near Toronto where he is conducting interviews for his latest book, You Are Awesome: How to Navigate Change, Wrestle with Failure and Live an Intentional Life. He starts the conversation by listing some positives in his own life. He is still married to his wife, Leslie. They now have three boys, ages 5, 3 and 1. His writing and speaking career continues to flourish.

But it wasn’t these rays of sunshine that prompted Pasricha’s latest book.

“Truthfully, things are going well,” he says. “However, as always, when I feel something buzzing inside me that I feel like is a problem, I spend two years writing about it.”

What could possibly be bugging a guy the Toronto Star once called “the Pied Piper of Happiness?” Well, it boiled down to this nagging idea that had been rumbling around his head for the past few years. By most measures he is extremely successful, so why did he so often feel “kind of weak”?

If Pasricha received only a few likes on an Instagram post, for instance, he would feel like a “loser.” If he received a terse or unflattering email from an acquaintance, he would immediately feel the need to break off his relationship with said person. He would stress out if his author ranking fell a few pegs on Amazon.

So he began thinking about his childhood in the 1980s. His parents loved him. He received participation ribbons whether he won or not. Gold stars were plentiful. He and his friends were never sent off to fight a war. Sounds positive, right? Well, there were perhaps some lingering effects.

“As a result, as an adult, as a 40-year-old man, I am intellectually fragile,” says Pasricha, who will be at the Central Library on Dec. 4 for a Wordfest event. “The researchers call it cognitive entrenchment. You get so deep into the one thing you do that now if I get tossed or tussled or muddied around a little bit, I can’t handle it. I recognized that this issue I have, which I would label low resilience, it turns out everyone has it.”

While this is clearly not good news, it does fit nicely into a pattern Pasricha has developed in the past decade as a writer willing to turn his own periods of darkness and introspection into feel-good, life-affirming lessons for the world at large.

You Are Awesome follows the similarly themed 2018 audio book, How to Get Back Up: A Memoir of Failure & Resilience. It was a highly autobiographical outing that chronicled the author’s early years and how he overcame his pre-stardom journey to “rock bottom.” It followed 2016’s The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything, a research-filled book about finding a simple formula for happiness that began as a letter to his first unborn child.

But Pasricha’s success story begins with his wildly popular, New York Times bestselling curio The Book of Awesome, which began life as a blog, spawned two sequels and catapulted the author to fame with its gentle urgings for readers to enthusiastically embrace the modest joys of life, such as connecting with your fluffy pillow at night or finding money in your coat pocket. The books were actually medicine for the author, a way for him to get over his divorce and the suicide of a friend. At the height of his success — from 2010 to 2012 — Pasricha should have been on top of the world but was actually overworked, stressed and deeply unhappy.

Still, it turns out the domestic stability he would later find didn’t clear up all his anxiety. So he began doing some research, uncovering data that suggests anxiety levels have risen 30 per cent in the past five years. Mental illness in general is also on the increase, including depression. Suicides are up. According to former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, “loneliness is the next epidemic,” Pasricha says. This seems ironic given we’ve never been more “connected” as a society. On one of his book tours, Pasricha was approached by a fifty-something man desperate for some advice regarding his high-achieving son. It seems the young man, who was captain of his high school football team and graduated with honours for Duke, was reduced to tears whenever his new boss sent him a rude email.

So Pasricha offers a number of snippets of advice in the book. Some are fairly specific, such as exercises to help the reader accelerate his or her ability to “learn and adapt” or a two-minute morning practice that will help eliminate worry throughout the day. Some may seem a bit off-the-wall, including his recommendation that we should have more one-night stands because each one is a growing experience. He also suggests that we all unplug and have a recharging “untouchable day” at least once a week where we are completely unreachable and separated from the “hundreds of emails and texts and dings and pings a day.”

In fact, Pasricha seems to hold a fairly dim view of cellphones and smartphones and our exposure to 24-hour digital connectivity in general, particularly in how it seems to convince a younger generation that “they suck at everything” by constantly barraging them with images of prettier, skinnier, better-dressed people who all own better stuff than they do.

Still, You Are Awesome is not one of those glib, anti-Millennial screeds that simply instructs youth to toughen up and quit being snowflakes. Sensitivity, he says, is a good thing.

“I love Millennials,” he says with a laugh. “What I understand about them is that they are so deeply sensitive because they were shown a view of the world that maybe a generation before (people weren’t.) I don’t want to (take) that out of them. I just want to show how they can still be deeply sensitive and be emotionally strong at the same time.”

Neil Pasricha will be at the Central Library’s Patricia A. Whelan Performance Hall on Dec. 4 at 7 p.m.

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