The Secret of Happiness and Living a Good Life

"Make tea. Empty dishwasher. Hang laundry."

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Thrive Global: What's the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
Tim O’Reilly: I start with some yoga, unless I'm going to yoga class, which I try to do three times a week. (I run about three miles three other days, and usually take Sunday off, and go for an afternoon hike.) I start with two minutes of plank and a minute of downward dog right after I roll out of bed. I began doing this to strengthen my shoulders, since I have a mostly torn rotator cuff in my right shoulder, but then I found it had lots of other benefits as well. Then I do a variety of yoga stretches, usually 10-15 minutes. Then I go down and do morning chores. The Zen masters say "Chop wood. Carry water." My version is "Make tea. Empty dishwasher. Hang laundry." These rituals not only support my family, they provide a kind of meditative start to the day. When I began my day by checking my email, my center was lost.

TG: What gives you energy?
TO: I get totally jazzed when I have a great conversation with someone who is working to solve a big problem, and we can think it through together.

TG: What's your secret life hack?
TO: In his book When Nietszche Wept, Irving Yalom wrote "First will what is necessary. Then love what you will." There's a profound insight there that I've tried to live by (long before I read the quote.) Life asks many things of us that we don't want to do. Some of them are distractions, but some of them are necessary. Learning to love the things that are necessary - taking care of the small chores that make a happy household, for instance - is the secret of happiness.

TG: Name a book that changed your life.
TO: There are books that I live by - Witter Bynner's incomparable translation of the Tao Te Ching, The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu, and Wallace Stevens' The Palm at the End of the Mind - both of which come to mind almost every day. But a book that changed the course of my life was a book called Night Train to Lisbon, by Pascal Mercier. There was a line in there - "Given that we can live only a small part of what there is in us, what happens to the rest?" - that lodged in my consciousness and triggered a kind of mid-life crisis that led me to make major changes in my personal life.

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
TO: My phone does sleep by my bed, but just as a clock. I am slowly emerging (I hope) from a period of phone overuse, where I got in the habit of responding to every alert. I've turned most of them off, and now try to check in a more measured way, and to avoid looking at it first thing. At the same time, I do love the ability to keep up with my daughters, grandchildren, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and friends via Instagram. It's the one social network that I keep only for friends and family, and as a result, I love it. Twitter and Facebook have become news feeds, full of reshares of published content. You can train Facebook to only show personal updates from friends by never liking or re-sharing news articles, but I wish it worked more like Alexa, where I could just say, "OK Facebook, show me personal friend updates," and at another time, "OK Facebook, show me what my friends are sharing about the day's news."

TG: How do you deal with email?
TO: Email is still my main work communications console. Like everyone else, these days we use slack at O'Reilly, but email is the one universal. It connects me with everyone. No other network does that. So I'm in and out of it all day.

I try to respond immediately, if I can. Otherwise, it vanishes down the stream and I forget about it. If I can't respond and it's important, I will usually copy my assistant Rosa, who has a brilliant way of sending me a digest whenever my list of "catchup items" gets too long. As long as she's in the loop, I can trust the things that I didn't get to will come back to me.

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
TO: That would imply that I do unexpectedly find 15 minutes :-) My days usually end up pretty full. And while I do have days that are heavily scheduled, where a 15 minute gap might suddenly appear, a lot of my days are self-directed, a constant stream in which I go from one completed item on my to-do list to the next. I've been doing a lot of writing, and also a lot of reading. And the reading gets backed up. But my ideal day is when I can work at home, and flow easily between computer work, phone calls, and outdoor chores. If I have to do a phone call, I'd much rather do it while weeding or pruning in the garden than while sitting at a desk!

But perhaps you're asking what moments of freedom do I treasure? If I'm driving, and I don't have any scheduled phone calls, I often do catch the day's news, but I'm much, much happier when I dive into an audiobook. Right now, I'm listening to John Steinbeck's East of Eden, and sometimes, when I get to my destination, I don't want to get out of the car. My all-time favorite audiobook, though, is the Virginia Leishman reading of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve was another one I couldn't wait to get back to.

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
TO: About seven years ago, I went through a kind of "twitter sickness" that was part of that major life change I referred to earlier. I felt a kind of pressure to keep feeding good content to my social media followers. And it was making me crazy. That was really just a symptom, though. I needed to change my life. I just didn't know it yet.

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?
TO: I'm usually pretty good about rolling with failure. You pick yourself up and go at it again. Being comfortable with failing and not taking it too seriously is an important life skill. So it takes a lot to make me really feel that I've failed. I just update myself with whatever I've learned, and them I'm good to go again. The most intense time I had a strong experience of failure was in 2001. With the dotcom bust, a lot of my customers were suddenly out of work and my business shrank by about 40% in a year. We had to lay off about 25% of our workforce or go out of business. I was with my management team, poring over the dossiers of people we were discussing letting go, and I looked down to find that my binder was covered in hair. My hair was literally falling out from the stress. (I tend to run my hands through it at the best of times - my daughters and their best friend gave me a vanity license plate for my truck that reads TMPA UMA - which is short for the Quechua words for "hair standing on end.") The idea that I had to let people go, people who depended on me, was devastating. I wrote a long piece about this experience and what I learned from it called How I Failed. It's got a lot of lessons for entrepreneurs.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
TO: One of my favorite passages from Witter Bynner's translation of Lao Tzu is this one:

A sound man's heart is not shut within itself

But is open to other people's hearts:

I find good people good,

And I find bad people good

If l am good enough;

I trust men of their word,

And I trust liars

If I am true enough;

I feel the heartbeats of others

Above my own

If I am enough of a father,

Enough of a son.

I read it to my father as he lay recovering from the heart attack that eventually killed him. We had been estranged, because I had left the Catholic Church, and he couldn't understand that. I had written him a few weeks before, telling him that even though I had left the church, I had absorbed so much of him, his belief, his moral values, his desire to be good, and to do good. I didn’t want him to think he had failed. He had received my letter shortly before his heart attack, and as he lay dying, intubated and unable to talk, he wrote on a slate that he wanted to reply to my letter.

His short, so poignant reply, written on a slate and soon erased, but burnt forever in my memory: “God forgive me, a sinner.” His apology for the long years we had not spent together: “I only wanted you to be with us in paradise.” The desire for togetherness in a world to come had become a wedge between us.

That's when I read him those lines from Lao Tzu. I think of them often, not only for that moment, but because they are a guide to living a good life.


Tim O'Reilly is the author of WTF?: What's the Future and Why It's Up to Us.

Thrive Questionnaire

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