The One Quote That Will Change Your Life (Right Now)

by Alexander Heyne · 33 comments

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Yesterday I heard a quote that changed my life.

It’s one those things that makes you really re-consider what you do day-to-day. It makes you re-evaluate every core assumption you’ve ever had about life. And it’s totally a Milk the Pigeon worthy quote.

Here’s how it goes:

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

– Socrates

Think about it.

Beware. Barrenness. Busy life.

At first it caught me off guard.

Isn’t doing more stuff in life better? I mean, if you only live once (YOLO!!), wouldn’t you want to cram as much stuff into it as possible?

That’s when the revelation hit me.

Ambitious People Die Unfulfilled?

There was a well-known story a while back about Joshua Bell, a world-class violinist playing a multi-million dollar violin in a Washington subway.

It was a social experiment to see how many people would stop by and listen.

… And the results were exactly what you might expect. Very few people stopped, and when they did, it was mostly children dragging their parents.

At the end of the experiment, he made about $150… even though he regularly sold out concert tickets at Carnegie hall for $100 a SEAT.

“Yeah yeah yeah, stop and smell the roses. My mom has been telling me for ten years.”

That’s not what this is about, and not what I’m trying to say.

Doing MORE in Life Is Not How You Die Happy


Most of us (myself included) have this idea that the direct way to “die fulfilled” in life is to just do more shit.

Bungee jump.

Sky dive.

Travel to 50 countries.

Start a business.

Learn to speak French.

Live Abroad.

… And I’ve personally fallen into that trap. I’ve done all of the above. But honestly, none of those things do jack shit to make you happy today.

In other words, ACHIEVEMENT (doing more stuff) is not how you live a content, enjoyable life.

Doing LESS stuff – and focusing only on the most important stuff – is how you live a happy life and die content.

Focusing on the right stuff (regardless of whether or not it leads to achievement) is how you die fulfilled. You know all those books about how people in remote villages are the happiest? They’re the happiest because they focus on family, on quality personal time, on enjoying fresh summer breezes – and not becoming the next American Idol (unless that’s what they really love).

Busy = An Early Grave

Back to the quote.

Here’s why It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I have been the WORST when it comes to “being busy” in life.

I’m always busy. Always doing shit. I watch less than one hour of TV a week, and most weeks go without watching TV at all. I don’t play any video games. I don’t waste a lot of time. I’ve achieved a lot for my age.

But a lot of days I still feel unhappy even though I’ve achieved so much. I find myself burning out. Trying to cram MORE into my life.

I speak French and Chinese, I’ve traveled to maybe 50 or 60 countries, lived on 3 continents, written two books, am building a business that I love.

But still something is wrong. Those things aren’t making me happy. The only things that make me happy are the things that I’ve created that are meaningful to me.

Maybe I can save you from this type of suffering.

Let me tell you what I find on the happiest days on my life. I’ve often talked about the power of doing a flow test if you’re unhappy every day.

Guess what I’ve found are my consistently most happy days?

The days when I do nothing in particular.

I don’t mean nothing – I consider watching TV worse than doing nothing.  I just mean going with whatever intuitively attracts me at that moment.

Literally, my highest days during my flow test were either A. periods of high productivity working on something I loved, or B. the afternoons drinking an espresso out front of a coffee shop on a warm spring day, watching people float by, and not thinking about life, not doing any work, and not doing anything at all really.

This is HUGE.

The real way to die happy is to do the stuff that you find fulfilling – which doesn’t always mean adding more and becoming more busy.

A busy life can be incredibly un-fulfilling. Sometimes we fill our time because we feel obligated to. Sometimes we do it because being “bored” scares us. Sometimes we do it because we’re bound by an idea about how “ambitious people ought to be” (that’s me).

It’s all bullshit.

Do you understand?

Thank god I’m learning this lesson at 26.

I could have just as easily done what we’re “supposed to do” to be happy and successful. YOLO right? Carpe diem. Seize the day. DO a bunch of shit. Cross things off your bucket list.

… But I learned first hand that often my most enjoyable days were achieving nothing. Going nowhere. Adding nothing. Crossing nothing off my bucket list. Just sitting there with an espresso by myself or talking to someone.

I couldn’t share how much it “added” to my life, because there was nothing to check off or brag about, but it was real and it was there. And I was happy.

Bucket lists are bullshit.

Bucket lists are yet another way we try to make ourselves busy and feel like we’re really living life. We’re not. We’re going through random experiences that make us happy for the time being, let us brag about our cool achievements in life, and make people outwardly think we’re seizing life.

They are yet another meaningless distraction. Worthwhile? Sure. But I don’t think it fulfills many of your deep human needs for meaning and purpose. Not even close.

The bucket list life just seems attractive when you’re in a cubicle – life is about yin and yang – when you’re stuck, you want the exact opposite – freedom.

But you die fulfilled by doing the stuff that truly interests you at that moment – whether or not it “adds” anything physical to your life, or helps you “get anywhere.”

Busy-ness Can be A Disease

For those among you that are like me – terminally wired ambitious – and you know it’s killing you, stop feeling guilty about doing jack shit.

Note: I don’t consider TV doing jack shit. TV is “tuning out” while sitting in a park is “tuning in.”  One helps time pass quicker. One helps slow down time because you’re fully there.

Go sit somewhere with an espresso and just read. Or just people watch without judging them. Do something REALLY simple that makes you appreciate life… big time. Notice how much more relaxed and happy you are afterwards. You didn’t add anything to your life. Nothing tangible. Nothing you crossed off that big bucket list. But still it left a lasting impression, right?

Sometimes carpe diem means sitting and watching the sun set for two hours. Sometimes it means working on a project you love. Sometimes it means being with someone you love.

Just don’t forget to leave time for all these things.

Sometimes it’s the very act of doing less, or doing nothing, that leaves you feeling the most content at the end of the day, and at the end of your life.

Find out what that is for you.

– Alex

Thoughts on this? Tell me below.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Mayuri December 20, 2013 at 4:32 pm

I CANNOT TELL YOU HOW THIS SPOKE TO ME.!!!!literally, as an wrist, work is sometimes manic busy or dead quiet. Nature of the biz. Yet if I’m not insanely busy working my ass off coming home exhausted,I feel soooo frikkin guilty! Like wtf is up with that? How dare I have a holiday when I’ve been on holiday since November?I battle it constantly. Yest I watched an oprah master class that changed me inside. This has done the same. Perfect end to 2013. Thank you thank you thank you!

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Alexander Heyne December 21, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Hi Mayuri,

haha “how dare I have a day off!?” Hopefully this helps you keep it all in perspective!

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Cameron Close December 20, 2013 at 5:10 pm

You are definitely on to something here Alex. When I retired early after selling my business. I read, I pursued topics that interested me in my youth, I worked on long neglected projects that I really enjoyed. Then people started asking me what I was doing in retirement. I’d tell them but I sensed they thought it was less than satisfactory, in their mind I was rotting away.

In reality I was really having fun learning and tackling projects with time to put the tools away after I was done, even that felt good, I never cleaned up after myself until days later – too busy. In my friend’s eyes this futzing around was not good. Part of my post retirement effort was to loose some weight. Between explaining what I was doing and why I was loosing weight I got all sorts of advise – “you’ve got to keep busy – volunteer” . “Are you sick you’ve lost a lot of weight.”

Well I took their advise I volunteered and tied up about 4 days a week on community projects that were fun at first but boring as time went on. I started eating more to see if I could gain back weight – maybe I was sick.

Well now, after 3 years, I can report that I see no future in volunteering unless you do it with much introspection, otherwise it is as bad as working at a meaningless job! I have gained back 20 of the 30 pounds I lost – I’m not sick.

Conclusion: “futz” around as much as you want if it keeps you happy and don’t conform to what others think is best for you – or your public image.

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Alexander Heyne December 21, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Cameron,

That’s awesome, thanks for sharing.

““futz” around as much as you want if it keeps you happy and don’t conform to what others think is best for you – or your public image.” I am definitely with you there.

Some people are truly content playing in the park with their dog every day. Some people volunteer. Some write. Some start a business.

In my opinion, what you opened with was the truth:

“I read, I pursued topics that interested me in my youth, I worked on long neglected projects that I really enjoyed.” I am with you there 100%.

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Jerad December 21, 2013 at 2:02 am

Inspirational as usual.

I’ve fallen into this trap and am only slowly crawling my way out of it. It’s really, really difficult, which sounds counter-intuitive since ‘productivity’ is usually the aspiration of most people. Some of us, however, take it too literally, perhaps?

I often catch myself on both sides of the paradox: when I’m relaxing I feel guilty for not being productive, and when I’m productive I feel guilty for not being with the people I love and truly enjoying my time with them. Slowly, I’m learning to catch these emotions as they arrive, nullify them, and simply enjoy the moment, whatever it may present.

Thanks for the post!

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Alexander Heyne December 21, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Hey Jerad,

Bingo: “I often catch myself on both sides of the paradox: when I’m relaxing I feel guilty for not being productive, and when I’m productive I feel guilty for not being with the people I love and truly enjoying my time with them. ”

Took the words right out of my mouth. I’m the same way.

I’ve created this exercise recently that sometimes helps keep it all in perspective – e.g. I have a product I said I would finish tonight (I set a deadline), but a friend I haven’t seen in 5 years is in town and wants dinner (which I know will take the whole night).

If I was productivity focused, I’d work on my business. But that would be a horrible life fulfillment decision. I may not see that friend ever again. The sad truth is that sometimes I’ve gone with the productivity decision – but I don’t want to let it win over me anymore.

That simple exercise – what would I regret more in 20 years – usually keeps it in perspective.

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Simon Pollard December 21, 2013 at 7:33 am

Awesome post. Thank you.

Every day at work all I hear is “do”, “deliver”, “achieve”. EVERY DAY! At 38 it’s beginning to really grind me down. Another 30 years of THIS? I can’t imagine it.

We have created a society where all that matters is whether you deliver or not. You have helped people realise there’s more to life than doing.

After all, we’re human BEINGS, not human DOINGS.

Thanks for sharing :)

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Alexander Heyne December 21, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Totally with you there Simon :)

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Tammy December 24, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Thanks for sharing, Simon. Yes, some companies do put a lot of pressure on their workers even if it means doing overtime to achieve the desired results.

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Shanna Mann December 23, 2013 at 11:17 am

Alexander, we could be twins! I haven’t had a bucket list for years– I’ve crossed enough stuff off that I know it’s only the novelty, or maybe pushing through some kind of fear, that makes them “life-affirming.” I, too, am at my best when I do nothing in particular.

I’d like to hear you write more on that “terminal ambitiousness.” I like lofty goals, too, but I don’t like them to press on me too hard. I spend a lot of time and energy making sure they don’t get to the point where they can push me around too much. There’s a constant tension between the desire to make big dreams real, and knowing that the commitment to that task, will, for a while, make me less happy than I otherwise would be. The game is to balance the fulfillment from the completion of lofty goals, against the simple contentment of being able to do as you please.

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Alexander Heyne December 24, 2013 at 10:26 am

Hey Shanna,

Yeah this is not easy for me. I’m not quite sure why I am the way I am – maybe it’s that I’m the oldest child, or it’s some genetic trait.

Honestly in school I wasn’t like this. I never got above a 3.5 gpa, I was never a match for the smart kids or the ones that studied really hard to get into top colleges. So I think it mostly happened after college when the very real fear of dying a mediocre, miserable life became overwhelming.

I think right now I’m still terminally ambitious. I’m building this new business and putting in a lot of hours – 3-4 after a full day of work, and then the gym or judo. So I’m not really enjoying too much down time, which is probably what inspired this article.

“There’s a constant tension between the desire to make big dreams real, and knowing that the commitment to that task, will, for a while, make me less happy than I otherwise would be. “

This is a big one for me too, and honestly, I haven’t quite figured it out yet.

It may just be one of those periods of life (the next 2-3 years) where It’s going to have to be extreme (and a bit exhausting) to get where I want to be. Hopefully not, but that may just be the intuition. I don’t think there’s such a thing as “no consequences” to working 10-12 hours a day for a couple years.

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Shanna Mann December 24, 2013 at 10:52 am

“It may just be one of those periods of life (the next 2-3 years) where It’s going to have to be extreme (and a bit exhausting) to get where I want to be. Hopefully not, but that may just be the intuition. I don’t think there’s such a thing as “no consequences” to working 10-12 hours a day for a couple years.”

I went through one of those periods too. I strenuously disagree with people who praise it as a way of life, all those “badassery” types. But that period taught me a lot about how far I can push myself (very far) and if it’s worth it to do so.

So I think it’s good, at least once, because it proves to you that your physical limits are a lot further out than you think they are. But the damage you do to yourself also underlines the idea that the very smartest thing to do is to figure out a way to achieve the same things, but sustainably. And that’s where I’m at. I know I could be pushing harder, but I also know it isn’t worth it to me to pay the price, physically and happiness-wise. I’ll push a little bit in order to “make hay while the sun shines,” but ultimately, I can’t think of anything I want badly enough to exhaust myself over.

There are situations where I would– like if my husband were sick and I needed to pay his health bills, or if we were flat broke for some other reason. But even then, I have to keep some sense of self-preservation in mind.

It’s interesting, but once you’ve broken through the mental barriers of what you’re capable of, as a practical matter, boundaries don’t exist– you’re just trying to keep the engines running at the most efficient RPMs. You’re not intentionally going too high or too low, just to see if you can and what will happen. But, I don’t think there’s any way to break through those mental barriers without doing that 2-3 years of testing to destruction. It’s like boot camp you know? Except that in boot camp you have drill sergeants to keep you from accidentally killing yourself. So that’s something you have to be careful of.

Sophia December 24, 2013 at 3:22 am

Hola Alex,

Merry Xams!

Thanks for writing awesome stuff on your blog.
I am currently visiting family in China and wish to travel throughout of Asia before I return to Cali next March. I thought about you a lot (not in a creepy way) because you mentioned that you have lived in China for year.
I am enjoying all sorts of delicious food and don’t have to sit in front of computer from 9-5 but I actually miss having a job. Seeing people going to work everyday, I feel empty and sad. I really wish to return to the US and start on my career.

I used to dream about quitting my job and just go somewhere, now that I am here, I am still NOT HAPPY… I agree with everything you said in your article, bucket lists are silly!

Thanks for sharing.

-Sophia

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Alexander Heyne December 24, 2013 at 10:20 am

Hey Sophia,

You’re welcome! & Merry Xmas.

Haha, yeah, be careful of thinking you’ll be happy “just over there, once that happens.” It’s easy to go your entire life living that way and realize you’re near the end and never let yourself be happy now.

IMHO people aren’t the happiest quitting their jobs and not working… they’re the happiest when they work on something they feel is important. Like the artist who paints through the night because he or she is inspired. Those hours are gold.

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Sarika December 26, 2013 at 1:19 am

You are too young to realize the flow of life, Alexander :)
Cud instantly connect with the thoughts…just bck from a holiday at farmstay where we (family of 4) did nothing but watch the Nature up close………my kids who are so young could connect instantly with milking cows, fishing, bread making & just running up & down the slopes….it took half a day for me to understand that i do not have any tasks to achieve & then settled down to nature watching……..it’s been 2 days that i am bck from the holidays but yearning to go back……..

Liked reading your thoughts in this article…keep writing…it helps people like me to put things in perspective……….hoping to follow my heart in the New Year coz the mind keeps asking for more & more…..

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Alexander Heyne December 26, 2013 at 1:37 pm

You’re very welcome Sarika, I hope you enjoyed your vacation :)

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Holly January 2, 2014 at 6:21 pm

I appreciate your straight to the point honesty. This was a good reminder to not overwork, nor feel guilty about the moments spent sitting down in front of the TV with my husband or drinking a cup of coffee by the window instead of writing. Thanks for sharing this quote and your thoughts!

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Alexander Heyne January 2, 2014 at 7:41 pm

No problem Holly :) Gotta enjoy life at the end of the day.

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Tamil January 2, 2014 at 11:30 pm

Shit I made the mistake of reading the comments after the post. The comments posted by you guys are very much out of focus. You try to make yourself feel better by saying “Yes! This is exactly what I was thinking. I am not wrong” (Eventhough you didnt pursue and act on it) When I read your comments I get so much pushed out of track and the essence of the post on my mind is lost. Sorry. Now i have to read the post again and remember not to scroll past the words ALEX.

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josh January 4, 2014 at 5:29 pm

ran across a post from your site this am sitting on the sofa surfing and listening to music as i often do early in the am on cold saturdays. ive been one of those long term travelers (not really a traveler, but lived in korea for 7 years in my late 20s, early thirties after stints in Hollywood and lots of odd jobs other places–idaho, both coasts, etc). came back in 2002, worked in sales (hated) for a few years, made some money in the housing boom, took off to LA and then Argentina, came back to the states, fell in love with girl who had a lot of problems but i loved her anyway–we moved around to nashville, taos NM, beverly hills to try and get away from the consequences of her problems–which didnt work of course but what you gonna do. Now im heading back into “reality” here in charleston sc (the home you speak of). Just left a job at a company owned by a family member here. I guess the reason im writing is just to let you know that i think it is really great that someone in their 20s has the very simple but true insights that you seem to have gained regarding life–and as usual you had to do a lot of the stuff you advise against doing, in order to get there. im glad you did and i will continue to check out your site as it is a good reminder for a lot of us who have come to many of the same conclusions not to forget and slip back into a way of thinking and acting and organizing our lives that is dictated by society or family and friends or even just plain old necessity at times, rather than by us. So easy to do that as the norm or path of least resistance often seems so much easier. Heres hoping that you and your readers find work that you love that makes you tired, a person you love that loves you and a cause you believe in and can work toward that is bigger than yourself. Best Alexander. Josh

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Alexander Heyne January 6, 2014 at 2:38 pm

Josh, thanks for sharing your story. So what’s the toughest part for you now?

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Alan January 14, 2014 at 10:33 pm

I have traveled, seen the world. Would like to see more, however the spark is not there anymore. If, I see something amazing then I will be in awe if not, it is ok. I’m 35 and all my travels were outside the USA were in my early 20’s.

-I am hardly ambitious however being productive has its simple rewards-

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Alexander Heyne January 22, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Hi Alan,

The spark for what is not there anymore? The spark to see the world?

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Alan January 24, 2014 at 9:30 pm

The spark to see the world. The great urge to see the world is not there.

ekta March 2, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Hi,
I was just wondering about how I have lived my life and have, in fact, achieved very less… (though my parents think otherwise). I happen to stumble upon your blogs and have brushed through them and was just wondering… why the hell do we need someone else to tell us the meaning in our lives or how to find it or why we hav not yet found it…its weird when we look for someone who we don’t know and haven’t met, to tell us what life means! I think it satisfies people or makes them think about it…
But yeah, I liked some things you wrote and would love to read them sometimes. I am from India and I have a dream to travel the world… maybe someday it will come true!

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Guill May 21, 2014 at 12:10 am

Thumbs up.
Definitely true. Even more when you’re busy doing things that make no sense towards where you want to be.

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Alexander Heyne May 21, 2014 at 10:26 am

Totally guill!

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Wombat June 16, 2014 at 5:16 pm

I was reading your blogposts and wondering if you’d be only talking about achievements, decision-making, path-clearing… and I just fell on this. My hat off to you :)
I’ve only started to understand what you explain here, at twenty-four. After years and years pursuing academic excellence in my country, and failing, and then throwing all of it away to travel, and at last allow myself some slack. Then I understood travelling – if I wasn’t keen to do it for its own sake – wasn’t the answer either, and came back home.
I’m glad I travelled, because it fully set me free from mindless overachievement and helped me to get to the roots of what I truly wanted to do of my life. And I’m glad I came back home, because it made me very aware of how much people indeed confuse being busy and have a life that matters, external achievements and being fulfilled. And it gives me first the motivation to avoid falling back into that trap, at all costs ; secondly the chance to rekindle friendships that had been tested by the distance. And indeed, as you say, two irreplaceable ingredients of a fulfilled life, beyond passion and drive, are time off for yourself doing nothing in particular, and time off with friends or family, in my mind. Kudos to you for reminding it to us, alongside the importance of pursuing your passion. Hope you’re going towards more fulfillment in your life day after day :)

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Alexander Heyne June 20, 2014 at 1:41 pm

You’re welcome Wombat! :-)

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