What Matters to Neil Pasricha

The New York Times-bestselling author on the childhood experience that made him want to be a writer, riding the waves of his emotions, and the unbeatable peace of a good walk.

What Matters to Neil Pasricha

Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.


Neil Pasricha thinks, writes, and speaks about intentional living. He is the New York Times-bestselling author of Our Book of Awesome.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Walking.

Walking takes me out of my mind and helps me remember— and feel part of— a much larger whole. This whole doesn’t really care about me— and I find that stress-relieving. This whole doesn’t blink at my presence— and I find that liberating. When I walk, I see butterflies landing on stones, pink-marker sunrises over high rises, strangers laughing on corners, kinglets singing in trees. These things are like fuel to me and I like knowing it’s always available just outside anywhere I ever am.

On a practical note: I move video meetings to phone calls so I can do them walking. I call my parents and my sister when I’m walking. I wear a backpack when I’m walking with my laptop, a blanket, binoculars, and— always— extra socks.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

My local elementary school got so full that a slew of yellow aluminum portables were installed in the soccer field before I started sixth grade. My class was put in one of of the portables. I still remember the feeling of walking up a little brown wooden staircase and entering a room that smelled like pencil shavings and was forever freezing cold or scorching hot.

Our teacher was Mr. Jim Olson, a high-energy optimist who called our classroom the ‘riverview cottage.’ One day he let me and my friend Scott paint an alligator on the classroom blinds. Emboldened, we asked him if we could start a school newspaper. He gave us time and space to come in at lunch, allowed complete editorial freedom (i.e., we mostly just drew cartoons), and he happily made copies for everyone in our class.

I can still feel that creative bolt inside me. It was electric. I got addicted to how free, how released, how myself I could be somehow. Maybe it’s what led me to editing my high school paper… and then college paper… and the 10,000 or whatever hours of grounding that led to the pile I’ve written today.

What is your biggest regret?

I can be cruel. I can be cutting. I am ashamed to remember many times in my life where I have acted this way. And I wish I could say they were all long ago. I know, or I feel I know, that it’s a fear-based traumatic response of being alone. Or feeling like I need to fight— to snap my way to survival. Many reasons, I’m sure. I screamed non-stop for the first six weeks of my life till doctors figured out I had a painful hernia. I was tiny and brown in a school that was large and white. But, you know, it’s my work. I’ve done a lot on it, but it’s a battle I still fight.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

I haven’t.

They’re all still in me.

I don’t know if I call it heartbreak, though. Heart tears? Heart twists? I feel love many times for people who didn’t love me— or who didn’t love me the way I love them. Romantic, platonic, embryonic, whatever. I think for me, the muscle is still leaning into love. Still falling in love— as big and wide and deep as I possibly can— so the energy potential of what that love creates is always there.

I am very lucky that the person I love most in the world agreed to spend her life with me. My first marriage didn’t turn out so well. This one has really taught me what live is and can be.

What makes you cry?

I can’t predict it. I feel like I’m usually surprised. I’m working to let tears out more. Sharing it with my sons so they don’t feel they have to hold them in like I did.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

To me, this question has a twang buried inside it, saying something like: “Not very long, right? Should be longer, right?” And I kind of, you know, I think I kind of reject that. I don’t think many of us have capacity to spend a long time feeling pride, for example. That’s not an emotion that hangs around. It’s fleeting. It jumps away. That’s why people frame and post their degrees in their office. It’s like, “Come on, pride! Come back, pride!” But, you know, no. I don’t “accomplish things” for… pride. I don’t even know if I accomplish things. To me, it’s more like I “do things” for… growth. That’s how I think of it. I don’t accomplish for pride. I do for growth. I go for intrinsic over extrinsic. I do to learn. I take what comes on the way. That’s the north star, anyway.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

Yes, no. We share energy. Pass it around. We get it from the universe, the sun, the fruits of trees, the bodies of animals, the words of books, the smiles of strangers, the laughs of friends. Energy from thousands— millions!— of other places is certainly in right now. We’re not together right now. Yet our energy is mixing, right? So I think what I’m saying is: There’s no reason to think our own energy won’t be in others after we’re gone. Someone reads this— they get an energy. And that’s one of a thousand ways I mean. I mean chemically. I mean biologically. I mean in the garden you planted in the house you built that someone’s eating a tomato from right now. Is that an afterlife? Not literally. Not this mind, these thoughts, these memories. But at a higher level? Absolutely. The energy between everything that comes before us and everything that comes after us passes through us so very briefly. I believe in an afterlife like I believe in a beforelife and like I believe in this life— as a supremely vast sea of energy we’re seemingly lucky enough to have a little blip of awe and awareness of right in the middle of. That belief systems kind of underpins and girds Our Book of Awesome, for sure. It’s how I feel this all works.