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‘The Universe doesn’t give a f**k about you’

A review of Derren Brown: How to be happier - in conversation with the How to Academy (25th November, 2020)

I’ve been to a few How to Academy events in London over the last year or so, but this was my first virtual one, and I wasn’t sure how it would work and whether it would be worth the money (after all, I can watch Derren Brown interviews on YouTube whenever I like, for free).

Obviously, I miss the buzz and connection of live events, but I actually really liked this Zoom version. For a start, I didn’t have to go out on a cold, dark November evening and sit on a train for an hour each way. I didn’t have to queue for the bar and the toilets. And at the end of it all I could just go and kiss my kids goodnight.

The live conversation was around the central question of how to define happiness, and how we can be happier in our lives (Derren’s latest books are called ‘Happy’ and ‘A little happier’.)

Derren has taken a lot of inspiration and reassurance from the Stoics (ancient Greek & Roman philosophers), who in turn drew from Eastern religions like Buddhism, believing that ‘the path to happiness is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself. By not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or by the fear of pain, by using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.’ (thank you, Wikipedia).

He talked about the modern self help genre, that tends to treat the self as a noun; as something fixed that we can understand or ‘put right’ with a few clever techniques. When in reality the self seems to change, along with our capacities and abilities, according to the situations we find ourselves in. He used one of his TV shows as an example – ‘The Push’ – where normal people felt compelled to push another human being off the top of a high building. Apparently people often say to him ‘I’d never do that’, when of course we have absolutely no idea how we’d react under that specific set of circumstances.

One of the most interesting sections for me personally was when Derren talked about goal setting. To him, short term goals are incredibly beneficial, but long term goals are really problematic. This is because our grasp of what will make us happy is often very wrong (the whole climbing the ladder only to find it’s up against the wrong building thing). He also uses the analogy of life being like music, or a good book – you don’t focus on, or skip to the ending, you enjoy the whole piece. In life, there is never a magical point in time where everything comes together exactly as you imagined. And when we do reach our goals, we’re often left feeling empty and purposeless. Of course, he’s right if you don’t adapt and evolve your long term goals, but I believe they’re necessary to work back from, in order to create your short term goals, and then review regularly to make sure your ladder’s pushed up against the right place.

He went on to talk about how the classic ‘self help’ approach is grounded in optimism: essentially that the more positivity we put out, the more we will receive. (Fans of The Secret, look away now). Derren thinks this is desperately flawed. The universe of course doesn’t give a fuck about any of us. Which I find oddly soothing, although my grandmother’s advice of ‘you get out of life what you put in’ rings in my ears and is still solid advice. Your success or perceived failure is essentially down to your expectations vs the reality, and I’ve written an article before about how liberating it is to simply lower your expectations and prioritise the stuff that actually matters…

We moved from here to storytelling – and the fact that we all banish certain things from our personal stories: embarrassing and painful things, and these are the very things we should honour, and remember, because they mould us into who we are. We have infinite data coming at us all the time and we choose how we join all those dots together to create our own stories. But they are just stories, and we can rewrite them however and whenever we like, we don’t have to let them dominate our lives.

Which takes us back to the stoics – i.e. that we should only put energy and emotion into things we can control. Everything else we should attempt to be indifferent to (obviously easier said than done). The only things we can truly control are our own thoughts and actions, and Derren shared a great resource here. Look up actor Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), on YouTube. He talks about a pivotal moment in his life when he realised that when he went to auditions he had no control over whether he got the job or not. The only thing he could control was his own performance - the rest is up to loads of factors that he isn’t even aware of, let alone has any control over. So when he started to focus his energy and emotional investment in what he was doing, and attempted to be indifferent to everything else, he was both much happier and less anxious, but also way more successful, rather than trying to second guess everyone else’s motivations.

There was loads more I could share from the evening, but I’m aware this is already too long, so I’ll leave it at that. I love talking about this stuff, so I’m always happy to chat about it.

I’ll finish with one final insight from the conversation. There are two (seemingly conflicting) behaviours we can all adopt to get us through this current crisis:

1. Concentrate on whatever you need to do to move forward, and only that.

2. Enjoy the shared connection that you now have with everyone else on the planet. This has been a unique time in all our lives and we’ve all been on this strange and ugly adventure together.

A huge part of my job is helping people discover what makes them unique, but sometimes it’s comforting to focus on the things that we all share.

I help consultants and freelancers to develop an authentic and unique personal brand so they stand out for all the right reasons. Find out more at

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