Welcome to Remarkable People. We’re on a mission to make you remarkable. Joining me in this episode is Mike Norton, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

Mike’s research focuses on behavioral economics, happiness, and the fascinating topic of rituals. He’s the author of two acclaimed books – “The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual” and “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.”

In our conversation, Mike shares groundbreaking insights into the hidden power of everyday rituals. We explore how rituals can enhance our emotional experiences, boost our productivity and happiness, and even strengthen our most important relationships. From the IKEA effect to the role of rituals in savoring life’s moments, Mike offers practical strategies for incorporating more meaning and joy into our daily lives.

Whether it’s a morning routine, a family tradition, or a personal celebration, rituals have an extraordinary ability to shape our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Mike’s work challenges us to move beyond mere habits and harness the remarkable potential of rituals to live more intentionally and remarkably.

Tune in to this thought-provoking discussion and discover how you can unlock the hidden magic of rituals to transform your life. As Mike reminds us, the small, everyday actions we take can have a profound impact on our happiness, relationships, and overall well-being.

Please enjoy this remarkable episode, Mike Norton: Unlocking Happiness and Meaning Through Rituals.

If you enjoyed this episode of the Remarkable People podcast, please leave a rating, write a review, and subscribe. Thank you!

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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Mike Norton: Unlocking Happiness and Meaning Through Rituals.

Guy Kawasaki:
I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. We're on a mission to make you remarkable. I guess I say that for every episode, so maybe that's a ritual of mine. You'll see what I mean soon. Helping me in this episode is Mike Norton. He is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.
Prior to Harvard Business School, he worked as a post-doctorate fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT Media Lab. Mike's research focused on behavioral economics and well-being. He has a particular emphasis on happiness and spending, income inequality, the IKEA effect and rituals.
He's the author of two books. First, The Ritual Effect: From Habit to Ritual, Harness the Surprising Power of Everyday Actions. Second book, Happy Money: the Science of Smarter Spending. He co-authored this book with Elizabeth Dunn. Mike was named one of the fifty people who will change the world by Wired Magazine in 2012.
I'm Guy Kawasaki, relatively ritual-free. This is Remarkable People. And now, here is the remarkable Mike Norton. I took your quiz and I don't know if you look at the people who submit results, but holy cow, I really suck in terms of rituals, man, I don't know if I'm qualified to do this podcast.
Mike Norton:
I think that's better actually. We can talk about where you have them and maybe where we can think about adding some fun ones.
Guy Kawasaki:
I got this email response basically that said, you're a freaking loser. It didn't say that. It said, you have a lot of upside potential to add rituals to your life. I guess relative to most people, I have very few rituals, but I'm basically a very happy guy. What does this mean?
Mike Norton:
Were there domains where you did feel like something resonated where you had experimented with rituals a little bit?
Guy Kawasaki:
Not really. We'll get into this in detail. Well, I'm trying to separate what's a habit from a ritual, from a superstition, because it's a fine line for me. I just wanted to prepare you for the fact that you have a very poor rituals guy interviewing you. I can't say you're being interviewed by a believer.
Mike Norton:
I got to tell you, when I started studying rituals, I was very much in your camp of extremely skeptical about new age stuff, and this ritual is really something that we can use science to discover. I'm still probably low.
If I took my own quiz, I bet I'd be pretty low. But I did find over the years, a couple of domains where I actually realized I was doing, especially with in terms of being a parent and the things we do with our kids. That was, for me, where it really kicked in that it was important in my own life.
Guy Kawasaki:
Yeah, I could see that. We've had Julia Cameron on this podcast three or four times, and every morning you write in longhand two or three pages. You're like, holy cow, I could never do that in a million years. And she has these artist dates and she has all this stuff, but she's the queen of creativity. So who am I to argue?
Mike Norton:
All you need is just very tiny pages and you can fill them very quickly. That'd be my advice.
Guy Kawasaki:
What’s the smallest index card that's made? So first I want to back up because you are more than just a rituals guy, so you're also the IKEA effect guy. So first of all, explain the IKEA effect.
Mike Norton:
We had this observation based on ourselves, but then on other people a few years ago that a lot of people have something in their house or in their apartment that is technically unattractive, but they keep it around. And the question is why? Sometimes it's a gift from somebody, you have to because it was your mother-in-law that gave it to you.
But a lot of the time, it was something that people made themselves like a mug or a watercolor or a coat rack or something that could have been when they were in high school, college, could have been later.
There was something that they put themselves into, they sculpted it, they hammered it, whatever it might be. And the question was why do we keep these things around? You could buy a nicer mug than one that I could try to make myself in a pottery class, but what are we doing? Why do we have them around?
On the one hand, you could say, you should just buy a nicer mug and have a better mug. But on the other hand, these things can have a lot of meaning and value for us. When we put ourselves into something, it means more than just a mug. It means more than just a coat rack or whatever it is. It becomes part of who we are.
And so we did the research really to show that even when we put together really boring products, like we had people put together IKEA storage boxes, which is the most boring possible product, and yet even there when people put them together themselves, they say, "Yeah, but it's my storage box. I made it and I want to keep it." And they'll pay us to keep them because it's become something that's really valuable to them.
And I think my younger self would've said, that's a bias or something, or a mistake or I don't know, something like that. And my older self says, what a great thing that we have that we can pour ourselves into something and then really get a lot of meaning and value out of it simply because we invested some effort.
Guy Kawasaki:
And you don't think it's because people say my time is valuable. I have assembled the IKEA chair, so now that chair is more valuable. That's not the reason why?
Mike Norton:
It's a little bit of it. But for example, sometimes I'll have fancy accomplished executives and I'll ask them to put together Lego sets that are meant for three-year-olds, but you know the big Legos pieces, not the little Lego pieces for the older kids, but the really big ones?
So I'll give these to these fifty-year-old, sixty-year-old people and have them put together a Lego frog or something. It takes them a minute maximum. And they look at me like I'm insane. Why is this business school professor making us build Legos in class? And then I say, "Okay, we're done with that. Can you please take them back apart and turn them in?"
And there's almost an audible gasp from the room and people protectively go around their little frog or their little duck, whatever its they made, and they really are upset that I'm going to take it away and make them back apart.
And there's something in that. These people could buy all the Legos in the world. It's not a cost thing, obviously. It's only after having made it that suddenly you look at it and you say, this frog, there's really something very special about this frog.
And so I think it is partly we invest our time and energy into them and then partly there's just this, it's mine. It's more valuable now because it has part of me in it and I'm amazing and great. Therefore, the things I make are also amazing and great.
You can think of our kids as being an example of that as well, where we put a lot of time and effort into them and we come to think they're really extraordinary.
Guy Kawasaki:
This wasn't the senior management team of Tesla when you gave them the little Legos? But what would go through my mind is, my time is valuable. So if it's already made by somebody else, it's more valuable than if I made it because I'm not wasting my time. But that's the opposite of what you found.
Mike Norton:
Completely. And what's so interesting is that beforehand, we get it right. In other words, beforehand, if I say, "Hey, do you want to take some time putting together this storage box?" Or, "Do you want to pay it an extra dollar so that somebody else puts it together?" People say, "Oh my God, absolutely. Have the other person put it together. I don't have time for this. I'm busy."
It's only having done it that we then say, now I'm in love with my box. But it's funny because we get it, I don't know right or wrong, we're closer to being on target beforehand when we say, yeah, I'm a busy guy. I don't have time to do this. Let's have somebody else do it. That's why we pay for products that are already put together so we don't have to do it.
It's only after the fact that we start to say, wow, my box is just so beautiful and wonderful. And I think it's funny because on the one hand, it's wise to protect your time and have someone else build things. They're probably better at it than you anyway.
On the other hand, if you're surrounded by nothing that you made yourself, you're leaving a little bit of value and happiness on the table because it's nice to be surrounded by the things that we've created.
It's nice to be surrounded by things our kids have created as well. They're not the highest quality watercolor, but they're from our kids, so they're very magical and special a little bit. It's the same with ours. It's not the best watercolor, but it's a little bit more interesting and valuable to me.
Guy Kawasaki:
But honestly, I can understand valuing something, someone you love made more than I can value something I made. But now, is there no such thing as the task rabbit effect where I went through the trouble of finding the task rabbit and had it assembled, so it's worth more to me now.
Mike Norton:
We do see, actually with my colleague at HBS, Ryan Buell does research on what happens when companies make their processes transparent to customers. For example, you can think about KAYAK, where when you do a search for a flight on KAYAKr56 , it'll show you the work it's doing. It'll say, "Now we're looking through American. Now we're looking through United."
And other websites. They don't show you that. They just say, "We're looking." And then they give you the results. And it turns out that when you see the work that a website is doing, you think that it's doing a better job finding the things that are really good for you.
We did some funny experiments with online dating, for example. So if you put in your, I want people this height and this religion and these hobbies or whatever, most websites immediately kick you out hundreds of faces right away without any work. It doesn't look like they did any work. So you think these can't be any good.
And we've done it where we say, now we're looking for people who are in your height range. Now we're looking for people who like volleyball, whatever it is that you care about. And again, you're going to get the same results at the end, but by showing the work that the website is doing, people say, "That's a more thorough search and I trust the results more."
Guy Kawasaki:
Oh my God.
Mike Norton:
And you're exactly right that there is something to seeing work done on our behalf that also is really attractive and really valuable to us as well.
Guy Kawasaki:
So Mike, I think you have come up with the explanation of why we have political party conventions because we're thinking, oh, those libertarians, they're looking at Kennedy, they're looking at Trump, and then they pick this guy. So really they invested a lot of time. So it's a better choice.
Mike Norton:
Completely. I think a lot of employees feel like a lot of meetings at work, the decision's already made. But we should act as though we're doing due diligence and considering it carefully so that people will think we made a good decision.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay, so now based on this, is there a danger that, God forbid, Apple or Canva makes their computers or their design website so easy, so automatic, so generational AI that they actually shoot themselves in the foot and people feel less accomplished by using something that's so easy to use or AI-generated or something?
Mike Norton:
It's so funny because as a general design principle, of course, easier is better. Nobody wants to engage with things that are too hard or too confusing. So the principle is almost always true, but there are these exceptions to it.
In fact, one of the ideas for this research came from locksmiths. We talked to this locksmith who said when he was bad at his job, when he first started out, he wasn't any good at it. So you'd call him up and say, "I'm locked out of my house, can you get me in?"
And he would take an hour, he'd be swearing and sweating and trying to get in the door and I couldn't do it or break the door and everything. And then at the end of that he'd say, "You need to pay me." And people would pay him.
And he said that as he got better and better, and this guy was really good at his job, he said he could almost just walk up to your door and with one tool, poke the lock and the door would open, and then he would ask for the money and people would say, "I'm not going to pay you, you didn't do anything."
And he was saying, "No, I have all this expertise and practice and thought in my past that made it so easy for me." But if all we see is the seamless, we say, "I don't think you did anything at all. I'm not going to pay you."
And so there is this thing with websites and with companies as well where if everything seems so effortless and seamless, it might feel like you're not actually doing any work on my behalf, you're half-assing it and therefore I might value it more if you a little bit pulled back and showed me some of the things that are happening underneath the hood.
Guy Kawasaki:
But showing you what's happening underneath the hood is not the same as making you do something, right? So which is it? If ChatGPT said, okay, now we're searching through five billion syllables to add for the next thing. So what is it that you did something or that you're seeing what's happening?
Mike Norton:
It's a combination, actually. So we can show that seeing work being done for you, people find that very attractive. And with the IKEA effect, we can see that sometimes when I put in my own work, it enhances the value of things as well.
So when we work with companies, we're actually trying to think of the balance between the first design principle of seamless and easy because that's always important to keep in mind, but then what work are we going to show that we're doing and what work are we going to ask from the customer that they'll have to do on their end? What's the right balance?
And of course, we have to test to find the right balance between these different principles so that we get an experience where people say, I own it a bit because I had to do a little bit, that I trust that company a lot because I saw something that they were doing for me, but it wasn't so hard and didn't take so much time that I left the website entirely.
Guy Kawasaki:
I'm the chief evangelist of Canva, and I'm going to mention this to the CEO of Canva that literally, with generational AI in particular, we could make things too easy and therefore less perceived value.
Mike Norton:
For sure. That's what we see in our research. Now, if you show people what you're doing for an hour and a half and they're expecting a one-second transaction, now you've gone too far. So we're always thinking in this context, what is the right amount of time to have people look and see what's happening.
With search, for example, we're accustomed to two ten-thousandths of a second of search. So if we said on Google, now we're looking through this, now we're looking through that, people would be very upset because they're accustomed to that kind of speed.
But with new services actually, there's a little more latitude on how long people think the service should take. And those are places where you can have a little bit of flexibility in saying, let's show them a little bit of what's happening.
By the way, we always say show them really what's happening, not pretend that we're doing some work, but actually genuinely be transparent about what you're doing. Some companies have taken this in a different direction, which is let's pretend that we're showing them the work we're doing.
I don't endorse that. I endorse the, you really are doing work for customers. They're not appreciating it because they don't see it. Sometimes engineers are frustrated because they've done all this cool stuff and customers don't care about it. It's a way to show a little bit of all this work that was done very quickly because we're so impatient and see if you can get a little more value.
Guy Kawasaki:
Do you think you could make the argument that people will find traveling by car less satisfying if it's full service and you just jump in your car and you put in a location and it goes, it's fully autonomous, not that Tesla or anybody, it's close to that, but am I hallucinating? Could travel be less rewarding because you're literally just sitting there doing nothing?
Mike Norton:
It's funny because years ago we did a project with a company that designed honeymoons for couples, which is psychologically a fascinating thing to design because honeymoons are, you find out about an ex you didn't know about, all this stuff happens on honeymoons. That's really great.
And so we were working with them to design the optimal honeymoon and you can think about what's the right length of the honeymoon, how far should you go, all of these decisions that people make for their honeymoon. And one of the things that we said, and by the way after this they said, "We're not working with you anymore."
But one of the things that we said was, why don't we insert some really hard unexpected things in the process, like you miss your flight. We make every single couple miss one of their flights. And the reason is when you ask people later about their honeymoon, they don't remember much of it, but they'll remember the things that went wrong.
They'll say, oh my God, when we got there, this hotel room was so terrible, we had to switch to another hotel. But if they got there and the hotel was fine later they say, I don't remember the hotel at all. If they're going to miss their flight and they have to run through the airport, they remember it as the two of them working together to sprint through the airport to try to get their flight.
So I was saying, let's design them in actually to give people these cool experiences. And again, the company said, "You're fired." But I think in principle, you can think about that. How much do we make people work in the process of making things too easy for them to create not more or less value necessarily, but a different kind of value, a different kind of experience by engaging them in these different ways?
Guy Kawasaki:
Oh man, my head is exploding here. This is contrary to everything I learned from Steve Jobs. Oh my goodness.
Mike Norton:
Let me say for the record, on balance, I'd go with him over me.
Guy Kawasaki:
Oh, so now let's get to the ritual effect. So first of all, give us the gist. What is the ritual effect?
Mike Norton:
I'm a behavioral scientist and a lot of what people like me do is try to help people have better habits. We all want to have better habits. We want to exercise and eat right and all the things that are good habits. And I've done research to try to help people have better habits, including myself.
But at some point, I started to think, is a life of perfect habits, a really amazing life? Imagine starting today for the rest of our life. You and I had perfect habits every single day. We never deviated, we always got up at this time, we always exercised, we always ate this. If people said, "Do you want to go out for drinks?" We'd absolutely not. I have to do this run at this time every single day.
After years of that, you'd be super healthy, I don't know if you'd look back and say, "What a rich and interesting life I had, thanks to my perfect habits." And so that really started to make me think, are we leaving a lot of other things on the table by focusing so much on optimizing our habits and optimizing our steps and optimizing everything else?
And for me, that's where rituals come in because they're, just like habits, are everyday things often. Little rituals are everyday things as well that can enhance our emotional experiences, change how we're feeling, change what we're thinking, and we're going to do the same thing every day.
But rituals, in the middle of them, can actually make things have a bit more emotional resonance and rituals produce a crazy array of emotions in us. So we use rituals for weddings and for funerals. We use them to amp ourselves up and we use them to calm ourselves down.
They're this tool that we have. This is why it got so exciting, at least for me, there's this tool that we have that can generate really different experiences for us, almost like a hack in a sense, to generate these different emotions.
And for me, of course good habits are good. But on top of good habits, I think you want to have rich emotional experiences connecting to other people in meaningful ways. And rituals are one of the ways that humans forever, since we have recorded history, have coped with life and dealt with wanting to have an interesting rich life.
Guy Kawasaki:
Now you say in the book that a habit is focused on the what and a ritual is focused on the how. But what I don't understand is what's the dividing line? And I'll give you an example. Every morning I wake up and I have one cup of coffee. I have one slice of whole wheat toast with peanut butter and half a banana, almost every morning I do that. So now is that a habit or is that a ritual?
Mike Norton:
Let me ask you a question. If I said tomorrow, "Can you switch it up a little bit? Could you do a different kind of toast?" What would you say?
Guy Kawasaki:
I would not like it.
Mike Norton:
Guy Kawasaki:
Because I am convinced myself that in order to have a healthier lifestyle, I need higher fiber. And higher fiber is the whole wheat toast, not white bread.
Mike Norton:
Okay, what about instead of a banana, something else?
Guy Kawasaki:
I don't know what else good with peanut butter. What am I going to put apples on it? I'm going to put kale. What am I going to do?
Mike Norton:
So these are fantastic examples because many people will say, "What difference does it make? I have this thing I do in the morning. For sure, but I don't care. It's very flexible. I can have apples that's fine with me as well." And other people say, "No, I want to do it the way that I do it." So it's not just what I'm doing but how I'm doing it.
The silliest example is literally we ask people, "In the morning, do you brush your teeth first and then shower or do you shower and then brush your teeth?" About half of people do each of the orders. These are the silliest, most mundane things that we do.
But the key question is if we say, "Will you do it differently tomorrow?" If you're somebody who brushes your teeth first and then showers, will you try showering and then brushing your teeth, half of people say, "Sure, no problem. Why would I care?"
And half of people say, "No." And I say, "Why?" And they say, "I'd feel weird. I'd feel off. I wouldn't feel ready for my day." And that's the how, right? So the habits are the what. I got to shower. I got to brush my teeth, check them off the list. I don't care when. I don't care what order.
How starts to be, and again, it's deliberately a silly trivial example. As soon as you start to care about the order in which things are done or you're stuck on bananas, even though in theory, apples might be just as good, but it's my thing. This is how I do it every day. It feels right to me. It feels good to me, that's when things go from a dry unemotional habit to having a little more in them, a little emotion, a little bit of meaning.
Now, I don't mean rituals like people in robes with candles chanting, that's further down the continuum, obviously. But just even in our everyday lives, we have these little practices that we often come up with ourselves that come to have more meaning and more emotional resonance for us. And for me, that's what's exciting because it means we can play with rituals in everyday life and change our emotional experiences.
Guy Kawasaki:
But so you're not seeing that a ritual cannot have rational scientific value? It can, right?
Mike Norton:
For sure. We can see in the research that even just subjectively, when people have their morning routine that they like to do and they have to do it in this order and in this way, they will say, "I feel ready to start the day."
And if they get interrupted, like their kid comes in and disrupts the order of their ritual, they will say, "Now I'm going to feel off all day." And of course, what we can do is measure that on a scale. How ready do you feel for your day?
And we can see that people who enact it the way they feel more ready for their day. So we can actually measure the impact of these things on our emotional state.
Guy Kawasaki:
You're going to get deep into my psyche probably deeper than you want to. But before I go surfing and I surf almost every day, I have gotten into the habit slash ritual of putting Pledge on the bottom of my surfboard because I am convinced that with Pledge there's less friction so I can surf better.
Now, so let's say that it's a ritual and a habit for right now, but now if somehow some physicist or some scientist said, "Guy, we did a study and Pledge on the bottom of a surfboard does not affect the ability to slip through the water or paddle at all."
And if I still insist on doing it, then it's a ritual. But if I can just say, "Okay, you're right, I'm not going to put Pledge anymore,." Then it was a habit. Is that the right way to look at it?
Mike Norton:
I think that is a useful way to think about it. And another way which is related to that is did you try every possible substance in the world in a rigorous fashion to land on Pledge or did Pledge just happen and now you've been sticking with Pledge for a very long time. Was there a process by which you tried?
Guy Kawasaki:
Mike Norton:
So we try things out and they seem to work, and then we say, "I'm going to do this every day for the rest of my life, and I'm never going to try anything else." Maybe if a scientist says, "Hey, you got to try something else." But that's part of it as well. There's nothing wrong with putting Pledge on your surfboard, it's a totally fine thing to do.
But our belief in them, the feeling that they give us is sometimes more than the evidence that we have at hand. I would imagine the smell actually matters to you. I would imagine that when you smell Pledge, even when you're not surfing, now it brings up the idea of surfing and it's probably a very positive experience for you to spray Pledge, which is crazy in and of itself.
Guy Kawasaki:
But somebody's going to send me an email that says the chemicals in Pledge are destroying the coral reef. So you're actually doing something very bad, Guy.
So continuing with this incredible Pledge example. So let's say that one day just for kicks, I put Pledge and I have a great surf session. So now I am convinced that Pledge is good luck. So how do I separate ritual, from superstition, from habit?
Mike Norton:
I think superstitions, for me anyway, are one type of ritual. So if you think of rituals, the way we use them throughout our lives, a wedding for example, is a ritual but not really related to a superstition. It's a ceremony that we use to bring families together and bring couples together.
So some rituals are in the service of things very unrelated to luck, in a sense. And then some rituals like superstitious rituals are specifically targeting the feeling that we're going to be lucky or not. Funerals, we're targeting our feeling of grief and trying to feel better.
Weddings we're targeting our feelings of connection. We're trying to feel love sometimes, especially in sports endeavors. The feeling that we're going for with our rituals there is good luck. It's a wonderful feeling to feel lucky. And one of the ways that we do it is with these little superstitious rituals.
We're also sometimes, if you think even with superstition, sometimes we're trying to get good luck and sometimes we're trying to ward off bad luck. So we're very flexible. Even within superstitious rituals, we're using them for different purposes there as well. Sometimes if I do this, we'll win.
And sometimes it's if I don't do this, something terrible is going to happen. Even within there, they're already being used for these multiple purposes, which I always have found so fascinating.
Guy Kawasaki:
But what if a superstition invokes a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that now I have this superstition that I put Pledge on the bottom of my surfboard, and now that I've done the Pledge on the bottom of my surfboard, I truly believe that I can catch every wave. So I try more waves and I try harder. So can't it be a placebo effect? Isn't that a positive thing then?
Mike Norton:
I think so. For me, a very skeptical version of me would say, these are irrational putting Pledge on the bottom of your, what are you talking about? You don't have any evidence that works. Why would you ever do that?
But a version of me that's a human being would say no. In fact, when we engage in these practices, they can in fact change the way we behave. Sometimes for the worst, but also for the better. People, before a big presentation, they say, what I do is I go into a bathroom and check under the stalls to make sure nobody's there. And then I shout at myself in the mirror, “You've got this, you can do this, Mike.”
On the one hand, you could say, "That doesn't make any sense to do it all." But to your point, we don't have a magical way to calm down. If scientists had said, "Hey, if you're feeling anxious, all you need to do is snap one time and all your anxiety will be gone." And then people said, "I go into the bathroom and shout at myself in the mirror." I would say don't shout at yourself in the mirror, snap.
For you to say, "I want to challenge myself today on the water." We don't have perfect ways to get you in that mindset. And so, one of the things that we use are rituals to bring these emotions out of us. And again, skeptically you could say, but they're not real. But they're very real in our felt experience, and they can also prompt us to do things and try things and have different experiences in life.
Guy Kawasaki:
So the bottom line is, it's okay for me to keep putting Pledge on my surfboard?
Mike Norton:
I was going to say try no Pledge tomorrow and see what happens. But either way.
Guy Kawasaki:
But I don't want to jinx myself. Okay, when does a ritual cross into being OCD excessive compulsive behavior?
Mike Norton:
This is such an important question because the book that I wrote is not one that says add more rituals and you'll have a perfect life, but here's the seven key rituals, and if you do them all the time, you're going to be happy because rituals provoke emotion in us.
Sometimes the emotions are positive and great, and sometimes the emotions are not great actually, that they can cut both ways. When we're engaged in rituals. Even with silly, again, showering and brushing your teeth in the morning, people say, "If I do it the way I like it, I feel really good. But if I can't do it the way I like it, I feel worse."
So even there, there's a risk and reward with ritual, right? That yes, they can pay off. But yes, also they can be harmful. And the case that I think is most important to think about is the one that you're raising, which is something like excessive compulsive disorder, where often what we're doing with rituals is we're doing it in the service of something else.
I'm yelling at myself in the bathroom mirror and the service of then leaving the bathroom and going to give a talk or give a presentation or lead a meeting or in the morning doing my morning thing in order to feel good about leaving the house and get started at work.
And what can happen with obsessive compulsive disorder is we lose the link between the ritual and the in order to. So something like, for example, if I leave my house and I double check that it's locked before I leave, I'm doing that in order to feel good that my house is locked for the rest of the day so I can get on with my day.
An obsessive compulsive disorder, what can happen is, the checking of the lock becomes the goal. I lose the idea that I was checking it in order to then go to work, and now I'm checking it in order to check it.
And that's when they can start to be problematic is when the ritual interferes with the very thing that we were trying to accomplish. If I stay in the bathroom shouting at myself for the entire length of the meeting, not good.
So we know in a sense, yes, they're good, but they have to be limited in time and they have to be, again, in the service of something else. When we see that they're starting to interfere, I'm not a clinical psychologist, but that's when a clinical psychologist would say maybe we need to think about pulling back because they're getting in the way of your other goals that matter to you.
Guy Kawasaki:
Mike, I got to tell you, there have been many times that I'm in my car, I'm driving down the driveway and I go back in the house to check if the stove is on, I have absolutely done that.
But I figured out one gimmick that helps me cure that is I take a picture of the stove so that I can look at the stove's picture in the car. I don't have to get out and go look at it.
Mike Norton:
I love this. This is my favorite thing I've ever heard in my life. In one sense, what a bizarre thing to do. On the other hand, what an amazing solution to this problem, which is you're trying to get the checking feeling so that you can go have a great day and you solved it.
Rather than going back and back, you solved it by doing this other thing to get yourself out of the house. Someone might say, taking a picture of your stove is a very unusual thing to do. Maybe it isn't, but for you, it's helping you finish this ritual so that you can get on with your day or so that you can go surfing with your Pledge.
Guy Kawasaki:
I have more pictures of a stove than anybody. Who knew? And Pledge should sponsor this podcast. Oh my God.
Mike Norton:
I thought, by the way, you said you didn't have any rituals, but now we're uncovering, we've got a lemon Pledge ritual. We've got a picture of the stove. It's funny actually, to chat with people because I thought I didn't have any either when I started.
And the more you think about your life and the things that we do, often, not always, but often people will uncover, actually with my family, we actually start dinner like this. Or with my team at work, we always something. And I like that aspect of rituals as well, that often they're already there a little, but we haven't owned them or noticed them.
Guy Kawasaki:
So I think, I'm not certain, did Katy Milkman recommend me to you?
Mike Norton:
I think she did.
Guy Kawasaki:
Is that the connection?
Mike Norton:
Guy Kawasaki:
So the next time Katy Milkman, you say, "Katy, go ahead. Really innovative solution, he takes a picture of his stove. So now that is so much better than going back in the house." Look at Katy, thank you very much for introducing me to Guy. Okay.
Mike Norton:
Katy is so smart and so creative that she will somehow turn that into an amazingly important research project that will blow everybody's mind. She's so talented that she can take anything and get such insight into humans out of it. It's so impressive.
Guy Kawasaki:
She's going to get access to the universe of Google photos and look for pictures of stoves. Are stoves represented more in Google photos than should randomly occur? And then she's going to win a MacArthur Fellowship for this and she's going to forget all about us.
Mike Norton:
Yeah. She will.
Guy Kawasaki:
Has there been any sort of correlation scientific that says people with rituals do better?
Mike Norton:
It depends on the domain of life in a sense. So one of the things that happened with this research was we started studying rituals in a domain. And then we would talk to people and they would say, "Hey, did you ever look at rituals over here?" And we would say no. And then we'd work on that.
So people would say, we were studying grief for grieving rituals, for example. And then someone would say, "Hey, did you ever study rituals in romantic couples?" And we'd say, "No." And then we'd go over there and study that. And then they'd say, "Did you ever study them in teams at work?" And we'd say, "No." And then we'd go over there and study that. And then they would say, "Well, did you ever study them over here?" And we'd say, "Oh no." And then we'd study them over there as well.
Families have a lot of rituals. We use them to savor our experiences, our birthday cakes and saying cheers when we clink glasses, they're all over the place in our lives. And we do see in the research that very often, we're using them to produce some kind of emotion.
With funerals, we're trying to feel a little bit less sad with weddings, again, we're trying to feel happy, all these different emotions. And we do see in the research that often the emotion that we're looking for with them, we can produce it with rituals and not just boring everyday emotions, but really important.
If you think about the emotion of awe, for example, the feeling of awe, very rare that we have that. You could go to the Grand Canyon and you feel a sense of awe looking at the Grand Canyon, I don't have time to drive there every day, so how do I get awe?
If you look at the human experience, rituals are often involved in producing a feeling of awe, sometimes rituals, but other kinds as well. So we're using these rituals to produce an insane range of emotions in ourselves.
And we can use other things to do that also. We could take drugs, we could see a horror movie, we can do whatever we want to produce emotions, but these rituals are one of the things that humans have always turned to and continue to turn to when they're looking to change their emotional state.
Guy Kawasaki:
I feel a sense of awe when I see the picture and all the burners are off on my stove. I just want you to know that. So now let's say people are listening to this and they say, "Okay, Mike, I am sold. Rituals are going to add more to my life. So how do I start?"
Mike Norton:
Yeah. So you mentioned, so the first thing is I think about taking a ritual inventory. So you took the quiz. If you go to michaelnorton.com, it's a very boring, not interesting website. However, there's a thing that says quiz. If you click quiz, you can take this rituals quiz that we developed. That's the only interesting part.
And across domains of life on work and relationships with grief, you just get a quick, very brief quiz. But we just ask you, do you do them in this domain? Do you do them in this domain? And at the end, you got a very insulting email, but you get a feedback email that says, "Hey, you use them a lot with friends and family, but you don't use them as much with work." Or something like that.
So first off, there's the recognition of where they're already playing a role, as we talked about earlier, that you've been doing that you see Lemon Pledge, but you've been doing it and it means something different. Now that's step one.
And then step two is if there's domains where you're not using them, you can think about experimenting, you can think about, maybe I'll try one in this domain. So for me, for example, we use them at holidays, but we weren't using rituals every day in my family.
So we decided we'd do a ritual at the beginning of every dinner, which is everyone says something they're grateful for. That's it. It's very quick. It's only three of us, so it doesn't take that long, but we make sure that we do it every single night. And the reason we're doing that is because that's a value that's really important to us, and we want our daughter to think about that value as well, that we should be grateful for what we have.
And so we're saying as a family, this is something that matters to us and we could do it whenever we wanted, but we wouldn't unless we had it in place as a ritual at the beginning of every dinner. So when you try them out and you repeat them, they're almost like commitment devices to make sure that you keep engaging with this over time.
And it could have been the case that the gratitude thing was stupid and we said after a week, well, let's not do that anymore. And that's okay if a particular thing doesn't work for you. But I love the idea of experimentation with them to see where they might play a role where they're not currently in your life.
Guy Kawasaki:
If I'm a random listener of this and I say I believe, what are you saying to do? Do you have a shopping list of rituals for dummies?
Mike Norton:
What's so interesting, it's a little frustrating, but it's also interesting, is that what we didn't find that stomping six times and clapping twelve times is the ritual that works. We might've found something like that, that there's some pattern of behaviors that work for everybody, but it's just not what we see.
So even if you think about observing a religious service, for example, I was raised Catholic, so that's what I'm most familiar with, everyone in the service is engaged in the exact same movement. You sit and you kneel and you stand and everyone's doing those at the same time.
And for some people there, what they're doing is expressing their deep faith in God, their connecting to their ancestors, very important experience in their lives, and the person sitting next to them is there because their parents made them go. And so they're engaged in the exact same behaviors. It's just that one person has imbued them with meaning and another person has not.
And what that means is that there aren't almost hidden ritual movements. It really is we come up with them ourselves and we imbue them with meaning. There's no 4,000 year old text that says Pledge on a surfboard. You completely came up with that yourself.
That's most commonly what we see, these very idiosyncratic rituals that people come up with completely on their own. They often have never told anybody about them because they know they're a little bit unusual.
They'll tell me, I'm their therapist, but they don't tell anybody else. But we all have them under the surface. And I love this that we have this ability to create these little practices underneath things to try to support us through them.
Guy Kawasaki:
Oh my God, I'm going to lose listeners after this and my Pledge. I took the Pledge pledge.
Mike Norton:
You'll get a sponsor though. You're definitely going to get a new sponsor. So it's a tradeoff.
Guy Kawasaki:
So now I have three or four main areas, and if you could just give us the gist of some rituals to help us in these areas. And the areas are how to savor things with rituals, how to stay on track with rituals, how to increase the quality of our relationships and how to mourn with rituals. Just give us the rituals for dummies things so that they buy your book and get more.
Mike Norton:
Savoring is one of the most fun areas that we looked into because it's so common that we use rituals around food and drink. It's very fun, for example, if I'm giving a talk to an audience that's from all over the world to say, have you ever raised your glass with liquid in it and smashed it against somebody else's glass with liquid in it before you drank it?
And people say, "Yeah, of course we've done that." And I say, "Okay, well, yell out the phrase in your home country that you would say." And every single country, every single culture has a phrase that they say, cheers is common, but salute sláinte and it's about health or luck or connection.
There's these words that we say, and what we're doing is we're taking liquid in a cup which is boring, it's just liquid in a cup, and we use rituals to elevate it into something that connects us with people around us.
Birthday cakes are a wonderful example of just taking a cake and turning it into a milestone that indicates that you are now a different person from yesterday to today because you are older and we all gather together to observe that.
So with saving rituals for sure, we use these to enhance our experiences and deepen them. That one is very common. I think staying on track, we often see athletes, for example, especially very good athletes, will have rituals, often extremely elaborate rituals.
In fact, take any athlete or celebrity and type their name in and then type ritual and click search. It is extraordinary how many of these folks have very elaborate rituals. And they're using these rituals in order to keep themselves going at a very high level of performance.
Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal have these very elaborate pre-serve rituals trying to get themselves to continue to do this incredibly difficult thing. Now, I'm not them and we're not them, so we're not going to be that good, but people do use rituals in order to try to stick at things, persist at things in the way that we're never going to get to their level, but that they do as well.
So very commonly there, we see also when we're feeling conflicted, like I'd love to be doing more of this and less of this people will turn to rituals there as well. The other may be most fun for me, is this idea of rituals with family and friends and romantic partners, very common as well.
We asked romantic partners, we say something like this, do the two of you have anything that is special to you that shows you who you are that you make sure to do every so often and regularly? And most couples, two-thirds of three-quarters of couples say, "Yeah, we do."
And they say the cutest little things like this one couple said, "Every time before we eat, we clink our silverware together." That was just their little thing that they did every time they ate. And you can see what they're doing. This is who we are. It's cute, it's adorable. We do this only with each other, not with anybody else. It's a sign of our commitment to each other. It's just silverware, but it means something else when we do this.
And we see that couples that have these little relationship rituals are more satisfied in their relationships than couples who say, "No, we don't have anything like that. We just eat food." There's something in there. There's signal in these rituals about our close relationships for sure.
Guy Kawasaki:
Let me ask, but which came first? Do close couples have rituals or do rituals cause couples to become closer?
Mike Norton:
I love this. So another frustrating thing about studying rituals is some of the studies we'd love to do, we can't. So for example, it'd be amazing to randomly assign people to relationships and then randomly assign them to do these rituals or not, and then follow up twenty years later and see the divorce. Oh my God, that would be so fun. But we can't do that.
But we can do things. And by the way, there's certainly some truth that couples that like each other are more likely to develop these. So there is that arrow. But we also see, for example, if we ask people, "Hey, did you have any rituals in your last relationship?" People say, "Not really. I didn't have that many in my last relationship." It's the one that they're in right now that has rituals, which suggests we create them in relationships that are actually working and really matter to us.
But the other way I think we see that these things matter a lot is we're proprietary about them. So we'll ask people, think of the silverware folks, clink their silverware. We say, "If you broke up with that person and you saw them at a restaurant clinking silverware with their new partner, how would you feel?" The rage that people feel about their ritual being reused or their pet nickname? I thought I was Schmoober Bear and now you're calling him Schmoober Bear?
We really come to value them as a signal of our relationships specific to our relationship. And our exes can date other people. They can get married, they can have kids. We might not like it, but they're allowed. They are not allowed to reuse our relationship ritual that is like a bridge too far.
So they really have a lot of emotion in them even though they're very small and trivial in one way, we pack a lot of meaning into them in our relationships with others.
Guy Kawasaki:
Wow, I'm not going to put Pledge on anything else but surfboard for now. Okay. And then mourning?
Mike Norton:
Savoring and relationships are fun. Mourning is difficult to study because it is a time when people are really literally at a loss. So when people experience one of these losses, one of the things they feel is that it will never end. Most of us have experienced grief, unfortunately.
And when grief is acute, it's not just that you are grieving the person, but you feel like you will never not feel that bad again, that it couldn't possibly get any better. And that is a very hard thing for us to deal with in general.
And so the question is how do we try to start to feel a little bit better and how do we have some kind of confidence that maybe we will feel better eventually, even though right now we feel the worst we felt in our entire life because we lost someone. And that's one of the functions that rituals play there as well.
So if you think about whatever faith you are in or culture you are in, for sure, there is a ritual around death. Very variable from culture to culture and across time. But pretty much every culture has something that the group or family does when someone passes away.
And what it shows you in fact, is that I can get through this because this group has been using this for a thousand years as a way to get through grief, and they've gotten through grief. My grandmother used this when her husband passed away and she got through grief, now I'm going to do the exact same thing that they did and maybe I can get through the grief as well.
They almost serve as a signal to us that if we go through these patterns for one day, three days, five days, a month, religions vary on how long the ceremonies are, that I might actually start to come down from my grief as well and get through it as so many others have before me.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay, I have a cynical question. So what if you're listening to this and maybe if you're a CEO, you're thinking, oh, I'm going to help establish a ritual. Or if you're anybody else, you're thinking, oh, I've been taken.
But let's say that you find out that De Beers created this ritual of you give a diamond ring when you get married and it has no foundation in anything. It's not in the Torah, it's not in the Bible, it's nowhere, but De Beers decided to do this.
Now is this a good thing? Maybe this creation of a ritual of giving a diamond is symbolic and it makes you commit, or maybe it's just a way to get De Beers to sell more diamonds. How do you look at something like that?
Mike Norton:
Amazingly, in the last five years, ten years, but especially the last five years, the number of companies that are actually just called Ritual has skyrocketed. There are companies called Ritual with skincare, with non-alcoholic beverages.
If you look across product categories, marketers have said there's something about this word ritual that consumers seem to respond to. Let's start to use it in marketing. See if we can get people more on board with this because it's very emotional word, a very resonant word.
So for sure, marketers are saying, let's use some of this stuff and see if we can get people more interested in the product. And I'm with you, a cynical view is we're just going to buy more stuff that we don't need. An example, one that highlights the pros and cons of something like Valentine's Day, which is a made-up and certainly that we need roses in a box of chocolate shaped like a heart and an expensive dinner.
3000 years ago, that's not what it's said to do in those situations. So the skeptical view is, man, they just made that up so that we have to buy all this stuff and waste our money. And I share that in myself for sure. Just to be clear.
The more positive view is when we get married to somebody, we have a wedding and then we have an anniversary once a year. And other than that, there's no reminders that we should be thankful or grateful that we got to marry this person. Valentine's Day, at least for one more day out of every year, we remind ourselves, you know what? This person's special. I should do something nice with them or for them.
Do we need diamonds and roses? No, we don't. But do we need these rituals in place to remind us to celebrate? Sometimes, yes, we do. So I think the impulse under them often can be something really important and really valuable. Then I think sometimes it can get co-opted in the service of maybe buying things that we don't necessarily need in order to have the emotions that we were looking for.
Guy Kawasaki:
Well, isn't there some created holiday in China like Singles' Day or something? And they do billions of dollars of business that day?
Mike Norton:
It's amazing the number of new holidays that spring up all the time. That's a fantastic example. In the US, speaking of Valentine's Day, what do people do if they're single on Valentine's Day? On Parks and Rec, the sitcom, they came up with Galentine's Day where if you're a single woman, you go out with your friends and have a party and get a really expensive meal.
So got this Valentine's Day was made up, but then in response, make up Galentine's Day, which now people actually do. But it's a positive thing if you're single and you don't want to be on that day. How wonderful now that you have this Galentine's day to go out and celebrate your friendships with other people who matter to you. So they're both ridiculous on the one hand, and then on the other hand, they can create real value underneath.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay, Mike. So if you see Pledge Day, you know what happened, right?
Mike Norton:
National Pledge Day. National Pledge Awareness Day, I think would be the best.
Guy Kawasaki:
I guess I have more rituals than I thought. So if you see a particularly slippery surfboard in Santa Cruz, that's my board with Pledge. Thank you Mike for coming on and explaining rituals and habits and superstitions. I now see the value of rituals and I'm going to go figure some out.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. And now let me tell you, as a ritual that I also go through, I want to acknowledge the Remarkable People team. That would be Shannon Hernandez and Jeff Sieh, sound design. Fallon Yates, Alexis Nishimura and Luis Magaña plus the Nuismer sisters, the Drop-in Queen of all of Santa Cruz, Madisun Nuismer, she's also producer and co-author of Think Remarkable.
And then there's Tessa Nuismer, researcher. We are the Remarkable People team, and we are on a mission to make you remarkable. Until next time, mahalo and aloha.