What Garbage Trucks Teach Us About Wellness with David J. Pollay
David J. Pollay
Jonathan: Hey everyone Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast and today is another one of those great shows where we go a little bit broader and we say it is obviously not just about being slim, that is a little phrase, it is about living better and having a wonderful happy and healthy life. Because often a lot of us want to be “slim” because we think that will make us feel a certain way and often times there is a lot of things we can do to just feel better and today’s guest is really a great contributor into the arena of things we can do, mindsets we can have to feel better and just really has a great metaphor that I had to bring him on the show to share you with because I think it will help you to live better and also have you smiling along the way.
He is the author of the book The Law of The Garbage Truck. He’s done a bunch of work with the positive psychology movements over at the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman, all those great folks he has been on NPR, ABC. Travels all over the world, really a great guy with a great message about not getting dumped on. David J. Pollay, welcome to the show brother.
David: Jonathan hey thanks so much great to be with you.
Jonathan: David before we get into your Law of The Garbage Truck, can you tell us a little bit about your journey? Because you have been in this world working in the corporate environment and just in general for quite sometime. What led you to speaking and spreading this message of garbage trucks?
David: Jonathan for me it goes back all the way to college where I have always been interested in how people get along with each other, in whatever environment. Whether it is a family or if it is business or college organization or politics. How is it that people get along? What is it that they focus on? How do they bring out the best in other people? How do they get to good resolutions when there are conflicts? So I have always been interested in that. When I came out of college I became the president of an international organization called AIESEC.
What they do is they focus on people all around the world trying to help people, well one exchange people in businesses all around the world to increase international understanding. So that if we get people to understand each other better, we are going to be more likely to work together. Going all the way back there in that role I went into companies like Yahoo and MasterCard and I was always interested in how again can we get people from all different backgrounds and all different ages, all different races if necessary.
It does not matter whatever the person’s background, how do we get them all to focus on what is important and see the best in each other so that we can all live a more happy and healthier life. So that is really where it all started and then it took me to academics, took me to the field as you mentioned positive psychology based at the University of Pennsylvania. I was in the first masters program and helped found the International Positive Psychology Association which in a nutshell is traditional psychology. I will leave you with this thought here, traditional psychology focuses a lot on the question of what is wrong with people.
It’s not a bad question because there are a lot of things that we all want to fix and if we are suffering from depression we want to feel better. If we suffering from anxiety, we do not know why, we want to get better there too. What positive psychology does is focuses on what makes people happier and more successful and asks a different question which is what is right with people?
The follow up question is how do we amplify that? My background really has been in business and in academics and then as a writer focused on with The Law of The Garbage Truck, how do we help people recognize the best in each other, the best in ourselves, so that we can really bring out what’s our real gifts are. Then how to navigate the negativity in life, especially the negative things we cannot control that we really do not want to put our attention to.
Jonathan: David there is so much here that I am just bursting at the seams to unpack. Before we do that you have a great eloquent quick way of describing this Law of The Garbage Truck which your book is named, what is The Law of The Garbage Truck?
David: I will start with you reference the metaphor of the garbage truck and if everyone leaves with this one idea that human beings are not meant to be garbage trucks. In real life garbage trucks are great, they go and look for all the bad things we want to get rid of and then they pick them up, fill up in the truck with all that bad stuff and then they go find a place to dump it. But human beings are not meant to be garbage trucks.
We are not meant to look for every negative thing we can’t control, rumors, gossip, unnecessary criticism, excessive complaining, fill up on all that and then at the slightest provocation turn around and whether it’s down the street or at home or at work, turn around and dump on other people. That’s the basic metaphor and it is really like if I had everyone listening on this call, I could just say “We are not garbage trucks, I would say repeat after me, we are not garbage trucks,” that is the essence of it. What made The Law of the Garbage Truck particularly, I guess well known around the world, we have estimated it has been read by, the first writing of it when I wrote it in the syndicated column a number of years ago essentially as an essay, they have estimated may be a hundred million people have read it.
What stuck with them is I had an experience in New York City in the back of a taxicab and there was some wise words shared with me by that taxi driver when we almost got into an accident and as a writer I crafted that into what I call The Law of The Garbage Truck which essentially is this: Many people are like garbage trucks or they can be garbage trucks. Many people are like garbage trucks, they run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, full of disappointment and as their garbage piles up, they do what garbage trucks do.
They look for a place to dump it and if you let them they will dump it on you. So when someone wants to dump on you don’t take it personally, just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on, just move on. The essence and the real message there is we get to choose our response in life wherever we are, again our family environment, our work environment, on the streets, in the stores, restaurants, wherever. We get to choose our response in life and it does not have to involve garbage. We get to choose that response.
Jonathan: David there’s two angles to this that really, really resonated with me when I was checking out your great work. That was, one is the observation that people in general sometimes just tend to be more like garbage trucks almost innately or at least in modern culture we are like, if we are shown something, we might focus on that which is negative or like we pick up, we focus on that piece of trash over there rather than that flower over there.
I want to unpack may be why we have a tendency to do that. Then I would also love to unpack, I love the idea of just like smiling and waving and letting the garbage truck move on but sometimes that is easier said than done, so I would love to talk about strategies for both.
David: Yeah you bet. The first thing is the research really does demonstrate that as you had pointed out that we remember the bad things more often than we do the good things. They just tend to be more sticky. As researched by a really great psychology researcher, Roy Baumeister. It just says in the challenges and we recall them more frequently, so if you look at research by Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, the whole idea is that you don’t get rid of negative emotion.
Anger it grows injustice or frustration when things just are not happening as they really should as designed. Those are negative emotions but those are productive and they are important emotions. We do not want to get rid of them but there are lots of negative hassles and annoyances that popup in our daily lives. So what we want to be able to do is you have to sort of overwhelm them with as you mentioned seeing the flower. When you wake up in the morning a good way to think about it is, wake up in the morning and if you have children, there are so many things that you have to get going.
If you are a mom or a dad who is trying to get kids ready for school in the morning, whose waking up first? Who’s getting their shower? Who’s getting their backpack put together? Who’s getting their lunch together? How are we getting ready? The dog out? Whatever it might be. There’s lots of little stuff and lots of little hassles that can start to overtake you focus. But there also beautiful things like the child waking up with a kiss and a hug and beautiful music playing and talk around what is going to be happening during that day and reminiscing of what happened over the weekend and focusing, looking, calling out what people, how good they look or what they are working on, or if they are excited to walk to the bus stop or whatever the case might be.
The research definitely demonstrates that if we want to make sure to avoid this bias towards negativity that seems to be stickier than the positive things, we need to really make a conscious effort to bring in or focus on these positive things that are all around us and thankfully that’s very important. Your second question really was how do you deal with negativity and not just dismiss things because there are times where people have something that they have to share that is important. This is not a retreat strategy.
First question to ask is what is happening right now? Anything that I can do control? Can I add any influence over this whatsoever? If someone cuts you off on the street and so many of us are in cars, what am I going to do about that? People fantasize and they start to tailgate or they start talking to the person next to them, just goes down. They get to work and then someone says, hey how was your day? Oh my God, terrible drivers again, can you believe the commutes getting worse and worse. All of a sudden what I call a garbage cycle gets in motion.
One thing feeds the other and it feeds the other and all of a sudden you sit down in your cube at work and you are just thinking how did I get in this conversation? Or why am I feeling this way? It all started with just reacting negatively to something that you could not control to begin with. So the first thing is if you have no control over it whatsoever you really want to let it pass by and there are so many examples of that we could take the rest of the show. Actually in the book The Law of The Garbage Truck, there are a couple of quizzes.
Garbage acceptor quiz and a garbage dumper quiz that give people an idea of just how many ways they’re triggered on a daily basis and how many ways they can really drop the impact of these triggers. I’ll just give one example, if someone has a complaint, first thing is if it has merit you got to address it. You got to address a challenge that comes up if it warrants that. But if the complaints are passing and unimportant just like the drivers, the waiters are not as friendly as they used to be, or I do not really like the copy paper.
If it is just they are passing and unimportant, you just can redirect the conversation to say yeah, I totally get that and then just have the confidence just to switch the conversation to something else. Say, hey how was your weekend? Or hey what is going on in that meeting, I heard the product rollout was going well. Or hey I heard the kids got a great program after school. Just do that because most people are not even aware, they are not like married to the desire to complain about the copy paper, it is just something that pops up and if not redirected people will just make a big deal of it.
So, just redirect the conversation. If people insist on complaining, one thing that I talked about on the book is the difference between dumping and venting. I just say ask them if they need to vent, just insert real quick to say hey man do you need to vent? What it does it that it gives the individual a quick chance to say, yeah man that would be great. Then you allow them to talk about what they need to talk about. But when you ask them if they need to vent what you are basically doing is suggesting two things. That it is time based that it is going to be a little while and it is permission based.
We’re basically giving you permission to say you need to complain. But if people just returned a vent time after time then we really need to redirect the source of the problem and help them get to where their problem is going to get addressed and get redirected, get really taken care of rather than just consistent complaint that shrouds everyone’s good feelings.
Jonathan: David I so appreciate this metaphor it really, it got me so excited to chat with you because it does, it works so well. Just in hearing you talk, now a few things I would love to get your take on which I hope I am augmenting the metaphor rather than corrupting it in some way. The first thing you have mentioned which was the natural tendency to focus on garbage and we have like a conscious effort not to. One thing I have noticed or like let us continue that metaphor you are walking around outside and there is a beautiful path you could walk along, may be it is beautiful, you do not know, it is just a path, but you see that there is a piece of garbage sitting on the ground and you are like oh well this is clearly a dirty area so I am just going to turn the other direction not even pay any attention to it.
Whereas in reality like if you would just, may be someone just accidentally dropped that and you just walked past it. Fifty feet down the road it is beautiful and it is amazing and you never would have seen that or experienced it if at the very beginning you looked at the one piece of garbage and said well that is the one thing I disagree with or the one thing I do not like so my mind closes. It seems like we also have a tendency to do that. We find the one thing we do not like and then we cut ourselves off. That seems very limiting, what do you think?
David: Yeah absolutely. For my kids I have to say of course if you see a piece of garbage literally on the street you got to pick it up and then throw it out. But with that metaphor you are absolutely right. What so happens is all of a sudden we throw all our energy and I call it that garbage cycle where we throw all our energy on that particular garbage on the pathway and then what we start doing is it becomes like a magnet, it starts pulling in all our thoughts that confirm that that is something that is not good.
Then we start complaining to ourselves and if someone then comes over to us we’ll start complaining them. That is the first thing that is on our mind rather than recognizing if something said something it was not quite the nicest thing in the world but hey they are good person, I know that, they are doing good work I know that, I do not need to focus on that part of the path, let us focus on as you say, focus on the brighter path, the more productive path and let that inconsequential thing said, leave it inconsequential, don’t make it the focus of your walk. So you are absolutely right.
Here is the other thing in the other way I tie it to your insightful thing about seeing something kind of garbage on the pathway of life is that we do not want to take the bait of other people who do not necessarily mean to do it. Some people try to really get you in the negative conversations, but try not to take the bait. So on that pathway when someone throws you a negative thing you cannot control, that you know is just excessive complaining or needless criticism, just do not take the bait and do not go with it and acknowledge hey that is no fun. Then turn the conversation to either what you are doing or to something that is productive that will get you both focused on something important.
Jonathan: Continuing that metaphor again, you described just there and then also early when you were talking were someone just may be comes into the office or comes home and they do not mean to, it is as if they are carrying a bunch of like a bag of garbage and some of it just spills out. Like they do not mean to but it just spills out and you could take that piece of garbage and like pick it up and rub it all over yourself, but you do not.
Maybe you will just pick it up, throw it in the garbage can and move on. Maybe if they have a giant bag of garbage that they really do need help with like you said, you ask them do you want a vent? That is just like saying I have this garbage can here and I am going to give you permission to pour your garbage into it, but those are two very different things. The metaphor seems to work in both cases.
David: Yeah that is absolutely right Jonathan and in its kind one of the things to be able to do for family or friends is that if you see someone is really struggling and it is not just needless complaining, excessive complaining, and so forth, criticism, it is a kind thing to do to say hey, you look like you got something on your mind. How was your day? How are you? Just simply like hey come here, give me a hug, how are you doing? Whatever it is in your relationship that gives someone an opportunity to open up is a wonderful thing and a beautiful thing.
If you see a child coming home at the end of the day and they look a little distraught and they are not so friendly about things, say hey come on over here, I want to see you, I want to hear about your day, I want to talk to you. Remembering what was on their agenda for the day is very helpful rather than just saying how was your day, but really specific to hey tell me about the project that you were doing in school today and how that go and/or just hey what happened? My mom used to say to me when I was growing up, “I don’t see that big bright smile, what is going on, come over here and give me a kiss”.
Then you open the door for a conversation and when you do in that regard you are doing it, you come in to it with generosity where you are ready to give that either virtual hug or real hug and say I am here for you, we can talk, and help them focus on what is important. Again, not get caught up in all the negative things they cannot control which will just send them into their garbage cycle.
Jonathan: David The Law of The Garbage Truck has touched the lives of literally millions as you have mentioned, what’s next for you?
David: What is next is I have a second book scheduled to come out next year where we are focusing on and the information will be on the website davidpollay.com. Which is really focused on if we know that we want to navigate negativity and stay out of the garbage cycle then what are the three things we can do to stay inside what I call the gratitude cycle. The real focus on the good things that are happening in our lives.
There’s a book coming out on that and looking forward to people seeing that coming out next year. It is going to be published by Sterling Publishing, Barnes & Noble is the parent company there. Then I am on a mission to get around to as many organizations and schools and religious institutions as possible to have people take the “no garbage trucks pledge.” Jonathan I think we have talked about that where people from all around the world, I had teachers the other day and I had parishioners the other day and corporate executives taking this pledge where everyone just gets on their feet and makes a commitment to say we want to increase happiness, success and civility.
So basically you have to take this pledge where it say, “I do not accept garbage in our life, when I see garbage trucks, I do not take them personally, I just smile, I wave, I wish them well and I move on and I do not spread garbage to others, I am not back to that again, I am not a garbage truck, I do not accept garbage in my life.” We are getting people from around the world, we’ve had people in more than forty eight languages that have taken the “no garbage trucks pledge” and to really just increase happiness, success, and civility in the world and increase their health. That is what is up, that is what it is next.
Jonathan: David I love it. Certainly a pledge worth taking for all of us and we can learn more about that pledge as well as your lovely first book as well as upcoming second book. The first book folks again is called The Law of The Garbage Truck. As you have heard here, a hugely profound and helpful metaphor for thinking about life and things in general and the man we have been talking with and the author is David J. Pollay. His website is his name davidpollay.com. David thank you so much for sharing your time and insight with us today.
David: Jonathan thank you so much great being on the show and congrats on your success as well.
Jonathan: Thank you sir and listeners I hope you enjoyed this wonderful conversation as much as I did and please remember this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, don’t be garbage trucks, and live better. Chat with you soon.