The Office’s Rainn Wilson on meaning and happiness (Transcript)

The Office’s Rainn Wilson on meaning and happiness
November 14, 2023

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guest today is actor and comedian Rainn Wilson who starred on The Office as everyone's favorite paper salesman, Dwight Schrute. This year, Rainn published his latest New York Times best selling book, Soul Boom. It's a delicious smorgasbord of existential philosophy, self-reflection, psychology, and Star Trek that explores the missing role of spirituality in the modern world.

I was thrilled to host Rainn for this live conversation in the Authors@Wharton series. Our goal was to light up your brain, warm your heart, and tickle your funny bone. We delve into happiness and meaning, motivation and ambition, mental health and meditation, and yes, of course, The Office. When Rainn offered me my dream job at Dunder Mifflin, I couldn't resist asking if he would improvise a scene. Yep, finally living my improv dream.

Welcome to Authors at Wharton. Adam Grant. I could not be more delighted to welcome: Rainn Wilson.

[00:01:21] Rainn Wilson:
Wow. Hi everybody. Thanks Adam. Nice to see you.

[00:01:28] Adam Grant:
You know, it is not every day that the world's greatest business school welcomes the world's greatest salesperson. Can I call Dwight?

[00:01:43] Rainn Wilson:

[00:01:43] Adam Grant:
Dope! Alright. I have so many questions for you.

[00:01:49] Rainn Wilson:

[00:01:49] Adam Grant:
And our students had a lot of questions for you too. So we all obviously love The Office. Some of us have binged it more times than we can count. I think you're, you played the most iconic character of our time.

[00:02:01] Rainn Wilson:
That’s very kind. Thank you very much.

[00:02:07] Adam Grant:
Um, but we don't know much about how you got there. So, give us the backstory.

[00:02:09] Rainn Wilson:
You have one the most iconic bald heads of all time.

[00:02:14] Adam Grant:
I, I wish I could say that was a deliberate decision.

[00:02:16] Rainn Wilson:
Mr. Clean, Charles Barkley, Adam Grant.

[00:02:23] Adam Grant:
No one has ever had that thought. But, you're welcome.

[00:02:26] Rainn Wilson:
Thank you.

[00:02:26] Adam Grant:
Tell us the backstory. I know you were a theater actor for a long time.

[00:02:29] Rainn Wilson:

[00:02:30] Adam Grant:
And this was not part of your plan.

[00:02:32] Rainn Wilson:
Not at all. I was a nerdy little disturbed kid from suburban Seattle, and I grew up kind of with a television kind of raising me and watching all of those great sitcoms from the, from the 70s. I would record Monty Python sketches on a Panasonic tape recorder held up to a PBS television station at like 1am to record Monty Python and then memorize the sketches.

And then when I started doing theater, I kind of thought, “Hey, you know, I'm pretty good at this and I can make people laugh. Maybe I'll go to New York and study theater.” And that's really where I thought I was gonna make my living. So I spent 10, 13 years total in New York kind of pursuing a life in theater and never really making it above the poverty line as an actor, in all truth.

So, you know, the idea of being like a... a star, or a celebrity, or making a lot of money and being a part of one of these most iconic shows. Like, one of those shows that I grew up watching as a kid was beyond my wildest dreams, and not at all the path that I thought I was going to take.

[00:03:42] Adam Grant:

[00:03:42] Rainn Wilson:
Uh oh.

[00:03:44] Adam Grant:
I feel like it worked out okay, though.

[00:03:45] Rainn Wilson:
It worked out just fine. Look at me. Look at this. It's incredible.

[00:03:50] Adam Grant:
So what happened after a decade? What led you to TV?

[00:03:53] Rainn Wilson:
Well, I was doing this tour. It was a bus and truck tour of Shakespeare plays. So I spent two years on a bus with a group of like 20 actors going from high school to college to community center doing Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet and Two Gentlemen of Verona. And night after night after night doing 10 a.m. matinees in high school cafeterias, and at the end of this long, long stint on the road, I was on the road with this actor. We got back, and we were collecting our mail after being on the road for six months. And he had a residual check. And he opened it. And he had spent three days on a Harrison Ford movie.

And he had, like, a 4,000 check. Which was more than I had saved for the entire run of doing the theater. And he was like, “Yeah! Oh my God!” I opened, like, my student loans. Right? And I realized, “Oh, I'm gonna need to do some TV and film.”

[00:04:48] Adam Grant:
Uh, okay, so, when, when did you get the call?

[00:04:50] Rainn Wilson:
So, then, you know, long story short, I really struggled in New York. I was the only actor in New York who never even auditioned for Law and Order. Every single episode of Law and Order has seven or eight people that are like loading boxes or washing glasses or mopping a floor going like, “I’ve seen him here before, but I haven't seen him around in a while.” Ka-kung. I didn't even get rejected from that ‘cause I couldn't even get the audition.

That's how low on the acting totem pole I was. But I took this comedy show that my friends and I had created in New York, which we call the Slacker Vaudeville. And it was these weird clowns in this kind of surrealist Peewee Herman landscape doing sketch comedy, and we brought it to LA in 1999, and I moved there, and then lot of doors started opening and then I started slogging along in the world of, uh, television and film, and after a nice run on Six Feet Under, which was on HBO at the time, and that just opened a ton of doors for me and it's been, uh, an incredible ride ever since.

[00:06:04] Adam Grant:
Yeah, it has. Okay, so, tell us about your office audition. How did that happen?

[00:06:07] Rainn Wilson:
I had been cast in another TV show. I had my plane ticket, and I was flying to Vancouver to go start shooting the next day. And there was a TV executive that I knew, and I was like, “Oh, hi.” And he was like, “Oh, I'm so excited. We just got the rights to the British Office to make the American version.”

And I was like, “Oh, that's great. Congratulations!” I was like, inside I was kicking myself because I loved the English Office. So we had the table read and, um, it went terribly. And I got home, and I got a call, and they said, “They canceled the show. Tear up your plane ticket.” And I was like, “Yes.” So I picked up the phone like, “Hey, they're doing this Office.” And I was literally the first actor in on the very first day of auditions. And, I auditioned for both Dwight and Michael.

[00:07:01] Adam Grant:

[00:07:01] Rainn Wilson:
Yes. And—

[00:07:04] Adam Grant:
Minds just exploded.

[00:07:04] Rainn Wilson:
My Michael audition was terrible. I was such a huge Ricky Gervais fan. I just was doing a Ricky Gervais imitation. I was like, “Show, I'm the world's best boss.” I was just doing a lot of mannerisms. It was just awful. But, really when it came to Dwight, I was like, you know, I know this guy, and it was, it was, it was one of those cases where I was like, “There, there's really no one else that can play this role.” I know exactly who this guy is. I used to play Dungeons and Dragons with guys like this. I literally played Dungeons and Dragons with a guy named Chris Cole. If you're listening, Chris. Chris Cole had Battlestar Galactica glasses. I'm not making this up. He was skinny as a rail, 97 pounds, and his D&D characters would always be these giant warriors, and he would draw them with giant m—rippling muscles. Oh, and he studied fencing. So, I, thank you Chris. Because, although that is not Dwight Schrute, the, the people in suburban Seattle that I hung with were absolutely cut from Schrutean cloth. So to speak.

[00:08:17] Adam Grant:
Okay, I have to ask, did Chris eat beets?

[00:08:19] Rainn Wilson:
I don't think he probably ate beets. I think he only ate McDonald's, so, yeah. Yeah.

[00:08:25] Adam Grant:
Okay, so, you got the part?

[00:08:27] Rainn Wilson:

[00:08:28] Adam Grant:
You become Dwight?

[00:08:29] Rainn Wilson:

[00:08:29] Adam Grant:
Tell us what it was like to be on that show.

[00:08:32] Rainn Wilson:
The thing that I've since learned is how exceptionally collaborative it was as a set. As Dunder Mifflin was not collaborative whatsoever. Um, The Office was completely collaborative. As long as we got the lines as scripted and got them well, we could say whatever the hell we wanted.

And if, if we wanted to take a scene in a different direction, we would try it. Because that's one of the amazing things about having it be a documentary, is that we just had two guys with cameras, and, you know. So, if you want to go skip over here or start wrestling or this, you know, they're going to capture it. Even, like, on Friends or a Seinfeld set, you know, you have the camera moves and it's kind of blocked, and you can't just kind of start improvising or doing physical comedy on the side.

So, it was wonderfully collaborative. Greg Daniels, the, the, the showrunner was incredibly open to ideas. He would have two different cuts of a scene and he wouldn't know which one to do and so he would ask the janitorial staff and the security guard and the people doing craft services. And he would bring them all into the editing room, and he would show them the two scenes, and they would vote, and he would pick that one. There's very few people, trust me, in Hollywood that work in that way. So he didn't have an ego about it. And, and that generated a, a good feeling in the cast that was pretty astonishing.

I remember we had a director came in who had just come from directing a show that shall not be named. Desperate Housewives. And, and he said, “Oh my God/ First of all, no one on that show is even talking to each other, and they wait in their trailers until they absolutely have to come out. And many of them won't do scenes together, but you guys not only six years in talk to each other, like you love each other. You come in. You hug. You high five. You laugh.” And we kind of all, as we were shooting it, we were all kind of knew, like, you know what? This is probably gonna be the best job we ever have hands down.

[00:10:36] Adam Grant:
I think I've shown more Office clips in my classes at Wharton than all other movie and TV clips combined.

[00:10:41] Rainn Wilson:

[00:10:42] Adam Grant:
And I'm curious about what you learned. It sounds like there was quite a contrast between the dynamic you had on the show and then The Office you were creating at Dunder Mifflin. But what did you learn about making work better and creating good jobs?

[00:10:54] Rainn Wilson:
Well, one of the things that was astonishing to us in making The Office was how popular it was with high school and college kids who had never set foot in an office. We thought we were making a show for work folk in their 20s and 30s that had a jerk boss and had office romances and struggles in the office.

And that's what we thought we were making the, the show for. And then all of a sudden, we were like the number one show among teenagers. But the other thing that's pretty nuts is I cannot tell you how many times I've seen written online or people have actually told me that they longed to work in a place like Dunder Mifflin. And I think they're getting confused.

[00:11:38] Adam Grant:
I have so many questions. Do—

[00:11:39] Rainn Wilson:
The, the spirit of the show; the heart of the show; the love by, for, and in between the characters that's revealed in the show; the vulnerabilities are what people fall in love with, and they mistake that for being a kind of really lifeless corporate drone in a paper company.

‘Cause first of all, this whole idea of like, it's the worst kind of hierarchy, patriarchy of, like, the boss who kind of knows it all and you're, you're a captive audience. You can't flee their jokes or their whims. So that feels very, like, 1950s, kind of. And the, the kind of the drudgery of the 9 to 5, and everyone is in their little box. There's so many things about it that, that feel timeless, and yet completely outdated.

[00:12:33] Adam Grant:
I would agree. Um, I, yeah, I...

[00:12:34] Rainn Wilson:
If you were going into Dunder Mifflin, if Jan hired you... Said, “Michael, we've got Adam Grant here, conference room, five minutes.” And, uh, Adam Grant went in the conference room with Michael and Dwight and Jim and Pam and, and Ryan and the whole gang. What would you be working on at Dunder Mifflin?

[00:12:59] Adam Grant:
Wow. I think this, this is the coolest day in my job ever. Like, yes, sign me up for that.

[00:13:04] Rainn Wilson:
That’s your next book, by the way.

[00:13:05] Adam Grant:
I would totally do that. Can we play this out for a second?

[00:13:08] Rainn Wilson:
Do it.

[00:13:09] Adam Grant:
Okay, can you be Dwight?


[00:13:19] Rainn Wilson:
For you, for you I will. Wow, he wasn't kidding. Play this out.

[00:12:35] Adam Grant:
Mr. Shute?

[00:13:27] Rainn Wilson:

[00:13:27] Adam Grant:
Schrute, I'm sorry. Hi, Adam Grant. Nice to meet you. I understand you're the assistant regional, regional manager, is that right?

[00:13:34] Rainn Wilson:
That's correct.

[00:13:37] Adam Grant:
Um, tell me what you think is wrong with this place. Dunder Mifflin.

[00:13:40] Rainn Wilson:
Let me start at the beginning. Everything. I think there is an incredible amount of dead wood. Here's my list of who should be fired by this afternoon. I'm happy to take on the task.

[00:13:53] Adam Grant:
Hmm. I noticed your list says Jim, Jim, Jim, and Jim.

[00:13:58] Rainn Wilson:

[00:13:59] Adam Grant:
What, what's your beef with Jim?

[00:14:00] Rainn Wilson:
I don't have a beef with Jim. He's terrible. He's an idiot, he's stupid, and he's ugly.

[00:14:07] Adam Grant:
Okay, so if I gave him his own office where you didn't have to look at him all day…

[00:14:10] Rainn Wilson:
You can transfer him to the Stanford or Utica branch.

[00:14:15] Adam Grant:
Alright, interesting. What does Jim's sales performance look like?

[00:14:19] Rainn Wilson:
Can I have a raise?

[00:14:22] Adam Grant:
What have you done to earn a raise?

[00:14:23] Rainn Wilson:
I am a tireless worker, and I close every sale. And I answer the phone no matter the time of day.

[00:14:33] Adam Grant:
That's interesting. I've, I've actually heard all those, those things about you.

[00:14:34] Rainn Wilson:
I've also had your car detailed as we've been having this conversation.

[00:14:40] Adam Grant:
Oh, that's so sweet of you. Um, I don't think I authorized that. And I'm a little creeped out right now that you did that. But, I, I appreciate the sentiment and the dedication.

[00:14:48] Rainn Wilson:
I found $2.17 in the various ashtrays. You're welcome.

[00:14:54] Adam Grant:
You can have them if you want them.

[00:14:54] Rainn Wilson:

[00:14:55] Adam Grant:
Um, thank you. I, I will say—

[00:14:57] Rainn Wilson:
How much longer is this improv going to go on?

[00:15:01] Adam Grant:
I do, I do have to ask you a question, Mr. Schrute, which is, I, I've heard you're incredibly dedicated, you're conscientious to the max, you scored off the charts on our assessment of industriousness and diligence and grit, Angela Duckworth actually vouched for your grit personally.

[00:15:17] Rainn Wilson:
Good. I have beautiful grit.

[00:15:20] Adam Grant:
We did get some feedback that you don't always play well with others, and sometimes you even stop people from doing their jobs.

[00:15:28] Rainn Wilson:
That's ridiculous.

[00:15:31] Adam Grant:
I think it's ridiculous too.

[00:15:32] Rainn Wilson:
Ridiculously true.

[00:15:35] Adam Grant:

[00:15:36] Rainn Wilson:
Yes. Because their incompetence is nauseating.

[00:15:41] Adam Grant:
Okay, I'll tell you what. So, it sounds like you want a raise. You asked for that.

[00:15:47] Rainn Wilson:

[00:15:47] Adam Grant:
I hear you also want a promotion.

[00:15:49] Rainn Wilson:

[00:15:50] Adam Grant:
If I give you a list of ways that you can make other people better, and then offered you a raise in promotion if you hit those targets, how would you feel about that?

[00:15:58] Rainn Wilson:
Arrgh. I feel... Uh, does not compute. [distressed noises]

[00:16:10] Adam Grant:
And scene!

[00:16:12] Rainn Wilson:
And scene. He's good. He’s good.

[00:16:17] Adam Grant:
Okay so what, what, you’ve, you’ve worked on, now, you've worked on a lot of projects. You've worked with a lot of people. My goal was to try to figure out what motivated Dwight Schrute and then connect what I cared about to Dwight's motives. How well did I do?

[00:16:32] Rainn Wilson:
You scored off the charts. That was amazing. That was absolutely incredible. Yeah.

[00:16:36] Adam Grant:
Why, thank you.

[00:16:37] Rainn Wilson:
How would you have done that with Michael?

[00:16:40] Adam Grant:
Well, are you gonna give us your Mic—No, we don't have to play it out. My read of Michael was that he's actually not a bad guy, but he really wants to be famous. And his antics are in front of the camera, and so I would try to get him off camera would be my first thought. My second thought would be to help him see that becoming a famous, hated boss is probably not the ideal place to land.

[00:17:00] Rainn Wilson:
Well, I think he was famous before the cameras were there, putting on a live show for the audience. And then the cameras just threw kerosene on the fire.

[00:17:10] Adam Grant:
Yeah, I'd want to hold up a mirror and have him see how disliked he is. And then the hope is he wants to be loved.

[00:17:15] Rainn Wilson:

[00:17:15] Adam Grant:
Although, I, I remember him also saying he wants people to fear him and love him. And he wants them to be afraid of how much they love him.

[00:17:21] Rainn Wilson:
That's true. That's very good.

[00:17:25] Adam Grant:

[00:17:25] Rainn Wilson:
You’ve seen the show.

[00:17:26] Adam Grant:
Once or twice.

[00:17:26] Rainn Wilson:

[00:17:27] Adam Grant:
Um, so, I want to talk about a bunch of other things. Um, but before we temporarily leave The Office, uh, I had two questions about your experience on this show. One is, you achieve success a lot later in life than many people in your industry do. How old were you when you were cast as Dwight?

[00:17:44] Rainn Wilson:
I was 38 when I was cast as Dwight, and I had a peculiar baby face, so I appeared younger, but I was older. But by the time The Office was really kind of off and running, I was in my early 40s. And one of the great things about Dwight is you can't really put your finger on how old he is. Sometimes he seems like he's 25, and sometimes he seems like he's 45. So it's just kind of this general area, but yeah, it was very interesting for me to achieve fame kind of in my 40s after a long, long slog of trying to pay my bills and be a professional actor.

[00:18:23] Adam Grant:
It, it’s such an interesting contrast to a dynamic that I think a lot of people watch, which is the opposite. Of somebody gets too much success too soon, it goes to their head.

[00:18:31] Rainn Wilson:

[00:18:31] Adam Grant:
Um, they end up with a giant, fragile ego, they lack humility, they end up becoming more takers than givers, there's a… There’s a whole syndrome that I'm sure you've watched a lot of people fall victim to.

[00:18:41] Rainn Wilson:
Sure. Mm-hm. Mm-hm.

[00:18:42] Adam Grant:
What, what is your version of that? Because—

[00:18:42] Rainn Wilson:
That's what happened to John, and Jenna, and Mindy, and BJ, and... I'm kidding.

[00:18:50] Adam Grant:
No, but I, you know, I am struck. We've known each other for a few years now, although we’ve, we haven't met in person until now. And I'm just blown away by how down to earth you are. Like, you don't have 19 handlers. You, like, book your own flights, as far as I can tell. Is this who you are? Is this your character? Is this a function of the late stage at which you achieved your success?

[00:19:10] Rainn Wilson:
Well, it's something I've talked about a little bit recently and has been blown completely out of proportion. I talked about how, at times, not all the time, at times, I was very, very unhappy while doing The Office.

Here I am in a job that is beyond my wildest dreams. Here I am making millions of dollars, making people laugh, I'm being nominated for Emmys, movies are being offered to me, development deals, all kinds of amazing opportunities that if you had cut back to six years before, it's me not even being, being able to get the Law and Order janitor audition, let alone the job.

So, it was an incredible, uh, transformation in my life. And it, it did go to my head. There were a, a lot of times when I was really wrestling with my ego and when I was very unhappy because it wasn't enough. And it goes to that kind of essential human not-enough-ness that we're often dealing with where we can't just a hundred percent and absolutely be in total kind of grace and gratitude for the gifts that we have that are right in front of us. But we're always yearning and longing for the thing that's just outside of our grasp.

In this case, like, why didn't my movies work? Why didn't I get offered better movies? Why didn't I get this other development deal? Why didn't I get more money for this? Why did Jeremy Piven win the Emmy, for Christ's sakes?

[00:20:42] Adam Grant:
[laughter] I can't answer that question.

[00:20:45] Rainn Wilson:
But this, this is part of kind of the spiritual conundrum and, you know, I'm a member of the Baha'i faith and the son of the founder of the Baha'i faith, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, came to America about a hundred years ago.

And, I, there’s a story I love because he landed in America, he was gonna do a speaking tour, essentially, kind of like an Adam Grant does. And a reporter said, “Hey, do Baha'is believe in Satan?” And 'Abdu'l-Bahá said, “Yes, they do.” And the reporter's like, “Oh, what is Satan to a Baha’i?" And 'Abdu'l-Bahá said, “The insistent self.”

So, I love that idea that Satan is not some boogeyman creature with red scales or something like that, but that we have this battle within us. And this is in every faith tradition in the world. But I, I came up against that hard during The Office, and it was, just ask my wife. It was some very difficult times, and I had to do a lot of soul searching during that time, and therapy, and whatnot, to kind of come out on the other side of that, and, and that might be a life lesson for every single person here, to just enjoy it more.

[00:21:57] Adam Grant:
It's kind of startling to hear because this is, this is as good as it ever gets for an actor.

[00:22:01] Rainn Wilson:

[00:22:01] Adam Grant:
I’m, I’m sure you've thought many times, no matter how successful I become at anything I do in the future, there will never be another Office.

[00:22:07] Rainn Wilson:
Absolutely true.

[00:22:08] Adam Grant:
And you didn't enjoy that as much as you wished.

[00:22:10] Rainn Wilson:
I didn’t No. I wasn't in the present moment. And in Soul Boom, I draw on a number of different faith traditions, but in Buddhism, there's a concept of the hungry ghost. And in kind of Buddhist practice, we're a few billion hungry ghosts on the planet. And the hungry ghost is someone who has died, who is living in craving. Living in constant craving, and is constantly unsatisfied. So, in the death realm, they're reaching, craving, longing for, grasping. And—

[00:22:44] Adam Grant:
You just described everyone's worst stereotype of Wharton.

[00:22:49] Rainn Wilson:
But truthfully, like, why business? Is it to make money? To achieve fame? To have control? To have high status? I think these spiritual questions are very relevant no matter what your career path, but especially to, to people that are seeking to change things and shake things up through entrepreneurship. I think it's an important conversation to have.

[00:23:09] Adam Grant:
Let's talk about Soul Boom a little bit, because I was floored by this book. I expected it to be funny. It is. I didn't know it was going to be this deep and this broad. I feel like you're delivering a message that could not be both more timeless, but also more timely for a generation that's about to enter the workforce or re-enter the workforce. I've been teaching here for 15 years. I have a lot of conversations with students who feel like there's a gaping hole in their life around purpose or meaning, and they've filled it with ambition. And that sounds a lot like the hungry ghost that you're talking about. So, talk to us a little bit about your case, that we need not a religious revolution, but a spiritual revolution.

[00:23:49] Rainn Wilson:
Yeah, I think that's very well said. Um, and I really relate to that, by the way. I think that in order to really make it as an actor in show business, you have to be incredibly driven, and you have to be incredibly ambitious. You need that coupled with, with talent and a lot of luck. That Hungry Ghost phase that I went through when I was on The Office was really one driven by kind of like, uh, un, unending ambition. But... I think one of the things that I'm most grateful for is the mental health crises that I've undergone in my life.

[00:24:24] Adam Grant:
Did you just say you were grateful for having had mental health crises?

[00:24:27] Rainn Wilson:
I’m grateful for that. Yes, I am.

[00:24:29] Adam Grant:
Can you unpack that for us?

[00:24:31] Rainn Wilson:
Sure. When you turn to the teachings of the Buddha, his number one rule of the Four Noble Truths is life is suffering. When the Buddha used the word suffering with the translation, the original word in Pali Sanskrit is dukkha, and dukkha means kind of anxious discontent. Right?

So life is anxious discontent, and maybe some of you can see some heads nodding, have felt some anxious discontent in their lives. Why aren't things the way that I want them to be? Why can't it be more like this? I want this outcome. And why does this person keep acting this way? And how come I didn't get what I wanted?

And we live our lives with those gears grinding. We're wired to do that as human beings because it's what's kept us alive for hundreds of thousands of years. But... how does it come to play in the modern world? So, for me, in my twenties, when I was struggling as an actor, trying to get a, an audition for Law Order, I, uh, suffered a lot of anxiety and depression and addiction issues, loneliness.

And again, through trying to substitute purpose and meaning and vision for ambition, thinking that, ah, once I get this next big acting gig, then I'm going to feel content. Then I'm going to feel at peace, and it's always just outside of my grasp. And then I get that big movie and it doesn't do well. Oh, I need the next big movie. I need the next big thing.

And you can apply this to any career that one wants to undertake. But what it forced me to do, these mental health issues, was to get a lot of therapy and to do a lot of soul searching. A lot of meditation and praying and a lot of reading of the world's holy writings. I feel like that work that I've done on the spiritual side of being a human being and my spiritual reality has brought me great peace and vision and mission and purpose that can feed my creative life and also help me to, like, write a book and spread the word and also talk to young people about this most great crises that's happening right now.

There's two great ones. There's climate change. Maybe we'll get to that later. But the mental health crisis that's affecting young people and destroying young people and tearing their lives apart is something that spirituality does hold some answers to. So without me suffering, I never would have been driven to read and explore these issues that I've written about that I would never have allowed me to transform from a hungry ghost into the incredibly handsome international talent you see sitting before you.

[00:27:13] Adam Grant:
I love that. As you were describing your, your experience, I was thinking about what Tal Ben-Shahar calls the arrival fallacy. Uh…

[00:27:20] Rainn Wilson:

[00:27:22] Adam Grant:
The misguided belief that—

[00:27:25] Rainn Wilson:

[00:27:25] Adam Grant:
—once I get this job, or this recognition, or once I fall in love and get married, or once I have kids, fill in your once, that everything will be different and I think Hemingway put it best when he said you can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. I think your book really speaks to this in you spend a lot of time on inner work and sort of walking us through what you learned spiritually that helped with your mental health. I'd love to know what, what came out of that. And I think our audience is probably curious about that too.

[00:27:54] Rainn Wilson:
One of my favorite quotes that I, I throw around a lot is we're not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. And as deceptively simple as that phrase is, for me, that means a tremendous amount.

And the understanding that I am, in essence, a spiritual being, and I get 80 or 90 or 100 years, I hope, in this magnificent, fleshy tuxedo running around, um, is, to me, puts everything into crystalline clarity. Every day is a kind of spiritual test. Every day is a, a spiritual obstacle course where I'm gonna be beset with things that are gonna make me impatient or frustrated or feeling less than, and I get to use spiritual tools to help me combat this, you know, what, what's coming at me.

I know you've also worked a lot in positive psychology and there are so many tools from positive psychology that are essentially spiritual tools. Like gratitude is, is a great one. Meditation is a tool that works on so many different levels. So I have a daily meditation practice. And one of the things that meditation does is it al—it allows you metacognition.

And as Arthur Brooks writes about in his new book, this idea that when I'm in a meditative state, there's a part of me that gets to float above and look down at my thoughts and go, “Oh, I'm not my thoughts.” And there's part of me that gets to look down and, and have feelings. I'm like, “Oh, I'm not my feelings. Like my reality is greater than my thoughts and my feelings and certainly greater than my body.”

[00:29:40] Adam Grant:
I the way that you just articulated metacognition is really compelling. And I think—

[00:29:44] Rainn Wilson:
Well I want to say something about that.

[00:29:46] Adam Grant:
Yeah, please do.

[00:29:46] Rainn Wilson:
I wake up in the morning, I look at a couple of emails, and make my half calf latte, and my head is a beehive. So, it's just BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. I need a practice to help me gain, kind of, perspective.

And I will also say that I have this beautiful little bench out in our backyard. That's gorgeous. We have an olive tree and some flowers and there's tons of hummingbirds out there. And sometimes I'm trying to meditate. I just can't meditate for shit. And so I just turn, and I just witness the beauty and majesty and wonder of the hummingbirds and the leaves and the trees and the wind and the light through the leaves.

Anne Lamott has a great book called Help, Thanks, Wow. And those are the three prayers that you say. You say “help”, you know, God, help me, “thanks”, thank you God, gratitude; and “wow”. And then I just try and live in the wow. And if you can live in the wow, for five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, just like, this is fucking great, man! Listen to those birds, I didn't know hummingbirds chirped! Wow! Like, if you can live in that... To me it helps my day tremendously. I could take a data driven test, you know, on one of your websites and—

[00:31:01] Adam Grant:
Man after my own heart and.

[00:31:03] Rainn Wilson:
And yes, and, uh, uh, find a, a twelve and point five percent increase in well being over the course of that day when I had lived in wonder.

[00:31:11] Adam Grant:
Eh, I mean that, that makes a lot of sense to me, and there have been a few papers Showing that even when people do transcendental or loving kindness meditation, sometimes they come out more self focused.

It's about, it's like, “I want to be more loving. I'm going to be kinder. I'm going to be more generous.” How do you think about making sure that whatever reflective or contemplative practice you do isn't self centered?

[00:31:33] Rainn Wilson:
Well, I think that's a problem with how spirituality is viewed in contemporary society because, really, spirituality has become commodified and has fit into our kind of capitalist way of doing things where it's like, I'm really anxious. I'm out of balance. I'm angry all the time. Let me download this app and subscribe to this mindfulness app. Let me download this Eckhart Tolle podcast. Let me subscribe to this roomie quote of the day on Instagram. Let me go to my yoga class. And I'm doing all this so that I can reduce my anxiety. So there's, it's a transactional nature.

I'm gonna spend this money and I'm gonna invest this time so that I feel better. So it really pisses me off that spirituality, which is all about connecting with the mystic, divine, beautiful purpose of the universe in service and in community and in transcendence with others, has been commodified to such an extent that it becomes this selfish act of like, “I want my life to be better.”

[00:32:41] Adam Grant:
That was a great screed against McMindfulness. That's exactly what the world needs. If you think about the, the void of spirituality, the sense of purpose and transcendence that a lot of people are looking for in life, I remember Derek Thompson wrote a great Atlantic article a few years ago on workism, where he said that, that work has taken the place that religion and faith and spirituality traditions used to hold in our society.

I read the article and I thought, yeah, I, I teach a lot of students who, um, who pray to the high priest of hustle and who worship at the altar of status. Like you were saying earlier, I don't think we should strive to strip work of its meaning. I want people to have meaningful, worthwhile jobs. But there is a sense in which this gets blown up or reified, and work becomes too important as a, a part of somebody's identity and their contribution to the world.

And I wonder how you've navigated that. So, with this perspective that you bring to the table, how do you think about your work being meaningful but not the most important thing on earth?

[00:33:36] Rainn Wilson:
You know, I had this incredible acting teacher named Zelda Fichandler. She always talked about the shaman, and I always loved that, that she compared actors to shaman. And it sounds a little self important, but what it does is then it elevates being an actor to, I'm not just someone who memorizes lines and tries to make them sound convincing. I'm someone that gets to play all kinds of roles. in theater, in film, in TV, i-in spoken word, gets to use language and, and tell stories that help shape our culture.

And I was really fortunate with The Office because those genius writers wrote the words that I got to use to help shape culture. I remember when we were, I was talking to Greg Daniels early on. I'm like, “What do you hope to do with The Office?” And he goes, “You know, American comedy is really bad right now. I want to move American comedy, like, one degree in the right direction. It's like steering the Titanic. You have to move it by one degree and then it ends up going in the right direction.” And guess what? He succeeded!

[00:34:43] Adam Grant:
More than a degree, you reinvented American comedy.

[00:34:45] Rainn Wilson:
Amazing! So, as I allowed myself more and more to be a shaman, I'm like, oh, you know, I've got a platform ‘cause I'm an actor. I'll write this dumb book about spirituality and God and souls and the meaning of life. Maybe some young people will read it and respond to it, maybe not. I do work in climate change, we do climate change storytelling, and that's really exciting to me and, and jazzes me. So I forget what the question was, but the answer is Shaman.

[00:35:16] Adam Grant:
It's a good answer, and I think every Shaman today has a podcast.

[00:35:18] Rainn Wilson:
And I'm gonna be starting one too.

[00:35:22] Adam Grant:
We were waiting for that news.

[00:35:24] Rainn Wilson:

[00:35:28] Adam Grant:
Let's talk about the extensions of Soul Boom into some of the other work that you're doing. So, I remember when I read The Geography of Bliss and thought it was an ingenious look from a grump's perspective at, uh, what might actually drive happiness. I was overjoyed when I found out that there was gonna be a TV show that you were gonna host.

[00:35:46] Rainn Wilson:

[00:35:46] Adam Grant:
Trying to find the world's happiest place.

[00:35:48] Rainn Wilson:

[00:35:48] Adam Grant:
So, you've scoured the world for happiness secrets. What have you learned?

[00:35:54] Rainn Wilson:
We got to go to Iceland, one of the world's happiest places. Bulgaria, one of the world's unhappiest places. Uh, Ghana, West Africa, one of the most optimistic places in the world. Thailand, one of the most kind of spiritually connected places. And then I got to bring it back home to Los Angeles, which is a god awful, culture-less void to try and bring what I've learned back home. Although there are a lot of hummingbirds. Too many. Frickin hummingbirds, if you ask me. Gotta do something about that.

[00:36:23] Adam Grant:
So you went to five places?

[00:36:23] Rainn Wilson:
Five places, it's amazing. I, um, in the book, I reference the Grant study from Harvard University, which I'm sure you know tons about, you know, and they followed these 300 men for like 80 years to find what made them have a good life. And it all boiled down to essentially connections, and having better, deeper, richer, more frequent connections.

And guess what? We live in a time of increasing isolation when we're all doing this all day and connecting less and less. And that's really what I learned out on the road. And it was so beautiful to see whether it was, you know, these beautiful Valkyrie Viking women in Iceland singing and holding hands and walking, doing a cold plunge into the Arctic O-Ocean. Whether it was a communal group of people in Ghana growing cocoa beans and collaborating together and trying to kind of uplift their community. Whether it's in Thailand where people spend their birthday not receiving presents. But on their birthday, giving to others. They spend their birthday going and feeding the poor and tending to the, to the monks and monasteries and temples and giving of their time, which I thought was a wonderful inverse.

And in Los Angeles, where everyone has a podcast. But, it, again, it really was just about these beautiful ways that humans connect and how that's where the work lies. The work lies in just bringing people together in unique ways, creating bonds of love and unity and community and social change based in grassroots movements of loving people working together.

[00:38:06] Adam Grant:
I, I love this idea of, of turning your birthday into giving as opposed to getting. I'm also struck as you, as you talk about the Iceland experience. Durkheim called it collective effervescence. The idea that we're gonna be immersed in a group with shared energy around a common purpose. And he described that as, as the most transcendent experience that people have.

We were at the Eagles game on Sunday, and there was an amazing A.J. Brown touchdown. And the whole stadium erupted, and all of a sudden it hit me: I don't have that in my life, other than going to a sporting event. Like, we feel that at the family level, but the community level? That’s gone.

[00:38:41] Rainn Wilson:
Hmm. I think you put your finger on something really important. But what, uh, religion, I believe, can give folks at its best, is a group of common folks coming together seeking transcendence. Seeking communion, seeking connection with nature, with God, with eternity. Living, especially if they're doing service to others and serving the poor and coming together to, to give of their time and their energy and their schedule and their status to serve other people. And I do think that humanity is missing something by having lost that transcendent need to commune in community. Let's put the commune back in community.

[00:39:30] Adam Grant:
Well put. I think it's time for a lightning round.

[00:39:32] Rainn Wilson:

[00:39:32] Adam Grant:
Alright, here we go.

[00:39:33] Rainn Wilson:

[00:39:37] Adam Grant:
You’re fired. First question, what kind of bear is best?

[00:39:39] Rainn Wilson:
Sun bear. Tibetan sun bear.

[00:39:42] Adam Grant:
Favorite Office episode?

[00:39:44] Rainn Wilson:
Uh, the injury.

[00:39:46] Adam Grant:
Favorite Office character other than Dwight?

[00:39:48] Rainn Wilson:

[00:39:53] Adam Grant:
Um, favorite Jim prank on Dwight?

[00:39:53] Rainn Wilson:
Putting the desk in the bathroom.

[00:39:58] Adam Grant:
Oh, classic. I, I thought you were gonna go for when the phone was full of nickels and then you slammed yourself in the head.
[00:40:03] Rainn Wilson:
Yes, that's the, that's the psychology one, because that was based in, uh, in, uh, yeah, Pavlovian theory, yeah.

[00:40:09] Adam Grant:
Pavlovian conditioning. That's why I loved it most. Okay. Your favorite, um, scene that you improvised on The Office?

[00:40:16] Rainn Wilson:
The scene where Michael had two Michael heads and I was dressed as a Sith Lord and we were having a conversation in Halloween about firing Dwight and, and I was like, “Don't fire Dwight. Yeah, should I? I don't know.” That was all improvised.

[00:40:29] Adam Grant:
We have to rewatch that. What is the Dwight attribute that's most like you?

[00:40:34] Rainn Wilson:
Sees the world in an offbeat, odd, fractured way.

[00:40:40] Adam Grant:
And his trait that's least like you?

[00:40:42] Rainn Wilson:
Uh, bullying.

[00:40:45] Adam Grant:
Touché. Something you've rethought lately.

[00:40:50] Rainn Wilson:
I've rethought assault weapons bans due to—

[00:40:54] Adam Grant:
Revisionist History.

[00:40:54] Rainn Wilson:
Malcolm Gladwell's exploration of that particular issue around gun control on his podcast.

[00:41:02] Adam Grant:
Me too. It was a great episode. This, this one, I have to say, comes from a student. As a person born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I have to ask, how much time have you actually spent in Sc-Scranton, Pennsylvania?

[00:41:13] Rainn Wilson:
So, one of my favorite events that ever happened in my life. The Office had just started. I got a call, and they were like, "They want to pay you an extraordinary amount of money and sign autographs and help open the Steamtown Mall.”

Remember, I'm 40 years old, I've been broke my whole life, trying to make it as an actor, and I was like, “Oh my god, this is incredible.” So I land at the Scranton airport. The mayor's entourage picks me up with a f-full retinue of police cars, and a limousine, and full sirens, and the mayor is like, “Come on in.” Like, they’re making me an honorary Lackawanna County Sheriff, and they're giving me the key to the city, I was bigger than Justin Bieber, you know, for a day, and when The Office ended we went to Scranton and we did a parade. We stayed up till 4 a.m. All the bars stayed open and it was, it was just nuts. So here's to you, great city of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

[00:42:17] Adam Grant:
Woo! You’ve been doing a lot of work on climate change. You, in part, have a mission to make climate change fun and even occasionally funny. Can you tell us in a sentence how to do that?

[00:42:29] Rainn Wilson:
One sentence? Sure, I can do this in one sentence. And here continues the sentence into saying that I've been working with this non profit called Arctic Base Camp and now Climate Base Camp, and we try and speak science to culture and to power through using hysterical media activations that are attention grabbing and targeted towards the movable middle because too much climate work focuses only on converting the already converted or else arguing with the people that will never be converted of the importance of climate change.

[00:43:05] Adam Grant:
That was a sentence. Woo! Um, do, do you have a favorite example of one of those activations?

[00:43:14] Rainn Wilson:
We towed an iceberg from Greenland to COP26 conference, climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and set it up in front of the conference center so that it was melting as the attendees were going into the conference. And we bottled the water from the iceberg and gave it out along with data points about the melting global ice sheet. And we got a lot of very interesting media play, and it was also very hard hitting.

[00:43:40] Adam Grant:

[00:43:41] Rainn Wilson:

[00:43:41] Adam Grant:
Excellent. I have a lot of takeaways from this conversation. I learned that you have a real vendetta against Law and Order.

[00:43:48] Rainn Wilson:
And a little bit Jeremy Piven.

[00:43:50] Adam Grant:
A little bit. I wasn't gonna say it. What's a closing piece of advice or wisdom you'd love to share with our audience?

[00:43:57] Rainn Wilson:
I had an acting teacher, André Gregory, who had the movie My Dinner with André, which everyone should see. And I met with him once. And I told him I was feeling pessimistic and kind of run down. And he grabbed my arm. And he was like 80 years old. He grabbed my arm, and he was like, “DON'T! Don't do it. You need to be optimistic. You need to bring hope. You need to feel joy. Don't get cynical. You cannot get pessimistic. If you're pessimistic, if you're cynical, they win. The forces of darkness want you to feel pessimistic, so you'll sit on your couch all day and do nothing. You've got to keep hope alive.”

And I really think that that is the clarion call for young people these days. That there is a lot of hope humanity can transform and come through these very difficult and dark times to a much more beautiful, vital, connected world that's not pie in the sky, naive, eye rolling, daydreaming. That's absolutely true and it's something we can all work for even in a very small way.

[00:45:05] Adam Grant:
Beautifully said. Thank you for coming, Rainn Wilson.

[00:45:09] Rainn Wilson:
Thank you.

[00:45:10] Adam Grant:
Woo! Thank you.

[00:45:10] Rainn Wilson:
Thank you.

[00:45:11] Adam Grant:
Thank you.

[00:45:12] Rainn Wilson:
Thank you.

[00:45:20] Adam Grant:
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.

[00:45:47] Rainn Wilson:
What eats hummingbirds?
[00:45:50] Adam Grant:
I, I feel like your alter ego would know the answer to this.

[00:45:53] Rainn Wilson:
Yes. That needs to be an app. Like Ask Dwight. Like Chat GPT.

[00:45:59] Adam Grant:
I think a Dwight GPT would be a big hit.

[00:46:01] Rainn Wilson:
Dwight GPT. It would be Idiot Hawks.