Distinguished Guest - Derek Sivers

Today's post was written by Derek Sivers... 

Derek is in many ways an example of what success in the next economy looks like.  We share a number of common perspectives - this blog post is one that I felt was particularly relevant to Heroic Unschooling and with his blessings I just had to share it with you.

Derek began his career as a professional musician and circus clown, before creating CD Baby in 1998.  CD Baby became the largest seller of independent music online, with $100M in sales for 150,000 musicians before he sold it in 2008 for $22M, and gave  the proceeds to a charitable trust for music education.

Derek is a frequent speaker at the TED Conference, with over 5 million views of his talks, and an author of 34 books, including “Anything You Want” which shot to #1 on all of its Amazon categories.

Happy, Smart, and Useful

There are three things to consider when making life-size decisions:

  • what makes you happy
  • what’s smart (long-term good for you)
  • what’s useful to others

We have a tendency to forget one of these. For example:

smart and useful (not happy)

This is the stereotype of the strict parent that says:

“You will go to the best school, get perfect grades, get a degree in law or medicine, and make lots of money. What you want does not matter. This is what’s best for you and your family.”

Smart and useful isn’t bad. It’s rational, like a machine. But happiness is the oil. Without it, the friction kills the engine.

happy and smart (not useful)

This is the stereotype of the “lifestyle design” or self-help addict:

Always learning, always improving, and obsessively focused on how to be happy and create the perfect life.

They look for “passive income” instead of focusing on doing something that’s really valuable to others.

Happy and smart isn’t bad. The self-focus feels great at first. But you can’t actually pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Ultimately you must be lifted by those around you.

happy and useful (not smart)

This is the stereotype of the charity volunteers:

After getting expensive university degrees, they spend years flying full-time to exotic impoverished places to dig wells and thatch roofs.

But if a graduate’s time could be worth $200 per hour, yet they’re doing work that locals could do better for $10 per hour (and without airfare and hotels), then they’re actually doing a disservice to others. Read “Efficient Charity: Do Unto Others” and “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems” for more thoughts on that.

In this same category are people who stay at the same job for life without improvement, and the musicians who always perform at the local venue but never make a good recording.

Happy and useful isn’t bad. They’re doing good for the world, so it’s hard to find fault. But they’ve got great intentions but lame strategies — wasted effort and unused potential.

just happy (not smart or useful)

This is the parable of the Mexican fisherman.

“Just be happy. That’s all that matters.” It sounds so simple, it must be profoundly true, right?

But, like Aesop’s fable of “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, you’ll be full of regret if you think of nothing but today, and don’t prepare for tough times.

And you’ll be all kinds of unrewarded if you only serve yourself, not others.


I sound critical, but I’m writing this to myself as a reminder.

When a life or plan feels ultimately unsatisfying, I find it’s because I’ve forgotten to include:

  • what makes me happy
  • what’s smart (long-term good for me)
  • what’s useful to others

If your goal is for your child to learn how to be Happy, Smart, and Useful then perhaps you should ask yourself how they're going to learn what each element is for them and how to put them together.

Derek's success story is remarkable, and even though his approach is simple, it's rare because no one teaches it.  I don't like the idea of hoping for happy, smart, and useful to happen by accident when we can teach our children to do it ON PURPOSE.

If you agree, check out the Heroic Family Unschooling Experience to teach your child to become HAPPY, SMART, AND USEFUL on purpose!