in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

Podcast #906: Stop Being a Complainer

My flight was awful. The restaurant’s service was terrible. The traffic was horrible. My boss is the worst. Our culture is the stupidest.

Whenever we get together with other people, we hear lots of complaints, and plenty come out of our own mouths.

All this complaining may be ubiquitous, but it’s not entirely innocuous. Complaining puts us in a negative mood, hurts our health, and damages our relationships.

If you’ve ever wanted to complain less, my guest today has some advice on how to break the complaining habit and embrace a more positive and proactive life. His name is Will Bowen, and he’s the founder of the Complaint Free movement and the author of A Complaint Free World. Today on the show, Will first defines what constitutes a complaint. He then shares the five main reasons people offer complaints, so you can learn to recognize what triggers yours. Will also explains how to deal with being on the receiving end of each type of complaint, so you don’t have to listen to the complaining of others.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. “My flight was awful.” “The restaurant service was terrible.” “The traffic was horrible.” “My boss is the worst.” “Our culture is the stupidest.” Whenever we get together with other people, we hear lots of complaints, and plenty come out of our own mouths. All those complaining may be ubiquitous, but it’s not entirely innocuous. Complaining puts us in a negative mood, hurts our health, and damages our relationships. If you’ve ever wanted to complain less, my guest today has some advice on how to break the complaining habit and embrace a more positive proactive life.

His name is Will Bowen, and he’s the founder of the Complaint Free Movement and the author of The Complaint Free World. Today in the show, Will first defines what constitutes a complaint. He then shares the five main reasons people offer complaints so you can learn to recognize what triggers yours. Will also explains how to deal with being on the receiving end of each type of complaint, so you don’t have to listen to the complaining of others. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Alright. William Bowen, welcome to the show.

Will Bowen: Thank you. Please call me Will.

Brett McKay: Alright, well, Will, you wrote a book and you’re the founder of the Complaint Free Movement. What’s the story behind that, and how did it originate?

Will Bowen: I was actually teaching a class in Kansas City, Missouri on prosperity in 2006, and it was based on the Edwene Gaines’ book, The Four Spiritual Laws of Prosperity. So, she recommends that people go 21 days in a row without complaining because if you wanna attract things to you, you can’t be positive and grateful at the same time you’re complaining. So, she threw out this idea that people should go 21 days in a row without complaining. What I added to it was a mindfulness tool to keep you on track. I handed out 250 of these little purple bracelets, like the Live Strong bracelets, and I encourage people to put them on their wrist, and every time they caught themselves complaining, switch the bracelet to the other wrist. Because your goal is to get 21 days in a row, you’re on day one, if you complain, you switch the bracelet to the other wrist, you’re back on day one. If you’re on day six, you’re back on day one.

Anyway, I handed out 250 of these, and this was pre-smartphones, pre-social media. You had to pick up the phone to call somebody, pretty much, or send him an email, and just people telling people, this exploded underneath me. I had no idea this was gonna take off, and within 30 days, we had to request for 9000 bracelets, and now we’re at 15 million, over 15 million around the world, encouraging people to take this challenge, put a bracelet on your wrist, and every time you catch yourself complaining, switch to the other wrist and start over. And it’s one thing to do something like that, but it’s another for people to actually complete it. And we have had thousands of people in every country on every continent go 21 days in a row without complaining, with some pretty amazing results.

Brett McKay: Well, you talk about all the benefits people experience when they stop complaining that you’ve seen both in people you’ve observed first-hand when they took the no-complaint challenge, and then also from the research you’ve looked at. And what you found is that when you stop complaining, it has all these benefits. Like you start seeing the world in a more positive light, your mood improves, your health can improve, and it can also help your relationships, improve your relationships, and I hope we can talk about that more here in a bit. So if you wanna get these benefits from stopping your complaining, I think it’ll be helpful to know what a complaint is so you can recognize it. So how do you define a complaint?

Will Bowen: The dictionary defines complain as to express grief, pain, or discontent. To express it. So, by its definition, it must be expressed. A lot of people… Because I do 40 speaking events a year, I invariably get somebody who says they’re gonna change their bracelet with every negative thought. Well, that’s a great idea, but we think, on average, 45,000 thoughts a day, most of them are negative because of humans’ negativity bias. So, the better thing to do is to catch the thoughts as they come out of your mouth, to try and replace them with something positive. So the dictionary defines complain as to express grief, pain, or discontent. My definition of complain is an energetic statement that focuses on what is missing and what you’re lacking rather than what is present and what you’re grateful for.

Brett McKay: Well, some people might hear this idea of no-complaint challenge, and they think, “Well, if you don’t complain, how do you tell someone they did something wrong, or you’re missing something on your plate that you ordered at a restaurant?” How do you bring that up so you can correct the mistake if you can’t complain?

Will Bowen: It is not complaining to speak directly and only to the person who can resolve your issue. If I have a problem with anything and I speak directly to the person who can resolve it, that’s not complaining. Let me give you a quote from that Eckhart Tolle that explains it really well. This is from A New Earth. He says, “Complaining is not to be confused with informing someone of a mistake or a deficiency so that it can be put right.” And he goes on to say, “And to refrain from complaining doesn’t necessarily mean putting up with bad quality or behavior.” He says, “There’s no ego in telling the waiter your soup is cold and needs to be heated up.” If you stick to the facts, which are always neutral. “ow dare you serve me cold soup?” That’s complaining.

So, complaining always has this, “How dare you do this to me?”, the center of the universe. There is a sense of entitlement. It’s an interesting thing that in all of my research, and I’ve literally read everything I can find on the subject, the more people have, the more money they make, the more privilege they have, the more they complain, not the less. Because their expectations become so high, they become very entitled.

Brett McKay: Okay, so, you distinguish a complaint from just passing along information to correct the defect, by a complaint has a negative emotion or energy tied with it?

Will Bowen: Yup, like recently, I ordered a $200 Ninja coffee maker from Amazon. But what showed up, what I realized when somebody had bought a nice Ninja coffee machine from Amazon, then packaged up their old Mr. Coffee Machine, send it back to Amazon, Amazon didn’t check. This was a few years ago, so it wasn’t actually recently, but anyway. And they sent it to me. So, when I reached out to Amazon and said, “Hey, you sent me the wrong coffee maker. This is probably what happened,” that’s not a complaint. I call that a request for accountability. In any interaction, there is an expectation of some reciprocity. This money for getting this. This behavior for achieving this, whatever. And so, as long as you are reaching out directly and only to the person who can resolve your issue, it’s not complaining; it’s a request for accountability.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned that you’ve done a lot of research on complaining and particularly why we complain. And you found that there are basically five reasons why we complain, and they all have to do with status and trying to get our social needs met. And basically, we complain to feel good by increasing social status. And you’ve got an acronym for these five reasons we complain, and that acronym is GRIPE. So let’s start with the G. What does the G stand for in GRIPE?

Will Bowen: Well, before I answer that, let me acknowledge that the five reasons is the result of my good friend, Dr. Robin Kowalski at Clemson University. I bill myself as the world authority on complaining, but this is simply because of all the studying I do, but she does the research. And she came up with five reasons that people complain, but I found them to be a bit academic. So with her kind permission, I re-labeled each one. And so the G stands for “get attention.” We have a human need to connect with other people. When I speak at conferences, one of the things I’ll throw out is, “As you walked from your hotel room, came in here, and had a seat, did someone acknowledge you? Did they look you in the eyes and give you a half smile as you pass them? Did they say hello in the elevator?” And the answer is always yes, because human beings live in a social culture. And so we have this need to be acknowledged by others. We don’t have a need to acknowledge others; we have a need to be acknowledged. The only reason we acknowledge others is to get acknowledgement in return.

So, complaining is simply a way of trying to make a connection. It’s simply a way of, “I wanna talk to you, but I don’t know how. So the easiest thing to do is to bitch about how the Miami Heat did on Tuesday and see if you’re a sports fan, then we have a connection.” Or this time of the year, I live in South Florida. The weather is the favorite target because it rains almost every day, and last night, we had such a thunderstorm that literally woke me up. And so people get together and they go, “Oh gosh, the weather is so terrible.” And that is a complaint. Now to say, “We had quite a thunderstorm last night,” that’s not a complaint; that’s a statement of fact. But they get in with this energy, which is actually an invitation to the other person to respond in kind, which develops that connection, gets people talking.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s a socially acceptable way to get attention. Like one way you could get attention would be like, “Hey. I had the best vacation in the world, my kids are awesome, and I just got a raise.” If you told that to people, they’d be like, “Oh,” they’ve kind of encouraged resentment and envy. But you can complain about, “Well, this bad thing happened to me,” and you’re gonna get attention, but you won’t get the resentment, possibly.

Will Bowen: Yeah, and we’ll get into that, people complaining to brag or inspire envy. It is socially acceptable, as you say, to complain. It is common. It is expected. The analogy is, when I was a boy, I’m 63, when I was a boy, I would go to my pediatrician and he would always have a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, so would my mother. And I had asthma. And they couldn’t understand why I had asthma. It’s because everybody… I had asthma, but it was activated by all the people smoking and blowing smoke in my face. We are surrounded by complaints in the same way that we were surrounded in the ’60s by cigarette smoke. It was just common. You didn’t even notice it. Nowadays, if you’re a non-smoker like me, if I get on an elevator with somebody who smokes, I’m like, “Oh. God, that is repellent, that smell.” So, complaining is the same way, we’re not truly aware of how much we do it, and it gets the social benefits. Ergo, it’s a go-to move.

Brett McKay: So how should people deal with someone who complains to get attention?

Will Bowen: Verbal Jiu-Jitsu. What you wanna do is when you walk up to that person, you wanna realize all they wanna do is connect with you. And they don’t know how, so their default method is complaining. So you say some version of what is going well with anything. I know that sounds a little stilted. So, what are you grateful for? What are you happy about? Et cetera. As you said, it’s not okay for me to tell you what I’m grateful for and what I’m happy about. Then I’m bragging. Not cool. But if I ask you, “What’s going well? What are you grateful for? What are you happy with?” Or as the clerk and my grandfather’s store used to always say, “What’s the good word?” If you proactively let people like that know that they can share good things with you, you know “Oh, I saw a double rainbow this morning.” “Oh, I discovered a great restaurant,” or “Have you seen the last episode of Succession? I think they nailed the landing,” they get to know that they can have that interaction with you, by simply asking them for something positive rather than something negative.

And I wanna draw a quick distinction. We tend to use positive, meaning pollyannaish. It’s not what it means. Positive means what is present. Negative means what is missing. Complaining is always about what’s missing. So we want to ask them about something that is present that they’re happy for.

Brett McKay: I like that idea. Okay, so, the G and GRIPE is for “get attention.” Now, we got R, and R is for “remove responsibility.” How does that work?

Will Bowen: Complaining removes responsibility. First of all, I’m gonna send you kudos, I’ve done… I was telling my girlfriend this morning, I’ve done probably two or three thousand of these interviews, and the way you prepared for this was, except… I’m talking on a microphone you sent me? Who does that? That’s really cool. So…

Brett McKay: Well, thank you so much.

Will Bowen: Yes. However, if, let’s say I didn’t wanna do this, I wanted to go out for breakfast, I could say, “Well, now he sent me a microphone that he wants me to use and I gotta plug that in and I gotta do this,” and I would start building a case around… The real issue is, let’s say I didn’t wanna do this podcast, which I definitely did. But if I didn’t, I could complain about the circumstances, and we’ll always find them, no matter how silly they are. I could say, “Oh, I don’t wanna plug in that stupid microphone, what if it doesn’t work with my system,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t matter; your mind takes the circumstances surrounding something you’ve been asked to do, and kids are great at this, and then we complain about the circumstances as a way of wanting to be let off the hook.

In other words, I could say… Send you an email and say, “Hey, Brett, I’m sorry, I just don’t think I can do this because I don’t have time to plug in my,” whatever. And so, we complain about the circumstances because you never wanna go to a person and say, “Hey, Brett, you know that interview you asked me to do two months ago, and I said, yes? I don’t wanna do it.” We don’t wanna do that. So we complain to remove ourselves from responsibility, which allows us to save face. Again, remember, complaining is always about increasing or at least maintaining our social status. So it’s my attempt to get out of it without making myself to blame, but the circumstances. I like to say that in this case, people rationalize. And by that, I mean they tell you rational lies until you let them off the hook. So that’s complaining to be removed from responsibility.

Brett McKay: And how should you approach someone who is complaining to remove responsibility?

Will Bowen: If someone is complaining to be removed from responsibility, what you wanna do is keep them on the hook. But you don’t do that by trying to solve their problems. You do it by putting it back in their lap. So let’s say I said, “Brett, I don’t have time to hook up this new microphone, so I can’t do the interview.” The response is, “Will, if it were possible, how might you do it?” Stole this from Tony Robbins. It’s brilliant, it works, I use it all the time, because the thing is, if you would have told me how to set up the microphone, I would have probably come up with something else if I didn’t wanna do the interview. The complaining to remove responsibility is endless. People have got tons of things to complain about. So we don’t wanna deal with the issue; we wanna say, “If it were possible, how might you do it?” The implication being, “Who does it? You, not me.” So there you go. People complain to remove from responsibility; you keep them on the hook by saying, “If it were possible, how might you do it?”

Brett McKay: Will, so you mentioned earlier that we complain to get attention ’cause it’s a socially acceptable way to get attention that doesn’t inspire envy. But you also said that sometimes we can complain to inspire envy in others. So how can complaining help us inspire and envy in others?

Will Bowen: This, to me, is one of the most complex and interesting aspects of it, and this is one of the things that I just continue to marvel at, and anything I can find on the subject, I read. We complain as a socially acceptable way to brag. As we’ve talked earlier, if I told you how gorgeous my car is, how wonderful my boat is, how beautiful my home is, how beautiful my girlfriend is, how perfect my children are, it draws into… It’s an invidious comparison in your mind. You begin to make a negative comparison in your own mind, as a result of that, to yourself. And so, what I can do instead is say things like… If somebody wanted to brag they owned a Tesla, they would say, “You know, the worst part about a Tesla is finding a place to plug it in. The worst thing about having a beautiful girlfriend is that it takes her an extra 20 minutes to get ready any time you wanna go anywhere. The worst part about having lots of money is figuring out where to invest it.” What have I done? I have just bragged to you, but I’ve made it a negative.

My favorite story is about my buddy, Brian, who is, yeah, I would say of all my friends, he’s by far… He has the most money. And he bought a million-dollar boat for his home in Lake of the Ozarks, and the interesting thing is that we were at a coffee shop, and he noticed some friends walking in, [chuckle] and as the friends were passing our table, he said very loudly to me, “You know, Will, if you spend a million dollars on a boat, you think it would come with a better trailer.” So he said it loudly enough in the presence of our other friends to inform them that he had spent a million dollars on a boat, but they literally walked over to ask about it.

So, he had just bragged. And the way we tend to do this, what I’m giving you is some sort of a, as you know from reading the book, is a overly simplified version of this, but people complain to make themselves look better than other people. They complain about the boss at work, “My boss is an idiot,” the implication being that, “If I ran this place, things would go smoothly.” We complain about other people. The most interesting aspect of this, and this I realized sitting in a tiny, little airport somewhere out in the Midwest, some woman was complaining to another woman whom she just met about the town that we were flying out of, and it was a town, not a city. And the woman was saying she had lived there for 25 years, and it was the worst place in the world to live. And she talked about the corrupt government, the inadequate policing, the crime, the pollution. Now, mind you, she had just said she’d lived there for 25 years, right? So why would she go into why her hometown sucks? It’s because we can inspire envy by having it the best, or the worst. And people complain… It’s still bragging. It’s two sides of the same coin.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So what do you do when you see someone complaining to inspire and be… They’re doing the humble-brag type thing?

Will Bowen: Yeah, what you wanna do is you want to compliment the opposite, I call it. So in other words, if someone at work, you’re getting ready to have a meeting and everybody’s there except one person who may or may not be chronically late, and somebody says… Let’s say his name is Tom. He says, “You know, we could start this meeting, but Julie is late as usual,” and everybody laughs. But the point I always make is that Tom is not telling you Julie is late. Tom is telling you he’s on time. So people complain about the way other people drive, they complain about anything and everything as a way of trying to make themselves look better. So you want to compliment the opposite by saying, “You know what I love about you, Tom? You’re always on time.” If someone complains about the way someone dresses, “You know what I love about you, or like about you, is you always dress so stylishly.” Complaining about another driver, “It’s great that you’re a safe and courteous driver.” And if you do that, the person no longer feels the need to use that particular complaint to inspire envy or brag, humble-brag.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Another reason people will complain is power. How can complaints give us power?

Will Bowen: This is probably the most diverse reason that people complain, and I loved the stuff that Robin wrote about this. Most of her stuff is available on Google Scholar. Anyway, people complain for power, because it’s the animal mind, the reptilian brain that we have, which I believe we have a divine brain and we have a reptilian brain; we have a divine nature and an ego, however you wanna put it. The fearful side of us knows that the more people we get on our side, in any given circumstances, the more power we have, because people represent power. So, all social media is based on complaining for power. Politics is of course based on complaining for power. If you don’t have a complaint, you don’t have a campaign. In my speeches, I always do this little shtick where I go, “Alright, imagine I’m running for Senate here in Florida, and this is my commercial: ‘Hi, I’m Will Bowen, and I’m running for Senate in the great State of Florida, and I want you to know that I think everybody in Washington is doing a great job. And I want you to elect me and send me there so we can keep everything exactly the way it is. Vote will for status quo.'”

And then of course, I say, “Do you think I’m getting elected?”, and everybody says, “No, of course not.” You’ve got to enrage to engage, and the worst thing in a political thing is having people who are not engaged. And so lastly, that plays into the media. All news is based on what is wrong and what is missing. So, people complain for power. They complain to get other people on their side, because most people are neutral about most issues. And so people will come up to you to complain to get you on their side. And the way this often happens, and I see this here, where I live, I live in a complex in Key Largo, Florida, one of my neighbors will come up and complain to me about one of the other neighbors. Why? They’re trying to build a base of power. They get me on their side.

Brett McKay: What should you do in that kind of situation?

Will Bowen: Here’s what you wanna say. If you’ve got two people complaining to try and get you on their side, to purchase your alliance, your power, for the price of a complaint, you say, “It sounds like the two of you have a lot to talk about.” Which is a way of saying, “you have a lot to talk about, not me.” And you just keep saying that. “Sounds like the two of you have a lot to talk about.” And you just refuse to engage. It’s a way of letting people know, as my mother used to say, and I told the story in the book, I would go to my mother trying to get her on my side against one of my two or both of my two brothers, then she would say, “Sweety, I’m Switzerland. I’m neutral.” So, this is a good way of letting people know you’re neutral.

Brett McKay: Okay, another reason we complain is to excuse poor performance. What does that look like, and what do you do when you encounter someone complaining to excuse poor performance?

Will Bowen: The E in GRIPE, “excuse poor performance,” is the past tense of the R in GRIPE, which is “remove responsibility.” In “remove responsibility,” I might say, “Hey, Brett, I’d like you to do something for me.” “Hey, Brett, we just met. Would you go pick up my dry cleaning?”, or whatever, “Drive me to the airport.” You would complain even before you’ve given it a try: “Here are the reasons why I can’t do it,” but you’re complaining about the circumstances. Remove responsibility is usually like, “Hey, Will, I would love to do that, but… ” Now, excuse poor performance is the past tense. You’ve tried something, you didn’t do a good job, but you don’t wanna look me in the eye and say, “Hey, Will, I kinda gave half… Gave this my try.” So I blame the circumstances: “It’s the traffic, it’s the weather, it’s the slow person here, it’s the toll booth, it’s the,” whatever.

And the challenge is, if, let’s say, [chuckle] I don’t know, I asked you to go do something and you came back and had done it wrong, and I ask you why you did it wrong, what people do is they complain about the circumstances to be let off the hook. And they don’t want you to blame them, and if you blame them, they get defensive. So it’s a lose-lose situation. What you need to do is to release this time’s performance and to begin to ask them to think about the hypothetical. So here’s your question: “How do you plan to improve next time? How do you plan to improve next time?” Because no one is defensive about next time. And so, they will say things like, “Oh well, next time, I’ll allow an extra 10 minutes in case the bridge is up when I’m traveling across in Miami,” or “I will plan for this circumstance,” or “I will address this beforehand.”

You’re getting… You can’t go back and change what they just did wrong, and if you ask them about, “Why did you do this? Why didn’t you plan for this? Why did you think about this?”, they’ll just defend it, and they won’t improve next time. So you wanna get ’em to think possibility, so you say, “How do you plan to improve next time?”

Brett McKay: So something you talk about in the book is that complaining can hurt our relationships. How does complaining negatively impact relationships?

Will Bowen: The greatest gift you can give other people is the gift of your own happiness. Most people come home and dump on their family every bad thing that happened during their day. And when people bring home negative energy, we take it in. We’re all energetic beings, some people more than others. And so, again, it is not complaining to say, “I struggled with this today.” You can even talk about, “This person was rude to me.” But if you are, “How dare this happen to me?”, then you are using your family members or people in your lives, you’re using their ears as relationships.

I’ve got a new version of my book that’s coming out next year, it’ll be the third edition, and I just finished it. And a study that was not in… I don’t think was in the version you read, they studied a group of high school girls that got together every day for lunch to complain. And the girls complained about everything, anything, everything: Their friends, the homework, the weather, their parents. And what they discovered was that, on one day, the girl who was kind of the ring leader of complaining, which there usually is, was absent. And so, the girls still complained, but they complained about her, and how negative she was and how much she complained. So, even complainers don’t like complaining.

So complaining is destructive to our relationships in that it causes us to diminish the positivity, the good feelings, the good vibes in the relationship. But it also causes us to look for more to complain about. If I complain to one of my neighbors about one of the other neighbors, and we establish what I consider to be a good connection, we get attention from each other, then I’m gonna be watching that third neighbor a whole lot more as a way of giving me fodder for when I’m with the first neighbor to complain about. So, it actually then lowers my experience and my expectation from that other person. So, complaining is bad for relationships in that it lowers the energy in the relationship, and it causes us to look for more to complain about.

Brett McKay: Maybe that’s another reason people complain, is for camaraderie. I mean, you can build a relationship just around complaining. I’m thinking maybe guys in the military and more complaining about the food and being in the trench, and it’s sort of like, “Oh, we’re gonna go complain about this thing that we’re sharing together.” But you say, “Well, even though you might have a sense of camaraderie, there are still downsides to that.”

Will Bowen: You know what, man, you just put that brilliantly. You really synopsized it really well. As you were saying that I even thought, no, not some relationships, I would say most relationships, begin in complaining, and stay that way. That’s why, to me, I’ve always found it fascinating that someone will look for a job, find a job, dress up for a job, interview for a job, tell their people they’re so excited they got the job, and then spend the rest of their tenure bitching about the job. And it’s done for those reasons: Get attention, remove responsibility, brag. “If I was the boss, everything would be good.” But it also builds that connection at work. There’s a famous Friends episode about that, is that, once Chandler moved into management, he was no longer invited to lunch because everybody got together at lunch and complained about the boss.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I feel like complaining can build a camaraderie, but it’s not the strongest source of it, ’cause it carries so many downsides. Like everything starts to take a negative tint, which can hurt the group’s morale. And then again, it’s just gonna keep people from actually being proactive and fixing problems, because they just get so much pleasure from grousing about something, but they never do anything about it. And there’s also, besides complaining having downsides for a group, it has downsides for individuals, too. You start seeing everything with a negative bent, it can hurt your health, it hurts your mood, it hurts your relationships. So let’s say someone wants to make a change, maybe they think they complain too much, and they wanna see how life would be different if they stop complaining so often. So what can they do to break the complaining habit?

Will Bowen: The best way to do this is to take the Complaint Free Challenge. Put a bracelet on your wrist, every time you catch yourself complaining, move it to the other wrist. I’m not getting rich on this. But it’s a way of having a little bit of skin in the game, because the thing is, the average person complains 15 to 30 times every day. They have no awareness they’re doing it. My little joke is the complaining is like bad breath: You notice it when it comes out of somebody else’s mouth, but not when it comes out of your own. You’ve got to first become aware of it. And this being a mindfulness tool, it has… I will put it out there, that no one has a greater success with helping people eliminate complaining than this 21-day challenge, and I know that from the thousands of emails I’ve gotten from all over the world.

Brett McKay: So a lot of people might discover once they stop complaining, they might not have much to talk about, ’cause most of what they talk about is complaining. The number of times when I get together with friends, usually the conversation talks about, “Well, here’s this crummy thing that happened.”

Will Bowen: Right.

Brett McKay: So do you talk about instead when you’re not complaining?

Will Bowen: Well, and that’s the thing, you just nailed something really important. Not only will you get with your friends and someone will throw out a complaint; complaining always goes in degrees of higher severity. Therefore, to keep the conversation up, it is incumbent on someone to out-complain the first person. So, it just gets worse and worse and worse and worse. So what you do is, you have things that you wanna talk about that are good when you get with people. So for example, if I was to meet up with somebody in Miami today, I would say, “Did you see that beautiful rainbow?” “Wasn’t it great that the Heat crushed it on Tuesday night?”, which I didn’t follow the game, but think in advance, what is going to elicit positive responses from the particular group you’re going to be with, and assume the role of throwing out those positive things. And know that there’s gonna be people who will then complain about it, and who will default, if you throw it out, “Didn’t the Heat do great?”, and somebody would say, “Yeah, but whatever player couldn’t seem to get to lid off the bucket,” and then you turn around and say, “Yeah, but he had 7 assists or 19 assists,” or whatever it was. Make it your job to play verbal Jiu-jitsu in the conversation.

Don’t tell people to stop complaining. Don’t really engage the whole thing; just see what you… When I lived in Seattle, there was a woman and her friend, and the three of us would go out to lunch, these were the most positive people I ever met, and I find it interesting, successful. And I think there’s a correlation there. But one time, we had just a crappy waiter at a restaurant, nice place, expensive, and they said, “Let’s see how long it takes us to get the server in a good mood.” And they took it as their job to ask questions and compliment the person. So, it can be done, we don’t do it, it’s not our default setting. We’re afraid of coming off silly, stupid, and pollyannaish. That’s why like, in an elevator, you can say, “Isn’t it a beautiful morning?”, but somebody might complain. But you can compliment somebody on an accessory, “Those are nice shoes.” “Where did you get those cool headphones?” You just wanna be responsible for putting out the good stuff, and usually follow it with a question to elicit a positive response.

Brett McKay: I’m curious, do you have any exceptions to this no-complaining ethos? So, if we define a complaint as expressing discontent with something, so there’s a negative emotional charge to it, are there times when that’s okay?

Will Bowen: Yes. Of course. Miami traffic will cause you to say, “Son of a… ” or whatever, because people will just about clip your bumpers, slam their brakes. You got people in Lamborghinis doing 125 miles an hour pretending it’s Grand Theft Auto. Now, is my turning to my girlfriend and saying, “That guy’s an idiot, can you believe that?”, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, it’s not going to improve the driving, and it’s also over. However, I see an occasional expletive, and in the new version of my book, I write a lot about cursing because I find it fascinating. If I stomp you on the foot, you’re going to curse. If you bump your head, you’re going to curse. I see that kind of complaining as more of an expletive. However, if you’re doing it to get your social needs met, no, it’s bad itself, it’s destructive. And it is ultimately something you can weed from your life so long as you’re not mentally lazy.

Brett McKay: Will, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Will Bowen: Go to, that will take you to a landing page where you can get a bracelet, or I think we have an option for 20 bracelets. If you want more, you can go to, and so you can, again, get a lot of the information you drew out of me today, but in a speech format that’s easy to watch and follow. And of course, as a speaker, my website is So I started, and be sure and put the A in there, Or if you wanna find more about me,

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Will Bowen, thanks for the time, it’s been a pleasure.

Will Bowen: My honor, Brett. Thank you for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Will Bowen, he’s the author of the book, A Complaint Free World, it’s available on and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out our shownotes, at, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.

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