I recently gave a TEDx talk at NYU on a really interesting salon topic: “The Nonessentials.” As I considered what this meant to me, I became more and more inspired! You see, the all-important essentials keep us alive, like air and water. But the nonessentials give us life, uplifting and nourishing us. They are little moments, reminders, and gestures of beauty, design, creativity, consideration, and generosity. Read on for more highlights from my fourth TEDx talk: The Nonessentials.


If essentials enable us to be, and to exist…nonessentials are all about how we feel and grow. By adopting the nonessential mindset, we can shift our focus from surviving to thriving. From simply doing to engaging. And from “getting through the day” to living in abundance and joy! Here are three nonessentials I’ve learned, which can make all the difference.

1. Embrace with language

In our spare room, we’ve hosted a number of teenagers we barely knew. Lexi, one of our fourteen-year-old girls, was sweet and quiet. Because of challenging life circumstances, she was often withdrawn and sad. Well, to draw her out, our family would invite her to join us when we went out to dinner or visited the ice rink.

TEDx The nonessentials: embrace with language

Here’s what we learned – asking Lexi if she’d like to join us immediately isolated her. It became “her” vs. “we”. Despite our positive intentions, we made Lexi feel like an outsider or a guest. So, we changed our language to become more embracing. We started saying, “heads up, we’re going out to dinner tonight,” embracing her with casual, familiar language that helped the teen feel like she was part of the family. You see, tweaking wording may not feel like an essential, but considering the nuances… this nonessential mindset made all the difference for Lexi.

TEDx The nonessentials: embrace with language speech bubbles

2. Mind the Optics

Years after Lexi lived with us, we opened our spare room to Lotus. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know this teen was the daughter of a prostitute and her pimp. Lotus grew up sharing a dirty, horrifying room with her mother in the brothel. Despite her challenged upbringing, she really loved school and poured her heart into her studies. This often meant that Lotus arrived late to group events, because she attended buxiban or extra tutoring sessions after school.

I remember one day Lotus met us as a restaurant, and we had already begun eating with some friends when she arrived. I had neglected to leave a chair open for her, thinking we’d just squeeze one in when she got there. But then I noticed the teenager’s face. Her cheeks reddened and she shifted uncomfortably as she looked around, wondering where to sit. That’s when I realized that another nonessential, the optics, are so important. Leaving an open seat for Lotus signaled a warm welcome and demonstrated that we were waiting for her to join us.

TEDx The nonessentials: mind the optics

Ever since that dinner, I take care to mind the optics. Do we need to make space for a wheelchair? Isn’t he left-handed? He’ll want to sit at the end of the table. Doesn’t she struggle with her eyesight? Let’s ensure we leave her a space near the front of the room. The nonessential mindset helps everyone feel cared for and considers how to eliminate unnecessarily awkward moments.

3. Acknowledge Contribution

With the babies we cared for, we had to do everything for them! And sometimes, we adopted the same approach with older kids. Jaesin was our oldest spare room resident. And when he stayed with us, I was so focused on serving him, making sure he felt comfortable… that I neglected to realize he was, in return, trying to serve us!

One day, I opened the refrigerator and saw the most beautiful bowl of watermelon cubes with all the seeds carefully removed. Laini skipped into the room and seeing me holding the bowl, happily declared, “Mom, that’s mine! Jaesin cuts watermelon for me for my afternoon snack.” I glanced at my little girl’s glowing face and saw how this gesture made her feel so loved.

TEDx The nonessentials: acknowledge contribution

That evening, I acknowledged Jaesin’s contribution over dinner. And I will never forget his response. He said: “I don’t know how else to help out, so I make watermelon salad for Laini.” Friends, people want to contribute, and they appreciate recognition for their contributions. That’s why an important nonessential is to consider how we might create the context for others’ contribution and then ensure we recognize and appreciate their input.

What are your nonessentials?

The three nonessentials I touched on were: 1) Embracing with language, 2) Minding the optics, and 3) Acknowledging contribution. I’d love to hear about any nonessentials that you’ve found important and uplifting to others!

Click here to watch the full TEDx talk on “The Nonessentials

Check out my first TEDx talk on “The Spare Room

Or view my third TEDx talk here: “On Killing Chickens”