Our lives have shrunk and our choices have been dramatically restricted. But the obligations never stopped, did they? How do we get off the achievement train and build a beautiful life within constraints? Writer Shauna Niequist was on the fast track to burnout when she received advice that changed the pace of her life entirely. Kate and Shauna talk about the productivity myths we believe and how to embrace a slower, smaller life marked by delight.
Discussion Questions for this conversation are available, here.
You can find Shauna on her Instagram, on her twitter, on her facebook, and on her website.
Shauna has written five beautiful and heartfelt books. You can find the books here: Present Over Perfect, Savor, Bread & Wine, Bittersweet, and Cold Tangerines. You also should check out the audiobook versions of Shauna’s books, they have been such a blessing in my life and I know they will be in yours as well.
Mary Oliver’s poem Sometimes includes instructions for living a life. You can read the rest of the poem here.
Earlier this summer, Sarah Bessey came on the Everything Happens podcast. During her episode she talked about the ministry of being easily pleased in a really beautiful way. Check out Sarah’s episode here.
Kate Bowler: Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Look, the world loves us when we are good, better, best. But this is a podcast for when you want to stop feeling guilty that you’re not living your best life now. We’re not always having an eat, pray, love experience. I used to have my own delusion of living my best life now. I’m a Duke professor, wine and cheese enthusiast, wife and mom. Instagram gold. Then I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. That was four years ago and I’m still here. And now I get it. Life is a chronic condition. The self-help and wellness industry will try to tell you that you can always fix your life. Eat this and you won’t get sick. Lose this weight and you’ll never be lonely. Believe with your whole heart and God will provide. Keep this attitude and the money is yours. But I’m here to look into your gorgeous eyes and say, hey, there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t. And it’s OK that life isn’t always better. We can find beauty and meaning and truth, but there’s no cure to being human. So let’s be friends on that journey. Let’s be human together.
Kate Bowler: We know instinctively that life is a treadmill. Time is passing. People wanted to hear back to that e-mail. Weren’t you supposed to get groceries? Why aren’t the dishes done? Did you meet that deadline already? And someone in the other room already needs you right now. No. Now. You can hear them calling through the walls. You’re moving faster and faster. Now you’re running. And there is no way to keep up that pace. During this pandemic, our lives have shrunk, our choices and our movements have been dramatically restricted. But the obligations never stopped did they? Everyone needs you all the time. There’s too much to do. It never stops. For all those who are trapped inside a pace they didn’t mean or want to keep, this conversation is for you.
K.B.: Shauna Niequist is The New York Times best selling author of Cold Tangerines, Bittersweet, Bread and Wine, and Savor. She is married to Aaron and they live in New York City with their sons, Henry and Mack. If there was ever a book to read during a pandemic, when we’re all wondering how should I spend my time when everything feels so hard? This is the one. Present over Perfect is not just a book. It’s a manifesto. It teaches us how to get off the achievement train and figure out how to connect with that soft, soulful center of who we are or maybe want to be again. Shauna, I am so grateful to be talking with you today.
Shauna Niequist: Oh, it’s great to hear your voice. Thanks for having me.
K.B.: You came into my life via your audiobook at this really important time when I realized that I was never going to stop being an achievement monster. I know we came through our realization of overachievement through different doors. I don’t know if I ever told you this, but mine was when I was writing my dissertation and I basically lost complete use of my arms. But then rather than stopping, I just started like voice dictating it for the remainder of the 350 pages. I’ll just, like, cry to my laptop.
S.N.: Oh, that’s amazing and tragic. And I totally connect with that. Yeah, I get it.
K.B.: Well, and then I didn’t even learn. I just, like, kept doing the same thing. So then when I was diagnosed with cancer, I was like, OK, I should really out work this. And then, of course, it turns out that you can’t solve everything with work. And sometimes the more you work, the worse things get.
S.N.: Isn’t that the truth? I wish that I could tell you there was like this soft whisper inside of me that I listened to. That was not true. Something inside of me whispered. And then I ignored it. And then it raised its voice a little bit. And I also ignored that. And then it started screaming. And I just totally shut that out. And I waited till I got really sick over and over with just sort of that like there’s not really anything a doctor can tell you except like you’re kind of breaking yourself from the inside out and you should stop it. You know what I mean? But I kept going. Don’t worry. I kept going. I pushed through the physical pain. And then it’s when I stopped being able to feel anything at all. That was the point where I started getting really, really afraid. I tend to be a quite sensitive person. I tend to be a deep connector. I’m easily moved by beauty or sadness or connection or emotion. And just all of that went away. It felt like I got turned on mute and it scared me. And I realized it doesn’t matter what I think my life is about or what I’m saying it’s about the actual experience of my life. I’m living at a pretty low level right now, and I’m not proud of myself.
K.B.: It’s so funny. I remember exactly where I was when I read your account of, like, burning out. And it was like it was like the shrillness of your life combined with this feeling of the brick wall. And I remember this lovely account of a mentor whose words just stopped you in your tracks. What did she say again?
S.N.: So she sent me an email about wanting to take a class with me. She was living in San Francisco at the time. I was living in Chicago. And she said, hey, you want to take this week long class with me in the Bay Area? And instead of just like answering like a normal person, I left it forever. And I looked at it every day. And then every time I tried to respond, it’s like I couldn’t say yes or no. Or or or I think maybe I’m depressed or I need to go to a hospital. I’m not a good mom or I don’t know how to answer it. Like just what on earth?And you know how life gets at this point. Easy things become really difficult because you’re just all screwed up. So I finally every day kept looking at that email and instead of saying yes or no, I just wrote all of those things like, hey, I think something’s wrong with me because I can’t feel things right anymore. And I’m not the kind of parent I thought I’d be and I’m not the kind of partner I thought I’d be. And I don’t know if what I want to say to you is yes or no, but I don’t think I’m on the right track on a pretty deep level in my life. Please write back. You know, stuff you can only say to somebody that’s known you over, you know, 20 years or something. And she replied right away. And it said: Stop right now. Remake your life from the inside out. And I will help you.
K.B.: Oh, my gosh.
K.B.: Did that seem immediately like, OK, this is just another thing I need to achieve at or like how did it land?
S.N.: You know, kind of we live and die by the stories we tell about ourselves. Right? One of the stories I tell about myself is that everyone’s really disappointed in me and really wishes I could pull it together. And it’s just like waiting for me to sort of emerge as amazing and I keep not being it. And so I think the story I was telling myself, the time was like, I’m I’m going to show her how truly disappoint. I really think that in that moment I thought she was gonna reply with, like, well, you’re the worst. What would a dim bulb, what a low capacity. Just all the messages I tell myself in my worst moments. I think other people are thinking them about me as well. And so I thought she’d be like, well, you’re just the worst. And you’ve disappointed me for the last time. Don’t email me back. And instead, she made no judgment about me. She didn’t say, like, you’re doing a good job or a very, very bad job. She just said, like, you have a life that you get to remake and you’re not alone. And that felt like so much freedom. I’m not abandoning you because you’re weak. I’m going to stick with you because you’re just a human who needs help.
K.B.: And it sounds to like it embodies such a big truth. It’s so hard to absorb that were not our achievements, we’re not our hustle, we’re not our efficiency. Like we’re not our ability to keep it together.
S.N.: And I I as a Christian and as a human, I believe that so deeply. I so very rarely live that way.
K.B.: I believe that deep down, I’d say performatively like that.
S.N.: Yeah. There is no evidence in my life that suggests that’s real to me but.
K.B.: I also had this, I think, deep seated belief that, like I’m supposed to be able to reset my battery every 24 hours. I should spend out in the day and then when I wake up again the next morning, it’s like the clock resets. Whatever happens, it doesn’t count in a way, you know what I mean?
S.N.: I am the queen of believing things are about to be like fine after a good night’s sleep. Like probably even in that moment, I was probably like, you know what I need, pal? I need a nap and I will be back in business.
K.B.: Full force.
S.N.: Yeah, I always think, like little disco nap. I’m back, guys. I just had two glasses of water. I’m basically a paragon of health. I really like to think that whatever poor choices I’ve made for a very, very long time can be reversed by like a walk. You know, three deep breaths. Look, I’m practically a yogi.
K.B.: Yeah. And I think we have these really common cultural scripts that we’re all absorbing. And and one of them is that the more we actually pack into every hour and day and then life like, that’s how, you know, you’ve really lived. And so, like, you only live once and carpe diem and bucket list. Like, our ability to be as efficient as possible constitutes like by definition, true meaning.
S.N.: Oh, absolutely. And all the accolades we give to people who are exhausted and busy. Right? The ways that we kind of make each other make each other feel important. Like, I know I’m more tired. No, I am so much more tired. No, I am denying my body even more than you. I have totally blown past my boundaries so much faster than you have.
K.B.: Yeah. There’s such a there’s such a gendered component to that. And there’s such like a Christian component to that. And like so many of the people in this community at the Everything Happens project are like caregivers in some capacity. And I’m sure they just feel like, no, no, I am by definition the person who’s supposed to spend out like that’s who I am.
S.N.: I believe that in the deepest way, you know, I had all these weird stories fluttering around. You know, you’re not the beautiful one. You’re not the talented one. You’re not the special one. You are the utility player. You’re the workhorse. You’re the one who’s going to carry everybody else’s bags up to the top of the mountain.
K.B.: That’s so real.
S.N.: It doesn’t really matter how those stories got there. What matters is that I kept carrying them, you know?
K.B.: Yeah. The number of times I’ve said I’m just a really hard worker. Because that would help to justify whatever whatever I had to do to close the gap between what I needed and what my life, what I’d set my life up to be. And and the finish line.
K.B.: I didn’t realize until I read your book how much I am like obsessed with later. You know, I’ll learn it later. I will visit my parents later. I’ll catch up with them later. And then I didn’t realize how precious later felt until, you know, with my health, I’m dangling over the edge. And then I realized, like, what if later is a myth I’ve constructed about a version of myself and maybe just never intended on being?
S.N.: Absolutely. And I think parenting is the thing that got me thinking about kind of the stakes of how we spend our time. My kids cannot afford for me to not learn this. I don’t want to be the mom I always dreamed of after they got to college. Right? I want to get a handle on being the kind of mom I want to be right now because they’re here in my house right now and they won’t be forever.
K.B.: But the immediacy of that payoff, though, when you start to hustle, like I think we may be, felt it all collectively at the beginning of quarantine, where you could see you on Instagram everyone is suddenly taking up house projects that they’ve put off for years or there’s this deep pressure to finally have the pandemic body of your dreams are like, oh, look, I’m crafting. Never thought I would craft.
S.N.: How many people brought up King Lear? Right? Like. Guess what? The grandest piece of literature inside of you is about to come right bubbling out in the middle of all this. Hard pass. Absolutely not. I couldn’t even make sentences.
K.B.: You’re right. I mean, we all felt. I mean, I continue to feel so, I mean, distracted and frenetic and and divided into little bits and pieces. And it’s I think it’s much harder to sell the idea of like a slowe, I don’t know. Just have a slower life, because I’ve always. Because I, I don’t know. Since I got sick, I just it was so easy for me to focus on Zach. I was like, oh, you’re a revelation. You just brought a slug into my house, which you named smokestack and left in the bathroom that I just found today, hypothetically, like it felt easy to create partitions around that kind of love. And it felt easy to create space for friends, for example. But like, I had no hobbies, reading just felt like it was more work. It kind of scared me the idea that there would be any open space, as if, like, that space would just accuse me of not having a life.
S.N.: Yeah. It doesn’t sound as sexy. Certainly. And then the second problem is and I think, I think I really felt this in the first couple weeks of the quarantine, you could feel people sort of like getting off the drug of busyness and achievement and public affirmation and sort of all that energy. It was just it was like you pulled it out of that plug and people were like, oh, no, oh, am I just gonna have to feel my feelings? That sounds awful.
K.B.: Do I have to look inside of there? No, thank you.
S.N.: And I think that’s the first thing that happens when you start to kind of wean yourself off that addictive way of hustling and proving and busyness. You do have to confront some very troubling things inside yourself. And so it’s that’s a hard sell. People are not dying to do that. I was not dying to do that.
K.B.: I think one of the great hopes I have about conversations like these, about when productivity or like beautiful things we held up in our lives when they fall apart, the worry is always if we sound like we figured it out, it communicates the lie that everybody out there who can’t get it together, that they’re failures, which is like the whole reason why we were striving for transformation in the first place.
S.N.: And I feel the same way. Books were the things that made me feel like I wasn’t alone and I wasn’t crazy. All my life. And the reason I became a writer was because I wanted to help other people feel that same way. And I only ever always wanted to feel like a fellow traveler, like a friend, and not like a friend and like a weird, codependent way, like we’re best friends even though we’ve never met. But like like a fellow human. And then you start writing and people start talking to you like you’re an expert and you’re, or you have the answer to things or you’ve solved things. But all I do is type. That’s it. I have not figured anything out. I’m just willing to talk about it along the way. But I’m really reticent. It’s a weird thing. You start sharing your thoughts and ideas and kind of inner kind of crazy parts and all of sudden people give you a microphone and tell you like, tell me the three ways to. Dot, dot, dot, dot. I absolutely don’t know, I’m sure I don’t know. I know negative three things about that.
K.B.: One of the communities that this project serves a lot are are folks that are often like working in really emotionally taxing jobs. So they’re nurses and social workers and doctors and stuff. And they might also be caregivers in other capacities. So they’re just dealing with a lot of folks who are dependent on them. And the idea of slowing down feels really impossible or luxurious. What bit of encouragement could we offer them?
S.N.: Whenever I talk about self care, I’m very much not talking about like manicures and massages and, you know, high end face oil. I’m talking about breathing in between meetings with clients. I’m talking about practicing aggressive, radical self compassion and sitting outside for four minutes before you have to get on your next call. I’m talking about calling a friend when you know you’re too depleted to speak the truth to yourself and you need somebody to do it to do it for you. When I talk about being present, when I talk about living a different way. When I talk about a simple, simpler, more soulful life. None of this is about fancy stuff or fancy experiences. It’s about honoring your own body and your own spirit enough to nourish and nurture them instead of doing it only for other people or instead of expecting other people to do it for you.
K.B.: I think maybe one of the ways that we know then that we’re moving in the right direction is when we can tell that it’s for no reason at all. You know what I mean? Like, it can’t get co-opted by other, you know, by, like, the productivity narrative or even other people’s definition of success. And so I really like the fact that you’re a massive fan of, like, doing dumb, playful, non-work things.
S.N.: Oh, yeah.
K.B.: I recently visited world’s largest chest of drawers.
S.N.: Help me help me understand is I need a visual for this. Describe this to me.
K.B.: The truth is, I saw three pieces of extremely large furniture that day because North Carolina’s the furniture capital of the country and so that had this monument. So there was like this enormous type of chair that I couldn’t. But the chest of drawers was a full front of a building like four stories tall and one maybe like a one story like sock hanging out of it.
S.N.: OK, I’m picturing it.
K.B.: Which was I mean, and then I only ever had, like, one move that I do when I’m standing in front of any world’s largest. And it just goes. It’s just like one single jumping move where I sing my own theme song and I do it every time. And that’s my thing.
S.N.: I love it. One of the things that we talk about a lot in kind of the publishing side of things, it’s like, hey, like nobody made me on a mood board, I’m just an actual weird human. And some of the things fit together and some of them don’t. And you can’t, this is not in order to sell more of this or make me more insta that like this is just how people come together and with a lot of idiosyncrasies and with some really well-developed, healthy, whole healed parts, and like some real garbage parts. I think you can tell when people have decided, you know what, it’s just easier to be the mood board that people want me to be.
K.B.: I love that because you’ll meet people all the time. I mean, and not just in, like, fancy people, but just everyday friends. And you’ll think, oh, you’ve given up telling me who you really are in favor of this, like, approximation. And so I love that. Please, let’s not be human moodboards to each other.
S.N.: That’s so boring. It’s so predictable.
K.B.: I just only had one way of managing my life, though, when I read your book. I was I just had this deep desire to make the most of my life. It felt, overworking felt a lot like surviving. And it was hard to undo that feeling that more was always better. But then I had to try to be more honest about the fact that I’m physically so much more fragile than I was before. Like, I’ll be at a like after a social thing after ten minutes I could just feel my battery, be like, boop. And then it was over.
S.N.: Well, I think adrenaline can take you a long way. Right? So if you’re any of us are using, overworking and achieving and hustling as ways to sort of prop up and give energy and meaning to the whole of our lives. You’re living on adrenaline at that point, when that finally leaves your system, and you have like a normal person capacity with like a normal amount of energy. If you’re sick or if you’re pregnant or, you know, some of my hardest some of the hardest things for me was understanding how my previous kind of hustling, busy self fit with both pregnancy and parenting. But there are invitations all the way through if you’re willing to pay attention to them.
K.B.: Yeah. I’m sure you get a lot of mail like this. And I’m wondering what you say to the folks who they can no longer overwork or over achieve because limitations in their life have have really taken away all those abilities, like I’ll never forget this letter I got from this young guy. And he said, you know, I always wanted to go back to school, but I’m trapped here in my parents basement with this disease. And I guess my life has amounted to nothing. And so, like, achievement was this was this was like the same thing as hope. And and then it’s been. And then they feel robbed. Sometimes I wonder if, how to how to offer comfort for those who who, like, miss achievement as something that’s like no longer accessible to them.
S.N.: A friend of mine does like like life coaching kind of stuff. He needed he needed someone to be like the guinea pig to go through, like his life coaching planning process. And I got to do it. I think he knew I needed a lot of help. But one of the things he shared with me has stuck with me all the way. He he doesn’t make a to do, well he makes a to do list. But one aspect of the to do list that he looks at every day is according to my most deeply held values. If I didn’t do these couple things today, the day would not be valuable. So it’s not tasks for him he was a newlywed at the time and it was like connect with my new wife. It was another one for him was be outside instead of it being what are the things I accomplish today? For me right now, I think a lot about gratitude and delight and connection. My kitchen right now, if I sent you a picture, it’d be like that, like, ha ha Instagram, like I’m so normal. It is a total garbage disaster. That’s right, it’s a pandemic and we eat every meal at home and I have hungry kids and I am just never gonna get on top of the dishes. But I try to connect with each of the three people in my home, at least for a couple minutes every day. And I make sure I get outside every day and I think and write a lot about delight. To me, that’s one of the most sacred. God made this extraordinary world and I’m going to miss it because I’m tearing through life trying to get some imaginary medal for being the fastest grocery shopper. What a gross way to honor the beauty of creation and of creativeness, and so I feel like one of the most truly meaningful, truly respectful things I can do is notice and take delight in the good, beautiful things all around us. That takes a certain amount of intention and a certain amount of slow living as opposed to like breakneck speed living.
K.B.: Yeah. It reminds me of some of your other books, too, about you’re a very like sensory person. How can we live in our bodies also through like taste and smell and food? And so that may be part of getting off of the like what have I accomplished train? If I’m hearing you correctly, is that we can get back into what is still available to us in a different way and be more generous about the ways we are able to experience life and connect with each other.
S.N.: Absolutely. Is it Mary Oliver Instructions on Spiritual Living or How to Have a Spiritual Life or something like that? Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. And I think poets are so often our guides. Even though when we think like business dudes are our guide. I think poets have a lot more to teach us. Especially right now. And a day might be better spent if you went outside and noticed just a couple different things about the leaves right now or the smell right now or whatever little thing. I think that might matter more than like the laundry is perfectly done. Or my e-mail inbox zero or I think we’ve set up a weird set of markers that actually make sort of miserable lives. Experiencing life through the senses feels to me like an act of of reverence, of worship. It’s a spiritual experience, to say my body is in this world only right now. And I get to experience that with my ears and my fingers and my mouth and my nose. And that feels like sacred work. And I don’t want to miss it.
K.B.: I don’t preach very often ever, because I don’t feel great at it. But I did have one good point one time when I was thinking of I was thinking a lot about I think I was feeling very angsty about the fact that everything in my life was falling apart and everyone else seemed to be having bigger and bigger houses and more and more things. But they didn’t seem more joyful. And I was I was trying to figure out, like you talked about the like the idol of productivity. Like I was trying to figure out, is it like then what does it mean to call something idolatry? Is it just like having something or like what is it when we make things idols in our lives? And I settled on the idea that, like idolatry is just lovely things that don’t transform us. Or maybe they are transforming us in a in a terrible way. But like, I really like what you’re saying about like how do we choose what to put in front of us that will help shape us into someone who is less, less hurried, less frantic, less afraid and more aware and connected. And I guess generous with other people and with ourselves.
S.N.: I love and I think I would like to hear more of your preaching.
K.B.: I would not. I would not, Shauna. But if I ever do it, I’ll just do it on your answering machine.
S.N.: That would be great. I love that. And I think you can tell a lot about a person or a culture by how kind of easily delighted they are. You know, I know that when I’m at my very worst, nothing is good enough. Right? Everything sort of like garbagey and broken and at my best, I’m really easily delighted. It takes very little to just, like, make my heart explode. And I can tell that’s a sign of health in my life.
K.B.: I talked to Sarah Bessey recently and I.
S.N.: I love her.
K.B.: I always think of her as being the person who she calls it, like the ministry of being easily pleased. And I like that idea that there are, that you can tell your aliveness by your awareness, and joy in smaller and smaller things.
S.N.: The more lightly we can live metaphorically and otherwise, if it takes just a very few things to give you what you need or to cause in you a sense of delight. If we can be delighted and satisfied in simple and small, I think that means we’re on the right track in some ways.
K.B.: But there was that very funny, there was that very funny joke when people first started pandemic and they were like, I would really like to be at home with all my stuff but Marie Kondo made me give away all my crap.
K.B.: I did give away that blow up children’s pool I might have wanted.
K.B.: Shauna, you are kind and you are soulful. And you really did teach me something that filled up a part of my life that I needed filling, which is that there needed to be parts of me that weren’t entirely externally facing and I wasn’t sure how to do it. And I’m really grateful for what you bring to the world.
S.N.: Oh, that is a very meaningful thing to say.
K.B.: Present over perfect. That’s Shauna’s motto. Present over perfect offers us permission that we need to hear, especially now. You may not be able to stop entirely. Dishes need to be washed. Kids need to be fed. Aging parents need to be cared for. Deadlines need to be met. Medicines need to be administered. Diapers always need to be changed. But maybe we can ease up on the pressure to be perfect, to stop imagining that this pandemic would lead to a new exercise regime, or perfecting your sour dough recipe, even though that’s what everyone on Instagram seems to be doing. As Shauna writes, it’s about realizing that what makes our lives meaningful is not what we accomplish but how deeply and honestly we connect with the people in our lives, how wholly we give ourselves to the making of a better world through kindness and courage. You are so much more than your job title or resumé or what you planned on fitting into your golden years. You are more than your to do lists and all you can fit into your day. The world has changed and us with it. And there’s no use in pretending that everything is the same. So go ahead. Let’s try it. In a culture of more, more, more, let’s try less. You may be afraid to turn down the volume of your life, but if you do, I hope you can hear this lovely truth. You are deeply and wholly loved. You are beautiful and delightful even as you are. Unfinished.
K.B.: This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of the Lilly Endowment. Huge thank you to my team. Jessica Richie, Keith Weston, Harriet Putman and J.J. Dickinson. So fun fact about the podcast world, your reviews matter. Would you mind taking a minute to write a review on Apple Podcast? It would mean so much. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.