The Butterfly Era

with Emma Gannon

So much of modern culture emphasizes success, hardwork, and ambition. But what if we don’t conquer every problem or reach every mountaintop? How do you live with the hunger for more while letting yourself have limits and be tired and say no and shut it down too?




Emma Gannon

Emma Gannon is a bestselling and award-winning writer. From 2012-2019, Emma wrote columns for The Sunday Times, The Telegraph and Courier magazine on the topics of work, wellbeing and creativity. Now, she writes the popular newsletter The Hyphen instead and was one of the first in the UK to create a six-figure business on Substack. The newsletter reaches 40k+ readers weekly and currently ranked #5 in Top Literature Substacks globally — it is a celebration of all things books, literature, philosophy, wellbeing and creativity. Emma is a true authority on creativity, self-employment, wellbeing, digital culture and how to approach our work and life in a more rewarding way. Alongside writing, she hosts creativity retreats in the UK and all over the world.Emma has published six bestselling books to date, including the Sunday Times bestseller The Multi-Hyphen Method (a manifesto for multi-hyphenates crafting work on their own terms); SABOTAGE (tips on how to silence your inner critic) and (DIS)CONNECTED (how to stay human in an online world) and THE SUCCESS MYTH (letting go of having it all.)

Show Notes

Ctrl Alt Delete is an award-winning podcast hosted by author and good friend Emma Gannon.

Emma has written several books including The Success Myth: Our obsession with achievement is a trap. This is how to break free.

Read Martha Beck’s blog Growing Wings: The Power of Change.

Learn more about The Spoon Theory in this article in the Washington Post: Spoon theory: What it is and how I use it to manage chronic illness. 

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar teaches about the arrival fallacy. You can read more about it in this New York Times article: You Accomplished Something Great. So Now What?

If you are someone (or love someone) who suffers from chronic pain, this episode is for you. Listen to Kate and Dr. Haider Warraich talk in Embracing the Complexity of Pain.

Learn more about the difference between clean and dirty pain.

For more on Kate’s reflections on Bucket Lists, read No Cure for Being Human.

Discussion Questions

  1. Emma and Kate suggest that “what looks successful isn’t necessarily what feels successful.” Reflect on a time in your life when you appeared to have it all together but on the inside, things were more complicated.
  1. One portion of Scripture that is particularly sensitive to questions of work, productivity, and meaning is the book of Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes 2:11, the writer admits: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after wind.” Does this statement feel too harsh? What might Scripture be telling us about the limitations of productivity?
  1. Naming the normal ebbs and flows in the human life, Emma argues that sometimes, “it’s okay to quit. It’s okay to let things go.” What things do you need to let go of in this season of your life?


Kate Bowler: Hello. My name is Kate Bowler and I am a monster. Okay, it’s not my typical opener, but I am the kind of monster who loves sticker charts. Like, really, for every project I work on, I create a sticker chart. I want to feel rewarded for every paragraph that I write toward a dissertation or a project or, I don’t know, going on a walk again today. I just love goal setting, and I love the feeling of momentum. It feels like a kind of hunger I never get tired of having. And yet there are times when my chronic pain, or a life of managing doctor’s appointments or childcare, or saving myself from my own ambitions means I can’t do it all. The goals need to be shifted. The sticker chart needs to be spaced out. The research or whatever it is that I hoped for might just take a little longer to finish. This is Everything Happens, and today we’re talking about the pull towards success and ambition in our culture of hard work, and how we might get a little drunk on that kind of feeling, and then realize that we are human again today, and we might not reach every peak or conquer every problem. Or get rewarded for every good thing. How do you live with the hunger for more? All while letting yourself have limits and be tired and say no and shut it down too, without feeling like a failure? I’m speaking with someone who has seen the heights and the depths of this question, but before you meet her, we’re going to take a quick break to talk about the sponsors of this show. Don’t go anywhere. We’ll be right back. Maybe I’ll even give you a sticker on the other side.

Kate: Emma Gannon is an award-winning novelist. She is a Sunday Times bestseller. She has the popular podcast, Control Alt Delete, and she is, I think, like the biggest writer on Substack in the UK. And even better, she’s just a completely delightful person who shares my brain on all things related to ambition and worries about success and what can we even want? And I’m here in her totally beautiful home here today, just desperate to be her friend. So, Emma, thanks so much for having me.

Emma Gannon: Thank you so much. I feel like this is a gift that you just walked into my house. Like, there you are, we were meant to meet.

Kate: And then we both decided to wear our, our whimsical, or just, we went peek whimsy, which I really like.

Emma: I love that I just chose this to meet you, it would just make sense.

Kate: So you also agree just that life is a series of formulas. And that if we just follow the formula and there’s probably a five step plan, that it works out perfectly. And that’s exactly what we’ve both done. So I mean, podcast over.

Emma: I mean, it’s all about finding some gurus who have the answers to your specific life plan, who will tell you exactly what you need to do in a step-by-step rule, and then you’ll be successful overnight without really doing anything. It’s amazing.

Kate: I forgot about the instantaneous piece. When did you start really pulling apart this desperation that we seem to have culturally about trying to find the formula for how to finally feel like we’ve made it?

Emma: Think it’s… It came in 2018, which is, I open the book with this story about how that year was quite a monumental year for me. It was probably my most “successful” year. And I do air quotes because it looked that way. And it was that on paper, and it was like I did a TED talk and I met the Queen and I had a book out and and I was just like, oh, okay, this is meant to be my moment of, you know, the marching band, you know, cloud nine, I’m successful. And then suddenly people come and ask you how you became successful, and it becomes this weird culture of, not only are you then the poster child of success, but you also have to tell everyone else how to do it. And I felt so icky about all of it. My own personal situation, which is, I actually wasn’t feeling happy at that time. I was quite a bad friend and I forgot people’s birthdays and I was really unwell. I was getting all these like, teeth issues. I felt really down. So that was the seed of this idea of what looks successful isn’t necessarily what feels successful. And my whole thing now is like going into the feelings more than what it looks like.

Kate: Because I would imagine for some people they have these sharp before and after contrasts of like, well, this is how I know I need to make a change, but it sounds like for you it was more of an erosion or a morphing or maybe like a dismantling of one set of beliefs?

Emma: I think so, for sure. And I think culturally, this moment of unraveling comes to us later in life. You know, we hear these stories of maybe you get to 50 or maybe you’re lucky enough to get to 70, and you look back on your life and you’re like, oh, I did some stuff for other people, actually, or I did some stuff to make my parents proud, and there’s nothing wrong with any of that. But we realize it’s cultural and it’s embedded and it’s the rules of life because, you know, none of us know what on earth we’re meant to be doing. So of course, if there’s any rules, we’ll follow them. But I think I just had this like awakening moment earlier on, I guess, where I felt lucky to have got to the top of the mountain. Like, it’s like I raced there. All I wanted was to be successful. And then when I got it, when I got all the shiny things, that’s when I was like, oh. But, and this is, we’ve been talking like this for hundreds of years. If you read all the old books about life and living like it’s there, it’s saying to us, you have to learn to live in the moment. Because how many books is it going to take for me to be like, I’m enough? That was really, you know, what I needed to get to.

Kate: It’s funny, like that feeling where you want to speed your life up and then fit more and more in. Can have, I don’t know, it can. It can have such like, I mean, I’m trying to pick a verb that doesn’t, isn’t like, too negative or too positive. Because there can be the kind where it’s like hyperspeed accidentally instrumentalizing everything and just becomes a tool to do something else. Which like transforms us into utility monsters. And I am, I am that all the time. That’s why I loved your book and I’m so, like, invested in this as a, because if you switch me back to, like, hard reset, like just factory model of whatever is happening here, I’m trying to create an efficient plan to get through hours and then weeks and then life. This is, there’s just, so there’s a part of that that’s like always stripping me down to a kind of person that doesn’t then want poetry or inconveniences or relationships that take too much or, you know. But then the other bit is sometimes that ambition feeling was really, really useful for me, especially when things kept unraveling. It’s like the worse it got, it did kind of kick in and was almost like another gear where I could be like, okay, my life has now gotten very small and very sad, like, how do I work my way back into a place where I imagine even that I am capable of changing anything? And it must be sort of hard to figure out, like, which side of ambition are we on? Are we on the like, evil, corrosive side? Or are we on the I don’t know, human dignity side?

Emma: Well, I kind of broaden out that word in the book where I kind of say that ambition itself, like you say, is neither good nor bad. It’s, it’s like how we reframe it. So my ambition in my 20s was very traditional. It was like, I want people to think I’m doing really well. I want to earn money and I don’t care how I earn it. I want to spend money. And quite frankly, I was spending money on things that, you know, were very soulless. But now my ambition is like for, for a better life, my ambition is to slow down. My ambition is to be a better friend. My ambition is to hopefully find something in every day that brings me joy. Like the word ambition only means to have ambition for yourself. So for the world. So, I don’t know. I take that word and like just change it in the context of my own life, I suppose.

Kate: So it still feels like the engine feeling.

Emma: It does, but I would say that we all go through different phases as well. So, you know, I didn’t want to write a book that was like, right: now I’m in my mid-thirties, I don’t even believe in hard work. Like, that’s not what this is, because I might have that sort of rocket moment in my 40s, or… We go through different phases, and so I don’t like to lock myself in or, or preach to anyone that like it’s a fixed state because it’s not. We’re always changing. And like what you just described of times where you have this, all this gusto to go and get stuff done, and then you have times where you’re like, that’s not going to work. For me, that’s the natural cycles of life. It’s you know what? Martha Beck always talks about who I love with the sort of caterpillar and the butterfly analogy of last year. I was a caterpillar. Like, if you’d asked me to have done this last year, I physically couldn’t have. Now I’m wearing this jumpsuit and I’m sort of back to my butterfly era. So it’s, I’m all about like just literally going with like, whatever is is greeting you.

Kate: Uh huh. This is the butterfly season. I’m just thinking of like, we have a lot of people in our listening community who they just, like, kept getting kicked down a rung. And it just, I mean, whatever shiny version of their self just eroded or got swept away in a, in a tidal wave feeling. And it’s hard to remember of the feeling of agency, but like there is. And I guess that’s something I think about a lot, too, with. I mean, there’s like wonderful images for how like people with chronic illness, for instance, like spoon theory, you think about like, you know, I have nine good choices that I can make today. Or three. But it is, I don’t know. I guess I always still like really singing the praises of that big, like about audacity, like, because sometimes it’s hard for people to recover the sense that, like, okay, if I really wanted to push for something, whatever it is, like, it’s there. I just have to… It’s still possibly there for you. You know?

Emma: I totally get what you mean. Sometimes I think it’s a lot of it is coming back to reminding ourselves about our true nature, like our nature as humans and our nature just like being in on the earth. Because I think if a little puppy walked in here and needed feeding and needed cuddling, like no one would find that difficult. And you know, I don’t have children, but sometimes I sort of imagine if I did, what would I do to help? Like, you know, you don’t, you can’t fix anything but wrapped in a blanket, put a nice film on that sort of thing. When we talk about any sort of healing or trying to get that flame in your belly back, sometimes I just think it stripping it back to even just like watering your plants and being like, I’m going to water myself and have a cup of water and something in that going back to total basics for me does help.

Kate: Sometimes I think about that like it’s, like one of like, gosh, why can’t I get back to any of those feelings of trying or growing or all the, you know, the ones where you get to see any progress in your life? Sometimes I think about that, like blanket water, whatever is like the first aid repair level where it’s like, Kate, you are on level one. Level one is you are wounded. And like, that kind of helps give me a framework because then otherwise all the talk of like optimization or even routines or creativity just feels like too inaccessible.

Emma: Yeah for sure. That’s so true. It’s like tears, isn’t it?

Kate: We’ll be right back.

Kate: Can you tell us a bit about the arrival fallacy, which I think is such a wonderful word for what you were describing about being like, hey, wasn’t this supposed to feel different now? I have stuff, I accomplished, what I thought I wanted.

Emma: Yeah, definitely. So that’s coined by this amazing philosopher psychologist. I can’t remember his name but it’s in the book, about this moment in time where you get the thing. Like my 2018 moment, for example, and you are just so confused. It’s like, but I’m meant to arrive now, this is what I’ve been working towards for all my life, and it can be so disappointing, but and also confronting and a moment of change, but essentially this idea that like, “I’ll be happy when…” “I’ll be happy if…” “I’ll be happy when I get that thing…” and we do it from such an early age. I’ve always done it. I’ve always done it with, you know, something I’ve really let go recently is like the whole I’ll be happy when my body looks a certain way. It’s like, that is just an illusion. And so it’s difficult, but sometimes you have to go through this, I call it, Donna Lancaster taught me this, this amazing therapist, that you go through kind of phase one and phase two, and phase one is just accumulation. It’s like just all the stuff, all the optimization, all of the, you know, you’re like on the race. And then phase two is just that, that realization of like, oh, okay, I’m gonna have to live a different way now because all that stuff didn’t work. Yeah. And I definitely have done it through my books. I’m like, oh, the next book, I’ll be happy when the next book comes out. And, yeah, it’s just been like, that whole illusion has been shattered for me, and I can’t go back.

Kate: Yeah, yeah. I don’t think anything has cured me of the feeling more than a book release. Because books are so weird. I mean, insofar as, like, they create a single moment in which it’s supposed to be, quote “released,” and then before that, it’s in some kind of magical incubation period in which you can imagine it doing all kinds of things.

Emma: Yeah. And you’re like putting your, you’re on pause until this thing happens. Yeah. And I used to do that all the time. I’d be like, oh, now doesn’t count. Like, my life will start then. And I rebel against that now. I’m just like, I am going to be joyful in this sort of under-the-soil moments as well.

Kate: That’s so nice. I worked, I worked on a book for ten years because that’s how long it took to write. And, and then I like, I mean, vacations, summers, slow moments, footnotes. And then like a decade in, I had this thing, and then I was like tada!  And then I looked on the internet and then it said it was published. And that was the weirdest moment of my, like, young life. When I was like, oh, is this a, am I the same? Is this, do I feel tap, tap, tap. Is this thing on? But I felt nothing. It felt like nothing, which felt so strange. And then I, I mean, I don’t want to be like, sing a song called It Was the Journey, but at some point I had to look back and be like, oh, doing this thing changed me. But it, having become something other people can access is like, it’s almost like a time machine. Rather than a description of a new life.

Emma: Yeah, that makes so much sense. And the other thing that really came through, I guess. In my experience was just, is it success if you were miserable getting there, or is it success if you’re really unwell. And you know, just, what is it? What are we striving for? Because we live in such a world of comparison. Social media, everyone else doing their thing, narratives around someone else doing better than you. And it’s a really hard time to just feel like, well, what am I doing then? And we live in this like, pyramid scheme of success culture of like like we were saying, do all these things.

Kate: I like “pyramid scheme.” Do you think social media has made it genuinely impossible for us to not accidentally filter our experiences through 100 other people’s apparently magical lives?

Emma: Well, yeah. And also their version of success. Like, there are people who are doing amazing things, but we have to get really clear on what we want because otherwise you’re like this kind of bending willow tree of just like, oh, I want that. No, I want that. No, I want that now when you, when you’re really rooted in like, this is what I want from my life and it changes, but I’m good with what I need and what I want. Other people’s stuff, it does turn into this kind of like, cool, good for you. Like the whole energy shifts and there’s no give or take or like, that was mine. And that’s not meant to be yours. That’s what I wanted to get to, is like being in this place where, like, how lucky we to have what we have. And this culture of more, more, more was really shocking to me because during my burn out last year, where, where, you know, I was really unwell and couldn’t work for a while, I was just sort of looking around like almost for the first time and just thinking. I need to take some stuff off the pile. I don’t need to do anything more. And just noticing, like, really amazing things I hadn’t noticed before.

Kate: What was, what was burnout like for you? Like, what did it feel like?

Emma: It was… Well, it was just really existential, I guess. It was very my mind wasn’t really working at its normal pace. And I got really frustrated with myself. And I know that like that can manifest in loads of different ways, but just that annoyance of, like, I, I used to be able to look at a computer screen for hours and I can’t even look at my phone for five minutes. My body was just like needing to go on very gentle walks, do very gentle yoga. And that was when I could, like, get out of bed. Like, I couldn’t eat anything. My appetite went. So my husband would make me something and I just couldn’t eat anything. You know, that sort of. Yeah. Just very, like, broken and just unable to function. It was like I’d, I felt like I’d broken the computer. I was like, oh, no, I’ve broken you. Like you were a fully functioning human being. And you are now, like, not functioning. So I was just really scared because I thought, oh, no, I can’t undo this. That was terrifying. And it made me realize. And I’m like, I can’t believe it takes women especially to realize this when they’re, like, on death’s door, practically to take care of themselves and root for themselves. Because as a people pleaser, I had taken on way too much than I could process, and that’s what kind of tipped the scales. And now I’m so boundaried because I’m like, oh no, that broke me last time. Like, I’m not going to break. I’m going to break it again. Yeah.

Kate: Yeah. You’re like, this is familiar. And it is bad.

Emma: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. But it’s good, I now understand why, you know, when you meet those older women who are just so honest and then someone will ask them to do something and they’ll be like, no, sorry. They actually don’t even say sorry. They’ll be like, no. I’m like that, I kind of understand why people get like that.

Kate: Yeah, yeah, this isn’t my first rodeo. Yeah. That is a hard, honest, like honesty about your humanity is…  I’m just like struggling with the feeling of like the permission that it would require, too. And the self-knowledge it would take to be like, no, I just all the things I can give, I will give the things I can’t give them. Like it’s not even a negotiation because you just can’t.

Emma: I just can’t. And also, I’m really passionate about embracing the highly sensitive people because I’m so sensitive. And that is actually why I think I couldn’t cope in certain situations that other people could. And I think it brought me a lot of shame, like, why can’t you work in a busy office? Why do you have to be on your own for like four hours a day? Why can’t you go to the family party? Why can’t you go to weddings that are three hours long? I’m like crying in the bathroom because I’m so drained. It’s like this kind of idea of you are wrong because you can’t fit in with the culture. But actually, those are all the things that make me a writer and they’re all the things that make me who I am. So it’s about twisting it, you know, it’s like, I think I’m going to embrace the way I’m now. Instead of fighting it.

Kate: Yeah. I also just get frustrated by how much I absorb. And I wish, I, I wish I didn’t, then, yeah, I think I’ll be, like, working through a thought, an idea, a problem, an emotional experience that a friend has. And then I just feel kind of consumed and overwhelmed and then a little like, is this a bit, am I a bit much? Is it, is it a problem that I need to be alone to really think about it for a long time? And but then it comes out in my writing later and I’m like, oh yeah, no, I was just like, I was metabolizing. But I always feel strange that it feels like it’s a bit high maintenance.

Emma: Well, it’s it’s a blessing and a curse, isn’t it? And it’s like with all the things that make us who we are, it’s it’s like my imagination is my blessing and my curse because I can imagine, like, so much pain. And then I’m like, but that’s, that could be in a novel. Like, I sometimes I get confused. You can get confused between reality and fiction, because if you’re a creative person. But I totally resonate with that. And I always find it on the Tube in London. You know, you’re in a tiny little carriage with loads of people, with their own family dramas, with their own thoughts, their own feelings, with their own worries. And I, I can really feel that sometimes, like I can close my eyes and like, I’m like, full of the electric energy of it. But then also through my coaching, I trained to be a coach last year, I’ve learned so many tools to help people in that there are ways where you can kind of separate yourself out in a healthy way. But we’re not taught any of this, especially as kids.

Kate: Yeah, yeah. You know, it just reminds me of the number of, natural boundaries there are around what success and ambition looks like and how like the through line of your argument is like, such a big. Accounting of like, well, what is the foundation, of not humanity but like your humanity? And then what would the lovely bit, what would the lovely, what would the lovely bit of agency look like, given that that is the bedrock of who you are?

Emma: I love that how you just put that, “a lovely bit of agency.” Like it doesn’t have to be, we don’t have to walk around with like 100% autonomy. Of course, we live in a really stressful, really crazy world. That is also a stick to beat yourself with when you think there’s a perfect state. There isn’t. Like, we’re in it. We’re moving through it. It’s chaos. But having that tiny bit of agency of whatever that looks like for you in the day where you can feel like you’ve been in the right sort of relationship with yourself, like that you aren’t abandoning yourself like you are in, you’re in on it. You’re like, that was really stressful. I’m going to take myself off and have ten minutes now to just like, sit quietly because I deserve that, because that’s like my human right to grow as a person on this planet. And just that awareness of, um… Because this book, I feel like, yes, it’s about like individual and collective success and moving into like what that looks like for all of us. But it’s this Trojan horse, I guess, of the fact that we are at overconsumption of this planet. Like we cannot have any more stuff because we have all the stuff. You know, Starbucks cannot have any more Starbucks at this point, like, where is the…

Kate: We’re at peak Starbucks

Emma: We’re at peak everything, and yet we are unhappy still. And so if we really think more stuff will make us happy, like, why is success this shiny? I’ve got all the things, type of success.

Kate: I had a really, I met someone for the podcast Dr. Haider Warraich, and he wrote this lovely book called The Song of Our Scars, and it was about chronic pain and learning to kind of like, tell a story of our bodies, when they’re not always working. And so he had that description of like, clean pain and dirty pain about, you know, how, how do we describe our suffering? I really liked thinking about clean pain and dirty pain in light of what you’re describing around success narratives. So I wondered if you could tell me a bit more about it.

Emma: Yeah, I really like that clean pain, dirty pain thing because, yeah, clean pain is like, you know, someone’s just broken up with you. Like, that’s a real situation. You’re in pain, or your body is in pain, and then dirty pain is like you are making up a narrative around it. Basically, like the clean pain is your body is hurting and the dirty pain is I did something wrong or I should be coping better or, you know, like something about you as a person. And I find that really, really interesting, talking about success. Of course when other people look at you, they see something different. And I think what’s so nice, a nice exercise to do is like, ask your friends what they like about you. Or like, write down things, save things in folders. They’ve really nice emails people have sent you so that you can remember what people like about you and what makes you successful as you. Because that’s the other thing I think about all the time is, you know, when you look around and you’re like, every human being is totally different. I think we forget that because we we think we’re all like identical people and it’s like we’re not. And so what other people want is not necessarily what you’re going to want. And it just embracing all our different definitions, and not being afraid to kind of go against the grain of what other people want for you. Because that’s something that came up with me is when I started saying no to a lot of stuff, people were just very confused. They were like, but don’t you want more? And I think I’m just trying to be like, oh no, my version of success is actually like not being that busy. And they’re like, ohhh. So you have to kind of spell it out.

Kate: Weird! Yeah, it is hard. It is hard for me to picture contentment for I think a lot of reasons and part I mean a lot of it I feel like, is that, maybe that dirty pain description you have about, well, when I feel differently, if I, shouldn’t my wanting have an answer, isn’t this longing reaching for something? And then when I do, it’s going to be amazing. And that’s the song I would sing. Well, I think the other bit is…that sometimes the lack of contentment is like the nice little churn of like, like the aliveness feeling in which the wanting is, means I like, feel, I don’t know. I thought about that a lot when I was trying to figure out what would feel like enoughness. Around mortality, like, is there…? I went through like a long obsession with like, is there a good bucket list? Is there, a certain age I’m supposed to get to? But then I would talk to everybody about their bucket lists, and I had the funniest conversation with my father-in-law. Ken. And Ken was like, oh, yeah, I did a bucket list! And I was like, oh my gosh, what, what what’s on it? And he was like, well, and then he just listed a bunch of his like, “Well, I would love to see my, kids graduate, I…” And I realized listening to him that a lot of the stuff on the list was either, 1) wonderfully achievable or 2) things he wasn’t really entirely in charge of, but would have been so pleased to see it come true. And they were all lovely things, like family things or… And then I was like, hey, well, like, dad, can I see it? And he was like, oh no, I checked everything off. So I threw it out. And I kept it in my wallet for a long time.” I was like, wait. My mother-in-law heard this and was like, “Ken. Are you. serious?” Cause I would have been, like, such a lovely frameable kind of thing. But I realized, like, when he was describing it and maybe what contentment would feel like was it was almost like he was describing not and not a checklist, but like a set of meridians. And he’s like, if I follow along this path, it’s going to take me to a place I want to be. But when I’m there, I mean, I won’t even I won’t even need to frame it. I’ll just, because I’m still still walking.

Emma: I love the fact, though, that he didn’t need to keep it or frame it. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Yeah. Yeah, because something that I really notice brings a lot of anxiety to me is when I start doing these long bucket lists of especially around travel, you know, when people get really obsessed with travel and that I’m going to do this, I’m going to see that’s going to visit the Grand Canyon and I’m going to do this. And then I’ll go on a hot air balloon… And and it’s like, okay. But I feel like we’re setting ourselves up for failure sometimes when we need to see the whole world because it’s like we’re not going to. And I know I’m not going to read all the books I want to read. It’s almost like, I know that sounds depressing, but I find that really comforting, that like, slow down, see a few nice things, really enjoy it. Lovely. Like, I just I’m not going to get into this game that I’m not going to, that I’m never going to win of, of, of like, you know, seeing it and doing it all. I’m just not going to.

Kate: Yeah. Acknowledging, maybe being real about the fact that most of the world’s experiences will not be ours is like a good grounding thought. It kind of reminds me, then, of the, what you’re describing about wanting to question the arrival fallacy, because then it’s hard, it’s hard to let ourselves land if we. I met, this wonderful woman, Priya Parker. She does her, like, art of gathering stuff. And I always really like reading the descriptions of people who figure out a way to celebrate maybe like the arrival feeling? Like something, because otherwise it just kind of doesn’t, it doesn’t sometimes land unless we… So people will have parties for, I guess, like threshold experiences of all kinds of stuff. It could be, it doesn’t have to be like a new apartment, it could be leaving an apartment, even if you’re actually downsizing and you had a horrible breakup and you’re not happy about it, but like less sort of bridal shower, kind of like, we know how to celebrate happy beginnings. But even, like, we know how to mark murky ends or I thought that was really fun.

Emma: I really like that. Yeah, there’s a little bit actually, where it’s like, pay attention to the things. It would mean a lot to other people, like the celebration of a divorce, your friend getting a new dog, your friend finishing therapy, your friend starting therapy. I mean, all of these tiny, they’re not even tiny, they’re really big moments in people’s lives. We don’t really mark them as milestones, do we? It’s always just the kind of big shiny things. And there’s there’s so much joy in, like, the nitty-gritty of life. And like, I was my friend texted me the other day actually being like, happy burn-a-versary because it’s like a year since my burnout. It’s just so nice. Because it is, it’s an anniversary. Like on the exact day where I had like my weird panic attack freakout moment. Like, it matters to me that someone remembered that. That’s really nice.

Kate: I like that if you were going to make burn-a-versary into a, into a celebration of some kind, would you? Or like, what if you forget, for example, some of your lessons that you learned? What would you what would you do to celebrate that?

Emma: I guess what I’m talking about when I talk about my burnout, because it is really such a phrase that’s banded around of like, “oh, I’m a bit burnt out.” This was like a medically diagnosed, like sort of anxiety burnout thing. Which felt a lot like grief, I felt? It was like grieving, being unwell in general. Like, you know, you can feel like you’ve you’re learning things that you never knew, you never thought you’d love, like, you’re like, oh, it’s like the end of innocence. Almost like the end of this previous world where you’re like, oh, everything was fine then, and now I’m going into this horrible new chapter. So it felt like a, like a shedding and, but then when I look back on my journals during that time, like on paper, it’s quite a lovely time. Like I’m going swimming, I’m looking after this dog, I’m watching Disney films and piecing myself back together. And the burn-a-versary thing is like, don’t forget what you learned. Like, don’t forget that now you’re back to normal. Like, try and factor in some of these things that you did, like carry on with the yoga, carry on with the swimming, carry on with calling your friend for two hours because you’ve got time. I think we’re so quick to just get back into the pace of life. And, that’s what I’m grateful for, I think.

Kate: It sounds like it’s like a fault line, and it’s the marker of like there will be no return to the before.

Emma: Yes, that’s what it was! And I think that’s what was weird during that time, because it was clearly like there was so much, so many grief signals of like, when you’re grieving, you normally can’t eat. When you’re grieving, you, you know, obviously you get very, very anxious and very like, you get very depressed and the whole world spins on its axis and like, is very dark. On the other side, I don’t know, I had this like little inkling of, like, I think this is meant to happen, you know?

Kate: Because it felt so meaningful in a way.

Emma: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kate: Like it was inevit—sometimes we do have those weird feelings where it feels like there’s the moment, even if it’s horrible, the inevitable, it feels… And this is like, this can cut both ways, there can be the bad version of this. But sometimes when a thing lands and you know it’s going to change you, has an inevitability feeling to it, which is strange.

Emma: Yeah it was like, of course it’s happening. Like, ok.

Kate: Yeah, yeah. I’m always trying to parse that out because there’s the sort of overly synthetic, I think often pernicious karma version. But there’s this other place where it can land where like, everything was leading toward, like a, like the, the feeling like it’s all weighing on a toothpick, and then the toothpick snaps and you’re like, okay, well, what was the world, in which it rested on the toothpick?

Emma: Yes.

Kate: And then that’s, I always find that to be like a very clarifying kind of break.

Emma: Yeah, cause I remember someone saying to me years ago that if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. Like if you got if you got a really big decision to make, don’t actually make a decision, something like that. And I think that’s kind of really what we’re getting at here is it’s going to happen. Like you don’t have to really do much. That’s how I felt. Because I had this moment of, do I quit my job and do I do this? And, you know, it was like, this is, you know, I’m living in a state of, I don’t know what it was, and it was like I was heading towards… something was going to make the decision for me.

Kate: Yeah, yeah. It turns out that you became a caterpillar.

Emma: Yeah. Big time. And I guess the difference I feel with my situation is I feel privileged to have had the knowledge that I was a caterpillar, because it was, I really leaned into it. And I also had the means to be able to take time off, so I, I don’t like, take that lightly. But it’s like this phrase that someone, it might be Martha Beck actually, again, I love her, but it’s just thing of like, just float. Like, you don’t have to swim, you don’t have to fight. You don’t have to, like, take on the waves, like, just literally float and, like, bob along. Someone else I know cause it go limp. Like, just go limp. Like, just don’t do anything. Just like it’s, something will carry forwards. And that’s definitely a lesson I learned when, and this is when shit really hits the fan. Just like…

Kate: That’s really good advice. Like, if, especially if people are, like, so sad and overwhelmed and then scared because they’re so sad and tired. Overwhelmed like that is a good time just to, you know, when you act like a starfish on the surface of the water.

Emma: And it’s amazing what you can get done by being a starfish. Like, you, there’s a lot of autopilot within us as humans. Like we could probably go to work and do the bare minimum we can probably, depending on the situation, make a cup of tea. You know, it’s like, doesn’t mean it… It can mean literally floating a starfish, like, in bed for a week if you can. But sometimes you can do that and do a little bit, which is always quite comforting to me. Like we don’t always have to keep trying really hard.

Kate: Yeah, well, that feels like honesty in a nice way. I like that. In the, in the after of your life, what are some lovely things that you hope for, for these next…for this new self? I imagine that it’s someone who understands her own humanity with more like, grace toward limitation. I imagine it’s got like still maybe being kind to yourself when seasons of massive ambition that could lead you down a bad path pop up.

Emma: Yeah. Oh my God, there’s so much stuff. I think collectively it’s just this again, like rebelling against the culture. You know that the culture that wants you to rush and be busy and be stressed and be ill and be constant on the treadmill. You know, when you when I think about my mom or my grandmother or my grandmother’s mother, like, they didn’t have what I have and they didn’t have the choices I have. So I take that really seriously. It’s not just like, oh, it’s lucky for you. It’s like, no, I know I’m lucky. Like, that’s why I’m choosing to live a life where I’m not punishing myself and harming myself. Because other people pick up on the way you live your life. Like you’d have to tell anyone. And it’s no one’s business how to tell anyone how to live their life. But when you do, people are like, oh, I might do some of that. And that’s really powerful that it’s okay to quit. It’s okay to let things go. I realized I was in a big phase of like, you know, friendship fell away. Like some really old friends I’ve had. When you change, your friendships change. That’s a hard thing to want to cling onto. And that doesn’t mean you love each other and, like, you’ll be there for each other, but, like, embrace the change, it’s okay. I think that’s the other thing.

Kate: Yeah. Emma, this was so lovely. And kind of makes me want to, like simmer down a little bit. Intervention: successful.

Emma: Can you tell I’ve been just like, lighting a lot of candles lately? No, thank you, I love your show so much. I find it so fulfilling and, like, nourishing. So thank you.

Kate: Aw, that is so kind. Emma has a great ability to name the hunger that pulls us to action, and also recognize the ebbs and flows of a single human life. She challenges us to challenge the idea of what success looks like. And maybe today it looks like calling that friend you’ve been meaning to reach out to and it just, you know, will pull you away from doing something else, like catching up on emails. Or maybe you need to simmer down on that checklist or bucket list feeling and just read that novel that you’ve had on your side table for a while. Or maybe it’s taking a long walk after dinner and letting somebody else clean up the dishes. You know, just an idea. It’s a great reminder that it is okay to be human today and every day. And also to be hungry and to take a break, to let yourself off the hook for the unrealistic expectations you may have been saddled with for this season of your life. To change what your goals are now. I want you to be able to be a butterfly. Fly as far as you want or be tucked in a cocoon. Just whatever this season looks like right now. So if you’re like me, which is to say, constantly struggling with that, I thought maybe this could be a blessing for when you want to change, but not become a self-help, perfectibility monster. All right, here it is.

Kate: God, I carry around this incompleteness. This drive for fulfillment that always just seems to be right around the corner. If only I could get it together and find my true calling, my real passion, or the right plan. God, help me. Guide me. What am I missing? Blessed are we who strive earnestly to change ourselves and the world around us, but feel the drag and pull of what won’t budge, the weight of our limited and frail humanity. We carry it with us. Blessed are we, the hungry, in lives that are both too much and not enough. Willing to tell the truth to ourselves and to each other, that we languish here. And sometimes need to take ourselves off the treadmill entirely, or at least turn it down a few notches. To be fully known and fully loved in all our humanity. That is a God-sized project. So blessed are we thankful that we can live our human-sized lives in the glad company of others. May we feel allowed to be hungry and stay that way.

Kate: All right, my darlings. Big thank you. Thank you so much to the generous partners we have at Everything Happens: Lilly Endowment, Duke Endowment and Duke Divinity School. We would genuinely not be able to do this without your support. Thank you for loving theological education the way that we do. This podcast is also a result of the fact that other people work insanely hard to make it happen. Thank you so much my absolutely lovely team Jess Richie, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Hegginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Hope Anderson, Kristen Balzer, Jeb Burt, Sammie Filippi, and Katherine Smith. I really love doing this with you all, and we do it because of and for listeners like you. Yes, you in the carpool lane, you on the walk, you about to have a terrible meeting, or worried about your kid. You are our absolute favorite and we are so grateful to be able to do this with you. And let us know who you want to hear from, or leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. It would mean so much. Or call us and leave us a voicemail at (919) 322-8731. All right, darlings, if you are Canadian, you’re going to love next week. I am speaking to the inimitable Chantal Kreviazuk on the podcast. I can’t even believe it, my Winnipeg self, my heart is bursting. And until then, this is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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