“The Habit of Daily Exercise Was Probably the Most Important and Unexpected Thing I Learned at Business School.”

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Interview: Kim Scott.

I’ve known Kim for many years. She and I (and my husband Jamie, too) worked at the Federal Communications Commission together. After that job, I switched to being a full-time writer, and she worked in a bunch of different places, including three failed start-ups, Google, and Apple, and wrote novels.

I’m thrilled that with her co-host Russ Laraway, she’s heading the terrific new Radical Candor podcast on The Onward Project family of podcasts that I’ve just launched — podcasts about your life, made better. The Radical Candor podcast is about being a better boss, a better colleague, a better team member.

I love talking to Kim about workplace issues. She has such interesting things to say about how to be a terrific boss or colleague who has high standards, and who can help people grow and improve, but also be kind. It can be a tough balance.

Her book Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity comes out in a few months — a terrific books, with fascinating stories from her own life (including mistakes and failures, always my favorites), practical suggestions, and profound insights.

As a side note, I thought of Kim when I read this line by Gertrude Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as she described her friend the poet Apollinaire:

“The death of Guillaume Apollinaire at this time made a very serious difference to all his friends apart from their sorrow at his death. It was the moment just after the war when many things had changed and people naturally fell apart. Guillaume would have been a bond of union, he always had a quality of keeping people together, and now that he was gone everybody ceased to be friends.”

I’ve never known exactly how she does it, but Kim also has this quality of “keeping people together” to help them be friends. I’m going to ask her to about this on the Radical Candor podcast! How does she do it?

Naturally I wanted to quiz Kim about her habits.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Kim: I declared 1999 the Year of my Fantasy. I quit my job and did only the things that I wanted to do. It turned out that not having a job was enormously productive: I wrote a novel, I worked at a pediatric clinic in Kosovo, and I started Juice Software. The reason I was able to do so many things that year was not because I wasn’t working, but because I started the year out focusing on how to be happy. I found three habits were responsible for keeping me happy:

  1. Sleeping 8 hours a night
  2. Exercising 45 minutes a day
  3. Having a real conversation with somebody I love every day.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I had no idea how bad sugar is, how much of it is snuck into our food, or how much we need a little fat to deal with the sugar that’s in foods we don’t think of as sugary (milk, Cheerios, etc). I learned this only when I got gestational diabetes, and the experience of checking my blood sugar levels after every meal really changed my eating habits for the rest of my life.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I like to have a glass of wine with dinner. I prefer two glasses. And unless I focus on not having that third, I reach for it. That much alcohol interrupts my sleep, which affects my happiness.

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Sleeping 8 hours a night is probably the most important habit I have for health, creativity, productivity, and for enjoying leisure.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I quit drinking altogether for about 18 months to break my 3 drinks a day habit. Here were the things that helped:

  1. Having a ritual of a seltzer with a splash of cranberry juice and a lime
  2. Eating dinner earlier–often I was hungry and had a drink rather than eating something
  3. Eating food I really looked forward to eating
  4. Arriving at parties late

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I am definitely a Rebel!

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

I have twins who are seven years old and go to bed at 8:00. The temptation to crawl under the covers with them as they are falling asleep is often overwhelming. When I succumb to it, I fall asleep too. Then I wake up around 11 with a crick in my neck and am unable to go back to sleep till about 3 am. It’s a disaster for healthy sleep habits!

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

I never exercised regularly until I got to business school. I went to Harvard, where they really stressed the importance of daily exercise, and put their money where their mouth was. They spoiled all business school students with a beautiful gym and free personal trainers. Developing a habit of daily exercise was probably the most important and unexpected thing I learned at business school.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

As a Rebel I resisted anything that looked like habit or routine from 1967-1999. Then, in an act of rebellion, I found that having a few habits made me so much happier and left me with so much more energy for other more important rebellions that I adopted a few 🙂

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

You have been a huge influence on habits–both breaking them and adopting them. [Awww, thanks Kim!]

In 1998, I realized that I was in a habit of hating my work. I started talking to people about quitting my job so that I could break this habit, and you were one of the people I talked to. But, I wasn’t making any moves to actually quit. I kept coming up with reasons to delay quitting. Most people, nervous about the idea of my unemployment, reinforced my habit of staying in jobs I hated. But you looked at me one day and said, “Don’t forget to quit!” Your words rang in my ears over and over, and were a big part of what propelled me on the Year of My Fantasy.

You also helped me with a more mundane habit: flossing. Like you I hate to floss. You suggested toothpicks, and I took your suggestion. I now have toothpicks at my desk, in my bag, in my car. My dentist is pleased, and I feel virtuous!