Secret of Adulthood: We Have More Time Than We Think. And Less Time.

From Further Secrets of Adulthood.

I’m always surprised by how much I can get done in a relatively short period of time, if I really settle down to it. I’ve learned that from my habit of Power Hour, for instance.

But we always need to remember that we may have less time than we think, too. If nothing else, the passage of time itself will bring about changes and endings. On this subject, and of everything I’ve ever written, I think this one-minute video, The Years Are Short, resonates most with people.

Something Becomes Important Because We’re Paying Attention.

I take giant amounts of notes, and I’m constantly copying passages from books that I read. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also one of my favorite things to do.

Oddly, I’ll often take notes, or copy passages, where the meaning isn’t clear to me. Sometimes it takes me years (if ever) to understand the meaning of something that I knew was significant, but didn’t know why. And then, when I grasp it — so thrilling! Nothing makes me happier.

This kind of epiphany happened to me recently, when I was in London, where I managed to visit the beautiful Wallace Collection.

Years ago, I read a fascinating book called The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje, and I copied down a passage from Francis Ford Coppola’s notes for the script of the movie The Conversation. Coppola wrote:

The opening might be built out of fragments of various conversations. So that when we first meet the two young people they seem like just another conversation until we see that the microphone is trained on them: they are important only because someone is listening.

Something becomes important, because someone is paying special attention.

I never really quite understood why this struck a chord with me — until I saw Poussin’s painting,  Dance to the Music of Time, hanging on the wall in the Wallace Collection.


This painting is used in the exceptionally gorgeous design of Anthony Powell’s novels in the four-volume A Dance to the Music of Time.

Because I know these books well, and admire these four volumes every time I spot them in the bookstore, I assumed that the painting was quite important and famous.

However, the Wallace Collection didn’t make mention (that I saw) of the fact that this painting was in their collection. And it was almost by accident that I spotted the painting, at all.

DanceTimeWholeRoomThere are so many paintings in the room.

DanceTimeWallDanceTime5PaintinsCan you find it? In the first picture, it’s on the far wall, the bottom painting to the left of the large painting in the middle. In the last picture here, it’s at the bottom, in the middle.

Because of those books, I’d found the painting beautiful and important; because someone put it in the spotlight — because I saw it over and over, and took the time to look at it closely, and to think about its meaning.

If I’d just been wandering through the rooms, glancing at the paintings, I doubt I would’ve given the painting a second thought.

But when my attention was fixed on it, I learned to appreciate it.

I think of this, too, when I look at old class photos of my children. In a way, the children look all alike, and these photos look exactly (except for the clothes) the way my class photos look, from the same age. And yet — those are individuals! Some faces I recognize, some are precious to me. Because I know them.

I’m not explaining my epiphany very clearly. It’s just that — it’s our listening that makes a conversation important; it’s our vision that makes a masterpiece; it’s our love that makes a face stand out from the crowd.

“They are important only because someone is listening.”

Do you know what I mean? Have you ever had an experience like this — when your attention transformed an object into something dazzling?

P.S. This got me thinking that a fun project would be to choose 52 pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which is near my apartment) and spend a week studying and visiting each one, to understand why it’s great. And to write a book about it, of course! I’m certain that those works would be immeasurably more beautiful to me, after I’d studied them — even for a week. Gosh, I’d love to do that. I’ve always wanted to learn and write about art…

Are Souls Like Athletes, That Must Be Pushed to Their Full Capacity to Develop?

“Souls are like athletes, that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers, and rewarded according to their capacity.”

–Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

What do you think — do you agree or disagree with Merton?

I’ve read a lot of Merton’s work, I have such a complex reaction to it — and his character. Let’s just say that Merton was a…complicated person. (I plan to write a “portrait of a Rebel” analysis of him, stay tuned for that). I just re-read Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and was reminded that it was his book that prompted me to read Story of a Soul, the memoir of my spiritual master, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.

I’ve always wondered about the meaning of the title, “The Seven Storey Mountain” and just looked it up. I figured it was something from Dante — and yes! In The Divine Comedy, the seven storey mountain is the mountain of Purgatory that must be climbed to reach Paradise.

London Always Makes Me Think of Winston Churchill.

Last week, I was in London for my book tour for Better Than Before. What a beautiful, beautiful city. And I took even greater pleasure in it, because I was reminded of Winston Churchill.

One of the great joys of my life was writing Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, my biography of Churchill. What a pleasure it was to write that book! I had so many complicated things (both praise and blame, yes, I show both sides) to say about Churchill, and the problems of biography, and human nature, and I felt that I managed to express them all — to my own satisfaction, anyway.

The sights of London kept reminding me of various Churchill quotations, such as his extraordinary eulogy to Neville Chamberlain. This is one of my very favorite passages, in all of literature and history.

Before the war, Churchill strenuously opposed Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement policy. It was Chamberlain who, after meeting Hitler, decided “here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” But once Churchill joined Chamberlain’s government, he became a loyal servant, and he continued to treat Chamberlain with courtesy after replacing him as Prime Minister. When Chamberlain died in 1940, Churchill gave a tribute to Chamberlain that honored his life while acknowledging his mistakes.

The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.

It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart – the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with most perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful devastating struggle in which we are now engaged…

Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpouring count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain’s tomb?

No matter how many times I’ve read that, it still puts tears in my eyes.

Another favorite is a passage from Their Finest Hour, the second volume in Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II. Of a visit to a very poor London neighborhood that had been devastated by the Blitz, he wrote:

Already little pathetic Union Jacks had been stuck up amid the ruins. When my car was recognised the people came running from all quarters, and a crowd of more than a thousand was soon gathered. All these folk were in a high state of enthusiasm. They crowded round us, cheering and manifesting every sign of lively affection, wanting to touch and stroke my clothes. One would have thought I had brought them some fine substantial benefit which would improve their lot in life. I was completely undermined, and wept. Ismay, who was with me, records that he heard an old woman say: “You see, he really cares. He’s crying.” They were tears not of sorrow but of wonder and admiration.

These passages give the feeling of elevation that’s one of the most exquisite varieties of happiness.

burnetthomeOf course, London also makes me think of children’s literature. Every single street, it seems, reminds me of one of my favorite books. Peter Pan in Kensington Garden. Harry Potter in King’s Cross Station. Pauline, Petrova, and Posy visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum. Lyra wandering through the streets. I happened to walk by the former home of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Which got me to ponder that unanswerable question, yet again: which is my favorite FHB book, The Secret Garden or A Little Princess? I can’t decide.

I loved London. But boy it’s nice to be home. How about you — Is there a city that’s full of memories and associations for you?

Podcast #8: On Warm Hellos and Good-byes, the Atmosphere of Growth, and Playing “Divorce Lawyer.”

My sister Elizabeth Craft and I are having a great time doing our new podcast,  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

This episode was especially fun; I was in Los Angeles for my book tour for my new book Better Than Before, so Elizabeth and I got to be the same room as we were recording. Usually we can only hear a voice through our headsets, and it’s much nicer to be able to see each other.

Elizabeth is shadowed in the photo — sorry about that. I forgot to check to see how the picture turned out before I put away my phone.

As I’ve been traveling on this book tour, many people have told me that they’re enjoying the podcast. Thanks for listening! (If you like the podcast, we’re sheepishly asking people to rate and/or review it, if time and inclination permit; that’s very helpful for a new podcast like ours.)

Before describing this week’s episode, I want to say thanks again to the folks at iTunes; they created something special for me, a single page on iTunes where people can find Happier with Gretchen Rubin as well as my books.  As I wrote in a recent post, I try never to read reviews, but I did read this — and I’m very glad I did:

“We’re major fans of Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of The Happiness Project. Rubin’s fascination with human behavior–as well as her sincere believe that we can make our lives more fulfilling and joyous–shines through in her podcasts, blog, and books. Her new book, Better Than Before, looks at how we form and break habits and is packed with her trademark warmth, wit, and down-to-earth intelligence.”

So nice. Yowza.

Here’s what Elizabeth and I discuss in today’s episode:

Try This at Home: Give warm hellos and good-byes. I mention a passage from Flannery O’Connor that’s been much on my mind lately: “The things that we are obliged to do, such as hear Mass on Sunday, fast and abstain on the days appointed, etc. can become mechanical and merely habit. But it is better to be held to the Church by habit than not to be held at all. The Church is mighty realistic about human nature.” –Flannery O’Connor, letter to T. R. Spivey, August 19, 1959, quoted in The Habit of Being.

Know Yourself Better: What did you do for fun when you were ten years old? It’s a clue to what you’d enjoy now, for work or for leisure. That’s certainly true for Elizabeth and me (though true, for Elizabeth, it was the reading and TV-watching, not the divorce-lawyer game).

Listener Question: “Happiness is tied to a sense of accomplishment. What are your thoughts on people who can make and set goals?”

Elizabeth’s Demerit: Elizabeth neglected to tell her husband Adam that she wanted praise, not constructive criticism. If you read this post from a few days ago, Why I Don’t Read Reviews or Profiles of Myself, I mentioned her comments in my post.

Gretchen’s Gold Star: A friend’s mother-in-law said just the right thing: “You know, sweetheart, there will always be a special place in our hearts for you.”

Want to get in touch? Email: Twitter: @gretchenrubin and @elizabethcraft. Phone: 774-277-9336 (774 HAPPY 336). Click here for Facebook Page. Or comment right here.

And we would love to hear from you — about whether warm greetings and good-byes made you happier, what you did for fun when you were a child, your questions, and any other comments. (For instance, one listener suggested that we include the contact information in this weekly post and on the podcast links. Great idea. Done. See above.)

To listen to this episode, just zip to the bottom of this post and hit the red “play” button.

Or if you’re reading this post by email, click here to view online, to listen to the podcast from this post.

Want to know what to expect from other episodes of the podcast, when you listen toHappier with Gretchen Rubin?” We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).

Each week, we give  a “Try This at Home” suggestion, for some easy habit you can try, as part of your ordinary routine, to boost your happiness—something like setting an alarm to signal your bedtime, or using the one-minute rule, to help yourself stay on top of small nagging tasks.

We also suggest questions to help you “Know Yourself Better”—like “Whom do you envy?” and “Are you a Marathoner or a Sprinter in your work style?”—and explore “Happiness Stumbling Blocks,” those small, seemingly insignificant parts of daily life that drag us down—everything from the problem of the Evil Donut-Bringer to the fact that working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

We “Grill the Guest” (well, we plan to — we haven’t had a guest yet), consider “Listener Questions,” and finally, we get even more personal, and each of us either gives ourselves a “Demerit” for a mistake we made that week, that affected our happiness, or awards a “Gold Star” to someone or something that deserves recognition.

We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much!

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE: If you’re like me (until recently) you’re intrigued by podcasts, but you don’t know how to listen or subscribe. It’s very easy, really. Really. Instructions here.

Or for an amusing short how-to video made by Ira Glass of This American Life, click here.

If you want to listen to more than one episode, and to have it all in a handier way, on your phone or tablet, it’s better to subscribe. Really, it’s easy.

Tell us what you think! Drop us a line at @gretchenrubin, @elizabethcraft, Facebook,, or call 774-277-9336. Or just add your comment to this post.

Again, be sure to subscribe and listen and subscribe on iTunes so you never miss an episode. And if you enjoyed it, please tell your friends and give us a rating or review. Listeners really respect the views of other listeners, so your response helps people find good material. (Not sure how to review? Instructions here; scroll to the bottom.)

Happy listening! Or I should say, HAPPIER listening!