Interview: Marissa Orr.
A former executive at Google and Facebook and best-selling author, Marissa regularly speaks on the topics of female leadership, diversity, the gender gap, innovation, and creativity.
Her new book is Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, & the Workplace. Based on in-depth research and personal experiences, the book explores how to change the trajectory of the lives of women and men in the corporate world and beyond.
I couldn't wait to talk to Marissa about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Marissa: Maybe this is becoming a little cliché, but a daily meditation practice changed my life. I first tried meditation twenty years ago in college but didn’t go back to it until I started working at Facebook. At the time, I was the target of a powerful bully at the company and I turned to meditation as a way to cope with the situation and maintain a sense of self-control. I wanted to avoid knee-jerk, emotional reactions that were perhaps justified in the moment, but self-defeating in the long run.
I started out by committing to five minutes once a day no matter how busy things got. Some days that meant I had to sneak into the office bathroom for a quick session on Headspace. But over time, the practice became an ingrained habit and now I wake up early every morning to do it for 20 minutes. It gives me the distance and perspective I need to see my emotions and behavior more clearly. As a result, I’m much more productive and creative. Without meditation, I’m not sure I could have written Lean Out and had the courage to change directions in my career.
To be totally honest though, there are still some days, weeks, and even months where I feel anxious and find it incredibly hard to stay mindful. The journey with mediation hasn’t been a straight line to enlightenment by any stretch. But I haven’t given up on it because I know the practice serves me overall and helps me in ways I might not even realize. I also enjoy it as an anchor to my morning routine; I like knowing exactly what I’m going to do when I wake up.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I didn’t think much about happiness at 18 years old. I was mostly concerned with my social life and how I could do the least amount of work while maintaining a decent grade point average.
Now that I have three kids and my own business, my free time is extremely limited and I’ve had to pursue happiness more intentionally. I’ve learned that for me personally, happiness is the byproduct of having pushed myself beyond my limits and from doing the hard things that make me uncomfortable. The payoffs for it are increased confidence and self-respect, and they bring a deep sense of joy which is hard-earned and can never be taken away.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
For most of my life I was an impulsive, instant-gratification kind of person and I struggled to apply consistent effort on a single goal over the long term. But writing a book requires exactly that kind of sustained effort over time. So I had to almost rewire my entire personality and become a more patient and disciplined person. A big part of that transformation came from embracing routines as a way to structure my day.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Now that I’m doing a lot of speaking engagements, I’ve had to travel more often than ever which definitely makes it hard to maintain positive habits. Like I mentioned, having a daily routine has become indispensable to my well-being, and it’s difficult to be consistent with it while traveling.
More so than traveling however, the biggest threat to my healthy habits are the periods of time when I’m not seeing quick or noticeable results. For example, if I reach a plateau or I’m just starting to implement a new habit and it’s taking a while to see any effect. Logically, I know that I need to stick with it because I’ll reap the rewards in the long term, but I can be impatient sometimes. So it’s something I have to work on all the time. I’ve made tremendous strides in becoming more patient and disciplined over the past several years, but I feel like my impulsive inner-child is always looming in the background, threatening to derail my happiness and sense of control.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
After a particularly bad breakup many years ago, I read a line in a book that said something like: our sadness isn’t always about losing the person or relationship, but from losing the dream we had for our lives. That one hit me right in the gut. Day to day, this person and our relationship were making me miserable. Being free of that turmoil should have been an objective improvement in my life. So why was I so sad?
This line made me realize I was mourning the loss of a dream or the story I had for my life. While I couldn’t control the other person or how they acted towards me, I could always write a new story for my life. And that shift in perspective gave me a sense of control in a situation where I otherwise felt powerless. It didn’t cause an immediate or dramatic change in my day to day activity, but over the long term, it empowered me to gain control over the direction of my life.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
I’m a huge quote nerd. I have an archive of them on Pinterest that are organized into different boards by category. For example, one is called ‘before public speaking,’ and I scroll through it to get me in the right headspace before a presentation. Here are a few on happiness and success that I frequently go back to:
“The key to happiness is letting each situation be what it is instead of what you think it should be.” --Mandy Hale
“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.” -- Kahlil Gibran
“Giving up on your goal because of one setback is like slashing your other three tires because you got a flat.” -- Unknown
“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” -- Leonardo Da Vinci
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Here are some others:
"Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!" by Richard Feynman — Feynman is my hero; he always told the truth and never took himself too seriously.
The Six Pillars of Self Esteem by Nathaniel Branden — It pains me that the title of this book is so dry and boring. It should have been called, “All you ever need to know about why people behave the way they do.” This book might be the one that has made the most impact on my life.
The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey — This book takes so many different aspects of the way the mind works and stitches them together in such a way that it’s practically an instruction manual on how to live.
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