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Gary Ginsberg: “Even the Most Externally-Driven People Can Derive Satisfaction from Silence and Isolation.”

Gary Ginsberg: “Even the Most Externally-Driven People Can Derive Satisfaction from Silence and Isolation.”

Author Interview: Gary Ginsberg

Gary Ginsberg has spent his career at the intersection of media, politics, and law. He worked for the Clinton administration, was a senior editor and counsel at the political magazine George, and then spent the next two decades in executive positions in media and technology at News Corporation, Time Warner, and SoftBank.

He recently published his first book, First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents (Amazon, Bookshop).

I couldn't wait to talk to Gary about happiness, habits, and relationships.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Gary: My mind is clearest, my body the strongest, my concentration the sharpest after physical exertion – either by doing sprints on my rowing machine or a workout with my trainer.

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

That happiness and contentment can be attained without the applause and appreciation of others. When I was young, I thought I needed external validation to achieve that feeling. Now as I approach full-on late middle age I appreciate that one can derive happiness and indeed joy from accomplishing things (big and small) that only I know I did, and did well, even if others don’t see it or appreciate it. Has provided me much more peace of mind and satisfaction in the daily rhythms of life than what I experienced in my younger, perhaps more striving days.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?

I was surprised at just how much the concept of my book – that Presidents need and rely on friends just as commoners do – caught on, even with the most hardened devotees/readers of the American presidency. I feared it almost trite when I first landed on it; but with its publication I’ve been thrilled at how it has resonated so deeply, in part I think because the pandemic reminded us all just how important friends are to our daily happiness and contentment.

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

An Upholder with the freedom and desire now to morph into a Rebel. Untethering myself to a corporation and a corporate identify is the beginning (I hope) of a journey into a less structured, more purpose-driven and less conventional life than the one I’ve led for the past 58 years.

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.?

Lightning bolts oddly have played a huge role in my life. I tend to get them in the middle of the night and awaken with this overwhelming sense that I now have full clarity on a vexing issue or a whole new idea to pursue. Certainly happened with First Friends. I’m often asked why I wrote it. The real answer: I awakened in the middle of the night in April 2018 with the idea. But I had clearly been thinking at least subconsciously about it for a long time, both because of the central role friends have played in whatever success I’ve achieved, and the realization that if true for me, how much more meaningful for the most powerful person on the planet? I had seen from my own political experience how important First Friends were in the rise and success of American presidents, yet I also knew that presidential literature was devoid of any books on the subject. It took the 3am lightning bolt to shake me into action, and three years later First Friends was published.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

“Push Push.”

It was the motto by which I drove myself as a college student to work harder to compete with the fancier students I encountered when I arrived at Brown University in 1980. As a middle-class kid from a public high school outside of Buffalo, New York, I knew I had a lot of catching-up to do, a lot of ground to cover, to feel a part of this more rarified, cultured environment I now inhabited. “Push-push” was my silent yet constant exhortation as I made my way through that experience of discovery and growth.

Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer (Amazon, Bookshop).

For the first time I felt the full power of the written word. I can still feel the electricity of the words flowing from the pages as I followed the life of Gary Gilmore. Mailer’s writing was so clear, so spare yet so powerful – and Gilmore’s travels through the judicial system so tortured yet fascinating– that as a high school senior I made two vows: that I would become a lawyer, and aspire later if circumstances allowed to be a writer.

In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?

For twenty-five years I made my living in external relations. To be successful, I always assumed I had to be externally-driven and focused, and lived my life accordingly. My days were filled with hours on the phone or in meetings or at meals with large or small groups. When I got the idea for my book, I realized I would now need to fundamentally shift the way I lived. I didn’t know, however, whether I’d be constitutionally capable of living in relative isolation and silence for hours at a time—without the interruption of a phone or a meeting or a drop-by. I feared it, until I started to live it. And then I embraced it fully. Today, I’m living testament to the truth that even the most externally-driven people can derive satisfaction from—and even thrive in—silence and isolation. It was a wonderful discovery.

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