Matt Richtel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times and bestselling author of fiction and non-fiction. His new book about the science of creativity, Inspired: Understanding Creativity: A Journey Through Art, Science, and the Soul (Amazon, Bookshop), hit shelves this week.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Matt about happiness, habits, and creativity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Matt: Let your mind wander. I mean, really, really wander. No barriers, no neighborhoods off limits, no judgment. Let it go. It’s a type of permission that is foundational to creativity because this type of free flow that ultimately begets inspirational ideas. [Gretchen: This is what I do during my daily visits to the Met!]
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That no one knows what’s better for me than I do, and I need never subvert my instincts to what feels right for me. To this end, I’ve learned to think very differently about the word “opportunity.” It’s used with an implicit understanding that it offers a chance at something great. That word is like the devil, sly. At this point in my career, in the name of doing what’s right for me, I’ve passed up “opportunities” that would make my parents faint.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
Easy one: the creativity is terrifying. Subconsciously, research shows, people associate it with vomit, toxins and other scary ideas. Why? Creativity means change, even death. Understanding this reality helps unlock creativity and our bias against it.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I gained the ability to say “no.” It took years of work. I did it by help from a therapist, and, candidly, by hitting an emotional rock bottom borne of raw, mindless ambition. In the book, Inspired, I write of a major moment of truth for me: I was living in San Francisco, working for the New York Times and they told me I had to relocate to New York. I flew back and met with a top-level editor. I asked if the Times was happy with my work. Yes, he said. “Well, I’m happy and you’re happy,” I said. “What’s the problem?” He told me this wasn’t about happiness. It was how the company worked. I’d have to be in New York by 10/1/01, or be fired. When that day rolled around, I sat at my desk in San Francisco and waited for the phone to ring. Here I sit. Having had the best 20 years of my life, married with kids, a Pulitzer Prize, another book from the heart.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
I am worthy. But I am no more worthy.