She’s also a writer herself. She wrote the novel The End of Men, and now she has a new non-fiction book with an absolutely great title and premise: (It’s Great to) Suck at Something: The Unexpected Joy of Wiping Out and What It Can Teach Us About Patience, Resilience, and the Stuff that Really Matters.
She makes the case for why it’s great to push yourselves, try new things, and find joy in the pursuit rather than the goal.
I myself have been trying to tap into this kind of joy during my frustrations at trying to learn to play the ukulele! (#7 on my “19 for 2019” list).
I couldn’t wait to talk to Karen about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Karen: Happiness doesn’t mean we are feeling “happy” all of the time. We can be “happy” but still experience sadness, frustration, anger, loneliness—which are all part of what it means to be an open-hearted human. Our attachment to those negative feelings is what gets in the way of our happiness. But respecting those more uncomfortable feelings, making room for them, and not judging them allows us to release them and make room for happiness.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
Karen: I don’t know yet what my readers think but what surprised me the most while writing my book was that with every deep inquiry, in much of the research and reading, the philosophy and the science—it all kept leading me back to concepts and questions of the divine. I wasn’t expecting to wind up there at each turn, but it was a beautiful and unexpected journey. I was humbled by humankind’s constant search to understand meaning and to grapple with our mortality. This is as true for physicists as it is for poets, for doctors as it is for philosophers.
Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit?
Karen: Yes—I have been able to change a bad habit when I was finally convinced that it was bad (it’s easy enough to lie to ourselves about stuff to keep us at it) and I’ve started new habits with the expectation, understanding, and self-forgiveness that I would fail to uphold it, so that the pressure was eliminated.
Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Karen: I would consider myself a Rebel, but according to the criteria and the questionnaire, it turns out that I am an Upholder, which I think is funny! It’s probably true and just shows that we like to think of ourselves one way, when we are really something else. Can I be a rebellious Upholder? (Probably not, right?)
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
Karen: Yes, my tendency to be an Upholder (now I know!) sometimes puts obligations before personal health and happiness. But that said, I’m pretty good at pulling back to focus on what I want, even if it results in actually fulfilling that obligation. I make a habit of asking myself why I am doing something that I might at first resent or resist doing, only to realize that I’m doing it because I want to do it. I make the best decisions when I respect the tension between volition and duty, productivity and rest, and accept that none of it is binary.
Gretchen: 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.?
Karen: Yes, there are three times specifically in my life when this happened. The first was when I was in my late twenties and struggling with my self-confidence, I was complaining to someone that so-and-so “made me feel stupid.” My friend’s response changed my life. He said, “Karen, no one can make you feel anything.” That one comment gave me agency in my responses to all kinds of things. It still does.
The second time was when my son was struggling at school—he was eight years old at the time—and a father of one of his classmates said to him, “Rocco, it’s so great to suck at something.” Rocco’s eyes lit up and I think it helped him enormously. I had been five years into my efforts to surf (which I still suck at doing) and John’s comment became my mantra. It allowed me to keep failing but to embrace the joy of it anyway. Rocco became valedictorian of his high school class and I didn’t give up paddling out. That one aha-moment turned into a more than decade-long journey to this book and new way of living for me.
The third time came with a diagnosis and year-long- everything-gone-wrong battle with breast cancer. I finally understood the age-old wisdom of how “Why me?” is only answered with, “Why not me?” These three experiences were lessons in freedom.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Karen: From Samuel Beckett: “Every tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” That about sums it up for me. Anything is possible in that framework.
Gretchen: Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Karen: I wouldn’t say that there is a single book that changed my life, but I couldn’t imagine my life without books. As a reader, editor, and writer, books—or, rather, the intimate communion between writer and reader—have helped me in absolutely every single aspect of my life. Books are like oxygen or water—completely essential.
Gretchen: In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
Karen: If my field is publishing and writing, I would say that, like anything else that looks simple from the outside (surfing, for one)—and all those books out there in the world would indicate otherwise—it’s harder than it looks!