Jessica Lahey is a teacher and writer. Over twenty years, she’s taught every grade from sixth to twelfth, in both public and private schools. She writes about education, parenting, and child welfare for publications such as The Atlantic, Vermont Public Radio, The Washington Post, and the New York Times. She’s the author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed (Amazon, Bookshop).
If all that’s not enough, she also co-hosts the excellent #AmWriting podcast with writer KJ Dell’Antonia, author of The Chicken Sisters (Amazon, Bookshop) and How to Be a Happier Parent (Amazon, Bookshop). I love their podcast—it’s all about the work of being a writer.
I’ve known Jess for years, and couldn’t wait to talk to her about happiness, habits, and writing.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Jessica: In the summer, weeding. When I get stuck, I walk outside and just start weeding whatever garden bed, patch of lawn, or sandy driveway edge close by. My nemesis at both my old residence and my new one is Aegopodium podagraria (or Bishop’s Weed, ground elder, goutweed, and, prettily enough, snow-in-the-mountain) but removing that horrid plant is perfect for working out ideas. The roots spread far from the mother plant, white tendrils that, if you commit to sitting down and loosening the ground gently and carefully enough, can be eased out in long, satisfying pieces. In the winter, any mundane, repetitive task like cleaning or painting baseboards works great to engage the default mode network in my brain that allows my creative mind to flow where it likes. That’s when the most interesting connections, insights, and ideas happen for me.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That I don’t have to get to my literal and metaphorical destinations as quickly as possible. In fact, I may think I’m headed one place but a winding, meandering path may well take me someplace even more interesting I never even anticipated. I thought I had to know what I wanted to be when I grew up, then get there as quickly as possible in order to be successful, but the opposite has been true for me. As long as I’m open to the learning, I’m happy to drift from one place to another in the pursuit of goals.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
We tend to teach and parent the way we were taught and parented, and we tend to feel defensive about that path, as if questioning our methods – and by proxy, our own teachers’ and parents’ – is an attack on the people we love and respect. If anything, learning how to do better, to be better is a testament to our teachers and parents, evidence that they gave us the tools to learn from our mistakes and our continuing education.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
By building habits. Starting new habits is so hard, but once I’m in that habit, I’m good at maintaining it. Unfortunately, much of my time as an active alcoholic was a result of falling into destructive habits and it took a loving intervention by my dad to help me take the first step toward making not drinking my new habit.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m a Questioner, which is not surprising at all to me. I always meet expectations and deadlines, but what matters most to me is that I find those expectations and deadlines worthwhile and relevant. If not, I will still get it done, but I hate every second of it while it’s in progress.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
I love my work and that often edges out exercise and eating. I tend to forget to eat during the day, and despite my best intentions to stop working in time to work out, I usually keep working when I’m on a roll.
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.?
My best changes in professional directions have happened thanks to lightning bolts, when ideas fall into place all at once. So often that lightning bolt happens, though, because the wandering (reading, thinking, musing) came first, and I’ve had time to percolate on disparate ideas and disciplines and how they all work together. It took me four years of working, reading, thinking, pitching and getting pitches rejected to land on the idea for The Addiction Inoculation, and when it hit me (at the Hooksett Tolls on I-93 in New Hampshire) it fell into my lap fully formed, title and all.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
“I decided to make my life my argument.” Albert Schweitzer. I find when I follow that lead, I stay truest to myself.
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
Reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Amazon, Bookshop) helped me understand what great writing can be, the words and ideas below the words and ideas, flowing along like a deep river of ideas. Once I realized that river was there, my love of books transformed into an obsession.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
Writing isn’t romantic with curtains fluttering in the breeze and the muses speaking directly to your soul, it’s messy, and ugly, and hard. It’s also the best job in the world once your butt is in the chair and the music playlist is just right, and the ideas are flowing. That’s when I forget to eat, or move, or pick my kid up at school. That’s where I’d live if I could.