Years ago, I met Jon Acuff when we were speaking at the same conference. We had time to talk as we waited backstage, and I really enjoyed getting to know him. Then, because he spoke right before I did, I had the chance to listen as he gave his presentation. (I remember that he got a lot of laughs.)
He also has a podcast, All It Takes Is a Goal: “The future belongs to finishers. Join New York Times bestselling author and speaker Jon Acuff as he explores the best tips, tricks and techniques to getting from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow. All it takes is a goal.”
I couldn’t wait to talk to Jon about happiness, habits, and writing.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Jon: I need endorphins like fish need water. When I got serious about working on my happiness, I got more serious about running. A few miles alone does wonders for my head and my heart. I don’t get to do it every day, but if I go three or four days without getting at least a little bit of exercise, my stress gets a lot louder.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Happiness is a choice, not a feeling. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned about it over the years. I thought it was something that happened organically or accidentally, tied to whatever circumstances I experienced that day. Now that I’m in my mid 40s, I really feel like happiness is something I get to choose and something I get to practice.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
My new book is about overthinking. (You can read the first chapter for free here.) During the research process, Mike Peasley PhD and I asked 10,000 people if they struggle with overthinking and 99.5% of people said, “Yes.” That was the first surprise. Everyone overthinks and everyone thinks they’re the only one who does.
The second surprise was that no one overthinks compliments. There wasn’t a single person we talked to who said, “My big issue is that I’m too kind to myself internally. I’m constantly giving myself compliments like, ‘You’re a great mom! You’re doing an awesome job!’”
Nobody had too much self-compassion.
The problem was just the opposite. A mom would be five minutes late to pick up her kid from school and instantly play internal soundtracks that trumpeted her failure. “You’re always late! Every other mom is on time. Every other mom makes their kid elaborate, healthy meals for school with asparagus and dragon fruit and you feed your kid Lunchables.”
Does that sound familiar? Maybe not because most of us have never stopped long enough to listen how we talk to ourselves. Life’s just too busy and so our internal soundtracks, or repetitive thoughts, get to play in the background unchecked. That was the third surprise, how few people know that a thought isn’t something you have. A thought is something you hone. You can choose what you think.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I didn’t write any books for the first 34 years of my life. I wrote seven books in the last 11 years, so I had to work on establishing several writing habits. One of them is that I learned to write in layers.
My first drafts aren’t funny.
My first drafts aren’t particularly positive.
My first drafts don’t have the right words.
My first drafts are written in passive voice, since I failed to learn how to beat that in the 7th grade and have simply trudged along since.
My first drafts don’t make sense.
My first drafts are only a connection of ideas loosely strung together with the thinnest of thread. That used to drive me crazy. I’d look up from a few hours of writing and pace around my office in anxious frustration. Then, I decided to admit something.
I write in layers.
The first layer is just a sketch. All I’ve done is taken a bunch of ideas that feel related and put them on the same page. The transitions are flimsy, the logic is fuzzy, the cohesiveness is none existent, but that’s OK. That’s how the first layer ALWAYS is.
I don’t even care about the words in the first draft. I’ll type NEED BETTER WORD and then just keep going. This isn’t the good words layer. This is the concept layer. Then, once I’ve spent enough time away from the first layer to be somewhat objective, I’ll come back and do the second layer. Now, I care a little more about the words. I care about the transitions. I care about the flow.
That’s better, but it’s still not very positive. I can be pretty negative and a smidge sarcastic. With that sarcasm comes some negativity. My initial drafts are so mopey. They’re dark little storm clouds best suited for the liner notes of a Cure album.
So, I work in more positivity. It has to be honest, it has to be genuine. It can’t be sappy. If I Def Leppard the whole thing and just pour sugar over it, I won’t hit the mark.
Once I get the positivity on point, I amplify the humor. In the movie industry, they often hire comedians to “punch up” a script with more jokes. That’s what I’m doing with this layer. I’m going back through the entire piece and making sure there are some genuine laugh out loud moments. I look for the ridiculous and then turn it up a few notches.
The next layer I add on is to make sure it’s helpful. I like ideas that move me to action. I don’t just write to write, I want to inspire you to do something. So I read what I’ve written with a filter of, “What’s in it for me?” I want you to learn something practical that you can use today.
When I’m done with those layers, I finally make sure I’ve got the right words in place. In some ways I’m doing that all along, deciding that Def Leppard is a funny band name to turn into a verb, for instance. But during this final layer I meticulously go through every sentence to decide if I have my favorite words.
I don’t write drafts, I write layers and that word distinction matters. The names we give our work have weight. “Drafts” is too serious for me. A draft is a complete work. That word awakens my perfectionism and makes it hard to move beyond the first rendition of my work.
The word “Layers” gives me more freedom. It’s just a layer. Other layers will come. Other layers will do their job. An architect would never stand on a muddy job construction site and say, “Why did you only do the foundation? What a failure of a first draft!” Instead, they’d recognize that big projects come in layers. The foundation was just the start. There’s an electrical layer and a plumbing layer and a framing layer.
If you ever have a hard time finishing a first draft, try a layer instead. I’ve found them to be a really helpful habit.
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.?
When I was researching my new book Soundtracks, I had the opportunity to interview David Thomas. He’s the director of family counseling at Daystar, a center for kids in Nashville. He’s the author of six books and an accomplished public speaker, but it was an offhand comment he made over coffee that changed what I believed about negative thinking.
In the middle of a long list of questions I was asking him, David said, “The problem with the internal voices inside is that we want a switch.” I hadn’t heard thoughts described that way, so I asked him to explain what he meant.
“We think that there’s a switch out there and if we can just find it, we can turn off the background noise completely. We only have to do it one time and we’ll never hear it again. People want there to be a switch.”
“Those people are crazy,” I replied, having spent the last few years of my life looking for that exact thing.
“It’s not a switch, though,” he continued, “it’s a dial. The goal isn’t to turn it off forever, the goal is to turn down the volume. It’s going to get louder sometimes. That’s how dials work. But when life turns up the negative thoughts, we get to turn them down. That takes a lot of the pressure off because when you hear one again, it’s not a sign that you’ve failed to shut it off and need to go find a different switch. It’s just time for an action that will turn it back down.”
I wanted to jump on top of the table in the diner and shout, “It’s a dial! It’s a dial!” and then throw a sixpence to a street urchin like I was Ebenezer Scrooge so he could buy his family a fat Christmas goose. Seeing stress as a dial instead of a switch has been really helpful to me.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
Author Dorothy Parker once said, “Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye.” The wild mind means you give yourself permission to put a thousand different ideas in your head. You notice a song lyric, a comment from the mailman, a sign at a coffee shop, a question your curious toddler asked, and an article in the New York Times. You collect anything that is remotely interesting to you.
Then you look at that vast collection of unrelated ideas and have the discipline to see the connection between them in a way no one has before. I use this approach to write books, articles, and speeches. For example, one of the topics I talk about a lot to companies like Microsoft, FedEx and Walmart is empathy. In my speech, I share a story a chimney sweep told me in Branson, Missouri, a marketing principle I learned working for Bose, and a rap lyric from Dr. Dre. Those three ideas had nothing to do with each other when I initially collected them, but when I connected them they turned into a highly memorable idea for audiences.
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie (Amazon, Bookshop). That book taught me how to maintain my creativity while working inside a massive corporate environment. It’s beautifully designed and full of the kind of stories that stick with you for years.