It was great to work with Kristen, and I’m also a big fan of other projects she’s done. Among other things, she’s co-host of the hilarious, thought-provoking podcast By the Book, and she was co-host of the pop-up podcast When Meghan Met Harry, and she’ll be co-host of the forthcoming show We Love You (And So Can You).
She’s won multiple awards, served as producer on many other shows, and is the former director of nonfiction programming for Slate’s sister company, Panoply.
So she’s exactly the right person to write the book that she just put out into the world: So You Want to Start a Podcast: Finding Your Voice, Telling Your Story, and Building a Community That Will Listen, which Publishers Weekly called “invaluable.” She’s got the chops to help you start your podcast!
I couldn’t wait to talk to Kristen about happiness and good habits.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Kristen: Every day, I look for as many ways to be kind to people as possible. Sometimes that means holding a door open for a stranger or offering my seat up on the subway. Sometimes it’s asking to speak to someone’s supervisor so that I can report the great service they gave me. Every month, I donate time and money to causes. And of course, I also try to spread kindness every day through the shows I host, the books I write, and the way I interact with my colleagues and loved ones. For me, kindness is the simplest way to infuse some joy into my day.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
My Nanna always said, “Most people aren’t thinking about you, and that’s a good thing.” But it took me decades to really internalize that message and believe it. For years, I worried off and on about what other people thought of me. And that worry sometimes led me to focus on how others MIGHT perceive my actions in a given moment, rather than recognizing and honoring my own feelings. It took me a long time, but eventually, gradually, it hit me: my Nanna was right. These people weren’t even thinking about me. And only I can live my life.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I used to adore smoking. I loved smoking in the crisp fall weather outside with friends, smoking with drinks, smoking after I exercised. I smoked for years. But smoking is not healthy, especially for someone like me who has allergies and tends to get a lot of chest colds. And so I tried to quit. And each time I did, it was with a different motivation: to save money, for my health, for the environment. In the end, what really motivated me to quit was a combination of all the above, along with my vanity (smoking affects the blood vessels and can make skin age before its time). But I didn’t do it alone. I used New York City’s support hotline for smokers who wanted to quit and also got some online support.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m a complete and total Obliger. If other people are counting on me, you’d better believe I’ll get the job done and usually ahead of time. You can see this quite clearly in my podcasting career. Over the past ten years, I’ve cohosted half a dozen podcasts, and I’ve published only two late episodes in that time. Why? Because I was terrified of letting down my other half. Likewise with the books I’ve written. With So You Want to Start a Podcast, I was so terrified of letting down my editor Cassie, that I turned in the first draft a month early. If that book was something I was just doing on my own, I’d probably still be tinkering with it.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
When I’m not getting enough time around other people, I tend to get bummed out. I’m very much an extrovert. I love walking into an office and saying “good morning” to every person. I love talking to strangers. My social calendar is usually pretty full. But sometimes life isn’t designed for me to see a lot of people. Situationally speaking, I’ll get sick. Or, on a bigger scale, my whole schedule will get upended. For example, last year, I went from being a full-time staffer to a full-time freelancer—and suddenly, I found myself alone at home a lot. That was not good for my happiness. And so, I worked hard to create opportunities to do my work alongside others. I set up a schedule of weekly work dates with other freelancers. I worked in coffee shops at least once a week. And I made the decision to work twice a week at the offices where two of my podcasts are produced (I do this even if I don’t have any tapings or meetings on the calendar because I know it makes me happier).
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.?
I actually did the opposite. When my mother died about ten years ago, just a year and a half after my Nanna died, I went into a state of paralysis. I stayed in my loveless grad school fling for years, when the relationship should have ended after months. I stayed in a job where I was being sexually harassed. I made no forward movement on my emotional life. And when people around me made aspirational, sweeping statements like, “When someone you love dies, you realize life is short, and you no longer waste a minute of it!” I felt a complete and utter sense of self-loathing. I was essentially the opposite of all those aspirational statements. It took me nearly five years, but eventually, I did go back to therapy. I broke up with the guy, quit the job, and started the life I have now. And while I sometimes feel sad about all those lost years, I also try to be kind to myself. I was in pain. And it took time for me to process it. There was no easy way out.
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
I think a lot of people are under the assumption that podcasts are just two people talking. The people joke around and share their opinions and laugh, and then it’s all released into the world as a show. But the best podcasts—and the podcasts that continue for many seasons—actually have a structure. The hosts (and producers, if they have them) craft something that has a beginning, middle, and end. There’s writing, and often research involved. The team knows why they’re making their show and who it’s for. They’re not just talking into microphones. And when they do their job well, they attract a loyal community, and the community feels seen.