Interview: Tara Westover.
You’ve probably either read this book, or read about it, because it has sparked a giant amount of buzz and favorable attention. Tara Westover’s memoir Educated is a#1 New York Times bestseller that has received rave reviews — for instance, it was called the “best-in-years memoir about striding beyond limitations of birth and environment” by USA Today.
Tara Westover was born in Idaho, and because her father opposed public education, she never attended school, but spent her days working in her father’s junkyard or helping her mother, a self-taught herbalist. It wasn’t until she was 17 years old that she first got to a classroom — and from there, she excelled brilliantly at BYU, Cambridge, and Harvard.
Her story reminds me of a passage that I love from one of my favorite writers, Samuel Johnson. He remarked:
“A desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.” Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson
I couldn’t wait to talk to Tara about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Tara: Being alone. Increasingly, I feel like I’m never alone, not really. I am with my phone, and because of that, I am with everyone. Left to wait for a few minutes in a waiting room, I used to observe more, think about a strange accent I’d heard, or analyze the interactions between the couple opposite me. Now I type messages. And receive messages. None of which add up to much. I’m trying to break that habit and go back to a time when the person I spent the most time with was myself. That’s when thinking happens. I know I sound very old-fashioned and analog, but it’s what I need to live!
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Tara: Working intensely for shorter bursts is more effective in the-long run than pushing yourself to the limit. Cognitive capacity is like sobriety. It declines, but because of it’s decline, you lose the ability to perceive it. You think you’re still working at 100%. My advice: don’t work drunk, and don’t work tired.
Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
Tara: My relationship with my phone. Sometimes I feel like Doc Octopus: I look down and there is this mechanical thing seemingly built into my arm. I’ve no idea how it got there. I put it down and walk away, then a minute later, there it is again.
Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Tara: Sleep, food, journaling, walks, and friends.
Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Tara: I’m a believer in thinking through what your behavior is, and trying to understand what’s causing it. I’ve talked a lot about wanting to break the unconscious link between me and my phone, and inasmuch as I’ve succeeded in doing that, I think it was by asking myself what was causing me to reach for it so often, then taking steps to counter that. Here are a few things I did.
1)I realized that I often look at my phone to check the time, but then I get distracted by emails or other notifications. The solution to this was easy. Wear a watch, and buy clocks for all my rooms.
2) I often check my phone to see if I have notifications of any sort, rather than checking anything in particular. Then I toggle back and forth between them seeing if anything new came in while I was checking the other. The solution for me was to centralize all my communication in my email (tell people I would not be responding to messages on Facebook). I also disabled all my notifications. Now, barring texts (which I rarely send or receive), my phone only shows me whether I’ve missed any calls. As a phone should.
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Tara: Seemingly everything is always trying to. Whether any particular thing succeeds is a question of whether I let it.
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.?
Tara: I don’t think so. My ideas tend to start as germs, then grow into tiny slugs, then worms….you get the idea. It’s always gradual.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
Tara: I don’t normally like slogans, but I do find myself sometimes muttering the phrase “Live boldly.” Maybe because I am always trying to get myself to do things I feel slightly unable to do, and I need to convince myself to do them anyway.