What You Want Matters
“You are driving yourself batty because of your anxious, over-achieving need to please others. You are miserable. This life is not meant to feel miserable. It is meant to feel delicious.”
That’s New York Times bestselling author Julie Lythcott-Haims, who explains that anxious achievers are often hyper-attuned to other people and how to please them. She tells host Morra Aarons-Mele that many of us need to learn how to tune out that noise and focus on ourselves, our dreams, and our goals.
“This is your one wild and precious life,” she argues in this week’s episode. “To heck with them! What you want is valid and matters.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who’ve dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, how they fell down, how they pick themselves up and how they hope work will change in the future. What if life was just a little bit easier? That’s a question that a dear mentor asked of me recently, and I can’t get it out of my head. She didn’t mean that my life should be paved with riches and perfection and I’d never faced struggle, but she saw me as an anxious overachiever who is always fretting and worrying and overthinking, and she honestly asked me the question. I want to ask it of you right now, my dear listeners. What if life were just a little bit easier? What if you got yourself unstuck, which is why I’ve invited back to the show the wonderful Julie Lythcott-Haims. Julie is going to help us tune out the noise, the desire to always please others, the hyper-attunement many of us anxious achievers feel to other people’s narratives and instead focus on ourselves, our lives, our dreams, and our precious goals. You know, Julie says this life is not meant to feel miserable. It’s meant to feel delicious. What you want is valid and it matters. Julie Lythcott-Haims believes in humans and she’s deeply interested in what gets in our way. Her work encompasses writing, speaking, teaching, mentoring, and activism. She’s the New York Times-bestselling author of How to Raise an Adult, which gave rise to a really popular TED talk. She’s written a poetry prose memoir, Real American, and her third book, Your Turn: How to Be an Adult, has been called a ground-breakingly frank guide to adulthood. Hi Julie.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Hi Morra. Thanks for having me back.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, Julie, I think you’re the first guest I’ve ever had back, so I don’t know if that’s an honor or not, but—
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Oh my god. It’s a pleasure, pleasure. Whatever went well before, we’re hoping to replicate, like a great sequel.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Exactly. Well, I wanted to have you back because I read your second book, right, which I don’t think is written for 45-year-olds. However, I got so much out of it, even though I am an adult with a capital A, and I wanted to talk about that. Also, I thought about you and I talked about overachieving and pressure the first time, but I wanted to layer in, as an anxious achiever, as someone who is so hypersensitive to everyone else’s narrative as I lead my life, and I think as listeners who identify as anxious achievers are, why do you think this book might be more relevant to someone like me versus someone who’s like, “I don’t care what you think. F you”?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Morra, I think you just encapsulated not only my 459-page book, but the entire neurotic condition of anxious overachievers. We are, as you just beautifully put, it hyper attuned to everyone else’s narrative. I think the counterpunch that this book offers is to heck with that.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: This is your one wild and precious life. You are driving yourself batty with anxiety. You’re making other people miserable because of your anxiety, because of your control, because of your anxious, overachieving need to please others. You are miserable. This life is not meant to feel miserable. It is meant to feel delicious, getting more in tune with who you are, what you want to heck with them. What you want is valid and matters. That is the urgent drumbeat of this book, and I’m not surprised at 45, you felt it spoke to you because, hey, this book is pitched for those entering adulthood, but the reality is the book is a mirror that I’m just holding up to your face, to your spirit, to your soul, to your heart, and you will see reflected in it only the things you to see. You will see yourself in the book where you need to, and others will see themselves in different places of the book, and I’ve tried to take all of us into account as I’ve written this. I’m delighted that you resonated so much.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I did. I have to tell you something that a colleague that I think we both know, Ruth Ann Harnisch, who’s a member of a community that we’re part of, she said to me—
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Absolutely—
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yesterday, she said, “Morra, what if life was just a little bit easier and people were nice to you? What if you approached every day thinking life’s not that hard today, people are going to be kind to me today instead of making everything so hard, even when they don’t have to be?”
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I love that Ruth Ann offered that curiosity, and I’m nodding my head, hearing you repeat what she said, and I’m also getting the next piece of advice, which is, yeah. In order to create that reality of life feeling easier, people being nicer to us, we have to be that person. We have to develop a gratitude practice where no matter what is hitting the fan at any given moment, we are able to articulate with specificity a few small things we do have in our life today that we’re grateful for. A gratitude practice developed and undertaken daily will change your outlook and make you appreciate that life is in fact pretty darn okay, even in the face of all of the existential, “Oh my goodness,” and even the very specific to our own life stuff, there is stuff to be grateful for and a gratitude practice helps us recognize that. The second thing is you want people to be nice to you, we got to get out there and be nice. Niceness is a contagion, an act of kindness offered to your barista or the store clerk, these humans we constantly interact with. Just, “Hey, thank you so much for working this shift today.” Say that to a barista and rock their world. Why? Because they’re feeling unseen, uncared about as they make your beverage and hardly earn any money for it, okay?
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I want to talk about being an adult because one of the things that you say, you say this, to be an adult, you have to develop resiliency and agency, or you may say agency and resiliency. Please define.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Agency is simply the psychological reassurance we have coursing through our body, which is I can. I am able. It’s not like, “I’m amazing. I’m the best.” No, it’s much more tactical. I am capable. I know that I can give this a try. I’ve got some plans for today, and I’m going to act upon that plan. Right? It’s just the knowing that I can, as opposed to the helplessness of, “I don’t think I can actually do anything.” Okay, yeah.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: It can be something … it doesn’t have to be like changing the world. It can be like, “I can handle—
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: No—
MORRA AARONS-MELE: My sink is leaking.”
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yes.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: “I can handle my car. I need to talk to the guy at the dealer because my car is broken.” Things like that that are still challenging.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Absolutely. It really is. I cannot even I can handle because I think handle gets to resilience, which is sort of handle sort of implies that we’re coping with stuff that’s tough. I can is simply the knowledge we get from when I take a step, when I do something, there will be a result, okay? I will act, there will be an outcome. When we’ve been over-parented, our parents have acted on our behalf, so we’ve gotten a grade, but they helped us get it. We made it to lacrosse, but only because they woke us up on time. Psychologically, the kid’s brain knows I didn’t … life is happening to me as opposed to I am the actor. I’m in the driver’s seat of my life. That’s agency. Resilience is its counterpart or it’s the sort of hand in glove. I can cope when things go wrong. Why? Because things will go wrong. Life is chaos, largely out of our control. Even when we try our best and do everything right, air quotes, we sometimes screw up or life screws up for us, and I can cope is the knowledge we must have in order to get through, all right, this is awful. I am in pain. I’m embarrassed, I’m ashamed. I’m sad, whatever it is, and just sit with that feeling and then let it course through you and then take that deep breath. Stop the sobbing. When it’s time, get up, have a drink of water, and say, “All right, now what?” Then you are stronger tomorrow because you handled that, you let that emotion happen and you discovered, “I’m still alive. I’m still here. The sun is going to come up tomorrow. I can,” agency, “move forward,” and that resilience becomes that sort of thicker skin and a mental memory of … it’s a dumb thing to say mental memory because where are memories if not in our head?
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well people say they’re in our body.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Okay, fine. They are a memory, both in body and mind of, “Hey, I coped with some stuff.” That becomes further evidence to the self next year that it can handle whatever new stuff has to be coped with.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I was just booking a speech, and I was talking to a leader who was saying that it’s one of her close colleagues is getting divorced and she can see the daily adulting struggle that this person is having, whenever we have a personal trauma, but we still have to show up at work. Do you feel like it challenges anew all those skills of agency and resiliency and just being an adult that we may have thought we had down?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Absolutely. Look, first of all, none of us wants to be going through that unless the relationship is horrible and getting out of it is actually a big relief despite the challenges and the minutia. When you have a loss, you lose a relationship, somebody dies, somebody is extremely ill, someone develops a terrible chronic illness, somebody loses a job, these are things that are traumatic and they cause us grief. It is hard to show up as your best self in the workplace or in relationship or with your kids or to yourself, frankly, when you’re dealing with some serious stuff. So, that’s why I wrote the chapter, How to Cope When the blank Hits the Fan, because the blank will hit the fan, and that’s normal. It’s not like, “Oh my gosh, what’s wrong with my life? Bad things are happening.” Life will entail bad things is the point of that chapter, and it then becomes, “All right, what do I do?” Well, you look for the helpers. Like Mr. Rogers taught all of us who are gen Xers, look for the helpers. Who can you turn to with confidence that they’ve got your back? Is there one person you know you can call in the middle of the night when that terrible news comes? We all need a small number of humans who are our ride or dies, there with us there for us who, and we can be the ballast. Yeah.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Totally, and I loved that this woman, as a boss, as a colleague, was trying to be that person, but also saying, this is really hard. There are boundaries, and I need results and blah, blah, blah, but I understand. I mean, I think that that’s something that is changing with the pandemic. I don’t know if you have thoughts about that, but yeah.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah. You want to be a boss for the 20th century or the 21st century because there’s a big difference.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: 20th century, it’s “I’m sorry you’re going through that,” if that. Like, “Yes and I need your results.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Okay, that happened to me. I worked at a law firm in Silicon valley. I’m a brand new lawyer. I’m doing very well. They like me. I’m being paid well. My father dies. I go into tailspin. My partner takes me out for lunch three months later, and I just am so excited to get to know her better. I’m only in my second year and we have this lovely lunch. We’re talking about everything, and on the walk back to the firm, she stops at the traffic light and looks at me and says, “You need to get your hours up.” All I did from that moment on was look for another job, and it took me many years to leave, but I was checked out because it was so brutally handled and I will call that the 20th century version. The 21st century version is, “Oh my gosh, first of all, thank you for sharing this with me. It’s important for me to know whatever you’re comfortable sharing, because I want to be able to support. I know that things … I don’t want you to feel obligated to tell me any more than you’re comfortable, and this is the workplace. I’m your boss after all. However, I want you to know that I care deeply about you and about all of us because this company is our people. So while we have metrics and deliverables and this and that, I’m going to take a look at what I can do to kind of help scale things back a little bit for you in recognition of what you’re going through. Please just keep me posted. I don’t want to make assumptions. Okay, that kind of conversation delivered with eye contact from your boss will make you want to work harder for your boss. Why? Because your boss isn’t treating you like a robot who lacks feelings and isn’t getting divorced. Your boss is saying, “I get it,” all right? People will work harder. I don’t want people to sort of game the system and be the boss who’s just nice in order to get people to work harder. I’m just saying, hey boss, have no fear. Showing up as a caring, compassionate human who’s willing to pull back a little bit on the metrics and deliverables so your human can deal with the human stuff that’s happening, that makes you a better boss, that results in people working harder and in a more collegial workplace.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Okay. So you started looking for another job in your head. You know, we’re seeing so much data out there that people are burnt out, mentally checked out, quitting their jobs. I think that people are feeling stuck and wanting something new, but a lot of people I talk to, especially anxious people, are also a bit frozen. They know that they need to change and that work can be more, but fear is just getting in the way.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: All right, I love you so much Morra. You ask such great questions.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Aww, thanks.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I’m taking notes. Okay, so number one, the great resignation, as they call it, is underway. I think it’s a reckoning for the American economy and capitalism, and humans don’t want to simply be regarded as the sum total of the work they produce or the income they have. We want more out of this life and we are demanding it, and that is beautiful and chaotic, and it’ll be fascinating to see where this goes. A lot of big shifts are underway. I have so much I want to say. The second thing I want to say is higher ed for example, is having to examine, well, what do we offer undergraduates? If you can take our classes online, can we really charge all this money for an online experience? What do undergraduates in the 21st century facing climate change and income and inequality and polarization and et cetera, a pandemic, what do they deserve by way of an undergraduate education? I’m fascinated by the conversations that are happening about totally re-imagining. So we’re in a total re-imagined moment, which is great and scary, because there’s a lot of uncertainty at the individual level of the fear that you were talking about. Here’s what I would offer. Yeah, first of all, that fear, totally valid. Totally get it. Second, you want to sit quietly with yourself or be in the presence of only yourself for a short period of time, like a half hour maybe, and that could be you go for a run. Don’t listen to music as you do, just ask yourself the things I’m about to say. Go for a run, go for a walk in nature, take a shower, a hot shower, cold, whatever. A hot shower would probably better for this. Let the water pound on your head, and you’re just thinking, “Don’t be listening to a podcast as you shower, go be with your journal in a quiet undisturbed place,” and in one of these environments or one that is better for you than the ones I’ve suggested, say to yourself, “Hey, how’s this life feeling in terms of my work? What would I be doing if it was only up to me?” Be quiet. Let the thoughts come. That’s yourself talking to yourself. Okay? You might have to push a little bit. You might have to nurture it. You might have to make yourself know it’s safe to come out from hiding, yes, like I’m asking, “What do I want?” Reframe it this way. What’s that crazy thing I always said, “Oh, I would love to do that, but nobody … who does that,” right? Let yourself answer that question. Who does that? Maybe I could do that. It’s a brainstorm, so you must not criticize the ideas that are coming from yourself. You are simply noticing them. Maybe jot them down when you get out of the shower, you come back from your walk or if you’re already at your journal. Jot down what are those big or strange or unusual or off the beaten path or not on the right track yet my heart, my spirit is telling me, like, “But that’s why I’m here.” Write that down. Just write it down so it’s there. Second exercise is brainstorm, list. On the left side of the list, what am I good at? Write down your skills as you understand them. What am I good at? Draw a line right side of the page. What do I love? This is a free form. You list everything you love from people to food, to ways of being in the world and things that matter to you. Okay? You are scanning for an intersection of these two lists. You are going to compare this analysis with what about these dreams over here on the first exercise we did that maybe I have thought were too foolish or not what someone like me, air quotes, or from a family like mine is, air quotes … I’ve got air quotes all day long for this, is supposed to be doing with my life, okay? You are trying to jostle your actual self out from the cage you’ve been put in by family, by society, by lived experience. You are to trying to get back to being that free thinking, free person who can make your own choices about how and where you will live, how much money you will make and with whom you will conjoin your life, what things matter to you. That’s what’s demanded and offered by a moment that is characterized by a pandemic that says, “Thou shall not, thou cannot.” There’s so many cant’s, ought’s, nots about the pandemic, yes. This is a total reframe about, okay, fine, there’s so much we can’t do, but what can I do, agency? How am I going to emerge from this resilience and furtherance of what I know to be the reason I’m on the planet. Now I’m quoting the late poet, Mary Oliver, who said, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life, people? It is your life. It is wild. It is precious, and it is underway. So do not wait to get better at it. It is happening now.”
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Okay, but—
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Hoo, Lord. I’m on a soapbox. I can feel it.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I mean, I was like, I was feeling unstuck. I could feel the glue coming off.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Good, good, good.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: But I’m going to throw in a but because this is a show about anxiety and people with anxiety. What do they fear? They fear negative judgment, they fear shame, and they fear disappointing people. One of the questions that you wrote and that I literally could not have nodded my head more vigorously is whose judgment do I most fear? Where does that question come in in this process of learning yourself and trying to get unstuck?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Well, so when you are having that moment with yourself in the shower, on the run or the walk or with the journal or wherever, and you say, “What would I do if it was just up to me and some answers come, or if answers won’t come?” Regardless of whether the answers come or not, ask yourself the question who am I afraid of? Whose judgment do I fear? Whose approval do I seek? A name, a face, a set of names and faces will likely come right away. Then what you got to do is smile and nod at yourself and say, “Yep, okay. I hear that. Yep, okay. That’s valid. That’s there for a reason. Let me dip into a couple memories of why that is so.” Ask yourself, “Why is that?” Oh, well, because when I was eight. Oh, well, because when I was graduating from high school, right? Oh, well, right? Whatever the memories are, let them come. Let them come and just hold them in your heart. They are a part of you, and they are helping to sort of cook this anxiety in you, and you are trying to lessen the power that those memories of those people, that situation, that circumstance has on your present life. Look, I’m not a therapist I am reaching the edges of the advice I can give without practicing without a license, so I will add get a good therapist. Unpack this, you know what, with a good therapist. But I also have at the very back of this book a study guide, which is where I ask these questions. I go through this chapter on being stuck, and ask yourself who’s judgment do I fear? Who’s approval am I seeking? The study guide, which is available on my website, is a great set of questions that will just accompany you as you do this examination of the self-work.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I love that.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I’m anxious too. I mean, let me just say that. I’m anxious too.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: No, tell us. Say it, please.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Well, I am anxious. I am not anxious with a capital A, only because I don’t have a diagnosis, but I have learned as I’ve watched my own children deal with their mental health, and then I’ve noticed my own behavior, I have come to see that I am anxious. I can tell when I’m anxious. I get very anxious and controlling, therefore, in certain circumstances, and I’ve learned, for example, my son, who’s now to 22, has been living with us since the start of the pandemic, and in the kitchen one day, because he hadn’t lived with us now for a couple years. So he’s now back home at 20 and he’s now 22, he’s in the kitchen and he’s like, “Mom, I’m going to put this in the toaster. Do I put this on 375 or 400?” I’m in the middle of cooking something else, and I’m sort of exasperated that my 20 year old needs the answer to that question. Like, come on. First of all, it’s a toaster oven.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: You wrote a book about this, right?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a toaster oven. 375, 400 isn’t a huge … So I start to say, “Sawyer, it doesn’t matter. Just figure it out,” and he sort of looks at me. I turn away and get right with myself and I take a deep breath and I look back at him, and I say, “Sweetheart, you know what?” First of all, I get anxious when I’m in the kitchen, I’m learning that about myself. I know that I probably behaved that way for decades without realizing it, but I have a certain need for things to be precise. I want the food all to come out at the same time and everybody to be seated so we have a hot meal. That’s my thing. I realize that I’m anxious about that, and I’m guessing that there’s a look on my face that you’re familiar with that’s mom’s in the kitchen intense, and it may have resulted in your feeling, everything has to be just so in the kitchen, and I’m sorry.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: So I want you to know I’m working on this, A. B, I want you to know that toaster oven doesn’t require that much precision. If 400 turns out to be too high, the thing won’t burn, as long as you keep your nose and your eyes out for it. 375 might just require more time. It’s really a balance of temperature and time, and the best way forward is to try, take note of it and tweak it for next time. So I was able to self-regulate, own up to my anxiety, convey to my child all of this stuff, and then give him some good direction that wasn’t over-parenting or micromanaging. I would call that a massive win, but that is the work that I am actively at every single day.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: And you were vulnerable too. You were vulnerable.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Absolutely. Forgot that part. I was definitely vulnerable.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: You have made many pivots career, but it seems to me, and I don’t know you well, but I’ve read most of your stuff at this point. Like you were a lawyer and then you worked in a university, and so those are kind of hierarchical institutions, right?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yep.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: They’ve been around a long time. They know how to do things. You did really well. I don’t know how long ago this was, you gave it all up and became an author, a speaker, a person who I would imagine has total agency, but also your structure and your income is 100 percent on you.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Way to peak my anxiety Morra.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, that’s my question.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: What have you learned about yourself and your anxiety having done this in midlife?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Well, it’s hard to know what’s causal and what’s correlated and what’s happenstance. I’m 53. I went back to school at 44 in 2012 to get an MFA in writing to try to develop confidence that I could write a book. I knew I wanted to say something about helicopter parenting, because I had seen it on our campus and I’d written op-eds and given speeches, and I could give a speech I knew because I had been a lawyer. I was a litigator. I knew how to talk and move people.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Had you already given your TED talk at this point?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: No. No, no, no. Nope.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Okay.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: The TED talk is a function of that first book that came out. I went to school in 2012 for an MFA, got a book deal along the way, slowed down my MFA to complete that book, How to Raise an Adult, which led to the TED talk. Then they were like, “Yo, you got to finish this MFA. You’re in year four of a two year program,” and they made me … they were like, “This first book, you said you didn’t want to do your thesis, so now you got to write a second, actual thesis.” I complained about that. Wanted to retroactively make How to Raise an Adult my thesis. They were like, “No, it doesn’t work that way. There’s a process when you write a thesis.” So Real American, my second book, my memoir on being black and biracial in white spaces mostly and dealing with microaggressions and racism is that thesis, which became my second published book. So here I am. Yes, I have since 2012 been not having a paycheck regularly, not having employer-based health insurance, all of that, scary, scary, scary. Like got to go out and hunt it down and kill it if you’re going to eat it.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: You’re the breadwinner, if I understand this—
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I am, although my partner, Dan, he’s amazing. When I went back to school, we knew he could take up the slack and support us as I went from being an income earner to being a tuition spender, and we’ve had this dance back and forth for 33 years, he and I. He’s amazing. He then became a full-time artist once my book career, speaking career took off, but then had to leave that full-time artist life of three plus years behind when the pandemic hit, and I lost all my speaking temporarily.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: It did come back, but he went out and got a job to keep us going. So we’ve been doing this dance. I got to tell you whatever anxiety I feel about, I got to go make something happen, I call it hustling. I actually like hustling and I think it is soothing my anxiety that it’s up to me.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Me too. I love to hustle.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Julie, you go out and make it happen and watch it happen. It’s not about what a committee thinks. It’s not about what a set of colleagues are doing. In some ways it is that, I hate to say it this way, but I’m just going to. There is a piece of me that’s always been like, “Well, if I’m going to get it done right, I better do it myself, right, because the perfectionist. I think in weird ways, the perfectionist me, which I’m really working on soothing out of myself, is served by it’s on me. Now it is also terrifying because if I can’t do something, if I get injured or sick or things just don’t go my way, then it’s like, wow, I do not have that safety net of a set of colleagues who can carry me for a few months or however long while I’m dealing with my stuff.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: So I think on balance, however, I find the autonomy, the freedom, but also the fact that I’m my own brand. It is kind of a relief not to feel responsible for upholding somebody else’s brand.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, and you had some big brands on your … I mean, Stanford.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah, I did. I did. Well when I wrote my first op-ed on the harm of over-parenting for the Chicago Tribune, came out 10 years before the book, I wrote an op-ed.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh wow.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: In ’05, I wrote on, it’s called when Cutting the Cord. No it’s called When Did Caring Become Control? Blame Boomers.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: I remember that.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: And it’s a big front page of the Chicago Tribune book, section, or not book section, op-ed page. My boss, the vice provost, this important, tall respected white engineer, male comes pounding down the hall. You can hear him coming. You always know when this guy’s coming. He throws my door open. He’s like, “You wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune?”, and I’m like, “Yes.” I’m beaming because I think he’s going to tell me he’s proud of me.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh no.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: I am right now, at the time, the Dean of freshmen and transfer students at Stanford.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Ruh-roh.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: He’s mad because the title says … although he agrees that helicopter parents are a problem, okay, he’s mad because the title says, When Did Caring Become Control: Blame Boomers, and he’s worried that the development office is going to hear from boomer parents who are mad. I’m like, I mean, sorry. I’m like, “The Chicago Tribune picked the title. I wrote the piece. The piece is good. Don’t we want us to be living the life of the mind and articulating ideas and sharing them in the world and trying to change things? That’s what I’m doing.” All he could see was the potential for some angry phone calls to the Office of Development. So that’s what I mean about having to keep someone else’s brand in mind when you are as free and unrestrained thinker and feeler and person as I am, I do find it liberating to be a solopreneur.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So was that part of your getting unstuck was that realization?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS:I was not … yeah, well I would not characterize my feelings there as stuck because working on a college campus is so animating and so generative, I think being in the presence of so many people figuring themselves out and becoming more adept, more clear as adults, whether they were undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, or staff, there was an energy and a momentum there that I think certainly helped fuel my own curiosity about my own growth.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh, that’s interesting. Sorry, I just want to … because getting an MFA is kind of a commitment, and it’s putting a stake in the ground of being a creative. Do you think that being in that kind of atmosphere stimulated?
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah. Gave me permission, yes.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Well, you can’t sit with undergraduates for 10 years when they’re like, “Well, I have to be pre-med,” shrug shoulders and I cock my head and say, “You have to what?”, and they’re like, “Yeah, I got to be [inaudible 00:31:51],” or be an engineer or be a whatever, and my job was to hold the mirror up and say, “All right, let’s talk about what you actually want, what you would do if nobody was judging you,” and they would laugh, and I’d say, “No, really.” I didn’t give them answer. I didn’t say like, “Go be a wilderness explorer or go be a painter,” but if they were telling me that that’s what they’d always loved, I’d be the grownup who was like, “All right, I’m interested in that. Tell me more. What would you do with that? What might that life be like for you? So how could I have those questions on one side of the table, interrogating, helping other people interrogate what they wanted out of this one wild and precious life, and then ignore the yearning in my own spirit. I mean, I was already writing. I was writing poetry. I was writing short form. I was speaking about the things I cared about. I’d wanted to major in communication as a 17 year old college student, but got a D in communications, so I decided, well, that’s not going to be my job. Here I am now 53 with three books written and a TED talk. I learned how to communicate, I guess. You circled back around to yourself, if you’re willing to listen to what that self wants, you can be that person.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: If you’re willing to listen to what that self wants, I think that’s the work.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Amen. I got to give a shout out to my amazing coach, Mary Ellen Myers. I write about her in my book. Stanford offered her to me 14 years ago, helping me get more effective at leading and being collegial in the workplace, and she taught me mindfulness. She taught me how to get familiar with the self and what the self is troubled by and addled by and what the self yearns for this life, and I think she will be one of those few faces I picture when I die. She has profoundly changed my way of being in this body, in this spirit and helped me not only know that I’m okay, but then be very curious and interested in investing in, all right, what do I want to learn next in order to be more of whom I aim to be, which is kinder and yet have an impact and gentle with people and yet powerful when I need to be and all of these things. How can I get them in a finely tuned balance? That is my work.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: So Julie, I have to admit that I just saw your article about being wrong, like 10 minutes before we got on, so I haven’t really absorbed it, but maybe we can close with this question that you wrote, “I learned young that I was problematic.” I’d like you to talk a little bit about what that means and how that understanding has informed your agency and your resilience.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: 100 percent. This is the knowing of the self that is my most recent lesson. I’ve had to ask, because people have interviewed me about this book or my work more broadly, kind of why do I write the things I do? Why do I try to do the work I do, which is to help other humans feel seen and to know that they’re okay. I realize that I came into this world and pretty early on learned I was problematic. I was born in 1967, so late 60s, early 70s. I’m the child of a dark skinned African American man and a white, pale, British mother, and in those years that was problematic. Our family was problematic. We got looks, we got mean comments. I knew that I was already out of bounds. I had barely lived life and I already knew something was wrong with me for things I hadn’t done, but as a child, you don’t really necessarily parse that. I think it gave me … I was transgressive from the start. I transgressed the rules and norms of society, is what I mean. I think it gave me a lot of empathy for anybody who’s told you’re out of bounds or you’re wrong, or we don’t want your kind here. I think it is the locus of my compassion and my empathy. A lot of folks have compassion and empathy. We might have it innately. We might have it because of lived experience. I’m just tracing mine back to these earliest childhood memories of feeling problematic from the start. Many of us have cause to feel that way for all kinds of reasons. Religion, sexual orientation, gender, social class, where you lived, who your parents were or weren’t, race, skin color, religion, all of these. There are so many ways in which we get otherized, and I am here together, all of us together and say we all do actually matter. In order for us to actually matter, we got to get a whole lot better at valuing those who have historically been kept out.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, Julie, thank you so much.
JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: My pleasure. Always a pleasure, Morra. really appreciate the opportunity.
MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for today’s show. Thank you to my producer, Mary Dooe. Thanks to the team at HBR. I’m grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences and truths. For you, our listeners, who ask me to cover certain items and keep the feedback coming. Please do send me feedback. You can email me. You can leave a message on LinkedIn for me, or tweet me, @MorraAM. If you love the show, tell your friends, subscribe and leave a review. From HBR Presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.