Sarah Knight’s Mental Space Manager — Transcript
Sarah Knight: Can I swear on this podcast, or do I need to censor? By all means. Love it. Okay.
Terence: Welcome to Self? Help! the podcast for anyone who thought: Who am I? What in God’s name am I doing? How did I get here of all places? And then to figure it all out, you turned to a book because you were that kind of person and I love you for it. I’m Terence Mickey, your host, and I do not judge from where you seek your guidance.
It might be from Middlemarch. It might be from Harry Potter. I only care how the book helped you because I’m a firm believer that we cannot get enough help in this life and books are indeed magic. This show is all about books that changed people’s lives, and the story behind why that book was so important to them. And dear listener if you subscribe to this podcast, well you know the spiel, you get book recommendations, personal stories, a side of therapy, my gratitude and maybe, just maybe, exactly what you need to help yourself.
Sarah: Okay, sounds good.
Terence: My guest, Sarah Knight, is the best-selling author most recently of Get Your Shit Together. And since I am not censoring her, this episode will have a few f-bombs and may not be suitable for children. But that may also depend on your particular parenting style.
Sarah was a book editor in New York City for 15 years, and during her tenure in publishing this is how she felt about the category of self-help.
Sarah: I would say somewhere between skepticism and derision. And I definitely thought this stuff is common sense and people’s insecurities are being exploited and they’re fools being parted from their money.
Terence: This is the story of how Sarah went from skeptic to best-selling author of her own self-help series, and the book that played a pivotal role in her transformation.
In her early 30s, Sarah was ambitious and stressed. She’d recently planned her wedding. She bought her first apartment. She was steadily working her way up the corporate ladder of the publishing industry. And day after day she dealt with a difficult boss. She met tight deadlines. She attended an insane number of meetings, but she was on top of it all. And then one day, on her way to work, she felt slightly off.
Sarah: I remember very clearly, I got on the subway, I had something like a 15-stop subway commute in from Brooklyn, and I just was feeling progressively worse, progressively more sick to my stomach. Feel kind of short of breath. Feel a little nauseous. Very kind of sweaty. Pulled into the station, walked the requisite three or four more blocks to get to my office, by that point my heart was pounding.
I took off, you know my jacket put down my bag immediately went to the ladies room. Thought I was going to throw up, didn’t, and then my arm started going numb, and my vision started going black. And I got really scared, and I stood up and pushed my chair back, wandered over to my doorway.
And I looked over at my colleague, Kate, and I said, “Something is really wrong with me, and I just, I think I’m going to pass out.” So she called the nurse and they came up and they got me in a wheelchair, and they wheeled me down to the nurse’s office in the first floor of the random house building, and they put me in a dark room and told me to lay down and I was freaking out.
I really thought, I thought I’ve been poisoned, maybe I’m having an aneurysm. You know, I just, all of these things were going through my head and the nurse very, very kindly but matter-of-factly said—I said, “Do I need to go to hospital?” And she said, “Are you familiar with an anxiety attack?” And I said, “Oh shit. This is what I have to deal with now? That’s what this is? Great.”
Terence: For Sarah, her first anxiety attack, was another ball to juggle, one of many, all of them in constant motion, all of them needing all of her attention. It was a precarious life, but she had a gift for multitasking.
I’ve always been somebody who’s been able to keep all the balls in the air, not drop a single one. Everybody just tosses another one into my realm because if you want to get it done, and you want it done right, just ask Sarah to do it. It’s people like me who are doing so much, too much, are so overburdened, and so overtaxed, that one day they will drop one of those balls and it will be disastrous.
After that one time in my office, I did have another panic attack soon after that where I actually passed out on the floor of a deli in Brooklyn, and I was alert enough to not take down a display of Pringles with me.
Terence: To save herself from taking down a Pringles display in the near future, Sarah knew she needed a change.
Sarah: Well, the first thing I did was I quit that job. Quit meaning, I had, I got another job offer for another publishing house and I left the environment that I thought was the toxic environment and the really difficult boss who was making me crazy. And as it turned out, I was making me crazy.
Terence: Sarah was on medication for her anxiety attacks, which she’d gotten under control, but at work, she struggled with the pressures of the job and the pressure she put on herself. She had a habit of taking on too much, of constantly saying “Yes,” of never saying “No,” but despite the craziness she was making for herself, she managed to become even more successful, until she reached another crisis, one she couldn’t learn to juggle.
Sarah: I was really in the groove professionally, and I just was still not happy. I was still having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. I was just really despondent in a lot of ways because in my head I had thought well, I’ll do this. I’ll climb the ladder. I’ll move up fast. I’ll have some successes. I’ll become the editor-in-chief, then I’ll be the publisher. I will work in publishing my whole life and I’ll get straight to the top.
And I was finally in the spot where I was like, “Oh God, I don’t want to do this. I don’t wanna do this anymore. I don’t want to do this for another 15 years,” you know. So what are my goals? What was this future that I imagined for myself just kind of disintegrating before my very eyes, and how can I get happier?
Terence: Now if Sarah had been a fan of the self-help genre, this would have been the perfect time to have roamed that aisle, to seek help and find answers, but not only was she skeptical of the genre, at the time she couldn’t even relate to their often aspirational tone. She wasn’t that aspirational when it came to her own happiness. She definitely wasn’t living her best life, but she couldn’t even see how far or close it might be for her.
Sarah: A lot of self-help books and gurus provide you with these goals to reach this really aspirational state and for me, it was more about looking in the mirror and going, “This is terrible what’s happening right now. I want this to stop. I want these feelings to stop. I want this attitude to stop. I want my day-to-day life to stop being so shitty.”
It didn’t change anything when I walked in and had a New York Times bestseller and then a book that sold a hundred thousand copies and then a book that was optioned for TV, and then a book that was on Broadway. It didn’t actually make me feel any better on a day-to-day basis.
I got to the goal and I realized that it wasn’t, it wasn’t what was going to make me happy.
For me I wanted to be able to take all of my energy and all of my ambition and all of my ideas and apply them in a way I thought was best and accept the consequences if I was wrong, but reap the benefits if I was right. I never felt like I was really allowed to make decisions. I had to get somebody else’s permission.
Terence: As it became painfully obvious to Sarah that she had to leave behind the career she’d built, and find her own path to happiness and autonomy, over the course of a year, she plotted her exit strategy: She saved money. She built a website to advertise her editing services. She mentally prepared herself for the big shift, and then the night before the big day, the day she was going to tell the boss she quit, she turned her husband and said:
Sarah: I just, I feel like I’m going to die, like he was like, “Are you having a panic attack?” And I said, “No. I just I feel like my chest is like constricting. I feel like I am going to die.” and he said, “Well, it’s probably because you’re about to murder the person you’ve always been: The Sarah-on-the-spot, the ambitious, successful careerwoman who had this whole plan set out to become publisher one day, and you’re doing that so that you can become the person that you want or were meant to be but I’m not surprised that you feel this way.”
Terence: Sarah went to work the next day, walked into her bosses office and quit. This time for good.
Sarah: And it was like a light switch turned on. I mean, it really, I did not remember what it was like to, to not feel so bad. Just everything changed. When I did that I found myself so unburdened. The depression lifted and I was no longer dressing in high heels and putting on makeup to leave every day to go sort of perform in this role as a corporate mover-and-shaker, which was something that I hated doing.
I just felt so liberated. I realized that even though it had been one of the hardest decisions of my life to abandon a career that I had spent 15 years working toward, and to walk away in the middle of—I had some huge bestsellers at the time—it was a really good professional time, but it was more important to not have all of those stressors that I associate with corporate life. And that really changed the course of my life.
Terence: You’re probably familiar with the phrase wherever you go, there you are. Sarah left her job, abandoned the bureaucracy of consensus, jumped off the corporate ladder, and while all of that was very difficult, it was harder for her to give up old habits.
Sarah: And so I definitely spent for six months to a year backing myself into some of the same corners that I had backed myself into at the office, that were of my doing, that were not as a result of the corporate culture, or of my superiors, or my colleagues. It was hard for me to make that mental break between having the corporate mentality and being able to work for myself and still not overscheduling and overburdening myself, because I was concerned about making money, and I was concerned about staying relevant in the industry.
And so that was stuff that I had to figure out along the way that it was okay to relax a little bit. It was okay to not respond pathologically to emails, you know, it was okay to take hours at the end of the day completely off and that was something that I just had to kind of relearn because I had been doing it, you know since my first job out of college.
Terence: As she slowly unburdened herself and started to say no to the things she didn’t want to do, and make more room for the things she did want to do, Sarah found herself with the free time to read, not for work but for pleasure, and she picked up a book she thought would help someone else but ending up helping her instead.
Sarah: I got a copy of the Marie Kondo book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, ostensibly to send to my mother, who really needs it, and every time I looked at it sitting on my credenza in my office and thought about putting it in the mail to her, I thought that’s kind of passive-aggressive of me. I probably shouldn’t send this.
So I had some reading time and I ended up bringing the Marie Kondo book home to my own apartment and started leafing through it and then read the whole thing and found it very helpful and enlightening in many ways. But what occurred to me just a couple weeks after I had read that was, you know what? I think there’s something to be said for physical decluttering and I’m a big supporter of it. But I think what I’ve been doing lately is, is mental decluttering.
When I quit my job and that was like a huge cliff that I stepped off of, it was really scary for me because I had been so wrapped up in the identity of my publishing career. I then was able to say, “What about these other things?” and after I did the really hardest thing of leaving my career, that was when I was able to do some of the other stuff.
So I cut out a lot of annoyance from my life including commuting and like I said wearing heels and makeup to go out, but also, you know participating in activities with friends and family that I really didn’t, really didn’t want to do and that I felt really burdened by.
Terence: She politely declined invites, saying no to baby showers, no to family obligations. She diplomatically ended friendships that drained her. She stopped using the social media platforms she didn’t care about. And by decluttering her mental space, reducing the number of things she cared about, she started to make time for the responsibilities, tasks and people that actually made her happy.
Sarah: And that’s where the Marie Kondo book fit in. It slotted in so fortuitously because I was able to use her methods of discarding and organizing and apply it to tasks, obligations, people, certain relationships, and go from there. I was walking down the street in Brooklyn one day and I just thought, “You know what would be a great title, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck. I thought, one could write that book and then I thought, I should write that book, and it, and it flowed from there. So it started out as a, it started out as a parody book and it took on a life of its own as a legitimate self-help title in and of its own right.
In the writing of it, I realized I had quite a bit to say that felt very profound as I was writing it, even though it’s full of curse words and the occasional dirty joke and a lot of pop culture references and kind of written in this tongue-in-cheek mode that was meant to be itself a parody of Marie Kondo’s tone and the way that she writes her books. As I was writing it, I thought this is, I think I’m on to something.
Terence: After Sarah finished the manuscript, she sent it off without any idea of how the publishing world would respond.
Sarah: It was really surreal actually because it must have been late July, and my agent said “Let’s get this out before we lose everybody in August for all the publishing vacations” and I said, okay and I was at my parents’ house, because I usually visit my parents once in the summer, and I ended up taking calls from interested publishers from my childhood bedroom.
And it was just weird because I was like, wow. Well, first of all, this book uses the word “fuck” 732 times, so it’s a little odd to be sort of talking about it in my in my still-pink-carpeted bedroom with these teddy bears lined up along the walls, you know, with my parents downstairs, but also it was just such a full-circle, kind of strange, strange moment for me.
And as the first reads came in, I think they realized that rather than publish it just as a parody, they were going to be publishing it as legitimate self-help and that’s what they did.
Terence: When the book finally arrived in the world, Sarah was reminded of how she was the person who most benefited from her own advice.
Sarah: I’d finished my first day of book tour in London, going all day doing all kinds of things, really high-profile stuff, really exciting, had a big launch party, got back to my hotel.
It was so late. I really needed to go to bed and I had this Instagram message from a former colleague that I worked with in 2007, and she just said, “You know, I’m always liking your stuff and leaving a little emoticon or emoji or whatever, you know on Facebook, but I just, I’ve been seeing these pictures from your tour and I remember how anxious you were when we work together and you kicked ass, but you were you were clearly a very anxious person and it’s been so great to see this, you know, transition and I’m so proud of you and I just I really fondly remember working together and I just wanted to tell you that, you know, instead of just clicking like on Facebook or whatever.” It was so nice. It was a really, really nice, it was really lovely. I was touched.
I was constantly looking at the little thing that was wrong and obsessing over it and letting that drag me down. And now I look at the little things that are wrong and I obsess over them and I say “I don’t want to feel this way anymore.” I don’t want to spend my time, worrying about that last, you know, little point on the font size of the invitations that I’m printing up, you know, I don’t, I don’t want to feel this way.
The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck was written in a place where I was doing really well. I was feeling very liberated. I was feeling very creative. I was feeling like I had discovered new things about setting boundaries and saying “No” and, and it’s so it was an excitable place. I really was talking myself into how do I control all of the various aspects of my life that give me this anxiety beyond the therapeutic measures that I’ve learned about from doctors, beyond the pharmaceuticals that I can turn to in times of great need. How do I think differently? How do I change my mindset to not be so freaked out all the time, and, and I figured out how to do it and then I figured out, I think, how to teach other people to do it too.
I receive emails and social media contacts every day from people all over the world who say how much the books have helped them. My own outlook on it—it hasn’t changed in that I also think my books are common sense. I don’t think it’s things that you don’t know already or that you couldn’t figure out for yourself, but I’m understanding now more that the reason the self-help genre exists is because people want and need to be given permission or given directions by somebody who theoretically has authority and a platform. I’ve become much less suspicious and derisive of self-help as a whole.
Terence: Thank you for listening to Self? Help! Today’s episode was produced and edited by me, with audio engineering help from Dominick and production assistance from Nat. As always, a big thank you to Caitlin.
Please tweet me your book recommendations and suggestions for what themes you’d like to see in the next season. I’m at terence_mickey and on Instagram I’m at terence.p.mickey. If you’re enjoying the show, please write a review, and if you think either Marie Kondo’s book or Sarah Knight’s series would help you, our sponsor has a special treat for you.