Today I had the chance to talk with Sarah Knight, NY Times best selling author of Calm The F*ck Down as well as The Life Changing Magic Of Not Giving A F*ck. She is referred to as an anti-guru and we got to talk about improvising a life. Sarah’s writing is hilarious. It’s self-help at its most irreverent.
K: Welcome, Sarah! You’ve done a lot of self-help work on yourself and you’ve also done a lot of writing that’s given people a lot of help. What I was interested in talking with you specifically about, was how you have improvised your life. How did you decide to leave Brooklyn and go to the Dominican Republic? I’m assuming it was not entirely what you expected?
S: It was not. I’m quite a planner, normally. And I had been working as an editor for 15 years in the NYC book publishing business and it was a career that I thought I was going to do until I retired, and that I was going to keep moving up the ladder and eventually be the big boss and just live in New York forever and ever. I really loved collaborating with writers and bringing books out into the world… but I was really chafing at corporate life.
I would say after two or three years of bad feelings that were building up (I didn’t really understand what they were about and just thought I was really sad), it finally dawned on me that the thing I needed to do to change my outlook on life and my mood and my attitude and my happiness level, was to stop working for a corporation. So I spent a year saving up money and mapping out what I thought would be my future existence as a freelance editor, and in June of 2015 I left my job and I had lined up a few freelance clients and I was ready to go, and then I had the idea for my first book. And for some reason (I think we all know why… because I was not devoting my brain space all day every day to other peoples’ work) I was able to carry it out. I had a proposal, I sold the book, I published the book later that year. I wrote it in a month! It was pretty insane! But that totally changed the trajectory of what I thought I was going to do.
K: And this is the book, The Life Changing Magic Of Not Giving A Fuck.
S: Yes, that’s the one.
K: It’s interesting, one of the things you talk about there is how many fucks you have in your bank per day: the “fuck budget”: And certain people or certain things don’t deserve for you to spend your “fuck budget” on them, and you have to ration it out. So when you moved, you had a year to have your expectations built up.
S: My husband and I had been thinking of trying out the idea of a tropical life, and we said “you know what, let’s just go for it. We’re already making grand sweeping change, so let’s just throw another one in the mix.” So we moved down here. I just completed and published my fourth book Calm The Fuck Down, and that book really has to do with the transition I experienced when I moved to the DR and wound up living in a place where you can’t plan for anything.
It’s just a very different culture, Mother Nature is much more in charge of your daily activities. And so I was grappling with a little bit of a resurgence of my anxiety and I was like, “Why am I feeling this way? I’ve made these great changes. I love my life. I’m really successful at it. I’m so happy to be living here in the tropics, but I keep fighting this natural anxiety that lives in me and what is that all about?” And I realized it was really about giving up control, and I thought “Well, I’m a control freak, so how am I going to make this work?” And that’s when I developed these ways of combating my anxiety that I think work for other people as evidenced by other people all over the world who are reading Calm The Fuck Down. It’s working for them, which is to focus on what you can control and let go of the rest. So in my daily life I have things I can control and can plan for and the rest of the stuff I sort of have to let it wash over me and be like, “Oh, this is new. I guess we’re not doing this today because of torrential downpours. I guess we’ll do it tomorrow. Or Wednesday.”
K: I know there is a section of your book when you’re talking about worry, and people are just like, “Screw you, I’m worried and don’t tell me not to be worried.” Can you walk us through some of those steps?
S: Yeah, I have little tricks that I think are pretty simple to think about, and one is the one question to rule them all, which is, “Can I control it?” If you can’t control it, you have to work on letting it go. There are these “What if’s.” I make a distinction in the book between shit that hasn’t happened yet and shit that has happened. And if something hasn’t happened yet, the question is, “Can I control it?” And if you can, there are simple techniques, which I call Productive Helpful Effective Worrying, which is a great acronym (PHEW), and that’s when you focus all your time and energy and efforts on the part of that activity that you can control. So I’m really big on not telling people, “Oh it’s not going to be so bad,” or “Don’t worry about that.” It’s like, yeah, it might be bad and I’m not here to minimize your problems. I’m here to give you logical rational ways to minimize the fall-outs that may stem from those problems.
K: One of my favorite lines in this section about how shit happens, is Prince’s line, “Dearly beloved, we’re gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” and you go into this section on shit happening and how shit is not going to not happen in our lives and you say, “That’s just how life works. Prince knew it, you knew it and that is literally all you and Prince have in common,” which is absolutely my favorite line. And then you start talking about reacting, and in improv that’s the same thing: it’s less about controlling the exterior circumstances and more about controlling your reaction. That’s what I teach my clients: that’s sort of the only thing you do have control over.
S: Exactly, and my other books have really been proactive, they’ve been about planning for your future, setting goals, digging up motivation, where Calm The Fuck Down is really about being reactive. It’s about how to switch your mindset so you can succeed or at least survive when bad shit happens. Because bad shit happens to good people. You’re just going to have to learn to deal with it. It sounds a little dark, but I try to use techniques and strategies like, for example, creating your emotional puppies is something that I came up with which is sort of compartmentalizing, but in a good way. So, when something bad happens to you, honestly even when something good happens to you, you have emotions, right? And you can have really happy distracting emotions or you can have sad distracting emotions, but emotions are like puppies. When they’re running around you can’t get anything done. If you’ve got a puppy jumping all over you, you’re not getting anything done, and the same goes for your emotions. So what you need to do is, when the bad thing happens, or when you’re anticipating the bad thing, allow yourself to feel the feelings, you need to feel them to get past them, be a little sad, be a little angry, be a little panicky, but then pick up those emotional puppies by the scruff of the neck and put them in the crate. And when they go in the crate you can focus on doing, acting, taking the actions that you need to take in order to get past the cause of the stressor. The stress itself is a different thing. But the cause of the stressor… you won’t be able to address that if your emotions, (or your emuppies, as I call them), are running rampant.
K: What do you say is the solution (besides wine and Ativan) when the puppies won’t go in the crate?
S: Well, you really need to practice it. And some people say, “It’s too hard. It’s too difficult, I can’t do this,” and I say “Well, I’m not telling you that it’s super easy, but it’s simple. It’s a binary. “I’m gonna let this happen, I’m not gonna let this happen, I’m going to feel this way, I’m not going to feel this way, I want to feel this way, I don’t want to feel this way.” So, really, I don’t think it’s impossible. I have been in the throes of major panic attacks, and yes, if you are in the middle of not just a psychological, but a physiological reaction that is causing a fight or flight situation where you literally can’t do anything except collapse in a heap, then okay, I hear that. I’ve been there, done that. But generally speaking I think that if you can apply that logical rational part of your brain, you can subdue the puppies and you can put them in the crate. They may not stay there forever. They might come out, but if you’ve developed the skills to collect them and place them back in, then that just makes it ever easier each time this happens to you because then you remember, “Oh yeah, I was able to do that before, I bet I’ll be able to do that again,” and that’s just kind of like behavioral therapy.
K: And that’s very much like when I’m teaching about confidence of any kind. Confidence does not come from power poses, it comes from doing things. So when the puppies are popping back out, literally what do you do that minute?
S: To me, the worst thing about being anxious is overthinking because once you pull that zipper down a little bit it just keeps gaping open and more “what if’s” are getting into your head, so you really need to be able to focus. So, if anxiety is one of the four phases of freaking out and focus is the flip side of anxiety, then you need to get yourself to the flip side.
I talk about a lot of different tips in the book and one of them is giving anxiety the finger. And by that I mean, do something with your hands. Give your brain a break, give your mind a rest. Focus on some hands-on task that allows you to mindlessly let your mind wander away from whatever it is that’s riling you up. You can take up knitting, you can sew things, you can repair things.There are lots of hands-on things you can do that give your mind a break.
K: Yeah, it’s zen work. “Chop wood, carry water,” a total buddhist technique. It’s a distraction technique.
S: I call it sleight of mind because you’re tricking your mind into not doing the thing it was trying to do.
K: And I think if you’re super anxious, the chemicals that are flooding your body have a chance to leave.
S: Exactly. They have a chance to dissipate. It’s like the tides.
K: And you have what you call the jacked-up version of the serenity prayer: Acknowledge, Accept and Address.
S: That’s kind of the underpinning of the whole book. You have to acknowledge what’s going on with you. You have to name your tarantulas, the things that are freaking you out, your “what if’s.” Why do you feel this way? There is a reason. Name them. You have to acknowledge your emotional puppies, and then you have to accept.
As I was writing the book, I was saying that these are my three tenants, Acknowledge what’s going on, accept the parts that you can’t control, and address the parts you can, and then as I was writing it I was like, “Oh that sounds… yup, that’s the serenity prayer.” But there has got to be a reason why these tropes keep coming up. They are common-sense, logical, rational cornerstones to improving your mental health.
K: I teach how to thrive in chaos, and how anxiety and constraint breed creativity. What you’re saying is that you’re a control freak so you’ve figured out how to find a piece to control in the uncontrollable. But is there something else to think about in terms of enjoying total lack of control, going, “You know what? Fuck this. I have no control over any of this.”
S: I haven’t gotten to the place where I enjoy the lack of control, but I have gotten to the place where I’m enjoying that I’m not freaked out by it. I still am not pleased about it. I’m not happy that I don’t have this control. But I am glad that it’s not causing me panic and annoyance and anxiety. Now I can enjoy the fact that my reaction is chill, even if I don’t like what’s happened.
K: Yeah, I love the idea of Getting Lost. You definitely did that when you moved. You have to get lost for a period if you want to grow and change. You know all the people who get out of a terrible marriage and the next person they get into a relationship with is exactly like the last person because they didn’t “Get Lost” in between and grow and figure out who the hell they are now. So finding ways to practise Getting Lost in daily life so that life becomes more exciting and fun is important. And you guys went on this big adventure to the warm climate, and if you had been somebody who didn’t really want to grow, you probably wouldn’t have done that. I’m guessing you probably knew this was not going to be totally predictable, right?
S: I surrendered. I was like, “I’m gonna go do this thing that would have made Previous Me extremely uncomfortable and nervous.” And it did make me uncomfortable and nervous, but I had gotten over the hump and said, “You know what, life is short and if we’re gonna try this. And here we are.” It’s all part of a life that is overall, pretty great.
K: It sounds like you’re thriving for sure. So what’s next?
S: I’m working on a fifth book. It’s called Fuck No. It’s an extremely practical manual to say no in every situation.
K: Oh, that’s fabulous. Thank you, Sarah for joining me!
You can find everything about Sarah Knight and her books at www.nofucksgivenguides.com.