Awesome to see you again.
It's so fun, thank you. I'm so happy to be here.
So this is a whole conversation that we're having with people about story telling and how we do it and why we do and I think if people looked at your three books, they would not automatically immediately recognize that you are a story teller but you have made this kind of meta choice that rather than write a traditional how to book, you're using story to get people to think about themselves, their happiness, their habits in a different way so can you talk about that choice that you made? Did you even recall wanting it to be like that?
What really led me into that choice was the observation that whenever, when you're talking about what like how to, or self improvement kind of things, its very easy to slip into you. You should do this, you should do this. And that starts feeling very preachy and it's also very easy, it's really easy for me to tell you what to do. Everything is easy when it's...
what you're gonna do. And I realized what's hard is what am I gonna do and what's true about me and so I started thinking like I could get out of this problem of you if I talked about myself and what I also found is its just a quirk of human nature, it's why stories are so powerful is that we identify with someone else's idiosyncratic, particular story in a way that we don't identify with a huge study that covers a large population or a philosophical treaties that talk about all of human nature. Somehow it's easier to learn from one person's specific experience and even if that person is very different from you, to sort of put yourself in that, like learn from that person's story, it's easier than trying to put yourself into some kind of abstract articulation of an idea so a friend of mine said one of the nicest things anybody has ever said about my book is she said of The Happiness Project, I've never read a book that made me think more about myself. And I was like well that's exactly the point. 'Cause my happiness project isn't really important. It's just important as an example to get someone to have more insight into themselves.
So this goes to that research which I'm sure you've seen it where if you're say fundraiser or advocating.
Yes, the one child.
And you say these 12 children have this problem, you get this result. And you say this one child named Jim, who's mother's name is Tanna and he lives in this town and this is his face, you get 40 x the outcome.
Yes, it's just like the concrete nature of our imaginations that we could really put ourselves into the place of one other person and imagine that person's challenges and sufferings but when it's a bunch of people, it starts to become very hard to think about the implications of it. And I think als with things like happiness and good habits, one of the things I found is like in a way, we're more like other people than we expect and in another way, we're less like other people than we expect. And so by talking about myself and even silly things like I'm an abstainer, it's much easier for me to give up something all together than to have a little bit of something, I can have no chocolate but if I have one bite of that chocolate bar, I gotta eat the whole chocolate bar, well some people are exactly like me. And they're like oh my gosh, I thought I was the only one. And then some people are like that's completely not like me. I am the person who has the one square of fine chocolate every other day and that's all I need so I'm different from you but it's like once I say what I am, then what you are becomes clearer. I'm just saying some people are abstainers and some people are moderators, its like, huh, I don't really know what that means exactly.
And also I can't really feel it, we're designed in our animal parts of ourselves to empathize but it has to be a particular story, the more generalized it gets, it's just harder to hold, it's harder to feel and it also you're so smart. Because you're so forthcoming and because you're so grounded in story, you're never off putting.
Well that's nice to hear.
Yeah because you're incredibly empathetic with your reader which is to say I don't know the answers. I'm just telling you, this is how I do it and this is what I get stuck on every day. And this is precisely how I get stuck. And the more that I can lure you into my tiny antidote, I feel like the reader's defenses go down. Whereas if you said to me, Kelly, I'm gonna tell you a few things about you, your habits then I'm in this position.
Or I might start feeling guilty or I might feel like I don't wanna think about it so I'm gonna shut the book and put it aside.
Or I wanna say but, but, but. And this when you start telling someone a story, you can just see, if you ever do story time with kids.
At first they sit like this and then they start and then they fall and then they're leaning on each other and it is this like incredibly potent like swinging of the watch.
I don't know if you've experienced this too because I'm sure you read a lot of non fiction is I think sometimes because I think people do know the power of stories, they think like if I tell, I wanna talk about this non fiction idea and so I'm gonna tell you a little story of I was walking down the hallway behind Dr so and so and I could hear his. They think I'm gonna put it into once upon a time, something happened, that's gonna make it compelling. That's gonna make my information more compelling. I'm like no body cares about the doctor walking down the hall, there has to be a point to it. Like why are telling me this story?
Yes, false story, phony story, story of lure. That reminds me of political campaigns. They're like I was in Iowa, I was talking to Jane at a diner and it's like oh, somebody wrote that for you. You didn't talk to Jane at the diner.
Exactly, yeah, 'cause it's so convenient that she says exactly what you want her to say, yeah.
And the other thing that's kinda funny about your challenge, your work that you've set out for yourself is that you're the protagonist, your character. So do you ever feel pressure to be extra relatable or extra likable or to not reveal some habit of yours that is just so embarrassing?
Well I've learned over time that when you reveal the most embarrassing things, that's often when you get the best response. One of the things I felt really embarrassed about saying. So now I've totally quit sugar 'cause I learned from writing my books that I do better when I just give it up all together but before I quit sugar, I had a huge sweet tooth and one thing I would do is I would sometimes eat brown sugar right out of the jar.
I love that. The consistency, the texture, everything about it.
Did you pack it before you ate it?
And let it dissolve.
Sometimes it's crumbly, sometimes, it's delicious. And I just felt like that's ridiculous. But I said it and people are like, you know what, we've all done it, we've all done something like that. Or I wrote, this happened recently, I'm an under buyer which means I really hate to buy things and one of the things that's often true of under buyers is they don't like to buy things that are too specific like they're like why should I buy a product, a suit bag. It's too specific.
So I wrote about how I refused to buy Kleenex for many years, like facial tissue.
Just use toilet paper.
Just use toilet paper. Why are you gonna get a specialty product for that? And like my editor was like this is weird.
I bet it's not, I bet we're gonna find out.
Just a lot of people are like use the toilet paper. So sometimes it's very reassuring and this is an experience that many people have had is when you tell something that you think is an embarrassing or even shameful secret, often you're reassured when you realize, it's something that many people respond to. But the larger question of like thinking about myself as a character, it is funny because I wanna be truthful and authentic but then I also have to think about the reader's experience so I will, it's not so much myself as being likable but more like does there need to be a moment of levity here or am I getting boring because I'm just wandering off into my own associations too much. I need to bring it back, just have to think about the writerlyness of it and what the book needs at that moment.
Why do you think you're good at telling stories? Do you know, is it something, do you have an ear for it and then you're imitating or is it something springs from you naturally?
I have no idea, I can't write fiction at all. I've written three terrible novels. And people are like I bet they're not as bad as you think. And I'm like oh, I bet they're way worse than I think.
Have you shown them to anyone?
Oh, come on.
My sister's a TV writer and I realize that skill of writing of fiction but there's also this story telling of somebody saying like oh my gosh, you're not gonna believe what happened to me at the grocery store today. And some people tell that kind of story. So that's the kind of story I like which is like the every day story or telling your own experience.
So we are both writing non fiction and we both have stories that involve other people often. How do you deal with those limitations and keeping and honoring people's need for privacy or their very different distinct memory of the event that differs from yours?
Very rarely have I run into an occasion where I felt a question about whether something would be acceptable to somebody else, one was my husband had Hepatitis C and he has been miraculously cured. Like medical science came in and cured him. It was the most amazing thing that ever happened. But for years, since he was eight years old, he had hepatitis C and so I felt like I had to ask him if I could talk about that 'cause that's like his. That's his condition, that's for him to, I don't know what he would say and he was like sure, write about it. I don't care so it was fine but I felt like I had to ask him and with my children, I feel like they have their own privacy, they have their own, I don't wanna overexpose them in a way they would feel uncomfortable with. But I don't really write about them in a way that they do feel uncomfortable so I don't really come up against that very much but I never would write something where it could make them feel exposed.
I find it so funny what people are comfortable with. I often find that it's difficult to predict. So I'll tell.
Or leaving someone out.
I'll think it's such a funny story and innocent. And they'll say I don't want that and then I'll tell something that's much deeper and they say oh that doesn't bother me at all, I mean, I told the story about my mom slapping me across the face that my nose bled when I was caught shoplifting and as I was writing it, I thought there's no way she's gonna let me leave this in but I'm just honor the story and get edited later. And she said I thought it was very good. And I said even the child abusey part? And she said absolutely, I think mothers are too timid these days and I was like okay, we're gonna start a new movement.
She stood by it, well it's funny 'cause the writer AJ Jacobs who does a lot of.
I was with him last night.
Oh yeah, oh my god, the most hilarious guy. But he said 'cause he's written some things that were critical of family members in some of his books which are very memoirs and he's definitely a character in his books, he said that he's found if you include a detail about something that suggests that a person is good looking, they will forgive almost anything like his full head of hair or he's lean or her striking.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Or her striking gaze or something, you can get away with anything after that so I thought that was really funny.
That is a phenomenal tip, that's the best tip you're gonna get today.
Yes, so put that in.
In terms of your work, how distracting is, I find, often people ask about writing my process and the first book is so different than any future book. 'Cause the first book you're just somebody who's writing a book and every future, you're also a person who has written a book and there are things that go on with that that vi for your time, how have you found a way to compartmentalize your life that allows you to keep doing the writing?
Well it's funny that you say that because I would say that the biggest distraction from writing. Like when I started writing, it was before all this social media and everything had started so you basically, if you were a writing, your job was to write which was to write and maybe people did freelance or taught or something on the side but now being a writer itself has all these responsibilities in addition to writing a book and to me, those are really important and they're also really valuable. I get enormous amount of ideas for my writing from what people tell me, their questions and their responses so I really value it but it's definitely not the same, I go to a library that's a block from my house with my laptop and no internet when I wanna actually write a book where it's a serious, it's not just a blog post which I can sit down and do in a half an hour or something but when I really wanna work for like three hours so then I leave my house and go and work there because I feel like the physical change puts me into that mode and I have three monitors with like everything going and getting away from those monitors helps me to just like focus in on whatever I'm doing for a big project, for a book project.
Leave the house and changing clothes and driving somewhere and parking, all that I feel like you probably know specifically happening at an intellectual level but it's like these layers of commitment. Like just putting on a bra, I'm like okay, we're working now, like apparently we're out of our pajamas.
Well I could wear my pajamas to this library so the clothes part of it for me but it is, it's just even leaving your house. It's just like I'm now or when you're gonna come back. Part of it is like well I'm gonna be here for three hours so I might as well work 'cause otherwise I'm just gonna be sitting here bored.
And that's like a moment of commitment.
And for me, being in a library is always like, my whole life, 'cause I went to law school and I was an undergrad, I would always go to a library to work, I find that to be the most conducive. I just find that environment to be so energizing but also calming and I can take a break by getting up and looking for a book and doesn't take very long but it feels like a little treat so I love to go to a library specifically.
What is your craziest thing you can imagine doing creatively or story telling wise?
Well one of the things I did fairly recently was to start a podcast with my sister. So we have the Happier with Gretchen Ruben Podcast. And that felt really different because it's not written. It's spoken, it's not just me, it's in collaboration with my sister which is like the most fun ever. It's a different way of telling a story because it's in conversation and it's not, we don't. For some podcasts, they really script it out and we don't. We know what we're gonna talk about but it's very spontaneous how we tell a story. And so that was a big shift, it's a different way of communicating and I'm not a real performer like that. I like to give talks and things but this is a different kind of performance so that was good. I don't know that I have anything right now that I'm dying to do, I have so much that I wanna do that the stuff that I already do that I can't, yeah.
You're still deeply animated by this single issue of habits and happiness, that inner section.
I would say human nature is really my subject. Like of all my books, my book that's coming out in September, The Four Tendencies is I think is gonna be my eighth or ninth book and they can look very different from each other but to me they're all about human nature, what are people like? Why do they do what they do? How do they change, how do I change?
Has all this investigation and all your street science and all your story telling and sharing stories and receiving them, has it made you more optimistic or less optimistic about our ability to change?
Much more optimistic because what I think is that it's actually, not to change your fundamental nature. I think I'm still Gretchen but can I have a life that's different from the life I have now? Can I achieve my aims, I'm more optimistic because I think that it's not as hard as you think when you do it in the way that's right for you. And I think a lot of people, certainly I did this until I wrote books about it. You think well what's the one best way? I'll just do the best way, I just figure out the best way or this worked for Steve Jobs or this worked for Kelly, I'll do that, well, maybe it will work for you but maybe not because maybe in some way you're very different from each other and so what worked for this person might actually be counterproductive for you. And so I really think that when you really take the time to think about yourself and what kind of person you are, a lot of times you can tweak circumstances to dramatically improve your changes for success.
Right and I think that's a really interesting thought for people who are listening and thinking about their own creative opportunities and ambitions to realize that it's not a bad place to start to evaluate yourself as a worker and what your tendencies are and a little self knowledge goes a long way.
And I would say to people one thing that I hear all the time and it has a very easy solution once you know what the solution is, if you area person who says I can always take time for other people but I can't take time for myself. I'm frustrated because I'm never late with a work deadline so why is it that I can't write my novel in my free time or I haven't been able to start that side business that I really wanna do or this project is really important to me so I don't understand why I'm not able to move forward with it, the answer, the solution is outer accountability, what you need is some form of outer accountability so you need to work with a partner or join a group or hire a coach or okay, let's say you wanna write a novel in your free time, you tell your kids, you got your homework, I've got my homework. I'm gonna be writing on my novel when you're doing your homework, if I'm not writing my novel, guess what, you don't have to do your homework. And that kid is gonna be following you around the house being like hey, mom, why don't you take a day off.
It's a swear jar.
Right so there's all different ways that you can set up accountability mechanisms but for a lot of people they don't realize that that's the crucial thing that they need but when they look back on the pattern of their life, when did they exercise, when did they get something done, when did they eat right, it's all about outer accountability. And this is something that people seem so frustrated by. But there's an easy fix so if that's a person's, a lot of times with creativity, we have a lot of explanations for why we're not doing something whereas to me I'm like, yeah no, you can just ignore all that. It's about outer accountability.
Right which starts with even admitting that you wanna do this thing.
That's a huge step.
Especially with being a writer, I felt like I was coming out of the closet saying I wanted to do this because I felt like the natural reaction would be like well who do you think you are? You think you can do this thing and I felt like I was saying I wanna win an Oscar or something. It seemed absurd and wildly conceited.
That's why I felt so comforted when I got an agent. Because I felt like an agent made me a professional even if I hadn't sold a book because it was somebody banking on me essentially.
It's validation too.
It's like someone saying yes, I think that you can write and sell a book so that felt professional. That felt like, that's when I felt like I crossed over from being just one of a million people who's writing in a screenplay in a coffee shop, yeah. 'Cause it is, it does feel like big thing to admit to yourself.
What are you working on creatively? What are you really trying to get better at as you write?
I think what I'm really interested in is how do you take a very large subject, like a subject like habit formation or Winston Churchill's life or happiness. How do you, I like to try to figure out, get my arms around this large subject and then figure out how to do you distill it down into its essence and then how do you explain it to people in a way that they can hear it and listen to it and be interested in it.
It's such an incredibly tall order, isn't it? The way you just laid that out just shows you what a miracle a great book is.
Yes and it's so fun and so that's what interesting to me is how do you, back to your point about story telling. One of the ways to make somebody interested in something or to pay attention to something or for something to penetrate is with a really great story. Because sometimes you hear this story and it's just like, even a really great metaphor sometimes. You're like wow, that metaphor drives it all home.
Opened the whole thing for me.
Yes, I just couldn't really grasp it until I got the right metaphor and so I think that's what I'm really interested in is what are the tools and the strategies that people can use? Who was it, somebody imminent editor was saying that he thought all non fiction writers should read a lot of fiction so that they would see the techniques and strategies that fiction writers use in order to create scenes and create characters, to move through time, to crate suspense 'cause these are things that non fiction writers can forget to do.
Yeah, there is no distinction between the skill set that you need for either and if you think there is, then you have sort of diluted yourself. That this is a necessarily different thing. But the fact is that story telling is the most powerful tool, I remember watching my kids watch School House Rock.
Oh my god, I love School House Rock. I can sing all of them right now.
I'm just a bill.
Rockin' and rollin'.
You're never gonna forget it, inter planet Janet. So characters, stories, tension, something at stakes. It's a phenomenally perfect example of how a whole bunch of detail and information can be almost impossible to grasp or utterly simple like as simple as a Cheerios commercial but what you just said about metaphor. Metaphor is the perfect metaphor for story in the way that we're talking about it. It's like a tiny story.
I never thought of that.
It's like an itty bitty.
It's like your life is a metaphor for a person's life or your metaphor is a metaphor for a daughter's journey or whatever, yes, exactly.
It's like taking information and turning it into something palatable with a little art, a little flair that then unlocks it.
Yes, that's very true.
How does having your audience mess with your ability to do the next things, do you have, you have a large audience and you're very in touch with them and so I wonder if it, I would think it would be very inspiring and I have an audience and I feel turned on by them but sometimes I'm afraid, oh god, they don't want me to be something different, they don't want me to do this in a different way. They want me to keep going.
What they like. They want more of what they like.
Yes and we're please, we just wanna please people. And then there is this fear, do you have that?
Well it's interesting because I had the opposite thing happen to me recently which in my book Better Than Before I taught and it was all about habits. I stumbled onto this personality framework that divides all of humanity into four categories.
Fantastic, how much do we need this?
And so it was just one, the book is about 21 strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. And this was just one strategy but it was kind of one of those things where it was bigger idea. It didn't fit easily in this book about habits because it was really bigger than habits and I loved this idea and I was really having fun with it. But what I noticed is when I went, 'cause one of the things is like hearing from an audience live, when you do a Q and A, it's amazing. So I would trot out all my most counter intuitive juicy facts about habit formation and everybody wanted to hear about the four tendencies. Like 85 to 95% of the questions were like super specific advanced sophisticated questions like let's talk about the four tendencies 'cause I have a rebel daughter who's about to drop out of high school and so I need to tell you, I need you to tell me right now what do I say and so I thought I'll write a little PDF that people can download and then I was like maybe I'll write a little pamphlet. And then I'm like I'm gonna write a whole book because people were so interested in it. So in a way, I was led by my audience 'cause there was so much interest in something that I was like I'm really interested in this, I didn't know everybody else would be so that was really exciting 'cause that was like you're asking for it but you're asking about the opposite thing which is I wanna go off in a different direction, I don't know if you wanna follow me and I haven't really experienced that yet. Maybe because my subject is so vast, it just feels like I could go in a lot.
There's plenty of room.
It feels that way now. I don't know if it will always feel that way. A lot of people reach a limit and then they wanna pivot to something very different, I haven't experienced it. Maybe you're there already.
It's interesting what you say about hearing an audience respond and getting those questions back. For sure, every person who's ever put a story down on paper has put some little thing in there that they thought was so idiosyncratic that no one on Earth would ever relate to it and there's no bigger thrill when someone says to me, you know that chapter about your husband calling his mother and how much it bugged you, I loved that. That is so satisfying because I was so self conscious about it and I didn't understand why I was doing it in the first place, it was just true.
Right, you just put it in.
I hadn't decided what that was about and why it irritated me and I felt a little ashamed about it and then to discover that I actually didn't need to understand it for it to still be valuable. To me points you back to, this is what story can do. This is story connecting us in a way that nothing else can.
When you're talking about identification, like me identifying with your story, he said that often you come to a book because you're interested in a subject so oh this sounds like an interesting book to me, I'll read it so we have that in common but that's like a very shallow thing but that's why I'm even in the room with you. If you had wrote about undersea fishing, I wouldn't even be reading your book. So we have something in common, but he said what makes people really identify is when there's something else very idiosyncratic, my family's from North Plat, Nebraska, I'm red haired. I drink tons of Diet Coke, I have my overbite was so extreme that my orthodontist presented it at a National conference, that's when people identify with you. 'Cause they're like hey, my family's from North Plat, Nebraska too and so when you, sometimes people have this urge to vanilla everything out. Like I'm gonna strip away everything that's particular so that everybody can identify with me but then what happens is nobody identifies with you. And the more of those little freaky details that you put in, then people are like, oh, I'm just like you.
Yes and it doesn't even have to be the same detail. If you say you're from Nebraska, the person from the outskirts of Little Rock, Arkansas's like yeah, I get you.
Somebody last night at a signing came up to me and they're like I'm just like you 'cause I'm from Iowa and I'm like close enough, baby. The Midwest is big enough for all of us, come on in. Yeah, no, so it doesn't take much but people have to, yeah, so sometimes it's those little details that to you are just like a throw away end up for somebody else.
But if you've ever read in public, if you've ever shown your work in public and you see the nods, then you think oh I understand this. I'll never forget that now, I love putting the more specific the better, the way I made my peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then toasted it in the toaster. People are like. (gasps)
I told a story about my husband and shaved turkey and it's like everybody responds to his story. The first time I said it was just a, it wasn't even part of the official speech, I just started digressing because it had just happened in real life. And then I'm like I gotta include that turkey story because everybody identifies with the turkey story.
So we only have a minute left and I wanna ask you a little speed round.
Yes, I love your speed rounds.
Okay great, name a book you wish you had written.
Crowds in Power by Elias Conetti, crazy mind blowing book.
Okay, what was the last story that made you cry?
Charlotte's Web, I have a book club where I recommend books and I was recommending Charlotte's Web so I reread the end of Charlotte's Web.
It's like Old Yeller.
I never read that, too sad for me. But Charlotte's Web, who can resist?
If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
She would call it Gretchen. (laughing)
Yeah, Gretchen. I think that's what she would call it.
Who can't you live without creatively speaking?
My sister because we do this podcast together. So that's a whole thing that we share and also she's also a writer and she has amazing judgment and she's such an experienced story teller so she's the person where if I have a question or like how do you think this is, she's the person that I really depend on the most for that.
Okay, so I think we need her name, what's her name?
Oh her name is Elizabeth Craft.
And what TV show does she write for?
She's written for a bunch, for the The Shield, for Lie To Me, she created Women's Murder Club for television, she's doing all things, some stuff now. But she has another podcast called Happier in Hollywood that she just started with her writing partner and they talk a lot about this stuff there too.
And if you could get everyone in the world to read just one book, what would it be?
I think I would say Man's Search For Meaning by Victor Frankle because it is the most gripping story. It is a powerful story, it's a true story. I'm haunted by that book, I think of it often. And I've read it several times.
It's an incredible concept.
That under those unfathomable circumstances, that you could find purpose and therefore you could find satisfaction and therefore you could feel little drips of happiness in the middle of horror.
Yes. And his moment of realization of that, yes. He had to experience it, a lot of people say that but he truly experienced it in a way that few people do.
Right and that's why you believe it. You wouldn't believe it under any other circumstances.
Exactly, exactly and in fact that was his profession. He was a logger therapist and so this was his whole message. Okay, now we're gonna put you in a concentration camp and see how that goes and he really, he lived it and so you're exactly right, he couldn't written about it but without his own experience, it wouldn't penetrate us in the same way. It wouldn't convince us in the same way. Because of his realization 'cause there's like a moment. I don't know how well you know the book but there's like a moment when the sun is setting and all the men are thinking about their wives and he just has this tremendous moment of realization and it's unforgettable once you read it.
Your mind is your own.
Yes, exactly, that's exactly his point.
You're allowed to do whatever you want in there.
You're free, yes, yeah, yeah.
It's such a pleasure to talk to you.
I feel like we could talk all day.
I know, we could, we could.
This is so fun.
You're the best. (upbeat music)