I started reading Shauna Niequist’s books right after college. I’ve always found her to be an honest, vulnerable voice. Her willingness to share her own journey of growth and faith has continued to encourage me. Today her latest book, Present Over Perfect releases into the world. I caught up with her to chat about it.
Cara Strickland: Tell me a little bit about your new book.
Shauna Niequist: Well, I think you’re probably not supposed to have favorite books. It’s like your children, you probably have a favorite but you’re not allowed to say which one it is. But this book has meant more to me and represents a more significant life change than anything I’ve written so far. So on the one hand it feels very close to my heart and very personal and that sort of makes me feel very free about it. If you read it and you decide ‘this is totally not my jam.’ That’s fair. But the process of writing this book changed my life in a hundred ways and so it has already been a valuable process for me.
CS: It’s called Present Over Perfect.
SN: The subtitle is ‘leaving behind frantic for a simpler, more soulful way of living,’ and that’s exactly what it is. I have a tendency to be overly busy anyway, but I hit a season in my mid-thirties where my frantic life was starting to compromise the things that I thought were the most important things and I realized that my way of living didn’t match my values, essentially. What I wanted, what I valued, was a life of deep meaning and connection and what I had was a life of busyness and exhaustion and disconnection from the people that mattered most to me. This journey is about kind of shoring up those differences and rebuilding a life that squares with those deeply held values once again.
CS: By sharing your story of slowing down, you’re encouraging your readers to take the time to listen to themselves, and also to listen to God. Do you have some suggestions for those people who might be new to this practice or wanting to get started?
SN: I would say one of the biggest surprises in the process of writing the book and living through this journey: a lot of it was about being alone, and being silent, and being still, and how scary that was for me and all the different ways that I avoided and all the different rationalizations that I used for why I couldn’t possibly do it. But I think it’s like anything, you start small and you build up sort of muscle memory to do it more often. A friend of ours who is a counselor, he’s not actually my counselor, I have a different counselor that I love, but I think half my friends go to this one counselor, and one of the phrases he uses with everyone is “be curious, be curious about that” when you notice your response to something, or your emotions rising or your anger flaring up, whatever it is, be curious about it and so I think silence is a place where we are curious about our feelings, our desires, our longings, our broken-heartedness and a lot of us avoid silence because of that. Because we don’t want to look inside, we don’t want to have to face those things but little by little it gets easier and you start to sort of build up almost a craving for it like any life change. I am not a runner, but I trained for a marathon once, and it was like a miracle halfway through the training when I realized: I actually want to run more than I want to not run. This is insane. And I felt that about silence, too. I’m now at a point in my life where silence is a very welcome, very necessary practice instead of one that really scared me for a long time.
CS: Community is big for you, in all of your other work and in this one as well. How have the people in your life supported you as you’ve made these changes and how have people resisted?
SN: I would say one of the things that really helped me along this journey was essentially resetting people’s expectations for me. I used to be the girl who said yes to everything, who could always bail you out, who could always bring you a meal, who could always pick up your kids, whatever. Instead of being that person and then all of the sudden not being that person and having people be kind of confused and angry, I told them very clearly: part of where I want to move in my life is going to involve making almost every dimension of my life smaller and simpler and slower and what that means is I’m not going to be able to carry as many things as I have been and this is going to be hard for me and it’s going to be hard for you, because I’m going to want to do it, and you’re going to want me to do it, but part of my growing up process right now is intentionally saying no to things I used to say yes to in the past. So instead of just surprising people with it, I talked about it with everyone so that they could be a part of cheering me on when I did it well, instead of just being disappointed at the things I wasn’t doing for them.
CS: Have you had any resistance from any of those people when you talked it through?
SN: You know, a little bit. I would say some of what I’ve had to grow through is letting people be disappointed and go on anyway. Saying, I can totally tell, either by your face or your words, that you are not wild about this, and I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to stand firm in my conviction to live a different way regardless of your disappointment. That’s really hard for me, especially if it’s someone I respect, but I would say I’m not telling anyone else how to live, I’m just making choices that feel like the next right choices for me. If another person wants to live a super frantic, resentful, no silence, no space, no rest kind of life, they are absolutely free to do that, I’m just not going to join them in it anymore.
I’ve noticed a little shift in a couple relationships where I would say they are still on the efficiency is everything, multi-tasking, image-oriented kind of way of living and as I’ve walked down a different path we don’t have as much to connect on. But I would say that’s very much the minority. I would say my closest group of girlfriends, this is something we’re all trying to do together and they sort of feel like my training wheels, they’re the ones reminding me like ‘hey, wait a minute, is that what you want to do? I think maybe you should cancel that’ or ‘I’ll just bring over pizza.’ Because we’re so like-minded about it we can really help each other and hold each other accountable. I’m really thankful for that.
CS: What would you say to readers who are reading your book and feel like this restful, abundant life sounds wonderful but maybe isn’t something that they can access, maybe they’re working around the clock to pay the bills, or they’re really longing for community, for friends, or a spouse, or children. Even though this is your story, do you think that the invitation to present over perfect is for everybody?
SN: You know I really do, and I think it’ll look different for everyone and it should look different for everyone. I also think it should look different in different seasons of our lives. There will always be seasons that are just incredibly full and heavy and difficult. If you have a newborn, you will have a crazy season. A lot of our work lives, you know a friend of mine works in finance, and tax season is never going to be a particularly low-key, restful season for him. There will always be parts of our lives, they’ll be seasons that are overly full and overly busy, but I think we can all make choices to live in such a way that that’s not the norm, that’s the exception.
I think the invitation of present over perfect is choosing to live with abundance and joy even if you’re in a season where your circumstances are not necessarily what you would choose. A lot of us put our lives on hold and put our desires on hold and put our spiritual development on hold. We wait for that magical, totally perfect, totally finished life to plop itself right in our laps. There are a couple parts of my life that are just not where I want them to be at all. I feel very frustrated, I feel very stuck, but I’m working really hard to not let those be the defining aspects of my life, and to connect anyway, and to live deeply and well anyway, and to not put my soul and life and relationships on hold until I can manage these couple things that are just stubborn and stuck. Does that make sense?
CS: That makes a lot of sense, I think that will be really encouraging to people. Kind of on that same note, you talk a little bit about self care and you talk about play, and a little about how both of those were things that you didn’t feel like you learned were good or even necessarily acceptable, in church. What are some of the ways that you’ve learned to practice self care and play in your life?
SN: One of the great things about parenting is that kids, if you let them, will teach you to play all day long. I feel like for the first couple years of parenting I wasn’t really learning from them the way I could. But I feel like in the last couple years, I really have gotten the hang of kind of being their student in this. So whether you’re single and you have nieces and nephews, or you know I was a nanny for a long time in college, being around kids really is a good reminder to play and to be silly, and to wonder, and to be exactly where you are. My kids remind me so much of that.
But then I also think, again, our bodies and our souls will tell us a lot if we listen. A friend of mine made it her goal a couple years ago, she had the sense that she hadn’t been sleeping enough, like forever, and so she said ‘I’m going to do an experiment where I just actually write down every day, like I’m going to go to bed really early, I’m going to give myself plenty of time to sleep and I’m going to see what my body actually wants.’ She said, ‘I’ve been telling myself that I only need six hours a night for fifteen years.’ And she kind of did her own little sleep study and she determined she actually needs nine hours of sleep a night. And so they’ve changed their family rhythms, switched some of their commitments, so that she could get nine hours of sleep a night. It changed everything for her. But a lot of us don’t even give ourselves permission to ask that question, ‘hey what if I felt really really good if I changed the way I ate? What if I have a couple friendships that are extremely toxic and damaging and I need to really back away from them?’ That’s self care. ‘What if I need to go to a counselor? What if I need to travel by myself?’ Our bodies and our souls will tell us so much if we just stop and give them permission to speak. But I find that most of us don’t because we’ve got an agenda and a full calendar and a set of responsibilities, but I have learned so much when I finally allowed my inner voice and God’s voice, God’s Spirit, to speak. That’s when things really started to change for me.
CS: What would you say is the most difficult part of this way of doing life for you?
SN: I think the most difficult part is: it’s not as exciting, and it’s not as beautiful, and it’s not as kind of over the top, and I believe in that, but things are pretty quiet now, you know? Things are pretty low-key, and I watch a lot of superhero movies with my kids, and the house is messier than it used to be, and it’s not as image-oriented and pretty looking, and sometimes I kind of want to go back to that other, like, let’s just have everything look perfect, not that it ever was like that, but that inner kind of drive, does that make sense? And so there’s sort of a more subtle, messy, beauty to life, and on most days I like that so much better, but every once in a while there’s that ‘like couldn’t I just be like a supermodel? Couldn’t that happen?’
CS: So what would you say then is the most satisfying part of the changes that you’ve made?
SN: The two that come to mind are: I feel a deep sense of contentedness, I’m more content than I’ve ever been in my entire life. I’m more at peace with who I am and who I’m not, and what my life is and what it isn’t, and so on a deep level I sleep well at night. And then, I would also say, I am so much more connected to my husband and my children than I was when I was so busy. The funny thing about kids is they will never talk with you when you want them to, they only do it when they want to. You could ask like fifteen questions and you’ll just get nothing, then you’ll be walking through a field on the way home from from the park and one of them will say the most unbelievable thing that you had no idea was going on inside of them. I think adults are a little bit like that, too. A lot of friendship and relationship and marriage is just being there, just logging hours waiting for something valuable to happen. And I’ve logged a lot more hours with the three most important people in my life this year, and I’m really really thankful for that. I feel, of all the things I’m proud of in my life, the insides of my life matter a lot more than the outsides and so the insides are better tended than they used to be.
CS: What have been some of your influences as you’ve gone through the present over perfect journey as far as books go? It seems like there’s maybe some threads of things that have inspired you, I’d love to know what those are?
SN: Well, you know, I love Richard Rohr, I think he has been so helpful, specifically his book Falling Upward about essentially the difference between the first half and the second half of your life. One amazing thing he says is ‘success after the age of 30 has no positive affect on your life, only dangerous affect,’ something like that, I just butchered the quote, but Richard Rohr talks so much about what really matters, especially in the second halves of our lives, so I love that.
I love Barbara Brown Taylor and even something about her pacing and her language really really has been valuable to me in this season. Her book was it Learning to Walk in the Dark? I just absolutely loved.
I love Mary Oliver’s poetry, I will always come back to that. The Laura Vanderkam books about time, Jessica Turner’s book about fringe hours, Arianna Huffington’s books Thrive and Sleep Revolution, a lot of those more on kind of the practical side of things, but those are really interesting to me just realizing that there are a lot of different ways to live and fast and frantic is just one way, and there are a lot of other good ways. But I have been more on the contemplative side of things certainly in my reading over the last couple years.
CS: So Shauna, as you prepare to send this book into the world, what is it that you hope for it? What is it that you hope that it will give to people?
SN: I hope it helps people look at their lives with more possibility and freedom and permission to say ‘I actually don’t have to do all the things I think I have to do. I don’t have to be all the things I have to be.’ I hope it sets people free to live at the right size and speed and complexity that’s right for them, and their family, and their life. So much of it for me was living in a really fast-paced environment with a fast-paced family and a fast-paced church and all of the sudden saying ‘not everybody lives this way, we can do things so many different ways.’ I would love for people to feel like they’re being initiated into greater and greater agency over their own lives.