I used to work as a part-time personal assistant for a successful author and hypnotherapist in London. Let’s call her M. I was in my early twenties, and I urgently needed a job to pay my rent as I built a freelance writing career on the side. I applied via Gumtree, and I’ll never forget the relief I felt when I answered my phone on the top deck of a bus in Euston and M told me I got the job.
As precarious early-twenties jobs go, it was a great one. (And I know, because I had quite a few bad ones). In addition to being a very kind boss and having a very nice home office in southwest London that I worked out of, M had a lot of successful and famous and impressive clients. I watched, slightly stunned, as she repeatedly helped a great many people do things they couldn’t seem to do on their own: overcome niche phobias, get pregnant after years of infertility, kick addictions, stop compulsive shopping. You name it. Often, she would help them in just a single session or two.
It sounds too good to be true, but M had such a simple yet powerful way of connecting all the reasons why seemingly successful, powerful, and privileged people tended to be so, well, fucked up: They didn’t believe they were enough. When people don’t believe they are enough, she explained, they do all kinds of things to convince themselves otherwise. The permutations of this are endless and depend on money and circumstance, but the drive is universal: Seeking external or chemical or emotional validation so you’re finally done feeling empty or unsatisfied and can start to feel full.
Of course, that never works. It sounds trite but it’s also devastatingly true: The only person who can convince you that you are enough is yourself. M just happened to be preternaturally gifted at getting people to accept that. And yes, while there was actual hypnosis involved, I suspect it was also because she had worked with an astonishing amount of people and could get to the root of a person’s lack-of-enoughness very quickly.
I was thinking about this phase of my life recently because I recently turned 30. When that milestone comes around, everyone asks you how you feel about it. And at the risk of sounding smug, I feel surprisingly sanguine. The early-twenties me was in such a rush to reach the point where my external achievements would make me feel enough. I was convinced by 30 that I’d have several book deals and be working at the New York Times and simply nothing else would do. Even when I achieved some of the things I always wanted, it still wasn’t enough! I went swiftly onto pursuing the next hit of validation.
I had the kind of blind ambition that I think drives a lot of successful or creative people forward, often without interrogating why we’re so beholden to it. The older I’ve gotten (I can say that now) the more I’ve realized that kind of addiction to external career achievement — while lauded in society and often rewarded monetarily — is just another misguided way of feeling enough. I also learned that, contrary to what many creatives think, you don’t have to be zealously obsessed with being the best in order to make good art.
There were a lot of things that helped me de-link the belief that in order to have meaning in my life and work, I had to be undeniably successful and attain a certain status visible to the outside world. Getting my head around that is probably the thing I’m most proud of in my 20s. (Unlike M’s one session clients, it took me 18 months of therapy, among other things.)
And sure, there are definitely still days when I go on Instagram and see yet another person with a book deal or a byline I could probably get if I was on the precarious freelance grind. Or a person who just got a job at the New York Times or a person with a super successful podcast who isn’t even very good at interviewing people. These things still sometimes make me want to throw my iPhone out the window out of momentary envy or a feeling of unfairness.
But then I think about the reality: I get paid a salary to do journalism. I learn new things every week. I worry about money considerably less than I used to. I get meaning from my work. I have time to pursue other things. If I can’t feel content with what I have now, it’s not because of the circumstances, it’s because of me.
Working for M taught me that all those famous and rich and successful people are unhappy because success, ultimately, is an inside job. And while I may have earned £13 an hour working for her, that lesson was pretty priceless.
Things I wrote
If the US Department of Homeland Security gets their way, pretty much any non-citizen who visits the US will be required to hand over their social media accounts. Reporting this story was really chilling.
Is it any surprise that tourism to both the US and UK is dropping given the current political situation in both countries? I wrote a column about the oft-ignored ways that tourism and politics collide.
It’s truly incredible how companies can present what they’re doing for environment versus what actual court documents about their activities say.
It’s extremely on the nose that Ukraine started trumpeting its tourism the week the impeachment scandal broke.
I also interviewed the Costa Rican minister of tourism on stage at Skift Forum in New York in September. You can watch that here.
Things I read:
An equal parts tender and devastating account of a writer who cleared out the home she grew up in, and what she learned about her parents in the process. [The Times]
Why are journalists so reluctant to point out that having less children is a way to reduce one’s climate footprint? [CJR]
A beautiful story about an American who learned that to safely cycle in the Netherlands, he had to think in a less individualistic way. [The New Yorker]
“Just because something’s cheap and efficient doesn’t mean that it should be that way — or that your ability to access it doesn’t have significant human cost.” [Anne Helen Peterson]
On the science and magic and mystery of fermentation. [New Yorker]
If you can stomach it, read the full account of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi Arabia. This stayed with me for days. [Insider]
An unexpectedly emotional account of one man’s journey with American Airline’s unlimited lifetime ticket. [The Guardian]
“Reading gives me the feeling that I’m still a human being.” On translating the internet into Arabic. [The Guardian]
Suzanne Moore’s ten tips for women who want to write are perfect. [The Guardian]
“At their best, yoga studios provide the combination of community and spirituality once reserved for church.” [Gen]
Things I listened to:
“I have never seen anyone truly become more aware of his or her body without also becoming more compassionate towards all of life.” Matthew Sanford in conversation with Krista Tippit. [On Being]
I love Otegha Uwagba’s podcast interviewing various female luminaries, especially because she asks them real questions about money. [Women Who]
I’ve decided I’m going to start using this section to plug my friends work and projects because I know too many people doing too many cool things. If you are in any way tech/startup + business + Europe inclined, subscribe to my friend Edmund’s Close of Business daily newsletter. So you don’t have to rely on American journalists to properly cover European tech news.
My yoga teacher Naomi has a new book coming out on October 31. She has really changed my life for the better — and had a lot to do with the changes described in the essay above. I’m so thrilled the world has a new way to receive her wisdom. [Yoga, A Manual for Life]
“When we ask, ‘What are the conditions necessary for women to write in?’ we are really asking, ‘What are the conditions necessary for women to think in?’ It’s that simple. And it’s that complicated.” —Suzanne Moore
“Artists know the way to solve a problem is to begin.” —Canal boat wisdom
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