The psychology and culture journalist, editor, and author of the recent book The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith, stopped by the show this week to talk to me about the writing life and why our search for meaning is so important right now.
Emily has an M.A. in applied positive psychology, and in addition to being a columnist for The New Criterion, Emily’s writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, New York Magazine and other publications.
The author is also an editor at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where she manages “…an initiative to build purpose and community throughout the nation.”
The author’s new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, explores the latest insights in positive psychology as well as thinkers throughout history — from George Eliot, Aristotle, Buddha, and even Louis C.K. — to find answers on why our pursuit of happiness often leaves us unhappy, and how we can lead more meaningful lives.
Bestselling author Daniel Pink said, “The Power of Meaning deftly tells the stories of people, contemporary and historical, who have made the quest for meaning the mission of their lives. This powerful yet elegant book will inspire you to live a life of significance.”
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In Part One of this file Emily Esfahani Smith and I discuss:
- Why you can’t let your fear of failure stop you from writing
- The extensive research that went into her investigation of an age-old question
- How the author discovered the four pillars of meaning
Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...
The Show Notes
- If you’re ready to see for yourself why over 201,344 website owners trust StudioPress — the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins — just go to StudioPress.com
- How Journalist and Author of ‘The Power of Meaning’ Emily Esfahani Smith Writes: Part Two
- The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters – Emily Esfahani Smith
- There’s More to Life Than Being Happy – The Atlantic
- The Hoover Institution at Stanford University
- How Bestselling Author Daniel Pink Writes
- Emily Esfahani Smith on Twitter
- Kelton Reid on Twitter
How Journalist and Author of ‘The Power of Meaning’ Emily Esfahani Smith Writes: Part One
Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.
Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I am your host Kelton Reid here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. The psychology and culture journalist, editor, and author of the recent book, The Power of Meaning, Emily Esfahani Smith stopped by this week to talk to me about the writing life and why our search for meaning is so important right now.
Emily has a masters in applied positive psychology and in addition to being a columnist for The New Criterion, Emily’s writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, TIME, The Atlantic, New York Magazine and many others. The author’s an editor at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University where she manages an initiative to build purpose and community throughout the nation.
The author’s new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, explores the latest insights in positive psychology in great thinkers throughout history from George Eliot, Aristotle, Buddha, and even Louis C.K, to find answers on why our pursuit of happiness often leaves us unhappy and how we can lead more meaningful lives. Bestselling author of Drive, Daniel Pink said, “The Power of Meaning deftly tells the stories of people, contemporary and historical, who’ve made the quest for meaning the mission of their lives. This powerful, yet elegant book will inspire you to live a life of significance.” In part one of this file, Emily and I discuss why you can’t let your fear of failure stop you from writing, the extensive research that went into her investigation of an age-old question, and how the author discovered the four pillars of meaning.
The Writer Files is brought to you by the all the new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for authors, bloggers, podcasters and affiliate marketers, as well as those selling physical products, digital downloads, and membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress now. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. And if you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.
All right. I am rolling today on The Writer Files podcast with a special guest, Emily Esfahani Smith is the author of a fantastic book. Also, you’re a journalist, as well as an author, and writer, and a social psychologist, am I getting that correct?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I have a masters in psychology. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a social psychologist, but I appreciate the compliment.
Kelton Reid: Well, it’s really cool, this new book is fantastic and I want to talk more about it, but maybe for listeners to start out, kind of who aren’t familiar with your journey, in your own narrative, you could tell us a little bit about just kind of your origins as a writer.
Emily Esfahani Smith: Sure. I grew up just loving to read, and write, and I went to college, though, thinking that I would be a doctor, so I was pre-med and took all the science classes and loved them, actually. But, I also started to get involved with campus journalism when I was in college and just really fell in love with the writing and thought, “Well, maybe this is something that I can try out. Medical school will always be there, I can always go back.”
I started kind of focusing my internships and my spare time on building a career as a writer and I graduated in 2009 and started working for a variety of magazines and freelance writing about psychology. One of my articles in 2013 was called, There’s More to Life Than Being Happy, and it was published in The Atlantic and it kind of, it went viral, and it was surprising to me that it did, but it ended up being the basis for this book that I just wrote called, The Power of Meaning. That’s kind of the short answer.
Why You Can’t Let Your Fear of Failure Stop You from Writing
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. That’s a great one and I will link to that Atlantic article, the subtitle was, Meaning Comes from the Pursuit of More Complex Things Than Happiness. That struck a chord, it sounds like. Yeah, so the journalism piece is cool. Of course, you were writing some about Viktor Frankl and his amazing book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which is … I mean, I think it’s timely, but kind of interesting especially now in this complex time in our history. Do you feel like you had that ‘aha’ moment where you knew for sure you were going to be a writer, like that was going to be your career path?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I think that for me, a big obstacle to pursuing writing in those years when I was in college and trying to figure out what my path was, was just that … Was confidence, I guess. It’s not an easy career. It doesn’t pay a lot, but I thought, “Well, I kind of want to try it out,” but I was afraid of failing, or of it not working out. And I was also afraid … There’s so many people who I think when they’re young want to be writers and I thought, “Well, is this just kind of like a fantasy that I too want to be a writer?”
The ‘aha’ moment, for me I think, was one of my professors in college pulled me aside after class and talked to me about, I think a short story that I had written, or maybe a paper, and at the end of the conversation, kind of completely unprompted, he said to me, “Emily, you could really be a writer if you wanted to be.” That was just kind of what I needed to hear to give myself the confidence and the push to actually go and give it my all and pursue it, kind of hearing someone older, who knew me, I guess better than I knew myself, encouraged me. That was an ‘aha’ moment for me I think.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. Well, you’ve written for some amazing publications, obviously, Wall Street Journal and New York Times, TIME, The Atlantic, New York Magazine. You are also an editor at the Hoover Institution, is that still-
Emily Esfahani Smith: Yeah.
Kelton Reid: That’s kind of an interesting position. How did you find yourself working with, I guess, a public policy think-tank?
Emily Esfahani Smith: Yes. When I was kind of starting out my career as a writer, it quickly became evident to me that there are all kinds of ways that kind of a writer can make writing work financially, and one way is to be an editor. I worked as an editor at a variety of publications and through that got to meet different writers and editors as well. Eventually, I met somebody who was looking for some help editing at the Hoover Institution and said, “If I would be interested …”
I had kind of had some experience editing long form pieces that were policy related and was … Don’t write about policy and politics, but find it interesting. And so it ended up working out and it’s been something that I’ve been doing for a number of years, and it keeps me informed, and I really enjoy helping other people kind of edit their writing so it can really be as effective as possible in communicating whatever it is that they’re trying to communicate.
Kelton Reid: Cool. Seems like they’re doing some very important work there. I guess we could dovetail into your fantastic new book, The Power of Meaning, and talk a little bit about the process that went into it, I think is interesting. The book itself is, Publisher’s Weekly called, “An enlightening guide to discovering meaning in one’s life.” Dan Pink who has also been on this show, is actually how I discovered the book. He said that, “It definitely tells the story of people, contemporary and historical, who’ve made the quest for meeting the mission of their lives.” It’s very inspiring, so thank you for the book itself.
Emily Esfahani Smith: Thanks for saying that.
The Extensive Research that Went Into Her Investigation of an Age-Old Question
Kelton Reid: Yeah, no, I think like I was trying to say earlier, that I think it’s important for … Especially, for this time in history, where it just seems like a rather tense time for a lot of folks. Yeah, so I mean, I’d love to talk more about kind of how you wrote it, the amount of time and energy, research, that went into it. If we could talk a little bit about the productivity piece. How much research was required, actually, to get this piece of work out there?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I worked on the book for about three or four years and a big part of that time was spent doing a lot of research and reporting. I read through, I’m sure, thousands of pages of psychology studies, of philosophy, of literature, trying to understand what these different disciplines said about how to lead a meaningful life. That was one part of the research. The other part, which was a little bit more fun, was getting to travel all around the country and interview all kinds of people about their own stories of what makes their lives meaningful. I went out to a little fishing village on an island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay and talked to members of that really tight-knit community about why community is an important part of the meaningful life.
I went out to Seattle where there’s this church that puts on a medieval prayer service called, Compline, that draws hundreds of people every Sunday night who are both religious and not religious. Some of them are atheist and yet, they’re drawn to this kind of spiritual transcendent experience of Gregorian chant. I talked to them about why beauty and music, how those things can kind of create more meaning in people’s lives. Those were kind of the two parts of the research and putting them together in the book, that was really the writing process. That was a little bit more kind of synthesizing, but also really gratifying in its own way.
How the Author Discovered the Four Pillars of Meaning
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. Well, it sounds like an extensive amount of research. Then, before you kind of sat down to sort it all out, how were you kind of synthesizing the meaning of it all?
Emily Esfahani Smith: Well, so I wrote the book kind of with these two kind of ideas driving it that basically determined the structure of the book. The one was that we are creatures that kind of seek meaning and yearn for meaning and that this desire for meaning is actually stronger in us and needs to be satisfied more than our desire for happiness. Meaning really should be the goal that we pursue, and happiness will come as a result of that. The first part of the book kind of talks a little bit about the difference between meaning and happiness, but then after that I really wanted to understand, “What does it mean to lead a meaningful life? How can you find meaning in life? “
I went to the research kind of with that question in mind thinking that I’ll sort through all this research and see if there are certain themes that come up again and again in the research and in the stories about what people say about what makes their lives meaningful. I was kind of just like sifting through the research and in that process these four themes came up again and again. They’re a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, storytelling, and transcendence, and those were … When people told me what makes their lives meaningful when they wrote about it in surveys and in the research, they were usually talking about one of those four themes, so those are the pillars of meaning I argue.
Kelton Reid: Well, yeah, I mean and it’s a fantastic read and there’s so much in there to kind of savor and unpack and I love it. I mean, you go from Tolstoy to Gandhi to Camus, and then somehow end up at Louis C.K., which I found very entertaining. The storytelling itself is absolutely compelling and then the research piece obviously kind of drives it. Kudos on the work itself, it’s a fantastic book. I’m enjoying it very much.
Emily’s Thoughts on Workflow and Writer’s Block
Kelton Reid: Then, when you begin the writing process and you’re actually going for word counts or pages, how are you doing that? Are you writing every day? Were you blocking parts of your day out to just write? How did you get into kind of a flow state to get it all down?
Emily Esfahani Smith: When I was writing the book it was pretty much all day, every day writing. I tend to be more of a morning person, so I would wake up early and would usually just start writing after preparing myself a little bit. Then, I would, just, for as many hours as I could, until I just couldn’t take it anymore. I would kind of sit there with the ideas and try to wrestle with them and get them down on a page.
Some days that went more smoothly than others. A lot of times it was a real struggle kind of writing … Spending hours, like all day long, writing a paragraph only at the end of the day to realize the paragraph doesn’t belong in this section, and so deleting it and therefore kind of not really making much progress, it felt like. Those were the bad days, but there were also many good days where I probably was able to write at least, I think, a thousand words a day. I don’t keep track of it specifically, but I think on a good day I can probably put out a thousand words a day that I feel comfortable with.
Kelton Reid: Are you a writer who can stick on headphones, or do you need silence to kind of sort things out?
Emily Esfahani Smith: Definitely need silence and I kind of … If there’s any noise at all, it’s a distraction for me. I will use noise canceling headphones, I’ll put earplugs in, but ideally I’ll find a place that’s just as silent as possible to write from.
Kelton Reid: Well, here’s the million dollar question. Do you believe in writer’s block?
Emily Esfahani Smith: Writer’s block … So, I think, I guess it depends on how you define writer’s block. I’ve certainly experienced moments where I come to a point and I don’t know where to go after that, or I don’t know how to start the article, or start the chapter. I think that it’s not because I’m incapable of writing, it’s usually because I don’t know enough yet, so I need to go back and do more research, talk to more people, and then I can come back to it and put my thoughts together a little bit more easily. So for me, writer’s block is usually a symptom of not having done enough research.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah, for sure. All right. Well, let’s talk about a few workflow items. Are you a Mac or a PC user?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I am a Mac user. I have a MacBook Air, which is nice and small and I can put in my purse, which is great.
Kelton Reid: Yes, yes. Are you using primarily Microsoft Word or are you a Scrivener writer?
Emily Esfahani Smith: I used to … Word used to be my default, but these days I’m actually using Google Drive more often, because I can … Sometimes when I get into writing I will be very obsessive about it and every spare moment of my day, if I’m in cab, or if I’m on the subway, I’ll want to kind of go back to the piece and spend time with it. I can do that with Google Drive by just having my phone on me, so that’s really helpful.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve found that too.
Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM, and you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers, talk to you next week.