I first crossed paths with Sarah Knight when she was still working in New York City as part of the team behind Jessica Knoll’s debut novel Luckiest Girl Alive. Shortly after that, Knight went freelance and since then she has become the author of a series of non-self-help books that have changed my life (for real).
Knight’s first book The Life-Changing Magic of Not-Giving a Fuck (2016) is a love letter to selfishness prioritizing your own well-being over social conventions and responsibilities. As a young woman earning responsibilities – some of them willingly, some others not so much, I found the book really helpful and funny. Knight knows her audience and she has a unique tone that masterfully combines her own life experiences with practical advice and the appeal of that foul-mouthed friend we all have (and who always speaks the truth).
Get Your Sh*t Together (2017) is the second book in the series and it focuses exactly on what the title says. Knight is open about her Type-A personality and the hard-working routines that got her into Harvard, but that does not mean she – and all of us out there who identify with her – need not get our sh*t together. From the very first chapters she asks you to label yourself according to the personalities of the Chipmunks and from there you only have to follow her advice. Easy peasy.
You Do You: How to Be Who You Are and Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want (2017) is the third book in the series and it is a love letter to the self. If you feel bad about yourself for not meeting certain societal requirements, such as not being a good team-worker or preferring to log off your email accounts during the weekend (the world is not going to end, Knight promises us), then you do you. This does not mean that you have to give in to your inner psychopath and go on a killing rampage next time your relative says “I’m not a feminist, I just believe in equality”. You Do You is all about making the most of what you have in yourself and that would be enough.
Though apparently rooted in toxic self-help ideas about always being happy and positive and the book does not lend itself to resignment and being content. The trick with Knight is that she knows there are certain things in ourselves we can’t change or that we simply don’t, and it is OK. If, your example, you are not a good team-worker, but you excel at working alone then do not volunteer to join your company’s new team of publicity+editing. If you know that you can only properly function and avoid becoming the next Charles Mason by sleeping 8 hours every night, do not attend your colleague’s birthday which starts at 10 pm. Having said this, Knight is very clear in how and why to give f*cks: You may not want to attend your colleague’s birthday, but you can very well send her an amazing present. She will like it, we promise.
There is little left for me to say about Knight, so I would rather let her speak for herself. Please join me in welcoming Sarah Knight to Bodies in the Library to talk about (not) self-help, books, and living your best life.
You are reinventing being selfish and I have to say: IT FEELS SO GOOD. When did you first realise that being selfish is actually NOT bad as long as you take other people in consideration?
I’ll be honest: I’ve always been a selfish person. Maybe it comes from being an oldest child, protecting my territory after it was infiltrated by my younger brother; maybe it’s manifested itself by not wanting to have kids of my own (a POV that’s often called “selfish” by others); maybe it’s simply in my nature. But I’ve always had the instinct to look out for Number One. It’s been during the last three years of quitting my corporate job and writing my three “No Fucks Given Guides” that I’ve been able to qualify the feeling, and justify it with a modus operandi that isn’t hurting anyone else. I’ve developed a spectrum of Bad Selfish to Good Selfish, and I like to think I’m on the Good end 99% of the time!
Why do you think many people are afraid to live their best lives? Who scares us? And how do we give no f*cks about it?
In my first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck, which began as a parody of Marie Kondo’s similarly-titled decluttering bible, I used the phrase “live your best life” as a satirical wink at the self-help genre as a whole. I actually think the idea of “best life living” can get confused with “Success! Wealth! Glamour!” etc.—and I think a lot of people don’t actually want to work quite so hard to have quite so much. My books are predicated on the idea that your best life is just that—yours—to live as you please. Not to be judged according to a public scale of “best,” but rather a very personal one. Maybe you want to work less, have less, aspire to do less—and that’s okay!
So I’m not so sure it’s fear of living our best lives that gets in the way, but rather intimidation at having to strive for what we think is supposed to be the best—and that comes down to the difference between living our actual best lives, and living what other people think are our best lives. Which is why the first and most important tenet of my first book is: you have to stop giving a fuck about what other people think. I go into this in detail in The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck, but essentially it’s about taking people’s feelings into consideration, while disregarding their opinions. You want to make decisions about your life in a way that generally doesn’t hurt anybody else, but not in a way that necessitates their approval. You can only control your own behaviour as it pertains to hurting (or not hurting) someone’s feelings, but in the end, you can’t really control their opinion (i.e. what they think) of you. So stop worrying about it.
You do not want children. You make it clear. Everyone knows it. Yet it seems you keep being asked the children question. Is it OK to allow yourself to be difficult when it comes to certain topics (like your uterus)?
Is this a trick question? Of course it’s okay! I wrote a whole chapter in my most recent book, You Do You, about “being difficult,” why it’s perfectly acceptable, and even how to do it. But in terms of the kid question, specifically, I do think it’s getting less prevalent now that I’m almost forty. Maybe people think it’s finally actually too late to change my mind?! When confronted about it (in scenarios like the one I relate in You Do You), I’m just very up front. I don’t have kids because I don’t want to. Why? Well, among other reasons, I don’t like children. And I have no problem telling people that if they want to pry. For other women, maybe they don’t want kids because to get pregnant and nurse, they would have to go off of medications for their mental health. Maybe they can’t have children, for any one of a host of reasons. Either way, everyone is entitled to her answer to that question but no one is entitled to demand a reason.
You grew up a perfectionist, but you have recently ditched that lifestyle and you have never looked back. Out of routine, do you every have to check with yourself that you are not reverting to your perfectionist, anxious self?
Oh HELL yes. Maybe not every day, but certainly quite often. I’ve ditched the idea that perfectionism is the goal. Like, I know now that it’s not a reasonable or attainable goal, and that striving to be perfect is a fool’s errand. But that does NOT mean I don’t catch myself still trying to do something perfectly—I just now have the mechanisms in place to say Is this really necessary? Can you afford to ease up a bit? and stuff like that. I have not solved the problem of anxiety. But I have mitigated it exponentially, and that’s going to have to be good enough!
Most of your advice is especially helpful to women (i.e. saying “no” more often, not feeling guilty, putting yourself first, asking for help, not allowing other people’s opinions to change who you are). Did you have a target female reader in mind while writing or did it all just came from your own experience?
I definitely didn’t have a target reader in mind, which is odd considering I spent fifteen years as a publishing industry professional and probably should have had a target reader in mind. But no, I just wrote from my experience, and then filled in the blanks by interviewing other people and doing anonymous surveys to get a sense of experiences beyond my own. I’m proud of my first book, but a lesson I took from it was to make the second, and then the third book even more inclusive. It makes me sad (and disappointed in myself) to hear from readers who can’t see themselves in my books or feel that their problems or situations or demographics are being ignored or not dealt with in a realistic way. Obviously I’m not capable of being 100% inclusive of literally every person’s experience all the time, but I do try to speak to a wide range of humans.