Interview: Frank Bruni.
Frank Bruni has written several books and is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. His brand-new book is a bestseller that has received a huge amount of buzz: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. It’s a thought-provoking look at how the college admission system works–and a fresh, reassuring reminder of what really matters in the college experience (as I wrote in my blurb for Frank’s book!).
Also, when I was researching Better Than Before, I read Frank’s fascinating memoir, Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite, because I was reading everything I could find that I thought might touch on the subject of habits.
I knew Frank would have some interesting insights — and he did.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
Frank: There are three that come to mind, and they may stretch the definition of habit, in that they don’t all occur with daily or weekly or even monthly frequency, but I still think they qualify. And they’re of a piece, as they all relate to family.
My family—my father, my siblings, their spouses, their kids, my partner and I—are all very close, and there have been times in the past when, as a result of that closeness, we took actual time together for granted. But we’ve now ritualized certain things, which is another way of saying that we’ve turned them into habits, so that we’re guaranteed to see one another often, and this brings me enormous happiness. In fact a column I once wrote about it, called “The Gift of Siblings,” was by far the most widely read and shared column I’ve ever written for The Times.
One week every year, all 21 of us pile into a beach house somewhere in the Caribbean or Mexico or such, always in the summer, when it’s off season and less crazily expensive. And every time one of us adults has a milestone birthday—something ending in a zero—we adults do a special weekend away. My 50th, for example, was in late October of last year; we all spent three days in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which is wine country.
And I no longer let more than a four or five days go by without talking with my father, either in person or on the phone. That wasn’t always so: my mother, who died years ago, was the talker, the one who wanted and even demanded to communicate; Dad was the silent rock, or maybe the plant that needed no watering. Sometimes my conversations with him are just five minutes, but five minutes is everything. Me hearing his voice, he hearing mine: It’s an enormous comfort. I know it won’t last forever—he’s about to turn 80—but thanks to this habit, maybe, just maybe, it will last forever, and more indelibly, in memory.
What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That habits are like muscles; they get stronger with repeated exercise. You force yourself to do something the first time. You force yourself the second and the third and the fourth. And then, with each subsequent effort, there’s less force required. What was intense effort becomes unthinking reflex or at least something close to that. You just have to trust in that trajectory at the outset. You have to tell yourself at the beginning, when so much will is required, that you’re not always going to need that reserve, that you’re moving toward a destination where everything becomes so much easier.
Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Before I write, I need to read. I’ve seen time and again that I write better in the morning if I’ve read at night; I write better in the mid-afternoon if I paused midday to read. I’m astonished at how long I fought this, because I was sometimes lazy or tired or the reading seemed like procrastination, like a luxury. I finally stopped fighting. This was a habit begging to be developed, and yet still I resisted. It’s funny: habits are like commitments, until they become reflexive. And in the same way you can be a commitment-phobe, you can be a habit-phobe.
Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
Yes. I have never lost the enjoyment of eating late at night and especially of indulging in a guilty food pleasure late at night. And though I’ve improved on this front, I still give in to this temptation and tendency—this habit—far too often. But you know what? In my life I’ve quit smoking. I’ve cut way back on drinking. I’ve remained a steady exerciser. So I don’t beat myself up about it. I see habits as a balance sheet. As long as the good ones outnumber the bad, and as long as the list of good ones grows faster than the list of bad ones, I’m ahead of the game. I’m OK.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I think I straddle two of these. I’m two-thirds Obliger, one-third upholder. Though I hope—I pray—I have a dollop of rebel in there somewhere. [Note: this combination means that Frank is an Obliger.]
Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?
Yes. The first personal trainer I ever saw. I used to get out of healthy habits by telling myself that if I couldn’t commit to them 100 percent or didn’t execute them perfectly then I might as well stall and wait until such (possibly mythic) moment when I could. He really hammered into me that doing at least some of what you intend to and doing it imperfectly is better than taking a pass on the whole shebang—and that it’s also the beginning of the path toward doing it really well, toward making the habit stick. I think he was and is right about that. I thank him for sharing that perspective with me. For haranguing me, really.