What’s the secret to learning new skills? Gretchen Rubin will tell you that it has to do with being persistent, but just as importantly, knowing when to give something up. As a self-help writer, Rubin offers advice that is notably down-to-earth and uncomplicated. Her books have proven popular, and now readers will have the chance to see the author in person.
Rubin will speak at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Business Alliance Monday, March 30, at 7 p.m. at the Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village. Tickets are $49, $69 for nonmembers, and include a copy of Rubin’s latest book, “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.” For more information, call 609-924-1776 or visit www.princetonchamber.org.
Rubin lives in New York City with her husband, a senior partner at a hedge fund and the son of former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, and two daughters. She grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where her father was a lawyer and her mother was a homemaker. She graduated from Yale and Yale Law School, embarking on a promising legal career. She clerked for Judge Pierre Leval, then for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
She gave up that career to write books. Her first effort, “Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide” was a hit, and she soon moved on to biographies, following it up with “Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill” and “Forty Ways to Look at JFK.” After the JFK book, her writing took a new direction.
“I was finishing up my biography of Kennedy,” she recalls. “I was looking out the window of a bus, and I thought to myself, ‘What do I want from life? Well, I want to be happier.’” She realized she hadn’t spent any time thinking about what it meant to be happy. She began to research the concept of happiness just as thoroughly as she had tackled her biographical subjects.
“I did a ton of research, and I was taking all these notes, and I thought, maybe this should be my next book. I realized I was fascinated by the topic.”
Her second career as an author has proven just as successful as her legal career. Her books have topped the New York Times best-seller list, sold more than 2 million copies, and been translated into 30 languages. Her most recent book, “Better Than Before,” is a manual to breaking bad habits and starting good ones. Her previous book, “The Happiness Project,” chronicles her project to systematically conquer the task of becoming happy.
Rubin found that one key to happiness was that it can’t be forced. It’s good to try new things, but it’s important to give up hobbies that are meant to be fun if they are not providing any enjoyment. Rubin recently tried golf and podcasting to see if she would like them. In February she launched the first episode of “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.” However, you won’t be seeing her on the links any time soon.
“I can expect myself to do a podcast,” she says. “I don’t think I can expect myself to be an expert at golf. I’m not good at that kind of thing.” She also gave up meditation after trying her hardest to get good at it.
Podcasting played to her strengths, but swatting at a golf ball for Rubin was an exercise in frustration. She says that it was liberating to give up something she hated.
“Everybody loves music, everybody loves shopping, and everybody loves drinking wine. I don’t like any of those things. Maybe there’s something wrong with me,” she says. “Or maybe it’s just not the kind of thing I find fun. Just because something is fun for other people doesn’t mean it will be fun for me, and vice versa.”
At her blog, at www.gretchenrubin.com, she offers further advice for leading a happy life. Her advice also focuses on frequency and repetition as important elements of the creative accomplishment:
“We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently. Anthony Trollope, the 19th-century writer who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, observed, ‘A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.’ Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity.
“You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting. That’s critical, because I have a voracious need for material, and as I become hyper-aware of potential fodder, ideas pour in. By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish.
“Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.
“Step by step, you make your way forward. That’s why practices such as daily writing exercises or keeping a daily blog can be so helpful. You see yourself do the work, which shows you that you can do the work. Progress is reassuring and inspiring; panic and then despair set in when you find yourself getting nothing done day after day. One of the painful ironies of work life is that the anxiety of procrastination often makes people even less likely to buckle down in the future.
“I have a long list of ‘Secrets of Adulthood,’ the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve grown up. One of my most helpful secrets is, ‘What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.’
“Day by day, we build our lives, and day by day, we can take steps toward making real the magnificent creations of our imaginations.”