Interview: Stephanie Krikorian.
Stephanie Krikorian is the author of Zen Bender: A Decade-Long Enthusiastic Quest to Fix Everything (That Was Never Broken). What a great title!
She is a celebrity ghostwriter and journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Post, O, the Oprah Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal. She was a news producer for CNBC, BusinessWeek, and Reuters. Born and raised in Canada, Stephanie splits her time between New York City and East Hampton.
I couldn't wait to talk to Stephanie about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Stephanie: There’s one activity that accomplishes all of those things for me—makes me happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative—and that’s walking. The funny thing is, and I chronicle this in my book Zen Bender, I lost sight of, or forgot, how important a part of my life walking is. Instead, I tried all sorts of other self-help and New Age fixes to achieve all of those things. I read books on being more creative and productive, hired coaches, took classes and more. But while I was out for a walk one day after a grueling session of Reiki (chasing happiness), listening to a self-help book intended to make me healthier, I had an epiphany. I realized that walking was always my thing. I walk and walk and walk to work out writing problems, often having to stop to take notes. I walk to clear my head when my to-do list is overwhelming me, and obviously I feel better when I walk, health wise. I once spoke to a nutritionist about my battles with dieting, and said it was strange because when I walked, I lost weight. She told me it was meditative. And that it calmed me down. And that alone took the stress off of strictly following a diet. So, long way of saying: Walk.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Happiness can come in bite-sized packages. When I was young, I think I thought of happiness as a huge all encompassing thing that had to cover all facets of my life—meaning I wouldn’t be happy if every single thing wasn’t great or perfect. I think it took me a long time to figure out that tiny little pieces of happiness could add up and they should be considered wins. The stakes get higher as life clicks on. Stress can get overwhelming. So instead of always needed to be happy with everything all the time, I realized how happy something like digging potatoes at the farm makes me (it’s really quite gratifying, I suggest everyone try it). I realized how happy the sunset made me, or a breeze on my face did. Was my lumpy income making me unhappy at one point or another—yes. Dating life or my mid-section—didn’t make me happy. But that eventually those things mattered less when I started breathing in the snippets of happy. And they all add up too—small pieces of happiness are cumulative and they bleed into other areas of life.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
What surprised me most as I wrote Zen Bender, (which was in retrospect from living it) was how susceptible we are to believing in someone else’s magic wand. Strong, successful, smart women will find a coach or a book or an expert and cede power to that person, believing the fix must be radical, it must be achievable, and what they are being told must be right. I did that over and over. But the thing is, we’re all very different. Do we all need to drink celery juice every morning? Probably not. Does one dating coach work for everyone? No. Does every self-help book need to be adhered to fully without skipping a beat? No. We can pull a thread from what we learn and decide what it means to us as individuals. We can learn something from everything, but we should never bet the house on any one thing.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I drink less wine. I hesitate to write that one down because I understand people have drinking and substance abuse problems and getting control of that one is not simple for them. I would not say I had a drinking problem, but rather I had a calorie problem. I love love love red wine and in the summer I like my rose. But when you’re five-foot-two inches and trying to keep your weight in check, wine adds up. When I realized I needed to cut back, I didn’t go cold-turkey. Instead, I set some rules for myself: Alternate wine days—never drinking wine two days in a row, and try to stick to one glass, maybe two, each time. I also realize willpower is finite—so saying "no wine ever" was stupid for me. But, no hangovers ever again was a reasonable goal. I didn’t want to have a headache from wine ever again. It ruined my workday and my mood. The other thing that worked in my favor was not reporting to an office every day, which took the habit out of wine. When I would get home from work (when I worked in the news business), like many people, I’d cook dinner and pour a glass of wine. It was a habit. Alternatively, everyone from work would go for drinks after work. It was habit. Working from home changed that. My days vary. The routine is different. That doesn’t really count as me accomplishing something, more just I noticed that made it all easier. It took the habit-drinking out of the equation.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Guessing, before doing the quiz, I would have thought I was an Obliger. I used to have a “no" problem. If someone asked me to do something, I always felt obligated to do it. I wrote about this in Zen Bender, but eventually I figured out “no" is an answer too. But after I took the quiz and realized I was a Questioner it made sense given I ask questions for a living as a journalist. And I don’t just ask questions for work—I need to know every single detail about something before I execute. It’s a bit of a curse, but I actually think I end up front-loading my stress by getting all of the uncertainty out of the way first on anything from a vacation, to having work done on my house, to where I’m eating dinner. Okay, maybe its overkill, but I like rules. And I like information.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
Stress and anxiety do. When I get really wound up about something, I am sort of frozen. I have to sit and think and figure out what’s bothering me and how to get through it. That sometimes leads to missing the gym or yoga, or eating an entire box of crackers. I always get back on track, but it derails me for a short period of time and is a productivity killer. It’s much easier to keep to a routine when I’m feeling happy and on top of the world. One thing I learned was to think back through to the root cause of the stress, and then to take an action to fix it. So, if someone isn’t responding to a story pitch and that’s stressing me out, I can’t do much about that. But if messiness in my office is adding to the stress, that I can remedy by tidying up. I have to choose action that helps, to distract myself from sitting still and freaking out. Moving is better than sitting, just like in traffic when we weave around even it if doesn’t get us there faster, it makes us feel like we’re doing something.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen”).
Bet on you. It popped into my head while I was sitting at a restaurant once pondering a professional move. I realized that there are many things we cannot control in life, but in the end, I’ll prevail if I bet on myself. That is sometimes challenging—sometimes we don’t have the confidence or we’ve lost sight of the strength of our gut instinct—but when I say that in my head it helps me remember I can accomplish something. I have another one too: When something is super challenging and I feel defeated, I say to myself: "Okay, we’ll just do this the hard way," and that’s okay. Something isn’t unaccomplishable if its hard. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that.
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. That book was life-altering. It was like reading a book about my own professional life—standing in the back row during meetings I didn’t know if I should attend or not. Being intimidated even when I knew I was right. Being smart, but not being confident enough to know I was. It was an amazing book and should be mandatory reading for young women so they know how to muster their confidence. The authors did a fantastic job researching it and making it relatable. Loved it.