Interview: Grace Bonney.
I’ve followed Grace Bonney’s career for a long time. She’s the founder and editor-in-chief of the influential and ground-breaking site Design*Sponge.
But that’s not all — she’s done so many different things: written for many design magazines, written a design column, hosted a radio show, and written bestselling books In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice from over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs and Design*Sponge at Home.
Now she’s published the first issue of the new magazine Good Company.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Grace about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Grace: Volunteering. Hands down, this is the most powerful and important part of my daily life. It positively impacts not just my well-being but the community’s as well. The more time I’m able to spend away from the internet (and actively working to support people in our community), the happier I am.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Grace: That it’s not a final destination. I used to think that if I just worked hard enough and found the magic key, I’d unlock the door to always being happy–and never being stressed out. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to understand that moments of joy, and being fully present in them, is a more fulfilling goal.
Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
Grace: Oh yes. I have a tendency to be all or nothing–and it freezes me in place immediately. I’ve missed out on a lot of fun work opportunities and life moments because something didn’t feel 100% perfect. I’ve expected too much from life and myself. No one and no thing is perfect–I’m getting better at understanding that the ups and downs are part of happiness and not a sign that something isn’t worth trying.
Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Grace: As a blogger, it’s been all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking my needs, my voice or my company are the most important priorities in my life. But they’re not. So every habit or activity in my life that has nothing to do with my needs (from taking care of our pets to volunteering to cook for others in our community) has reinforced over and over how important it is to connect to and support others. The more I’m able to de-center myself in my work and my life, the happier I am. It feels good to be a part of a chorus of voices and needs, rather than holding up the stage with my own.
Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Grace: I have! I’ve finally committed to a physical health program that I’ve consistently attended for over two years. It took me 35 years to find a space where health and strength were prioritized over weight loss, so that has made all the difference. Like a lot of people, I spent a large portion of my life with an eating disorder and seeing physical activity only as a means to one end: weight loss. But when I turned 34 I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and I needed to change everything: my activity level, the way I eat and how I take care of the inside of my body–not just the outside. I found an amazing local program in the Hudson Valley, called 30 Minutes of Everything, where a strong community of (mainly) women support each other in seeking strength and community–not just a “beach body”.
Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Grace: I would have guessed that I’m a Questioner, but the quiz actually pointed me to Rebel. I think I’m someone who has a hard time with authority in general, unless it’s someone I deeply respect who has a long history of work/behavior that I trust. In my industry we’re constantly handed new “experts” to trust and follow without question and I have a hard time with that. I guess that’s why I run my own business–fewer bosses and people telling me what to do makes me feel happier and more open, creatively.
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Grace: Lack of sleep. 100%. On days when I sleep well, I feel like a completely different human being. The hardest part of being a business owner, for me, is finding a way to put aside the stress, responsibility and needs of the business (or people who work with me) when I go to bed. I find myself waking up at all hours worrying about ways to solve a problem or improve something that’s not where it needs to be.
Gretchen: Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Grace: Absolutely. When I was 30 years old, I felt my internal chemistry shift and I hit a huge breaking point. It was a difficult year in which I confronted my work life, personal life and everything else in between. I ended up coming out, getting divorced, moving out on my own and shifting my work to be less about design and more about the people behind the work and their stories. It took a few years to regain my footing after that and then when I turned 34 and was diagnosed with Type 1, it was yet another big life-changing reminder to enjoy and be present in my life and work, because good health can be fleeting.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
Grace: “Whatever works, until it doesn’t.” I read this in an interview with the actress Michelle Williams years ago and it’s rung truer to me than anything else. Life is a constantly evolving and ongoing process–what works for us and feels good to us during one time may not work or feel good down the road. And society can put a lot of pressure on people to come up with a “one and done” solution–and if that needs to change, we’re often made to feel like that was a failure. But as soon as I let myself understand that life and people are constantly changing and evolving, it allowed me to be happier in the now and more fully embrace things as they are and more freely let go and evolve when things need to.
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