Society burdens us with conventions and expectations: go to university, get a job, climb the career ladder, have a family… the list goes on. But what happens when these norms differ from what you want in life? Sarah Knight, corporate-world thrall turned author and anti‑self help guru, discusses how she determined her own idea of success while defying social pressures, and shares why we need to evaluate who we are and what we want.
It’s a story all too familiar for some: you spend day-in, day‑out doing a job you despise. When you alarm goes off in the morning, you start to consider all of the possible ‘excuses’ you could use for calling in sick. As you begrudgingly get out of bed and head into work you may wonder where that spark of excitement or happiness went. Maybe the dread of work has turned into you feeling depressed and anxious about your job. Stress and anxiety in the workplace is increasing in Western countries even as we become more and more aware of the impact of work on our health.
A 2017 Wellness in the Workplace report by Business New Zealand and the Southern Cross Health Society found stress and anxiety has increased in individuals in the workplace over the past few years. That is not to say everyone dislikes their job or experiences these feelings, a lot of individuals look forward to Monday morning, the dawn of a new week of opportunities. These people may be suffering other struggles: having to justify why they don’t want children, want to be a stay-at-home mum or don’t want to get married…
You may think this is silly, that people are in control of their own lives and not surrendering to social norms, working in a job they love, confident in themselves as a person and turning down dinner requests because they don’t secretly worry that not going will see them labelled a recluse. You may be right. But in that case, how did Knight’s two ‘self-help’ books become best sellers? Why did thousands of individuals feel the need to learn The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving A F**k and figure out how to Get Your Shit Together? The reality is, there are people struggling to figure out the life they desire, and live it.
“It would take me multiple hands to count the people I know who have left their day jobs,” Knight says. “Not necessarily as a result of reading my book. I wouldn’t take credit for that. But people I know, who know my story and what I did – and who’ve read the books, and seen how I did it – have gone and done it themselves. And I’m not advocating for everybody to quit their day job if they love their day job. But these are people who did not love their day job, and who wanted to do something different. Maybe they just wanted a different day job?”
Knight’s story is no different than that of others focused on climbing the career ladder, only to find it isn’t what they want any more. She spent 15 years working her way up the career ladder before she found herself a senior editor at one of New York’s top five book publishing companies. She was dedicated to her job and successful at it and felt gratification for making it and following the career she had studied for. But despite finally having in her grasp what she had worked years for, she was unhappy, she was experiencing panic attacks and was on antidepressants. So she decided to make a change. For Knight, this meant becoming an author and sharing her tale in a series of ‘self-help’ books: The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving A F**k, Get Your Shit Together? and, most recently, You Do You.
Her latest book encourages people to “be who you are and use what you’ve got to get to what you want”. She says that it’s “okay to just be who you are, and admit that you want certain things or that you don’t want other things. And that you don’t have to be kind of tethered to this idea of what society expects from you, or what your parents expect from you, or what your friends or your partner expect from you.” For Knight, however, it was her own expectations of herself that she had to overcome: “[I used to think] you’ve worked so hard to get here, why would you jump off the hamster wheel now?” she says. “And when I realised that I was sacrificing actual happiness for what I then viewed as success – I was able to recognise that and go, ‘oh, okay, well there’s a simple way to change this. Stop working for a corporation’.”
And that was exactly what she did three and a half years ago. Knight spent a year working up to quitting her job, saving money and emotionally preparing herself to leave publishing and New York. Now, she and her husband enjoy life in what is often labelled an endless summer in The Dominican Republic, where they built a house after deciding it was time to take control of their lives and move to a warmer climate. Of course, none of this was easy and she admits it was one of the hardest moments of her life.
After going to Harvard, getting an English Literature major degree, struggling to get in on the ground floor of the industry and being so focused on building her career for years, “it was my own decision, which might seem to other people like it wasn’t the hardest, but it was an incredibly hard decision to make, for someone who defined themselves by the success of their career for so long.” Ultimately, though, Knight says she realised her happiness was worth more than her resumé.
This is where the main message in You Do You – about becoming comfortable with who you are and what you want – comes to light. Knight figured out her own definition of success and happiness. It’s also about accepting there is nothing wrong with you, even if your family, friends, bosses, ex-partners or society says otherwise. “You Do You, is not about changing you, it’s about changing the way you feel about you and it’s about changing the way you deal with how other people feel about you and really accepting the fact that there’s nothing wrong with you.” Knight says. This might sound paradoxical coming from a woman making her money from self-help books. However, there is a common theme in the author’s books – who, for the record, has been classified as an anti-guru, which she prefers. Each book discusses ways to improve your life by caring less about what you should do and embracing who you are and what you really want. ‘There’s nothing wrong with you’ “is a really ironic statement in a self-help book, coming from someone who you’ve theoretically [paid by spending] your money on a book to solve your problems. But it’s not your problem, it’s society’s problem, it’s culture’s problem… None of us are perfect, none of us conform to the particular ideal of our particular culture,” Knight explains.
Becoming comfortable with who you are seems like a great idea, but in practice it can seem a daunting task. This is where Knight’s theory of ‘mental decluttering’ comes in.
“You take out a flaw, or what somebody else thinks is a flaw. And you look at it in a different light. It’s really about acceptance and confidence. First you have to accept yourself for who you are, and then you can act with confidence. And accepting yourself for who you are includes your flaws. And if it helps you to look at those flaws as strengths, then I think that is sort of half the battle.”
A way in which we can have more confidence in ourselves is to devote more time and energy to ourselves. This is one of the key messages Knight hopes to get across, urging readers to remember how important it is to put yourself first: “There’s nothing wrong with being selfish. There’s nothing wrong with preserving your own well-being. And it’s really important to accept who you are. Because you have such a limited amount of time in this life, to do what you want to do and live the way you want to live.
I think that as you’re constantly giving yourself to others, whether it’s work obligations or family obligations or personal friendships and relationships – you don’t have to do whatever you don’t want to do.” This may be somewhat controversial, especially when we think how society might view the term selfish. But, in a society where everyone is demanding a bit of our time, NOW!, it’s hard to disconnect and focus on what you want. This is something Knight says is particularly true the more technologically advanced we get and the more connected we become.
A lot of this stress and pressure comes down to trying to define ourself as a ‘success’. It’s a term that is used differently by nearly everyone, yet there are still underlying ideals of being successful – such as name recognition, financial success or being at the top of your career – a definition Knight says she adhered to until her early 30s (she is now 40). Knight admits this definition changed significantly when she left her job, and now she sees success as more of a micro unit of achievement. “You don’t have to achieve the things other people want you to achieve or expect you to achieve. I would define success as the achievement of any goal that you set for yourself.”
At the end of the day, what Knight is encouraging isn’t ground-breaking and is, in her own words, common sense. But the reality is that for many people, it isn’t something they can accept and take action on alone. They need the permission to break free of these expectations.
“I don’t have a magic formula. I don’t have some kind of potion that’s going to change your life, without you doing the work. One of the things I do feel like people are getting from my books is permission to be yourself. Permission to act selfishly. Permission to not give a f**k. Permission to admit what you really want, need and deserve out of life.”
You Do You: How to be Who You Are and Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want
by Sarah knight $34.99.