Laura Vanderkam: An interview by Bob Morris

VanderkamA New York City-based journalist, Laura Vanderkam is the author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, published by Portfolio/Penguin Group (2010). She is also the author of Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career without Paying Your Dues (McGraw-Hill, 2007), which the New York Post selected as one of four notable career books of 2007. She is a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, City Journal, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Reason, and other publications. She specializes in translating complex economic, policy or scientific ideas into readable prose, and making people say “I never thought of it that way before.” A 2001 graduate of Princeton, she enjoys writing fiction, running, and singing soprano with the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus, an organization for which she served until recently as president, and which specializes in commissioning new music from composers under age 35. She lives in the city with her husband and their two young sons.

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Morris: Before discussing any of your books, a few general questions. First, please share your thoughts about achieving and then sustaining an appropriate balance of what is most important in one’s life.

Vanderkam: I think we have to look at what we do best and others cannot do for us. For most of us, this is nurturing our careers, nurturing our families, and nurturing ourselves (by which I mean getting enough sleep, exercising, and focusing on personal passions like volunteering). When you devote most of your hours to these priorities, life feels pretty good.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, in your own life as well as what you have observed in others’ lives, what seem to be the most serious challenges to such balance? How best to avoid or overcome them?

Vanderkam: Many of us make ourselves busy with things that don’t matter. We volunteer for projects that we don’t care about, we spend time on housework or errands that don’t need to be done or don’t need to be done to the standard we’re doing them, or we spend time at work on things that aren’t advancing our careers or our organizations. We also watch a lot of TV.

Morris: As I read several of your articles for various publications, I was struck by the range and especially by the diversity of your interests. You seem to have an almost insatiable curiosity about so many subjects. Is that a fair assessment?

It is true that I love to learn about new topics. Sometimes that makes my professional life harder, as I don’t achieve economies of scale in my writing, but on the plus side, I don’t get bored. Today I’ve been researching the Korean-American community in New York, environmental issues in lawn care, and the Ramona Quimby series of children’s books. How random is that?

Morris: To what extent has your formal education (e.g. Princeton) had a significant impact on your career thus far?

Vanderkam: I am very grateful for my Princeton education, and I learned a lot in college. I studied with some excellent writing teachers including John McPhee, and I took classes such as art history, and the Bible in Western cultural tradition, which had me reading great works of literature. But, of course, the most useful aspect of my education now is the network. For instance, the executive at Portfolio who facilitated their acquisition of 168 Hours is a Princeton grad.

Morris: Here’s a subject on which opinions are sharply divided. Given the emergence of various electronic reading devices, do you think the bound volume is an endangered species?

Vanderkam: I hope not! I own a Kindle and love how quickly I can get a title and start reading, but I love the feel of turning pages, too, and I like to mark up my books. I like seeing them on my bookshelves, just as I like holding a physical newspaper as I drink my coffee. I think there will be many ways to enjoy books in the future.

Morris: To what does the title of your first book, Grindhopping, refer?

Vanderkam: I made up the word “Grindhopping” to mean those who hop out of the corporate grind to do their own thing. Broadly, the book is about the rise of self-employment among young people.

Morris: The subtitle, Build a Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues, certainly caught my eye. Are you suggesting that success (however defined) can be achieved without paying any dues (however defined)? In fact, how do you define “dues”?

Vanderkam: By paying your dues, I mean climbing the corporate ladder to finally get to a place where you can do interesting, creative work. That’s one approach, or you can just start doing interesting, creative work on your own, see if you can get people to pay you for it, and build your career that way instead. That’s what I’ve done. I have nothing against working hard – in fact, I’m all for it! But if you’re going to work hard, why not make sure you reap the rewards of it?

Morris: As I read the book, I was reminded of Teresa Amabile’s admonition, expressed in a Harvard Business Review article almost 20 years ago, that people should do what they love and love what they do.

Vanderkam: That’s great advice. You will have more energy for the rest of your life working 50 hours a week in a job you love than 30 in a job you hate.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to 168 Hours. As I read the book, I was reminded of a passage in Invictus, a short Victorian poem by the English poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903), written in 1875 and first published in 1888 in Henley’s Book of Verses.

“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

This may be a bit of a stretch but my own opinion is that this passage expresses the essence of what you hope each reader will achieve after reading the book. Is that a fair assessment?

Vanderkam: Yes – there may be good reasons why you’re not living the life you want, but if you dwell on those, you probably won’t change anything. If you simply entertain the notion that maybe you can be the architect of your own existence – or the captain of your soul to use Henley’s words – then you start to see possibilities. You start to see that maybe you can have the life you want in the 168 hours you’ve got.

Morris: More often than not, people who read books such as 168 Hours will then attempt to apply what they have learned but, sooner or later, they will revert back to their previous mindset, values, habits, etc. How to avoid that?

Vanderkam: Self-improvement is a never-ending process. It helps to ask yourself frequently: “Are you spending your time in a way that aligns with your values, and if you’re not, what can you do to change that?” You can also make things easier by building changes into your life. If you intend to exercise during business trips, for instance, always stay at hotels with gyms.

Morris: What is “the myth of the time crunch”? What in fact is true?

Vanderkam: For the past 30 years or so, our culture has become obsessed with this narrative of being busy. We like to talk about how much we have to do, how much we work and how little we sleep. In particular, there’s a perception that, if you’re a woman, there’s just not enough time to have a career and a happy family. In reality, the average parent who works full-time clocks roughly 35-45 hours per week. If you sleep 56 hours and work 40, that leaves 72 for other things. This is plenty of time to have a full personal life.

Morris: I was fascinated by your discussion of Roald Hoffmann and core competencies. For those who have not yet read 168 Hours, who is he and what lessons can be learned from his values and perspective?

Vanderkam: Roald Hoffmann is probably the most fascinating person I’ve ever interviewed. Hidden as a child during the Holocaust, he grew up to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry, then started writing poetry quite seriously as a second career. In all these spheres, he knew what he did better than almost anyone else: he was a very patient observer, able to watch the world and draw larger inferences. This helped pass the time when he was hiding from the Nazis, helped him see new approaches in chemistry, and helped him write poetry about the world around him. Our core competencies are the things we do best that others cannot do nearly as well. When we identify these things, we can then put them into practice in different areas of our lives.

Morris: Many recent school and college graduates are unable to obtain any job, much less the “right” job. What advice do you have for them?

Vanderkam: If you can’t get a job, make your own. Figure out what you love to do, and what aspect of that people might pay you for, then start trying to sell your goods or services. It’s better to experiment with these things when you’re young and don’t need much to live on than later in life, when you do.

Morris: What are the most common mistakes made when people attempt to “control” their calendars?

Vanderkam: Many of us mistake tasks that look like work for actual work. Just because an email is in your inbox doesn’t mean reading or answering or filing it is a good use of your time. If nothing has changed in the world by the end of a meeting, then it probably didn’t have to happen. In controlling our calendars, many of us try to save 5 minutes here and there when the big breakthroughs come from chucking whole hours or days devoted to things that don’t need to happen.

Morris: Given your objectives in 168 Hours, why is Leah Ingram significant?

Vanderkam: I profile Leah Ingram, author of Suddenly Frugal, in a chapter called “Anatomy of a Breakthrough.” I like Ingram’s story because she consciously chose to take her career as an author in a new direction, and took certain steps to do so, even though she has a full personal life. In some ways, her book contract for Suddenly Frugal dropped in her lap, but she spent two years working to make it very easy for the contract to land there!

Morris: What are “the new home economics”?

Vanderkam: Over the past 50 years, mothers have entered the workforce in droves. Thus, many people assume that women must be spending less time with their kids than in the Ozzie and Harriet era. But when you study time use data, this turns out not to be true. Today’s moms spend a lot more time interacting with their children than their grandmothers did, because they’re spending a lot less time doing housework. The culture of what it means to make a home has completely changed, and I’d say in good ways. It’s better to play with your kids than spend your hours vacuuming their carpets twice per day.

Morris: In Chapter 7, “Don’t Do Your Own Laundry,” you note that most people spend “the lion’s share” of their time on four chore categories. What are they? So what?

Vanderkam: The four main chore categories are laundry and wardrobe maintenance, food chores, cleaning chores, and household administration. Some people really hate one particular category, and so that would be a good choice for figuring out a way to get it off your plate. Maybe your spouse or your kids don’t mind doing that particular chore. Maybe you can lower your standards, or if you’ve got extra cash you can outsource it.

Morris: How do you define “downtime” and how can people make the most of it when attempting to achieve and then sustain a full life?

Vanderkam: Downtime is the waking portion of our 168 hours that we’re not spending working for pay or doing childcare or housework. Unfortunately, many of us don’t notice when it’s happening, and don’t have a good sense of what we’d like to do during this time, so we just wind up watching TV. TV is fine in small doses, but that’s not the dosage many people consume. I think it’s important to plan a few high-quality leisure activities like exercise, volunteering and hobbies, and then let the rest of life – including TV – fill in around that.

Morris: In the final chapter, you assert that “there is [sufficient] time for anything that matters.” Perhaps that is true of single persons who are financially independent but what about parents of several children in dual income families, one or both of whom are underemployed and in danger if becoming unemployed?

Vanderkam: I did talk with parents in just those kinds of situations as part of my research (I did dozens of interviews that didn’t make it into the book, in addition to the people profiled). I was incredibly inspired by people dealing with challenging lives who still found time for the things that they cared about. If there weren’t money for babysitters, they’d have in-home dates after the kids went to bed. They’d commute together. They’d trade off exercise time or walk or bike to work (a great way to save money on gas if feasible). One partner would take on extra work to support the family while the other was starting a business. But I also want to point out here that worrying about a “time crunch” is actually a side effect of affluence. There is some academic research finding that, controlling for total hours worked, people feel more stressed about their time as their income rises.

Morris: What question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Vanderkam:  “Has your life changed as a result of writing this book?” I’d say it has. I don’t take on work simply to fill the hours; I ask if an assignment is right for me. Over time, this pickiness has helped, rather than hurt, my earnings. Using the practices I learned while writing 168 Hours, I found time to train for a marathon, and I’m enjoying my time with my kids more. I’m not saying all of this is easy – it never is – but I have a great life, and being aware of my time has made me more grateful for my minutes.

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