How Shauna Niequist became successful by not trying to be

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Image courtesy of Shauna Niequist

Image courtesy of Shauna Niequist

When you’re the wife of prominent musician Aaron Niequist and the daughter of mega-church pastor Bill Hybels and activist Lynne Hybels, it’s easy to become known for who you are related to. But Shauna Niequist has refused to live in another’s shadow.

As a popular blogger and author, she has become known for uncommon spiritual insights and homespun wisdom. And yesterday, Niequist achieved a new level of recognition when her book, Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living, landed the #2 spot on the coveted “New York Times” bestsellers list. (It also hit #1 on the Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly lists.) Going forward, Shauna’s notable relatives may be known by their relation to her.

Interestingly, this success did not come just from writing a beautiful piece of literature. Although the book qualified. It also didn’t come through snippets of practical advice, though the book is chock full of those, too. No, her success came from not trying to be successful. From just being herself.

Present Over Perfect is a gut-wrenching confession about a life mired in busyness, expectations, and striving. Which is to say, the life most of us live. But Shauna refuses to leave readers in the dark chasm of confession, and shines a hopeful light down the hallway toward meaning and purpose. Her message is simple: Be you and be present. Here, I talk with Shauna about the insights that that is resonating with the widespread hunger for authenticity, vulnerability, and deeper ways to live.

Image courtesy of Zondervan

Image courtesy of Zondervan

RNS: As a middle child, I wrestle with perfection. How does the desire to be — or appear to be — good enough or successful enough show up in your life?

SN: I think this drive for perfection manifests first of all in the the tendency to put our lives on hold, waiting for “things” to be perfect, whatever those things are for each of us — jobs, homes, relationships. And second, it’s the impulse to prove and perform, instead of allowing our vulnerabilities and weaknesses to be seen.

I have a deep sense that when I finally get it all together — my messy house, my weight, my all-over-the-place emotions — then I’ll finally be happy and whole. But the word that’s guiding me right now is anyway. I wish all sorts of things were different about me, but I’m showing up anyway. I’m connecting and letting myself be seen anyway. I don’t want to miss any more of my life waiting to get it all together.

And I have missed so many sweet and tender things along the way because I was too busy pushing and proving, believing that I had to hustle in order to be loved and accepted. That myth has shaped so much of my life, and the work I’m doing now is to believe the truth: love is never, ever earned, and it was, in fact, there all along.

RNS: And what about with your family and kids?

SN: For many years, I was so deeply invested in being known as a capable, get-it-done, team player that I worked too much. My husband and kids were given my emotional leftovers. That’s not fair to them, and I regret it. These days, I’m working on changing that math: giving the very best I have to them, and whatever remains can be given to my work-life or outside obligations. 

RNS: I love your Instagram feed, but I sometimes think, “Shauna’s life looks almost too … perfect.” The home-cooked meals and family outings aren’t staged, of course, but how is your life different than what people see online? Anything that would surprise us?

Shauna2SN: First, I’ve been a little more vocal recently on social media about my health challenges. That’s been a very intentional choice. I sometimes don’t post the harder sides of life on social media—both because there’s not always enough room for nuance, and because I know that my hard moments are so much less hard than many other people’s.

I tend to feel pretty comfortable talking about the dark stuff and the hard stuff in books, because we’re spending enough time together to understand the whole scope of it. Social media sometimes feels like a drive-by, and it’s tricky to get that right. But it has been a difficult season for me, as I’ve struggled for the better part of this year with some health problems that have included both the physical and mental sides of health. I’ve intentionally made space for that in my social media posts. All that to say, I hope no one looks at my Instagram feed and only sees perfection. I hope they see beauty and silliness and honesty and funny kids…and lots of breakfast sandwiches.

RNS: Speaking of social media, what warnings or advice would you offer people who love social media but are striving to be more present?

SN: I really like social media, but I’m finding that I spend less and less time on it these days. Often, I switch over to texting or to my Kindle app. Texting offers connection to actual people, and Kindle offers connection to a story. Those things make my life richer than lots and lots of mindless scrolling. Social media is a tiny part of this big beautiful, weird world, and I think there are consequences for our lives if we let it grow too big in our consciousness.

RNS: You talk about “fake-resting” in the book. What is this, and how can it harm us? 

SN: “Fake-resting” is when I wear my cozy pajamas and settle in at home to relax and connect, but underneath all that, the engines of efficiency and accomplishment are whirring inside me. I swing by each bedroom dropping off clean laundry. I stop at my computer to reply to another couple emails. I make sandwiches, refill juice cups, line up deadlines. While the rest of my family actually rests, plays, connects, I push and work and circle, ignoring my exhausted body, mind, and spirit. That’s fake-resting.

RNS: How have faith traditions other than Christianity helped you in your journey?

SN: I’ve learned so much about Sabbath from the Jewish tradition, and I’m so thankful for that. I’ve read some great books written by Jewish rabbis, and I’d recommend Abraham Heschel’s The Sabbath. I’ve enjoyed attending Shabbat services and learning about the practice from our rabbi friends.

RNS: Talk about any regular practices that you’ve implemented into your life that help you on the journey?

SN: Most mornings and evenings, I practice centering prayer—I’m very much a beginner, but it’s helped me so much to begin and end the day focused on God’s unconditional love. And I find that silence as a practice is very helpful for me. If I’m not careful, I’ll go-go-go all day. Regular intervals of silence, even small ones, invite me to listen to my own heart and to God’s whispers.

RNS: Let’s take a sharp left turn. Lots of people love the fabulous food you make. Give us one of your best recipes that you’ve never shared online. 

SN: Well, it’s summertime, when we tend to keep things really, really simple, so this is barely even a recipe, more like a rambly suggestion. I make this ahead of time, then serve it alongside grilled pork tenderloin or marinated chicken skewers.

Quinoa is great because it’s gluten free and high in protein, and I love any combination of feta and mint. My mom grows crazy amounts of mint up at the lake, so we basically put it in everything.

Quinoa with Peas, Feta and Mint

4 cups quinoa, cooked and cooled

2 cups peas—frozen are fine, just thaw them to room temperature

1 cup crumbled feta

1 small handful fresh mint, torn roughly

Salt and pepper to taste

In a mixing bowl, stir together the quinoa and peas. Add the feta and mint, reserving a little bit of each to sprinkle over the top right before serving. Salt and pepper to taste, and then refrigerate, adding the reserved feta and mint before serving.