Hailed as the anti-guru, writer Sarah Knight encourages readers to put themselves first, as she has done herself. Now living the dream in the Caribbean, she reveals to Liz Jones the small steps that can turn your life around.
When a book with the tantalising title The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*** landed on my desk last year, I was intrigued. Even more so by the subtitle: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have With People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want To Do.
Oh my God! This book – its name a twist on the Japanese decluttering bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo – seemed written with me in mind. I spend my life doing things I don’t want to, with people I can’t stand. I always try to please everyone and my unwillingness to challenge authority has made me bankrupt. Reading the introduction, with its no-nonsense, funny approach, made me think differently. I do matter. I deserve a nice life.
The author, 39-year-old Sarah Knight, is a Harvard graduate who worked as a senior editor in New York’s top publishing houses for 15 years. She came up with the idea for the book after an epiphany in the summer of 2015. ‘I’d had my first panic attack five years previously, in a different job,’ says Sarah. ‘By the time I quit my most recent job I had the condition largely under control with antidepressants, occasional tranquillisers and more awareness of the panic signs. But in the year leading up to quitting publishing, I had the realisation I couldn’t do my job any more if I wanted to be happy.’
The Life-Changing Magic… and its sequel Get Your S*** Together (a manual on how to obtain success and happiness using small, manageable steps) have sold a million copies worldwide. Within three years, Sarah has turned her life around, swapping the stress of New York offices for an idyllic existence in the Dominican Republic with her husband Judd.
Her new book You Do You tells us that although we may have been told there’s something wrong with us, there really isn’t. A guide to self-acceptance and learning to appreciate your flaws, it is full of gems such as, ‘Buckle up, Buttercup! If you have a physical imperfection you can’t do much about – such as fat ankles – then accept it, or amputate.’
Was she surprised that her ideas struck such a chord with readers? ‘The books are a reflection of my personal evolution over the past three years. I had got to a point in my career where I was so depressed and stressed, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I finally made a plan to quit [my job] and go freelance – and almost as soon as I was out of that situation I came up with the idea for The Life-Changing Magic, which is about getting rid of things that annoy you. It was art imitating life.
‘I get messages from readers every day. One of my favourites was from a woman who told me I had changed her elderly mother’s life. After losing her husband and going through a period of depression, her mother picked up my first book and started practising “not giving a f***”. Soon she was reading passages out loud, drinking white wine in the middle of the day and getting all her friends to read it, too.’
Did Sarah expect the book to be so successful? ‘I was both surprised and unsurprised. As a publishing industry veteran, I knew I had a selling idea – which was borne out by a six-publisher auction for the book – and after I wrote it (in a month) I knew I had executed it well. But I also know from experience how few books meet expectations sales-wise, so I was prepared for it to not do well. I was heartened when it took off.’
There is a lot in the books about how we should all learn to be more difficult. I tell Sarah this is where I have a problem: I have always given in, always said yes, never asked for a pay rise. Which is pathetic but I found after following her advice and changing my approach that other people don’t give in and you end up fighting. When a hairdresser let me leave the salon with black dye on my face, ears and nose, I didn’t slink home: I took photos and demanded a refund. The hairdresser was not apologetic and now I have nowhere to get my hair done. Similarly, when I bought a loaf of bread in an artisan bakery and was told they no longer take cash, I argued for half an hour, telling them that I should have been warned in advance. Let’s just say being more outspoken has left me isolated, breadless and exhausted. It’s easier to coast through life without making a fuss, surely?
Sarah laughs. ‘You should ask yourself if you’ve been legitimately provoked and then whether it’s worth it to engage further. If not, let it go. Just because you are sometimes difficult doesn’t mean you have to always be difficult. If someone wants to call me difficult, so be it.’
I also have a problem with Sarah’s insistence that we should become more selfish. Selfish people aren’t nice to be around. ‘There are plenty of ways to get what you want while remaining a fundamentally good person,’ she insists. ‘I celebrate “good selfish” and emphasise the need to remain empathetic to others and aware of consequences of your actions.’
The success of her first two books enabled Sarah to sell her apartment in New York and buy a house in the Dominican Republic with her husband. ‘Judd and I knew we wanted to live somewhere tropical so we created a spreadsheet with all the things we were looking for – temperature, stability of government, access to decent healthcare, distance from the US East Coast where we still have family and friends. The Dominican Republic rose to the top, and then we found this small fishing village.
‘Our first trip here was in February 2014. It was also the first holiday I had ever gone on where I didn’t check my work emails. I’m sure that’s why I fell in love with life here. I grew up in a cold environment in Maine, in the northeast of the US, and hated it. Then I went to college in an equally cold place, then to New York where I had to commute 90 minutes a day in snow every winter.’
I’m so envious of Sarah’s success, the fact that she fled corporate life for the tropics. Does she have a maid, and does she feel guilty about it (there’s a lot in her books about never allowing yourself to feel guilt)? ‘We have our own pool, a garden full of palm trees and lizards. And yes, we have a cleaning lady and a gardener and I do sometimes feel guilty. I didn’t have a lot of money growing up and for a long time I thought having help was a wasteful status symbol. But I used to spend six hours every weekend cleaning my apartment on top of the work I’d have to do at home. So taking my own advice – budgeting time and energy the same way I would budget money – once I could afford help, it made sense.’
Now I’ve become less compliant, there is barely one person left in my life. I wonder if Sarah also has fewer friends? ‘I’ve lost a couple,’ she says, ‘but it was mutual and doesn’t feel like a loss. Once I started valuing my time, energy and money I became more comfortable setting boundaries – and if people crossed them, I crossed them out of my life. Life’s too short to maintain relationships with people who don’t value you.’
It is also too short, she points out, to obsess about perfection. ‘For most of my life I thought my need for everything to be perfect – from my school grades to my surroundings – was a good thing,’ she continues. ‘I still think ambition and attention to detail are fine qualities, but I was letting them get the better of me to the point where the consequences – to my mental health – were worse than letting things be a little imperfect.’
You have to be a perfectionist to write a bestseller, surely. ‘Yes and no – all my books have been written on ridiculously tight deadlines [one month, two months, three months, respectively] so there came a point with each one when I couldn’t indulge my perfectionist tendencies because there simply wasn’t time.’
Poor Judd has been with a perfectionist for 18 years (they’ve been married for ten). How does he cope? ‘Ha! In many ways my husband and I are the definition of “opposites attract”. However, we are both unconventional and prone to doing our own thing. We met in 1999 through his childhood best friend who went to college with me. Most recently, Judd was a real-estate broker in New York, a musician and voiceover artist on the side. In our new life, he is doing more singing and much less real estate. Both of us have seen our creative sides flourish since we abandoned the big city.
Is she happy now? ‘My days are my own to do with as I please. I still work hard but I do it for myself instead of for a corporation. I get to spend a lot more time with my husband and a lot less time in make-up and heels!’
Sarah was on a diet for 20 years, and has been anorexic and bulimic. ‘I willed myself to stop all the negative self-talk and focus on the positive instead of obsessing over flaws,’ she says. ‘I managed to accept myself for the size and shape I am, and feel happy about how I look.’
She writes how her eating disorders were triggered by an unkind remark when she was nine or ten. ‘A rude comment is like an unflattering photo – which you would never have framed and put up in your house, right? So I started taking down all those “photos” and replacing them with things that improve my mental state, such as compliments.’
Which brings us to her new book, You Do You: How to be Who You Are And Use What You’ve Got to Get What You Want. ‘I want to guide people towards self-acceptance and confidence,’ says Sarah, ‘even if you possess any of the “flaws” outlined in the book. I’m not trying to change who you are. I want to help you change how you feel and cope with the way others treat you.’ And the anxiety and depression? ‘I know how to nip it in the bud.’
Wow. A self-help guru who is depressive, anxious, imperfect… ‘That’s why they call me the anti-guru,’ she says. ‘If you’re a Negative Nancy, stop thinking of that as negative. You’re a realist. Your pessimism helps protect you from bad outcomes because you prepare. There’s nothing wrong with that. The book’s not called You Improve You – it’s called You Do You for a reason.’
Surely you need to have a big ego to think that way? ‘Ha ha, you noticed! Why is saying someone has a big ego never a compliment? Are people afraid of confidence? This is who I am. I went to Harvard. I was the first female president of the 152-year-old college theatre group. I had a great career. I’ve written two bestselling books. These are facts and I don’t see why I wouldn’t acknowledge them. My brand is about candour.’
She has never wanted children, but is always being made to feel bad about it. ‘I write about this in the chapter Making unconventional life choices that inexplicably bother people who don’t have to live them. I just have no desire to be a mother. Fortunately, my husband is happy with that decision, too.’
Are her parents, both retired teachers, proud? ‘They are tickled by this turn of career events. I send them a copy of each edition – I have 21 foreign deals on The Life-Changing Magic so far.’
What, then, does she give a f*** about? ‘I care about my friendships, my marriage and my reputation as a writer.’ And what still worries her? ‘My biggest worry is money. I’ve always felt the pressure to work to stay afloat. So when I was making a good living in my 30s it seemed crazy to send that into chaos [by going freelance], but here I am. Now it’s more an issue of what’s next? I would love to write a novel.’
She is still a bit judgmental, though. ‘Yes, I am. For example, I can’t understand people who don’t keep a clean house. However, I’ve realised I can keep those judgments to myself, instead of trying to “help” someone by commenting on it. I do me, they do them.’
By Liz Jones
You Do You by Sarah Knight will be published by Quercus on Tuesday, price £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39 (a 20 per cent discount) until 3 December, visit you-bookshop.co.uk, or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15