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Dushka Zapata: “Don’t let the book of your life remain unwritten”

Never postpone what makes you feel fulfilled. Don’t let the book of your life remain unwritten. As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dushka Zapata. Dushka is the author of eight books: “How to […]

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Never postpone what makes you feel fulfilled. Don’t let the book of your life remain unwritten.


As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dushka Zapata.

Dushka is the author of eight books: “How to be Ferociously Happy,” “Amateur: an inexpert, inexperienced, unauthoritative, enamored view of life,” “A Spectacular Catastrophe and other things I recommend,” “Your Seat Cushion is a Flotation Device,” “Someone Destroyed My Rocket Ship and other havoc I have witnessed at the office,” “How to Build a Pillow Fort and other Valuable Life Lessons,” “You Belong Everywhere and other things you’ll have to see for yourself,” and “Love Yourself and Other Insurgent Acts That Recast Everything.” Her ninth book is coming out in May 2020.

Dushka regularly contributes to Quora, the question and answer site. She has over 155 million views.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

When my parents met they were both journalists.

My father worked for a Mexican newspaper called El Sol, and my mother worked for Life magazine.

They met on an assignment. My dad says my mom took one look at him and swooned. My mom says she took one look at him and wondered how they could put such a young kid on such an important story.

They began to fiercely argue right away and continued to do so for half a century.

Another journalist who witnessed their encounters told my mom to be careful. “The distance from hate to love is short” he warned, quoting a Mexican proverb.

Later they would sit across the table from each other and type away.

I was just a kid when they split up. When I was at my mom’s house I went to bed every night to the clicking of her typewriter.

When I visited my father I knew right away where I’d find him: at his desk in his library, scribbling with a recently sharpened pencil on his yellow lined notepads.

When I traveled back and forth from one house to the other, before email, before faxes, I’d carry with me documents that one asked me to ask the other to review.

As my Dad became increasingly successful he told me no one else could either edit or translate his articles.

This mad love is where I come from. I think there’s ink in my blood.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

My father had an incredible life.

By “incredible” I mean that if I told you about it you’d have trouble believing me. Throughout his entire life my father planned to some day write his autobiography.

This is how he would spend his “Golden years.” Writing about his life adventures.

Except he developed dementia.

He was startlingly intelligent, ridiculously funny, the best storyteller of all time, loved to write, and had an astonishing life.

My heart is irreparably crushed by the loss of this book that was never written.

There are two types of procrastination:

The first is where you leave for later something you don’t want to do.

The second is more insidious and more difficult to recognize.

It’s when you leave for later the things you want to do the most.

This requires that you disguise procrastination with responsibility:

I really want to write a book but first I need to clean the house.

Then, I will do laundry.

Then, I will go to work. I have to pay the bills.

This is how your book is never written.

The second type of procrastination is addressed by putting your dreams first. Your creativity first. Your joy first. Your legacy first.

I can’t write a book, but I can write a page a day. I will do that first. Everything else can wait.

Never postpone what makes you feel fulfilled. Don’t let the book of your life remain unwritten.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Burnout happens as a result of too much. Too much work, too much intensity, too much stress. You do so much without recharging or resting that you become consumed.

Burnout feels like a job you once loved has become a form of torture. Like all you want is to call in sick. Small tasks that you used to do before your first cup of coffee have suddenly become overwhelming.

Everything irritates you. You snap at people and have a sinking feeling that you don’t like who you are anymore. You begin to get sick a lot, because burnout impacts your body’s ability to fight illness.

You used to be able to rest up over the weekend but now it feels like weekends are not enough. You feel exhausted. You could sleep for years.

Burnout is not something you can brush off. You have to take time to recover. What you want back is not just your health and energy but focus, life force and inspiration. What you want back is the way you used to be.

Recovery can be long and difficult because it’s not only about resting. You’re not just tired — something is broken. Fixing it requires that you look at what you’ve done to yourself, identify it and change the patterns in your life that led to getting this depleted.

Your soul needs to be fed.

Getting yourself back from a state of burnout means different things for different people, but here are some common elements.

  • Silence. Finding the space to sit quietly without the need to react or do anything. Our brains were not designed to withstand a constant barrage of incessant stimuli. (Yes, this is very, very hard and uncomfortable to an overstimulated brain.)
  • Doing nothing. Watch clouds go by. Put your feet up. Put your phone away.
  • Writing. For some people keeping a journal is helpful.
  • Social interaction. It helps to reconnect with friends, plug into what others are doing, laugh, get distracted, step out of your own head.
  • Find activities that restore meaning to your life. Do things for others.

Then, discover the things you need to do to make your life burnout resistant. Here are some to get you started:

  • Set your ego aside. Learn that the world does not stop spinning if you are not in it. Things can get done well without your constant, active intervention. This is both painful and liberating.
  • Learn about how to set better boundaries. Take a stroll. No more working late into the night or working weekends.
  • Take regular breaks from technology. Turn your phone off in the evenings. Power down on Saturdays or Sundays.
  • Find time to dedicate to anything you do that is creative. Paint. Write. Sculpt. Take a class to learn how to do something you’ve always been curious about. Activate new parts of your brain.
  • Relax. Nap. Wander. Loiter. Take a bath. Read something that is not on a screen or device.
  • Exercise. Activities with a cadence work particularly well: jogging, walking, swimming, yoga.
  • Find your breath.
  • Eat well. Your body does better when you feed it nourishing, unprocessed, whole foods.
  • Sleep a lot. Go to bed early, sleep late whenever possible and nap.
  • Rediscover the joy and power of laughter. Find what makes you laugh. Laughter is a recovery balm.

If you can, take a sabbatical (it doesn’t have to be a long one). Take a solid break from everything and find a different, slower rhythm. Set your eyes on beautiful things.

Develop gratitude for all the things that used to irritate you.

Then, maybe, integrate all of these things back into your real life.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

In many ways culture implies some people belong and others do not.

What you want is to be inclusive.

Don’t think in terms of “office culture.” Think instead in terms of basic guiding principles, such as diversity, respect, camaraderie, adaptation — and then witness everything around you take on a life of its own.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I am a big fan of The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz because it is incredibly simple and truly delivers on the promise that it will change your life.

Just to whet your appetite, the four agreements are:

Do not take things personally.

Be impeccable with your word.

Do not make assumptions.

Do your best.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

Five things help me manage my anxiety:

Questioning it. Hello, anxiety. What are you trying to tell me? Not at an obvious level (run!) but at a deeper level. What is it, Dushka, that you are really trying to run from? What is it that’s causing you to feel you’re in imminent danger? Is it happening now?

My two mantras for this time: Can we live in the present? Can we take it a day at a time?

Self-love. Anxiety, I am not going to meet you with shame or exasperation. I am not going to say you shouldn’t be feeling what you’re feeling. I will instead snuggle you and soothe you and love you and serve you tea. I have a soft, heavy blanket waiting for you. Of course you’re scared. Let’s take deep breaths. Deep, deep breaths.

Time alone. This space, this silence, is where you can hear yourself. Tell me. What’s going on? Whatever it is, I’ve got you. I’ve got us both. We are safe.

Gratitude. Thank you anxiety for the things you alert me to. How would I be able to be in touch with myself if it wasn’t for your clear call, like a flare in the dark? Thank you for existing. I keep you safe, and you know what? You do the same for me.

From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

I would say only one thing: hold space for them.

Have you ever felt like you just want to cry, but don’t want to be alone?

Have you ever wished you had someone to sit with who didn’t want to fix you, judge you, give you advice, or weigh in?

That’s what holding space is.

It might mean “just stay with me” or making someone tea while they talk through something. It might mean someone holding me or my hand or patting my back. It might be someone asking questions to help you process.

It might even be someone leaving. “I feel like you could really use some time to yourself so I will call you first thing tomorrow to check in on how you are doing.”

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

Just in case this question assumes I successfully manage stress, let me clearly state that anxiety is one of my inner dragons.

Managing it (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) has been, so far, the struggle of my life.

Many of the things I do to be happy I have discovered in an attempt to try not to freak out.

I used to worry constantly. About everything. I had to learn that worry is ineffective, that I have no control over most things and that living in the worst case scenario was stressing me more, not “preparing me.”

I have trouble sleeping — I always have, even as a little girl. Except for one precious cup of coffee early in the morning, I don’t drink caffeine. I exercise nearly every day, go to bed early, and do everything I can to improve upon my sleep.

I have a hyperactive personality. My mind is always wired. It races, and I hold multi-voice conversations with myself. I have identified “Dushka” from “freaked out Dushka,” “catastrophe Dushka,” “pessimistic Dushka,” and “terrified Dushka” and talk myself off the ledge constantly.

For my noisy, noisy brain and my irrational, terrified voices, holding conversations with myself really works for me.

I’m a stressball, which means I’m tense. Very tense. I exercise and stretch and breathe but I also get reflexology massages. Whenever anything is healthy and claims to “provide relief from stress,” I’m listening.

I have learned to love myself and feel like I’m worth loving which was the only way to halt the insecure, jealous, controlling voices.

I enjoy trying new things and being bad at them and not getting everything perfect, a far cry from the Dushka that wanted everyone to think she could do no wrong. I am a recovering overachiever.

I have a very driven, compulsive personality and have learned to let it guide me rather than own me. This has taken many years and I fall off the wagon with an almost musical regularity. I scramble back on as gracefully as I can.

I take deep breaths — deep, deep breaths — whenever I feel overwhelmed (writing this makes me feel overwhelmed, but look. I’m still here).

Meditation has been very helpful, in particular being OK with not getting it perfect. I breathe and focus on my breath and get totally distracted and dash after a thought and come back and can really only do a few minutes at a time.

I’m not “doing it wrong.” You know why? Because there is no such thing.

What has helped me the most is the knowledge — deep and certain and primal — that I seem to figure things out.

We’ve done this before, haven’t we, Dushka? And it didn’t go badly, right? Don’t you think that if you’ve made it this far, maybe that’s proof that we’ll be OK?

You are in good hands, Dushka. Because, you know who’s got you? You.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Love yourself.

Loving yourself is not something you do but something you practice, a series of interconnected actions that involve treating yourself like something special and wonderful.

You eat well and exercise and do things to gently assist you in the battles that you fight — for example, I have anxiety and do my best to go to yoga, breathe, get a good night of sleep. I work hard at defying my own thoughts.

You step away from things that hurt you — friends who put you down or the job that doesn’t fulfill or inspire you or the guy who, well, doesn’t do what he says he’s going to do.

You can do better, not because you can go find another man but because you have yourself.

You do things for you that you would do for someone you love — fun things like getting you those shoes you like and harder things like standing up for yourself, or following through on your own promises.

This is important because every time you do you teach yourself you are worth trusting.

You do things that make you happy and let you get to know yourself and get really involved in creating something. A pie, a garden, a book. It doesn’t matter what. It’s yours and it’s for you and maybe also supports others.

You take ownership of everything that affects your vital space — you build sacred things like habits and ceremony and boundaries. You come to terms with disappointing others. You learn to say no.

You say yes a lot too and surprise yourself by making unexpected plans — yes, yes. Drink every day out of your handmade ceramic cup.

Do senseless things, less for the objective and more for the sheer pleasure of it.

People who love themselves don’t always. Loving yourself is like every other feeling — inconsistent, fluid, sometimes dismaying — but in the end you build a relationship with someone truly interesting you know you can count on.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The notion of loving yourself runs counter to our culture but I think it changes everything.

As I get to know myself, as I find my feet, as I slowly learn how to establish my boundaries and protect them, I develop faith.

I don’t mean in religion — I mean in myself.

This kind of faith is a powerful antidote to anxiety.

Faith in myself is how I come to trust that things will work out.

From this, I feel calmer. I suffer less.

I am less driven by what my ego wants me to do. I can soothe her when she freaks out, when she spins out, instead of mistaking her for me.

I realize nothing is personal and that people are doing the best they can so it becomes much easier to forgive and let go of what once would have hurt me.

My relationships are deeper, more meaningful, more deliberate, more peaceful. There is less drama, less entitlement, less blame.

I feel respected and valued because I respect and value myself.

I am more comfortable in the moment, this one right in front of me, because I can see my stories (both about the past and about the future) and can separate myself from them.

I enjoy the frankly delightful pleasure of my own company.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

Thank you so much for asking.

Dushka Zapata on Quora

@DushkaAmateur on Instagram.

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