The Thrive Questionnaire with Paul Loeb

The author of Soul of a Citizen opens up about his daily routine, his favorite quotes, and how he thrives.

Photo courtesy of Paul Loeb

What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?

Eat my oatmeal, ideally with fresh fruit. Then read at least some of the morning paper. It’s a ritual I’ve been doing for years, and it gets my brain and body going. I’ll also find that sometimes I wake up my unconscious has processed answers to particular challenges I’ve been wrestling with. (I run the national nonpartisan Campus Election Engagement Project, which works with schools to help students vote). So I’ll write them down to make sure I remember them.

What gives you energy?

I get energy when my wonderful state staffers tell me about something exciting that happened with the schools they helped engage or the students they work with. I also get energy back from running.

What’s a daily habit or practice that helps you thrive?

I try and exercise every day—running maybe three times a week, yoga twice a week, the other days biking, going for long walks, or using a rowing machine. If I don’t do something a couple days in a row I’ll feel off-balance and crabby, so it’s important to my balance.

Name a book that changed your life.

I don’t know if it changed my life, but I’ve loved George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, his memoir of the Spanish Civil War, ever since I read it in my early 20s. It might sound like an odd choice because, he’s telling the stories of Spanish anarchists whose views I might now find too purist, especially because I find purism at root of many of our current political challenges But at its heart, it’s a book about human courage, solidarity, and compassion under the most difficult circumstances. Orwell and his compatriots were in a war for Spain’s democratic survival, fighting the Hitler-backed forces of Francisco Franco. Meanwhile they faced the profound betrayals of the Communists who were their supposed allies, but who sometimes put more effort into jailing potential political opponents than fighting Franco. So it’s about navigating a tremendously challenging political environment and doing with commitment and integrity. Animal Farm and 1984, which followed it, are much better known, but are bleaker, while Homage to Catalonia has more hope, even under the most harrowing circumstances.

Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?

I keep my phone in my office at night, not my bedroom, and try not let it be my master. I don’t do social media on my phone and try not to check it too much for email. I do send myself lots of email reminders, but that’s a good way of remembering ideas and making sure they go to a place where I’ll later have a chance to deal with them.

I I also check Seattle Mariners scores on my phone more often than I should, especially now that they’re winning (only Cubs fans can understand our chronic heartbreak). But I try to resist the temptation to use your phone to fill up all available space. I was talking with a friend the other day about whether it adds or subtracts from conversations to stop and look up a relevant fact. Sometimes the information is really useful to the conversation. But sometimes it’s marginal and distracts from the flow. It’s challenging for all of us to get the balance right.

How do you deal with email?

Not particularly well, but better than I used to. At least I finally turned off the option to see each email as it comes in, so I’m not constantly looking for exciting news like a dog chasing a treat. Because our Campus Election Engagement Project is a 20-state organization with a widely dispersed team, there’s a lot to deal with that’s relevant each day, and email is a key way we connect.

It’s a challenge to keep up with the flow, while still working on other key tasks that may ultimately be more important. When I’m working well, I skim for the really urgent emails to answer. Then go back to my main work of the day. And then pick up the other emails at the end of the day. But can’t say I do that all the time.

You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?

I’d like to say go outside, look at the garden, or go for a mini-walk. But I’m more likely to take on another task on the To Do list or maybe go downstairs, sit in a chair and read a magazine.

When was the last time you felt burned out and why?

I still do most of the fundraising for our Campus Election Engagement Project, though our new Development Director is definitely helping. But there have been points, even this year, where I’ve worked really hard to get a donation or grant, and then it’s fallen through. And particularly when we thought it would come through, that’s demoralized me. The antidote, as my wife reminds me, is to go for a run, or do some other exercise. Maybe to put it aside for an afternoon. And to remember how important the work is, and how grateful the schools and students are that we’re doing it, and how many good people we’ve been able to hire to do this important work.

Sometimes, not enough, I’ll talk with founders or directors of other organizations who inevitably go through similar challenges, and that will help. And then some other new or existing donor of ours will step up and we’ll be back in track with the money we need to raise.

When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it?

Sometimes I wish our project had been able to do more. We do what we can, and it makes a major impact on student participation. But we’re also taking on a really ambitious challenge. And we can’t control external factors, like when student distaste for particular candidates leads them to stay home even in contexts where their votes could really give them a voice. So it’s tempting at points to feel disheartened. But then I realize that we’ve changed lives and gotten students to the polls who never otherwise would have voted. Keeping on with the work therefore becomes its own antidote to despair. For me, despair is linked to powerlessness. If you feel there’s nothing you can do about a situation, it’s easy to despair. But there’s always something you can do, no matter how challenging the context. So hard as engagement can be, it feels better than being a passive spectator.

Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.

Two quotes, actually. My favorite Rabbi Hillel quote, which opens my Soul of a Citizen book: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, who am I. And if not now, then when?”

To me this raises the moral challenge for all of us, in this or any time—we have to act beyond our narrow private worlds.

And then the words of Hazel Wolf, a wonderful environmental activist friend who lived to 102-years-old, and who I profiled in Soul. When I asked how she kept going with so much energy, humor, and hope, she explained, “You can’t do everything, but you can do what you can and then you can do some more.”

That’s a motto I’ve tried to live by as well.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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