When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.
As an actress and mom of three, Sarah Shahi has worked hard to maintain a mindful balance in her life. Growing up with a single mother, an older brother, and younger sister in a suburb of Dallas, Texas called Euless, she moved in and out of women’s shelters in the early years of her life. Her mother, Shahi’s role model, worked tirelessly to provide for her family. “She owned her own interior design firm, and I would watch her work into the waking hours of the morning, rest for maybe one to two hours, then get us all up and ready for school,” Shahi recalls. “But she always smiled. She has such a positive viewpoint on life. There was no additional help, just the four of us doing it all together.” It was her mother that inspired her own drive, and she’s gone on to have a successful career, appearing in dozens of films and television series, including Chicago Fire, Supernatural, Person of Interest, and The L Word.
In her Thrive Questionnaire, Sarah Shahi shares how her mother helped to shape her future, her tips to overcome mom guilt, and how she prioritizes and stays organized.
Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
Sarah Shahi: Well, I don’t look at my phone. I think it’s a horrible habit. I have three human alarm clocks between the ages of 4 and 9, and they don’t sound like butterflies when they wake up. We go straight to the hall bathroom where we all brush our teeth together. I’m trying to instill that in my 4-year-olds. Then, we’re off to the kitchen, where I get my coffee.
TG: What gives you energy?
SS: My family gives me a lot of energy. Just thinking about why I do what I do, or my responsibility to give my husband and kids a great life, is enough to keep me going when I’m tired.
TG: What daily habit or practice helps you thrive?
SS: Saying what I am grateful for every night. We take a lot for granted and sometimes it’s easy to compare our lives with other people. But I think declaring to the universe what you are grateful for just gives you more of the good stuff.
TG: Name a book that changed your life.
SS: Many Lives Many Masters. I’m very spiritual, and have recently been on the path to connect with past lives. This book blew my mind in a way I never expected.
TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
SS: I have a love/hate relationship with my phone. It is on the bedside table next to me at night. When I’m with my children, I’m very disciplined and hardly ever look at it. I have it on silent. And I return calls and emails when my children are in bed. I try not to be on it very much in general. As great as technology is, I think people think they should be able to reach you anytime, anywhere, and that just doesn’t work in my head. My time is mine.
TG: How do you deal with email?
SS: Very thoroughly. I’m a good emailer. I respond in a day and every question or comment is addressed. It’s such a pet peeve of mine when you ask someone a question, and they talk about other things, but never answer!
TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?
SS: Well if anything has a deadline on it, that comes first. That will signify the order of importance for me. And I’m a Capricorn, so I like to work. But there’s a balance. I can’t do great work if I’m overworked. So sometimes the best thing to do is focus on the important stuff and just go with the flow for the rest.
TG: What is the biggest thing from your past that made you who you are today?
SS: My dad leaving definitely shaped me. I grew up quick. I had a lot more responsibilities than the average 8-year-old, and my mother has always been a huge influence. She raised us with a lot of confidence, hard work, and love. That’s what I got, so that’s what I am.
TG: Was there anything about your background that was challenging for you?
SS: Other than the fact that the Persian culture is nothing like the Texas culture, no, it wasn’t hard at all! I desperately wanted to fit in when I was a kid. I wanted my mom to make spaghetti when my friends came over, not kabobs. I wanted to have blonde hair and blue eyes and a normal name. I got made fun of a lot for my name. That’s when I changed it to Sarah.
TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it?
SS: I meditate. My life is very noisy and very busy. If I can close my eyes and just connect to my soul, it does me wonders.
TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why?
SS: The holidays! We all go to my mom’s house for Christmas, and as nice as it is to get together, it’s the opposite of relaxing. Remember Home Alone? In the opening of that movie, where everyone is fighting and food is flying across the kitchen, that’s us — we always joke about needing a vacation after the holidays.
TG: What is one of the biggest challenges of being a working mom?
SS: Being a working mom is certainly a challenge, and I don’t feel like I’m overcoming it. I try to include my children in my work when I can — I bring them to set, and take them to premieres. I took my kids to all my meetings last summer. They loved it, and so did the execs I was meeting. I just thought, “Well they’re not in school, why don’t they come and see what mom does.” And when I’m with them — I’m with them. I don’t do any work until they’re in bed. I try to get the majority of my meetings done during school hours. But the guilt is overwhelming no matter what. I do believe in showing kids a strong work ethic, and showing them how great it is to follow your dreams.
TG: What’s the biggest mom-hack that saves your life (and time!)?
SS: Pre-make all the kids lunches the night before! It’s too much to get three sets of lunches and snacks ready in the morning along with three breakfasts and making sure everyone is dressed. I do it the night before (everything but the sandwich), and it saves me some time in the morning!
TG: What advice would you give your younger self?
SS: “Chill the f*ck out!” As I’ve gotten older, I see that life has a way of working itself out — as long as you get out of the way. Also, you know that little voice that tells you not to do something? Listen to it. But the reverse is true, too. When that voice tells you to speak up, speak up, even if your voice shakes.
TG: Who are your role models and why?
SS: My mother, obviously, for her strength, her smarts, and her grace. She was given a pretty bad deck of cards and she turned it all around. She is my idol. She loves her children fiercely, worked diligently her entire life, never took a dime from anyone, and never made us feel less than.
And Maya Angelou. What can I say about this woman? She had an awful, just awful childhood, and she took control of her life and became one of the biggest inspirations of our generation. Her character and beliefs are unparalleled. I’m amazed by her.
Oprah is another role model of mine — she has built her entire career on the foundation of giving to others.
TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
SS: “The caterpillar thought it was the end of the world, until it became a butterfly.” You have to be brave enough to let go of something that isn’t working, to make room for something better. Be brave.