Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Suleika Jaouad (@suleikajaouad), author of the instant New York Times bestselling memoir Between Two Kingdoms. Suleika wrote the Emmy Award-winning New York Times column + video series “Life, Interrupted,” and her reporting and essays have been featured in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Vogue, and NPR, among others. A highly sought-after speaker, her mainstage TED talk was one of the ten most popular of 2019 and has nearly four million views.
Suleika is also the creator of The Isolation Journals, a community creativity project founded during the COVID-19 pandemic to help others convert isolation into artistic solitude. Over 100,000 people from around the world have joined. You can find one of my favorite prompts, which I shared on my blog last spring, at tim.blog/dialogue.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss, and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. My guest today is Suleika Jaouad. That’s spelled S U L E I K A, J A O U A D. Lots of vowels. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at Suleika Jaouad. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Between Two Kingdoms. She wrote the Emmy award-winning New York Times column and the video series Life, Interrupted, and her reporting and essays have been featured in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Vogue, and NPR, among others.
A highly sought after speaker, her main stage TED talk was one of the 10 most popular of 2019 and has nearly four million views. She’s also the creator of the Isolation Journals, how I first became more familiar with her work, a community creative project founded during the COVID 19 pandemic to help others convert isolation into artistic solitude. More than 100,000 people from around the world have joined. You can find one of my favorite prompts, which I shared on my blog last spring at tim.blog/dialogue. You can find her online at suleikajaouad.com, on Instagram and Twitter at the same, suleikajaouad, and on Facebook at Suleika Jaouad Page. Suleika, welcome to the show.
Suleika Jaouad: Thanks, Tim. I’m so excited to be here.
Tim Ferriss: I am so excited to have you here. And as always, there is an embarrassment of riches in front of me on many pages of notes, and I was drinking copious amounts of coffee trying to figure out where to start. And I think where I’d like to start is with The Vigil. Now that’s not going to mean anything to anyone until we provide some context. So could you please describe what The Vigil is? What am I referring to?
Suleika Jaouad: The Vigil was a story I reported for New York Times Magazine. I think it was two or three years ago. I traveled to Northern California to a maximum security prison, and in that prison is one of the first prison hospices in the country, which might sound wildly depressing, but it was truly one of the most inspiring two weeks of my life.
What makes the prison hospice so unique is that it’s staffed by fellow prisoners who’ve been trained in hospice work and who are there caring for their fellow prisoners who are in the final days or weeks of their lives. I ended up following three young men. All three of them were in their early twenties or thirties. And for a lot of the guys who worked in the hospice, their first encounter with mortality was in the context of first or second degree murder. And they were trying to find a sense of redemption and atonement through that work.
I was struck not just by the incredible compassion that they modeled, but a kind of restorative justice that they were practicing in not just taking care of themselves and reckoning with their pasts, but quite literally sitting vigil with fellow prisoners around the clock and being present in those most sacred final hours.
Tim Ferriss: How did that experience affect you, if it did? It sounds like an immersive experience. It entailed, I imagine, a lot of observation and lots of note-taking. Does anything come to mind that stuck with you or that stands out as a feeling you experienced during that time?
Suleika Jaouad: So I’m reminded of the great Bryan Stevenson’s line about how the worst thing we’ve ever done doesn’t define us. At that point I think I was in my late twenties. I walked into that prison with my own set of preconceptions, or fears, or anxieties about how that process would go. And every single one of those was upended.
I remember setting up in the TV room in the prison hospice with my tape recorder. And by day two, I had a long line of men waiting outside the room to be interviewed. A lot of them weren’t relevant to the story, necessarily. But what I came to understand in these conversations was that most of these people had never been interviewed before. They’d never had a chance to tell their stories on their own terms, in their own words.
A lot of them cried. And I came to understand that it was this rare moment where vulnerability could be shown and expressed, especially in an environment in which, yeah, vulnerability is not only seen as a form of weakness, but it can also be a danger. So whatever plans I had for how I was going to report the story went out the window.
It was an experience of sitting, and listening, and being present unlike any other reporting or writing work I’ve done in the past. And to be allowed in those most vulnerable moments was no small gift. Actually just a few months ago, one of the guys that I profiled, Fernando Murillo, who was given a life sentence at the age of 18, was released from prison in part because of that story and the model inmate and the redemption he fought so hard for and achieved during his time behind bars. And that conversation that I had while I was reporting the stories still continues. I still talk to Fernando and some of the other people in the story. And so they’ve really had this unusual and long-lasting impact on my life.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned encounters with mortality. You have certainly had your own encounters with mortality, which we’re going to explore at some length, not just yet. Before we get there, just so people don’t think I’m a complete idiot, I did make a wisecrack about how many vowels are in your name, in part because before we started recording, you made that crack. It’s clearly not Czech, because Czech is basically just miscellaneous consonants. And I say that with Czech blood, so relax, everybody. Where does that name come from? What is the origin story, or what are the origins of your name?
Suleika Jaouad: So it was a name given to me by my dad who is from Tunisia, and where I still hold a passport to, and where most of my family on my dad’s side lives. It’s actually Zuleikha in Arabic, but that would be a whole other pronunciation mess, so I won’t make you call me that. For my parents, my mom is Swiss. They were looking for a name that they could pronounce in all three of the languages that we speak in our family and in our home. One that would sound vaguely similar in French and English and in Arabic. But like a lot of kids growing up, I really disliked my name. I remember in the fourth grade begging my parents to let me legally change my name to Ashley.
Tim Ferriss: Ashley.
Suleika Jaouad: Which they thankfully said no to. But when you’re a kid, the idea of being unique is not necessarily a positive. You don’t want to stand out. And my defining experience growing up was being a misfit in every culture that I was in.
Tim Ferriss: Where did you grow up?
Suleika Jaouad: I was born in New York City in the East Village, but between the ages of two and 12, we moved constantly. I lived in Switzerland. I lived in Tunisia. I lived in the US, and I went to, I don’t know, five or six different schools.
Tim Ferriss: Why did you move so often?
Suleika Jaouad: My dad’s a professor. He taught comparative literature and French literature at a small school in upstate New York. And every time he would get a sabbatical or whenever he had the opportunity, they would both decide to go back to their homelands. But I think the bigger truth is that we were trying to figure out as a family where we fit, especially since we don’t have family in the US other than just my parents and my brother and me. But I think like a lot of mixed kids, the notion of home was an elusive concept. In some ways it still is.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk about, if I may speculate here, one of your artistic homes. I don’t know how you think of it, but writing, the craft of writing itself. Reflecting on The Vigil, I was struck by the strength of the lead, the strength of the opening. And I know, well, I don’t want to give myself too much credit here, but I can appreciate how difficult that is to do well because of how much volume you will be able to sift through with a paradox of choice to actually then hone and craft what is a compelling narrative. And I would love to know if you had any particular influences or teachers who led you directly or indirectly to writing.
Suleika Jaouad: So I think the place that I always found a sense of home was in books. I was a huge reader. I wrote, but privately in the confines of my journal. And it wasn’t until I went to college that I started thinking about taking some writing classes. I actually applied to the creative writing program my freshman year at Princeton, and was rejected, and took that rejection pretty badly in a sense that I already had enough self doubt and it was the outward confirmation that I needed that this probably wasn’t a good idea for me to pursue further other than just in my spare time.
But my junior year, when I was sifting through the course catalog, I saw a journalism class that caught my eye and it was called Writing About War. It was taught by a journalist named Thanassis Cambanis. And the notion of writing about war from Princeton, New Jersey —
Tim Ferriss: You should paint a picture for people who don’t know what Princeton, New Jersey is like.
Suleika Jaouad: Yeah. It’s pretty much the opposite of a conflict zone.
Tim Ferriss: Strong juxtaposition. Yes. The Swarovski crystal shop next to the clothing shop where no students can purchase anything except for a handful. It is not a war zone.
Suleika Jaouad: Exactly. But that was our assignment, was to find a way to write a story from, or about, a kind of war zone. And so all semester I was racking my brain and trying to figure out what I could possibly write. And I ended up writing a profile of a classmate who’d been a soldier in the Israeli defense forces and who had gotten very seriously injured in a suicide bombing on a train station near her house when she was about 18 years old. She’d undergone something like a dozen surgeries and still had nerve damage from the shrapnel.
So I sat with her for a couple of hours and interviewed her. And toward the end of that interview, I asked her if she knew anything about the suicide bomber, as she called him. And she said she’d never been able to research anything about him.
Tim Ferriss: That was because she was unwilling due to the sort of emotional charge or —
Suleika Jaouad: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I see.
Suleika Jaouad: Yeah. I think it had obviously been a very traumatic event for her and for her family. And so I asked her if she might be comfortable with me doing a little digging and learning more about who he was. And she agreed. What I realized was that this young man was from the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank, which is a place I’d actually visited the semester before during a fall break. And so I ended up tracking down this young man’s mother’s phone number and Skyping her from my dorm room.
What came out of that were these two side-by-side profiles of my friend and the suicide bomber’s mother, who felt a tremendous amount of empathy for my friend, and for the other victims of what her son had done. That experience really electrified me. The notion that from the limitations of a college campus, or even a dorm room, I could seek out two stories, two perspectives, that you think might never actually fit together, and not only pair them side-by-side, but create a kind of dialog between two people from very different worlds with very different views. And more than that, a sense of connection.
Tim Ferriss: Hope you got a good grade. That’s a lot of investigative legwork for an undergrad writing assignment. Was that effectively the term project, the final deliverable? Or was that one of many throughout the period of the semester?
Suleika Jaouad: That was the term project, the final project, and ended up winning, I think it’s actually called the Ferris prize. I don’t know if you have any involvement in that.
Tim Ferriss: Unrelated. No, I do not. It’s probably, I’m guessing, more the Ferris wheel Ferris with one S. But yes, has nothing to do with me, sadly. I wish.
Suleika Jaouad: You know, I only mentioned that prize because it did the very opposite that the rejection I’d received as a freshman did for me, which was it gave me a sense of confidence and a sense that this might possibly be something that I could pursue. And of course at that age, I don’t know about you, but I was so porous. I was so sensitive to outward feedback, in large part because I wasn’t sure what it was that I wanted to. It’s not that I didn’t know what I was interested in, but I just couldn’t quite bridge the gap between what I found interesting and what might actually be practical or possible.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s take a closer look at just two different experiences that you just juxtaposed. So you have the rejection your freshman year, and please fact check this if I’m not getting this right. But my understanding is you attended Princeton on scholarship, full scholarship,
Suleika Jaouad: I did. I found full financial aid.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. And you get there. You apply to this first writing class or writing seminar. You are rejected. What then led you to apply again? Because I can see some people feeling summarily defeated and just concluding, “This is not the path for me.” And then not subsequently applying to this later class for fear of being rejected again. So how did that come about?
Suleika Jaouad: I now need to fact check myself. But from what I remember, the journalism class did not require an application, or if it did, the barrier to entry was much lower. But I also think that at that point, I’d just spent the semester abroad in Egypt. I’d relearned my native tongue of Arabic, and I felt a sense of confidence, not in my writing abilities, but confidence in that I believed I might have an interesting perspective to offer, which was my own lived experience growing up in North Africa and the research and travels that I’d done in the Middle East.
So it was less that I suddenly felt like I’d become a stronger writer, or that I had new chops, and more that I had a set of ideas and experiences that I believed had some worth.
Tim Ferriss: Did you speak much Arabic before going to Egypt?
Suleika Jaouad: So as a kid, I spoke French and Arabic. When we moved back to the US, I was about five or six years old, and I showed up on the first day of kindergarten in upstate New York not speaking a word of English. And what ended up happening as I became more fluent in English was that Arabic sort of got wedged out. French was the language we spoke at home, English was the language I spoke at school, but over time, I lost my Arabic.
And so it was this very strange experience when I started studying Arabic as an undergrad in that I would read certain words, or certain words would be uttered by the teacher, and somewhere deep in the recesses of my memory, something would click in and I knew what the word was.
Tim Ferriss: That’s so cool. And part of the reason I ask is that I have almost non-existent knowledge of Arabic, but I spent a little bit of time in Jordan and a few other places. And in preparation for going, came to realize that not all Arabic is one Arabic. Modern standard Arabic, which is kind of, as I understand it, more of kind of this academic abstraction of sorts that is used for just the simplicity of universal teaching. But then you have Levantine Arabic, and then you have Gulf Arabic, which then is quite different in some aspects from Egyptian Arabic, which produces, or I should say Egypt itself produces a lot of the entertainment, right? So there is a kind of saturation of maybe Egyptian Arabic.
Was that a stumbling block or was it not? I’m just imagining someone who, when they were a kid, learned and spoke English in, say, Iowa, and then ends up doing like a study abroad to Scotland, and they’re like, “Oh, wow. Okay. Well, I kind of think maybe I get some of this.” I don’t know how different it is, but was that material for you or not so much?
Suleika Jaouad: It was absolutely material for me. So I was familiar with Tunisian Arabic, and my sophomore year of college I got a grant to study Arabic in Morocco. I remember my first day I went to a restaurant and I said, “Aytini tabouna?” which means, “Could I have some bread?” The waiter and the waitstaff burst out laughing, and it turned out that the Tunisian word for bread was a very derogatory term for a part of the female anatomy.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Oh, that’s a gem. Wow.
Suleika Jaouad: Yeah. So if you go to Morocco don’t say the word tabouna.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah. It makes sense. Kind of like there are very many different types of Spanish, and if you go to certain Spanish-speaking areas and you say, you want to “coger un taxi,” it doesn’t translate terribly well, but it will get some good laughs. And I want listeners to realize part of the reason I’m asking you about language is, in fact, the same reason I’m asking you a lot about writing. And that is that both are reflections of thinking and both affect thinking and the lenses through which you look at the world and then translate that into communicating your experience with the world.
So I just wanted to take a step back to explain to people why all of these things in my mind are very much tied together. And I want to fill in also just a little gap, and that is high school to Princeton. How does this happen? Because Princeton’s not the easiest school to get into, and I don’t know much about your journey through high school.
Suleika Jaouad: So I wasn’t a very strong student growing up in part because I’d shuffled around to so many different schools, different grades. It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that something began to click in for me. I’d been playing the double bass for a couple of years and really fell in love with the instrument. My mom had started me on piano when I was four, and was very strict about me practicing, and I absolutely hated it. But when I was eight years old, she’d given me the option of picking a secondary instrument. So in my eight-year-old rebellious mind, I decided to pick the instrument that would inconvenience my parents the most.
Tim Ferriss: Genius.
Suleika Jaouad: Which was this giant wooden object called the upright bass. And I fell in love with it pretty much from the first time that I played it, but something about sitting alone in a practice room with my bass for many hours, I think, gave me a kind of discipline and focus that I hadn’t had. But it also presented a different path forward, and I started playing very competitively and going to band camp and all the other things that you do when you’re into music as a teenager. And that’s what I thought I was going to do.
I thought I was going to become a classical musician, that I was going to play the bass in an orchestra. And when I was 16, I got a scholarship to go to the Juilliard pre-college program in New York City, which is very exciting, and also again, very inconvenient for my parents because it entailed waking up at about 4:00 a.m. every Saturday, driving me 45 minutes to the train station, and taking a three and a half hour train to New York City, which allowed me to get to Juilliard’s campus just in time for my 9:00 a.m. music theory class.
And because of all the traveling and all the performing, I was really struggling to keep up with the long hours and classes and schedule of a public high school. And so I ended up coming up with a deal with my parents, which was that I was going to drop out of high school, and that in the place of high school, I was going to take classes at the small liberal arts college where my dad taught, where I could attend and take classes for free,
Tim Ferriss: Which college was that?
Suleika Jaouad: Skidmore College.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I know Skidmore.
Suleika Jaouad: So my plan at 16, because of course like a lot of 16-year-olds, I thought I was far more mature and sophisticated and knew far more than I actually did, was to study music and to go to conservatory. And that these classes I was taking at Skidmore were just going to be the boxes that I was going to check to appease my parents. But what ended up happening was that I enrolled in some literature courses, and I started to write more seriously. I was just like a sponge soaking up as much as I could.
Tim Ferriss: What did writing more seriously look like? What changed?
Suleika Jaouad: So I remember loving the literature classes that I was taking so much that I actually started looking up the English syllabus at different schools in the region and assigning them to myself. And in the course of that reading, I remember reading in particular Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov and trying to write in his style. And of course doing it probably very poorly with lots of purple prose. But I started —
Tim Ferriss: What do you mean by purple prose?
Suleika Jaouad: Overwritten, flowery.
Tim Ferriss: Flowery, ornate language.
Suleika Jaouad: Terribly long sentences. Yeah, yeah. Garbage, basically.
Tim Ferriss: Still not the worst to try to model.
Suleika Jaouad: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Tim Ferriss: Tough assignment. But I like that it was a self-assignment.
Suleika Jaouad: But I guess what I mean by writing more seriously was moving from just writing in a journal, which is something I’d always done, to actually trying different forms. Writing poetry, writing sonnets, and prose poems. Writing personal essays. Writing fiction, and really kind of exploring and exercising this new muscle, and very consciously trying to develop it. And so ultimately I came to the conclusion that I wanted to keep exercising those muscles, that I didn’t just want to study one thing, and to sit in a practice room for many, many hours a day, but that I actually wanted to go to college.
Although of course at that point I didn’t have a high school diploma, and I suddenly began to scramble to figure out how to put together a college application, and what that would look like. Because both my parents are not from the US, they had no sense of how to do that. So I ended up applying early decision to Princeton for two reasons. One was because of the creative writing faculty and the other was because of the orchestra that they had. And I hoped that the proximity to New York City would maybe allow me to keep taking music lessons and keep studying with my teacher. And so I wrote an essay making a case for why, even though I hadn’t gotten my high school diploma, I had gotten an equivalent, if not deeper and better education through this unconventional program of music conservatory and taking these different classes. But just so you have a sense of how clueless I was on the part of the application, where they ask you to list your AP subjects, I wrote down all the classes I’d taken at Skidmore, modern dance and women and literature because I thought, well, these are college classes, I don’t know what an AP is, but it seems like these are appropriate to list here.
Tim Ferriss: Well, the assigning to yourself the mimicking of these various writing styles and taking that more seriously seems to have been possibly a deciding factor in getting accepted at Princeton. It would seem.
Suleika Jaouad: It was also the year where the dean said that they were looking for more green-haired students. And so I didn’t have green hair, but I think I fit into whatever that alternative category might have been of an atypical student.
Tim Ferriss: Please go ahead.
Suleika Jaouad: But that that first year in college was really challenging. I had a chip on my shoulder. I’m sure a lot of other students did, but because I hadn’t gone to a fancy school and because I hadn’t even graduated from my public school, I felt this need to make up that distance and to work very hard to try to catch up and to try to fill in some of those gaps in my education.
Tim Ferriss: Now, the award-winning New York Times column and video series is called Life, Interrupted. Why? I mentioned that you had encounters with mortality. Could you please tell the story of how you came to encounter your mortality?
Suleika Jaouad: So I graduated from college with these vague notions of wanting to become a war correspondent or a foreign correspondent, but wasn’t sure how to go about doing that. I think journalism, unlike a lot of careers, doesn’t have a clear point of entry. There’s no corporate ladder to climb, no ideal starter job. And what I ended up doing was taking a job as a paralegal at a law firm in France. And I was excited to get the chance to live abroad and hoping to find time to write and to begin putting together some clips and figuring out what that path forward might look like for me. But before I was able to do any of that, my life was interrupted.
It started with a mysterious edge that blossomed into all kinds of symptoms and ultimately, almost exactly a year after I graduated, I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. And it was one of those bifurcating moments where your life fractures. There’s a before and there’s an after. And even though I didn’t know much about my diagnosis or what the treatment would look like, I understood that I would never be the same.
Tim Ferriss: Well, walk us through the first, say, month of — or the first day, you can pick the time frame, of your hospitalization.
Suleika Jaouad: I remember hoping maybe naively, maybe even a little arrogantly that this is going to be a short sojourn in the kingdom of the sick. I wasn’t planning to unpack my bags to get too comfortable. I resisted even the label of cancer patient and was determined to, as much as was possible, remain the person I’d been and to somehow figure out how to make something useful out of what had happened. And so I was admitted to the hospital for what was supposed to be a two-week stay and what ended up being an almost two-month stay. And I remember packing a suitcase full of books. I packed War and Peace, thinking to myself this is one of those books that I’ve never read and this is finally the time to actually read it and to catch up on doing some of these things that I haven’t had the time to do.
But, of course, I never ended up reading a single one of those books. I still have yet to read War and Peace and whatever notions I had about what illness was going to be like pretty much imploded within my first week in the hospital. I was in medical isolation. I called it my bubble. I wasn’t allowed to leave my room. I couldn’t open a window and anyone who entered had to suit up in the equivalent of a hazmat suit or what looked like a beekeeper suit with gloves and a face mask and a surgical gown.
And at some point during that summer, I learned that not only had the standard chemotherapy treatments not worked for me, but that my leukemia had become much more aggressive, and that at that point, my only options were experimental clinical trials. And that, I think more than the diagnosis itself, was profoundly devastating. It was shocking, especially at an age where youth and health are supposed to go hand in hand, where even if you don’t know who you are or what you’re going to do with your life, you tell yourself you have time. And suddenly that relationship to time for me changed pretty abruptly. I didn’t have time. I didn’t have the option of experimenting and taking different jobs and traveling the world or whatever those big and small milestones are of early adulthood.
Tim Ferriss: War and Peace also unread by yours truly. I hate to admit it. There are certain books that travel with me from place to place, year to year, decade to decade. I’m sorry, Edward, but Edward Tufte’s books, and they’re just these indications of where I maybe aspire to be at some point in the future, but I never quite get to that future. Nonetheless, I did read about a few books that seem to have been impactful during this experience. And I’m going to explore multiple facets of this experience because I’m very, very interested. Few of the books that have come up, and please confirm, deny, or modify as needed, I’m going to mispronounce this, is it Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals?
Suleika Jaouad: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tim Ferriss: I might be pronouncing that incorrectly. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which will probably be more familiar to people. And then I read that your true “sick girl Bible” was Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. Is that accurate so far?
Suleika Jaouad: Yes. That is. Very impressed by your research.
Tim Ferriss: Also owe some thanks to my team who helps with these things, but Autobiography of a Face, why was that so impactful? Or why did that book stand out?
Suleika Jaouad: So I should just say that it took me a while to arrive to those books. In those first couple of months I really had to shed that type A anxiety of accomplishment because everything felt difficult. I barely had the energy to speak or walk, much less sit down and read. And instead I was busy setting the world record for the number of Grey’s Anatomy episodes watch consecutively. So that’s what I did for my first couple of months. And I very much resisted reading any cancer related literature because when I did, I often found that those books were written from the perspective of someone who survived and who was many years out or I’d read about these cancer survivors who had done incredible things. They’d gone on to start research foundations or to run ultra marathons. And that made me feel bad about the way I was experiencing my illness. I think there’s a lot of pressure, especially as a cancer patient, to be brave, to be stoic, to be graceful, to be someone who suffers well.
And it wasn’t until a couple months into the experience that I began to look for different kinds of books. And the reason I began to search for those books is because of that profound sense of isolation. I could no longer relate to my healthy friends, but at 22 I was a year or two old for pediatrics, but often decades younger than most of the other patients in the cancer ward. So I didn’t necessarily relate to my fellow patients, at least not the ones I met at first.
Tim Ferriss: What was your total stay time in the hospital, roughly?
Suleika Jaouad: I was in treatment for four years, but that first year I spent about eight months of it in the hospital and medical isolation. And so at some point I started to seek out stories that held a resonance that were written from the trenches, whether they were fiction or memoir. And the first book of that genre that I read was The Fault in Our Stars, which is about two teenagers who fall in love and, spoiler alert, die at the end. But it was also an incredibly funny book. It was full of humor and full of the typical coming of age stuff that any young person lives. And that was a really important book for me. And not only because it held all the nuances of that experience, but because it exploded into the mainstream and the fact that a book about two young cancer patients could become the international sensation that it did felt like no small gift at a time when it felt like I was really living in the shadows and that there was so much of that experience that wasn’t known, or that was awkward or complicated to talk about.
And so that led me on this journey of reading these other books, of reading Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, of really seeking out writers who were giving ink to the experience of illness in a way that felt fresh and true and perspective altering.
Tim Ferriss: What does the title Autobiography of a Face refer to, or how does that pertain to the story within Lucy’s book?
Suleika Jaouad: So Lucy Grealy was this incredible poet. And as a kid, she’d had a form of bone cancer called Ewing sarcoma, and she survived that cancer, but because of the surgeries and the radiation that she’d had to her jaw, she had to have a number of different surgeries over the course of her life that left her disfigured. And so the book is less about the experience of cancer than it is about interrogating beauty and living with her face and the long-term imprints of that experience across her whole life. And I was really struck by that book, especially later as I began to emerge from cancer treatment. And as I began to reckon with the imprints of my own illness on my body and my life and my sense of self.
Tim Ferriss: What were some of those imprints, let’s just say, to begin on your body post hospitalization?
Suleika Jaouad: So when I finished treatment, I still had a port which looks like a little hockey puck under the skin. Below my right collar bone I had scars. I was infertile as a result of the chemotherapy that I did. I had extreme fatigue and a compromised immune system because of my bone marrow transplant that I underwent. And all of those symptoms were confusing and difficult for me to figure out how to carry, because I think I was so fixated on a cure that when the cure actually came, I wasn’t prepared for the ongoingness of illness or really of living any sort of trauma. And I had this notion that I was quickly and eagerly and organically going to fold back into the rhythms of living. But instead I found myself grappling with this dissonance between what should be and what was. On paper I no longer had cancer. Off paper I couldn’t have felt further from being the healthy, happy 27-year-old woman that I expected to be on the other end of that.
Tim Ferriss: Just based on some of the reading that I’ve done, and also in your TED Talk, you had four hour naps in the middle of some days. You still had to make visits, or you did make visits at least to the ER at points. I’m curious to hear how you related to expectations of you perhaps. So outside of the physical aspect, did you feel there were certain expectations of you after, let’s just call it beating cancer, and then a dissonance between the reality of your experience and what was expected of you? If that question makes any sense.
Suleika Jaouad: Absolutely. I remember the day I was discharged from the hospital and was finally done with these four years of treatment, getting a slew of text messages, congratulating me on being done. And that seemed to imply an end point that I very much wanted but didn’t feel necessarily true or accurate because there were so many unanswered questions that I realized I suddenly needed to figure out, like the ones you just named. How do I hold down a job if I need to nap for four hours in the day? How do you begin to date when you’re coming out of an experience like this, and you still have a port in your chest? Where do you even — or do you bring up a cancer diagnosis without potentially scaring somebody away? Is it responsible for me to consider long-term commitments like marriage or children given my high likelihood of relapse?
Those were the questions I was swimming around in. But the other piece of it that I began to grapple with are the ways in which the hero’s journey arc is projected onto survivors. There’s this notion that when you emerge from a trial or a big trauma, you are better, braver, stronger for what you’ve been through, but I didn’t feel brave. I didn’t feel strong. I felt wrecked by this experience and had no idea who I was or how to find my way forward and what I had expected to be the final act of this illness experience, which was being cured, was actually the beginning of a very different kind of healing.
Tim Ferriss: Please say more. I would like to encourage you to continue. What do you mean by that?
Suleika Jaouad: So, in that first year after treatment, I was hell bent on moving on from this experience. I wanted to be a quote unquote normal young person. And I remember looking to my friends almost with an anthropological I, thinking to myself what does a normal 27 year old do, and trying to do those things almost as if I was play acting. And I’d go out dancing with friends and then pay for it with three days in bed. I would try to force myself to write about something other than illness, to come up with something new, and I just couldn’t. And what I came to understand is that moving on is a myth. You don’t get to compartmentalize your most difficult passages and stow them in the past. You don’t get to skip over the hard work of healing and grieving and recovering, and really uncovering who you are in the wake of that, and that instead, I was going to have to learn to move forward with this experience, with these imprints on my body and my mind, and to learn how to integrate them in my present.
So I started thinking about the language of ritual and the rules of rites of passage in these transitional moments. We have birthdays and funerals and weddings and bar mitzvahs, these —
Tim Ferriss: Mourning periods.
Suleika Jaouad: Yeah. And mourning periods. These ritualized ceremonies that allow us to shoulder complicated feelings that help us cross the distance between no longer and not yet. And what I realized was that there is no 12-step program. There is no rite of passage for when you survive a trauma like illness, and that I was going to have to create one for my own. And so that’s what I did.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. As Tim takes a long inhale, because there’s so many questions I want to ask. I don’t want to interrupt your train of thought, but you mentioned no one gets to skip the hard work of grieving, recovering, and or in some senses uncovering the trauma or the difficulty through which they have passed. I would love to hear what type of work, whether it ended up being hard or otherwise, ended up in retrospect being really valuable. Were there any particular things you did, types of therapy you experimented with, anything at all that really seemed to help with those checkboxes? These are the things that must be done before you can pass go. You don’t get to skip these seven steps. Was there anything that really stood out as valuable or helpful in terms of that work?
Suleika Jaouad: So the truth is I didn’t do much of that work that first year. I had done therapy while I was sick. I had gone to support groups for young adults with cancer, but in the aftermath of that experience, because of that projection that this was supposed to be done, I didn’t have in place those same kinds of support systems and structures. I think when someone gets diagnosed or when someone loses a loved one, if you’re lucky to have friends and family, everyone rallies around you in that moment of acute distress, but in my experience and the experiences of so many other people that I’ve befriended or interviewed, it’s the quieter weeks and months after that are the hardest, because you don’t have the cavalry running after you and you’re left to your own devices. And so all those sources of support that I had created for myself or sought out in treatment, I no longer had in the wake of treatment. And so I really had to invent my own. But this notion of recovery is something that I spent a lot of time reflecting on. The word recovery implies a return to something. And I think that in that first year, I was really trying to return to the person I’d been pre-diagnosis and very quickly realized that person no longer existed. And that though the word maybe implied otherwise, recovering wasn’t about a return to the old, it was a brute, terrifying act of discovery.
And what was helpful was I met a doctor who I was actually interviewing for a story and we got to talking and I explained to him some of the things I’ve been struggling with, and he said to me, “It sounds like you have post-traumatic stress disorder, you have PTSD.” And that was a revelation to me because I thought of PTSD as something that’s reserved for veterans returning from war or someone who has experienced a kind of violence. It hadn’t occurred to me that it also applied to emerging from a long period of life-threatening illness. And once I actually understood what it was that I was feeling, once I removed any expectations of what this post cancer experience is going to be like, and I actually was able to confront the facts of what was happening face forward, then I actually began to create a plan for myself.
Tim Ferriss: What did that plan look like and was it mostly focused then at that point on the present state awareness of this possible diagnosis of PTSD? So rather than being trapped in the past, trying to revert to this pre-illness version of yourself that no longer existed, did the plan focus then on this diagnosis or possible diagnosis of PTSD? What did it look like?
Suleika Jaouad: The simplest way for me to say it is that I understood I needed time to heal, which wasn’t something that I had allowed myself. I’d been pushing myself to figure out what I was going to do next and to get back into the motions of living immediately. But more than that, what I understood was that I needed to learn how to feel safe again in my own body. I write in the book that when the ceiling caves in on you, you no longer assume structural stability. You have to learn to live along fault lines. And so that really became my work. I wanted to feel safe in my body. I wanted to learn to become my own caregiver after years of being dependent on other caregivers. And more than anything, I wanted to carve out the time and space to figure out who I was and what that path forward was going to look like for me. So what I did was I started by confronting a smaller fear, but still a pretty significant fear for me, which was learning how to drive.
And so that’s what I did. I learned how to drive. And as I began learning how to drive, I started dreaming of going on a long road trip. And as I began dreaming of that, I began to imagine a solo cross country road trip. And I didn’t just want to go on some touristy boondoggle, but I was really seeking out people who could offer guidance in this strange limbo in-between place that I found myself in. And so I ended up making a list of about 22 strangers. All of whom had written to me in response to my calm about all kinds of reckonings and interruptions in their own life. And that’s what I set out to do. I had this newly minted driver’s license, which I’d had for about a month. I rented out my apartment and used the funds from that to pay for my road trip. And I reached out to all of these different people to let them know I’d love to meet face to face and I left home.
Tim Ferriss: Into the unknown. Also, just to explain perhaps the title of the book, so you mentioned this in-between space. I think you are a master of in-between spaces, in the sense that I know you’ve written that you’re always interested in traveling to where the silence is and detecting that and interrogating that, not necessarily in an aggressive way. The title Between Two Kingdoms comes from an observation in, is it Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor?
Quote, “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” I suppose what’s left out of that is that there is a spectrum between those two points. It’s not just a binary one or the other, at least in your lived experience. Is there anything you’d like to add to selecting that as the title for the memoir?
Suleika Jaouad: Yeah. I mean, I think that kind of binary thinking, especially as we live longer and longer lives means that that border is porous, and that much of us end up spending our lives somewhere between the two. So removing that sense that I had to be a denizen of one or the other, and allowing myself to exist in that messy middle, which I used to think of as the kind of wilderness of survivorship, was where I was when I left for that road trip. My hope was that that trip, and the people I met along the way, would form a kind of breadcrumb path back toward some semblance of existing among the living.
Tim Ferriss: So to recap, you learned to drive at 27 around one month before a 15,000-mile solo road trip, which of course sounds totally improbable, but this is a real story. I wanted to, before we get to that, because I think these things are, in some ways, interrelated. I wanted to ask first how you landed your New York Times column, because that in some ways was the birthplace or the connective tissue that then brought these people into your life in a way that would connect into this road trip. So how did you land the New York Times column?
Suleika Jaouad: At some point during that first year of treatment, my friends and family came up with the idea of doing something called the hundred-day project. The concept is really simple. We were each going to pick our own project and do something creative every day for a hundred days. So my dad wrote a hundred childhood memories about growing up in Tunisia that he compiled into a little booklet and gave to me. My mom, who’s an artist, painted a ceramic tile every day for a hundred days that she assembled into a shield and hung above my bed, and told me it had protective powers. So for my hundred-day project, I decided to keep the stakes very low and I returned to the thing I’ve always done in difficult moments, which was journaling.
I created a couple rules for myself. The first was that I had to do it every day, but that it didn’t matter if the quality was any good, and it didn’t matter how long my journal entries were. So sometimes it was several pages, often it was a paragraph, occasionally it was one word. Sometimes it was just the F-word, but that’s what I did. I journaled every day for a hundred days, and something interesting began to happen during that journaling process. I found myself observing my hospital room and the world around me in a different sort of way. I was recording snippets of conversations between the nurses by the coffee station. I was writing about the different patients I was meeting. I was jotting down funny little anecdotes that would come up, and I was writing about more serious topics, about the ones that made me feel uncomfortable or ashamed. I wrote about the infertility, I wrote about the experience of falling in love while falling sick. I wrote about navigating our insane healthcare system.
By the end of that, I realized that even though I couldn’t be a journalist in the way that maybe I’d imagined graduating from college, I wasn’t going to be a war correspondent or a foreign correspondent, I was in fact reporting from the front lines of my hospital bed on a different kind of conflict zone. That project was really what became the source material for the column. But because I’d never been published before, and because I was 23 at that point, like the good millennial that I was, I first started by creating a blog, which felt manageable. So that’s what I did. I watched YouTube videos and figured out how to put together a very simple blog, and I started to write and to take it seriously and to treat it as a job. It felt really good to have a job to do other than just being a patient.
About two weeks later after I started this blog, it had been circulated and had racked up a significant number of views. Or at least what felt significant to me, because I had gone into this whole thing thinking that maybe my parents and my grandmother and a couple of friends would read it. I received a phone call from an editor at The New York Times asking me if I might want to write an essay. I paused, and very politely thanked her, and told her that I wasn’t interested in writing an essay.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I didn’t see that coming. Okay. Continue.
Suleika Jaouad: I should just back up and say that at that point, I was about two months out from a bone marrow transplant. A bone marrow transplant is this incredibly risky procedure, and my doctors had told me that I had about a 35 percent chance of long-term survival. So that to give you the context of, yeah, the frame of mind that I was in. So I took a deep breath, and I told this editor that what I actually wanted to do was to write a weekly column, to write from the trenches of treatment without knowing how my story was going to end, and to really give ink to that experience of illness in youth. And then I went on and said, maybe if there could be a video component, that would be really cool too, because I know how hard it can be to read when you’re sick, and I want to make this project as accessible as possible.
I went on and on and on and stopped, and was immediately horrified by everything that I just blurted out, because all of this of course would have seemed incredibly presumptuous to pre-diagnosis me. Pre-diagnosis me would have been grateful for a fact-checking position or an unpaid internship. But the truth was that I didn’t have the health or the time to pursue those kinds of things, and in a strange way, my circumstances and my cancer and my prognosis had made me brazen. The editor was quiet for a minute and said, “All right, we’ll try it for a couple of installments and see how it goes.”
Tim Ferriss: That is an amazing story.
Suleika Jaouad: My immediate thought was, “Oh, shit. Now I need to actually figure out how to pull this off.” I wasn’t expecting that.
Tim Ferriss: You know, I love this story for so many reasons. I think it highlights a few things for me. Number one is that by creating a blog and beginning to publish and take it seriously, you were acting as a professional. Does that make sense? You were treating it as a professional would, even though you weren’t getting paid at the time. This is something Steven Pressfield talks about quite a bit, but it’s a really non-trivial phase shift. This might sound ludicrous, but it doesn’t surprise me that you had someone reach out to you from an outlet after making that shift. Closely related to that is you don’t always have to work your way up rung by rung. Sometimes you can just ninja warrior your way over five or six rungs.
A lot of that comes down to, whether we’re looking at your application to Princeton or asking, in this case, for a column, it’s reaching for what you want and asking for what you want. That’s just such a wonderful affirmation of the value of doing those two things. And then, not to make this seem like one trick, you then decided to learn to drive. And not to take a trip to the mall 30 minutes away, maybe that too, but to do 15,000 miles solo. You’re using the relationships that had emerged from this column as the tentative connective points to lead you through the country. So I think it’s 20 plus people, so we’re not going to necessarily talk about all of them, but could you give us a sense of this group by painting a picture of a few of them?
Suleika Jaouad: The column launched my first week in the bone marrow transplant unit, and I’m not sure that I’d given much thought to what would come of it. Because of the nature of my illness and my prognosis, I wasn’t thinking very far ahead. I was truly trying to survive each day. In fact, the future had become a very scary place for me, because I didn’t know if I would get to exist in the future. So I was purely focused on the work. There’s a photo of me in the bone marrow transplant unit where I have a vomit bucket under one arm, and I have my laptop under the other arm, and I’m crying. Not because of the side effects of the chemo, or because I’m about to have this terrifying procedure, but because I’m late for a deadline, which was such a healthy re-ranting of my anxieties in that moment.
But what I didn’t expect when that first column and video launched was the sense of connection and possibility I would feel to the world outside my windows. That first day, I received so many letters from strangers around the world. I received an email from a man who was also undergoing a bone marrow transplant for leukemia, and happened to be in the room right next door to my hospital room. We couldn’t meet because we were both in medical isolation and the germ risk was too high, but one day as I was being rolled out of my room to get a CT scan, I passed his door and I knocked on the little window and we waved. Just that moment of connection, the fact of knowing that there was someone else who was living what I was living, gave me a source of strength and a sense of community that sustained me throughout that bone marrow transplant process.
But that experience is one that I had with so many people, and not just with people who were undergoing cancer treatment. I heard from a high school teacher in California named Catherine who’d lost her son to suicide a few years earlier. I heard from a family of survivalist ranchers in Montana. I heard from a young man on death row in Texas who had never been sick a day in his life. He did a thousand pushups just as his warmup to start off each morning, but who related to that experience of isolation and of facing mortality, even though it was in a very different context. So those were the people I ended up going to visit. What I’d done over the years of writing these columns was that I printed out the emails or the messages that really impacted me, and I started keeping them in a little wooden box, because I knew I wanted to be able to return to them. So those letters and that wooden box became my itinerary for the road trip.
Tim Ferriss: One of the examples you gave stands out a bit for me. I can imagine, in most cases, common threads of perhaps reflecting on mortality. The survivalists in Montana jump out as perhaps the black sheep of the bunch. What did they say, or what did one of them say in the writing, in the letter that was sent to you, if you remember?
Suleika Jaouad: So it was actually from a woman who goes by the nickname Salsa.
Tim Ferriss: Of course.
Suleika Jaouad: Yeah, of course, who I very briefly met at First Descents, which is this incredible nonprofit that offers outdoor adventure trips for young adults with cancer. She had been the volunteer camp mom who was charged with cooking and making sure we were well fed and nurtured for our week at camp. I’d loved her immediately, in part because she kept a bottle of hooch, as she called it, in a little purse embroidered with prayer scripture. But shortly after that trip at camp, I’d ended up in the hospital, and she had sent me this beautiful package with a letter in it inviting me to come visit her and her family on their ranch in Montana, and to ride the range on horseback when I was well again.So I’d kept that letter. She didn’t fall into the category of a stranger, because we’d met, but I’d kept that letter because at that time, the possibility of traveling, of riding on horseback, of going to Montana seemed so far away, but I would daydream about it. So she and her family were definitely one of the more eventful stops on this road trip.
But even though we couldn’t have come from more different worlds and backgrounds, while I was there in Montana, I was struck by the sense of community they built. At the end of my time there, one of the ranchers said to me, “So we’ve been talking, and you can be on our list.” I was like, “What list is that?” And he said, “Our list of people who can join us in end times.” He went on to say, “We’ve learned from this last week that you have pretty much no practical skills, but you can be our scribe, because everyone needs to have a job.” And I said, “I’ll take that.”
Tim Ferriss: It’s better than court jester, I suppose. A scribe.
Suleika Jaouad: Yeah, exactly.
Tim Ferriss: It’s really remarkable, and I suppose on some level, not surprising if we take the time to let it sink in how much shared humanity there is across a group as completely heterogeneous as the one that you visited. I mean, despite all the obvious differences, how much connectivity there is. Also, I just wanted to take a moment to mention again one organization that you mentioned. I think it’s First Descents. Their website is firstdescents.org. I’m actually a huge fan of this nonprofit, so I’m glad that you mentioned it and the simple description. First Descents provides life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults, so 18 to 39, impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions. It’s a really remarkable, outstanding nonprofit. So I suggest people check out firstdescents.org. What did you find your experience to be of the road trip compared to your expectations or hopes? How did things most differ?
Suleika Jaouad: Well, let me just start by saying that I began my road trip in New York City, more specifically in Midtown, and the first five minutes of my road trip were the most terrifying five minutes of my life, which is saying a lot, given what I’d just been through. I remember twisting the keys in the ignition, putting my turn signal on. I had Willie Nelson’s On The Road Again playing. I was really trying to set the vibe for myself. I turned onto 9th Avenue and I saw this man out of the corner of my eye, in the bicycle lane, waving his hands at me, flapping them. I thought, “That’s strange. But then again, weird things happen in New York City all the time.” I kept driving and suddenly I heard this chorus of car horns, and I looked up and realized all the traffic was coming in my direction. I was driving the wrong way at the one-way avenue.
So I did the world’s most dramatic U-turn and pulled over, and my hands were shaking. I thought to myself, I am certainly not a good enough driver to be doing this. I don’t think I’m well enough to be doing this. What am I thinking? I’m about to go visit a bunch of people, most of whom I’ve never met before. But there was also this sense that if I stayed, I was going to stay in that small, stuck bubble that I’d grown accustomed to living in. I was terrified of everything. Weirdly, after spending years in the hospital, I’d grown comfortable there. I understood how that world worked. It was the outside world that was frightening to me. I knew in that moment that I had a choice. I could either stay in that stuck place, and that even though it felt safe, it was still a small, stuck place, or I could thrust myself into the bigger expanses of the world and try to figure out what was on the other side of that fear. So it wasn’t really a choice.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. It was a ready, fire, aim scenario, in the sense that you felt like it was a necessary step to reach for something outside of the stuckness, if that’s a decent way to put it. One thing I just want to mention. You’ve referred to your time in the hospital as your incanceration, obviously a play on incarceration. And that feeling of comfort even with an environment that most would consider very uncomfortable, in your case the hospital, but in the case of incarceration, prison, is a very apt comparison and pairing, because a lot of folks who are in prisons become very accustomed to life in prison. It might surprise listeners to know that there are actually some people who request to have their sentences extended, because they fear going back into the world and not having tools, not knowing how to cope, and then ending back up in jail for even worse charges. So I just wanted to mention that as an aside. There’s a documentary, I believe the title is The [Painter] and the Thief that showcases an example of that.
Suleika Jaouad: I just want to say that I’m so glad you brought that up, because that lost, stuck year was a year of great depression for me, of great shame, because I knew that I was one of the lucky ones. In my darkest moments, I remember wishing that I was still sick or that I would get sick again. Not because I wanted to have leukemia, of course, but because I missed the hospital’s ecosystem. I missed its inhabitants. I understood them. It was being on the outside, being among the healthy that really made me feel like an imposter. That sense of missing something that you shouldn’t miss was so unsettling to me.
I remembered at my very sickest thinking to myself, “If I’m going to survive this, it has to be to live a good life, a meaningful life, a happy one.” But I wasn’t doing that. I was doing the very opposite of that, and I knew that I couldn’t continue on the way I was. So when I say stuck, I worry that sounds light for what I was feeling, but it really bordered on a sense of desperation, a feeling of, “I cannot continue on like this. I need to find a different way forward.”
Tim Ferriss: Did the road trip provide you with that, or did it provide you with some breadcrumbs that led in a direction that provided you with some optimism? I’m just wondering, when all was said and done, 15,000 miles later, were you happy that you’d done it? I know that’s a lot of questions in one, so you can pick however, whichever you want to grab on to. It’s a terrible habit I have of asking 17-part questions.
Suleika Jaouad: I think to sit alone with your thoughts in a car for many days, many hours, can feel like a torturous form of self-experimentation, and it definitely felt that way in the beginning. It was also really physically challenging for me. In those early weeks on the road, I would drive for two hours or three hours and be so wrecked with fatigue, that I’d pull over and park in a McDonald’s parking lot to nap. And so I was making very slow progress.
But the interesting thing about being on this road trip for as long as I was, and I was on the road for roughly about 100 days, was that I started to feel better. And not in the sense that these long-term, permanent side effects of my illness disappeared; they didn’t. That fatigue, that compromised immune system chased me across state lines, but I began to learn to work with my limitations and to accept them. And every day I would drive a little further and a little longer before I would do my McDonald’s parking lot nap.
I was camping by myself between these different stops to visit the people on my list. And that, in and of itself, was its own edifying experience. I was almost modeling the kind of independence that I did not have and forcing myself through a kind of self-imposed exposure therapy, to learn that I could be alone, that I could take care of myself, that I could even camp in the woods and be okay. But it was the conversations that really, I think, made this trip so meaningful. And each of those people, I call them my road guardians, illuminated a different aspect of what it means to be in that aftermath of a trauma.
I’m reminded of a line by Viktor Frankl. He says, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And that space is our power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” And so each of those people that I visited had essentially chosen a different and interesting response to choose the stimulus, whatever that was for them; illness or some other kind of heartbreak that had brought them to the floor. And so learning from them, practicing and building those muscles of independence of being out in the world on my own two feet, was the best possible thing I could have done for myself. And to this day, I say that road trip was the best decision that I’ve made in my life.
And interestingly, my parents, a lot of people said to them, when I left for the road, “Aren’t you worried about her doing this? It seems like a completely terrible, irresponsible idea.” And my mom, to her credit, said, “Of course I’m worried about her going on a road trip, especially as a new driver. But that’s exactly what you should be doing in your twenties. You should be keeping your parents up at night, because you’re going on a road trip and it’s so nice to have normal parent worries.” And so their support, I think, empowered me to do this thing that felt scary, pretty much every step of the way until I got to the last third of the trip and really started to kind of relax into driving and to feel a new found sense of confidence.
And by the end of that road trip, I didn’t feel necessarily like I’d found my way back to the kingdom of the well, so to speak. But instead, I felt like I had learned to make a kind of home in the wilderness of the in-between. And I felt like I had stepped into a new iteration of self that allowed for my past and my present to kind of come together and coalesce.
Tim Ferriss: What advice would you give to someone who is in some form of darkness or stuckness, and again, I don’t use the term stuck or stuckness in a minimizing way. That can be when one is in such a place, and I’ve been in such a place, although not because of life-threatening illness, it can really feel like the weight of the world is upon you and there’s kind of no exit available.
If you were giving advice to say, a group of, I’m just imagining, 30 people, so they’re all going to have different life circumstances. Some could take a road trip. Some probably couldn’t take a road trip, but they were looking to feel better, whatever that might mean. What advice might you give to them? What might you say to them?
Suleika Jaouad: I’ll share two things. The first is a journaling prompt that I use when I’m in that place of stuckness or darkness, because I think when you’re in that place, it’s impossible to imagine a light beyond it. And so what I’ve done in those moments, is I actually make a list of all the hard things I’ve survived. And the reason that I do that is because I need to remind myself of my and my body’s proven track record of resilience. So I’ll literally jot down every difficult thing I’ve survived, big or small. And just the act of writing those down brings forth that kind of muscle memory, that trust that you’ve moved through difficult passages before and that you can again.
And the second thing I’ll say is, I don’t know about you, Tim, but I was raised in a pull yourself up by the bootstraps type of house, where the notion of tough skin was very much something to be acquired and desired. But I’ve found that my own kind of tough skin, especially in those moments of darkness, isn’t helpful. As much as I want to kind of armor myself or not allow myself to wallow in those moments, I’ve become an advocate for a different approach, which is a kind of tender skin approach, of trying to allow myself not just to be vulnerable, but to share that vulnerability.
And so in a way, for me, the virtue beside just having these conversations with people who had lived some version of that darkness, to be able to speak the unvarnished truth of what I was feeling without having any pretense of armor or toughness, was really the thing, I think, that helped me get through that moment. And that’s helped me get through so many other difficult moments. Because there’s a really beautiful thing that happens when you meet someone with your vulnerability, which is that it creates a reverberation and that vulnerability begets vulnerability, begets vulnerability. And I think it allows for an intimacy and a sense of connection that you can’t have when you’re trying to mask the kind of painful or ugly parts of yourself.
And I’m reminded of something Nadia Bolz-Weber says about shame, which is that that sunlight is the best disinfectant for shame. And I would say that sunlight and vulnerability is the best disinfectant for darkness. It ceases to be a terrible, private experience when you hold it up to the light and when you see it refracted in someone else’s experience.
Tim Ferriss: Do you still have a journaling practice?
Suleika Jaouad: I do.
Tim Ferriss: Could you describe what that looks like? And that might seem like a hard left to people listening, who are like, “Jesus, Tim, that was really not very subtle.” But I think these might tie together and that’s part of why I bring it up. Because literally to my left, about a foot and a half away, is a copy of The Morning Pages Journal, The Artist’s Way Morning Pages Journal by Julia Cameron. And the practice of Morning Pages, which is one type of journaling, is really, as I believe Julie describes it, to provide spiritual windshield wipers, in so much as it’s really just to take the things that are rattling around inside your mind that are disabling or muddying the waters and to fix them on paper, like a fly in the amber so that you can then move on with your day.
So in a sense, being vulnerable, even though it is for my eyes only, I find to be tremendously therapeutic. But there are many different ways to journal. That’s one way that I journal. I would love to hear more about what your journal and journaling practice looks like.
Suleika Jaouad: I’ve been keeping a journal pretty much since I was old enough to hold a pen. And part of why I’ve kept this practice is exactly what you’re saying. It’s this one rare space where you get to show up as your most unedited self, and the stakes are very low because it’s for your eyes only. And I find that in writing in a journal, I open up a dialogue with the self, it’s a space where you can examine things big or small.
And so I journal every day. It’s the first thing I do. I wake up, I let my dogs out into the backyard and I make myself a cup of coffee, and I write in my journal. And I like to write by hand because there’s no backspace bar. There’s no possibility of editing.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a great point.
You have to follow the line of thought through to its end, without worrying if it’s dumb, or if it makes any sense. I actually do most of my first drafts in my journal, so that I can kind of trick my brain out of that space of thinking, “Oh, my gosh, I’m writing for a publication,” or, “I’m writing for a deadline,” to that quieter space of, “I’m exploring and I’m experimenting, and I can follow an idea without worrying about where it’s going to lead me.” So I use the journal for all kinds of things.
I also, this might feel a little woo-woo to some of your listeners, but I’m a big list fan. And probably like some of your listeners, I have very long to-do lists that I keep for myself. But before I get to my to-do list in my journal, I often start by writing a to-feel list. And the reason I do that is because I think there’s a way in which otherwise I kind of tumble into my tasks for the day head first, without a clear sense of intention.
And that to-feel list is really a remnant of when I was sick. When I had about three hours of usable energy in the day, which meant that I had to get very specific about what I wanted to do in those three hours and who I wanted to spend them with and what it was that I wanted to feel.
Tim Ferriss: Could you give any examples of what you might put down or have put down on your to-feel list?
Suleika Jaouad: One of the things that shows up often on my to-feel list is some version of breathing, which might sound strange. But especially around this book launch and after the year we’ve all had, I’ll catch myself in these moments of busy-ness where I realize I’m not taking real breaths. I’m almost holding my breath. And so that’s one thing that’s usually at the top of my list and I do a breathing meditation every day. So in some senses, it kind of correlates to the actual breathing meditation that might be on my to-do list. But yeah, breathing. Very simple, very crucial.
Tim Ferriss: And so are these physical sensations? Are they emotions? For instance, would gratitude be a good to-feel item, or have you just over time found that something like that maybe isn’t specific enough or otherwise?
Suleika Jaouad: Yeah, gratitude is often on that list. I mean, I think the idea of that to-feel list is to kind of just jot down bullet points. And often what I’ll do, even in my journaling, is expand on, say, gratitude with more specificity, but they’re more kind of like my North stars for the day.
Tim Ferriss: Are there particular prompts? Are there any prompts or questions that you like to use or that you have used more than once?
Suleika Jaouad: I have been doing a journaling prompt for the last couple of months called A Day in the Life of My Dream. The idea initially came from my friend Holly Jacobs, and you write a day in the life of your dream a couple of years out and you write it in the present tense with great specificity from the moment you wake up until you go to sleep.
And the reason I love this prompt is because, like I was saying earlier, one of the strange remnants of being sick is being afraid to make plans for the future. I’m very comfortable being pinned to the present, but I still think in 100-day increments and maybe six month increments. But when I go any further beyond that, I start to feel that sense of fear of, “Well, what if something thwarts the plan between now and then? What if I get sick? What if, what if, what if?” And so that act of writing a future dream in the present tense has really kind of helped assuage that fear.
And strangely, some of the things that I’ve written in those entries have happened. And again, I don’t want to get too woo-woo. We’re not talking about manifesting here, but I do think there’s power in putting something to paper. And like we’ve been talking about, asking and stating what you want, and really clarifying what that is for yourself.
Tim Ferriss: I totally agree. I think the term manifesting can take us in all sorts of directions that we wouldn’t want to go. But there’s a difference between making a specific ask or taking something that is vague and making it specific and a vague wish or just hand wavy, woo-woo, magical thinking, right? There’s a difference.
And I think crucially, when you take something that is a vague discomfort or longing and translate it to something very specific on paper, your selective attention begins to see things that could contribute to whatever it is you just wrote down. Much like if you buy a new car and then in the next week, you start to see that new car everywhere. It’s not because everyone bought the same car, it’s because your attention is now trained on something very specific. I think there’s tremendous value in that.
Suleika Jaouad: Absolutely. And I’ll just say, I have tried on some dreams for fit in the last couple of months where I’ve written a day in the life of a particular dream and come to the conclusion that that is not, in fact, my dream. So it’s helpful in a number of ways I find.
Tim Ferriss: So, I have been experimenting with fiction recently. I haven’t shared any of it; little short stories, very self-conscious about this writing. And I wanted to write funny stuff and both of the stories, or at least one of them, especially the first one, was really dark. And my girlfriend, who actually introduced me to The Isolation Journal also, so I want to give her due credit, was really pissed because I shared my first story with a friend before I shared it with her. And I explained that I was embarrassed that it was so dark and kind of ashamed that it was so dark. Because isn’t this supposed to be this light thing that I’m doing to reorient towards fun and writing? And this is really very dark.
And I was doing research for this conversation. This is going somewhere, don’t worry. And it got into a description of you, I believe it was you, interviewing Cheryl Strayed, the author, Cheryl Strayed after you emerged from treatment. And you told her that you want to write a book, but not about cancer. In fact, anything other than cancer. And she said to you in effect, that you should write the story that you need to write and that you had no business trying to avoid it. And that really has stuck in my mind.
And I’m wondering if you have anything further to add to that, or if you want to expand on it, because I can imagine that after years of feeling all the feels and having so many people ask you about your story, I can identify. And in my case, with having suffered depression for most of my life, I mean two extended episodes a year, let’s just say on average, the last thing I want to do is then take that and put it into my fiction. Could you perhaps just reflect on that or expand on it?
Suleika Jaouad: So often, writing teachers will tell you to write what you know, but I often find that I write what I want to understand. And so, at that time that I had that conversation with Cheryl, I was very much stuck in that in-between place and feeling like I needed to be out of that in-between place at all costs. But it wasn’t until I had that conversation with her, that I began to ask myself, “Why am I in this in-between place? Are other people in this in-between place, too? What is there to be learned here? What is there to be observed?”
And so when I did eventually end up writing the book, I kept a post-it note above my desk that said, “If you want to write a good book, write what you don’t want others to know about you. If you want to write a great book, write what you don’t want to know about yourself.” And to me, that has been my kind of mantra in any kind of writing I do, whether it’s reported features or fiction or my own stories. But really writing towards that thing that you either don’t want to know or that you don’t understand and want to know better.
Tim Ferriss: That’s hardcore. I like it. I think part of the reason why I’m like, “Oh, gosh, she’s getting into Lamaze breathing,” is because it rings of truth. Did you come up with that? Is that your expression or your mantra?
Suleika Jaouad: It is something that a friend told me, Benjamin Schreier, but I don’t think it was his own mantra. I think it’s one that’s been passed down to desperate artists and writers who are trying to get unstuck. So I can’t take credit for it.
Tim Ferriss: Well, Suleika, I think we’ve covered a lot. I think we may just need to do around two at some point, but I’d love to ask a few more questions and then certainly open the floor, I’m not in any rush, to anything else you might want to discuss. But let me ask a question that is often a terrible question.
Suleika Jaouad: Uh-oh.
Tim Ferriss: And yeah, so sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I’m curious if you could put a message, a quote, an image, anything at all, non-commercial on a billboard, metaphorically speaking, that would get the content of that billboard out to millions or billions of people, assuming they all understand whatever language is being used. What might you put on that billboard? It could be something of your own, could be something from someone else, anything at all. Does anything come to mind?
Suleika Jaouad: I would put the epigraph in my book, which is a line from Miguel de Cervantes that says, “Until death, it is all life.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s fantastic. That is fantastic.
Suleika Jaouad: And I would put it at the top of the Holland Tunnel for all the busy commuters stressing and frantically driving to work.
Tim Ferriss: Hopefully, not the wrong way down.
Suleika Jaouad: Yeah, hopefully not the wrong way.
Tim Ferriss: Not directly into traffic. Suleika, is there anything else that you would like to mention? Any thing you’d like to point people to? Any requests you would like to make of my audience before we come to a close for this first conversation?
Suleika Jaouad: Let me think. I guess the only thing I haven’t really talked about is The Isolation Journals, but you’ve mentioned that.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s talk about it some more, because I think it has been a lifeline for so many and it is a way to, as I think you’ve put it, reconnect to joy and curiosity that has attracted 100,000 plus people. So I think it’s worth spending at least a few minutes on. So would you like to take the mic and go from there?
Suleika Jaouad: So at the beginning of the pandemic, I was struck by how familiar it all felt, that experience of navigating the world with a mask, of walking around with gallons of hand sanitizer, that sense of hyper-vigilance. All of it was so similar to what I’d experienced when I was sick, except that, of course, we were all living it together on a global scale.
So I had the idea of returning to the hundred-day project that I’d done with my friends and family, except this time I wanted to open it up to a bigger community and I wanted to invite people to journal alongside with me. And so, I reached out to some friends, different artists and writers and musicians. I reached out to a couple of my heroes and idols, and asked them if they might be willing to contribute a journaling prompt. And so that’s what we’ve done every week, for the last year, we’ve put out a new journaling prompt that’s free and that’s accessible to everyone, whether you’re an artist or a lifelong journaler, or you’re very skeptical about the idea of writing in a notebook and are curious to check it out.
But I think the biggest thing that struck me is the sense of community that’s formed around the project, and more specifically, around these journal entries that some people are willing to share. And it’s just been an affirmation for me of the fact that survival is really its own kind of creative act. And that when we dare to be vulnerable, we learn again and again that we’re more alike than we are different.
Tim Ferriss: Hear, hear. Where is the best place for people to go if they want to learn more about, or somehow participate in The Isolation Journals to see these prompts, experience them, to experiment with all these things?
Suleika Jaouad: So we send the prompts out via newsletter and you can sign up for the newsletter at theisolationjournals.com.
Tim Ferriss: Theisolationjournals.com. Also, if people are feeling adventurous with their spelling, trust me, you’ll find it because Google will identify every misspelling. Suleika Jaouad, that’s S-U-L-E-I-K-A J-A-O-U-A-D.com. We will link to all social, it’s @SuleikaJaouad on Twitter and Instagram. We’ll link to Facebook and everything else in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. If you want to also find a link to The Isolation Journals, you can see one of the prompts that jumped out at me, because it was shared with me by my girlfriend, at tim.blog/dialogue.
Tim Ferriss: And Suleika, what a great pleasure it has been to spend time with you. Thank you so much.
Suleika Jaouad: Thank you, Tim. I’ve loved it.
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