Tara McMullin shares a refreshingly grounded antidote to our culture's relentless pursuit of more.
Tara McMullin is a speaker, writer and host of the What Works podcast. In this episode, Tara shares a refreshingly grounded antidote to our culture's relentless pursuit of more. Take a listen to learn how to determine what is driving your own pursuit of more and how you can shift into a healthy gear, doing more of what works and without the shame of not succeeding overnight.
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Srini: It's my pleasure to have you here. You and I go way back. I think you are one of our guests prior to our rebranding as Unmistakable Creative. I think this is probably the third or fourth time you and I have spoken on the show.
So I think that just says a whole hell of a lot about your work. And I've been watching the stuff you've been writing on Medium very closely. Yeah, she's saying a lot of stuff that really needs to be heard. But before we get into all of that, I wanna start by asking you: what social group were you a part of in high school and what did that end up having on your life, and where you've been?
Tara McMullin: Ended up? That is such a brilliant question. What social group was I part of? I was a band nerd and that is definitely how I would identify my social group as well. I think everyone that I hung out with was in the band, maybe orchestra, but mostly band. And the same in college as well, for the most part. Although in college it got a little more diverse. But in high school, it was the band. And how did that influence me? Band kids are odd in that we simultaneously think we are very cool and are also very self-aware about not being cool at all.
And I think that is pretty much how I would sum up, if not how I feel about myself, like where I fall in society. It's like there's a level of coolness here. There's a level of awareness of being, of wanting to be cool. And striving to be cool maybe. But then there's also a very clear self-awareness that I am not cool. I will never be cool. The things that I think are cool or not, things that other people think are cool, and constantly riding that edge of cool. Not cool. Does that answer the question?
Srini: Question? Yeah. You know I'm a band geek.
Tara McMullin: Too, right? I think I knew that. Yes.
Srini: I had a friend who needed a prom date with his soprano sax. He played the Kenny G song "Forever in Love," which is like the most beautiful thing ever. I was like, "Man, showing up with a tuba is basically a guarantee that you're not gonna get laid, let alone even have a date for prom."
Tara McMullin: Yeah, I played trombone, so I feel you on the low brass. Just not the coolness of it. Yeah. However, being a woman in the low brass section, I think is very different than being a dude in the low brass section. Yeah.
Srini: So the funny thing is, you talk about this later on in the book about this sort of cultural systemic validation spiral. You say it's also the very goals we organize our lives around. As an elder millennial, my cohort was organized around getting into a good college, and a wave of my validation spiral started by saying yes to the pursuit of excellent grades and enriching extra-curricular activities. AP English? Yes. AP Latin? You bet. Independent study music theory? Sure. Wind ensemble? Latin Club? Jazz combo? Drum major in the marching band? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. And so I wonder how that sort of influenced the career choices that you made. Because as an Indian American, I could relate to that. It was a given that we would go to college and we padded our resumes with extra-curricular activities and it was just like, you go to the best college you can get into. Like, I can't even fathom the concept of trying to explain what it would be like to not go to college to my parents, because it's just that was never on the table. Yeah.
Tara McMullin: I think for me, there were a bunch of different influences in my life that shaped all of those yeses in my own validation spiral or spirals. And also there was, I think the kind of cultural milieu in which I was existing. So I come from, what I now understand as a working-class background. My mother was a seamstress, my dad was a cop. And they were divorced by the time I was 10 or 11. And so that said, they were. Almost like there was a certain sort of social class regression that happened in my family. And I don't say that in a disparaging way at all. My grandmother had gone to college. All my uncles had gone to college. My mom's family not so much. But her dad was a big, successful farmer in a couple of counties over. And so the fact that we were existing in this lower-middle-class working-class kind of environment was I think there was an expectation that I would help climb things back up the ladder, right?
And so while I don't think that the expectation of going to college was nearly the same as in the kind of experience that you describe, I do think that there was just
Srini: It's funny, I don't, I'm probably butchering the exact quote. They said, "College is wasted on the young or the youthful." And I think that a lot of us look back at that. Cause I looked at Berkeley and think to myself like, "Wow, what a different experience it would be if I knew what I knew now." Yeah. And went back there. For younger people listening to this and parents listening to this, how do you think they should approach this in order to make being in a position to make the decisions that you felt you weren't really ready to make or weren't educated enough to make when you were in college?
Tara McMullin: Save all the stuff you really need and stuff you bought for fun stuff you've always really wanted this holiday at Amazon. Stuff that is discounted if you're naughty or nice stuff to buy. Your grandma who drinks her chardonnay with nice stuff to make you big and strong stuff we can make in this song. Stuff for decking out your home. Say goodbye to stuff at South.
Save on stuff you really need and stuff you bought for fun stuff you've always really wanted this holiday at Amazon. Stuff that is discounted if you're naughty or nice stuff to buy. Your grandma drinks her chardonnay with nice stuff to make you big and strong. Stuff we can make this summer. Stuff for decking out your home.
Yeah, I think about this all the time because my daughter just turned 14, which is insane. She's thinking about college now. She's thinking about what volunteer activities can I add and what classes should I be taking is this gonna look good on a college application?
And that's a whole other component of the validation spiral. 14. Yeah. Yes. At 14. And it's been this way since she was about 11, I would
Srini: Wow. I want to get into the core ideas in the book, but there's something you've said in the book at the very beginning, and this made me want to ask you a question related to a Medium article. You said that "I can't remember a time when I didn't feel a fundamental brokenness about who I am. I can't remember a time or place when I felt like I belonged to any group or community. I often don't feel at home in my closest relationships. I'm always on edge trying to figure out what others want from me and hopelessly trying to contort myself into that shape. This unease has played out throughout my life."
And I know from having read a Medium article, you were recently diagnosed with autism and, I wonder, what that does for your sense of identity, particularly this late in life. And clearly, my perceptions of autism are off. Cause I've talked to you probably half a dozen times and I think I've even met you in person once or twice. I would've never guessed in a million years that you would be anywhere near the spectrum.
Tara McMullin: Yeah, so there's so much to unpack in that question. So for me, autism and my identity there's a great paper by a sociologist named Catherine Tan that studied the effects on the identity of late-diagnosed autistic people. And she refers to the phenomenon as biographical illumination, and I frickin' love that term, biographical illumination. And what she means by that is while there are some sorts of diagnoses - especially terminal illness - where it marks a separation from, there was the before the diagnosis to after the diagnosis.
And there's a disruption in your sense of identity with autism and with some other conditions as well. And just some other realizations, it gives you an opportunity to shine a new light on the whole rest of your life. So there's a sense and almost an acknowledgment that, yeah, I didn't fully understand my identity and my relationships and my place in the world until I learned this thing about myself, and once I learned that thing about myself, everything that happened before suddenly has new meaning and makes new sense. That's not to say that it's all good, right? There's still a lot of pain and a lot of frustration that's embedded in
Srini: It makes complete sense. So it's funny because when you mentioned this profound sense of relief, I can relate to when I got an ADHD diagnosis officially. I was like, "Okay, cool. That makes a lot of sense." And it's funny because I've mentioned this before, people are like, "Oh, wow, you're really good at listening because you do this," and then you put me in a social situation, people are like, "You're a fucking horrible listener, dude. You don't listen for shit." And yeah, I finally realized, particularly in a dating context, this has happened enough times where I'm just like, "Okay." And I realize what it is. Like, for some reason you put me behind the microphone, and that changes completely. When I'm in this context, the moment you change that context, it's like, "Back to you." I have a million things to say and I can't say them quickly enough. And I had a friend who said, "You'd be the worst therapist ever, because you're basically like, you're done processing whatever we're trying to tell you and you're ready to move on." And I'm like, "Yeah, that's why
Tara McMullin: Yeah. And what you said about context and social context making it easier or harder to do these things. I also super relate to there being a fairly significant segment of adult autistic women that are, that find themselves in the performing professions, right? So whether that's a professional speaker, comedian, actress, or whatever the performance ends up being. And that can be defined very broadly. The context in performance is so very clear that you know exactly how you're supposed to behave, what you're supposed to say, and how to carry yourself.
And there is something that feels comfortable in that, and there's also something that it's nice to be able to take a break from constantly figuring things out and just be in that context. And so I very much fall into that same category as well. Whereas when we get on for an interview, whether I'm interviewing you or you're interviewing me, I know exactly what my role is and what's expected of me in that.
And so I feel really comfortable. If I'm on a stage and I'm giving a talk or I'm teaching a workshop, I know exactly what's expected of me and I feel really comfortable in that role. But if I go to a
Srini: I guess that actually explains why I try to limit myself to one interview a day because I think that my bandwidth after this is just done. Totally. I realized if I do more than one, the quality suffers.
Tara McMullin: Save all the stuff you really need and the stuff you bought for fun, the stuff you've always really wanted this holiday season at Amazon. Stuff that is discounted whether you're naughty or nice. Stuff to buy for your grandma who drinks her chardonnay. Nice stuff to make you big and strong - stuff we can name in this song. Somer Lawn: Decking the halls saying, "Big, long stuff ahoy!"
Srini: So let's get into the book. What prompted this book? Because I think that, just the way you opened the book itself, which we'll get into really got me thinking, and I've been thinking about this a lot too because, my friend Michael calls me the "no-bullshit" personal development guy, and I'm like, basically I'm saying a lot of personal development is bullshit. So I don't know how that makes me the "no-bullshit" guy. But I felt like you were echoing a lot of what I was thinking when I started to read this.
Tara McMullin: Yeah. So I mean there's all sorts of things going on that ended up in creating the sort of the body of work that then turned into this book. One of them was that sort of profound realization that I had been kind of just moving from goal to goal without, not only necessarily achieving or feeling like I had achieved the thing I wanted to achieve, even though I was meeting goals as I went but also feeling like there wasn't any added meaning in my life, there wasn't any, there wasn't any substance underneath the surface.
And so there was that realization and the questions about what does that mean about me personally? What does that mean about the world? What does that like? It was just a very unmoored feeling. So there was that there was also the big political wake-up that happened in 2016, and thinking about how much of the dynamics of that moment were embedded in the way I thought about the world, even if I didn't like it.
And so a really big shake up and thinking what my values really were and how I could get back to them that was part of that as well. And reenvisioning my work through those values
Srini: Yeah. And so you opened the book by saying, our culture is obsessed with goals, achievement, growth, change, and improvement. For a long time, I shared that obsession, but about five years ago, I started to question whether the goals I set and the constant impulse to strive for more genuinely served me.
And so it sounds like that really is the beginning of deconstruction. And it's funny, right? Because what do people do? They listen to shows like this to hear people like you give them insight on how they can accomplish the goals they want to accomplish or live the lives they want to live.
So there's an irony in all of that. And talk to me about that. Obviously, this has been a pervasive focus on goal setting and self-improvement, this sort of endless focus on goal setting. It's like I remember, there's a point where it's if we were gonna pick up a book, it's like I need to get a tangible outcome from this book of some sort, or it's not worth reading.
Tara Mcmullin: Yeah. Yeah. There is, there's a lot of tension there. I think that was the word that you used. We exist in a culture that is motivated and inspired by constant growth, and it is baked into every component of our lives, both individually and societally. So if we're thinking about an individual career, we are, we're in a story about constant growth there. If it's a business or the economy, we're in a story about constant growth there. If it's political movements, there's a story about constant growth there. It's everywhere. And it's part of the larger story that capitalism tells, that neoliberalism tells, that individualism tells, and that supremacy culture tells as well, this need for growth, this need to be constantly conquering, striving, adventuring, pioneering, right? These are all words that we've come to associate with the right thing to do, the shoulds and the supposed to, as I talk about them in the book. And within that though, I think that when we start to interrogate whether constant growth is necessary, whether it's desired, whether it's sustainable, most of us can very quickly come to the conclusion that growth can be good
Srini: Yeah, there are a couple of clips I wanted to bring up from the episodes. While that's happening, there's gotta be a way to break this, right? And I think you're absolutely right. To your point, this is the world we live in; we have to be defined by something, and often we are quantified by the economic value we are able to produce. That to me has been one of those things that I've spent a lot of time thinking about.
So, one thing I think about often is whether people like you and I, despite the best intentions, have planted seeds of dissatisfaction where there were none before. By doing the kind of work that we do, we make people aware of one way to live. And I always go back to this idea: who's to say the person who works a nine-to-five job, collecting a paycheck, going home, and spending time with their family, isn't living a perfectly good life? But then, they come across a Tim Ferris-type book and they're like, "Oh, my life was terrible." It wasn't until they were aware of that.
Tara McMullin: Yeah. I think you're exactly right. Satisfaction is one of the big themes in the book, and I think that satisfaction is not the same thing as what we think of as success. And satisfaction can be found in all sorts of different things. I think where satisfaction comes is understanding that there is an intention behind what you're doing on a daily basis and creating the practices, the habits, the routines that make what you're doing on a daily basis more sustainable, maybe more enjoyable. And that satisfaction is really subversive in a way, right?
Because part of the story of capitalism and neoliberalism is making sure that we never feel satisfied because if we feel satisfied, we will not want to buy whatever the world is selling us our economy is driven by consumption and satisfied people tend to consume less, right? Fewer impulse purchases. Fewer assuming that there are problems that need solutions in your life, right? Less susceptibility when you're satisfied, you are less susceptible to marketing messages that are trying to tell you that you have a problem. And so satisfaction is super subversive in that way and seeking it out and recognizing how you can create it in your own life.
Srini: Yeah I wanna bring back a clip from an old episode that we had with Will Storr, who wrote this book called Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It's Doing to Us. Take a listen.
Tara McMullin: One of the things that all of those conditions have in common is perfectionism, perfectionistic thinking, and one of the more academic, clinical definitions of perfectionism is somebody that has unusually high expectations for success but repeatedly fails to hit those marks for success. So they continually feel like they're a loser and a failure. And that's what our culture does these days. It sets an unusually high mark for success. It presents us with this perfect self on TV, on the radio, on the internet, and on social media. And it says, "if you are not this person, you have failed." So the message is, "if you are not Beyonce or Steve Jobs, then you're doing something wrong." And that is incredibly toxic. It really is incredibly toxic because...
Srini: It's not. What do you make of that? I think there are so many commonalities between some of what you're writing about in this book and what he says.
Tara McMullin: Yeah. So I completely agree, and I purposefully did not read that book as I was writing my book, which I could have easily, It's on my Kindle. Yeah. Because I knew that there was going to be a lot of overlap and I was trying to like, stay mostly pure to my own thinking. So I completely agree.
And coming back to the book Self-Help Inc. By McGee, she talks about the self having become belabored. And what she means by that is that not only do we go to work, whether that's in our home office or at another office or at a store or at a restaurant, we go to work and we do work for a set number of hours that we get paid for.
But then when we come home, instead of having that time to pursue things that are satisfying to us, that [we] pursue to pursue them for the sake of pursuing them. We are engaged in all of these other behaviors, all of these other functions that are quote-unquote working on ourselves. We are laboring on ourselves and it's become imperative for survival in this economy and in our political environment.
Srini: Yeah. In the interest of time, I want to hit one core concept that I think really in my mind was the turning point of the book, where you asked this question, what does growth without striving look like? And you say, "We strive because our economic salvation depends on it. We strive because we experience precarity and internalized ableism. We strive to prove that we're valuable members of society. We strive because we believe attaining more than our family or friends will make us happier. And we strive to live up to the questionable stories that self-help influencers turn into advice for good living. And funny enough, there's this clip from Jerry Colonna that we actually just weaved into the most recent episode, The Heroes Journey Wisdom. But I didn't think it would make a perfect jump-off point to talk about this concept. Take a listen. You strive.
Tara McMullen: Without attaching your sense of self-worth to the attainment of the goal, you can be okay. So we strive because there's meaning and purpose in the striving. We strive because magical things happen when we strive. But when we fail, we remember that we tried and we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again. And that rising after failure is part of the glory of being a human being. To me, that's much more glorious. Perfect.
Tara McMullin: Of every single wish and dream
Srini: And goal. I think that the two messages together, both reading what you said and what he said, I was just curious, it made me think: "Okay, what does growth without striving look like?" Because I think that, to me, is really ultimately what this book is about.
Tara McMullin: Yeah. So when I talk about what growth is without striving or talk about that question and where it might lead us next, I also say that striving isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are ways that we use the word striving that I think are really productive and enjoyable and meaningful. And I think the way Cologna was using the word is that, and like I, I would agree with most of what he said there. And I think when I'm talking about striving, the way I talk about it in that chapter is that sense that, this is a make-or-break thing. It is that striving where your identity is on the line.
It's the striving where you feel like if you don't achieve this thing, everything is gonna come crashing down around you. And I think that for a lot of people, there is truth in it. There's the truth that we are living on the edge, whether it's that our health insurance isn't good enough and a medical emergency could bankrupt you, whether it's that the business that you've owned for years and run as live events, can be completely upended because of a pandemic, whether it is recognizing that you've got a job but there's not if
Srini: Yeah. Wow. This has been really just mind-blowingly interesting because it feels to me like a deep rabbit hole. There are so many threads where we could talk for an hour on just one of those threads.
Tara McMullin: Yes, yes. Hence the book, yeah.
Srini: I want to finish with my final question, which I know you've heard me ask before: What do you think it is that makes somebody hear something unique?
Tara McMullin: I think what makes someone unmistakable is the pursuit of making sense of things, of looking at one's life, looking at one's work, looking at the way one is in relationship with others and making sense of it in a way that's unique to them. Making meaning from those things in a way that's unique to them, and being aware of that process so that you can invite other people into it as well.
Srini: Amazing. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us. Where can people find out more about you, your work, the book, and everything on ShareUpTo?
Tara McMullin: Yeah. So ExploreWhatWorks.com is the website. You can find the book there. You can find me there. You can find the podcast there. And you can listen to the What Works podcast wherever you're listening to Unmistakable Creative.
Srini: Amazing. And for everyday listening, we'll wrap up the show-up.
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