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Dr. Christine Carter on Finding Your Sweet Spot at Home and Work

Dr. Christine Carter/Photo: Blake Farrington

Dr. Christine Carter/Photo; Blake Farrington

By Laurie McAndish King (@LaurieKing)/April 16, 2015

“Every time someone would ask me how I was doing, I would always give the same answer: I am so busy. Extremely busy. Crazy busy. I wore my exhaustion like a trophy, as a sign of my strength and a mark of my character.”  Dr. Christine Carter

That was Dr. Christine Carter a few years ago. It probably sounds familiar—most of us would respond in a similar way. We are parents, partners, children, friends, employees, entrepreneurs, volunteers, committee heads, weekend warriors. And we’ve been programmed to believe that busier is better, that the busier a person is the more important, productive, and successful she is.

The Sweet Spot by Dr. Christine CarterChristine Carter doesn’t believe that any more, and she’s out to convince the rest of us that busyness does not equal importance. In fact, that’s a major theme in her book, The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and at Work. And it’s the first of three myths she busted in a talk at Dominican University’s Institute for Leadership Studies Lecture Series (in partnership with Book Passage).

Carter looks happy and healthy as she stands onstage in a slim sheath and a peppy orange jacket. But she wasn’t always that way. Back when she was into busyness—when she had a high-powered job she loved as Executive Director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and had just released her first book, Raising Happiness, and was raising her four kids and training for a marathon—Carter got sick.

She had chronic low-grade strep throat for 18 months. She contracted a kidney infection. She even had a hospital fantasy: “I wish they would just admit me so I don’t have to go to Atlanta next week.” That’s the price of busyness. Carter emphasized her point by asking us to imagine that we had spent time at a pleasant lunch with a friend or tossing a ball with the dog.

When we’re involved in enjoyable activities like those, we don’t characterize ourselves as busy, even though our time is filled. When we feel busy, it’s usually because we’re doing things that we don’t really enjoy, or that don’t engage us, or that make us feel harried.

Christine Carter’s TEDxGoldenGateED Talk/6-11-11

We call it “busyness,” but neuroscientists call it “cognitive overload”—a state in which it is difficult for a person to plan, decide, remember, think creatively, solve problems, and control emotions. Busyness is a sign that we are not functioning optimally, that we are not living up to our potential.

It is often a sign we are sacrificing our own needs for the needs of our children or our workplace. We need to dial it back in order to become our best selves, Carter explains.

What’s myth number 2? “More is better.”

We know that’s a myth, but it’s a hard one to resist. We tend to put our children into more activities, so they can get into more prestigious schools, so they can get better jobs, so they can make more money, so they can buy more stuff. Do we really want that kind of life for our children? Often, less is more. Often, we already have enough. Dial it back again.

Myth number 3? “Doing nothing is a waste of time.”

The truth is that our brains benefit tremendously from rest; when the mind wanders, the “creative insights” part of the brain turns on. Carter knows, because, as a sociologist she has studied productivity, elite performance, and well-being.

So where does that leave us? If we’re buying into those myths, we’re not living from our sweet spot—that place where we can feel ease as well as accomplishment. Carter shows us a slow-motion video of a baseball player hitting a ball perfectly—hitting the sweet spot. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. The bat doesn’t wobble. The ball flies high. The hitter has used “effortless power, not powerful effort.”

“The sweet spot is pretty fixed in athletics, but not for us humans,” Carter observes.

Fortunately, she has distilled cutting-edge scientific research into five strategies for finding the sweet spot in our own lives. “This book is me road testing all the research about elite productivity,” she says.

Working Mother Magazine–2/23/15

And here they are—Carter’s five sweet-spot strategies:

1. Single-task. The human brain is not designed to multitask, and when we try to do so it increases the chance of errors and creates a subtle, low-level fight-or-flight response. Christine tells us a story about her grandmother as an example. “My grandmother, who had a very difficult life, nevertheless lived to be 104. She loved to cook and taught me to cook. When we were cooking, if I asked a question she would put down the wooden spoon, turn, look at me, and answer my question. She was totally present.” That’s single-tasking.

2. Find the minimum effective dose of any given activity. “I had to do this in every area of my life.” Christine says. Her three-minute, do-it-every-day, better-than-nothing workout, for instance, consists of a one-minute plank, twenty push-ups, and twenty-five squats. And she looks terrific.

3. Stare into space. How will you feel? “Guilty, stuck, anxious, lazy. You’ll want to reach for your devices, read your email, check your Twitter feed. Stare into space anyway,” Carter advises. “Start small. Look at your anxiety or guilt with curiosity. Let yourself feel it. Device-checking is tremendously effective at numbing our emotions. But we don’t numb our emotions selectively. If you want to feel profound joy, you’ll also feel grief.”

Here Christine illustrates her point with short clip from the viral Louis C. K.’s “I Was in My Car One Time” video.

Team Coco–9/20/13

4. Lubricate your brain. Love, compassion, happiness, gratitude, awe, inspiration, hope, optimism—all these positive emotions have a physiological effect. They put the brakes on our fight-or-flight response, decrease stress, deepen our breathing, return our heart rate to normal, and even change our brain function. Carter shows us a short video of a child laughing, and we laugh, too. “You just did it!” she bubbles. “You just reset your nervous system!”

5. Change your mantra. When we have constant conversations about how busy we are, our brains go into overdrive. As an example of the importance of what we pay attention to, Christine shows us a video of Professor Daniel J. Simons’ “Monkey Business Illusion”:


We are what we pay attention to. Next time people ask how you are (“You must be so busy with your book launch…”) consider what you feel grateful for, Carter suggests. You could answer with something like, “I’m very focused on my book launch and I particularly love doing radio interviews.” Then you could change the subject to, “And I’m happy that it’s been so sunny.”

These strategies are hardly a spoiler for Carter’s book, which is jam packed with research-based advice on generating love and connection, shaking things up, problem-solving, fighting the right way, learning to apologize, letting go of grudges, tolerating discomfort, learning from difficulty, the importance of recess, and lots more.

Christine Carter and her Sweet Spot book at Dominican University

Christine Carter at Dominican University promoting her new book.

I love Carter’s message, but wonder whether she’s speaking to the choir, here in Northern California. We may not be aware of all the latest research, but we’ve certainly heard the takeaway. We know it’s important to slow down, to avoid multi-tasking, and to unplug when we’re not working.

As Carter closes her talk, I look around. The air is soft. Many people in the audience are hurrying out into the warm evening. More than half are checking their mobile devices—more than half!—before they even reach the auditorium door. We need you, Dr. Christine Carter. We are crazy busy, and we need you.

Listen to TWE Radio on iTunes to hear Christine Carter interviewed by Stacey Gualandi.



Essay: Elizabeth Warren Believes All We Need is a Fighting Chance

Elizabeth Warren at Book Passage Event/Photo: Frankie Frost

Sen. Elizabeth Warren at Book Passage-Dominican University Event 5-10-14
Photo: Frankie Frost

UPDATE 1/6/19: Elizabeth Warren Announces Iowa Trip as She Starts Running for President in 2020

UPDATE 6/9/16: “I’m ready”: Elizabeth Warren explains to Rachel Maddow why she’s finally endorsing Hillary Clinton.

By Toni Piccinini/July 1, 2014
Photos Below: Courtesy Elizabeth Warren

 “I believe in us. I believe in what we can do together, in what we will do together. All we need is a fighting chance.”  Elizabeth Warren

Women of a certain age chatted and waited politely in the golden light of a late May afternoon. The line to enter Angelico Hall at Dominican University in San Rafael, California snaked down the wide steps and onto the lawn. I took an unscientific polling of the eager attendees and with certainty can report that the women outnumbered the men by at least a factor of four.

Elizaeth Warren book, A Fighting Chance

Senator Warren’s new book

Perhaps because it was the Saturday of Mother’s Day weekend and tickets to hear Elizabeth Warren, the first female senator from Massachusetts, speak about her book, A Fighting Chance (Metropolitan Books), made for a lovely date with Mom. Or because we women like these kinds of things—sitting and listening to an author talk about her book.

But most likely the sold-out crowd came to hear Senator Warren because her reputation preceded her. In political speak she is surely a rising star.

I had a general, non-specific, idea of who she was. Something to do with the Obama administration, finances…I knew she had won a tight race in November 2012, and thus became the people’s unlikely outsider representative. But it’s not like she worked in a diner.

Prior to the Senate she was a Harvard Law School professor and the chief designer of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Still, the first elected office she ran for and was elected to was the senatorial seat from the storied Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She legitimately owns the “not a career politico” mantle.

I registered to vote—ferociously Democrat—in 1971, the year I turned eighteen. That was the year that the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series, Sofia Coppola was born, and Coco Chanel died. It was, also, when the Twenty-Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was passed, which changed the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen.

Elizabeth Warren and daughter Amelia/ from "A Fighting Chance"/Courtesy: Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth and her daughter Amelia

It was a big deal to vote, a surprise gift given to me three years early. A gift that came with earnest responsibility. For forty plus years I voted in every election. That is until the last one. Fool me once, fool me twice, but fool me dozens of times? Nope. I’ve reached the age of acquired wisdom.

I know politicians say anything to get elected. Put on country clothes and practice some country talk to get that middle of the country vote. Well, I’m done with seduction. My disappointment has led me to a silent protest and a bumper sticker: Don’t Vote—It Just Encourages The ********.

But Lo and Behold, miracles do happen and here I am to testify. I am born again. Senator Warren (@SenWarren) had me at “Here’s the deal,” a get-to-the-bottom-line phrase that resonates with this country girl. She must have said it half a dozen times during her talk. This phrase—Here’s the deal—comes to her naturally because she knows what’s wrong and how to fix it. If FDR was the New Deal, Elizabeth Warren is the Real Deal.

Elizabeth Warren graduating with her daughter in tow/ from "A Fighting Chance"/Elizabeth Warren Photo

Graduating, pregnant and with daughter in tow

She strode onto the stage at 4:23 and promptly engaged the back balcony rows with “Don’t think you back there will get away with anything. There will be a quiz after the talk.” She told us about her teaching years and that she, a daughter of a maintenance man, grew up to become a United States Senator.

She grew up in an “America that was investing in its kids.” And her main concern is that she doubts the America of today can support the mobility she enjoyed because the America we love is broken.

She reminded us of our financial history particularly The Great Depression and how we (led by FDR and the Democrats) dug ourselves out of it. During those challenging years, “We didn’t know what the next great thing would be, but we figured it would need to plug in, so we improved the electrical grid.”

Elizabeth Warren hanging out her law shingle/from book "A Fighting Chance"/Photo: Elizabeth Warren

After Alex was born, hanging out her shingle and practicing law from her living room

In a conversational voice, that felt as if she were talking to us over a glass of lemonade on a covered porch, she continued to retell the facts of history. Even though Washington didn’t know where the next ingenious American invention would come from, the administration knew the product would need to go from Point A to Point B, so we improved the nation’s infrastructure.

We put people to work and we strengthened the country from the inside out. After the 1929 crash America did another important thing—got to work in Congress. Laws were passed to create and enforce strong financial rules, allocate funds for roads, bridges, and dams, and earmark monies for research. All of these pointed to securing our future and the future generations of Americans.

Elizabeth Warren with 2 small children from her book, A Fighting Chance--Photo: Elizabeth Warren from publisher

Still in braces, taking care of Amelia and baby Alex and eventually getting a job teaching law school

I know the America she comes from. I am the first of my family to go to college. I couldn’t have done that without a scholarship. My parents (my Dad an Italian immigrant) could not have built and owned their home—the quintessential American dream—without the help from a local bank and a loan that made sense.

How could this MacBook (the instrument I use to write and share my stories) exist without the inherent American opportunities and innate optimism afforded to a poor young visionary named Steve?

Senator Warren spoke for only thirty-one minutes. Her talk was focused, concise, and no-nonsense. A Fighting Chance is part memoir, part history, and part economic thesis. Her greatest fear is that as the economic divide grows in our country America will fundamentally change and that shift will fundamentally change what it means to be an American. She doesn’t believe that has to happen.

Elizabeth Warren with husband after her Senate victory

Elizabeth makes history and becomes Senator with hugs from husband Bruce.

From the last page of her book: “I believe in us. I believe in what we can do together, in what we will do together. All we need is a fighting chance.”  I believe in Senator Warren. And now I, too, have some work to do. I have some bumper stickers to recycle and a voter registration to update.

Senator Warren’s Talk at Dominican University/Courtesy Book Passage


*** About the Author: Toni Piccinini, writer, author "The Goodbye Year"Toni Piccinini’s writing path has meandered from the scholarly examination (or scary horror story) of antibiotic use in The Journal of Clinical Pathology to her personal essay “House Affair” which was a Narrative magazine Story of the Week.

Along the way she opened a San Francisco “Top 100” restaurant and published recipes and cookbook reviews in local and national newspapers, magazines and cookbooks. The Goodbye Year (Seal Press 2013) is her first book.


STORY OF THE WEEK: Jane Goodall, Champion of Chimpanzees, on Seeds of Hope

Jane Goodall at Dominican University/Book Passage Event

Jane Goodall speaks at Dominican University/4-4-14

By Laurie McAndish King/April 18, 2014
Photos: Courtesy Dominican University

Twitter: @JaneGoodallInst

“In the early days, the chimps ran away every time they saw me—they had never seen a white ape before. ” Jane Goodall 

Dr. Jane Goodall—who in her twenties left the comforts of her home in England to live in Africa and study wild animals—was one of my childhood heroes. I leapt at the opportunity to hear her speak about her new book, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, as part of Dominican’s Leadership Lecture Series with Book Passage.

Jane Goodall's Seeds of Hope bookJane spoke to a packed house about the early days of her now-famous chimpanzee research in TanzaniaAfter moving to Africa in 1957, with little more than an ardent desire to live and work among the animals there, she began what would become her 45-year study of wild chimpanzees.

She discovered that non-human animals make and use tools, which forced scientists to redefine the relationship between humans and other animals. And she has become a preeminent and persuasive force for improving animal welfare around the world.

So I was surprised to hear that Goodall was lending her impassioned voice to the cause of saving plants, and further, that she did not advocate the widely-accepted adage to “think globally; act locally.” “If you think globally,” Goodall advised, “you don’t have enough energy left to act.”

“Every single one of us makes a difference, every single day.”

She should know. Goodall has visited a lot of the globe, traveling to countries as diverse as Argentina, China, France, and even North Korea with her urgent message about the importance of conservation.

Around the world, and especially in Africa, she has seen far too many of what she describes as the devastating aftereffects of colonialism, including habitat destruction, plundering of resources, and (she says it almost under her breath) slavery. “Some multinationals today are pretty much the same,” Goodall observes.

Traveling in Africa, Goodall met youth who were apathetic and depressed, or angry and violent. When she asked about their attitudes, they told her the truth: “We feel you have compromised our future, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

She knew they were right; the youngest generation had a good reason to feel hopeless. But Goodall had grown up in an atmosphere of hope and hard work, and she had a vision.

Jane Goodall: A Retrospective, National Geographic

So in 1991, along with twelve Tanzanian high-school students, Goodall founded Roots & Shoots, a “youth-led community action and learning program” aiming to create positive change. Each local group works on three service projects of their choice: one for people, one for animals, and one for the environment, with an emphasis on determining what projects will be most helpful locally.

Today, Roots & Shoots engages more than 150,000 members in 136 countries, with projects ranging from preserving monarch butterfly habitat to baking homemade pumpkin pies for people who are hungry at Thanksgiving. And every project reinforces Goodall’s hopeful message: “Every single one of us makes a difference, every single day.”

At 80, Jane Goodall is still making a difference. Her recent birthday wish was to move 100 chimps from the Tchimpounga Rehabilitation Center to three pristine, forested islands where they would be able to live nearly wild.

Many of the rescued chimps had been orphaned as youngsters; their mothers had apparently been killed for bush meat. The Wildlife Conservation Network decided to host a birthday party for Jane to raise the needed funds, and Jane’s friend Dave Matthews joined in to serenade Jane and her birthday revelers.

Together, they raised $1.25 million that evening—enough money to move the rescued chimps and allow them to live in freedom on the islands, but still have access to medical care if needed.

A Chimpanzee Hugs Dr. Goodall after being released into the wild.

As the video above shows, Jane not only cares deeply about the chimps—she also communicates with them. Although she was not the primary caretaker for the chimp shown in the video, it is Jane who receives a heartwarming hug from the primate, after she speaks a quiet “word” or two as the chimp sits atop its cage.

These days, Jane she sees herself primarily as a communicator.In response to a comment from an audience member about her being a world teacher, she emphasizes, “I love writing. I seem to be able to have an impact. I try to develop the gifts that I have. You say teaching; I say communicating, sharing, telling stories.”

 “One of the most important things is to work with the people living in the area. We have become partners with them. That is the only way to get conservation to work anywhere.”

Jane also understands that the only way to save chimps—and the many other species that are endangered—is by saving their habitat. That is one reason why the latest book from this champion of chimps is about plants: their beauty, their healing properties, their adaptability and most of all, the essential role plants play in supporting life on earth.

Seeds of Hope (Grand Central Publishing) is a joyous paean to plants, and it’s fun to read. Jane shares her enthusiasm about plants’ awe-inspiring diversity: “Some seeds germinate only when there’s a fire. This is really interesting—it took people a long time to realize that … certain plants only grow if there’s rain coming through the smoke of a fire. That’s part of the beauty of this book; it makes us rethink.”

Jane Goodall/Photo: Pam Burke

Jane and “Mr. H.”/Photo: P. Burke

Seeds of Hope also encourages us to rethink other subjects Jane Goodall feels passionately about: the use of genetically modified plants, for example, and the importance of growing our own food rather than banking on a future dictated by corporate mega-farming, bioengineering companies, and big pharmaceuticals.

“Medicinal plants are being patented! I’ve always been utterly shocked that you can patent life. That actually can be done. Somebody went to court the other day—they wanted to patent a chimp. The proponents will always talk like this [bioengineering] is a very precise science; but it isn’t,” Jane explains.

What is her best suggestion for decreasing the environmental impact of food production? At this question from the audience, this passionate vegetarian pulls her diminutive frame to its full height. Her shoulders have a distinctive slope—which one might expect from a scientist who has spent decades hunkering down as she observed wild primates.

Her voice is clear and strong, almost a shout.

“It’s easy. Stop eating meat! We have the gut of an herbivore—a very long gut to maximize [the ability to absorb nutrients]. Carnivores have very short guts, so they can get rid of the meat quickly before it starts rotting.”

In fact, Jane insists that the health benefits she gains from being a vegetarian are the only way she can keep up her rigorous schedule of traveling 300 days a year, giving lectures, sharing her stories, and advocating for a more harmonious and sustainable world.

She introduces us to her traveling companion of the last 26 years, named “Mr. H.” It’s a stuffed animal that is meant to be a chimp (except that it has a tail, which chimps do not) and was a gift from admirer Gary Horn. Although Mr. Horn (the man) is blind, he has followed his dream to become a master illusionist, entertaining and inspiring children around the world.

He inspires Jane, too, reminding her to “Never give up. There’s always a way forward.” Mr. H (the chimp-with-a-tail) works his own kind of magic: “When you touch him, the inspiration rubs off,” Jane says.

Jane Goodall/Dominican University-Book Passage Event 4/4/14

Jane receives her birthday cake with “Mr. H” by her side.

At the end of Jane’s lecture, our host brings out a surprise birthday cake to celebrate her 80th birthday. The full house sings an enthusiastic “Happy Birthday” and Jane blows out the candles. Then the beloved primatologist—ever the communicator—rewards us with a very particular rendition: She imitates the excitable call a chimp would make for “Cake!”

We give her a standing ovation.

To see the entire event, click here.


TWE Story: Author Kelly Corrigan on the ‘Glitter and Glue’ of Motherhood

Kelly Corrigan, author,Glitter and Glue

UPDATE 2/20/15; Paperback edition of Glitter and Glue is out!

By Laurie McAndish King (@LaurieKing)/March 18, 2014

Twitter: @corrigankelly

“The coolest thing about the coolest people I knew was that they had made great families. Families with inside jokes and nicknames and dance moves. And that’s the shore I set out for.” Kelly Corrigan

Let me put Kelly Corrigan up on a pedestal for you. She’s on one for me. Kelly survived breast cancer and chemo and an ominous ovarian growth, and braved it through her beloved father’s cancer and her young daughter’s meningitis.

She has a page on Wikipedia and is, in her own somewhat surprised words, a “YouTube sensation”—a video of Kelly reading her essay about women’s friendships over time, Transcending, went viral with nearly five million hits.

Kelly’s “Transcending” video

Kelly co-founded Notes & Words, a charitable organization that features bestselling authors and top recording artists on-stage together, and has raised more than $4,000,000 dollars for Oakland’s Children’s Hospital and Research Center.

Oh, and she has written three New York Times bestselling memoirs. Three memoirs—and she isn’t even fifty yet! I loved Kelly’s coming-of-middle-age story called The Middle Place, so I attended Dominican University’s Leadership Lecture Series with Book Passage recently to hear her speak about her latest book.

The first time I heard Kelly speak it was at this same venue where I covered her interview with another bestselling author, Elizabeth Gilbert, just a few months ago for TWE. Their discussion ranged from science to shoes to spirit, so I was eager to learn what Kelly would choose as a subject.

Kelly Corrigan's Glitter and GlueThe evening began with a video of Kelly saying a few words about her new book, Glitter and Glue, A Memoir (@randomhouse), which explores the emotional intricacies of parenthood and the bond between mothers and daughters. I was surprised to learn that such an accomplished woman was fascinated with the minutia of family life.

“Your father’s the glitter, but I’m the glue,” Kelly’s mother told her years ago, summarizing their roles: father as a fun friend, mother as tactician and disciplinarian. Glitter and Glue is ostensibly about that difference—between adventure and life experience, fathers and mothers, fun and responsibility.

But the truth is that Kelly has reconciled the two with her understanding that everyday family life is the greatest adventure of all.

“The coolest thing about the coolest people I knew,” Kelly said, “was that they had made great families. Families with inside jokes and nicknames and dance moves. And that’s the shore I set out for.” It took Kelly less than five minutes to elevate domesticity to an existential art form.

“This abstract performance art called family life is our one run at the ultimate improv, our chance to be great for someone. It’s happening right now, whether we attend to it or not. This is it. This is the great adventure.”

At the end of the video the audience erupted in applause, and Kelly—not yet officially on-stage—peeked around the curtain, grinned, and waved like an over-eager five-year-old at her first school play.

The audience is immediately captivated with Kelly’s we’re-just-a-bunch-of-girlfriends brand of charm. She shows up in a simple navy blouse and skinny jeans—very skinny jeans—telling us she’s been on tour for twenty-eight days, and is so glad to be back home in the Bay Area, which she swears has the best food, the best people, the best clothes.

Then Kelly starts dishing on her mom.“My mother’s a little like the Maggie Smith character on ‘Downton Abbey.’ She has what my friend Betsy calls a BRF—a Bitchy Resting Face—and she’s fiercely devoted to her family.” Kelly puts on a bitchy resting face, so we can see what she means. A little later: “Mom loves sauerkraut, anchovies, and pearl onions—pearl onions! If you were writing a villain, wouldn’t you have her love them?”

But this is just to set the stage. In the same way that Kelly has reconciled her one-time longing for “a huge odyssey” with a deep appreciation of the grand adventure that is domestic life, she has also reconciled with the mother who battled her for years over blow-dryers and spending money and curfews, over political views and making wedding plans and baptizing babies.

Kelly Corrigan and her mom--Photo: Kelly Corrigan

Kelly and Mary, her mother/Photo: Kelly Corrigan

Most of Glitter and Glue is a flashback to the five months in 1992 when Kelly worked as a nanny. As a twenty-four-year-old she had gone off on a backpacking adventure, a global odyssey that would surely make her an Interesting Person.

But finding herself in need of money, Kelly took a job in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, looking after two young children whose mother had recently passed away. The experience of caring for children—for the first time in her life—brought an appreciation of her mother’s expansive skills and mighty competence.

What about her own family, now? Is Kelly the glitter or the glue? Although she wouldn’t mind glittering, it turns out Kelly is the glue, just as her mother was. She is the one who supervises homework, keeps a watchful eye out when the girls are on the ski slopes, and manages “the unsettling situations that often bubble up right around bedtime.”

“I’m the CEO,” Kelly says. “Edward [her husband] is like the chairman of the board. He only comes in for board meetings, and he gives me some tips, like, ‘I just came up with a few things when I was flying across the country first-class, some ideas that might help.’”

But it’s her mother that Kelly calls on when she needs “tips,” advice, perspective, or encouragement. “I have come to admire [my mother] so much for so many things… She had so much stamina. She had so much fortitude and grit, to stand the constant negotiation.”

“Now,” Kelly says, “give me almost any situation—termites, refinancing, or back pain, allowance, mean girls or sibling rivalry, a child’s despair, a husband’s inattention, or my own spikes of rage and regret—and watch how fast I dial her number.”

Kelly may still be dialing her mom, but she has come into her own as an author, a philanthropist, and an inspiring figure for anyone attending to the Great Adventure.

Photos of Kelly Corrigan courtesy of Betsy Barnes



Authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Kelly Corrigan Talk Science, Spirit and Shoes

Elizabeth Gilbert and Kelly Corrigan, Dominican University Fall 2013

Kelly Corrigan (l) and Elizabeth Gilbert (r) at Dominican University/10-16-13

UPDATE 6/2414: Elizabeth’s paperback of “The Signature of All Things” is published today. Check out her upcoming events.

By Laurie McAndish King/December 29, 2013

“I know that there are very few greater pleasures in life than to … be subsumed by the work that you are obsessed with, and that’s completely who [Alma] is, and that’s totally based on me.” Elizabeth Gilbert

Bestselling authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Kelly Corrigan made me feel as though I’d just spent the evening talking with my two best girlfriends, even though they were sitting onstage at Dominican University in front of hundreds of people as they discussed German Romanticism, the rise of Empiricism, the effect of birth order on family dynamics and Tory Burch shoes.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All ThingsCorrigan interviewed Gilbert as part of Dominican’s Leadership Lecture Series, in partnership with Book Passage, an independent bookstore in Marin County, California. They were talking about Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things.

The book is about Alma Whittaker, a botanist born in 1800 to “potent and clever parents.” Alma grows up to study the miniature universe of mosses, and her story is a miniature reflection of the Darwinian Revolution that occurred during her lifetime.

“We now live in this world of scientists who have no divinity, and the faithful who have no reason,” Gilbert said. “You wish the divorced parents would just get together in a cafe at 10 a.m. for a cup of coffee.” She was referring to the 19th century division between science and spirit. “People were starting to suffer.”

Earlier, there had been no division between divinity and science, Gilbert explains. All the great ministers were naturalists; admiring and praising God’s creations was a natural—even organic—part of their work. But the 19th century was a painful moment in history. “It was like an awful divorce, and the parents have been fighting over the kids ever since.” Gilbert, who wrote a book about marriage called Committed, has a lot to say on the subject.

She also has a lot to say about the schism between science and divinity—five hundred pages worth in this new book. And Gilbert says it very well. So well, in fact, that I would happily have read another five hundred pages about evolution and moss biology and taxonomy and botanical illustration, if only she had written a longer tome.

Author Barbara Kingsolver, whom I’ve had the pleasure of writing about for TWE, agrees in her New York Times review: “Gilbert has established herself as a straight-up storyteller who dares us into adventures of worldly discovery, and this novel stands as a winning next act.”

Is this the same Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote Eat, Pray, Love? The book some critics dismissed as self-absorbed and overly emotional? The book that sold ten million copies, spent 200 weeks on New York Times bestseller list, and helped earn its author a spot on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in world? That Elizabeth Gilbert? Yes, it is.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love

And the irony is not lost on her. Gilbert’s own spiritual side was on display in Eat Pray Love. “Some people loved it,” she says. (About ten million, I’m guessing.) But it made others feel nauseated and write snarky reviews and say things like, “Just don’t talk to me about that *** ashram,” Gilbert continues.

Readers who are more aligned with the empirical will appreciate The Signature of All Things. “This book is like a pair of sensible shoes,” Gilbert suggests. I respectfully disagree. True, the novel is solid storytelling, historically based, and exhaustively researched. But it is also lyrical, seductive, and addictive. More like the surprise pair of Tory Burch shoes Corrigan gave Gilbert during an onstage moment of female bonding.

Elizabeth Gilbert with shoe Kelly Corrigan gave her/Fall 2013

Elizabeth regards Kelly Corrigan’s gift first with curiosity (above), then with delight.
Photo: Laurie McAndish King

There’s another irony: “This book wouldn’t exist without Eat Pray Love,” Gilbert says.“Eat Pray Love paid for this book. It was a very time-consuming book to write.” Gilbert did a lot of research and planning before she began writing—three years’ worth of interviews, reading, and travel, plus a seventy-page outline, for starters.

The Signature of All Things begins with the story of Alma’s parents, Henry and Beatrix Whittaker. Henry was fun to write about, Elizabeth says. “He was the most muscular writing I’ve ever done. He has no emotion except ambition—searing ambition and cunning.”

Those two qualities made Henry Whittaker into the third richest man in the western hemisphere. “Money followed him around,” Gilbert writes, “like a small, excited dog.”

The exceptionally well-educated Beatrix spoke seven languages and designed her gardens using Euclidian geometry. An austere and daunting Dutch Calvinist, she had the highest standards and expectations for her daughters. At a critically important juncture in Alma’s life, her mother reacts with anger: “As for her final two words, she spat them out like two sharp chips of ice: ‘Improve yourself.’”

Ambrose Pike, who becomes Alma’s soulmate (and, briefly, her husband) wanders into this Whittaker world of education and ambition. The couple—Alma a scientist who studies earth-bound mosses, Ambrose an artist who makes exquisite images of ethereal orchids—represent the opposing forces of rationalism and spiritualism.

Elizabeth Gilbert at Book Passage event/Fall 2013

Elizabeth during one of the lighter moments of the conversation/Photo: Laurie McAndish King

An impressive scholar, Alma is unattractive but sturdy, stubborn but brilliant.  She’s “a woman whose life is saved, over and over again, by her work,” Gilbert explains. Alma’s exhaustive botanical studies insulate her from isolation and boredom, depression and jealousy, loss and loneliness. Gilbert certainly understands loving one’s work. “It’s almost a guilty secret: I enjoy my work so much!” she says.

The Signature of All Things is also a cautionary tale, though, because as much as Alma loves her work, she holds back from publishing. One thing I tell young women, Gilbert says, is: Don’t hold back. With respect to writing, that means including all your big ideas, emptying yourself of content. “When you finish a book you should be empty. Nothing should be held back for the next one. There’s not even any starter yeast. There’s nothing left. Then ideas start to trickle back in, like beach sand or cockroaches—you just can’t keep them out of the house.”

Above is the entire conversation at Dominican University for you to enjoy. I’m already eager for Gilbert’s next book. She’s a terrific storyteller, and, no matter what her next topic is, I know she won’t hold back.

Elizabeth Gilbert's new shoes given her by Kelly Corrigan at Dominican University

Elizabeth wearing her spiffy new shoes after the talk
Photo: Laurie McAndish King