Finding Your Quiet: Listening To What Really Matters

by Grace Bonney

When I lived in Brooklyn, I was a fast and angry driver. I was always pushing the speed limit, beeping at people to move and, in one very unbecoming moment, I lost my cool and yelled at a group of tourists in downtown Brooklyn for blocking the road. In short, I was far from my best and always on edge. I had a lot to say and so much of it was about trying to prove someone wrong or explain the way I thought things really were. It was a self-involved and short-tempered way to live and it was only last week that I realized how much anger I had been holding onto and how misdirected it was.

Last Wednesday I was in the middle of a 40-minute drive to my dentist’s office when I noticed I was driving 10 miles under the speed limit. I was also driving without my typical fastpaced soundtrack. I had the windows open and was commuting in complete and utter silence. I had, out of nowhere, become a calm and quiet driver. This may not seem life-changing, except for the fact that in that moment, it hit me why I was suddenly so relieved of my typical anxiety level: I had finally found a project that spoke to what was most important to me in life and work.

In that moment I remembered an interview Julia did with chef/author Gabrielle Hamilton in Cherry Bombe. Gabrielle talked about how being acknowledged as a serious writer changed the way she acted from there on out. “I have noticed something very interesting since the success of this book. My need and hunger has quieted so dramatically and it’s directly related to having been recognized for something that matters to me…I just don’t need all of this attention and I get so much of the actual kind of attention I hungered for.

It got me thinking about how maybe that’s what we’re all searching for and how we can help each other figure out how best to find that for ourselves.

*Image above is part of a poem by Erin Hanson, typed and for sale at WhiteCellarDoor on Etsy.

For the past 11 years, I’ve been happy and immensely grateful for being able to have a job that not only allows me to pay my bills, but allows me to be happy while I’m doing it. I’ve had the privilege of doing something I love for so long now that I forgot to stop and see if it was actually fulfilling my needs and goals the same way it did 10 years ago.

Everyone in my life and anyone reading the site could tell that I wasn’t as excited about the more retail-focused parts of my job anymore (product posts, trends, roundups) and that I had been gravitating toward more personal essays and profiles. It wasn’t because I disliked design itself (I will always love patterns, decorating and flowers), but something was missing — a sense of excitement, passion, urgency and meaning that just wasn’t being met by products alone.

So a few years ago I started cutting those parts of the site out and adding in more that focused on the people and stories behind those products. Then I started a podcast to create a place for our community to sit down and have a real talk about not just the good, but also the tough parts of running your own creative business. With those changes came a change in me: I got excited again and felt like I had a real purpose. I was able to hear what people’s needs were and work toward using our platform to help them — or at least connect them with other people who could.

As much as I loved those parts of my job, and I still do, I still felt like I spent most of my day talking about paint colors, what was “next” in trends and which striped fabric to buy. Questions I’m happy to answer, but not questions that get at the core of why I do what I do: which is to help people find the inspiration, tools and confidence to build the lives they love at home and at work. It wasn’t until that moment, when I realized what the common thread was, that I realized that I wouldn’t be happy until I found a bigger project that let me work on problem-solving and helping other people full-time.

So with the help of my wife Julia (who is the world’s best book proposal writer), I turned my pipe dream — a book about women, for women, written by women — into a pitch that I could send to my editor. When I did, I felt that familiar voice in my head again, “You’ll never actually get this, you know. Just prepare to be shut down,” it said. I felt so comfortable with the idea that I’d fail that I’d forgotten to remember that things could also go the way I wanted, too.

And then it happened, I actually got the go-ahead to write the book I wanted. I immediately jumped into overdrive emailing people, planning over 100 photoshoots and organizing my plans for interview questions. Some of my biggest idols (Nikki Giovanni, Kathleen Hanna, Laura Jane Grace) agreed to be a part of the book and until last week, I hadn’t really stopped to have a moment to celebrate and realize it was all coming true. It wasn’t until I was driving down the road going 10 miles under the speed limit with the windows wide open that I realized I’d found my happy place. I was working on something that meant something to me, got to the core of who I am and what matters to me and was, hopefully, creating something that would have an impact on not just the creative community, but the community of women and young girls at large.

Will this one project be everything I need for the rest of my life? Probably not. But it has taught me a valuable lesson: taking the time to stop and make sure that you’re working toward the things that mean the most to you is the best time — and gift — you can give yourself.

It took me years to figure this out, but it doesn’t have to take everyone else that long. Looking back, I had all the pieces lined up and I just didn’t stop long enough to pay attention and connect the dots. Here’s what I wish I had done, and what you can do, to connect your own dots and find your path to what makes you happiest — and most quiet — inside:


1. Stop, take a breath and LISTEN: What do you hear? Are there voices telling you that you’re not good enough or strong enough to do what you love? Face those voices and see if they’re actually pointing out something you should be giving a shot.

2. Run toward what scares you: The second my book proposal was approved I was so happy I jumped up and down. Then 5 minutes later, fear set in. Was I really going to be able to pull this off? What if I failed? What if I actually got what I wanted? I felt paralyzed by all of the “what ifs.” So I let myself really wallow in those feelings and see them for what it was — a failure of actually succeeding at something that mattered. I felt fine failing at things that didn’t mean as much to me (my failure to get our shop up and running, to launch a new e-course fast enough and to get our Youtube page spiffed up), but I wouldn’t be able to be happy with myself if I failed at something that really meant something to me. That’s how I knew this was the right project and to keep on pushing through that fear.

3. Ask for help: Whether you know what you want and need help articulating it or need help to figure out what you actually want to be doing, ask someone you trust and love. Chances are, if they spend a lot of time with you, they know what you talk about and what seems to come up over and over. Ask them about that — and listen to what they say. You may have been missing an idea that was right in front of you the whole time.

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  • Thank you, Grace. I’ve been pondering the ‘running towards what scares you’ a lot lately.

  • I can’t help but think of all the disgruntled drivers in your wake, cursing you for finding serenity.

    As a disgruntled driver myself (although my rage comes from my hour daily commute) maybe stick to the right hand lane when you’re out on your silent commutes. :)

  • Grace,

    All the changes you’ve made to this blog have made it so much more meaningful and wonderful! I’m very excited about this book, not only because of the subject, but because the love that’s going into it will show.

  • It’s so true we get totally consumed with thoughts of failure to think of flying seems unattainable until you come to realise that your mind is just being mean to you and you CAN actually do this..!
    I’m in the process of connecting my dots it’s so frustrating because they are scattered everywhere just waiting for the bigger picture to emerge ….hopefully.
    Good luck with your book and thanks for this uplifting post – reminding me things can work out and evolve organically if you just take the time to listen :)

  • Grace, thank you for this honest and inspiring post. I am struggling with finding the motivation and direction for the next thing in my life, and I realize this is a priviledge to be able to have the time and support to go through this process. Point #2, “Run towards what scares you”, feels like the message I need to point me to what is most meaningful to me.

  • My new favorite blog; this was incredibly, challengingly relevant and wise. Happy for you on the project, following on IG!

  • I love this post Grace! Your words add such a meaningful pause to how busy things are, here in the office and everywhere online. Thanks for the slow speed and for hosting these valuable conversations :)
    ps: cannot wait for the new book!

  • What an AMAZING blog post. I seriously couldn’t have read this at a more perfect time. I was actually driving today like a grandma because traffic has gotten so scary/awful here (Austin) that my anxiety goes through the roof every time I drive. Everyone is just so angry all the time. You just put into words the feelings that I have but could never find the words for. I’m definitely going to be sharing this with my readers and friends. Thank you!
    Lauren Jade

  • I’m looking forward to your book; it sounds inspiring. I’m at a moment of pause looking for the next, right project. Thank you for sharing and for the encouragement.

  • I’ve been reading you a wile ago… and you always say the things I need to read in the right moment. Thank you for the inspiration and for changing the world with your words.

  • Thank you for sharing Grace, this post came at a perfect time for me. I truly appreciate your honesty in sharing this post, helping us to see what is inside even our own hearts. Good luck with your new project and I look forward to reading your book once it is out.

  • I became a calm and peaceful driver about 20 years ago. It’s a life changing event. I had been a calm and peaceful passenger many years before that as a self-preservation tactic with my first husband. I still wish I had a horn that could say “thank you” or “f you” but it really does make your day better. Glad you were able to find your driving sweet spot. Now I just need to work on that asking for help thing…

  • Thank you so much for writing this Grace. Your words have landed in my lap at just the right moment. Each morning this week I have been sitting in my little shop, staring at the walls and trying to figure out “what’s next?” Now I know how to start the conversation with myself. Thank you!

  • Thank you Grace for sharing. What a great reminder to “slow down and listen to your inner guidance”. Can’t wait to read your book.

  • “My need and hunger has quieted so dramatically and it’s directly related to having been recognized for something that matters to me…I just don’t need all of this attention and I get so much of the actual kind of attention I hungered for.”

    I’m actually pretty hungry right now and it is a challenge to keep quiet. Though I recently moved from quiet Sarasota to NY, maybe a part of it is the city’s culture of keeping busy and getting ahead? I’m trying not to fall for that but it seems like it just makes others impatient of me?

    Thanks for such a lovely and inspirational post. I was not really into the retail posts as much as the interviews, journals and business articles. So please keep doing what you’ve been doing.

  • And yet another post that I find inspirational. Thank you for this. Trying to find that quiet and realize who I really am and what I really want is something I started working on in my late 20s. Now that I’m in my mid-30s, I hope I’m getting there, but I also want to believe that the struggle of finding the quiet is beautiful and part of the journey of life. At least, that’s what I’m going to think until I find my quiet!

  • I have really enjoyed and appreciated your essays. They consistently ring with the values I seek. Please continue to write about the things that engage your heart. I look forward to your book.

  • I think that uncovering your purpose is quite a journey, and that most people don’t come close. It takes a lot of openness, time, questionning and the bravery to leap into the unknown. There’s a great Marie Forleo interview with Adam Braun of Pencils of Promise with the really intimidating title of How to Change the World and Live Your Purpose – how terrifying and out of reach does that sounds? (http://www.marieforleo.com/2014/03/change-the-world-adam-braun/). However, in the interview Adam talks about how the idea for Pencils of Promise didn’t come in some kind of lightning strike (altho it was hastened for him by a near death experience) but rather deveoped over time as he tried to come closer and closer to uncovering his purpose and live a life that was meaningful. It was a really great reminder for me personally to be patient in figuring out how to add meaning beyond just being a maker of more stuff. If that’s what you’re looking for you’ll get there eventually. Grace, you found your way so fast! And also – wouldn’t it be superawesome if you could video some of your interviews – this project would make an amazing documentary or web series. I don’t make TV any more but I do know some great producers!! Can’t wait to get this book…

  • What’s so amazing is that I’ve felt I’ve grown with you… I’ve always said “life is organic” when it comes to figuring things out, and have been teased for it… But , really, the risk taking that comes with being open to “organic” is where it’s at. And, the teasers?! The risk is just too much. It breaks my heart for them.

  • Thanks for this essay! I’m currently running toward a project that scares me and I’ve been so busy listening to my inner critic that I shut out the possibility that it might just work and perhaps even be good. Friends around me got excited about the project from day one and it makes me a little sad that I wasted so much time not being the least bit happy. So if you get a scary project–its okay to be apprehensive but don’t shut out your joy either. :-)

  • I grew up reading American Girl (the magazine and all the books). I am glad for Design*Sponge because it feels like a grown-up version of American Girl. Thank you for sharing inspiring stories and tips for a healthy mindset and lifestyle!

  • Congrats on the new book, Grace! I am so excited for you, and I can’t wait to read it. As an interior designer for the past 7 years, I’m totally feeling the “meaning” dilemma you speak of. But thank you for always pushing the boundaries and reimagining what’s possible. You and the Biz Ladies series have really encouraged me to push through the challenges and continue pursuing my dreams.

  • Thanks Grace, as usual you cut to the heart of it all. I always feel like your posts are what I need to hear at any given time, a little spooky but wonderful.

  • Wow. This piece really moved me. I am currently struggling to listen to that voice inside me telling me to do what makes me happy instead of working for good benefits and just paying my bills. All I want is to find that quiet inside and I know it starts with facing my fear. Thanks for writing this from the heart.

  • Grace – I hate to admit it but years ago I actually stopped following this blog because of the emphasis on consuming. Several months ago on a whim I decided to check it out again and I was so, so happy with the change I saw. I now follow religiously again and it’s great to have such a wonderful and welcoming corner of the internet (even though I am not in a creative field and sometimes feel in adequate when I see so many artistic and brave women ;) ).

    I can’t wait for the new book.

    • Like Dana, I loved your blog many moons ago and then along the way we grew apart. So happy that I’ve circled back around, as you have as well. Love your blog as much as I did years ago. Congratulations on finding peace:)

  • Thank you so much for this post. It was just what I needed as I’m branching out on a new project of my own. I’m terrified of failing, but haven’t felt so connected to and passionate about anything for a long time. I’m not sure what the next step is, but I’m going to keep running towards what scares me.

  • thanks for this lovely post, and congrats on what sounds like a wonderful project! as someone who records people’s stories for a living, i can totally understand your passion for stories and their ability to connect people. have fun with the book!

  • Beautiful and inspiring words. Thank you for sharing your journey and helping others of us along the way. I’m encouraged as I read this and grateful for your vision.