Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist •
Present Over Perfect documents Shauna’s personal story and journey. All of the glorious ups and downs of life. The good, the bad, and the honest.
This book is a collection of short stories. One after another. And, each mini story has its own plot, tension, insight, and key message. One common theme threaded through all of the stories is personal permission. The title could almost be renamed to be Giving Yourself Personal Permission to be Present Over Perfect.
I think Shauna summed it up best by describing the book this way:
This book is an account of my winding, messy journey from exhaustion to peace, from isolation to connection, from hustling and multitasking to sacred presence. And this book is an invitation, too—a hand reaching out across the pages, inviting you into that same journey, because it has been the greatest, most challenging, most rewarding sea-change of my adult life…My prayer is that this book will be a thousand invitations, springing up from every page, calling you to leave behind the heavy weight of comparison, competition, and exhaustion, and to recraft a life marked by meaning, connection, and unconditional love. — Shauna Niequist
One-Minute Present Over Perfect Book Summary
- “This is a love story, like all my favorite stories. It’s a story about letting yourself be loved, in all your imperfect, scarred, non-spectacular glory. And it’s about the single most profound life change I’ve yet encountered.”
- “I’ve been remaking my life from the inside out, and I want to invite you into that creative, challenging, life-altering work.”
- “This is the story of my sea-change—the journey from one way of living to another. It’s also an invitation to a sea-change of your own. No matter your age, your gender, your season of life, no matter your politics or profession, your sexuality or your faith tradition, you are invited into a sea-change.”
- “If you believe people can’t change, I’m here to tell you we can. If you think you could never turn down the volume or lay down your armor or climb into the silence, I’m here to tell you that if I can, you can. If I can, anyone can. I’m a hardened case, a tough nut to crack, a lifelong connoisseur of noise and motion and excessiveness of any kind. If I can climb into silence and simplicity, anyone on earth can join me there, I promise.”
10 Life Themes from Present Over Perfect
This summary has my favorite book quotes organized under my top ten themes. It’s encouraging to see that these themes are very similar to my previous book summary on Chasing Slow by Erin Loechner.
1) Any Great Change often Starts with a Breaking Point
For me, it was an existential crisis (that also involved many nights of staring at the ceiling like Shauna). At a certain point, you just get sick and tired of being sick and tired.
- “One Saturday, three years ago, I stared at the ceiling of a hotel room in Dallas, exhausted. I said to myself, ‘If anyone else wants to live this life I’ve created for myself, they’re more than welcome to try. But I’m done. I need a new way to live.’ I was thirty-six years old.”
- “Years ago, a wise friend told me that no one ever changes until the pain level gets high enough. That seems entirely true. The inciting incident for life change is almost always heartbreak—something becomes broken beyond repair, too heavy to carry; in the words of the recovery movement, unmanageable.”
- “Burnout is not reserved for the rich or the famous or the profoundly successful. It’s happening to so many of us, people across all kinds of careers and lifestyles. If you’re tired, you’re tired, no matter what. If the life you’ve crafted for yourself is too heavy, it’s too heavy, no matter if the people on either side of you are carrying more or less. You don’t have to have a public life or a particularly busy life in order to be terribly, dangerously depleted.”
- “What a loss—for me, for my family, for our community, for all the joy and laughter and silliness we missed out on because I was busy being busy.”
- “I was aware that I was missing the very things I so badly longed for: connection, meaning, peace. But there was something that kept driving me forward—a set of beliefs and instincts that kept me pushing, pushing, pushing even as I was longing to rest.”
2) This Breaking Point Leads to Awareness of your Escapism
Escapism is “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities.” It took me awhile to realize that my escapism manifested as lifestyle inflation.
- “My regrets: how many years I bruised people with my fragmented, anxious presence. How many moments of connection I missed—too busy, too tired, too frantic and strung out on the drug of efficiency.”
- “You can make a drug—a way to anesthetize yourself—out of anything: working out, binge-watching TV, working, having sex, shopping, volunteering, cleaning, dieting. Any of those things can keep you from feeling pain for a while—that’s what drugs do. And, used like a drug, over time, shopping or TV or work or whatever will make you less and less able to connect to the things that matter, like your own heart and the people you love. That’s another thing drugs do: they isolate you.”
- “Here’s what I know: I thought the doing and the busyness would keep me safe. They keep me numb. Which is not the same as safe, which isn’t even the greatest thing to aspire to.”
- “I still didn’t understand the solution, but more clearly than ever, I understood the problem: the hustling that had so deeply compromised my heart was an effort to outrun the emptiness and deep insecurity inside me.”
- “I’m an avoider, an escaper, an anywhere-but-here with all my thoughts and feelings kind of person. While I want so deeply and desperately to live right in the actual-messy-gritty-fabulous-ridiculous present, I’ve got a whole arsenal of tricks to eject me out of it. My earliest escape route: stories. Then food. Drinking. Then working. Then achieving. All the things we hold out as armor, insulating us from the pain and mess and fear.”
- “Many of us, myself included, considered our souls necessary collateral damage to get done the things we felt we simply had to get done—because of other peoples’ expectations, because we want to be known as highly capable, because we’re trying to outrun an inner emptiness. And for a while we don’t even realize the compromise we’ve made. We’re on autopilot, chugging through the day on fear and caffeine, checking things off the list, falling into bed without even a real thought or feeling or connection all day long, just a sense of having made it through. We begin to think the soul is expendable—a luxury, maybe, something optional but certainly not required.”
3) Once you have Awareness, it’s up to you to make your own Choices
This is one of the most important themes on this list. Awareness doesn’t matter without action. We must all make choices. Even not making choices is a choice.
- “When you decide, finally, to stop running on the fuel of anxiety, desire to prove, fear, shame, deep inadequacy—when you decide to walk away from that fuel for a while, there’s nothing but confusion and silence. You’re on the side of the road, empty tank, no idea what will propel you forward. It’s disorienting, freeing, terrifying. For a while, you just sit, contentedly, and contentment is the most foreign concept you know. But you learn it, shocking as it is, day by day, hour by hour. You sit in your own skin, being just your own plain self. And it’s okay. And it’s changing everything.”
- “What’s changing everything for me is a new understanding that we get to decide how we want to live. We get to shape our days and our weeks, and if we don’t, they’ll get shaped by the wide catch-all of ‘normal’ and ‘typical,’ and who wants that?”
- “In a thousand ways, you live by the sword and you die by the sword. When you allow other people to determine your best choices; when you allow yourself to be carried along by what other people think your life should be, could be, must be; when you hand them the pen and tell them to write your story, you don’t get the pen back. Not easily anyway.”
- “I was an author who didn’t know how to author her own life. I thought that outside forces would guide me benevolently, rightly. They did not. And it was not their job. It was mine. I abdicated authority for my own choices. And what it led to was a broken body and depleted soul.”
- “The word that changed everything, of course, is no. But you can’t have yes without no. Another way to say it: if you’re not careful with your yeses, you start to say no to some very important things without even realizing it. In my rampant yes-yes-yes-ing, I said no, without intending to, to rest, to peace, to groundedness, to listening, to deep and slow connection, built over years instead of moments. All my yeses brought me to a shallow way of living—an exhausting, frantic lifestyle that actually ended up having little resemblance to that deep, brave yes I was searching for.”
4) By Making Choices, you can Create your own Life Purpose
If you are feeling lost in life or want to revisit your life purpose, I was inspired by the Japanese concept of Ikigai (“reason for being”). Shauna also mentions “essential self” which reminded me of the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown.
- “When we speak of regrets, this is my greatest one: that I allowed other people’s visions for my career and calling take me away from what I know in my heart was the best, most whole way to live.”
- “One friend said that a way to get at your desire or dream is to answer this question: if someone gave you a completely blank calendar and a bank account as full as you wanted, what would you do?”
- “What you need along the way: a sense of God’s deep, unconditional love, and a strong sense of your own purpose. Without those two, you’ll need from people what is only God’s to give, and you’ll give up on your larger purpose in order to fulfill smaller purposes or other people’s purposes. To be sure, finding your purpose can take a long time to figure out, and along the way it is tempting to opt instead for the immediate gratification, the immediate fix, of someone’s approval. But the sweet rush of approval, the pat on the head, can often derail us from real love, and real purpose.”
- “Essentially, what I’m talking about, what I’m circling ever nearer and nearer to is agency. Or maybe authority: owning one’s life, for better and for worse, saying out loud, ‘This is who I am, this is who I’m not, this is what I want, this is what I’m leaving behind.’”
- “I thought that my midlife season would be about pushing into a new future … and it is. I thought it would be about leaving behind the expectations and encumbrances of the past. It is. What I didn’t know is that it would feel so much like recovering an essential self, not like discovering a new one.”
- “Look at your deepest dreams, and who you’ve always been—the things you love even though no one else does, the times in your life when you feel the most beautiful, even if no one else thinks so.”
5) The Pull of Perfection will always be there, but recognize Presence
Say “no” to perfection, so you can say “yes” to presence.
- “Let’s talk for a minute about perfect: perfect has become as near a dirty word to me as hustle, prove, earn, compete, and push. Perfect is brittle and unyielding, plastic, distant, more image than flesh. Perfect calls to mind stiffness, silicone, an aggressive and unimaginative relentlessness. Perfect and the hunt for it will ruin our lives—that’s for certain.”
- “The ache for perfection keeps us isolated and exhausted—we keep people at arm’s length, if that, and we keep hustling, trying trying trying to reach some sort of ideal that never comes.”
- “I’ve missed so much of my actual, human, beautiful, not-beautiful life trying to force things into perfect. But these days I’m coming to see that perfect is safe, controlled, managed. I’m finding myself drawn to mess, to darkness, to things that are loved to the point of shabbiness, or just wildly imperfect in their own gorgeous way.”
- “And so, instead: present. If perfect is plastic, present is rich, loamy soil. It’s fresh bread, lumpy and warm. It’s real and tactile and something you can hold with both hands, something rich and warm. Present is a face bare of makeup, a sweater you’ve loved for a decade, a mug that reminds you of who you used to be. It’s the Bible with the battered cover, the journal filled with scribbled, secret dreams. It isn’t pretty, necessarily—it isn’t supposed to be.”
- “Present is living with your feet firmly grounded in reality, pale and uncertain as it may seem. Present is choosing to believe that your own life is worth investing deeply in, instead of waiting for some rare miracle or fairy tale. Present means we understand that the here and now is sacred, sacramental, threaded through with divinity even in its plainness. Especially in its plainness.”
- “Present over perfect living is real over image, connecting over comparing, meaning over mania, depth over artifice. Present over perfect living is the risky and revolutionary belief that the world God has created is beautiful and valuable on its own terms, and that it doesn’t need to be zhuzzed up and fancy in order to be wonderful.”
6) Less, Less, Less (it really is more)
- “I want less of everything. Less stuff. Less rushing. Less proving and pushing. Less hustle. Less snapping at my kids so that they’ll get themselves into the car faster so we can go buy more stuff that we’re going to throw away. Less consumption. Less feeling like my mind is fragmented and my stomach is bloated and my life is out of control.”
- “As I’ve stripped things out of my life—constant traveling, overworking, compulsive activity—I’m finding that my senses are attuned so much more deeply than they’ve been in years.”
- “No more pushing and rushing. No more cold pizza at midnight, no more flights, no more books, no more houseguests, no more of all these things, even things I love, things I long for, things that make me happy. No more. Only less. Less of everything. Less stress. Less crying. Less noise. Less TV. Less wine. Less online shopping. Less one more thing one more thing one more thing, whether that one more thing is a trip or a movie or a boat ride or a playdate. Less cramming 36—or 56 or 106—hours into a day that has only ever held 24.”
- “I’m amazed at how many things are ultimately connected: I like living in our home more when it’s less full of stuff. I find it easier to get dressed in the morning when I have fewer choices. I’ve begun wandering through our house, gathering things up—less, less, less. And in my closet—less, less, less. I’m creating quiet in our home, on our walls, in my own closet, and that quiet gave me energy. The simplicity feels spacious, and inspiring, like I can draw a clean breath.”
- “As I’ve been aching for simplicity inside myself—in my heart, in my spirit—I’ve been surprised to find how much simplifying my material world has created space not just around me, but inside me.”
- “The other benefit I’m finding in these newer, narrower parameters about what I wear and what fills my cabinets is that I’m finding I make better decisions when I make fewer decisions.”
- “I’m able to give more focused attention on the higher-stakes decisions in my life—the ones about parenting, marriage, friendship—when I don’t have to think hard about what to wear or how to manage all my stuff. The ambient noise of my life gets quieter when there’s less stuff in my life, and fewer decisions to make about that stuff. And in the newfound silences is space for connection, rest, listening, learning.”
- “It’s been said a million times that the most important things aren’t things. But if we’re not careful, it seems, many of us find ourselves overwhelmed by all the stuff we have to manage, instead of focused on what we’re most passionate about—writing or making or painting or connecting with people. I want the stuff in my life to be light, easily managed, simple, so that the best of my energy is free for people, dreams, creativity.”
- “What we own, what we touch, what we carry: these things matter. What we surround ourselves with, how we regard our material possessions and our physical selves: these things matter.”
7) Create Space and Lightness in your Life by Going Slowly
Ready to get started with slow living? Start by downshifting.
- “Who wins, then? I handled it all! I showed them! But who is ‘them’? Who cares? Whose voice am I listening to? What am I trying to prove? What would happen, what would be lost, if I stopped, or if I slowed down to a pace that felt less like a high-speed chase all day, every day?”
- “What I ache for these days is space, silence, stillness.”
- “The only way through the emptiness is stillness: staring at that deep wound unflinchingly. You can’t outrun anything. I’ve tried. All you can do is show up in the stillness.”
- “This is the thing: her life seemed lighter than mine, easier. More free, more crafted to reflect her own preferences and passions…When I allowed myself to tiptoe past the disdain, past the envy, what I found was longing. I was longing for a life that felt light, right-sized for my strengths and limitations.”
- “Because these days I author my own pace and life, and I celebrate alongside people who do the same.”
- “I’m beginning to learn a new, slower speed, and I can feel my heartbeat elevate in a stressful way when I feel that old speed kicking up. I can do it. I’ll always be able to do it, I suppose. But I don’t want to anymore. The part of me that craved that breakneck way of living is also the part of me that was scared, that wanted to hide, that was always outrunning.”
- “And so one of the tiny little things I’m learning to do is to play—essentially, to purposely waste time. Strategically avoid strategy, for five minutes at a time. Intentionally not be intentional about every second. Have no purpose—on purpose.”
- “I’m also learning to leave sort of a sacred margin at the beginning and end of the day, to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier, letting the transitions between sleeping and waking and the reverse be a little gentler.”
- “How we live matters, and what you choose to own will shape your life, whether you choose to admit it or not. Let’s live lightly, freely, courageously, surrounded only by what brings joy, simplicity, and beauty.”
- “In the space that used to be filled with a whirring ball of anxiety, now there is a new patience, a new settledness, a new desire to be just exactly where I am right now. I’m reveling in this new patience, this new groundedness, this new sense of peace. It’s so foreign, and it’s so lovely.”
- “The deep well of contentedness that I feel these days is nothing short of a miracle, and it’s one I am thankful for every single day.”
- “And beyond those things I’ve done, the more life-altering parts of the work are those things I’ve not done: the moments that I’ve allowed—or forced—myself to stop, to rest, to breathe, to connect. That’s where life is, I’m finding. That’s where grace is. That’s where delight is.”
8) Get Outside in Nature
More and more research is supporting the benefits of “forest bathing” (spending time in nature).
- “I think one reason I come alive so thoroughly at the lake in a way I don’t at our home deep in the Midwestern suburbs is because I can feel the presence of the natural world here—in a lakeshore town, when it rains, everything changes. When you want to eat, you go to the farmer’s market, not the grocery store; and when the lightning crackles across the sky, you run for cover, throwing extra lines on the boats, securing awnings and umbrellas and deck furniture. At home, deep in the suburbs, it would take something along the lines of a true natural disaster to disrupt our well-trod routines and rhythms. I like that life at the lake depends on the sky, the water, the wind.”
- “These days, I’m relearning daughter-ness, and I find it most through silence and nature. Nature, of course, connects us back to that innate sense of having been created—of order and beauty and humility. We have been made. We are fragile. We live in connection to water and air and plants and sunshine, and when we acknowledge those things, we acknowledge our Creator.”
- “Being outside reminds me of life and God and growth, and the energy and motion of nature, all things I forget so easily when I spend my life too much indoors, too much in a world of laptops and laundry and lists.”
- “And I found myself drawn more and more back to the water, to simplicity, to the margins and the mystery, to the ideas that don’t fit on Twitter and a sense of nuance that doesn’t fly on Facebook.”
9) Love Always Wins
Choosing love is a key theme in the most viewed commencement speeches.
- “When I begin the day drenched in that love—that centering awareness of my worth and connection to God—the day is different. I don’t have to scramble or hustle. Fear dissipates, and what I’m left with is warmth, creativity, generosity. I can make and connect and create and tell the truth, because my worth isn’t on the line every time, at every moment. Unconditional love changes everything. It is changing everything. I can rest. I can fail. I can admit need and weakness. I can exhale. It’s changing everything.”
- “Why do it? Because writing has become my love letter, my way of telling the love story that’s changed my life.”
- “What fuels me now is love. It’s slower and deeper, less combustible and exciting. But it burns within my heart with such warmth and crackle that I never want to go back to the old fuel. The words come more slowly now, and the process is less frantic and jittery, and I think that’s just fine.”
- “Our souls are what allow us to connect—with God, with other people, with nature, with art. Without a soul, you can walk and drive and sleep, but you can’t love, you can’t weep, you can’t feel. You can’t make great art—or at least not for long.”
- “Whatever you’ve achieved, wherever you’ve arrived—a dollar amount in the bank, a number on the scale, that award or promotion or perfect house—whatever it is, if in order to get there, you laid your soul down, believing it was unnecessary baggage, or an acceptable sacrifice, I’m here to tell you, with great love and tenderness, that you’re wrong; and that I’d love to take you by the hand, and walk back as far as we need to, down the road of your past, to find it, like a sweater you dropped walking to class, like a scarf that slipped off your shoulders unnoticed.”
- “This is what I want to tell you: it’s better here, here in the place of love. This journey has brought about a meaningful transformation in every single part of my life. Every single part. My prayer life, my marriage, my family life, my friendships. I enjoy my work more. I feel a deep well of gratitude, a clean and grateful desire to live a life of meaning. I have the energy to live well, to dedicate myself to the things that matter to me, and that God has called me to. I have the security to truly rest, to truly enjoy this extraordinary world and all its offerings—books and art and meals and people and conversations and cities and beaches and night skies. And while I am deeply appreciative of the charms of this glittering world, I feel a sense of patience where I used to feel slight anxiety about the beauty of it: will I see it all? What if I miss something?”
10) The Journey is the Journey of a Lifetime
Your life is a masterpiece, and you can only paint one pixel a day.
- “For me, this has taken the shape of a nearly four-year journey from exhaustion, multitasking, frantic and frayed living, into peace, connection, and rest.”
- “My life is marked now by quiet, connection, simplicity. It has taken every bit of more than three years to learn these things, and like any hard, good work, I fail and try again more often than I’d prefer. But there is a peace that defines my days, a settledness, a groundedness. I’ve been searching for this in a million places, all outside myself, and it astounds me to realize that the groundedness is within me, and that maybe it was there all along.”
- “The journey of these years have been toward quiet—toward creating quiet around me, but more than that, toward creating quiet within me, which is much more difficult, and much more profound.”
- “I will spend my life on meaning, on connection, on love, on freedom. I will not waste one more day trapped in comparison, competition, proving, and earning. That’s the currency of a culture that has nothing to offer me.”
- “And so at long last, I’m making peace with medium. And choosing to be happy. Rested, not exhausted, not afraid, not wired and panicky all the time. This is countercultural. This is rebellious.”
- “That’s why this journey matters. Because I was on a dangerous track, where I was giving the best of myself to people and things ‘out there.’”
- “Whatever passage you’re facing—entering your twenties or your sixties, facing life alone for the first time in a long time or learning the new dance of partnership, becoming a parent or becoming an empty nester, leaving student life behind or becoming a student once again—has the potential to be your sea-change, your invitation to leave behind what’s not essential and travel deeply into the heart of things. This is a pattern we can recreate all our lives, over and over, because who’s ever totally finished leaving things behind?”
- “The bad news is that there is no finish line here, no magical before-and-after. Probably you will not always live in this new, brave, grounded space. Let me be clear with you: I don’t. I still get pushed off center, thrown into fear and proving, wound up into a tangled mess.”
- “For a while, I placed my marriage, my family, and my soul on the altar of productivity, of hustle, of competency and efficiency. I can’t adequately express the regret I feel for having done that, or the gratitude I feel for pulling them back down off the altar before it was too late. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d continued down that road another year. Or two. Or ten.”
What do you need to burn down in your life, to make space for a new way of living? — Shauna Niequist
See all slow summaries here.
Also published on Medium.