Here's the interview, there's some gems in this one --
"To Heal, Play."
By Charlie Hoehn, as told to Chiara Cokieng and edited by Sebastian Marshall.
First and foremost, I'm a writer. That's what I'm doing right now. In the past, I've helped startups and authors with their books and projects with launching them.
I'm working on the finishing touches for a book I've been working on for the past five years. I had a monster set of notes that I hadn't planned on making into a book, so it took longer than I thought it would.
I'm living in Austin with my good friend Tucker Max. He and I have known each other for four years, and I try to get out and have fun each day, and not be glued to the computer screen all day!
Having this time to just work on my own projects and nothing else has been a really cool change of pace. I never really had that chance before. I've taken ownership over many projects, but I hadn't done my own thing and cranked out my own art since college.
It's been really challenging and really a great internal growth process for me, and it's been really deeply rewarding. I find myself, for the first time in a long time, doing work and smiling and leaning into it and getting excited about it. It's not drudgery, there's an actual part of my heart and soul into this work.
There's a really interesting transformation that happens when you start writing your own internal secret thoughts, and making them physical and tangible. You become that person more and more in real life.
You become more authentic and open and honest, because you've grown comfortable with practicing bringing that material out.
That's something that I noticed in Lake Tahoe with all my best friends from high school. I hadn't seen some of them in several years, but I noticed with a handful of them that they couldn't be honest with themselves because they haven't had that practice. It's not a fault of theirs -- they're just not used to doing it.
That's the case with a lot of people. But I've found writing, creating art, and projecting out what my feelings and thinking are, it's made me like myself more.
I've gotten a lot better at noticing when people are holding back. Now, I can say something,, and I know it'll be throwing them a line that they can grab on to, or when I say something that they might feel but are too reserved to say themselves.
When that happens, it gives either a huge sense of relief and then they can open up, or they're just kind of bewildered and put off… and that's fine if that happens, they're probably going to be put off by me anyways if they're not an open person. But normally, people react like, "Oh my God, I've thought the same thing…" It's this weird superpower that everybody can have: helping others open up, and giving them permission to be themselves.
The best way to do this is not just pressing people's buttons. You don't just say, "Hey, you ever done drugs before?!" It's not about taboo stuff; it's about becoming comfortable with yourself first.
I recommend writing.
With a pen and paper, not a computer.
The computer doesn't have the same physical connection as when you're staring into a blank piece of paper that can't turn into Facebook or Reddit, and you're just turning that paper into what's inside of you, and you become comfortable with yourself, and you try to go deeper, and open up more, and you keep seeing it's okay.
You vomit out all these thoughts that bother you, and the stuff you love that other people don't really give a shit about, and the stuff constantly churning in your brain.
If you've been thinking, "This is a problem, I'm trying to find a solution!" -- you get to write it down and read it back to yourself and get comfortable with it. You start to understand yourself really well, and genuinely like what's coming out of you.
Even when I was at my worst and felt awful, like death all the time, one of the things that helped me restore my sanity was writing down everything that was bothering me.EVERYTHING. Thoughts about my parents, my girlfriend, my sister… the kind of thing I was too afraid to say to people's face. I'd resist it in my head because it seemed like a bad thought I shouldn't have. But when you get these thoughts out, you realize that everyone has these thoughts. When you start talking to others, you realize they're all editing and filtering their thoughts too. They've all been conditioned to not be okay with what pops into their mind -- even though, really, it's all okay.
Once you become comfortable with your thoughts, you help others become comfortable with their thoughts. "Hey, we're all friends here" -- and you stop judging people and become more empathetic, and you both be okay with how screwed up you both are.
I read an article recently, about a girl who was a really talented writer and blogger who wrote about her depression a lot, and she disappeared for a year. She came back two days ago and wrote about the depression she went through.
She does a great job of describing what depression feels like inside. You don't have thoughts of, 'I want to kill myself', but you do have thoughts of 'I want this to be done.' There's no meaning, purpose, excitement, stimulation, sex drive… there's no joy, everything feels forced and everything is exhausting. Every interaction you have is fake, and you're trying to keep it together for the sake of appearances with other people.
My face would twitch because I was having to conjure fake emotions. If someone was going through something great, I never cared. If someone went through something horrible, I never cared. If someone wanted to go to the movies, I'd say, "Yeah, let's do that" -- but I felt like they were trying to drain the little bit of life I had left.
Every single interaction was a weight I had to carry. It was exhausting and so miserable, and you feel hollow and empty all the time. There was a night when I finally told my girlfriend at the time all this stuff. I'd moved out of San Francisco, and I came back for this conference and saw her… and I didn't even want to see her, I was just seeing her because I felt obligated to… She asked why I was so emotionally distant, why I didn't feel like her… why did I have such a different energy level than the new guy she'd started dating?
I told her everything. I feel dead inside. All the time. I've been trying to fix this, make this go away for months. I don't know how to stop it. It doesn't go away. I want it to stop, but it doesn't. I don't know why it won't go away.
The book I'm writing is about everything that helped me, but getting out of that funk was a real challenge. It was facing a lot of inner demons. And outer ones, too.
Most people either can't relate, or are afraid to open up about it. It's a weird thing, a very private suffering. You're ashamed to have it when you're going through it. I can talk about it now because it's past, and I know why I was going through that particular stuff. The more I opened up to people about this, the more that I noticed they were going through the same thing by what they said, or I could see it on their face.
I could see their faked emotion. It was so bizarre, I had never noticed this whole phenomenon before, until now. I didn't understand why people felt so uncomfortable when I interacted with them in the past, but now I can see their pain.
To me, the all-encompassing solution was simply play. Something I realized is, I'd effectively deprived myself of play for years, and I wasn't aware of it. My state of mind had shifted to, "Life is serious. Work is serious. Make a career. Make money. Productivity, productivity, productivity. Play the game. Serious."
Before that, I'd taken life more lightly and been fun-loving and relaxed. I loved to play jokes, to mess around, to do stupid side projects that are total wastes of time that are fun to me that I could get caught up in… but then I just started taking everything so seriously.
I think living in the city was tough. The city is cluttered with skylines and human activity. And no easy access to nature is tough. The closest nature to San Francisco is 40 minutes away, and I didn't own a car in SF… so I wasn't having quality time in nature, wasn't having quality time with my friends. Even when I did something fun like go to the park and throw around a football, I was caught up in my mind about work I was missing out that I had to do.
I kept thinking about all this shit I had to do, and I reached a point… I would say I quit working with Tim because I was burnt out. I was a little anxious at the time, and I burnt out. I wasn't sleeping enough, I was working all day every day, checking email constantly at 3AM, and the few times I went to play I still was in "life is serious, work is serious" mode.
I wasn't doing things because I wanted to do it; I was afraid of what would happen if I didn't do it.
I quit halfway through The Four Hour Chef. Tim and I did The Four Hour Body together, and that was legitimately an interesting project. It was cool, it was fascinating, and we knew it would have a profound effect on people's lives, and it was meaningful. But with The Four Hour Chef, I didn't care about cooking. I didn't care about knives -- I actually dislike knives. And food has never been my toy, I was never interested in food. Not as a kid until now. I have no understanding of all the subtleties of food… so working on that project was a disconnect for me.
I'd never tackle the subject even if I was given $500,000 to do it.
Just because there's a demand for it, doesn't mean I want to do something, or should do it.
I'd already committed though, and I was afraid to quit. My family, my friends, all congratulating me. My blog readers, they'd say, "You work for Tim Ferriss? How cool!" Tim's the embodiment of achievement -- I felt important working with him, but deep down, I didn't like myself and what I was doing.
What helped me quit was writing out all my thoughts. I wrote a 10 page letter basically explaining my thought process. I threw it away later, but I had to organize what was going on in my head, and realize it was okay.
There's something magical about reading your writing. It goes from nebulous thought to fact. Putting your thoughts on paper is very powerful.
I quit, and took four months off. That was the peak of my anxiety.
I thought, "I'll just take a few weeks off, and jump back into work."
Then I realized, my body is broken, that's painful, I haven't slept or played or stopped looking at my inbox and Facebook in years. All this stuff has caught up to me, and I feel like I'm not even experiencing life. That's when I entered that state of living death… and that was a shitty period.
That period went over for a year.
Quitting was scary. I wanted to leave. I wanted to cut and run. That was my desire. I thought, "Maybe I could just mail him all the files and all the instructions for how to replace me, and we won't have to interact."
At the time, I knew inside I was hitting my breaking point for my job, but I thought I could tough it out and work through it. "Just keep going! Just keep plowing!"
What broke for me, is in a short period of time, a close friend attempted suicide and a family member died.
I told Tim, "I need to take the next week or so off…" and during that week, I realized I couldn't do this any more.
I wrote that letter. I figured out in a week how I could remove myself from the project while automating all the systems I was running as much as possible, and then I scheduled a dinner with Tim, and I was shaking on my way over there. I took a beta blocker to slow my heart rate down, even.
I was shaking as I walked up to the restaurant.
He had a list of things he wanted to go over.
The waiter poured each of us a glass of wine. He asked how I was doing.
And I told him -- "I can't do this any more. I'm sorry. I'm broken. The shit in my life, it's a mess right now and I can't keep forcing myself through this."
And he was like, it was tough for him on a professional level because the book was an overwhelming project. If you look at how much work went into The Four Hour Chef… the deadline moved back six months. It didn't move back six months once; it kept getting pushed back a month, and another month, and two months -- and I couldn't make it through it.
It was tough for him, because I was leaving him kind of high and dry. I mean, that's not how he responded. He said, "I understand, I get it, I get where you're coming from. Alright, what's next for you?" At the time, I was scared to even give him an honest answer there -- my answer would have been, "I'm not going to do anything."
I BS'ed him about an iPhone app I had on the back burner…
It took me a while to realize how not serious all this was. It was my choice to make this all really serious and important. It was all my own head games.
I knew all that intellectually, but I didn't get this emotionally until I went back to the concept of play.
Play was what I did because I wanted to do it. Play was natural and automatic. Play gets me lost in time, playing my game, on my rules, and these with playmates I'd chosen. Tim and Ramit and Tucker, all these guys I'd worked with, they were playmates I'd chosen at the outset, rules I set for myself.
But as time went on, it was more about fear of leaving the game, about the other person's roles and rules. You can get into the existential stuff on our work doesn't matter or whatever, and that's true, but the concept of play finally made it hit for me. Because play is, like, what we're here to do. We're here to create our own games, here to re-write the rules so they're better for everyone, and we're here enjoy ourselves and help each other and be a team, be a family together.
Play brought that back to me, to what made sense to me as a kid, and why I'd been so happy and fulfilled when I was younger. Play. The concept, inevitably, was play.
As I dug more into this, I realized that we've all been deprived of play. On a bigger cultural level, we've all been deprived of play. We're all forced to be in school, in an institution, indoors, at a desk, and told what we're to do on pointless memorization tasks that can't be used at any point in our lives, with no bearing on what we'd actually do if given our own time. For two decades.
And it hit me -- all the things I really loved, all the beauty and things we've produced -- art, sports, books, architecture, design, characters in movies, storytelling -- every single thing that made life fun and beautiful came from a person or a group of people who were there playing.
They were doing what they wanted to do, playing with their own rules, and their own toys, for months and years at a time. The fruits of their play, they'd get really good at it, and the fruits of their play -- the products and games they came up with that everyone could share and watch and enjoy -- this is what made humanity so unique.
The play concept made sense to me -- not just from a career standpoint, but life.
My friends, we weren't prisonmates together, we were playing together. We played sports, we had interests and skill levels in common, so we kept playing together so we could keep getting better at the games we cared about it. Some of my best friends in the world are people to come up with comedy sketches, people we were just trying to make each other laugh. It was really simple and really easy, and there was no loneliness any more -- because we were playing. It took away my anxiety.
I realized, I was chronically isolated before, not having fun with other human beings. When I allowed myself to be around others, and play with them and have something in common with them, and have something in common with them, that bonded us and brought us together. I was part of a group of people again, and it's the same concept as earlier -- at a sleepover. You can be scared of the dark alone, but if there's a friend there, you'll laugh.
Humans don't function alone. You have to be part of the group. I think it's legitimately abuse locking kids up in schools and depriving them of play. They're so caught up with their phones because it lets them play. It's like an aquarium, though -- they're interacting through a piece of glass, not face to face, and a lot of people are lonely, isolated, and depressed -- and they can't talk about it. And don't know what's causing it.
My mentality shifted -- I go day to day now. Whatever comes, comes. And I react and adapt and survive, and make something better. To me, this play thing is something I'm into right now. I'm never at the finish line, though. I'm not saying, "Yes! This is what I want to do with the rest of my life!"
I want to keep surrounding myself with great, smart, talented, funny friends. Who are very open and loving. Who make my life better, and I make their life better. The play concept is really nice and it's going to help a lot of people, and potentially will make people think, "The system really messes all of us up, and conditions us, and we don't even see it."
I've got a few ideas related to this that I'm excited about, that I think are really fun, but I've got different projects I'm thinking about. I have no desire to build an empire or be famous -- I've worked with those people the last several years, in their cliques and groups of friends, a lot of these people get so caught up in the prestige and outdoing each other, and always accomplishing and never being content.
And then, there are also a lot of them who are just having fun. Like little kids.
The most successful people I've ever met, they're like little kids. When you start talking to them about what they're making and working on, they get like, "I'M MAKING MY WORLD BETTER!!! :) :) :)"
They all have different toys they play with, different canvases they paint on. But the most successful people all play at their work.
Charlie Hoehn is doing a class at GiveGetWin with all the proceeds to charity. For $19.99, you can learn Charlie's techniques for doing meaningful work without all the stress, anxiety, and burnout. If you're hyper-achieving but feeling miserable, this might be just the ticket for you. Find out more here.