Alexandra Franzen on janitors, leadership and snail mail

Alexandra Franzen (Alex) has long been one of my favorite humans. She has gifted us with amazing content and resources for YEARS and the majority of it is provided at no cost. She truly became my hero when she removed all of her social media accounts, and she has stuck with that for some time now. As such, the only place you can find her is on her website!

In this video, Alex and I discuss priorities in life, why we need janitors, giving up social media, living a life worth living and telling each other what they mean to us. This amazing talk was originally recorded for the Permission Granted Retreat.

Before you watch the discussion though, I’d love for you to take a moment and answer this prompt (which Alex frequently has her writing clients complete). Once you’ve completed the prompt, I would be so pleased if you’d leave a note in the comments about what your completed sentence or paragraph is!

I want to live in a world where …

Now, on to the interview (if you’d rather read the transcript, scroll down)!

Alexandra Franzen is the author of So This Is the End: A Love Story. Other projects include You’re Going to Survive50 Ways to Say You’re Awesome, a bestselling question-of-the-day journal for couples called Our Q&A a Day, and a romance novel called Milk & Honey.

She has written articles for TimeForbesNewsweekThe Huffington Post, and Lifehacker.She has been mentioned in places like The New York Times Small Business BlogThe Atlantic, USA TodayStyleCasterBuzzFeedBrit+Co, and Inc.

She writes a newsletter to share inspiring true stories, writing and creativity tips, positivity, encouragement, and motivation to pursue your goals.

She also works as a copywriter and writing coach, helping clients to develop podcasts, videos, websites, pitches, proposals, books, and other projects. AlexandraFranzen.com.


Remember that song that Alex mentioned that is a favorite?


TRANSCRIPT: Permission Granted Retreat - Interview with Alex Franzen

Naomi:

Ok so tell me about this coffee thing!

Alex:

So I'm here with my coffee. I have a one bedroom apartment that I share with my boyfriend Brandon. It's not huge, but it's not small - just kind of normal. But what I realized a couple of months ago is that every morning when I woke up, I would use my phone as my alarm clock. Like so many of us, when my phone would start beeping, I would grab it and turn it off. Then what would I do? I would check email, scroll scroll, what's happening on New York Times, blah blah blah. I would spend the first few minutes of the day, in bed, just kind of like this - on my phone! I started to realize that I would start my mornings completely overwhelmed.  I want to know what's going on in the world, and I want to know what's going on with my friends. I want to know those things, of course, but it was just getting my day started on not the best note. I started thinking to myself, what would be my fantasy morning? What would be really nice, and a beautiful way to wake up? I kind of jokingly said - or maybe my boyfriend suggested - he was like "You know what you'd love, if your coffee maker was literally right by the bed. You could wake up and kind of swing your arm and press the button, and it would start percolating and coffee would happen magically!"

Naomi:

The smell of coffee in the morning!!

Alex:

Yes! I was like, YES, that's what I want. So I literally cleared off my bedside table. I got my phone out of there, got a new alarm clock that is gentle and soothing and not phone related. I put my coffee maker, the book that I'm reading, some flowers and now when I wake up in the morning, I turn on my coffee, my book. I snuggle in bed, read and drink coffee for a few moments before I get going.

Naomi:

That's the best ever!

Alex:

Right? It's like, we have more control over our environment than we think, but it had never occurred to me because I was so stuck in that habit! So, that's been really nice!

Naomi:

What a great way to get off the phone. I have a similar-ish thing in the morning with my phone. I might have to think about the coffee addition. I actually have a one cup Keurig coffee maker that is in my master bedroom's bathroom, so it wouldn't be that hard. And, there's something really beautiful about starting your morning by staying in bed - instead of jumping out of bed first thing. I really love that.

Alex:

There was an author, Colette, she was alive awhile ago. I read somewhere that she would literally stay in bed and write - for hours - she wouldn't get out of bed until like 3pm. She was a very fabulous woman, so she always had her lover there bringing her chocolate croissants and coffee. She would just stay in bed, that was her office!

Naomi:

That's amazing. That's pretty great! So speaking of writing, one of the things I really have loved about you and your work, you play such an importance on the value of writing, the written word and snail mail. Why is that so important? We are sometimes struggling with even knowing where a digital notification has come from. We know a friend has reached out, but we don't know which social media platform, an email or a text. Why is the written word so important, especially in today's day and age?

04:05 

Alex:

Oh my goodness. Like so many of us, I have a love/hate tension with technology. I love certain aspects of technology. I couldn't have the career I have without it. It's amazing that any of us can write something and click publish and now it's available for the world. I think that is probably the most important advancement since the printing press - for our culture. The flip side is that we're all so overwhelmed and it becomes so habitual and so addictive and something gets lost in the noise and chaos, emails, notifications, beeps and pings. Really, probably a few years ago I started to look closely at my relationships with technology, particularly social media and I just started to feel like a real yearning to really step away and clear some space in my brain again. And I did! I just quietly - one by one by one - took breaks, took a break from Twitter. Took a break from Pinterest, I just paused and then realized that it felt really good. That led to just deactivating profiles one by one by one. That felt really good too! Then coinciding with that was a desire to connect with people in a quieter, old school kind of way. I started writing cards and letters. I've always done a little of that, but I wanted to do it more. I know that for me personally, when I get a hand written card in the mail, it's like a birthday present. It's such a shock, and a surprise, and makes such an impact on my day. I wanted to give that feeling to other people too.

Naomi:

There's also something beautiful around snail mail also because when I send something, I am sending it from that place in my day, on that day - and several days later depending on where you're mailing it (it could be a week or two), the recipient gets it and somehow magically it's always still "the right time." Isn't that crazy?

Alex:

Isn't that amazing? It's incredible. I just love . . . I think we're all in such a rush. I LIKE that snail mail is slow. I like the idea that you send it off and it takes a couple of days before it arrives. In a way, I've also started to approach email with that same attitude. I don't respond to everything immediately. I don't want to and it's not necessary. I wish everyone would kind of operate in that way to some extent. Obviously some things are relatively urgent, but most things aren't. 

Naomi:

Someone said, I don't remember who, that email should not become our new to-do list. That's almost how it feels. Someone hits submit on their email and it becomes a to-do list item on your agenda. So I really like that. 

Alex:

The other interesting thing, I often wonder, email is essentially free. You can send unlimited emails, instantly, it's free, it costs nothing - which is amazing - but also when something is unlimited and free, we tend to treat it with a little more carelessness. We don't think that carefully about what we're asking for or crafting. However, with a handwritten letter, we are physically thinking about it, writing it out. You have one chance and there's no delete button. You're paying some money to drop it in the mail. There's a lot more care, attention and thoughtfulness that goes into that correspondence. That's another thing I wish we could apply more of to the way we "do email." If the email cost $1.00 to send, would you still send it?

Naomi:

You, in one of your recent email newsletters (which, if you are NOT on Alex's email list, you need to be) you had a dialogue around taking a moment and going one step further. Can you talk about what was in that and the concept of asking "are you ok?" and just what you put into that, because it was beautiful and timely.

08:40 

Alex:

Totally. So the quick version of the story is I went down the street to my local gym, doing a spin class. I've gotten really into spin lately. I'm one of "those people" now!

Naomi:

We do NOT have that in common!!!

Alex:

I don't know how it happened, but here I am, going to spin class three times a week. So I went to the class - great class as always, super sweaty and intense. At the end of the class, when we were kind of cooling down, the teacher, Will, got up in front of the class, hopped off his bike, and I could tell he had a sermon to give. He told a story, he said that he had a friend who lives in Florida. At the time of this recording, Florida was being ravaged by Hurricane Irma. It was just awful.  For DAYS, Will had been thinking about her. Wondering if she was ok. Should I check in, I'm not sure? He thought to himself, I'm sure she's inundated with messages, maybe not, I don't know. Something in him was telling him to just reach out. I'm just going to send a text, he said. See if she's doing alright. He wrote a little text and said "Hey, I know the hurricane has been awful. I'm thinking of you. I just hope you're alright. Sending some love."  She called him back immediately and instantly said - crying and in so much pain - she said "Will! Thank you so much for reaching out. It means so much to me. I'm not ok, we are evacuating. I'm going to lose the house. I'm so scared." And then she said to him, "You're the ONLY person who has reached out to me."

Naomi:

Oh that's crazy!

Alex:

I KNOW! I'm emotional just thinking about it. I mean, Will was just stunned. He was thinking, oh my god, this is a woman with hundreds of Facebook friends and hundreds of Instagram friends, and this is a woman with a big network and no one reached out. Not one person. He almost didn't reach out. The message of course in that story which he shared so eloquently was, if you feel that instant to text or call or send a letter or just check in, or even if you see someone on the side of the road who doesn't seem ok, if you feel that impulse to check in, don't say you'll do it later. Just do it. It might make such a difference and you might be the only one.

Naomi:

I think in your message you also talked a lot about the fact that we all have this opinion that someone else will do it OR that someone else is better equipped to be the one to reach out. I actually posted your message to my Facebook wall to get some interaction and engagement on the topic. What everyone kept saying was that sometimes we feel like we don't know the right thing to say, or we don't know how to reach out and that sometimes it holds us back. That's kind of sad, but I know how that is, especially in the world of social media where sometimes you do get blasted for not saying the right thing, or saying it fast enough, or maybe you're not even "enlightened enough" which is a sad state of affairs. What are your thoughts around how we can get out of the "I don't know what to say" and into the habit of still checking in anyway, and being that touch point for someone who might really need it?

12:28 

Alex:

Oh my gosh, that's a great question. It is so true. I think that when we see someone in crisis or in pain, or a friend has gotten a horrible cancer diagnosis or has lost their dad. Often times it's like what DO you say? So because you don't know what to say, some people do nothing for fear of saying the wrong thing, as you said. My personal approach - I don't know if it's the right approach in every situation - but you can just reach out and just say "Hey, I imagine this is a really hard time for you. I'm thinking about you and you're in my thoughts. I love you. If there is anything I can do, if you want to talk, I'm here." Just leave it at that. The person may not respond, because they may just be overwhelmed in their grief and not have space to chat. They also may be sick of talking about it, you know? I've had experiences where a friend has gone through something really traumatic. She was like "you know what? I literally just described this to my therapist, the police, I don't want to talk about it anymore." So as the person offering support, it's important to just let them be them . . . and not try to force the issue. On the other hand, I also think it's ok to check in more than once. Especially if the person is going through some kind of depression or mental illness or issue. I think it's ok to keep gently knocking at the door. "Hey, it's been a week. I still love you, I'm still here."

Naomi:

I like that. Along the same lines of gently checking in, sometimes just saying "I'm going to sit next to you. I don't know what to say, it feels really awkward to try, but I'll sit here."

Alex:

Yeah totally. 

Naomi:

You've written a book called "You're Going to Survive" and it kind of touches on that fear of rejection, what happens when you're rejected. I think a lot of our listeners are probably sitting on something that they know could impact the world. Or they know it could change their family dynamics, or it could be something that they need to do for themselves. What are some things you talk about in the book, from your experience, as well as from the stories you share in the book, that could help our listeners - I don't know - put aside that fear of rejection or the fear of doing something wrong?

15:06 

Alex:

Yeah! So the book "You're Going to Survive" is about dealing with rejection, discouragement, disappointment and mainly as it relates to your career, your work as a creative project. Though I collected stories from musicians, lawyers, non-profit directors, from all kinds of different careers. I basically asked each person, can you tell me the story of one of the worst memories in your career? How did you survive it? How did you get through it? How did you survive it? I was so blessed. People were so generous with their stories. I interviewed so many people and everyone shared stories you just wouldn't believe. Some of them were very dramatic, some were more ordinary. One thing though that touched me - and that I think is a good thing for all of us to remember - is that if you're feeling insecure about your talents, if you're wondering "who am I" to start a blog or write a book. If you're feeling like oh my gosh, I'm trying to reach this professional goal and it's taking too long, and I'm never going to get there. If you're feeling any of those things, you are not alone because literally everyone is struggling with something. At least at some point or another. It was very cathartic for me to realize that everyone feels this way. None of us are freaks and alone in our little cave. The other thing that really struck me as a theme that came up through several of the interviews I did, was the whole concept of criticism and rejection. It was very interesting, one of the guys I interviewed has a newsletter, much like me, and he sends it out to his mailing list every Sunday. He said that every time he sends out his newsletter, 10 people will email back and say "I love this, what a great idea, this is so inspiring, this changed my day, thank you-thank you-thank you. And then he will get one or two emails that are like "who do you think you are" and "this is so stupid, I learned this when I was 5". Total negativity! It's the SAME newsletter. It's so interesting how a piece of art - whether it's a newsletter, a song or a book or whatever - can inspire such dramatically different reactions from different people! It's important to be able to observe that with a little bit of distance and just go "huh, isn't that interesting" rather than "oh my god, I'm so hurt and wounded" which is the place I usually go! I think it's that the more you put your work out into the word, I don't like to use the term "build a thick skin" because that means you're like shielding your heart or something. I do think you learn how to take in the positive reactions and the negative reactions without letting either one kind of sway you too much. It just takes practice.

18:45 

Naomi:

It's interesting that you say that because one of the things I wanted to ask you about was your ability to - from the outside looking in- not only consistently deliver value but come to your community from this place of perspective and filters and like you said, the step back of "huh isn't that interesting" and you keep continuously putting out value. For those of our community watching who have a community to serve or an audience to serve of some sort. How do you regularly deliver, ethically, without getting caught up in the mire of letting things get to you, or other people's opinions - when really what matters is the work  you're putting out. That might have been too complicated of a question, but . . . 

Alex:

I think what you're asking is like, how do you keep showing up for your community, to share something. I think the answer is - I mean look. Not everyone needs to be an entrepreneur. Not everyone needs to be an artist. We need high school teachers and janitors and physicians and lots of other professions. But if you are called to create, whatever that means for you, I think certain people just feel that call. For me, I love writing articles. I love working on books. I love sending out my newsletters. I love doing things like this - having these interesting and wonderful conversations and creating video content. It's not something I have to force myself to do, I want to do it. So for me, showing up consistently for my audience - it truly is a joy. That being said, there have definitely been times that it's been hard than others - either because I was recovering from an injury or feeling kind of depressed, particularly in the early days when almost no one was reading. No one was listening. It was harder then because there was a sense of "what's the point of all of this if only my dad is reading!" I think I just kept chugging forward because I had this sense that this is who I am. I'm supposed to write. It sounds very - I don't know - kind of woo-woo, not that it's a bad thing, but I think we all have a quiet little voice inside that says "this is what you're supposed to do."

Naomi:

Yes! And I think it's interesting because one of the intentions I'm putting on myself for this year has been quiet power and quiet leadership, because it doesn't always have to be loud. Our activism in this world and our place doesn't have to always be like fist raised, and "here I come to tell you my thoughts" it can sometimes be quiet leadership. I'd love to know what your thoughts are around leadership and what that means to you, what it looks like to you. Also, do you feel there is a leader in all of us?

22:02 

Alex:

Whoooo! Definitely there is a leader in all of us, of course. Leadership for me, actually - oh there's a writing prompt that I do with my students when I teach writing classes and workshops - which is: I want to live in a world where ____________. I want to live in a world where we get less email and more hand written snail mail. I want to live in a world where when people feel the impulse to reach out and help, they do it. I want to live in a world where __________. You can fill in the blank how ever you want, but if you start going down that train of thought, quickly you'll realize that these are the values that are important to you, and that's what you can model for your audience. Your audience might be your kids and your audience might be a classroom, or it might be a newsletter subscriber list. When you know your values, you can model them - and I think that works, mostly!

Naomi:

I think so, and I love that you said that an audience can be your kids and it can also be someone else's kids. I was just having a conversation with someone else around schools, teachers and the impact we can have on people's children even if they are not our own. So I really love that a lot.

Alex:

Totally. When we talk about inspiring an audience, when I use that word what I mean is whoever is in front of you. It could be the people around you at Starbucks, who are watching how you choose to interact with the barista, because we all can create a ripple effect in our surroundings - whether it's online or offline. 

Naomi:

I do a morning reading and meditation and yesterday's was actually around the impact our words have on others. It can be generational, the words we are told - positive or negative - and I think it's so true, the words that we use have a ripple effect. I also think that even beyond words, the way we live out our lives is probably even more meaningful than the words we choose sometimes.  In all of this, in the life you're living and in the work you put out, where do you go or who do you look to when you need a reset, encouragement or some light filled wisdom?

Alex:

That's a great question! The first thing that comes into my mind is my mom and dad. I'm almost 33 years old, but in some ways I am just a little kid. When I really need guidance, I turn to them. Not necessarily for advice. I very rarely ask point blank "what should I do" but just to hear their voices. My mom always makes me laugh. My dad always calms me down. I just feel so incredibly grateful they are both alive and healthy and we can have a relationships. They are always my go to for when I'm feeling a little off the rails. In terms of inspiration, just in the world there are a couple of people who consistently inspire me. David Blaine, the magician is one of my all-time heroes. I think he is so cool, I love his artistry. I love his incredible dedication to his craft. If you've ever watched his shows or documentaries, or his Ted talk is SO good, you just get the sense this is a guy who has chosen a path and is just marching, marching, marching. He's so devoted and that really inspires me when I'm feeling like giving up or when I'm feeling like it's just hard.

Naomi:

Well, he's also so gracious and humble, just that quiet power. I mean, he is not showy or there to be the center of the stage, but he does command it. That's a great one, I would have never thought of him!

Alex:

Talk about quiet power! I actually finally got to see his live show this year and I think it's the first North American tour he's ever done. He doesn't do live shows very often, he more does tv shows, private appearances and things like that. The first half of the show was kind of slight of hand and various tricks and stuffs. It was amazing. Then the second half of the show, he did his famous endurance act where he holds his breath in a water tank. He held his breath that night for almost twelve minutes. Under water. It was just incredible. Then he got out, of the tank, and his assistant wrapped a towel around him. Everyone in the audience was like "oh my god, now what's going to happen."  He walked to the front of the stage, with a microphone, and he kind of sat down at the edge of the stage with his towel wrapped around him, and he was like "any questions?"  Not in a funny way, he was serious. Everyone started passing the microphone around and everyone - one by one - started asking questions. He just - for literally half an hour - he sat there quietly with no fan fare and it was just this intimate Q&A with David. I was like crying, it was so amazing. It was exactly quiet power. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium because of his composure, grace and the stories he told us.

Naomi:

That's amazing. Do you read often? I know you are a writer and everything that you have to give comes through your writing, but I'm always curious with writers, how often they read, and if you do, what was the last thing you read or the thing that's been the most impactful or has just grabbed you.

Alex:

I love to read and I am one of those people where I go through phases. Right now I'm in a heavy reading phase where I'll read for an hour every day, either right before bed or first thing in the morning. Then I go through other times where I won't read for weeks and I'll watch Netflix. It ebbs and flows. Currently, I'm reading a lot of fiction actually. I started reading this amazing fantasy series called Throne of Glass. I highly recommend if you like fantasy and dramatic stories. It has a really kick-ass female protagonist. She's actually a female assassin but she has a heart of gold. She actually is kind of a rebel for the people and everyone thinks she's evil and dangerous, but her image has been manipulated by the people in power. It has kind of a love triangle. I think there's seven books in the series. I think each one is between 400-500 pages long. I'm now on book two and I think I'm going to tear through it pretty quickly.

29:57 

Naomi:

Ok so last question before I let you go. What is your personal mantra or word of the year? Is there something that guides you on a regular basis or something that grounds you?

Alex:

My personal mantra is "Today is not over yet" That's - for the past several years - have been my personal mantra. Today is not over yet. There's always time to turn things around or to take a breath or to end the day on a somewhat positive, optimistic note, no matter what happened earlier today.

Naomi:

My favorite day of the week is Wednesdays, kind of for that same reason. Because the week isn't over yet. I've either earned some time off the rest of the week because I've accomplished some goals, or there's time to turn it around. So I can totally gel with your personal mantra. Alex, where do we find you? I know you have been very intentional about taking yourself off of all of the places, so you have a very simple way for people to find you - where is that?

Alex:

Yea! I have a website, it is alexandrafranzen.com - not very creative, just my name. That's pretty much it. I have articles I post there, books that I post there. Newsletters, workshops, retreats, I do my newsletter anywhere from like 2-4 times per month. Usually it's not too much. 

Naomi:

I also want to encourage listeners to go check out your website. You have so much incredible free value in terms of writing prompts, things to make yourself think about you and the way you interact with others. Thank you, personally, for all the years of value you have given to me and if you haven't checked out Alex's work - please do that! When we post all of these videos, we will share the links, and also your current favorite song - which is actually a pretty badass song.

Alex:

It's a good one!

Naomi:

Thank you so much for everything that you do and the light and love that you bring to the world.

Alex:

This was such a beautiful conversation. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about David Blaine!! So awesome.

Naomi:

David Blaine and always asking people if they're doing ok! Love it. Thank you Alex.