For Pandora Sykes, the past year has been non-stop, personally and professionally. She has released two seasons of the hit pop culture/cultural affairs podcast The High Low, which she co-hosts with Dolly Alderton; welcomed her second baby and written her debut book (not to mention recording her own podcast, Doing It Right, in lieu of a book tour).
“I filed the last bits [of the book] two weeks before lockdown, so it would be a very different book if I were writing it now,” she considers, as we speak over the phone. The climate and events of 2020, an “extraordinarily intense period for so many people”, does mean a time of concentrated and collective reflection, believes Sykes.
“We’ve had so many devastating things happen this year,” she says. “I suppose what I hope is that even though we haven’t been living the lives I write about in the book, this might be the opportunity, as we ease back into ‘real life’, to look at the lives we led and consider how they might serve us in the future.”
From the connection between work and happiness to the complexities of modern communication (yes, WhatsApp groups included), How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? Essays on Modern Life explores “the stories we’ve been sold and the ones we tell ourselves”, and investigates why so many of us, actually, feel like we’re getting ‘it’ wrong. Sykes started thinking about the book in February 2019, began writing the essays that June and finished not long after the arrival of her son in December.
“It was written in quite a condensed time period, which I think it had to be to write those essays, because everything is changing. I keep reading stuff now and thinking, ‘Oh God, I wish I’d known about that when I was writing!’” she exclaims, and highlights her essay on work and happiness as an example. When we speak, she’s just read a feature in The Observer on Yale University professor Laurie Santos, who created a wildly successful course about happiness after she noticed so many of her students were struggling with their mental health. Sykes wishes she had interviewed Santos for that particular essay (she’s also keen to take the course). But the research that has gone into Sykes’ book is extensive and eclectic – the Notes section is 27 pages long and spans Virginia Woolf, Barack Obama, Taylor Swift and many in between. Just like The High Low, it bridges the conversational and the erudite with ease.
In the final essay of the book, The Raw Nerve, Sykes makes the case that facets of modern society and communication have pushed us into a place of expecting to have a fully realized and certain opinion on everything. “We don’t pause or reflect. We listen in order to respond – not to learn,” she writes. “I think the most revolutionary thing we could do is to say: ‘I don’t have an opinion. But I’d love to hear yours.’”
“I think we need to start seeing ‘I don’t have an opinion’ as a strength rather than a weakness,” she tells me. “Because if we’re trying to become – as we should, as is overdue – more inclusive in the way we consume and produce culture in all aspects, then we have to be able to sit back and say, ‘I don’t know enough about this right now.’”
That’s the biggest theme of the book: understanding that there is no ‘right’ life, there’s only a rightful life”
It is, of course, easier said than done. “Social media and the internet discourse in general demands externalization and categorization constantly, so you are both thinking something and performing that thinking at the same time.”
Sykes is active on social media (at the time of writing, she has 315k followers on Instagram), but not without concerns about its uses. In her essay The Authentic Lie, she deep-dives into the Instagram vs reality trend, catfishing and our ever-evolving obsession with authenticity.
“You’re looking at your ‘parallel life’ online. Or there’s this weird thing now – it’s like we’ve forgotten that gross disparity exists across the world,” she says. “Someone will look at Instagram and think, ‘Why don’t I have that house?’ or ‘Why don’t I have that holiday?’, and the answer is that’s never the way life has worked. But Instagram makes you think that everything is just within reach. It’s a huge pressure and it’s deeply, deeply cruel.”
Gender is a commonality in the topics that Sykes discusses, from wellness to women’s health. “I didn’t realize until I properly thought about [the topics], and started reading more and considering the history of them, that a lot of the things that made me feel uncomfortable are things that weigh disproportionately on women,” she says. “So, wellness, for example, becomes gendered, because of the history of women having to be pure and clean.”
She is interested in the link between wellness and control – though she is keen to stress she believes “people should do anything that makes them feel great, absolutely eat what you want, do the exercise that you want, believe religiously in what you want”. But there are paradoxical pressures that millennial women find themselves under, to “be whoever we want to be” and also to “create the sort of seamless, perfect, polished self”.
Given the inequality in how these issues impact women, does Sykes feel a responsibility to protect her two-year-old daughter from them as she grows up? “What I would love is for her to move through the world with conviction, so that if she wants to try things, she’s trying them from a place of curiosity, not a negative space of feeling like she’s not enough,” considers Sykes. “I suppose that’s the biggest theme of the book: understanding that there is no ‘right’ life, there’s only a rightful life and that things can just be good enough. That’s very much something that I’m still learning and practicing daily.” Parenthood is part of this balancing act, navigating the identity issues around “how to be my best work self and my best mother self”.
The understanding is an important place to start, but how easy does Sykes find it to put this new-found awareness into practice? “I would not say I wrote the book and was like, ‘I’m cured, hooray!’” she laughs. “[But] I feel like I now know quite clearly what things make a simpler or more contented life. I am a perfectionist, which I think probably makes life quite exhausting for myself and other people around me, so I’m probably not as good at remembering that things can just be good enough… The problem, though, is that now I know these things, I’m fully aware of when I’m doing it: I’m no longer in blissful ignorance!”
How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? is available from July 16, 2020. The Doing It Right podcast launches from July 6, 2020.