MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Hello, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Helena Andrews-Dyer, a pop culture reporter here at The Post, and today I’m joined by Bozoma Saint John, who many of you might know from her social media handle, Bad Ass Boz, which I’m very excited to say. She’s here to join us and talk about her incredible new memoir, “The Urgent Life.”
Bozoma, welcome to Washington Post Live.
MS. SAINT JOHN: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: So let’s dive right in because I know you have so much to say, and I wanted to get to everything. Let’s start with the title of the book, “The Urgent Life,” and that word “urgent,” it has so many different connotations, right? It can mean serious, vital, lightning speed when we consider your incredible meteoric career as a top marketing executive. But tell us what you mean by urgent and how it was redefined in your life.
MS. SAINT JOHN: Well, all those definitions are right also. [Laughs] All those--all those ways in which we express urgency are right.
For me, I felt urgent early on in my career, and perhaps I was a little reckless, you know, sometimes spontaneous, sometimes feeling like, oh, well, I've got to get to the thing right now because I've got to beat everyone else. You know, that was urgency to me.
But when I was faced with loss, especially the loss of my husband to cancer--he was diagnosed and dead in six months--you know, it felt--it felt so quick. It felt like we didn’t have time. It felt like there wasn’t an opportunity to really reconcile everything, and in that moment, I understood that urgency needed to be not just about time but about intention. It’s like, what am I spending my time doing? Do I care about it? Is it going to grow me? Is it going to help me feel like I’m living the fullest life that I can? And if it didn’t feel like that, then I didn’t need to participate. I mean, I didn’t need to be part of that, and that has been true for my career. It has been true in my personal life. It’s been really true about everything, the way that I approach just life in general now. And that’s the urgency I feel.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Yeah. So it doesn’t take on--I think sometimes when people hear the word “urgency,” it’s like almost like an anxiety is building up, but for you, it’s something--it has like a positive or it has turned into something that’s positive.
MS. SAINT JOHN: Yes. Yes, yes. I feel inspired by it. Sometimes we talk about death, and it feels so morbid, you know, as if we should just be fearful and hide in our homes or under a rock somewhere, you know, and I'm not saying that I live my life without fear. I don't think that that's possible as a human being, you know, especially given what I've been through. I do have fear, but I do see the end of life as an inspiration to live my life more fully.
And that’s why when I think about urgency, I am not intimidated by it, you know, or feel like it is an impossibility or feel like it is too overwhelming. To me, I want to--I want to feel inspired by life, to be excited about it, that I don’t want to--like I said, I don’t want to waste time. And so if there is something I’m doing which doesn’t make me feel joyful--and I use the word “joyful” specifically because it’s not like everything in your life you like. You know what I mean? There’s some days when you don’t like anything, you know, and then some days you just got to chalk that up to a bad day.
But in the totality of my experience in this life, I want to feel joyful. I want to feel satisfied. I want to feel fulfilled, and so the urgency to me is the inspired way that I live knowing that life is short.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: And it’s interesting that you say that you talk about fear and life being short. In the book, you describe this major health scare that you had at--in your teens, 17 to be exact, right? It’s at that point where so many of us, you know, remembering that time in my life, where you feel immortal. You feel like nothing can touch you. How did that moment--describe that moment and what happened and how it shifted how you felt about death and finality and mortality at that time.
MS. SAINT JOHN: Well, you're a pop culture expert. So I'm sure you'll appreciate this reference. But I was watching "Beverly Hills 90210" and the--
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Love it.
MS. SAINT JOHN: One of the main characters, Brenda, was doing--
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Mm-hmm.
MS. SAINT JOHN: ---self-breast exam on the show, and I think that is such a powerful tool, you know, storytelling and narratives. I mean, now, of course, I do it for a living, but at the time, yeah, being 17 and watching that show and knowing that like, oh, this character I so loved was concerned about her health in a way that made her check her breasts and see if there was anything up in there, I was like, oh, yeah, let me do that too.
And quite shockingly, I did feel something, and it scared the hell out of me. So when I talked to my mom about it, we went to the doctor and found that they had to do some more tests to rule out cancer or anything else. All of a sudden, my carefree, immortal life took on a very real, practical end. I could see where the doctor could come back and say, oh, this is a terrible thing, you know, like something bad is happening in your body. And so I obsessed about that, thought about that a lot, and it changed my perspective on how I generally live, even at that age, you know, because you’re right. I think then you think you have the--your whole life ahead of you, you know, like nothing could stop you, right?
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Yeah.
MS. SAINT JOHN: You’re 17 and invincible--
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Mm-hmm.
MS. SAINT JOHN: --and it is very real life-changing moment.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: And taking that moment, leading us through your story when you get to college and you meet your first big love, Ben, and then you lose him when he dies by suicide just a few years later, again, at a really young age, right, these are really deep losses or, you know, deep moments in your life, right, at so young. How did that loss, again, inform how you processed death and dying into your adulthood??
MS. SAINT JOHN: Yeah. Well, I mean, this was probably--that was--that was my first experience with mental health issues or mental illness. I myself had been diagnosed with depression shortly before that, about a year before that, and I was taking medication. As you mentioned, I had fallen in love with Ben on the campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and thought that that was--you know, it’s young love, right? Everything is roses. Everything is wonderful. You know, it’s like the birds are chirping constantly. And he--but he, you know, was also battling depression but didn’t--wasn’t on medication and didn’t feel the need to be, you know. And in my book, I talk about that and how that was a challenge for us, you know, him feeling like I didn’t need to be on it and then feeling like, well, we’re both invincible. It’s fine.
Of course, now, today, we are so much more conscious about mental health and making sure that we are talking about challenges, issues that all of us are having, right, not just adults but young people, you know, who are facing their own issues.
And when Ben took his life, I was devastated by it because it didn't make any sense to me. You know, I didn't understand how someone so young could want to end life. That seemed like, you know, there was something bright just coming around the corner, so why not just wait until then?
And that has also impacted me, even as I sit here now, because I want to be active in life. You know, that thought that, well, something better is coming along, around the corner, so why not just wait for it to come, it's like no, no, no. Sometimes we have to go and get it, and additionally, the importance of understanding what happens to those who are, quote/unquote, "left behind," you know, when something that devastating happens. We talk so much about the victims of mental health, but rarely do we talk about the people who are left to manage their emotions or the feelings they have of guilt and all kinds of other complicated emotions afterwards.
I battled a lot with that afterwards, feeling that I could have done something to save him, you know, loved him better, said the right thing, not missed the phone call, you know, and I battled with that for a very long time. And so it's also an opening, I think, for us to talk about those who are left with their guilt after someone they know dies that way.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: And that’s so interesting. You say about, you know, the folks who are left, right, the other people, and the book, “The Urgent Life,” centers around your love story with your husband, Peter, and also the story of losing Peter to a rare form of cancer. And you two were separated at the time of his diagnosis, and there’s just this deeply personal part of the book as you talk about guilt, right, where you let the reader in. You let us in on your inner thoughts as you sort of weigh the options when Peter requests that you cancel the divorce and that you two stay married in the wake of his terminal diagnosis. Take us back to that moment in your life. What did you learn by saying yes to Peter’s request?
MS. SAINT JOHN: Well, I'll tell you, the biggest thing I learned is that love is complicated.
MS. SAINT JOHN: Love is--and marriage is even more complicated, you know? We think that love solves all issues, right, all problems, and it does not. You know, sometimes you’re making decisions on a number of different verticals. You know, love is one. Loyalty is another. Care and concern for yourself is yet another, and that’s complicated. You know, I don’t even think we have time to talk about that.
MS. SAINT JOHN: But I am--I’m very, very grateful, you know, even in the--in the--even in the light of the loss of Peter, that I am grateful for the time that we had, that we had time to reconcile, that we had time to forgive each other for the things and the ways that we hurt each other. You know, I’m grateful that we were able to spend those last few weeks marking things off on our list that we always wanted to say or always wanted to do, you know? They weren’t the--they weren’t the really big things, right? We didn’t fly to Thailand and have a vacation. For sure, we didn’t, you know, but appreciating gelato one last time, yep, we did that, you know, things that sometimes we take for granted so much in our daily life, you know, the hustle and bustle of it.
It’s one thing that I hope, again, that people will take from the book, which is that, you know, sometimes it’s not about climbing Everest. That’s not--that’s not actually the goal, you know. It’s the moments that you have where you’re just appreciating that you’re there, that you have this person, or that you are enjoying this moment, you know, and how can we do that more?
So that is what, you know, the reconciliation with Peter taught me, that love isn't straightforward, you know. And by the way, there's no shame in having gone through the ups and downs, and this life is our own to make. You know, I don't owe anybody any explanation.
In fact, that picture you showed, the day that I posted it on Facebook in October of 2013, that was the caption, you know. I just said this is us. There is--there’s no--we don’t need to explain ourselves, and that our love didn’t need more explanation.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: I love that. And you talked about sort of the smaller moments, right? So it’s not always the big, like you say, climbing Mount Everest or the trip to Thailand. It’s just those little moments that can be just as urgent, right, even though they don’t feel so big but just as big. Has your--has the way you experienced joy shifted since then, and if so, how?
MS. SAINT JOHN: Oh my goodness, yes, it has in so many ways. [Laughs] Because I think before this, I thought that joy had to come and find you, and like we’ve been talking about, even love, peace. Name any of the, you know, goals that we have in emotional states. I thought that it would find you, and when I was in my deep grief, in that darkness, I also realize that happiness and love and joy, they don’t come into the darkness. They won’t find you there. You have to be active and go get it. You have to leave the darkness and go to it. It was--so my relationship with joy changed. It was like every day that I woke up, I had to make a decision, the choice to find joy, the choice to be open to an experience, because it’s very easy to choose to sit down and not do it, very, very easy. There were many days when I was just like, “You know what? Actually, I don’t even want the sun to shine,” and guess what? The sun was so disrespectful. It will come out anyway.
MS. SAINT JOHN: But the choice to find joy, now, we can choose not to be joyful because that's also a choice. You know, sometimes I think in grief it feels like, "Oh. Well, I'm helpless. There's nothing I can do. I'm just here in my darkness," but that is a choice also. It's a choice, and so I'm not saying that grief doesn't exist. I still have my grief. It's not as if I got over it.
And by the way, that was one of the things I found so interesting. When people tell me, oh, time heals all wounds, I was like, "No, it doesn't," totally not. I still have scars. I can still look at it and say, "Ouch. That hurt," you know? And so for all of us, as we think about the ways in which you live and how losses or trauma have scarred us, you know, the choice to keep moving, the choice to find joy, the choice to find love again is truly in our own power, and that is how I'm able to still move through life with all of my pains and traumas and scars.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Absolutely. It’s like the saying, I don’t look like what I’ve been through, right?
MS. SAINT JOHN: Yes, yes, yes.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Absolutely.
MS. SAINT JOHN: Because you know what? I’m real cute too, so--
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: I love that.
So we’re talking, I mean, deep, deep stuff in this book, right? It’s reading it--you know, the phrase “emotional rollercoaster” gets used a lot, but this was an emotional rollercoaster, right, so many highs, so many deep lows. What was it like going there, right, telling us your story, revisiting it for yourself? Was it therapeutic? Was it cathartic? Was it just painful? All three? What was revisiting these moments in your life like for you?
MS. SAINT JOHN: Yeah. Well, that might have been one of the biggest surprises in writing the book. I actually didn't write the book that I pitched. The pitch I wrote was to document essentially the last three months of my husband's life. I had created an album in my phone off of a saying that people kept, you know, giving me. They kept saying, "Take it one day at a time," and it was so annoying to me, you know, that thought, because I was like you don't even know what my days are like. We're counting down to the end, and you're telling me to take one day at a time.
So I would take actually a picture a day, something that was inspiring or something that was sad or something I just wanted to remember, and so the original book I was going to write was a story of those photos. And what ended up happening is, as I was telling those stories, other memories started to come, you know, that felt connected.
So when I talked about the moment or the day when Peter found out that his cancer was going to be terminal and he asked me to call my dad to come to the hospital, I needed to explain why that moment was so significant. So it meant, I had to go back into the past and pull the memories of the experiences that they'd had, the relationship that they had and my own relationship with my dad so that you could understand the fullness of that moment.
And so what ended up happening is that I kept telling more and more and more about my experiences, and the other magic of it is that there were some memories, of course, I’m sure as you can imagine, that I did not want to revisit. I didn’t want to go back to that day, you know, but the miracle about memories is that when we lock all that away, we also lock away the joy, the good stuff, the love in the memories. And that’s what I found I had done. And so when I pulled it forward, I was also able to relive the beautiful moments of those memories that I had totally put away, and so now I have--even now, like I have a different perspective on painful memories, you know, that when you lock them away, you lock away everything. And what a joy it’s been to relive some of the good stuff, even in the midst of the pain.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Yes. No, and also telling folks that story, telling them your story, knowing that there’s someone that can find something in every single part of this book, right, anyone who’s going through loss, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, of a husband, of a child, of a parent, you know, and your story, even though I’m sure it was absolutely painful, so many moments to tell it, it is so worthy, right? All of our stories are so worthy to be told because someone can learn something from it, right?
We have an audience question from Mary Lang in Wisconsin who asked, what was it that fed your energy and kept your sustainability and your heart going during those turning points in your life?
MS. SAINT JOHN: Gosh, that is such a great question. Well, I think inspiration comes from many different places. You know, for me, one that I recall very much is in the--was in the difficult decision of separating from my husband in the first place. You know, the inspiration for that was actually my daughter. I think many times if you’re married and you’re going through some tough times, we always say like, well, we stayed for the children, right? Well, I decided to go for mine because I knew that the person I was in my marriage, at the end of my marriage, was not a happy person, not a joyful person, not a loving person, not the person that her dad fell in love with, you know, and I wanted my daughter to know that person. And I knew I had to leave in order to do that, and so in that moment, that was what drove me, you know, inspired to be a better person for my daughter to experience as a mom.
But there have been many other situations that have inspired me in that darkness. I talk in my book a little bit about even dawn. You know, it’s a time in the day, but--it might sound corny, but just seeing that sun come back up, you know, after the darkness, it feels poetic to me. And so even though I’m not a morning person by any stretch, I now, when I’m going through a tough time, I always wake up at the dawn, just as a reminder, you know, that the son eventually comes up again, regardless of the situation. It always comes up.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: And speaking of your daughter, Lael--did I pronounce that correctly? Lael.
MS. SAINT JOHN: Yes, Lael.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Lael. You have a revelation in the book. You have like this aha moment while you are explaining to her that her father was dying, and you write in the book, “When I’m in the midst of my hardest conversations, I speak as if I’m talking to a four-year-old. We spend so much time burying the truth in a bunch of excuses and rationales, trying to make ourselves feel better, or to skirt the uncomfortable, but why add all that extra fluff when the truth is simply what it is?” How did that moment, this aha moment, like about truth and transparency impact your professional life? How have you applied it to who you are in the boardroom and in your career?
MS. SAINT JOHN: Yes. Well, actually the advice for that moment with my daughter came from a very good friend, Melissa Robinson-Brown, who’s a psychologist and told me to use the real words when I was talking to my four-year-old. You know, as a parent, you want to protect your kids from everything, you know, the bad stuff. You don’t want them to feel any pain at all, but the truth of the matter was that her dad was dying, and that he was going to be gone at some point. And so we needed to tell her that, and I needed to explain to her when he died that he was not coming back, and I said it as simply as that, as clearly as that. And the unveil for me in that moment, the aha in it was that as adults, we actually need that too. In our adult conversations, we need to be clear, simple, to the point, you know, and so in my professional career, it has affected all my relationships that way, you know, that I am clear about what it is I need or when I am moving on to say it just like that. You know, there’s no need to add fluff or some extra excuses on top of things.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Keep it simple. Keep it simple. That needs to be on a T-shirt.onest about it? So, yes, I consider looking at the conversation like I would be talking to a four-year--old and say, okay, this is the situation. You know, I need to move on or have found another job and I’m going to go and do that, you know, instead of trying to cover it up with some excuses about, you know, what was happening or how I feel or any of that stuff. No, it’s just time to go and just keep it simple.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Keep it simple. Keep it simple. That needs to be on a T-shirt.
Speaking of your career, from Spike Lee to Pepsi to Uber, Endeavor, Netflix, your career is an example of not only taking risks and big leaps but trusting your gut. What is your advice to others about listening to what you call your inner voice?
MS. SAINT JOHN: Oh, yes. That wonderful intuition that we don't give ourselves credit enough for, you know, it's like how many times have you asked somebody for some advice, knowing the answer yourself? You know, we're creating pro and con lists where it's like you're really either talking yourself into a really bad idea or talking yourself out of a good one. You know, we do that all the time. Instead of just listening to what is going on in our spirit or in your gut, which is telling you what to do, you just don't want to listen to it.
But I have found that my intuition has never steered me wrong. It really hasn't. It's like, you know, people call it vibes or energy. It's like, have you ever met somebody that you knew had some bad vibes, but you talk to them anyway, you had lunch with them anyway, even though your spirit told you not to do it? It's like that. It's like that in my career.
And so I have trusted, when I'm in a situation and I'm like, ooh, something doesn't feel good here anymore, you know, I don't beat myself up over the decision to have gone to a place. I don't think I wasted my time while being there, you know, but situations change and people change, and nobody's at fault. It's just that it's time to go.
And so I really don’t waste the time in trying to figure out whether or not I should stay or should I change a little bit about the situation. Sometimes things just--they can’t change, and they are what they are, and so you have to accept it. And so instead of battling against something that really can’t change, you know, and using all your energy towards that thing, oof, I’d rather use my energy towards building the next thing, and that’s why in my career I have decided on my own when it’s time to go or if I should give it another shot.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Dropping gems. I could do all of this, snapping, right? You talk about the gems that you drop on social media. One of them is that tomorrow is a fictional place, and that’s part of the tagline of the Badass Workshop. I’m just very excited to be able to say “badass.”
MS. SAINT JOHN: [Laughs]
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Talk to us about the Badass Workshop and your mission there. What are you trying to teach us?
MS. SAINT JOHN: Oh. Well, I have been so overwhelmed by the number of people who have asked me, well, how do you do it? How do you get to the top? How do you live so unapologetically? Even like how to negotiate a raise. I've been so overwhelmed by these questions for a long time.
And so at the start of the pandemic while we were all locked away at home, I was like, you know what? I think I'm just going to create a class where I'm just going to talk about my experiences, you know, teach people how to do what I've done. And it was such a surprise to me by the overwhelming attention, engagement, you know, just folks who created a whole community unto themselves in the badasses, you know.
And so the class has grown now. I've done 10 sessions ranging from the mind, spirit, and body to, yes, how to negotiate, how to make that money, even to the lessons about, you know, how to give feedback. There's all kind of stuff, and so now I am doing a super session based on this book, "The Urgent Life," where I give seven lessons from my book on how to create the life that you really want. And so I'm really excited about it. It will be on Saturday, and, you know, it's a good community, and we have a good time while I drop more gems.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Yes, all of the gems.
And you talk about--you mentioned just now living unapologetically, and you are a shining example of living unapologetically as a woman, as a Black woman, and you talk in the book, you write in the book about sometimes not feeling seen, right, or sometimes folks not getting all of--getting who you are in all of your badass-ery, right?
MS. SAINT JOHN: Yes.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: What advice do you have for women, Black women in the workplace, to come as their full selves and to be seen fully and to really live and work unapologetically?
MS. SAINT JOHN: Well, I'm so glad you pointed out Black women because I feel like this should be the Black Women's holiday. You know, it's like the cross between Black History Month and Women's History Month.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Mm-hmm.
MS. SAINT JOHN: I mean, shouldn’t this be like a day--
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: March 1st, yep.
MS. SAINT JOHN: I mean, I kind of feel like we should just do that.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: That’s it, March 1st, the day of the Black Women.
MS. SAINT JOHN: [Laughs] March 1st is our day. But I am--I love Black women, you know? I just--I just love us, and I wish for us a more successful future, you know, a future where we have the ability to show up exactly as ourselves.
You know, I have been in so many rooms which have tried to make me feel small, which have tried to make me feel insignificant, as if my culture or my experiences don’t matter because they’re not the, quote/unquote, “majority,” you know, but the beauty of the idea of our contribution to--not just society, but to the world is that it is a fact. You know, this is not even me just like saying, oh, well, pointing out folks from history and saying this person or that person or that person, but the fact that like in science, for instance, okay, you take matter. And we know that when matter exists, it is made up of molecules, and when you change one molecule, the whole matter changes. If you put in that molecule again, it changes again, and so my contribution as a Black woman with my culture, with my experiences, with my knowledge, all unique unto me, when it enters a matter, it changes. And so, therefore, I am significant in this space.
So I want for our culture, for our society, for our corporations to understand that the contribution we have is actually significant, and that we need to walk that way. And so I don’t shrink when I go into rooms. I know that my contribution really matters, and it is even as important as showing up as my full self, as you just said, you know, not just theoretically and not just psychologically but physically. You know, that when I decided to show up on the Apple keynote stage, the stage that Steve Jobs built that is known for the black turtleneck and jeans, that instead of showing up like that, I showed up with my full curly Afro with a tight pink dress on, show off my curves, playing, you know, “Rapper’s Delight” and Afro beats and a song by my niece, Leaf [phonetic], you know, who--of course, because I’m that kind of auntie--I wanted to show up as a Black woman and not pretend to be something else because, look, we’re not going to be appreciated for being anything else anyway, so you might as well show up as yourself.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Yes. Show up as yourself. No playing small, no shrinking, and we matter.
MS. SAINT JOHN: We matter.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: Bozoma Saint John, we’re out of time. We’ll have to end it there, but that is a great place to end it. Thank you so much for joining us. The book is “The Urgent Life.” Thank you, Bozoma.
MS. SAINT JOHN: Thank you so much. I sincerely appreciate it.
MS. ANDREWS-DYER: And thank you to all of you for joining us and for watching. To learn more about our upcoming programs and to register for upcoming events, go to WashingtonPostLive.com.
I’m Helena Andrews-Dyer. Thanks for watching.
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