Woman of Wisdom
When Suleika Jaouad’s life was interrupted by cancer at 22 she was living in Paris, about to start her first job as a paralegal at a law firm—moving home to her childhood home in upstate New York for treatment was not part of her post-Princeton plan.
Instantly having to reevaluate her life trajectory pushed Jaouad to ask herself some important questions, like, what did she really want to do with her life? Within the year she had found her calling – writing. Her voice came fast and furious and it hasn’t stopped since. At 23 she launched an Emmy Award-winning New York Times Well column and video series “Life, Interrupted” from the bone marrow transplant unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Now she’s at work on a book and we are sure to be hearing much more from her soon.
Here she candidly reveals some of her most critical life lessons and more.
Your life was interrupted by cancer at 22. How has your philosophy evolved since then?
Like a lot of recent college grads, I was caught up in the culture of anxiety surrounding success. My brain real estate was occupied 24/7 by constant worry about the future—who should I be and what should I do with my life—Instead of giving myself permission to get lost for a little while and to take risks. I signed a 2-year contract at a corporate law firm even though I knew I much preferred creative writing to spreadsheets. It seemed like the safe, practical thing to do.
As my friend and yoga teacher Jen Pastiloff likes to say: “stop shoulding all over yourself.” That pretty much sums up my life philosophy A.C. (after cancer). I quit my job at the law firm and built a career as a writer from my hospital bed. I love harder but more prudently: rather than spending my time networking or constantly going for drinks with new acquaintances, I try to focus that energy on my family and close friends. And whenever I feel scared about pursuing my dreams, I remind myself that I’ve overcome much worse.
What role has writing and sharing your story shaped your way forward?
My writing created an unexpected call and response loop: the more vulnerable and honest I became in my work, the more my readers responded in kind with their own deeply personal accounts. I’ve received thousands of notes from strangers, everyone from a convict on death row to a young mother struggling with drug addiction, a college dropout who ended up homeless after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder to a high school student struggling with her parents’ divorce.
Their stories made me realize that we all have our lives interrupted at some point. Good things will happen to you. Heartbreaking things will happen, too. Each has the power to change you radically for the better or for the worse — you choose.
Do you have any daily rituals that keep you focused and grounded?
I go for walks several times a day with my badly behaved rescue mutt Oscar. I love being able to experience New York City without having a particular destination in mind. Oscar has taught me about the joy of wandering and people watching. When I get back to my desk after a walk, my head is buzzing with inspiration and new story ideas.
What places in NYC replenish you?
I love the East Village where I live. It’s like Halloween everyday here: you never know what’s going to happen or which new wild character you will meet. Café Mogador is my go-to neighborhood brunch spot. I order the same thing each time: Middle Eastern eggs, a cappuccino and fresh-squeezed orange juice. With a Tunisian father and a Swiss mother, it reminds me of home.
I like to treat myself to flowers at Sunny’s Florist on 2nd avenue. She makes the most beautiful bouquets for under $10.
When I’m having a bad hair day I go to Dolore’s on 1st Avenue because nobody does a $25 blowout better than a Dominican hair salon.
When I’m having writer’s block I take a trip to Essex Card Shop on Avenue A, a hole-in-the-wall office supply store that’s filled to the brim with bizarre knick-knacks. A good pen, like the Paper Mate Flair Pen, makes me go a little weak in the knees. And the owner Jay, hands out handwritten affirmations on little pieces of paper when you check out at the register.