Thrive Diary: Musician Sharon Van Etten on Why It’s Never Too Late For a Career Change

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Sharon Van Etten, the singer-songwriter known for her introspective lyrics and atmospheric sound, will be the first to tell you she’s a work in progress. 

In the four years between the release of her latest album, Remind Me Tomorrow, and her previous one, Are We There, Van Etten became a mom to her now 2-year-old son (whose name she doesn’t publicly share for the sake of his privacy), was cast in the Netflix show The OA, and enrolled at Brooklyn College to pursue an undergraduate degree in psychology, the first step toward her ambition of becoming a certified therapist by the time she’s 50. “I think that we can all have many lives,” Van Etten says of her pursuits. “I’m only 38 and I’ve had many. I think a lot of people get scared to change careers, but it’s really a continuation of who you are.” 

When I visit her walk-up in Brooklyn, Van Etten waves from the top stair in the brownstone’s foyer, which has walls the color of tangerines. Her place, which she shares with her partner, Zeke, and their son, has books in every crevice, as though they’re the glue keeping the pre-war unit together. She’s one of those people who reads six books at a time, she tells me, sighing. It’s fitting, when you consider how she’s spent the last several years on a mission for self-expansion and transformation.

In her Thrive Diary (excerpts from the full video below), Van Etten reveals the one book that changed her life, what inspired her to pursue a therapy career on top of her existing musical one, and her approach to parenting in our tech-consumed world.

You’ve said you want to become a therapist later in life. What are some common issues that you see surfacing within your community that you’d like to be able to help people with?

I think the common thread is that everybody works too much and that there’s never enough time in the day to even answer emails. Most people are on their phones constantly. You’re tricking your body into thinking that everything’s an emergency, so that when you’re not looking at your phone, it’s like you’re misfiring all the time. It creates this anxiety and this need to keep doing more, when really what your body needs is to relax and take it slower.

Speaking of technology, there’s a big cultural conversation happening about how to raise kids around screens. What is your philosophy on this, and how are you raising your son with respect to tech?

I am so nervous to have my son grow up in a society so centered around technology. I am very cautious about what we have out when he’s around because when he does see the phone, he goes to it, he knows how to scroll already, and that freaks me out. I don’t like seeing a two-year-old do this. I mean, I don’t even like it for us. Sometimes, even after the baby goes down and [Zeke and I] are trying to catch up on emails, I’ll realize that we’ve been standing there face to face on our phones for like 30 minutes without having any conversation. That’s definitely something that I want to pay more attention to. I don’t want [our son] to think that that’s the center of our universe, because it’s not. It’s definitely something we have to work on.

You recently posted a video to your Instagram after a performance where you said, “We gave you everything we have and now my voice has nothing left to give.” I thought that sent a great message about prioritizing your own well-being. How did you learn to do that?

When you finish a show, the best thing to do is to disappear and to get some rest. If you talk to a lot of singers, they say, “It’s the talking, it’s not the singing that actually does you in at the end of the night.” When I didn’t feel better after that show, there was an option for me to get a steroid shot. But I just knew that even if I had gotten the shot that, A, it would have jeopardized my health and made whatever was going on with my throat even worse. Or B, I would have a half-assed show the next night because I wasn’t my best. I didn’t want to have a show at the end of the tour where it wasn’t how I perform my best. Instead of people thinking that I’m canceling a show for some materialistic or selfish reason, I thought I would share with them why. That I actually couldn’t speak. It wasn’t ideal. I have never canceled a show before, but it was important to do.

What do you do when you feel overwhelmed?

I go to a room by myself and I slow my thoughts down and I breathe. I might write, I might call somebody. I might just close my eyes and think about the things that overwhelmed me and why.

How do you slow your thoughts down?

For me, slowing down just means breathing slower and not doing anything for a minute. You can do it by breathing, by closing your eyes, by visualizing your day and walking through the moments that led you up into that moment. Even just writing out what happened, that’s a form of meditation. Just the act of writing slows down your thoughts because you can’t write as fast as you think.

Have you ever experienced impostor syndrome? And if so, how did you overcome it?

I’ve experienced impostor syndrome and I still feel it all the time. But I have mantras to help me talk through it like, “I belong here,” “This is what I do, this is who I am,” “I was asked to be here.”

Are there other mantras that help you thrive?

“Everything will be okay” is definitely one, but I have mantras on my refrigerator from this book called The Four Agreements, and I even put it in the artwork of my last record, Remind Me Tomorrow. One of those is “Expressing who you are is taking action.” Another one is “Don’t take anything personally because everyone is on their own journey and you can’t control what they went through that day.” “All you can control is yourself and all you have is right now.” Those are just a few examples.

What’s one book that changed your life?

In my adult life, a book that changed my life was called Quiet by Susan Cain. It’s about being an introvert in an extrovert society, and learning how to identify what kind of introvert you are, or what kind your friends are if you’re reading it for them. It tells you a lot about the nature of introverts, and how social situations can really affect them. I knew that I was a quiet person that had social anxiety, but I didn’t know I was considered an introvert until I read this book. Cain has a way of explaining it where you feel finally understood, and you’re like, “This is who I am. This is someone that’s sensitive to my needs.” 

Can you share a tip for introverts that you learned from the book?

A social situation for an introvert is much more demanding. After one social hang, even if I’m having a good time, it takes me about a week to recover. One of the most important things Cain says for introverts to do is to take the time to be quiet and be alone, and not be too social afterward so that you can actually rejuvenate. I feel introverts are very empathic, so they do more listening and they absorb a lot. There’s a lot of emotions that you don’t even realize that you took in from other people’s experiences that take you much longer to process because you’re still thinking about it. I just allow myself more time now knowing that’s just who I am, as opposed to apologizing for it, or not listening to my needs.

Your Instagram bio features this quote from Anaïs Nin: “You cannot save people, you can only love them.” What does it mean to you in the context of your experiences?

Anaïs Nin has been an inspiration to me for a very long time. Throughout my life, I’ve been in unhealthy relationships with romantic partners and it took me until my early thirties to know what was healthy and what was unhealthy. I’ve had friends along the way, too, that have had addiction and depression, and people that just didn’t really want to be helped. The places in my life where I have grown the most are when I just knew that I had the support around me, but I had to find it from within to grow, and to change, and to heal. I think just being present and showing that you love someone can do way more than trying to shape them into something you think they are.

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