Join us for Joy. April 30 at Two River Theatre, Red Bank, New Jersey. Tickets available for purchase HERE
Brian Smiga talks to Atoosa Rubinstein about Leaving it All To Have It All.
Brian Smiga: This is Brian Smiga, the SpeedyVC, and I’m here with my guest Atoosa Rubenstein. Welcome, Atoosa.
Atoosa Rubinstein: Thanks so much for having me.
Brian Smiga: Wow. We’ve been having such a good time, and I think we were both raised feral. So you’re looking pretty feral today, and it’s working…
Atoosa Rubinstein: Thank you.
Brian Smiga: I tried to look feral every day. Nothing ever goes in my hair. Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. And we’re going to focus on the theme of rebirth in anticipation of your TED Talk that’s coming up on April 30th at the Two River Theater at TEDxAsbury. Tickets at TEDxAsbury.com. So thank you so much for joining our stage, and we’re not going to give away your TED Talk, right? What’s the title of it?
Atoosa Rubinstein: Leaving It All To Have It All.
Brian Smiga: Leaving It All To Have It All.
Atoosa Rubinstein: And that’s kind of jumping off of my mentor, Helen Gurley Brown at Cosmo, and she famously wrote a book called “Having It All”. Yeah.
Brian Smiga: So there we go. The opposites, the union of opposites. And that’s the other thing I just get from you so much is the union of opposites. Your childhood, your becoming the youngest editor at Hearst, your inventing and creating new wonderful products and then giving it all up. On the one hand, espousing this model of “alpha girl”. And on the other hand taking what, 16 years off, and now coming back as an amazing writer and essayist and podcaster. It’s a study in contrast. Tell us about those extremes, if you don’t mind.
Atoosa Rubinstein: Well, I mean, even just hearing you say it, and isn’t that what alpha girl would do, right? That in the midst of lean-in culture, you have to lean out. That’s what I needed to do. Although it felt very surprising to people, I do think that it was really necessary for me to have that. And it’s interesting to talk about rebirth, because I kind of feel like our talk at TED, that is my actual official rebirth. It’s going to be the first time I’m ever really, in a big way, talking about the 16-year hiatus that I took and I just had to.
Atoosa Rubinstein: And we’ve talked about this, having been feral. And then suddenly I’m on a big stage at age 26, I had no idea how to handle being a wife and running a company and all this stuff. And so I did a lot of things the right way, right? I was very successful, but behind the scenes was a disaster. So I was cheating on my husband, I was very Machiavellian and maybe that’s typical. Maybe that’s not so atypical. But I just more than anything, despite the success and all the accolades, I was miserable. Miserable.
Brian Smiga: And I think what you’re finding out, as you’ve shared with people, is that all your listeners kind of have some version of that story themselves, whether they’re successful boomers or they’re successful Gen Xers like yourself. Tell us about that resonance you’re hearing from your audience.
Atoosa Rubinstein: Well, one of the things I do in Unedited is I really pull back the curtain. Whether it’s saying I had an abortion in college and this is what happened and this is why it happened. A lot of people will be all for abortion right, but “Oh no, not me. That never happened to me.” So for me I’ve just been really just… What do they say about making the sausage? Just pulling back the curtain.
Atoosa Rubinstein: Something that I wrote about last week is that I’m a survivor of incest. And I talked about how sexually, a lot of people have so much shame about what turns them on. And for me as a survivor of incest, I had to just accept that that is a part of the architecture of my sexual being. And so, a power dynamic is a turn on for me. And that really resonated for people. It’s almost like they have these secret inner lives that they don’t talk to anybody about. But then within their walls, they know that it’s a “no judgment zone” and they can be vulnerable. But I have a lot of male readers, older men readers who had perhaps never felt safe enough revealing their internal lives.
Brian Smiga: Sign me up! No, seriously, I think you said earlier that although I’m a Gen Xer and a typical one, I actually am really the prototype for millennials. And I think that in this lean-out culture and this authenticity we’re seeing in this rising generation, you are a pioneer. So talk about how you see the millennials and how in some ways you’re a prototype for them.
Atoosa Rubinstein: Yeah. I mean, I think just first of all, having retired at age 35, that is such a… With the great resignation and the rise on TikTok of how to retire by age 30, I did that. I did that for all the same reasons because I “had it all,” but I was miserable. And so I have experienced firsthand what the millennials are experiencing now. And by the way, part of it is my fault, right? I sold them this whole girl-power culture when they were teenagers, “You can do it.” For me and you when we were younger, remember the T-shirt, “Anything boys can do, girls can do better”? That was the beginning of girl power. But at what cost? At what cost?
Atoosa Rubinstein: I know for me blind ambition was debilitating. And I think that a lot of millennials are feeling that too. And so I’ve learned a lot over the past 16 years that I’ve been kind of underground. I’ve learned a lot. In retrospect, I didn’t have to leave my career in order to rectify the things that I needed to rectify. And so that’s kind of what I’m excited to share with millennials today, the stuff. And in particular, my TED Talk, the things that I did learn in those 16 years.
Brian Smiga: I think it’s going to be a “Can’t-miss TED Talk”. But until that day comes on April 30th and its release thereafter, people can catch you at Unedited Atoosa. And I have to share my experience listening to you for the first time this morning. I remember the first time I picked up James Joyce, and I realized the truth, the unvarnished truth, that he was trying to express in the inner minds of his two protagonists, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. And it was so groundbreaking even when I was in college, to get inside the heads of those characters. And just imagine how groundbreaking it is again in 2022. I have to tell you, I felt that way listening to your podcast. I love your authentic, raw, unvarnished style, and your expression, and the poetry with which you tell the truth. There’s no flourish, and yet there’s still poetry. So tell me about truth-telling a little bit.
Atoosa Rubinstein: It’s just there. When you’re feral you can’t help but be honest. When you look at animals, they’re in the wilderness, they’re not second guessing themselves. They’re just being. And for me, perhaps because the upside to having a childhood where I was neglected and ignored, is that I’ve always kind of just unedited. Because it’s just been me and my internal life. That’s been my anger. And so, for a long time when I was working, particularly as a corporate call girl, I felt so edited and constricted, and looked at and watched and judged. And so I very much held it together, and had that… I remember when I told my team, the day that I told them I was leaving, I said, “I was no longer a person and I had become a stamp.” And that every room I walked into, I had to stamp Atoosa. There was no room for my growth and my movement or my evolution. And that sort of authenticity is what I was seeking. Just the ability to be my own unfiltered self.
Atoosa Rubinstein: And it comes very easy to me. And I think it’s our natural language. I mean, you have a 16-year-old child. Remember when your boy was little, he would sometimes say things like… I’ve been in an elevator with children and they said things. And the parents were like, “Oh my God, this kid has no filter.” And that’s beautiful. That’s us in our rawest form before we’ve been just indoctrinated into being these show ponies. And so, it is our natural state and that’s a place that I’m so much happier being in, and it’s a place I’d love to lead people. It’s a little scary, but once you get there, it feels so nice.
Brian Smiga: I’ve had an expression in business and in life, “the truth is your friend.” And that’s always getting people to face some unpleasant truth or some unpleasant fact. But Atoosa, you take it to a new level. And I think that if we can raise people, and if this rising generation can follow your example of being this honest, we’re going to have a better world. And I do think we’re headed there. I really do think we’re headed there. I think the empathy we feel… I mean, I wish we felt it as equally for Africans as we do for Ukrainians in say, the worldwide refugee crisis today.
Brian Smiga: You’re an immigrant yourself. I think that empathy we see in the rising generation is profound. And I want to thank you for being a pioneer. And I think everyone should come see your TED Talk in Red Bank on April 30th, especially the millennials. Or watch it when it debuts on TEDasbury.com. I’ll leave with one last thing. You told me in your stories that I’ve read, that you told your mom when you were a little kid that you were going to buy her a house someday. And I think that is so much the core of who you are. Just expand upon that one second in closing.
Atoosa Rubinstein: Yeah. I mean, every child wants to be helpful and to be of service. And when I would see my mother crying because we had no money, that was how I could be of service to her. And ultimately, obviously I was. Of course, I bought her a house. But that is what we, being of service, I think is just our highest calling. Whether it’s on a micro level within our own family and community or making it our life’s work, be something that can help others. And you do that obviously. And thank you for letting me share.
Brian Smiga: I try. You’ve been a phenomenal younger example for me. I think for everyone that’s going to come see you and hear you and catch Atoosa on Unedited Atoosa. And you can catch her TED talk at TEDxAsbury.com. This has been Brian Smiga with Atoosa Rubenstein. Thank you, Atoosa, for being with us today.
You can follow Atoosa on Substack or Instagram @atoosarubenstein