Jon Acuff: Don’t Overthink It — Part 1

“As someone who felt that he buried his talents for a long time, I now go out of my way to help other people grab a shovel.”

Jon Acuff is likely a familiar name. Perhaps you know him as the brain behind “Stuff Christians Like,” one of the popular humor blogs of the 2010s. Or as a New York Times bestselling author of seven books, or as one of INC’s Top 100 Leadership Speakers. (He once opened for Dolly Parton at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.) 

Outreach magazine caught up with Acuff to discuss his life journey to this unique calling, how his faith informs his work, and why, in his most recent books, Soundtracks: The Surprising Solution to Overthinking and Your New Playlist: The Student’s Guide to Tapping Into the Superpower of Mindset (both Baker Books), he tackles the problem—and opportunity—of mindset.

Jon, you’re a very busy guy. When somebody asks you what you do, how do you reply?

I say that I just do two things all year: I write books and then I go talk to people about those books. 

Sounds pretty simple [laughs]. Tell us about how you got to where you are now.

I was born in Durham, North Carolina, and moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts, in first grade so my dad could attend Gordon-Conwell Seminary. Ipswich is quintessential coastal New England, all the way down to the castle on the beach where they hold prom. The mascot of my elementary school was the clams. The fighting clams—what a terrifying mascot. I mean, if a clam is coming at you, you have at least three weeks to get out of the way, right? [Laughs.]

Some of the way I look at communicating comes from growing up with my dad. Here was a pastor who planted a Southern Baptist church in an area, back in the 1980s, where there were no Southern Baptist churches. It was Massachusetts. He had no cultural Christianity around to tap into. It just didn’t exist like it had down South. I learned how to communicate in fresh and different ways by watching my dad figure out how to do it.

I went to a Catholic all-boys high school, both because it was the best education available in our area, and because I was kind of being a knucklehead my freshman year in public school. Then I ended up going to Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. I met my wife right after college at my first “adult” job, working for Details Communications. They were one of the first companies to do advertising for churches. 

We moved back to Massachusetts for the first couple years of our marriage and lived outside Boston. I was working corporate jobs for companies like Bose and Staples, writing advertising. I loved the concept that you could encourage life change with nothing more than a well-written sentence. You could inspire new action if you communicated a message clearly.

But my wife gave me a three-winter ultimatum with Massachusetts. “That’ll be enough snow for me,” she said. “Somebody’s moving back to the South. I hope it’s both of us.” Needless to say, we did move South, to Atlanta with our newborn L.E. (short for Laura Elizabeth). I worked for Home Depot and Autotrader, continuing my career arc of writing ads for big brands.

While I was working at Autotrader, a buddy named Ryan Sweet said, “You should start a blog.” “Blog?” I replied, “What’s a blog?” 

I grew up in the age of “God’s Gym” T-shirts instead of “Gold’s Gym,” where a ripped Jesus was shown bench-pressing the cross. I thought, You know what I don’t like that the church does? How we sometimes steal pop culture and then just “Jesus” it up and use it. On a whim I started a blog called “Stuff Christians Like” because there was a popular blog at the time called “Stuff White People Like.”

My first idea was just to feature a numerical list: “Idea No. 1: Ripping off ideas from secular culture.” I was very clearly saying, “Hey, isn’t it dumb when we do this?” But then, I think it was like nine days later, 4,000 people showed up. All these people started to read the blog. Before long, friends started to send it to me, not knowing it was mine, and ask, “Hey, have you seen this blog?”

I just started throwing fuel on the fire, writing about silly stuff, like wishing you had a shirt that said you direct deposit your tithe so that people don’t judge you when you pass the offering basket without putting anything in it. Or stuff like falling in love with someone while you are on a mission trip then breaking up as soon as you get home.

It was stuff like that, but it went nuts. I got to write a book. I found a speaking agent. I was invited to share with Dave Ramsey’s staff team, which is what brought me to Nashville, and then do opening material for Dave’s speaking.

While I was working with Dave, I wrote my second and third books. One was a nonfiction book called Quitter, about how I transitioned to my dream job, and the other was called Start about how to start things you really care about. 

Then I started my own company nine years ago called Acuff Ideas, transitioning to speak to more corporate audiences. I wrote Do Over about career transition, then I wrote Finish because so many people came up to me and said, “I liked your book Start, but I have never had a problem starting. I can start a million things tomorrow. How do I actually finish them?”

And that brings us to my most recent book, Soundtracks. We still live in Franklin, Tennessee, outside of Nashville. My oldest daughter is now a freshman at Samford University where I went to school, and my youngest, McRae, is a junior in high school. And we have a new book we wrote together titled Your New Playlist, which is essentially Soundtracks for teenagers.

As you reflect on those formative years, and everything that has brought you to this point, what have been your significant points of struggle?

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Well, I write books that I need first. When considering a topic to write on, I look for three things: Am I personally connected to the content? Do other people need it? And is there a place for this in the marketplace?

So, you could look at Finish and infer that I wasn’t good at finishing things. And that would be true. I was the king of “here’s what I am going to do someday.” That was certainly a struggle individually, and definitely a struggle in the context of a marriage. I think I had eight jobs in the space of just 10 or 12 years, bouncing from job to job to job, thinking, This will be the one, this will be the one. I had to learn how to stick things through when I was in my mid- to late 30s.

Honestly, I consider myself a late bloomer. I look at some people, and it feels like they figured their life out at age 22 and the rest was gravy. It took me to my mid-30s to start to say, “Wait a second. I’ve had eight jobs, and the one common denominator is me. Maybe I should stop and look at how I approach work. Maybe I should stop and look at how I approach challenges.”

I am finishing up a book that comes out next fall that is about potential. That book came from realizing how much I wasted my potential in college. I was just a knucklehead. I was on social suspension my freshman year for a prank that went wrong. I got a 2.4 my first semester and had to get a 4.0 second semester to average a 3.0 and save my scholarships. There’s not a person, including myself, who ever thought I would be a notable alumnus coming back to speak at parents’ weekend. So, I have had to reconcile with the fact that I didn’t make the most of college. What does it look like to make the most of life going forward? How do you build on that and not get stuck in regret?

One of my core motivations is the idea that I have been given talents, like in the parable of Jesus, and I want to double them. I want to be the guy who doubles the five talents to 10, or the guy that doubles the two. As someone who felt that he buried his talents for a long time, I now go out of my way to help other people grab a shovel, because I’ve experienced that.

So that is part of what drives me—the idea is that we’re all capable of so much more than we think. We have been given more talents than we think. What does it look like for us in practical, tactical, fun ways and realistic ways to live in that? I’m not saying you can be anything you want—no, you can’t. Like, no you can’t. That is toxic positivity. You can’t be anything. But you can be the best version of you

How has your faith been woven with your work?

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Like a lot of other pastors’ kids, I had to develop my own faith. I had to ask, OK, what do I really believe? What drives that faith? What do I believe about who Christ is, who he made me to be? That answer has come in stages.

One major milestone came in my early 30s in Atlanta. I got plugged into a good small group of men. That was life-changing—just learning how to talk. Stereotypically, American men have a hard time being friends. We are not taught that; we don’t often have models. A big part of my faith was learning how to be friends with men, learning how to be a dad, learning how to be a husband.

As I did those things, I was learning how to lean completely on Christ. That influenced me to build my business around godly principles. God’s wisdom is better than mine. His creativity is better than mine. So, when I wrote Soundtracks, I said at the beginning that one of my soundtracks for the book was that I wanted it to be light and easy because that’s what I am promised. I’m promised that my yoke will be light and easy. So I gave my all to this book, but I also leaned into that promise. I think it’s the best-written book I have ever written, but it was the easiest, too. It doesn’t mean it wasn’t challenging, but it had a lightness to it because I believed, I don’t have to force this, I just have to receive it.

Check out Part 2 of our interview with Jon Acuff where he talks about his new books, broken playlists, and advice to church leaders.

Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach and author of several books, including The Face of the DeepThe Listening DayPalau: A Life on Fire (with Luis Palau) and Bower Lodge: Poems. He lives in Oregon.