Reviewing: Radically Content by Jamie Varon

Book cover depicts a bright blue sky and pink flowers in the foreground. "Radically Content: Being Satisfied in an Endlessly Dissatisfied World"

Author Jamie Varon’s message as laid out in the introduction of this book was so close to my own that I had to do a double-take. She describes her method as “leading you deeper into yourself,” almost the exact framework I use as a change doula when I talk about “spiraling inward” rather than the capitalist model of “striving forward,” and encourages readers to reconsider dissatisfaction as a motivator. “[Contentment] makes you motivated by love, passion, enjoyment, genuine desire—and you aren’t striving for worthiness. Being satisfied in my life as it is right here, right now gives me open, fertile space to transform and grow.”

Sounds pretty great, huh? I love how this tide is building, and how Varon encourages those of us working from this mindset, or starting to, to form a movement of people radically opting out, living from our own value systems rather than pursuit of social capital. I also found parts of her personal story super relatable. I think many in our age cohort (Saturn in Scorpio what’s up?!) share a similar experience of learning to be cool, aloof, and dark as kids and teens in the 90s and then feeling disillusioned when we achieved some of our dreams in our 30s and weren’t actually any happier.

Varon dedicates her book to “the nonconformists, rebels, and sensitive souls,” phrasing that struck a chord with me as someone who moved across the country in 2020, “opted out” at the peak of a successful nonprofit career to go into healing work with neurodivergent folks and other overwhelmed outsiders, built my own whacky schedule based on natural rhythms and the phases of the moon, and went from productivity nerd to teaching folks how to heal from productivity culture. There’s a strong anti-capitalist healing message in her book, as she questions the expectations capitalist and white supremacist culture create around measurement. My stomach twisted empathetically when I read how she viewed her dissatisfaction as penance for not having achieved childhood dreams, and how her first thought when making decisions was always “what will I tell people?” Oof. So real.

On the other hand, Varon does benefit from the privilege of being white and middle class, and I would add that some of the specifics of her story read a little, well, bougie. Her messages about how we get caught up in social capital and productivity are universally valid, but the some of what she was able to achieve through focusing on contentment over meeting societal standards won’t be achievable for most readers. For example, while I don’t doubt that it was delightful to learn living on the French Riviera was cheaper than living in LA, not everyone can afford to live in LA (and not everywhere in LA is that expensive!) She is generally careful to be clear that her experience is her own, not representative, but it may not resonate for some readers.

Varon does frame poverty as a moral issue, and admits that her advice around not working as hard assumes you have a baseline living wage without that striving and pushing, but if that’s where you are the fact is that you’re unlikely to get much out of this book. Varon’s story and her guidance are going to be most applicable to those who are reasonably financially comfortable, and probably most relatable to those who haven’t personally lived with poverty or extreme hardship. The book is divided into a section on unlearning and a section on re-learning, and I suspect a fair number of the things Varon had to unlearn are worldviews most readers of color never had the privilege to hold in the first place.

Many of the most aligned readers will be white, professional women in their 30s and 40s who feel disillusioned and frustrated that a dream they believed was possible to achieve through working hard is either unattainable or not as satisfying as they’d hoped. Recovering people pleasers, those who’ve struggled with unrealistic body image and dating standards, and those who are ambitious and burnt out will likely relate to some of the specifics of Varon’s narrative. One simple test for whether this book will resonate might be to ask yourself whether you tend to want to be the best or do the most. If yes, Varon is speaking your language! If you’ve been around social justice or radical healing spaces for a while, a good bit of the things to unlearn and the themes to relearn won’t be new to you, but you still may enjoy it and find your experiences reflected.

The central message of the re-learning section is around enoughness and believing in your inherent value rather than losing yourself to competition and shame. Varon keeps coming back to motivation, and how shame and fear as motivators aren’t healthy or even necessarily effective. “Aspiration is not motivating,” she boldly declares, encouraging readers to act from a place of self-love and compassion as a baseline, putting down the goals and the to-do lists. Framing self-love as a natural state that racist capitalism has robbed us of (though her language is a little softer than mine), Varon asks us to return to that natural state as a baseline. As I do, she places self-trust at the center of this work. I found much of the re-learning section be super-aligned with what I’ve experienced and witnessed on my own journey and I’m glad to see it on the page.

Varon does also emphasize taking action and being consistent, which may not resonate with readers who have ADHD. There were places where I felt like I needed a bit more practical advice, and I was more encouraged by the themes of pursuing what lights you up and befriending your emotions than by the consistency piece. I love that she teases apart the difference between compassion and martyrdom, and that she encourages the reader to avoid the temptation to turn freedom into another “perpetual self-improvement project.”

Though readers might benefit from a little more context beyond Varon’s personal story to understand how these cultural and societal dynamics work and how this advice might apply in specific situations, I can definitely see this being an ideal read for those stuck in hustle culture and needing to get out. Even if Varon’s lens wasn’t always for me, the core messages are. I was personally encouraged just to witness another writer’s journey to almost exactly the same place where I’ve arrived: putting self-trust at the center of both healing and justice, with discernment as a key tool for living with both happiness and integrity. We’ve also identified a lot of the same ingredients to getting there: getting honest about where you’re people-pleasing, living intentionally through identifying the “why” behind all your possible priorities, moving with your own rhythms and cycles, and releasing the control that sneakily lives inside expectations for the future.

I can tell you that these techniques work because they’re what I practice. I’ve been in an evolving and deepening journey towards self-trust especially over the last five years, and I’ve found that there are many layers to heal when it comes to that striving tendency. But ultimately, it’s quite beautiful to trust yourself more and rely on approval less. I also find that every time I think I’m done with this work, there’s more to do! So even if you think of these challenges as part of “past you,” you may find resonance here.

Rather than locating calm and contentment beyond some future goalpoast, Varon encourages the reader not to miss out on what’s meant for us by pursuing the dream someone else sees as right for you. “If it’s not a hell yes, then it’s a no” is a phrase my own teacher frequently uses that I loved seeing in this book. While our brains can trick us into “well maaaaybe” this could work, our intuitive selves know where our passions lie and are excellent compasses towards our own center. Varon frames meeting one’s own needs as the most powerful form of self-care, and I can’t agree more. Self-punishment isn’t working as a strategy, and it’s time to try something else.

ARC provided through Edelweiss.