Sphere of Influence: Ruth Chou Simons
Questions by Ashley Locke
A conversation with Ruth Chou Simons of @gracelaced, and information on her new book, Beholding and Becoming: The Art of Everyday Worship–out September 10, 2019.
1. When did you start using Instagram?
I’m pretty sure I started my account on Instagram in 2012 (though I’ve never scrolled all the way back to confirm it!).
2. How did the way you use Instagram change from when you first started using it to now?
I had been blogging consistently five years already at that point, so initially, Instagram was purely experimental and fun —discovering stories and little windows into others’ lives around the internet. I wasn’t so much writing on Instagram, as I was simply capturing moments. As an artist, it wasn’t a stretch for me to adopt the idea of filters (mine was Rise from the early in-app options) or being intentional about photo style and curation. I honestly don’t think my use of Instagram has changed a whole lot except that my posts have gotten longer and I’ve created more rules for myself now that it’s directly tied to my professional work. I still manage and write my own posts, only post in real-time when I have something to say (rather than scheduled and branded for content-sake only), and I continue to post about God’s grace intersecting our daily lives. Because Instagram and the community there has changed so much over the years —becoming so much more commercial, curated, and artificial, it’s more difficult to experience genuine connection or inspiration. However, I think if we recognize social media as a vehicle or tool with great opportunity and limitations, we can make the most of its blessings without being disappointed when it comes up short (because let’s face it —SM leave us flat, discontent, and lonely when we make it the center of our strategy, relationships, identity, and purpose.)
3. How has Instagram helped you as an author and a businesswoman? What do you think would be different without it?
Instagram has been a bit like a virtual living room for me —a place where I can extend hospitality to whoever might stop by. Just like Instagram didn’t make me an author or give me a business, a living room doesn’t make you hospitable. You’re still the one who chooses to make your guest a cup of coffee, take time to sit and chat, and you’re still the one who decides what someone experiences when they’re in your home. Instagram can open doors but it can’t create the content. I’m doing much of the same work now as I did a decade ago when I wasn’t known or seen. I think you have to know your why before popularity or social media notoriety tries to define that for you. I like to tell younger women to be faithful with whatever they’ve been given to do in their current season because you don’t have to be blooming to be growing. How you choose to apply yourself when no one is applauding determines how you’ll respond when people do. But back to the question...I guess I’d say that Instagram has helped me to become more laser-focused about what is really at the core of what I want to say as an author and as a business. You have an opportunity to welcome others in and share who you are and what you have —it’s taught me to see my work there less about “a platform” and more like a welcome mat.
4. Do you think Instagram has made it harder or easier for you to connect with people?
As Instagram has grown, connections there have become, by necessity, more surface-y and restrictive. You simply cannot respond to every comment, actively comment on every post you care about, nor spend the time it would take online to really make a connection. I’m still grateful that, through Instagram, the world can be a smaller place and you can discover stories, individuals, or companies you wouldn’t have known otherwise, but the longer I’m on Instagram, the more I see the value of making those connections face to face and in community. For me, that looks like making sure that I invest in relationships that aren’t primarily based on the internet.
5. Did you always share your faith publicly on your social media, or was that something that came later?
It’s always been a core part of my presence on social media. I’m so easily distracted and honestly — interested in talking about everything— that I realized early on that my faith was the one thread that I could consistently weave through every square of my social media quilt if you will. It’s the one thing that keeps me from being overwhelmed by the pressures to “grow a platform.” Not that there’s never any tension there, but when I know that’s the thread that holds my work together, I’m not operating out of identity-crisis and fear, but in reflecting something that already is true.
6. As a self-described "recovering perfectionist," what are some challenges for you on a platform that often portrays people's "perfect" lives?
I think it’s a constant fight as a content creator and storyteller on Instagram. It takes work to not default to “perfection.” For me, it's much easier to take pretty pictures of staged or ideal moments, and caption posts with feel-good thoughts. It’s time-consuming and risky to be real.
There’s a place for beauty and delight, and that’s certainly not false. A bouquet of peonies or a beautiful sunset is worthy of posting and there’s nothing wrong with sharing about a delicious meal that celebrates the wonder of taste! But there’s also the lens of complexity, heartache, and chaos. I don’t believe “real” is simply taking pictures of a messy house, using no filters, or telling the world that you yelled at your kids. That’s one kind of honesty, but I’m more fascinated but the art of drawing people into the human experience we all know...the experience that C.S. Lewis calls friendship: “Friendship ... is born at the moment when one man says to another "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”
I don’t know the stats on this, but I’m confident that the majority of us scroll Instagram most when we are hoping to numb ourselves from stress or pain, or when we are anxiously trying to hustle and succeed enough (not to have stress or pain.) Whether we realize it or not, Instagram has a captive audience of people in search of something.
We have the power to affect lives when we add value to another’s life and not just to the perception of our own.
7. How do you set boundaries for yourself on social media use when it's part of your job?
This is an area I continue to grow in because every season seems to call for new and revised boundaries. Timewise, I choose to stay off social media during the workday, except to check in midday and to do morning or evening posts and stories. I’m completely unproductive if I spend time analyzing everyone else’s work or days! I also wait until the kids are in bed to check in at the end of the night, as that’s a rhythm that works for me and doesn’t cause me to feel hindered in running my own race during the day. Heartwise, I always have my husband read my posts before I post them. I read them to my kids, and show them the pics I post. I want my family —those closest to me— to know and agree that the person they live with is the same person that is posting on social media. It keeps me accountable so that nothing I say to others is disconnected from what they know I speak behind closed doors. Also, two books that have been influential regarding social media habits, are Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You and The Common Rule by Justin Earley.
8. How do you stay authentic? How do you engage with your followers without feeling like you owe them insights into all parts of your life?
That’s a great question. I so want to answer every question, engage in every conversation (or argument!), or “tell-all” for the sake of transparency, but I’ve come to (gratefully) realize that I’m nobody’s savior —only Jesus can be that. I will be of greatest benefit to the community I serve if model intentional care in vulnerability and discretion. By nature, we’re always interested in details, circumstances, and specifics about people’s lives, but the reality is: We don’t need to know the back story or the details to encourage one another in the large story of our lives. We have more in common than we are different —there’s so much to connect over without ever needing to reveal private spaces of your life.
9. Do you ever take breaks from social?
Yup! Weekly, in small doses of day or days. I’ve never taken weeks or months off, but so far, it’s done my heart good simply to learn a rhythm that isn’t dependent on being seen and heard all the time. The best way I know how to take a break from social media is to get out of cell range. I’m not even an outdoorsy kind of girl, but I try to get up into the woods with my guys as much as possible. I can still take pics and capture our moments on video, but I am completely offline and can’t receive texts, emails, or feel any temptation to share in real time. Learning to later-gram is one of the greatest freedoms I’ve allowed myself. I’m someone who needs time to process, to organize my thoughts about any experience, and to assess what things are private and what things are worth sharing. Those aren’t decisions I can easily make in the moment at an event or while out with the family. Almost all my posts and Instagram stories are posted long after I’ve had time to think through what I’m writing or talking about.
10. Instagram is almost like a public version of photo albums now. What are some of your favorite memories you've documented and shared?
I unintentionally started documenting every birthday with a #simonsbirthdayhug photo. We always take it on the birthday in the context of what we are actually doing that day to celebrate. Similarly, I always post a real-time photo of Troy and me on our wedding anniversary. I think these photos have come to testify to how the Lord grows and changes us year by year —not just physically, but in mannerism, attitude, and perspective. I love getting to read back through the lessons learned and perspective gained.
11. You share some amazing travel photos. What is it like traveling with your large family? What is one of your favorite places you've visited?
We are blessed to live in an area of Colorado that feels like a destination all year round. We regularly go on mountain drives and off-roading adventures through the Western Slope of Colorado —you’ll often see me share photos of Silverton, Ouray, and jeep trails like Black Bear (which overlooks Telluride, CO). These are some of our absolute favorites because they change our gaze, fill us with awe, and get us out of cell phone reception! It costs almost nothing more than time and a little gas to get away to the mountains or rivers from where we live. Travel doesn’t have to always be fancy! With that said, we ARE taking the entire family to Europe this summer since I was booked to teach watercolor and devotionals in Lake Como, Italy. We want our kids to be in awe of God’s creation, the creativity we get to reflect with human hands, and to enjoy being together. We took our boys on our 20-year anniversary trip to Riviera Maya, Mexico last summer, and our favorite memories involved chaotic mishaps that turned out to be the best stories afterward. Learning more about one another and the God we serve, and developing the ability to discover “special” wherever we go are my biggest priorities in traveling together.
12. Have you made any fun/meaningful connections or friendships through Instagram?
Absolutely! Too many to count. Ashley Campbell (@underthesycamore) is an Instagram connection turned real-life friend. We’ve spent time as families, in each other’s homes, and traveled to Ecuador together to advocate for Compassion International. We talk about much more than social media when we are together in person, which is only once or twice a year. She even surprised me by showing up at the launch party of my first book, GraceLaced. We are opposites in so many ways, and involved with very different interests, but have developed a friendship focused on things that go further than Instagram…family, faith, and community.