how i get it done

Concepción de León Doesn’t Do Self-Help Anymore, But She Still Gives Great Advice

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Ana Leticia Espinal

In December, Concepción de León became a senior nonfiction editor at the Pantheon imprint of Penguin Random House, fulfilling a dream ten years in the making. De León had wanted to become a book editor since college, but when she attended the Columbia Publishing Course after undergrad, “the joke was that everyone wanted that.” Instead, she carved out a path for herself as a reporter, interning at New York Magazine and working as assistant editor at Glamour before joining the New York Times as a digital writer for the books desk. At the Times, de León authored a self-help-books column and was promoted to reporter, writing about everything from publishing to travel, culture, and news. “There’s this feeling people have, where once you get to the Times, it’s hard to think about where you would go from there,” she says. But when the role at Pantheon opened up, she knew she had to apply. “I’ve wanted to be a book editor since I learned that was a thing in college but thought it would never happen, because I had zero connections, and now here I am ten years later,” says de León. “There was work and networking and stress and strategic thinking involved along the way, of course, so trust and patience are important. But it has been hard when so few people around me had the same immigrant, low-income upbringing that I did, and I had little evidence to show me these things were possible for me too.” She grew up in Queens and now lives in Brooklyn with her very active cat, Cassie, who loves playing in the sink. Here’s how Concepción de León gets it done. 

On her work-from-home morning routine: 
I’m a night owl, so my mornings are very basic. On a good morning, I wake up an hour before work, make breakfast — tacos with eggs, adobo, and veggies — have coffee, and start working. On a bad morning, I could wake up 15 minutes before work and have just enough time to brush my teeth, jump on the computer, and do whatever I need to do. It has started to take a toll on me; the pandemic has shortened my routine quite a bit. I’m trying to build more space between waking up and working to build resilience for the day. My ideal routine would be to wake up, meditate, do yoga, drink some tea, and sit and read. But for now, it’s like, You know what? Focus on the things that take the least amount of time and have maximum impact. Meditation is a big one. So is making my bed. It’s nice to walk into your room and see the bed made. Even if the rest of the space is in disarray, it feels like something is together.

On recovering from burnout: 
I’ve always been an all-or-nothing person and very much a perfectionist. It hasn’t served me, so I’m focusing on doing things in a gentler way that doesn’t stress me. Right now, I’m focused on going back to basics: feeding myself consistently, sleeping enough, taking care of myself and my home. I have this deep-seated exhaustion from a lifetime of living in survival mode — inherited from parents whose situations didn’t allow for the nurturing and attention kids need. I’ve always had a “work first, everything second” mindset fueled by my anxiety over money, and this has, over time, left me completely depleted and less able to handle life’s daily stressors in a healthy way. In personal finance, there’s this idea of “paying yourself first,” meaning that you should put money in your savings account first before paying anyone else. I’ve been working on applying that concept to my life. My dad always tells me, in Spanish, “first you, second you, then everything else.” Slowly, I’m giving myself permission to do that, because there’s no point in having external success if I’m too exhausted and depleted to feel any joy in it.

On a typical workday: 
For now, I’m working remotely, though I do plan to go in. I have an amazing assistant. Because I’m new to the industry, I think what my workday looks like now probably won’t be the way it looks in a year. I’m putting a lot of focus on meeting people, having lunches with agents, and letting people know what books I’m interested in signing. I go on two or three lunches with agents a week, and it’s a big part of my life right now. Outside of that, I’ll organize my submissions and check in on my authors. If there’s a writer I like, I’ll reach out and try to see if they’re interested in writing a book. I’m in a development stage right now where I’m trying to build my list. The bulk of the editing and reading that I do tends to happen in the evening, mostly because I find that I can focus better. I tend to do a lot of deeper work right when five or six o’clock hits.

On what she looks for in stories: 
​​As an editor, I look for character-driven reporting that illuminates readers on pressing social issues or cultural phenomena. I like focused historical accounts of people, places, or events that have particular relevance in the present day. I’m interested in how we build community and belonging and on highlighting stories that are underrepresented in the publishing industry — speaking to and not about people who have been marginalized. I look for proposals that get to the root of human and social behavior and break down why we think or do things a certain way. I want books that are radical, future-facing, and try to promote conversation and change.

On how she unwinds: 
I love TV and probably watch more than I should. I try to be mindful, to watch in an intentional way that’s like, Oh, I’m doing this to relax, not to avoid the emotional things I need to work on. I’m currently watching Criminal Minds, which I watched a lot in college. It has put so many irrational fears in my head, but I still love it. I don’t like TV that I have to work too hard for — that’s too cerebral or that feels like it’s work to stay in. I started watching a TV show like that the other day, and I was like, Ah, there are too many words. I need to pay attention too much. It’s too much, whereas with Criminal Minds, you know what to expect and how it’s going to end for the most part. Maybe a second victim is going to get killed before they catch the killer, but there’s something calming about that, because it’s so predictable. I rewatch sitcoms like Schitt’s Creek and New Girl. I try to watch shows that have a happy ending or an easy resolution, because it’s an escape.

I go roller skating when I’m anxious — there’s a park near my house — and I love jigsaw puzzles. I’m not good at them at all, which makes it even more satisfying when things start to come together. I’ve been journaling a lot. That’s a habit I’d recommend to everyone. And I like budgeting. It relaxes me and gives me a sense of control. I find it to be a fun mental exercise, and I can spend hours working through different financial scenarios. I find it calming.

On moving away from self-criticism: 
When I was at the Times, I used to write this column called Self-Helped, a first-person column in which I wrote about self-help books. I stopped writing it, because it was exhausting to constantly be looking at how to make yourself better — an approach I’ve taken for such a long time. Now I skew more toward books that are nourishing. Positive affirmations have been appealing to me. Not in the sense of “I am strong. I am wonderful,” even though there’s nothing wrong with that, but things that go deeper. A counselor I worked with once told me, “You need to understand that you are a human being, not a human doing.” So I guess I’m trying to embody that a little bit more and tell myself, “You’re just being. You don’t have to be doing all the time.”

On the importance of being present: 
I’ve always been goal-oriented, and I’m trying to be more process-oriented. I’ve focused a lot on where I want to be in five years, in ten years. In some ways, that has served me, because a lot of the things I’ve accomplished in life have been goals I’ve had at a particular time. But the process of achieving them was often miserable, because I was stressing myself out, pushing myself further, and being hard on myself when I fell short. I feel so lucky to have had the career that I’ve had, but I feel like I wasn’t present for a lot of it, because my head was always on the next thing, and I regret that. I would encourage people to try to savor where they are right now and see value in it. Don’t wait ten years to feel good about what you’re doing.

On how she manages travel for work:
I traveled more in my previous job. If I’m honest, I never found travel stressful — I thought it was fun! It broke up the monotony of the office, and I really liked staying in hotels. At the time, I lived with other people, so I enjoyed the alone time and reprieve from household chores. I guess mainly I made sure that my flight times gave me space before my reporting so I could decompress. So if I had to do interviews early in the morning, I’d fly in the afternoon before so I could have a sit-down dinner, maybe a cocktail at the hotel bar, and get my research and questions together. I just never wanted to feel rushed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How Pantheon Editor Concepción de León Gets It Done