I'm trying to be a better listener. Instead of talking more, I'm trying to ask, "Tell me more." Then I'm trying to take in what I hear.
Sometimes I don't understand exactly what someone means. I used to guess. I'd try to fill in the cracks of my comprehension by offering versions of what I thought they meant. Usually I was wrong. Now I just say, "Tell me more."
Sometimes someone says something amazing. I realize they don't always understand the full awesomeness of what they've said. I coax it forth, like a professor once did for me in class. "Tell me more." We surprise ourselves, not knowing we thought it until we heard ourselves say it.
Sometimes someone is sharing a "home truth" with me, constructive criticism that is hard to hear, because it feels true. I want to be defensive, to rise up against it, to bounce back the blame. Instead I try to be grateful for the honesty, for the deeper connection. Tell me more, even if I flinch.
Sometimes someone shares a story, shyly. A slice of life is on offer. Nobody has the patience for this sort of thing anymore. Telling your life story is a cliche term for boring someone. It means to hurry up and get on with it, the prosaic transaction, the conversation that will be forgotten almost instantaneously. We don't have time for a story that lasts more than a minute, a story that lingers in the memory. I've started to realize what a gift this kind of story can be. If you want to tell me, I want to hear it. Please, please, tell me more.
Artful listening can help shape a story. Details reveal their salience. Patterns can be discerned. Together we make sense out of it. Telling it again and again, we make something sublime out of it.
When someone gets rolling, the story takes on its own cadence, its own poetry. It becomes an entity independent of the teller. A good story drives away ego and petty quotidian concerns. We forget our names, the teller and the audience together. By all means, tell us more.
It takes practice to tell a good story. It takes care to speak from the heart, to try to render the nuances of emotions that have no names. It takes listening. Listening uses the ears, the eyes, and uncharted inner organs. Also the heart. Without the listener, there can be no story. Listening can be a great gift, and telling the tale can be a greater one.
Maybe it's a story in itself. Maybe it's an important insight that sparks a new story in the hearer. Whatever it is, it's a bit of dialogue from a character in the grand book of the world. It's a thought turned into living word. It's a fleeting moment noted and recorded. It's worth attending closely.
Tell me more.
Thank you for telling me.
This year, I resolved to work on my fear of public speaking. Most people share this fear. I think it could be taught in such a way that we learn to address the physiological response of anxiety. As I've become more comfortable at a lectern, I've realized that speaking over the feeling of nervous dread is a simple skill. Anyone can develop it. Why let fear run your life? Personally, I refuse to be bad at something just because it scares me. I will confront it until I dominate it.
My heart pounds. I get "butterflies in my stomach." This still happens, but it's getting better. When I started, my thighs would tremble, and it would actually get worse after I finished my speech. Once my legs shook so hard when I was walking back to my seat that I thought I would collapse. This is extreme, because I'm a marathon runner and I can carry a 42-pound backpack up six thousand feet of elevation. Sometimes I feel that my voice is shaky, although people in my Toastmasters club swear they can't tell. I would think I was turning purple, but nobody could see anything. The intense physical reactions we experience while feeling stage fright are a thousand times more intense inside our bodies than anything that might be visible to an observer. When I resolved to stop talking about my nervousness, I was surprised to find that I felt it much less.
The first thing I learned about nervousness is that even professional entertainers still feel it. A parallel is exercise-induced asthma, a complaint shared by many Olympian athletes. Just because we have a natural physical reaction in a certain situation does not mean it is our fate never to engage in that activity. We are not controlled by our bodies. Once upon a time, we had trouble controlling our sphincter muscles, sitting up, and walking, but we learned to do those things. Standing in front of people and talking is not in itself physically challenging for the average person. (I've seen Zach Anner perform live, and if he can do it from a wheelchair, then I feel that I have no excuses).
The feeling of anxiety and nervousness comes from a hormonal secretion. The adrenal medulla releases epinephrine. That's all. This hormonal secretion is the exact same substance that is released when we're excited. The physical feeling is the same. The only difference is in how we interpret it emotionally. If we tell ourselves stories such as: I hate this, I suck at this, I have to do this, I'm going to mess up, then we're going to feel dread. When we change the story, we change the feeling. It takes repetition to brainwash ourselves until the new story becomes the core belief. They're going to love this. It's going to be awesome.
I ran a marathon in 2014. In 2010, I couldn't run around the block without stopping. I had to lie on the floor until I stopped seeing spots. The experience of going from .3 miles to 26.2 miles taught me that my physiological response at any one moment is just a snapshot. I'm 41. I don't think there is any chronological age that is scientifically proven to cause inescapable physical changes. If I'm disciplined enough and if I've decided to change something about my body, I can, as long as I repeat it enough times. I ran hundreds of miles in tiny increments before I could run a full marathon. Likewise, overcoming my intense dread of public speaking has required numerous one- and five-minute speeches in front of an audience. At least I know my legs can handle it, even if they pretend they can't for a while. The dread is nothing more than a physical sensation that can be beaten into submission. I'm confident that I can rewire any physical trait of my body within four years. Just because my legs are shaking doesn't mean I get to quit.
Everything turned around for me when I read that if you're nervous about a speech, it's because you're thinking about yourself instead of your audience. The message is what's important, not the messenger. If it deserves to be said, then it deserves to be heard. If there is a story inside you that needs to get out, then you have a responsibility to deliver that information and make sure it's received. If you don't have anything to say, then you can let yourself off the hook. A speaker needs an audience. Maybe being a receptive, attentive audience member is a better role for you.
I doubt you really have nothing to say, though. Is that how you're going to live your life, sitting passively and watching others do interesting things? At least that isn't as bad as scaring yourself into inaction, convincing yourself you're no good at anything and never trying the things that grab your attention. If you're scared of it, you're focusing on it, and if you're focusing on it, you must have a reason. What is that inner desire? What would you say if you knew you had the inner fire, the gift of confident public speaking?
What has helped me the most in overcoming my anxiety is to capitalize on my strengths. I knew I could write a good speech. I knew I was a good teacher in small settings. I started to think of myself not as "giving a speech" or "speaking at a podium" but as "teaching a class." I realized that I'm good at memorizing, and that knowing my material gave me more confidence. I got a lot of unexpected validation that I was a good storyteller, and that people thought I was funny. Funny, me? Really? The more the audience responded to my stories, the more they laughed, the more I started to believe them. I started emphasizing humor and finding more opportunities for jokes in my speeches. A new guest told me, out of the blue, that he thought I could do an audiobook.
It has also helped to learn that everyone in my public speaking club has a different issue. My biggest issue besides anxiety is volume. People couldn't always hear me in the back. Other speakers have trouble with the time limit, wanting to stay up there past the 7-minute warning. Some have trouble organizing their thoughts. Some are non-native speakers. Some gesticulate too much or leave their hands hanging by their sides. A couple of people are trying to beat a clicking or smacking sound they tend to make. A monotone voice is another common problem. Everyone has something, and each is a tough issue in its own way. We simply keep trying, keep listening to our evaluations, and keep striving to improve. We do improve.
My ritual is this. I leave our weekly meeting, go to the public library, and write my next speech. A 5-7 minute speech is roughly 1000 words, depending on how fast you talk. I put it away for a few days, and then I revise it the night before. I wake up in the morning, and I spend about half an hour memorizing the speech. I recite it slowly, pausing as long as I need to between sentences before I recall the next line. Then I repeat it to myself over and over again while I do my housework, shower, get ready, and walk to the meeting. When I feel nervous, I smack my belly directly on my navel. If it's really bad, I give myself a pep talk, out loud. I remind myself that it's only 5-7 minutes of my life. Even if this speech is a disaster, it's not asking that much of the audience, who will quickly move on and pay attention to the speaker after me. The worse I do, the more relieved they'll be that it's me up there and not them. In reality, though, my feeling of nervousness has nothing to do with my actual performance. Everyone gets nervous. Nobody cares but me. I remind myself to return my focus to my material, and how I've created it as a gift to the audience. The message, not the messenger.
Public speaking has become, for me, a really fun hobby and a social outlet. I look forward to meetings instead of dreading them. I love making people laugh. I'm astonished at how quickly I was able to progress from knee-rattling dread to real enjoyment. It is my hope that my experience will be helpful to anyone who is tired of being afraid and who wants to learn to speak fearlessly. It can be done. Go out there and do it, and cross off one more thing that you won't allow to frighten you anymore.
JUST IN CASE. That's a solid reason to keep every single molecule you've ever touched or breathed in your entire life. YOU NEVER KNOW. It's true. YOU MIGHT NEED IT LATER. Most of us spend time sitting in this feeling, this sense that keeping things provides security in life. Some of us eventually realize that this emotion is a phase. It can go away. As for me, the dominant feeling in my life is curiosity. I can't stop at BECAUSE as an answer to anything. Why exactly am I supposed to keep certain papers "indefinitely"? Can't I just scan them and keep digital copies?
The obvious question raised by this imprimatur to keep particular papers is, what if I can't? What if:
Burst water main
I'm an historian. It's a sad fact of the field that priceless relics and invaluable archival material are often lost to the sands of time. All sorts of buildings containing public records burned down in the 19th century because everything was made of wood and the available technology for light and heat was dangerous. There's no viable way to demand that anyone keep a piece of paper unto eternity, because there's no physical way to guarantee its continued existence on the material plane.
The real questions for me are twofold: 1. Do I need to keep it at all? 2. Do I need to keep a hard copy?
I have a fireproof safe. It cost about $120 and I got it at Harbor Freight. "Fireproof" means the papers inside won't spontaneously combust for an hour in a burning building. That's 60 minutes. The safe is more of a sunblock for documents.
What papers need to remain as paper? (As opposed to vellum, papyrus, stone tablet, or other medium of codex?) The stuff we use most often, such as a passport, is more convenient to keep on paper. Never irk a border control agent. Most of our important "papers" are really plastic now. Drivers license, debit and credit cards, various forms of identification. I really want to access these accounts with my fingerprint, or an intense stare, but for now they're plastic. I get why it makes life easier to keep these things, but I'm awaiting the day when they'll become obsolete.
We each have a sheaf of photocopies in our go bag. These are documents suggested by various preparedness websites, including ready.gov. The purpose is to prove who we are in the event that we lose our wallets and there's no phone or grid up for a few days. Plan B, if we have to evacuate our house, is to have basic supplies if we need to go to an emergency shelter. Passport, drivers license, medical and dental insurance cards, AAA card, marriage certificate, and a list of emergency contacts since I stopped memorizing phone numbers around 1993. I sincerely hope we never need these papers. This is the only scenario I can think of when actual, bona fide compressed tree parts would be truly necessary.
Our wedding certificate is in the safe. It makes me feel all gooey when I look at it. We've needed photocopies of it at various times over the years, mostly for health insurance and HR stuff.
The reason I started to delve into the reasoning behind keeping certain papers 'indefinitely' is that I want to get rid of my divorce paperwork. I kept seeing a line item putting these papers in the 'permanent storage' category. I don't want that to be the answer. So I did some research. It turns out that the main reason to hang onto divorce papers is that it can be inconvenient to get copies from the courthouse. If you were married at least ten years before the divorce, you can apply for social security benefits under your former spouse, and you'd need those papers then. That doesn't apply to me. You also might need a copy of your divorce decree if you want to legally change your name. I remarried and changed my name, so that also doesn't apply to me. The only other circumstances would be if you had children or property together, and there were ongoing legal issues affecting them. That doesn't apply to me either. I was divorced 16 years ago, and I haven't heard a peep out of my ex in over a decade. I've started to realize that that part of my life is over-over. Further, I'm pretty sure that what I have on hand is not an official copy of the divorce decree anyway, but merely a photocopy. First I'm going to burn these papers, and then I'm going to rip the tags off my mattress. Go big or go home!
Tax returns - keep them, but you don't need the backup papers after 7 years. Be nice to the IRS because they can pursue you into the afterlife.
Deeds, titles, bonds, other super-official stuff. Keep them too, and if you have a lot of this kind of thing, consider a safe deposit box and/or fireproof safe.
Everything else is optional.
How much are you keeping out of fear?
How much are you keeping out of confusion and lack of information?
How much are you keeping because sorting your stuff would be time-consuming and boring?
How much are you keeping because paper is the least of your worries, and you're clearing other categories of stuff first?
How much are you keeping because you believe memories are solid?
How much are you keeping because it symbolizes a part of your identity?
How much paper is in your home, covering surfaces, because you just don't want to deal with it? How much of that is junk mail, catalogues, expired coupons, and obsolete invitations?
'Getting organized' is about making sure your life runs smoothly. You're trying to take care of problems in the present and not pass the buck to Future Self. Part of the work of getting organized involves physical objects, but almost all of it is about mental bandwidth. It's much more important to be on top of your financial, legal, and career world than it is to have a clean desk. That being said, PAPERS ARE THOUGHTS and releasing them can be a very effective way of liberating your powers of focus and awareness.
People are always looking for something new to read.
Millions of people have published a book, or several, and lived to tell the tale.
It creates jobs for publishers, editors, graphic designers, marketers, bookstore clerks, printers, warehouse stockers, truck drivers, and on and on.
Who are you to deprive the world of your work?
The worst case scenario is that nobody will read it, and that's HAPPENING NOW.
Another negative scenario is that someone will criticize it, but you can be criticized anywhere on the Internet or walking down the street for no reason. If it happens, at least it happened because you did something.
Is your unfinished manuscript really what you want to be thinking about on your deathbed?
Aren't you curious what happens in the last chapter?
You can always write it and then choose not to publish it.
You can always write another draft.
You can always publish it under a pen name.
The writing process makes you smarter and improves your writing skills.
Publishing a book is an opportunity to meet new people, people who like books.
Publishing a book is also a great excuse to lock yourself up like a hermit.
Compare it to training for a marathon. If you want an impressive achievement under your belt, which one is easier?
Writing is a much more interesting default behavior than most of the alternatives, such as watching TV or wandering around a shopping mall.
Get it out of the way so you can move forward. Maybe you choose never to write another book, or maybe you love it and you start another one right away. At least you're not stuck in the doorway wondering anymore.
You wouldn't even be thinking about writing a book if you didn't have a story somewhere inside you.
Your story deserves to be told. Your words want to be free.
You are not entitled to be the judge and jury of whether your story should be available to people. It belongs to the world. How dare you lock it away and leave your audience with nothing better to do than to watch reality television?
You are killing literature! You selfish non-writer, you. Where is it? Give it to me!
Start typing because we're out here waiting to find out what you have to say.
By now, the concept of the "10,000 hour rule" is so widespread in pop culture that few people are likely to be aware of the researcher who started it all. That man is Anders Ericsson. His terrific book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise is an absolute must-read. What Ericsson has learned about expertise, mastery, supposed "natural talent," and alleged child prodigies is extremely compelling evidence that almost anyone can be good at almost anything. All it takes is the desire, the right guidance, and deliberate practice.
The first thing to know is that the "10,000 rule" isn't a rule. It's an urban myth at this point. The idea is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class at something. This was drawn from statistics for elite 20-year-old violinists. This group obviously would go on to practice many thousands of additional hours over their professional careers. The number, however, is different depending on which discipline, whether it is music, sports, or some other field. What it takes to master tennis is not going to be the same number of hours as what it takes to master French cooking.
The list of "gifts" (read: skills) that are supposedly innate but really arise out of deliberate practice is astonishing. Perfect pitch. Math. Sports. Ability to memorize strings of random numbers. Navigational sense. Even the mystical ability of some autistic people to correctly name the day of the week of any date in history. Everything, it seems, can be taught, learned, and performed at a high level.
One of the most interesting findings of Ericsson's research is that IQ actually seems to be a hindrance in certain fields. I'd read that this is true in the business world, because the more intelligent we are, the more reasons we find to talk ourselves out of doing things. Apparently, people who feel like they have to work harder to keep up, regardless of discipline, will do so. Bright people can be really lazy, feeling that we don't need to study or work hard, and creating a fixed mindset that holds us back.
I've been doing deliberate practice without realizing it. This year I'm working on public speaking, and when I memorize a speech, I will recite a sticky sentence over and over until I've nailed it. Listening to me rehearse would be excruciating. It would annoy anyone except my parrot. It works, though. I can memorize a seven-minute speech in about half an hour, and have it polished in two hours. In January, I could only make it thirty seconds without my legs shaking so hard I could barely walk afterward. As of September, I've won five ribbons and come in second in a speech contest. Deliberate practice is not fun, just as the book says, but the results definitely make it worthwhile.
Ericsson's research on deliberate practice has rocked my world. When I first heard about it, I stopped in my tracks and thought, "What would I want to be that good at?" I couldn't think of anything right away. Then I thought, "What about ONE thousand hours? What about one HUNDRED hours?" That made expertise seem within reach. I chose cooking. There was a noticeable improvement in my cooking skills within only ten hours. By the time I hit 100, I was making up my own recipes. When I took up distance running, I literally couldn't run around the block, and four years later, I ran a marathon. Deliberate practice works. Now all that's left is to choose something else that's worth practicing.
I’m married, married for the second time. The first one didn’t go so well. I’ve spent a quarter of my life with a wedding ring on my hand. Most of my years were single, and in many ways, most of my hours are, too. I like being married, but I also enjoyed living alone, and I’ve hung on to everything that was good about that time. What we trade when we merge lives with someone else is completely negotiable.
There aren’t really any rules about marriage. Oh, sure, there are certain legal strictures and definitions. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a reason to acknowledge the distinction between marriage and any other type of relationship. My husband and I got married precisely because of what it symbolizes. In many ways, we are a unit. We refer to ourselves in the first person plural. “We” have a dog. “We” like Ethiopian food. “We” like Delta blues and flamenco music. “We” are getting the flu shot. “We” have an exclusively monogamous relationship. When other people see our wedding rings, they can guess certain things, such as the fact that we live in the same house and file our taxes jointly. It’s convenient.
The Venn diagram of us still would show two distinct circles with an overlap. We are individuals. While we share many likes and dislikes, what we do have in common is probably less than what we don’t. I love eggplant, he hates it. He eats meat, I don’t. The only items we can both agree belong on a Thanksgiving menu are mashed potatoes and olives. We’re sitting in our living room right now, and he’s wearing shorts and a t-shirt while I’m dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, cardigan, pants, and knee boots. (It’s 61 F outside). I’m a night owl, he’s an early bird. He’s an Upholder, I’m a Questioner. I like poetry, he likes hockey. He wants to build another battle bot, I want to learn to light a fire without matches. (He probably knows how to do that already). In many ways, we’re an improbable match. If we were both on a dating site, we wouldn’t have met. No way.
Being together doesn’t have to mean anything more than we say it does. We got married basically because cell phone service was too unreliable at my new house. We wanted to talk to each other for at least an hour a day, and living together makes that so much easier! Funny how that works. We do share values about managing finances, planning for the future, working on our flaws, enjoying simple pleasures, having pets, maximizing our contribution to the world, learning new things and pushing our abilities, traveling the world, and being accountability mirrors to each other. We both get a lot out of being married. We’re true believers. An intimate romantic relationship can be the fastest path to emotional and spiritual growth. Mental growth is on that list, too, as we bring our completely different academic packages to the table. Our friendship has been intellectually rigorous from the start. We’re married because it’s a value-add.
I like to say that I’m “extremely married.” That’s true. I feel like a lot of people forget there are other options besides squabbling all the time. That’s probably because they let themselves start to dissolve around the edges. If you don’t protect your need for a certain basic level of privacy and independence, everything gets that much more difficult. What “marriage” seems to mean, from some of the public arguments we’ve heard, is a depressing trap in which freedom is traded for financial security and the ability to let oneself go in every respect. Let’s stay together and try to ignore one another’s flaws so we can both relax. Why would marriage have to mean giving up privacy, independence, or freedom? What if marriage was more like a nice restaurant that you both went to most nights?
When I was single, I listened to whatever music I liked. I still do, I just use headphones more often. I used to go to horror movies alone, and sometimes I got candy. That’s still true, and if I do eat candy, that’s probably where I’m eating it. I used to hang out at the library a few days a week. Still do. I got a parrot, and she’s still here. I still eat eggplant as often as I ever did, just at restaurants, when my hubby is ordering something (anything) else. Everything I did when I was single, I still do, with the exception of eating cereal for dinner.
I asked my husband whether there was anything he did when he was single that he didn’t do now. I mentioned having cereal for dinner, and he said he used to do the same thing! I said it was funny that we both used to eat cereal for dinner, so we could do it now, if we wanted. We both paused, then looked at each other and shook our heads. Cooking “real” dinners is one of those marital choices that turns into a lifestyle upgrade. I mean, breakfast for dinner was nice, but not compared to a pot pie or a curry. Or a curry pot pie. Or a curry pot pie with sweet potato tots on top.
Part of the deal with marriage is that it represents a watershed in the timeline. There was ‘before’ and now there’s ‘after.’ The ‘after’ tends to represent what is popularly known as ‘adulting.’ It can be scary, until it becomes apparent that adulting leads to more options in life. It’s precisely like getting a driver’s license. Learning to drive is really hard and potentially dangerous, but then you have the societally sanctioned ability to go wherever you want. Adulting means that one day you have actual money in the bank, instead of a stack of bills. Adulting means there are delightful aromas coming from your kitchen, instead of nothing. Adulting means you sit on comfortable furniture and go to bed on clean sheets. This process of becoming a competent, grown-ass mature person should not be confused with the process of making an abiding marriage, because they are separate, though related. Being married is easier when you’re a competent adult, but neither requires the other.
Neither requires the other. That’s true about us. We don’t need each other, we just rely on each other sometimes. We share the load. Many things in life are easier with a second set of hands. We help each other to do things we would have to do alone otherwise. Together, we only have to cook one dinner and mop one floor. We can take turns and give each other a break. We’ve removed each other’s splinters, massaged each other’s shoulders, replaced each other’s bandages. We’ve gone to the store to get each other cold medicine and saltine crackers. We’ve lectured each other about doing our physical therapy exercises. We’re inseparable. Our lives wrap around each other in so many ways – by choice.
We’re independent. In some ways, we’re both more independent now that we’re married than we were when we were single. We travel separately more often than we travel together. That’s partly because one of us can stay home and pet-sit while the other takes off. The year before we got married, I went to Cancun with my brothers, and my then-boyfriend stayed behind and did my taxes for me. (See why I married him?) After we got married, he went on several road trips in which I packed him a sack of pasties, snacks, and still-warm cookies. Our home is a sort of resupply station. Taking off and doing our own thing keeps it fresh. We’re gone just often enough to miss each other and remember how cold the bed is when we sleep alone.
We check with each other before we make plans. I’ve been criticized by single girlfriends who think that means my husband owns me or something. Like I can’t think for myself or make my own decisions anymore. I do what I want. I do what I want much more often than I did before, because I have this logistical support system and personal cheering section. I do, however, check in and keep him informed, just as he does for me. It’s polite. If I had a roommate to whom I wasn’t married, I’d tell her (or him) that I was leaving town. Simple as that. We don’t have to do more than check in with one another, because we already worked out the guidelines under which our marriage would operate. We have a system for how to keep house, manage money, and share a calendar. We haven’t had to have repeated arguments about any of that stuff because we talked out something we could both agree on. Fidelity is the same. Asked and answered.
He wants to do a solo multi-week motorcycle expedition when he turns 50. He started planning it before we met, and I see no reason why he shouldn’t be able to do it. I went on two backpacking trips this year, and he was only invited to one of them, because the other was women-only. He’s talking about a couple of intensive business courses that would have him in a different time zone for a couple weeks. Sounds cool. I might very well do something similar, in the nature of a language immersion school. We’ve both flirted with the idea of grad school (though he already has one master’s degree). The undercurrent here is that we both see the role of a husband or a wife as a coach and sounding board for the other partner. We don’t “allow” each other to do things, we encourage each other to do things.
You should, babe. That sounds great. When does it start? Is it in the calendar?
Marriage is associated with a lot of FoMO. Fear of Missing Out on opportunities, on freedom, on new love interests, on steamy hot fantasies. Well, we were both over 30 when we got married for the second time. It turns out that the same people you’ll meet at 2 AM were there at 10 PM. It’s not like we don’t know about partying. We just lost interest in it. My hubby went to bed at 9:40 the other night because it sounded decadent. That’s something he’s more likely to do as a married man, because he can count on me to put the dog in his crate, lock up, check the stove, and turn the lights out. Married is cozy.
I’m a part-time bachelorette. I sleep alone at home when he’s out of town. I sleep alone in my backpacking tent. I’m free to play with my hula hoop, wear rainbow-striped socks, and try to teach my bird to whistle movie themes, just as I always was. It turns out that my independence is a big part of what my husband likes about me. I do what I want, and that keeps me interesting. Same for him. The part of the time that I spend putting away laundry or making soup stock is just part of the job description. The chores are just like any boring task I would do at work in order to collect the paycheck that funds my “real” life. We put the time in cleaning gutters and balancing the checkbook and getting the oil changed because those things need to get done. The only part of that that’s different from single life is that I always put out two towels and put pillowcases on two pillows.
Marriage can make us into better humans. He’s made me more confident and I’ve made him more sensitive. We help each other to work through awkward social situations. We interpret each other’s dreams and remind each other of our visions. We see each other’s inner superhero just as we see the villain that lurks there, too. We remind each other that we have missions to accomplish in this world. Our superhero personas may be single, but our secret identities wear matching rings.
New Year's Resolutions aren't something most people are thinking about in September of any given year. That's because most people don't choose goals that they find so interesting they'll still want to work on them nine months later. Well, some people do, and those goals are called "babies." I figure if someone can make an entire human being in nine months, then surely I can make at least minor progress on something less significant! I keep a written list and make sure to check in at least quarterly. Do the goals I chose on New Year's Eve still matter to me? Am I putting in the effort that Future Self wishes I would?
The first resolution, my Most Obvious Thing, is to earn more money. This goal has expanded into a new direction, which is that my husband and I are now assiduously working on becoming financially independent. I should have my student loans paid off by the end of next year, a few years early, and at that point we will be completely debt-free. We were introduced to a spreadsheet that shows that anyone at any income level can become financially independent by saving a specific percentage of income for a designated period of time. Metrics are very motivating for me, and we've both been galvanized by this concept that has an exact dollar amount attached to it. Something specific to work toward by a set date. It's like training for a marathon, only you're not as sweaty at the end.
My second goal was to work on my fear of public speaking. I joined Toastmasters. When I started, I would wake up every Wednesday morning with a pit of dread in my stomach. Just walking in the door of the meeting room scared me, much less being called on to do an impromptu speech. My legs would shake so much I could barely walk back to my seat. Six months later - total transformation! Apparently I am "a very witty, sophisticated comedian." I've won a best speaker ribbon and three for best table topics. Who knew impromptu speaking would become my strong point? I came in second place in our humorous speech competition, against much more seasoned speakers, and I placed higher than an actual stand-up comic. Someone even suggested that I perform at a local open-mic comedy night! The most bizarre part is that it actually sounded fun and like something I would do well.
UPDATE: I spoke again the day this was posted. I won another Best Speaker ribbon!
My next resolution was to work on cross-training. I wasn't even sure exactly what I was looking for, just that I knew it was time to level up physically and that most of what I needed was information. I finally joined my husband's gym and did a package with a personal trainer. His focus is on corrective training and rehabilitation, and we worked on my lingering ankle issue. It turns out to be referred pain from a hip stability issue and tight calves. I learned that many of my go-to exercises were exacerbating some chronic tension issues. I now have a very clear idea of exactly where to focus, a depressing image of my actual vs. ideal posture, and a set of corrective exercises to do. I've gotten much better results from the trainer than I did in six months of physical therapy, where they focus on the precise area of pain but don't spend much time on broader structural issues. It also turns out that I'm not so great at proprioception, or the sense of where my body parts are at any given moment, and that's why I keep crashing into things. Weight training and yoga are really helping with this. Also working out next to a mirror and having a partner (my husband) guide my wandering limbs back into proper position.
I wanted to be able to run again. It's been two years, but... I ran! Just a little bit, a run-walk to the gym, to test my ankle. I told my husband last night, "I'm going to start running again next month," and surprised us both by bursting into tears.
I had a goal to make a new friend. One day, I was walking through downtown, and I happened to run into someone from my Toastmasters club. He said, "Hello, friend!" I was so surprised and happy I almost fell down. Little did he know he had granted my wish. Also, we went to World Domination Summit this summer and made some real connections there. I still need to keep pushing myself to show up, to answer my email, and to check in on Facebook, where I have been a virtual non-presence all year.
Still not taking melatonin, and still able to sleep without it. WINNING!
After twenty years, I somehow find myself able to eat spicy food again without giving myself an instant migraine. I have no idea how this happened, but I'll take it. I've been putting chili sauce in my food, eating jalapeños, and gradually starting to trust that I am now "allowed" to eat what used to be a trigger food. (Gut flora? Spleen function? Adequate consumption of micronutrients?)
This is a big part of why I keep written records of my goals and my attempts to meet them. It helps me to take notice of other wins that come up throughout the year. Anyone who is lucky enough to sleep without thinking about it, or fearlessly enjoy spicy food, should pause to be grateful for that. Not everyone is so lucky. Not everything comes easily to everyone. After all these years of making and keeping my New Year's Resolutions, I've come to realize that most things are far more amenable to positive change than is generally believed.
Here is the FI spreadsheet link: http://www.madfientist.com/financial-independence-spreadsheet/
Heresy! I have razored pages out of a bound book! I have torn off the binding! Sacrilege!
Blank books used to be a major weakness of mine. I decided to start buying fancy bound books instead of cheap spiral notebooks as soon as I saw a stack of them at Ross for $2.99 each. Before I knew it, I had an entire shelf of them. I would be using one as my all-purpose writing notebook, but then I wouldn't have it with me, and I'd desperately want a notebook, so I'd buy a new one. The same project found its way into half a dozen books. Then there were the journals, the songbook, the poetry notebook, etc. It got a little out of hand.
I realized that bound books simply don't work for me as a writing tool. I could never restrict myself to only one topic per notebook, so all my work got mixed together. There was no way to rearrange pages or swap them between books, most of which were of different formats. I also went through a lengthy index card phase. Let's not talk about the various sizes of colored sticky notes.
If the goal was to track my work, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was to be able to easily find a specific note, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was portability and accessing my work remotely, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was to protect my papers from the action-oriented hands of professional movers, notebooks were not working.
The only thing that was working about the notebooks was that I liked how they looked. They had pretty covers (although they didn't look all that great next to each other). I have great penmanship. The notebooks made lovely props if my goal was to impress people with how writerly I am. Theoretically, that's what my published work is for, but in practice, people can probably tell by the way I mutter to myself and try to store multiple writing implements behind my ear.
I got a laptop. The paper note habit almost completely disappeared. I started writing about 5x more material. I developed a note-taking system that works for me, which is that I start a new note every month and label it with the month and year. IDEA LOG: SEPTEMBER 2016. Then I put the date each time I have something to write down. I can access it from my phone. I have successfully used the search function to track down notes. It's restful.
Then I started to feel more concerned about my older paper notes. I couldn't search them. There were several occasions when I wanted something off a paper note, but I was at the library or the cafe, and I'd have to wait until I got home. I couldn't always find what I wanted, because I couldn't always picture which notebook it was in. Madness, I tell you!
We had a problem with the sprinkler system in our yard while we were out of town one weekend. The landlord lives next door, and he noticed it and brought in a plumber. Meantime, the floor of our laundry room was flooded. The plumber was there when we got home, which was great, but my first thought was: "What if a pipe happens to burst in the wall right next to my files?" The thought of my sole copies of all those years of work suddenly soaking wet and running ink made me turn pale.
I've been scanning my old notes, and I'm nearly done. It's incredibly tedious. It does make good podcast listening time, though. Each time I label a file and store it in the cloud, I breathe a little easier. I'm that much more likely to be able to find something when I need it. That much more of my work is safe from ruin.
The process of going through twenty years of paper has brought up some interesting revelations. The sheer volume of it has finally convinced me that yes, I am a real writer. It turns out to be something that, over the last thirty years, I simply haven't been able to stop myself from doing. There were far more plays, stories, poems, song lyrics, timelines, and novel outlines than I had realized. Like, triple. The other thing I noticed was that I used to write very faintly in pencil, and over time, I switched to ink. It got thicker and darker over the years. It's almost like I gradually turned up the volume of my voice from inaudible to loud.
The drawback to that is that my earlier work doesn't scan well. I'm having to type it. Otherwise, I could pay to mail it off and have it scanned by a service for two cents a page.
I made the decision of whether to type or scan based on relevance. If I consider the project to be 'active,' meaning I have plans to publish it in the next few years, it gets typed and filed in the same cloud folder as the other notes on that project. If I don't plan to do anything with it, I scan it. I've changed my mind on older projects before, and they feel worth saving, but at this moment they don't feel worth the hours of typing I would have to do. It's also much faster to preserve them.
I took apart a bound notebook. It wasn't all that hard. First, I used a razor cutting tool to slice out the used pages. More than half of the book was still blank, which has been true of most of my notebooks. Then I tore off the binding, which I had cut up with the razor anyway. The pages with notes were much easier to sort into groups, based on project, and several pages went straight into the recycling bin.
How do we deal with the emotional pain of damaging a bound book, when we've been taught to revere books? We remind ourselves that the contents are what's important, and that storing a lone copy on paper makes it vulnerable to every kind of loss or damage. We don't want to be creating a home "Library of Alexandria" situation.
How do we deal with the emotional pain of "wasting" all that blank paper? We remind ourselves that we also wasted the paper on which we wrote. We remind ourselves of all the junk mail, brochures, takeout menus, and other forms of paper we've brought home over the years. We put it into context. What we're trying to do is to create a system that will cut back on paper consumption for years to come. We're recycling. We can't spend our lives torturing ourselves with guilt, dread, and anxiety over material objects. We redirect our focus and attention to PEOPLE and loving our loved ones.
The way I'm approaching my boring, time-consuming scanning project is to keep reminding myself that soon, I'll be done. Once I'm done, I'll never have to do it again. It's a blip. After an hour and a half, I feel like I'm losing my mind, and I stop and come back to it on a later day. Sometimes the next day, sometimes not until the next week. Inevitably, I start thinking about burst pipes again, and that brings me in to do another stack.
As I finish scanning file folders and bound books, I start letting go of others. I've been holding back certain notebooks because I wanted to keep them in handwritten form. They've felt like talismans of a sort. One is the poetry notebook I started in middle school and another is the journal I kept in Iceland. Today I looked at them and realized that the only way to keep them is to digitize them. The process has been more comforting than I anticipated. I only wish I'd started sooner.
The paradox in the bounty of this world is that the more options we have, the more deprived we feel. We're overwhelmed by decisions. No matter what we pick, no matter how we choose to spend our time, there's always something else we could be doing or experiencing. I notice this from time to time when a group of my out-of-state friends goes out for karaoke, and the reason I know about it is that they keep popping on Facebook while sitting at the table together. Seriously, you guys, look up and wave at each other. I can tell you right now that you're having more fun than the rest of us. Although you might not be if I were there, since I'd be compelled to sing...
FoMO plays a big part in our emotional attachment to stuff. The first thing we think when we consider getting rid of something is: What if I NEED IT? I'd be MISSING OUT. Not only would I not have this precious thing I have to talk myself into keeping, but I'd also lose the money I spent on it. There are three problems with this.
Sunk cost fallacy. The money is already gone whether the item gets used or not. We never account for what it costs to keep things, in space, rent, maintenance and cleaning time, mental bandwidth, or emotional depth.
Utility. We don't have to come up with reasons to keep obviously useful things, like a toothbrush or a spoon. The minute we find ourselves turning into an item's defense attorney, it's a dead giveaway that we don't actually need it.
Abundance. We have plenty of stuff already, and when we fixate on the potential loss of any one of these items, we forget our attachment to the rest of it.
I've been working on my sense of Fear of Missing Out in regard to books, articles, and podcasts. My book wish list is still over a thousand items, although I've finally gotten my article bookmarks below six hundred. Apparently I have eleven gigs of podcasts loaded on my phone right now (and eight audio books). I am finally starting to realize that not only will I never "catch up," I wouldn't really want to. To read everything on my list would occupy me for the next four years, and that would mean four years without reading anything new. My fixation on Past Self's reading choices is depriving Future Self of fresh new possibilities. To pace myself and read at a rate that would keep me "caught up" would require me to cut back on time I spend doing other things, like sleeping or telling my parrot her bedtime story.
Another way to look at this is that I am blessed with total abundance in my reading and listening options.
We're never going to run out! Over three hundred thousand new books are published in the US every year, and that doesn't include other English-speaking countries. I get a warm and gooey feeling when I think of all my favorite living authors who are doubtless working on fabulous new titles right now. Stephen King is probably still typing assiduously as this posts. (I often picture him at his morning labors as I try to reach his daily word count quota). That doesn't even begin to touch how many blogs, vlogs, journal articles, podcasts, movies, and music videos are constantly being released. Multiple lifetimes wouldn't be enough to experience all of it, even without taking breaks to actually absorb any of it.
This is the origin of sleep procrastination. We can't bear to pull away from the ceaseless flow of entertainment and information. Arianna Huffington broke her cheekbone when she passed out from chronic exhaustion. It didn't surprise me, as a close friend of mine has fallen asleep and hit his face on his desk multiple times. He's trying to watch All the Music Videos. The music FoMO is distracting from what should be a case of sleep FoMO. We replace our actual dreams with electronic simulacra of dreams.
All objects are stand-ins for experiences. A book is just an expensive chunk of firewood when we remove the potential reading experience. Clothing is about the experience of protection from the elements, discount sunblock, and of course a style statement. We become attached to objects because we like the feeling of looking at them, interacting with them, using them, or merely having them. Sometimes we don't even care about any of that, because we really just like the experience of shopping for them. Sometimes we really only want them as conversation pieces, or ways to connect with other people.
We can try to tap into an experience of abundance, using the exact same data that lead us to the feeling of scarcity and missing out. There will always be MORE waiting out there in the world: people who aren't currently in the room with us, countries we aren't currently visiting, music we aren't currently hearing, cuisines we aren't currently tasting. We can only be in one place at a time, and that is: RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW.
As I look into my closet, I can replace the thought that "I don't have anything to wear" with the thought that "I would look dorky if I wore everything in here at the same time."
As I look at my groaning bookshelves, I can replace the thought that "I should be able to read one book with each eye" with the thought that "I should call my grandma and tell her what I just said to myself."
As I learn that my friends are out partying without me, I can replace the thought that "they're having fun without me" with the thought that "I love that they're having fun together," and also that "I'll be sound asleep hours before they're ready to leave, not because I am boring but because my inner eyelids are a beautiful and well-kept secret."
I appreciate the experience of having few clothes, all of which fit me today, all of which are fairly current, and all of which are reasonably flattering. Certainly more so than a peeling full-body sunburn.
I appreciate the awareness that I am constantly surrounded by a broad selection of reading material, and that the majority of the world's knowledge is available at my fingertips, lurking in my pockets, waiting to be butt-dialed so Siri can tell me, "That wasn't very nice," when I wasn't even talking to her.
I appreciate that there are people who love me, people whom I can visit when I pass through their city, people who will return my texts, and also that I love sleeping a lot.
The real experiences we're missing are very much emotional states. We're missing out on the feeling of being well-rested and composed. We're missing out on the feeling of being thrillingly alive, energetic, strong, and running through the forest like a (pretty slow) deer. We're missing out on the feeling of being fully alert, in tune, and absorbed in listening to someone at the speed of love. We're missing out on the feeling of contentment.
What a fabulous world, so full of animals we've never seen, sea floors that have never been mapped, archaeological artifacts waiting to be discovered, medical innovations currently being tested (as though correcting color blindness weren't enough), works waiting for translation, and of course, fascinating new friends to meet. How can we fear we're missing out on anything when we're surrounded by so much more than we could ever hope to sample?
I read The Good Gut with keen interest. The gut microbiome is only beginning to be studied and understood in the context of human health. Anyone who has multiple, seemingly unrelated health issues would do well to read up in this area. This book would be a good start. Justin and Erica Sonnenburg are married PhDs who are raising two kids based on their gut research, and the tone is relatable and relaxed. Let your kids play in the dirt, let the dog lick their face, quit using antibacterial soap, and eat some vegetables. The advice is simple and straightforward, and the book has a selection of recipes at the back.
"What is the Microbiota and Why Should I Care?" That's the name of the first chapter, and it's a good place to start. The Good Gut is focused on the basic science of gut flora. By the time we get to the personal dietary recommendations, a solid foundation has been laid. It makes sense when connections are made between gut health and antibiotic use, asthma, eczema, obesity, serotonin levels, autoimmune diseases, and possibly even autism. The connection with inflammatory bowel disease is more obvious. A skeptical attitude toward commercial probiotic products prevails, and I agree. Why not just eat vegetables like our ancestors did?
Gut problems are the secret that can't be named. People are understandably mortified to talk about these issues, even with a doctor. It surprises me, though, how incredibly common they are. The reason it surprises me is that it's not a problem in my world. I'm 41 and I've never had food poisoning. I accidentally drank a glass of tap water in Cancun, and all that happened was that I felt nervous all evening. When I pick up something, such as a norovirus that went around my office for a week or so, I lose my appetite and sleep more, but that's it. The difference between me and most people is that I eat a high-fiber diet and I haven't eaten meat since 1993. I've been vegan since 1997. (I was also delivered naturally and breastfed, two factors that, according to the book, are relevant to gut health). When The Good Gut mentioned the American Gut Project, I decided to participate later this year. The question of gut flora is testable. We can obtain objective, measurable data and compare them to other samples. I am very curious to know more, just as I'd like to know more about my DNA.
My one issue with The Good Gut is that almost all the recipes rely on dairy products. It's been my observation that my acquaintances with the most digestive issues tend to be heavy dairy consumers, and this seems to be supported by research indicating that not everyone has the genetic ability to digest milk into adulthood. What a weird idea anyway; no other animals besides humans eat the milk of another animal, or consume it past infancy. Anyway, the book's recommendations to eat a high-fiber diet are clear and frequent.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.