Would anything have been different if I had known sooner?
I went to a destination wedding with my family. I was about to turn thirty. I was painfully single, at least as broke as I had ever been, and recovering from an illness in which I temporarily lost half my lung capacity. As I sat in a rental car with five relatives, it felt like I had nothing going for me.
Little did I know, in exactly three months I would meet the man who would become my second husband.
I had no way to know that not only would I get my breathing back, I would eventually go on to run a marathon.
I couldn’t really imagine it at the time, but I would also pay off my student loans one day. My credit limit on one card would be higher than my loans ever were.
I didn’t even know that I would one day live with my little love, my gray parrot Noelle.
I couldn’t see three months into the future. It just felt like one day after another, the same the same the same, with this little blip of the family vacation. I felt like I would always be broke and single and ill.
This is why I wonder what would be different, if I had known what was coming.
If I’d known I would eventually be debt-free, would it have helped me sleep better at night?
If I’d known I would get my health back, and fairly soon, would I have started working out sooner? Would I have started losing weight sooner? Today I understand that having an extra thirty-five pounds on my chest wasn’t doing my lungs any favors, but I didn’t then. I would have been shocked and angry if anyone had suggested it. If I had seen the future, would I have taken action?
If I’d known I would meet a future husband in only three months, would I have felt less lonely? Would I have skipped the handful of painful blind dates? Would I have avoided dating the couple of guys I dated in between?
What would I have done? What would I have done with the time that I spent crying at night? The time that I spent writing hundreds of pages in my journal, trying to wring something out of my existential pain?
There were a few things I did that worked very well. These were things I did for myself, comforting actions born of optimism. These things helped set me up when I did embark on the relationship that became my second marriage.
The first of these optimistic actions, the one that mattered the most, was to pay down my debt. My frugality and focus on building financial security helped me to feel stronger and more confident. It also turned out to be the single factor that my hubby found most attractive! For anyone over 35, every decade that goes by makes this even more important.
Any marriage-minded person has to take into account the question: Did I save enough for TWO retirements and can I afford to pay off someone else’s debt as well?
(Hint: probably not)
The second thing I did for myself that paid off in my future relationship was to fight for my health. When my hubby and I met, we were both... well, to put it bluntly, we were both fat, broke, and angry at our exes. In other words, we were on the same emotional wavelength. Getting fit together helped to build our friendship. I was trying to get both lungs back and he was recovering from herniated disks in his spine. Two wildly different problems both helped by increasing mobility and cardio endurance, and dropping body fat.
Now we spend our vacations walking 8-10 miles a day, climbing multiple staircases, and backpacking into wild areas. Old Us couldn’t have had this kind of fun, either alone or together.
The third thing I did for myself when I was single and lonely was to prioritize domestic contentment. This is by no means the only type of love and romance in the world, but it’s a pretty darn good one. I had my own apartment again for the first time since I was 19, and I definitely made the most of it! When I signed the lease and got the keys, I showed my landlords the door, shut it behind them, and started doing the Sound of Music twirl through all the (four) rooms. I believe I even rolled around on the carpet and kicked my feet.
What attracts a friendly kind of romance is that confidence and domestic contentment. If you don’t like your life, why would anyone else? If you aren’t happy by yourself, how could you be happy with anyone else? Domestic contentment is the radical act of taking responsibility for your own happiness. Guess what? Having a partner means that your happiness is still just as much your own personal obligation and responsibility as it was when you were alone. You can’t outsource it, you can’t delegate it, and you can’t abdicate either.
Three months from the click, the main emotional commitment I had made was a solemn belief in poverty, illness, loneliness, and misery. All I thought I had was myself and I didn’t even want me.
Three months from the click, I had a travel disaster. I wound up spending the night in a downtown hotel that I couldn’t afford. A kindly desk clerk shifted a few things and got me a half-price room. In the room that night, at the end of my trip, I soaked in the bathtub for two hours. I made myself the internal commitment that I would do whatever it took to improve my situation. I couldn’t know just how much better things would be in three months. As a matter of fact, everything got at least ten times worse shortly afterward! It wasn’t certainty in a brighter future that brought me that future. It was nothing more or less than a blind commitment to work at it. To keep my head up and to keep trying.
The question that arises out of all this is, if I could see three months into the future (or three years, or thirty), what would I do differently today? Am I doing everything that I know I can to move me in that direction?
Pain comes in three parts, and this is helpful to know when you are in pain and feeling trapped. It’s also helpful to know if you are tired of pain and learning how to make it go away.
First, there is the physical source, the injury or illness that is causing the pain.
Second, there is the neurological response to that injury or illness.
Third, there is the psychological reaction to the pain signal.
Let’s go into more detail about how these are separate and distinct elements of pain.
The physical source is not the same as the pain. This varies depending on what’s going on, but there are lots of examples. For instance, a few people have a rare genetic condition in which they cannot feel pain at all. This is very dangerous, because they won’t always realize if they are burning themselves or walking around on a broken bone. Another example would be a cancerous tumor, which might grow undetected because its growth causes no pain.
Another way to put this is that pain is not guaranteed to match its cause.
A neurological reaction may not correspond perfectly to illness or injury. One example of this is referred pain, when the pain is being caused in one part of the body but it shows up elsewhere. Twenty years ago, I had a nerve plexus in my shoulder, which didn’t hurt, except that it caused sharp stabbing pains in my thumb and occasional numbness in my hand. Another example would be pain with no obvious cause, or something that is thought to be “genetic” but that turns out to be easily manageable with lifestyle modifications.
Another way to put this is that the root cause of pain can be mysterious and hard to diagnose.
The psychological reaction to a pain signal is variable. This is important because it’s something we can learn to control on our own, regardless of what’s going on. And that’s a hot take.
A contrary opinion.
Something that often offends people!
What we want to hear when we are suffering is exquisitely calibrated empathy and consideration. We want levels of caring and support that are, sadly, perhaps non-existent. We want validation and recognition of how hard our circumstances are. Even if we got it, though, it wouldn’t help. Kindness is no analgesic. Even if everyone else on earth knew how to behave with perfect tact at all times, it wouldn’t remove the pain or the source of the pain.
See also: Grief
What we don’t really like to hear when we are struggling is that there is some kind of secret key to make it all go away.
The reason for this, I can say with experience, is that it always comes across as blame. If I can do anything at all to control this pain that is taking over my life, then shouldn’t I already have done it? If my pain is manageable, then am I not at fault for not managing it? Why are you bothering me with this, you cruel and heartless naysayer? What are you implying?
There is something about the concept of chronic pain that makes it feel permanent, monumental, a sort of organ that only the sensitive have. My pain belongs to me and defines my life experience. Telling me I can make it go away is like denying a fundamental part of who I am!
Telling me that I can stop being in pain is refusing to accept my perspective, rejecting my description of my life and my experience. I’m telling you one thing, plaintively, and you are shutting me down and telling me something else.
You don’t know what it’s like!
This can be crazy-making for the person who genuinely does know what it’s like, who is sincerely trying to help.
Honestly, who else wants to talk to me about migraine headaches other than another migraineur? Who wants to talk with me about parasomnia disorders other than another insomniac? Et cetera.
When I hear about another person with a migraine, or another person with a sleep disorder, or someone else who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I usually start crying. It’s embarrassing. Tears start coming down my face. I want to drop everything and talk to them right away. I can help you! It doesn’t have to be like this!
My emotional overwhelm stems partly from fear that what I’ve been doing so successfully will stop working, that I’ll wind up back in the tar pits.
I remind myself that twenty years ago, when I was first diagnosed (first migraine, cancer scare, fibromyalgia), not all the information was out there. Doctors weren’t telling me anything helpful, just saying “it’s genetic” and “no, sorry, there’s nothing you can do” when I asked about lifestyle improvements. (WRONG, thanks for nothing). The things that did eventually work would not have been things I wanted to do, or understood how to do.
I thought all I could do was meticulously explain to everyone I met exactly how my illness worked.
I thought I needed to do this so that people would know to let me off the hook.
In the tar pit, everything on the surface level looks like an unmanageable amount of work. What, showing up to things? I went to the movies in my nightgown once because that was my version of fighting hard: Hey, at least I’m leaving the house, what do you want from me?
I felt challenged on all sides. How dare people question my experience or try to help me troubleshoot my situation? Can’t you see how difficult things are for me right now?
I recognized myself when I happened to be present during an awkward conversation. One party wanted to talk about her chronic pain issues, only the other person countered that she had an appointment with her oncologist the next week. This is by no means the only time I’ve overheard a Battle of the Health Problems.
Who wins these discussions? The one with the fractured spine or the one who went into anaphylactic shock and has to carry an Epi pen?
Look, the only way to win is to beat the illness, because pain is the real enemy here. That’s where that tricky old third part to pain comes in. How we react to it.
I started to win my fight when I realized that my level of pain was consistent (which means predictable), and that my condition was not degenerative. I found a sliver of gratitude in that, that at least I wasn’t going to wind up in a wheelchair or on an oxygen tank.
This is my nature. If I got to that point, I’d probably start scraping the barrel and looking for some other small sliver of gratitude. Such as that at least it was me, not one of my nearest and dearest. I’d take it on myself before I’d wish it on someone else.
I started to win my fight when I got curious. How does it work? What’s the state of the art for cutting edge research in this field? When I found out I might have cancer, I went directly from my endocrinologist’s office to the public library, where I found two books on the subject. I’d read half of the first one before my bus pulled up to my stop, and I’d finished both before bedtime the next day. My natural curiosity led me to pay attention and start tracking my symptoms, looking for patterns.
Taking pain apart, disassembling it into smaller pieces, is a way of figuring out how it works. Once we figure out how it works, why then, we have a realistic chance of turning it off. That’s what I did and I hope that I can help others to do the same.
Travel planning, isn’t it the worst?
My hubby and I are going on a trip two months from now, and we’ve already booked everything. We have our plane and train tickets, we have our hotel rooms, and we even know where we’re going to eat at the airport. This is the sort of thing that happens to you when you marry an engineer.
(Not a locomotive engineer, no. He doesn’t even have a stripy hat).
None of this advance planning is natural to me. I’m a wing-it person. I grew up in the travel industry, and I started flying alone at age seven. That’s over thirty-five years, and I’ve never missed a flight. I feel justified in my visceral certainty that flexibility and brainstorming are better than rigid planning and punctuality.
Last November, due to a dumb scheduling snafu, I got to the airport just ten minutes before my flight was scheduled to depart. I didn’t even realize it until I was washing my hands in the restroom a hundred yards away. I hadn’t even been through security yet!
Against all odds, not only did I catch that flight, but I had to stand around waiting before my boarding group even got in line.
I’ve been delayed by everything from snow to a plane with a flat tire to a presidential motorcade. I have always caught my flight.
The trouble is that ordinary travelers do not have my decades of freak blunders and delays on which to draw. Most people have an emotional need for a greater sense of urgency than I can provide. Don’t go places with me if you’re tense about being hours early for everything, let’s just put it that way.
Here’s another thing: I know how to pack.
I’m a minimalist single-bag traveler, and I have been for years. I can cover unlikely distances in an improbable span of time because I can grab my luggage and sprint. I’m halfway there before you have all your straps over your shoulders.
There is a group of people who are very organized about time and calendars and schedules. Then there is a group of people who are very organized about objects and spatial relations. These tend not to be the same group. My husband belongs to the first group, and I belong to the second.
I’m the one who put the flight time down wrong in my calendar. He’s the one who put his passport on a chair and then lost track of it when it fell to the floor. We can both look at each other and legitimately think, Okay, that would never happen to me.
We make a good match. I taught him the virtues of one-bag travel, and he taught me how many more options are available for awesome things when you plan months in advance.
For instance, we got the last available hotel room on points in Jackson Hole for the solar eclipse because we booked in January. More than six months in advance. That’s due to him.
We were able to grab one of the last first-come-first-served campsites in the Grand Tetons, same trip, because we brought our backpacking gear. That’s due to me.
This all started on our honeymoon. We checked into our room in a four-star hotel, right down the hall from another couple. We could safely assume they were married because only a married couple could possibly hate each other so much. They roared at each other for two days.
What KIND of PERSON... LEAVES... a BAG???
I SWEAR... I WILL NEVER... GO ANYWHERE... WITH YOU... AGAIN!!!
These are touchstones for us, inside jokes that still have us shaking with laughter ten years later. Long after that couple have probably divorced, married other people, and gone on to divorce them as well.
How can you leave a bag behind when you each only have one bag, and they’re both lined up neatly by the front door the night before the trip?
Don’t people know how to do a proper perimeter check?
Why would you even think of marrying someone if you couldn’t travel well together? What are you going to do, stay home every single day for the rest of your life?
The truth is that travel can be extremely stressful, especially for people who only do it once every few years. People leave their medications and their glasses behind. They wind up in shoes that make their feet bleed. They set up schedules where they’re standing or walking all day, even when they think one mile is a long distance and they get tired walking through Target. Lack of planning guarantees a miserable trip.
That’s why we plan months in advance. Two months is actually pushing it for us.
Do we need visas?
Do we have the transport and lodging confirmed?
What’s the weather like that time of year?
What’s closed on Sundays?
Where are we going to eat, and what’s on the menu?
Is our ID going to expire?
Suitcase or backpack?
Do we need new clothes or shoes?
What kind of electric outlets do they use?
What are we going to read on the flight?
Where are we going and how long will we want to be there?
This used to feel like a dreary amount of work. Then, after a few trips with my esteemed life mate, I started to realize how well it paid off. Not only did it make the trip easier in every way, but it also extended the fun of anticipation.
The last time we traveled together, at the New Year, I spent two weeks laying out every meal and every show and attraction in advance. I put it all in the TripIt app and shared it with my hubby. He was elated! Each day laid out in advance, every address and name of venue neatly lined up on a schedule, nothing to do but whip out his phone and show it to a cab driver. We got everywhere on time and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
We forgot one thing: to argue about how late we were and all the stuff we left behind.
The point of planning far in advance is to make life easier for Future Us. Boring Old Today Me can spend fifteen minutes here and twenty minutes there, putting together a fun and relaxing trip. Future Me reaps the rewards of having no decisions to make. Future Me flits from attraction to attraction, with plenty of time to spare, plenty of naps, and no straps digging into my shoulder. The point of the trip isn’t what we’re wearing or what we’re eating, it’s the memory that we’re creating.
Money problems are the best kind of problems, because they can actually be solved. Most problems that can’t be solved with money can’t be solved at all!
I tried to make that list longer and I had trouble doing it. Missing someone who is far away? Call or visit, problems that money can solve even if it takes a satellite phone. Have a problem you don’t know how to solve? Hire someone and ask for their expert opinion. Want something that doesn’t exist? Hire some designers and start making it, or write it into a novel or screenplay.
Then I went back over my list of Problems That Can’t Be Solved With Money and realized I might not be imaginative enough there. The Taj Mahal was built as a way to use money to deal with grief, and it’s a monument to undying love that has inspired generations. Stephen Hawking survived far past the limited medical knowledge of his youth and lived to a respectable old age, and there must have been money involved in that. Getting a song out of your head I guess could be solved by playing a different song, or going to Disneyland and riding the Small World ride. Hurt someone’s feelings, not much you can do about that, but paying off their student loans would probably help.
It seems that a large chunk of what qualifies as existential dread may come from the idea that we are surrounded by problems with no solution.
How much more manageable is that feeling when more problems feel like they can be solved after all?
We argue for our problems. We argue that they are inevitable and we argue that there is nothing we can do about them. Ask around and you’ll find that people are constantly arguing for their own limitations and against the concept that they have free will.
Ask anyone with a problem to imagine what it would be like to not have that problem. Usually you get a blank look. Nobody thinks that far. This is sad, because imagining a world without the problem often includes the obvious solution to the problem.
As an example, the biggest problem in my life right now is that my upstairs neighbors are constantly waking me up at 5:30 in the morning. What are some ways that I can solve this problem with money?
I’m so tired that I can’t think of any.
False. I could stay at a hotel, I could bribe my neighbors to stop wearing shoes in the house, I could hire a contractor to soundproof our apartment, or, hey! I could pay the seven grand to break our lease and move elsewhere.
The mental exercise involved in solving a problem with money is the same type of mental exercise involved in solving problems WITHOUT money,
The main factor is to think of a problem as a paradigm, one possible instance out of infinite possible variations on a timeline. In one universe, this problem exists. In most other universes, it does not.
Often, solving the problem only means stepping out of the current paradigm.
Quitting a job is one example of this. Every problem associated with the bad job goes away. The commute, the bad boss, the untrustworthy coworkers, the annoying customers, the poor lighting, sick building syndrome, the breakroom that smells of burnt popcorn and reheated fish.
Divorce is another example. My own divorce created a huge slew of problems for the first year. It also took away a bunch of problems, including my wasband’s snoring. Just like changing jobs, getting divorced resets the scoreboard. You get a fresh start and a chance at something better.
Note that both a job change and a divorce are problems that can be solved with money. You can hire someone to help with your resume just as you can hire a divorce lawyer.
I was poor until I was thirty. In my younger days, my diary was almost entirely full of worry about how to pay bills or make rent. I wonder what I would have worried about if I hadn’t had so many money problems. Another way to put that is that I wonder if I had really had any problems back then that couldn’t have been solved with money.
Now I’m not so poor that I lie awake crying or pay 80% of my income toward rent.
Now I am gradually learning to ask, whenever I have a problem, Could this problem be solved with money?
Can I buy my way out of this?
An example came up of a problem that I couldn’t solve with money. I was only partway through writing this post, and I realized I needed to finish it before I went to bed. Maybe there might have been a way to pay someone else to finish it, although that wouldn’t have been my desired outcome, but not on the timeline that I had. I got a good laugh out of the thought that in the process of writing about solving problems with money, I had created a problem that couldn’t be solved with money.
This is where I circle back to my “loud neighbor” problem. My real issue isn’t the neighbors waking me up so early, it’s that I keep prioritizing other things late in the evening that keep me from going to bed earlier. I don’t want to go to bed at 9:00 PM, even though that is a money-free way to solve my problem. Apparently I also value $7100 more than I value my lack of sleep. If problems can be monetized, then they can be specifically quantified.
Ultimately every problem is about the tradeoff between one thing that I want, and something else that I want, and the friction between them.
Solving a problem is a form of investment. It takes away the problem from this moment, as well as all future moments. Thus it’s always worth more than we think it is. We just have to try harder to imagine what it would be like to step into that future timeline where the problem doesn’t exist. That future point without the current problem, that’s a future point with more options, and, often, more financial means. The better we get at solving problems with or without money, the better we get at figuring out the money problem itself.
Some ways to solve problems with money:
A plumber, electrician, or general contractor
A chiropractor or physical therapist
A dentist or orthodontist
A personal trainer or nutritionist
A new wardrobe
A down payment
A dog trainer
Now you try!
For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage is an incredible book that should be assigned not just to people who are currently married, but newlyweds and, really, anyone who thinks they might want to get married one day. Tara Parker-Pope set out to figure out why her long-term marriage ended in divorce. Her research explodes many pop culture ideas about marriage. It also offers a lot of practical ideas and exercises for rebuilding stressed relationships that have genuine merit.
The first thing to know about divorce statistics is that they are reported very poorly based on badly designed studies. It is not true that half of marriages end in divorce. Essentially, some people are “risky prospects” who get married and divorced repeatedly. Baby Boomers are more likely to get divorced than any other generation. Longer lifespans increase the length of the average marriage, skewing the statistics. Divorce is more common in the first five years of marriage, and anyone who makes it past that point has a much better shot at a long-term marriage. Parker-Pope wonders if circumstances would change if couples had better information on which marriages are more or less likely to end in divorce.
Surely this is true! I got married at 22 (one red flag) to a man with whom I did not share attitudes about money (second red flag), and we were divorced after three years. If I had read this book when we were first dating, I wouldn’t have been able to avoid noticing at least a dozen other issues predicted by research. Partly because he did his fair share of housework and most of the cooking, I felt like I had snagged a “good catch.” I never saw it coming.
(I share that because if you’re unhappy in your relationship, and you think everything would be perfect if only he took the initiative to clean the house, well, it’s not enough. That’s probably not your real problem).
I remarried another divorced person. We’re about to celebrate our ten-year wedding anniversary. We did a few of the quizzes in For Better together, and it’s a good sign that he found them as interesting as I did. I learned that he is more romantic than I am! We scored about even in how possessive, playful, and unselfish we are, while I ranked higher in the ‘logical’ and ‘best friends’ areas. I shared that research shows men are more upset by arguments in marriage, and was touched to learn that he agreed.
Something I found very interesting was that there are five styles of marriage, and that the type most commonly depicted in romance novels is THE most likely type to divorce. Aha! I have always felt that romance novels are toxic, and, while I know several mega-mega fans of the genre, not a single one of them is happily married. I have yet to find a romance novel or rom-com movie that resembles my marriage in any way, shape, or form. Something tells me that romance fans would be confused or bored by a story like mine, even though, after thirteen years together, my hubby and I still sometimes fall asleep holding hands.
For Better is a practical book that both parties can read together. There is a lot here that can make you feel better about choosing each other. There’s also a lot on dealing with power imbalances and disputes. The information in this book deserves to be widely shared, to make it clear that it is indeed possible to stay married for the long term.
The bottom line: If you solve your money problems, you’ll go a long way toward solving—or preventing—marital problems.
Couples who assume fighting is their biggest problem may discover that the real issue isn’t conflict but an imbalance of power and an overall feeling of unfairness in the relationship.
Understanding love languages is wonderful. It’s especially wonderful when it leads us to reach out to others in ways that truly mean something to them. It’s possible, though, that even love languages have a dark side.
For the record, I’m a Quality Time person. The obvious dark side to this is that I don’t see the point of perfunctory daily check-ins. People whom I consider to be close friends may not hear from me for a year. If they’re also Quality Time people, they may be fine with that. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost friends who had expected more from me.
Really, though, does anybody really want to see someone else every single day??
“What’s new with you?” “Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
I happen to be really, really good at Words of Praise. For me it’s effortless to give out a glow-up and only slightly more work to write a letter of reference. One of our protégés just got his dream job after eleven years of preparation, and I’m sure my recommendation letter helped seal the deal. These are great things. On the other hand, I personally dislike words of praise aimed at myself. It makes me uncomfortable at best and feels slimy at worst.
This is what made me start to think that there are certain problems with love languages.
There seems to be a vulnerability to people whose prime love language is Words of Praise. A skilled manipulator can take advantage of this trait. Out of all the love languages, this one seems to come from the deepest hunger. Young people seem to be more susceptible to the desire for praise and validation.
Talk is cheap, though! I keep hearing from young people who genuinely believed an interviewer or landlord’s promise to “get in touch” or whatever formulaic “please leave now” phrase they used. Weeks later, this poor person will still be hanging on to a thread of hope. No amount of circumstantial evidence will convince this person that what they really heard was a brush-off. It’s worse in the dating world, although there’s nothing more like dating than a job hunt.
What are this person’s actions saying? Does the reality of their behavior match the words that have come out of their mouth?
Gifts are, in my opinion, even worse. Anyone can give someone something. In my work with clutter and organizing, I’ve seen several “gift closets.” These are common features of upper-middle-class homes. Someone will buy a bunch of generic items like candles, wine, lotion, and trinkets, then wrap them and attach a temporary label with the contents. It’s the opposite of personal. Also in my work with clutter, I find homes filled with gifts still in their original bags. An emotional attachment is created around the gift-giving occasion, even though the recipient doesn’t like the item and even though their main issue in life is having 10x too much stuff.
It’s more common than not that the same family that constantly criticizes my client for hoarding will be the same family that constantly brings over generic or inappropriate gifts. The next step is to suss out whether the gift is being used and ask after it. I WANT YOU TO WANT THIS. Grateful or else!
As far as gift clutter, in my professional opinion it is often a method of emotional control. It can also be a sort of pressure valve. A compulsive accumulator who has already filled (her) own house can then use gift purchases as an excuse to continue a recreational shopping habit. Not only that. Hoarders tend to see other people’s homes as part of their own territory. (Family, tenants, maybe friends, possibly neighbors). They believe that they have a perfect right to pack other people’s rooms with their personal belongings, and once they get one item in the door, they’ll keep going until they’re forced to stop. It’s not that they want to give someone a gift so much as that they became attached to some item they saw, and they want it around where they can admire it for their own personal reasons.
One day, maybe there will be a program for AR goggles that allows my compulsive accumulators to wander among hologram versions of every cool item they ever saw. They can virtually wander tight aisles and goat paths between giant haystacks of clutter bags, when in reality their rooms are safe and clean.
Touch is another potentially problematic love language. I’m a hugger, I’ll just put that out there in case you haven’t seen me in my FREE HUGS t-shirt, and I’ve misinterpreted signals and given inappropriate hugs before. Once in dance class, my partner meant to swing me out in the waltz, and when he threw his arm out, I read it as “BIG HUG” and rushed in for an embrace. That was a quarter-century ago, so hopefully he’s over the awkwardness by now. Not sure I am! Out of all the love languages, touch is the one with the worst consequences when mishandled.
There could be rings for this. That’s what I think. Like a wedding ring. Huggers could wear a special ring, and anyone who isn’t wearing the hugging ring would be automatically hands-off.
Acts of Service would seem to be the hardest to mess up, but that’s the whole problem with the dark side of love languages. We can’t assume that we know what other people will appreciate. We have to communicate and we have to be willing to take NO or NOT RIGHT NOW or NOT LIKE THAT for an answer.
I’m a big Acts of Service person, and I’ve been told off for doing something small like wiping down someone’s countertop. Left to my own devices, if I stayed over at someone’s place, I would probably wind up cleaning their entire house top to bottom while on the phone or finishing a chapter in my audio book. Nothing personal; I probably wouldn’t fully realize I was doing it. Note: people do not like this! I finally understood what it was like when my in-laws came to stay, and pruned our roses and replaced the air filter in our furnace. Without asking. Thanks guys!
Another issue with Acts of Service is that people who are not on that wavelength will accept the effort without reciprocating. No amount of chore-doing can buy someone’s gratitude or affection, any more than any other misapplied love language.
I’ve found that I prefer to be the giver, and that I’m happier focusing on my own loving gestures than on wishing and hoping for the perfect form of affection to meet my standards. It’s nobody else’s job to read our minds or get our preferences exactly right. The best we can do is to communicate clearly and treat others the way they say they wish to be treated.
I married a jocknerd. Then I became one. I may well be married to the only aerospace engineer / football player / ice hockey player / ex-lumberjack in the galaxy. When I was young, I was such a snob that my top two criteria for a boyfriend were 1. Can beat me at Scrabble and 2. Does not watch football. My identity as an intellectual included a sizable chunk dedicated to Not Being an Athlete. As usual when I based my decisions on resistance and rejection, I had no idea what I was talking about. I didn’t have to sacrifice any of my alignment with books or other brainy pursuits in order to inhabit my body more fully. I didn’t have to feel like a spy crossing over hostile enemy territory. All I had to do was to embrace the fact that being a nerd and being a jock are not mutually exclusive. It turns out that there are many jocknerds among us.
The nerd life chose me. Due to my July birthday, I was always one of the youngest, smallest kids in my grade. That weird policy of putting kids in school based on one chronological deadline means that some kids in the same classroom may be nearly a year apart in age. Those kids who were a few months older than me were also larger and more coordinated. Then, in second grade, I was placed in a split classroom with both second- and third-graders. The school approached my parents about having me skip a grade, but it was decided that this would be too hard on me socially. TRUE! Being both small and smart set me up for some hassles. I was also awkward and clueless about the rules of team sports. P.E. alienated me from any kind of physical activity until I was over thirty.
If I had the chance, I’d offer a symposium of advice for physical education teachers who wanted to reach all the uncoordinated shy kids. 1. Offer more options that teach proprioception and spatial awareness rather than having bigger, tougher kids crash into everyone, throw balls at heads, etc. 2. STEP IN when you even suspect bullying. 3. Encourage and never, ever tease shy kids. What worked for your personality won’t work for everyone.
Now that I’m a small adult, I understand that my tiny frame gives me some major advantages. My height-weight ratio allows me to carry disproportionate amounts of heavy weights, such as an expedition backpack. I have an easier time hoisting my own weight, such as when I want to climb a rope, do a pull-up, climb a fence, get back into a sea kayak, or complete an obstacle course in an adventure race. My metabolism suits me for endurance racing and long backpacking trips. I’m great at yoga. I wish they’d told me any of this when I was a little kid, rather than forcing me to play dodgeball with aggressive boys twice my size.
As a grade schooler, I used to fantasize that I was in a prison camp, and try to imagine whether I could withstand torture. I pictured having my fingernails ripped off, and whether I would faint from the pain or just refuse to give up state secrets. There was a tough person inside of me. It says a lot that my POW daydreams seemed ever so much more appealing than going to gym class.
One day in eighth grade, a boy came up behind me in gym class and pulled a pair of boy’s underwear over my head and face. Did the teacher do anything? I’ll give you three guesses.
Ugh! This post wasn’t going to be about trauma, but I guess it is. Only those who have suffered it understand just exactly how deep the aversion to physical activity can go. Our picture of “move your body” is the picture of public humiliation and shame that we endured as an educational requirement in school.
What I learned through the patient tutelage of my now-husband is that it’s different for adults. We choose when and where we come and go. We choose our own training schedules. We pick out our own equipment. We can change gyms and trainers and routines any time we want.
I also learned that I LOVE working out. I love it. Building muscle and cardiovascular endurance takes me to places that books never did.
I also learned that nothing is mutually exclusive. I can and do read while working out. What I also learned is that there are a lot of jocknerds out there, because physical culture is a fascinating area of research in its own right. People you might have been taught to think of as “dumb jocks” know tons of stuff about sports physiology, nutrition, physics, first aid, history, game theory, and of course mundane topics relating to current events, their careers, and more. Middle-aged athletes tend to be high achievers in all areas of life. I never would have guessed it, but the jocknerds I have met tend to be smarter than the bookish sedentary people I always would have chosen before.
“Going to the gym” is a totally different experience for adults than it is for kids. We’re mature! Everyone in the gym is just trying to fit a workout into a busy schedule. There are grandparents, young moms, business executives, college students, and all sorts of distracted people who have no time to stare at you. Nobody cares. Nobody is looking at anybody. We’re watching our form, listening to podcasts, reading magazines, sometimes messing with our phones. You’re allowed to wear a stained t-shirt with holes in it, drip sweat, and have messy hair. You’re even allowed to maintain your self-image as whatever you want, mentally holding yourself above it all. You don’t even have to be a jocknerd to go to the gym; you can just be a regular nerd. Welcome to the adult playground, the one with no dodgeballs.
The last person to arrive at the meeting was the person who called it. She texted to say she’d be ten minutes late, and arrived twenty minutes late. Nobody was surprised.
What did surprise us was when she pulled out a fancy new day planner. Time to turn over a new leaf? “Ooh,” we said, all dedicated day planner enthusiasts. It came in its own special box. We would have cheerfully spent five minutes fussing over it, the same as we would have if she’d carried in a little purse dog or an engagement ring.
“My friend got me this,” she said, obviously flipping through it for the first time. “Why is it so complicated?”
During the course of that meeting and the next dozen, we never saw the new planner again. It didn’t seem any more helpful than the laptop, the iPhone, or the numerous folders and stacks of papers had been.
Getting Organized is a sort of secular religion along the lines of Buddhism or yoga. It’s not for everyone, not that that ever stopped anything from becoming a cultural mainstay. Just because our colleague got a nice day planner as a gift did not obligate her to use it.
I mean, of course not. I’m not giving up my Cossac planner just because someone gets me a different one.
What’s important here is that this person was notorious for being chronically disorganized. It impacted other people, not just occasionally but daily. Our colleague was constantly pushing for extensions on deadlines while supposedly working from early til late. She lost track of objects and information, missed key details, forgot to attend her own meetings, dropped the ball on important tasks, and spent about as much time apologizing for not doing something as she did actually doing something.
She was mad as heck when she didn’t get the promotion she wanted.
That day planner? It wasn’t just a perfunctory gift. It was a thoughtful gift, and also a barely disguised coded message, a tactful one. YOU NEED THIS. Not using it was along the lines of turning down a breath mint.
Um, are you trying to tell me something?
Just the other day, a friend leaned over and told me, “I love you, you have something in your teeth.” Kale salad, Y U hate me? This really is what friends are for, to save us from ourselves and help us see what we can’t see on our own. We need each other for perspective.
Professional colleagues are under no such obligation of friendship. In many fields, work is a zero-sum arena of combat, where every bonus and promotional opportunity is desired by many and available to few. The only things that are widely available in the working world are cheap pens and layoffs.
That makes it even more valuable when a colleague reaches out with helpful advice.
Most of the things that top performers do are unusual. They’re often also guild secrets. You only start to find them out after you’ve demonstrated that you’re ready to listen and learn, that you’re worth the time.
One of my work buddies has a mastermind call every morning at 6:00 AM, including most holidays.
Most of my professional friends go to conferences and read business books on their own dime.
My husband buys and reads robotics textbooks cover to cover.
I’ve only recently started to find out how common it is for women in my sphere to hire style consultants to help with their wardrobe, hair, and makeup. It is vanishingly rare to get a recommendation to one of these folk, because they tend to have months-long waiting lists.
Gradually it starts to become obvious that the top performers are doing a lot more than “networking” to get ahead. They’re operating in a different world with different priorities, because they understand that the real game isn’t the game everyone else is playing.
My colleague remained scattered rather than use her new day planner. She probably didn’t see it as a conscious choice. She probably just felt “too busy” to take even half an hour to try using it. What she would have found was that if she started taking a break to get her thoughts on paper, she could have bought herself a bit more mental bandwidth. She could have gotten her most conspicuous issues under control. Maybe she could have quit texting and driving. Maybe she could even have started getting to meetings on time.
Maybe she would have gotten her promotion.
Anyone who uses a planner for peace of mind would understand this automatically. It’s a container for your thoughts in the same way that a grocery bag is a container. It’s easier to put all your apples and potatoes in a bag, and it’s easier to write down everything you need to do on a list. It’s also easier to take the hint when someone goes out of their way to give you that hint, easier than fighting against the current. Easier than fighting your own worst tendencies.
A day planner might easily seem like homework, like one more onerous task. Who has the time? For those who use them, though, it can be like gaining an extra brain. Suddenly you don’t have to make extra trips to the store or miss appointments. You quit running out of your dog’s pills. You start to have all the phone numbers you need. Not only are you getting stuff done on time, but sometimes you get a chance to work ahead a bit. You can go on vacation and not have to check your email. You start to feel like you actually know what you’re doing.
The best thing about Getting Organized is that it gives you time and breathing space to raise your head and look around you. It gives you the pause that you need to pay attention to what your friends and colleagues are doing. That’s when you start to notice small ways that you can connect with other people and make their lives easier. Burnout can get in the way of being present and emotionally available. It can make you feel isolated and alone. Maybe you don’t even realize that others are right there beside you, reaching out and trying to help.
I had a discussion with a marketing person about putting on a workshop. One of the first things she said was that I should give “scholarships” so that part of the audience could attend for free.
There are several questions implicit in this idea.
One. I should work for free. I specifically should work for free. Why me?
Two. People who do my type of work should work for free. Why? Why us and not others?
Three. Certain people should get things for free while others pay. Why them? An argument can be made that there is always someone out there who is more deserving.
These are serious questions. I talked it out with my husband, who is an engineer, and he thinks the whole thing is absurd. Literally nobody has ever asked him for free engineering. Is this because of his profession, because he is male, or because he does not happen to work in one of the few fields that is considered to qualify as compensation-optional?
One of my husband’s life goals is to volunteer for Engineers Without Borders, helping people in the developing world to have access to better sanitation, infrastructure, etc. He has the skills and it sounds fun and rewarding. Why doesn’t anyone imply that he should be doing this humanitarian work right now, today, instead of during retirement?
The criteria for “you should work for free” seem to be:
“Fulfilling” or intrinsically rewarding work
Opportunity to build an audience
Therefore, teachers are told that they shouldn’t mind working around the clock for low wages because teaching is so fulfilling. But dental hygienists and nurses aren’t told this.
Writers are told to write for free, for the exposure, but accountants are not told this.
Musicians are told to perform for free, but florists are not told this.
Graphic designers are told to give away their work, but printers and publishers are not told this.
Yoga instructors are expected to offer a sliding scale, but massage therapists are not told this.
Isn’t it strange? We don’t tend to think of these jobs as divided between “people with rent to pay” and “people with no rent to pay” or “people who buy groceries to eat” and “people who do not require food to live.”
I think this is partly because people have learned to expect and demand 24/7 access to the highest quality entertainment, free of charge. Why should any of us ever pay for music, for funny videos, for wallpaper images, for news articles?
No matter what income level, people spend the same percentage of their income on entertainment. That’s the only category that is the same across all five quintiles. It’s just that we’re willing to pay if we know it’s the only way we can get ahold of the entertainment we want.
Stepping back for a moment, I personally have spent years providing material to an audience for free. There are at least two thousand pages of content on this blog, for instance. I have always had pro bono clients as well.
I’m starting to question this, because the clients who don’t pay take significantly longer to make any progress, if they ever really do. I’ve started to feel that receiving support and coaching without some kind of energy exchange is actually negative for the client. Somehow it seems to make them feel needier and more helpless, more reliant on cheerleading and external motivation.
My proposal for the workshop series that led to a call for scholarships included a way for committed but broke people to attend. I built in a couple of support positions that would include free attendance. All someone would have to do would be to help sign people in and pass out a couple of handouts. I’ve done the same thing myself as an office temp. This isn’t the same as “FREE” though. Why doesn’t it work?
Why is there some kind of impression of sketchiness or greed involved in expecting an audience to exchange something for something?
The thing about event planning is that venues are very expensive. Most of the ticket cost for an event is basically rent for the space. There’s also printing, the cost of which ramps up as the materials get glossier and more colorful. Asking to attend such an event for free is not just saying, “I should not pay.” It’s saying, “YOU should pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to host this event so that I can attend for free.”
I think people don’t realize what goes into producing their free entertainment. All the hopeful musicians who invest thousands into their instruments and recording equipment. All the hopeful podcasters who not only buy recording equipment, but also pay to host their show. This extends outward. All the hopeful yoga instructors who pay to lease the studio and then clean the restrooms themselves. All the schoolteachers who buy school supplies out of pocket and grade papers in their “spare time.”
All the people working nights and weekends, striving for a dream, all still have rent and bills to pay and groceries to buy. People who are expected to work for free are exactly like everyone else who is never expected to work for free.
This is an inherently annoying concept, granted. I don’t want to think about whether my dental hygienist deserves her salary, nor do I want to think about whether I should financially support my favorite bloggers in some way. Do you?
I do, though, want to live in a fair and just world. I want to make sure I am more of a giver than a taker. I like the idea that I am contributing to my culture in some way, and maybe making something that has a chance of lasting a few minutes past my lifetime. What I would not want is to realize that I’ve come to the end of my days, doing little more than passively consuming other people’s efforts. Or writing one-star reviews about them!
The Big Thing is a terrific book about chronic procrastination. Phyllis Korkki had been wanting to write a book for forty years. Never mind that she worked as an editor at the New York Times, living a lot of people’s dream career. She was going to let her vague dream of Writing a Book torment her and make her feel like a procrastinating lazy person for most of her life.
What exactly is a Big Thing? According to Korkki, it’s whatever you want it to be. There are numerous examples in the book of other people’s projects, including performance art, creating a museum, remodeling houses, and, of course, The Big Thing itself. What these things have in common is that they are personally meaningful, complex, have no deadline, and “require sustained concentration and effort.” So my trying to learn to wrap a burrito properly probably doesn’t count, but my desire to go to grad school (and study... what, exactly?) probably does.
In the course of writing her book, Korkki consults all sorts of experts in fields as diverse as ergonomics, dream research, and mindfulness. She even sees a dating coach. This process of research is funny because it’s so wide-ranging, vastly increasing the level of difficulty of her Big Thing, and yet she feels that all this extra activity qualifies as procrastination. Same here. In engineering we call it “scope creep.” It’s something of a miracle that this book exists, and it’s wonderful because it feels very much like being inside the mind of a divergent-thinking creative and working artist.
What causes people to put off doing their Big Thing? It’s different for everyone, just as the accomplishment and achievement of various Big Things is different. Perfectionism, ambiguity, drug use, chronic pain, mental illness, all sorts of things can be obstacles, although people are overcoming them to live out their dreams and finish their projects all the time.
One of the most interesting insights in the book is that Korkki is challenged on her description of herself as lazy. According to one of the experts, laziness and procrastination are not only not the same thing, they’re almost mutually exclusive. A truly lazy person wouldn’t work on anything at all, or even have a job. Delaying on something is its own form of commitment. It often involves “structured procrastination,” when the supposed procrastinator is bustling around doing other types of chores and tasks. There’s an argument here that the emotional flogging that goes along with procrastination makes it even more difficult than simply getting on with the work.
Not everyone has a Big Thing; maybe only half of people do. Some people would rather focus on daily life, friendships, and uncomplicated contentment. Korkki distinguishes between happiness and meaning. This is part of the secret to getting past procrastination: to acknowledge whether the Big Thing is truly worth doing, and then to find intrinsic value and enjoyment in the process rather than focusing on outcomes and deadlines.
Korkki learns how to finish her Big Thing by working on The Big Thing. She learns to reframe the project. She collects insights from others about how and why they work on their own Big Thing. She practices mindfulness and continues to return her attention to the project when her focus wanders. She works on turning off her self-judgment. She hires a couple of accountability partners, including one who milks cows at 4:00 AM. She thinks about leaving a legacy in this world. Finally, she finishes her dream of a lifetime, a provocative and curiously compelling book about procrastinating that is completed by not procrastinating.
I procrastinate, I’m lazy (although others would disagree), and I have low energy unless I’m under the gun.
And now I understand why I was so lazy for all those years. It was a way to forestall this anxiety I am now feeling on a daily basis.
The moment when you heave yourself over from inactivity to activity is the hardest to endure.
Can I use this intensity somehow? I don’t want to waste this pain. I don’t want it to be for nothing.
My failure in earlier years to write this book amounted to a broken promise to my future selves, who were counting on it for their happiness and fulfillment.
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.
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