This is bad. THIS is the kind of thing that makes me feel old. Here I am trying to do the splits, and I can barely get my legs in a V. How am I ever supposed to turn a cartwheel at this rate? I’m looking at this book with a bunch of granny ladies grinning while they stretch, elbows on the floor, and feeling like I have barely half their agility. Darn it! I’m reading Even the Stiffest People Can Do the Splits, and right now it feels like I’m going to need a lot more than four weeks.
I’m a pretty bendy person. Other people may have trouble touching their toes, but I can fold over and put my palms on the floor. I can sit down, stretch my legs in front of me, and grab the arches of my feet. No problem! I can reach one hand over my shoulder and the other up my back and clasp my fingers. I can do a headstand and I can spin two hula hoops at once. I like to think of myself as more agile than most.
So why is it so hard to do the splits?
This is a non-trivial problem, dumb as it may sound. My tight hips are likely behind some chronic problems. My current working hypothesis is that spending a month (or six) stretching and improving my mobility in this area will help to resolve these other issues. If I’m wrong, well, I probably won’t be any worse off, and I’ll be able to do the splits, which is rad.
What are these tight hip problems?
For one, my glutes on one side or the other will sometimes seize up so much that I start limping. This is bad for someone in her forties, and I imagine it would only get worse with each decade that goes by. I do NOT want to find out what it’s like to have a permanent limp.
Next, I sometimes have some pretty fierce plantar fasciitis pain in my heel or the arch of my foot. This is weirdly worse when I’ve been sedentary; it didn’t bother me at all during my months of marathon training, and it’s more likely to flare up after my second rest day in a row. It was worst the first year after I quit my day job, when I basically slept all day. It disappeared after I became obsessed with the hula hoop. Right now it seems to have been reactivated by my martial arts training. A couple of times it’s woken me up in the middle of the night.
I was sidelined from running by persistent ankle pain. Two MRIs and six months of physical therapy didn’t really resolve it. Talking to a personal trainer at the gym revealed some insights, and two months of weekly shiatsu massage focusing on my shins finally eliminated the ankle pain. The trainer said it originated in hip instability, and that endurance running tends to lead to weak hip flexors, glutes, quads, and core. True, that feels true.
Martial arts training is definitely, visibly building these areas. Hundreds of snap kicks and jump squats will do a lot for your hip flexors, if nothing else! I’m finding, though, that I have a lot of trouble with roundhouse kicks, and that I feel a pinch when I do it at the correct angle that my classmates don’t seem to be experiencing. Even if I get nothing else from working on the splits, it seems obvious that it will help improve my roundhouse kick.
I gotta tell you, though, it hurts. I was able to train into the headstand in only two weeks, and that just felt like fun. (Except for the one night when I toppled over, smacked my caboose on the floor, and woke up in the morning with a limp that lasted about three hours). Doing the recommended stretches to work into the splits? Is NOT fun. It’s so sore.
Where do tight hips come from? Sitting, I imagine. I spent almost all my time sitting from my teenage years through my early thirties, partly due to my secretarial job. Or driving. I think driving causes more tightness on one side because we’re pressing on the gas pedal and leaning to one side to shift gears. Also we’re wearing seatbelts that cross over one side, and we tend to wear our bags on the same shoulder all the time, weighing one side down more than the other. These are extremely common issues, and they suggest that a lot of people are having some of the same issues that I am.
I can also claim years of running and cycling as contributors. As much as I love racking up the miles in my endurance sports, they cause repetitive movement along only one axis. Forward forward forward. I want to do a fifty-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday, and it makes sense to work on my hip tightness before setting out on that type of training. I’ll be super annoyed if I have to cancel my plans due to a recurrence of the same ankle problem I had before. This is what I think about while I’m sitting on the floor, trying to coax my unwilling muscles to loosen up. Legs, I need more from you!
This is where I remind myself that twenty years ago, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I had trouble just getting through the day, and sometimes I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without help. I’ve come a long way! I can’t help but wonder if doing this type of stretching back then would have helped. I sure wish I had, because with twenty years of daily practice anybody could probably do pretty much anything. Isn’t that what physical therapy is, after all?
Daily practice, daily practice. My fitness role models are all over sixty years of age, and many are over eighty. This is because I’m very concerned that Old Me should be able to get around, climb stairs, sit on the floor and get up again, and carry things. She deserves to keep her independence. I remind myself that if I live to my eighties, I’ll have fifteen thousand days to get down and stretch. If that isn’t enough time for my muscles and tendons to adapt, maybe by then I can just download my consciousness into a robotic avatar and sign off on the whole project.
If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s imagining bad outcomes. We get spun up over this all the time. For every conversation, there are probably twelve sad, scary, or alarming versions that never happened. Every job interview really lasts for eighty hours, seventy-nine of them imaginary. Anxiety and pessimism are survival traits. Worry and dread have gotten us through fire, flood, famine, siege, animal attack, and all the rest. This is probably why avoidance goals work slightly better than approach goals.
An avoidance goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a negative outcome. “Don’t forget your glasses.”
An approach goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a positive outcome. “Remember to wear your glasses.”
It’s possible that certain personality types lean more toward one goal type or the other. An optimist will naturally prefer an approach goal. It’s also possible that certain types of goals are better suited for one format or the other. A personal experiment should make this clear. Are we getting the results we want in the areas that are important to us?
I’m an extreme optimist, an enthusiast by nature. I love working on annual, quarterly, monthly, and sometimes even hourly goals. My plans tend to be both broad and specific. I would have thought I made almost entirely approach-oriented goals. Then I read a blog post by a guy who made two goals and then compared his adherence to them based on whether he focused on approach or avoidance. He did better with avoidance. It made me realize that I follow a lot of avoidance-based goals throughout the day, almost automatically. I think of it as “common sense,” although of course “common sense” is never all that common.
Every single time I use a knife, I think, “Okay, now don’t cut yourself.”
Every single time I go down a flight of stairs, I think, with every single step, “Okay, now don’t slip.”
When I pack a suitcase, I bustle around my apartment, talking to myself. “Don’t forget your tickets. Don’t forget your back-up battery. Don’t forget your” endlessly, all the way up to the jetway.
There’s a distinct, gear-shifting feeling between this constant internal nattering and the aerial view, grand strategic plans that I normally think of as goal-setting.
Maybe one of the reasons that avoidance goals work better is that we can only plan them when we actually believe that the negative outcome is a firm possibility. I think that is very much not the case for a lot of common “goals.” Further, I think it’s common to “choose” a mainstream “goal” as a smokescreen, a pretend Potemkin intention, to protect our tendency to do what we want without criticism. Hey, I tried, what more do you want from me??
Research shows that we’re really poor at thinking of future versions of ourselves. We think of Old Me as a total stranger. Hey, Future Me, have fun paying off all this debt and picking up my socks! Ha, Future Me is such a sucker. We can’t really believe in a universe in which “I” am an elderly person. Surely I have better taste than to age and grow old! I’m much too smart for that! If we can’t believe in a frail, elderly, poor, and ill version of ourselves, then we have no intrinsic motivation to save money, eat healthy foods, and be more active. We do, however, believe in such things as cutting a finger or falling down the stairs. “Don’t cut yourself” is a much more believable imperative than “don’t get osteoporosis.”
My major fitness motivation is “Avoid getting Alzheimer’s.” This is a truly terrifying outcome. Why simply sit around and be afraid of something, though? That would be sacrificing all the good years for what may or may not turn out to be the bad years. It’s a logical fallacy. How can undirected anxiety possibly do me any good? That just means I suffer Alzheimer’s PLUS decades of dread. If I’m right, if my thesis is correct that Alzheimer’s is at least a little bit susceptible to lifestyle inputs, then I must do every last single thing in my power to avoid it. If I’m wrong, and I’ve done all of these actions over the years for no reason, if my efforts have been futile, I still benefit in three ways.
I could use an approach-oriented framework and tell myself “Eat healthy food” and “Get plenty of exercise.” Arguably, I do both of these things. They’re extremely vague, though, so vague as to be almost meaningless. That’s another reason that avoidance goals work a little better, because they’re unfailingly very specific.
It’s easier to “stop drinking soda” or “stop eating bagels” or “don’t eat high-fructose corn syrup.” Those are specific and simple to understand, and any of them could result in an easy ten-pound weight loss over a year.
I’m always going to make wildly positive, outlandishly optimistic goals and resolutions. It’s fun and it works much better than pop culture would lead us to believe. Past Me would have had a lot of trouble believing in my future ability to run a marathon, manage an investment portfolio, cook Thanksgiving dinner for two dozen people, buy train tickets in Spain, or lots of other things I’ve done. How would a negative version of those goals even be phrased? “Don’t screw up”? I will, however, continue to use avoidance goals when they seem helpful.
Here are some avoidance goals that I use, by category:
Don’t be in debt
Don’t carry a credit card balance
Don’t pay finance charges
Don’t buy on impulse
Don’t buy anything unless you know where you’ll put it and how you’ll clean it
Don’t outgrow your clothes, they’re expensive
Avoid getting a migraine - (body weight, dehydration, poor sleep quality)
Don’t get Alzheimer’s
Don’t trigger your night terrors - (eating after 8 PM)
Don’t run out of clean underwear
Don’t make extra work for yourself
Don’t leave crusty dishes
That needs to get eaten up before it gets wasted
Don’t criticize unless you’re open to being criticized
Don’t be a caricature
No double standards
Don’t be like his ex
Don’t do his pet peeves
Don’t be a pushover or a victim
Don’t be a flake
Don’t be a freeloader
Don’t associate with gossips
Don’t stand by and let other people be bullied
“Don’t do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid.” - My Dad
“Never go viral for the wrong reasons.” - Anonymous
“Do things that are a good idea, and don’t do things that are a bad idea.” - Me
I did it! I got my orange belt in Muay Thai! The most impressive thing about this is that in January, not only did I have no idea this would be happening, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an “orange belt,” or Muay Thai for that matter. All I knew was that it felt like a smart idea to start studying a martial art.
What does an orange belt mean? It’s the second of six levels. It means I’m not a total novice anymore, but I am at the newest, least experienced intermediate level.
The basic deal with belts is that they’re a modern (post-Industrial, 1890s) innovation to represent different levels of training. Belt colors vary depending on the martial art, with some overlap. For instance, a mom was just telling me that her kids got their purple belts, something that exists in Tae Kwan Do but not Muay Thai or Krav Maga, my other discipline.
Personally, I’d prefer to have a rainbow belt? Because it would include all the previous colors?
In practice, colored belts are really handy. In every class, we divide up and choose partners, and often we do drills that involve rotating through several people. It helps to know who you’re dealing with. Along with colors, there are also stripes to show how long someone has been wearing that belt. One stripe represents ten classes, and the intermediate belts have up to five stripes.
I never understood any of this until I earned the first stripe on my white belt.
This system with belts and stripes makes a lot of sense to me, and it feels comforting. I really like the logical progression and the satisfaction of incremental progress. The first time I actually saw a “sixth-degree black belt” being worn, the penny finally dropped. OH! Anyone can earn one of these! It’s a reflection of dedication and focus, yes, but it’s also a measure of time served.
Is there something like this in dance or gymnastics? Not that I’ve seen. Those arts also depend on many years of training, but they look like PURE MAGIC. Just like the apparent sorcery involved when the owner of our school suddenly drops a student on the floor.
Many of the students at my school are lifetime athletes, and many have reached high levels in other martial arts before taking up Krav or Muay Thai. It’s a world of jocks, one that was unfamiliar to me. I’m used to hitting the books, my studies being text-based. Almost everything I’ve learned about martial arts came from asking questions and/or having things explained by other students. Sometimes I’ll make an observation that will surprise the instructors, such as that our warmups are “high-intensity interval training.” The expectation is: line up, do this, do that, accept correction, and in time you’ll be a master.
This is challenging for me. I like a big-picture view, a lot of historical context, and constant explanations of WHY I am doing something. Part of why martial arts are such a good source of humility and self-discipline for me is that I’m having to accept pure physical instruction and trust the system. I can see that more experienced students are better at this than I am, but still, I tend to want MORE INFORMATION. What, go into my body and feel it physiologically? Are you kidding with this?
Belt promotions are ceremonial. They last three or four hours. Groups of students at different levels are paired off to demonstrate their skills with an instructor. Most of the time, though, is built around extreme physical exertion for its own sake. We start with a grueling half hour warmup, its contents varying for extra stress, and we finish with another twenty minutes. This day included over 200 pushups, for example. I couldn’t do them all - it’s a lot to expect a beginner to do the same workout as a blue belt who has been training for three years - but I’m proud to say I could do forty, no problem.
I couldn’t do one standard pushup in January - or February or March, for that matter - and I couldn’t do a proper sit-up at all. I had to grab my thigh and pull myself up. When I look back and see the progress I’ve made in six months, I can look forward at the other students around me and project forward. In time, I’ll be able to do a hundred pushups before I start getting tired.
My husband doesn’t like to watch these punishing warmups. They remind him of the “hazing” from high school football. He shared how much he hated doing pointless pushups. This surprised me! “But that’s where the muscle comes from!” The part I don’t like is having to COUNT in unison, and if someone makes the dreadful mistake of shouting “ELEVEN” instead of repeating “ONE” then all fifty people have to start the count over. That’s dumb. Well, it isn’t dumb... the point is to make us focus, developing our concentration, because disappointing and annoying our fellow students is a powerful psychological consequence for distraction. We counted weirdly in marching band, too: ONE two three four TWO two three four THREE two three four, and it didn’t bother me then, because music needs order and structure. So does the body if the body is to be a tool that works toward a purpose.
I’ll continue on in both my martial arts, even though being a beginner in the advanced classes feels much harder and scarier than my first day as a total novice. The warmups are twice as hard, but I’m not twice as strong yet! I continue to remind myself that my personal goals were “humility and self-discipline,” not comfort or pride. I’ll get better and better at losing myself in these physical skills, briefly quieting my chattering mind, transforming myself into something new and different.
Today I set a new record for most consecutive days that I have been alive. That’s an old joke, but one that still feels funny. More interesting to me is that I can count how many days I’ve lived, but nobody knows how many days are still ahead of me. What’ll happen in the world? In my life? What kind of phone will Future Me have? Which of my favorite authors and musicians and filmmakers will put out new work? Will George R. R. Martin ever write that next Game of Thrones book? Future Me knows. Meanwhile, every day I’m Present Me. Present Self, living out whatever Past Self stuck me with, trying to make a better day for Future Self.
Since last year, I’ve done a bunch of stuff. I like to take the day to look at where my life is going, and whether it feels better or more fun or more interesting or more fulfilling. Have I made good use of my time on Earth?
I also do this process at the New Year, on my wedding anniversary, and on a smaller scale every quarter. Birthdays feel like a pretty significant milestone, at least to me. One day, maybe I’ll have my one-hundredth birthday, and if I do, I’d like to feel some sense of ceremony around it.
Since last year, I’ve moved to a smaller apartment, taken up martial arts and earned two orange belts, gained 15 pounds, promoted into a volunteer leadership position, and started riding my bicycle again. My husband filed his first patent, leading to some big stuff at work. My parents got a puppy for the first time in about forty years. These are all major changes.
Incremental changes have happened, too. We’ve made a bunch of new friends and acquaintances, and so has our dog. Due to our downsizing move, we’re financially better off. Our phones have better battery life. The addition of the extra muscle has happened gradually enough that new physical abilities seem to have magically appeared. I can open jars! My daily walking average has gone from 3.1 miles in 2015 to 5.2 miles in 2018.
A lot of stuff is the same as it ever was. Noelle just had her 20th hatch day and she still loves to shred paper everywhere and make a lot of beeping sounds. I still need more sleep. The blog continues to chug along.
Some stuff in our daily life is harder. Since we moved, we no longer have a washer or dryer, and all our meal prep has to happen in a single square foot. We’re continually unplugging and plugging things because of a shortage of power outlets. Our upstairs neighbors [*]. Someone down at the marina keeps setting off a propane cannon in the middle of the night. Life feels much busier.
From where we are right now, it’s hard to imagine where I will be on my next birthday. We’re planning to move when our lease is up, but where? Right now we’re living a combination of Best Location Ever and Worst Apartment Also. I intend to continue with martial arts, and that means moving into a physical reality I’ve never experienced. Looking around at the other women in my classes, women in higher belt levels, I see some astonishing speed, power, agility, and muscle definition. It’s somewhat alarming to think that this could be me one day, and all it takes is the schedule and the persistence. Continuing on my current plan, I ought to have nailed all the requirements for Distinguished Toastmaster. I should also have my student loan paid off, and all I can do is imagine what it will feel like to be debt-free and financially stable for the first time in my adult life.
So, what? This time next year: buff, debt-free, and living in a nicer place? Possible?
Looking forward three years, five years, and ten years, gosh. No idea. Talk about plot twists.
I celebrated turning 43 by finally getting my headstand, after working on it for two weeks. I plan to spend part of my day messing around and focusing on circus tricks. Depending on what kind of videos I find, I’ll either be trying to juggle, riding my unicycle, doing hula hoop tricks, or trying to turn a cartwheel. Then I’ll spend some time imagining what I want to learn to do before I turn 44.
How about you? What would you like to be doing before your next birthday?
Cutting off options is one of the worst feelings. This is why so many people hate making decisions; ‘decision’ means “to cut off.” It’s also a major reason why we procrastinate (or feel like we do), and it’s one of the major root causes of clutter. We like to feel surrounded by possibilities and potential. We like it even when maintaining that illusion of options is precisely what’s holding us back.
This is why I recommend choosing and focusing on a primary project.
It came to me just now, while I was brushing my teeth, in fact. I’m writing this at what is technically past my bedtime, because I know otherwise I’ll toss and turn writing it in my head. This is how we like to think of inspiration, as this external, spiritual force that strikes us like a lightning bolt from an ethereal weather system. We like it, even though when it actually happens it’s terribly inconvenient! We like it, even when it tends to result in years stacked upon many years of unproductive dallying and lack of any measurable result.
This is the year I’m dedicating to tying off old cords, closing open loops, and deciding once and for all whether to finish certain projects, schedule them, or jettison them entirely. Supposedly that is my primary project. It’s the middle of the year and I haven’t actually finished anything.
These are the projects that, if asked, I would have to define as “current”:
A novel; a non-fiction book; yet a different novel; the new podcast; a cross stitch that is maybe half done; an attempt to learn to juggle/ride a unicycle/solve a Rubik’s cube/do the splits/this is getting embarrassing, but the gear is everywhere; clearing the data off my old phone so I can sell it; getting an orange belt in Muay Thai; finishing my Advanced Communicator Silver in Toastmasters; putting together a workshop; this blog of course
Of COURSE there are more. It’s so much worse than it looks.
The trouble with being a multi-potentialite is this tendency to have eighty things going at once, making 1% progress on all of them. It means we never finish anything, we never build a reputation (or at least not one we’d want), we have no legacy, we blow people off and we flake out.
All the time I seem to want to prioritize on learning circus tricks is time taken away from a bunch of finite projects, many of which are at the 80-90% mark.
Why wouldn’t I want to finish them? It’s not like I’m in any danger of running out of ideas, foolish, impractical, brilliant, fun, interesting, or silly as they might be.
I’m better than I used to be. That’s the whole and entire point of a growth mindset, right? To be better than we used to be, and to strive for more? I do pride myself on publishing a blog post every business day. I’m also making steady, measurable progress in both public speaking and martial arts. That’s three things! If I continue to do those three things, then eventually I’ll be a sixth-degree black belt, a Distinguished Toastmaster, and author of a blog that just keeps going and going.
This is what we always have to ask ourselves about our projects. Why are we doing them?
Is it just to have something to keep our hands busy? In that case, we’re ever and always going to have some knitting or crochet or embroidery or hand-stitching or beading or sanding or what-have-you. If the goal is to fill the days and evenings, then we might as well finish our projects one after another. We might as well start trying to make a dent in our accumulated supplies and materials (even though, honestly, we have enough for three lifetimes divided between four people). We could even, dare I say it? We could even finish ALL OF IT. We could wake up one fine morning with zero supplies, zero materials, zero patterns, zero plans, and we could simply wander around the craft store and come home with something new.
There’s no risk in finishing anything!
Are we doing projects as proof of concept? Demonstrating that we have a clear intention of mastering a particular art? Writing, painting, dancing, sculpting, carving? In that case, it’s perfectly fine to have more false starts and bits and pieces of something than we do actual finished work. We simply have to accept that we’ll never impress ourselves, we’ll never reach a point of satisfaction with our own work, because true artists pretty much never feel that way. Never being quite as good as your interior vision is the mark, after all. That’s exactly what sets us apart. We have to ask whether anyone is ever going to see our work, which is really asking if we care about making something that matters. To anyone.
What I’ve just distinguished is the difference between an art and a craft, between an artist and an artisan, or perhaps a hobbyist. All of them are fine but they do have different goals and different processes.
I’m also distinguishing between the finite and the infinite. The finite project is the specific book; the infinite project is to write. The finite project is the afghan; the infinite project is, from what I’ve seen, to collect yarn. Wait, um? Have I ever asked myself to identify my infinite project?
Most of my projects are signs of curiosity. I get interested in something and I want to dive in and immerse myself in it. My interests tend to layer themselves; I rarely drop them. That’s why I have a parrot, and a twenty-year-old bicycle that I still ride, and a vast recipe collection, and a tub full of backpacking equipment. I also tend to have a certain amount of random books and objects that signal my intention for future use. I drive myself crazy doing this, yet I do it.
I have all this stuff, but what I don’t have is a published novel. I don’t have a workshop on the calendar. I don’t have a podcast episode recorded. I don’t necessarily have to choose between these distinctly different projects; I do have to make some solid choices about where I’m putting my primary focus most days of the week. Do one until it’s done, and then do the other until it’s done, and then pick something else. Inexperience with this condition is probably why there are six juggling balls on my desk. What’s going to be my primary project for the next month? What will I have to show for the next three months?
Why do we do what we do? What’s the emotional reward supposed to be at the end? Everyone is looking for something, whether that’s safety, respect, revenge, approval, power, or proving a point. We tend to see the end game as something less abstract: a group of friends, money, a sexy body, a big house, fame, that special someone saying, “I admit it, I was wrong.” It can be fun to simply acknowledge these desires, name them, and see if maybe they’re attainable.
Complicated, ill-advised, over-rated, we don’t really know until we’ve spent a little time indulging in these common fantasies.
Me, I’ve always just wanted to get into the room with the smart people.
That’s my motivation. I want to produce something, at some point, that is so cool that the thought leaders I respect will want to meet me and hang out.
My idea of fame isn’t about adoring crowds. It’s about walking up to a small gathering of people I admire and having them turn and say, “Hey, there you are!”
What I’m working for isn’t just a seat at the table. You can get that seat if you’re willing to take dictation and you can type fast enough. I don’t even want to be acknowledged as a peer. I want to be over there cracking jokes!
I’ve met a couple of these specific individuals already. You can do that if you go to their public appearances and stand in line long enough. You can also capture their attention simply by saying, “Thank you for coming to our city.” Nobody really does that, apparently.
There you have it, my dirty little secret. I don’t work for money or fame. I’m essentially just curious whether I have it in me to put something big into the world and then use it as a passport into a new social group.
Wanting to be in the room with the smart people is broader than that. It’s a general life philosophy. If I’m the smartest person in the room, then I’m in the wrong room. I always want to be in a position where I’m learning as much as I can. I want to push my limits. I want to surround myself with people who are achieving various things at a much higher level, whether that’s fellow home cooks or fitter people in my gym class. Ideally I’m not only avoiding being the smartest people in the room - ideally I’m the LEAST smart person in the room!
By “smart” I mean “knowing things I don’t know” and “proficient at things I can’t do.” Not native intelligence in the sense of IQ - that I’ve got covered. By “smart” I mean savvy, skilled, clever, wise, and focused.
My main drive here is curiosity. What are you like? What do you know that I don’t know? What projects are you working on? What do you think about all day?
Second to that is a moral conviction that I should do the most I can with my life. I should always be trying to learn more, do more, and love more. That includes making new friends and being a bigger part of my community, even when I feel shy and don’t want to talk to anyone. Like, ever.
Whether it’s moral or not, I’m not totally sure, but I do have another conviction that I should keep myself humble. It just seems like a good idea. Reminding myself that I have yet to contribute to society in any meaningful way, that I’ve barely done anything with the talents and resources that I have, that everyone around me has something interesting to teach, gives me a sense of urgency. Without that, I have a tendency to sit around my house reading and eating cookies, a tendency that I find makes my life fundamentally boring.
I made a tough decision two years ago, to take up public speaking. I would snap awake on Wednesday mornings in a cold sweat, knowing I’d have to walk into that meeting room later in the day. Sometimes I would procrastinate and not go because I had made myself late. It was physically and emotionally difficult for me in a way that’s hard to describe without using the phrase “projectile vomit.” I did it, though. I kept going until I started winning award ribbons, and then I was chosen as vice president of the club. I knew I was in the room with the smart people. I was the least among them, shaking like a leaf, barely able to stand up and speak my own name. They let me stay. They let me take a seat at the table and keep coming back until I got better. Now I’m one of them.
This year, I did it again. I signed up for martial arts lessons. I couldn’t do a proper sit-up on the first day. I can barely tell my left from my right. I have a bad tendency to step forward when I ought to step back. Sometimes I would throw a punch and miss the practice pad entirely. I’m more dangerous on accident than I am on purpose. When I showed up, I was definitely the slowest, weakest, and least coordinated. Now I can crank out thirty pushups and throw a spinning back elbow. Oh, and I got my orange belt.
The respect that I have in these two wildly different groups comes from my complete willingness to put myself out there, be terrible at something, and cheerfully keep trying. I’m genuinely grateful to receive advice because I see it as a gift. I’m in the room with the smart people, and that proximity is a privilege. Please, by all means, tell me everything I’m doing wrong! I’ll get it eventually.
Ultimately I want to be a cool old person. I want to meet Old Me, the Future Me who knows the most, the version of me who has seen the most of the world and met the most interesting people. Hopefully Old Me has made good use of our time in this world. Hopefully she’s in the room with the smart people. Which ones, though, and what are they doing?
I made an executive decision to delay my second quarter check-in by a few days this year. Because: World Domination Summit!
We just got home and we have the holiday off, midweek. A lot of very exciting project ideas came out of our WDS this year. Here at the midpoint of the year, it feels very strongly like we’re getting a fresh start, which we could really use.
As usual, I’ll start out with all the obstacles and hassles of the quarter. These are the sorts of things that make me want to quit, that feel like legitimate reasons to give up on not just these goals, but any goals at all. I got the flu AGAIN (different version), plus a week-long cold and a five-day stomach bug. That one happened while my husband was out of town. I’ve spent four weeks of 2018 being sick. I got bit by a dog, tore a nail slightly away from the nail bed on four separate occasions, and got a fat lip in kickboxing class. I have a bald spot again because that’s apparently what happens when my upstairs neighbor interferes with my sleep for several months. Our dog ran away while we were on vacation, and we found out just as we were sitting down to dinner on the first night.
What’s going well? Everything else! My hubby got approved for his first patent. We may be on track to save 40% of our income this year. I got the area directorship I wanted in Toastmasters. The night our dog ran away, it turned out that he had run straight back to our apartment, where he was patiently waiting the whole time, because yeah. Most of all, we’re settling in and building a social life. One of our favorite things in life is to mentor young people, and we have some of that going on for the first time in a few years.
My personal goal for the year was to explore a martial art. The premise behind my personal goal is to seriously push my limits in a direction I’ve never gone before. It’s supposed to be something drastically uncharacteristic that feels so uncomfortable I want to quit. Martial arts was a fantastic choice! Only halfway through the year, I’ve gone through my first belt promotion (orange belt in Krav Maga) and my second (another orange belt, for Muay Thai) is coming up this month. So far I’ve noticed dramatic effects in raising my pain threshold, changing my body composition, popping out muscles I couldn’t even identify when I first saw them, and causing most general social friction to feel irrelevant. Basically, if a random person is rude to me, I feel, “Oh yeah? *snort* LOL”
My career goal was to launch a podcast. This is now officially eating my brain. I wake up in the morning and my brain is immediately preoccupied with framing a new episode. Creative projects feel like this to me, a steadily building pressure that needs to be released before it quite literally starts commanding my attention every waking moment. All this was already going on when my husband and I got the idea that we should do a show together, also. This makes it more likely to happen, since we’ll both be going through the learning curve together and we can split the research.
My physical goals were to run Shamrock Run 2018 and build a daily stretching routine. I knew not to aim bigger because this year, my personal goal is in a physical arena. Best to leave it open-ended. At the midpoint of the year, not only am I attending advanced classes at my martial arts school, I’m also riding my bike nearly five miles round-trip. I feel worse on rest days than I do on class days, just stiff and indolent. I can do physical things that I didn’t even know were a thing. My husband asks me to open jars, because it’s funny. I have no idea what I’ll be doing with my body six months from now, and I’m just dwelling in that uncertainty because it’s so weird and exciting.
Our home goal was to lower our rent. That was a success, a quick and easy one. The ramifications have been mixed, though. We’re crushing it on our financial goals, but living in a studio apartment has been, well, disastrous. Our upstairs neighbors have a deep-seated need to do all their housework between 6 and 8 AM every day of the week. We had to go to the property manager and complain. Now they generally wait until 8:01. Things did get a bit better when I identified the key gossip of our apartment complex and put it out there that “I have a sleep disorder and my hair is falling out.” True, generally private information but true. Our new home goal is to figure out where we want to move when our lease is up.
Our couples goal for the year is to go on an international vacation. Now it’s time to start making firm plans and booking tickets. We just got home from our week-long WDS trip, so travel is on our minds.
My stop goal is to stop losing focus on incomplete projects. Right now this is not working, not working at all, because instead I keep ADDING MORE. I am a glutton. I had an insight on this, though, which is that I think I prefer open-ended projects (like a blog, a podcast, holding a volunteer office) rather than Maker-type, “know what done looks like” projects. That’s probably why I published over 1000 pages on this blog in 2017 rather than publishing a 250-page book.
My lifestyle upgrade is to upgrade my laptop. Pretty sure I actually want a desktop rather than a laptop, partly because of the type of digital work I want to be doing and partly because I eat through keyboards.
Do the Obvious: Speak more slowly, with more pauses. I finally listened to audio of myself, and I think I’m where I want to be! I’m not getting anything about slowing down in my speech evaluations any more, and in fact I got one from a visitor to our club that mentioned long pauses. Amazing to think that something like this can be an approachable goal.
Quest: Travel in Asia or a fifth continent. In planning phases.
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter. This was a success, and then... she moved. I’m reframing this as wishing to be surrounded by cheerful people who will delightedly watch our critters for us.
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE. Still.
Personal: Explore a martial art - SUCCESS
Career: Launch a podcast
Physical: Run Shamrock Run 2018, build a daily stretching routine - SUCCESS+
Home: Lower our rent - SUCCESS
Couples: Go on an international vacation together
Stop goal: Stop losing focus on incomplete projects
Lifestyle upgrades: Upgrade laptop
Do the Obvious: Speak more slowly, with more pauses
Quest: Travel in Asia / a fifth continent
Wish: To find an amazing pet sitter - SUCCESS
Mantra: PAUSE AND BREATHE
This won’t be obvious in the future, so I probably shouldn’t even admit it, but I’m posting my blog hours late. For the first time in over two years, I completely forgot about scheduling a post! This is partly because of Vacation Brain, which is a known thing, but it’s also because my husband and I are in full-blown brainchild mode and working on a giant new project.
This is what happened.
We’re at World Domination Summit on Monday, our last day, and our suitcases are already packed to take to the airport. On Sunday, during the break between keynote speeches, there’s a lengthy break, during which anyone who wants to can propose a meetup on basically any topic. We had decided to do one together. This would be the first time we ever did a presentation or taught a class together. We put together an outline one morning at breakfast, worked out how much time each segment should take the next morning, and then divided which topics should belong to each of us. That was it.
The topic: Engineer Your Household.
This is something the two of us have developed organically over the course of our twelve-year relationship. His work as an aerospace engineer and my work as a writer, coach, and organizer merged with our mutual desire to not be, well, twice-divorced. We use the engineering process of relentless root cause analysis and corrective action to figure out points of friction in our relationship. That’s because it feels dumb to let housework and finances determine whether we are friends or not.
Don’t let laundry kill your love!
We arrived at our chosen location about 20 minutes early. That was long enough to work ourselves into a tizzy that nobody would come to our talk. We had so many concerns: that we’d interrupt and talk over each other, that our focus would wander and we’d let a bunch of non sequiturs fill up time, while forgetting our most important points. We’d wind up annoying each other while our audience gradually got up and trickled away.
Then, much to our surprise, almost everyone who showed up arrived in pairs! It had genuinely never occurred to us that married couples and romantic partners would attend together. We looked at each other with our mouths actually hanging open.
Our talk went so, so much better than we expected. We handed my iPad back and forth, going through our outline, while the other person would hold a phone with a stopwatch running. Not so polished or professional, but hey, we were standing in a park with zero staging, and it was also very us. That’s how we solve problems together, working as allies and teammates.
We were able to see that our new friends/audience were connecting with our message, laughing, glancing at each other, with a few nudges and pats of private meaning and connection.
We were also able to see that this core of our marriage - factory-level efficiency and scheduling - came across as genuinely original and surprising. Which I guess it is? This whole idea that we can create a system for dividing labor and negotiating authentically without driving each other up a tree. Acknowledging our frustrations and disappointments as commonplace! Just because laundry and weekday dishwashing are inherently annoying is NOT some kind of sign that you’re incompatible together. It’s a universal hassle that applies to single people, roommates, families with kids, polyamorous collectives, even colleagues in a coworking environment. Let’s treat it like a business matter and do it practically. Then we can actually be friends again and lounge around enjoying maximum leisure time.
At the end, people were asking if we had book recommendations, if we had a blog, if we had a podcast. I realized that this “do you have book recommendations” question comes up ALL THE TIME after I do a talk, and that each time, I pause and realize that, well, no. This is actually my own original material. In fact, it happened again during a meetup when I talked to a musician about mechanically inducing a creative trance state. Oh, wait, is that actually just a me thing?
I spend so much time working alone and talking to myself that I often don’t realize how very much I’m dwelling in an ivory tower of my own construction.
When we buy our tickets for WDS, we do it without scheduling or planning anything afterward. That’s because we know it’s a watershed in our year, that there’s a clear Before and After. We know we’ll learn something new, have a radical paradigm shift, or (AND/or) come up with a completely new approach to something. The stage was set and the structure was in place, waiting for the content, like a leaf waiting for a butterfly.
This year, the insight is that my husband and I should do a podcast together about marriage. Let me just say that that was NOT something that had ever occurred to us before. Look at your mate, if you have one, and ask each other if that would have popped up somehow over cornflakes... See what I mean?
At this point, our main decision is which day of the week we’ll use to record episodes. We already have quite a bit of content, a title, and a framework for how the different segments will line up. We have an idea of a series of guests (random private individuals) we’d like to have. We might spend a bit of time choosing some music (or pass on it) and getting a logo designed. There will be an accompanying website. Each of these pieces feels like a routine task, something that’s quite easy to accomplish.
It’s also felt straightforward and easy to say that I am closing the door on private coaching. I’ll go into it more at a later date, but basically, coaching doesn’t scale. If I spend even just an hour a week on one single client, that’s the hour a week I would have been using on THE ENTIRE PODCAST. The point is that the podcast could reach one or one hundred million listeners; it isn’t for us to guess, but it’s certainly going to be more people than I could coach individually. As soon as this clicked into place, I knew that the decision had been made and that I had no waffling or ambivalence around it. Finishing off one stage of life entirely, that’s what it is, in order to make room for something bigger and more interesting, something that will matter to more people.
Celebrity sighting! Eating dinner with my family outdoors in a quiet part of town, enjoying the long northern summer night, when the sun is still out at 9 PM. Suddenly I see none other than CHRIS GUILLEBEAU himself! He is more or less dashing into the counter-service restaurant where we just ordered our own food. I think we make eye contact, and I’m pretty sure he at least vaguely recognizes that my hubby and I are WDS people.
No worries. Your secret is safe with me.
Say whatever you want about LA. You have to give us credit that we do know how to keep it together during celebrity sightings. Respect that this is an actual human being with actual human needs! A person who is simply trying to eat a meal/use the restroom/go to a hotel room at bedtime/make a personal phone call/breathe in peace for 45 seconds now and then.
We made eye contact again as he left the restaurant. I swear it looked like he had fully retracted his aura and was working on an individual invisibility suit. Literally, though, I doubt he could have found a single person less likely to disturb his evening than myself. I get it. Thoroughly, I get it, especially after today, because I had an epiphany.
Okay, using CG as a model, I knew for a fact that he had been on the move for at least twelve hours. That’s not just on stage and in the spotlight, but also managing a million quadrillion moving parts, being the final arbiter on a gazillion and five last-minute decisions, and using every single particle of mental bandwidth trying to do an impeccable job. In public.
Also, that was just today. He’d have to do the same thing the following day, and might well be waking up at 5 AM.
After running a large event for a week.
After spending most of a year planning and organizing and managing.
I get it.
The only possible way I could show respect to this person whose work matters so much to me was to try to keep my face a mask and studiously pretend he wasn’t there. LA-style. Unless, of course, I saw someone else heading his way, looking for an opportunity to draw his attention. Then I could pop up on some pretext and distract them while he made a clean getaway.
You never really know who’s on your side and working toward your interests, do you?
During the keynote speeches at World Domination Summit, the audience were asked to pause, close our eyes, and think of what we were most afraid of. I’ve done this exercise dozens of times, but today, for whatever reason, it finally clicked. (Actually I know precisely why, but I’m refraining from sharing that story to protect someone’s privacy).
I’m not afraid of a bunch of stuff, like being emotionally vulnerable (hello, I’m a blogger), or reaching out to contact big names, or failure (because failure is usually funny and ripe for great storytelling), or even public humiliation. I had gone around all this time thinking I was afraid of having people disagree with me and want to argue about it, but I realized that there wasn’t really any juice in that for me.
I’m afraid of losing my privacy!
That’s it. That’s all it is.
Fortunately, I’m nowhere near famous. Most likely I never will be. As a writer, I have the advantage that virtually nobody who isn’t a personal friend would recognize me on sight. I can retain my anonymity, forever if I like. Ah, but if it were to happen...
There are a bunch of potential ramifications that I already know I hate, viz.:
I’m not an introvert. I like being in crowds and meeting new people. I love brainstorming. I like to make people laugh and I like to dance and play games and do physical stuff, like hiking and running foot races. It’s not about that.
It’s just that the more famous you are, the more you’re exposed to the lowest common denominator of behavior. Imagine a young couple in love, trying to have a wedding ceremony while a helicopter flies overhead trying to get photos. Ugh, gross. I will never be anywhere near that level of fame, and for the love of all that is holy, let me avoid that sad fate. Still, it bugs me that so many people feel morally entitled to know every private detail of a famous person’s life, get photos, and otherwise feel that this person’s contribution makes them, in some ways, less than fully human. I even feel that way about celebrities if I have no idea who they are or why they are famous!
I’m not really in the public eye. Yeah, I publish a blog five days a week, but so does my niece’s hamster and every other sentient creature in the solar system. It is dimly possible, though, that at some future date my diligent work habits might eventually lead to something cool. It’s really helpful for me to know that the major thing holding me back is my concern for my privacy and my precious alone time. That gives me a decade or four to figure out how to set those sorts of boundaries and preserve what I need to protect my creative energy.
I have to thank Chris Guillebeau for creating WDS, for writing and publishing his blog and his newsletter and all his books, for doing a daily podcast, for generating this entire community and getting this whole thing going. Ah, but, I understand that I don’t need to do it in person and I don’t need to do it at the end of his sixteen-hour day. Go in peace, hero of mine. I gotcha covered.
“Don’t die with your gifts still inside.” Amber Rae’s book starts here, and for me at least, it was like a mallet ringing a huge gong. Whatever else we’re worried about, it should be drowned out by that imperative, that we fulfill our purpose during the time we have in this world. What is it about worry that it always manages to claim our attention? Choose Wonder Over Worry invites us to explore other ways of relating to our anxieties, ways that made me feel like someone had been reading my own personal diary. I couldn’t get enough of it.
First, Rae differentiates between toxic worry and useful worry. Useful worry helps us to figure out how to solve our problems, strategize, and make plans. Obviously keep doing that. Toxic worry, on the other hand, creates resistance and blocks us from living a full life. We tell ourselves stories about events and react based on negative feelings like shame and envy. While this may seem self-evident, it’s here that the book really starts to take off.
Some of the best elements of Choose Wonder Over Worry are the artwork and the journal prompts. There were a couple of these that I could really use in a poster format! For example, page 77 in its entirety. I do quite a lot of journaling, and even with that background, there were several prompts that made me nod, wince, jump up in my seat, or otherwise physically react to their strength and insight.
I didn’t know anything about Amber Rae’s work when I discovered this book. Choose Wonder Over Worry made me into a fan. This is a book to savor, to engage with care and attention. I’m still mulling over questions from these pages, and it’s very much on my mind. This book is on my top ten for the year so far.
“Worry is useful only when it’s within our control and empowers us to act.”
Where in your life do you not feel ready yet? What small step can you take today?
You need to learn how to start saying no to things you DO want.
If criticism and judgment didn’t matter, what would you do? Say? Focus on?
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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.