It’s that time again. I went to the grocery store, walking in behind an employee with a massive display arch of helium balloons, because I live in a musical and that kind of thing is happening around us all the time. Out front the hay bales had already been set up. Technically it’s still summer, but the winds have changed and autumn is coming.
School is back in session and the pumpkins are out.
The winds are changing, blowing through, sweeping old dust out of the corners wherever they can.
What’s different this year compared to last year?
I’m a summer person, and in a lot of ways, fall makes me antsy. I know the days are getting shorter and the cold, wet weather is coming. I also start to count off the weeks that are left until the New Year. That’s my ultimate watershed moment, the way I measure whether I’m doing as well as I want and whether my plans are working out.
I also feel the glimmer of possibility, that what felt like an endless summer on an 80-degree day is now about to run out. Any warm and sunny day seems more valuable, perhaps the last chance to run around and enjoy it until next year. Have I had a picnic, have I sat under a beach umbrella, have I sauntered along in the park?
Those in the Southern Hemisphere can use my wistful feelings of summer passing toward planning fun things to do in the coming months. Please do!
There are other ways besides seasonal change to take notice when a fresh wind blows in. What’s changing around us? Is this indicative of a trend?
Your boss or a former colleague gets a promotion
Someone you know is getting divorced
One of your friend’s kids suddenly becomes a teenager, and how did that happen??
Someone is moving
The neighbors are cleaning up their yard
We bumped into one of our young ones at the coffee shop. She’s excited because she just started taking a class on American Sign Language. I showed her the few pathetic signs I learned in childhood, when my mom’s best friend happened to be Deaf. Cookie, I’m sorry, bathroom, parachute. Useful signs for a four-year-old! A wind blew in with her, a breezy possibility of learning new things and making new friends.
Why didn’t I take the opportunity to learn to sign more from my mom, my ex-husband, or any of my other friends or boyfriends who know how to sign? My dusty old brain needs sweeping out.
Like everyone, I’m surrounded by fresh opportunities all the time. Some of them I notice, some of them I don’t, and some of them I don’t even recognize or understand. Whenever a breeze kicks up it’s my job to perk up and pay attention.
This is something we feel in our new apartment, in our new neighborhood. The microclimate is ever so subtly different than it was in our old place, two miles away. On the top floor instead of the ground floor, we’re now able to get a great cross-breeze day and night. We actually have more than one window. This makes our daily life feel wildly different, even though we’re in a similarly sized place, quite nearby, with the same job and the same friends as before.
It’s always surprising how many people never open their windows. One of the indicators of hoarding that I notice in my ambit is when drapes are never opened, but are visibly pressed against a window by the stacks of clutter behind them. A dim and dusty room should never deprive a person of fresh air and sunlight, no matter what the neighbors might think.
We’ve just moved, into a place that feels breezy and bright, and it’s changing everything. We’ve rearranged our furniture four times in a month, constantly reconfiguring as we cull our stuff and adapt to the new conditions. We invited our friends over and the room filled with laughter, wall to wall. The best kind of breeze of all.
What if a wind blew in and it changed everything? What would that be like?
What if everything around us was arbitrary and subject to change? What if our petty annoyances simply blew away? What if we realized that our biggest problems were secretly only problems of perspective? What if the wind changed, and then our minds changed too?
I’ve felt this in my life, as I’ve relocated, traveled, changed jobs, transformed my body. Body transformation is probably the weirdest one, wandering back and forth over eight clothing sizes, but it tends to show that anything is possible. Paying off debt is possible, training for a new career is possible, finding love is possible, forgiveness is possible. Certainly unloading clutter and redesigning a room is possible, and it can be done in a day with a little hustle. Bustle and bustle, hear the leaves rustle.
If you’re big into the holiday season, now is the time to start getting ready. There is still plenty of time to make space, to design a Halloween costume, to plan a Thanksgiving menu, to finish off some New Year’s Resolutions. All the stuff you will wish you had done the week before, you can start doing now, as a cute and fun gift for Future You.
Social deadlines are the best deadlines, as long as we’re doing something appealing and we’re genuinely looking forward to it. Decorating, hosting a party, and breaking out the special holiday treats are all excellent motivation for getting stuff done. As the wind blows in, telling me that fall is here, I’m looking forward to a full month of Halloween. I’m clearing the decks and making sure I have no reason not to indulge myself.
Open the window. Do you feel the wind blowing in?
Out of the chaos came a brief window of opportunity for something different, something polished and orderly. How it happened I’m still not sure. We found ourselves at an awards banquet, where I received a trophy for the first time in my life.
Actually not one but three!
This is how it looks on the outside:
A woman walks on stage and accepts an award. She is wearing a new dress and is in full hair and makeup.
This is how it looked 90 minutes earlier:
The scene, a studio apartment full of half-packed boxes, rolls of tape, and Sharpie markers.
A man has blood all over his face because he has somehow cut open his eyelid. This is terrifying and also very inconvenient timing! The man and his wife are in the process of getting ready to leave for a formal event and ‘blood everywhere’ is not part of the dress code.
Injury treated, the couple dress in haste and run to the street to catch their rideshare. Picture a woman sitting next to an open window, hair blowing vertically because all the windows are open, as she tries to apply makeup using her phone camera.
Couple stops on the way to pick up keys to their new apartment, where they will be moving in five days, hence the precarious towers of cardboard scattered around their home.
Couple climbs out of rideshare. Wife still has vertical hair, complemented by mascara on only one eye. Wife scurries into restroom hoping nobody will try to take her picture as it is not Halloween.
While the doors have not yet opened, wife feels that she is 20 minutes late. She was supposed to help set up the table for the door prizes.
When you see a normal, average person, it can be hard to tell that that person is having a tough time. Not unless he still has blood on his face or she is still walking around with her hair pointing toward the ceiling.
This has been a tough year. I signed on to fill an office, and almost immediately my personal life exploded. I had a devastating death in the family, my husband traveled for work 21 out of 50 weeks, our dog was diagnosed with a liver tumor and given two months to live, and I started having migraines and night terrors again. Then there were all the oral surgeries and now we’re moving. The hardest part has been our inconsiderate upstairs neighbors, who are only reliably quiet between midnight and 4:30 am. I’m so tired all the time I feel like I have amnesia, or maybe dementia.
I have felt scattered, disorganized, guilty, desperate, and often incompetent every day for the past twelve months.
Yet how do I explain the trophies?
Oh, sure, I did the work. I did it all and I did it well. A lot of the stuff I did was not even mentioned.
I wasn’t just an area director, I had a Distinguished area.
I may have been a Spark Plug for one person, but I also coached a club from two members to twenty-one and trained officers from two districts and five divisions.
I did all the stuff they mentioned for the Above and Beyond trophy, and I also did three other similarly-scaled projects that weren’t on the list.
Not only that, but I also co-chaired a conference in another district, completed four award levels, completed all the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster except for faxing in the final paperwork, ran a campaign, and won a contested election.
It feels weird and inappropriate to actually list off all the stuff I did over the past twelve months. It doesn’t seem real, or fair, or something I can’t quite name.
I’m having a lot of trouble reconciling my self-image with my outer image, my emotions with what is apparently objective fact.
Why do I FEEL like an incompetent slacker loser? Why do I constantly feel like I am procrastinating when objectively, I get so much done?
They say it’s Impostor Syndrome. That when we’re growing and learning, it means we’re working outside our comfort zone. That the only way to never feel like an impostor is to only do things we know we can handle 100%, like making toast or putting our shoes on the correct feet.
Can’t I just feel for one day like I’m on top of everything? Can’t I just for one day feel like I know what I’m doing?
Every day in Toastmasters has been a battle for me, every day since the first day, when I stood shaking like a leaf and barely able to say my name. My fight against shyness, social phobia, and pathological stage fright has been one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. It looks like nothing and it feels like someone should call me an ambulance. I have felt that I would collapse if I took another step. I have felt like sprinting for the exit. I have felt like crying and I have felt like I would black out and hit the floor.
I never did. I forced myself and I kept going.
Oh, it’s hard. It’s hard sometimes.
People say I’m a great speaker now. Most of the time, I’m not scared anymore. People notice that I show up and I’m willing to help out anywhere I am asked. Sometimes they tease me about being District Director one day. Let’s not be getting ahead of ourselves, I say.
The analogy I gave earlier is that I feel like I’m constantly falling up a flight of stairs. I trip and stumble and bounce from one step to another, and somehow I always seem to stick the landing, breathless and rumpled. How far can someone tumble upstairs, though?
The truth is that we can’t tell how other people feel by looking at them, we can only tell if we ask. I have no way of knowing whether all my friends and peers feel just as uncertain and overwhelmed as I do. Maybe they also shun the spotlight and work out of a sense of duty and curiosity, maybe they also find themselves up there trying to be gracious when they’d rather peek out from under a tablecloth.
What I’ve found in my case is that my emotions are rarely appropriate to the occasion, and they always try to steer me wrong. I’ve found that my stress level is always about the same, even when I’m doing 10x more than I previously did at that exact same mix of neurochemistry. I’ve found that I am not good at feelings like pride or satisfaction or fun or relaxation. I am a tightly wound person, and I probably always will be, and I may as well use some of that energy to benefit society.
This is why I occasionally go above and beyond, because acceptable and enough isn’t really in my comfort zone.
It’s my birthday, a time I like to think about what I’ve done over the past year and what I want to be doing by this time next year. Typically this includes asking myself why I keep trying to plan something special, because somehow or other I always seem to manage to mess it up.
Classic birthday fun: Discovering stinging nettle the hard way, getting a second-degree sunburn in a weird pattern that didn’t fade for two years, stepping barefoot in puppy leavings, and now, sitting around for forty minutes at a bus station in Aberdeen because nobody updated the website with the school holiday schedule.
In a way, I think of it as good luck. If whatever dumb and annoying thing that’s going to happen to me through my own ineptitude is going to happen on my birthday, then maybe I can avoid that sort of thing the rest of the year?
Also, it’s raining, something else I try to see as a sign of good luck. It rained on our wedding day (Northern Hemisphere in August) and there is a superstition that this brings prosperity. After ten years I can tentatively say that this seems to have been borne out.
At some point in the last year, I made a list of “43 for 43” - things that I wanted to do for fun, to make the year special. I can only claim to have completed a dozen of the 43 items. That’s because this thing called “fun” doesn’t come all that naturally to me. I tend to be an intense, driven, restless sort of person and if I don’t plan and calculate, all the fun tends to get left off the list.
Sixteen of the items are fitness-related and I didn’t do any of them.
One thing I can say I’m proud of crossing off that list: I helped celebrate my brother’s fortieth birthday. If I hadn’t started nagging everyone about it almost five months in advance I think it probably would have been a last-minute family dinner, rather than a memorable vacation weekend.
I am good at recognizing spontaneous opportunities when they come along. That’s why I can claim to have done a bunch of random fun things in spite of myself. For instance, since we came to the U.K. I have taken serious advantage of the widespread availability of vegan food. I’ve had a sausage roll, a Magnum bar, and a Jaffa cake, and I even tracked down a bag of Starburst! (With blackcurrant!) We’ve walked fifty miles in five days, including days when we spent 9-10 hours on a plane or a train, and I’ve spotted twenty species of birds for my life list so far.
Eat, walk, look at birds, repeat. That’s sort of me all over.
If there’s one thing to do on a birthday, it’s to think about your favorite people, favorite places, and favorite things. Are you spending time with your loved ones and doing what really matters to you?
I realized when camping last month that I hadn’t been in a forest in two years. It took five minutes to commit that that should never happen again. I had forgotten who I was.
That brought up a series of thoughts about things that are “really me” that I haven’t been doing much lately, if at all. Traveling, cooking and having dinner parties, distance running, spending time in the woods, heck, even doing cryptograms. Too much focus on goals and self-improvement can eventually crowd out everything else.
Then I remember that it’s been a tough year. I spent a lot of time ill for about eight months, started having the occasional episode of migraine or night terrors after a four-year hiatus, and then rounded it out with a bunch of oral surgery. Whee. I can forgive myself for not having some kind of “perfect year” or hitting every single benchmark.
Of course I can also say that I feel like I deserve better from my physical vessel and that I’m hoping for better health, vitality, and well-being in the coming year. I want to get back to running again. I miss hills for breakfast. Also I can hardly wait until our lease is up and we can move to a place that doesn’t have loud, early-rising upstairs neighbors. I’d prefer to be thinking about more interesting things than why my neighbor feels the need to do her vacuuming at 8:00 AM.
When she was a little girl, did she dream about being the world’s most meticulous housekeeper?
When I was a little girl, I wanted to read every book in the world and I wanted my own parrot. One down, one to go.
Incidentally, Noelie just had her 21st hatch day. I owe her a berry.
I’ve been nodding off in the middle of writing this, on a bus with the heater on, having slept poorly in a sleeper car on a train last night. Snapping awake made me feel like a doddering elderly person. If I’m lucky that will happen one day! One day I’ll be quite old and I can tell patient young people what it was like in the Eighties, when phones had cords, VHS tapes cost $99, and you had to go to your friend’s house to play games or watch music videos.
I might be halfway through my life, I might go tomorrow, and maybe I’ve got another 65 years. Who knows? Who knows what sorts of dramatic changes and technological innovations I’ll see in my time? What will become of me?
All I know is what I’ve learned, which is that it’s good to be grateful for what you have, it’s good to stay in touch with your values, your family, and your old friends, it’s good to see the world, it’s good to save money, and it’s good to take care of your health and your teeth.
Now I’m off to start my personal new year with some travel, some time in the woods, some more intensive journaling, some birdwatching, and the absurdly early bedtime suitable to a lady of my age and station.
Someday is Not a Day in the Week. Sam Horn wants to remind us that we can find a way to live out our dreams today, rather than waiting until “later.” First of all, later doesn’t always come. Second, by the time we retire, many of us don’t have the health or freedom to do the things we’ve been waiting for decades to do. Whatever it is, let’s figure out how to do it now.
This book is centered around a “Year by the Water,” Horn’s way of living what she teaches. She decided what she wanted to do, gave away all her stuff, and hit the road. This sounds like something for kids in their twenties, and of course it is, but Horn is a mom of a kid that age. Pay attention, non-kids, because the message that Someday is Not a Day in the Week is aimed at us.
Horn reminds us that we can’t take our mobility for granted. She has a few examples of people who worked hard their entire lives, only to be unable to enjoy their freedom once they had earned it. So many of us are such workaholics that we don’t know how to unplug. We don’t take our vacations when we’ve earned them, and we don’t retire even when we can. How would we feel if we had to look back and realize that we never took the time when we had the opportunity, and suddenly we never can?
How can we make more time to live out our dreams and be more consistent with our values? How can we restructure our commitments? If George R. R. Martin isn’t obligated to finish writing Game of Thrones, then how much are we obligated to do?
I loved Sam Horn’s book, which is full of practical advice and exercises. I’m taking the advice that Someday is Not a Day in the Week and building my semi-annual review around it.
I hope you choose to stop waiting and start creating the quality of life you want, need, and deserve now—not later.
Are you overthinking your dream?
....when we focus on what we don’t want, that’s what we’re going to get.
Get crystal clear about what makes you laugh and enjoy your life, and schedule it on your calendar.
...meaning makes us happy, not money. And everyone can afford that.
Have some of your dreams come true and you’re not even noticing them?
The Third Door is an incredibly entertaining book. It’s also a story about how to create your own luck. Alex Banayan set out on a self-created quest to interview a series of famously successful people, even though he knew no one and came from a family of immigrants. What follows is The Third Door, Banayan’s account of blind optimism, persistence, doubt, failure, awkwardness, and, of course, dizzying success.
That’s what makes this book destined to be a classic, and guarantees that “the third door” will become a common catchphrase in entrepreneurial circles.
“The third door” is the one that geniuses create for themselves by bypassing the ordinary way of doing things. Most of us get the first door, the main entrance. Those born to wealth and privilege get the second door. During his interviews, Alex Banayan discovered that what the most interesting people had in common, even though they didn’t know it, was the initiative they took in making their own door.
You know, “Hey Kool-Aid!” *crash*
(If you’re too young to get that joke, congratulations! You have more time than you think and your whole life is ahead of you).
The Third Door could have been a compilation of interviews, and it would have been a good one, or maybe just an ordinary, mainstream one. Instead Banayan structures it around his quest, focusing on all the stumbles and bumbles and what it took every time he had an inspired moment or gained an ally. This book is about the thought process. It’s also about the emotional reality of committing to something big, a public quest, and how scary it can get every time it isn’t easy, which is most of the time.
Banayan’s process would probably work for anyone who is genuinely trying to create a third door of their own. Get an Inside Man, someone who will help you to connect with the person you want to talk to. Be grateful and polite. Stay in touch with and befriend the various people you meet. Be likable. Have people check your work and edit your cover letters. Get a mentor and pay close attention to their advice.
Perhaps most of all, do your research. Banayan’s biggest score came after an enormous amount of research to find someone he wanted for a mentor. He made several guesses as to the person’s email address, got a two-line response, and dropped everything to accommodate that person’s schedule. He trusted his gut, but only because he had done so much research beforehand.
Banayan had a lot to overcome. Shyness and stage fright, social awkwardness, lack of resources. Really a boy like him had no business even thinking about this project, much less attempting it. He did it anyway, figuring out the rules as he went along.
I loved The Third Door as an example of possibility thinking. I also loved it as a madcap adventure story. It’s a fun book that would make a perfect gift for a young graduate.
The Achievement Habit is a completely amazing book with the potential to change lives. It joins the exalted ranks of Books I’ve Followed My Husband Around Reading From. There is so much here about creativity, fixing persistent problems, fighting procrastination, and developing a bias toward action.
Bernard Roth is my new favorite professor-I-never-had. His book arises from decades of teaching experience. While technically his field is design, there is no limit to the applicability of the ideas here. What he considers ‘design thinking’ is a way of adopting a completely new perspective.
The first assignment Roth would give his students is to find something in their life that bothers them and fix it. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is, and how very, very few people are actually willing to live this way. My clients will tolerate persistent problems the likes of which an ordinary person can barely imagine: Living for years among a rat infestation, sleeping on a tiny strip of a mattress that is piled with clutter and food waste, breathing black mold, horrors beyond description. They will hear “do something about this” from literally every person who knows the truth, and they won’t. They always have their reasons, chief amongst which is not knowing where to start.
“Reasons” are a pet peeve of Roth’s, and they get their own entire chapter. The reason we claim for doing or not doing something is only a surface level reason, not the deeper, true reason. For instance, I have a serious phone reception issue everywhere in my apartment complex except for a small area near the entrance to the gym, and thus my voicemail asks people to text or email me because there’s no way I’ll know if they called me. My “reason” for being inaccessible is technological. A deeper reason is that while I might be able to find a fix, considering how many engineers I know, as a writer I am strongly invested in preventing interruptions while I work. “Fixing” my phone problem with additional money, devices, or software, or relocating, would give me an entire new problem. The real reason I can’t get phone calls at home is because I don’t believe I am obligated to. Right now, if someone wants to talk to me on the phone, they send me an invite and we schedule it. This is not wrong. Roth’s advice here is to use reasons externally but not internally, making sure that we are honest with ourselves about why we do or don’t do things.
The Achievement Habit is ultimately a book about high-agency thinking. We have the ability to live better than we do and we have the imagination to fix any problem, if only we decide for ourselves. Now I’m going to go look for a problem and fix it, just to keep my edge sharp.
In life, typically, the only one keeping a scorecard of your successes and failures is you, and there are ample opportunities to learn the lessons you need to learn, even if you didn’t get it right the first—or fifth—time.
It’s incredibly empowering to realize that you have the power to change your attitude toward anything.
Many reasons are simply excuses to hide the fact that we are not willing to give something a high enough priority in our lives.
You can’t know the reason for anyone’s behavior.
The best way forward is embedded in the design thinking methodology: manifest a bias toward action, and don’t be afraid of failure.
When something is a priority in your life, you have to be willing to walk away from anything that’s standing in its way.
...it is better to start to do something and fail than it is to do nothing and wait for the correct path of action to appear.
Be honest and notice the differences between your self-image and the ways you actually act.
You can make a decision right now to see yourself differently, and then to become different.
It’s a declaration of choice: instead of playing the role of passive protagonist in your life, choose to take charge of your future. Resolve to get things done, whatever it takes, and no matter how many valid “reasons” pop up.
I won my election as Division Director in Toastmasters!
This is the first time I’ve won an elected office. Another kid encouraged me to run for class president in sixth grade, and I didn’t win. Since that time, I’ve held a number of offices in various clubs, but never in a contested election. I’m not a very competitive person; in fact, I have a distaste for competing and I tend to prefer to serve in the background.
I’m motivated mostly by two forces: curiosity, and a feeling of duty. As long as I’m interested in doing something, I feel like I might as well be helping out and contributing.
This is why you’ll often see me moving tables and chairs, picking up litter, or submitting reports. Not only do I not need to be in the spotlight, I actively avoid it. At least I used to until I decided it was time to get over my aversion to public speaking.
Did I say ‘aversion’? Another way to say it is that I began with a level of stage fright that I have only seen surpassed by three or four people.
It turns out that in an organization like Toastmasters, this willingness to work hard, coupled with the drive to push yourself past your comfort zone, is recognized and rewarded. This makes it dangerous for a shy person who wants to avoid the spotlight.
As an area director, I was asked to apply for a position as division director. Sure, I thought, if you need me, I can at least go through the motions.
Then my application was approved.
Then I did my panel interview, and I was nominated unanimously.
I wrote my candidate statement and designed my campaign poster and had it printed and mounted.
Embarrassed every step of the way! The last thing I wanted was to be putting up a big old poster with a head shot of myself on it. I moved from a desire to do a competent job.
As far as I knew, I was running uncontested.
The day of the conference arrived. I was fighting a cold and short three hours of sleep, but I arrived early for the business meeting. Let’s just get through this and then I can focus on preparing for next year’s term, right?
The way this typically works, one candidate is nominated for each of a slate of positions, and the elections are somewhat of a formality. Everyone knows each other, and everyone on the slate has just spent at least a year serving the district in one office or another. We’ve had plenty of time to form impressions.
There’s an opportunity for other members to run a “floor campaign,” in which they submit the appropriate paperwork and then have a club officer nominate them from the audience. Sometimes the candidate knows there will be a competitor months in advance. Other times, the floor campaign might be a surprise.
This is what happened.
First, there was a floor campaign for Program Quality Director, and the floor campaign won.
Then, there was a floor campaign for one of the division director positions, and the floor campaign won.
The nominated candidate for that division, having lost his election, suddenly decided to run against me and try to win my division.
This is technically perfectly legitimate, and it’s been done before, although I did not know this at the time. In practice, it rarely works.
Rationally it makes sense: games have rules.
Physically, my body reacted as though I had been attacked. My heart hammered and all the blood drained from my face. Alphabetically I’d have to go first. I understood that I had approximately one minute to prepare to give a campaign speech, walk up onto the stage, take the microphone, and speak in front of over two hundred people.
Are you kidding me with this??
Emotionally I felt one thing. BETRAYAL. What a weird and medieval word. In my mind I fully understood that this was *not personal.* In point of fact, I had helped this man with his campaign. I had noticed that he didn’t have his poster made, and I went out of my way to help him with resources. I knew he had nothing against me, that this was about him and his personal ambitions and the rules of the game.
The undeniable fact that my body was flooded with stress chemicals, and that my emotions were thoroughly activated, was irksome to me. I hardly needed the distraction of my emo, weepy inner child when I had a speech to give.
But my heart was still pounding so hard I could barely see straight. My arms were shaking, not trembling but shaking.
I took the mic and walked out, feeling utterly unprepared, with my natural hair. Yet another emotional hot button for me. If I had understood that I would be performing this morning, I would certainly have gotten out my flat iron!
I gave one of the most lackluster speeches of my speaking career.
No idea if anyone else felt that way, but I know that I did not meet my own standards. Tired, kinda ill, frumpy, shaken up, such a frazzled mess that I actually... said... ‘um.’
(I’m legendary for my almost perfectly clean speeches and lack of vocal tics).
I’d just heard my rival speak. He wore a suit, and he was so vibrant and charismatic, I knew I couldn’t match his performance on my best day.
I spelled out my platform and how glad I was to work with such fine people in such a fine district, one with such high standards.
My speech was probably too short, but I just wanted to be done and go sit down before I fell down. I felt like I might faint and I didn’t want to do it up there.
Then my opponent spoke. He looked great, he owned the stage, he sounded completely pumped. My heart sank.
Then they went off to count the ballots, and the next ten minutes felt like ten hours. My arms were still shaking.
I won. I had 39% more votes.
My rival hadn’t gained a single vote.
This basically meant that everyone who voted for him the first time voted for him the second time, which is great. He’d successfully built a base of people who knew him and respected his work.
The contest was between his clearly superior performance on stage and my carefully developed platform. His ambitious power move and my reputation. It’s entirely possible that some of the votes weren’t so much for me as they were against my opponent’s strategy.
Afterward, a number of people came up to congratulate me and, in some cases, dish about what happened. I realized that time after time, I was talking to someone I had helped in some way. We had worked together side by side and I had shown up for them, as they were showing up for me.
My rival came up during lunch to shake my hand and say, hey, no hard feelings. I reminded him that on the bright side, he was now eligible to compete in speech contests again! I told him he was twice the speaker I am, and I encouraged him to compete next year.
The reason I am not competitive is that I don’t think it proves anything. If I’m up against someone and they win, then I’m not learning by competing with them, I’m learning by watching them. If I win, then it might just be because I’m more experienced or because someone else had a headache that day. Winning doesn’t help me improve; improving helps me win. If I’m truly focused on improving, then winning one day is irrelevant for the next day.
I play the long game. When I’m in, I’m in for my own reasons. The competition is between Yesterday Me and Tomorrow Me, and Tomorrow Me had better come out ahead. The real game is building allies, working together for a common cause. I never know where I’ll be in relation to everyone else three years from now.
I do know where I’ll be next year, and that’s filling out a ballot to help choose my successor, because hey! I won my election!
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.
If success is a ladder, and if you are standing on a rung of a ladder, then it is time to climb up a rung. Otherwise, you are blocking the way up for the person on the rung beneath you.
This is a personal philosophy that my husband and I share, and it’s something we tell our protégés all the time. We’ve found it to be motivating for ourselves and also for others. This is partly because it reflects a growth mindset and partly because it puts our own efforts into a larger, social context.
Moving upward is one way to help others.
“Success” is personal. Are you successful at being there for your loved ones? Are you successful at being a good listener? How about living up to your own standards? Keeping promises to yourself? Contributing to your community or family in some way?
All of these are important. We have to admit that the work we do is also important, that our efforts matter to something larger than ourselves. This is where the sense of a “career ladder” comes in.
Take the example of the manager of our local cafe. We spend a lot of time there, and we know a bit about most people on the staff. This particular woman is a major Upholder, and her work ethic clearly aligns with my husband’s. (Too bad she isn’t interested in engineering...) She’s been working full time while trying to finish her master’s degree, and criticizing herself for not being able to juggle the demands of both.
She got the Ladder Speech.
As not just a capable but an excellent store manager, she has trained her team well. She knows they can cover for her when she isn’t there.
If she doesn’t do as well as she could in school because she’s overextended, then her grades won’t be what they could be. This will lessen the value of her degree. She won’t get the maximum out of her classes, which is cheating herself of the time, money, and effort she is putting in. She might find that it takes longer to find employment in her chosen field.
(It’s something so cool that I wish I were doing it myself, although, as we always say, you can’t do everything. At least you can’t do everything at the same time).
Meanwhile, she’s blocking the ladder.
While our friend is standing on her rung of the ladder, managing schedules and ordering coffee beans, she’s blocking the climb upward. All the capable people she has trained are lined up below her, losing patience and waiting for her to climb up.
Get out of the way already!
Years have gone by while she’s been standing on the same rung.
Years have gone by while she’s been:
Too busy to date
Too busy for a social life
Too busy to take a full course load
Too busy to graduate
Too busy to start the new career she chose years ago
Too busy to move to a new apartment, even though she can afford it
Meanwhile, she’s Perfect while she stands on her current rung. She nails all her goals because she’s been doing the same job for so long that she could sleepwalk through it. She knows every single step inside and out. She only feels like she’s pushing herself because she has a lot of responsibilities and her schedule is completely full.
She’s not pushing herself by making herself emotionally uncomfortable. (See: dating, relocating, changing careers, possibly starting a family).
She’s not pushing herself by putting herself in situations where she doesn’t always know precisely what to do.
She’s not pushing herself by risking failure.
She’s not pushing herself by entering situations where she is the least experienced person instead of the most experienced person.
She’s also not pushing her staff. She’s not giving them any room to do more than they are doing, because she is in their way. The only ways upward for them are either to leave and start working somewhere else, or to in fact take her position. To do her job, the job she won’t leave.
She’s blocking that ladder and she’s going to keep on blocking it.
These are fairly common Upholder problems. Upholders feel a strong sense of duty, responsibility, and obligation. They prefer to be in situations where they can make sure everything meets their internal standards. They pride themselves on their reliability, as well they should.
They should also examine that sense of pride and ask, well, couldn’t they feel the same feeling of satisfaction at a higher level? Managing more, and doing it for more people? Doing more, but maybe for a more compelling cause?
There’s nothing unimportant about a neighborhood coffee shop, mind you. I’m in there often enough that I know a few of the services it provides besides steaming beverages. It’s an entry-level position for young people to learn valuable customer service skills. (I often tell them, after witnessing a nasty customer transaction, that if they can smile sincerely in the face of rudeness like that, then they can be successful at any job anywhere). It’s a safe space for the high school and middle school kids who swarm in every day at 3:00. Kids get tutored there, business deals are transacted there, blind dates are had there. Contracts are signed and performance reviews are given. Our entire community is represented. It’s a little bright spot in the world, and it’s a perfectly fine place to be proud to work.
It’s not, however, the biggest, brightest, or best.
Our friend finally agreed about the whole ladder thing. She tormented herself over the decision, but finally she made up her mind. She’s going all in at school. She’s finishing her degree and moving up that ladder.
For those of us who are farther along in our careers, a bit older and more experienced, this comes as no surprise. Of course the most driven and ambitious person at the local cafe is eventually going to go back to school or get a better job somewhere else! It happens every day, because it’s the natural order of things.
The only thing I’m trying to figure out is: who’s next? From my perspective, at least four of the employees who were so carefully trained by our ambitious friend are qualified and ready to take over. Which one will it be?
How long will that person stand on that rung of the ladder, before moving upward?
How about you?
This post is a favor.
Someone tracked me down somehow and pitched for me to be her accountability coach. I’m not in that business anymore, and I posted on this blog about a year ago why I quit. It’s not for lack of clients; I believe that accountability coaching doesn’t scale. I also believe it doesn’t work. I believe it’s nothing more than a frustrating dead end, an illusion that will discourage the client and burn through money with no results.
That’s why I’m writing about accountability again, in hopes that it can help more than my personalized handholding might.
Now, I coach people every single day. I even do it for free! I hold a volunteer leadership position that includes six clubs, thirty-five officers, over a hundred members, and four protégés. I have absolutely no shame or guilt about how much of my high-value time I give away. I’ve always worked with pro bono clients as well.
I don’t use “accountability” to do it, though.
What I do is to help people tap into what they want and then help them refine their vision of what success looks and feels like. Sometimes they discover that they aren’t really as into that particular goal as they had thought. For instance, I dropped my goal of owning an electric vehicle when I realized how much I despise driving. I also dropped my goal of learning to play guitar when I realized my real problem was being a terrible singer, a situation too hopeless to resolve. A lot of people believe they have a goal when it’s really just one possibility among many.
There are two types of goals, prevention-focused and promotion-focused. Either someone is trying to avoid or stop doing something, or they’re trying to start or initiate something. Examples in the first group include quitting smoking, getting off medication, clearing clutter, paying off debt, losing weight, or getting out of a toxic relationship. Examples in the second group include getting fit, going back to school, changing careers, buying a new home, finding love, or starting a family.
What I’ve found through coaching is that people have a much easier time achieving promotion-focused goals. It’s quick and easy to let go of what isn’t serving you if it gets in the way of something you want.
When a recruiter calls you about your dream job, it’s easier to let go of office gossip.
When you have ten days to relocate to your dream home, it’s easier to clear your clutter.
When you fall in love with distance running, it’s easier to drop smoking.
When you fall in love with your life, it’s easier to let go of anything that doesn’t serve you.
My dog has a bit of trouble with this, though: If you give him a ball, he’ll hold it in his mouth. If you give him a second ball, he’ll continue to hold the first ball while trying to control the second ball. When the third ball comes out, he runs outside, catastrophically overwhelmed. Too many choices!
He’ll drop all the balls in a hot second if he is instead offered a dog treat.
Another example of this comes from Sesame Street: You gotta put down the ducky if you want to play the saxophone.
What happens with most people, though, is that they lack a compelling enough vision to step out of their comfort zone. They see the things they do as treats, rather than specific obstacles that hold them back. They see their default as juicier and more valuable than any of the alternatives.
They don’t want “it” enough because they aren’t even sure exactly what “it” is. Or getting “it” is too hard, and they aren’t willing to do what “it” takes.
I can share about my life, and see if you agree with what I mean:
I’m married to my dream man, who travels half-time. We’ve relocated to new cities four times in ten years, starting over each time.
I live at the beach, in a studio apartment with no washer or dryer.
We save half our income, and we don’t have a car.
We go on a pretty fabulous vacation every year, paid for by almost never dining out or shopping.
I wear a “size two” and I never drink alcohol or soda, or eat dairy products, breakfast cereal, or fast food. I virtually never eat chips, crackers, pizza, or desserts. Instead I eat a lot of cabbage, kale, cauliflower, and collard greens. BECAUSE I LIKE TO so sue me.
See what I mean?
It’s not zero-sum. Anyone can save tons of money, eat tons of vegetables, or make drastic changes toward the benefit of a goal. Plenty of people have lost a hundred pounds in a year, paid off $100,000 in debt, or cleared out their entire house over a busy, sweaty weekend. Basically any goal you can think of is a standard goal, a catalogue goal that millions of people have done, and continue to do every day.
They want to, and they know how.
It’s not accountability that gets things done. Accountability means abdicating your responsibilities to someone, anyone else. It means “I know I will never, ever, never never do this alone.” So why is it someone else’s job? How is any other person going to make you want something you don’t want? How is any other person going to make you do something that you won’t make yourself do?
Just admit that if there are no consequences to your not achieving your goal, then it literally does not matter to you or to anyone whether you do or don’t.
Just admit that you don’t really want it and you won’t ever do it.
Sometimes that moment can provoke a crisis. I have walked my students through this. Imagine that you ARE NOT ALLOWED to do this or to reach this goal. It’s illegal. Now how do you feel? A lot of people are relieved that they no longer feel pressured to do something that wasn’t their idea. Others feel a wash of regret or frustration. It helps to clarify, is this a heck yes or a heck no?
A “meh” is not a goal. A “whatever” is not a goal. If it doesn’t spark massive emotion inside of you, then the goal is not going to be enough to motivate you.
I have a “heck no” about surfing. I have a “meh” about learning to bake bread. I have a “heck yes” about getting more sleep.
Sometimes the problem with lack of accountability is general lack of energy. Anyone who is in poor health, who is not staying hydrated or eating well or getting enough sleep or exercise, is simply not going to be able to drum up enough energy to move forward. On the other hand, a magnetically attractive major goal will pull someone forward even in spite of exhaustion, debt, or illness! I’ve limped my way to the finish line enough times, and seen enough other people do the same, to know that this is true.
It’s not you, it’s not the goal, it’s how much YOU WANT that goal that matters.
You’d move awfully fast if the building was on fire.
You’d move awfully fast if your favorite celebrity was outside right now.
You’d move awfully fast to grab a $100 bill blowing past you.
Can you make yourself move that fast for anything else? Anything less tangible, anything currently invisible?
Can you tell yourself a story that makes your own goal more valuable and interesting to you?
You can, if you want to. I have great faith in you. Now get out there and impress me.
^^^ copy and paste into a text bubble and pretend you paid me to say that ^^^
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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