For all the advice out there to Find Your Passion or Follow Your Bliss or whatever, there is very little recognition that most people don’t actually know what they want. Most people don’t have a passion! Rather than feel motivated or inspired by this kind of talk, they feel inadequate, like they’re missing something. The truth is that it doesn’t require anything like passion, motivation, or inspiration to find happiness and live a pretty great life.
Also, it isn’t as hard as it seems to figure out what you want.
What most people do, when asked what they want, is to start talking about what they don’t want. Seriously, if you charged them a hundred dollars each time they said what they DON’T want instead of what they do, they would notice and they would keep doing it anyway.
It’s simply the natural reaction when people don’t have a clear picture of something they would like better than the status quo.
This is why it’s so helpful to write these things out on two separate and distinct pieces of paper. Paper, so you can put them in your journal, tape them to your wall, clip them to the visor of your car, carry them in your wallet, post them on your fridge, or pin them up in your cubicle at work.
What’s your favorite color? Okay, that’s the DO WANT list. If you don’t want to use a solid color of paper, then make a colored border around the edge or use colored ink. Or not. This is your first choice, your first opportunity to express your preferences.
What’s a color you don’t like? Can’t think of one? Okay, then use beige or gray. That’s the DON’T WANT list.
Every time you think of something that you DON’T WANT, write it on the ugly page with your don’t-wants.
The pretty page is only for stuff you know you DO WANT.
Whenever you start getting wound around the axle about things you don’t want, you can put the ugly page and the pretty page next to each other, then drag them farther and farther apart. Remember that what you do not want has nothing whatsoever to do with what you do want.
When you go out for tacos, you don’t have to think about pizza or sushi. It’s not on the table. It’s not up for consideration.
You’ve chosen. It really is that simple and straightforward when you know exactly what you want.
Almost all choices are non-zero-sum. That means that just because you choose it, does not mean you’re locked in. If you get tacos on Tuesday, you can have sushi on Wednesday and pizza on Thursday. No problem. You can even do one for lunch and one for dinner, or go nuts and have all of them on the same plate!
Almost all choices are minor and inconsequential, as well. Whatever it is that you’re planning to eat for dinner, it will only change your life if you get food poisoning. If you’re the kind of person who worries about that as a legitimate option every time you go out to eat, maybe you could… learn to cook your own meals? Just saying.
Worrying about What If all the time tends to destroy most options. Decision paralysis can take so long that the option expires.
My brothers and I got into an argument one evening. The one didn’t want to go to a restaurant where all three of us had been recently. Fine, we said, Where do you want to go?
I don’t want to go [there]! he replied.
Right, fine, we’ll go anywhere you want. You pick. Where do you want to go?
We went back and forth like that about eight times, and finally we agreed that we would just eat separately. It was nuts. Now, when the three of us get together, we often cook at home. It turns out that my brother’s “I don’t like that restaurant” energy was really more of an “I am willing to make my own beer-battered onion rings and bake my own bread” energy.
This is why it can be tricky to differentiate between the do-wants and the don’t-wants.
“I don’t want to be single anymore” is very different from “I want to marry someone who already has at least two kids” or “I think I might be into polyamory” or “Hmm, maybe I should get a roommate.”
The more specific you are, the easier it is to get what you want - because you know what it is!
One great way to break free from a stuck paradigm is to start asking people about themselves. If you can’t think of what job you want to do, get everyone you meet talking about how they chose their job and what they like about it.
If you don’t like your town and you think you want to move, ask people what they do and don’t like about their hometown. Weekend trips to various cities can be similar in cost to a weekend of going to the movie theater, getting brunch, and going out for drinks back home.
Try things out! It’s a good way to get information without feeling forced into a commitment.
I’m an extremely decisive person and I feel like it makes my life much easier. None of my choices are the end of the world. My clothes, what I eat, what I read, what music I play, what movie I will see, all of these rate an absolute zero on difficulty of choosing. I did put a lot of thought into it before I got married for the second time, but I haven’t regretted my choice of husband or my choice to remarry. That’s because I knew my page of DON’T WANTs was only 10% of the information, and I needed to be clear about the DO WANTs.
Knowing what you want is fine. It does not have to be selfish or greedy - and remember to write down all these negative thoughts on the DON’T WANT page. Good information. What job you have, where you live, your choice of workout, and what you like to eat really don’t impact anyone else. It doesn’t take anything away from other people when you get what you want. It is perfectly okay and safe to have preferences, and if all you’re doing is writing them down, then nobody even has to know.
Allow me to introduce myself. I’m a freshly minted Distinguished Toastmaster, and four years ago anyone, including myself, would have voted me Least Likely to Be. I’ve been shy all my life, and I began this project with overwhelming stage fright and a deep dread of public speaking. I’m sharing my experience because truly, if I can do this, anyone can.
Let me give a brief explanation of what a Distinguished Toastmaster, or DTM, represents. It is an award for communication and leadership offered by Toastmasters International, which is a nonpartisan, secular, nonprofit public speaking club.
You should totally join!
The DTM is like the black belt or Eagle Scout of our organization. There are lots of other awards, but this is the biggie. Fewer than one percent of everyone who joins eventually reaches this designation.
On average, it takes most people 8-10 years to complete a DTM. With careful planning and a good mentor, it can be done in two years, depending on what time of year you sign up and assuming someone will accept you as a club officer shortly after you join. The fact that I did it in three and a half years is not all that amazing by timeline; it’s really about how I was able to make such a dramatic change that quickly.
Most people aren’t all that into spending their free time confronting their terrors.
When I stood up in a group, I could barely get my mouth open. Not just my voice would shake but my entire body. I almost collapsed once after speaking for 30 seconds. I would choke up and turn purple. My heart would hammer in my chest. The tremor in my hands would last for ten or fifteen minutes after I finished, long after the lectern had been yielded to other speakers.
After two months, I told my husband I was quitting. I would feel ill from the moment I woke up each Wednesday morning. Emotionally it was easier, a couple years later, to go into my Krav Maga classes and get put into chokeholds or punched in the mouth. I HATED SPEAKING SO SO MUCH. I mean, it was awful! I couldn’t bear it.
He asked me why I would quit and reminded me that I always want to quit things right before they start working. Good point.
I couldn’t have asked for more from my club. I had no idea how fortunate I was to live within a short walk from one of the highest-performing clubs in my region. All the people I met were unfailingly sweet and welcoming to me, and I’m proud to count several of them as close friends today. Drive-two-hours-to-hang-out friends. Follow-through friends. If I’d bumbled into a different room and been assigned a different mentor, I probably wouldn’t have made it.
Things started happening in there. People responded to my speeches. They asked questions. They laughed. They remembered what I had talked about months later. They talked me into doing standup comedy. They started voting me Best Speaker. Like, a lot.
I was invited to be vice president. Nothing could have surprised me more, until a year later when I was chosen to be an area director. And THEN I was asked to apply to be a division director, and I was nominated unanimously by the selection committee, and I won a contested election.
HOW DID THIS EVEN HAPPEN?
Inside I still feel like the gawky wallflower trying to hide in the curtains.
My self-image has been all over the place in this process. I went into the room trembling, knowing myself to be shy, painfully awkward, and boring. Somehow along the way I was convinced that nobody could see my hands shaking, I looked and sounded just fine, and in fact I was... interesting and funny.
I’ve seen the same thing happen with others. A couple of times a year, someone will come in who reminds me of myself. Unfailingly they describe themselves as being terrible at speaking. They worry about how visibly nervous they look. They think they’re boring or they have nothing to say. Yet they get up there and they have this charisma that is obvious to everyone except themselves.
Evaluation is the one thing we can’t do for ourselves.
Over and over again, a guest will come to a meeting for the first time. Often, they’re willing to stand up and do a one-minute improvisational speech, part of the game we call Table Topics. Over and over again, they’ll win a ribbon, and they won't believe it. “It’s a democratic process,” I tell them. “You have to accept that everyone voted and you legitimately won.”
That’s what I like the best. I like coaxing people to see themselves as something more, showing them that, objectively, everyone else in the world sees them as interesting and worthy of their attention. I love watching a stammering, quaking wreck like myself blossom into a confident entertainer. Together we shall rid the world of boring speeches, rambling stories, terrible wedding toasts, and unproductive meetings! AH ha ha ha hahahaha!
What I was given by my friends, I happily pass on to others: the gift of being seen and being heard. In exchange I receive the infinite gift of story. Week after week, I am surprised, delighted, informed, entertained, and often moved to tears by stories I wouldn’t hear anywhere else. It’s taught me that even the most ordinary-seeming people can have tidal waves of talent and the most fascinating lives imaginable.
Even more than I’ve learned to speak well, I’ve learned to listen well. Stories are what bring us together. Storytelling doesn’t just make the world go around, it built civilization and language itself. I’ll never get enough of it and that’s what keeps me coming back.
I never thought of myself as a speaker or a leader. I’ll rephrase that. I NEVER thought of myself, of all people, as a speaker or a leader. I only came to confront one of my worst fears. I didn’t think I’d ever actually be any good at it! Now I love what I once hated and dreaded, like a stray puppy being adopted by the city dog catcher.
Where there is resistance there is great power, hidden power. It wouldn’t bother us if it didn’t mean something to us, if it didn’t resonate on some deep level. I encourage you, if you’ve ever felt like me and wanted to run screaming from a microphone, to do something about it. You don’t have to carry that feeling forever. If you can make yourself get up and speak for one minute a hundred times, you can be free. I got my DTM with roughly forty speeches.
Well, what do you say? No, seriously, I’d love to know. I’m listening.
That restless feeling is upon me, the feeling that the winds are changing and it’s time to do something new. What will it be?
A lot of people channel this feeling into something pretty specific, like shopping, changing their hair, breaking up with someone, or changing jobs. I suspect others feel compelled to have a baby or adopt a new pet. For me, it’s usually moving, rearranging the furniture, and/or getting rid of a bunch of stuff.
We just moved two months ago, though, so it’s probably going to have to be a new workout.
It’s important to recognize restlessness for what it is. It can be used wisely or poorly. It can turn into a short run of sleepless nights, a quarrel, or any of the not-cute types of impulsive behavior.
Things I’ve seen people do impulsively:
Bring home a puppy, a 15-year commitment after a 15-second decision
Quit jobs without having anything lined up
Join the Army
Run a half-marathon with zero training
Go off their meds
Relocate and cut off communication with their entire extended family
Get married “in France, so it doesn’t count”
Eat at Chipotle
Of course, plenty of people have done all these things after a great deal of deliberation. There’s probably a married, tattooed, dog-owning French Army veteran somewhere out there eating at Chipotle right this minute. Well, maybe not that last part; that’s not so very French. Still. It’s not so much what you do as when and why you do it.
Does it make sense for your life?
One thing I’ve learned from coaching is that people always feel like they have an issue (probably), and they can’t deal with it alone (doubtful), but the real issue that they describe has nothing to do with the approach they want to take. It’s not that they need “accountability,” whatever that is, it’s that they need help getting perspective on their situation.
The one who wants a tougher workout, but really needs about 30% more sleep
The one clearing clutter whose household has zero income
The one who is manufacturing projects in order to delay a divorce
Everyone has a blind spot. Everyone who knows how to drive also knows that something as massive as a sixteen-wheel semi truck or a cement mixer can easily fit into said blind spot. In this sense, we’re our own worst enemies, toodling along without realizing how we are setting ourselves up for trouble.
This is why the desire for a fresh start can end poorly. We have all the emotional energy we need to make amazing changes, and we squander it on the wrong things entirely.
A serious life review can help here, if we are able to do the hard work and if we can assess ourselves honestly. It can help even more if we’re willing to seek outside perspectives, but here again we often tend to listen to the wrong people.
Just the other night, I was talking to a sweet young bunny about her college major and what she wanted to do after she graduated. She said she was a theater major so she didn’t know, because “there weren’t that many jobs in theater.” “I don’t know about that,” I replied, “think about where we live. Some of the highest paid people in our region work in theater.” (Film, comedy, music, other sorts of performance art and the tens of thousands of support positions in sound, lighting etc). “That’s not what they’re going to tell me at Thanksgiving,” she said. I told her to ask herself how well “they” were doing in life before she took their advice.
Seriously, what does my friend’s wife’s grandfather’s next-door neighbor know about me and my career path? (Wishing that were hypothetical).
If I ever say one thing that anyone ever remembers, let it be this:
BEWARE OF NAYSAYERS
(Especially at Thanksgiving)
It continues to astound me how many grown adults out there are still running their decisions past their parents, or their family as an assembled council. I hear it all. The mom trying to convince her daughter to get back together with an alcoholic who cheats. The son who is over thirty who lets his mom pick out his furniture. The brother and sister who live together in their forties because the family pitches a fit whenever they talk about moving on.
I worry when I hear about families with adult kids who are compelled to eat together every week, or more often, because this is what always comes of it. “Kids” in their thirties, forties, or beyond who genuinely feel that they can’t make a decision if they know their extended family will disagree. These are almost never smart decisions!
Whether to buy a house or vehicle, change jobs, go back to school or drop out, have kids or not, get married or divorced - why does the family council always steer people wrong? Why do people keep trusting that tribal advice when it ends badly so much of the time?
The family council is always going to push everyone to get married, have a baby, stay local, buy a house, and choose only the tiniest possible sliver of career that they understand and approve.
I feel fortunate to be solid in my contrarian convictions, because none of those choices
(except marriage) would have worked for me. When I picture my alternate lifestyle, the path not taken, it makes me feel like crying because it would have ruled out my life today under the palm trees.
It’s really the big decisions that matter, the ones we shouldn’t make impulsively but also shouldn’t make because someone else approves. Are we making them when we need to, though, or are we delaying or ignoring them in favor of the superficial?
It’s probably better, then, to use the desire for a fresh start as a sign that it’s time for an assessment. How are things going? Is my most obvious problem, what: financial, dental, situational, relational, physical, social? While I think it out, would it be a good idea to also do some space clearing and update my resume? Should I stay away from pet stores and tattoo parlors just in case?
Every day really is a fresh start. It’s never too late to ditch the naysayers. It’s never a wrong time to take full accountability for your life.
No one will stop you, most of the time. This is one of life’s biggest secrets. No matter what you are doing, whether good, bad, or ugly, nobody will stop you. You’re free, like it or not.
Sure, people might sometimes try to interfere with you. Usually they only do it when you’re doing something positive and constructive, though. It helps to keep that in mind. It also helps to know that their ways of being your obstacle are pretty predictable.
Tantrums. Usually that’s the method of choice. Someone will bawl you out or get angry and start shouting or slamming things around.
Maybe they’ll give you the silent treatment or be passive-aggressive instead.
When someone behaves in such an immature and loud way, it’s never going to be for a good reason. Nobody throws a tantrum to convince someone to donate blood or get an early start on filing their taxes. Nobody throws a tantrum to convince someone to eat a taco or help themselves to another slice of pie. They throw tantrums to Get Their Way.
Why does someone care whether you do or don’t do something? Either because they think it will prevent them from getting something they want, or because they simply don’t like the thought of you doing it.
What are these things, these things you might want to do that someone else might not want you to do?
Have a successful friendship
Go back to school
Go on a trip somewhere
These are things I’ve found that other people will try to talk me out of. I’ve also found that I was able to do all of them, often more than once, and nothing bad happened. The tantrum-thrower eventually gets over it. Don’t expect them to ever admit that they were wrong, because it won’t happen, but do take note that you got away with it.
As much as people love to insert their opinions, there are other areas where they won’t. I’ve found myself in a couple of situations (going on a date, taking a roommate, moving into an apartment complex with a reputation, eating at Chipotle) where I would have appreciated knowing what my friends already knew. They only admit afterward that they didn't think what you were doing was such a wise idea.
This basically depends on whether you are talking to a group of people who freely share their opinion, or a group who generally choose to “stay out of it.”
There may also be something in there about whether you thought to solicit their specific individual opinion before or after the fact. Some will seek to punish you for your supposed lack of deference.
Yes, yes, you must run all your choices by me in advance. I am the arbiter of all decisions, group or individual.
What I’ve found is that if you simply don’t tell anyone your plans, you can pretty much do what you want all the time.
Often you can also avoid telling them after the fact.
There are two things I chose to do that seemed to arouse the ire and wrath of many of my friends and family like nothing else. Nobody had an opinion (with one exception) when I married my ex-husband. Everyone had an opinion when I 1. Chose to deliberately lose weight and 2. Took up distance running.
I was baffled by this at first. Then I found out that the furor only comes up when you're in the contemplation and beginning phases of something new. After you’re up and running on your own, they lose interest and find some other scandal to occupy themselves.
The next phase of realization set in when I discovered that I could do the exact same things, privately, and if I didn't tell anyone, then nobody had a comment.
Rearrange my furniture? Try a new recipe? Color my hair? Go to Morocco? Read a banned book? Fortunately, because we are a free people in a free country, I did it all. I did it all and nobody said a word because nobody knew.
Another secret to doing what you want and having nobody stop you is to move to a new area. If you have no track record there, nobody knows your backstory. If nobody knows your backstory, then nobody knows whether what you are doing is out of character or entirely consistent with your past behavior.
There is a dark side to this, of course. Pretty much nobody will stop you if you develop an addiction or embezzle money or engage in any other sort of risky behavior. You’ll only be stopped by the natural consequences of your actions, whether legal or merely predictably unfortunate.
You can go out and get a bad haircut or wear unflattering pants or start a project you’ll never finish. You can buy a ticket to a boring movie with a weak ending. You can hoard up your house or go three years without cleaning your bathroom. You can do a lot of stuff that isn’t really all that great an idea, and no one will stop you.
What this all means is that it’s up to you. Whether you love your life or shuffle through it in boredom and resentment is up to you. Whether you live out your dreams or cringe in avoidance of someone else’s disapproval is up to you. Whether you transform your body or go back to school or change careers is up to you. You have choices and you have the power to take action on them. No one will stop you. Let your path be dictated by your own insights, not your naysayers.
It’s October First, and that means two things. One, I’m totally going to spend the entire month indulging in all things Halloween; and two, it’s time for third quarter check-in. I’ve been publishing my progress (or non-progress) on my annual goals and resolutions for a few years now, and I find that it keeps me feeling serious. At least it reminds me that I may have “decided to do something nine months ago and then promptly put it aside.
What has been going well? We moved! We found a new apartment that we absolutely love and ditched the old place. My recommendation, if you want to save tons of money by moving into a studio apartment, is to get one with no upstairs neighbors. Let’s see, what else? We went to Europe not once but twice this summer, once for my birthday and once for our TEN-YEAR WEDDING ANNIVERSARY. Our life now feels like a massive level-up compared to our lives six months ago.
What hasn’t been going well? We did three things this summer. One was travel (both) and the other two were moving (all four) and oral surgery (just me). There were almost no days over the last quarter when one of these things didn’t take up the entire schedule. It’s been pretty distracting. Our dog has been having a rough time, and it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that we happen to be quite close to his vet’s office.
Personal: My personal project is to submit a book proposal. I have not done this yet and the year is winding to a close. Time to make up my mind. Is this something I am really going to do, or am I always going to find reasons that it’s “not quite time” or “not quite good enough yet” for another million years?
Career: My career goal for the year was to complete the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster. I still have one more piece of paperwork to process on this. I knew I have until next June and I put it aside during the move. It embarrasses me that I could have had this finished back in May and it’s still in my desk.
Physical: My fitness resolution is to work on hip openers. Not only have I not been doing this all year, I feel like I haven’t done anything fitness-related at all. I’m at the heaviest I’ve been in twelve years, and struggling to break through a plateau. The energy I would like to feel about my energy level, strength, and agility is nowhere near where I want it to be right now. Which direction do I want my timeline to go in the next few months, up, down, or flat?
Home: My home project was to set up an outdoor writing area. We did this at the beginning of the year and I love(d) it. Since we’ve moved, I actually have access to an outdoor writing area with an ocean view and almost zero foot traffic. I just have yet to use it. Right now I’m writing with a keyboard on my lap and sitting in bed because the temperatures are getting cooler.
Couples: Our couples resolution is to do bulk meal prep. Now that we’re back in a proper kitchen, we’ve both been cooking from scratch every night. We had emptied the freezer in preparation for our move, and now we’re filling it up again.
Stop goal: My stop goal is to stop being sick and tired. Finally making progress here! I’ve been able to sleep SO much more in the new place and even take a nap a couple of times a week. I think I’ve also figured out my problem with constantly catching colds from last winter. My husband has picked up a cold twice in the past two months, and I’ve been able to escape with maybe 5-10% of the symptoms he has. Two differences: we switched roles with the intensive martial arts training, when he enrolled and I went on hiatus, and I started taking a zinc supplement that he doesn’t like to use. (It’s called Super Bio Veg and it’s expensive and tastes like bouillon cubes, but I swear by it). Our experiences this year have firmed up my conviction that over-training quickly starts to impact the immune system.
Lifestyle upgrades: My lifestyle upgrade resolution was to buy a new desktop computer. I finally did it. I also went out and got a wireless scanner. I’ve been slowly digitizing and culling our remaining paper files.
Do the Obvious: My “Do the Obvious” this year is to schedule everything in time blocks. This has been a really useful concept. I no longer feel like I “should be doing something” every single minute. I’ve been able to look at the clock and sign off in the evening. I’ve also been able to keep most of my projects going in spite of the move, travel, oral surgery, veterinary emergencies, etc. I’m realizing that I can do 95% of the stuff with 80% less of the stress by taking relaxation and downtime more seriously.
Metrics: It is not a coincidence that I quit logging HIIT exercises like burpees and push-ups and had to revert to logging my food intake. Playing with a more formal bullet journal/habit tracker for the rest of the year to see what happens.
Quest: This year it’s SleepQuest 2019. I started having night terrors again this year, which has been dreadful, and I even had them once in the new apartment. (Should have known better, but I went to bed two hours after eating dinner and I know I need to wait for three). My sleep is improving. Now I need to focus on my body mass and my workouts, two factors that I have successfully identified as key to my personal night terror episodes. More on this as I write about SleepQuest during Fourth Quarter.
Wish: My wish is to be signed by a literary agent. I actually talked to two of them at WDS and it was not unpromising. I had a follow-up call with one of them. Then our summer got a bit... vivid... and we’re only now settling in again. I’m one of those people who lowers themselves into the pool inch by inch, let’s put it that way.
Personal: Book proposal
Career: Distinguished Toastmaster - IN PROGRESS
Physical: Hip openers
Home: Outdoor writing area - SUCCESS
Couples: Meal prep - SUCCESS
Stop goal: Stop being sick and tired
Lifestyle upgrades: New desktop computer - SUCCESS
Do the Obvious: Schedule time blocks
Metrics: Sleep, fitness, reading, writing, speaking
Quest: Sleep Project: SleepQuest 2019
Wish: To be signed by a literary agent.
The thing about goals is that they’re often too small, too easy to reach. It takes something on a grander scale to be really exciting and worth chasing, and that’s the visionary scale of a dream. Just like goals, though, dreams may not be what we had imagined when once we actually make them real. As time goes by, we may not realize that what we really want is something entirely different.
That’s when it’s time to release an old, expired dream and start chasing a new one.
When I was a kid, like a lot of children, I wanted to be a veterinarian. It’s fun to say big words and impress adults. As I started to realize what veterinarians actually do, I changed my mind. All I could picture was having to give shots to puppies and kittens all day, and owie! Now, as a middle-aged person, I know a few vets, and the truth is that theirs is a very difficult and often sad profession. It’s been over thirty years since I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I was okay with letting that dream go.
(But thank you ever so much to those of you who pursued it!)
Optimists like myself have a fairly easy time of it, recognizing and letting go of expired dreams. We’re future-facing, and we’re more interested in moving forward, toward something appealing. The reverse is true of a lot of people, those who lean toward melancholy and regret. Releasing an expired dream can feel achingly sad in these cases.
I have a dear old friend who is at the top of his profession. This is funny to me, because I’ve known him since he was a university student, filling his study area with towers of cola cans. He is literally working his dream job, the only thing he’s ever wanted to do with his life, and he’s wildly successful at it. He’s making more money than he could have imagined, living in his dream city, married and traveling the world. Yet he’s constantly wistful about his teens and twenties and in some ways feeling like life is passing him by.
Why? What could have been better than the outcome he got? Staying twenty forever, battling bad skin, being broke and not knowing how to cook?
As we get older, the past starts to put on this golden, hazy glow. We forget the bad parts and the rough edges. This really seems to start to kick in after we hit our sixties, and it’s part of why older people tend to be happier. We can see it in action if we compare the stories someone tells us with the version they were telling ten or twenty years ago. We can compare their notes with those of their friends and family who were there, we can compare it with photos, we can compare it with journals and letters and news headlines. Gee, that sure isn’t how you were telling it when it happened!
Come to think of it, *I* was there, and that’s not how I remember it either!
It’s probably for the best. Our shiny new versions of tawdry old events are part of what keeps us going.
Nostalgia isn’t a very good bargain, if you ask me. Why trade future visions for feeling like our best times are behind us? I know that isn’t true in my life. I wouldn’t even want to go back two months, much less two years or twenty years. I look better today than I did in old photos. My life is easier and better, and why? Because I’ve always chased my dreams and continued to dream bigger.
I live the life I do because I’m specific about what I want, and that motivates me to go out and get it.
The easiest of the expired dreams to let go is the dream of being with your old crush. One of the greatest things about social media is that it’s easy to find people and see how they’ve turned out. In my case, my crushes are now of an age to have grown vast wizard beards, which is awesome, but my husband can do that too.
Any single one of my old crushes would not result in the marriage that I have today, and that’s a thought that makes me feel small and panicky. Trade this for that? No thank you.
Dreams can be of any size or duration, just exactly like clouds. Is yours continent-spanning majestic size, or a house-sized bit of fluff? Is it going to drift away before you can grab it?
Here are some dreams that I’ve released, and why.
I used to dream of having an electric car, when they were new and uncommon. I’ve released that dream because I hate driving! My dream is not to have a car at all, and I’ve been living that out for nearly three years now.
I used to dream of being 5’10” - six inches taller than my adult height - and I’ve released that dream. Now I understand that my size is efficient for things I like to do, such as distance running and backpacking. It’s easier for someone of my size to do pull-ups and other body weight exercises, too.
Once upon a time, I dreamed of earning a degree in Classics. I released that in my senior year, when I changed majors, because I finally realized that nobody understood what it meant, and I got tired of explaining it. Also, it struck me that I could spend my time learning modern languages rather than Latin and Attic Greek. (I did come away with rather splendid Greek handwriting, though).
It’s interesting to picture myself as a tall woman driving around town in an electric vehicle and wielding a Classics degree. What am I doing? Am I a professor of antiquities? Hmm. A valid life, an intriguing dream, but... nah. I’ll take what I have today, thanks.
Aspirations usually show up in physical form, and they’re far more likely to manifest in small consumer items than in bigger things, like acceptance letters or class syllabuses. We buy little trinkets as placeholders for our wildest desires. I see this all the time, and in fact I can usually pinpoint someone’s expired aspirations within minutes of entering their home.
Foreign language dictionaries, unopened packages of art supplies, dusty fitness equipment, books with pristine spines, mute instruments, clothes that don’t fit... signs and relics of unlived personas, untouched fantasies, untested dreams.
These are objects of power, mind you. There is vast energy stored in these sigils, these artifacts of past dreams.
Let’s all agree to forgive ourselves for having lived our actual lives. Let’s let go of this idea that things might have been better if only we had been someone else. Imagine if everyone you loved was someone else instead: would anyone be left to love you? Love yourself the same way, just the way you are. Then box up your old aspirational clutter and offer it to someone else, someone for whom that dream still has bits of sparkle to explore.
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.
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....when we focus on what we don’t want, that’s what we’re going to get.
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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.
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