Scarcity mindset actively blocks financial security in a lot of ways. This is something I have worked on with all of my clients, without fail, although they are all over the map when it comes to actual income, career, wealth, education, age, gender, and family background. It makes perfect sense to me. Chronic disorganization exists in a feedback loop with stress and financial problems. This is part of how and why financial anxiety feeds on itself.
When I start a job with a new client, especially during home visits, I explain what to expect. I lay out the rules, which are that I’m there to sort and help make decisions, but that I’ll never throw anything away, not even the tiniest scrap of paper. That’s the client’s job. I also say that a couple of the side benefits are finding unexpected money, and weight loss. They react to the latter with surprise and curiosity, but to the former with firm conviction. Will I lose weight? Neat! Will I find money? HA, not likely. I know it will happen, though, because it always happens. The more insistent the client is that if they had any missing money, they would certainly have found it by now, the more likely there is to be some.
A root cause of this problem is learned helplessness. In response to stress, my people resort to pessimism and hopeless certainty. OH WELL, they think, HERE WE GO AGAIN. They also think THIS ALWAYS HAPPENS. They tend to retreat and isolate themselves, rather than reach out to anyone, ask for advice or help, do research, brainstorm multiple new approaches, find innovative ways to get around the problem or raise money, or especially to take any kind of action. This is why they can get hit with an unexpected expense and somehow forget that they have uncashed checks sitting on their desk, or nice green cash dollars in a pocket.
More obviously, my people will receive cash, checks, refunds, and gift cards... and set them down somewhere. They will go on to stack random stuff on top of that money, burying it under junk mail, flyers, and newspapers. (What the more frantic type of broke person will do is clutch that check or cash as tightly as possible and sprint directly to the bank, beating on the window if that branch is closed).
One of the most visible indicators of my people is that they leave coins strewn all over the place. There will be coins on the dashboard and floor of their vehicle. There will be coins shaking loose in the bottom of their numerous plastic grocery bags. There will be coins on the kitchen counter, on the bathroom sink, on the nightstand and dresser, on bookshelves, on the desk and on top of the microwave and TV. There will be coins in the windowsill. Usually there will be coins on the carpet as well. Coins, coins, coins. One penny at a time, it doesn’t seem like much, but I have a one-cup jar with over ninety dollars in it, all from pennies and other coins I’ve found in the street since 2005. Coins are cash, too.
There are other indicators of lack of focus and awareness around money. It’s not just common, it is UNIVERSAL that my people will find uncashed checks after they have expired. Sometimes I am able to convince them to contact the sender to have the check reissued. (Sometimes it doesn’t work, but usually it does). More commonly, they dig their heels in and refuse, feeling actively affronted that someone might suggest they are entitled to their own earnings.
The links between chronic disorganization, stress, anxiety, and financial problems become more clearly defined and easily recognizable.
My people, as a rule, do NOT trust electronic banking. They may sometimes accept direct deposit, if it’s required by Social Security or if someone very nice helped them to set it up. Usually, though, they’ll hold out until their dying breath because they are afraid of fraud and bank errors. Automatic payments are another story. If receiving money in an instant is scary, then having it withdrawn is among their worst nightmares. From my perspective, my people’s insistence on paper-based, snail-mail banking makes their organization problems an order of magnitude more difficult.
Snowdrifts of papers, sealed envelopes, unopened bank statements, and a total lack of filing system contribute to the impossible conundrum of finding all those lost checks and gift cards. Nobody, but nobody, can find anything if there are more than about ten sheets of paper on a surface.
Distrust of electronic banking is one thing. My people also resist setting up automatic transfers or payments because they have a justifiable fear of being overdrawn. Banks are not helpful here, as they have been known to deliberately process deposits and payments in a way to generate the maximum fees. Being one day or one dollar off in your calculations can potentially result in hundreds of dollars of overdraft or over-limit fees. Been there, done that, sold the t-shirt at the consignment shop to try to pay my overdraft.
Behind this same fear is tolerance of a system in which every payment is due on a different date. This is what broke people do when we’re afraid we’ll have to pay several bills on the same day, a day when our accounts are empty. At least having stuff due on different dates means we have more time to come up with the money? Here we are seeing the way that financial anxiety shortens our timeframe and erodes our ability to plan into the future. We don’t even notice that we’re, say, 10% over limit every month, or that our income and expenses are really pretty predictable. We just build up a sense of dread and learn to sputter along that way.
Looking back at my own broke days, back before e-banking and before we could withdraw cash at the grocery store without an ATM fee, I was maybe $25 from peace of mind. I needed only a very small buffer at the bottom of my bank account. It could have been quite literally the identical $25 from one year to the next. If I’d understood that, I would easily have raised that money and left it there, and it would be there today (which, now, it is). At the time, I constantly felt the danger of being overdrawn, of having to put groceries back, of having insufficient funds or having my card declined. It was real, yet also an illusion, realistic, yet also unnecessary.
I can identify my people on sight, or even from part of a photo. Papers everywhere, unopened shopping bags, lots and lots of STUFF of every description, coins here and there, and a general lack of ease or prosperity. I recognize it because I work with it and because I also used to live that life.
On the other side, it really is easy. I’ve had all my payments automatically deposited for, what? Fifteen or twenty years now? I’ve never once had a problem with a deposit. Not once. My husband and I also pay all our bills electronically. If the service provider doesn’t have automatic billing, then we set it up with our bank. We get our statements electronically. It takes about one minute to pay the few bills that require our attention. The result is that we’re never late, we never pay extra fees, and we both have credit scores over 800. This makes us eligible for lower interest rates, reward programs, upgrades, and the ability to set up new accounts without paying a deposit. In other words, the more you have, the more you get. Unfair it may be, but games have rules, and I was broke long enough that I’m not exactly going to fight off free goodies.
Financial anxiety feeds on itself. Disorganization leads to more disorganization, as entropy takes over. Anxiety and disorganization eat away at mental bandwidth, replacing focus and concentration with stress and emotional flooding. It goes from bad to worse. The same person with the same finances, though, can use mental clarity to create order from chaos. It’s possible to dig out, find those lost checks and cash and gift cards, sell off extra stuff, lower your expenses, renegotiate contracts, increase your income, and one day, look back at what has become just one sad chapter in a longer, more interesting story.
I’ve been following James Clear for about five years, so I was thrilled when I heard he had a book coming out. I pre-ordered it and read it as fast as I could! Atomic Habits is everything I had hoped it would be, and more. Learning about habit formation from James Clear has changed my life. New readers can pick up in one handy volume what the rest of us have had to learn in small bits over the last few years.
Pop culture has a lot to say about habits, and most of it is wrong. For instance, we think it takes 21 days to form a habit and we usually believe that successful people have unusual amounts of passion, motivation, and willpower. No wonder it’s so hard to make changes!
Atomic Habits is based on extensive research. One of Clear’s major strengths is that he will chase down a reference until he can either document it or... well... not. An example would be the oft-mentioned Seinfeld rule “don’t break the chain,” from a conversation with a fan of his standup comedy. I read recently that Seinfeld himself said he couldn’t figure out where that anecdote came from. Then James Clear references a documentary. He remains the only writer, among at least a dozen I’ve read, who has cited a specific reference to back up that particular claim. If he uses an example or a quote, he has found the citation. That’s his standard.
Another strength of Clear’s work that appears in Atomic Habits is the beautiful simplicity of his illustrations. I particularly love the DECISIVE MOMENTS diagram showing how small choices can add up to make the difference between a good day and a bad day.
Although I have been reading James Clear’s newsletter and taking his webinars for several years, I still received some surprising and valuable new insights from Atomic Habits. One of these is the concept of the “decision journal,” something that I am going to implement immediately. Another is the habit contract; I’ve seen this idea before, but Clear’s example suddenly made it relatable. I also glommed onto the concept of “resetting the room,” and I’m going to steal it and use it all the time.
If you have tried and failed to change your habits, don’t despair. Atomic Habits is here to help. This research-based book will entertain, inform, and probably surprise you as much as it did me. James Clear is changing habits, and if he keeps it up he’s going to change the world.
Once your pride gets involved, you’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain your habits.
Hearing your bad habits spoken aloud makes the consequences seem more real.
The people with the best self-control are typically the ones who need to use it the least.
...I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.
Most of us are experts at avoiding criticism.
Just thought I’d put that out there. I’m so inspired by the idea that There are No Overachievers that I just want to sing it right out. WOO!
WOO stands for ‘windows of opportunity.’ Brian D. Biro teaches how to recognize WOO and create more. This type of possibility thinking is uncommon, something that most people aren’t taught and do not naturally revert to. As a default state, it makes a massive difference between one person’s results and another’s. Why do some people seem to have it so easy? Because they understand the WOO.
There are a million things to love about this book. One that stood out to me is the concept of the ‘eager meter.’ What if, rather than being willing to do things, we actually felt eager to do them? I’m writing this one on my hand so I can see it all day.
Another concept that clicked with me was that Biro refers to ‘breakthrough targets’ where most of us would say ‘problems’ or ‘issues’ or ‘obstacles’ or ‘personal failings.’ One of mine is failing to respond to social connections. This has been making me feel like a bad person and a bad friend. When I thought of it in the sense of a breakthrough target, it was like the sun burst through the clouds. This could be a goal rather than a flaw! Goals I know how to handle, my personal failings not so much.
The premise that There are No Overachievers is that we’re all actually underachievers, that we have so much more potential within us. It’s only that we’re so tired and uninspired and conditioned to look for the risks and reasons to avoid things, that we don’t realize we could be living out our dreams. It’s terrifically motivating, a very upbeat book, and I won’t hesitate to say that I loved it.
You never know if the next idea that pops into your head or the next choice you make may change your life.
...Look for the WOO instead of the woe.
Be easy to impress and hard to offend.
Self-discipline has a bad rap. For one thing, it’s boring. There’s just nothing sexy about saving money, eating healthy, being organized, or going to bed early. (Well, maybe that last one). We tend to feel constrained by these external expectations, that the outside world is constantly pressuring us to quit having fun and give up our independence. There isn’t really a model showing self-discipline as an active, creative choice. We can choose self-discipline as a powerful means of personal and artistic expression. We can choose self-discipline as an endlessly regenerating act of love. Self-discipline is kindness, both to self and others.
It doesn’t take much time in the company of small children to realize that discipline usually comes in when kids are either doing something dangerous, or being mean to each other. Hey, no biting! Stop grabbing stuff from other people. Don’t chase the cat. Look out! I’ve had to run full speed after little kids who were about to walk into traffic, toddle into the ring during sports matches, or nearly stumble into a swimming pool or fire pit. Lack of discipline is hard to do without annoying other people or stressing them out. That’s because our actions don’t occur in a vacuum.
This is where we start to realize that our own lack of self-discipline and self-control makes life difficult for others around us. When we’re late and our coworkers have to cover for us. When we don’t pack lunch or a snack, and then get hangry and start snapping at people who have done nothing to deserve it - again. When we allow our standards to slip and drive distracted, endangering everyone around us.
Then there are people like the guy in my building who likes to get drunk in the afternoon, week after week, and sing along to the same The Police Greatest Hits album off his balcony. Live your best life, my dude, but could you do that maybe in the shower instead? Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for an uncredited appearance on my podcast.
I’ve had many, many roommates and neighbors over the years. Some of them have been legends for all the right reasons, and others for all the wrong ones. The ones who steal your leftovers or your laundry quarters. The ones who leave giant wads of hair in the shower drain. The ones who run up your phone bill, and then move out with no notice and no forwarding address. The ones who never, ever do a fair share of housekeeping, the ones who can’t seem to live a single hour with a dish-free kitchen sink. It all comes down to a basic disagreement about where the line ends between our behavior and other people’s rights. When my freedom interferes with yours, then it’s not my freedom any more; it’s my unfairness.
There are also all the ways that my lack of self-discipline is unfair to me, myself. Sometimes Today Me is very selfish and works hard to create problems for Future Me. Tomorrow Me is constantly being expected to pay my debts, sort my papers, and wash my dishes. Past Me, why you so lazy?? It takes a while to realize that if I take action right now, it’s faster and easier and costs less than if I dump it all on Future Me. I do all my housework on weekdays so that Saturday Me can lounge around, sleep late, and do nothing. I do forty pushups so that Next Month Me can do fifty, and so that Summer Me can have awesome-looking biceps. Gifts for Future Me, a Future Me who is hopefully feeling very smug right now.
When I look back at Twenties Me, I usually feel very aggravated. Twenties Me had almost every possible bad habit. She was late everywhere she went. Her bag always weighed ten pounds and she always had neck and shoulder pain because of it. Her desk was always covered with papers and unopened mail. She was always flat broke and devastated by money worries. She didn’t know how to cook, she was as much as thirty-five pounds overweight, and she had constant problems with migraines and chronic pain and fatigue. Forties Me sees almost all of these issues as a lack of self-discipline (although, more charitably, it was a lack of knowledge).
When I get plenty of sleep, it helps me to show up on time, keep my commitments, and treat others with patience and respect.
When I nourish my body with healthy food and plenty of exercise, it helps me to have a high energy level and physical strength and stamina. I’m able to contribute when it’s time to move furniture and do the heavy lifting. I’m more likely to help others in a crisis, when in the past I might have *been* the crisis.
When I’m organized, I meet my deadlines and fulfill expectations. I even have a chance to exceed them, set higher standards, and build my reputation. I don’t waste other people’s time by being late, asking for extensions, needing other people to cover for me, or failing to follow through on what I said I would do. I can take my time and create something amazing.
When I feel like I am accountable for my life, it helps me to manage my commitments. I can pledge my time and attention, knowing I will show up and keep my agreements. I can rely on my resources and energy level because I know what I’m capable of. I never have to inflict my panic or burnout on others.
When I am in charge of myself, when I use self-discipline skillfully, then I know I can be fully present for others. I take care of my own needs and I have responsibility for my own enjoyment of life. Also, I have the room and the means to listen wisely and well. I have space in my life and my heart for those I care about the most. When others need me, I know I can be there. Self-discipline is kindness, to myself and others.
There are roughly a hundred days until the New Year, and I stumbled across this book while making my year-end plans. What a great idea! Let’s find out. Can You Be Happy for 100 Days in a Row?
Dmitry Golubnichy designed this book as a challenge. It includes a hundred perfectly valid, often unexpected ideas. They should be regarded as a jumping-off place, with plenty of room to revamp and customize.
The happiness prompts in the book are occasionally weather-related, meaning that they might be challenging to do in order, depending on when someone started the book. It’s definitely worth skimming through it first to see what’s coming up in the schedule.
I just posted my own list of things to do for the last hundred days of the year. Mine included quite a lot of organizing tasks and ordinary household chores, as well as meal plans that we rarely cook. As such, my personal list could probably use less planning and more fun.
What do we mean by happiness, though? This is another area of customization, I think, because what will lead one person to happiness may be a bit more of one thing than another. Domestic contentment is where I put much of my focus, because without it, it can be very hard to maintain any other type of happiness. Joy, celebration, companionship, anticipation, awe, curiosity, adventure, tranquility, wonder, delight, and laughter can be attained as well. Notice that different types of happy feelings may arise from totally different types of activities, often without much overlap. The happy feelings that come from doing something kind are different, for example, than the happy feelings that come from learning something new.
Can You Be Happy for 100 Days in a Row? Yep! It takes a little planning and remembrance that there can still be happy moments, even when most of life is totally routine and ordinary.
“If you lower your standards, then your standards are lower.” We were setting up for a day-long meeting and debating whether the nearest cafe was close enough to give us time to grab breakfast. One guy rejected the coffee at the event, saying he didn’t want to lower his standards. I responded in the manner above. We made eye contact, burst into simultaneous laughter, and instantly became friends.
I don’t even drink coffee.
The reason my new friend and I connected was that when you share a philosophy, it often takes only one sentence or one behavior to make that connection. A lot of people signal this sort of thing through their clothing, which is of course why they wear it. (Otherwise, wouldn’t jumpsuits, togas, or Star Trek-type uniforms be so much more convenient?)
Context says a lot all by itself. Here I am at seven AM on a Saturday, an hour before this day-long event, with maybe a half-dozen other lost souls. My very presence says a series of things about my commitment, interest level, ability to be organized, and willingness to volunteer for thankless tasks. Add in my wardrobe choices, facial expressions, vocal tone, posture, and mannerisms. You can’t tell everything about me, but you have a lot to go on. Maybe you don’t have enough information to figure out biographical details like whether I have kids or what kind of car I drive. You do know a few things, though, about my values and my behavior.
I was blind to all of this as a young person. When I look back, I can’t help but wonder how different my career path might have been if I’d understood at twenty what is now so obvious at forty-plus.
At that age, I would have been seriously offended by the implication that I had low standards.
As the Future Version of that callow youth, I can only laugh. Young Me DID have lower standards in all sorts of ways. Young Me was a terrible cook, for instance. Young Me accepted dead-end, low-paying jobs when she could have gone for more. Young Me neglected to advocate for herself in obvious situations when she could easily have negotiated better. Young Me tolerated shabby treatment from friends, coworkers, bosses, and boyfriends. Young Me wound up taking jobs, renting rooms, giving door keys to roommates, signing contracts, and doing favors for friends in situations that Today Me would never consider for five minutes.
Not only did Young Me have no clue how to negotiate, Young Me also had no idea how she constantly demonstrated that she was not a “first in line” first-choice kind of person.
Waiting by the phone for calls from a selfish, inconsiderate young man when we both should have known better.
Accepting the first offer from the first employer who called, with the first wage they suggested.
Being there, over and over, for friends who vanished rather than reciprocate.
Tolerating bad behavior, like stealing my laundry quarters or bouncing rent checks, not knowing what to do other than feel hurt.
Young Me saw a lot of specific incidents as misfortunes, rather than as indicators of an untrustworthy person or red flags for obvious behavior patterns. It took a lot of disappointment and a few very nasty surprises to start developing some street smarts and setting better boundaries. Today Me knows to ask more questions in the first five minutes.
Today Me still does favors for people, although usually they are different kinds of favors. Today Me gets asked to be a reference or review resumes for job-hunting friends. Today Me evaluates a lot of speeches and holds a lot of volunteer offices and staff positions. Today Me will still visit people in the hospital, help people move, pet-sit, or occasionally slip someone a secret envelope if they’re having cash problems. Having higher standards and better boundaries does not mean being more selfish, cold, or unkind. It means being more discriminating, offering help where it can make a real difference. Feeling taken advantage of can only happen if you have certain expectations or if you come from a position of scarcity. Offering a gift of time, energy, or resources comes from a place of love, and that means no strings.
There are, of course, many other areas where Today Me has higher standards. Young Me was a walking disaster in some ways, chronically disorganized, constantly late everywhere, and helplessly lost in the professional wardrobe category. These are not moral issues and they are not character issues. It still feels unfair sometimes to be judged by what are really superficial traits. They are, though, extremely potent signals that show whether someone is operating in the same system or not. I always believed myself to have a strong work ethic, to be committed and dedicated, bright and sincere. In some ways, it’s convenient to have ways to demonstrate that visually, just by walking in the door at 7 AM on a Saturday and making a single comment.
If you lower your standards, then your standards are lower, whether that’s your standard for how you behave, how you speak, what you believe is an acceptable work product, how you treat others or how you allow them to treat you. It’s also true that if you raise your standards, then your standards are higher. This is how you can personally contribute to a better world. If you raise your standards, you can improve your own behavior, speak kindly, influence and inspire others, create amazing, beautiful, and useful things, set the tone at an event, and ultimately contribute to the culture of a community or organization, however small. How you do one thing may actually be how you do everything. It’s an interesting project to see how raising your standards in even one area may affect everything else in your life.
Karla Starr set out to learn “Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others.” In her position, I believe I would have done the same thing: Her research was spurred by a series of epic bad luck, including serious injury and financial ruin. Can You Learn to Be Lucky? Before reading the book, I would have said yes, and I would have said that that attitude of trying to turn disaster into a learning opportunity is fundamental to the process. Now that I’ve read the book, it’s nice to know that research backs that up. Others might appreciate that the book focuses on hard data and neuroscience more than it does on pop psychology.
From my perspective as an extreme, off-the-charts optimist, the majority of this book would seem to resonate with a more pessimistic viewpoint. Guess what? Humans are subject to many layers of profound bias of varying types, and certain rare specimens benefit from that, leading lucky lives without hardly trying. A fixed mindset would skim through this material, sigh heavily, and resign itself to mediocrity. It would take a highlighter pen or call-out boxes to turn this book into a motivational handbook, but it could be done.
(There’s room in this world for Karla Starr calendars, t-shirts, and mugs!)
There are always at least two ways to tell the same person’s life story and have it still be true. You can make bullet points of all the person’s worst moments, crises, disappointments, tragedies, losses, and rejection, also calling forth this sad individual’s character flaws, blunders, and failings. Then, you can highlight the same person’s good fortune, privilege, support network, gifts, merits, charms, good deeds, and serendipitous connections, meticulously detailing the benefits of having this person around. It takes imagination to find that thread, but it’s there for everyone. The trouble is that we as humans despise being reminded of our privilege and resent having to cough up a little bit of gratitude for how great our lives really are.
[Here I note that I looked the author up on Twitter, and almost every mention of her book that popped up was snarky, sarcastic, and exactly the kind of attitude that would personally cause me to write off that individual from my favors-and-references list. Sarcastic people cannot possibly have any idea how many opportunities they lose through their mean remarks].
Can You Learn to Be Lucky? It depends on how you define ‘luck,’ doesn’t it? Are lottery winners lucky if they declare bankruptcy, get divorced, and can no longer trust their relatives or friends? Are celebrities lucky if they wind up in rehab or if their supposed friends betray all their secrets to the paparazzi? Just asking. But then there’s a difference between luck and good fortune.
This book is full of truly fascinating research. Two things I learned: There are two different types of dopamine receptors, explaining why some people are more motivated by rewards and others by avoiding punishment; there is a thing called ‘allostatic load’ that represents cumulative stress and trauma. With the way neuroscience is growing as a field, maybe one day we’ll simply be able to put on a brain-scanning helmet that will show us the seats of our pessimism and intellectual laziness, lighting up to demonstrate when a mental shift is moving in a more effective direction. A lucky one.
Can You Learn to Be Lucky? is a tour de force. It’s a book that deserves to be taught in schools. We can only hope that Karla Starr feels as lucky to have found her agent, her editor, and her publisher as we do, having found her book.
Cultures set the stage for our beliefs about how much we can control life.
Our brains are lazy and our time limited, so as we get more options, we become more superficial—about everything.
Confidence... makes it infinitely easier to be lucky.
Being lucky depends on saying yes to life.
Why not assume good things about others and your future? That things will turn out well? That someone has your back? Isn’t it more illogical to deny yourself the benefits of simply shifting your attitude?
I failed the first time I tried to read this book. I had this idea that it would be soothing and deep and that I’d listen to it on audio before I went to sleep at night. Whoops. Dan Harris is so funny that I kept shaking with laughter. That’s neither meditative nor conducive to one’s spouse getting any sleep. It was too late, though, to switch to a text copy, because I was hooked on Harris’s delivery as much as his wisecracks and insights. I just had to settle for having him entertain me throughout the day. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is also approved for Restless Comedy Fans.
Harris does a pretty convincing job of casting himself as the last person to ever consider meditating. He is open about his personal foibles, including heavy drug use and workaholism. This makes it easy to hear him out about the benefits of mindfulness practice. If it worked for someone like him, then surely...?
Meditation is one of those things on the Obvious list, unfortunately; it’s right up there with “eat healthy” and “get plenty of sleep,” which means a lot of us automatically will want to rule it out. I find that when I try to sit silently, it opens the floodgates of creativity, and the result is that I wind up speed-writing a very lengthy list of ideas and tasks. Something I liked about Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is that it offers various practices, not all of which are of the classic “sit still and empty your mind” variety.
Incidentally, there are a few things that can really help those of us who feel simultaneously drawn toward and repelled by meditation. (My draw is that I have a high resting heart rate, and I’m on a Fact-Finding Mission to do something about it). If you’re as fidgety as me - ADHD leaning, hyperkinetic and born restless - start with a vigorous and very strenuous exercise practice first. Dump all those excess yayas. Watch your caffeine consumption. Capture your mental lint first; I recommend GTD as a practice. Then experiment with time of day and just do little five-minute increments. Or one minute. My mantra here is “okay,” as in, “okay, let me think for a minute.”
Harris arranges Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics into a list of objections to meditation as a practice, and responses to those objections, both from himself and others. One such chapter is “Meditation is Self-Indulgent.” I’d like to focus on this because I think so many people (ahem, or I really mean to say WOMEN) feel this way about everything. Meditation is self-indulgent, and so is getting enough sleep, working out, eating a hot breakfast, peeing alone with the door closed... It’s a really weird idea that every single other person of the seven billion has to come first before a lady can spend so much as five minutes simply breathing. How can you possibly give anyone your best when you’re stretched so thin?
There is a real Dan Harris presence out there for those who can’t get enough. He has two books, a podcast, and even a meditation app. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics is certainly a great place to start.
I’m a shy person, so much so that even standing up to say my name would leave me trembling and turning purple. Shyness has interfered with my friendships, my career, and my love life. A cute boy once asked me to dance, and I was so confounded by my attraction to him that I couldn’t answer. He shrugged and walked off. I’ve struggled even to share such information as whether someone had left their lights on in the parking lot. People who know me well will probably be very surprised by all this, because I’m fine when I’m with familiar faces. Shyness strikes at inconvenient and illogical moments. I didn’t want my shyness to interfere with my ability to make an impact on the world, so I’m pushing myself to learn to overcome these feelings. Maybe my efforts can help you, too.
First off, being shy is totally different from being an introvert. I’m a shy extrovert. It’s possible to be a shy introvert or an introvert who is not shy. Lots of introverts are very famous celebrities such as singers, actors, models, and comedians. They have no problem performing, as long as they get plenty of time to recharge alone. It seems helpful to distinguish shyness from introversion or extraversion, because while introversion is a character trait, shyness is an issue that can be mastered.
Two things have been helpful for me in getting a handle on my shyness. First, it takes a mission, a vision that is compelling enough to make fighting these feelings worthwhile. Second, much of shyness is physiological - it’s a physical state as much as anything.
How do you develop a mission? Many or most people have at least one cause that resonates with them, whether it’s feral cats, literacy, or protecting the Earth from asteroids. The sense of a mission starts to kick in when you start to realize that you can personally make an impact. More, you can influence others and bring them along with you. You don’t necessarily have to appear in public, perform, or give speeches to make this happen. Leading and organizing is based very much on Getting Organized.
I joined Toastmasters in January 2016 to force myself to overcome my intense dread of public speaking. It worked! The process is the same as what I’m learning in martial arts: stress inoculation. Exposing yourself to stress, fear, or pain in small doses can build your resistance and resilience, just like practicing a musical instrument or a foreign language in small increments increases your skill. Learning to give one-minute speeches led to four-minute speeches, then ten minutes, until I can now give hour-long workshops or speak on a microphone without those familiarly awful feelings of trembling, getting choked up, and turning colors.
Now I’m working on a leadership level called an Advanced Leader Silver. This entails an official role as Area Director, meaning I’m in charge of improving performance in five clubs in my area. I have to go to regular district meetings, respond to a certain volume of email, visit my clubs, and track a lot of information. Almost all of the work involved means processing email at home, listening, taking notes, and writing reports. For a shy person, 80% of the tasks are not a big deal. It’s the 20% that involves meeting new people, standing up to speak to them, and overcoming the ‘threshold anxiety’ of walking through a door and joining a group of people. The formalities of a training seminar or club meeting agenda are very helpful in facing this, because there’s a highly predictable structure, and almost all of it involves other people talking.
How is leadership different from anything else? Many people are acting in a leadership role somewhere in their lives, often without realizing it. The parent of a child plays ‘leader’ every day. Driving a car, ordering food, shopping and running errands - all require a certain amount of initiative and organization. Being the leader means taking an aerial view of a situation and spotting opportunities, bottlenecks, and pain points. A leader has a strategy. Here, again, many people have an innate critical mindset that they don’t realize could be useful in a leadership role. This shows up in lengthy product or restaurant reviews, for instance, or in any comments section. Someone always has a bunch of ideas for better ways to copy-edit something, introduce design improvements, or relate to other people or groups in a different way. Why not redirect that energy toward a group or organization that will actually be receptive to that input?
My approach toward leadership is strategic. My first instinct is to move toward the information flow. I want to figure out what the rules are, where I can learn more (handbooks, manuals, FAQs, websites, etc), who is where on the org chart, where I can find contact info, and how I can get to the locations where the action is happening. Other people will move directly toward the people, wanting to start by getting to know everyone, establishing connections, and forming an inner dossier of who knows whom and who does what. I’m most helpful in explaining things when people are confused, doing scut work, and encouraging people to do things when the only thing stopping them is nervousness. My way of earning loyalty is by demonstrating that I will show up, do what I was asked to do, follow through, get questions answered, and stick around to clean up after events. These are ways to get involved without being fried under the spotlight or having to pose for dozens of photographs.
The things we learn to do when we push ourselves are useful in every part of life. What I’m learning as I work on public speaking, leadership, and martial arts is that very few situations are inherently scary. It’s mostly a matter of building emotional intelligence and learning what makes other people tick. Feeling nervous and shy while meeting new people is a near-universal feeling, one that’s so common that you can count on sympathy when you express it. Find whatever means more to you than your physiological struggles with shyness, and you can defeat those feelings while making the world a better place.
Life is an endless tidal wave of BS. Accepting that is a great starting place. It certainly makes Stoic philosophy feel more relevant. There’s this other point, about the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, which I explain thus:
Sometimes, pain (trauma, drama, difficulty, suffering) comes in the form of natural disasters or external events of vast scale. We cope as well as we can. Usually, though, difficulty comes from within, from our expectations and assumptions. We cause ourselves significant grief by setting up a lot of demands and rules that other people and the world in general never seem to quite meet. This is part of how we convince ourselves to believe in difficulty.
It’s difficult when we want people to behave in a certain way, and they won’t.
It’s difficult when we expect certain actions to lead to certain results, and they don’t.
It’s difficult when we expect change to come on its own, in a form we find acceptable, and it doesn’t.
It’s difficult when we insist on getting the results without the effort, and we can’t.
What if, instead, we believed in ease? What if we believed that really, things are simple and straightforward?
Nobody is quite as good at overcomplicating and overthinking things as I am. See? I’ve claimed this extravagant level of difficulty for myself. I buy into it as a part of my identity. I’m proud of it in a way. Look at me! I’m an insomniac! I’m a stress case! I’m tightly wound! I have a thin skin, too! I pledge allegiance to my difficulties.
I got curious about all of this, and started wondering what would happen if I just tried to Do the Obvious instead. Whenever I wanted to try something new, I would first ask, what is the most obvious advice that anyone would give to a beginner? What’s the checklist? What are the obvious first steps? Is there a FAQ? Is there a manual?
It got even better when I started asking whether there were basic checklists for things I was already doing. What if I just looked at my daily life and tried making it as easy as possible?
That question led to the systematic application of minimalism to every part of my life. More love, less of whatever else this is. Wherever I can get rid of stress or self-imposed obstacles, that’s a place where I can let more love in and breathe more love out.
In a way, belief in difficulty is a belief in fate, in evil, and in hopelessness. Let’s throw our hands in the air and collectively sigh OH WELL. Nothing could be done. Well, that sucked.
I claim that with free will and determination, we can do anything. We can’t always stop every bad thing from happening, like a hurricane, but then not every natural disaster is “bad.” Is it bad when there’s a giant storm on the planet Jupiter? Is it bad when there’s a hurricane in the middle of the sea if it never reaches land? If we define something as “bad” only when it causes human suffering, then can’t we do more to eliminate the human suffering that we can affect today?
Starting with our own?
The thing about belief in difficulty is that it restricts us. When we feel caught up in stress and drama of the ordinary sort, we feel too burned out and powerless to do anything to change our own situation, much less anyone else’s. We can easily slip into a position where we’re making our problems INTO someone else’s. Our desire to vent and complain becomes someone else’s headache. Our refusal to address our own problems until they reach breaking point can become an urgent crisis for someone else. When we feel that we have no free will, then we feel like our actions don’t matter. As if that were possible. As if it were possible to even exist without making an impact on the world!
As an example, I had a bad breakup once, many years ago. Looking back, the immediate cause was that I got sucked into a lot of negativity and drama on an internet listserv. This was long before we had a pop culture understanding of trolling or flame wars. I didn’t have the perspective to see that the hours I spent reading and responding to these threads was a complete waste of time that did nothing to serve me or anyone else. My boyfriend was the one person I thought I could talk to, the one place where I went to process all this junk. He tried. He asked me why I was talking to these people and made a few suggestions, which I took to mean that he didn’t understand and wasn’t being a good listener. I bought into a reality in which an email list was more important than my romantic partner’s companionship. In retrospect, I never would have spent five minutes on this activity. Think of all the good books I could have read instead.
Life is easier for middle-aged people in so many ways. I’d never want to be that young again, or at least not without all my hard-won experience.
I no longer believe in the difficulty of feeding trolls. I no longer believe in the difficulty of reading the comments or engaging with naysayers.
I no longer believe in the difficulty of the chronic pain and fatigue that I suffered as a young person. This might sound cruel or flippant to someone who is currently living that reality. I only mention it because every source I consulted when I was ill affirmed that I always would be, and there was nothing I could ever do about it. This is patently false. I got better, and probably other people could, too.
I no longer believe in the difficulty of poverty, and again, see above. It wasn’t instant, but I eventually learned how to earn more and get a job with benefits. There is plenty for everyone in this world, and it’s only our belief in scarcity that restricts that natural abundance. We feel threatened by the very idea of having to share, and that’s the first sign.
I no longer believe in the difficulty of poor body image. That comes from strong self-efficacy. I have it within me to learn how to do anything, to eventually reach any goal I set for myself, to hold myself accountable, and to go after what I want. I’m allowed to build muscle, get sweaty and muddy, explore the world, expand my abilities, and look however I want. If someone else has a problem with that, why should I care? My body isn’t about you.
There are difficulties that still captivate my attention. As I recognize them, I work on them. I simply question myself, Is that really true? Do I want it to be?
Wherever I have a difficulty, it’s certainly a smaller, less significant one than someone else’s. If it’s difficulty that bothers me, then logically I should care about the worst difficulties, not just those that affect me. Injustice where it’s worst, not injustice that I feel personally. Crisis where it’s worst, not just mine.
There’s a guy sitting two tables from me who is wearing glasses with broken frames. One arm is completely missing and they’re sitting catty-whampus across his nose. He’s tilting his head to the side so they don’t fall off. This is a guy who believes in difficulty! Surely there are several charities that could help him, or maybe someone would be willing to fix his glasses for free if he asked nicely. Maybe he could buy another pair at Goodwill and scavenge an arm, or fit his existing lenses in different frames. Maybe he could find a twig or a piece of cardboard and tape it into place. A thousand things would be easier than what he’s doing right now. He’s playing with his smartphone, so I somehow wonder whether money is the problem?
Looking for a demonstration of a principle, evidence is usually close to hand. I feel lucky that I happened to be writing about this topic as this guy with the one-armed glasses sits nearby. Well, that was easy! I turn my attention to areas of life where everything is effortless and easy. I always have the opportunity to focus on my breathing. I always have the opportunity to appreciate my loved ones. I always have the opportunity to let go of my past hurts. I always have the opportunity to look to my own behavior, change my own perspective, and improve my own attitude.
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.