If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s imagining bad outcomes. We get spun up over this all the time. For every conversation, there are probably twelve sad, scary, or alarming versions that never happened. Every job interview really lasts for eighty hours, seventy-nine of them imaginary. Anxiety and pessimism are survival traits. Worry and dread have gotten us through fire, flood, famine, siege, animal attack, and all the rest. This is probably why avoidance goals work slightly better than approach goals.
An avoidance goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a negative outcome. “Don’t forget your glasses.”
An approach goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a positive outcome. “Remember to wear your glasses.”
It’s possible that certain personality types lean more toward one goal type or the other. An optimist will naturally prefer an approach goal. It’s also possible that certain types of goals are better suited for one format or the other. A personal experiment should make this clear. Are we getting the results we want in the areas that are important to us?
I’m an extreme optimist, an enthusiast by nature. I love working on annual, quarterly, monthly, and sometimes even hourly goals. My plans tend to be both broad and specific. I would have thought I made almost entirely approach-oriented goals. Then I read a blog post by a guy who made two goals and then compared his adherence to them based on whether he focused on approach or avoidance. He did better with avoidance. It made me realize that I follow a lot of avoidance-based goals throughout the day, almost automatically. I think of it as “common sense,” although of course “common sense” is never all that common.
Every single time I use a knife, I think, “Okay, now don’t cut yourself.”
Every single time I go down a flight of stairs, I think, with every single step, “Okay, now don’t slip.”
When I pack a suitcase, I bustle around my apartment, talking to myself. “Don’t forget your tickets. Don’t forget your back-up battery. Don’t forget your” endlessly, all the way up to the jetway.
There’s a distinct, gear-shifting feeling between this constant internal nattering and the aerial view, grand strategic plans that I normally think of as goal-setting.
Maybe one of the reasons that avoidance goals work better is that we can only plan them when we actually believe that the negative outcome is a firm possibility. I think that is very much not the case for a lot of common “goals.” Further, I think it’s common to “choose” a mainstream “goal” as a smokescreen, a pretend Potemkin intention, to protect our tendency to do what we want without criticism. Hey, I tried, what more do you want from me??
Research shows that we’re really poor at thinking of future versions of ourselves. We think of Old Me as a total stranger. Hey, Future Me, have fun paying off all this debt and picking up my socks! Ha, Future Me is such a sucker. We can’t really believe in a universe in which “I” am an elderly person. Surely I have better taste than to age and grow old! I’m much too smart for that! If we can’t believe in a frail, elderly, poor, and ill version of ourselves, then we have no intrinsic motivation to save money, eat healthy foods, and be more active. We do, however, believe in such things as cutting a finger or falling down the stairs. “Don’t cut yourself” is a much more believable imperative than “don’t get osteoporosis.”
My major fitness motivation is “Avoid getting Alzheimer’s.” This is a truly terrifying outcome. Why simply sit around and be afraid of something, though? That would be sacrificing all the good years for what may or may not turn out to be the bad years. It’s a logical fallacy. How can undirected anxiety possibly do me any good? That just means I suffer Alzheimer’s PLUS decades of dread. If I’m right, if my thesis is correct that Alzheimer’s is at least a little bit susceptible to lifestyle inputs, then I must do every last single thing in my power to avoid it. If I’m wrong, and I’ve done all of these actions over the years for no reason, if my efforts have been futile, I still benefit in three ways.
I could use an approach-oriented framework and tell myself “Eat healthy food” and “Get plenty of exercise.” Arguably, I do both of these things. They’re extremely vague, though, so vague as to be almost meaningless. That’s another reason that avoidance goals work a little better, because they’re unfailingly very specific.
It’s easier to “stop drinking soda” or “stop eating bagels” or “don’t eat high-fructose corn syrup.” Those are specific and simple to understand, and any of them could result in an easy ten-pound weight loss over a year.
I’m always going to make wildly positive, outlandishly optimistic goals and resolutions. It’s fun and it works much better than pop culture would lead us to believe. Past Me would have had a lot of trouble believing in my future ability to run a marathon, manage an investment portfolio, cook Thanksgiving dinner for two dozen people, buy train tickets in Spain, or lots of other things I’ve done. How would a negative version of those goals even be phrased? “Don’t screw up”? I will, however, continue to use avoidance goals when they seem helpful.
Here are some avoidance goals that I use, by category:
Don’t be in debt
Don’t carry a credit card balance
Don’t pay finance charges
Don’t buy on impulse
Don’t buy anything unless you know where you’ll put it and how you’ll clean it
Don’t outgrow your clothes, they’re expensive
Avoid getting a migraine - (body weight, dehydration, poor sleep quality)
Don’t get Alzheimer’s
Don’t trigger your night terrors - (eating after 8 PM)
Don’t run out of clean underwear
Don’t make extra work for yourself
Don’t leave crusty dishes
That needs to get eaten up before it gets wasted
Don’t criticize unless you’re open to being criticized
Don’t be a caricature
No double standards
Don’t be like his ex
Don’t do his pet peeves
Don’t be a pushover or a victim
Don’t be a flake
Don’t be a freeloader
Don’t associate with gossips
Don’t stand by and let other people be bullied
“Don’t do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid.” - My Dad
“Never go viral for the wrong reasons.” - Anonymous
“Do things that are a good idea, and don’t do things that are a bad idea.” - Me
I did it! I got my orange belt in Muay Thai! The most impressive thing about this is that in January, not only did I have no idea this would be happening, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an “orange belt,” or Muay Thai for that matter. All I knew was that it felt like a smart idea to start studying a martial art.
What does an orange belt mean? It’s the second of six levels. It means I’m not a total novice anymore, but I am at the newest, least experienced intermediate level.
The basic deal with belts is that they’re a modern (post-Industrial, 1890s) innovation to represent different levels of training. Belt colors vary depending on the martial art, with some overlap. For instance, a mom was just telling me that her kids got their purple belts, something that exists in Tae Kwan Do but not Muay Thai or Krav Maga, my other discipline.
Personally, I’d prefer to have a rainbow belt? Because it would include all the previous colors?
In practice, colored belts are really handy. In every class, we divide up and choose partners, and often we do drills that involve rotating through several people. It helps to know who you’re dealing with. Along with colors, there are also stripes to show how long someone has been wearing that belt. One stripe represents ten classes, and the intermediate belts have up to five stripes.
I never understood any of this until I earned the first stripe on my white belt.
This system with belts and stripes makes a lot of sense to me, and it feels comforting. I really like the logical progression and the satisfaction of incremental progress. The first time I actually saw a “sixth-degree black belt” being worn, the penny finally dropped. OH! Anyone can earn one of these! It’s a reflection of dedication and focus, yes, but it’s also a measure of time served.
Is there something like this in dance or gymnastics? Not that I’ve seen. Those arts also depend on many years of training, but they look like PURE MAGIC. Just like the apparent sorcery involved when the owner of our school suddenly drops a student on the floor.
Many of the students at my school are lifetime athletes, and many have reached high levels in other martial arts before taking up Krav or Muay Thai. It’s a world of jocks, one that was unfamiliar to me. I’m used to hitting the books, my studies being text-based. Almost everything I’ve learned about martial arts came from asking questions and/or having things explained by other students. Sometimes I’ll make an observation that will surprise the instructors, such as that our warmups are “high-intensity interval training.” The expectation is: line up, do this, do that, accept correction, and in time you’ll be a master.
This is challenging for me. I like a big-picture view, a lot of historical context, and constant explanations of WHY I am doing something. Part of why martial arts are such a good source of humility and self-discipline for me is that I’m having to accept pure physical instruction and trust the system. I can see that more experienced students are better at this than I am, but still, I tend to want MORE INFORMATION. What, go into my body and feel it physiologically? Are you kidding with this?
Belt promotions are ceremonial. They last three or four hours. Groups of students at different levels are paired off to demonstrate their skills with an instructor. Most of the time, though, is built around extreme physical exertion for its own sake. We start with a grueling half hour warmup, its contents varying for extra stress, and we finish with another twenty minutes. This day included over 200 pushups, for example. I couldn’t do them all - it’s a lot to expect a beginner to do the same workout as a blue belt who has been training for three years - but I’m proud to say I could do forty, no problem.
I couldn’t do one standard pushup in January - or February or March, for that matter - and I couldn’t do a proper sit-up at all. I had to grab my thigh and pull myself up. When I look back and see the progress I’ve made in six months, I can look forward at the other students around me and project forward. In time, I’ll be able to do a hundred pushups before I start getting tired.
My husband doesn’t like to watch these punishing warmups. They remind him of the “hazing” from high school football. He shared how much he hated doing pointless pushups. This surprised me! “But that’s where the muscle comes from!” The part I don’t like is having to COUNT in unison, and if someone makes the dreadful mistake of shouting “ELEVEN” instead of repeating “ONE” then all fifty people have to start the count over. That’s dumb. Well, it isn’t dumb... the point is to make us focus, developing our concentration, because disappointing and annoying our fellow students is a powerful psychological consequence for distraction. We counted weirdly in marching band, too: ONE two three four TWO two three four THREE two three four, and it didn’t bother me then, because music needs order and structure. So does the body if the body is to be a tool that works toward a purpose.
I’ll continue on in both my martial arts, even though being a beginner in the advanced classes feels much harder and scarier than my first day as a total novice. The warmups are twice as hard, but I’m not twice as strong yet! I continue to remind myself that my personal goals were “humility and self-discipline,” not comfort or pride. I’ll get better and better at losing myself in these physical skills, briefly quieting my chattering mind, transforming myself into something new and different.
Today I set a new record for most consecutive days that I have been alive. That’s an old joke, but one that still feels funny. More interesting to me is that I can count how many days I’ve lived, but nobody knows how many days are still ahead of me. What’ll happen in the world? In my life? What kind of phone will Future Me have? Which of my favorite authors and musicians and filmmakers will put out new work? Will George R. R. Martin ever write that next Game of Thrones book? Future Me knows. Meanwhile, every day I’m Present Me. Present Self, living out whatever Past Self stuck me with, trying to make a better day for Future Self.
Since last year, I’ve done a bunch of stuff. I like to take the day to look at where my life is going, and whether it feels better or more fun or more interesting or more fulfilling. Have I made good use of my time on Earth?
I also do this process at the New Year, on my wedding anniversary, and on a smaller scale every quarter. Birthdays feel like a pretty significant milestone, at least to me. One day, maybe I’ll have my one-hundredth birthday, and if I do, I’d like to feel some sense of ceremony around it.
Since last year, I’ve moved to a smaller apartment, taken up martial arts and earned two orange belts, gained 15 pounds, promoted into a volunteer leadership position, and started riding my bicycle again. My husband filed his first patent, leading to some big stuff at work. My parents got a puppy for the first time in about forty years. These are all major changes.
Incremental changes have happened, too. We’ve made a bunch of new friends and acquaintances, and so has our dog. Due to our downsizing move, we’re financially better off. Our phones have better battery life. The addition of the extra muscle has happened gradually enough that new physical abilities seem to have magically appeared. I can open jars! My daily walking average has gone from 3.1 miles in 2015 to 5.2 miles in 2018.
A lot of stuff is the same as it ever was. Noelle just had her 20th hatch day and she still loves to shred paper everywhere and make a lot of beeping sounds. I still need more sleep. The blog continues to chug along.
Some stuff in our daily life is harder. Since we moved, we no longer have a washer or dryer, and all our meal prep has to happen in a single square foot. We’re continually unplugging and plugging things because of a shortage of power outlets. Our upstairs neighbors [*]. Someone down at the marina keeps setting off a propane cannon in the middle of the night. Life feels much busier.
From where we are right now, it’s hard to imagine where I will be on my next birthday. We’re planning to move when our lease is up, but where? Right now we’re living a combination of Best Location Ever and Worst Apartment Also. I intend to continue with martial arts, and that means moving into a physical reality I’ve never experienced. Looking around at the other women in my classes, women in higher belt levels, I see some astonishing speed, power, agility, and muscle definition. It’s somewhat alarming to think that this could be me one day, and all it takes is the schedule and the persistence. Continuing on my current plan, I ought to have nailed all the requirements for Distinguished Toastmaster. I should also have my student loan paid off, and all I can do is imagine what it will feel like to be debt-free and financially stable for the first time in my adult life.
So, what? This time next year: buff, debt-free, and living in a nicer place? Possible?
Looking forward three years, five years, and ten years, gosh. No idea. Talk about plot twists.
I celebrated turning 43 by finally getting my headstand, after working on it for two weeks. I plan to spend part of my day messing around and focusing on circus tricks. Depending on what kind of videos I find, I’ll either be trying to juggle, riding my unicycle, doing hula hoop tricks, or trying to turn a cartwheel. Then I’ll spend some time imagining what I want to learn to do before I turn 44.
How about you? What would you like to be doing before your next birthday?
Q: How do you know it’s time to level up in your career?
A: It’s always time.
Most people hate updating their resume, applying for jobs, and going on interviews. These are reason alone to avoid thinking about a career change, retraining, or aiming for a promotion. Unfortunately, coasting is not a permanent option. The workplace is always changing, and not just job positions but entire industries can quickly be made obsolete.
I was 19 the first time I became aware of this. It was my first day on a new temp job, at a time when I thought of myself as “a data entry clerk.” My trainer walked me through the forms I would be typing into the system, and offhandedly explained that they were transitioning to a bar code system. “One day all of this will be done by computer.” Huh. I grew up in Oregon, during the recession of the early 1980s, and even as a teenager I was aware that a lot of loggers lost their jobs when the trees went away. Not much left to log! I also knew that a lot of people had new jobs in the tech sector, not that I knew to call it that back then. I just shrugged and accepted that it would be easier to train for a new job than to try to hang on to one that was going away. As a 19-year-old, it felt a bit like a continuation of high school.
Of course, there were other reasons to think about leveling up and doing something other than data entry. One, the poor pay. Two, the chronic pain of repetitive stress injury.
The path upward was confusing and not obvious, not at all. In retrospect, I can say that my biggest hidden obstacles were my wardrobe, grooming, and chronic punctuality problems. It truly didn’t matter how hard I worked, how much I improved my skills, how many operating systems or software applications I mastered, or how many degrees I got, because I didn’t look the part, didn’t know it, and didn’t care. I didn’t understand that for the clock-obsessed, being five minutes late is proof of moral dissolution, and being fifteen minutes late is like setting the building on fire. I felt that my low income trapped me at the level of wearing thrift store clothing and relying on the bus to get to work. It is what it is, right?
The real problem was that I had a subservient support role. Nobody else was ever going to pull me up, create a position for me, or even explain what I needed to do to climb up a rung. I had to figure it out for myself.
As a young woman, I took whatever job I could get and did my best to flail along. I thought I’d be fine if I followed orders, worked hard, and shared my ideas on how to improve anything I could. Then I’d be stymied when I constantly had to answer the question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Um, making more money? All I knew was that I wanted something more, and I’d certainly take it as soon as someone offered it.
What successful people do is to set their sights on something extremely specific, figure out how to get it, and then work on those steps.
This is how my husband did it, and it still boggles my mind. He 1. took a career assessment at school 2. Looked at the results and compared the incomes of ‘history teacher’ and ‘engineer’ 3. Applied to engineering school, figuring he could study history on his own time 4. Got in and crushed the work, even as 80% of his fellow students washed out.
...Doesn’t it seem so... OBVIOUS? So... STRAIGHT-FORWARD???
(I took the same test and it gave me ‘massage therapist’ and ‘cab driver.’)
Where we get into trouble is in trying to form the initial vision. What DO we want? What WOULD we be good at?
Please won’t someone just tell me exactly what to do so I can do it?
What I know now is that my super-skill is ideation. It’s something that most people don’t particularly do well, and I’m quite brilliant at it. My natural state is to wake up in the morning with my brain already churning out ideas. Inventions, song lyrics, ad campaigns, B-corp structures, business plans, articles, book titles, limericks, workshops, recipes, cartoons, futurist predictions, you name it! The problem is more slowing down or stopping the flow than trying to get started.
How would I have figured this out, though? What convergent path could I have followed in school or entry-level service positions that would have indicated: ‘YOU have a rare and valuable talent!’?
I also know that I’m extremely productive, as long as I can work on my own priorities. I published over a thousand pages in 2017, in addition to other writing projects and articles that went into the Ready to Post folder. The week before this post, I had six meetings, gave three speeches and wrote another, formatted and scheduled two weeks’ worth of blog posts, produced a newsletter, worked on our new podcast, deep-cleaned our apartment, worked on my headstand, passed my three-hour Muay Thai belt promotion, and still managed to get my hair cut. On Tuesday, I walked 6 miles, rode my bike 4 miles, and did two back-to-back martial arts classes, followed by walking 7 miles on Wednesday and carrying four loads of laundry up and down a flight of stairs. Nothing can stop me when the plan is my own.
The signs of burnout, stasis, and stalling are feelings of low energy, frustration, sadness, resentment, and dread. Sleep procrastination - staying up late even when you’re chronically exhausted because you feel owed more personal private time. Recreational eating - eating snacks and junk food, especially late at night, because it’s one of the few pleasures in your life. Money worries. Envy of other people, because their success feels unattainable, and why should anyone get anything when your life is so hard? Fixating and perseverating on wretched things that happened at work, because you can’t shake it and even thinking about your boss or your customers makes you want to cry. Just feeling stuck and having no idea what to do.
If any of that feels familiar, hey, it’s okay. It doesn’t have to be that way. Staying at a job you hate, a job that’s beneath your abilities, isn’t doing anyone any favors. You deserve more, your coworkers deserve someone who actually wants to be there, and your customers and clients - well, who knows what they deserve, but surely someone out there deserves your best, not your mediocre most average. What would you do if you had something awesome, a job you loved, a job where every time you finished something, someone was excited? What if that someone were you?
Time to level up!
As a tourist in the land of mornings, I appreciated this book. It’s much more about starting your day on a positive note than it is “rah rah, get up at 4:30 AM.” After reading My Morning Routine, it seems that there is a strong correlation between people choosing to own their morning and people who actually get enough sleep.
Much like Mason Currey’s book Daily Routines, this book includes a very broad range of behavior. Sixty-four people are interviewed from all walks of life. Not only is it a fascinating peek into the intimate lives of others, it’s also a solid demonstration that not everybody has to do the same thing in order to succeed.
Having battled sleep issues since the age of seven, I will probably never consider myself a “morning person.” I fell in love with an extreme lark, though, and I’ve gradually learned to shape a morning routine. My husband and our dog both wake up bright-eyed and bushy tailed at 5:30 AM, without an alarm, seven days a week. He has his routine down to 27 minutes, and he prefers that I’m not up and around at that time because it makes him want to hang out and talk to me. I sleep until 7:30 or 8, and I need at least 45 minutes to get ready. If I haven’t had a shower and eaten a big hot breakfast, I’m useless. Walking into walls, virtually drooling on myself, that kind of useless. This is why I make my bed every day, to give my vestibular system a chance to get me vertical. I support my chronotype by organizing my stuff, my schedule, and my to-do list in the evening. I know not to plan any creative or mentally challenging work early in the day, just as I know not to expect my mate to make decisions or have important conversations late at night.
The diversity of habits in My Morning Routine, and the reasons for them, are sometimes astonishing. One person sets an alarm to wake up early, even if she hasn’t had much sleep, and then spends the early morning hours reading. ?!? Another person cuts articles out of a newspaper with scissors, (rather than bookmarking the digital version?), because it feels crafty. Another person plays jazz piano, and another rides a bicycle 45 miles to work a couple times a week. Someone else plays ping-pong with a ping-pong robot. That just cheered me right up!
A great feature of My Morning Routine is that it includes sections called Reversals. They show that for every habit that works for many or most people, the exact opposite seems to work for others. An example of this is hitting the snooze button. Snoozing makes most people more groggy and tired, but for a few others, it can create a pleasantly creative subliminal state.
I started developing a morning routine as a way of pushing away from stress and chaos. I would wake up feeling so physically terrible that I needed to do anything I could to make my life easier. I used to be late everywhere, always, and it left me feeling miserable, anxious, and incompetent. Adding more formal structure to my day has, paradoxically, been freeing and relaxing. Even on travel days, I can wake up knowing that I have a handle on things and that I’m not going to be launched immediately into crisis mode. Out of everything I do, being able to start the day with enough time for a fancy breakfast has become one of the highlights. If you’re like me, SO Not a Morning Person, maybe considering some of the ideas from My Morning Routine can bring some fresh perspective and a little hope.
I remember being little and going to sleep so excited to begin again.
I also try not to pointlessly stay up late.
If the day were to end after my routine, would it have been a successful and fulfilling day?
Sundays are my “delicious” days.
Remember: Done is better than perfect.
I think the most apt metaphor for my mornings is that of being shot out of a cannon.
It’s hard to imagine a feeling state that you haven’t ever felt. For instance, I have no idea what it feels like to win a Nobel prize or have chest hair. I can guess at it, I can ask people who have been there, I can decide that I don’t mind not knowing, or I can make changes in my own mindset and behavior to see if I can find out for myself. Some exploration can be interesting. It can also be helpful whenever there’s any kind of conflict or friction around a mysterious feeling state. One of these is the idea of self-acceptance. Where is the line between self-compassion and fatalism?
What does self-acceptance feel like?
It’s probably different for different aspects of the self. My guess is that most people are not bothered by certain parts of what they see as the “self” while being frustrated by other parts. Physical appearance, character flaws, intelligence, sense of humor, relationships, skills, talents... It’s easy to imagine someone who, say, is proud of being good with animals but feels unattractive. Maybe another person feels clumsy but smart, or friendly but bad at art. Probably most of us feel acceptance when our strengths line up with our values. It’s when we feel judged, shamed, or criticized by others that we tend to beat ourselves up and have trouble with self-esteem.
This makes sense, but it’s also funny. Anyone who has watched the first couple of episodes of a season of American Idol knows that plenty of people have strong self-esteem in areas where it may not be warranted. (I’m a terrible singer with a good ear, so I know better than to inflict my voice on an audience). There’s also no guarantee that we’re really as weak as we think in the areas where we feel more vulnerable or wounded. When it comes to ourselves, we lack perspective.
That’s the point of self-acceptance, of course. Ideally we’re learning to be more compassionate and patient with ourselves. What’s the point of shame, anyway?
The challenge is to learn how to reframe the inner work, so that it isn’t a battle over shame. It’s possible to view these challenges with a growth mindset, seeing areas for improvement without feeling less-than, rejected, or criticized, by self or others.
As an example, when I was in high school I used to spill milk in my lap all the time when I was eating cereal before school. It was really frustrating! The day I realized I could avoid this problem by eating at the table instead of sitting on the couch, it felt triumphant. AHA! I suppose I could have seen myself as clumsy or something. At the time it just felt like I was unlucky, because something was Happening to Me that wasn’t happening to other people. I realized it wasn’t Happening to Me, but rather that I was Doing It to Myself. I had the power to make a very simple change in my behavior and instantly get better results. I wasn’t judging myself or blaming myself, I was recognizing an unhelpful pattern and making my life easier.
This is why I think that self-acceptance can often be defeatist. There are so many common human foibles, things that many or most people do, and there’s no reason to “accept” them and continue to do them. We can change our behavior with an attitude of humor and affection. There I go again, looking for my sunglasses when they’re already on top of my head! Oops, I just came back from the store with everything except the thing I went there to buy. Me and everyone else.
Probably, though, we already know how to laugh off our silly mistakes. It’s the bigger stuff that catches us up.
In my work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization, there are a lot of contradictions. My disorganized clients tend to beat themselves up quite a bit, punishing themselves as though being scattered were some kind of moral flaw. They almost always refer to themselves as “hoarders,” even though they have little or no emotional attachment to their stuff. Squalor clients, on the other hand, don’t really believe in germ theory, and they have no hang-ups about truly unsanitary conditions, mold, vermin, insect infestations, or even the occasional dead rodent. My true hoarders tend to feel entitled to hoard, not just their own but others’ possessions, not just their own personal space but that of roommates, relatives, friends, neighbors, and the general public. Hoarded homes tend to look extremely similar, yet they got that way through wildly different emotional and cognitive states. Maybe there’s some irony here. Those whose behaviors are the most frustrating to others around them tend to be the least concerned about it, feeling like “that’s their problem, not mine.” Those who feel the most guilt and shame about chronic disorganization will often adopt a new behavior or structure the moment they learn about it.
The ultimate questions are ethical concerns about how much our behavior impacts others, and straightforward evaluation of our results. Is what we’re doing on a routine basis fair, interesting, efficient? Does it make our lives or others’ lives easier, better, more fun, more meaningful?
In our current cultural moment, when billions of digital images are so instantly accessible at all times, people seem to be struggling more with accepting their physical appearance than anything else. This has always felt very puzzling to me, because why should that matter, of all things? What does how someone looks have to do with their personality, intelligence, character, or contribution in this world? Why on earth should someone’s body or face, both of which change decade by decade, feel like a bigger deal than how they act, what stories they tell, how they treat others, or what they do with their time? What the heck does the physical vessel have to do with the legacy of a lifetime? What will we leave behind after our time on this earth, other than a bunch of photographs?
Maybe that’s the most defeatist idea of all, the premise that appearance is first and foremost, the most important trait and the single quality that defines us. The time we spend on the outer work takes away from the time we could be spending on the inner work. What if we just redirected our focus? What if, whenever we started focusing on our body parts and wishing for external approval of our externally visible traits, we simply paused and decided to go further in?
It’s happening again! I went to a party and another woman showed me how to do something I couldn’t do when I was a little girl. Last time, it was spinning a hula hoop, which led to my immediate purchase of my own hoop(s), months of obsession, and a non-obvious segue into running. In a way, my first tentative spin of a hula hoop at age 35 led directly to running a marathon.
This time, it’s the headstand.
My inability as a child to do a cartwheel, spin a hula hoop, jump through two jump ropes, or do a headstand had nothing to do with lack of trying. If I’m anything, it’s persistent. I just couldn’t figure out how to model what other kids were demonstrating. This might be because, due to my late-July birthday, I was younger than other kids in my grade, and thus smaller and less developed. It might be because I’m still not great on proprioception, knowing where my body is in relation to the external world. I defined myself as bad at sports. I hated P.E. I was last picked for teams. All these childhood antics left me feeling excluded, clumsy, slow, weak, and sorry for myself.
In my forties, I’m finding those missing pieces. When I meet other women my age in a physical setting, we gravitate toward each other immediately. Just the other night in kickboxing, I had someone ask to be my training partner after someone else had already asked! These days, I’m first picked instead of last picked. (We had an odd number in the class so the three of us partnered up together. I would NEVER leave another girl hanging). Suddenly there’s this playfulness and fun in my life that once eluded me.
Now, about that headstand. What’s the secret?
It turns out that when people do something like acro-yoga or juggling, something that looks like magic, they’re doing extremely specific things. These movements can be broken down into micro-steps that can be learned and mastered one by one. Not everyone who is good at something is a good teacher, and it’s possible to do something without understanding how you’re doing it. It’s also true that lifelong athletes tend to underestimate how much baseline strength and cardiovascular fitness is required for certain things. In spite of all that, it’s always possible to find a good teacher or a video that demonstrates the steps.
It was no accident that I met my new friend. We were at the WDS opening party, a field day, and I spotted a group of people doing headstands at the other end of the field. After I learned a new hula hoop trick and taught another woman to spin two hoops at once, I wandered over there to see if anyone could teach me. I asked!
This is the magic part, really. My new friend showed me the initial stages, and I found that I was strong enough to easily do them. All of my work in boxing gloves over six months gave me a totally unrelated, non-adjacent ability. How crazy is that?? I went out and got myself bigger biceps, deltoids, trapezius, and lats, thickened up my neck a bit, and opened the door to acrobatics.
Step one: Kneel on the ground.
Step two: Put the top of your head on the ground.
Step three: Put your hands down about shoulder-width apart, halfway between your head and your knees.
Step four: Put your knees up on your elbows.
With me so far? While I was watching and listening carefully, I wasn’t really thinking about how much of my body was inverted and vertical. Put your knees on your elbows? Okay! Like this?
I had tried this in yoga class several times, even against a wall or with a partner, and it was definitely not happening. As a boxer, yeah, not only was it possible, it wasn’t even hard.
The next step is to raise your legs and straighten them out. I’m still working on this part. It’s given me a solid understanding of how much more core strength can do for my life. Comically, it’s become my major motivator. My arms, legs, and back are quite strong now, and I have some real muscle definition, but my belly is soft and slack. External appearances don’t matter much to me, but the ability to do not just the headstand, but other circus tricks actually does matter. If I can build up my abs and obliques, I can use that new muscle base to do other things, too. That’s probably the secret behind walking on my hands, riding a unicycle, and doing a cartwheel at last. Maybe I could also learn to do a backflip or other gymnastic moves.
What I’ve been doing is practicing my headstand for a few minutes every night before bed. I haven’t been this excited about anything since that first day with the hula hoop. I feel genuine anticipation when I get down on the floor, wondering if this is the night. The picture accompanying this post is from the one-week mark. As I post this, I’ve had an additional four days of practice, and I’m able to extend my right leg straight up. I estimate that it will take me 3-4 weeks to go from zero to sustaining a full headstand without immediately tipping over. Another way to put it is that, at five minutes a day, it has taken less than an hour to get one leg up and I’m guessing about another hour to get them both.
There was a rough moment. I was trying to impress my husband (while he was trying to brush his teeth) and I called him out to see how I finally had my leg up straight. Then I toppled over and landed on my back. Embarrassing! Apparently the impact caused my gluteus muscle to clamp up on one side overnight. I was limping and it was scary-sore. I took some anti-inflammatories and did my normal amount of walking, and within an hour or two it was fine. It’s only fair to say that falling over is a little more dangerous for someone with a fully developed skeleton; I weighed half this much in grade school. I just remind myself that one of my main reasons for choosing an impact sport like kickboxing is to build bone density while I still can, and that falling on the ground is literally the type of impact that helps with this. It’s also highly relevant that I’ve learned how to fall properly. A few hundred sprawls and breakfalls trained me, so that I fell in a straight line and didn’t twist or strain or sprain anything.
Be careful! They tell me to be careful when they wouldn’t tell a man. I AM being careful! I’m being careful to protect Old Me from falls, from osteoporosis, from sarcopenia, from heart disease and cognitive decline. I’m also protecting myself from regret and isolation. The moral of the story is, find something that truly excites you and strive for it in tiny increments, day after day. The thrill of finally getting that prize is something you can’t get any other way.
Cutting off options is one of the worst feelings. This is why so many people hate making decisions; ‘decision’ means “to cut off.” It’s also a major reason why we procrastinate (or feel like we do), and it’s one of the major root causes of clutter. We like to feel surrounded by possibilities and potential. We like it even when maintaining that illusion of options is precisely what’s holding us back.
This is why I recommend choosing and focusing on a primary project.
It came to me just now, while I was brushing my teeth, in fact. I’m writing this at what is technically past my bedtime, because I know otherwise I’ll toss and turn writing it in my head. This is how we like to think of inspiration, as this external, spiritual force that strikes us like a lightning bolt from an ethereal weather system. We like it, even though when it actually happens it’s terribly inconvenient! We like it, even when it tends to result in years stacked upon many years of unproductive dallying and lack of any measurable result.
This is the year I’m dedicating to tying off old cords, closing open loops, and deciding once and for all whether to finish certain projects, schedule them, or jettison them entirely. Supposedly that is my primary project. It’s the middle of the year and I haven’t actually finished anything.
These are the projects that, if asked, I would have to define as “current”:
A novel; a non-fiction book; yet a different novel; the new podcast; a cross stitch that is maybe half done; an attempt to learn to juggle/ride a unicycle/solve a Rubik’s cube/do the splits/this is getting embarrassing, but the gear is everywhere; clearing the data off my old phone so I can sell it; getting an orange belt in Muay Thai; finishing my Advanced Communicator Silver in Toastmasters; putting together a workshop; this blog of course
Of COURSE there are more. It’s so much worse than it looks.
The trouble with being a multi-potentialite is this tendency to have eighty things going at once, making 1% progress on all of them. It means we never finish anything, we never build a reputation (or at least not one we’d want), we have no legacy, we blow people off and we flake out.
All the time I seem to want to prioritize on learning circus tricks is time taken away from a bunch of finite projects, many of which are at the 80-90% mark.
Why wouldn’t I want to finish them? It’s not like I’m in any danger of running out of ideas, foolish, impractical, brilliant, fun, interesting, or silly as they might be.
I’m better than I used to be. That’s the whole and entire point of a growth mindset, right? To be better than we used to be, and to strive for more? I do pride myself on publishing a blog post every business day. I’m also making steady, measurable progress in both public speaking and martial arts. That’s three things! If I continue to do those three things, then eventually I’ll be a sixth-degree black belt, a Distinguished Toastmaster, and author of a blog that just keeps going and going.
This is what we always have to ask ourselves about our projects. Why are we doing them?
Is it just to have something to keep our hands busy? In that case, we’re ever and always going to have some knitting or crochet or embroidery or hand-stitching or beading or sanding or what-have-you. If the goal is to fill the days and evenings, then we might as well finish our projects one after another. We might as well start trying to make a dent in our accumulated supplies and materials (even though, honestly, we have enough for three lifetimes divided between four people). We could even, dare I say it? We could even finish ALL OF IT. We could wake up one fine morning with zero supplies, zero materials, zero patterns, zero plans, and we could simply wander around the craft store and come home with something new.
There’s no risk in finishing anything!
Are we doing projects as proof of concept? Demonstrating that we have a clear intention of mastering a particular art? Writing, painting, dancing, sculpting, carving? In that case, it’s perfectly fine to have more false starts and bits and pieces of something than we do actual finished work. We simply have to accept that we’ll never impress ourselves, we’ll never reach a point of satisfaction with our own work, because true artists pretty much never feel that way. Never being quite as good as your interior vision is the mark, after all. That’s exactly what sets us apart. We have to ask whether anyone is ever going to see our work, which is really asking if we care about making something that matters. To anyone.
What I’ve just distinguished is the difference between an art and a craft, between an artist and an artisan, or perhaps a hobbyist. All of them are fine but they do have different goals and different processes.
I’m also distinguishing between the finite and the infinite. The finite project is the specific book; the infinite project is to write. The finite project is the afghan; the infinite project is, from what I’ve seen, to collect yarn. Wait, um? Have I ever asked myself to identify my infinite project?
Most of my projects are signs of curiosity. I get interested in something and I want to dive in and immerse myself in it. My interests tend to layer themselves; I rarely drop them. That’s why I have a parrot, and a twenty-year-old bicycle that I still ride, and a vast recipe collection, and a tub full of backpacking equipment. I also tend to have a certain amount of random books and objects that signal my intention for future use. I drive myself crazy doing this, yet I do it.
I have all this stuff, but what I don’t have is a published novel. I don’t have a workshop on the calendar. I don’t have a podcast episode recorded. I don’t necessarily have to choose between these distinctly different projects; I do have to make some solid choices about where I’m putting my primary focus most days of the week. Do one until it’s done, and then do the other until it’s done, and then pick something else. Inexperience with this condition is probably why there are six juggling balls on my desk. What’s going to be my primary project for the next month? What will I have to show for the next three months?
I have a box and a half of business cards that have my name and the job title: COACH. I ordered them in a fit of enthusiasm and blind optimism two years ago. As far as I know, they have resulted in zero hires and zero pennies of income. They were my first-ever business cards, and I put a huge amount of thought into their design, but now they sort of just annoy me. I’m done.
Let me first say that coaching is obviously a poor fit for me. That’s enough reason right there not to keep doing it. Other people may thrive on their coaching work, and I wish them every success! It’s definitely better for everyone if there are fewer, better, more dedicated and highly skilled coaches reaping a greater concentration of the available pool of clients.
That being said, I have some pretty strong suspicions that there are methods and philosophies of coaching that basically just don’t work for anyone.
I’d love to be proven wrong! There’s very little I enjoy more than watching someone break through a limiting belief, change an unhelpful behavior, open up to a special someone, start a new career, blast into excellent physical transformation, or otherwise fall in love with life all over again. Anything that moves people in that direction is great.
Okay, so my personal issues, in varying order:
This is what I think. I think that ‘coaching’ is like ‘massage therapy’ in that it feels like a very beautiful, fulfilling way to make money and help people. It’s a vision-board kind of thing. (Just like every little kid wants to be a marine biologist). Yet, when it’s among the most obvious choices for anyone who wants to push away from traditional employment, it becomes over-subscribed. Everyone wants to do it, and that drives down the rates. For instance, I can get a massage in my area for $30 an hour, which is ludicrous, because in a foofoo salon it can (AND SHOULD) cost $100. For a coach, that would start to put it in the area of “how can you give me life advice when you would earn more as an office assistant?” (I say that with great respect, and pragmatism, because it’s what I used to do and at least it offers predictably free evenings and weekends).
For someone who has felt a firm, lightning-bolt inner conviction that It’s Time, it’s definitely worth paying for value and hiring a coach in an extremely specific specialty. For instance, working with a personal trainer who focused in recovery got me answers about my persistent ankle pain that an osteopath, two MRIs, and six months of physical therapy never did. Then just a few sessions with a trained shiatsu massage therapist actually resolved it! In future, I would go directly to the shiatsu table. When I started paying 4x more for gym classes instead of a commodity gym membership, I started getting 10x results. Same thing in other areas: I’d hire a certified dietitian, a tax accountant, a fiduciary financial planner, a professional editor, or the most highly rated business coach I could find. I’ll never waste my time shaking the trees for discount bargain cut-rate professional advice in any area again. I’d sooner get a side hustle to pay for a top-level professional opinion, knowing it always pays for itself, saves huge amounts of time, and usually results in my ability to earn more.
Here’s my best advice, free and worth every penny:
What I have learned to do is to ask myself, “What would a coach tell me about this issue right now?” (As I wrote those words, a large flock of chattering wild parrots flew past my window, which I regard as an omen that I am onto something). The answer always seems to pop up immediately, an unattractive and awkward answer, something that is Not Me, something that I feel deeply reluctant to do. The more it feels like I Do Not Want That to Be the Answer, the more likely it is to be. Approach it with curiosity in a sense of adventure.
Just the title of this book puts a jolt through me every time I look at it. Overcoming Underearning! Barbara Stanny teaches financial literacy, and she defines underearning as not reaching one’s earning potential. This probably applies to most people, because how do we know what our true earning potential might be? How do we know whether we have more in us or what heights we can reach? Of course, it definitely applies to the half of American men and women who feel underpaid. What if our underearning has its roots not just in external economic conditions, but in internal beliefs and assumptions?
Case in point: An acquaintance patches her income together from a variety of sources, including cleaning houses, pet-sitting, and other odd jobs. She doesn’t count her income by the month or the week, but literally by the day. Yet she related how she had cut her rates for her most demanding client, and then drove her an hour to the airport for free. For someone who needs to make every dollar count, why would she give discounts and free labor to someone who is difficult to work with? Especially when it takes up time she could be using to earn more money doing easier work? Overcoming Underearning points out that giving away our work for free is a common behavior.
According to the underearning quiz in the book, my acquaintance scores at least a 13/15 as an underearner. That’s based on things she has said directly to me, and it’s entirely possible she would agree with the other two if I asked. Yet she also has many of the traits of a high earner. That’s a paradox that, again, probably applies to most people. Why is it that working hard isn’t enough?
One of the most interesting insights in Overcoming Underearning was, for me, that high earners simply don’t identify with the way that underearners think about money. The rules and beliefs and structures that we put up around our careers, our finances, and our business decisions don’t make sense to them. This strongly implies that as long as we hold these beliefs, it doesn’t really matter what we do, because what we’re doing will not lead to promotions, wealth, being debt-free, or other goals.
Another great feature of the book was the list of Twelve Signs You’re in Resistance. This should be available on a poster, t-shirt, coffee mug, tote bag, and giant billboard directly across the street from my front door.
Barbara Stanny gets it. She’s clearly talked to so many hundreds of people, all of whom have their own special, inaccurate reasons why they should stay broke forever. She’s also seen the way that this information can transform someone almost overnight. This book deserves to be a classic.
I knew that staying stupid was not an option.
“If I admitted that I was an underearner... then I would need to do something about it.”
For every excuse you give me, I’ll show you someone in the same boat who is prospering.
'CURATE YOUR STUFF' WORKBOOK NOW AVAILABLE!
Download on the Products tab today!
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.