Our anniversary is coming up. As a matter of fact, we’re partying it up in Vegas right now! (Don’t worry; I wrote and posted this in advance. We are actually having fun). Eight years married, eleven years as a couple. For two previously divorced people, we sure do seem to like this whole marriage business. What I would share about our experience is that love does not come from fate. It’s not genetic and it’s not chemical. Romance is a behavior.
Every now and then one or another of my single girlfriends would ask me how I did it. Maybe it was my imagination, but I always sensed a tinge of disbelief in there. How could an odd duck such as yourself marry a fellow who, in certain lights, looks a bit like Cary Grant? How could a person who was such a trainwreck throughout her twenties somehow wind up comfortably ensconced in the suburbs? Fair enough. I grant that these are legitimate questions.
The first thing is that I have a high capacity for platonic friendships with men. I have two brothers and six male cousins. I have several enduring decades-long friendships with men, and I’m still on good terms with almost every man I’ve ever dated, even briefly. When I met the man who became my second husband, I had no romantic aspirations toward him. He was just a guy at my work. A friendly, funny man with a tendency to befriend the office assistants, janitors, baristas, delivery drivers, and various other people who crossed his path, myself included. To him, I was one of many cheerful people in his day who were usually good for a chat or a wisecrack. Looking back, it’s possible either of us could have wound up with one of a dozen other people in our orbit, the various loose social connections we had that could have turned into something more. Moral: be generically friendly.
The second thing is that I had this competitive attitude toward being a girlfriend, and, even more so, a wife. I guess in my mind ‘girlfriend’ is like being an undergrad and ‘wife’ is like the master’s degree. I wanted whoever I dated to pause now and then, thinking that he couldn’t believe his luck. This always had to do with things I did rather than who I was. Granted, I’m funny and smart, but I was no swimsuit model. I also couldn’t cook. I wanted to make sure I got A’s in everything else. When he opens the car door for you, lean over and unlock the door on his side. Be ready to go when he shows up. Compliment him and tell him what you like about him. Stuff like that.
This probably sounds very retrograde. Instructions from another time? Really, I figure I should do everything for the person I’m dating that I would do for a family member or close friend, plus a little extra. The small considerate things, probably still nowhere near the affection I lavish on my fluffy little parrot. The goal is to give what you wish to receive. Teach your expectations. Show through your words and actions how you prefer to be treated. Motivate your partner to go to great lengths to please you, trying to outdo all the fabulous things you do for him. (Or her, or… ).
A lot of unhappy people, many of them painfully single and alone, seem to have a lot of weird ideas about how the other party is supposed to behave in a relationship. First off, the chosen love is supposed to materialize out of thin air, conveniently showing up without disrupting your routine. (Single people have a way of only going to places where they already know everyone). Then, the new suitor is supposed to exceed you in every way: better looking, nicer, funnier, richer, better educated, and also more patient and tolerant. Better than this, this suitor is supposed to knee-walk after you, longing for your attention, trying to read your mind with the sole goal of showering you with gifts and affection of every variety. Yet it must never rub you the wrong way, seem mawkish, or make your friends nervous. This is how you feel so certain that you never meet the right guys, because it never feels magical and you never get an owl from Hogwarts telling you that this is The One. Surely there would be fireworks?
I think what people are missing is that you have to pick someone you like. Just… someone you like! Someone who makes you laugh, someone you think is interesting to talk to, someone who obviously likes to talk to you too. This is what you’re going to be doing if you decide to grow old together. Pick someone you’ll still want when he goes bald, grows hair out of his ears, and gets liver spots. Someone who will still want you when you can be described the same way. There are untold numbers of strong marriages out there that will never be made, because a couple of people who are friendly together never looked at each other in “that way.”
When my now-husband told me he was having romantic feelings toward me, I was mad. We fought about it for weeks. (That should have told us something). Why would he want to mess up a perfectly good friendship? I started to realize that I needed to give him a chance when it struck me just how distraught I was at the thought of no longer having him for a friend. I understood that I would always wonder what he was doing. He was already the first person I wanted to tell whenever anything noteworthy happened, like if I opened a new tub of margarine and it looked like there was a face on top. Who would I talk to if he wasn’t there anymore?
He told me, “I’ve already seen your nice side.”
I looked at him incredulously. “No, you haven’t!” As my platonic friend, he had no idea. I save all the extras for the man in my life.
I spend the entire year looking out for gifts that will delight him on his birthday or our anniversary or Valentine’s Day. I cook his favorite meals. I do nice things for his dog. I learn the likes and dislikes of his relatives. I make friends with his friends. I remember details that matter to him, like the names of his teammates at work or technical terminology. I scratch his back. I have a sort of mental receptor that tracks key data, like his pet peeves and favorite bands. Anything I can think of that would make his life easier or more interesting, if it’s within my abilities, I will do. It’s a challenge in the same way that my workouts are a challenge, or my financial goals are a challenge. I want him to feel well taken care of.
The result of all this is that my husband carries me around on a little satin cushion. He has gone to incredible, astonishing lengths to impress me. One night he went out on my running route and cleaned up some roadkill that had been bothering me, and it wasn’t even our street. He changed my auntie’s wiper blades, helped my mom with her resume, and built my niece a dollhouse. He trims my parrot’s nails. He makes me breakfast. When I come home, he usually meets me at the door with a green smoothie. I mean, this guy is incredible. Secret pro tip, though? He didn’t start out that way.
Romance is a behavior. It’s a commitment to make the other person happier every year that you are together. You can’t “make” someone happy if they aren’t already happy inside, but you can totally do myriad acts of inspired kindness that get their attention. This works on anyone: friends, neighbors, colleagues, strangers on the street. It works best of all if you can do it incrementally, adding little niceties and treats day after day after day. Once you start, you realize that you are also romancing yourself.
Happiness. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Happiness comes in many varieties, not all of which have names, and it’s a fun exercise to try to catalog the nameless flavors. The satisfaction of a stretch so deep that it stretches itself. The smugness of giving a proper scratch or belly rub to an animal that rolls around in uncontrollable bliss. The delight of running into an old friend in an unexpected location. A happy life may include moments like this, but it’s domestic contentment that is the bedrock.
Let’s distinguish a little further. A life of purpose and meaning may not feel like a “happy” one. Passion is another driving force that may make life interesting, yet not “happy” necessarily. Challenge, that’s yet another theme that may not particularly lead to happiness. Happiness isn’t everything! When we set about seeking something that we feel is missing, we have various paths before us. Happiness is one of those paths, one among several that may bring a sense of having lived a life worth living.
The first obstacle to domestic contentment is being bored at the thought of domestic contentment.
It’s not for everyone. I’m a restless person. When I’m at home, I want to travel, and when I travel, I still want to be somewhere else the next day. Still, what my husband and I have worked out as our own custom blend of domestic contentment is something portable. We have our routines even when we’re on the road. We have a gift for gratitude and satisfaction, noticing what there is to like about any situation, even though it might be annoying in one way or another. Hopefully the annoying stuff can be turned into a funny story. Then, inevitably, we miss our own big comfy bed and our pets, the only aspects of domestic contentment that we can’t fit in a suitcase.
We can deal with annoying circumstances on the road because we know we’ll be leaving them behind. At home, if there’s an annoying circumstance, we’re going to deal with it directly. Obstacles to domestic contentment are to be considered as a high priority. It’s the little things that are actually the big things, because once they’re multiplied by the hundreds and thousands of moments they occupy, they can be seen as the huge problems they really are.
Take a dripping faucet. Maybe, on a scale of one to a thousand, each drip is a one. Ah, but how many drips? If each drip is one point, and the unnecessary increase in your water bill is one point per dollar per month, and any stain or mineral deposit in the sink is several more points, it adds up. Then multiply by every single other minor annoyance.
Domestic contentment is basically just the feeling that you like being at home. When you walk in the door, you feel relieved. You open up like a flower in the rain. It’s your place, where you can do what you want and make your own rules. Home is the place where you don’t have to wear pants. Play the music that you want, eat the meals that you want when you want them, arrange your stuff in whatever way works for you, sleep peacefully as much as you need, think and plan and strategize and dream up great new things to do. Home is your secret superhero cave.
Or, at least, it could be. Probably should be.
My people don’t experience domestic contentment. When I explain that home should be a place where you sigh happily when you walk in the door, they always look surprised, like this had genuinely never occurred to them before. It’s simple, but it’s only simple if it isn’t complicated.
The simple version: I woke up when I had had enough sleep (it was 7:30). I had breakfast with my pets and read the news. I went to the gym and worked out. I showered, walked the dog, and caught the bus. On the way home, I stopped at the store and then caught the bus again. When I got home, I walked the dog again, started laundry, and vacuumed. Then my husband came home and we talked for an hour before dinner. Simple! Uncomplicated!
The complicated version: Wake up to a blaring alarm, exhausted, hit snooze as many times as you can get away with. Try to get dressed and realize that half of what you want to wear is in the laundry. Too late to eat anything for breakfast. Run out the door and get to work late because you had to stop for gas/coffee/couldn’t find a parking spot. Come home exhausted and flop on the couch. Eat whatever. Watch TV/check social media. Stay up too late even though you’re so tired, because that’s your only private time. Repeat. Add in extra complications like lost objects, constantly forgetting things, quarreling with housemates over chores and money, and a constant background of piles of unsorted papers, dirty dishes, and dirty laundry. Complicated! Frustrating! Annoying!
Domestic contentment might seem boring, but at least it isn’t the chronic disappointment and chaos of domestic DIScontent.
All it takes is one obstacle, one persistent problem, to have a perpetual state of domestic discontent. Usually, though, there are several, and most people have all of them. Why? Because tolerating one persistent problem is the same attitude that leads to tolerating any and all persistent problems. Feeling that you don’t have the power or agency to make changes. Defining yourself by your lowest points, your weakest moments, or your least inspiring character traits (which comes from thinking they are your personality rather than a pattern of behavior). Not knowing what to do or how to do it. Lacking examples of serenity or tranquility. Fixating on things outside of your sphere of influence. Any or all of these attitudes can create a lifetime of discontent built on obstacles that could feasibly have been removed.
Want some obstacles? They’re free! Help yourself to as many as you want.
Aggrieved entitlement. If there is one happiness strangler, it is this, the feeling that something should have been yours and was somehow taken from you. You have the right to something you are not getting, such as an inheritance or someone else to cook for you, wash your dishes, and scrub your toilet.
Resentment and grudges. You keep a tally of all the ways people have offended or disappointed you. You hate that you’re expected to do stuff that benefits others. (There’s probably a more resentful way to put that. Let me try again. Ahem. DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING AROUND HERE??)
Failed perfectionism. If I can’t do it exactly right, I’m doing nothing. If you were such a supposed perfectionist, wouldn’t you care more about your visible results? [*wink*]
Social comparison. Actually, social comparison works great if you compare downstairs, but it’s a human failing to always compare ourselves to people who look like they have it better. Compare yourself to a medieval peasant in a hut and suddenly your life doesn’t look so bad.
Complaining. Having a legitimate complaint means one thing. It means it’s time to DO SOMETHING. Handle it. Set boundaries. Have whatever confrontations are necessary. Complaining merely dissipates the energy you need to resolve the situation, exhausting you (and your patient friend) and leaving you with the exact same problem you started out with.
Lack of systems. No strategy, no policies, no plans, no improvement.
Oh, and the practical stuff. Debt, clutter, lifestyle-related health issues. These problems feel complicated, and they are, but the solutions are simple. Earn more money, cut your expenses, open and sort all your mail immediately, get rid of every single object that gets in your way, pack your lunch, cook your own dinner, and go to bed a little earlier. See, that’s not so complicated.
Domestic contentment is its own reward. It also advertises itself. When your cooking skills are good enough, you want to eat your own cooking all the time. When you make your home cozy, you want to be there, enjoying your own personal brand of comfort. When you’re with your favorite people and animals, you want to hang out with them all the time. Whatever it takes to nourish yourself, give yourself a satisfying personal environment, and create supportive relationships, do those things, and remove anything that gets in the way.
Those of us who are awkward salute you, Vanessa Van Edwards, as our new queen. We have needed this book so much, but we never knew it. Ours is the tribe that openly claims to “lack social skills.” Why didn’t anyone tell us that this stuff could be learned? Captivate is the “missing manual” to that legacy of frustrating, disappointing, awkward, and humiliating social failures. That sounds awful. Let me start over. Captivate is a fun, entertaining guide to behavior hacking that can help anyone figure out how to actually enjoy social interactions.
I had the pleasure of hearing Vanessa speak at World Domination Summit this year. She is tremendous. It’s really hard to believe that she ever felt awkward, because she is so beautiful and funny and polished and engaging. Then she reveals that she owes it all to Spanx. Ugh, it’s not fair. How can she be all that and be so likable?
There’s this saying that “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” We have to take it on faith that Vanessa Van Edwards really was ever anywhere near as awkward as she claims. If that’s true, then her public persona and success at teaching people skills are proof that this stuff works. We can ask ourselves, “If it worked for her, will it work for me? Maybe even 1%?”
I think Captivate would even work for my autistic friends, because it includes extremely specific details, photographs, diagrams, and explanations of why people react the way they do. It has sample scripts of things to say in conversation. This is stuff that can be studied and memorized and tested.
I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum, as an empath. I always struggled with something that I never knew had a name. People would make microexpressions, which I find clearly visible, and then quickly, deliberately obscure those instantaneous reactions with something else. Part of my awkwardness was in wanting to talk openly about things that other people wanted to avoid. I didn’t understand why there needed to be this secret, hidden layer to people’s reactions and interactions. Too personal, too intimate, too quickly. Especially when I was young, I had to have social dynamics painstakingly explained to me. What a magical gift this book would have been for a weird little kid like me!
Something really struck me while reading this book, and it was the section on primary values. Everyone is in search of a primary value in every interaction. That’s going to be either love, service, status, money, goods, or information. My primary value is information, with a secondary value of service, while my husband says his is love followed by service. Aha. Can you tell me more about this need to feel accepted and liked by others? Because I’d really like to know! What struck me about this was that Goods are on the list right up there with Love and Status. THIS IS SO TRUE. This explains every last little thing that I wasn’t yet understanding about my work with hoarders! They actually think that Goods matter for some reason! Ahem. I mean. They have this trait in common with artists, museum curators, and archaeologists? *whistles, puts hands in pockets*
I was captivated by Captivate, and also captivated by Vanessa Van Edwards herself. This is a truly, truly remarkable book. For myself, I don’t even feel like one reading was enough; it feels like the more time I spend studying it, the easier my life will be. The same will probably be true for you.
Does jumping over open flame, climbing a rope, running a marathon, backpacking thirty miles off grid into the wilderness, hugging strangers, or entering a public speaking competition count as confidence? If so, then I guess I’m confident. Technically. I want to talk a bit about where confidence comes from and how many people are faking it.
I’m small. I was always one of the very smallest kids in my class due to my summer birthday. As an adult, I have a small frame, I wear a child-size bike helmet, bracelets won’t stay on my hands, and I even wear B-width narrow shoes. I’m a double-extra small person with a high, small voice. I feel my small size constantly, when I can’t reach cabinets, when I stand next to anyone, when I can’t reach stuff on the top shelf at the grocery store, when I fit comfortably in the middle seat on an airplane. (Okay, being tiny has its advantages). I sometimes wonder whether a large bird of prey could physically grab me by the shoulders and carry me off. I suspect yes.
It’s not just that I’m small and have always been small. I have some physical frailties and a history of chronic illness. I am by no means a robust person; I would never claim to have stamina. What I do have is mega-quantities of grit. I know my physical limits, and thus I’m willing to go without sleep, carry heavy weights, climb steep inclines, cover miles on foot, and venture into relatively dangerous terrain. I can push myself into certain scary situations because they are known quantities. Understanding what to expect helps bring experiences from the realm of danger into the realm of challenge, perhaps even over that boundary into adventure. Others feel the same activities as thrills or routine. I don’t have to be where they are to go where they go, if that makes sense.
Confidence, to me, means that I have a pretty good idea of what to do. It does not mean that I don’t feel nervous or downright frightened. Case in point. The day I wrote this, I was accosted by a large, angry, insane shirtless man while I was trying to catch a bus. Freak magnet, that’s me… I assessed the situation and determined that there was a greater than thirty percent chance that this man would physically interfere with me. This did not fit my plans for the day. I pulled out my phone and started mapping out the next bus stop up the street, from whence I could place calls without being obvious. Before I could finish, two police vehicles pulled up, caging us in. I found myself in the midst of an arrest; the large, angry, insane shirtless man had evidently been threatening passersby with a screwdriver shortly before I walked up. A cop shouted at me. (It’s okay; later he apologized quite sweetly and I thanked him for doing his work). Was I afraid for my personal safety during that five-minute window? Yes, of course I was. I’ve worked with insane people in a variety of contexts. Most crazy people aren’t really scary, just unpredictable. This particular guy was predictably dangerous, looming into my space, shouting at me, staring at me from no more than four inches away, gradually ratcheting up his behavior. My confidence came from experience; I knew not to engage, respond, or make eye contact. If this man did grab me or touch me in any way, I was prepared to escalate. I was already implementing my exit strategy. The element of surprise is on my side, because anyone who is threatening me has assumed that he will prevail.
What actually happened at that bus stop? What happened was a typical urban encounter. We were surrounded by dozens of people (in cars and buildings; on the sidewalk across the street) with space-age communications devices. They handled it. I had no idea that help was already on its way. (We were also literally across the street from the Supreme Court building). Was I really ever unsafe? Probably not. I even caught my bus on time.
Most situations that make us nervous are not physically threatening at all. They just feel that way. We feel the same physiological responses that we would if we saw a saber-tooth tiger sauntering up the street. We’re afraid to flirt, we’re afraid to go on job interviews, we’re afraid to go to parties where we don’t know anyone, we’re afraid to negotiate for raises and promotions, we’re afraid to ask people on dates, we’re afraid to try new foods, we’re afraid to start our own businesses, we’re afraid to wear two-piece swimsuits, we’re afraid to try new dance steps. What we’re really afraid of is not physical danger at all; it’s social danger! We usually only lack confidence when it comes to interacting with other humans. Think about it again. How many times is someone in a job interview or on the dance floor going to act like the large, angry, insane shirtless man?
I was bullied pretty intensively as a child. I grew up feeling like a social pariah, which is sad and tough on a little kid. All I wanted was to have friends and people who liked me. Then I got a little older. I figured, if people were going to be mean to me no matter what I did, then why should I care anymore what they thought of me? I learned to steel myself against taunts and just do what I wanted to do. As an adult, I give zero fox. If you don’t like me, neat. Go… go Netflix and chill or something. I have things to do. There are seven billion people in this world, and the number of fellow humans who are going to appreciate me is a statistical anomaly. My real friends know that I’m a funny and sweet person who will cook for you when you’re sick, help you move, fly across country for your wedding, and show up when you really need me. I have nothing to prove to anyone else. And that’s why I get to do what I want, all the time.
I feel physiologically anxious and nervous all the time. I mean, speaking as a person with a tendency toward night terrors, most people probably have not felt as anxious as me! Try waking up shaking and crying in your living room with no idea how you got there. When I walk down a flight of stairs, I always worry that I’ll fall headlong. When I go hiking, I always worry that there will be a cougar or a bear. When I give speeches, my feet sweat and my hands shake. These feel like reasonable responses to me, the same feelings that almost anyone would have in the same situation. Feeling anxious and worried is just like being impatient in a long line or being annoyed when someone bumps into you. Universal human response. Being confident doesn’t mean that you don’t feel those feelings; it means you expect them and you believe you can handle it anyway.
If you’re reading this, you’re alive right now. (Well, um, I assume so!). That means you’ve survived literally every single thing that has ever happened to you. It also means you have survived every random thought you ever had, wondering about all the million and five possible calamities that never befell you. Chances are pretty good that you’ll continue to survive all of your worries and anxieties and concerns and what-ifs. I think it helps to just tell yourself, Eh, I can handle this. Because you most likely can, and besides, that’s what everyone else is doing.
Food is love. Sugar is love. If you believe this, how old do you want to be when you get your diabetes diagnosis? I just blurted that out, didn’t I. Let me dial back a bit and try to be funnier, okay?
Do you know about this thing called love languages? It’s a concept developed by a man named Gary Chapman, and his book has probably saved more marriages than television and separate bathrooms combined. One of the greatest things about it is that it’s a relationship manual that actually appeals to garden-variety straight guys. The premise is that people can get along better if they understand each other’s love language, trying to appreciate each other’s needs and save our efforts for things that will actually please each other. For instance, my husband’s is words of appreciation, something that is very easy for me to offer, but also something that I find kind of annoying to receive. Words of praise and appreciation make me nervous, thinking that someone is trying to flatter me due to ulterior motives. Don’t try to butter me up! What are you doing with that butter? Put it down!
The five love languages are:
Acts of service
Words of appreciation
Note that ‘food’ is not on there!
When we say that we associate food with love, it’s going to be either because we prepared it for someone or because they prepared it for us. Or, I guess, because we’ve come to a place where food is the only thing that truly, deeply matters in our lives. Pfft. Everyone knows the answer to that should really be OUR PHONES. I mean, duh. Seriously, though. It wouldn’t hurt to look at this a little further, right?
I’m a food pusher. I admit it. I have been known to spend three days cooking before hosting a family holiday dinner. I cooked for eight people for my own birthday dinner last month. I will notice every last molecule of uneaten food on anyone’s plate, and I will not-so-secretly feel proud when anyone takes seconds. Or especially thirds. I’m watching you!
I don’t actually believe that food is love, though. I’m a quality time person. I want to make sure that everyone is having an amazing moment. When my friends and family are with me, I want it to matter to them. I want them to be making good memories. I want photos. Food is one way that I know of to put people in a relaxed and happy mood. A good meal, followed by a good dessert, means laughter and long conversations.
I also cook because my secondary love language is acts of service. I like doing nice things for people. I will try to anticipate your needs, if I can, and do anything that I think might make your life easier. This is part of why I memorize my friends’ food preferences, likes, dislikes, and sensitivities. I know who is allergic to yeast and who hates cooked tomatoes and who avoids canola oil. I’ve spent hours devising menus that accommodate all of those individuals at once. To me, cooking something special for someone with a complicated diet is the ultimate act of friendship. I see you and I am willing to meet you where you are.
These two love languages combine to mean that I try to feed people Health Food. If I care about you, I want you to live a long time so we can pull pranks together in the nursing home.
On the receiving end, I have to say that I am always bowled over by anyone who is willing to cook for me. I’m a vegan and my default expectation is that people will avoid even inviting me to any occasion that involves food. It annoys people and I know it, sadly. So for someone to reach past that social chasm and make something for me will impress me more than anything else. The first time I went to a social event with my husband’s ex-wife, she made me my own batch of vegan cupcakes, with a V on top in icing so I could tell them apart. What. A. Woman. Now that’s what I call noblesse oblige. They were good, too! Then I found out that she even adapted the recipe herself. I’d basically do anything for her now. Well, except for give my husband back. Finders keepers.
The thing is, food is not the only thing that shows love in these situations. We’re genuinely glad to see each other. We care about each other and what happens in each other’s lives. We make eye contact. We listen closely. We laugh in delight and appreciation. We share stories. We tell each other how glad we are to see each other. We tease each other, reminding each other of inside jokes and how well we know one another. We stand up for each other. We show up. Sure, there’s food there, but in the absence of love, it would just be food. The same food you can make in your kitchen or buy at the grocery store 24 hours a day.
I think a lot of the time, we make comfort foods because we’re lonely. We’re searching for those feelings of affection. Confections when we really want connections. So often, we’ve been disappointed by misunderstandings, by reaching out and not getting the responses we were hoping for. Well, it’s not hidden in the bottom of a brownie pan and it doesn’t have frosting on it. The only way to feel love is to feel it, the love you feel inside yourself for others. You can know and understand and believe and appreciate that someone else loves you, but you can’t truly feel it. It’s the love you give and share that fills you up.
Or tater tots. I guess that works too.
Before we begin, allow me to state again for the record that motivation doesn't really exist. We'll do anything as long as we WANT TO and we KNOW HOW. Otherwise, forget it. Not happening. The only trick is to figure out how to convince yourself to want things you don't already want. This can be done, yes, and it's a major secret to success. Easier, though, is to figure out how something actually does get you something you want, in ways you didn't realize before. You can be motivated by things you already find motivating. For a lot of people, a party or social gathering is one of the most powerful and delightful motivators.
When I was a kid, we often had people over. My parents and their friends were all in their twenties, and they hung out a lot. Sometimes we would all go to a park and toss a Frisbee and have a barbecue, with chips and soda. Sometimes a bunch of us would go camping. Mostly, though, various friends would come over for spaghetti and garlic bread. I remember that we had a party when Michael Jackson's Thriller video first premiered, because we were the only ones in the group who had MTV. Another time, we had friends over for pizza and we rented Roadhouse on video. Awesome, right? What we always did before these informal parties was to clean the entire place top to bottom.
Dust and vacuum! Polish everything with Lemon Pledge! Take out the trash! Wipe down the mirrors! Make the beds! Mom would scrub the bathroom until it sparkled, because that was a grownup job. We all ran around doing chores and checking the clock. Then the really great part happened: the FOOD. Mom would always make clam dip and we would have a bag of Ruffles potato chips. For the really big stuff like Tupperware parties, there would be deviled eggs. On birthdays, the birthday person got to choose what to have for dinner and what flavor of cake and frosting to get. (I liked strawberry shortcake with whipped cream). Days when we knew we had company coming were filled with mounting excitement, topped by certain party foods that we only, only ate on special occasions.
When in doubt, link to a food reward.
(Incidentally, I just figured out that my dog is just as happy to get an ice cube for tricks as he is to get a cookie).
The real reward for all our dusting and polishing was the fun of having people over. The hugs, the new jokes, the laughter. Watching new movies. Playing cards or board games. Telling stories. The time would fly by. Before we knew it, it would be time to say goodnight. Then it would be just us.
Those of us who live alone often don't feel any pressing need to clean up after ourselves. We're not hurting anybody, right? We can start to feel lonely and isolated. This is especially true if we have had roommates we really liked, or if we hate to be alone, or if we're single and not loving it. I admit it; I've cried at night, crying myself to sleep because I was new in town, with no friends and nobody to love. WHERE IS EVERYBODY?
I kept my place clean, though, because that's a luxury to me. I can't think straight when I have papers and stuff everywhere. It depresses me to have sticky floors or crumbs on the counter. I've had several extremely messy roommates, including a Rebel who later made the local news for hoarding and squalor. My motivation for cleaning is that I like it clean. Given a choice between living alone or living in a mess, I'd choose to live alone. A lot of people feel the way I do, but most don't. Most people would rather have a lively, full house with a lot going on, and not care all that much about a bit of mess.
These are questions of degrees. What is a 'mess' to one person is the 'after' photo to someone else. What it looks like after a full day of cleaning may still be 'messy' by other people's standards. How we feel about mess is one way we sort ourselves into social groups. The ideal is to settle into what makes us happy and proud, and also makes our friends feel relaxed and welcome. What that looks like is up to you, and it's up to them. Get it right, and they start coming over and hanging out all the time.
No matter how your place looks, people need somewhere to sit (or at least stand). When I was a kid, adults sat on the couch and chairs, and kids sat on the floor. I still sit on the floor, because I still can! The majority of my clients have so much stuff in stacks and piles that even sitting on the floor is a challenge, because there just isn't enough room. Goat trails from one room to another. For a lot of my people, it's a major victory just to clear enough room to open the front door all the way, with nothing behind it. Then at least people can come to your door to pick you up without seeing your secret shame.
The next area to tackle is the bathroom, or at least the bathroom closest to the front door. Even someone who is just knocking on your door to pick you up may surprise you with a sudden request to use your bathroom. It'll go better if the fixtures are clean and there's hand soap and a clean hand towel.
If you want people to come over and hang out, they'll need not just a clean bathroom and somewhere comfortable to sit, but also somewhere to put their stuff. Bags, coats, potluck dishes, whatever else they may be bringing.
If you want people to stay long, they'll probably want to eat, and that tends to mean somewhere to put food. Whether that's bags of chips and snacks, pizza boxes, a potluck, or a full fancy sit-down dinner is up to you.
This kind of visualization can help to motivate even the biggest cleanup job. We can imagine a pool of acceptability spreading from the front door through the entire home, whether that's a tiny apartment or a huge house. It also helps to realize that we don't have to work on basements, attics, sheds, storage units, bedrooms, cabinets, closets, or other hidden areas before starting to have social gatherings. We only have to focus on visible areas first.
The thing about isolation and shame is that they feed on themselves. It's our awkward, weird, lonely feelings that create the problem. Being honest and revealing the secret shame to someone can be a huge breakthrough, as long as it's a nurturing rather than critical person. You may well know someone who will come over and sit with you while you sort out your stuff and get your place ready for company. Or you can just print out a picture of someone you admire and tape it to the wall. Oh my gosh! Chris Pratt and Adele, you made it! Thanks so much for coming over!
A party doesn't have to be anything fancy. You can have a board game night, dance battle, LAN party, lip sync battle, coloring night, crafting, a movie marathon, or whatever you want. You can invite one person over, or ten, or however many will fit. I used to have an open house one night a week, and friends would bring friends of friends. People came over to our place because we had plenty of room, they didn't have to RSVP, and we didn't care if they brought five friends. We frequently had twenty-odd people over. (How many of them were 'odd people' is a matter of debate). In the first two months that we lived in our new place, we had three visits from various friends from out of town. That feeling that my place is always company-ready is a friendly feeling. It's all about the atmosphere, demonstrating that you're glad to see everyone and you want to make sure they know their visit matters to you.
Honestly, it's more about not getting most men. [For 'man,' read 'human person-unit.'] There are roughly three and a half billion people of your preferred gender out there in the world, so the one you're going to want to wind up with is a statistical anomaly. A blip. First you have to rule out all the non-contenders. That means establishing your non-starters, deal breakers, and game changers right from the beginning. Next, have a sense of how you want to feel in a relationship, and try to create as many elements of that as possible through platonic relationships with other people. If you ever do settle down with someone, it should be a value-add, an improvement on the rich and fabulous life you have when you're alone.
If you have to ask whether someone is right for you, he probably isn't.
Friendship first. If it's the right person, it will still be the right person five years from now.
Only date people who are nice to you.
Never sleep with anyone you wouldn't want to share custody with.
Guard your DNA materials carefully.
Spend time with people you respect, people you like, and people you love. Not all your friends need to fit all three of those categories, but a love match should AT MINIMUM be someone you respect, like, and love.
Would you date yourself?
Make space for someone. Whether that winds up being a romantic partner, a new best friend, or a talking crow, have somewhere for them to sit and somewhere for them to hang their hat. If you make friends with a talking crow who wears a hat, get a third chair and invite me over, too.
There is nothing that all men like. No fashion trend, activity, or type of food, anyway. The few things you can say about "what men want" are that they want to be regarded as individuals, they generally appreciate knowing what to expect from you, and they respond to ambivalence about as well as you do. A man once told me he just wanted "someone who digs me." Find someone you like, and like him. Find more people you like, and like them, too.
A relationship is demanding. It only works if you're honest, if you're willing to be vulnerable, and if you're willing to take responsibility for yourself. These are things you can do alone, and should do alone for a while before inflicting yourself on someone else. Make a list of your expectations about a fantasy romantic relationship, and then set about creating those conditions for yourself. Don't expect someone else to come along and solve your problems, whether those are self-esteem problems, body image problems, financial problems, or homemaker problems. I was my own wife long before I remarried, and I was good at it, too.
What do men like? I only know what the men who have liked me have liked. Several men have told me that "you're not like other girls." I am by no means broad-spectrum appealing. I snort when I laugh. Sometimes I have witch hair. I have an extremely coarse and uncouth sense of humor. My ex-husband told me that "the amount that you read is unnatural." What I have always done is to speak my mind, prodigiously and at great length. Sometimes I'm funny, mostly I just bloviate, but I always let them know what I think. I don't do guessing games or "if you don't know, I'm not going to tell you." I fake nothing.
I set strong boundaries early on. First, I have a questionnaire. "If you answer my questionnaire, I'll tell you anything you want to know." I will toss in random questions with serious questions. "Have you ever been to clown college?" Followed by "do you own a firearm?" "What is your name, what is your quest, what is your favorite color?" Followed by "are you legally married or can you be said to be in a romantic relationship of any stage right now?" "Will you take me to Funky Town?" Followed by "what does monogamy mean to you?" "Do you have kids? Crunchy or creamy peanut butter? Have you ever been arrested?" In under five minutes, I can quickly weed out all the non-contenders. Any man left standing is laughing, shaking his head, and really starting to be intrigued. What Will She Say Next?
If it looks like we're going to get involved, I spell it out. "I am a one-man woman. I don't cheat and I don't share. If you don't think you can be satisfied with a monogamous relationship, go in peace, but if you want to be with me, it needs to be exclusive. All your body parts are belong to me." The kind of person who prefers exclusivity finds this reassuring. "If you start to get bored with me, just tell me. I expect honesty. I need to know what you think and how things are for you." This has to be backed up with genuine action. The first time you get a critique, be receptive and responsive. Always reward what you claim to want.
Ask for what you want. Every man I have ever talked to about this agrees: Ask for what you want. Be specific. Be reasonable. Be fair. Don't make any rules or ultimatums that you wouldn't want to be applied to yourself. Be willing to go first, initiate challenging conversations, and expose your own vulnerabilities. Make it easy to agree with you and easy to please you. It should be obvious what it takes to make you happy.
What works for most people is usually pretty straightforward, simple, and low-maintenance. Do the things that work for this individual human. If you aren't sure what those things are, ask. "What is best in life?" Let him get in the door and have a few minutes to unwind before striking up a conversation - about any subject, not just the urgent stuff. Respect his personal space as you would want yours respected. Constant togetherness is unrealistic. If you freak out at being left to your own devices for a couple of hours at a stretch, you're not emotionally ready for dating yet. You're probably also not very interesting. A relationship is something you make space for out of your busy, fulfilling, complete life. It is not a substitute for a complete life.
My first marriage was a disaster. I got married to the wrong person, at the wrong time in my life, for the wrong reasons. It took a long time to recover from the aftermath. The blessing in disguise was that it really helped to clarify what I want, what I'm willing to give, and how to appreciate even minor things that work well. I had to make a conscious decision about whether I still believed in marriage and romantic love, and I chose Yes. It is so very definitely better to be single than to be with a bad match that there are no words adequate to express this fully. Be available when the right one comes along. Never settle for a maybe or an almost. It's either a heck yeah or a heck no.
Being with the right person is one of the great goods in life. That's true whether it's a colleague, teammate, friend, sibling, pet, or romantic partner. We would probably do better to raise our expectations for various Platonic relationships and lower our expectations for romance. I mean, there are a lot of weird ideas about 'soulmates' and 'love at first sight' and simultaneous whatevers that only serve to confuse us, complicating what should feel natural and comfortable. True love includes a lot of hanging out on the couch together, as well as a lot of concentrating on work and mundanity and sometimes briefly forgetting your special someone exists. Sample conversation with my husband: "What are you thinking about?" "Motors." A man is not a cardboard cutout of a bridegroom. The company of an interesting, mature adult person who likes you is a worthy goal, and actually quite a big ask. Appreciate it.
Going through an intensive learning experience with your spouse can result in some pretty interesting changes. This comes from new information, new perspectives, and the simple act of stepping away from your domestic routine for a week. Sometimes all it takes is to walk through your apartment door after some time away and realize that you’re ready to drop or add a habit. With something like the World Domination Summit, the changes can be radical indeed.
Last year, we went to WDS for the first time. On one hand was our shared experience. On the other hand was our shared decision that we would work together to become financially independent. Since then, we have sold our car and downsized to a tiny beach apartment, which means we’re currently a hair’s breadth from being completely debt-free. There were other major changes, but the relatively straightforward decision to focus on our finances wound up turning into a complete upending of our lifestyle. When we look back, it’s hard to remember how we ever wandered around without really attending to what is now such an obvious and important aspect of our marriage.
This year, one of our big takeaways was that it’s time to level up our fitness. We’re planning to shift from riding the bus and walking to riding our bikes. Since my husband’s job is six miles away, this could get interesting. I’ve been a bike commuter before, and it’s a very, very simple change. The point is that focusing on one specific area of life - money, fitness, communication - can be revolutionary. Usually the results tend to be unimaginable.
Our experience of WDS was different, and we realized that we were diverging more compared to last year’s experience. He has leaned more toward academies and meetups about communication and networking, which means he has met a lot more people than I have. He’s also had deeper conversations with them. It’s really cute to see how people light up when they see him. Meanwhile, I have leaned more toward informational stuff that has me typing notes at warp speed. Part of this has to do with our situations. He’s been in his dream career for decades, and he really has very little to learn about improving anything to do with work, productivity, sense of purpose, or increasing his income. I’m an empath, for whatever that’s worth, and I’ve flailed in areas where he is quite strong. It’s like we’re both doing a circuit in opposite directions and we’ll meet on the other side of the building. I’m excited to notice the changes in his communication style, and he’s intrigued with my upcoming (and secret) projects.
One takeaway we both had this year is that we have a lot to offer as teachers. I brought him in to do a section of my Curate Your Stuff meetup, and we were both pleased and surprised at the response to a topic he didn’t even realize he was going to introduce until he did it. (System 2 thinking and flow state). It felt easy and natural to share a speaking role. We’ve talked about it throughout the week, and there are a few topics we might do together, as well as things we would lead separately. Being in Toastmasters together has also led us to collaborate on our speaking skills, as we mentor and critique each other. That ability, that skill of constructive criticism in a professional manner, has its own ripple effect. We’re able to look at more of our plans objectively, taking in each other’s advice eagerly, feeling that it increases our regard for each other.
There’s a whole missing section here in my recap about all the machinations and projects that I have planned. Reason being, I made a firm commitment a few years ago not to share anything that’s still in the gestation stage. Anyone who wants to know what I’m up to can read it here on this blog, every business day at 9 AM. Unfinished projects and future plans? Those are for me. This has to do with my theory of building up The Steam, rather than dissipating it by talking about the project, rather than working on the project.
As a side note, I write about 10-20 pages a day 7 days a week, and about 4-7 pages of it shows up here in the blog 5 days a week.
When we meet other WDS attendees who have come back multiple years, we ask them what they’ve noticed has changed. They all, invariably, say that they’re here for the people and the community more than the content of the presentations. It starts to be more and more clear just why that is. The kindness, the instant connection, the curiosity and positivity, the way that people tend to excel at possibility thinking and brainstorming. The chasm between typical WDS behavior and crabby, uncivil civilian behavior. For instance, a guy moved out of his seat on our plane trip today, saying, “I don’t want to sit next to anyone.” Well, alrighty then… how heartbreaking that you would deprive us of the delight of your company… I am starting to think that some people think they are misanthropes or cynics simply due to the nature of their particular social circle.
This is the time when my husband and I start asking ourselves, “What do I want to get done by WDS next year?” It comes up quite a bit. It’s a surprisingly strong motivator. Level up and level up again. How is what we’ve learned going to show up in our behavior and our results?
I do what I want in all situations. This is because I believe in free will. I happen to things. I may not be able to control everything that befalls me, but when events occur that I did not initiate, I still have the option to do what I want. Doing what I want doesn't always mean that I get what I want, although I usually do eventually. Doing what I want means that I recognize my ability to catalyze, initiate, maintain, or exit situations. I expand my center of power. I am the decider. I am the boss of me. The woman who does what she wants has a different experience of life than people who do not realize they have permission to do the same.
Ethics are a natural law. Whatever we do has ramifications. Consequences may be instantaneous, they may be delayed, they may build up over time, and they may be disproportionate to an action. I do what I want, recognizing that constraints apply to me. If I want to breathe underwater, I'll need to bring equipment. If I want my knees to bend backward like a perching bird, I'll need to use photo-editing tools. If I want total freedom to do what I want in society, I'll need to do it in the most effective way, which means abiding by applicable laws and regulations. I respect natural limitations because it's more convenient. Doing what I want means doing it over the long term. No fines, no fees, no asterisks.
I follow the categorical imperative. This means that anything I do should be something I would approve as policy if everyone else in the world did the same. I aim to treat others with civility. I clean up after myself. I work to increase my self-discipline, because it increases my personal power overall. Doing what I want does not mean being rude to other people, disrespecting boundaries, or taking things that don't belong to me. I don't need any of that anyway. My power comes from myself and my abilities, not from diminishing anyone else or misappropriating resources. It isn't necessary.
Doing what I want has almost nothing to do with anyone else.
I eat what I want, sleep when I want, wear what I want, and go where I want. I read what I want and listen to what I want. I definitely think whatever I want. How does a single one of these things impact anyone but me? I say what I want, which is not at all the same as saying whatever I think, and other people are free to react however they want. I associate with whoever I want, presuming the feeling is mutual.
I'm married. I married a man who appreciates that I do what I want. He does the same. He has always supported my endeavors and encouraged me to push my boundaries and abilities. It pleases him when I do well and learn new things. This is mutual. I inform him when I'm going to leave town, and he returns the favor. We ask before we use each other's tools. We teach each other things. We are friends and allies, like we were before we developed romantic feelings for each other. We talk and spend time together because we want to. We're in a committed, exclusive relationship because we want to be. Not everyone who has been in a relationship for over a decade can say the same.
There is a certain amount of naysaying around the idea of women doing what we want. Doing what we want is selfish; we're only allowed to put others first. Which others? All seven billion, of course. The second level of naysaying is that it's dangerous and we must Be Careful. I'm careful enough or I wouldn't still be here. I travel alone. I walk and run at night. I go on backpacking expeditions where I encounter potentially dangerous wild animals and fresh bear scat. I light fires and use power tools and sharp instruments. I know what I'm doing. Pretend I have a Y chromosome if that will make it easier for you to watch me doing what I want. The third level of naysaying is that women with children cannot do what they want. Please don't do this to your kids. Children need a grasp on reality to operate, and eventually they will discover the existence of women who do what they want, including moms. This will break their hearts because they'll feel that they stole your freedom and gave you half a life. Do what you want for yourself, for your kids, for your marriage, and for the rest of humanity. You're allowed to do things alone, to do things with only one child at a time, to do things with your friends, and to do things alone with your partner. If you can't bring yourself to do what you want, at least stand back and accept that others can and will. Doing what you want allows you to release your loved ones to do what they want.
I do what I want as a gift. When I am out and about in the world, I am available to make myself useful. I have helped people who have fallen on the street, I have called 911, I have stood up for people who were being bullied, I have chased after people with dropped mittens and wallets, I have grabbed kids who were running toward physical danger. It is a natural impulse. If I stayed at home feeling trapped and complaining about my life, I would not have been there to do any of those things for other people. I want to exert altruism. I want to collect heartwarming experiences of human connection. I have a custom FREE HUGS t-shirt that I wear on special occasions, and another that says LET'S MAKE FRIENDS. I want to rebuild the world my way, and that means taking the risk of trust. Trusting strangers.
I do what I want because it is nobody else's business but my own. If I want to make art, I decide whether it is art. Other people can think whatever they want about it. If I want to relax, I decide what I'm going to read or play and where I'm going to go. It's unlikely that anyone else will notice or care. I dress however I want, knowing that other people will have their opinions and that those opinions will all differ. Trying to please everyone means pleasing no one. I clean my house and exercise however I want, knowing that opinions vary about what is the correct way to do these things, and not caring. If I want to publish a book, I publish a book. If I want to go on a trip or run a race, I book the tickets and sign up. Again, most people will not notice. If I wanted to study martial arts, buy a horse or a house, start a new business or take voice lessons, I would, and someone would step forward to provide these services to me for an appropriate fee. Doing what I want is good for the economy if it affects anything or anyone at all.
I do what I want. I don't get a lot of complaints. This is because I don't wait for approval. Whatever you do in this world, someone will be interested and someone else won't. It's not their life. If I am bored or dissatisfied, I have only myself to blame. If I fail at doing what I want, it's good information for the next time I do what I want. I do what I want, and I think you should do what you want, too.
If you haven't read anything by Brene' Brown yet, do yourself a favor and move any of her books to the top of your list. This book in particular should be mandatory assigned reading for everyone in the human race. The name says it all. I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't). This book explains so much about why even our most casual conversations can be so unsatisfying and irksome. We're all looking for connection, yet somehow deflecting it without realizing when and why. At the root is shame.
Feelings of shame, rejection, and self-loathing are so dark and awful that you'd think we could figure out how to quit inflicting them on ourselves and one another! In my work with hoarding and squalor, shame is a constant. My people are virtually crippled by shame in most areas of their lives, feeling totally inadequate in anything and everything, whether it's the appearance of their body, house, or car, their career and finances, punctuality, or really just their ability to create positive change for themselves. We are so good at shaming ourselves and internalizing messages that we are not good enough, that being rejected or shamed or criticized by other actual living people can create devastating psychic wounds.
One of the first concepts we learn in this book is the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy turns out to be a cheap and easy substitute for empathy, a simulacrum that is unpleasant both to give and to receive. Another common conversational ploy is when one person shares something emotionally important, and another person responds by trying to outdo that story. "You think you've got it bad... that's nothing." We wait until the other person is done talking so we can have our turn. There's a strain in our culture that shames any deep emotion at all with a great big GET OVER IT. We'll do just about anything to escape real empathetic connection.
The point of I Thought It Was Just Me is to learn to recognize that we are not alone, that the feelings of isolation and shame we carry are universal. Everyone feels this way sometimes. Brene' Brown's shame research has led to the purpose of teaching us how to reach out past our own dark, painful feelings and truly connect with one another. We can find the courage to practice this revolutionary kind of compassion.
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.