When people say, "I wish I had your willpower," or "where do you get the motivation?" I think the quality they're actually imagining is grit. Grit is the ability to do things you don't want to do, when you don't feel like it and you're not in the mood, even when it's really hard - and to keep on doing those difficult things over and over again for as long as it takes. Authors Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Kovel bring us Grit to Great, an approachable book filled with real-life examples of people who used grit to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Grit makes a handy acronym for the traits of Guts, Resilience, Initiative, and Tenacity. Just reading these words makes me sit up a little straighter. You have to be brave enough to face things that scare you, flexible enough to deal with all the unpredictable frustrations that come up, bold enough to pursue your own ideas, and stubborn enough to never, never quit. The image from Grit to Great that brings this home to me the most is the story of James Henry, an illiterate fisherman who decided to learn to read at age ninety-two. If you're reading this, imagine not being able to. Suddenly life seems pretty cushy.
High IQ is not a significant predictor of success. Grit will outdo intelligence every time. People with higher education tend to be outperformed by less-educated entrepreneurs over and over again. The smarter we are, the more likely we are to find reasons to talk ourselves out of doing things. The larger problem is that of the fixed versus growth mindset. When we've always been told that we're smart, that we're good students, that we're well-behaved, etc, we tend not to push ourselves as hard. Expanding out of our comfort zones puts us at risk of failure, of challenging that image of the perfect A+ student. People with grit never quit. The desire to always be learning and improving and meeting new challenges means more failure on the small scale, but ultimately more success over a broader range.
I got a lot out of this book. I'm a big believer in the power of grit, but I hadn't realized all the ways that this quality is expressed. It made me determined. The example of Nick Wallenda caught my attention. He practiced walking a tightrope in 90-mph winds to prepare to cross the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. I also took heed of Jia Jiang's practice of Rejection Therapy, and Lee Yoon-Hye, a petite axe-wielding flight attendant who carried passengers to safety on her own back. These are the kinds of brave people I think about when I have to do something really hard, like fold laundry or wait in line. I can make my bed every morning, just like a Navy SEAL! (Except probably not as flat).
"If you want your dreams to become reality, wake up already."
"Happiness is not the absence of problems. It's the ability to deal with them." - Behavioral scientist Steve Maraboli
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.
Let's start by saying that obviously, all living creatures need to eat food to survive. Wild animals eat biologically appropriate foods in sufficient quantities; otherwise, they don't live long. Domesticated animals such as ourselves very likely don't eat with the same combinations, quality, quantity, or frequency that we would in a state of nature. One of the reasons that we eat dysfunctionally in our culture is to express our perceived identity.
As an example, many of us have a signature beverage. Go to a cafe or a bar and watch this in action. We often have opinions about what kind of person drinks certain drinks or brands, like they're some kind of personality index. We wear beverage logos on our clothes. Our favorite beverage is probably the first thing we think of when we imagine ourselves with time off.
We have brand loyalties, a 20th-century phenomenon that has carried forward. The industry term "heavy user" refers to a patron who visits a particular restaurant chain several times a week, perhaps more than once a day. We don't just love our favorite brands, we may also scoff at those who prefer a rival brand, to the great delight of advertisers.
Some of us identify as A Good Cook or as never cooking, refusing to cook. That always seems like leaving yourself at the mercy of other people's indifferent or nefariously bad cooking, but hey. There seem to be a lot of people who derive their identity from having a special, secret recipe. Personally, I like sharing great recipes because maybe sometimes someone else will cook it and I can enjoy it without doing the work!
We also tend to define ourselves based on things we refuse to eat. A quick, surefire way to make a new friend is to share about how much you hate eating something and then discuss it with someone else who also hates it. Kale, for example. People absolutely love talking about their most loathed vegetables for some reason.
Food taboos. A common ethnic slur across epochs and cultures is to say that another group of people eats disgusting, inappropriate foods. A classic example is dog meat. Objectively, pigs test as more intelligent than dogs, and from a neutral, space-alien perspective, it's wasteful to euthanize stray dogs rather than using that perfectly edible dogmeat for our caloric requirements. Still, we tend to find the idea pretty horrible, just as we probably wouldn't eat horseflesh or rat meat either. Part of our cultural identity includes eating certain animals for food but not others.
Bacon was such a major food trend for a while there that it got into everything. Bacon maple bars. Candied bacon ice cream topping. Bacon t-shirts. Bacon band-aids. Even bacon underpants. This is weird to me because I have thought bacon was repulsive and smelly since the very first time I tasted it, at age 6 or 7. The thing about bacon is that predominantly Christians (and atheists and Satanists, I guess) eat it. It's a reliable way to weed out Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and various health nuts in one fell swoop. Sort of the opposite of a food taboo - a food gauntlet? Eat Bacon or You Can't Sit With Us.
There's probably a lot of Red State/Blue State stuff in there, too, but I promise not to go there. Gawd do I hate talking politics.
Most of what we eat, most of the time, is probably very similar to what we ate as children. We eat what our family of origin ate. There is a "correct" menu for Thanksgiving dinner, for example. Many of us eat the same dozen dinners over and over again. Why would we change? This is how we roll. We eat the good stuff, not the yucky stuff.
How much of what we eat is based on the deliciousness of it, as distinguished from the habit of it, as opposed to feeling disgust toward other options?
Most social occasions revolve around food. Can it be a birthday without cake? Thanksgiving without turkey? Halloween without candy? Food is the most obvious way we know how to celebrate, followed by booze. Food connects us. Sharing meals brings us closer to our family and friends.
This is one of the reasons why permanent changes in food intake and body image are so hard. Making these changes causes us to separate from our food tribes. Those closest to us feel that our changes are really about them. Eating together validates and legitimizes our food choices. Our peers feel that when we decide to eat differently, we are challenging the way they eat, causing them inconvenience, asking for special treatment and attention, and setting ourselves apart as "better than" or "holier than thou." How selfish!
If you're diabetic or in recovery from an addiction, too bad. That's your problem.
We don't always accommodate others very well when the Standard American Diet isn't working for them. WHY CAN'T EVERYONE JUST EAT WHAT'S ON THEIR PLATE AND SHUT UP?? This is because it's not just about food units but about WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?
Eating what's in front of you - you'll eat it and you'll like it, or else - can feel like being correct, dutiful, respectful, responsible, frugal, mature, sensible, and simply common sense. Other reasons to eat a certain way might be because we feel that it's fun-loving, "real," and expressive of our independence. Nobody Tells Me What to Whatever. I'm eating this because I'm a free thinker, just like everyone else here at this table. We're authentic! The big thing is to definitely not cross over and start eating like one of Those People.
Those People might include Health Nuts. So extreme. Eating based on nutritional guidelines, especially if it includes more vegetables, is loopy, almost certainly fad-based and unhealthy, probably indicative of an eating disorder. What next, pyramid power or chanting or something?
I'm a Questioner, and I'm naturally drawn to investigate anything with taboo power. Why do people care so much about [whatever topic]? Hmm, how interesting. Why is [whatever] so controversial? Can actual objective facts be determined here, or has any real research been done? This part of my personality can often rub people the wrong way. Sorry! I just have to know. When I realized as a teenager just how much juice there was in people's attitudes toward food, I couldn't leave it alone. It led to basing my own eating habits on research, not exactly a party-friendly trait. My identity includes eating rationally, based on nutrition and dietetics. This is why it surprises me so much that most people seem to deliberately avoid eating healthily, because doing so would violate their self-image as well as group status.
Who am I if I start eating differently? How many meals does it take before I change into someone else? Or do I? Can I still feel like the same person if I eat certain things instead of others? Can I still fit in with my friends and family if I add and subtract certain foods from my plate? What would it be like if I based more of my identity around other values, rather than food items?
I only found it because I dropped something behind a shelf. Moving a storage tin to reach it, I discovered a very large black spider in its web. Compounding this moment of surprise was the fact that I was talking to my mom on the phone. The conversation went something like this: "Blah blah blah BLEARGHughohmygahhhh sorry what?" Then I had to wind it up because I really wanted to take a picture of the nefarious interloper, but I needed my phone camera. Sorry, Mom, that's really interesting but there's this spider to investigate...
Years ago, I decided to start carrying spiders and insects outside rather than crush them. The main reason is that they leave horrifying greasy smears on the wall. The whole time I'm wiping them away with my Magic Eraser, I'm thinking "spider guts bug guts spider guts..." There's also that gruesome crunch of the exoskeleton being cracked, or eight spider eyeballs popping off, or whatever. The occasional extra leg joint left behind on the floor. If I wanted to do crime scene cleanup, I would - I hear there's good money in that. I'm not squeamish, I'm... KIND! Yeah, that's right. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
My husband happened to be home, so I let him carry out the big scary black spider. He caught it in a plastic container, because it has a lid, and examined it out on the balcony.
"Um, babe? It has a big red hourglass on its belly."
We agreed to crush it, rather than release it to get back into our apartment, or one of our neighbors' apartments.
We had only lived in our new apartment for three weeks. We had carefully unpacked and set up each and every item from every box. If there had been a giant hairy black spider in any of the boxes, presumably we would have found it. It had to have come in either through the front door or the sliding patio door, since we don't actually have any windows. Either that, or it got in somewhere when it was tiny and then began growing when it was comfortably hidden away. None of these options are very reassuring.
Our dog has a habit of picking up spiders with his mouth, tossing them around several times, smacking them with his paw, and then wiping his cheek on the remains. Not great if this ever happens with a venomous spider like a black widow. I did some research, and venomous spider bites can cause paralysis and death in dogs and cats.
Here's the thing: spiders get in. They like nice, warm, dry hiding places. There is probably at least one spider in everyone's home at all times. Almost all spiders are totally harmless, and even beneficial. There are a few, though, that do bite humans, causing wounds that you probably don't want to see in Image Search. I have a relative who needed emergency treatment after a bite from a black widow spider. We need to discriminate about whether we tolerate spiders in our homes, and which type they are.
My clients tend to be very laissez-faire about, well, a lot of stuff, but particularly about spiders and vermin. Almost all of them will point out spiders in the cobwebs on their ceiling and say, "That's my pet." Believe it or not, it's also quite common for my people to tolerate mice and rats in their homes, even though I can give you at least fifty reasons why this is a horrible idea. They tend to be skeptical about mainstream health and safety information in general. Fire safety, germ theory, vermin... *shrug* Whatevs.
On the other extreme are the sensitive souls who are so alarmed by the prospect of finding a spider that they use it as an excuse to avoid moving anything. There might be a spider in that closet! There are definitely spiders in the shed/garage/attic/basement... There might be a spider behind that box! Or IN that box! Cue full-body shudder.
This, to me, is the best possible reason to clean up. There might BE a spider in there. Better find it before it carries your cat into its web! If there's a spider anywhere in my home, I'm going on a search and destroy mission and I'm not stopping until I find it. Spike is right there with me, sometimes dispatching the poor creature before I can get it into the Eviction Container. I'm not waiting around until it crawls into my bed, which has happened more times than I care to share.
One morning I woke up and saw a pretty darn big spider crawling on my sheets. Not fully awake, I reached my arm out and crushed it with my finger. I felt it squirm. THEN I woke up all the way.
I first went camping at age two. Part of the wilderness lore I was taught included always checking your shoes before you put them on. When I'm camping, I stuff my socks into my shoes or boots after I take them off, to discourage any spiders, scorpions, or anything else from crawling inside. At home, I keep all my footwear in a hanging shoe rack, where I hope it would be a great deal of trouble for some crawly thing to discover them and try to make a home inside one. I still check, every shoe, every time. Once I left my shoes on the floor and found a cat toy inside, presumably from my roommate's cat. Gee, uh, thanks?
I also make sure to put my laundry in the hamper, again because I don't want to create an enticing new home for anything that has more legs than I do.
I would no sooner dream of putting on clothes I had left on the floor overnight than I would eating leftovers out of someone's fridge blindfolded. The idea of pulling on a pair of pants with a spider hidden inside one leg is scarier to me than... now that I think about it, it's literally scarier to me than walking down a dark alley alone.
The main difference between my home and the homes of my clients is that I have a lot of visible bare wall. I don't have stacks or piles or box towers for stuff to hide behind. I don't have a lot of bulky furniture. Even though our apartment is under 700 square feet, we have plenty of breathing room around our stuff. I was able to find the big black widow spider behind our shelves because those shelves are for active use storage. Nothing sits in one place for very long before it is taken out, used, and put back.
My contention is that we should be intentional about our homes. Everything we own, everything that comes through our doors, and the way everything is arranged should be exactly as we choose it to be. Sometimes we are temporarily beset by unintentional additions, such as junk mail, fruit flies, or the occasional still-mobile creature carried in by one of our pets. Part of our plan for intentional living should be to figure out what to do with unwelcome interlopers, removing annoyances as they come up. Hopefully we won't have to smear them on the wall.
If everything in your house cost one dollar, how much did you spend on it?
How many individual items do you own? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?
The premise here is that for many of us, our "net worth" consists of our personal belongings plus debt. This is a classic symptom of scarcity mindset that often leads to broke people having far more possessions than wealthy people do. Examining how much hidden abundance we actually have in our lives is the first step toward feeling our way into actual abundance.
Now, let's start looking around. Those of us deep in scarcity mindset are going to be pretty well convinced that we don't spend money on anything. Our focus will immediately turn to those things we received as gifts, salvaged, bought at a thrift store or yard sale, built ourselves, or that we have had so long they have fully depreciated. There may well be someone reading this who has transitioned to full money-free living, and if so, by all means please send me a note! I'd love to hear from you! The rest of us, well, we probably do have at least a trickle of money coming into our lives, and it's likely trickling right back out in one form or another. Rent, utilities, food, debt payments, and other expenses do occur that we feel are locked in to our scarcity lifestyle.
It also tends to go to items we feel like we can afford. Snacks and sodas. Discount and sale items. Used books. Inexpensive holiday decorations. We're more likely to feel we can "afford" items that cost under a certain dollar amount than we are to consider our expenses as a total annual cost. I realized at one point that I was spending $300 a year on vending machine snacks, when I never would have dreamed of spending that identical $300 in a lump sum on something like a dining table, a vacuum cleaner, or a fridge.
Another hallmark of scarcity mindset is never feeling like we have ENOUGH of something. When everything we own is sub-optimal in some way, we're always questing for something better. That tends to result in, say, five pairs of $10 shoes that fit poorly rather than one pair of $50 better-quality shoes. Same fifty bucks! The difference is that the scarcity purchasing leads to constant discomfort and a bulging closet, while the abundance purchase of the single, actually-good-enough pair leads to satisfaction. Multiply by every category of possession and a scarcity house will have 5x more stuff than an abundance house for the same number of total dollars.
The attention, focus, and awareness we place on bargaining and negotiating to get our material needs met can also be applied to finding ways to increase our earning power. The better we are at functioning on an extremely low income, the better use we would make of a higher income. We can only cut our expenses down to zero, but there IS NO UPPER LIMIT to how much we can earn. There is a finite lower limit but an infinite ceiling. Can I say that in other ways that make more sense so it will sink in? It is much easier to think of many ways to bring in more money than it is to think of even one more way to save money.
Cash flow is very abstract, while our possessions are very concrete. I can hold this stuffed animal in my hand, while I can't guarantee that this supposed earning power really exists, or will continue to exist next year. I'm already doing everything I know how to do - I simply can't imagine myself in a position that could bring in a higher income. I have no idea what would be different about my life if my income were that much higher. I don't know what I would buy or not buy. What I do know right now is that this is my life, this is my home, these are my things, and this is all I have. I have enough problems without foolish fantasies and woo-woo thinking exercises.
My clutter clients have an astonishing amount of stuff. Even for single people who live alone, each room can easily have double to 5x more items than most homes would have. There are sometimes entire closets or rooms that are packed solid. A closet will have stuff poking out the bottom of the door, or a room cannot be entered because even the doorframe is full from top to bottom and from side to side. Even discounting the paper clutter, gifts, and hand-me-downs, there is plenty of stuff that cost the owner money at some point. Sometimes it's duplicate items that arose from chronic disorganization, like pens, shopping bags, or an extra case of paper towels. Sometimes it's the result of compulsive accumulation, like magazines, cosmetics, holiday decorations, or shoes. It almost always includes books, clothes, and stockpiles of extra food. I NEED THIS BECAUSE I HAVE NOTHING.
Thrift stores can be an irresistible attraction when we're poor, or when we feel like we are poor, which is more important than actual cash flow in terms of mindset. Surely nothing I bought in the $1-$5 range actually counts, does it? Well, yes. When there's so much stuff in a house that it has to be piled, when there are so many clothes that they can cover the floor in even one room, it adds up. The cost adds up. A hundred $1 items, fifty $1.99 items, twenty $5 items, perhaps some of each, represent not just clutter but the absence of $100 or $200 or $300 of emergency savings. It isn't much, but often even that $100 can make the literal difference between a bill getting sent to collections or not. An envelope with even the smallest amount of emergency savings can represent peace of mind in a way that no physical possessions can.
The question is, what do we have to show for all our hard work and all the bitter tears we've wept over our financial desperation? How much is in our various bank accounts (and envelopes) as opposed to spread out on every flat surface, including the floor? If we could wave a wand and have a dollar bill instead of any and every possession of our choice, how quickly would we be out of debt? How many lifestyle upgrades could we suddenly afford? We want to look at our financial outlay as buying the best quality of life we can get for our hard-earned money. There are very few material possessions that can contribute as much as savings, investments, and confidence can.
This is a money book for people who are resistant and uncomfortable when the topic of money comes up, people who don't think of money as a healthy or fun thing to think about. The Art of Money is the perfect book for creative, sensitive people who are looking for something more appealing and unconventional, a way to see finance as self-care.
Bari Tessler is a financial therapist. When she started her business, there was only one other person using that title, and now it has become an official profession. It turns out that anyone of any income level can have emotional issues around money. It's been my experience that talking openly about money can feel even more awkward and negatively charged for most people than talking about divorce, body image, trauma, or abuse. My clients tend to feel that thinking about money and increasing their income is materialistic, although their hoarding and compulsive accumulation is not, especially since many of their belongings were acquired at a discount or as castoffs or gifts. I see hoarding as primarily a symptom of scarcity mindset, inextricably bound with money as a flow of energy. This stuff matters.
Tessler talks about how her clients sometimes "check out" mentally when they are shopping or dealing with financial matters. I see this in my work, too, in the form of 'clutter blindness.' We choose to stop noticing certain things, or sing "LA LA LA LA LA" internally so that we can block out uncomfortable information. Tessler teaches a Body Check-In tool to bring our awareness back to the present moment.
The Art of Money walks us through how to bring more self-compassion into our relationship with money. We can learn to forgive ourselves and others, grieve past incidents, and work through delicate conversations about our finances. We can learn to recognize our Money Story and tell a new one. We can choose for ourselves what we consider to be the Basic, Comfortable, and Ultimate Money Tiers.
One of the practices in the book is to have a Money Date with your partner. (Life partner, business partner, financial planner - any kind of partner). I can attest to how helpful this is. My husband and I do this every Saturday morning, as part of a breakfast business meeting we call Status Meeting. ("Do you want to status your status?") I've learned how good he is at analyzing profit and loss statements, and he's learned how good I am at researching and picking stocks. Talking about money together is usually exciting and interesting for us, and it definitely helps us to bond and feel more respect and confidence in our relationship. No dark shadows. I can even say that 'financializing' problems sometimes makes it easier for us to discuss them together, when we feel that there is some way this problem can be solved with money.
Having more money can't solve every problem, but I believe it can solve most of them. More leeway for urgent family visits; more money for alternative health care, better nutrition, and insurance; more financial cushion; more money for education and professional credentials; more breathing room to make major transitions; more room for charity and gifts; greater ability to afford better-quality stuff that just works and doesn't break down all the time.
What I've found in my work is that people often suffer from lack of imagination: what would we do differently if things were easier? What do we want the most? What is our heart's desire? What would make us feel the happiest and most fulfilled? What would feel more positive in our life? The Art of Money is a truly excellent way to start finding answers to those questions.
Luck and good fortune are just as distinct as fate and destiny. We don't always recognize the difference, either in ourselves or in others. We attribute the good fortune of others to luck, just as we attribute our own circumstances to fate. They get all the unfair advantages, while we are subject to all the crises and disasters. Only when we learn to recognize the hidden patterns and choice points and systems followed by the Fortunate Ones do we discover that we have the power to join their ranks.
Let's all pause and lift a glass to the memory of our medieval ancestors. Most of their children died before age seven. Almost all of them were stunted and wizened from early fevers and malnutrition. This can clearly be seen when visiting historic buildings, with their tiny low door frames. However we may feel about our own situation, we can grudgingly admit that we are unlikely to be enslaved, forced to build roads, put in the stocks, starved in a siege, or dead of an epidemic like the bubonic plague. If we were living a thousand years ago, we would probably each be illiterate, smelly, and sleeping on a bed of straw at night, waking up to intermittent toothache. In this context we can feel a sense of our good fortune. The 21st century is a fabulous time to be alive.
Extreme poverty has been cut roughly in half in the past 25 years. Many of us may see the total elimination of extreme poverty in our lifetimes. When we consider our own good fortune, it increases our sense of abundance, from which the wellspring of charity arises. I have been sponsoring a student in Zambia for the past 4-5 years on what I used to spend on soda: a dollar a day. I am fortunate to be able to do this, just as my chosen student is lucky that I saw her photo instead of someone else's.
It was good fortune that gave me access to an excellent public education; it was luck that assigned me to certain teachers rather than others.
It is good fortune that I am employable; it was luck that placed me in the temp assignment where I met my future husband, rather than the real estate gig across the hall. (Where, three years later, the housing crisis would have certainly impacted my job, if I had still been working there).
It is good fortune that I have full use of all my limbs and faculties; it's luck when I find money on the sidewalk or cross paths with someone I know. These lucky incidents happen more often, because I spend comparatively more time walking outside, because I choose not to own a car.
I'm lucky that I have survived various accidents and routine trips without permanent injury. I create my own good fortune by eating a nutritious diet and constantly increasing my fitness level.
It was bad luck that the IRS erroneously billed me for $8000. I created my own good fortune by disputing the claim successfully, by avoiding consumer debt, and by pushing to expand my career opportunities and income. What I do to earn and manage my income over 25 years has far more impact than a random expense.
Fate gives us one family heritage instead of another; destiny is what we create through our own actions. We can mangle a good reputation, burn through a trust fund, or develop an addiction no matter how grand a family we were born into. We can rise from poverty and dysfunction to any height based on how we shape our character around the events that befall us.
I was unlucky one day, and I fell over backward in my office chair and got up with a dislocated hip. That accident seems to have been the triggering event that led to my developing fibromyalgia. Bad luck! What those years of pain and fatigue and general suffering did was to give me an endlessly burning motivating force to maintain a higher level of health and fitness. Because I know how bad it can be to wake up in a broken body, I will never stop pushing for something better. I wasn't lucky to run a marathon; I was fortunate that I could (and did) plan and save and train for it for four years.
Adversity teaches us either gratitude or helplessness. Shared adversity both builds and destroys relationships. It's not the event so much as the interpretation of the event, not the timeline but the perspective. Whenever I feel sorry for myself, I think of Stephen Hawking, and how I'll never suffer five percent of what he has, or produce five percent as much that benefits posterity.
I am incredibly fortunate to have an education, to be of sound mind and body, and to be happily married. I'm fortunate because I was able to overcome all the bad luck that came my way. But the happy part of my marriage came about through communication and attitude, not luck. My fitness level came about through a thousand workouts and ten thousand meal choices, not luck. My higher education came about through half a dozen side gigs, dozens of all-nighters, hundreds of pages written, thousands of pages read, and a lot of effort, not luck. Overcome the bad luck, amplify the good luck.
It's part of the human condition to trust untrustworthy people, to get ill, to stumble through collisions and spills and falls and accidents, to incur unanticipated expenses. Strife is mandatory. We are given neither the day nor the hour, and we get one lifespan, length variable. This is why we learn, with imagination, to choose gratitude. Acceptance, at the bare minimum. If we can't accept that we have the power to make things better, at least we can acknowledge that it could always be worse.
Every New Year, someone I know will make a public commitment to start making smoothies every morning. Every time, I would do a facepalm. I always tell people that smoothies are too messy, expensive, and time-consuming to make a Resolution we can keep. Also, the main reason people seem to choose smoothies is that they think drinking juice has magical weight loss powers. Like every other possible habit, juicing works in certain contexts and fails in others. For my purposes, I can now say that green juice does work.
We eat a lot of vegetables in my household. While my husband and I have both always had admirably low cholesterol, we have also had trouble getting the "good" cholesterol known as HDL, or high density lipoproteins, high enough. I just had a standard lipid panel done, and my HDL had gone from 38 mg/dL (too low) to 50 (medium). What changed? The addition of several servings of green juice every week.
I only need one good reason to do something, just as I only need one good reason to quit doing something. I wanted to increase my HDL, and I started drinking green juice, and my HDL went up. Perfection. Now, I just need to get it up to 60.
Does juicing help with weight loss? I think the majority of the time, it definitely does not. The reason for that is that most people do not have any nutritional knowledge, which is not our fault, and thus we don't know how to evaluate our food intake as a whole. By the month or year rather than by the meal or individual item. We tend to believe that adding or subtracting a specific food or category of food is the answer, based on trends and product marketing, when there is no single food that has magical dietary or nutritional powers. Adding more calories to an excess weight issue is going to compound that issue. It's pretty easy to drink hundreds of calories in just a few minutes.
When juicing aids weight loss, it's because the juice replaces an entire meal.
My husband and I did a juicing program for a week, and we did lose weight. That's because we drank juice for breakfast and lunch, and ate only soup or salad or steamed vegetables for dinner. Sure, yes, following a strict meal replacement program like this will induce weight loss. Going back to a Standard American Diet afterward will inevitably lead to regaining that weight.
People think that "diets don't work" due to pop culture. Diets absolutely do work. What doesn't work is the idea that we can eat "normally" the rest of the time. What has to happen is that we have to fundamentally change everything we eat, permanently. We have to reevaluate what we think is normal. There are so many unhealthy, obesogenic aspects to American food culture that any one element is enough to cause steady weight gain all by itself.
Excessively large portions.
Snacking between meals.
High-fructose corn syrup.
Added sugars (glucose, sucrose, fructose, sugars, syrups).
Drinking our calories.
Catastrophically low proportions of dietary fiber.
Chronic malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency.
Eating for entertainment, identity, autonomy, and temporary mood repair.*
...and I think a certain portion of the blame goes directly to cheese.
What I've learned through my own weight loss journey is that adding more power vegetables, increasing my micronutrient intake, drinking significantly more water, and getting more sleep have all worked together to reduce my food cravings. Often, foods I used to crave taste bad to me now, especially salty foods like popcorn and corn chips.
How much more water? In my case, like triple. I almost never drank water before.
How much more sleep? In my case, about 50% more. I used to sleep 5-6 hours a night, and now I sleep 8-9.
How many more vegetables? In my case, about quadruple. Now we eat 2-4 cups of power vegetables with dinner every night, in addition to the green juice.
What do I mean by power vegetables? Mostly cruciferous vegetables. That specifically means broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, kale, and collard greens. We also eat a lot of chard, which is not cruciferous but is high in potassium.
Anything else, I refer to as "sprinkles" or "decorations." Lettuce, tomato, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, peas, green beans, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, bell peppers... that stuff we just eat for fun. It doesn't "count." Corn is candy.
One of the things about juicing that works for some people is that it can help to disguise the taste and texture of power vegetables. If you gag on certain foods, it's going to be hard work to retrain yourself around flavor and mouthfeel, but it can be done. (I never hear people say that they love eating certain foods like ice cream or chocolate because "it's the texture;" it only comes up as an excuse to avoid eating foods that contain fiber and micronutrients). Anecdotally, all the picky eaters in my acquaintance weigh more than they want to weigh, and I think this is because they lean toward and away from predictable categories of foods. Toward soda, desserts, starches, fried foods, and dairy; away from fruits, vegetables, and all high-fiber whole foods that require real chewing. This hypothesis of mine is objectively testable.
Juicer or blender? We got a Vitamix blender because everything we put in it goes into the juice. That includes the kale stems, apple peels, flax seeds, or whatever else we want to throw in. Juicing spits the pulp out of the back, wasting most of the dietary fiber, creating less volume of juice, costing money, and making a ginormous, hideous mess. Cleaning a juicer is ten times harder than cleaning a blender, especially an expensive blender like the Vitamix that doesn't have a bunch of removable parts.
What goes in our juice?
Five leaves of kale
Two cups of ice cubes
1/2" chunk of ginger root, including peel
2 cups pre-made juice, either green or purple juice
We drink 32 ounces each most afternoons, splitting the pitcher between us. On weekends, that's what we have for lunch. Note that we don't try to fuss with it in the mornings. Too noisy, too messy, too time-consuming, too complicated. Instead it goes into a time slot when we are wide awake as well as hungry.
We'll keep making green juice, as we have done for the last several months, because it's not inconvenient and we've made it into a routine. The Vitamix sits on the counter because it's too tall for any of our kitchen cupboards. We go to the grocery store 2-3 days a week, because we don't have a car, and that makes it easy to keep buying fresh fruit and kale. Making the juice takes less than five minutes, including washing the produce. We can afford it. We like the taste. It has turned out to be a faster way to get an extra serving of a cruciferous vegetable than making a complicated lunch or doubling up at dinner. The fact that green juice has helped to increase our micronutrients and increase our HDL is now automatic to our daily routine. It's not a Resolution anymore, but a habit we can keep.
* I know exactly what I mean by this, but I realize it probably sounds esoteric and merits its own post
Some time ago, I wrote about not having a nightstand on my side of the bed. This generated a reader letter full of inquiries and guesses about my weird lifestyle, like how I "must not wear a watch." I am still laughing about this. I often forget how contrarian my domestic arrangements are. One of these strange choices is to never have a coffee table.
I HATE COFFEE TABLES. There, I said it. I also hate lamps and glass furniture. I mean, I'm sure all your lamps are gorgeous, but for my own home, I want nothing to do with floor lamps or table lamps. We actually have a piece of glass furniture right now, the stand for the TV, and it starts visibly collecting dust as I'm in the process of dusting it. If I weren't such a tightwad, I would have replaced it already. My main criterion for furniture and decor is its functionality. If it annoys me, it's toast.
What is the deal with coffee tables? I've stubbed my toe many times in my life, and I'm pretty sure it's been on the leg of a coffee table every time. They just sit there, taking over the center of the living room, lying in wait for my poor vulnerable bare feet. They're like alligators. I've also bruised my shin on them, and when I was about four years old, I tripped and smacked my head on one. All of these were different tables, which is proof that either there is a conspiracy or they come from the devil.
The other problem with coffee tables is that they are clutter magnets. The only time they get cleaned off is if, like, the in-laws are coming over or something. The rest of the time, they're generally buried under various food containers, mail, books, action figures, craft supplies, nail polish, pet toys, and who knows what else. Whatever we're interacting with during screen time, there it lands and there it stays.
When I got my own apartment for the first time in, what, twelve years? I refused to have a coffee table. My living room was really small, and it's not like I was missing anything. When I upgraded my couch a year later, I got... an ottoman! This to me is luxury. There's always somewhere big and foofy to put my feet up. If I have a lot of people over, it can be pulled aside and used as an extra chair. Because it has a squishy soft top, the only thing I'm ever tempted to leave on it is, at most, a book.
After I got married again, I merged households with my husband, my stepdaughter, and their dog. We added a second couch with its own ottoman. Years later, it turns out to be one of the dog's favorite cozy spots. He will stare at you soulfully, with his snoot in your lap, until you invite him up and spread a blanket over him. He will stretch out on the ottoman, hugging your leg, and fall asleep and start twitching his feet. You should try it sometime on a damp, chilly night.
Okay, we can all agree on the delights of the ottoman as a home furnishing. Can't we have them and still have coffee tables? Well, sure, why the heck not. If you want one, you go right ahead. Knock yourself out. I hope that doesn't literally happen when your coffee table jumps out at you with mutiny on its mind.
Where do we put our coffee, though? I dunno. My husband and stepdaughter and I all hate coffee, and we certainly don't give it to the dog. A rat terrier on caffeine is, besides being veterinary malpractice, an extremely alarming prospect. We'd have to hang a safety net over our balcony so he didn't bounce out. Three of the four bipeds drink tea. We just drink it at the table, or stand up and carry our empty teacups into the kitchen.
What do we do with all the other stuff that tends to wind up strewn all over most coffee tables? Let's see. We read our news digitally, so we don't have physical newspapers or magazines. We eat at the dining table, so we don't have plates or bowls to leave out in the living room, and we don't really eat snack foods. If I paint my nails, I do it sitting on the bathroom floor, partly because I can sit on the floor (and intend to retain the ability) and partly because I've been known to spill. When we work on craft projects, we have to put them away between sessions, because neither of our pets are at all trustworthy around these things. I distinctly recall spending twenty minutes gathering knitting yarn that Spike: Puppy Version carried out the dog door and wound around every bush and shrub in our yard. One of my birds actually flew off with a crochet hook. Come to think of it, the main reason we avoid clutter in our home is because almost everywhere is Pet Zone.
You know a bit about my living situation now. I don't have a coffee table or a nightstand or a floor lamp or a coffee maker or a recliner or holiday decorations or a wall clock, all because of reasons. I do have a robotic mop and a robotic vacuum cleaner and a battery-powered scrubber for my bathtub, also because of reasons. My home is my castle, the place where I spend the majority of my time, and also the line item where we spend the majority of our money. Look around your own home and consider whether you have all the attractions you want, and whether anything is there simply due to tradition and entropy.
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.