It’s been said that we create our own reality. I believe that is only true to a certain extent. It does seem obvious, though, that we can have more or less influence over our lives depending on how prepared we are.
Preparation, not prediction. It’s a futurism thing.
We can’t necessarily guess what’s going to happen next, whether in the near or distant future.
I didn’t guess that I would get COVID-19 last March, that’s for sure. As a senior in high school, I never guessed that I would wind up working in the space industry - since there effectively *was no* space industry at that time. Anyone who pauses to think about it can probably list of a bunch of events that were major surprises when they happened.
Everyone has major surprises at some point or other. Sometimes those surprises happen to all of us at once, like a category five storm, or a global pandemic. (Just because you don’t believe in it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t believe in you).
The question isn’t what happens, the question is how we react to what happens.
The further question is, what do we *make happen* regardless of external events?
Everyone responds to stress and trauma in different ways, and there’s no right answer. There’s no correct speed or reaction time when something goes wrong. I would never say otherwise.
Personally, though, I strongly resent being toppled by external events. Shocks in my life like my early divorce, an IRS error, or getting COVID have been deeply, shall I say, offensive and annoying. My response is to drag myself back to my feet and keep on pushing.
That’s why I applied for a job when I still wasn’t 100% convinced that I would survive COVID. I wasn’t about to quit setting goals just because I might die in a couple days.
(I tried. I tried to officially relinquish all my goals, but my system didn’t really accept it).
What if you can’t guess what’s going to happen next?
Well, you can. Anyone can take a wild guess. Can you get it right? By the time you know the answer to that, it’s a moot point because you already know the answer.
This is the inherent frustration of living in the place of uncertainty.
There are probably infinite ways to deal with the emotional load of being in the place of uncertainty. One of them is to shrug, and another is to go WHEEEEE and wave your arms in the air. Of course another is to curl into a ball with your hands over your head.
My preferred way is to go back to strategy.
The great thing about finding out that the rules have all suddenly changed is that, guess what? If the old rules no longer apply, then it’s likely that almost *no rules* apply.
You can step out of the maelstrom with a new identity.
Not to say that it’s easy. It’s not.
It hasn’t been easy, for example, to get onboarded at a new job while still recovering from a near-death experience. It’s hard to learn proficiency in half a dozen new software titles while still so tired that it’s hard to sit up straight.
It felt familiar, though. It felt a lot like getting back on my feet after my divorce.
This is why people who have lived through hard times can look back and say that it all turned out okay. Not that going through trauma has any sort of intrinsic value - I don’t think that it does at all.
It’s more like being backed into a corner by life forces people to be more decisive and bold than usual. We spend more time strategizing because that’s our only choice, and if we made it out, that’s why. We finally thought of options that normally wouldn’t have occurred to us, and did things that were out of character because that felt like the only choice that made sense.
This is where preparation comes into the picture.
What I did after my divorce was to eventually go back to school and get my degree. That put me in a significantly better position to deal with the next batch of high weirdness that life threw my way.
There is nothing about college that makes a natural and obvious connection to ending a marriage. “I have nothing, let’s add thousands of dollars in debt” is not an automatic response, right?
It just seemed to be the most obvious place to add skills, and adding skills is always a good answer.
I reacted the same way when I was bucked off my horse by COVID. Should I keep on doing what I was doing before? Not really, not when I had just had a universal reset.
Instead I thought, what is the most interesting thing I could be doing right now? And I got a new job.
Other people in other situations might have a natural “most obvious” repositioning station. For some, it would probably be moving in with their parents, especially if there was a need for a caregiver around the place. For others, it might be selling all their stuff and relocating, or taking some time off and getting their teeth fixed, or something else that feels more personal and necessary.
What is always helpful is to regroup and try to put things in their new, oddball perspective.
Remember, when times are tough, that every minute feels like a million years. It isn’t clear at all what the right choices are, or how things will turn out. That’s prediction and it isn’t something that humans are very good at.
In retrospect, though, what felt like forever might only be a few months.
Looking backward from whatever happened next in the storyline, whatever was going on during that time of mysterious transition won’t even be an interesting footnote. Nobody will care.
I could tell my story as “my husband left me and I lived on my friend’s couch for a year” - which happened over twenty years ago - or I could say, “I got a degree in history and then I became a futurist, and let me tell you what I think about lunar habitats.” Both versions are true.
That’s how preparation can turn into prediction. In that one sense, whatever you do to prepare for your next phase of life has the ability to predict how your life will turn out. You can shape it if you choose which direction you want to go and put yourself in motion.
Disrupt yourself or be disrupted. This is something I think about all the time. It’s probably more obvious, after this year of grace 2020, that it really does apply to everyone.
Whatever you’re doing, whatever your default mode is, something about it may be permanently affected by external circumstances.
This can be good or bad.
The same event may devastate one person, and it may be the making of someone else.
I’ll use myself as an example. I got COVID-19 early, before the shutdown, and it ruined my life. I’m still having heart arrhythmia and shortness of breath eight months later. On the other hand, I applied for my dream job while I was still sick, and now I’m making 50% more than I did at my last job.
There is something about feeling your life force draining away, feeling like you will probably be dead within two days, that has a tendency to reset your attitude toward life.
Not that this was a good thing, not at all. Being that ill was profoundly depressing. I felt that my death would be a sad and pointless waste, that I would leave my husband a widower for the dumbest possible reason. I went to brunch and then I died at age 44.
The world would simply go on without me and my existence would barely have mattered.
That was when I started wondering what I would do differently if I managed to survive. If I got up out of the bed and started feeling healthy again, what would I do?
Would I just forget it had ever happened?
Or would I use this terrible experience as some kind of pivot point?
The same can be true of anyone, about any awful thing.
We all have the power to determine our own attitude.
We don’t have the power to prevent terrible events. We can’t stop tornados or landslides or earthquakes or volcanos or hurricanes. We’re all, in some ways, at the mercy of economic, political and cultural forces.
For instance, nothing in my power was able to prevent the advent of leggings worn as pants.
I can’t do much about my slow healing process, either. I have spent most of this year trying to get better, resting and eating lots of cruciferous vegetables. It’s taking the time that it takes.
What I did was to ask myself, Can I handle working while I don’t feel very good?
If I felt tired and low-energy for the rest of my career, could I still do it?
It feels unfair to me to be in this position, but the answer is, Yes. I can get through a workday even if my energy level is like a 4 out of 10.
What changed after my brush with death is that I understood, in a deep way, how much more useful I am than a dead person. As a cadaver, I could not update spreadsheets or help people edit their technical papers. As a living person, even a low-energy living person, there were things I could DO. That was what I wanted for myself, to contribute in a way that a corpse could not.
See, I’m a whole body donor? But after COVID my poor organs are probably too chewed up and drooled on to be suitable as a gift to someone else. I didn’t have the consolation of feeling that my corneas might live on.
My mind would have to live on instead.
Not everyone will have my reaction, of course. By the end of this, probably at least two million people will have died of coronavirus around the world. Others have had limbs amputated, lost their hearing, had psychotic breaks, and all sorts of other side effects that are far worse than mine.
Arguably there are all sorts of things that are worse than being deathly ill for a month. I would never contest that.
For me, the perspective is, it’s bad enough that the terrible event happened. I had to give it what it demanded. After that, I’m reclaiming my time. It’s up to me to do whatever I can now.
Nothing specific about that word “do.”
Not “doing whatever I can” about my health, or converting COVID skeptics, or anything else specific. My position is simply to DO. To do anything a living person can do that a dead person cannot do any longer.
When I lay in my sickbed, I fantasized about being able to stand up and take a shower every day without leaning on the tiles. I fantasized about being able to get dressed and put on my socks without having to rest and catch my breath for two hours afterward. I fantasized about being able to make myself a sandwich.
I’m there now. I have those victories.
It’s a surprisingly cheerful place to be.
The novelty has not worn off yet. I’m still grateful to be able to shower and dress and make my own lunch.
I never thought I would be grateful about logging in to work and doing projects on a deadline. But I see it differently now. I still see it as my ability to contribute something and help other people get things done. Whenever someone thanks me for doing even a minor thing, there is still that little sparkle, that I did something a ghost could not.
Other people have had terrible experiences during this sad and terrible year. Others have lost close family members. Others have lost their jobs. Others have been evicted. Others are homeless. I would hesitate to give advice to anyone in one of those circumstances, but I would not hesitate to hear them out if they wanted to talk.
I’m also not sure if this would be helpful to anyone who is going through a hard time, even the same hard time that I had, because we all have different perspectives and different moods and different emotional settings. I would say, though, that it’s helpful to me to remind myself of all the problems I do not have.
In comparison, I have never managed to think of a hard circumstance that I would choose over my own hard circumstance.
I guess all I really wanted to say is that hard times don’t have the right to destroy us.
There’s got to be at least a little small part of a person that can remain bright and untouched, no matter what happens.
For me, that was the desire to be of service, to feel that I had done something to contribute to something larger than myself. I wanted to be back in the game and be a part of something. COVID-19 tried to take that away from me, but it failed.
What is that thing for you?
I feel super dumb right now, and I don’t know what to do with this feeling other than to 1. Broadcast it in public and 2. Come up with a plan to deal with it.
Why do I feel dumb? Because I’ve been taking math placement tests, and apparently I need to redo stuff I supposedly learned in fifth grade.
Is this an after-effect of COVID-19? Maybe?
Or is it more like all the other people around my age who are trying to help their kids do their math homework, only to discover they don’t teach it the way we learned it in the Eighties?
Either way, it’s basically like this. Either I sit down and shut up and start re-learning how to use decimals, or I give up on taking the GRE.
One way to look at it is that at least grade-school math should be somewhat easy. I can get math games with cute animals and fun sound effects. As far as I could tell, none of that sort of thing is available for adult-style things, like filling out more complicated tax forms for the first time or forming a corporation.
Another way to look at it is that I have spent the last several years forcing myself to take on the worst, most obnoxious challenges I could come up with, and that this is just the last one on the list.
What have been the hardest things for you to learn to do in your life?
For me they were learning to drive, getting over my fear of public speaking, and learning to take a punch in Krav Maga. I did all those things. The first one made me cry myself into a sick headache, the second one made me think I was going to faint, and the third one was, well, kinda awesome.
Maybe what is different there is that I found it humiliating to be so bad at driving, humiliating to be rendered so overwrought by the simple act of standing behind a lectern - yet martial arts made me feel brave and powerful.
(After, that is, I hit my head on the floor trying to do sit-ups).
This is just another one of those things that I do. I supposedly like to start from a place of abject uselessness and gradually work my way up to a level of basic competence. I can look back at all my hard work and confirm that it works, that grinding away at something will eventually get you somewhere.
More importantly, I can look at my new-found skill and think, I’ll never be as bad at this as when I started, ever again.
Why math, though? Or, rather, arithmetic? Why would I do this to myself??
What’s particularly rough about this is that I work with astrophysicists and aerospace engineers. Our shipping clerks and security guards are probably demonstrably better at basic math than I am today.
The other rough thing is that I’m a card-carrying Mensan. It doesn’t even seem to fit.
How does that even happen? Like my husband, I’m unusually gifted in one area while pretty average at another. For him, math is the big kid on teeter-totter, and spelling is the little kid about to get slammed onto the ground. For me, it’s more of the reverse. I can live-translate in two languages on the same afternoon, but I need total silence before I can calculate a tip.
Something weird about all this is that I am good with money, budgets, and estimating how much I’m spending at the store. It remains a mystery to me. Maybe I can find a way to financialize every math problem?
If I had to choose between being “good with money” and being “good at math,” I’d definitely pick the former, but perhaps that is a false choice and it’s possible to become equally good at both.
Anyway, here I am, facing my own inadequacies and frustration and embarrassment. About to step into the space of humility, for my own good. The way I do every few years.
How am I doing it?
I poked around for a few days, looking at various websites and apps, considering paper workbooks. I decided that I wanted an app that could track my progress and perhaps help point me to areas where I needed more focus, rather than a stack of workbooks that would not correct or even notice my many errors.
I looked at games, and what I found were games for really tiny kids, focusing on addition and subtraction. I was hoping for something like that touch-typing game that kills zombies while you build your typing speed. If you want an idea for an app to build, something that gamifies math from the earliest levels to the highest could potentially do well. Maybe help some junior math whiz learn pre-calc in her high chair or whatever.
I compared the various education apps I already have on my phone.
The app I chose was Khan Academy. You can start out with preschool math, if you want to, and take a test to see if you’re already done with that level.
This is where I was when I discovered that the skills I stalled out at in my earlier placement test are not 7th grade math, but 5th. Are kids getting smarter, or have I been getting dumber?
This is all a moot point, because the point is to develop and reinforce a growth mindset. WE CAN LEARN NEW THINGS! It doesn’t matter how bad I am at something today, if I’m willing to apply myself and keep learning.
My goal is to pass calculus, something I never did in high school. For that to happen, assuming I was a senior, I need to get through eight academic years. How long is it going to take me? My husband says I can blast through it in a few weeks. I know better, and I know that thinking that way is demotivating for me. I don’t want to feel competitive, I just want to make sure I nail this material so I never have to go over it again.
These are the levels:
Arithmetic, basic geometry, pre-algebra, algebra, trigonometry, statistics, pre-calculus, and then apparently there is more than one kind of calculus??
All right, I’ve just shown the world my dirty laundry. Now to you. Is there anything you’ve always felt a little inadequate about that you might be able to study? If you could magically give yourself one new skill, what would it be?
I stumbled across a random idea this week, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s a topic that deserves deeper reading, but sometimes I like to dash out my thoughts while they are raw and then go back and bake them later.
This random idea has to do with the concepts of learned helplessness and learned hopefulness.
Learned helplessness is mentioned over and over again in pop psychology. You’ve probably heard of it. Martin Seligman did some behavioral experiments with dogs back in the Seventies, where they were electrocuted and they had to try to jump away from the shock. (Like, was that the only possible way to test this concept, seriously?) If the pattern was inconsistent, most of the dogs would eventually just lie there and quit trying to escape. This was supposed to demonstrate the concept of learned helplessness.
Learned hopefulness, on the other hand, is the idea that creatures (including us) can learn to be more persistent in dealing with obstacles if they believe that eventually their efforts will pay off.
The insight that I stumbled across is that Seligman, after decades of research, has decided he had it backwards.
It isn’t that adversity induces learned helplessness. It’s more that creatures start out feeling helpless - the state of infancy - and gradually learn their hopefulness as they become more skilled in solving problems.
Doesn’t this make so much more sense??
A baby isn’t all that good at most stuff. A baby will never get up and make a pot of coffee. A baby can’t tie its shoes, set up double authentication on its passwords, win a chili cook-off, or fold fitted sheets.
When I thought about learned hopefulness as an aspect of growth, the first image that came to mind was of a baby bird. There are two kinds of chicks: the kind that can get up and run around as soon as they hatch, and the kind that are naked and blind. A baby chicken vs a baby parrot.
You can’t blame a parrot chick for being bald and wobbly, so helpless in comparison to, say, a duckling. On the other hand, you can’t blame a duck for not living as long or being as smart as an adult parrot.
Sorry, I just lost my train of thought after doing an image search of altricial and precocial chicks. Water rail chicks!!!
Obviously infants are dependent for some kind of reason. If it wasn’t a survival trait it would have faded out.
A fun thing about birdwatching is when the parent birds get tired of feeding their juveniles, who are old enough to fend for themselves, full-sized, yet still needy and asking for a few last handouts. You may have noticed this. The juvenile will hop up and start shimmying its little wings. The adult will humor this behavior to a certain point in the season, and then start chasing off these adolescent beggars. It’s nature’s way. They have to learn to feed themselves by winter or... or they don’t.
That’s the limit for wild creatures, though. Base survival. All they need to do is to get food, avoid predators, and hopefully reproduce. It’s a little more complicated for us, isn’t it?
I’ve come to the conclusion that solving problems is what human beings are for. We get bored very quickly when we have no problems to solve, also known as the state of having “nothing to do.”
“Solve the biggest problem you can,” says Nick Hanauer, and that has become both my motto and my boogeyman. I keep asking myself, This? Is *this* the biggest problem I can be working on, or am I selling myself short? Am I not aiming high enough?
The reason this attitude works for me is that it puts the focus on the thing that needs to be done and my possible contribution, not on my goals or personal growth objectives. If the thing I am trying to do is important enough, then I have reason to propel myself forward, to tackle it. I believe that if I set out to learn something and I am willing to spend enough time focusing on it, then eventually I can figure it out.
Am I good enough today? Probably not. Maybe in a moral sense, perhaps, sure. In the sense of skills that need sharpening? If that is the question, then why ever stop?
It is hugely helpful to see ourselves in the context of fumbling and bumbling creatures that can continue to learn new things every day. It’s not our fault that we weren’t born knowing everything. Nobody was. How could a baby come into this world knowing how to touch-type and chiffonade vegetables? How could a baby be expected to perform calculus, play the saxophone, and speak eight languages?
Yet, think about it. Anything that one human can learn to do, probably any human could learn to do. With the right teacher or the right YouTube video, why not?
I don’t know how, and that’s okay.
I don’t know how yet. Maybe I don’t even want to know how. But if I did, I could figure it out.
This isn’t even a question of forgiveness. There is nothing to forgive. It is not a mistake to not know something. It is not wrong to be new and awkward.
I like being bad at things now. After several years of pushing myself to always be in a position where I am terrible at something, being humble is the best default state. I can trust the process, that wherever I am, other beginners have walked in that door and eventually walked out with competence. In that room is the place to mess up and be lousy at something, yet have fun with it. I’d rather have people laugh at me for my earnest blunders while I learn something new, if they’re going to laugh anyway.
At this point in my life, I’m perfectly willing to draw that fire so that another newbie is more comfortable. Go ahead and laugh - and when is the last time you pushed yourself to learn anything new?
Let us all be a little less precious about how others perceive us. Let us spend less time blaming ourselves or comparing ourselves to others. Instead let’s remember that as long as we are alive, we still have the capacity to learn new things, and isn’t that the most exciting thing?
What are you going to learn next?
I’m getting my first performance review at work. This is the first time I’ve gone through a review in over ten years, and I’m feeling about it pretty much like anyone would.
I took this job because I wanted something to do during the pandemic and I stopped being able to work on my book when my husband started working from home. I was quite certain we would still be fighting this thing through the end of the year, even back in April 2020. It is disappointing to be proved right about that, but what do you do.
I was right, this new job has given me plenty to do. I’m so busy all day that I rarely give the pandemic much of a thought at all, unless we’ve gotten an email update about the “return to work” plan. I’ve made friends, and sometimes we chat and crack jokes and laugh. All of this is a huge improvement over where I was emotionally in March, sitting glumly on the couch and staring into the middle distance.
It is weird, though, that the review process is getting under my skin so much.
There’s the part of me that is cheerfully ready to work away the next couple of years while the world is turned upside down, no problem. This part of me is having a good time hanging out (and of course earning money) while the clock runs down, leaving me only a couple of hours at the end of each day to fret about COVID-19 statistics.
Then there’s the part of me that likes puzzles, that enjoys solving problems or noticing things that maybe someone else didn’t. That’s the part of me that likes work for its own sake. Doing something that needs to be done, maybe even doing it more quickly or putting a nice little spin on it.
Then there’s the part of me that wants to hide quivering in the closet rather than face my review.
What is going on there?
It’s not that we need the money; we were already living on half our income. The premise has been that I could earn significantly more if I ever get a book deal. (Or, especially, sell a screenplay). In that sense, if I left, it would not impact our lifestyle materially. Same tiny apartment, same car-free household.
It’s not that I have any particular innate desire to do what I’m doing forever. It’s the industry that I like, not necessarily my role within it, although it’s fine and I have no complaints. I appreciate the culture and the mission and I like working with all these brilliant, courteous people. I like helping out in the way that I can, but it’s not like any of my specific tasks are wildly fascinating in their own right. I imagine that if I left, it would be the place and the people I would miss, not the daily details of my role.
The only thing that’s hanging on my performance review, then, is my pride.
What I’ve done is to make myself vulnerable to criticism in a way that I wasn’t when I worked for myself. I took on the odd client, picked up the occasional freelance gig, and it made sense that these arrangements came and went on a temporary basis.
My relationship with external feedback doesn’t always make any sense, and I’m working on that.
I remember how terrible I felt, how drained and sad, after I won my election as division director. Objectively I had done well. In point of fact, I had won my position by a large margin. I tried to talk myself into something else; maybe I couldn’t make myself feel proud or excited, but at least I deserved to feel flat or neutral? I couldn’t figure out what was so depressing about the reality of winning.
Something about competition is demotivating to me. I don’t like being held up against others, even when the comparison works to my advantage.
That proved out again just this weekend, when I was invited to an online party and we played some games. I won a game, and I shrank inside.
I’m not even completely sure. I think it’s a mix of feeling like other people will be disappointed because it’s a zero-sum game, and if one person “wins,” then by definition others have not won. That feeling, plus perhaps a sense that another person might be annoyed or feel envy or jealousy about that supposed “win.” All the celebration and anticipation is over at the end of the game. The goal has been reached, and now what? And furthermore, so what?
The performance review process doesn’t seem to serve many people all that well. It intimidates everyone and it’s a huge time suck for management. The top performers are probably intrinsically motivated anyway, which is the reason that they do so well - but is the review process a way to somehow collect their focus and energy and figuratively inject it into others? Does this process indeed help people suss out exactly how to improve? Does it actually get the results that it’s meant to get?
I’m very lucky that I can talk directly with my boss every day, and he is pretty good about giving clear feedback and asking for exactly what he wants. Every morning, I clock in knowing what I need to get done, and why, and who benefits.
In fact, I’ve already read my review, and it was quite nice, and I have no reason to be as anxious about it as I am. I have really thrown myself into this job, seeing it as a form of rescue from the intense boredom and stress of isolating from the pandemic. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve done a few things that make me proud already, in only six months.
What I’m trying to figure out is why, objectively, the better I do, the more I freak out about being evaluated on my performance. I doubt I’m alone in this. It’s certainly something I need to get my head around if years go by and I somehow mysteriously find myself facing a promotion.
Stranger things could happen. I do like this place. As far as my review, if this sort of thing is in any way reciprocal, my job itself exceeds expectations.
The word ‘lucky’ has been coming up a lot lately. This is great, because I am a big believer in luck. It seems to me, though, that this is a term that benefits from careful definition. Most of the time, the way I hear it used, what people are referring to is really good fortune rather than luck.
‘Luck’ was me getting COVID-19 the one and only time I went out in six weeks.
Oh, I agree, it was definitely BAD luck! Luck just the same.
There are elements of luck that we can influence, and areas that we can’t. For instance, shortly after my hubby and I moved down here, we saw Jermaine Jackson at the grocery store. That was luck. We had no idea that he was in the area or that he was promoting a charity campaign, which is probably the only reason that a Real Celebrity (TM) would be at a grocery store in person.
The only part of this encounter that we really influenced on our end was renting a house within jogging distance of the Hollywood sign.
This is where the distinction between ‘luck’ and ‘good fortune’ comes in.
Luck has everything to do with timing. It’s the chance encounter, the coincidence, the surprise connection.
Good fortune tends to be something that’s built up over time or the compounding of significant effort.
Think of the Olympics. Nobody ever won a gold medal by luck. I think we can all agree there.
On the other hand, it is great good fortune whenever an Olympian makes it to the podium, because it means they’ve managed to avoid any incidents that would prevent them from training that hard.
The torn ligaments, the bad case of mono, the concussion... Any number of things could happen to keep someone from performing at top level during that one year in four.
Bad luck, right?
One of the differences between Olympians and the rest of us is whether they would let something like a terrible injury put a permanent stop to their sporting career.
I was very surprised to discover, when I suddenly developed an interest in endurance sports in my thirties, that every athlete I met had a history of serious injuries. At the same time, everyone I ever met who was 100 pounds overweight or more would blame it on... an injury. In both cases, there might be a “when I blew out my knee” or “after I hurt my back” or “after my surgery.” But one of them would be telling the story while racking weights.
Part of good fortune, then, is what story we build after something awful happens.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the summer, since this was the year that I “lucked out” and got COVID.
There is an interesting visualization exercise that anyone can do, which is to tell two separate versions of your life story. Make one version as bad as possible, with the worst spin on everything that ever happened to you and emphasis on only the negative. Then do another version with as much Disney spin on it as possible, focusing only on the positive. It will sound like two completely different people - yet both are technically true.
Let’s see, we can do one about... Stephen Hawking.
Stephen Hawking was born during World War II and grew up under austerity in England, where he had to eat British food. When he was in college, he collapsed, and learned that he had motor neuron disease. He was just 21 when he was given only two years to live. His health deteriorated until he was confined to a wheelchair, and he couldn’t even speak anymore.
This would be a great story for a GoFundMe, right?
Of course the other version is that Stephen Hawking was one of the most famous scientists of his age, who outlived his prognosis by decades, had a family and a dazzling career, traveled the world and even went to space, contributed to multiple fields, and of course got to prove doctors wrong over and over again.
Two stories, both true.
Okay, so... was Stephen Hawking lucky, or unlucky? Was his life fortunate, or was it not?
This is a question with no right answer. It’s really a question of temperament. The real question is not what you think about a celebrity’s life; it’s how you answer this question about your own, one true personal life.
I can tell two versions of my 2020, and both of course are true.
Version One: The year started out badly. My husband almost lost his sight in one eye, I missed my big opportunity to teach my first workshop at a big conference, then we both got the flu and had to put our dog down. Then I got COVID-19 and then I had pneumonia on my birthday. My health has never been the same and in fact I’m in the middle of what seems to be a week-long stomach bug as I write this.
Version Two: The year started out great. We didn’t realize how lucky we were when we decided not to book any trips this year. My husband miraculously had no damage to his vision after his eye injury. We had no idea what a blessing it was that we were able to help our dog cross over before COVID, when the clinic was still open. If we were off by even a month... Then I got COVID but all our friends made it through okay, no hospitalizations, and my hubby somehow managed not to get sick at all. Even though I was sick, when my dream job came open I was able to apply for it, and I got the position! We’re both able to work at home and stay safe. Might be a long haul, it’s nice to have something to do to keep busy.
Two stories, both true.
A technique at play in Version Two is the ‘counterfactual’ statement. This is a double-edged sword. It’s easy to use counterfactuals to delude oneself. They are helpful, though, in reconstructing and reframing situations that may not be tolerable, much less feel fortunate in any way.
What’s missing from Version One of my story is any acknowledgement of the good fortune that is still in place. We have a happy marriage, we have health insurance, it was an eye injury and not, say, a sucking chest wound or a rattlesnake bite. Any list of grievances and sorrows is incomplete, not a fully accurate account, if it focuses exclusively on the negative.
Good fortune is good for everyone. It’s not a zero-sum game. Being in a fortunate position allows us to reach out and help others. At minimum, at least we’re not someone else’s crisis. (See, another counterfactual!) Distinguishing between ‘luck’ and ‘good fortune’ allows us to compile a thorough list of our resources and advantages, which is the first step to solving our problems. Ours, and then maybe others’ as well.
Hard work - what is it, exactly?
We’ve been having an extended discussion over the weekend about what ‘hard work’ means, and what it has to do with financial and career success. “We” meaning my husband, a couple of our young mentees, and I.
I think it’s a mistake to tell young people that hard work is everything. It isn’t!
Working hard in the wrong manner won’t really get anyone anywhere. If hard work was the secret to success, there would be a lot of very wealthy ditch diggers and demolition crews, am I right?
I worked much harder as a nanny than I do today. The mom of “my” kids once fell asleep at the table with her face in her mashed potatoes, so I think any parent or caregiver would agree that chasing kids around is quite hard work indeed.
My hubby and I both come from a blue-collar background. We were taught the inherent dignity of busting your butt all day. Sitting around with soft hands and no practical skills is embarrassing where we come from. In fact I know I could never have fallen in love with a man who couldn’t use tools.
My man can design a satellite, sharpen a chainsaw, build a battle bot, change the oil in a semi, debug code, and run a skidder. Which of these skills are ‘hard work’?
I can’t do any of those things - or at least I haven’t tried so far - but I can put on a conference for 200 attendees, carry a sleeping child to bed, cook dinner for 20, type 100 words per minute, sew a Halloween costume, balance quarterly financial reports, build a chair, and fight five dudes with my hands duct-taped together. Some of these things at the same time.
One of the first things you learn as an administrative assistant is that you’re expected to do things that people who earn 3-4x your wage abjectly cannot do.
There is a double bind, because the better you are at your job, the less likely you are to get promoted. If you aren’t great at the detail work and EQ necessary for the position, then it’s assumed you’re more or less useless. On the other hand, the better you are at it, the more people panic at the thought of trying to replace you.
I have felt like I do basically the same work that I did at entry level, other than obvious technological changes like moving toward paperless reports. Yet at one point I earned $7/hour for this stuff, with no benefits, and I was excited to get it.
What I think about ‘hard work’ is that it depends on what is hard for the individual.
It’s hard to work for a low wage and face all the issues that go with that: a long commute, roommates, juggling bills, unreliable transportation, an apartment/house/neighborhood with a lot of issues, no obvious solutions for problems that could easily be solved with more cash than you have. Or may ever have.
It’s hard to put your spirit into tasks that nobody appreciates.
It’s hard to wait on people who are mean and rude, and it’s hard to have a mean boss.
Obviously it’s hard to be on your feet all day and do labor that is physically challenging. It can be fun, too, though. There is a lot to be said for being able to see visual progress on something that you worked on all day, or to be able to drive by and point it out to your friends. “I helped build that.”
Does ‘hard work’ lead to success?
Not alone, though, and not out of context.
If I just do 100 burpees in my living room, I’ll be sweating, but then what?
I think the key isn’t so much ‘hard work’ in terms of exertion. I think it’s a combination of focus, accountability, and persistence. It’s not really ‘hard work,’ it’s emotional commitment and follow-through toward the desired outcome.
That state of being invested in the outcome quickly leads to a strategic perspective. This is where success comes from - in understanding why things are done in a certain way. That is the birth of motivation. Someone who cares that things are done properly is someone who will see ways to streamline the process, guide others, expand into new areas, and all the rest.
The truth is, doing this isn’t usually hard at all.
A master of a field can walk in, take one look at something, say one sentence, and save ten million dollars. That person will be successful, but that contribution wasn’t hard. It was just the product of attention and decades of experience.
We spent a bit of time listing off factors that contribute to career success that don’t have anything to do with hard work. There are probably hundreds, but these were the basic dozen:
Personal work ethic
Choice of field
Who you know
Talent/unusual insight or ability
I happen to know someone who literally ran away to join the circus as a roadie for Cirque du Soleil. She had three items off this list: location, timing, and choice of field. They came to her town, she went, she said “take me with you,” and she went home to get her bag. That’s it. Didn’t see her for a year.
I happen to know someone else who had at least eight items off this list, who got fired and was out of work for a year. What he was missing was work ethic, coachability, strategy, probably talent, and eventually reputation as well. When he started messing up, he Couldn’t Be Told and he blew up his career. Did he work long hours at a difficult job? Sure, until I had to get him a cardboard box to carry his stuff out to his car.
Of the thousands of people I have met over the years, socially or through work or hobbies, the most chill have been 1. Martial arts people and 2. Astronauts. They never blink. Something has changed in their brains and they react with mild intrigue in situations where other people would panic. Hand either of them a wrench and see what they do.
Hard work is valuable for its own sake. When we’re mentoring less experienced people, though, let’s not attack their characters and imply that they are lazy, but rather show them how much more interesting life is when there is something challenging and worthwhile enough to deserve that hard work. If we can’t find it, let’s make it ourselves.
I am Perfectly Confident that this is a book that will influence my future decisions. Don A. Moore has done the enviable job of writing an instant classic, a highly readable book that should set him up well as a thought leader.
Having read this work, though, it makes me wonder whether having read it might convince someone - though surely not me, ho ho - that they are now making wiser decisions than they were before, without actually doing anything differently.
I have reason to question my own judgment after the way this year has gone. I made a series of errors in planning around this pandemic, the worst of which was the stupendously bad risk that ended in my nearly dying of COVID-19. While it can be hard to tell whether something was risky when the outcome is good, it’s easy to tell when the results are terrible. I’d really like to get better at avoiding more bad outcomes, especially since we’re all now facing the kinds of risk that can kill.
“What are you wrong about right now?” This is one of the questions that arose in Perfectly Confident that stopped me in my tracks. There is probably something I’m wrong about at all times. My brother might tell you that it’s my belief in his dog Penny’s ability to speak the word ‘hello’ - but then that’s a zero-sum argument and if I’m not wrong, then he is. I’m willing to be wrong about certain things, like whether a friend will repay a loan or whether a recipe is worth trying. But what am I seriously wrong about, in terms of blind spots and strategy and errors in judgment?
I started keeping a page in my day planner called ‘Decisions.’ In it I write down pending decisions that we haven’t acted on yet (usually things that include my husband, since I don’t tend to get stuck often on purely personal decisions). When the decision is made, I write down what it was and a brief rationale of why. It has been pretty interesting to be able to scan that list over the course of a year. Writing down your decisions and your estimate of how they are likely to turn out is a very intriguing exercise recommended by Moore. I’m going to take him up on it and start estimating my outcomes as well.
Perfectly Confident is a wonderful and compelling read. It’s short enough that it could be shared with a reading buddy, and if you’re married, I definitely advise having a conversation about it with your partner. It’s also an excellent choice for work teams. I liked this book so much that I will read anything Don Moore writes, and I’m perfectly confident that will be just as fun and informative.
Is it wise to believe that you, blessed among the many, will beat the odds and get lucky?
Document your reasoning for making a decision, based on its expected value.
...self-fulfilling expectations of your success are not overconfident. They are accurate and they are wise.
Ask yourself why you might be wrong.
Please do savor the anticipation of a bright future. ...We live in a time of outrageous plenty.
I rearranged our few books today, and what I found shocked and surprised me. We haven’t quite been here a year, but there was a thick layer of dust on the back of each shelf!
Actually this shouldn’t surprise me at all, since we live with a parrot, and African Grays are little whistling dust factories. The shelves in question are only a few feet from where she plays all day, being her dusty self and merrily shredding cardboard.
On the other hand, I go around dusting when I’m on the phone, or listening to an audio book, or tense about something, or generally annoyed that there is visible dust somewhere. I am not a casual housekeeper.
I wish I were sometimes. I wish I could be a bit more casual about my apartment, in the same way I can be casual about going around barefoot, but it just isn’t in me. Even as I’m recovering from pneumonia and my bout with COVID-19, still only a few months ago.
What I noticed while I was wiping up this distressingly thick layer of dust was... just what was getting dusty.
Books I haven’t read, partly because I haven’t read much of anything since I started my new job.
This is another area where I have no chill whatsoever. Not sure why.
I took a job that was well within my abilities because I was looking for something to do. I figure we will be working from home for at least the next two years because I have a solidly pragmatic regard for the pandemic. Our employer acted before the governor did in sending everyone home, and I can tell you as a matter of simple fact that they still have a more clearly defined and carefully followed binder o’ guidelines for this crisis. It makes sense to me to be doing this for the duration, for a place I trust and respect.
Yet I can’t seem to escape this lingering sense that I’m constantly going to “get in trouble” for something.
I’ve talked it over with my husband, my best friend - who has done professional projects with me - and even my work partner. All of them are like, “Yeah, that’s weird. Where is that coming from?”
I’ve been proactively trying to figure it out, to work through my dissonant feelings about my job, and the way I always do that is to clean everything in sight. Sometimes, even things that are not in sight, like the backs of the bookshelves.
I recall that I went through similar paces with my leadership roles in Toastmasters. I won a contested election by the highest margin of any candidate that year, and all I did was beat myself up miserably all weekend. The entire year, I constantly felt behind and scattered and disorganized - and then I won two trophies for my performance in the role.
I’m looking at them right now and they still make me think, “What?!”
Sometimes it feels like the harder I work, the better I do, and the worse I feel about it.
I could have chosen to keep doing what I was doing, which was to work on side projects and writing my book proposal. We were already saving half our income and doing fine. I keep reminding myself that I am not trapped, that I chose something I really wanted, that I fought to get to where I am because it is so interesting.
Which it is!
Sometimes I catch myself thinking, Whoa, I can’t believe I’m actually in this meeting right now.
But then another wave comes up telling me that I’m colossally screwing up and everyone is going to find out.
It isn’t the same as impostor syndrome, I don’t think. The tasks I’m doing are all things I could do just as competently 15 years ago. I don’t really have moments where I do not know what to do or how to approach a task.
I actually wonder if something weird happened to my brain while I was ill?
If there’s some part of the brain that just makes someone feel racked with guilt and shame and dread for no reason?
It’s important to talk about this kind of thing, because I think most people feel very alone and isolated with these types of emotions. “I’m the only one and nobody must know.” I totally know that I’m not the only one.
The last six months have very much been a struggle of putting one foot in front of the other. I keep telling myself, “Just get through this day.” This included our dog dying of terminal cancer, and my husband nearly being blinded, as well as my getting COVID and trying to recover my baseline energy level. Again, I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, just being overwhelmed by life and one legit crisis after another.
This is when I remind myself, I would probably feel the same exact types of emotions whether I had this job or not, whether I had a different job or not. It’s not a function of the role, or the company, or the people, or the culture. It’s me and whatever is haunting me.
Working is a million times better than sitting around staring at the walls and feeling this way.
When we internalize these dark feelings, it’s so easy to forget that there are external influences at work too. Probably my emotional waves of “you’re going to get busted” are just my feeble brain’s way of dealing with the foreign, confusing, outlandish reality of life under quarantine. (Yeah, technically my hubby and I are still quarantined - by both medical and business guidelines - because I’m still coughing a little).
Do any of us really know how we’re “supposed” to feel during this strange historical moment?
What I’d like to do is to dust myself off. I’d like to blow off these feelings that are so unhelpful and unnecessary. What should I replace them with? The task is to come up with some unique, interesting, and plausible feelings, like earning someone’s regard, or satisfaction in a job well done.
We can remind ourselves that our mission is simply to live up to our own standards and be consistent with our own values. One day after the next.
I worry that what has happened to me will eventually happen to everybody else. I worry that everyone is going to get COVID-19, and that a significant chunk those of us who didn’t die will just feel cruddy forever.
At least it feels that way. I first got sick four months ago, and as I write this I’m still sitting listlessly bundled up in blankets. Woke up twice from chills last night. Still on an inhaler, still planning my days around the latest alarm to take my pills.
What if this is all there is?
There’s this saying: ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ I used to puzzle over it when I was a kid and try to figure out what it meant.
Basically it means, enough stuff happens every day to worry about. No reason to worry about the past or the future. The problems of today will always be enough to keep us busy.
There’s a balancing effect there, sort of like dollar-cost averaging. On the days when things are truly terrible, we can make a memory that will help to remind us why we can appreciate the easier days a little more. Taking a decent day for granted is a sad mistake.
In one sense, I can remind myself how fortunate I am in almost every respect. At least it’s something to do to occupy my time... I lived, I can call my family, I have health insurance, my doctor is responsive, there is currently a little robot mopping my floor. All pretty great stuff.
I have to keep going through these exercises because the rest of me is getting pretty fed up.
What did I even do to bring this on myself.
I don’t mean getting COVID, because to be fair I was duly warned. I actively debated whether I should go out that day with both my husband and QT. I took an informed risk that blew up my entire life, but it wasn’t like I had no idea it could happen.
What I want to know is where the bacterial pneumonia came from. The antibiotics seem to have done a reasonable job on it. Now I just feel like I have a bad cold, which is a huge improvement over feeling like someone kicked me in the chest several times with a steel-toed boot.
I’ve spent eight weeks so far this year being ill. Now it feels like my rational course of action is to just plan for this to be my default mode.
Get up. Hit inhaler. Get dressed, eat breakfast, take pills. Start work. Clock out and lie down on couch. Drink NyQuil and go to bed. Repeat.
* This is the location of the pivot *
See, I know I can go on like this if I have to. If I don’t get better but if I also don’t get very much worse.
I wouldn’t be able to do it if we had to go in to the facility. I don’t know if I’m contagious. I also think it would be too much for me to get up an hour earlier every day and get myself across town. But for now, it’s possible.
The alternative would be to lie around feeling cruddy every day and watching my husband work.
Whenever I think about that, which is daily, I think of how boring and depressing it would be to feel this way and also to have nothing to do.
Then I think of all the famous historical figures I can remember who fought chronic illnesses. It turns out there are a LOT.
Carson McCullers had lupus and died at age 50. (I have a friend who has lupus who has outlived this sad milestone).
Proust, he... what the actual heck was wrong with him?... he was considered to be a hypochondriac but it turns out he actually had a rare genetic disorder and died aged 51.
Frida Kahlo was in a horrible bus accident as a teenager, suffered chronic pain the rest of her life, and died at 47.
Emily Bronte died of tuberculosis aged 30, although she wasn’t sick yet when she wrote Wuthering Heights so that’s sort of a different point...
(Which is to make the most of the time we have, because we know not the day nor the hour)
Anyway there have been all sorts of artists who made their art in spite of their physical state, level of pain, or mood. Probably about as many as those who had substance abuse challenges. Someone could do a statistical comparison; it might be comforting. Or a PhD topic, or both.
This is exactly what is annoying me so much right now. I had this bright idea that I was going to apply for grad school and get a PhD, but now I feel so low that it seems like it would probably be a fantastic waste of money.
What can I manage on a daily basis, what can I do simply by putting one foot in front of the other and making it through the hours, one hour by one hour by one hour by one hour?
Living, I suppose
I hope that thinking about my state of breathlessness and exhaustion helps someone else. I hope it can help uplift someone who at least feels capable of breathing cleanly. Of course I also hope it helps someone to deal with the boredom of self-isolation, knowing you are saving yourself from something yet more boring and depressing, which is to just be ill all the time. But I hope it helps some of you to feel that you can go on, cook a nice dinner or put fresh clean sheets on your bed or something.
I’ll learn to pace myself, like we all do. Eventually I’ll figure out how much I can expect of myself. Eventually I may find a way to get up to my old hijinks. For now, it’s worth remembering that there are only five months left of this stupid year.
Others have dealt with worse (cite: 536 AD) and made something of it. This is my hope, that I’ll find a way to dab my own drop of paint or scribble my own smear of ink. You as well. Let us all get through this together, breathe our way out of it and try to make it into something worthwhile.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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