Archive for July, 2015

Hitting Your Limits: What Does it Mean to Give Your All?

July 30, 2015

Persistence, patience, and integrity are virtues rightly celebrated in an individual. As adults, we recognize even more than we did as kids that some things are worth working for or are worth preserving, even when there’s a significant cost involved. Setting out to conquer a task brings its own sort of fulfillment and satisfaction, even if we’re not entirely certain our goal is as great as we once believed it to be. Sometimes, the rewards will be richer and more poignant than we could imagine, but other pursuits may leave us asking whether that castle in the sky we worked so hard to build was worth it.

While life is very much about the journey and no straightforward, smooth going road makes for interesting story telling, in today’s post I wish to examine the other side of this philosophical coin: when does it make sense to relinquish a particular path and move in another direction? What is Life telling us when we’ve done everything we can and the situation doesn’t improve? Does giving our word or taking a vow mean that we are now consigned, forever, to frustration or disappointment? Is it “better” to make peace with the situation or see this as a sign that we’re meant to utilize our time differently?

At what point are conscientious, well intentioned adults relieved of the need to continue shouldering a heavy burden?

Sometimes the answer is we’re not. There are certain situations where we bear responsibilities that will never cease. Usually this means caring for those who are incapable of caring for themselves. But, setting aside this particular group of people, what I want to examine is how we draw the line elsewhere in our lives. How do we go about the excruciating process of setting aside one dream in pursuit of another? What does it mean to hit your limits beyond which we’re simply throwing ourselves on the funeral pyre?

Is it stronger, braver, more admirable to carry on no matter what or to recognize that our efforts aren’t helping, the wheels continue to spin with no forward motion. Things aren’t getting “better.” What does the vow “for better or for worse” actually require?

This line of inquiry extends far beyond marital vows. It can apply to all sorts of pursuits where we feel responsible and invested: another infusion of cash into a stumbling business, another social invitation declined in order to care for a passed out or mopey relative, another try out attended in the hope that this time we’ll get a break, or accepting that a cherished friendship is over. When do you decide to move on with your life?

When things aren’t getting better, do you stay or do you go? As imperfect as anyone’s life is, when do you reach a point where remaining in place involves exponentially higher costs than calling it quits? As a responsible, conscientious adult who is aware of the impacts of their decision, what does it mean, “to give your all?”

I have witnessed multiple of scenarios where individuals valiantly struggled to make something work when it was clear that nearly everything about their circumstances was untenable. Having lived through something similar myself, I am nothing but sympathetic. It’s hell. I’ve listened and nodded as friends have shared their fears, their loathing, their fury, their grief, their guilt, and their overriding sense of responsibility.

Having finally thrown her husband out after yet another drunken episode of rage, one friend told me about going to her very devout parents and putting before them her decision to end her marriage despite recognizing that her husband was a good but very troubled man. The response they gave lightened her burden considerably. “When you took those vows,” they reasoned, “that didn’t mean you were sacrificing every possibility of future happiness or reasonable partnership.” Another person I know told me that they had resigned themselves to a life of chronic dissatisfaction and unhappiness, believing that only by being physically present in the house could he see clear to fulfill his parental duties. In the long run, the marriage ended, anyway, and he’s now found other ways to parent his kids while building a healthier life for himself. I asked him if, in hindsight, he was glad things resolved the way they did versus his original plan to stick it out. “Most definitely,” he replied. “I had boxed myself in with rigid definitions of how I thought a good man should conduct his life.”

There are an infinite number of relationship examples I could trot out—ones where people stayed and created lives outside the home, no longer seeking any sort of real relationship from their spouse. But, let’s switch gears and consider other instances where we must decide how far to pursue a goal that simply isn’t happening. For instance, say your dream is to be an artist of some sort—you may even have a modicum of talent—but opportunities aren’t manifesting, no matter how hard you try. Maybe you’re not as talented as you believe. But maybe you have other strengths for which there is a demand. At what point do you make peace with this? At what point do you follow a path of least resistance? Isn’t it possible that Life wants you to pursue this other road instead of the one you set your heart on? And what does the process of reaching this conclusion and following it teach you about humility, stubbornness, and adaptation?

We all hit pot holes in life. The question arises when we keep hitting the same hole over and over, having to change out our tires and rims repeatedly, never moving beyond this single stretch of pavement. Do such actions prove our dedication to this road? Does committing to a single choice made years prior signify greater virtue and wisdom than pulling up stakes and starting anew?

When it came to my choice and my decision, my sense of responsibility and fears about the future, all I could do was look at what my life had become and ask myself if I could be ok with continuing on in this manner? I had given my all and it hadn’t taken me to where I wanted to be. Nothing I could do would change that answer, not if I remained rooted in place. A quiet voice whispered to me that better things awaited… I listened. I believed. I trusted. Somehow I managed to do this, and thank God I did. Your answer and your reasons may be very different from mine, but locking ourselves into particular parameters because of what we agreed to or expected back then fails to take into account changed circumstances. So, looking forward from this point in your life, what can you live with?

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Escaping Our Quotidian Problems: Listening on a Different Level

July 28, 2015

I don’t know about you, but I am a definite music lover. Unless what I’m doing requires 100% focus, I have music on nearly all the time. In many respects, I like the way music fills up the silence, distracting me from my underlying melancholy. There’s so much distress in this world and when I look around and watch others struggling, I feel helpless—for them and for me. I don’t always enjoy being alone with my thoughts and music helps alleviate that. To me, the ability to write songs is probably one of the most extraordinary talents a person can possess—the melody caresses our ears as its storyline invades our imaginations, taking us to a place we wouldn’t otherwise know how to find. What makes music so sneakily effective is that as we go about our day attending to our duties, it can worm its way into our consciousness, seeding itself into our stream of thought as we hum along, breathing in its rhythms. Like any other sort of low level, ongoing exposure, we become so accustomed to its presence that we modify our attitudes and behavior accordingly (be that positive or negative). This background noise can wind up impacting us far more than we realize; we’ve forgotten what life can be like without it.

So, being on vacation these past few weeks, I’ve had time to listen to a lot of cds I don’t ordinarily play. I can pay attention to the songs in a way I don’t back home, when I’m focused on accomplishing goals and getting through my day. At the top of my vacation playlist has been the Eagles. That Don Henley is quite the bard–a philosopher king, he is. In his lyrics, he waxes rhapsodic about the consequences that unfold when following the wrong gods home (which I misheard as the wrong dogs) or asks us if we’re making it harder than it needs to be. His phrases leap into my awareness, poking and prodding as I sit and stare out onto the lush green that surrounds this place. I’ve followed too many wrong dogs myself, so it’s with a certain amount of wry discomfort that I listen to the song obsessively…

People on holiday seem to fall into one of two categories: the manic or the lethargic. The manic types are compelled to expend all their energy, throwing themselves into endless rounds of socializing or exploration, determined to squeeze every drop of potential from this “time out” in their lives as if they’ll never again have a chance to see or do whatever it is. Their lethargic brethren choose the opposite: preferring to remain holed up in their shady retreats, avoiding unnecessary social interaction, their torpidity matching closely that of a sloth. Taken to the extreme, each of these vacation behaviors reflects an attempt to escape situations individuals cannot bear to examine. There are so many ways adults run away from their problems. I have watched people I care about hide from their reality by burying themselves in their work or the bottle or volunteer activities, hoping this devotion will somehow ameliorate whatever challenges they face when, in reality, their efforts will never resolve the predicament that burdens them.

Our problems travel with us, whether we’re on vacation or not. Having spent a lot of time running away from my own, I now believe that vacations are the ideal time to work on resolving these quandaries. Dedicating specific time, energy, and thought to finding new strategies to cope and conquer will do more for us in the long run than any playtime distraction can provide. In the long run, we cannot hide from the challenges Fate has placed in our path, intending for us to learn from and to overcome. As they say in Star Trek, “resistance is futile.”

Despite everything we tell ourselves, the thing about “hiding” is that we usually remain seen. While we’re busy pretending that nobody notices, they actually do. They may not have a full read on the situation, but they’ve got enough to make a pretty good guess. Whether immersed in a whirlwind of activity or almost always seen alone, we avoid acknowledging their knowing, sympathetic half smiles because denial means we don’t have to do anything about “it.” Exhausted from years of efforts to keep our marriage from crumbling further or propping up our unstable or narcissistic partner, we either collapse behind closed doors or immerse ourselves in manic busyness that we pray will deliver some reprieve. The fact that our eagerly awaited vacation does not deliver the palliative we were seeking makes us feel restless and disappointed, unsure what to try next. We tell ourselves that vacations are meant to be a break from our worries when, actually, what they provide is an opportunity to focus on resolving these concerns. The sort of dedicated energy and thought that is required to analyze, assess, and formulate an action plan is most easily found when we are on break. Now is not the time to “forget about it all.”

Does what I’m saying make any sense?

This is probably not what you wanted to hear. Forcing ourselves to reflect upon wildly inconvenient and potentially threating problems is the least relaxing thing a person can do—especially when you already feel beaten down and resigned to the chronic challenges in your life. But this time you have, this unstructured escape brings with it the opportunity to focus, to bring your very best thinking to problems that matter to you. This is re-booting. This is the mysterious period when the screen goes dark and you have no idea if anything is happening. I encourage you to dedicate some time thinking about solutions to your problem, but also giving yourself permission to let your mind wander, to invite in wild sounding possibilities, to speculate, to dare. ”What if” may be one of the most revolutionary phrases there is…

Vacations offer us the opportunity to tap into those stores of thinking, creativity, and energy that we don’t always have access to. For instance, depending on the task at hand, I have to summon varying qualities of thinking and energy to achieve my goal. Preparing a meal requires very little active focus whereas drafting a blog post requires quite a lot. Negotiating highway traffic doesn’t drain me in the same way that gearing up for a school reunion does. So, when it comes to major re-booting matters such as life direction or ongoing family issues, the questions are so huge we need dedicated time and energy to devote to this. Distress is endemic in the world today; it drains our life force, lessening our effectiveness. Although tackling intractable matters demands much of us—especially when all we want to do is relax—meeting them head on when we are removed from our daily lives is the best moment to do so. Denial and pretending gets you nowhere—that’s a truth you already know. So, in whatever remaining days you have on your vacation, I want you to kick back, close your eyes, listen to some good music and really think about whatever it is you need to solve. New ideas will occur to you if you’re brave enough to let them surface.

Tag: You’re It!

July 23, 2015

Here in the mountains of Tennessee, the summer community I visit is all about dogs. Dogs are everywhere–splashing in creeks, wriggling in the dirt, trotting across long wooden bridges on some mysterious trek that only they understand, or happily following behind a large group of children on their way to the pool. One such dog that might cross your path is a beautiful chocolate Lab named Tag. Now, most of the year Tag lives in Memphis but this summer, she is enjoying the cooler climes of the Cumberland plateau. But Tag comes with a bittersweet story: she was intended for another life. With her refined lineage, good profile, and excellent musculature, Tag was bred to be a serious hunting dog–one that ardently retrieves waterfowl for her master. Thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours were spent training Tag to serve in this capacity, except there was a problem: Tag misread the signals. She couldn’t understand the meaning of her trainer’s gestures. Instead of doing what she was supposed to do, she headed in another direction, which is how she found herself far from any dog kennels or duck blinds, ensconced in a home of noisy, happy children.

There’s a lot about Tag I identify with.

This pooch is a perfect analogy for the experience of many when it comes to re-booting: we thought we were on one path, only to have it go wrong somehow and find ourselves doing something else. Now, anthropomorphizing Tag further, bear with me as we imagine her feeling depressed that she couldn’t manage to do what she was expected to do. Tag could mope around her fenced-in yard, depressed, feeling bad about her status as just another family pet. She could moon over glossy photos of all those magnificent sporting breeds her master needs to pursue his own interests. Instead, Tag does what all of us who must adapt to significant change should do: she shrugs it off, blooming where she’s planted, taking advantage of the opportunities presented—napping at will under the shade of the porch, contentedly following her mother around, being the best dog she can possibly be. Forget all those stupid hand signals! Tag is a beloved and well cared for member of her family! So those other Labs are running around, getting wet and muddy, dropping slobbery dead ducks at their master’s feet, Tag gets to eat leftovers!

Sounds to me as though she’s landed in a honey pot.

Ok, so you know where I’m going with this. We’ve all had our own “Tag” moments. Perhaps we simply lacked the natural talent, or, for reasons not entirely of our own making, the business went under or the relationship soured. Whatever it is, we’ve known disappointment and heartbreak. Certain things occurred making it impossible to proceed on our planned course, so now we must re-boot. A canine’s resilience and adaptability are qualities we should emulate. (Of course, it might be easier if we weren’t always looking at the larger picture or ferreting out hidden meanings beneath our failures, but that’s what separates us from the animal kingdom.)

Despite your disappointments or struggles, what honey pot have you landed in? What about this unexpected deviation has brought with it good things in terms of how you view your life today?

One of the surprising aspects of assessing my own situation manifests in the smallest of matters. For instance, problems that would’ve greatly troubled me five or ten years ago, now merit only a shrug. Here in the Payton Place where I spend time, I discovered myself to be greeted by less than a welcoming reception by certain individuals who dedicate much enthusiasm and energy to forming strong and ignorant opinions of unsuspecting others. Now, while these folks engage in a certain amount of feinting friendliness when I show up, I am not stupid. Or maybe they simply don’t care. Either way, a few years back, I would’ve been distraught over such treatment. Today, I gratefully recognize my options—spending time with people who do like me, recognizing that how these unfriendly gossips behave says way more about them than it does me, and perceiving the matter as unnecessary, pathetic, and mildly amusing. I’ve come a long way…

Ok, so having laid this out for you, I want you to spend a few moments thinking about how you could be more like Tag. Instead of feeling embarrassed or down on yourself that you couldn’t manage whatever it was that you set your heart on, instead of berating yourself for misreading the signals, how has this “set back” led to surprisingly good developments? What have you discovered about yourself along the way? Why isn’t it just as wonderful to be a beloved family pet—even if you do stink at that signal thing?

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Moving with Confidence, if not Certainty

July 21, 2015

Recently, I listened to a talk where the topic focused on those moments in our lives where we must act with self-assurance, despite being uncertain as to whether things will work. Talk about a re-booting theme o’ the day! I was all ears…While the pastor was discussing faith, when he asked each of us to think of a moment where we experienced something similar, the first thing that popped into my head was those initial, intimate moments with someone new, but there are plenty of G-rated examples that would qualify, too. Let’s face it: confidence is sexy. Confidence is deeply reassuring. Confidence provides the wellspring of motivation for us to plow ahead, even when we don’t totally know what we’re doing.

Never mind that sometimes our confidence is misplaced. When I think about this concept in totality, what makes the difference is whether the source of our confidence is something we control or if it’s dependent on the actions of another. Because when we feel confident about what somebody else is gonna do, we can get into trouble. Being confident (and dependent) on the actions of another is a fast route to disappointment, but feeling confident in ourselves is what makes all the difference between achieving our goals and falling short.

Re-booting our lives is an expression of faith. Faith in ourselves. Faith in the fact that we are here to do something meaningful. Faith in our ability to get back up on our feet. All of this requires courage—same goes for confidence—we cannot carry ourselves with confidence if we lack courage. But having courage and confidence doesn’t mean we won’t still get it wrong. Because we do. We may even carry a scar or two that reminds us of those times things went awry. But getting it wrong brings with it the hope that maybe the next time, we’ll do it smarter, better, or faster. Getting it wrong may mean that next time we’ll be more patient, less judgmental, or more forgiving. We’ll know that the next time a similar challenge arises, we’ll handle it better…

Sounds a lot like confidence to me.

As someone whose temperament is more oriented towards defining matters in black or white, I’ve had to learn the hard way how to incorporate more colors into my palette of judgment. Doing so doesn’t reflect the great equivocation that is assaulting society today, rather this more nuanced approach has evolved as I have made mistakes and learned from them. As much as I know, and as confident as I am about many matters, I am no longer certain. These days, I appreciate the stark truth that there’s probably far more to any situation than I realize—especially when I can’t understand why people are making the choices they are. This adage applies as much to my own life, as it does to others. I don’t fully understand why certain things were so important to me, or why I made some of the choices I did, or what any of it says about me as a person. I’m not certain. But, what I do have as a result of this re-booting process is a whole lot more confidence in who I am. I am confident that I can handle it, even if I don’t know what “it” may be or if my performance may “measure up” to whatever unfathomable standards I have determined as satisfactory. (Don’t you hate it when you play judge, jury, and defendant all at once?)

For instance, in terms of re-booting my own life’s direction and focus, the more I practice my writing, the more energy, enthusiasm, and ideas I have. I have confidence that this is what I am meant to do. But I don’t have certainty that my efforts will pay off. I have no idea about that. I have no idea if it’s of value to anyone other than me. But I am confident about my direction.

How about you? What is it that you are trying to re-boot about yourself? Have you reached a point in your life where you are confident about who you are? Do you know what it is you are meant to do, even if you can’t be certain about where it will take you?

Where is your faith?

Circling back to my initial point, I want you to recall a moment when you felt really confident about yourself. Or, to make it less threatening, let’s think about somebody else whose confidence you admire. Think about how attractive you find them, how reassured you feel in their presence, how happy you are to be near them. It feels good, right? You trust that they can do what they set out to do. What a relief…

This is what you need to do for yourself. This is what re-booting can do for you, even if you’re unsure where you’ll land.

The Hidden Thrills of Cancelled Plans

July 16, 2015

As I write this post, it’s pouring here in Washington. Buckets. Cascades of cats and dogs descend from leaden skies. So much so that my phone has beeped at me twice, alerting me to potential flood warnings—given that I reside at the top of a hill, I probably won’t get washed away. The weatherman even joked it was getting time to build an ark. In other words, today’s a perfect day to be tucked indoors, excused from any forced marches or socializing. For those of you who have kids, these sorts of meteorological conditions may not be ideal—whiny, bored children bestow their own particular form of torture on the adults around them—but for the rest of us, rainy days provide the perfect excuse not to do anything. Having checked that my basement isn’t sodden, I can relax and contemplate all the activities I like to do when I’m unable to do those things I should. Delicious possibilities abound…

How do you feel when your plans get canned?

The freedom you feel when you receive this sort of reprieve is an excellent analogy for how it feels when you re-boot your life. Sure, there may be disappointment or frustration that plans got wrecked, but all of a sudden your time is your own! You can make a new plan, one with loads more adventure and personal satisfaction than what you thought you were going to do, and who doesn’t like that? The rain that makes it impossible to watch a baseball game provides the impetus to dig out our old monopoly set—the one with the real, metal playing pieces—or crack open that musty book we’ve been meaning to read or dedicate some focused thought to whatever project or problem that’s lurked in the webby corners of our minds.

In fact, gaps in our plans are a lot like the spaces in between words, bodies, glances, or scenes. Pregnant pauses such as these are alive with electricity just waiting to be channeled. This is how we need to see re-booting, not as a gaping maw which terrifies us, but more along the lines of a door that’s cracked open, if only we have the courage to push it forward.

What would you like to push forward? What new setting do you wish to explore?

One of the things that helps direct my thinking when it comes to re-booting and what I want for my life is remembering some of the best compliments I have ever received. Not only does doing so make me feel all glowy inside, it reminds me of personal strengths that others have observed—strengths I might just as likely dismiss as unimportant or not that good. When we take the time to recall the kind observations others have made about us (and who doesn’t remember a good compliment), it brings to our attention certain characteristics that we may have taken for granted, assuming that this must be true for everyone, when it isn’t.

What are some of the best compliments you have ever been given?

Sometimes compliments come from strangers or mere acquaintances, but they still count. These things they say touch some special part of our heart, confirming for us just how brave or beautiful or welcoming we are. One of the nicest tributes I ever received was from a man I don’t know that well who said, “I never have to worry if you’re having a good time.” His comment surprised me; it would never occur to me that anyone would have such concerns—but some do. I liked the fact that he felt relaxed enough to say that; it’s a small thing, but I’ve always remembered it. It made me feel good to know that he felt good around me. While there are more accolades that come to mind, I’m not about to trot out a list of them here; they’re for my own, private ruminations for moments such as these, wet, summer afternoons when I don’t have to be anywhere else. It is times such as these when I can indulge myself with speculation as to how I might create more of the same in my life going forward. What might I do for myself to feel as good as I do listening to their kind words?

My point to you is this: rainy days and cancelled plans are like pregnant pauses. They’re filled with possibilities if we take advantage of them. Re-booting is that pregnant pause. Compliments give us hints at our strengths.

If life presents you with found time, how do you want to spend it? In which direction will you head?

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Coming in Second: Where Do You Fit In?

July 14, 2015

Growing up, I was part of a second set of grandchildren. Although the oldest in my immediate family, I was definitely not the first of anything when it came to the larger group. There was always somebody bigger, stronger, faster, or funnier, making my attempts seem like small potatoes. Intimidated and somewhat out of sync, I soon became accustomed to the idea of playing in the second tier. In her final, dementia-driven years, my grandmother didn’t always recognize us—certainly not as the grown adults we’d become—but she remembered we existed. Sometime near the end of her life, one summer in Tennessee, she was talking to my older, female cousin and kept asking her about, “the other one.” “Where’s the other one?” she’d say. The other one was missing.

The other one was me.

It wasn’t until years later that I heard this story, and doing so evoked a jumble of feelings, not all of which I could identify. I was the granddaughter with the weird, made up name, her nose buried in a book instead of playing games with the other kids, reluctant to participate in the progressive dinners arranged for the children. Being a good deal younger than everyone (well, except for my brother, the Golden Child Who Could Do No Wrong), chubby, overly sensitive, intimidated by my large and loud cousins, and having an awkwardness about me that my socially outgoing and adept parents and grandparents couldn’t understand, I never seemed to fit in. Eventually, I grew to overcome all those characteristics, but hearing that my grandmother referred to me as the nameless “other one,” those uncomfortable memories came rushing back. It’s no fun to feel like an also ran.

While none of this is nearly as pathetic as it sounds, what makes it painful is that these feelings strike such a stark contrast to how I think about myself today. By nature and by temperament, I’m way more likely to carry myself as an alpha. However, in the circle that was my extended family, I was definitely a beta. Perhaps the reality is that we are each, to some extent, betas in our own alpha world, but to be reminded of our “lesser” status is as unnerving as it is dissonant. For me, it’s a useful experience because it helps me retain perspective, keeping me from drowning in a sea of self-absorption. As I processed the swirl of contradicting and illogical emotions that arose when reflecting upon my grandmother’s perception of me, a realization surfaced: in the murky, confused depths of her mind, I still had a place. She continued to note my absence and wanted to know where I was. Maybe I wasn’t so much of an also ran. Maybe the other one counted, too…

Where in your life do you feel like yesterday’s news?

Setting aside all understandings that you are your own shining light, blah blah blah, every one of us knows what it feels like to come in second or last, disappearing into the faceless crowd. But this is not a bad or dehumanizing thing; instead, I choose to frame it as a “correction” of sorts. A reminder that we are just one of many on the conveyor belt that is life. So, let me ask you this: how has coming in second somehow been a favor? What insight have you gained as a result? How might you apply this to help others who struggle with similar issues?

Recently, I met someone whose son is a junior at the University of Alabama. Intrigued, I waxed on a bit about the Crimson Tide and asked how he was enjoying it, expecting to hear about the football team and the pride that goes with attending a flagship school. “He hates it,” she regretfully replied. “He’s an engineering nerd who attended a tiny high school here in Northern Virginia and he feels lost in a place so big. But, he’s got a full-ride scholarship so he’s sticking it out.” Hearing this answer made me sad for him. “Well,” I offered, “having that experience may not be such a terrible thing in the long run. Feeling that sense of displacement may make him more empathetic as an adult.” His mom nodded. “We all know what it’s like to stand on the outside,” she mused. “This is just his turn to do so.”

Growing up in the shadow of my raucous and colorful cousins cultivated within me an acceptance for feeling like I was on the outside. In truth, much of the time I was grateful that I was too young or nerdy to be invited along because they usually wound up in colossal trouble for doing things I wouldn’t want to do, anyway. Having spent so much time lingering on the fringes of their activity, now, when I find myself in similar scenarios I take it in stride. Watching as people rush to form their own little coffee klatches or happy hours or closed business meetings, thrilled by the clubbiness of their posse, I wryly smile at my feelings of wistfulness. The wanting and the not wanting to be with them. I have sympathy for the other one offs out there, who seem to have no natural group—but feel no need to rescue them. There’s a distinct comfort in knowing how to paddle one’s own canoe.

For the many out there who fret about such things, I gently remind you is that coming in second is ok, too…We’re all “the other one” on occasion.

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Innovation vs. Invention

July 9, 2015

So, recently, I’ve been reading a book called The Innovator’s Way by Peter Denning and Robert Dunham. It’s a business book and offers fascinating theories about why some good ideas gain traction and others don’t. It examines the translation of creativity into effective change—not exactly like Malcolm Gladwell, but what Denning and Dunham do is not too dissimilar. Basically, what the authors posit is that lots of good ideas (aka “invention”) die on the vine, not because they aren’t promising, but because they were never carried through on or simply failed to capture the imagination of the target audience (“innovation”). Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe is quoted as encapsulating this concept thusly, “Invention is the flower, innovation is the weed.” What this means is that in order for a good idea to “root” in a population’s psyche, much grunge work must be done to convince them that this new method or product will bring value to their lives. Ok, so as with all things on this blog, I am taking this idea and using it as an analogy for re-booting.

Let’s define the process of conceiving of a new approach or attitude (such as a change in how we live our lives or define ourselves or react to chronic irritations) as the “flower.” Implementing this change is the “weed.” Everyone with me so far?

Good ideas can flash, unbidden, into our minds when we think the words, “What if?” Our attention is riveted by these “seed thoughts”—whole new worlds take form in our heads. There’s a problem we need to solve or a possibility we wish to explore, so we think these magic words and eventually, some answer occurs to us; we suspect that revolutionary potential lies buried within. Pleased, we secretly nurse on this idea. Covetously, we stare at this prospect, fantasizing about how our lives might be different if only we were to follow up. Then comes the challenge of execution…

Revamping our lives or altering the way we interact with one another requires enormous dedication and determination. (For purposes of this post, I’m not bothering to address the resistance to change from those around us.) The sheer dint of work required to re-boot is so great that before starting we need to ask ourselves, “How much work am I willing to do? How much fallout can I withstand?” It’s this portion of the equation—taking the good idea and implementing it–which is the weed. The only way your new approach will take root is if you’re willing to undergo the blood, sweat, and tears that it needs to blossom and thrive.

Over and over, I have seen people stay in bad situations because it was “too much work” to get out of that unsatisfying job or unhappy relationship or launch that new venture they’ve spent years dreaming about. They’d prefer the status quo, or if not “prefer” per se, they’re daunted by the idea of what they’d have to do in order to make such a significant shift. But, it needn’t be this dramatic. Similar challenges exist when we are trying to re-boot a rocky relationship with one of our relatives. Acting differently or extending ourselves in a way we haven’t can feel awkward and moderately unsatisfying, even when it is for the better. I know whereof I speak.

What change are you desperate to make? Are you brave enough to endure the inevitable awkwardness and potential discomfort that is likely to follow?

Because this is my blog, I always use myself as guinea pig. Presenting myself to the world as a professional writer terrifies me, even though its what I’ve always wanted to do. Whether it’s this blog or my first book, just putting myself out there and owning what it is I want leaves me feeling exposed to criticism and ridicule, maybe even some eye rolling. (One person actually suggested that I stop writing altogether.) Extracting myself from an incredibly toxic and co-dependent relationship required enormous courage and a willingness to withstand significant blowback, but I was so desperate that anything was better than staying stuck. Redefining who I am and how I see myself has been another part of this process. Sometimes, the hardest work we have to do is internal. Making sure that our “seed thoughts” take root within our own hearts and minds can be the toughest row to hoe, but if we can manage this, after awhile everything else will fall into line.

What kills me is when I see people who choose to remain unhappily entrenched in place. For whatever reason, they aren’t willing to roll up their sleeves and tackle the innovation portion of this invention vs. innovation equation. They stand by as their longings wither and die from lack of care and feeding. My point is to encourage you to keep at it—give that good idea of yours a little air and sunshine. Talk it up to yourself if you’re unwilling to float it among friends. You may be surprised by how easily and well received the possibility is received and when this happens, it gives you an extra shot of much needed courage.

A good idea can’t go anywhere if you won’t let it blossom.

Flower blossom

Our Fantasies, Our Selves: The Year of Carol O’Connor

July 7, 2015

When you were a kid, did you ever have an ideal image of who you were going to be when you grew up? Way beyond being a fireman or lion tamer or starlet, did you dream of a specific age, lifestyle, and occupation that represented everything you wanted? Alas, I lacked a clear idea for myself in such matters (which may go towards explaining the situation I’m currently in), but this was not universally the case. Take, for instance, a friend here in DC who told me that when she was 8, 9, 10 years old, she knew exactly who she wanted to be: Private Investigator Carol O’Connor, age 36, two kids (no mention of a husband/father in tow). Never mind the fact that my friend’s name is nothing remotely like Carol O’Connor; she’s never met a PI, and why she dreamed of being 36 remains a mystery—even to her. But one thing was absolutely clear in this child’s fantasy, Carol O’Connor had her shit together.

Yowza!

I love everything about this story. I love the fact that her parents got so into it that when she turned nine, they gave her a green briefcase with a Carol O’Connor name plate and a bunch of stamps that said things like CLOSED, URGENT, or OVERDUE in red ink so she could send memos to herself and establish case files. When she was telling me about her doppelganger, my friend said, “So, now I am 36. This is my Year of Carol O’Connor.” I asked her how it felt and she replied something along the lines that having waited her whole life to reach this august age, the only part of Carol’s identity that she had managed was the two kids. “I wish I felt like I had my shit more together,” she mused. ‘The way Carol did.”

So, who’s the Carol O’Connor in your life? What fantasy image of yourself did you harbor back then? What about now (I know you’ve got one hidden away)?

What makes thinking about this so interesting is how it ties into our process of re-booting and adult identities. I believe there is something very real and true about what we longed for as children having a legitimate place in our lives today. Our fantasies may manifest differently than how we first envisioned them, but the underlying qualities remain much the same. For instance, those who dreamed of being a first responder of sorts most likely continue to feel the need of a clear mission to help others. Lion tamers may have morphed into safari hunters or adventure seekers who thrill to master an unpredictable challenge. Starlets, well, they probably continue to seek out attention. Private investigators—figuring out what makes people tick and why they do what they do–that could go in any of a number of directions.

Yet, the other part of Carol’s persona—having her shit together—is a category in which most re-booters feel they come up short. I certainly do. Having enjoyed fleeting periods in my life where I thought everything was in order was enormously reassuring (if erroneous). I hope, some day, to get back there, but I’m not sure that’s possible. The reason I say this is that the tentative quality that is part of feeling confused or finding yourself in a situation where you need to re-boot means that you are questioning things. You don’t have all the answers. Your life is not in perfect order. You may have even done some of it wrong or, if not wrong per se, you wish you could go back and do it differently. Like Carol, we are taking a magnifying glass to aspects of our lives, trying to determine why it doesn’t make sense and how in the world we can put the pieces back together in a more ordered fashion, one with a better fit…

So, if that very together PI opened her case file to assess your real versus fantasy life, what would she deduce? Would she conclude that you’re in pretty good shape or might she make some suggestions as to where you could step up your game? Which of her red ink stamps would she use?

Regardless of her assessment, the Carol O’Connor inside each of us is a persona we need to keep alive because she brings with her a much needed energy. While it is true that I am well past the age to be an Olympic champion, the fact of the matter is I never would have qualified to begin with (being far too lazy and unathletic). As sad as this is, it doesn’t mean I can’t take that ambitious champion and redirect her towards other projects. This is what I want you to think about for yourself.

How can you harness that enthusiasm and the dreams you had all those years ago and bring that into your efforts to re-boot your life today? Which parts of your private fantasies remain relevant and can serve as a vehicle for fulfillment to moving you ahead?

Questioning ourselves and our lives means that we will never feel fully settled, never know for certain that we have our shit together, but this is a good thing. It keeps us on our toes, looking for better answers. Just ask Carol.

Private I

Slowing Down: In Praise of the 14 MPH Rule

July 2, 2015

With Independence Day right around the corner, most people have plans for picnics, family reunions, or some other merriment meant to celebrate America’s 239th birthday. Beneath the parades and mosquitos, the beer and deviled eggs, the sunburns and smiles, there exists an undeniable strain from the mind spinning pace of change that this nation is experiencing. Recently, the US Supreme Court issued some monumental decisions that impact how ordinary citizens live, including access to medical care and who may marry whom. Whether or not you consider these decisions to be sensible or appropriately rendered is irrelevant because it’s a done deal. The Justices have spoken, so now we proceed accordingly.

That being said, the pace and dramatic scale of these shifts has left many feeling breathless, scrambling to adjust. These days, we have to worry about what pronouns or bathrooms to use, whether we’ll have enough money to pay for the kids to go to school, if professing our faith will subject us to ridicule, or what sort of disapprobation we’ll face if we dare to disagree with stridently proclaimed opinions. Intimidation under the guise of being offended about the smallest, most inconsequential matters is now grounds for aggressive accusations of unpardonable bigotry, prejudice, rudeness, and gross insensitivity. Public dialogue occurs in hyperbole, with anyone who expresses a preference to find a middle ground risking condemnation as feckless, irrelevant fools. Conciliation gets shut down from both ends of the political spectrum.

The absurdity of some of these scenarios is breathtaking. For instance, the Ninth Circuit has ruled that a 59 year old inmate in San Diego (serving a sentence of 83 years to life) has a plausible legal claim to force the State of California to pay for his gender reassignment surgery. This felon merits a free sex change + hormones in order to serve out his time with “dignity”? (What is dignified about being in prison? It’s a punishment.) All this in the face of schools not having new books in their libraries or soldiers going without needed equipment in war zones? Are you kidding me? I can barely pay my Obamacare! “It’s an unrecognizable world,” one friend mourned.

The reason I am going on like this is to attest to the ubiquitous nature of our social anxiety—it’s everywhere, it’s real, and it’s not hysterical. Significant progress in many arenas has been made, but this does little to alleviate our ongoing worries. Looking at the world today, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or cynical, which is why it’s so important to take time to savor those aspects of our lives we cherish.

Each summer, I spend time in a place where the speed limit is 14 miles per hour. I love the fact that it’s 14, not 15. Seeing those signs catches my attention and reminds me why it is I’ve chosen to escape to this sleepy little getaway hundreds of miles away from Washington. I do so because I love and recognize what goes on in this community. I embrace what it represents with little kids catching crawdads by the creek, old men rocking on the porch making the occasional wry remark, and the inevitable politics that arises at the women’s club. In a meta analysis, what goes on here is really no different than what occurs in DC, but it happens at 14 mph. It occurs at a speed that gives me room to breathe without being told that I’m deficient for not moving more quickly. Nobody else is in a hurry, either.

So, how about you? How do you feel about the pace of change these days? What can you do to create some breathing room? Whatever it is, I hope you enjoy yourself on the fourth. The United States is the best, most promising and dynamic nation on the face of the Earth. We are so deeply, deeply lucky to be living here.

14 mph


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