Reschool Yourself

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Let Yourself Get Nostalgic

 Melia-&-Gill3

I’ve always been a sentimental person. I have boxes and scrapbooks full of old letters, ticket stubs, photos, and other mementos. Even when I was a child and didn’t have much of a past to speak of, I’d look back on good times and wish I could relive them.

Because I have the tendency to think about the past more often than I do the present or the future, I’ve made an effort to curb my habit of reminiscing so much. I’ve done a lot of work to clear out old baggage that was holding me back, especially where school is concerned, going so far as to burn my old report cards and SAT scores in the fireplace, and I don’t want to dwell too much on the events of the past.

However, when I noticed Facebook’s new “On This Day” feature, I couldn’t help but take a look. Facebook will pull your activity from that date in previous years and tell you whom you became friends with, what people shared with you, and what you shared with them. This week Facebook told me that two years ago, Darren and I were waiting to find out whether we were having a boy or girl. Reading the predictions was fun (as it so happened, I was one of the many who guessed wrong) and took me back to that moment of anticipation before we knew we would have a son.

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The warm and fuzzy feeling that I got from reminiscing reminded me that nostalgia isn’t so bad, even for those of us who have to make a special effort to live in the moment. In fact, I did a bit of reading on the subject and learned that research has shown nostalgia to be good for us. This is from a Huffington Post article on “The Incredible Powers of Nostalgia”:

A lot can be said for nostalgia’s benefits. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Memory, Routledge and his colleagues showed that nostalgizing helps people relate their past experiences to their present lives in order to make greater meaning of it all. The result can boost their mood and reduce stress. “Nostalgia increases feelings of social connectedness to others,” he says. “Nostalgia makes people feel loved and valued and increases perceptions of social support when people are lonely.”

“When we experience nostalgia,” Hepper* explains, “we tend to feel happier, have higher self-esteem, feel closer to loved ones and feel that life has more meaning. And on a physical level, nostalgia literally makes us feel warmer.” In addition, in an August 2013 study published by Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Hepper and her colleagues showed that nostalgia can produce increased optimism about the future.

And consider this: Your nostalgia can affect those around you. Hepper says after nostalgizing, people donate more generously to charity. And sharing a nostalgic conversation with a friend, family member or romantic partner makes you more supportive and considerate, and less argumentative.

*Erica Hepper, Ph.D., a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey in England.

The other day I saw these benefits in action when looking at photos of my son. I was simply backing up the photos from my phone to cloud storage, but each image I clicked reminded me of a happy moment with him. Given that parenting a toddler has been a high-energy challenge, looking at sweet baby smiles and big milestones — first solid foods! first steps! — made me feel more connected to my little wild man.

Listening to my favorite music from back in the day also makes me nostalgic. I have a Spotify playlist called “High School Mix Tape” that is full of Counting Crows, Stone Temple Pilots, Dave Matthews Band, and Toad the Wet Sprocket. Whenever I hear hip-hop jams on the radio from what Darren refers to as my “clubbin’ days” in San Francisco, I feel like I’m back on the dance floor with my girlfriends.

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There’s a great Slate piece on why we’re so nostalgic for the music we loved as teenagers. It says that between ages 12 and 22, our brains are developing so quickly and are so awash with emotion and growth hormones that “the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good.” That explains why I will always be a sucker for *NSYNC.

I’ve found that reminiscing helps me understand who I am now by connecting with the person I used to be. When I hear songs that remind me of awkward middle school dances or high school heartbreak, I feel glad to be where I am today.

Now that I understand the benefits of nostalgia, I’ve decided to embrace my sentimental ways. I enabled Facebook notifications for “On This Day,” and I’m enjoying visiting with my past on a daily basis. I don’t let myself get stuck there, but I remember that moment in time fondly and think about how it led me to this one.

A Few Ways to Get Nostalgic with Reschool Yourself:

  • Take a memory walk around the places that mean something to you.
  • Look at the “Remember This?” photos that I took when I returned to the classroom.
  • Listen to a playlist of your favorite music from when you were a kid. I’m partial to “Summer Hits of the 90s” on Pandora. Make your own playlist on Spotify, or let Retrojam make one for each of your school years.
  • Post old photos on social media for Throwback Thursday. Bonus points for the embarrassing ones that show off your new perm or a mouth full of braces.
  • If you’re a child of the 80s, follow Hillary Buckholtz’s I’m Remembering Tumblr and enjoy seeing My Little Pony lunchboxes and troll dolls again.

Leave a comment: What makes you nostalgic? 

Gather Your Inspiration Before You Write

 

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One of the scariest things about writing is staring at a blank page. I don’t know what to write, I think. Or, Where do I start?

I was feeling that way when I sat down to write this blog post. I knew that I’d had a mental list of topics that I wanted to blog about, but suddenly I couldn’t call up a single one of them.

Then I remembered the strategy that I’d used to help my students get past writer’s block when I was teaching an after-school creative writing class. Some of my seventh- and eighth-graders found it easy to put pen to paper, but several others would consistently struggle with what to write.

A veteran Language Arts teacher had given me a copy of If You Want to Teach Kids How to Write…You’ve Gotta Have This Book! The author, Marjorie Frank, said that the mistake that well-meaning teachers often make is asking kids to sit at their desks and respond to a prompt like, “Write a poem about fall.” They’re puzzled when the kids just sit there.

The missing piece, says Frank, is giving kids the sensory experience of fall. She recommends taking students outside the classroom to smell the crisp autumn air, watch the yellow and red leaves dance on the breeze, and snap fallen branches in their hands.

After I did this with my students, we sat on the grass with a large sheet of butcher paper and a marker, brainstorming fall words. Cool. Crackling. Bare. Damp earth. Afternoon shadows. We jotted them all down. Then we wrote our fall poems, surrounded by nature instead of classroom walls, and not one of us had trouble doing it.

Writing comes more easily once you’ve gathered inspiration. It’s like running hot water over the seal of a tightly closed jar to loosen the lid. Instead of jumping into the work of writing without being properly inspired first, we can actively do something to inspire ourselves, so we have something to say and the desire to say it.

For me, gathering inspiration starts with reading work so good that I wish I’d written it myself, like this:

“Venice seems like a wonderful city in which to die a slow and alcoholic death, or to lose a loved one, or to lose the murder weapon with which the loved one was lost in the first place.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

“Mom had grown up in the desert. She loved the dry, crackling heat, the way the sky at sunset looked like a sheet on fire, and the overwhelming emptiness and severity of all that open land that had once been a huge ocean bed.” – Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle

“Know your weaknesses. For example, I have what can be described as ‘dead shark eyes.’ But if I try too hard to look alert, I look batshit crazy, like the runaway bride. If a bout of ‘creepy face’ sets in, the trick is to look away from the camera between shots and turn back only when necessary. This also limits how much of your soul the camera can steal.” – Tina Fey, Bossypants, on posing for portraits

I love Liz Gilbert’s playful use of language, Jeanette Walls’ rich imagery, and Tina Fey’s ability to make me laugh out loud in a bookstore with her self-deprecating descriptions (“dead shark eyes” just kills me).

The only thing more motivating than reading a delightful passage by the writers I admire most is reading one that I am proud to have written myself. When I feel blocked, I have to remind myself that I, too, am capable of good writing. I go back to some of the pieces on the blog where I’ve been able to say exactly what I want to, and I say to myself, Look, right here. See? You’ve done it before — you can do it again!

When I’m writing about the Reschool Yourself project, reading my own work also gets me back into the sensory experience of reliving my school days: the lively sounds of children playing at recess, the smell of cooked vegetables in the cafeteria, and the smooth feeling of a tetherball against my fingertips. Once I immerse myself in the vivid details again, I feel energized and ready to put them into words.

My last step is laying the groundwork for Future Melia to avoid writer’s block. When I’ve put myself into a creative mindset, I take a few moments to transfer my long-running mental list of blog post topics into a physical one, and I bullet out a few scenes in the Reschool Yourself book that I want to write. That way, the next time I find myself paralyzed by that blank page, I can look at the bits of inspiration that I’ve already gathered and get fired up write once again.

Leave a comment: How do you gather inspiration to write?

Flickr image by Stanly Zimny

Celebrating Victories and Gratitudes

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When my 17-month-old son unlocks a new achievement, his father and I clap and cheer like mad. Right now he is learning to put things back in order after he untidies them. He has also recently started pointing to his ears, nose, hands, and so on when we ask him to. Each time he does, Darren and I explode in smiles and raucous applause.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we celebrated our own victories with even a small fraction of that enthusiasm?

It’s not like I haven’t had any wins of my own this week. I remembered to order and wrap a baby shower gift in advance of the shower and then show up for it. I had a very productive Sunday that included brunch, errands, and pizza with friends — and managed to keep my son from melting down along the way. I’m approaching another victory right this minute, as I finish my seventh blog post this week for the Your Turn Challenge.

But am I filled with elation and pride at these small but meaningful achievements? Hardly.

They tend to get swept away largely unnoticed — because I just move right on to the next task demanding my attention, or because I don’t allow myself to count them as victories at all. Instead of patting myself on the back for a job well done, I think, OK, what’s next? or That wasn’t so hard. Why didn’t you do it a long time ago?

I hope that all of us who completed the Your Turn Challenge can take a moment to sincerely congratulate ourselves on our collective win. With all of the commitments and distractions in our lives, it’s not easy to post every day, even for just one week. Most nights, I started writing after my son was in bed and finished all of the writing, editing, submitting, and social media sharing just before I went to bed myself. I’m ending the week feeling even more tired than usual. But it was important to prove to myself that I could follow through on this writing commitment and build the momentum I need to finish my book. I’m proud of myself for succeeding.

For a time, I was writing down victories and gratitudes like these in my journal every night before bed. It was a wonderful habit. Even on the toughest days, I could recognize that I’d made progress on a several fronts and was grateful for at least a few things that had happened.

A quick and easy way to share victories and gratitudes is at the dinner table. Last night, after our son had run us ragged and we were eating a late dinner of pasta and red wine, Darren asked me what victories and gratitudes I’d had that day.

I was in such a low-energy state that I was quiet for a few moments while I wracked my brain for examples. “Well,” I said, “We found a pet sitter.” Twirling my pasta on my fork, I thought some more. “We had a nice, long walk in the sun. We also caught up with a lot of our friends at the baby shower.” I smiled through my fatigue. It felt good to end the day recognizing its high notes.

Darren and I sometimes celebrate small successes with a high five, like when we get in and out of the supermarket smoothly, or clear the yard of leaves. When I remember to do it, I’ll pause after a little victory and just sit and smile to myself for a moment. Whatever works for you — a happy dance or a round of applause, for example — you deserve to recognize your wins, every single one of them, no matter how small.

So let’s raise a glass to all of us who have completed the My Turn Challenge this week. Congratulations to us on a job well done. Cheers!

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by melkon.

 

Remembering to Take Your Own Advice

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There’s a sketch called “Pants” that I’ve always loved from the early 90s comedy show The State.

A young Michael Ian Black sidles up to a woman in the library and attempts to hit on her. Disgusted, she rejects him on sight.

Ben Garant is reading at a nearby table and says, “Hey buddy, you want some advice? If you want to meet women, you should start wearing pants.” The camera zooms out to show Black wearing tighty whities with his collared shirt and sweater.

Black says, “Pants, eh? Thanks! I’ll try it.” He marches off to the pants store. Through much trial and error, the saleswoman, Kerri Kenney, helps him find his very first pair of pants. He marches back into the library, impresses the woman who had rejected him, and walks out with her on his arm.

Garant watches them leave. He says, “That’s OK for him, but I’m still alone!”

Kenney approaches him and says, “Why don’t you try taking some of your own advice?” The camera zooms out to show Garant wearing skimpy gold bikini briefs.

“I think I will!” he says. He takes Kenney’s arm, and they head off to find him some pants of his own.

I love this sketch because of the random humor that’s a trademark of the comedy troupe behind the show (if you don’t know them from The State, you’ll know them from Reno 911!). I also love it because the line, “Why don’t you try taking some of your own advice?” is, well, great advice.

I’m an empathetic person, and I like to think that I give advice that helps people move forward when they’re having a hard time. Usually, I’ve been there and can share what helped me through it all.

It’s much more difficult, however, to give myself the same compassionate advice when I’m the one having a hard time.

Here’s the kind of conversation that I’ve had with a friend more than once:

Friend: I’m so overwhelmed right now. I feel like I’m failing at everything.

Me: You have a lot on your plate, and you’re doing as much as you can possibly do! Look at all the successes you’ve had lately (names examples). That really doesn’t look like failure to me.  

But when I’m overwhelmed and feel like I’m failing? This is what I think to myself: Why are you such a mess? Get your shit together already. 

It’s like I have a gigantic blind spot to all of my own little victories — and also to the advice that I’m able to share with other people. When I read old entries on this very blog, I’m reminded of the strategies that I’ve used to be kinder to myself, like “Stop ‘Should-ing,'” and I think, “Hey, that’s a great idea. Maybe I’ll try that.” How easily I forget.

Not long ago, shortly after I’d posted about silencing the Thought Bullies, those abusive thoughts came to me in the early morning hours, as they so often do. I remembered the words I’d written, about the advice that I’d give a friend if she was anxious and called me in the middle of the night: Cut yourself some slack. You did the best you could with what you had at the time. 

I said those words silently to myself. I really meant them. And you know what? I calmed down and went back to sleep.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes about having this type of conversation with herself in Eat, Pray, Love. While she’s in Italy, otherwise enjoying its food and language and beauty, her old nemeses Depression and Loneliness track her down there. She begins to panic and reaches for the private notebook that she keeps for emergencies like these:

I open it up. I find the first blank page. I write:
“I need your help.”
Then I wait. After a little while, a response comes, in my own handwriting:
I’m right here. What can I do for you?

She has a dialogue with herself in that notebook, then goes on to say:

I’ve been surprised to find that I can almost always access that voice, too, no matter how black my anguish may be. Even during the worst of suffering, that calm, compassionate, affectionate and indefinitely wise voice (who is maybe me, or maybe not exactly me) is always available for a conversation on paper at any time of day or night.

That night in Italy, she writes this to herself:

I’m here. I love you. I don’t care if you need to stay up crying all night long, I will stay with you…There’s nothing you can ever do to lose my love. I will protect you until you die, and after your death I will still protect you. I am stronger than Depression and I am braver than Loneliness and nothing will ever exhaust me.

Finally, she drifts off to sleep holding the notebook that contains her own encouraging words.

All of us carry this “best self” with us all the time. It’s the one that comes out when our dearest friends need our counsel, and it’s the one that we owe it to ourselves to summon when we’re the ones who are struggling. Why should everyone but us benefit from the wisdom that we’re handing out like candy? Let’s try taking some of our own advice, shall we?

The next time I give encouragement to a friend, I’m going to listen carefully to the words that I say to her, and file them away — maybe in my own private notebook — so I can repeat them to myself.

Leave a Comment: What’s some good advice that you’ve given a friend and could benefit from yourself?

Becoming a Real Writer

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During my late twenties, I earned my living for two years as a freelance writer. For the next two years, I supplemented my modest nonprofit salary with copywriting, blogging, and writing for social media. Throughout this period, I was also starting to draft the manuscript for the Reschool Yourself book. And still, although I spent most of my waking hours writing and was being paid for my work, I felt a little pretentious telling people that I was a writer.

The next question that people would ask, out of genuine curiosity, was usually, “Oh! What do you write?” I’m sure it would have been more interesting for them to hear that I’d written a New York Times bestseller and was just about to embark on a nationwide book tour. Instead, I told them what it was that I really did: write feature stories for a few local magazines and newspapers, and marketing copy for small businesses. Although I may have let them down a little, at least I could chip away at the gilded mystique of The Writer.

One day I was struggling with a long-form narrative feature that I was writing for the Jackson Free Press. My husband was a freelance graphic designer at the time, and we both worked from home. I came over to his desk and said, “I don’t know why people think writing is so glamorous. It’s really hard.”

He said, “That’s why writers drink a lot.” Touché.

I’ve felt that I can’t call myself a “real” writer until my book has been picked up by a mainstream publisher and I become a household name. Well, that’s a bunch of nonsense.

I think you’re a real writer when you lift the romantic veil from writing and experience the real work of it. Most of us can’t retreat to wood-paneled studies or lakeside cabins to write for days at a time, for example. I’m lucky if I can squeeze in a couple of hours at night after my toddler goes to bed. I sit cross-legged on my living room couch with my laptop, drowning out the FX show my husband is watching by blaring Latin music through my headphones. It’s surely not what people picture when they think of a writer at work, but there it is.

Writing is a solitary and often tedious task. It takes discipline and persistence if you want to get anywhere with it. One of my favorite pieces of advice on writing comes from Richard Rhodes, in his book How to Write: Advice and Reflections:

I worked in the Hallmark public relations department for a man named Conrad Knickerbocker, the public relations manager, who had already begun publishing book reviews and fiction. After I got to know Knick a little, I asked him timidly how you become a writer. … He said, “Rhodes, you apply ass to chair.” I call that solid-gold advice the Knickerbocker Rule.

I think you become a real writer when you receive your first rejection notice — or when someone invites you to write a piece for publication, and you put every effort into writing it, and it never sees the light of day. This has happened to me twice, and both times I have been confounded by how editors can get a writer’s hopes up, have her do the work, and then reward her with radio silence. A friend of mine posted on Facebook that she knew she was a real writer when her e-book received its first bad review on Amazon.

A quick Google search brings up dozens of examples of famous writers who were rejected before they found success, some of whom were told that they had no talent for writing. James Joyce. Louisa May Alcott. William Faulkner. Twelve publishing houses rejected J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter before one accepted it. Stephen King said in his memoir On Writing, “The nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.” I will bet that all of these people were writers before anyone knew their names.

I once interviewed an artist who was beginning to garner a lot of attention for his work. He had been touring graduate schools and had recently visited one of the most renowned in the country. He told me, “A lot of those art school kids are caught up in being artists. They think that an artist is something you are, instead of art being something you do.”

In the same way, becoming a real writer is less about being a writer than about actually doing the writing.

These days, I don’t tell people that I’m a writer because I don’t need to; I have another full-time job. But I’m still doing the writing. Right now I’m reworking the second part of my book, because unlike the first part, it didn’t have a cohesive thread pulling the reader forward. I’m taking out the boring and irrelevant parts and replacing them with new scenes. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not romantic, but it’s real, and I’m pretty sure it makes me a real writer.

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by davidturnbull.

Taking Heart from Reader Feedback

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For me, one of the most rewarding parts of writing is getting feedback from readers. I remember catching the bug for this when I took a creative writing elective in high school. My classmates and I would move our desks into a circle and take turns reading our work aloud. When I got a laugh or a knowing nod in the places where I’d intended them, it meant more to me than any letter grade ever could.

I didn’t do much creative writing in the ten years between high school and the time that I started blogging about Reschool Yourself. When I began posting to the blog, it took me awhile to get comfortable with sharing my work again. I wanted to wordsmith every sentence to death, but I soon realized that this just isn’t the nature of blogging. Blogging is fast, it’s conversational, and it’s often raw.

What helped motivate me to ship my work quickly was receiving comments from readers right away. There was nothing better than knowing that what I wrote resonated with or inspired someone, or that I’d captured in words something that they’d experienced but hadn’t known exactly how to describe.

While I was doing the project, I remember writing a post called “Growing Pains” at one of my lowest points, when I was truly struggling. It was one of the most vulnerable pieces that I’d ever written, and I was a little worried that it would depress people. I was surprised when this post in particular seemed to strike a chord. Here are a few excerpts from comments that people left:

Oh, how I feel your pain. Hang in there, love.

Dear Heart! Take courage! You are doing a beautiful job.

Eerily, I know *exactly* how you’re feeling.

Knowing that people understood what I was going through and were there to support me through it all was incredibly therapeutic.

Other times, my stories about school prompted people to share their own in the comments. They talked about how awful P.E. classes were, and about the lasting impact their favorite teachers had left on them. They shared deeply personal memories, and I learned things that I hadn’t known about even my closest family and friends. When I wrote about returning to my middle school, my cousin Lynn wrote:

I. HATED. MIDDLE SCHOOL…I think I should do a reschool experience too just to feel loved in 7th grade and erase the bad memories.

It was especially rewarding when strangers came across my writing and felt that it spoke to them. A young woman named Bonnie from Smith College in Massachusetts wrote:

I just stumbled upon this site tonight, and let me tell you: it is EXACTLY what I needed to hear. I am about to enter my last year of undergrad, am feeling entirely stressed and misdirected and not connected to my work. And I feel like I’m missing something in my childhood and in my education – that playful creativity, as you mentioned. But do I still have to finish this year? I want to reschool myself!

All of the difficult moments of the project felt worthwhile when I read and responded to these comments. It filled me with happiness to have added something positive to people’s lives. I loved feeling connected to my fellow humans through our shared experiences.

Of course, reader feedback isn’t always warm and fuzzy (oh, how I wish it were!). I’m still a bit terrified to publish a book because of the inevitable negative reviews that any real writer receives. I’m scared that some people will dismiss the project as a silly stunt, and that they won’t think my writing is any good.

But when I look back at the sincere and thoughtful comments that people have left on my posts, I feel more confident that I can ignore the naysayers and focus on the people who find value in what I write.

It’s scary to put something so dear and personal to you as a piece of writing out into the world. But I’ve found that the potential reward, for both you and for the people that you can affect with your words, is well worth the risk.

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by dskley.

Recommitting to the Goal, Again and Again

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Right now, I’m in the midst of the two biggest challenges that I’ve ever chosen to undertake. What they have in common is that there is no linear path to the destination. Instead, there is a roundabout route with detours, roadblocks, and occasional dead ends. And, of course, there’s no road map.

My first challenge is parenting my toddler son with patience and compassion.

For me, taking care of a newborn was a piece of cake compared with parenting a toddler. I would take the spit-up and dozens of diaper changes and feedings every two hours around the clock in a heartbeat if I could trade the irrational tantrums, the constant demands and interruptions, and the times that my toddler bites me on the leg repeatedly and laughs about it. To him, it’s a fun game.

The last item has me at the end of my rope. I’ve read that toddlers bite for a number of reasons: to relieve teething pain, to get a reaction, to seek attention, or even to show affection — not because they will grow up to be a Dexter Morgan-class psychopath one day. But still, when I am trying to cook dinner and have to ward off his little fangs in my leg again and again, I find myself getting furious and exasperated instead of giving him a firm but loving course correction.

A major reason that I handled a newborn with relative ease was that I was on maternity leave then; the only thing I was doing was parenting, and I could recoup any lost sleep during the day. Now I am working a full-time job outside of the house, then I start my second shift as a mom, and after that, my third shift as a writer. Every day, I am exhausted.

I’ve found that parenting is a series of daily victories and failures. Among today’s victories were making my son giggle by playing peekaboo, and reading him the same books several times in a row. Among today’s failures were handing him to his father when he was screaming for no discernable reason and saying, “You deal with him. I just can’t right now.”

I hope to do better tomorrow. I fail, I learn, and I recommit to being a loving parent. I focus on the goal of teaching my son to be a kind, resilient, curious person, and doing whatever it takes to get there.

My second challenge is writing the Reschool Yourself book.

As incredibly difficult as I’m finding it to be the parent of a toddler, it’s been even more difficult for me to write a book. I wish that reading a whole lot of inspirational, female-protagonist memoirs translated neatly to producing one myself, but unfortunately that has not been the case. I wish that writing countless blog posts added up to writing a book, but it turns out that they’re completely different beasts. Blog posts are short and make a single point. Books have a plot and structure, characters and dialogue, and a narrative arc that keeps readers turning the pages. Their sheer word count is daunting.

The six years that I’ve been working on the book have been comprised of a series of peaks and valleys. I’ll get some inspiration that will put fuel in the tank, and then it will run out and I’ll be stuck again.

Seth Godin describes this phenomenon as “The Dip,” or “the long slog between starting and mastery.” He describes the excitement that we all feel at the beginning of a new project, and the inevitable letdown once the novelty wears off and the hard work begins. All of a sudden, things get real. When they hit a low point, that’s the Dip. Godin says that if the goal is not worth the effort — that is, you don’t really want it, or your hard work won’t ever pay off — you should strategically quit, and quit fast. But if it is worth the effort, then you’ll be in the minority of winners if you keep going through the Dip and come out on the other side. A key to succeeding, he says, is knowing that the Dip is there, and that you’re currently in the middle of it.

I’ve let the Dip stop me from finishing the book many times, but what’s more important is that I’ve eventually picked myself back up and recommitted to my goal. Each time, it’s difficult to overcome the pure inertia — the habit of not working on the book — and the self-loathing I feel for having failed once again. But I do it anyway. I will keep pushing through Dip after Dip and recommitting to my goal as many times as it takes to get the book done.

I am also trying to keep in mind a vision of what it will feel like to achieve my goal, to run my hands over the cool, smooth covers of my book and to hear readers say that my words made a difference in their lives. The comments that people leave on my blog posts give me little glimpses of this feeling, and they refuel my tank when it’s running low.

To recap, what I’ve learned from being in the midst of the two toughest challenges of my life is this: Envision how you’ll feel once you achieve your goal. Know that you’ll hit peaks and valleys along the way, possibly more times than you can count. Celebrate your smallest of successes, forgive yourself for even your biggest failures, and recommit to your goal as many times as it takes. I’ll be right there with you.

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by keltickleton.

Making Space for New Ideas

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I was 28 years old when I realized that I didn’t like where my life was headed.

To most people, I’m sure everything looked fine. I was in good health, was working full-time in the youth program that I’d co-founded, and had a busy social life in San Francisco. But I knew in my core that I wasn’t fulfilled by it all, and I wasn’t ever going to be. The hard thing was, I had no idea what I’d do instead. So I kept plodding forward.

I fell into a deep depression that winter. I felt like I was being swept away in a current of my endless To-Do lists for and social commitments. It was so bad that even when my family came together for Christmas at my parents’ house, which was my favorite thing in the world, it couldn’t lift my spirits. From behind the closed door of my childhood bedroom, I could hear my mom and sister laughing together in the kitchen. Normally I would have walked down the hall and joined them, but I just sat there by myself, because I didn’t feel like doing much of anything. I knew that if I didn’t make a big change of some kind, and soon, I would be in real trouble.

The only thing I could think to do was to get away and clear my head. I’d always wanted to take a reading retreat and hole up in a cabin somewhere, just me and a stack of good books. My nonprofit salary didn’t leave me much disposable income, but I found a hostel on the coast that was surprisingly affordable. After Christmas, I packed my Jetta full of books, art supplies, and my laptop — strictly for reading and writing, not for email — and drove out to the beautiful Half Moon Bay.

It was revolutionary for me to wake up and have the whole day to myself, with no plans or obligations. I jogged. I journaled. I sat on a bench and watched the waves crashing on the rugged cliffs below. At the hostel I sat by the fire and read for hours. Taking that retreat was the kindest thing that I’ve ever done for myself, before or since.

A day or so into my stay at the hostel — which I’d planned for two days but extended to four — I began to have ideas again. Actual ideas. I was used to keeping my mind and schedule so full at all times that I could only execute the tasks in front of me; there was no space for anything new. My brain was like a hard drive that was one hundred percent at capacity. Removing myself from my daily routine and endless To-Do lists — laundry! email! grocery shopping! — opened up a patch of fertile ground that allowed new ideas emerge.

I came into the retreat knowing that I needed to make a change in my life and hoping that I would figure out what it was. It was my last night at the hostel when I finally realized what was making me so unhappy. In addition to overscheduling and exhausting myself, I had been pushing myself to do everything perfectly. I was afraid to take risks and make mistakes. I’d grown so used to doing what I thought I should be doing with my life that I’d lost sight of what I wanted to do. It eventually dawned on me that all of these habits had all begun in school.

When I asked myself what I wanted, the answer was, “A fresh start. A school do-over. A chance to come out a happier person the second time around.”

The idea for a project began to form: What if I could go back to my childhood classrooms, from kindergarten through college, and do school over again?

That was the beginning of the Reschool Yourself project. It seemed like a nutty idea, but over the next few months after I left the hostel, through a series of emails and phone calls and face-to-face meetings, I received permission to do the project. I spent the fall of 2008 at my old schools, reliving many of my childhood experiences, and writing about how they were changing me. I finished the project much more grounded and whole than when I began. Shortly afterward, I moved across the country and began a completely new line of work. And yes, I ended up a lot happier than I was when I began.

If I hadn’t taken time away from my busy life in the first place, I can almost guarantee that I would never even have had the idea for the project. I would have miserably continued down the wrong path because I simply didn’t know what else to do.

We all have ideas just below the surface, waiting to appear when we create the space for them. It could be as small as a solution to a problem we’ve been wrestling with at work, or as big as an epiphany about the next chapter of our lives. But because we’re uncomfortable with silence or being alone, or because we’re addicted to being busy all the time, we fill up every spare second with noise. The shower is just about the only place that’s quiet and free of distractions, so it’s no wonder that people often have big ideas there.

I realize that most of us aren’t able to do exactly what I did and take four days off for a retreat, even during the holidays. It certainly wouldn’t be feasible for me now that I have a baby. But that doesn’t mean I can’t create the space to have new ideas. Lately, I’ve been working on not automatically pulling out my phone when I have a few seconds of downtime. When someone is running late for a meeting or I’m in line at the post office, I have to actively resist the sweet siren song of Facebook. Instead, I’ll just be still for a few moments and let the ideas come as they may. This weekend when I was in line at the grocery store, I thought, I want to bake something tonight. Hey, I can make a king cake!  If I’d been scrolling through post after post on social media, I wouldn’t be enjoying a piece of cinnamon goodness topped with colored sugar for dessert tonight.

There are other experiments in creating space that I’d like to try, as well. Here’s an excerpt from a Wired profile on Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos:

Bezos spends hours at a time thinking about the future: trawling for ideas, exploring his own site, sometimes just surfing the Web, particularly on Mondays and Thursdays, which he tries to keep unscheduled. “I catch up on email, I wander around and talk to people, or I set up my own meetings – ones that are not part of the regular calendar.” His surfing isn’t always confined to retail: Let the record note that on a Thursday in January he spent five hours on the Web using (his wife) MacKenzie’s MSN account, plumbing the depths of his space fascination and learning more about “roton” rockets.

If Jeff Bezos has the time to leave two days per week unscheduled, then I can probably reserve an hour a week, or even a few minutes a day. I’ll bet if every day we shut off all of our devices and just took a few quiet moments with our thoughts, we’d all be a little more grounded and have some new ideas that just might change our lives.

 

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by konvo.

Shutting the Door on the Resistance

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I’ve been working on a book on the Reschool Yourself project for the past six years. I would very much like to have it finished by now, but I understand why I haven’t. It’s simple: It’s the resistance.

Steven Pressfield describes the resistance as “an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.” He writes:

Resistance is what keeps an entrepreneur from making the cold calls he knows he has to, to get his business rolling. It’s the force that keeps an aspiring painter away from her studio, or makes a writer back off from the blank page. Resistance stops us from going to the gym, from meditating, from donating our time to a cause we believe in.

The resistance looked a little different for me each time. At first, it came as the daunting question, How in the world do I write a book? It was much easier to do other things — like clean the house and watch TV — than sit down and try to figure it out.

Eventually I decided to jump in and just start writing the book as best I knew how. It came in small fits and starts. I’d get up in the morning before my husband did so I’d have some quiet time to myself and get on a roll.  Then I would hit a roadblock in my writing and give in to the resistance, until I worked up enough courage to start again. Years passed like this, more quickly than I could have imagined.

When I had a baby in the summer of 2013, I understood the difference between my internal resistance and tangible, real-world obstacles. Whereas before I’d had to contend with the resistance alone, now I had to deal with it AND find the time and energy to write when every ounce of it was already going toward keeping a newborn alive.

Now that my son is a toddler, I write after he goes to bed. On good days, I put him down around 8 pm and write for an hour or two. On bad days, I listen to the resistance when it says, “Don’t you need to finish a bit of work? Don’t you deserve to decompress for a while after a long day?” And by the time that I’m done with these things, it’s too late and I’m too tired to start writing. I go to bed feeling like a failure.

I’m doing the Your Turn Challenge this week because I want to shut the door on the resistance.

Committing to doing something every day doesn’t give the resistance any opportunity to weasel its way into your mind. It cuts off any discussion about whether you’re going to do it or not. There are no excuses or negotiations. A commitment doesn’t leave room for if you’ll deliver — only for when and how.

I’ve already used this tactic to beat the resistance once. While I was doing the Reschool Yourself project and spending each day at my old schools, I knew that I was going to blog about my experience each night. Because of that commitment, I lined up the rest of my waking hours to make sure I could deliver my post. Throughout the day, I would think about what I would write that night, so when I sat down I was ready to start typing without hesitation, and I sat in front of the computer until I published the post. I wrote about eating lunch in the school cafeteriagoing to a middle school dance, and staying in my college dorms.

At first, I had to grind out each sentence. I would delete every other word because I couldn’t capture the perfect phrasing that I heard in my mind. But as I kept writing day after day, whether I felt like it or not, the words began to flow more easily. I even began to look forward to writing. This momentum slammed the door on the resistance and kept it out. But once I finished the project, I started blogging more sporadically, which cracked the door open and let the resistance slither its way back in.

I hope that posting every day for the Your Turn Challenge will shut that door on the resistance again and seal it tight. I hope it will translate to moving my book forward every day, whether I edit a section of the manuscript, put fresh words on the page, or publish a new blog post. I hope that being part of a blogging community will encourage all of us to make our big dreams happen.

The week, I’m sure that the resistance will tell me that I’m too busy or too tired to write a blog post every day. I’m sure it’ll say, “Cut yourself some slack. You have a full-time job and a 17-month-old. You should relax tonight instead of writing. Just post something tomorrow.”

And I’ll tell the resistance, “Thank you for sharing” — or, as Pressfield recommends, “Go to hell” — and write my post anyway.

 

This post is part of the seven-day Your Turn Challenge hosted by Seth Godin’s team. Flickr photo by t0msk

A Mantra for the Holidays: “What’s Not Wrong?”

 

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This holiday season, I’ve been nostalgic for the kind of Christmas that I was lucky enough to have as a child. It was my favorite time of year, hands down. My family and I would drive out to a local Christmas tree farm in my dad’s truck, sitting four abreast, and cut down a divine-smelling Douglas fir. Back at home, we would put carols on the tape deck — Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and New Kids on the Block’s “Merry, Merry Christmas” were our favorites — and string colored lights on the branches. We’d unwrap newspaper from each ornament and smile as we remembered the person who gave it to us or the fond memory that it brought back. My sister and I helped our mom make fudge and three kinds of butter cookies, and on Christmas Eve my family would go to Mass, eat a home-cooked meal, and open presents. The whole season was filled with excitement and real holiday cheer.

Now that I’m an adult and a parent and I live far from my childhood home, I’ve had a much harder time getting into the Christmas spirit. I now understand why the holidays are the most stressful time of year for a lot of people. Everyone is rushing — to get work out the door before vacation, to drive out to the mall and pay for their purchases, to get the house clean and the meal prepared before family arrives. Then there are the financial strains. Being practical and money-conscious, the whole concept of Christmas shopping is stressful for me, because I don’t want people to buy me anything out of obligation, and vice versa. On top of that is holiday fundraising and sending Christmas cards and taking Santa pictures and braving the long lines at the post office. AND, AND, AND. There’s a lot more effort that goes into preparing for Christmas as a grown-up than as a child, and it’s difficult to accept that it isn’t the magical, carefree time that it was back then.

I had a mini-meltdown the other day because I let all of this holiday pressure get to me. I’d been so proud of myself for turning around our Christmas card quickly, and for completing a mad errands dash that included picking up the cards, exchanging lampshades at Target, going to the pharmacy, and buying stamps before I had to pick up our son from school. But when I got home, I realized that the lampshades were the wrong kind, and the 4×6 card we’d designed looked too small compared to the 5×7 that we’d done last year. In that moment, all of the effort I’d gone to seemed to be for nothing. I could feel the dark clouds gathering over my head.

Darren tried to reason with me, as he always does when I get like this, but it was futile. I could see that the holiday cards on our fridge were of various sizes. I knew that not one single person would open the card, see our smiling baby boy, and say, “I would really enjoy this card, if only it were bigger.” In that moment, it didn’t matter, because I wanted the card to be different than it was, and because it wasn’t, it felt ruined altogether. That’s the trap of perfectionism, of course, and the reason that it’s a surefire recipe for unhappiness.

It took a mood-shifter — in this case, the star-studded musical sendoff for The Colbert Report — to snap me back to reality and stop ruminating. I could see that the lampshades and the Christmas cards and the rest of it all qualified as major #firstworldproblems. I was able to step back for a moment and ask myself, “What’s NOT wrong?” — and the answer was, “So much.”

Even though most of my family members live far away and I miss them, I am fortunate to have a family who loves me and would do anything for me. Even though toddlerhood has been very, very challenging, I have a healthy son who makes me laugh every day, and a husband who is a doting parent and my most unflagging supporter. I have a job that I love, a financial situation on the upswing, and a community full of caring neighbors and friends. There is PLENTY in my life that is not wrong.

I went back to Target the next day and exchanged the lampshades again, this time for the right kind. I got to see how much the Christmas card made my coworkers smile and accepted that it was great just the way it was. I made a point of listening to Christmas carols and baking cookies from my family’s recipe to get into the holiday spirit.

I’m coming to terms with Christmas being more of a crazy time than it was when I was a child, but perhaps I can make it as magical a time for my son as it was for me. No, our tabletop Christmas tree from Kroger is still not decorated, and it may not ever be this year. There will probably be a few more tense moments to come, whether the turkey isn’t ready when I’d hoped it would be or the baby wants to eat the cookies instead of the roasted vegetables. But in the midst of it all, I will keep asking myself, “What’s not wrong?”, so I can look around and appreciate all the things that Christmas is really about.

What’s NOT wrong in your own life? Leave a comment!