Tag Archives: Stoicism

When You Can’t Get a Do-over and You Can’t Get Over It

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Turning disappointment into the story you’ll want to live

When a toddler squeals, Do it again!, she’s joyfully learning through repetition. When she’s six years old and yells, Do-over!, she either wants to prove that she can do what she wasn’t able to demonstrate moments before, or to argue that the situation was unfair.

Within a few short years, she’ll understand that adults get very few do-overs. Especially with big decisions.

This fact feeds our need for fiction, to create stories that allow us to travel through time and set wrongs right. I regularly crave movies like Back to the Future, Groundhog Day, and 13 Going on 30, among many others that scratch the do-over itch. There’s comfort in witnessing redemptive do-overs, even when they’re pretend.

What if I had? What if I hadn’t?

Our highly evolved brains are capable of second-guessing what might have happened if we’d chosen differently — especially when we believe we have suffered or could have prevented it.

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When my second husband left quite suddenly (on a Christmas Day), you might imagine how many what-if scenarios went through my badly wounded ego which was in serious cahoots with my emotional mind.

What if I had listened to my friend Pamela’s words of caution? What if I hadn’t lost that first baby? Then, the sobering thought: I wouldn’t have given birth to my youngest daughter. And her sons wouldn’t be here, either.

I recently went through the same second-guessing game when I quit my job last year, one I’d excitedly moved hundreds of miles for in 2015. Why did I believe that teaching at my alma mater would be my dream job? What if I had asked better questions or been bolder about what I wanted during the interviews? What if I hadn’t quit the corporate job that paid 2.5 times more?

How Addiction Recovery Can Help

Thirty years ago the notion of accepting what I couldn’t control seemed like Total Defeat to my young-adult self. Introduced to a 12-step program that I desperately needed, I worked the program for three years with moderate success.

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Until I realized the difference between acceptance and giving up agency (which I’d confused with control), I felt disempowered — something my high-achieving, high locus of control self couldn’t handle.

Yet, I began to see the nuances. If getting older has taught me nothing else, it’s that shit happens and I have to let most of it go or lose the saner, kinder parts of myself.

When I started to let go and accept what I couldn’t change (still in progress), I found opportunities to apply this first recovery step to my own and others’ addictions, neuroses, and unexplainable actions:

“We admitted we were powerless over _____, that our lives had become unmanageable.”

The powerlessness doesn’t mean we are not powerful. It means that we can’t control everything (or the actions of those we care about). My own imaginary super-power-agency needed to change before I could ease my pain and the pain I was causing others.

Buddhism and Stoicism — Misunderstood but Mighty Helpful

For a good, short article on Buddhism, PhD Confidential gets it right: that the Buddhist ideas of suffering (dukkha) and acceptance are commonly misconstrued and reduced to “life is suffering, just accept it”.

But this reduction isn’t accurate. Instead, “Everything in life is temporary, arising and falling away.” Buddhism proposes a model of reality as a stream of events rather than a thing. It’s the clinging to these temporary states that causes pain, clinging to a future that’s different than what we envision or desire.

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Stoicism overlaps with Buddhism pretty nicely. Ancient stoics taught the development of self-control and fortitude as a way to overcome destructive emotions (and no doubt, ruminating over everything). Clearer, unbiased thinking allows us to understand the universal reason (logos), expressed by Nature.

Stoicism is a way to improve our ethical and moral well-being: Virtue is simply another way of saying that a person’s will is in agreement with Nature. Stoicism also helps with interpersonal relationships: “to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy” because we are all part of Nature.

Whether we believe that our life is in the hands of God or Nature/universal logos or nothing, we don’t like to hurt, to do what is right only to be disappointed, or to be treated unfairly. To lose someone. To work hard without reward. To be wronged.

Any person capable of angering you becomes your master — Epictetus

Stoicism doesn’t mean giving in and crumbling. Virtue means remaining strong without the emotional attachment to the bad, the good and everything in between.


Now What? Just Accept It Sucks and Get Over It?

Not really. Acceptance is like the first step you take in physical therapy after weeks in a cast. Its payoffs are much greater than “getting over it”.

Acceptance isn’t accessible or experienced in the same way for everyone. For instance, I’m not so good at self-awareness. I don’t think to stop and take my emotional temperature when it’s so much easier for me to gauge others’ emotional temps. I now try to track how often I return to thoughts of regret, annoyance, resentment, anger.

If I’d asked myself these questions instead of resisting that first step, I might have moved past “what if I’d?” months before I was finally able to do so:

  • What is the loss beneath the loss? What will I have to leave behind?

Both losses meant that I wasn’t as in control as I’d thought and that scared me. I’d imagined that me, myself, and I could successfully make a work role or a spouse role fit. I had to leave my control fantasy behind. Again!

My imaginary control helped keep my marriage and job unhappiness to a low simmer. A state I told myself was normal. I also needed to admit that I had erred by ignoring or minimizing ongoing issues. That was uncomfortable. But I sat with it and realized my culpability. The discomfort lifted.

  • What good has come out of this? What can I accept with gratitude?

This isn’t a fluff, feel-good question. It was important to get to a point where I didn’t look at either situation as unrecoverable or life-defining. Only then, could I see options that weren’t possible if I’d stayed in that job or remained with my ex.

The first gratitude I remember acknowledging with each was identical: I have the opportunity to be more of myself.

One year (and a week) after my ex left, my now-husband moved from Atlanta to my town. We had dated for two years a decade earlier, ending it when he moved to London. We’d miraculously gotten a do-over that we waited to celebrate publicly when my youngest daughter helped him plan our wedding — four years later.

  • What story or scene can I craft that helps balance the bad with the good?
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I find comfort in comedy. While I couldn’t see it through my rage at the time, beating the side of the garage, screaming at an aluminum mop handle until the poor thing contorted to a pile of twisted pipes had to be hilarious. (The kids weren’t home to witness, but now I hope the neighbors had a laugh.)

  • What if that bad thing hadn’t happened? If I could go back and have a do-over, would I?

This is always a tricky question. To mess with history could mean The Man in the High Castle or a bully like Biff getting his comeuppance. Or it could mean an infinite number of less dramatic, funny, strange, boring outcomes.

When I got to the realization that neither my ex nor my job was all bad — that a lot of good things happened when I was in those roles — I focused less on wishing for a do-over and more on getting to work on doing something meaningful: becoming more me.

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The Cancer of Privileged Expectations

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How to kill delusions of getting our way while keeping hope alive

“Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect.” — Margaret Mitchell

Everyone has their blind spots. Blame nature, nurture, hard-to-break habits. One of my weaknesses is that I conflate hope and expectation.

Just because I really want something and work hard to make it happen doesn’t mean it will. I put too much stock into may and might, like an overly excited kid whose parent says “maybe someday” to her pleas for a puppy.

I don’t realize why I feel depressed until I admit that what I’d hoped for was what I was set on happening. This is embarrassing on a lot of levels.

First, I’m white, not poor, and heterosexual. Being female and politically blue in a red state has its occasional issues but I am certainly among the privileged. Privileged folks have more success in getting what we want.

Second, I’m educated (also tied to privilege), and I should know better. If nothing else, basic probability theory doesn’t change by blowing on dice. My wanting and wishing won’t change snake eyes (pair of ones) into ballerina (two twos).

Third, add to the above certain traits like idealistic, moderately neurotic, an internal locus of control with Type A tendencies and viola!

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Is It Just Me? Or Could Our Culture Play a Part?

Decades before The Secret, a 2006 Oprah-lauded book based on the law of attraction, a lot of best-sellers claimed that your thoughts can directly change your life.

The basic formula of expectations = success has been in circulation long before self-help was a genre.

For starters, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich was published in 1937 (it followed Hill’s The Law of Success in 1928). Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic, The Power of Positive Thinking, also remains a best-seller.

And before these publications, Calvinism, bootstrapping and rugged individualism played a huge role in America’s lone-wolf hero mythology. Walt Disney’s, “If you can dream it, you can do it” is like saying, “If you want it, believe that you can do it, and you will.” (All of those contingencies depend on you and nothing or no one else.)

We’re culturally set up to think this way. And that’s not going to change, not today anyway. So, what’s the harm in believing? Aren’t positive people, even when they’re a bit delusional, nicer to be around? I’d much rather spend an hour with Ms. Confident and Mr. I’ve Got a Good Feeling than with a real-life Eeyore.

A Little Stoicism Shines a Spotlight

A good read on the lackluster benefits of positive thinking (and mega-motivational conferences that peddle it) is Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking.

Burkeman says it’s not the work toward hoped-for outcomes that gets us into trouble. It’s our tidy expectations of how and when we will be successful that messes us up. The path that ultimately leads to happiness will be paved more smoothly by “embracing imperfection, and easing up on the search for neat solutions.” This stoic path requires that we don’t ignore (or dismiss) that we in fact may not get what we want. And that’s guaranteed by our very mortality.

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A Place for Negative and Positive Space in the Same Brain

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. — F. Scott Fitzgerald

While attitudes influence positive (and negative) outcomes, our thoughts and moods don’t directly lead to those outcomes. Instead, our attitudes and thoughts affect our willingness — the fuel — to keep going and to give our best.

If I’m in a good place psychologically, I tend to work eagerly and I’m more likely to pour more positivity into that work. Which increases the probability of success — but only in terms of what I can control.

Thinking positively does not, itself, cause successful outcomes.

So Do We Try to Get Rid of Expectations or Just Lower them?

Eliminating unrealistic expectations — the hoped for outcome we absolutely and sometimes desperately want—can feel like depriving us of hope’s best case scenario.

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The idea is not to dilute what you hope for, but to temper what you expect. Over time, self-imposed high expectations create unsustainable demands on us and others.

By using a simple STOIC reminder, we can temper inflated expectations.

S = Stay focused on balancing your ideal outcome with other realistic possibilities. Thinking about how great it would be if your hopes materialize is certainly okay. But don’t dwell there. Consider other possibilities, including more negative outcomes, including what if things don’t change?

T = Take time to put your life into perspective. What does your hoped for outcome matter in the long run? A practicing stoic would remind us that we’re all going to die someday, which is a way to help us be present right now.

O = Offer thanks. For everything.

I = Invite unexpected visitors:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. — Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks

C = Create more grace for yourself and others. Our very lives are not within our control. We were born into and will leave these bodies — and not according to anyone’s expectations. Including our own.

Don’t Give Up Hope

Adjusting expectations to fit more realistic probabilities is not a “one and done” endeavor. Especially for those of us who confuse expectations with hope. The point is not to dash dreams. Hope is a good thing:

Hope is a good thing maybe even the best of things and good things never die. — Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption

And if hope is indestructible, it helps to envision expectations as something fragile that we choose to carry on a long journey:

Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack. — Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings

Of course, we don’t have to carry any expectations at all. I’m not sure whether that might be true enlightenment or another unrealistic expectation.

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Just Because You’re Related Doesn’t Mean You Can Relate

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Should you keep trying?

Between the facts of shared DNA, cultural expectations, and the ecstatic families portrayed on social media lies a fiction. It goes something like this: Being related means that we can relate to family members in ways we can’t with those outside the family.

Although we know that being related and being able to relate can be fictional, we tend to hold onto another story: that one day our genetic magnet will pull us closer. It’s the resolution we seek, not unlike a Capra movie. Some of us want a closer kinship so badly, we spend decades trying. And some of us either opt for more space, reducing contact with family members, or we relegate family relationships to a more superficial status. Some opt out altogether.

Because “relate” has a few dozen definitions, I’m using the intransitive verb and especially this meaning:

to understand, like or have a sympathetic relationship for someone


The Myth of One Big (or small) Happy Family

As a young girl of the sixties, I remember hearing my grandfather talk about this or that brother — he had close to 20 (not a typo) siblings — who had wronged him or someone in the family. Because he called himself a hillbilly and was ‘kicked out at 12 because there wasn’t enough food for us’ I simply thought that family strife was the result of scarcity.

But, as I began to learn from my mother and her siblings — who grew up poor but didn’t starve — we were not all that different from grandpa’s clan. My gay uncle was sometimes tolerated but mostly alienated, another uncle incessantly bragged about his fame and fortune (I later realized he was a sociopath), another a kind, joyful man who died of cancer while in his prime, and one a generous artist who seemed the least bothered by family strife.

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My mother was frequently caught in the middle of her own mother’s unmet needs which sometimes manifested in grandma ‘stirring things up’ between her adult children. I saw mom struggle with grandma’s induced drama while mom tried to be a good daughter. As eldest, I saw the toll it took on mom, but it also impacted my brother, sister and me when we stopped seeing our cousins.

Fast forward 40-plus years. My parents are alive and mostly well; my siblings and me, our children and grandchildren — none of us were banished to fend for our 12-year-old selves. Each of us (except the younger grandchildren) has uttered and suffered cruel comments, unsolicited advice, shaming, and righteous lectures.

We have hurt one another. Just like real families.

Also like real families, we’ve dealt with some shit over the years. Not as deep as incarceration or losing a child (for which I’m thankful), and much of this shit is common to other families: Divorce, eating disorders, cutting, attention-deficit disorder, drugs, alcoholism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, sociopathy, domestic abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, estrangement, and harmed relationships due to lying, cheating, gas lighting, blaming and shaming.

These are the ones I’m aware of.


We Are Family

Many things on the list (above) implicate genetics. Also, we’re just starting to understand how few of our actions, including decisions, are ones we (freely?) choose. In Behave Robert Sapolsky provides compelling evidence of a sort of neurochemical-hormonal-evolutionary determinism. That virtually every individual action, like the syntax of my next sentence, is unavoidably caused by preceding events in the world, including those inside my brain.

Free will, according to Sapolsky, does not exist to the extent we’ve been told we have. If you’re tempted to argue that his position would support more similarity in families (due to genetic similarities), first remember that the gene pool in every family is wide and deep. Second, his answer in an interview:

Yes, genes are important for understanding our behavior. Incredibly important — After all, they code for every protein pertinent to brain function, endocrinology, etc., etc. But the regulation of genes is often more interesting than the genes themselves, and it’s the environment [food, chemicals, light, climate] that regulates genes. Almost always, genes are about potentials and vulnerabilities rather than about determinism.

If behavior and choice are more complicated than we ever imagined, why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to “get” or enjoy our family members? And how reasonable is it to believe our family should always like us?

Maybe we suspend our disbelief due to the power of nostalgia. Researcher Tim Wildschut says

“I think one of the strengths of nostalgia is that even if they have not had a good childhood, most people have at least one nostalgic memory that they cherish and that they can use repeatedly. Someone once asked me: ‘How long do these effects last?’ My 11-year-old daughter said: ‘They last your entire life!’ She’s right, too. Once positive memories are instantiated they might have only represented half an hour of your entire childhood, but you can dwell on them and return to them forever.”

I would add that we yearn to live a good story. With endings of redemption, reuniting, and deeper relating. And everyone wants love on their own terms.

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Would it be okay to take tell ourselves a different story? Reduce the pressure of ‘one happy family’? Here are seven potential release valves for doing just that:

Put your family strife into a wider cultural perspective. And laugh.

Family issues are our legacy. Whether mythical or real, many are violent. Consider the first earth-born humans in the book of Genesis: Cain slew Abel. As for Greek and Roman gods, Hera threw her infant Hephaestus off a mountain. Cronus ate all his babies except Zeus thanks to Rhea’s trickery. Shakespeare was fond of featuring our worst family flaws (e.g., Uncle Claudius, Goneril, Regan).

Not liking Aunt Maria is okay. Murder is not.

It’s Hard to Relate When We’re in Trauma

Think about the times when rifts between people happen or begin to be exposed. Someone is struggling. Add family to the mix and the relating can get complicated. A parent or sibling who wants nothing more than to help fix things can be perceived as intrusive. Sometimes when we say we want to spare our family members from worry, we are really sparing ourselves from feelings of guilt or shame.

Last week during my restorative practices work at a middle school, a sixth-grader reminded me that many people’s baseline is trauma. It’s all Jasmine knows. Her father, grandfather and uncle are incarcerated (all within the last year); her mother, repeatedly abused by boyfriends and her own father, has become a threat to her. “I love her but I don’t like her.”

As an adult, you can choose to engage or disengage with family. If you believe it’s better to cut off communication until you’re ready to reengage (and you may never be), let one of them know in simple terms — unless doing so will increase your trauma.

Conversely, if you want to help a family member who may be in trauma, offer it. But don’t press. If they know they can count on you, that’s all the relating you need.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know. Learn It Outside Your Family.

More than 30 years ago I learned that my enabling behavior wasn’t a form of love. My attempts to control and “manage” those I loved was something I could no longer deny. Twenty years ago, I argued with a psychologist who suggested I might be enmeshed with my daughter. I was definitely sprinting in that direction, but I was scared I would lose her. I couldn’t see other options.

In both cases, my ability to (reluctantly) admit my errors and begin behaving in healthier ways with immediate family members would not have been possible if my parents or sister, aunt or cousin “advised” me.

It’s Okay to Take a Break

As hard as it may be to ask for some space and time from your parents or other adult relatives, it’s 100 times harder to have that conversation with your adult child. And when that child needs space and time from you, it can hurt like nothing else.

While it may sound too simple, tell yourself, “It will be okay. This is their journey. I will trust their process and let go of the pain, the questions, the worry.” Then believe it in your bones. If you can’t, get a good therapist.

I’ve been estranged from family members a few times. One lasted the better part of a year. It truly sucked. My biggest challenges during those silences have centered around a) not ruminating on why and b) remaining open to possibilities. As one of my counselors advised, “let them know the door is open, even if a crack.”

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Remember, Change is the Only Constant

In 1999, I designed an MBA course called Change Management, which I taught for 10 years. Peter Senge’s The Dance of Change helped me realize the power of nature as a metaphor. In nature, nothing grows evenly. An s-shaped pattern called sigmoidal growth illustrates the starts and stops, accelerating and slowing, of all organisms.

Not only do we constantly change to physically adapt and grow, we are constantly learning. And that type of growth accelerates and slows as well. If you are bummed about your brother not growing at the same speed or in the “right” direction, can you appreciate him where he is? If not, maybe it’s time for a conversation or a break.

Politics and Religion — The Growing Divide

Over the last two decades, especially the last one, politics and religion have become a thicker dividing line within my family. I am not a fan of building walls or militarizing police. Black lives and women’s choices matter. I do not identify with the religious right. These are contentious issues in my family.

Regardless of whether we are predisposed to particular ideologies based upon DNA, neuroscience, or something else, many of my views are not appreciated by at least half of my family. Likewise, I am not a fan of many of their beliefs. We seem to find less and less to talk about unless it’s something safe like laughing at that time our luggage blew off the top of our car and I crossed four lanes of Missouri interstate to retrieve my little brother’s diapers. I was nine.

Putting boundaries around conversational topics is okay. Dr Abigail Brenner cautions that “some topics are absolutely off-limits.”

Period. History and experiences should tell you that these subjects should be avoided at all costs. That’s not to say that important issues should be permanently avoided. Rather, if your experience dealing with certain issues has left you stressed out, emotionally depleted, and the discussion has not progressed sufficiently along to represent a rapprochement of sorts, then it’s best to avoid this discussion until a time when both parties are willing to move it forward in a constructive way.

She has a point. Although I’m hopeful that organizations like Better Angels can help move conversations (not debates) between reds and blues forward in non-threatening ways, my family is not there yet. We need to stick to what we can agree on.

Be as Stoic as Possible

A couple years ago, a friend asked me how things were going with a close family member. I said, “She’s alive… and right now, that’s my baseline.” She smiled, fully aware that I wasn’t using sarcasm.

Stoicism is looking at reality while remembering what could be worst case. I’ve written about stoicism and embracing what Oliver Burkeman calls ‘the negative path’ as one that paradoxically leads to more sustainable positivity. From pondering my own death to the deaths of my loved ones, stoicism helps me frame and level my emotions.

When you feel stuck, depressed, frustrated, here are some stoic-like questions to consider. Implied in most of these is the need for two-way communication, not to assume how the other feels and thinks.

How do I feel about my current relationship with [parent/sib/child]?

If it’s not what I need, do they know what I need from them?

Are they able to give it right now?

What do they need right now?

What kind of relationship do they think is best right now?

Do they know what I’m willing to do to repair or improve the relationship?

Is it possible that more space and time could be what we both need? For now?

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Be Patient With Yourself. Time = More Opportunities

Life has a way of offering wisdom, usually wrapped in some pain. I turn 60 this month so I’ve been given a few opportunities to learn some humility. Many opportunities I’ve squandered. Especially in my active mothering years when I often failed with my parents and my siblings. Sometimes, these failures were accompanied by ugly emotional kicking and screaming.

More recently, I’ve decided to accept opportunities. I don’t necessarily accept others’ behavior toward me but I try to accept that this is where they are in the moment. This acceptance thing is relatively new. I don’t embrace it reliably, but I’m working on it.

Grandpa used to say, “You’re either for me or against me.” I am now his age when I was born. I’m grateful for his life. And grateful I have more than a binary choice.

Thanks for reading! Tell me what you like and how I can improve my writing jodi@14wordsforlove.com.

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Deconstructing The Work You Don’t Have To Do

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Just before Christmas, I asked a friend if she could push our lunch back 30 minutes so I could finish writing some recommendation letters. Over lunch, we talked about how we imagine “boundaries” of work, volunteering, family and personal life. Less a bitch-and-moan session than trying to figure it out. She brought up the letters that had delayed our lunch:

“It’s not really your job, anymore, is it?”

Almost too quickly I told her I wanted to write them.

But as I said it, I wasn’t sure. After leaving the university seven months ago, I still get requests from some of my former students. Not a constant flow, but each request includes multiple graduate program links to different portals, questions and the letters that take thought and time.

So when she added, “You are really kind to do that!” I decided to examine my motives. Writing to faceless selection committees is not something I look forward to. Sure, I want to be kind. Acts of kindness have myriad benefits. But kindness wasn’t the primary motivator, or was it?


No One Does It Alone

One of my “doable” resolutions is to complete Ryan Holiday’s 14-Day Stoic Challenge. In his Day 8 audio file, Holiday asks us to reflect on those whose shoulders we’ve stood on. Specific individuals who have informed, assisted, influenced or sacrificed to help each of us do what we do, to be who we are.

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Holiday references Marcus Aurelius and I am glad to find Meditations within reach instead of boxed up in storage or loaned out. Within the first few pages of Debts and Gratitudes, Aurelius assigns unique and specific virtues to friends, family, teachers, and statesmen (several of whom were not revered by as virtuous, according to the translator). Debts and Gratitudes feels like a chapbook of epitaphs, a collection of psalms in praise of the perfection within imperfect people.

Following the prompt, I can recall people’s generosity (if not their names) at different stages of my life. Every degree, job, place I’ve lived, childcare provider, doctor, means of transportation, and social network happened through the help of others. Lots of others.

A few remain strangers, some I’ve lost touch with or forgotten their names, several are dead, but the rest I plan to contact and thank this year.


Idolizing the Individual: Fantasies and Fallacies

Horatio Alger’s late-19th century fiction about boys pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to rise out of poverty and into plenty continues to resonate (like Disney stories) throughout American culture. We adore the single hero. We still yearn for the simplistic cause-effect between hard work and the deserved payoff.

DREAM BIG! If you want it badly enough and work hard enough, YOU WILL MAKE IT! (Just pull up on them bootstraps, boys and girls.)

The assumption that everyone owns boots or has access to boots that fit their feet is an obvious fallacy. If success were a matter of dreams, dogged determination and sleep deprivation, America would be an equal-opportunity wonderland. (But that argument is best left to another article or three.)

And even if we lived in a world of right-sized boots beside every bed (and a chicken in every pot), we still couldn’t succeed or survive alone.


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An Invitation to Ditch the Boots and Look Down

Just days ago, writing an imagined autobiography filled with tales of rugged individualism may have appealed to me. I’d tell you about a grad student living loan-to-loan, long hours and the leanness and lack of everything. And further back, a first-generation college student whose obsessive-compulsive disorder intensified with anxiety, triggered by uncertainty. A steady oversupply of not knowing what the hell I was doing — especially my freshman year.

But now I remember who sustained me. My parents, their cards crammed into a tiny mail slot like paper lifelines; their unwavering willingness to come fetch me when I needed home. My dear Aunt Ann, who’d completed college and married my uncle, sent luxuriously long and thoughtful letters, sometimes a check tucked between pages of her elegant stationery. My virtuous and indecent roommates, the weird but provocative philosophy guy, the muckrakers from whom I learned as much about community as I learned about good journalism.

I estimate at least 80 letters of support have been written on my behalf; hundreds of introductions, phone calls, and deeds done in the service of me, whose welfare was not part of anyone’s job.

Whether our delusions of self-making are due to cultural individualism, Calvinism, a rise in narcissism or just being human doesn’t really matter. I only invite you to take off the boots (real or imagined) and consider:

The mentor, the tough teacher, the lunch lady who made sure you ate every day, your friend’s aunt who took the time to tell you about her adventures in Katmandu, LeVar Burton’s soothing narration after school.

We are helped, lifted and assisted by other people.

Who has been part of your story? Whose story can you help write today?

Maybe the only motive that matters is one we already know by heart: We are all part of the same story.

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It’s Been a Week: Science and Art Are Telling You to Lighten Up

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Resolutions have a dismal success rate: a quarter fail by mid-January and less than 10 percent are deemed successful by year’s end. The problem isn’t that we’re lazy or that winter is a lousy time to punish ourselves (although getting up at 6 a.m. to run in 20-degree weather isn’t exactly pleasurable).

What we’ve been taught about behavior change is wrong because it’s incomplete. Twenty years ago, with a newly-minted PhD, I believed that motivation was The Answer. That if workers were properly resourced with training, equipment and time, if expectations by their managers were clearly understood, and if results were linked to rewards deemed important to workers, they (and their companies) would be successful and satisfied.

Like individual resolutions, organization-wide change initiatives fail at about the same rate (if you’re wondering). But back to you.

Motivation IS important, but it’s not The Answer. You may have set yourself up for success: You’ve rid your pantry of the crap, adopted a new schedule, a “buddy” is part of your plan, and you’re going to measure progress. What’s the problem?

The problem seems two-fold, only one of which suggests we have some real agency. The first is powerful evidence of a type of neurochemical-hormonal-evolutionary determinism in Robert Sapolsky’s Behave. That virtually every one of our actions is unavoidably caused by preceding events in the world, including those in our brain. So, is there such a thing as free will? Not according to Sapolsky, at least to the grander extent we imagine we possess.

The second problem may be linked to our never-ending, almost pathological quest to find happiness. In doing (exercising) or not doing (eating carbs), we’ll be healthier (thinner, more attractive), which will certainly make us happier.


The Power of Paradox

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking has become my anti-self-help bible. I revisit it every year. Oliver Burkeman’s compelling idea is that our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — are what causes us to feel so insecure, unsure, doomed to fail, or unhappy. After years of research on several continents, Burkeman lands on something he calls the ‘negative path’ to happiness.

The negative path offers no neat, single solution but includes abandoning the chase for happiness and embracing the fact that happiness involves paradoxes. The Stoics knew this millennia ago, as did counterculture philosopher Alan Watts who pointed out that we sink when we try to stay on the surface of the water, but we float when we try to sink. And as Aldous Huxley put it, the harder we try with conscious will, the less we succeed.

So, what are we to do? Resign to poor habits and a shorter life span? Obviously, we can and do change. Giving up on a better you isn’t the answer. But neither is incessant positive thinking, believing that the harder you try to eliminate the negatives in your life, the more you will succeed.

I’ve reframed a piece of Burkeman’s wisdom on the negative path to hang on my own formidable wall of self-change. Specifically, it’s Burkeman’s reflection on poet John Keats’s letter to his brothers: “Sometimes the most valuable of all talents is to be able not to seek resolution; to notice the craving for completeness or certainty or comfort, and not to feel compelled to follow where it leads.”

But wait… before you ditch your resolve and refuse to follow its lead, before you return to the habitual comfort of your 2018 programming, pay attention to this nuance. The fact that you chose to make a resolution (fervently or as a half-assed hope) means that you are willing to curb your comfort. You are okay with some level of discomfort in the service of desired change, a change that includes uncertainty, temptation and feeling — at least periodically — incomplete.

Could it be that you are already on the negative path? The more promising one?

If a reasonable inference, resolutions themselves don’t get us into trouble. Our tidy expectations of how and when we will be successful do. The path that ultimately leads to happiness will be paved more smoothly by “embracing imperfection, and easing up on the search for neat solutions.”


Photo by Natasha Brazil on Unsplash

Resolve to Play at Your Problem: Turn it Upside Down

I became interested in how to foster creativity about 25 years ago. The context was my writing. Two books, that influenced me most (neither targeted to writers, specifically) were A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech and Drawing Upside Down by Betty Edwards. The former got me out of my bloated left brain hemisphere and the latter helped me literally see things I’d not seen before.

Turning things upside down or inside out can be helpful in multiple contexts: cognitive problem-solving, art, spirituality. Artist and designer Kelly O’Dell Stanley, author of Praying Upside Down, suggests that readers reframe their prayers using artistic concepts — allowing them to shed preconceived notions about answered prayer in favor of new, unexpected insights.

In business, pre-mortem meetings help teams imagine that a project or organization has failed, and then work backwards to determine what might lead to failure before it happens. And there’s reverse brainstorming which is like Opposite Day for big kids. If your team needs ideas to promote customer loyalty, you’d ask, What could we do to drive customers away from our site?Working backwards brings attention to opportunities and threats that are harder to see (or envision) via the same ol’ patterned processes.


Change Requires Your Inner Rebel

Take a note from the underdog, the weird and glorious exception, that character in your favorite book, play or film. You can find yourself effortlessly connecting with their imperfections and struggles to succeed or simply survive in a world rife with stress, conflict, injustice, temptation. Adopt one of their traits, philosophies or habits (preferably not a habit you’re trying to break).

Take a tip or two from Tom Robbins. A guru parrot in Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates: “Peeple of zee wurl, relax!” or indulge in some irreverent, immortal wisdom by reading Jitterbug Perfume and “Lighten up!”.

Don’t give up on what you want. Muse on how you approach the same old devils. Invert them and their mandated shoulds. Mold them into novel, playful challenges. Here are some some of mine, shared in hopes they might inspire your inner-rebel:

GET FAT — Gorge myself on writing and reading to outweigh self-doubt. 
SPEND MORE time on what and who I love. DON’T SAVE it for later.
REFUSE TO EXERCISE control over or criticize others.
ENABLE others to be their best selves. 
GIVE UP on past mistakes, missteps and regrets. 
CHEAT on others’ negativity, their personal, political and social despair.
LIE with (not to) myself: Take time to be still, unplug, reflect.
and above all: DON’T QUIT!

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