Never a Good Time

The book club I’m part of has one very convenient feature: two of our members are Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library librarians. They label and check out our books for us, and when book club is over, they gather them up and return them. So last month, when it happened that neither librarian could attend, we all looked at each other blankly and asked ourselves, “How will the books get back?” Lisa volunteered to take them.

There was no particular reason that Lisa should have been the one to do it. Continue reading “Never a Good Time”

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You Are = You Do = Love (or not)

In January I read an article titled “6 Harsh Truths to Make You a Better Person”. It’s written in a style that is deliberately confrontational and provocative, but that’s because it’s meant to jolt readers off their butts and get them to do something. If you can’t get past the tone to the underlying truth of the article, go sit in your room for a couple of years and then try it again when you’re ready. I’ve read it about four times since I discovered it. Continue reading “You Are = You Do = Love (or not)”

Stop the Boredom

The more we rely on external entertainments, the more bored we become. If you would stop being bored, stop trying to entertain yourself.

(Hint: the quickest way to stop being bored is to learn something or make something.)

Intersections of Responsibility

Read someone like Seth Godin regularly and you quickly become a convert to the idea that you should always bring your A-game to your work and your life and your “art”, that you should never give less than your full allowance of passion and energy, that you should never just show up and think you’ve done your duty.
 
Great. Agreed: that is ideal.
 
But what about those days when your A-game just isn’t going to happen? The flip-side of the above ideas is that if you aren’t having one of those “Unexpectedly totally cranking it out” days (to quote the Rands article from my last post), you shouldn’t bother showing up at all. And that’s obviously not practical. It’s also a slippery slope that gives you permission to say, “Well, I don’t feel like working today, so…”
 
The last few weeks my posts haven’t been finished on time. I caught myself saying, “But it’s not my fault! I couldn’t do it that day because there were internet problems/I ended up having dinner plans/I was really tired/etc!” Hold on a minute here. I’m not writing a daily blog, I’m writing a weekly one. Sure there might be very valid reasons why I could not post in the final 24 hours… but what about the rest of the week?!
 
I’m down to the wire again this week and, looking back, I have some extremely valid excuses. Leaving aside Monday, which I don’t even remember:
 
Sunday: unexpectedly spent the entire day with visiting family, then finished it with a crippling headache that lasted until bedtime.
Tuesday: I got proposed to (yes!) – obviously derailing the rest of the plans for the evening.
Wednesday: surprise dinner with the new in-laws-to-be.
Thursday: drinks with a friend, which I planned three weeks ago and forgot about because I’ve been so busy and so tired. And also two hours of overtime.
 
The thing is, very valid though all those excuses may be, I still had to make those choices. I set my priorities as family > sleep > blog (also dishes and tackling the pile of papers that is growing on my desk… apologies to my roommate).
 
Mom’s mantra is, “You can only do what you can do.” This is helpful to a perfectionist like me, especially one who happens to live in a world where everyone seems to think they can or should have it all. You can’t, and there’s no need to feel bad about that.
 
But that brings me back around full circle. Are there really truly times when the best you can do is less than your best, or times when some commitments have to slide? And how do you know when it’s one of those times and when you’re just being lazy and/or making excuses? I wish I knew.

In the Face of a Royal Pain

Among the armfuls of books I pillaged from the closing of the local Borders was one I first read over five years ago, Sex With Kings, which tells the story of various royal mistresses in various European countries over the last 500 years. It’s not quite as salacious as it sounds, and I found it even less glittering when rereading it.

You see, royal mistresses sometimes weren’t very pretty, and even the most beautiful woman at court might not hold the king’s interest for more than a few weeks. (Madame de Pompadour, the quintessential royal mistress who held the attention of Louis XV for 19 years, didn’t even have sex with him for most of that time.)

To be the maîtresse en titre (“official mistress,”), a formal position that was usually held for years, even decades, required intelligence, loyalty, creativity, and, most often, a sweet disposition that put the king above all else.

In her early years as royal mistress, Madame de Pompadour was often required to accompany Louis on his frequent hunts… in all kinds of weather. Despite the fact that these excursions often gave her pneumonia, she put on her riding habit and omnipresent smile and went off to join the king.

Perhaps her best role was that of royal listener. The king had the unfortunate habit of recounting the same stories innumerable times, of discussing the same themes – hunting, illness, and death. And his mistress, who hated talk of hunting, illness, and death, concealed her yawns behind a smile….

Nor could she leave her apartments for exercise or a change of scene lest the king suddenly appear wanting food, conversation, or sex. Despite the daunting challenges of her schedule, she never permitted herself to show fatigue, boredom, or illness, never expressed frustration, anger, or crankiness.

Two incidents in particular show her remarkable self-control under constant and extreme stress:

In one case, Madame de Pompadour, suffering from a horrendous migraine, sent the king word that she was ill and unable to attend dinner. He insisted she come down anyway. And so she went, and was pleasant to him when she got there.

Later, her 10-year-old daughter and only child died at school. Within two weeks, Madame de Pompadour’s father also died. But it would be fatal to bore the king with her grief. Someone who saw her soon after reported:

“I saw the Marquise for the first time since… a dreadful blow that I thought had completely crushed her. But because too much pain might have harmed her appearance and possibly her position, I found her neither changed nor downcast.” Though the prince saw her chatting cheerfully with the king, he thought that she “was in all likelihood just as unhappy inside as she seemed happy on the outside.”

In fact, there is only one recorded incident of Madame de Pompadour losing her temper at the king, and I suspect that was a deliberate strategy to make her point.

In the end, her reign over the king ended only with her early death – likely hastened by the constant strain on her health for those 19 years.

My point? Yes, she chose her career and evidently thought the rewards were worth the suffering, and while I might not agree with her weighting of those things, the fact remains: if she could show that kind of patience, forbearance, and calmness of temper for that long, and in the face of that kind of unreasonableness – how do I ever think I have any excuse for showing my annoyance?

But I Don’t Want To!

The wail sounds often and wordlessly in my head. “But I don’t want to call the HMO/ get up in the cold pre-dawn to go for a walk/ write my blog/ etc!” Usually, the presented alternative is not even some other useful thing, but to take it easy, to relax, to take whatever “reward” or indulgence I tell myself I’ve earned.
 
I suppose this is normal or even nearly universal. The problem is giving in to it too often; the frustration comes from reflecting on how many people have overcome it. If they can, why can’t I? No reason at all, so the question becomes, why won’t I?
 
For the last few months I’ve been locked in an endlessly revolving struggle with this: seeing something that should be done, not doing it, arguing and insisting that it should be done while countering with all the reasons it is impossible to do just at the moment, finally becoming so exhausted that the thing (so I tell myself) legitimately can’t be done, and so granting a reprieve, which usually lasts far longer than it was supposed to, sparking the cycle again.
 
After a while, it becomes obvious how much energy would be saved if the thing were done in the beginning and all this were skipped. How much more would get done! How satisfying! But of course, the cycle exists because I won’t do that. And around we go again. “Just do it” must be the most deceptively simple advice in the world (if closely followed by “Just relax and be yourself!”).
 
There absolutely must be a way of sidestepping this.
 
What was it Einstein said? “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result”? Aha!
 
Fighting over failure never works. (Remember the Sylvan Learning commercials? Parents fighting with and punishing unhappy teenagers for bad grades before finally seeing the light and getting them help?) And now that you mention it, haven’t studies shown that better results come from saying, “I’d like you to do this, please,” instead of “You must not do that”?
 
If I “must not” procrastinate, then what would I like myself to do? What is this progress I would like to make?
 
I made a list. Just writing it out, I felt a surge of inspiration. Yes, if I could hold on to that, it would be much more effective than nagging and trying to force myself to do things I don’t want to do. I’m reminded of an excellent article I have quoted before about how to effect change:

Doctors had been trying to motivate patients mainly with the fear of death, he says, and that simply wasn’t working. For a few weeks after a heart attack, patients were scared enough to do whatever their doctors said. But death was just too frightening to think about, so their denial would return, and they’d go back to their old ways….So instead of trying to motivate them with the “fear of dying,” Ornish reframes the issue. He inspires a new vision of the “joy of living” — convincing them they can feel better, not just live longer. That means enjoying the things that make daily life pleasurable, like making love or even taking long walks without the pain caused by their disease.

Calling a phone tree to do battle with a careless bureaucracy is enough to bring out the procrastinator in anyone. But thinking of it as taking care of an outstanding bill to remove one more source of stress, or taking steps to find out how to resolve a nagging health issue, makes it a bit more alluring.
 
(Of course, this also taps into the old wisdom about the power of specific goals and defined steps for getting there; “Relax and be yourself” may be useless as advice, but makes a decent goal, which “take three deep breaths and tell yourself a joke” might actually help you to reach.)
 
Next time I start to complain, “But I don’t want to!” I’ll find a way to turn it into, “Yes, but I do want to…” and I’ll let you know how it goes.

When Life is Perfect

A few months ago I got myself so excited imagining the day when I would have my own marketing consulting business that I literally couldn’t go to sleep that night. I could see my office – flooded with sunlight and, as I was imagining a start-up, located in my beautiful (imaginary) apartment. I could imagine the conversations I would have with potential clients – warm, persuasive, competent. I came up with several creative ways of promoting the business.

A few days later I realized I hadn’t imagined anything that required that perfect setting. I could start doing all of those things immediately, if I wanted to. I didn’t want to.

The point is, so often we imagine what we will do at some point in the future when life is perfect. And that point keeps moving further and further off. Really, we should bring those dreams into the present: “Can I start on it now? Why not? What could I do so that I could start at a specific stated time? Or if there isn’t anything holding me back… why don’t I just do it?” Often we find that either we don’t want that imagined future, or we don’t want it enough.

But sometimes, even when you’ve called your own bluff, you still dream that someday something will change, and all of a sudden you will have and be everything you need to pursue the dream…

Making Hay

I’m not sure if it falls under Murphy’s Law, or a corollary, or if I can claim it for my own, but it never fails: if you have been putting off a specific task, as soon as you resolve to do it, something will happen to prevent you:
 
If you mean to exercise, you’ll break your toe.
 
If you’ve been meaning to start saving, you’ll suddenly take a pay cut.
 
If you’ve wanted to hang out more with a particular friend, they will move away/ leave town extendedly/ have a time-consuming family emergency.
 
The examples are endless. The solution, too, comes in many familiar forms: Seize the day. Just do it. Make hay while the sun shines. Eat, drink, and be merry (or spend more time with your family, make a will, or volunteer for a worthwhile cause) for tomorrow you die.
 
It is a lesson, I admit, that I am frequently reminded of but have yet to learn completely. Make hay while the sun shines.
 
But then, when you do get hit by that sudden rainstorm (or flu, or headache, or life’s general unpredictability), what do you do? To be sure, it’s harder to make hay. But instead of crying out against cruel fate and resigning yourself to whatever is streaming on Netflix, you could always make soup. Read that book that’s been sitting on your shelf for the last year. Call that friend who moved away before you could hang out more often. Surely not everything you’ve been meaning to do requires a sunny day (or the use of whatever body part you’ve injured, or… )
 
“Make hay while the sun shines” implies that you can only accomplish things when all circumstances are fortuitous. Of course, you should take advantage of those opportunities. But perhaps the better advice is: Seize all the days – the sunny and the rainy ones.

Complaining for Peace

Here’s a thought that’s going to sound very strange: The way to have harmony with others is not to reason ourselves out of being offended.

I know, it sounds crazy, right? Somebody does something to annoy you and it’s so natural to think, “It’s not worth making a fuss about such a small thing, so I’ll be the bigger person and will just put up with it.” But you put up with it for years and suddenly when you do mention it, out it pours in a heated tone nothing like what you intended, and now it is a fuss.

It’s tempting, too, to praise ourselves for patience. “I didn’t complain for so long!” But what has that actually gained?

And how often have we refrained from saying the difficult thing to someone about their own behavior because we’re afraid of offending them? It’s right to be concerned about their feelings, of course. But is it right to be so concerned about their immediate feelings that we doom them to stay in patterns that may well hold them back in life, or lead to less happiness in the long term?

It’s never pleasant to hear criticism of my behavior, but it is a greater favor to me to force me to hear it than to say years later, “I have noticed this bad trait you have for a long time, but haven’t given you the chance to do anything about it.” Does more peace result from grudgingly putting up with, say, a harsh and condescending tone, or from helping the person see and change it?

Granted, there are some – perhaps many – people who don’t accept this reasoning and don’t allow others to offer them correction. But they’re not doing themselves any favors. Everyone has at least one failing. Right? Anybody disagree with that? I didn’t think so. Here’s another poll: anybody happy that they have flaws? Anybody not want to be the best person they can be? Yeah, there are a few, like my old boss who told me he’d “earned the right to be a jerk.” But most people want to think of themselves as good people, rational people capable of acting in their own best interests. Isn’t it in your best interests to hear and consider what others have to say about you?

And it’s true, not every criticism is accurate. But most have a grain of truth that can be used. For instance, an acquaintance recently told someone something about me which, when repeated to any number of people who actually know me, was greeted by shouts of laughter and the comment, “You are the last person who would do that.” But on reflection, I could see why someone who didn’t know me would think that, and consider whether some aspects of my behavior could be improved.

As the sage says, “If one man calls you a fool, ignore it. If a second man calls you a fool, consider it. If a third man calls you a fool, believe it.” So if you are someone who doesn’t like to listen to criticism, consider: you can ignore it! But listen, so you’ll know if you hear the same thing again.

A final thought for those special readers who really don’t have any failings: please take pity on those of us who do. Most people are afraid of offering even the gentlest criticism because of the large minority (majority?) who don’t take it well. That is the direct cause of Well-it’s-not-worth-making-a-fuss syndrome. So the next time someone approaches you with an obviously wrong criticism, please, listen calmly. Hear them out. You’re still free to disagree. But respect the courage it took to approach you – even if you wish they hadn’t. That way, those of us who actually view constructive criticism as an act of friendship can have more friends – and maybe one day we’ll be as perfect as you.

Fear = Nothing

I don’t mean it doesn’t have its place when a ruffian is rapidly approaching and brandishing a gun, knife or yo-yo saw. I’m talking about the everyday boundaries we set up in our lives.

Someone once asked me, “What would you do if you were completely fearless?”

What would you do if you were completely fearless?

My guess: be more remarkable. Do more things more worth doing. It’s worth making a list of things you would do if you weren’t somehow, for some reason, afraid of doing them: Take a class. Move to another city/state/country. Introduce yourself to more new people. Whatever it is for you.

And then, once you’ve made your list, ask yourself, seriously, why you’re afraid of doing each one. Sometimes all you turn up are symptoms – for instance, you’re afraid you’ll fail at some new endeavor because you were too nervous to take the necessary risks.

But even if you’ve come up with a rational reason for your fear, does that really make the thing any less worth doing? (Of course, if the thing you’re afraid of might kill you, maybe it does – but again, that’s not what we’re talking about here.) If you’re afraid your relationship will fail because, after all, the odds favor breaking up – does it mean it isn’t worthwhile to have a relationship? If you’re afraid you won’t be hired for your dream job, does that mean it isn’t worthwhile to go on the interview?

What would you do if you were completely fearless?

 

(As usual, I find that Seth Godin has already said something wonderful on the subject.