Pages

Follow Me on Twitter

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Self-Transcendent Moi

Before I interrupted myself on self-actualization with my self-flagellating blog post of last week, I was writing about Maslow. The husband did not care for that post, by the way. Not sure why. I suppose I could ask him, but that would remove the mystery and the fun of conjecturing. Well, in fact I did ask him and his response was something about the psychology part being kind of dense. Was it too dense? I dunno. That was what I think he said, but I didn’t hear him clearly because I have a hard time with criticism and so you know, I would prefer not to. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a speech somewhere at some time (I came across a snippet of this on Facebook, as I come across so much drivel and dross and RBG, too) in a marriage sometimes it is useful to be a little hard of hearing. According to RBG, this rule applies to work, too. There’s a good tidbit for you, Readers, making your journey down the page (screen) today worthwhile, I hope. 


I think perhaps that post was a wee bit detailed and only the types like moi who like psychology - we psychologists manqués - are interested in all those deets about Maslow and his theory. They led to one of the more fascinating aspects of our culture - the counter-culture. I was speaking to a new reader just the other day about all the modalities of self-help and self-actualization that came out of the 1960s and 1970s with their emphasis on transpersonal psychology and peak experiences. There was EST and Primal scream therapy, Gestalt Therapy, Transactional Psychology, and — here’s one I had forgotten —Rebirthing. Rebirthing involved climbing naked inside sensory deprivation tanks and floating in the dark on salt water, in silence, which sounds terrifying, especially for people who don’t like to be out of control. In case you know any of those. I know I do. That counter-culture pop psych stuff was all very groovy and mind-expanding. Being a good liberal, I think that groovy and mind-expanding are good things. Frankly, if you think about it, modern psychology itself grew out of the counter-culture. There was Mesmer in the 1700s with his "animal magnetism" and hypnotism, and séances, and Freud and Jung. They were all counter-cultural in some respect. 

So anyway, did I mention that Maslow built his psychological theory on his interpretation of the lives of 17 people he considered exemplars of self-actualization? Like Abraham Lincoln. He did. His whole theory rests upon his subjective interpretation of the biographies of 17 people, mostly men. And upon this, in part, rests all of Positive Psychology. Gives one pause, does it not? Examine your sources, Readers. 

Also gives one inspiration, does it not? Take those risks and put out those ideas, Readers. You may be on to something significant. 

Speaking of taking risks, one of the characteristics of the self-actualized, self-transcendent person is willingness to try new things. Well, guess what? I tried a new thing. This might mean I am self-actualized - except probably another of the characteristics of a self-actualized person is that they don’t send emails in anger and then have to apologize. So. One step forward, one step back. In the same spot as before, I guess. 

Anyhoo, indeed I did recently try something new. I danced in a live performance on a stage. Nine (ten?) of us in our 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s spent six months rehearsing a dance choreographed by a dancer friend of mine who teaches NIA (Non-Impact Aerobics). Most of us came from the NIA class, but didn’t really know one another. It was a kind of what-the-hell decision that I have to say turned into one of my best choices. It was great. There was the dancing, which was really fun and challenging. There was the added physical exertion in my life that actually energized rather than depleted me. All that moving brought up memories of me as a young kid, eight or nine years old, which was a time when I felt like a dancer and very competent in my body. Those feelings were still inside and they came back. 

And there were the other women. It was really wonderful to get to know these ladies in a very particular way, starting with the physical. We had to get in each other’s space to practice and perform. We had to - weird - touch one another to do this. It was strange at first, and awkward, but by the end, I felt totally at ease. We had to try all kinds of movements and risk looking idiotic. But we made a safe community and gradually began to know one another. Our performance, which I had dreaded, turned out to be exhilarating. We had quite a large turnout for our show. The experience was a definite highlight. I think I can fairly describe it as self-transcendent; Maslow says creating art is an example of self-transcendence. As is motherhood, by the by, but that's a topic for another day.


So, am I self-actualized? Self-transcendent? Who knows. I guess it’s something to shoot for, or it’s an impulse that goads me onward and keeps life interesting. Yeah. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Stuck in the Middle

Hello,  Readers, 

The MIL alerted me to an article in Sunday’s failing NY Times by Henry Alford, who writes amusing pieces on social manners and such. It’s called, “I’m Not Okay. And Neither Are You,”*  and it’s about a budding genre of anti-self-help books. These books tell you that your existential despair is real and you might as well stop trying so hard to feel better, be better, look better, and that aiming for success or happiness is dumb. The title, by the way, in case you haven't kept an eye on the self-help genre for decades as I have, refers to a famous one from the groovy year of 1967 called, I'm Ok - You're Okby one Thomas Anthony Harris.

I found this article reassuring because one of the interesting aspects of trying to sell my book proposal has been the various potential ways editors would like to see my material packaged. And I have tried to comply. I have tried prescriptive steps to success (failed at that.) I have tried straight memoir ( failed at that.) The closest my book has come to getting picked up was the most recent editor, who worked with me while I tried sample chapters swinging from traditional how-to-be successful to a more personal approach. She declined the project, ultimately, as I have mentioned. It feels important to mention it again today because I’m in a shame spiral over a faux pas I committed, which led to a result that made me mad; this led to an email written in anger - always, always, always let those sit for at least 24 hours, Readers; 2 hours is not enough, no matter how many high-handed sentences you craft and delete - which led to further shame, which led to me publicly reminding you of my frustrating and so far unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher for my book, as a way to publicly further shame myself.

That was a long sentence, but pretty well constructed, I think. 

Anyway, my point, and I do have one, is that one of the criticisms this most recent, tantalizing editor had was that from my writing it seems as if I am “still in the middle of it”, meaning still struggling with the definition of success. 

Of course I am! I am in the middle of it, because my feelings about me and success are cyclic.That’s one of the lessons I have learned. I have a system - a scaffolding, if you will - that keeps me going or gets me up and running again, and it works pretty well for awhile. Then it breaks down. That’s the nature of things. Why does it break down? Besides the inevitable entropy factor? Because carving a definition of success that goes against the seemingly immutable one I developed over a childhood and young adulthood in my East Coast Liberal bubble is friggin’ hard. And because to do so, I had to put aside some values that I thought were most important to me, that society told me were the most important, to find the ones that mean the most to me. 

Of course I’m still in the middle of it. How could it be otherwise when to feel successful as a mom, without a separate income and as a writer without a continual stepladder of specific achievements related to a career that are observable to the outside world means going against the predominant values of my culture? I will always be in the middle of it. That’s the truth. It remains a struggle because those values are still there within me, as well as around me. When things go well in my current situation, I feel successful. When I hit a glitch, I don’t. Sometimes this means I cycle through these feelings in a day, sometimes I’m coasting and then dragging for weeks. But my system, my scaffolding, works regardless. 

That’s my big takeaway. Just keep going. Be present, do the mindset priming, keep up with your community of like-minded others, evaluate your values, and set goals. As the stepmother used to say, with a sigh, when asked how she was doing, “Well, I’m still putting one foot in front of another.” It’s kind of an anti-self-help message, isn’t it? Admitting you’re always going to be in the midst. Life is not a linear projection always heading upward and onward. As Danish professor Svend Brinkmann is quoted in Alford’s failing NY Times article, “the idea of ‘progress’ is only a few hundred years old — and is, in fact, destructive.” 


Of late I have been taking my advice. I am writing a draft of the whole book right now. Rather than shop the proposal and shape the sample chapters to various editor's wishes, I'm writing the book I would want to read. (I hope.) It’s going slowly and I’m forcing myself to move forward in it without rereading or revising any of it, so I have no idea whether it’s going well. But I’m hoping that if I just get it done, I’ll find a publisher for it. I’m grateful to Henry Alford for pointing out that there may be a genre for my book after all. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

In Which I Ramble and Say, "Oy," More Than Expected

Here is a beautiful quote from Leonard Cohen:

“That ‘hineni,’ that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve. So, this is just a part of my nature, and I think everybody else’s nature, to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.” 

—“The Fires They Got” in T:The New York Times Style Magazine, March 5, 2017. p. 96-7


Oh my lord, WHAT am I going to blog about this week? I feel newsy not profound. The above quotation is profound. But what to make of it? The emergency becoming articulate. Is that my book? I’d like to think it will help people. I’d like it to be profound like Leonard Cohen. Literary but funny as hell and approachable. Wise but also goofy. Like me, right? I’m really describing me. I mean me as I would like to be. I'm actually anything but profound right now. 

What is on my mind, Readers? Dry mouth. I must be exercising more than I thought because I have dry mouth. Unless it’s a symptom of a disease. Diabetes? I’m not peeing all the time, though, which I thought was a symptom of diabetes. The die-ah-beetuss. 

Today, I watched Jennifer Scott’s video chat, “Tea With Jennifer” about the Oscars. I don’t quite know why she appeals to me. She and her books. They’re all about being proper, being poised, looking presentable. And she is so very dang earnest. So dang earnest she makes me type dang instead of goddamn, which would normally spring to my fingertips because, as I think I’ve mentioned before, I have a real sailor mouth. Such that the children - my children, that is - I don’t swear around just any children - say to me, “Mother, don’t say that. It’s crass.” Which is them throwing my words right back at me. As children do. 

But anyway. I watched the video and Jennifer Scott's earnest talk about the Oscars - whose dresses she liked, the tourist bus prank. The whole time she held her pretty teacup and saucer and was earnest. Gosh darn earnest. Which I am often not. And yet she appeals. She makes me want to “look presentable always” and other old school stuff like that. 

Speaking of the tour bus of tourists who were surprised by their appearance at the Academy Awards on camera, while I watched them process in, cameras raised, most of them dressed super-schlumpily, I thought of Jennifer Scott’s mantra, “Look presentable always.” Although on occasion I totally lose interest, most of the time I enjoy pulling myself together a little before heading out for my day. A little makeup, some thought to my clothes. While I am aware this is perhaps regressive and anti-feminist on some level, I enjoy paying that attention to myself. And I buy in to the outside in phenomenon. Sometimes the way to feel better is to look good. It does build confidence. Yes, that is sexist, most likely. You feel good when you look good because women have to look good. Yet I imagine plenty of men feel better when they know they look good. And it’s easier for them to look good than for a woman. Etc. And high heels - don’t start. The conflicts are endless. I like ‘em. I hate ‘em. I hate that I like ‘em. I don’t wear ‘em cuz they’re uncomfortable. But when I do put ‘em on, I like how I look in ‘em. The complexities. Oy. I reserve the right, via feminism, to care or not care about my appearance as I chose. 

Those schlumpy tourists. Oy. They were embarrassing. I felt embarrassed for them - and for myself as a fellow American. 

So that reminded me of traveling. Specifically, that I like to look decent while traveling. I am old enough to remember dressing up to travel by plane. Just last week, I traveled by plane with the 9th Grader. Due to various snafus, we ended up packing in one wheeled suitcase too large to carry on. We had to check it. I have to say, it was so nice to freely walk around the terminal with just my purse and book. And to climb into and out of the plane unencumbered. 

Sure, it took a little extra time - and extra money, which is really an outrage and explains why most of the time most everyone tries to carry on their luggage. Who wants to pay yet more money to check a bag? But the extra time was worth it, I have to say. I sauntered off the plane and went to the ladies room and it was all so easy. No maneuvering into a stall and out again with a suitcase. It was genteel. Almost. I mean, there was still the gauntlet of humiliation known as “Security.” Going through that was decidedly un-genteel. But then we were free to roam in search of chicken nuggets (the 9th Grader’s request, at 10:30 a.m.) The experience was almost pleasant. It was especially so on the return flight, when mirabile dictu, for an unknown reason**, we had priority tickets and got to go through security the old-fashioned way. That is, just going through the rectangular beeper doorway to the beyond with our shoes on. No shoes and belts in the grey bin. No mysterious machine with hands in “I surrender.” No extra wanding. No triple-check of my purse. No swabbing of the 9th grader’s stuffed animal to test for drugs. (That happened on the way down, FYI.) Just the rectangular beeping doorway and we were free. Without humiliation. How refreshing. 

But what is this emergency of which Leonard Cohen spoke. He had it in him. It was his creative urge. Do I have the emergency? Or am I just a dilettante? Do I have the emergency driving me to create? Or what? The emergency to create a kind of life? 

This quotation reminds me of Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. I wrote about it here. In his theory of psychology, Maslow saw a return to human based philosophy and psychology.  His training had been in Behavioralism, but he felt that was too limited to explain psychology. He argued that there were higher needs than Behavioralism allowed. Those higher needs were biological in essence - they were “instinctoid”, he said, meaning they are almost like instincts, but not quite. This was the essense of Humanistic psychology, he said. Those needs were what he laid out in his pyramid. 

Maslow revised his initial hierarchy, by the way. In his original paper on the hierarchy, written in 1943, he topped his pyramid with self-actualization. However, after giving it more thought, he felt there was something beyond self-actualization that drove people. He said it was the urge for self-transcendence.  In a talk in 1967 at the Esalen Institute* where he introduced his revisions, he said, “The focal point, or the point of departure, into this transhumanistic realm comes when they answer the following kind of questions: 'What are the moments which give you the greatest kick, the greatest satisfaction? What are the great moments? What are the moments of reward which make your work and your life worthwhile?'"
I can’t help but note that Maslow and other humanist psychologists grew - well, that philosophy of psychology grew out of WWII. Viktor Frankl was one inspiration for it. He founded Logotherapy as a result of his experience in a concentration camp, and that became an inspiration for Humanistic Psychology.  Maslow was an American but was influenced by interacting with European theoreticians in the field. Maslow like Frankl and the others was an atheist. But that is not my point. My point is I don’t think it coincidental that my renewed interest in this psychology that pays attention to what it means to be human and how to be the best human you can be coincides with another dark political time. Or maybe just with air travel. 

*Edited by Dr. James Fadiman from the tape of a 1ecture given at the First Unitarian Church, San Francisco (under the auspices of the Esalen Institute), September 14, 1967. Copies of this tape are available from the EsalenInstitute, Big Sur, California

** I am not in actuality an idiot, but I do not know how I got Priority tickets in one direction. I didn't upgrade intentionally. But when I bought my tickets, the only seats left on the plane actually cost extra (a nice scam, right), so I guess that got us those Priority seats on the return flight. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Hell Realm

Readers, I was away last week. I meant to post something for you before I left, but then - well, then life. Life demanded something else. Life demanded I take the 9th Grader to the doctor the morning we were to depart via airplane for a long weekend. The doctor’s visit resulted in the need to pick up antibiotics and probiotics and conbiotics and all the biotics. And then I had to pack, because I hate packing so much that I had put it off until the morning of the trip and then had to use the morning of the trip to get the biotics. Thus, no post. Which, I’ll admit, I figured no one would notice. (Cue tiny violin playing in the key of self-pity. Poor me, writing into the void.)

But then, just at the moment I needed it, serendipitously, I heard from several sources about people who hardly know me, or only know of me, some who have never met me, who read my blog, and I felt so GREAT! I felt uplifted and inspired. 

Which brings me to my topic of today, avoiding the hell realm as a strategy for success. Or if not for success, for happier living. 

What is the hell realm? Well, it’s that place I go to when I read the news. And I know I’m not alone. I know this because not only is my former shrink easily as upset as I am about our current president’s violent and repulsive rhetoric and behavior, but so is my accountant, my cousin, and my esthetician (yes, I do have one and she is fabulous), to touch on a few people. 

Anyhoo, I decided that when I walked the dog yesterday, a beautiful, albeit disturbingly warm for February in upstate New York day, I would skip the pundit podcast I’ve been listening to (Pod Save America, if you want a really partisan take on current events delivered with humor by guys young enough to be my children). I decided to skip that podcast in favor of something more conducive to peace of mind. A dharma talk, for example, by a leading Buddhist teacher, Sylvia Boorstein. I figured I’d ramble along the water line with Milo and let him sniff to his heart’s content and get uplifted and inspired to be a better me. 

Next thing I knew, Sylvia Boorstein was talking about her struggle to be positive in the current political situation. And how anguishing over the news puts one in the hell realm. And thus it goes, throughout the day, one is in and out of the hell realm. She said, as I walked along, looking for uplift, that these are troubling times. Contentious times. She said, when people ask her how she keeps her mood up, she says her mood is continually affronted by current events. Her advice is to pay attention to moments when she feels uplifted. Because whatever the mind dwells on by that it is shaped, according to the Buddha, as well as to Daniel Kahneman and other research psychologists at Princeton and elsewhere. 


But there are moments of joy. Those come when one takes one’s attention back and focuses on the present and maybe notices someone nice doing or saying something nice. Or one might spend an hour or so at a concert, enjoying the music. The world is the same afterwords as it was before, but you got out of the hell realm and enjoyed yourself for that period. I will say this, that Sylvia Boorstein’s mention of the hell realm reminded me of Stephen Daedalus in Portrait of the Artist As A young Man describing Hell as separation from others. If I remember correctly - which I may well not, since I read that book during my Junior Year of college. But this idea that there is a possibility of realms we can inhabit struck me as hopeful. While there is a hell realm, there is also a not-hell realm. These realms exist simultaneously, and where your brain goes, thither into that realm goeth you. 

The point being duofold, like that two-layer cotton and wool long underwear I used to wear in the late Eighties. The escape from the hell realm is those moments of joy - that’s one layer. The second is to realize, comprehend, grok that your anguish will not save the world. This is a common type of magical thinking employed by the anxious. I ought to know, being an anxious person. And I do know. I am telling you. Part of what sustains anxiety is magical thinking that if you worry enough, you will finally solve the problem. But this is untrue. Thus - magical thinking. Your anguish - my anguish - is simply one response to the world, and it’s a response that doesn’t do anyone any good, least of all yourself. So try to let go of it, because that state of anguish is the hell realm. 

Ever since the election I have had this weird delicacy in dealing with others. By delicacy I mean an instinct to be polite. My road rage has diminished. My reflex to wonder about how any stranger I encounter voted on Nov. 8 has been tempered with this need to be polite. Maybe because I suspect that in my circles, there are many bruised people going about their daily business. And maybe because I think that if I do happen to cross paths with an angry person who voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named or others of His ilk, I had better leave a good impression. Just a little doubt sown in his or her mind about the whining liberal snowflakes flurrying around him or her. Seems like a good idea, don’t you think? 


That said, I did flip off an obnoxious cab driver who honked at me in a merge onto I-90 yesterday. So - oops. Try is not the same as succeed. Except when the trying is a success in itself. In that case, oh boy am I successful these days. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

80 Percent of Success or Life or Something

Another fine week tucked under the belt like a nice, crisp button-down. Yessiree. Highlights of the week included Valentine’s Day, when I took a break from my month without sugar to eat some chocolate and enough Sweethart candy hearts to make my tongue raw. I have since returned to my sugar-free month and my tongue is healed. 

Another highlight was the 9th Grader’s orchestra concert. This was not a school concert. It was a concert by the repertory orchestra of the Empire State Youth Orchestras for which she plays French Horn. While we were waiting to go into the auditorium at Voorheesville High School, the husband and I took our nerd walk in search of a spot to sit and read. We finally found benches in a lobby somewhere in the vast complex of high school and middle school. The husband pointed out a plaque with the motto, 80 Percent of Success is Showing Up. The husband is quite helpful in providing blog fodder for me. I was grateful because I was not sure what I was going to write this week. But that motto is a good one, not just for a blog post, but also for times like these. By "times like these" I mean difficult times, times when it’s hard to read an entire newspaper article, let alone a book, because of, well, because of the times. “May you live in interesting times,” is another old saw that seems pertinent. Not sure if it was meant as a blessing or a curse originally. Probably both. But, my, we do live in interesting times. 

So, yeah, showing up is 80 percent of success. 

Showing up at what? Readers, you may well ask. And I will say -- showing up at that thing you are supposed to be doing. For me, it is writing a draft of a book. Showing up means closing my Internet browser and opening my Scrivener file. Showing up means getting off of Twitter, where I follow a fascinating array of conspiracy-minded counterintelligence journalists and pundits, each of whom, like me, seems to think that constant worry and “tweeting” will help prevent disaster, and putting something down about success in my draft. To borrow writer Anne Lamott’s terminology, I’m just trying to show up and write a shitty first draft. It doesn’t have to be great. It just has to be something. What do you need to show up to do? Show up and you’re almost there. Four fifths of the way there, to be precise. 

Speaking of precision, that quotation was unattributed. This bothered me, since it was hanging in the lobby of a school. Well, it would bother me anywhere, because I am an educated person who was taught to always attribute my sources, as well as a person who worked for five years in a library. Also, facts matter, and statements were stated by someone, and that is a fact. This unattributed quotation bothered me especially, however, because it was hanging in the lobby of a school. A school that ought to be teaching the importance of attributing facts - and opinions, if we're really going to get into it. Sources matter. 

“That’s by Woody Allen, I think,” I said to the husband. He was, of course, dumbfounded by my encyclopedic knowledge. I made a mental note to check the truth of my statement later. And so I did. And Readers, my search for the originator of that phrase took me on an interesting journey. 
According to quoteinvestigator.com, the phrase has several variants: 

  • Ninety percent of success is just showing up.
  • Showing up is 80 percent of life.
  • Eighty percent of success is showing up.
  • Seventy-five percent of life is showing up.
  • In life, 50% of it is showing up.

Originally the quotation appeared in the failing New York Times (fNYT) in a 1977 interview with Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote the movie “Annie Hall.” The fNYT quoted Brickman attributing the following to Woody Allen, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” 

Which is not about success. It’s about existing. 

But then, in 1989 William Safire asked Woody Allen about this quotation. And, according to the website, “Allen replied with a letter in which he asserted: ‘I did say that 80 percent of success is showing up.’”  So was Marshall Brickman mistaken when he attributed the saying, “Showing up is 80 percent of life” to Woody Allen? Had Woody actually said, “80 percent of success is showing up”? Or "Showing up is 80 percent of success?" Or in the intervening twelve years since the comment was first made, had Woody incorporated the slight change into his memory? Is there any way to know? 

This confusion must mean something, Readers. And it does. It means several things. For one, words get twisted all the time. Each of the iterations of this quotation means something a little different. Yet they all mean in essence the same thing. For two, a fact can be a difficult thing to verify. That Woody Allen said, "Showing up is 80 percent of success," is a fact. It's also a fact that Marshall Brickman said that Woody said, "Showing up is 80 percent of life." Each of these statements are opinions. There's no proof that showing up is any percentage of anything - except perhaps of showing up. Opinions and facts are often mixed up. This reminds me of my high school history teacher, Mr. Wood. Mr. Wood blew my mind when he taught us that primary sources for factual events that definitely happened often conflict. One diary mentions one view. Another letter recounts another version. Did ten people die? Or none? Or twenty? Depends where you were situated when the event unfolded. Everyone’s got his or her viewpoint. Objectivity is nigh impossible. Nevertheless, a fact is a fact. Video and photography can help clarify. But they can also mislead. 

For three, at least in part success is about showing up, a.k.a., putting in the effort. That is a fact. 



And so I did. 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Failure, Persistence, Success

My transitional object, Bunny, still extant - barely
Today’s a good day to talk about Rivka Galchen’s article on children’s book author Mo Willems in The New Yorker. Called "Fail Funnier" in reference to Samuel Becket’s oft-quoted quip, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” the piece makes two good points about success.

As a side note, I must say that this quotation is from Worstward Ho, by S. Becket, and has become a meme and mantra for self-helpers and tech gurus and Buddhists, at that wonderful and strange nexxus where they co-mingle. If I know Becket, and I do, but not his entire oeuvre, then this line means something slightly different than we all take it to mean. Indeed, it is probably ironic. I’d place a bet on it if I were a betting man. But I’m not a betting man, nor a man at all, and I’m perfectly happy to take it as it has come to mean — that success is all about failing and trying again. 

The husband read the article first and said I had to look at it. In fact he said he wanted to be Mo Willems. Since I knew he didn’t mean he wanted to become a children’s book writer, I was curious. We are Mo Willems fans, as our children are. I still don’t have a clear answer why the husband said he wants to be Mo Willems. He’s already tall and thin. Maybe it’s the dark floral blazer Willems wears when he talks with Galchen. Perhaps he wants to unleash his inner pessimist. I don't know. It’s a mystery. However, the article was pertinent. 

The first thing I noticed was that Mo Willems’s success illustrates perfectly the importance of loving mirrors. Loving mirrors, as you may recall, Readers, are people who see potential in you and reflect it at you when you are unable to see it yourself. It was Mo Willems’s wife, Cher, who recognized that Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus would be a good children’s book. He had been trying to write one for some time. In the middle of discouragement, he created his annual holiday comic for friends and family. That was the origin of Pigeon. And it was Cher who said, “I think this is a children’s book.” Cher was his loving mirror. And so began his career as a children’s book author. It still took two years to sell the book. I find this heartening, while also disheartening. But heartening. But this is not about me. This is about loving mirrors.

The other thing in the article — the reason the husband said I had to read it — was the insight that many of Willems’ books are about failure. Characters fail at their goals. Pigeon, for example, never does drive the bus. 

This makes sense for stories for children. After all, so much of what children do is doomed. I’m thinking of how much faith my children had in scotch tape and cardboard. There were days I cringed at their undertakings, knowing how they would end. 

I’m thinking of a morning when I was about three, I guess, and trying to put on my own shoes. I remember sitting on the stairs and putting the shoes on first one foot and then another. They were round-toed Mary Janes with buckles. I could not figure out which way they went. I didn’t remember that the buckles went on the outside. So there I sat, trading them back and forth, from foot to foot, trying to feel which was the right way, since I couldn’t tell by looking. It was so frustrating. 

http://ep.yimg.com/ay/bestdressedchild/l-amour-girls-leather-t-strap-shoes-red-21.jpg




This is a really early memory. It’s one of those second generation memories by now, because I see myself sitting on the stairs. Seeing yourself in a memory is a sign that your memory is actually a memory of an earlier memory. There’s even a term for this. It has to do with a phenomenon called childhood amnesia, which causes us to forget our earliest memories, the ones from about three until seven or eight. I like second generation. I’m spending way too much time trying to find the actual term. It doesn’t matter. The point is elsewhere. The point is frustration, failure, and persistence. But when I think about how it felt to try the shoes on first one way and then the other, I am me at three, sitting on the stairs, staring at those shoes, a rising panic in my chest because this task was not getting easier. It was getting more and more confusing. And I really wanted to put those shoes on by myself. 

So, viewed one way, much of childhood is about trying and failing. Failing and failing better, to paraphrase Samuel Becket. To be sure, there are many victories, too. But, oh my lordy, they are hard won.

Well, isn’t everything, Readers? It wouldn’t rate as a victory if it came easily, would it? 

I’m reminded of a passage in Bounce, about the “science of sports success” in which the author uses the example of a competitive figure skater to show how much of success is about failing. The skater must master a new jump. That takes repeated tries - that end in falling and messing up, over and over, until she gets it down. Then she can practice it, over and over, until it’s easy. But then it’s time to learn the next harder move. And so begins again the cycle of trial, failure, failure, failure, until at last success. 

It’s a good thing to remember, isn’t it?* Mastery is about overcoming failure. And then about taking on a new challenge. 

Eventually, the shoes got on the feet. I don’t remember how. Perhaps my father took pity on me that morning. Eventually, I did learn how to tell left from right. Nowadays, I’ve got the shoe thing mastered.


P.S. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Annals of Success: Be an Anteambulo

Hello. Happy Friday. Welcome to today’s blog post, a disjointed reaction to, well, life. 

Just the other day I listened to a podcast of “This American Life” all about coincidences. People love coincidences. They make great stories. Coincidentally, the library notified me that a book I had requested had arrived. I had no memory of ordering this book, called Ego is the Enemy, but when I picked it up I saw mention of Eleanor Roosevelt and recalled I was looking for a book with some case studies of successful people. The book is by Ryan Holiday, who used to be the head of American Apparel and now has some kind of creative advisory company. And he lives on a ranch. And he’s about twelve.  And his hair is just so. And appropriately, the book’s cover sports a marble bust, headless. Y’know, because it is egoless. Also because he loves a good Greek or Roman term. There were several, which I offer to you. Anteambulo. Euthymia. Sympatheia. I'll get to those. 

What tidbits can I learn from this book, I thought to myself. And what can I sarcastically skewer for my readers? And also what can I offer them, besides the chance to pass judgment on a book - or accept its great advice, potentially - without having to read all two hundred-twenty-six pages of it. 

So I haven’t yet finished the book, but his main idea is that ego keeps you from real, sustained success. It’s better to keep a student’s mindset - you always have more to learn. Okay, sounds good. And be an anteambulo. What is this anteambulo, you ask, Readers? It's a Roman term. An anteambulo was an artist slash writer with a patron. Ah, the glory days of Roma, when wealthy patrons took on artists and supported them - housed, fed, clothed them - so they could create. In return, the artist was expected to perform tasks for the patron. One of these was anteambulo, which means “one who clears the path.” The anteambulo walked in front of his patron, “making way, communicating messages, and generally making the patron’s life easier.” 

Anteambulo. Who knew? I thought under the patronage system the artist just got time to create for free, all expenses paid - so, more than free. But no. No such thing as a free lunch or a free patron. 

Holiday’s point is that to succeed, one should be in effect an anteambulo for whomever is one’s boss. He scolds The Youth of Today for lacking humility and expecting to be treated as special and important right from the moment they begin a job, for lacking a work ethic, and on and on. I could do without the scolding, because I doubt it’s true. But what he says about being the person who clears the way, the person who makes her boss look good, the person who is willing to focus and work without worrying whether she gets full credit immediately being key to success reminded me of Adam Grant’s philosophy of givers and takers. 

Like Grant, Holiday says the most successful people are givers. Although Adam Grant says that while the most successful people are the givers, the least successful are also givers. So too much headless, egoless way-clearing can go wrong. Both of them are talking about people who manage to achieve goals and sustain them and the rest of their lives, too, as opposed to the spectacular successes who then undo their achievements in spectacular ways. Howard Hughes is one example. Apparently he was really a disaster. The only money he managed to keep was the money he amassed from the businesses his father started - which he left alone because they bored him. 

Holiday’s message is to keep focused on what is important and not to give way to entitlement, control-seeking, or paranoia. Those are symptoms of ego and they take you down. People can get to be very successful by “raw power and force of will.” Those things unchecked, however, can cause them to destroy their success. To sustain success requires returning to the more humble, head-down, purpose-focused approach to life. 

So I think about my life. Am I an anteambulo? Perhaps that is my role in my little family. As the mother. I don't do a lot of literal sweeping, but figuratively, I sweep and clear the path for everyone. If so, I would have to say that sometimes the anteambulo’s work is all-consuming and the art creation slackens. But after reading this book, I think perhaps the creative work lags more due to lack of euthymia, or sense of purpose or path and a little too much ego. I suffer from almost all the evils Holiday lists: envy, fear, desire. These things do indeed get in the way and they are indeed all about me, me, me, and they do obscure my purpose sometimes. 

To proceed ego-free, know your values. Yes, that plank in the scaffolding of success comes up in this book, too. Ryan says, “‘Man is pushed by drives, Viktor Frankl observed. ‘But he is pulled by values.’ Without the right values, success is brief.” Without the right values, success is brief.

Without the right values, according to Holiday, ego takes over, leading to paranoia, control-seeking, aka being a control freak, and entitlement, all of which blind you to your own mistakes and prevent you from correcting course with input from others when needed. He offers anecdotes about all kinds of prominent successes who went on to destroy their lives, from Ulysses S. Grant to Nixon to the the maker of the Delorean. And he offers a few counter-examples of people who managed to avoid the ego trap, such as General Sherman and Katherine Graham of the Washington Post

All of this drips with pertinence these days, but time will have to bear out the truth of these assertions in regards to the Orange One. 

Another plank in the scaffolding he touches on is focusing on the presentThat means staying focused on the purpose of the work - being anteambulo as well as creator. It also means taking time to center yourself by putting yourself in perspective. “Meditate on the immensity” of the universe, or the ocean or the mountains or sky. Something that reminds you that you are a small person compared to the vastness of the world. 

I don’t really have a problem with that. Okay, that’s actually an untruth. I do have a problem with that. Those moments when I realize how very, very insignificant my one little self is in the whole shebang - history, the world, the universe, you name it - are the moments that could go either way for me. One way would be Ryan Holiday’s way, the way of feeling sympatheia (more Greek philosophy for you), or connected to the cosmos in an uplifting way; the other is to become overwhelmed by my own insignificance and inevitable erasure from existence and fall into existential despair.

I suppose Ryan Holiday would point out that the fear comes from grasping on to ego. If you can let go of the need to prove your importance to yourself or anybody else, I guess it becomes a lot easier to keep going forward, no matter what happens.


So I said it was a coincidence that this book I had forgotten about ordering arrived at the library. It wasn’t much of a coincidence, after all. It was more serendipitous. It arrived at a good moment, provided distraction when I needed it, and revealed a message that could not help but make me - and I hope you, Readers - feel reassured. Even though the flamboyant and seemingly successful among us cause us distress, history usually takes care of them. Until then, we do our work, we clear the way for a better future, and we remember that proceeding with purpose is the way to success.