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Friday, October 25, 2013

System Breakdown is Part of the System

The other day I went on the treadmill with my old friend Kimberly the StarTrac coach, and even
Milo with part of my Container Store score
though I’ve been jogging outside, the treadmill whipped me. That is pretty pitiful, since people say the treadmill is easier than running outside.

Since everyone including me knows sports function allegorically, I left the gym feeling not only exhausted, but depressed. I had a realization on the treadmill - a realization being de rigeur if sport is to function allegorically. (Did you note my use of the Britishism “sport” rather than the American “sports”? It’s because I’ve been reading the marvelous Old Filth by Jane Gardam and I have the voice of an 80-ish English gentleman judge in my head.)

Anyway, my realization was that I don’t push myself enough. I need a coach. I need hand-holding. I need a team. Something to make me work harder, because left on my own, my default is to work under my capacity. If I had that drive to overachieve, then my runs outside with music would definitely have gotten me into better shape and the StarTrac treadmill lady whatsername wouldn’tve whipped my double melons.

The above isn’t really allegorical yet, since I’m only talking about my approach to sports up there; but the approach seems to apply to other parts of my life as well. Take my book. Because I’m waiting to be pronounced upon, I have pages and pages of drafts, but no final draft. Sidling, Readers. I’m sidling towards my goal instead of running full on towards it. The obvious downside to this approach is that if I don’t have pages to send, I am not going to get this book out there, so I need to make those pages.

Maybe I’m being too self-critical. That would be a first, huh?

Let’s pull back and get a little persective, shall we? In fact, with the help of a friend, I pulled together my proposal, and now a couple agents have it. A couple have passed on it. But a couple still have it. And I know that if they’re interested in the proposal, the next thing that they’ll want to see is the actual book, or at least a chapter or two of it.

This is the glitch. People can and do help with many aspects of my work, but one I have to manage alone is waiting. That is what I’m doing poorly. Waiting to hear from agents. Waiting to be pronounced upon. I am a terrible waiter. When I’m waiting to be pronounced upon, everything else breaks down, too.

While I’m waiting to hear from agents, my brain is skewing negative, not positive. My brain is saying, Hope, you haven’t heard from these agents, which is probably a bad sign. This makes me feel like writing the book is futile. Therefore, I avoid it.

However, I could skew towards optimism. I mean, people do. I love those people. I wish optimism came more naturally to me, but I’m a Jew whose mother died, so I expect abandonment and rejection. I could say, Hope, no news is good news, and you might as well get your first chapter ready, so that when an agent wants to see it, you can send it right off to her. I could say, Hope, maybe this batch of agents will say no, but if so, you’ll fix your proposal and sent it out to another batch, and then you’ll need to have that chapter ready to go, so get to work.

Apparently I have that voice inside me, too, only she goes dormant when I’m waiting to be pronounced upon from on high. That voice waits, and then the writing waits, and then because the writing is dormant, I’m not doing what I want to be doing. This makes me cranky, and is the time I start thinking that the husband should get a different job, or a raise, or we should move, or I can’t stand to see one more hair elastic used as a bookmark. Pretty soon everyone but the dog is avoiding me.

Recently a writer friend sent me an article by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert comics, titled “Scott Adams’ Secret of Success: Failure.” Scott Adams has a brand spanking new book out called “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.” In my broken down state, I remembered I’d tucked the article away a couple of weeks ago when I had to clear off the dining room table for a dinner party. The secret to success, according to Scott, has two elements: One, know that you will encounter a long string of failures; and two, “one should have a system instead of a goal.” That means that if your current goal or project fails, you have a larger view. You learn from your mistake, and take another longshot. That way, success depends not on attaining a particular goal, but on continuing to take risks and set new goals; meanwhile you’re getting “smarter, more talented, better networked, healthier, and more energized.”

Interesting, don’t you think? A system. Well, I do have a system of sorts. It involves writing, blogging, attending monthly writers’ lunches, a monthly goal checking conference call, exercise, meditation, reading, refueling. It also includes temporary breakdowns. Those are hard to see for what they are: part of the system, not total collapse. So if I’ve contradicted myself here, it’s all part of the system. When things get cludgy, I get down on myself. Optimism idles. Optimism idles, but it’s there. In fact, part of what I get down on myself about in these periods of idleness is that I won’t give up and pick something more practical and lucrative to do with my time.

So how to get restarted? Well, there’s usually a brief wallow in misery, followed by a cry for help, and a little shopping. I finally ordered the things from the Container Store that have been on my list for three years. Then there’s Kimberly the StarTrac coach. Once I get moving again, it’s not too long before the whole jalopy’s rumbling down the road.

Friday, October 18, 2013

To-Do Lists and Stairway to Paradise

I feel mired this week. I just can’t seem to get anything done. The to-do list keeps splintering into ever more branches.  Our drying rack broke, necessitating a boring, stupid errand to replace it, but a simple one. You would think. But there doesn’t seem to exist a replacement for it. I went to Lowe’s, but the racks there were too small. So I went to Walmart, and I found one, except all the boxes were open or dented; plus, it needed assembly. Nevertheless, I selected the least-dented box and I traipsed the miles of registers to find one open and discovered the only open ones were at the farthest point from the door near which I’d parked and they all had several people in line. For some reason, I hadn’t taken a cart when I entered the emporium, so I was carrying this box. All that traveling and carrying gave me time to think, and what I thought was that I had no interest in buying a box of aluminum rods that would have to be assembled. The result would undoubtedly be a rickety, poor replacement for the fantastic, most perfectest laundry drying rack ever created. Except that it broke, so it wasn’t perfect. But it was closer to perfect than the dented box of aluminum rods in my arms, and also, come to think of it, less broken than that, too. After all, last I saw it, my broken drying rack was mostly assembled. So I left the box and marathoned my way back across the store and went home. Energy and time expended, job still undone.

The week has been like that.

Add to that my new normal sleep pattern, which seems to be a decent night’s sleep on alternate nights, interwoven with total wide awake insomnia on the other nights. Thank you, perimenopause.

Then there was the realization that I’ve been operating as chauffeur without the full schedule of events for the 10th grader’s ballet because we were out of town for a particular meeting at which a particular list of events was distributed; and because the parent who is in charge of distributing updates and information via email is a little bit distracted this year because her child is applying to college. So I had to scramble for information and rides and then ask for the missing list. Which I have yet to input into my electronic calendar or my marvelous new planner made out of paper. Then there was an email listing exactly sixty three trillion and seven soccer practices, which I have yet to input. That’s for the 6th grader. Who also just auditioned for the school musical and now will have to check the website every day for those practices. Do I need to reschedule French horn lessons?

There was more. So much more. Yet nothing accomplished. Kind of like the government, if you think about it. And kind of like a government employee, I was working without pay.

But you don’t come here to read my complaints, Readers. I’m aware that my life is good. Despite these periods of churning and frustration, things are okay. Sure, I’d like a little more consistent sleep. Sure, I’d like never to step foot in Walmart again.  Sure, I’d like to publish a book and earn some money. Sure, I understand the latter is not contingent upon the former. I do have a spiffy new planner that has lots of list-making space. I'll start by updating my to-do list. And if I’ve learned anything about life on this journey to perimenopause, it’s that when I feel mired and unproductive, making a list is a first step towards feeling better. A list is like a ladder, if you think about it. So before you can put foot to rung, you’ve got to have a ladder. After that, it’s just one foot in front of the other.

Did I manage something profound? No? Well, I tried. Listen to Rufus. He's more entertaining than I.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Fear and 3 Ways to Handle It

I have been thinking about risk-taking and fear, of late. With the latter, I am all too familiar. Fear can impede risk-taking, which, biologically speaking, is the point of it. However, some of us, those of us who are, ahem, prone to anxiety (fear) have an overdeveloped capacity for it. Mine has been on overdrive lately. There are all kinds of fear, but I’m talking about fear of putting myself Out There, which is intertwined in a codependent way with fear of a negative outcome, a.k.a. failure. Failure.

So the question is why. I read about a book called The Trauma of Everyday Life, by psychologist Mark Epstein. I feel I can speak freely about Mark Epstein’s book because I’ve read one article about it and listened to one interview with Mark Epstein on public radio. I haven’t so much as laid eyes on the actual book, let alone cracked its binding. With that disclaimer out in front, I shall extemporize. With authority.

The book’s thesis, according to The New York Times, is that seemingly small events can traumatize people. While your basic cataclysmic events – death, divorce, bankruptcy – are definite triggers for trauma, an accumulation of small events can have as deleterious an effect on the psyche as an obvious major trauma. We are all, possibly, walking traumatized souls. 

So that’s depressing. Forget I mentioned it.

Okay, it seems depressing, but then again, despite the provocative title of the book the author does talk about a side benefit: Understanding that little things can create a ripple of suffering leads to compassion. Because we feel, we understand what others feel, too. Or at least we can. The guy’s Buddhist AND a psychologist, so you know he’s dripping with compassion.

Perhaps my takeaway should be that if Mark Epstein (and Buddha) is right, I’m normal. Fear and anxiety may be integral to our lives. How we handle them is what matters. Because lists are perennial blog favorites, here’s a list of three possible techniques.

1. Troubleshoot in advance. One way people try to overcome their fear is by listing all the things that could go wrong, then considering how they will react if those things happen and what they can do to counteract them. This sounds pessimistic, but is actually proactive. As I wrote in a previous post, Billy Jean King used this tactic to sharpen her tennis game. She would think about all the things that were out of her control, and then visualize how she would handle them. This, by the way, is one of the techniques Heidi Grant Halvorsen, Ph.D, describes in her book Succeed: How to Reach Your Goals.

“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Hasn’t your mother or father or (in my case) your shrink asked you that? By visualizing it, you do two things. One, you defang the fear by making it concrete; and two, by making it concrete, you open it up to analysis. How can I handle this if it happens? Just like Billy Jean King. 

This kind of visualization is a great way to conquer fear. Fear and anxiety are usually focused on things we can’t control. So imagining what we will do if we encounter those situations reminds us that while we can’t control what happens, we can control how we react to it. Which is exactly what therapists tell their patients and parents tell their children. As ever, the world remains much more out of our control than we would like it to be, but we have the capability to exercise ever more control over our responses to it. So – onward, risk-takers! This puts me in mind of Stephen Covey’s circles of influence and concern. Remember that diagram? There’s the large circle that encloses everything that matters to us – our circle of concern – and there’s the smaller concentric circle inside the larger one that represents our circle of influence – the area over which we have control. That starts with our response in any situation. As we practice working within our circle of influence, and try not to worry about anything outside of it, that circle of influence grows, so eventually we do gain some control over more of what matters.

2. Fake it. Once, one of my housemates was applying to graduate school in journalism. This was eons ago, back when I lived in a cooperative house started by some idealistic MIT grads. Anyway, this housemate impressed me by the juggernaut approach she took to those applications. More of an assault than an approach, to be accurate. When I asked, in awe, how she was accomplishing these things with such ease, while I was doing stuff like missing the deadline for the Ph.D. program at Berkeley and then calling the admissions office and asking if, even though it was too late to apply this year, I was the kind of applicant who had a good chance of getting in next year. My housemate said she just told herself it didn’t matter. Whichever essay she was working on at the moment just didn’t matter, it was no big deal. By faking herself out that way, she got into her first choice school. Into all of them, if I recall correctly. Which it’s likely I do not. Have you noticed how memory skews?

So those are a couple of approaches to dealing with fear and anxiety. If those fail, you can use my approach.

3. My approach. This comprises frantic work, delay, and hypochondria. I get everything ready, so I’m not exactly procrastinating. Then I stop. Run errands. Walk around in circles. Develop imaginary diseases. Eventually, something triggers me to take that final action, to risk.

So, to summarize: 1. face your fear. 2. ignore your fear. 3. project your fear onto something else. 

Then, after you act, you'll feel better. 

Except that I don't. Right now I am awaiting the return of the husband with his neurologist tools, because I think I’ve developed a peripheral neuropathy. Either that or Lyme disease. Or diabetes. Or cancer of the soles of my feet, which are itchy. Possibly I am on the verge of incontinence, and I am certainly raising my blood pressure just by thinking about it. And this reaction is after I acted.

On the plus side, after polishing my book proposal and pacing around the house for a week eating almonds, I queried my list of best hoped for agents and three have nibbled. This brings up a different brace of fears, not of failure, but of its opposite. 

One possible reason for my continued state of being, well, me, is that my anxiety/fear trigger has been switched on so long it doesn't know how to switch off. Possibly I have so much accumulated trauma from everyday life that I can't come down. Perhaps I'm traumatized from constantly experiencing minor trauma. Possibly the possibility of achieving a goal makes me more anxious than the possibility of failing to do it. Maybe Mark Epstein the psychologist would know. Maybe if I read his book, instead of just reading about his book, I would know. Probably I should exercise. Or meditate. I'll get to that later. I think I hear the garage door opening, the husband bringing his doctor's kit.  It's the perfect time to worry about my feet.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Look, It's Me, With Wrinkles (But Who's Vain?) in the Huffington Post!

I'd be falling short in the department of self-promotion if I failed to mention that I have a new post in the Huffington Post. It's in their new Third Metric Section, which is devoted to redefining success to include more than just money and power. Not to worry, success does still include those two things; but it's the sustainable feeling of success we're after, and as all too many a morality tale has shown, you can have money and power and still not feel successful.

So here's the link:
Sustainable Success Lessons From Billy Jean King

If the post seems familiar, then good - that must mean you follow my blog, and I thank you! Because it's my last post, which I submitted to the Huff Post for approval last week. Sometimes, they don't approve my posts. For instance, my post on Borgen was a no go. Maybe it was too political? I don't know.

In any case, I'm thrilled to be published in the Huffington Post again!

Friday, October 4, 2013

5 Secrets of Success Illustrated by Billy Jean King

In 1973, when Billy Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, I was an overexcited nine year old, more thrilled by the phrases “male chauvinist pig” and “battle of the sexes” than by the symbolism of the match. Nevertheless, the match imprinted on my brain as part of the general consciousness-raising that was going on in 1970s U.S. culture. Billy Jean King and Free To Be You and Me represented Women’s Lib to me. Forty years later, it turns out Billy Jean King (BJK) is an excellent example for me – for us – once again, this time of success redefined as extending beyond money and power.

She’s been in the news again lately, because it’s the fortieth anniversary of that famous tennis match, as well as of the founding of what became the Women’s Tennis Association, and of equal prize money awards for men and women at the U.S. Open, all things in which BJK was instrumental. She’s been interviewed in print, on radio, and on film, and her life story reads like a primer on success. So let’s look at what she can teach us.

First, there’s BJK the player of tennis. For starters, she won twenty Wimbledon trophies in singles and doubles, so that’s pretty great. In talking about how she prepared for a match, she said she used a lot of visualization. She would visualize all the things that could go wrong, and then she would visualize how she would handle them. She would think about all the elements that were out of her control, and then visualize how she would handle those.

During play, she would set practical, specific goals like returning a serve into a specific part of the court. She would picture where she wanted the ball to go as she hit it. Aside from her visualization, she focused on her side of the net, not on her opponent, on standing up tall, and on letting go of mistakes. She focused on the present. Key, she said, was to forget about the past and the future, and to focus only on what was happening in that moment. Voilá, much money and power eventually arrived.

Then there’s BJK off the court. This is where the story gets interesting. While she loved the game, and was a fierce competitor, she saw tennis as a platform. It was not the only thing that mattered to her. In fact, part of why tennis success mattered to her was that it provided her a way to promote the cause she most believed in: equality. She said, “I knew as a youngster I wanted to be No. 1 in tennis. I knew by 12 my platform would be tennis, but my real life was going to be wrapped around equality and social justice. I felt like I had a tremendous sense of destiny.” (

Towards those ideals, BJK organized the first women’s tennis league, lobbied for sponsors, and worked hard to establish equal prize money for men and women and equal treatment on tennis tours.

Regarding that infamous match with Bobby Riggs, BJK says she never intended to play him, but then he played another top female player, Margaret Cort, and beat her. After that, BJK felt that she had to play him and she had to win. Why? Because she was working so hard to bring respect to the Women’s Tennis Association, which she helped found, and because Title IX had just passed, and she thought the cause of women’s lib and equality would be hurt if she didn’t. So this is significant because it shows her life’s work was in alignment with deep personal values linked to improving the world.

How did she accomplish so much? Did she arrive fully formed on a clam shell? Was she just a fluke, a tennis genius, a born leader? Certainly genetics came into play. But also, she had help. First, from parents who encouraged her athleticism. Later, when she became a leader among tennis players, her husband encouraged her to set up the women’s league. The common trope of success is “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” but this trope is a myth. Look behind – or beside – anyone with sustained, meaningful success and you will find that champions have champions urging them on.

Billy Jean King is a great role model for a sustainable, holistic definition of success that includes more than money and power. She pursued greatness on the court in service of her ideals, not just to win. Once she retired from professional play, she channeled her passion into a new, but related path, behind the scenes. She started co-ed World Team Tennis “the day she retired.” Professional team members include Venus Williams and Andy Roddick. It’s a place for amateurs and professionals to train, and BJK believes that having participants and spectators – families – children – experience men and women playing together teaches a broader lesson about equality.

Does she have power and money? Yes, you bet. But if power and money were the only important metrics to her, she could have quit long ago. Instead, she risked it all when she was outed as a lesbian in the early 1980s, and decided to open up about it. The result was that she lost all of her sponsorships. However, she continued to work towards her goals, recouped her money, and created a legacy as a fighter for social justice.