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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mastery and Success

Seems that I have some readers who want to keep me on task. I’m basing this conclusion on the suggestions of books and Ted talks that come through my inbox. I appreciate them all! Diverting! And I get to watch things on a screen and consider it “work.”

One thing I watched was this Ted talk by someone called Sarah Lewis on the benefits of the “near win,” a.k.a. failure. Inevitably, the topic sailed right out at me, it being so salient to my situation. I am so very, very familiar with failure. My entire career has been a “near win.” That’s okay, according to Sarah Lewis, because failure is what we experience on the way to mastery. And mastery is ultimately more important than success.

Easy for Sarah Lewis to say. She’s the one giving the TED talk. She is an art historian and critic, and apparently has a book about failure and creativity. This isn’t about sour grapes, though. It’s about learning to cope with who I am.

Sarah Lewis defines success as a “moment.” That is a way of looking at it. I agree, I think. Success is a byproduct of effort. However, what she calls “mastery” I might call mastering; that is, engaging in working towards something. Or having a system for continuing to set and reach for goals. As I’ve mentioned before being engaged in that system, or in mastering a new goal, makes me feel successful. Purposeful effort makes life juicy and interesting.

This TED talk reminded me of something I read in Matthew Seyd’s Bounce, which focused on techniques for improving athletic performance. Most of practice is failing. For example, an ice skater spends every practice trying to refine upon and improve technique to accomplish the next challenge, the next turn, inevitably more complicated than the previous one. She spends most of that time trying and falling, trying and falling, until she manages her triple lutz. Then it’s on to the quadruple. When you think about it, most of the time, she’s experiencing the near win. But in context, it doesn’t feel like failure.

This also reminds me of certain teenaged ballet dancers I know. To hear them talk about their efforts after class, you'd think they would have quit years ago. They're almost never satisfied. They are always mastering, and so very rarely feeling successful. Yet they go on. And on. And on. The effort keeps them engaged, and they learn from their mistakes. They are always refining.

Well, I also feel that I have been more involved in the near win than I’d like to remain; yet I see the value of near-wins. Also, I feel that although success may be just a moment, it’s a moment I’d like to experience, and to memorialize, if possible with an attractive photo. Or an award. An award would be nice. But an attractive photo of myself would also be good. Or money. Yes, some money would also suffice.

Anyway, the point is that one has to be involved in mastering or mastery. One must be striving, according to Sarah Lewis, for more than one can possibly achieve. To do this, to keep reaching for the out of reach goal, one must have a functioning system of effort. One must have those habits, that routine, those goals, and that willpower. Otherwise, there will be no moments of success as byproduct. And Readers, I want a couple of those byproducts before I die.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Lena Dunham and Me

I read Lena Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl and I liked it. I’ve gotta say it. She’s been getting a  lot of press, some of it accusing her of being weirdly interconnected with, and possibly abusive of, her younger sister. I gotta say I enjoyed the book. She’s funny. She’s young, sure.Painfully so, when I consider that she could be my child. Or rather, that I could have a child her age. Ouch. But she has some self-awareness, thanks to mucho therapy. You know how I feel about therapy. NO? Well, nevermind. I might turn you off by saying more.
How I feel about keeping Lena's book out so long.  

Anyway, my point. Despite all the negative press she has received, mostly from conservatives, I don’t think she wrote anything particularly disturbing about her relationship with her sister. Yes, she did look in her sister’s vagina, when her sister was a toddler and she was six years older than that. But it was because her sister had inserted marbles in there. I would have looked, too. And then she told their mother, and then her mother got to remove them. Ah, the joys of parenthood. Just the other day I was wondering WHEN my children might learn to throw up in the toilet. TMI? Sorry.

Anyway, yes, she shared a bed with her sister, and seems to have tried to lavish her with love as if her sister were her baby. This behavior is so classic I don’t even need a psych degree to analyze it. Let’s just say I was more direct in expressing my jealousy. I simply tried to kill my sister (six and a half years younger, like Lena’s younger sister) by holding her nose. When I let go, her nostrils stuck together briefly, and I panicked.

I like to think this is one of the reasons my sister grew up to be the excellent psychotherapist and psychoanalyst she is.

People’s reactions to Lena Dunham and her book reminded me of an incident regarding Harriet the Spy. The younger daughter and I read it for our mother-daughter book club. Thing is, as a kid, I loved Harriet the Spy. I related to Harriet. I was a writer. We had a housekeeper (a series of them, actually) with whom I had relationships. I even made a spy route around my neighborhood and wrote about it in a notebook. I knew what a dumbwaiter was because my nursery school was in an old mansion that had one. But when the younger generation read the book they couldn’t relate to Harriet. They thought she was spoiled and super rich. Yet I and my schoolmates and neighborhood friends all lived the same way. Many or most of us had housekeepers and working parents and went to private schools. It wasn’t so hard to achieve that standard of living back then.

Which is, I guess, why so many people feel that Lena Dunham is hopelessly privileged. By the standards of these times, she is. Most of the children I know do not have regular housekeepers or nannies. That style of living is out of reach for most people now. This seems like a tangible expression of those stagnant wages and real earnings I’ve heard so much about on the news. You know the stuff about how since the 1970s, people’s incomes haven’t actually kept pace with price increases and other economic stuff I know nothing about. But I do know about therapy and private schools and how my kids don’t get those things – but I did.

So I liked her honesty and her tone and her self-deprecating humor. And I guess I just don’t find her upbringing threatening.

In short, I related to Lena. How could I not, when she writes things like, “The germophobia morphs into hypochondria morphs into sexual anxiety morphs into the pain and angst…?” Sure, she was talking about middle school. I have never been that extreme. Although, come to think of it, in 7th grade I fell under the spell of that saying, “See a pin, pick it up, all the day you’ll have good luck. See a pin, let it lay, [something one syllable I can’t remember or never knew] bad luck is here to stay.” This meant that I had to pick up every safety pin I saw. Readers, there were so many of them. I hung each new find on a big pin I’d come across, sort of like safety-pin art, and I’d have to carry this set of pins with me. Eventually, I was pinning that bunch of safety pins to my underwear for protection every day. I think this stopped only when my stepmother asked with irritation why all my underpants had holes at the waistband and fear knocked some sense into me. I realized I couldn’t indulge this kind of obsessive behavior. I moved on to something more normal, picking my split ends.

Confession time.* I had this post about Lena Dunham almost ready a while ago. Back in ’14, I believe. But I didn’t get a chance to finish it. I think I had too much procrastinating to do. Then the book was due at the library. I love the library. And I couldn’t renew it because there is a waiting list for it. But I couldn’t return it because I had to look up a couple things to quote for you, Readers. Then it was Christmas and everything got “tidied up” around the house. This is shorthand for saying I lost it. But then I found it again, after New Year’s, and I returned the book. I promise I did.

How do you feel about overdue library books? I used to worry about them. I tried never to have overdue books. However, unlike my MIL, who has never returned a book late to the library, I have become a compulsive late returner. Worse, instead of feeling bad about this, I feel okay, because I know I’m performing a service to the library. They count on those overdue fees to contribute to their budget items. So, it’s actually a good deed, a veritable mitzvah, to return them late. As long as you pay those fines.

So what did I want to quote? Well, I intended to illustrate my statement that the book is funny and well–written. That Dunham, while young, is reasonably self-aware, thanks to a lot of therapy, about which she writes at length. She’s aware of how people view her – as a privileged, white, New Yorker. At the same time, she’s only in her late twenties, so she’s still got limited awareness of herself and a limited scope of interest. But she puts it out on the page well. For example, on page 46, she recounts a moment at college (Oberlin), where someone points out her sheltered upbringing by calling her “Little Lena from Soho.”
            “What a snarky jerk,” she writes. “(Obviously I later slept with him.)”
            Come on, that’s funny.
            If I could put myself out there on the page and be honest and raw and funny and insightful and get PUBLISHED and PAID to do so, I’d feel successful. Oh, yeah.

*Rereading this, to implement the fixes the husband pointed out were needed, this strikes me as hilarious, following as it does the paragraph about my 7th grade OCD. Not to mention the attempted suffocation of my sister. Like that wasn't a confession??

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Happy New Year Goals

With my new device, which will not take over my life
Welcome to 2015. Happy New Year. My rhinovirus and I wish you the healthiest, happiest of years. May you flourish. (Not you, Rhinovirus. May you wither and die.)

I realize I've been AWOL, and perhaps more about that later. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there's nothing more to say than, I've been busy. It's been winter break. We've celebrated Christmas here like good, secular Jews with WASP ancestry. (Bagels and lox for breakfast, Stilton cheese and leftover Chinese food for snack, and roast beast for dinner.) We've had a small New Year's Eve party. What's left to say?

Rhinovirus. Yeah, shut up.

Anyway, now's that time of year when everyone sets goals. So I thought, since success and goal setting are indubitably linked, that I could offer perhaps a word or two regarding goals.

  • Don't go crazy with the goal-setting. 

  • Remember to set appropriate goals. An appropriate goal is challenging but not frustratingly out of reach. I will master Ashtanga Series Four by March, for example, is doomed. 

  • An appropriate goal is specific. I will eat less chocolate is vague. What is "less," really? Anything you say it is, really.  I will only eat six squares of chocolate per sitting – er, day. Er, week. That's specific. But remember to be realistic. (Er, sitting.) 

  • To achieve your specific, realistic but challenging goal, use mental contrasting – visualize achieving your goal, by all means, but also be sure to think about the challenges you will encounter along the way and how you will overcome them. Each journey begins with a single step and all that jazz.

Such is my wisdom for you, Readers. A couple days late, but it’s really never too late to set a goal. 

As for myself, this year I am not making any particular resolutions, except to continue to work on my systems that I already have more or less in place. Morning stretches to stop from freezing into immobility; regular exercise of various kinds, such as walking, NIA, Pilate's, Zumba, the occasional sprint, the NY Times 7 Minute Workout. Writing. Centering myself sporadically. 

It occurs to me that these are actually habits. I wish to maintain and strengthen them. A habit is something done pretty much automatically. As a result, performing it doesn't use up a lot of willpower. Willpower is then available for achieving other actual goals. So what does it mean that my goal is to continue strengthening my habits? 

Admittedly, the meaning seems to be that perhaps my "system" isn't quite as habitual as I'd like it to be. Therefore, I don't have a lot of willpower left over for new goals. I'm still working on habit formation of these old ones. 

(Deflates a little.)

Bottom line: I already have enough goals. It would be crayzee to add many more. 

I'm a firm believer in that old adage, "Moderation in all things." This came up just the other day. January 1st, to be precise. Our friends, the husband, and I were walking the dog and racking up steps on our fitness monitors. For some reason, and I'm not sure why, right after we had to pause to pick up the dog's poop and our friends walked in circles rather than forgo a few seconds of step-acquisition on their fitness monitors, a spirited discussion ensued on the second part of this old saying. Is it Moderation in all things, EXCEPT moderation? Or is it Moderation in all things INCLUDING moderation? 

I know I could just look it up, but the thing is, I don't really want to know. 

Oh, okay. I looked it up. Apparently Ralph Waldo Emerson was the one who said, "Moderation in all things, especially moderation."

But Horace said it earlier. 

Est Modus in Rebus

According to my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, there's nothing further than that. "There is moderation in everything." Sans part B.

So, I guess we can't really know. We must decide for ourselves. 

Judging by the amount of baked brie consumed over New Year's at my house, the answer is clear. 

And now, I'm off to find a tissue. After that I plan to walk in circles around my kitchen island to rack up steps on my fitness monitor. So, what do you think of that?