Follow Me on Twitter

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Return to the Roots of Success: 2 Tips on Success

Sunday morning my friend, let’s call him N for “He shall remain nameless”, asked, “So are you afraid of success?” I don’t know what made him ask. I mean, there I was in his house, drinking Earl Grey tea, chatting with my friend, let’s call her C for “We met in college”, and sputtering when asked about my book. Yes, sputtering. 

Sputtering after I said the phrase “my agent,” a phrase I’ve been longing to say for lo, on thirty years. I can indeed say it now. So I did. But it didn’t feel organic. My agent. It felt tentative. Possibly fake. Or perhaps that was just how I felt, talking about my writing. So when N asked how it was going with the book, I had to admit that I was worried. I was worried that I wasn’t feeling positive enough, and that I would therefore be sending negative vibes around to the potential buyers of my book proposal, and thereby killing my chances. 

N is not your New Age kind of person, so he laughed at my fear. (Which of course I really wanted, which was why I told my fear to N, rather than to, say, the really spiritual, New Age-y lady in my NIA class that I like chatting with sometimes. Key to success, Readers: choose your support system wisely.) 

And then he asked me if I’m afraid of success. This is one of those facile fears you would like to think you could avoid, especially if you are me, a feminist, who doesn’t want to have to deal with an extra helping of personal hang-ups on top of all the other difficulties I encounter as a woman trying to be a professional writer. With an agent. I remembered that my MIL had pooh-poohed the fear of success syndrome herself, back when I asked her about her definition of success. She was talking about her decision to not write her dissertation. This was in the 1960s. She said there were several books about women and the fear of success that came out in the 70s, and she just didn’t buy it. Fear of success had not caused her to abandon her dissertation; it was boredom with her subject. 

And marriage and children, I might add, even if she wouldn’t. I’ll let her take that up with Anne-Marie Slaughter. 

So, let’s just say I, too, have a bias against assigning that particular fear to myself. After all, there are many things about success I do not fear. Here are some fears I do not have: 

  • I do not fear having to appear on talk shows. I would like the opportunity to be on TV. I used to practice for this as a child, which I know I have mentioned. Me, the mirror, and the hairbrush mic spent a lot of time together. 
  • I would not mind reading passages of my book to crowds of four or five at readings around the country. 
  • I do not fear royalties. 
  • And I am pretty sure I would get over the horrible self-consciousness accompanying being a New York Times Bestselling Author.

But when N asked, I did realize that while I don’t fear success, I fear some elements that often are part of it. For example, I fear becoming a “relentless self-promoter par excellence” as he described my nemesis GR. (Close readers of this blog will know to whom I refer.) I definitely have that fear, the fear of becoming a sound-bite spurting annoyance, the cause of rolling eyes and gritting teeth. 

How realistic is this fear? Probably not very. After all, I’m much more prone to self-deprecation than to self-promotion. This, of course, is another problem. Self-deprecation gets old and annoying, too. And if I were to become successful and famous, it definitely wouldn’t play well on Late Night with Stephen Colbert. People would want to throw things at me. Maybe, Readers, you already do. 

Let me pause while I absorb that sad thought.

On the other hand, some self-promotion is important. Already, I post my blog to Facebook and Twitter, and I have my mailing list. I push “send” apologetically, but I do push it.

My ideal of success with my book is along the David Sedaris lines - people find me charming and funny, even if my voice is a little weird. They like to listen to me because I am definitely farther out on the limb of insanity than they are. I aim to reassure, not infuriate. And further, I would love to impart some helpful information I have learned about success. 

So I have that fear. Also the fear of insanity. And death.

Anyway, my friends N and C spent a little time bucking up my spirits by saying nice things about how they know this book is going to sell and other such stuff, and offering to read drafts of it and provide whatever kind of commentary I might like on it, even if it’s just, “Great job, keep going.” 

This conversation reminded me of two crucial lessons I have learned about success. First, the question of positive thinking and self-confidence is much more complex than I first thought. I've researched it a lot, because once upon a time I worried that the essence of my personality - unconfident and tending towards pessimism - indicated I was doomed to failure. While early writers on success certainly emphasized confidence and positive affirmations and unshakeable faith, recent research has proven that supreme self-confidence is not the only prerequisite to success. In fact, over-confidence can lead to missteps, because you forget to be careful and to weigh all considerations. It can lead to a fixed mindset, and a fixed mindset responds inflexibly to setbacks. More importantly, for some people - people who may skew towards pessimism - it’s much more helpful to think of what could go wrong than to try to be positive. By thinking of what obstacles might arise, you can then consider methods of dealing with them. That sort of thinking is more natural for worriers and pessimists like me. It helps make goals attainable. And, sneakily, it makes a positive of negatives. Because life is full of problems that need solving along the way. If you’re blind to the potential ways to improve a situation, or don’t consider how to handle contingencies, you won’t.

Second lesson. Readers: you need those loving mirrors. Loving mirrors is Noah St. John’s term for the people who see what you want to become and believe you can be that. They are not necessarily your family. They aren’t always even your friends. They can be, but they might not be. Mentors, bosses, teachers - any of these people can mirror the successful you at you. You need them in your community. These people might even be the ones who see positively for you when you are mired in doubt, fear, and self-deprecation. They might be the ones that give you a big mug of Earl Grey tea and casually give you a kick in the pants and get you back to work. 

Harvard Business Review blog
Carol Dweck, Mindset
Heidi Grant Halvorson, Succeed

Noah St. John, The Secret Code of Success

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Willpower and Success: Yom Kippur Fast

Last night both girls went to services with me and my friends. As I mentioned, I go every year. I go to a nice liberal synagogue where the rabbi is a lesbian with adopted black children and nobody talks about Zionism. It's not embarrassing to be Jewish in a place like that.

The 12th grader wanted to fast, and then the 8th grader got curious about it, too. Of course they did. They are teenaged girls. I was not planning to fast today. I haven’t fasted since high school, when dieting was a way of life anyway. I have avoided it partly because I tend to get shaky if I don’t eat; partly out of fear of triggering a dormant eating disorder; and partly because I assumed I lack the necessary self-control to make it for a day without eating, so why confirm the worst? Also, partly because I just don't care. I'm a secular agnostic atheist Jew. 

This year, though, I was thinking about fasting more seriously than I have. Someone I sort of know mentioned she likes to fast because it helps her to feel grateful for all that she has and reminds her that other people go hungry every day. Very noble. More noble than I, or at least than I intended to be.  She got me thinking, though, and then the kids were interested.

Of course the 12th grader's comment was, “I’ll sleep ’til noon and then it won’t be that hard.” So when I woke up this morning I resisted food. I didn’t even have my morning glass of water. I decided that I could make it until noon. If my kids were going to sleep away half their fasts, I could just half-fast. And I made it until noon. It really wasn’t hard, especially once I allowed myself the treat of reading Pride and Prejudice in bed, instead of going for a run/walk. Then I found some Crest white strips in the bathroom and I put them in for two hours. I meditated for awhile. 

Finally, noon arrived and I made coffee with soy milk. I ate a tiny bit of muffin, too. And then the girls woke up and proceeded not to eat. Somehow that strengthened my resolve. They both have such great willpower. The 8th grader asked me to make her a grilled cheese sandwich around 1pm; but when the 12th grader said, “Oh come on, it’s only five hours until dinner,” she thought better of it. And I thought I could wait, too. Willpower is contagious, I guess. 

I think of myself as pretty weak-willed. I’m not big into deprivation. It makes me feel so lonely.  And the specter of reviving an eating disorder does lurk. I don’t want to go there. However, it feels pretty good to be getting through this day. Unfortunately, according to what I learned at temple last night, I’m not actually fasting correctly. This involves abstaining from water, food, sex, bathing for pleasure, and sex. I realize I wrote "sex" twice. I meant to add "leather." So coffee with soy milk and tiny bit of muffin technically means I broke my fast. 

Do I care? 

Is this a spiritual lesson? I mean, I’m thinking about my diet, my waistline, what the scale might say if I actually had a scale. I’m thinking that I can probably eliminate some snacking every day. These are very self-centered thoughts. Furthermore, it's clear that the 8th grader is competing with her sister, and I don't want them to totally show me up, either. None of the three of us knows why we're suppose to avoid leather today. This seems random and nonsensical. 

But. I am learning that I can actually get past my urges and that I have more willpower than I thought. That feels good. It is useful to know that I can force myself to endure a little hardship. I now know that I could get through much worse from necessity if I can push myself through this little thing by choice. We all want to know we’re made of strong stuff, and I have suspected that I really, really ain’t. No strong stuff here. I mean, beyond enduring childhood and all that. Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe I can have more confidence in my stuff. Maybe it is stronger than I thought. And I know that if others around me show their strong stuff, I can gain strength from that, too.

The 16-year-old is working on college essays on an empty stomach. The 13-year-old has just bathed - not for pleasure, I assure you, but out of necessity. She is torturing both of us by talking about grilled cheese and her “famous” (at least around our family) pesto sandwiches. I’m thinking about tuna and my mouth is filling with saliva; but we will be strong. We will make it. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

My Jewish Post on Success

Happy New Year, God willing. This is my Jewish post. I am a lapsed reform Jew, an atheist most days, agnostic after listening to a good mindfulness and the brain lecture*, but secular always. Or, secular almost always, with the exception of this particular time of year, the time of the High Holy Days when I attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. Some years I attend both RH and YK, and some years I come down with a cold and I skip RH and just go for YK because that's most solemn one. I join a small group of women friends who head to the synagogue, leaving their husbands at home, because their husbands want nothing to do with it. I don't really want much to do with it, but I go out of an element of superstition - you just never know, do you? Also, I like a chance to dress up a little.

In re: Judaism, I wanted to talk about this. I studiously avoided reading anything about the Holocaust or World War II for many years. Then I joined a book group, and suddenly, there were always books about these subjects coming up - because my friends are more socially conscious than I want to be. How to be a good person and pretend I don't need to know about these events? I had to read - I read. So it was inevitable that I come up against the seminal book  Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl once again. It was required reading in high school. Viktor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist. It was one of those searing books that I was open to back then, along with that terrifying movie, I think it's "Night and Fog," that shows emaciated survivors and piles of shoes and bones that the Allies found when they freed the camps. You see a little of that, read a little of that, and you consider the value of changing your last name to something WASPy, like the husband's.
I don't know why it's sideways. But the book looms. 

Anyway, after all these years, I have been drawn back to the book. Since I’ve been gnawing along the edges of Meaning, Purpose, Happiness, and Success, it really seems time to tackle this one again.  I found it on our basement bookshelves. I opened up the acid-yellowed pages of my old paperback. There in the preface were these words: 
Again and again I therefore admonish my students both in Europe and America: “Don’t aim at success - the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out the best of your knowledge. Then you will life to see that in the long run - in the long run, I say! - success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” 

Well. Jackpot. Dr. VF on success of all things. I should pay attention, because really, he should know. 

This was the preface to a new addition. In it, he is addressing the fact that his book had become an international best-seller. He had been planning to publish it anonymously, “so it wouldn’t build up any reputation on the part of the author.” I’m not sure what that means. I think he means he wanted to drop his book anonymously into the ocean of humanity and see if anyone noticed it - and not have people read it because of who authored it. But he might also have meant that he didn’t want to be associated with the ideas and events in the book professionally, since he was a psychiatrist and possibly wanted to remain somewhat neutral for his clients. And knowing your shrink has survived the concentration camps might give you a complex about your own problems and how they were really not that important in comparison.

However - and let’s be petty for moment. Petty and deconstructionist about this - however, Dr. VF did not publish his book anonymously, and it did become a huge bestseller, and not only it but he is a success because of his accomplishment. 

With that bit of pettiness out of the way, let me back up to what he says about success being a by-product. I actually believe that. “success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue,” Or at least the successful-feeling part, because in this equation, success is a feeling not an outcome. Like happiness, it’s an abstract noun in this sentence. And that abstract idea of Success is definitely a by-product of something. That something is some kind of action. And dedication. 

This seems to me to be particularly Jewish. There’s a superstitious element to recognition of good fortune that I’ve encountered among Jews. I’ve experienced it myself. We all want good fortune, career advancement, publication, or a happy home life. If you have any of these things you tend to downplay them. Maybe your children are basically good students and fine people. You shut up about it. You don’t look good fortune in the face. That would be asking for it. Whatever "it" is.

Why is this particularly Jewish? Is it in fact particular to Jews? In my experience, yes. But I speak from the inside, so to speak. It may simply be particularly human. Anyway, the point is that you don’t attract too much attention to yourself and your good fortune, because you know, historically, how quickly, totally, and easily these things can be taken away. And while I don’t know if I will be able to bear reading Viktor Frankl’s book again (even though I know, I really, really know I should), I did get far enough in that he says that every survivor of the Holocaust knows the truth: the best among them in the camps did not survive.  

Talk about Jewish guilt. 

I feel it's important to mention "God willing" here. In relation to the general superstition of keeping your mouth shut about your good fortune, there is "God willing." Let me explain. As I said, I’m an agnostic slash atheist secular Jew and yet I append “God-willing” to every too-boldly confident statement of future intent that comes out of my mouth. For example, since the 12th grader will be applying to college this year, I will say to myself to comfort and reassure myself, “She’ll get into a good college.” And then before the breath that brought forth those words dissipates into the atmosphere, I will add, “God willing.” It’s like a “knock on wood” reflex, an anti-jinx ritual. As if I’m challenging Fate or whatever to disprove my confidence. (Which is, sadly, actually not confidence, if you follow me here.) Sometimes I say it out loud. Sometimes I say it in my head. But you can trust me, Readers, I always say it. 

(As I type this, I am hearing my voice reading my words, and I’m reading in a Yiddish accent. Yes, I am. Oy. )

The point is this. Success is most definitely a by-product of a life full of meaning. A life of meaning has work that provides us with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. So, yes, indeed, one has to tack towards success. There is no direct sailing for it. But it is still okay, and important, and valuable, to consider success part of the bigger package. Call that bigger package well-being, as I did last week, or happiness, or self-actualization. It’s still a goal. And that is okay. It’s okay to admit it. Whether you clawed your way to survival during the Holocaust or not. Success matters. Dr. Frankl, you were a big success, and we thank you for that.

* These lectures trigger my agnosticism because they often end up saying there is much more to the brain and consciousness than we currently understand, which I then interpret to mean that there might actually be a sixth sense, another dimension, or some kind of ultimate meaning to the universe and our existence. A gal can always hope. God willing. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Imperative to Find the Good

The other week began with the 13-year-old saying, “You know, it’s like we actually live in a dystopia.” 

"Why is that?" I asked her, wondering if it was time to find her a therapist.

Because, she said, among other things there are these:

  • You have to say the Pledge of Alliegance in School
  • Levels of intelligence determine how well you do in society
  • There are rebellious elements like feminists or BlackLivesMatter activists
  • The police abuse their power. (And so does the government, I might add)

This is kind of bleak, don’t you think? Even for a thirteen year old? Especially for a thirteen year old? No - even for a 13-year-old. So world weary and knowledgable already. Come to think of it, though, I  had things all pretty figured out at that age myself. And I was quite the cynic, too. I used to say, “I’m inexperienced, but I’m not naive.” I might have been alluding to sex related activities, but that’s no surprise in a teenager, is it? And I certainly felt that way about EVERYTHING. Dystopian novels are very popular amongst the cynical, young adult, a.k.a. teenaged, crowd. Their world-weary cynicism might actually be the reason for the large number of these novels, rather than the effect of it. 

So after I reconsidered her cynicism and put it in perspective, I was able to think about what she was saying. I thought the child’s observation was interesting. I tend to think dystopian novels are warnings of what COULD happen. Her comments made me think that dystopian novels, like all true novels, are painting life as it is. At least the author is painting life as she feels it is.  Dystopian novels are pointing out what has happened, what is happening, and what we might not want to have happen. 

We can change it, of course. Because now that I’m no longer a world-weary teenaged cynic I have a pitiless imperative to find the good in the world. I believe in change. I even believe in our constitution and our legal system. Else why go on?

So speaking of good in the world, and accomplishment, well-being, and success, let me remind you of the spectacular failure we had with our parakeet Scout. About a year ago, if memory serves me, we had our pet bird for a week. (That's a link to the full, sad story of Scout, if you want a refresher.)

Despite that painful episode, which has left us with a fully-equipped parakeet condo that any self-respecting bird would absolutely love, the 13-year-old is still interested in birds. Not so much that she has wanted another parakeet. Nor does she want to get rid of the parakeet condo. The rest of us are right on the fence about this with her. Or at least I am. The 16-year-old remains traumatized and says, “How could you even think about another bird?” Since we still have the dog, she means. Which we do. And he is very cute. 

Nevertheless, the 13-year-old remains interested in birds. Lately, she has begun focusing on bigger birds. Possibly because the dog would leave them alone. She is interested in falcons, to be precise. Last spring her school had a guest falconer and his birds and she decided she would like to learn falconry. She wrote to the visiting falconer, who did not deign to respond. After futile Internet searching by us for falconry schools, I called up the bird store where we got our poor parakeet Scout. Even thought they don’t sell falcons, I thought maybe they would have a lead. After all, they are bird fanatics. They host weekly Saturday afternoon Bird Socials. You can bring your pet bird and mingle. 

Without reminding the bird lady of exactly who we were (irresponsible former parakeet owners), I asked if they knew anyone who studied falconry, and lo and behold, they did. They didn’t want to give out his name, so they took mine and said they would give it to him when he returned from his vacation. 

That was the end of it, I figured. How likely was it that the bird lady would remember to give a stranger’s number to this falconer? Furthermore, how likely was it that this falconer would then bother to call?

Well, a few weeks later -  knock me over with a feather - the husband, the 13-year-old, and I were driving about an hour north to meet Tyler the falconer and his red-winged hawk, Phoenix. 

At first, I watched. Then Tyler asked if the husband and I would like to take a turn feeding Phoenix. The husband leapt up right away. I hung back. There was so much to dislike about feeding the bird. Tyler had spared no details describing how filthy Phoenix's talons were. Germs, death, grossitude were all potential results of a scratch. Then there was the raw chicken that Phoenix was eating.

But then I remembered one of those trite sayings you see around the Internet and read in articles about old people talking about their regrets in life - That you rarely regret things you do, but often regret things you don't do.

Things you did not do when you had the chance. Like having a red-tailed hawk land on your arm and eat raw chicken out of your hand. 

Then we all trooped into the house and washed our hands. And nobody got sick.

The whole experience was proof that there is goodness in the world. Even in every dystopian young adult novel I've read, there is someone and someplace that is a refuge and repository of the good. And the heroine's job is to find that place and person, and bring back the good. Else why go on? 

From the bird store lady who gave Tyler our message, to Tyler, who followed up. And again, to Tyler (and to Phoenix), who showed the 13-year-old everything he knew about falconry. This included the huge, enclosed aviary in his backyard. Aviary might not be the right name for it, but it was a large, enclosed area fenced on all sides for Phoenix to perch. This also included the kangaroo leather and carving tools Tyler uses to make jesses for the bird's legs, to keep him attached to his leash; and it also included a sharp, heavy stake he carries with him when he hunts with his bird in the dead of winter, and has to be prepared to finish off any bunny or other wild animal he flushes from he underbrush. Finish off, as in kill the rest of the way, if Phoenix doesn't get it right away. 

If I may be so bold as to say it, I am proud of myself of feeding that beautiful, wild bird, and I am proud of myself for zipping my lip on the way home about how much work it seemed like. And I am most proud of my daughter, who said a few hours later, that she admired what Tyler was doing, and she thought Phoenix was beautiful; but falconry was not for her.

We wrote thank-you's to Tyler for his time and his kindness. We are holding onto that parakeet condo for now. Just the other day, I found a list the 13-year-old and a friend made, describing how when they went off to college, they would be roommates, and they would get a bird - and a cat.

So looks like some lessons are still unlearned.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Success? Well-Being? Catch-22?

Ok, so last week I failed. I failed to put up a blog post. What is my excuse? Summer? Sure, that is part of it. 

Another part of it, though, is that I’ve been in a holding pattern for awhile now with my book proposal. My agent has done a great job of getting my proposal to the desks of editors at publishing imprints that I’ve heard of  - and now we are waiting. Some of the editors have passed, but all have had reassuring reasons. They just took a title too similar, for example. That’s one. That’s pretty reassuring. Of course, I am very quick to turn that into big frustrated sigh that I wish I’d gotten my act together and gotten that proposal to that editor SOONER, so that MY book was the one they were using to turn away others. Oh, sure a couple have said the story needs to connect more broadly to the issue of success or something like that - which it does, actually, or could, if I wrote the book. That is the plan, and maybe it doesn’t come across fully in the proposal. My agent says the proposal is good and doesn’t need tweaking. Stay the course, she said. Well, she didn’t actually say that, because she’s not a seventy year old bearded sailor, she’s a thirty-something savvy urbanite, so she said something equivalent. Something that I have apparently translated into nautical terms for no good reason at all. 

But anyway, it’s the closest I’ve been to publication and I’d love to feel really great about that. But of course, it’s very difficult to feel great about this situation, because no matter how promising these rejections are, they are still, you know, rejections. And at some point I’m going to have to have more than a good story about how I ALMOST sold my book proposal.

Except that the idea that I “have to have more than a good story” is an example of magical thinking. Who says? What entity is keeping track of my attempts in its virtual ledger-book of life frustrations? Is this entity actually going to tally things up at some point and say, “Okay, it’s Hope’s turn now for something really meaty, an unequivocal achievement she can brag about at cocktail parties?” Which is, you know, ridiculous, because I never go to cocktail parties, and because of my furtive, neurotic nature, bragging is not what would happen. I promise! An apologetic admission of my big, meaty success is all it would be, I swear. I might even keep it within the family and just put on a lot of makeup and make kissy-faces at myself in my bathroom mirror. 

So, no. Reality says that this really might be all I get, in terms of my publication story. That story might just be that my savvy, urbanite agent sent my proposal off to five, ten, twenty, fifty editors at imprints of diminishing impact and they all said, “Thanks but no thanks.”  I will have to live with that. And worse, I will have to live with having shared it with you, Readers. Maybe I will have gotten your hopes up and you’ll be discouraged for me. Maybe I will have annoyed you and you’ll have your anonymous schadenfreude. It’s a big risk. 

But would it have been better never to have taken the chance?

Actually, no. No, it would not have been better. And here is why. Regardless of my ultimate success, my well-being depends on it. Well-being is a good and worthy goal, if it can be a goal. Having a sense of well-being is probably even more important than feeling successful. So I was interested to read this post in Scientific American’s blog about positive psychology research to determine the elements of well-being. I’m now passing them on to you. Please note the one on the right:  

The one on the right is Accomplishment. As in, achieving stuff, reaching a goal, having success.  Accomplishing things - or at least feeling accomplished - is one of the five main components of well-being.

Ok, this is a catch-22, isn’t it? It is, indeed. These five elements of well-being are closely interrelated. According to research, people who scored high in one area of PERMA tended to score high in the other areas; the inverse is also true. People who scored low in one area tended to score low overall. 

So. Yes, this is a fix, in a way. Or maybe it is proof that I don’t need to waste time apologizing for wanting to feel successful and achieve stuff. 

Which leaves me with this advice: ultimately, you have to keep going, and you have to find ways to feel like you are achieving in life. The trick is to celebrate the steps along the way, the mini-accomplishments. Like close-calls with Big House Editors.

Interestingly, the two character traits that are the biggest predictors of well-being are Gratitude and Love of Learning, closely followed by Hope, Honesty, Love, and Humor. I can say I've got those, some days more, some days less.

So how are you doing? I think I’m actually doing fine.