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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Pithy Advice From Books

I love pithy advice from books.
This week, while I await news of the 12th grader's college acceptances, I have not much original to share. But this great passage from Forty Rooms, by Olga Grushin, appealed:

"Papa, do you believe there is any meaning to life?" I blurted out.
"The meaning of life - the meaning of a single, individual human life, since I assume that is what you are asking - consists of figuring out the one thing you are great at and then pushing mankind's mastery of that one thing as far as you are able, be it an inch or a mile. If you are a carpenter, be a carpenter with every ounce of your being and invent a new type of saw. If you are an archaeologist, find the tomb of Alexander the Great. If you are Alexander the Great, conquer the world. And never do anything by half."

I think if Papa had stopped talking after saying figure out what you're great at and push mankind's mastery of it as far as you are able, inch or mile, I would feel totally great about his answer. It's an exhortation to be your best and to work hard and contribute to the collective knowledge.

But then he lays on the expectations. Don't just be a carpenter, invent a new type of saw! Don't just be an archaeologist, be an archaeologist who finds a really important, famous relic! Don't just be the head of something, conquer the freakin' world!

Expectations are necessary, but also dangerous. As a parent, I understand the impulse to expect great things from my children. As a person struggling under both lack of expectations from people who knew me as a child and super high expectations of myself, I think the second half of his answer stinks. How many new kinds of saws are possible? How many tombs of mighty conquering emperors exist? How many Alexanders can there be? Most of us need to find a way to succeed and build meaningful lives in humbler ways. On the other hand, without expectations to rise to, maybe we won't discover our inner Alexander.

If Papa said, "Figure out who you are and what you're good at doing - and like to do - and then work really hard at it," that would be the best thing he could say.

Well, Papa didn't say it, but I did. Now I'm going to try to remember it while we are waiting, waiting, waiting. And afterwords, too. That's when it will really matter.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Banishing the Shoulds, Accepting the Wants

Here’s a confession. I have this terrible desire to watch this really cheesy dramedy the 8th Grader introduced me to called “Hart of Dixie.   I like to settle down on the couch with her and ingest a couple of episodes. 

How long will it take for Lemon, who dresses like Doris Day, but is a viper at heart (hart?) to cry in this episode? When will George clench his jaw? And doesn’t Brick (Tim Matheson) look good all these years after “Animal House?” How long until Zoe has to hide in the bushes because she left her pants at Wade’s house? I love it. I do. But I feel like I shouldn’t. 

I should be doing something about my book. I should be drafting a blog post. Or reading something. Like one of the books I have to review. But instead, Sunday, I just piled onto the couch with my child and watched an episode. Or two. Last night - a school night, no less - we did it again.

Why is this such a confession? Perhaps some of you will be saying to yourselves, “What is the big deal? You like to watch this cheesy dramedy with your daughter - so what?” To you I say, “You do not need to read any further, unless you want to hear tidbits about the show. You clearly are already evolved and have learned the lesson I am here to teach.” Perhaps you think this.

To you I say, bless your little selves for lacking the shame that leads me to want to hide my shallow, TV-watching soul. 

To everyone else, I do have two or three justifications for this waste of time. How about quality time with my daughter? I’m not saying high-quality - but quality. Sharing an experience is worthwhile. It promotes connection, and connection promotes contentment. How about relaxing the brain by focusing on something different than my writing projects for awhile? That’s important to stimulating creativity, as is taking a shower, or a walk. 

That’s two. Three might be a stretch. 

Anyway, the point - and I do have one, Readers, and indeed it is my third justification - is that you never know where you’re going to find inspiration. There I was on the couch with the 8th Grader watching, and the husband was making pizza in the kitchen, around the corner, but where he could hear the TV. A scene came up, where shirtless, buff Wade tells off purported surgeon-turned-general-practitioner (GP) in the small town of Bluebell Alabama or North Carolina or Georgia - somewhere southern. As I was saying, half-naked Wade, who’s been having a fling with this supposed surgeon-turned-GP Zoe (all 97 pounds of her, with her heels and makeup on), tells off said Zoe for resisting the things that make her happy because of what she thinks she SHOULD want: being a famous doctor and having a professional boyfriend like George Tucker, Esq, who is also quite a fine looking man, but he doesn’t run around shirtless, sleep with lots of women, and work in a bar. Wade, with the wisdom of the slacker, tells Zoe he has finally lost interest in her, because she refuses to accept what she actually wants (him) and actually loves doing (being a small town general practitioner rather than a stressed out surgeon in NYC, all in high heels and floppy shorts, far too often, I must add). Wade informs Zoe, moreover, that he is going home to sit on his couch and play video games for a couple of hours. And he’s not going to feel one iota of guilt about it, either. 

Well, Readers, just at the moment that Wade’s words whacked Zoe with their homespun wisdom, both the husband and I commented that this was something I could blog about. Because success is not success unless you’re doing what you want to be doing. I mean, it could look like success; but it won’t feel like success. And if you’re doing what matters to you - not to your peers, your father, or your superego - you won’t bother about success anyway. Or happiness, for that matter. You’ll be doing what you want, and thereby making yourself happy. So you’ve got to accept what is important to you, and to set aside all those shoulds.

Thank you, Wade, for your wisdom and your amazing torso. Thank you, Hart of Dixie, for giving me back just a little bit of all the time I’ve invested in you. Thank you, 8th Grader, for being such good couch company and for getting me addicted to this almost, but not total, waste of time. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Success as Joy and Meaning
Last week’s wisdom came in practical form from Gretchen Rubin. This week’s comes in more theoretical form from someone else, a guy named James B. Comey. 

“Let me start by defining what I mean by successful. I don’t mean making a lot of dough. A lot of successful people make a lot of dough, but a lot of people with dough are not successful the way I’ve defined it. Successful people are those who have lived lives of achievement - certainly - but also lives of joy and meaning. That’s what I mean by success.”  - James B. Comey

Now, James B. Comey is not a baker. So you can be sure that the dough he’s talking about is not the stuff you use to make pancakes and bread and cake. James B. Comey is a lawyer, the one time United States Deputy Attorney General, and the current director of the FBI. So the dough he’s talking about is the kind you see in suitcases opened in dark alleys and back rooms of strip clubs and anonymous hotel rooms. The paper kind. 

Nevertheless, his whole point is that success is NOT about money. So I don’t know why I’m focusing on it. Probably because I’m a lesser human than James B. Comey. I certainly have less dough than he. Although, according to Studies (with a capital-S), we really do need much less dough than we think to satisfy ourselves, and I know I have reached that level. It can be hard, though, to let go of the idea that money will be the answer. It’s a bit like sugar in that you have some and you want more and more.

But listen to James B. Comey’s wisdom on how to live a life of joy and meaning. I know I have. I think he’s onto something. There are five attributes of successful people that help them live those lives.  And they are all things we can develop.

  1. Emotional intelligence
  2. Judgement 
  3. Effective communication
  4. Dare to Be Dumb
  5. Reputation is a Brick Mansion

Let’s look at them a little more closely.

Emotional Intelligence. Reams of writing exists on this topic, but it boils down to this. Emotional intelligence is “seeing ourselves and feeling what others feel.” Empathy is its root. And you can develop empathy by being a good listener. “So listen 1000 times; think 100 times; speak once.”

Judgement. By judgement, Comey means, “how to think about what you’re doing and learn from it.” It comes from developing emotional intelligence, from thinking about experiences, from love, from getting enough sleep, and from stepping away from your routine. Sharpening the saw , as Stephen Covey said. 

Effective Communication. This means thinking about what you want to say, but also about how you want to say it - and also to remember that your audience is probably only halfway willing to attend to your words, so you’ve got to grab ‘em. Comey says, “The goal of the speaker is to stop the listener from getting away.”

Wait! Come back, Readers! I’m almost done!

Dare to be Dumb.  That means what it seems like it means. Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t get something. Assume that if you don’t understand something, many other people also don’t understand it and will be glad you asked. Now, I did this once. I think it was in 8th grade, at my new fancy prep school, where I asked what the term “Parts of Speech” meant. I’ll be honest. I felt like an ass. And in fact, I ended up in the teacher’s office after class, because actually everyone else in the class already knew the term. Fortunately, I proved that I knew the parts of speech - I just didn’t know they were called “parts of speech,” and everything progressed from there. Downhill. But whatever. Dare to be dumb, people, even if every ounce of your pride tells you not to take that dare. “Have the confidence to be humble,” says Comey. It took me a few years after that 8th grade experience, but I got there again.

Reputation is a brick mansion. I like this one a lot. According to Comey, most people think of reputation as a mansion, “built one room at a time.” Instead, it is built a brick at a time. “Every human encounter is a brick.” So you want to make sure each brick is solid. That builds a solid reputation. 

I think it’s good advice. What about you?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Conversation with Gretchen Rubin on Success & Happiness

Four years ago, a friend sent me The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, author of several books, blogger at her popular blog, and co-star with her sister of the podcast Happier. I was going through a rotten time in my life, feeling like a failure, and the book took me by surprise. It inspired me to apply Gretchen’s idea of studying happiness to the question of how I could redefine success. I began reading up on the topic and blogging about it. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit with Gretchen Rubin  - in person - and ask her about success.

The New York Times described Gretchen Rubin as “the queen of self-help.” That’s a darn good moniker. I myself think of her as “the Martha Stewart of happiness.” Like Martha with her practical advice to create the Good Life, Gretchen tackles practical ways to create the happy one. But she’s a lot wonkier, i.e., more intellectual, than Martha. I had the good luck to review her latest book, Better Than Before, which is all about habits and how they contribute to or detract from happiness. She’s great at illuminating home truths we take for granted – for example, if something is easy to do we are more likely to do it.

However, her particular genius is breaking down complex ideas into practical, useful tips. She eschews deep introspection. We couldn’t be more different. If I have a genius, it’s for existing in a state of conflict or ambivalence, and examining all facets of it. Then making fun of myself.

What is success? What makes you feel successful? And how can you tweak the definition so that you can feel successful even if you actually, well, fail? These are the questions that led me to the small office at Politics and Prose Bookstore in my hometown, Washington, DC, sitting at a round table with the Queen of Self Help. She was generous with her time and her enthusiasm*, and offered some interesting ideas for me to consider, which I am now passing along to you, Readers.

Although before I get to the good stuff, let me just come right out and say this. I learned the hard way the first rule of interviewing, which is as follows:

Shut up so your interviewee can talk.

Okay, I’m no expert, so I don’t know if this is the first rule, but it should be. I tell you this after listening to the recording of my conversation with Gretchen Rubin. She talked, she responded, but oh my, so did I. Yes, I was aware, even as it happened, that she was drawing ME out, and yet still I talked on. Was I afraid of silence? Maybe that was it. Maybe that she herself was interested in probing ME was gratifying. That probably contributed to my blathering. Nevertheless, our conversation was revealing.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Sharpening the Saw, Filling the Well - Stephen Covey Habit 7

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged about Stephen Covey and his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - “effective” being a euphemism for "successful". Why a euphemism? Is there something inherently shameful about seeking success? 

Don’t answer that. 
We don't seek success, Readers, we pursue lives of principle and passion and success is the byproduct. 

The point is that in writing my book draft, I’ve been revisiting some of the books I’ve read on success, and this week, I’m reminded of Covey’s Habit # 7, called “Sharpening the Saw.” According to Covey,

Habit 7 is the habit of renewal - a regular, balanced renewal of the four basic dimensions of life. It circles and embodies all the other habits. It is the habit of continuous improvement that creates the upward spiral of growth that lifts you to new levels of understanding and living each of the habits as you come around to them on a progressively higher plane. (p.52)

The four dimensions are not an early 70s soul group. They are not geometric representations of space and time. They are not the four elements - earth, air, fire, and water. No, they are physical, social/emotional, spiritual, and mental. 

In other words, you need me-time. 

Well, for my me-time, I’m starting a drawing class with the 8th grader. She made the mistake of - or good decision to - sit out the spring semester of the theater class she has been going to for a few years, because she would have had to miss several sessions, due to various scheduling conflicts. This left her in a dangerously underscheduled situation, which I quickly attempted to rectify, because all children must be scheduled up, like loaded human stress-guns.

No, really, it wasn’t like that. It was that at the same time she decided to skip the drama class, she said she might like to take an art class, because the vagaries of our public school schedule have left her with only one quarter’s worth of art for the entire 8th grade year. 

I had trouble finding a class with people her age, but I found one with adults. The drawback is that the class is for adults. Also, the final two classes will be drawing from a nude. After consulting the 8th grader and several artist friends, we concluded that drawing from a nude is less of a problem than taking a class with adults. So I decided I would make my teenaged daughter’s life much better by taking the class with her. Because what could be better than taking a class with adults? Taking a class with adults, one of whom is your mother. Who purports to be an adult. 

No, really, it wasn’t like that. It was that the class is kind of far away, and we parents would have to schlep back and forth on Wednesday evenings to drop her off and pick her up. And then I started thinking about drawing and drawing from the nude and how I loved to do that once upon a time, and I thought, why not? Why not just take the class, too? That way I’ll do a service to the environment by eliminating a round trip to Troy. Not only that, I’ll do a service to myself. I’ll be Sharpening the Saw, according to Stephen Covey. I’ll be Filling the Well, according to Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way, who says that creative work should involve some cross-training to keep the creativity flowing. All in all, no matter how you look at it, it’s a win. 

Except maybe for the 8th grader. But I’m grateful she has agreed. I’ve promised not to look at her or talk to her. And since my last name is different from hers, she can pretend she doesn’t even know me.