If I Were Good…

“My value comes from my vocation; this is a cultural trap.”

The words sort of rang out around me. I was in an amphitheater listening to the Reverend Skye Jathani preach. I did not expect to like him, but that’s another story altogether. THIS story has to do with that quote.

Reverend Jathani was sharing that he spent a fair amount of time providing professional counseling for young people, and what he noticed was the weight that the struggle for self-worth put on what could be a much simpler choice – what to do for work.

close-up-doctor-health-42273Jathani noticed that so many young people were making significant, and oftentimes expensive, decisions about their schooling, career, and job choices based on what would make them a good person, what a good person WOULD do, you know if they were one. “If I were a good person, I would choose to be a pediatric heart surgeon in the poorest location I could find. I would not charge for my services,” says the musician with a gift for poetry. This example is fictional and admittedly exaggerated for effect.

I am VERY familiar with this drive to find our self-worth in work. After a short stint in corporate America doing environmental policy work (which didn’t feel environmental at all and definitely felt like a lot of work – again a story for another time), I decided I wanted to become a teacher. I was tired of diddling around on the edges of social change. I wanted to sit in the seat where it happens.

And make no mistake, I firmly believe that I had that relationship right; teachers are agents of social change. I left my not very cushy job and embarked on a Master’s degree in record time so that I could get down to the business of creating a better world. I landed a teaching assignment in an affluent Maryland suburb. The kids drove nicer cars than I did and still complained about their rides. Somehow my vision of Stand and Deliver had morphed into where can my husband and I both get a job that is somewhere we want to live.

Despite the compromise, I was very proud to be a teacher. I am still proud to have been a teacher both in Maryland and later in Washington, DC. I continue to be proud to be a teacher, albeit a teacher of adults who CHOOSE to learn with me. When I made that career move into teaching, I KNEW that what I was choosing was something that most people in society, including my parents, would understand, approve of, and maybe even admire. That really mattered. And I was good at it. I was, and continue to be, a good teacher.

But the classroom ate me alive. My need to do well by my students, to not just be a teacher, but be a great teacher (because if you’re going to buy your self-worth, you have little choice but to go all-in) made me pour hours and hours into my profession that rightly could have been spent refilling my cup. I slept very little. I worried a great deal. I railed against the system whenever things went wrong outside my classroom. I marched to the administration office on a pretty regular basis.

And look, all of those things are fine. They would all have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that I was doing them to save myself.

You see it wasn’t some inner calling or deep intuition that I was answering when I chose to be a teacher. Being a teacher was the most practical way I could think of to help people, and I really needed to help people so that I could be a good person, because frankly, I was really quite certain I was NOT a good person.

Fresh off a divorce after a short marriage that I and everyone around me were pretty sure could have gone differently with a little maturity on my part, my self-worth ached for evidence of my value to such a degree that I would have traded just about anything to succeed in that noble profession.

And that’s where I slipped into the trap.

Our culture tells us that what we choose for work is a demonstration of our value and our biggest source for pride. We learn that work is the key to a meaningful life and to the measure of who we are. I so needed to test well.

And what all of that pushing made me miss was just this: the quiet voice suggesting that I take care of myself, the wise voice asking if it wouldn’t be better to train to be an administrator than to constantly try to do their jobs for them, the nagging sense that if I continued on that course in that way I would find myself locked down by anger, bitterness, and the dis-ease that had already begun to show up in my body.

I was simultaneously experiencing a decline in my health (a strange assortment of symptoms likely triggered by exhaustion and stress) and taking a last shot at getting pregnant with the help of the infertility guru in the region. The day that he suggested that my body would be best served by finding different work was one of the best worst days I had for a long time.

I was so relieved. Someone was telling me to stop. Someone was acting as alarm clock for me to wake up. And yet, if I could not be that teacher, who would I be?

During my infertility treatment I managed to land a job with a non-profit that read like a fantasy for someone who wants to be seen as a good person. And I did a terrible job. The reasons for that were not all under my control. My boss was removed and more than a little concerned with own reputation at the expense of actually doing work. I was unprepared for the job I got and nobody around had any idea how to do it. I was far too tired to be the go-getter it would have taken to really shine in that job.

So I didn’t shine. I did the work in a minimalistic way. I found competent and friendly help and as I moved further into recovery, and later pregnancy, I had the opportunity to experience being a good person without being a great employee. I had the opportunity to see that I was not in a job that worked for me and to let go of the worry of that thought so that I could rest and listen for and attend to what was next for me.

beach-breeze-clouds-370037And as pregnancy with twins progressed to bedrest with twins, I learned to be a good person from a seated position, fully reliant on the help of those around me for all of my needs. I learned to let go of work as salvation and to look inward at what I could be, for my children and over time, for myself. I woke up and in doing so, learned to find my self-worth exactly where it is located, inside of me, at birth, irrevocable, unrenonounceable, no returns or exchanges.

When I see this I am free, free to listen to the call that lights my spirit on fire. And as it turns out, that helps people.

So bet it.

When We Fail

Sometimes we fail.

How to fail wellWe do.

The thing we try to do doesn’t work.

The job we thought we’d love is really awful.

The marriage we so wanted to work out or fix ends.

Sometimes we fail.

 

The question is not whether or not it’s going to happen.

It’s going to happen, that is if you make any attempt to grow, reach, stretch, be more – failure will happen.

The question is not if, but what you will do with it.

The motivational crowd will tell you to get right back on that horse.

I’m going to ask you to check your course.

“But wait,” they say: “You can’t get mired in self-doubt.”

I say this is a reaction.

I say our fear of getting stuck in self-doubt after a failure or a less than stellar outcome is a dodge, a deflection, an extremely sophisticated way to get out of feeling the failure.

Because that’s what I think we should do.

I think we should feel it.

I think we should sit with the failure and let it be with us, cry if we need to, destroy a pillow if that’s better, but be with that feeling of failure.

Why? Why on earth would I want you to do that? Am I just a sadist?

No. I’m really not.

That feeling part, the part we dodge and weave to avoid, the part we look for quick fixes, buffers, distractions for? That’s our most delicate and informative equipment. That’s our navigational hardware. That’s how we really stay on course. If we avoid it all of the time and just get back to forging ahead we’ll be going in circles or headed to a destination we don’t really want.

So what do we need to do? We need to feel the failure.

Does that mean we need to change course? No, maybe, I don’t know for you. Only YOU know for you and the best way to access that knowing is to be honest and the way to start being honest is to feel how you feel, get through the peak of that and then have the conversation with yourself, check in with your internal navigation, after you’ve given it a moment to recalibrate.

what will you let failure teach youYou may then decide to get back on that horse and just try again. You may try again with a variation. You may decide it’s time for a new horse. The point isn’t always whether or not you persist in what you were doing, but in what you learn and what you allow with the failure. The point isn’t always getting up and trying again, but in trying better, trying different, maybe even trying new.

Failure will happen.

If you risk anything worth risking, if you step beyond where you are at all in hopes of reaching something more, failure will happen.

What will you make from it? What will it teach you? Who will you become after that?

 

When Something’s Not Working

I get a lot of advice in my Facebook feed and in my inbox. This is what it’s like to be in the self-help industry. The algorithm bots have me all figured out and there’s mountains of well-intended advice, guidance, and helpful tips coming my way all of the time. And I’ve noticed something really interesting.

Failing and Persistence

Many acknowledge the importance of failure as a learning tool and as a measure for the fact that you’re actually doing things, trying new stuff, taking risks. The idea is that we need to stretch ourselves to really find out what we’re capable of and sometimes that means failing.

Doing big things sometimes means failingWhen I was about 6 my Mom enrolled me in swim lessons at the local YMCA. I had some experience swimming (the youngest of 4 can’t really opt out of the pool successfully for long), but really wasn’t to the point where Mom could relax at all, so off to lessons I went. I struggled. I didn’t like the water in my face. I didn’t like the water in my ears. I didn’t like the sounds of the pool when underwater (still don’t, really). I struggled to follow instructions. I struggled to make my limbs (already long and gangly) do what I wanted them to do. But I muddled through the class (having no option). When we tested at the end, the instructor told my Mom that I should not advance to the next level. I was livid. Even at that young age, I had already experienced the joy of making the grade and I was furious that my efforts and struggle had not earned me the rank I believed they deserved. I didn’t really care about the results. I had worked really hard. I had taken a risk. And, at least in my eyes at the time, I had failed. I informed my Mother I would not be taking any more swimming lessons. My mother chose to let that stand. (I can swim, today, just so you don’t worry.) I had stretched. I had struggled. I had failed. And really, except for being angry that afternoon, I was okay. Learning to swim that way, or maybe at that time, or maybe in that timeframe was NOT working for me.

Go Get It!

If my mother and I had followed another constant theme that comes tumbling across my feed, we would have persisted. There is a continual drum banging for persistence in the self-help community. If things aren’t working, you need to keep trying, stick with it, check out your thinking and get back into the arena. Rest for a minute if you absolutely must, and then get to it. Go get it. Do it now. Do it all. Just do it!

Get back in the pool.

Ignore the pounding in your eardrums from the water pressure.

Force a level of physical coordination that is currently not available.

Think positive thoughts!

Stick with it!

What To Do With Failure

Thinking about these two concepts together makes me want to scream at all of the persistence pushers: “What if this is one of those moments you said I would have where the risk I’m taking isn’t working out?” What do I do?  Do I decide that those are all just thoughts I’m telling myself and I need to jump back in, get busy, go get it?

Maybe it’s not the right thing. Maybe I made a bad choice. Maybe instead of going and getting it, I need to take a breath and take in the failure. Maybe I need to acknowledge that this wasn’t the right moment, the right path, the right decision and figure out what there is to learn. Maybe in all of my frenzy to go get it, I forgot to see if “it” was what I really want and need right now. Maybe I ignored signs that were trying to point me in other directions. Maybe I forgot to listen to my feelings, my joy, my inner-most compass in my desire to just do it. Maybe it should really be okay to fail.

When I do decide that some effort of mine is a fail, maybe it’s okay to feel that, to be sad, to acknowledge that I feel foolish or incompetent or far more like a novice than is even remotely comfortable. Maybe when I fail it’s okay to just admit it and breathe and just be as alright as I am or as I’m not without even trying to figure any of it out. Maybe it’s okay to declare what I will or won’t ever do again and slam my door. Maybe I don’t need to do anything.

It's okay to failIf failure is really okay, if it really marks a growing capacity to take risks and stretch our boundaries, we need to accept it when it comes and stop pushing to make it something that it’s not. We don’t need to keep striving to turn it around. We don’t need to go get it. Maybe what we need to do is just don’t “it” for a minute. Just be.

In all of our desire to be better, to do better, to have more, to succeed, maybe failing is a way to take a moment to breathe. And after we’ve caught our breath, we can see what we’ve learned, check in with our hearts, and choose the next big thing. When we’ve taken a moment, we can decide how and when we want to get back in the pool.

 

Freedom From Failure

A big part of my job as a life coach is to help people who feel “stuck.” Now stuck can mean a lot of different things. It can mean: “I don’t know what to do next.” It can mean: “I know what to do, but don’t want to do it.” It can mean: “I don’t believe I can do it.” It can mean many, many different things to different people. One of the things it seems to mean pretty regularly is: “I’m afraid if I do the thing (whatever the thing is), I’m going to fail.”

Well boy howdy do I know what that’s all about. If I’m really honest I’m afraid I’m going to fail every single day. Wow. I never really think about it that way and just saying that out loud felt pretty awful, but it’s true. Starting a business is no small thing, and you have to do a lot of new stuff that makes you uncomfortable, and you have to do it even when you think you’re going to fail. The same is true lots of places, though, isn’t it? It’s not just all of us loony self-employed people who face this.

Failure is part of doing something bigger than what you're doing now.Anybody who wants something big, who wants to get to the next level in their own personal and/or professional development is going to have moments where they think they could fail. I experience it as a musician. We try harder songs; we use more complex arrangements. We choose styles we’ve not worked with before. We don’t do that ALL of the time. We have a base of stuff that we do with confidence, and then a couple that are heart pounders until we’ve played them enough that they become part of the base and we choose a new really hard song. THIS is how we grow.

This is how we grow unless we quit before we get anywhere. See growing, changing, being more, feeling better, feeling different, expanding, evolving will ALL lead to fear and discomfort. They will. As evolved as we may be technologically, our primitive brains are still pretty simple and clear about what they’re interested in: survival. How do we survive? Well, we stick with what’s working. Never mind if it is not fulfilling; that is not the question your brain is interested in. For your primitive brain, only one question matters: has it kept us alive? Yes? Great – that works. Don’t change because THAT might kill us. Done.

So when we move to change, to grow, to experiment, our brain unleashes every story it can think of to keep us from moving down that road. Some of these are subtle: “But you’re really great at what you’re doing right now.” Some of them are not: “If you do that you could lose EVERYTHING and then we’ll be homeless, and then we’ll die.” We are so afraid to fail that we quit before there’s even the slightest possibility of failing. And as a result, we stay the same. We don’t learn new skills. We don’t learn to conquer (okay, manage but conquer sounds so glorious) our fears. We don’t learn how to be even better than we are.

You get to decide what failure is.The thing about failure is that we can be free from it without quitting. Brooke Castillo recently reminded me (and whoever else was watching) that we each get to define what failing means. You cannot fail anywhere but in your own mind, because you are the one who decides when you have failed. You are the one who decides that what you have done isn’t enough or has no value or isn’t just the rocky beginning to something new and amazing. You get to decide what failing looks like and THEN you get to decide what to do when that happens. Failing is both inevitable and totally optional. You have total control over failure. How’s that for some freedom?

You may decide that failure doesn’t exist at all. You may decide that failing at new things is the best way to figure out how to do them. You may decide that building up some grit by failing a few times will help you get through the work to follow. You may decide that failing is a thing, that you will do it and that when you will do, it will be your job to figure out what did and didn’t work and to see if there’s something you can do different, better, if there’s a thought you can take away from it that will change how you interact with the world. You are totally free from failure, because each failure is our own. We define it. We react to it or embrace it. We recover or retreat. We are free.

What would you do today if you weren’t afraid to fail?

The Earth is Slippery: Aztec Wisdom… Yeah, You Heard That Right

A few weeks ago, on our annual nerdy vacation at The Chautauqua Institution, we got to hear some really great lectures. Well, we always hear really great lectures, but this year I was paying extra special attention. I even took notes – yeah, I was serious about the nerdy vacation comment. As the weeks have gone by since we were there, it’s been interesting to see which ideas have really stuck with me. Some lectures seemed really great when they were delivered, but didn’t really have any staying power; others seemed kind of so-so when I was listening, but took root. One of the ideas I heard was both – it struck me at the time and it keeps coming back because I find it just so darned useful.

The speaker was Sebastian Purcell, a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York (SUNY) Cortland. His presentation was on Aztec philosophy as a a guide for happiness in the modern world. I admit I was skeptical, because the idea of looking to the Aztecs for guidance on happiness didn’t really fit with my limited understanding of Aztec culture. So I guess I was ripe for the picking. The idea that got me was this one: The earth is slippery.

You’re like, really? That’s the big idea? That the earth is slippery? And what the hell does that mean anyway? What?

Slide1Yeah. That’s it. It was a core part of the Aztec worldview to believe that the world is slippery, which means we will fall down. We will make mistakes. Things happen that are out of control that will push us over. Bad stuff happens, and sometimes its our own fault, and sometimes it’s not. The earth is slippery. We can only take so many steps without risking a fall every now and then. Can you see where we’re going here? Professor Purcell pointed out that this idea meant that bad or unpleasant things that happen can often be chalked up to error rather than a lack of reason. In other words, sometimes stuff just happens and everyone makes mistakes no matter how hard they try, no matter how good their intentions, no matter how right their purpose.

Is this revolutionary? Well no, if we’re focused on the messages we explicitly give our children when they are hurting because they’ve messed up and we’re trying to comfort them, but ALL of the OTHER messages (that we give them AND ourselves) are pretty different aren’t they? The messages we send and receive say that the world is drowning in opportunity, that all you need to do is work hard enough (well, and harder than the person next to you), and you will succeed. This very American dreamy message is complicated. There’s an element to this lesson on perseverance that I am TOTALLY down with. Pursuing your thing doggedly is the best way to “succeed” at it – whatever “succeed” means. There’s also a dark side to our failure to really embrace the idea that the earth is slippery.

The dark side of not embracing the slipperiness of earth is that when things go awry, it is all our fault. When things don’t pan out, we are flawed. When we’re not achieving what we want, we need to reexamine everything from our actions to the very foundation of the dream itself. These are all versions of the big one, the giant yuck, the grandaddy of all self-abuse: when bad things happen, I deserve them because I’m not good enough. If the earth is not slippery, we fall because we are clumsy, careless, lazy. If the earth is not slippery, we fail because we are not determined, because we aren’t smart enough, because we are unworthy. If the earth is not slippery, our blame can only be placed on ourselves.

Slide2There are times we are at fault. There are times other people make things hard for us. There are times our institutions fail us. There are times when bad things happen that have nothing to do with our worth. There are times when things don’t work out. There are times when the earth is slippery. If we can just acknowledge that, we can get on with the business of our recovery, our work around, our new approach, our get back up and try again without the full on inquisition of our souls. Sometimes we fall because the earth is slippery.