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.

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?

Trading Places

No, I’m not talking about the old Eddie Murphy movie (and to show my age I felt weird about calling that old, but I digress). I’m talking about the idea of trading places with another person in order to get a fresh perspective. We talk about this pretty regularly, particularly when we’re trying to encourage our kids to be aware of other people’s feelings.

“How would you feel if someone did that to you? What do you think she felt like when you said that? Do you think he was happy? Were they trying to hurt you? What do you think they were thinking about?” Maybe it’s just me and my poor tormented children, but these discussions happen pretty often when trying to untangle whatever happened at recess. This notion is a big part of our adult culture as well: “Walk a mile in their shoes.” Now, don’t misunderstand me all of this talk we’re talking doesn’t mean we’re walking the walk, but that is a subject for a different post altogether. Right now I’m just interested in this idea of ways that we can shift our perspective by trading places.

we get so afraid of the futureThe difference for me right now is that I’m less interested in developing empathy (just for the moment, no worries) and more interested in gaining some perspective on the things that are going on for me. One parent in seminary and one parent as a fledgling entrepreneur can make for a lot of household uncertainty. Some days the uncertainty feels daunting and we just want more information. We just want to know what’s going to happen. Where will we be? Will all of this work out? Should we be doing things differently?

When I’m feeling freaked out or if that freaking out turns into some kind of b.s. self-abuse about being good enough, it is a good mental exercise to trade places with a friend. Let her look at the situation and tell me what SHE thinks. We’re not always good at being kind to ourselves. We’re not always good at seeing the big picture when we’re part of the landscape. We’re not always good at taking a longer view, but oftentimes someone else who knows us can, and sometimes we can access that without even talking to them. When our self-kindness and calm fails us, we can borrow some from someone else. I do this regularly. When I need calm and compassion I mentally trade places with my sister and see what she would say. When I need business advice, I mentally trade places with my mentor and see what she would say. When I need a pep talk, I imagine what my dear Dad would say. When my own capacity to be kind to myself and pick myself up is out of gas, I call in for a little mental trade.

But this trading places thing can go farther, and here’s where it gets really interesting. Every now and again I make it a point to imagine my future. I choose a point down the road, maybe a year, maybe five, sometimes ten, and I picture everything I can about that time. I try to get detailed. I try to see everything. I try to know exactly what’s happening, not by pushing, but by inhabiting that mental space, seeing it, being the me of THAT time. When that vision is really solid and I’ve been living there for a few minutes, I ask HER for advice for today. What do I need to know? What should I do? How can I get there?

using a vision of the future to guide actionIt’s been fascinating. She always calms me down, and I guess that part isn’t surprising, but the rest of it is. There’s real advice there. There’s steps to take to get to the future I’m imagining. There are things to consider and plan, with a vision of what that will bring. THAT is powerful magic. THAT is motivating and grounding all at the same time. THAT makes moving forward feel both brilliant AND safe, like of COURSE I’m going to do X because that’s how I get THERE. And when I’ve gotten my questions answered, I trade places back. I return to my present with fresh eyes, a fresh perspective, a list of next steps on the road, and a vision to guide me.

What would your future self tell you about where you are today? What would you ask? What would happen if you tried trading places for just a few minutes? I can help you with that.