Love. Life. Practice.

Personal Development with Gray Miller

enough of love

“It’s ok…”

“…if you don’t want to eat Indian food with me, sweetie. There are plenty of folks who will.”

How do you interpret that statement?

There seems to be two ways people will parse out meaning:

  1. Emotional Blackmail: This is a coercive and guilt-inducing statement, basically meant to force the partner who doesn’t like Indian food into doing it because otherwise the speaker will just find someone else.
  2. Emotional Maturity: This is a comforting statement, respecting the boundaries of both partners and honoring both the relationship and the individual desires without forcing them on each other.

What’s surprising is that there really seems to be very little middle ground. It’s like the optical illusion of the vase/two faces – you can see one or the other, but not both at the same time.

Take a moment and examine what kind of narrative you created when you read the sentence. Was it a personal one, where you were either the speaker or being spoken to? Was it a couple? Perhaps just friends? Play around with various scenarios, tones of voice, and see how the meaning changes. In this age of verbal communication (a recent statistic estimated an average of 100,000 words come your way every day) it’s a good idea to be able to interpret a sentence in a variety of ways.

The Opposite of Starvation

For some people, the idea of “others” spending time with their partner, even doing something they don’t enjoy, feels like theft. It feels like something is being taken away – and that’s understandable, especially since we are, in fact, talking about time, an irreplaceable resource. The problem is that it’s not their time they are losing – rather, they are losing their claim on their partner’s time – time to eat Indian food, in fact.

It could be argued that they really don’t have a claim on that time – that it’s somewhat unrealistic to demand that your partner give up their enjoyment of curry simply because it takes them away from you. “I don’t like it, so you shouldn’t either” is never a very fair strategy.

However I believe a more moving argument is the idea that time is in short supply. Irreplaceable, yes, but the hard fact is that we all have exactly the same number of allotted hours in a day. The only difference is the quality of those hours – say, the difference between the way a partner would feel when guilted out of eating the food they love versus how they would feel supported in their desire.

Amanda Palmer says the opposite of starvation is not abundance, it's enough.

I highly recommend the audio version of this book. It includes her music!

In Amanda Palmer’s amazing book The Art of Asking, she talks about this idea of a “Starvation Mentality.” It’s when you grab and hoard and frantically gather as many resources as you can, because you fear that there will not be enough – for you, for those you care about, it doesn’t matter. It’s also thought of as a “zero-sum” game, and it’s applied to way more things than it needs to be. If you’re eating a cake, yes, there is a finite amount of cake. If you’re a parent, though, there is not a finite amount of love for your children. One, four, seven, you love them all.

Often people will talk about having a “Philosophy of Abundance” as an alternative to the Starvation Mentality, which is the idea that there is plenty. More than you’d ever be able to use! Did you eat all the cake? Make another cake! There’s always more cakes that you can make!

Before I slip into Dr.-Seuss-mode, let me tell you about Ms. Palmer’s view of this: “The opposite of starvation isn’t abundance,” she writes, “It’s enough.” How’s that for a liberating concept? No, it’s not that your partner has an infinite amount of time to spend with you, or that there will always be more – rather, it’s that the quality of the time you spend happily with each other, honoring desire and being what Neruda called “guardians of each other’s solitude“. That time will be precious, and it may even be scarce – but it can be enough. Enough to support and nurture and grow the love between two people.

Enjoy the time with your loved ones – whether you’re present or not. The tighter you grasp, the less you can feel.

check your positivity ratio

How’s Your Day?

Quick, off the top of your head: has it been a mostly positive day? Or a mostly negative one? If you’re like me, you may be surprised at the results. I was thinking I was having a pretty good day – finished off a project for a client, got to see both my grandsons, spent some quality time with loved ones, heck, it was even payday! So when I took the the positivity ratio test on Dr. Barbara Frederickson’s website, I figured it would be a cinch to have it be pretty good.

The test is not as simple as “good/bad”. Instead, she takes several feelings – anger, inspiration, humiliation, joy – and asks, for each one, to what degree you felt it. Not at all? A little bit? Extremely? It’s a nuanced overview that gives what she terms a positivity ratio.

Now, the first time I did it, I didn’t realize we were only talking one day. I was looking at life in general. And I ended up with a 1:1 ratio, where just as many good feelings were there as bad feelings. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? It didn’t feel accurate to me, though; I honestly feel that my life is pretty good right now, bordering on awesome.

Then I caught the fact that it was supposed to be for the last 24 hours. Aha! That made all the difference. I went back, re-did the whole questionnaire…and did twice as well! That is to say, I ended up with a ratio of 2:1, with twice as many positive feelings as negative.

The problem is, life apparently grades on a curve when it comes to happiness. According to Dr. Erickson’s research, I shouldn’t feel bad about my score, but:

…research indicates that a positivity ratio of 3 to 1 is a tipping point. This ratio divides those who merely get by in life from those who truly flourish. If you scored below 3-to-1, you’ve got plenty of company! With more than 80% of U.S. adults falling short of Positivity’s 3-to-1 prescription, there’s immense room for improvement in the ways many of us live.

Three-to-one. Looks like there’s a lot of room for improvement. Not so surprisingly, Dr. Erickson has a book in which she offers tools and strategies for improving your ratio. I’ve read her previous work, Love 2.0, and she’s got some good ideas. But you don’t necessarily need to read it to start improving things now.

Fortune Favors the Observant Mind

If you’ve never seen the lovely movie Stranger Than Fiction, you now have a solid recommendation for your holiday viewing. In one part the protagonist is trying to figure out whether he has a chance with his love interest, and being an accountant, he starts counting. He has a little book where he puts in “good” and “bad” checkmarks based on his interactions with her.

I won’t spoil the movie by telling you what happens, but as a methodology it’s a remarkably effective way to record your good and bad moments. If you want to get a bit more technological, there are even apps like Happier or Expereal (iPhone) or T2 Mood Tracker or iMood Journal (Android) that give you nifty interfaces. There’s nothing wrong with simply using a good old paper notebook (remember those Field Notes?) to keep track.

See, here’s the thing – while I can rely on the memory of the day to try and figure things out, data is much more reliable, and often much more surprising. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in these years of writing and researching and life hacking, it’s that there are an awful lot of things that we simply take for granted. When you shine the light of data on them, you often find out that the way you thought things were – such as quality of life – is not remotely the way things are.

If you want to change something – say, be happier – first you have to measure it. Personally I’m going with Expereal, because it’s a pretty interface. I’m going to give it a week, and next week I’ll publish the results here. Here’s the neat part: since the goal is to have more positive than negative, simply the act of observing is likely to change my life for the better.

You can also send some positivity
in the form of supporting LLP
as a patron!


the pros and cons of an annual review

Never Mind “Good & Evil” -

Check out the Garden of Reflecting at Anderson Gardens in Rockford, IL:

The Garden of Reflection Pond at Anderson Gardens in Rockford, IL

aka: The Garden of Agonizing Introspection, Guilt, & Regret

A friend of mine gave it that latter name when we both visited it along with a group of friends. She and I had both had a rough year, and as we walked through the gardens it was less with a joyful appreciation of the beauty around us and more with the grim attitude of survivors waiting to see what dirty trick life was next going to play on us.

I remember standing, looking at the water, feeling completely weighted down with the many mistakes, betrayals, and misfortunes that had befallen the past year. Frankly, the longer I looked at the still waters and the beautiful green, the more depressed I got. That was probably when I stopped doing the whole “annual review” idea, and actually gave up on goals altogether. I’ve written a bit about the process of coming up with plans and goals before. This is certainly the time of year when such things come to mind – with more apps around than ever to “help you reach that goal” or keep your New Year’s Resolution (only 23% of people actually keep them anyway) or, perhaps more realistically, just try not to mess up next year as much as we did this year.

Can an annual review help with that?

Yes! Of Course It Can!

Chris Guillebeau certainly thinks so. He’s not only written about the process, he also has a spiffy spreadsheet free for downloading and goes through the remarkable and personal process of publishing his own. He is brutally honest – talking frankly about the places where he felt as if he let himself or others down, and also taking credit for the things he accomplished and the efforts he made. If you, like me, feel a sense of “oh, god, why would I want to relive that again,” he has some words of encouragement:

…when I started the process of writing everything down, I was worried. The heaviness and negative feelings I’m about to describe have been weighing on me so much lately that I had almost convinced myself that the whole year was a bust. But no! Once I started reviewing my calendar and writing down these highlights, I was amazed to see so many good things crop up that I had totally forgotten about.

It reminded me of one of the core lessons of the Annual Review: we tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in a single day, but underestimate what we can accomplish in a full year.

And of course, the benefit of the past is that you can’t change it. That means there’s absolutely no obligation for you to do anything once you’ve done your review. It won’t change a thing. Sure, you can maybe decide how your present and future will be, and take some actions there…but things in the past? Don’t stress it! There’s literally nothing you can do about it. Being more aware of what you’ve done also makes it easier for you to focus on your new goals as well.

There’s only one problem with the idea that the annual review will help you better achieve your goals:

Successful People Don’t Set Goals

Yep. That’s right, I said it. But it’s also backed up by research. First of all, there’s the work of psychologist Saras Sarasvarthy who interviewed many successful entrepreneurs, trying to find out if razor-focus on goals was their modus operandi. Cited in The Antidote by Oliver Burkemann, “the outlook of Sarasvathy’s interviewees”:

…rarely bore this out. Their precise endpoint was often mysterious to them, and their means of proceeding reflected this. Overwhelmingly, they scoffed at the goals-first doctrine of Locke and Latham [goals theorists]. Almost none of them suggested creating a detailed business plan or doing comprehensive market research to hone the details of the product they were aiming to release…The most valuable skill of a successful entrepreneur …[is] the ability to adopt an unconventional approach to learning: an improvisational flexibility not merely about which route to take towards some predetermined objective, but also a willingness to change the destination itself.

This is a flexibility that might be squelched by rigid focus on any one goal.

Not only that, but further research shows that focusing on a goal can actual suck the joy out of activities you usually like! If you’re focused on losing those extra pounds, you stop enjoying the actual bike ride. Not to mention that, if you’re like me, you already have too many projects on your plate – a “goal-setting” session is just another opportunity to think of more things you ought to be doing, and then feel bad because rather than do them you’d prefer watching Netflix.

I hear you, I hear you. Believe me, I feel your pain. But I’m going to do the review anyway, and I’ll tell you why:

Not for the Goals

No, in fact, I’m going to deliberately keep myself from setting them. I’m also not going to focus on what goals I had at the beginning of last year compared to where I am now.

Instead, I’m going to do the review with an eye towards on quality: what nurtured my soul? What activities, places, people added to my quality of life? When was I feeling in flow, and when was I scrambling? I believe that a review of the year can help figure out how to bring more of the joy and pleasure of living, rather than just being alive. That’s the purpose of my review.

What about you? Are you a goal setter? Nothing wrong with that – what tools do you use? How about the whole retrospective idea – horrifying? Exciting? Satisfying? Let us know in the comments!

One way you can start the year right
is by supporting this blog!
Become a Love Life Practice Patron today!

Listen to the Elephant | 5 Things Not To Do When Life Sucks | Enjoying “Rosy Prospection”

This Love.Life.Practice Weekend Roundup podcast contains readings of the following posts:

Hope the holidays are treating you all well – many of the posts this month will address some of the ways this time of year can be difficult, and strategies for getting through it gracefully. Got a particular question or story you’d like to share? Send feedback, questions, or your own guest posts to

It would make MY holiday extra cool if you would post a review of this podcast either on iTunes or your favorite podcast aggregator!

Like what you find here on Love Life Practice? Consider becoming a Patron of LLP for as little as $1/month to help the work continue!

Yes! I support LoveLifePractice!

New Episode of the Love Life Practice Weekend Roundup Podcast!

enjoying “rosy prospection”

A Season of Giving

“…in what’s known as “rosy prospection” anticipation of happiness is sometimes greater than the happiness actually experienced.” – Gretchen Rubin
What do you want for Christmas? Or Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, or your birthday? How about that moment after the clock turns over the New Year – how do you picture it?
Field Notes Notebooks Ambition Edition

Mmmm…tastes like fall creativity!

Many people build up extreme ideas of events or things that they are sure will make them happy. My most recent “rosy prospection” was the “Ambition” edition of the Field Notes. What did it represent to me? Class. Simplicity (pen and paper, dude, that’s where it’s at!). There’s a feeling of potential and joyful creativity that comes with the thought of such a notebook for someone like me.

But when I got the notebooks, did everything fall into place? Did I suddenly take the datebook and plan out my conquering 2015 year of Making It Big? Was the ledger suddenly my key to financial success?
And that could have been a big disappointment, except that I have a realistic view of Ms. Rubin’s “rosy prospection” concept.

A Rich Experience

Namely, I count the time I spend on the Field Notes website as part of the experience. Their quirky videos, their down-to-earth labeling, even the fun little one-inch button that came with the notebooks are all part of the experience. There’s the question: what will I put in the ledger? Should I use a pencil? Ooh! Maybe a red pencil!

If all of this sounds weird to you, that’s fine. I know at least a few people who are right there with me going “Oooh! Yeah!

The point is simple: as Spock once said, the having of a thing is often not as enjoyable as the wanting of a thing. But you don’t have to choose! You can, in fact, enjoy both, and make them complement each other. You can enjoy the smell of the roast beef as well as the taste, you can enjoy the cover of the book as well as the prose, you can enjoy the…well, you can’t usually enjoy cover art on albums much any more. So that metaphor falls a little flat.

But you can enjoy the anticipation of both the gifts you might receive and certainly the anticipation of gifts you have given. Not the reaction – if you try to predict what the recipient of your gift is going to do, that’s a recipe for disappointment. No, I’m talking about relishing the feeling of giving in general.

Let me know how it goes…



5 Things Not To Do When Life Sucks (& 1 Thing To)

Happy Holidaze!

…or not. For many people, your erstwhile author included, the combination of winter cold and the societal expectations of the holiday season can be pretty depressing, or stressful, or both. “BE MERRY!” come the messages of the media and the world, combining with the usual endless litany of manufactured crises to support the 24-hour news cycle. Of course, this season in particular it’s not really necessary to manufacture crises, but the hearty ring of “Goodwill towards men…” might sound a bit hollow this time around amid hashtags of #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter.

Or maybe not. If you’re reveling in the holiday season with nary a care in the world, by all means, carry on! You don’t need this post. Meanwhile, for the rest of us:

5 Things Not To Do When Life Sucks

  1. Binge on Reward Systems. I’m looking at you, SUGAR! Don’t reach for that donut, or open up all the advent days at once with the excuse I was just planning ahead! Yes, it will make you feel better for a while – that’s how sugar and glycemic index works. However, you’ll feel worse afterwards. Social media works the same way, as does just about any intermittent reward system that relies on jolts of dopamine to keep your attention. Instead, eat something healthy. No, it won’t help your mood. But it’ll keep you busy, and nourished, and ya gotta eat sometime, right?
  2. Feel guilty for feeling bad. Hey, moods happen. You don’t have to be happy all the time. It’s ok to let yourself feel bad for a while – sometimes that depressed mood is just like a mental band-aid, protecting a raw nerve while it heals, and you’ll be able to take it off when you’re ready. Give yourself permission to heal. It may be that a marathon of Middle Man is exactly the time-out your mood needs.
  3. Isolate yourself. No one wants to be around a Sally Sad-Face. I don’t want to bring people down. Excuses like these are not the healing happening – they are instead projections. Let me be harsh: who gave you control over what someone else wants? Who are you to decide whether or not they want to see you? Now, if you don’t want to see people, that’s another thing – introversion can be honored. But to decide what others want is often a way you deny what you actually do want – and that’s human contact. I recommend a coffee shop, not a mall, or family (blood or chosen, depending on your mood).
  4. Skip Working Out. For most people, serotonin regulation is a big part of mood, and (again, for most) exercise is a good way to pump things up. It doesn’t have to be Big Workout Time – a brisk walk or even some grumpy yoga will help. If you do it to the music of your youth (in my case, the 1980’s) it will almost certainly make you smile in that I can’t believe I used to like this song kind of way.
  5. Ignore the signs of clinical depression. If anything in this post makes you think I’m dismissing clinical depression as a case of “the blues”, please don’t. There are very real physical and psychological signs of the very debilitating condition of “the black dog”, and it’s important to get help if that’s the case. One possible indication: the first four things in this list that you didn’t do didn’t help.

1 Thing To Do When Life Sucks

  1. Something Really Nice for Yourself. A massage. A luxurious 2-hour cuddle nap. An uninterrupted hour with your favorite pen and a pile of blank paper. A ticket to that movie you’ve been wanting to see. A ride in a hot air balloon. Step outside of yourself, look at that person who is in need of cheering up (that’s you) and then think what you could do to make their day better. Not what you could do to cheer them up; not what you can do to make them feel better. What you can do to improve their world. Time will take care of the rest.

listen to the elephant sometimes

Hardest-Working Rider in Blogging

One of the hottest bloggers in the field of personal development, Cal Newport, is also reading The Happiness Hypothesis, and like me the idea of the conscious “rider” trying to coerce the subconscious “elephant” to go where we need to go resonates with him.

His recent post on Why you should never plan to “get some work done” was one that I thought I’d agree with. He related how he unexpectedly got a chunk of unscheduled time and saw it as a chance for some bonus productivity.

At the end of the three hours, though, he discovered that he had filled the time with logistical planning and emails and other busy-work. In other words, he’d been given this opportunity and felt it had been wasted. Up to this point I was right with him; if you’re given a “bonus” period of time, then using it to do the same stuff you’d do any other time is kind of a missed opportunity.

Then he lost me.

It’s the Elephant’s Fault

But it took only one afternoon free from structure to reaffirm what I know to be true. The elephant of your working mind has no interest in bringing you to where you need to go. It will always default to the watering hole of shallow busyness if not reined with confidence.

This idea seems to me to be at odds with one of the major points Haidt made, about the fact that the elephant has been around a lot longer than the rider (evolutionarily speaking). “The rider evolved to serve the elephant“, he writes, and further:

We sometimes fall into the view that we are fighting with our unconscious, our id, or our animal self. But really we are the whole thing. We are the rider, and we are the elephant. Both have their strengths and special skills.

The rider blaming the elephant for busy-work? Really? You really think that the thing your subconscious wants to do when given unrestricted freedom is answer emails? I’m not sure I’m buying that.

The Place for Passion

When I start an open space, I usually open with something like this:

Before we start talking about how today is going to work, I’d like you to start thinking about one thing in the back of your mind. It’s that thing that you really care about. It’s the thing that gets you excited – the thing that brought you here today, that got you out of bed this morning, that set your entire life on the path towards getting what you want. Just let that grow…that thing that makes the lizard brain in the back of your head go “Yeah!”

And then I proceed to create and hold a space where they can explore exactly that thing.

To my mind, what Cal missed in his unscheduled time was a chance to listen to the elephant. He is known to be against the idea of “follow your passion”, so I understand that for his “scheduled time” it’s important to him not to just go with it.

But I also know from his writings that he isn’t anti-passion; he just believes it has a place. I think that place, if nowhere else, should be the unscheduled time. It’s as simple as saying “Huh. I don’t have to do anything for the next little while…what do I want to do?” I know that in today’s busy world we don’t get that too often. Heck, that’s why people pay me to run Open Spaces; for some reason they need a special name and a facilitator to give them permission to follow their passion.

While I’d love to get paid for what I do, it’s sad to me that people need permission. I think that you can make a practice of coupling those unexpected moments of free time with asking the deeper self: What do I really want?

The Cliff

There’s another reason to listen to the elephant. . I don’t ride horses myself, but I’ve heard many stories of riders who thought they were heading in the right direction who were corrected – and often saved – by the instinctive knowledge of their mounts. Perhaps I’m wrong – and if you’re a reader who rides, please chime in and let me know – but I think a rider who ignores the feedback from their vehicle, whether it’s grinding brakes or balking elephants, won’t be riding very well.

Maybe this can be a week of trying to practice listening to the elephant. Of finding out where it wants to go, on the off chance that it’s a direction worth exploring. If you can’t trust your gut entirely, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth listening to occasionally. And I bet it gets better with practice.

The Practice of Requests | 5 Principal Elements to a Great Life | Making and Remaking Love

This Love.Life.Practice Weekend Roundup podcast contains readings of the following posts:

TAn extra special thanks goes out to Amy Law, who provided the guest Practice post for this week. Feel free to send feedback, questions, or your own guest posts to

Any of you can still get a free hardcover copy of The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau if you post a review of this podcast either on iTunes or your favorite podcast aggregator!

Like what you find here on Love Life Practice? Consider becoming a Patron of LLP for as little as $1/month to help the work continue!

Yes! I support LoveLifePractice!

New Episode of the Love Life Practice Weekend Roundup Podcast!

the making and re-making of love

“Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”   ― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

click for full size

While writing the life post for this week I came across this quote from Ursula K. Le Guin, and it stayed in my head. I wasn’t sure why – I just knew that it needed some attention.

It’s the anathema to the fairy tale; the bane of “Happily Ever After.” It’s actually kind of a corollary of this blog’s mission statement: Making hard times happier. There’s no promise that you’ll be completely happy, that things will stay happy – no, the fact is, hard times happen, and my goal in this blog is to provide some practical tools for making them happier.

When it comes to love, this can be an exhausting situation. We spend all that time learning about better ways to communicate, for example, and when the time comes we put them into practice…and suddenly realize that it’s so frakkin’ tiring! We try to embrace more kinds of love into our lives, and forget that along with love comes heartache and fear and risk – until it’s made painfully clear by circumstance – for example, the first time you have to be two places at once because two people you love need you. I’m not talking polyamory here – it could be your boyfriend and your daughter, it could be your two sons, it could be your cat and your grandson.

It’s hard work. Especially if you want to do it well, or with any kind of attention and awareness. It’s like bread – you put in a lot of work to make it, to fill your kneads (so to speak), to let it rise, to carefully add heat and watch it take form…and it’s beautiful and tasty and fills the house with beautiful smells.

What happens to bread if you leave it at that? If you don’t consume it? It gets cold. Hard. Starts to turn funny colors and grow strange things that you can’t really identify but that seem pretty distasteful. Frankly, when it’s not eaten or given attention, bread turns pretty bad.

Only one thing to do, then. Make some more. And there are all kinds of guides to doing that. They urge you on and on to remake your bread, over and over. Movies, books, stories, everything says: you need love in your life.

And I agree, it’s true. But it’s also a trap.

Hard Enough

And here’s the big reveal: this is another blog post about coercion.

That cultural ideal – that love takes work – has been used as a form of emotional blackmail in many different ways. They are all variations of one theme:

You didn’t try hard enough.

There are many variations, of course. “If you really cared…” and “Why can’t you just…” and “All I’m asking is…” are a few examples. There’s also the technique of bringing in other people as imaginary allies: “What do you think [insert relative] will think?” It’s just a variation of “Think of the children…

Then again, it works the other way, as well. “Why do you even bother?” may be asked by friends and loved ones, tired of hearing about troubled times. Websites and apps are heavily advertised to find that “new” special someone, whose grass is so much greener. We certainly live in a culture where most love stories involve leaving one love for another “better” one; very few love stories are about lovers who stick together (The Quiet Man, though, is a classic exception to the rule).

The unpleasant truth is that there is no right answer. I have certainly had relationships that have lasted long past when I should have left them. I have also had relationships where I stayed the course and was richly rewarded in spite of the troubles. You know what was the definitive thing that told me whether or not it was right to keep “remaking love”?

Neither do I. But that doesn’t matter, because the answer is simply this: it’s up to you.

You Be the Judge

You’re the only one who gets to decide what “hard enough” is. Only you. There is no definitive scale of effort, there is no magic book of fate that will tell you what might have happened if you’d left. You are your own choose your own adventure book, and you are the protagonist. That means you get to be the one who decides whether it’s time for a new chapter, for a sequel, or to switch to an entirely new genre.

No one else. Not your friends, your parents, your kids, certainly not the partners who are coercing you either way. “Why do you stay?” should be met with a simple “Because I choose to.” Likewise, “Why can’t you stay?” can be met with a simple “Because I choose not to.” That’s it. They have their own story to write; you may be a major character in their life but you are not the protagonist.

Write your own story. Try as hard as you need to, and no more – the only person you owe is yourself.

The 5 Elements of a Great Life

The Narrative Recipe

Recently I read an excellent article about the author Ursula K. Leguin. She spoke of “five principal elements,” which must “work in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce great writing.

Image of Ursula Leguin courtesy of K. Kimball

Ursula K. Leguin,


  • The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
  • The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
  • The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
  • The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
  • The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.

Since we’ve already talked quite a bit about narrative life and writing your own tale (in fact, I’ve just started a company with the motto “Let’s tell your story.) it seems natural that these five elements might map to a larger picture.

To me, the parallels went something like this:

The Five Principal Elements of a Great Life
  • The patterns of your character: the way your values and beliefs have developed over your life; the conditioned responses that you may or may not be aware of.
  • The patterns of your environment: — Everything from the climate where you live (geologic, political, diverse) to your clothes, your desk, your vehicle, your kitchen, your favorite pen, whatever. These are the raw ingredients that your character has either acquired (or kept) in order to make up the story of your life, with all the sensory characteristics that go along with them.
  • The patterns of your view: the way character and environment combine to shape how you see the world. Do you cope with a starvation mentality or embrace a philosophy of abundance? Is everyone out to get you, are you trapped in a job, if it weren’t for bad luck would you have no luck at all? Or are you a fortunate soul filled with gratitude for the wonder of the world around you?
  • The patterns of the ideas: The kinds of ideas that your environment, your viewpoint, and your character combine to create. For example, “I need the new Xbox!” or “Wow, I could build a website…” or “I wish I had a better job, but I don’t know how to get one.” That last may seem to be a lack of an idea, but actually it’s an idea about a lack of ideas, and it’s definitely a product of the other principal elements. 
  • The patterns of the feelings: What we experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.

In the article, Ms. LeGuin went on to explain:

If any of these processes get scanted badly or left out, in the conception stage, in the writing stage, or in the revising stage, the result will be a weak or failed story.

Trickle-Up Economics

One of the reasons this concept appeals to me is because it validates attention and awareness in all levels, from the arc of a life down to the choice of shoelaces, because it’s all part of the “Great Life.” When I’m surfing the IKEA website looking at desks, it’s not a waste of time – it’s my character wanting to shape the environment, because at a base level I know that it will trickle upward to my views, inspire new ideas, and that will make me feel good. It explains why there was one thing my ex-father-in-law said that has always turned out to be true: Buy quality and you never regret it.

None of it is trivial; instead, it is essential that all these parts be there working in harmony with each other with the goal of feeling- what? Ah, now there’s the question! What do you want to feel? Happy. Successful. Loved. Valued. Beautiful. Strong. There’s all kinds of answers to that. The real question should probably be: How well are the principal elements in your life helping you feel that way?

And the follow up is, of course: What are you gonna do about that?

Another reason the idea of writing as an analogy to life appeals to me is because it helps us understand some of life’s unfairness and variability.  There are extremely well-educated writers who produce dreadfully dull work as well as authors who break all the rules yet produce masterpieces (Ulysses, anyone?). You can have someone who is celebrated as a fantastic writer with every award possible – but you, particularly, don’t like their work. Likewise, you can look at someone who everyone idolizes as being the epitome of a Great Life yet it doesn’t appeal to you.

That’s ok. The world is large enough to contain both Madhuri Blaylock and Irvine Welsh and even produce an Emily Dickinson every once in a while.

The Valuable Experience of Failing

In the article, LeGuin also adds:

Failure often allows us to analyze what success triumphantly hides from us.

…which is a long-known but oft-overlooked fact when we’re looking at Great Lives. The greatest are pretty much always built on failures, often tragic failures. Often it’s because someone is trying something unusual, something different, and it fails. What is different about the Great Lives is that failure is not the stopping point. It’s not “Oh, well, that’s that.” Instead it’s “Huh. That didn’t work so well. Why? Did any part of it work? Did it teach me anything about what might work better?

One of the people often used as an example of a Great Life is Steve Jobs. Co-founder of the most successful company in the world, a man who changed our language and our environment throughout the 1st World. But, as an article in the Huffington Post reminds us:

Image courtesy Toby Thain

Remember this? Yeah, hardly anyone else does either…

Jobs developed the first computer with a graphical user interface, the Lisa, named after his daughter. It was way too costly and bombed. By that time former PepsiCo CEO John Sculley was in charge at Apple, and he fired Jobs because of the Lisa debacle…Having failed on a huge scale — the Lisa cost tens of millions of dollars to develop — he was now unemployed.

In order to prove he was still relevant in the computer world, Jobs started a new computer company, NeXT. Again, he failed. The NeXT computer barely sold. And worse, while he was gone, Apple had success with the Macintosh, which became the first successful computer with a graphical user interface.

Now, of course, we know how the story ends, at least in terms of Apple. But put yourself in his shoes back then – say, on a day when he sees the lousy sales reports for NeXT at the same time as an article about the wild success of the Mac? The times are no less dark. But you can be sure that he took what did work with NeXT (and having used them in college, I can tell you, they were pretty neat) and turned it into even more success.

One More Thing…

All of them are affected by one other element that is the same for all of us: Time. It’s moving in the same direction and at the same pace for everybody.It’s like the water that’s added to the seeds that are our principal elements. Put it all together, something will grow. Spend some time looking at the principal elements of your life, and remember that what Greatness grows is up to you.


Post Navigation