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Personal Development with Gray Miller

Archive for the tag “Life”

creating a bit of nowhere to know where you are

Know-Where Man

Location is a funny thing these days. Many of our devices are location-aware, so I can tell my phone “Remind me to take in the car seat when I get home” and it will actually wait until I’m near my apartment to let me know! My volunteer login code for the VA Hospital is stored in my Evernote application, and much to my surprise it popped up before I even knew I needed it just because it knew The last time Gray looked at this note, he was in this location; he’s there again, so he probably wants to see it again! It’s pretty awesome and a little creepy at the same time.

At the same time, as someone who travels a lot, I have to create my own little “homes” in order to keep my focus and sanity while on the road. There are specific pictures of my family that play on my phone like a digital photo frame. There is particular music that keeps me centered, and my iPad and Netflix provide me with familiar escapes no matter how unfamiliar my surroundings. A good friend of mine who travels even more gave me the power-travel tip of incorporating scent into the mix, though I’ve still not quite managed it.

Is home where the hearth is? Is it where you’re born? Where you grew up? Is it where your family lives, or where you carve out your own space?

These are all questions posed by Pico Iyer in his TED Talk “Where is Home?“, and I highly recommend you watch it at the end of this post. Among other things, he describes the way “home” has changed for the new generation:

…they have one home associated with their parents, but another associated with their partners, a third connected maybe with the place where they happen to be, a fourth connected with the place they dream of being, and many more besides… Home for them is really a work in progress. It’s like a project on which they’re constantly adding upgrades and improvements and corrections.

Interestingly, Pico suggests in his book The Art of Stillness that one of the best ways to learn more about your home – the place(s) that you spend your life – is to create little trips to Nowhere. He uses examples like Leonard Cohen and Thomas Merton, people who left their bon vivant lifestyles to join monastic lifestyles. Of course, we can’t all do that – but he points out that the busiest of people can carve out a tiny piece of time when their only job is to do nothing.

The Fruits of Your Rest

If you need an example of what can be accomplished by turning your attention inward, perhaps another of his examples, Emily Dickinson, will suffice. A reclusive woman who didn’t reach fame, fortune, or even really love during her life – but from her solitude rose verses that are passionate, deep, and unforgettable.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Longtime readers of this blog will remember my own exploration in creating times of “revery” – the “Simple Time of Peace“. It’s a very privileged and luxurious thing to be able to do, however. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Perhaps it’s more like one of John Cage’s musical pieces, where instead of filling the brain with distracting instruments and beats and harmonies he simply created a space for people to listen to their world.

Pico Iyer learned from Mathieu Ricard, the alleged “happiest man on earth”, that one of the mini-sanctuaries for the monk was airplane flights. It’s a literal interpretation of “rising above the clouds into the sky”, a common metaphor in Buddhism for clearing the mind.

It’s a crazy hard idea. Even while writing this blog post I have headphones on, listening to Celtic music to “help focus”. But really, what am I being distracted by? The life in the world around me? How amusing is it that while writing a post about life I’m trying to hide from it?

Where are your Sabbaths? Where do you find your revery when “bees are few”? I’m starting to look in my life for these little islands of Nowhere, in the hopes they will help me know where I am, as well as where I am going.

Where are you?

the genuine path to success

The Hard Truth

This is not going to be one of those comforting, let’s-all-be-happy posts. Fair warning. If you’re already having a rough day, this is not the post to read. Probably a better idea to have a cup of sage-peppermint-barley tea, steeped for three hours on a north-facing window ledge while yellow-throated warblers chirp in the early morning sunshine.

What? You don’t have a north-facing window ledge? Then I’m afraid you’re doomed to depression for today, my friend, because it’s well known that when Gayle Rubin – who literally invented the book on happiness – was feeling depressed on March 22, 2012 after her grocer delivered the wrong kind of bread, she used exactly this technique to cheer her up.

Sage-peppermint-barley tea. That’s the ticket.

Or, you know, not.

Narrative Fallacy

Think of the world around you, laden with trillions of details. Try to describe it and you will find yourself tempted to weave a thread into what you are saying. A novel, a story , a myth, or a tale, all have the same function: they spare us from the complexity of the world and shield us from its randomness. – Nassim Taleb, the Black Swan

There are a lot of versions of the “narrative fallacy” out there, ranging from skeptics to cult followers, but most of us fit somewhere in the middle. Sometimes the narrative fallacy is in the form of some kind of talisman or token – I wear the watch I wear because it was a gift from my partner and because it makes me feel stylish. Of course, I still love my partner even without the watch, and it’s honestly not actually that stylish as watches go – it’s just quite shiny. What I’m really doing is a combination of narrative fallacy plus placebo effect to make my life better.

Frankly, I hope you can think of something in your life – maybe on your person, near you at this moment – that does the same thing. These are ways our brains have managed to evolve and cope with the hard, hard reality of an uncaring universe – “shield us from its randomness, as Taleb wrote.

The problem is that it can be taken too far.

It's better to be genuine you than a real something else.

No matter how long you wait, the Blue Fairy ain’t coming.

You Are Not Pinocchio

Remember the hearty little puppet who wanted nothing more than to be a “real boy”? Possibly the most horrific part of the fairy tale is the moment when the Blue Fairy dips her wand down and actually changes him into flesh-and-blood. There is some idea that he has proven his worth, that his bravery, learned honesty, and loyalty entitles him to “real” existence.

Nothing wrong with boys. Nor with bravery, learned honesty, or loyalty. There is, however, a problem with the idea that the two are connected. Why is an animated puppet that is brave, honest, and loyal not also worthy of respect, existence, acknowledgement?

But he wanted to be a real boy, Gray.

Yes, and did you ever think of why that was? Was it because he would be able to play more, or because he wanted to grow into a man? No, he wanted to be a real boy because then he thought his father would love him. All due respect to Gepetto, but if he loved his creation he needed to work on communicating unconditional love, because Pinocchio sure wasn’t feeling it.

This applies to our personal stories as well. If I have a better job, If I get that degree, When I fit back in those jeans, When I get that new iPhone, that’s when we’ll finally have arrived. It’s that land of milk and honey that’s just around the bend that keeps us going, striving, persevering. All of those are good things – this is a whole blog about personal development, after all – but there’s a problem with not realizing that who we are has worth too.

Everybody’s Faking It

It would be nice if Twyla Tharp’s creative habits were a magic bullet to choreographic fame. Or if following Ben Franklin’s schedule turned me into a noble statesman and philosopher. But there’s a problem with these kinds of shortcuts: they don’t work. Sure, they were part of what these people did or experienced on their road to their successes. But it’s important to remember two things:

  1. They likely didn’t realize when they did it that it would get them where they ended up.
  2. Even if they did, it’s likely that luck played more of a role in their success than any other factor.

Most of all, it’s important to remember that imitating them will not replicate their results. I recall a piano teacher who stressed how much practicing Mozart had done as a child whenever I would complain about practicing. Obviously, since I didn’t play as much, that’s why I’m not a world famous musician, yes? On the other hand, it also might be because I didn’t drink enough or frequent enough bordellos in my twenties. Or perhaps I didn’t put enough arsenic in my wig, or make enough friends among royalty…

Honestly, I think the truth is simply this: I’m not Mozart.It’s fine to be inspired by your heroes, to try things out to see how they work, but in the end you have to carve your own path to your own destiny. It may be similar to others, but you have to make it yours.

Sorry to burst the bubble of the Road to Success. It’s more a tangled path, I’m afraid. And there’s no guarantee that you or anyone else will make it further than you are already. Then again…if you’re reading this, odds are your life is filled with more opportunities and resources than most people in the world. Might I make a suggestion?

Don’t try to be real. You’re already there. So concentrate on being genuine, instead. Odds are that’s the real reason your hero succeeded – because they didn’t try to be anyone else.

It’s hard, sure. But it’s also fun.

dance and play and work

Starman Dances with the Universe

A while back when we were talking about mantras, I mentioned this as one of my own that has stood the test of time. It’s helpful in times of chaos to find the things like this that can remind you that it’s possible to turn that stumble into a syncopated pas-de-chat and that if you roll with the falls momentum pushes you right up again.

Recently one of my readers, a friend and patron, forwarded me a wondrous and amazing thing: an excerpt from the Nerdist Podcast interview with Jeff Bridges. Now, while I do like Mr. Bridges, I confess that I’m more of a “Starman” or “TRON” fan, or even his reprisal of Rooster Cogburn (which may be blasphemous to my father; sorry, Dad).

But unlike many men my age, I never really saw the appeal of “The Big Lebowski”. That character has been given near messiah-like status by so many, and I confess I never really saw the point – perhaps I simply didn’t do enough mind-altering substances to get it.

Regardless, my friend insisted that I should listen to the section towards the end of the podcast, where Mr. Bridges talks about how he handles the frustration of having the vision of a movie (in this case, the Giver) not being what he originally envisioned:

“I came to a real interesting crossroads with that movie, because once I realized it was going to be made…I realized it was not going to be my vision, and I was very attached, you know? I had a decision to make, kind of like a marital decision: should I engage or not? Because I knew they were going to do things that were very different than how I imagined it.

I gave myself a little test, which I often do in these times, where I project myself into the future and ask myself ‘How am I going to feel if I let this go? How am I going to feel if I engage?’ I realized I would really feel shitty if I let it go, so I decided to do it. The context of the decision was just as an experiment. That’s usually the thing that makes my shift – just say ‘do a little experiment with yourself’. This is a chance for you to dance with the universe…Play! Play, you know, dance!”

Work as Play

We don’t do enough of that in our lives: play. That’s actually not opinion; it’s verifiable fact. According to “All Work and No Pay: The Impact of Forfeited Time Off,” a study by Oxford Economics:

American workers turned their backs on a total of 169 million days of paid time off, in effect “providing free labor for their employers, at an average of $504 per employee,” – CNN

That works out to $52.4 billion dollars, but that’s not really the big deal. That money is still around, somewhere, most likely in the boss’ pocket. Hey, at least it still has value. They could conceivably get that money back.

It’s the time that is the real crime there. The time that they earned, that they had a right to, when they could spend it with loved ones, or doing what fulfilled them, or…doing nothing. Playing.

Try this: you suddenly find out you have tomorrow off from work, and there’s absolutely nothing else around the house that needs doing. You’ve got the whole day to just play. What are you going to do?

If you have to think about it very long, you probably aren’t playing enough. If you can’t think of what you’d do with a free day, you definitely aren’t playing enough. Here’s the thing: every day is like that. As Jay Easton said in the interview I did with him, every day you make the choice – and if you are choosing not to play, I hope you are choosing something that is equally fulfilling. I think, personally, it’s better to choose work that is play, and since I’m overdue for the latter, I’ll simply leave you with words that have inspired me for years:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

– Robert Frost, Two Tramps in Mud Time



the key to finding meaningful work

"Berry Hard Work" by J.D. Hancock

“Berry Hard Work” by J.D. Hancock

The Stupid Gender

Work operates like an eraser on chance or luck. – Emi Kolawole

Fortune favors the prepared mind.” “Make your own luck.” “Never tell me the odds.” Ok, the last one is more Han Solo than personal development, but there’s a strong thread of advice that comes down through the ages telling us that while we may be subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we can often influence probabilities. I can’t control whether a hurricane hits the coast – but I can choose to live in the midwest, where we don’t have them.

Ms. Kolawole’s blog post from the Pop Tech: Rebellion conference in Camden, Maine takes this idea to an almost militant level – and that’s a good thing. She was inspired by the presentation of another powerful speaker, Regina Dugan, who delivered what Ms. Koloawole called “the girl-power message we need.” As a father of four girls, I was interested to see what it was. Turns out it was simply this: work. As she put it:

Work has no race, no gender — no boundaries. It is just a raw material we all have to give. There is love in work, and vice versa — there is dignity, strength and, yes, even salvation. There is power.

It’s no illusion that it’s harder for women to work in our culture. Whether it’s glass ceilings or wage discrepancies or rape culture in the workplace, the problems are prolific and almost insurmountable. It’s kind of a shame that the majority of the work being done to fix these problems is being done by women when it’s a problem that was created in a great part by men. You’d think more men would own up to the problem and actually try to fix it. Instead…we have things like #gamergate (note: if you have no idea what gamergate is, count yourself lucky and simply take my word for it that it is almost-but-not-quite masculinity’s most shameful manifestation of modern times).

Or we have moments like the Open Space I facilitated this last weekend in Seattle. One of the sessions proposed was “Where are all the female leaders?” I was not part of the discussion – my job was facilitation – but I did see the dozen or so people there in the session having a passionate conversation that lasted for hours. At the end of the day during the closing circle one of the participants said “It was amazing to be in that session – because there were men there, and they were feminists. It was so refreshing!” I’m happy, of course, that it was a good session – but how sad is it that the mere presence of a couple of men who believe in equality would be refreshing from the rest of life? Even in a city as supposedly liberal as Seattle?

How much luck, my fellow men, are we managing to keep our world from by refusing to create an environment where more than half of the population can flourish and do meaningful work?

It’s a good question, but it’s not the point I wanted to make with this post.

The Fortune Filter

Part of the selfishness of men in regards to work comes, I believe, from an insecurity. It’s unfortunate that the etymology of the word “feminism” leads so many to believe that it’s only women who benefit from it – in the same way I have trouble writing about the “patriarchy” since I ampater familias. Here’s a brief clarification, for those who may not be aware:

Patriarchy screws everybody over, men and women, just in different ways.
Feminism is about fixing that. For everybody.
If you don’t know those two things, you have some catching up to do.

One of the biggest ways men have been warped by the patriarchal system is through the idea of work. Success, success, success! You must be rich and powerful and the provider and if you aren’t – if, say, you want to stay home with your daughter and take care of her while your wife pays the rent – there is immense social pressure to look on yourself as a failure. Just look at the hit movies Mr. Mom or Three Men and a Baby or any “family” sitcom, where the jokes are based on the premise of men being incompetent when it came to raising kids or maintaining a household.

When I was a single Dad, the most useful magazine I read in terms of keeping up the home was “Working Mother.” It had great activity ideas, helpful articles on budget meals, on organizing closets and cupboards and more. It was great – except for the ads. Over an over they would reinforce this idea that the male is not suitable for housework – or, at most, was a nuisance to be covered up. I’m lucky – I have a father and grandfather who both were the epitome of masculinity and also cared for children and helped around the house.

But what do you do when you want to find work that will be fulfilling enough to get past that social stigma? What if you want to stay at home with your daughter while your partner works their job, or you want to stay at home and run your own business instead of working for “the man”?

I believe that the prolific Maria Popova inadvertently revealed the secret in her recent interview with Tim Ferriss. In it, she explained how she chooses the works that she curates on her blog:

“Does this illuminate the Grand Question that faces all of us: how to live well?” (emphasis added)

What if that were the criteria for all of our work? What if that was how we chose to decide what job to take, what clients to accept, what books and movies and music and more we chose to fill our lives?

I don’t know that it would work. I’m sure there would be many false starts. But I suspect that, when you came to the end of your days, you would not wish you had lived those choices differently. I believe that as philosophies go, you could do much worse.

Because we surely could all do much better.


Failure is Valuable Experience

Tangled Up & You

Figuring out your direction can be trickyMy partner made a joke about me recently, pointing out how some of the ways you write the letter “G” could look like a circular arrow. We decided if I was an old-school rancher, my brand would have been “The Confused Arrow” and I’d never lose any cattle because they’d always circle back eventually…

This is why I was pretty pleased when Banksy (the amazing street artist) recently tweeted this little gem:

Confused Arrow? Or the scenic route?

Confused Arrow? Or the scenic route?

It’s a useful reminder, especially during those times that inevitably come where we aren’t really sure what to do next, or if what we’re doing is going to get us where we need to go. The Narrative Fallacy is this idea that one thing inevitably leads to another in any story of success – but the reality is far different. It’s not the only thing that could have happened – it’s just what happened.

And almost every entrepreneur, hero, successful artist or parent will most likely admit that there were times when they really had no idea what was going on, they were just doing the best they could. One of the ways to make it easier on ourselves when we’re dealing with that kind of thing is to reframe it away from being “lost” (or even, as Davy Crockett put it, “A mite bewildered…”) and rather look at it as valuable information.

I either win, or I learn. I never lose.

It’s a well-known basis of the new economy that “whoever fails fastest succeeds first.” Not counterintuitive if you remember that every failure is accompanied by picking themselves up and trying again. Nor is it a new idea; Winston Churchill famously said:

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.

After a few months where I was feeling like I was on the squiggled path, today the direction of my next steps in professional development came clear to me. It’s possibly not accidental that they coincided with my finishing the first edit of The Defining Moment book. While things are beautifully clear now (a path laid with an amazing number of to-do’s) the most gratifying part is knowing that all the weeks when I just put my head down and did the next thing have paid off, and I’m in a position now to do far more than I ever knew possible back there in the tangle.

If you’re in the tangle yourself, don’t worry. There’s more out there. And if you aren’t…spare a moment of mercy and empathy for those who are. All who are lost, after all, do not wander.


a life of dignity

A Dignified About-Face

When I was a kid, we had a cat named Dignity. We named him that, Mom said, “…because he had none.” That was certainly the case as a kitten, but as he grew older, like all cats, he managed to develop a certain feline dignity. Even when falling off a perch, he was a master of “I meant to do that…”

dignity-always-dignityThe other association I have with the word is from one of my favorite movies, Singin’ in the Rain:

Well, Dora, l’ve had one motto which l’ve always lived by: ”Dignity. Always, dignity!” – Don Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly)

But what, really, does that mean? What is dignity? And don’t go all on me; you use the word, you must have some idea of what it means to you. So think about it for a moment: is dignity important to you? Do you have it? How do you know? What does it look like?

While I’m hoping to see your thoughts in the comments, right now I’ll tell you what I think: I think that dignity is something that you can only really feel for yourself. That is, I might look at a person and think they are dignified, but they feel ridiculous. At the same time, I might feel completely dignified myself and have other people thinking I’m ridiculous. In fact, I’m certain that latter phenomenon has occurred more than once.

So it’s a feeling – but a feeling of what, exactly? “It feels undignified…” is a common phrase – but what exactly does that mean?

When Purpose Unites with Principle

Working without dignity is to divorce our values from how we spend the majority of our waking hours. – Sam Spurlin, 99U

The Workologist (quoted above) lays out a pretty convincing argument that the essence of dignity is a combination of curiosity, craftsmanship, and humility. While I enjoyed his article (and site) immensely, I’m not sure that I think it needs to be that complicated. I believe dignity is acquired through one simple thing: uniting your principles and your actions together. Sometimes that’s unpleasant, such as when I deactivated my Facebook profile today.

Why did I deactivate it? Aside from the myriad privacy and identity issues that continue to plague the site, quite simply I have problems with an environment that bans images of nipples but finds videos of burning kittens alive acceptable. Or, to put it another way: the naked human body is verboten, but harming innocent life is ok. If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s fine; I’m not doing it to set an example, I’m doing it simply because my purpose on the internet – to communicate, to interact online – needs to align with my principles. Facebook doesn’t. Thankfully it’s not the only game in town.

Why am I sad? Have you ever tried to deactivate your account? They really do an amazing job of guilt-tripping you. They show your top friends (and family) and talk about how much they’ll miss you. They warn of all the email notifications and invites and birthdays you’ll miss. They let you go, finally, but they’re right: I will miss the easy access to seeing my daughters, my grandsons, my parents and cousins (especially you, Nate).

But at the same time: If my family and friends all hung out at a restaurant that was playing videos of kittens burning alive while kicking out nursing mothers, I would not frequent that restaurant. Even if I could look away and not see it, the mere fact of knowing it would be enough.

That, to me, is what dignity is. It’s a cold comfort, but it’s the knowledge, as Sam Spurlin would put it, that the place where we spend our waking hours is not divorced from our values. Rather, we create lives that reflect, reinforce, and improve our values and our relationships with each other.

Sorry, Facebook. It’s been fun, but until you grow up, I’m afraid I’m going to have to do without.

She is clothed in strength and dignity and she laughs without fear of the future.

Proverbs 31:25

don’t just survive; flourish!

With Flourish & Panache…

Flourishing means getting on with the things that are important for you to do, exercising your capacities, actively trying to ‘realize’ what you care about and bring it into life…
– John Armstrong, How to Worry Less About Money

There’s a big reason my new book – the first Love Life Practice book – is all about figuring out what you want out of life. It’s based on a class that was born out of necessity.

Nearly a decade ago, as I began to travel around North America and Europe teaching, over and over I found that people wanted less of the technical skills of movement and performance and more of the psychological skills. They were interested more in conversations about motivation, presence, character development, collaborative creation. Over and over the questions kept boiling down to the same question that people asked themselves and others: Why am I doing this?

The unfortunate response they were discovering, over and over, was “…because I thought I was supposed to.” That’s not a terribly satisfying motivation. The process of the Defining Moment, while coming out of a performance framework, moved beyond scenes and plays and into people’s lives, trying to change “…supposed to…” into “…had to because it was right for me!
Nourish and Flourish courtesy ScribbleTaylor via Flickr CC
Now that’s a motivation! That’s something you don’t have to get behind, because it’s already behind you, pushing you towards your destiny.

Yes, that’s right. I used the D word, because it is what proceeds inexorably from the other things we talk about here:

Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habit.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
– Lao Tse

Every once in a while it’s worth it to take a look at your life and ask: Am I flourishing? Or am I merely surviving? There are certainly times when just doing the latter is quite an achievement – but it’s also an opportunity. If all you’re managing is survival, then you have the chance to really look at what you might add to your life that would take it a step closer to flourishing.

It could be something big, like a different living arrangement, a new job. It might be the cultivation of a habit, like journaling or eating more fresh fruit. It might be as simple as trying to find things to be thankful for each and every day.

Really, it could be anything. But it almost certainly is something. If you don’t start figuring it out today, that’s one more day of flourishing that you’ve denied yourself.

Quick: ask yourself “What flourish can I add to my day?

See? That’s not so hard!

“Flourishing captures what we actually aspire to: the best use of our capacities and abilities; involvement in things we take to be worthwhile; the formation and expression of one’s best self.” – John Armstrong

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enjoy the mystery

“Spoilers!” – Riversong

  • Rosebud is his sled.
  • Bruce Willis is a ghost.
  • The Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks.

For those who haven’t seen the movies that the first two spoilers refer to, I apologize. If you don’t know the third, you’ve only yourself to blame. One of the biggest reasons we love stories is because to some extent we want to be surprised. I read somewhere that the formula for a good book was to give the reader 75% of what they expect and 25% of what they never saw coming.

Do you read the last page of a mystery whodunit? Do you fast forward to the end of some Joss Whedon series to see which character he decides to kill off? Do you just want to hear the score before you get a chance to watch the game you recorded? Or are you the person who posts “No spoilers! on their status update the day after the latest Sons of Anarchy episode?

I suspect most people don’t want to know the ending of the stories they enjoy beforehand. There are certainly joys to revisiting tales even after you know the ending – how many times have you read your favorite book, watched your favorite movie? But when you find someone who hasn’t experienced it, don’t you feel a twinge of envy? They get to see what happens for the first time, and that can be such a joy.

The Narrative Life

“What suprise? ‘Vader’ means ‘father’ in German. His name is literally ‘Darth Father’” – Pitch Perfect

This being the case, why do we stress so much about not knowing what happens next in our own lives? Do we really want to know? Sure, we can have plans, just like we plan on reading a thriller or a mystery or a self-help book. We can root for the protagonist and hope that the villain gets their due. But why on earth would we want to know where we’re going to end up?

Not only that, why would we stress about it? Instead, I think there’s a responsibility for the author to make sure that it’s a good book. One of the more frustrating things about some movies are when you get to the “big reveal” and you say to yourself Wait a minute. That doesn’t make any sense. The teller of a tale has a responsibility to lay out the pieces of the story in a way that when you get to the end, you did see it coming – or at least can find it plausible.

The nice thing about reality is that it’s not deterministic. There are many different endings possible from each set of circumstances (watch the movie “Clue” for a brilliant illustration of this fact) and that means that there’s always room for a “twist” ending, for the story to be whatever the director decides.

courtesy BS Wise, flickr CC

Don’t forget: the lens you look through matters, too.

Surprise! The Director is You

Ok, not much of a surprise. You probably saw that coming a mile away. Or maybe it is a surprise, as it is to me, since I started this little commentary with the idea that we are the writers of our own tales.

Upon reflection, though, it’s far more like being a director. You are given a script, and various influences – locations, costume designers, lighting, actors – to make the movie look and feel the way you envision it. The more complex the movie, however, the more rewrites and revisions and edits and new scenes you need…but that’s how masterpieces happen.

Sure, there are directors whose vision goes directly from first draft to screen almost unchanged. Just as there are some people whose lives seem to simply be planned out from birth, with few surprises or twists. But if you listen to the director’s commentaries or read books about the process of making movies, you hear about the changes, the surprises, the serenditous coincidences and world-ending obstacles that had to be overcome.

Not all movies are good. Not all directors are open to the input of others. And some movies just don’t work out due to things like budgets or actors dropping out. You can take the metaphor as far as you like, but what it comes down to is this: you are in the process, right now, of directing the story of your life.

It’s fine to have an idea of the story you want to tell – in fact, that’s probably a good idea. But don’t stress about the ending. It will inevitably reveal itself. Do what you can to make this chapter, this scene, more beautiful and moving, and trust to the process.

Leave the spoilers to the ones who come after.

Speaking of knowing the ending,
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Instant Dilemma; Just Add Text

Every once in a while you get faced with an issue that seems completely unsolvable, until something changes to make it eminently solvable.

Here’s how the timeline went:

4:50 am: Wake up to take partner to her work at the coffee shop; I plan to write and do other work there until 10am, when I have a volunteer shift at the VA Hospital.

5:00 am: Find text that Middle Daughter sent previous night asking for some study time together. We’d tried to find that time yesterday, but scheduled meetings, transportation, etc. hadn’t allowed for it. “I’m totally serious about it this moring,” she wrote. “Let’s make it happen!


That’s a fun word – it means “when two equally urgent but opposing needs express at the same time.” My whole moving back to Madison, WI has been one gigantic lifehack, an experiment in happiness. Since research shows that (statistically) people are happier when they volunteer and when they focus on family and friends, I’ve been doing that. And you know what? It’s working. I’m happier these days than I’ve ever been.

But the volunteer work is just that: volunteer. Nobody forces me to go, I’m not (like many other volunteers) filling in hours for Med School or somesuch. Really, it’s an excuse to wear sexy scrubs and bring smiles to vets who don’t get a lot of positive attention or respect in their day. The staff of the hospital treats them amazingly well, mind you – when I’m being treated there, it’s amazing how many times I get “sir’d” or thanked for my service.

In the rest of their worlds, though, a lot of these men and women are struggling with persistent problems with little help. I can’t solve their problems – in fact, I’m not allowed to even try – but I can be a pleasant and respectful person who pushes their wheelchair down to radiology or brings them a warmed blanket. And at the end of my three-hour shift I do, in fact, feel happier. Since there’s nothing urgent about my time there – at best, I’m a dose of “nice” in their day – I need to prioritize it myself. I need to push it ahead of the write more – make clients happy – do more stuff priorities to make it happen.

But Think of the Children!

On the other hand, my daughter is working her way through the difficult second year of medical school. She and her sisters and my grandsons are the primary reason I came back here, to get to both spend time with them and, when possible, be a help. They already have a great support system here, but I manage to fill in the gaps here and there with rides to appointments or Emergency Grandpa Childcare. I made a promise to myself a while back that I would make them a priority in my day-to-day planning – so I cancel most plans if possible to help them out, and given a choice between “spend time with them” or not, I always opt for “spend time” even if I don’t really feel like it. Time with them is the one thing I can’t make more of, after all, so it’s best to make it happen when I can.

The ultimate goal is to get good enough at this kind of family priority to extend it to my sisters, parents, nephews and nieces. I’m not quite that good yet, but I have seen them more in the past year than in the several before that. Kaizen: getting better, little by little.

Two priorities. Two responsibilities I’ve given myself, and I can’t do both. Sure, kids would normally be much more important than volunteer work – but Middle Daughter is an adult, she doesn’t need me to study with her. But the VA doesn’t need me either. Wouldn’t I be modeling good behavior by keeping my shift? Or would M.D. (heh, just realized, that’s funny) feel that she wasn’t important enough for me to reschedule volunteer work?

This was what went through my head as:

5:15am I settle into my chair, open my journal, and start writing.

barriquesJournalProtocols to the Rescue

My pen hesitated over the page. What was I going to write about? Was it going to be rationalizing my decision either way? Was it going to be “Today I get to spend time with my middle daughter…” or “Today I made a Vietnam Vet guffaw and smile as I shook his hand…“? As I paused, trying to decide, a question popped into my head:

What do you want people to read here?

At that, the dilemma disappeared in a puff of smoke. Because while I don’t know who, if anyone, will read my journals down the line, in my imagination it is someone like my grandson Harvey or Victor, and I know I would want them to read about how I had spent more time with their Tita (that’s Tagalog for “Aunt”). I would want them to know how much their grandfather loved his daughters. In fact, I’d want them to think I loved them far more than I do, because, after all, the real me is imperfect. The journaled me…well, as Heinlein said, autobiographies are often true but rarely honest.

Which is why I get to write this post while my daughter sits next to me, drinking the coffee I bought her and her roommate, studying the Krebs cycle. Is it a perfect morning? No. But it’s a happier one. And all it took was asking myself not What story do you want to write? but What story do you want to have written?

“I didn’t find my story; it found me, as autobiography always does: finds you out in your deepest most private places.”
Kelly Cherry, The Exiled Heart: A Meditative Autobiography

Defining Moment: the Defined Life


“One more thing…” – Steve Jobs

It may be obvious, but it bears saying: unlike the Highlander, when it comes to the Defining Moment there can be more than one. If you’ve tried this process on one of your dreams, close your eyes, take a breath, and ask yourself: What would I really like?

Poof! Another Defining Moment is born, and you can start the whole process over again. It is something that gets easier with practice. You get better at understanding just how many resources you have available to you. You get better at identifying risks and implications. The whole process can move faster, and notebooks filled with the processes are really fun to go back and look over. It’s like a scrapbook for the inside of your brain.

Reverse Engineering

There’s another neat thing about Defining Moments: when you’ve gone to that much trouble to create one, you also acquire more skill at identifying them when they happen. There may be some moment – seeing your child smile as you play with them on the floor, letting a well-turned sentence flow out of your keyboard, that burst of endorphins as you get most of the way through your workout – when you suddenly realize that you feel happy. A little voice inside may take note of that moment and say “*Ah ha!*” and file it away.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could start to shape your life so that moments like that happen more often. What is life, after all, but a series of moments one after the other. I’m not saying it has to be a constant effervescent experience of liminal consciousness, now – remember, this is a blog about how to make hard times happier, not how to be happy – but you can learn how your relaxing and quiet times are Defining Moments as well as the exhilarating experience of meeting a challenge and overcoming it.

Pay attention. Defining Moments are all around you, and there’s only one person who has the responsibility to both find and create them. You know who that is already; the question is when will you get around to doing something about it?

“What. Are you. Prepared. To DO?” – Sean Connery, The Untouchables

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