In bowling, the area of the lane where balls are thrown is called a track. On both sides of the track is the gutter. When kids bowl, parents who eagerly want their kids to have a fun experience, or who want to avoid meltdowns at all costs and have thirty minutes of peace (this is me) can ask for a bumper to be installed to keep the balls out of the gutter and on track.
In our game called “life”, most of us are like kids; we need bumpers to stay on track. For most of us (and sadly our kids too), our corrective bumpers are competition, comparison and metrics. We compete for grades, market share, medals, recognition, varsity teams, jobs, and a spot in a top school. We compare products, features, people, candidates, companies, policies, slogans, parenting styles, schools. We keep track of money, salary, revenue, results, followers, calories, pounds, email subscribers, and GPAs.
In his daily blog, Seth Godin’s recent question “What are you competing on?” made me pause. I’ve always been overachieving, ambitious, competitive, and driven. Not so much because those were qualities I consciously chose for myself, but more so because those were the bumpers that were deployed for me growing up by my mom, or teachers, or within the environment in which I grew up. I’m not judging, but simply stating what is. Competition is so much a part of me that I don’t pause to observe or examine it. It’s a bit like flossing my teeth without looking in the mirror. I can feel my way around with my eyes closed.
When a swimmer competes, her every day goal is to beat the time she set the day before. When a martial artist competes, he pushes to make every kick faster, more controlled, and more precise and impactful than the kick before. But what happens when you take a close look at yourself and realize that what you’ve been competing on sucks the life out of you?
My whole life I’ve competed for significance. Everything I’ve done has been to prove to others and to myself that who I am and what I do matters, that I am lovable, worthy, and important. That what I do has merit, power, impact, endurance, and that it can withstand the test of time. That, no matter what, at some point in the future, that one pebble I throw in the Universal pond, would create a ripple that would somehow withstand the test of time, and would keep on creating ripples. And of course the insanity of it has always been that the more I tried to be significant, the more insignificant I’ve felt. No matter how hard I worked, I would still fail at pleasing someone, whether a customer at work, or my kids or my honey, or inevitably myself.
There are life experiences, fears, or stories I’ve created about those experiences that are at the core of my quest for significance. Fear of being left behind, abandoned, forgotten, voiceless, disconnected, and the fear of the inevitable end itself. The fear of being insignificant pushed me to compete every day towards significance. And when that is at the core of it all, comparison and metrics are the worst corrective bumpers. Because to compare one’s significance is a sure way to end up in a dark rabbit hole with no end, and to measure it, is in itself a prescription to slowly dying. What is significant? Having touched the lives of my children, or other people? How many people; one, two, ten, one thousand? Living a financially rewarding life, volunteering my time, giving of myself and my resources? What quantity, or number soothes the fear of being forgotten when gone?
Shortly before I turned forty, my life hit a wall. My mother died quickly after a six month battle with cancer. I was so afraid of dying, I was afraid to go to sleep. So I didn’t. I would ask my husband to hold me in his lap while I was sleeping, and would ask him to wake me up if he thought I was falling asleep too deeply. “If you think I’m dying, please wake me up”, I’d say.
The work I did to crawl out of the dark hole of anxiety and fear is the subject of another post. It took therapy, prayer, meditation, reading, journaling, support from generous friends, an immensely loving and patient husband and son, and the birth of my daughter. I adopted a personal mantra Let Go, Find Wonder. I gave myself permission to worry less, let go of perfection, and attachment to certain type of outcomes or results. I tried on the idea that, in the long term, I am and will be insignificant but that in each moment – now – I am hugely significant, to myself and to my young children.
I’m not completely transformed. Not yet. I still catch myself comparing something I do, something I write, or draw and questioning whether it matters or if it will ever matter “enough”. But that moment of inspection is brief and powerless.
I’m still extremely competitive. But I’ve changed my game. I now compete on Faith and Self Acceptance. When I compete on Faith, every day I ask what else could I do or who would I be if I had more faith than the day before? What would open if I had more faith in people, moments, intentions, God? And how can I accept myself just a bit more than then day before?
If you also compete on significance and you are ready to find a new game, here are a few suggestions from my journey:
Seth Godin writes, “In any competitive market, be prepared to invest your heart and soul and focus on the thing you compete on. Might as well choose something you can live with, a practice that allows you to thrive.”
I’ve finally chosen something that delights my soul. How about you?
“Each day is a little life” – Schopenhauer
The magic dust of New Year excitement has settled. It now takes longer to see the sparkle in the midst of preparing lunches, attending meetings, and doing life every day. I recently caught myself evaluating how I’m doing by analyzing my output thus far, which inevitably led me to feeling like I’m not doing quite “enough”, and like I’m already falling “behind” (whatever that means). Feeling behind, in one word, feels: Yuck!
Depending on the study you read, it takes 21, 28, or 66 days to build a habit. This is why we have 21 days cleanses, 28 days diet plans, or three months to a 5K programs. Most of us put our best effort forward for those days, and then, admittedly fall off the band wagon again, and again, and again.
Here’s my interesting non-scientific observation both of myself and my students: it only takes one failure to take down our meticulously built tower of confidence, one mean glance to make our delicate self-esteem shatter into million pieces, one limited belief to make our teeter-totter balancing self-worth lean to the side of insignificance.
That’s just c r a z y!
Sure it can take one day to stop a healthy habit, to postpone our dreams, or to make ourselves and others miserable. But by that same token, it takes only one day to get back on the inspiration bus and on the unstoppable action route to dream-your-big-life land. Here’s a list of a few of my favorite things to do when I’m feeling that “not quite enough and totally behind” feeling:
1. Shrug and Flush
I’ve learned to say “oh well” even though I know my seeming indifference to the issue at hand would drive my mother mad (as it makes me too). As I tell the kids: you don’t stand there and look at your poop in the potty, do you? You flush it! Flush the mistakes, the mean words, the sour looks. Flush, flush, flush. (I use the toilet brush too when necessary).
When I was a dancer I was taught to smile in spite of the blisters on my feet inside the pointe shoes, the tight hair bun giving me a headache, the long rehearsals. One of my favorite mantras is: no matter what, smile!
3. Get an inspiration infusion stat
I get my inspiration from walking in nature. I have a special spot where the pelicans come to hang out at the Bayshore. I love watching them organize themselves for long trips, and take flight. I go there to listen to my thoughts and to talk to my inner spirit. I go there to pray and say thank you. Whatever it is that inspires you – music, art, reading, watching movies, exercising, a TED talk – take one hour off and indulge yourself.
4. Do the Work
Sometimes the best cure for the yuck feeling is blocking out time on the calendar with your Chief Executive You, turn off email, phone and any other interruptions and get the work done! In a favorite book of mine, Do the Work, Steven Pressfield says it well: “Resistance is a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.” You hear the man: Do the Work! (Read the book if you need to add another source of inspiration to your infusion above.)
5. Take a Siesta
Sometimes the truth is simple: we just need to take a break. We don’t do it more often because we feel we should be doing something more productive instead. Why would you waste this precious time taking a break? My Qigong teacher, Dr. Roger Jahnke calls this “napping Qigong”. A great many things happen when we rest; our body restores and replenishes. Our mind relaxes and declutters. Our spirit performs jumping jacks and blissful cartwheels.
6. Start with Thank You!
It sounds cliché and yet here it is: be grateful for what you have. Here is the full extent of the quote at the start of this post:
“Each day is a little life; every waking and rising a little birth; every fresh morning a little youth;every going to rest and sleep a little death.”
Knowing that you have one more special gift to have a full life today, what one person, dream, place, thing can you be grateful for and how will you show it?
With love, for the joy you bring to my life, your generosity in reading this blog, your persistence advocating for wellbeing for yourself and your kids.
I thank you!
Last year I taught high school students about stress management, at the request of a concerned teacher who wanted to help reduce the anxiety associated with project deadlines. The teens seemed to appreciate the reprieve, but what I got from my experience was urgency. It’s one thing to read about the health crisis our youth are facing in the news, but it’s eye-opening to see it first hand. Yes, most of them knew about eating, working out, sleeping, all that. Yet, most of them lived on sugar and energy drinks, and they didn’t do any kind of movement at all. Based on what I saw at the quarterly student art exhibit, their spirit – define it any way you want – wasn’t doing so hot either. Many expressed a level of frustration, hopelessness, and anger that shocked and downright depressed me.
Take a quick glance at the SOS: Stressed out Student Project Conference agenda from 2008 and you’ll get a good clue about our teens’ current state of wellbeing from the presenters’ book titles:
A couple days ago I chatted with a young five year old, I’ll call Parker, who has wanted to sign up for classes at Hiruko after observing his sibling for some time.
“Will you be taking classes here soon?”
He shook his head slowly and told me he needs to finish all the school “must-dos” before he can start. He told me the rule is very clear, and it’s especially hard in school.
“I don’t get my free play until I finish my must-dos”.
“How old are you again?” I asked cautiously.
“I just turned five”.
His manner struck me. Parker is generally a responsible little guy who has clearly learned the importance of honoring his parents and teachers, but, in that moment, he didn’t seem to think there was hope of finishing all his must-dos. He seemed trapped. Our conversation left me wondering; what is an authentic way to inspire our children while also holding a vision for their wellbeing. We’ve all had moments when, with the most sincere and noble intentions, we’ve pushed our kids a bit too much, too soon, too hard. We want our kids to be attentive listeners, considerate thinkers, compassionate friends, creative contributors, inspired artists, accomplished athletes, and courageous leaders. We know that children who get these types of results are disciplined and focused. But many are also stressed out.
I urge you to ask yourself: where and when can our kids get that wellbeing is “cool”, and who is generating the possibility of “wellbeing” as an equally important must-do? It’s not too late for the teens, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s never too late. But I’d like to see some changes now. I want the school must-dos to include daily breathing exercises, and family must-dos to include some form of exercise four to five times a week. I want parents to feel empowered to advocate for their children’s time and wellbeing. I asked Parker how he feels when he can’t have free play. “Very sad”, he said. How would you feel?