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?
”Mama, can I go to the North Pole?”
I briefly wonder if he has recently watched an episode of the Wild Kratts and wants a close encounter with some Arctic animals. I consider reminding him about the weather conditions. But something in his voice tells me to shut up and listen. His crackling voice, which tells me of his need to go there, is urgent and filled with emotion. Is he going to cry?
My kid is seven years old, going to first grade next year. He is no longer a “baby”. He likes facts and figures, animals and bugs. I jump from my computer and join him on the couch where he is immersed in watching Polar Express again, for the I don’t-know-how-many-times-this-is time. I give him a hug and desperately hope to find the words to answer his question.
Of course you can go to the North Pole, I think to myself. You can go anywhere your mind and spirit want to take you. But I say nothing. Squeeze tighter. My voice breaks and I tell him that I love him. He looks up at me surprised, and asks me, why there are tears in my eyes. “Because you are magic, and I love you.” And because Santa is not real, but I don’t want you to ever lose your faith in magic.
I sometimes catch myself scared of the moment when my boy will figure out the truth about Santa, or the tooth fairy, or the superpower-full, wonder imaginary pets of whom he so tenderly takes care. Will he be crushed to know that the old man does not live at the pole, does not have a sleigh, and most likely is lactose intolerant? Will that discovery turn off the spark I see in him every day?
To be completely honest, I am afraid to admit that believing in magic is more about faith than it is about fairies, unicorns, and stars over the rainbow. Losing and finding faith is a journey we all must take, sometimes more than once, sometimes on our own and often with our kids.
I recently heard an interview with Mastin Kipp of The Daily Love, in which he described a challenging point in his life. He was living in an eight by eight foot borrowed room in the pool house that belonged to his ex-girlfriend’s mom. He was working on his dream of launching his (now well-loved and famous) site, and was looking for a sign or an answer about what was next for him. As he says it, a universal voice told him that his faith was as big as his room, but that was enough. It made me wonder about mine.
Sometimes when I am looking for big backpack sized amounts of faith I forget about my appreciation, and, dare I say it, love of paperclips. I have paperclips in all my desks, and always carry a few with me in my pencil bag. Weirdly though, when I seem to be in most need of a paperclip, and I am desperately looking for one, there is rarely one around. I can never find a paperclip when I need one. Moments, hours, or a day later, however, three of them show up.
Faith is my paperclip. It holds me together: the small parts of me that need remembering to listen, to cry, to let go of getting it right, to surrender, and yes, to trust fully in myself and my soul’s ability to find magic. I will admit that my faith is often not in sight when I need it, but like my paperclips, I always seem to find it.
I believe in magic, especially the magic of children. I know this because I tear up when my son talks about far-away places where wishes come true, with the clarity and conviction of someone who has had the chance to be there and see sparkling lights dance across the night sky. If it is true that losing our faith is a journey we all must take, then keeping our magic is a requirement for finding it. Here are small steps to nurture and connect with magic.
I recently visited my sister in Baltimore. My son saw fireflies for the first time, and in some ways, so did I. Seeing the fireflies fill the night with sparkles, like a universal electric parade, was breathtaking, even for me. Seeing my boy light up with joy was magical.
In connecting with others, we expand our awareness of the world around us, both of its splendor and its challenges. Sharing grief over the loss of a beloved pet fish may not be uplifting. However, the realization that we are not alone, that we have someone else that shares the pain with us, that allows us to feel hurt and vulnerable, is uplifting and magical.
At first sight, it appears many of us have an ordinary life. I hear this frequently from parents, “Growing up, I had an ordinary life. Sure, my parents worked hard, things were not always easy, but overall, it’s not like I had to endure torment, torture, famine, or war. I feel pretty blessed.”
I believe in the magic of all our stories regardless of how ordinary. I delight in the simplest of stories my friends tell me, especially when the insignificant details are vividly colored in for me. As an immigrant to America, I share my stories of growing up in far-away lands, climbing trees to snatch a few of my neighbor’s peaches, and playing in the streets with my friends. I share the evolution of my dream of coming to America from its genesis, when I was seven or eight years old, to its fulfillment when I landed in New York at seventeen. I share both big chapters and very small details. All our stories are magical.
Every January my friends and I get together for a “Dream Session”. We share stories, laughter, and good food, and we write our dreams for the year on sticky notes. I love seeing the colorful puzzle that results when we all display our dreams for everyone’s viewing. I can feel the energy of a dream session in my body. It’s tingly, exciting, and it makes me giddy. Looking ahead towards new dreams and imagining the delightful “what-ifs,” makes me happy, hopeful, and faith-filled.
Every night when we go to bed, my boy and I go over the things we are grateful for: our health, family, work, house, community, and planet. The list gets very interesting (and long) every night, and before I know it, we say thanks for our Lego® toys, dinosaur pets, the sting rays at the local aquarium, our creativity, and ideas.
When I was young, growing up in communism, there were times when my sister and I went to bed hungry. Part of the insanity of the regime we lived in was the slow and gradual torment of its people through consistent deprivation from basic needs like food, heat, and electricity. I frequently share my story with love and courage because I am grateful for the great gifts I have been given, but especially for the small ones we typically take for granted.
I frequently look back and try review and explain my journey from childhood to now, and realize there are no words that can make sense or explain all of it. The only word I use often, crazy as it may sound, is magical. With profound gratitude and thanks, I wonder to the universe: who am I to say that going to the North Pole is not possible?
And now it’s your turn. Would love to know, what resonated with you? What do you do to encourage your kid and yourself to believe in the power of dreams and magic? Please leave a comment below and let me know.
With love and appreciation,
2011 is the year to be “Ready”, and if that’s the case, I better hurry up! This year we decided to experiment with a new format for teaching, by using one word each month to inspire our work. We created a pinwheel with twelve intention words, one for each month, sent it out to our active members, asked them to post it, use it, and play with it. What’s become glaringly obvious is that it’s hard to be an authentic teacher and leader without making this exercise work for myself. As a result, I’ve spent the first four weeks of the month getting ready by taking a good, hard look in the mirror and decided it was time to take “walking the talk” to a whole new level.
I’ll admit I am a bit nervous about sharing some of my observations with you. And yet, just the other day, I had a conversation with one of the parents, who said she appreciated the transparency of my letters, because they offered her perspectives, and that in itself was inspiring. So here it goes …
Taking a close look in the mirror revealed what I always knew: I have a very hard time separating life from work and vice versa, and I’ve spent as long as I can remember making that wrong. If you’ve talked to Jorge, you know that I can be in the middle of a romantic date or giving our boy a bath, and I’ll bust out with a “honey, you know what I was thinking for the kids this month, or I think I found a better credit card processing company.” My boundaries around my personal time and goals can move, and do so often, at the expense of missing a workout, a meditation session, or an appointment with my soul who likes photography, writing, and painting. What’s worse is the negative, chatty troll that sits on my back and spends the next few days telling me how and what I should be doing, or should have done. What an emotional drain …
My self-reflection, however, also allowed me to rediscover what I know to be true about myself: I love to work hard and that brings me joy. I am a big picture, take-it-beyond-what-anyone’s-ever-imagined-possible kind of dreamer. My purpose in life is to bring health, joy, and peace to people, and especially kids. Most importantly though, and this is my golden nugget: I love my work so much that it is hard to separate it from my life, because I work doing something that is my personal life’s purpose. My work is my life and my life is my work. And for this I feel blessed and deeply grateful.
What does be Ready look like for me?
Did you take a close look at yourself when you set your new year’s resolutions or vision? What did you see and what does Ready look like for you, and for your family? Find an accountability partner, someone who won’t beat you up if you miss a goal or target but rather stand by, support, help, and dream with you. Better yet, make me your accountability partner; you will be fueling my life’s passion and that’s got nothing but good Karma written on it.