“Sometimes the best thing for all that ails you has fur and four legs.” ~Mark Asher
Phin has come into the office with me on Friday for the past two weeks. His happy little swagger noticeably drops the stress level and ups the laugh factor. He climbs into the laps of my co-workers, gives them smooches, and is more than happy to take all of the affection they have to offer. Without saying a single word, he says everything. “I’m here for you.” Sometimes that’s really all we need—the knowledge that someone is going to keep showing up and putting his best paw forward.
“I know you’re tired but come, this is the way.” ~Rumi
Invention, reinvention, and creation is a difficult, messy process. Change is tiring. Transformation wears us down. I’ve remade my life so many times, in so many places, through so many career paths, that I’ve almost lost count. I create a life, and then either it’s ripped away from me or I toss it away when I realize there’s no way to make it work going forward. And yes, it is tiring. Yes, sometimes I want to give up. Yes, it’s always hard to try again.
Luckily, I just can’t help myself. I like hard work and I have a real aversion to remaining stuck. I don’t wear hopeless or helpless well. I roll up my sleeves and get down in the weeds and make, again and again and again. That tenacity, that ambition, has been my savior all my life. It’s made my life, literally and figuratively. I want what I want, and honestly, nothing else is good enough unless of course, I stumble upon something that was better than what I imagined. And that happens a lot.
Rumi puts it perfectly. Yes, we do get tired but we can’t give in or give up. We have to keep going. Our way is right in front of us, and we are the only ones who can take it. When we feel depleted, we can find strength in others. We can ask for help. We can remind ourselves that on the other side of tired, there is a whole world waiting for us, and it’s exactly what’s meant for us.
When I was a kid, I loved Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I loved that he spent his day making people smile and using his imagination to help them learn. I especially loved that he transitioned his wardrobe when he got to work and before he went home.
It occurred to me that I do similar things with my job. I walk from my home through Rock Creek Park to my office in about 40 minutes. It’s a walking meditation really. I use the time to plan the day ahead and transition into work mode. I’m usually the first person there, and the first thing I do is put on my sweater and change into my work shoes. I spend the day with a fantastic team doing imaginative work to help children make the most of their potential.
Then when the day is done, I put my sweater away, change into my walking shoes, grab my backpack, and walk back home the way I came. I use the walk home to think about what I learned that day and to give thanks for the opportunity to do work that matters so much.
Mister Rogers taught me well. There’s something to be said for transition time, for having a dedicated place for work and play. I missed that time and space when I worked primarily from home. I’m grateful to have it back.
Yesterday I watched a documentary about Saturday Night Live in the 1980s. The show struggled so much after its first five golden years. It lost a lot of its people, its mission, and its way. And it wasn’t a matter of finding it again. A very small group of people, some original and some new, scrapped the entire format and started over from scratch. Brave, and frightening. Just like life.
Many of the cast members—Billy Crystal, Kevin Nealon, Dana Carvey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus—talked about not unpacking their bags. They all had month-to-month leases and were never really sure if they’d made it. Even when things were going very well, they were always on edge. In so many of those old sketches and outtakes, I could see the nerves, spontaneity, and spark.
It got me thinking that as much as we are creatures of comfort, habit, and routine, maybe we do our best work when we don’t have any of those things. Maybe those nerves that keep us on our edge give us our edge. We shouldn’t be looking for comfort at all. What we need to do our best, most creative work is a manageable dose of anxiety and fear. Our magic is not is doing the work we know we can do, but in biting of more than we can chew, in taking on precisely the projects that are beyond our reach. We should go where we think we’ll fail. We rise when we have something to shoot for that seems impossible.
Eventually we all face this question: walk away or try harder? I face this kind of choice every day, multiple times a day, especially at that dark 3:00am hour. It happens so often that I’ve had to devise a method to calm myself down and thinking clearly. The beauty of this simple system is that it lets me respond to my fear and doubt without being consumed by them. I ask myself four questions:
1. Do I find joy in doing X?
2. Am I helping someone by doing X?
3. If I stop doing X now, will I regret it?
4. Is what I’m giving up to do X worth the tradeoff?
Sometimes these questions showed me that I did need to walk away. That walking away wasn’t easy or pain-free, but I knew it was the right thing to do. Compass Yoga, the nonprofit I founded and recently dissolved, is an example of that. Other pursuits, like my writing, proved to be things that I decided to double down on. These questions aren’t one and done. I re-evaluate regularly, sometimes hourly, and these questions help me get through the process so I can get on with my life. I hope they work for you, too.
Yesterday was my first day back to work, and like many of you I felt that uncomfortable twinge that comes from the back-from-vacation blues: my inbox was overflowing with requests for quick turnaround deadlines. I had follow-ups to do, connections to make, and pitches to send. And this was just paid work to say nothing of my own personal writing and projects that needed attention. Honestly, I was freaking out a bit.
And then I remembered to breathe. Just breathe. Like every other day, hectic or not, it was about putting one foot in front of the other in the right direction. Doing one assignment at a time in priority order. One letter, one word, one sentence. It all got done. It all always gets done. I’m sure this is a reminder I’ll need over and over again: just breathe. It helps.
Self-talk is an everyday part of being a writer. You can be your own biggest cheerleader or your own worst enemy. Luckily for every negative self-talk question I can think of, there’s a more positive way to get at the same information. I used to ask myself, “What am I going to write about today?” In fiction, this is a heavily loaded question. Now I ask myself, “Who’s with me today?” It adds an ethereal quality to the work and squarely places me in the role of being an observer of my own imagination. Then I take up my perch and get down everything I hear and see. This simple change of perspective reduces the pressure and ups the fun of the task. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
Whether you’re a scientist or not, young or not-so-young, Dr. E.O. Wilson’s book, Letters to a Young Scientist, is a primer in how to building a meaningful life from a purpose-driven career. I first encountered Dr. Wilson’s work as one of the most esteemed biologists in the world while I was a fundraiser at Conservation International. Dr. Wilson is a member of the board of directors and in many ways was (and probably still is) a supreme guiding light of the organization’s strong science basis. I picked up his slim volume to read how he addresses a young audience in search of meaning. What I found was much more than I expected.
“Opportunity is [now] broader, but more demanding.” This was a light bulb line for me. We have more opportunity now than past generations thanks to technology, the democratization of knowledge and learning thanks to the growth of the Internet, and the rapid and extensive sharing of inspirational stories. Dr. Wilson explains why we now struggle more to seize opportunity—with great privilege comes great competition and an even greater need for commitment and determination.
“When you select a domain of knowledge…go where the least action is happening…observe the fray from a distance…consider making your own fray.” This is my favorite bit in the book. We’re so quick to rush to a field that is gaining traction and popularity but if we really want to have an impact, it’s best to go where no one else is going.
“Imagine looking back on your life. What do you want to be known for?” Imagine yourself at the very end of your life. When you’re rocking in a chair and watching the sun set for the very last time, what do you want to remember and what do you want to be remembered for? Work your way back to the present day from there and follow the breadcrumbs that you’ve left to guide the way.
On determination and passion
“The more difficult the problem, the greater the likely importance of its solution.” When the going gets tough, we think of giving up. Dr. Wilson encourages the opposite. When the going gets tough, go further.
“Decision and hard work based on enduring passion will never fail you…put passion ahead of training.” Education is only valuable if we are educated in something that lights us up. Figure out what you care about and then obtain the training to make it into a career.
“Waste and frustration often attend the earliest stages.” It’s always easiest to give up early on. That’s the stage where we need the most determination—when something isn’t going well. Doubt is a powerful deterrent and formidable opponent. That second step, the one that we have to take when all of our early hard work feels wasted, is the one that hurts the most. Take it anyway.
Passion and curiosity are skills we all need in abundance, especially given the current state of our world. There’s plenty of engaging work for all of us if we know where to look.
Disney directly supervised the construction of the original Disneyland in a single year. Handel wrote Messiah, one of the most beloved and popular pieces of holiday music, in 24 days. Whenever I feel crunched for time, I think about these two examples. They remind me that time isn’t my issue; it’s a matter of focus, discipline, and determination. If Disney and Handel can complete these enormous tasks in such a short amount of time, then certainly I have the time to finish whatever projects I have on my plate. I take a couple deep breaths and get back to work knowing that time is on my side.
This week, I started my research on Orlando’s business community. When I lived here a decade ago, the idea of an Orlando business community was a bit of a pipe dream. What a difference 10 years can make. I don’t know much about the landscape here so I started with a simple strategy—I contacted all of the companies on the “2014 best places to work in Orlando” list published by American City Business Journals. (They probably have something similar for your city, too!) I sent off a simple email that explained my interest in what they do and a bit about what I do.
Within 10 minutes, I got a response back from a business owner and we set up a brief phone chat. His company wasn’t the right fit for a content creator like me, but he gave me the names of 5 other companies that he thought would be. (Incredibly generous on his part!) After our brief chat, I immediately emailed all of the contacts he gave me. 24 hours later, all 5 had responded positively asking to meet me, set up a phone chat, or refer me to another company they felt would be a good contact for me.
This same strategy has worked for me as I’ve slowly but surely worked my way through the channels at a certain very large and highly-matrixed company that has *just a few* theme parks here in Central Florida. I’m in the midst of the (very long) interview process though all of those contacts have been made by directly emailing leaders at the company whose work interests me, not by applying to any public postings.
For me, the lesson has been clear: whether it’s freelance work or a new job, we can’t wait for postings. Being proactive and highly engaged is the name of the game, especially in a new city. If someone writes something, builds something, or talks about something that interests you, reach out, connect, and see if there’s a way to collaborate. It takes some effort, but is ultimately much more fruitful than endlessly sifting through job postings. Don’t wait for the job, or collaborative business partner, you want to become available. Create your own opportunities.