From animated film by Peter Dronen on YouTube
Do you ever feel like you’re just rolling the rock uphill?
As I face that huge to-do list of things-that-have-to-be-done, I’ve been thinking about Sisyphus, the hero of Albert Camus’s famous 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus described Sisyphus, a mortal in Greek mythology, who offended the gods and was punished by being condemned to roll a rock uphill for eternity. Each time Sisyphus reached the top of the hill with his rock, its weight would send it cascading back down the hill. For Camus, the myth demonstrated man’s existential plight, and the absurdity of having to do work that is futile, day in and day out. (Watch Peter Dronen’s animated film here.)
That’s how I feel in the springtime when life and all the weeds return to my garden. The gods warned me (through a number of gardening colleagues) not to plant such a huge garden, but I, as a proud, inquisitive, and energetic mortal, decided to defy them. I created something way bigger than I can manage. During the springtime, I weed one area one day, then move on to the next, return in a week to the first, to find, guess what? A new set of weeds has taken over and my work must begin again. Like Sisyphus, I will never get it all done.
Should I just throw in the spade and crumple into a pile of (unwanted) buttercups?
An actress friend of mine from New York City has a different take on the matter. When she heard how overwhelmed I was feeling trying to manage our property, she laughed. “Oh, you get used to that living in New York City. Every day there’s so much you can do in The City, but you realize that you will never do most of it. You get used to knowing that what you do will only be a smidge, compared to what you can’t do.”
A lightbulb went off! I saw that I had been believing that I should get it all done. It was as if my life was constructed around a huge game called “accomplishing all there is to do.” But I had forgotten that I’d chosen the game. Maybe there’s a different game out there called “it will never be done and much of what lies ahead of me will never get finished.” Sure, there are responsibilities in life, like mine to my family and clients, that have to get done; I am accountable for managing these. There are consequences for not doing some things. Yet I’m the one who chose many of the obligations on this man-made mountain I have chosen to climb.
Awareness may be the first step in recovery. But I still need strategies that can help me navigate the absurdist drama before me. I’m experimenting with these.
Stop and smell the roses. Or the peonies. Or the unwanted buttercups.
The peonies are blooming in the garden and they are luscious beyond belief. Their intoxicating perfume lifts me out of my hopelessness about the garden. The weeds can wait. Checking into my here-and-now sensory experience, helps me bypass my mind’s diagnosis of “there is too much to do.”
Get some perspective.
Have you ever been sick, really sick, when even doing the simplest task seems out of reach? When I’ve been laid low by sickness or hurt in an accident, one of the gifts I’ve received has been to watch the list of what I expect from myself miraculously shrink. When I am able to leave my bed, I delight in what I can do, such as make my first cup of tea, in the face of all that I can’t.
I want to remember that perspective, that gratitude, as I get swept back into the rhythm of regular life.
Track your real accomplishments.
On the surface, this can seem like returning to the land of the ever-present to-do list, checking things off the list, and watching how new items magically spring up to replace what you’ve checked off. But I’m talking about a different kind of reflection.
This week, I discovered a little software app called “Idonethis.com” that allows you to track accomplishments. (It’s free in its hobby-personal version , and requires almost no learning curve.) You can either list tasks and check them off (the old way) or pause a moment, reflect, and record what you accomplished that matters most to you.
For example, my big accomplishment on Tuesday was not tied to any goal. It was a surprise insight that came out a conversation with one of my former podcast guests. “Don’t try to write another career book about working in the 3rd act of life. Connect working with the kind of questions of meaning that show up in writers like Parker Palmer and Richard Rohr.”
One five minute insight meant more to me than a mountain of to-do’s done. And taking a moment to record this was very satisfying, a glimmer of meaning I could take from my work.
Meditate. Become more mindful.
This is a longer-term strategy, so I won’t write about it here, although I know it’s the door into a way of being that is not dependent on the world becoming fixed, ordered, or behaving as it should.
From animated film by Peter Dronen on YouTube
Camus was interested in finding meaning in an absurdist world where the tasks of life seemed overwhelming and futile. (And if you need to practice feeling the absurdity of life, just turn on NPR and listen to the news out of Washington, D.C.)
He thought the world was godless. I don’t agree, but I appreciate his wrestling with the question “why bother” in the face of the craziness of life. His essay closes with Sisyphus accepting his fate and the absurdity of his work, finding, within his choice, the possibility of happiness.
Accepting that part of life that may always seem a bit futile, absurd, and at times overwhelming, seems wise.
Take that you forest of weeds.
Some years ago, I was walking my beloved Springer Spaniel, Lady, to the dog park. She was pretty well trained to heel off-leash, and sat calmly beside me as we waited to cross a busy arterial and enter the dog-friendly area on the other side of the street.
Bad choice. Before I knew what happened, I saw a brown and white bullet race across the street, into the heavy traffic. She’d seen a squirrel. I screamed “LADY” at the top of my voice, hoping to startle and stop her, but she continued to run right into the trajectory of an on-coming car. Then I heard her hit.
Mercifully, the god of small animals was with us that day. She hit the tire of the car from the side, and bounced off. One moment sooner and she would have been under that tire. She limped to the side of the arterial, shaken, but miraculously alive and intact.
I never let her walk off-leash near busy city streets again. Her primal instinct for SQUIRREL was stronger than any command I could give.
How we all chase squirrels
Dogs aren’t the only squirrel-chasers. We humans, too, have our own versions.
We sit down at the computer, primed with our to-do lists, and set about our work, (spoken as one who works, with some freedom, for herself). But then the squirrels come out, with messages sent to tempt us. Is Meryl Streep really dead like that click-bait notice says? Does Brad Pitt have a new girlfriend? And the President just tweeted…whaaaat?
Yep, it’s SQUIRREL time!!! Before we know it we’re charging ahead, off-leash, forgetting our erstwhile priorities, mumbling, “I’ll just check this one little thing.”
SQUIRREL isn’t just about the Internet. It could be any distraction we know we shouldn’t take on. Maybe it’s a committee we could join, a tempting invitation from a friend, that extra piece of research, or a magazine that just arrived. The challenge with SQUIRREL is when something else starts driving our brains.
Not that we always have to be rational. We don’t. It’s just that SQUIRREL can lead us into an alternative reality from which we emerge minutes or hours later, with nothing to show for it, frustrated with ourselves and what we haven’t been able to accomplish.
There are a few ways to put ourselves into obedience school.
One, is to get clearer about our intentions and what really matters, taking time to focus before we plunge into our work, or our day.
Second, we can use those handy-dandy Internet tools like Freedom that block websites and apps while we know we need to be working. These are great for writers or others interested in doing deep work. A New York Times article summarizing science research suggested that we’re happier when we can stay focused on one activity rather thinking of something else. (And yes, there’s a new psychological diagnostic code called Internet addiction.)
Third, we can allow ourselves to play SQUIRREL, but with intention. Give yourself a finite period of time and web surf, catch up on all the Facebook traffic you missed, or feast on click-bait. Until your time is over. (Maybe set a timer.) SQUIRREL loses its power when it’s played with intention.
Finally, you can just call the game for what it is. My husband and I will sometimes disappear in the evening into our respective offices “for just a few minutes.” As time clicks away, it may take one of us calling out, “Are you playing SQUIRREL???” to break the trance. We laugh at how easy it is to be seduced.
I’ve heard that awareness is the first step in breaking any habit. Lady couldn’t reflect on her habits. But we can. Which I plan to do. Right after I find out if Angelina might take Brad back.
Before a dream can be transformed into a project in the world, it has to be born.
We talk about “making” dreams come true, but isn’t that a bit pushy for something as tender as a dream? Many books and articles on entrepreneurship explode with archetypically male images about making things happen, straining and striving for success, competing and winning, and being the best.
Let’s add another, gentler perspective.
How about including a few more classically feminine images to describe the process of bringing an idea to life, especially as it just starts to emerge into the world? Words like midwifing and birthing come to mind. Dreams are delicate, especially the ones that we have held deep in our hearts, for many years, waiting until the time was right to bring them forward. Turning a dream into a project, whether it’s a business, book, or some other creative form, requires some tenderness.
After all, you are asking your dream to leave the warm, liminal space where it has been living in your imagination and confront the light of day. That’s risky business.
We need to honor the transition of taking an idea from its secret place in your mind into the world.
When a woman is pregnant, much anticipation and preparation precedes the birth. Selected friends and colleagues are informed; there may be a celebration. The mother prepares herself over the months as she experiences her baby in the womb; the family prepares the baby’s room.
It’s a time for joyful anticipation, not for making decisions about who the child is going to be, and whether she or he should go to Harvard, the Colorado School of Mines, inherit the farm, or become a baker. Parents may hold off picking a baby’s name until they sense the nature of their precious offspring. As the baby is born, no one is grading or evaluating it. (At least I hope not!) The baby needs time to grow, discover his or her nature and find a place in the world.
Don’t new projects need a little time to grow and find themselves, too?
Midwifing the start of a book
I’ve decided to start writing a book. Maybe you’re cringing as you read this, knowing how many people you remember who have said, “I’m going to write a book someday.” When it comes to writing, I believe that either you are writing a book (interesting to me), or you’re thinking about writing one (not as much). I want to move quickly into the former.
I’ve been thinking about the idea (without announcing it) for several years. Not every dream wants to come to life. I have lots of ideas, and I can only sink my time, spirit and resources into a few of them. With this project-idea, I asked myself:
- Is my dream begging to come forward?
- Do I love it?
- Do I believe that it’s needed?
- Is this something I feel I have to do?
It took a while to feel certain, but when I heard my “Yes,” the journey of birthing my project began.
Now, as I midwife it into action, I find myself on a journey where I want to learn and share about how we navigate the very delicate, early stage of a creative project. It’s that time on a project when you put in a lot of effort, yet have very little to show. It’s a time for trusting and holding the course until you start building momentum and see the work start to bare fruit.
How my idea started
The genesis of my big idea began five years ago when I turned 60. I became inspired, even haunted, by the question: “What does it take to re-invent your career/work/life at a time when your friends are beginning to retire?” What I came to believe is that our second half (or “third act”) of life may be our most creative period of life, if we honor our sense of calling and design our work/lives to support what we believe we are meant to do. In this day and age, I think a lot of us are want, or need, to work, paid or volunteer, long after we turn 65.
Do I know what kind of book this should be? No. Am I sure my idea has to become a book? No. Will I self-publish or seek a publisher? Who knows! I want the dream to have a little time to walk about in the world and I need to get better acquainted with my project by writing.
So here’s my plan for the very early, early stage of birthing a dream into a project:
Speak about it – with caution
It’s a big deal for me to tell you what I’m doing, but speaking it helps to make the project real for me. I see my own words flowing on to the page and I learn about them. I watch my friend’s eyes light up when I say what I am doing. Sharing helps me to take my idea out of my head and bring it into the world.
I’m NOT announcing to everybody, including the few friends I have who have a strong evaluative sense and will want to “help” by telling me whether or not it is a good idea. That’s not the feedback I need…yet.
Play with it and let it move
I want to do lots of free-writing and research and let my book-child wander about while I observe the paths that she follows. I want to know what she (the book) is asking of me. I also want to learn about my beloved, potential audiences and how they respond to what I’m creating.
Create some structure to support me
My life is full. LOTS of elements compete for my attention. I need a structure to insure that the book moves forward. Step one: spend a chunk of change on an eight-month program for writers who wish to create compelling books. There’s nothing like spending money to help me put a stake in the ground. I trust that the reinforcement of being in a community with a structured program will be very helpful.
Build daily practices that support the work
I’m still working on this one. Have any hints for me from your experience? Write every morning? Periodically dance what I am discovering? Create some touch points when I will check in with friends, thus giving myself mini-deadlines? To be discovered!
Celebrate the pregnancy as well as the birth
The book may take a long time to complete. I can’t wait that long to celebrate. Maybe I need to start by celebrating that I’m swinging out, daring to feel vulnerable, feeling uncertain, and, at the same time, ecstatic.
Thanks for letting me share the dream with you as it moves into the world. I hope I can do the same in return for you. Do let me know!
As a creative entrepreneur, I often wrestle with how to manage my time, get things done, and nurture my creative zeal.
I experiment with how to find the balance between creative flow and structure. As a writer, should I follow the discipline advocated by some writers to put my butt in the chair everyday regardless of whether I have anything to say? Or should I listen to those who say that trying to force a piece of writing when it’s not flowing is just pointless?
If you’re like me, you know that during the day your energy ebbs and flows. Sometimes you’re good for a creative burst of thought or work on a project, other times you’ll be best polishing your existing work, responding to problems, doing email or grooming the cat. And there may even be times that are good for meetings. (I hope this is true, given how meetings consume so much of organizational life.)
Managing the balance between flow and structure, while finding the best way to work with your own rhythms is key to productively accomplishing creative work (or really any work). I tend to err on the side of flow. I used to tell my leadership classes that my programs would be more like a sailing expedition than a motor boat ride. We’d reach our destination (the course objectives), but we’d be tacking a lot (responding to the needs and knowledge of participants), rather than driving straight ahead like a planned-by-the-minute training session. This helped some of my structure-loving engineers to relax a little. Sometimes.
Knowing that personal organization has never been my strong suit, in my first corporate job I convinced the purchasing officer to let me buy an expensive personal organizing system. Beautiful leather binder. Yummy designed pages. I was so hoping it could miraculously organize me. If I had been the kind of person who loved making lists, using them, and was already anal about organization, it would have been perfect.
Mostly I ended up affectionately stroking its binder.
My need to be organized and structured without stopping the creative flow has made me very curious about time management systems and structures that creative artists and business leaders use to stay productive.
Although I yearn for big unstructured blocks of time to do creative thought-work, without a way of deliberately organizing myself, I can end up in the eddies, feeling brain-dead about what I intended to do.
After all, a flow of water down a river needs the riverbank to guide and contain it.
How to Flow with Structure: 7 Ideas to Try
- Know your chrono-type. We all follow slightly different clocks. If you’re curious about yours, read The Power of When by Michael Breus. Then, explore how you can adapt your days to fit your rhythm. Some people are most clear headed in the early morning; others are foggy until noon. Give your teammates a break and tailor your work to your own internal clock. (Who needs more glazed eyes or bodies keeled over in meetings!)
- See your work in big patterns or clumps. Different types of work take different types of energy—and require bigger or smaller chunks of time. Some projects like my writing take large concentrated blocks of time; reading email can be fit in when I’m half asleep. I want to map my high-value creative tasks against my high-value creative energy.
- Experiment. Most of us have failed repeatedly at optimizing our time. Maybe this is a game we’ll never really win, but it’s still worth playing around with whatever helps us feel satisfied as well as productive.
- Leave time for deeper work. In his provocative book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport rants that our attention-sucking environments risk robbing us of the time and capacity to do our most thoughtful, important work, the work where we could really make a difference, whether it’s designing a strategy or writing a novel. We need to vigilantly protect spaces for deep time.
- Make it visual. I love my computer tools — but there’s something totally cool about white boards that keep my important priorities right in my face.
- Remember breaks, retreats, vacations and the fact that things will never, ever go as planned.
- Celebrate small successes. A darn good idea that many of us neglect.
Back to you. What keeps you at your own energized, creative best? Do you have a system to manage yourself and honor your own rhythms and life, work and creative priorities? Tell me— I’d love to pass on more ideas here.
In the meantime, I’m off to a day that’s mine to create, adding a little structure to keep my mind focused and at the same time being curious where the muse will take me.
Because she often has her own agenda!
In last week’s post I wrote: “Wishful thinking actually decreases our possibility of meaningful action,” as I explored why dedicating ourselves to what we want to create can be more effective than making resolutions.
That statement was inspired by Gabrielle Oetinger and the research she writes about in Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.
Although thinking positively about the future can be very empowering, it can also be trivialized into chanting, affirming and sitting back and hoping. After watching that New Age cult classic The Secret, with its emphasis on the law of attraction (i.e. you can pull things to you by your intention alone), this kind of thinking makes me very queasy. Does this mean that all it takes to get that mansion in Malibu is to intend and affirm? Really? Or that the beautiful, loving and inspiring friends I’ve lost to cancer didn’t think positively enough about their healing? (Don’t get me going on this one!)
Although tapping into our our imaginations and dreams and setting intentions are powerful ways to draw forth the future, just hanging out with dreams without acting upon them can have negative results, according to Oetinger. It can make us complacent and less likely to achieve them,
What she discovered over her twenty years of research was that a dream is more likely to be realized when you vividly imagine a positive future and then contrast it with an image of an obstacle that might get in the way.
“The solution isn’t to do away with dreaming and positive thinking. Rather, it’s making the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way.”
She offers us a fourstep process called WOOP in which imagining positive outcomes is contrasted with possible obstacles and plans for overcoming them.
Attracted to her evidence-based approach, I decided to put this idea to the test during a recent horseback riding lesson.
My goal was to successfully jump an obstacle that was, frankly, scaring me. My aging body has felt the impact of the ground too often to enjoy it anymore. The prospect of falling off my horse has made me more timid jumping than I was twenty years ago.
Now, if I used an approach based in setting an intention and visualizing success, I could imagine successfully clearing the jump. Rather than focus on the obstacle, I’d repeat some affirmations, hold my breathe (most likely) and head for the jump. Results uncertain.
I didn’t like that option. Instead I tried Oetinger’s simple instructions for her WOOP process. (Despite its simplicity, she has extensively tested it scientifically.)
1. Wish–“Something you really want to accomplish. A wish is exciting challenging and realistic.”
I pictured clearing the challenging jump successfully, my horse obedient, my riding seat secure.
2. Outcome – “The best outcome that would result from accomplishing your goal. How would the outcome make you feel? Let your mind go and imagine this outcome.”
I imagined patting my horse, feeling exhilarated and proud. I see my horse asd happy, too.
3. Obstacle –“The personal obstacles that prevent you from accomplishing your goal. Let your mind go and imagine this obstacle.”
I imagine the jump. I assessed its size and whether my horse had jumped anything like it. I felt what it would be like for my horse to jump clear and whether I would be likely to stay with her without falling. (Oetinger says its all right to change your goal if you see it’s not accurate—and I’m not pushing myself towards the Olympics these days. I realized that the biggest obstacle wasn’t the size of the jump, or my horse’s ability, but my fear.
4. Plan. “What can you do to overcome your obstacle? Name one action you can take or thought you can have. Make an if/then plan and imagine it. If / When _________ (obstacle), then I will __________ (action to overcome obstacle).”
Now that I’d identified fear as an obstacle, there were some things I could do to stick in the saddle. Breathe and let the weight of my body sink into my heels. Keep my eyes up and forward. Press my calf firmly into the side of my horse. Grab a bit of her mane and hold on when we go to the jump.
When it came time to face the jump, my heart started beating fast. I was still scared. But I remembered my plan and headed resolutely towards the jump. We cleared it—not elegantly, but, hey, I was still in the saddle and exuberant!
There’s a lot more behind Oetinger’s research, and it’s worth reading about. (Including this easy guide for students.)
She offered me a secret that the movie The Secret didn’t provide: combine creative, embodied visualizations about the future with equally vivid data about the obstacles you will face and the steps you will take to overcome them.
You can use your creative imagination to envision an outcome, an obstacle and a plan—and greatly increase your chances of success.
Imagination, intention and action can all dance together. Killer!
Last week, I heard a chilling term for a world where facts get distorted, taken out of context, and manipulated at will: “The Post-factual World.”
Have we moved into a world that doesn’t care about evidence? Is there a way to deal with our own pain and fear, so that we can face the facts without jumping to conclusions that can hurt ourselves or others?
I began writing this blog after hearing a story on National Public Radio about the systemic persecution of the LGBT community in Russia. The reporters described how politicians were twisting facts into bigoted propaganda with devastating results.
The Russian scene is grim. But don’t we have reality distortion here in the States as well?
How can we make friends with facts and pursue the truth, even when we we’re caught up in difficult emotions?
The situation in Russian is painful and alarming. Politicians are distorting facts, feeding on fear, and using the state controlled media to send out bigoted information designed to terrorize the public about the LGBT community. Broadcasting this information has led to loss of jobs, humiliation, and even deaths. The reporter from Reveal News covering the story described how politicians had created a “parallel reality” of false facts about the LGBT community and used fear to justify invading the Ukraine. It’s a disturbing and powerful piece of journalism.
Listening to the story, I couldn’t help thinking about how there are “parallel realities” going on in the United States, where the public’s pain and fear is being manipulated through systematic distortions of the truth, leading to dangerous conclusions and alarming, if sometimes ludicrous, platforms for change.
Before assuming that distorting evidence is only happening “out there,” I needed to look at how my own fears shaped conclusions I draw about my work and finances.
When I had to face the numbers
This week, I finished my taxes for 2015. If you want a great way to look at what you value and how you run your life, take a look at your checkbook and credit cards. Believe me, it can be confronting.
Reviewing my accounting, I didn’t like what I saw. 2015 was a year in which I moved my business in a new direction, invested in development, and, frankly, didn’t make the money I’d have liked. And because my concern about money was painful, I had barely dealt with my accounting over the course of the year, except for the minimal, required, bill paying and invoicing.
Hidden within the numbers, and my unwillingness to face them, I recognized signs of pain. Beneath that pain was a chorus of verdicts and conclusions:
- “You went unconscious with your money.”
- “You didn’t succeed.”
- “You’ll never make it.”
- “You’re too old to rebuild your practice.”
- “You don’t have a clue what you’re doing.”
Ouch. Facing the facts was painful! After a night’s sleep, I decided to pay another visit to the “Factual World,” (which I still believe in!) and re-visited the evidence. I couldn’t fault the data: unlike some public media information, my data were reliable. I needed to re-examine my conclusions. Using the questions below, I came to some different ones:
- I hadn’t gone unconscious. I had simply let some things slip. I had been inattentive.
- I had worked hard, clarified my direction, launched a podcast, and produced weekly writings.
- I had served great clients, done work I was proud of, and knew I was doing my “right work.”
- I had launched friendships with special new colleagues, and stayed in touch with friends and associates.
- I had covered my business and health expenses but not my living expenses.
- I had brought in revenue, just not as much as I would have liked. That hurt.
- I had a fabulous trip to India.
- I had developed both empathy and tools to help others who wanted to generate new work after age 60.
These conclusions were also based on facts – but I could only see them when I was willing to face the pain – and keep examining the evidence.
Here are 7 questions that can help you face the facts (even if they are confronting):
- What is the source of my evidence? (A balance sheet, hearsay/talk radio, my inner critic?)
- Is the evidence complete? What else do I need to consider?
- Are the conclusions I’m reaching true? Could alternative conclusions also be true?
- Where am I letting a strong emotion – like fear – bias what I’m seeing?
- How can I interpret the data in a way that is life affirming?
- What else do I know/what other data can I add from my own experience?
- Can I accept the pain that this data triggers in me without letting it dictate my conclusions?
When it comes to the larger global politic, Russia and closer to home, I’d add: Who’s manipulating the data and to what end? What’s happening in Russia is sobering and affects us all more than you might know. As does what’s happening with our own election cycle.
Here, in my life, I need to be aware of the intention with which I review the data.
Because when I examine evidence looking for how to create a positive future for myself and others, I don’t need to ignore, sugarcoat or distort the evidence in order to find the courage to keep creating.