When the late William Stafford, one of my favorite poets, was asked how he managed to write one poem (or more) every day, he offered a phrase that endeared him to many:”I lower my standards.” Stafford wasn’t suggesting that he had low standards for the poems he published, just that he knew how the daily practice of turning his thoughts and observations into poems furthered his craft.
Many of us have high standards and want much of what we do and plan to be the best it can be.
We want the report to look beautiful as well as be useful. We want to find the best AirBNB in Barcelona, the most highly rated pair of shears, and cook the best dinner for our dinner guests.
All are admirable goals, but “best” can be exhausting.
We’re egged on by online sites offering have-to-read rating systems, because who would want to buy an electric toothbrush that had a 4.2 rating when you could have one that was 5 stars? We study the comments. Two hours later, we’re still researching toothbrushes while being tempted to check out the best roller point pen before ordering our next batch. (Guilty!)
The problem with “the best” or even “great” is that it sucks up our time and turns us away from what’s most important. Often, our friends don’t want “the best” dinner–they just want us to be wholeheartedly with them. In the area of house cleaning, I am definitely “good enough” and not “great.” When I focus on making my home impeccable, it usually means I’m avoiding writing.
My singing teacher, Peggy, hung a sign on her studio wall that said it all:
“Don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually,”
That was so Peggy, choosing to focus on her students one hundred and ten percent plus, rather than worry about a little clutter or dust around the edges. Her students accepted the bargain and loved her for it.
When we set a bar too high, we may talk ourselves into giving up before we’ve even started.
Lower the bar, with humility
I recently took on a project of teaching Zumba at a local senior center. (I know, this defeats rule # 1 below, “Say No” to new projects.) I couldn’t resist the possibility of teaching Zumba for the first time with this absolutely wonderful group.
Turns out teaching Zumba takes way more preparation than I anticipated, and I didn’t have much time. Half of the day I had allocated for preparing was lost as my computer came up with every possible tactic to keep me from putting together a simple playlist of music. Then, I realized that my poor, getting poorer, memory was not about to allow me to memorize the choreography for seven songs in one evening. What to do?
I lowered my standards.
When I dance, I’m usually improvising, so I decided to call on that skill. With a heaping dose of humility, the next day I explained to the group that I’d need to improvise class for a while.
No one complained.
The group was more than OK, and we had fun together. Turns out they needed my smile more than perfect steps.
How many mountains do you want to climb this week?
Many of the mountain peaks in our schedules are caused by our expectations. I’ve been informed that podcasters “should” produce on a regular weekly schedule. Guess what? No can do, even though I have some great interviews in the queue. No one will die as a result of gaps in my production calendar.
Gardeners “should” weed and keep the most pervasive weeds down. My standards dropped below the low mark while I tried negotiating a truce with a major group of weeds: “If I don’t pull you out this year, could you promise not to come next?” (Lost that one.)
Writers “should” write. Now, this point is different because writing is a priority for me and not a “should do.” I aim to write every day and I do pretty well with that. Good enough.
Tips for best-aholics or those who always go for great
Learn to say “No” or negotiate. Breathe before you pick up that Zumba class (alas). Overfilling your tank won’t help your engine run any better, and it might defeat you. (But you already know that.)
Check your priorities
Reserve “great” or “really good” for what matters most. Then limit your priorities. (You can read about a cool system that helps you focus here.)
If Tom Sawyer could do it, so can you, Pay for help to paint that fence or stage a work party people can’t resist. Buying help may be pricey, but if it relieves you, improves the work, or allows you to keep your attention on what matters most, maybe it’s not as expensive as you think. At your workplace, delegate and collaborate.
Assess what’s required
When I’m avoiding a task, it looms large. When I assess how much time it will actually take, I usually calm down. I estimate that weeding that pernicious sticky weed out of the garden could be done in an hour. That’s do-able. The rest can wait.
Don’t polish the first draft
If you are working on a project that will go through multiple iterations, don’t fuss the early versions.
Choose when not to settle
Lowering your standards in some areas allows you to focus on what’s really important. Enjoy polishing that final draft.
The memoirist Kerry Cohen, with whom I did a writing weekend, encouraged me to keep writing by signing her book with this inscription:
I fell in love with Marie Kondo, the queen of tidying, when I watched her NETFLIX series during last February’s let’s-hope-it-never-comes-again blizzard. I am not a convert yet, although I’ve taken a little ground. What I loved most in the series was hearing her laugh and ask her clients, “Does it spark joy?”
I’ve been carrying that question around ever since. It’s a profound question–applicable to a lot more than deciding what to do with my grandmother’s beloved china.
Joy is the fruit at the heart of many spiritual disciplines.
This week, I was thinking about joy on a more mundane level, as I began the heavy task of mucking mountains of manure from our backyard. The horses have been happily prolific this spring. Normally, I find mucking meditative, but I was tired, and for sure shoveling sh-t was not sparking joy.
Then I thought: why not create joy now? even though I would never have put mucking on my joy list.
The challenge of creating joy gave me the boost I needed. I slowed down, listened to the birds more, and felt my gratitude as I watched my horse grazing in the sunshine, a lifelong dream come true. Then, after dumping several heavy wheelbarrow loads of manure, I lay down in the grass. Rays of sunshine covered my face as I heard the crows clamoring, felt an aerial visit from an unknown bug, and let myself sink onto the ground supported by the earth. This was joy.
Lying there, I let stress melt away. I tried out two practices that I read can help us calm and reset our nervous systems: deep breathing with a slight smile on the face and humming. They worked.
With five simple actions: gratitude, slowing, giving myself a breather, putting a slight smile on my face, and humming, I felt less burdened. As I resumed picking, I resisted trying to finish the job, knowing that more shoveling would hurt my back. Pushing to do it all was tempting but back pain does not bring me joy.
When the task is less pleasant
Sometimes we don’t have the liberty of throwing out tasks that do not feel pleasing, as you might jettison the green cardigan with holes in the elbows that was given to you by dear Aunt Edith.
I needed to catch up on some financial and administrative work that I’d been avoiding, even though what I really wanted to do was write.
Approaching these tasks as drudgery was not going to make them more pleasant. Could I shift?
I put on some upbeat music to help me clean and make my office inviting.
I gave thanks for the privilege of having such tasks to do.
I sprinkled rugosa rose petals on my desk, adding a sweet fragrance to the air.
I gave myself a time limit, two hours, and a reward: a return to my writing.
I reminded myself to breathe.
Did I find joy as I kept getting locked out of my accounts and spent (too much) time with customer service? Let’s just say I shifted from “I really don’t want to do this” to “This is OK.” I was pleased with what I did.
“We create most of our suffering, so it should be logical that we also have the ability to create more joy.”
I get it. I’m a master at turning tasks into a form of suffering, particularly when I’m tired or overwhelmed.
So why can’t I become a master of infusing my work with joy?
Of course, not everything will spark joy. But we can create joy on our own.
If I can find joy in mucking, maybe I will find it filing pillars of papers.
Again the Dalai Lama:
“the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous.”
I’m rewarding myself now by writing this post and thinking of you reading, which always sparks joy.
“Creativity is … released automatically when we are on the right paths, in our right minds. It is a force waiting to be released, inherent in each and every one of us.”
Don’t prejudge whether you are creative
We may limit ourselves by thinking that to be creative requires being artistic, and that to be artistic means being a visual artist.
Or, maybe you have an image of a creative person as being free-flowing and slightly eccentric, like me, when my hair looks styled by wind blowing across an airfield, or I forgot to match my socks in the morning, or my sweater buttoning failure demonstrates why you should always button your sweaters from the bottom up.
The best image of creativity? YOU doing what you love, whether you look polished or messy, put-together or haphazard. Creativity doesn’t care.
Moving from potential to practice
Another way to say this is that we all have the potential to be creative. Don’t confuse expressing creativity to being Beethoven, designing change-the-world products, or being the best in your field. The world needs what we are each uniquely called to do.
Knowing we have potential can be uplifting, but moving from potential to possibility requires practice–we need to be working.
By working, I don’t mean the “ugh I’ve got to work” kind–but the passionate, playful kind where you devote yourself to something you love and let it lead you forward.
Paraphrasing Picasso’s famous quote from the lead picture, creative inspiration needs to find you working.
The three foundations of creative practice: Devotion. dedication, and discipline
The first step in developing a robust creative practice is to ask, “What do I most care about?” The effort of creating becomes easier when you feel called or in love with what you do.
When you’re devoted to someone, you want to be around them. When you’re devoted to your practice, you’re willing to show up again and again, in service to that which is begging for your attention.
For example, some years ago I was devoted to gardening (read, obsessed). I didn’t need to ask why, if, or how to garden. I just went out each day and asked, “What’s next?” My devotion led me from being a rabid, untrained beginner to beginning to know about the art and craft of gardening.
Once you’ve found what you love–which can change with time–you must dedicate yourself to it, make space for it, and nourish it in your life. Perhaps inspire yourself with how your work may someday benefit another.
Devotion and dedication don’t require proof of talent.
Years ago, I did a fantastic six-day workshop with The Circle Way creator and writing coach, Christina Baldwin. After many lessons, the most powerful learning for me was realizing that I had the right to call myself a writer. This didn’t mean that I:
Had talent (although I hoped that I did).
Was a good writer.
Would ever be published, recognized or read by others.
Calling myself a writer only meant that I was willing to dedicate a piece of my life to writing. And this I have done ever since.
Being dedicated means that you’re willing to endure the pain of not meeting your standards, at least for a while.
Ira Glass, the founder of the story-based radio show This American Life, speaks of the gap one must tolerate, at the beginning of developing a craft, between knowing what is good and observing what you can do. (Listen to his wisdom here.) You may have to tolerate not being very good for a long time.
That challenge is staring me in the face these days as I work on my book. I have to produce what many writers call “a shitty first draft.” I hate pulling together work that doesn’t yet meet my standards, but it’s what the project requires. Ouch!
Dedication requires keeping going despite your self-critique.
Assuming that you love what you are doing and are willing to dedicate a portion of your life to it, you’ll still need a structure to support your efforts. No sense calling yourself a baker or candlestick maker if you only allow yourself to do your creative work after paying all your bills, organizing your closets, and chasing away all the spiders (unless cleaning is your creative craft).
Your practice wants a starring role in your calendar. Design your life so you can’t avoid your calling. If you want to play guitar, leave yours standing up in the living room. If you want to cook, keep cookbooks out and your cupboards stocked. If you’re a writer, inventor, or are birthing a project, carry a notebook with you just in case the muse does an unexpected fly-by.
Then, keep your project center stage by inventing routines and rituals that focus your attention.
You can live the creative life
With the three D’s of devotion, dedication, and discipline, you can design your life to take creativity from the world of potential to the world of doing and discovery.
Position your creative project on a gorgeous plate in front of you–then feast on it every day.
The books written about Purpose or “Finding Your Inner Purpose” on Amazon have it almost right. They just spelled it wrong.
Change a few letters and you’ll have more fun.
Finding a purpose can feel heavy. A porpoise is buoyant.
Just to be clear, I think having a deep sensing about the “why” of life can help you through the “how.”
But the statements of purpose that we hang on the wall often go flat.
Porpoises, on the other hand, soar.
Have you ever been to one of those weekend growth seminars (guilty as charged) where you stand up on Sunday afternoon and announce to the whole group how you’ve found the meaning of life, or discovered your life’s (yep) purpose?
You feel bold and “empowered.”
But by Monday morning your Big Insight has already faded.
It probably dove back into the deep sea from whence it came.
Which is why I recommend focusing on porpoises, who go deep and then surface again.
My attempts to teach about vision and purpose
When I taught leadership to managers, we did a Very Important Exercise (VIE) in which I asked class members to write about their vision, mission, and purpose. While vision-loving participants perked up and grabbed their pens, others looked as if they had been hit by a sledgehammer or realized that they had to check all of the emails they had received over the previous week.
With hindsight, it might have been better to start with questions about specific moments in their lives, asking them to:
Describe a supper you had on the Fourth of July and who was with you.
Write about the funniest (or most awful) thing that happened at your wedding.
Tell about the one person you never want to meet up with again.
Chances are, questions like these will produce a set of living, breathing answers instead of verbal monuments you can pin to your wall. (I tested this in my workshop “Writing the Moments.”)
In praise of the porpoise-driven life
Knowing your Inner Porpoise invites you into the land of play. Near the beach. In the water. With lots of great fish. No need to sit in a sterile training classroom contemplating the meaning of life.
Instead, I invite you to relish being outside, notice what nature is up to, stop leaving trash in the oceans, and try to leap in the air again. (I can only jump a half inch, but it’s the spirit that counts.)
Having a purpose as we age
Having a purpose in our later years has been “proved to be important.”
It is reported to help one get out of the bed in the morning, even when aching joints beg for another two hours of sleep.
I propose an alternate approach: get a dog.
Jackson, my foster dog, is gifted at getting us out of bed. Every morning he announces, with a big, baritone bark, that 5:45 am is late for breakfast and if we don’t prepare it NOW he will wake up the entire neighborhood.
To compensate, Jackson rewards us with slobbery kisses and tail-wags. I have never seen a purpose do a happy-dance.
As a meaning-seeking junkie, I admit that the quest for “what’s it all about” can be very addicting and I’m often drawn to write about it.
Perhaps I would be better off if I spent my time:
Tracking whether the “shot weed” or the “sticky weed” will win the Millionth Weed contest this spring on my property.
Discovering why I have a hundred hazelnut trees and yet never see a single nut (might have something to do with gray, bushy-tailed marauders).
Learning how to play nice with the thatching ants that have created a four-foot monument to antdom in the middle of my ornamental garden bed.
These concrete issues beg for attention.
The meaning of life is an oasis that keeps disappearing as I approach it.
Having an Inner Porpoise will not transform you into a GBP (Genuinely Better Person) or give you permission to feel superior to folks. That would be very un-porpoise-like. Porpoises know that they live in a fragile eco-system where everyone has to pull together as a team, and no one gets to take more than their fair share.
Time to delete your inner smugness about being transformed.
Enjoy the Porpoise-Driven life
Learn to go deep under the surface of life. Swim in the ocean of great unknowns.
Amazon lists over 50,000 books about purpose.
I checked and there are currently NO books on Amazon on the “Porpoise-Driven Life” or “Finding Your Inner Porpoise.” If I hurry, I’ll have a crack at becoming the number one Amazon Bestseller in this category.
This week, I’ve been thinking about the power of imagination, especially as we age.
Imagination provides a spark for creativity.
Creativity feeds the soul.
Filmmaker David Lynch says that his best ideas come through daydreams. Others find space in nature.
In space and dreams, our imaginations have room to roam.
Here are a few quotes to think about:
“Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it. You do what you want, what you love. Imagination should be the center of your life.” ― Ray Bradbury
We tend to consider imagination too lightly, forgetting that the life we make, for ourselves individually and for the world as a whole, is shaped and limited only by the perimeters of our imagination. Things are as we imagine them to be, as we imagine them into existence. Imagination is creativity, and the way we make our world depends on the vitality of our imagination.
— Thomas Moore
“Reality can be beaten with enough imagination.” –Mark Twain
What feeds your imagination? And where do you go to replenish it?
Another week, another tragedy. I was up before dawn to drive to a conference when tragic news, from the far side of the globe, jolted me awake. If you ever wonder if we’re all connected, notice how fast bad news travels.
Remember John Donne’s poem, written in 1621 when he himself was sick, “No Man is an Island?” He continues: “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
Four hundred years have not changed its relevance.
I began to wonder how I could keep my heart open with compassion for the world without feeling toppled by the weight of its tragedies?
For those of us who label ourselves “sensitive,” this is a real issue.
Another learning from dog land
Once again, I’m learning from the world of dog training (now drawing from BAT (Behavior Adjustment Training). My dog, Jackson, has been known to change, seemingly instantly, from Mr. Sweetheart to Mr. Watch-My-Fangs. I’m learning that he’s not a bad dog, he just gets pushed beyond the threshold of stimulation he can tolerate–for example, people or dogs showing up unexpectedly. He then has a doggy melt-down and begins his ferocious bark.
Since he has no tools for politely saying, “This is pushing my boundaries,” I have to watch out for him and learn to read the subtle signs of his becoming tense. When he’s in panic mode, it’s too late. My job is to challenge him to learn, without overstimulating him.
Life in an overstimulated world
We humans also become overstimulated by an environment where we can receive round the clock (bad) news, plus anxiety-provoking situations, such as politics, the economy or Seattle traffic. If we’re fatigued as we try to process it all, we may slip over our edge. We don’t bark, but we may freeze up, feel depressed, want to lash out, become exhausted, eat too much or not enough, drop the ball on a project–reacting in whatever is our default behavior.
My M.O. is to feel depressed and exhausted.
Sometimes my heart breaks after hearing the story of just one refugee family from Syria, let alone the enormity of the refugee crisis.
Stresses cumulate, as they do for Jackson. I need to learn when to pull back and calm, even if it means disconnecting from news of the world, at least for a while.
When the world starts weighing you down.
Here’s what I’m discovering.
See the gift
Recognize that your sensitivity, empathy, and compassion are sacred gifts, which may, in turn, weigh you down. You feel what is happening. Your intuition informs you about the pain of others. You’re moved by the world. How beautiful is that? Just remember, this gift comes with a price, one that requires learning to care for yourself.
On balance, isn’t it worth it?
Note to self: it’s normal to be depressed around mass shootings.
Take care of your body.
Sleep and eat decently. When I am tired and hungry, my sensitivities escalate, and I lose my ability to put life into perspective. I’ve learned not to make verdicts about the future when I’m exhausted. Better to eat some whole foods, go to bed early, and pray for more light in the morning.
Be careful generalizing about the world.
Bad news has a way of going viral, while good news just waits in the wings. I cringe with the latest foolish declarations from Washington, D.C. But babies keep being born, inventions created, scientists make amazing discoveries, and poets keep writing. And even politicians with whom I don’t agree are probably doing good work on many fronts. At least I hope so.
Take care of your energy level and sign off when needed.
It saddens me to know that some friends don’t listen to the news at all. I prefer to try for balance, which means listening to some news without letting it depress me
It’s hard to change the world when you’re feeling crippled by the news of the world.
Recognize the signs of over-stimulation.
When over-stimulated, Jackson goes on high alert. I’m trying to learn to read my signs of being over-stimulated or living off adrenalin. You don’t have to do it all. It’s 100% OK to cancel an engagement and pull back from a party if you need to be in a calm space and recover.
I can rebound by engaging creatively. When you create something you care about (poem, pasta, crossword puzzle) the process will slow you down, invite you to focus, engage your mind, and help you to express what you’re feeling, Plus you end up with something cool.
Creating is my favorite way to brain-flush.
Take a small step.
Action, however small, melts the numbness when I feel “it’s all too much.” Even making a phone call can bring a tiny sense of agency back into life.
If you are highly empathic, you may need a special program of grounding skills. You probably intuitively do this by taking a walk in nature, doing tai chi, yoga or meditation, or finding a way to feel rooted and connected to yourself and your surroundings. When I am grounded some of the pain I experience in the world can run through me without plugging up my heart.
Savor the bright moments.
This week, nature blessed Seattle-ites with unseasonably warm weather and blue skies, offering a window of early Spring, and making up, just a bit, for the blizzard that inflicted so much damage a few weeks ago. Thanks to nature’s gift, my mood has lifted, and the world feels less heavy. I am grateful.
Hear the music.
I offer a small treat below, just because.
As we navigate stressful times, when we have immediate access to pains from around the world, we need to take extra care of ourselves so that we can function without checking out.
The weight of the world doesn’t look like it’s going to get lighter any time soon, but we can learn to both feel it deeply and let it go.
“Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you.”