Scarcity and Participation Trophies

Three years ago, I wrote about jealousy, a topic that fascinates me. I shared my belief that accepting our feelings of envy and exploring them can be surprisingly freeing and insightful.

Last November, I was scrolling on Instagram and discovered a beautiful post by the amazing artist and writer Sophie Lucido Johnson. She linked jealousy with the concept of scarcity, which got my brain percolating.

Three months ago I decided to write about the 2012 frenzy in professional basketball known as “Linsanity.” Despite being a little late to the party on that one, I felt there was something to be learned from Jeremy Lin’s brief period of transcendence.

I think these topics are connected, that they have similar lessons to convey, and my mind has been slowly putting the pieces together over the years. Then, a random story I heard served as the missing piece that started to fill in the picture.

The story involves a girl who threw away her participation trophy and told her soccer teammates that they should do the same because the trophies were meaningless. Stories like this are meant to elicit cheers of “right on!”—but this one just made me sad.

Our culture has a complicated relationship with participation trophies in kids’ sports. Lots of people think these trophies diminish and deter achievement, while other folks believe they endorse and encourage effort.

When I was a kid, I was tiny and couldn’t throw or catch a ball to save my life, so I hated the team sports we were forced to play in gym class. As an adult, I haven’t had to deal with this issue much due to my lack of experience as a sports parent. When my stepson was young, he briefly played baseball and basketball, so I did attend a few games, where I had the opportunity to ponder the advantages of competitive athletics from a new perspective.

I now believe that, if handled properly (which is clearly a big ask), kids’ sports can have tons of benefits. Research on girls who play sports bears this out.

First, we have to recognize that the vast majority of kids who play team sports are not going to win “real” trophies, medals, or championships. They are not going to go on to play team sports in college or get drafted into the big leagues or compete at the Olympics.

Visions of elusive medals can help bring out the best in some contenders, but do we truly believe that athletics exist only to reward those who triumph?

The reason sports are tightly woven into education and communities is not to help funnel the top performers into future careers or to channel the energy of competitive kids and parents (though these objectives certainly play a part). We offer team sports to children because they are a hands-on tool for teaching collaboration, responsibility, dedication, and resilience.

If a child is putting in the time and supporting their teammates, a participation trophy can be a concrete way to acknowledge their undertaking. While kids are still developing both physically and mentally, taking a hard line on how there can only be one winner seems counter-productive.

And what if we carry this notion of scarcity outside the sports arena? We may find that school and work and even hobbies become far more stressful than need be.

A belief in scarcity can cause us to put off or give up entirely on a project because we fear that we will never be the best. Scarcity can make us jealous of the success of others, even our friends, because it seems as if there is only so much good fortune to go around.

We can and should pat ourselves on the back when we get a promotion, earn a degree, or find new ways to stretch and grow. But I would like to see every one of us embrace the spirit behind the participation trophy and give ourselves frequent accolades for all the myriad things we do to get through each day. Because maybe, just maybe, life itself is found in moments of pure participation.   

Nervous Newbie in the Room

The tag on my tea bag reads “When fear is forcing you to give up, call upon your heart’s courage to continue.” (photo effects from Nexmuse.com)

Recently I signed up for a two-week trial period at a local fitness club that offers yoga and cycle classes. I already love yoga, but I had never taken an indoor cycling (“spin”) class. The whole idea intimidated me, which was part of the appeal.

You see, for the past five years I’ve been pushing myself to try new things—not just the activities I’ve been dreaming of doing, but the ones that take me beyond my comfort zone as well.

I’m not a huge fan of riding regular bikes. As a matter of fact, last summer I dragged my unused bike out of the basement, dusted it off, and sold it on Facebook Marketplace. And I’m familiar with the stereotype of the screaming, over-caffeinated cycle instructor. So, I was really curious to see how I would take to this new form of exercise.

As I walked through the studio door to take an introductory cycle class, I felt as if the fear was written on my face, as if my every step announced that I was out of my element.

At the intro class, we were all beginners. The instructor went over terminology, how to set up our bikes, and how to position ourselves. The actual cycling was minimal—no need to worry at all!

The big challenge came a week later when I took my first regular class with experienced riders. As I struggled to adjust my seat and handlebars and get my heart rate monitor working, I was sure it was painfully obvious I didn’t know what I was doing. Ugh, I just wanted to be invisible.

How many times had I let this kind of unease with being viewed as an incompetent, clueless newbie stop me from trying something?

Later that day, I started thinking about how being seen and not seen are two sides of the same coin.

For the past year I’ve been writing a full-length memoir, and lots of memories have surfaced. As a kid, I felt like I was often ignored due to my small size and shyness. Sometimes it seemed as if the only thing worse than being disregarded was being sized up by judgmental eyes.

I think even the most introverted human wants to be noticed on occasion, with kindness if at all possible. We all want to know that we matter, that we deserve to be accepted and understood. But we can’t control how others interpret us.  

I’ve heard that you shouldn’t assume that others are gawking at you and tallying up your faults—that strangers truly don’t care that much about you. They are likely too busy thinking about themselves and their own stuff.

Still, when you are getting ready to do something scary and different, it’s like a spotlight settles upon you as each movement is magnified and time practically stands still.

I don’t have a magic solution for this predicament. The first thing to remember is that you are not alone. In my first full cycle class, the instructor could not get her music to come out of the studio speakers. Her struggle reminded me that we all have moments when things don’t go smoothly.

Even when you feel like the biggest sore thumb in the room, this too, shall pass. In several weeks or months, you will look back and grin at your frightened, novice self. With your awkward phase so fresh in your mind, you can now serve as the perfect guide for other beginners. You can tell them how pushing through those first awful moments will be so worth it in the end.

I haven’t always liked the new things that I’ve tried, but I have committed to always giving myself the chance to find out.

The Accidental Thumb Experiment

Yup, that’s my hand. I used Nexmuse to make the X-ray look even cooler.

Six years ago, I injured myself in a gardening-shears incident. No, I didn’t nearly cut a finger off or anything that dramatic. I just clipped with such vigorous force that the tendon in my left thumb became inflamed.

In the following weeks, I put additional pressure on the sore spot by going kayaking. Eventually, my thumb became locked in a straight position, something known as trigger finger. Forcing it to bend created a popping sensation inside that made me shudder.

You might already know this, but our “opposable” thumbs are really important. You appreciate this once your thumb becomes nonfunctional, even if it’s the one on your non-dominant hand. You can’t turn doorknobs with that hand, open jars, or do anything that requires a firm yet flexible grip.

My doctor referred me to a specialist, who gave me three shots of corticosteroids in my thumb over the course of 16 months. The shots failed to work, leaving surgery as the last option. By the time I completed post-op physical therapy, my thumb had been messed up for at least two and a half years.

During this time, I happened upon a podcast interview with Dr. Neha Sangwan, the author of a book called Talk Rx: Five Steps to Honest Conversation that Create Connections, Health and Happiness. Dr. Sangwan explained that before her patients are discharged from the hospital, she asks them five questions designed to help them avoid returning to the hospital with the same ailment. The questions include: Why this? Why now? What else in your life needs to be healed?

I asked myself these questions, and they led me to conclude that I was working so hard on our yard, all the while ignoring the pain that was developing in my thumb, because I was still feeling out of place in our new home and neighborhood. I didn’t think I was worthy of living in a house that was so nice compared to my previous residences, and I thought I needed to prove to my neighbors that I belonged.

Problem solved, right?

Fast forward to last fall, when I injured my right thumb. I was using kitchen shears in a similarly obsessive fashion, trimming fat from meat. Again, I followed this up by paddle-boarding a couple days later, further irritating the same area.

The soreness started to transition into stiffness, and I could tell that the popping was coming soon. The same doctor administered a shot, and this time it worked. I was so relieved!

I asked myself Dr. Sangwan’s questions again. Perhaps I was preoccupied with how much fat was in my food because I am fearful of gaining weight—an issue that has troubled me since adolescence. Plus, my perfectionistic tendencies make it hard for me to know when to quit.

This past month, some friends were coming over one Saturday. With both thumbs in working order, I indulged my itch and did a little trimming in the yard, promising myself that the minute I felt any discomfort I would stop. Well, I went a hair or two beyond that threshold. And then, a couple days later I aggressively used the kitchen shears.

So, here I am, my thumb is sore and getting worse, and I have an appointment with the doctor later this week.

What was I thinking?! Well, clearly I am still insecure about my home and my weight (among many other things).

Addressing my self-doubt is a lifelong process, but in the meantime, there are things I can do to minimize the damage I cause to myself.

I am now well aware what actions I need to steer clear of—I know that once I get a pair of hedge clippers or shears in my hands, I will go overboard. And once I hurt myself, I don’t let up on other activities that I know will make the issue worse.

This situation reminds me of my drinking. I had to finally admit that my dreams of being a take-it-or-leave-it drinker were just that—dreams. Some nights I could stop after two glasses of wine. But other nights, there was no off switch.  

Thus, I chose to say good-bye to alcohol. I could have kept trying to make moderation a reality, all the while hurting myself and wasting precious time. Or, I could quit and start reclaiming all that time, health, and peace of mind.

Some (maybe all) of us have behaviors and impulses that we struggle to regulate. We might fear that ditching them entirely says something unsavory about us—that we are weak, that we didn’t try hard enough to find the right balance, that the object of our preoccupation is running the show. I don’t think that anymore.

In an interview with Kathy Caprino, Dr. Sangwan says: “Your body is talking. Are you listening?”

I’ve decided to listen to my body and to reject those actions that produce negative results. I have more than enough data from this six-year experiment with my thumbs, and I’m going to use it to set healthy new boundaries for myself.

An Intentional Life: Step 5, Evolution

My hand-drawn version of the color intensity scales I use instead of numeric scales

Other steps: Step 1 | Step 2 | Steps 3-4

Here we are, at the final step in my life-balance course. Have you been working on your activities in The Four Ps? If you’ve reached the end of your measurement period, then it’s time to revisit the categories and document any changes.

Get out the list of goals you developed for each category. Check off the items where your actions evolved, even if the end result didn’t reach your original target. Feel free to add notes about any surprising discoveries, struggles, or accomplishments.

Now, take a look at the scales you created and the movement you hoped to generate. Let’s say you wanted to move from a 3 to a 5 in Progress. You didn’t check off all your goals, but you did start taking guitar lessons, so you decide to give yourself a 4 instead of a 5. Do this for each category. And remember, these measurements are entirely up to you. No one is judging you, and no one is benefitting from this process but you, so be honest.

How do you feel about the balance of activities in your life now? Less stressed? More stressed? More active? More fulfilled? Kinda frustrated?

Where can you adjust your goals to assist with your continuing evolution? Scale your goals up or down as you wish. If you are excited by your development, you can always increase your goals (but be sure to respect your limits—we all have them). Or, maybe you bit off more than you could chew and got overwhelmed. There is no shame in tweaking your goals and giving it another try.

It’s important not to get down on yourself if you didn’t make much (or any) movement. For many of us, balancing our time and activities is hard, otherwise we would already be crushing it. Ask yourself what is standing in your way and what it will take to remove those obstacles. In the places where you did see movement, celebrate your progress, and look for clues to your success.

Even if you started and stopped the process or if you’re only reading through the steps right now, you should be proud that you’re open to thinking differently about how you spend your time.  

If you did complete the course, don’t forget that balancing your life is an ongoing process. That’s right—this is not the end!

Change your Four Ps depending on the season, the weather, family needs, new opportunities, whatever. This is all about finding a balance of activities that best suits your unfolding life.

Feel free to repeat these exercises and reset your goals as many times and as frequently as you wish. You can back up and restart at whichever step makes the most sense for you. Step 1 or Step 3 are good places to restart.

Here are some tips and words of encouragement for the road:

It’s ok to be right where you are.

It’s also ok to want to grow, stretch, and evolve.

It’s ok to invest in yourself through self-reflection.

It’s ok to move at your own pace.

It’s ok to respect your own energy levels.

It’s ok to respect your own capacity for performing under pressure.

Don’t worry about reaching your goals: Just keep making progress, no matter the amount.

Ask: What can I learn from this?

There will be times when you won’t be able to work toward your goals due to personal commitments, economic demands, and societal conventions; but do try make intentional choices during the time when you are in control.

I believe in you! I believe in us!

Get started or start over: Step 1 | Step 2 | Steps 3-4

Are You Ready to Shine?

Basketball isn’t exactly my favorite sport, but I’m familiar with the major players. I was a big Michael Jordan fan back in the day, I’m mildly obsessed with Shaquille O’Neal, and my current faves are Bradley Beal, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant. If one of the NBA teams from my various hometowns appears headed to the playoffs, I usually start paying attention.

So, when the New York Knicks brought backup player Jeremy Shu-How Lin off the bench in 2012, and the team proceeded to go on a thrilling run, I took notice. It’s hard to overstate the frenzy that became known as “Linsanity.” Lin was on fire, helping resuscitate the Knicks at the end of a disappointing season.  

The crowds were going nuts. Fans held up signs with playful puns on Lin’s name—like “Truly a Linderella story”—and waved giant carboard print-outs of Lin’s face. Suddenly, I was counting the minutes until the next Knicks game. The energy exploded through our television, and I found myself jumping up and cheering.

Lin was all over the local New York City newspapers. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated several times, scored the cover of TIME magazine, and even had his own flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The Knicks made it to the postseason thanks in large part to Lin’s play, but he exited prior to the playoffs due to a knee injury. Linsanity was over, but what a ride it was while it lasted.

Not to insult Lin, but I’m guessing he won’t be remembered on the same level as basketball greats like Jordan or LeBron James, or even within the next several tiers of players. But for seven glorious weeks in 2012, no one was more talked about or admired in the sports arena.

I have long enjoyed watching people excel in their chosen fields. I think most humans are drawn to dramatic success stories. Our appreciation is usually limited to those whose work takes place on the public stage—like athletes, actors, musicians, and other performing artists.

As a writer, I have struggled to come to terms with my lack of achievement. While I was in college, I came to believe that rising to the top of the literary world was essential to my sense of self-worth. Anything less would indicate that I was inadequate. Instead of working hard to prove that I was more than adequate, I simply gave up under my own judgmental eye.

These days, I’m comfortable admitting that it’s a long shot I’ll ever be a famous, decorated author. Very few people get to sit atop the heap. But I do believe that Linsanity-like moments of transcendence are available to us all, regardless of who we are or what we do.

I’m talking about experiences where everything comes together, when you’re in a groove and it just feels right.

Here’s a real-time example: I wrote a full-length memoir recently. After thoroughly editing it twice, I recruited some test readers to determine if I have something worth publishing. Despite my fears, I took a deep breath and hit send on a series of emails. The comments have started coming in, and I’ve had conversations with several readers.

For someone who less than five years ago thought she had given up on her writing for good, it sure is a bizarre feeling to discuss your manuscript with someone, to hear what passages touched them and what made them laugh. Maybe this book won’t be read by more than a handful of people, but the experience of having it reflected back to me by someone else has been priceless. I imagine it’s a little like having a crowd painting your name on signs and screaming for you.  

A New York Times article reported how Lin was “underestimated and overlooked” for years and credited his breakthrough with the Knicks to his “perseverance, hard work and self-belief.”

You have to be open to the possibility of channeling Linsanity. You have to put yourself out there. You have to let the coach of the universe know that you’re ready to shine.

Stepping up to the line is scary. Going for a promotion, taking your first-ever ballroom dance class, heck, even attending a party after these long lockdowns—challenges of any size can be intimidating.  

But if you can get past the assumption that being “the best” is the only trophy worth having, then you can bask in your own personal breakthroughs.

Hokey and Proud

The wall above my desk is super cheesy, eh?

I just wrote a book—a full-on 64,000-plus word book! The process started last September, and it took me five months to finish the first draft. Then, I needed three months to complete two extremely thorough edits. Yesterday, I sent the manuscript out to some trusted folks to give it a read and let me know if I have something worth publishing.

For a person with a history of anxiety and catastrophizing, this is a big leap. Especially since the book is about my self-doubt—how I came to have it, how it held me back, and how I am finally moving past it.

I have much trepidation about the forthcoming responses from my test readers. Amongst my many fears is the sinking feeling that this memoir reveals me to be hopelessly trite. And I don’t think I’m alone in preferring not to be associated with that trait.

Call it what you like—hokey, cheesy, corny, sentimental, earnest—it’s a quality that our society doesn’t typically value, at least not proudly. These words might mean slightly different things, but I think they all imply a certain softness, and being soft marks us as vulnerable.

On the Ten Percent Happier meditation app (which I use faithfully), co-founder and journalist Dan Harris has referred to his aversion to coming across as cheesy. It’s helpful to know that someone as successful as Harris struggles with the connotations of this label.

I’ve come up with some examples from my own life to help illustrate what I’m talking about here. I think you will agree that some of this stuff is pretty embarrassing:

Hokey – Making up a song about our dog, sung to the tune of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy

Cheesy – Clapping along with an audience on TV (I get this from my mom)

Corny – Using sayings like “good golly!” and “holy guacamole!”

Goofy – Dancing down an empty aisle at the grocery store

Sentimental – Crying while watching This Is Us

Treacly – Crying while watching Top Chef’s Restaurant Week (it was soooo good this season)!

Trite – Hanging inspirational quotes, like “enjoy the journey,” on the wall above my desk

Earnest – Believing an “angel” in human form was sent to save me at just the right time

As I typed this list, it occurred to me that these behaviors and emotions are coded (at least partly) as feminine and/or young. Our culture tends to idolize femininity and youth, but we don’t seem to respect them. There is a delicacy that makes femininity and youth special but not dignified.

Dignity, on the other hand, is a characteristic that conveys strength and power, which is coded as masculine and mature. I’m not saying I agree with the associations of these words as being female or male, or that one or the other is necessarily good or bad. I just wish we could get beyond the kinds of simplistic characterizations that hem us in and make us anxious.

Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being soft. We are all fragile sometimes. And if we’re lucky, we feel free to act silly when the mood strikes us. I don’t think anyone is immune to these attributes—it’s just a question of whether we are in touch with them and can embrace them.

If my book, and by extension me, turns out to be sappy, I will wear that badge proudly.  

Moving at the Speed of YOU

The internet is overflowing with motivational quotes. I often take screenshots on my phone of messages that speak to me. As I was transferring a batch of these images to my laptop recently, this one came up: “Be the Kind of Woman That Makes Other Women Want to Up Their Game.”

(Note: A Google search revealed that this quote has been shared countless times in numerous designs and with a variety of attributions. I tried to identify the original author, with no luck as of yet.)

I can see why many women would find these words inspiring. But I saved the quote because it provoked complicated feelings that I wanted to explore later.

We humans frequently compare ourselves to each other, and we like to compete to determine who’s the best at pretty much everything. Social media platforms take advantage of this inclination. They pit us against each other in a battle of likes and follows and retweets.

As someone who grew up feeling like I was “less than” my peers, and who still struggles with my inner critic, social media is like thumbing through a catalog of successful people—every one of them apparently working harder than me to get ahead.

The self-interrogation starts: Did I do enough today? Did I do the right things? Did I do them well? Am I smart? Interesting? Highly competent? Better than average? More than mediocre?

For decades I wished that I were more self-motived, ambitious, driven. But when I left my last full-time job a couple years ago, I did so with the knowledge that I no longer wanted to climb the corporate ladder. I had ascended as high as I cared to on my office’s organizational chart, and I was surprisingly ok with the fact that I would never hold a VP or executive director title.

Ok, it stings a bit, but I’m getting used to it.  

In our culture, we often look down on those we think aren’t living up to their potential or to society’s expectations. I’ve been guilty of this myself—guilty of thinking people are being lazy and taking advantage of others.

Now I’m unemployed and looking at this from a new perspective…

We already know that people are different in all kinds of wonderful ways. Maybe we are also different in our ability to grind away.

Three questions come to mind:

1) What if there is a wide spectrum of how much physical and mental energy humans are capable of exerting on a regular basis over an extended period of time?

2) What if our society does a poor job of providing people with the opportunity to identify the kind of work that suits them best?

3) What if getting frustrated that not everyone is busting their butt equally is a pointless and unhelpful endeavor?

Maybe some us were meant for a slower life.

Maybe some of us get stressed out easier than others.

Maybe it’s ok if we don’t all work at the same speed and intensity.

Maybe some of us take longer to accelerate in life, while others decelerate sooner.  

Maybe some of us need longer sabbaticals in between periods of steady employment.

Maybe I don’t want to push myself in order to make another woman feel like she needs to do more.

Maybe, just maybe, our cultural standards don’t work well for everyone, and we need to challenge ourselves to think about how we can expand our definition of work and achievement and contribution to family and society.

More on this to come!

Why I’m Breaking Up with To-Do Lists

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved making lists—particularly to-do lists. Those empty little boxes next to each task thrill me, and I can barely wait to fill them in with triumphant checkmarks.

Over the last couple years, my to-do list habit grew and morphed into something a bit more obsessive. The items multiplied and branched out into sub-categories. I experimented with keeping a Bullet Journal and settled on a variation that required me to rewrite the list over again every morning in a steno book.

Then I left my job and COVID hit, and suddenly I didn’t need such elaborate lists (if I ever did). And yet, I remained in thrall to those little suckers. They appeared on post-its and scraps of paper in my kitchen, in notebooks of all sizes, typed up in my phone notes, and in files on my laptop. I started to suspect that all this documenting and tracking of everything from trivial daily tasks to big life goals might be contributing to my anxiety.

Then, I got a brilliant idea, which I must credit in part to dancer, choreographer, and author Twyla Tharp. In her book “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life,” Tharp shares her practice of temporarily removing the biggest distractions from her life in order to boost creativity and focus. For a week, she steers clear of multitasking, movies, numbers, and background music.

Tharp writes: “Subtracting your dependence on some of the things you take for granted increases your independence. It’s liberating, forcing you to rely on your own ability rather than your customary crutches.”

She’s right, of course. Quitting to-do lists for a short period of time felt so freeing that I’ve chosen to strike them indefinitely—maybe forever.

What am I getting out of it?

Once I stopped writing down all my tasks, I started to get a better idea of my true priorities. Apparently, in my haste to check off items on the list, I had been tackling the easy tasks first plus the ones I wanted to get out of the way. Consequently, the things I really wanted to do kept sliding to the bottom of the list and then on to the next day, and the next, and the next.

With no list taunting me, I’m able to ask myself, what do I want to do right now? And then I do it. It’s sounds ridiculous, but for someone like me, it seems to be working.

For important items, like doctor’s appointments, I schedule them in the calendar in my phone and set a digital reminder to make sure I don’t miss them. But I do this only for appointments that must not be missed. Everything else is up for grabs.

This hasn’t been easy. My hand wants to grab that pen and paper. My mind wants to see what all is on my plate. But I stop myself and move on. And it gets easier every day. My mind feels more spacious and fluid.

I also decided to stop mentally ticking off all my accomplishments for the day. I used to do this in bed at night, and though it sounds like a nice way to pat myself on the back, in practice it functioned too much like a nightly meeting with the judge who resides inside my head.

Maybe one day I will try making a simpler version of my to-do lists; or maybe, like alcohol, my life is better without them.

The Domino Effect

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Sometimes when I struggle with making a decision or writing a blog post, I “interview” myself. When I have some time alone, I ask myself probing questions and answer them, often out loud to hear how they sound. Does this make me sound nutty? Don’t answer that.

Recently, I asked myself what I thought was the most influential thing that I’ve done to improve my confidence and peace of mind. If I could recommend one big life-changing step to others, what would it be? This was not a difficult question to tackle, except I kept changing my answer—maybe it was quitting drinking three years ago, or maybe it was quitting smoking 11 years ago, or maybe it was something else.

Picture a long line of dominoes standing on their ends. When you push one it knocks down the next domino and so on until the final domino falls. Which domino would you say is the single most important piece in getting the chain from the beginning to the end point? The first domino gets everything rolling, of course. And the last one completes the action. But every domino in the chain connects the domino before it to the domino after it—each one serves a purpose and keeps the momentum alive.

That’s how it’s been for me this past decade-plus. Each decision I made to improve my life was often impacted by the decision before it and then led to a subsequent positive choice. After I quit smoking, I started exercising more. Feeling better made me want to live in a place where I could get outside more. When my husband and I moved, being around nature made me want to improve my physical and mental health even more. I started meditating and eating mostly Paleo. This led me to quit drinking, which led me to take a writing workshop. Writing more led me to leave my marketing job in search of something more fulfilling.

Each step of this journey played its part, just like each domino plays its part in the chain reaction. When we get stuck on one step, the way a domino occasionally fails to push over the next one, we can miss out on all the other great steps that are waiting on the other side.

So, I can’t really say what is the best life-changing action someone could or should take. But I can say that the most important thing you can do is identify the next critical action—whether it’s finding a form of exercise you actually want to do, leaving a stressful job, getting into therapy, moving on from a bad relationship—and take it, so that the domino effect of your life never stops progressing.

 

The Difference Between Oprah and Me

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Impressionism in every day life: my feet under our patio table.

As I was scrolling through Facebook recently, I came upon a post from a former co-worker I like and admire very much. She was announcing that she had accepted an impressive new job. This was not the first colleague or friend to share similar news within the last several months.

Each time, I was truly happy to learn that someone for whom I have mad respect earned a major promotion, decided to start their own business, or otherwise achieved something extraordinary career-wise.

But I also felt a chilly wind blowing through my chest. Someone else’s success often leads me to panic that I am flailing about in life, and it’s particularly tough when I’m going through an iffy transition period.

Currently, I am making a shift in my career, and I guess you could say I’m playing a long game—though that phrasing would imply that a clear plan is in effect. In reality, there’s no telling how this move will pan out. Given my pessimistic and impatient nature, it’s pretty amazing that I’ve taken such a leap without knowing exactly how or where I’ll land.

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Flowers alongside Lake Linganore, Md.

The Self-Motivation Spectrum

On a long drive the other day, I did a little self coaching to process my fear of being an underachiever. As I have many times before, I pictured a spectrum that measures a potent mix of ambition, drive, and perseverance.

At one end of this spectrum are people like Oprah who started out their lives with very few advantages yet became wildly successful. These people shine bright in their chosen field, take on daring new projects, and lead the way for others. They are respected and reliable. Inspired and inspiring.

The kind of person who resides at the other end of the spectrum isn’t necessarily unimaginative or lazy, but for whatever reason they are not inclined to step outside their comfort zone, to take risks, to push ahead.

By my own estimation, I sit somewhere in the middle of that spectrum—maybe a bit above the center marker, or maybe just below (depending on the day, month, or year). Where you fall on the spectrum doesn’t matter so much, as long as you are happy and fulfilled.

For those of us who wish we were a little higher on the spectrum, an important question emerges: Why do folks land at various points along the spectrum? I’ve formed a theory that might help answer that question.

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Sign outside a home in Williamsport, Md.

Toxic Stress

When I am faced with uncharted territory—something new, challenging, different—I typically convert much of the accompanying uncertainty and excitement into stress.

In situations like this, I would define stress as a toxic combination of three tendencies:

1. Catastrophizing: Conjuring up all the things that could go wrong, from the small to the spectacular.

2. Self-doubt: Assuming I will fail because I’m really not that talented, skilled, or industrious.

3. Martyrdom: Reminding myself that I have terrible luck, and life is so unfair.

Once stress takes form, I grab onto it like it’s a life raft in choppy water. But stress is not a lifesaver—its an identity that I cling to out of fear. I’m afraid to let go of that anxious person I’ve always been. It’s a habit as strong and automatic as any addiction.

People like Oprah, I believe, convert the same uncertainty and excitement into positive energy or fuel. They thrive on pushing themselves to reach higher, build new skills, and cross new thresholds. I’m sure they experience stress and doubt, too. But they might end up with 20 percent stress and 80 percent motivation, while I end up with 80 percent stress and 20 percent motivation.

Where Oprah sees opportunity, I see obstacles.

Jessie Graff is one of the top competitors on the show American Ninja Warrior. In the final seconds of an amazing run a couple years ago, Graff fell off the last obstacle, thus eliminating herself from the competition. She was interviewed on the sidelines afterward, and Graff said she was ok with falling—that discovering the limit of her abilities showed her where she needed to do the work. What a fabulous outlook to have!

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Tools for sale at a street fair in Elkridge, Md.

Attitude Adjustment

So…I’ve hypothesized that some of us on the spectrum are stressing ourselves out far more than we should, and that is leading to discomfort and inertia. Now what?

Lately I’ve been listening more closely to the words that come out of my mouth—specifically the off-the-cuff answers I give to unexpected questions.

Just the other day, my mother’s therapist suggested something I could do to help her, and I was full of reasons why it wouldn’t work. As the words left my lips, I could hear the negativity, and I wanted to suck them back in. Too late. As the counselor urged me to focus on the potential positives, I sat there feeling ashamed of my pessimistic mindset.

A recent commenter on this very blog suggested that I “stop being so over critical.” Oh, how I would love to!

But that’s just it—no one can do this but me. Like Graff, my limits are pointing to where I need to do the work. If I want to move up a few notches on the motivation spectrum, I need to convert some of that excess stress to excitement, hope, and optimism.

Here are a few simple strategies I’m employing:

– When I read posts from or about inspiring people, rather than focus on how much I envy them or differ from them, I will try to focus on what I can learn from them.

– Instead of noting all the times I’ve faltered, I will recall the times I’ve succeeded. This will come more naturally if I practice telling myself over and over: You have what it takes!

– I will remind myself that even hugely accomplished people fail at various points in their lives. No one can win all the time, and failure is actually critical to success.

– I have committed that my next three blog posts will be more positive. Period.

Shaking off my longtime stress monkey isn’t going to happen overnight. Years of conditioning have etched unease into my nervous system.

But progress will come, if I embrace this attitude adjustment as a key part of my ongoing journey.

In the meantime, keep those announcements coming, my friends! I’m so proud of you all.