Category Archives: mental attitude

PERFECTION VS. PRACTICE

Today I read a beautiful post by my artist friend, Kerin Rose, on resiliency.

It’s just what I needed to hear today. I’ve been feeling mopey and wobbly for quite awhile now. Jon says I’m even waking up grumpy from naps. What a waste of a good nap!

I’ve tried to figure out why, but end up in useless mind swirls. Waves of anxiety, bouts self-judgment, exasperation with others (and not knowing how to manage that).

Kerin’s words remind me of what determines how we move forward, and how we get stuck.

Resiliency. (The ability to bounce back.)

I’d add to the list….

Grit. (The belief that we can get through it.)

Vulnerability. (The realization that we are not perfect, and never will be.)

And practice. (Wha……??!!)

Let me explain that last one, because it’s way more subtle than you might think.

Whenever we take up a new skill–piano playing, martial arts, writing–we’re told to practice, practice, practice.

We’re even supposed to “practice” yoga. And meditation. Enlightenment, like everything else that requires skill, takes that proverbial 10,000 hours of practice.

But let’s face it. Most practice is b*o*r*i*n*g. Repetitious. Monotonous. Right?

And many nay-sayers say it depends on what you practice, and how. After all, if you practice an error, you get really, really good at that error.

So what’s the use of practicing?

It’s not what you think.

For example, most Westerners probably think that we should practice meditation because we can empty our brain, and achieve enlightenment. Since most of us may not want empty brains, we think time spent meditating is not time well-spent.

But it turns out meditating–or rather, even trying to meditatehas its own rewards. Even a few minutes a day helps our brain focus better. Being able to recognize a thought, acknowledge it, evaluating it, helps us manage our emotional states better. Our “enlightenment” is actually the realization that much of what we have the luxury of creating in our lives, comes from our emotions and thoughts and perceptions about how the world works. We have the ability to change that for the better. Practice makes it so.

In fact, the value of our practice may be greater than the actual goal we practice for.

I found this in martial arts. Yes, the practice of Tae Kwon Do resulted in me attaining a certain quality of form (for a few years, anyway!) But the real gift was realizing I could get very good at something, even if I didn’t really have a knack or a gift for it. I just loved it. And loving it kept me practicing.

Practicing got me skills, but it also taught me to have more confidence, and trust, in my process and in myself.

(This is why I tell people not to beat themselves up for not “doing it right”, whatever THAT is. Whatever works for you is the right way to do it.)

That’s why we feel better when we actually work our craft. Whether we make art, play an instrument, work in our gardens, sing, dance, whatever our creative thing is, practicing it makes us feel engaged, and more ourselves.

In fact, one of my practices is writing. Lately, I’m encouraging myself to write as soon as an idea hits. This post is a result of that practice. (And guess what? It’s working! I feel better!)

In short, practice is what gives us resiliency and grit.
Practice is what allows us to be vulnerable. Allows us to connect. Encourages us to be open to something new.

Practice may not make perfect.
But practice is what makes us better. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Now go make something today!

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Filed under art, martial arts, mastery, mental attitude

THE JOURNEY

Don’t forget to pack joy when you travel or do a show–my latest article at Fine Art Views.

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Filed under art, craft, craft shows, life lessons, mental attitude

MOTHER’S DAY

I’m too hot and lazy today to write a post. So I’m reprinting one from my old blog at Radio Userland, one of the early blog sites.

Enjoy!

Many years ago, I was miserably single, sure that I would end my life alone in a messy house filled with cats. Each new relationship seemed to vie for the previous one for weirdness and dysfunction.

I drove up to my sister’s house for a visit one weekend. While we waited for her husband Tom to get home from work, I helped watch her boys while she took down the laundry.

They lived in a tiny town 30 minutes outside a big city, in a run-down but charming old farmhouse Sue had painted and wall papered to within an inch of its life. It was warm and homey.

We were out in their spacious backyard. It was a beautiful, sunny summer day. A brisk wind whipped the sheets on the clothesline as Sue struggled to unpin them. Joey, her oldest boy, was running happily to and fro, occasionally plowing into a flapping sheet, his little three-year-old body pushing into its folds. Her baby Eddie was gurgling in his bouncy chair.

I was almost heartsick with envy. I was happy for Sue, of course. But I wondered if I would ever have such joy in my life.

The bees buzzed through the flowers, the wind blew, and all birds sang. I finally set aside my envious heart and chased Joe through the sheets as he shrieked with delight.

I remain, to this day, “Aunt You” thanks to Joe’s inability to pronounce the letter “L” at the time.

Years later, my husband and I moved to New England with our newborn baby. We bought our first home, a run-down farmhouse in the middle of Keene.

It was July, and in the middle of a major heat wave when we moved in. We only had one fan. Jon went off in the mornings to his air-conditioned office. I would lie on the floor panting in front of the fan, with Robin gazing at me with solemn eyes at my side.

We had a washing machine, but no dryer. I slogged out huge baskets of cloth diapers (yes, we fell for that ‘environmentally responsible’ crap), clothes towels and sheets to hang on the clothesline in our backyard.

One day, I hung our clothes out to dry. Before I could bring them inside, it rained.

I spun them in the washing machine, and hung them out to dry again.

It rained again.

And then they started to smell, because they’d been damp for so long.

So I washed them again, and hung them up once more.

They were barely dry when it started to sprinkle again. I dashed outside with Robin in her bouncy seat, and frantically began to fling everything into laundry baskets before it really poured.

Despite all the rain, it was still incredibly hot. The rains only seemed to increase the humidity.

The mosquitoes were fierce, and I alternated between smacking them off me and off Robin. She had developed a rash, and was prickly and bumpy. She was usually a happy baby, but not today. She fussed and cried as I raced the rain.

The lawn badly needed mowing–the weeds came up almost to my knees. The mosquitoes absolutely loved it. So did our cat, who repeatedly leaped out of the grass to pounce my ankles whenever I passed too close.

Halfway through unpinning sheets, I suddenly remembered that it was almost time for Jon to come home–and I had totally forgotten about dinner. There was nothing in the house to eat.

And the house was a total mess.

I thought of that day at Sue’s house.

When I called my mom that evening, I told her about my busy afternoon.

She said, “So you realized the dream wasn’t as wonderful as you thought it would be?”

“No, that’s not it at all”, I answered.

“I realized I was deliriously happy.

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Filed under art, gratitude, jealousy, life, mental attitude, mindfulness

PERSPECTIVE, and ADVICE FOR NEW BLOGGERS

Two pieces of advice you should might want to practice regularly. (I’m trying to cut back on telling people what to do….)

A few weeks ago, I was talking with an artist who had just started blogging. Or rather, blogging regularly and with intent. (As opposed to, “Open Studio Today!” stuff.)

She was complaining that she still hadn’t acquired much of an audience. I’m afraid I laughed out loud.

I hastened to assure her I was laughing AT her. I was just thinking of the early days of my own blog.

It was very much like the day I set out my very first bird feeder.

My husband and I had our very first apartment with a backyard–what a luxury! We’re low-level bird nuts, so I decided I would immediately set up a feeding station for the neighborhood birds.

I found a spot where we could sit on the back porch and watch the activity. I bought a bag of generic bird seed from, oh, I can’t remember, KMart? High quality stuff, I’m sure. (NOT.)

I didn’t have a bird feeder, so I took the lid from an extra garbage can and set it on the lawn. I filled it with the bird seed, put out a bowl of water, and took my seat on the porch.

Half an hour later, I wandered into the living room where Jon was reading. “It’s not working,” I said glumly.

“What isn’t working?” he asked cautiously. (Because when your girlfriend says something like this, the ensuing conversation could go ​anywhere​.

“The bird feeder!” I said. “I’ve been watching for thirty minutes, and not a single bird has tried it out!”

After making a funny noise that sounded suspiciously like a smothered guffaw, he patiently explained to me that birds don’t just smell food and come running. They discover feeding stations, slowly and cautiously, building a routine that takes them through a circuit of opportunity. “It could take weeks, even months for them to realize you’ve provided them a new source,” he explained.

Weeks? Months?? Wow. This bird feeding thing was more complicated than I thought.

Eventually a few crows and house sparrows found our lode. Then the raccoons found it, too, and that was the end of our bird feeding ventures. (Until Jon took it up again a few years ago, with much more forethought and dedication.)

My point, I explained to my friend, is this: Be patient.

A website, or a blog, is just a billboard on the information highway. Actually, it’s more like a sign on a back road in a rural area. For awhile, the only people who will really see it are the people who happen to live there. Or people who drive by when they’re looking for something else.

Eventually, your customers and collectors will realize it’s useful for them to check in regularly. And as you find your voice, other people willing–even hungry–to listen to what you’re saying will drop in, too.

Write what is in your heart, write about the things you really care about. The people who also care about those things will find you.

Some will stay, some will move on. But your numbers will grow.

In short, these things take time. That means being patience. Sometimes, perspective helps grow patience.

I told her that, almost ten years later, my total “regular” readership is probably somewhere around a thousand. But my first few years, I was lucky if a hundred people even knew I had a blog. (Okay, I confess. I think seven people have read my very first blog post. (You can read my very first blog article from November 29, 2002 here: ​Holding Onto “Facts” That Hold You Back​

Now for the perspective.

Re: the numbers…..I try not to check my stats. It’s like constantly asking people what they think of your work. It’s tempting, but ultimately not healthy for your creative spirit. I write because I have to write. I have something to say, that I have to put out there.

My art, the same. I have to make it. I can’t stop and worry about who else will like it, I have to simply do the work. You know, the Martha Graham thing….

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

As spoken to Agnes De Mille

The two pieces of excellent advice?

1. Read that Martha Graham quote at least once a day.

2. The next time you’re tempted to read your blog stats, if you absolutely can’t resist, then try this: In the “At A Glance” bar graph, switch from the “daily” total to the “monthly” total.

Oh, gosh, the numbers are so much more satisfying!

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Filed under action steps, art, creativity, inspiration, mental attitude, perseverence

LESSONS LEARNED FROM KNEE SURGERY

Here’s my latest article from the August issue of The Crafts Report.

Please send rum.

If you want to read it without a picture of my knee, here it is:

WHY IS THE RUM ALWAYS GONE? Life Lessons Learned from Knee Surgery

By the time you read this, I will may be dancing inching gingerly down the streets of Keene to a Zumba band, double-time the wheeze of a small kazoo. But in my timeline, I’m one week out from knee replacement surgery. I know, that’s just not funny. I’ll try to make it up to you.

My daughter phoned me while was at the hospital. I told her about a run-in I’d had with a very grumpy ok, a tired and probably underpaid grumpy night employee. (Sorry, I fought the lizard brain and the lizard brain won.)

Robin stopped me, exclaiming, “MOM!! Never complain about the hospital staff while you’re still in the hospital!!”

Wow, right! Never complain about the people you depend on to help you to the bathroom. Wait until you’re out of striking distance, then make fun of them. Um. Okay, so what else did I learn from my stay?

The next lesson, learned painfully from an over-zealous physical therapist, was, if what you’re doing hurts enough to make you cry, stop doing it. Yes, good results are worth the effort, and it takes diligence to do the things that are good for you. But if it hurts way way WAY too much, seek a second opinion.

Think of all the strategies for success we try, to build our own craft biz. Hard work, dedication, persistence. Sometimes our challenges are rewarded. But some are harsh, destructive, unnecessary or downright mortifying. (Sometimes jury processes and art critiques turn into free-for-alls and get scary.) There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for success. Know your limits, and respect them.

On the other hand, don’t sell yourself short. The encounter with said grumpy person started with an argument about a mysterious cut on my lip, which she insisted was a disgusting cold sore, and I insisted was a mysterious little cut on my lip. (Later another attendant reassured me it was probably from the breathing tube inserted during surgery.)

Determined to win the grump over with good will (my defense? I was on drugs, remember?) I asked her about her work. She told me, then she asked about mine. I told her I was a craftsperson. She asked what my work was like, so gave her my elevator speech (fabric/collage/ prehistoric artifacts/etc.). Instead of the interest that usually sparks, she turned to me and exclaimed incredulously, “Who in New Hampshire would ever buying anything like that??!”

She caught me so off-guard, I laughed out loud. Did she think I used plastic red and green dinosaurs? I dunno.

So the little lesson was, never argue with a grump, especially if you can’t get away fast.

But I also remembered, just in time, my big lesson: Believe in yourself.

When I first started out years ago, I asked myself that very question every single day: Who will ever buy this?? Am I crazy??

It was a guaranteed work-stopping, creativity-stunting, happiness-busting question to ask myself. It never failed to bring me down.

The best thing I ever did?

I learned to stop asking it.

Believe in your vision. Let your work find its own audience. Make the best work you can do, and then make it better—so when success does find you, it will find you at your very shiny best.

Let the nay-sayers find someone else to pick on. Try, try to refrain from tripping them as they pass you by.

So why is the rum always gone? Because a) you can’t have rum while you’re on pain-killers (drat!) and b) knowing you were sofa-ridden and couldn’t run after them, everyone else drank it already.

But again, by the time you read this, pain killers will be history. So send me your rum!

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Filed under art, craft books, funny, humor, life lessons, mental attitude, Nibble theory, The Crafts Report column

CLEANING MY DESK

Here’s a link to the column I wrote for the art marketing blog at Fine Art Views:

Cleaning My Desk

I hope it helps you with your next studio housekeeping chore!

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Filed under art, craft, customer care, fear of failing, Fine Art Views, mental attitude

THE BURNING QUESTION: Today’s Exercise in Gratitude

I’ve been running around like the proverbial chicken without a head lately. As my surgery date nears (one week!), I find myself awash in frantic, circular thinking. It hits me hardest in the wee hours of the morning, when I wake up to find my brain a-spinning from wild, crazed anxiety. (Warning: You can skip this part, I assure you it makes very little sense.)

“OMG, OMG, my studio is a mess and I haven’t shipped new stock to my galleries and I don’t have enough materials for that new project I’ve been dreaming about for so long, and where am I going to find X, and Y, and Z supplies, I can’t do my summer show, I’m going to run out of money, I should be writing my next article, the dogs are driving me crazy, my house is a mess, that surgery is gonna hurt like HELL and I’ve changed my mind, what if I die or something?? What should I do first? Clean the studio, no, clean the house! NO, I don’t want to spend my last few days cleaning, for God’s sake!! I’m so tired, my knee hurts, my leg hurts, my back hurts, I should get some exercise, but everything hurts, and besides it’s raining, and I still have to take the dogs out, those dogs are driving me CRAZY, my house is a mess and in one week I won’t even be able to wriggle a toe without pain, I’ve changed my mind, I want my life back, no, I want my knee back, no, no, OMG, what should I DOOOOO??? I could take a nap, no, that’s a waste of time, I should go for a walk, no wait, it’s raining, I can’t take the dogs out, OMG, OMG.”

You read that? I warned you not to. I told you it would make no sense.

Why?

Because everything I’m whining about in that crazed spin-y place comes from a majorly amazing blessing in my life.

My studio is a mess? I HAVE a studio. A beautiful, spacious studio that I love being in, working in, writing in. The space–an antique barn we renovated for the purpose–is the reason we bought this house. It’s a mess because…well, frankly, I’m a very messy person when I’m working. And I’d rather spend my time making and writing than cleaning. (Although I HAVE managed to clear up some floor space and reorganize some stuff in here the last few weeks.)

My beautiful studio.

I haven’t shipped work to my galleries? Well, I still have time to do that. But even if I don’t, the work isn’t going anywhere. It will still be here when I’m up and around after my surgery. Maybe I’ll even have some new work ready when the time comes.

I can’t find enough materials for my new body of work? That’s just me trying to have total control of a project at the outset. The truth is, I have enough materials to start the series, and play, and experiment. I don’t have to have everything figured out, and materials for a hundred pieces, in order to get started.

I can’t do my summer show? My main income builder, and the only way I see most of my customers and collectors? Actually, it’s kind of a relief to take a sabbatical this year. It’s a wicked hard show to do. Nine days of retail sales, outside, in the August heat. Weather-dependent–if it rains, I’m toast. Plus set-up and break-down. I’ll miss my customers–they inspire me and support me. But they won’t forget me overnight. I’ll invite them to my open studio in the fall. And I’m also curious to find out what will appear this year, when I make room for it. I’ve been given the gift of time–time to think. Time to be open to new possibilities. Time to make new work. Time to (gasp!) truly relax and enjoy summer in New England, for the first time in fifteen years.

Long days. Man, do I really look that grumpy??

Scary surgery? 500,000 people a year have total knee replacement surgery. Some of them have complications, but most of them don’t. And a lot of pain for a few months may mean a lot LESS pain for the next 20 years. Not a bad trade. And I’m not going to be able to clean the house OR the studio for awhile. I have the perfect excuse to have a messy house and a messy studio!

The crazy dogs? We currently have three dogs in house. All were Turks & Caicos rescue pups. Tuck we brought home with us from our vacation there three years ago. One we fostered last fall, and adopted out to a young woman. We are babysitting her for a few weeks. And Nick was adopted out to a family in Boston last year, but they can’t keep him. We thought we had a home for him, but it’s beginning to look like he’s already home. HERE. He’s a goof, and he’s still a pup (9 months old.) But he’s also sweet-tempered, cuddly, and loving. He and Tuck are already best friends. Yes, dogs are a lot of work. Any pet adds to your daily chores. So do kids. And spouses. Yep, everything would be so much easier if we didn’t have all those other people and critters in our lives. Easier. Definitely cleaner. More calm.

And terribly, unbearably lonely.

Good dogs.

So what’s the burning question?

Today, one of my favorite bloggers, Danielle LaPorte asked, “What do you want… that you already have?”

It was the perfect question for me to ask myself, today.

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Filed under art, dogs, gratitude, mental attitude, to do list

ASK THE TURTLE

Years ago, I was driving along a New Hampshire highway, and spotted a turtle by the side of the road.

From the tomb of King Tut, one of four guardian figures believed to be modeled after his mother. I see protection, gentleness, peace, love and serenity.

My heart went out to it. So many times, you see crushed turtles on the road. They simply can’t move quickly enough to escape the rushing traffic.

Now, on the other side of the highway was a lake.

Clearly, the turtle was confused, and needed help. So I pulled over, picked up the turtle, and took it to the lake side of the road.

I was so proud of my good deed. I patted myself on the back for taking the time to help a little turtle.

Imagine how embarrassed I was to learn, years later, that I had done exactly the wrong thing.

Turtles don’t get lost.

Female turtles have powerful drives to do exactly what this one was doing. They travel long distances to a safe, dry place away from their watery home, to lay their eggs. When they’re done, they return to the water.

I had simply prolonged this poor turtle’s journey. And forced it to cross the dangerous highway again.

I read an article about our nation’s tendency to offer international aid, with good intentions. But we often neglect to let each country determine what aid it really needs. The author used the same example of giving misguided ‘help to the turtle. “Ask the turtle,” she admonished. “The turtle knows exactly what it needs.”

I love this story, though I still feel bad for my own turtle.

I had a phone consultation with Lyedie Lydecker a few days ago. With a messy studio, new projects looming, new work I want to do, small orders I need to fill, upcoming knee surgery and the resulting loss of income (I can’t do my big League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair this year), I’ve been overwhelmed with how to best use my remaining non-invalid time. I’d ask Lyedie to help me sort it all out.

She listened, which is a blessing in itself. So many people listen, but then try to fix. (I do that!) I was listened to with exquisite care.

But the best insight was how to approach my studio.

It’s such a mess, and the thought of cleaning it now is overwhelming.

Now, about our studios…. Lyedie firmly believes that our studio isn’t just a physical space to work. It’s a partner in our creative process.

She said, “Ask your studio–your beloved partner in your creative process–what it needs.

As I look over the notes I took of our conversation, I flashback to an article I wrote almost eight years ago. As I reread it, I’m astounded by what I wrote that day.

Because it echoes Lyedie’s words so clearly, it’s eerie.

I firmly believe that we already know what we need to know. Sometimes it takes someone else to tease it out of us. And sometimes we just need someone to tell us.

So how do I ask my studio what it needs? Hmmmmmm……

Someone once told me how to do just that. The universe will give us everything we ask for, she said, if we would ask the right way.

You look down and close your eyes, droopy. Then expand and stand tall. Raise your face to the sky, turn your hands out, and ask. Out loud. Ask for what you want with your whole heart. (I did it a few times, and it worked so profoundly, I was scared to ask any more. Mistake!)

Now what does that remind me of??

I realize today I’ve seen this posture before.

You can see it in the figure above, one of a group of four female figures I saw in the King Tut exhibition in Toronto many, many years ago. They are guardian figures (of Tut’s sarcophagus?), believed to be modeled after his mother. They protect the remains of her beloved son, with serenity, with peace, with gentleness and love.

So that’s what I did this morning. I entered the studio today as a supplicant, as a loving partner, eager to restore my beautiful relationship with my beloved space.

I asked my studio what it needed from me.

Because I was willing to see, to listen, to feel, to love, I heard what my studio needs.

And it was not what I thought it was. It doesn’t want much. There are no demands, no resentment, no punishment or resentment. Just a few gentle requests. All things I can manage, and all things that will return tenfold in joy.

Today, I asked the turtle.

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Filed under action steps, art, cleaning the studio, craft, living with intention, mental attitude

LEARNING TO LOVE YOUR TO-DO LIST

My to-do list: It's not what you think it is!

Your to-do list is really a travel brochure.

My plate is loaded. Full up. Spilling over.

I have so many projects in the air, I’ve been suffering major brain buzz. I hardly even know where to start.

Now, life coach and writer Martha Beck has a great article on how to unhook yourself from a to-do list. I think she actually suggests scheduling “empty time” in there.

And I know my life is so much more than a to-do list. One of her clients, on her deathbed, jokingly said, “At least this is one more thing I can cross off my to-do list!”

But I needed something more. Something that felt more like my whole approach to life. And this morning, I found it.

I was writing my morning pages–the “brain data dump” I try to do every morning. Sure enough, “more things I have to do” kept popping up as I wrote, and I dutifully added them to today’s ever-growing list. It’s already so long, I couldn’t possible complete the tasks in a week, let alone a day.

With a big sigh, I started to prioritize my tasks. What could wait? Which ones were more important? Which IS more important–the ones about my family? The ones about the latest foster puppy? The new open studio tour I’m working on? Cleaning my studio so I can HAVE an open studio? What about my upcoming surgery? Should I focus on getting healthy? What about my phone date with Lyedie this afternoon? (You can read more about integral coach Lyedie Lydecker here and read my article about her here.

Ah. Lyedie. What was that she said about time?

It’s not about priorities. It’s not even about balance–balancing family time with art time, friend time with exercise, pet care with health care.

It’s about awareness, and intention, and engagement.

For me, it’s about crafting a whole life. Seeing, learning, participating, growing. Not sideways(sigh), but inside-ways.

That’s when it hit me. What my to-do list really is.

It’s a travel guide for my life.

It’s not an AAA road map. It’s a list of possibilities.

Priority be damned.

Some of these tasks aren’t high priority. But they also won’t take much time or effort. Or I can do them on my way to another, “higher priority” task.

Some are totally unimportant. But I like doing them. They look like work, but they are actually fun.

Even some of the most important ones aren’t necessarily time-sensitive. They’re big, but they can wait. And sometimes, they can’t happen until other smaller, simpler steps are taken.

But what really blew me away today was thinking about the unimportant, quick, not fun, actually dreaded tasks on my list from a week ago.

It involved picking something up from a person I’ve had totally negative encounters with. This person is sarcastic and resentful, in a job they hate and not getting the recognition they feel they deserve.

I thoroughly dreaded the pick-up, and had to force myself to do it. Actually, I did it first because I wanted to get it over with.

I decided to be my higher self for just a few minutes. I said I was sorry for the circumstances behind their donation.

And the walls of anger came tumbling down.

I’m sorry to be so circumspect, but want to protect their privacy. Let’s just say that I saw another side to this person, a totally different aspect of their life that blew me away. They opened up to me, sharing their sadness and joy, their dreams and hopes.

It turns out I was able to speak to that in a way that encouraged and supported them. I gave them the small thank-you gift I’d prepared, and they were delighted and grateful.

Now, the point here isn’t that all people (okay, almost all people) have an inner beauty, if only we knew where to look.

The point is, this was an item on my to-do list I’d dreaded. And it was actually a door into something powerful and profound.

There was a connection, a reconciliation, a new way to interact with this person in the future.

And it all came from a place I never could have predicted.

Now I’m sitting here with that same to-do list.

It looks different. It doesn’t seem to fill me with as much anxiety. Time doesn’t seem like a upside-down bottle of sand with grains running out the bottom.

It looks like a travel guide to a mysterious, exciting and beautiful new country, a country I’ve wanted to visit all my life..

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Filed under art, balance, craft, life lessons, living with intention, mental attitude, mindfulness, to do list

BE KIND, REWIND. (This Means You!)

Messy? Multiply this by a jillion!

I’m having one of those days.

I was going to goof off and enjoy this fiercely windy and sunny day.

But no. My good friend Bonnie Blandford posted a link to a great list of things to do to be the best artist you can be. Drat.

So I started clearing a surface so I could get busy with my next project. That lasted two minutes.

Got lost in sorting and reorganizing. Oops! I’m out of this widget. Order it now while I’m thinking about it.

An hour later. Surface still not cleared. Great art put on hold. Again.

I try again.

This time I found a metal box full of special orders and repairs from my really big show last August. Uh oh.

Now, there are a few things you need to know about how I do business, and how I treat my collectors.

When something breaks, I fix it.

When someone wants something different, I make it.

When something gets lost, I replace it. Free. Well. I’ll replace an earring, but I’m not going to replace, say, a lost wall hanging.

So I always have a stack of these ‘special projects’ after the show. This year, I had almost two dozen on my plate. Er…in my box.

It’s not my nature, really. After three days of set-up, nine days of selling and standing–in August, in the heat, which I H*A*T*E–the last thing I want to do is all the things that seem to point out my failure.

The repairs say, “You didn’t make it strong enough!” Fail.
The replacements say, “I shouldn’t have fallen out!” Fail.
The custom work says, “I don’t see anything I like!” Fail.

Now add: Two customers who cancelled their layaways right after the show. And the one special order I didn’t do, which angered one customer.

On top of that, add the six-months-from-hell I wrote about recently, and my upcoming knee surgery (which will make me put my life and art on hold, yet again, for months and months) and I get a little weepy.

I am very very good at feeling guilty and useless. I excel at feeling sorry for myself.

So I looked at that box and knew I had to deal with it.

To my surprise, I had actually completed…everything.

I don’t know why I’m so hard on myself. Probably that perfectionist thing that still raises its ugly head from time to time.

But it doesn’t serve me. It doesn’t serve my art. It takes away all the joy. It makes me forget why I do this.

Time to be kind and rewind.

I thought about the two dozen projects and repairs I DID complete, and all the happy responses I’d gotten back.

The repairs say, “I wore this until it fell apart. It’s my favorite necklace.” Success.
The replacements say, “I can’t believe you can make another one, and you’re not charging me!” Success.
The custom work says, “I love what you do, and I want one, I just need it in a different size/style/color.” Success.

I thought back to the angry customer. When I apologized, she calmed down. When I told her what had been going on, she sympathized. She said no worries, she’ll be back next year to look again.

And now that I think on it…last year, a customer commented in passing that she had lost everything she owned, in a major house fire. And I gave her a new piece–a big one–on the spot.

Am I a saint? Nope. Am I perfect? HA!

What I am is 100% human, through and through.

And I’m feeling better already.

N.B., if you have similar issues with repairs and special orders, one way to eliminate a lot of hassle is this: DO NOT TAKE ANY $$$ UPFRONT. I may take a check or write out a charge slip. But I don’t cash the check, or run the charge, til the order is ready to ship. That way, if something comes up and everything falls apart (like it did for me), your customer isn’t trying to get their money back–a far more complicated, and serious proposition.

And a little something extra that says “Thank you for your patience” goes a loooong way to smoothing over your (hopefully rare) goofs, too.

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Filed under art, business, creativity, mental attitude

AT THE FAIR: Muscle Memory

Sometimes we could–should–listen to our hearts instead of our bodies.

It’s been a long, wonderful week at this year’s League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair up at Mt. Sunapee Resort in Newbury, NH. Busy! So busy the time seems to fly by. Lots of new faces, and familiar ones, tales of happiness and sorrow.

My heart is full when I come home, but my body is racked with pain.

Last night, I had a session with a chiropractor, who, like me, has a martial arts background. I mentioned I was thinking of returning to my practice. The hurdle is this: Usually I return to classes to get in shape. As I age, I should really be in better shape before I attempt to do that.

He said it was a wise choice. I’ve had a lot of injuries and another surgery in the last year, and things–alignment, balance–are out of whack. “If you return now, without letting your body heal, your muscle memory will kick in. Your body will try to do the things you used to do. But you can’t do them right now, and you’ll injure yourself trying.”

Aha! That’s why some of my ‘returns’ have been so short-lived!

That phrase–muscle memory–stuck in my mind, and helped me understand where some of my discomfort at the Fair comes from.

Most people think we artists and craftspeople are like a big family. Well, that’s more true than you know. When I first joined the ranks, I felt like I’d found my tribe, my true heart’s home. It was a shock to realize it really is like a big family. (I have personal experience–I’m the oldest of seven children.)

Some of us don’t speak to each other. Others come to us for support and comfort and inspiration constantly. Professional jealousy rears its ugly head constantly. And there are others who cheer us on with every step.

Set-up is the hardest. One minute you’re offering someone your precious stool, and the next you’re snarling at them to move their junk out of your booth space.

Sometimes too much has passed between you. Then there is no opportunity missed for a caustic remark to be made, even as you win an award. Some cannot even bring themselves to greet you as you pass on your many trips to the bathroom or Fair office (or the bar at the top of the hill.)

For these times, there is muscle memory: Your body, remembering the acts of unkindness, shrinks when you see them, and you cannot bring yourself to even pretend to be polite anymore.

But there is a way out.

Over the years, I’ve learned that, 99% of the time, someone who is causing you anguish, is carrying their own tight anguish inside their heart. In short–it’s not about you. It’s about THEM. You happen to be a convenient target.

And sometimes it’s us. We’ve done somebody wrong, and it’s time to admit that. Take responsibility for it, and say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me. And if you can’t, I understand.”

Then try to live with the fact that we, too, are imperfect people.

I have done things I’ve had to ask forgiveness for. And sweet Jesus, I received it. I have others who have asked forgiveness from me, and I am overwhelmed by their humility–and courage. It takes real courage to apologize. I know. I’ve been there.

In the end, we have to trust the work of our hands, and the work of our hearts. We live in this tribe, in many tribes, actually. We live in this world.

I like to think if we could trust the muscle memory of of hearts and spirits, a little more than the muscle memory of our bodies, just a little….

Then maybe someday we could even have peace in the Middle East.

Okay, that last line is a family joke, and perhaps not even a very good one. (“I hat you” is also a long-standing family joke.)

But that’s what families are for–a place where we can work out our little dramas and big heartaches, and ultimately find a place where we can stand and say, “You’re a poop, but I love you, and yes, I forgive you. Seventy times seven.”

And cross our hearts and hope for the best.

May you be able to forgive, seventy times seven. And may you also be forgiven, at least ten times as much.

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Filed under art, courage, craft, finding your tribe, jealousy, life lessons, LNHC Craftsmen's Fair, martial arts, mental attitude, myths about artists, professional jealousy

LIFE LESSONS: What Is the BEST Lesson You Can Learn Today?

Learn to look twice to get at the ‘better lesson’ from life’s setbacks.

My nephew Michael was a tiny hellion when he was young. He wasn’t mean, or malicious, or difficult. He was just….busy. We have many family stories about his escapades. One of my favorites is when my sister left him in the car briefly while dropping something off at my parents’ house. When she came out, he was in the driver’s seat with his hands on the wheel. Before she could say a word, he jerked his head and thumb to indicate the back seat and said firmly, “Get in back. I’m driving!” (He was four.)

Here’s another favorite story about Michael. He visited my folks, and all day he got into all kinds of mischief, including getting into my mother’s purse, looking for gum. Instead, he found a medicine bottle and ate some of her high blood pressure pills.

He was rushed to the emergency room, where his stomach was pumped and he was forced to drink lots of water to induce him to vomit. We were so relieved when he was declared out of danger. As he lay bleary-eyed in his little hospital bed, my sister asked him sternly, “And what did you learn from today’s little adventure?” Whereupon Michael snuffled quietly and croaked sadly, “Not to touch Gramma’s new refrigerator.”

Earlier that day, Michael had been fooling around with the features on my folks’ brand new refrigerator, and Grandma had told him to stop. Not to touch her new fridge anymore. (Gotta admit, that ice-and-water dispenser is pretty appealing.)

Years later, we still laugh at that story. But it’s sad, too.

Michael connected his emergency room ordeal as punishment for not listening to Grandma. He thought that was the lesson he had to learn.

(It’s sad that a loved and cherished child would think a stomach pumping was an appropriate punishment for touching a kitchen appliance, of course, too…. Such is the trustful nature of children. Makes you think.)

I refer to many of my life setbacks as ‘life learning experiences.’ Sometimes finding the knowledge and experienced gained helps offset the pain of falling, failing and flailing. This looking for something good and useful out of the bad things that happen…. It’s a useful skill. It’s part of being a human being and learning how to make our way in the world.

But sometimes, like a child, like Michael, we look at the easy lesson, the most obvious lesson. Not necessarily the deeper, more important lesson.

Sometimes the obvious lesson is not the best lesson.

Learning to choose your better lesson is a way to unchain yourself from your sad old story. Your sad old story about not being good enough, worthy enough, talented enough to achieve your heart’s desire.

Years ago I was part of a small artist group. We met monthly, to support each others’ efforts to fulfill our dreams as artists.

One person, a budding book illustrator, had singled out one lone book publisher as her ‘dream work place.” She submitted her portfolio to them and waited anxiously for their reply.

When she received a rejection letter, she tried to put a good face on it. “I’ll never get hired by that company. I guess I need to learn how to accept failure,” she said dejectedly. “I’d like help from the group on how to do that.”

We managed to convince her that piling all her dream eggs in one tiny basket was too limiting. We encouraged her to explore other possibilities, too. One person offered to put her in touch with a working illustrator who could offer her feedback on her portfolio. Another suggested other small publishing houses she could approach, to gain more work experience. But the last person, reading the letter carefully, opened an even bigger door.

She had experience in the corporate world, and read the letter differently. “I don’t think your portfolio was even seen by the appropriate person,” she said firmly. “I suggest you call the company and ask where to send it. Get a name, not a department. Make an appointment to follow up. You haven’t ‘failed’—you sent it to the wrong place. This line here actually sounds like they’d like you to resubmit it with more support materials, and more examples that match their current needs.”

Our friend, despondent and self-defeating, had looked no further than her own limited vision. Seeing the window barred, she failed to see the door standing wide, wide open.

When I trust a person, and they end up shafting me, it would be easy to say, “Well, that’s what I get for putting my trust in such a person.” But what I prefer to say is, “I like to expect the best of people, and I’m open to all kinds of friendships with many different people. That means some of them will disappoint me or take advantage of my openness. I accept this as an occasional side effect of trust. Bbut I’m not going to let that change the way I am .” (However, I am more careful about who I lend money to.)

Don’t assume life is giving you a smack-down because you touched the fridge door.

Look for the deeper knowledge, the more powerful challenge, the more meaningful message. Because YOU….are worth it.

Wanna here something funny? Michael ended up working as a receptionist at a nursing station in a hospital. He loved it. He’s now working as an emergency medical technician, driving an ambulance.

A much higher calling, for him, for us, than selling refrigerators at Sears, don’t you think?

P.S. I know young people who are proud to work at Sears selling refrigerators. I my intention is not to malign their efforts to be productive people earning their own way in life. But you know that about me already, right?

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Filed under art, life, life lessons, mental attitude, myths about artists, telling your story

BIG PUPS

When your life is full of poop, it’s time to stop and smell the roses.

We had a rough week. Nothing serious, nothing even very exciting. Just one of those times where you feel out of it and out of synch. You feel your battery draining instead of charging, and your feet drag for no good reason.

We also picked up two more Potcake puppies from Logan Airport in Boston. And for the next two days, I was frantically thinking, “What have I done??!!”

The pups seemed overly shy and anxious. To make it worse, they’re BIG. Much bigger than any pups we’ve fostered. And heavy. It’s hard to keep up with two puppies to begin with, let alone two you have to chase, and hoist with a big ‘oof!’ and even then, I could only hold one at a time. Twice as hard to manage.

I complained loudly to anyone who would listen. The woman at the rescue operation on the islands they came from; the shelter contact we’ll be delivering the pups to soon; my husband. And myself, in a running chattering dialog of “What-was-I-thinking-I-can’t-do-this-these-pups-are-awful-who-knew-such-a-small-critter-could-hold-so-much-poop-dammit-get-back-here-oh-my-back-OMG-he’s-peeing-AGAIN-help-help-HELP!!!!”

Having kids was like this. And starting my art career. And doing my first show. Come to think of it, doing all my shows. Learning how to shoot my own photos for my online shop. Teaching my first workshop for artists. Teaching my first grief writing workshop.

Get it?

Everything that’s worth doing comes with some dog doo.

Two days later, the pups have calmed down. They’re on a schedule of eating/outside to eliminate/play/sleep. Rinse and repeat.

My sanity returned. Time for damage control!

I wrote a contrite letter of apology to my island contact and another to my local shelter contact for my overreaction. I eased up with the pups. I made peace with my husband.

I realized the gift these puppies are to me.

They’ve traveled a long way from home, through scary airports with complete strangers, without food, in tiny carry-on bags. They arrive to a place with snow (yes, we had snow on Easter Sunday!) and a suspicious older dog and a houseful of grumpy teens and adults.

If that were me I’m not sure I would have been on my best behavior, either.

Marriage, kids, puppies, and yes, art, come into our lives with much romance and excitement. Eventually this is overshadowed by the sheer drudgery and weight of custodial care. You and your spouse have to agree on who’s turn it is to do dishes, and who gets to go into their office and shut the door for a few hours. Kids need custodial care the first few years, and emotional care forever. Pups and kittens sometimes seem to be a conduit of poop from another dimension. (Well. Human infants, too.) With art and career and writing come days of discouragement, missed deadlines, disgruntled gallery owners, difficult customers, sagging sales.

When everything goes wrong, we’re very quick to complain. We want to bail. We wonder if we made the right choices. And is a quickie Mexican divorce really that simple and inexpensive?

When I feel this way, I know it’s time to stop. Breathe. And think about what has to change.

Sometimes we really have barked up the wrong tree. (Dog pun. Sorry!) If everything about what we’re doing is draining our battery and never recharges, then maybe it’s time to consider a new direction.

Maybe we need to change our way of doing things. What’s worked for us in the past may need to be tweaked now. With teens, we learn to choose our battles. At shows, we find ways to streamline our set-up. With big puppies, more structure and containment is necessary.

Sometimes we just need to see beyond the poop for a moment. We need to stop and smell the roses. We must remember that the most fragrant and beautiful roses–antique roses–come with plenty of thorns. When the thorns prick us, that’s the time to slow down. And sniff.

Caring for these puppies transports me to the days when my children were young. It was a lot of work, but there was even more joy. Like children, these pups come into this world with a powerful need to be loved, and the desire to love in return. Both of these young ones will do almost anything to get that love. They learn to control their bowels and bladders (though it can feel like an eternity, as my teacher sister says, “They’re always potty trained by kindergarten.”) They learn not to chew on your favorite shoes, or use them for a Barbie bathtub.

In return, they teach you that it’s never a waste of time to sit quietly in the sun on a warm spring day, watching young things gambol and cavort in the new green grass.

They teach you that there is nothing quite so wonderful as a good belly laugh–from them, or from you. (And I swear those pups are laughing.)

They teach you that when you hold them in your arms, and they gaze at your with perfect knowledge they are safe and sound, and profoundly loved, there is no better balm in the world for a troubled heart.

So I’m grateful for the gift of these puppies today. They’re beautiful dogs, full of joy and hope, ready for their forever homes. They’ve given me peace in my heart. They’ve reminded me of what it means to be alive, to be in the world, with all its joy and beauty.

And all the poo that comes with it, of course.

Aren’t you glad I didn’t say you had to learn to love the smell of poo?

P.S. Jack and Gillie will soon be on their way to the Monadnock Humane Society in Swanzey, NH soon. Help spread the word!

Run, baby, run!

Jack and Gillie.

Jack, in perfect Potcake tail mode.

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Filed under art, craft, dogs, gratitude, life with a dog, life with teenagers, mental attitude

FEAR AND ART

Let fear enlighten you, not enslave you.

(This post was written just before we invaded Afghanistan. Or Iraq. I can’t remember now.)

A poster on a discussion forum put into words what all of us have been feeling lately, but hate to admit out loud. The artist had a show coming up soon. Should they cancel it because of the impending war? Maybe no one would show up.

Many of us chimed in with a resounding “no!”, stressing the need to live life as normally as possible until forced to do otherwise.

The discussion eventually meandered into a discussion of other things. But the original post got me thinking about fear and anxiety in general.

Some of my favorite books about getting control of your life, have the word “fear” in them.

Feel the Fear (and Do It Anyway) by Susan Jeffers, is a pragmatic book about recognizing and acknowledging the anxiety/discomfort that comes from taking risks and making changes–but not letting that anxiety stop you.

Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel, I’ve read in chunks and bits, with some good sections about overcoming the obstacles to creativity. (The guy is more long-winded than I am, but there’s some good stuff in there.)

Another book I highly recommend is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It proposes that being creative is all about having fear and self-doubt. So embrace and move through them–it’s part of the territory. Just don’t give in to them.

The last is not a “creativity” book at all. It’s The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. In a nutshell, the book is about the knowing the difference between general, free-floating anxiety vs. the genuine fear that alerts us we are truly in danger.

When we are in real danger, we sense it, whether we acknowledge the signals or not. We know that strange guy who offered to help us made us uneasy. We know there’s something about that new person we’re dating that just isn’t right. We may tamp down that feeling because of social conditioning or magical thinking, but we do have it.

Anxiety is more encompassing and insidious. It keeps us from booking a flight after we read about a plane crash. It makes us wonder whether we should cancel that show when war seems imminent. It makes us worry about our kid walking to school by himself for the first time. It keeps us from dangling our feet over the edge of our inner tube while floating in the ocean. (Jaws, anyone?)

Statistics show us that we are more likely to die from a bee sting than a shark attack. Yet we don’t flee at the sight of a flower-filled meadow. If you look at cold hard facts, we are much more likely to buy the farm every day when we belt ourselves into our cars and head out to work or the mall: Car accidents kill more people each year than the total number of U.S. fatalities suffered during the entire Vietnam war. Yet I know of no one who has stopped driving their car because of the risk of an accident.

My advice to the original poster was:

I hesitate to add my two cents’ worth on this issue, since I don’t do many shows. But I think if you start making decisions based on fear and anxiety, you are heading down a slippery slope. Yes, it’s natural to worry about current events. Almost impossible not to. But when you start making business decisions based on “what if?”… well, “What if…?” can kill every effort you make to grow your business.

One way to think of this is: What’s the worst that could happen? If you bombed at this show, would it bring your business to a halt?

And if so, don’t you really take that chance at every show you do? Your thinking is, “We might be at war, and maybe no one will come.” What about, “It might rain and everyone would stay home.” Or maybe “There might be a strong wind, and my tent might blow away!” Or “The stock market might crash, and no one will be able to afford my work.” All those events are possibilities, too. (And actually, all of them did, indeed, come to pass.) You plan for them as best you can, evaluate the real, tangible risks–and then decide.

I’d say, unless the show promoters cancel the show, it would be good business to show up as you contracted to do. If, after doing a few shows, you decide current events are impacting your bottom line severely, then that’s the time to sit down and re-evaluate how you’re going to restructure your business to accommodate that.

It takes a certain amount of determination to turn this free-floating anxiety around, unless you’re by nature an optimist. And I’m not. I’m a born pessimist. And turning this attitude around is not a one-shot deal. I have to revisit it again, and again, and again. And sometimes I still need someone else to point it out to me. And sometimes, by reassuring someone else, I find I’ve reassured myself.

Some tips that have helped me:

Read a book, forum or article about dealing with fear. It sometimes helps to realize you are not the only person who’s feeling this way!

Find people whose judgment you’ve come to trust, and check in with them. Not someone you ought to trust, someone you’ve learned you can trust. Someone who’s earned your trust. For decisions about my kids and their growing need for personal responsibility and freedom, I have a very small collection of parents whose opinion I value. I know they have similar values, I know they respect my values, and I’ve learned to trust how they come to their decisions. They don’t belittle my concerns or beliefs, they just tell me how they got to their decision.

I’ve learned not to expect everything from one person, too. I’ve learned that I have parent-decision type friends, business/art type friends, family-dynamic expert type friends, etc. Find those solid people in every one of your life sectors. And when one of them goes through their own difficult times, recognize when they are not able to help you with that area (temporarily or permantly.) In other words, constantly evaluate your support structure.

Learn from yourself. Keep track of the times you’ve successfully battled anxiety, and remind yourself of those times. For myself, I find it immensely helpful to write about my anxieties. I keep a daily handwritten journal. I would die of embarrassment if anyone read of anything I’ve written there–I complain and swear a lot! But I also find that making my anxiety concrete by describing exactly what I’m afraid of, is the first step to working through it.

Get absurdly reasonable. Seek professional help if you have to. One strategy is called cognitive therapy, was hugely helpful for me. Here’s an example:

A patient says, “I’m terrified I’ll lose my job.”

Therapist: “Well…what would the logical consequences of this event be?” (An illogical conclusion might be, “I’ll become a bag lady!” That’s possible, but is it probable?)

Patient: “I wouldn’t make any money.”

Therapist: “So what would happen then?”

Patient: “I would have to find another job that maybe wouldn’t pay as much money.”

Therapist: “So what would happen then?”

Patient: “I couldn’t afford to make my mortgage payments.”

Therapist: “So what would happen then?”

Patient: “I’d have to sell my house.”

Therapist: “So what would happen then?”

Patient: “I’d have to find a cheaper place to live, like an apartment.”

Therapist: “And what would that mean?”

Patient: “My kid would have a smaller bedroom.”

Therapist: “So the end result of losing your job is that your kid would have to sleep in a little bedroom.”

Patient: “Oh. Okay. So I guess that wouldn’t be so terrible…”

This is a simple version, of course. And we all know some people do have worse consequences. But for most of us, yes, losing our job might been living in a place with tinier rooms. Been there, done that. Survived.

Recognize, as de Becker points out, that anxiety drains our batteries, leaving us vulnerable and unprepared for real danger when it crosses our path. Recognize that anxiety is our engine racing without engaging the clutch–it doesn’t take us anywhere, it’s just noisy and uses up a lot of gas.

Consider medication. I know this is not for everyone, and it doesn’t “fix” everything. But I found that a very low dose of anti-depressant was enough to take the crippling knife edge of anxiety away. Now I do less obsessing, and gentler fretting. (This was after trying exercise, massage, meditation, yoga, tai chi and my favorite, lots and lots of red wine.) (I still like these things, but I’m saner now. Really.)

Last, embrace your fears. Being involved in hospice has healed a lot of things. I’m not fear-less by any stretch of the imagination (and boy, can I stretch it!). When it comes to change, I still drag my feet. I still hate touching seaweed when I’m swimming.

But I’ve learned that many of the things I used to be afraid of, are simply not as bad as I’d imagined.

I accept some anxiety and fear as part of being human. They are my small, often annoying, ever-nagging companions. Even as I sit here, I am worrying about….ten different things. No, twelve. But I also look out the window and marvel at the first spring rain. I am so grateful for all the blessings in my life. I listen to the sound of my breath moving in and out, so regular and easy.

Life may be long or short, hard or sweet, with joyful ups and crazy downs A few little moments of terror and wonder thrown in. Usually a good mix. And it’s good to simply be alive, to savor this moment, with a little peace in my heart.

I wish the same for you.

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Filed under art, business, choices, courage, craft, creativity, fear of falling, mental attitude, world peace

KICKBOXING AND ART–What Do They Have in Common?

Who knew exercise could be so educational!?

(This article was originally published on Wednesday, January 07, 2004)

What do kickboxing and pursuing a career in art have in common?

My kickboxing instructor had a handout for us recently. Entitled : “Cycle of Performance/Formula for Success”, it was a brief description of the learning process for, in this case, martial arts. It had four little phrases on it:

INCEPTION: Unconsciously incompetent

DECEPTION: Consciously incompetent

TRANSFORMATION: Consciously competent

IDENTITY: Unconsciously competent

We talked about it during class. It provided “aha!” moments for many of us. Turns out this little handout explains more than how to learn martial arts; It’s an insightful road map into any life endeavor we pursue. It goes something like this:

Inception, the first stage, is that wonderful, giddy stage of learning a new skill, the excitement of potential. I remember the first time I sat down to a wheel with a lump of clay. I was fearless! I plopped down the clay, centered it, made a cylinder and pulled out my first pot. It was great! It was easy! I thought so, anyway. ” I must be a natural!” I remember thinking.

I was “unconsciously incompetent“. I was gloriously unaware of what I didn’t know yet, and how hard it would be to recreate my initial success. I was so thrilled with with my “innate” abilities that I smashed that first pot down, confident I could throw another just as easily the next time.

You know what comes next. The next class, I sat down confidently to throw my next ball of clay.

And nothing happened. I mean, nothing right happened. I couldn’t center the clay for the life of me. I kept trying until I had a sloppy plop of drooly clay. I threw it aside and tried another ball. Same thing. Slightly daunted, but still game, I tried to raise a cylinder from the wobbly mass. What a disaster! I went home discouraged.

My next class was just as discouraging and I turned to slab work, making a few simple tiles and such. But I was overwhelmed with failure. I had entered the dreaded second Deception stage, “consciously incompetent“. I recognized how much I didn’t know, and how much I still had to learn. The ration looked something like 1:1,000,000, if you what I mean.

If you’ve ever taught, you know how difficult it is to even observe this stage in others, let alone go through it yourself. Frustration bubbles to the surface, masking everything else. You are totally aware of how bad you really are at this. No matter how many times you practice, you don’t seem to get any better. You can’t seem to do anything right. Pots plop, your kicks flick harmlessly, the souffle falls, the watercolors don’t blend right. It seems like everyone else is “getting it” except you.

Most people quit at this stage. They become convinced they are never going to get it, they aren’t cut out for this, they just aren’t good at that. They get angry–at their instructor, at the other people in the class who seem to be doing just fine, but most of all at themselves. (That’s me, anyway.) They may complain, or clam up. They quit trying, or even quit coming to class, convinced that this just isn’t for them. I believe most people who are afraid of making change in their life have let this stage totally defeat them, incorporating it into their very image of themselves. “I’m just not good at math.” “I’m just not very graceful.” “I’ll never be able to (insert your dream activity here.)”

But if you persevere, you will come to the next stage, well-named Transformation: consciously competent. This is what happens after thousands of hours of practice and drills. It may take a long time, but you will get there. You eventually begin to find yourself able to perform that skill. You can do it, but you have to think about it. You begin to see what needs improving and what needs strengthening. You may begin experimenting with minor changes, trying what works best for you and what doesn’t. You become more willing to plug away at it, perhaps even enjoying the process of learning for its own sake. (Think of the perpetual graduate student….)

Finally, as anyone who has ever mastered a skill, knows, eventually you reach the fourth stage, Identity: Unconsciously competent. The skill or knowledge has become a part of you.

You don’t even think about what you’re doing anymore, it’s just….YOU. You are a pianist, or a painter, or a doctor, or a black belt.

You may not even remember NOT knowing that skill. Do you really remember how hard it was to learn to ride a bike? Or does it feel like you’ve always known? Do you really remember looking at a page in a book, and having no idea what those mysterious squiggles meant? Surely we thought at one point, “I’ll never be able to ride a bike!” (I believe getting past this stage is what makes a good teacher: Someone who remembers ‘not knowing.’)

I’ve been thinking about this little handout a lot for the last few weeks, especially that deadly little second stage. It occurs to me that as adults, we’ve mostly forgotten the process of learning, and how truly awful it can feel. In fact, it’s so awful, most people probably quit when they hit that stage, feeling they are really “meant” to learn how to paint, how to knit, how to learn a new language, or whatever.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what people need to see them through that second stage, and safely into that third stage…because this is what life changes and pursuing your dreams is all about.

Sometimes, of course, we are forced to make changes. That becomes our determination. But what about when we choose to make those changes? It’s so important to either have a wonderful support system (a terrific teacher, encouraging friends or family, a great book that serves as a guide), or a tremendous sense of purpose, drive and determination. Or both.

How many of us have started out to change something in our lives, to pursue a new interest or tread a new path, hit that second stage and bagged out? What if we simply made a conscious decision to believe in our selves one more day, one more hour, maybe another five minutes–what could we achieve? How far could we really go?

When I started back in martial arts last spring (after sustaining a devastating injury by one of my previous instructors seven years ago) all I hoped for was to gain back some strength and stamina. I could barely do one push-up anymore. But I’m determined to stick with it, and now I can do thirty. (well….on a good day.)

When I started back with a dream of pursing art seven years ago, I was determined to stick with it, even if I didn’t turn out to be a particularly good artist. “Good” didn’t matter anymore. I knew that being an artist was so important to me, I simply had to try. And keep trying. When I look back at what I accomplished in seven years, I am amazed.

Type out this little handout, and post it somewhere where you can see it every day. The next time you feel discouraged about achieving your goals, look and see where you are in the process. Realize it isn’t something about YOU, but about the process. And stick with it, if just for a little bit longer. You may surprise yourself…..!

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Filed under art, craft, fear of failing, martial arts, mastery, mental attitude, perseverence

PRACTICE AND NOT PERFECT

I was writing my morning pages today. And I got stuck.

I did what I tell my students to do when they get stuck. Just write something, no matter how silly or tedious. For me, it’s often, “blah blah blah” or “I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write.” I kid you not.

Today I was writing, “Keep going. Keep going.” Actually it read like this:

keep going keep going keep going

Because when you’re doing morning pages/free journaling, the trick is to not even stop for correct spelling or punctuation. No editing, no anything. Just write.

And the miracle happened. As it always does.

Sometimes this silly repetition keeps my inner critic/left brain busy, just for a few seconds–long enough for my inner wizard/right brain to grab the steering wheel and hit the gas pedal. Many of my insights, over-the-hump strategies and yes, gentle readers, even blog posts, come from this wild ride in the kidnapped taxi cab that was going nowhere slowly.

Today’s insight was the writing itself. Though I rarely focus on good penmanship when I doing this exercise, suddenly the repetition took me back five decades, to third grade. (Yep. I’m old.)

I wasn’t a bad kid in grade school, but I would get in trouble for talking (surprise!). Or for drawing pictures when I was supposed to be paying attention. And then I’d be assigned that infamous penance: Writing 100 sentences that began with “I will not….”

“I will not talk during geography class.” “I will not doodle while the teacher is talking.” “I will not wait until the very last minute to ask permission to go to the bathroom.” (That was an awful day!)

I didn’t mind it, though. I loved to write, even the same stupid thing over and over and over.

It became a little game to me. How perfectly could I form each letter, each word? And could I actually write the entire sentence perfectly, beautifully?

I never could, of course. At the last second, my pencil would skitter, or my lead would break. Oh well. Plenty more sentences to try!

And suddenly, I realized the beauty of that 8-year-old’s spirit. Perfection may be only a few pencil strokes away. I never got there.

But simply trying was…..fun.

Somehow I knew, and accepted, that it wasn’t about being perfect, or doing perfect. It was the practice that brought the joy. There was plenty of paper, and a pencil sharpener right near the door. I had all the time I needed. (I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to geography, after all.) I liked being indoors and didn’t mind missing recess.

With another stroke of insight, I realized this powerful attitude drives all my practice. All my interests and processes.

Except, of course, when I’m not messing myself up by falling into the adult’s version of private hell….PERFECTION.

Lose the striving for perfection, and I’m in heaven.

It’s why I can write about the same topics in my life, over and over, and never feel like I’ve written the definitive take yet. It’s why I love to ride horses, though I’ll never be a great rider, and was certainly never a natural rider. It’s what kept me going through tae kwon do, kick boxing, and back to tae kwon do. That’s why I can do kata all through tae kwon do class, and never feel like I’ve quite mastered Basic 1.

I may never get back down to fighting weight. I may never get my black belt. In fact, as I struggle back from yet more injuries and another upcoming surgery, I may never even regain the level I was at six months ago.

None of that matters. Just the practice.

It’s about the joy, plain and simple, we can find in our practice, if we let go of the outcome, the “finished product”. Because we are human beings, and there is no “finished product.”

I read a review about this book Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer. (It’s being billed as the not-so-exotic-and-more-domestic version of Eat, Pray, Love.) Some people love it, some people hate it. But what I loved in the review was the comment that the practice of yoga isn’t about getting to perfection in yoga. It’s about practicing yoga imperfectly and doing it anyway. I like that.

So yesterday I went to yoga, for the first time in six months. I’ve lost strength, and flexibility. I have to watch the twists, and I had trouble bending.

But it felt…wonderful.

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Filed under art, craft, inspiration, martial arts, mental attitude, mindfulness, perfectionism, writing

DEALING WITH FAILURE

Buffer failure? Embrace it! Sometimes the manure life deals you is fertilizer for your garden to come.

(This post was originally published on Thursday, December 05, 2002.)

A reader saw my story on Meryl Streep (we have so much in common!) She commented she has overcome her inner critic from time to time, has some success—and then encounters failure. In one case, it resulted in a large financial loss. It stopped her dead in her tracks. How, she asks, do you buffer failure? Is it a sign that we’re heading down the wrong path?

Buffer failure? Embrace it!

No, I’m not crazy. I hate failure as much as the next person. It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t look good, and it usually doesn’t smell very good, either.

But I’ve learned to call it something else. It is now a “life learning experience.” Or “an experiment.” A “calculated risk.” Or “an opportunity/possibility that has been tried, and simply did not pan out.” Whatever you call it, you met it, you got through it, and now you have a precious gift.

You can decide what you learned from it. And what you learn from it is entirely up to you.

We hear all those stories about Edison trying and discarding 423 different materials before he found one that could successfully be used as a filament in his electric light bulbs. Supposedly, he would say, “I didn’t fail—I found 423 things that didn’t work!” In reality, I doubt he was that chipper at trial #218. I’m sure he had some choice words.

But the important thing to remember is, it wasn’t failure. It was a process. He didn’t take each failure as a “sign” he should not continue. He took it as a challenge, an opportunity to explore new possibilities.

There’s a book I read awhile back, title escapes me. A collection of stories as told by assorted famous people, on their failures. Yep. Every single one of them had failed somewhere, along their road to success. You don’t take on risk without encountering failure at some point. Not one person achieved their dream by accepting failure as an end to their dream. Every single one of them walked around it, climbed over it, punched through it, ignored it, learned from it or changed it into a victory.

Look, these people aren’t really smarter, more beautiful, more creative, more talented, more anything than you or me. They’re simply people. Real people.

They’re just incredibly persistent.

Their common denominator was once they knew what their heart’s desire was, they kept after it. Just like me and Meryl, talkin’ down that buzzy whiny voice and doin’ the work. (Yep, me ‘n Meryl…)

It’s not easy. And it doesn’t come naturally, at least not to me. I’ve had to work at not giving up. And I’ve had to work at growing a new attitude about “failure.”

I don’t put it in terms at “what did I do wrong?” I think “What did I do well? And how could I do better? What did I learn? And do I have to do that same thing again to learn that particular lesson? Or is it okay to move on to try something else?”

My first few small town craft shows were “failures.” It would have been so easy to get discouraged. Fortunately, I was committed to making what I loved, not making what would sell at a church bazaar. I realized my work was not the bargain gift item one expects to find at such a show. Although, oddly, after every show, someone would call me and buy one of my very expensive pieces. So I learned some people found my work worth the price I asked for. And I learned I had to find a better venue for my work.

I’m still recovering from a more recent, bigger “failure.” I tried a new summer wholesale show, traditionally more of a gift market. I not only did the show, I redid my booth—new floors, new walls, new lighting. I even took a larger booth space. I did the work—did a pre-show mailing; bought an ad in the show guide; updated my catalog’ sent out my newsletter to customers and hot prospects; created new products. I set up my booth, put on my professional artist clothes, and went to work.

And I bombed.

I wrote enough new orders to cover some of my expenses, but not the major improvements I’d made. And because the economy still sagged, many of those new accounts called later to reduce their show orders.

Did I fail? It sure felt like it at the time!

A fellow exhibitor at the show asked me how I did. I started to list all the pluses from the show. He cut me short and said, “Why don’t you just be honest and admit it sucked?!” I didn’t know what to say. Was I being a Pollyanna?

But another friend said, “Do you only measure your success in monetary terms?” Wow. I had to think about that.

Yes, I want to be financially successful with my art. I consistently act and plan accordingly. But I also evaluate my progress by other standards. Money is an important measure, but not the only one.

I took a reasonable risk—to introduce my work to a new audience and to try a new booth design/layout.

What did I do well? The pre-show preparations were excellent. The new booth was great. The improvements were pricey but they’re a long-term investment in my business.

Everyone loved the work, so I know it’s viable. Most of my press kits were taken from the media room—always a good sign! I picked up a dozen new accounts.

I made valuable connections, including an editor at a highly respected trade magazine who was fascinated by my work. The new director of an arts foundation, referred to me by a mutual friend, found me, lined me up for a show and has proven to be a source of valuable experience and information about my targeted market. My booth neighbor was curating her first show at the museum where she works, and invited me to exhibit in their first high-end craft show.

I helped out a friend at the show with lighting problems, and he thanked me with a gift of his lovely art glass. My daughter, assisting me for the first time, bought a faux-leopard skin cowboy hat from another exhibitor—oh my!), met the charming teenage sons of another exhibitor, and was in seventh heaven. We had a great time.

What could I have done better? I realized I could improve my sales technique, especially on selling more expensive items.

What was under my control, and what was not?

Sad to say, the economy is not under my control.

Should I have skipped the show?

Well, I’m not sure. I’m glad for the connections I made. In hindsight, perhaps I could have waited on the booth improvements. But doing the show forced me to make those improvements, and though it would have been nice to recoup their expense with that show, I know I eventually will.

What did I learn?

I learned that I could tank at a show and survive.

I didn’t accept it as a sign my dream was unattainable. I kept the good stuff, I examined the bad stuff, then tossed it. I dug in and got back to work.

In August, I did another show. I took more custom orders than I usually accepted. I got better at closing big-ticket sales.

It was my best retail show ever.

Buffer failure? No. You don’t get anywhere with that approach.

Sometimes the manure life deals you is fertilizer for your garden to come.

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Filed under art, business, craft, mental attitude, selling to stores, shows

WE ARE ALL MADE OF STARS

Do you realize how amazing you are?

Why are we so willing to believe the worst about ourselves?

I had a conversation with a friend recently. She tends to believe she presents herself worse than she does. She accentuates her perceived weaknesses and berates herself for being “stuck”.

When I commented on her strengths and her perceived weaknesses (more on that), she smiled. “Yeah”, she said, “A friend once told me what my real problem is. My friend said, ‘Your problem is, you don’t realize how amazing you are.”

I agree with her friend.

I told her about a presentation I made last year, to an auditorium full of people. I’d goofed pretty badly–thought I was doing a presentation on one topic, only to realize the night before I was committed to a different one.

I was still more than adequately prepared. I’ve taught this workshop before, and have plenty of material on hand. But throughout the presentation, I kept apologizing. “I’m handing out a resource list–I’m so sorry, it would have been longer….” “Blah blah blah, sorry!, blah blah.”

When I read the evaluations later, everyone raved about me.

Except for one astute soul who commented, “The presentation was excellent, good information. Just one negative. She apologized too much. I found it distracting.”

Oy.

It’s time to quit apologizing for ourselves.

It’s so easy to see this in other people. So hard to see it in ourselves: Not trusting our instincts. Focusing on our weaknesses and flaws. Taking our strengths for granted.

Taking ourselves for granted.

So in the interest of full disclosure, here’s the back story behind my blog:

I merrily make my art/write my column/prepare a seminar. Things are humming along. Life is good!

Then I hit roadblocks. An envious peer. A missed deadline. A new injury (usually acquired doing something absolutely stupid.) A rejection from a show. Oh, and a very low checking account balance.

Some people thrive in adversity. Yay for them! (And we all can do that sometimes.) But often we are struck in vulnerable places. The roadblock looks similar to a struggle in our past. And there are some people in this world, in a kind of pain themselves, who know exactly where to aim their blows.

If I’m in my powerful place, I shrug these off as annoying but manageable, tiny little bumps in my path. I will not be deterred from my journey.

But if I’m in a fragile period, I get knocked off-center. “Why do I bother making this work? Nobody likes it!” “How can I make her like me and stop being so mean?” “I’m so disorganized!”

Soon I feel like there’s no place for me in the world. No gifts I can offer. No way I can contribute. I’m just a whirling bundle of fret and anxiety and unkindness and ineptitude. (I thought I was making that last word up, but spell check says no, I’m good to go. Until I spelled “spellcheck” wrong….)

I eventually sit down to write. I dump it all out onto paper. I whine, I cry, I resent, I blame.

And then something wonderful happens.

I realize how amazing I am.

Not in the swelled-head, I’m-okay-you’re-not, aren’t-I-grand kinda way.

Just…amazing…in the ordinary way. A person, here in this world, in this time, trying to love and be loved. Trying to be kind. Trying to shine. Trying to do the work I was put here to do. Trying to do the best I can. (Another friend, years ago, said to me, “I like to believe people are doing the best they can.” It brought tears to my eyes.) (Although it’s hard to remember that when someone cuts me off in traffic.)

For a few wonderful, incredible minutes, maybe a few hours, maybe even an entire day, I see how powerful I am, how brightly I shine. Just enough for me to get back in the saddle and try again. (OH! A riding metaphor!)

At some point, this struggle, this journey, turns into a blog article, or a keynote speech, or a new wall hanging. If it’s funny, it goes to my column at The Crafts Report.

I write about the struggle. I write about how I end up in the hard place, and how I find my way back from there.

And how I still end up there again.

And find my way back home, to my own heart–again.

I write about how our weaknesses are not something to be cried over, but something to be celebrated. Because our weaknesses are the true source of our strength, if we let this awareness happen.

If we are the victim of cruelty, we can still choose to be kind.

If we are gripped by sadness, we can simply embrace that, for now. Or we can choose to act as if we are happy. Or we can help someone else who is sad.

If we grieve, it is because we loved. Or because we wanted to love, or to be loved.

These things are not imperfections. Or rather, they are imperfections. They are what make us beautiful, just as as stress, flaw, disease and even death make something beautiful in wood.

If we don’t think we are amazing, it is simply because we are afraid of what that might mean. We think we don’t know what that looks like. We don’t know what might change or what we might lose, or that we are setting ourselves up for even bigger failure. We are afraid we will have to work harder, and we are afraid we won’t be able to.

We are afraid we are not enough.

And yet, in each of us, is the potential to simply be ourselves. To be present. To respect our gifts, and USE them.

What inspires me, what makes me cry, is that this very place that’s so hard for us–“I am not enough”–comes from a very powerful, very beautiful place–“I want to be somebody</em, somebody worthy of love, respect, kindness, joy, achievement. I want to be seen and cherished. I want to do good work. I want to be remembered after I'm gone."

Don't you think it's amazing that we all want these things?

Isn't it astonishing that this desire drives everything we do, every choice we make, whether we act on this consciously ("I'm going to hold the door open for that person behind me.") to unconsciously ("Huh! That person cut in front of me! He acted as if I were totally not worth his kindness!" or choice words to that effect….)? (I am praying you did not get lost in the punctuation of that last sentence.)

And that's why, when people say I'M amazing, or do such beautiful work, or write something good, I do a little foot shuffle and blush, and say, "Aw, tweren't nuthin'…"

Because I DON'T have this all figured out, or rather, it doesn't STAY worked out. I'll have to do the same thing tomorrow, and next month, and probably for the rest of my life–fall down, cry, take hope and get back up.

I know I just have to do this. And I don't have to do it perfectly, either.

Because when I look at my work, at my art, at the artifacts, the fiber work, the little bears and otters, the grumpy fish, the horses….oh, the horses!

When I remember my story I tell about myself and this work, what it's done for me spiritually, and what others say it does for them….

When I remember how far I've come from that lonely, sad place, where I was so sure there was no place in this world, I actually tried to leave it….

When I look at the wonderful guy who is my life partner, and our children, our friends and family, even the stranger on the street who chooses to be kind… When I realize all the opportunities there are in life to BE that partner, that child, that friend, that stranger…

I realize we truly are all made of stars.

I am. And so are you.

p.s. Thank you, Moby, for the title of this post.

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Filed under art, craft, creativity, fear of failing, inspiration, life, mental attitude, world peace, writing

WHAT MERYL STREEP AND I HAVE IN COMMON

Originally published on December 2, 2002

What Meryl Streep and I Have In Common

(Hint: It’s not blond hair.)

I was going to write about a discussion with a friend about his dirty house. But when I picked up the Sunday magazine that comes with our local paper, I came across some amazing statements by Meryl Streep that caused me to bump the dump story.

In the talk with my friend, he told me how immobilized with anxiety and self-doubt he felt each day. I’m a natural born people fixer-upper (much to the annoyance of my friends), so I jumped right in with suggestions that have worked for me.

He kept saying, “You don’t understand, you don’t understand” until finally, in frustration, I told him my deepest, darkest secret….

I wake up every morning with a sense of dread about how hopelessly inadequate I am to achieve my goals, and I go to bed every night ever mindful of….how does the Lord’s Prayer go? “We have done those things which we ought not to have done, and left undone the things we ought to have done.” Well, that sums up the beginning and end of my day quite well.

My friend was astounded. He said, “But you’re always so upbeat and you’re always busy with your artwork and always doing stuff….” He paused and said, “And I know you’re telling the truth, because you know the old saying, ‘You can’t bullshit a bullshitter?’ I’m in the pits, and I can tell you’ve been there, too. So how did you turn it around?”

It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, spiritually. I simply stopped listening to the little voices that told me how how futile it all was.

Note that I said I didn’t stop hearing the voices. I said I stopped listening to them.

It came about through a long, slow process. It wasn’t any one thing.

It was a series of books, a smattering of important people, teachers, who showed up in my life at just the right time. It was the birth of my oldest child. It was a workshop I took. It was trying to spiritually accommodate the violent murder of an elderly neighbor 20 years ago. It was a physical injury that tied up my body for almost a year. It was a brush with cancer (a very light brush, but frightening at the time.)

We often dream that when we figure everything out, when we realize our perfect vision for ourselves, everything else will fall into place, too. When we get the right job, when we meet the right life partner, when we get our dream home, when we find the perfect little black dress, (when we reach the perfect size for that little black dress!) the perfect lipstick, whatever, that we will finally silence those little voices that always tell us what is wrong.

Please note I’m not talking about the little voice telling you about real danger. I’m talking about that little voice that tells you you will never be good enough, fortunate enough, strong enough, talented enough, blah blah blah. The inner critic. When we still hear that little voice, we may panic. Dang! It’s still there! Where did I go wrong??

One of my most precious insights, almost miraculous in my eyes, is that it is possible to act in a powerful way even if your little voice says you have no power. You hear that familiar little rant in the morning–“You didn’t fill that order, you didn’t win that award, you didn’t get into that show and you never will!”

Then I get up and do it anyway.

Everything I have accomplished in the last five years–and it’s a lot!–I’ve done in spite of that little voice. I don’t pretend to say that I have deeper resources than other people, and I would never even pretend to say that all mental health can be achieved by just saying no to those voices. I am saying it is an act of will to act in spite of my voices, and I feel blessed to have found that out. I now realize there is no place I can get to where I will not hear them. But now I don’t let them stop me from getting where I want to go. They can whine all they want, I’m going there anyway.

So what do Meryl Streep and I have in common? In an interview with Ken Burns that appeared in USA WEEKEND today, KB asks Meryl if she will always act. And she answers

“Oh, I always think I’m going to give up. You get the cold feet. You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this? I don’t have to do this.’ It is something I confront at the beginning of everything. I have to start out with nothing each time.”

KB: And reinvent the wheel.

MS: “And reinvent the wheel. It’s very hard. It’s very, very hard….”

There you have it. The article notes that Streep has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards, tying Katherine Hepburn’s record. She’s actually won two Oscars. Her work ethic is legendary.

And every time she takes on a new challenge, she hears the same little voices I do!

I wonder what she says to her little voices…..?

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Filed under art, courage, craft, fear of failing, mental attitude, perseverence

HOLDING ON TO “FACTS” THAT WILL HOLD YOU BACK

I had a great idea last night. I’ve been referring people to my old blog at Radio Userland. But it’s hard to maneuver around that site, and impossible to search it.

So I’ve decided to repost all those articles, one at a time, on Fridays, and maybe some weekend days as well.

They will all be marked as reposts, so if you’ve already read them I won’t trick you into reading them again.

Here we go!

Holding Onto “Facts” That Hold You Back

(This was my very first blog post, from November 29, 2002!)

Years ago, when I was getting my master’s degree in education, I met a young woman in one of my math methods course. We paired up for several projects. I found her bright and funny and easy to work with.

One day we were doing some measurements for a hands-on project, and she stumbled on an easy mental calculation, multiplying something by 9. I said something jokingly about her multiplication tables needing work. “Oh, I never learned my 9’s facts,” she explained. “I was absent that day.”

I thought she was joking. But she wasn’t. She said she really WAS absent that day.

Surely someone as smart as she was, and as someone who was taking master’s level math methods coursework, knew that elementary school does not denote one day out of the entire fourth-grade curriculum to teach the nines multiplication table. But she wasn’t kidding. She told me an elaborate story about being sick the day the nines table was taught, and so more than 15 years later, she was still unable to multiply by nine.

I think of that young woman often.

Coincidentally, in that same math teaching course, we were learning how to teach kids their math facts–addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. There are many easy facts. Let’s take the multiplication tables. Everyone knows what the ones facts are–1×1=1, 2×1=2, etc. Next come the twos, and it turns out they’re pretty easy, too. Most kids learn them quickly. Next are the fives and the tens. They’re easily mastered, too. Also the “doubles”–3×3=9, 4×4=16, and so on. Now if you were to map out a chart of all the multiplication facts, and mark off all the “easy” ones, including their reversals (2×3 and 3×2, for example) you’d find almost half of the facts accounted for. And what are the strategies for learning those remaining facts?

The answer, it turns out, is not so much fun. You just have to memorize them. Of course, there are some good tricks, like the nines tables. (6×9, one less than 6 is 5, 5+? = 9? 4. So 6×9=54. Cute, huh?) But the straight skinny is, ya gotta memorize them. The math facts are one of the few academic skills that are ultimately only learned by memorization, and best reinforced by drill and practice. (Acquisition of vocabulary, especially in learning foreign languages, also benefits greatly by this approach, BTW.)

So here we have two statements, or stories, about facts. One is measurable, observable, concrete. To learn the math facts, you gotta work at them. You gotta memorize them. You gotta be able to knock out the answers within a second or two of hearing the numbers. But once you learn them, you never really forget them. You might get rusty, or you might get stuck on one or two. But the foundation, the habit, is still there.

The other story is harder to quantify. Everyone will believe it, few will really examine it. It goes like this: “I have a special story about why I can’t do something. It’s an odd story, but it makes me feel better about not being able to do that thing. So I hold onto it fiercely.” Even when a calm, adult eye would see that it doesn’t even make sense anymore.

What do you gain by holding onto a story like that?
Well…you don’t have to try anymore. You can have a clear conscience about why you can’t do that thing. Others might think you’re silly, but it’s possible no one would ever say that to your face. In fact, probably other people, who have their own “I can’t” story, nod their head in sympathetic agreement, relieved that someone else has such a story, too. You may even get sympathy, or admiration. “Wow, that’s quite a story! How awful for you! No wonder you can’t do that!” It also is a way to make sure you don’t have to do the real work of learning those new facts, those new ways of doing something. It’s too hard, it’s too time-consuming, it’s too late, it’s not possible, and so on.

But what do you lose with a story like that?
A lot. A lot of missed chances, missed opportunities, a whole world of missed possibilities.

I’m telling this story because I used to tell myself a story like that, too. It was all about how I couldn’t do the things I really wanted to do–make art. It was about how I couldn’t be what I really wanted to be–an artist. It was about how I would never be able to sell my work, or find anyone who would want to buy it. Surprisingly, once I realized my “stories” I told about myself were just that–stories–I found I could change the story to one I like better. A huge paradigm shift occurred, and I began to see that all the things that “couldn’t happen”, could.

I now hear that old story from people who ask me how I accomplished so much in the last five years. When I tell them, they first tell me how lucky I am. (I am, but not for the reasons they think!) I soon hear their story. They think it’s specific to them, a special story, an unusual story. When I point out that I had the same story, they are quick to correct me that their story is different. When I point out the inconsistencies of what they’re telling me, they tell me I don’t understand their story fully. When I suggest ways they could tell another story, they are horrified. They’ve put so much energy into holding onto this old story. There’s just too much at stake. It’s always a really, really good story why they simply cannot do the very thing they just told me is their true heart’s desire.

So my first question for you today is: What is *your* story? What is the story you tell about yourself that is holding you back from doing the things you really want to do?

Tomorrow I’ll tell the story about my friend and his messy house. Now there’s a story!

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Filed under art, craft, mental attitude, telling your story