30 small things (aka Life Experiment #6)

“There are no large pleasures in life, only small ones,” a much older boyfriend once pronounced to an impressionable 25-year-old me. He paused for a moment, reflecting. “Except maybe the Prado or the Louvre.”

“I’ve already been to both,” I ventured.

“Well. . . .” He raised his hands as if to say: “So, that’s that!”

The older I get, the more I take his point. Not that there aren’t large pleasures and that they aren’t, well pleasurable. But the quality of our days, and thus our lives, is largely determined by small things.

Mulling over possible Life Experiments for June, I hit on the idea of doing one (small) nice thing for myself each day. Given that June 1—today—is my birthday, this seems especially apt. Plus it’s also in line with my ongoing quest for more playfulness and fun.

Last month’s Life Experiment involved Doing Less. Without going into a lot of detail, I’ll say that, strictly speaking, you could count it as a failure. In fact, if my goal had been to Do More, you might say I’d triumphed.

But this isn’t the whole story. More and more, I see these Life Experiments as planting seeds. The fruit they bear won’t necessarily be within a predictable time frame. This hit home for me a few weeks back when I signed up for a digital photography class that starts next week. As regular readers may recall, my Photo-a-Day experiment lasted just a few days. But now, here I am returning to the terrain I staked out then. The seed I planted is taking root, just not the way I planned.

When I sat down to the make the list of 30 small things, I had the idea of small pleasures—a massage, a dinner out with friends, new running shoes—but as I started to write, what leaped to mind were small nagging tasks. Exhibit A would be the sweater with a button that’s been waiting to be sewn back on for something like 10 years. (In a novel this might be a metaphor, but in my life, it’s fact.)

In Life Coach-land such tasks-in-waiting are known as “tolerations” and are said to be constant drains on our store of energy. In any case, I’m pretty sure I’d feel better with a shorter list. Massages and restaurant dinners are nice, but so is creating order. My hypothesis: Getting that button sewn back will make me unreasonably happy.

Life Experiment #6: Do once small nice thing for yourself each day—which may mean pleasurable in the doing but could also mean pleasurable in the sense of feeling-happier-having-done-it. (Hi there, sweater and button!)

I’m back. Here’s why I was gone.

Free Child Walking on White Round Spheres Balance Creative Commons

It’s been almost a month since my last post. Blogging experts may differ as to the optimal frequency for posting, but on one point, I’m confident they all agree: It should be more than once a month.

That being said, I had my reasons. This month has been breathtakingly busy. Though, admittedly, any such assessment is a relative one. I once marveled at a prolific writer friend’s ability to churn out books while also holding down a full-time job. “I could never do that,” I said. “No,” he agreed, reflectively. “You need a lot of time to hang out.”

He had a point. And while “a lot” may also be a relative term, I definitely do need some. Which brings me to how I made the decision to take a break from blogging.

Here’s the thing: This blog isn’t just about my life; it’s also a life laboratory. I am both subject and object, both creator and data. When I sit down at my laptop to write, I’m not thinking only about the writing but also about the writer. How is she feeling? What is she thinking? How is she relating to this singular act of putting words on paper?

For pretty much all of my life, I’ve been an achievement junkie. Degrees. Jobs. Books. You name it. I’ve been really really good at getting things done, at erecting whatever psychic dams are needed to stem the emotional tides. You might say my motto has been: Act now; feel later.

But while this strategy may have its place, it also has its limits. I see this more and more. Like adrenaline, it’s good for emergencies, not so good for the long haul.

I’m still figuring out where to draw the lines—still following breadcrumbs—but in the meantime, a few salient markers are starting to emerge.

For one thing, my life works best when I hold my plans lightly. To put it diplomatically, this is not my usual M.O., which tends towards command and control. The metrics for this are simple. Accomplish your goals, and you have succeeded; fall down on the job, and you’ve failed.

Predictably, I began the month with this idea in mind. Even with my other projects-in-waiting, two posts a week struck me as a fairly modest target. But in the days that followed, my stress level grew, and something started to shift. A single question presented itself: What is the real point? This didn’t feel like edging towards procrastination or squirming out of work. Rather it felt like a small first step towards taking care of myself.

So what is the real point? Why did I start blogging? Last fall, at a particularly difficult crossroads, I went in search of ways to feel more grounded, more connected, and well, happier. Blogging has given me all these things, which is why I keep at it. Would strong-arming myself into twice-weekly posts really build on this foundation? It seemed to me that the blog could wait. And so it did.

“There comes a time in life when you have to stop doing things for instrumental reasons,” my first-year moot court partner told me, explaining why he had no intention of trying for a spot on the Harvard Law Review. More than two decades later, I still recall those words. They seemed important at the time. Now I understand why.

Why follow-through is overrated

trying to look perfect

This month’s Life Experiment has been a total bust. Except that it’s also been a total success. Let me explain.

As some readers will recall, I began this month with the idea that I would take at least one photograph each day. I was interested in how this would shift the way I moved through the world and also viewed it as an opportunity to learn to use a recently acquired but languishing digital camera.

All of this made sense in theory. In practice? Not so much. Here’s how it played out.

At the end of a harried Day 1, I snapped a hasty photo with my iPhone. (Better than nothing, I told myself.)

Day 2, same thing.

By Day 3 or 4, I’d forgotten about it. Ditto the days that followed. Until at some point over the next week I realized that this wasn’t happening.

My first reaction was to get stressed out over my follow-through failure. What was I going to write this month? What would I say to you readers?

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw another possibility.  After all, this was billed as an experiment. No, it hadn’t gone off as planned, but that was entirely different from saying that it had been a total loss. I decided—as an experiment—to adopt a different perspective, to detach the experience from the goal and ask what it had to teach me.

Here’s what I found:

1. I need to reconnect with my core purpose.

When I embarked on monthly Life Experiments at the start of 2012, my goal wasn’t to create yet another to-do list. Rather it was to explore how changing one thing in my life might lead to other unexpected shifts. Over time, I’ve started to lose track of this, and my “experiments” have come to feel more and more like 30-day Challenges. Be more productive! Just do it!  That wasn’t what I’d been aiming for, but it’s where I ended up. Time for some reflection and retuning.

2. I need to do less, not more.

The reason I wasn’t taking photos was very simple. I’m really really busy!  Over the past six months, I’ve gone from struggling to fill my days with meaningful activities to a jam-packed schedule, with freelance deadlines, workshop facilitating, friends, exercise, and life maintenance all vying for time. This is in many ways a good thing, but it also has its own challenges, which I need to find ways to address. (Also: I need to take time to appreciate how far I’ve come!)

3.  I need to do more to infuse my life with playfulness.

I recently wrote about an ah hah recognition that I need more playfulness in my life. During my time in Plan B Nation, I’ve taken a lot of pride in my ability to simply carry on, to put one foot in front of the other during hard and uncertain times. There have been days—and not a few—when simply getting out of bed felt like a real accomplishment. It seemed like enough that I could say, in the words of 12-step programs everywhere, that I’d managed to “take the next right action.”

But I’ve come to see that, while this approach can be helpful in times of crisis, it’s not (for me) the best approach to life over the long haul. Over the long haul, I want to be happy, not simply to endure. Getting things done is certainly part of a happy life, but it’s far from sufficient.

Language plays a big role here: The more I think about this issue, the more aware I am of how the words I use shape the quality of my daily experience. Tool kit. Task List. Marching orders. This is the language of command and control. This is the language that, all too often, I use when I talk to myself (when issuing marching orders).

It doesn’t have to be this way.

For example, instead of “next right action” how about “breadcrumbs”? Think fairy tales, think Hansel and Gretel and the trail they left to find their way back home. (Okay, so in the story birds eat the bread, but I still like the metaphor.)

Over the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about what qualities help us thrive while traveling Plan B Nation (and other psychologically harsh terrains), and it seems to me that one of the most important is the quality of openness. By this, I mean the ability to see alternatives and possibility where we might easily see failure.

In a feature story about famous accidental discoveries, the Daily Beast recounts how the discovery of penicillin came about after Scottish bacteriologist Andrew Fleming noticed that mold had started to grow on some cultures he’d left exposed. Years later, he toured a state-of-the-art medical lab, far cleaner than the one where his scientific breakthrough occurred.

“If you had worked here, think of what you could have invented,” his guide remarked.

Fleming’s cool response: “Not penicillin.”

When goals collide

scream and shout

A friend’s two-year-old once pitched a tantrum on a stairway landing between two floors of the family home.

What provoked the meltdown? Once the furious howls subsided, he choked out the following explanation: He wanted to be upstairs with his dad and downstairs with his mom. He wanted both, at the same time. He didn’t want to choose.

I don’t know about you, but I can really relate. Especially, during the past few weeks, as I’ve gotten increasingly busy.  At any given moment, I’m conflicted about what I should be doing—and doing next. There are so many things that need to be done, all vying for my attention.

Such conflicts are especially common in times of transition, at least that’s true for me. Right now, I’m juggling freelance writing with blogging, leading a writing workshop for foster kids, and looking for more paying work. I’m also trying to organize my home—a task that’s especially pressing since my lease is up in a couple of months, at which point I’ll need to move. (Speaking of which, I’ll also need to find another place to live.) Also: resolve legal matters relating to the Plan B Nation trademark, prepare my 2011 taxes, help out a friend with cat care, and pack for a trip to Boston. Plus: Be happier!

Not surprisingly, such internal conflicts are fertile breeding grounds for dissatisfaction. In her mega-bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert notes that Rumi once advised his students to write down the three things they most want in life.  If any item clashed with another, he warned them, they were destined for unhappiness.

But while this may be a sound observation, it doesn’t tell us how to deal with such conflicts when they arise in the course of daily life.  How do we best move forward while engaged in an internal tug of war?

While I don’t have a magic bullet (sorry!), I do have a few strategies that have helped me in the past, and to which I’m now resorting.  As is so often the case with this blog, I’m sharing what I need to remember.

1. There’s no “right” decision

Consider the situation. Decide on next steps. Once you’ve made an informed decision, do your best to ignore that voice that’s second-guessing you. That nagging sense that whatever you’re doing isn’t the “right” thing? It’s just not true.

2. Keep moving forwards

Some years back, at a similar point of overwhelm, I remarked to a wildly efficient friend that I was tempted to give in and simply do nothing at all.  He gave me a horrified look: “No, no,” he said. “That way lies madness!”  Which made me laugh, which is always a good thing. And besides, the point’s a good one.  A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, as the old saying goes.  For me, tracking progress is an essential strategy here.

3. Exercise

Sadly, I’m not one of those people who enjoys the actual experience of exercise, so I often let this one slide.  That being said, I always feel so much better after I’ve gotten moving that I’m determined to do better in making it a regular part of my life. In the meantime, as they say in 12-step programs: “Take my advice. I’m not using it.”

4. Say No

This is no time to add to your to-do list. Be ruthless (or as ruthless as you can be) about saying No. Need help? Read this.

5. Self-compassion

Simply put, give yourself a break. Recent research suggests that self-compassion is more effective than self-esteem in fostering contentment. Recognize that you’re in a tough situation and doing the best you can.  If you need some help in figuring out how to go about this, Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance is a great starting point.

As I look ahead to the rest of the day, I still have that anxious feeling. Then I remind myself I’ve written this post. And that’s, at least, a start.

A Valentine’s date with Leonardo da Vinci

Every now and then you have a chance encounter that turns into something far more. That’s what happened to me with Allegra Jordan, whom I first met back in 2006 at a women’s program at Harvard Business School.

Somehow we got to talking. One thing led to another, and we made plans to meet for dinner that evening at a restaurant in Harvard Square. Over upscale New England home cooking, we traded life stories, finding many overlapping interests. Along with our Harvard professional degrees (mine a J.D., hers an M.B.A.), we shared ties to the southern United States (she’d grown up in Alabama, while I’d spent years working in Tennessee and Mississippi). But most important of all was our shared concern with finding ways to bridge our secular and spiritual lives, whether they be devoutly Christian (hers) or Buddhist eclectic (mine).

Flash forward five-plus years, and both of us have been through seismic changes—jobs, relationships, geographic moves.  At the same time, the commitments that brought us together remain very much the same, and what began as a single meal is now a solid friendship.

In this guest post, Allegra describes how her own Plan B Nation story led her to launch Innovation Abbey, a social justice-oriented consulting firm with projects around the world (and with which I’m now honored to be affiliated). 

By Allegra Jordan

February 13, 2010. Snow is falling as my dog Belvedere and I pull out of my Chapel Hill driveway and begin the drive to Atlanta. By the time we reach the North Carolina border, traffic is at a standstill. Eighteen wheelers slide precariously close to us along the rolling hills. The six-hour trip ends up taking three times that long.

If this had been an ordinary trip, I would have turned around and waited for the roads to clear. But it was Valentine’s weekend, a brutal anniversary. One year before, I’d received a pink slip from my then-husband, followed by the same at work. The descent was so stunning it became introductory material for a forthcoming book with the tongue-in-cheek working title Is Feminism in Bad Shape? Check out Allegra. The story: our plucky honors Harvard Business School graduate marries, pursues a career in innovation, sacrifices, and ultimately becomes a cautionary tale for others.

Stick around for the weekend anniversary? No way.

Instead, I got tickets to the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta. My goal: To rest my eyes on consequential, centuries-old beauty. I hoped this experience would soothe and heal my heart. I was going to show up to life, show up to beauty, and show up to excellence. If I had to drive 18 hours, I would gladly do so.

But there was no “a-ha” moment for me on that bleak winter day. Tense from the drive, protecting a badly wounded heart, I searched in vain for what I was seeking. I saw nothing that moved me, nothing that seemed to justify the long and exhausting trip.

Valentine’s Day dawned in Atlanta to below-freezing temperatures. The sun had yet to rise when I embarked on my return trip over black-ice slicked roads. As I carefully started the long drive back, my spirits were low. It would have made sense to wait a while, but I didn’t have that luxury: I needed to make it back in time to pick up my sons at their father’s.

And then, just a few hours later, everything suddenly shifted.

As I crossed the border into South Carolina around 10 a.m., the sun peeked into view. As if on cue, the air seemed to warm. My tension and anxiety drained away, leaving a feeling of calm. For the first time in three days, I finally relaxed. It was then the blessing came.

I can only describe it as an epiphany. And epiphanies or daydreams are funny, inexplicable things. Neurologically, I can speculate that after I finally relaxed the executive center of my brain, I opened the door to a series of neuro-tonal images. It was a bit like being awake and dreaming at the same time.

I saw Leonardo sitting on a ladder. I drew closer.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“I can help you,” he said.

“How? There’s no place for me.”

“There was no place for me either—I did so many different things and few of them fit with each other. Even Michelangelo made fun of me for that big horse I tried. But if I could make it in the 1500s, then perhaps you can too.”

“But my work situation, my home life—I’ve been so betrayed.”

“Have you ever worked for a Sforza?”

I laughed. The Sforza coat of arms includes a viper eating a child. It’s hard to think of a more threatening boss than that.

“If I could do it, perhaps you can too,” the master said. “I’ll help.”

That was it. The epiphany was over.

Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison writes that a true and good friend is someone who takes the pieces of “who I am” and gives them “back to me in all the right order.” In that sense, this epiphany helped me see the path forward. In those moments, I found my tribe.

One year later I started Innovation Abbey, recruiting a first-class team that shares my dedication to evidence-based innovation steeped in deep wisdom about how people really work. Since our launch, we’ve worked in 10 countries in Asia and two in Africa, as well as in the United States. Our projects are starting to bear fruit, though the work of innovation— innovare or renewal in Latin—is the work of a lifetime.

Our competitive edge? We believe that human beings, not data or processes, are the root cause of innovation. Yes, people of faith need people of spreadsheets, and I have been a person of spreadsheets. But it also works the other way: data and processes need the human spirit.

Our name hearkens back to the ancient abbey system of Europe and Asia, which managed to combine operations and deep knowledge of people to show a better way forward. While far from perfect, the 1,400 Cluny abbeys nevertheless helped bring Europe out of chaos, war, and disease 1,100 years ago­—and without a single mobile phone.

I’ll close with a humble—but telling—story from a project we completed in Laos late last year.

In the Lao culture, there isn’t a word for innovation. But there is a word for love.

We were invited to work with a public health administrator working to teach her team about innovation.

She gathered her whole team—including her driver—to talk about innovation, using the materials we had provided as a jumping off point. The first discussion caused confusion. But the team did not give up. “We don’t know what this is but we love our regional manager who tells us this is important. We will do it for this manager whom we respect,” was the general consensus.

The tide finally began to turn when the Lao team connected in Thai with another group studying innovation with us. After this, the Lao team began to feel more comfortable with the innovation process and related concepts, the team leader told us. How did she know? Here’s what she said:

“I got in my car. Usually you tell the driver where to go street by street and they drive you that way. But this time the driver turned to me and said, ‘I’ve been thinking. For two years we’ve driven that way. I know a shorter route. May we try it?’”

When I heard this, my heart lifted. Think of the time value in money! How much time had two years of the directive mindset cost the team? And how much time might be saved going forward? Not to mention the larger changes likely to follow as the innovation mindset begins to take root and flourish.  And significantly, the breakthrough stemmed from love—from the feelings of respect and connection that bound team members to their regional manager.

I see innovation as the response of humanity struggling to renew in the midst of a competitive and dysfunctional world where there are amazing things yet to be discovered. I’ve had to give up almost everything to gain this wisdom. It’s becoming slowly apparent to me that it is worth it.

It’s our challenge to build a beautiful future together on the cold embers of a past that did not work. We have the spirit of a genius engineer, painter, draftsman, sculptor, and inventor that can meet us, even today. As I walk into this unknown, and potentially beautiful, unbounded future, I do so with a new confidence that I’m not alone. I’m searching for—and starting to find—the members of my lost tribe, the brilliant, visionary, heart-centered tribe of Leonardo da Vinci.

Note: To learn more about Innovation Abbey and its projects, email Allegra with questions or to request an inaugural set of white papers: “The Devil in Innovation,” “Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom about Modern Innovation,” and “What We Learn about Innovation with the Bottom Billion.” Readers are also warmly invited to attend a Tedx event on the theme “Beloved Community” in Chapel Hill on March 3, 2012.

Life Experiment #2: Creating Order

“Order is everything,” my friend Melissa once remarked, more than two decades ago.

When an offhand comment sticks in your mind, there’s likely a very good reason why, and in this case, that reason is readily apparent everywhere I look.

I am living in chaos.

It is a fertile, vibrant chaos, to be sure—fascinating books, scribbled notes, Christmas decorations, piles of colorful clothes, fliers for events I’d like to attend, bowls of local apples and onions, recipes I’d like to make. At times, I view the mess as akin to compost—materials that make my days both richer and more nourishing.

But mostly it’s a way better metaphor than it is a way of life. It’s frustrating, and it’s time-consuming, and sometimes it’s even expensive. (This morning, I searched for some books about organization that I’d picked up years ago. Tellingly, I couldn’t find them.)

Which is why February’s Life Experiment will be about Creating Order.

As some of you may recall, I’ve dubbed 2012 my Year of Experiments. Each month, I’m embarking on a new set of activities around a particular theme. At the end of each month, I’ll give some thought to how my life has shifted and share the results.

In particular, I’m interested in how activities that are apparently unrelated affect and inform each other. Here, I think of the old saying “Trust in God and clean house.” (Not to be confused with another old saying: “Trust in God and keep your powder dry.”) How will bringing order to my living space change my life in other ways? Stay tuned for the answer.

Or better yet, join me! Make February your month of creating order—or pick a Life Experiment of your own and watch to see how things change.

As a reminder, here are my suggested guidelines for Life Experiments. (I described these in more detail in a previous post.):

1.  Select process goals, not outcome goals

2. Select activities that are directly related to your larger goals

3. Pick activities that are satisfying (and even fun) in themselves.

And now, here it is, my personal Life Experiment #2: Every day I will take one or more specific and quantifiable actions aimed at creating order at home. (Examples: I will take 10 articles of clothing to Goodwill. I will spend an hour sorting through office papers.)

I’ll keep myself accountable by tracking the actions I take each day. (In case you’re wondering, an update on January’s Life Experiment is shortly forthcoming.)

 ♦

Order, organization, neatness—these are not qualities that come naturally to me. I will never be that person who, as happiness maven Gretchen Rubin once did, explains my compatibility with a mate in terms of a shared affinity for order, (“He’ll  say ‘Let’s take 20 minutes and tidy up,’” Rubin told the New York Times, in describing her husband.)

I do, however, think that I can do better.  Maybe a lot better.  I plan to give it a shot.

The magic of cause & effect

low gravity

Years back, when I first found my way to AA, I used to roll my eyes at old-timers’ earnest promises that “things will get better.” Don’t get me wrong. I loved AA from the start and didn’t ever think seriously about going back to drinking. (I was lucky that way.) Still, it struck me as absurd that people I’d never spoken to thought they could predict my future. What made them so certain? How could they possibly know?

It took a long time—months, in fact—before it finally hit me: “Hey! Maybe if you stop pouring gallons of a toxic depressant into your system things are likely to look up! Maybe, if you stop ingesting a substance that wreaks havoc on your relationships, life will (as a general rule) tend to run more smoothly!” Amazing. Who knew?

These thoughts came back to me the other day when a Very Nice Thing happened. Brazen Careerist founder Penelope Trunk—who, of all the bloggers on the planet, is probably the one I most admire—commented on the post I’d written about the benefits of blogging (or more specifically, about how research suggesting that blogging may help new moms could well also pertain to the newly unemployed).

Here’s what she wrote:

Amy, I really like this post. I started blog­ging when I had my first baby. I didn’t do it inten­tion­ally as a way to con­nect. I did it as a way to make sure my career didn’t tank while my emo­tions were tank­ing. But I totally under­stand how blog­ging could help new moms.

The other thing I love about blog­ging is that blog­ging gives me a way to share all the inter­est­ing research I come across. I’m with kids most of the day, and believe me, they really don’t care what I’m read­ing about. The blog is a way to keep my life intel­lec­tu­ally stimulating.

And, I love the research you have in this post. It makes me feel con­nected to read it and talk about it :)

Pene­lope

I was so excited! Not just a pro forma “thanks for linking to me” but a real live genuine comment reflecting on what I’d talked about and how she liked what I’d said.

And what had I done to spark this happy development?  Okay hold on to your seats. After linking to her blog on mine, I told her that I had done this.

Could anything be simpler or more obvious? And yet, I almost didn’t do it. Here’s why: In the world in which I blog, Penelope Trunk is a celebrity. I thought about the zillions of emails she likely gets each day. I didn’t want to be tedious. I didn’t want to push. I didn’t want to annoy her. (And she can be annoyed.)

But in my deliberations, I’d somehow overlooked two crucial facts: First, if you don’t tell someone you wrote a post about them, they most likely won’t find out.* Second, if you do tell them, there’s a chance they will actually read what you wrote and turn out to like it.

Give how universal this cause-and-effect stuff seems to be, it’s remarkable how often I have to remind myself to pay attention to it. True, if you make an effort to connect with someone it’s possible you’ll annoy them. But if you don’t make the effort, chances are good you won’t connect at all. Yes, you’ll avoid the downside risk, but you’ll also miss the upside. Cause and effect, it turns out, tends to cut both ways.

* Unless you’re Penelope Trunk, and then they most likely will.