Looking into a Different Mirror in 2019

hannah-grace-385877-unsplash
Photo by hannah grace (@oddityandgrace )

While I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, I like the idea of resolving, this year, to change the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

One of the most relaxing parts of my winter break were the hours I spent curled up with The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, the most-recommended fantasy fiction book by all of you.

At the end of the book, I found a pearl of wisdom spoken by a minor character named Bast:

Everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.

Bast then goes on to illustrate about how the story we tell ourselves can change (I choose to read this excerpt with the implied broad sense of “beauty,” and even so wish the example were a different one):

If you tell [a shy girl you love] she’s beautiful, she’ll think you’re sweet, but she won’t believe you. She knows that beauty lies in your beholding…But [you can] show her she is beautiful. You make mirrors of your eyes, prayers of your hands…It is hard, very hard, but when she truly believes you…Suddenly the story she tells herself in her own head changes. She transforms. She isn’t seen as beautiful. She is beautiful, seen.

So often we cling fiercely to limitations that are far past their expiration date.

We can resolve this year to start to believe the stories that the people who love us most tell us about ourselves.

Stories about being worthy of love.

Stories about being truly, deeply beautiful.

Stories about what we can accomplish: the book we can write, the new role we’re ready for, the strengths we have that come so easily to us that we ignore them.

The biggest leaps I took in 2018 were possible because I believed, even if just for a moment, the kindest, most generous stories that people who love me told me. These stories were sometimes spoken out loud and sometimes reflected powerfully in actions.

All of them helped me see myself in the kinder light reflected in the mirror of their eyes, rather than the harsh glow of self-criticism.  And I’d think, “Maybe they’re right. Maybe that is in me. Maybe.” That was enough to imagine bravery. That was enough to begin.

As we look to 2019, let us remember to believe those who see in us more capability, bravery, and potential than we see in ourselves. And let’s remember that one of the greatest, easiest gifts we can give is to be positive mirrors, by reminding others of the beauty that lies within them.

Happy 2019. Here’s to a great year ahead.

Whole30 and the Forever Problem

About 10 days ago, I started the Whole30 diet. Whole30 is a popular elimination diet that purportedly helps with everything from weight loss to chronic inflammation. I’m trying it because I’ve had stomach problems since May that haven’t gone away. I figured that a strict approach to food could help me discover how my diet is, or is not, part of the problem.

The Whole30 plan is strict: 30 days not eating or drinking any dairy, simple carbs (bread, pasta, crackers, rice), added sugar, legumes or alcohol. Plus you try to limit fruit to two servings a day. This boils down to every meal being some version of a protein and a vegetable, and I’m also eating a lot of tree nuts (no peanuts, they are legumes). Breakfast is particularly tough, since my staples of cereal or oatmeal or yogurt plus coffee with milk and sugar are all forbidden. In addition to everything I’m cutting out, it’s also a ton of food prep since everything prepared by someone else has either sugar or bread or butter in it.

While it’s not easy, it does seem to be helping me some. Plus, it’s an interesting experiment in resetting my body’s expectations around sugar, which is my biggest dietary vice.

Here’s what this looks like in practice: last week, I had back-to-back breakfast meetings. At Maison Kaiser, which has the most incredible baguettes and breads I’ve found outside of France, I had a half an avocado, a serving of bacon, and a cup of herbal tea. Then, at my next meeting in an open cafeteria, where I’d normally have gotten a Danish and a fruit salad, I had, instead, a cup of plain herbal tea. Fun.

At the cafeteria, my cup of tea steaming in front of me, I noticed the donut that the person I was meeting with was eating. I had a visceral subconscious reaction: unbelievable that someone would have a sugar donut at breakfast at 9:15 am!!

And then I checked myself, because six days ago I’d have had the exact same thing.

What struck me was how something that was brand new to me–this crazy diet–already felt permanent, enough that my subconscious mind was judging someone who was happily having a doughnut and a coffee just like I would have had a week ago.

This is what I’d call The Forever Problem, the feeling that whatever is happening to us right at this moment is real, true, and permanent.

With respect to adhering to Whole30, my Forever Problem does help me at times: with strict dietary rules, I enter every place where there’s food, from my pantry to a restaurant, differently. I skip past 95% of the available food, say “that’s not what I eat,” and move on.

But more often than not it hurts me.

When I’m hungry on this diet, or craving something, it feels like I will feel this way forever.

When I’m going through a particularly tough patch at work…you guessed it, forever.

Same thing for the last mile of a run…will this pain ever stop? Of course it will, but it doesn’t feel that way.

The Forever Problem often stands in the way of changes we want to make in our lives. Nearly all worthwhile change starts with discomfort, and we mistake temporary hardship—a jolt of fear, a sense of clumsiness when we try a new approach, a bit of shame when the new thing doesn’t quite work—for something permanent. We over-ascribe meaning to these missteps, thinking they represent something other than “this moment, right now, which is fleeting,” and we ultimately give up.

This is why success at making positive, lasting change in our lives is self-reinforcing: we’ve lived through this kind of difficult before, we are familiar with it. While we may not like it, we allow ourselves to consider that it won’t last forever.

This is also why cohorts can be so powerful in supporting the change we seek to make: our fellow travelers remind us of our purpose, they experience the ups and downs differently, they have seen us persist before, and, when our commitment flags, they believe in us more than we believe in ourselves.

None of this is easy, but meaningful change never is. We can get better at pushing through the hard bits by learning to reframe them. Our job is to see them as real but temporary, to remain curious about the panic we’re feeling, and to explore what other responses are available to us. Or, if we really must panic, we can give into that but choose to keep staying the course.

As for me, it’s about time to think about my next meal: which combination of eggs, nuts, roasted vegetables and protein will it contain?

Only 20 days to go. It feels like forever.

Bonus: Your Fantasy Fiction Picks

Tuesday’s post about fun fantasy fiction got an amazing response. I guess we all need an escape every now and then.

So many of you shared your favorite books with me that I wanted to pay it forward and compile your full list. Many of these are new to me, so I thought they might be new to you too. I included the sci-fi ones too, for fun, and some of your comments as well.

Thank you to everyone who shared!

The Kingkiller Chronicle Series (2 books) by  Patrick Rothfuss

The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss was recommended by multiple readers so it makes the top of the list.

Red Rising series by Pierce Brown.

Mistborn: The Final Empire by [Sanderson, Brandon]

The Mistborn series by Bryan Sanderson.

The Robot Series by Isaac Asimov, “A 1950s conceptualization of artificial intelligence.”


The Paradox Trilogy by Rachel Bach, “think Alien meets Mills & Boon.” (and, for you non-Brits, Mills & Boon = Harlequin)

Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, eight books in all.

Fablehaven books by Brandon Mull

The Discworld series by Sir Terry Pratchett has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide.

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston was described by a reader as, “It’s a true story, but wild enough to be fantasy.”

The Bees by Laline Paull, “A beautiful fantasy book about a worker bee and her struggle inside a hive.”

Other recommended authors: Rick Riordan, Anne McCaffrey, C.J. Cherryh, Fritz Leiber, Patricia Wrede, Tamora Pierce, and Robert Heinlein.

Here’s to a holiday season with lots of curling up under a big blanket to escape, for a little while, to another world.

My Daily Book Escape

My end-of-day ritual is to read in bed, usually for 30 to 60 minutes until I am falling asleep. This has become one of the best parts of my day, a quiet sanctuary: the door is closed, our phones and computers are downstairs, my kids are (or should be) asleep, and I can escape into whatever book I’m reading.

While I have always enjoyed a mix of heavier and lighter reading, ever since January 2017, when politics became terrifying and I got sucked into a social media vortex, I’ve discovered a new love for lighter, escapist fantasy fiction. Visiting another world every night has been a cushion from the day and a welcome escape from the noise of our new, cacophonous reality.

With that in mind, here are a few fantasy fiction gems that I’ve enjoyed over the last couple of years, in case you’re looking for something fun to pick up over the holidays.

Harry Potter, by JK Rowling. Right after the 2017 election I grabbed my worn copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and reread all seven books for (at least) the tenth time. I love them every time. If you’re one of the eleven people left on earth who hasn’t read them, you’re missing out. (Bonus: if you’re a true fan and you find yourself in London, head over to Greek Street where you’ll find a gem of a store called the House of Mina Lima with beautiful graphic art from the movies – graphic designers Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima created many of the props for the movies).

House of Mina LimaMe having a little fun with my Hogwarts letters arriving at House of Mina Lima.

The Winternight Trilogy, by Katherine Alden. I’ve just finished the first two books in this series. My wife discovered them in our favorite bookstore in Great Barrington, theBookloft, and they are wonderful. The writing is much better and more mature than most fantasy, as Alden brings a historian’s eye to the story. Set in 15thcentury Russia, the books, ostensibly about a girl discovering her magical powers, are really about the intersection of modern Christianity with ancient spirits, and set to the backdrop of politics and power in pre-Tsar Russia. I can’t wait until the third book comes out.

The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness. I’m not terribly proud of having read these. They are trashy-but-fun vampire/witch stories with a dollop of Fifty Shades of Grey. Still, they were just good enough to finish, and the writing improves after the first book. They’ll be coming out as a TV series soon so you may as well read them first.

The Stormlight Archive, by Byran Sanderson.  Sanderson is an absurdly prolific author, and this series is just one of many he’s written. These books were a guilty pleasure. The Stormlight world is big, sprawling and messy, there warring kingdoms, species pitted against each other, powerful gods, and epic battles. The story at time gets unwieldy and heavy-handed, but I did enjoy them. I’ve been told that Steelheart is the next Sanderson series for me to read.

The Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) by George R.R. Martin. Not original, I know, but if you’ve only seen the show it’s still worth picking up the books. In reading the first two I thought the series had the potential to stack up with the Lord of the Rings, but the quality dropped a lot after book two and they nearly grind to a halt. The five books are nearly 4,000 pages of reading, so choose wisely.

Seeds of America Trilogy, by Laurie Halse Anderson. These books aren’t strictly fantasy fiction, but they are so good I had to include them. These young adult stories of the American Revolutionary War, told from the perspective of a young female slave, bring historical events down to human scale while leaving the reader to struggle with the inherent contradictions of the fight for American freedom while condoning slavery. The books are fabulous, the characters rich and alive, and I wanted them to go on forever. These books and the Deborah Harkness ones are my favorite ones on this list (besides Harry Potter, of course).

I’d love to hear your additions to this list…otherwise I’ll have to go back to reading serious stuff, and who wants that?

How to give and get better advice

The problem with most advice is that it’s delivered as “here’s what I think you should do.”

Yet it typically reflects, “here’s what I did in a similar situation.”

That old situation and this new one are never the same: different time, different place, different people.

Plus, upon receiving that kind of advice, we end up stuck again: we’ve turned to someone we trust who has more experience with this type of thing than we have. Hearing their advice, we face a new dilemma: is their wisdom, experience and fresh perspective more valid than what we (closer to the texture and nuance of the situation) see and know?

There’s a better way to approach this conversation, both as advice-seeker and the advice-giver.

If we are asked to give advice, we start by advising less.

Instead, we take a position of inquiry. Our job is to tease out what is going on beneath the surface, the questions that are being balanced, the decision that’s lurking but afraid to show its face. As this picture starts to emerge, we can, gently, begin to engage with what’s been offered up. We can re-frame the options that have been presented and share some new ones. We can question the weight being given to this or that risk (or opportunity). We can inquire about some strongly-held assumptions to see if the could be held more loosely, revealing both their truths and their limitations.

Ultimately, through this engagement, the person who felt stuck doesn’t get a take-it-or-leave-it answer, instead she ends up armed with new criteria, a few better assumptions, and a bit more confidence in her own choice-making ability. So equipped, she’s ready to get herself unstuck and find the path she will choose to walk.

Similarly, as the person seeking advice, we can remind ourselves that a much better opening question than “what do you think I should do?” is “can I talk this through with you?  I’d love your input on whether I’m thinking about this in the right way.”

The 21st Century Resume

In a world in which access to knowledge is democratized and elite universities are exposed as little more than factories for social network currency and expensive badges, how should we be reading resumes? (Assuming, that is, that we should be reading them at all.)

While it depends on what exactly you are looking for, I’d bet that most 21st century jobs value:

Capacity for learning over knowledge.

Ability to build and provide value to networks over credentials and badges.

Expanding disciplines of responsibility over contained functional expertise.

Facility navigating multiple cultures over being able to thrive within one culture (note: culture is not the same thing as nationality. Not even close.)

Sustained and deep effort that result in exceptional skill in an area of interest.

GPAs, going to a fancy school and job titles with incrementally more seniority are terrible proxies for these sorts of capabilities. Which is why I’d rather see a resume that:

Tells me the latest skill you mastered and what you’re working on.

Describes a knowledge gap you had in your latest job and how you filled it.

Identifies the networks you’re a part of or have created, and what you’ve done to strengthen them.

Helps me see that these networks bring together all sorts of different people with a shared purpose.

And highlights a few areas in your life where you’ve been putting in the hours for a decade or more, even if it has nothing to do with “your job.”

We can do so much better than a listing of schools, job titles and “accomplishments.”

And what better way to stand out from the crowd than to have a resume that actually stands out?

It’s true, most people reading it won’t like your new resume. That’s good news, because your 21st Century Resume will serve as an automatic filter to help you identify the kind of people you want to be working with in today’s fast-changing world.

Ritual Reflections

At a reception at the Lean Startup conference, where I was speaking last week, I struck up a conversation with a couple as waited on a food line. The three of us had started the day together in the hotel’s small, dark, grey gym, with ESPN blaring.

“How was your workout?” the woman asked, kindly.

“Oh, it was terrible,” I replied. “Truly, every minute was awful. But I finished.”

It was true. I’d had a tiring week, had rushed to catch my 6-hour flight to Las Vegas, wore earplugs all night because the hotel room was so loud, hadn’t eaten breakfast, and was feeling sluggish. I didn’t feel at all like running on the treadmill, but hoped that after I started it would get easier or better.

It never did. This is normal.

I exercise a lot, and at least half of the time I don’t really feel like doing it before I go. I mostly ignore that feeling and the accompanying thoughts, because they tell me almost nothing about what will happen once I get going, let alone how great I’ll feel afterwards.

I notice the same pattern with my kids. This weekend I had to wrench my 7-year old daughter from a lazy Sunday afternoon TV show to get her to practice her ukulele. As kids do, she vocalized all the feelings she had at that moment. “I don’t want to!” “I’m too tired!” “Can we do it a little later?”

But this morning, before school, without protest or prodding, she was in her room strumming away, belting out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

It’s made me realize that most of what we do as parents is to try to instill good rituals.

Rituals of saying please and thank you. Rituals of putting dishes away after a meal. Rituals of how we go to bed. Rituals of doing homework early in the day. Rituals of always saying hello when we enter the house and goodbye when we leave. Rituals about using our phones and when we put them down. Rituals of reading before bed. And on and on.

These rituals only stick if they are for all of us.

My days are no different, filled with ritualistic behaviors: on the train into work, how I act when I get into the office, how and what I eat, what I do on a long-haul flight or how I get to sleep in a hotel room in a different time zone.

These rituals can be comforting, helpful and reassuring. They can be positive, well-thought out, and intentional. They can lead, day by day, to big positive changes.

Or, they can work against us: reinforcing the limitations we’re feeling in our lives, distracting us from what’s going on right now, buttressing our limitations…different flavors of short-term relief we trade, moment by moment, for a future we say we want.

Rituals are powerful because they help us push through the protests we’re feeling in our minds and bodies – whether we say them out loud like my 7-year-old, or we voice them silently. Rituals are a pre-determined set of priorities that free us from the decision of whether we should do this or that.

How we use our rituals is up to us. But when we watch someone who is doing something that seems impossible – running on a freezing cold and rainy morning; showing up perfectly pressed for work no matter what’s going on around them; always listening carefully; writing a blog every day — we should remember that what we’re witnessing isn’t a display of willpower, talent or skill.

It’s the result of ritual.

A Great Yoga Practice

My yoga practice today
Happened next to a half-made bed
A few clothes strewn nearby

My daughter entered the room a few minutes in
Plopped herself onto the bed
To read her book

I stopped once or twice
Answered a few questions
And ended my practice mid-pose for bedtime

Yoga used to be a sweaty thing
Pushing through physical barriers
Bending further, deeper

This time I didn’t even break a sweat
The twinge in my back didn’t melt away
There was no savasana or Om

But afterwards
I feel joy and gratitude
For the people around me

Maybe it was a great yoga practice after all

 

3018

I was working in a spreadsheet and I mistyped a date, entering the year 3018 by accident.

And I thought, “that’s ridiculous, there’s no such thing.”

But of course there is. It’s a real, actual date, 1,000 years from now. It just doesn’t seem possible.

What if we could believe it was real, just as real as 2019– a date that is sure to come, whether or not we are here to see it.

What would our today, or our tomorrow, look like if we could see the direct connections between what we do today and what happens on this date in 3018?

Today, at least, if we live in the United States, I bet we’d go out and vote.

The blanks

Compared to you, the people you’re communicating with (customers, colleagues) don’t have the whole story. They don’t know each and every detail, they can’t see every tiny nuance.

How could they? They aren’t you.

What they have is the information they get from you, and a whole lot of blanks.

Most of these blanks get filled in by things outside of our control: their worldview, their filters, the mood they’re in that day. But some of them are filled by the story they tell themselves about our product or about us. And the last few are empty for no good reason, because we’ve not communicated the right things to them in the right way.

This means we have two jobs.

First, and always, to communicate better, with more empathy about what the world looks like from where they’re sitting and more specificity about what we want them to feel, believe and do after they hear from us.

And second, to remember that each time we communicate, we’re doing so on two levels:

On the level of what we say, we are transmitting information, content and meaning.

On the level of how we say it, we are building out the scaffolding that they’ll use to fill in future blanks about us: future expectations about who we are, our personality, our intent, and how much we can be trusted.

Think of it as two stories: the one they’ll remember today, and the one that will inform how they fill in the blanks tomorrow.

 

(Speaking of blanks to be filled in: welcome to all of you who just showed up thanks to Seth Godin’s blog post on Wednesday. I’m glad you’re here and thanks for subscribing! And for those of you who didn’t see that post, you might want to check out a few other blogs Seth recommended: Gabe, Fred, Bernadette and Rohan.

As Seth mentioned, this blog has a backlist of more than 1,000 posts on all sorts of topics including storytelling, generosity, fundraising and sales, social change, leadership, and a lot more. Mostly, posts are a mirror of what’s on my mind, ideas I’m working through, and ideas and advice that I’ve found (or, more often, am still finding) useful.

These days, you should expect 1-2 posts per week in your inbox, so if you’re not getting them check your spam filter.

Comments are welcome, sharing posts with friends is a gift, and if you want to reach me I’m easy to find: sashadichterblogs@gmail.com)