New beginnings: one’s true self

It can be frightening to start something new… even when it’s something you’ve always wanted to do.  Fear of the unknown is the one of the most difficult things we ever have to overcome.  But if we want to move forward in life, to become the person we are meant to be, we are required to make leaps of faith.

I’ve written in various other spaces, but nothing has fit, quite yet.  This is my new beginning.  I’m going to try, at last, to write honestly and openly.  And I’m offering my willing ear to anyone who also wants a new beginning, but isn’t quite sure where to start.  So, if anyone out there knows they are meant to do something, but hasn’t yet begun, or isn’t yet sure what it is they are meant to do, please email me and let’s talk it through, or comment on this page.

In Hermann Hesse’s Demian, he writes: “I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self.  Why was that so very difficult?”  Maybe it doesn’t have to be so very difficult if we don’t try to do it alone…

Published in: on March 27, 2011 at 12:27 pm  Comments (3)  
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Remembering

I’ve been working really hard on my dream of becoming a published author (to the exclusion, obviously, of this blog).  It’s made me think about my earliest efforts at writing.  As it is “Holocaust Memorial Day,” I thought I’d post one of my first efforts: a poem I wrote for an English class when I was 12 years old.  I’ve posted it exactly as I wrote it 27 years ago. It’s amazing to think what an impact one little girl with a diary has had.

We must not forget. And we must be honest when we look at the world: are we doing enough?

Darkness Comes: a poem about Anne Frank on her last days of life

I know these are my last few days
because death does not discriminate.
I see it all around me –
even the toughest of women.

Mothers
with children in their wombs
and tugging at their skirts
die
leaving some to die of loneliness
and others
to never live.

Darkness Comes
all around me
I can’t do anything
to stop it.
Darkness Comes
Darkness Falls
each time
a little darker.

Torchered
with work
note even the toughest
of animals
could do.
Starved
to death.

The temperature rises to the point
where the water in the coldest stream
would boil away
to nothing.

Winter brings cold
that not even the warmest coat
could bear.

And I
with not rags enough
to cover my body.

Darkness Comes
Darkness Falls

Soon
it shall be me.

As I lie in my bed
of broken dreams,
I reflect upon how my life was
How it might have been.

I thank God every day
for the privileged life
I once led.

I pity the ones
who shall never view life
as I do
Or have a life as I once had.

Darkness Comes
Sadness Falls

Is this the last time
that will happen?

For me,
Maybe.

I pray for the others,
old
and young.

I pray
that even if I
don’t come out of here
they will,

For someday
SOMEONE
WILL STAND UP
AND SHOW
THE WORLD
TO ITS UNSEEING INHABITANTS

If only
that someone were me.

I fear not
for
Darkness Comes
once again.

And I will go to a night
that will never turn into day.

A Darkness that will never see light.
as many before me have.

No matter what THEY say or do
I go captured, a slave…
But in my MIND I am free!
I refuse to submit to them.

Now is the time for goodbyes
to all I know and love
especially to Kitty
with whom I shared all my thoughts.

All
but this.

Now is the time for goodbyes
but not the time for tears
because I will go to a place
where pain does not exist.

And I will be an equal
to everything.

But for now,
Darkness Comes
Darkness Falls
Darkness Comes
once more.

Published in: on January 27, 2015 at 10:33 am  Comments (2)  

If Only I’d Known. Letters to Lost Years: 1989.1

Everything you’re doing now affects your future.  What you pay attention to is your life.  And the things you avoid don’t disappear.  All actions (and inactions) have consequences. 

You may think you are too young (or old) for your decisions to make much of a difference; but life is cumulative –a ladder – and we even though we can’t see the uppermost rungs from where we are, each step we take (each decision we make) shapes the one above.

After a childhood spent over-achieving, I entered high school embarrassed by my nerdy reputation and rather distracted by other (shall we say less productive?) interests.   I didn’t try nearly as hard as I had in the past – didn’t keep up with homework, didn’t study as much – and consequently, all my classes seemed much more difficult. 

Eh – it was only ninth grade, how could it really matter?  College was so far away.  I was so young.  What impact could it really have on my life?

With that frame of mind, I blew off most of my freshman and sophomore years.  Then, thankfully, I met one of those people who I refer to as a “right-tracker” (someone who put me back on the right track).  Lenny was an honors student at Choate-Rosemary Hall (President Kennedy’s alma mater).  He was also a star soccer player getting ready to apply to the Ivy League. 

Lenny showed me that you could be interesting, well liked and fun, yet still work hard to achieve.  He taught me that actually, working hard and doing well could be attractive qualities!

Junior year, I began to notice all the people around me who were working hard and getting really good grades; suddenly, I was embarrassed that I wasn’t one of them.  That was it.  I began to work.  Hard.

By the time I started to apply to colleges senior year, my transcript was spotty, but not unimpressive.  Fortunately, my essay writing skills were well developed so I sent an additional essay to the schools that were most important to me, explaining the lessons I’d learned from my freshman year on.  (I also wrote about how I was going to rebuild the United Nations to make it an effective super-governmental organization.)

I am proud that I was accepted at Cornell and happy with the direction my life has taken.  Certainly, I owe to that great school many of my nearest and dearest friends – and through one of those friends, I met my husband.  Still…

I was wait-listed at Harvard, which was my dream school.  It’s not that I think my life would have been better if I’d gone there – although, I’m sure I would have loved living in Cambridge (Boston having just a tiny bit more to offer than Ithaca).  But I can’t help wondering what might have been different in my life if I’d gone to the country’s (and by some accounts, the world’s) best university.

If I was able to get wait-listed with mediocre grades freshman and sophomore year, it stands to reason I could have had a good chance of acceptance if I’d done well those first two years.

Imagine if I’d done all my homework in geometry and asked for help when I needed it…

Imagine if I’d read all the books in English class (books I’d come to learn years later I really enjoy)…

At 14-years-old, without realizing what I was doing, I closed to myself an opportunity that might have profoundly changed who I am and what I’ve become.  Out of sheer laziness and misplaced priorities.

I’m a big believer in the idea that life gives you the opportunity to learn the lessons you need to learn and attending Cornell has shaped my life in a lot of ways.  I just don’t like thinking that the choice wasn’t mine – I threw away an option because I didn’t do my best.  I didn’t try my hardest.  I didn’t do what was asked of me.

Today’s homework assignment matters because it affects how you’ll understand the material on tomorrow’s test.  Tomorrow’s test matters because it impacts your grade.  Your grade matters because you are building a foundation of who you are. 

Good grades don’t tell admissions officers that you are smart; what they actually say is that you work hard; you take responsibility seriously; you try and you get the job done.  That’s not only what the college admissions want to know, but what any employer wants to know.  

Again you may think you’re a kid now and have plenty of time to change and prove yourself; but the habits we establish when we’re young can be hard to change.  Why not create good ones to start?  Why not put your best foot forward from day one?  You may really struggle, but no one can fault you if you’re trying your best and doing what is asked of you.

I know that many schools are flawed and don’t accommodate people who learn differently.  Grades don’t always accurately reflect an individual’s interests, abilities and efforts, but that isn’t an excuse not to study and turn in the assignments.

Some of us know early on what we want to do and some classes simply aren’t relevant; again, that’s no reason to blow it off.  Remember that who you are now isn’t necessarily who you’ll be.  It’s worth keeping options open and learning as much as possible.

We all know when we are actually working as hard as we can and when we are making excuses for ourselves to give up or phone it in.

I remember getting so far behind that I was afraid to even ask a teacher to help me catch up.  I know when there’s something unpleasant to do, it’s hard to face that conversation or task.  But these things don’t get easier if we avoid them… in most cases, they get harder.

What we have to remember is that there is almost always someone there to help us.  Someone who will walk us through what we need to do.  Teachers, friends, mentors – they want us to succeed and will pave the road for us if we need.  But we have to ask.  And we have to try.  We have to take responsibility for ourselves.

Nothing feels better than facing up to something difficult and just getting it done.

And when we do it, we give ourselves the chance we need to live the best life we can.  We make the best impression on others when we are giving 100% of ourselves.   It may not seem like it to a teenager, but most people truly do respect effort and achievement. 

And you never know how all the pieces are going to fit together.  How the impression you make on someone at 12, 22, 32, 42, etc., will stick them.  And maybe that someone has a bigger part to play in your life many years later. 

So whatever it is before you, do the best you can.  If you need help, ask for it.  If you are struggling, find a solution.  Don’t hide and hope it goes away.  Don’t blow it off because you think it won’t matter. 

You just can’t possibly ever know what will and what won’t matter in the long run.  So act like it all does.  Give 100% of yourself.  Live without regrets.

 

 

Published in: on July 19, 2013 at 10:09 am  Comments (2)  
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If Only I’d Known. Letters to Lost Years: 1988.4

When you suffer disappointment or embarrassment from failure, think about the lesson of the trees:

Biosphere 2 attempted to create a perfectly balanced environmental system.  But scientists were baffled by plants that toppled over when they grew past a certain height.  Eventually, they discovered the missing element necessary for plants to grow tall: wind.  When wind blows against plants, it stimulates the development of stress wood, which holds them in an optimal position.  Plants use the challenge of a storm to make themselves strong for survival.

What can we learn from nature about how to use the storms in our lives?

It’s strange how seemingly innocuous showers can have an inordinate impact on us –  in response we twist ever-so-slightly and wind up growing with a funny kink in our trunk.  One of my “knots” grew after an unsuccessful run for class office in junior high.  That loss became my secret injury.  It was the moment that instilled in me fear of exposing myself to the judgement of others and planted the seed in my psyche that said, “I can’t… I won’t succeed…. I’m not good enough.  It isn’t going to work.”

Every now and then, there is something I can envision perfectly – something I am so completely confident about that I know beyond doubt it will happen: college, jobs, meeting my husband, places I’ve been.  I have other goals and dreams about which I am passionate, but when it comes time to pursue them, I do so with a touch of timidity and a pinch of doubt.  I go after these dreams – no matter how much they mean to me – with an air of apology.  I am that little girl who put herself out there before her school and they said no.  Probably means everyone else will say no, too…

“I realize this probably isn’t the best book you’ve ever read,” the undertone of my query letter says, “but please publish it anyway.”  How can I expect anyone to get behind me, if I’m not entirely behind myself?  

Understanding this has made me aware of two things:  1) I have to convince my subconscious that the past isn’t prologue.  I can get a “yes” on the things that matter most to me; I just can’t be scared to go after them;  2) I have to keep working until I am entirely confident in what I’m doing.  

It’s time to reach into my past and tell that little girl not to take every “no” so personally.  Tell her that rejection doesn’t shine a light on her fundamental flaws.  Help her understand that sometimes it’s just pointing her in a better direction or forcing her to give that extra effort.

After all, a dream delayed is not a dream denied.

I have to let go of that little girl’s hurts and humiliations because they aren’t who I am any more. 

If I am willing to work hard and am genuinely proud of what I produce, there is no reason I won’t succeed.  

No one is entirely successful all the time.  And no one who achieves anything worthwhile does so without struggle and stumbling and disappointment.  When it happens, it’s time to take a deep breath and learn what we can.  But never, ever allow that moment to seep in and infect our understanding of who we are.  

We learn the most from the moments that challenge us the most.  We learn what doesn’t work and what we can do better; what we want and are willing to work for, and what actually isn’t all that important to us.  

We learn to use the wind to develop the traits we need to stand strong and attain the potential within us.

 

Published in: on July 2, 2013 at 3:23 pm  Comments (3)  
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If Only I’d Known. Letters to Lost Years: 1988.3

Dear X,

The most difficult challenge of being your age is that you are neither a child nor an adult and everyone, including you, has to learn to adjust as you start to explore the world on your own.

I now warn my friends with kids your age to let go a bit and wait it out… No matter what horrible, hurtful things are being said, in a few years, the transition will be over and everyone will be friends again.

But those years – when you feel like you need to push everyone away in order to stand up on your own – they’re tough.

As I’d tell my dad to drop me off 200 yards from where everyone was waiting for school, he’d tease me: “Do you think the other kids don’t have parents?”

The funny thing was I didn’t mind being around my friends’ parents.  And mine never did anything particularly embarrassing – in fact, I think my friends quite liked them.  But at the time, that didn’t matter.

The point was that I was afraid of looking like a baby who wasn’t allowed to be off on my own while all the other kids were.  I wanted to be able to make my own decisions and be independent.

I was sure I knew it all and I wanted to be treated as a grown up.  It’s only as you get older and look back that realize how mistaken you were and how much there still is to learn.

I’ll never forget the time I was about twelve (in sixth grade) and I went to see a movie with friends.  I had told my parents that I was only going with a group of girls, but some of the boys from school had met us once we were there.  We skipped out of the movie early and went to Friendly’s next door.  And there, sitting in the window, waving with happy smiles were my parents and their best friends.

Now I can see that the best way to handle the situation would have been to walk up to my parents, say hi, introduce my friends and go somewhere else (or, because my parents were actually quite cool, they probably would have cut their meal short and left for me).

Oh, but not me.  I’ve never been great at downplaying a situation.  No indeed.  I escalate and make it as mortifying as possible.  So embarrassed was I that my friends had seen that I did have parents and so afraid was I that I would be in trouble because of the boys, I ran into the parking lot blubbering, and ensuring my humiliation escaped no one’s notice.

It’s possible that no one other than I remembers that night.  But it is one of those moments of chagrin I’ve carried with me – one of my many lessons on how not to behave.

I think my problem was (is) that I always forced things forward rather then allowing them to gently unfold.  My parents, like most, were willing to let me grow up and have my independence, but I never felt like it was happening fast enough, so I had to push them away.

There were a couple of rough years there for my parents and me; but I came to my senses eventually.  And now I realize how truly blessed I am to have them in my life, supporting and loving me as they always have.

At Cornel - after the storm...

At Cornell – friends again; they were always awesome!

So, I urge you to relax.  It may seem like your parents don’t know the first thing about you and are trying to keep you from becoming an adult.  But you may find that if you stop pushing them… if you talk to them and let them know how you’re feeling… they may just help you on your journey.

At some point most kids think that their parents just don’t get it – don’t remember what it was like to be young.  They think everything’s changed and so even if the old fogies do remember being young, it just isn’t the same as it is now.

Maybe that’s true.  And maybe your parents do wish they could stop the clock for a little while to keep you young and safe and under their protective wing.  Just try to be patient with them.  Understand that you growing up might be harder on them than it is on you.  They just want to stay part of your life.

Also, realize that your friends don’t mind your parents and don’t find them nearly as ridiculous as you do (or you think they do).  Everyone’s got parents and they are all cool and lame in their own way.

Don’t push them away.  You’ll need them at some point and, what’s more, you’ll want them.  Try to appreciate them while you are still there with them.  You’ll be off on your own much sooner than you can believe.  And I promise you, you’ll miss them.

IMG_2451

Parents: they’re the best!

Published in: on March 7, 2013 at 1:49 pm  Comments (4)  
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If Only I’d Known. Letters to Lost Years: 1988.2

Dear X,

I’ll expand a bit on what I was writing to you about friendship.

Of course, we know our friends should be the people whose company we love, whose character we respect and whose support we depend upon.

But most of us, at one point or another, have wanted to be someone’s friend for other reasons.  Maybe we wish we were more like them.  Maybe we want to be included in a particular social circle.  Maybe we think we’ll be more successful if we surround ourselves with people who have a particular image

Who we choose as a friend is, in part, a reflection of how we see (or want to see) ourselves.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; but if you find yourself unhappy, uncomfortable and trying too hard to win someone’s approval, then it’s time to take stock.

People young and old can suffer from “in crowd envy.”  There’s a group, usually pretty tight-knit, who always seems to be having the most fun.  To those on the outside, they appear to live in the best houses, have the great parties, go on exciting holidays and are always pushing the envelope. Being included and accepted by them can feel pretty good.

Except, when it doesn’t…

If you don’t actually feel accepted… if you don’t really feel comfortable… if you aren’t sure if someone truly likes you… if you find yourself doing things that make you feel bad to be part of the group, you need to reexamine “friendship.”

Shall I tell you one of my most ignominious memories of adolescence?  I wanted so much to be one of the “popular kids.”   After gym class, one of “those” girls asked me to roll up her jeans for her (as was the style).  There I was on my knees, literally bowed before her, while she sat like a princess on the locker room bench, and I rolled her jeans for her because I thought it would make her like me. In reality, she probably just made fun of me.

It’s embarrassing to share, but it should have taught me that she wasn’t ever going to be my friend. She certainly was never going to roll my jeans for me!

Whether you are doing something a little demeaning, like I was, or something that can be dangerous (like drinking, drugs or sex), if you are trying to prove yourself and pushing to be accepted, you’re wasting your time with people who aren’t real friends.

Remember, real friends are the people who accept you as you are and like you no matter what silly, awkward thing you might do.  Real friends stand by you; they don’t make you prove yourself.  Real friends make you feel happy about who you are; they don’t make you wish you were someone else.

Maybe you feel a little nerdy, dorky, or geeky now and you wish you were special.  Just hold on for a bit.  You have no idea what changes could be awaiting you down the road or what opportunities you’ll be able to pursue.  If you keep working to be the best “you” you can, you’ll find what makes you special.  I promise.

When that happens, you’ll be happy you’re sharing it with people who are genuine, caring and trustworthy.  You won’t worry about how people “labeled” you because you’ll see it’s all forgotten and never really mattered.  What matters is finding the people who will stay with you through your life and make every day better because you know them.

However you may look and feel now, you’ll be amazed at the power of time.  Anything is possible! Elisabeth Hasselbeck probably didn’t think she would grow up to be a TV star:

EH

And because life isn’t about looks, don’t worry if you don’t think you’ll ever be movie star material.  It doesn’t mean you won’t do something pretty amazing.  Most of the world admires what this kid achieved:

Bill Gates kid

 

BGForbes

The reality is that kids in schools label each other and there will always be cliques.  But when you worry so much about what other people think of you, you become your own worst enemy.  Ask yourself, “do I really like them?”  Figure out if you even want to be friends.  Do you have anything in common?  Would you have fun together?

If you could just see that in only a few years you’ll be through this awkward stage and everything will change.  You’ll begin to appreciate the people who accept you for who you are, and even better, you’ll start to learn to accept yourself.

By the time you leave school, you’ll see that everyone has changed and those cliques don’t tell us anything about how our lives will turn out.  The popular kids may or may not be successful and happy – and the same holds true for everyone else.

There’s a fun movie that gets at the heart of what I’m talking about.  Can’t Buy Me Love is about what happens when we turn our backs on our genuine friends in order to be accepted by the “in crowd.”  It’s about what happens when we want to be someone we’re not.

“Don’t change to try to please people.” True then, true now.  (And by the way, the kid who plays the nerd?  That’s Patrick Dempsey.)

So don’t waste your time wishing you were someone else.  You never know what’s really going on in their world; it may not be quite what you imagine.  There are too many stories of people who seem like they have it all, while secretly their life is crumbling.

Instead, figure out what you like best about yourself and focus on that.  Find the people who help to bring that out in you.

Which takes me back to my original point about friends.  Don’t judge anyone by how you think other people see them.  Decide for yourself, trust how you feel.  It’s all that matters in the end.

Even adults struggle with this.  Someday, you might worry that people don’t like the person you’re dating – maybe he doesn’t seem smart or rich and handsome enough.  You might consider throwing away a wonderful relationship over superficial qualities.

But life is long, so the person you choose to spend yours with better make you – and you alone – happy.  You better enjoy their company because if you don’t, no amount of admiration the rest of the world might hoist upon them will fill the loneliness you’ll feel.

But that’s a long way off – and a lesson for another day.

The best thing you can do for now is to appreciate the people who want to be your friend and learn to be the best friend you can be.  Accept yourself and others.  Don’t worry about the things you can’t control – like other people’s opinions.

Rather than trying to be someone you’re not, get comfortable with the real you (it’s a long road you have to walk). Spend your time making the most of who you are – your talents, skills, and interests.  Be grateful for the people who come into your life and see the best in you.

You are perfect exactly as you are, and the people who can see that are the people whose friendship will make your life richer.

If Only I’d Known. Letters to Lost Years: 1988.1

Dear X,

You will often hear it said that friends come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Though perhaps a bit trite, it’s a helpful way to think about friendship.

My dad has a pin that reads, “Cor ad Cor Loquitur” or “heart speaks to heart,” an apt description of how I’ve met my best friends.  In an instant, I just felt comfortable, at ease and myself.

A bit shy and introverted, it takes me time to build friendships. But with these special few, it was different. The instant I met them, whether I was 6 or 36, I knew immediately they were to be true friends.

I’ve had to start over many times: changing schools, changing jobs, changing scenery. During transitions, it’s easy to feel anchorless and lost. Our history makes us who we are, so it can be lonely and isolating when you look around and there’s no one to whom you can say, “remember when…”

But true friends will get you through the ups and downs. They will always answer the phone, write the note, or come to visit (so you can laugh together and say things like, “remember when you used to wear upside down glasses?” or “look what happened to the cook!” or “show me your interpretation of holiday!” or “olive oil ice cream with little kid smiles,” or “time for dinner without the kids.”).

This kind of love is a special part of our experience and it is invaluable. Though few in number, lifetime friends are the most important.

So what of the other people in your life?

As you go along, you’ll find some friends are with you for only a short time. They appear in your world to help you through a particular situation and then vanish again, whether you want them to or not. Maybe they’ll teach you something about yourself. Maybe they’ll give you the strength to go through with something you didn’t think you could. Maybe their example will help you understand who you do – or don’t – want to be.

Some of these “seasonal friends” have given me the courage to change my situation when I felt stuck. Some have given me support when I felt alone and afraid. I may have thought that we’d always be close, but time moved on and so did they.

It can hurt when people leave your life, almost like a breakup, but sometimes you just have to let them go and understand that their purpose has been fulfilled. You can’t hold on to everyone, much as you might like to. Life is too busy, too complicated. The best you can do is wish them well and thank them for whatever you’ve learned from knowing them.

Once in a blue moon, you may have a strange experience when someone comes into your life for an instant, almost like magic, and gives you exactly what you need in that moment.

One day, I was as low as I could possibly be. I had left my job (encouraged to do so by my boss), my boyfriend had dumped me and my dog had just died. (I was a country music cliché.)

Early Monday morning, I went to the unemployment office – not exactly a great way to cheer myself up. But there, I met a woman named Elia. We talked all morning (we had hours to fill, after all). She was a couple years older and her stories of the things she’d done inspired me.

She helped me see that on the other side of this ending, inevitably, was a beginning… and beginnings are always exciting, because anything is possible. She gave me hope that things could and would get better. She reminded me that one never knows what the day will bring – a new friend, a new job, maybe just a new book. She told me to relax and enjoy myself… the pieces I was mourning would all fall into place again one day. And she was right.

Though we exchanged numbers, I never spoke to Elia again. She was a mysterious angel with a message I needed to hear. Four hours with her had a profound influence on the person I’d become.

I met her for a reason.

I wish I’d always understood the value of friendship. There have been times when I’ve had superficial reasons for wanting to be someone’s friend – popularity, for example (more on that later). But I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot since then.

In an enclosed world, it can seem the people around you will always be there (for better or worse); but it’s amazing how even some of your closest friends will drift away.

Eventually, you’ll look at your life and see who’s stuck by you… you’ll think about when you feel best and the people you most like. You’ll realize these are the people who deserve the time and love you have to give. When you identify these people, you’ll know what friendship is all about.

When a part of someone lives in you and you in them, you’ve found a friend.

Published in: on February 21, 2013 at 1:57 pm  Comments (7)  
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If Only I’d Known. Letters to Lost Years: 1987.1

Dear X,

What you need to know is that this is a phase, and all phases pass much faster than you think they will when you are stewing in them.

You are waking every morning to a sense of dread.  You go to school and have to walk down that hallway, which just seems to get longer and longer, like this:

When you get to the end, you find your own demons.

Right now, you think this is all there is – your whole world is at the end of that hallway.  And it seems endless.  A day in school, a lifetime.  The school year, eternity.  Each word that is said to you, good or bad, echoes in your mind, growing in strength.  Affecting how you think of yourself and what you believe.

If I tried, I couldn’t convince you that soon, you will hardly remember those teachers’ names.  The people who you wish so much would like you… well, they will have all but disappeared from your life.

But I probably can’t convince you of that any more than I can make you believe this is all leading you where you need to go, helping you grow into the person you’re meant to be.

Even the insecurities your developing – which will sometimes plague you – they’ll help you understand yourself and eventually give you some perspective on what matters and what doesn’t.  More importantly – on who matters.

If only you didn’t take it all, each moment, so seriously.  If only you didn’t think it was all somehow defining.

It’s only a phase…  Just when you think you’re stuck and things will never change, they do – that’s the nature of time.  Sometimes it gets better, and sometimes… well, it will get harder. But none of it will be permanent.

So, what do you do in the meantime?  Focus on little moments of cheer. (Remember that Frankie’s hot dog with dad? Like that.)  Take it easy on yourself.  Do the things that you enjoy, read a book, watch a show, take a class.  Keep searching for opportunities to make things better.  Don’t fight to fit in places or with people you know just aren’t for you.  Look for the friends who make you feel like you’re snuggled up under a fleece in front of a fire.

“This too shall pass.”  It does.  It becomes just memory, existing only in your mind.  And you can choose to acknowledge it… or not.

Every time you take a step down that hall, you’re one step closer to change.  One step closer to a new direction.  While you’re still there, relax… deep breaths.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “All that we see or seem is just a dream within a dream.”  When you wake up a dream fades and has only the power you give it.  And before you go to sleep, you have no idea what wonders might be in store for you.  So too, your days.

Published in: on February 13, 2013 at 3:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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If Only I’d Known: Letters to Lost Years: 1983.1

Dear x:

You stay up late doing extra homework because you’re not the best in your class and you want to be.  I admire how hard you are willing to work, but I have to ask – why is it so important to you to be the best?  In a couple years, you will barely remember the names of most of the kids in your class.  No one will compare you to them.  I’d so very much like you to learn not to compare yourself.

It’s nice to win awards and earn first place, but when you set that as your goal, you are trying to achieve something over which you have no control.  It can lead to unnecessary disappointment.  Focus on what you have the power to change: yourself.  Reframe your goals and put your effort into being your best.

Who cares if you win – if you are better than others – if you haven’t given your all?   If you haven’t pushed yourself to do more than you thought you were capable, you haven’t really achieved much.  The satisfaction of an accomplishment comes from stretching yourself to overcome a challenge.

Likewise, if you have given all you can, practiced and tried, then who cares if there is someone out there better than you?  Let that provide a benchmark and a goal.  Don’t see it as a sign of your failure.  Everything is a learning opportunity.

Speaking of learning, don’t forget that’s why you are in school.  Not to prove anything, but to prepare yourself; to learn about yourself and understand your world.  What interests you?  What makes you excited?  What would you like to understand better?  Don’t forget that on those late nights when you’re doing extra credit just so you can move ahead.

From day 1, at the heart of every lesson in every school should be an explanation of why it is relevant to life – there is a reason for every fact we learn.  Not every class will be interesting or easy, but we can take from it something that will help us know our world a bit better and prepare us for the future.  If they aren’t teaching that to you, then think it through, ask yourself or the people around you why what you’re learning matters.

Sorry, I digress.  The point I want to make is simply this: try to enjoy and appreciate what you’re learning.  Figure out what interests you. Focus on your effort and your knowledge, on knowing more.

Being best in the class, little one, is less important than learning as much as you possibly can – improving yourself.  Don’t define yourself by where you stand in relation to others.  Define yourself by what you attempt to achieve compared to what you are capable of achieving.

Published in: on February 7, 2013 at 12:13 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Talent Code: “ability can be created…”

The first of the life-changing books HC lent to me was Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code.  Subtitled: “Greatness isn’t born; it’s grown,” Coyle’s premise is that high achievement is the result of a particular kind of training, attainable by anyone willing to dedicate themselves to what they want to learn.  To someone like myself, who has been told too often that her voice is like a nightinjail, this is difficult to believe.

How can Coyle claim that talent is a myth? Some people can sing; I can’t.  Some people can solve advanced calculus equations; I can’t.  And, on the other hand, as a proud mom, I can’t help watching my toddler play tennis without hopefully thinking about the “t” word.

Surely, these abilities have something to do with what we’re given by nature, right?  I don’t think anyone would deny that some things just come more easily to us than others.   But after reading Coyle, I now understand we have control over our strengths and abilities.

My son is a perfect example of why it may appear we are “born to do” one activity or another, and yet, there’s more to it than genes.

Upon seeing the video of Conall at the net, many friends have commented on his “talent.”  But excluding, for the moment, the possibility of a recessive “tennis gene,” what could explain his facility with a racket?

Conall was definitely born with some sort of the genetic predisposition to develop motor skills.  He was an early sitter, early roller, early walker.  That said, having just celebrated his second birthday three weeks ago, he has only six words in his vocabulary.  While his brain seems to be neglecting language development, it has been working over-time on skills like hand-eye coordination (much to the detriment of my vases that suffer a constant onslaught of drop kicked balls – one of his six words is “goal!”).

Though I have no idea why Conall’s development has been so predominantly physical, those first skills have had a cumulative effect.  Physical skills have come easily, so like anyone, Conall enjoys working on them.  The more he works on them, the easier they get and again, the more he enjoys working on them.  This cycle is part of the “talent code.”

As for Conall’s interest in sports, it wasn’t created in a vacuum.  The more Nick and I noticed his physical abilities, the more we have encouraged them.  After all, his father played semi-professional rugby and in addition to my diving, I grew up in a house that always had a game on the TV (we bought my mother the NFL channel for her birthday).  As soon as we could, Nick and I were throwing balls to the boy and introducing various sporting equipment to the house.  And Conall, too, has seen his fair share of matches.

The first time I noticed his particular interest was during the French Open last May (Conall was nineteen months).  You can see he’s already pretty fascinated.

I suspect that Coyle would argue it isn’t so much that Conall is “talented” by nature, it’s that he’s following a natural progression: building skills, enjoying his successes, being externally encouraged (by his parents) to try harder skills, which leads to greater accomplishment.

Now, does this mean Conall will grow up to be the next Federer (or Nadal, as he’s left-handed)? While a mother can dream, I don’t even know if he’s advanced for his current age, let alone where he’ll be in twenty years.  And even if he was considered a “prodigy,” studies show that would be a poor indicator of his future success.  Why?  Because high achievement requires intensive, focused and extended practice.  Like the tortoise and the hare, having a head start doesn’t guarantee finishing the race first.

Prodigies tend to burn out for a number of reasons: 1) success comes too easily, so they never learn how to practice hard and push themselves; thus, their late-starting, but harder working competitors can surpass them 2) having spent their early childhood trying to perfect a skill, they get bored and lose interest.

Of course, these are just generalities, but a long-term study by Lewis Terman of “gifted children” showed that over the course of their life, they were no more likely to achieve great accomplishments than a random sampling of the population.

So, how do we make sense of the Mozarts and Tiger Woods of the world?  In both cases, the young boys had ambitious and involved fathers, who introduced the particular skill at a very early age (2).  In both cases, the children were encouraged and given unusual opportunities to pursue their interests.  In both cases, the boys were better than their peers for having started earlier and worked longer and harder at their particular activities.

However, and this is key, Wolfgang’s early music is not considered to be remarkable and Tiger wasn’t beating the pros at 10.  It wasn’t until they’d reached a magic number, approximately 10,000 hours of practice, that they started to be exceptional.  We think of them as young geniuses because they reached that number sooner than many of their peers.

So, what is talent really?

Coyle says “talent” is the building of skill in a specific manner over an extended period (10,000 hours, to be precise).  Scientists have even identified how the process works in the brain.  Coyle writes:

Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of nerve fibers.  Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.  The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

“Everything neurons do, they do pretty quickly.  It happens with the flick of a switch,” (Dr. Douglas) Fields said, referring to synapses.  “But flicking switches is not how we learn a lot of things.  Getting good at piano or chess or baseball takes a lot of time, and that’s what myelin is good at.”

“What do good athletes do when they train?” (Dr. George) Bartzokis said.  “They send precise impulses along wires that give the signal to myelinate that wire.  They end up, after all the training, with a super-duper wire –  lots of bandwith, a high-speed T-3 line.  That’s what makes them different from the rest of us.” (pg. 32-33)

Coyle then gives his thesis (or mantra):  “Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals.  The story of skill and talent is the story of myelin.” (pg 33)

What does this mean for mere mortals?  

It means anyone can build any skill they are determined enough to learn.  All that is necessary is a willingness to fire the neurons over and over, to build the myelin, to improve the skill.  It requires what Coyle calls “deep practice,” or the process of breaking down any skill to its most minute part and perfecting it bit, by bit, by bit.

For all the times I’ve thought that I can’t learn to speak foreign languages or to drive a manual car, I now understand it is because I have not put in the effort.  When your child tells you they “can’t” do math, the response should be, “yet.”

It’s easy to give up when a challenge is difficult.  It’s tempting to say, “well, I just don’t have that gift,” especially when you can see someone else learning so much faster and easier than you.  But isn’t it empowering to know that, biologically, you are capable of learning whatever you like?  It might be difficult, but it’s possible.  And often, that’s all we need to know.

The rest of the code

Did you ever wonder how the Renaissance came to be?  Why were there so many brilliant artists in one place at one point in history?  Or how three sisters could all write classic works of literature still cherished hundreds of years later?  Or why there are “suddenly” so many South Korean golfers on the LPGA Tour?  Or how Brazil earned its reputation for football?  Or how “a penniless Russian club with one indoor court could create more top-twenty women tennis players than the entire United States,” (1)?  Coyle calls them “talent hotbeds” and explains how and why they occur.

The second part of his book is dedicated to what he calls “ignition” which “supplies the unconscious energy” for the “growth” of talent (pg 161).  It can happen when someone’s outstanding performance inspires others to think, “I could do that, too!”  With the Olympics coming up, you may suddenly see a surge in membership in local school track teams or gymnastics centers.  That moment of “I want to do that, too,” can be incredibly powerful, particularly when those who really want to try have access to coaches who really understand how success is achieved.

But ignition can also take place when motivation meets opportunity, hard work and a good idea.  Coyle writes at length about The KIPP (“Knowledge is Power Program”) schools, which were started by two young men, disillusioned after working for Teach for America.  In fifteen years, their school grew from one classroom in Houston, Texas to sixty-six urban schools serving 16,000 students, 80% of whom attend college.

The third part of Coyle’s book is on “Master Coaching,” the techniques used by the “rare people who have the uncanny knack… (for growing) talent in others,” (161).  Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t the Vince Lombardi-esque pep talks that make a great coach.  Instead, it is the ability to listen, to understand the athlete or performer, and to communicate to them, often subtlety, the way to improve.

Coyle identifies what he calls the four “virtues” of great coaches: the matrix, or vast technical knowledge built over years of study;  perceptiveness – the ability to figure people out; the gps reflex, which is a way of delivering information “in a series of short, vivid, high-definition bursts,” (186); and theatrical honesty, or the eccentricities that can be a part of a coach’s ability to connect.

I’m sorely tempted to describe so much of Coyle’s book that this post would be, in essence, a reprinting of his work, but as it’s already three times longer than I intended it to be, I will conclude by saying that in addition to the fascinating insight into how one becomes “great,” what I thought made The Talent Code so successful is that it is written by a journalist who can tell a story; Coyle doesn’t get wrapped up in technical jargon and he always remembers who is audience is.

Flipping through the pages again, I’ve seen so many intriguing details that I may have to reread it soon.  It’s that kind of book.

Just before I post, though, let’s get back to my singing.  I suspect what Coyle would argue is that I may never be a Broadway diva, but if I put in 10,000 hours of voice lessons, I could be Eliza Doolittle.

The puzzle

As I look back, particularly on the chaos of the past fifteen years, I’m always a bit surprised by the fact almost everything that’s happened in my life fits together in a such an orderly way. One thing, whether an achievement or an error, led directly and inevitably to the next. Had I changed even one decision, I would not be where I am now… or even who I am now.

If I hadn’t married the first time, I would not have worked on the 2002 Connecticut gubernatorial campaign and met one of my mentors, Art House. Also, if not for the campaign, I may not have divorced and needed a job when I did. This led me to Washington D.C., where I gained banking experience – experience that qualified me to work for Art in public affairs for a bank in Connecticut. If I hadn’t been working for a bank in communications, my dear friend Amy would not have offered me a job at Citi in New York. Had I not taken that opportunity, I would not have met my husband and moved to England.

At the time, it often felt like the winds of chance were blowing me to and fro with no discernable plan; but in retrospect, it all seems so organized – each step clearly rising from the one before. Even experiences that seemed like outliers have proved themselves important (my year-long stint at a PR agency not only taught me useful skills, but introduced me to people who have been good friends and enormously helpful).

Yet, all that personal moving and growing and puzzle-piece fitting slowed to a crawl after Conall was born. Of course, parenthood makes you grow and learn, but this is a different kind of personal development.

Then…

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I returned to the sport of diving to deal with subconscious prodding, which took the form of recurring dreams. When I discovered I simply could not dive any more, not because of my mind or body conditioning, but due to some strange allergy, I thought that was it for me; I could once again allow diving to sink back into my past. I would never have guessed I was just at the start of a new chapter, the first words of which were, “Would you be interested in coaching?”

Fitting it in

I feel invigorated after every session at Dacorum Diving Club and love working with all the coaches and divers. In particular, the head coach’s son, a rising star with unlimited potential, reminded me of all the reasons I was once so passionate about the sport. Though I’ve found new friends, new skills and new challenges, I initially thought this was just a hobby – an outlier – not a piece of the puzzle. I was wrong.

Shortly after I started coaching, I read an op ed in the New York Times by David Brooks, called Genius: The Modern View. Brooks writes the following:

“The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.”

This struck a deep chord in me. ‘Ah ha!’ I thought, ‘This explains it!’ The premise has significant implications for any sports club trying to develop young athletes, so shyly, I sent it to our head coach (HC). I didn’t know him well, yet, and wasn’t sure what he’d think. My hope was that we’d have an interesting discussion about it, and maybe it would help us work with our young divers in a different way. Well, his interest exceeded my best expectations.

I’m embarrassed to say that despite my fascination with the subject, it never occurred to me to purchase the books referenced in the op ed to learn more. But the same is not true of HC. He told me he’d ordered not only The Talent Code and Talent is Overrated, but also Bounce, a book Amazon had suggested. He seemed a little surprised I hadn’t bought the books and immediately offered to lend them to me. I am extremely fortunate that HC has a curious mind, as well as a strong drive to learn and excel. Because when he shared the books he’d bought, that’s when this outlier fit back into my life’s puzzle…

If it hadn’t been for the recurring dreams, I wouldn’t have gone to diving. If I hadn’t gone to diving, I wouldn’t have met HC. If I hadn’t met HC, I never would have read these books. Without these books, I would not truly understand what it takes to succeed. These books have completely changed my outlook, my approach to personal goals, and even my parenting style.

That’s the exciting thing about life: even when you’re traveling a path that seems familiar or mundane or irrelevant, you can suddenly find yourself in a momentous place and come to realize that whether you knew it or not, your steps were always taking you where you needed to go. That’s why we must follow our inner promptings, even when they seem nonsensical. (Like going back to diving at 35.)

In part 2 of this post (next week), I’ll talk about the ideas in these books and why they have affected me in such a profound way.

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