Big Rock, Little Rock

I love the metaphor of life being like a container of rocks.  If you fill it with small rocks, there is no space for the large rocks.  It’s only when you put the large rocks in first, that there is room for the small rocks in the remaining space.  And yet how many of us fill our days taking care of our small rocks first, such as unimportant work emails, cleaning out the fridge, picking up dry cleaning and filling out forms?  After a day of getting everything done on your to do list, how alive do you feel?  If you feel frustrated and tired, it may be that you didn’t give yourself any time to attend to the big rocks, such as quality time with family, exercising, spending time meditating or stretching, doing creative pursuits, and maintaining or finding a great relationship.  At the end of our lives, we will not remember the small rocks, but we will know whether we attended to our big rocks and others will remember as well.

This week for me, in the whirl of back-to-school for two children at two different schools, my life seemed to be filled with endless little rocks:  piles of laundry, gifts for last-minute parties, orthodontist appointments and other drudgery.  In the past, I made the mistake of thinking that the goal was to take care of all those endless little things, and only when they were finished attend to the big things that matter, like getting in shape, building my business, and singing.  So many of us are perfectionists who feel somehow even now as adults that we are still being graded on how we live our lives.  We want to be good and do the right thing and respond to emails within the hour and be all things to all people.  But we’re tired.  And after a certain point, if we’re lucky, we realize that the little rocks don’t fill our spirits; they just crowd our to do lists.  It’s the big rocks that matter.

This week, if you had come by my house unannounced, you would have found laundry that was partly folded for days and kids digging through it to find their soccer uniforms.  You would have seen very strange meals of leftovers for a few nights since my husband and I had evening commitments and no time to cook.  You would have seen our kids eating way too much ice cream, not to mention the backlog of emails and the ongoing clutter in my office. But you also would have seen lots of snuggling with my kids, lots of talking and listening, time for walks, lots of laughter, and connecting with family and friends.  This week I noticed the leaves were turning into a brilliant red and delighted in a bright orange sunset, went on an evening flashlight walk with my son through the neighborhood, and spent extra time talking with my teenage daughter about life before I dropped her off at school each morning.

To find your world stage, identify what your big rocks are.  For me, it’s family and close friends, music and writing, coaching, travel, and spending time in nature. One great way to identify your big rocks is to make a list of what matters most and keep it where you can see it. In addition, watch out for your small rocks, because they will flatten you and steal your joy if you try to do them all.  Take time to enjoy nature as it enfolds each year, and take the time to really be there for your friend or spouse or child.  The less time we spend on our phones and on social media, and the more time we cultivate our inner spirits, the better.  Once we start focusing on our big rocks, we give permission for the people around us to do the same.

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Follow the Leader

Most of us learned the game Follow the Leader when we were in preschool.  Each of us got a turn to be the leader, and the rule was that if we were the followers, we had to follow whatever the leader wanted to do.  I remember doing a lot of hopping and walking backwards, which was innocent enough.  And yet, a few years ago, I taught a theatre class and gave this game to older kids, and the leaders were doing so many dangerous moves, that it created chaos among the followers.  I ended the game pretty quickly.  Follow the Leader seems like an innocent enough game for little kids, but what happens in real life when the leader suggests something stupid or worse?

Recently I read about a psychological experiment that was done in the waiting room of a doctor’s office to prove that we just go along with whatever others are doing.  Of the 10 people waiting in the waiting room, 9 were paid actors.  The remaining one was actually a patient, who didn’t know that the other patients were all actors.  During the time everyone was waiting to be seen, a buzzer went off every minute and when it did, the 9 actors stood up for 5 seconds and then sat down.  The real patient did not.  A minute later, the same thing happened, but this time the real patient looked at the other “patients” wondering what was going on.  By the third buzzer, all 10 patients, including the real one,  were standing up.  Then all 9 actors were called in by the doctor in a five minute period, leaving just the original real patient and 5 new real patients who arrived. The original real patient stood up at the buzzer and after a few times, the other patients stood up as well.  When someone finally asked the patients why they were standing up, they confessed that they had no idea.  They just did it because other people were doing it.

Obviously standing up to a buzzer is pretty harmless, but what if the leader is much more dangerous?  The herd mentality is a big problem because it can be so easy to just go along with the crowd.  This is particularly hard if you have teenagers, since teens tend to do more stupid things when they are with a group egging them on.  The same concept is happening at the Trump rallies, with Trump encouraging grown men to violently attack protesters. A teenage girl got sprayed with pepper spray because she spoke out, and an old woman with an oxygen tank was punched in the face because she disagreed with Trump. This kind of violence in any context would be unacceptable, but at a political rally in the United States of America?  Our forefathers would role over in their graves.

Beyond the necessary civility of politics, what about day-to-day life?  Today I was in a small crowded cafe with two other friends trying to find a table big enough for us.  There were only small tables for two.  The large table for 3-4 people was taken up by one person who didn’t bother to look up and offer to move.  Because everyone else was looking down at their phones, he felt that he could get away with doing the same and ignoring the situation.  I’m always amazed that whenever I give up my seat for pregnant women or the elderly, they are so shocked at my gesture, because I’m guessing it doesn’t happen too much.  I often see people looking at their phones when they know that someone could use their seat. Recently, a famous model who is very pregnant just tweeted how annoyed she was that even she couldn’t get a seat on a crowded subway in New York City, and she wasn’t just pregnant but famous too!

Perhaps the lesson in all of this is not to teach our kids Follow the Leader in the first place.  Let’s teach games like Give Up Your Seat for the Pregnant and Elderly, Open Doors for People, Think About Others and other greatest hits that were popular just a few decades ago, before tweeting and texting and Honey Boo Boo took over.  And I’m not even suggesting more advanced concepts such as Write Thank You Notes, Stop Talking Endlessly About Yourself, and Really Be There for Your Friends.

To find your world stage, notice what others need during your day.  Sometimes just giving up a seat makes all the difference.  But sometimes something harder, like standing up to bullies, is required.  Whatever you do, don’t just blindly follow the leader.  At the end of the day, people who right a wrong and practice civility are the people who stand out and get noticed, because it is a rare thing indeed these days.

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Trail Blazing

Whenever I go hiking with my parents on Black Cap Mountain in New Hampshire, they point out the colored blazes on the trail, which remind us where we are and whether we are on the right path.  I recently learned that the literal term “trail blazing” refers to the process of marking a path with blazes to create a clear path for the next person.  The metaphorical term “trail blazing,” which refers to a person or organization forging ahead before others, is what we hear more often.  I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for what it’s like to try to forge a new path for yourself.  First you’re lost in the woods, then you finally find a path, then you mark it with blazes for others so that their path is easier.  The early abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass, paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement a hundred years later, and the early feminists marked a path so that women could be taken seriously in their careers a generation later.

We have this idea, however, that trail blazers know the trail ahead of time, even though they are, in essence, forging ahead through a thick forest with no path that they can see.  They just have to keep walking forward, and sometimes backwards and sometimes perhaps in circles to find their way to the other side.  The trail blazers who came before us didn’t have brightly colored blazes to follow, and yet today when we’re trying to create our own path, we think we have to have it figured out before we start.  If we don’t have a clear map or trail, why bother?  The reality is that nothing great is accomplished without a series of failures, attempts at a trail that end up nowhere.  The difference between someone who succeeds and someone who doesn’t is often the ability to persist no matter what.

Whenever my kids have a setback, I tell them about all the failures and setbacks that Abraham Lincoln experienced in his lifetime.  In 1832, at age 23, he lost a job.  The following year he failed at his business.  Two years later his fiancee died.  A year later he had a nervous breakdown.  It wasn’t for ten more years that he was elected to Congress, only to lose the nomination two years later, and be defeated for the Senate six years later. He was then defeated for the Vice Presidential nomination two years later, then defeated for Senate two years later in 1958, when he was almost 50.  Then he became President two years later, a product of part-luck and part-timing.  I believe that it was only when he was forced to contend with the Civil War, that the country was able to see his true greatness.

I’ve heard often the phrase, “What would you do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail?” but I think it’s unrealistic and harmful to let people think that the perfect path is an easy path clear with blazes.  I prefer asking,  “What is the thing that you must do before you die no matter what?”  That’s the thing you need to do, even if you’re lost in the woods with no sign of a path, even if you look silly, even if your friends think you’ve lost your head.  That’s what you need to do.

Remember as you forge a trail, there is no clear path to start, just woods at first.  But if you keep walking forward, eventually a path will appear by your movements and by your forward motion.  You will get clues along the way as to whether you’re on the right path, but there won’t be blazes set for you until you have found the way.  The blazes are to show that you were there and to light a path for the next person. This week look for clues as to what moves you, makes you happy, and what fills you with excitement and joy.  Those clues will help you know where to step next.

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Bad Mommy

Yesterday I took my kids to the new dentist for a second time in a week for a follow up appointment. Both the dentist and dental hygienist said the nicest thing to me:”You’re such a good mom.  Your kids are so polite and well-behaved.  That’s not something we see in this office that much, which is sad.”  And then the dental hygienist actually put her hands together and started clapping for me, saying “Good job!”  While the clapping felt a little over the top, I was grateful for praise for my parenting, something I and most other mothers almost never get.  My own parents are always quick to tell me that I’m doing a good job, but other than that, it’s rare indeed.

Last week I went to the new movie “Bad Moms” with my mom.  I thought it was hilarious and spot on in terms of how much is expected of modern mothers.  We are expected to be well-presented and calm at all times, to bake homemade, organic, gluten and nut and dairy free snacks at the drop of a hat, and to be happy with all the balls constantly thrown at us. So often I will hear moms talk about other moms behind their backs, saying that so and so is a bad mom because…. fill in the blank.  She works too much, she doesn’t work enough; her kids are too scheduled or she’s not giving them enough opportunities;  she’s too frumpy or she’s too hot to be safely around the other dads.  (I have been guilty of judging other moms as harshly as I judge myself too.) Can you imagine a similar conversation about dads, saying that that guy is a bad dad because he doesn’t work enough or he works too much or he’s too cute or not cute enough?  It would be frankly absurd.  As my husband Bill says, “It takes very little work to be rated an A dad.” All dads have to do is just have a job, kick or throw a ball around with the kids and make pancakes on Sunday. For moms, the list is too long to recount.  Let’s just say that’s why so many moms are so tired, and if they are not– and are particularly perky all the time– there’s a good chance that there is some chemical enhancement going on, whether pills or booze or “medical marijuana.”

The newest research on how children learn is by understanding the importance of a growth mindset; in other words, students thrive when they realize that trying hard matters as much if not more than genetic smarts.  Parents are to praise in specific ways, such as, “You worked really hard on that drawing” as opposed to saying, “You’re a great painter.”  This encourages kids to value effort and persistence and grit, so that they don’t give up too easily, thinking they don’t have what it takes.  What if we did the same for Moms?  Instead of telling mothers that they are either good moms or bad moms, what if we all acknowledged that all moms are good and bad, just as all people are both good and bad? I know one mom who builds an entire gingerbread house from scratch with her family every Christmas.  I tried the Trader Joe’s kit one year with my then 2 year-old (while pregnant with my other one) and we needed soup cans in the end to hold up the walls.  I know other moms who rock climb and do off-trail skiing with their kids.  I don’t ski or rock climb– it gives me hives thinking about high adventure sports.  But I sing and write songs and record with my kids.  I was queen of the dress up adventures when they were little and I encouraged both my kids to write plays and stories.  We make homemade gifts every Christmas and extensive valentines in February.  Still, there are so many things I don’t do– I don’t knit, I don’t give elaborate parties, I don’t run the PTO, I don’t cook or bake with my kids–but I read all of “Great Expectations” last year to my kids in different cockney voices, we travel a lot with them, and I am big on snuggling and making forts.

As you carve out time to contemplate your world stage, think about what you’re good at and what you’re bad at, what you admire about yourself and others, and what you’re not so crazy about.  The more we can acknowledge the yin and the yang and the good and the bad of ourselves and others, the more we can cut ourselves and others much more slack.  So go out this week and let yourself be a little bad, so that you don’t always have to be so good.

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