Beware of Traps

When I first started coaching, I thought naively that the key to helping clients achieve what they want is to identify their goal and break it into small, actionable steps, using SMART goals. This was drilled into us in coaching school as well.  The only impediments, we were told, were internal gremlins that remind us that we aren’t good enough. We even had to create a large 3D version of our own gremlins in school.  I brought in a black angry bird-type creature who had a sign around his neck that said, “I Don’t Deserve” on one side, and on the other side, “I Do Deserve.”  (I still have him somewhere in the attic.) While I do believe we all have internal voices that can get in our way, I have found that the biggest traps are 1) family expectations and 2) blind choices that are societally imposed.  Just like that silly and addictive phone game called “Temple Run,” in which a man has to jump over broken bridges and run around fire balls and out-chase various crazed gorillas, we have those challenges too. The difference is that in the game, we know that we need to avoid the fire and the gorillas.  In real life, it’s not so easy to recognize a trap when we see it.

When I graduated from college with a music degree and got a ‘hot’ job at a law firm that paid well and involved lots of free and expensive dinners with clients, the trap would have been believing that I loved the law, when in fact I loved the pretty art work on the walls, the pay, and the free food.  Many of my friends ended up at law school because they were smart and everyone in their family went to law school, but then they realized that they hated the law and if they were lucky, they never used their degree. I thankfully had parents who supported my dreams as long as I supported myself financially, but a number of my clients struggle with going against the tide.  One client wants to leave the small town her family has been in for generations and live and travel abroad, but to her parents, their daughter may as well be joining a cult. Another wants to leave the family farm but she is so invested in being the good girl, that she’d rather keep that image up than move to the city and embark on a new career. Another traveled half way around the world to get away from a stressful family situation, only to find that her family had in essence traveled with her anyway, since they had 24/7 access to her through texting and social media.  She is learning to create boundaries with technology so that her family doesn’t have unlimited access to her, but it’s not easy.

As difficult as family expectations are, the harder traps to spot are the ones that we make blindly because “everyone does it.”  I know of a few people who knew when they were walking down the aisle that they were marrying the wrong person, but the guests were there, the presents were bought, and they were already almost 30, so it was time to settle down.  I know others who had kids soon after marriage even though their relationship was shaky, because they didn’t want to be “old” when they had kids; they are now divorced.  I also know others who had 3 kids because “3 is the new 2 and everyone is doing it,” even though it nearly put them over the edge in terms of emotional and financial strain.  But at least they looked impressive on Facebook.  I spoke with a woman recently who wanted to marry her boyfriend but was afraid to insist on it because it seemed too needy, and besides, plenty of people live together.  I spoke with a client with over $1,000 per month in car payments, who turned down a dream job because it paid $20,000 less. I pointed out that her new cars were costing her her dream.  And I spoke with another person recently who hated her job, but felt that she had to stay in it to pay for her eventual mortgage and her eventual life with her boyfriend who didn’t make much money.  I reminded her that she wasn’t trapped yet, but soon enough she would be if she didn’t slow down and really think through each choice and its ramifications.

As you find your voice and claim your world stage, watch out for the traps that appear, both to please family and to go along with the crowd.  Watch out for the part of you that tends to ignore what you love, even if it’s different than everyone else.  In our crowd, it seems that everyone I know loves coffee and yoga and Beyonce.  Not me– I love seltzer and hiking and Bach.  Most people love skiing and white river rafting.  I’d rather read a book or get a massage. The more we take the time to get to know ourselves, the less likely we are to sign up for someone else’s life instead of our own.

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Remember to Stretch

I am currently taking an online fitness class called the Entrepreneur Fitness Academy, which is reminding us of the importance not only of healthy eating and exercise, but also regular water intake, getting enough sleep, and making sure we stretch. Of all the suggestions, the one I tend to forget is daily stretching. And yet in many ways it’s the most important. So many of us are hunched over our computers day after day, that it’s a wonder we don’t all develop a hump back. I remember seeing an old Japanese woman once, when I was living in Japan, who was so bent over from picking rice for years, that she could no longer stand up straight. I never forgot that. The backpacks my kids carry to school are so heavy, that they are 20% of their body weight and so I have had to resort to bribing my kids.  If they get the weight under 10%, they get money.  So far, both have benefited from the bribery program, although it’s hard to maintain it, when more and more is being sent home, in addition to heavy laptops.  And they are not even in high school yet.  What are we supposed to do to protect our postures?

I have a friend named Annie, who is a fascia expert.  She told me that fascia is like the net that holds everything in our bodies together. But if we don’t exercise or stretch, our fascia can become tight. If we overtrain the same thing can happen. Aging naturally makes our fascia less free. So it’s really important that we take care of our fascia, through regularly stretching and foam rolling. After realizing that I needed to add “dealing with my fascia” to my self-care list, I bought a squishy foam roller and some little balls of different sizes on Amazon and started working with them. I have been using my foam roller to work out kinks in my upper back, and now I understand the idea that yoga devotees already know:  if you become unstuck in your body, you start to become unstuck in the rest of your life. Flexibility in your body is the key to an open spirt and a full-hearted life. So often we tense our bodies in response to stress or a difficult person, but in closing ourselves off from bad things, we close ourselves off from the good as well.  Brene Brown talks about this concept in her books on shame resiliency.  We tend to numb ourselves to bad feelings to protect ourselves from the difficult things in life.  But in the end, we also numb ourselves to joy.  To live fully, we need to embrace all of it, the good and the bad. Stretching helps us to connect with the unyielding parts of ourselves, be forgiving of our imperfections, and release and let go.

In a larger metaphorical sense, we need to not only stretch our bodies, but we need to stretch our minds, our emotions and our spirits.  So often, adults get fixed into one narrow ideology, whether politically or religiously.  We surround ourselves with people who share our world view and forget that there are millions of people out there who don’t believe in our religion, understand our culture, or embrace our politics.  There are books that we love that others don’t get and that’s okay too.  The minute we need to have everyone around support our world view, we’re in trouble.  I started listening to Dave Ramsey a few years ago for that reason.  Dave is a born-again Christian financial guru from the south who loves guns and pick up trucks.  And he is very conservative.  We have almost nothing in common and some of he people who call into his show are uneducated and say things like “me and the wife are wanting an RV so we can hunt more.” I don’t know people like this, which is why I listen and learn.  I never want to believe that my world view or my politics or my culture is the only way.  I want to stretch my beliefs so I can always remain open to the world.

As you seek your world stage, remember the importance of stretching, in all ways.  As important as it is to stretch our bodies, it’s equally important to stretch our minds and spirits.  The world needs more people whose minds are flexible and hearts are open.  In the end, we need to be like a bamboo tree that can bend so that when a storm comes, we don’t break.

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A bamboo grove that I photographed in Kyoto, Japan.

 

Don’t Eat the Marshmallow

In the 1960’s a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel began a series of psychological experiments with young children, which ultimately revealed one of the most important factors in later success– the ability to delay gratification. The Marshmallow Experiment involved leading a 4 or 5 year-old child into a private room where there was a marshmallow on the table.  Each child was offered a deal:  if he or she did not eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes while the researcher was gone, there would be a reward of another marshmallow.  If the child didn’t wait, there would not be a second marshmallow.  The choice was eat one now or wait and eat two later. All the kids in the study were videotaped. Some children ate the treat as soon as the researcher left, some waited a few minutes as they tried to distract themselves and then finally gave in, and some managed to wait the whole 15 minutes.

Even though the study itself was interesting, what was really fascinating was the follow up with these children over forty years. The kids who held off eating the marshmallow had higher SAT scores, were less likely to be obese, had better social skills and a lower level of substance abuse.  In all measures of success, the group who showed the ability to delay gratification outperformed those who couldn’t wait.  If you think about it, the ability to put an immediate want on hold for a great goal is the key to success.  It means you commit to the hard work of being a good student, you hold off on having a baby until you’re married, you don’t succumb to drugs, you don’t eat everything you feel like eating, you get to the gym even though you don’t want to, and you don’t spend money on a car you can’t afford even though it might impress your friends.  Instead you hold off, push through the discomfort, and wait until you can make the right choice for yourself.

How many of us are able to delay gratification, however, in every area of our life for a greater goal?  It’s not easy.  We may be conscientious in our jobs but not careful with our diet.  We may make fitness a priority, but overspend so much that we’ve racked up a lot of credit card debt.  We may spend a lot of time with our kids, but don’t spend much time on our own self-care.  The reality is that it’s impossible to do all things perfectly and full out, since we only have so much energy and so many hours per day.  Most educated people I know agree that being a good student and working hard in your career are not optional for success, but we may let other things slide, like fitness and exercise, thinking that they aren’t as important, when in fact they are.

I’m currently taking an interesting online fitness program for entrepreneurs called the Entrepreneur Fitness Academy.  Before we even get to learning more about diet and exercise, we need to spend two weeks getting in to a champion mindset and then setting goals that are specific and measurable so that we know where we’re headed.  But most importantly, we need to have a WHY for our goal.  Why is that important?  If it doesn’t matter to you, it won’t happen.  I’m just guessing that for the kids with the marshmallows, those with the strongest why for waiting may have been able to hold off the longest.  Maybe those kids who held off focused on the fact that they were going to get two instead of one, or maybe they wanted to please the researcher, so their parents would be happy.  For those who didn’t wait, maybe they focused on the joy of eating what was in front of them, or maybe they didn’t trust that they really would get a second one.  That can kind of thinking, that life is short so why not have fun now while you can, can be a dangerous trap leading to all sorts of unhealthy behaviors, from drug and alcohol addiction to bankruptcy to crime.

To find your world stage, find what delights you and be aware of the importance of delaying gratification to get where you want to go.  The fact is that being uncomfortable is often a necessary part of creating success.  Change is scary, whereas going with what is known and safe feels good in the moment. In the end, however, it just keeps you stuck.  The key is to find every way you can to hold off on what is easy and right in front of you, knowing that there is a greater reward coming.  Hold off on the marshmallow, since there are better things waiting for you.

 

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Be Last

We have this idea as a society, reinforced by our current American president, that the world can be broken down into winners and losers. If you win, you are worthy, and if you lose, you are unworthy.  So many of us have this concept engrained in our psyches, that we are afraid to take risks.  If we are known for being good at something, whether a career or a hobby, we continue to do that field or task, because we are assured of a successful outcome.  So the surgeon who is a great cook knows how she will be in the operating room and the kitchen, and the yoga teacher who is great at photography, knows he can succeed on the mat and with his camera.  But what happens if the surgeon want to learn photography or the yoga teacher has always wanted to cook?  How many of us are willing every day and every year to be a beginner in some aspect of our lives?  In a world of winners and losers, it’s a very scary proposition.

As a mother, I’m aware that in this generation, kids are encouraged to “specialize” in a given sport at a very young age, by age 8 or 9, even though it’s not in the interest of their bodies or their long term sports “career.”  Injuries and burn-out are increasingly common as kids play the same sport year round and over use the same muscles.  One of our neighbors in fact had two surgeries before she was 16, due to playing year-round soccer on multiple teams.  When my son was younger, I was surprised to find that there was no such thing as a beginner baseball team for 3rd graders since kids need to start in first grade.  Since he was a beginner he was grouped with a bunch of 6 year-olds.  (The good news is that the little boys all looked up to him since he was taller, but still.) The same goes for tennis and soccer and lacrosse.  If you’re a beginner at 10, it’s too late.  And if you’re a beginner, you’re going to be worse than everyone else, and you might– gasp– lose, which in our society would make you a loser and no one wants that.  So we adults tend to steer our young kids toward what they will succeed in, as opposed to letting them try things they might not be good at, whether initially or whether ever.

My son, who is 6th grade, tried lacrosse last year for the first time and hated it.  As he said, “Who thought of the idea of all those boys running around with sticks?  They just hit each other when the coach isn’t looking!”  He and my 8th grade daughter tried musical theater this year and both loved it, which didn’t surprise me, since I’m from a music and theatre background.  He tried piano lessons but likes voice better. She tried piano lessons and likes cello better.  But as they make their way through exploring what they like and don’t like, what inspires me most is when they try things that they are not initially good at. My son this spring has been on track for the first time and since he is still small and is competing against older kids, he is not very fast yet.  In fact, at the recent meet, he came in last.  But what touched me was how he handled the defeat.  He finished the race and held his head up high, and when one of his friends, who won the race, lapped him, the friend reached out to pat my son on the back.  It was such a lovely gesture.  I reminded my son that it’s not winning that teaches us anything; it’s losing.  It’s knowing how to be graceful in defeat and to be proud of your efforts.  You also can’t appreciate winning unless you’ve lost, just as you can’t appreciate success without experiencing failure because they are two sides of a coin.  I reminded him that unless we are trying new things and putting ourselves in a position in which we might lose or fail, then we are not really living.  We don’t want to get stuck in the same familiar roles that everyone expects, because in the end it becomes a trap.

For me, as my kids know, even though I was strong in the performing arts, I was not a great athlete, and I still remember the only two goals I ever scored in soccer.  I also remember equally missing an important penalty kick and how supportive my team mates were.  For every lead I got in a play, I most remember playing the part of a tree in a community theatre production of “The Wizard of Oz.”  The year before I had actually played Dorothy in the same show, but with our small community theatre, and with just 6th-8th graders.  This time around was a more professional show with mostly adult actors, and the best part I could get was as a tree.  It was very humbling and a great experience, because I learned that there are no small parts, just small actors, which you never want to be.  I passed on that wisdom to my son this past winter, when he was cast in a small comedic singing part, in which he had play four separate characters with different accents.  He wasn’t the lead, but many people commented that he stole the show; he was funny and charming on stage.  I reminded him of that when he left the field after his recent track defeat. For every win, there is a loss and both are important.

As you think about what your world stage is, remember to try new things and allow yourself to fail, to come in last, to burn the new dish, to create bad art, to just not be very good, because then you realize how freeing it is not to have to perform to others’ expectations of how you should be.  This week, let yourself be last in some way.  You may find, after a lifetime of striving to be first, that it’s very freeing indeed.

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