Shorter days and cooler weather always send me into reading mode. I thought I’d share some of the books that have been helpful to me over the years.
Millennials get a raw deal these days, being told they want too much because they want to do work that feels meaningful, to have time for relaxation and social lives, and to be treated as human beings. I say, don’t give up on that vision, y’all!
Because a sense of meaning and purpose is essential. It is at the core of motivation. At the heart of sustained effort. It can keep us alive when not much else can. Meaning can make the difference between quitting or relapsing. And it can change what feel like empty moments into something satisfying.
We need more meaningful activity in our lives, not less. It’s good for our mental health—and our productivity. We’re more likely to go the extra mile when it feels important.
There’s a little paperback that you may have encountered titled Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. In it, he talks about how this very idea of a sense of purpose pulled him through his years in a concentration camp during WWII. Here are a few lines:
Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.
For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment.
In fact, connecting our behavior with what’s really important to us is one of the six foundations of ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy). Like Frankl says, what we decide is important to us in any given moment can shift. Still, the very act of connecting with some sort of purpose, whether it’s to stay curious, to be kind, or to be honest, can fuel us. We can stand in the grocery checkout line in a curious way or a kind way…there’s always a chance to practice. Nothing external has to change. (Although it just might!)
Would you like some help figuring out how to make your life more meaningful? Let’s find a time to meet.
Lately I’ve been on a kick of leaving the reality show Kitchen Nightmares playing while I take care of odds and ends. Although Gordon Ramsey can be a little problematic sometimes, with his calling women “Darling” and men “Big Boy,” as well as his comments about weight and judgments about how much food someone should eat, I’ve realized that there are some important life lessons embedded in each episode somewhere between the dramatic music and the shouting.
Lesson One: Clinging to what you have even though it’s not working because you’re terrified to lose it leads to stagnation. Whether it’s a mushy risotto, cheesy faux-tropical décor, or a habit that’s not serving you, letting it go makes room for something better to come in.
Lesson Two: Check on the dark corners on a regular basis. In one episode, Ramsey descends into a restaurant basement to find it swarming with insects feeding on rotten vegetables. If we don’t peek into the places that scare us on a routine basis, things can fester and mold, making it even worse in the long run. We can do this through therapy, journaling, coffee with a friend, going to a meeting—whatever suits your style.
Lesson Three: Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. (And ask for help). Every chef Ramsey meets who is quiet in the kitchen and doesn’t ask for help creates chaos and lengthy delays in the restaurant. Delays like people waiting two hours for their entreés. When we think we can do it all, we end up screwing things up for the rest of the people in our lives.
Lesson Four: Defensiveness will be your downfall. It’s really hard to hear criticism, and even harder to hear that something we worked really hard on isn’t up to snuff. However, deflecting feedback right and left keeps us from growing. A deep breath, staying open, and remembering that we can always do better can help us take in the information we need to improve.
Lesson Five: Never underestimate the power of a symbolic gesture. On the show, this usually takes the form of throwing plates, smashing a sluggish point-of-sale system, or burning a wooden sign. In our lives, this could take the form of planting something, giving or acquiring an object, a dance, a painting, a social media post, or trying out a new style.
Lesson Six: Purpose fuels passion. Many of the chefs on the show started out loving their work, and then they sunk into burnout and boredom. Ramsey uses cook-offs, games, and sometimes extreme measures to remind the chefs and the rest of the staff why they are there, stirring up what he frequently calls “the fire in the belly.” Remembering why we’re doing what we’re doing can stir up our own internal fire, keeping us going through a tough dinner service or a scary next step toward our goals.
There you have it. Six courses of life lessons from reality TV. You might give them a try this month and see what evolves for you. Bon appetit!
My mind loves scary stories. Not horror movies or Stephen King novels, not ones told around campfires by flashlight-lit faces. It loves to make up its own scary stories about all the disasters that might befall me, all the mistakes I’ll make, all the awful things that others will do. My mind is so good at this stuff that I’ve often considered going into disaster planning or safety work because I can see all the worst-case scenarios so clearly. Years of listening to clients share their experiences of actual horrific events has given my mind lots of material.
I’m about to put my little book out into the world, and my mind is at it again, telling me all the awful things that could happen as well as the equally scary thought that nothing will happen because no one will read it. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m doing this because it’s important to me as a person to share what I know and to do creative activities, even if no one else likes or responds to them. Then I have to tell my mind, “thanks for sharing” and continue to move forward with it, my mind chattering away the entire time.
Bold moves, leaps of faith, whatever you want to call them, are going to stir up our mind’s chatter and our parts that want to protect us. They see trying something new as a potential threat to us, and they want to keep us from being hurt. It’s part of the deal. Make a big step, get the mind running up and yelling for us to back away. Our emotions can get in on it too, especially fear and anxiety.
These are the times that we can muster up the self-compassion to tell ourselves what I once heard a mother say to her son on a train. They were at the door that leads to the next car. On this particular Amtrak train, the door from one car would slide open at the press of a button, requiring you to cross a short platform that moved around constantly before going through another door and into the next car. While crossing, you can hear all the noise from the tracks and feel the wind. The mother knelt down and told her child, “This’ll be a bit of an adventure. We’re going to go across together. It’ll be bumpy, maybe a little loud. Are you ready?” The child took her hand slowly, and they made it across.
So that’s what I’m doing with myself as I take each new step towards this book launch, and some other things too. I’m trying to gently, compassionately, take myself by the hand and head into the adventure. Not denying the fear and the risk, knowing it’ll be bumpy and a little loud, but not fully buying into the scary stories either. It’s the stance I try to take with my clients, and one I try to teach them to do for themselves. This’ll be a bit of an adventure. Are you ready?
Onward Through the Fog
On the second Wednesday of every month, I leave the house earlier than I’d like to and nervously drive farther than I’m comfortable to spend twenty dollars and five hours not talking to anyone. It’s a monthly silent writing retreat. Both my time there and the soup someone always volunteers to make are delicious. I sit in a big house on the top of a hill, greeted by deer, and write at a round kitchen table in front of a window, much like my own round kitchen table in front of a window.
Today this window displays a world softened by cottony fog. On my way here, the fog was so dense that only a few hundred feet of the road were revealed to me at any given moment. Familiar landmarks vanished behind the curtain, while others, previously unnoticed, shone brighter.
Driving along, the words of one of my teachers came to mind. She speaks of how our unique path is revealed to us only moment by moment, small step by small step, illuminated by the lantern of our hearts. We only know what we know at that time and place. The future sits unseen, perhaps even unbuilt.
I struggle with this, as I struggle with fog. I like to see the horizon way off in the distance. My eyes, raised on the plains of North Texas, are calibrated for distance. Mountains and valleys invoke claustrophobia.
My mind wants options. It wants to plan ahead. My copies of the Choose Your Own Adventure books were worn and bent from my constant flipping back and forth, pudgy child fingers holding my place, weighing the possibilities to find the best one. I wouldn’t just look one step ahead—no, that wasn’t reassurance enough. I would examine the story two, three, four choicepoints at a time to find the longest story possible with the happiest outcome.
I have since outgrown those paperbacks, and my fingers are longer now, but that tendency to want to plan for all contingencies has not budged. My mind runs dress rehearsals and drills. Creates worst-case scenarios, then responses to those scenarios, and then responses to those responses.
Sometimes my mind’s predictions are true. Or something else happens that I didn’t anticipate. The phone call that makes my stomach drop and the room tilt 180 degrees. The moments when something is forever altered. The house was solid; now it sits open to the sky. The job was permanent; the meeting that just ended says it’s gone. The warm hand we hold grows cold.
Fog reminds me of those moments when I can no longer pretend that I have a grasp on anything. It’s like the time once a year when I follow a line of people into a darkened forest, nearly blind due to my poor night vision, unable to predict when the ground beneath my feet is rising or falling. Every year, I want to stop. Every year, I tell myself the only way out is through, that this is the practice, that this is what is always happening anyway.
It always is. I can pretend all I want that I know where my next step will land. I can pretend that what I write in my planner for next week will happen. I can schedule and outline everything. Lay out my clothes the night before. Say, “I’ll see you Wednesday.” It’s all as make-believe as my child self pretending the living-room furniture came to life at night.
So it’s onward through the fog. Working to embrace the stumbling, to loosen my grip on the idea that my mind’s feeble plans have any real power in the face of the immensity of nature, of the flow of life itself. Moving with faith towards something unseen? That’s the true adventure. And I choose that. (Now if I could just sneak a quick peek at the itinerary…?)