In this first month of the year, it's exciting to envision good times ahead, to imagine accomplishments and successes piling up like drifts of fresh snow. This year, I'm also looking forward to goof-ups, flops, bungles, epic fails. To dumping garbage, if you will, on all that pristine snow.
Seriously? Seriously! It’s my intention to embrace failure, to view it as a teacher, not an indication of my worth.
This is not an easy mind-shift to make. I've spent most of my life aiming for success (however I chose to define it) and avoiding screw-ups. I've taken risks, but they've been calculated risks that I had reason to believe would turn out all right. For the most part, they did, or at least I convinced myself they did.
So why am I so intent on failing now? It's because there are things I want to try without worrying how they'll turn out. I'm not talking about major undertakings like kayaking across Lake Michigan, just small endeavors that previously have intimidated me.
For example, I have always wanted to draw, but my drawing ability plateaued around age seven. In college, I signed up for an introductory drawing class with a young, hip professor named Larry. For the first few weeks I looked forward to every session. Larry put on a Crosby, Stills & Nash album, demonstrated a technique, gave us an assignment, and cruised around the room offering suggestions. To this day, when I hear "Marrakesh Express," I'm back in that classroom, immersed in the scratch of pencil on paper, the magic of images taking shape beneath my hand.
Drawing was a joy, and I thought I was making great progress. Then one day, mid-way through the term, Larry made a comment to a mutual friend, and the friend (who was not known for his tact) repeated it to me.
"Larry says no one in your class has any talent."
That did it. I finished the class, but my enthusiasm for drawing died. I packed up my pencils and never gave them another thought . . . until recently, when I realized I still have a desire to draw.
It's a modest desire. I don't care about creating realistic likenesses, I just think it would be great fun to draw whimsical, cartoonish figures, faces, flowers, creatures, and objects. I envy friends who embellish their journals and notepads with fanciful doodles that seem to flow from their pens as easily as words.
So I bought a sketchbook and a book called How to Draw Almost Everything, which promised step-by-step instructions in the kind of drawing I want to do. I filled a page with with cartoon-y faces, first copying from the book, then making up my own. It was fun, and the results—while still at seven-year-old level—pleased me. With practice, maybe I could progress to advanced seven-year-old level!
Emboldened, I added bodies. Not too bad. Then I tried animals—squirrels, to be precise. The first one came out kind of cute, but the more squirrels I drew, the more bizarre they looked. Hunched backs, distorted bellies, fierce faces. All of a sudden my seven-year-old talent had regressed to kindergarten level. And not even cute kindergarten level—more like extremely disturbed kindergarten level. I tried clouds, trees, suns, stars, ballerinas, mermaids. All disastrous.
I remembered Larry's comment: no talent.
I laid the sketchbook aside and didn't open it for a few days. But then two things happened. First, I came across a couple of quotes I had copied from The Artist's Way when I re-read parts of the book during a creative slump:
Give yourself permission to be a beginner. By being willing to be a bad artist, you have a chance to be an artist, and perhaps, over time, a very good one.
It is impossible to get better and look good at the same time.
A few days after encountering those quotes, I was cleaning out some old files and found the first articles I wrote for the science writing class that led to the internship that led to my thirty-year career as a science writer.
My first attempt, a story on the health hazards of photocopy machine toners, dated August 30, 1980, was covered with red marks from the professor. And with good reason. My lede was leaden, my verbs flabby and passive, and story so full of qualifiers, readers would be hard pressed to draw any conclusions from it. In short, a failed attempt.
Yet if you had asked me—before I unearthed that old story—how I learned to write about science, I would've said it came naturally to me. Clearly, that's not true. I was once a beginner, and only by messing up and trying again did I get better at the thing I ended up doing best.
So I'm giving myself permission to be a beginner at drawing and all the other things I want to try or improve at: writing flash nonfiction, trying more challenging photography techniques, mastering yoga poses that don't come easily. And that means allowing myself to fail and try again.
What do you want to fail at this year?
On the last Wednesday of every month, I serve up a potpourri of advice, inspiration and other tidbits I've come across in recent weeks. This Wednesday, we're not only near the end of the month, but also nearing the end of 2017. So today, I'm sharing some thoughts I want to keep in mind as we leave this year behind and move forward into a new one.
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.
-- Ray Bradbury
Genuine compassion comes from the fact that you see your own limitations: you wish to be kind, and you find that you aren't. Then, instead of beating yourself up, you see that that's what all human beings are up against, and you begin to have . . . genuine compassion for the human condition.
-- Pema Chödrön
On the late-afternoon streets, everyone hurries along, going about their own business. Who is the person walking in front of you on the rain-drenched sidewalk? He is covered with an umbrella, and all you can see is a dark coat and the shoes striking the puddles. And yet this person is the hero of his own life story. He is the love of someone's life. And what he can do may change the world. Imagine being him for a moment.
And then continue on your own way.
-- Vera Nazarian
Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.
-- Rachel Carson
Above all, don't fear the difficult moments. The best always comes from them.
-- Rita Levi-Montalcini
The happiness of life . . . is made up of minute fractions -- the little, soon-forgotten charities of a kiss, a smile, a kind look, a gentle word, a heartfelt compliment.
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
To dare is to lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.
-- Søren Kierkegaard
The human experience of aging is interwoven with vulnerability. And what if it's OK to be vulnerable? What if that's the point? What if wisdom and connection, depth and richness all spring from the shimmer of impermanence? You don't have to pretend the sensations of aging are comfortable, or pleasant, or wanted. But what you can do is be present as it all bubbles up -- the whole goopy, horrifying, colorful mess called being alive.
-- Elaine Smookler, "Anti-Aging? No Thanks," Mindful magazine, April 2017.
A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.
-- Frederick William Faber
Always be a little kinder than is necessary.
-- Sir J.M. Barrie
Oh, I hope this doesn't come off sounding like a rant. Because I'm talking technology here, and that's a subject that can easily inspire wrath.
I know you've all got your own hair-tearing stories. Me, I've been dealing with a balky internet connection for a several days. Thanks to a lengthy phone session with a charming and patient young tech support guy named Brandon (I'm confident saying "young," because Brandons, Ethans, and Austins are always young, right?), it's working again. Sort of. Sometimes.
These bollixes never happen on days when my online needs are purely recreational. It's always when I'm trying to do Important Things. In this case, I had spent weeks polishing submission materials and was all fired up to start sending out queries to a painstakingly-researched selection of literary agents, hopeful that the just-right agent that I know is out there will offer to represent me and my memoir, Mango Rash: Survival Lessons in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta.
Now, however, the time I'd planned to devote to that endeavor is being eaten up with tech support, shut-downs, and reboots. I could go on—and on, and on—venting about my particular problem, but that's really not my purpose in this post. Instead, what I want to discuss is how technology affects our lives when our devices and connections are working just fine.
I've been considering this matter more than usual after coming across several articles on the subject.
One, titled "Smart Phone, Lazy Brain" grabbed my attention with its title. Written by science writer Sharon Begley and published in Mindful magazine, the article describes a number of studies aimed at understanding how all our Googling, surfing, and flitting from app to app affects our brains, as well as our productivity and creativity.
Perhaps you've heard of the Google Effect? If you can't quite remember what that is or where you heard about it, just Google it.
Ha! Gotcha! Instead of wracking your brain for that information, you let Google do the work. In the process, you undermined your ability to recall a week from now what you just looked up. That's because when you use your brain to remember things, you follow a path of mental stepping stones. Every excursion down such a pathway strengthens connections between neurons and makes future travels on that path go more smoothly. As Begley puts it, "The very act of retrieving a memory therefore makes it easier to recall next time around. If we succumb to the LMGTFY (let me Google that for you) bait, which has become ridiculously easy with smartphones, that doesn't happen."
Then there's the matter of attention. Begley cites this astonishing statistic: Computer users spend an average of only three to five minutes working on an actual task before peeking at Facebook or some other appealing website. Such fractured attention makes it difficult to accomplish anything. Yet ignoring those tempting distractions saps brainpower, too—the same kind of brainpower needed for judgment and problem-solving.
What to do? Author Stephen Elliott took the drastic step of disconnecting from the internet for a full month and described the experience in an article in Poets & Writers magazine.
First came a period of withdrawal, quickly followed by crushing boredom. "I realized I hadn't been bored in years because I'd gotten in the habit of never giving myself the chance," Elliott writes.
Avoiding boredom may sound like a good thing, but boredom leads to daydreaming, which enhances creativity, research shows. In one study, subjects who were bored did better on creativity tests than participants who were relaxed, elated, or distressed. In other research, half the participants were asked to copy numbers from a phone book, while the other half were spared the dreary task. Then both groups were given a creativity exercise. Who came up with most creative solutions? You guessed it: the ones who'd been given the boring chore beforehand.
Elliott didn't resort to copying phone numbers to fill the time he'd previously spent online. Instead, he found himself spending hours absorbed in activities he'd been too scattered to engage in before: reading the New York Times cover to cover, tackling challenging books, writing for hours without interruption.
"I could feel my attention span lengthening," he writes. "I would think about problems until I figured them out."
Eventually, Elliott got back online. The 370 emails that had accumulated during his month of disconnection were mostly junk, but he did appreciate having once again an easy way to promote a fundraiser he was hosting and communicate with contributors to an anthology he was editing. Still, he didn't plunge right back into his old habits. He came up with some guidelines for himself and anyone else who wants to rein in the constant-connection habit and actually get something done:
As for that smartphone that's become like an extra appendage, you don't have to give it up. Just pay attention to how you're using it, suggests University of Michigan psychology professor Ramaswami Mahalingam. His research, featured in a recent article in U-M's LSA Magazine, shows that whether your smartphone use affects your life positively or negatively depends on how mindful you are when you're using the device.
"On the one hand, there is a humanistic impulse to say, 'Oh, it’s awful. The machines are in control,'" says Mahalingam, who teaches an undergraduate course in mindfulness. "But the challenge lies in creating an awareness about how you think about everything, so when you do something habitual you become much more aware of it. As you become more deliberate, you use the phone more deliberately, too."
He recommends loading apps that prompt you to notice and record thoughts, feelings, and things happening around you, especially instances of kindness and generosity. Students who do this find themselves feeling less compelled to look at their phones. That frees up their brains to think about other things and have deeper face-to-face interactions.
"Ultimately," says Mahalingam, "technology creates a broader set of tools to foster interconnection. It should help us see the expanse of who we are, and to adapt to changes with magnanimity and grace."
Is technology a tool or a trap for you? Have you made any changes in your online habits? How's that working for you?
All images used with this post are stock images.
I know. Thanksgiving was last week. But let's carry that spirit forward for awhile. Here are some thoughts about gratitude to keep us in that frame of mind.
Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.
-- William Arthur Ward
As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.
-- John F. Kennedy, November 5, 1963
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.
-- Melodie Beattie
At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
-- Albert Schweitzer
Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.
-- Marcus Tullius Cicero
"Thank you" is the best prayer that anyone could say. I say that one a lot. Thank you expresses extreme gratitude, humility, understanding.
-- Alice Walker
Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life . . . and the world.
-- Sarah Ban Breathnach, Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude
I write about the power of trying, because I want to be okay with failing. I write about generosity because I battle selfishness. I write about joy because I know sorrow. I write about faith because I almost lost mine, and I know what it is to be broken and in need of redemption. I write about gratitude because I am thankful - for all of it.
-- Kristin Armstrong
One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings.
-- Carl Jung
Gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind.
-- Lionel Hampton
What are you grateful for today?
This month's collection of wisdom is a mixed bag, a reflection of what I've been thinking and doing since we returned from vacation. First came the obsessing over all the things I needed and wanted to catch up on, then the realization that I didn't need to do them all at once. When I settled down enough to set priorities, it was with a renewed commitment to my creative projects, both ongoing and new.
I also spent some time reflecting on our travels and on the benefits of travel in general. And then, because my daily at-home routine involves at least a little attention to the news of the day, I sought guidance to help me keep distressing events in perspective.
Finally, travels over and routine restored, I found comfort in being right where I am, right now.
We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies.
-- Etty Hillesum
I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you. Or drag you down with their immense sadness at being abandoned.
-- Joy Harjo, Crazy Brave
Work is love made visible.
-- Ama Ata Aidoo
We see achievement as purposeful and monolithic, like the sculpting of a massive tree trunk that has first to be brought from the forest and then shaped by long labor to assert the artist's vision, rather than something crafted from odds and ends, like a patchwork quilt, and lovingly used to warm different nights and bodies.
-- Mary Catherine Bateson
You throw an anchor into the future you want to build, and you pull yourself along by the chain.
-- John O'Neal
The more I traveled, the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.
-- Shirley MacLaine
We say, "Seeing is believing," but actually . . . we are all much better at believing than at seeing. In fact, we are seeing what we believe nearly all the time and only occasionally seeing what we can't believe.
-- Robert Anton Wilson
I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.
-- Baruch Spinoza
Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is stay home, so we can learn the names of the plants and animals around us; so that we can begin to know what tradition we're part of.
-- Terry Tempest Williams
The little things? The little moments? They aren't little.
-- Jon Kabat-Zinn
What's on your mind as this month draws to an end?
While I'm taking a break for relaxation and recreation, I've invited some of my fellow bloggers to fill in with guest posts. This week's is from scientist and author Mark L. Winston, who blogs at The Hive. Mark's story takes place in a scientific setting, but I think you'll agree that the underlying message applies to all sorts of situations in life.
Everything I Know I Learned From Hermit Crabs
Noon. I joined Mark on our shady, makeshift ground cover. We ate a snack and gulped down water. I tested out my safety glasses. The sun was a complete, round, orange ball. I ducked back in the shade. Twelve fifteen. A tiny Pac-Man bite showed in the top right section of the sphere. Someone shouted, "It’s starting!" Over the next half hour, we kept checking. The Pac-Man effect increased and the air began cooling, even though the sun cast shadows. By twelve-forty or so, standing in the sun no longer felt intolerable.
By one p.m., the sun appeared as a slivered, orange crescent. One-fifteen. Like sentries on cue, several hundred people wrapped their eyes in safety glasses, bent their heads back, and stared skyward.
-- Og Mandino
-- Count Antoine de Rivarol
-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
-- Albert Schweitzer
-- Alberto Manguel
-- Neil Armstrong
Every inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
-- Walt Whitman, Poem of Perfect Miracles, Leaves of Grass
from the heart of the woods
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.
Last Wednesday Wisdom