…but here they are anyway (whatever they are):

  • Drink more water.
  • Ask more questions.
  • Assume “on time” means 15 minutes early.
  • Talk to people, both strangers and friends.
  • Embrace the below average mindset.
  • Write thank-you notes.
  • Practice good posture.
  • Pursue curiosity.
  • Smile.

I’ve recently been reflecting on what has been an extremely challenging year for me, and these words — “Be conscious, mindful, and alive” — managed to leave the tip of my pen for eternal life on the page. I write a lot, but the moments when I actually take myself by surprise by finding the exact words to evoke what’s on my mind happen only rarely, and this was one of them. It’s everything I’m choosing to focus on as I move forward, onward, and upward.

There are two other apt illustrations of the contents of my thoughts lately, both of which continue to resonate with me in a special way and are worth sharing:

I want to live in the world, not inside my head
I want to live in the world, I want to stand and be counted

To open my eyes and wake up alive in the world
To open my eyes and fully arrive in the world

I’ve nothing of value to add to such a piece — only a great big “Yes.”

And earlier this year I was fortunate enough to come across this particular poignant bit of insight among Derek Sivers’ reliably insightful oeuvre. Derek made a conscious decision awhile back to assume in all situations that he is below average:

I’ve stopped thinking others are stupid. I assume most people are smarter than me.

To assume you’re below average is to admit you’re a beginner. It puts you in student mind. It keeps your focus on present practice and future possibilities, and away from any past accomplishments.

Most people are so worried about looking good that they never do anything great.

Most people are so worried about doing something great that they never do anything at all.

The illusory superiority phenomenon is one I’ve battled with, and Derek’s approach is extraordinarily appealing to me. I’m not there yet, but I continue to work on embodying it.

When I Feel Like Crap

November 29, 2011

I… am not the happiest person you’ll ever meet. My natural state is not contentment. I’m restless and nervous; always aware of the painful difference between things as they are and things as I’d like them to be.

I’m not necessarily un-happy, and I have had my moments of transcendental delight. Overall though, anything better than neutral tends to require some work on my part. Work that I am luckily getting better at as I age.

But sometimes… I find myself in a rut.

Lately I’ve been in a rut.

Ruts freak me out. They’re too close to the dungeons of depression, and I’ve spent enough time down there to want to stay as close to daylight as possible.

And it’s sort of funny, every time I’m in a rut I seem to have to re-learn how to find my way out. It’s fundamentally the same rut, but I never learn the lay of the land and navigate the exit any faster than the last time.

So this time, I’m codifying it: this is what I do when I feel like crap. For an hour, for an afternoon, for a week, for a month… no matter how long I’ve been there, these practices are how I start inching my way back to the waking world.

Allison’s Methods of Escaping Madness

Get rid of stuff. Sort papers, toss worn or obsolete clothes into a bag for Goodwill, throw something away, admit you’re never going to read one of those books on your shelf and give it away. Make empty space.

Exercise. Walk around the block, go for a run or bike ride, get to a yoga class. Drop and do some sit-ups and push-ups. Stretch – just reach for your toes for 30 seconds. Change the way your blood is flowing. Get out of breath. Challenge your body’s complacencies.

Go outside. Somewhat related to the last point, but not inherently so. Change the air you’re breathing and you won’t feel so suffocated. Change your surroundings and you won’t feel so stagnant.

Brush and floss your teeth, wash your face. It’s a refreshing break and gives you a (literally) clean start.

Write. Just write. About whatever’s on your mind. And if you’re feeling shitty, something’s on your mind. Write until it’s not so overwhelming; until you feel a little less angst, a little calmer, and a little more objective about your situation. Writing brings perspective – our brains are scary places that distort the reality around us, and getting those thoughts out of the mind and into a less-vulnerable receptacle helps bring clarity. Write without anticipating an audience – don’t worry about saying unflattering things. And write until you’re done – sometimes it takes one page, other times 20. Make empty brainspace.

Very conscientiously make a cup of tea or coffee or hot cocoa – something you love. Be careful with this one. I, for one, tend to mindlessly ingest tea from the time I wake up until I go to back to bed at night. But when I pay attention to what I’m doing, I absolutely adore the entire process. Boiling the water, steeping the leaves, sipping the drink, and relishing in the taste and heat. When I take the time to enjoy it, it’s extraordinarily peaceful and calming.

Shower and change clothes. Sometimes it’s okay to spend the day in pajamas – you can rock in comfort. Other times it is most definitely not even a little okay. Freshen up and make yourself at least feel like you could go outside without frightening children away; if you’re up for it, swank it up. Fake it ‘til you make it, even if the faking is entirely superficial and only to yourself. It’s silly and ridiculous, but it works.

Breathe. Really, seriously deep breaths – completely filling and emptying your lungs. We never take these in everyday life – they require actual effort. But refreshing the entire supply of air in your body is rejuvenating in a way likely unsupported by science, but helpful nonetheless. (And seriously, when you think your lungs are full, take one more gulp of air. When you think they’re empty, spit one more wisp out. I guarantee they’re there.)

Sit up straight. Bad posture makes you feel average (at best). Good posture is empowering.

Make a list. Or a bunch of lists. Actually write out all the to-dos that are cluttering your mind, then strategize. Separate “pay off debt” from “buy a gallon of milk” — they don’t belong next to each other, but that’s how they’ve been living in your brain. Figure out how to get them done most efficiently or most realistically; decide what can be delegated and what can be thrown away. Commit the list to some real, reference-able, outside-the-brain form. Then do one thing on the list right away. Remember: the list isn’t the action, the action is the action.

Eat a good meal. The correlation between me being in a funk and eating easily (aka eating crappy – frequently and unhealthily) is ridiculous. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now, but alas, I’m just not there yet, and too often still find sugary cereals and ready-made pizzas too tempting to avoid. Restart though: wait until you’re actually hungry to eat next, then eat something good. Your body and brain will appreciate it.

Drink a glass of cool water. Flush out the junky feeling.

Smile. Even if you don’t feel like it. There’s an emotional association between the use of the muscles it takes to smile and the actual sensation of feeling good, and that association can be used to trick the brain. I use it on long runs or bike rides, when I’m climbing a particularly treacherous hill and questioning every decision in my life that led me there. Sometimes simply forcing my cheeks to form a smile is enough to take the edge off and get me to the top of the hill. It’s similarly applicable in non-physical contexts.

Write down anything good you can think of. Things you’re thankful for. Even if it’s just an intellectual list, and you don’t feel any kind feelings at all. Remember: no one has nothing – even if it’s just your ability to keep sucking air into those lungs and pumping blood through those arteries. Focus on the good. Maybe even make it an ongoing list that you can add to regularly. It’s so easy to marinate in everything that bugs us, and culturally we sure seem to reinforce that tendency: you probably don’t have to look very hard to find someone complaining about their life, their circumstances, the people around them, traffic, weather, and on and on. Re-frame. Figure out what doesn’t suck (again, I guarantee there’s stuff that fits that bill) and focus on that.

***

And that’s my map. Now it’s time to test it.

***

As a side note, none of these are “easy” when you’re in rut-land. Sometimes the path up just requires choosing the action with the lowest threshold of entry and muscling your way through it, whether your brain wants to or not.

Marathon

November 6, 2011

My first apartment in New York City was at 91st Street and First Avenue in Manhattan. One chilly Sunday in November the first year I lived there, I walked outside to replenish my refrigerator at a grocery store around the corner. I was surprised to find First Avenue full of people.

First Avenue is not like Fifth Avenue, which hosts parades with surprising frequency. It’s not like Broadway, a thoroughfare for cars and pedestrians up and down the island. First Avenue is, for lack of a kinder term, a little bland (at first glance, at least)).

But on this particular Sunday the streets were lined with spectators, all looking expectantly downtown. Within a few minutes the reason for this phenomenon became clear: the female lead pack of that year’s ING marathon was about to run past.

New York often makes me feel like an anthropologist – it’s so easy to unexpectedly find oneself in surprising scenes in which you’re in close proximity to a community activity, but not actually a part of their celebration, cause, or shouts. You’re in it, but not of it. Observing, but not invested.

Personally, I think this is kind of neat. It challenges my status quo and enlightens me to groups and thoughts I wouldn’t otherwise have known existed. It makes me grow, and in my own small opinion, growth is always good.

So the first time my path crossed (almost literally) that of the New York marathon, I was intrigued. I watched the leading women fly past in a blur; listened to the crowd cheer; looked at the myriad phenotypes represented among the observers.

Then I went and got some groceries.

My curiosity is not so easily assuaged though, so a little later I went back outside and witnessed the deluge that is the 45,000 nonprofessional runners who run the course each November.

And that was my first encounter with my city’s legendary race.

Five more marathons have taken place since then, and aside from one unfortunate year when I had to work at 6:30am, I’ve made a point of attending them all, for at least a little while.

Because I love it. It’s become one of my favorite days of the year.

I love the marathon because I respect the endeavor. There’s no reason to run 26.2 miles. It’s painful, difficult, and probably not a ton of fun. And simply not necessary. But I have to admire people who choose to push their bodies and minds, who explore the boundaries of their capabilities, who challenge their own notions of “possible.”

I love the marathon because there’s no marathon “type.” Fit 30-somethings in expensive athletic garb run alongside 70+-year-old men in yamakas. Who run alongside pairs of guys dressed as Batman and Robin. Who run alongside minuscule 22-year-olds in sports bras and short shorts and are nothing but muscle. Swedish women wearing yellow wigs and blue face paint. 40-year-olds pushing what seem to be their 70-year-old parents in wheelchairs. Some run with a long loping gait; others shuffle along, their feet never really leaving the ground. Some are 6’5”, others are 4’3”. Some are lanky, so skinny you wonder how they stand up (let alone run), others probably draw skepticism from their coworkers when they explain what their plans are on the first weekend of November. Some are legless, some are armless. All of them are testing their own individual limits, but doing so together.

I love the marathon because of the anonymous support and good will. Everyone on the sidewalks is simply happy for those running – they cheer them on without requiring acknowledgment or anything at all in return. I can only imagine what it’s like to run it – when you’re standing still the cheering comes and goes, but in fact it’s more likely a wave, which propagates along the course at the same pace as the runners.

I love the marathon because the weather always seems to conspire to make it the loveliest day of autumn.

I love the marathon because of the man in 2010 with two prosthetic legs, who hit the 30K mark in the quiet lull between the professional women and professional men. His face and body screamed of pain, yet he radiated a silent confidence in his ability to finish. To overcome the discomfort of the moment to achieve something bigger. As he passed, I wiped tears from my eyes.

I love the marathon because for every kilometer of the race (just over 42), over a million dollars are raised for charity, and that’s pretty dang cool.

I love the marathon because it is quintessentially New York. Geographically; demographically; even spiritually.

I love the marathon because you can really see the stories. Once you start looking into the runners’ faces you understand it’s not just a homogenous wave of athletes. Some run for charity, others in memory of a loved one, others for their own peace of mind. Some struggle. Some power along in a Zen state. Some are affluent and established, others are struggling students. Too often in life I find myself stereotyping, and much too often, this stereotyping doesn’t give the person on the other side of my judgment the respect they deserve. For some reason, the marathon clicks as my annual reminder that everyone, everywhere has a whole life behind them, another ahead of them, and is doing the best they can to get by right now.

I’ve done pretty well for myself during my quarter century on Earth. I communicate well and like to think I exist a step or two above awkward on the social staircase. I’ve tended to be pretty good at pretty much everything I’ve ever put any effort into (except bowling… I love to bowl but am undeniably awful). I have achieved a decent-but-less-than-Zuckerbergian level of success in my professional life. Adults don’t generally avert their eyes and children don’t often stare when I walk down the street, so in regard to aesthetics I figure it’s safe to say I’m doing all right.

I’m also smart. Smart enough to have been told as much for as long as I can remember. Smart enough to have been able to impress co-workers, bosses, and collaborators by perpetually being a step or two ahead of them (or at least ahead of where they expected me to be). Smart enough that the trait has become a more-than-negligible component of my identity.

Smart enough that I feel comfortable saying it without conceit; smart enough that I wear it proudly.

Smart enough to realize there will always be more that I don’t know than I do.

Smart is good, but there is, however, a problem in all of this. There’s an implied half of the “I’m smart” sentiment: I’m smart… -er than average. It’s trivial, I suppose, but worth pointing out. “Smart” is not an absolute idea, it’s a relative one, and a person doesn’t come to identify with it unless they see themselves as being smarter than the average Joe.

Since the Mr. Average Joe theoretically exists at the median of intelligence of all humankind, a person who says they’re smart could also be understood to believe they’re smarter than the majority of other people on the planet. The next logical supposition is that this intelligent person feels that in any given encounter, there’s a good chance they’re smarter than the person they’re dealing with.

And this is where things get dangerous, and is the ground on which I recently realized I’ve been treading for quite some time. I like to think I’m humble (-er than the Average Joe?!). I also like to think I’m decently in touch with the reality of my own strengths and weaknesses (my justification for unabashedly touting my great big brain). And I do tend to assume I’m more intellectually gifted than any random stranger I encounter.

Surely this is indeed true some of the time. Maybe even most of the time. But it absolutely, without a doubt, is not true all of the time. And what happens is that when I do run into someone with a more developed intellect than my own, my assumption means I’ve already gone a significant part of the way toward closing myself down to any opportunity to learn.

And that, may I say, is quite dumb.

Part Two of the danger is that for any given opinion or thought I have, I’m pretty confident I’m on the right side of the argument. (This one is pretty inherent in human nature and is actually more a hallmark of people who aren’t so smart than those who are, but is absolutely still true for me.) And this tendency, coupled with my inclination to think I’m smarter than those around me, means I’m stubborn.

Now one of the biggest problems with all of these assumptions is that, strictly speaking, they’re reinforced by reality – I do tend to be right. I do tend to trounce the intellectual competition. However, this is a realm in which it’s worth weighting those moments when I’m wrong, or when I’m the dead, two-steps-behind weight in a conversation, because the sacrifice of being ill-prepared for learning opportunities in the rare moments is much greater than whatever slight boost to the confidence being smart or right provides.

So as I’ve come to realize just how problematic these beliefs are, I’ve also been trying to figure out how to stop them from taking such deep root in my consciousness. And here is what I’ve come up with:

I am much smarter than I used to be.

When I was 18 I thought I was really damn slick. I had my head on straight. My priorities placed. And compared to others, that was true. I went to perhaps the best college of anyone I graduated from high school with. I won awards at dance competitions; took AP tests galore; taught and tutored small children; was fawned upon by every adult in my life.

Now when I think about many of the decisions I made at 18 I cringe. I took on too much student loan debt. I procrastinated in the worst way. I was more concerned (only concerned) with my image – someone who looks like they’ve got it all together, who looks like they’re going places – than the really meaty, meaningful part of my self, beliefs, and ambitions. My world was tiny, and I practically put blinders on to make it even smaller.

In my early 20s I struggled with depression. I am not naturally a particularly social creature, but also don’t handle isolation well — it skews my perception of reality. And at this point in my life I basically took a long series of big steps that led to me being extremely removed from anyone who was or potentially could be in my emotional or intellectual vicinity. Not. Smart.

When I was 24 I was on top of the frickin’ world. I had a job that made people go, “Wow, that’s really cool!” I was making enough money to pay down my debt and buy neat Christmas presents for my family. I won an Emmy Award, which put me on the front page of my hometown newspaper. Then a new manager came on at work who made my life miserable. He was vindictive, self-centered, and took away every last drip of the sense of agency I’d cherished for my first several years of employment. Because of one person, I stopped enjoying the work I’d previously adored. Eventually I quit, without much thought for what came next beyond, “I’ll figure it out.”

And on and on. I can’t say I regret any of these things, because I know that at the time, I didn’t know better. All any of us can do is to make the best decision we can with the information at hand. However, my 25-year-old self still thinks my 18-, 21-, and 24-year-old selves were kind of dumb. And naïve. And too quick to jump to conclusions. 25-year-old me sees all the opportunities, all the knowledge they could have had, and how that knowledge could have informed their choices and given them some much-needed perspective.

And here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure my 30-year-old self will think my 25-year-old self was kind of an idiot.

And that’s okay.

It’s actually awesome.

Because now when I’m inclined to think I’ve got something figured out; when I’m sitting high and mighty; when I’m tempted to dismiss someone else’s opinion or idea, all I have to do is remember that future me will be able to see parts of the story that I don’t even know exist, and it’s my job to find those pieces of truth and bring them into the light.

I think it’s kind of the ultimate perspective, and the ultimate insurance against complacency. It’s not about me compared to everyone else, it’s about me compared to me. And when I compare me to me, I’m absolutely average – better than what I’ve been, but not yet where I want to be. There’s every reason in the world to feel proud of what I’ve done, but invariably more to strive for.