Cha-cha-changes

Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming
-David Bowie

In the mastermind class I've been taking for creative professionals our coach, Dan Blank, shared a video last week. It's called How to Lose Weight in Four Easy Steps. The title sounds like a typical vapid sales pitch but about 20 seconds in there’s a surprise. If you’d like, check it out —  however, BEWARE: THIS VIDEO IS “R” RATED for profanity and more. It's about seven minutes long.

I’m not giving anything away to tell you that set right in the middle of what appears to be an unimaginative promo, an abrupt, captivating little story pops up. Sucker-punched by an unexpected turn of events, the main character is sent down a new path. It reminded me of the experience of a friend of mine named Margaret.

The path that led to her big change started out with a similar, unexpected moment.

"This time is different!"

Margaret is mad. “Again,” she fumes, “Again she insults me!”

Margaret flips her signature waist-long, chestnut hair with an impressive toss. Her usual unflappable demeanor is shaken. She is known as a quiet listener with a beautiful face that tends to give little away of what she’s thinking. That is, until her eyes flash. Today they are high-beam headlights.

“This time I’ll show her!”

Margaret is one of those people that you feel you can always count on. Her unruffled composure is a practiced skill bred through years as a key administrative assistant calmly juggling the support of a rising senior executive. When Margaret arrived in the division where I worked a few years ago, her reputation of competence had preceded her. 

This is the second time Margaret's calm is cracked.

A year earlier, Margaret had felt a similar rush of rage. So stinging, the words from a co-worker had hung in the air, as though hovering like a separate life form in front of her. “People like you,” she’d said to Margaret, “People like you are the problem.”

“What??"

Angrily, the co-worker continued, “We’re all paying more for our benefits every year. We should deny health insurance to people…like you.”

Margaret is stunned. Mortified. 

But not surprised.

In childhood Margaret had grown up on a diet of foods we now know are not the healthiest but when she was a kid and teenager, didn’t know the difference. Fast food was affordable; sweets and desserts were typical snacks and regular parts of every meal. In her 20s, Margaret had starved herself of calories in order to punishingly lose weight but gradually, with marriage and kids and a busy life, the weight had returned, and then some. 

Of course, she wasn’t happy about it. She had tried lots of weight-loss schemes — she’d watched her mom struggle with obesity and try dozens of diet fads over the years too — but the weight had always come back. Ashamed, Margaret kept to herself, allowing few people to get to know the “real” Margaret, behind her body image. 

Her weight had climbed to 310 pounds.

When Margaret had stared back at the co-worker blaming her for the rise in health-care costs, a chorus of familiar voices rung out in her thoughts, “You have no discipline. You have no control. You are a failure.” She'd wanted to hide. 

But here’s where her typical reaction shifted ever so slightly.

Replaying the woman’s comment over and over in her head, Margaret became more and more irritated with its insensitivity. She struggled with mental arguments ranging from self-pity to insult to shame. Confronted with the cruel words she began facing thoughts and feelings she’d shoved aside and allowed to rest, unaddressed, for years.

What does it look like to be truly healthy — inside and out? Who am I? Who do I want to be?

She realized she ate more when she was anxious and struggling with depression. She’d grown up reaching for candy to feel better. What would it take to sustain being healthy through emotionally low times? Digging deeper for insight she found empathy for others. ”Everyone has problems; they’re just not always easy to see.” And with a shock she realized her undisciplined eating felt like she’d been dishonoring the life she’d been given.

The self-examination inched her forward toward a new view of who she could be. 

So now, about a year later, just before rounding the corner of a hallway, Margaret has heard laughter. She happily hurries forward but then slows, hearing the co-worker’s voice who had insulted her before. Margaret turns to backtrack, avoiding the woman as usual, when she stops in her tracks. Clearly, the sharp-tongue carries down the hall, “We’ll call it the Biggest Loser Contest. It starts on Monday. I’m making the rules. Don’t worry. Everyone’s in!” 

Again, her words hung in the air.

Monday arrives. Margaret has spent the weekend ruminating on the conversation she’d overheard. She has decided: She is ready. She can become public about the goal to lose weight and be willing to come out from this oppressive mental burden. Although she has tried unsuccessfully before to lose the pounds she is ready to try again. With the help of people she works with it could even be fun. 

Monday arrives! In anticipation and a little nervous, Margaret's prepared with a casual response, "Biggest Loser? Great idea! Sure, this will be fun!"

The morning drags by. She overhears a little chatter and ribbing about a "biggest loser." The afternoon hours crawl. Nothing. The clock hands climb to five o'clock. Nothing.

She is not invited to compete. Unbelievably, she is not asked to join in. Slowly, her disappointment turns to anger, “I’ll show her!”

She is ready to act. She starts with nutrition -- "I had to learn how to eat" -- and checked library books out on healthy eating. She stops eating processed foods and drinking soda. 

With no extra money for a gym membership, she decides, "I'm going to start walking." The first day she goes out with her children and walks about three blocks. "My youngest was skipping and dancing down the street. I thought I was going to die." 

Margaret keeps reading and learning. She brings strawberries to work as a snack instead of candy. She discovers fruits she's never tried...blueberries. Despite her husband's protests, she changes up meals at home, adding lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, and serves herself smaller portions. 

Every day she walks. Then she jogs a little, rides a bike. She buys a yoga mat and a book on exercise to customize routines for herself. 

And as the pounds start to come off, her discipline and determination grow. Though sometimes it's a struggle, the consistency is paying off. Time passes, nearly imperceptibly change is happening. One day Margaret steps on the scale: she has dropped half her weight.

Sounds like being the Biggest Winner to me.

Margaret could probably relate to this and I'm not giving anything away by sharing a line from the How to Lose Weight... video. At one point the narrator says, "Change takes time, but time is all it takes."

It's so tempting to think that change can come with a quick fix, a quick win. But for a change to be lasting, and to shift a course that's been years in the making, it takes perseverance. Margaret knows; her weight loss occurred seven years ago. 

"Of course, I still struggle," Margaret says today. "but I am passionate about living a healthy lifestyle." So passionate that she started a blog and website to help others make changes. It's called Destination Discipline.

My mission is to share stores of perseverance through challenges, and how this connects us to what matters, and each other. I think Margaret's story illustrates this. 

Steps I’ve Taken to Write a Book
Instagram posting of writing 30 minutes/day: Day 92 today. Stay tuned for something fun.

Mastermind writing course:  The new one starts today too. 

Books I'm reading:  I've just started Margaret Atwood's, The Blind Assassin. It's won numerous awards, including the Man Booker Award in 2000. The narrative is doing a little time jumping and I'm a little confused but have faith it will all come together. 

Let me close with a final thought from Bowie on change,

I don't know where I'm going from here, but I promise it won't be boring.

Deal!

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Life is a Story

Does this quote make you think of anyone?

It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly
that we are not the same afterwards, even unto our names. 

-Yann Martel, Life of Pi

This quote brought to mind a story I heard recently from a chance acquaintance I’ll call Fiona (not her real name). We’d hit it off because we both are working on writing a book. She told me her story over a cup of coffee about how a mundane encounter a few years ago ended up profoundly enriching her life.  

The way Fiona describes her experience starts with a summer afternoon that was terribly sticky-hot and humid. She’d been asked to meet an older man and his adult daughter at a local community center. The air conditioner whirred loudly but she couldn’t feel any movement of air. With it’s dull linoleum floors and slightly battered armchairs, worn down to threads on the armrests, the main reception area felt sad and oppressive. 

The man and his daughter were late. 

Or, maybe the oppression wasn’t entirely about the weather, but the job at hand. Fiona had volunteered for Story Catcher, a free service for hospice patients to record their life stories. She’d longed to be a published writer and when she retired had happily enrolled in the organization, thinking it was writing group. Instead, she was a scribe for other people’s stories. 

It’s now a quarter past the hour. The heat is bringing on a headache.

It’s not as though Fiona hadn’t tried to author a book. Years earlier she’d written a painful memoir. Her parents had been tragically killed in a car accident when she and her brother were in grade school. Abruptly uprooted, the kids ended up moving to another state to live with an uncle unprepared to raise two young children. No one thought to pack up pictures or family momentos; the recollection of their earlier childhood was scattered and disjointed. 

Fiona found that writing the memoir brought some comfort to her troubled memories but just as she was ready to self-publish it, her brother rescinded his permission to tell their story, the remembrances too tender and private. 

Ever since, Fiona had felt unsettled, her past unresolved. She held onto the idea that writing could help her move forward.

There is a shuffling down the corridor and, looking up, Fiona sees a wheelchair round the hallway corner with an older man being pushed forward hurriedly by a disheveled woman. “Fiona?” she calls out, pushing aside damp hair from her face.

“Yes, and you must be the McGregors,” Fiona says.

“Don’t bother!” the older man calls out, “I’m not telling any damn stories,” as they wheel closer. “Oh, dad,” the woman sighs. 

Fiona told me that at that point she was tempted to leave. Her headache had gotten worse; she was feeling like she was wasting her time and, here, this gentleman was glaring at her and didn’t want to cooperate. Torn between respect for his wishes and the duty of completing her task, she wavered. Not another afternoon of someone else’s stories. She closed her eyes. 

Then, like a whisper, an inner voice said, “Stay.”

Fiona opened her eyes. The man glowered at her. “Why don’t we just talk,” she suggested. “Could we start with you telling me a little about yourself?"

“Why don’t YOU tell me about yourself,” he responded.

“OK, my name is Fiona. I lived near here as a little girl.”

“Where?”

“My parents had a house at the corner of Trevi and Triton. But they died when I was little, over 50 years ago, so I moved to Pennsylvania.”

The man peered at her for a long moment. “Trevi and Triton. Is your name Smith?” 

Fiona nods, surprised. 

“I knew your parents."

And so, over the next few hours instead of the gentleman recording his life story, he tells Fiona hers. He had been a close friend of her father’s; his wife and Fiona’s mother had been backdoor friends, their children running freely back and forth between houses. The older man’s daughter remembered Fiona too. Together, they filled in gaps of Fiona’s memory and added new accounts of a family life with loving parents. 

The car accident had been a heartbreaking rupture to their lives too. “We always wondered how you were getting on, honey.” 

Fiona has now written her book, a romance novel, and is at the stage of working with an editor. Over the past few years Fiona and her brother have reconnected with these former neighbors. “That meeting was meant to be!” she laughs.

I loved this wonderful story. My goal right now is to write true stories about how perseverance over challenges can connect us to what matters and to each other. Fiona’s story is a beautiful illustration of this and I’m grateful she shared it with me. 

Steps I’ve Taken to Write a Book
Instagram posting of writing 30 minutes/day: Can’t wait to finish up my 100-day challenge on Instagram. I am planning on posting a small hoop-la when I get there! It’s a little unnerving to have taken so many selfies.

Mastermind writing course:  TODAY— JUNE 26 -- IS THE DEADLINE TO SIGN UP FOR THE NEXT GATEWAY MASTERMIND. Here is the link for more info on this 3-month course. This is a virtual class taught by Dan Blank. I’ve signed up again because even though I feel my time is stretched it’s providing a discipline and structure to work on craft and identify an ideal audience for my creative work. 

Books I’m reading:  I just finished reading June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. The novel tells two side-by-side stories, 60 years apart, that gradually unravels family secrets and the horrific events that brought them about. The spellbinding setting is a majestic dilapidated Victorian mansion, neglected over time in a small town in Ohio, and the family’s former home. The main character Cassie feels suspended in time, lethargic, until she is forced to defend an unexpected inheritance from an unknown relative. Her pursuit to find out more about this family connection leads her to discover answers about her own life. Now that I’ve whipped my way through it, I’m going back over it to see Miranda’s careful construction of time and place. 

Let me close with another quote from Life of Pi: 

The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? 
And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?
Doesn't that make life a story? 

Yes, I think it does!

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Secret of Love

Always do what you are afraid to do.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

This week a friend shared an intriguing podcast from an NPR series, Invisibilia, related to fear. Unknowingly to him, the podcast fit into a conversation topic I'd been having all week on Impostor Syndrome, or Fear of Being Found Out as a Fake.

Impostor Syndrome is the overwhelming insecurity that you can not repeat success. The mental nightmare insists that somehow your success (like producing a No. 1 hit or writing a bestselling book) was an accident. Once you've been successful, new expectations are raised. No longer in obscurity, you are now known to people and they now expect you to produce another hit. Impostor Syndrome’s incessant voice in your head insists that you can not. 

You are very, very sure all of the fanfare is a big mistake.

I attended a writers conference on Saturday with a panel speaker, New York Times bestselling author Angie Fox. Angie has been writing for 20 years and has just published her 15th book. She shared her Impostor Syndrome nightmare: "Every time I wonder whether this is the book that shows everyone I don’t know how to write. There's such angst. My first book was a debut success. When I was writing my second book I told my husband, 'We'll have to return the advance. Find the money. Take it from our savings.' He pulled together the funds and showed me we had it."

Angie’s second book hit the New York Times best-selling list.

Yet, for each book, she still keeps an emergency fund. She said, "After 10 years the fear hasn’t gone away.  It feels really, really real. Secretly, I know my husband's wrong not to worry." 

LOL!  So, what's the solution to beating back Impostor Syndrome? This is where Invisibilia's report carried one intriguing answer. It’s the true story of a group of women in Rwanda. I’d like to tell a short version:

Lose-lose or Win-win?
The anticipation is so palpable the air feels thick. Like an electric current a constant vibration from the audience restlessly hums. A large group has gathered in a university’s gymnasium where rows of chairs are filled with moving bodies. At the front of the room and on opposite sides of a stage, two groups gather and fidget. On one side low voices mutter impatiently,  "I am the winner today.'” Resolutely, this group ignores the opposing team's laughter, their jeering gestures and the just-audible taunt, "I feel feminism in the air."

This is a debate between the Akilah Institute, the first all-women's college in Rwanda, and the male students of the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, or KIST. The room is packed with supporters for both sides. A judge walks to the center of the stage and clears his throat. As the crowd quiets he intones into a microphone, "Out of eight possible topics the debate today will be,'The House Believes…(he pauses)... That Developing Countries Should Adopt Western Feminism.’" 

The room roars! Yes! The Akilah women are ready. This is exactly what they’ve come to prove!

They have more at stake then a competition. Only weeks before, in their very first debate, the women had been quickly, crushingly defeated in the very first round — in just 45 minutes — by KIST, who then went on to win the overall competition.

The judge steps forward again. This time with a small satchel containing two slips of paper. Each team will draw to determine the side they’ll argue. A student from each school reaches in for a paper slip. Simultaneously, the Akilah team steps forward and surrounds their teammate. She unfolds the paper slip. 

Opposed. They must argue opposed. The room quiets, surprised, then voices rise in exclamation. To win this debate, the first-ever all-women's team will have to make a persuasive case that Rwanda would not be better off if women were as free as men to choose how to live their lives.

The women are stunned. 

The Akilah Institute for Women had been established just five years before as a three-year vocational school and represented a progressive step for women's education. Traditionally, Rwanda's patriarchal society had not welcomed education for women or supported work outside the home.

All of this changed in 1994 when Rwanda experienced one of the worst genocides in history. In just 100 days between April and July nearly one million men, women and children with lineage from the Tutsi tribe were massacred by the rival Hutu militia. The suddenness and savagery of the attack crippled the country. Immediately following the genocide it's estimated that Rwanda's population of about 6 million was 70 percent female since so many men had been murdered, arrested or fled. 

Prior to the genocide it had been virtually unheard of for a woman to attend school or work outside the home or own land. Yet, with such a sudden vacuum, women stepped in to new roles as varied as shop owners and police chiefs and government ministers. 

The formation of an all-women's debate team seemed a natural progression, though a traditional Rwandan woman is shy, humble and soft-spoken. Hardly the right match for the passionate argument of a strong debater. And this had been the case in their embarrassing first debate defeat. 

In the days and weeks that followed the Akilah team knew they would have to change. They had argued their side politely, timidly. If they were truly to compete, they would have to face down the fears that held them back. 

First, they started with language.“I am a debater and a winner,” they repeated again and again. What started as a phrase became a declaration. They’d been penalized for debate rule mistakes they hadn’t understood. Now they double-downed on the rules of debating, learning them inside and out. They practiced “power poses” — standing with their hands on their hips or in a wider stance — so different from the submissive body language of a traditional Rwandan woman — imitating a body language reflecting confidence and assertiveness. 

Over time pretending to be confident turned into actual confidence.

So, now, when the time had arrived to compete it felt crazy to be required to argue against the very ideas that gave them the assurance to return to competition. In order to win, the Akilah team would have to argue persuasively against all that had transformed them. And if they lost, they would be demonstrating that women did not have what it took to be in a position of influence.

The women dug deep. They thought of every submissive statement and song heard in their childhoods. They proclaimed the words and sang the songs. They spoke boldly, declaring the importance of tradition and a woman’s place in the home as critical for the future of Rwanda. Confidently they argued that “true" Rwandan women had no vestige of Western ideas like feminism.

The confidence worked. The Akilah team won! And then they won the next round, and the next. At the end of the afternoon, they took home the trophy. 

After the win, the women wondered, “Did they win because they were the best? Or because the judges wanted to preserve the status quo?” They decided it didn’t matter. A win is a win!

Two years later the Akilah team continues to compete. It’s attracted a following of young women. While some have joined their debate team, others have formed their own all-women teams at other schools. Like a pebble dropped into a pond and causing ever widening ripples, more and more women have been motivated to support and join in. (If you'd like read more on this story, here's a written article of the podcast.)

The common denominator between the two true stories —one from Angie Fox and the other from the Rwandan women — is facing down fear. Despite it, Angie keeps writing and the Akilah women keep winning debates. Impostor Syndrome may whisper, “It was all a mistake.” Timidity may murmur, “Not today, maybe tomorrow.” My mission is to write about stories of perseverance over challenges. Perhaps this is one of the greatest challenges because overcoming fear means persevering not against an external enemy but the negative self-talk within.

I have a feeling, the greater the struggle, the sweeter the victory. 

Speaking of facing down fears, here’s my update on exploring writing:

Steps I’ve Taken to Write a Book
 Writing 30 minutes/day: Yup, hit my 100-day-mark last week (yay!). It has definitely met my goal of establishing a new habit. Now I have to start thinking about quality. (I’m still tracking on Instagram, about 30 days behind this blog.)
 
Writers’ Conference: Picked up tons of practical tips, resources and new contacts last Saturday at the St. Louis Writer’s Guild’s “Gateway" conference. I found out about a regular writers’ group called Saturday Writers that meets the last Saturday of every month — seems do-able. Since my professional network is in financial services and marketing, I’ve been looking for ways to expand into a network of writers.

Books I’m reading:  I’ve just started June by Miranda Beverly Whittemore. It promises to be about small-town secrets, family weirdness, intrigue and Hollywood romance. So far the protagonist has just received an amazing inheritance from an unknown relative (my favorite fantasy!)

A final thought on fear from Ralph Waldo Emerson again:

He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.

What fear are you facing down?

To a fearless week!

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Check

Here’s an idea I read about this week:

You can't make a recipe for something as complicated as surgery. Instead, you can make a recipe for how to have a team that's prepared for the unexpected.
-Atul Gawande

I took a break this week from reading historical fiction to read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, bestseller author and surgeon, recommended to me by a friend. If you're wondering (like I did) whether its another work efficiency wonder, you'd be happily surprised. Gawande's book is an absorbing moment-by-moment pursuit of addressing a hidden-in-plain-sight issue: people dying from infections they acquire right in the place they've come for healing -- in the hospital. 

The book traces his thought process first of recognizing the increasing complexity of medicine in the 21st century. While this know-how has brought wonderful advancements its sheer volume has become unmanageable, causing avoidable mistakes. I loved how just by entertaining the idea that things could be better, this created an awareness of other industries that handle complexity like the construction of a high-rise building or rapid response to emergencies on airplanes.

Gawande studied how each coped with multiple choices, decentralized decision-makers and responding to the unexpected. Eventually, he found a common denominator: checklists. 

He writes, "Checklists turn out...to be among the basic tools of the quality and productivity revolution in aviation, engineering, construction - in virtually every field combining high risk and complexity. Checklists seem lowly and simplistic, but they help fill in for the gaps in our brains and between our brains."

And, it turns out, between people. Because the lowly checklist shared and spoken aloud by a team of people -- whether in the operating room among doctors and nurses or in an airplane between pilots and flight attendants -- creates teamwork, humility and discipline right when an emergency demands it. 

I loved how this aligns with what I've been writing about: Stories of people that push against the edges of limitation and how this perseverance connects us to what matters and each other. I don't want to spoil how the book ends so will end with a recommendation to read it -- and let me know what you think.

Update to steps on exploring writing a book
Writing 30 minutes/day: Today is Day 99! 

Social media:  On my Twitter discomfort: I have posted four times, re-tweeted five times, and "liked" a bunch. Not comfortable yet! and I need to set up Hootsuite (social media communications dashboard) but it will get better. Mostly this is a behavior change. On Facebook (where I have been largely inactive) I've posted two shares of stories that align with my mission. Instagram: No changes from my daily writing post. Someday I hope I laugh at this... But last week I said I'd say "Yes!" to reaching out and doing more on social media. So this is a start. Recall that I'm doing this to reach out to others that are like minded when it comes to my writing topics. 

Let me close with a last note:

Better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.
-Atul Gawande

Hope you have a great week!

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