how to ruin anything

i set a lot of goals for myself. a lot. i like breaking these down into sets of tasks then listing them, with great specificity, on pieces of paper where i can check them off. this leaves me at great risk for feeling massive amounts of success and failure, accomplishment and lack thereof. some times i like to turn even leisurely activities into tasks to be completed. let me re-state that. sometimes my drivenness causes me to turn activities that should be engaged in for fun into accomplishments to be accumulated. this goes against everything i deeply believe in: being present to the moment, resisting comparisons and judgement, and believing that who i am is more important than what i do. i want to bring my behavior into line with these more deeply held ideals and yet i am too often a prisoner to my own cognitive and behavioral bad habits and unconscious hurtful tendencies. 

every summer i set a goal for myself regarding how many outdoor concerts i will attend. this began several years ago when i realized i wasn’t making time to engage in things that fed my soul. in these early years i needed opportunities to be lost in a crowd, in natural urban settings, enjoying music and getting opportunities to dance and rest concurrently. my hope was that in creating a measurable goal for myself i would hold myself accountable to doing something that was difficult for me. i have been realizing, however, that this has turned into a weighty pursuit for me, causing me to race and run and stress about how to accomplish it. my goal has become a ridiculous finish line of sorts that has me engaging something that should be beautiful in a way that is anything but.

in realizing how often i’ve ruined my own fun (and growth) with this kind of behavior, i have come to create a new list of how to ruin anything. if you, like me, have a tendency to turn every good idea, well meaning endeavor, or altruistic impulse into an imperative with power to determine your worth, read on.

doreen’s incomplete, but fully potent, list of how to ruin anything: 

1 make it a competition (even if only with yourself).

competition can be good. it can spur us toward greater effort and even inspire us to push ourselves into spaces we might not otherwise explore. it can also, however, kill. experiences are to be had, not captured and clung to like trophies to display. winning for winning’s sake is shallow when substituted for experiencing something fully. the journey toward a goal is rife with meaning and pregnant with opportunity. if we push too hard, too fast, and too single-mindedly toward winning/achieving/accumulating a certain outcome, we miss all the gifts that the journey offers. setting a number, a benchmark, or a rank that will mean you’ve “won/accomplished/achieved” sets you up to place yourself in one of two categories: success or failure. 

we are healthier when we are flexible, adaptable, resilient, and open. too focused a stare on the finish line (e.g. “i’ll succeed when i’ve lost X pounds,” “i can’t rest until i close X number of sales,” “i will be sitting pretty when i’ve amassed X amount in my savings,” “i can take a break when i have every single closet in my house cleaned,” “i will have arrived when i have 1000 facebook friends/twitter followers,” etc) keeps us from getting to learn from the entire journey. crossing the finish line is one thing. fully engaging the struggle to get there is a different thing all together. it affords the sweat and struggle and muscle pulls and defeated thoughts and so much more to teach us, to shape us, and to keep us aware that there is so much to be learned in trying. possibly even more than there is in simply “winning.”

2 make it (super) public.

there is no better way to feed a competitive streak (even if only with our selves) than to make our goals known publicly. post the goal, tell our friends, begin wearing t-shirts (affixing bumper stickers, wearing buttons, you get the drift...) that let on to the pursuit, then constantly include the goal and our progress toward it in facebook and instagram feeds. bring it up in every conversation. this will cement our focus on accomplishing an outcome rather than on learning from the journey. if we have any tendency toward missing to forest for the trees, making our efforts overly public will assure us of missing even the trees for the leaves.

it’s important to note that i am not talking about passing up opportunities for emotional support, accountability, and help. those are all fantastic and sometimes public in really wonderful ways. rather, i’m talking about the tendency we all face to engage our goals as if they have the power to define us then making sure others know just how well we’re doing. which brings me to...

3 give your pursuit(s) a lot of power to determine your worth/value/coolness or hipness.

most of us deal with deep feelings of insecurity and inferiority. we create personas based on what we can and have accomplished and hope that they will be enough to win us approval and connection. the reality is, however, that we are who we are, not what we accomplish. brene brown says it best when she says that “you can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.” sometimes the most vulnerable thing is to admit to who we truly are rather than to try to accomplish our way into who we are not. it takes a lot of courage to be a journey-er and experience-er rather than a finisher in the world’s eyes (or possibly even in your own).

4 evaluate your progress (or lack there of) every single chance you get.

knowing where we are is important. basing our sense of worth on where we are, however, is dangerous. a fixed mindset says that we are valuable when we have achieved this or that goal. it says that we can arrive and that our worth is based upon succeeding or failing to do so. it also implies that we can go from winner to loser based upon our performance. a growth mindset, on the other hand, says that effort and openness build upon our inherent worth and bring us to places of greater resiliency and maturity. 

trying (and keeping trying) is more important than accomplishing. effort is more important than acquisition. rewarding behaviors that place the emphasis on these truths keeps us aware that, in the long run, the journey is the most potent prize.

5 keep at it even after you know you should jump ship.

sometimes our goals sustain us. they keep us trying and growing and getting healthier. sometimes, however, we run amuck and they become unhealthy focal points, making us feel like winners or losers even though the pursuits are purely arbitrary. when they bring us to places of rigid success/failure mindsets or when they cause us to forego the important lessons of the journey in order to win the prize it is time to lay them down. they have lost their power for good.

which brings me to this, it is july 25 and i am two thirds of the way to my summer concert goal. this goal has been something i’ve been really proud of and blessed by. it’s pushed me to do important things and has taught me much. i need, however, to put it aside. music and dancing and being lost in a crowd are just too important to me to ruin them and i have learned i can ruin just about anything. so tonight, if and when i find some music to enjoy, i will not count and i will not post and i will not let myself feel i’ve accomplished anything other than being in the moment. (insert huge sigh of humbled relief.) anyone wantneed to join me in lightening their load by laying something down before it's entirely ruined? we can learn so much together.


what is real?

i’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is real.

it’s not uncommon, after hearing one of my talks or stumbling across my blog, for people to communicate with me about how much they notice the youth among them choosing their cell phones/ipads/video games over their “real” lives. it’s easy to nod knowingly and riff on the presented theme. a few months back, however, a brilliant faculty member from a prestigious liberal arts college, challenged the members of a panel i was on about what the phrase “real life” really even means anymore. at the time, i stumbled around for an answer, eventually redirecting to the need for balance between digital life and embodied life. i really wish i could answer that question today because, from here, the answer i gave looks really lame.

a couple of weeks ago i sat in a crowded pub watching the u.s.a. vs. belgium world cup game. sitting, alone, amongst hundreds of strangers to watch a game on a large flat screen, i marveled at the palpable energy of the assembled mass. there was nothing not real about the experience we all shared in the space of the 3 hours for which we were gathered. we cheered as though our encouragement could literally affect play (why else would 300 people chant “u - s - a” over and over at an image projected onto a slide projector screen?). we hung our heads at missed opportunities and high fived every heroic save made by tim howard. sure, we weren’t sitting in the real stadium, in the real host country of brazil but we were having a real experience together.

there are so many ways that this kind of realization applies both to our relationships with technology tools and the people/places/experiences that they make available to us.

we have, as a people, developed very real responses and attachments to our devices. headlines almost two years ago reported that the brain responds to iphone message indicators in similar patterns as it does to love. we can go full days without many things, but leave our phones behind and we feel agitated and anxious, certain that we will miss out for the lack of them. and, actually, we likely will. without said phones how will we find our way, send a message, recall a phone number, know the time, or take notes or photos? we have come to rely upon these devices in very real ways and we have attached real feelings to them. we’re grateful for the specificity and accuracy of the directions they give, information they deliver, and content they provide access to. we’re giddy with how effective they make us and relieved when they can save us from loneliness or boredom. sometimes we imagine them as experiencing feelings for us. how could they not love us when they’ve learned us so well and deliver so amazingly consistently. i catch myself, at times, feeling guilty when i miss a turn that siri directs me to make. i actually feel bad for making her recalculate the route. the reality of this humbles me. 

not only do we feel real feelings toward our devices but we have real experiences in the digital spaces they deliver us into. the friends that a middle or high school aged boy makes online while playing mmorpg’s (that’s massive multi-player online role playing games for those of you new to the acronym) quickly become real friends to him. they may never meet in embodied space but they will, over the course of game play, spend immense amounts of time amassing shared experiences with strategy in environments made specifically to heighten emotion. the same can be said for anyone who meets others in an online game, chat space, or digital environment. the connections may not be happening between people in a shared physical space but the emotions and connections that are stirred and strengthened are every bit as real.

yesterday i stopped into a well known restaurant chain to order a customized sandwich. this is not an “i’ll take a number 2 with everything” place. you have a lot of preferences to communicate with the artist making your sandwich. it was lunch time and the place was packed. the person ahead of me had earbuds in both ears and was on an active call. her four year old daughter held a $20 bill but couldn’t see over the counter or talk loudly enough to be heard. i was shocked when the mother completed her entire order and payment without ever removing an earbud or interrupting her call. i wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. i kept waiting to hear, “what hospital?” or “i can’t believe you’ve called me mr. president!” or “is triple A on their way?” i wanted to believe that the call was so important that it absolutely couldn’t be interrupted to order her daughter’s lunch. instead, i overheard mentions of where they’d vacationed the week before, who was there, and what she made for dinner while pointing and gesturing about what to include or omit on the sandwich being made for her. clearly, the person with whom she was talking was much more real to her than any of us in her embodied context. she made that overwhelmingly clear.

we all have experiences like this. they leave us feeling stirred up and wanting to righteously  point out the rudeness that we have witnessed to the person who perpetuated it. we want to rant, and we do. and then, when we’re bored in line or awkward in public or just alone we turn to our own devices to entertain, comfort, and distract us from those in our embodied/real environments. they keep us even from real interaction with our selves. we are all, i suspect, guilty of choosing the digital real to the embodied real from time to time.

no longer can we say, “so and so avoids their real life by spending their time with video games,” or “we’re facebook friends but not real friends,” or, “sure i watch porn online but it’s not like i act out in my real life.” we just can’t. our digital lives are part of our real lives and it’s up to us to make sure we maintain a balance, keep ourselves capable of embodied connection, and be willing to put our devices fully away from time to time. 

and so, ask yourself, “what is my real?” observe the ratio of digital real to embodied real in your own life and weigh in with your self about where adjustments might be made. every time you feel tempted to evaluate someone else’s success or failure in navigating the balance, let it go and give them reason, healthy/embodied/compelling reasons, to connect with you in real time and with real meaning...where ever that may be.