Posts Tagged ‘Amy Sundberg’

Success in our culture is associated with MORE.

  • More money, fancier car, fancier house, more things to put in the fancier house.
  • More sales, more critical acclaim, more award nominations, more award wins, more clout.
  • More bonuses, more stock, more seniority, more autonomy, larger teams, more prestige, more press.
  • Better, prettier, sexier, thinner, busier, richer, smarter, better read, better informed, more talented, more hard-working, more visionary, more original, more popular.

I’ve known some pretty successful people, and even right after a big achievement, it is not uncommon for them to still worry, to still feel insecure, to still want more. 

Won one award? Well, why haven’t I won more?

Made a million bucks? Well, I won’t truly be safe until I have [plug in larger number here.]

Got a promotion? Well, when am I going to be another level up?

And to a certain extent, I admire the striving. It is exhilarating to be pushing ourselves, to be ambitious, to be trying to improve, to do wonderful things.

But at some point I wonder, when is it enough?

Which is followed soon thereafter by its cousin, will it ever be enough?

And I think as long as we are measuring success by external factors, it may never be enough. Not unless the internal factors have been addressed as well.

Photo Credit: jacilluch via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jacilluch via Compfight cc

When we internalize rejection, when we take failure as a reflection on our intrinsic value as a person, when we struggle with unacknowledged shame, when we replay messages that tell us we are somehow bad or wrong for things outside of our control, when we relive past traumas through the present day, when we measure success only from the outside and not from the inside…

no success will ever be enough.

Happiness doesn’t come from the outside in. But this is hard to believe. If you just get that job or make a certain amount of money or find the perfect partner or have the right number of well-behaved children, happiness will surely follow. Won’t it?

And it is true, all of those things can contribute substantially to happiness. (And if you don’t have certain basic things, of course, all bets are off.) But if you are not prepared for happiness on the inside, none of them will be enough. Because nothing is perfect. Nothing remains unchanged. Important things–families, relationships, friendships, careers–take a lot of work. And there will be parts that are unpleasant. And there will be setbacks. And there will be losses.

So then, lasting happiness comes not only from external factors but from a wellspring deep inside.

And in order to find this, we might need to re-examine our definitions of success. We might need to let go of having MORE and instead focus on what we have and where we are right now.

We might need to consider that we are already enough, and that we always were.

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“To live meaningfully is to be at perpetual risk.” — Robert McKee, Story

“Life is all about not knowing, and then doing something anyway.” — Mark Manson

When I was reading Frankl’s idea that the meaningful thing to do when confronted with avoidable suffering is to avoid it, my first thought was, oh, does this make decision-making simpler? Avoid suffering! Got it.

But the dilemma of leaving behind unnecessary suffering is actually at the crux of many difficult decisions. Because sometimes it is not at all clear which path will lead to less suffering. We are sometimes confronted with decisions in which there is no great answer, no win-win-win that Michael Scott (The Office) championed, no choice that effectively avoids all suffering. At which point it is a determination as to which is the lesser evil, and the answer to that question is sometimes not at all obvious.

What we are left to navigate, then, is a map of decision points. Our choices shape our lives and give them meaning, and they also determine what stories we set down now that change into our pasts with the passing of time. Those stories, which can be re-told, re-interpreted, and even subverted, in turn play their part in forming our identities.

And sometimes we do not know. And sometimes, not knowing, we take large risks. And sometimes those risks do not pay off the way we wish they would.

Photo Credit: Bryan Davidson via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Bryan Davidson via Compfight cc

But a life with no risk–besides being impossible, since walking out your door is a risk, as is choosing to stay home–becomes a life of less meaning. Moments matter more because they are impermanent and cannot last. Meaning is created from change, from development, from action and experience. We cannot know and yet we act, and from that action we illustrate who we are. Sometimes we even create who we are. And this is the case regardless of outcome.

I’ve spoken before about the importance of actions, of how I’ve been training myself to pay more attention to people’s actions and less attention to their words (particularly when the two don’t match up). Recently I’ve been thinking not only of how actions define others, but how my actions define me, and more particularly, the relationship between actions and emotions.

For a long time I was baffled by the common wisdom that we get to choose how to react to any given situation. “What was the choice?” I wondered. If someone did something and I felt angry or hurt or sad about it, well then, I was angry or hurt or sad. I couldn’t magically choose not to feel those things.

But what I realize now is that yes, of course I will feel whatever emotions might be present inside me. And it is difficult to choose what those might be in specific situations (although there are ways to foster more compassionate and/or positive outlooks in general). Sometimes emotions just happen. But emotions do not have to define me in the same way that my actions do.

Indeed, in many cases my actions will result in changing my emotions. And my emotions can be valuable indicators of when action might be needed and sometimes even of the types of actions I need to consider. Using my emotions as a kind of barometer to help determine action leads to them defining me less than they did previously, when they just sat there, an inert lump in my stomach.

But for this to work, risk is still necessary. Uncertainty is still present. I don’t always know the right thing to do.

Sometimes there is no right thing to do.

And I think part of what Robert McKee and Mark Manson are saying is that this state of uncertainty is okay. Because the uncertainty makes our decisions matter.

And then these decisions imbue our lives with the meaning we crave.

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I finished reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning today.

First of all, if you haven’t read it, I very highly recommend it, particularly if you are interested in philosophy, psychology, or the triumph of the human spirit. About two-thirds of it is a first person account of Dr. Frankl’s experiences in concentration camps during World War II. It is difficult and grim reading, of course, but also deeply inspirational and very well written. This is followed by a section detailing his doctrine of logotherapy and a postscript: “The Case for a Tragic Optimism.”

I’ve written about some of Frankl’s thoughts before, but after reading this book, I would like to revisit his philosophy.

Meaning, Frankl tells us, is both paramount and personal. He repeatedly quotes Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” And each person must embark upon a quest for meaning for themselves; one person’s meaning will not necessarily be the same as someone else’s. Therefore, the ultimate existential question becomes not “What is the meaning of life,” but rather “What is my meaning in life?”

While no two paths to meaning may look exactly alike, Frankl believed we could discover the meaning in our lives through three different avenues:

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed. In other words, we can find meaning through achievement and accomplishment.
  2. Experiencing something or encountering someone. This includes experiences of art and culture, of travel, and of nature. It also includes the social experiences of feeling love and being part of a community.
  3. The attitude we choose when we face unavoidable suffering.

It is this third method towards meaning that is a primary focus of Frankl’s account of his time in the concentration camps, perhaps because it is both the hardest to grasp and the hardest to implement.

Frankl firmly believed suffering was an opportunity: “Most important…is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”

(It is also worth noting Frankl didn’t believe suffering is inherently necessary to discover meaning and explicitly stated the meaningful thing to do when suffering is avoidable is to remove its cause rather than continue suffering for suffering’s sake.)

When I think of what I know of unavoidable suffering, I think of when I was young, still a child, and surrounded by suffering. I could not escape it; it was truly unavoidable. There was little if anything I could do to affect the situation in which I found myself. So I watched the tragedies of those around me, and I did my best to learn from them, and I told myself, with a fierceness that has not lessened in the intervening years: “This will not be me. I will not let my own suffering overcome me. I. Will. Not.”

The indomitable human spirit. Or something. :)

The indomitable human spirit. Or something. :)

And that is when I learned that even when faced with suffering we cannot change, we get to decide who we are. We can choose to continue to search for meaning, even when the world around us is dark and full of terrors. We can cultivate a “tragic optimism;” that is, an optimism that does not shy away from suffering and other difficult truths but lives on regardless, saying, “Yes, yes, there is suffering, and yes, it is challenging and awful. But even so, here I am and I will make what I can from the circumstances in which I find myself.”

This ability, this tragic optimism, is one of the abiding lights of humanity. We all suffer, yes, but we are also all granted the privilege of transforming our suffering into meaning.

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I, as a woman, have a lot of expectations placed upon me.

I, as a woman, am expected to put effort into my appearance. And I’m not talking merely practicing basic hygiene, either.

I, as a woman, am expected to toe the line of fashion. Wear one blouse that is too low-cut, by some random definition of low-cut, and I will be judged and slut-shamed. Wear formless clothes, and I will be found frumpy, ugly, not as interesting.

I, as a woman, am expected to need to have babies in order to be fulfilled.

I, as a woman, am expected to know the right thing to say in every situation.

I, as a woman, am expected to cook tasty but healthy meals. As long as you’re pretty and can cook, you’ll have a boyfriend in no time. -actual thing I’ve been told

I, as a woman, cannot win when it comes to sex. Virgin or whore, frigid or slutty, no is never as simple as it seems nor as simple as it should be.

I, as a woman, am expected to remember personal details: names, birthdays, life stories, and logistics. I am expected to coordinate. I am expected to hostess. I am expected to keep in touch.

I, as a woman, am expected to respond to egregiously bad behavior with poise and tact and compassion.

I, as a woman, am expected to be less rational, less logical, less intelligent, and more emotional. Meanwhile, my society pays lip service to valuing logic while demeaning emotions.

I, as a woman, am expected to be “more emotionally aware and available.”

I, as a woman, am expected to be bad at math.

I, as a woman, am expected to smooth things over and make social interactions a little bit easier and little bit less awkward.

I, as a woman, am expected to put my male partner’s career before my own.

I, as a woman, am expected to never look old. Wrinkles and silver temples do not translate as dignified and experienced on me. They translate to washed-up.

I, as a woman, am expected to know and say less valuable things and therefore not mind when I am interrupted or when basic things upon which I am an expert are explained to me.

I, as a woman, am expected to be more unassuming and careful and less confident when I speak.

I, as a woman, am expected to really like pink.

I, as a woman, am expected to be catty and judgmental of other women’s appearances and sexuality.

I, as a woman, am expected to smile.

I, as a woman, have to think very carefully about career issues such as whether to use my initials instead of my first name if I ever publish a science fiction novel so that readers won’t know I’m a woman.

I, as a woman, am expected to be interested in domestic subjects. And also yoga. (True story: the Boyfriend and I randomly met another couple at a restaurant and were going to go explore some ruins with them, but then the other woman got scared because it was dark. The other man said to her and me, “Oh, you two would rather stay up top doing yoga while we explore.” And I thought, “Why on earth would I choose yoga over exploring ruins?” Yeesh. Needless to say, I explored those fucking ruins. Thoroughly. Sprained toe and all.)


Some of these things are true. I do like pink. I put effort into my appearance. I like clothes and musical theater. I know my way around an emotional landscape.

Some of these things are not true. I explicitly do not cook (and I could write a whole post on why I am so explicit about it). Most domestic subjects bore me. I am good at math. I don’t always remember names. I don’t always feel poised and tactful.

Some of these things I am working on. I do not want to be judgmental about other women’s choices. I do not want to be less than confident when speaking about things I know. I do not want to smooth over every awkwardness and insult at my own expense. I do not want to smile on command.

Mostly, I don’t want to care. I don’t want to care about the expectations, and I don’t want to internalize them, and I don’t want to be held back because of my gender identity. I don’t want you to be held back either, whatever your gender.

I don’t want to be less than.

None of us do.

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Yes, I have signed with a literary agent: Kirsten Carleton of Prospect Agency. And I am very happy and very excited and a little beside myself.

And now I get to tell you the story of how it happened!

I began querying agents with my YA novel Beast Girl in late October of last year, so the entire process took about a year. I’d made a deal with myself: that for each novel I queried, I’d send ten more queries than the novel before. I’d sent out fifty queries for Academy of Forgetting, so my goal for Beast Girl was to send sixty queries. I finished with sixty-one queries by the beginning of May.

Yeah, sixty-one queries. I didn’t take any shortcuts; instead I relied on persistence and my belief that all it would take was one person who loved the book to move onto the next step. I queried Kirsten because I read on Manuscript Wishlist that she was interested in stories with characters coping with mental illness, and so I thought Beast Girl might be good fit for her.

But by September, I wasn’t thinking about Beast Girl anymore. I’d reached my query goal, and I’d sent out a lot of fulls (complete copies of the manuscript). After most of a year, I didn’t think anything was going to come of it, and my focus was on this year’s and next year’s books.

Well, and my trip to Bali.

It was our first full day in Bali. We’d settled into our beautiful resort and gotten some sleep, and I was moving a bit slowly the next morning. I decided to get the wifi set up on my phone so I could check my email and make sure everything was going okay with Nala. My heart sank a little when I saw an email with “Query: BEAST GIRL” in the subject line. I knew it was a rejection, and I thought to myself, “Really? I had to get another rejection on the first day of my vacation?” I almost didn’t even open it, but then I decided to go ahead and get it out of the way.

But. It wasn’t a rejection. It was THE EMAIL. The one where the agent says they love your book and they want to talk to you on the phone.


I couldn’t believe what I was reading. My brain started sputtering, and I wondered if I’d entered some kind of alternate Bali reality, or maybe I was confused because of jet lag, or something else because what was happening made absolutely no sense to me. I re-read the email. Probably more than once. And I started saying “Oh my god” over and over again.

Not surprisingly, this got the attention of the Boyfriend. Once I’d told him what was happening and showed him the email, things began to seem a little more real. I was completely beside myself with excitement. And the Boyfriend took this picture of me being so beside myself I couldn’t even handle posing for the camera.

Amy beside herself

Beside Herself Amy

I had a great time in Bali, but every time someone asks me what the best part of the trip was, I think, “THE EMAIL.” It’s pretty tough to compete with THE EMAIL, even when you’re Bali.

Between my trip and various logistical matters, seven weeks have gone by since then. And now I am finally allowed to talk about this very exciting news!

Here is a photo of me before the phone call. I was very nervous.


Nervous Amy

Nervous Amy

And here is a photo of me after the phone call. I was very happy!

Happy Amy!

Happy Amy!

And here is a photo of me having celebratory ice cream after the phone call.

Celebratory Amy!

Celebratory Amy!

And here is a photo of Nala on the day I signed the contract.

Signing a contract is serious business.

Signing a contract is serious business.

And here is a photo of me on the day I got to share the news with all of you!

Grateful Amy

Grateful Amy

Yes, I took a lot of photos, because this is a very big deal! I started working seriously toward this goal almost seven years ago, and I’m very happy to have reached another milestone. And yesterday, as the congratulations poured in, I felt so lucky to know so many people who I like so much and who have been rooting for me all this time.

So now I have an agent. You all know what this means, right?

I have some more writing to do. :)

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Dating is not Simple

I still talk about dating a fair amount with my friends. We compare notes. We make lists. And whatever our discussion–comparing paid dating sites to free dating sites, considering the virtues and difficulties of meeting people in person instead, considering what traits in a partner are essential and which simply icing, contemplating profile photos–we always tend to hit on one consistent idea: that dating can be really freaking difficult.

There’s this sense of indignation about the whole thing, this semi-random process that is supposed to help you discover this compatible someone. It seems so inefficient! It seems so random! It’s painful to be rejected and it’s painful to be doing the rejecting.

But then I think about what many of us want dating to achieve–to find a life partner–and I’m not surprised it feels complicated and difficult. I am almost more surprised it works at all. It feels like a tall order.

Ferrett wrote a great post about dating last month–The Abandonment Rate, Or: Date More, God, Date More–in which he said:

It took me fifteen years of constant dating before I found the love of my life, and I consider that to be a pretty lucky catch. You? You’re trying for life-changing things. That’s good. Life-changing things involve a lot of perseverance. So keep at it.”

Fifteen years? That’s a fair amount of effort.

My friend has this theory that it is important to know the three things you most want in a partner. It can only be three, and it includes everything from personality traits to likes and dislikes to basic life information. Only three! I was skeptical, but it didn’t matter because I still had to figure out my three. I spent a lot of time coming up with and rejecting and ending up with more than three.

And now, I can’t even remember what I finally settled on. I’m fairly confident one of the three was kindness, but the other two…um….maybe intelligence? I don’t know. The whole exercise felt like boiling something complex down into something so simple it no longer held any meaning.

So then I wrote a list of what I was looking for in a partner, and I let myself write down as many items as I wanted. I put a lot of stuff I thought was important, but I also let myself put down things that seemed silly or trivial or like low-hanging fruit but I still wanted: things like “knows how to dress self for different occasions” (I live in Silicon Valley so this is an actual perk), “has an overlap with my musical taste,” and “not intimidated by Shakespeare.” (Yes, I really put those on my list.)  

I put 59 items on my list. Yes, fifty-nine. A far cry from three. But reading my list now, I keep nodding and saying, “Um, yeah, of course I want that. And that. And that.” It’s not that I felt I needed all 59 things to be perfectly true, and a bunch of them are low bars, but even so. I did want a majority of them.

59. Not really all that simple.

Strangely, I found making that list to be liberating. Because then dating did not have to be simple. It validated my actual experience, which was that finding someone compatible to date wasn’t that straightforward, that there was no algorithm that took all the guesswork out of the equation, that the only real way forward was to meet a bunch of people, and most of them wouldn’t be right, and that would be tiring, and all of this was perfectly normal.

I’m not saying there aren’t things you can do to simplify and streamline the process, or to improve your chances of success. But online dating sites sometimes make it seem like dating is straightforward shopping; you flip through a seemingly infinite catalog of biographies and jokes and photos, you are presented with an array of options, there are percentages and matching protocols that are supposed to help you narrow things down. All very clean until you hit the next part of the process: actually communicating with another human being, a person who can’t be completely boiled down in a few paragraphs and photos and multiple choice questions.


Looking for a life partner is anything but simple. You’re going to spend A LOT of time with this person. You’re going to make major life decisions with them. You’re going to be influenced by them. You’re going to get to know them very well, and they’re going to know you very well. Your life is going to be changed by being with them. And the process of dating is going to reflect the importance of this decision.

No list, whether of three or of fifty-nine, is ever going to be able to accurately reflect the reality of that decision. Instead we have to get our hands messy and do the work of getting to know other people, and maybe even more importantly, getting to know ourselves.

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I write a lot about friendship.

A few days ago I saw someone share an article about friendship, and someone else responded to their post by saying that this was literally the first article about friendship they’d ever read. This made me feel good that I’m already writing about it, and also sad there is a relative dearth of information and thought about friendship out there.

When I write about boundaries and friendships, I know some of you are wondering what kinds of boundaries are common to need to set in the context of friendship. I think this varies a lot from person to person and from friendship to friendship, but I do have some general thoughts on what I look for in my friends and what kinds of boundaries sometimes come up.

Kinds of issues that come up in friendships that sometimes require boundary setting/enforcing:

  • Responding to invitations
  • Responding to favor requests
  • Having to cancel plans due to illness or emergency
  • Arranging logistics (including scheduling, timing, transport, choosing restaurants, choosing activities, issues of payment)
  • Addressing mobility/health issues
  • Asking for empathy instead of advice
  • Negotiating the flow of the house guest (either being one or hosting one)
  • Figuring out frequency of communication/visits, response time, safeguarding work time, etc.
  • Seeking safe spaces at public (or semi-public) events
  • Dealing with problematic behavior in communities and friend groups
  • Responding to sexual requests
  • Responding to peer pressure
  • Asking for and giving emotional support
  • Speaking up on issues of social justice
  • Asking for consideration
  • Taking someone into your confidence

I’ll be honest for you: I look for friends who don’t need much boundary enforcing because that’s the part I find the most difficult and tiring. I can often set a boundary now, especially if I have a little time to consider, but enforcing it against push-back wears me out extremely fast. And no wonder. Boundary enforcing means your boundary has already been crossed (or is not being taken seriously after being stated), and it often involves hurt feelings, or at the very least disappointment, especially if it’s a repetitive issue. So it’s much easier to reach a point of diminishing returns if you’re having to enforce regularly. (Also, one way of enforcing is to introduce space into the friendship, and if you have to introduce enough space, you’re not interacting much with that person anymore anyway, so selecting for low levels of enforcement tends to happen at least somewhat organically.)

I look for friends to whom I can say no. Sometimes that will be no to a favor, and sometimes that will be no to an invitation. In an ideal world, I could say yes to everything, but the reality is that I have lots of commitments to fulfill, as does any adult: in my case, to my work, to my own physical and mental well-being, to my dog, to my boyfriend, etc. I have idiosyncracies to work around for maximum well-being, like my general dislike of driving too much, especially in traffic, and my sleep issues. I have budgetary restraints. I get sick and injured. All of these things mean that sometimes I have to say no, and I look for friends who will understand that it’s not personal and that I would help them or hang out with them if I could.

I look for friends who will make a commensurate effort. This doesn’t have to be equal in an obvious sense: for example, I have friends who always come over to my place and other friends who I always visit at their places, and as long as everyone is cool with that, it works fine. But both people have to be willing to find time for each other and to care about how the other person is doing. And both people have to be getting some of their friendship needs met.

I look for friends who are generally kind. I used to think, oh, it’s okay if my friend is sort of an asshole, as long as they treat me well. But I’m not as on board with that line of thinking anymore because it’s so easy for that kind of behavior to eventually spread out to include you. Obviously no one is perfect, but I think kindness is probably the most important trait I look for in friends.

And in that vein, my closest friends are generally pretty good at empathy. I become closest to people with whom I can be honest and genuine about myself and my life without fear of judgment, with whom I can share openly and who will share openly with me, who can listen well, and where there is interest and care on both sides.

Finally, one of the great part about friendships I’ve learned while negotiating these things is that they can be flexible. They do not need to be all things, all at once. While my closest friendships are usually built on empathy, I also have great friendships based upon a shared interest (shocking, I know!) and great friendships based on compatible senses of humor. I have friends who I get to see one-on-one and friends that I almost always see in groups. I have friends who I talk to all the time and friends I only get to see once a year. I have friends who I don’t ask for certain things because I know they cannot give them to me, and I appreciate what they do bring to the friendship and ask for those other things elsewhere.

I used to think friendship came in one certain mold, but in learning the many ways friendship can present itself, I’ve found a lot more interest and connection with the world. I thought by setting boundaries I’d be limiting myself, but instead my boundaries allow me to be more present and more accepting of who my friends are.

Even myself. Maybe especially myself.

Oh look, it's my best doggie friend.

Oh look, it’s my best doggie friend.

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