Posts Tagged ‘determination’

I generally don’t do New Year’s resolutions. For me, they conjure up the idea of things people kind of want to do but don’t have the commitment with which to follow through. They have a half-hearted, wistful kind of air that frankly, I find a bit depressing.

That being said, for 2012 I made a resolution. Only I called it an intention to make myself feel better.

What I wanted to do this year was to focus on my friendships. I wanted more friends, and I wanted friends with whom I could discuss the things that are important to me. And I made a specific but modest goal: that by the end of the year, I would have two close friends, at least one of whom lived locally, with whom I felt comfortable being really open.

There were times at the beginning of the year when I felt very discouraged about this goal. I thought I was going to fail. I want to be clear that this had very little to do with the people around me, and very much to do with myself. I knew I had closed myself off in various ways, and that was hard to change. I had to force myself to take uncomfortable risks. I had to be assertive. I had to jettison the “I must always appear fine and happy and perfect” messages I’d been taught in childhood.

And now?

Photo by Ferran Jorda

Now I am surrounded by the most fabulous group of people I could have ever imagined. Each one of them is different, with their own superpowers, their own weaknesses, their own ways of being a part of my life. They have fun with me, they teach me, they comfort me, and they laugh with me. They welcome me with open arms when I visit, and they text and email during hurricanes. They dress up with me for James Bond because I think it’s the best idea ever, and they feed me, and they give me another chance. They encourage my writing and offer to help and give feedback so I can become better. They celebrate with me, and they hug me while I cry. They talk to me, and they listen to me, and we swap advice. They let me into their lives, and I let them into mine. Some of them even laugh at my jokes.

Some of them have been in my life for a long time. Some of them I’ve met recently. Some of them I see all the time. Some of them I rarely get to see. I feel like I’ve known some of them much longer than I actually have.

All of them have something in common: they support me being myself, flaws and all, and they support my vision for my life and who I want to be and the changes I have been making.

I love my friends with all my heart. They make my world brighter and my smile bigger.

No doubt some of them are reading this. I hope they are because it gives me another chance to say thank you. You are awesome, and I’m so glad we get to spend some time in each other’s excellent company.

A piece of common wisdom states that you should surround yourself with the kind of person you want to be. In other words, you want to spend most of your time with people who lift you up instead of bring you down.

Thank you, dear friends, for your lifting. I only hope I can do the same for you.

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A few nights ago, I was eating by myself at a standard American restaurant on Broadway. Whenever I eat alone, I make it a point to bring reading material along to make the waiting go by faster (well, really, whenever I go anywhere I like to bring reading material along).

The waitress asked me what I was reading, and I told her, “It’s a memoir by Julia Child.”

She looked at me blankly. “Who’s that?”

“Oh, you know, Julia Child. She’s famous for bringing French cooking to the U.S.” No recognition. “You know that movie Julie and Julia?” Nope.

It left me wondering if I would have recognized Julia Child’s name before I saw the movie. I hope I would have, but I’m not completely sure. But I’m glad I know it now, because her memoir, My Life in France, written with her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, is so very charming.

Photo by Kaleb Fulgham

The entire time of the hurricane—the lead-up, the storm itself, and the recovery—I was reading this memoir. The personality of Julia Child fairly oozes from the pages. She gushes away about France, about food, about cooking, and her passion is so obvious from her stories. She recounts so many meals she’s enjoyed in the past, course by course.

Her first meal in France, when she was in her mid-thirties, was what set her on the course to becoming a famous chef. I love this fact so much. Because we never know, do we? We never know when we’re going to have an experience, or meet a person, or learn something new, and have a passion ignited within us. It can happen anywhere and anytime; it’s not something that only happens when we are teenagers or freshly adult, it’s not something that has to be planned carefully, or even something that can be anticipated.

I love this idea, too, because it reminds me that all of life is one big adventure. A new subplot could spin off at any time, or a nice bit of character development could take place, or I could begin my grand romance with pumpkin spice chais. Knowing this makes me feel so lucky to be alive.

By the time I finished reading My Life in France, I’d become very fond of Julia Child. I love her personality, her energy, her courage, and her unwillingness to give up. I love how enthusiastic she was, punctuating the text with Yum! and Hooray! and What fun! I love how her passion for food and cooking helped her through the bad times. I love how she spent a lifetime involved in food and cooking and teaching.

And I love some of her philosophy. When she is leaving her country house in France for the last time, do you know what she remembers saying? “I’ve always felt that when I’m done with something I just walk away from it—fin!” She enjoyed what she had to the fullest while she had it, and then let go when it was over. This isn’t a strong point of my own, but I admire her a lot for thinking it, and more importantly, for living it.

All in all, I can’t imagine a better book for me to be reading in the middle of a hurricane.

What about you? What have you been reading lately?

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I’ve written a fair amount about being happy, feeling gratitude, dealing with disappointment, and other related topics over the last two years. But it was only last week that I realized that a lot of what I talk about is actually how to be emotionally resilient.

I’ve been thinking about emotional resilience (although not under that particular label) since I was a kid. I took a good look at the people around me who were dealing with stress and adversity, and who appeared to be miserable most of the time, and I thought, “I don’t want to turn out like them.” Thus began my strong determination to become an emotionally resilient person.

At first my plan was to become resilient to tide me over to the point where my life would no longer have any upsetting bits. Now I realize that second part of my plan is never going to come to pass. Adversity is a part of life, and similar to whack-a-mole, the minute one difficult thing is more or less under control, another one pops up to do its own excited little “look at me” dance. The world is changing around us all the time, and inevitably some of those changes aren’t going to be ones that we want to happen. Health changes, life circumstances change, families change, employment and careers change, accidents happen. I can’t stop these things from changing because nobody can.

However, the first part of my plan, to become as resilient as I could, has been enormously helpful. It’s something I still work on and attempt to improve, and I expect I’ll continue to do so for the rest of my life.

Photo by Tom Magliery

Why is resilience so important? Because it’s something constructive we can do in the face of adversity. It tends to make us happier people. It makes it easier for us to deal with disappointment and rejection, which in my case means I’ve been able to continue working on my writing skills (and my singing skills before that). Resilience is what causes us, in the face of difficult circumstances, to be able to stand up, brush ourselves off, and continue forward. It allows us to hold onto the belief that whatever happens, we will ultimately be okay. It keeps us from becoming bogged down in a never-ending morass of negativity and powerlessness. It helps us live more fully in the present.

Resilience is real strength.

I found an article that describes eight of the attitudes and characteristics that encourage resilience, and I found myself nodding along as I read. It lists the following: emotional awareness, optimism, support, internal locus of control, perseverance, sense of humor, perspective, and spirituality. I’ve written about many of those ideas already on this blog, and I’m sure I’ll continue writing about them.

What about you? What helps you be more resilient? In what areas do you run into trouble?

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It’s been a little over a year since I wrote my first Sit at the Table essay, although it feels like exactly a year since it was published the Thursday before FogCon, and guess what today is.

Last week I received word that I sold my story “Man on the Moon Day” to Daily Science Fiction, which was the same market to buy my first story a year ago. First off, hooray! I am really excited for this story to reach the reading public. The timing of the sale also made me realize that in about a year’s time, I’ve gone from having no sales of any kind to making six sales, four of which have paid professional rates. So this is me, taking a moment to pause and tell myself, “Not bad, Amy. Not bad at all.”

All of this has reminded me of sitting at the table, a surprisingly tenacious idea for me to still be contemplating a year later. It’s a powerful idea as well. It’s easy to lose sight of it given the undeniable role that random chance plays in events; so much is out of our control, it can be hard to focus on the parts that we can do something about. But that’s what sitting at the table is all about: being present to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Photo by Ben Raynal

Here are some of the things I’ve been doing to sit at the table this last year:

1. Submitting, submitting, submitting. If I don’t submit, there is absolutely ZERO chance of a sale. This is not to say I haven’t taken mental health breaks in my submitting process, because I totally have. But once I’ve enjoyed my breather, I’ve gotten back on that horse and submitted some more.

2. Behaving like a professional. And part of being a professional is believing in our work and our right to sit at the table in the first place. This doesn’t mean blowing up our achievements to encompass more than they do or refusing to accept needed criticism and editorial input. What it does mean is cultivating an inherent feeling that we belong, that we are writers, and acting that way.

3. Picking and choosing the industry-related events I attend, and being there 100%. Happily for me, I adore meeting people in my industry. But I’d be lying if I told you I don’t have moments alone in my hotel room when I feel like there’s no way I can navigate the social scene. I’ve learned to expect those moments, and I leave the room anyway. I feel so grateful to be at these events, I can’t justify giving less than 100%. This pays off in dividends, by the way. I’ve also learned I can’t do All The Things. I can only attend as many events as I have 100% energy to give out.

4. Creating space to write. If I don’t take my writing time seriously, no one else will either. So I’m being much firmer about defending this time. I’ve taken the myth by the horns that because I don’t have a typical job, that means I have loads of free time. Sadly, this is simply not true, and writing time has to come near the top of my list of priorities.

5. Continuous striving for improvement. And with it, embracing its inherent risk. I’m writing by far the most challenging novel I’ve ever written. This January I participated in a flash fiction contest, even though I knew nothing about flash fiction and honestly, my first two attempts were embarrassing. My third attempt sold to the first market to which I sent it. The last short story I wrote, I had specific writing issues of mine in mind that I tried my best to address and practice on. I picked up a few more writing books that I hope to work through in upcoming months. I am always trying to get better, and the more I learn, the more I realize I still have to learn. While this can at times be discouraging, it’s also an amazing realization: there will always be more to learn. And therefore, I can remain fresh and excited and hopefully avoid the enemy: Boredom.

Of course, there are ways in which I’ve failed to sit at the table as well. As in my writing skills, there is (and probably always will be) room for improvement.

How have you sat at the table in the past year? How would you like to sit at the table in the future?

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Sometimes when we are on the road to excellence, we get a little tired. We wish we were already there. We wish the road had a literal signpost saying “You have made it, and you can officially stop worrying and consider yourself to be awesome.” We wonder if we should have chosen something easier to do with our time. And we think that maybe there is a magic bullet, something we can do that will–Bibbidi bobbidi boo!–make us more amazing.

Let me make this part of the road simpler for you.

There are no short cuts. There are no magic bullets. There are no sure things. There are no easy paths. So if you want something quick and easy, excellence isn’t the end goal for you.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Sure, there are activities beyond diligent practice you can do that will help you progress. In writing, these include attending workshops, reading slush, seeking out critique experiences, reading craft books like The 10% Solution, etc. In singing, these include participating in master classes and workshops, auditioning, obtaining performance opportunities (however humble), studying with different teachers, etc. But none of these methods are foolproof, and not all of them will pan out.

Take the various Clarion workshops, for example. Working professional writers often cite their Clarion experience as being pivotal in their development as writers. These are the stories about Clarion that we hear most often. But then there are the writers like Alexandra MacKenzie, who took ten years after the workshop to be ready to learn from one of her instructors. Because you can’t always control the timing of these sorts of things. And there are also the Clarion attendees who stopped writing altogether; these are the ones we hear about the least, and yet they assuredly exist. Why? Because no way of leveling up is foolproof. No way of advancing works for every single person.

The path to excellence doesn’t often go flat like a plateau only to suddenly rocket steeply upwards into awesomeness. It is a gradual process, a long slow incline upwards. As Seth Godin says, it is a series of hills, one after another. Those who continue to improve keep choosing new hills to climb that are just on the edge of their abilities.

Sometimes the path feels like a flat-line that suddenly springs up, but this is an illusion. I saw it all the time with my students in voice lessons. They would work steadily and gradually improve, so gradually that they didn’t even notice it happening. They would struggle with a concept and it wouldn’t quite be clicking, and they’d get frustrated and discouraged. At this stage in the process, it was my job as the teacher to keep pushing them, keep encouraging them, keep them singing even if they were ready to throw in the towel. And then inevitably, they’d finally understand. Their bodies would finally coordinate correctly, the muscle memory would finally develop, the ideas we were talking about would finally make actual instead of theoretical sense. And they’d experience a leap in ability. A leap that was really a slow mounting of ability all along.

That leap in ability is just around the corner for all of us. If we practice diligently and intelligently (directed practice as opposed to blind repetition), we are pushing ourselves forward along the path. The leap may come next week or it may come next year. It may come after we take a month-long break or it may come after a few weeks of intense practice. We don’t know when it will come. Excellence requires us to have the faith to sustain us while we work.

We must believe the leap will come. But it won’t come because of magic. It will come because of our own hard work.

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Does publicly stating our goals make us more accountable and therefore more likely to achieve them? According to some recent research, no, not as much as we may think. Apparently sharing a goal publicly sometimes actually decreasesour commitment to it. In addition, we feel we’ve made more progress towards the goal just through the act of sharing it, without taking any other action whatsoever, therefore making us more likely to feel complacent or like we don’t need to work as hard.I bring up this little tidbit of research because I’ve seen lots of advice saying the exact opposite. I’ve been advised that sharing my daily word count, both target and actual number, can help my productivity. I’ve seen people sharing their monthly fitness challenges and their target weight numbers. Even my routine of blogging twice a week is a public commitment of sorts. The tried and true advice seems to be that if you wish to finish a project, tell someone about it and that way if you don’t do it, you’ll feel bad–hopefully bad enough that you’ll actually push yourself through it.Yeah, and that works so well with New Year’s resolutions…

Increasing accountability can be a wonderful tool. I have many friends who take exercise classes or work with a trainer on a regular schedule to keep themselves exercising. Music lessons work in the same way; after we have paid the money and form a working relationship with our instructor/trainer, we have greater incentive to “get our money’s worth” and work harder for our instructor’s praise. Other people make their business goals public and are thus able to gain valuable PR, build tribes (aka fan bases), and raise capital. Sharing goals can also be a great way to bond with a community.

However, I question whether external validation, pressure, and support are enough. Perhaps they’ll give us a boost when we need one and help get us through the hard times. But we shouldn’t forget the importance of internal commitment. How highly do we value our goals, and do we value ourselves highly enough to see them through? What do we actually care about? How can we best support ourselves? And at what point do we need to reevaluate our goals and adjust as necessary?

I don’t think the answer is to eschew public goal-making altogether. Rather, I think it’s important to pay attention and make sure that stating our aims publicly is having the desired effect. If we realize that telling other people what we mean to do is making us feel like we’ve accomplished more than we have, we can compensate for that fact by giving ourselves “extra” to do. If we realize that we often share plans that we don’t follow through on, then we can stop sharing and see if there’s a noticeable difference. If we have systems in place that work well at increasing our accountability, then we can keep on doing what works.

We are not cookie-cutter creatives; we are not one-size-fits-all human beings. As a result, so much advice and so many rules turn out to be over-simplifications. When thinking advice over and deciding on a best course of action, here’s what I try to remember: do what works.

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Last night I asked my husband what I should write about next for the blog. “If you don’t tell me what to write,” I said, “I’m going to talk about teeth.” He looked horrified and gave me a few topic suggestions. And here I am writing about teeth anyway.

I’ve been trying really hard not to whine about my dental problems too much, which is hard, because I feel this pressing need to whine. Seven months and counting, and right this minute I have a not insignificant toothache from the same tooth that’s been causing the problems all along. I’ve been through two root canals, an onlay, two permanent crowns, and three or four temporary crowns for this one tooth, not to mention gum surgery, several courses of antibiotics and steroids, and countess bite adjustments. It still hurts. And now a new filling on the opposite side of my mouth has decided to act up and hate on anything cold. Eating has become an interesting exercise since I now have two bum teeth on opposite sides of my mouth.

I can question the competence of my dentists all I want, but ultimately they just really really want to save this tooth. They care about saving the tooth more than they care about the pain it is causing me or the subsequent deterioration of my quality of life. My tooth is, after all, irreplaceable; no prosthesis will be as good as the real thing.

It occurs to me as I obsess about my mouth that this is a more universal problem. How do we decide when it’s time to let go of something? I think it’s probably about time for an extraction of my tooth, but without 100% support from the dental establishment, I have hesitated for several months now. I’m kicking myself because maybe all this pain could have ended last December. But how do I decide when it’s time to give up on the tooth?

How do we decide when to give up on anything? What is it that tips us over the edge into deciding a marriage just isn’t going to work? What motivates us to change careers? What is the key information we need to make the call that a business relationship isn’t working out or a person is just never going to treat us respectfully? How do we make the call that “enough is enough” and that something has got to change?

I have a lot of trouble letting go. My stubbornness is an extremely useful trait in many ways, but it can occasionally be inconvenient. What kills me the most is that so often, we’ll never know for sure. We won’t know what would have happened if we’d made a different choice. Maybe if I’d stuck with that relationship for another month or two, that extra time would have made the difference. That’s the insidious whisper that plays inside my head. Maybe if I try one more dental treatment, I’ll get to keep my original tooth. Maybe if I can persevere at a task for a while longer, it will become more rewarding. Maybe maybe maybe.

Or maybe it’s time to make a hard decision and extract that broken molar from its roots, rip the band aid off the skin, take a stand and say, “This is where I draw the line.” There’s giving up and then there’s embracing change; the line between the two is murky but important, because one feels like defeat while the other one can be liberating. A sad and bracing liberation, to be sure, but I’ll take it over straightforward defeat any day.

So tell me: how do YOU make such decisions? When is giving up the right thing to do?

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