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Posts Tagged ‘taking risks’

I’ve been trying to think of what other 2012 life lesson I should write about today. It’s problematic because I feel like I’ve learned so much, and I don’t want to choose only one thing. So I’m going to bypass this problem by making a list (and you all know how much I love lists).

Things I Have Learned in 2012:

  1. Being assertive is important.
  2. Ditto being open and authentic.
  3. I know how to make a mean cranberry sauce.
  4. Setting boundaries means I have more energy for being social.
  5. Chicago has a world-class art museum. I want to go back.
  6. Hurricanes can hit when you least expect them.
  7. First person point of view has a lot of nuances that are fun to play with. So do unreliable narrators. These two things are related.
  8. I am happier when I make my writing a top priority. I also accomplish a lot more.
  9. When you are confident, you hold your body differently. When you hold your body differently, you become more confident.
  10. Nobody is perfect. (This is quite a relief for all concerned.)
  11. Starbucks serves their pumpkin spice chai lattes all year round. Although I’ve yet to test this.
  12. People say wise things all the time if you pay attention.
  13. It doesn’t actually rain every day in Seattle.
  14. There is such a thing as too nice.
  15. Too much stress, and I’m in pain and/or sick.
  16. I’m better at making hard decisions than I give myself credit for.
  17. Life really is stranger than most fiction. Things happen that you could never get away with putting in a story.
  18. It’s okay to ask for help.
  19. New Year resolutions can sometimes be a very good idea.
  20. I like pie. (All right, I already knew this one.)
  21. Feeling an urgent need to succeed is something that happens at the beginning of the journey to mastery. Somewhere in the middle of the journey, I chill out and can focus more on the actual work.
  22. No matter how many books I have to read, I can always find more books I’d like to read, particularly if I venture into a bookstore.
  23. It can be useful to learn to embrace failure, since being okay with it allows you to take bigger risks and accomplish bigger things.
  24. Change takes time.
  25. People are infinitely adaptable.
  26. Seeing life through a lens of gratitude increases levels of happiness.
  27. So do little dogs. Probably also cats.
  28. So does loving yourself.
  29. Time keeps passing. And passing. And passing. No matter what happens or does not happen.
  30. Suffering and adversity can reveal great beauty.

What did you learn in 2012?

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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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1. Assertiveness is not the same as decisiveness. Some of my friends disagree with me on this one, but I actually feel very strongly about it. Sometimes the most assertive thing to say in a situation is “I don’t know.” Maybe you need more time or more information before you can form an opinion or make a decision. Not being assertive would mean allowing someone else to push you into a decision before you are ready, possibly in the name of “decisiveness.” Assertiveness also doesn’t close the door on changing our minds, which is something else I feel strongly about.

2. Assertiveness is stating your opinion and showing yourself to the world. Even though you might be wrong. Even though you aren’t perfect. Even though people might not care or want to hear what you have to say. Even though everyone won’t agree with you. I think the courage to do this in a strong but balanced way comes from a sense of self worthiness.

3. Assertiveness is asking for what you want/need. Even when doing so is scary. Even when it might make the person you’re talking to think less of you, or not like you, or feel emotions. Maybe especially then.

4. Assertiveness is being okay when someone says no. Which, if you’re asking for what you want on a regular basis, is definitely going to happen. Emotions might happen when someone says no, and that’s fine…as long as you don’t act on them and instead deal with them in a mature way that works for you.

That is one assertive apple. (Photo by Fernando Revilla)

5. Assertiveness is gathering information. Maybe some people aren’t okay with you being assertive. Maybe some people repeatedly say no, don’t do what they say they’re going to do, or behave towards you in ways that you’re not okay with. This sucks. But it’s good to know so you can make decisions based on reality instead of what you wish was true. The kind of fabulous people you want in your life aren’t going to be trampling all over your boundaries all the time like it’s some kind of sport.

6. Assertiveness is allowing other people to have their own feelings and their own issues instead of taking those on as your own. The more I pay attention to this, the more I realize hardly anything that happens is actually about me. It’s about the mood someone else is in, or they’re worried about xyz that has nothing to do with me, or they want something so much they’re not even paying attention to me, or they’re behaving in this bizarre way because of some childhood trauma or the way they were raised or because they’re been compelled to do so by the power of Cthulu. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter why. Our job is to take care of ourselves by asking for what we want, sometimes saying no, and dealing with our own emotions. Our job is not to take on everyone else’s stuff.

7. Assertiveness is embracing the awkward and the uncomfortable. Change is sometimes awkward. Saying no can be awkward. Being honest can be awkward. Being vulnerable can be awkward. Letting someone know how you feel can be uncomfortable. Letting someone know they’ve behaved in an inappropriate way can be uncomfortable. I’ve grown very skilled at making people feel comfortable over the years, which is fabulous when you’re teaching voice lessons. However, assertiveness sometimes requires allowing those awkward moments and uncomfortable silences to happen instead of smoothing them over.

8. Assertiveness is respecting yourself. There is that old truism about how you can only truly help other people after you’ve taken care of yourself. I completely agree with this statement, but I also think it’s a way to dance around the truth so people pleasers might actually listen. That truth? Respecting and caring for yourself is inherently important and valuable. It means you have healthy self esteem and can go rock the world with your own personal brand of awesome.

A year and a half later, and look at the Backbone Project go!

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I screwed up last week. Multiple times.

Photo by Kate Sumbler.

Here’s what happened. I got really excited about that vulnerability TED talk, which you can probably tell by reading what I’ve written about it. And I decided I wanted to be vulnerable about All the Things…or at least several of the things. So I was pushing myself on multiple fronts at pretty much the same time, which meant two weeks in which so much was going on and so much of it was challenging and emotional exhaustion now.

Apparently this is called a vulnerability hangover, but to me, possibly because I was so enthusiastic, it felt more like a vulnerability OMFG eight car pile-up on the freeway. Fun times.

But there was a strategy behind my madness! Or you know, maybe I’m just incredibly skilled at finding the bright side of the lemonade in that strange-colored cloud over there. But as it turns out, one way of finding out what we most need to work on is to push ourselves to a failure point and then watch what happens. (I don’t necessarily recommend this, by the way; but if it’s happened anyway, you might as well learn something from it, right?)

So as it turns out, my failure point was not being assertive enough. And I didn’t fail at this once, oh no. I failed at it multiple times. Like at least three, and realistically probably more than three. So I know it’s something worth focusing on for the next however-many-months-it-takes. Interestingly, I’ve written an article for this blog entitled “How to Become More Assertive,” but upon re-reading it, I’m not finding it super helpful, so obviously I need to write a new article all about it in the not-too-distant future.

I don’t like writing this. I don’t like telling you how I failed. I procrastinated for a couple of hours before I could make myself type this up. I watch bloggers like Penelope Trunk and James Altucher who let it all hang out and write all about their often spectacular failures, and I’m completely riveted even while I’m thinking to myself, “Wow, I could never do that.” Even now I’m not giving any particulars, which I tell myself is to protect the innocent but in reality is mostly me being a wimp.

But here’s the thing. I want to write about what making change looks like. And change involves taking risks and making mistakes and failing, sometimes repeatedly. It’s not like a training montage in a movie, and it’s not like that moment of realization in novels when the protagonist figures out what is really important. It’s messier than that. And it takes a lot longer than five minutes and seven costume changes.

But it’s part of the process. I keep reading about how the bad and the good go together: how suffering can presage positive change, how failure leads to success, how we embark on the hero’s journey and come back wiser. How before we can rebuild, we have to tear down. Change is certainly interesting and rewarding, but it is not easy.

So I’ll begin thinking about assertiveness. And I’ll fail to be assertive a lot, in a variety of situations, in a myriad of different and creative ways. And gradually I’ll become better at it, and I’ll mess up less often.

This is what change looks like.

 

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I stumbled across an interview with Brene Brown (whose TED talk I mentioned last week), and at the end she says if she was going to found a museum, she would call it “a Museum of Epic Failure.” At which point I instantly emailed a link to the article to my friend and said, “This is the title of my next blog post!”

Photo by the National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institute

We have such strange ideas about failure and success. I meet people again and again who assume that, having failed at something once, it makes sense to automatically give up and not try again. They wonder at the fact that I have written THREE novels, even though none of them are yet published. They make comments that call into question the entire premise of one of my failures, as if I have now automatically learned better.

Sure, sometimes a failure, and the lessons we learn by failing, cause us to change directions. Sometimes we decide we’re better suited to doing something different, or we’ve found a new passion to pursue. Sometimes our viewpoint has changed so that we no longer want the same things we wanted before. But failure can also mean that the next time we try, we’ll apply what we’ve learned this time around and do better.

Meanwhile, when we stop doing something we’ve been successful at in some form or another, people get confused and tell us it’s “too bad.” And if they like us (aka social success), they tell us to “never change.” There’s this idea that once success has been achieved, we need to hold onto it tightly while avoiding change at all costs.

This is an example of black and white thinking at its finest, where success is positive and good and to be cherished, while failure is negative and bad and to be avoided.

What is often overlooked is the necessity of failure. When we take a risk, it is risky because there is the possibility of failure. If we were one hundred percent sure we’d succeed, it wouldn’t be a risk at all, would it? And so many great successes and helpful learning moments come from the willingness to take a risk and allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

Most great art–be it visual, literary, musical, or theatrical–comes from reaching to see where we can go, from exposing ourselves in the act of creation.

Most great relationships–be they platonic or romantic–come from opening up and being authentic with one another, while not knowing how we’ll be received.

Most great entrepreneurial ventures–be they tech start-ups or service businesses or local merchants–come from taking the leap into the unknown and committing ourselves and our resources to a particular vision.

When we are engaged in these activities and being honest with ourselves, we know we are taking risks. We know we may fail. And it is when we allow ourselves the space to fail (say goodbye to perfectionism!) that we are capable of our best work.

Which is when we realize that failure isn’t inherently bad. It teaches us, it pushes us, it leads down paths we wouldn’t have noticed by ourselves. It makes success, when it comes, more meaningful, even while it keeps us grounded and connected. And when failure comes instead, and we feel flattened by its impact, we can remind ourselves of the alternative: staying safe, cramped, and complacent while being too afraid to really try.

We are each in the process of creating our own personal Museum of Epic Failure. I’ve already collected many interesting exhibits in mine. And each one has helped to shape who I am today.

Even things that are uncomfortable can have reasons to be celebrated. Is there a failure you’ve experienced that you learned something important from or that you’re grateful for now? Feel free to share in the comments.

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A couple of weeks ago I watched a TED talk by Brene Brown entitled “The Power of Vulnerability.” It’s twenty minutes long, but I highly recommend watching it when you get the chance. Brene Brown is a researcher who spent years studying vulnerability, shame, and human connection, and she shares valuable insights from her work and how it has affected her own life.

I’ve been seeing a common theme coming up this year, and it comes up again in this talk: that connection and well-being come from the inside, that they arise from our own beliefs and attitudes about ourselves.

I saw it in James Altucher’s post about Kamal Ravikant, who was desperately ill and miserable until he turned things around for himself and ended up writing a short book about the experience. His secret? He told himself that he loved himself a billion and one times.

I saw it in the reading I was doing about attachment styles. Apparently people with a healthy attachment style tend to assume that their needs will be met. And guess what? More often than not, their needs are met, one way or another. Part of this is probably because they are asking for what they need, and part of it is because they are attracting other people who are okay meeting some of these needs. The fact that they assume their needs are okay and will be met shows a greater sense of self worth.

And now here is Brene Brown, telling us that the one thing separating those people who experience a lot of love and belonging in their lives from those who do not is a sense of worthiness. When we believe that we are worthy of love and connection, when we believe that we are enough just as we are, then we can embrace our vulnerability, find our authenticity, and achieve greater connection.

And in her list of traits that these “heart whole” people have in common, she mentions them having compassion for themselves, because otherwise they are unable to have compassion for other people. This idea relates back to the Nice vs. Kind trap and one of the reasons being a people pleaser ultimately doesn’t work out so well.

At the end of last year, I wrote a post called “You are Worth It,” giving this message in yet another way.

This idea of worthiness circles back around on itself in a feedback loop. Take the recent World Fantasy Convention as an example. I entered into the convention feeling comfortable and like I belonged. Because of that, I was more relaxed, having a better time, and able to be very much Amy. So I could connect more easily with both people I knew and people I was meeting. Then people started joking that I knew everyone (not true, but thank you!), which made me feel like I belonged even more, and so made me connect more. Rinse and repeat.

Very Much Amy

The key point, though, is that the nifty cycle I described started with me. It began with me taking my career seriously and feeling like I belonged in a group of professionals. It began with me taking myself seriously, as a person worthy of respect. Without that, the cycle wouldn’t have had a chance to feed back on itself.

We talk a lot about authenticity: to connect with each other, and in a professional context, to connect with readers. This authenticity comes from the courage to be vulnerable. And make no mistake, it does take courage; this blog has taught me that. And here we find another loop: courage builds feelings of worthiness, and a feeling of self worth increases our courage. 

Let’s be brave together.

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A couple of weeks ago, I was reading over some of my older blog entries. When I’d finished, I sat back and thought, “Huh. That was actually kind of personal.” At least, more personal than I had remembered.

There’s a place where the personal and the important intersect. And we who blog are then called to make a decision: how important is so important that I can’t stay silent about this? In my case, that means I often end up blogging about issues related to people pleasing and boundaries (and occasionally feminism). I know there are lots of people who grew up in dysfunctional families just like I did, who have similar issues, and I know how helpful it can be to know there are others out there in the world dealing with the same kind of thing you’re dealing with. It’s too important for me to stay silent.

This trade-off was brought strongly to mind during this year’s Worldcon, where I was lucky enough to spend some time with Jay Lake. For those of you who don’t know who he is, Jay is a prolific SF/F writer of some note. He also blogs. For the past few years, he has blogged in an unusually open fashion about his difficulties with cancer. He blogs about disease, about mortality, about what he feels his cancer has stolen from him. He blogs about determination, depression, despair, and joy.

He told me he gets more fan mail from his cancer blog than he does from all his published fiction.

Me and Jay at Epic ConFusion this January. Photo by Al Bogdan.

And he pays a price for being personal. I spent time with him at several points during the convention, and every single time, we were approached by people who expressed their sorrow about his health, or asked about it, or gave him their good wishes that he would recover. On the one hand, it was beautiful to see this outpouring of support from the community.

But I looked at him at one point, late-ish in the evening, after a particularly long stream of generic good wishes, and I thought, “This must get completely exhausting.”

And that is the price. Not everyone will be able to look past the cancer and see the man. Because he has blogged so openly about his disease, he can’t necessarily create a veneer of normalcy for himself when at public events like Worldcon. Part of his public identity is linked to his cancer.

But he pays the price with grace, and I admire him so much for doing so. Because it is too important to stay silent. We need to hear about cancer, about illness, about mortality, and about the physical and emotional struggles that come with these oh-so-human things. Our society tends to have dysfunctional attitudes around illness, around death and dying, around grief and loss, and part of changing those attitudes is talking about these things in a frank and open way. And people who have cancer, people who have other serious illnesses, people who have loved ones who are sick, many of them are helped by Jay’s blog, where by writing authentically about his own personal experience, he puts words to so many other people’s experiences.

So I think about this blog, which is perhaps a bit more personal than I had originally intended. And then I think about Jay. And I’m glad to have written about what I think is important.

I’m in fabulous company.

 

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