Archive for the ‘February’ Category

Inspiration Challenge 27: Enjoy the magic of twilight

February 27, 2009

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3 Ways a Support Network Helps You Achieve Your Goals

February 26, 2009

In my family, it’s no secret that I love nicknames.  Silly, irreverent, they often take some passing comment and turn it into a running inside joke, codifying bits of life history that can be drawn upon with a single word.  Occasionally the nickname becomes embedded in daily life, so layered in details and memories that nobody can recall the exact muse for inanity.  So it is that I cannot remember when, exactly, I started referring to myself as ‘Mighty Mouse’ with my parents.  The self-imposed nickname makes no reference to the cartoon from the fifties; the idea sprung up as a metaphor for the angst I was experiencing over my first job.  The idea of a tiny mouse striving for superheroic acts that, ultimately, are inconsequential to anybody outside the miniscule realm in this hypothetical world of mice, struck me as both ironic and a little reminder to stop whining and develop a backbone.  To act more like my namesake while mocking how seriously I took myself, in other words.

There’s very little about this nickname that separates it from scores of others that have faded with time, except that on a whim, I translated it into Chinese.  We have no word for “superhero,” so I used the word xia instead.  Though it literally translates as “warrior,” the meaning is more Robin Hood than knight of the Middle Ages.  The subculture of xia has its own code of conduct has woven itself into pieces of the landscape of Chinese literature for hundreds of years now, right up through the martial arts films of today like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  To this I married the phrase “super,” in keeping with translations for “superman” and “supermarket.”  Chaoji shuxia.  Super Mouse Warrior.  It tickled me dad pink that I finally progressed beyond literal translation, so the name stuck.

Chaoji shuxia is a composite phrase comprised of two individual phrases, each loaded with connotations and references.  Pairing the tiny mouse (shu) with the noble and righteous xia, for example, is as irreverent as the spirit in which I created the nickname.  An added layer of complexity is the fact that the Chinese language is perfectly situated for puns, as multiple characters are associated with one sound, and characters can take on multiple parts of speech, depending on the context.  For example, the word for “father” and “assistant” are the exact same sound, and thus one fine spring day the joke evolved further to birth a sidekick, a deputy mouse assistant who also happened to have brought me into this world.

More a right hand man than a disciple, a cross between Robin and Batboy, dad’s nickname is at once a mocking jab at traditional Confucian values and a reflection of the immense moral support he’s given me through the years.  My mother’s only comment – “Well, at least he’s not Assistant Stapler,” punctuated by an eye roll – underscores the fact that my parents support me in vastly different ways, dad with day-to-day encouragement and as a sounding board for ideas, mom in occasional heartfelt conversations about what it means to operate in this nation as a minority woman, dealing with issues of identity, career, love, power.

Developing courage and initiative is critical for pursuing our dreams.  Just like the visual sources of inspiration that keep us moving forward, support from friends and family is critical to keeping us on track and motivated.  Friends and family offer several flavors of support.  There is moral support, like when I email my fu or dad/assistant, long rambling ruminations laced with self-doubt and uncertainty.  He rises heroically to the challenge, blaring metaphorical trumpets of encouragement and humor that pick me right back up to superhero status once more, or at least elicit a wild outburst of laughter that cause my classmates in the computing lab to all edge a little further away in their seats.

There is accountability, like the year I decided to walk 500 miles and posted this new years resolution to my blog.  Through the year friends asked after my progress, just often enough that I always heard their voices in my head if I felt like slacking off for a day or two.  Let your friends and family know what you’re up to, keep them updated on your status, have them check in with your progress on a weekly basis.  Internally imposed deadlines have more teeth when we answer to both internal and external sources, even if it’s a friendly “So did you get to the gym today?” asked in passing by a coworker.

Or the coworker might meet you at the gym.  The third form of support comes from going through the same challenge together, whether that is a walking buddy or a small business support group that meets monthly.  These people understand the trials and tribulations more intimately than anyone else.  In addition to moral support they offer ideas, resources, experience, and a fresh perspective.  As I mentioned earlier, my daily ping with Kris is not just about accountability, it’s about having someone to share the small successes with, to reflect together and push one another forward.  Thanks to her I wake up at 6:30 now and am aiming for 6AM by the middle of March.

After writing this, I can see that I haven’t enlisted enough support for this writing project.  Although Kris and I still have a daily ping challenge going, I haven’t tapped into the other two forms of support yet.  I think I should change my daily ping to include a minimum word number, which will increase accountability to a certain production level.  I might also want to report a weekly scorecard to a different friend, just to increase the accountability.  Finally, I definitely need a source of moral support.  Part of the courage I’m seeking this year is the ability to show an imperfect face to my friends – imperfectly thought through vision for this space, imperfect words, imperfectly honed ideas expressed by imperfect drafts.  Without their support and feedback I can only get so far.  I need their help to move beyond my current level of imperfection.

Although my parents are a huge support for me in most of my undertakings, I’ve decided not to involve them in this one.  I will miss my fu in this project, but I also know our relationship must evolve to a new level.  To have moved to another country at the start of adolescence and learned to succeed in a vastly different set of cultural norms and expectations, supporting and encouraging your daughter to navigate those ambiguous waters and to do so in a funny, encouraging way in your adopted tongue; to break ground in the first wave of women and minority students to enter the legal profession and to do so as both a woman and a minority: I can only hope one day to have as much patience and strength as my parents do, to help my own children take flight and to have the privilege of looking back on these words etched into memory, and retrace with humility the footpaths tread along the way.

Inspiration Challenge 24: One Free Pass

February 24, 2009

Day 24 Challenge: One Free Pass

Not one free pass from participating in these inspiration challenges, but one free pass from life.  From obligations – other people’s obligations, other people’s “should”s.  It’s easy to get caught up in external benchmarks.  They’re easy to identify, come with no self-doubting strings attached, and they’re everywhere.

I also have this long list of internal “should”s.  Should get started on my next homework assignment.  Should look for alumni to make contact with.  Should bake cookies for friends to thank them for cheering me up.  The problem with a long list of shoulds, though, is that it becomes hard to differentiate the true priorities from the ones that can wait.  The everpresent list of things that “need” to get done weighs down o me, so that eventually I don’t want to do anything and sit in front of the Internet in a rebellious stupor, but a reactive stupor at that.

So instead, last night I tried something different.  I gave myself a time deadline to finish my paper due tomorrow, plopped myself in the library, and when I was done I decided, “That’s it.  No more work for the night.”  Instead, I grocery shopped.  I multitasked in the kitchen.  Improvised pumpkin chocolate chip cookies.  Watched my favorite Chinese soap opera.  Did some Internet trolling to look for summer internship ideas, but with no strings attached beyond information gathering.

It felt great.  It’s going to be a busy week (then again, aren’t they all?), but sometimes it’s necessary to proactively put away the list and give ourselves one free pass, whether that is a couple hours, an afternoon, or an entire weekend to just do whatever we want.  It rejuvenates.  And oddly enough, it makes us more productive when we pick up the list again.  More importantly, it gives us enough perspective to prioritize and eliminate the unnecessary items from the list.

So take a free pass!  What will you do instead?

Inspiration Challenge 23

February 23, 2009

Day 23 Challenge: Live like your hero for a day.

This should be interesting.  One of my heroes is Anne Shirley ala Anne of Green Gables.  I love the spirit with which she approaches life and the people who surround her.  There’s a certain optimism and “Anne-ish” philosophy that I could use right now.  I feel that negative thoughts constantly slip from my mouth or into my mind, that though I see myself as a generally positive and optimistic person, this is not reflected in my day-to-day conversations with people.  I want to bring the face I present to the world into greater alignment with my inner world.  So I’m going to only say positive things all day today, only think positive thoughts.  There is a silver lining to every incident.  I may have to squint hard to find it on a blustering New England morning, but I’ll find it – oh, I’ll find it.

The Connection Between Inspiration and Empowerment

February 20, 2009

Acting on dreams and inspiration is not just about honoring our uniqueness and vision for our lives.  On the most basic level, it feels good.  Think of the times you finally get around to that list of household chores.  Or how much you enjoyed writing a card to a friend, even if it is hard to shut off the TV.  The activity itself is enjoyable, the process feels good, or the sense of accomplishment is satisfying.  It engages the three components of happiness that positive psychologists talk about – positive emotion (enjoyable), engagement (getting into the flow), meaning (doing something with a larger purpose beyond personal fulfillment).

Beyond increasing happiness, acting on dreams spills over into the rest of life in other ways.  The courage and initiative it takes to explore a new hobby or tackle a project are important in so many areas.  These are the same skills as it takes to start up a conversation with the cute girl next to you at the supermarket or to make a career change.  In job-seeking parlance that’s called “transferable skills.”  The process of starting up a new project builds other transferables like persistence, diligence, self-discipline, creativity, and the confidence to tackle new and unfamiliar tasks.  And these are important in all areas of life, not just the fifteen minutes or half an hour set aside each day for personal activities.

In public health parlance this is called “empowerment,” or possession of a sense of control over life.  Empowerment is not innate but developed through life.  That crucial step – knowing that options exist, feeling that there is something I can do about the situation – is the difference between feeling trapped and searching for a way out.  It is the difference between feeling hopeless and finding hope.  And that has a huge impact in how we react to situations, both tiny crises and major life changes.

This is not easy to develop.  Initiative does not pop up overnight, and from the time we are young we are not given many opportunities to develop a sense of empowerment.  First in school then in work, we are always acting on someone else’s agenda.  Empowerment can, however, be cultivated in successively larger projects.  The first time is always the hardest, so it makes sense to start small and gradually build up.  Pick something out of personal interest.  It is far better to take these steps when the stakes are lower and the timeline is fluid, than when the stakes are high and time is limited.

In that regard, taking one step towards something you’ve always wanted to try, like signing up for an adult education class or becoming active in a church committee, is an easy, fun and non-threatening way to develop empowerment and the skills to take control over life situations.  Best of all, it coincides with your personal interests and values.  And who knows?  It might lead to new opportunities in your personal or professional life.  The blogosphere is filled with stories of men and women who started documenting their hobbies and developed them into a full-fledged career, or who met likeminded people through the Internet and created all sorts of interesting, creative, unusual and powerful new projects.

So just start.  Pick something.  Dip your toe in the waters.  Run with it.

Inspiration Challenge 16: Make a Play Date with Your Inner Child

February 19, 2009

The first thing I think of when I think of my inner child is “Harry Potter,” because when I was 15 Harry Potter brought me back my childhood.  My young childhood, the one taken with fairies and magic all around us, just waiting to be discovered by the right pair of eyes.  But simply rereading Harry Potter feels like an easy way out of this challenge, so I pushed one step further.  What about that younger child?  How was she doing?  What would she want to do now?

And then I remember the creek fairies.  Actually, I’m not quite sure what they were called, but they lived in four marbled folders stuffed full of paper that I used to carry around with me everywhere, scribbling notes for the novels I had planned for their adventures, one for each folder.  The fairies were about three inches tall and lived by a creek, though they were eventually forced to move to an island and into the forest, among other places (hence the subsequent novels).  Their adventures were the first novel-length story I planned, and I faithfully sat down to my father’s computer at the tender age of 8, typing away for 20-odd pages after school and on weekends before I stopped one day.  I think the words stopped flowing, and I stopped typing.  It was my first run-in with writers block.

I wish I had that manuscript now.  So instead of putting Harry Potter on audiobook as soundtrack to the dishes, I sit down to recreate the story of the creek fairies.  There are few details I remember now, only that they could fly (all my fairies could fly), and that they were gatherers, making do with nature’s provisions for sustenance and household goods.  It was idyllic for sure, no hunting or conflicts with neighboring tribes of creek fairies, maybe a close call with a fox.  The fairies of my childhood were always sweet, without edge, the type of people I wanted to surround myself – the type of person I wanted to be, I suppose, living in harmony with beauty in the world.

The stories, too, never had much plot.  I was usually too enamored with creating the details of their context to think about action.  Imagining the details of a house in a log inspired me more than friction to move a story along.  I much preferred to imagine how many rooms they would have, how they would furnish it, where they would play and cook and sing and befriend a gross hopper or friendly mouse.  I can think of very few details now in the fogginess of adulthood, only, perhaps, a hollowed out acorn for cups or bowls, but even now the adult censor kicks in, asking if they would harden the acorn shells with fire for durability, how they would find or tend such a fire, whether the cups would really be waterproof.  Perhaps it is this voice of “common sense,” this inner critic, that silences the imagination now, for it has been challenging to recreate these details that I loved so much in childhood.  My mind does not operate on the same scale or see natural objects with multiple uses anymore.  I wonder if I am rusty, or if my mind is too filled with “big world” matters like plot and characterization, to hear the voice of the young child calling through the darkness.

I think the creek fairies must have coincided with my Borrowers phase, because I read many similarities between the two.  The tiny scale (though most my fairies were this small), fashioning daily goods out of found objects, moving in and out of nature.  How I loved nature, even in those days!  How I loved making daily objects from found items, improvising a boat out of a large leaf and a stick!  How I loved stories like Stuart Little, reading about improvising for tiny creatures or for living out in nature.  I loved books like the original Bobsey Twins books, a complete set from my mother’s childhood.  Those books featured activities like experimenting with jelly cakes or making houses out of cardboard shoe boxes.  Making.  Doing.  Creating.

I see now that theme has always been inside me.  Those were the stories that most drew me because they wrote of activities that fascinated me.  Today those are the very same activities I prefer.  Instead of creating small worlds where my protagonists occupied center stage, I’m now taking these activities and using them in my life instead.  What’s missing is the magic and the imagination.  Or perhaps they are merely expressed in a different format, magic and imagination framed in grown up terms like recipe improvisation or the sheer joy of a beautiful sunset.  But I do miss that young child.  I think she still has lessons for me, if only I can cut through the din of the world to hear her whispered fancies.

Day 17 challenge: bring fresh flowers into your life.

Day 18 challenge: Do something new.

Day 19 challenge: Reconnect with an old friend.

Ways to Keep Inspiration In Your Life

February 17, 2009

There are many ways to keep inspiration in our lives.  Daily challenges are one way, inspiration boards another.  In the spirit on inspiration, here are more ideas to spark your thoughts:

*Inspiration scrapbook or binder.  Similar to the board but a permanent landing place that keeps all your ideas in one place.  Can be multiple binders, or one with compartments for recipes, weekend activities, home decorating ideas, work projects ideas, favorite sayings, reflective exercises such as “If money were no object …”

*Inspirational quotes, photographs and images.  These can be placed anywhere: a photo of your next vacation spot next to the computer monitor at work, a picture of the your dream house tucked into the credit card compartment of your wallet, “if money was no object …” list taped to the mirror.

*Visual reminders of impending deadlines.  Some people prefer to track their daily efforts against a larger timeline to keep themselves moving forward.  In this case, weekly or monthly goals should be written up in a prominent location.  Every week I make a list of topics I want to write about.  When I’m fumbling around at 7AM trying to get the words to flow, this list is usually enough to point me in the right direction.

*Visual reminders of progress made.  A visual metaphor for progress is a powerful antidote to the voices of self-doubt, laziness, or the mental roadblocks that make it difficult to start your project each day.  Pinging is one example.  Or place a calendar next to your work spot, and every time you complete your goal – exercise for 20 minutes, write 500 words daily, clean out the attic to make room for your expanding side business – mark that day with a giant X.  As the X’s start to accumulate on the calendar, your motivation to keep going comes from two sources: to keep moving towards your goals, but also to keep up that steady stream of X’s.  Or say you’re trying to exercise regularly.  Put a dollar in a clear glass jar every time you exercise.  It’s a nice feeling as the dollars accumulate in the jar, and you can use the jar as fun money to treat yourself to something you wouldn’t otherwise do.

*Images that remind you of your ultimate goal.  This keeps the focus towards the ultimate goal and overcomes small temptations along the way that detract from the ultimate goal.  A smoker might quit to be around when her grandchildren grow up.  One way to encourage her is to put a box of mints or Altoids where she normally keeps her cigarettes, and paste a picture of her grandchildren to the front of the box.  If habit kicks in and she automatically reaches for a cigarette she’s immediately reminded of her reasons to quit, instead of growing tempted to have “just one” because the conspicuous absence causes her to fixate on smoking.

Take some time to reflect on what you find most challenging, and where you could use some inspiration.  On a day-to-day level, what do you find most difficult?  Getting started?  Keeping the rhythm?  Maybe this means putting the alarm clock across the room and taping an inspirational word or quote to the top of it.  Or it could mean setting up a small corner that is solely devoted to your project and making it as warm and inviting as possible.

Or are your efforts uneven from day to day – some days everything comes together, other days progress is slow?  What patterns do you notice about both?  What rearrangements can you make to increase the number of good days?  Maybe you work best by keeping the final product in mind.  Or maybe you are most inspired when there’s a tangible short-term product to aim for.  For example, if you’re training for a marathon you might find it most motivational to remind yourself “Four months left to train up to 26 miles!”  Or you might find it easier to think, “This week I will train up to 12 miles.”  Either way, transform these into visual reminders and keep them prominent.

Troubleshoot your problem areas.  When do you encounter the most resistance?  Be specific.  Where are you, what are you thinking, and why are you thinking those thoughts (i.e. what are the underlying emotions that create those thoughts)?  Each “W” is an opportunity to change up your routine to overcome resistance to your efforts.  For example, you’re trying to eat healthier by eliminating nighttime snacking.  What is giving you the most trouble?  Perhaps you find yourself constantly going in and out of the kitchen after dinner (where).  Is it during commercial breaks (what), because you’re bored (why), because you like to end a meal with something sweet (why)?

Snacking => kitchen => TV => need something mindless to do while watching TV

Each arrow represents a place in the chain to stop the activities that prevent you from reaching your goal.  In the link between snacking and the kitchen, you might turn off the lights, close the kitchen door, put signs on the kitchen door, refrigerator, cupboard panels.  These signs can be inspirational quotes or reminders of healthy snack alternatives.  To address the link between kitchen and TV, keep yourself occupied during commercial breaks.  Place a stack of magazines or crossword puzzles next to the couch.  To break the link between TV and the need to do something mindless while watching TV, think of various ways to keep your hands occupied.  Take up crocheting, work on a jigsaw puzzle, doodle on scratch paper.

Keep inspiration all around you.  Keep it physically close to the places you could use extra encouragement.  Think about what obstacles you’re facing when you need that extra boost.  This offers clues about the best way to use inspiration to keep you moving.

Inspiration Challenges 15, 16

February 16, 2009

Day 15 Challenge: Look up.

Day 16 Challenge: img_0013

Soccer lessons

February 15, 2009

In the middle of my first semester of grad school, a little sign popped up in an out-of-the-way message board for intramural indoor soccer. We could form teams ourselves or sign up individually and get placed on someone else’s team. I hadn’t played soccer in over a decade and thought it would be fun to have regularly scheduled weekly exercise and an excuse to band together some classmates to share in sweat, pain and glory. There’s something about that combination that really brings people closer like no other. Katelyn had sent out an exploratory “anybody interested?” email to our cohort to little reply so she dropped the subject, but we agreed to put each other’s names on our individual signups and hope they’d place us on the same team. On the very last day for signups we gathered at the board to fill out our forms. One by one classmates dropped by to see what we were doing, and one by one we talked them into joining us, until, spontaneously, we had enough for a team.

The unfortunate detail I forgot to mention to everybody present was that I suck at soccer. I do. In elementary school we’d had a ragtag team – our school’s only team sport available – that won maybe one game in the entire four seasons I played for them. We had a couple parent coaches with no particular soccer experience, and did nothing but scrimmage on an open field for practice. The field sloped slightly downwards so that whoever won the coin toss and chose their side of the field generally won the scrimmage. I knew very little about dribbling, passing, strategy, where to run and when to do it. All I did know was defense, where two defenders and myself would prowl the perimeter of our territory and attempt to eject any stray balls or opposing players that ventured into our territory.

Enter indoor soccer. A dozen years later I found myself facing the very first sport I’d ever played, the one that really should have turned me off of sports as a meaningful form of exercise but instead, it’s really the form of exercise that I enjoy most. But indoor soccer is a beast of an entirely different nature from soccer. Halve the team size and transport the game to a basketball court, where walls are “in” and so is the area behind the goal. Indoor soccer is like watching a movie on fast forward. The montage cuts out all the nonessential filler and puts the action in a small arena. There is no hiding in indoor soccer, no room for superfluity. Every person counts.

Our first game was at 6PM on a cool November evening. Some of us hadn’t played in over a decade, others had competed on high school teams and such. The referee blew his whistle, and the blur of bodies and ball began. I discovered within seconds that when there’s only five of you on court there’s just not a lot of room to hide. Two people on offense versus three is a 50% increase; it means the difference between one person to pass to or two. And when there are only four people on each side, well, there is a large difference between stranding your teammate in an offensive strike and running up to help out, if only to spread out the defense.

Even if their professed skill level was roughly equivalent to mine, they threw themselves in without abandon – chasing the ball, running back and forth between goals, dribbling, taking aim, giving it a shot. They put themselves out there, experienced or not, and as their reward, they were actually part of the team: laughing, high fiving one another, whereas I, I was still timid, still shy, wanting to be a part of it but not quit sure how to venture in, unwilling to take the plunge on the off chance that I might fail quite gracelessly by dint of trying.

There’s nothing like a rousing game of sports to throw you back to your most primitive state of being. At my very core and youngest version of myself, I am shy, timid, risk-averse and conservative, unsure of myself and unable to put myself out there, and how that all came out in that first game. I froze at the thought of venturing up to offense, a place where I have no skills, no experience, no sense of strategy or field vision, nothing to offer.

Why can’t you be like them, I’d whisper to myself. Just get out there and try. Surprise yourself. It’s the only way to improve. You would have so much more fun, they would have so much more fun.

To make a clean breast of it, for several months now I’ve been meaning to work on this fear of failure that stymies any attempts towards even trying. Sometimes you can hide behind the excuse of exhausting work schedules and over commitment that prevent you from really tackling what you want to do, but out on the court pretense is stripped down in a matter of seconds, and stares you in the face for one long, painful hour.

I’ve grown up in many ways from that shy, timid version of my most primitive being, but in this one area I still haven’t made nearly as much progress as I’d like. More than anything, that is what this year is about: putting myself out there, learning to embrace failure, even seeking it out to force failure upon myself in order to become a better person.

Inspiration Challenge 14

February 14, 2009

Day 14 challenge:

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