Your imperfect help

It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. You look over the edge, and it goes . . . down . . . and down . . . and it just keeps going. You try to follow it across to the other side, and there is just too much. It’s . . . indescribably BIG.

I always thought I was a good writer. I even put “written communication” on my resume. Lately I’ve looked back at hastily typed work emails and notice a missing “s” here and a confusing sentence there. Maybe the concussion got to me. Or maybe my writing has just never been impeccable. Maybe I’m human, which is obnoxious.

Actually, I’ve noticed it in some good books lately, too. It seems like in each one–talking bestsellers–there are at least one or two sentences where I go “ooooh they missed that one!”

So what’s abundantly clear is that being “good writers” or “good communicators” has little to do with ridding ourselves of flaws.

After all, if I picked apart your grammar, you’d probably stop listening to me. I know I would.

So what makes good writing? Or effective communicating?

Do you know how long 4500 words is? Google tells me a typical nonfiction book runs 50,000-75,000. On February 28 last year I sat down at my laptop and started typing. The words flowed–after all, abuse is a topic that can flow like Niagara Falls. In about 3 hours I wrote 4500 words. Which means that, in theory, if I wrote a book (at least one that I felt as passionate about), I could knock it out in 40 hours. (Doubt it.)

I’m not saying I’m a great writer. I’m saying I’ve had great writing days.

In April, Willoughby died.

I could sense it coming, so in the weeks leading up, the writing slowed down. The flow dried up. Then it happened, and like a mother-******* trooper, I lied to myself and wrote another blog post . . . this one was about how brains work, and it wasn’t a bad post (!!!), but it was not real for me that weekend. I didn’t mean it. It didn’t matter.

Then I stopped. My 5-posts-a-month goal kept going “hey, I’m still here,” but I had nothing to offer for it. Nothing honest.

I finally did write one more, about Willoughby. This one I did mean. All the way. And then I stopped again.

what grief looks like

I guess what I’m saying is that being good at something or passionate about something or committed to something is actually a fairly complicated concept. Not concept, journey. Maybe because you and I are complicated.

Last Saturday someone asked me if I am an all-or-nothing type person. Like, do I have to either do something all-the-way to-the-max or not at all?

Yes. Yes, definitely yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, that is me. Yes.

Yes.

Which I think makes me a bad writer, in a sense, because sometimes it makes me not-a-writer.

And the question was a good reminder that we’re allowed to be imperfect at stuff.

Neil Gaiman, I think in a Tim Ferriss podcast episode, made the fascinating point for writers that the only thing that can’t be fixed is a blank page.

Life has a way, sometimes, of just throwing you to the ground and beating the shit out of you.

Strangely, those experiences tend to be what make us “good” communicators. Or shut us up completely.

In the last few months, I keep sitting down to write. I keep finding myself at Starbucks, clicking around on WordPress and pretending to customize my site for a while and then finally clicking “Add new post” a bunch of times, and then clicking more “Backspace” than anything else, and then going home with nothing to show.

And it’s not because there’s nothing to say.

It’s because there’s too much.

Like the Grand Canyon.

When I was maybe 16 I walked up to its edge the first time and to this day I still can’t find the words. Indescribable immensity. Too much. Too big. Unfathomable. Uncontainable.

And that’s a bit how I feel these days. It’s not that there’s not much to say in life, it’s that “5-ways-to” lists and little motivation-shots just aren’t cutting it because there’s too. damn. much.

But. (Deep breath.) There’s always going to be too much and I’d be in a world of trouble if you and all the other people got so overwhelmed that you, also, shut your mouths and stopped showing up.

What to say about 2020. Which, can we keep calling 2021 2020? May as well. How about this: What. The. Hell. There’s too much. There’s too much. Turns out there’s always been too much. And where to start!?

There’s this amazing moment in Peacock’s new sitcom Rutherford Falls. The guy who’s always been in charge, on top, big-headed, gets sort of thrown to the ground by life in general, and he calls his friend: “There’s something I have to tell you. . . . I don’t get it.” “You don’t get what?” “It. You know . . . all of it. Any of it. Anything. I don’t get it. I thought I got it, for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it.”

And that has become my life’s motto.

I’d love to say I know what we “should” do with all the absolute garbage of the last year and a half or, apparently, several millennia. (Also, don’t get me wrong, they’ve been astoundingly good, too. Just, also so much bad.) I’d love to say I know the solutions for humanity, that people should listen to and trust me to be one of the “adults” (haha) in the room, but turns out . . . . . . I don’t get it.

In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I really comprehend.

And all those The-5-secret-ways-to-absolutely-for-sure-get-what-you-want don’t feel true anymore. “I used to get it. But now I don’t.” Now I’m just trying to not do too much damage and trying to shine a little light in a corner and maybe get some on a few other people.

The big question for me now is turning out to be: Am I allowed to keep writing even though I don’t get it? Even though I’m an all-or-nothing person who just gave the f*** up and laid on the couch after my best buddy died? Even though every time I sit down to write, the only words that flow are vague, cynical rantings?

Last February I felt thiiiis passionate about something, and the 4500 words just effortlessly happened, like they were trying to break free. Now, I feel THIIIIIIIIIIIIIS passionate about EVERYTHING (and almost as confused), and I find that it’s all TOO much. Too big. I can’t do it justice. Starbucks will close in a few hours and by then you will have lost interest in my bitter ramblings. So. . . . what to do. . . .

I’d like to stop writing. I’d like to stop sharing. I’d like to stop pretending like I’m someone people should listen to, someone people could learn from, someone with something to offer. I’d like to admit that life won and I lost and that’s because I’m a loser. I’d like to not let anyone see me anymore. To disappear from social media, for sure, because it is basically lies. To never pipe up when people are talking about big life stuff, because “for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it,” and that feels embarrassing and so frustrating and pretty imposter-y.

Viktor Frankl wrote a book titled Man’s Search for Meaning. Which is a pretty intimidating title to write for. But he did it, and it has sold over 16 million copies. And do you know what happened to Viktor Frankl before he wrote it? He was imprisoned and abused in Nazi death camps where he barely survived and watched friend after friend die. Yeah. Not that losing Willoughby isn’t sad, but it’s sort of in a different category.

Siddhartha Gautama was a little luckier–at least to begin with. He was a rich kid, but apparently one with a tender heart. From his easy lifestyle, he looked out at a world full of people struggling and suffering and he decided to jump in the deep end, join the struggle, and learn what he could to help people. Instead of letting the world of suffering shut him down, turning away from the yuck, he opened his heart wide around it and met people in the real, icky, confusing world. And now they call him The Buddha. He showed up.

A psychologist friend, one of the most influential people in my life, has helped hundreds of people–couples, especially–with absolutely life-changing communication and relational concepts. He’s given me so much. He has a PhD in counseling psychology which probably means he’s one of the people who gets it. Right? But if you attend one of his seminars and listen to him tell his story, you’ll find that it’s a story of being completely lost and alone and confused as a child in a world that loudly told him he didn’t fit. The easy way for him would have been to disappear. To say “life beat me” and move on. Stop showing up. Certainly not help hundreds of people with their own struggles. But he didn’t. He helps people, even though vulnerably showing up for the world can be so tough. He said something that sticks with me: “People connect at the level of their struggles.”

I’m not going to have a world religion based around me. I’ll be plenty pumped if I just get to publish one book eventually–that would be cool. So not looking to be as influential as the Buddha, but I see three options in my future.

First I’m going to say what is not an option: Going back to the simple, “I’ve-got-this-all-figured-out” worldview. The one with easy answers and lots of judgments. I can’t go back because . . . I’ve seen too much of life. Maybe you have, too. We’re living through a worldwide pandemic after all. Among other things. When the evils of slavery were exposed for Great Britain to see, William Wilberforce said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” In his depressing (but fair) (and also not totally depressing) book Escape from Freedom, the psychologist Erich Fromm describes the process by which our minds, indoctrinated into a simple worldview handed to us in our youths, eventually find freedom. We see too much. We see the world for what it is. Not simple. Not black-and-white. Not all sunshine and rainbows. And this freedom from our simplistic rose-colored outlook on life is so terrifying that we then try to escape. Frequently, we even try to go back. Back to our cult, back to our abusers, back to our lifestyles, back to our old friends. But we can never truly go back. We know too much now.

What do you know “too much” about after this last year?

My friend–a nurse–has watched first-hand as precious human after precious human dies, while all he can do is be there with them as a virus does its nasty business. A virus that we’re doing lots of fighting over and writing parody songs about and trying to ignore. He’s seen too much. He can never go back to who he was before this year.

A lot of us (like me) grew up in conservative homes that proudly claimed racism was a thing of the past and did a whole lot of sweeping ugly stories and statistics under the rug. Many of us have learned in the last year just how awful and just how recent and just how ongoing racism and its brutal impacts are in America. And oh man how nice it would be to go back to being blissfully ignorant. “Not my problem” if it’s not really there. But the thing is, we’ve learned just how much yes, it is a problem and it’s our problem and we can’t just wipe it off and go back about life.

On the phone the other day, a dear friend asked me how I’ve been, and my answer went something like this: “Have you ever felt like you’re actually really grateful for all the abuse and hurt and struggle you went through when you were young, because it gave you so much perspective and compassion and now you can help people? Like you wouldn’t take any of it back, because it’s made you who you are?” “Yes!” “Okay, well that’s how I’ve always felt. But not anymore. There’s nothing romantic about it anymore. There’s nothing silver-liningy about it. Life after trauma just absolutely 100% sucks. If I could take it all back and grow up in a healthy family and a functional environment, I absolutely would, because then maybe I could go a day without struggling with the most basic life stuff because of trauma’s effects, and I’m so damn tired of it.”

What’s your wish-you-could-take-it-back thing? What have you tried hard not to face, not to come to terms with? Or to be too silver-liningy about? What life stuff have you tried to Denial away?

Maybe one day I’ll write down my whole story–or maybe I’ll get you to say yours? But for today I’ll just say: My childhood sucked. It was awful. It was just brutal. Awful awful awful. I’ve got the literal scars to prove it. And then I escaped. I moved up to Minnesota to spend life in a safe place with my best friend. She refused (but nicely) to marry me until I got therapy. So I got happy. I tricked her into thinking I was all better and we got married. I delivered a speech a number of times called “Life is beautiful,” and I still think it was a good speech, but it was also a 22-year-old-Peter speech, and 22-year-old-Peter had decided that life was about finding happiness and that anybody could and you just had to choose where to look. He recognized, for sure, that life is scary. In fact, he talked about feeling such darkness that sometimes suicide felt like the right option. So what “saved” him? Discovering that, no matter how bad it all got, how scary, how hurtful–that if you glance to the side you’ll find something beautiful. “It’s the little things.” It’s all the experiences, all the adventure. And that beauty is worth holding onto. . . . which seems like a privileged take on life when I imagine Viktor Frankl watching his friends die in Nazi death camps. But it worked at the time–I happy’d myself out of the darkness and found the meaning of life: Just be happy. (“Just” makes it sound easy, right?) So that became my motto. My identity, really. If someone asked me about me the first word that came out was “happy” and it came out in a 72-point Comic Sans font with exclamation points.

I decided that life couldn’t be about all the struggle, because I couldn’t handle that.

And then the next 8 years soundly showed me that you can’t happy away the struggle. Life is still life, no matter the blinders you try to put up, and once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.

So after this year and a half of crisis (which, by the way–our bodies are only meant to handle crises like getting chased for a minute by something with a loud roar but shitty stamina. 18 months is too damn long), you and I are probably tempted to do a lot of denial, to put blinders back up, to “go back to normal,” to pretend like we’re okay, to “choose happiness.” And then we may be discovering that we sort of can’t unsee. Life’s just doesn’t look the same after local curfews and ubiquitous military humvees have lost their novelty, and after watching in horror as the “patriotic ones” literally stormed the Capitol. And we can’t even really have a mask-burning party because turns out we’re still going to need them for a while and there’s enough smoke in the air already from the wildfires, which is also losing its novelty, as if we needed more stuff.

So that’s what I can’t do. I can’t just play Legos. I can’t just read novels. I can’t just make jokes. Those are all still good, and I may or may not have a 2379-picture album in my Galaxy gallery to prove that jokes still mean a lot to me. But I can’t just. I also can’t just write simple self-help about 5-ways-to-be-successful-at-a-job-that-you-very-well-may-not-have-if-you-had-been-born-a-different-socioeconomic-status-or-skin-color. And I can’t just post on Instagram about how happy I always am, because “always” is a lie. I can’t do the positivity thing. (Which is not the same as saying I can’t shine some real light or sometimes be positive.) I can’t write cookie-cutter blog posts with cute hooks and cute analogies and cute calls to action. And I can’t do small-talk (but I never really could).

Everything I ever write or say will be in the context of the 18 years of abuse I experienced in an unhealthy home and then the awful saga of two concussions that changed my life and then learning all about anxiety and then living through a worldwide pandemic and then staying up till 3am watching live-feeds of the Twin Cities burning and brave troops trying to protect while brave protestors also tried to protect and then finally experiencing what everyone kept talking about where you lose someone close to you and then also just generally learning to be a human after trauma. (If all this feels familiar to you, hi.)

Everything I write from now on will be in that context, though I know I’ll still write some about cheese, so that context doesn’t mean that life has lost all hope.

So what are my three options then, if I can’t lose the context? If I can’t pretend like life isn’t as too-big as the Grand Canyon?

I could be defeated and stop writing at all, stop speaking up, stop showing up, stop trying to help anybody. Ugh that one is tempting. Home feels real damn safe today, and no judgment to you if that’s where you’ve permanently washed ashore.

Or I could try so hard to write about absolutely aalllll the overflowing stuff that the page stays blank, no matter how many Starbucks Venti Salted Caramel Cream Cold Brews I blow through.

Or I could remember that all-or-nothing isn’t the only option. And I could do the unromantic work of saying “Okay, as a writer, what can I share that would help someone?” and letting myself just give my weird best to it, even when it doesn’t feel like enough.

I think I’m going to have to go with the third option.

I’d love to stop showing up. I’d love to admit that I’m deeply flawed (evne my writing) and say “the world doesn’t need my voice anymore.” But then I think after a while I wouldn’t love it anymore. Humans need humans. Isolation didn’t feel good, remember? I could probably fairly comfortably just socially-retire to a life of paychecks and wine-and-cheese and not talk to anybody anymore about mental health or poverty or abuse or kindness. (Remember, that’s the lifestyle the Buddha was born into?) But then I think about how much I’ve benefited from the brave souls who didn’t choose to retire from community–Viktor Frankl, the Buddha, my psychologist friend–and that list would never end. How much I’ve needed people to show up.

I’d love to write every damn thing, but as 125-words-per-minute as I can possibly type, I can’t write everything, and the Grand Canyon of life stuff is too endlessly massive. And I know that if I keep opening WordPress with the goal of finally writing “the right thing,” “the worthwhile thing,” “the big thing,” I’ll keep clicking “Save draft” and going back home. And then I think of all the people who have also been so overwhelmed by life, but still chose to show up incrementally with their imperfect, flawed, humble, half-baked words that have guided the rest of us through life.

A note about our imperfect, as-good-as-we-can-for now offerings: I just finished reading Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (By the way, you should read it. It is pretty . . . eye-opening. And pretty distasteful. And incredibly worth your time and attention.) One common pattern that stood out to me among anti-racist thinkers through history was how much their own perspectives shifted through their lives–from Martin Luther King, Jr. to W.E.B. Du Bois. In other words, they could look back and say “I think I got XYZ a little wrong” (frequently it was about discovering the longer they lived that the gentle, don’t-hurt-people’s-feelings methods of fighting racism tended to be less effective than they’d hoped). But their intellectual evolutions didn’t cancel the powerful good they had done before their views morphed. Similarly (on a much tinier scale), I can look back at my “Life is beautiful” speech and realize that it clearly helped at least as many people as I saw crying by the end of it, even though if I rewrote it now it would be pretty different. Imperfect today doesn’t mean useless.

Which brings me back to that third option: I can’t stop showing up to help you, because I know I wouldn’t survive without you showing up to help me. And I can’t wait to help you until I “get it” enough to write all the perfect solutions, confident that I’m never misguidedly misguiding anybody. Which means I’m going to have to do that middle one: Show up as best I can today, which is to say, perfectly imperfect like a human. Like you. Like every other human voice that has helped humans through human history.

So I’ll keep writing, even though all my words will never end child abuse across the world, and will never totally destigmatize mental health struggles, and will never give you the perfect recipe for vulnerably showing up in healthy relationships. I’ll just have to give you the little pieces I’ve got for now–my best educated guesses for today. And I promise to keep offering these, because I’ve been saved and carried and inspired by the best guesses offered by a bunch of other overwhelmed humans.

We’re a strange, stressed out species that keeps getting the answers wrong. But where would you be without that imperfect podcast that made you feel less alone, that imperfect text that made you feel understood, that imperfect news report that gave you a little hope, or that imperfect hug that was actually perfect?

We survive and thrive on each other’s imperfect help.

Grief has been loudly insisting to me in the last few months (actually, the last 29 years minus a couple denial-level happy-go-lucky ones in the middle there) that I’m too broken and imperfect and misguided for my voice to help you.

I bet you’ve had some similar feels this last year or so. That there’s nothing you can do. That it’s all too much. That you’re too burnt out now, too bitter, too over it all. That you should just turn your light off now.

I love pink. It feels happy. When I walked into Starbucks today in my pink shirt, the human behind the counter (with a big history I don’t know and probably lots of sad reasons not to be kind) beamed at me and said “I like your shirt,” and it made me smile from deep down inside my heart. It made me feel good. It made me feel confident. It was like a little shot of life-and-meaning-and-love fuel.

Last year, feeling overwhelmed by and guilty for all the suffering all around the world, I asked an imperfect friend to talk to me about it. He gave some imperfect insights that he had gleaned from an imperfect life. And his imperfect best guesses gave me a hope that keeps me going to this day.

Speaking of 4500 words, we’re only 500 away, and you’re still reading. Why have you read all this? Well first of all, I’ve somehow tricked you into paying attention to my pent up ramblings, so thanks for that. But really–why are we doing this?

If you’re anything like me, life has gotten pretty big in the last year or so. Too big. Personal life, local life, worldwide life. There’s a lot. It’s a lot to show up for.

I’m betting that you’re feeling pretty disenchanted.

That the world is feeling hard to show up for.

That smiles are a little harder to offer.

That you don’t think anyone will listen to you anyway.

That you’ve had so much eye-opening happen that you’re a little embarrassed and unsure of yourself.

That you don’t think the world needs your voice anymore. Your help.

But that person who took my order today offered me this little spark of joy that gave me a real boost.

And that friend I went to last year who had been taking his own blows gave me his best words to ponder and it changed my life.

You know something–even if you only know it vaguely or have a bit of it wrong–you know something, you have something that holds some hope for another struggling human next door to you.

You have some lessons, some messages, some dreams, some hugs, some art, some activism, some advice, some words inside of you that, no matter how small you’re feeling, will make the world a little bit of a better place.

That friend explained to me that I can’t help the whole world and if I try I will burn out and help absolutely no one. He said that I’ll be lucky if I can really deeply help 7 or 8 people in my lifetime–like make a huge difference for them. But those 7 or 8 people can help 7 or 8 others. Who can help 7 or 8 others. And pretty soon the help is multiplying.

But not if you and I give up.

If we let the overwhelm make us too angry to speak or too hopeless to speak, then we’ll be alone and everyone else will be alone.

So if I keep writing bits and pieces that may help a few people–will you keep shining your light?

It’s not perfect. It’s not the answer. And I know you don’t totally “get it.” But that little text, that little Facebook post, that little hug, that little encouragement, that little story, that little perspective–somebody needs it, just like you need it from somebody.

If I keep showing up, will you?

And will you really show up?

I love you, but I’m honestly not super interested in your 5-ways-to-look-happy-on-social-media. I want the real you. I need the real you. We need the real you.

Will you show up for your people tomorrow? The real you, the vulnerable you, the you that understands people, the you with an ear to listen, the you with a kind word, the you with a life-story that will make another human feel less alone and give a little hope, and maybe even a helpful idea or two?

There are a million reasons not to use your voice for good in this world, not to use your voice for love and light.

But there are about 7.9 billion reasons to come out of isolation and offer to help us other humans in whatever imperfect ways you can.

We need your message.

We need your encouragement.

We need your kindness.

We need your story.

We need you.

~

4648. Maybe I’m still a writer after all.

Some imperfect help for each other? I’ll write for you. <3

Searching too hard: A Brahmin’s lesson about finding peace and happiness

Hermann Hesse Siddhartha - too much searching for finding

I just finished reading a beautiful little book called Siddhartha. It’s a very colorful story about a man who crossed paths with the Buddha and lived a hundred other little adventures on his way to finding meaning, fulfillment, and peace in life.

The book literally led to a few tears as I read on the airplane. And led to the occasional discreet hiding of a page, so the teenager next to me couldn’t read the parts about Siddhartha’s lover teaching him “the game of love . . . one of the thirty or forty different games [she] knew. . . .” Like the one “which the textbooks call ‘climbing a tree.'” Like I said. Colorful.

But honestly, it was a really eye-opening book. Really deeply human and incredibly inspiring.

I think one of the most human lessons I’ve learned in all of life is this–and the book was a really strong reminder of it:

“Quoth Siddhartha: ‘What should I possibly have to tell you, oh venerable one? Perhaps that you’re searching far too much? That in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding?'” – Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

When we try really hard to be happy, happiness is elusive.

But sometimes when you stop trying, you discover that you are happy.

Siddhartha spent years and years and years of his life looking for peace and wisdom everywhere, only to find that it had been there with him all along.

He just had to stop searching.

“Everyone’s always trying so damn hard. Trying to be good enough. Trying to rest. Working hard at relaxing. Everyone’s trying so hard to stop being spiritually exhausted and overwhelmed, because that’s ingrained in us. Trying so hard might just be the exact problem.” – an excerpt from an old message I ran across that I wrote to my sister

What if we stopped trying so damn hard?

What if every now and then we paused in all our searching?

Maybe we have all we need.

Like Andy Bernard from The Office says: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve left them.”

7 Life-Changing Books For Your Reading List

If you know me, you know I like to read. A lot. Like a nerdy lot. Especially if audiobooks on commutes count. So I’ve read a lot of books! And I strongly believe in the power of reading to help people make sense of life and discover who (and how) they want to be.

I’d love to say EVERY book is life-changing. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words resonate with me: “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten–even so, they have made me.” But there are a few books I’ve read that have made such a big difference in my life–personally and professionally–that I can truly say I changed significantly as a person from reading them. 7 come to mind. I’ve found that over the years when people have asked me to recommend some books for them, these are always my go-to’s.

So if you’re looking for your next great read, looking for fuel to grow personally or professionally, or just curious to give reading a shot, try one of these:

1. The Power of a Positive No

This is almost always my top recommendation. I think it’s a universal thing to have trouble saying “no”–no to more busy schedule stuff, no to what people want to get from you, and no to how someone is treating you.

William Ury, a world-famous negotiation specialist, gives an incredibly simple and useful formula for saying no in a way that communicates deep care for the person you’re saying it to. He takes a motivating look at what’s so difficult about saying no in the first place, and why it’s so important to learn to say it anyway. And he makes it all so tangible and relateable that by the time you finish the book, you’re feeling ready and excited for your first opportunity to put it into practice.

I’ve used what I learned from it countless times, including for some of the biggest, scariest no’s I’ve ever had to say. I can honestly say this may have be the most influential book in my life–an absolute lifesaver!     (Reading difficulty: 5 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)

2. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

This book is exactly what the subtitle says: A surprising and eye-opening look at what makes people want to do things. Whenever I’m asked to recommend a good business, leadership, or professional book, this is the one!

Anyone who leads people, manages people, leads or manages themselves (or is a people), will find this an incredibly helpful read. I remember having so many “aha” moments. It explains so much about why we frequently burn out or lose interest when driven by things like authority or money and other carrots and sticks. And it opens your eyes to a whole world of internal fuel and energy. We do the things best and longest that we really want to do. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

This translates exceptionally well into practical management strategy. “Intrinsic motivation” seems truly to be the strongest driver you can help your people find. This book is a game-changer!     (Reading difficulty: 6 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)

3. Coming to Our Senses

Here’s a good example of a book you don’t know you need to read until you read it. We live in a crazy, noisy, busy, overwhelming world. This book helps find and grow peace, calmness, happiness, and beauty in that world–all in a down-to-earth, accessible way.

Jon Kabat-Zinn helped bring mindfulness meditation to the west, through developing practices like clinical meditation for stress reduction and, and through popular writings like Full Catastrophe Living. Do yourself a huge favor and give this a shot! I hesitate to say much about it, because there are already so many stereotypes and misinformed cliches about “meditation.” Just know that it’s not what you think. And that if you’ll invest the time, reading this can be one of the most mentally cleansing and freeing experiences in your life, and can equip you to keep that peace with you all through life.

Pro tip: Unless you’re ready to seriously take the plunge, ease yourself into this one by first listening to the abridged audiobook (his own narration, about 3 hours), or through his shorter book Wherever You Go There You Are. Just know that the unabridged Coming to Our Senses is a long one and worth taking the time to chew on.     (Reading difficulty: 7 out of 10) | Get it on Amazon) (Abridged audiobook difficulty: 2 out of 10 | Get it on Audiobooks)

4. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents

This always feels like an awkward one to recommend, but I wish the big scary personal life things were less awkward. We’re all human, and we’ve all been through rough times, made mistakes, and struggled with hurt. The truth is, whether this book is about your own experience or about understanding the experiences of other people you love, this is an incredibly eye-opening book. With each page you turn, your appreciation grows a little more for the big-ness of emotional abuse and neglect, and for how it continues to affect people deeply, straight through adult life.

This book is about understanding your own struggles or those of your loved ones. But it’s also just as much a book about hope and healing. It powerfully humanizes the people who have done the hurt (that really impressed me), and it draws clear, freeing pictures of where that hurt came from. It helps you find a way for yourself or your loved ones to step out of the cycle of trauma, to see things for what they really are, and to make positive, healthy, happy decisions about how to do life.

Fair warning: This book is not for the faint of heart. It can be an emotionally exhausting read, but it’s also an incredibly empowering one.     (Reading difficulty: 4 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)

5. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization

This book could be called Long-Term Thinking 101. It’s a management classic, and it’s one I honestly think should be required reading for all executives and mid- to upper-level managers in companies everywhere (or really for everyone).

Peter Senge delves deep into the world of “Systems Thinking,” identifying cycles and patterns that continuously reappear in business, politics, and even in personal life. History repeats itself again and again and we learn too many lessons the hard way, largely because it takes so long to realize the long-term effects of today’s actions and decisions. By the time one initiative brings a part of the company crashing down, the waters have been muddied by ten other initiatives that have kicked off more recently, and few of the managers have been around long enough to trace the cycle of cause-and-effect.

This book is an amazing primer on thinking carefully about how we got where we are today, and how to actually get where we want to go tomorrow–and how to not ruin everything in the meantime. It’s also pretty heavy academic reading, so buckle up and get ready to think hard!     (Reading difficulty: 9 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)

6. Escape from Freedom

I feel a little bit weird about putting this on my list. In fact, it might have sneaked its way on here due in part to how recently I read it. But I have a feeling this one’s effects will last a lifetime. It was originally published during World War II and explores why individuals and entire populations make weird and disturbing choices.

Big disclaimer right off the bat: I got to the end of this one and still totally disagreed with a lot of Fromm’s outlook on life and its meaning. But reading this also seriously stretched me. It made me think harder than just about any other book I’ve read. And it made the whole world make so much more sense. Best (and worst) of all, it opened my eyes to a lot of manufactured safety nets I’ve depended on through life that, at the end of the day, won’t provide me the safety I’m looking for. The gist is this: We’re born into a very structured environment. As we grow up we start to see just how arbitrary a lot of authority and tradition is. So we kick and scream for our freedom. And then we get our freedom. And it is terrifying! The intense anxiety that true freedom produces is staggering. So we try to re-submit ourselves to whatever authorities or thoughts used to give us security and confidence in our roles. But it’s too late–we know better, and pretending we still fit into the world we escaped from will drive us (literally) crazy. The other option is to bravely accept the freedom we have found, and live and love honestly.

Don’t read if you’re not ready for some deep reflection. This one is pretty brutal.     (Reading difficulty: 7 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)

7. Social Intelligence

I’m going to cheat and combine two books: You really should read Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence before this one. Goleman popularized the scientific study of “EQ” (as opposed to “IQ”). In most areas of life, having emotional maturity, strength, understanding, and awareness provides more benefits and leads to more success than does IQ–the more traditional measurement of potential, focused on logic and intellect.

Social Intelligence goes a step further than his first book and explores the intricacies of relationships and communication. It includes fascinating stories about how people work and fit together and great practical tips about how to communicate, work, and live effectively with others. So many things will click into place as you read this. “Oooooh, that’s why…” is a thought I had over and over while I read this, as past and present relationships suddenly made sense.

Both Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence are very easy and very rewarding books to read. I found the second even more helpful for me than the first. Need help being a person? Read Daniel Goleman.     (Reading difficulty: 2 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)

 

So those are my favorites–the ones that have made the biggest difference in my life.

I always love helping people find helpful books to learn and grow from, so if you’re ever looking for a good recommendation–even if it’s for a specific topic or situation–don’t hesitate to ask!

Happy reading!!!

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” – Henry Ford

7 Creative Strategies for New (or Frustrated) Readers

“I’m not much of a reader” may be high up there on the list of most commonly spoken phrases in the English language. So much so, in fact, that I do a double take when someone actually tells me they enjoy reading.

Last week I blogged about some amazing benefits to becoming a reader, but I understand that for most non-readers, that just sounds a little bit like saying, “Here’s what you can’t have.” Reading can be difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming, especially the busier life gets with work, relationships, and other “adult” things.

Type “I want to read but” into Google’s search bar and it immediately drops down enough suggestions–“I get bored…I can’t focus…I don’t know what to read…I can’t”–that it’s apparent lots of people want to read but feel they can’t. If that’s you, you’re in good company. I’ve been a frustrated reader, too. Still am sometimes. So I’d like to share several ways I’ve learned to make the most of reading, without burning out.

1. Read variety. Google’s very top “I want to read but…” suggestion is “…I get bored.” If that’s you, trust me–you’re not the only one. Sometimes–for new or established readers, there’s a really educational book someone recommended that may be long and dry. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t push through it. Put it down for the day and pick something else up until you’re ready to go back. At the moment I’m reading/listening to a book about the physiological response to long-term stress, a book about mindfulness meditation, and a novel about a band of miners trying to survive the harsh winter of the Colorado Rockies. If you want to read, but need a break from the tough stuff, find a fun book. Your reading muscles will get stronger.

2. Read in small doses. Like any “perfectionist,” I dream of this big day where I get to really do justice to a project or goal–like spend an entire afternoon reading on the couch. And that means I frequently put off reading–especially starting a new book–until I feel like I have “enough time.” News flash–you don’t have enough time! There will always be other things to do. The “right time to read” is a fantasy. But if you read for 10 minutes today, 5 minutes tomorrow, another 15 the next day–before you know it, you’ll have completed a book. If you wait for “enough time,” you probably won’t. Reading is also a lot easier in small doses (especially when you’re just starting). You can stay more focused and understand more. And starting out with long reading sessions can backfire when you later feel you can’t live up to that standard anymore. Small doses is a great way to start–and a great way to get out of a rut.

3. Read (and re-read) slowly enough to really understand. This may be the most helpful thing I’ve learned about reading. I think we’ve all shared this experience: You’re reading along, and all of a sudden you realize you have no idea what you’ve been reading for the last 5 minutes. It’s so discouraging! I’ve learned that if you commit to really comprehending every single sentence, you’ll get so much more out of what you’re reading. The catch is, you will read (and re-read) VERY SLOWLY at first! And that’s okay. When you don’t understand a sentence, read it again–maybe look back at its context. When you realize your mind has wandered, back up to the last paragraph you remember comprehending and try again (even if it was three pages ago). I have literally re-read the same paragraph at least ten times in a row because of distractions. Like a muscle at the gym–when you take the time to train it the right way, it will get better and faster. Eventually, focusing will be a whole lot easier. Remember: The goal of reading is not to get to the end of the book. Take it as slow as you need. Better to fully digest one meaningful paragraph today than waste an hour mindlessly scanning page after page.

4. Look up every word or concept you don’t know. It’s can be very frustrating trying to read some academic book full of big words or concepts about business or science or politics, etc. Sometimes I’ll just read right through and hope that eventually I get what it was talking about. Problem is–the more you skip over words and concepts you don’t know, the more confused and disengaged you’ll get. The good news is, it’s never been easier to learn as you go. Keep your smartphone with you, and whenever a word (e.g. elucubrate) or a concept (e.g. liquidity ratio) sails over your head, punch it into Google or Dictionary.com, learn it, and re-read the sentence. Don’t just keep reading and end up lost, take a quick Google break and add to your vocabulary and education.

5. Write down big ideas you learn and review them later. I think that we get more out of reading than we realize. Even the most experienced reader can get to the end of a book and feel like they can’t adequately recap everything they just learned. But I think all that stuff has taken root down inside you–at least if you’ve read slowly enough to comprehend it–and helps to shape your thinking. However, it can be very encouraging once you’ve finished reading–a chapter or an entire book–to look back and see what you’ve learned. It helps to cement valuable concepts in your memory and it encourages you to keep learning. I get the most out of reading when I write down big points (or little points that really resonated with me). You don’t have to write thoroughly. Sometimes I’ll even just jot down a tag-word along with the page number so I can go back and review it later.

6. Read, then practice, then read, then practice. Remember that reading is not, in itself, the end game. In his book, The Slight Edge, Jeff Olson talks about the learning cycle: First you learn a concept or theory, then you go put it into practice and learn it even better from experience. Then you go back and read about it again with experience under your belt that gives you perspective and context for your reading. Then you try it again in the real world. And repeat. A good example to consider: You can read lots of great books about communicating at work, but if you don’t put yourself out there and implement what you’re learning, they won’t do you any good. So you read a book about communication, then you start opening up more with your boss. It goes okay, but not great. So you go back and read more about it, and now it makes more sense, and you realize what parts you got right and what parts you got wrong. So you try communicating with your boss again. This time it goes a little better, but it’s not where it should be. So you go back to learn what you need to tweak. And the cycle goes on. “Knowledge without practice is useless. Practice without knowledge is dangerous.” – attr. Confucius

7. If all else fails, try audiobooks. Some people find that reading hurts their eyes or gives them a headache. Some people truly have overflowing schedules and can’t find a minute away from work and family to sit and read. Don’t give up! Try audiobooks! Most of us who find ourselves too busy to read spend lots of time commuting to and from work, family, or social activities. You can find plenty of great books on CD at your local library, or online audiobook memberships to try. My personal favorite is the Hoopla app–it’s totally free and all you need is a library card. It allows you to borrow 5 titles monthly. One of my favorite features is a little button you can hit that bookmarks the exact second you’re listening to so you can go back later to review it or write down ideas. Audiobooks not only are easier with a packed schedule, they’re also easier to not put down and walk away: Someone is just reading to you and all you have to do is let them. Try it on your commutes–you’ll be amazed how many books will fit into a year of driving to and from work.

I hope that some or all of these suggestions help you start (or keep) reading without burning out. And I hope trying these help you grow more personally from the books you read. If you have any other suggestions for making the most of the practice, please share what’s been working for you in the comments so the rest of us can benefit! Good luck!

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“Knowledge without practice is useless. Practice without knowledge is dangerous.” – Confucius

8 Life-Changing Reasons to Start Reading

Now before you say “I’m not much of a reader” and keep scrolling down your feed, hear me out! I want to share a few reasons why I think you SHOULD* give it a shot.

*Okay, I’m stretching the word “should” a little bit–I really can’t tell you I absolutely know that becoming a reader will make you a better person, and I certainly won’t suggest I think you have any duty to read. But what if, by not reading, you really are missing out on something big–something that could transform your life, make your personal relationships much more satisfying, and help you grow professionally by leaps and bounds? What if?

Here are 8 big things reading has done for me–and maybe could do for you, too: Reading has…

1. Opened my mind. All day long we tell ourselves stories about the world around us–what’s going on, why this is happening, who they are, what we should do. And a lot of pain and suffering (from fights with your significant other to bloody world wars) comes from hearing only our own stories, and not understanding someone else’s. What better way to open your mind to other possibilities and to your own growth and real education than taking a little time out of your day to listen to someone else’s story? “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” – Dalai Lama

2. Given me a more humble perspective. You can’t read very many books before it becomes pretty obvious to you that there’s a heck of a lot you never really understood, a heck of a lot you still don’t, and a heck of a lot you never will. We are not know-it-alls, and genuinely considering one different perspective after another, from hundreds of well-educated individuals who all disagree on one thing or another–that may be the best possible cure for arrogance.

3. Made me confident. There are a lot of reasons I’ve come up with to not believe in myself, to feel inferior and insecure around others. No college degree, a sheltered childhood, you name it. I bet you’ve come up with similar reasons for yourself. Not only, though, does each book increase your expertise on its subject, but the very practice of reading is real-time proof that you can be just as “smart” as the next person. Start reading seriously today, and I’ll bet you anything a year from now you’ll feel more confident.

4. Trained my brain to be smarter. Okay, the bad news–reading can actually be really hard. Especially these days, where the likelihood that you’ve made it this far into my blog post is little to none (it’s much easier to glance at the headline, think “I agree,” feel inspired by your opinion, and keep scrolling through your newsfeed). We tend to have a very hard time following deep, complicated, or drawn-out theories and arguments. 5 minutes of a typical managers-meeting is sufficient proof of our inability to think beyond the quick-and-simple. Doing the hard work of reading for comprehension exercises your “smart” muscle you may have forgotten you have, and learning to think critically and understand big ideas yields countless benefits in every area of life for years to come.

5. Made me a communicator. One fun side effect of reading a lot, especially a variety of authors and styles of writing–all the words and phrases and ideas and organization and persuasiveness–it rubs off on you and you suddenly find yourself communicating more clearly and effectively with others.

6. Taught me a million life lessons–the easy(er) way. There are a lot of lessons we’re going to learn in life, work, and relationships–a lot of things we need to pay more attention to, a lot of bad ideas we shouldn’t try, habits to break, and skills to develop. We can learn those lessons the hard way by experiencing each pitfall for ourselves, or learn the easy way by listening to others who have already learned. In reality, my experience as an avid reader has often been a mix of both: I learn from a book, kind of forget or brush it off, experience it the hard way for myself, but much more quickly and easily adjust, rebound, or grow, because what I learned in the book comes back to mind and I can make sense of what is happening and remember the author’s advice. Sometimes reading means I learn the easy way–sometimes just the easiER way. Either way, it’s better than going it alone.

7. Helped me step back and see the bigger picture. Life is intense. There are lots of feelings and conflicts and emotions and unknowns. We get so wrapped up in our immediate circumstances that we often can’t think clearly. We obssess over little pieces of our lives, and as our brains flood with adrenaline, we forget everything we knew about how to be a wise adult. I’ve found that immersing yourself in a book gives you a safe place to learn and practice the big picture skills you need later when you’re stuck in a little scenario. Reading helps me see things for what they really are. When I read, I find myself looking back and understanding things that happened in the past, and looking forward, considering how I can make healthy decisions in the future. It helps remind me that all the little adrenaline- and nerve-packed moments in life are just that: little moments.

8. Motivated and energized me. Last but definitely not least–reading inspires me. It’s one of the biggest reasons people read, in fact a whole genre of writing is based on this. “Self-help” authors tend to get a bad rap, but let’s be real: There are a lot of truly good ideas out there in print (motivational AND plenty of other topics), and while we like to think we already know all the good ideas–even the ones we do know–do we really put them into practice? Be honest: How many things are you doing (or NOT doing) when you really know better? Sometimes you just need a kick in the pants. Sometimes you have to encourage a friend: “You know better,” you say. Or, “you can do it!” See, communication isn’t just about giving people new ideas. Sometimes, we need affirming, reminding, and encouraging communication–or, again, just a good old fashioned kick in the pants. “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” – Andre Gide

What do you think? Maybe reading is worth giving a shot? If you’re ready to try, here are a few books that are ideal for starting with:

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“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson