A Little Inspiration from a Friend (and Humans of New York)

For the past five years, I’ve had a weekly checkin with my friend, Kate Wing. It has been one of the most valuable professional practices I’ve ever done. It’s equal parts peer learning and coaching, but it feels like I’m just chatting with my friend regularly (which is exactly what we’re doing)!

Yesterday was one of those days when I just needed to vent. I’ve been frustrated with my perceived lack of impact and my ongoing failures, which have been wearing on me. Kate mostly listened. Later in the evening, she forwarded this Humans of New York Story via Instagram:

I’m very thankful to have friends and colleagues like Kate who share little bits of wisdom like this when I most need them.

Quote Investigator to the Rescue!

At the end of last year, I received a Christmas card from a friend with this lovely quote attributed to the great writer and thinker, James Baldwin:

Fires can’t be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns even labor into pleasant tasks.

As is my practice with quotes that I like, I did a quick search to see if I could confirm the source, and I came up empty. I saw this quote attributed to Baldwin hundreds of times with nary a citation. I then checked Wikiquote, which is invaluable for rooting out misattributed quotes, but had no luck there either.

Usually, at this point, I assume that the quote is misattributed, and I stop looking. But just a few weeks earlier, my friend, Kate, who knows about my hangup with misattributed quotes, sent me a link to Garson O’Toole’s website, the “Quote Investigator,” who “diligently seeks the truth about quotations.” I loved his website, and while it looked like he received more requests than he could handle, I decided to ask him for help on a whim.

Over two months had passed, and I had long figured that he had been too busy to respond. Then, this morning, to my surprise, I received an email from him! He had researched my request and had published his answer! In short, Garson was unable to find any evidence that James Baldwin said it. However, Garson’s story of the trail he followed was just as interesting. I’d encourage folks to read the whole story.

The virality of today’s Internet tools has its costs, as we’re recognizing more and more these days. But these same tools offer ways to counter to these problems… should we decide to leverage them (as Mike Caulfield passionately reminds us to do). I’m grateful for folks like Garson, and I’m grateful that the Internet — along with a good dose of real-life social connections — enabled me to find him. Seeing his research made my morning!

We Are Not Freaking Butterflies: An Update on Self-Care and Balance

It’s been two years since I’ve blogged about how my self-care practices have been going, a marked contrast from 2013, which is when I finally double-downed on my commitment to take better care of myself and to live a more balanced life. That was the year I left the company that I co-founded and the team that I loved to start my life and my livelihood over again. It was a hard process, and I blogged about it many times that year, but I was committed and determined, and I was fortunate to have lots of loving support.

Things finally turned a corner in 2015. I am exceptionally proud of this shift, and I love the life I’ve been living, but I remain cautious.

My friend, Jodie, recently told me that she hated when people used the word, “transformation,” to describe changes in their lives. I wholeheartedly agree. We are not caterpillars dissolving into some shapeless goo and emerging, irreversibly, from mummy-like nests in new winged forms. We are human beings. Maybe some wires in our brains get crossed or reinforced in different ways, but our old habits are still deeply embedded, constantly threatening to rear their ugly heads.

People don’t transform. We practice with intention and vigilance, and if we’re really smart, we hack the structures around us to support the lives we want to live.

I started recognizing the shift I wanted and needed to make almost a decade ago, thanks partially to burnout as well as to a relationship that is now ancient history. It took me another two years to take concrete action — hiring a coach and taking my first vacation in eight years. It took me another five years after that to get to where I am now.

Seven years total. Change is hard. It’s also not permanent.

I’ve been obsessing about work the past few weeks. I’m not dealing with any toxicity-induced stress. Quite the opposite. I’m grappling with issues that are complex and stimulating, and I’m not wanting to let go of any of them. I find myself compelled to push through weariness, to keep attacking each problem from different angles. Warning bells have been going off reminding me to disconnect, to slow down, to let go, to exercise, to breathe… and I’ve been cautiously, but consciously ignoring most of them.

I’m concerned enough to write about it, but I’m also heartened, because I’m aware of my self-awareness. I know what’s happening, and I’m letting it happen for now, knowing that I’ll have to make up for it very soon. Hearing the symphony of warning bells is both cause for concern and music to my ears, because there wouldn’t be any sound if not for all the cool little safety mechanisms I’ve put into place over the years.

When I get into one of these work modes, I often start getting curmudgeonly. I’m not mad at anybody, it just helps me think. But it’s also not a good thing if left unchecked. Negativity breeds negativity.

One of my practices is a weekly checkin with my friend and colleague, Kate Wing, which we’ve been doing for three years now. It’s mostly about work stuff, but we naturally weave stuff about our lives into our conversations as well.

At the end of each checkin, we both share a beautiful thing from that week. It’s a simple ritual, but it’s had a profound impact on me. I know I have to share something, and so I pay more attention on a regular basis to things that strike me as beautiful. What I’ve learned from the practice is that I actually experience beautiful things all the time, but instead of lingering on them and letting them soak in, I often just let them slip away. Our weekly ritual has strengthened my muscles around noticing and remembering.

Still, sometimes I need a little stimulation to remember, which is why it’s so helpful to do this with a partner. At the end of this week’s checkin, I couldn’t think of a beautiful thing immediately, so I asked Kate to go first. She shared a story about a moment of repose in the middle of a big meeting, where she stepped into a courtyard to take a breather, and had a brief, lovely encounter with an unusual bird. It was a classic Kate story — simple, sometimes whimsical, often profound.

Not only did her story delight me, it helped me remember all sorts of wonderful things that had happened this week. For whatever reason, I received a number of brief, unexpected notes from friends, family, and colleagues that brought me lots of joy. I was aware and appreciative of all of them in the moment, but they all quickly slipped away in favor of my knotty little work obsession. Thanks to this little practice of ours, I managed to scoop them away from the vortex of oblivion, and they have lingered in my consciousness ever since, bringing a smile to my face each time I think about them.

In the midst of these moments of joy, I can still hear the warning bells ring in the distance. These pleasant little victories, like my memories, can easily slip away without constant practice and vigilance. We are not freaking butterflies.

Nevertheless, I’m happy that I can hear the bells at all. I’m going to listen to them a little while longer, before gently resetting them. I’ll do a little work this long weekend, not because I have to, but because I want to. But I’ll also spend lots of it outside, with good friends and good food in this beautiful Bay Area weather, and maybe a little stillness thrown in for good measure.

One Art: On Loss and Detachment

One Art, by Elizabeth Bishop:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Thanks to Kate Wing for sharing.