The Busy Wars

As I drove away from my interview with my new school, I called my Mom to process. I had nothing but good things to say, but by the time I put my car into park, I had worked myself into a near breakdown. Why?

I was afraid I wouldn’t be busy enough.

I heard myself explaining the guilt I was already feeling about maybe taking a job that would give me free time; a full-time job that would help me move in the direction of my passions and values at that. I caught myself mid-thought and realized something was very wrong with my frame of mind.

Earlier this year, I read this article espousing a similar sentiment, but it came flooding back to me in that moment. I have already been trying to replace the word “busy” with “full.” But I found, over the course of the last few months, that I often felt like I had lost control over how I spent my time, and in those moments, busy seemed like a much better descriptor. Worse, just as the author explains, being busy had come to define my existence and my worth in the world.

After I pulled myself together, I found myself reflecting on how I got to that moment. So much of my life was structured to encourage business; this idea that we are what (and how much) we do was modeled to me over and over again. My parents were always working. I was the kid who was dropped off as the first staff member arrived at the school, and the last one picked up from after school activities. I didn’t (and don’t) see it as a bad thing, I knew what they were doing was important, they were fulfilling their responsibilities. What’s more, the school I attended for my formative years had, in essence, one rule: stay busy. We could choose almost any work we wanted, and do it in whatever group or seating arrangement met our fancy, but we needed to be doing something. In college, I found myself spending nearly all my time with people who competed in what I called “the busy wars.” Even at this young adult stage, we were defining ourselves by what we were involved in and how much time we had to ourselves. We competed with each other, in subtle and some not-so-subtle ways, all to prove that we had the most on our plates but could still be succesful.

Those times in college called my attention to the plague I suffered from and I started to do my best to stay out of the wars. I was fairly successful all the way through graduate school, only choosing activities and responsibilities which I enjoyed, had interest in, and supported my long term goals. I had more fun in graduate school than I had in a long time, regularly going to yoga classes, playing on a volleyball team, and spending time cooking with friends. I thought that I had carried at least some of my new found freedom from being busy into my job. But after hearing myself tell my mother, who I regularly encourage to spend less time working, that I was truly concerned about being viewed as lazy or taking the easy way out for working a full time job, I realized that the problem has been lingering within me all along.

When I thought about this idea that attending Montessori influenced my need to be busy, I realized Dr. Montessori would detest that notion. She would recognize and encourage the exact opposite, giving every individual space to reflect, think, and choose how to fill their time in a way that is fulfilling for them. The business that I know, and that permeates our society each day, is rarely fulfilling. And in our desperate need to compensate, we take on more and more, slowly losing any control that we had over how we spend our time.

I can’t commit to eliminating business from my life completely, or even necessarily taking more time to sit and do absolutely nothing. But I do hope that this reflection can help me to be more conscious of what I’m allowing to comprise my business; that I can take some of this new found free time and do things that truly fulfill me, making me 100% honest when I share that my life is full.

First Steps

Months ago, I wrote a post committing to act on my Moments of Obligation moving forward. I am excited to share that I will be able to do so far sooner than I planned. While it pains me to leave the incredible students that I’ve worked with in my current role, in just three short weeks, I will be working in a local school.

I will be in a third grade classroom, assisting the teacher, at a local private school which espouses the values of scholarship, leadership and service. I will have the opportunity to study how a school with enormous resources educates and consider how to bring the best of it to a larger audience. I will get to reflect on whether impacting education through teaching at this level is the best path for me. Immersed in a completely new environment, I will get to analyze how my experiences can impact students and learn what new experiences I need to try.

In some ways, this is a baby step. It’s an opportunity to see if I actually have it as figured out as I like to think; to test the waters. In other ways this is a huge step, one that is entirely outside the comfort zone created by my life experiences and education. But, my heart and my head are telling me that it is the right direction, moving me closer to fulfilling my dreams and making my impact on the world. And I am lucky that I can carry with me attitudes I learned from fabulous students; perspectives of learning, openness, growth, and a willingness to relentlessly take on challenges for the sake of a better world.

Because of the Hard

A friend and colleague shared this video with me when I was having a tough moment today at work. My brain is still processing Sarah’s poems (there’s one at the beginning and at the end, she’s funny in between); and, as Sarah Kay would tell you, there are hundreds of interpretations to be had depending on your own experiences. The first poem in the talk cheered me up quickly, mostly by reminding me to embrace life’s hard stuff when it comes my way.

For me, the hard is what makes the good, good. From every difficulty that life throws at me, I can learn and grow. I can connect with someone who has felt that same emotion, that same breed of pain or joy or anger, and know that I am not alone in wearing the superhero cape that I might otherwise throw to the ground. What do we want more in life than to connect to others? I can’t name a thing. In the absolute worst of disasters, when we desperately cling to family, friends, and strangers alike, we expose our inherent need to affix our humanity to others, supporting and bonding in ways we could never fathom when life is full of rainbows. Ultimately, because of the hard, and the connections that it brings, I can know the good that stares me in the face each and every day, and embrace it even when it may not seem like the obvious thing to do.

And for the times that lifting my arms for that embrace is just too much, I’ll always pack some chocolate and rain boots to help me until it gets better.

Composition Rules for Life

In school, we spend a lot of time preparing for what comes next; the next grade, the jump from middle school to high school, or planning for college or graduate studies. We live the entirety of our early years with relatively defined steps and timelines. And then we find ourselves doing whatever it is we do after we finish school, in my case my first professional job, and suddenly realize that there isn’t a timeline anymore. It is entirely my responsibility to decide when to make major changes in my life and I am realizing that no one ever taught me how to make such decisions.

With this (somewhat terrifying) notion regularly popping into my mind, I found last week’s photography class dealing with the rules of composition surprisingly relevant. I think each of the rules, designed to help create visually appealing photos, can be applied to the process of building a life timeline. The rules are as follows:

  • • Simplicity
  • • Rule of Thirds
  • • Balance
  • • Avoiding Mergers
  • • Lines & Patterns
  • • Framing

In photographs, you are not always looking to achieve all of these things, but in life, I think it’s a reasonable goal.

Our instructor summed up the rule of simplicity like this, “if there’s something iSimplicityn your photo that isn’t making the photo better, it shouldn’t be there at all.” From this perspective it’s easy to see how the notion could apply to life. If something in your life is not making it better, it’s probably not necessary. I think this is relatively accepted when it comes to friends and acquaintences (though easier said than done), but I think it’s much less common in terms of our work and habits. We feel tied to our routine or what’s comfortable, even when it’s the exact opposite of simplicity.

Composition 2Perhaps the most well known photography rule is the rule of thirds. Here, we see that shots are made significantly more interesting when subjects are not in the dead center of the photo. Instead, we aim to put the focal point at one of the intersections of a fictional 3×3 grid overlaid on the photo. This rule also encourages photographers to give living subjects “room to move”. For example, in my submission for this rule on the left, the butterfly looks like it could fly away; if it were positioned in the top left corner, it would make for a very jarring photo.

Just like our subjects, we need room to move. If something in our lives is stifling us and we have nowhere to go, nothing to learn, or no way to improve, perhaps that’s not the best place for us. Further, giving your life three parts (or at least more than one part) has a lot of value. If one thing is taking up your entire existence and is constantly the center of your attention, that’s not likely to be as pleasing as if that same life had some variation. In my case, I often let work be the center of my life photo, though I think it would be significantly more appealing if I panned over to give more attention to my family and friends. This notion plays well with the principle of balance and being sure to create one that works for you; and most importantly, being willing to analyze the scales regularly to determine if that balance still exists.

In photography, avoiding mergers means avoiding background objects appearing to be a part of the main subject of the photo (i.e. the tree coming out of someone’s head). Of all the rules, unless you’re trying to capture someone holding up the [insert name of famous monument here], I think this one is the most important to follow consistently. But how does this help us in life? I think it is most applicable to problem solving and our typical human failure to correctly identify the problem. We let problems merge into each other and the situation as a whole, misidentifying what is actually amiss. And because we can’t identify it, we don’t address it, leaving mergers long after we should have made an adjustment.

Composition 4Lines in photos are meant to draw attention, either to something or through the entire photo. Our assignment regarding lines was narrowed specifically to an S-curve, a line that creates drama. While we often immediately think about melodrama, though I think these Composition 3lines are more indicative of the unpredictable path that one’s timeline may take. And in this regard, I don’t think drama is such a bad thing – it keeps life interesting, just like it does in a photo.

Patterns, just as they provide a fascinating photographic subject, help us understand our lives and our decisions. The more patterns we identify in ourselves, the easier it will be to make choices that either continue said pattern (when we find it to be an appealing one) or interrupt it.

The final rule, though not a part of my assignment, is framing. Creating a frame for your subject makes them more visually appealing, so long as that frame is in front of them. Just like frames only look good in the foreground, positive framing is the most helpful in life. Realistically, we choose how to frame every single situation we’re faced with; deciding to keep that frame front and center allows it to be useful. Our life image, and our satisfaction with that image, is based hugely on how we frame it for ourselves.

Just as a photographer might critique a photograph using these rules, I might try critiquing my life the same way. Maybe if I can be sure that I am ‘well-composed’ it will help me create my life timeline along the way.

Everything I Need to Know About Life I Learned from Riding Horses

At eleven years old, my middle school guidance counselor asked me to draw the place in the world where I was happiest. I drew a barn. A tack room to be specific.

This morning I walked into a different barn, sweaty, covered in paint, simply looking for a respite from Florida’s July sun. I crossed the threshold and memories poured into my mind, triggered by the overwhelming smell of horse, alfalfa, and saddle soap. A huge smile spread across my face, and I found myself longing for leather under my fingers. Though it has been several years since I’ve ridden a horse not trained to robotically follow a trail, not a day goes by that I don’t benefit from growing up with them.

I had the chance to ponder these memories as co-workers and I painted new fence boards at a local horse rescue as part of a staff service project this morning, and I’ve decided that I have horses to thank for an awful lot. And while I often credit my Montessori education for my successes, I think I have horses to thank as well.

Responsibility

Horses require an enormous amount of care. They need to be fed, watered, doctored, exercised, and loved whether you feel like it or not. To be honest, I had it easy; my trainer did most of that work for me on a daily basis (the feeding and watering at least). And I learned a lot about responsibility from watching her care for 30+ horses day-in and day-out, even if it didn’t sink in to my young brain as fast as she might have liked. But even with my minimal responsibilities, I came to understand what it meant to care for another life, and the importance of doing everything that you say you will do.

I learned this best after a terrifying incident which left my horse’s right hind leg in shreds. And I mean shreds; had I been considering a career as a vet, I would have ooh-ed and aah-ed over the incredible display of tissue layers, all the way down to the bone. As it was, I had to put on my big girl pants, swallow any squeamish tendencies, and clean and change the bandage twice a day. Plus, there was no riding, which, for a horse-obsessed 13 year-old girl, made the situation even more dramatic. (Note: My father also showed me the epitome of responsibility during this time, taking over the morning bandage change while I was in school despite having no ties to horses beyond his daughter’s infatuation.)

Hard Work

Barn work is hard work.

Hay is heavy. Poop is heavier. Spending twice as much time caring for your horse as you do riding is draining. Getting your life together to meet Pony Club standards is exhausting.

More than anyone else in the world, my trainer taught me the tenets of hard work.

  • Everything goes faster when you work hard and do it right.
  • There are always going to be things that you don’t want to do, but avoiding them doesn’t make them go away.
  • You can do almost anything if you’re willing. Sometimes this means asking for help and taking direction. Other times it means that you go for it and see what happens. Either way, you give it your best.

Valuing Feedback and Reflection

“Close your hip!”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard any three words repeated more times throughout my life. My trainer was trying to help me follow my horse better over fences, and I desperately wanted her guidance because I nearly fell off over every jump. I wanted as much feedback as possible, so I listened to my trainer, poured over comments on my Dressage test forms, and watched home movies of my rides incessantly. I wanted to improve.

But I also learned that sometimes improvement takes time. I wouldn’t figure out how to close my hip until I started riding in college, 5 years after she started telling me this after every jump. But once I figured it out, it all made sense. And while I hope that it doesn’t take me so long to process every piece of feedback, I do think it’s incredibly important to give time, space, and perspective for some lessons to sink in.

Passion

When you care about one thing enough, nothing else really matters. I wanted to be an accomplished equestrian, in and out of the saddle. I wanted it more than anything else, so I worked hard, did more than was asked, took responsibility, and loved every bit of it. Passion helped me deal with isolation at school, family tragedies, and a sense of not having enough to succeed. And though my passion for horses has dimmed, it gives me confidence and comfort in my passion for education.

Money Matters…

…to an extent. Horses are expensive. Riding horses in competitions may be among the most expensive hobbies. Horses, at least when it comes to competing them, tend to attract a rather affluent crowd, making it all the more apparent when you don’t have as much. But, just as researchers have found that our ability to buy happiness tops out at $75,000, I think the ability to buy success in the horse world reaches a limit. Experiencing this, and appreciating how much joy can come from a (relatively) meager investment, has been critical to how I approach life. I loved riding horses, and I worked hard to make the most of it despite not having the advantages of some of my peers.

How to Let Go

There’s a reason that I’m not riding horses competitively today, and it boils down to losing the passion. It stopped being the most important thing to me. But to this day, deciding to quit was the hardest choice I ever made. On reflection, I mostly stopped viewing it as quitting — I will always love horses and riding, and quitting implies that I didn’t give it my all. On the contrary, I gave it everything I had and finally had to admit that it wasn’t enough. I was working so hard to be happy that I wouldn’t have had enough energy to be happy if the emotion had come over me.

Society is hard on quitters, but horses taught me that sometimes you have to let go. When you’ve given something every ounce of effort you have and it’s still not fulfilling you, it’s time to move on. Even when it feels like it’s going to tear you apart or that the tears will never stop flowing. It won’t and they will, with time.

Love

Above all else, riding horses taught me how to love; to love another being more than yourself, to value connection on a deep and real level. When I got the news about my horse passing away, years after returning ownership to my trainer, I had a very real and very public breakdown. I emailed professors about my family emergency and skipped my classes that day. And I do not regret it or let it embarrass me for a second. That horse was the best friend I could have asked for growing up. She’s not the only horse who taught me to love, just the one I loved hardest, and I will carry their lessons with me for the rest of my life.

Mother Knows Best: The Power of Positive Thinking

Growing up, there was little more frustrating to me than my mother’s insistence on proposing solutions or a silver lining to problems immediately after I presented them. More than one fight stemmed from my inability to accept her attempts to help and put a positive spin on things before I had satiated my need to whine. It took me a very long time to recognize this, much less to communicate it with her, but the knowledge has eased our communication ten-fold in these situations.

Naturally, none of these revelations happened before I had unknowingly internalized these skills myself.

Last week, my partner and I took a vacation and I realized that there was more to my mom’s approach than a simple tendency toward optimism, and that something is more valuable than I realized growing up. More than anything, I think it boils down to self-efficacy, positive thinking, and a tolerance for problems outside of your locus of control. Let me illustrate.

Our vacation consisted of a 2-night cruise to the Bahamas with an island stay wedged in between. Being our first cruise, we had little to compare it to, but we found ourselves in a fair number of long lines. Some to get off or on the boat, check in to various rooms, pass immigration and customs, etc. In these lines, and just about everywhere we went that involved other cruise passengers, we heard a lot of complaining.

This line is ridiculous.
They never told me I would have to pay for alcohol.
The food is disgusting.
I will never book with these people again.
Why isn’t there air conditioning?
Don’t these people know how to run a business?

In all fairness, the systems the cruise line used could have been better; no doubt, several of the whining passengers could have made improvements themselves, if given the opportunity. It’s also possible that these complainers were truly miserable and felt their vacation had been ruined beyond repair. But, in reality, their complaints did absolutely nothing to solve any of their problems. In fact, if anything, I would wager more than a penny slot that it negatively impacted their trip.

What they definitely did do was annoy the living daylights out of me and my partner. What we saw while we stood in line were people working hard to manage challenging situations and make good experiences for us. We saw a developing nation doing all they could to accommodate American lifestyles. We recognized which pieces of the experience we could control (namely our attitude) and which we couldn’t (the length of lines, the people around us, food, etc.). And ultimately, we had a really lovely trip that we will look back on with good feelings for years.

Now, we did acknowledge an interesting phenomena – it was much easier for us to see the positives of a situation because everyone around us was so profoundly negative. They served as counter examples for us, helping us work even harder to keep a good attitude and enjoy our trip so that we would be nothing like them. So perhaps we should really be thanking them; though more than anything I feel bad that they had such a miserable time.

We want our kids to have self-efficacy, to feel like they have control over their own lives and the ability to solve their problems. But we also want them to be able to cope effectively when their self-efficacy isn’t involved, understanding that some situations are beyond their control. If we can’t model that even at our most relaxed (i.e. on vacation), how can we ever expect them to do the same throughout their lives?

And really, if you can’t find the good when faced with a view like this, when will you?

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