Two Things To Remember When You Make a Mistake

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"Do not fear mistakes; there are none."

-- Miles Davis

My creative writing professor began our syllabus for Advanced Fiction Writing last spring with that quote, probably to encourage us to let our creative juices run rampant.  If you want to write a story but only ever tweak the first paragraph until it's perfect, you won't get any farther along than that.  At some point you have to plunge forward, realizing that it's better policy to revise once you have the bones of what you want to say already sketched out, and recognizing that you will never have a "perfect" product, because there are always things you can alter, and art, especially, is subjective. 

On a creative level, I'm slowly coming to terms with this.  Though my inner perfectionist would still like to know I'm doing it perfectly. 

Of course, there are several other arenas in which mistakes come to do battle against your fragile ego, and these places don't feel so forgiving because the standards for right and wrong are more clearly defined.  I'm not talking about moral questions of right and wrong -- that would open up a philosophical can of worms the scope of this post is definitely not equipped to handle.  I'm talking about your first day on a new job, for example, or embarking on a new hobby, or if you're a student, a new class you're writing for when you haven't yet figured out what the teacher is looking for.  I'm talking about any situation, new (or maybe even old, something you've been at for a while, since you don't ever really grow immune to making mistakes) where you're bound to mess up before or even as you succeed, and someone is very likely to point that out to you.

The default advice here is typically, "Don't take it personally.  Use it as a chance to improve, an opportunity for growth."

Okay... but then why do we fear mistakes and failure so much?  There's nothing scary about a learning opportunity, if that's all it is.  So by that token, we shouldn't let mistakes bother us.

But here's the thing:

We don't fear mistakes.  We fear guilt and shame.  We fear feeling small and insignificant and inadequate.  And these are the all too common byproducts of mistakes.  Because while our culture lauds mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow, rarely do I see them actually handled as such.  Instead, I see grimaces and eye rolls.  I hear sighs, and ripples of testiness beneath hasty choruses of "It's okay, it's okay!"  We shoulder these reactions and our backs nearly break under the assumption that we're no good because of some unintentional act we committed when we didn't know any better.

So let's get a couple of things straight right now:

1.  You are not your mistakes.

You are human, a fact which guarantees you intrinsic worth -- worth that is not dependent on a handful of mistakes, worth that is the very essence of who you are.  A favorite quote of mine concerning this point comes from Fr. Gregory Boyle, whose memoir Tattoos on the Heart: the Power of Boundless Compassion, is one I would highly recommend.  In referencing the oft-quoted Bible passage in which Jesus says that we are "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14),  Fr. Boyle writes:

"I like even more what Jesus doesn't say.  He does not say, 'One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you'll be light.'  He doesn't say 'If you play by the rules, cross your T's and dot your I's, then maybe you'll become light.'  No.  He says, straight out, 'You are light.'  It is the truth of who you are, waiting only for you to discover it."

So remember that you are light, that your mistakes do not define you, and that your soul is beautiful.

2.  It is actually impossible to know what someone else is thinking.

Unless they tell you.  But that's not what I'm talking about here.

I'm talking about those times when we're having a conversation with someone we've only just met, for example, and we're watching their facial expressions closely, and something in the way they're maybe ever-so-slightly turning their mouth down at the corners, or the shortness we sense in their words when they address us, or the way they raise their eyebrows out of what we assume is skepticism... something in all of this makes us think they don't like us.  That we've inadvertently said or done something to offend.

Or a supervisor at work rubs their fingers over their frazzled brow when you haven't yet learned company protocol and do something incorrectly on your first day... or when you make an accidental blunder on your sixth month in.  You assume that means they're mad at you, or frustrated with you.

We are only ever given access to our own internal monologues, and the business of guessing what other people are thinking can cause an unnecessary amount of stress.  Of course, it's so much easier to say we shouldn't concern ourselves with what other people think, and that we're wasting our time because we'll never know for sure, than it is to actually apply this bit of wisdom to our lives.  But I think about this and I can't help but wonder... why?  Why would we make things more difficult and miserable for ourselves by imagining how negatively another might perceive us, when it would be so much easier to train our own minds to think positively, or to try empathizing with others instead?  To imagine that perhaps the reason for a person's shortness of temper has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with a family member's illness, or car troubles, or any number of other things that can stress someone out?  Or to remind yourself of point 1 above, that mistakes happen but you'll move on because you are a spectacularly radiant human being. 

Let's try to be a little kinder to ourselves, okay?  Mistakes are mistakes.  They're not you.  :)


Two Ways To Be Happier Without Really Trying

Monday, October 12, 2015

“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.
— Guillaume Apollinaire

I often find myself grappling with this piece of well-intended advice.

It might have something to do with my innate perfectionism, and the driving desire to do things correctly.  I am a list-er, an instruction follower, a cross-er off-er.  Just be happy?  How exactly am I supposed to do that?  I want actionable steps, things I can tick off one by one as proof that I’m reaching that elusive goal: happiness.

There are certainly a good number of books written by positive psychologists that would satiate my hunger for happiness if foolproof methods were the only things I needed to attain it.  More likely, I think the reason I still often find myself coming up short on this quest is that I, like so many others, have an idea of how my life is supposed to look, and it is one that has been informed by both my own hopes and dreams for my life, and by carefully curated Facebook posts and illusory Instagram photos of things that make others happy.  

I look to social media and see what others are so wildly happy to be doing, and I think I must be missing something because I’m not doing those things.  So sometimes striving to reach their standards of happiness, or variants of them, becomes my pursuit of happiness.  

And sometimes the pursuit of happiness takes the form of believing that I can’t be happy until I live in this place or have that job or can travel to London anytime I want.  But as Joshua Glenn Clark has been quoted as saying, “We waste so many days waiting for the weekend.  So many nights wanting morning.  Our lust for future comfort is the biggest thief of life.”  

We tend to think of the pursuit of happiness, in whatever form it comes, as a good thing, and complacency as negative.  There’s some truth to this.  Stagnation is hardly the means of a fruitful life’s journey of growth and discovery.  But if we depend too much on what the future might offer us, or on what we currently don’t have, we’re robbing ourselves of the beauty and joy that’s already present exactly where we are.  

Sometimes it’s infinitely better to stay put and just be.    

So, because I’m a list-er, and also because maybe you, too, might be confused on where to start with this whole “being happy right now” thing, here are two ways you can stop in the pursuit of happiness wherever you are at this moment and just allow yourself to be happy instead.

Find at least one thing where you are right now to be happy about.

Stop.  Breathe.  Look around.  What can you be happy about right now?

This might feel impossible ("I'm so angry/upset/anxious/annoyed right now -- what is there to be happy about?") or even frivolous ("Why should I allow myself to feel happy about trivial things, like the tree across the street with red-orange leaves, or the cappuccino I'm sipping, or the baby giggling in his stroller?  This moment will pass too quickly, and all of those things will soon vanish."). 

Fair enough... but just as surely as these happy moments will pass, the future happiness you seek might never arrive, either.  I don't say that to be cynical, I just say it because it's true.  Really, this moment is all we have.  Don't let it escape unnoticed or unappreciated.  And there is always, always, always something to be happy about.   

As I write this, I’m sitting cross-legged on the couch in the basement studio apartment my sister and I are currently sharing, and I am happy we will be moving into a much bigger place in about two and a half weeks, with our own bedrooms and bathrooms.

I am happy because I can’t think of a better writing/blogging partner than the hot cup of Earl Grey tea I was holding just seconds ago in a cheery Winnie the Pooh mug.  

And I am happy because I can hear my sister’s toy poodle puppy, Winnie, snoring softly where she’s curled up at the other end of the couch.  In a human I would find this annoying, but for an adorable dog, it’s nothing short of precious.

Simple things?  Sure.  But happiness begins with the little things.

Practice gratitude.

This is very closely linked to the above exercise, and it involves choosing just three things to be grateful for right now, too.  This is definitely not a groundbreaking idea, and most positive psychologists who study ways to fill our lives with more joy can agree that this is the best place to start, because it helps us to realize we already have so much to be happy about.

The three things you pick can be the ones you just noticed, or they can be different.  They can be things surrounding you right now, experiences you had, tangible or intangible possessions, or relationships.  Your family, your friends, your health.  Good food, a cozy bed (especially as the nights get colder), clean water.  A toothbrush, a good book, a television.  The sky’s the limit here.  

Once you have your three things in mind, just take a minute to let gratitude fill you up.  Feel it in your heart.  If you’re religious like me, maybe take this time to say a quiet prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings you picked.  Whatever you do, let this be a time to cherish what you already have, rather than anxiously look toward the future, or focus on what you might someday achieve or obtain.      


So there you go.  Two things you can do right now, wherever you are, with hardly any effort, to “pause in the pursuit of happiness of just be happy.”  To not be a bystander to, or worse, completely unaware of, the beautiful moments that flicker past while you’re chasing down ambition.

Some Thoughts On Turning 23

Monday, October 5, 2015

So I'm turning 23 on Wednesday.

And I'm actually pretty excited about it, despite the societal belief that birthdays stop being exciting after you turn 21, and articles like this that don't mince words when telling you that 23 is going to be the worst year of your life.

Birthdays are awesome.  You get to eat cake and open presents!  And in my case, I'll also be drinking wine and eating cheese.  I rest my case.

But being 23, I hear, is like being in the infancy of adulthood.  No longer college students, it's like 23-year-olds are wearing adult "costumes," trying hard to understand and pretend we know what being a grown-up is all about while not quite having arrived there yet, either.  We're in-betweeners, imposters of sorts.

But when in my life have I ever completely felt like I knew what I was doing, all the time?  I don't think that's a 23 thing, I think that's an always thing.  I'm learning that part of stumbling through life is having a healthy uncertainty that you're ever going in the right direction or doing the right thing.  Sometimes you just have to pick the best choice you're given and make the most out of what you have.  So all this fear mongering about year 23 is decidedly not going to affect me.

Now let's consider the other bit of birthday-related propaganda that the world seems to feed on: this idea that there's nothing exciting about getting older after you reach a certain age.  While it's true that there don't seem to be as many milestones associated with aging past 21, that's certainly no reason not  to be excited about it.

Getting older is an honor and a privilege that a heartbreaking number of people are not afforded.  Instead of shrugging and "oh well"ing another year, or bemoaning the fact that we're not as young as we used to be, and have more responsibility or wrinkles or whatever, try celebrating it instead!  As in, fist pumping, jumping up and down, laughing out loud celebrating.  A birthday says you've lived and learned and loved your way through another year, and it is a day to remember the gift and the blessing that you are to this world.

There's a reason people wish you a "happy" birthday, after all.  :)    

Why You Should Forgive Yourself More Often

Saturday, October 3, 2015

It's a commonly accepted principle of life that we are each our own worst critics.  That we have a knack for remembering and dwelling on our own mistakes far more than we take notice of others', and that we may even sometimes find it easier to forgive others than to forgive ourselves.  Our guilt and shame cripples us long after everyone else has forgotten our wrongs or forgiven us for them.  We often find ourselves turning less-than-ideal situations over and over in our brains, thinking about what we could have done differently, and wishing we had, the assurance that we'll do better at some abstract future moment providing thin comfort.

If you can identify with any or all of those statements, I have something to tell you that might help you see things differently, or at least inspire you to finally go a little easier on yourself.

I subscribe to the daily newsletter from because it ensures I start each day with a little dose of joy.  Yesterday morning, the lead story was this video about why the question "Who am I?" is so difficult to answer.  Turns out it's because of this fancy philosophical principle called the "persistence of identity."

...Wait.  What?

The persistence of identity.  Basically, it's the idea that we, as people, are constantly changing, and our identities are composed of so many different aspects of ourselves -- past, present, future; thoughts, feelings, actions, bodies -- that identifying who we are is much more difficult that pointing to an oak tree and calling it such, for example.  We are not definite.  We are not objective.  We are the result of so many different lived experiences, all woven into the fabric of our identities, which persist in spite of all of these changes because, underneath it all, we're still fundamentally the same people.

Or are we?

The video tells how the Greek historian Plutarch used a ship to explain this phenomenon.  When Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens, sailed home after his victory against the Minotaur at Crete, the Athenians preserved his ship in the harbor for a thousand years to honor his success, replacing each piece as it decayed with a new, identical piece.  By the time those thousand years had passed, no part of Theseus' original ship remained... so was it the same one he sailed all those years ago?

In a similar way, we humans are constantly changing.  This  New York Times article explains that on a physical level, our bodies are in a constant state of renewal, and that the oldest parts of us are still only about 10 years old.  We are like billions of little Theseus ships, repaired and replaced over time to keep ourselves in tiptop shape.  Which means that, life lessons aside, on a purely biological level, we are not the same people that we were years ago, or yesterday, or even seconds ago.  Because of this, it's unfair and mean for us to berate our past selves for mistakes we made at earlier times.  If we had known better then, we would have chosen differently.  And we have to trust that now that we do know better, we really are different, with no parts of our then selves (like Theseus' original ship), the people who didn't know enough to make a different decision, remaining.

We haven't assumed a different identity, of course; our memories and relationships and other enduring aspects ensure we're still our old selves.  But we're new, too.  Every day.  Always.  So don't hang on too hard to the past.  Let it create you anew today, and then let it go.