What’s your bigger picture?

Did you ever have one of those moments when you suddenly become aware of your life, and can’t work out how you got here?

I had one today. I went to my grade 6 daughter’s school assembly this morning, to watch her receive her badge as the inaugural Sustainability Captain for her school. My tall, long haired, brilliant, gorgeous 10 year old, proudly wearing her badge and resolving to be the greatest Sustainability Captain she could possibly be. Her amazing 7 year old sister spoke up confidently in the same assembly.

My daughters.

Then I went to visit some friends I used to work with, proudly showed them the work of some of my students, and raved about how much I love my job. I picked up some historic computing artifacts with which to amaze my students, and grinned as I pictured their reactions.

My students. My job.

I’ve been letting the meditation slip lately, and today I forced myself to start again. I did a lot of meditation over the holidays, and like most things practice helps a lot, so I picked it up again relatively easily today, even in the face of distractions. One of the interesting side effects of mindfulness is that it seems to allow me to step outside my life for a moment and observe it from a distance.

What I saw took my breath away. Day to day I get easily caught up in the little dramas – the kids squabbling, the weather being toooooooooo hot (if you don’t live in Melbourne, please forgive the extra “o”s, and take my word for it that they have been more than justified of late), me being too tired, work being too busy, all the things I wasn’t perfect at, and all the things I can’t do, all the stress I can’t avoid. Meditation allows me to step away from all of those little demons jumping up and down and demanding my attention, and lets me see the bigger picture. It turns out that, regardless of the dramas of the day, I’m in a pretty amazing place right now.

One of my friends recently told me that in dealing with people with dementia, one of the most important lessons to learn is that everything is a phase. Phases shift, and change, and end. Whatever drama you are in the middle of, it’s temporary. That’s hard to see when you are lost and fighting in the trenches. Sometimes the best thing I can do for myself is see the bigger picture, and remember that tomorrow is another day. We can plan, and scheme, and twist ourselves inside out trying to prepare for a future that is entirely unpredictable, or we can be in the moment, enjoying today and letting tomorrow take care of itself.

Can you see your bigger picture? What do you do to get yourself past the day’s tensions and dramas, and see your life as it is truly unfolding?

What would you do if you won the lottery?

This morning on the radio I heard an ad saying something like “everyone wants to win the jackpot”, and it got me thinking. Do they? Do they really? What would change if I suddenly had a million or more dollars tossed in my lap?

Would I retire?

Would I buy stuff until it poured out my ears?

Could I change the world with that sort of money?

Would it change me?

They are probably the kind of questions that you can’t answer for sure, unless it actually happens to you (raise your hand if you’d like to be part of a statistically relevant sample). The temptation that goes with large amounts of money must surely have impacts that are hard to foresee.

But the idea does make me wonder what my ideal life looks like. I was very lucky when my second child was born. I was able to take four years or so off work, look after my kids, and explore different career options through volunteer work, among other things. We managed to avoid financial pressures, which meant that, when I finally worked out what I wanted to do, I was able to take a giant leap of faith – despite the huge drop in salary when compared with my previous job.

In those four years it became very clear to me that I need to work, and, moreover, I need a workplace. Working from home left me too isolated, too much at the mercy of my own hyperactive brain, which tends to create mountains out of every possible (and many an impossible) molehill without the constant presence of friends willing to wield the frying pan of enlightenment. (“Wham! Stop it, you big doofus! Wham!”)

I also need the opportunity to do the things I am good at, the things that make me feel as though I have really achieved something. Teaching is one of those things. So if I never had to work again, would I stop teaching?

No, I can’t see it happening.

Beguiling though the idea is of having nothing to do other than lounge in a hammock drinking cocktails all day every day, I don’t think many people would be truly happy without a sense of purpose. Of achievement. There is a fundamental need, deep in the human psyche, to feel needed. To feel purposeful. And at least in my psyche, there is a strong need for people. Holidays make me happy, but the first thing I want to do when confronted with a gorgeous view is to share it.

Image
Freycinet Peninsula, Tasmania

So what difference would a sudden windfall make? I could inject some luxury into my life, but the overall shape of it wouldn’t change. Stuff doesn’t make me happy. People do. I am happiest when I’m surrounded by people I love and respect, and kicking goals at work – money can’t buy me that feeling.

I have awesome friends, and wonderful colleagues. Money can’t get me more of those. I’d buy a healthier body if I could, but technology isn’t there (yet?).  Overall the things I want and need are not for sale. Once you’ve met your basic needs, what else can money do for you?

So this is my question for you: What would you change in your life if you had a million dollars? And what’s stopping you from doing it now?

You are what you do

I’ve long been passionate about people’s career choices. Way back when I was an academic giving career advice at University Open Days, I would exhort kids (and their hovering parents) to pay less attention to which degrees will get them the most money, or the most prestigious job, and more attention to what they really wanted to do, and what they really enjoy. Sadly I still hear kids plotting their futures based on reasoning that seems to me to be not merely coldly practical, but actually ill-fated. “Where are the jobs?” “What will earn me the most money?” “What will be most impressive?”

Think about it in terms of numbers for a moment. If you assume an 8 hour day, 5 days per week for 48 weeks per year (working on the Australian system of 4 weeks’ leave per year), a rough, back of the envelope calculation that doesn’t include things like public holidays or sick leave, would see a conservative estimate of 30 years of working life add up to over 57,000 hours of paid work in your life. Sure, you might go part time, or take maternity leave, and there are things like long service leave to look forward to, but even if you pare it down conservatively to fifty thousand hours, that’s an awful lot of time to spend on something you’re only doing to pay the bills.

I’ve just finished reading “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”, by Canadian Astronaut, Colonel Chris Hadfield. Sure, it was fascinating reading all the details of life on the International Space Station, and how they coped with (and reveled in) weightlessness. Plus it was a very funny read, and I frequently laughed out loud – the man has amazing talent in all kinds of different directions. But the thing that struck me really intensely about the book was one point that he kept on coming back to: although his lifelong dream was to go to space, he enjoyed every step of the intense and laborious preparation along the way. If he had never made it to space, he still loved what he was doing along the way. If he hadn’t enjoyed it, he could never have stuck with it.

That’s not to say there weren’t bad days – and some of them make my tough days at work look like birthday parties in comparison – but overall he was in the right place to use his talents, his passions, and his energies on something he believed in with his whole heart. Whether he went to space or not.

The passion comes across with amazing intensity as you read the book. When I read the last page I was almost teary at saying goodbye to a very personal and emotional tale of a working life lived to its absolute limits. Chris obviously put everything he had into his work, believed in it heart and soul, and made a huge and very public success of it. Whatever your job, ask yourself this: do you feel that way about your job? Is there something else you could be doing that you could feel that way about?

I admit I have been exceptionally lucky. I’ve had opportunity after opportunity, and I have been well placed to take them and see where they led. But at the same time I have constantly sought to do the things I was most passionate about – almost never with a clear idea of where I would end up, or even any expectation of an immediate job. Those few times I had a plan for the future wound up being mere stepping stones to completely different, unexpected paths that have been breathtaking in their intensity and fulfillment. Those opportunities only arose because I was somewhere I wanted to be, working with good people, pursuing things I was fascinated by.

It took me until my late 30s to find a job that gave me everything I was looking for, and I can’t see myself giving up teaching for a long time, if ever, but I am always looking for new chances and interesting directions. I’ve been teaching now for 3 years and each year I think “Maybe this year I’ll do things just like last year, and have a chance to breathe,” but it never happens. There are always wonderful new chances to take, and amazing new directions to explore. Slowing down may be something I will have to contemplate one day, but in the meantime the opportunities are too good to waste.

Chris Hadfield may have retired as an Astronaut, but I have no doubt he will spend the rest of his life giving himself wholeheartedly to every endeavour. That, to me, is living. Anything else is just marking time.

What makes you come alive?

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” — attributed to Howard Thurman.

You can spot someone who loves what they do a mile off. When you ask them about their work, they give off an almost blinding light with their incandescent joy. Which is not to say that they never get frustrated, annoyed, or tempted to quit. Someone who is passionate about what they do is quite likely to experience all of those things often, because anything truly engaging, that you believe in with all your heart, is never going to be perfect. There are always going to be things you can’t achieve, and because you are passionate about it, those things are going to really hurt.

Someone who is wholly invested in their job is quite likely to have QFQ days (those days where you find yourself screaming “I QUIT! I F*&^@ing QUIT!”) on a frequent, if not regular, basis. But most of the time, all screaming aside, if you believe in your job with that kind of intensity, quitting is the very last thing you will do, even on those days when you would happily throw your resignation sky high and shout it from the rooftops. Even on those days, when someone asks you what you do, you will probably still glow, even if it is slightly muted.

I know that I do. Even as I am ranting about the things that drive me mad, I remain high as a kite from the sheer exhilaration of the good bits of my job.

Where there is desire there is gonna be a flame
where there is a flame, someone’s bound to get hurt
but just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die
You’ve gotta get up and try and try and try.
–Pink, Try.

The trick with a job you are this passionate about is balance. I have not yet worked out how to care passionately about what I do, yet be able to walk away from the job at the end of the day, knowing I did my best, and not beating myself up over the things I can’t do, can’t fix, or can’t change.

One of the other ways to spot someone who loves what they do is from the exhaustion around their eyes. The occasional dummy spit over simply not being able to do everything. The rare, but deeply felt despair over the problems that simply can’t be solved.

Bob Brown recently said that you can’t change the world from a position of pessimism, yet I’d be astounded if he did not occasionally feel pessimistic, even despairing himself. You can’t fight 24/7/365 without sometimes burning out.

Perhaps the balance is to be found in the overall ratio of exhilaration to despair. I do know one thing though. However close it is to the end of an exhausting year, however many obstacles I have clambered over, only to find bigger ones still in front of me, however loudly I want to scream: Giving everything I have to a job that I believe in with my whole heart is the only way I can be everything I have the potential to be. It’s the only way to live a whole life. Anything else is just marking time.

How awesome are you?

If I walked up to you and said “how awesome are you?” what would you say?

If your boss came and said “tell me about the good stuff you have done recently?” how would you react?

If a friend said “you’re so talented!” what would you do?

I’ve been thinking about praise lately. Last week I was at a conference where I was unexpectedly publicly praised – I received an award and the presenter spent some time talking about how awesome my work is. It was quite overwhelming. And yet I know the project we were talking about is awesome. I am deeply proud of it. I do talk about it, at length, to my friends – generally raving about the students involved, the organisation who are partnering us in the enterprise, and the results we are getting. What I don’t usually mention is that it wouldn’t have happened without me. I saw the opportunity. I made the contacts. I built it into my course. I worked really hard to make it happen.

Even as I type that I am squirming uncomfortably. The project also wouldn’t have happened without the amazing students, the incredible partner organisation, and indeed the opportunity provided by the school to extend and develop the curriculum. It’s easy for me to praise my students, my partners, my colleagues, my school, and my friends. I can praise just about anyone (although I draw the line at Tony Abbott). But praising myself makes me squirm. Talking about my own achievements is something I am hugely uncomfortable with.

But why should I be?

“There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!”

Terry Pratchett, The Truth.

It seems to me that the world belongs to people who can self-promote. People who shout to the world about all the awesome things they are doing – even when those things aren’t all that awesome, or maybe are not even theirs to shout about. It’s the shouting that counts. It’s the image you present that is important, far and above the substance of what you actually do.

It’s very difficult to praise yourself. We tend to see people who sing their own praises as braggarts, show-offs and generally obnoxious people. Yet I think it’s important to be able to say “I did this, and I did it really well” or “this would not have happened without me” or “this is really important, and I made it happen” or simply “this is what I’m good at, and I’m proud of it.” There is a lot of space worth exploring between over-the-top self-promotion and not being proud of what you do, yet it is somehow more socially acceptable to fall on the extremely negative side of that space.

I am very proud of what I do, and I do lots of it really well. Not all of it – the day I start saying I know everything there is to know about teaching will be one day after I should have retired. There is always so much more to learn. But everyone has things they can be proud of, and few of us are willing or able to articulate them.

I think that’s a shame. It’s all very well to be modest and self-deprecating, but I believe that for our own self-esteem, and for the benefit of all the young people who are watching us and learning from us, we owe it to the world to stand up and say “this is what I’m good at, and I’m proud.”

So ask yourself tonight: How awesome are you?

Ganging up

Once a week I start work at the start of the school day, rather than part way through, because my husband takes our kids to school. For weeks I have been trying to get to work extra early on that day so that I can make it to a mindfulness session that runs in the mornings, and until today I have never quite made it. This morning I was running on schedule for a change, and made it out the door in plenty of time to ride to work, park my bike and unpack my gear… except that as I stepped out the door I heard a rather raucous creaking noise from above, and I looked up into the large white cedar in our front yard and saw three gang gangs perched in the tree, happily munching on the remains of last year’s berries.

Gang gang

Male Gang gang eating last year’s White Cedar fruit

For a moment I hesitated. I could stay and admire the Gang gangs, who are infrequent visitors to our neighbourhood. They have always been particular favourites of mine for their dusty black plumage and the spectacular red crest of the boys. Or I could leap onto my bike and rush to make it in to work in time for the mindfulness session for a change. Then it dawned on me – there is nothing more mindful than pausing to admire birds in your own garden. This was a ready made, wing-delivered mindfulness session of my very own.

I called my family out to see, and we lingered for a while, watching them manoeuvre their way around the tree, sometimes flipping upside down to get to the best of the berries. It was a start to the day that left me smiling and peaceful. When I rode off around 10 minutes later, I figured I wasn’t going to make it to the session, so I resolved to be particularly mindful along the way. I concentrated on being aware of the traffic around me (always a wise idea!), and on feeling my feet on the pedals. I could feel the wind on my face and my hands on the handlebars. When the path around me was clear I noticed the birds and the cloud formations.

Rather than riding hard to get to work in a hurry, I cruised along simply enjoying the moment. Several pedestrians I passed going the other way smiled and said hello, which doesn’t often happen. I figured it was an indicator of my more relaxed and open attitude. And then something odd happened. As I neared work I looked at my watch and discovered that I had just ridden the fastest ride to work I’ve done in ages, and that I was in plenty of time to attend the mindfulness session.

Once I got to school I checked my watch against my phone, convinced it must have stopped. I couldn’t work out the logic of it. I wasn’t riding hard. I was more relaxed. And I got to work faster than usual. The phone confirmed the watch, and a look through my fitness tracking data showed that yes, this was the fastest ride in some time.

I think those Gang gangs served to teach me a valuable lesson. That stopping to enjoy the moment on offer, and relaxing into whatever you are doing, is far more effective than scrunching up both body and mind into a tangle of tension in an attempt to bulldoze your way through the day. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, with my coffee and my stress. I’ve been bulldozing and bludgeoning my body into getting through the day.

This morning I got my tense and wired mind out of my own way, and it was magic.

What do Gang gangs have to teach you?

Time for nothing

Gluten free bread, for those of you who have not experienced it, tends to be dry and crumbly. It can be lovely fresh from the oven, but the loveliness rarely lasts for even 24 hours. After that it is only good for toast. Fortunately a bakery near us does wonderful gluten free bread that is almost as good as real bread, but for some reason they always slice it very thinly, so that when toasted it becomes excessively crunchy and dry. Periodically I order a few loaves unsliced and stash them in our freezer, so that I can slice it myself and make it thick enough for a really tasty wodge of toast. (Thank you, computer, but “wodge” is too a word, so nyer.)

Yesterday as I was slicing off my morning toast it occurred to me that pre-sliced bread is something of a mixed blessing. A really thick wodge of toast is a very lovely thing that most of us never see any more, as we sacrifice this small luxury for the convenience of being able to shove a thin spongy thing into the toaster as we fly through the morning routine, getting ready to rush out the door. Slicing my own bread takes, maybe, 30 seconds, yet before I went gluten free I almost never bothered to buy unsliced bread. Which is a shame, because a thick wodge of toast is the best thing since sliced bread.

There are a lot of devices in our lives designed to save us time. Our houses overflow with the things. Dish washers, washing machines, dryers, power mowers, microwaves, food processors, computers, and even cars – each new model guaranteed to be faster, more powerful and, importantly, shinier than the last.

Yet so many of the devices come with a cost. We speed down the road in our cars so that we can squeeze in a trip to the gym to regain the fitness we have lost by driving everywhere. Our power mowers wreck our ears, our lungs and the environment, and ultimately save us very little time, since hand mowers these days are remarkably fast and effective. Ours must be at least 15 years old now, and it still does our lawn fast, quietly, and above all safely. (Although I did fall backwards onto our old one once, obtaining the worst bruising of my life on my lower back and buttocks in an act of clumsiness that will not surprise regular readers. On the bright side nothing was severed, as it undoubtedly would have been had I fallen onto some kind of power mower.)

It is a mystery to me where all this saved time has gone. For all our houses full of time saving devices, we are busier than ever before. Too busy for friends, too busy for family, too busy to stop and chat, too busy for mindful contemplation of our lives. Too busy, it seems, even to breathe deeply and admire the sunset. We ruefully acknowledge the downsides of our busy-ness – “I’m a bad friend. I just haven’t had time to call her.” “I worry I’m not spending enough time with the kids.” “I never get to spend time with my husband.” “Life’s just too busy.”

And you’re rushing headlong
you’ve got a new goal
and you’re rushing headlong
out of control
and you think you’re so strong
but there ain’t no stopping and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Queen, Headlong.

Over the last week I have been on crutches – physically prevented from rushing anywhere. I have been forced to slow down, and in chafing against it I have discovered how much of a habit hurtling has become. I think maybe it is a kind of drug. We seem to feel that time spent doing nothing is time wasted.  And in the process we have forgotten how to breathe.

Maybe it’s time to to spend some of that time we’re saving.