Starting Over: Going from Zero to Sixty (or at Least to a Grumpy Thirty)

She persevered. There it is, the epitaph for my gravestone. One would think the outcome would be pure, unmitigated success for all the trying I do. All the workouts, reading, goal-setting, and writing I’ve done in my lifetime would suggest a svelte, erudite, accomplished human being instead of this awkward lump just trying to get through the day without tripping over herself. It turns out, the only way I see positive outcomes is by redefining for myself what success actually means.

The last month and a half, I got steamrolled by a family medical crisis. Before that hit, I’d canstockphoto25096122been training for a 5K, improving my nutrition, writing up a storm, and feeling pretty good about the direction my life was taking. I was able to see some progress and was learning to focus better. Then life happened and training runs became sitting vigil in a hospital. Writing became short missives in dealing with my fear and anxiety. Good nutrition became whatever showed up in gift baskets. Sleep was 15 minutes in a chair or on a polyvinyl couch, manipulating airline pillows so my neck wouldn’t hurt.

The primal fears never came to pass – this time, we beat the odds. Our bags are unpacked and we are home as if nothing ever happened. Life is normal again.

Two days after we got home, I started training runs and counting calories. My heart wasn’t in it. I wrote a few blog posts, opened my novel on the computer 246 times and closed it again. I still wasn’t sleeping well. I stopped running, I stopped tracking, I stopped writing. It was hard to care. I felt defeated, because it felt like all the work I’d been doing had been for nothing – I was starting over again.

canstockphoto13308001A naturally sunny person would revel in a good medical outcome and having the opportunity to start over again. But I am more a dark-side-of-the-moon person. It takes a lot of effort to move into the light and to embrace positive habits. Worthiness is not second nature. It requires a lot of self-talk and a one step at a time approach, which is exhausting and infuriating for someone who lacks patience. This is all to say, that it’s hard (and yes, hear that with the requisite tone of whining).

The formula for starting over or starting anything is always the same: do one thing. And then do it again. Once the one thing is habitual, add another thing. Give it a little time. Review, adjust the things you do if some habits are working better than others. Re-jigger habits until you’ve ironed out the bumps. Do the next thing. So simple. So incredibly difficult.

The first step for working out for me is always showing up. Arrange to meet a friend for a walk. Go through the doors at the gym. Decide to stretch for ten minutes on the living room floor. Do the thing. I did the thing. I went to the YMCA, got on a treadmill, left 20 minutes later angry at the world. It was a terrible run. I felt awful. Everything hurt. I felt I’d lost so much ground just in the course of a month. So I went home, binge watched a terrible TV show while eating my body weight in ice cream.

canstockphoto35027190.jpgThe next day, I met a friend for a walk. I could hear myself blathering on and had an out-of-body experience of wanting to tell myself to shut up. It was our usual patter, but I wasn’t in it and was happy when it was over. Normal felt awkward.

The following day, I showed up at the gym again, arriving out of sorts and planning on feeling like absolute shit again. I galumped my way onto an elliptical for warm up and begrudgingly shuffled over to a treadmill for an interval run. As planned, it felt awful. But not as awful as before.

Rinse and repeat.

The encouraging bit of this tale would be to announce that I’ve just come in first place in a 5K. But that would be a lie. I’m not sure I could even finish a 5K at this point. I’m begrudgingly heading to the gym this morning with apprehension and no small degree of grumpiness. But I’m doing it. I have a high tolerance for doing things, even when grumpy. A nicer spin would be to call this resilience.

canstockphoto48648947Eventually, I know it will be better. But part of me feels the foreboding sense that life will force me to start over again. And I’d be right, because that is the nature of being human. Something will always happen and knowing that, I know the skill of being able to start over is indispensable and necessary. Perseverance is the gift.

I have to remember that gift when I lift weights and feel like a weakling or when I write and seem incomprehensible or when I’m trying to be kinder and call someone a dipwad while driving or when I count calories only to discover I could have fueled a small factory with what I ate. Sometimes success can’t be outcomes. Sometimes it just has to be in the trying and the doing. Dragging oneself, kicking and resentful, into the light is sometimes the best we can do.

The Pitfalls and Promises of Self-Help

I’m a self-help scavenger. Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve read hundreds of self-help books. Like many people, I started life off on uneven footing and always had the sense that I had to make up for something that I was lacking – something that was preventing me from being the confident, self-actualized, happy person I thought I should be. It’s taken decades to understand how to make self-help advice useful and how to discard that which is not.

There is a wide variety of books out there, one for every phase or problem in one’s life. The approaches vary and as we all know, so do the results. Some are sweet aunties who love you and just want you to be happy. Others are drill sergeants who bellow in your face. And then there are the shills, who turn basic ideas into a secretive language of high wizardry.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned about self-help books:

The first half of the book usually covers all the concepts.

I will be the first to admit that it is a rare self-help guide that I finish. Unless the writing or the stories are compelling, repetition sets in and then it all starts to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher in my head. I also find that I need time for thoughts to marinate – once I catch an idea I like or that makes sense to me, I’m eager to put the book aside.

The harsher the tone of the writer, the less I trust their ability to understand human nature and therefore offer useful advice.

canstockphoto2656709This is the drill sergeant approach. Take someone who is feeling down and out, tell them what to do, and then suggest that they’re a failure if they can’t make it happen. This is, essentially, what many self-help books do. Throw in a little moralizing and finger-wagging and you get the idea. This is, to loot modern terminology, self-help shaming. What? We told you what to do. If you’re not happy now, there’s something wrong with you.

Some books have a narrator who talks as if they’re in the midst of a bar brawl or on the battlefield. The toughness approach generally makes me want to tear the book in half. I grew up with negative motivation. It means that fear drove most of my behavior. I’m a grownup now and won’t be yelled into compliance. Convince me with logic and reason. Use your indoor voice.

Most self-help books are missing major caveats.

I recently read a self-help book that is popular right now. The first chapter started out with the origin story. The second was a cheap remix of The Secret. The following chapters had a few actionable items. I finally quit at the chapter that characterized depression as some sort of defeatist laziness. The writer was a little older than I, so there was really no excuse for this type of ignorance.

This is not the first time a self-help writer characterized depression as something canstockphoto13041791besides a brain chemical imbalance. The positivity movement of the 1990s, in its self-congratulatory glee and smiley faces, runs roughshod over obstacles to good mental health.

It is likely no coincidence that, despite all of these friendly people telling us to get happy, depression is on the rise in this country. It turns out, willful ignorance and grinning determination is not actually an antidote to mental health issues.

Like most things, the sequels are rarely better.

This is about marketing, not self-help. It’s just squeezing an already-juiced orange.


canstockphoto34597907So those are some of the pitfalls. The biggest one, of course, is believing that you are one constant DIY project. I’ve unraveled a lot of the thinking around that. I like self-improvement pursuits, but it’s very easy to focus so hard on trying to be better, that you fail to appreciate the things about yourself that are pretty good. And when pretty good is good enough.

It’s part culture and part related to whatever messages we get as kids. We get pulled into the advertising of better selves through possession of better things and it can attach itself to that part of our psyche that says whatever we have, whatever we are, it’s not enough.

Using Self-Help to Your Advantage

Self-help advice is like a buffet.

You pick what you like, what resonates, what seems like a possibility. You don’t make yourself eat the beets just because they are next to the chocolate pudding (or vice-versa, depending on your intentions and tastes).

There’s no failure. There’s what works for you and what doesn’t.

If you don’t implement every step the author suggests, you’re not a failure. Has the step you’ve chosen helped improve your life in some way? That’s the only thing that matters.

Sometimes good ideas come from odd places.

canstockphoto24077627Many years ago, I read L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics” – the tome associated with Scientology. The one thing I learned was to think about my reactions to situations and whether or not I was reacting to what was in front of me or to other memories and connections related to the situation. That’s pretty much all I got out of a 600+ page book, but it was something.

Change is not a television show. There is no big reveal.

I used to love watching This Old House on PBS. Usually it was a kitchen or basement that got transformed in the course of an hour. Of course, ginned-up versions of this now come in weight, house, and fashion makeover shows. Buses are moved, curtains pulled aside, and suddenly, there’s the after, dramatic and “improved”. Real change takes time and perspective. I’ll read something today that I may not try for years, but it’s a tool in the back of my mind that might come in handy someday. You just never know what might be useful when the time is right.

canstockphoto12917145My Abbreviated History of Self-Help Books

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray

I learned that I hate any self-help books divided by gender – and this guy’s books in particular. It’s loaded with stereotypes and unimaginative solutions. This smarmy trad-dude is from Uranus.

Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. Ginott

I learned some good communication skills, not just with my child, but with humans in general. Kept it as a reference book.

Women and Self-Esteem by Linda Tschirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan

I read this back in the 1990s when I was spending a lot of time on public transportation. It had a chapter about women in public spaces that made me not only function differently in public, but also improved my observation skills of others around me.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

Don’t quip corporate terminology, show me what is essentially a PowerPoint presentation, or encourage me to buy your extensive line of products. Sigh. I bought one of those stupid planners. I needed to schedule time in my day to fill in the damned thing. Not effective and carries a whiff of corporate bro-ness.

Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality by Pema Chödrön

This was my first encounter with this American Buddhist nun and I’ve been hooked ever since. Most of the time I listen to her audiobooks, but I will sometimes pull When Things Fall Apart off the shelf. The thing that always sticks in my mind is the idea of “leaning into the sharp edges” – this idea that instead of seeking distraction and avoidance of unpleasant feelings, to look at them with a clear and present eye. It’s much less destructive.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I really wanted to like this book, but it was a bit of a clunky read, with anecdotes that were too lengthy and perhaps intended for people who routinely miss the point.

Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold

I read this book last fall and set about immediately making changes (microresolutions). I’m still in the enthusiastic phase. I’ve made changes that are, 8 months later, habits. I read another book at the time that was similar in nature: Mini-habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results by Stephen Guise. It was a good starter book, but Ms. Arnold’s book included an important piece often missed in goal-setting – teaching you how to pick the right goal for yourself.

The Power of Now by Ekhart Tolle

I tried, I really tried. There’s no way around it – the condescension just irritated the hell out of me.

Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore

This book stays on my reference shelf. I like writing that makes me feel just a bit smarter. The narrator, a former monk, does not limit himself in sources, drawing analogies from religion, mythology, and culture. His book embraces complex feelings, instead of trying, like so many others, to deny or simplify them.

Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman

I learned how to change my internal dialogue with this book. There are a lot of ways to go about this, but this particular book resonated with me. I learned how to challenge my irrational thoughts. Not permanently, of course – that’s an ongoing challenge.


I’m going to stop there – the list is getting too long. The books that I have actively disliked (and passive-aggressively not provided links to), might just be the thing that does it for you. And some of my aha book moments may completely elude anybody else.

Do you read self-help books? What have you read that has been useful?



Building an Imposter’s Life

My intention has been, over the last few years, to build a writer’s life. I had to figure out what it meant to me, beyond all the myths I’d built up in my mind.  It is important to establish from the outset that I will never feel like what I’ve always imagined a writer to be.

canstockphoto2656709It occurred to me that how I feel about what it means to be a writer or not is completely irrelevant to what I do as a writer. The drill sergeant within says Write, dumbass. But writing is what I’ve been doing. How do I get beyond my computer? How do I improve my skills? How do I feel like writing is woven into my day?

Writing Out Loud

Over six years ago, I began to write blog posts. I felt sick to my stomach each time I hit “Publish”. I got over that, got hooked on and unhooked from Stats, and eventually hit a pace with which I was comfortable. I’ve spent hours writing and re-writing blog posts. The key lessons I’ve learned from that are:

  • Keep it in perspective. It’s an unpaid labor/writing practice and that is important to remember when setting writing priorities. As I have ambitions towards publication of a novel and short stories, writing blog posts cannot account for all my writing time. It seems logical, but it’s easy to rationalize any writing as being productive, regardless if it actually gets you closer to a personal goal or not.
  • canstockphoto56234840Building a community requires generosity, patience, and boundaries. I like to share links of other people’s work, but I generally don’t re-blog or write guest posts. Since I read other blogs because I like the writer’s voice, it sets the expectation that when I go to a blog, I’ll hear the writer’s voice. I also learned after the first year, that blog awards, while flattering, are chain letters with homework. The biggest lessons are that patience and courtesy are the name of the game – and don’t obsess about stats.
  • Review, re-commit, and sometimes, just take a break. Burnout is something I’ve experienced about 263 times in the last six years and a few times I considered giving up blogging altogether. But I’m still here. I regularly review why I blog (firm up that mission statement), recommit to better writing, or take a break. The first year, I took the summer off. Since then, I’ll take 2-4 weeks off at a time, with a notice on the blog of when I’ll return. Too many blogs drop off and never return – I’d like to stay on your reading list!

Taking Chances

canstockphoto15646582In my experience, there is no growth without fear, so I’ve been doing things I’m scared to do. I’m an introvert/perfectionist/procrastinator – so yeah, the things I’m scared to do as a writer comprises a very long list.

  • I wrote a novel over 5 years ago during NaNoWriMo, revised it over and over, and then let it go. I’ve started a second novel.
  • I went to a writer’s conference and pitched my first novel to agents.
  • I went to a book club. That really didn’t work out, so I’m trying to start an online one of my own.
  • Another writer/blogger contacted me, asking if I’d be willing to mentor her. Me? She had a great plan and caught me on a day when I was feeling confident. I said yes. Thinking about what she needs as a writer has reminded me that I know things, some of which are useful.
  • I submitted my first piece of work, despite making myself panicky-ill and mangling the submission. I’m not waiting 50 years until the next submission.
  • This month I’m applying for a highly competitive writing fellowship. My stomach tightens into a pit at the thought of it. My odds are slim, but they’d be zero if I didn’t apply.

Each step is practice for taking the next step. Failure is victory, because it means I’m doing something.

Improving Writing Skills

canstockphoto10374745I wanted to be a writer because of what I read, so it seems logical that if I wanted to elevate my writing, I needed to elevate my reading. I started digging into more challenging works and learned to take assiduous notes. I subscribe to World Literature Today which diversified my reading lists, as well as learning about translated works at Asymptote.

My reading is more directed and less whimsical. Sometimes it’s hard to read great writing and not get that sinking sense that I may as well be writing with a crayon in a dark corner somewhere. But that’s the nature of reading above one’s level of skill. Skip over the discouragement and the negative litany, right on over to practice, practice, practice.

The Absence of Motivation

I’m rarely ever inspired or motivated, in the moment, to do what I need to do. It’s this magical thing that other people apparently experience. Accepting this fact has been very useful. I can’t wait until I’m in the mood to write or exercise or until the stars have aligned to create a zen time and space for me to work.

Inspiration and motivation come in small ideas. This week, I’ve been thinking about the Mel Robbins TED talk I listened to – the idea that productive impulses are often overrun by autopilot because we don’t act on them right away and our habits take over.

canstockphoto6297403I’ve been practicing, acting on that annoying “should” dialogue. I am trying two things: 1) re-framing the should into a want. I should workout = I want to workout because I know it will make me feel better. 2) Practicing the five second rule. Positive impulse? 5-4-3-2-1…do it. I’m not giving myself time to stomp down that change in behavior, in favor of habit/autopilot.

The little habits are a great place to start. I should have herbal tea instead of coffee = I want to have herbal tea, because I’ll feel better with less caffeine. 5-4-3-2-1…grab an herbal teabag. It seems silly in the scheme of things, but as I’ve learned over the last year, the smallest components of a life, the minutiae at the margins, shape our lives and it is in those places that we have the greatest ability to make changes – to be what we’re pretending to be.

Running with the Bull

There are the lies we tell others and there are the lies we tell ourselves. My lies to others canstockphoto15403110tend to be the carefully curated lie-but-not-a-lie that tries not to hurt feelings or unjustifiably cause pain. I don’t lie about myself, although online I tend to be airbrushed. Catch me when I expected to have some solitude or ride my bumper in your oversized vehicle and the sharp edges emerge.

The toughest lies to untangle are the lies we tell ourselves about who we are and what will make us happy. If I were to imagine my actualized self, it would be as an established writer in good physical condition – an autodidact vegan polyglot. And rainbows would shoot out of my ass.

At this point in my life, it’s all about the reach. I’m reaching towards my actualized self, trying to build actions into my daily life that are in the right direction. That’s the hard part – as exciting as the end game might sound, it is the smallest part of the whole process. The hard part, the boring part, is the action.

I’ve been adding new habits over the last few months – running and language studies. I attended a pitch conference that made me talk about my work, even in its disheveled state. After experiencing a small measure of success, I had the letdown. What now? What’s the next step? I began to think about the process of turning internal bullshit into reality.

Internal Investigation

canstockphoto5050400Assessing where I was should have been easy, but I found myself repeating old excuses or justification for why I hadn’t made progress. I have years of experience in lying to myself, so it took a willingness to say “hey, you know that’s not true”.

There are a couple of things I believe, but didn’t take to heart. One is that if something is important enough to you, you’ll make time for it. I was always telling myself I didn’t have time, but when I looked at how I was actually spending my time, I knew it was a lie. This is an important thing to think about, because it tells you several things:

  • Maybe I don’t really want this thing I thought I did.
  • Maybe this other thing I do is more important to me, and
  • How much of my life is on autopilot?

The other thing to think about is why you want to attain the goals you do. What need does it fulfill? Is it something you still want? I had an experience with a book proposal at the writers’ conference. I’d been carrying around this idea for 25 years and when I decided to let it go, it carried with it more than the idea, it carried my reason for wanting to do it – an old burden of shame for not finishing a master’s degree. Pruning one’s goals to those that really matter is so helpful.

canstockphoto19601309I had a discussion with a writer friend the other day about what need writing fulfills and where one needed to go with it, instead of blindly reaching for what we thought we should. Maybe the act of writing is enough or maybe we want awards or monetary compensation. Maybe we just want a few readers. It’s important to be specific about your goals, so that your actions support it.

I want to be published and paid for it, so I have to create a body of work, write and edit daily, send out queries, etc. That’s a lot of work to do if, at the end of the day, what you really wanted was a few readers or to see your writing in hard copy – both attainable without all the excess work and money. If you are not doing the actions to support what you think you want, you need to be honest about what you really want or you need to make a change.

canstockphoto18049411Over the course of my life I’ve been an irregular regular exerciser. Solid workouts for weeks and then nothing for a whole month. This seemed an intractable and constant problem for me. I read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and started to think about what throws me off positive habits. His flowchart “How to Change a Habit” is useful. It made me realize that I might need a more specific goal and extrinsic reward for working out. Yes, it did my brain good and woo-hoo, I could lift so many pounds, but I had to be honest that this was not enough of a motivator or else I’d be consistent.

I recently started and finished an 8 week to 5K training program. Having a specific goal, an automated workout to follow and a compulsion to finish was very helpful. On top of that, I gave myself a reward at completion – new running shoes and a t-shirt that says “Less Talk, More Run”.

canstockphoto19213064For a year, I followed a plant-based, vegan diet. I felt lighter and like I had made a real effort to integrate my personal ethics regarding animal life by pairing it with action. I felt good and enjoyed the food I was eating. And then I stopped. Holiday food belted out its siren call and I crashed myself upon the rocks, less like a ship and more like a sea lion lolling about, reveling in its layers of warmth.

These are goals I return to, again and again. And maybe a pragmatic person would say, hey, if you can’t stick with it, maybe this ain’t your game. But there’s a learning curve and each time I set goals and miss them by a quarter mile, I figure out what works and what doesn’t work. I get better at it. And the fact that I return to them over and over means I’m doing something more often than not.

It’s reset time at The Green Study. I’m starting a new program with specific goals, time frames, metrics and rewards. For the next 21 days (May 1-21), I’m putting some new habits in place. Autopilot is being disengaged. So for the next three weeks, I am going to be intolerable. And I plan on writing about that here.

canstockphoto25992149If you want to ride along with me for the next 21 days, think about one tiny, daily habit that will help you towards a larger goal and drop it in the comment section. Think about how it works in your day, what obstacles you might run into and how you’d counter them. Decide on a reward and think about who or what might help support your goal. And if you have experienced success, pass on your tips!

Let’s do this thing.