Failure Is A Big Deal

The following is the script I wrote myself for a speech given to a group of 5th-8th grade girls at the culmination of their time at Camp Infinity coding camp, put on my the Michigan Council for Women in Technology. I can say the actual talk was only about 70% on script, but these are the points I raised. After the presentation I led an activity databending and creating art through hexcode manipulation, using trial and error.

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A Taste For Good Food

I remember nearly two decades ago, deciding that I was grown up and needed to behave like what I believe to be “more adult”. I asked for clothes for presents and chose a carrot cake with a skimpy amount of frosting spelling out “Happy 6th Birthday”. At that age I think I was realizing what it meant to be a “grown-up” but miss-attributing the symptoms of adulthood (making frugal and health conscious choices) with a way to achieve maturity.

It’s possible that my family’s recent experience of going fat-free or very low-fat over the course of the year leading up to that birthday contributed to my infantile sense to have almost no frosting and make my cake “healthy”, even if I didn’t really think it tasted that good. (I added frosting to each slice as I ate it, but failed to recognize the irony in my doing so.)

Nowadays, I still end up asking for clothes (adults are so hard to shop for!) and I’ve embarked on yet another attempt to pay attention to what balance of nutrition is going into my body. I have plenty of reasons to want to eat healthy, including a lot of family history risk that can be lowered by diet and exercise. But even with that incentive to practice healthy habits, I rarely remember to.

I’ve noticed that I am rarely motivated without a goal and a deadline. (Did someone say “procrastination“?) Eating healthy just to eat healthy isn’t enough to motivate me to do it, and neither is exercising enough itself to make me want to do it. Instead I have challenged myself to try to consistently meet step goals and make meal plans in order to “train” myself for a vacation.

I plan on needing to walk a lot on vacation, and I intend to watch what I’m eating as both a way to stay on budget and to fuel the adventure. At least with the reward of an exciting trip in the future I have a time limit to give myself some urgency. Then I won’t spend a-whole-nother year telling myself I’ll kick it into gear “next week” or “tomorrow”.

So far I’m enjoying the experiment in better food because it has gotten me out of my rut eating the same old food over and over. I’ve tried some flavors that I wouldn’t have expected to like, and I’ve found some unique ingredients that I’m surprisingly fond of. Right now my favorite is banana milk, or banana anything really. Yogurt, flour, bread, I’ve had them all in the past week. My next food related challenge is to balance my ambition with reality so I don’t end up making too many dishes to finish before the leftovers are beyond saving. Thankfully I should have plenty of mouths to feed my experiments to over the holiday season.

It’s hard to say that I expect anything more out of myself than the umpteen times I’ve tried this type of thing before. But this time at least the motivation isn’t just to feel grown up, it’s to actually act responsible for my body. Hopefully I’ll come back with more progress than topping off my healthy lifestyle with more “frosting”. In the meantime, I’ve got some incentive to practice!

Motivation in the Face of Procrastination

I have never excelled at self-motivation. No matter how many times I end up cramming in a project at the last-minute, frantically cleaning as friends walk in the door, or packing late into the night before a trip, I never learn.

The procrastination isn’t limited to chores or schoolwork, although putting those off were the hallmarks of my high school years. Prime example: I started this very blog post approximately two months ago. Even hobbies and fun projects get put off, or end up half started, like all of my energy is used up with the inspiration and none is left for the follow through.

I have a list, longer than I would like to admit, of things I need to get done, to say nothing of the things that I want to do. Especially now that I have a house to maintain and this blog that I have decided deserves some of my energy, it has started to get overwhelming.

When things like laundry and dishes start piling up, instead of choosing to take care of them, I let them aggravate me and put them off until they feel convenient, and of course they never do. This isn’t the way to live, in constant state of procrastination. I can’t let things get to the point where I choose from my to-do list the item that feels least distasteful and let the rest wait for tomorrow. At that rate, I will never be able to actually accomplish anything.

Thinking like this runs the risk of getting overwhelmed and never starting anything. If there’s so much to do that it won’t ever be finished, why even bother?

One of the best ways I’ve learned to deal with this mindset is to prioritize the tasks waiting for me and chip away at them with smaller goals in mind.

This is an approach we use in software development, dividing up more complex projects into a manageable size and working on the next most important thing until it is all eventually finished. By setting smaller goals they seem achievable instead of impossible, and that alone can make enough difference in perspective to get started.

It is very important to set goals that are reasonable to accomplish, but still require hard work to achieve. I can give myself a month to pack for a trip, but if that is the only goal I intend to accomplish during that time, I’m still procrastinating on the other tasks I should take on.

Having someone keep me accountable when I feel like procrastinating has also been helpful. Feeling like I’ll have to tell someone when I’ve failed sometimes is enough motivation to proceed with distasteful tasks. Other times that person is the one who tells me its OK to relax when my to-do list is stressing me out. I have found this so important to keep me from getting burnt out on a project and giving up entirely.

So now that I’ve procrastinated on publishing this post for another few weeks, I’m going to follow my own advice and call it finished. This post doesn’t have to be done perfectly, it just has to be done. And with one thing completed: do the next thing.

Life Is Not A Competition

One again, one of my “strengths” is also one of my fatal flaws. This time it is my competitive drive, to do the best, be the best. And most of the time I can keep that in check and focus on myself without comparing me to others.

During college I took a somewhat lame personality test that was all about finding traits that a person is strong in so that they can cultivate them. I don’t put a lot of stock in personality tests, for a variety of reasons, key amongst them is a distrust of labels. Since that time I’ve learned how labels can be tools for understanding and empathy instead of just alienation, and I can appreciate the use of such analysis to foster conversation about personality by providing vocabulary.

However, before I came to this understanding, I was dead set against taking a test to tell me who I am. My results from my college experience were a set of five traits that included empathy and competitiveness. I’ve already addressed and acknowledged my tenancy towards extreme empathy, but learning to deal with that behavior has been a wholly different animal than learning to balance competition.

In some ways the empathy and competitiveness combine to produce a horrible result: jealousy. My empathic heart lets me feel what others are feeling, but my mind just wants to compare my situation to theirs. I struggle with maintaining a sense of my own contentment when I am pushing for continual improvement in myself.

As the oldest child in my family, there have been a lot of things that I was the first to do: first to learn to drive, first to graduate, first to have a romantic relationship, first to purchase a home. Some of these things are a rite of passage, but others are never a guarantee in life.

I struggle a lot seeing other people get things that I want faster or more easily than I can. It sounds immature, but here’s an example I’m willing to admit: I want a puppy. I have wanted a dog for a long, long time, and it hasn’t ever been possible due to our housing situation. My family even got a dog after I went off to college. Visiting family and friends’ dogs isn’t the same as having my own, and I always leave feeling disappointed that other people can have something I want while I have to wait a long time or work really hard to make it happen.

It’s not just trivial things like wanting a pet, I have spent a lot of energy trying to accept the fact that my life’s path is not the same as anyone else’s, that my version of contentment and success is unique. I don’t have to have the most glamorous job, the most put together home, the most exciting vacations.

I can’t keep living like this. I can’t continue to envy everyone else’s successes. I have to choose not to see someone else’s successes as my failure in comparison. There’s no need for comparison.

If I can stop myself from trying to one-up everyone else…

That doesn’t sound quite right.

My life is nobody else’s and if there is something anyone else has that I want, I either need to use that as motivation to make it happen, or realize that I don’t care enough to make it happen…

Nope.

This one’s hard. I just don’t know. It’s not a healthy way to live, and I’m trying not to, but right now, I don’t think I have the answer.

And maybe that’s OK.