What Giving Thanks In Abundance Teaches Us

As Thanksgiving approaches we are reminded to stop and take stock of the things in our lives to be thankful for. The first American Thanksgiving, as tradition has it, was a harvest festival. Our modern celebration is full of excess and abundance as well. We work hard for hours, even days, preparing more food than we can possibly eat. Harvest is a time of plenty, so it is easy to find things to be thankful for.

The past few Thanksgivings for me have been a mixed bag of whether I have been in the mood for celebration or not. Three short years ago e made the trip home to say a final good-bye to my grandmother, who had hosted Thanksgiving for many of my childhood years. While we were visiting my mom got her initial cancer diagnosis, kicking off one of the roughest times for my family that I’ve ever experienced and sending me into a nervous, distanced state that lasted for almost an entire year. Even last year, while I was excited at the anticipation of my baby’s arrival, I was reticent to celebrate as usual because it might be the last chance to do so, and I didn’t want that pressure. This year though, I’m trying to take a better approach that I hope will improve this holiday for me in the future. I’m going to take the abundance of this year and carry it with me through the rest of the year and beyond.

Continue reading “What Giving Thanks In Abundance Teaches Us”

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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Taking A Look Back [2016]

I am a very chronologically aware individual. I love dates, relative events, and time. As much as I can, I spend time reminiscing and remembering, because I put value in being able to recall things that are important to me. My skill in remembering things I care about often bleeds over into useless memories, or unpleasant ones I wish I could forget. When I remember that dumb thing I said last week in a meeting, or bring up an inside joke I thought of that no one else remembers, I’m reminded that this skill takes a level of control to be valuable to me.

People around me with shorter memories can get annoyed when I bring up things they no longer remember, and it makes me feel really awkward. But I remind them that if something were important to them, they would remember it. My brain just decides a lot of strange things are extremely important to remember, and I let it.

In fact, I have realized that I actually tend to cultivate it through some of my behavior.

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I used to spend a lot of time in front of a calendar, my life wasn’t particularly scheduled, but I loved looking forward to big events coming up in the month and mentally count down to them. I also have some very memorable milestones in my life that help me be able to place other memories in time by whether they came before or after… [fill in the blank]. And when it comes to this time of the year, I have a tradition that I think really makes the difference: Right around midnight on New Years, I look back over the months past and think of at least one thing that happened in each month. Mentally re-running the year in review, hitting the highlights, and all the Big Things that impacted my life.

This year has been a big year. I remember shortly into the first week of January joking with a friend, “Can we return this year and get a new one?” At the end of the year I can confidently say I wouldn’t give it up even though it has been so rough.

Take a look back with me at the personal and public peaks and valleys I’ve been through in 2016:

January
  • Got to spend some quality time with my family on vacation from work. Thankful for a team at work who allowed me to relax and enjoy that time.
  • Mom started chemo and I said “good-bye” to fly back home.
February
  • My husband started working at the company I work for (on a different team, of course, still in the R&D department).
March
  • Mom’s scans revealed a need for more chemo and radiation with a tentative surgery date set for July.
April
  • Got to spend “Spring Break” commuting back and forth to work from a friend’s house while watching their (adorable) dog.
  • A mentor of mine at work left the company, after instilling in me sufficient wherewithal to handle his absence.
May
  • My grandma passed away, my third grandparent in just over 12 months, leaving just one remaining grandparent.
  • I got to go back to my parents’ house again for a stay-cation, to enjoy some quiet time between Mom’s treatment and surgery.
June
July
  • Started this blog!
  • Bought a house, somewhat unexpectedly, but conveniently.
  • My youngest sister moved in with us for the month.
  • Mom’s surgery was successful.
August
  • My parents drove up to bring my sister back. It was great to see Mom had recovered so well.
  • High stress month at work with another friend leaving the company, among other challenges.
September
October
  • Frantically finished up enough painting in the house to get flooring in.
  • Had friends over to the work-in-progress house to hang out close to twice a week. Felt like a real hostess.
November
  • Officially moved everything in! (Without necessarily organizing any of it…)
  • Booked an honest to goodness vacation for just me and Josh. Inspired by a friend’s post: For the Sake of Your Marriage, Take a Vacation (and the length of time it has been since we look a trip that didn’t include friends or family).
December
  • Got a puppy!
  • My family moved up to live with us during the winter, especially for the Holidays.
  • Hosted (what I hope is the first of many) board game parties for friends and family.
  • Made it through umpteen Christmas parties with a plethora of relatives.

On top of all the personal things that have made this year a rough one for me, the world in general has had a tumultuous time of it. between political issues, humanitarian crises, attacks and deaths. It’s easy to look back at a year like this one and only see negatives, hard times, reasons to complain. By reminding myself of what happened in each given month, I can reach for the positive, and realize that even in those darker months, there is hope, peace, and joy shining through.

How To Say No

People Pleasers unite! Sometimes I feel like I can do anything and everything that I am asked to do, and volunteer for even more. It’s part of what I need to work on when I invest in others to my own detriment, I just want to help, and so if someone asks, it is really hard to say “no” to a well-meaning request. This is especially true if I am signing myself up for something I know I can do better or more easily than the person who asked me to do it.

Does this mean I’m a bad delegator? Sometimes. Other times my need for control manifests in telling others what they need to do instead of just doing it for them. I’ve been getting better and better at knowing when I should trust someone else to take care of a project for me, but a lot of times I still want to take on the responsibility, because I believe I’ll enjoy it.

For example, I have this project I’ve been working on for myself, but I’m administrating several other sites as well as favors for different individuals and groups. I also have commitments to teach and lead club meetings for groups I am passionate about and whose members matter a lot to me. I love saying “yes” to these types of things because I enjoy doing them, but it doesn’t always mean I have the time or energy to do them all.

A person’s priorities are revealed in how they spend their time and energy. Whether that means they spend time on work, relaxation, volunteering, family, it is all motivated by what that person values. It’s easy to over simplify this, claiming that a person makes one of these too high of a priority, without realizing that each person has their own motivations and reasoning for why they do things. For example, it might be easy to say a workaholic prioritizes their job or money without reflecting the fact that they spend time at work to maintain job security or sufficient funds for their family. Without knowing the personal perspective of an individual, judging them by what they spend their time on can never give an outsider a clear picture.

By saying “no” to some things, we make conscious decision that we have other commitments that we are treating as more important. It’s OK to make those choices because time and energy are limited resources.

Every once in a while it becomes necessary to reevaluate and reprioritize, and that’s OK too. Just because I have been doing something for a while doesn’t mean there isn’t something I would rather be doing if given the opportunity.

This is where navigating these decisions gets tricky: when you have to tell someone else that you have prioritized out a task that you were counted on to get done. It feels like you are letting people down, and that you are breaking commitments, and I won’t advocate that either of those things are OK in all circumstances, but in most situations there is a gracious way of letting people know that you need to step down from a role. And most mature people will recognize that such a decision is made out of a healthy preservation of self, not out of selfishness.

Be honest, sincere and brave. You know your own life better than anyone else ever could, so you know when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, and the best course of action is to avoid overextending yourself, because that will have a negative outcome in the end. Even when others question your choices, you are not obligated to justify yourself to them. It is your life to live, and you choose what to say “yes” to.

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.

Stop Solving Other People’s Problems

In my family of three sisters we get told a lot how similar we are. And it’s true, when you spend your formative years with someone all day every day, as our homeschool family did, a lot of behavior rubs off. But I see more differences between us than most people notice, especially in our motivations and the way we relate to the world. I oversimplify if I say we don’t still each have these traits, but in different proportions. The balance between them is what gives us each our unique personalities and motivations. Continue reading “Stop Solving Other People’s Problems”