Friday, October 29, 2010

October update: 7 months into my plan

Yesterday was the 7 month anniversary of this blog. Much like last month's report, I'm not very happy with my progress.

For awhile things were going well. I was organizing myself, I had changed to a three day a week blogging schedule and stuck to it, and I was feeling okay about my progress (although I was unemployed and uncertain about my future).

Then things got harder. Progress was first delayed by the enormous amount of time I put into a project and then completely derailed after the exhaustion and burnout I felt after completing that event. Since then I've been a well-meaning but mostly stuck in inertia person. I plan that "today will be the day" but then I pick up my computer and the next thing I know it is dinner and the house is a mess, the projects aren't started, and I have no idea how I managed to spend so much time on trivial things. I'm disorganized and depressed and I'm not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg.

This probably is natural for any project. There is the initial enthusiasm which then is faced with the reality of trying to do a lot in a little time. The burnout from overdoing it then creates a backlash which must be worked through and then the person climbs out of the low point and heads to victory. That, at least, how I imagine it will be. The question is how to climb to victory from this low point I've created.

I reached a plateau where I no longer see a clear path. The first stuff to do was easy, which is why I did it first. The habits I am trying to change now are the ingrained stuff that holds me back from being what I want to be.

I'm going to count my victories here and see if this can help me feel more motivated:

1. Started a blog and kept to it
2. Started a list of 41 Things to Do and did a bunch of things on it (although not nearly enough if I am going to finish them all before the end of March)
3. Began a major organizing project in my house (although this has fallen apart somewhat lately)
4. Did a major event which took all my attention 24/7 for 3 months and got national attention
5. Became more adept at marketing and networking--this is a major victory for a chronically shy person because I now can speak to total strangers and interact with them comfortably while speaking authoritatively and enthusiastically about a subject (I feel better about this in the last year as I've done more of it lately)
6. I've applied to many jobs which were interesting and challenging (and perhaps a bit out of my league, but I was brave and tried. True, I'm still unemployed but I am working on that)

The challenges ahead:

1. Getting myself back on track for getting organized
2. Write my novel
3. Find a job (preferably one which I am passionate about)
4. Get control of all those half-finished projects sitting around and those "I'd like to...." and "I really should...." plans

We'll see where I am at the end of November. I will start on Monday to start fresh and see if I can get beyond the planning to do stage and to the actually doing it stage.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sign of the Economy

Yesterday I got a response from one of my many job applications. Good, right? Well, sort of.

On Craigslist they didn't identify the company or anything about what they do, but the job position and duties were right up my alley. Since most applications I send are completely ignored anyways, I decided to go for it. I applied and expected that "that was that," as it were.

Instead, the next morning, I get an email which asked if I do freelance work and my rate. The email indicated that the person had received my resume through my application on a Craigslist post and in the footer it gave the company name.

The company is one of those business lead generation places, apparently. I'm sure there is nothing wrong with this sort of thing, but I'm a bit wary of certain kinds of businesses after recent experiences.

You see, I'm applying for marketing positions, mostly, and I've had a few people contact me that turned out to be less than legit. The companies most likely to do this sort of thing: call centers, coupon door to door salesmen, and "lead generation" companies. They will advertise for a marketing or publicity person, giving a great job description which sounds interesting and legitimate. Once they get your resume, however, things will change.

In one case, I was told that I would interview (all day) for the company, partly by being taken on a tour and shadowing an employee. Before I agreed to it, I did some Googling on the name of the company listed at the bottom of this response. I found that a bunch of people were complaining that the job wasn't what was advertised--that they did this and then made you go around with a coupon salesman all day (refusing to let you leave) and basically holding you hostage for a day in order to get you to take a job which was far different than the one they advertised. I turned them down for their day-long interview.

Since then I had tried to apply only to businesses that identified themselves in the ad and which I could research beforehand. However, I let myself slip on this one and here I was with another potential problem.

I emailed back with caution, asking for more info. A few minutes later the phone rang. This was also a warning sign to me, since that is how the coupon person had worked too. I answered and the person wanted to talk to me about the position.

We talked for awhile and she seemed pleasant. The job was temporary and part-time (neither of which was clear from the ad) and wasn't really what I wanted, but when she said she'd like to interview me the next day, I decided that in this economy, I really couldn't afford to be picky and interviewing wouldn't do any real harm. I said yes.

This morning I receive an email canceling the interview because they've decided they can't actually afford to hire anyone after all.

I don't know whether to be pleased and relieved or disappointed.

This experience reminded me that the economy is not yet recovered. Three signs: the number of job ads which are really opportunists taking advantage of people's desperation, the fact that I was willing to apply and interview with a less than optimal position because I can't find work, and the number of jobs I've seen where people have posted jobs but then funding didn't come through (my husband has seen two of these positions, a friend recently had a company which wanted to hire her but waited 8 months after the interview because of funding problems--all the while, she was unemployed).

I can only hope that the experts are right and things will be turning around soon.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Scares and Thrills: Not Just for Halloween

This started off as a scary week, but not because of the Halloween decorations going up. My mom ended up in the hospital. She's a baby boomer and, therefore, not that old. Both my mom and dad should have many years ahead of them since they had me fairly young. However, it is scares like this that remind you that life is never certain.

They are still running tests but so far they can't identify what is wrong with her. Hopefully that means that she will be okay but it is frightening when the doctors can't figure out what is going on with you. I've been there before for lesser things and it is a very frustrating place to be--waiting for a diagnosis.

As we approach Halloween, with its constant reminders of death and decay and humankind's fear of the unknown (including the unknown of what happens after death), this is a good time to remember that life is brief. We need to make the most of it. That includes telling your loved ones what they mean to you. You don't know when an innocent trip to a mall can end in an ambulance ride to the hospital.

Heart attacks and other illnesses can sometimes strike fast and without warning. We need to tell our loved ones NOW what they mean to us--and spend time with them while we have them. There is no telling when any of us will come to the end of our lives.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Importance of the Arts

I was reading recently about the move to encourage Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math in schools. I am thrilled by this idea because I think that too often this has been ignored in recent years. However, I worry about the lack of Arts in that equation (STEM rather than STEAM). Perhaps this is because of a bias on my part; after all, I have a Ph.D. in literature, took drama in high school, and support the arts. I believe that the arts are an important part of our education.

When I mentioned this to my husband, once a science major, he jokingly responded, "Ah, yes, the 'Do you want fries with that?' major."

I think that is the problem. Those of us who study the arts, whether that be drama, literature, music, painting, dance, or some other form, are viewed as unready for the workforce, dooming ourselves to low paying jobs and failure.

1. This is, for the most part, untrue. There are plenty of careers in the arts, although many are not very highly paid, and education in the arts does not stop a person from working in other fields. I have worked as a graphic designer, for instance, and in web design. Neither of these were part of my schooling but are skills I picked up over time. Also, many businesses want people who can think and write well--things which a degree in English or one of the other Liberal Arts can bring you.

2. This world would be a much sadder place without the arts. We need people to continue to pursue theatre, music, and the arts because our culture would be dead without these things.

3. The study of the arts is partly about self-expression, something that is very important for human growth, and therefore very good for kids in schools. I also found that drama class was one of the places where I was safe in school. Drama (and, I am told, Band) was a place for those of us who were geeky, shy, or otherwise "different" to hang out and grow up. I learned a lot from my time in drama--including how to become less shy (so much so that I now do a lot of publicity/public relations-type work for my nonprofit volunteer groups--"schmoozing" with people at receptions, talking to the press, etc.--something I could never had done with drama).

Much like steam is what makes a locomotive go, so STEAM can be good for our kids and our society--moving us forward through an emphasis on both science and the arts. I think that, hand in hand, these things will help our kids grow intellectually and emotionally and be prepared for the workplace. The Arts are not about preparing kids for a job of "do you want fries with that" but in exploring human potential--and they can prepare kids not just for jobs in the arts but for many things in life.

Besides, I don't know why everything has to be judged in terms of job preparation and future salaries. Sometimes we need to think about expression, culture, passion, and drive--things that don't always translate to money but which are needed in our society--and much as math and science careers are.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Rainy Day Emergencies

In Southern California yesterday, we had a lot of rain (for us, at least). It came down relatively hard for a time and kept up with sprinkling all day.

A couple of things occurred because of this:

1. My back patio roof leaked. I am not surprised by this because it has been doing this for the entire 11 years we have been here but we've not been able to afford to replace the screened-in patio roof. It is getting worse, however. The main problem was I had stored some items out there (temporarily, I thought, but it has been a month at least) and they were getting wet and had to be rescued and taken back into the garage.

2. We canceled a planned trip, partly because it is unpleasant to drive to the L.A. area in the rain.

3. I thought about how we are often unprepared for things like this happening, even though we know it is coming, eventually.

For instance, how many of you have an emergency umbrella and coat in your car? I used to, but it migrated out of the car at some point.

I do have a large emergency kit (with food, water, first aid, etc.) in the car because my husband made us two (one for each car--in those large buckets with lids that cat litter used to be in, making it less likely to be interesting to thieves who just think we are hauling cat litter around with us). I also have several cloth shopping bags (grocery style plus ones for normal stores).

It is not like we don't know it is going to rain. We do. I knew that the patio was a poor choice for long-term storage but I set those things out there because I told myself that it was just for a few days and it doesn't rain here that often.

In the same way, we often don't prepare for emergencies because they don't seem that urgent (until they are upon us).

I spent some of my rainy day yesterday thinking about how to better prepare myself for the unexpected (rain, earthquake, or whatever). I recommend that others do the same. We just never know when the rain will come in our lives (literally as well as figuratively) and it is better to be prepared.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Preparing for NaNoWriMo: Writing My First Novel (again/still)

If you have never heard of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, don't be surprised if you hear a lot about it starting in a few weeks. November is NaNoWriMo and I will be participating in it again this year, and I'm not the only one.

Every year this online event gets larger and more people hear about it. The idea is to write 50,000 words between the first day of November and the last day of the month. It doesn't have to be a great draft, or even a finished one, but it does need to meet or exceed the word count. There are no prizes, other than a great feeling and a certificate and web page badge, but you will have 50,000+ words of your novel written in a first draft, which is nothing to sneeze at, if you ask me.

I have participated several times. The first two times were during my dissertation writing phase and while I thought I could do my dissertation and my novel, I gave up on NaNoWriMo within the first two weeks or so. The third time I was going to finish but ended up uploading some nonfiction I had been writing that month (effectively "winning" the contest but not with a novel--so it was sort of a cheat).

This time I've decided to try again, with the novel that I was supposed to be writing ever since I lost my job at the end of March. I have an outline and a rough draft of the first chapter, but I will need to start fresh and try again starting November 1.

Here is my plan (and you might want to consider something like this if you decide to join the fun and write your own novel):

1. I'm going to use the next two weeks to review my character descriptions and outlines to reflect some changes I have been considering to the plot, structure, and characters. If you are starting from scratch, this is a great time to make some decisions about what sort of novel you want to write and make some notes or outlines about your plans.

2. I'm going to get some work for other projects done ahead of time (some publicity work for one of my volunteer groups which has an event in mid-November, for instance, could be prepared early, which will be good for the group and good for my ability to work on my novel).

3. I plan to set aside specific writing times where I am not allowed to look at online forums, blogs, or web comics. I am completely addicted to the internet and it is a problem.

4. I've been reading several books in the last few weeks. I will read a few more before the end of October, and think about how these books structure their plot and introduce new characters. I will also look at passages where I like the dialogue and see if I can figure out what works for these authors. I hope this will improve my own writing.

5. I will not only update my word count on the NaNoWriMo site but I'll keep an Excel spreadsheet which I had downloaded last year which allows me to track my progress and whether I am meeting my writing goals for the day.

I am hoping that this year I will be able to "win" legitimately, for the novel I planned to write when I started the month.

Are you planning on joining in on the fun? What techniques do you plan on using? Have you "won" in previous NaNoWriMo years? What helped you do so (or got in the way)? Let me know in the comments, if you are out there.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Procrastination, Self-Direction, and Identity

Yesterday I read an interesting article about procrastination which argues that we can learn a lot about people and identity by studying procrastination.

It was well written and researched, but, more importantly to me, it also struck home with me. This is probably because procrastination is the one thing which has probably caused the most problems in my life.

Procrastination may be a "basic human impulse" but it is also a terrible strain on our lives. As the article puts it, "The essence of procrastination lies in not doing what you think you should be doing, a mental contortion that surely accounts for the great psychic toll the habit takes on people."

It is true that I often procrastinate, even knowing that it won't make me happy, either in the future or even while I am doing it. I may be relaxing and enjoying that new book I wanted to read (rather than the work I need to be doing) but I won't enjoy the book as much than if I had done the work and then read the book guilt-free.

Strangely, I did disagree with two points made in the article (both on page 2). In one, the author points to a study that he says explains why in our Netflix queue we have a lot of great classics but in the short-term we are watching light comedies. He says it is because of “hyperbolic discounting," where the person's short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals (the light, fluffy movie presumably fulfilling the short-term goal of entertainment over the long-term goal of thinking it would be good to see the critically acclaimed but more difficult drama). I think this Netflix study, however, is tainted by the fact that people want to impress the questioner. People will tend to overreport their desire to watch "good" films (those they believe will impress others) in order to excuse their poor taste in watching the lower brow film now. This has little to do with time management and more to do with the desire to show off.

The second point which did not resonate as much with me was that procrastination was caused by “the planning fallacy.” This is where people underestimate how long a project will take so they think they have time to waste before starting. In fact, it is usually the opposite problem for me. I will be faced with a task (not terribly hard) but I will think it will take a long time and put it off ("I don't have time to deal with that now...."). I may keep delaying this important but dreaded task for quite awhile until I absolutely have to get started. Then I'll be surprised that the whole thing took less than a half hour. I could have done it when I first knew the task was on my plate and saved myself a great deal of stress and avoidance. I seldom believe things will take less time than they will (except perhaps on really big projects, like my novel, where I keep telling myself that I will be done in no time--but then I never get started and the next thing I know it is two years later and I am no further along).

Both of these reasons for procrastination end up being less compelling and persuasive than the other reasons shown (indeed, even to the author who believes that the planning fallacy relies too much on ignorance and not as much on "complex mixture of weakness, ambition, and inner conflict" which are better explanations for the problem).

Here is where the article really hit home for me:

Lack of confidence, sometimes alternating with unrealistic dreams of heroic success, often leads to procrastination, and many studies suggest that procrastinators are self-handicappers: rather than risk failure, they prefer to create conditions that make success impossible, a reflex that of course creates a vicious cycle. McClellan was also given to excessive planning, as if only the ideal battle plan were worth acting on. Procrastinators often succumb to this sort of perfectionism.

I have dreams of heroic success many times, but am well known to lack confidence in myself. I fear failure greatly and know that sometimes (with my dissertation, especially) I used procrastination as an excuse--"It was okay, but would have been better written if I had more time." I also love planning, something that has become increasingly clear to me as I write this blog. I will plan my attack on my problems but sometimes, like the past few weeks, I'll be all talk and no action. The planning alone seems to give me enough mental relief to allow me to put off the actual work I planned.

The article goes on to discuss a few solutions/ways of viewing the problem:

Divided self: if you see yourself as not a unified person but with an interior like a republic where each side of you fights for different goals, you can label one part of you the procrastinator (who wants immediate pleasure) who is debating with the part of you who wants the larger goal. Then you simply allow a negotiation to take place where both feel they win (usually by convincing the procrastinating part of you that you will enjoy the fun part more if you do the larger goal first). This sounds good, but I haven't had much luck with the idea.

Extended will: This refers to tools which force you to do things: like setting deadlines or having a program which cuts off your internet access to allow you to focus. Deadlines were the only thing that made me finally finish my dissertation, but I've learned that unless they are truly hard deadlines with real consequences, they don't help me. I tried setting deadlines with my husband but since I know there are no real consequences if I go to him and say that I don't have a chapter ready to show him, I never have a chapter ready by my deadline.

Reframing: This is something which has helped some and I want to do more. From GTD, we learn that many times we put off projects just because they seem big or vague (because we don't know what to do next). David Allen urges us to break the project down to smaller steps and concentrate on the Next Step instead of the larger picture. In the same way, narrowing our choices can sometimes make it easier to decide.

The article points out, interestingly, that all of these are a "voluntary abnegation of freedom" and I suppose that is true. Then again, much of our lives are giving up of freedom. We go to work or do things for others, giving up our freedom to do something else or do as we want all day, in order to get something (paycheck, gratitude from others, fame, etc.-- whatever it is we want). Freedom is only truly freedom when sandwiched between times when we are less free. None of us are truly free all of the time--there are always commitments to others or tasks we need to do but may not enjoy. The question is whether we can learn to give up our freedom effectively so we can do those tasks with less hassle and leave us more guilt-free time to do more enjoyable tasks and relaxation.

Can we learn to stop procrastinating as much and free our lives from its great burden? I certainly hope so. In many ways, this question defines my project for the year.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Just One Change Can Make a Difference

Sometimes making small changes can make a big difference for the world.

Last year I told my husband that although I was happy that we recycled paper (with a container in our kitchen to gather newspapers and other paper products to take out to our blue can), and we gathered glass and aluminum cans on the patio (to take to a recycling place for cash), I felt like we should do more.

We decided to add more things to recycling, particularly food cans (for cat food and our own food). These now go in the blue can to take out to the curb.

It's amazing the difference this has made to the amount of trash which goes out to the normal trash can. I didn't feel like we used that many cans, but apparently they add up. Now, however, they add up for recycling and not the landfill.

It was a small step which took only a little more effort on our part (rinsing the cans and putting them in the right container). That little extra effort, however, is making a difference in the world, I believe.

Each of us could take a small step today to improve things in the world. I started carrying shopping bags to the store early this year. I am sure I could do more, but each small step helps improve what I am doing.

In the same way, I've decided that in my own projects I may have tried to do too much all at once. With my recycling habits, I added one habit at a time and it was successful. I'm trying to step back on my other projects and see if adding one habit at a time will work for them as well.

My recycling and shopping bag habits have shown that just one small change at a time can make a big difference. I'm trying to apply that to the rest of my life now.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fall Back: Not Just a Reminder for Clocks

We are starting Autumn (otherwise known as Fall) and the weather will soon be cooling down (if it hasn't already). We will also soon reach the day for Daylight Savings Time where we'll be advised to "Fall Back" (a reminder to set the clocks back one hour). We'll also be advised that this is a good time to check our fire alarms and generally prepare the house for the coming winter.

I like Fall, and think these reminders are all good ideas. However, I also think that "Fall Back" can be a useful year-round reminder that sometimes when things aren't working, it is better to do a strategic retreat and regroup rather than forge ahead doing the same old thing and not succeeding.

In this way, I stopped job applications for a week, reviewed my resume and completely rewrote it, rewrote my cover letter paragraphs (personalized for each job but taken from a larger template depending on the job), and generally regrouped my energies since I was getting no where on the job market.

I got one interview (the first in 4 months) after this "Fall Back" (although I found out today I didn't get the position).

I've spent a lot of time recently complaining that I've not gotten as far as expected in my organizing and writing novel projects; in fact, that things were still disorganized and unhappy in many ways. I've decided to "Fall Back" and reevaluate what I've been doing and the techniques I've been using. Since I've not be succeeding, it seemed better to take a step back and reevaluate rather than just hope that things will improve.

Retreat doesn't not always mean surrender or defeat. Sometimes it is just a chance to regroup, rearm and rest--before tackling the battlements again.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Avoidance: Another Sign That You Need Organization

I can always tell when I am in trouble. My email inbox is full. My computer desktop is filled with files. My laundry is stacked up. This will mean that I am also behind on many tasks, not organizing my bills, and avoiding work tasks. I am probably spending too much time reading things on the computer or gone on a fiction reading binge.

I've done it many times before. These are all symptoms of a larger problem--but they also are part of a vicious cycle that makes me feel even worse.

Today I've got to face it. I'm feeling stressed and overwhelmed again.

The worse sign for me is avoidance. I used to do this all the time during my dissertation writing time. I know I have work to do and will even make a to do list, but then sit there doing "one more thing" for the rest of the day. This can go on for days, if I let myself, with each day the guilt piling on even higher, which, of course, makes me want to avoid the task even more.

The most frustrating thing is that sometimes the task I am avoiding ends up only taking 10 minutes. It doesn't have to be a hard task or a long one for it to build up like this. It just has to be something I am dreading--for one reason or another.

Sometimes I dread things because I really don't have a clear sense of the steps to take. Sometimes it is a task I simply do not like to do. Other times it is just something that seems large or difficult or which I worry about failing in some way.

Whatever causes the hesitation, I struggle with getting started and then with following through.

This is exactly the problem I dislike in myself the most and which I set out to find a way to fix (as much as possible) for this self-improvement project.

While I've become better at being self aware and knowing I have a problem, I have not yet truly solved it.

In other words, I've gotten better at reporting the problem exists but not in moving forward and actually doing the things I want without delay. Annoying, but true.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Productivity and "Self-Help": Admiral Ackbar and Merlin Mann say it's a trap

If you have been reading productivity, personal finance, and self-help blogs for long enough, you know there used to be a very active and cool site called 43folders, where people like myself used to go for tips on GTD (Getting Things Done) and Productivity Pron (cool aps, neat tips, etc.). It was/is run by a guy called Merlin Mann who awhile back changed everything about that blog. Instead of frequent updates it meant to occasional rants; these rants became increasingly about giving up exactly what the blog used to be all about--reading about productivity.

The latest rant is a bit hard to follow at times (and has language which may offend some readers) but it ends with an intriguing image of a recent tweet Merlin wrote: "Joining a Facebook group about creative productivity is like buying a chair about jogging."

This (and some of the other bits of the rant) struck home to me. You'll know from reading my blog that I have questioned the wisdom of getting too caught up in changing my system and making to do lists, charting my progress, etc. I've been guilty of letting the self-help get in the way of the very work I'm supposed to be doing. I've also been guilty of enjoying my RSS feed too much, even to the detriment of the novel I am supposed to be writing.

I know I am not the only one out there with this problem. I also know that the simple "just do it" statements of people like Mann don't actually motivate very well. Sure, I find myself nodding and feeling like "yes, I should turn myself around" but really I feel this way after many a "self-help" article about productivity and motivation.

There is no easy answer for this trap. Each person will find her way out of it (or not) based on the goals that drive her. I know that my journey for this year has been all about me seeking my path to being able to get work done consistently and to find work which makes me want to keep doing it.

I don't have the answers, and neither does Mann (for me at least), but we both know that reading more self-help blogs doesn't get me there. As Admiral Ackbar (and Mann) would say "It's a trap!"

Monday, October 4, 2010

TVs in Restaurants: Another Little Thing Which Annoys Me

Today my husband and I went out to lunch. We are reducing the number of times we go out, since we are both unemployed, but it is nice to go out for a meal out occasionally, even if to a casual place for a quick bite.

The problem is, too many places plaster themselves with televisions. Even nice places may have one or more TVs visible in their dining room. They all seem to have them in their bars and too often these are also very visible from the dining rooms.

Casual places are even more likely to have TVs on every wall. These TVs are often on sports channels, although some places do news channels as well.

I have nothing against television. I watch lots of it, too much really. When at home, we eat all of our meals in the living room (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and almost all dinners are in front of the television.

Doing this at home is one thing but when I got out to eat, I don't want these distractions nor to be forced to watch something I don't like (my husband and I don't watch sports).

We used to go to Pizzeria Unos but then they added TVs throughout and I stopped. There are several other restaurants where I've chosen to stop going because I can't enjoy a peaceful meal out if everywhere you look there is a TV turned on.

I've tried to ignore them but the movement and colors always catch my eye and I find myself noticing it. At lunch today, there was a TV just behind my head and I'd catch my husband being distracted by it when we were eating. Even a commercial can catch you eye. It's frustrating to be unable to avoid it.

Today we were at Joe's Crab Shack for fish and chips. They have two rooms, one with TVs and one without, but they were only seating in the bar room with the TVs on every wall because it was a slow day and there were only two waitresses, so we were stuck surrounded by televisions.

I know that people like to watch sports and I am sure that during the big events, like Super Bowl, having the televisions is profitable. I've also heard that restaurants and bars can't set up TVs just for the special events without paying a big fee but if the TVs are always there and set to sports then they pay nothing for showing the big games. I don't know if it is true but if it is, that would explain the growing number of places playing sports on big televisions on every wall.

I may have to eat only in really nice places from now on to avoid this annoyance.

I don't know if I am alone in this annoyance but if more people felt as I do and we all spoke out (and voted with our pocketbooks and only went to places without televisions) maybe we could have peaceful meals out again. Wouldn't that be nice? Anyone with me on this? Speak up, please!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Already Perfect?: Self-Acceptance, Self-Improvement, and Smugness

You may already by reading what is one of the most successful self-improvement blogs out there, Zen Habits. If so, you saw his recent post "you're already perfect." I have been a long-time reader of his blog, but Leo Z's change in blog style had already left me feeling cold about his blog for quite awhile. This post only continued that uneasy feeling.

He's right that most of the people reading such blogs, like Zen Habits and Unclutterer or the other half dozen personal finance/organizing/life tips blogs I have on my RSS feed, are there because they have things about themselves and their lives they want to improve. I certainly do. That's why I started this blog--to help me keep on track, to give me a place to think out loud a bit, and to share my journey with other people even just a little.

Where I think the post goes wrong is not in telling us that we are already perfect, because I certainly approve of self-acceptance, high self esteem, etc. I'd be the first to admit that I tend to be hard on myself and to be very critical of both myself and others; this is one of the things I hope to work on during my self-improvement project.

I was taken aback by two points: one, he jokes about how if you can be content with yourself as you are"You can be smug about it, like me." I wish that was completely a joke, but it is that smugness which radiates from Leo's blog for the past year which has turned me off of what was once my favorite self-improvement blog. He used to have interesting posts with specific tips; then he suddenly changed, both the style of writing and then the style of the site. The writing is now as bland, formless, blank, and (yes) smug as the uncluttered style of the site. I hate to think that accepting yourself has to turn a person into a smug individual, happy in his own superiority and way of doing things. That is the last thing I want for myself.

The second point that bothered me about this post was that he then recounts various things we should be grateful for--our eyes, hands, etc. I completely agree with being grateful for what we have. I am thrilled that my ears allow me to hear music or the birds currently outside my window; I'm happy to be able to read books I care about and to be able to dance (maybe not well, but enthusiastically) whenever I want. However, Leo words it in a way which I am afraid indicates that those who don't have those gifts, those who are blind, or deaf, or unable to walk, or use a hand, etc. are automatically not able to be perfect and be grateful for it. Maybe this is another example of smugness, the nonacknowledgment of privilege for the writer, but it certainly increased my discomfort with the post.

As for my feelings, I do think that I need to work on self-acceptance, but I don't believe that I am perfect. Nobody is perfect. That doesn't mean I can't accept myself, flaws and all. And that self-acceptance doesn't mean that I can't work to improve myself, to work to make myself a better person even while being grateful for who I am and how much I have.

I'm grateful to Leo for writing the article, not because I liked it or agreed with it (it actually furthers my belief that I may soon want to remove him from my RSS feed for being no longer worth my time), but because it helped me think about these issues. It was the most engagement I've had with his writing in almost a year and it made me think about what I want out of the self-improvement blogs I am reading.