Month: July 2008

How doing one thing differently saved my bacon

Anyone who’s read my newsletter, spent more than 10 minutes in semi-meaningful conversation with me or seen the shame that is my bookshelves knows I have a predilection for the self-help aisle.

I fought it for years, in no small part because I saw my mother devour book after best-selling book even as her alcohol intake crept slowly but steadily upward. Reading is no substitute for action. Buying and piling in artfully arranged stacks around the house, even less so. And while I’m a pretty productive motherfucker when all is said and done, I’ve got undeniable hard-wiring for procrastination on both sides of my genetic divide.

Dad was a frighteningly efficient accomplishment machine, but anyone who knows about “-aholic” tendencies knows that’s just the flip side of the same coin. He “did” out of fear; mom “didn’t”. And they both avoided the root issue until the days they died.

I, on the other hand, have made it my singular mission in life to act, and to act well. There’s nothing else for me to leave behind to make the world a better place, no genetic material I’ve given a better start to, no big pile of money to fund a groovy foundation. It’s just whatever ripples I can send out there now, and whatever additional ripples people whom I’ve (hopefully) helped or a book that I’ve (hopefully) written can send out later.

So when I get stuck, when there’s not only no forward motion, but no indication of what that forward motion should be, I get a little panicky. I don’t think, “Oh, good…a nice rest!” or “Great! Things are just marinating upstairs!”; I start sliding into the dark place on a greased chute with no handrails.

In times like these, I grab onto those books like a lifeline and use them to start hauling myself back up. The best ones (and you do know to only read the best ones, right?) offer some kind of clearly defined, actionable steps, and when you’re in a place where you can’t see clearly, a well-lit staircase with an “EXIT” sign at the top is your friend. It doesn’t matter which set you get on: it will get you out.

Sometimes, though, there is no time. Sometimes you find yourself in hella mess and the clock is ticking and there’s just no damned time for a whole book, much less careful digestion and implementation of its contents. That’s when you need this prescription-strength remedy:

Do One Thing Differently.

Yes, it’s a self-help book, too. I’ve never read it, though. I’ve only heard of it, and then fondled it briefly in my shrink’s office while waiting for her to come in and start our session:

“It looks like you could get everything you need from this book just by reading the title.”

“You can,” she said.

I’d thought about this exchange many, many times since we first had it, maybe six months ago. (Maybe a year, my memory ain’t what it used to be.) I’ve thought about it a lot because I’ve been dealing with my own existential crisis for the past eight or nine months. I actually capped off the year by doing one thing very differently: admitting out loud that things were broken, and that I was taking some time off to evaluate them, four months off, to be precise.

The gods love it when we make plans, don’t they? It’s like Season 4 of LOST to them, or, more likely, some really good, trainwreck-y reality TV. I’m guessing they’ve had me on TiVo and are praying I get renewed for another 13 episodes. My Finnish dark night of the soul has been appointment viewing up on Mt. Olympus.

It was getting old down here, though. So I’ve been One-Thing-Differently like mad, from my kitchen to my alarm-clock setting to my hairstyle. Desperate times call for desperate measures! A few of the myriad thangs I changed up include:

  • enlisting the help of an accountability partner, a badass, take-no-prisoners type whose list of accomplishments makes me look like a piker
  • replying over and over to generalist queries into my state of health and well-being with a frank admittance of my perilous suckitude (counts as once because the first 15 times were an out-of-body experience I gained nothing practical from)
  • admitting I had fucked up
  • walking three miles each morning, whether I wanted to or not
  • billing for work done (feel free to laugh at me, the gods aren’t the only ones who know how ridiculous I am)

On Thursday night, I finally had a breakthrough of the major sort. Something popped, and it feels like I’m finally on track again. Thank god. Gods. Whatever. That’s an eight-month experience I don’t want to repeat anytime soon.

But from the other side, I feel it my duty to say that the One Thing thing works. It really does. Those One Things got me through a lot of rough patches and gave me the hope and the oomph to hit it for one more day.

And cumulatively? Holy crap, do they add up! Try it. Try folding in a few one things, and see if there’s not some kind of major, quantifiable effect at the end of six months. A kitchen you’re not afraid of entering. A scale you’re not afraid of stepping on. It works, folks: it really, really works.

The biggest irony in all this is that now I feel like I’ve got to read the book. Just to see if I did it “right” and if next time, I couldn’t do it better.

You, however, have no need of it. Just do it, like the ad said. One thing. Differently.

And if you’ve got some sweet, sweet self-helpage you know about and don’t leave it in the comments? You’re no friend of mine, Klein.


Image by greenapplegrenade via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Overestimating and underestimating your ability to do anything and everything

I saw The Youngster last night at a screening of our mutual friend’s film. Lots of great things happened, like seeing Tony Shalhoub sitting two rows away and Kojak parking and a gigantic platter of shrimp at the after-party, but really, the best thing about the evening was it was full of milestone howdys.

That’s my new name for in-your-face reminders that if you combine your own effort with enough time, stuff happens. Big stuff. Good stuff. Stuff that is delightfully surprising in its bigness and goodness.

Take, for starters, the fact that The Youngster and I were there together at all, laughing and joking and having a good time as excellent friends. Someday, I will tell the sad, sad tale of our tumultuous time together and the explosive way in which it…well, exploded. (Hell, he’s a writer; he’ll probably tell it, too. Or maybe we’ll tell it together.) For now, know that six years ago, I doubt either one of us believed in our heart of hearts we would, even could be friends at all, much less friends of the excellent variety: fast friends, the ones you have walked through the fire with, and thus would run into a burning building for.

Then there’s acting.

Oh, my god, is there acting.

You have no idea of how badly I wanted to be an actor. Or maybe you do. After all, I’ve described how late I came to the game, how I wept when I was dumped from the place I was sure would be my everlasting theatrical home and for how long I’ve grappled with the fame thing. In a business where it’s death to take anything personally, I took pretty much everything personally. A continual oozing wound was the Jan Brady-esque relationship I had with my own theater company: someone else was always getting the good part in the school play, and it wasn’t until I discovered my metaphorical knack for scenery painting (in this case, graphic design) that I gained any respect, self- or otherwise, at all.

Last night, my former artistic director lobbed a request at me: did I know of any actors who would fit a certain set of specs, a set of specs which, except for an illustrious résumé that would dazzle the producers, pretty much made for a good police sketch of yours truly. And really, all I could think of was how fun is this? I get to flip through my mental Rolodex of fab actresses and solve this really interesting puzzle.

Eight years ago? I would have frozen in place while my heart dropped to my bowels, spent the car ride home weeping and railing (at The Youngster, probably, who did his fair share of talking me down off the ledge during our three years together), then carefully added the slight to the large and musty heap of umbrage I kept locked in the closet.

There were more milestones: me, the hapless introvert, being social and enjoying it, probably a four-year conscious effort. Me, ambulatory with health and heft (six years); then me, with a slight reduction in heft and bump in endurance (three months of walking daily). Me, happily ensconced in an amazing primary relationship with an equally amazing man (we’ll call that 20-odd years of lessons on and off the field, with a considerable assist from my therapist for a good 4-year stretch).

It all comes down to this: you can sit there and bemoan your lousy fate, which I freely admit I’ve spent great swaths of time doing, and the hand I was dealt wasn’t half-bad, or you can change what you can. Most of the big change, like it or not, happens incrementally, over a long time. As Chris Gillebeau says in his delightful ebook* on effecting meaningful personal change, “we tend to overestimate what we can complete in a single day, and underestimate what we can complete over longer periods of time.”

Or, as the rejoinder to someone who rebuts encouragement to earn that degree, learn that instrument, master that sport with a “Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I can practice/play/take my picture on the top of Mt. Everest” goes, The same age you will if you don’t.

For the love of all that’s holy, start a project. Today. Pick one thing you really want (the end you want) and start plotting the route to get there. If you are like me, like most people, if the quote stands true, you will set unreasonable goals for yourself. You will try to cram too much living into the hours, days, even weeks. You will, like me, like most people, overestimate your shit like crazy. ‘Sokay. It evens out over time. (I’m hoping that one’s ability to guesstimate, time-wise, also improves over time, but whatever.)

There will always be stuff left over on the to-do list. What matters more, I see now, is that we actually did something. Went after something. Something, hopefully, that we really wanted, that was really important to us.

I am sure I will never get everything I want.

Then again, I am positive I am underestimating my ability to chase it.


*Download A Brief Guide to World Domination, and behold how eBooks should be produced. Well, for starters, and horizontally-oriented, as Seth points out.