Six things I learnt putting on my cabaret

The earliest dream I can remember is from when I was six or seven. In my dream, I’m singing solo in a bar, with a jazz band backing me. I sing into a microphone to an unseen audience.

This week I have realised that dream, having shown my cabaret Cutting Loose at The Butterfly Club. It’s taken me 25+ years, but I’ve written an hour-long solo show full of original comedic songs, with plenty of jokes in between. It’s about being a people-pleaser, breaking free from a lifetime of rule following, and being a ‘good’ feminist.

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Singing my heart out in Cutting Loose

For six years I’ve done improvised comedy with other people. This is my first written show and my first solo show, and it has been a crazy learning adventure. I have some of the best days of my life working on songs and lyrics and photo shoots. I’ve also been absolutely terrified – if there had been a big red button to get out of it no questions asked, I would have hit it on many occasions.

What have I learnt? A few things.

I had no choice but to do it. Everyone tells me I’m brave for doing it, for putting myself out there. To be honest, it wasn’t really a choice. I couldn’t keep ignoring the calling that hit me anytime I saw another person sing their own funny songs on stage. Now that I have performed it, I have put something out there that makes the universe different – a tiny difference, perhaps, but a difference nonetheless. From then on, I will always be able to say, ‘I’ve done my own show’.

Web version

Poster for Cutting Loose – Photo by James Penlidis, Design by Lliam Amor

Having the right team is crucial. As much as I call it a solo show, I have not done it alone. I have an amazing Director/Dramaturg in Fiona Scott-Norman, and with her we have assembled a team including Rainer Pollard as Musical Director and Eliza Grundy as Choreographer. Outside of this, I have had other amazing people help with photography and design, concept ideas, PR advice, social media management, voice coaching, and vocal physiotherapy. All of this combines to take the overall product up an uncountable number of notches. Perhaps I could have done it on my own, but it would have been a thousand times harder, and not the best I could have done. I doubt I would have gone through with it.

I developed a creative process and habit. I have never been good at sitting down and being creative. I could do one session, maybe two, and then I’d never revisit that piece of writing, or that illustration. In writing this cabaret, it finally worked. I was able to build up a creative process that became a habit. Perhaps it was because I had hit on a type of writing that inspires me. Throughout my day, I took note of the things that I said to friends that made them laugh, or the stories I told. I literally wrote them in a Notes folder on my phone. Then next time I sat down at my desk, I took out that idea and started working with it. If I had no inspiration, I would journal (using the prompts from my Steal Like an Artist Journal) and after 15 minutes I had almost always hit on something that excited me and that turned into either a song idea or a story idea. Regardless of how I got the inspiration, if it was a story I would free write, and if it was a song, a tune would appear in my head that I would play with. My thesaurus and my rhyming dictionary were key tools. When I had a specific song idea that I wanted to create, I listened to other songs of that genre. For my song Shapeshifter I listened to all the Bond movie themes, as well as other songs listed on the internet as potential bond songs, like Back to Black and Snake-eater. I generated tonnes of material that I then worked with further with my director and musical director.

I couldn’t avoid the overall theme I was trying to avoid. At my first meeting with my director she said, ‘It sounds like feminism is a theme’ and I said, ‘I am too scared to write a show about feminism’. I didn’t want to get it wrong, or make mistakes. I was also worried because I’m white, and there is a lot of talk at the moment about white feminism. Was I doing white feminism? I tried to avoid the topic, but as my writing continued feminism kept coming up, because it’s a theme in my life, and cabarets reflect life and truth. So then it was about my relationship to these topics. I had to tackle head on the fact that I’m white and I’m talking about feminism. In the end, the theme clarified as my fear of what will happen if I get feminism ‘wrong’.

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I had to cut back on the social commitments. To write the show, I got up early before work a couple of times a week to write for an hour and a half, and I spent a lot of the weekend on it every week. I also wanted the flexibility to write if I wanted to, and not have to go and do something, so I cut my social life right back. It wasn’t just about the number of hours it took up, it was about the timing. My most productive creative time was in the mornings, so I didn’t make morning social dates. But brunch is the lifeblood of socialising in Melbourne, so my refusal to see anyone before 2PM cut out a lot of options. This was the space I needed to really crack on with something, and those Saturday and Sunday sessions were amazingly fun for me. But I’m looking forward to seeing my friends again!

I’ve finally started to understand how audiences can be different. In improv, people have talked about different types of audiences, or the characteristics of tonight’s audience, but I’ve never really understood it. Now I’m starting to see that sometimes you get an audience that is 100% ready to laugh and have a good time. Other audiences need me to give them permission to laugh. I have started being able to pick the moment in the night when I have gained the audience’s trust. Sometimes it happens later rather than sooner. One night I forgot the lyrics to my third song, and had to restart the song twice. I chatted my way through the restarts, and owned it. Rather than losing the audience, this is what won their trust. This sounds counter-intuitive, but I think it let them know they were in safe hands – I can stuff up the material but we’ll still be OK. Now it’s about finding out how to do that without making an actual mistake!

What I got out of running lessons

Run Melbourne

What a beginners’ running course showed me about the value of not going it alone, the unhelpful stories I tell myself, and the importance of imperfection.

I’ve had a hazy goal of becoming a ‘runner’ for a few years now. The main reason is to be able to exercise anywhere. There’s also that niggling feeling that I should be able to run long distances in preparation for the inevitable post-apocalyptic zombie-ridden world we will all soon find ourselves in. It was either more running, or less TV. And I love TV too much.

I’ve tried various things including the couch to 5K app but they never stuck. Then I read the book Born to Run – the one about running, not the Bruce Springsteen memoir (but that is also excellent) – and it was the most inspirational book ever. By the end of it, I felt like I was an ultramarathon runner who just hadn’t started running yet. Not only did it make it seem like I could be a runner, but that it would be easy. But there seemed to be a lot of technique stuff going on, so I decided to sign up to a running class for beginners.

Ten weeks on, last weekend I ran five kilometres without stopping – for the first time in my life.

So, what have I learnt?

It helps to have a proper coach and program

  • People think you should be able to do it without a coach. I’ve had people laugh at me saying ‘why would you need to learn how to run?’ They think it’s silly that I drag myself to Melbourne’s Tan twice a week just to run, when I could just walk out my front door and do it. But I’d tried that and it hadn’t worked, and my running didn’t feel light and natural as the book said it should feel.
  • There’s a bunch of technique to learn. I’ve had people teach me to swim and row and ride a bike but never to run properly. At the classes, we talked technique and got individual corrections. One correction for me suddenly unlocked something and I could run like I do in dreams (right before I start flying).
  • There’s a planned program to get you to 5k. We rarely just ran the way they make you do on couch to 5K, which basically just adds more time to intervals each run. We did all different things – different speeds, different distances, intervals, fartlek, tabata – and this mixed things up enough that I didn’t even realise the gains I was making. The weekday runs were more varied, and we’d do a long run on the weekends.
  • The program made it easier than I expected. I was reasonably fit to start with, but nonetheless, every attempt at running to date was tough. Before the course I don’t think I ever got over five minutes non-stop. But the individual sessions were achievable – sometimes easy – and within five weeks I was running ten minutes non-stop, and within nine weeks it was thirty minutes. It was especially gratifying when I reached the milestone where I ran for a tram and wasn’t puffing embarrassingly on the tram.
  • They made us start way slower than I expected. Basically the whole first class our instructor just yelled ‘go slower’. Well, that’s not true – she was fixing our technique and stuff. But mostly yelling ‘go slower’. I thought running meant running fast, but that has been making it so much harder for me. It was a breakthrough to realise how slow you can start. We did some ‘speed work’ (FYI for language dorks: there’s a whole new set of jargon to learn, and it is joyful to throw it about recklessly) at some sessions, but the longer runs are still slower than I expected.

I’ve been captive to an ‘I’m not a runner’ story

  • For years, I’ve thought I could never be a runner. In school I was good in the sprints but nothing over 200 metres, and no one ever taught me how to run longer distances. Over the years, I built this up into a belief that I would never be a longer-distance runner. This was encouraged by various things, including a strange myth that rowers aren’t good runners because it required your muscles to be shorter and bigger. Then I had a minor knee injury at 18 that I spent my twenties being terrified of (even though I did heaps of high-impact exercise during this time).
  • People actively discouraged me from running. People regularly told me reasons to not run, and I happily accepted them. I had a Pilates instructor who was excellent and I loved her, but who nonetheless told me out of nowhere that I didn’t need to run. I wasn’t saying ‘I don’t want to run’, she just told me I didn’t need to. And someone else told me if you didn’t run when you were younger then you probably couldn’t when you were older.
  • I thought running – and runners – were super boring. I thought runners must be unimaginative and generally boring. It was always something I looked on with suspicion. Even after being in a relationship for several years with a dedicated runner, I still looked on it as a strange, inexplicable difference between the two of us. I was surprised to discover I didn’t find it boring at all. It helped that I had people to run with, and a trainer to vary it up. And it is exciting to turn up to each session not knowing what you’re going to get.
  • I don’t feel like a ‘runner’ yet but I’m on my way. One running buddy was told it takes a twelve months to develop a proper running habit, and I think that could be right. While I’ve run 5ks, I’m only three months in and it hasn’t become a must-have in my life yet. But I’m enthusiastic to keep going and pretty committed. I have even run on holidays! I’ve now run in Sydney and Phillip Island. The Phillip Island run was especially exciting because I saw some of the best cows and sheep I have ever seen which I wouldn’t have seen if it wasn’t for the run. The cows were brown and shaggy and had horns! The sheep were adorable and had babies! I was running without stopping!

The mental impact is massive

  • It can cure a bad day. Turning up to running some days was hard, and there were times I had had an AWFUL day. Running got that out of my head, and I regularly came home on a bit of a high. I also just had to be social, pick myself up and not wallow, so that helped too.
  • It improved my belief in myself and self-esteem. Having something where I am achieving things that can’t be taken away from me is really great. Knowing that I can say I can run 5ks non-stop is something I’m very proud of. Most of the things I do in my life are subjective, or qualitatively judged – improv, singing, whatever it is I do at work. But the answer to ‘did I run 5ks?’ can’t be debated, and I’ve realised that that is a really nice element to have in your life, in amongst other stuff.

Doing it took serious anti-perfectionism work

  • As a perfectionist, it was very hard to sign up in the first place – what if I didn’t choose the best running class? I can spend a lot of time researching something and letting it go when it’s not perfect. For example, I’ve been trying to buy an alarm clock for two years. But I’m learning that starting at all is infinitely better than starting perfectly so I just googled ‘learn to run Melbourne’ and signed up to the beginners course… Well, it wasn’t that easy. I agonised for days whether to sign up to beginners or general because I didn’t want to make the wrong decision. But I signed up in the end.
  • Still from the perspective of a perfectionist, this was a new opportunity to be perfect. This is how I see the world. I still feel bad on their behalf (but also humanity’s) about Don Bradman’s 99.94 batting average, and Ian Thorpe’s silver medals. I knew I’d make it to the end of the eleven weeks because there were no other options – I had committed to doing a thing, and I was gonna do it. That doesn’t come from a super healthy place though, it comes from a massive fear of failure, and a belief that things have to be perfect to be worthy.
  • But I’m getting better at not being perfect. I missed two runs – one class, one weekend run – and I had to leave two sessions early because of blisters. It was very hard to do these things, especially missing the runs entirely (I still ticked them off on my fridge schedule because I couldn’t bear having missing ticks – classic perfectionist) but the fact I did is really good for me. Not only am I building up my resilience to not being perfect, but I’m also building up examples of where not being perfect didn’t matter. Missing those sessions didn’t destroy my whole program, it barely made a dint. It put the individual runs into perspective – consistency and persistence mattered more than perfection.

Running with other people is the BEST

  • I never understood running groups before. I thought in running groups you all run non-stop together, which made me scared I’d have to keep up, which would make me hate it because I couldn’t back off if other people were running too fast for me. But the different training activities we did meant that wasn’t the case at all, we ran on 400m loops so that we all stayed in the same area.
  • Running together is better than running alone. Running alone sucks. It is so boring. Well, maybe it’s not that bad, but I definitely struggled more on my solo weekend runs than at the classes with others. My year off last year made me realise how much better it made things to do them with people, so just having people to show up for was motivation for me. Plus they helped with the actual running. There was one person in my group who always established a really good pace that was perfect to get me started, otherwise I’d shoot off and then struggle. When things got challenging, we often kept each other going with a bit of pride or competition. There were several sessions where having someone else to keep up with or catch up to kept me going, and I know I kept others going too.
  • Having a group of people who care about your running really helps. In this little aspect of my life, I have several people really caring about how I’m doing. My running friends know about my blisters, and I know about their ankles or shin splints. No one else cares – and rightly so – but having that little group who are barracking for you, who know how you’re feeling, and how shitty it is that you have blisters that are NOT GOING AWAY, is awesome.
  • I have made new friends who share my values. I didn’t go into this expecting to make friends, but I did. The people are really nice, and we share a lot of the same values around health, mindfulness, well-being and happiness. Many of our conversations revolve around this kind of stuff. We went to dinner together at the end and we are signing up for next term together.

What I learnt from a year off

Reflections on a year off work, including not finding my passion, learning about myself, my relationship with achievement, my daily routine, procrastination and unproductiveness, physical health, stress and anxiety, planning and money, and the future. 

In 2016, nine years into my career, I took a year off work to do ‘creative things’. It was part of finding out what I want to do with my life and career, which I’ve never figured out.

The idea was born in 2015 when I saw a career coach. In one hour, we discussed my situation, values, and dreams, and then listed things I’d like to do, regardless of whether I had the education or experience to do them. Then we devised a plan with the world-shaking idea of taking a year off to try some of these things!

I knew of people taking time off to travel or study, but I didn’t know of anyone (to my knowledge) who had done what I subsequently did: dedicate serious time to try a range of creative things to see if they could be career options.

The plan was to try four things: write a book (using a blog for regular deadlines); do some freelance editing; continue performing and teaching improv; and do some kind of public speaking. There wasn’t a specific end goal other than to give these things a decent go.

I knew immediately that I wanted to do this, and my boyfriend and family were supportive. So I took the year off. Apart from a short project in July, I did not do my normal job for a year.

It’s still two months before I’m due back at work but I was inspired to write this now (and one thing I’ve learnt this year with creative ideas is to strike while you give a shit!). Looking at my list, I’ve given the four things a shot, in some form or another. And while I am going back to work in a couple of months – not quitting and becoming a professional magic happy person – I have learnt an unbelievable amount.

What did I learn and get out of it?

Not only did I not work out what I want to ‘do’ with my life, I no longer expect that this will happen for me

  • I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to do with my life forever. I’ve been searching for my One Thing (also known as one’s passion) since I decided in year 8 that I didn’t want to be a vet anymore. I just thought I hadn’t figured out the specific thing I was supposed to do. In fact, that’s why I went to see the career coach – I was hoping she would figure it out for me.
  • But I don’t think there is one thing for me. There are people in the world who know what they want to do and they do it. But I don’t think I am one, and I know plenty of people like me. We just don’t have a pre-designed soulmate career out there waiting for us.
  • Multiple things can be an option. I had never considered doing more than one thing – I thought I needed to find that single calling. But my career coach’s simple suggestion of trying four things in a year off was mind-blowing. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might need to tailor a few things together to get satisfaction from my career, that my dream job wasn’t already invented and neatly packaged into a single thing waiting for me.

Through experimentation, I crossed a few things off and built a few things up

  • The writing – and working out what that meant to me – was the biggest challenge. The writing didn’t magically take off the way I expected. At first I didn’t know how to get into a good routine to write. Then I didn’t know what to write. I decided I needed to focus on one thing at a time, and chose to start with this blog. I did that for a while and was happy with it, then tried to do something else but didn’t know how to. In June, feeling completely lost, I booked into an RMIT fiction writing short course that I’d been googling for months.
  • I don’t think I want to be a fiction writer. My attempts at writing fiction (to achieve my dream of writing a play, or a crime novel) were so excruciating that I’ve given up on it for now. Maybe I’ll give it another go at some point. But that feeling I’ve had since I was 15 that ‘maybe I could write a novel’ has been dispelled enough for me to chill out and leave it, possibly forever.
  • I still like writing though – just not fiction. Writing this blog is very enjoyable. I like the process, I like the outcome. It’s still hard work, but it’s not painful like fiction was. It was also unexpectedly rewarding – it’s so lovely when people tell you they got something out of your work. Old friends got in touch for the first time in ages, and new people reached out to me. And hating writing fiction really showed me how much I liked writing non-fiction.
  • I don’t want to try to build a reliable income from editing. I love editing, but I hate the business side of it enough to put me off. I like Elizabeth Gilbert’s (Eat Pray Love, Big Magic) view on this: I don’t like editing enough to eat the particular shit sandwich that comes with it.
  • I still love improv. Improv really exploded this year. It’s amazing how much I did and how far I’ve come. I got heaps from teaching it – it was incredibly satisfying to help people uncover talents and build confidence and skill. I think I became a better performer too, with several highlights throughout the year. And I got to deal with issues I care about, like women’s issues.
  • I will keep experimenting to find more things that I like doing. To continue building my suite of things, I’ll keep trying stuff as it becomes interesting to me. For example, I am currently doing some volunteering to try different things and meet different people.

I learnt things about myself and my needs that surprised me

  • I need more intellectual stimulation. I got bored. There was lots of information going in (thanks to plenty of time to read and listen to podcasts), but less going out. I found myself studying the classics (Don Quixote discussion, anyone?) and writing a diversity strategy for the improv company I’m involved in. Once I abandoned my dreams of being a fiction writer I fell into a funk and got seriously bored.
  • I got lonely. I thought I was a power introvert who would love the alone time. Turns out not so much. Working in the library helped, although the best days were when I worked with people directly.
  • I really like collaborating. During my writing course I found writing fiction at home on my own to be almost physically painful. But in the classroom, I loved it! A bunch of people writing simultaneously and then reading out our stuff to the group and commenting on it – awesome! It’s not just about being in the same physical place though; I like to work on the same thing, interactively, with someone.
  • I’d rather make money from a government job and find time to be artistic than go full-time as an artist. The life of an artist can be a struggle financially. With a government job, I can earn a good, reliable income. I know there are benefits to doing all the varied things artists do to make money outside their main goals. But my choice for now will be the government work. This is also partly for the intellectual stimulation.
  • I’ve lost a lot of excuses, which is liberating. Excuses like ‘if only I had the time’ and ‘if only I didn’t work’. But I haven’t written a book, and I still don’t cook elaborate meals, or go bushwalking, or eat amazingly healthily, which means my day job can no longer be the excuse. Maybe I just don’t like doing those things, or don’t want them enough to put the effort in. Or maybe there’s something else holding me back. One big barrier for me in terms of writing was putting my opinions out into the world where they might will be disagreed with or criticised. I’m still getting better at this but I’ve started.

I had to face my achievement demons head on

  • Achievement is a big part of my identity. I am so driven to achieve. A standard phone call with my mother involves us listing the things we’ve achieved that day, if that gives you any idea. But in this unstructured world of the past year, I’ve really had to figure out what achievement means to me.
  • I don’t always feel a sense of achievement or purpose. Sometimes I am really clear on what I am working on. Other times I feel adrift. Around September I basically decided to give up and treat it like a holiday; around November my motivation came roaring back.
  • Achievement was hard to measure. Most of the stuff I did this year wasn’t as easy to measure as the tasks in my day job. This was especially true with improv, because there’s no physical product at the end other than memories. But I found some ways:
    • Could I have done it a year ago? There are so many things I can now do that I couldn’t have done a year ago: publish my opinion online, perform improvised songs, comfortably say no to people asking me to do things, create and host a podcast, make up an improv class on the spot, analyse a classic piece of literature, make leadership decisions and live with them, and burpies (full burpies!). There are also things that I could do but I do better now: writing fiction and non-fiction, performing improv, and teaching and coaching improv.
    • Impact on others. Many of my improv performances have struck a chord with people. After one performance where I told a true story about a friendship breakdown, about 20 people came up to me after and told me their own stories and how mine had made them feel better, or less alone. Similarly, hearing that my blog posts impacted people meant a lot to me.
    • Am I living in line with my values? If I have an feeling of unfulfilledness, I check in with my values (which are connectedness, fun, storytelling, risk, kindness, self-care, genuineness, and contribution) to see if I am doing things that contribute to them. If I haven’t contributed to one of my values lately, I schedule something in. This is usually an accurate diagnosis of what is missing in my life for me to feel fulfilled.
    • Listing! This is a crude tool and it doesn’t capture whether something gives me satisfaction, but it makes me feel less like I’ve wasted my time. Some things I did this year: I started a blog, started a podcast, did Raw Comedy at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF), wrote a Diversity strategy and a Diversity Scholarship Policy for my improv company (which has led to many things including gender balance and increased diversity in the ensemble), been on the leadership panel at my improv company, supported my workplace by going back to work for five weeks in a time of need, wrote something great for my workplace in that five weeks, written and directed a comedy sketch, acted in comedy sketches, performed improv in the MICF and the Melbourne Fringe Festival as well as shows throughout the year, gotten really fit and strong, taught lots of improv, read a ridiculous number of books, been able to support people around me more, set up some awesome volunteering roles and started volunteering.
  • I’m learning to not focus on achievement. Sometimes, I’ve even entertained the idea that achievement might not be the all-encompassing purpose of my life. I am working on trying to just… be. This is not easy. But sometimes it’s not all about achievement.
  • That said, part of me feels like I didn’t try hard enough. As I wrote this blog entry I did start to wonder if I’d tried hard enough. For example, I didn’t write a book. Have I been giving up too soon? Am I rationalising everything as a learning experience? So that has lit a fire under me; now I’m trying harder before my year is up.

Managing my schedule is a balancing act of flexibility, discipline and boundaries

  • The hours go fast. Many days I don’t end up doing much. Two creative things a day (e.g. work on a blog post, prep for improv teaching) seems about the limit once I add exercise, cooking, errands and evening activities.
  • Other people tried to steal my year off! It’s amazing how many people were like ‘you can work on my idea!’. I quickly learnt I needed to have boundaries and protect my time (unless their thing directly contributed to my goals). It was hard at first but I’m now pretty comfortable saying no to things I don’t want to do.
  • I have an effective to-do list process now. I tend to write them the night before. The fewer things on the list the better. Too many things on the list, and I won’t get them all done and then I’ll feel sad looking at my list. If there is something big and hairy that I don’t want to do, I make it the only thing on the list – otherwise I’ll do everything except that. I keep a master list of to-do tasks in my phone, but my daily to-do list is short, and on paper.
  • Housework is a killer. We hired a cleaner so I wouldn’t get stuck with all the housework. I purposefully didn’t do housework during the day – like, I barely put my dishes in the dishwasher.
  • At first I had to structure in unproductive time. Earlier in the year when I was a bit more stressed about being productive, I had to schedule in ‘unstructured active days’, where I followed my whims without pressure to be productive. Now I’m a little more relaxed so I don’t need these days as much.
  • I still give myself weekends. I don’t put pressure on myself to achieve anything much on weekends (although they are often full of improv which this year I have treated partly as work). Given I’m not trying to start a small business right now, I think this is reasonable. Maybe in other circumstances you’d be working as much as possible.
  • A day with no commitments is a precious, magical thing. One commitment can make a whole day unproductive, and I can quickly end up with a commitment every day. On the flip side, a day with no commitments can be lonely. Throughout the year I went in waves: sometimes I kept days empty so I could get stuff done, other times I booked things in to keep away the loneliness. Unfortunately these schedules didn’t always align with how I was feeling. In a lonely period I’d book in lots of things, but then move into a productive period and would have something on every day. Fortunately people cancel a lot these days. But I’ve learnt not to schedule things too far out. Instead, when that week approaches I can decide: pile every social appointment into one day (productive week) or spread them out (lonely week).

My daily routine changed a lot as I experimented and as my motivations waxed and waned

  • I sketched out my idea of a good daily routine at the start of the year. I would exercise and do errands in the morning, write in the afternoon, and do improv or social stuff in the evening. I designed this thinking I needed to do the exercise in the morning as it was hard and I needed to get it out of the way. Little did I know that exercise would become the easiest thing.
  • But this schedule didn’t work. For years I’ve been getting headaches in the afternoon and these did not stop despite not working. So I had to change my plans for the daily routine. I worked in the mornings and early afternoons before the headache arrived (new glasses in October rescued hours of unproductive time) and errands and exercise moved to the afternoon. This also worked because I was finding writing to be the hardest thing so it needed to happen first.
  • I have a consistent and productive routine now. I write in the mornings and (maybe) early afternoons, taking little breaks as I need them. Lunch is a danger zone! I usually take two hour lunches – I just can’t motivate myself to do anything with only an hour’s break (this felt the same when I was at work, it was always a struggle to do anything at 1:30). Sometimes I use lunch to see friends or run errands, or read. If I watch TV, I lose hours, so I avoid that unless I’m really tired. Three o’clock seems to be the transition point to exercising, cooking and normal evening stuff.
  • I did too much improv. I had to take a break from improv because it quickly took up all my time. I needed to give writing a fair go. Also, improv is usually scheduled outside the 9-5 Monday to Friday time i.e. exactly when my boyfriend, friends, and family are free to hang out. I pushed it as much as possible but ultimately my boyfriend and I needed to see each other more, so I stopped doing the parts of improv that weren’t providing me with all that much pleasure or development.
  • It took me a long time to build up some habits. While I had time to exercise every day, it took nine months to build up a daily exercise regime. I’d like to get a daily meditation thing going, but I won’t bother forcing it every day to start with.

Unproductiveness was still there

  • There were really unproductive times that lasted weeks. When I was sick or didn’t sleep I gave my body plenty more time than in the past to look after itself. I lost three weeks to a broken computer (yes, I tried other options but it’s not the same). I also lost a lot of time to a hand injury. And then there was September, which is when I realised I didn’t want to write fiction and I became untethered for a while and wandered off into a wasteland of boredom. My motivation came back in November and now I’m pumped for the rest of my time off.
  • I learnt to accept my unproductiveness. There were days when my boyfriend came home from work and said he hadn’t had a very productive day. This reminded me that I’d had such days in my day job, so I became more realistic about my productivity expectations. I can’t be 100% productive every day.
  • I still find myself clock watching! This seems ridiculous – surely I’m supposed to be easily motivated because I’m doing things I love, right? But ultimately I am trying to get work done, and that work is hard and I want it to be over so I can revel in satisfaction.
  • You can only get so far in one year. After having some expectations met and others not, I think there are two types of years off: an exploratory, self-discovery one, and a get-serious-about-a-particular-thing one. I don’t think you can really do both in one year; I certainly couldn’t. I will be going back to work with many more ideas and experiences that will help me keep building a fulfilling life. In a few more years, perhaps, I’ll have found something I want to invest a lot of time into.

I discovered a whole new level of procrastination

  • I got better at beating basic procrastination and distraction. Working without a boss revealed all my weaknesses. I am so easily distracted! My sheer frustration at myself helped me get better at beating procrastination, as did mindfulness. Now I’m better at being aware that I’ve been distracted so I can decide whether or not to engage with the fun procrastination.
  • Now I understand why there are hundreds of articles on how to manage your email. Never before has email seemed so important – or Facebook, or Instagram, or The Age. I found the tips in those email-management articles quite good: things like not checking it before a certain time, or only checking it at certain times, or limiting the amount of time spent responding. It takes discipline but they work.
  • But there are bigger versions of procrastination than I realised. I was also procrastinating via big useful tasks that looked like productiveness and took weeks, like writing a diversity strategy. It was important, rewarding and educational, but it wasn’t what I set out to do, and it took a crapload of time.
  • Is it procrastination, or a new interest? Then again, some distractions were genuinely interesting and I decided to lean into them. I started studying the classics after picking up a copy of The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer. It’s opened up a whole new world to me, because I never really knew how to analyse texts like Don Quixote or The Pilgrim’s Progress. Similarly, my role on the leadership panel at improv came to take up a lot of time but was interesting and I made a conscious decision to dedicate time to it.

I understand my body better

  • My health hasn’t been magically cured. I expected to feel awesome as soon as I stopped working. However, while my health improved a lot this year, it’s not perfection. Now I know that this is what I’m working with: I have a base level of being super sensitive to fructose and catching colds relatively easily, and I still cannot nap during the day.
  • I sleep eight to nine hours every night. That seems to be what my body chooses. Isn’t it scary that when I work I get between 1-3 fewer hours sleep every single night than my body would like? And this isn’t an oversleeping thing. This 8-9 hour mark is something I remember from other times in my life.
  • Eating healthy was sometimes easy, sometimes not. I think boredom played a role here. While I was enjoying the things I was doing, it didn’t banish food from my mind the way a major deadline does. Food remained a big source of entertainment, comfort and pleasure.
  • I built up a daily exercise habit. It took me about nine months but now it’s just something that I make time for. And now that I know I’m going to exercise every day, I don’t have the ‘will I, won’t I?’ tussle, it’s simply a matter of when. Some days, it might be the only thing that gives me a sense of achievement. It became easier to motivate myself once I identified self-care as one of my core values. It’s also easier than writing.
  • I became an afternoon exerciser! After a lifetime of thinking that if the exercise isn’t done by 10am it’s not happening, I now prefer exercising in the afternoon. It’s physically easier. This also made me wonder if I’m more flexible (mentally, not physically!) than I thought.
  • I didn’t need to relax. I haven’t needed to zone out watching TV, except when I’ve been sick. I just don’t need to chill so much. On a holiday to Bali with my sister, I read and analysed ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, a 17th century allegory about religion by John Bunyan. I’m not full of boundless energy, but I don’t need downtime. But when I went back to work for a few weeks in July, all I wanted to do when I got home was fall in a heap and watch UnReal.
  • I drank more alcohol! This was surprising. I haven’t had any more big nights than usual, but I suppose the small nights have increased. And I suspect a bit of boredom might have contributed. When I’ve spent all Friday on my own and I’ve exercised and read and meditated and cooked and cleaned, by 6pm I’m looking for something to do.
  • Proper self-care seems very hard when you have a full-time job. Exercising, eating well, meditating, getting 10 000 steps, getting enough sleep – apparently it’s simply a matter of prioritising them. But does anyone achieve this and work a normal job and have a life? When I went back to work for a few weeks in July, most of these things went out the window.

I still got anxious and stressed

  • Similar to the health stuff, I had expected the anxiety and stress to disappear. Not having to work certainly took some pressure off. But anxiety still showed up more than I expected. The pressure to feel like I was achieving things made me anxious. While I am not working a traditional job, it’s not like I’m doing nothing.
  • I did stop getting the Sunday night chest tightening though. Other people get nausea or even throw up on a Sunday night. The first Sunday of my year off I got the chest feeling and then realised that I didn’t have to go to work tomorrow – or for a year. The Sunday chest tightening stopped.
  • My GP and psychologist were big supports. In March, when I thought I might have had a glandular relapse, my GP did the blood tests but she also suggested I go back to my psych. This was a very good idea. My psych helped me deal with things like the pressure to achieve, perfectionism and whatever else was going on in my life (because that didn’t stop!).
  • I got quite anxious talking to people about my year off. People are always asking me how my year is going, what I’ve been up to. And it can feel a bit nothing to say ‘some writing and improv’. I feel a lot of pressure to be living a wonderland dream. I’m fine with it now, I don’t get so anxious anymore, but you try summing up your year in small talk!
  • The fact that I still get anxious and stressed is good in a way. If work was the sole cause, I think I would feel like a failure at life, and it would make it very hard to go back. Instead, I have more clarity on anxiety and stress and why it shows up in my life. I can’t avoid it and I have to face it head on.

Planning and money

  • I did some planning but wasn’t fastidious about following these plans. I had a second session with the career coach just before the year started, and we did some planning including discussing my daily routine, how to motivate myself, the value of meditation, and how to address the barriers to taking the year off. Then at the start of the year I wrote a project plan for myself (very government of me!) with action items, and a daily/weekly routine. During the year I looked at these documents occasionally, but not often. In general I was sticking to them anyway so I think the value was in writing them, not necessarily following them to the letter.
  • My main barrier was my fear of not having enough money. I’ve kept a budget for years, so I plugged my new numbers into that. My boyfriend agreed to pay a little more rent. I identified unnecessary spending. I saved for a while. I knew I’d be earning a little here and there, and I had safety nets. So I decided I’d be ok, which I was.
  • I was surprised how far my leave pay lasted. My long service leave and annual leave, both taken at half pay, lasted me longer than I expected. I think you must still accrue one kind while using the other? I’m ashamed to say I still don’t know.
  • I still definitely needed the savings as well as the leave pay. I was getting a little bit more than I expected (I forgot to take into consideration that I’d be taxed at a lower rate, and that due to something called ‘leave loading’ I got slightly more pay when I was on annual leave). However, the half pay was just below enough for me to have a reasonable lifestyle (by this I mean keeping the osteopath appointments, and losing the hairdresser appointments), so there were some months before the leave ran out when I tapped my savings. Also, thanks to two unanticipated trips to Bali, and weddings in Sydney, Canberra, Launceston and Inverloch, I used a bit more of my savings sooner than expected. Once my long service and annual leave ended it was time to properly use the savings.
  • Cutting back too much spending made me sad, so I gave up on that after about four months. Not getting my hair done or eating at fancy restaurants is fine. But limiting Pilates to once a week was making me sad, so I brought that back in (especially once I felt comfortable I was going to be fine financially). I also allowed myself little indulgences, like brunch at my favourite café on Fridays after Pilates. I valued it so much that it became extra special.

I’m excited about the future, but also trying to be realistic

  • I’m pretty nervous to be going back to work. Will I be happy? Will I be bored? Will I be stressed? Will I be able to keep the exercise and the blog going?
  • But I’m also excited. I’m excited to test out all the things I’ve learnt about myself, organisations and management, and self-management. I’ve also come to see and appreciate many things that I didn’t realise I was getting out of my job: intellectual stimulation, collaboration, a good source of income, and working with people I like. I’m going back four days so I can also do some volunteering.
  • I will have to be realistic about how much I can achieve once I’m back at work. I’ll be tired so it’ll be harder and I’ll need that chill out time again. I’ll probably try those meal services and we’ll keep the cleaner. Sleep will certainly reduce.

What I got out of Playing Big

Cover image playing big

An intuitive, completely different way of addressing self-doubt and the barriers that stop us from ‘playing big’ and moving towards our goals, dreams and visions.

I loved Tara Mohr’s Playing Big. It got to the heart of things, yet it was different to anything I’d read before. The book is focused on women and the biases and behaviours that are thought to hold us back from achieving the same sorts of things as men, but it isn’t full of platitudes like ‘be more confident’ or ‘take risks’. It felt like a wise woman telling me how she found fulfillment in her life and career.

The discussion of challenges rang true to me- I recognised things I had been doing – and then Mohr told me what to do about it in a way that felt tailored to me. The techniques have become part of my regular habits. It has changed the way I act on my goals, examine my fears, and even write my emails. It has sped up and even shortcut the path towards my dreams. What’s more, every chapter felt like an idea that other books would have as their whole focus – it was packed with life-changing stuff.

It’s a practical book, with a focus on the how rather than theory or inspiration. Exercises like journaling and visualisation helped me uncover my specific barriers including things I didn’t realise were affecting me. It’s also one of those books where you get something new each time you read it.

While Playing Big is focused on women, I can see value for men. Men might face these challenges themselves – self-doubt is not exclusive to women! It could also make men more aware of the challenges that many women face and how patriarchal structures and systems hold them back.

What did I learn and how has it changed my life?

I tapped into a source of my own wisdom I didn’t know I had – my inner mentor

  • Mohr argues that you can mentor yourself. One of the best parts of this book is the inner mentor chapter. Mohr led me through a visualisation (the audio is on her website) where I went on a journey twenty years into the future to meet my future self. Then I asked future-me about my problems and issues, how she got where she is now, advice on decisions I needed to make, and so on. This person is my ‘inner mentor’ and I can visit her anytime I want.
  • My inner mentor was awesome! That shouldn’t be surprising, because it’s the me I want to be. But still, I was surprised by how great she/I was. She was so sensible and calm but exciting and cool! I forgot that I was imagining all this in my head and was just giving myself advice. And that advice was really good! Who cares why it works (emotional distance?), it just does. Now I ‘visit’ her from time to time to ask her for advice, and it is always excellent.
  • Real world mentors are still great especially for subject matter stuff. An actual mentor is great to guide you, especially in a particular field where they can share networks and ideas about subject matter. But I’ve had wonderful people in my career who have been well meaning and well informed but who have given me completely wrong ideas or suggestions for my future. Which is no reflection on them (although perhaps it shows how little I’ve been being my authentic self), but I know me best.

You can have callings in your life, and these can help shape yourself and the world

  • I’d come to think that I wasn’t the type of person to get a ‘calling’. There are those lucky people who know what they want to do from about the age of eleven. Not me though. I also thought that callings were singular things – to religion, to medicine, to dancing – and I should search for ‘the one’ calling or passion and dedicate myself to it. However, I’ve found that I don’t have a singular passion or calling that I want to dedicate my life to.
  • But I do have callings in my life, I just didn’t see them that way. Mohr says that when you can clearly see something needs to change and you can see how it should change, maybe you should take it on. This is what a calling really is, and I do have these things. I’m not talking about how I think they should change the traffic lights back to how they used to be so that if you got one green, you got the next few too, because I don’t have any ability to effect that change other than writing a letter. But I do see things in my life that I have the power and capability to do something about.
  • You can have multiple callings! Mohr says that rather than asking ‘what is my calling?’ you can ask ‘what calling or callings are showing up in my life right now?’ I don’t have to dedicate my life to one thing, I can just do the thing that’s in front of me right now. Callings can be big or small, they can be serious or whimsical. Most recently the calling turning up in my life was a desire to create a specific improv workshop to learn how to tell more diverse stories. I can’t imagine dedicating my entire life to this but I can see a period of months on it. The callings change and that’s great. As these callings build up one after another, they will help you forge a path that is fulfilling and that helps you manifest your authentic self.

Feedback tells me more about the other person than it does about me

  • All feedback tells me is information about the other person and what they care about. Feedback sucks. Well, the feedback process does. Don’t get me wrong, I value it hugely, I seek it out, and it improves my work. But there’s always an emotional firestorm inside me whenever there’s feedback going on. Mohr says that when you get feedback, it just tells you what that person cares about. If someone thinks my website needs more pictures, if doesn’t necessarily mean it needs more pictures. It just means this person thinks it needs more pictures. Maybe they’re really into pictures. Maybe I do need more pictures. But the point is that I don’t have to interpret their feedback as anything other than information about them.
  • This seems to take the emotional kick out of it. Once I started interpreting feedback as information about that person, I could assess it more objectively. Even in improv, if someone gives me a ‘note’ (a comment on my performance), it tells me about what they value. If they think I missed an opportunity for an amazing gag, that tells me that that person values gags, not that I should do more gags (I hate gags). When someone doesn’t eat the cake I made, it doesn’t mean it was a bad cake, or that they hate me – it just means they didn’t choose to eat the cake. It’s not about me.
  • I need to make sure I’m asking the right person for feedback. If the person who wants more pictures is someone who is going to buy lots of products from me, their feedback might be useful information about what intended audience values. This is very useful. Mohr says that the feedback process should always be focused on your intended audience, and interpreted as data about them. Which means feedback from family and friends is probably going to be useless. They’re great people, but they’re not my intended audience right now.

 There are a bunch of ways I procrastinate that I didn’t even realise

  • I thought I had left my procrastinating ways behind. A few years ago I realised I was a massive procrastinator. It was after reading this excellent article by Wait But Why, and once I’d read that, I got much better at doing the thing I needed to do, and not get distracted. I thought I had it all figured out.
  • But there are ways to procrastinate on life dreams that I wasn’t aware of. This is a whole new level of procrastination. While the Wait But Why article helped me with the small-time daily procrastination, Mohr showed me that there are ways I am procrastinating about major life things. She also calls it ‘hiding’. One way to procrastinate at big stuff is thinking we need to do something else before we could even start on the thing we want to do, like needing to do a specific training program before applying for a job. Another way is designing at the whiteboard, where you put heaps of work into solving a problem and writing a plan to address it without actually getting out there and talking to people about your ideas. I do this all the time, because planning makes me feel good and it looks like I’m getting something done.
  • Now I can see when I’m overplanning or putting unnecessary requirements between me and my goals. Then I realise I have to do the thing. The big thing. Which is freakin’ scary. Which is probably why I was procrastinating.

I can get moving on my goals right now, in practical ways that will give me momentum

  • I can take a leap in the direction of my goal. Mohr recommends that if you have a goal or an idea, you can do something right now (well, in the next fortnight or so) to really give you momentum. It’s called a leap. A leap is anything that gets me connecting with my audience to collect feedback on the early stages of an idea. If I want to write a book, a leap might be to set up a blog and publish some articles. If I want to create a training centre, a leap might be to run a one-off workshop. The point is to get moving but not in a way that is just procrastinating.
  • Leaps give me feedback to help me move towards my goal. A key outcome of a leap is some feedback from my intended audience. Who is reading my blog? What do they think of it? If I’m getting feedback from people I’m not trying to reach, I can ignore it and focus on the feedback from the people I am trying to reach. That will help me as I progress towards a larger goal of writing a book. Same with the workshop. What did people like and dislike? Did I invite the right people? What might I change?
  • Leaps also give energy and excitement. When I’m taking my leap, I’m hopefully doing something that feels like my most authentic version of me. So I should be feeling pretty amazing! I’ve starting to fulfil a calling, to forge a path, and instead of planning for months, I’ve actually gone and done something real. That makes the goal more visible. If I don’t walk away from my initial leap feeling pretty awesome about my next steps (even if feedback wasn’t all positive, I now know what to do next time and I’m excited about that) then maybe it’s not really what I want to do.

 There are two kinds of fear – and one of them is good!

  • Mohr talks about two Hebrew words used to describe fear. Pachad is the fear of bad things happening: of car crashes and rejection and loss and scary people following you home off the tram. Yirah is also a word for fear, but it is fear of the unknown, of the mysterious. It’s the feeling you get just before you try something risky that you care about: a job interview, getting on stage, asking someone out, publishing your blog, moving to a new country.
  • We avoid both, but we shouldn’t avoid yirah. Yirah is actually a really good sign! It means you’re about to do something awesome. But it feels very similar to pachad: sweating and anxiety and a desire to just read books in a room alone for the rest of my life (surely that would be fulfilling?). Unfortunately this cuts off opportunities and dreams coming true. I see this in improv a lot, and I experience it whenever I’m trying something I want but haven’t done before or that I’m not sure I’m going to pull off. Now that I know that the icy feeling in my veins could actually be anticipation of joy, I can accept it and live with the feeling.

What I got out of Daring Greatly

Cover image Daring Greatly

Incredibly insightful as well as highly practical, Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead by Brené Brown is about the barriers that stop us living the way we want to.

I’ve never thought shame was a big influence or agent in my life. It’s not a word I commonly use. However, Brown says that many of the things that stop us from doing great stuff in life – in our relationships, careers, parenting, and creative lives – are because of shame and fear of vulnerability.

Her main point is that we’re so afraid of shame that we avoid ever being vulnerable. The massive problem being that the only way to get the good things in life is through vulnerability (dammit!).

Brown gives a lot of practical, specific actions you can use to move on from shame and embrace vulnerability. I have started using some and it’s making me a kinder, more emotionally mature person (I hope).

What did I learn and how have I changed my life?

Shame is really bad

  • All people are worthy of love and belonging. Until a few years ago, I honestly wondered why people would be friends with me. Surely I’m not pretty enough or fun enough or interesting enough. I started understanding the concept of inherent worthiness when I read another of Brown’s books (before I read this one) called The Gifts of Imperfection. But the thing that clinched it for me was meeting each of my nieces and nephews. It’s a bizarre but magical experience how you meet a newborn baby and you realise you’re gonna love them for the rest of your life. And they haven’t done anything to deserve it yet! On the flip side, even though they’ll do bad things in the future (cos they’re human), you know you’re still going to love them. That’s inherent worthiness and we’ve all got it.
  • Respecting people’s inherent worthiness is making my life better. Even the crazy man who roadraged at me the other day, literally trying to cause a crash and getting out of his car to confront me. I took a moment to reflect that he is worthy of love and belonging. It made me more compassionate towards him. I was still terrified and full of some other emotions but it makes me a better human to remind myself of this, especially when people are behaving like crap.
  • Shame erodes worthiness, and that’s really shit. Shame is when we start associating bad things with people’s inherent character. We start thinking we aren’t worthy because we did something bad or something bad happened to us. Urgh. How can I be lovable if I’m a bad person? How could anyone ever love me if there is something fundamentally wrong with my core self? Shame is the shittiest.
  • Some people think shame is ok, but I think they’re wrong. Some people use shame to motivate others (staff, children, athletes, performers, partners). However, based on Brown’s way of conceptualising shame, I’m pretty sure it’s never ok.

Shame and guilt can be used for the same purpose but have very different outcomes

  • You can look at the same thing through a guilt lens or a shame lens. Everyone does bad things, but you can consider these in different ways. Guilt is when you say someone did a bad thing; shame is when you say someone is bad for doing a bad thing. If you hurt someone you can think ‘I hurt someone’ (guilt) or you can think ‘I am a person who hurts people’ (shame).
  • It’s a small difference cognitively, but the impact is huge. Using the guilt perspective, if you do a bad thing, then you regret it, you tell yourself you aren’t going to do it again and you learn some lessons. Shame, however, links these bad things to your identity. Historically I have a tendency to attribute the bad things I have done to my character. Using the guilt lens is helping me accept when I’ve done something I am not proud of, learn from it, apologise and move on, because it’s not linked to my identity anymore.

I have been so afraid of failure, vulnerability and shame that it has stopped me from experiencing all life has to offer

  • We can be so afraid of shame that it paralyses us. I sometimes feel like there’s a scoreboard hanging over my head measuring everything I’ve ever done ‘wrong’ – at work, in my relationships, in my hobbies. So I try to stop getting things wrong, either through perfectionism or not trying things. That’s how I lived my life for a long time, to the point where I think it stopped me from pursuing romantic relationships in my early twenties. I was too afraid of getting involved with anyone who might turn out to be not absolutely amazing and that that would prove I wasn’t amazing, or make me less amazing.
  • But the things worth having in life require you to risk failure. It’s like a pairing – good things come to those who risk. You can’t get a job without risking the embarrassment of not getting it. You need to show your prototype to someone. You need to try something different to keep your company innovative. In particular, Brown talks about how love requires massive vulnerability. Even if we do manage to overcome some initial vulnerability fears and end up in love, we still risk every day for the rest of our lives that that person might stop loving us, or something bad might happen to them. There’s literally no way I can love someone whose safety is guaranteed. Accepting that takes vulnerability.
  • I’ve added ‘risk’ to my core values. I’m not very good at taking risks. My muscle memory always draws me away from them. But I know they’re really important, and since reading this book I’ve added risk to my list of personal values. Now when I’m making decisions, I take into consideration whether I’m avoiding risk. It’s made me instantly braver.
  • The critics don’t matter. Being afraid of what the judgey people say stops us from daring or seeking great things. Putting something out there (like this blog!) to where people can see it and judge it is terrifying. This was a big barrier for me, but my amazing career coach pointed out that even the greatest, most lovely people who do amazing work get criticised. Even Brené Brown has people commenting on her youtube videos about her appearance. I doubt this element of life is ever going to go away, so unfortunately we have to get over it if we want to live a full life. Also, I’m one of the judgey people myself, and I know what’s really going on for them (see below).
  • Vulnerability is necessary – but not easy. Just because we’ve figured out that vulnerability is key doesn’t mean it’s suddenly going to be super easy. It’s a little bit easier, but not pain free. Being ok with the discomfort of vulnerability is still necessary.

Anger/blaming/judging are signs that I’m feeling vulnerable

  • This is such a useful diagnostic. I can look back and see moments in my life where, because I was feeling vulnerable, I protected my sense of worthiness by putting it on someone else (either in my head or publicly). I’ve noticed some of the things I do to protect myself from vulnerability include lashing out, blaming others, getting angry, eating, seeking out human connection (yay a good one!), crying, getting sick, physically hiding my face or putting on a funny voice.
  • Self-righteousness is vulnerability or fear in disguise. This one took me by surprise. Brown says ‘when I feel self-righteous, it means I’m afraid’. At the time of reading, I was feeling super self-righteous about something someone had done that I objected to in principle but that also affected me personally. In my imaginary argument with them, I wasn’t talking about the effect it was having on me – I was arguing solely from the self-righteous position of ‘what you did is a bad thing in principle’. When I read this part of the book, I realised that my issues were coming from a fear that I had missed the only opportunity for something. But I hadn’t – while that particular option was gone, I had other pathways to pursue. I am still annoyed at that person but hey, I’m working on it.
  • I’ve also noticed some more unusual habits that indicate I’m feeling vulnerable. In particular, I’ve noticed that a lot of times when am feeling bad about myself (like my common pastime of recalling cringe-worthy moments from my past), I reach for my phone. It’s creepy that my phone gives me endorphins but that’s the world we live in these days. It’s a handy thing to notice, now when it happens I take a moment to think ‘what’s up?’ and then I can deal with my vulnerability.
  • One of Brown’s ways of defusing vulnerability has been particularly useful for me. Anytime you realise you are feeling vulnerable, you say ‘I’m feeling vulnerable about x’. Then you think about what you are grateful for that directly relates to what you’re feeling vulnerable about. So you say ‘I’m feeling vulnerable about x, I’m grateful for y’. Gratitude practice sometimes annoys me, it can feel like an ‘at least’ thing. For example, maybe you made a fool of yourself at a party and people are teasing you. I don’t think it’s useful to think ‘I feel vulnerable that these people are teasing me, I’m grateful that they invited me to the party at all’. I mean, that’s shit. But you can say ‘I feel vulnerable that they’re teasing me, I’m grateful that I have the courage to get up and keep going’. It’s really effective, I use it all the time now.

Those were the main points for me. But she said so much valuable stuff, here are some other bits that got me:

  • The different between belonging and fitting in. Belonging is being accepted the way you are; fitting in is changing yourself to match the group. If we have to change ourselves, we must be bad, right? Wrong. I have spent way too long trying to fit in. Now I look for where I can belong.
  • The size of the problem does not predict our emotional reactivity to it. Sometimes small things have a big impact on me emotionally. I’ve gotten pretty stressed out by ‘small’ things like who I’m going to sit with at a formal event. But actually it’s about my self-worth – I’m hurt I’m not being included by people I want to be with, or I’m scared I’m going to be sitting with people who won’t talk to me. So I don’t belittle myself anymore for getting upset about such ‘small’ things.
  • The biggest shame message women get is about how they look. I get so frustrated that I spend my time and money and energy and emotions on something so apparently vacuous and superficial. To hear a shame researcher say it is literally the biggest shame trigger for women made me feel less stupid for still caring. For men it’s about not being weak. I have been trying to be more aware of how I treat men in this respect, such as not reacting badly when they show vulnerability.
  • Perfectionism is one result of being afraid of shame and vulnerability. I’ve known I was a perfectionist for a while. But I didn’t realise it was because I was afraid of what people would think of me if I didn’t do everything perfectly. I was trying to prevent any chance of being wrong, because it would mean I was inherently wrong and therefore unloveable.
  • We must be the type of people that we want our children to become. Argh how annoying! Can’t they just get it right and then I can live through them? Ok fine. If I have kids, I want them to be so many things I’m not or that I’ve had to work hard on – financially successful, emotionally mature, accepting and non-judgmental of themselves and others. But we get so much from our parents. Sure, there are people who don’t, but I see a lot of patterns. People whose parents run their own business start their own businesses. People whose parents are pharmacists often become pharmacists (ok maybe that’s just something I’ve noticed). So if I want nice children, I need to be nice.
  • Using strengths to frame feedback makes it easier to give and receive. I hate the sandwich method of feedback. I still only focus on the bad thing! Brown suggests using the strengths someone has to make suggestions to improve the weakness. The main place I’m giving feedback at the moment is in improv. Say someone is often creating conflict between characters when improvising a scene. They might have great emotional range, and commit hard to their characters. So I might phrase the feedback as ‘You have great emotional range. I’d love to see you looking for other emotional responses that might be more positive or connected when you get inspired by the other person, like love or humility or joyfulness. Then you can use your awesome commitment skills to delve right into that new emotion’. That’s probably more in depth than I typically give to someone in improv but you get the drift. It would be excellent for a work situation.

What I got out of The Power of Full Engagement

Power of Full Engagement image

This book transformed the way I think, feel, behave and make decisions, and also the way I think about thinking, feeling, behaving and making decisions.

The Power of Full Engagement: Managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance and personal renewal (by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz) really excited me when I first read it, about seven months ago. I read it again recently and it inspired me all over again. The premise is in the title – we should be focused on managing our energy rather than our time if we want to live life fully.

Since getting glandular fever in my early twenties, I’ve struggled with energy. My main attempt to fix this has been to cut more and more stuff out of my life in order to rest – stuff like socialising, exercise, and staying up late. This book changed the way I approached this issue, opening my eyes to the other things that drain my energy like how I manage my emotions, the way I think, and whether I’m living by my values.

What did I learn and how did it change things for me?

There are four sources of energy in a human being – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual – and you need to manage them all

  • I thought energy was only physical. I thought you got it from exercising, eating well, and sleeping, and that you were drained of it by doing the opposite. But there are other sources – emotional, mental and spiritual – and they also influence how much energy you have. Emotional energy is about your emotions and interactions with people; mental is about your thoughts and intellectual engagement; and spiritual (in a non-religious sense) is about living by your core values. If you aren’t taking care of these things, they will deplete your energy. If you are, you will have more energy.
  • I’ve never thought of emotional and mental as separate. I don’t know why, because it’s obvious now – emotional is how I feel, and mental is how I think. For emotional stuff, I get energy from enjoying myself (who knew having fun was so important!) and connecting with people. For mental stuff, I get energy from creativity and breaks from work. Equally, the things that drain me emotionally (impatience, frustration, anger) are quite different from the things that drain me mentally (boredom, pessimism). It’s useful having these distinct concepts because it helps me figure out what’s going on in my head and why.
  • I’ve never even considered that spiritual issues can impact your energy. But this was the area of the book that influenced me most. Again, it’s not a religious spirituality, but more about living by your values. Living out of line with your values is super exhausting, but when you live in line with them you suddenly feel strong, less vulnerable, and less afraid. More on this below.
  • I was doing pretty badly on all of four! I did the online test (really confusing to find it online, I think it’s this one). You’re supposed to be at like 85% on each of the four sources to be ‘fully engaged’. I was sitting at about 20-40% for all of them. Not good. It’s gone up a lot in the last six months (to 40-70% across the four), which is probably mostly because I’ve taken this year off but also some other things, including some things I did because of this book.

I finally get the whole personal values thing, and I know what mine are

  • I’d been wanting to find out my values for a while. I knew they were important in some way, but I didn’t know much more. I watched a documentary about kids and their development, called Life at Seven. What struck me was that seven-year-olds could have values. I thought values were adult things. One girl identified health as a value, and I’m like ‘what does a seven-year-old know about health?’ Turns out her dad had had a major health scare, and now she wanted to be a doctor. It all lined up. I wanted my things to all line up!
  • It’s pretty simple to figure out what your values are, but the book doesn’t really take you through it in detail. I’d done some work with my psychologist a year or so before and identified one value (connectedness), but while using this book I identified several more. I started with the list of values in the book (there are similar lists on the internet), circling ones that were important to me, and adding any extras. Then I whittled them down by comparing two and deciding which was more important. I’d literally say to myself ‘which is more important to me, connectedness or honesty?’ Sometimes I used situations from my life to help me decide – actually, almost always. First time around I ended up with a long list, which I just settled on. This time, I grouped the long-list values that were similar, for example, I grouped authenticity, genuineness, honesty and accountability. They might not group into a category for someone else, but whatever the underlying value was for me, it resulted in this grouping. Then I chose the word I felt represented what I wanted here, which was genuineness. I ended up with five values: genuineness, kindness, fun, connectedness and self-care.
  • My first go I was a little too earnest; my second go felt more like me. The first time I don’t think I got the right reflection of myself – it was a bit too angelic, it was the person I thought I should be rather than the person I actually am. Also I just got better at articulating them. Even just telling people what my values are makes me think ‘is that quite right?’. My ‘fun’ value was originally ‘playfulness’ but it felt weird when I told it to people. I imagine in several years’ time they might have shifted too.
  • I don’t know why I have to explicitly identify my values in order to live by them. You’d think that if these things were really important to me, I would live by them automatically. But it seems I have to do it consciously. Maybe some people do it naturally, but not me. And the book does seem to indicate it doesn’t come easily for everyone.

Living by your values gives you energy and makes you the person you want to be

  • When I don’t live in line with my values I feel crappy without knowing why. When first reading this book, there was a person in my life who I was friendly with but who I didn’t like. I was trying really hard to like them but it was making me feel terrible and I couldn’t figure out why. Then, when I was doing my values with this book I wrote down ‘integrity in relationships’ as a value (which I now articulate as ‘genuineness’). It was a lightning bolt. I knew I didn’t like this person but I had been leading them on because, when I was honest with myself, I realised I wanted to get something out of them. Awful, I know! That’s where my source of discomfort was coming from. So I (politely) stopped encouraging the friendship and pursuing the benefits of it, because I wanted there to be integrity in our relationship even if it wasn’t a friendly relationship. I stopped feeling so shit and stopped ruminating on it, both of which had been draining my energy.
  • If you do stuff in line with your values, you become the person you want to be – your values become virtues. If you value genuineness but you don’t live by it, you’re denying being your true self. You’re creating a different person to the one you are at heart. Articulating my values and practising them in my daily behaviours is hopefully building virtues in me, so that I or others can say that I am genuine, kind, fun, connected to others, and looking after myself.
  • There’s actually no point saying you value something if you don’t live by it. It’s like in Game of Thrones, the Lannister’s unofficial motto is ‘A Lannister always pays his debts’. There would be no point saying this if the Lannisters didn’t live by it, i.e. if they didn’t pay their debts. After a couple of times no one would let them become indebted to them anymore. But if they do always pay their debts, people will know this about them and believe it and then help them escape from prison or something.

You can build your values and energy-management practices into your life through habits

  • To manage my energy sources better, things had to change. I had some good habits already but not many, and I still had shortcomings in all four sources. The book has good suggestions on the kinds of changes to make depending on your current issues. Some of my changes include doing stuff for pure pleasure (VERY hard for me), more positive thinking, and not focusing on the worst case possibility when things go a little bit wrong.
  • Your daily routine can incorporate your values. Aristotle said ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.’ More recently, I read an article called ‘Tell Me What You Did Today, And I’ll Tell You Who You Are’ which basically says if you want to achieve goals or be a certain kind of person, what you did today should have contributed to this in some way. Pretty obvious but it is so easy to decide to put things off til tomorrow. Now I face the fact that I live life in 24-hour periods, so if I want to achieve something or live in a certain way, I need to do something that contributes to that today. I can’t be rigid about it or I’ll go crazy, but I check back in with that idea regularly.
  • Making these things into habits makes them easier to implement. Ok so I’ve just said I have to do things every 24 hours or so to achieve long-term goals, but that’s already making me freak out. Making these things habits that I don’t question makes it so much easier. Instead of having to decide whether or not to do something, habits take that emotional tussle out of your hands. I have developed a daily routine/set of habits that helps me get the stuff that I want done: writing first thing, attractive easy tasks later in the day, some exercise, and 10 000 steps. At the end of the day, I have contributed to my goals of writing regularly, keeping fit, and a bunch of other things. I know this is in the context of not working a corporate job as I was before, but at least there’s hope that if I can do it in this lifestyle it might be possible. And if you build habits around your values, it will also do that work of virtue-building for you.

What I got out of Big Magic

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A great book by Elizabeth Gilbert about living a creative life and what creativity is really about.

I wondered how much the author of a book that has been turned into a romcom had to say about creativity. Turns out, a lot more than I expected. This book has had major impacts on my perspective about creativity and being ‘a maker’, which in turn have already started influencing my practices and thoughts.

This book is not a program or a to-do. There are no questionnaires to help you figure yourself out or introduce strange daily habits. It’s more like listening to a wise elder on how to do this creativity thing.

How has the book changed the way I live and think?

Everyone is creative, including you

  • I hate the thought that there are ‘creative’ people. It infers that there are uncreative people, which makes me feel hopeless. What if I wasn’t born with some ‘artist’ spark and I am an embarrassment to myself for even trying? Or what if I didn’t start early enough and have missed my window for being an artist?
  • But we are all descended from makers and the creative urge is in all of us. Gilbert points out that there is no way your ancestors weren’t makers or creators of some kind, because once upon a time almost all humans were. They built their houses, they sewed their clothes, they trained horses. Pretty much everyone sang. It’s inside us and it’s part of what makes us a successful species. Not only that, but we need to create or we’ll go crazy – we have a natural urge to do it.
  • Teaching improv to beginners affirms this for me. Everyone I’ve taught improv to has shown a creative ability. Sure, there are lots of blocks to people’s creativity and people might not be living a super creative life right now. But I believe everyone has it in them in one way or another, because I see everyone – even the people we might label as the least creative – be creative (and pretty joyful about it!) once those blocks are removed.

Don’t try to make money off your creative stuff

  • Gilbert refuses to ask her creative pursuits to make her money. She made a commitment years ago that her writing didn’t have to pay the bills – she would do that, so that her creativity could be free. She’d seen enough people murder their creativity by demanding money from it. She didn’t quit her day job until after her fourth book was published, and that book was Eat Pray Love! She’d still have a day job today if that book hadn’t been the Harry Potter of the self-help world.
  • From now on, I’m going to take care of the money, so that my creativity and I can have fun. As Gilbert suggests, I’m going to be my own patron! I don’t need a rich person to fund my art – I can fund it. Of course, earning money in other ways takes up time and energy that you really want to devote to your creativity. That’s life, and it sucks. Gilbert points out, however, that if all you needed to live a creative life was money and time, plenty of rich kids would be amazing artists, which they are not always. All the great artists have probably had to squeeze it in somehow.
  • You don’t have to earn money from being creative for it to be awesome and worthwhile. I took this year off to explore what I wanted to do with my life, and for some reason that translated into trying to build a creative life that would provide for me financially. I felt I had to make money from art for it to be worthwhile or legitimate. Now I’m more relaxed about the thought that I might never get income from my art, and it’s made it easier for me to focus on just being creative this year (how lucky am I to get to do that) rather than building a small business. Sure, I’d love to make money from art, it means not making it elsewhere. But it doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile if I don’t. I’m now less concerned about the thought of having a day job, and specifically of going back to work next year. It’s not the end of the world, I’ll still be creating, and I’ll be keeping the day job stuff to a minimum.
  • You still have time to be creative when you have a day job. Gilbert has a good way of helping you come to grips with feeling like you don’t have enough time for your art because of your day job. She talks about ‘having an affair’ with your creative life. People having affairs still find the time to do their job and see their kids and keep it all a secret. Treat your art like an affair. Sneak away with it for thirty minutes whenever you can. Have a ‘business trip’ weekend away with it. Just don’t expect it to pay.
  • Some people feel like they deserve to earn from their creativity. Gilbert says you’re not, you’re only entitled to create. I kind of agree, because you’re essentially saying I should pay you for the products of your creativity, and I don’t necessarily want to. Gilbert says is there’s no point expecting any particular outcome from your creating, whether that be money, fame, success, or validation. Maybe the outcome or the timing of some people’s creativity appeals to others more, and so they get some cash from it. But you can’t expect it.
  • If making money is the goal, it will compromise what you actually want to do with your creativity. When I mention I want to spend this year writing, people assume I want to do freelance writing. But I don’t. It took me a while to figure this out, because on the surface, ‘freelance writing’ sounds like ‘writing and money’! But it’s not my kind of writing and I would dislike the life of a freelance writer as much as I dislike the thought of running a marathon. So why spend my time on it? Plus it doesn’t pay well, I’m better off spending that same amount of time earning heaps more doing something that lets me do the writing I actually want to do. In the end, dedicating time and energy to pursuing freelance writing because it earns some small amount of money will make it harder for me to do the type of writing I want to do. It’s not even a compromise, it’s a backwards step.

I am a channel for creative genius, not the origin of it

  • Back in the day, according to Gilbert, people did not believe that the genius of someone resided inside them. They saw humans as a channel for genius. You just do the work – sit down and write, or carve, or dance, or sing, or paint, or do maths – and the genie might visit you. You can’t expect the genie to visit you, but it definitely won’t if you’re not doing the work.
  • This made me feel more relaxed about doing my creative stuff, because it separates me from any expectation of greatness. If none of us are geniuses, then why not give this creativity thing a go and see what happens? Also, if what I produce isn’t so great, well, that’s more the genie’s fault than mine! This has made it clearer to me that I have to just do the work, and not worry so much about how good it is (which is a challenge for a perfectionist!). Gilbert’s TED talk goes into this more than the book.

Ideas are disembodied, energetic life forms that are looking to be made manifest by a human partner

  • Gilbert thinks ideas zoom around the world trying different people, to see if they’ll make them manifest. This the cutest idea – to continue the Harry Potter references, I now think of ideas as white, slightly transparent versions of a Quidditch snitch. Creativity often comes from ideas, and sometimes your relationship with your idea is hard to manage emotionally. By separating myself from the source of my ideas, it makes me feel less worried about them and it helps me stop feeling like a failure if I don’t want to finish a project. The top item on my list of creative projects this year was to write a book I had started. It was aimed at my 17-year-old self, about all the things I wish someone had told me at that age. I started it in March last year. Sitting down in February this year I discovered that I no longer had passion for the project. Maybe my thoughts on the subject were changing (taking a year off helps you feel less regretful!). Maybe I’d just gotten over whatever issue was causing the need to write that stuff. Or maybe the idea snitch had got sick of waiting and went to find another human. That’s ok! I don’t have to beat myself up over it. Good luck snitch!
  • But I was worried that this might lead me to abandoning ideas all over the place and never finishing anything. Around the same time I read an article about how imagining a creative project rather than doing it can hold you back. The article advocates fully committing to the project in the moment that you feel passionate about it, or not doing it at all and stop thinking about it. If it’s an old idea that doesn’t draw you anymore, let it go. But if it is drawing you now, do it, do it, do it! Commit fully and do it.
  • A key aspect for me here was committing to one thing when I felt the passion for it. I can feel passion about several projects in one day. I decided to pick one only and go with it, to see if I could get some momentum, because I hadn’t had any so far in my year off. Getting one thing done is a much better feeling than getting eleven things not done.

Do you love this enough to eat its particular flavour of shit sandwich?

  • Every career/pursuit/thing has its shitty elements. Gilbert calls this the shit sandwich. Different things have different kinds of shit sandwich. For writers, it’s rejection letters. For performers, it’s going on the road. Lawyers, it’s an eighty-hour week.
  • If you can’t hack the shit sandwich of this particular creative pursuit, it is not for you. You have to love it so much that you’ll eat the shit sandwich.
  • This helped me realise what kinds of shit sandwiches I’m willing to eat and why sometimes I don’t want to do something that seems fun. Earlier this year, I tried stand-up comedy for the first time. It was fun, I can see how I could learn to do it and I reckon I have potential. But the shit sandwich – open-mic nights, hanging out in bars, that bleak aloneness when you bomb – is not my flavour of shit sandwich.

You have to figure out your creative process, its ups and downs, and your emotional patterns surrounding it.

  • I came into this year off with a planned structure for my daily routine. But it wasn’t working, and I was getting really worried that I was no good at this ‘creativity’ thing. Then I read this and realised – oh, that’s what I’ve been doing with my year, I’ve been discovering my process! At the same time, I’d been reading a lot about the daily habits and the creative processes of successful writers. Some of them write first thing in the morning, some after the kids have gone to bed. Some insist you can’t write unless you know the story’s ending, others discover the ending as they go. I realised that no one does it the right way for someone else. The habits of these successful people are habits that I’m sure they had to figure out for themselves. After they’d found their holy grail of productivity, they wanted to share it. Which is really nice of them! Unfortunately, it was a holy grail for one. The one thing I think they have in common is that it is a regular practice.
  • I’m still figuring out my creative process, including its emotional patterns. A lot of this year has been dedicated to this without me realising it. I’ve been experimenting, and every day I shift something slightly. At this stage, my creative process is emerging as:
    • Choose one writing project at a time and commit to that.
    • Do my writing first thing in the morning. Nothing else before it.
    • ‘Work’ is Monday to Friday, nine to five. I am not on holidays. Weekends I can relax like a normal person. This is especially important to me, or else I’ll feel constant pressure to be working and I will go crazy, as demonstrated by the last thirty-two years of my life.
    • When writing, put off anything I can that doesn’t need to be dealt with right away. This includes helping other people, which gets me every time. I only help immediately when it’s critical.
    • Boundaries are necessary and bring a sense of control into my week. People want to do things when it suits them. I now push back and try to make it suit me too. I am not ‘free whenever’, I’m free at 4pm on Friday, does that suit?
    • If I do have to do non-work stuff – social commitments, appointments, errands, Pilates – I schedule it all into one day a week, preferable one half-day.
    • My phone is on silent/do-not-disturb/no notifications mode, because the other interesting stuff in my life (improv, for example) can take up a ridiculous amount of time. When I need a break, I look at my phone for a couple of minutes. Then its back on do-not-disturb.
    • No tidying before art. It turns out I can work in a messy room after all. Now I barely even put my lunch dishes in the dishwasher.

Those were the big things for me. A couple of other shiny things:

  • Fear is something you can’t get rid of. It’s a passenger in the car, but it’s not allowed to drive. Be ok with it being there, but don’t let it make decisions.
  • Authenticity is more important than originality. This takes the pressure off questioning your idea and whether it’s worth pursuing. Do you want to pursue it? Then do it! It doesn’t matter if someone’s done it before as long as you do it authentically.
  • Done is better than good. This wasn’t the first I’d heard this, it’s a standard thing that perfectionists need to learn. But I guess I had never thought of applying it to art. Mostly I think of it in terms of house cleaning.
  • The idea of finding a passion isn’t helpful. If someone doesn’t have one, Gilbert says telling them they just need to find their passion is like telling someone the secret to losing weight is being skinny. Her solution is to be curious. You don’t have to think something is the most interesting thing in the world. But being open to curiosity could take you to places you would never have otherwise gone and which are really interesting. I loved that when she was stuck with her writing, she planted a garden, which led to her next book.

Why am I writing this blog?

I’m on a constant self-development quest. Maybe I’m a navel gazer. I’m definitely not someone who has a ‘passion’. I’m not great at being relaxed or content, or having fun without beating myself up. That’s not great! Hence the quest.

It started in my early twenties when I developed a fear of flying. I saw a psychologist and three or four months later my flying phobia was gone! So I have a huge amount of faith in the idea that I can change myself. That I’m not a fixed person. That I can make myself happy and fulfilled, a fun person, a flourishing wholehearted person living well– if I learn how to think and act differently.

So I read a TONNE of books. And some articles. I go to all kinds of professionals – one of my friends calls me ‘the outsourcer’ because of the number of people I see to help me with life stuff. I do other random stuff too – improv comedy, lectures, galleries.

I always get an amazing insight or two from whatever it is I’m doing (I must be good at choosing books and stuff to do!). I write all over my books, underlining passages and answering the questionnaires and putting it into practice in my life.

I have friends who I talk to about this stuff. They love a good self-help book too. They’re usually women, but not always, who are amazing but who doubt themselves, or who are recovering perfectionists like me, or who are still on the search for fulfilment. In the weeks after reading a certain book, I talk enthusiastically about it to those particular friends.

But two or three months down the track from a book, I can’t remember the specific insight I got from it. It usually means that I’ve incorporated that insight it into my life, which is great. But I want to remember what it was in that book, or talk, or whatever, that genuinely changed my life.

So, I decided to write it down as I go, to have a little record of my self-development so I can flick back through to see if I’m still doing the ‘thing’ that that book gave me. And I thought I’d share it with the friends I mentioned, because it might help them. And I want to talk to them about it even if it’s not front of mind for me right now. I also wanted to share it with people who I don’t know but who are interested in it too.

That’s the plan. We’ll see what happens!