The “Start Where You Are” Email

 

Creative Commons by Francesco Gallarotti

Creative Commons by Francesco Gallarotti

Yesterday morning, after a frustrating drive to school (slammed on my breaks which sent my purse flying, spilling juice all over my laptop) I pulled into a street parking spot.  Just as I went to open the door, a garbage truck pulled up and stopped approximately 6 inches from my window, trapping me in the car.  No, I wasn’t in danger.  But I was already late and had a sticky lemon-scented laptop to attend to.  So I shimmied over to the passenger door, leered at the garbage man who had chosen to trap me inside (who understandably ignored me, because who wants to deal with a whining 20-something at 8am), and stomped into work.  The rest of the morning preceded similarly.  It was definitely “one of those mornings.”  And it turns out, it was one of those mornings for most people I came across.

By the end of the day, I waited for the clock to creep toward 4:30 so I could just climb back into bed and pretend the day hadn’t happened.  I made it to 4:15, and into bed I went.  I wish I could say that all was solved when I climbed back under the covers, but things rarely are when you go to hide.  My frustration was not just about garbage trucks, the bad day, the lemony laptop, or this never-ending flu-bug.  My frustration is that I have been burned out for two weeks, and haven’t come out of it yet.  This is a particularly long stretch of feeling fried and worn out.

“Start Where You Are”

I’ve been sending out a series of emails to people and organizations I’ve been working with, explaining why I’ve been MIA, and this morning I received a kind response from the mediation center I haven’t attended since September.  No guilt, no pressure, just the simplest calming message of we will be here when you get back.  The other helpful phrase, which is most likely a quote via Pema Chodron, was “Start where you are.”  Sometimes the beginning of the burnout cure is an internal or external reminder that no one is expecting more from you but you.  As much as I continue to want high expectations for myself, I cannot pretend that I am somewhere that I’m not.  That is where the burnout comes from.  It is a delusion that I can, and should, take on more than I currently am, despite my mind and body’s message.

Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset

One of my favorite things about having a fulfilling “survival job” is the education I have been unexpectedly receiving along the way.  When you reach out here, the whole community throws something back.  It’s pretty incredible.  On that note, my boss passed a book on to me the other day about Fixed vs. Growth Mindset.  It is used a great deal in education, but seeps into every type of career and personality.  Mindset by Carol Dweck is a leading text on this study, and was thrown my way last week.

Someone with a Fixed Mindset generally believes that they are born with (or without) a certain talent, and often spend a majority of their careers proving that this is so.  They are “great at math” or “terrible dancers” or “a child piano prodigy.”  Natural talent does run the gamut person by person, and this shouldn’t be discounted, but Dweck explains that setbacks can strike a harder blow for those who think this way.  Their innate talent is their identity, and when the world does not recognize this, they often freeze and do not know how to proceed.

Growth Mindset on the other hand, creates the impetus to focus new efforts on a discovered talent or passion, opposed to only depending on what you have at the current moment.  Dweck explains that growth mindset students (of all ages) flourish when they make mistakes or are faced with greater difficulty, because they see it as an opportunity to grow. They know there is more to themselves when practice and effort is applied.

I have been coming across an interesting pattern in both my own thinking and some recent acting classes/workshops I’ve attended.  There is a fear, especially in the arts, that we are deluding ourselves- that we are waiting for the day for someone to simply say, “You’re not actually talented.”  We are waiting for validation of sorts, waiting to know if what we have is even enough to build a career upon.  Even in writing it out, it’s clear that this mindset is not helpful.  It’s distracting and discouraging, and doesn’t do anyone any good.  This comes from the fixed mindset, and I am completely guilty of it on many days.  I was cast much more as a child, and now am having great deal of trouble.  For years, this bewildered me because of my fixed mindset and the idea that my training was complete.

This is also one of the many issues of performance reality shows.  Someone sings on American Idol, and a showy “judge” tells them they shouldn’t waste their time with singing.  Obviously this is an extreme case, but a fixed mindset in a teacher can be just as harmful as one in a student.  As a teacher, a primary goal is to to find a way to build on each student’s particular strengths, and help them develop coping and bounce-back skills for moments of discouragement.  This approach is often misunderstood as the “everyone kid gets a gold star for just trying” approach.  It is not this.  The approach is more about marking where you began, building on your strengths, and marking where you finished.  If a tactic didn’t work, you change it next time around.

Artistic Benchmarks

But with actors, we cannot obtain that validation through the same benchmark as many other careers- employment.  Honed talent, trained skills, and business organization is all within our control, getting the job is not.  And so, even though this growth mindset significantly reminds me that I am still growing, and more importantly, still can grow, it does not provide dependable benchmarks for charting growth.  It is our job to find personal ways to recognize where we’ve grown and where were struggling, and to use these to gauge our development as artists.

But going back to two of my favorite phrases, we can only “Start where we are,” and “Chop wood, carry Water.”  I like the first one because it doesn’t say, “You are where you are.” or the ever-popular, “Be in the moment.”  The verb is start, it encourages motion. “Chop wood, carry water” is a popular zen phrase which reminds us that our daily efforts are all we can do to reach the career/personal/spiritual balance we strive for.

So as much as these burn-out phases make me want to throw up my arms and do something drastic, I am reminded that no sudden change will “fix” things.  The effort I put into my career, bit-by-bit, is not for nothing, even if it feels that way right now.  And as that sweet email reminded me, I can start here even if I am exhausted, because where else could I start?  The important thing each day is starting at all.

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Blogher Publication and a Post about Tigers!

What Peeple Totally Got Wrong About the Internet

Blogher is the best!  They have featured my recent post that railed against the upcoming app Peeple.  I’m very happy to play a part in getting the word out there, especially to an audience for a website I deeply respect.  Feel free to check out the article above.

 

And then the part about the tigers…

Creative Commons Photo via Paula Borowska

Creative Commons Photo via Paula Borowska

Last night I had a super funky dream.  My husband and I were driving through the woods on a piano (apparently a motorized piano) with all of our belongings strapped to it.  Here’s the kicker- the woods were filled with escaped zoo animals.  Like, large angry ones, especially Tigers.  I kept yelling, “Hey look, another tiger!” as I tried to get the piano-car to speed up.  Seriously, brain?

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The Hokey Pokey Panic

Creative Commons Photo by Damir Kotoric

Creative Commons Photo by Damir Kotoric

 

I saw a fantastic bumper sticker in the school parking lot this morning.  Maybe you’ve seen this one before too.  It says:

“But what if the Hokey Pokey IS what it’s all about?!”

I laughed out loud, all by myself in the parking lot.  Not just because it’s super clever, but it reminded me to laugh at what has been mulling around in my head for the past week.  It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you’re working in a job disconnected from your career (even if it’s a really fantastic one).  As a creative person, the predictability of any office really gets under my skin.  If I don’t feel that I have the freedom to shake up my schedule, nothing gets done.  I get home feeling discouraged at the end of the day, and fight against my frustration to work on anything.  I start to slip into the, “Is this what it’s all about?” panic.

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The Compass Podcast – And Why You Need to Listen to It

I need to tell you a little bit about The Compass podcast.  Because it is fantastic and was created by a fantastic lady.

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As you all know, I struggle a good deal with the inconsistent, and often discouraging, artistic lifestyle that goes along with being an actor.  As I sit here at my desk in a school in North Jersey, I don’t exactly feel like a professional artist.  It’s actually a shock to my coworkers when I tell them I am a union actor, which is understandable because I work here full-time…so how does that make me an actor?

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Tips on Taking a Mental Monday

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My school was closed for Rosh Hashanah yesterday, and so, I had an unexpected day without responsibilities.  Because of this, I was suddenly reminded of how I spent almost four years of my freelance NYC life- putzing around while the rest of the world goes to an office.  And the next time you feel completely wiped out- I highly recommend it.

It all started when I studied abroad in London.  I was a part of a very intense acting program, and taking a day off was nearly impossible.  It was condensed into one semester, so we usually had outings on weekends as well.  About three quarters of the way through, I started to burn out.  I was getting sick, grouchy, and resentful toward theatre.  So I took a leap of faith and called in sick on one sunny Monday.  Instead of staying in bed, I took to the streets!  I traveled in the opposite direction of my school to avoid bumping into any teachers looking chipper and healthy, and walked toward Convent Garden instead, about a 15 minute journey from our flat.  I had barely ever wandered in a city by myself before, especially without telling anyone where I was going.  I didn’t have a cell phone, I didn’t have a schedule, and I didn’t have a map.

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5 Simple “Fall Cleaning” Ideas for Your Mind

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As I talked about last week, September, for me at least, always feels more like a season of renewal than New Year’s itself.  And seeing that Autumn is the new hip time of year, apparently I’m not alone in that.  Who can say why the past decade or so has generated a sudden manic appreciation for pumpkins, but I’m not going to snub my nose at it.  There’s a chance, if we’re feeling super positive about the world, that this growing enthusiasm comes from the developing popularity of the farm-to-table movement, and so the celebration of the “harvest season” is making a comeback.  If I was feeling cynical about the world, I would just blame Starbucks for a brilliant marketing scheme.  Either way, there is a growing buzz about the coming months, and I’m right on board.

With any transition, especially one that lines up with the days getting shorter and chillier, it’s important to feel as if I am starting fresh.  So here are a few easy and free ways I have been jumping into September and saying goodbye to the summer without sadness:

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How I Turned My Mornings Around

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Up until last December, my mornings were pretty predictable. My alarm went off 45 minutes before I left for work, I hit the snooze button twice, jolted awake, and then stared horrified at the clock before sprinting to the shower.  Next, I struggled for the remaining 15 minutes or so to find an outfit that wasn’t either in the laundry, wrinkled, or under a sleeping cat, and rushed out the door without breakfast.

Then last January, when my husband left for his bi-annual grad school retreat up in New Hampshire, I kept waking up early by accident.  It was a weird change for me, the house being so quiet.  So I woke in the still-dark morning (at this time during the polar vortex) feeling weird and scattered.  I’ve learned in the past that rituals and schedules help me escape any impending bad mood funks, so I did just that, thinking that it would only help me through the two weeks with him away.

My new morning

1. Wake up a half hour earlier

Since I couldn’t seem to sleep past 6am those mornings, I would find myself putzing around the house waiting for the sun to rise.  And though I would have originally thought the extra half hour of lost sleep would leave me sluggish all day, it really didn’t.  Without the worry of launching out of bed for the morning race, I allowed myself to slowly roll around and eventually get up on my own schedule. I also had time to eat breakfast and make coffee, something that seemed like a luxury in the past.

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The Three Voices of Anxiety

A few years back, a very kind coworker of mine surprisingly blurted out that he thought anxiety was made up.  It was pretty shocking, since this person was a great listener and all around pretty understanding guy.  But in his experience, he simply “didn’t understand why people did it to themselves.”  It got me thinking.  I always assumed that those who didn’t understand the physical realities of anxiety were self-centered, unsympathetic jerk-faces.  But here was a friend of mine, whom I deeply respected, suddenly saying that he thought worrying was a choice.

That day, it hit me that some people genuinely do not experience the cycle of worry that some of us have faced ever since we found out that we could get lost in the grocery store when we were five.  I have spent the better part of my teenage and twenty-somethng years diving into the different approaches to address anxiety.  I am happy to say it no longer runs my life, even though it is still very present.  The major difference is that I have learned to recognize the funny little battle that goes on in my mind each time I make a decision or face a new experience out in the real world.

I can never speak for anyone else’ experience with anxiety, since we are all such special worrisome snowflakes, so it would be unfair to say that this is everyone’s process.  And yet, these are the three characters I have become deeply familiar with over my years.

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September Goals and a Note on Surprising Yourself

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As we say goodbye to the last mile marker of summer, there is a lot to look forward to as things start to cool down an the world fills with pie and pumpkin flavored everything.  I’ve found that without the start of a school year, it’s important for me to set goals, or even New Years Eve-esque resolutions for September.  I no longer get to buy new pencil cases or extra long dorm sheets, but instead, things just kind of keep trucking along the way they were.  Except summer Fridays go away.  Grand.  So the impetus to start fresh at the beginning academic year is still very present, and I think it’s important to follow your natural urge to get moving again.

August Surprises

At the beginning of the summer, I loosely set a goal to “get published by the end of the summer.”  I wasn’t really sure what that meant at the time, so it was definitely at risk of never happening.  After reading the book Creative Nonfiction, and thus finally finding a name to my favorite genre of writing, I zeroed in on where to submit my writing.  And then during a particularly confident week in July, I just started Googling to my heart’s content and submitting my blog posts to any site that lined up with my writing vibe.  The whole experience went so much farther than I ever expected, not only reaching my goal, but finally providing some insight into what I’d like to do with my writing in the next year.

One step becomes another

Camino de Santiago

Six years ago marks the anniversary of packing up and leaving to hike in Spain, a crazy venture I also did not expect to shift the path of my life.  Though I could go on and on about the things I learned on this trip, one of the biggest points that sticks with me is you will be amazed at what you are capable of.  And I don’t mean this in a crochet-it-on-a-pillow kind of way.  Seriously, think about all the Tough Mudder and Spartan Race trends- people are finally being reminded that they are capable of doing more than sitting in chairs and following instructions.  So whether it’s physical or intellectual, starting off on a new project with a solid tangible goal very often comes along with a heck of a lot more.  Several years ago, I took a career workshop through the SAG Foundation a few things that stuck with me over the years:

  1. Choose one or two measurable goals within a practical time period.  For example- if you are working on building your website, by the end of the month set the goal to contact 5 people for advice, and create a layout for at least 2 people to look at.  There are numbers to the tasks, and therefore you can clearly mark if they’ve been completed.  If you just say, “I would love to be paid for my writing by the end of the month,” you are choosing something out of your control.  Yes you can submit to a certain amount of places, but the success is not up to you.  So don’t do that.
  2. Create a schedule.  All you need are tiny steps.  If there is one small thing you can do a day, or say 5 a week (in case things get super busy) then the project doesn’t pile up and stare at you like a research paper you left until the night before it’s due.
  3. Find an accountability buddy.  I found one!  My lovely friend Kathleen and I are going to join up for coffee and keep each other on track!  Finding someone to check in with you will keep you from falling into the pit of “Maybe this was a lousy idea.”  It wasn’t a bad idea, keep doing it.
  4. Reward Yourself!  If you reach your goal, take yourself out for ice cream!  Or I dunno, but those pants you’ve been talking yourself out of buying.  You deserve it!  Also, it sets the idea up in your mind that following through is a gift to yourself.
  5. And my own addition: Write it down!  It’s very easy to forget why you wanted to focus on this one particular goal in the first place, especially when you start to talk yourself out of it.  At the start of the month, when you’re feeling particularly jazzed, write down an emotionally charged paragraph about why this is the most awesome thing ever.  Getting back into this mindset when you’re struggling will bring back the same urge that made it happen in the first place.

I’m actually not sure what my goal for the month is quite yet, but hoping to nail that down by the end of today.  Do you have any plans for September?  Lemme know!!

 

Zen and the Art of Cleaning Up Cat Hair

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It’s Sunday morning at 7am and I’m up with unexpected energy.  We were responsible last night instead of going upstairs for extra drinks with our neighbors.  We went to bed at 11!  We had plans for the morning, and look at me sticking to them!  I start the coffee, write a bit, and head out for a walk.  When I get back, the town is still waking up and I am ready for yoga.  I am on it.  I lay out my mat, sun salute to plank position – and this is when it happens.  A tumbleweed of cat hair the size of a small muffin bounces maniacally past my face.  My eyes come into focus with the ground and, horrified, I realize that the floor is covered in mini-tumbleweeds of cat hair and other mysteriously-produced dust.  I lunge my body back into a child’s pose of despair and debate interrupting my practice to vacuum.

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