The Blog

When Katie was little she wanted to take a framed portrait of the tooth fairy to school to prove to a boy in her class that her parents hadn’t been lying to her. “You guys wouldn’t lie to me, would you?” she asked, with an expression that broke my heart.

So we talked. About the tooth fairy, about the Easter Bunny, about Santa. Christmas was right around the corner, and suddenly the season felt anything but magic.

We talked, and she sobbed into my chest -- with tears so big I could’ve sworn I heard them hitting my sweatshirt. At one point she pulled away long enough to grab the proverbial knife. “I just have one question,” she said. “How did you like the milk and cookies I left for you?”

She was despondent.

The next morning she was in the best mood.

“What happened?” I asked. She shrugged and said, “Got some sleep.”

Doesn’t that remind you of most of the bad days you’ve ever had? It’s incredible what a difference even one night of really good sleep can make.

DuluthIt’s never failed me. Listening intently to what others regret, and taking action to avoid that.

The biggest regret I’ve ever heard is not appreciating kids when they were little. Melissa West, quoted by Janet Luhrs in The Simple Living Guide, has a sweet take on that time.

I sat on a back porch with my mother and daughter in Montgomery, Alabama, one humid southern evening last summer and realized that just one breath, one heartbeat ago, I was in my young daughter’s place, sitting with my own mother and grandmother in the damp and fragrant heat. In yet just another breath, another heartbeat, I realized as well, I would be in my mother’s place, rocking with my own daughter and granddaughter. How quickly time passes. How quickly the chance to practice open-hearted parenting slips through our hands. How precious this brief time we are given with our children truly is.

Isn’t that a beauty?

If you’re no longer in the business of getting approval from people you don’t (1) know, or (2) like, congratulations. You’ve passed the first test of being a grownup. That’s why you say “yes” when you mean “no,” right? You want to people to like you. At some point you realize it’s more important to be genuine than to be liked, and that you aren’t running for mayor. You’re still a nice person. You’ve just added yourself to the list of people you’d like to please.

So when someone asks if you want to do something you don’t, just say, “No, thanks.” Or, “It was sweet of you to think of me, but I’m going to pass. Thanks, though!” Whatever your version of “no” is, as long as it doesn’t include an excuse. An excuse gives the other person something to counter, and you aren’t opening a discussion. You’re closing one.

If it still sounds harsh, I hope you’ll consider how much harsher “maybe” is. “Maybe” inspires the person to keep asking, and eventually to feel a bit foolish. Worse is “yes” when you really, really want to say “no” -- and you seethe your way through whatever it is, as if the other person won’t notice.

Doesn’t “no” sound so much kinder now?

A guy I used to know was legendary for telling the truth and inspiring others to do the same. He was fond of suggesting people preface more of their statements with, “The truth is…”

“It’s bizarre what will come out of your mouth when you do that,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t exercise because it’s boring.” Or: “The truth is, I don’t exercise because I did it once and I got hurt, and it cost me four hundred dollars in doctor bills.”

Saying you “can’t” do something is usually a lie. You can’t jump off the Empire State Building and survive without a parachute, granted -- or hold your breath under water forever. But aside from the obvious exceptions, “can’t” is almost always inaccurate.

How about this: “I don’t want to. As a matter of fact, I wish you had never asked. That’s the truth.”

The beauty of my friend’s approach is that you don’t have to tell the truth out loud. I mean, you could -- he does. But you might find, as I have, that telling yourself the truth makes it easier to say “no” gracefully. More on that magic word in my next post.

People fight career changes once they reach a certain age, a friend told me, because they don’t like making mistakes. It’s likely taken them a long time to build a successful career. To start over and be a beginner? No, thanks.

Which reminds me what one consultant would’ve said to that: “You’re failing all the time anyway. Why not fail at something that counts? There’s a concept.”

The more mistakes you make the further you’ll get, because at least you’ve set out. Mistakes are just information. Directions. Go that way. No, too far. Back the other way a little bit.

Mistakes are not a sign you’re defective, your dreams are stupid, and that you should give up on all of life.

“Grownups forget that,” the consultant says. “When you’re a kid you accept that messing up is just part of the deal. Think of a toddler learning to walk. He doesn’t take a couple of spills and then decide he can’t do it. He doesn’t say, ‘I can’t walk. I might have to crawl until I’m twenty. The kid next door, he’s walking at eleven months. I mean, look at me.’”

The wisest people in your house are likely years away from kindergarten. I still say that’s the reason we have kids, to help us grow up.

When Katie was little we used to do A Report on the Day. I wanted to show her how much more fun life is when you mark your lessons and savor the silly. She wanted to delay bedtime, so this was an easy sell.

If I had that little kid back for a day -- oh, how I wish -- I would’ve included a question about mistakes. I would’ve compared notes with her about the mistakes we’d made in the past twenty-four hours, and how much we learned from those.

Katie understood at a younger age than I did, though, that mistakes are a nonnegotiable part of a life that doesn’t bore you to death. That’s one reason I love this post so much -- and I hope you do, too.

physics notes

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photo courtesy of Katie Anderson

“People who pull against you can leave a mark. Don’t let that define you.”

That’s how I ended a post recently. But if you subscribe to the blog -- as opposed to reading it on my site -- you saw a different version of the ending. I’d said the people who’ve pulled against me have obviously left a mark, and it was my job to not let that define me.

The difference is important. One ending’s about me. The revised ending is about you.

Sometimes I get so caught up on speaking only from my own experience -- versus pretending to be an expert on your life -- I don’t catch things like this until after I’ve sent out the newsletter. I hate that.

It’s the same with the talk show. I’ve had entire hours of radio where Darrell, in postproduction, had almost zero to fix on my side of the conversation. But not many! I hate that. Shouldn’t I be a bit closer to perfection after this long in the game?

Then I remember it’s the gap between the person I am and the professional I aspire to be that keeps me interested in my career. Ash Ambirge suggests you chase impostor syndrome like the sun. Do everything that makes you second-guess yourself.

I can’t remember the last time I didn’t spend an entire day second-guessing myself, and I’ve started to measure the success of a day by whether I added something else to second-guess to the list.

When Darrell and I got married it took me a while to realize just how bored he was by the “Why do you think that person did this?” game. I couldn’t get over that. How could you not be fascinated by what motivates people to act the way they do? In an expression of confidence I couldn’t relate to at the time, there might have been a suggestion I was an overthinker -- which, I probably teased him, sounded like something an underthinker might say.

In the movie Field of Dreams, the main character Ray Kinsella asked a simple question of writer Terence Mann. The voice that told Kinsella to build a baseball diamond in a cornfield has instructed him to go to Boston’s Fenway Park with Mann. As they walked to their seats in the ballpark, Kinsella turned to Mann and asked, “What do you want?” The sixties activist launched into a diatribe: “I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. And I want my privacy.”

Kinsella looked at the concession stand. “No,” he said. “I mean, what do you want?”

Mann came to. “Oh,” he said. “Dog and a beer.”

For those of you playing along at home, Darrell’s Ray Kinsella in this scenario and I’m Terence Mann. I might spend my whole life in the clouds were it not for Darrell bringing me back to earth occasionally. That’s what friends are for, isn’t it? They keep you grounded.