Archive | Wisdom of the Ages

Why Rejection Helps Me Persist

early morning writing

early morning writingI got a lovely email yesterday from a literary agent. I’d sent her my book manuscript a few months back. Her email read accordingly:

Dear Delia,

So sorry for the delay.  I went round in circles… the thing is, I love the writing and the idea but I am just not sure how I would sell it.  Sometimes I come across a book that I long to read, but fail to know how to edit and get sold and this is one.  Hence my circles!  Thank you for your patience – am quite sure you will find the right agent.

It was probably the 20th or so rejection I’ve had in the last 18 months since I started shopping my book. That number is possibly even higher. Most of the time, you don’t hear anything back from agents. If they liked your idea enough to read beyond the cover letter, you’ll usually get something along the lines of “While I liked this….you need someone who can get behind you 100%.

Occasionally, you get a blow to the gut. One person’s PA told me that while her boss “loved the premise, she didn’t like the writing.” Ouch.

You may wonder why I’ve chosen to adopt such a halcyon reaction to this particular rejection. After all, this lady ain’t publishing my book.

But the email did lift my spirits. When you’re a writer, you spend a lot of time alone, often in the in the dark. (Shout out to The 5am Writers Club!) You have no audience save your own inner critic, and you often lose hope. Your writing starts to look ugly…unpolished…preposterous. More dangerous still, it may start to look beautiful, one-of-a-kind and revolutionary. (And then you wander over to Slush Pile Hell and remember why so many writers get rejected by agents.)

When I tell friends and family that I’ve yet to find an agent for my book, they remind me that J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before landing the Harry Potter series. Or they point me towards this comedian who vowed to get rejected 100 times as her New Year’s Resolution.

It’s kind of them to support me like that. They don’t want me to give up. But I have no illusions that I’m the next J.K. Rowling. I just need the odd reminder that the thing I created – which, at the time, felt like the book only I could write – wasn’t total shit.

So for someone – especially a professional – to say something encouraging about my writing, even when they reject it, makes me feel less alone. It also makes me feel like I wasn’t insane to spend a couple of years on said topic. And it gives me hope that someday, someone might actually take a punt and choose to represent me.

In short, rejection helps me go on. When my teenage daughter tells me that she’s afraid to audition for something – an orchestra, a theatre production, anything – because she’s sure she’ll be rejected, I exhort her to go ahead and apply anyway. “If you don’t apply, you’ll be in the same place you are now,” I remind her. “Whereas if you *do* apply, you might be somewhere different.”

This is one of those cases where if I’m going to talk the talk, I need to walk the walk. So I will keep waking up early to write fiction.  I’ll also keep getting out there and sending my book manuscript to agents.

If nothing else, this morning I wrote this blog.

Image: Early morning essay writing by Oliver Quinlan via Flickr

 

Life Lessons from Philip Roth: “Believe in Your Own Crap”

Philip Roth

Philip RothI was scrolling through my list of podcasts the other day – listening to podcasts being my latest hobby – when I came across a New Yorker podcast devoted to the late author Philip Roth.

Roth was a very controversial author, and not everybody’s “cuppa” (as my mother is wont to say). While I haven’t liked everything of his that I’ve read, I count American Pastoral among the most awe-inspiring books I’ve ever encountered. (My husband, who has read each and every one of Roth’s books, says When She Was Good is his all-time favorite.)

So I came to this podcast mostly to see if I would learn something about the recently deceased  author that I didn’t already know.

I did. But it was not what I expected. I expected a celebration of Roth by some of his contemporaries and a reflection on his contribution to the canon. There was that, to be sure.

At one point in the podcast, Radio Hour host and New Yorker Editor-in-Chief David Remnick asked Roth a question we should perhaps all ask ourselves as we get older: “What did age give you?”

Initially, Roth answers that age gave him “Patience. Patience to stay with your frustration. The confidence that if you just stay with it, you’ll master it.”  But then he goes on: “Over the years, what you develop is… patience with your own crap. And a belief in your own crap. That if you just stay with it, it will get better.”

Roth is talking about writing, of course. And in many ways he is merely re-stating what writer Anne Lamott famously described as one of two secrets of being a writer:  shitty first drafts. As a writer and writing coach, I wholeheartedly agree. You need to learn how to live with the utter rubbish you put down on the page and believe that somehow, with time, as you work on it a bit more, you will transform it into something better.

But Roth’s insight about what he has learned through time and experience is also applicable to life itself.  As someone who only recently  – 30 years in – figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I’ve often berated myself for not having sorted all of this out much earlier.

But applying Roth’s observation to my own professional journey, I now see that the entire process – every wrong turn, every partial fit  – was all part of learning how to be patient with the “crap.” By which I mean, learning to endure the series of “rough drafts” (read: jobs) that ultimately merged and metamorphosed into my current calling. Which I love.

As the man says, it’s all about trusting the evolutionary and organic process of self-knowledge and self-improvement, being willing to take risks, and then…waiting. (Could I possibly transform this into a pithy strap line to go above my desk, she wonders?)

And with that profound reflection, I wish you all a happy new year.

Image:  Roth photo by Bibliotechque Municipale de Beaune via Flickr

Nourish Your Inner Project Manager Through Cooking

cooking

cooking

I spent a week at my 86 year-old mother’s house recently. I was there to help her to clear out her home in preparation for an imminent move to an independent living facility.

The visit invariably entailed a lot of emotional moments: looking at old photos of my (deceased) father…throwing out 3/4 of her Christmas tree ornaments because she’ll no longer have a full-sized tree…realizing that at her age, the risk of tripping on a Turkish rug far outweighs its aesthetic appeal.

I could go on.

But I was also reminded of a fundamental truth about my nature: I am a born project manager. Whether it was driving to the local, jumbo-sized American liquor store to pick up boxes, sorting through old clothing to donate to the Vietnam Veterans of America, or interviewing potential moving companies for estimates, I was completely in my element.

Best of all, I had a deadline: we had to have the entire house de-cluttered in advance of an open-house scheduled a week after I arrived. So I spent seven days doing nothing but running around making lists, checking items off, and assigning duties to my three siblings for the next six weeks before I return for the actual move.

Manager vs. Maker

I once wrote a blog post with a short quiz to help people figure out if they are fundamentally “managers” or “makers.” (Conceptual hat tip: Paul Graham)

A manager is someone who divides their day into tiny bite-sized chunks and for whom meetings – even spontaneous ones – constitute the essence of their job.

A maker is someone who needs large blocks of time to carry out tasks – i.e. computer programmers, writers, artists – and who find meetings onerous and inefficient because they cut into their productivity.

Most people clearly sort into one or the other category. I, unfortunately, have one foot in both camps: I relish large blocks of time to do any sort of writing or editing. But equally, I feel like I will die if I don’t organize someone or something at least once a day (frequently a member of my family…).

The Problem with Being a Creative

Back when I was working, this problem solved itself. My last job encompassed both halves of my personality, such that I spent about 50% of my time writing and editing and 50% of my time managing projects, budgets and people.

It was, in that very specific sense, a perfect job for me.

But now that I’ve been made redundant, I am really struggling to keep that balance in my life. I now have vast swathes of free time, and although I am prioritizing my book project, there are only so many hours in the day one can write.

While there are any number of books out there offering advice on how to develop your inner artist, you don’t hear all that much about how creative types can nurture their inner swim coach.

Cooking as Project Management

One thing I’ve started doing to feed (no pun intended!) my inner project manager is cooking.

Let me confess that I’ve never been much of a foodie. My husband loves food, many of my friends love food, but, until recently, about the only foodstuff I ever really paid any attention to was beer. My sister loves to quote the time I commented, as an 11 year-old: “It was there. So I ate it.” Food had no allure in and of itself.

Nor did cooking. Cooking has always just something practical I did in order to ensure that my family was healthy. But as an activity unto itself, it was completely joyless.

Lately, however, I find myself really getting into making recipes. There is something deeply soothing about listing all the ingredients, tracking them down – especially the rare ones (Ras El-Hanout, anyone?) – and then carefully orchestrating the production of the meal so that it all comes out on time. There is also, invariably, that dreaded terror when (just as when you’re in the office), you fear that you might actually miss that deadline…and then the utter relief when you don’t.

I’m a huge dessert fan, so cakes loom large in my repertoire. But someone also gave me a Persian cook book for my birthday last year and that has been a great source of inspiration.

Of course, there are other ways to exercize your inner project manager if you’re immersed in something creative – volunteering or joining a board is another way to go.

But for me, cooking seems to work just fine, at least for now.

I guess once my mother moves into her new place, I’ll need to start working on some recipes for her…

Image: Food. Pot. Kitchen. Cooking via Pexels.com

Walk In The Direction Of You: Life Lessons From My Briefcase

wheelie suitcase

wheelie suitcaseFor the last several years, I’ve used a small wheelie suitcase as my briefcase.

I had initially purchased a super-fancy leather backpack as my designated “work bag,” but my company laptop was incredibly heavy and I found that I was constantly lugging it back and forth to my home. I kept complaining that my back hurt, but somehow wasn’t putting two and two together. So one day, my husband, watching me developing adult scoliosis, gently asked: “Do you think the extra ten pounds you’re putting on your back every day might possibly be hurting you?” He suggested that I look into wheelie suitcase briefcases.

At first, I resisted. I’d seen the way people glared at those heartless souls who casually let their wheelie bag sweep over other people’s feet on the subway without giving it a second thought. I didn’t want to be one of *them*.

But eventually I gave in. My husband has a real fondness for gadgets, so he went and researched the very best ones and bought me one on line.

For the next two years, although I was teased incessantly by my friends and colleagues, I grew to love my wheelie bag. Whenever anyone innocently asked me, “Where are you off to?” – thinking I was travelling somewhere exotic for vacation – I knew that the wheelie bag was really my own, private unspoken metaphor for the fact that I already had one foot out the door of that job. The wheelie bag reminded me of my ambition to eventually leave and follow my dreams.

And then one day, my wheelie bag exploded. First one wheel came off and although I knew something was wrong (there was that loud scraping sound every time I pulled it), I could still manage to get around the city by pulling it on one wheel. Less than 24 hours later, however, the second wheel came off on my way into work. Now, I had no choice: I had to literally pick the wheelie bag up off of the ground and carry it around like a child.

At first I was terrified. The wheels, after all, are what provided the bag – and hence me – with structure and purpose. I counted on them to take me where I needed to go. Plus, if you’ve never picked up a wheelie bag before (and why would you?), try it. They’re pretty damn heavy, especially if you have a laptop inside.

Which in turn made me realize that I’d been clinging to structure and purpose all my life, but more out of habit – or possibly fear – than out of desire. All of my jobs had provided me with a coherent super-structure to plug into. Whether or not I particularly enjoyed what I was doing was immaterial. I had a script to follow and I just put my head down and did the work.

Families also provide a structure. When you’re young, you look to your family to shape your identity and give you a place in the world. When you grow up and have a family of your own, part of being a parent is managing the structure of the family for your own kids: giving them rules, setting boundaries, pointing them in the right direction. There are, of course, loads of unscripted moments, but while I enjoyed those, I felt safer playing cop.

To be on your own, literally carrying your life in your hands without anyone to guide you, is a terrifying prospect. But it’s also liberating: you can walk in any direction you wish, you are forced to slow down, and you end up making much more mindful choices because you are made aware (literally) of the weight of your life.

As a friend of mine puts it, you begin to “walk in the direction of you.”

I probably would have started doing that anyway, but I think the exploding wheelie bag gave me more confidence to do so.

As I pass my days right now, contemplating what’s next for me professionally, experimenting with new and unforeseen twists and turns in that thinking, and facing an uncertain future, I try to remember those days when the wheelie bag broke and yet I managed somehow to get where I needed to go, albeit circuitously.

Thank you, wheelie bag, for empowering me to navigate uncertainty and feel to OK without someone else to guide me.

Image: Luggage, Trolley by Alexas_Fotos via Pixabay

Why Garry Shandling’s Death Made Me Cry

garry shandling

Garry_Shandling_(2076448529)From time to time, I’ve indulged in an exercise where I pretend that I’m famous and am being interviewed for one of those glossy magazine profiles where they ask you to list things like your favourite meal or your favourite film. When they get to the question where they ask about my favorite comedian, I’ve always known that I wouldn’t hesitate before answering “Garry Shandling.

Shandling – who died at his home on Thursday at the age of 66 from causes as yet unknown – was never a household name in the way of Robin Williams or Chris Rock. Still, Shandling had an almost cult-like following among people like me, for whom his brilliant 1990’s sitcom – The Larry Sanders Show – changed our understanding of what television was and could be. He was also clearly both a visionary and a mentor for an entire generation of comedians, as the outpouring of heartfelt tributes to him last week from the likes of Bob Odenkirk and Ellen De Generes demonstrate, not to mention Conan O’Brian’s very moving, personal tribute on his show.

The Larry Sanders Show was a behind-the-scenes send up of what it was like to work at a late night television show. It ran on HBO for six seasons was universally recognised as the harbinger for subsequent pathbreaking television shows like The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock and others. (If you’ve never seen The Larry Sanders Show I’ve got good news for you – HBO is about to re-release it.)

But Shandling – a practicing Buddhist – stayed largely out of the limelight after The Larry Sanders Show ended, save the odd cameo here and there in film, TV and as a host on assorted award shows. I myself had nearly forgotten about him until I saw him on The Jon Stewart show a few years back (Stewart being yet another comedic superstar – like Judd Apatow and Sarah Silverman – who made his name on The Larry Sanders Show).

Read the rest of this post at The Broad Side

Image: Garry Shandling via Wikimedia Commons

Tips For Adulthood: Make New Year’s Resolutions (And Keep Them!)

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Well, it’s that time of year again. The New Year rolls around and my inbox/RSS Feed/Facebook page is inundated with the resolutions of friends and strangers far and near: Lose five pounds! Run a marathon! Write that #$%@ novel!

I’m a big fan of making resolutions. (As those of us blessed with an overly health super-ego tend to be.) Not just because they impose self-discipline for things like leading a healthier lifestyle. But also because – if you choose your goals wisely – they can genuinely make you happier.

And apparently, I’m not alone. Research shows that 40-45% of adults make one or more resolutions each year.

The trick, of course, is following through. One study in the U.K. showed that as many as 78% of those who set resolutions for themselves in the New Year failed to stick with them.

Bummer.

I personally think that one way that you keep your resolutions alive is by saying them out loud. Because I firmly believe that if you tell other people what you’re shooting for, you’re more likely to commit to a goal.

(I’ve tested this strategy out. After announcing on this blog couple of years back that I was going to take Saturdays off for “me time,” people still chide me if they discover me lurking on Facebook or Twitter when I’m supposed to be resting. I love that they do this!)

In that spirit, I’m going to share my own resolutions for this year:

1. Get a job. Yup, that’s still top of the list. While my She The People gig at the Washington Post is fantastic, it’s just that: a gig. So I am still out there pounding the pavement: networking, sending in applications and combing job listings. I do, however, have a brand new (top secret!) strategy for my job hunt, which I’ll reveal when (God willing) the time comes. So that, at least, feels like a new wrinkle on an old-ish goal.

2. Be more romantic. While we were in Argentina, I couldn’t help but notice how affectionate, physically, Latins are with one another. It’s been so long since I lived in Latin America that I’d completely forgotten that aspect of life down there. The importance of things like hugging for marital success has long been documented. Seeing this on action in Argentina reminded me that even when you’ve been with your partner for awhile, you really need to fight the instinct to take him or her for granted. Which is why I’ve resolved to do more things one-on-one with my husband in the New Year, including the odd romantic getaway, when/as/if we can afford one. (See #1). I don’t know about you, but I want to die like this couple.

3. Ease up on my kids. Yeah, I know. I’ve said that one before too. I tend to be a bit of a control freak where my kids are concerned. Part of this is situational: I work at home so I have ample opportunity to “hover.” And part of it is just my make-up. But one of my close friends took me aside during our trip to Argentina and suggested – in the friendliest, I’ve-been-there sort of way – that I ease up a bit, particularly with my son. If I loosen the reins just a bit where he’s concerned, she convinced me – based on her own experience – that I’ll not only be doing him a favor (vis independence, less need to act out later on, etc. etc.) but myself as well. (It’s hard work trying to control other people’s lives!) She wasn’t the first person to suggest this; but somehow, coming from a close friend who herself has a tendency to helicopter parent, I actually listened. So far, so good on that one. (More to follow on this, rest assured.)

4. Eat less meat. You may wonder, after I waxed rhapsodic about the joys of eating Barbeque last week, how I could possibly now suggest that I would renounce eating meat? I’m not actually resolved to stop eating meat altogether. (Although part of me wishes that I could.) But yes, I’d like to move in the direction of becoming a Flexitarian – i.e. eating less meat without becoming a vegetarian – a new trend that’s gaining currency in the U.S. (Hey man, we all need a group!) I just think that I’d be happier and healthier consuming less flesh. (And perhaps if I substitute the word “flesh” for “meat” on a regular basis, I will become a vegetarian!)

5. Discover the United Kingdom. We’ve traveled a fair bit since moving to London five and a half years ago. But the vast majority of that travel has been outside the country. I’d like to change that. I feel like I really don’t know my adopted country nearly as well as I should and that there’s no time like the present to alter that. First stop? Wales. Because once you hear someone pronounce the name of the world’s longest railroad station, you, too, will think: I gotta meet those Welsh folks.

What are you resolved to do in 2012?

 Image: hugging by lanier67 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Tips For Adulthood: FiveThings I Learned From Being Sick

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

For the last four days, I’ve been down for the count.  A horrible stomach virus swept through our household, claiming first my daughter, then my husband and myself (simultaneously) and then, finally, pulling my son down with us.

Unlike my daughter and my husband, who suffered a shorter, more violent episode of said bug – (and yes, I’ll spare you the gory details) – mine was of a more protracted nature. No vomiting. No extended stays in the bathroom. Instead, intense stomach cramps, chills and a low-grade fever. And an overwhelming sense of fatigue every time I stood up or tried to do anything other than drink Seven Up.

It doesn’t help that I saw Contagion last weekend – which is enough to make you think that every time you cough, you’re about to turn blue and start frothing at the mouth. (Other than that, I’d love to look like Gwyneth Paltrow, thank you very much.)

But I’m slowly emerging from the death throes of this thing. And as I do so, I realize that I learned a few things from this most recent brush with mortality:

1. Your kids are more independent than you realize. I wrote a post not long ago in which I vowed that in this new school year, I would do less for my kids. That resolution was partly driven by my own desire to be less of a control freak (hey, good luck with that!) and partly by the feeling that as they rounded the corner to eight and eleven respectively, my children ought to be taking more responsibility for themselves. And boy, lemme tell ya, there’ s nothing like having not one, but two (!) parents incapacitated to demonstrate what your kids are truly capable of. One day, my daughter (8) made lunch for my son (soon-to-be 11) and volunteered – without being asked – to sew a badge onto his football jersey. Meanwhile, my son, who’s favorite catch-phrase of the moment is “CBB” (which stands for “Can’t be bothered“) was suddenly jumping up to toast his own bread, take his own asthma medicine, get himself to football practice and back and – miraculously! – put himself to bed without listening to the iPod or reading a book. (I really *must* do this more often…)

2. Old movies really do rock. I wrote a post around this time last year when I was similarly afflicted by some hideous bug entitled Five Comfort Activities When You’re Sick. Right up there on that list was watching old movies. And you know what? It’s still there. This year, we cracked open some Sherlock Holmes. As we’d already made our way through all of the early versions of the series starring Basil Rathbone, we began to plumb the depths of the 1980s series starring Jeremy Brett and David Burke. Bliss!

3. Cars seem less of a luxury when you’re ill. Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while will know that I am fairly fervently anti-car, for health, environmental and aesthetic reasons. Nonetheless, I would by lying if I didn’t tell you that I miss driving when I’m ill. Because when you’re sick, there’s something really nice about being able to jump in the car in your PJ’s and zip down to the local corner store to pick up some Saltines (or rich tea biscuits, depending on the continent) and be back at your perch on the couch in five minutes flat. Because, seriously. Having to walk to the corner store when you’re under the weather? CBB, man. CBB.

4.  The homeless are deserving of our sympathies. There was a point, early on in this illness, when I was required to spend about six hours outside when I really wasn’t up to it. My daughter had a dress rehearsal for a play, followed immediately by a dance recital, and there was simply no way that I couldn’t accompany her. So during the two-hour rehearsal, I took myself down into the basement of a local theatre, lay down on a sofa in my gigantic ski parka, clutched my smart phone to my chest, and took a two-hour nap. Throughout the ensuing two hours, workers would periodically shuffle through the room and ask me to switch sofas or gently prod me in one direction or the other so that they could clean up or rearrange chairs. And I realized – in my half-awake, feverish state – that this is what it feels like to be homeless. And I felt – quite sincerely – a newfound sympathy for their plight.

5. I do too much. Period. Remember last week’s Yuletide post about my not-so-relaxed-downhill-slalom-course-into-the-holidays? Nothing like a stomach virus to force you to drop everything and sleep. Overnight, I began missing deadlines, canceling meetings, and turning off the answering machine to avoid the sound of the telephone. And you know what? It felt great. There’s a lesson in here, folks. For me, definitely. And for some of you as well, I suspect.

Happy Holidays. Be Happy. Be Healthy. Be Relaxed.

 

Sick as a Dog…by Chewy Hooey via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

 

When Life Gives You Lemons

And we’re back…..

Well, sort of.

With luck, this blog is now – after 12 days or so – reaching anyone who subscribes to it, whether by RSS feed or by email.

If, however, you try to access it via Google, Chrome or any of the other splendid search engines out there, you are still likely to encounter some sort of warning telling you that if you click on this site your body will burst into flames, your bank account will depleted and a plague of locusts will infest the entire planet. (But hey, go ahead and click. It’s your funeral!)

I once wrote a post entitled Crisis Management: Lessons From France about staying calm during a crisis. (Note: You probably won’t be able to read that post right now. See above). It concerns a trip my family made to France during a train strike a couple of years back. While we basically flipped out as we a. missed our scheduled train b. caught one four hours later and then c. had to sit on our bums in the aisle for the entire two-hour journey, I noticed that all around us, the French were just drinking wine, laughing and completely chilling out.

Granted, French people have way more experience with strike activity than we Americans do. But they just took it all in stride. Fast forward to last week. Sure, I was incredibly frustrated that some alien virus had snuck into my blog and basically destroyed it – over Thanksgiving, no less – which meant that my wonderful web guru was (quite understandably) not on hand for most of the week to help me out. But there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. Radical acceptance, to borrow another phrase from myself.

But I learned something else from that excursion to France which I forced myself to remember several times over the past week. It comes from that old adage: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Because it wasn’t only my blog that went pear-shaped last week, as we say over here. I had a job interview that didn’t quite work out. And – oh yes – there was the power outage that nearly prompted a divorce. (Of course, it could have been worse. At least I’m not Herman Cain.) So here’s the lemonade, in reverse order:

a. Exhibit A: Power Outage. Sunday morning. Furiously trying to throw together an apple pie for belated, Expat Thanksgiving Day celebration here in London. Clock is ticking because I meant to do this the night before forgot to defrost butter. Also rushing because of new-found zeal for Zumba and I wanted to squeeze in class at 11 while pie was in oven. Then entire endeavor grounds to a halt as computers, lights, stove, heating and hot water all shut off abruptly. Takes approximately 90 minutes to diagnose problem, at least half of which is consumed by furious bickering with husband over assorted switches, circuits and general mayhem that ensues.

Silver lining?: He eventually diagnoses problem, which appears to reside with short circuit in washer/dryer, and rest of house resumes activity. Realize that I could never have done this on my own and feel instantly grateful for the division of labor within our marriage, and all resentment lifts.

b. Exhibit B: Job interview with fabulous organisation in London that appears to be a great fit with both my interests and skill set. Go in to do an eight-hour trial “work day” to see if it’s a good fit. It isn’t, but mostly because the position that’s open isn’t what I’m after at this point in my career. Feel really dejected afterwards as for a brief moment, I thought I had this whole job thing all sewn up. And now I’m back to the drawing board.

Silver lining?  I have a much stronger sense of what I want – and don’t want – from my professional life right now. I’d never have known that with as much certainty if I hadn’t have gone in and tried this on.

c. Exhibit C: The Blog. Was absolutely devastated not to be blogging as there were – as always – so many things I wanted to share with this community.

Silver lining? I really missed blogging. And that was perhaps the best lemonade of all.

 

Image: Lemon by Chugy via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tips For Adulthood: Why We All Should Be Teachers

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

There’s an old saying that there are a handful of jobs everyone should have because they teach you essential life skills. I’ve heard different variations on this theme but they essentially boil down to:

*serving food (empathy)

*retail clerk (patience and respect)

*customer service (kindness)

*manual labor (diligence and a work ethic)

I’ve done all four of these along the way and agree with the analysis, although  my first job as a waitress also taught me why it’s important to have a good boss.

But today I’d like to add a fifth to the mix: teaching a class.

As you know, I returned to the class room last week after a ten-year hiatus, to teach a journalism seminar to some secondary school students in London. I’m pleased to report that it went very well:  the students seemed really keen to learn what I had to teach, and I had a lot of fun doing it.

But this intensive, two-hour session with a bunch of 17 year-olds also reminded me of some crucial life lessons which I thought I’d share. Here are five things you learn from teaching:

1. Giving back is meaningful. OK, cue the violins. I know this sounds cheesy: tis’ better to give than to receive and all that good stuff.  But sometimes cliches are true. And it turns out, all those things that people say about teaching really are right on the money: It’s rewarding. It’s meaningful. It’s inspiring. When you see a kid not just completing the assignment you gave – but doing it with spark and enthusiasm and panache – you say to yourself, “Wow. I just made a difference in someone’s life.” The bottom line?  Helping others will actually make you happier too.

2. You learn by doing. I think one of the most valuable life lessons you get from teaching is that it forces you to roll with things. You can have the best lesson plan in the world. (And it will surprise exactly no one to learn that I was quite possibly the most 0ver-prepared person ever to grace that particular school’s doorstep.) But when you’re actually in the trenches, you often need to throw out the outline. A writer friend of mine who’s been teaching secondary school boys for the last couple of years here in London put it this way: “Sure, have a lesson plan when you walk in. But be sure you’ve got plan B,C,D in your briefcase. Because more often than not, you need to improvise.” How true it is.

3. The best part of life is surprises. Further to (2), teaching also surprises you. You find yourself telling anecdotes about your own life that you hadn’t anticipated. The part of the lesson plan you thought was weakest turns out to be the most useful. The kid in the back who’s writing with his headphones on (gasp!) produces a beautiful piece of work. Another kid who impressed you with how bright he was during the discussion turns out to have real difficulties when it comes to writing. Particularly if you approach each class with a beginner’s mindset, you’ll start noticing things about your teaching – and your students – that you hadn’t realized were there.

4. You laugh at yourself. This is key. When you’re a teacher you can’t take yourself too seriously. That’s true with any age group, but it’s particularly true when you’re teaching teens because they are inherently skeptical of authority. About two minutes into my presentation last week, I announced that in addition to being American, I also talked very fast, so they should feel free to interrupt me if they didn’t understand something. Suddenly, a boy’s arm shot up in the back. “Yes?” I asked. “Give us an example,” he said. “Of?” I responded. “Of you talking fast.” So right then and there, before I’d even begun the official lesson, I imitated for the class the way that I motivate my kids to get ready in the morning in the frenzy of the school run. (Hint: I sound like a swim coach and it isn’t very pretty.) We all laughed and that instantly broke the ice.

5. They call you ‘Miss.’ Or Sir. At least here in London. I don’t usually fuss too much over titles. But as someone who’s perpetually trying to achieve that elusive element of gravitas,I loved that the kids addressed me as “Miss.”It reminded me of Zoe Heller’s fabulous novel Notes On A Scandal (without the corresponding affair with the 16 year-old boy, that is.) And I instantly felt like I belonged there.

How about you? Have you ever taught a class and what did you learn?

 

Image: Teacher by ben110 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Towards A Definition Of Adulthood (With A Nod To Judaism)

Over on The Happiness Project today, Gretchen Rubin is grappling with how we use vocabulary to define our goals.

Some people, she notes, prefer to talk about intentions rather than Gretche’s preferred “resolutions.” Others would like to discard the term “Happiness Project” altogether; while embracing the same goals, they want to dissect “life’s journey.” Still others don’t want to talk about happiness at all; they’d rather achieve a state of joy.

It’s an interesting discussion because it gets at the power of words to convey something essential, as well as how personal that vocabulary needs to be to have meaning for each and every one of us.

The post really struck a chord with me because – like Gretchen with happiness – I feel like I ought to have a working definition of “adulthood” on this blog. On my “about” page, I talk about adulthood as a journey, not a destination. And that’s very much how I think about it.

But last week, I was actually handed a definition of adulthood that really resonated and so I wanted to share it.

I came across this definition while viewing a rough cut of the fabulous film, Neverbloomers, by the Canadian filmmaker Sharon Hyman.  Some of you may remember Sharon as my E-BFF whom I met a year or so ago when I happened upon her website and realized that she was a comrade in arms. Sharon is in the process of finalizing her documentary, which is all about what she calls “GrownUphood” (love it!) and what that term means to different people (including herself).

There were lots of things that struck me about this film (which I can’t wait to promote up, down and sideways when it comes out later this year). But for now, I don’t think I spoil anything by revealing that in one scene, Sharon interviews a Rabbi about his views on adulthood. And here’s what he says:

“Being grown up,” he says, “is the ability to fully integrate that which we know, practically.” He then goes on to reference the Kabbalah, which has a Hebrew word for this: daas. According to the Rabbi,”daas”  is usually translated as “to know,” but it also means “to connect.”

So for this rabbi anyway, adulthood is a state in which all the knowledge that we possess connects or “clicks” and becomes an integrated feeling which, in turn, influences our behavior. And the intellectual faculty that allows for such integration is a uniquely adult talent which one only develops later in life.

Not to go all Fiddler On The Roof on you (“The Rabbi has spoken!“) but I love the concept of daas. I feel like it goes to the heart of what we are – all of us – going through as we age: a process of integrating and connecting our knowledge in a way that permeates our feelings and our behavior. At a minimum, I feel that this idea very much encapsulates what this blog is all about.

So that, my friends, is my profound thought for the day, courtesy of Rabbi Moshe New in Montreal whom I’ve never even met.

You see, I told you. I was meant to be Jewish after all.

*****

Here is my very last post for Politics Daily, which, quite sadly, shut down earlier this week. (More on that another time.) It’s a post on Social Networking and Local Government. I enjoyed writing it every bit as much as I’ve enjoyed writing all of my posts there. Vaya con Dios, PD.

Image: Fiddler On The Roof: Tevye and the Fiddler by Thwaites Theatre Photos via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.