Setting Goals and Resistance, Part 2

The Problem (For Some of Us) About Setting Goals

I am working on songwriting even as I post this. So far, so good, but man is it hard to get me to sit still!

From How to Be an Adult: A Musician’s Guide to Navigating Your Twenties

The trick for me is to get the IAP and the Willful Child talking calmly to each other instead of having one of them throw a tsunami-size tantrum while the other one nags like a critical op-ed writer. For this is the challenge. As soon as I set a goal––like getting in shape so I can look great in a Betsey Johnson dress—my inner six(teen) year old (WC) immediately rolls her eyes and curls up in bed with a book. Meanwhile, my IAP goes ballistic on the poor reader, screaming, “Your thighs! That bulge above your triceps! Not to mention you’re going to get osteoporosis and heart disease! Get out of bed and do forty laps around the park!”

Eventually I learned to treat these two opposing personalities the way I would treat a cat. Cats (at least the ones I lived with) don’t respond well to direct orders or being scooped up and cuddled. They like to be wooed, approached at a 45 degree angle. Slyly. Gently. Coyly. And so when I am feeling listless, I have my IAP say, ever so slyly, gently, and coyly, “Wow, remember how nice it was to go for a run? You used to bring your iPod and listen to Anna Karenina. That was fun. Hmmm. Maybe if we go back to running, we can download Middlemarch. You could start by just walking, and call Susan on your cell phone… no pressure.” The six(teen)-year-old responds much better this way (though she negotiates for Patti Smith’s Just Kids in lieu of Middlemarch), and there is peace, harmony and fitness in the kingdom once again.

But this diplomacy has been long in negotiation. This should give you hope: in order to meet my second goal (to be the next Beatles) I knew I would have to practice my guitar a lot more. (I am undisciplined about practicing my guitar, and I pretty much always have been.) When I started at age eleven, that directive: “I should practice more!” rang in my ears every time I came home from school and saw my little nylon string guitar safely tucked away in its black pleather case. What did I do? Sometimes felt kind of sick and guilty and stuck the guitar in the nether regions of my closet. But often the desire to make music would come and pull at my heartstrings, and I would pull the guitar out of the case and open my Beatles for Easy Guitar book, sit down on the carpet and painfully play a few songs with especially easy chords. But I’d get so frustrated because the songs sounded nothing like the Beatles LPs I’d put on the record player that I’d slam the book shut in frustration and lock my guitar up in its case, to be ignored for the next few weeks. Still, the IAP had some effect, as I eventually played the guitar for my living.

Time, Resistance and Priorities–From How to Be an Adult

This chapter starts with what I consider some important skills to develop when moving from the carefree, fake-cheese eating world of adolescence to the kale omelet world of Adulthood. These skills are:
1. An ability to know who you are, so you know what you like, so you know what you want, so you know what you need, so you know what you must do.
2. An ability to work with the currency of Time
3. An ability to deal with the related issue of inner resistance, otherwise known as DPI (Desire to Procrastinate Indefinitely)
Now, some of you soon-to-be-adults will have no need for the chapters that follow, and if that be the case, skip ahead to the practical sections on exercise, food and sleep, and knock yourselves out. Your problems (if you have any) may have more to do with sitting back and relaxing rather than kicking your own butt, which may be sore from all the lunges and squats you’ve done over the years. There’s a section just for you a little later on. It’s called “Eight Cheap Forms of Therapy.” For the rest of us who know a little something about sitting in front of the TV for five days straight eating nothing but microwave popcorn and diet Shasta, read on.

Know Thyself

Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.
––Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

Everyone seems to know that Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.” Very well. What most people ignore is that the character who says this oft-quoted line is the big blowhard and hypocrite and oh, by the way, spy, Polonius. In the context of the scene within the play Hamlet, what he really means by this bit of wisdom adopted by the New Age, is, “Make sure whatever you do, you look appropriate and protect your interests.” Still, there’s a reason the New Agers (and many Hallmarky-type cards and refrigerator magnets) have sold this quote. It’s valuable advice. Even so, because as a teenager I really hated Polonius, I prefer Socrates’s “Know Thyself,” which is more succinct.

How do you know who you are, anyway? Until you do, you can’t really do much. You just kind of whirl around in circles, following whatever is the most sparkly (or safe) person, situation, trend, idea, diatribe, religion. You get your idea of self (usually) from your family of origin, or perhaps from your social group at school or elsewhere. But what if they are all saying things that don’t ring true to you?

Get out of the house, and get out of town. Or at least, begin to question: what feels unharmonious to you about the messages you’re getting from these people? Are they walking their talk? More importantly, are you? When you listen to that core set of values deep inside yourself, does it match how you are behaving on the outside? When your inside matches your outside, we call this “integrity.” Look for others with this quality. Get to know them. These people are the real deal. As Gandhi says, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Figuring out who you are and what you like and what you want and what you need is a lifelong pursuit. Some get clarity earlier than others; you might already have a very good idea of who you are and what you do best and what you like and what you want and (sometimes hardest of all) what you need. If you know these things about yourself already, use your knowledge to be—to paraphrase Dr. Seuss–– the Youest You you can possibly be. If you don’t, take some time to find out. It does take that most valuable resource: time. I first took this kind of time the summer I turned fourteen and was leaving the school I’d attended for seven years to move on to high school. I lay in my bed every morning, thinking, “who am I really?” And by the end of the summer I’d made some important discoveries. First, that (like my heroes, John Lennon and Bob Dylan) I was an artist, and therefore (necessarily) different from everyone else. And second, that therefore I didn’t need to worry about “fitting in” anymore. Eventually everyone would catch on that I was hip, but for now, I could march to the proverbial beat of a different drummer. With these empowering discoveries, I had a huge surge of energy and creativity. I began writing songs; I spoke out about what I believed; I started to wear a lot of red and purple, and also strange hippie garb from the Salvation Army. “I have found myself!” I announced audaciously to anyone who cared to listen. (I really impressed my mom, but my sisters told me later that they were horribly embarrassed for me.)

And indeed, I had found myself. But then “myself” changed, and I realized I looked terrible in red and that I wasn’t really a hippie. We discover ourselves like the layers of the onion. It’s an ever-evolving process. We have to keep asking ourselves what we really love, and make sure we are not swayed by the opinions of others. If all our friends were suddenly abducted on a spaceship and we were left with a totally different crowd, would we adopt the new crowd’s preferences and predilections? Would we stay true to what we loved now that we are a part of the (now Martian) crowd? Or are we secretly glad our old buddies have moved onward and upward? In fact, you might want to listen carefully to those outside your strongest spheres of influence. If you are a diehard Christian, read the Koran. If you are a lifelong Democrat, read Atlas Shrugged. If you grew up listening only to classical music, try some hip-hop. Don’t let others define you. Make up your own mind. See for yourself.

Play a game of “What Do You Like Better?” Oatmeal or chocolate chip? Red or blue? Liberty or Justice? Urban or Rural? When in the day is your energy strongest? What makes you lose your temper? Which is harder for you: anger or sadness? Which is harder for you: your own feelings or the feelings of others? Do you really like jazz? Big drooly dogs? Ernest Hemingway? Short hair? Sci-Fi? Downhill skiing? Or do you just wish you were that kind of person?

To some of you who have strong, healthy egos these questions might seem ridiculous. But I must confess that when I was in my teens I “put on” a lot of likes, dislikes and opinions that were not quite true to who I really was—and I certainly believed I had a healthy ego, and I came across to my friends as a leader. Looking back, here are some of my “should likes.”

• Camping
• Rush (the band)
• Charles Dickens’ novels
• Soccer
• Lord of the Rings

And some “should not likes.”
• Tiny cuddly dogs
• Peter Paul & Mary
• Makeup
• Woody Allen (I know I’m supposed to hate him, but…)
• iPhones
• Starbucks

Some of these are things I realized as a young girl. I should definitely not like:
• To play with dolls
• To like fairy tales
• To wear pink
• To watch The Brady Bunch
• To re-read the Little House books when I was in 7th grade

And so I did these things in secret. I “put on” being a tomboy instead.

Even as I write this, I am cringing. I don’t want anyone to know some of my true likes and dislikes. But one of my favorite parts of Gretchen Rubin’s wonderful Happiness Project is her First Commandment (to “Be Gretchen.”) This reminds me of the Hindu observation that God dwells within us as us. Those quirks we can’t stand about ourselves––they are divinely wrought. And our work is not to eradicate them but to learn to love them.

The older I get, the more permission I give myself to love what I really love. Our twenties are a time when we start to put down the masks and stop trying on different personae. By the time you hit thirty, you should be well on your way in a lifelong game of Hot/Cold (“Warmer….warmer…hot! Hot! Hot! You’ve found it!”).

“Why try to be a Pekingese if you are a Greyhound?” Listen to the still small voice within. Get to know it. Take it out on dates. Write to it. Talk to it, but also listen. See if it has any better ideas. Some people have an Inner Child. (More on this coming up.) In addition to my Inner Child, I seem to have been gifted with an Inner Sneering Older Brother, whom I probably acquired from reading too much Creem Magazine when I was a teen. Some of my work today involves standing up to that Inner Sneering Older Brother (ISOB) and singing, “I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow!” or some similar drippy 80s ballad. (ISOBs hate 80s ballads, 100% of the time.)

Now is the time to do something wild and crazy. Join the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or teach English abroad. Move to New York City or Los Angeles and live the life of a starving artist. Move to Bhutan and become a monk or nun. Go to Europe and be the founder of a political movement. Start a rock band like I did and travel around the country. Or, if you know you are going to end up being an artist, take a few years to do something totally different. (One of my friends from college became a cop. He’s now a writer. What amazing material he got during those years!) You will never be this unencumbered and free again! And your back will never enjoy sleeping on other people’s floors as much as it does now! Seize your moment!

This of course assumes you have your college loan situation under control. Mindful of paying off the bills, do so—in the most adventurous way possible within your comfort zone. And use your weekends for exploration. Take a weekend to be alone. Go on a Vision Quest. In Native American tradition, youths are sent away with no food (usually) to spend a period of time communing with their spirit guide. At the end of this period, they come back to the tribe clear on what direction their future will take.
Can you find a way to do something similar? I am only asking because, adult though (I think) I am, I wish I could say that I have done a Vision Quest. Everything about it terrifies me: the wilderness, the fasting, the insects, the boredom. That’s why I think it might be necessary. Next edition, I hope to report back.

One more thing about my crazy vision quest idea: it is worth noting that in every ancient tradition on every continent the young males went through some kind of initiation rite (the young females did not because they were usually impregnated at that point and/or breastfeeding, and believe me, motherhood is a pretty thorough initiation rite in and of itself). The point is, people have known for millennia the necessity of taking time apart to know oneself so that one can find one’s place in the community, make choices that are true and right and not end up like Zelig, the famous Woody Allen character who, chameleon-like, became whoever the people he encountered wanted him to be. Too many of us fail to buck peer pressure even when we’re well beyond Junior High. “Know thyself” is an ongoing project; the work of a lifetime.

To buy the book, go here! Sale this week: ebook=$2.99!

Also, which cover do you like most? This?

Or this?

How I Got a New Cover for How to Be an Adult

I had full confidence in my taste, until about ten days ago when I met with my brilliant little group of fellow creative entrepreneurs, and by unanimous vote, they told me to change the cover of my book How to Be an Adult. I wouldn’t have even listened to them, except that one of the voters was Katryna, the creator of said cover.

“It looks too much like your kids’ music album covers,” one said. “Too hard to read,” said another. “You need something hip. Your target market is 20 somethings. You need to appeal to them.” “Don’t go for Nields fans. They all have the book. Go for a new audience.”

The hilarious thing about all this advice is that I have been getting it all, word for word, for the past 22 years vis a vis our music career. Well, except the part about the kids music, since 20 years ago we had no kids music, but we did used to get complaints about our newsletters being hard to read. And once an A&R guy rejected the songs for the next record saying, “Too Nieldsy.”

Someone in my creative entrepreneur group suggested I go to a site called 99 Designs where they have contests among designers to make book covers (among other things), all for $299. In a week, I could have a new cover.

My group got very excited about this idea. I, meanwhile, wept quietly in the corner. I love the cover of my book so much it hurts. I love everything about it: the color scheme, the little me holding up the world of stuff, Katryna’s inimitable artwork. When I see it laid out next to my other two books, I love it the most and whisper to it, “You are my favorite child.” It’s SO pretty!

But eventually, I was swayed. OK, it does kind of look like a kids’ book. It is not exactly hip. This made me doubt my taste, which is the worst feeling in the world for an artist. There is that mean voice that says, “What do I know? Have I ever had a bestselling anything? No. So the other people must know something I don’t know.”

My friend Beth listened to me whine about how sad I was about changing covers, and how maybe I should just abandon the project and move on to the next one, and she said, “Right. You like what you like. And your cover didn’t work. And you love starting things, and you hate marketing them. So now you get to grow up and listen to your friends and get a new cover and do some work you hate. That’s being an adult, my friend.”

So finally, I went back to the 99 Design Website, clicked “Agree,” and starting a week ago Friday, the contest was underway. I was very quickly underwhelmed. I got a bunch of bad clip art covers, and too-many-to-count images of a young girl, half-dressed, sitting on a chair, her head bowed. In some, she wore a hat. In some she gazed wistfully off into the middle distance. Because I’d told the designers I was a musician, many featured electric guitars–as if that would somehow signify adulthood.

Then I realized I’d made a terrible mistake, timing-wise. From Monday-Wednesday of this all-important design contest week, I had my biannual mini-retreat (I call it a vacation from Suzuki practice, honestly) where I go to Kripalu, sit around and let others cook for me, go for runs, mediate, do some yoga, haunt the bookstore, and get my batteries recharged. I always say I will have a tech fast too, but so far that has never happened. And this time, with the contest underway, that would be an impossibility.

The way these contests work is that you have to constantly give feedback to the designers. “Try that in red.” “How about little hikers walking around a globe?” And you have to bother your friends––or in my case, my kids’ babysitters––with polls soliciting their opinions; then read the polls, sift through which demographic of your friends (and babysitters) likes which design, think about which of them would actually be a customer, then regret having sent it to your friends because now they will be annoyed with you for ignoring their advice.

So I went to Kripalu thinking I would work on my novel The Big Idea, and also do a tech fast, and also immerse myself in silence and meditation and yoga and become enlightened in two days, and also maybe write some songs, and also read some new book that I hadn’t yet discovered, and also organize the files on my computer. By Tuesday evening, my back hurt and I’d only worked on one scene of my novel, and I hadn’t found a book to read, and I definitely wasn’t yet enlightened, and my cover contest was a total bust, and I missed my family (and even Suzuki practice) and wanted to go home so badly I almost left early. But then I got a massage and went to sleep.

What ended up happening was that I got a bunch of sensible designs, none of which was a knockout, and then this one crazy Edward Gorey-esque cover that made absolutely no sense. “That one!”I shouted, and all my family members said, “Whaaaa???” I stuck this outlier in the poll, and all the poll takers said, “Whaaa????” And then, the Edward Gorey-esque artists sent me a new design that actually kind of worked. At least it worked for me and a bunch of my poll people. (Many of my poll takers still said, “Whaaaa?” And one said, “I have no idea what this even is.”) The artist was from Serbia, I think, and I fell madly in love with her work. I had her tweak the covers until the strange Gorey creatures stopped making my children cry (the one remaining is a rabbit playing…wait for it…a guitar). I did one last poll, and about a third of the people chose her design, and the other third chose something so heinous and clip arty I wanted to cry, and the last third chose an image with a ripped jean and the title coming through—a very clever image, actually, and one that might sell books. But just as many who loved the ripped jeans hated it.

Once again, I was confronted with the question: do you want to sell stuff, or do you want to like what you’ve made?

Several friends counseled me to choose the ripped jeans image. “You have the opportunity to reach a much bigger audience!” one said. Yes, but maybe not. And at the end of the day, I need to be proud of the work I do, and that includes my choice of cover. The ripped jeans image makes me feel sad and cheap. To me, being an artist with integrity means putting the work before my ambitions for the work. Does that mean I’ll never be a best-seller? I sure hope not! Am I self-sabotaging? My creative entrepreneur group may well call me on the fact that the new cover is basically just a hippification of Katryna’s old cover. It’s like a teen-aged version of such. But I love it. It makes my heart sing. The girl looks just like I felt as a twentysomething: what’s all this stuff on the floor, and what am I supposed to do with it? I wrote the book for people who feel the way this girl feels.

I am going to try both images. Stay tuned. In fact, I might use all three (Katryna’s too!) The great thing about self publishing is that you can do this.

To order the book, go here!

Why is GenY Unhappy? “Special” Is Not the Problem. In Fact, It Might Be The Solution

I just finished re-reading WaitButWhy’s latest post called “Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy.” In it the author posits that young people today (born between the late 70s and the mid 90s) are unrealistically ambitious, were raised with extraordinary expectations, and spend too much time in the virtual world and not enough in the real one. They were told all their young lives that they could do anything they liked and that they were the most wonderful creatures on earth. Most damningly, the author says, they were told: you are special.

These expectations were born from their parents’ beliefs that the world would be the proverbial oyster for their children, born from said parents’ pleasure in giving them the world; born from the encouragement that flowed their way from their very first baby steps and indoctrination by Fred Rogers (“You Are Special”) to their conflict-free recesses and supportive RAs, Deans of Students and Career Counselors. But these expectations, which gave them fantastic self-esteem, left them, post-college, wide open to profound disappointment. A career is not something one creates in a few hours, or even over the course of an especially inspiring summer camp season. A career is wrought over many years, many professional relationships, sometimes multiple locations, and (in my opinion) through many defeats and rejections and failures.

I liked this post a lot, and I have some quibbles. I liked the final advice the author gives these youngsters, which is to:
1) “Stay wildly ambitious.” For ambition is certainly what’s needed in any case, in any time, given any (or no) amount of talent.
2) “Stop thinking that you’re special. You can become special by working really hard for a long time.” I agree that it’s through working hard that one develops one’s specialness; but it’s through believing one is special in the first place that one has the impetus to take the pretty ballsy actions necessary to do anything out of the ordinary.
3) “Ignore everyone else.” Don’t look at your friends on FaceBook and compare their glamorous, pre-packaged outsides to your own gelatinous insides.

Like “Lucy,” the author’s sad stick-figure twentysomething, I have known that awful feeling of despair when the world failed to recognize the specialness my parents my parents kept insisting I exuded. Probably the best thing that ever happened to me was being absolutely miserable for most of my grammar school and junior high career where many (okay, most) of my peers and teachers failed to see my wonderfulness and brilliance. The struggling I did during those years to establish myself to myself may have saved me from a twenties rife with the kind of disappointment WaitButWhy sees in twenty-somethings today. The disparity between what my parents had instilled in me and the reality of the way the world treated me was so painful that I had to rectify it. I could have lost my illusions and accepted myself as just another bozo on the bus, or I could choose to see myself as the star of my own life story—the underdog pushing up from the bottom to shock and surprise everyone! Debra Winger in An Officer and a Gentleman! Rocky in Rocky! Pretty much everyone in any movie ever made! Most days, I still choose to believe in my Secret Life of Me. Is this a bad thing? Am I delusional? Maybe. But so far, it’s worked for me. And I would wager it’s worked for most people who have ridden the waves of ambition to create a means of living on their own terms, and not the obsolete system the Greatest Generation came into after the war.

I am not Gen Y––I’m a Gen Xer raised by a boomer mom. She was young when she had me, and she was definitely drinking the same Kool Aid that produced the kids who believed that their purpose in life was to find a fulfilling rather than a secure career, and she definitely told me, every other sentence, how special and wonderful and brilliant I was. Based on my delusions of being special, I did something crazy a couple of years out of college. I started a rock band and traveled around the country trying to get famous. I took my wild ambition, I worked very hard (together with my band mates) compiling my 10,000 hours of mastery, and somehow, it worked. True, I didn’t get famous enough to have a dance move named after me, or to start a college fund for my kid based on one hit song, but I did get famous enough to build a career. After ten years on the road and about as many CDs, a reputable publisher who had never seen a line of prose I’d written offered me a book deal. She just loved my songs and took a chance on me. Not really knowing how to write a novel, I was undaunted. Why? Because I had been told my whole life that I was wonderful, brilliant, that the world was my oyster, and that I was special. I must have annoyed the hell out of my editors (who, being benign boomers, were very patient with me), but I did learn how to write a novel, and went on to write more. During this time period, I found a house I loved, though it was out of my price range. Undaunted, I looked around and decided I could make the mortgage by offering writing groups––something I had no prior experience of doing––but because I believed I was wonderful, brilliant, that the world was my oyster, and that I was special, I succeeded. It turned out that my work in a band had prepared me well to work with groups. I fell in love with the work, quickly adding retreats and teleclasses to my repertoire. One day a friend suggested that I become a life coach. Believing I had something to offer––because I believed I was wonderful, brilliant, that the world was my oyster, and that I was special–– I applied to a program (run by the similarly sure-of-herself Martha Beck) and within a period of six months, I had a full roster of clients. I continued to tour and make CDs because the dictum in my head that I was wonderful, brilliant, world/oyster, etc. was louder than society’s notion that aging female singer-songwriters were obsolete.

You have to believe in yourself, with a ferocious, unshakable loyalty, if you want to make it in today’s economy, where creative entrepreneurs are able to make a decent living, often a far better living than what their parents made. When I say “far better,” I don’t mean as full of pensions and health insurance and retirement accounts (not to mention new cars every five years or two-week vacations to dude ranches), but more full of––yes––fulfillment. And while I disagree with WaitButWhy’s suggestion that we lower expectations on our specialness, I agree wholeheartedly with the premise that we need to lower our expectations when it comes to material goods and lifestyle choices. If you want to build the life of your dreams around doing what you love, the money will certainly follow, but it might not be as much money as you think it should be. In my experience, if we can work with reality on this one, honestly assessing what it’s worth to us to have a life where no one is our boss, where we live by our wits, where what we earn is the product of our own minds and hands, most of us would chose freedom over wide screen TVs.

As a mother of kids under the age of ten, I am aware that the pendulum has swung away from “You’re wonderful, brilliant, special, the world is your oyster” to the current “Oh, look, you just mastered Beethoven’s Minuet in G on the violin. How does that feel?” The current thinking is against overpraising for many of the same reasons WaitButWhy highlights: it feels crappy to be told how great we are when we don’t feel great inside. And it feels even crappier to tap dance to great applause in the family living room only to find ourselves laughed into oblivion at the local talent show when we discover that actually, compared to most of the population, we have two left feet. I get this. But I can’t help myself. When my kids do something––anything––my instinct is to praise. Poor them. Perhaps I am making up for the treatment my own mother got from her Greatest Generation mother, which was often a severe critique of my mother’s interpretive dances.

The story isn’t over for Generation Y. Pretty much every generation feels despondent in their twenties. I’d argue that we’re supposed to feel unhappy in our twenties. One needs a portion of harsh disappointment and failure to thrive. So they are getting theirs now, during this meager economic time, during this season of late-adolescence. I am willing to bet that they end up saving the farm, saving themselves, saving the world, proving to us all that they are the special generation they’ve always known they were.

How to Be an Adult Introduction, Part Two: What We Learned About Life in 20 Years on the Road

What We Learned About Life in 20 Years on the Road
Katryna first got the idea to write a book called How to Be an Adult after graduating college. She felt clueless, living with her sister and brother-in-law in a prep-school dorm and eating the prep-school’s free food, while trying to figure out things like how to get health insurance and how to pay her taxes on the non-existent income of a budding folk singer. She pronounced, “Someone should write a book called How to Be an Adult. How are we supposed to know any of this stuff? We all need a manual. Someone should write it, and since no one else will, I guess it’s got to be me. Except I don’t know how to be an adult, so why don’t you do it?”

We had grand plans to research the topic, but we never followed through. Over the years, we’d revive the project and toss around some ideas, but mostly the concept of either of us writing a book about how to be an adult reduced us to fits of tearful laughter. Who would take a couple of folk singers as their models for responsible adulthood?

But by my mid-thirties, I had observed two things. First of all, somehow along the way, like everyone else, I’d figured it out, mostly, and so had Katryna. It took years, and we made lots of painful and hilarious mistakes. But many of those mistakes were wonderful lessons.

Secondly, what I hadn’t figured out (taxes, insurance, retirement accounts, bill-paying) were easily deciphered by the simple act of homing in on someone who clearly appeared to be a competent adult and asking that person how she did what she did. Believe me, if you ask enough people, someone will have a strong opinion on this topic and feel it’s their mission in life to sit you down and set you straight.