What to do when it all derails…

I don’t handle failure well. But, failure is exactly something that needs to be embraced on this Design Thinking, Experimenting approach to improving one’s life journey.

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
Henry Ford

I don’t handle it well because I feel very responsible for getting everything right the first time. It’s not necessarily about being a perfectionist, but rather having very high and specific expectations (which can include imperfections, but maybe not unexpected imperfections). Joel Mark Witt’s article about ENFP Personality Types (which is what I am) calls this out – the need to have things in order. That need makes it difficult to embrace experimentation – cause experimentation and design thinking is basically about testing whether that ‘order’ is right, and chances are, it isn’t, else why would you be experimenting in the first place?

I also don’t handle failure well because I feel ashamed. When I feel sick, I feel guilty. I can’t just let myself be sick – rather, I constantly ask myself, am I really sick? Or am I just being weak and pathetic? I think this is related to my experience with depression and how I’ve managed it. I’ve regarded it as a weakness and a flaw, so when I feel weak because of fatigue or illness, I am quick to question the root cause.

I ‘failed’ these last couple of days – because I didn’t stick these great habits and routines I was developing, because I wasn’t making any progress on my big goals and to-do lists, because I fell back into a number of shitty habits I’m not proud of and that don’t do me any good. And, that all got compounded by the fact that I kept beating myself up over all the failures! Which only made it worse.

Finally, I curled up in bed, with food and a cheese audiobook, and spent most of the next 36 hours there.

The next day I had a sore throat and I was like, hey! I really am sick! Ok, that totally changes things – I thought I was just weak and pathetic because of depression.


So, yeah, things derailed. And guess what, they derail a LOT, and they’re going to derail again and again and again, and I’ll have to start again and again and again. I need embrace the idea of starting again and again. But, with every derailment, there is an opportunity to learn something and try something new.

How do you embrace failure? It might be hard to do when in the moment of failure, but maybe even that perspective is a muscle to flex? There is definitely opportunity to use hindsight differently, less about critical eye on the failure itself, and more of a critical eye on making moments less hurtful. Moments. Not necessarily making everything better, but managing moments better, and not with the lens of trying to avoid failure next time, but just not being so hard on myself when I ‘fail’.

  • There are signals I can learn to read sooner and react to differently
  • There are reactions I have that I could change: thoughts, feelings, behaviors. But it may not be about changing them all, rather making some decisions along the way so I feel safer and feel okay.
  • There are certainly perspectives I have along the way as I step back and ‘evaluate’ myself – and they aren’t exactly very nice.

On the other hand – my reactions work. I’m not necessarily proud of them, but clearly I needed them, or at least needed the outcome.

Still, there are opportunities to fail more gracefully…and more creatively.

Take-away thought to ponder – failing gracefully, what does this mean? Accepting that there are things that cannot be changed? Or just accepting that there always will be failure? Maybe that’s another reason to own our stories; we can look for patterns in failure: are there signals that we should stop trying to change something, or to stop treating failures so painfully like failures?

Accept your imperfections and embrace them as things that make you who you are. No one is perfect, we all know that, so offering up grace to yourself and allowing yourself peace is important. Being hard on yourself is okay, but realizing you are human is also necessary. – Megan Gilger

Week 1 Bits & Pieces

A collection of tips I liked

  • Where do you start? You just start. If you want to do something, do something. – from The Spark & The Art (Creativity Podcast). It resonates a common sense truth that is easily said, but hard to do. But he added something – you keep starting, and maybe it takes a few months. That’s ok.
  • Anything worth doing takes yearsa post on Medium by Jon Wenstenberg. How incredibly refreshing! Just the space this gives you to thoughtfully create, experiment, fail and refine! And with that lens, the realization that you better pick something you enjoy doing.
  • Do something new every day – a principle I’m applying to my life to promote creativity, neurogenesis, surprise. Doesn’t have to be big, but it needs to be new.

Things I’m coming to really understand

  • Creativity, whether drawing, writing, sketching, singing, should be about what YOU want to do, not what you think you have to produce for anyone else. Writing this blog is about writing what I want to write, what I want to learn about, what sparks a fire in me. It’s the conversations I want to have, the things I want to learn. If someone joins in the conversation, that’s awesome. If not, that’s okay too, because I’m still really enjoying the conversation.
  • Flexing new muscles is what builds new skills, opens up new spaces, both practically and perceptually, and you should start with really small, easily repeatable steps. I’ve always wanted to sketch regularly, but struggled with starting and having it come easily. So I started with zentangles – doodles with intent and guidance. Easy to start, easy to repeat, and it gave me satisfaction. Now I’m doodling, sketching, and painting frequently, simply for pleasure

New books I’ve gathered

  • 20 Ways to Draw a Tree: a beautifully simple way to prompt doodles and sketches with different media and styles; a great way to play and explore with your own artistic creativity, no matter the skill.
  • The Neurogenesis Diet & Lifestyle: Recently featured on a  Bulletproof Radio Podcast episode, I had to follow up. Two points in the podcast alone had me hooked: (1) “serotonin deficiency” theory behind depression has been debunked and (2) the mouse experiment demonstrated it wasn’t just one thing that had a big positive impact, but a combination of several things. Both points support a systems thinking lens to better health, not an oversimplified problem-solution lens. This is right in line with Dr. Hyman’s system thinking approach to health with functional medicine. Kudos!
  • Art as Therapy: Appreciating art for how it can tap into your emotions, deliver more meaning, reveal deeper truths.
  • A World of Artist Journal Pages: glimpses into the role art has played in the inner lives of others; both thoughtful and inspirational.

Experiments I’m running

  • Color thinking / art thinking (see blog)
  • New approach to my evening rituals (see blog)
  • Daily blogging – for me. Not to be selfish – but that way I enjoy it, even if no one else stops by. I want it to be a blog that I’d be interested in reading every day.
  • Letting art lead me – to still write about…
  • Letting my story guide me – to be kicked off….

Where things are headed

  • Continue compiling topics that fascinate
  • See what structure and patterns organically evolve and feel good
  • Gradually get to some more unpacking and connecting, eventually to support my Design Your Journey Line project.

Setting up for success – Goal setting

In the realm of health and weight loss one of my biggest problem areas is night team snacking…which can very quickly evolve into night time binging. ‘Simple’ solution – just don’t eat after 7 pm.

I’ve tried that and can go about a week with noticeable results, but too soon I fail…and fail…and fail again. If this were an experiment, which, really, it is, I’d conclude there was something wrong with the proposed intervention.

That’s why this idea of mental energy fascinated me and the implications of the studies showing low mental energy undermines willpower and smart decision making. It gave me this idea that rather than focus all the attention on the singular event of eating after 7, what could I do to set myself up for success so I’d be less likely to oversnack during that time?

There is a ‘simple’ approach to this as well – look at the drivers, the causes that make you snack or overeat late in the evening and remove them. Most directly – remove the food. E.g. throw out tempting food, don’t go in the kitchen after 7, find a path from living room to bedroom that doesn’t go through the kitchen. A couple of flaws with this – you need to eat and avoiding all food is just plain cumbersome and complicated. But, for some, this could work. It didn’t for me.

Plan B – understand the subconscious reasons behind late snacking; your subconscious is ridiculously powerful and drives most of what you think and do, even if we do like to pretend we have control of it. We are actually better off listening to it, and collaborating, than trying to push it under – but that’s a conversation for another day.

In all likelihood, the underlying cause is some form of stress – either from work, from self, from relationships, etc.; there are many layers there. This, too, is very important and doing this can solve the bigger problem for many. Again, not me. It helped – but didn’t resolve things completely.

I’m on to Plan C – what if I tackle this as a challenging, complex problem, and approach it how I might approach a more complex project or problem at work? In other words, rather than thinking a simple solution might work, and all I have to do is implement it, what if I recognize it’s not that simple and I might need several steps to get there. What if I treat it as a bigger problem that could be managed more effectively if I break it down into smaller, manageable steps?

Luckily, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel – I can use existing frameworks, ones often used for possibly the most common complex problem millions of people struggle with, namely implementing and maintaining a new health plan, including diet and fitness.

This is when I happened to come across Dr. Mercola’s Guide to Optimal Fitness. He includes a section in his magazine (Spring, 2016) on exactly this topic – how to set yourself up for success – and the steps he lists could effectively be applied to any complex challenge.

I’m modifying it slightly for my personal experiment. Here are the steps I will take and why:

  1. Develop the DESIRE – “Our actions are usually based on fear or desire.” Focus on and build on the desire; depending on fear will lead to failure.
  2. Believe you can succeed – This is both a mindset, but also requires thoughtful consideration of the goal and the steps.
  3. Write down the goals, in 2 forms: (1) one form in a lot of detail, something to read for added visceral motivation and (2) one form short, one sentence, that can become your mantra
  4. Make a list of all the benefits of achieving the goal and “Get Emotional” – get at the WHY, not the WHAT. This will pump up that desire component and that belief component.
  5. Analyze your starting point – and be honest. What is the current situation and what are the components that come together to cause or promote the undesired behavior, or prevent the desired behaviors?
  6. Set a deadline
  7. Make a list of the people who’s support an cooperation you need.
  8. Write out a plan with the specific steps – both what and when.
  9. Use visualization.
  10. Make the decision in advance that you will never give up.
  11. Keep going – recognize it’s a journey, and little failures along the way are signals on how to refine and correct.

Next step – map this out for myself….coming soon.

Mental Energy Gas Tank (and planning that daily road trip)

I’ve heard about variations to this particular research study a few times from different sources and I find it intriguing.

The scenario: Two groups of participants – one is given an easy mental task (remember 2 numbers) and one is given a more challenging mental task (remember 7 numbers), and walk down a hallway. At the end of the hallway you are given one of two options of snacks – a fruit cup and a slice of chocolate cake.

Outcome: The group with the more challenging mental task is significantly more likely to select the chocolate cake.

What it means: When your mental energy is reduced, you lack willpower.

I’ve oversimplified the study, but the outcome is solid – and has been repeated in several different ways. The bottom line holds – you have only so much mental energy in a given day and you must use it wisely.

There are interesting implications. For example – I, like millions of others, need to lose a few pounds. My pitfall is in the evenings – I love to snack as part of my evening routine, but this snacking quickly exceeds healthy proportions. One of the top 10 recommendations made by Dr. Hyman in his popular and thoughtful health and fitness programs is not to eat anything after 7 pm. He’s right – when I’ve gone a stretch of not eating after 7, I lose weight. But I can’t stick to that habit.

This ‘mental energy tank’ way of thinking suggests that maybe it’s not because I’m a failure, but that I’m just not set up for success. By the end of the day it’s very likely my mental energy tank is drained. This suggests a radically different perspective to solving personal challenges; no more ‘simple’ solutions like ‘Don’t eat after 7 pm.’

The bigger question is, how can I set up my day to maintain more mental energy for the evening, so I am empowered and more capable of making a ‘good for me’ decision?

Tips to keeping that tank full:

  • Long term proactive planning, rather than short-term reactive doing
  • Build good habits everywhere I can so no energy is used to get yourself to do the right thing (e.g. drinking water every time you walk into the kitchen)
  • Address big decisions earlier, in smaller steps to minimize amount of energy burned (e.g. choose what you are going to wear the next day the night before so there is one less thing to do in the morning when your under time pressure)
  • Offload mental to-do lists as keeping them in short term memory requires effort
  • Leave your mind empty as much as possible to allow for rejuvenation and creativity
  • Train your brain to not ruminate on negative thoughts – that takes practice and tricks (see Art Thinking)

Take a journey line view of your day – what is your energy level in the morning? How does it change through the day? Where are the big dips? As you look at the patterns from previous days you can see where there are opportunities to reduce mental burden and rejuvenate your brain. Take control of tomorrow’s journey line and design the day to minimize the dips and encourage an upward trend.

If you can end the day with a tank more full than empty, saying no to temptation can happen almost naturally.

Story Thinking – A tool to finding your Life’s Purpose

I’ve never been one to think much about the past:

  • It wasn’t common in my family. My German parents didn’t talk much about their past, likely because of how difficult it was, or because of the guilt of being associated such a horrific political history.
  • In my twenties and thirties I spent what felt like hundreds of hours in therapy rehashing the past – no sense beating a dead horse.
  • We are often told not to dwell in the past, as it can’t be changed.
  • I’ve generally not seen any value in it. I’m tend not to be very sentimental, sometimes to a fault.

This seemed to be okay, especially with the new trend of being mindful, being in the moment, being present.

I’ve also never thought much about the future. I’m not sure why not, I guess just not wired that way. My lens into the future was about 3-6 months; I’ve tended to be rather spontaneous, letting life take me where it takes me.

But I’ve always felt a bit adrift, unable to ‘find’ myself, unsure of who I really was, what I should set out to do with my life. And as cerebral as I am, that’s kind of dangerous. I would overthink my way into any one of many directions, broad and deep, without ever gaining any clarity.

In recent years there is growing encouragement to find your passion, that you can accomplish anything you want as long as you are clear with your vision and focus on that one big thing. Accomplishment, productivity, excellence is all within reach, but it depends on you getting really crisp on your purpose.

There are many books and podcasts that emphasize this as the critical first step to accomplishing anything you want  – first, they say, you need a vision.

But how do you get that vision? That’s the tough part and I’ve struggled with finding helpful advice just how to find it and define it. It’s more than just listing what you are good at.

I’m an avid listener of life-hacking podcasts and was happy to come across an episode of The Life-Optimized Show that addressed exactly my need and offered an intriguing solution – look at your past. In fact, don’t just look at it, but really dig into it, really understand it. Understand your story.

Your story, explains Shawn Phelps, is a powerful tool in guiding you to your vision. Your story defines you and provides clues to who you really are, what you really want to and can become.

Your story is a signal; with it’s highlights and lowlights it illuminates your potential super powers and offers clear markers as to where it your life journey can take you. It’s your map.

That same day I started looking back on my history and I realized that my 20 year old self had the same questions, interests and drives as my 40 year old self, and maybe I should take a closer look at those questions and interests and take them a bit more seriously, because obviously they aren’t going away. Maybe that vision has been there all along, I’ve just ignored it because I got caught up with signals from others, instead of from myself.

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I’m excited now to take the time to tell the story, and listen to myself tell the story; to understand the Setting and the Turning Points, and then own the Character Arc – that direction that I can go in as a result of what I’ve learned, the mistakes I’ve made, the adventures I’ve have had.  It’s my story; going along with that story will take me where I’m supposed to go; if I look at the story line, the vision will become clear, and my future road map and journey line will be apparent.