By Julie Benezet:

With holidays come interesting dynamics. Many years ago, I lived in a New York Chelsea neighborhood loft. In the middle of said loft sat a fancy, schmancy, over-the-top Garland range. Why we had such an elaborate stove is beyond me. As proper Manhattanites, we almost always ate out, but the ostentatious stove provided a trendy centerpiece.

We made an exception to restaurant eating for Thanksgiving, inviting my father to join us. My husband took charge of the cooking. He revered that stove. However, neither he or I had ever used the oven before. The fateful moment came when he twisted the knob to light it. The oven remained cold and silent.  My husband, the engineer, and father, the consummate intellectual who could barely operate a toaster, gritted their teeth and got to work. They grumbled, mumbled, removed the stove top, dug around for manuals, etc. After a painful hour and no progress, we decided to cut apart the turkey and fry it. Ugh.

Well, just before launching this draconian solution, something propelled me to lean over and peer under the stove into the three-inch space between the stove bottom and the floor.  There, shining from the gloom of the dark space, a bright red button labeled “Re-set” stared back at me, as if to say, “I dare you to push me.”

Well, I did.  With a roar, the oven burners erupted into full flame. Thanksgiving dinner happened, with a whole, intact turkey and all the trimmings.

Another Holiday:  The Personal Cost of Chaos

man sitting on railroad tracks

Fast forward many years to another holiday season.

It goes without saying that the jagged and chaotic political scene of the last two years has challenged us all. To pass the day vaulting from news clip to news clip looking for answers can consume a lot of quality time. We arrive at end of the year . . . exhausted. Across the country, the counseling industry thrives. The chaos has taken a personal toll on many people.

I noticed during the rounds of last month’s holiday parties, a pervasive theme of hand wringing.  Friends who normally took charge of their lives apologized for their preoccupation with our insane political environment.  More important, the constant distraction had bled into time and energy normally directed toward productive pursuits. Several of them confessed to feelings of inertia and self-consciousness about being stuck in place.

It’s understandable.  Many years ago, Martin Seligman conducted a series of now famous experiments on learned helplessness. Using both animals and humans, Seligman discovered that when he placed his subjects into a situation from which they could not find an escape, they eventually stopped trying. The result was apathy and depression. The craziness of the national scene has caused a feeling of helplessness among many. It is compounded by the intensity of the internet age which, with or without politics, also has had a stymying impact. There is too much information to parse and use to move forward.

Five Steps to Re-Set

I can’t fix the political scene. It will evolve and go wherever it will go, with and without our help. I also can’t slow down the internet. However, I can speak to breaking out of inertia and re-setting yourself to fire back up a productive life.  Here are five steps to re-set your personal engine.

1. Choose a Starting Point: To get your ideas flowing, start with one thing that would make life better for you. I’m not talking about that overdue trip to the gym or writing a thank you note. Rather, something that improves a situation and raises the bar.  Like the re-set button, it is there in plain sight if you are willing to look.

Choose something in your life that bothers you and at the same time have been avoiding. One way to zero in on a good idea would be to ask yourself some tough questions along the lines of the examples below.

They begin, “Is it time to. . .”

  • Start that difficult conversation with your business partner about replacing his anemically performing pet project with an income producing one that more closely matches your customer demands?
  • Talk with your competitive and tight-fisted older brother about funding a promising pilot project for your business?
  • Discuss with your spouse the possibility of dropping coaching of your son’s Little League team to allow you to pursue an MBA at night school?
  • Ask your conservative boss what it would take to invent a new position for you that addresses your strengths and an emerging company need?

However nervous these potential conversations make you feel, write down your idea for making things better and go to Step 2.

2. Drain the Excuses Swamp: Imagining the conversations above, and many other potentially challenging encounters, may incline you to swing into a litany of excuses for not acting. They go something like this:

  • Oh, that idea never will never work. If it did, someone would have done it by now.
  • People will laugh, or think less of me
  • It will take too much time and energy, not to mention money.
  • It could cost me my job.
  • What if it works? Then what do I do?

There are many other examples (See linked list). What is important is to own those feelings and the consequences of inaction (a feeling of inertia, for example). By doing nothing you perpetuate the problem, because you don’t know enough to solve it. Your mission is to break your personal logjam of excuses by venturing out to learn from others what you need to crystallize and try out your idea.

feet above the ground

3. Plug your nose and go: With the excuses swamp drained, it’s time to jump in and launch the discovery phase.  Make an initial list of the people whose information and/or buy-in you need. Schedule the first investigative conversation.

Begin with someone with whom you feel relatively comfortable. For example, if you want to invent a new job, start with a trusted friend who works in Human Resources at another company. Ask her how new positions are created and her suggestions as to how you might go about it.

When you start your conversations, be prepared for emotional reactions. You are inquiring about topics others also might have avoided. Opinions will vary. Fear, doubt, and cynicism may abound, and the process will be uncomfortable. The important thing is to ask the hard questions, hear what others have to say, and make decisions based on the best information you (and others) can glean.

4. Chart Your Progress: Successful projects need the rigor of tracking. It organizes the effort and anchors your intentions. In whatever portable modality you prefer (laptop, iPad, notebook, smart phone,…), create a list of your planned actions with names and dates. Include space to annotate items as you take each action with what you learned, and any adjustments it inspired. Don’t hesitate to draw flow charts and doodles. The key is to keep the initiative real and alive for you.

Carry your list everywhere to record progress and spontaneous thoughts. Share it with trusted friends or advisors for further ideas and motivation.

5. Keep your eye on the prize: There is no doubt about it, shaking loose from a state of stasis and shifting into gear is hard. A state of stasis can feel familiar and comfortable. It also can be unproductive, but you get used to it. Maybe. My experience has been that underneath the calm lies the need to find meaning in life. Big or small, as Viktor Frankl said many years ago, we all need a purpose for everything we do.

Remembering why you want to promote a new idea will help you to re-set, push past your defenses, and travel to a better place.

The Journey of Not Knowing books

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