Reading Roundup 2: More Life Lessons from 2018
At long last, a follow-up to my reading roundup from 2018: a collection of insights and a-ha moments gathered from books, audiobooks, ebooks, podcasts, and even Instagram. Here are a few more of the big ideas that have had an impact on me over the past year.
6. My Voice Matters Too
For far too long, I have operated under the assumption that my art and creativity must be wholly original. But that’s impossible, and thinking this way only discourages me from trying. In his tiny but powerful book, Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon offers the antidote to this kind of thinking. I loved this quote he shared by Andre Gide: “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
Sure, it’s all been said before, but I shouldn’t let that stop me from saying it again, MY way. No one else who has ever lived has my exact combination of experiences and perspectives. No one else has my exact same reach. And the same is true for you.
So just begin, wherever you are. Begin by mimicking someone else’s work, and try to put your own spin on it. We all learn by copying; that’s how we acquire new skills as infants, and forever after that. Even the Beatles started out as a cover band. As Salvador Dali said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” (Which is, ahem, exactly where I was—producing nothing.) When we try to imitate those we admire, we will inevitably fall short. It is in the falling short that we find our own voice, approach, and style. As Kleon writes, “A wonderful flaw about human beings is that we’re incapable of making perfect copies. Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives. That is how we evolve.”
This entire concept was beautifully reinforced by a podcast episode, “Why it doesn’t matter that other people are doing what you want to do,” from The Alison Show, whose refreshing exuberance and honesty never fails to lift my soul. Yes, other people are already doing what I want to do (write children’s books), and many of them are doing it much better than I am, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for my voice too.
7. My Body is an Instrument, Not an Ornament
When I stumbled across the @BeautyRedefined Instagram account (run by identical twins with identical PhD’s, Lexie and Lindsay Kite), I found my ideological home when it comes to beauty and body image. I love the body positivity movement that (finally) celebrates that all bodies don’t have to fit one narrow, trendy ideal. After all, trends change, and it’s just the luck of the draw whether you were born with the body type currently in fashion (from Twiggy to Cindy Crawford to Britney Spears to Kim Kardashian). Many of us spend our lives and our sanity chasing an impossible (for us) ideal.
But Beauty Redefined takes body positivity a step further, arguing not just that all bodies are beautiful, but that bodies don’t have to be beautiful to be valuable. Their slogan is, “My body is an instrument, not an ornament.” Their TED Talk is life-changing. When I combined their message with other reading this year, including Intuitive Eating and No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, I can’t tell you how much more free I feel. Free to love my body as it is, right now. Free to appreciate what my body allows me to do rather than obsess over how it looks. Free to never go on another diet as long as I live and instead tune in to what my body tells me it needs for fuel. Free to engage in exercise that I enjoy and not engage exercise that I hate. Free to never do another burpee ever again.
The goal, for me, of putting myself through torturous diet and workout regimens has always been to be happier with myself and my body. But I always made that conditional. (“I can be happy with my body after I’ve lost XX pounds.”) But guess what? I can ALSO choose to be happy in my body exactly as it is, and skip the torture. I’ve found that losing weight has never erased my fixation on my flaws. “Oh,” I’d discover, “I’m the same shape, with the same jiggly bits, just a slightly smaller version of that same shape.” My life and personality and confidence didn’t completely transform, as I subconsciously expected. And funny enough, the more I focus on “fixing” my body, the more flaws I find. In contrast, when I decide to be happy with my body right now, the more motivated I am to take good care of it, because I want to, not because I feel shamed into it. My new mindset hasn’t and won’t lead to a drastic physical transformation, but it has led to a drastic emotional transformation. As a result, I’m genuinely more excited about getting out and moving my body, practicing yoga almost every day, and eating a wider variety of healthful foods.
And then, with all of this swirling around in my mind, I also encountered perhaps my favorite character in all of fiction: Grandma Dowdle from Richard Peck’s A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder. Grandma Dowdle does not possess much in the way of worldly beauty. She’s not thin. She’s not fashionable. But she is fierce, capable, courageous, hilarious, wise, and utterly memorable. I dare you to read those books and not fall in love with her. She is the embodiment of another favorite book, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Dr. Brene Brown. “True belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are,” Brown writes. True belonging means belonging wholly to ourselves, not to some elusive societal ideal.
8. Act Out Your Values
“If the things we believe in are different than the things we do, there can be no true happiness.”—Dana Telford
We’re not here merely to learn values intellectually and didactically but to act them out in the world. The things we believe matter much less than the things we do. Or rather, true belief will manifest itself in the actions we take—or fail to take. As a person who tends to overthink and ruminate, I need this reminder to take action.
In her book The 5-Second Rule, motivational speaker Mel Robbins offers a handy mental trick we can use to make things happen. She says that any time you have an impulse that aligns with your values, you need to act on it almost immediately, or your brain will kill it. (“Should I really do that?” “What will people think?” “No, this is stupid.”) This is certainly true for me. Robbins suggests doing a mental countdown (5-4-3-2-1) and then taking some physical step in the direction of that impulse—even simply springing to your feet the moment you hit “one.” Sometimes I even add “blast off” to the end of my mental countdown, for a bit of extra oomph. ;) This engages the prefrontal cortex and pushes us into our higher brain before we can let fear/doubt/indecision take hold.
Maybe you have an urge to speak up in a meeting, to approach someone you admire at a conference, or to do something kind for a friend in need…if it aligns with your values, just 5-4-3-2-1 and take action. This has been a game changer, and I haven’t yet regretted following through on an impulse in this way. And, because important life lessons always show up over and over again, the concept was of course reinforced by a quote shared one Sunday at church: “Never suppress a generous thought.” I love that. But again, loving the sentiment doesn’t help me. I have to find a way to act on the belief that generous thoughts should not be suppressed, and the 5-second rule has been the perfect tool for the job.
The connection between belief and action was a central theme in another great book I read this past year: 12 Rules for Life by Dr. Jordan Peterson. “You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act,” he writes. Peterson isn’t religious per se, but he says he lives his life as though God exists, which is certainly one form of faith. As a woman of faith myself, I am fascinated by Peterson’s academic/archetypal reading of the Bible. He digs deeply into what the stories and parables reveal about fundamental human nature. Why have these stories persisted? And what mythological/archetypal stories will our wider culture rely on for passing values on to our children, as secularization marches on? After all, stories are always the best teachers, especially for children. Peterson writes: “The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time. Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.” And you don’t have to believe the Bible is a product of heavenly inspiration (although I personally do) to find ancient wisdom and enduring light within its pages—and plenty of encouragement to “go and do thou likewise,” as Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
9. So THAT’S Why People Like Poetry!
For my final life lesson from my year of reading, I have to mention my newfound appreciation for poetry. I’ve always fancied myself as a person who was far too practical for modern poetry. I never understood the point of obscuring your meaning and then daring other people to figure it out. If you have something to say, why not just say it? And I’m still not overly fond of poetry that seems to be deliberately opaque. But when my friend Laurieann, who once shared my anti-poetry sentiments, enthusiastically recommended the work of Billy Collins, I decided to give it a try. It didn’t hurt that she described him as “Shel Silverstein for adults.” And she was not wrong. As part of my five daily practices for 2018, I read one poem out of Aimless Love every day, and it was invariably the most delicious part of my morning. Collins’ poetry is accessible and clear, always with at least one apparent meaning, plus more depth to discover the more you ponder. I laughed out loud, I teared up unexpectedly, and I often closed the book with a sense of awe or wonder. It was truly a delight.
When those poems ran out, I moved on to Mother’s Milk, a tiny collection of poems from a woman who shares my faith background, Rachel Hunt Steenblik. Her poems felt both achingly familiar and startlingly new. The book was a gift from a dear friend, and it was perfect for the months I was cocooning with my newborn. After that, I moved on to Where the Sidewalk Ends by the aforementioned Silverstein. As it turns out, a poem a day keeps banality at bay. Who knew? (Apparently, everyone but me. But I get it now.)
And this, folks, is why I read. The ability to enter another person’s mind, and dwell there for a time. The opportunity to add one more small piece to the puzzle of life, as it continues to unfold in all of its mystery and magic. The deepening connection I feel to other people, to the ideas they share, and to the pursuit of truth itself, with every turn of every page.
p.s. Don’t miss my first six life lessons, in this previous post.