The Courage Project

June 16, 2011 § 3 Comments

The Courage Project is public engagement project  exploring the relationship between our fears and our dreams, and the pursuit of happiness.  As part of my own personal exploration, this blog is a space for me to write about my thoughts and ideas around expectations, courage, successes, failures and the stuff of navigating life.

This interview was filmed by Hawert Jorna for Concordia TV.

You can contact me at:  thecourageproject@gmail.com

Making space for failure

January 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

In collaboration with the Montreal Healing Arts Network, this workshop will be happening this Sunday, February 5th in the Mile End.  Hope you can make it!

http://www.mtlhealingarts.org/mhac-event/public-workshop-fail-better-fail-together-making-space-for-failure/

A part of something

December 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Insomnia.  My teeth hurt.  My legs feel restless.  Christmas, you do it to me every time.  I like the idea of Christmas, but every year at this time I feel disjointed, not right.  I usually go home to spend Christmas with my family.  Sometimes I bring my best friend with me, who gets really stoked about stockings.  I like having her there, but this year she’s not coming with me.  I have found Christmas in Montreal to be especially trying.  People clear out of this city during the holidays.  By December 22nd folks are gone, scattered across the country, visiting families, friends.

Last year, I stayed in town for Christmas.  My family was in the Caribbean, and I decided to stay here and try out the holidays with friends.  It was lovely, but at the same time, I was stressed.  I was in a terminal relationship, and was feeling very hurt.   My friends were scattered about, and what I wanted more than anything else was for all of us to be together.  I did a lot of nice things, with a lot of my favourite people, but despite all my planning and hand-wringing (or perhaps because of it), I did not get what I wanted.  It also became clear that all I have ever wanted for Christmas was a community.

Something about being in this city for the holidays reminds me of high school.  I have many friends here, but they are a fragmented group of people, all doing their own things.  Montreal seems like a place that people eventually leave.  Many of my dearest friends are flung to the farthest corners of this country now, and it is unlikely that we will all be together at the same time again.  I miss them a lot.

Part of what compelled me to start the Courage Project was the feeling that I needed to be a part of something.  To reach out to my community, and feel connected to others.  To build the community that I have been searching for.  I have met so many wonderful people through this project, so to that end, it has been a success.  I have also not met most of the people who have interacted with this project, and somehow, they are also now part of my community.

This little documentary was made about urban interventions in the Mile End.  There are lots of us out there leaving messages for others.  It’s a good reminder that we are all together, alone; and we are all reaching out to each other, in different and sometimes anonymous ways.  Next time I’m feeling the absence of community, I’ll just take a walk around the Mile End and try to remember that we are all a part of something, if we just relax and open our eyes to it.

Life is busy

November 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s been a month since I last posted on this blog, and I had not intended to take so much time away from writing.  I want this to be “stay tuned” message, because there really is more to come.

I’ll be giving a talk at the Foreman Art Gallery @ Bishop’s University on Thursday, December 1st.  Here is the press release for that:

I believe the event will be podcasted, so I will of course post that here.  Later, I plan to write about my experiences with Gestalt and why it has become important for me to learn how my body works.  I also plan to write a short piece about writing, expectations, what to do with failure, and how losing sight of the big picture is what keeps us from moving forward.

Can we find success in failure?

October 25, 2011 § 5 Comments

This is the text of a talk I gave recently at the University of the Streets Café.  It was a well-attended evening full of very stimulating and honest discussion about what it means to fail and succeed and how we might reconfigure these ideas to arrive at a gentler, less meritocratic vision of our self-worth.

I am in the midst of a career crisis.  It ebbs and flows, but the seriousness of it generally hits me mid-week.  Around that time, I start doing broad google searches for careers in “public education” or “community programming”, hoping to find a description of a job that seems right for me.  Usually, I find myself searching the job sites for almost anything, pretty much anywhere.  The job itself doesn’t even need to exist –  just the idea of it would be enough for me.  Maybe this has happened to you – a strong dissatisfaction with your trajectory and a feeling that you should be doing something else.  Maybe the idea of transitioning your career into something new and unknown is exciting, an opportunity.  Or maybe, it’s terrifying and laced with feelings of disappointment and shame that you’re not “where you’re supposed to be” in the ordinary career timeline.  Depending on the day of the week, I tend to experience both of these feelings.  Recently, I have begun noticing how much of my identity has become wrapped up in this career crisis.  I notice that the crisis becomes most acute when I meet someone new – at a party or even an event like this one – and they ask me that dreaded cocktail party question (you know the one):  What do you do?

My present job is time-limited.  When my post-doctoral fellowship ends, so does my career in this field.  What I do right now, and what I will be doing in 6 months are two very different things.  Right now, my response to the question “what do you do?” situates me quite highly in our meritocratic social hierarchy.  My response in 6 months might situate me otherwise.  And that places me in a tight spot – how I respond to the question of “what I do” might signal to folks whether I “have it together” whether I’m interesting to talk to, or whether they should go and top up their drink.  How I respond to that question really only provides information on a very small part of who I am, but it seems to be such a big way of assessing whether and to what degree a person is “successful”.  The desire to change directions from a well-established trajectory sometimes also raises eyebrows.  When I tell people that I’m thinking of changing fields a common response is:  How can you get so far and then decide that you don’t like it?  or Why did you bother doing all that schooling only to quit?  My answer is always:  I don’t know.  It just doesn’t feel right.    But I never would have arrived at this point of questioning whether or not my current trajectory in life “feels right” if I hadn’t experienced a big setback, or what we might call:  a failure.

A year and a half ago, I was on a well-defined career path, I had just finished my dissertation, I received a prestigious grant to do research in my field, and I had just fallen in love with someone I finally thought could be “the one”.  Things were going along quite smoothly until I hit a major bump in that path.  This bump led to a medical leave of absence from my post-doc and a corresponding withdrawal from everything I loved at the expense of my mental health, a few friendships, and ultimately the relationship I was in.  Looking back on that whole experience, I realize that I had never properly failed at anything before, and had quite easily sailed through most of my career until then.  I did not have the tools to deal with failure, and I allowed it to take a very serious toll on my mental well-being.

We live in an era where those of us with a great deal of privilege have very high expectations for what we can (or are supposed to) achieve over the course of our lifetime.  Many of us are told, repeatedly, that we can do anything we want.  Recently, following the death of Steve Jobs, I continually noticed internet memes quoting words from his (now famous) commencement speech where he urges that: the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.  As though we all have the privilege to keep looking, or to even always do what we love.  One that rather irked me in particular was this:  “Steve Jobs:  Born out of wedlock; put up for adoption at birth; dropped out of college; THEN CHANGED THE WORLD.  What’s your excuse?” What bothered me about this was not simply an ignorance of his other inborn privileges, it was this idea that any one of us has as much likelihood of being Steve Jobs as Steve Jobs did.  In fact, it is very unlikely that any of us will have the kind of monetary success and fame that Steve Jobs did, but we are often made to feel that if we “try really hard” we too can achieve that kind of success.  And if we don’t, “what’s our excuse”?

So what’s the problem with telling folks to try really hard, or that anyone can be Steve Jobs?  The trouble, I believe is the meritocratic notion that all we have to do to achieve monumental success is to work very hard.  And that if we haven’t found success, we just haven’t worked hard enough.  Success is up to us, and if we don’t find it (in the the way that we have constructed success) then failure is ours to own as well.  The problem with a society that tells it self that its people can do anything is the resulting idea that our position in society is earned and deserved.  So if we fail, it’s because we deserved to – which is a rather crushing blow.

It’s not that I think there’s anything inherently bad about encouraging people to achieve their dreams.  I’m actually pretty big on encouragement.  But I think it’s more important to encourage people to have the courage to be ordinary, to enjoy the people around them, to enjoy doing what they do as much as they can in the social structures that permit us to do this.  This of course brings up the age-old question:  What do we mean by success?  What does a successful person look like? And is it sufficient to say “as long as you’re happy, you’re successful”  – because what brings us happiness in life is also often fulfillment and success in our careers.  So, what is this thing, success, how have we learned to define it, and how might we go about re-defining it?

And what about failure?  How do we learn to fear failure? When we’re kids, we fail a lot, but we often don’t regard those learning experiences as “failures”.  Small things like working out riffs on a keyboard or a guitar, or solving mathematical puzzles are things we might fail at several times before we succeed, and we regard this as part of the ‘creative process’.  Maybe our first experience with failure is with testing – it starts in school.  In that kind of an environment, we have no choice but to situate ourselves in a failure/success binary.  That’s where we begin to learn that failure is bad, and to be avoided.  We then begin extend this language to our personal lives – many of us have had failed relationships or even failed marriages.  We begin to situate everything that we do in this binary of success or failure.

One of this reasons for this might be that there is a tendency to look at every endeavour as working towards a final product.  Or relationships as a journey towards a clearly defined point:  marriage often, or children maybe.   The designer Bruce Mau encourages folks to move away from this product-oriented paradigm to one that is process-oriented.  You know that saying that “it’s the journey not the destination that matters”?  Mau suggests that there is no greater moment for change than the opportunity of failure.  He recommends that we “allow ourselves the fun of failure every day”.  If we regard every endeavour – be it a task, a degree, a relationship – as a process rather than steps toward a product, can we instead see failure as just another step in a series of movements towards personal and professional growth, instead of a deficiency, a weakness, or a defeat?

And what if failure is an opportunity?  What if having your worst fear realized actually becomes liberating?  Maybe you’ve heard JK Rowling’s story.  She famously described herself in her post-graduate years as a categorical failure.  Hitting rock bottom, as she called it, gave her a chance to “strip away the inessential.”  It provided her with a catalyst for change by allowing her to just do what she loved and stop pretending that she was anything other than herself.   You hear these stories all the time, but they all sound like a depressing way to get to where you want to be – is all of that suffering really necessary?  Well, maybe.

Apparently, there is empirical evidence that failure is actually GOOD for you.  Psychologist Carol Dweck out of Stanford University has collected evidence that failure, when viewed as a learning experience, or, as an opportunity for self-improvement, can actually build and strengthen new neural pathways in the brain.  Dweck noticed that there were essentially two different groups of people:  those who thought intelligence was fixed – wherein we have a finite capacity for learning; and those who have an expandable theory of intelligence, who thought that learning was an ever-evolving process.  Not surprisingly, the group for whom learning was a process of trial and error seemed to fear failure less.  She was even able to change the perspectives of those with fixed ideas of learning, and change their fear of failure.  Through exercises that presented small failures as important opportunities for growth – even for actual neuronal growth, students were able to “work wholeheartedly and not protect themselves against the possibility of a meaningful failure.

This brings me to my final point about failure and success.  And this is perhaps the most important point, and the reason why I think it is necessary for us to try to find success in failure, and that is the importance of vulnerability.   The first words of advice I received when I experienced my first significant failure was:  No one else needs to know about this.  I felt ashamed and woefully inadequate.  I felt unworthy of my position, all of the accolades I had received until then.  I felt like a fraud.  But once I leaned into that new reality, I discovered that I had been given an opportunity to learn something about myself.  I learned that I wasn’t being true to myself in the work I was doing.  I learned that it was going to be important to make a big change, even in the very scary face of an uncertain future.  I learned that it isn’t really important to have a clear answer to the cocktail party question, and that it’s OK for my response to be uncertain or unexpected.  I learned to be vulnerable to the criticism and confusion I would face, and I learned that doing all of that would make me feel like a more whole person, instead of someone who is always protecting myself from the possibility of failure.  That is something that failure has given me.  I haven’t found success in failure, but I have found a new way of being and moving forward, that feels a little more authentic.  And perhaps that’s how we can start to define what we consider to be “a success”.
Inspiration for this talk came from a variety of sources including:

Brene Brown

Alain de Botton

Marisa Taylor

A story on my little project…

September 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Check out this story in today’s issue of The Concordian.

Article in The Concordian

Encouragement Exchange

September 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

What came to be known as the Encouragement Exchange was a huge success.  Thanks to everyone who came out – it was so nice to see your faces on such a lovely sunny day!

At least 80 people exchanged encouraging messages, I got to practice my French a lot, and there were even exciting collaboration proposals from some very interesting new friends.

Check out the photos here:

Encouragement Exchange Flickr

The base hit

September 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

At the top of the last inning of our last softball game of the playoffs, we were down 12-4, and I was first at bat.  It was a drag.  We knew we would lose, but we didn’t want to be creamed.  We needed runners on base and a big hit.  I did not want to rack up our first out for the inning, and I am not a strong batter.  The pitcher lobbed me a soft ball with a nice arc and I hit it just past her and just past second base.  The ball made its way over to first base, but I outran it by a hair.  When the ump called me safe, our team let out a huge cheer.  It was an encouraging first play in a disappointing game for our team.  I felt pretty good, until I was tagged out at third in a subsequent play.  When I returned to our bench, I got a string of high fives.  Of course we all high five each other for every little success.  My favourite words of encouragement at games were “way to make contact!” – even if the batter fouled the ball. And I meant it every time.  I really did. However, even though I had started us with a solid first play, and our team were grateful and supportive, I felt discouraged.  But at the end of the game (we got creamed) when we all lined up to shake hands with the other team, at least 5 of their members said to me “nice hit!”.  After that, my spirits were lifted.  Why did it take recognition from the other team for me to feel encouraged, when my team was being so supportive all along?

Recently, I asked friends to share with me their ideas about encouragement – what does success and failure mean to them, and when have they felt the most encouraged?  Many of the responses seemed to echo my sentiments about the base hit.  It seems that encouragement is welcome and desired by all of us, but many of us do not take the time to really let those words sink in, or to pay attention to how they make us feel.  Even others suggested that encouraging words in and of themselves don’t have as much meaning as careful listening, asking questions about ideas or offering direction.

As I write this, I recall reading an article in the NYT that chronicled the piecing together of DFW’s notes for his posthumous novel The Pale King.  In the article, the author describes a particular kitten-adorned notebook inside which:

were pages and pages of notes and drafts in Wallace’s tiny, spidery handwriting. A ledger contained some pasted-in notebook pages, several of them decorated with small smiley-face stickers, little signs of encouragement that the author had apparently awarded himself, impersonating a grammar-school teacher.

This is exactly the kind of confusion I would expect DFW to make of his writing.   Of course it is unclear if he is actually trying to encourage himself, or if he is just taking the piss. I believe either (and probably both) could be true.  Was he pointing to the ubiquity of the grammar-school stars and smiley-faces that we all sought after and then eventually became accustomed to, and finally desensitized to?  Or was he really looking to highlight a piece of work that he actually thought was good?   That’s the thing about words of encouragement –  unless the receiver is willing to hear the words, they risk sounding trite, easily dismissed, and when we begin to dismiss those words of encouragement, is it a cause or an effect of our own self-doubt?  What happens when we start playing this encouragement game with ourselves is probably a whole other story – one that involves all that stuff about negative self-talk, imposter syndrome and feelings of fraudulence.  I think this is important, because if we can’t be encouraging to ourselves, then how will we ever accept encouragement from others?  Perhaps this struggle is what DFW was playing out in his kitten notebooks – hard to say.

And but so, this was my problem with the base hit.  I wasn’t really listening to those words from my teammates because I knew that they would support me even if I struck out. So, I saw my play as just another unsuccessful bid for home, rather than a spirit-lifting hit at a time when we needed bodies on bases. And that is too bad, because encouraging each other is what being in a team, and more generally living with others is all about.  It is part of being aware of the presence of others, and paying attention to what they are doing, and especially to what they are saying.  It’s about listening to how their words make you feel, and being sure to feel their words and not letting them pass by.  We also need to applaud each others’ efforts, acknowledge successes no matter how small, and encourage pursuits no matter how lofty.

I’ll be giving out Free Encouragement this weekend at the Journee des bons voisins on St-Viateur Ouest this coming Sunday, September 18th.  Feel free to come by and take some encouragement or leave some for others.

 

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