To Read: Peak

To Read: Peak

Photo credit: Eric Kilby on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

The Work at Hand

It’s the middle of April, and I’m behind on my Camp NaNo page count goal. Way behind. But I’ve still been busy reading, writing, brainstorming, and doing other things–like eating regular meals that I actually cooked (more often than in the past)–to fuel my progress. It’s the peak of the month’s mountain, but I have yet to reach my peak, and that’s okay. I’m making progress, and I get back on the horse and ride, every day.

Effort is a healthy portion of success, along with setting goals to focus those efforts, which I’ve done. And based on past experience with month-long writing marathons, I know I can catch up, but also that if I don’t, I’ll keep writing next month, and the month after that. The will and the ways are here. There’s forward motion. And I’m attending our helpful, weekly local write-ins and word sprints.

In those word sprints, I get words down on the page in large quantities. I’ve had practice at it, and I know how to turn on the juice. I have a sense of purpose, several projects I’m rotating through, and reliable writing tools at hand.

In other words, being behind on my established schedule toward my goal means very little in the grand scheme. With the help of Camp, I’ve set the goal in the first place and made more headway than I would have without it. I’m learning to keep reaching and keep thinking positively because of these events. With more opportunities like these, I’ll get better and better as I practice the habits.

Choosing Your Thoughts and Influences

While engaged in writing projects, I frequently come across sources that affirm the worth of pursuing them. This period has brought several.

When we aspire, when we strive to attain our ambitions, sometimes fear and doubt get in the way. Anyone with an ounce of humility has experienced some form of these triggers and, as a result, paused or even gave up on a goal. Writers and artists, perhaps more than many types of professionals, can experience the dreaded, more acute form of this fear and doubt, called “impostor syndrome.” I’m just not good enough. I’m not a real writer. No one will ever read my work. Etc. The Internal Critics Committee.

This condition is often based on the commonly held cultural belief that if you don’t start with great talent, your chances of success diminish. This idea, as it turns out, is far from true.

There are many ways to the top of a career. In all but the rarest of cases, no one keeps climbing or stays on top with only one factor on board every time, however convenient it might be to believe cynically in the ultimate power of one factor: genetics, age, race, sex, class, health, creed, nation, ethnicity, immigrant status, talent, education level, job title, confidence, charm, luck, physical beauty, notoriety, intelligence, inheritance, nepotism, ruthlessness, absolute shamelessness, and so on. If only I’d been smarter, richer, prettier, whiter, taller, male, etc., . . . then I would have succeeded.

Such views oversimplify life’s complexity, ignoring other areas of privilege that offset perceived deficiencies and drowning individuals in a sea of wasteful excuses and needless handicaps. Besides, it’s almost always quite unnecessary to be at the very top. (See my numerous posts on perfectionism.)

Equally important is the understanding that, in all but the rarest of cases, it also takes more than one factor or event to seal one’s fate in permanent failure. Life offers lots of chances, but we need to have faith and hope in the next day, in ourselves, and in each other, to be open to recognizing opportunities and potential, and to be resilient enough to keep trying. We have to be brave enough to trust and humble enough to seek help when needed. We must blend patience with persistence.

We also need to let go of false ambitions, of goals imposed from the outside, of the unrealistic definition of success and this limited, and limiting, sense of its requirements. We need a growth, instead of a fixed, mindset. Once we choose better ways of thinking and better thoughts, our lives are freer to climb out of the pit of stagnating cynicism.

Sooner or later, you either decide to stop being crippled by jealousy, frustration, misfortune, failure, or learned helplessness, and really focus on your own work, or you resign yourself to settling, whether admittedly or not. If we let it, adversity strengthens, failure teaches, and bouncing back rewards us. You get on with it, or you get nowhere.

So, really, I guess you could say there are some “requirements” for success, all otherwise known as “attitude” and “character.” And a little passion doesn’t hurt.

An Open Mind, a Willing Heart

But I want to focus on the unique challenge in this cloud of misconceptions about talent, specifically. To earnest takers of a chance, who also face doubt and fear, the challenge is to open our minds to possibilities and, then, to the recently researched data and the conclusions reputable researchers have drawn about that data. The action I encourage is this:

Believe in your growth potential, at any age, based on the scientific fact that no skill is innate, or remains honed, but is learnable and masterable and requires practice to keep.

In other words, talent matters so much less than our culture claims or believes it does. Sure, starting with a gift helps, but “deliberate practice” matters far more. Diligence, discipline, study, exercise, repetition. The foundation of mastery is made less out of giftedness and privilege and more out of steady, persistent, purpose-driven, and wisely shaped (smarter not harder) work.

As an English teacher, my high school classroom approach and motto, the center of a teaching philosophy created as part of earning my masters in education, came down to this: “With effort, intelligence grows.” The idea is that intelligence, the dexterity of the mind, though the brain starts in a certain place, gets better through active study and interaction with the sources and instruments of knowledge and skill.

A Book to Read

This is why I find the book I just stumbled upon so compelling to buy and read. As with all humans, I like its central message because it speaks to my own belief. What’s more, based on a peek inside, the book promises to back up that belief with science in a convincing, readable way. And if I can use that resource to help myself or others succeed, then that’s what I intend to do.

In my online travels, first I was reading Jane Friedman’s writing and publishing blog, which led me to Barbara Baig’s website, which led me to the book in question. An excerpt from Baig’s book, Spellbinding Sentences: An Author’s Guide to Achieving Excellence and Captivating Readers, was posted as Spellbinding Sentences: 3 Qualities of Masterful Word Choice at JaneFriedman.com.

Barbara Baig’s home page at WhereWritersLearn.com refers to the principles behind her work, including mastery and deliberate practice, and recommends the source of those influences:

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. I read the introduction about Mozart and perfect pitch, liked the writing style, found it credible, insightful and fascinating, and made my decision. (Another stumbled-upon nugget!: Baig further samples and clarifies what Peak is about in another post on Jane Friedman’s site: If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better? In a word, no.)

Today, I add Peak to my Amazon cart and my Goodreads to-read list.

Another great resource focuses both on what it takes to become an expert and on how to make the most and best possible impact in your career: 80000hours.org.

Of course, Jane Friedman has other gems along the same lines, such as 5 Things More Important Than Talent, which I recommend reading and absorbing if you’ve ever even slightly teetered on the edge of developing impostor syndrome.

My mind is alert and exploring these days, which is to say, although I’m feeling a bit scattered, it is not without purpose and some good outcomes. I believe I’m making important connections, realizations, and choices in the process. Not all rabbit holes lack rabbits, after all.

And Back to Work

Keep writing, reading, doing, succeeding.


 

Culling the herd, an original poem

Here’s to a more contemplative, considered, measured Earth Day 2018 (on, around, or far from 4/21), as for all intended days of remembrance, tradition, action, and activism.

Here’s to an antidote to do-something-ism, the arrogance of action for the sake of acting without intelligent, careful thought, patience for information, debunking myths, withholding judgment, uncovering assumptions, probing conventional understanding, and placing a check on emotionalism. Certainty is impossible, but near-certainty must be earned, not used as an excuse or a form of denial beforehand.

Here’s to Earth, to people, to animals, to reason, and to love. To a balanced appetite for details and the big picture. To doubt, to questioning, to human rights, and never killing to punish. To you, if you’re with me on these–if you, too, would cull the herd mentality, whether it claims to come from truth, patriotism, freedom, control, justice, safety, mercy, love, or God.

And here’s a poem of sorts.

Culling the herd    © 2018, Carrie Tangenberg

Sometimes to love animal
 means to love human-animal balance,
 if love is a balanced act of
 compassion, reason, acceptance,
 for human is animal, too.

I couldn’t pull the trigger
 in everyday conditions,
 but I don’t begrudge the hunter,
 farmer, game warden, parks
 ranger, zoo keeper, veterinarian,
 wild survivor, adventurer, 
 conservationist, naturalist,
 lost traveller who may have to,
 want to.

Who am I to stop everything?
 Save everything? Or anything?
 Start something? What exactly and why?
 What is wisdom, wise action here?

Cull the herd, naturally.
 Cull the herd naturally.

What does it mean?
 What is natural? What unnatural?
 Where is the line between?
 And which herd will it be?
 And how?

Curiosity, discovery,
 fascination, wonder, awe,
 anxiety, annoyance, frustration,
 disgust, confusion, amusement,
 anger, sadness, startlement,
 fatigue, and sometimes fear—

These are the feelings
 of living among wild prey
 when one owns a dog
 and a yard with grass
 you don’t want dug up
 by any but yourself,
 and a house built on
 pavement ant pandemic.

But free will is never free,
 never without consequence.
 What if making a difference 
 means doing more harm than good?
 Did you know? Do you? Always? 
 Respect the what-if, at least.

I don’t get squeamish
 reading about creature
 death, butchery, predation,
 and harvesting for food,
 watching wild death
 on TV or the Web, or watching 
 vet shows, trauma, surgeries, 
 sorrows.

I would, I do not like to see
 blood up close, so bright,
 so red, so shiny, fresh, raw.

All it took was a clip
 of the quick on my dog’s
 left back toenail to
 send me into panic
 where I’m usually calm.

It wouldn’t stop bleeding.
 General Chaos conquered.
 It was Easter 2018.

Bleeding eventually stops,
 and so do breeding, foraging,
 fleeing, hiding, sleeping,
 mating, hunting, scavenging,
 migration, habitats, and life.

We can’t stop everything,
 but everything stops, even
 rivers, seas, forests, islands,
 valleys, mountains, plains,
 planets, stars, solar systems.

Even senses, motion, heart,
 brain, growth, and breath.

Even love, even faith, even hope,
 even panic, idiocy, evil, insanity,
 and this listing of word lists.

If this post or poem resonated with you, you may also enjoy:

Five-Phrase Friday (34): Earth Day, Every Day

Call of the Wild Poetry

Five-Phrase Friday (1): The Poetry Politic

Elyse

Our dog Elyse passed away this week. I remember her now, based on revisiting the post Dog Blog: Don’t. Move.

I tried hard not to move, but she moved me more than I had thought possible after I survived movements that helped make my body attack itself. That is, after trying my best to teach high school English and journalism full time for two years and falling short while becoming ill, even after a break, caring for a dog proved much more difficult than I had anticipated.

And so much the better. She showed me I wasn’t all washed up. The challenges she continuously threw our way we met to the best of our abilities, and she became my new full-time occupation. I’d like to think I was good at the job.

In consequence, the bond we developed became close and deep, as we spent every day, most of the day, together while Daddy earned our daily bread. The greatest challenge, perhaps, was to keep trying, to renew my patience, forgive the challenges she could not help but pummel us with in her layered conditions of disease and neurosis. The serenity of the pack leader is the only surety for keeping the pack together, functioning, balanced.

Keep calm and lick. She would do that as long as I kept coming home, feeding her, maintaining her medications dosing schedule, going through our routines, showing affection, asserting my leadership, providing limitations and not just pity for the sweet, sickly little dog. She respected me to a degree, listened to me more than to Daddy, but she could be stubborn, too.

And there were certainly moments where she didn’t trust me. After all, it was primarily I who wielded the wipes, the ear cleaner, the comb, the towels, the dental hygiene products, and other instruments of regular torture. I would lose my temper, lose my patience, show my flawed humanity when she failed to stay put or stop prancing around in panic while I worked upstairs, or when she soiled the floor yet again.

With all the medication, and her neglected and abandoned past, I knew it wasn’t her fault, so I restrained myself. But she could still feel my negative vibes and would cower, hesitate, fail to come to me. I was hardly her North Star.

Still, she surrendered to my love, returning calm, and gentle hand. I became an expert of sorts in many aspects of canine care, not least of which was dog massage. Neither side had any choice, really. She was at our mercy. We coddled, spoiled, and humanized her with the best of them. We showered our only child with more affection than she thought strictly necessary, I’m sure. But love won out in both directions.

All things end, and now is her life ended. Dearest Elyse–our first family dog, adopted as a rescued American Brittany on June 29, 2012, laid to rest February 8, 2016–we will move on, eventually. As the snow finally seals winter in, and layers over your fresh grave, the temperature drops with my motivation.

Binding us so tightly to her with all that need for constant care–as much a source of stress as companionship, an amazingly tiny package experiencing and bringing such frequent struggle–Elyse has been my whole world for more than 3 and a half years. We certainly gave it our all. It’s time to re-invent myself yet again.

Irony comes calling again. Just when I’d get up the urge to write or read or improve my home or health, her own health would waver and pull me back from myself. Now that I’m “free” of her needs, I can scarcely think, choose, or move.

Is balance, after all, sheer impossibility? I threw myself into full-time teaching, hardly sleeping, barely keeping up with grading and lesson planning, making myself ill from the chronic strain and stress, not having been used to work in such a way at such a pace in such a place. Basically, not having been challenged enough before that point. Then, after nursing the wounds from dismissal, and intending to get a healthy, active dog that would help me become healthier, I found myself thrown into another nearly impossible project–taking care of an ailing dog.

I was partly manipulated into it by the rescue organization (they unmistakably lied about her age and misrepresented the severity of her health problems), largely smitten by the sweet little creature herself, partly pressured by my spouse’s falling as much in love as I had in a few short days, and partly led by my determination to get right whatever I undertook.

Am I finally to learn how not to go overboard? Or, at least how to do so gainfully? Am I discounting the gotten gains? Can I find balance at last?

Or, is it disingenuous to ask for this? Do I really just want fame and money, and only persist in denying my vanity and greed in the vain hope that I’m a better person than I seem to be? Either way, it will come down to balance, if no other kind but that between seeking ultimate “success” and seeking a balance between career and personal life. I take everything so personally, so seriously, do I even know the difference between work and life? Did I ever? Is there such a stark distinction at all?

Cesar Millan, best known as The Dog Whisperer, has said we don’t get the dog we want; we get the dog we need. I’m still trying to figure out how that was the case with Elyse and me. What am I supposed to have learned? What am I to take a way from all this? What about her did I need? And was the need fulfilled?

I don’t know. I think it may take a while to figure out. Everything with me does, but right now, grief clouds the issue. I’ll let you know if light dawns.

Of course, I’m assuming the verity of a pat aphorism that may be bull, even though the man may indeed know dogs better than anyone. As I established in my Five-Phrase Friday post last week, what’s true for some may not be true for all.

What I know to be true is this: I loved that dog. It was not all in vain. We do learn from experience. We have great, rich memories of our time with her.

What a sweet, gentle, affectionate, adorable, quirky, beautiful little girl. She only ever barked in her sleep and, in her immune-compromised isolation, energetically loved meeting any new canine friends.

I’ll miss . . .

  • the sound of her long toe nails tapping as she trotted along the floor
  • the jingling shake of her collar tags
  • the oh-so-cozy softness of her fur coat and leg feathers
  • her clumsy goofiness
  • her insistent invasion of personal space
  • those Dumbo-like ears of submission
  • an eagerness to walk, sniff and mark
  • her unabashed excitement and joy to see us come home
  • her playful groan of a signal to go outside
  • the thrashing of animal toys
  • an obsessed tooth-and-claw attack of her Kong toy full of treat bits
  • a thrasher hairstyle with head hanging, fast asleep, off her bed’s edge
  • running in her sleep
  • the frustrating way she’d wipe her face on your legs to get rid of the oozing eye goop
  • her strength and resilience amidst 3 heart conditions, chronic coughing, painful arthritis episodes, blocked tear ducts, bad teeth, chronic shivering and shuddering, occasional choking on food, low blood sugar, isolated mystery ailments including seizures, limping, lost appetite, and reverse sneezing that would clear up inexplicably, bleeding toenails from quicks so close to the tip, being stepped on repeatedly, swallowing a frothy toad, freezing her paws in harsh winter, and stepping on a bee
  • her huntress alertness, bird stalking, squirrel obsession
  • the way she’d open her front paws and legs while lying down so we’d rub her fluffy chest
  • her yawns of sleepiness and confusion
  • the drollness of her growing directional deafness–2 feet behind her, called her, and she perked and ran towards the sound in the opposite direction
  • her long, slender, elegant pointer legs
  • those eyes, that nose, that tongue, and that nubbin!
  • her love of peas and apple sauce and traces of flavored yogurt and peanut butter and
  • . . . oh, so much more

I’ll miss being so constantly needed. I’ll miss my irreplaceable fur-baby and friend.

Rest in peace, pain free and joyful, baby girl.

A world of possibilities opens up before me now, and it’s ready for my forward movement. At some point, you get sick and tired of being sick and tired all the time—and do something productive. All hope is not lost.

Although I feel a little like Zaphod Beeblebrox when he failed to find the ultimate question–“Good stuff. I’ll just go find something else for my whole life to be about.”–I’m still hopeful that the best is yet to come, yet to be made and discovered. I’ve been blessed repeatedly, given many chances to start over, and now, aided by my circumstances, I have yet another gift of choice.

I will do my best to embrace this new freedom, in keeping with my values, in honor of my loved ones–the living and the dead. I’ll take responsibility for my life and health, not only to do but to be.

Life goes on, and the search continues.