I used to describe my life as a train, endlessly circling around the same track as I attempted to learn life’s most valuable lessons: be patient, kind, honest, compassionate, hard working, mindful, and fully present. At times my train would speed around that track at terminal velocity, whipsawing me from one lesson to another so rapidly I feared I might derail completely. Other times my train would meander at a leisurely pace, the periods between one lesson and another refreshingly protracted.
But always I felt trapped in a loop, never really making forward progress so much as circling around the same issues over, and over, and over again—a dog chasing it’s tail in perpetuity.
These past few weeks have been a perfect example.
It began with advice. Feeling uncertain (i.e. wildly insecure) about the whole book-writing project, I did what I typically do when faced with a situation outside my expertise: research. In this case, that meant looking up things like how to write a book, how to build a social media platform, and how to break into the publishing world. But unlike the old days when research consisted of Encyclopedia Britannica and a trip to the library, now the Internet provides a veritable flood of information.
Do a quick Google search on how to write a book and no less than 344,000,000 results come up. That’s MILLIONS, with an M. (Dewey Decimal would be so freaked out.)
And the real kicker: a majority of those 344,000,000 results offer valuable, insightful, and wise advice. Meaning I would be a fool to ignore it, right?
Never wanting to play the fool, I did my best to absorb the deluge, implementing as much as I could possibly manage and then flogging myself with outrageously high expectations of perfection and success because, yeah, that’s just what I do.
Which is where we return to the train analogy, because this is not the first time my track has circled around to the implementation of advice from others.
In the infamous Dog Whisperer Debacle of 2014, I determined I could raise the perfect canine companion by strictly adhering to Cesar Milan’s detailed puppy raising bible with slavish devotion. I memorized every word, carefully implemented each phase of instruction, and became utterly unglued whenever a family member failed to follow my instructions to the letter. The result? I was a wreck, the puppy was a disaster, my family wanted nothing to do with either of us, and I guiltily re-homed the little guy within 10 days because I knew I’d end up on Prozac (or worse) if I didn’t.
But I learned something from that epic failure and the next pup we brought home has turned out to be the closest thing to canine perfection I’ve ever had the privilege to share my life with. Why? Blind luck, certainly, but I also gained a wee bit of perspective that went something like this:
1) Cesar Milan is amazing
2) I am not Cesar Milan
3) Which means I must figure out how to take Mr. Milan’s advice and mix it with my own strengths and weaknesses to create a workable scenario for raising a well behaved canine
The result is Stimpy—whose name, just for the record, I did NOT pick—I voted for Hemingway but was soundly overruled. Sorry buddy, I tried.
But I digress.
It’s pretty clear from the puppy debacle I should have known better; should have known to take the advice of experts and mix it with a healthy dose of introspection before diving into the morass. Instead, I circled my little engine back around to the same piece of track and commenced to (understandably) suffer.
Instead of writing what I wanted to write, I tried to offer value, remain on topic, and provide solutions. Instead of writing from the heart, I tried to be strategic. Instead of building stronger relationships with the people I care about, I focused on building a platform—an overused buzzword if ever there was one.
The result? A complete loss of joy.
Whereas writing used to fill me with eager anticipation, it began to feel more like a dreaded chore, just one more thing on the endless to-do list, ranking somewhere between cleaning the chicken coop and pulling weeds. I became listless. The spark had fled—and why not? I wasn’t writing for me anymore, or for what I believed was a greater purpose. I was writing because I felt obligated to write, and not in my own style but in the style encouraged by the ‘experts’. Which for a writer is like to throwing a big party and demanding everyone have fun. NOW.
Um, yeah…it doesn’t really work that way?
So after talking with people who actually know me, know this project, and care about both of us—instead of experts who have never laid eyes on myself, my ideas, or my writing—I realized I needed to step back and get a grip. I needed to be mindful. Like Cesar Milan’s puppy book, I needed to figure out which pieces of advice worked for me now, which didn’t, and which might work for me in the future.
Lesson learned. Again.
The problem is that I felt pretty down on myself. I mean, seriously, how many times do I have to struggle with the same damn issue just to learn the same damn lesson all over again? What’s wrong with me? Am I doomed to ride the rails of my little track—circling round and round and round again—until the day I finally die?
Yes and no.
Yesterday I had an epiphany: life is not like a train track—life is like a muscle, an ab or a quad or a glute, and those don’t get strong and stay strong unless they’re being used. A lot. I can’t expect to go to the gym once and have muscles that are instantly ripped, nor can I work out for months, attain definition, and then kick back for the rest of my life and expect those muscles to stay intact. It just doesn’t work that way. For my abs or glutes to stay in shape, I must continually work them out.
And I believe that’s what these ongoing life lessons are all about: workouts.
To stay in shape as a good human, and to continue making progress toward becoming an even better human, I must continue to exercise—continue to work at being patient, kind, honest, compassionate, hard working, mindful, and fully present. Which is OK, because it means learning, forgetting, and then relearning all over again is not a senseless train reeling around an endless track, but rather a series of purposeful trips to the gym of life. Trips that get me one step closer to rock hard life-glutes.
And I can live with that.