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A little self-reflection

A place where they’ll never find [III]

This is the final essay in a three-part story of self-discovery that coincidentally culminated with my attendance at the World Domination Summit (#WDS2013) in Portland, Oregon July 5- 7, 2013. Click here for Part I in this series.

We can dance if we want to

I was grateful to wake up without an alarm Sunday morning until I realized it was 6:45. I needed to check out and change hotels, and I had a 7:30 meeting. I jumped up, showered, extended my checkout time, and ran to meet Tami for a Working Life Project interview. Tami shared a compelling story of entrepreneurial spirit, and it was perfect for the project. I was energized and ready for the day’s sessions.

Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project, kicked off the morning sessions with a talk about our search for happiness.

“Self-knowledge is the key to happiness,” she said. “There’s a certain sadness to self-knowledge because when we acknowledge who we are, we also acknowledge who we aren’t and who we’ll probably never be.”

She talked more about how it was okay to let go of those fantasies so we could have more time to do the things we love. It sounded like a good plan, provided I could figure out what I loved doing.

“Shine a light on the things you love, even if it doesn’t fit the image you have established for yourself,” she continued.

Oh, so there’s the catch, I thought, Not only do I have to find the thing I love doing, but I also have to call attention to it, even if it’s not something I want to share with others. My level of cynicism was on the upswing.

Tess Vigeland, formerly of NPR’s Marketplace Money, followed with a heartfelt talk on how it feels to jump from the security of a job without a safety net. I could relate. I’ve been where she is several times. Toward the end of her talk, she offered this advice, “The only way to get back to remarkable is to redefine what remarkable means to you.”

I could feel my brain working to assemble the patterns, skillfully ignoring the cynicism I had introduced earlier. When my brain is doing this work, it feels like mental alertness and physical exhaustion simultaneously. My body is ready to recharge, but my mind is in high gear. I knew something was coming, but the connections were not solid. The picture was not clear.

On the afternoon break, I went back to the hotel, packed, checked out, and moved to another hotel in a planned bit of loyalty-point juggling. I grabbed lunch and then walked to the park where I sat for a few hours reflecting and watching people. I even talked briefly with Tess, who took a bench nearby, about how the Universe manages things on its time, not ours.

We returned from the afternoon break to hear several moving pieces from actor, songwriter, and musician Steve Schalchin’s musical, The Last Session. Christian author Donald Miller was the closing speaker for the event. I was intrigued when Miller suggested most of us hide our “true self”—the person we were as a child—because of some “shame” we experienced early in life. Our adult personality is the result of what we have built to cover and protect our true self—an inner child—from the shame. He had my attention.

For months I had been thinking about why some of my friends find it so easy to be vulnerable and open, while I only open up to a few very close friends. And by few, I mean one. Maybe two. I wondered if those who wore their vulnerability as armor lived a fuller life than I did because sharing so openly seem to give them deeper and more meaningful connections.

Then Miller caught me off guard with this question, “What if we are not the identities we project? What happens when we operate outside of our ‘false’ selves? Maybe, we get to impress fewer people, but connect more.”

Wow.

Then it was over. A little closing fanfare, some acknowledgments, and the World Domination Summit ended for another year.

Well, that was fun, I thought. Still, did I learn anything? I wasn’t sure.

I walked back to the hotel and recharged for a while, wrestling with myself about going to the closing party at Pioneer Courthouse Square Park. I was hungry, and the party had food, so I made my way to the park and walked directly to a food line.

An hour later I sat down to eat a Philly Cheesesteak while watching a large group of dancers move in unison to Bollywood music in the middle of the park. My original plan was to eat and then leave. The weather was nice, though, so I opted to get in line for a drink. Once in line, the couple in front of me turned to introduce themselves. It was the couple that sat next to me Saturday, Andrew, and Christine.

I remembered them because of the energy I felt from them when we first met, but I didn’t think they remembered me.

“We met yesterday,” I said. “You sat next to me in the morning session.”

“We did?” Andrew asked. He told me he wasn’t good with names or faces, and jokingly said he had a short-term memory issue.

“Yes. You’re from like, a mile away, and she’s from like, four miles away.”

Christine seemed surprised at my recollection. Andrew jumped in with, “No, no… that’s not right. I’m from four miles away, and she’s from sixty miles away.”

We laughed. The ice was broken.

We talked about the day’s sessions while standing in the long line. Donald Miller’s session seemed to be most intriguing to us all. Suddenly, Andrew shared a story about his “shame,” as Donald Miller called it, the one thing that drives us to create a personality to hide our true self. In the seconds it took Andrew to tell his story, my brain had assembled the connections it had been working on for days. It had identified my shame.

My “shame” occurred after my family moved across town and I started 8th grade in a different, more affluent school. I was talking with a group of friends at lunch one day and improperly pronounced the word “wash” using a more typical southern West Virginia pronunciation, “warsh.” One of the boys in the group made fun of my pronunciation, and all the others laughed. The embarrassment of seeming uneducated and backward hurt. I remember the names of everyone standing there that day, and the boy who leads the charge. I can still see their faces.

It was in that moment of embarrassment I began building a different personality to hide my shame. I would become educated, informed, and articulate. I would become private and reserved so as not to endure that shame again. I would become whom the majority of people in my life know today as “David Harkins.”

In what I can only describe as an impulsive moment, I did something my friends and family would say is out of character: I allowed myself to become vulnerable. I shared my moment of shame with Andrew and Christine. I doubt they realized the importance I placed on the moment because they didn’t know the person I began building all those years ago. They only knew me at this moment.

The three of us talked most of the evening about business, some about life, and a little about close friendships. Andrew and I confided that we have few close friends “on purpose,” immediately recognizing, I think, how our created personalities were the words, “on purpose.” Our true personalities made friends effortlessly, as we proved with our near instant connection that night.

While we talked, the Bollywood music gave way to 80’s dance music, and Andrew and Christine began to talk about dancing. They prodded me for a while to dance with them, but I resisted. The heart and feet heard the beats, but the head would not let them move. “David Harkins” had not danced since most of the music playing through the speakers was first released. To dance in public would risk looking foolish. “David Harkins” does not like to look foolish.

They didn’t give up, though. Christine kept asking me to dance with them, and Andrew occasionally chimed in with encouragement. Jeff walked by, sat down, and we talked for a while about the problem he was having with a foot and how the strobes affected his balance. Jeff could not have danced that night, even if he had wanted to dance.

I took a Porta-John® break and when I returned the song, “Walk Like An Egyptian” was playing. The goofy 12-year-old I keep tucked inside broke through to prove he could still “walk like an Egyptian.” Christine saw me, laughed, and asked me to do it again. I was not embarrassed at all.

By the time “Footloose” began, my toes were tapping quietly inside my shoes. It took the song, “The Safety Dance,” and Andrew’s battle cry, “I’m going in…all the way in…” to get me into the dancing crowd of people with the two of them.

And I danced. Not as freely as I would have liked, but I danced.

Over the last year, a few of my closest friends have noted how little of my true personality I let the rest of the world see. Apparently, the “true” David Harkins is more creative, charming, generous, and loving, or something. Go figure. Of course, I could not fix what I didn’t know was broken, and once I became aware I still needed to identify the cause. Sunday night, thirty-five years later in Portland Oregon with 3,000 people trying to find a way to be remarkable in a conventional world, I identified that cause.

There are greater powers at work in the world, I think. There are lessons to learn and people to meet to help guide our life journey. I am convinced it takes the Universe time to line up all of the stars—to get everyone ready—for the work we are called to do, often unknowingly, for each other. Until that stage is set, the play cannot begin. This is why life does not always happen on the schedule we plan for ourselves.

Traveling home Monday I realized the Universe might have put this plan in motion for me over a year ago. A string of events, seen only in hindsight, opened the door to make it possible for me attend the 2013 World Domination Summit. There I heard diverse voices, each carrying to me the same message—it’s time for the “true” David Harkins to come out and play. I encountered the energy of Andrew and Christine, who were placed in my life, not once, but twice to make sure I heard the message and to help me facilitate this transformation.

So, if you’re reading this, thank you, Chris and Patti, for opening the space. For gently encouraging me to let down my guard more often and to expose that vulnerable “soft underbelly,” thank you Katherine, Kristi, and Greg. For giving me a place to temporarily call home while I unknowingly prepared for what was to come, thank you, John and Steve. Thank you, Nancy, Jia, Gretchen, Tess, Steve, and Don for using different words, but sending a singular message I needed to hear. Thank you, Jeff, for appearing out of nowhere to keep me grounded in those moments when I needed it most. Thank you, Andrew, for sharing your story, your passion, and your gentle humor that helped us make a connection. Thank you, Christine, for your kindness and persistence, but most of all for helping me remember how much fun it is to let go and just dance.

Sunday night in Pioneer Courthouse Square, I discovered I was free from the shackles of the single mispronounced word, which had shaped so much my life. Andrew and Christine saw, without even realizing it, something so few people in my life have ever seen, the “true” David Harkins.

And they saw him…no they saw me, dance.

The title of this post is taken from the lyrics of “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.

Photo Credit:  Chris Gillebeau WDS 2013

A place where they’ll never find [II]

This is the second essay in a three-part story of self-discovery that coincidentally culminated with my attendance at the World Domination Summit (#WDS2013) in Portland, Oregon July 5- 7, 2013. Click here for Part I in this series.

Magic set in motion

I ran into Jeff, a friend from North Carolina, at the Zoo. We had talked a little before I left to mingle with others in the crowd. I have learned to force myself into the discomfort of small talk, so I am not perceived as a wallflower at parties. It would have been easy to sit down with Jeff and not engage anyone else. It would have been easy for me to be a wallflower at the World Domination Summit. There were so many people.

I am not “shy,” the word most extroverts think is interchangeable with the word, “introvert.” I’m outgoing, and I make friends easily. I work hard not to come across to others as aloof, although I am certain those who may not know me well have used the word to describe me.

As an introvert, I draw energy from being alone and reflecting; crowds suck energy from me. As much as I like people, large events like WDS can be particularly draining because I put myself into “outgoing-introvert” mode for hours of constant interaction. If I could have visualized my energy levels through the evening, I would have seen a cell phone battery light, slowly discharging from the constant engagement of others.

I made some new friends during the opening reception. I met, in person, a few long-time Twitter friends. I even did something I never do: I stayed until nearly the end of the party.

The next morning I ran into Jeff again on my way to breakfast, and he asked me to join him. Afterward, we walked to the meeting hall for the day’s sessions. Jeff and I sat together at the end of one row in the balcony, only to be encouraged by conference staff to move toward the middle of the row so others could find a seat more easily. The row filled quickly, leaving two seats beside me. Just before the program began, a couple came in and asked if the seats were available. I looked up to answer, and I felt an unexplained connection with them. We offered polite introductions, including the obligatory WDS question, “How far have you traveled?” and then the program started. After the morning sessions had been over, we took a short break. I did not see Jeff, or the couple, for the rest of the day.

I intentionally set the bar low for most conferences, hoping to find only one nugget of information I can take away and put to use. I was confident I had found my nugget in the very first session, with communications strategist Nancy Duarte. Still, I listened intently to the other presentations, and although interesting and entertaining—especially Jia Jiang’s presentation on Rejection—much of what I heard reinforced concepts I know and have applied in my life and work for a long time. There was little new content for me, but I enjoyed being in the company of such passionate, interesting, and fun people.

After the day’s closing session, I took part in photo-walk in downtown Portland for a while before breaking off for drinks and dinner with my long-time Twitter friend Heather, and her friend Anna. It’s always interesting to connect in person with someone I have known only through social media. Sometimes social media allows a person to project a façade, but everyone I met in person at WDS, like Heather, seemed warm and authentic.

I turned in early the first night and reflected on my day. The reinforcing words of the speakers and the passion and openness of the attendees were on my mind. I thought more about the energy I felt from the couple and the courage I heard in the voices of those seeking to be somehow “remarkable in a conventional world.” I considered my frequent encounters with Jeff in a sea of 3,000 people.

My “spidey-sense”—the feeling I get when my brain is working overtime to find patterns among the random inputs and connect those seemingly unconnectable dots—began to tingle. It seemed the Universe was up to something. Maybe even something magical. Whatever it was planning, though, I hoped it would wait at least until morning.

Read Part III: We can dance if we want to

A place where they’ll never find [I]

This is the first of a three-part story of self-discovery that coincidentally culminated with my attendance at the World Domination Summit (#WDS2013) in Portland, Oregon July 5- 7, 2013.

Everything’s outta control

A year is far too long for this introvert to go without an extended period of self-reflection. I know this, and still, I let the days slide by until more than two years had passed since my last significant “time-out.” The few weekend getaways I had managed to squeeze in somehow lulled me into a false sense of stability and security in the midst of my complicated life and an overabundance of work obligations.

My friend Patti must have sensed my need for a break and in May generously offered me her ticket to the World Domination Summit (WDS) when she discovered she could not attend. A conference with the name “World Domination Summit” could be about any number of things, so I’ll admit to researching the event before accepting her offer.

WDS was billed as an event for those who desired to create “a remarkable life in a conventional world” with an entrepreneurial slant. On the surface, it seemed very “touchy-feely” and although I am introspective, “touchy-feely” is not my thing. The speaker list was solid, and there was enough information to provide some comfort about the event’s topic. I still wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, but the World Domination Summit was in Portland, Oregon and in all my travels, I had never been to Oregon.

I knew a period of self-reflection and recharge would be essential before encountering a crowd of nearly 3,000 people seeking to become remarkable, and I built that time into my trip. I flew into Sacramento on a late flight July 2 and left the next morning on a self-guided photo tour through Mt. Lassen National Park and around Mt. Shasta, before stopping in Ashland, Oregon to visit two long-time friends for a couple of days.

Feeling recharged after my visit with John and Steve, I left the morning of July 5 for the five-hour drive to Portland. My plan was to check-in before the early registration ended at 3:00 and then attend the WDS Virgins gathering—a meeting of first-time attendees to learn the ropes—at 3:30. I left Ashland later than planned, but I thought I could make it to Portland by 2:30. Two rest stops later and interesting encounter with a guitar-playing homeless woman who pulled my heart-strings to the tune of twenty dollars, I realized I would not arrive before early registration closed. Since I could register at the opening reception, my revised goal was to make the WDS Virgins gathering.

I was still on track when I arrived at the hotel a little before 3:00. I quickly showered, dressed, and left at 3:20 to attend the WDS Virgins gathering. Unfortunately, I misread the map and eventually discovered I had gone blocks in the wrong direction. It was impossible to make it to the meeting and still have time to mingle, so I abandoned that plan, too. Despite a day of missed connections, I was confident I could make it to the meeting hall in time to catch the bus to the Oregon Zoo for registration and the opening reception.

Walking to the meeting hall, I realized I had completely lost control of my day. Typically I would be frustrated with myself for making choices earlier to derail my plan, but I was not frustrated. In fact, I was very calm for an introvert on his way to a Zoo filled with the untamed energy of 3,000 people.

Read Part II: Magic set in motion

Mortgaging castles

Yesterday I was reminded my body has an expiration date. I know I will die someday, but the dreamer who drives my soul doesn’t like to think of such things. The statistician in charge of my brain, on the other hand, does expiration mitigation calculations thousands of times per day. I just don’t like the reminders from the outside world.

While I remain hopeful for at least fifty-one more years of life, I recognize living to be 100 with a sound mind and body is an unlikely possibility, especially since both are already questionable. Despite the fact I aggressively manage my health, there are hundreds of non-health related reasons that could end my life well before my planned expiration date. This is troubling to me because I still have things to do, people to see, places to go, and trouble to cause. I don’t want to run out of time before I’ve accomplished it all.

My arrival at middle age a few years ago came with a piece of baggage labeled, “oppressive sense of mortality.” The luggage is scuffed, tattered, and covered with stickers from travels around the world. Its hinges are worn from the constant opening and closing. Bungee cords hook together over latches that no longer have the strength to hold the baggage closed. It’s ugly, this baggage, and still I’m compelled to look inside for whatever answers it might hold.

I’ve learned from my far too frequent peeks inside that my first twenty-four years of life were for learning the basics for living, and my last twenty-five years were for creating a life. The baggage shows my future, too, swirling amongst all of my hopes, dreams, and plans—those I’ve accomplished and those I now wonder if I ever will accomplish— without a clear direction or any certainty of duration.

Perhaps the most important thing the baggage has shown me is while the past is clear, the future is always uncertain. I’m reminded that although I am not now, who I will become, I am also no longer who I once was—the big dreamer with a lifetime of opportunities. The luxury of time is no longer on my side.

I still dream the big dreams and I still have things to do, people to see, places to go, and of course, trouble to cause. I’ve just realized the dreams I had then—the dreams of a young man—are no longer the dreams I need, or frankly want. The seconds of life are far more precious now and I don’t want to waste them on aspirations I know are completely unrealistic or unattainable.

I have many unfinished castles in the sky today. The construction stopped some time ago and the workers have gone home for good. What remains of those castles was mortgaged to pay for the daily happiness I get from living more of my life in the moment and much less of it with my head in the clouds.

A brain in default

I’ve often attributed the way my brain works for my life’s successes. It’s also the most significant contributor to my failures. This is especially true in difficult life situations when instead of fostering deliberate thought, my brain allows me to fall easily into old habits of coping, or thinking without effort. It may appear as if this is a conscious decision on my part, but often it is not. From time-to-time, my brain just puts itself automatically into this “default mode” of thinking so it can help me find a mental place of safety and security. My brain does not like me to feel insecure or unsafe.

This default mode is when my brain says to itself, “Hey! I don’t like this situation. How can I change it? Hmmm….this looks sort of like that time when we…No. This is not really the same, but…..What the heck, it’s close enough. It will make us feel a little more secure. So…recall pattern. Check. Engage default operations mode. Check. And….warp speed ahead!”

When my brain calculates a success rate of at least 45% while in default mode, I assuredly will hear a voice inside my head say, “This is clearly the approach to use, dude. Go!” My brain is not naturally risk adverse.

Whether you realize it or not, this probably happens to you, too. Our brains know there are differences in every life situation, yet they work overtime to find enough parallels between some past situation and a current one to weigh the odds of a positive outcome, and then take the necessary steps to give the illusion we’re in control of the whole situation. They do all of this within a fraction of a second. That’s just how our brains roll.

We’re rarely in control and our brains are keenly aware of this fact. Our brains also know we have survived similar situations in the past and odds are good we’ll survive this one, too. It takes a lot less effort for our brains to gear down into default mode, than it does for them to power-on to figure out a better approach to the situation. Our brains can be quite lazy, too.

Our brains have adapted to these patterns and routines over a lifetime. The designated approach worked for us the first time, and then we reinforced the approach each time we let our brain move into default mode. We became comfortable with the rules and patterns our brains create while in default, so we gave them the authority and the responsibility they desires. For their parts, our brains simply see a process for a successfully resolved situation that must be stored until needed again. Our brains are big on self-defined measures of success.

My attorney friends are fond of the phrase, “It depends,” meaning even though two situations appear significantly similar, the facts of each may dictate a different approach for resolution. This is the problem with our brains in default mode—they see two highly similar situations and simply forget, or chose not to, consider all of the facts. Our brains, in default mode, rarely consider the concept of “it depends.”

Life events of the last few years have forced me to stop letting my brain go into default mode as much as before. I discovered my  brain’s margin of error on successful decision making was hovering at +/- 30 points and with a 50% success rate trigger, my odds of making any smart decisions in default mode were, let’s just say, far less than desirable.

I still consider myself a creative thinker. I still make connections with bits of unconnected information, and I still trust my intuition. The difference now is I force myself to slow down and become more deliberate in my thinking, and with my resulting actions.  My brain is working harder now, but I can tell it aches for an easier life.

Sometimes, very late at night, I can hear my brain whispering, “Dude….there’s a 47% —wait, make that 51%—chance this is the right thing to do. Want to do it?”

I listen, but I don’t respond. I no longer take such low probabilities seriously. At least, not before dawn.

___

Photo Credit::okay, this is, like bad? by Robert Couse-Baker

A sentimental accumulator of experiences

I began losing my desire to accumulate the “stuff” of life when I moved to South Carolina. It was the third interstate move in ten years and I realized I had been hauling stuff from place-to-place with the idea I might someday need it, or want it, and not have it available. I was wrong.

Many of those boxes began their journey in West Virginia in 1995 and traveled to Florida, then to Illinois, and finally to South Carolina still unopened. It was in South Carolina that I found the courage to open the boxes, verify the contents marked on the outside, and then toss, shred, or donate what I found.

Most of the boxes held old business papers and outdated clothing. Three boxes served as the home to a complete Merlin® Phone system I once thought would have some future use. There was a box of glass, too, which might have been dishes somewhere along its travels.  There was nothing of sentimental value in those boxes. It was just stuff.

I am sentimental, though. In fact, my children often wager on how quickly a movie scene or a home video will bring that misty look to my eyes. They know me well. They know I treasure memories and not collections of trinkets or other physical things that serve no purpose other than to collect dust.

This is not to say that I don’t treasure some physical things. Old pictures—snapshots from my life—hold value for me because they connect me with my history visually, and I am a visual person. The same goes for family movies filmed on my dad’s old 8mm camera, or those videos holding captured moments of my kids in their childhood.

There are several other things I find meaningful, too, including, a few written recollections from my mom’s childhood, which she made time to write at my request before she died. Then there’s the antique secretary desk now sitting in my den, which once sat inside my maternal grandparent’s bedroom, to the left of the door, and was the place my grandfather once sat to pay his bills.

I’m quite fond of my maternal grandfather’s pocket watch, his pocketknife, and the Jaeger-LeCoultre Atmos Clock he received in recognition of 25-years of service to Union Carbide Corporation. I also have my paternal grandfather’s Assistant Sergeant at Arms medals from the 1956 and 1964 Republican National Conventions, and that 8mm camera used to capture some of my childhood on film. Of course, there’s a rock here, a pressed flower there, and a few drawings from my children, too.

These things are small in number, but the memories they hold for me are quite large. While these things are important to me, I probably don’t need to hang on to them either. They’re just physical triggers for my memories. I would have a hard time parting with them, nonetheless.

Most everything else I possess, assuming it serves little or no functional purpose in my life, I no longer need. I’ve made up my mind to be more aggressive in purging these last remaining and unnecessary things I’m still hauling from place to place.

I will start by donating most of the many long-since read and some severely outdated books that line my bookshelves. I’ll move on to the clothes I’ll never wear again, the CD’s that have outlived their usefulness, and those few trinkets passed along to me whose meaning and importance died with their original owners. I’ll keep going until I get through all of the useless possessions, and then I’ll end, or at least I’ll try to end, by letting go of any remaining emotional baggage I have carried with me through the years. It’s time to let go of all of these things. It’s time to simplify the remainder of my life.

Parkinson’s Law says, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” I believe the corollary to the Law, “Stuff expands to fill the space you have available,” is also true. If you don’t believe me, look in your closet, your attic, or your basement and ask yourself just how much stuff you have stored there you still need.

I’ve taken a hard look at all my stuff, and I’ve come to this conclusion: I would rather new life experiences and memories become the “stuff” that expands to fill the time I have left on this earth. The accumulation of these experiences and the memories they create are the only “things” worth keeping or passing on.

Finding happiness

I try to be a “glass is half-full” kind of guy. Some days, I’m successful; other days, not so much.

Still, I wake up each morning feeling grateful that I have the opportunity another day provides. My feet hit the floor with one thing in mind: Find the things that make you happy.

Happiness surrounds us, but most of us walk through each day with blinders on our eyes. We see what we want to see, not always, what is before us.

It sounds corny, I know. I just don’t believe there’s any point in me adding to all the sadness in the world. I think it’s better to look for the happiness, and if I’m lucky, maybe I can help others find a little of it, too.

I understand some people have legitimate reasons to be sad or unhappy, even for extended periods. For most of us, though, I think being unhappy is a choice we make each day.

I choose to be happy. How about you? 

Building foundations

Almost twenty years ago, I left West Virginia to take a job that launched my career.

I’ve lived in several states and had many different jobs with different companies. My career has had its ups and downs, but I’ve had the privilege of working with amazing people on fantastic projects.

None of this would have happened if I hadn’t had the courage to leave. Yet, I know the things I learned growing up in West Virginia helped to give me the foundation for who I am and what I have achieved in life.

Now I’m back, in a manner of speaking. I’m putting my knowledge and experience to work to help make a difference in West Virginia.  I play a very, very, tiny part in all of this; nonetheless, I’m quite proud be a part of it.

Supporting this project, even in a small way, is something I can do to give back to the place and the people who, by their actions, helped to teach me the real meaning of service to others, why to fight for what’s right, when it’s time to swallow my pride, or how to muster the courage to follow my own calling.

I no longer live in West Virginia, but West Virginia will forever live in me.

 

 

Learning to let go of the wheel

It’s a difficult road from being the dad of a teenage girl to becoming the friend/dad of a young woman.  My desire to protect her and save her too often gets in the way of my desire that she discover for herself who she is becoming.  I regularly forget that she no longer needs me to remind her to fasten her safety belt or to check the oil; she only needs me to let her get behind the wheel. Truthfully, I have never been very comfortable as a passenger on any journey.

Unfortunately, the subtleties of this changing landscape elude me and my navigational skills are proving to be of limited use when I am no longer at the wheel.  In fact, the view from the back seat is much different, and my ability to successfully provide guidance, direction, and support is seemingly lost somewhere in this translation.  It probably doesn’t help that I’m prone to yell, “car…Car….CAR!!!” when she’s stopped paying attention instead of simply encouraging her to keep her eyes on the road ahead.

As hard as it is to do, I know that I need to let her navigate for herself, and acknowledge to myself that a backseat driver really doesn’t make the road any safer.  I often forget that the noise from the back seat makes it harder for the driver to concentrate on the road ahead.  I so clearly fail to recognize when her actions represent, “I will turn this car around, mister!” even when she’s not entirely comfortable saying those words.  Whether she says them or not, I do understand that I am only a passenger on this new journey at the driver’s request.

She is becoming a good driver. I am so very proud of her and her initiative in mapping out the path ahead.  While she may choose different roads on this journey than I would have chosen, this is her journey, and I am confident that she will get to the destination of her choosing.  She has her own GPS device now, and I suppose I should be comforted that it may be powered, in some very small part, by a few simple maps she downloaded from me.

It just doesn’t make it any easier to let go of the wheel

—-

So I will dance with Cinderella

While she is here in my arms

‘Cause I know something the prince never knew

Oh, I will dance with Cinderella

I don’t want to miss even one song

‘Cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight

And she’ll be gone

~Steven Curtis Chapman, Cinderella

 

Photo Credit: Holding Daddy’s Hand by Roger’s Wife

Diving down the rabbit hole

For close to a year now, I’ve been thinking about sharing this story in hopes that others may benefit in some way.  Today, seemed to me like that right day to put it out there. It took me a long time to find the right words to express myself on this topic, and I hope you don’t see this as over-sharing. Instead, I encourage you to consider if this might help you better understand someone in your life who may not always be able to articulate how they feel and function.

If you didn’t already know these things about me, I trust you will use this new information for good and not for evil. 😉

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A year ago, at age 46, I learned that I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

One of my adult daughters was being tested for ADD. The therapist shared that since she had no history of traumatic head injuries, her ADD is likely hereditary. At the time, I could name only one or two people in my extended family who had been diagnosed.  As she began listing the characteristics, I could remember certain behaviors in my mother, my grandmother, and a few other family members.  I also mentally checked each one against my behavior.  I have or had a good number of the characteristics.

Though my daughter was diagnosed with ADD, I wrestled with the feelings that I might have this same problem for weeks before deciding to be formally tested myself.  I wasn’t sure that I wanted a label of any kind, let alone the label of ADD.  But, I also saw some of the ADD characteristics in my other children and I thought that if I did have ADD, it would let me better prepare them for some challenges they will face should they also be diagnosed.

There were many ADD characteristics that I no longer consider a major problem for me such as, procrastination, poor organization, lack of follow through, reading comprehension, and difficulty completing tasks (due to distractedness).  I handle all of those things very well now.

I  sometimes have other behaviors noted for those with ADD that I do see as ongoing challenges for me. These include a tendency to stop listening, a constant need for mental stimulation, conflict-seeking behavior at times because it provides mental stimulation, a tendency for over-thinking things, a desire to talk things to death, or occasionally missing or misunderstanding an intended verbal message.

I wanted to know if there was a reason behind why I do some of the things I do. Still, I took the test twice.

Before deciding on seeking a formal diagnosis, I marked up a copy of my daughter’s questionnaire one evening at home during the time she was being evaluated.  I was “off the charts” with ADD based on the scoring model I located with a Google search.  The therapist administered the second test about a month later and I just barely scored within the ADD classification.  I told the therapist of my first test, and she asked to see it.  We talked some about things I had overcome in life. For example, always losing my keys or wallet, or how in high school and college I had to have music playing while I studied to occupy my brain so I could concentrate on reading. And how I am successful at building and creating new things, but not so good at keeping them going for a long time.

She asked me a lot of questions about what was going on in my life when I took the two tests.  She told me that the high-level of stress in my life during my self-administration of the test heightened my ADD traits, while the less stressful time at the administration of her test significantly lessened and almost eliminated the traits.  This is not uncommon for those with ADD.

She also called me a textbook case of a high-performing adult with ADD.

Apparently, I have learned over my lifetime how to accentuate the positives of ADD. I am creative, empathetic, loyal, charismatic and fun-seeking. And I have developed excellent coping skills for many of the negatives such as always leaving my wallet and keys in the same place; keeping a detailed calendar and a checklist; developing comprehensive systems and process to facilitate reaching my goals, and hiring people who excel at the day-to-day management the things I create and build.

There seemed to me to be some surprise, although not verbally shared, that I was able to maintain long-term relationships with others; I understand from my research this is something most adults with ADD cannot achieve. I suppose they just anger or hurt people one too many times with their behavior.

I know I’ve come to the brink of pushing people out of my life, from time to time, with my behavior. I’m also certain I anger or hurt more people than I intend.

Over the summer, I decided to begin seeing this therapist on a monthly basis to look for additional coping skills on those remaining, and those I find to be problematic, ADD characteristics. I find value in those monthly visits, although I probably don’t need to see her because I’ve been mostly successful through introspection at figuring out how to resolve my ADD challenges. I suppose I’ve been in the form of self-therapy for 30 years—constantly working my problems once I can identify them, or once they’re pointed out to me.

“You have a quiet intensity,” she told me once. “Some of my clients with ADD come in with such negative energy it’s like they’re Pig Pen from the Peanuts comic strip.  But, instead of a cloud of dust surrounding that person, it’s a cloud of negativity that I feel like I’m brushing off for days after they leave. Your energy is different; quiet and not negative at all.”

Most of the time.

Then there’s the matter of the rabbit hole.

Not unlike the rabbit hole, Alice falls into there are things that trigger an intense focus, known as “hyperfocus” for those with ADD, that borders on obsession.  For me, this is like diving into the rabbit hole where I see nothing but the light at the bottom of the hole, and it becomes the object of 100% of my focus as I make my way through the darkness. I am never distracted from that light.

One of my hyperfocus triggers is stress. The other is high interest in a topic, a project, or sometimes a person.  For example, stress triggers my impulsively to eat when I’m not hungry. I’ve been known to wolf-down two brownies inside of 30-seconds and have a third in my hand before I realize that stress has turned me into a thoughtless eating machine.  High interest in a topic or pursuit of a passion might mean that I devour a 500-page book in three days of almost non-stop reading, or be so engrossed in a painting I’m working on that I’ll paint all night long and not realize the time until I see the sun rise. Unfortunately, a person who’s the focus of this intensity, generally wishes they weren’t–it’s rarely a positive thing.

Individually, each trigger is mildly troublesome. Together those triggers are a recipe for disaster, particularly in my interpersonal relationships.  This is why I let so few people close to me—they can’t handle my intensity, even outside of the shorter periods of times when the combination of stress and passionate interest push me into obsession and hyper-focus. I can become incredibly overbearing and difficult, especially when I’m in pursuit of my set goal. The life stress only fuels greater focus to move more quickly to achieve that goal—even those goals that I know I cannot achieve by the force of my own will.

I understand that being my friend or member of my immediate family is not an easy thing for the average person.

I’m prone to over-think things. I sometimes have such preoccupation with feelings and worries that I want to talk through everything so that I can push those preoccupations aside. I’ll stick my foot in my mouth occasionally. I may sometimes misinterpret things said and become defensive, and every once in a while I need to withdraw completely to reflect and process all of the information and feelings that fill up my mind.

ADD makes interpersonal relationships hard for me.  While I know the triggers of the rabbit hole and I continue to work on adjusting my response, I’m never going to be completely free of these traits because it’s the way I’m wired. ADD occurs when electrical impulses don’t make it through to the frontal lobes of the brain where the executive control systems manage response and behavior.  Essentially, what the rest of my brain is telling me to do doesn’t always make it up to the front of my brain so I can do it, or not do it, as is almost always the case.  I’m making it sound a little like a mental illness here, but it is not, nor is it classified this way.

A very minimal amount of medication does provide some relief of the impulsively and helps me clear my brain of some of the many thoughts that bounce around up there, but there is no cure.  Nor would I want there to be; although, in all honesty, I wish I could sometimes dial it back even more.  The rabbit hole is too shallow, and I’m often through it before I even realize that I need to touch the dials.

My close friends and family must be ready and willing to accept the good and the bad that I carry in a box marked ADD; just as I would be to ready and willing take the good and the bad that comes in any box, or boxes they may carry with different markings.  For me, it’s about the whole person. Besides, no one comes without boxes or baggage anymore, do they?

I am intense, yes. I talk too much at times. I’m moody, and I brood occasionally.  I realize such intensity, focus and attitude is a bit much for some people. This is particularly the case when I try to compress myself into the expectations others may have of me. The compression and boundaries of the expectations create stress, which when coupled with my high-desire to achieve, send me into the rabbit hole. I’m thankful for those who tolerate me at those times.

The fact is, ADD is really just a different way of thinking or processing information.  It makes me who I am.  I’m not going to be able to change my ADD-fueled tendencies much, but I do not make ADD an excuse for my sometimes poor behavior, impulsiveness, or lack of attention.  I am imperfect, and I continually work on minimizing the impact such tendencies have on others. And those in my life have had to learn to accept that ADD, or whatever ADD does that makes me think differently, is a vital part of what makes me the person they call a friend or part of the family.

All this considered, I don’t think I’d want to be anyone else.

 

Photo Credit::Further into the rabbit hole by sub-urban.com

A summer of superheroes

The summer between my fourth and fifth grade was unbearably hot, but it did not prevent my friends and me from playing together outside. We welcomed the freedom summer brought to our lives and were outside from morning to night, often taking a break from our activities to sit under the tree we had just climbed, or to chase the ever-present lightning bugs at dusk in the in hopes of capturing enough in a jar to light the way home. We were prone to occasional role-playing, engaging in a game of “Army” or “Cowboys and Indians.” This particular summer brought on a new game, though. It was the summer of the superheroes.

Superfriends, a Saturday morning cartoon about a team of superheroes, had launched the fall before, and my friends and I were hooked on the idea of having some special power and secret identity behind which we could hide. While we had read the comic books, the cartoon brought the characters to life for us. It also didn’t hurt that the Superfriends had a couple of kids and a dog as sidekicks. It gave us hope, I suppose, that we could do something extraordinary with our lives.

We didn’t confine ourselves just to the superheroes that appeared in the cartoon. That summer we became any superhero we chose. Sometimes I was Thor, other times I was the Flash. Once in a while, I became Captain America or Aquaman. Everyone had his favorite superhero, but no one ever really wanted to be the Batman.

“He’s useless as a superhero,” my friends would say. “He doesn’t have any super powers at all! Sure, he has gadgets, but he can still die from being shot or from falling off a building. Who wants to be a superhero that can die? Who wants to be a superhero that’s SO normal?! He’s not even a superhero, you know? He’s just a man!”

Occasionally a new kid would join us and be such a Batman fanatic that he would suffer the barbs and crazy talk to assume the role. Unfortunately, the Batman was always the first one “killed” by whichever arch nemesis we were fighting that day. He was first to die because he was human and the most vulnerable of us all, but mostly, we just needed to make that point. I always felt a little sorry for the Batman and that new kid whose faith in the character couldn’t be swayed by the thought of an early death.

Although I secretly wanted to be the Batman, I didn’t have the conviction of character, or frankly, the desire to endure the taunts of choosing to be him that summer. The Batman died at least 100 times that summer. He kept coming back. Not once did I take on the role.

As an adult, I know that we each selected characters to be that summer to provide a needed distraction from our own shortcomings and fears. We were on the verge of our teenage years but still wanted to hold on to our childhood belief that we could be someone—anyone–powerful and important, but not who we really were that summer. I know now that I wanted to be Thor because he was strong and in control, neither of which I could quite manage as one of the smallest of my friends. The Flash appealed to me because he was very fast and I was not fast at all. Aquaman controlled the water, and then the water controlled me. Captain America was my favorite because Steve Rogers, his alter ego, was a sickly young man who became a perfect human specimen with the help of an experimental serum. I longed for an experimental serum of my own.

Of all the characters we played that summer,  I think I learned the most from Batman; the superhero that no one aspired to be. You see, the Batman was just a regular guy trying to make a difference. There’s nothing easy about being a superhero.  But, the man who was most vulnerable even with all of his wits and gadgets working for him, and the occasional kid who took on the role, taught me this. Superheroes can come from all walks of life, and we should never be afraid to do the right thing even when some early death, speaking metaphorically, is sure to result from our actions.

Today, I am no longer sickly or afraid of water. At 6′ 3″, I’m bigger than most of my friends, but I know now that I will never really be in control of things.  I’ve even come to grips with the fact that super human speed exceeds my physical ability. Though it has taken me a long time to understand and accept it, I also know this: I can be a “hero” to someone just by being a regular guy who tries to make a difference. This is what I strive to do every day.

So, yeah, I can finally admit it. I’m the Batman.

I hope you are, too.

 

Inspired in part by Five for Fighting’s “Superman.

 

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