I wrote the following piece as part of an online blog writing class I took with the fabulous Laurie Foley at the end of 2011. I’d completely forgotten it and just discovered it as I sat down to write some material for the one-woman show I’m working on. I’m glad to say that the treatment for the nerve disorder I refer to in the post did work and I’ve been symptom-free for the past three months. Here is the post I wrote:
Oprah often quotes Maya Angelou who once told her that “When you know better, you do better”.
With all due respect to the icon of living your best life and her wise mentor, Maya, I beg to disagree. I think there are millions of us who know way better and yet continue not to do better. We do worse with the added layer of anxst and guilt caused by the fact that we do know better.
If there were a Phd in “Knowing Better”, I would have it. I know so-better and yet continue to not DO better.
As a mother, I KNOW that I need to put my “oxygen mask” on first, where “oxygen mask” is shorthand for take care of my needs first, refuel my emotional and physical tank first, make sure that I’m taking of myself first BEFORE taking care of the needs of my children. And yet, even knowing that, I continue to take care of my children’s needs and others’ needs first.
Earlier this month, I went for my annual examination with my obgyn. There was a slightly awkward moment when the receptionist had problems finding my records. She then quietly informed me that I was last there in 2006 when I had the post-labor check-up after my now 5 year old son was born. Apparently “annual” when it comes to my needs means once every five years. When it comes to my children’s health, however, I have conformed to that old once a year definition of annual.
I found this to be revealing about the standards of care I apply to my own life and those I apply to my children. It was one of those moments that brings you figuratively to your knees.
It made me realize that although I “know it all”, that knowing has not stopped me from “doing it all”.
Doing it all takes its toll. As Oprah rightly says, when something is wrong with your life, your life will first try to tell you in a whisper.
Most of us ignore the whisper. We ignore that inner voice and we ignore our body’s physical messages because we’re way too busy taking care of others to pay attention to ourselves.
In my own case, you would think that – knowing better – I might have taken some steps to address a decade of insomnia. But, no. Taking time to do that would take time away from all the other things that I think I should be doing first. I figured that on some day, at some time in the future, I would take care of the elephant in the room. Until then, I would just keep on keeping on.
Finally, my body has said “screw you.” Last week, I was diagnosed with a rare nerve disorder. It’s nickname is “the suicide disease” because the pain can become so intense that, well, you get my drift.
My “do it all” body has finally had enough. It’s challenging me to put what I know into practice. Knowing – without more – is not enough.
So I’ve been forced to question why it is that someone who has spent the last decade studying behavior and how to live one’s best life has been so damn stubborn in applying that knowledge to her own life.
My conclusion is that I’ve mastered a way of living that doesn’t serve me but at which I’ve become incredibly accomplished. I’ve become the Yo-Yo Ma of living in a self-sacrificing way. In the book, “The Outliers”, Malcom Gladwell wrote that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master a skill.
As a 43 year old, if I look back at the last 20 years, that would equate to 87,600 hours (based upon 12 hours a day for 365 days a year for 20 years). For those 87,600 hours, I have practised living in a certain way. I’ve practised not delegating for many of those 87,600 hours. When I was in my twenties, that didn’t matter quite so much as the only things I juggled were my day-job as an attorney and the hangover from the night before. However, the impact of the practice of not delegating and not taking care of myself became increasingly significant as I added three children into the mix and building my own business. The deep practice of doing everything myself (either because I thought I could do it better myself or for the somewhat ironic reason of feeling that I couldn’t possibly ask anyone else to do such a mindless, demeaning chore) started to take its toll physically and emotionally when there simply weren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week for me to cram two or three lives into my one life.
And yet I had become a maestro at living this way. If there were a Carnegie Hall or Sydney Opera House for multitaskers, I would be knee-deep in roses on the stage while the audience clambered to its feet to give me a standing ovation.
Finally, my body has given up on me. I wish that this were the Will Ferrell/Christopher Walken Saturday Night Live skit, where I have a fever and the only prescription is more cowbells. But alas it’s going to take more than cowbells to get this body well again. It is going to take deliberate practice of new life skills. Of delegating tasks that can be done as well as I can do them or, as I’ve recently concluded, well enough.
At that same Doctor’s visit, as I sat in the waiting room I took the opportunity to read some essays from the “End Malaria” book that I had just bought. There is a wonderful essay called “What You Don’t Have To Do” by Kevin Kelly who founded Wired Magazine. He’s talking about work but I think the essay could equally be talking about life in general. He says: “Work at its smartest means doing that work that no one else can do.”
That is what I’m going to start deliberately practicing in my life. Doing only those things that no one else can do.
If it can and should be delegated, it will be delegated. If only I can do it – and it’s something I love to do – then that is something that is worthy of my time.
Will I master this skill immediately? No. If it’s anything like my daughter learning to play saxophone, it may sound like a goose is being strangled in the early days. But gradually my brain will become wired differently as I deliberately practice this new way of living and the goose will turn into a swan elegantly navigating its way through life (even though there may remain some frantic paddling beneath the surface).