Every Day is Saturday

Finding Joy in the Here and Now

Working for a Living

miners
work
wərk/
noun
             1.  activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.
  • 2.  mental or physical activity as a means of earning income; employment.

I’ve been thinking a lot about work lately.  That’s an understatement – I think about work all the time.  As in my lack of it, how to get it, and what kind I want to do.  Lately I’ve been ruminating on what I would be willing to do in order to bring in some steady money, which is a reflection of the financial realities in which I now find myself.  The answer to that question is pretty much anything not immoral, illegal or fattening (although I might bend on the illegal in the right circumstances).

“Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”     Khalil Gibran

The above definition of work as a noun seems to imply there is an either-or choice to be made; the meaning of work is either “to achieve a purpose or result” or “as a means of earning income”.  Of course you can do both, but it often seems like we have to choose between doing purposeful work we love or making a living.

 “Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.”   Henry David Thoreau

I had a really good day yesterday.  I had been invited to do work that I love and that I am good at.  I put in a lot of thought and effort into my contribution.  After the public presentation I was told what a fantastic job I had done.  I received an email at 1:00 am this morning to tell me how much people loved what I did.  This kind of reaction to me and my capabilities is incredibly validating, and I felt amazing afterwards.  But it didn’t pay me a dime.  It may lead to other things, but for now, all I got was a warm heart and an empty pocket.

“I think the person who takes a job in order to live – that is to say, for the money – has turned himself into a slave.”    Joseph Campbell

The other thing that happened yesterday is that, once again, I was reminded how beneficial it is to get out and be with people.  When you do that, it creates energy.  When I get out and meet people it seems like a beacon is lit to announce “Amanda is here!”, and all of a sudden, unexpected things happen.  For example, during the day yesterday I got a call from a friend who had a gig for next week and she thought of me.  It was wonderful to know that she’s keeping an eye out, but wouldn’t you know it, next week I actually already have work!  I would have taken that gig in a heartbeat (even though it sounded really boring) if it had been any other time.  But even though that didn’t work out, it reinforced to me how much I have got to find a way to get out of the house on a regular basis.

“It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.”    Benjamin Franklin

I want to work.  I want to do meaningful, purposeful, rewarding work and get paid for it.  I know what that’s like – I’ve done it before.  Knowing that I have so much to give and nowhere to give it is not only frustrating, it is debilitating.  It’s wonderful to have others acknowledge my talent.  I know I have to hang in there.  I know I need to find a part time job to keep the lights on, and I will.  But I’m terrified of having to do work that I don’t love, just for a paycheck.  I know what that’s like, too.  I will do it because I don’t see that I have a choice, and I’ll be glad of it.  But I’ve come a long way – I don’t want to go back.  I’m clinging to the promise that if I keep doing what I love the money will follow.  Well, it better hurry up.

“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”  Theodore Roosevelt

photo credit: Chris Corbett via photopin cc

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The Case for Being Average

L&N customer service

Today I attended a presentation about how to give fantastic customer service.  At the heart of the speaker’s message was the notion that we have to engage our clients on an individual level and treat everyone with whom we come into contact as THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON EVER!  The speaker was skilled – she knew when to make the audience laugh and when to drive home her points – but I’ve heard the same message from others.  I’ve seen the same video of the gorilla walking through the circle of people bouncing the basketball (spoilers!), and I know the quote “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” by heart.  It’s a good message, one that all of us should live by, but even as I was trying to pay attention to the presentation I could hear my cynical self (I’ll call her Cynthia) chatting away in my ear:

“You know all this.  This is not new.  Why does everyone act like this is new information?  Doesn’t everybody know this already?”

Cynthia’s a real bitch.  But Cynthia has a point.

If everybody knows that in order to stand out they have to give memorable, emotionally authentic customer service, then why oh why are we STILL talking about the fact that 79% of customers in any industry you care to name only rate their experience as “Average” or lower?  If we all know how to give great customer service, why aren’t we doing it?

OK, I get it, sincerity is hard to fake.  Just kidding – everybody fakes sincerity, which is a waste of time because most people have the emotional intelligence to know when someone is being insincere.  We put up with it because it’s how the whole thing works even when we inwardly yearn for people to mean what they say, to break out of the pack and be extraordinary.  At least, that’s what we say we want.

I have another theory, and you’re not going to like it.  I don’t like it.

My theory is this:  it’s the average people that, on average, get ahead, and that’s why we live in an average world.  I believe that the system is weighted in favor of the “good enough” crowd, the folks who don’t “rock the boat”.  The brilliant people are the disrupters.  Their insistence on constant improvement, their unwillingness to be satisfied, their devotion to excellence – well, frankly, it’s a pain in the ass.  They challenge the status quo, and sometimes the leadership (which are often the same thing).  They make everybody else look bad by comparison.  They blow the curve. They’re the showoffs, the workaholics, the know-it-alls.  And nobody likes an insufferable know-it-all, right?

I’m not saying that there aren’t instances of extraordinary people in customer-facing roles – there are.  But they are the exception, and they’re the ones that get talked about in keynote speeches.  It’s the rest of the crowd who make the exceptions exceptional.   And we, by accepting lethargic service, exacerbate the problem.  We are so desensitized to the crappy way we get treated by the people whose goods and services we are buying that these businesses have come to believe, rightly, that they can treat us like that and still make money. And if anyone inside the organization has the nerve to stand up and say “No!  This is wrong!  We should be better!”, they are silenced.

I also think that many people don’t know the difference between average and extraordinary.  They just can’t see it, so they go with the expected, the nonthreatening.  Exceptional people require those around them to raise their game, and that can be confronting.  Some folks would rather just not have to deal with it.  So they reinforce the average to the surprise and dismay of the exceptional.

I’m also going to say this.  Sometimes there’s not a damn thing you can do to make a customer love you.   I have been in a situation where I know I gave great service, but my client turned on me, and she never, ever told me what I had done to change her from loving me one day to freezing me out the next.  I did something, I must have.  I’ve gone back over every conversation, every interaction, and I know I wasn’t rude or disrespectful or anything that could possibly have justified the instantaneous about-face.  Whatever it was it must have tripped some switch in her own mind, and from that moment on, we were through.  Since she wouldn’t talk about it there was nothing I could do.

In those instances it’s best to fire your customer (even if they fire you first), because you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to please someone who cannot be pleased.  Or pleasing them would require you to behave in a way that isn’t who you want to be.  When this happens it’s confusing and painful and it goes against everything we’re told about how if you give exceptional service you’ll be remembered and people will be loyal to you.  My friends, I am very sorry to say this, but that isn’t always true, and you need to be prepared for the disappointment.  I wasn’t.

So, if being exceptional is going to get us ridiculed, ostracized, and possibly fired, should’t we just be average?  That is the choice we must make, and even though I seem to be railing against average, I understand its allure.  I understand why people choose, daily, to go along with the scheme.  I understand the pressure of wanting to keep your job and your friends and your customers by being as amenable and nonthreatening as possible.  But I can’t help but be sad about it.  What a wonderful world this would be if we all stopped expecting an average life and started demanding an extraordinary one.  The 79% would be amazing, and we’d listen to keynote speakers talk about how to set the other 21% free.

Do I think I’m exceptional?  Yes, sometimes I do.  There is no virtue in false modesty; sometimes I totally rock.  Other times I don’t.  But the only time I truly fail is when I begin to accept the average in myself.

photo credit: mod as hell via photopin cc

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Why I Miss Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy

For a few months during the first year after I was laid off, I found a TV channel that showed several episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” back-to-back late at night.  At the time I was suffering from insomnia, so I was staying up late so I would be tired enough to fall asleep when I finally went up to bed.  Finding “Buffy” re-runs was both a blessing and a curse; it was a terrific distraction from the non-stop internal monologue I was having about my situation, but it ensured I wouldn’t get to bed until the wee hours every day, which probably wasn’t helpful.

As television shows go, “Buffy” had it all – great writing, characters you cared about as they grew and changed, and solid performances by a terrific ensemble cast.  The reason “Buffy” was so good is that the monsters and magic and vampires were just a vehicle for the real story, which was about life and love and loss and hope and redemption – universal themes that everyone can relate to.

The thing is, I don’t know if “Buffy” would resonate as much if it was just beginning today.  Today we celebrate the anti-heroes, the bad-guys-you-can’t-help-but-root-for types.  It’s Tony Soprano, Dexter and Walter White that fascinate us now.  I’m sure there’s some deep meaning in this trend, but I don’t know what that could be.

What I do know is that for me at that time, “Buffy” represented a simpler world I wished I could be a part of.

Buffy Summers, reluctant hero though she was, knew her enemy and who she was fighting to protect.  At the core of the show was an ongoing battle between good and evil.  Fighting the good fight was difficult and required sacrifice; sometimes those sacrifices were heartbreaking.  Sometimes good characters succumbed to evil, worn out by grief and constant striving, or seduced by visions of earthly power.  Most of the time the lost found their way back, redeemed by the love and faith of their friends.  But if they didn’t, you can be sure they got their comeuppance.  That was how it worked – good always triumphed over evil.

I have never believed that people are either good or bad – human beings are far more complicated than that, and we live with a certain amount of moral ambiguity as a matter of course.   This is not necessarily a bad thing; understanding the complexities of the human heart makes us more willing to forgive others’ faults and show mercy when someone stumbles.  If Tony Soprano’s legacy is that we all become a little less judgmental of each other then I think that’s a good thing.

But I miss the clarity of Buffy’s world.  I miss the black-and-white nature of that universe, where evil was an ugly monster that could be vanquished with a wooden stake.  Life, while not easy, was at least knowable.

During those months as I struggled with my own confusion and sense of loss I would watch Buffy and think how much more straightforward her life seemed.  In our world, evil doesn’t rush at you, claws out.  Your life’s work isn’t as simple as a choice between being a good guy or a bad guy.  I longed to have a life that was clear-cut.  I longed to know what I was supposed to do next.  I knew my answers couldn’t be found in a television drama, but it was a relief to escape the chaos for a time.

That’s why I still miss Buffy.  It would be so much easier if life was just a straight-up fight, but my kind of demons can’t be dispatched with a wooden stake.  Frustration, self doubt, worry, guilt – there is no spell to consign these tormentors to another dimension.  But one thing Buffy knew in her world that does work in this one, and that is to never give up.  Keep your loved ones close and keep fighting.  Because if you do, you will prevail.  Perseverance is rewarded.  Good always wins.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/crusey/443763509/”>Tc7</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

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A Break from Navel Gazing

I’m conscious of the fact that this blog, by it’s nature, is a vehicle for self-exploration.  I write it because I hope that someone out there can relate to what I’m going through and be encouraged, or inspired – or even just relieved that they’re not as totally confused about life as I am.

However, I feel the need to take a break from the navel gazing to talk about some of the cool people, books and resources I’ve found as I’ve begun to explore life as a writer.

Over Labor Day weekend I attended the Decatur Book Festival (@dbookfestival), which has become the largest festival of its kind in the U.S.   It’s an amazing event that draws authors and poets and bibliophiles from all over the world.  Over the two days of the festival there are dozens of panel discussions and workshops on a wide rage of topics.  It’s free.  There were 75,000 people there this year.

The first session I chose was about writing memoir and intimacy.  It was led by two authors, Beth Kephart (@bethkephart) and Stacey D’Erasmo.  Beth (I call her “Beth” now, because I’ve met her) has written several memoirs and novels and teaches a class on memoir writing.  Her new book is called “Handling the Truth; on the writing of memoir”, which I purchased and had her sign.  I’m so very glad I found it before I got too much further into the writing of my second book, because it contains a wealth of good advice and information for anyone interested in the genre.  In the back of the book she lists a number of memoirs that she recommends budding memoirists read, and I’m working my way through a couple of them now.

I also attended a packed session featuring the best-selling authors Kathy Reichs and Karin Slaughter.  They were funny, inspiring, and amazingly normal.

The last session I went to was the launch of the 2013 edition of the yearly anthology “The Best American Poetry”.   On the stage were this year’s guest editor who chose the 75 poems included in the book, the series editor, and four of the featured poets.  They took turns reading poems from the book; the first time, they read their own, and the second time they read someone else’s poem.  It was a wonderful experience, especially for me since my interest in poetry goes back almost three whole weeks (it reminds me of when I turned 20 years old and suddenly liked yellow squash, when I had never liked it before).  I bought the anthology and have thoroughly enjoyed it.

That’s the literary end of things.  I have also happily discovered Kristen Lamb (@kristenlambtx) who is an expert at harnessing the power of social media for authors.   She’s written books, she blogs, and she’s started a networking and support group for writers she calls “WANA” (for “We Are Not Alone”).   Her new book “Rise of the Machines:  Human Authors in a Digital World” is essential reading for any author who wants to find an audience for their work.   She is funny and down-to-earth, and I strongly recommend that all aspiring writers listen to what she has to say.

Finally, and probably most importantly, on the recommendation of a friend I read “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield.  It’s a short book; not that many pages, and some of the “chapters” are one or two paragraphs long.  Even though it’s a quick read it is the most important book I’ve read in the last few weeks.  I won’t try to describe it, but I will say that if you feel you are being called to do something and you have not answered the call for all of the reasons that we tend to think of as “practical”, you need to read this book.  It isn’t just for artists; the principles apply to anyone who has a heart’s desire to bring something new into being, whether that’s a business or a novel or a painting.  The enemy here is our own resistance to following our hearts, and the enemy is strong.

I’m not saying that the books and authors and resources I’ve found are for everyone, but I have certainly been challenged and inspired by them.  I think everyone should go looking for ways to stretch themselves from time to time.  It isn’t comfortable; some of what I’ve been reading has made me extremely nervous.  But you can’t grow if you don’t step out of your comfort zone, and there is so much out there to explore!  I’ll leave you with a quote from the Dalai Lama that Pressfield uses to open his book:  “The enemy is a very good teacher.”

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Of Fear, Love and Writing

WritingI have never considered myself to be a creative person.  I have been a singer, but not a musician.  I have acted, but never ever thought of myself as an actor.  I inherited none of my father’s ability to draw and paint.  I’m a good cook, a competent (but not brilliant) photographer, and at a very young age I knew I could have been a decent dancer if I had kept at it, but I did not.  Even with all of these pursuits I never thought of myself as an artist of any stripe.  In my mind, artists were the ones whose gift was obvious, their talent undeniable.  When I compared myself to people I thought of as artists, I believed I was not one of them.

In college I discovered stage management as a discipline, and the first time I heard the term “theatrical technician” I knew I’d found myself.  What a perfect description of me – the practical one who kept the creative types’ feet on the ground.  I could stay connected to the world I loved, but I never had to reveal myself.  I could hide in plain sight, no one the wiser – except for one professor who saw right through me, and who I knew I’d disappointed.  I managed to push the shame of that aside and soldier on, convinced I had finally found my calling.

I was always a good writer, but not of stories or poems.  I strongly believed that I had no gift for creative writing; any attempts I made to write stories in high school were, in my opinion (and that of my English teacher) unsuccessful.  And being the person that I have always been, if I couldn’t be great at something I just wasn’t interested in doing it at all.  I was used to things I wanted coming easily to me.  If I perceived my goal to be too far away I would abandon it in favor of something more easily achieved.   Struggling for my art was not something I wanted to do, which is why I ultimately abandoned all creative pursuits one by one.  Eventually I even stopped stage managing, and for years and years I’ve done nothing creative at all outside of the kitchen.  Which explains a lot.

Writing became a tool that I used to become successful at my non-creative pursuits.  It wasn’t a friend helping me find my way, it was a slave I bent to my will.  It was this way until my cozy life fell apart and writing became my counselor, my support and my confessor.  I wrote the words of my heart in the ink of my grief.  I wrote to catch hold of the pain and put it someplace outside of myself.  But the time came that I didn’t have to do that anymore to survive, so I stopped.

Now I find myself writing again, and for the first time in a very long time it is for the primary purpose of creating.  But even as I’ve taken the first few steps into this new world I find myself up to my old tricks – trying to find the easy way, allowing myself to be content with the early attempts, not stopping to dig too deeply.  Fortunately I’ve recognized this tendency before I’ve sabotaged myself, but the realization has forced the question: do I move ahead, knowing the difficulties that I will encounter, the time it will take, and the statistical probability that I will never make a comfortable living as a writer, or do I do what I’ve done so many times and give up before I even really get started?

I have been at this decision point before, and I have always chosen the path of least resistance.  Sometimes I was aware of the choice I was making, other times the opportunity to choose differently came and went so fast I didn’t see it until it was gone.  Most of the time I convinced myself I was making the “right” choice, even as I ignored that soft, gentle voice that said I was making a mistake.  This time, though, there don’t seem to be as many alternatives available.  It’s as if I’ve used up all of my excuses, and a stronger will is pulling me in, like being caught in a whirlpool or a tractor beam.

And I can feel myself changing.  Thoughts I haven’t had in years about who I am are appearing in my mind.  A sudden thirst for poetry has taken hold of me out of nowhere.  Ideas for stories I could write, ways of making the new memoir meaningful (not just entertaining), and fragments of poems I want to attempt are all jumping around inside my head, dying to get out.  I haven’t felt this energized in decades.  Not since I became afraid of making myself vulnerable, of showing the world who I am and who I was meant to be.  I’m falling in love again, with words and their beauty and mystery and power.  I’m still afraid; I’m not sure if that will ever change.  I’m just tired of letting it stop me.

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photo credit: Writing via photopin (license)

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