Hello Holidays, Goodbye Focus

For ten-and-a-half months of the year, this is me:

via GIPHY

But as soon as Thanksgiving hits, I morph into something different:

via GIPHY

Trying to get me to concentrate on anything is like herding cats. I give up on being productive and spend inordinate amounts of time watching cheesy holiday movies and skipping around through podcasts. I’m tired of the current year, but too exhausted to get excited about the next.

This is unfortunate, of course, because now is the time of year I really should be paying attention. I need to finish up Christmas shopping, plot holiday travel, plan year-end blog posts and 2018 challenges, read for book club, and somehow remember to slow down long enough to enjoy time with family and friends.

It’s also hard for me because I’m a big fan of finishing strong. But my creative writing has fallen off, as has my reading. I’m not doing as well with my 2017 reading challenges as I’d hoped. The world is colder and darker, things are slowing down, and I’m in a bit of a funk.

One of the my favorite lessons from Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s Option B is to think about the things you’ve done well, and the things that bring you joy. You’re supposed to note a couple of each every day, but I think it’s a great idea to reflect on larger chunks of time, too.

Things I’ve done well this year:

  • Spearheading an advisor feedback program at my office. I just presented at a big meeting about how successful it’s been so far.
  • Rolling over three straggler retirement accounts into my current 401(k). Very adult, and gives me such a sense of accomplishment and relief.
  • Joining Toastmasters. I was scared, but I did it anyway. I’m actually the tiniest bit excited to give my third prepared speech in January.

And some things that bring me joy:

  • My husband introduced me to Trello and I. Am. Obsessed. The lists! The check boxes. I can’t even. The man just gets me.
  • Joining my first book club! Our conversations have been wonderful so far.
  • Finally accepting that I’m a minimalist. I’m having fun finding out what that looks like for me.

What have you done well this year? What brings you joy? Share in the comments!

Consider Me Professionally Developed

Non-fiction NovemberI despise stagnation. If I’m not learning or growing, it feels like I’m dying. This is partially because it’s the way I am (learning is so much fun!), and partially because I’ve got a lot of baggage when it comes to job progression and success.

In my anxiety-infested brain, not having enough to do at work means I’m about to be let go. I have nothing to do, which means there’s nothing to be done, which means why would they keep me around? Is there nothing to do because there’s truly nothing to do, or is there really stuff to do but my boss isn’t putting it on my plate because she’s about to fire me?

This isn’t a logical chain of reasoning — not given recent events, at least — but it’s one I fight with regularly.

“What’s the plan?”

I ask, and am asked, this question daily. Being able to answer is fun for me. “First I’m going to do this, then I need to ask about this, then I can…” etc. I love planning, I love putting together a process and working through it.

It used to irk me that I wasn’t able to answer this question when it came to my career. Was I being myopic or ruining my life because I didn’t know where I “saw myself” in five years?

Turns out, not really. Fuck the Grand Life Plan. It’s impossible. Life changes too fast, and is too short to spend time trying to force it take a shape it no longer can.

Build your path as you walk it

“Winging it” is not my thing. I have goals and things I want to learn and improve on — but I don’t go overboard with life planning anymore.

  • I want to improve my public speaking skills, so I joined Toastmasters in June. Two speeches in the bag!
  • I’m working with my manager to take on projects that fit my strengths and give me growth and visibility opportunities.
  • I’m a member of my company’s career committee, which spearheads career development programs for everyone I work with.
  • I attended this year’s Texas Conference for Women. Incredible speakers and sessions that have inspired me to do better (and re-think what “networking” really means).

I’m also reading like a fiend. Here’s what’s kept my brain spinning the last few months:

  • The Game Plan (Steve Bull) – Straightforward, practical, actionable advice for developing mental toughness.
  • Option B (Sheryl Sandberg, Adam Grant) – When Option A isn’t going to happen, it’s time to kick the shit out of Option B. Wonderful advice on building resilience.
  • Everything that Remains (Joshua Fields Millburn, Ryan Nicodemus) – “Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s important things — which actually aren’t things at all.”
  • Project Management Absolute Beginner’s Guide (Gregory M. Horine) – I’ve managed small projects throughout my career, but I want to improve my foundational knowledge.

I also can’t wait to get my hands on Adam Grant’s Give and Take and Kelly Hoey’s Build Your Dream Network.

Life is exciting and fun and a little bit intimidating right now. Definitely a sign I’m on an interesting path.

Love People. Use Things.

The first question my stepmother asked about my apartment in San Antonio was, “Are these all your clothes?” When we moved in July, the movers were surprised: “Only 36 boxes for a three-bedroom apartment?”

The accidental minimalist

I didn’t set out to be a minimalist. As a kid, I was the opposite: I had so many clothes, toys, and things that they filled two bedrooms. Some of those things — especially the books — were important to me, but most weren’t. It was impossible to keep it all neat and organized, much less use all of it. So it all became stuff I ignored, or got stressed about when I had to look through for something.

The fact that I didn’t need to keep all that stuff didn’t occur  to me until I was older.

I went to college in a city four hours from my hometown. Unlike many of the students there who lived 30 minutes away from campus, I didn’t have the luxury of making multiple trips on moving in or moving out day. Everything I needed for the entire school year had to fit in my car. At first that was stressful. But soon I learned to enjoy the process of deciding what would go, and what would stay.

I learned I didn’t need to keep all that stuff.

When I graduated and moved in with my husband, all I had with me was the stuff I had at my last semester of school. And I haven’t taken much from my childhood home since. There’s still two rooms of stuff there.

Why I’m a minimalist

It makes me feel better. My generalized anxiety disorder stuffs my brain with words and fears and fragmented thoughts — my brain is cluttered, so my house can’t be too. I’ll go insane.

I’m also monumentally aware of my privilege. I’m so lucky to be in a position where I’m able to donate things to Goodwill, or pass them along to friends who need them.

I need things to have a purpose and attain that purpose. I want emails I get to have something actionable — what do you want me to do? I want the things in my house to have a purpose, too. If something isn’t fulfilling that purpose, what do I need it for? I’d rather give it away to someone who will use it.

Challenges of minimalism

It all boils down to having family and friends who don’t understand, or are hostile about my choices.

  • You have so few things!” Yep!
  • “You’re giving that away?!” I sure am. You want it?
  • “You only have one [whatever]?” I only need one.
  • “You don’t want anything for [your birthday/Christmas]?” Just to spend time with you.
  • “You might need that someday.” Probably not. And if I do, I’ll buy a new one.

My house doesn’t look empty. I have three bookshelves stuffed with books; I have plenty of clothes; I have a big television; I have lots of art on the walls. I just don’t have much I don’t use or find valuable.

It’s about more than stuff

Minimalism doesn’t just mean I get rid of stuff. It also means I think carefully about the things and people I bring into my life. It means I take time to go to therapy, and consider my current schedule when I’m invited somewhere or asked to do something. I try to remember that my feelings matter just as much as other people’s. I try not to let guilt run my life. I try to enjoy the present.

“Love people. Use things. The opposite never works.”

What do you think about minimalism? Anyone else out there a minimalist?

Podcasts I STILL Can’t Stop Listening To

My days of long commutes are done (I hope), but I started listening to podcasts last year and I can’t freakin’ stop. You guys, I listen to 24 podcasts!

Between menial work tasks and endless chores at home, I mostly manage to keep up. Here’s what I’m loving the most recently.

My Favorite Murder

My Favorite Murder podcastWho says learning about murder can’t be funny? Every week “murderinos” Karen and Georgia read about murders — new or old, solved and unsolved, it’s all fair game. They also post “mini-sodes” where they read emails from listeners who talk about their hometown murders. Every episode is hysterical, despite the macabre subject matter. With a motto like, “Stay sexy and don’t get murdered!” what’s not to love?

The Popcast with Knox and Jamie

The Popcast podcastAlso known as the podcast with “the wheezy guy and the lady who hates everything.” This Southern lady and gentleman talk about all aspects of pop culture, from television shows to things people need to chill out about (looking at you, Pumpkin Spice Lattes). They are so funny, and Jamie’s accent in particular makes me feel right at home.

Lore

Lore podcastHost Aaron Mahnke shares the truth — or the theories — behind the scary stories we tell around the campfire. Episodes have titles like “Going Viral,” “Quarantine,” and “Within the Walls.” They’re creepy, well-researched, and make you take a closer look at the people around you. Plus the music is spot-on.

2 Dope Queens

2 Dope Queens podcastComedians Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams host a show featuring female comedians, comedians of color, and LGBT comedians. Not only is everyone funny, they also share different perspectives on life.

Twice Removed

Twice Removed podcastHost A.J. Jacobs meets with a celebrity guest and tells them about interesting people in their family tree. At the end of the episode, Jacobs introduces them to a “mystery relative” they didn’t know they had. It’s fascinating to learn about people’s history, and then be surprised by the mystery relative. The show is between seasons right now, but the first season is up on iTunes and is well worth a listen.

What podcasts have you hooked lately? What should I add to my list?

Want to change the world? Educate a girl.

2016 is almost over, and with it my reading challenges. Normally this is when I look at how I’ve done with the year’s reading, and gloat a bit about completing the challenges. But this year it’s different — this year, one of my challenges helped me find a new calling.

Let’s back up

A little over a year ago I was surfing around Netflix, looking for something to watch on a night when I had nothing else to do. In the documentary section I found Girl Rising. It follows nine girls living in places like Nepal, Cambodia, and Haiti as they stand up for their right to an education and freedom.

Girl Rising opened my eyes to some pretty horrifying statistics:

  • 65 million girls are out of school globally.
  • In a single year, an estimated 150 million girls were victims of sexual violence.
  • In developing countries, the number one cause of death for girls 15-19 is childbirth.

It made me so mad. I loved school so much, and couldn’t imagine how horrible it would have been to not be able to attend just because I was a girl. Everything I am is the result of what I have read and learned, and it infuriated me that so many girls were being left behind.

Especially when I learned things like:

  • A girl with an extra year of education can earn 20% more as an adult.
  • 10% fewer girls under the age of 17 would become pregnant in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia if they had a primary education.
  • If India enrolled 1% more girls in secondary school, its GDP would rise by $5.5 billion.

I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know where to start. I asked a friend of mine who works for Child Legacy International (they do some amazing things, please check them out!) if she knew of any organizations that focused on girls’ education.

That’s when I learned about Camfed. Their mission — to educate girls in some of the world’s poorest regions — is critical to making the world a better place for everyone.

But you know how it goes. You read an article or watch a documentary that gets you all fired up, you follow an organization on Twitter and you sign up for their newsletter…and then you never put your money where your mouth is. And that’s where this story almost ended.

First steps with the Charity Reading Challenge

In late 2015 I learned about the Charity Reading Challenge, in which participants pledge to donate a certain amount per book they read to the charity of their choice.

I liked the idea that my reading could help fund another girl’s education. So I pledged to donate $2 for every book I read in 2016 to Camfed. I signed up and started reading, glad that I’d found a way to give a little to a good cause.

But fate wasn’t done with me yet.

A heartbreaking email

In early September I got an email from Camfed that broke my heart.

Every September we face one of our most difficult decisions. We have to draw a line between the girls who will go to school and those who will not – we simply do not have the resources to help every child who needs support

We are facing a crisis that will condemn even more girls to a life of exclusion. A reduction in funding due to recent global uncertainty has pushed 3,500 more girls below that line.

I imagined what it would be like for those girls to hear that they wouldn’t be able to continue — or start — their education. What would it be like to see your brother head off to school while you have to stay home? What if not going to school meant being married off to a stranger because you are a burden on your family’s resources?

When I visited Camfed’s website, I read that $240 can send a girl to school for a full year.

$240. That’s less than my monthly car payment. I donated that night.

Since then I’ve imagined over and over someone from Camfed telling a girl in Ghana or Malawi or Tanzania or Zambia or Zimbabwe that she will be able to go to school this year. How did she react? What’s her name? Her favorite subject? What does she want to be when she grows up?

Then I remembered that the company I work for matches charitable donations — I’ve submitted that paperwork already, which means two girls get to go to school.

Just getting started

I’m still planning to donate $2 to Camfed for every book I read this year, but that won’t be the end of this adventure. I’ve found something that ignites my passion, that makes me want to participate in something bigger than myself.

I don’t know exactly what that participation looks like yet, but I do know that it includes others. If you’re passionate about girls’ education and empowerment, or think you could be, I encourage you to:

  • Read Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky. Take at least one of the actions they list at the end.
  • Read more about Camfed and the other organizations Kristof and WuDunn describe.
  • Consider donating to Camfed so they can meet their goal of educating 1 million girls by 2020.

Today is Thanksgiving. This year I have more than ever to be thankful for. I’ve found a calling, a cause, and I hope you’ll join me in this fight.

Update: Donations from people in September and October got 343 more girls above the line and into school. So badass.