In Praise of a Thin Skin (And How To Keep It From Derailing You)

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When I first launched my career as a writer, I heard the phrase “thick skin” a lot.

“You have to develop a thick skin to handle rejection.”

“Criticism comes with the territory; if you’re thin-skinned, you won’t make it in this business.”

This worried me, because I’ve always been “thin-skinned.” I’d just learned how to hide it.

My mother was a crier: anything from a sad song to an offhand comment could set her off. She was also emotionally erratic and depressed, so for years, I equated displays of emotion with weakness and instability.

My dad, on the other hand, was a model of reserve, and I found myself emulating his cool exterior and stoicism…even when I was crumbling on the inside.

So while I spent my elementary-school years crying over everything from scraped knees to mean teachers, by junior high I’d developed a talent for making my face go blank when embarrassed or sad.

As I got older, high school and beyond, I often coped with difficulty by making a joke out of upsetting situations.

The truth was that I was afraid of strong emotion, and actually practiced detaching from it.

And eventually, it worked. As a young adult, I’d experience a sort of delayed reaction to sadness or anger: when something bad happened, at first I’d just feel numb.

Later – sometimes much later – in the privacy of the shower or during a vulnerable late-night moment, I’d start to grow angry or sad or afraid, but by that point it was sometimes difficult to identify exactly where those feelings were coming from, or link them to a particular event.

Not surprisingly, this led to a lot of fights with my husband that weren’t really about the thing I thought we were fighting about at all.

That’s all changed over the last decade, though. In fact, I seem to be losing my ability to suppress my feelings…or maybe just the desire to try.

At some point, I think I realized that the same part of me that allows me to really embrace happiness and enthusiasm is the same part of me that cries at commercials, and that I can’t truly experience one without allowing the other.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m naturally pretty laid-back. I still tend to react slowly to news, I still don’t like to argue or confront people, and I still use humor to get me through hard times.

But the more difficult feelings I avoided in my teens and early twenties seem to have risen closer to the surface, and have become harder to tamp down or cover up.

I cry easily now: watching commercials, listening to songs, talking about the people I love, when I feel misunderstood or regretful or embarrassed. When I get angry, I can’t help but speak out. I’ve become impulsive with physical affection around the people I like and admire, and in some situations, have even become the same kind of “hugger” that used to make the younger me uncomfortable. [Read more...]

What summer break can teach us about being busy vs. getting things done

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This afternoon, when sitting at the beach for the second day in a row, I had one of those “should” moments we all experience from time to time.

Is it right for me to be sitting here at 2 in the afternoon on a Thursday? Maybe I should be working,” I thought.

I quickly waved the thought away, applying more sunscreen as I watched my boys splashing in the water while Clara dug in the sand at my feet.

After all, we’ve had an unseasonably cool summer, and there just haven’t been that many hot, sunny days that have lent themselves to a leisurely afternoon on Lake Michigan. Living in a beach town, it would just be wasteful not to take advantage of the sand and waves when we can.

But more importantly, I’ve found that the summer – when my kids are all out of school and our schedule is turned upside-down and, more often than not, I have small people wandering in and out of my office while I work – is always an important reminder of the difference between “being busy” and “doing what needs to be done.”

Truth be told, my essential workload doesn’t change much in the summer. I still have client expectations to meet, stories to write and schedule, emails to answer.

What changes? My attitude.

Because our household routine is so much looser and my kids are around all day, I feel more free to take entire mornings or afternoons away from my computer to head to the beach, the park, the ice-cream shop.

I find myself fitting work around all the things I want to do before the summer is over, rather than trying to “fill up” work hours with productive-seeming activities that are often really just busy-work or wheel-spinning.

And as a result, I make a lot of hay in a very few hours each week, and I admit, I sometimes wind up feeling a little uncomfortable about it.

The “should” side of my brain asks: If what I’m doing has value, is genuine, is worth what I earn for it, shouldn’t it be taking up more of my time?

But let’s turn this on its head. Rather than feeling like I should be working more during the summer, what if I should actually be working less – or, to be clear, spending less time “working” on things that don’t matter – the rest of the year?

It’s pretty sobering and perspective-shifting when you look back over a three-month period and realize that the entirety of your essential “full-time” job could actually fit into a few hours a day.

It tells me a lot about the way I spend my time when I have more time to spend, and makes me question how “productive” I really am when I’m doing all that clicking and feed-sifting and typing, September through May.

It turns out there’s a difference between filling time and being productive.

And that’s what summer break teaches me, every year.

[Read more...]

Untangling the chain: why both strategy and intuition matter

Last weekend, as my husband and I were getting ready to leave town for my birthday celebration, I discovered that the necklace I wanted to wear had become hopelessly tangled in the drawer of my jewelry box.

It wasn’t a pretty sight. The dozen or so delicate strands, joined at each end by a wide bar and meant to lie one inside the other, had knotted over and over one another and become entangled in other necklaces plus a number of dangly earrings and bracelets. (What can I say? I don’t spend a lot on my accessories and have a bad track record when it comes to their care.)

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I still had to take a shower and get ready before we could leave, and my frustrated, hurried picking at the knots didn’t seem to be getting me anywhere.

So I turned to my husband Jon, whose methodical, detail-oriented approach to problem-solving seemed much better suited for the task.

He shook his head (as methodical, detail-oriented people are apt to do when faced with the sort of mess an impulsive, big-picture type like me can make) but set to work on the unpleasant job.

When I got out of the shower a few minutes later, I watched Jon and his strategy became clear: choose one strand and work on it until it becomes straight and unkinked, then move on to the next.

For a while, it worked: he’d made quite a lot of progress in a short time.

But eventually, hunching over a tangled mess started wearing on him, and a few times as soon as he’d straighten one strand it would make the next one worse. “I’m not even sure this is possible,” he sighed, and laid the necklace carefully down on the bed to take a break.

I picked it up again to give it another shot. But this time, as if by magic, the twists and loops began to rapidly untangle themselves. I found that I almost wasn’t even looking at the strands as I unwound them, working backward to dislodge the knots.

Instead, I was somehow going by intuition: sensing the weight of the metal as I grasped entire clumps and shook them free at once, almost without effort; feeling the way the entire necklace should hang together, rather than focusing the individual parts.

In no time the necklace – which had looked like a hot mess just two or three minutes before - lay smooth and untangled in my hand, and I got to wear it to my birthday dinner after all.

[Read more...]

Should you attend that conference?

Right now the BlogHer conference is ramping up in San Jose, and those watching the hashtag from the sidelines might be feeling a little left out, regretful, or even anxious about not being in attendance.

This is only the second BlogHer I’ve missed since 2007, so I understand the feeling.

But this year, I’m sitting the conference out with no regrets.

Why? Well, while I’m sad not to see friends who will be at the conference – and yes, I do love to sleep in a hotel bed! – this year I took a hard look at the cost-benefit ratio and decided that as lovely as it would be to attend, ultimately, this year the benefits weren’t worth the tradeoffs.

It’s nothing against BlogHer, by the way. Of all the conferences I’ve attended – and conferences, I’ve seen a few (more like a dozen, to be honest) – I’ve been most loyal to BlogHer. It was the first blogging event I ever went to, and I’ve attended a total of six times. I’ve found the conference professionally and personally rewarding every year.

But the focus of my business has been slowly evolving, and when I sat down to really think about what I wanted to get out of BlogHer this year, the truth was…I just didn’t know. And just not knowing isn’t a good enough incentive to get me to shell out a lot of money and fly across the country for the duration of one of just a handful of precious summer weekends. No matter how great the content, how nice the location, or how crisp those hotel sheets might be.

So if you’re also sitting this one out, or maybe have never been to a conference at all, I don’t want you to feel too bad about it. I also don’t want you to let your left-out feelings spur you into making a hasty decision to register for some other event just to make yourself feel better about missing this one.

Attending a conference can be an excellent and worthwhile investment in your business, but like any other investment, it’s one that’s best made with plenty of critical thought.

So click away from that registration window for just a few minutes, and take a few steps before you pull out your credit card: [Read more...]

Bloggers (and Freelancers): You must diversify.

As I write this, there is a storm of controversy blowing up in my blogger community. Many of my colleagues contributed their time and talents and credibility to a parenting site that went from indie darling to corporate machine seemingly overnight. Other colleagues were editorial and marketing staff at that same website. And along the way something happened – no one seems quite sure what – leaving former staffers without jobs and former bloggers without gigs and a lot of people confused and stressed about paying the bills.

I’m not taking sides. It’s a mess all around, and I hate that people and their families (whether on the staff/executive or blogger level) are under strain because of it. I have no idea where to place blame or even if there is blame to be placed.

But here’s the part I want to get across loud and clear: this – all of this – was completely, totally, 100% predictable. 

This is what happens with media companies: they merge with other media companies. They get sold and bought and acquired. They change ownership, leadership, and staff. Sometimes they completely disappear without warning. Sometimes the people in high-up positions are just as blindsided as everyone else. Sometimes they know something is up, but can’t talk about it. Other times they choose not to because they need or want to figure out their own next steps first. This is all true even if you are friendly with those people, or believe them to be your actual friends.

I learned this the hard way myself when I began freelancing back in 2003. After working my tail off to create a strong connection with an editor at a national magazine, she left the company abruptly while thisclose to assigning my first big story. She passed the pitch on to her successor, who never – and I do mean, never, never, not ever – responded to a single one of my follow-ups. Other magazines I slowly, steadily, persistently courted disappeared. The website where I got my start as a parenting writer folded. Others stopped paying contributors. Sometimes a story of mine would be killed and I’d go from regular writer to persona non grata for no reason except that the new “guard” wanted to wipe the slate clean and bring in all their own people and ideas.

In 2010, right in the middle of the editing process with my book The Happiest Mom, which I wrote in partnership with Parenting magazine, 3/4 of the magazine’s editorial staff was let go…including the editor-in-chief who had championed my idea in the first place. Her replacement was not nearly as enthralled with the book – or, I believe, me –  and I can only say the launch experience was not quite what I’d hoped for. (Parenting, incidentally, has since folded.)

This is the reality of freelancing today. It requires a certain comfort level with risk, an ability to bounce back quickly from loss, and the foresight to see what’s coming next. It also requires – demands – diversification, so that when one leg of your stool breaks you’re left with a few others to support you. [Read more...]

Why linkbaiters are doing it wrong and always have been.

appleFor the past five or six months, my Facebook news feed has seemed intent on telling me all the things I’ve been doing wrong.

First it was apples. Have you labored under the delusion that there is, in fact, a core? WRONG.

Tic-tacs. Do you open the spout on top and shake a few into your hands? WRONG.

Bananas. Peel ‘em from the stem? WRONG.

Eating Chinese takeout? Opening ketchup packets? Consuming oranges? Putting a straw in a soda can? Hard-boiling eggs? You, dear world, are doing it wrong.

The first time one of these articles – the “just go ahead and eat the apple core” one - came across my feed, I was intrigued enough to click over. The second and third times I saw a similar admonition about my eating techniques, I felt mild interest and clicked to see what I was missing out on (as it turned out, I was already eating my oranges the so-called “right” way.) By the fourth and fifth times, I was tired of them.

But by the tenth time or so, my initial curiosity and later, boredom with the concept had been replaced by irritation.

And then this morning, I saw this: [Read more...]

In defense of the long email

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The first time I was introduced to the world of email, I was eighteen years old and in the first week of my freshman year of college. Sure, I’d messed around with email before in a class or two, but it had never been available to me at any time or in pretty much any place I might want to use it. Now, I suddenly had access to a 24-hour-a-day computer lab in my dorm, and every library or study area I ran across on campus had computers and internet access.

I spent the first days before classes started getting acquainted with the VAX machine in our dorm computer lab. It was a small, no-frills monitor with a black screen and bright-green blinking letters; logging in required a complicated series of keystrokes I could no longer repeat if I had to. There were no browsers on these machines, no games, no applications of any sort – only email.

Considering I only knew a handful of other people who had email addresses at that time – one of them being my roommate, who I spent most of my waking hours with anyway – you’d think I wouldn’t have had much use for an email-only computer. Oh, but you’d be wrong. I became obsessed with sending emails, mostly to my sister (who worked for the state government and was one of the first people I knew to have access to email for work,) a couple of friends who were attending colleges in other cities…and, yes, my roommate. (Hey, we had differing class schedules and had to stay in touch during the day!)

I sent long emails. Novel-length emails. Emails detailing the contents of my breakfast; describing the cute boy who sat a few rows down in my Econ class; lamenting the fact that I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to pass my Econ class…and questioning my decision to major in business, which had required me to take Econ in the first place. And my friends, and my sister, and yes, my roommate sent long emails back to me.

Our emails were like the long, handwritten letters you see copied into historical books; narrative reports of daily life filled with everyday news, spiced up with an occasional exciting bit of town drama. Only instead of reporting on the health of the chickens or our neighbor’s barn fire, we’d complain about exams and describe the day the police stormed our dorm and took out the three nice boys down the hall in handcuffs, never to be seen again. (Nice boys they were, but not very careful about the booming marijuana business they were obviously carrying on from their room.) [Read more...]

“Can’t.”

Of all the words in the world, perhaps my least favorite is “can’t.”

Why? Maybe it’s because of how often it’s used to rain on somebody else’s parade. For example, people love to tell you that you can’t do things:

“You can’t just…(quit your job, get up and move to another country, say exactly what you’re thinking, change your mind, change your life.)”

People also love to tell you about the things THEY can’t do:

“It’s cool that you’re doing that, but I can’t (travel, eat well, save money, change careers) because (my job is too demanding, my kids have too many evening activities, I have college debt, I have a family to think of.)”

That last kind of “can’t” is the worst, because there’s a tinge of “Must be nice!” to it.

And “must be nice!” might just be the pettiest, most dripping-with-envy, and least productive phrase in the English language.

It implies not only that the other person got whatever it “must be nice!” to have through some kind of illicit, unfair or irresponsible means, but also that the person who wants whatever it “must be nice!” to have is helpless to change their own circumstances. [Read more...]

what does it mean to be successful?

raising teens

my son Jacob and I at Epcot center

After going through infancy and toddlerhood and a rather rocky preschool period with my first two boys, I experienced a steady increase in parental self-confidence.

Seeing my sons thrive and grow and, yes, learn to fall asleep on their own despite any missteps I might have made in those early years helped me to realize that there really are many ways to raise great kids, and that what matters in the end is the big picture – not whether I get every little detail “right.”

But now that I’ve got two teenagers in the house – Isaac, 13, and Jacob, 15 – I admit that some of that confidence has been shaken.

Sometimes I find myself second-guessing my values and choices, much the way I did when they were six months old. I find myself looking at the decisions they make, and wondering how much the not-so-great ones reflect on me and my parenting style.

Mostly I find myself in the uncomfortable position of, once again, worrying about doing it right.

Doing school “right.” Parenting teenagers “right.” Raising productive members of society “right”.

But somehow the choices I’m faced with now seem more fraught than they ever did when I was choosing between cloth and disposable diapers. Because what my sons have entered now is a period of years that will directly affect that nebulous quality of life that we call “success.”

Which raises the question: what, exactly, is success?

The older my kids get, the more I feel that definition – according to the rest of the world, anyway – is wrapped up in school, grades, and achievement.

And I’m just not sure it’s a view I can completely buy into.

It’s not that I think academic achievement is unimportant. School is, after all, my kids’ “job.” They spent the majority of their waking hours either in a school building, or at home dealing with homework. Their performances now will affect the college they might be able to attend, either due to admissions criteria or the chances of getting scholarship money. Yes, what they are doing right now matters.

But at the end of the day – or should I say, at the end of this decade of their lives - how much will it matter? And to what lengths should I go to make sure they get the grades, ace the tests, nab the resume-impressive opportunities?

And – if I’m really honest – how much of me cares about these grades and performance because I actually think they are what will bring my kids happiness and success later in life, and how much is it more that I’m worried about “what other people will think” if my kids don’t perform?

While I of course want my kids to do well in school, to achieve, and have all the options in the world available to them, the older they – and I – get, the more I realize that their success in high school is not how I want to define their success as human beings. Nor how I want them to feel defined.

That’s a controversial position to take. My boys attend a public school system with high academic standards. Grades and tests and what college you get into are a big deal here. The 8th grade awards banquet is like a pageant of adolescent excellence. I can only imagine what’s in store for me as Jacob (a freshman) reaches the upper grades.

And of course I want my kids to do well. To try. To know the satisfaction of reaching a goal or making the honor roll.

But when I think about how all-important those GPAs and test scores and college applications are supposed to be in the life of a mom to teens, I’m just not convinced. Not convinced that better grades equal more success in life. Not convinced that getting into a “better” college means you’ll be richer down the road. Not even a little bit convinced that being richer down the road would equal being happier, either.

The more I am on this earth, the more I think we’re here to experience what it has to offer, to get to know the people we share it with. I believe we do that through learning. But learning is not the same thing as proving you’ve learned.

Not every kid is ready to take the world by storm at the age of 14 or 15 or 16.  Not every kid is able, ready, or willing to “apply himself” between his freshman and senior years, as much potential as the rest of us might all see in him.

Some teens are immature, some are disorganized. Some are late bloomers – I’m a great example of somebody who fumbled through my teens and early 20s, not hitting my stride until I was well into my third decade of life. Heck, I never even finished college, and yet I consider myself very happy and pretty successful, as my personal definition of success goes.

Look at today’s kids. They are already smarter than us – not wiser, no, but smarter – in so many ways. How will they harness the information they’re constantly swimming in? How do we teach them to use it for good, to innovate for the right reasons, to be thoughtful and kind and not just smart?

Is it possible that the way we have traditionally measured and judged human achievement and success is not only hopelessly outdated, but was inaccurate to begin with?

I think it’s our job as parents, as a society, to redefine what success means. To reward innovation and creativity and kindness and optimism and the willingness to try just as much as we reward getting the right answers on a test. To recognize – truly recognize – kids for their different strengths and talents.

To acknowledge that the path to success does not look the same for every young adult, and very often does not include a linear path from high school to college to chosen career. 

I want my kids to succeed. But success means so much more to me than A’s and B’s on a report card or numbers on a test. And I think it’s time I was bolder in making that statement, right out loud.

Because the last message I want my teens to pick up on is that they are somehow doomed or “less than” because they have a less-than-dazzling high school performance.

We all know examples of successful people who had so-so high school careers. And we all know examples of people who excelled in school and are now miserable, broke or underemployed.

So then, what is success? I believe it’s rooted in having the sort of tenacity and resiliency that allows a person to pick up and try again, no matter how many times they fail or fall down. A network of loved ones who will offer support and encouragement when things don’t go well and a cheering section when they do. And the optimism and imagination to see that there is more to life just around the next bend in the road.

That is my personal definition of success. And if my boys achieve that, I’ll be very happy regardless of their final GPA or which college they get into…or don’t.

When life is good, why change?

I’ve always been equally drawn to, and repelled by, change.

I don’t know if I can explain it except to say that, every so often, I feel a very strong urge to shake things up, while at the same time another part of my psyche clings desperately to whatever comfortable, familiar status I’ve reached.

I experience this conflict in my work. My personal life. My choice of surroundings. Heck, I could probably chalk up a baby or two to a sudden and impossible-to-ignore need to complicate my sleepy, steady life.

The thing is, I do love our life. We’ve actually held a pretty firm line against the modern-day craziness, the go-go-go of one activity or sport after another. We eat dinner together as a family most nights, spend leisurely weekend days with close family and friends, laugh together, and don’t stress too much….We live in a beautiful, cozy haven filled with friendly people and great schools.

That’s just it. Sometimes I feel like we’re too comfortable. And then I think: am I nuts? What’s wrong with comfort? Isn’t that what humans are supposed to work toward: peace, prosperity, quiet nights in the rocking chair?

Or is there something to be said for making sure we’re really awake?

Recently I started to read Jeff Goins‘ book, Wrecked: When A Broken World Slams Into Your Comfortable Life. 

The book focuses on experiencing, really experiencing, the world and the lives of people in it, so that we can allow our perspectives and mindsets to experience a radical shift…rather than staying cocooned in the comfy, protective bubble of relative wealth and luxury that most of us who possess high-speed internet and access to Target occupy.

I’ve read enough of Jeff’s stuff to know that he is a well-respected, talented writer who seems like a genuinely nice guy. I’d liked his writing enough to buy his book, after all.

But as I read it, I first felt vaguely on edge, and then that edginess turned to annoyance. By the time I got to the middle of the book, I felt genuinely angry. Why?

I think it’s because what Jeff was suggesting – leaving behind the blurry veil of ignorance to embrace something much grittier and less shiny and palatable – was darned uncomfortable to contemplate.

While in one part of my brain I acknowledged the truth in his words, I also found myself mentally resisting what he was saying, like a toddler kicking her feet and clinging desperately to a toy.

Only in my case, the “toy” I was clinging to was the idea of a comfortable, easy life. I’ve worked hard to achieve it, after all. Isn’t it supposed to be mine for keeps?

I think Wrecked made me uncomfortable because I it made me recognize the fallacy in that idea – that I deserve a certain way of life, and that I can hold on to it, make it mine, for good. If I just ignore the reality of the rest of the world. If I just earn enough money.

But nothing is guaranteed. And while a certain way of life may be earned, that doesn’t mean it’s deserved.

Or that it can’t go away. Or that it’s all there is.

This isn’t a pre-midlife crisis. I’m not living a life of quiet despair, trying to “find” myself, or wondering “what’s the point of it all?”

Rather, I think I’m recognizing that comfort and ease will only get me so far. And that, if I get too comfy-cozy, I run a real danger of living the majority of my adult years not fully awake.

Things that I never imagined in my much-poorer existence ten or fifteen years ago have become mine, and I barely even notice the difference. Things I never imagined my kids would have are just an assumed part of their life. Things I never thought I’d care about – like what people might think if I did X or drove Y or lived in Z – now weigh heavy on my mind, much as I try to shake those thoughts and comparisons away.

I don’t begrudge us any of what we have – which would seem quite modest to many, and unbelievably lavish to others – but I want to have my eyes open wide enough to see it for what it is.

So that’s why, though my life is happy and good, I look for ways to shake it up. To stay awake. To make sure I’m not sleepwalking through these days and months and years.

Kristen Tennant, a blogger I have respected for years, recently wrote a post called Not Playing It Safe. While I love the whole post and the sweet story she shares, this is the part that jumped out at me most:

No, it can’t be the promise of branches that will hold or fruit that is ripe and sweet that motivates us to take risks. It can only be the promise of adventure—of some motion that wakes your life up and takes it from where it has been slumbering to some new place.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

There is no guarantee in adventure, except that it will be often uncertain and occasionally uncomfortable. And that it requires your attention and focus and participation. It requires you to stay awake.

Maybe to really keep my eyes open, I need to challenge the side of myself that would really rather stay riiiight here.

And whether it’s a small adventure – a new friendship, maybe – or a big one, like an international move, it’s worth stepping outside of my wonderfully peaceful life to open my eyes, wake up, and get living.