What Drives You?

I love good questions. I enjoy pondering a provocative question on my bike or at other times when my mind is free to consider it. I experience a visceral surge of excitement when presented with a question that begs for deep exploration.

As I prepared to get into the shower after my bike ride yesterday, I was reading (and loving!) Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People. As he recalled an interview with one of the individuals featured in the book’s case studies, he explained that he had asked his subject, “What drives you?” That question elicited the familiar surge of excitement, letting know that I needed to explore what drives me. Since I was getting into the shower, the question presented itself at the perfect time. The shower is a great place to think because it is private (except when I am on Biking Across Kansas) and quiet, and I am usually able to wash myself without concentrating too hard on what I am doing, freeing up mental bandwidth for exploring interesting questions.

As I washed off the road grime. I asked myself, “What drives me?” It didn’t take long before I settled on “growth and improvement.” As I thought about it some more on today’s bike ride, I recognized that “growth and improvement” are the ways that my internal drivers manifest themselves. A more complete picture is this formula:

Strengths + Values=Internal Drivers (Motivation)

My top Clifton Strengths are: Intellection, Input, Relator, Learner and Maximizer.

For many years my core values have been: Compassion, Excellence, Integrity and Fitness.

The combination of my strengths and my values comprise my internal drivers, which manifest as growth and improvement.

Although each element—strengths, values and internal drivers—looks different for every individual, I think strengths and values are the consistent building blocks.

Ultimately, I want to be growing and improving continually in my life. I have come to view this as my personal evolution. Always ripe for a (mechanically imperfect) cycling analogy, I picture the equation formulating my evolution as turning wheels on a bicycle. My progress—evolution—ebbs and flows with the revolutions of the wheels. They take me to the next stop on my ride, but, like a bike tour, I keep getting back on and moving forward to the next destination. This is what growth and improvement are to me, continual evolution, rather than a transformation that takes place as a singular event. My strengths and values are like the hubs of the wheels, with my internal drivers (or motivation) the drivetrain.

Over time and with a lot of introspection, I have fine-tuned my life to allow me to grow in the ways that feed my soul and are important to me.

I am driven to use my strengths to think and learn and grow within the boundaries of my values.

I am driven to grow in compassion by living a vegan lifestyle and helping others to learn about plant-based nourishment, as well as by treating all human and non-human animals with compassion. I am not perfect in my practice of this, but I am driven by my aspiration to live in full compassion.

I am driven to provide excellent service and to put forth my best work in my advising, writing, coaching, teaching, parenting and relating. By continually striving toward excellence, I can pursue a higher level of one of my core values, while employing all my major strengths.

I am driven to pursue integrity by living my values, even when it is challenging, in a world that does not always support them or understand me. This is an ongoing growth opportunity.

I am driven to maintain a high level of fitness because doing so allows me to live my other values more fully and to ensure that I can keep growing and improving.

What drives you?

I encourage you to ask yourself that question and to create time and mental space to explore the answers. Then—and this is key—find ways to allow your deepest intrinsic motivation to play out in your life.

Find your strengths: One excellent and informative way to gain insight about your internal drivers is to take a strengths test. Both Clifton Strengths (linked above) and Via Strengths can provide valuable self-awareness. Via is free online. Clifton requires the purchase of a book and/or a code. They are different, but both can help you consider what makes you tick.

Clarify your values: You can find many values lists online and in books. I have never found one that I really consider to be comprehensive. (I’m not sure there is such a thing.) The best one I have found is in Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., which I am also currently reading, for the Wichita State University Leadership Book Club. Years ago, I discerned my values through my own reflection and introspection. Brown gives some excellent tips for guiding this process. She says, “Ask yourself: Does this define me? Is this who I am at my best? Is that a filter that I use to make hard decisions?” Brown recommends settling on two core values. As I said, I have four.

“Our values should be so crystallized in our minds, so infallible, so precise and clear and unassailable, that they don’t feel like a choice—they are simply a definition of who we are in our lives.” –Brené Brown

Consider what the combination of your strengths and values suggest about what drives you. (Strengths + Values=Internal Drivers): What is it that propels you forward in life? Whether you consider it an internal driver or drivers, motivation or your “why,” I think there is value in knowing. Thinking about it is a worthwhile endeavor.

When you figure out what drives you, take an honest look at your life. Does it reflect your motivations, the things that push you forward? For me, it is continual, progressive evolution in key areas of my life. I need to feel like I am living my values and maximizing my strengths more effectively each day. For you, it could be family or financial freedom or a cause that is close to your heart. Whatever it is, own it. Honor it. Find ways to build your life around it.

If you are interested in exploring this and other deep questions as a way to optimize your life, make the difference you want to make and live with no regrets, contact me at sheri@justwindcoach.com to schedule a coaching call. I’d love to help you figure out what drives you and find ways to honor those motivations in your life. I believe there are reasons that certain things are driving forces in our lives. These intrinsic drives are part of our unique mode of expression in the world—the contribution we want to make and the legacy we are here to leave.

Owning My “And”: Embracing My Intrapersonal Pluralism

Publishing this post feels a bit risky, knowing it could be read by anyone, but it also feels important to share. Although I had planned to continue my “Top 5” series a bit longer, I have decided to depart from it because I have been inspired lately with a greater understanding of myself that I believe can help others.

As an academic advisor for undergraduate college students, I frequently hear students say, sometimes with great angst, “I don’t know what I want to do!” Until very recently, while I have empathized with them and tried to reassure them that they have time to figure it out, I have felt like I was holding on to a dirty little secret: Neither did I.

I have done several different things throughout my career, mostly in higher education and nonprofit, and, to be honest, I have held shame and fear that I was “wishy-washy” and indecisive because I felt called in different directions. Many people my age have spent 20, 25 or 30 years in a single role, in a single field or a single institution, continuously moving into progressively higher positions. Although, collectively, I have spent around 12 years at the University (not including my time as a student and graduate assistant), it has been a bit of a zig-zag path. I know that I have done work that has mattered—advocating for and supporting people living with HIV in the 1990s, coordinating volunteers for the American Red Cross and assisting and teaching college students. I also took a few years away from work after my son was born (although I tried to start a couple businesses during that time). Partly because of the anguish I felt to find the right fit and contribute to the world in different ways, I pursued a second Master’s degree, which I completed eight years after earning my first.

I have been in this role as academic advisor since 2014. (To be fair, I am working in the same department where I earned my second Master’s degree.) I know I help students. I know I make a difference for them. I have liked this work from the beginning, and I am good at it. However, for the first few years, there were several issues that created a lot of stress and unhappiness for me. I was so disappointed when that turned out to be the case several months after starting this position. I already felt (especially after a disappointment when Red Cross restructured, causing me to leave there) like my career lacked coherence and that I hadn’t accomplished what I “should” have accomplished professionally. Struggling with shame, disenchantment and a sense of powerlessness, I decided to return to a goal that I had held during my last stint in grad school and when my son was little. I enrolled in health coach school and got certified as a health coach and life coach over the next year and a half. At the time, my plan was to build my business and then leave the University. I decided I wanted out, and I didn’t want to work for anyone ever again.

In October 2017, a few months before I completed my health coach training, it all came to a head for me at the University. The pressure that had been coming every semester, due to a difference in opinion with the College administration about how I should do my job, started again. I decided I had nothing to lose because I was really unhappy. So, I wrote an email, copied to several people in administration and to my department chair (who supported me) and set boundaries about what I was and was not willing to do and what I would no longer tolerate. It wasn’t a threat, but it was clear and direct.

An amazing thing happened. The pressure stopped. And my job improved. (This was a lesson in itself about having the courage to stand up for myself and what I believe is right.) I finished my coach training and set out to grow my business, and then the torment set in for me. I had promised myself that I would get certified, grow my business and then leave the University, but I suddenly felt myself struggling because I no longer really wanted to leave. However, I still wanted to grow my business, and I wanted to do other cool things.

What was wrong with me?!

I often felt like an imposter when I talked to my students and guided them on their career paths. I couldn’t even figure out my own!

This struggle persisted, waxing and waning over more than a year.

Recently, light has flooded in for me, though, and I want to share my insights because I no longer believe I am the only one who feels this way.

I have heard several thought leaders and coaches—Kristin Lajeneusse, Tess Challis, Marie Forleo—use the term “multipassionate” to describe people who are pulled in many different creative and professional directions. When I was first exposed to this idea during the summer of 2018, it didn’t fully resonate with me. I understood the concept, but I couldn’t embrace it as a description that fit and felt okay.

In the last couple months, though, I listened to Emilie Wapnick’s excellent book How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up. I happened to listen to David Epstein on Lewis Howe’s School of Greatness podcast right after listening to Emilie Wapnick’s book. Coinciding with this, I had the opportunity to attend an in-depth training on Clifton’s strengths at the University. I was not new to strengths, having participated in the University’s spring 2019 Leadership Book Club, which featured the book Strengths-Based Leadership. I had read it several years ago, and I have also been interested in Via Character Strengths for years.

However, this time, it all came together for me. My top-5 Clifton strengths are: Intellection, Input, Relator, Learner and Maximizer (Brief descriptions of these and the other 29 strengths here). As I learned more about these and thought about what I had heard from Wapnick and Epstein, I started receiving hits of inspiration and understanding on my bike. It was very exciting and very comforting. Emilie Wapnick uses the term “multipotentialite.” David Epstein talks about having a “range” of interests and activities. Wapnick offers many other possible labels and invites us to choose what works for us. Noting felt quite right, although the ideas I heard clicked. Because my best processing always occurs on my bike, I started toying with different descriptions while I rode. For a week or so, “multi-layered professional” seemed to be right. A couple weeks ago, though, I realized what really fits for me.

It is about owning my “and.” By this I mean that I was suddenly enveloped with self-acceptance and acknowledgement that what feels right for me in this season (to use a term I liked when I heard Rachel Hollis use it) of life is that I am an Academic Advisor, and I am developing an online course that I will start teaching in the spring, and I have a health and life coaching practice on the side and (going public with this for the first time—more to follow) I am writing a book. AND, I feel good about this, and I own it all.

On my bike a couple weeks ago, the term “intrapersonal pluralism” came to me and nestled in comfortably. To summarize briefly, my top five strengths mean that I am a thinker (Intellection)—very introspective. This is no surprise. I crave time in my head. I need it to survive. Having so little ability to escape noise and be alone in my head was one of the most difficult parts of becoming a mother for me. Additionally, “Input” means that I collect and organize things. For me, these are words, quotes, ideas, interests and ways to contribute in the world. As a Relator, I value and cultivate deep conversations and relationships and avoid small talk. The Learner in me MUST keep growing. And, as a Maximizer, I long to turn the “great into the superb.” All this feels true for me. And, having received the input from Wapnick and Epstein recently, it all came together. What I had perceived as lack of direction or wishy-washiness was just the way I was put together. It was how my very busy mind worked. I need to grow and contribute in many different ways. I suddenly felt that I could own my “and.”

The freedom this has given me feels so comforting. This has been such a struggle, and I have felt ashamed to express it to anyone.

“When life begins, God takes this huge jigsaw puzzle with a zillion pieces in it, messes it all up, and throws the pieces into a box called ‘your life.’ Most think the object of life is to painstakingly put that puzzle together with great solemnity–thinking that there is only one to make it fit. We’re all hoping to get that big prize at the end of the rainbow.

But the truth is, there are a zillion ways to put your puzzle together–and you get to make it up as you go along! From what I can tell, God often throws two or three puzzles in the same box, depending on what you need to learn at this particular point in time. . . And if we’re not having any fun putting it together, then it’s time to mess it up one more time and put the fun back in.” –Joel Rutledge

So, along with owning my “and,” I am owning my past shame. And, I am releasing it. Doing so has allowed me to use my new understanding to comfort and support two students already. I felt compelled to write this post because I would like to help others who may be facing a similar internal struggle. Maybe my lessons can shorten their suffering.

To use Rachel Hollis’ term for describing where I am in life, in this season, I am contentedly an academic advisor as my primary paying work. I feel like I want to settle in, help students and stay in this role “as long as love shall last,” maybe until retirement—possibly early retirement. We’ll see. I will add the online course because is an it is an opportunity to grow and learn. I have been amazed how much is involved in setting up this course. It all must be developed ahead of time and is quite different than my past in-person teaching experiences. I am going to be sharing a message that matters to me about Mind and Movement (I’ll share information about enrolling with my readers, once that becomes available.). I am still very clear that it is important to me to grow and evolve my coaching business. Maybe it will look different than I originally envisioned, and maybe it will change over time, but I am clear that I must do it. I am saving for a coaching experience of my own early next year, and I expect good things to come of it. And, the book has been calling to me on my bike and growing and becoming clearer and clearer in my mind. I thought that a book might be 10 years or so in the future. Now, I know I am supposed to start working on it. There is a message I need to share with the world, and the time has come to work toward that end.

Who knows how this will evolve and change in the next “season” of my life, or even when and what that will be?

So, for any of you who are (or who know) intrapersonal pluralists, I hope you can find peace, too. There are some of us who are just put together in such a way that we don’t decide what we want to be when we are six or 18 or 28 or 48. We want to be and do and experience a lot of things. We have so much to contribute in so many ways. (People who do pursue a single, linear career path make important differences in the world, too, of course.) Yes, we must pay the bills. The reality is that there are a lot of ways to do that honorably. We don’t have to choose just one in this season or in this lifetime. We may be busier than others. As long as we make room for the things that feed our souls—including work and creative projects that call us—I have come to realize this is okay.

As a coach, I help people live with no regrets. I aspire to do the same in my own life. I have released the baggage of shame and disappointment. Moving forward, I will own my “and.” I am no longer ashamed to have several interesting projects—including my full-time job—going on in my life. I recognize that honoring these interests is part of living with no regrets for me. I need to make room for them and embrace them fully. They are all part of how I am called to contribute to the creation of a healthier, more compassionate world.

My wish for my fellow intrapersonal pluralists is that you, too, can own your “and,” living it proudly into the world. We will all be richer for it. This requires creativity to figure out how best to combine all our interests and pursuits. One may be in the forefront during one season of life, while a different one may move into the lead during another. Some may run their course and move out of the lineup. Others may present themselves as we continue to learn and grow and are exposed to new ideas and opportunities.

We can’t do everything at once, so we have to consider honestly what we can make fit, if we should make it fit and if our current pursuits are aligned with our core values.

I have come to believe that intrapersonal pluralism may be as much a personality trait as introversion or extroversion. When we embrace it, rather than hide it in shame, we are richer humans, better able to make meaningful contributions to the world.

“Your journey has molded you for your greater good, and it was exactly what you needed it to be. Don’t think you’ve lost time. There is no short-cutting to life. It took each and every situation you have encountered to bring you to the now. And now is right on time.” –Asha Tyson

Success, Redefined

“The secret of success is constancy to purpose.” Benjamin Disraeli

I have decided that constancy to purpose is also the secret to happiness and inner peace. After my wake-up call from stress-induced B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy, I realized that I needed to focus on the things that really matter to me and let go of other expectations whenever possible. There are so many obligations, options, opportunities, causes, people and ideas competing for our time and attention. Trying to keep up with all of them and stay healthy is just not feasible.

We each have to find our own best way to make a difference—to make the contributions we want to make to the world, while remaining as healthy and centered as possible. This requires focusing on our unique opportunities to be a positive force in the universe and spending our time and energy doing those activities that feel most right. These are some touchstones that I find helpful in striving for this focus:

Clear values. Compassion. Excellence. Integrity. Fitness. These are the ethical aims that drive me and the most basic characteristics for which I want to be known. When I am clear about what ideals are most important to me, they guide my decisions in the directions that reinforce and enhance those principles in my life.

A philosophy for living. It is my responsibility to use my strengths and maximize my gifts to ensure that my net contribution to the world is positive. I express my gratitude for the strengths and gifts I have been given by putting them to effective, positive use.

Awareness of my strengths.  Honesty. Love of Learning. Perseverance. Gratitude. Judgment. According to the VIA Survey, these are my top five strengths. I frequently check in with myself to determine how well I am utilizing these strengths. Focusing my energy, whenever possible, on activities that allow me to employ these strengths optimizes both my effectiveness and my ability to find personal fulfillment in what I do.

Acknowledgement of my gifts. This list could go on and on. I am aware that I have been given so many resources and gifts, ranging from a loving upbringing to robust health to a quality education to a love of cycling and a drive to be fit. As an undergraduate student doing both paid and volunteer work in the nonprofit sector, I felt guilty for having been given so much, when I regularly witnessed so much suffering around me. In the years since, I have transformed the guilt into a healthier ownership of responsibility. I strive to maximize, not squander, my gifts. To provide just one example, I celebrate and express gratitude for my good health by nurturing it through cycling; eating a whole-food, plant-based diet; parking at the far reaches of parking lots; taking the stairs—even to the tenth floor when visiting people in the hospital—and making responsible decisions to take care of myself. To do otherwise, in my opinion, would be to scoff at the universe that has given me so many wonderful resources and to neglect my responsibility to give back.

A mission. To contribute to the advancement of human evolution in the direction of compassion. Compassion is my cornerstone value. I strive to live a life of compassion and to structure my decisions and actions around this value.  I can’t magically change the world into the one I wish it were, but I can keep pushing the needle in the direction of compassion. I am encouraged by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” By living and modeling compassion, I hope that I am planting seeds that will grow and flourish in this and future generations, gradually improving the conditions of both humans and nonhumans.

Recognition of the intersection of my passions, my strengths and the needs in the world. Aristotle said, “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation,” and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I picture these ideas together as a Venn diagram that guides me to my own best way to make a difference in the world. (I created a cool Venn diagram in a Word document, but I absolutely cannot get it to paste here, so I am presenting it as an equation below.)

Passions/Gladness+Talents/Strengths/Gifts+Need=Vocation


And that leads me to where it all comes together . . .

A motto. Fitness is advocacy. This is where all of the above ideas come together in a concise, encapsulated statement that directs my actions and focuses my efforts. There are so many needs in the world, and there are so many ways to address them. We each have to find our own best ways to serve the needs that speak to us most urgently. Represented in the above Venn diagram/equation and summed up in the motto, “Fitness is advocacy,” my unique way of adding compassion to the world becomes clear. When I am fit and healthy and ride hard, while fueling my body with plants, I demonstrate that no one has to suffer or die for us to be well nourished. Being a vegan cyclist has allowed me to educate people in small towns across Kansas about eating well on plants, and it has allowed me to inspire others to try plant-based eating. I give my mind, body and spirit the freedom and movement of the open road while advocating in an upbeat, positive way for compassionate living. There are many other important ways to make a difference. I sometimes participate in other strategies, but I have become clearer and clearer that my signature style of advocacy is through the example I set in my own life. In this way, I feel balanced and at peace.

I started this post with a quote about success, and I will finish it with one of my favorite definitions of success. Mike Ditka said, “Success is measured by your discipline and inner peace.” I have come to a point where I really believe that. I am successful when I adhere to the habits, routines and strategies—the disciplines—that help me to remain consistently focused on my purpose. Deviating from that self-discipline for very long throws me off balance and disturbs my inner peace. When I keep my purpose in focus, I feel peaceful. That is my bottom-line determinant of success: Does this (way of life, relationship, job, commitment, activity, food, etc.) bring me more stress or more peace? Choosing the direction that is consistent with my purpose and nurtures inner peace is success.

 

Reflections on #100HAPPYDAYS

When I started my #100HAPPYDAYS journey, I did not take time to calculate when it would conclude. Although just a happy coincidence, as I drew closer to completing my quest and realized that it would culminate along with 2015, I thought there must be some symbolism to that—or at least I could assign significance to it.

I could let this be an ending, or I could turn it into another beginning.

Concluding at the end of the year, it felt appropriate to reflect on what the project had meant to me and how I had changed by participating in it. The number-one influence that the #100HAPPYDAYS project had on my daily life was inspiring a proactive daily search for the positive. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have a daily practice of writing in my journal each night about “3 things that have gone well today.” This practice allows me to recognize and appreciate something encouraging, even on very difficult days.

Rather than retroactively reflecting on the positive bits that I could tease out of my day, #100HAPPYDAYS required me to look for, think about where I might find, or sometimes even create, happy moments that could be captured in a photograph. This was beneficial to my overall outlook because it empowered and challenged me to insert happiness into each day.

This was easier or more obvious on some days than on others. I found myself at the end of rough days, in a less than stellar mood, thinking, “What (the heck) am I going to photograph today for my #100HAPPYDAYS?” On those days purposefully looking around reminded me of the good fortune that that has permeated my life as a whole—a photo of my much-loved grandma, a box painted by a special friend, the mischievous smile on my active little boy’s face. This was an effective way of “counting my blessings,” even on days that were characterized more by stress than by bliss. Our lives are generally dominated by mundane tasks and obligations, rather than by dramatic highs (or, thankfully, lows). So, this habit of noticing the good on an ordinary day was a healthy one.

On some days, it would have been easier not to post, and there were times that I worried that my Facebook friends must be sick of seeing pictures from my life or that I would look like I was seeking attention. The bottom line, though, is that I value keeping the commitments I make to myself. I am what Gretchen Rubin calls an “Upholder,” someone who “responds readily to inner and outer expectations.” If I set a goal, especially one with a clear finish line and specific parameters, I am generally determined to meet it—whether it is posting for 100 straight days about something that makes me happy, training for and completing a marathon or finishing an 82-mile bike ride in torrential rain and 45-mph wind. This perseverance is what makes Kenny call me stubborn (among other adjectives), but it is something I consider a strength and a characteristic for which I am grateful.

I decided that finishing #100HAPPYDAYS on the last day of the year meant that I should begin the new year with a fresh quest. It seemed the perfect segue to a kickoff of the pursuit of what I am calling Vision 2016—my two primary goals for 2016. I am not ready to go public with what those two goals are, but I have adapted the #100HAPPYDAYS format to a strategy to track my progress toward those goals. Rather than posting photos on Facebook, I have created a spreadsheet where I will track my daily activities related to my dual-pronged Vision 2016. This will work for me because I am self-motivated and self-directed and do not necessarily need to make a goal public in order to feel accountable to it. I feel excited at the prospect of this new challenge and am grateful for a structure within which to frame my goal pursuit.

I appreciate my experience with #100HAPPYDAYS and am grateful for my friend Andrea, whose Facebook post introduced me to the idea. I would say that my overall mental health and happiness have tipped a little farther toward the positive. While this emotional uptick is not solely because of this project, I do believe that #100HAPPYDAYS contributed. Even though I won’t necessarily be sharing something positive every day, I hope that I will be able to keep alive the spirit of proactively spotting joy amidst the mundane moments that characterize human daily existence.

Wishing all, human and non-human, a peaceful and happy 2016!

Pedaling and Pondering: Résumé Virtues and Eulogy Virtues

Immediately prior to setting out on a late afternoon bike ride yesterday, I started reading The Road to Character, by David Brooks. Within the first sentence, I was intrigued by a concept he presented: Résumé Virtues differentiated from Eulogy Virtues. Brooks defines résumé virtues as “the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.” He describes eulogy virtues less concretely as “the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”

Reading those words when I did, right before I got on the bike, was fortuitous, because I was excited to ponder the contrast and connections between the two types of virtues, and I do my best thinking on the bike.

How are these two types of virtues different? Are both categories even “virtues”? How are they linked to each other? My mind raced with these questions as I pedaled north out of town and for the next 15 chilly miles.

I think of my résumé virtues as achievements and selling points—qualities that might be evident from perusing my résumé, like degrees, grades, breadth of experience, writing ability and attention to detail. These points tell only a very superficial story about who I am, about who any of us is.

Many personal development authors and speakers recommend considering what we would want to be said in our eulogy as a guide for managing life’s choices. I have thought about this in the past, but contemplating the juxtaposition of résumé and eulogy virtues carried this idea a step further for me.

On my bike, I decided that eulogy virtues, unlike tangible selling points, tell the deeper story. It seems to me that they consist of both our strengths and our values. While résumé virtues are fairly concrete, eulogy virtues are more elusive and strike me as somewhat aspirational.

My core values are compassion, integrity, excellence and fitness. I aspire to “own” these as lived virtues, as qualities of character that someone might mention in my eulogy. But, can I claim them as virtues, when they are subjective and qualitative? Those characteristics that I consider my strengths serve as tools for living my values, and I believe that I have a responsibility to employ them to the best of my ability in the service of a life that reflects what is most meaningful to me. But, how do I know if I have achieved this? Unlike a diploma that is objective evidence of completing the requirements for a degree, eulogy virtues can only be felt—by the possessor of those virtues and by the witnesses to those virtues.

It occurred to me on the bike that résumé and eulogy virtues are intimately connected. For instance, in my own case, my commitment to excellence, my love of learning and my perseverance allowed me to accomplish academic goals. So, values and strengths—eulogy virtues—led to résumé virtues. In a different kind of relationship, I believe that some of my eulogy virtues—namely, integrity and honesty—have contributed to what could be interpreted (sometimes by myself) as deficits of my résumé. My dedication to those principles and to resonance in my own heart has led me down a path that has possibly undervalued upward mobility in career status and income.

So, which matters more—résumé virtues or eulogy virtues? Can they exist independently of each other? I think the answers to both those questions depend on the person. Ultimately, I believe I have emphasized eulogy virtues, although those have influenced my résumé virtues. Someone else may have emphasized résumé virtues and amassed more external success in doing so. Even without a conscious emphasis, however, I think that individual’s eulogy virtues will still have guided her or him toward the path of his/her résumé virtues. The difference, I think, is that someone who emphasizes résumé virtues may be less aware of, and/or concerned with, eulogy virtues. Living the introspective life that I do, I can’t put myself in those shoes. So, I can’t know which life is richer, happier or more meaningful. I can only surmise that a person emphasizing eulogy virtues, as I believe I do, makes a more conscious (not necessarily better, just more conscious) choice about what virtues he/she will live, while a person who has focused on achieving résumé virtues, may have her/his eulogy virtues identified posthumously by others. A eulogist who witnesses that person’s résumé virtues may discern and then assert that the individual embodied commitment, drive, determination and diligence, for example. I wonder if that person would have said the same things about her/himself.

Ultimately, I cannot directly control what is said in my eulogy, and I am honestly less concerned about what someone else chooses to say than what I can say about myself when I examine my own life. I think both résumé virtues and eulogy virtues can be indicators of valuable contributions in the world. Maybe I am just looking for consolation and justification of perceived weaknesses when I declare that eulogy virtues matter more to me. Or maybe seeking that justification is actually evidence that the résumé virtues are more important to me than I openly acknowledge.

I did not end my bike ride with tidy, clear answers about eulogy and résumé virtues, but I did enjoy the time to think, and I hope that these concepts will continue to crystallize for me because I think both types of virtues comprise important aspects of a whole person. I love it when books make me think and when cycling provides me with the opportunity to do so!

My Happiness Strategies

I am excited to share some of the strategies I am using to boost my happiness and manage stress in a healthier, more life-affirming way, but I am writing this post as much for myself as anyone because I feel the need to collect my strategies in one place. My progress on this journey feels a bit tenuous—like a setback could make me forget everything I am learning about living a more mentally healthy life. If you read my last post, you know that I had been internalizing stress to the point that I felt desperate enough to overdo B6 supplementation, resulting in self-induced B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy.

I see these happiness strategies as dynamic lifelines. Their comparative value may fluctuate as I move through life. They are presented in no hard and fast order. All have value to me, and all are making a difference.

  1. Mantras: I have mentioned previously my love of quotes. My mantras derive from my quote collection in most cases. Usually, a quote inspires me to personalize the words into an affirmation or reminder for myself. Some mantras remain constant for years. Others are more fleeting, serving me well for a time, until I seem to outgrow them or to move into a different phase in my life. I repeat these to myself, usually in my head, sometimes aloud, often many times a day. Here are the mantras that are currently serving me most effectively:
    1. I do what I can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then I let it go. Derived from an Elizabeth Gilbert quote, this mantra is arguably my most important mental lifeline right now. I am in an intensely busy phase at work. There is really no way to get everything done that I would like to get done “within a reasonable time frame.” In order to sustain myself through this intensity, avoid burning out and resist a spiral back into unmanaged stress, I had to redefine what constituted a reasonable time frame and adjust my expectations. This is difficult for me because excellence is one of my core values. But, I cannot sustain excellence if I am so stressed that I am damaging my health. So, I have Gilbert’s quote posted above my computer at work, and I repeat the personalized mantra countless times throughout the day to calm myself and to remember that I am only one person, trying hard to do good work, in a limited amount of time, with multiple responsibilities pulling me various directions.
    2. I am deeply fulfilled by, and grateful for, all that I do. This mantra is a balm to counter resentment at the bureaucracy, the mundaneness and the minutiae of life that can wear me down and leave me feeling discouraged. Louise Hay deserves credit for this mantra, because it was inspired by her words, “Find a way to be deeply fulfilled by, and grateful for, all that you do.” (Also posted above my work computer.) “Finding a way” is a crucial aspect of the effectiveness of this mantra. When I repeat this mantra to myself, I challenge myself to identify meaning in my activities of the day or even the moment. How does what I am doing right now (or what I did today) fulfill me? What meaning have I created? What value have I added? It is a useful mental exercise that helps me to keep or regain perspective, when I feel the threat or reality of being swept up in the tide of constant appointments and/or obligations. When I challenge myself to identify and acknowledge the meaning in what I do, I feel calmer and, truly, more fulfilled.
    3. My thoughts shape my perceptions, determine my actions and behavior and create the world I envision. This mantra has been part of my daily self-talk for years, and I often use it to ward off fear and to remind myself how powerfully I shape my own reality by the way I approach life. Although I don’t fully subscribe to the Law of Attraction, I do believe that how I choose to define myself and my circumstances influences how I experience life. I find myself repeating this quote while cycling as I approach an area where I have had problems with a dog. It gives me strength and feels a bit like a talisman. Whether or not it actually wards off chasing canines, I can’t say for sure, but it allows me to feel more powerful and more capable and it reminds me to expect the best and to do as much as I can to help myself.
    4. I am happy. I am healthy. I am peaceful. I am free. This is an adaptation of the Loving-Kindness Meditation. These words calm me and induce gratitude. I enhance the benefits when I extend the meditation to friends and family, those who don’t understand me and all beings. (e.g., May all beings be happy. May they be healthy. May they be peaceful. May they be free.) My heart expands when I take the time and make the mental effort to extend these wishes to others. I feel more generous, more peaceful and happier.
    5. I choose happiness. I use this to shove unproductive thoughts out of my head. Sometimes I couple this with an emphatic, often audible, “This is my time!” I do this especially on my bike. Processing emotions and issues is one thing; allowing myself to haul the baggage someone else (or a situation) creates is another. I shed the baggage by remembering that I choose happiness, not the weight of victimhood.
  2. Three things that went well today: I mentioned this practice in a previous post. Each night before I go to bed, I write in my journal three things that went well during the day and why. I have done this practice, recommended by Martin Seligman, for several years, and I treasure it as a way to center, reflect on the day and focus on the positive. Even on very difficult days, I challenge myself to find three good things to record. Sometimes they are profound; sometimes they are mundane, but the practice makes a big difference to my overall outlook. I practice on a miniature, mental scale throughout the day. If I leave work feeling stressed, I recall three good things from the day as I walk to my car or drive home. Sometimes, I use a variation of this in the morning. If I feel draggy and reluctant as my alarm sounds, I find three things to which I can look forward that day.
  3. Does it/will it bring me more peace or more stress? This question is a very important strategy for me. I ask myself variations of it many times throughout the day, particularly when I am at a decision point. Will eating this chocolate bring me more stress or more peace? Which item on my task list is causing me the most stress? Once I identify it, completing it becomes top priority. If I attend this function, will it bring me more stress or more peace? To the extent that it is possible, the choice that adds peace and/or minimizes stress is what I select.
  4. “I have three criteria to apply to any item trying to make its way onto my to-do list: Is the activity fun, meaningful, or absolutely necessary?” – Amy Tiemann: When I read this in Amy Tiemann’s Mojo Mom, several years ago, I was struck by its wisdom. There are so many obligations and options competing for our time; it made sense to have some criteria with which to choose those most worthy of my precious minutes. I try to ask myself these questions before accepting a responsibility, taking on a task or attending a function. Of course, these are subjective criteria, but they promote awareness and conscious decision making. They minimize the risk that I will agree to do something solely out of guilt, thus lessening the chance of resentment.
  5. Year-round cycling: Cycling is such an important part of my life. Its value cannot be overstated. I am unquestionably a nicer, healthier, higher-functioning person because I have cycling in my life. I am a proponent of exercise, in general, and I look for ways to add movement to my day. But, cycling is special. I cherish the time I am on my bike, even on rides like yesterday morning’s, when I was battered by a raw north wind for most of my 50 miles. I have typically declared the end of daylight savings time in November until it begins again in March to be my off-season. This year, acknowledging how hard fall and winter are for me, I have decided that I will maintain some level of cycling throughout the year. I will still have an off-season, in that my rides will be relegated mostly to short (15-20 miles) weekend rides. I will need to invest in more cold-weather cycling gear, but I think it will make the winter months easier to bear and will allow me small doses of the mood boost I get from cycling throughout the year.
  6. Reading: Like cycling, reading is invaluable to me. I am always reading a book (99.9% nonfiction), and I always have books waiting for me on my Kindle and in a stack. Having a book with me wherever I go serves as a security blanket. I grow so much through reading and through processing many of the ideas I encounter in books while I am on the bike. I have been focusing heavily on positive psychology and happiness literature recently (currently reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home), but I read many other types of books, too. I read whenever and wherever I can. While an undergraduate, working full time during the day and going to school at night, I got into the habit of reading while brushing my teeth, getting dressed, folding laundry, etc. I still do that. I can read while washing dishes by using my elbow to change the pages of my Kindle. I love to learn, and reading is one way I can take control of my lifelong education and personal development. As I drive home from work, a joy often pops into my mind: “I will have opportunities to read!”
  7. Quotes: Beyond personalizing quotes into mantras, I refer to my five volumes of collected quotes multiple times throughout the day while at home, randomly selecting words of wisdom through a ritual I have used for years. One change in recent months is that I give myself permission to select another random quote if the first (or subsequent) one doesn’t speak to me in the moment. I then ponder these quotes, especially in situations where I won’t have the opportunity to read or will have the opportunity to think (before turning off my book light to go to sleep, before leaving in the car, before getting on my bike, before getting into the shower, etc.). This practice calms me or sometimes excites and inspires me. Even quotes I recorded years ago suddenly may be particularly resonant.
  8. Blog: This blog arose out of my personal quest for happiness. Writing is one of the ways I center and process, plus, I have found myself with an urge to share the lessons I learn through cycling and reflection. I have a loose vision for the future of this blog, but, for now, it is a creative outlet that I hope others find helpful. However, its value to me is not dependent on whether or not it benefits others. Writing it is an end in itself. Taking the time to do so feels like a luxury. It would be easy to say that I can’t afford the time, but I think the truth is that I can’t afford not to take it.
  9. #100HAPPYDAYS: When I saw a post about this project on Facebook, I knew that I was ripe to participate. Having recently learned the cause of my neurological symptoms and being struck by the reality that stress, anxiety and depression contributed to them, I was committed to enhancing my own happiness. #100HAPPYDAYS extends beyond “three things that went well today” because it forces a more active pursuit of happy moments. Since I have to take a photo to post some symbol of happiness that occurred during the day, it is not enough to retrospectively reflect and choose good things; I have to look for them actively and capture them with my camera. This turns my focus more often to the positive.
  10. Push myself: For me, this mostly involves cycling. I find that I am more energized if I ride on the other side of comfortable several times a week. I feel good about my gains, and my body benefits from the endorphins released by the vigorous exercise.
  11. Vocation: I owe my renewed appreciation for the word and the concept of vocation to Elizabeth Gilbert. In Big Magic, her discussion of vocation helped me to recognize an often-missed coherence to my daily life and to my lifelong personal and professional journey. At this point in my life, “vocation” is a more useful construct than “mission” or “purpose.” My vocation encompasses both the way I live my life and the work I do. I see the value that each leg of my journey has brought to the whole of my vocation. I find peace and comfort in this view. My blog, my paid work, my veganism, my cycling—all are components of my vocation.
  12. Devaluing “busyness”: I recognize that, for several years, busyness has been my signature state. When people asked how I was, I often responded, “Busy.” I equated commitment to busyness, excellence to busyness and responsibility to busyness. Now, I can see where that got me, and I want to put busyness in its appropriate place. Yes, my calendar is still full—very often fuller than I would like or fuller than my introversion would choose—but I have pushed busyness off its pedestal and recognize that whatever benefits wearing that label may have given me, the costs were greater. I have changed my language so that I try to refer to my schedule as “full,” rather than busy. The difference may be semantic, but “full” connotes abundance to me, while “busy” connotes stress.
  13. Redefining success: As someone who has always pursued straight A’s and high academic achievement, I have too often felt shame at my nonlinear career and income trajectories. It is easy to say to myself that someone with two master’s degrees should be making more money than I do. But, have I ever really chosen my work for the salary? That has always been a secondary or even tertiary or lower criterion, probably to my fiscal detriment, but integrity and, yes, vocation, have always been more important. I can acknowledge that the financial return on my academic investment is probably lower than I would have hoped or than most people would expect, but I do feel like the work I have chosen to do throughout my career has generally made positive differences in people’s lives and to the world, albeit in incremental ways. A quote I found in UU World magazine several years ago (I believe this is a paraphrase of a quote by Mother Teresa.) said, “Every action makes a ripple. The ripples change the world.” I hope that I will make enough positive ripples that there will be more compassion and less suffering, more excellence and less complacency, more integrity and less insincerity and more fitness and less squandering of potential in the world. If I accomplish those things, then I will have been successful.
  14. Limiting exposure: Sometimes the world can feel so heavy. As an ethical vegan, the suffering experienced by nonhumans and humans alike can be seriously depressing. I have found that I simply must limit my exposure to the sad stuff. Compassion fatigue is real, and I have a strong tendency toward it. I am aware that there is a line between burying my head in the sand and overdosing on vicarious suffering, sadness and bad news, and I try to stay reasonably balanced between the two. My veganism provides an example. I have been vegetarian for over 33 years and became vegan over seven years ago. For the intervening 26 years, I wanted to believe that being vegetarian was enough. Finally, I knew that, in order to live my values with integrity, I needed to educate myself more thoroughly about the suffering of animals in the dairy or egg industries. As soon as I allowed myself to learn the truth, I became vegan. I continued to learn more, but reached a saturation point, especially after the heartbreaking loss of my special dog Andy in 2011. I realize that, in so many ways, Andy’s death was a crucial turning point in my life, representing far more than the pain of that loss. I am a committed vegan. There is no turning back for me, so there is no point in continuing to torture myself by reading or watching animal suffering. It is more productive to focus on what I can do to contribute positively to the world, rather than to become unbearably weighted down with the sadness of the world.
  15. Adjusting my expectations: This is related to the first mantra I discussed in this post. Living this mantra means that I have to adjust my expectations, but I am careful to distinguish between that and lowering my standards. Instead of demanding that I address every email before I leave work, I use my “more peace or more stress?” strategy to determine my highest priorities for the following day, and I move on “in a reasonable time frame.” It makes a difference. Another area where I have adjusted my expectations is this blog. Initially, I committed to posting at least once a week. I have found that life doesn’t always allow that without undue stress. Since Just Wind is one of my happiness strategies, pushing myself to produce substandard work, just for the sake of staying on an arbitrary and unrealistic schedule, makes no sense. I will emphasize quality over frequency.
  16. Strengths: Related to being fulfilled by what I do and finding meaning in my daily life, I focus on identifying the ways that I am using my strengths—those character traits and talents that most empower me to make a difference—to contribute to the greater good in the world. I know that life feels more rewarding when I am putting my strengths to good use.
  17. Adding movement: A practice I started several years ago (and resurrected after a brief hiatus when I changed jobs) is to add a little movement to my work day by taking the long way to or from the restroom every time I get up for a bathroom break. This takes only a minute or so, but it helps me to get a tiny burst of physical activity and clears my head for a moment.

While I hope this (admittedly long) post will add value for my readers, my primary objective is to create a collection of my most useful happiness strategies, as a reference for myself.

Please share your happiness strategies in the “Comments” section. (If you tried to comment on previous posts and couldn’t, I think I have fixed the problem.) I would love to learn from fresh perspectives. We can all contribute to the happiness in the world by pooling our accumulating and evolving wisdom. It is one of the ways we make ripples.

Journey of Strengths

Cycling frequently strikes me as an excellent metaphor for life, particularly when I reflect on life as a journey, which has seemed more and more apt as I have covered more ground, both in life and on the bike.

I recently finished reading The Happiness Advantage (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOGAp9dw8Ac), by Shawn Achor. This excellent book directed me to www.viasurvey.com, where I took a quiz to determine my “signature strengths.” This is not the first time I have taken a strengths test. Naturally introspective, I enjoy taking personality assessments and quizzes that teach me something about myself. I can’t locate my results from some of the other strengths tests I have taken (Strengthsfinder 2.0, http://strengths.gallup.com/110440/about-strengthsfinder-20.aspx, was probably the first.), but I can still recognize that there has been some change. On this Via Survey, my top five strengths are: Honesty, Love of Learning, Perseverance, Gratitude and Judgment. As I recall, some form of several of these appeared in earlier results. I know that Love of Learning, Perseverance and Judgment (although maybe called slightly different names) have been persistent. Honesty may have been represented previously as Integrity, but I am not sure that Gratitude has been in my top five in any past. Of course the survey instruments are different, so that may explain some differences, but I also believe that my journey continues to shape me, and that some strengths have become more deeply imbedded in my character, while others have grown in importance.

Honesty (which resonates more as Integrity for me) is now my top strength. I have long identified Integrity as one of my core values, but I have found more ways to live it in the past year. I have grown to trust myself more, while relying less on input from outside sources. There are at least two ways that cycling has helped me to develop this strength. Although my education and background have qualified me to design training plans, I have not always trusted myself to design my own cycling training plans effectively. I have found some great resources (That will probably be a blog post at some point.), but I sometimes had to force myself to use some of the recommended training plans. While there is value in stepping outside of my comfort zone, I decided to listen to myself and design my own training plan this cycling season. Doing so has resulted in increased enthusiasm for my bike rides, as well as some of the consistently fastest riding I have done in several years. Getting honest with myself about what felt right paid off and reinforced my commitment to integrity, which has elevated honesty as an essential strength for me.

Another way that cycling has increased my strength in honesty is through fostering my courage to leave a group when I found that my participation in the group was increasing my stress, rather than my peace. I joined an online plant-based eating group last winter when I was feeling down. I had high hopes for the group because it originated around a book that I really like and an author whom I respect. Part of the group culture was to track our daily food intake. When I did this early in cycling season, I was surprised to be assailed by several group members with criticism about my cycling nutrition. I am open to learning from others and considered their input, but found that it did not resonate with my experience. I explained this and hoped that the group would adopt a live-and-let-live approach, but it did not. After another round of criticism, I immediately withdrew from the group, even though I had paid for a full year of membership. I felt free and relieved. Clearly, being honest with myself and having the courage to maintain my integrity in the face of criticism was the right answer.

Gratitude has also risen in importance among my character strengths. I believe that a key factor in this has been my commitment to a nightly practice I borrowed from positive psychology (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOGAp9dw8Ac). For several years now, I have had a nightly practice of writing in my journal “Three Things that Went Well Today,” along with the reason they went well and were meaningful to me. This has transformed my life in many ways. When I am feeling stressed during the day, I often remind myself to take a moment to think of three things that have gone well so far during the day. This is immediately uplifting and gives me hope. I ALWAYS finish my day this way, and it makes a tremendous difference. Cycling plays heavily in this practice. One of my three good things is frequently something like, “I had a safe, peaceful 52-mile bike ride.” Then, I elaborate on why it was positive. Sometimes, I will write, “I felt strong and powerful on my bike ride.” Then, I analyze why. I love this practice, and I truly believe that it has moved gratitude into my top five strengths. I believe that I am more grateful for the positive elements in my life and better able to find a bright side in difficulties, in large part, because of this practice.

Love of Learning, Perseverance and Judgment have been signature strengths for years, but my journey has influenced the direction I have taken with those strengths. Reading, right up there with cycling, is key to my mental health, but it also allows me one avenue to continue learning and growing. Perseverance and road cycling go hand in hand. Because I value perseverance, I am drawn to cycling, and cycling reinforces my strength of perseverance more than anything else I do. Kansas wind; unexpected, torrential rain; rough roads and other trials of cycling teach me the value (and necessity) of persevering to finish a ride. I have grown to trust my own judgment, as I have been tested on the bike. When I am alone in the middle of nowhere, judgment is critical to my safety. Practice reinforces our strengths, so I am able to carry this over into the rest of my life.

I will write about journey in other capacities in the future because I reflect on it frequently these days. I believe that our journeys shape who we are, and I am more committed than ever to honoring that journey, both in the past and in my current experience.