A blog about health, wellness and well-being, with advice on how to achieve it... from your inner depth to your outer surface.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The ambition dilemma

Horia Varlan, Flickr

I was recently reading this post by fellow blogger Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist.

It is about the ambitions you have as a young adult, that will or will not materialize themselves by the time you hit midlife.

It is a topic that speaks to me as I approach (two years from now) my forties: have I accomplished, or am I in the way of accomplishing, what I really wanted in life?

Becker talks about choosing between career paths, some that will bring fame, prestige and money, some that will provide other types of - mostly non-material - benefits. I read his post early morning yesterday, sipping on my coffee, and it is still resonating with me so much I had to write about it.

As a young(er) woman, I had big dreams. And a way to achieve them. I started by attending one of the most prestigious universities in the world (arguably the best in the country - depending on the year and the faculty you look at).

On the way to - ahem! - stardom, a couple things happened.

I could blame it on the children, and it would not be entirely false - becoming a mother did have an impact on the order I put my priorities in - but it wasn't all of it.

With adult life, and the help of experience, readings, discussions with other, older, wiser adults, and pure and simple introspection, I realized that there are some things I value highly that kind of get in the way of a BIG career. Notably the following:

  • Contemplation is important to me - and by contemplation I mean all things ranging from petting a cat absentmindedly and daydreaming to taking a quiet stroll in nature. Meditation fits in that category, too. I do not do well if I don't have some alone time to indulge in those contemplative activities on a daily basis. Maybe my previous life was spent in some monastery? I used to feel somewhat guilty about my contemplative predispositions, until my favorite aunt, M, told me how central it is to her life.
  • Balance is very important to me - I cannot bear the idea of not having enough time to sleep full nights, to eat healthy meals, to exercise, to write, to read a book, to relax with loved ones. Those things are sacred to me. I am lucky enough to have the choice, and I won't waste it by neglecting what matters. 
  • Stress is okay... in small doses. I function really well under pressure, be it in the form of tight deadlines (crazy translation industry!) or in the form of undisciplined students. It does not affect me too, too much. I rarely become overwhelmed. BUT. I need time to recharge my batteries on a regular basis. I am no Energizer Bunny. I cannot go-go-go. I need breaks. Peacefulness is both underrated and underrepresented in our society. In my life, it occupies a special place. 
  • I question the real motives behind ambition. Do we have ambition because we aspire to something, or do we have ambition because we want to get rid of something (e.g. feelings of inadequacy, of not being enough, of lacking value?) The former is a great motor. The latter... not so much. Before I go "on a quest", I examine my true motives.
  • I cannot fathom taking advantage of others to advance my own career.
  • I'm willing to set the bar lower and to sacrifice some sense of accomplishment and material luxury if it means that all of the above criteria will be met. My family's and my own well-being makes it all worth it.

Instead of single-mindedly following the path to "as much fame, prestige and money I can get", I have made each life and career choice mindfully. I started small and slow. Back in the day, my main drive was to remain the main caregiver for my own children. Gradually, I instilled more time and energy into my career, but always with the bigger picture in mind. It's easy to get carried away, especially with a start-up business, and I sometimes got caught up in the excitement: there were moments when I took too much on my shoulders, and was rewarded with "economic growth" (i.e. money) and renowned clients (i.e. big companies), but soon realized other areas of my life were suffering. I had to learn the fine art of keeping everything afloat and balanced.

Keeping my business on the smaller side not only helps me maintain balance, it also allows me to indulge in other things I cherish, namely, working with people. I teach French "on the side". I give talks and workshops. I write. Without being specific with the numbers, let's just say teaching pays significantly less than translating professionally. As for the talks and workshops and writing gigs, they are occasional at best, and do not yield a significant income - yet. Still, I hold on to those activities for dear life - because they make me feel alive, precisely. As much I enjoy (greatly!) my work in the translation business, I cannot fail to notice that:

  • Translation does not exclaim, when I walk into a room, "Yay! You're here!"
  • Translation does not chat with me and ask for my input on important, sometimes personal, issues.
  • Translation does not excitedly want to show me her latest project.
  • Translation does not run to me screaming "I love you!" and give me cuddles.
  • Translation does not thank me profusely, teary-eyed, for what I've done for their child or themselves.

(Note: all those things happened in the past week in the context of me teaching and tutoring.)

I think this whole letting go of ambition belongs to a wider predilection for detachment. Detachment from trying to impress people (I would rather inspire people). Detachment from accumulating stuff (I would rather accumulate wisdom). This detachment does not only apply to my career. It applies to my life as a whole. However, there are some things I have NOT renounced:

  • Striving for excellence - what I do, I do it well, as any of my clients could tell you. 
  • Hard work, passion and dedication - when I am immersed in something I love, like preparing lesson plans or reviewing a text for style and flow, I could go all night. I have not lost the drive to accomplish things, to push myself. If I had, I would not get up at 5 am to run in the cold and dark Canadian winters before work, or set my alarm on weekend mornings to take advantage of the quiet house before everyone gets up to write my future book. 
  • Wealth and prestige - there's nothing wrong with them per se, and I still get excited when I make "gains" in those areas. 

However... bygone is the yearning to prove something at all costs.

What have you been willing to let go in order to achieve balance and well-being for yourself and your loved ones? Share in the comments.

Saturday, December 6, 2014


Jack Mallon, Flickr

Who does that to themselves? I think as I get out of bed on a cold, dark December morning.

I get dressed nonetheless. Try to find comfort in the fact that my new gear will make the run more comfortable: thin, 2-layer socks and thin, 2-layer mitts, keep you warm without being bulky. Totally worth the price.

I take 2 puffs of my bronchodilator (asthma requires it in this weather). I think back on the time I "could not" exercise because of asthma, and feel grateful that it was eventually properly diagnosed and treated. It will always need attention, but it will never stop me.

I step out. Two things immediately hit me: 1) the cold; 2) the pink, orange and yellow layers that paint the sky at this hour. In awe, I start running.

Despite the inhaler, breathing is a challenge. Those lungs haven't exercised in that kind of cold since last year. Hopefully, they will get used to it again. The conversation with "running partner K" makes everything more bearable. And a quick look at the multicolored sky makes whatever's left of the discomfort vanish.

Amy, Flickr

Running partner K talks about her lack of sleep, but does not use it as an excuse to skip morning runs. As she says simply but wisely, running  before the day starts has twice the benefits of sleeping that extra hour. We will both be busy today. But we're not stressed: we know that run will have prepared us for anything the day throws at us.

Now I am sweating. Sweating outdoors when it's below freezing point. That in itself is a miracle, especially for the woman-who-is-always-cold.

Running partner K tells the story of a coworker who recently had to undergo heart surgery. A man in good shape, who has always exercised and eats well. Life can be unfair. But the surgery went well, and according to his doctors, the only reason he recovered so fast and is already back on his feet is because he was such in a good shape in the first place. Which reminds me of a documentary I watched recently: taking care of your health doesn't only make your life longer; it also makes it healthier. No matter what happens, you are better equipped to deal with it. You suffer less. Or for a shorter amount of time. And apparently, there is a nice proportion of centenarians who die peacefully in their sleep, without having to endure a long disease.

That applies to mental health as well: nurture your mental health, and life will be significantly more enjoyable. Great news: running takes care of that as well. Our run is now over, and I feel like I've ingested a joy potion. My legs are tired but I'm bouncing. My body is damp and salty under those layers of winter running clothes, but I feel light. K points to a bird in the sky and we both marvel.

As I reach my driveway, I come upon a gathering of blue jays and chickadees. I see them everyday, yet right now I almost cry they're so beautiful.

This is why we do this to ourselves.

Find inspiration here!
One of my favorite movies of all times
(might be because of the music)

Monday, December 1, 2014

How to get people to despise you

Kiwi Morado, Flickr

My friend A, in a surge of honesty, recently declared that "there is only one person I hate in Nova Scotia". We were instantly intrigued, for if there's a person who likes EVERYONE, it's A. I've never heard her say anything mildly negative about anyone. She loves all human beings. It's as if she wears special glasses that allow her to see people's qualities and magnify them, all the while completely overlooking any flaw they might have. Her using the "H-word" about someone was unusual to say the least.

Curious, I asked: "What makes you hate that person?"

The reasons proved to be rather simple. According to A, that unpleasant person is guilty of the following:

  • She talks way too much
  • She talks solely about herself
  • If someone tries to add their grain of salt, she interrupts to keep talking about herself
  • She fails to notice the non-verbal cues people show as they lose interest. E.g. if you start looking away, turn your feet or even slowly back up or walk away, she just keeps on talking (she might talk louder or follow you to force you to keep listening)
  • If she feels cranky, you can be sure you will pay the price (even if you have nothing to do with it)
  • Etc.

Ensued a discussion about "those people who don't know when to shut it" and "those people who think only their own stories are worth telling".

This all reminded me of Dale Carnegie's advice on "How to Win Friends and Influence People", one the first popular self-help books to be published (in 1936). It was probably the first self-help book I read, too. I stumbled upon it at my great-aunt's cottage. That great-aunt arguably being the most pleasant and kind person I had ever met, I figured her owning this book was no accident. I picked the book. I read it. I was 15. It had a bigger impact on my interpersonal relationships than I could ever have imagined.

As it turns out, my friend A's insight, my great-aunt D's attitude in life, and the contents of that book have a lot of things in common. In fact, the rules of pleasant human interactions are both simple and effective... that is, once we know them and, more importantly, once we apply them to everyday life. I feel that most adults eventually master most of those rules spontaneously, although following them can be a challenge even on a good day. In any case, a reminder is a never bad thing.

Here's a sample of the "rules" put forward by Carnegie. They work for everything: friendship, love, family ties, the workplace, adults, children,... name it. Once we know those rules, the main challenge might be to be consistentgenuine and sincere in their application:

  • Don't criticize, condemn, or complain.
  • Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  • Become genuinely interested in other people.
  • Smile.
  • Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  • Be a good listener. 
  • Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  • Talk in terms of the other person's interest.
  • Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.
  • Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say "You're Wrong."
  • If you're wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  • Begin in a friendly way.
  • Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
  • Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.
  • Be sympathetic with the other person's ideas and desires.
  • Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly.
  • Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
  • Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
  • Let the other person save face.
  • Praise every improvement.
  • Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
  • Use encouragement. 
  • Make the fault seem easy to correct.
  • Make the other person happy about doing what you suggest.

Does any of this particularly talk to you? Do you find any of them to be a challenge? Is any one of them your "specialty"? Do you have your own "tricks of the trade" that make human interaction easier and more rewarding? Share in the comments!