The vegetable plate was the only item at the Starbucks near my gate I can eat. First of all, it was literally the only food item I could eat since I’m trying to avoid gluten. I’m from Boulder after all. And we, in Boulder, avoid gluten, alongside other curiosities, like sugar, high heel shoes, GMO foods, nail polish on our fingers (toes are okay though), and carbon emissions. But today I can’t eat the gluten-laden muffins and croissants of Starbucks even if I wanted to because I can’t open my jaw wide enough to get my toothbrush all the way in. See I had dental surgery last week, a cracked wisdom tooth resulting from a large filling, and a few years of grinding in my sleep. The temporary crown back there is rougher than my other teeth, and is supposed to get replaced with the permanent crown 3 days from now. It’s doubtful I’ll be keeping that appointment since I can’t even yawn, as this complication with my crown surgery has put me in considerable pain. And for some stupid reason, I feel like toughing out the pain rather than taking ibuprofen. So… I’ve bitten the tip off the pointy cherry tomato foot and am sucking the juice out because I can’t open my mouth any wider.
It’s 7:40am ET, or 5:40am MT, my home time zone. I’ve been up for 2+ hours to catch this flight from Montreal back to Denver. It’s too early to have been awake for 2 hours, my jaw hurts, and I’m navigating eating an unripened cherry tomato.
There’s nothing like jaw pain, at 5:40am, while sucking on a cherry tomato for sustenance to remind myself to count all my privileges – otherwise, I might wallow in self-pity, which I want to do while traveling, tired, and hurting.
In the spirit of fighting off the urge to complain, I focus on the tomato. I have to eat very slowly right now, taking nibbles of food rather than bites. A cherry tomato is a fun food to eat slowly; it’s a juxtaposition of textures with the hard and smooth outside, and with a little nibble, your mouth is greeted in an explosion of flavor and sliminess from the inside of the tomato. Since I can’t open wide, I proceed to suck the guts out of the thing because I can’t fit the whole tomato in my mouth. I never really noticed the details of it before. I eat the 5 cherry tomatoes, the carrot slivers (which I have to eat like corn on the cob to get them to fit), and I eat the little kernels of the flower off the broccoli heads, which don’t taste nearly as good as the stems. They taste like dirt. It takes me about 15 minutes of diligent eating to get this done and I have avoided the cauliflower and the broccoli stems because they just don’t fit.
And in the slowness of being forced to eat in this manner, in the noticing the details of the tomato and blocking out the pain in my jaw, I began to think about details in general. I *can* do details well, some might call me mildly OCD when it comes to details because I like to think deeply about subjects, one step at a time. But when I focus on the details, I lose myself in them and fail to notice the elephants, the big picture, the signal. So I have trained myself to shut down the details and focus on the signal. I have trained myself to *not* do details.
This skill has come in particularly handy in my life, and I might argue is a reason I’m generally happy with how things have shaped up for me. Avoiding the details and focusing on the big picture is one reason I pulled myself out of being dead-ass-broke and in debt when I was in my 20s. Focusing on the big picture is one reason I ended up doing what I love – working with founders. Focusing on the signal is one way I ended up with the love of my life for a husband. Of all things I nailed, I got that one right. Fwew.
I have to force myself, but I can step over the explosion of shoes and jackets and backpacks at my front door to focus on my daughter’s smile to see if she’s had a good or a bad day. It’s hard, but I can ignore the mess of art supplies on the kitchen table to notice my son dancing up a storm behind the chairs. I can (sometimes) ignore the peer pressure of what car I should be driving or what zip code I should live in, so I can accomplish my financial goals. I can, much to my colleagues chagrin, ignore my email and slack notifications, but spend time with the one founder where we have a particularly large investment and the founder/company is really struggling with something. I can ignore the pile of bills on the kitchen table but spend time analyzing how we’re performing in our finances overall. I can hear the words my husband says to me, but really listen to their meaning to figure out what he’s really trying to tell me. I can ignore the external obstacles and voice of self-doubt, and focus on what I CAN do and want to accomplish.
I think this skill, of focusing on the elephants/signal/whatever-you-want-to-call-it and ignoring the details – is a new skill we’re having to learn today. My ancestors, in fact as recent as my grandparents, who grew up in on a rural and agricultural greek island and didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, didn’t have a fraction of the noise I have today. Their signals were our details – like the weather, the garden, the goats, the river volume. They didn’t have the bills, the finances, the news, the media, the meetings, the calendars, the board meetings, and strategic plannings and birthday parties and shopping and travel and auto registrations and soccer practices, and the millions of things we have to deal with today. But they did have to worry about eating. Whereas, I have that one covered. Well, at least as long as the grocery store keeps selling food and money has value. But honestly, my grandparents were probably better off because they relied on neither the money nor the grocery store. If those things disappeared, I’d be f’cked, whereas my grandparents knew how to live off the land. They were tougher than we are and we know how to survive. My grandfather always told me to get into agriculture. I laughed at him as a 20-year-old because I lived in the burbs and knew nothing about farming, but today I see the wisdom in his guidance.
Our ancestors’ ancestors had even less to worry about – they didn’t even have the gardens or the houses of the last era to deal with. But they did have to worry about getting eaten by a saber-tooth tiger. Or a small blister becoming infected. Their signals look like details to us too. For instance, the subtle break in the blade of grass might indicate a predator (or prey) had come that way. Or the shift in the breeze to indicate the oncoming storm when no shelter was nearby. Or the lower amount of rainfall which might indicate the river downstream was dry. Or the slight reddening of the skin around a scrape. Our ancestors were probably experts at the details. I almost envy them for that. I think I’d be a damn good hunter/gatherer, but history can keep the saber-tooth tiger.
Learning how to block out the noise to focus on the elephants has been an effort and as I think about it, there are 3 strategies I’ve employed.
1. Listening to, and redirecting self-talk.
2. Setting clear priorities and checking in to make sure I’m focusing on them every year, quarter, and week.
Listening to, and redirecting self-talk comes from my background in sport psychology. Training your brain to ‘hear’ what your inner voice is telling you – and redirecting that voice into a message you want to say – is all art. Am I calling myself stupid? Slow? Unworthy? Incapable? Am I angry? Frustrated? Anxious? Once you notice these emotions and sentiments in your own brain, you can begin to repurpose them to what you want to be. I want to be insightful, not stupid. I want to be efficient, not slow. I want to be valuable, not unworthy. I want to be capable of everything I attempt, even if it takes a span of failures to figure it out. I might feel angry, but I don’t have to lash out in anger. I don’t let my brain focus on what I don’t want to be. I force it to focus on what I WANT to be, and in theory, it makes that thing more likely to manifest. This doesn’t take the shape of self-talk for me; I’m not Jack Handy. Rather I catch myself in the act of negative self-talk, and just put a stop to it by refocusing on what’s possible or what’s present. For instance, I just stopped focusing on the pain in my jaw right now, I just start thinking about the squishy slimy tomato guts rolling around my tongue – which inspired this blog post, and I don’t even feel my face anymore. It takes a lot of practice, but it can be transformational. Or so the experts say – I’m still practicing. Like now…I’m in control of you, brain! You do not control me! You WILL do my bidding! Okay, maybe that is a little Jack Handy-y.
Setting clear priorities is crucial – the priorities are my goals, what things I want to accomplish to look back on my life and feel fulfilled, and I couldn’t focus on them if I didn’t explicitly know what they are. I have annual priorities that usually don’t change from year to year (although sometimes they do). Like putting my husband and kids first, paying off our home equity line, or learning to meditate, or being great at my job. I set these annually, and schedule time on my calendar throughout the year to make sure I’m actually spending time on them. I check in quarterly to see how I’m progressing against the goal. I remind myself weekly – although the weekly priorities can shift depending on what’s happening.
For instance, spending quality time with my husband was one of my priorities for 2018 (and has been!) – but he and I have opposite schedules, so it’s hard to actually prioritize him. I work during the day, and he’s either rehearsing or gigging at night. Date nights don’t work because his schedule and my energy don’t always line up, but date breakfasts are awesome. So I schedule one date breakfast a month, for a whole YEAR in advance. Quarterly, I make sure the breakfasts don’t have conflicts, and if they do, I reschedule to make sure they happen. And weekly, well, we kinda suck at it weekly, but we’re in a good place about it – or at least were at our last date breakfast 2 weeks ago.
There’s a thread between my yearly, quarterly, and weekly priorities, and I’m looking at them every week to stay on track. I put them in the forefront of my mind to make sure they’re getting the attention they need so they actually happen, and I use my calendar liberally to block time that I will actually spend on them. Yes, I have blocks of time on my calendar for date breakfasts, for reviewing my portfolio, and for 1:1s with each kid – because if it’s not on my calendar, I never find the time for it. Making it happen, baby. This shit doesn’t come naturally. The rest of the whirlwind of my life can fall into the spaces around my priorities, not the other way around.
Finally, I meditate (I mentioned I live in Boulder, right?). I’m relatively new to meditation, but I’ve started to think about it like personal hygiene, like brushing my teeth (even though I can barely do that without pain right now). I practice meditation for about 20 min every day, and I miss probably 2 days a week. They’re unguided meditations, and all I’m doing during the meditation is practicing focus. I focus on my breathing, and every time my mind wanders, which it did every 2 seconds at first, I congratulate myself for catching the wandering and gently refocus back on my breath. I would refocus on my breathing hundreds of times during a single meditation, or sometimes I’d go a whole 20 minutes without even realizing my mind was wandering It’s getting easier now though and I’m staying focused longer since I’ve been practicing a while. It’s like learning any skill – it’s super awkward at first, but it gets easier with time. I’m practicing staying focused, practicing staying in control of what my brain focuses on. Practicing on refocusing my brain on what I want it to think about, and congratulating myself when I correct myself (rather than be frustrated). A fun side effect of meditation is that I feel at peace when my brain finally finds the quiet. It’s one of the few places on the planet I feel that way, and I can create it almost every day, wherever I am, even on this flight from Montreal to Denver. Peace is inside us. Be one with the force young Jedi.
My jaw still hurts, I’m still tired, and this flight is still 2 hours delayed, but I’m not suffering because unripened tomato explosions in my mouth are fascinating once I started paying attention. You might think focusing on tomato textures are details, are noise, but I disagree. I think it’s the signal – because it’s put my head into a great place. And writing this post has been fun – exploring the relationship between the details and the signal, between the past and the present. The details could easily ruin my day, but f*ck that – I choose to have a good day today. To focus on what is constructive, the big picture. The big picture for me is to live a happy and fulfilled life, and I know what factors go into that for me; family, self, friends, career, and impact. So later today when I get off this plane and take some Advil, I’ll be hugging on my kids, which is a source of joy for me. I can’t wait.
In the meantime, anyone have ibuprofen they’re willing to share?