Don’t Quote Me: Eventually, You Can Learn to Avoid the Hole

The first movie my now-husband and I ever watched together was Groundhog Day. In the film, Bill Murray’s character – crotchety weatherman Phil Conners – ends up trapped in a frustrating time loop. He wakes up each day to find himself reliving the previous day. Over and over and over.

At first he’s frantic, then furious (he tries increasingly drastic steps to prematurely end the day), before ending up resigned (stuffing himself with cake and guzzling coffee straight from the pot) to his fate. But, eventually, he redeems the situation by using his unique advantage to exchange cynicism and anger for compassion and love.

One of the most hilarious scenes is his interaction with Ned Ryerson (played by Stephen Tobolowsky). Phil wants to avoid Ned at all costs and ends up walking into a puddle filled with slush, which doesn’t help his already bad mood. But by the end of the movie not only does he interact with Ned cheerfully – remember, he encounters Ned day after day after day – he learns to avoid the puddle. (Watching the scene helps put it in context, starting around the 1.50 mark).

Several years ago I read Portia Nelson’s Autobiography in Five Chapters for the first time. We’ve all experienced the frustration of a seemingly endless loop of bad habits or self-perpetuating mistakes. But we’ve likely also found ourselves redeeming them; learning from them and learning to avoid them.

As a “quote” it’s a pretty long one, but worth every word.

Chapter I

I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk

I fall in.

I am lost…

I am hopeless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I’m in the same place.

But it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in…it’s a habit

My eyes are open; I know where I am;

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

Autobiography in Five Chapters – Portia Nelson

In life, there will always be holes – and there will always be other streets. But don’t quote me.

Don’t Quote Me: Identify the Problem

Identify the problem.

Gretchen Rubin

Nearly a decade ago I read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project for the first time. It remains one of my favourite books – from any genre – to date.

Her insights were both revelatory and relatable. On every page I found something that made me stop and ask: “Why have I never thought of things this way? It’s all…so obvious!”

Of everything she wrote in that book, the following comes to mind most frequently: “Identify the problem.”

She calls this one of her Twelve Commandments and it hangs out with statements like:

  • Act the way I want to feel
  • Let it go
  • Do what ought to be done
  • Enjoy the process

Anytime I’m struggling with a mental block, am feeling unusually irritated, or find some perpetual annoyance is impeding my productivity or happiness, it helps to stop and think: “What’s really going on here?”

Maybe I yelled at the kids for a minor issue that wouldn’t normally raise my ire. Identify the problem.

I can’t focus on an important work e-mail. Identify the problem.

Often the problem is very simple and unrelated. I’m cold. I’m tired. I’m feeling unappreciated.

If I’m cold – take a hot shower, put on an extra sweater, turn up the heat.

If I’m tired – take a nap, get a cup of coffee, go to bed early, delay that meeting that demands full concentration.

If I’m feeling under-appreciated, tell my loved ones, add items to my gratitude list, give myself a gold star by writing a “Ta-da” list in my daytimer.

Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Often, we’re most of the way to a solution if we’ve accurately identified the problem. Or, in the words of John Dewey, “A problem well put is half-solved.”

I frequent a lovely local trail system with my family. It winds along gorgeous coastline and through wooded forests. It is expertly groomed and maintained, covered in a layer of fine crusher dust. Somehow – perhaps my cadence and foot strike or some unlucky combination of footwear and faulty genetics – I always end up with rocks in my shoes. Always. Usually, I tolerate the discomfort, sometimes for hours, without really paying attention to the fact the solution is simple. I have rocks in my shoes. That’s why my feet hurt. That’s why I’m wishing this walk were over.

So I bend over, shake the rocks out of shoes and keep on keeping on.

Next time you find yourself feeling unproductive or irritable – snapping at your kids, coworkers, or spouse – how about trying to identify the problem.

Go ahead. Try it.

Don’t Quote Me: Plan It. Do It.

I’m a big fan of Laura Vanderkam. I find her no-nonsense advice refreshing. There are no complicated rules, just straightforward suggestions for how to arrange your time to fit in personal wants and needs. She says things you might expect to hear from a pragmatic, but loving, friend.

Plan it in, and do it anyway.

Laura vanderkam

I regularly find myself repeating a particular turn of phrase or idea from one of her books or weekly blog posts.

A personal favourite: Plan it in, and do it anyway. She notes that when we say we wish we had more time, what we’re really looking for is more memories. Endless Friday evenings spent scrolling on Instagram are unlikely to produce meaningful memories, but that magical Handel’s Messiah concert we attend in an old cathedral likely will.

So her suggestion: plan in something that excites you.

To me this has meant: booking the concert tickets, scheduling the walk with a friend, arranging that evening bonfire on the beach. When things come up, which they inevitably will – the baby slept fitfully all night, which means you also slept fitfully; it’s raining; or any number of other reasons that would entice you to reach for your pajamas and settle in for a night of mindless scrolling – do it anyway.

Admittedly, there are times when the opposite approach may be both ideal and highly memorable but I think, in general, our future selves are far happier when we capitalize on opportunities for adventures.

These don’t have to be grandiose affairs. They can be as simple as going out for a dessert crêpe with your spouse, taking your daughter to a Saturday matinee at the local movie theatre, or setting up a tent in the living room for a weeknight campout, a family highlight during our ongoing lockdown.

They could be big too. That temporary Matisse exhibit at the Met or a whirlwind 24-hour trip to Paris are sure to leave a lasting impression.

So, the next time you feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day, identify some potential adventures (big or small). Then, plan them in and do them anyway.

But don’t quote me…

Don’t Quote Me: Identifying Great Opportunities

Great opportunities never have “great opportunity” in the subject line. Scott Belsky

We’re faced with choices – hundreds of them – every day. At first glance, the ideal outcome would appear to be selection of the most: lucrative, pleasurable or beneficial.

How often do great opportunities only reveal themselves after a decision has been made? Likely more often than we realize.

But don’t quote me…