For the past year and a half, my counselor has been working with me through some hard personal stuff. I’ve experienced tremendous growth during that time, both personally and in my role as a business strategist, but I’ve been publicly very quiet as pieces of my life have gone through various stages of brokenness and healing.
While I still feel pretty fragile in terms of my capacity to share publicly, I do not feel completely myself when I’m not writing and teaching. I’m at least ready to begin with what is currently true for me, and go from there.
In case you find yourself in a place of maybe-possibly-pretty-soon-ready for growth in any area, I’d like to share a few thoughts that are helping me.
Emotional honesty as a starting point for everything
The other night I was watching May It Last, a documentary on The Avett Brothers. They have this intense emotional honesty in their lyrics that has always made me feel deeply connected to their music, even when their experiences reflect nothing of my own life.
I respect and admire their ability to do this, possibly because it is how I write when I’m at my best (and it’s the kind of writing I enjoy reading!). But for the past several years, I’ve been pushing hard against sharing writing from this place.
Maybe I am a cynical human being, but the “authenticity movement” has made me leery of sharing anything remotely navel gaze-y. It feels like everywhere I look, someone is capitalizing on vulnerability. Combine this with criticism I’ve both read and received on the negative impact of too much emotional honesty, and it’s made me consider quitting sharing my writing entirely.
The problem is, all my writing is basically navel gazing. I learn things, often connected to deeply personal experience, and I write about them as honestly as I can. There is a lot of me in everything I write, and when I try to get away from that, it sounds hollow. And for good reason—I am rejecting in myself the very thing that makes me me as a learner, writer, and teacher.
That’s why it struck me when, in the documentary, Scott Avett says that he and his brother Seth inherited a belief that the way they feel and see the world matters and that people want to hear it. Their grandfather believed it (he had to, as a pastor), and they never questioned it.
Maybe that is a privileged position to take, but it rings true. If anything matters, it is our stories. Regardless of what is going on in the world, whether telling the truth about our shared humanity is popular or not, whether there is danger in its exploitation or not, our stories matter because we as individuals matter. And sometimes knowing that you’re not alone is the thing that saves you.
At the end of the documentary, after the band has finished recording the song that took the most hard lived experience to write, Seth and Scott look emptied out, like they’ve just given everything they had into that performance. The producer walks over to them and gives them a hearty and sincere “Congratulations!” As the brothers walk out the back door to take a break, they seem distraught. “It’s weird to get congratulated for strip-mining your own soul,” Scott says. Especially for something they know will sell, and sell well.
How do we reconcile ourselves to that, when our art is our lives which is also our living? I don’t know if that question has an answer. But I can say that I’m grateful to the people who are brave enough to do it anyway, with as much integrity as they know how to give it.
At the same time, I also respect the courage it takes not to do that. Emotional honesty is a gift—often a costly one. It can take just as much bravery to refuse to share the parts of our lives that are most sacred; to save them for the people who are as invested in us as we are in them.
Removing what’s blocking me as a way of life
The thing that got me writing about this were two questions I’ve been considering. The first is, “What area of my life feels ready for growth?” The second is, “What is getting in the way?”
At this point in my life, I’m committed to self-acceptance. Growth so I can be more productive or more socially acceptable or more of whatever it feels I’m not enough of is a treadmill of sadness. And ironically, self-acceptance is the only path to true, sustainable growth that has ever worked for me.
Growth isn’t about trying to be something I’m not. It’s about developing a part of myself that has been buried underneath other parts, often for good reason. It involves integration rather than striving.
For example, because of the shifts in my personal life, the nurturing side of me has experienced a whole lot of growth. I have become an expert at nurturing myself and the people around me. At the same time, the powerful side of me has taken an observing role. This was much needed, because it had become strong at the expense of taking care of myself and others. I didn’t know how to use it in a way that was nurturing. Now that I’ve developed more of that skill, I’m ready to integrate “powerfulness” in a kinder, more grounded way.
But there are roadblocks. There are always roadblocks.
In my case, one major roadblock is that I’m not writing and teaching, two things that have always been a great source of strength for me. Within that, there are a bunch of tiny roadblocks in the way I’m thinking and approaching my life, several of which I’ve been gradually working through and are the core of this piece of writing.
It’s a gentler way of growing—noticing the things that are blocking me and addressing them, one at a time. When I focus on that rather than on striving to always become better, growth happens naturally without me having to force it.
Self-trust as a muscle I can strengthen
It’s funny that I wrote a book where the biggest takeaway for most people was “create out loud” and yet I struggle more than anyone with doing this. Because of that, I do not trust myself to follow through with any public declaration that I am now writing again. (So please, do not consider this a public declaration! My writer self will run away so fast.)
I was listening to an episode of The Needy Podcast a few weeks ago, and the host Mara Glatzel was talking about self-trust. Self-trust as a concept isn’t new to me, but what is new is practicing strengthening that muscle over time.
One of the things my partner and I talk about all the time is choosing to be in each other’s corner, no matter what—even if and when it hurts to be. That means assuming that the other person has a good reason for what they’re thinking and how they’re behaving (even if they’re not aware of it), and reflecting that back to them in how we respond.
A trusting relationship with myself as a writer would be one where instead of accusing myself of being a lazy person with no work ethic for not writing often enough, I assume I have a very good reason for not writing. As I explore and validate those reasons, I discover what I need to give myself in order to show up how I want to show up the next time. Or (more often) I discover my expectations of myself are out of alignment with what I really need, so I can adjust them.
Another self-trust strategy Mara talks about is keeping the promises we make to ourselves. I cringed when I heard this. I cherish my flexibility and freedom. But I’m slowly learning a much easier, more effective strategy for this than “Do the thing I committed to even though I do not have the capacity to do it and still take care of myself.” And that is, “Avoid making promises to myself or others that have historically proven difficult for me to follow through with.”
Part of this involves me accepting who I am, as I am. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. But it’s so freeing to say, “I cannot commit to this because it’s not something I’m good at. But I can commit to this other thing I’m uniquely suited for.” When we do that, not only does everything become smoother, but we start believing that we are people who can handle the things we’ve committed to.
What I’m committing to next
I am sure some of you are wondering what is next for the second edition of Gather the People (especially those of you who have pre-ordered!). I am currently emerging from an intense research phase, and I’m beginning the third re-write. Thank you so much for your patience.
While that is one longer term goal, what I’m able to commit to next specifically is something I’ve been developing as part of my research and will certainly be going into my book: I’m going to walk you through how to develop a sharp, clear purpose for whatever you’re doing (the philosophy of which is based on the first chapter in Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering, which is excellent).
We’ve been doing this work in our annual planning at &yet, as well as for a local alt indie print publication that my partner and I purchased to try and keep alive (think Seattle’s The Stranger). I’m so excited to share how we’re approaching it with you.
Not everyone is as driven by meaning as I am, and that’s okay. You don’t have to be an idealistic dreamer for this to be valuable to you. But if you lack motivation or clarity on any project you’ve undertaken, or if the scope is getting out of control, or if you’re having trouble explaining it to people, or if you’re experiencing pushback or a lack of follow-through from the folks who are supposed to be helping you with it, I’m convinced a sharp, clear purpose is where to start.
Encouragement for the road
You have everything you need to do the things you want to do and grow in the way you want to grow. And you really can do it in a way that is simultaneously gentle and effective, even if you’re coming from a fragile place.
If all of that sounds ambiguous, I begin with this: What area of my life is ready for growth? And what is getting in the way?