The Pay Is Certain

The Pay Is Certain >> Life In Limbo

Earlier this week I was reading this funny book and was so struck by one of the passages near the end. She quoted this poem by Walt Whitman:

Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for fear I effuse unreturn’d love, 
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love, the pay is certain one way or another 
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return’d, 
Yet out of that I have written these songs). 

What he’s saying is that no matter what happens in a relationship, you’ll always be getting some kind of return on your investment. There is no such thing as wasted love.

If you’re a writer, you get to write about your heartbreak. If you’re a podcaster, you get to talk about it. If you’re an artist, you get to make it into something beautiful. If you’re a life-liver, you will always get to learn something valuable to take with you on to the next experience.

Another way of saying this is the saying “It’s all grist for the mill,” which means that all things are a potential source of profit or advantage. Or, as Oprah says, “Things happen for me, not to me”: everything is useful in one way or another.

I like this way of thinking about life as a great big classroom full of teachers and lessons. It gives me solace to know that I can’t mess it up: the pay is certain, one way or another.

Two Tokens

Two Tokens >> Life In Limbo

On an episode of Rework, the Basecamp team once talked about the concept of the two tokens that exist in every interaction with a customer. The idea is that you always have a choice of which token you want to take when some kind of negative situation happens. You can take the token that says, “This is not really a big deal”, or you can take the token that says “This is the worst thing that has ever happened!” It’s your choice, but the thing to remember is that the customer will always take whichever token you don’t choose. 

So if your company decides it’s no biggie, the customer might feel unheard and upset and pick up the token of being hurt and outraged. But if you treat your customers’ problems like they’re an enormous issue, they may just pick up the token of being calm and patient and kind. And let’s face it: any problem a customer of yours is having while using your products or services IS an enormous issue for you. 

The key, of course, which they don’t explicitly say in the episode, is that you have to actually mean it when you pick up the 5-alarm fire token. You have to know in your heart that if you messed up, or if something’s not working properly, or if you can’t deliver on a promise you made: that IS a massive problem. That IS worth dropping everything else to fix.

While I think you could technically probably use this strategy in a more “manipulative sense” (ie. pretending to be outraged while really not caring,  just to get your customer to calm down), if the result is that you’re actually taking steps to soothe a distressed human being because of a stressor that you specifically or inadvertently caused, I think that’s probably a net positive. But I also think that it probably works better when you care. Energy doesn’t lie, and we can all feel when we’re being placated (just ask the Too Much Tuna guys!) or lied to.

This was a throwaway line on one podcast (it actually took me a very long time to find the link to the right one!) but it has stuck with me ever since. I’m still exploring where else this concept is true in my life and my relationships. When I feel guilty about something, do I pick up the careless token just to avoid taking responsibility? Do I avoid picking up the outraged token just because I want to seem cool, chill and in control? And most importantly, if I pick up one token, does the universe pick up another? 

On Integration

On Integration >> Life In Limbo

I never pulled an all-nighter during university. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of all-nighters I’ve pulled during my 28 years on this planet, and most of them were either due to insomnia or a particularly wild teenage slumber party.

No, even in university I knew that I needed to sleep, lest I become a drooling zombie with a massive headache for the rest of the week. So this meant that even if I had a big essay due, or a giant exam approaching, I still got my 8(+) hours most nights.

Besides the zombie thing, I think the major reason that I prioritized sleep so much during that time was because I realized that this magical thing would happen while I slept: I would integrate what I’d just learned. I’d wake up, and suddenly everything I’d been learning would have sunk in more deeply, would feel more solid and graspable in my mind. This had such a pronounced effect that I started building naps into my exam studying schedule, which might have made me *look* lazy but actually helped me get great marks.

Whenever I was learning big concepts or solving complex problems, I needed time and rest for my brain to process them. I needed to pause and allow everything to sink in first, before trying to stuff my brain with even more information.

In the years since, I’ve realized that the same concept applies when I’m learning big life lessons and solving complex problems in my work. I’ve had a lot of “upleveling moments” over the past couple years: experiences that require more of me than I’ve ever given, projects that are tricky and complicated to plan, situations that ask me to show up as my brightest self, and so on. And every single time, I feel completely bone-tired and exhausted to a point that feels far out of proportion to the physical energy I’ve put in.

This is good, and right, and normal. I’ve done something that has required all of me: of course I’m going to be exhausted! I think where I get into trouble is when I don’t let myself rest fully after these experiences. I become, as Debbie Millman once said, a “master metabolizer. I metabolize any achievement or success almost instantly, almost as if it’s Gatorade. Then I keep looking for the next thing to metabolize.”

But the point, I think, is that successful upleveling experiences are NOT like Gatorade, which is easy to drink and digest. Usually, they’re tricky and multi-layered. They’ve probably triggered some of our deepest fears, or brought up old wounds, or caused massive anxiety, or required us to step away from toxic relationships and subsequently grieve a past version of ourselves. This is not some sweet bright-pink electrolyte drink! I don’t eat meat, but I imagine it’s probably more like digesting a tough steak.

So lately I’ve been trying to allow myself integration time, however that looks. Usually, it’s more sleep than usual, and a whole lot of doing nothing (which I try not to feel guilty or lazy about), and tackling simple things like cooking a meal or going for a walk. I try to process the lessons I learned through conversations with good friends and writing in my journal. And I let it take as long as it takes, even if it takes longer than I would have liked.

Because the alternative is worse: moving through the world like a drooling zombie with a massive headache all week. I’d much rather treat these experiences like the hardest lessons I’ve ever learned in the classroom of my life (because that’s what they are) and just decide to build more naps into my studying process.

Output Before Input

Output Before Input >> Life In Limbo

As you probably know, this new “daily observation blog post” thing is still pretty new. About two days old, to be precise. And while I’ve gotten a bit clearer on what the parameters will be (a short post from Monday to Thursday), I’m still figuring out how to integrate this habit into my routine and make it stick.

This morning I accidentally came up with an idea that I think is going to help: output before input. In this case, I’m defining output as the blog post I’m going to write, meeting my goal of creative expression & paying attention. Input is literally everything else: music, podcasts, conversations, texts, movies, reading a book. And as much as I adore input (seriously, it’s my top strength on the Strengthfinder quiz), I recognize that it interferes with my output in a lot of ways.

This morning, for example, I started my day with my phone on Airplane mode, which I always do in an attempt to greet the world each morning feeling more peaceful and relaxed. So far, so good! But then I started reading the last few pages of a book, and suddenly I felt like I was inside that author’s brain and worldview instead of my own. Suddenly, it was a lot harder to hear my own thoughts, which had been swirling around only moments ago. And it also made me doubtful! It’s pretty hard to value your own ideas when you’re encountering succinct, edited, published versions of someone else’s.

When I interviewed her for the podcast, Sarah Von Bargen told me that one of the ways she gets her best ideas is by carving out space in her day without any input, whether it’s on a dog walk, driving in her car or staring out a window. I recognized the truth in what she said, and yet apart from my short Airplane-mode morning routine, I have very little of this time built into my day.

Thus, my new saying, more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule: output before input. Put differently, prose before bros (a saying I just learned!) – with bros here representing everything that is not my own creative process. Make some space, listen to yourself first, write it down, rinse & repeat.