On Criticism

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” - Teddy Roosevelt (1910) via Brené Brown

Since joining the digital sector as a project manager, I have been doing my fair share of reading to get acquainted with the nuances of the industry, best practices, and opinions of the practitioners who so generously share their knowledge. At this moment, it escapes me how I found this writer in particular, but I am grateful I did.  Paul Jarvis is proficient in web design, sure, but I am especially fond of his weekly newsletter, the Sunday Dispatches. He has a knack for relating business and design concepts to practical life lessons, and I find his weekly reads enriching from both a professional and personal vantage point. I highly recommend subscribing.

 A few weeks back, Paul wrote about managing critics, or "trolls" as he called them and it struck a chord with me. As a sensitive person, I am especially, well, sensitive, to criticism. While others' comments aren't always relevant or constructive and I would be better off to disregard them entirely, they still register. I hear the words, I internalize them, search for any truth behind said words, and then hold on to them if they evoke enough negative feelings.

Unfortunately, as a fallible human being I have the ability/urge to be critical as well. As much as we hate criticism, we are all capable of doling it out, and sometimes do. Webster says to criticize is to indicate the faults of (someone or something) in a disapproving way. Criticism ranges from trivial comments about preferences in dress or music, to deeper value judgements about efforts, behaviors, choices, and beliefs. We can be critical without even realizing it, and I this may be due in part to our obsession as a culture with comparing and conforming, rather than celebrating what makes us special. 

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The quote at the beginning of this post was shared by Paul, and I found great comfort in these words from our former President, as conveyed by one of the leading scholars in the fields of empathy and vulnerability research, Brené Brown. I would consider myself passionate, and full of life. I thrive off associating with others who are thirsty to explore, learn more, and live with their feet firmly planted in the beauty that this world, although broken, has to offer. Especially refreshing are people who acknowledge weaknesses, accept them, even become comfortable with this state of brokenness. Those that can encourage advancement and diligence but allow for the shortcomings that will undeniably arise on the quest to competence. "...who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."

For anyone who has ever doubted themselves, been judged unfairly, or judged another person before considering the compassionate approach, you're surely not the only one. Personally, when I am critical of others or myself, it reveals an evident insecurity. I can only speak for myself, but I would go so far as to say it is beneficial to overcome the urge to criticize, when not constructive, as it serves neither the critic nor the judged. The great strength of humanity is that we have the free will to choose - actions that build up others or tear them down. It makes choosing love and understanding all the more celebratory, and as a people we can learn from each instance of said love. 

(PS- Well worth your time is Brené's TED Talk, below, on the "power of vulnerability". If there were a curriculum for life, this in my humble opinion would be essential content.)

 

A Letter to Myself

This past Sunday afternoon, I made Ricotta gnocchi entirely from scratch. I was standing alone in my kitchen for a few hours, carefully mixing, kneading, and shaping. Entranced by that methodical rhythm, I had ample time to reflect. I cook primarily because I am truly present in the process of making, second only to cooking because well, I love to eat.

My mind wandered to years past. I took an inventory of all that I have come to believe today, as a woman, but would have gladly known as a younger person. As I shaped each gnocco, I retreated further and further.

I tend to show love with food, because food tastes better than words, but consoles heart and soul just the same. Oftentimes I search for meaning through making and sharing food. So with floury hands and a mess of dough and cheese, I crafted a letter; here is what I remember of it, jumbled but sincere. 

 I harvested some basil from the garden and stored it in a mason jar. The inspiration from the gnocchi came from  Food52 , and they were paired with a hearty bolognese. 

I harvested some basil from the garden and stored it in a mason jar. The inspiration from the gnocchi came from Food52, and they were paired with a hearty bolognese. 

Dear Francesca,

One of the only concepts you will consistently have to concern yourself with regarding your actions and beliefs is "are they honorable". Forget the remaining periphery. You do not have to seek assurance, or confirmation that being as you are is ok. Every nuance is another thread in your beautiful and unique tapestry. 

Hold on to your aspirations and views but do not try to change others. Not everyone is the same and they shouldn't be. It takes all kinds of kinds. Focus instead on the joy that remains, and the commonalities between you and the next person. There are more than you think.

Has worrying changed your life at all? Has anything been different? No matter what you do and how you act, someone, somewhere will have a problem with you, and that's ok. Know your worth, but stay humble. You are no better nor worse than the next person. If you find yourself displeased, keep fighting to find what will bring you peace.

Let go of resentment and hostility as these emotions are tiring and harvest more stress and negativity. Re-evaluate your priorities and focus on what is actually important. When you are fifteen, life seems volatile but it gets better. A few eggs that crack become part of something bigger; it will make sense in years to come. 

 Messes are lovely in their own way.

Messes are lovely in their own way.

You're not perfect, but certainly not awful so lighten up on yourself. Know your audience, know your aggressor, and get to know yourself most importantly. Learn where you can thrive and where you should take a step back. This will take lots of practice, blunders, and awkward encounters. Remember to laugh in the process. Everyone wants to feel worthy. Everyone is striving to gain ground. 

 Pause before leaping into hot water. 

Pause before leaping into hot water. 

Fatigue, discontent, anxiety, impatience, and sadness happen. Do not always attach a value judgment to them. They just are, and will pass like all things good and bad eventually do. Do not assume that fallibility is a weakness and the tendencies that make us most human are unacceptable. If you do so, you're holding yourself to impossible standards. Figments of our minds are the greatest rivals. 

Be content to experience things for yourself. The world is yours for the living. You are not exactly alike any other human being on this planet so why feel like you have to completely align with anyone’s sentiments. Not even the people you love. You can retreat into the depths of your mind every so often, but be sure to come up for air. Change the tune and go on.

 Find the time to admire the fruits of your labor.

Find the time to admire the fruits of your labor.

There is value in sharing experiences and communicating. More people feel like you than you would think; you're not alone. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it and move on. You are not entrusted with ensuring anyone else’s ultimate happiness. Only you can control your own happiness. Remember that when you are trying to please everyone else. 

  Show the people who love you understanding and appreciation. They've walked in your shoes.

Show the people who love you understanding and appreciation. They've walked in your shoes.

Today is another beginning, and the present is all we ever actually have. Everything else has already taken place or will in the future. Meet it when it comes, or think fondly on times past but do not neglect the present, it is fleeting. 

Lastly, make time for dinner with your family and friends. Coffee chats, games of monopoly into the wee hours of the morning, and summer nights with ice cream. They will affect you greatly and shape the woman you are to become.

"To err is human...

I have a habit of thinking compulsively, sometimes in circles. Reacting to seemingly small stimuli, for example a negative feeling in the pit of my stomach or a tinge of longing, I fabricate a story to explain the emotion. People who know a lot more than me call it "rationalizing".  I condemn myself for being affected by the impatient driver who cut me off or becoming irritable with a family member. For admiring young lovers enjoying the newness of their relationship and comparing it to my own relationship, or observing a peer with enviable confidence, looks, success, and wondering if I am enough. The cycle is potentially damaging because everyone has something we haven't. More so, everyone's different. We forget to give thanks for who and what we are, flaws and all. 

I've eased up of late though, because there is an odd liberation in acknowledging unsavory human tendencies. Identifying simply, " I am in a bad mood; it will pass." Admitting when I am jealous, critical, or angry. Finding peace in a burst of fury or caddy impulse before releasing them. Feelings like this remind me that I am fallible, at the same time encouraging acceptance and personal growth.

"I am broken, and that is ok. I was made to be imperfect."

It is gratifying to be honest. In the deep recesses of my mind, what goes on isn't immediately available to others; I can choose to make it their business or keep it filed in my personal folder. Thoughts are powerful, but I've seen first-hand that thoughts don't make the person. Actions and words released in to the world make the person. 

The struggle is constant, to make the right choice over the easy choice, to act with compassion and patience. Thankfully, every day is another chance, as my Nana told me once. You can wake up and begin again, carrying the weight of the days prior until it is too heavy to bear. 

Why Life is like the SAT's

I was chatting with a high school student recently. She is in her junior year, the tell-all year. She spoke of college visits, future plans, and of course the SAT's. While I am past my standardized testing high school days, I couldn't help but draw some parallels: why life is like the SAT's.

  1. There are expectations. Lots and lots of expectations.
  2. It is tempting to disregard the directions. 
  3. It is important to read the entire question before blurting out an answer. An informed response will draw better results.
  4. A majority of the questions have an exact answer, even if we disagree with it. And we can only pick one: the agony. 
  5. The remaining questions are open-ended. Despite our sincerest wishes otherwise, there is no clear cut answer. Even worse, a stranger may judge our efforts. 
  6. We are confined to the constraints of a demographic. Vibrant, multifaceted and unique people diminished to an age, race, and/or gender.
  7. Not everyone performs well, relatively speaking.  Their talents will manifest in other ways regardless of pressure to conform.
  8. It is time-bound. As a result there is an indescribable urgency to get it exactly right. 
  9. There are instructions to color within the lines, but the temptation to break outside the boundaries is ever present.
  10. It would be wonderful if it came with a handy sheet of formulas. A Pythagorean theorem to get through a breakup, or losing a loved one. A universal equation for picking the right job, the right spouse, the right path. 

As much as life might seem like the SAT's using cheeky little analogies, and I do love analogies, the bottom line is life is not a test. There are no answers, no clear cut directions. No score that dictates exactly where we belong. There will be pressure to do the best we can. To get the perfect score. (MTV even made a movie about this...)

We may feel like we didn't perform well enough. But at the end of life, an SAT score won't make a smidge of a difference. The people we were, will.

What I learned in 2013

I don't really love New Year's. Involuntarily, I correlate it with the end of the Christmas season and it leaves me melancholy. While I understand it's a time to reflect on beginnings along with the potential of another year, it's also slightly sad. Likely not for everyone; maybe I'm just a little odd. Oh well, it takes all kinds of kinds. 

The few days before January 1, I start to contemplate all the things I will need to change. The resolutions start materializing in excess. Eat better, exercise more, worry less, save more. Be more comfortable in my skin, learn something new, abandon bad habits. The list goes on and on. Then I get a whiff of realism and acknowledge that while I can improve in many ways, the Francesca of 2013 wasn't so bad either. I learned quite a bit too, as I hope to do every year, as long as I live.

I learned that circumstances are never static, but rather always evolving. When too many decisions are lumped together, it can become overwhelming, even anxiety provoking. Tackle one issue at a time, when you come to it. 

Second guessing makes us human. Vulnerability too. According to researcher Brene Brown, vulnerability makes us more worthy of receiving love. 

On the topic of love. Cherish it. But also realize it is not always easy. It takes patience and compromise. 59 years of compromise looks something like this.

If an environment isn't bringing out the best in you, and you have the opportunity to change your circumstances, leave.  I'd rather be a happy wanderer, than left stagnant and withering in a toxic place. 

I cannot always be certain where I will be, with whom, and doing what... but the winding road makes for a more eventful journey.  And at the very least I can imagine how I'd like to live, who I'd like to be, and go in that direction.

Food tastes better when it is shared with good people. Scratch that. Steaks from Keens are phenomenal regardless, but doubly wonderful when eaten alongside good people, after a night of ice skating. And always order the bacon appetizer.

  • Don't judge everything from a moral vantage point. I am entitled to feel a certain way or react negatively without myself or my opposition being wrong.
  • Fatigue, discontent, impatience, and sadness happen. And then they pass.  
  • I am not entrusted with ensuring anyone else’s ultimate happiness. I can only control my own.
  • We must be content to experience things for ourselves. The world is ours for the living. We are not exactly alike any other human being on this planet. There is no need to feel like you have to completely align with anyone’s sentiments.
  • There is almost always a gray area.
  • I learned a 35 year old and an 85 year old can be the best of friends. Friendship doesn't conform to parameters or limiting conventions.
  • Arguing is necessary and helps to forge stronger relationships; especially with people you care for.
  • Sometimes you just have to change your tune, and move on.
  • If you have two cats, you can handle a third.

I moved back home to New Jersey and have reconnected with family in a big way. Barbecues were abundant. I learned to play darts. I had a garden, leased a truck, and had my own Christmas tree. I reacquainted myself with slope intercept form as an Algebra tutor. I sang again, learned some HTML, and made ravioli from scratch. I found a new job where I learn daily, like school without the student loans.

I have always known the little things have a way of being the most special, but this has been especially evident of late. I will cling to this notion because I feel very strongly that when we value the smallest of blessings, contentment is truly ours.

Cheers to 2014, and the lessons learned this past year and every year prior.