This Thing I'm Doing: Scaring the Daylights Out of Myself (In a Good Way)

After a couple of months of post-holiday drifting, I'm back on the old sticker chart bandwagon. This time I've simplified the reward system, since cashing in points for treats was too confusing and onerous in the chart's last iteration. Now the reward is the action plus the sticker, and that's it. Two other changes to the system are that I've got an accountability partner who is also following her own goal-setting and -achieving path with excellent results, and I've added NEW! IMPROVED! habits to the list. Witness:

These are mostly self-explanatory, yes? I take my vitamins & meds, drink water, eat fruits & veggies, go to bed on time, stretch, exercise, read, write, read to the girls, try something new, and clean myself up a bit before going out. Easy, yes? Basic things that basic people do that seem really difficult some days somehow become worth the effort when attached to a cute little Korean sticker.

I can't explain it. It's silly. I wish I were above extrinsic motivation, but I'm not. Some days I just want to collect stickers, and if that's what it takes to develop habits that help me meet my larger goals, then so be it.

I've found in the last 3 weeks of my sticker chart re-entry that the most potent new category is by far "New Thing/Scary Thing," since changed to "Brave Thing" because the habit I want to engender in myself is being brave, not being new and scary.* More days than not I've earned a sticker for this category, which means that more days than not I've stretched myself toward tenacity. One can pretty easily phone in most of the goals on that list, but you can't phone in being brave. Either you're acting with courage, or you aren't. And acting with courage more regularly has been an energizing, invigorating, successful endeavor. Truly, making a concerted effort to bravely tackle intimidating tasks has improved my life dramatically in less than a month.

It began with a bang when I applied for what is almost my perfect job. Part-time middle school humanities at a great school not far from home? Why wouldn't I apply?

BECAUSE IT'S TERRIFYING, that's why. I'm over 7 years out of the classroom, and just opening up my old, dusty CV for an update was enough to get the butterflies in my stomach out of their cocoons and fluttering. But I did it. I dedicated the time to update my resume, write a beautiful cover letter, update my certification status, and remind myself that there is a world beyond my current life that I so long to rejoin.

I still haven't heard about the job, but the mere act of applying was surprisingly energizing. If I could do THAT terrifying thing, then what else could I take on that I had assumed wasn't worth the discomfort? With that question in mind the world became my huge, frightening oyster.

So far, in pursuit of conquering fear and earning stickers, I've done big things (Plan a trip for the Smartlings and me to New York! Take on a PTA position at elder Smartling's school! Organize a rally at that school against anti-Semitic graffiti found on our reader board!) and tiny (Put air in my tires!** Figure out the scary weightlifting machinery at the gym! Invite Smartling's classmate and his mom to go to the art museum with us!). And, with each intentionally brave action, I feel an incredible boost and an urge to DO MORE. It helps that, so far, my brave actions have almost all been successful, which is emboldening. But I think the old aphorism attributed to Lucille Ball holds true that "the more things you do, the more you can do."

Likewise, when I'm feeling unsure about a brave action, I remind myself of the truth in Eleanor Roosevelt's declaration that "[y]ou must do the things you think you cannot do." Why must you? So that you can do more, become braver, live bigger, and believe in yourself more. It's a great cycle to be caught in, one in which courage leads to confidence leads to courage again. It's definitely been worth the effort, and I've found myself waking up in the morning wondering what brave thing I can do that day or planning the night before for the next day's brave task.

As I've been taking on these challenges, two books in particular have inspired me. The first is Carol Dweck's Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which outlines the effects of cultivating a "growth mindset" through which people believe that they are always capable learning, growing, and evolving. Basically, every time I bump up against the rigid assumption that "I couldn't possibly..." I counter it with Dweck's evidence-backed assertions that actually, the human mind is continually flexible and pliable, and we are all works in progress. And then I figure out how to put the terrifying air in the terrifying tires.

Along with Mindset, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance - What Women Should Know by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman has informed my new practice of intentional courage. In their book, which is part memoir and part scientific exploration of how confidence functions in women, Kay and Shipman provide evidence that Impostor Syndrome is both 1) a powerful hindrance to women's success, and 2) complete bullshit. Many women in our culture suffer from a lack of confidence that does not match up with their demonstrable proficiency, competence, and skills. Essentially, the book finds, millions of women in the country need to repeat Sarah Hagi's now-famous "Prayer to Combat Impostor Syndrome: God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude." And this is what I repeat to myself when I'm scared, remembering that The Confidence Code has shown that what holds many women back is a mere lack of confidence. And then I, like so many mediocre white dudes before me, put the terrifying air in the terrifying tires.

So, I strongly encourage you to find something brave to do this week and to celebrate once you've done it. It can be tiny. It can be huge. It can be private. It can be public. You can get a sticker. You can buy yourself a cake afterward, if you want. You can buy ME a cake afterward, if you want. WE CAN EAT CAKE TOGETHER. And, while we're eating that entire cake, you and me, just the two of us with only forks and pastry between us (because plates are for cowards), we can lavishly praise our audacious fortitude and plan for further brave adventures.

Join me, daring friends. This thing I'm doing is a good one.

*I am scary enough, thank you very much, and I'll leave being new (not to mention shiny) to Madonna in "Like a Virgin."

**Look, I know this is some low-level stuff, but I'd never done it on my own before because of a childish irrational fear that they would explode. They did not, I practiced being brave, and now my tires are at optimal pressure. WIN-WIN-WIN!