Friday, June 02, 2006

GTD Weekly review & The Pollyanna effect

When I do my weekly review at work, right after I skim my someday/maybe list, and before I do a few minutes of mindsweeping, I always read a random chapter of “Ready for Everything” for a bit of insight/uplift. For those who don’t own this one, each chapter is a page or two summarizing one of the key concepts in the GTD system, or just a general personal growth or life management platitude. This week the flying fickle finger of fate landed on chapter 45: “Surprises, expected, are no Surprise”. This line really grabbed me:

“Maintaining a consistent intention of uplifting thoughts toward positive outcomes is not for the faint of heart. You must be willing to confront the whole gamut of historical and future potential realities, accept them for what they are (and are not), and keep moving toward what you want, That truly defuses the demons.” (Allen 2003,134-5)

Now, a confession. My name is Sarah, and I am an optimist. (“Hi, Sarah”.) Some might say, even…a Pollyanna. I think that’s supposed to be an insult, or at least a gentle barb. I mean, I’m a gen-x geek librarian who’s a proud registered democrat! I’m supposed to be all crusty and bitter and ironic! And once upon a time, in high school and my first year of college, I was all crusty and bitter and ironic. Don’t believe me? Ask the poor folks who had to live with me before I went to college! I was older at 19 that I am now at 29. I was a panicker and a worrier and a pessimist. Now I’m typically laid back enough to make Bobby McFerrin irritated. What changed me?

I wasted most of my teenage years being angry and bitter and depressed over childhood events that I felt had destroyed my innocence. I’ll spare you the lifetime original movie stuff, but let’s just say I had a rougher road than many, but also a lighter road than many. One day I was bemoaning my fate, of how miserable my life was and that it never would improve, and IT HIT ME.

By obsessing so much about being a lonely, panicky, depressed underachiever, I was actually becoming that which I most dreaded.

So, I took a shaky breath. OK. What if the worst happens? And for the first time I stopped wallowing in my situation and LOOKED at my life objectively. What if I remained lonely and panic-ridden and fat? Instead of running from the abyss, I LOOKED into it. I looked as long and hard and as dispassionately as I could at my innermost fears. And in that moment I saw that there were things in that Abyss that, if they came to pass, I could handle. That gave me confidence that if other things happened, I could and would deal with them when the time came.

And then the final epiphany—by wasting my life WORRYING about some potential distaster, rather than
A: preparing for it as best as possible followed by
B: Living the most meaningful and fulfilling life possible in the meantime,
I wasn’t solving anything.

In addition, I was choosing to have a crappy, lonely life in the process. After that epiphany I spent most of my 20s taking baby-steps to deal with each of those fears or flaws, with as many setbacks as successes along the way. But the overall trend has been upward toward increased health, empowerment, and success. The day you truly realize that your thoughts create your reality is the day you start becoming an optimist. The power of positive thinking ain’t just a platitude.

Becoming a Pollyanna has been one of the hardest things I’ve done. It’s easy to trust when the world has never betrayed you. The real test of character comes when the hard times hit. So now I’m gonna ask for a show of hands. How many of you have READ Pollyanna—or seen the movie? That girl did not have it easy. We’re talking about an orphaned daughter of missionaries who spent her early years in poverty in the wilds of who-knows-where before being shipped off to an aunt she’d never seen before, who frankly didn’t give a rats’s ass about her for the first hour and a half of the film. And yet, she drove the whole town 15 kinds of crazy with that glad game and even turned the fire and brimstone minister into a victorian-era hippie. But she hadn’t really been tested. The REAL test came when she fell out of that tree and broke her back. What does she do? Well, she goes into a depression. The same as any sentient human. However, with a combo of the town’s operation cheer-up and the own girl’s determination to get her life back (a puppy and a smile from the former town curmudgeon wouldn’t turn ANYONE’s mood around unless they wanted it to be turned around), little Hayley Mills was all smiles before the credits rolled, even though she still had no idea if she’d ever walk again.

So, while I promise not to play the “glad game” with my friends in anything other than a sarcastic tone of voice, I am an optimist. And I am damned proud of it. It’s easy to let life make you hard and bitter. The real challenge is to fight through that crap, and to keep going for the goals in life you want to attain (to tie this back in with GTD). Optimism is to keep doing your next action, keep looking for the next steps to get to your goals, to roll with the punches and stay focused on the end goal even when things are crashing around your ears. That’s a skill that has served me better in my personal and professional life than any system or theory I’ve ever tried.

So, how has optimism helped you in your path to a life well-lived? Or am I just being a Pollyanna here? :-)