Looking back on 42

42. That is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. At least according to Deep Thought, the supercomputer in Douglas Adams’ seminal work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is. Those who have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide… will already be snickering with this reminder. Those who have not, should. Having recently completed my 42nd trip around the sun on this tiny blue planet, I’ve decided to have a look back on my Ultimate Year.

  • It was my first full year without my Dad. He died in 2016, and looking back, his death has had a huge impact on me. Most notably, the circumstances of his death had a profound influence on my mindfulness practice.
  • A year of seniors. My son is now a senior in college, my daughter a senior in high school. My, how time flies.
  • I ran my first marathon. And my second, and my third, and my fourth. I can be obsessive.
  • My first full year of eating a plant-based diet. Inspired by Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, I’ve got better health numbers now than I did in most of my 20’s and all of my 30’s.
  • It was a good year for my career too. I want to keep my career separate from this blog, but it was a good year following a promotion to a leadership position. I have a fantastic team full of amazing individuals. I wouldn’t trade a single one.
  • My mindfulness practice tipped – in a good way. I read several insightful books this past year, but two of the best were The Power of Now by Eckart Tolle and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Gaining insights and simply fumbling my way through it, I have taken control of my emotions and want for almost nothing. I would by no means call myself enlightened, but it is a fascinating state of being.
  • I supportted my wife as she pursues her passion: a Master’s of Psychology from Harvard University.
  • I fell in love with trail running. Previously, I had only pounded the pavement. In my 42nd year, I ran several trail races locally and, perhaps most life-altering, I got the chance to run the petit balcon in the French Alps near Chamonix. This is where I took the lead picture of this post.
  • I was able to go whale watching. Surprisingly, this was the highlight of our trip to the Massachusetts beach house in Marshfield. I expected to like seeing whales. I didn’t expect to be mystified.
  • We finally took the trip to Montserrat. After years of traveling to Barcelona and always thinking about it, we finally took the day trip to Montserrat. The monastery houses the Black Madonna and my Mom was speechless. The views from the mountain are stunning.

As I wrap up this short post, I find myself in a state of complete gratitude. My wife and I both hail from small towns (I’m not even sure “town” is the right word for these places) in the Appalachian Ohio Valley, home of economic backwaters and the opioid crisis. Sometimes we look at each other and just shake our heads in awe of what the Universe has provided. The views at 42 were pretty grand.

The view from the Marshfield, MA beach house:

Whale Watching on Cape Cod

James and me (right) in Chamonix before heading up into the Alps

My homemade veggie paella

Looking down from Montserrat

Vacation is Over: A Mindfulness Opportunity

To do list

As I write this, I’m fighting off the feeling of being overwhelmed. My wife and I came back from an exciting trip to Ireland and rejoined life at full pace. What a great opportunity to put my mindfulness practice to good use! Here’s a quick idea of the irons we have in the fire:

  • My wife is going to have an unplanned surgery today and she’ll need my help getting to and from the medical center and help getting around at home
  • Like her, I have my normal full time job where I need to dig out of my inbox and keep my projects going
  • I also have a special work project that’s due in 30 days, where I’m coordinating the activities of 20+ people and we will deliver our content to more than 100 people around the globe –  oh, and we’re not as far along as I’d planned
  • I am captaining a 10-person running team that will run 150 miles over 24 hours; race day is 30 days away and I need to replace two injured runners with a surprisingly administrative process to do so
  • Our daughter is being honored at a special school conference event for her outstanding achievements
  • Our oldest son is celebrating a birthday
  • Our car needs repaired because we were rear-ended the day after coming back from vacation
  • Our car also needs its routine maintenance, which is done by a different business than the one that will repair the damaged bumper
  • We need to get back into routine with normal household duties: cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking healthy food, laundry, and driving the younger kids to their after-school activities

I could go on, but I don’t want to be a bore. I also want to be clear, I’m not complaining. My wife and I consider ourselves very lucky to have four happy and healthy kids and to lead busy, fulfilling lives. But at this juncture, I’m feeling very much at full capacity. As I go through this list, I can feel the pressure in my chest. I notice that my breathing is shallow and I’m feeling “on alert.” With each new email that comes in, I’m scanning it for the next fire drill as I try to dig out of this hefty pile. Historically speaking, in times like this I would be tense with other people as well. People might stop by and ask about my vacation or ask me about the special project I’m leading, and it’s difficult to not be short with them. But that doesn’t really get me anywhere – especially when I need to work with other people to accomplish these goals.

An Opportunity to Practice Mindfulness

I’ve been studying this process for about two years. I have pulled from multiple sources, but my favorite is Zen Habits. While I think Leo Babauta does a masterful job of explaining his process, I’m going to use my own words to describe my personal experience and the process that I’ve learned.

Step 1: Sit with the discomfort*. I described how I was feeling above. I noticed that I was breathing in a shallow fashion. I noticed that I was feeling anxious and on alert for “what’s next.” In years past, I might look for a distraction. Maybe I’d grab my phone and scroll through social media or get a salty snack – anything to make me feel immediately better while not really addressing the discomfort of the long and urgent to do list. Or maybe in the case I’ve described above, old Troy would break into action; choosing one very simple thing from the list and dive right in. In this case, I’m looking for the satisfaction of completing anything. I might decide to take out the trash and run the dishwasher. Important? Meh. Urgent? Not compared to what else is on the list. Again, this jump-into-action is a form of turning away from the discomfort. 

Step 2: Breathe. This is really more like step 1.a. Finding my breath is the way to sit with the discomfort. This is going to sound silly, but I really like this metaphor. Taking deep breaths allows me to disconnect from the discomfort and examine it with detachment. I envision being able to reach into the pit of my stomach where the discomfort is stirring, remove it, and then look at it in my hand. Now in my hand, I can examine it like a child does a feather or an earthworm for the first time. Being able to mentally detach from the feeling and view it with childlike curiosity allows me to see this discomfort with perspective. This little thing is not the end of the world. In fact, it’s the opposite of the end of the world. It’s an opportunity to practice overcoming discomfort. But first, it needs a name!

Step 3: Name the discomfort. I’ve somewhat completed this one with the list above. Honestly, this takes practice. In years past, I might resist this step and just be irritable and quiet. I tended to go into a “problem-solving cave,” where I would shut out other people and roll up my sleeves to slog through the work in front of me. This often had the effect of introducing additional stress because my loved ones, who care deeply about me, would want to know what’s going on and how they can help. Already tense, I might give a short answer about being overwhelmed, which would eventually lead to a longer conversation and – most likely – an argument. By taking a few minutes to name or list the issue(s), it will help me disarm its hold over me. Then I’m free to move on to resolving it.

Step 4: Resolve it. In this case, I’ve got a lot of work in front of me. But I’ve broken through the discomfort and I’ve accepted the situation for what it is. Now that I have the list, I can…

  1. Rationalize the list – assess whether I need to do this right now or push it out until I have more time,
  2. Communicate what is in front of me to my loved ones so they can understand my stress,
  3. Identify where others can lend a helping hand (if possible), and
  4. Ask for help

I find that after completing this process, I’m in a much better mental state to accept the next curve ball that might be thrown my way. Another way of saying that last sentence is that my Emotional Intelligence has gotten a boost. And in the ever-changing and fast paced world that we live in, I can scarcely think of a more valuable skill.


Do you have a mindfulness practice? Do you have a different process or a different take on what I’ve described above? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or email me directly at quixotegoes@gmail.com.


*NOTE: I am using “discomfort” in an emotional sense. If you are having medical discomfort, please seek the help of a medical professional.

Five Benefits from Five Years of Journaling

I first started journaling when I was going through a divorce several years ago. The stresses of separating from my spouse, figuring out finances, and helping the children adjust all while maintaining my focus at work was getting to me. I almost started journaling on a whim. I’m a bit of an introvert and I’m not prone to sharing details with others. So journaling was my way out; my way to organize my thoughts and to “say” the things that I didn’t want to actually verbalize to anyone else. I wrote somewhere around 200 pages over 18 months. When my divorce was complete, I purged the file and later started a new one. My second journal turned 5 years old two weeks ago. I’ve decided to start a new one. The file size was getting unwieldy and five years seems like a good cutover point. Starting anew, I reflected on the journaling process and realized how much I’ve learned from it. While there’s probably more, here are my top five benefits from five years of journaling.

1.) Problem solving

I solve problems for a living. Of course, I could argue that everyone who has a job is essentially being paid to solve problems that customers aren’t willing or able to do themselves. But problem-solving is my specialty. I have an engineering background, several technical certifications, and 20+ years of experience solving fairly sizable problems across various industries. With these credentials, one might think that I could solve just about any problem in my sleep. That would be wrong. While it certainly is my forte, sometimes I get stuck. I find that journaling is my unlocking mechanism. The free form of journaling helps me describe a problem from multiple angles or to refine what it is and what it isn’t. I find that spending time writing about a problem not only helps me find breakthrough solutions, but it also stops the swirling in my head. I also use it for household problem-solving. For instance, there was a particularly nasty head and chest cold going through our house from season to season and journaling about it over time helped me figure out how to 1.) avoid getting it and 2.) speed the recovery time from more than 3 weeks to about 5 days. 

2.) Procrastination buster

I’m not one for procrastinating. I’ve always been internally motivated, so when I recognize that something needs to be done, I generally get going. Therefore when I am actually procrastinating on something, I know it’s a special cause. I might not like what needs to be done and I might be waiting on a better solution. Or, it might be that I have too much to do and – if I’m honest – I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself that I won’t pick a direction and move. Bring on journaling! Writing about these situations helps me to be honest with myself about my lack of movement. It really might be that I’m overwhelmed. I’ve often heard the quote, “Sometimes when you don’t know what to do, the best thing to do is nothing.” (Unknown attribution) I wouldn’t say that I do nothing. But I certainly have learned that sitting down to the keyboard, which was no where on the list of things to do, helps me prioritize the work in front of me. When I’m procrastinating out of a sense of being overwhelmed, journaling is exactly what I need. If I’m just hung up on the task at hand or feeling sorry for myself, sometimes I go ahead and have a good complaint session. I write down all the crap that’s annoying me at the time. The act of reading it after I’ve written it helps me see how petty I’m being. Recognizing my pettiness then causes me to shift into gratitude for everything that’s great in my life. And gratitude is extremely motivating. The point is that while I don’t procrastinate often, it can be caused by a number of different factors, and writing helps me get to the bottom of it and get moving.

3.) Better communicator

Have I mentioned that I’m an introvert? One of the key characteristics of an introvert is that we have far, far more thoughts than what comes out of our mouths. A lot of times, I’m just not ready to speak. I might have 4 thoughts on the same topic and if I start speaking without organizing them, I’ll probably confuse myself, never mind the poor listener. Journaling helps me get my thoughts out of my swirling mind. When a topic is particularly complex, the only way to sort it out is to pick up the journal and simply start writing. I may write in circles – making the same point repeatedly with only slightly different angles. But writing it down helps me sort out my thoughts so that I can communicate in a cogent manner. 

4.) Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize and exercise control over your emotions, which in turn helps you connect with others. Journaling has helped me in strides on this front by following a simple guide that I learned in college. I took a course on Personal Transformation, which was amazing. Among other techniques, I learned to break down interpretations of an event. I’ll use an example to illustrate. Let’s say I’m running late to work and on the commute, someone cuts me off in traffic. My brain might jump to a conclusion like, “She cut me off just to be a jerk because she could see I’m in a hurry.” In this class, we learned to separate what happened from our interpretations. What actually happened? A lady merged into traffic in front of me, maybe cutting it a little too close given local standards for traffic spacing. When I interpreted what happened, I assigned meaning to the event. She meant harm. She meant to do what she did to prove a point. When I journal about this event, I might rant and rave about it for a few sentences, but then I use the “what happened and what did I interpret” method to break it down. After journaling, I might realize that I created the tight space with my rushed driving. She might have thought she had ample time to pull into traffic had I been going with the flow of normal traffic. Or, maybe she was also in a hurry because she was on the way to the hospital to spend time with an ill child. I really can’t know what was going on with her and I may have had some input in the event. Over time, this practice has become like a muscle that I flex through journaling so that I’m able to process faster in real time, thus giving me more Emotional Intelligence.

5.) Mindfulness Step 1

I didn’t realize it, but when I started journaling on and off about 8 years ago during my divorce, I took my first steps toward a path of mindfulness. dictionary.com defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” I originally started journaling to sort out my thoughts and feelings during my divorce. I needed to address my concerns about the kids and money and the car and the laundry and the bills and the… you get the point. Through journaling, I was able to feel like I was doing something about my concerns. I could write them out to their logical conclusion and see that things would somehow be okay. I was learning to be present. It was a form of meditation for me. Having logged 300 pages in the last five years, I can easily say that journaling was a HUGE first step in my mindfulness journey. 

Getting Started

If these five benefits sound pretty awesome, there’s not really too much to getting started. You might start with a pen and paper. I personally use Pages on Apple products and simply password protect the file to help ensure that it doesn’t get opened or edited by others with whom I share devices. You can do the same with Google Docs and Microsoft products. Whatever you do, stick with it. You might not see the benefits on your first entry, but over time you’ll have your own top five list of benefits.


Stressed? Try to Find the Long View

Situation

Let’s say I sell cars for a living (I don’t but the illustration will serve the purpose). Instead of selling a whole range of cars, I sell one car; a not-so-sexy little number that will safely and reliably get you from point A to point B. It also has a surprisingly low cost once we factor in maintenance and gas mileage. Now let’s say that another model that was clearly designed to compete with mine has popped up on the market. It has a lower initial cost, but overall cost of ownership makes it much more expensive after just a few months. Over the past two weeks, I’ve had two major buyers who were interested in buying my car for their fleet go the other way. I’m just coming off a strong growth year with my little car, so both times I entered the meeting with the buyer confident that I’d close the deal. Both times I was unceremoniously informed that the buyer was picking the other model. I was dejected.

Within a day of the second rejection, I attended a previously scheduled conference in which my national manager gave a business update. This update featured, among other things, the successes of my little car and me as the last year recently closed out. The content had been put together before these two recent rejections. While my car and I were being touted in the meeting, I was still licking my wounds from the two fresh rejections. During the business update, I felt like a fraud who would soon be discovered. My stomach turned, my blood pressure was noticeably up, and I slinked down in my chair. I didn’t want any of this good attention while I was falling flat. Most of all, I wanted my national manager to stop saying good things about me and my little car. I kept thinking, “If she only knew.” During the update meeting, we run a visible comment board and I started to become hyper-aware that the positive comments had dried up as the national manager was highlighting my results. “They know,” I thought.

Analysis

This is how our brains work. We go on a good run and we’re on top of the world. But, have a couple of set-backs in quick succession, and all of a sudden the world is collapsing around us. My wife is pursuing a Master’s degree in Psychology and she tells me that our brains have developed a somewhat-controlled paranoia over many thousands of years to keep us alive. For example, a rustling bush might not have meant a large predator was about to make a meal out of them, but if our ancestors had always calmly assumed the rustling was “just the wind,” our species probably wouldn’t have made it. In other words, we’re essentially pre-wired to jump to bad conclusions.

Reality

The reality of the situation is…

  • My little car and I did have a great year last year and I wasn’t a fraud
  • Yes, two potentially significant customers DID reject my little car for their needs, but the problem isn’t permanent
  • In fact, the clients may find that the cars they went with don’t meet their needs and they could change back to mine fairly quickly
  • Even if they don’t, there will be other buyers for my little car
  • These set backs do NOTmean the end of me or my little car
  • And finally, the kudos in the comment board had slowed up after the individual recognitions 10 minutes before my car was being presented – so it wasn’t because people were “on to me”

Using the long view to overcome a stressful moment

When I was young, if something bad would happen, my grandfather would say, “You’ll never know it in a hundred years” and then he’d have a chuckle. At the time I thought he was just old and insensitive. Of course I wouldn’t know it in a hundred years – I’ll be dead by then! But he was on to something. He was using the long view and a touch of humor to offer me an alternative perspective. This situation really isn’t that bad. When events we immediately perceive to be negative occur, our minds race to what this could mean. We then quickly begin grieving the situation and piling on “evidence” of further doom. But if we’re able to slow down for a mindful moment and consider the reality of the situation in context with the long view, many times we’ll see that things aren’t so bad. This in turn, frees up our mental resources to begin working on what we can do about the situation.

From Humbug to Hooray in Less than 30 Minutes

It has been a tough week. I have felt “off” for most of the week with interrupted sleep, too many personal tasks, not enough working out, and insufficient fresh fruits and veggies. By this morning, I was a grump. I was doing my best to hide it, but I was not a happy camper. 

At work, I’m a manager and I was heading into my team’s Friday morning huddle. “Huddles” are where we get together as a group and bring everyone up to speed on our individual work. I lead the conversation, which helps set the tone for the day. We had a rotational analyst whose last day was today so we had a few extra people around the table to wish him well in his next adventure. We also have a tradition on Fridays. The idea is to have a discussion prompt that as we give our updates, each person answers. These tend to be icebreaker style questions to get people talking for the purpose of team-building. Something like, “If you could pick any single superpower other than immortality or endless wealth, what would it be?” Did I mention that I was grumpy? I was in no mood to even participate in this conversation let alone lead it. That’s when an interesting thing happened.

I admitted that I didn’t have a prompt for today’s discussion and asked the team to generate one. After a couple of miscues, we settled on, “How have you changed in the past 5 years?” I asked someone at the far end of the line away from me to go first. I had hoped that we’d run out of time before getting to me. As we worked our way around the table, people told stories of graduating college and finding new friends, of watching kids grow up and needing to adjust parenting style, of seeing parents grow old and feeble, and of harrowing tales of having a child recover from a tumor. Some people got married, some people were once rock stars, some had children of their own, and some went on amazing trips to volunteer abroad. As I scanned the room, I was floored by the smiles on people faces. One young lady exclaimed, “We’re a bunch of badasses!” We laughed out loud. 

In the end, there was just enough time for me. With my mood lifting, I explained that I had gotten married a second time (very happily), I changed industries and no longer had to travel to marginally secure Mexican border towns, I had a child start college and another start high school while I maintained great relationships with both, and that I ran my first marathon and then kept on going for 3 more on the year (which prompted good natured calls of Forrest Gump). We all filed out of that meeting room with smiles on our faces. Two of the guests from other work teams said that they were going to use the Friday discussion prompts for their teams. Before I got back to my desk, a co-worker looked at me in earnest and said, “Really good meeting, thanks.”

The truth is that today, it wasn’t really my meeting at all. If given the choice, I wouldn’t have held it. I didn’t come up with the discussion prompt and I talked very little until the last 2 minutes. Prior to the meeting, I had tried to break through my grumpiness a couple of times with short meditations, listening to music, and even going for a brisk walk. Nothing helped. I had resolved to quietly grumble my way through my day and then sweat it out this weekend on a long run. Instead, I got support without asking for it. I was lifted by others’ stories of accomplishment and gratitude, which helped me practice my own. The mood carried me through a very productive day and into the evening.

I’m still a novice in my mindfulness practice. But I’m learning. I tend to be problem-solver and most of the time I can work things out for myself. Today, I learned first-hand about the power of having a support group – even when the group was none-the-wiser that they are supporting you. Sometimes, I just gotta get out of my own way.

A New Beginning

I originally started Quixote Goes as a travel blog. It was going to be a space where I wrote about planning, experiencing, and reflecting on travel. But shortly after I started it, my Dad got sick and went into the hospital for intensive care. After a 5-week battle with illness, he passed away. It wasn’t a total shock. His health hadn’t been the greatest over the past years. However, losing your father will cause you to reevaluate what’s important. At that time, keeping up a travel blog wasn’t near the top of the list.
More than a year has passed and I’ve been getting the motivation to write again. However, I’ve decided to expand the focus of Quixote Goes beyond travel. Since my Dad’s passing, I’ve become a different person. I still love to travel, but there’s more. In 2017, I ran the marathon that I contemplated in 2016 and then some. I also switched to a whole foods, plant-based diet. In addition, I began actively pursuing a mindfulness practice. As a result of these endeavors, I’ll open the topic list of this blog accordingly.

 

Over the past several weeks, I reflected on the name Quixote Goes. Does it still fit with this expanded subject matter list? Does the subject matter list even go together? How many Ohio-based, 40-something, office-working, imperfectly vegan, marathon running, fledgling zen buddhists who like to travel are there in the world, anyway? In the end, I decided to simply go with it. And like my beloved character Don Quixote, I’ll just have to see where the adventure goes.