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A friend gave me a book a while ago with the words: “You need this. Read it.” I thanked her, then put it on the window sill in my office (aka The Graveyard of Random Notes and Lists of Things to be Done), where it continued to live for the next eight or ten weeks. A couple of days ago I finally picked it up. And I must say – she was right. I needed that book and it’s coming at a perfect time as well. Thank you Ilona!

The book in question is “Wishcraft: How to get what you really want” by Barbara Sher. I was sceptical at first. I had a period in my life where I got self-help books by the dozen out of the library and usually didn’t manage to read past the first five pages before I gave up in disgust. They always seemed to be written for other people, not for me. People who cared about career, how to manage a family, how to earn a lot of money. None of which applies to my life. However, Barbara Sher had me by the first page.

Her tone is so warm, so human, so down-to-earth that I immediately felt welcomed. And when I read on and realized that this book is not someone lecturing me on what I ought to have and ought to do to be a valuable member of society, but rather a book written by someone who tells me that everybody has genius inside them and reservoirs of talent and passion, whatever that passion may be! – and then goes on giving me exercise upon exercise for finding out what my passion is and what’s keeping me for living it and how to go about dealing with the things that stand in the way…  then, I think, I have found a new friend. That’s what it feels like. Someone who encourages me, shows me my strengths, believes in me.

I think that I already had a pretty good understanding of who I am and what my strengths are and in which direction my passions lie. That’s not to say the exercises weren’t useful to me – far from it, I found it very useful to really sit down with pen and paper and make lists and think things through, but what I mean, is that there hadn’t been any huge surprises (so far).

However, this morning as I was sitting in the weak spring sunshine that came through the living room window, I did get a surprise. The exercise was to list twenty things that bring me joy. No explanations, no qualifications and the only rule was to get to twenty. So I did. I wrote down things like: reading, developing characters, cuddling with the dog, hiking, swimming, sitting in the sun, taking photos, being with friends, … When I’d got to twenty, I looked into the book again and the next part of the exercise was to make a table and to note for each item the answers to questions like: When did I do this last? Is it cheap or expensive? Do I do it alone or with others? Is it indoors or outdoors? Is it intellectual, physical, spiritual? … and to add as many questions as I wanted.

I started doing it, but noticed very soon that the answers were mostly the same. The majority of things I like are cheap to free, outdoors, physical and intellectual or physical and spiritual at the same time (like hiking… for me, that’s both physical and spiritual), it’s done alone, I usually do it spontaneously and it doesn’t require a lot of planning…. and all of them I haven’t done in a quite a while.

And that brought me up short. So apparently there are all these activities that I enjoy and that make me feel good, most of which don’t cost me anything and can be done by myself without a lot of planning – and I’m not doing them??? Wow. Wait a minute. In other words, I’m forgoing a number of sources for happiness and contentment for no discernible reason except that I didn’t think about it or am too lazy to get up from my desk. What an eye-opener.

Needless to say, I’m going to make a conscious effort to include them into my present life. No use putting things off. Tomorrow morning, instead of talking the dog on our usual round, I’ll pack him into the car and drive somewhere new (up the hill on the other side of the valley, I think) and go for a really long walk. I’ll take my camera and instead of thinking of it as a necessary task that has to be performed, I’ll think of it as something that I have chosen voluntarily.

There, Barbara Sher – lesson learned, and I’m only in chapter 3.

If you want, try this exercise. Let us know what you found out. Even better, get the book and do all the other exercises. It’s fun and – who knows? – you might learn something new about yourself. 

learning to think outside the box

Remember that well-used piece of advice to “think outside the box”? It’s practically a cliché by now. I guess most people realize that there is sense in it, but don’t quite know what it’s supposed to mean or how to go about it. I can’t tell you either. I can tell you, however, that I’m starting to learn what it means for me and boy, is it different from what I thought it meant!

During the time I was living in London, about a year ago now, I was looking for work and spending most of my time martyring my brain to hit upon a solution – to my life, to finding work, to earning enough money to be independent… I felt for days at a time that the answer was just on the tip of my tongue and I couldn’t *quite* reach it, but maybe if I thought about it just a little bit harder, wrote some more in my journal, drew up some more plans, I would reach it. I was telling myself and my friends constantly that I just had to find a way to think outside the box, to not look at things in the conventional way. And nothing happened. In the end, I had to pack up my stuff and move back to my parents, with nothing achieved and nothing gained.

I’ve come to the realization that the box I was trying to think outside of, and the box I should have thought outside of, were two different ones. While I was ripping out planks of one box, the other and more important one stood untouched. And I didn’t even know it was there.

The box I was taking apart bit by bit was the one that the society, the place and the time in which I grew up put me in. I was trying to find new approaches to how to find work. I was trying to find new approaches of the kind of work I could do and wanted to do. I tried to think from different perspectives. I tried to use the (necessarily very much) free time that I had to write, but couldn’t concentrate because I was worried about where next month’s rent was going to come from and then tried to look at that problem in a different way. I was really hard on myself and tried to push through to that elusive solution and got nowhere.

Since being back with my family, in the home of my childhood, I’ve been .. well, lazy. Especially the last two months. I’m applying to work, but not excessively. I’m writing, but not very much. I walk the dog, I cook for those family members that are here, I do household chores, I drive my grandma to various doctors or to go shopping. I don’t socialize much, I don’t go out, I live a very retired life. The days go by. A while ago, a very good and wise friend told me that our society didn’t rate lethargy high enough. That being lazy was a necessary germination period. I told her that I had it up to here with lethargy and this germination period of mine had been going on for long enough, that things had to change. I want to apologize now for being slightly flippant about her theory and not accepting her words with an open mind. Because lately, they have started to make sense, and very, very slowly, things are coming together.

The change has been subtle – so very subtle that I couldn’t put my finger on it for days. Yesterday, the right words to name the process blossomed in my head: I am learning to think outside the box. Very surprised, I looked inside me to try and see where that thought was coming from and it led me back to various experiences in the past weeks and months. I suddenly understood that the box that I’m working on now, working on so very gently and fluently, is not the one constructed by society, but the one constructed by myself.

This box has enormous power over me, because most of the time, I’m not even aware of its existence, yet it’s there all the time, in the background, influencing every choice I make. This box – my box – is made up of different things. There are past experiences and there are expectations I have of myself. There are expectations that I imagine others to have of me. There is fear, and insecurity, and that nasty little voice that keeps whispering: ‘You won’t succeed anyway, so why even try?’ Worst of all: There are assumptions I have made about myself my whole life long, and that are so entwined with me that most of the time I don’t know anymore if they are fact or fiction.

An example: I’ve always assumed that I’m a chaotic person. My desk is usually covered with things – papers, pens, computer cables, letters, bills, documents, books, a used teacup, pretty stones or shells, a calender, … You get the picture. I’m not very neat and tidy. So I must be a chaotic person. Clear, right? But now I’ve begun to doubt that assumption. I’ve remembered that when I feel blue or when I feel ill with a bad cold or a flu, the first thing I do is to straighten up my room. Everything needs to be clean and tidy before I can start feeling better. I’ve also realized that in digital spaces, I’m highly organized. My music collection, my photos, my writing documents – everything is very, very organized and I need to be able to find everything at a moment’s notice. I’ve also noticed that I spend quite a bit of time thinking how to organize, group and/or categorize things, starting from craft material to books, to folders both physical and digital, and so on. So maybe this assumption that I’m a chaotic person is wrong? It almost feels like a betrayal to even think it, let alone write it out, but it’s certainly true that the facts and the fiction are not congruous.

I could give you more examples, but I think you understand already. There are two results of this assumption – I’ve put an unnecessary limit on myself and because of that, I’ve not had the achievements I hoped, waited and wished for. I blocked myself by believing something about myself that is now turning out to not be true!

I’m starting to adjust and experiment with the new bits and pieces of knowledge about myself that are slowly surfacing. The results so far are encouraging. Of course, I’m still in the beginning of this process. It’s slow and not always perceptible. It feels more like a continental drift than like an earthquake.

The really staggering thought, however, is this: What else don’t I know about myself? And who will I be when I fully let go of who I think I am?

Have you experienced this? Did you find it as frightening and liberating as I’m starting to feel? And is a year and a half of germination period really necessary to learn things about yourself?