Like every eight-year-old girl in 1984, I wanted a Barbie Dream House for Christmas. Three floors of Pepto-Bismol pink plastic, a roof that cranked open, stainless steel appliances and granite slab counters. Maybe a dedicated bedroom for Barbie’s Afghan Hound.
Even at that age, I understood spending hundreds of dollars on a silly dollhouse was not an option for my blue-collar family Christmas. Still, while dutifully adding more practical gifts to my wish list, I ached quietly for a Dream House of my own.
On Christmas morning, there was an enormous mound in front of the tree. My parents pointed me toward it and I kneeled before the oddly-shaped present which was as tall as me and as wide as our fake Northern pine.
I tore away the wrapping paper cautiously to reveal a Barbie Dream House like the world had never seen.
It was built not out of pink plastic, but honeyed oak. The roof was patterned with tiny hand-cut shingles. Each room was lined with real wallpaper and wall-to-wall carpeting. Little comforters, miniature shutters on the windows. My head spun as I examined the details.
And then I realized that each room of this Barbie Dream House was modeled after one in my own house. The mint green carpet of my bedroom, the family room’s earth-toned wallpaper, our sunshine-yellow linoleum kitchen floor. The same exterior palette as the big colonial I lived in. Not only was there a bedroom for Barbie’s Afghan Hound, but it looked just like mine.
It was an undeniable work of art.
My dad built this Dream House. From scratch. He looked at a picture in the Sears catalog, pulled out some scrap paper, and drew a blueprint. Like much of the house I grew up in, he built the walls, wired the electricity, raised the roof. Painted, wallpapered and carpeted each room himself. Laid the mosaic tiles in the bathroom floor, sanded and stained the crown moulding.
My dad’s not an architect. In fact, the way he tells it, he just barely graduated from high school. He can’t spell and his handwriting is atrocious. He spent the majority of his employed years installing sheet metal duct work in commercial buildings. He’ll remind you regularly that he’s “not real bright.”
Yet he can build a dream house from a thumbnail photograph using scraps of wood unearthed in the basement.
If that’s not genius, I don’t know what is.
Fish Can’t Climb Trees, Silly!
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ~Albert Einstein
I think we’ve all got a streak of genius. A gift we’ve been given that is uniquely ours.
But early on, we encounter a problem. Somebody else decides our gift is not worth opening. Or they compare the gift we’ve got with the one they wish we had.
So we learn to devalue our gift. We hide it. Or we call it a “hobby.” And we move forward with a different skill set – something more practical, something more acceptable.
How many times have you doubted your own genius? Or discounted it as less worthy than the genius of your friends or coworkers? Compared what you’re naturally good at with what somebody else told you to be good at?
I have no sense of direction. I’ve lived in Seattle for nearly six years, and I still get lost on my way home from the grocery store. Despite my best efforts, terms like “northeast” and “west” remain largely meaningless.
But animals come to me when I call them, and I wrote a novel in twenty-seven days.
There’s a reason they invented GPS.
What’s your bailiwick?
You need to know your brand of genius. If the word “genius” makes you uncomfortable (it certainly wouldn’t work for my dad), try “knack.” The more spiritually-oriented among us might choose “blessing.” If you’re legally-minded, use “bailiwick.” I prefer “gift.”
When you know what your gift is, you can work it. You can build it and embrace it and nurture it. It feels pretty awesome to do a bang-up job at something. To be the person folks go to when they need your exact brand of expertise.
If you have a grammar question or a kitten up a tree, I’m your girl.
Your gift translates into all areas of your life. Knowledge and skill increase your self-confidence. So when you’re talking to that braniac programmer at work, you can say, “Sure he’s smart. But can he whip up a flawless Quiche Lorraine?”
And we begin to realize that everyone has a gift. So we can stop judging ourselves and others using the same scale of smart. We can stop being a dumb fish who can’t climb a tree.
Journaling for Genius
Try the following exercises in your journal to get in touch with your brand of genius.
Working with Compliments
Learn to accept compliments. Instead of playing down a compliment, look the person in the eye, smile, and say, “Thank you.” Then document it in your journal.
Each time someone pays you a compliment, write it down. Create a special section just for compliments. In fact, make it a lifelong habit, if you can. You may discover new areas of talent you’d never considered before.
Also keep an eye out for those indirect compliments that can slip under the radar. One guy I work with never doles out positive feedback, so hearing him say, “This report’s not half bad,” is cause for documentation.
Put one of those compliments at the top of a blank page and write about it for ten minutes.
How did it make you feel when the UPS guy said, “Your window boxes are so beautifully planted. I admire them every time I bring a package to this building. You’ve really got a green thumb!”
Did you feel proud? Embarrassed? Do you feel there’s truth to that statement? Have you received that compliment before? What does it say about you?
What were you good at when you were a kid? In your journal, make a list of some of the things you enjoyed when you were young. See if you can recall awards or prizes you won in school, acknowledging a job well done.
Don’t write off these seemingly insignificant talents. And don’t jump straight to judging whether or not they’re useful skills as an adult. I know you have bills to pay. Don’t start worrying that you’ll discover finger painting is your true calling. Just write it down.
We’re not quitting our day jobs this week to take up full-time basket weaving. But is there any harm in spending a rainy Sunday afternoon weaving baskets if it fills you with pride, soothes your soul, and makes you happy?
For a few minutes, just write. Set aside any preconceived notions you have about what you’re good at. Don’t wonder whether that talent is of any use.
It’s not about utility. It’s about finding your genius.
We create the life we want through a series of small actions. Big results start with bite-sized improvements you can make TODAY. I call these tiny changes “micro-goals.” Here’s how to use journaling to set them in motion.
Is Your Recycling Bin Overflowing?
In order to succeed at anything, we need to remove all barriers to completion. The good news? Most barriers are really small and simple to eliminate. All we have to do is identify them and then make a tiny change to wipe them out.
Take my recycling bin, for example. The plastic tub under the kitchen sink would begin to overflow. Each time I left the apartment, I’d think, “I should take out the recycling.” Except I wouldn’t. Because that required an extra trip up and down the stairs to bring the empty bin back inside. Extra trips are unappealing because I’m running late I’m lazy. (more…)
Unsent letters are a powerful journaling exercise for gaining clarity, closure, and release. The act of committing words to the page in an organized way can illuminate your path and free-up head space, even when the letter is intended for your eyes only.
Here are a few ways to incorporate unsent letters into your journal writing.
1. Letter to the Editor
Firing off a scathing retort to your local newspaper used to be one of the only avenues of self-expression available to the average citizen. Now, thanks to the Internet, opinions are everywhere. Speaking your mind is as easy as clicking “publish” on a blog platform, or “reply to all” in your email.
Writing a persuasive argument to the press may be a dying art, but you can revive this tool by penning an unsent Letter to the Editor in your own defense. This is my favorite type of unsent letter, perhaps because it’s so much fun to write. In fact, the more fun you have writing it, the more freeing the process will be.
The point of this exercise is formulating a solid argument in support of yourself, your actions, your decisions, or your beliefs. You may find it easier to write the letter from someone else’s point of view; it’s often difficult to sing our own praises, even when we’re already fabulous.
In her book the Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends writing a therapeutic letter from the point of view of your young, wounded artist: Mrs. Rosa smells and I can too write! “Inner child” therapy is not my cup of tea, but if that works for you, then use it.
2. Letter to the Dearly Departed
Letters to the dead are probably the most instinctual and frequently used form of unsent letter. The desire to continue sharing your life with someone after they’re gone is universal. Unsent letters are especially useful if the person died unexpectedly or if you were unable to communicate with them at the time. Writing it all out can provide the closure you desperately seek.
The phrase, “I wish I could tell you…” is a great prompt to start off the letter. Rewrite that phrase each time you find yourself pausing, and press onward until you’ve said everything you need to say.
My maternal grandmother was very special to me and died when I was young. Because of my age, I was shielded from her illness and subsequent death. I wasn’t allowed to visit her in the hospital or attend her funeral, so I lacked a sense of closure and felt unable to grieve. Her death was devastating to me as a child, and writing letters to her helped me enormously. I still write to her, and in some ways, I feel our relationship is even more profound than when I was small.
Poet Donald Hall lost his wife to leukemia and found solace in letter writing after she died. He describes in heart-rending detail how he stopped addressing his wife as you and started writing she. “It was horrible, inevitable, and necessary,” he writes. If you have a quiet hour, I highly recommend listening to him read passages from his book Without on This American Life. It’s a beautiful testament to the power of healing through letter writing.
3. Letter to Your Future Self
My journals started largely as a collection of letters written to my adult self many years in the future, when I assumed I’d be dealing with teens of my own. I was certain I’d need some reminders, since my parents had obviously forgotten what it was like to be thirteen. This format was inspired by Carol Snyder’s novel, Memo: to Myself When I Have a Teenaged Kid.
We do have built-in forgetters, so if you hold a gem of knowledge that could benefit yourself in the future, by all means put it in writing. Even if you don’t use it in the years to come, just enjoy speculating on what your life will look like a decade from now.
I repeatedly write threatening letters to myself warning not to cut bangs, regardless of whatever hair make-over kick I’m on in the future. “You’ll regret cutting bangs,” I write urgently. “No matter what, resist the tempation and do not cut bangs!” And yet every time my hair finally grows out from the last fiasco, I’m at the salon demanding bangs.
Some people never learn. But you’re probably smarter than me.
4. Letter to Prepare for a Conversation
I don’t know about you, but heated verbal confrontations fall right after “root canals without Novocain” on my list of enjoyable activities. But it’s a necessary evil. Over time, I’ve read a million self help books and enrolled in conflict resolution seminars, facilitation courses, relationship communication workshops, and Toastmasters meetings.
What I’ve found more useful than all these activities is letter writing in my journal.
Like playing Tetris, writing by hand moves a different part of your brain than speaking does. Or typing, for that matter. Writing a letter to the person you’re about to have a heated verbal confrontation centers you, helps you discover what’s really upsetting you, and builds confidence. It’s especially helpful if you need to have a conversation with someone who is difficult to talk to and they get defensive or interrupt you.
Interruption is one of my biggest pet peeves because it basically says, “What I need to say is infinitely more important than what you’re in the process of saying right now.” When I’m interrupted, I lose my train of thought. I get stuck. I shut down. But if I’ve written out all my feelings in a letter beforehand, I know exactly what point I’m trying to make.
The phrase I start most of my letters with is, “What I really want to tell you is…” I answer that, and each time I find myself pausing, I rewrite that phrase again and continue.
If I can get into the free flow of words that comes when you let go during journal writing, my letter often takes a surprising turn and I discover that a different issue entirely is what’s really bothering me. Then I avoid the “burnt chicken fight” – a term my friend uses to describe the argument that starts about the burnt chicken, but is actually about trust, infidelity, money, or the socks on the living room floor.
Sometimes beginning your letter with the phrase, “If I could say anything – without consequence – I’d tell you…” can really open up your writing. Specifying without consequence allows you to bypass the barrier created by fear of backlash. Since the letter is only for you, there’s no tangible consequence – it’s just words on paper. Keeping that perspective allows you to fearlessly express necessary truths. Once you see how important the words are on the page, you may realize they need to be spoken – regardless of consequence.
Some Additional Ideas
There are many other situations when an unsent letter can provide clarity, closure, or release. Here are some other unsent letters you might try:
Letter of apology
Letter to be opened on a future date
Expression of gratitude
Letter to an infant
You are limited only by your imagination. Next time you’re dreading a conversation, grappling with a difficult decision, or lacking an outlet for your defense, try the unsent letter exercise. You’ll gain clarity and save yourself a stamp.
True story: my neighbor walks her dog twice daily from the climate-controlled comfort of her SUV.
One day while sitting on my balcony, I watched as a four-legged streak of tan bolted frantically across several lawns and directly into the path of an oncoming car.
Instinctively, I rose and hurried to lend a hand corralling the loose canine. As a former dog trainer and shelter worker, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve.
The SUV responsible for the close encounter slowed down. Tonuge lolling, the large buff-colored Labradoodle pricked his ears as the driver called him. The dog bounded erratically in a large loop around the vehicle as they disappeared down the driveway and behind the closing garage door.
You’re not doing it wrong. In fact, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to pull a fast one on you.
Why Perfectionism Will Ruin You
“To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.”
Joseph Chilton Pierce
If I could eliminate just one affliction with a wave of my magic wand, I’d banish perfectionism. Perfectionism is an insidious monster with many faces, stalking in dark corners of our minds. In the world of journaling, creativity, and personal development, perfectionism is public enemy #1.
Why? Because perfectionism is disabling. It blocks forward movement and prevents the experimentation necessary for growth. Sloppy action that requires adjustment mid-stride always trumps no action at all. You cannot learn, improve, or grow while hobbled by perfectionism.
Perfectionism stifles creativity, erodes self-confidence, and blocks the birth of fresh ideas. And the worst part: perfectionism sacrifices process in favor of product. (more…)