Secret of Adulthood: Succeed by Failing

From Further Secrets of Adulthood.

I try to see failure as a necessary aspect of success. Which is easier said than done.

For instance, I often remind myself to Enjoy the fun of failure. This catchphrase has made a huge difference to me. I’m very ambitious and want to succeed at everything I try, and that makes me very anxious—which isn’t a creative frame of mind.

Telling myself that I can enjoy the “fun of failure” has made me (somewhat) more light-hearted about taking risks. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

I also tell myself, “If I’m not failing, I’m not trying hard enough.”

I want to see failure as a necessary and acceptable part of a fun, ambitious, creative career. As an Upholder, that can be tough, because when I set out to do something, I really want to met that expectation for myself. So I try to expand my expectations for myself to include failure, as odd as that sounds.

Someone once said to me, “Don’t call it failure! Re-frame it!” At first, I thought that sounded like a good idea, then I realized — no. I don’t want to pretend a failure away; I don’t want to gild it up; I want to acknowledge and even welcome failure.

How about you? How do you think about failure? Can you stretch your definition of success to include failure, so that you can succeed by failing?

One Way To Use Someone Else to Strengthen Your Good Habits

In Better Than Before, my book about habit change, I outline the twenty-one strategies we can use to change our habits.

Don’t be alarmed: twenty-one may seem like a huge number, but it’s actually good — it means that each of us has many options from which to choose. In different situations, at different times, different strategies will be most helpful.

It’s clear, however, that one of the most popular and effective strategies is Accountability. When we know we’re answerable to someone, most of us do a better job with our habits.

For Obligers, the Strategy of Accountability is crucial. Key. Central. Necessary! If you’re an Obliger, external accountability is the element that will allow you to follow through.  And for Rebels, on the other hand, it can actually be counter-productive. Are you an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Take this Quiz. More than 53,000 people have taken it.

Because accountability is so important, I’m always looking for new, ingenious ways that people have created accountability — and I’ve noticed that some people create accountability by pulling another person into the process.

In the New York Times, Gina Kolata wrote the article, Doctors Strive to Do Less Harm by Inattentive Care.

The article explains that Dr. Michael Bennick wanted to reduce the number of times that patients were awakened in the middle of the night to get get their blood drawn.  Here’s what he did:

“I told the resident doctors in training: ‘If you are waking patients at 4 in the morning for a blood test, there obviously is a clinical need. So I want to be woken, too, so I can find out what it is.’ No one, he said, ever called him. Those middle-of-the-night blood draws vanished.”

The doctors were in the habit of ordering blood tests in the middle of the night, so they’d have the results when they made rounds in the morning. But when they had to wake up another doctor, as well as a patient, their habits changed.

This reminded me of a writer friend whose book was long overdue. She created a standard email response that said, “Please email only if you have an urgent message.” Despite that word “urgent,” people kept emailing her. So she changed the message, “If you have an urgent message, please email my husband, and he’ll convey it to me.” She gave his email address — but no one used it.

So how could this approach be adapted to other circumstances? I’m trying to think of ways to draw someone else in, as a buffer…maybe:

–you can eat ice cream, but only when your spouse eats it, too

–you can use a device only when your kids are using one, too; many people wish their children spent less time on devices, so this might be a good deterrent.

–before you make a purchase over $50, you have to call your brother and tell him

Can you think of other ways to use a person as a buffer? Somehow I feel like I haven’t quite got the knack of this one, to understand the possibilities. I’m eager to hear your suggestions.

For You, Does Abstaining Give Mastery Over a Pleasure–Or Not?

“It is not abstinence from pleasures that is best, but mastery over them without even being worsted. ”

— Aristippus, quoted in A History of Ancient Philosophy

This reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Samuel Johnson: “All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.”

This issue comes up a lot with the Strategy of Abstaining, when Abstainers and Moderators debate their approach to resisting a strong temptation.

Moderators argue, “Why abstain, why be so absolute, why give up a pleasure altogether?” But for Abstainers — and I say this as an Abstainer myself — abstaining is the way to gain mastery over pleasures. It’s easier to abstain, and it’s a relief.  “Abstinence from a pleasure” not for the sake of abstaining, but because it’s easier.

Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator? Take this Quiz.

In Better Than Before, I have a whole chapter dedicated to the Strategy of Abstaining — but as always, I must emphasize, this is not a strategy that works for everyone! It doesn’t work for Moderators!

And most of us are a mix of both.

How about you? How do you best master your pleasures?

How Laura Ingalls Wilder Got a Rebel To Learn His Lessons

I’m a huge fan of children’s literature (in fact, I’m in three reading groups where we read children’s and young-adult literature), and Laura Ingalls Wilder has always had a special place in my heart.

So I was thrilled when I found out that her book Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, was being published. I raced through the book last week; so fascinating. For instance, it turns out Nellie Olsen was an amalgam of three annoying girls.

I was particularly struck, however, when I read a scene that also appears in These Happy Golden Years. Which I know like the back of my hand, by the way.

Laura is fifteen years old, and teaching school, where one of her pupils is Clarence. He’s older than Laura, very smart; “he was quick in speaking and moving…[and] had a way of speaking that was almost saucy.” He misbehaves occasionally, but the bigger issue is that after the first few days, that he refuses to study, and tells her “It’s no use trying to learn such long lessons.”

Laura is frustrated, because she knows that he could learn the lessons if he tried, but he won’t.

When Laura asks her parents for advice, Ma says, “It’s attention he wants.” Now that I’ve figured out the Four Tendencies, I disagree. I think Ma was nearer the mark when she also observes, “Better not try to make him do anything, because you can’t.” (If you want to read about the Four Tendencies–Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel, or take the Quiz to determine your own Tendency, go here.)

From the description, I’d say that Clarence is a Rebel. He can’t stand for someone to tell him that he must do something; when he hears this, he resists, even though he’s a smart kid who wants to learn.

But when Laura changes her approach, he changes.

When Laura gives others their assignments, she tell him, “This doesn’t mean you, Clarence; it would make your lesson far too long…How much do you think you can learn? Would three [pages] be too much?”

In this way, she does two things. First, she leaves the choice to Clarence, and gives him freedom. Rebels want to act from choice and freedom.

Second, for Rebels, the impulse “I’ll show you!” is often very strong. They tend to respond to a challenge. When she suggests that he can’t master three pages, he thinks, “I’ll show her.”

The Pioneer Girl version shows this dynamic even more dramatically. There, Laura reports that she said, “‘Is that too long Clarance? Perhaps it is and better take only to here. I really don’t think you could learn so far as I first said,’ and he would exclaim, ‘Oh yes I can teacher.’ He had now gotten to the point where he would add a little more to my first suggestion and learn it too, to prove that he could.”

Within a week, Clarence has caught up to the other pupils.  He studied at night to master the material.

It’s very useful to understand the Four Tendencies, because Rebels — and Upholders, Questioners, and Obligers — really have very different perspectives on the world. If we want to be persuasive, if we want to work and live harmoniously with other people, it’s helpful to understand their ways of seeing things.

Ah, how I love Laura Ingalls Wilder! The end of my book Happier at Home is an homage to her and her brilliant work. Of everything I’ve ever written, I must say, the last few pages of Happier at Home are definitely among my favorites.

Have you ever found a way to communicate with someone — so that a point of conflict vanished? It’s not easy to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Why I Was Stunned To Realize that Yesterday Was February 17.

Warning: This post is full of self-promotion. If you don’t like that sort of thing, skip it! (Most of my readers seem to understand that in a world of fewer bookstores and book coverage, we authors can get a bit pushy. I very much appreciate your patience on that front. )

This morning, I heard a radio announcer mention that today is February 18. And that means that yesterday was February 17. And that means that Better Than Before, my book about habit change, will be published in less than a month.

Suddenly, March 17 seemed much, much closer than it did before.

Then, today I got a box in the mail — of finished books! Now it seems very real that the book is about to hit the shelves.

I’m excited to get Better Than Before out into the world at last. It was a very challenging book to write — I’m sure I say that every time, but this book did seem unusually hard to write. There’s so much fascinating material about habits — but how to organize it? How to present it in a way that’s not overwhelming? How to come up with terms to describe phenomena that no one else ever seemed to notice? How to incorporate all the fascinating examples I’d heard, of how people changed their habits?

I remember when I came up with the idea of organizing the book by the “strategies,” not by the desired habits or anything else. What a relief — but boy was I surprised as my research continued, and I figured out that there are 21 habit-formation strategies. Yes, 21 may seem like an overwhelming number, but it’s actually helpful, because it means that you have many from which to choose, to pick the ones that suit you best.

As usual, I put in far too many quotations — how I love to quote — and had to cut out about two-thirds of the number originally in the text. (If you want to read the ones from the cutting-room floor, sign up for my daily newsletter of a habits or happiness quotation.)

Of everything, however, by far the biggest intellectual challenge was identifying the Four Tendencies. When I finally figured out how that framework came together, I was ebullient. (If you want to take my quiz to find out which Tendency you belong to, take it here.  More than 50,000 people have taken it.)

To give some idea of the struggle, from one “finished” draft to another, I cut 60,000 words. That’s longer than Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Golding’s Lord of the Flies! I cut out that many words, but I didn’t cut any ideas. So that was just…excess.

So I’m excited about having the book finished and out in the world. But I’ve heard one question from more than a few people.  “Um, why should I buy your book,” some have asked nicely, “when I can read the blog for free?” Here’s why:

1. The ideas in the book are presented in a more distilled, thoughtful way, and the book framework allows me to tell longer stories and explain far more complicated ideas. Also, I can be funnier (or at least, try to be funnier).

2.  In the book, I write about many ideas and episodes that I’ve never mentioned elsewhere.  I reveal the amazing habit-related gift I gave my sister (life-changing, if I do say so myself) — and my attempt to start a habit of meditating — and whether my husband changed his habits — what happened to my father — and so on.

3. Here on the blog, I write about whatever subject interests me that day, so it skips from topic to topic. The book is organized by Strategy: Strategy of the Clean Slate, Strategy of Safeguards, etc.  That makes it easier to absorb the arguments, and to figure out how you might use those strategies yourself. Plus there are so many more examples from real life, and it seems that people really benefit from hearing examples of how other people successfully changed a habit.

4.If you’ve been enjoying the blog, and you’d like to share it with a friend, you can give the book as a gift. You can’t give the blog as a gift. Or if a friend was a fan of The Happiness Project or Happier at Home, you can give Better Than Before.

5. In a book, you can more easily take notes about what applies to you and your habits (or maybe, other people’s habits!). Underlining, highlighting, and taking notes in the margin allow you to engage with the material. I think a lot of people will want to mark up this book.

6. As a writer, my specialty is endings. How I love the ending of Happier at Home, and Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. Here, my younger daughter came up with the immortal phrase that gave me the conclusion to this book.

7. Many of my readers have written that they want to buy Better Than Before to show their support—a “thank you” for everything I do for free. Which I very much appreciate.

Of course, the book may be of special interest to people with health issues, people who want to be more productive, people who can’t get themselves to exercise regularly, people who are perpetually exhausted, people who are dissatisfied with their weight, people who want to help someone else change a habit…hmm, looks like that covers just about everyone! Because the fact is, for most people, habits are a very significant element of their happiness.

If you’re thinking, “Yes! I’m intrigued! But, Gretchen, how can I learn more about Better Than Before?” well, you’re in luck. You can…

read the sample chapter 

listen to a clip from the audio-book (yes, that’s me reading)

request the one-page book-club discussion guide, also one for work groups, and for spirituality book clubs, Bible study groups, and the like.

request the “starter kit” for people who want to launch a Better Than Before habits group, for people who want to work on improving their habits together

– talk to me in person at an event when I’m on my book tour

I’ve said this before, but can’t resist reiterating it: If you’re inclined to buy the book, it’s a big help to me if you pre-order it now. Because of the way book publishing works these days, pre-orders really help to boost enthusiasm for a book among readers, booksellers, and the media. So many people have pre-ordered, and I very much appreciate that.

Thank you as always, dear readers, for your enthusiasm, ideas, and support. You make me very happy.