The stories that bound us

Why I suck at writing, hate reading and have never been able to pick up languages… and how I proved myself wrong.

I’m sitting in my dimly-lit third grade classroom. My mom and I are facing my English teacher, sitting in hard, vibrantly-colored, plastic chairs. My teacher was your typical sweet southern grandma, until she opened her mouth and shared her opinions. 

“I know I’m not supposed to say it,” she said anyway, from her wrinkled, fuzz-covered lips, “but if I were you I’d go home and give him a good spanking.”

I don’t know if my mom nodded, ignored it, or what came after, other than the feeling of betrayal from my teacher, mom, and the educational system. I wasn’t a bad kid or bully, and never lobbed spitballs in class. This was Mrs. Manard’s solution to my “C” level performance.

Looking back, I tried things required to excel in school but, try as I might, I couldn’t do them the way I was supposed to. I disliked the slow pace of English class and reading large books that seemed irrelevant to my life. I already knew how to read, write, and speak. Knowing the rules to why one should never end a sentence with a preposition felt unimportant.

My foreign language class wasn’t much different. Aside from having a much nicer teacher, I didn’t do well memorizing all the rules. There was no satisfaction in the months of repetition required to eventually say “your cow is fat.”

I liked music, philosophy, painting, architecture, and sports. And finding ways to make money. None of these books, lectures, or classes helped move those interests forward. 

Ironically, I loved learning. I was glued to PBS television programs. I loved understanding how things worked and chasing the”why” of our physical reality. I gravitated toward disciplines showing success and failure quickly and clearly. There was instant feedback and noticeable improvements from practice.

A few years later I discovered coding. Again I found a connection to the instant feedback from trial and error. A program would spit back whether you were right or wrong upon compilation. You knew instantly. Even if you had to tear your hair out to find a solution, there was satisfaction in knowing a discrete solution was hidden within the impartial logic of a computer.

So, I had my answers in my late teens:

I suck at english, and was unable to learn languages.

I wore it on my sleeve for decades.


Some stories, like mine above, become obsolete in adulthood, but never get a makeover.

Being a “bad speller,” “bad at math,” or “not being witty” are a few examples of stories you may have calcified during childhood. They are either told to us, beat into us, or remnants of unwanted consequences we had to endure.

These stories are as relevant to us now as a favorite toy or blanky. They are anchors that swaddle us in chains, leaving us comfortably limited. We see these features as foregone conclusions, but, somehow, we are unable to remember when these features formed or when we last questioned them.

Maybe it’s time to update our stories.

My childhood story above is part of my history. It made me who I am today. But, it’s based on old experiences and, therefore, likely outdated.

It’s time to create new ones that are more relevant to my current situation, environment, social circles, and interests. It’s not about changing who I am, but ensuring I am not limited to who I once thought I was.

Recognizing this immediately changed my perspective. I went from reasserting my shortcomings out of habit, to searching ways to reexamine them.

When asked “do you speak any other languages?” I caught myself responding with a canned  “I am good with learning software languages, but have never been able to grasp foreign ones”. Sometimes I’d add comic relief with “I like computers more than humans anyway.” The first time I used that response was in high school. High school! How have I coasted on that response for so long? Hidden, very literally, under my nose. 

With my revelation I began looking  for language apps. If one didn’t suit me I tried another. I found groups at work that were studying languages. (Turns out a lot.) I Googled hacks to learn languages quickly. I found platforms that connect users to native speakers around the world so they could learn for pennies on the dollar. I kept what I liked and threw out what didn’t work for me.

Just over a year later, I’m speaking French and Spanish at an Intermediate level. Like a veil being lifted around me, I love recognizing the lyrics of foreign songs, working to keep up with rapid exchanges of dialogue in foreign flicks and eavesdropping on tourists to unravel their quickly articulated stories at my local coffee shop.

I then had to ask, is my line “I suck at English” or “I hate writing”, true? To answer that as an adult, I watched YouTube tips on writing, wrote blog posts every day for a year (as short or as bad as they were). I began to read all the books I wanted, sometimes a few at a time, many of which were required readings in school I had then skipped from “lack of interest”. Some, I never finished. I got a writing coach, and found tools and apps that served me better. I fell in love with the power, beauty and style of writing. I enjoyed the escape of binge reading classic fiction, then absorbing the lessons from a litany of non-fiction titles, and then reading nothing for months at a time. I took breaks not defeats. It was gradeless and fulfilling. 

I may never have disliked any subject, be it Foreign Languages or English, but rather loved learning at my own pace and following my own interests. Worst of all, I let the construct of success and failure chisel its rules into me and never thought to question outcomes and decisions of a child. 

Let’s let our old stories end, and make room for a new, liberating, reality.

You too can redefine your reality 

I had to catch myself repeating old facts to myself and others, and then process whether it is an old fact I wish were different. That’s your clue. Then, allow myself to reset and re-create that truth from scratch. 

  1. Catch yourself. When you hear yourself assertively self-deprecating what you’re capable of, replace it with “I haven’t taken time to be good at it.”
  2. Step back and see if you can pinpoint when you formed that opinion. Who were you then? Is it possible you’ve evolved in other ways since then? Do you view the issues that blocked you then still present now?
  1. Cut out something you do each week that doesn’t serve you. Do you spend hours on a phone or TV? Maybe cooking everyday is a burden, art or by one meal out it all you need. Can you trade a day, hour, or activity to investigate this question? Maybe block your work calendar for 30 mins, one day a week, or add an activity to your wake-up or sleep ritual. Maybe you mow the lawn one fewer time a month, and it grows just a bit longer. These are some of the thousands of trade-offs you can make to open yourself up to new possibilities. Personally I deleted all my social apps, and replaced them with Duolingo.
  2. Chose one thing from the list in #1 and start researching ways to engage with it for a few minutes gained in #2

Give it 6 months and see if your story changes.

Product Review: A great new way to write better emails, blogs and more

1901937_900007186684939_6521091158949317344_nIt’s no secret, out of all the talents I may have, the acuity for perfect grammar is not one of them. As a child, my poor spelling was covered up only by my even worse handwriting. As hard as I try, remembering to use “then” instead of “than” seems to find a way to slip by me!

Spellcheck and other technology gave me the confidence I needed to write more often, and a 140 character limit on Twitter helps force you to find more value in fewer words. However, those technologies are limited in scope and miss simple word confusion like “then” and “than” that slip by now and again.

If there are others out there like me, and it sounds like there are THEN I need you to check out this great new tool! It will help you push out more consistently proofed and well-manicured copies of writing THAN you’ve ever had before!

The tool is called Grammerly.com. I’ve only been using it for less than 24 hours, but I’m already impressed. The basic plan is free, and it comes with this neat little Chrome extension that super-charges your browser-based text. Here are a few of examples:

 extension

Unfortunately, it still missed some “then” and “than” mix-ups, as well as a few situations where two words should be one (e.g. proofreading). These are mistakes that only a person would catch. That’s where the fun part comes in.

They have this neat feature called “Professional Proofreading,” and for $0.02 per word, you can request a real live human to read over your material. Below is my experience and what provoked me to write up this blog!

 

professional
Request proofreader

ready
“proof complete” notification and email

corrected
download red-lined copy in only a few minutes.

 


Of course, you wouldn’t use a professional proofreader all the time, but for important emails to the public or to double-check each blog post, it may be money, and time, well spent. Enjoy!

 

 

Blogging can help center the mind

Centering The Mind
Centering The Mind

With all the fast paced abstract thoughts that can transpire throughout the modern mans workweek I have found yet another reason to continue blogging. I think it has forced me to take my abstract thoughts, that come and go so quickly and have a tendency to linger and repeat in my consciousness, into constructing full thoughts and letting them pass when a blog is posted. It has forced me to train myself to finish thoughts out and take ideas from a very nebulous form into one that is less so by me needing to focus enough on those thoughts and attempt to put them down on paper in some legible format. The fact that these messages will be public forces me to even further examine my thoughts into legible writings so as to not look too crazy. Man it is so much harder then I thought it would be to translate all the things swirling around in my head as some written topic. I am not a good writer but that wont stop me — My fear of writing poorly is what has probably made me such a bad writer today.

I asked an uncle of mine one day to tell m the top three things he thinks made him successful  and one of his top three things was “always write what your thinking down”. As he explained it,  “it exposes all the holes that your imagination so easily covers up”. So true, I so often propose things verbally and for the most part the propositions work out but since I started catching myself and writing  every small to large idea down, and not just as notes. I mean I stop and draw diagrams or spreadsheets and fill in all the holes that end up revealing themselves as concepts become physical structures on paper. I have found so many mistakes or holes so much earlier then usual as a result.  I have noticed that the ideas seem to evolve a few times before I present them to my peers and allows me to think about more angles since I have a full system to look at in front of me, let my mind wonder around the core of the idea instead of just try to retain the core itself in my head.

For example, this post has been swirling in my head for weeks. Without this new found hobbie of blogging I would probably have to deal with these thoughts conciously or unconsciously and they never would feel complete. You bring it up on conversation and let others know about your perspective on things but its always just a thought. Now i know the thought has been completed and exists in time and space, almost indefinitely; I can now move on completely. This realization gives me a whole new appreciation for writing that was not impressed upon me as a child. I never really saw the point other then emails, letters and books to write well. But man not being able to construct your thoughts into a written form leaves you feeling incomplete. Your legacy, your feelings are all just inside you if you cant express them in some sort of infinite format like the written word. My kids are going to write a page about something everyday while they are under my house and the will thank me for it later….

BTW another great tip for obsessively ideas swirling around in your head…put a white board up in your room or a notepad next to your bed. You may have heard it before but do it if you find yourself going to bed with sleep or tossing and turning. and just expunge every thought weather its good or bad on paper or as graphics on a boar dand you get so much better sleep. Even just having the board or notepad sitting there eases the mind.