Monday, February 06, 2012

The Art of Positive Thinking

Call it "reframing" or positive psychology, or whatever you like, but I do believe that being a baby unicorn is a far better fate than spending one's life as an injured five-year-old.  Shawn Achor's lecture is loaded with memorable moments, and I predict, positively, that you will bookmark it and return to it over and over in the coming months.  

Eliminating the outliers--creating the Cult of the Average--is a problem bigger than all of the political BS we're suffering through in this pre-election Silly Season.  It's bigger because it goes on day after day, in every sector of society, and it's more depressing for its relentless attack on our joy.  Like Bo-bo, I seem to find a new disease daily and the symptoms I see in myself are rampant and unrepentant.  I don't have leprosy--yet--but I sure have a passel of other things wrong with me!

So I, for one, needed to hear a positive message.  Not "You're positively never going to be an Olympic rider and you are doomed to ruin more horses than you can possibly imagine" positive.   More like, "Zip is eating his blanket, and once again you've got more wormer paste on your jacket than in Leo, but look at the pretty flowers growing in the manure pile!" positive.  Happiness is far over my cognitive horizon, and that needs to change.

My problem is that, like so many of us, I consciously strive for Outlier status.  I want to be above the mean (preferably), though in some cases below will do just fine.  I learned to ride when I was 13.  I thought that was the best thing since sliced bread, mostly because only one of my friends had ever touched a horse, and I felt  it gave me the right to wear my hair in a ponytail that would bounce, horse-tail-like, as I walked through the junior high hallways.  No one else needed to know about it.  It was an internal and private  Big Deal, and I was happy.  Then I found out about horse shows.

I learned to ride better when I was 15, and I was incredibly excited.  I rode in two horse shows--one a year, which was all they had at the lesson barn where I was learning--and won a blue ribbon in one and two blue ribbons in the second.  And I was so proud of those trophies that even though the cast-metal horses broke off the tops, I still keep them in my hutch as a reminder of how special I once was.  Briefly.  Briefly special.  Briefly an Outlier.

Briefly, because the next thing I found out was that there were better riders, better horses, better disciplines, better breeches and boots, and more things I needed to accomplish before I could be happily average-or-above again.  So I gave it a good go.  The old college try.  And as years went by, I got degrees and certificates and more ribbons and trophies and plaques and, in one case, a typed note saying I'd won some class or other.  I framed that, too.  And I was happy again because I was special again.  Above average.  Good.  Better than many. 

Until...well, you can finish the sentence as well as I with your own discoveries that set your HQ (Happiness Quotient) back  and made you think you needed to just work harder.  

The question Achor asks is, "But are you happy?"  The answer, sadly, is "Not really".  Why not?  Because the media--mainstream and interest-specific--keep showing me more and better and bigger and smoother and costlier and up and up and up, and I'm on the downhill side.  There's no clawing back up that hill from 64 to 34.  

I recently had the great good fortune to be interviewed by a niece of my idol, Cowboy Hall-of-Famer Connie Reeves, who died in a fall of her horse at the age of 101.  Talk about raising the Outlier bar..!  Now, Reeves isn't merely notable for longevity and for being saddle-worthy at an age when most women are drooling into their oatmeal, but because the horse thing--the ranch for troubled girls she built and ran until her death-- was a second career, piled on top of several decades as one of the first females in  banking...ever.  Women weren't real popular in financial circles when she cracked that glass ceiling.  

Connie Reeves
[Photo courtesy of Julie Stratton]

Naturally, I hope to be riding at 101.  Hell!  I hope to be breathing at 101!  But I've already missed the banking boat and the glass-ceiling-busting boat, so while I remain a loyal fan, I can't realistically hold Ms. Reeves up as the average I expect to be above. 

But, and this is the salient point here, he also says that we decide whether to be happy or to continue the battle to become above-average, as average is a constantly-moving, man-made target.  And I think it's time, at least for me, to embrace my average-ness and stop worrying about how it looks from the outside.

Honestly, from the inside it's pretty cool.  I've got six horses I love, three horses I enjoy riding, only one that does regular damage to my body and my self-esteem, and others I get to try out on occasion to remind me that I'm not locked into an inflexible routine and to keep the fear factor from entering the picture.  I've had a career that I truly loved despite the fact that I never ran a corporation or got my name engraved on anything more impressive than the "Hi!  My Name Is" tag I had to wear for Back to School Night and a clock that hangs in my office.  I have a daughter who makes me proud every day, grandkids who do the same though I can't take credit for anything other than a genetic contribution to their makeup, and a partner who makes me smile every time he walks through the door despite his not being Brad Pitt.   

So from here on, when I find myself on all fours (or upside down on my back, which, unfortunately, happens more often than I'd like), I'm going to be a unicorn.  And if at 101 I'm still here, that, alone, will be sufficient.  Striving for excellence is what keeps our society moving forward, but it's also the key to the rampant depression that is more and more evident.  I will do my best not to wind up in therapy or drugged in order to be my  happiest self.  

Welcome to my Positive World!


Debbie Drake said...

When I was 40 I decided that I would never allow myself to look back and say "if only I'd....". That simple decision did a couple of things: freed me from giving a hoot about what others thought (since a lot of what I then took to doing certainly raised questions from those near and dear), put an end to the relentless quest to be better than average IN OTHER PEOPLE'S MINDS, and gave me permission to try, and maybe fail, a wholle bunch of new things. Loved the article!

Michelle said...

I am recently unemployed, not unexpectedly so, and I greatly attribute this to my outlier ways. "Outlier", it a term that has been my nemesis and my savior all of my life. Thank you for the words that will help me embrace the descriptive that defines me to a "t". And now to focus on the happiness that comes with being an outlier.....the next chapter of life will be interesting indeed!

Linda Vintro said...

I always thought that riding difficult horses -- like men, the ones you really are drawn to, but they are oh, so challenging -- was a real character builder. How many people come that close to danger, bodily harm, even death, on a regular basis and willingly choose to go out and do it again?

If you survive, you are stronger, and eager to go out and do it again. If you improve, either yourself or the beast beneath you, then you feel good. And if you conquer, either the bad habit that was holding you back from being a better rider or the very bad habit that was making him or her SUCH a bad beastie, then you feel strong and accomplished.

And ready to tackle the next challenge. Success breeds success. But you never achieve success unless you try -- something.

"The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a (wo)man". Can't remember who said that, but he/she was oh, so correct.

Except for the smelly part.

But even that teaches you to be less concerned about appearances.
Linda V

Joanne Friedman, Freelance Writer, ASEA Certified Equine Appraiser, Owner Gallant Hope Farm said...

Love the comments! Linda, that was Winston Churchill. And Debbie, I made that same decision when I was 37.

Michelle, obviously I'm not the only determined outlier, and I'm delighted to read that you found something that clicked in this post. Thanks!