Achievements of another kind

Why is the bathroom shower one of the best places to do some thinking?

It’s not as if you get into the shower with a plan in mind to do some thinking. In that way, it’s totally unlike the spaces we create which are intended for productivity–an office at work, a desk at home. I’ve talked before about the importance of rituals, and the mindless ritual of showering lends itself well to facilitating more abstract thought processes. When I was in art school, I had two places where my abstract thought went into overdrive: the shower, and in bed right before falling asleep.

I didn’t make any big breakthroughs in the shower today, but I did feel like my thoughts during that time were the good kind that put me in the right frame of mind to go to work and try to make the best of the day. I contrast that with the times I’ve been assailed by bad thoughts that seem like they’re out of my control. I want to clarify that I do believe that our thoughts are usually well within our control, and our bad thoughts only tend to get out of hand and “beyond our control” when anxiety enters the picture.

Today in the shower I was thinking about how my perspective on “personal accomplishments” has changed over time. It has been a gradual change. The change hasn’t been drastic, either. I haven’t totally redefined what personal accomplishment looks like for me. I do think the change has been significant enough, though, that if I write about it here it’s possible that someone could find it helpful.


As a kid, I would have defined an accomplishment as having won something. Accomplishment = winning. Did I win something? If I didn’t, then no accomplishment took place. No achievement was made.

Awards weren’t the only way to win, though they were still the best type of accomplishment to make. An award is concrete proof that you are the best. The bigger the pool of candidates and the more prestigious the award, the more significant that award became and the more it helped to bolster my ego.

I was very preoccupied with winning awards in my three main areas of interest: sports, art, and academics.

And I did. I won a lot of awards. I didn’t win all of them though, so I was still a failure. A winner would have won every time.

I look back on that kid and I know that kid was too hard on herself. Today I realize that my problems with anxiety were taking root back then. I was the kid who would silently cry at her desk if my test score came back and I only received 98 points out of 100. I had to be perfect. I often went home from school with “stomach aches.” Looking back, these stomach aches were just the physical manifestation of my psychological issues. I didn’t make a connection between the two until a little later. I knew by Grade 8 that my excessive worrying was causing me to feel sick a lot. I wasn’t aware of any possible solution to that problem.

In Grade 8 we used to write daily journal entries in response to a topic selected by our homeroom teacher. Out of many journal entries, I only remember a few of them clearly. One question asked what our greatest wish was. My response at the time was that I wished I wouldn’t worry so much, followed by a couple elaborating paragraphs to fill the space left on the page. My teacher approached me about it afterward. She said she thought it was a wise response. I felt a sense of accomplishment from that, as if I’d won my teacher’s approval in some way. At the same time, that journal entry was a cry for help of sorts. I didn’t write it to impress my teacher, unlike many other things I did with the intention of impressing people. Because of the response I received, my screwed-up brain turned it into just another thing I used to bolster my pride.


The great thing about adulthood, so far, is that the awards are few and far between. A kid who has been accustomed to receiving awards in competitive settings has to wean themselves off of that feeling. At first, we find different ways by which to judge our own worth. Maybe we get accepted into the school of our choice. When it comes time to apply for our first “real job”, a feeling of accomplishment can arise if we are chosen for a position out of a large pool of potential candidates.

I haven’t gotten there yet. It’s something I’ve spent most of the last decade beating myself up about. My inability to secure a job in my field still weighs on my mind–even after the realization hit that I don’t really want to be in “my field” anymore.

Getting a job–the kind of job you go to school for–is just one achievement I wanted to have under my belt by this time in my life. Most chances at an “entry level” job in my field have passed me by. I’m not a recent graduate anymore. I’m not even in my twenties anymore. My resume is a cornucopia of unrelated, unskilled part-time jobs that would impress no one.

If I don’t achieve my dream of getting a job, what else is there?

As it turns out, I have plenty of other options–other ways to keep “achieving.”

I have had to redefine what that means for me.

One time at work, I overheard someone refer to me as a “nice person.” I don’t think I’d ever gotten such a HIGH off of being called nice before. Why? Because it doesn’t happen that often. I have spent a lot of time in my life being a jerk to people. I experienced a series of “rude awakenings” that all culminated in me realizing I’d been acting in a way that was contrary to how I believed I was acting.

These days, it’s an accomplishment to be viewed as being a kind person.

But a truly kind person would not be kind to others just to out-do other people who are also being kind.

If you decide you want to follow the path of kindness, you have to change something about the way you see other people. This is where my faith has helped me. My faith tells me that we are all children of God. We all have an intrinsic value, no matter what our actions might indicate. Even the worst, most undeserving people are included under the banner of “God’s children.”


Practicing kindness began with practicing patience.

I used to have zero patience. Now I have a lot of it. Now, I get taken advantage of more often. Part of having patience is opening yourself up to the possibility of being taken advantage of. No one wants to be a sucker. No one wants to be seen as naive. No one wants to have one of their virtues used against them.

But having patience allows us to do something that I see as a kind act: to withhold judgment.

As a teenager, I was very into myself and my own interests. I often looked down on people who didn’t share my specific views or tastes. I was quick to judge others and made no reservations about letting my opinion be known. Do you ever meet people who talk more about the things they hate than the things they enjoy? Do you ever get the impression that they experience a kind of joy when they discover yet another thing to dislike? It’s really obnoxious, but that’s how I think of myself at that age. And I know many people who are still stuck there, even as grown adults.

Practicing patience has allowed me to get to know people for who they really are. I don’t put a person on a pedestal just because we might have some superficial tastes in common. When I’ve done that in the past, it has led to me ignoring some of the more unsavory aspects of that person’s personality. Because at least we like the same music and can commiserate about our shared views on politics! Right? Gross.

I feel secure enough today in who I am that I don’t look for other people’s approval. My views are my own.

And I don’t feel compelled to inflict my views on other people. Here’s a scenario: You’re taking your lunch at work in the communal break room. A few people at your table are having an enthusiastic discussion about something they all enjoy. You very much do not enjoy that thing. In what way do you contribute to that conversation?

If the answer is something other than “listening politely,” we’ve got problems.

Have patience with people. Your opinion–my opinion–is not so important that you must take it upon yourself to ruin a pleasant conversation.

A while back I had to listen to my supervisor run down a much younger coworker–to his face–simply because this young man enjoyed the show The Big Bang Theory.

Is there anything more pathetic than an almost 40-year-old taking such offense at the TV-watching preferences of his younger subordinate to the point where he feels compelled to get into a heated discussion about it, the purpose of which was to convince this younger person that he shouldn’t enjoy a show that he currently enjoys?

I don’t know what he hoped to accomplish. Using your TV-watching preferences to demonstrate your superiority over another person is sad. It’s television. It’s all meant to be easily digestible in a 30-minute or hour-long format. I don’t care if it’s Game of Thrones or Peppa Pig–you sit there passively and watch it according to your interests and tastes. I don’t understand what there is to feel superior about.

And when someone is open about the things they enjoy, your first instinct should not be to run that thing down–I don’t care how much you dislike it. You’re being a jerk to someone who apparently made the mistake of showing enthusiasm around the wrong person. That wrong person is you.

Do you want to be the type of person who no one can be honest with? Because they fear your judgment, I mean. How’s that working out for you?

When I started to shut up and listen to people better, people started talking to me more. They know I won’t mock or ridicule them for something of no consequence.

I feel good about my newfound ability to shut my stupid face hole. It’s been a major accomplishment I’ve made as an adult and it’s helping me on my quest toward kindness.

Another thing I stopped doing: nitpicking the people who I’m supposed to love the most. The individuals on the receiving end of this nitpickery were most often my boyfriend and my brothers.

There was a time when everything annoyed me. I had no reservations about expressing my annoyance. Little brother cracking his knuckles? I would have lost my freaking mind. But it doesn’t bother me to that degree anymore. It bothers me so little, that I don’t comment on it. And I’m not just seething with anger, either. It’s just not a big deal. He doesn’t crack his knuckles to annoy me. He does it because it’s a habit he developed, and that’s it. I’m trying not to take things like that personally. It has nothing to do with me and it’s not meant to annoy me.

He is a very fidgety, anxious person at times. Sometimes when we’re sitting on a couch together, or eating lunch at a restaurant, his foot tapping is enough to make everything start shaking. I used to snap at him about this. I’ve stopped commenting on it altogether.

I try to look away when someone chews with their mouth open.

If someone is having a loud conversation via speakerphone, I quietly leave the area if it’s bothering me so much.

People don’t do these things to annoy me, so taking it personally would be a waste of energy and a totally misplaced reaction on my part.


Perhaps if I’d been given my dream job right out of school, or had other desires of mine easily fulfilled, I would not have seen any reason to change anything about myself. Sometimes when you get everything you want in life, you unconsciously see that as an affirmation of sorts. Just keep doing what you’re doing! Why change when being a jerk didn’t have any negative consequences?

But even if you’re a successful jerk, there’s a pretty good chance that if you look at the people surrounding you–especially people on a lower rung of the ladder, or perhaps your friends and family who’ve provided you with support along the way–you might find a lot of people who were inadvertently hurt or taken advantage of because of your ambitions.

It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in life–there is absolutely nothing that should preclude you from practicing kindness.

It’s something we can achieve as individuals as well as collectively in our social groups. Why wouldn’t you make that choice? Kindness is not a competition, but we can certainly achieve it. And unlike most other awards and honors, we can make achievements in kindness without limit–starting now, and until the day we die. The possibility is there.

About cynicism and hasty judgment, pt. 1

I read a very brief, but nice article the other day–I think in WaPo online, but I’ll have to track it down again before I’m finished writing.

Here it is: The magic that happens when adults see other people’s kids as three-dimensional humans by Braden Bell

I hope you get a chance to read it. It’s lovely and encouraging to read his words–not simply for the advice they offer, but that this person has shared a difficult, daily struggle that is completely worth the effort for the revolutionary effects it can have in the lives of others.

We all have specific and ongoing experiences as children that shape who we are. Sometimes they seem so insignificant that we don’t, even as adults, consciously see them as parts of ourselves that we still carry around with us.

I was raised to always do my best, especially in academics. As the first-born child and only daughter among four children, I appreciate now more than ever the “high standard” my parents set for me to meet. My Mom would often stress the importance of my studies and how fortunate I was that I had a clear road ahead of me to go to college. When a parent is able to instill in their child a sense of feeling fortunate without laying on a guilt-trip in the process, that is the type of parent to be reckoned with. That is the definition of my Mom. She was not able to go to college herself. Only the boys in her (very large) family had that option–if they chose. Her enthusiasm for the very idea that I could (and would) go to college was infectious. I never, ever questioned that I would attend college and graduate. Even while in college and meeting with some obstacles along the way, I never once considered not graduating. I owed it to her and I owed it to myself. My Mom supported and encouraged me in all the ways a child should hope to be supported and encouraged. She certainly put in an obscene amount of time helping me study throughout the years. She was determined and so was I.

Before I get ahead of myself, I want to share some fond memories from childhood involving my Dad. I remember him reading to me in the evenings and before bedtime. I had certain books I liked best, so we would read and re-read all of my favorites. He had an endless amount of patience for indulging my every whim. I don’t know how many times he had to sit through Fantasia and though he liked to nod off part-way through, he was still there, in the living room, participating by being present. I hear so much today about young(er) parents, dads in particular, who shut themselves off from their family in order to play video games all night or binge-watch shows on Netflix. There are a lot of ways in which parents screw up, but speaking in terms of “screw-ups” that aren’t heinous crimes, video game addiction that results in isolating oneself from one’s spouse and children is surely one of the most pathetic, in my mind. What I want to communicate is that my Dad was the opposite of that, as a parent. He was always present and involved.

My Dad also stressed the importance of academics and excelling in sports. Here is where the linked article above comes into play. My Dad had the habit of drawing comparisons between his children and other people’s. I can’t speak for anything my brothers might have experienced, so I’ll focus solely on my own. I remember from an early age, my Dad saying things to me regularly like: “I bet you’re the smartest kid in your class.” Part of this was very affirming, part of it was very sad. I felt like I was in constant competition with my peers in school. Sometimes I would tell him that Blaise or David was much better and quicker than I was at the timed multiplication tests that stressed me out so much. I was fast too, and I would never miss an answer, but I wasn’t quite as fast as those two. And it was all about how quickly you could complete the tests, which as I said were timed.

My brothers and I had a neighbor kid we liked to hang out with. He was a little on the eccentric side. Only much later after talking with my Mom did I realize that the reason my Dad made denigrating remarks about him (not in front of the boy, but to me and my brothers) was because he acted in a way that seemed “gay.” My Dad didn’t know my classmates well enough to comment on them other than to remind me that I was smarter than them. When it came to our neighbor kids and the kids who played on YMCA sports teams with us, my Dad would often make critical remarks about certain ones–maybe they were the kids who were a bit weird, maybe shy or effeminate, maybe they acted out too much–whatever it was, I always knew his opinions of them.

As an only daughter, it is very powerful to have a Dad who thinks you’re smart, capable, and hard-working, and who reminds you of those things on a frequent basis. But unfortunately these reassurances had to come at the expense of people who were my peers and many who I considered my friends.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was wrong. That, at least, happened before the onset of adulthood. What I wasn’t cured of was my sense of superiority over other people.

To this day, I laugh at work e-mails sent by my supervisors that are riddled with basic errors. There is a horrible part of me that still thinks that anyone in that position doesn’t deserve to have a job if they can’t write a simple e-mail. Just the other day, I took a screenshot of an e-mail I received from one of my superiors and sent it to my boyfriend with the message: “Jason is having a stroke.”

So yeah, I love to make fun of people who can’t write e-mails. And generally speaking, I’ve cut down on my criticisms by a significant degree. I usually justify the teasing I still engage in by only targeting people “above” me in the hierarchy at work, and never telling anyone but my boyfriend. Honestly, I don’t even feel bad about it.

I have plenty of other types of criticism I do regret engaging in. I want to talk about that in my next post. This one is getting a little long.