Mantra Monday: You Have the Power

We’re in Times the Likes of Which Haven’t Been Seen in a Century. Here’s How to Stay True to Yourself in Times Like These.

This sucks. It’s true. And I’m not just talking about having to stay home due to COVID-19. Truth be told, quarantine measures brought about by the pandemic haven’t affected me much yet, and I’m grateful for that. However, I’m deeply saddened by the death toll, the vile venom and vitriol from our “leaders,” the misinformation, and the rising sense of fear and anxiety in the world.

If I were out of work, I’d be angry and I’d want to go back to work as soon as possible. I would. I’d blame anyone and everyone and I’d throw a tantrum. That’s how I handle things I can’t control more often than I’d like to admit. But I guess I’d better lay those cards on the table if I’m gonna throw stones.

I know I’d handle things that way because that’s how I handled things last year. I couldn’t get a full-time teaching job, so after just moving, I lost two-thirds of the income I was expecting to make. I blamed everyone! I threw tantrums. I refused to see logic, and I wallowed in “woe-is-me” for about half a year.

But during that time, something else happened, too…

…I learned to harness my own personal power and focus on the things I could control. I didn’t have any money or even a car at some points. During those times, I focused on eating fewer calories, working out by running and riding my bike, and I found a whole new confidence that I took with me into the interview for my current full-time job. I got started when the spring came around, and by July, I was as fit as ever. I ran two-and-a-half miles three times each week, and did weight training on top of that.

Even though I had no money, and very little social power at that time, I learned that I had a seemingly limitless well of personal power, from which I could draw buckets when I needed it. I remembered a lot of things about myself. For example:

  • At 23, I graduated U.S.A.F. basic training, then continued on to receive technical certificates in both electronic principles and satellite, wideband, and telemetry systems. I found a strength within me during that time that I’d stifled under the boot-heel of Evangelical Christian guilt for too many years. That was the first time in my life I realized I could handle much more than I ever thought I could.
  • At 35, in the midst of a divorce, and after spending the years before my marriage floating from corporate job to corporate job, I graduated from Eastern Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts in Education, at which time I made a personal vow to never work for “The Man” again.
    • What I mean by that, specifically, is that I have a life rule now. I will never use my labor to directly contribute to somebody else’s bank account again. Hence, I’m a public servant, a freelance writer, and an independent musician. None of those things do a damn thing for any shareholders, and I’m really proud of that.
  • A couple of months after graduation, with only a week’s notice, I packed up everything I owned and moved 135 miles away from my hometown to take my first full-time teaching job. I stayed there for five years and cut my teeth in one of the top 3% of high schools in both the state and the nation. During those five years, I looked around and thought I was mediocre at best. It’s like a D-league baseball player being put into the show for a few seasons. He may be dog-shit when he starts, but give him five years in that level of clubhouse, and he can’t help but become better.
  • During that time, I sharpened my teaching skills, and without even knowing it, became what I now recognize as a pretty damn good teacher. I also earned my Master’s degree in English and creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University while I was living in central Washington.
  • In short, I remembered that I’ve experienced and accomplished a hell of a lot more than many people my age. That gave me an incredible amount of confidence and helped me to persevere through one of the toughest seasons of my life.

Turning the taps back on…

Okay, now that we remember where I stood late last summer, let’s talk about the winter. As I said last Monday, I’ve been overwhelmed all year, trying to learn the ins and outs of teaching online, and I deliberately chose to stop working out around November. The idea being that I would start again around February. And I did. For a minute.

I think between February and March I got maybe five workouts in. It was a pretty pedestrian effort, if I’m honest. When the COVID lockdown happened, I obviously couldn’t go to the gym, and I kind of lost the gumption I’d started to build up in February. By the third week of April, though, I had all of my gumption back.

I like gumption more than motivation, by the way, because gumption is a force with which to be reckoned. Someone who’s got the gumption is going to accomplish his or her goal. Period. Unless, of course, the goal is physically impossible. We’ve talked about goals before, though. Don’t set impossible ones. That’s just stupid. More on how to set good goals in a moment…

But First… SITREP:

Two weeks ago I started moving again by taking Jake out for three walk/run sessions. I wasn’t able to run very far without getting gassed (since I’ve put on about 25 pounds), but in a two mile loop, I ran about a mile of it in spurts. Then last week, I started hitting the bag. I did three x three-minute rounds (about 20 minutes of cardio with warm-up/cool-down) and then did a leg, back, and ab circuit afterward on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It felt amazing.

I also succeeded in cutting calories all week long.

In short, I’m back, baby. It’s May the 4th, and the Force is strong with me. I’m more determined than ever to be my strongest, best self again this summer. And I’ll be running distance again in no time.

And it’s not just about fitness.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve reprioritized my blog, too, along with songwriting and my other writing projects. They’ve all been on the back burner for too long. If we learn anything from this situation on a personal level, it should be that our personal goals are important, and accomplishing them—especially in the midst of madness—makes us stronger, tougher, and better people.

I’ve been fortunate enough to continue teaching through all of this, and for me, that’s essential. My other needs, though, need to be nurtured, too. As do yours. And now’s the time to do it.

I’ve got an album to record, two more Dingo Roy stories to finish before I start the novel, a whole lot to say M-F on the blog, and 25 pounds to lose. Also, I want to move into a new place. And as far as that goes, this situation has actually helped me financially. See, without the temptation to go out and live the rock and roll life, I’m not spending nearly as much. As such, I ended April with a lot more denero in both my checking and savings accounts than I started it with. I’d like to keep that habit up. Those things are all important to me. Those are goals I want to accomplish for myself. And I will accomplish them.

The thing about goals…

In education, we often point out that you should set S.M.A.R.T. goals. That acrostic means that your goals should have all five of the following characteristics:

  • Specific. Saying “I want to get into shape,” is an example of a horseshit goal. There’s absolutely nothing specific about that goal. It’s like saying, “I want to go on a trip.”
    • Really? Where? For for how long? With whom? For what purpose? What are you going to take? In other words, if your goal is just to take a trip, you can say you’ve accomplished it by simply walking out of your driveway. Without specificity, the goal is meaningless.
    • Don’t say “I want to get into shape.” Be specific. Say, “I want to start working out for thirty minutes three times a week,” or, “I want to take Yoga classes twice a week,” or, “I want to work out at a boxing gym two or three times a week.”
    • Don’t say, “I want to go on a diet.” Say, “I’m only going to eat X number of calories per day,” or “I’m going to cut out all refined sugar for a month.”
    • Don’t say, “I want to write more.” Say “I want to write 500-1000 words per day,” or, “I want to write for at least two hours every day.”
  • Measurable. You have to be able to measure your progress. Period. If you can’t see that you’re making progress, you’ll run out of gumption faster than a Hummer runs out of a gallon of gas. And, as I’m so fond of quoting, “…an adequate supply of gumption is the first and most important tool. If you haven’t got that you might as well gather up all the other tools and put them away, because they won’t do you any good.” (Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.) You absolutely need to measure your progress so that your gumption meter stays high. Here are some ways to do that:
    • If your goal is to lose weight, pick a realistic short term goal weight that you can track. For example, say you want to lose an average of one to two pounds a week for the next month. Then, over the next four weeks, pick one day per week to record your weight.
      • After four weeks, if you’ve lost four to eight pounds, you’ll feel great about accomplishing your goal, then you can re-adjust it for the next month.
    • Exercise goals are the easiest to measure, because you can set miles, reps, weight, and all kinds of other data points to track progress.
    • If you want to write more, or do another creative activity, give yourself a weekly word count quota, or a song quota, or some other kind of numeric goal. For example, “I want to write one song and record a demo of it each week for the next month.”
  • Achievable. This is where you really need to know yourself and your limitations. Seriously, damn it. Find some introspection! Be honest with yourself. Who else are you trying to impress?
    • I’ll stick with my running example here. Last year I was running 2.5 miles three times a week and that was basically my warm up for whatever other exercises I was doing that day. I didn’t start by running 2.5 miles, though. I started with a mile after walking vigorously for a few months. Then, eventually, I was up to 2.5 miles as a warm up for the rest of my workout.
      • Therefore, In February of this year, when I started running again after three or four months. I went for a mile and a half instead of 2.5 because I knew I wouldn’t be at the same level of conditioning I was at last summer. Then I took a few more weeks off. I went out and tried to run a bit with Jake, but it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it far before gassing out. So now my benchmark has changed.
    • It’s unreasonable to think that I can run 2.5 miles any time in the next month or so, because it’s been months since I’ve done so. But I can start with a mile this week and go from there. I’ll take it week by week, and I’ll increase my distance incrementally. This is what it means to set achievable goals. I can’t run 2.5 miles right now without stopping. But I can run 1 mile without stopping. And I will for a while, until I can ratchet it up to 1.5 miles, then two miles, then finally 2.5 again.
    • As for writing/creativity goals, I can’t really commit to writing for more than an hour every day right now, so that’s what my goal will be. However, when the summer comes, and I have more free time, I’ll adjust that goal to probably four or five hours of creative productivity a day.
  • Relevant.  Some people will tell you that the “R” in S.M.A.R.T. goal setting stands for “realistic,” or “reasonable.” Sorry, but those are synonyms of “achievable,” so it’s redundant to have either of them as the “R” word in your S.M.A.R.T. goal acrostic. Relevant, on the other hand, is a horse of a different color.
    • Your goal has to matter to you. It’s got to be some thing you want.
      • Okay, it is, of course, entirely possible to achieve great things because other people want you to. But it’s not satisfying, and people who do things out of a desire to please others rarely find self-actualization. When you achieve a goal that truly matters to you, that’s when you start to unlock your own personal power and your potential.
  • Timely. This has been a thread through all of these examples. Your goal has to have a date attached to it, and even if it’s a long term goal, it should be made up of smaller, short term goals that lead toward the accomplishment of the larger goal. Typically, I make my goals weekly or monthly, with an eye toward six months in the future. “Someday” should not be a part of your vocabulary.
  • For example, I’d slap myself silly if I said, “Someday I’ll be back down to my fighting weight.” Screw that. If I’m not down to my “fighting weight” by mid-July, I’ll have failed. And yes… I said fighting weight.
    • UNRELATED TANGENT: I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on the blog or not before, but when I was in my twenties I studied Tang Soo Do—a Korean martial art similar to Tae Kwon Do. I practiced for a few years, and eventually earned the rank of red belt, which meant I was two tests away from a black belt. Unfortunately, though, I injured both of my knees in my mid-twenties, and when I partially dislocated my left kneecap during practice one day, I decided that I couldn’t continue Tang Soo Do anymore.
      • Still, fighting was the first “sport” I’d ever been good at. It gave me confidence that I wasn’t necessarily destined to be an out-of-shape slob my whole life. Now, I’m not a great fighter, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I’ve never been in a street fight, and don’t plan on being one if I can help it, but I’ve sparred enough that I’m confident I can hold my own in most situations. And now that I’m training again, I can only get better. I’m definitely going to start taking boxing lessons once the quarantine is lifted. At my earliest opportunity (timely as I can be, given the pandemic), I’m going to sign up for sessions at a gym that’s a few blocks from home. Getting in shape by learning to fight effectively is like killing two birds with one stone. I mean, you never know when you’re gonna have to kick the shit out of someone for the last case of toilet paper.

If you want more info on how to set S.M.A.R.T. goals, here’s the Kahn Academy video on it:

A couple of things to consider…

History has done plenty of judging regarding the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. However, regardless of the rest of his draconian philosophy, he did coin the phrase “The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.”  That’s important, because if you never take the first step, you’ll never get to the second, third, or billionth.

On the other hand, beware. As Tolkien put it, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Of course, Frodo’s journey was fraught with moments of incredible pain and hardship, but it was also filled with moments of heroism, valor, and virtue, and in the end, the words of Sam in the Peter Jackson version of The Two Towers, ring true. “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”

Whatever your goal is, get the f*&k after it! It’s not going to accomplish itself. Nobody else is going to magically make it happen for you. It’s up to you and you alone. THIS IS YOUR LIFE, DAMN IT! You have to live it, and eventually, if you follow the logic far enough, you realize you have nobody to blame but yourself for your situation. At that point, you can either decide to live, or you can just suck air until you stop doing that one day. I know what my choice is.