Grit and Gratitude

20181013_112133Last September, the Corvias Alumni Network gathered in Raleigh, NC.  In addition to our regularly scheduled networking and think-tanking, we were treated to a delightfully honest presentation called “Gettin’ Gritty with Goal Setting,” by Dr. Jermaine Davis.  

With a wide grin and a whirlwind of good vibes, Dr. Davis introduced us to his trademark style of ‘edutainment.’  He asked us what it felt like when we accomplished goals, and he taught us the “good job rap” (Good Job, Good Job.  Good Job, Good Job. G – double O – D- J – O – B. Good Job, Good Job). Grit, tenacity, explained Dr. Davis, the ability to work through adversity, that is what helps us reach success, not natural born talent or perfectionism or reinventing the wheel.  He pointed out that the line between success and everything else is really fine, photofinish type fine, and that we don’t need to barrel across the line to success, we only need to cross it by a hair.

What I appreciated most about Dr. Davis is that he didn’t tell us to go work our fingers raw, hoping and praying to be noticed and promoted.  Instead he gave us real tools, tangible and realistic examples of what we can do to get gritty so we can find success. He began by asking us what was on our plate each week.  Each person, he said, no matter who you are or where you from, only has 168 hours in a week. We spend those hours doing things we must and doing things we want. Between sleep, work, and all of our other basic obligations, there’s not a lot of hours left over to do the things that we love.  Dr. Davis asked us to think about that: does the way that you spend your weekly hours match up with your core values? Are your priorities in order? Are you neglecting something you ought not to?

We talked about emotion management.  Emotions happen, they just do (see: Inside Out), and depending on how you approach those emotions they can be helpful (facilitative) or less helpful (debilitative).  Facilitative emotions help propel you, they push you into new things. Debilitative emotions get us stuck, often in our own heads, unable to make decisive action out of fear or shame.  Jealousy of a colleague’s work can be used to invigorate your own work, or it can make you bitter and resentful. Bad emotions are not always debilitative, often they are just a response to negative stimuli.  Debilitative emotions are notable for their intensity (bitterness) and duration (bitterness over a long period of time). If you find yourself stuck in a cycle of debilitative emotions, Dr. Davis suggests gratitude practices.  Gratitude, he says, is the antidote to negative thoughts. While we often try to bury bad thoughts in positive thoughts, what we ought to do is focus on the things that we already have that we are grateful for.

At times in our lives, each of us will experience debilitative emotions.  The grittiest of us know how to identify those negative reactions and use that energy instead of succumbing to it.  It takes practice to know how to do this, the kind of practice that only comes with having failed enough times to learn to be gritty.  Paradoxically, failure is the only way to succeed. When we fail, it’s hard not to take it personally, especially when we’ve tried with everything we’ve got.   Even though rationally, we often know that circumstances are out of our hands, judges have their own interests, everything is politics, companies hire based on the dollar not on the best qualifications — even though we know that a setback isn’t our own creation, we can still feel like giving up, especially when we get in our own heads.  

But gratitude brings us back down.  It takes us out of our anxious headspace and back into the present moment, whatever that is.  Usually, the present moment isn’t the worst case scenario we’ve imagined. Gratitude helps remind us of the job that still pays, the friends and family that still love us in their own imperfect ways, of good health and of new opportunities — gratitude reminds us of the simple things that make our foundation.  A healthy social network, stressed Dr. Davis, is vital for both gratitude practice and recovering after a setback. Friends and family help us back up — nobody got where they are alone, don’t try to be the first.

There are four types of people, Dr. Davis, explained: Adders, Subtractors, Multipliers, and Dividers.  The Adders are your friends and peers, people who push you forward. The Subtractors are your bullies and adversaries, the people who push you backward.  Multipliers are your mentors, they push you way up. And the Dividers rip your life apart, tear you to pieces, break your heart. Most of us, those of us in school especially, struggle with Subtractors.  They’re everywhere and until you’re really comfortable asserting yourself, their influence can add up quickly. Lord help you if you know you have a Divider in your life; some people, you’ve got to love from a safe distance, but you never stop loving.  For me, I realized I was short on Multipliers and my life felt, subsequently, stagnant. Had I skipped this discussion, who knows how long it would have taken me to identify this easily addressed problem.

It was a pleasure to meet Dr. Davis.  I hardly encapsulated his speech and I definitely lack his eloquence.  I find that wisdom is not something new that I’ve learned, but something old that’s been put in its place.  That’s what “Gettin’ Gritty” felt like: lots of things I already knew being arranged in a way that made sense.  Perhaps you need that in your life; I encourage you to come to the next of these annual summits. If any of these points resonated with you, please leave a comment and let’s talk.  

So…You Had A Bad Day, Huh?

In writing for the Corvias Connects blog, I’ve tried to focus on a few personal development topics and one of them includes living in & understanding the moment. You’re probably wondering – what are you even talking about and why should I keep reading this? Well, because – for the last few days, I have lived in the moment and positively ruminated on the idea that some days are just bad…and that is okay. The first part isn’t groundbreaking or really what is even important. Rather, the second part is something that I did not accept or even acknowledge for the first 25.5 years of my life.

In the past (…like literally up until yesterday), as soon as something went wrong in my day, I would sit on it for hours. This was always unfortunate when it happened at the beginning of my day because I would milk it for the ENTIRE day. The worst part of all of this is that I knew what I did, knew it was wrong, and knew how it affected my mental health. However – on Tuesday, I had a bad morning that had actually carried over from Monday night. Tuesday started off with being short staffed at work, so everyone was in a cranky mood already at 6:45 am. I fell into the trap of negative talk with my coworkers – “oh my gosh, we are so in trouble today, how will we ever survive, etc” (spoiler – we survived and it actually ended up being a good work day). However – I didn’t realize that I had already primed myself to be in a bad mood based on the events from my Monday night; I had gone to babysit for a family that I have had a great relationship with for over 2 years and I realized when I got there that I had magically lost both of their house keys. GREAT. I started to have a lot of negative self talk that continued all night. All I could think about is how I wanted to check in all of my bags and all over my apartment for their keys, but I wasn’t going to be able to go home for 4 hours. So – as you guessed, for 4 hours I sat there and thought about how nervous I was, how angry the parents were going to be, and how I wish I could be looking for the keys instead of spending time with the two beautiful girls in front of me. After what felt like the longest four hours ever, I went home and miraculously found one key but never did find the other. I nervously sent a text to them, explaining my mindset and recapping my search for the keys and didn’t get a reply for literally 2 days – aka today. The reply said – “So sorry I didn’t respond earlier – it has been a crazy week. Not a problem, don’t even worry about it. See you tonight.”

Not a problem. Don’t even worry about it.

WHAT? How could they really feel that way? They forgave me without even hesitating?

All I had done was worry about it for 72 hours.

Then I saw this photo.

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WOW.

I realized that this post directly affected my absolute day-to-day life. I spend so much time focusing on things that are negative if they happen that I often miss out on the positive aspects of the day. Then in my next breath, I talk about how much I want to just live a happy, carefree life – now I realize that this is no way to live a happy, carefree life.

When something bad happens, acknowledge it. Embrace it. Feel the emotion for all that it is. Then LET IT GO.

This is something that I am working on. I am going to put it on my vision board. LET IT GO. If it does not honor, encourage, better, inspire, or teach me any longer, I’m done with it.

I hope that someone in this group needed to see this picture like I did. I think that we miss out on too many positive experiences that we are physically present for because our minds are not fully operating. I would hate for us to continue to miss out on positives while ruminating on pointless negatives.

PS: take a second to make sure your key rings are firmly coiled… ❤

Running Because I Can

Me, Emily , and Dad near the starting line.

The beginning of this year found me very frustrated.  After six and a half years in graduate school I still wasn’t finished, and the end only seemed to be slipping further away as my time was eaten up by being a teaching assistant and many failed experiments in lab.  The massive amounts of time on task not yielding results had me feeling very down.  I needed a win—something where my time would give the results I was looking for.  At the end of March, my younger sister Emily called me to tell me she had won a spot in the Marine Corps Marathon for this year.  Emily is a middle/high school math teacher in Texas and had taken up running to deal with the stress from work.  Within the past two years she had developed a love for running and had run several half marathons  The MCM 2018 would be her 2nd full marathon.  Emily knew I had been adding running into my exercise routine (I use that word loosely) to prepare for the coming summer hiking and climbing season.  I’m not sure what made her do it, but she invited me to join her for the marathon.

I was on the fence.  My dad was an avid runner when he was in the military, and I could remember when he ran the MCM when I was very little.  I remember riding in the car with my mom to meet him on early morning training runs.  Despite my dad’s influence, running was not something I took to naturally growing up.  I was a chubby kid who preferred to read.  I like playing softball and basketball but hated the running parts.  I was in college before running really attracted my attention.  Thinking about my dad’s accomplishments made me want to be a runner, and I tried many times to make running a regular habit.  Injury and other commitments always got in the way.  At best I was an on-again-off-again jogger with a marathon on her bucket list but no time on her hands.

My dad found out about my sister’s invitation, and then he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: “If you do it, I’ll do it too”.  After my dad retired from the US Army in 2011, physical conditioning became less of a priority and the comfy retirement pudge had set in.  He had celebrated his 50th by running a half marathon with Emily, but nobody suspected he would want to do a marathon again.  To run this race with my dad would be a once in a lifetime opportunity so I took it.  On April 5, I told Emily and Dad that I was in.

The Marine Corps Marathon is also known as “The People’s Marathon”.  It is the largest race in the world that doesn’t offer cash prizes to top finishers and is a very popular race for non-professional runners.  Participation is capped at 30,000 people each year and most of those spots are given away by lottery.  Dad and I had missed the lottery but could gain entry as charity runners.  This is a common thing for a lot of bigger races.  Charities are given or may purchase so many bibs and then attach a fundraising amount to them.  You coordinate to raise money for a charity, and once your goal is reached, you are allowed to race.  Dad and I spent a few weeks evaluating our options and settled on Team Red White & Blue, an organization whose mission is “To enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity”.  After my dad retired, my family moved from Fort Bragg, where we had lived since 1999, to Lexington, KY.  I no longer lived at home but still witnessed how tough the transition from military to civilian life and to a new community was for my dad, my mom, and my younger siblings.  My dad appreciated the impact of Team RWB’s mission, and their emphasis on making meaningful connections between people reminded me of the Corvias Foundation.  Choosing to fundraise for Team RWB was an easy decision.

Moments after the starting gun went off for “The People’s Marathon”

We dove into training with the primary goal being to develop a habit of running 3 or 4 times per week and a secondary goal of building mileage without injury.  I took to my books.  As I learned watching School House Rock as a kid, “Knowledge is power!”.  I read everything I could get my hands on to make sure I was going into training the right way to avoid injury, and I went to free seminars at my local running store to learn more about efficient running form.  Slowly as the information built in my brain so did my confidence and my new habit.

The second week of June my official 20-week training program and my summer of firsts began.  I had never in my life ran more than 5 miles so each new distance felt like an accomplishment.  I had only entered in 5K races before so each longer race I did while training was a new experience.  The pains in my hips and knees were new and different.  The hunger for post-run snacks and the post- long run naps were glorious!  Even getting up early to beat the California summer heat was new and enthralling.  Running and the lifestyle that goes with it had me feeling great both physically and mentally.  I was proud of what I was pushing myself to do, and I was proud that I was rising to the challenge.

My dad and I fundraised together as Team Neutron.  By mid-summer the initial excitement on our fundraising page had died down and I was growing concerned that we wouldn’t be able to meet our combined $1600 goal.  Inspired by a friend who was also fundraising as a charity runner, I decided to offer incentives for donors.  For a donation of:

  • $10, you could add a song to my race-day playlist
  • $25, I would dedicate a mile of the race to a service member of your choosing
  • $50, I would send you an autographed post-race photo
  • $100, I would send you batch of homemade cookies
  • $200, I would send you a personalized surprise

These incentives worked in surprising ways.  A cousin donated $50 just because she wanted the photo.  A close friend gave $200 because she knew “a personalized surprise” was code for “I actually don’t know what I’ll do but I’ll come up with something if I need to” and she wanted me to have to come up with something.  People were excited about being able to dedicate a mile and with each donation that came in, it was clear how much thought and care people were putting into their choices.  With each new name to run for, the race became more significant.  No longer was I running for myself but I was running to honor these people too.

Early in the race with the dedication ribbons pinned to my camelback.

By October 28, race day, we had met our fundraising goal, and my mom had embroidered the name of each servicemember on a ribbon for me to carry with me on the course.  There were 25 ribbons, nearly one for every mile.  I had the ribbons pinned in stacks of 5 on my camelback, and with each mile marker my dad and sister alternated reading the name from a new ribbon.  We then took a moment to share whatever we knew about the person and their service.  When the miles were getting tougher and we were getting more tired, reading each new name became a moment of reprieve from the race as we thought about someone else’s experience.  With each new name was one mile less to go.

Dad and me when things were starting to get tough.

Around mile 20 serious muscle cramps set in and we slowed way down.  We walked a mile and surrendered our goal time of 5 hours 30 minutes in order to cross the finish line together.  I hadn’t done any step of this process alone, and I certainly wasn’t going to start at mile 20 of the race!  We crossed the finish line in just over 6 hours and received our medals.  We met our spectating team in the Team RWB charity tent and spent the rest of the day eating and celebrating.  Dad, Emily, and I demolished a tub of Neapolitan ice cream after dinner and strategized on where it was and was not appropriate to wear our medals in the coming days.

The sweet finishers’ medal

Post-race and post-fundraising my life is not very different from how it was back in April when this whole adventure started.  I’m still in graduate school, uncertain when I will finish.  I am teaching a course this quarter, and things in the lab still don’t cooperate the way I’d like them too.  Thank you notes and photos and cookies will probably sit on the back burner until after Thanksgiving, and tomorrow will actually be my first post-race run.  How I feel about all of this is different now though.  I feel more accepting of the challenges in school and lab and feel less like these challenges are the result of some personal inadequacy.  Challenges are just part of a long road, and with a steady pace I can make it to the end.

Me, Emily, and Dad post-race