Can I tell you what I learned about penguins?

A friend of mine shared a poignant story this week that I've been excited to pass on to you.

In 4th grade, her teacher asked for volunteers to go to the library to find some facts about penguins to share with the class. She raised her hand, and was thrilled when the teacher picked her for this special project! She spent the afternoon diligently learning as much as she could, and came back excited to share her penguin presentation with the class.

But instead, when she came back to the classroom she was met with shouts of "Surprise!" and "Bon voyage!" -- a special party being thrown just for her, to celebrate a multi-week vacation she was about to take with her family. 

"When do I get to tell people about the penguins?" she asked the teacher.

"Oh, you don't have to do that. We just want you to enjoy the party." was the reply.

"But really, I want to share what I learned!" she persisted.

"No, we really don't need you to do that," the well-meaning teacher insisted. And so she never did.

In fact, she never willingly spoke in front of any group, ever again. Because that day she learned a formative lesson: "People don't want to hear what I have to say."

That wasn't really the situation; nevertheless, the belief became so deeply ingrained that it shaped the next several decades of her life. I'm not really a public speaker, she would tell herself. I get too nervous. I'm much better 1-on-1.

Until this week, that is, when she finally decided to face her fear. She shared that 4th grade penguin story as the designated speaker at our monthly networking meeting, and proceeded to give one of the most honest and moving presentations I've seen.

I've been rolling her story around in my mind for days now, seeing it from all sort of different angles.

I've been thinking about how, even if our intent is good-hearted and pure, we can't ever fully predict or control how we impact other people.

I've been thinking of my own core childhood experiences that taught me pernicious things like, "I don't belong" and "I am unwanted by my peers," and wondering what those situations would look like if I went back in time and witnessed them as an adult. Would it free me to see things differently?

I've also been wondering what leads us to learn the lessons we do from our experiences, and whether our strongest gifts and desires are also innately the most vulnerable to being shut down. Is it possible that those areas where we feel the most wounded and afraid are precisely the ones we must lean into if we are going to feel fulfilled?

Later this month, I am launching my first half-day Happiness Adventure Challenge, encouraging people to work as teams to take small actions to create happiness, and challenge beliefs that get in the way.

If this sounds fun to you, I hope you will join us. And if it sounds daunting to you, I especially hope you will join us, because it is in that willingness to stretch ourselves that happiness lives.

Who knows, maybe you'll even find someone to talk to about penguins.

Re-thinking procrastination

Yesterday I had an urge to send a card to someone. I knew it would feel good to do, and probably bring a smile to their face, too.

But almost immediately, I got anxious. I felt my chest tighten as my mind frantically sought out other ideas for what I should do instead.

I recognized it as the way I feel when I'm about to procrastinate.

But why would it be kicking in now?

I'd always assumed that I procrastinate because I'm afraid something is going to be hard or unpleasant, or that I might fail or feel stupid. But here I was, about to procrastinate on something I find fulfilling and enjoyable, and not particularly risky. 

Did I secretly not want to reach out? Was I afraid of rejection? In the past I might have assumed one of those must be it. But this time, for whatever reason, I actually stopped and asked myself what was going on, and I got a totally different answer. It was in the form of a deeply rooted belief: You have to work before you play.

It could have come straight from the lips of my Puritan ancestors, and yet here it was still alive in me, basically telling me that I'm not allowed to do this thing that I enjoy until I've earned it by first doing something unpleasant.

The "work before play" advice might make sense if enjoyable, fulfilling (play) activities were harmful for me or the people around me. But for the most part, they are not! Reaching out to others is helpful. Working on exciting projects is helpful. Attending to my well-being is helpful. 

And while there's a place for doing unpleasant chores from time to time, for the most part, I don't think my slogging and suffering particularly benefits the world.

The big problem with a "work before play" mentality is that it treats work and play as if they are separate and in opposition to each other -- as if work can't feel playful and play can't create value. But it seems to me that when I'm at my best, both things go together. Isn't that what I want to aim for?

All this makes me wonder if I've been inadvertently passing down an unhelpful "work before play" attitude to my children: Eat dinner before dessert. Clean up the living room before you watch TV. Do your homework before playing games.

There are practical reasons for these instructions, of course, but am I teaching them that there is an inherent trade-off between being responsible and being happy? Are they learning that they have to earn enjoyment by first paying their dues to the Powers (Parents) That Be?

As adults, will they unnecessarily postpone doing things in life that they really want to do? Will they come to believe that procrastination is a form of virtue? 

Not if I can help it.

For my own sake, as well as theirs, I am going to start modeling something different. Starting with sending out that card.