Au Revoir LiveMocha.com & The Death of Online Communities

When a great online community is formed, it is a glorious thing. GoodReads brings book lovers together so they can discover their next book, form book clubs, interact with their favorite authors and write authentic reviews. LiveMocha is a site where people from all over the world come together to learn, chat, make new friends and give one another feedback.

Back before the days of Facebook, I used to spend a lot of time on sites like About.com and GraphicDesignForum.com, where, when I was just starting out in my business, I was able to ask other designers for feedback on my designs and get help with business matters. Later, I spent a great deal of time mentoring others just starting out — helping them troubleshoot CSS code or suggesting the perfect font or telling them to always use a contract and never work on spec.

On those forums, I met several people whom I’ve “known” for a decade now — you know who you are — people I consider close friends though we may never have met in person, and many of them I do business with to this day. For example, I met my WordPress developer on About.com almost ten years ago, now he is a part of my daily life. My dear friend Viki reads this blog (hi Viki!) and we keep up with one another’s lives on Facebook, and so on.

When I was just starting out in web design, there literally was no “web design curriculum” at the university level. We taught ourselves and we created communities and we helped one another along the way. I came from the advertising industry and a corporate marketing environment, but when I made my first website and went to my first web conference in San Francisco back in the late 90s — I knew I had found “my people.” The advertising world was filled with dog and pony shows, smoke and mirrors; I wore Ann Taylor dresses to work and wore red lipstick. I was stressed. (No offense, advertising industry.) Web nerds were smart, they were community-minded, they were creative, unpretentious, they worked in their pajamas and they were fun.

And that’s how the internet was ten years ago. Forums and blogs were different then, businesses didn’t blog — they didn’t know what a blog was and neither did your mom — but then somebody caught on that there were search engine benefits to be had and money to be made and the web changed forever. The blogging friends I made back in the mid-2000s are still my friends but I can’t say I’ve made many new blog friends since. It just isn’t what it used to be. Get off my lawn. Where’s my cane?

And it’s not all bad, the web is still full of awesome, and many businesses on the web enrich our lives. And I wouldn’t be in business if people weren’t able to get a return on their website investment. But damn it all, I’m old-school and I mourn the loss of every great, authentic, non-corporate web community. 

When a community gets big enough, big businesses get dollar signs in their eyes.  Where a targeted group of people gather en masse, that’s where you put your billboard and construct your beer garden off to the side. Understandable and smart for them, but rarely great for the culture of the community. Amazon bought GoodReads and I know it made a lot of people uncomfortable, but so far they have respected the foundation of what makes this site great — the community and the ways in which its members love to interact. But here’s what happened to LiveMocha…

Rosetta Stone — we all know what Rosetta Stone is, right? If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a language learning software curriculum and I’ve used it, but personally, I found it incredibly dull and it didn’t really work for me. And, it’s really expensive so it’s not accessible for most people around the world, I’d imagine. Many of whom need to learn another language to better their lives. When I found LiveMocha, it was smart like Rosetta Stone but it had this layer of community and social interaction behind it and that’s what made it great. I was able to help people from all over the world and they helped me too, there were people from countries which notoriously don’t exactly love America but that didn’t matter in this environment — we were just people with something in common coming together to help one another. I loved that about it, that was cool.

Rosetta Stone purchased LiveMocha.com and that was totally understandable. But what they did in redesigning the site was probably the worst example of a web takeover/redesign I’ve EVER seen. Where customers had purchased premium services on the legacy LiveMocha, those were not translated into the new business model and they weren’t credited, so, basically, uh, WHAT? Then, they stripped many of the community aspects of the site and people who were very active on LiveMocha — some people spending a lot of time there each day and forming real relationships with fellow-learners — lost their ties to their friends. Basically, what Rosetta Stone did was to create a brand new business model and load up a completely new site with a database of existing “potential customers” and has completely done away with every facet of the site that made it great to begin with — the community.

So, it angers me, but not so much for myself (I was not a really active user, I am using a different language learning method and LiveMocha was more of a supplement ), but for the thousands of people around the world who have been completely cut off from a community that is very important to them. In reading this blog post and the LiveMocha facebook page, I haven’t seen a single, solitary instance of a person who is not outraged at the relaunch of this website. People are beside themselves and that makes my heart hurt.

If Rosetta Stone wanted to enter the online space, it should have had some understanding of and respect for online community. Or they should have just build their own online community. But why do that when you can demolish the competition while you’re at it?

For those interested in learning a new language, I recommend the Pimsleur system and the Tower of Babelfish method.

22

Life, Death & Facebook

brian2Since it’s public — the obituary is published and let’s face it, nothing’s real until it’s on Facebook – my friend Brian Roberts passed recently. Some of you who read my blog and follow me on Facebook don’t know Brian, and might be wondering why things are all-80s-all-the-time and suddenly Michel’s photos have been replaced mysteriously by photos of some handsome guy named Brian … well, that.

It’s been many years since Brian and I have been very close friends. In fact, it was only six months ago that I even realized he was on Facebook and we were able to re-connect. But when I saw him there, I was so excited to see this smiling face!

January 10th, 2:25pm

ME: Hey! Miss your face, you look great — glad to see you on Facebook. What’s up? You’re in Morocco? That is so cool!!! Tell me things. ~Taughnee

BR: You look fricking AMAZING!!! Im not on much now, been way too busy out on the plate trying to build this plant for the King! I would love to talk soon though and catch up if you want

ME: I would love that! Anytime just let me know.
Seen Jan 12

For all intents and purposes, that was my last private conversation with Brian. People may hate on Facebook, but I for one am forever grateful it exists if for no other purpose than this: to reconnect with people you’ve drifted from but never stopped adoring. Brian was just one of those people.

Facebook has allowed those of us who knew him to reconnect, and I’ve really enjoyed talking with so many people I’ve not seen in 10, 15, 20 years … though, of course I wish under better circumstances. Before Facebook, those connections just wouldn’t have happened, and those connections are healing. We live in an age where people disperse and drift away, we don’t all stay in our home town villages and form lifelong day-to-day relationships. I may not be able to have a day-to-day relationship with everyone I’d like to, but I like knowing they are there. Facebook is good feng shui, you know? I am attached to things I love even if I don’t see them every day.

Facebook and this blog brought me to my sick fiancé, it’s reunited me with some really great friends I wish I’d never lost (like my favorite friends from college, and the woman who took this photo — we were once besties, and through all of this, we’ve rekindled that friendship). And recent experiences have made me realize that you just never know who is out there caring about you. It may be the person you least expect. Maybe Brian would be surprised that I’m taking his loss quite hard, because we hadn’t remained in each others lives these last years … and when people helped get me to Michel when we needed each other most, I was shocked at who responded, who was there. Touching, profound. Our connections to one another are not always as they appear. Sometimes they’re deeper than we know.

And sometimes it’s just a simple thing. You fall in love with someone and stay in love. And I don’t mean that in the romantic sense, it never was and isn’t about that. I think even his buddies will understand what I mean about Brian. He was just one of those guys.

I wish I had stayed in better touch with him, I wish I had more time with him. What an awful feeling. But this week has made me realize that I would feel that way about many, many people. And maybe I need to change something, I don’t know. I’m working that through in my mentals.

Many, many of my school friends are really feeling the loss of him, and I am feeling their pain. The cracked voices and the heartfelt, painful tears … and I understand. It’s so strange how something like this brings people together.

There’s only a finite amount of time we have each day and each lifetime, but when you love a friend, I guess it’s best not to take that for granted. I’m guiltier than most, but from what I used to know, and from what I can tell, Brian never did that — he always had friends around him and many of them lifelong. It speaks to what a great guy he was; he made a lot of people happy and created a lot of lasting, wonderful memories for us all.

That sticks, y’all. For those of you grieving this loss, may you soon find peace. See you Saturday. xoxo~T-bird.

 

2

How Potential Clients Blow it
(A.K.A. How NOT to Hire a Web Designer)

I want to share a secret: good and reliable web designers (or pr firms, marketing consultants, etc.) are busy and selective. When you’re looking to hire one, they’ll be sussing you out as a potential good client just as much as you’ll be evaluating them.

The following may seem like a harsh, veiled rant but it’s not. For years, I’ve watched potential clients completely mess up and fail to inspire a me to jump through the hoop that is the (often time-intensive) proposal writing process.

This happens both in my own business and in many others like mine. I can’t tell you how many venting sessions I’ve read and listened to, or had conversations with other developers that ended with, “Yeah, I agree, this one is not going to be worth it—pass!

The more experienced the professional, the more they will be able to quickly get a sense that you’re not going to be a good client. They may wind up taking your business but charging you a PITA tax, or not bidding on your project at all. Don’t expect referrals, either (at least without a caution)—we value our network of colleagues and rely on them, those relationships are important to us.

So, knowing that I share the following with honorable intentions, here is how not to hire a web designer:

1. Cold call design firms 

When a designer gets a blind call originating from, say, the yellow pages—they’re likely thinking, “Who hires a web designer like this?” Bad first move. First, we want to know you use the web for like, stuff, because it’s what we’ll use to communicate and manage your project. The only reason in our estimation you might cold-call a design firm is if you’re lazy, really just don’t care or are kicking tires shopping for price.

What to do instead: Looking at designer websites and portfolios is an important part of the process. We love it when you have a sense of who we are and the kind of work we do before you call.

Every designer approaches their work differently: they use different techniques and software and have different strengths, design sensibilities and personalities. Spend an evening reading “about” pages and looking at past work. You’ll begin to get a sense of which designer seems to be the right fit for you.

How do you happen upon a designer portfolio to begin with? A great place to start is to look at the credits at the bottom of sites you really like, most clients will allow their design firm to place a link there.

Or, contact people you know who have hired web designers and had good results; get referrals. Or, if you’re working with marketing or communications professionals, get their recommendations—they’ll have some web designers in their network and they’ll likely have some insight into who will be a good fit for you. You can also google something like, “web design portfolio inspiration” and find sites that showcase designers’ sites.  (I do this all the time to see what other people are up to!)

2. Say “This is easy, it should be cheap, or it shouldn’t take very long—I’d do it myself but…”

Unless you’re a professional web designer, you don’t know these things. And if you can do it yourself, and it’s easy and fast, then why don’t you? We find these comments insulting and we think you’re going to be a micromanaging pain in the ass who doesn’t want to spend any money. That’s all I have to say about that.

What to do instead: Ask them what it entails to achieve what you’re asking, ask them what they charge, find out how long they estimate it will take. If you don’t like their answer, get some more bids and see if what they tell you is more inline with your expectations.

3. Know enough to be dangerous — then be distrustful, closed-minded, suspicious, ask us to prove something to you

Yeah, just don’t do that.

What to do instead: We can understand why you want to have a say in how your designer approaches the project, and that trust is an imperative component in making this investment. We’ll respect that. I myself have hired web designers who have totally dropped the ball, and I am a control-freak, so I get how hard it is to trust.

But  do your own due diligence. Take your own risks.

Be open to what they have to say. Ask questions if you have concerns, ask for work samples and referrals, and then check those referrals—but don’t put the weight of your decision to hire someone entirely on the person you’re considering hiring.

Whatever you do, for the love, do not ask a web designer to do work for free just to see if you’ll like it. See: http://www.no-spec.com/

Again, get multiple bids from multiple developers to determine which approach you feel best about. Yes, we really want you to, because if you don’t like how we do things we don’t want to work with you. It means you don’t respect or trust us and we know you’re only going to cause more problems than you’re worth.

4. Be unprofessional

Be rude, arrogant, vulgar, late to a meeting where you break out your iphone and text your spouse while we’re talking or show up in your workout clothes—after all, you’re the one with the money, so we will find you powerful and exciting.

What to do instead: Be the kind of professional you want to hire. Not everybody accepts whatever project crosses their desk just because there’s money to be made. Personally, I’d rather work with someone who has a smaller budget but fits with the way I want my business to be. If I was in it for the money, trust me, I wouldn’t be a web designer—there are easier ways to make a buck.

5. Be an unorganized hot mess with no money to spend 

You’re a start-up or struggling small business with very little money but have an incredible idea (!) about a website that has the potential to go gangbusters and make you very, very rich and famous.

Yeah, us too. Let’s have cocktails and talk about our dreams after work this Friday. 

What to do instead: Write a business plan and get funding for your project, then hire professionals to help you get it off the ground. Don’t expect us to fund your business or provide financing for that matter.

Be able to articulate your long and short term goals and site requirements, have a budget. We’re running small businesses of our own, we’re not here to bounce dreams and fantasies about your business around so you can gather ideas.

A designer can help you organize your thoughts and create a project specification and a plan, but if you don’t have some sort of organized vision and money to pay for it — either pay them for the trouble it will take to consult with you and get you organized or contact them when you’re better prepared.

Happy hiring!

 

3

How to Get Your Web Designer to Read Your Mind

When I get feedback from a client like this I know why I’m a web designer, because nothing makes me happier than when this happens:

I really enjoy the creative process with you.  It’s like you can read minds and pull out the ideas and elements we didn’t even know how to express!  I’m thrilled with the design and palate and can’t wait to show it off.

I want to dissect this just a bit and talk about the creative process, because I think it can help those of you who work with designers get the best results.

Several times I’ve been told “it’s like you can read minds” and I see the same types of comments on testimonials written for colleagues. Do designers have some magic power that allows them to read the minds of their clients to produce winning results? Well I can’t speak for every designer but there are some universal commonalities in the creative process I am confident are true:

1. Designers need a problem to solve.

Giving a designer “free reign” on their creativity may seem like a good idea. After all, you want to get the best out of them and you may fear your ideas won’t be as good as what they can come up with without constraints. But design is not art, it’s problem-solving. The more you can define your problem and narrow down variables the better (e.g. who is your customer/audience? what are your business goals? what impression do you want visitors to have when they first visit your site? what’s the tone of the content? what doesn’t work about your current design? etc.)

Ask a designer who their most difficult client is and I’d bet they’ll say themselves. Why? Because we like to jump ahead of ourselves before defining our goals. And narrowing down who we want to be and what we want to achieve is hard, so we give ourselves too much “free reign.”

2. Trust your designer, don’t worry about what other people are doing

I know that it’s common practice for some designers to start their process by asking their clients what other websites they like to get a feel for taste. And for clients to scour the internet to find examples of things they love to show a designer what they’re after. It works well for some, but I like to use this tactic with caution.

Personally, this practice never made much sense to me because I get stuck trying to figure out what all the examples have in common, or what the problem was that the other designer solved, or why the client felt this particular design might work for them. Rather than trying to solve your problem, I’m factoring in information that has nothing to do with you. (See? Designers need a problem to solve. Good input in, good result out.)

Also, if this is the only information you’re giving a designer, you’re being a bit lazy and you really can’t expect the best results. Building a website is like designing a new storefront — you wouldn’t skip the meetings with your interior designer or just point out a building you like to your architect would you? The more involved you are in the planning stages, the better the result.

If you’re showing a designer examples of websites you love, this is where you can give him/her “free reign” — show them examples, but then let the designer use them as inspiration only and permission to throw the ideas out the window before going to the drawing board.

I look at websites for inspiration all the time, it’s what we should be doing. But copying what others do is not design, it’s copying. And that stifles the creative process.

3. Allow your designer to have creative input

You may know exactly what you want. In that case, you really don’t need to hire a designer. Look for somebody with the skills to produce graphics and code websites and execute your vision for you. There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way, it’s just probably going to be cheaper and more pleasant for you to work with someone who doesn’t expect to have a voice about creative direction.

A designer will want to have a voice, to prioritize goals, be an advocate for the user, use their education and experience to disagree with you about design suggestions and offer you alternative solutions or things you’ve probably not considered. Get your money’s worth by being flexible and collaborative.

The result is something that seems to be “mind reading” but really, it’s just good communication, flexibility and trust. When you think a designer has read your mind, that just means you did a great job as a client in helping to give them what they need to do their best work. Good designs are always indicative of a good collaboration.

4. Good, fast, cheap — pick two

Creativity is not magic. It’s a matter of trial and error and time. If you’ve hired a designer based on their experience and portfolio, give them time, have faith and keep giving constructive feedback during the process and through revisions. Be lighthearted and positive, they’ll get there.

If you can’t give a designer time to mull things over, experiment and work through their ideas — then pay them well. They’re working under increased pressure and probably burning the midnight oil. Your poor planning is not their emergency.

We all know this one: if you can’t pay them well, and you can’t give them much time, then don’t expect it to be good.

And with that, as always, I welcome your comments!

xo~Taughnee

PS Endeavor Creative is (finally) on Facebook! I plan to share frequent tips relevant to web design and marketing so please “like” the page if you’re so inclined.

 

0

Is Not Being On Facebook Anti-Social Behavior?

While perusing Mashable this morning, this headline caught my eye: Not on Facebook? Employers, Psychiatrists May Think You’re a Psychopath. I hit the “share” button, but my comment was becoming inappropriately long and I thought to myself, “Self? You have a blog.” So here we are. But I’d really love some discussion on this either here or on Facebook because I think a lot about this topic and I know I’m not alone.

The article goes on to say:

Some psychiatrists and employers now find it suspicious for an individual to keep off Facebook, reports The Daily Mail. That’s because for today’s young generation, having Facebook is considered “normal,” while opting out is considered “abnormal.”

[snip]

Similarly, psychologists see Facebook activity as a reflection of a healthy social life.

“The Internet has become a natural part of life,” psychologist Christopher Moeller told Germany’s Der Taggspiegel. “It’s possible that you get feelings of positive feedback through online friends.” [Translated from German]

In excess, Moeller says, Facebook interactions can reinforce feelings of social anxiety experienced offline.

As the German magazine points out, both suspected Aurora theater gunman James Holmes and the Norwegian massacre shooter Anders Behring Breivik share an absence from Facebook. The publication went as far as to say that Facebook abstainers have reason to be suspected mass murderers.

First, I have a lot of perfectly well-adjusted friends who are not on Facebook. And they don’t fire off semi-automatic assault rifles in public or forget to put on their pants before going out in public or anything. In fact, they’ve been known to invite me out to lunch without monitoring their Twitter streams the whole time and get this — they look at my face and move their mouths and sounds come out and then they pause while I mimic their strange behavior. And that’s not all! They don’t take out their iPhones to check in on Foursquare, Tweet how lovely it is to be eating lunch with me, capture the moment with a photo, run it through instagram, caption it and share it in real time on seven synced online social networks. (I know, psychos!)

I’m no psychologist, but what concerns me is that I think it’s a bit to early to make a call on this, and I think it unfairly profiles people. I would go so far as to say that some people who aren’t on Facebook are potentially more desirable than people who aren’t — maybe they’re leaders rather than followers. Maybe they are busy learning, researching, debating, conversing, interacting, experimenting, innovating, reading … in short: experiencing. Also hint: a lot of the most successful people you see on social networks are not actually interacting themselves, they pay people to do it for them. Just an F.Y.I., psychologists.

I’ve not read the research studies that substantiate the claim that not being on Facebook makes one a sociopath (in fairness, they’re in German), but I have a really hard time believing that just because a few anti-social criminals aren’t on Facebook means everybody on Facebook is socially well-adjusted, “normal,” or that not being on Facebook makes one anti-social.

And another thing — is Facebook really helping us to become better adjusted socially? With few exceptions (e.g. “my grandmother is sick, please send your prayers”) — people don’t share their suffering on Facebook, they share the bright and shiny rainbow moments. What impact might this have on people with low self-esteem or depression? It’s only when you get most people in private that they get real, and that’s when we really feel human connectedness.

While the study makes the exception for excessive use, still, I’d like to make the case that people who abstain from Facebook are not somehow behind or purposefully avoiding social interaction — maybe they’re lightyears ahead of all the rest of us and are making a choice to live their lives in you know, the world, where real people and offline social interaction and experiences are. I dream of unplugging at some point in my life and living off the grid on a beach somewhere and selling fish tacos — sorry “psychologists,” that just doesn’t make me a psychopath.

I’ve been socializing on the internet long before Facebook came along (and I’d wager longer than these psychologists), and as an early adopter with an addictive personality I can tell you — there is an unhealthy side to having an online social life. I’ve witnessed people who have formed strong social bonds with people online and completely lose the ability to interact with people IRL (in real life), who live their entire lives online quite literally. I’ve wasted days and months and years of my life arguing with people on blogs and forums, cultivating relationships with people who wouldn’t cross the road to say hello to me in RL, playing stupid games and so on … in the end, it’s a lot of wasted time. And while the net result is that socializing online has allowed me to become connected with friends, to fall in love, to build a career … much of the time is time I wish I had back so I could experience things in real life. These people who exist in RL who have never bothered to sign up to begin with — who are off climbing mountains, seeing the world or studying to become doctors and other irritatingly anti-social things like that — maybe not being on Facebook is one of the predictors for their success.

The dark and unhealthy addictive side of socializing online may be the “excessive” exception but isn’t that what the “not being on Facebook is a predictor of becoming a mass murderer” is? An exception?

I’d love your thoughts.

Thank you!
xo~Taughnee

 

10

Word of the Year

Happy New Year to you all!

A good friend of mine recently asked, “What’s your Word of the Year?” (Hope you don’t mind I stole this, F ;) )

I love this. It’s a much improved twist on the usual, “What’s your New Year’s Resolution?” It requires you to dig deep and set an intention for the year rather than create a laundry list of promises you’ll likely break by January 4th.

Sure the new year is a great time to re-commit to things that are important. With enough momentum new habits are formed and in that sense, there’s nothing wrong with resolutions. If you keep them. If you don’t, you’re subconsciously programming yourself to believe that you can’t trust yourself, which erodes self confidence, and that makes you feel like ****, and that makes it even harder the next year, and … oh who needs all that?!

Nah. I’m going with a “Word of the Year” this year and see how I do.

And my word is alive.

I commit to this simple mantra for the next 363 days or so. When things go well — when I’m giddy with happiness or pride or love — I will be mindful that this is part of the experience of being alive. I will remember that joy is not a permanent state and we can’t force it to be, it’s just part of aliveness. I will savor it, and let it go. When things get rocky — when I disappoint myself or others, when I slip back into the habit of being fearful (of risk, love, change, whatever) — I will remind myself that this is simply what it means to be alive, too, and let it go.

I will commit to more awareness of aliveness, of the moments and experiences as they come — so many of which never unfold the way we plan. I find this uncertainty exciting and strangely comforting. Life just is sometimes and all the resolutions in the world aren’t going to dramatically change any of it. We can only do our best, and when we can’t, we can only hold on until the storms pass. This is the weird and wonderful dance of life, and I intend to experience it fully; completely. To be awake for it, aware of it, to be alive.

The last couple of years have been a real crap sandwich for me overall. I was numb to a lot of it, avoided it … that’s not being alive. That’s existing. Not for me.

Over the last few months I’ve become “unstuck” and the momentum has been strong. Things are going unbelievably well in so many areas … with work, friendships, family, love, health, peace of mind and on and on. It’s a daily practice and discipline to remain unstuck and to move forward, and this year I will continue to work hard to not only keep up that momentum, but to believe that I deserve all the rich rewards that come from it.

There will be times when I am not able to be disciplined, but with the help of my Word of the Year, I won’t stop remembering to be alive. (By now I’m hoping it’s clear I don’t mean this in the biological sense of the word. ;) ) I commit to reminding myself “this is aliveness” during these lazy, challenging and trying times as well, and treat myself with compassion and try to keep a sense of humor about it all. If I’ve learned one thing about aliveness in these 42 years, it is that the universe has a twisted sense of humor. I’m gonna try to laugh with it as much as possible.

Every day we are alive is an adventure.

I, for one, am going to enjoy the hell out of this year’s adventures!!! :)

How about you?

What’s your “Word of the Year?”

9

On Being Thankful

Thanksgiving is tomorrow and I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of thanksgiving. Not the story of the bounty shared between the Pilgrims and the Indians, but the meaning of giving thanks. What is the point of it, how is the best way to do it, and what should we be thankful for? Our material possessions? Family? Health? Football and turkeys?

Over the last couple of weeks time and again, conversations I’ve had with friends turned to family and relationships in surprising ways. I think the holiday season brings that out in people, myself included. I think it’s because relationships tend to be what we are most grateful for, or want most — but are some of the hardest things to control. I observe many people enjoying their traditions, but also fearing and struggling through. Painful things from the past and reflecting upon things we lack are intensified when we’re told by the outside world this is a time we should be celebrating and giving thanks.

Sometimes our relationships are not everything we want them to be, or we don’t have the material possessions we desire, or we don’t have good health or football or turkeys. Then what?

I found this lovely interview with Oprah about gratitude, and what amazes me about it is that here is this woman who has the world on a string — millions of people affected by her positive messages and even more millions of dollars in her bank account — and yet she too has moments where gratitude doesn’t come naturally, she practices it, works at it.

A lot of readings that deal with gratitude these days seem to be framed as though there is some end goal: the more we practice gratitude, the more good things we’ll receive.

But I don’t think being grateful so you can have something different in the future is real gratitude. Are you really grateful if you’re giving thanks just so you can have something different than what you’ve already got?

I think gratitude itself is the end goal. I don’t think it’s about giving thanks as much as being thankful. Feeling truly grateful reframes everything. For me it’s something that takes more than a passing prayer on my way to the mashed potatoes, though. Each morning I take a few moments before I open my eyes to visualize all I am grateful for. (You might have made an appearance on this list!) Some days are harder than others, I won’t lie. But usually it’s incredible how long this list can get if I take some time with it, and how good it feels. I love the advice to just start with the breath — if you have air going in and out of your lungs, that’s a something to be thankful for.

No matter where you are (in your life) this Thanksgiving, whether you have abundance and joy all around you (and I hope you do), or you feel lonely and fearful (which is okay too, this is where transformation is born if you let it) — there’s something to be thankful for.

Of course I could enter this holiday season with a list *this big* of things I don’t have, things I wish were different, things to complain about, feel hurt, fearful, resentful and angry about … but I don’t have to.

I can simply be, or practice being, thankful. Leaves little room for that other stuff.

Have a very happy Thanksgiving all. And thank you for reading.

xo~T

P.S. Following the link is a beautiful essay by Eckhart Tolle on the nature of gratitude. If you’re the spiritual/philosophical sort, read on.

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2

God on My Plate

I didn’t have much of a weight problem until about seven years ago. One day I woke up and decided to get on the scale — I mean I knew it wasn’t going to be good — and was utterly shocked when it read 50 pounds heavier than the last time I weighed in. That folks? Is denial.

I started dieting, of course. And of course that didn’t fix it. The ups I’d feel when the scale would go down, and the downs I’d feel when the scale would go up, determined my mood for each and every day. All day thoughts about food played on loop in my brain. If I wasn’t shaking mental pom poms at myself, I was kicking myself in the gut for not being able to fix something that has a very simple solution: eat less and burn more calories, duh. What simple fool (me!) can’t get simple math right?

I was exhausted from the frustration and the stress this was creating. So I talked to my doctor, who asked, “Do you think about food a lot during the day?” Like, isn’t that normal? Doesn’t everybody? Is there another option? Not sure I understand the question, um. Huh? 

She sent me to a nutritionist who asked me to read a book called Intuitive Eating, which I still highly recommend to anybody unfamiliar with the concept of not dieting. It was the beginning of my understanding that my obsessive thinking wasn’t doing me any good, I needed to stop the dieting and start making peace with food.

I lost about 40 pounds. Got a trainer. Dropped a couple of dress sizes. And I’ve kept that off for the most part for the last few years. Though, the scale goes up or down 15 pounds depending on what’s going on in my life*, and below that (“the finish line weight”) has completely eluded me. Stuck.

*So back to that. The “what’s going on in my life” thing has been rolling around in the back of my mind for awhile now. Last spring I was losing weight consistently and in a healthy manner, I was happy and had big plans for the summer and I had a lot of motivation to look my best. By the middle of the summer I was faced with some stressful financial and relationship issues and you guessed it, up went the scale.

Rather than go back on Weight Watchers (which works, it does, I’m not dissing it), I decided to focus not on losing weight but on finding peace of mind and being compassionate with myself overall. I focused on eating healthy foods that I know keep depression and dark moods at bay, being disciplined about how many junk food treats I allowed each week, and getting regular exercise. And the weight started coming off again.

I’m sure a lot of people can relate to the story up until this point, there’s nothing special. I know that there are millions of us who struggle with this.

But something interesting has been going on the last few weeks. Combined with my work to be less stressed overall and to be more present in my life, I started thinking deeper about the relationship between weight and ego, identity, stress, thoughts, and feelings.

I looked for some books on the topic and read a couple too, but they were focused on the losing weight part. What I was after was some guidance about how to get through life’s ups and downs without seeing that reflected on the scale. I wanted to understand something, whether I lost weight in the process or not.

Serendipitously, a friend emailed me to cancel some plans and in the PS she wrote, “I’m reading Women, Food and God … OMG!!!”

Because she’s a smart lady who I always learn life lessons from every time we talk, I downloaded a copy to my iPad and …

“This!”

Not to be dramatic or anything (but okay I will): this book will — no, already has — changed the course of my life.

It’s not for everybody, but it’s what I was searching for and it came at the right time. I was ready for it.

Over the next few days I picked it up and would, after a short time, have to put it back down again because it was too uncomfortable. In a couple of places I actually cried — it brought up some pretty intense stuff and it was not all about food. It was about relationships, how I value myself, lots of things. My reaction was what I was after though, because that’s where change happens.

Okay so the story goes that the state of your life — who you take yourself to be — is on your plate. And that food can be a spiritual path if you let it. That was the something I was after. I won’t get too deep into all that, it’s rooted in eastern philosophy but can take the form of whatever you define as God, or however you make sense of the something that is bigger than your ego. It gets above this issue, shines a light from a different vantage point.

I already knew (duh) that I eat when I am not hungry to soothe stress, fear, and boredom and that’s why I’m overweight … but the part that was always missing for me was the what the hell to do about it. I know, I know, lots of weight loss programs will address this issue and offer strategies for how to cope with compulsive and emotional eating. But the emphasis is always on the end goal: losing weight.

That’s not what I wanted. I wanted more. Because these “strategies” are going to let me down the moment life gets too tough again. No strategy I’ve ever tried came between me and a Nachos Bell Grande when life is unbearably painful. I eat to soothe when I feel powerless.

As long as I believe that pain is bigger than me, as long as I define being open and vulnerable to annihilation, I believe in an image of myself: that I am someone who can be annihilated. And when I believe this, I bolt from different situations by engaging in various mind-altering and body-numbing activities. I shut myself down or walk out the door when pain threatens to destroy me — which is in any situation that involves another human being or whose outcome I cannot control. I live an autistic experience.

Um yeah, that.

The part that resonated with me most is that when I eat when I am not hungry, when I throw cheesepuffs at my face and look down at an empty bag and wonder how it got there, this is my attempt to feed spiritual hunger. The “something is missing” or “I’m not quite enough to take this on” stuff that cuts to the core of how we view ourselves and approach life, and makes me check out from whatever I’m doing and head for the fridge on impulse.

This book does not directly address weight loss. (Good. Fine! ) Instead of giving me another top 10 tips, it made me realize I am more powerful than my feelings … and that’s going to serve me far better than any new diet discovery (which, by the way, happens every three seconds in America).

What I learned is that power comes from sitting with these spiritual hungers (feelings) and not running away from them, to the border or anyplace else. To then get the ego and thoughts out of the way and approach them from a more expansive place.  That’s much bigger than a weight loss strategy, it’s a strategy for coping with, as the book title says, “almost anything.”

Oh and bonus! I don’t have to diet and I am allowed to, forever and ever, really, really enjoy food — every single time I sit down to eat. *Drop the balloons and confetti!!!*

My commitment to weight loss is this, and I kid you not: I am never, ever going to attempt to lose weight ever again. Ever. My journey to rid my brain of 30+ years of abusive, torturous thoughts, of feeling bad about this every single day, of having less-than-pleasurable eating experiences (how can you really enjoy food if you hate that it ruins your life?) is over.

It is going to take a lot of practice, and time, years maybe, to recondition myself and my approach to problems. But it’s a pledge to myself that I make whether I gain 30 pounds or lose 50, doesn’t matter. Lots of work, but unlike obsessing about weight, this process will be life-affirming and empowering.

That.

 

5

Pretty Girl from High School

Freshman year in high school was . . . awkward. My haircut was ridiculous, let’s just start there. I had shown my hair “stylist” a photo of Nick Rhodes because that’s what you do when you plan on growing up and marrying somebody, obviously. And she obliged without so much as a “You sure? Really?”

I didn’t have nice clothes because my parents didn’t have a whole lot of money back then, and I was too young to get a job to buy my own. I had a penchant for pink frosty lipstick and had no idea how to apply makeup — I remember using those little foam applicators you’re not supposed to actually use that come with the eyeshadow trios you get at the Walgreens (the best combo being the teal, brown and yellow – natch) . I wasn’t a hobo or anything, but I wasn’t exactly Seventeen-magazine-ready.

It was English class where I first saw pretty girl from high school  – she hurriedly entered the room, tasked with dropping off a memo for my teacher. She was wearing a cheerleader uniform and had bouncy blonde hair, flawless tan skin, and white sparkly teeth. She was thin and fit and wore seven or so shades of eyeshadow (love the 80s!) blended to perfection, framing her piercing blue eyes.

I was star struck. I couldn’t. Stop. Staring. How could someone so glamorous be in the same room as me . . . this wasn’t Hollywood?!

Every day I saw her walking down the hall, cute sweaters and cuter boys following her around. Oh how I wanted to be just like her. One day she stepped on the back of my shoe and apologized. That was the best day of my life.

Somehow I went on to have a fairly non-traumatic high school experience, eventually learning to sort-of apply makeup. I got a girl’s hairstyle and it looked pretty okay (with the exception of a few months during sophomore year after a tragic misunderstanding of the proper use of Sun In). I even made the cheer leading squad and got myself a cute boyfriend.

Flash forward 20 years. Pretty girl from high school “friended” me on Facebook (I know!) and my reaction was not unlike what it would have been in 1984: “Oh my God, ME?! You know my name?!! Squeal!!!

And I get that, every time she “likes” a status or leaves a comment on a photo.

Star struck. Still.

I would never reveal who it is, that would be more embarrassing than freshman year itself. But it’s kinda fun to see how her life turned out: still stunning, a gorgeous family, what appears to be a beautiful life, and from what I can glean on Facebook anyway — she turned out to be a substantial, intelligent, kind and decent person.

Still star struck.

I think it’s kinda cool, and I sometimes laugh and wonder what she’d think if she had any idea that she had this affect on me (and probably hundreds of other classmates). Maybe she’s reading this now (squeal!!!). If so, I hope it makes her feel good. And not totally creeped out. Maybe I should tell her. ACK! NO WAY!

Do you have a pretty girl from high school?

8

Social Media : The Phantom Limb

If you Google “addiction to social media” you’ll find all kinds of studies and evidence that this is happening: we’re checking Facebook before we put on our morning coffee and we’re diverting our attention from work and life to Twitter and Facebook and back again all day long. I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not going to argue whether the word addiction is appropriate or diagnose myself or others with a behavioral addiction, but these words ring true for me:

 The notion that underlies the “addiction” concept is that the substance use (or behavior)  originally intended for pleasurable recreation is now  compulsively driven. Although the act is no longer the source of much pleasure, it has become so deeply ingrained that the person continues to perform it in a repetitive fashion despite great and mounting negative consequences.

The evidence supporting the idea that someone is  ”addicted” would consist of  the continuation (or even increase) of seemingly autonomous and driven behaviors despite the ever diminishing gain and the ever increasing cost.  Subjectively, the person feels an escalating loss of  control over the act and instead comes to feel increasingly controlled by it.

In my language: If you feel a phantom limb when you turn off the internet, or an anxiety about being disconnected … you might have a problem. I totally have a problem.

The negative consequences, for me, include never feeling like I accomplish as much as I want during the day (distraction, procrastination) and the degradation of my real social network (a feeling of being disconnected to my friends and family and the world around me).

My social media drug of choice for awhile was the virtual world Second Life. I worked at an art gallery and organized events and met artists from all over the world, and I started an online magazine and got really deep into telling the stories of creative people doing incredible things in the virtual space. I built a community of friends and co-workers — talented, educated, and interesting people from all over the world. Those social bonds, more than anything else, kept me going back for more.

But. After awhile, the time I spent there had diminishing returns. As some of those relationships became more important, my relationships with friends in  real life suffered. I was spending time in front of my computer when I should have been enjoying life with five senses. I was compulsively drawn to it even when it was no longer enhancing my life in any way.  That’s when I returned to real life.

I’ve gone to the deepest, most addictive parts of the social web and I’ve come back to share my perspective, and I could not say it better than something I recently read by a colleague:

Social media is bad for you. Go outside and talk to people.

I am an observer of the social web and I see this compulsive behavior to varying degrees all the time. I have seen people replace their real identities with their online identities entirely, living life exclusively via their avatar from the time they wake up in the morning to the time they go to sleep at night. Milder examples are people unable to share a meal without updating Twitter, or go on vacation without sharing each and every activity on Facebook, checking obsessively whether people “like” the photos of their morning at the beach.

I tell people that I live my life online, and I do, and I don’t feel bad about that. It opens the world to me, it allows me to make a living and keep a roof over my head, it entertains me and allows me opportunities for creative expression. My online friends are very real and important to me.

But. I now believe it’s healthy to disconnect wherever possible. Life is meant to be lived with five senses (or as many as are at your disposal) and I am working toward being in the moment in life without compulsively relating it to social media. Examples include:

  • Cooking a meal and letting the house fill up with glorious smells and sharing a meal with a friend or my family, with music playing in the background, and having engaging conversation in real time (without checking Twitter or posting a photo of my meal on Facebook);
  • Going for a walk in nature and letting the air and colors and sounds cleanse the palate of my mind (and just letting that experience happen without mentally drafting my status update or blog post when I get back to my computer);
  • Going on vacation or even taking a “disconnect day” here at home where I don’t check the internet. I feel the phantom limb, but the more I do it, the easier it gets. People may get frustrated that I am difficult to reach, but somehow humanity evolved for thousands of years without these technologies and it is still true today. The internet is always right where I left it;
  • I try hard not to turn on my computer until I’ve been awake for at least an hour. I spend that time reading, eating breakfast, journaling or going for a walk. The internet can wait an hour;
  • I am trying to be ruthless about single-tasking. If I am working on a client project, I am working on a client project. If I am cleaning my house, I clean my house. Only when I’ve accomplished a task do I allow myself a “social media fix,” and when I feel I’ve done as much as I can for the day, I relax and socialize online — but I’m as mindful about that as I can be, I try not to let the social web fill up my time when I’m just bored because that’s when hours, days and years can slip past you with very little to show for it;

Plus, having something to share on social media requires that you have well, something to share. When all you’re doing is blogging about things other people are blogging about or sharing things other people are sharing … you’re probably not taking the time to experience, learn and think enough outside of the social web. You may disagree, but I believe without a doubt that reading books is better than reading blogs, having a conversation over coffee with a friend is better than replying to a Tweet, giving someone a hug is better than liking their status update.

Mindfully monitoring my online activities is an ongoing experiment and I’m sure I’ll be writing more about it in future posts. While social media is very much a part of my life, it is not my life. How about you? Do you ever feel the “phantom limb”?

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