Lean In

(This post contains some facts about our current situation on Earth and what you can do to help.)

“Lean into the discomfort.”

This is one piece of advice I’ve gotten used to hearing over the last number of years. It seems to be a common theme among those looking to make a change in the world. As an artist and creative entrepreneur, this advice describes my job on a daily basis – I am to find the emotions and ideas that lie just beyond my comfort zone and venture into their territory. While I try to do this a little bit every day, I often find it’s easier said than done to push beyond the places I’ve been before.

How often do you lean into your discomfort?

If you’re like most people I know (myself included) the answer is not all that often. Deliberately finding the spaces that put us on edge is not generally something we like to do. Sure, there are those few adrenaline junkies out there who love the thrill of not knowing if they’re going to live or die today, but I think most of us can agree we prefer to do the exact opposite – we like to lean away from the things that make us uneasy. We like to walk very quickly glancing back over our shoulder with a smile plastered on our faces just to make sure no one is watching, then break out into an all-out sprint in the opposite direction.

Now, this isn’t entirely our fault. As humans, our brains are wired to run away at the first sign of danger, as fast as our two legs will carry us. It’s the very thing that kept us alive for so long in a world that saw us as dinner. Safety is one of the most basic human needs. But no matter what society would like to lead you to believe, safety is not the same thing as comfort. Sometimes remaining within our comfort zone is the most dangerous thing we can do.

I have been sitting with a lot of uncomfortable topics lately, topics that make me want to just look the other way. Of course, once you know the facts, it’s hard to do that. I know I find it extremely difficult to forget something once I learn the truth, especially within topics like these.

Topics like the fact that there is a prevalence of race and gender inequality, even in our seemingly progressive world today. How women who don’t look like me face challenges I will never know and how if I am not actively part of the solution, I am part of the problem; how there is so much more for me to know.

Topics like my own experiences of rejection and what I am doing to move through that pain. How that pain relates to everyone else’s, and the way in which I treat myself becomes the way in which I treat those closest to me, and I would never choose to be so hard on them.

Most of all, I have been taking a deeper look at the world around us, at this beautiful earth we call home. Global warming is real, people. If we don’t start making changes now, it will have catastrophic results.

I sometimes wish I were one of those people who could make light of a really serious topic, because I believe humour is disarming. I’m working on it, but in the mean time I’m just that person who feels things really, really deeply and wants to take on the world all at once.

The facts are shocking. Only one out of every ten people breathe safe air, according to WHO guidelines. Air pollution is responsible for one in three deaths related to stroke, chronic respiratory disease or lung cancer – including premature death among children. Rising temperatures create worse storms, droughts and heat waves, which in turn leads to an increase in food shortages and malnutrition in countries already struggling to make ends meet.

But the good news doesn’t stop there.  Each year, at least eight million tonnes of plastic leak into our oceans. The world’s largest floating collection of trash lives in the ocean between Hawaii and California in what is known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Often described as larger than Texas, it is home to 79 000 metric tons of plastic. This waste is composed of the usual culprits: plastic bags, straws and bottle caps. What we’re not paying attention to? Fishing equipment. Abandoned fishing equipment makes up for 46% of the floating island, while a majority of the rest waste is fishing gear of a different kind. One in three fish caught never makes it to the plate, and one-third of all commercial fish species are overfished.

These facts are just the tip of the melting iceberg, but they are overwhelming nonetheless. So what does it mean for you? For me? For the seven billion people we share this planet with and the generations to come?

The more I learn, the more I see how everything is intricately, inextricably connected. An increase in air pollution means farmers will yield less food from their crops, thus increasing food shortage and malnutrition. When we breathe air that is filled with particles of black carbon that penetrate our bodies’ defences, we suffer from issues like asthma, lung cancer and stroke and must spend more on health care to solve issues that could be avoided in the first place. More plastic in our oceans means fish eat more plastic which means we, in turn, eat more plastic which could be not-so-good for our health. When we waste food, we produce more methane and further contribute to the issue of world hunger. And so the cycle continues.

The good news (the real good news, this time) is this: we, as individuals, can and do make a difference with the choices we make every day. If we reduce the amount of pollution we create by driving less and making a conscious effort with our trash, we will be able to breathe easier and produce more food in the long run.

Of course, these are extremely complex issues. But there are a few things you can start doing, today.

You can say no to straws, bring your own reusable bags and a water bottle wherever you go. You can take the metro or bike to work instead of driving your car and enjoy a little extra sunshine along the way. You can buy food that requires less packaging or no packing at all. You can reach out to your community leaders and bring awareness to the issues at stake.

These are little things, but they are important nonetheless. Start with these. If you’re willing to dive a little deeper, do some research. The truest answers are often the ones we don’t want to hear.

According to the Drawdown, a comprehensive list of the top 100 things we can do to reduce climate change, the single greatest thing we can do as individuals is this: reduce food waste. Food waste accounts for approximates 8% of emissions worldwide. In higher income countries, we waste an average of 35% of the food we buy each year. THAT IS A LOT OF FOOD for such a simple solution. All we need to do is plan a little better, and eat what’s in the fridge.

Related to this: compost. Natural waste produced methane, a pollutant 80 times more powerful than CO2 when it comes to heating our atmosphere. Regular landfills are not equipt to deal with such a potent compound, but proper composting facilities are. Composted food gets a second life – it can be put to use instead of rotting in a landfill somewhere. Ew.

Now, I say these things, but I AM NOT A SAINT. I am only working on them myself. I am working on them one day, one step at a time. Honestly, I find composting gross. I’ve avoided it like a slimy sock until recently. I’ve realized how much of a difference it can make.

There is one thing I have found that collectively could have the most significant impact of all, but it’s something of a taboo subject. Are you ready for it? My third and final suggestion is this: move towards a plant-based diet.

GASP. Did I just say what you think I just said? Did I just imply the “v” word?

Calm down a minute. Please don’t leave this article because I might have just said something you might possibly disagree with. When I say going into uncomfortable spaces, the space of food is one of the tensest spaces, second only to any debates relating to politics. Food is deeply personal. Food is family and friends and good times and memories. Food is the thing that sustains us. Food is something different to every person on earth, but the basic fact is this: food is life. We cannot live without it, at least, not for very long.

I’m not saying you have to stop eating animal products. I’m not telling you to abandon meat. I am not here to bore you with the vices of the modern diet and virtues of veganism, there are plenty of sites out there to do that. But the one thing I will tell you is this: if you are serious about having an impact on our planet, consider adding more plants to your plate. Just think about it. When you do consume animal products, be a little more mindful of where they’re coming from. Maybe choose free-reign and local over the cheapest option out there. Maybe bulk up that meal with baked veggies and sauteed beans.

Food has been a touchy topic for me for several years. I am learning a new way to be mindful of what I eat. I am digging into the things that make me uncomfortable and why I feel that way. I am learning how I can give back to this planet that has already given me so much.

I am always learning. If you go through life with open eyes, you can too. Let these words give you the courage you need to look at something that makes you uncomfortable. Just a little.

Take one step today.

***

Intrigued? Check out these links:

Drawdown.org to learn about the top solutions to climate change.

BreatheLife to learn about air pollution and what you can do.

Deliciously Ella for plant-based recipes even carnivores will love.

Answers (A Pep Talk)

“Ommmmmmm…”

“Whatcha doing?”

“Meditating.”

“What’s that?”

“Meditating. You know, sitting in stillness, breathing, being. Seeking inner peace and contentment with all that is right here, right now.”

“Oh. We’re doing that again.”

“What?”

“This meditating thing. It’s BORING. Why would anybody just sit there doing nothing when there are so many things to do and people to meet and places to see? Sitting still seems like a waste of time to me.”

“Mmmmm. You just don’t get it.”

Patience. I think that’s my word of the year. Or the word of my life. It has been a long, challenging year filled with ups and downs and many moments of “I have no idea where I am going, what am I doing with my life?!” followed by moments of “this is AMAZING!” Figuring out where you are going takes time. Building things worth building takes time. But sometimes I am young and sometimes I am impatient. I would like to have everything figured out NOW.

I will be the first to admit that my brain is hardly ever satisfied with where it is at any given moment, and recently I’ve been trying to figure out why.

Like many people partaking in the mindfulness movement, I long to show up and be more present for my life, but it baffles me why this is a question at all. Life is so beautiful, and we only get to live once. There is absolutely NOTHING I can do to control what happens in my future and NOTHING I can do to change the past, yet this is where my mind likes to stray to time and time again. Why is this? And how can I change it?

There is a time and place to remember the past. There is a time and place to look towards the future. But if we spend all our time watching the horizon or looking back over our shoulder, are we ever truly living?

My brain is a busy place. I imagine it to look sort of like Grand Central Station inside, with millions of thoughts coming and going every single day. Occasionally I’ll hop on a train with one of them and see where it leads me, but the rest of the thoughts are still there, never more than a few thousand miles away.

I’ve been feeling fairly restless lately with too many thoughts, ideas and projects competing for my attention – being a creative person can be busy work at times. My brain has been arguing with itself quite a bit, one side trying to keep track of everything I have going on while the other half tells me I am not doing enough so I better get off my butt and make something happen already or else there will be consequences. What consequences, you ask? I’m not sure either. But apparently, they’re there, like a ticking time-bomb that could explode at any minute if I don’t get moving.

You see, my brain likes to think it can control my life. Therefore, it likes to sit in the driver’s seat and act as the navigator at the same time. It has this need to have some semblance of a plan of where we are going and how we are going to get there at all times, and if it doesn’t? Well, things aren’t so pleasant for the passengers inside. They tend to get jostled around a lot until my brain gets some answers.

The thing is, life does not go according to plan, ever. No ifs, ands or buts about it. If it does miraculously go according to plan for a period of time, you often find the plan wasn’t actually what you were looking for all along and end up pulling off to the side of the road to check your map and figure out why you thought this path was such a good idea in the first place.

While I have grown to accept life’s plot twists as just another part of the journey, some part of my brain has not. It has been deeply aware of the fact that I have been floating of late and has therefore grown increasingly restless. There has been no plan. No direction, no burning passion or inclination to take one path over another. There has been curiosity, and there has been healing. Oh, the healing. But healing takes time, my brain says. You’re wasting time. No, I’m not, I tell my brain again. Do you wanna drive on two flat wheels? Didn’t think so. Neither do I. So we sit. And we think. And we ponder.

It’s easy for my brain to make it sound like I’ve been doing nothing. This isn’t true, either. The results of the work I’ve been doing have just been more intangible than I am used to. There haven’t been any overarching goals or five-year plans in mind. I’ve just been getting back on my feet and following my curiosities, one step at a time.

Still, my brain has been restless, and so what do I do when I’m restless? I research. I temporarily abandon any current projects in favour of figuring out my life beyond those deadlines, spending hours combing through the internet to get a clearer sense of what I want my life to look like at this time next year.

I suppose one could also call this procrastination.

This kind of procrastination can be quite productive at times. Well, not productive in the most acute sense of the word, but productive none the less. All that research soothed my brain to the point where I can now get back to work and know I’ll discover some ideas that were nowhere to be seen before, ideas that will enable me to move my projects forward.

Moderate procrastinators have actually been proven to be more successful and creative than their peers – no, I’m not making this up. In his TED Talk on the surprising habits of original thinkers, Adam Grant explains how he discovered this group of people whom he calls “originals,” and how they function differently from the rest of society. One of the defining traits of originals is that they are quick to start but slow to finish – as moderate procrastinators, they sit in between the people who always finish early and those who start so late that they have to scramble to get everything done on time.

Grant shares the data from an experiment that asked people to come up with new business ideas. There were three groups: one group was asked to do the task right away, while the other two groups were asked to procrastinate by playing Minesweeper – for either five or ten minutes each. Which group was the most creative, you might ask? It was the middle group, the one that procrastinated for five minutes before completing the task. People in this group were 16% more creative than those in the other two groups. Grant explains:

“Now, Minesweeper is awesome, but it’s not the driver of the effect, because if you play the game first before you learn about the task, there’s no creativity boost. It’s only when you’re told that you’re going to be working on this problem, and then you start procrastinating, but the task is still active in the back of your mind, that you start to incubate. Procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps.”

It’s reassuring to know my brain is not the only one that works this way. Grant goes on to explain that another defining feature of originals is that they are less afraid to fail than they are of failing to try. In essence, they would rather put forth a less-than-perfect but innovative product or idea if they saw the world could benefit than wait for it to be perfect or worse, let that idea sit up on a shelf until someone else worked up the courage to go do it. If their idea fails for some reason or another, they learn from their experience and take note of what they can do differently next time.

Left unchecked, procrastination can morph into this form of perfectionism that stops us from taking action in the first place. It settles like a fog in the mind that makes us forget what we truly want and dampens the excitement we have for our ideas. This is the most dangerous form of procrastination of all because it is so sneaky, you don’t even notice it. Some people even find this trait admirable.

I used to wear my perfectionism like a badge of honour, but now I see it more as a synonym for crippling self-doubt or fear of rejection than I do a source of pride. I am not proud of the times I have been too scared to try.

My tendency to procrastinate has produced some beautiful ideas in the last week – but my mind has also been wandering dangerously close to the murky lands of perfectionism. I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself, and as a result, I have been suffering from some pretty nasty writer’s block.

When I was in gymnastics, I had a bad habit on beam. There were certain skills around which I had developed very large mental blocks, and this made it extremely hard to actually practice said skills. I vividly remember the feeling: I would be standing on the beam, my arms above my head and feet side by side, perfectly aligned and ready to go. I had performed the skill countless times before and yet, I would stand there, sometimes for five minutes at a time, wiggling my sweaty feet and swinging my arms up and down to no avail. I was paralyzed by the fear that I might land on my head and break my neck and then never be able to move again.

Now, this may sound entirely logical to someone outside of the sport, but it was entirely not. I had never, not once landed on my head. I’ve never even come close. I knew this skill inside out. On competition day, I would stick the skill perfectly, without a single wobble; the next day, I would return to the gym to that same paralyzing fear and frustrating habit of stopping myself before I would even start.

I have no explanation for this phenomenon. I only knew that on these days, my brain became something of a prison cell. I was trapped. It was like I had opened my mouth to speak knowing full well what I wanted to say, only, no words would come out. Choking on your own thoughts is like choking on the air we breathe – no one can see what’s plaguing you, and you can’t see a way out.

Looking back now, I know my anxiety boiled down to this one thing: ultimately, there was no guarantee that anything I did would work out. In life, there never is. Each skill on beam was simply a micro example of this truth – I would know right away, and so I often felt I would just rather not find out.

Since I left gymnastics, I’ve experienced a high volume of what I’m now calling detours – choices I made that didn’t work out. These “failures” hurt at the moment, but I’m still standing and I’m stronger for it.

My brain likes to make life a whole lot more complicated than it actually is. Sometimes less is more and trying harder is not the answer. Sometimes the answer has been there all along. Sometimes you just need to take the first step, then the next, then the next, and learn to sit with the uncertainty that is the beauty of life.

Today, I am hereby denouncing perfectionism once and for all. I AM PERFECTLY IMPERFECT and PROUD OF IT. Because life is not perfect. Life is beautiful and wonderful and challenging and curious but life is NOT perfect. Life was not created to be perfect. We were not created to be perfect. Imperfection is where our beauty lies. Imperfection is honesty and connection and vulnerability and that is the life I want to live.

Maybe, just maybe, letting go of perfection is letting go of the outcome is letting go of everything but this moment right here, right now. Maybe letting go of perfection is showing compassion for ourselves and every living thing on earth because how you treat yourself is how you treat everyone else. Maybe letting go of perfection is being courageous and original and living our best lives, individually and collectively.

You have been given a life – do us all a favour and go live boldly, bravely, in unapologetically bright, vivid colours. Take up space. Wear your heart on your sleeve and live life out loud. Do your dreams, however big or small they may seem because the world needs it now, more than ever. The world will become a better place because we were willing to take a chance and colour outside the lines.

Go live a life worth remembering. That’s what I am going to do.