How to Brush One Tooth


Portrait of me, planning my wedding last week. 

Return from your bachelorette party sweaty, sleepy, and with depleted serotonin. Hug your man. He’ll suggest you take a seat and say he has some news. After a blissful 48 hours swimming and sipping wine, the worst you can conjure is that he neglected to water the garden.

Ask “are the tomatoes OK?” like an idiot.

He’ll shake head and tell you that the your wedding venue had been purchased by a developer. You need to find a new venue in less than three weeks. The news arrived in a few sentences along with a check for your deposit. Hope it doesn’t bounce.

Cry for a bit. Then take a breath and welcome the fresh opportunity into your lungs.

It’s not that you love planning weddings. Wedding planning feels like work. You haven’t yet recovered from the years of fundraising and galas. No, this is something different, you have been given a chance to exceed expectations. That is something you relish.

This is where you thrive. When expectations are lowered, you can catch the wind as it shifts and then you soar.

Cancel your meetings for the next day and spend the day planning a new wedding. Spend the afternoon visiting venues, rewriting your menu, and re-imagining decor. Enter a state of flow as you efficiently knock down several major decisions in a few hours. Discover that it’s not really that hard once it doesn’t matter so much. By 9 pm, you’ll be signing new contracts, cracking your knuckles and feeling the planning muse return to you after many months of struggle. This may carry on for several days. Coast on this momentum as you crank out emails you’ve been avoiding for weeks. 

My brilliant friend Darren at shared with me B.J. Fogg’s small habits philosophy, which we have nicknamed “brush one tooth.” Fogg, a Stanford Psychologist, suggests that lowering the bar by starting with very small habits, changes, or goals, such as flossing one tooth, increases longterm success. Of course, you’ll never floss one tooth. Once you get going, you’ll find it’s not as bad as you expected. The psychological barrier to creating a habit or starting a project is often greater than the force actually required to execute. When we think of the task as something small, we can get the ball rolling and then before we know it we’re flossing all our damned teeth.

This is what we do, as procrastinators. We lower the bar so we can soar above.

How do we harness this power we have, to lower expectations?

Brush one tooth.


Portrait of me, planning my wedding this week.


Gym Class Grit

I’ve been feeling a squeaky lack of grit lately.

Grit is one of those critical 21st century innovation economy traits. Grit is the ability to roll with the punches. The important human ability to take failure and adversity in stride. It’s the difference between staying on the mat and coming back swinging. You don’t go far without grit. It’s a strong predictor of long term success.

How do we get gritty? That which does not kill is makes us gritty. We become immunized to adversity though exposure. When we learn we can overcome a stressor, we develop an antibodies to tackle it again at a later date.

The alternative reaction to stressors — phobia and risk aversion — can be a major barrier, because risk is a necessary precursor to reward.

The success of serial startup founders can often just be a numbers game. Fail enough and you’re bound to get it right.

So, on the one hand, we have a Seth Godin or a Elon Musk, and, on the other hand, me, afraid to apply for jobs because one time I was rejected from a dog walking job.

In my counseling theory class this week, the professor discussed the fine line that parents must walk between inoculating their kids to stress and totally traumatizing them.


Behaviorist believe that all behavior is learned and can be unlearned. Which means I can develop grit. Someday, we’ll have grit retreats and grit camps for people of all ages who need some help acclimating to failure and adversity.

Someday, while building muscle at the gym, our strength training will be emotional. Alongside the 10 pound weights and fit personal trainers, there will be harsh personal critiques and catastrophic failures.

You heard it here first, kids.

Is Delaying Gratification Bad for You? (No, No it’s Not)

Betteridge’s law of headlines says that “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.”

No. Delaying gratification is definitely not bad for you. Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test of willpower continues to be upheld as a strong predictor of long term success.1

This evening, I picked a gluttonous handful of herbs for a single-serving salad. Easily $4 at my local grocery store. I felt so wasteful. Nagged with guilt. Why? This fist full of flavor cost me nothing. In fact, I know that picking my herbs encourages growth. I know this intellectually, but it feels like if I’m picking them at all, I should be doing something more than making myself a really good salad.

Prune to encourage growth.

It truly took years of gardening (poorly) to accept this fact.

My tendency towards “saving” is illogical, but it feels so sensible. I make myself sick eating other people’s unwanted pizza crusts not because I like them, but because wasting food is bad. In college, I lived entirely on discarded food from the restaurants I worked in because it saved money on groceries (which then went to beer). I haven’t listened to the last 10 episodes of my favorite podcast because I’m “saving them” for when I “really need them.”

I also do this at work… and with work.

Today at work, I threw money on the ground and left it there. I have spent the last year playing protective mother hen to the only 20 copies of “the book2” in existence. My co-author was allowed to have 4 copies, our Executive Director got 3 and I have toted my one copy to so many meetings that it’s practically falling apart. This week, we made some updates and did a second printing of 100 copies. As I went to check how many were left of the first printing, I was horrified to find 12 crisp, untouched books left in the box. How many times had I gingerly taken the book out of an the hands of an interested party when I could have said “keep it?” How many hours of my life had I wasted dabbing at the coffee stain on the back. Ok, only one hour, but it was an important hour. As I pulled them out of their box and onto the shelf, I stopped caring. A precious copy fell to the ground and I just left it there. It’s worthless now.

For years, I stayed in a job I no longer loved and that did not pay well because I worried that I might not be able to find a job I loved more or one that paid as well. It’s no secret that I’m a scaredy cat3, and I really convinced myself I was doing the sensible thing.

Staying in a career you’re unsatisfied with will cost you money. Changing jobs every 3-4 years may lead to steeper salary increases. Forbes has a lot to say on the subject. While there are a lot of articles referencing precious little data, the data shows that switching jobs is likely to double your annual salary increase. The Blogosphere recommends changing jobs every 4 years for maximum salary and growth. Long enough for most people to fall in love with you. Not long enough to realize your fundamental flaws.

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1. This Atlantic article argues that income is a third variable. Isn’t it always? Inequality begets inequality.
2. I co-authored a book. It’s not as cool as it seems because we’re paying buckets for every copy we self-publish and also just giving them away.
3. Ooh! New blog title?.
4. Better blog title: “Writing the advice I need to take.”
5. Most of which comes from recruiters.

No New Feelings

In college, when I had “writers block,” I would open a word document called “noties.” Noties was like a private digital scrapbook for the era before ubiquitous social media. “Bits and scraps of shit, beginning Nov 2006,” is how it introduces itself.

It started as a place to record the things my friends said that I thought were just so deeply profound. I was 18 and living your own life for the very first time. I was obsessed with my friends. As a twin, I’d shared everything growing up, including friends. My college friends were smart and cool and weird and just mine. Talking in a circle with my friends on the floor of my dorm room felt like a sacred ritual. Their every clever utterance was poetry to me. Many of them were actually poets. Mostly they were just drunk.

I held myself up
By porcelain
And I had far too much to drunk

(CW, 2006)

I collected all sorts of things in my digital scrapbook. Scraps of sentences I overheard. Phrases I read. Odd sentences from junk mail. Anything that struck a cord or felt… deep. Dreams lived here. Dreams about boys. Music I listened to while thinking about boys. All the feelings. It didn’t feel like a journal so much as an alter to my feelings.  This is the home of my naval gazing habit.

After a few pages the scraps of thoughts start to form into poetry and prose. And the habit makes sense.  I was catching my tears in a jar as an offering to the muse.

I started to think of this document as a fertile riverbed of writing ideas. Then I started harvesting way too much. Were this a physical  book, it would be worn to shit. Eventually, there was nothing good left. This must be how humans felt before we agriculture. Like. Shit, if only we could figure out how to put these things in the ground on our own.

By senior year, I was sitting in a coffee shop with a friend, staring at a blank page and a rapidly approaching deadline, searching my Noties document for the start of something. After an hour he said “wouldn’t your time be better spent thinking of a new idea?”

Habits are hard to break. I still open the Noties doc for a stroll along the banks, searching for an idea that might have been overlooked.

Last night I slept and
Dreamed of

This is getting old.

(Excerpt from “826 dreams about you,” 2007)

Double Dutch

double dutch 2

I’ve never made a habit of jumping rope in public. My heart race increases when I remember the feeling of waiting to jump in to the ropes in double dutch.

I remember rocking back and forth, watching the rounds tick past and my friend’s facial expressions go from encouraging to embarrassed to annoyed.

What exactly was I waiting for?

The ropes didn’t get slower or lighter as the seconds pass. The odds of failure didn’t decrease. I definitely didn’t get any better watching the ropes pass.

The longer you wait the less fun it gets.

double dutch

So why wait?

I always wanted to be the kind of person who kept in straight away.

The last time I checked in here, I had jumped into the ropes. I jumped into a Masters in counseling after a friend applied and reassured me that it was easier and less terrifying than I expected.

And now I’m jumping rope for the foreseeable future, spending two nights in classes with *gasp* homework.

I’m happy to be in the game. I love school. I even love homework.

Indecisive people and procrastinators may understand the complicated delight in reviving a syllabus with weekly deadlines.

I’m remembering now how hard it is at first do or think about anything else while you’re jumping that incessant beat.

With practice, though, it becomes just another step.


Rock Bottom and Charting the Line Graph of Change

I know this guy who died once. He was depressed, an alcoholic, not taking care of himself. He fell into a diabetic coma. After a month, the doctors called it. They told his parents it was time to let him die. I mourned with his friends the night they pulled the plug. He was so young, we said. An important reminder to take care of yourself, we said, as we got drunk in his honor.

Then he woke up.

A few months later, I was sitting with him on a Chicago porch. I drank beer while he crushed La Croix. After the coma, he told me, he’d quit drinking, started taking his career seriously, and professed his feelings for a girl he had liked for years. Now he was sober, successful, and in love.

Rock bottom, I presumed. Not exactly. He smoked a big fat bowl as soon as he could. He felt like he felt he could have kept going the way he had before, with some obvious changes to keep the grim reaper away for few more years.

But he also realized that this was an opportunity that he didn’t want to lose. He had a choice: he could continue on his current trajectory, or to rewrite the formula. When he chose to get sober, it wasn’t because he saw clearly how his addiction was a barrier, or for the first time saw how precious life was. He knew, however, that he didn’t want this event to be an outlier, a blip. He wanted to take advantage of the momentum in his new, unexpected life.

We talk about rock bottom as a fixed point. In storytelling, we craft narratives around a pivot point. The hero’s journey is round and symmetrical. There’s a predictable dip into hell, a spark of revelation, and then the protagonist returns, forever changed. If you watch enough movies, rock bottom can start to seem like a romantic ideal.

But when you’re living the experience of changing a habit or behavior, it doesn’t feel so smooth. The journey is in the context, and we don’t know where we are until we can look back on where we’ve been.

For our friend, his coma became the pivot point because of the trajectory that followed. That point could have been any moment before or after.


From afar, change might look like this.

chart graph of recovery and rock bottom fixed

Up close, it might feel more like this.

chart graph of recovery and rock bottom fixed

A day, month, or year, can feel like a struggle, with no end in sight.


The day my partner quit smoking, he got two Italian beef sandwiches and a sausage at 5 in the morning and ate all three while watching the sun rise. Then he smoked three cigarettes and felt like death. That wasn’t the last time he gave in to the temptation of smoking or binge-eating, but it’s his narrative: the pattern he sees when he looks back on his hero’s journey.

Any point in time can be your turning point. And you can have as many as you need.

I haven’t experienced addiction and recovery firsthand like many of my friends, but I’ve been close enough to know it’s rarely a smooth trajectory. We all have own methods of avoiding pain, and, mountains or molehills, it’s a matter of continuing the upwards climb.


Breaking the Seal: Becoming a Pivot Professional

As a teenager, when drinking in its forbidden splendor was a habit to be worshipped, my girlfriends made a big deal over not “breaking the seal.” We were proud to be in the loop on any aspect of this adult culture and talked about it constantly. We would resist going to the bathroom until it was so urgent that we simply had to go. Then there would be much giggling about peeing in the most idiotic places around New York City. For the record the idea that by “breaking the seal” and emptying your bladder you will influence the frequency with which you need to urinate is not supported by science.

This idea might holds more water when applied to decision making and career pivots.

After I applied to a Masters in Counseling, I felt an embarrassed freedom, as though I had just realized that the prison I was stuck in had been unlocked the whole time. On the other side of that perceived barrier, approached the Pivot Problem entirely differently.


When I realize my barriers are make believe.

For years, I could not imagine doing anything different. Even though I wasn’t happy in my role, it was all I knew. I scrolled through job listings with apathetic distance. I couldn’t imagine being happy in any of those roles because I couldn’t imagine being in those roles at all.

After crossing the threshold and applying to a graduate program, I am able to fully imagine myself in the program. I can see myself, my lifestyle, my studies, my internships, and gut check my feelings during that fantasy. Having passed through the clouding anxiety, I can see the options before me and interact with them in a new and real way.

None of this is surprising, yet I didn’t see it before. I know that the biggest barriers are my own construction, but somehow I can’t feel it’s true until I experience it. Decisions, especially surrounding my career, are something I’ve let become a barrier, and I need to desensitize myself by jumping over that barrier more and more.

Desensitization, or exposure therapy, is the process of overcoming a phobia or anxiety by systematically interacting with or visualizing the thing that terrifies you. When you can understand that it won’t kill you, it actually does make you stronger!

snakes 1

This is fine. Totally fine.


I’m not dying. I’m not dying. Am I dying?

I am indecisive not because I am afraid of change, but because I’m afraid of choice. I’m uncomfortable with the threshold itself. With exposure, and evidence that it won’t kill me, I’m becoming more comfortable with the thing that I fear!

I saw a job posting today at an organization that I’ve admired, but have not been able to see myself in. With newfound clarity and power against my pivot paranoia, I started an application. I met a fellow altMBA alum today and her I was applying for this role. “You broke the seal,” she said, “and now you’re seeing options everywhere.”



Crossing the Threshold

I applied to grad school today.

I started last night. It took all of six hours.

For 8 years, I have been exploring graduate programs in Psychology.

Wednesday, I had dinner with a friend, and she beamed when she talked about her graduate plans in Counseling. That could be me, I thought, any day now. I just need to choose the right program.

Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Masters in Clinical Social Work, Masters’ in Psychology. Psy.D, PHD in Psychology. Masters in Neuroscience. PHD in Neuroscience. Masters in Organizational Psychology. Or a PHD! Which School? Which specialty? Do I really feel certain about this enough to commit to a 6 year PHD program?

“You’ve been thinking about this stuff, right? You should apply. The deadline is Thursday.”

The next day, I looked at all of the programs in the city one more time. This was the most affordable, one of the better respected and, one of the only programs whose application deadline had not yet passed.

I decided that another year of indecision would surely send me over the edge of sanity.

So I leapt.

Today I was thinking — what got me over the threshold? Did the spreadsheets and the math and the research make a difference? Was it the fear? Or my friend’s encouragement?

Was it the right decision? Maybe not.

Sometimes the best decision is just the one that  you make.

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Dreaming in Spreadsheets

Spreadsheets are a go-to mechanism for coping with indecision. I feel safety in the grey walls of those tiny cells. I can sow variables in the endless fields of cells, rich with possibilities for manipulation. Whether I’m exploring infinite budget options, assigning criteria to ranking wedding venues, or collecting data to refute my partner’s claim that I “never get home before 6,” I’m living life in a spreadsheet. I often dream spreadsheets.

In this post, I’m excited to introduce a spreadsheet that’s really important to me, and will be the focus of a good deal of this blog moving forward. Please give a warm welcome to the…


All credit for this model goes to the brilliant Simon Rilling.

What’s Math Got to Do With It?


Oh, you beautiful, misguided golden finch.

I read about decision making and risk evaluation in Robert Harris’s Introduction to Decision Making, I was surprised by my own delight. The idea of letting math take the wheel appealed to my faith in science, and the idea that you could write a formulas to predict joy was at once comforting and horrifying. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this topic and hope to devote several more posts to risk management.

The Simon Rilling method is loosely inspired by this risk evaluation formula:

EV = sumn (pn x rn)

The expected value (satisfaction in a career choice) is found by adding the values of each possible outcome, diminished by its own probability.

Robert Harris’s Example: Should I go scuba diving this weekend? If I do, there is a ninety percent probability that I will have a lot of fun. I quantify this great fun as 10 fun points. There is also a ten percent probability that I will get hurt, which I quantify as minus 20 fun points. If I make the other decision, to stay home, there is a ninety-nine percent probability that I will be bored, represented by a minus 2 fun points, and a one percent probability that something exciting will happen, which I represent as five fun points (half as exciting as going scuba diving). Our expected value worksheet looks like this:

Probability Reward
_____ .9 x +10 = +9
|_____ .1 x -20 = -2
_Scuba?_| Total = 7
|_____ .99 x -2 = -1.98
|_____ .01 x +5 = + .05
Total = -1.93

Here we see that the expected value of going diving is 7, which is much higher than the expected value of staying home, which is a negative 1.93.

My Process

First, I set the criteria for happiness, based on my limited self-knowledge. Is it a good fit, does it fuel me, will it pay me, and can I sustain it as a career? I broke these down further into measurable qualities.

Then, I set a timer and wrote down as many desirable paths as I could think of. Some are variations on a theme (therapy with college students v.s. adults) and some are total wildcards (touring punk cover band.)

Next, I took a stab at guessing the probability of success for each career against each criteria.

The Results

This whole thing reminded me of the studies where researchers run your own voice through a modulator, and find that we generally can’t identify our own voices even when they’re only lightly disguised.

I went through my process with the last column hidden so I couldn’t see what my assigned values were adding up to. The result was a statistical analysis that largely mirrored my emotional one for the last 10 years.

When I was 20, I took a career test. It told me I should be a researcher or a dentist. I should have learned that I like people and also structure. Instead, I laughed about the idea of being a dentist and threw the paper away.

The top choices, according to my math are:

  • Organizational psychology focused on workplace culture
  • Writing about trying out different jobs (pure wish fulfillment)
  • Counseling (relationship or individual)
  • Writing about research (ala Mary Roach)

The Meaning of the Dream is In the Interpretation

Dreams are the likely the result of our mind trying to process the mess in our brains. The value of symbols in dreams is primarily in our interpretation. If you think the dream of a monkey was about your boss, that’s a more valuable piece of data than to learn that most people dream about monkeys during warm weather.

The way I interacted with the process – where I assigned higher or lower values, and the reaction I had when I heard organizational psychology had won – those are more helpful data for me in this process than the results themselves.

Pivot Procrastinator’s totally reasonable measures of success:

1. Money.

I’ve been in nonprofits my whole life and so I am only now realizing that money is important for supporting human life and that I would to earn some. Not a ton, but above the average household income in my city would be nice.

2. Having a career fuels me and fits me. I broke this down into:

  • Pace. As a metaphor, I’m really into “Fartlek,” the Swedish art of pacing in long-distance running. I’ve learned that I thrive when I have the opportunity sprint short distances – to work intensely on short projects – and then to recover with a calm pace.
  • People. As an extravert, I am fueled by people.
  • Creativity. Writing is my creative outlet of choice, but I’m flexible.
  • Structure. Success in this area means having some external structures and deadlines.
  • Learning. As previously discussed, I am a huge nerd.

3. Balance, which is broken down into:

  • The opportunity for flexibility: to travel and eventually to parent.  My dream is that my partner and I are able to each work 30 hours a week while our kids are young. Perhaps a crazy dream.
  • Working, on average, a reasonable number of hours per week. Reasonable is relative. Fewer than 50 would be great.
  • Emotional balance.  I want to be emotionally invested and know that what I’m doing matters, but not to feel the weight of humanity entirely on my shoulders.

Numbers v.s. Guts

I used to think intuition was antithetical to a scientific lens. Now I’m not so sure.

At age 9, I watched “Fools Rush In” and thought it was aptly named. Salma Hayek’s character believes life is fated and you just need to read the signs. I thought that was totally ridiculous. I thought intuition was a myth. I stubbed my nose at tarot, astrology, and any sort of fortune telling. I was dismayed by flipism, although I secretly consulted a magic 8 ball frequently.

I grew up in a culture where science was our religion. My father is an atheist, raised by a mathematician. We have to go a few generations back to find anyone with a strong faith in a higher power. I believe that everything can be measured. I believe only way to truly know you’re making the right choice is to collect data against a hypothesis. No wonder I’m indecisive.

Of course, my faith in data has been tested. I work in progressive education, in a community where we shun the tunnel vision of standardized assessments. I’ve seen data fuel bigotry and war. Every faith has their fanatics.

My mind started to open when I met brilliant, balanced people who kept data and intuition side-by-side as equal tools for guiding decisions big and small. My nurse friend collects blood samples and makes data-informed decisions by day and lives by the movement of the moon at night. My professor friend has tattoos of his astrological signs and is the author of many studies and a book, for which he conducted highly structured research for years. My friend who works in data analytics lights up when she talks about numerology.

Of course, now, we have amazing research on the science of intuition! We’ve begun to understand the “gut feeling” as a result of the powerful link between the intestines and the brain.

I’m particularly interested in selective attention — the sounds, sights, and smells that we unconsciously pluck out from the infinite cacophony around us. Neuroscience has helped us understand how much work our brain puts into making signals from the noise of our daily experiences. Hearing our name in a noisy room (the cocktail effect), or noticing the clock at 11:11.

It follows that selective attention might seem to bring to the foreground “signs” to support choices that we might have already unconsciously made, or attune to narrative threads in Tarot or Horoscopes.

In the 20 years since I first scoffed at “Fools Rush In,” I’ve come to understand that nothing is quite so binary as scientific method=accurate, signs and intuition=hogwash. Everything that we perceive is data – from the rumble in our stomachs to the values we assign on a spreadsheet. Whether a nudge in one direction comes from intuition, noticing a sign, or the results of mathematical decision making process, we are constantly collecting important data to inform decision making. What matters is how we respond to the data we receive.

The most exciting outcome of these studies for me is that intuition may be improved over time. There’s hope for me after all!