Friday, 25 April 2014

We Grow Through Pain

One of the adages that I try to remember when the going gets tough is pretty simple. A close family friend first said it to me and it’s only four words long:

We grow through pain.

It’s easy to remember, it’s a little more comforting than Nietzsche’s “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, and most importantly, it’s 100% true.

Think about the life stories of famous people, of your family and friends, and of yourself – what stands out the most? Sure, definitely the happy moments and successes are what keep us going. But how do people really learn about themselves? How do they grow and mature into the people they are today? From personal experience, it’s been through the tribulations and challenges that I discovered the most about myself.

Transitioning from university to the working world, I spent sixteen months travelling and teaching ESL in Asia. For the first year, I was living in South Korea, and had the absolute time of my life. I was working with other foreign teachers and made fast friends, my students were excited and curious, and the city was dynamic and easy to get around. Life was, in a word, a blast.

When my contract was up, I decided that I didn’t yet have Asia out of my system, so I chose to extend my time in Asia and try teaching somewhere new: China.

Without sounding too melodramatic, the four months I spent in The People’s Republic were absolutely miserable. My school placed me in a slum apartment with roommates I couldn’t relate to, I was sick constantly from the food and the pollution, my students were little hell-raisers, and I just couldn’t seem to make friends.

One day, while on the hour-long commute home from my school, I just about broke down. I had been sick with a sinus infection that wouldn’t go away, I was so incredibly frustrated with my students for constantly being disrespectful, and I knew I was going home to my apartment where my horrible roommates were lurking. In that moment, I wanted to be anywhere else in the world than as the only foreign face on that congested subway car. On top of that, it was a few days before Christmas and I was so unspeakably lonely and homesick that I wanted to curl up into a ball right then and there. I remember trying to Skype with family and friends back home to get some comfort, but my internet connection was so terrible that conversations simply weren’t possible on a regular basis.

Safe to say, others have faced much, much tougher challenges than that in life – let me make it clear that I’m aware of that! But at that moment, I had never felt more lost.

In the face of my predicament, the thing that saved me in China was reading. I decided that if I was miserable with my surroundings, I’d read as much as possible about other places I wanted to be in. So, with the help of my e-reader, and authors like Ernest Hemingway, Haruki Murakami, and W.O. Mitchell, I was transported to the streets of Paris, Tokyo, and small-town Canada. It was a much needed escape.

I only lasted four months in China, but I survived. At the time, I felt trapped and completely alone, but I made it through. I learned a lot of different things, like how to navigate through a sea of people on rush hour trains, how to order food with only hand gestures, and how to feel totally lost and make the best of it. I wouldn’t exchange that for anything.

I recently caught up with a friend and was recalling some of my stories from China. In this particular tale, I was explaining how I had ordered some food on the street and couldn’t determine what I was eating – was it chicken? Fish? Lizard? Rat? It could have been any of the above, but my insides told me it was the latter. At the time, it was a truly traumatizing meal, but in telling the story to my friend, we both had tears running down our faces from laughing so hard.

From this experience, I’ve realized that it’s the struggles in life that provide us with the opportunities to push ourselves – to see what we are really capable of.  While in China, I learned a lot about what makes me happy and what makes me miserable, and what I can do to get by. To be sure, feeling overwhelmed, lost, and lonely are nothing new to the human condition – but having to deal with these issues, on my own, made me more resilient.

I now also have a great cocktail party story about how I ate rat in China.

For further reading, check out the article called “What Suffering Does” by the NY Times columnist, David Brooks, who inspired this post.

Friday, 11 April 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the theme of last week’s blog post, which was the importance of being open to new experiences as means of letting inspiration into your life.

I tried to follow one of my own suggestions from the post (I have to practice what I preach!), which was to regularly keep a journal, even if it was just a couple of sentences each day. Doing this reminded me of how much I actually enjoy personal writing, and how I haven’t done enough of it in recent years. As a result, I’ve signed up for a writing workshop in Toronto later this month – let’s see if being open can finally get me over my writer’s block! I’d really love a lightning bolt of inspiration right about now, but something tells me that’s not going to happen without some effort on my part…

I read an article this week from called “The Difference Between Doing What You Love and Loving What You Do” by Brianna Wiest, which really struck a chord with me. The author argues that striving to make a career out of your passion might not necessarily be the most rewarding or realistic endeavor. She asserts that there is a finite difference between “doing what you love” and “loving what you do”, but that following one or the other doesn’t have to affect your happiness and life satisfaction.

On the one hand, doing what you love could mean following that dream that you’ve had since you were young, and turning it into a money-making career (easier said than done).  “But,” writes Wiest, “loving what you do involves taking something else — plucking from the proverbial sea of somethings that you already enjoy doing — working hard on it, creating a professional pathway, seeing it to a lucrative end and being happy because your love for it grows. This is the kind of career that will grow with you.”

What Wiest is getting at here is openness. Not everybody has a passion, necessarily, but everyone has activities that they enjoy doing to different degrees. It doesn’t have to be a huge, overarching passion; it can be something small. A mini-passion. Do you like to bake when you’re stressed out? Enjoy taking photos when you have the time? Or do you have fun designing websites for friends now and then?

What about taking those little activities you like, and being open to exploring them further? Maybe you never thought of them as a viable career option, but just see where they take you. It’s time to stop thinking, “if only I could do X, I would be happy”. It’s time to start finding positives in what you’re already doing, and building from there. You might be surprised where things take you. What do you think?

Friday, 4 April 2014

Who isn’t looking for a little more inspiration in life?

Whether you consider yourself to be an artsy, creative person, or if you relate to things more scientifically or analytically, everyone needs a little bit of inspiration on a regular basis. New ideas are what motivate us to challenge ourselves, be it in our personal lives or in the workplace or elsewhere.

But where does this inspiration come from exactly? Is it tangible or immaterial? And how do we harness it? Does inspiration just hit you over the head, when you least expect it? Maybe, it does, if you’re lucky. However, Colleen Albiston, a leadership and management specialist, thinks differently.

In a recent article, she writes:

Inspiration comes in countless forms, but sometimes you have to consciously set aside time to allow it to happen. This may sound counterintuitive – after all, isn’t inspiration supposed to strike us like a lightning bolt with an “a-ha” moment or an out-of-the blue idea? Sometimes it does, but we can also seek out opportunities for inspiration.” (Read full article here:(

Albiston goes on to say that to take advantage of inspiration, you need to be open. That can mean constantly trying to expand your circle and interact with new and different people. Or, it can be as simple have having an open mind to an alternative way of thinking or a foreign concept.

To expand on the article, I think that being inspired is an active, rather than passive pursuit. You need to give yourself permission to try a new activity, read a different author’s work, or to strike up a conversation with someone outside your circle. It can take real, conscious effort to be inspired, and you have to set time aside for it, even if it’s just for a few minutes each day. While ideas can come out of thin air, the best ones come with real effort.

Here are some active ways you can try to get inspired over the next week:

-trying a restaurant in your neighbourhood that you've never been to before
-keeping a journal, even if it’s just writing one or two sentences each day
-picking a random book at the library and cozying up with it
-chatting to a stranger for more than five minutes (not online, but in person!)

How do YOU get inspired?