This is embarrassing for me to say, but I’ll just say it.
One time, I wanted to cancel a big speaking engagement because I thought I was “a little too chubby.” You know, maybe five extra pounds over my “usual” weight. I knew they’d be filming the event and I didn’t feel “ready” to appear on camera.
“Maybe next year… I’ll be ready.”
I caught myself thinking those words. I knew, in that moment, how completely ridiculous I was being. My mind was like a runaway train heading straight into body-shame-hell and I needed to jump off.
Intellectually, I know that I am allowed to step onstage, and that I deserve to be seen, whether I weigh 90 pounds or 900 pounds. It makes no fucking difference.
Intellectually, I know that I am creative, talented, beautiful in all the ways that matter, and that my stories matter, too.
I know all of those things. And also, I am a human being with human emotions, not a steel-plated confidence-machine. Sometimes, my thoughts go a little screwy. Sometimes, my brain whispers, “Have I reminded you lately that… you suck? Just wanted you to know.” It’s absolutely crazy how our brains can trick us, sneaking in with insidious thoughts at the most inconvenient moments. You know… like the night before you’re supposed to speak in front of four hundred people. Thanks a lot, brain!
Here’s what I’ve learned about myself:
Whenever I’m stepping up to a new challenge, my brain always tries to convince me to wait until “later.” My brain tries to convince me that I’m not “thin / fit / strong enough” yet, that I don’t have “enough time,” or that “next summer would be better.”
No. Next summer would not be better. Next summer will come along with its own set of rationalizations and excuses. The right time is right now.
I’m proud to say that I didn’t cancel that speaking gig. I wanted to, but I didn’t. I talked myself through that bleak, bizarre moment of body-loathing. I put on my favorite outfit. I got onstage and I told my story. The audience thundered into applause. I stepped offstage and I cried with relief. Afterwards, multiple people came up to me to say, “Thank you so much for saying what you said.” Privately, I thought to myself, “And to think… I almost canceled the whole thing. Thank God I didn’t.”
Whatever you’re about to “cancel” or “postpone” (I know there’s something) please don’t. Just don’t. Be brave and charge forward. Who cares if you’ve got a pimple? Who cares if your body doesn’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model? Who cares if your Masters degree isn’t finished yet? Who cares if your website isn’t completely perfect yet?
If there’s a project that you want to complete — a project that’s going to touch people’s hearts, change people’s minds for the better, or help people feel stronger and less alone — then the world needs your project NOW.
Please don’t delete yourself.
Please don’t flake out.
Please don’t cancel.
Not for any reason, and especially not because of how you look, or how you think you’re supposed to look. Don’t let the mean voices inside your head win. Let love win. Let art win. Finish your project and stop the pattern of canceling on yourself.
Canceling is officially canceled.
Earlier this week, I got an email from someone who wanted to know:
“How can I find my purpose?”
This person feels lost and directionless.
She’s so tired of searching, wondering, and “not knowing.”
Yup. I’ve been there. I spent many years comparing myself to my parents (both very high achievers), to my older brother (a Grammy Award-nominated musician) and to my super-successful friends (who all seemed to have things “figured out”). I wanted to discover my purpose so badly. I would journal, walk, think, vent, meditate, ruminate, and stress about it. On multiple occasions, I literally burst into tears of frustration.
Then one day… I realized that you don’t “discover” your purpose. You don’t “uncover” it. You don’t “find” it. You just pick something and you do it.
Here’s what I mean:
1. Think about something that bothers you.
Maybe “online bullying” bothers you. Maybe “poorly designed websites” bother you. Maybe “animal cruelty” bothers you. Maybe “boring dinner parties” bother you. Maybe “seeing talented people stuck in the wrong type of career” bothers you. We’re all bothered by something. What irritates you? What makes you groan? What breaks your heart?
2. Ask yourself, “What’s a cool project that I could do to help ‘solve’ this issue that bothers me?”
Maybe you could do a fundraiser. Maybe you could write a book to change people’s hearts and minds. Maybe you could invent a new product. Maybe you could teach a “lunchtime class” for your colleagues at work. Maybe you could record a 10-episode podcast series. Maybe you could do a letter-writing campaign. Figure out a project that sounds interesting to you. Map it out. And then…
3. Promise yourself that you’ll complete this project, no matter what.
Completing this project is now… your purpose.
That’s it. Get bothered. Come up with a project. Work on completing that project. And then once you’ve completed that project, then ask yourself, “OK, what else?”
Living “purposefully” can be that simple.
“I can’t put that story on my blog. It would break my mother’s heart…”
“Nope, I can’t say that because it involves my ex-husband and he would flip out…”
“Yes, it’s an important story, but it involves my son, and I want to protect his privacy…”
Maybe similar thoughts have been running through your mind?
These are very common — and completely valid — concerns. Whether you’re a fledgling blogger or a bestselling author, most likely, you’ve grappled with this dilemma at least once.
Just this week, I encountered this dilemma with three different clients. They said to me:
“I have a story that I want to share. It’s a story that could potentially inspire a lot of people. But if I tell this story on my blog / in my book / in that magazine / onstage, then I might hurt or offend someone that I love. What should I do?”
This is a tricky pickle. Every situation is different and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But if you’re grappling with this situation, here are some things to consider…
– Not every story needs to be told publicly.
You’re allowed to decide which parts of your life to make public and which to keep private. Maybe you want to write a blog post about how you almost flunked out of college, or maybe you don’t. Maybe you want to write a memoir about how you found the strength to walk away from an abusive marriage, or maybe you don’t. You get to decide.
Just because people keep insisting, “Oh, you’ve GOT to tell that story!” doesn’t mean you have to. It’s your life. It’s your writing. It’s your body of work. You’re in charge.
That being said…
– The story that is the “hardest” for you to tell… is probably the story that will change people’s lives.
There’s one story that I tell almost every time I teach a writing class or a retreat. It’s a story about a mom who emailed me, out of the blue, to ask if I’d write to her teenage daughter to give her some encouragement, because her daughter was going through a rough time at school. It was an email that ended up changing my entire life.
Every time I tell this particular story, I cry. Every. Single. Time. It’s not an easy story for me to tell. It’s raw and it’s humbling. It’s a story about why it’s important to keep writing, keep making art, and keep doing your work, even if it seems like “nobody is paying attention.” Because you might be completely wrong about that. You might be impacting people in ways you don’t even know about. Without realizing it, you might be saving someone’s life.
After telling that story onstage for the first time, almost everyone in the room was crying along with me. People stayed afterwards to say, “Oh my God, I needed to hear that…” and “Thank you so much for saying that…” and “I can’t stop thinking about what you said.”
On that day, I realized that when you tell a personal story — especially a vulnerable, uncomfortable story — it breaks down the invisible barriers that divide us. Hearts open. Tears fall. Decisions get made. Stories = powerful magic.
If you decide that you’re going to tell a personal story in a public setting, remember…
– You can tell your story truthfully — without trashing other people in the process.
You can maintain dignity and compassion for the other people involved in your story. There’s always a way to do this — even if you’re talking about someone who completely broke your heart. Even if you’re talking about the worst thing that ever happened to you.
You don’t have to say, “One time, my idiot asshole ex-boyfriend Kevin once said to me…”
You can say, “One time, a man that I loved said to me…”
You can omit people’s names. You can omit specific dates. You can omit identifying details, like cities and business names.
You can keep the story focused on yourself by using phrases like “I felt…” “I reacted by…” rather than focusing on other people’s actions: “She fucked up…” “He ruined it…”
You can write from a compassionate, reflective place. You can forgive people — and you can express that forgiveness in your story: “I know my mom did the best that she could…” “He thought he was doing the right thing…” “He was in a great deal of pain, which explains his unthinkable actions…”
The Dalai Lama says:
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
And lastly, on that note…
– Always check your motivations before you hit SEND or PUBLISH.
Before you share a personal story in a public setting — online, on the page, onstage — ask yourself, “Why am I telling this story?”
Are you telling this story because you’re still very angry and you want to “shame” someone for what they did? (Maybe… wait a bit. Let your emotions simmer down. Don’t say something you’ll regret tomorrow morning when you wake up with an “overshare-hangover.”)
Are you telling this story because you have unresolved emotions that you need to vent and purge out of your body so that you can feel better? (Maybe save that for your private diary or your therapist’s office.)
Or, are you telling this story because you have a specific message that you want to share? A message of hope, a message of transformation, or a sentiment that might help someone in the audience to feel less afraid and less alone?
If that’s your motivation, then go for it. Click “Send.” Hit “Publish.” Step up to the mic. Tell your story with pride, because your motivations are in the right place. Your audience will feel your intention shining through — and they’ll be grateful you found the courage to say:
“So, this one time, this happened to me…”
Last year, a woman named Fatima attended one of my writing workshops.
She’s a hardworking mom, entrepreneur, and artist. She’s the type of woman who fills an entire room with warmth and light, just by stepping inside. She arrived bearing gifts for everyone in attendance — beautiful handmade cards that she’d created herself. “I know you love snail mail,” she told me. “Maybe we could use these cards to write love letters.”
Fatima happens to be Muslim.
According to President Trump, people like Fatima are dangerous and should be banned from entering America for at least 90 days, and possibly much longer. Muslim refugees — people fleeing persecution and violence, people desperately seeking a new life — should be banned. Because they might pose an immediate threat. That’s what Trump says.
The only “threat” here is racism, religious intolerance, and narrow-mindedness. Personally, I feel “threatened” by people like Trump. Not by people like Fatima.
Let’s look at the facts. Statistically, “The odds of an American dying as the result of an act of terrorism carried out by a refugee is a minuscule 1 in 3.64 billion in any given year.” You are more likely to be killed by texting and driving, by a falling vending machine, or by a dairy cow than by a radicalized Muslim refugee terrorist. Think about that.
I’m disgusted by Trump’s #MuslimBan and no, I won’t keep quiet about this. At every possible opportunity, I’m going to share how I feel. At dinner parties. At the gym. Online. Everywhere.
I urge you to do the same.
You have fingers, a keyboard, and Internet access. Use these privileges. Say what you really feel. Don’t be silent or hope that somebody else will “say it for you.”
If you believe that banning people from a company, city, or country based on their faith is wrong, then say so.
You have a voice. Use it.
You have a conscience. Let it guide you.
You have a heart. Your heart is not stupid. Listen. Act accordingly.
PS. Here are some specific things you can do to stand up against the #MuslimBan.
PPS. “For out on the edge of darkness there runs the peace train. Peace train, take this country. Come take me home again.” Those are song lyrics from the anti-war anthem “Peace Train” written by Cat Stevens. (Did you know? He’s Muslim, too.)
Years ago, I took a long, meandering walk through the streets of New York City with a woman I deeply admire. She wasn’t my “mentor” — not officially — but she cared about me, and she generously offered advice whenever I asked for it. She also happened to be a powerful writer with a distinctive, unforgettable voice, and a massive international fanbase.
So, you know, when a woman like that invites you to take a walk, you take a walk.
As it turns out, one walk can change your entire life.
“Tell me about your blog,” she inquired.
I’d recently started my very first blog, and I was pretty proud of it.
“Oh! I’m having so much fun,” I responded breathlessly, eager to impress her. We arrived at an intersection and paused for a red light. “I’m posting recipes that I like, and lists of books that I’ve enjoyed. Also, every week, I do a ‘link round-up’ where I post a bunch of links to various blog posts and other things that have inspired me.”
She nodded. “Uh huh, and what else?”
I gave her a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”
“What else are you putting on your blog? What else are you writing about?”
I didn’t understand the question. Hadn’t I just explained everything that was going on my blog? I stared awkwardly at my feet. The light turned green. We crossed the street, weaving through the crush of pedestrians. On the other side, she smiled at me, and said,
“Alex, nobody’s ever won a Pulitzer Prize for doing a ‘weekly link round-up.’ You should be writing about your own life. You should tell your own stories, not just re-hash other people’s work.”
I almost started crying, right there at the corner of Intensely Busy St. & Blaring Taxi Horn Ave., because I knew she was right.
I thought about her advice for the rest of the day. Actually, I’ve thought about her advice every day for the past eight years. I decided to accept the challenge that she’d issued.
I started writing (awkwardly and shyly) about my own life. My love stories. My break-ups. My foray into self-employment. My thoughts on discipline, motivation, and productivity. My brushes with illness. My set-backs and darkest moments. I took everything that had ever happened to me, extracted the lessons I’d learned, and poured everything onto the screen. Over time, my blog evolved from “a place where I celebrate other people’s creative work” into “a place where I showcase my own body of work.”
Look, I still love reading — and writing — “link round-ups” from time to time. I still publish a couple on my website every year to this day. There’s nothing “wrong” with scouring the Internet for cool resources and compiling them into a fun list. That can be a lovely creative project, and your readers will probably enjoy your list very much!
However, with a capital H…
Just like my unofficial mentor said to me, all those years ago, “What else?”
What else do you want to say to the world?
What are the life experiences that have shaped your identity, and that have taught you the greatest lessons? Do you ever talk about those experiences publicly? If not, why not?
What are the stories you’d like to tell online, and perhaps in books, on the airwaves, and onstage? What’s hindering you from telling them?
How do you want to be remembered when you’re gone?
Would you like to be remembered as someone who “made a lot of really great lists and posted them on the Internet very frequently”? Or as someone who told honest, personal, courageous stories that gripped people’s hearts and touched people’s lives?
I know. It’s a lot to consider. Keep percolating about all of this as you’re meandering through the streets of NYC, or London, or Boise, or wherever you may be today.
Everyone is different. Every writer has her own goals and ambitions. If you enjoy “making lists” and that’s all you ever want to do, that’s totally groovy and you should do whatever makes you happy.
But if there’s a little voice inside of you that’s whispering, “There’s ‘more’ I want to say…” or “I wish I was brave enough to tell THAT story…” then I encourage you to listen to that voice, because it’s popping into your mind for a reason.
What else? What else? What else? Keep asking yourself that question.
Instead of rummaging through the Internet looking for things to re-post onto your blog, maybe, just for this week, just as a little experiment, rummage through the chapters of your own life. Rummage through the story of how you got your first job. The story of how you met the love of your life. Or that time that a close friend betrayed you and broke your heart. Or the story of how you finally learned to speak up. Rummage through the archives of YOU. That’s where you’ll find your best material. That’s your goldmine.