2017, 2018, adulthood, judgment, life lessons, new year, psychology

Why 2018 Will Be The Year I Stop Caring About What I Deserve

It was a December in the late 90’s, and my school was on break for the holidays. I was spending the afternoon with one of my best friends and we were passing time as only kids know how. We were upstairs in the “play room,” whose prime open space had recently been colonized by her dad’s treadmill.

“How does this work?” I asked, already standing on the belt. My friend started to respond but I was too busy punching buttons. The belt was whirring, and I was jogging, then running, then sprinting, then flying, then—


“How do you turn this off?!” I screamed, clutching the sides of the machine. I don’t know if my friend responded or not, because I tripped and slid off the belt. The belt generously skinned a shin and both ankles on my way out.

With the belt still rotating in front of me, I just looked at my friend. Without saying anything, she pulled the emergency cord and left the room. Moments later she returned with bandaids. It took about twelve bandaids to fully patch up the wounds.

When I was done, we went down to the kitchen for a snack like any other day.

It didn’t take long for my mom to discover the scene of carnage that was my leg. After she forcefully learned the truth, she looked at me with piercing eyes and said only three words: “You deserve it.”

She wasn’t a monster though. She took me to my doctor the next day, which didn’t help the situation. “This will likely scar for life,” she told me and my mom. There they were again—the piercing eyes.


The concept that negative outcomes were “deserved” was one that was branded into my brain from an early age. It was my parents’ technique for teaching me lessons when I messed up. It was a “you brought this upon yourself,” mentality. A just-world hypothesis. In some ways, it also gave me an empowering sense of being able to control my destiny.  

The social and school life I lived as a child only validated these notions of meritocracy. If I studied hard and practiced hard, I could reap the benefits of good performance on exams, on the field, or on stage. Recognizing how lucky I am to have been able to experience this simple cause-effect relationship, my childhood world was a vacuum where I was convinced that I owned my fate. The only occasional curve balls came in the form of unexpected multiple choice questions.

While this mindset wasn’t altogether problematic during my childhood, its venom slowly seeped into my blood as I entered adulthood. The problem, of course, is that “real life” offers little of that cause-effect illusion. Having felt that I worked hard in college, I wondered what I had done to deserve the never-ending-tunnel of student loan payments ahead. In those “bad luck” moments like being mugged or tearing my ACL, I asked “Why me?” And during some of the most difficult years for my family, I cried myself to sleep with angry tears blaming life’s injustice.


There has always been a flip side to my self-blame for negative outcomes; it was the feeling that everyone else was well-deserving. “You deserve the world,” I often tell good friends when they experience small or big success, because I really believe it. They’ve put their mind and soul into something. “I can’t think of two people more deserving of one another,” I’ve said at friends’ weddings, because I really believe it. They’ve put their heart and soul into someone.

A few weeks ago as I walked to work, I let my mind wander. No music. No podcasts. My mind went to a good place—milling through multiple rays of light that had recently shown themselves in my  life. “What made this happen for me?” I asked. The correct answer would have been, “You deserve this.” But this thought did not cross my mind.

Later that same week, a colleague congratulated me the successful completion of a project. “Thank you, I responded. It was the perfect storm.” As the words came out of my mouth, however, they felt wrong. Because if I were attributing the job well done to someone else, I would have said, “The hard work paid off.” I would have said, “You deserve this.” In the movie of my life, this is the point where we’d flash back to my walk from earlier in the week.

In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error describes how we attribute other people’s behaviors to their dispositions (“that is just the way he is,”) and our behaviors to our situation (“I did this because of my environment”). As a tangentially related  (and non-scientifically backed) explanation, it seems that in my life until now, I’ve erroneously attributed negative outcomes to what I deserve and positive outcomes to what others deserve. When others succeed, I believe they deserve it. When they fail, I help them brush it off. When I fail, I wonder what I did to deserve it. When I succeed, I chalk it up to an army of external forces. 

This of course, is not right.

What I —what any of us—believe I deserve, should be fully detached from their situations or outcomes. What we deserve, instead, should be borne out of self-respect and self-worth. It should stem from the way we see ourselves. An outcome is just an outcome. We can just as well do something stupid and succeed as we can do something smart and fail. These outcomes don’t confer any judgment on what you as a person are worthy of, unless you let it.

In other words, neither I nor you always (or even often) get what we deserve, good or bad.

Jogging, running, sprinting, flying—panicking–into a new year and beyond, I don’t know what buttons life will press on its little machine for me. But I do know that I’ll be assessing their outcomes differently than I have before. Instead of attributing them to what I do or don’t deserve, I will be approaching them with the positive disposition that comes from self-appreciation.

I’m no longer getting skinned and thinking I deserved it. I’ve got a thicker skin now.

2017, injury, learning, recovery, soccer, teamwork

The One Thing That Nobody Tells You About Recovering From A Sports Injury

“Okay, when the whistle blows, I want you to fly down the sidelines. You’re way faster than their midfielder. We’ll send it to you from the middle, then send it back across the goal.”

I was standing on the sidelines during one of our final high school soccer games for the season, and my coach was walking me through plays before putting me back in. As I listened, I felt a sense of pride. Not a pride that comes with self-importance, but a pride that comes with being a part of something bigger. It wasn’t all up to me, but I was an important piece in the 11-person tapestry that represented our school on the field.

Having started playing at age 5, I always considered soccer one of my favorite activities—despite the fact that it was probably the one that I was worst at (and I had a lot of extracurricular activities). Regardless of my mediocre skill, I couldn’t let it go from my life—even after graduating the world of mandatory physical activity.

Me as goalie for the Orange Tigers (circa 1997)

After college, I continued to find ways to keep soccer in my life, often begging coworkers to play pickup with me after work, and eventually joining a Sunday morning rec league that became a defining part of my identity (or well, my Saturday-night-I-can’t-drink-I-have-soccer-tomorrow identity). I felt a sense of responsibility to my team. Despite whatever stressors or lows were in my personal or professional life, the Sunday soccer field was always there to give me perspective beyond the bounds of my life. 

The new daily routine

When I tore my ACL during an unforgettable game last spring, I was concerned about how drastically my day-to-day would change, and how difficult the journey ahead was going to be. Not being able to play soccer for at least eighteen months was an obvious consideration, but at that point it was only because a significant part of my routine would be stripped.

For the first ten months after Surgery 1 of 2, my journey was long but unlonely. Family kept me alive immediately after; friends showered me with love soon after, and physical therapists motivated me to build strength for many months that followed. But after that, once I was visibly fine and mostly strong, there were no more check-ins with family, friends, or physical therapists on the matter. All that was left was the cold monotony of a leg press machine at the gym.

The longtail of gym selfies

Running has always been my solo sanity. My nerves and mind run wild while my body does. So at Month-3 after Surgery 1 of 2, I was elated to start running again. And with my sidelines full of cheerleaders, I felt well-supported.

Two months ago, seven months after Surgery 2 of 2, I started to feel light again—life was back to “normal.”

Sharing solo runs

As I went through my day-to-day, slowly embracing the pieces of my routine that had been cast away during recovery, I was happier. But still, something felt off. And it wasn’t just the occasional knee pain. It was a deeper, empty pain.

The most common advice I received on ACL surgery was to keep up with physical therapy. And I had done that. But none of the advice had mentioned this darker pain.

On a Sunday morning at the end of October, I went for a run. I passed by a group playing pickup basketball and some people clad in similarly-colored athletic gear. That was the moment it hit me—I was a part that was missing its whole. I needed a team again.

After in-depth internet research, I found and joined a running group. Our first run was the following Tuesday along the Embarcadero. We were told the route, and everyone started at the same time. One veteran of the group took me under her wing and ran with me for the entire time. Somewhere down the line, I was surprised at how much I was enjoying the company during my historically solitary activity.

Shared runs

When we got back to the starting line, we stretched and waited for the rest of the group. When everyone had made it back, we went inside to drink water and eat strawberries. It took me back to the post-soccer-game celebrations with orange wedges and Capri Suns. I mingled for a bit before going home.

One month later I saw a familiar face standing behind me in line to board a plane from Toronto to San Francisco. “Did I meet you in a running club?” I asked with uncertain certainty. It was him, and we bonded over the small-worldness.

We talked as we boarded the plane. As I wrapped my knee before takeoff, I felt something I hadn’t since before my injury. Finally, I felt like I was part of a pack again.

I always knew there was no “I” in “team” but through my injury and recovery, I’ve learned that unexpectedly, there is also no I without a team.

2017, family, family vacations, grateful, Thanksgiving

How A Simple Notebook Got My Family On the Same Page This Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays to spend at home with my family. Though my parents no longer live in my childhood home, and though I no longer live 2000 miles from home, there’s still something nostalgic about my homecoming, spending the whole day together in the kitchen, and ending it sitting around the “fancy occasion” dining table of my youth.

This year, however, my family spent Thanksgiving week in Montreal and Toronto (where, notably, Thanksgiving was celebrated last month). I was not thrilled about the travel. I enjoy family vacations, but they invariably bring out our worsts. For example, although our last vacation included a helicopter ride over dormant volcanoes, all I remember is the volcanic eruption of emotions as my mom and I argued in an all-too-small hotel room. (Does that sound like paradise? Because our vacation was in Hawaii.)

I didn’t want our Thanksgiving to be tainted by the worsts.

After losing the battle of whether or not we travel at all, I started to brainstorm ways in which I could guarantee a week we would all be grateful for. I found the answer nestled in one of my favorite psychological principles around gratitude and happiness.

I texted my family the week of the trip asking them to commit to an experiment, and all (almost unquestioningly) agreed.

We met at the airport the morning of the trip. Gathered around a coffee shop table, I announced the two-part experiment:

  1. Outside of flying and drive days, we had four full days in Toronto and Montreal. Each person got to own one day. They could plan it however they liked, and only had to tell us the plan the night before.
  2. Each person received a Gratitude and Grievance Notebook™. Whenever they liked or didn’t like something, they were to write it down in the notebook. We would air gratefulness and grievances each night before looking ahead to the next day.

Takeoff and landing were smooth, but things started to get turbulent as we waited for checked bags. It was late; we were all hungry. The carousel took forever and when we finally exited baggage claim, the group disbanded in every direction. My brother found a phone to call our airport shuttle while I searched for Uber pickup points. My mom walked off in an unnamed direction, and my dad was nowhere to be seen. I could see my brother’s temper rising, and just when I thought he would boil over, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his Gratitude and Grievance Notebook™. “Where’s my pen?” he asked in half-jest. “Follow all posted placards and signs,” he wrote as a grievance (which become a repeated grievance for my mom’s habit of walking off in random directions). I lost it—in a good way. Laughing uncontrollably, I finally got us a ride, we walked across the airport to get in it, and we were on our way.

A critical moment was during our first night, when we established our routine of airing gratitude and grievances (importantly both). The rest of the week, you often heard questions like, “Where’s my notebook?” or “I need to pack my notebook,” or “No this notebook is only for gratitude and grievances.” The notebook became a daily necessity and it was often someone else who commenced the evening ritual of sharing notes.

With each person owning and planning a day, this collaborative moment also allowed for sharing feedback and setting expectations around things we historically fight about in moments of hunger or fatigue—what to eat, how to get from one place to another, when to be ready—the simplest things.

Though plans changed each day, overall, we hit everything on every person’s list, from eating plush bagels and climbing Mont Royal on my brother’s day to taking a family photo at the top of CN tower on my mom’s, to a sibling run, visit to a history museum, and family-prepared Thanksgiving meal on mine, to finally, a Christmas market, art museum, and bookstore on my dad’s.

On our final evening, we discussed grievances for the day—and the week. On this night, unlike the first, there was more gratitude than grievance, and my mom was already planning our next vacation. Of course there had been occasional disputes (usually regarding whether to walk or Uber) and one intense conversation that was unavoidable whether we had been traveling or not. But these were each washed away with the airing and closure of each day, leaving us all with nothing but rosy retrospection.

On the plane back home, I asked each person to reflect on the effect their Gratitude and Grievance Notebook™ had on their vacation experience. For me, the notebooks afforded a platform through which my family could express their feelings in a healthy way (a skill we often lack). They also introduced humor to moments that are historically tense (for example, someone announcing, “Oh my god. I need my notebook,” while everyone else joked about what they might be writing down). The notebooks also gave us a way to thank one another and appreciate little moments that are typically taken for granted. For example, my mom’s Day 2 gratitude, “I like that you made a list and took us to the grocery store. It set us up well for snacks and the Airbnb.” That was enough for me for the week (and was especially helpful when my mom aired her grievances on how I lost my credit card and driver’s license on Day 6).

Now, back home, while I have my lists from the past week, my gratitude can all be summed up in one word: family. I’m grateful for family members that are passionate about their individual views, but come together as a unit when it matters most. I’m appreciative of a family who is open to trying new things. I love that we are light-hearted enough to try simple tricks for increasing happiness and harmony. And I feel lucky that each person leads, first and foremost, with empathy. And while this has likely been there all along, perhaps it is not something I would have recognized while sitting around that dining table from our youth, during a routine Thanksgiving meal.

2017, books, dogs, language, San Francisco

Why, 25 Years After Its Invention, My Gibberish Childhood Language Doesn’t Feel So Silly Anymore

When I was five, I invented a gibberish language. It was only spoken, with few rules. Just lots of sonority—a melange of short vowels and palatal and bilabial consonants (“Jabashow oum abishish?”). The language was less about communicating messages, and more about communicating emotions. I never spoke the language as myself, but as my alter ego. I assigned characters to my parents and brother (my brother’s character was named Starlings), and insisted that whenever one person prompted it, everyone else spoke the language in character. And I was not the only one to prompt our gibberish-speak. The lengths my parents went not to stifle my creativity was tremendous.

Though I can’t pinpoint the exact date, my language, much like the Ethiopian Mesmes or Oklahoman Osage, went extinct.

Puppet Pepper

Shortly after the extinction of my language, my childhood dog Pepper was born and brought into our home. It only took a few months before my family and I were speaking for her—and through her. We gave her a high-pitched lispy voice and whenever we shared “her” thoughts, it was in this tone. Really, they were our own thoughts and emotions. My gibberish language had been excavated and revived as Pepper’s voice.

Though they (literally) sounded silly, the gibberish language and my dog’s voice were essential communication tools in my family. Being laughably poor at communicating our emotions, the silliness gave us each an approachable vehicle to do so. It was through Pepper’s voice, for example, that my dad told me that Pepper (really he) would miss me when I went to college—and through Pepper’s voice that I responded.

On Monday night, I attended Eileen Myles’ book reading for their new, Afterglow (a dog memoir). The narration leaps between their late dog Rosie’s and their point of view. One of the readings was from a chapter in which Rosie is a guest at a puppet talk show. The surrealness of the setting was entertaining, as was Eileen’s gestural reading of it (including their performance of Rosie moving her butt into her chair and getting comfortable).

Eileen Myles at City Lights Bookstore

One puppet, Oscar, interviews Rosie, and both commiserate about their plight of dealing with humans. Oscar describes the discomfort of a human hand entering him and forcing him to say what he wouldn’t otherwise, words that often are at odds with his beliefs. Humans are always speaking and deciding for dogs, too. Oscar goes on to criticize humans for their obsession with self-importance. The puppets have come to Rosie because they believe that puppets and dogs must band together to outnumber humans. 

Through the Candide-esque satire of this scene, Myles delivers their powerful critique on modern society.

Taking questions from the audience after the reading, Myles compared this work with their previous ones—poems and personal memoirs. “This book actually has substance,” they half-jested. “Previous ones were just about my life. So when people reviewed those works, they eventually turned into criticisms of me and my life. But this one is a dog’s point of view. Rosie’s. Now critiques are actually about the book and the writing.” The silliness of this dog memoir effectively delivers a serious message in a way unlike any of their previous works.

Young Linguist, L; Starlings, R.

Whether in the form of a gibberish language or fantasy, embracing silliness suddenly seems like an effective vehicle for earnestness. And as I reflect on it, I’ve recently observed it succeeding around me—a coworker wearing a glittery bug antenna headband when it’s time for the team to focus; a friend partially hiding her face behind a ludicrous monkey doll while describing a new routine in her current battle with depression.

There is a lot of serious stuff happening in the world, and likely in your personal and professional life as well. It can be all-consuming. Maybe the puppets are right. Maybe we can occasionally loosen up, while still effectively communicating our platforms. In the right moments, consider finding your way to buoy the heaviness. In doing so, you might find that you can get away with a lot less hand-waving.

2017, grit, plans, winning

Why I’m Changing The Way I Think About My Plans–Both Big And Small

Recently, I attended a wedding in Fort Myers. Yes, this Fort Myers, the one that Irma visited just weeks prior to that. On the phone with the bride two weeks before the wedding, I asked her how she was feeling. Having been hit hard by the hurricane, the wedding venue was closed down for repairs. Recognizing the first-world-problem-ness of my question, I assumed my friend was struggling with the reality that her meticulously planned weekend would almost certainly not go according to plan. And when you (ideally) only have one wedding, that’s a difficult reality to accept. “The only person that should be freaking out is me, and I’m not. What can I do?” She responded. “Bring your swimsuit,” she joked. “In the best case we’ll hang at the pool, and in the worst, the whole wedding will be under water.”

My friend wasn’t just playing it cool. She is genuinely cool about riding life’s waves, even, as I’ve learned, when they come in the form of a hurricane. Now, she could only try her best to put the pieces back together.

I am the opposite of cool when it comes to these types of situations.

For as long as I can remember, I have struggled when my plans, both big and small, have fallen through, even when (and this is most frequently the case), the outcome was not fully in my control. The thrill that some seek in spontaneity, I seek in a good plan well-executed. So when things don’t go according to plan, my heart becomes heavy with disappointment. I analyze how I might have behaved differently in order to have achieved the desired outcome. For me, a fallen plan is the mark of a failed planner—a failed me. This misconceived schema is largely driven by my “do or do not, there is no try,” upbringing. Growing up, my plans were smaller, and most of the time, I did have complete control over them. Performing poorly on an exam meant I hadn’t planned enough time to study. Failing a piano lesson (and my piano teacher was very generous in handing out failing grades) meant I hadn’t planned enough time to practice.

I started reading Hillary Clinton’s What Happened shortly before my trip to Florida. I haven’t yet finished it, but talk about things not going according to plan. The memoir starts with Hillary at President Trump’s inauguration, and the introduction explains her rationale for writing the book—to share candidly with the world why, in her opinion (and as the title suggests), what happened happened. After believing she would win—planning to win—she now has explanations, confessions, reflections, and realizations (and sass). She wants to discuss the mistakes and misfortunes.

At first, the book was painful for me to read. Painful for obvious reasons, but painful also because it is one big debrief on a plan that went awry. Despite years of planning, years of preparation, years of explicitly and implicitly pursuing activities that qualified her for the job, she didn’t get it. It’s painful to know that nobody is superhuman enough to kill the Wrench that kills plans. It’s painful to be reminded of life’s massive unpredictability.

But as I got further into the book, I started to settle in. In a chapter about why she ran, Hillary cites lines from T.S. Eliot’s East Coker, a poem she has loved since her teenage years:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

She writes, “In the nearly fifty years since, it’s become a mantra for me and our family that, win or lose, it’s important to ‘get caught trying.’ Whether you’re trying to win an election or pass a piece of legislation that will help millions of people, build a friendship or save a marriage, you’re never guaranteed success. But you are bound to try. Again and again and again.”*

I appreciated her inclusion of both personal and professional instances of trying.

Since reading the passage, I’ve pushed myself to think beyond my academic notion of failed plans to what I rationally know to be true: If most of life’s outcomes are indeed uncontrollable, I shouldn’t be celebrating wins and cushioning losses as if I had any control. Success is in the intent. And failure is not in the plan or in the planner, but in the lack of trying to achieve.

In the twisted complexity of our modern world, “try” is more of an option, and often, the best option.

One thing we can all learn from Hillary, whether we supported her or not, is how to push forward past the plan when it doesn’t come to fruition. How to look back critically, but without self-blame. How to cope with the fact that the plan was just a plan.

Because Hillary, like my friend, knows better than to be married to a plan.



*Clinton, Hillary Rodham. What Happened, Simon & Schuster, 2017, pp. 57.