midlife clarity

Beginning Again vs. Starting Over

The thing I love about working with my coach, Meg, is that she steers me toward some real discoveries and Aha! moments. She laughed yesterday as commented that it can sometimes take me 45 minutes into an hour-long session for me to unearth a useful nugget, but the value of the discoveries are always worth the time it took to excavate them. I may share more about the major "find" from yesterday's emotional dig, but I am still unpacking all that it means and how I will work through it. Something else came up in our meeting yesterday , though, and it led me to write this post.I think one of the hardest parts of making meaningful change is breaking away from old, often lifelong, habits and behaviors. I don't know what those habits are for you, but, in my case, it's weight loss and a poor body image. Poor body image kind of speaks for itself. Weight loss, however, is kind of a catch-all. More specifically, I am talking about food choices and portion control, physical movement, and identifying and addressing triggers that lead to (or allow for) poor choices.

Something has been nagging me for quite a while is the challenge of making commitments or intentions stick. I feels like the proverbial "one step forward, two steps back" scenario. I get all excited about making a food plan for a week. Go to the store and purchase all that's needed. Two or three days later, I'm sitting in a slump, full of guilt after eating two veggie hotdogs and some oven-baked Ore-Ida fries. How did that happen? Ugh! Ok. Get your shit together Matthew! Shake it off and start over.Here is the rub with my idea of starting over. It means that I am going all the way back to zero.I never thought about how this thinking or mindset has created, or added to, a sneaky defeatist attitude. I never realized that, somewhere in my psyche, knowing that I am going back to zero has discouraged me from trying. I get tired of taking steps toward a healthier me only to find myself back at the starting line again...and again...and again. I thought about a quip by that wise sage, Homer Simpson, "Can't win. Don't try!" Sometimes I would even find myself saying that I am on the path toward healthy eating and consistent exercise, only to self-sabotage by not practicing portion control or not pushing myself to be challenged on my bike rides or during gym workouts.As I talked through this dynamic with Meg, she reminded me that I should give myself space and permission to begin again. It was in that moment that I revisited a concept by Mark Nepo -- life is about a "practice of return."

"Being human is to always be in return: to sacredness, to wakefulness, to the fact that we’re on the same journey, alone and together. We’re safe, then afraid. We’re calm, then agitated. We’re clear, then confused. We’re enthusiastic, then numb. We long for the moments of lift and run from the moments that weigh us down. But the inescapable rhythm of life lifts us and weighs us down by turns, just as the ocean swells and dips with each wave. When we lose our way, each of us is challenged to discern and embody a very personal practice of return -- to what matters and to what has heart."

Living a healthier lifestyle and taking better care of my body matters to me, and I feel my practice of return is what allows me to keep trying. With that said, I never gave thought to the cumulative emotional toll of starting over. Back to the starting line. As I talked to Meg about how this dynamic hallowed me out, I stopped for a moment to question how I viewed this pattern. The more I thought about it and talked it out; I almost stumbled into a fresh perspective on rebounding from poor decisions.I had to ask myself: Why does beginning again mean completely starting over? The short answer was/is: It doesn't. I have spent years throwing the baby out with the bathwater every time I made a choice that didn't serve my goal(s). I would completely discount the progress, no matter how small, and figured everything that came before a mistake was part of the road to failure. I had to scrap everything and start anew.

Yesterday it hit me that not viewing a poor choice in isolation has been a significant reason why I feel, under the surface, that I am incapable of truly being healthy and physically fit. I have joked with friends about how I have exhibited an all-or-nothing interest in things (situations, beliefs, faith, people) over the years. It only dawned on me yesterday that this mindset is what is shaping my approach to a healthy lifestyle. I hit one obstacle or roadblock, and I fold up the tent and go back to what soothes my wounds: eating and lethargy.I know it is going to take time for me to establish a mindful practice of return so that I know the difference between beginning again and starting over. I have to truly embrace the notion that a poor choice -- whether on day 12 or 82 -- doesn't negate or invalidate all the work, progress, and experience gained in the preceding days. Making a poor choice is not an indictment nor confirmation that I am incapable of change and consistency. If flip it around, I have another chance to keep moving toward my goals again...and again.

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Pursuing Passion Can Pay Off

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I have been looking through old blog posts from my site My Name Is Not Matt to see which ones I'll repost here. I knew there was a video by Gary Vaynerchuk in a 2009 post that I wanted to carry over. It's something that resonated with me at the time it came out because I was trying to figure out how to do more with my photography and wondered frequently if I should go pro and do photography a full-time. (It's funny how this seed was planted nine years ago.) Given my decision to leave my job and take time to tune into my "thing," a few people have expressed concerns about me giving up salary. I have never been driven by a salary figure, but do believe in receiving fare compensation for whatever it is I do or provide. I wasn't thinking about Gary's video when I made the decision to leave my job, nor I am all that focused on making more money than I do in the job I left. That said...what Gary talks about in this video is food for thought.http://youtu.be/ael5Hoqqryg

Thoughts on "Next"

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The most common question asked since I started telling people I was leaving my job at the FDA is ... "What's next?" I revealed that I don't know what's next. I am not taking a sabbatical. I am not formally retiring. I am not leaving FDA for another job. While some immediately understood, a larger number of folks openly expressed, or poorly tried to hide, disbelief, befuddlement, or incredulity. It was as if saying "I don't have a plan" simply did not, or could not, compute and threw a lot of people for a loop. 

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Say what now?! How can you not have a plan?

At the risk of alienating some of you, I have say that I think a lot of people are obsessed with "next." As I shared in my piece

I Demoted Myself

, I think a lot of us suffer from tunnel vision when it comes to our lives and careers. So often, we are future planning. Planning and plotting sequential steps needed to get us from point A to point B, C, D, and beyond. Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think there's anything wrong with having goals and knowing what's needed to reach a desired target. I guess it's fair to say that I am searching for my "thing." Some might call that looking for what's next. *shrug* I call it mental and emotional freedom.What I'm really talking about when I talk of "next," is about moving through life looking well beyond what's in front of us. Primarily focused on what's over the horizon. Not to get all Eckhart Tolle on you, but many of us are ignoring the

Power of Now

. We might be happy now, but we think we'd be so much happier if we --> over there. To quote one of my favorite authors, Mark Nepo, "We're chasing there, but need to realize there is no there. There is only here. If you cannot see what you're looking for, see what's here. That is enough."What I've found in my life is that primarily focusing on the next job, the next pay raise, the next purchase, the next whatever, I wasn't fully present and appreciative of what I already have. I heard recently that whenever we count or compare we cannot be present. The only thing we have control over is our presence or absence. So, I made a decision to not be absent from my life -- right now -- and the ones I love.Funnily enough, it took some amount of planning to make the decision to leave my job and move into an undefined period without a plan. While the obvious is financial planning, most of the work to reach this point was more emotional/psychological. After going through a divorce that wiped me out financially, I became a bit of a squirrel with money. I saved with no clear plan other than I wanted to have a "just in case" safety net. Never did I think that I would rely on my frugality to support putting a 26-year career in my rearview mirror. Of course, it has to be said that support from my wife was essential. I don't know if I would have had the courage, motivation, given myself permission to create empty space without her encouragement.In the end, I made the decision to step away from the pursuit of next so that I might discover what excites, energizes, and sustains. That may lead me toward something to occupies some or a lot of my time. Whatever comes, comes; but I hope to reframe whatever I do less in terms of full-time or part-time, but merely putting my heart, effort, and time into something I love. As a father to a 23 year-old son, I also hope that my actions will offer him some encouragement and freedom to only reach for what stirs his heart and soul.

Be okay with not knowing for sure what might come next, but know that whatever it is, you will be okay.

Creating an Empty Space

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I first started work in the Commissioner's Office at the Food and Drug Administration in May 2005. In the fall of 2008 I moved to a position in the Center for Biologics Research and Review. I'm not a scientist, but I played one at work. Just kidding, I focused on congressional affairs at FDA. A couple of years ago I took a position at the Center for Tobacco Products within FDA. It was unquestionably an upward career move. A promotion. Greater responsibility. Greater visibility. A larger staff. Increased pay. By all accounts, moving into this position was making the best of it. Within a few months I was undeniably miserable. I left the position after eight months. After leaving that job, I returned to the same job I had before the promotion. I wrote more about that experience in a piece called "I Demoted Myself."

Being back at the old job was great. It was familiar and I had great support from the leadership of the office and a fantastic staff. Maybe this was the best of it. After about a year back in the old position, I decided to sign up for a 200-hour yoga teacher training. In my mind, the decision was purely personal. I wanted to improve my practice of yoga, and maybe offer some assistance to family and friends. About two months into the training (it was a program that met one weekend a month for eight months) I was moved by an experience in a class and decided that I wanted to teach. Not full-time, though. I completed that training, along with a second yoga teacher training, by June 2017. I secured the opportunity to teach two regular, weekly yoga classes. The teaching schedule worked well with my work schedule.

While this was going on last year, a position in my office, one step above me, was open. My boss had been promoted and was asked if I were interested in filling this position. I reflexively said yes and didn't think much about it after that. (The hiring process in federal government agencies can take forever.) Sometime last fall, the angst that didn't hit me when I turned 50 started to creep up. I wasn't sure that I wanted to take on the additional responsibility of the higher-level job, but I couldn't put my finger on why? Well...I could, but I wasn't willing to be honest about it. In the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year holiday, I did a lot of thinking and relied on my wife to help me put some shape to my thoughts and feelings. By the time my annual performance meeting rolled around at the end of January of this year, I had decided that my truth was that I was no longer interested in pursuing the promotion, and I was no longer interested in this job. It was again a moment of genuine honesty. More with myself than others. It was tough sharing this truth with my boss, who I adore. We both shed some tears during our discussion, but there was agreement and acknowledgement that this was my truth and a good thing

.A couple of months ago I had lunch with one of the senior leaders I worked under during the “promotion job” I'd left a couple of years ago. We talked about this and that, and I shared that I was planning to leave FDA for good. What was most illuminating about that conversation didn't hit me until much later. Unbeknownst at the time, it occurred to me that the decision to leave that job two years ago was really the beginning of me reaching this moment of clarity. Turning some mythical mid-life age -- 50 or whatever -- wasn't something that induced a crisis. Quite the contrary.

Instead of suffering from a Midlife Crisis...I am discovering Midlife Clarity.

Midlife clarity has less to do with accepting that life is short or without guarantees. Those truths are relatively easy to grasp. For me, midlife clarity is all about being true to my heart and finding comfort with no longer being willing to knuckle down to do a job I don't love or enjoy. Of course, I worked through the normal concerns of any middle-aged person -- mortgage, insurance, other obligations and benefits associated with a salaried job. I am not completely free-spirited, just yet. I spent months crunching numbers to see if it were feasible to have at least a year to step away from what I don't love in the hope that I could connect and get clarity about what fills my heart and brings me joy. Teaching yoga is definitely something that I enjoy, but I am not certain that it's something I want do full-time. In fact, part of this burgeoning midlife clarity is knowing that I want to move away from framing what I do as a full-time job or otherwise. I don't know if this resistance is something I've earned from toiling away at one type of work for almost 26 years, but I'm going to unapologetically assert ownership of my time and headspace.Thanks for reading. I will share more of my thoughts about midlife clarity in future posts, but for now I'll close with a quote by Dr. Rebecca Ray that really resonated with me.

 
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