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You are not a dumbass

[ 8 ] November 30, 2011 |
A man--repeating his mistakes?

Image by richiedogg1981 on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Do you keep making the same mistakes over and over? Sometimes it seems like the harder we scramble, the deeper we dig the hole we’re in. But giving up obviously won’t get us out either. What can we do?

For me, the mistake I’ve been repeating for the past few months is forgetting what I came here for. I don’t mean when I walk into a room (although that does happen occasionally). I mean when I think about my life.

Since I quit my job, my big struggle has been between conflicting desires: my ambitious desire to write books, run workshops, and do absolutely everything now now now ~ vs. ~ my desire to enjoy my life. That’s not to say I don’t love my work, but when I drive myself at the pace of all-out ambition, I can’t enjoy my work because I’m just too dang tired and overwhelmed. I had summarized the problem as “make enough money to support myself, or be happy?” What to do, what to do?

This is a false dichotomy anyway, but on top of that, every time I picked happiness, I’d immediately forget and go back to working like my hair was on fire. This happened over and over, and it was wrecking my creativity and my productivity. (Let’s face it, work done while exhausted is rarely great work.)

I felt really stupid about the whole thing. How many times was I going to keep making the same mistake? Three times a week for the rest of my life? What the hell was wrong with me? I felt like a complete dumbass.

As I was lamenting this to my awesome coach, Jonathan, he said five of the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard: “You are not a dumbass.” We all have to keep choosing the life we want all the time, or we get off track.

Oh! I was assuming something was wrong with me!

I think a lot of people tend to assume that. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I ____? How does everyone else have it so together, and why can’t I do the same?

If you feel that way, let me pass on the words of joy and wisdom. There is nothing wrong with you. If I learned anything in all the interviews I did for Beyond Fear, it’s that nobody has it all together. Everybody struggles, everybody doubts, nobody knows all the answers.

When you watch other people and it looks like everything they touch turns to gold, you’re not seeing the whole picture. It’s like the proverbial duck: perfectly calm and serene above the water, and paddling like mad underneath. You don’t see all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into other people’s successes; all you see is the glorious, triumphant outcome. When you compare that to your struggles, of course you feel inadequate.

I don’t know what your personal area of dumbass-feeling is, but here are a few things that I’ve learned in overcoming mine. Maybe they’ll help you, too.


Worrying and trying to control everything is a fast way to use up a lot of energy with very little reward. I’m still training myself out of these habits.

Do it your way

After I quit my job, I read tons of advice on how to run your own business. There was a lot of stuff on setting schedules, working in short bursts, keeping your work separate from your personal life, keeping normal business hours, getting up early, and setting routines to create structure. I’ve never done this before, and these people had, so I figured they must know what they were talking about. But when I tried to follow their advice, I just stressed myself out even more. I don’t like a lot of structure, and I hate the interruptions that are required to chop a work session up into short bursts. But I was afraid to skip these things for fear of burning myself out.

Finally, I was talking to Molly Mahar, and she told me that the way she does it is to work like mad for a week or two, and then take a week off. That’s her routine, and it works for her. I was like, “whoa, that’s allowed?!”

It’s totally the opposite of any of the advice I’ve read or seen anywhere. In fact, when I talked to her, I had just read a book about work addiction that said working in binges and then checking out and vegging (my favorite way to work) is sick, sick, sick. Having Molly as living proof that it’s ok to work any way I want made me feel incredibly better. I stopped worrying about doing it wrong and focused on finding what works for me.

Take care of yourself

People always say you have to make sure you get enough rest, eat right, and so on, but there’s also kind of an entrepreneurial mythos about killing yourself for your business. In fact, our whole culture seems to glorify being too busy to take care of yourself.

With all the work I was doing, I never felt like I had time to do more than the minimum for myself. Yeah, I meant to get enough sleep, eat right, exercise, and shower every day, but it didn’t always happen. After months of working that way, I hit a wall and couldn’t make myself work at all for a week or two. I was just so exhausted!

When that happened, Jonathan told me to go for a walk in the woods every day. That was my only assignment for two weeks. As much as I had been longing to walk in the woods, doing it every single day wasn’t easy. It gets dark early in Alabama, and it seemed like I’d always notice the time an hour or two before sunset. I’d realize I just had time to get a walk in, but what I really wanted to do right then was take a nap or keep working.

Since it was my prime directive, I made myself go anyway, and when I got there, I’d walk the long trails if that’s what I wanted (and there was enough daylight left). Before, if I made it to the woods at all, I’d scrooge myself into a short trail so I could get home and get back to work.

This may not seem like a big deal, but for me it was a major mental shift to decide that there was always time for a long walk if I wanted one, no matter what else was going on. I think that shift was a crucial one. It represented the decision that I come first: I love myself even more than my work, and I am truly committed to taking care of myself.

Since that shift, I feel much more balanced. It’s almost as if I stopped trusting myself after months of neglect and broken promises, and now I’ve restored that trust. Life feels much better, and I’m drawn to my work again.

Make a list

I often find myself facing the day, buzzing with nervous energy. When I feel that way, it’s usually because I’m trying to remember (and do!) a lot of things that I want to get done today.

The problem is, I often have 10-14 things I want to get done, and I’d love to get them all done today. Human brains can only hold about five things at one time (plus or minus two).1 That means if I try to keep my list in my head, I’m constantly swapping things in and out of memory. I waste energy trying not to let any of them slip through the cracks, and I never see the whole picture, so I never realize how completely impossible it is to do all of those things in one day.

If I just sit still long enough to write them down, it becomes obvious. Unless they’re five-minute tasks, nobody can do 18 things in one day! When I recognize that and prioritize, I feel the relief of not having to try to remember everything any more. I also feel the relief of letting go and being more realistic about what I can accomplish in a day.

Do what’s most important

You have a ton of stuff to do and you know it won’t all get done. You’ve probably also realized that the only things you can really count on getting done are the first two or three things in the day. At least, that’s how it is for me. So it makes sense to do your most important thing first.

I know this, so why do I always want to check my email or get on Facebook first?

I’ve tried that enough times to know that email is not a “warm-up” for work. If I don’t want to lose several hours into the vortex of shiny objects, I have to do a good work session first thing after breakfast. I am not at all rigorous about what I do–I don’t get up early, I don’t work out, I read the paper and spend time with my cat before I get to work, I work in my pajamas most of the time–but I am rigorous about one thing: I do not touch internet stuff before I’ve done a good solid work session on my highest impact task. When I break this rule, I suffer. When I honor my morning session and walk in the woods as sacred, I feel good. The rest of the day can be whatever it needs to be if I have those two as constants.

As I’ve figured these things out, I feel much more balanced and comfortable in my life. It feels like things have fallen into place, like when you suddenly go from wobbling around and almost crashing every second to riding your bike. That probably means I’m ready to start making a new mistake over and over again. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy resting on my non-dumbass laurels while I can!

If you’ve learned anything that’s helped you break out of your mistake cycles, please share in the comments!


1 Your Brain at Work by David Rock. Harper Business, New York, 2009, p. 21.

(This book is about how your brain works and how you can use that information to work more efficiently. I found it absolutely fascinating.)

About Cara Stein: I'm a Breakthrough Coach and Creative Director On Demand. I'm also an idealist who has stopped trying to play it cool. I offer alignment, clarity, and unshakeable belief in yourself—and then I help you bring your vision to life with great sales copy and graphic design.

Comments (8)

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  1. Paige Burkes says:

    I love this! I started a new job in October where I work from home at my own schedule. I’ve been floundering around trying to figure out ways that I can work, feel productive but do it in a way that works for my personal rhythms and desired lifestyle. It’s been a major challenge!

    Like you, I’ve been trying all the ways we’re supposed to work that don’t really work and create more stress (What’s wrong with me???). It’s so hard to break free of all the societal norms that we don’t even realize we live by. At least I’m recognizing them which is the first step in changing them.

    I’m so grateful for people like you who are showing me and so many others that we need to live by our own rules and not what all the books tell us.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thanks, Paige! I’m delighted this helped you. Sometimes I feel like I’m just being self-absorbed talking about this stuff, but it really seems like nobody else is, and I know I’m not the only one who imagined life would be perfect bliss once I finally sprung myself from my corporate life!

      Best of luck to you in finding a routine that works for you! Make your own rules! 🙂

  2. kara rane says:

    hi Cara~
    There existed a structure that ‘going to work’ allows people to feel accomplished,, even if all they do is sit in a cube & push cursors around. This is not normal or natural. Once this cage is broken you realize that work happens when you are at your highest self. And being that person requires self care, not crazy making business.
    Meditation and ‘play’ are the key to optimum productivity…walking in the woods too*!
    play more–>>

    • Cara Stein says:

      Meditation and ‘play’ are the key to optimum productivity…walking in the woods too*!

      Definitely! At one point I was totally freaking out and wishing I had time to take a vacation, but no, can’t now, too busy! One of my friends said, “Oh, you can’t stop to sharpen the saw because you’re too busy sawing, is that it?” Touche! It’s funny how difficult it is to see the importance of that stuff when you need it most.

  3. Laurie says:

    So much of this resonated with me, Cara! After working a “normal” job for years it can be unbelievably challenging to find your own pace and what works best for YOU. As an artist, I am not “on” all the time. I go for weeks without even wanting to look at my art supplies, and the thought of “working” just does me in. But there’s so much pressure to be productive, and it’s easy to slip into thinking there’s something “wrong” with you if your style of working is really different from what’s socially acceptable.

    I’m in the middle of Tia Singh’s “Inner Sparkle” e-course, and one of the prompts made me get truly honest with myself…nothing appealed to me more than to simply RELAX and channel my energy into something besides doing stuff to make money. I started asking myself regularly, “how can I relax right now?” and doing whatever came to mind. And the amazing thing is, since I’ve been doing that, everything has been falling into place for me, INCLUDING making money and creating new art!

    Our own instincts are always our best guide. ALWAYS!

    Thank you for once again kicking ass 🙂

    • Cara Stein says:

      Laurie, that is amazing! I definitely spend a lot of time afraid not to work and worried about where money is going to come from.

      Our own instincts are always our best guide. ALWAYS!

      I need to print this out in big, pretty letters and hang it on my wall. I’m always second-guessing myself and doing what I think I “should” do, rather than what’s calling to me. I have a hard time trusting my instincts/intuition. But embracing my wild ideas is what’s gotten me this far, so why not?

  4. Rebecca says:

    “so why do I always want to check my email or get on Facebook first?”

    That’s so true! I’ve been reading emails and checking Facebook for the past hour, even though my goal is to get a blog post written this morning. I really need to exert more self-control…

    • Cara Stein says:

      Hear, hear! I’ve given up on self-control–I just try to remove the temptation whenever I can.

      I hope you got your post written! 🙂

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