Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Thoughts on Dreaming Big and Making It Happen

I don't normally do Q&A on this blog, but I received a really thoughtful set of questions that I think has wide relevance. Here's what she shared:

I'm not proud to admit it, but I often feel that I don't live up to my potential. For example, I got my master's degree in social work at considerable emotional, intellectual, and financial difficulty. My plan was to become a psychotherapist and yet four years later, I am still working in a psychiatric hospital doing case management. I don't really like where my career is right now but am not sure how to change it. I love to read and write but often find myself surfing the net or watching TV to zone out after a stressful day or during down time. I find it difficult to find the internal drive/motivation that you seem to possess in great quantity to be more productive and live up to my true potential. I'm wondering what drives you to push yourself and reach extremely challenging goals like creating a school, creating a community, writing a book and how you have the energy to do it when you are also putting so much of yourself into raising your son. Secondly, I would also love to see a post on how you arrived at your specific goals. Being home with my daughter, I've had a lot of time to think about where I want my career, personal life, family, etc. to be in the future and am having a lot of trouble figuring out what I want out of life and articulating specific goals to strive towards. How did you come to your specific aspirations/life goals? Especially, is there anything that has inspired your to dream so big for yourself and your family? For example, how did you go from being a Montessori teacher and having an interest in the Montessori philosophy/way of life to wanting to open up your own Montessori charter school? Also, I would love to hear more about how you have handled the emotional aspect of all you have taken on. You have talked about the fear and anxiety you have experienced, but I would like to learn more about where you find the strength to manage these difficult emotions and whether you ever get time for yourself!

What challenging questions! Let me take them one by one:

What drives me? Several things. First of all, my biological father never wanted to have anything to do with me (he was older, he already had another family), and so I think he left a deep hole inside of me. From a very young age, I became an achiever to prove to myself and others that I am worthy of love, attention, and respect. If I couldn't get it from my father, then I tried to get it from everyone else through achievement. Further, either because of nurture or nature, achievement is ingrained into the fiber of my being. I actually get pleasure from planning things and then doing them. Finally, this Mary Oliver quote resonates with me so deeply: "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" I'm driven to live my best possible life, while I'm here for this very short time. I am so thankful to all the people who came before me and positively impacted the world that I now live in, and I am eager to do the same for future generations.

How do I have the energy to do it while also raising my son? This answer is two-pronged: Doing things I love (i.e., pursuing my passion related to educational equity, building community, etc.) gives me energy. Most of the time. Sometimes it scares me. And sometimes I don't have the energy. On those days, I just take a nap or go to bed early.

How did I arrive at my big goals? That's such an important question. My college courses inspired me to actively want to make the world better. But I had several different passions that ignited my commitment to social justice: sex education, gay rights, and education. I started doing things in those areas: applying for a grant to study sex education, starting a gay rights group on campus, working in education as an AmeriCorps member. I tried to pay close attention to what made my heart sing. I continued to apply for opportunities that interested me (my mom has always told me that you should apply to everything and then make a decision about what you want to do rather than making the decision before you even apply). I applied for a Fullbright to study sexuality education in the Netherlands and I applied for Teach For America. I didn't get the Fullbright, and then I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to teach. I even applied for an extension on the deadline to matriculate (and then still replied late!). In that moment, I knew that choosing TFA would mean that I would be choosing education, and I wasn't ready to make that commitment.

But making that commitment has allowed me to focus. I get to infuse gay rights and sex education into the work I do with educational equity, but choosing a focus has allowed me to streamline my efforts.

I constantly apply the process of assess, analyze, act. I collect data about how it's going, reflect on my findings, generate "next steps," implement those next steps, and then start collecting data all over again. In other words, I'm constantly striving and seeking to improve myself and my situation. (Of course this approach has its downsides, as well. It's difficult for me to celebrate the positive sometimes, and I struggle to live in the moment.) Journaling helps me a lot, although I don't make nearly enough time for it. When I journal, I promise myself that absolutely no one else is allowed to read it. That way, it's just me talking to me. I find myself saying shockingly honest things. It's a great place to sort out what I really want versus what I think would impress other people. Making time for introspection has allowed me to craft a trajectory toward my goals. My work in college led me to AmeriCorps, which led me to KIPP, which led me to observe at a Montessori school, which led me to get trained in Montessori, which led me to teach, which led me to want to start a school that blends the best of all my experiences. In each experience, I paid attention to what was working and what wasn't and then made my next step accordingly.

As far as fear and anxiety go and where I find the strength to manage those emotions, I just make myself do it. It's really as simple (and as difficult) as that. I just take something scary (like "start a charter school") and break it down into the smallest chunks possible and write them on my to-do list. If anything on my to-do list is scary, I just give myself a little pep talk and remind myself that it's okay to be nervous on the inside, but I need to project confidence on the outside. If that doesn't work, I turn to my best friend or husband for help.

And, yes, I get time for myself! I'm with Henry 10 hours a day. He sleeps for about three of those hours. I use those three hours as strategically as possible. When Matt gets home, we share Henry-duty. Most of the time that means we co-parent. Sometimes, if I've had a really stressful day, Matt volunteers to take Henry somewhere so I can be alone (or lets me go off by myself). Henry goes to bed between 7 and 7:30, so I have several more hours every evening. Then on weekends, Matt and I divide the day up. He takes Henry for a shift, I take Henry for a shift, and then the rest of the time is Family Time. That way, both of us get free time.

Since bulleted lists are my friend, I'll try to extrapolate some of the things I've done over the years to find and pursue my passions and keep my energy levels up:

  • Find what you really want to do, not what other people want you to do or what you think other people want you to do. When I was in high school, I read a memoir called An Unknown Woman. I haven't read it in about 15 years, so I don't remember it clearly. But I do remember realizing that we absolutely must live our lives for ourselves. We owe it to ourselves and the world to live our most authentic life possible.
  • Expose yourself to as many possibilities as possible (through blogs, magazines, TV, etc.). Think big. Think creatively.
  • Try out different things (new classes, new opportunities, etc.) to see what resonates with you
  • Eat a healthy diet, exercise, stay hydrated, and get enough sleep! These things impact our energy levels and our happiness.
  • Be really strategic about time management
  • Avoid piddling away time on Facebook, TV, internet surfing, etc. (of course it make sense to use those things intentionally for down time, but they can be major time-sucks if you let them fill up all your waking moments)
  • Put a process in place for helping yourself reflect (such as journaling every night, drinking tea on the back porch while staring into space, etc.)

There are also life coaching books and websites that can help with the process of introspection.

Wishing you the very best!


LinkToday on 2000 Dollar Wedding: Sebrina's plan for making over a 1980s wedding dress.

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Gretchen said...

This was a fabulous post! It is definitely inspiring to hear your talk about your dreams and achieving them. It makes me realize that I can reach mine as long as I take the time to focus and plan accordingly! Keep it up!

Kerstin said...

Thank you for posting this Sara! And thank you to your reader for asking the questions I've been thinking for a long time now. I love the Mary Oliver quote. Here's to more dreams, plans, and achievements!

Catoctin Mountain Mama said...

I'm loving this post, as well as the one on your organization system for motherhood. Both are very, very helpful for someone who struggles with staying organized and focused. Thanks for sharing, I always appreciate your honesty and your willingness to make yourself vulnerable.

Meghan said...

I agree with everyone else that this is a great post, Sara. You're always so inspiring when it comes to big goals and working toward achieving them, and it is really helpful to have your insights on how you stay motivated and committed and working toward them. Thanks!

Amy A. said...

Thanks for this! It's so helpful and inspiring to learn how you make it all work. I have started formulating some big goals for myself and and am getting excited to start the first baby steps toward making it happen! Please continue to write posts like these, Sara. You really are a great teacher.

Sara E. Cotner said...

Thanks, Everyone. I was really hesitate to publish this post because I wasn't sure that it was going to be useful or interesting. I appreciate your positive feedback! Amy, you should share your goals with us in the Feeding the Soil community! It's always inspiring to hear what people are up to.

Ellen said...

Grateful for all of your writing--for your thoughtfulness & honesty. I love your blogs! And yes, thank you particularly for this's very inspiring.

Rachel said...

I really love this post -- thank-you! I always leave here feeling challenged and like I've learned something that I can actually apply to my everyday life. I wish we lived in Austin (or that you lived in Australia) because I'd be very seriously interested in joining your neighbourhood and sending my son to your school someday!

Meredith said...

Thank you for this post! I find your blog so encouraging. Your big dreams and can-do attitude have helped inspire me to take action in my own life. I am now in the midst of my first week of graduate school studying elementary education and I'm so happy to finally be taking steps toward reaching my own goals!

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