How Praxis Changed My Life

I remember coming home from the career fair in tears. The room had been full of sleek HR reps looking for students with all the majors that couldn’t be farther from my own fluffy Liberal Arts degree: Engineering, Finance, Chemistry. Some of them almost laughed when I handed them my resume with feigned confidence. The only people who showed any interest were the insurance companies and telemarketing farms.

I was a failure, doomed to sell my soul and answer insurance claims for the rest of my life. Sure, I was good at writing research papers and winning grants from dead rich people, but what good was that in the real world? I wanted to do something important that would make a difference, yet I had no idea where to even start.

A few weeks later, I attended a very different event. A friend of mine dragged me out of bed on a Saturday morning to attend the Students for Liberty regional conference at Duquesne University. I reluctantly went along, skeptical that anything good could come of it.

After listening to a lineup of doomsayers preaching about the futility of politics and the coming collapse of the economy, a speaker came up with a different tune. It was Isaac Morehouse, giving a talk about how entrepreneurship can change the world. He explained that we can have hope for the future if we look at what has been effective in the past—namely, technologies that connect people and let them experience freedom without engaging in debate.

He spoke about a business he was starting called Praxis, which offered a program for young people seeking to create an entrepreneurial career. The idea was to fill the disconnect between hardworking, ambitious young people with no connections in the workforce and startups starved for fresh talent. He believed that young people needed to get experience working in real jobs before they could have any idea what they wanted to do with their life. College was about as effective for career preparation as reading a book about bike riding would be for learning to ride a bike. And there was nothing shameful about changing course when you realized you were on the wrong path. You didn’t have to surrender your life to a soul-sucking corporation. You could design the life you wanted to live by viewing yourself as a startup and creating a job for yourself.

At the time, these ideas contradicted nearly every piece of career advice I had ever gotten. But they resonated with something deep inside of me and ignited a spark of hope about my future. They revealed a path where I was in the driver’s seat instead of sitting on a conveyor belt.

At that point, Praxis had not even launched their first class. Nonetheless, I followed my gut and applied. Then despite discouragement from family and friends, I decided to begin the program as soon as I graduated from college.

I started the program in June 2014 still lost and confused about how to design a fulfilling career for myself, but hopeful and determined to figure it out. 12 months later, I completed Praxis with new life goals and a clearer path to get there, as well as the tools and confidence to handle whatever challenges life throws at me along the way.

Over the course of the program, I learned that surrounding yourself with people who inspire you can transform your life. I learned that I never want to be the smartest person in the room. I learned that it’s okay to change your mind and admit you were wrong, even about the most fundamental beliefs—and that I only want to be around people who will embrace that change. I learned that sometimes the most effective way to change the world is to become the truest, most fully alive person you can be and wait for others to follow your lead. I learned that life without creativity is meaningless, because we might as well be robots. I learned to accept the fact that there will always be people who criticize me and dislike me, so I might as well speak my truth without shame. And I learned that I must never stop learning for as long as I live.

I still have plenty of doubts and fears about my future, but unlike before, I now fully believe that I am capable of creating the life I want to live and making a difference in the world. I understand that the change must start with myself, so I am committing myself to a series of personal development projects to develop my creativity as well as pursuing some daunting challenges through my work.

Thankfully, I’m not doing this alone. For the first time in my life, I truly belong to a community of passionate young people and mentors who are embarking on similar journeys. I can feel the contagious energy as each person becomes more alive and more true to their self, lifting others up with them as they climb, and I realize that this is what the world needs more than anything else.

Below the Surface

I want people who write to crash and dive below the surface, where life is so cold and confusing and hard to see. I want writers to plunge through the holes–the holes we try to fill up with all the props. In those holes and in the spaces around them exist all sorts of possibility, including the chance to see who we are and to glimpse the mystery.

The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake or the secluded, camouflaged hole. The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away or step around the brush and brambles; then we can dance around the rim of the abyss, holler into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in. It can no longer swallow us up. And we can get on with things.

– Anne Lamott

 

Writer’s Block

Anne Lamott describes writer’s block perfectly:

There are few experiences as depressing as that anxious barren state known as writer’s block, where you sit staring at your blank page like a cadaver, feeling your mind congeal, feeling your talent run down your leg and into your sock. Or you look at the notes you’ve scribbled recently on yellow legal pads or index cards, and they look like something Richard Speck jotted down the other night. And at the same time, as it turns out, you happen to know that your closest writing friend is on a roll, has been turning out stories and screenplays and children’s books and even most of a novel like he or she is some crazy pot-holder factory, pot holders pouring out the windows because there is simply not enough room inside for such glorious productivity.

She then provides some advice for coping when it feels like you have nothing worthwhile to say:

All the good stories are out there waiting to be told in a fresh, wild way. Mark Twain said that Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before. Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and drams of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning…Everything we need in order to tell our stories in a reasonable and exciting way already exists in each of us. Everything you need is in your head and memories, in all that your senses provide, in all that you’ve seen and thought and absorbed. There in your unconscious, where the real creation goes on, is the little kid of the Dr. Seuss creature in the cellar, arranging and stitching things together. When this being is ready to hand things up to you..you will be entrusted with it.

Filling up the Emptiness

I worry that Jesus drinks himself to sleep when he hears me talk like this. But about a month before my friend Pammy died, she said something that may have permanently changed me.

We had gone shopping for a dress for me to wear that night to a nightclub with the man I was seeing at the time….I tried on a lavender minidress, which is not my usual style. I tend to wear big, baggy clothes. People used to tell me I dressed like John Goodman. Anyway, the dress fit perfectly, and I came out to model it for her. I stood there feeling very shy and self-conscious and pleased. Then I said, “Do you think it makes my hips look too big?” and she said to me slowly, “Annie? I really don’t think you have that kind of time.”

And I don’t think you have that kind of time either. I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it, and I don’t think you have time to waste on someone who does not respond to [your writing] with kindness and respect. You don’t want to spend your time around people who make you hold your breath. You can’t fill up when you’re holding your breath. And writing is about filling up, filling up when you are empty, letting images and ideas and smells run down like water—just as writing is also about dealing with the emptiness. – Anne Lamott

I love how she uses personal anecdotes to illustrate broad concepts. I believe that works as a great structure for a blog post.

Bird by Bird is one of those books that I want to keep drinking in forever. I wish my cup would never run dry, so I could continually quench my everlasting thirst for wisdom and beauty.

Clearing the Smog

The process of writing has transformed the most mundane parts of my life.

Now, when I go to the grocery store, I don’t have to resent the people ahead of me in line whose carts are stuffed full of “food” not fit for any living being, and the cashier who’s taking 10 times longer than necessary to ring up said garbage. Instead of angrily brooding over all the more productive ways I could be spending those 20 minutes, I can detach from the scene and notice the details—why does the grumpy cashier wear so much purple eyeshadow? Why does she address everyone as “sweetheart”? Does she truly mean it as a term of endearment, or is it a habit she formed to imitate her mother? Perhaps, like the eyeshadow, the word brings some specks of joy into her drab day. Who did she dream of becoming before she surrendered her life and become a grocery store cashier? She probably had a hard childhood.

I find myself lost in the narrative in my head, consumed by my imagination. This new perspective makes life so much more pleasant.

Anne Lamott says it well:

So much of writing is about sitting down and doing it every day, and so much of it is about getting into the custom of taking in everything that comes along, seeing it all as grist for the mill. This can be a very comforting habit, like biting your nails. Instead of being scared all the time, you detach, watch what goes on, and consider it creatively….You take in all you can, as a child would, without the atmospheric smog of grown-up vision.

Jealousy

Today in my reading Anne Lamott explained how she came to terms with her jealousy of more successful writers:

I started to write about my envy. I got to look in some cold dark corners, see what was there, shine a little light on what we all have in common. Soetimes this human stuff is slimy and pathetic—jealousy especially so—but better to feel it and talk about it and walk through it than to spend a lifetime being silently poisoned. 

My Next Personal Challenge

Today I am embarking on a new personal development project which I will continue until the end of the month. It will consist of the following:

1. Every day, I will spend at least half an hour reading a book about writing or creativity. I will start with the remainder of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (which I highly recommend if you’ve ever struggled with creative endeavors). I have a few ideas for books that I’ll move on to once I finish that, but I always welcome your recommendations if you can accompany them with compelling reasons.

2. I will publish something on my blog every day. Unlike last time, however, these posts will not necessarily to consist of my own writing. They may contain something else, like a quote from my reading or a meaningful image.

3. Every Sunday, I will share something I have written on Facebook and other social platforms. It might be a previous post of mine that I have revised enough to deem it shareable, or it may showcase a new piece I have written.

This is the hard part for me. While I have largely overcome my fear of publishing my ramblings on a place on the Internet that is accessible to the entire planet, the thought of declaring to my hundreds of Facebook friends that my posts are worth reading greatly intimidates me. This is partly because much of what I have published so far is of mediocre quality (my last PDP required me to post my writing every single day for 30 days, leaving me little time for revision and polishing), but also because I’m afraid of the criticism and misunderstanding that may result from my diverse audience.

I believe that half of great writing is revision, so allowing myself the time to step back and take a fresh look at my work, along with the high standards I have for my Facebook posts, will push me to write material of higher quality.

4. I will write in my personal journal every day. I believe that it’s important to have a place to write that is only for yourself—a place where you can spill everything that’s on your heart without fear of judgment. Maria Popova of Brainpickings writes that journaling grants us “unfiltered access to the rough gems of our own minds, ordinarily dismissed by the self-censorship of ‘formal’ writing.” This daily ritual will help me to continue to reap the benefits I experienced from my last project of writing daily.

Through the process of journaling and allowing myself more time for revision, I’m hoping to take Anne Lamott’s advice about “Shitty First Drafts”:

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.

Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

You won’t be able to hold me accountable for the last one, but for everything else, I appreciate your feedback.

Finally, I want to say thanks to TK Coleman and the whole Praxis crew for inspiring me to push myself out of my comfort zone.

Conclusions

One month ago, I committed myself to a Personal Development Project where I would have to publish a blog post every day for 30 days.

Today, I’m finished! And pretty darn happy about it.

When I first started, I was dreadfully scared. I had tried blogging before but was always paralyzed by my perfectionism and the fear of what people would think if I published something that wasn’t funny, insightful, original, and eloquent—all at the same time. This time, though, things were different. The accountability I gained from my mentor and from having posted about the challenge on Facebook gave me the motivation to push through the fear.

At the beginning, coming up with something to write about every day was surprisingly easy. I got into a nice groove where I would write every morning after my walk. It was a great way to start the day with something that made me feel accomplished. Later, when other priorities started to take precedence and I had to travel for work, I lost the habit, and writing became more difficult.

It was during those difficult times that I gained the most valuable insight: even when I think my well of inspiration has run dry, if I force myself to sit down and write and actually take the time to dig deeper, I will eventually hit water. It might be just a trickle of slimy groundwater, but at least it’s something, and then I can nurse it into a worthwhile post.

I also learned that life gets a lot more interesting when I have to constantly keep my ears peeled for ideas to write about.

All in all, I’m glad to have completed this challenge. I’ve come to enjoy the process of writing a lot more, and I believe it will be easier for me to post in the future. I do not, however, plan to continue blogging daily. I would rather take more time to polish my writing so that I can provide real value for my readers. Daily blogging is more of an exercise for the writer than anything else.

That said, I’m immensely grateful to the faithful few who have read, commented, and kept me accountable through this process.

I have an exciting new PDP planned for the month of November, so stay tuned!

Suicide

I saw a poster today advertising a “Walk to Stop Suicide.” “You can make a difference,” it said.

How is taking a walk going to change the minds of people who think their life has no value? More likely, it’s going to convey the message that having suicidal thoughts means something is wrong with you, and you should be ashamed of yourself. It’s going to further marginalize the people it claims to help.

You know what might actually make a difference?

If we were to start encouraging others to be open about how they really feel. If we didn’t always expect them to have a positive mindset. If we were accepting of depression, grief, and anger, and stopped avoiding them like ebola. If we acknowledged that it’s normal to be depressed sometimes—and that many of us have had suicidal thoughts.

That way, people would realize that they’re not all alone in this.

A few months ago, an acquaintance of mine committed suicide. Although I had never even met him in person, it came as a great shock to me, because he was in a similar place in life as I was, and we had numerous mutual friends. As I discussed the event with these friends, some powerful revelations came to light: nearly all of them, including myself, had at some point dealt with suicidal thoughts. Yet we had suffered in silence, because it’s not okay to talk about that. It’s that lonely suffering that is the most dangerous.

Knowing that others are struggling with similar troubles eases the burden. And once you can talk about these things, you start to find solutions. You realize that life is indeed worth living.

Discrimination

Children are people too. No matter how young they are, they should be treated with the same respect that you would show any other human being.

If a friend of yours picked up something you thought he shouldn’t be touching, would you snatch it out of his hands without a single request or word of warning? If he walked into a room in your house where you thought he didn’t belong, would you pick him up and carry him into another room (if you could)?

Then why do we treat children like this? Just because some people are smaller and less experienced than us doesn’t mean they deserve any less respect.

Certainly, there are times when children need to be protected from danger—the same way you would grab a friend if she was about to be hit by a car.

Children need the chance to make messes, to get hurt and learn from their mistakes. They have an incredible inborn capacity to avoid danger. It’s only when we expect them to get hurt that they will tend to do so.

It’s no wonder we’re all traumatized and chronically lacking in self-esteem. If our parents and caretakers never trusted us to take care of ourselves, how would ever learn to trust ourselves?

I have witnessed this philosophy of parenting applied, resulting in the happiest, most responsible child I’ve ever seen. When I interacted with this little boy, I had to resist my impulses to snatch things from him. Instead, I had to get more creative in my approach. He was only 16 months old at the time, but I figured out ways to ask him for permission or explain why he something was a bad idea. It took a lot more effort than simply forcing him to comply with my wishes, but I could immediately see the difference it made.

The respect you show children will grow into the respect they have for themselves.


 

For more on this topic, I highly recommend reading The Continuum Concept.