Author Archives: Mirjam van Olst

The Big Leap

We all have a maximum amount of success, happiness, and love that we think we deserve. If we surpass that perceived Upper Limit in any of those areas, we will do something that brings us down to a level that we feel comfortable with. That is the premise of The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks.

Do you know these moments when you are relaxed, have no urgent worries and are fully present? For a moment you can feel perfectly happy. Usually, that moment doesn’t last long. Our mind will start wandering and we’ll realize that we should be putting the thrash out, or water the plants. Or we start worrying about a work deadline.
What would it take to extend that moment of happiness?

When we are in a harmonious relationship and we feel an abundance of love for our partner, we find it very challenging to hold on to that feeling. We start looking for used cups left on a desk or stinky socks on the bathroom floor. Anything to give us an excuse to get into a squabble. Bickering will certainly pop the fairy tale bubble and get us back to reality, where we feel comfortable.

When we are financially successful or successful in our job we might make a rash investment or start criticizing our colleagues.
You get the idea.
The challenge of The Big Leap is to become aware of your upper limit problem and to learn to catch yourself when you are doing something, or even better, when you are about to do something, to bring yourself down in any area of your life.
The ultimate goal, or Universal Success Mantra, is to “expand in abundance, success, and love every day, as we inspire those around us to do the same”.

This might feel over the top and a bit too lofty to you. It does to me. But apart from the big shiny mantra, I do think Gay Hendricks has got us sussed out. We get in our own way to avoid having to live up to our full potential. We don’t believe that we are fast, strong, smart, or special enough to deserve what we secretly desire. We might not even know what it is that we desire.

Do you dare to dream big and out loud? What would you like to do, achieve, or have? Are you actively working towards getting there? Do you have a plan and have you reached out to people who might be able to help?
Writing this made me realize that the answer to most of these questions is “no” for me. The goals that I dare to admit I have are either modest or have been there for some time without significant progress to show for them.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m doing very well. I have a great job and I work for the best company in the world, I’m enjoying working out a lot and I’m reading more than I dare to admit here. But I already have all of these things and there’s an opportunity to push myself more.
I’ll share some of my goals or dreams to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

  • Run 10km in under 50 minutes. I’ve done this in the past and I can probably do this right now if I would be willing to suffer through it. I’m mostly scared of trying and the amount of suffering involved so I started another training program to get even more ready. I should think about aiming higher.
  • Balance in a handstand. Why? Just because. There’s a lot of work to be done on this one. I’m enjoying the work and I like the goal. Getting there won’t be life-changing but it’s fun.
  • Learning to play the piano. I started this 2 years ago. Having first heard and then told myself all my life that while I love music I have absolutely no talent for making music, I’m constantly battling a fixed mindset that tells me I will never be any good. It takes all my discipline not to write that while I absolutely love it, I’m still no good at it. There we go, I managed to sneak it in. I feel relieved but I’ll play worse because of it. A classic example of getting in my own way.
  • Write more. This has been a topic on and off for a long time. One of the actions I took to make this a reality was to start this blog four years ago. It was a good step. I’ve been able to improve my writing and I still enjoy the journey.
    I also regularly get to write for work, which makes me feel like I write “for the greater good”. Not for world peace or equality for all. But I get to represent the company and aim to get people engaged in an offering or an initiative, invested in a result, or excited about learning and growing together. I love that challenge and the clear purpose and flow that comes with it.
    I would still like to write more and I’m still stuck on not knowing what it is that I would like to write. Back to the drawing board. Or writing table.

So where does all this leave us, and me?
Reading The Big Leap with an open mind will get you thinking. Even if you don’t want to follow the author to the summit of the journey, the book can provide a proverbial kick up the behind to step out of your comfort zone and think about ways in which you can push yourself more.
Writing this post helped me to structure the ideas I had after reading the book and gave me some new insights. I will think about my next steps and I will challenge myself to be bolder in both setting goals and realizing them.

The Book Thief

The beginning of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one of heartbreak and despair. It’s January 1939 and we’re on a train that’s on its way to Munich. We’re traveling with a 9-year-old girl, her mother, and her younger brother. All of them are cold, sick, and hungry. The mother is bringing her children to a foster family in Munich in the hope it will give them a chance at a better life.
Unfortunately, the boy never makes it. He dies on the train.

The family is taken off the train at the next town by two guards. Two days later, the boy is buried there. It’s where the book thief steals her first book. It’s her most prized possession, even if she can’t read. Even if the book is a grave digger’s handbook.
After the funeral, the girl and her mother continue on the journey to Munich, where Liesel Meminger meets Rosa and Hans Hubermann, her foster parents.

The narrator of the book is Death. I don’t mean that the narrator died. The narrator is Death itself. Death was never far away in those years, so it’s quite convenient to have him narrate the book. He was there anyway. His unusual point of view gives the book and the story something special.

After the painful start, you expect the entire book to be full of heartbreak. That’s not the case. A significant part of the book is about learning to read, being a family, making friends, accordions, helping those who need help and making more friends.
I did read most of it with my teeth clenched, expecting the world to end any moment now. It meant that I had to pace myself through the book.

The book is beautifully written. But in the end, the world does end. Most of it anyway. The second to last chapter made me cry the most. It also felt awfully short. I wanted to read much more about it.
I wish I had known Liesel and Hans Hubermann and Max. They were able to create joy and beauty under terrible circumstances. They defied the harshness of the world around them and continued to be kind, to love music and reading and life. And they shared these gifts with others where and when they could. They gave hope in a hopeless time.

The Art of Possibility

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander describes twelve practices. As so often I was fascinated and inspired by the first half of the book. While most of the practices weren’t completely new to me, the build-up to them and the angle from which they are introduced made me feel excited about trying them.

I don’t think the practices in the second half of the book are less valuable. Maybe I was too impatient. Maybe I should have paused my reading of the book to let the meaning of it and the ideas in it sink in. Or maybe the practices that are discussed in the first half happened to have been closer aligned to the challenges that interest me most right now.

The chemistry between Ros and Ben is clear, even in the writing. The completely different angles from which they approach life and this book lift each other up. The back and forths are highly enjoyable and I wish I could have a conversation with the two of them. Their writing is joyous and inspirational. I hope they are as happy together as they seem to be.

The most important rule described in the book is rule number 6.
I’ll share the story that introduces rule number 6 in full.
Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: “Peter,” he says, “kindly remember Rule Number 6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws. The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again the intruder is greeted with the words: “Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.” Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology. When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: “My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?” “Very simple,” replies the resident prime minister. “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so seriously.”‘ “Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.” After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?” “There aren’t any.”

This might be a silly story but I know a lot of people who could benefit from rule number 6, myself included. The jobs most of us do didn’t exist a hundred years ago. We made them up fairly recently. Hunters and gatherers didn’t have “operations leads” (my job). And yet none of our ancestors ever wished they had or were an operations lead. Just this little fact should be a reason for me to smile at the silliness of it all when I get overwhelmed by the (amount of) work that I feel I have to do.

I tend to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. Not just in work, but in life too. To worry about everyone’s well-being. An especially daunting task these days. I tend to be very hard on myself when I feel I’m not doing a good enough job, when I’m not a kind enough person, when I don’t give everyone the attention that I feel they deserve, when I don’t go running enough, when I skip abs, snack too much, or go to bed too late.

It’s impossible to always be happy and patient and full of energy. The more you feel like you have to be all of these things all of the time, the quicker you’ll drain your energy and feel the opposite. Wouldn’t it be nice to treat life as a game a bit more? I’m saying this and immediately my mind goes to how seriously many of us even take games today. You have to fear for your safety if you support the wrong sports club at the wrong moment in the wrong place, which is ridiculous if you think about it. But let’s be optimistic for a bit.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m learning to play the piano. I’m not talented but I love it and I’m stubborn. Every time I sit down behind the piano it’s an opportunity for expression and growth. I can learn something new and get better. If I mess up I start over and try again.
We do the same when we’re playing a sport. When hitting a hundred balls on a tennis court some will be beautiful and others will end up at the bottom of the net. But each ball is an opportunity to try again and get better.
How much more fun would life be if we could look at it and ourselves like this? If we could allow ourselves to try things and be ok if they don’t work out. We try, we fall, and we try again. We hopefully learned something. No need to pull ourselves down.
Because if we never fail or mess up, we’re almost certainly playing it safe and that means we’re not growing.

I’m practicing to take life as it is, not as I think it should be. When I’m out for a run in the pouring rain – again – I can get frustrated and grumpy. That’s the easy response in that moment. And I can tell you, it’s tempting. But I can also accept the rain. Be grateful that I’m running. Laugh at my feet soaking in my shoes. Laugh at myself for insisting to go for a run despite the dreadful weather.
If I start from what is without fleeing, blaming, or attempting to correct it gives so much space and peace of mind. It saves buckets of energy and allows the sky to open up, at least metaphorically.

If you could use a nudge towards acceptance and positivity I highly recommend checking out The Art of Possibility. You’ll get to spend some quality time with Ros and Ben in the process.

Several Short Sentences About Writing

I’m writing about a book about writing.
I read about writing regularly because I’m always looking to learn something. In Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg takes the magic out of writing. He breaks down the art of writing into manageable chunks, better known as sentences. He assures us that we don’t have to effortlessly churn out large amounts of text to qualify as a good writer. Even good writers should write one sentence at a time. Many people assume that creativity and precision are at odds with one another. That there is a conflict between scrutinizing and revising your writing and allowing your writing to be interesting and original.
This is total nonsense. Even the most creative story is much easier and more pleasant to read if it’s written using strong and well-built sentences.

Klinkenborg warns against paragraphs that effortlessly flow out of your head straight onto the paper or screen. A paragraph like that probably contains one or more sentences that are cliché or redundant. It might sound tedious to write one sentence at a time, but to my surprise, I find it liberating. The task of writing one sentence doesn’t feel overwhelming. I can start writing without knowing what the result will look like.
I write a sentence. Then read it back in context. Then I think about ways to improve it. Klinkenborg also advises reading out loud. Reading out loud allows you to understand the rhythm -or lack thereof- in a text. If something sounds funny it needs reworking until there’s a flow.

Once you know how to write, the next question is at least as important. What to write about? The answer is as simple as it is challenging: Anything that interests you.
Unfortunately, we have been taught to ignore what interests us. We assume that others have already determined what’s interesting and worth noticing. We don’t ask questions because we don’t want to be seen as difficult. When I’m having a conversation, reading a book, or listening to a webinar, questions might pop-up in my mind, triggered by what I’m hearing or reading. Most of the time I’m not even fully aware of these questions. I don’t consider asking them. Sometimes I realize the missed opportunity later but just as often it doesn’t register at all.

I do notice things but I ignore them. I shelf them away immediately. My noticing is passive. I subconsciously assume that anything I notice will have been noticed by everyone else too. That the world has been completely pre-noticed, sifted, and sorted by everyone else, by people with real authority.
This is why it’s so hard to come up with topics to write about. Topics that are original are probably not worth exploring. Otherwise, someone more knowledgeable would have done so. Topics that others have written about are done and dusted. Who am I to assume that my opinion is worth expressing when more qualified people have already expressed theirs?

We need to learn to notice our thoughts and be patient in the presence of them. Don’t dismiss them. Pay attention to the ideas that interest us. Interrogate them. Do more research to broaden or deepen them. Take our time to discover and think.
Readers are like us. They will be interested in things that we find interesting. We need to muster up the courage and the audacity to guide them on the journey through our ideas. One sentence at a time.

The Only Plane in the Sky – An Oral History of 9/11

The Only Plane in the Sky is a compilation of stories about the attacks on September 11, 2001. There are stories from firefighters who fought fires at the World Trade Center in New York on that day. Over the next few days, they searched for survivors. Finally, for many weeks or even months, they searched for bodies. There are stories from spouses of the people who fought the hijackers onboard American Airlines flight 93. And from the airline employee who checked them all in earlier that day. Some people from the press corps traveling with President Bush that day share their experiences. And there are stories from kids as young as 5 years old. They all talk about how they remember that September 11 and how it has influenced their lives since.
The author, or rather the compiler of the book, is Garrett M. Graff.

I was 21. I remember where I was. I had my own company and I was designing and building a web application. I was at my colleague’s (and friend’s) house. I was on my own. I don’t remember what triggered me to turn on the TV. When I saw the fire burning in Tower 2, I thought a terrible accident had happened. I saw the second plane fly into Tower 1. I was confused. Were they showing a film on CNN? I could not believe that someone would intentionally fly a plane into a building. They flew three planes into three buildings before the day was over. It would have been four if it wasn’t for the brave people on American Airlines flight 93.

The facts about the attacks have been well documented. The FBI, the CIA, and several other organizations across the world have investigated the attacks and the attackers. If you are interested in the details there is a lot of material out there that you can read. There won’t be many people alive today who haven’t heard of Al Qaeda. Or of Osama Bin Laden. A lot of people know that after a long manhunt, Bin Laden was finally killed in 2011. The United States Army had been trying to find him for 10 years. The intricate tunnel complex that Al Qaeda created in Afghanistan did its job of protecting the organization and hiding its people very well.

On September 11, 2001 2977 people were killed. Among them 343 firefighters and 72 law enforcement officers. Parts of the New York fire department were decimated overnight and had to be rebuild from the ground up.
All these numbers are a testament to the viciousness of the attacks and the devastation that they caused. Yet it’s highly unlikely that you will be crying because of what you’ve just read. Numbers don’t trigger emotional reactions. They are too factual and sterile. What happened that day can’t be described by numbers. To get a sense of the real impact of the tragedy we need stories. And that’s where this book comes in.

The Only Plane in the Sky tells the story of the day as it was experienced by many different people. I listened to the audiobook, which is performed by a cast of 45 people. It made the stories come to life in an incredible way. Most of the narratives are taken from interviews and people’s memories, but there is also some original audio. The speech that President Bush gave and some of the 911 calls for instance.

The audiobook is 16 hours long and I was crying or on the verge of crying throughout most of those 16 hours. Some of the stories triggered my memories but a lot of them show what happened that day from a point of view that I had never considered.
It’s a remarkable and incredibly emotional book. If you think you can stomach it I highly recommend it. This book does a much better job of getting the horror of that day across than all the facts and figures will ever be able to do.