My mother was an evangelical. I thought everyone was, except for the Whites, two units down, who were Jewish. I always felt bad for them. They celebrated Christmas, but they didn’t get to go to Sunday School like us. Sunday School was great—stories and games, and candy just for learning the Bible verse from the little scrap they handed out the week before. But then one time when I was smallish and desperately curious, I went to the Sunday service for adults instead. Then understood why their family wouldn’t go. Those chairs were so hard. And you had to sit in them, no moving or talking, for an hour.
I converted to Catholicism at my public school, during a sixth-grade social studies class. Not formally, but in the evangelical way of spiritual revelation—accepting Jesus into your heart. There was a two-paragraph blurb in our textbook about Martin Luther, and a color picture of him nailing his theses to the church door. It said that most American Christians were called Protestants because they broke away, reformers, offshoots from an original church. I remember asking if that original church still existed, and how stunned I was at the answer. God was so important, and all my life it turned out I had been going to the wrong church.
Catholics don’t let you in their club just because you accept them in your heart. What I remember most about conversion class were lots of coloring pages—what goes on the altar, who wears which hat—that we had to label and learn. That, and all the stuff. I hoarded little prayer cards, saint medals, pretty rosaries. And I was wildly jealous when my little brother somehow acquired a scapular. At my baptism, my godparents—strangers from the congregation—gave me a tiny pewter statue of Christ the Redeemer that I carried in my backpack for years. But somehow I managed to miss the existence of the written catechism in its entirety.
I knew there was a set of things Catholics believed—I could rattle off all the creeds from a little pamphlet I had. But I didn’t know there was, like, an actual authoritative text that listed it all out. I didn’t figure that out until after law school, where I learned to love authoritative texts, although by that time I’d already walked away from the church, and only barely began fumbling my way back. I ordered my copy of the Catechism from Amazon the day I learned it existed. And I felt stupid, really stupid, for not having been aware of the absence of such a thing in my education.
That was nothing compared to the incredible, blinding, ferocious awareness of my own stupidity when I started reading it. Quarter of a century trying to figure out the universe by feel, without knowing that not only was there a map, but I had eyes to see it. Turns out that yes, actually, life DOES come with an instruction manual.
Even now, I’m appalled. I want to march myself down to the convent, the cathedral, every Catholic I’d ever known—to demand to speak to their supervisor and angrily request an accounting. Why wasn’t I told about this?
But I’m stupid about lots of little things, too.
I ran out of self-help books (lots of book time when keeping offline) and decided to skim through a free copy I found of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s old. It’s out-of-date. And there are a few things in there so obvious in retrospect that I’m boggled to think I needed a book to tell me.
I suggest that within this fable is a natural law, a principle—the basic definition of effectiveness. Most people see effectiveness from the golden egg paradigm: the more you produce, the more you do, the more effective you are. But as the story shows, true effectiveness is a function of two things: what is produced (the golden eggs) and the producing asset or capacity to produce (the goose). If you adopt a pattern of life that focuses on golden eggs and neglects the goose, you will soon be without the asset that produces golden eggs. On the other hand, if you only take care of the goose with no aim toward the golden eggs, you soon won’t have the wherewithal to feed yourself or the goose. Effectiveness lies in the balance.
All of my plans at maximizing productivity have suffered from the same flaw--eight wasted hours of unconsciousness each night. I can't count the number of times I've said "sleep is for the weak," often to a befuddled husband at 4 a.m. wanting to know why I'm still pounding away at the laptop.
A sufficiently motivated goose ought to pop out golden eggs like gumballs, right? Perhaps flogging?
It never occurred to me that “taking care of yourself” wasn’t just something lazy people said to rationalize their failure.
The “Seven Habits” method of prioritizing hit me the same way. It suggests that you think of your activities in terms of this matrix:
1. IMPORTANT/URGENT 2. IMPORTANT/Not Urgent
3. Not Important/URGENT 4. Not Important/Not Urgent
Can you guess which box “effective” people spend most of their time in? (I didn’t.)
We usually call the activities in Quadrant I “crises” or “problems.” We all have some Quadrant I activities in our lives. But Quadrant I consumes many people. They are crisis managers, problem-minded people, deadline-driven producers. As long as you focus on Quadrant I, it keeps getting bigger and bigger until it dominates you. It’s like the pounding surf. A huge problem comes and knocks you down and you’re wiped out. You struggle back up only to face another one that knocks you down and slams you to the ground.
Some people are literally beaten up by problems all day every day. The only relief they have is in escaping to the not important, not urgent activities of Quadrant IV. So when you look at their total matrix, 90 percent of their time is in Quadrant I and most of the remaining 10 percent is in Quadrant IV, with only negligible attention paid to Quadrants II and III. That’s how people who manage their lives by crisis live.
(Note: This is from the Seven Habits book, not my autobiography.)
There are other people who spend a great deal of time in “urgent, but not important” Quadrant III, thinking they’re in Quadrant I. They spend most of their time reacting to things that are urgent, assuming they are also important. But the reality is that the urgency of these matters is often based on the priorities and expectations of others.
People who spend time almost exclusively in Quadrants III and IV basically lead irresponsible lives.
Wait, that sounds uncomfortably familiar too. . . (sometimes I rebel against reality)
Quadrant II is the heart of effective personal management.
I had to re-read the section a few times. I literally did not understand.
You’re allowed to do things that aren’t urgent?
I’ve been field-testing this for the last week and a half and, you can! You’re supposed to!
And the results are kind of awesome when you do.
I was struck by the way Covey described “effectiveness” in terms of maturity. Since leaving my "big" job in January, I feel like I’ve been growing up really quickly, having delayed it for so long. I didn't really have to before. I never had to think about where I was going. There was a path to success, I was on it, I would get there. Nothing else needed to matter.
One example is the housework. Before having a kid, we lived like college students, and I didn’t care to change it. If the state of the house made me miserable, well then, there were lots of fun things I could do to distract myself. After kids, I figured that I made enough money that I deserved to have someone clean the house for me, and if B thought a maid was a waste of money then he could clean it. And sometimes when I didn’t feel like moving a stack of dishes over to make room to fix a sandwich, there was fast food. It wasn’t always that bad, but it always felt that was the endpoint we were drifting toward or against. I would go on cleaning binges from time to time, but then quickly lose interest in maintaining. Like a child.
Now that I’m home all the time and I can’t afford to distract myself from it, I’m doing it. Since trying the willpower experiment almost a month ago now, the entire house has been CLEAN. And it’s stayed that way. I mean, I am keeping it that way. Turns out that’s a doable job, and it’s my job to do it. And everyone is happier for it, especially me. This has been a minor revolution in our lives. And it tracks with what Covey says about the early stages of maturity, moving from dependence to independence.
This blog is my record of growing up real time. I think I reached the limit on how far I could get by on smarts, eagerness, and self-deprecation. I thought to avoid disaster by finding responsibilities commensurate with my maturity level, but I guess you reach a point where you can’t put it off anymore. And besides, merit gets you into places cute can’t, places I’d like to go. And while I’m dismayed at how much work it will take to get from where I am to who I want to be, a small bit of the path is behind me now.
I've figured some things out these last few months, things I figured out for myself—not from a book. Things I can't believe I never realized in advance.
The first is: This is hard.
I was waiting to grow up, to level up, so that it didn’t take so damn much to keep track of everything, manage everything, maintain everything. I was waiting for it to get easy. But it’s not going to, is it? Or if it ever does, that’s so far off it doesn’t bear thinking about.
The other thing I learned—am learning—is that it’s worth it.
That's what I've got so far.