What’s Holding You Back?

The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous actually isn’t admitting we have a problem (I just looked it up; it’s admitting that you are “powerless over alcohol–that [your life] had become unmanageable”), but frequently people will say this: the first step is admitting you have a problem and that is a good place to start. As I wrote about last week, conscientious consumerism is an increasingly popular philosophy. While it is problematic in many ways, it is essentially admitting we have a problem and attempting to do something about it.

However, we typically don’t look at goals as problems, and as such, we’re unlikely to tackle them in the same way. Yet admitting we have a goal is often an important step in working towards it. I tend to have a tendency to deny my real ambition. I’ve been pruning all sorts of plants over the past few weeks, and in doing so I’ve realized (yet again) how much working outdoors in a garden means to me. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the thought of getting blisters in the garden is what gets me up in the morning.

This isn’t news, though, or it shouldn’t be. When I was little, I lobbied my parents for a garden. It was kind of a disaster, but I always enjoying mucking around. Five years ago, I had the opportunity to work on an organic farm full-time for 6 weeks; I ended up coming back after the internship period was up, and I regularly stayed late. That period in my life still stands out to me (even in comparison with such “thrillers” as clubbing in London, traveling in Stockholm alone, and even living in Southern France!) as one of the best ever. In a sense, I’ve felt that I’ve spent the last four years trying to “go back.”

Exhibit A. Something I wish I had grown and harvested.

Exhibit A. Something I wish I had grown and harvested.

Yet I’ve also spent years completely ignoring the idea that I like being outdoors or gardening or any of that. Whenever I had a chance to do anything agricultural, I jumped at it, did it, and loved it, but I wasn’t really putting that in front of myself as a goal. I’ve been in educational settings for 19 out of 21 years of my life, so my dominant experience is as a student, which is (from the student side of the fence) theoretically more “high minded” than agricultural pursuits.

My real learning about myself and the world around me has happened mostly outdoors, though. Granted, I’ve learned a lot of technical knowledge from books and web resources, but anything I have retained, I have retained because I found it outside and saw it, felt it, smelled it in action. Perversely (maybe) even my formal education has often become shaped by whatever manual labor I happen to be doing. When I’m pruning, I’m thinking about questions like these: What do I really need? What are my strongest ‘branches’? How do I let more light in? How do I figure out what to keep and what to let go? These filter into better understanding of my life–and writing, and art, and science.

From all of this, it should be obvious that one of my biggest goals should be doing this kind of work–work I love, work that needs to be done. There aren’t many other things that I can say that for. Writing sometimes seems like a useful skill and there is a part of me that couldn’t be prevented from writing; another part of me is absolutely driven nuts by the writing brain. I could (but won’t) go on. The point is, the idea of prioritizing growing stuff in my life was not obvious until about a week ago.

… when I realized that everything holding me back was really, really silly. But I had to know what was holding me back. Here’s my list:

  • expectation that I “should” do intellectual work (elitism?)
  • cultural expectation that gardening is something old people enjoy (agism?)
  • desire to non-conform with gendered stereotypes (old woman as gardener) while simultaneously feeling pressured by gender stereotype of man as farmer
  • self-perception that I do not have gardening opportunities right now
  • self-perception that I cannot mentally deal with gardening unless it is my garden that I get to control (and learn from every year)
  • lack of money for plants and materials

Then as I was looking back over photos I took just a few weeks ago, I realized how absurdly overgrown “our” kiwi plants are. I realized that we must have some kind of sharp implement around here somewhere, and I remembered that I loved pruning. Since then, I’ve sort of made it my personal mission to do as much limb-severing as possible around here (uh… just of plants… so far) and, not to be a McDonald’s commercial, I’m loving it.

My perception that I didn’t have gardening opportunities right now was just dead wrong, and when that idea exploded, so did some of the others. I’m still going to go to graduate school next year, but I’m going to try to figure out ways to incorporate something of an agrarian lifestyle while I’m there. In the meantime, I’m going to frankly not give a damn about stereotypes and expectations that are so vague I can’t even pinpoint where they’re coming from. Besides, I’m pretty sure I’m closer to filling “old lady” stereotypes with my insistence on comfortable footwear and my premature purchase of a cat…


(Not this cat.)

So I have two points here. (1) You need to own up to your goals. (2) Then you need to figure out why those are goals instead of “things you already do.” Obviously you can have more than one goal. You can prioritize. (It is a goal of mine to have a dog again some day (and to reunite with my cat before she’s an old lady herself!), but that’s not as important of a goal to me as getting my professional working life up and running.)

If you really think something is worth doing, but you’re not doing it, you need to figure out why. It is totally possible that the reasons are legitimate and inevitable, but if you develop a really clear understanding of what the obstacles are, you may find that some of them can be overcome. When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to go on a field trip to Montreal with my French class to have an immersion experience. I didn’t go because I was terrified of spending that much time with the most intimidating group of kids in my peer group and because I was afraid… my French wasn’t good enough? I don’t know.

I do know that I used the excuse of money–it would be too expensive!–as an easy way to get out of it. Money and time are probably two of the biggest and “best” excuses. You’ll notice that money was even one of my excuses for not gardening, yet I’m doing some gardening activities and it is absolutely free–in “my” backyard. Sometimes the money thing is legitimate, sometimes it isn’t. I’m lucky because no one really depends on me (and definitely not on my income). At the same time, I’ve done things I told myself I never could do because it was too expensive simply because I found (or was offered) a way around the cost.

My foxhunting experience is a great example. I watched people at my barn foxhunt for a couple of years and had mentally added up the cost of an outing to around $2,000. I knew the exact prices of some of the major expenses–like the club membership–and “knew” I couldn’t ever think about doing it. But then I became friends with some people in the club and can now say I’ve hunted multiple times in one of the oldest hunt clubs in the United States. Once I went when to “fill in” for a friend’s wife (didn’t have to pay membership dues, could borrow her hunt clothes). Several times I went as sort of a form of payment for working with hunt horses in training. (I’d ride the newly half-blind mare who might or might not freak out every 10 seconds, but it would be free!)

Foxhunting is kind of a bad example, though, because it wasn’t a big goal for me–just something I wanted to do mostly out of curiosity.

I also wanted to foxhunt because it meant spending more time exploring places like this!

I also wanted to foxhunt because it meant spending more time exploring places like this!

Confronting climate change is a much more important goal–this is really my #1 thing, not gardening–and it’s not just my goal. There are thousands and thousands of people working in various ways to deal with a global phenomenon we can increasingly better anticipate. At this point, it seems likely that we should be talking about adaptation strategies more than avoidance or mitigation.

As I approach the coming year, when I’ll be studying environmental policy (officially), it’s easy to think about goals. We need sustainable housing, sustainable urban design, sustainable food production (etc etc etc). Making every aspect of life sustainable and trying to create strategies for possible environmental disasters are really huge goals that break down into lists upon lists of smaller goals.

To me this is a sort of obvious overriding goal. With the way I look at the world, I find it easy and straightforward to prioritize this. Still, I don’t find it easy to know what to actually do–it’s an overwhelmingly huge issue. As an individual, I feel like an overwhelming insignificant piece of the puzzle. Yet I need to think about the barriers more specifically if I actually want to change anything.

With individual actions, it can be relatively simple to remove barriers (or at least identify them). Many people are put off eating a healthy diet because they perceive it as automatically more expensive and time-consuming. Empowering people with strategies to save time and money can start to promote (personally and ecologically) healthier eating habits. I know a lot of people who never composted, simply because it wasn’t something they were used to and they didn’t know how to do it. Explaining how it works and what is and is not safe to compost often is enough to get people going.

When it comes to larger issues (like transportation), the problems begin to be more closely interwoven. At first glance, many issues seem basically inscrutable–they’re too tangled a mess to deal with. Yet even with big picture goals–like a sustainable future— we can still usefully ask the question:

What’s holding us back? 

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