Push, Quit, and Craft

by Rachel W. Miller, Contributor

After years of making resolutions as well as monthly goals, I finally found a way of kicking off the new year that really works for me: choosing a verb. I must say, I like verbs a lot. What makes a sentence? A verb. What makes things happen? Verbs. What makes a good resume? Kick-ass verbs! What do I do when I’m bored during a long run? Think about sex…or conjugate French verbs! From iterative verbs (they are creatures of habit) to irregular verbs (they’re quirky, like Zooey Deschanel!), verbs give us all the power to take action.

Before you do anything in life, you must select a verb. You can begin, or quit, or change. You can choose, share, trust, try, think, relax, open, hope, serve, speak, save, flee, organize, believe, commit, or give.

In 2012, my verb was “push.” I mainly chose “push” because I had gotten off-track and lazy when it came to my writing; I had stopped trying and started coasting—steadily at first, but then eventually downhill. And being told repeatedly that I had gone downhill by angry or disappointed readers messed with me in a way I didn’t even know was possible. So first, I had to write my way out of my creative funk. Beyond that, I wanted to push myself to make new friends in my new(ish) city, to keep my space clean and nice, and to continue to take care of my health and body.

I unknowingly picked a very good year for this verb. I don’t know that I would say the year was hard, exactly—a hard year involves far worse problems than anything I experienced last year—but it was a year that was different than any other I’d had before. It felt like a year of growing up and of going uphill. When I wasn’t pushing myself to do the things that I really cared about, I was pushing myself through other new and painful experiences like having surgery to get a cranky Fallopian tube out, dealing with an unhappy coworker, buying a house, and trying not to lose my mind during the months leading up to the election.

The year was about putting myself out there and keeping together. It was about not half-assing or whining when things got hard. It was about not complaining about how hard writing is and instead “writing like a motherf*ucker,” in the immortal words of Dear Sugar. This was the quote that was constantly on my mind this year:

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherf*cker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you–,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

So 2012 was about simply digging. But choosing “push” as my verb also taught me a really important—and somewhat surprising—lesson: it taught me how to quit.

Yes, in a post about beginnings and goals, I’m going to talk about giving up. Because this year I also realized that it’s really hard to convince yourself and those around you that you have the right to quit, or that you really have exhausted all your options. It seems like everyone’s knee-jerk reaction is to just tell you that one thing you had never considered that would have totally fixed the problem.

After Eric and I bought our house in July, we quickly became overwhelmed by how much we didn’t know about taking care of a house. Around the same time, I started a new creative writing project that was not very well received. I had pushed myself to go outside of my comfort zone and area of expertise, and now was being told that that was a mistake. Meanwhile, I was spending every weekend at Lowe’s, where the slogan is “Never stop improving.” I heard this message loud and clear, while “push” was also on the forefront of my mind…and yet, one night, after getting more negative feedback than I could handle, I just made the decision to quit my new writing project. I didn’t ask anyone if I should do this (which was how I knew it was the right thing to do) and I didn’t regret it for a second.

Because the thing is, deciding to push myself harder in all areas meant I actually couldn’t push myself to the max in all areas—that simply wasn’t possible. And when you’re the kind of person for whom motivation can easily give way to obsession, creating a checks and balances system for your goals is a wonderful thing. By giving everything my all, I actually gave nothing my all. And so I became better at knowing when to stop giving a project or a person or a chore anything at all.

But when a person declares that she’s throwing in the towel on a creative project, apparently, everyone chooses that moment to remind her that quitting is bad, quitting squashes innovation, and, “Where would we be if [daVinci, Steve Jobs, Lady Gaga] just quit?” And, you know, that’s a fair point. But you know what else is bad and squashes innovation? Working on the same damn thing well past its expiration date and refusing to let it go instead of moving the heck on.

On the path to achieving our goals, we are rarely given permission to not improve ourselves. But this year, as I pushed myself harder, I also began to ask myself why I was pushing myself so hard, and I asked whether those cheering me on are doing it for my sake…or for theirs. 2012 was great because it eventually became the year I pushed myself to do the things I felt were worth doing, not the year I punished myself by sticking out worthless endeavors in the name of saying “I did it!” or giving other people hope that they could achieve their goals too. It was the year that I, a woman who unabashedly loves self-help books, realized that not every challenge is one worth accepting.

My verb for 2013 is “craft.” I chose it not only because it implies creating things, but also because “craft,” the noun, is about endeavors—often creative ones—that require skills that can be taught, practiced, and refined. But it’s not about DIY-ing everything in my life; for me, “craft” is about choosing a few very specific things and getting better at them for very specific reasons. And the things that aren’t on my list to improve? Aren’t going to bother me. I will do my best to do no less than my goals, but I will also do my best to do no more.

So I highly recommend choosing a verb and letting it guide your year and the goals you set each quarter or month or even week. But no matter what verb you choose, consider making “quit” your secondary verb. Give yourself permission to work on the things that matter and to cut your losses when it just ain’t happening. And then do everything else like a motherf*cker.

Photo from Rachel’s personal collection

Rachel W. Miller

For most of her life, Rachel has loved the sound of her own voice. She loves reading, doing yoga (she still refuses to call it “practicing”), hanging out with her dogs, and talking Eric’s ear off. She lives in Houston, TX. You can read more from her on her blog.

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  • KEA1

    This post NAILS it for me in so many ways. Congrats on pushing 2012 into a direction that worked for *YOU*, and here’s to you crafting a phenomenal 2013!

  • “Because the thing is, deciding to push myself harder in all areas meant I actually couldn’t push myself to the max in all areas—that simply wasn’t possible.”
    Amen to that.

  • LIZ (SINCE 1982)

    This may be my favorite post EVER, and that’s saying something. I think a lot of us struggle with saying “no,” but while I’ve spent a long time learning to be mindful of that tendency toward others, I’ve never considered the impact of not knowing when to say no to myself. This is a great reminder that there ARE good reasons to stop doing something, that giving up can be a powerful choice rather than a lapse or a failure.

    “By giving everything my all, I actually g[i]ve nothing my all” may become my new mantra. Here’s to editing down to our true priorities instead of driving ourselves to distraction trying to do All The Things!

  • Kelly

    I so needed this today. I am preparing to quit my job at the end of February, because I’m just miserable and I can’t be here anymore. And you’re so right, everyone wants to tell you that it will get better if you just do X, or consider Y, or try Z. But they haven’t sat around feeling their soul get crushed every day, and it’s not their decision. Quitting is jumping – sometimes its braver than hanging on. Don’t be afraid to quit – and don’t be so quick to judge those that are ready to make the leap!

    • Lucy

      Amen to this. I am reaching a similar decision that despite all the incentives the company has I can’t endure the constant backstabbing, posturing and positioning of my team mates. At some point it is not worth the anguish. Good luck with your decision i may soon be joining you!

    • Lisa

      One of my biggest regrets is not quitting an absolutely miserable summer camp job. I was worried about how it would look on my resume but I was so stressed out and unhappy that sticking it out wasn’t worth it. I have so many terrible memories from that place that just won’t go away and I should have thrown in the towel.

  • One More Sara

    I find the “‘Where would we be if [daVinci, Steve Jobs, Lady Gaga] just quit?'” part so so interesting. Specifically Lady Gaga. She has many passions: gay rights, anti-bullying, fashion, and of course music. She has found a way to pretty seamlessly blend her human rights passion with her passion for music, but where does that leave her fashion? I saw an interview once that she said creating fashion takes more time and energy than she had at the moment. Basically, even Lady Gaga had to quit something (or at least put it on hold) to succeed. Sometimes we see women like her who seem to be juggling everything all at once, but while we are watching the balls they have in the air, we don’t see the balls they have decided to leave on the floor.

    • Karen

      And it’s important to remember that she’s not doing all these endeavors by herself!

    • “Sometimes we see women like her who seem to be juggling everything all at once, but while we are watching the balls they have in the air, we don’t see the balls they have decided to leave on the floor.” Oh that is WISE.

  • ML

    I love this approach. I love all of these words.

  • Granola

    I really liked your point about not asking anyone whether you should quit, and because of that knowing it was the right decision. I struggle with really wanting approval and perhaps my verb this year should be “grow.” Grow into myself and trusting my judgment and being able to ask for input without feeling like I *need* someone else to tell me this is the right thing….

  • EXCELLENT post! I love verbs and all of your other words too. May I highly recommend a tiny book by Seth Godin called “The Dip”? It’s about recognizing and celebrating when to quit and when to push. I think quitting gets a bad rap and should be practiced much more. Kudos to you!

  • Penelope

    Love it!! Love the idea of a guiding verb for the year.

  • Anni

    I love this, and I love that these words take on meanings that aren’t immediately obvious.

  • carrie

    This sorta knocked me on my ass this morning. In the best way. Thank you.

  • Thanks for the post, Rachel- it’s very timely for me, and I appreciate your insightful writing. I think 2013 will be a “push” year for me (or maybe a similar verb), but I will definitely be returning to this post many times to remind myself to maintain some grit.

    You’ve given me so much food for thought in a time of big change in my life. Thank you!

  • The idea of not doing All The Things is a bit like a (really good) punch in the gut this morning. After spending a night last weekend crying about how overwhelmed I’ve been trying to reach for about five or six big goals in life last week my husband and I came to a really painful decision to focus on just one – the one that’s going to make us happiest in our day to day life, and let the others take a back burner until we’ve accomplished that.

    This post today? A great reminder that even though I don’t love the decision that focusing on one or two things instead of everything is good way to get things done. And good for my sanity.

  • This reminds me of the One Little Word challenge, but with more impetus and action. I love it!

    My word for 2013 is focus, and so far it’s working in little ways. Before this year, I noticed that in a world where my worth is not measured in gold stars and report cards, I’ve allowed myself to get very listless and easily distracted. This in turn shifts my mood heavily downward, and I focus more on the negative. I found myself doing things just because others find them interesting, even if they hold very little appeal to me. Also, I fall to easily into the infinite loop of social media.

    So now, as a first round of putting my word to good use, I kind of gut check myself throughout the day: is this what I want to be focusing on? How is this helping me?

    It’s also helping me focus on the positive. I’m not usually superstitious, with one exception. In my head, I fear odd numbered years because bad things always seem to happen in them. Wrong. I’ve just focused on the bad things.

  • My word for the year is Connect. Because I need to in so many ways. I’ve got to figure out ways to connect to the things that are important and to the connections I create the ones that are meaningful and important. I’m not sure what that looks like right now, but it’s where I’m feeling drawn this year.

  • rys

    I’ve taken to using the verbs on Nikki McClure’s (beautiful) calendars as my verbs of the month — subject to my own interpretation, of course. I find that the monthly shift really helps me stay focused on the present, rather than worrying about the unknown future.

    And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, her 2013 calendar is here: http://www.buyolympia.com/q/Item=nikki13.

    • Cleo

      This post has now put 2 items on my must-buy list. The “Write Like a Motherfucker” mug and this calendar. They are both fantastic.

    • Brooke

      LOVE Nikki Mc Clure’s artwork!

  • While reading this, it struck me that my verb for this year is finish. I should be finishing my PhD this year, which means I have lots of other things to finish that will allow me to finish my PhD. I LOVE starting new things, but I think this year I’ve really got to focus on finishing what I’ve already started before going on to something new. Thanks for planting this in my head this morning!

    • Pippa

      Thank you. Reading this post and all of these comments made me feel so overwhelmed as I had no idea what my word should be – there are so many things I need to accomplish this year, my Master’s degree being at the top of the list. But ‘finish’ is just perfect. If I just try to get things finished then I think I’ll come out of this year okay. All the best with your PhD.

  • Yes, “not every challenge is one worth accepting.” Kinda reminds me of yesterday’s discussion that just because we CAN do something doesn’t mean we SHOULD, or it’s a good idea.

    I kind of love quitting. Maybe too much. There is a great Freakonomics podcast about the benefits of quitting things, in particular when you’re just not that good at them. http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/09/30/new-freakonomics-radio-podcast-the-upside-of-quitting/

  • Learning that the saying “Once a quitter, always a quitter” was a load of crap was a great moment in my life. I hate that saying. There are many things I have quit that have allowed me to start something better. I quit thinking of myself as on the plain to ugly side of things. I quit a job so I could start a better path. I quit relationships that were dragging me down. Quitting is choosing to believe there are better things out there.

  • I especially connect with this line: “The year was about putting myself out there and keeping together.” So many of us want this….thanks for your words & advice!

  • I LOVE this post. It can apply to so many things but, as a writer myself, it especially hit home for me. And I really appreciate the point that quitting can be just as important in your personal development as pushing. This is something I have trouble with… I want to strive to achieve EVERYTHING and, paradoxically, end up getting so overwhelmed and frustrated that I accomplish nothing. It’s hard sometimes to acknowledge that letting go of a few of your goals (either temporarily or permanently) can actually make you accomplish more in the long run.

    Also, does that mug actually exist somewhere? Because I want it. So. Badly.

  • sfw

    I REALLY love this post.
    Reading your 2012 verb made me cringe in as I thought of the years I spent under that mantra and the pain that sometimes caused (eg. Pushing through a stress fracture to run the half marathon anyway; Pushing to make arbitrary deadlines with your PhD thesis regardless of that fact that your adviser takes weeks to respond to a single email).
    I think my verb this year might be forgive. Because it seems to me now that forgiving yourself (and the world) when Pushing doesn’t get you where you wanted or leaves you battered or depleted is just as important a part of growth as the Push.

  • Katherine

    Thank you so much for quoting & giving props to “Dear Sugar”/Cheryl Strayed. It’s always nice to find a fellow “Dear Sugar” fanatic :-P And you know she would tell you exactly what you’ve already figured out….that doing these things the best way you know how & keeping your “push” or your “craft” in focus is perfectly fine. As long as it works for you, that’s all that matters :-)

  • Crayfish Kate

    Seconding Katherine, above. So glad to see some Sugar love here too! This post was awesome, so wise, and I’m loving the new perspective on focusing on a verb, rather than an end goal :-) Well done!

  • Hey girl hey. This is good stuff. I know 2012 wasn’t always easy for you with regard to writing because I was reading along through many of the changes, but I’m really happy for you on how it has all turned out as a result of just simply digging when you needed to dig (and learning when to quit what didn’t serve you). This year you just had is, in many ways, what I want for my 2013 – putting myself out there and keeping it together. Right now I feel like I’m not doing either. And I mean … it’s not even about cool stuff like pursuing a passion right now, it just generally feels like my life is just in a big crumble of hot mess. So I don’t know what my verb for the year is, just yet, but I’m glad you wrote this because I needed to read it!

  • Anne

    Wise words. Thank you for sharing! I love Cheryl Strayed too.

  • This is a fantastic post. I’ve spent the last month trying to sort out my resolutions and goals, and my mighty list. I’m definitely having trouble sorting them out. I can’t even seem to maintain one place in which to sort them (sticky notes, a notebook, a calendar, a copy of the happiness project, my phone, my blog…). But in all my self-improvement scribbling, things are beginning to take shape for the first time in my life. In the past, I would just write off what I want to be doing, either because I was too scared to start, to scared to fail, too scared to succeed, too scared to make a list, be disorganized, admit that I need help. And I very much do need help figuring out some things.

    I love the idea of one giant verb for the year but without a bunch of little specific steps and goals to support it, I’m not sure I could move forward. It’s a little confusing reading everyone else’s verbs, because they all sound so good. I think this year needs to be about Change for me. A lot of things need to change. But in thinking about Change, I definitely need to build a structure of goals under it so that I don’t so quickly write off my big verb. It’s clear you have specifics underneath your Push and I need to build some too.

    Thank you so much for this post Rachel!

  • Next Up: The Sun Never Sets on a Bad Ass.


  • Marcela

    I don’t chose a verb, but a word that guides me through the year. Mine for 2013 is “Forward”.

  • Love it! I also really like that “push” feels like kind of a raw verb, and “craft” seems to be more refined, like I can see the growth and what you learned. So awesome. Cheers to you. :)

  • Dee

    For those like me who tend to procastinate there is a great free workbook created by Susannah Conway to choose a word for 2013. It helped me focus on what I did in 2012 and what I want in my life in 2013.

    • Emily

      Thank you for this link! Using it! :)

    • Lisa

      Nice. Going to have to make time to do the workbook.

  • Anon for now

    The whole knowing when to say “no” to either yourself or others is so true for me. For me, it is definitely about knowing my limits and not over committing myself. In the past, I was always the first one to say “yes, I can help” before I even knew what the task was. Now, when someone asks for a favor or help, I ask for the parameters first so can be as honest with them as possible. My first response now tends to be “yes, if I can” because I’ve learned I can’t do everything.

    I also really resonated with the knowing when to let go part – when you’ve invested a lot of yourself in something, be it a project, a friendship, property, a job, etc – it’s really, really hard to step back and say “I can’t do it anymore” because what I’m getting out of it isn’t worth what I’m putting into it. It was easy with my first property, a condo that I can’t wait to sell, even though I was so proud of that part of my journey at the time. But then there’s a friendship that I’ve invested a lot in over the years, though I’m not sure the other person has reciprocated as much (or at least that’s what my family has told me through the years from their observation perch). And deciding whether to quit after lots of time, energy, and investment over any length of time is hard, but sometimes it is necessary for our own well being.

    Kudos to the OP for knowing when to let go and reminding the rest of us that it is okay to do that!

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  • kim

    Boy, this reminds me of 2011 when I was in push mode- I pushed way too hard branched out too far and ultimately made myself a target – I learned that I’m happiest and at my best when I concentrate on what I’m really good at.

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  • Bryna

    I’m totally stealing your verb idea! 2014 verb a-la-Bryna is going to be “CREATE”… Create a new marriage, create art, create good situations, (re-)create my friendships… and more!

    Awesome idea, thanks for passing it on… and for posting it again…. I’m a bit late to this band wagon!

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