I’m Learning How to Be My Bravest Self

“Be Elisabeth, but be brave.”


Last week I read Meg’s Letter from the Editor, as I do at the beginning of every month, and the same quote that resonated with her stayed with me, too: “Figure out the life you want, and run hard at it.” But not, I don’t think, for the same reasons. For me, it was because my approach to dreams has been a little different. Like so: “Hazily articulate your goals and dreams, put them in a little box that you keep close by, tiptoe around it every once in a while, and as the weeks go by, peek under the lid a few times but not so much that you scare yourself off.” Catchy!I read Meg’s letter on a day, in fact, when everything was supposed to crack wide open. It was the first day “off” in my new eighty percent work schedule. It took K and I months of conversations to run the numbers and figure out where her salary would fill in the holes from my reduced paychecks, and then it took several negotiations with my team and HR. And all of this was painstakingly crafted to allow me precious time to work toward goals outside of public health, the biggest of which is writing more.

So. In those eight hours, I rowed, had breakfast with my mom, stopped at the FedEx store, got a manicure, took myself to lunch, picked up a trashy bodice ripper romance novel from a bin on someone’s stoop (spoiler alert: they are each other’s salvation, they bang, it ends; there’s a reason it was in the free bin), cleaned the kitchen, became utterly exhausted and took a nap, dropped my guitar off at a bad-ass women-owned lutherie, and went shopping at the fancy grocery store precisely at the hour when they put out all the free samples. “Today is the best day!” I texted K. “I’m living my best life!” Of course, I did not write even one word throughout the whole day. But you know, I thought about writing the entire time, so it totally counts.

Yup, that sounds like a behemoth change, like everything cracking wide open to me.

If there are those who run toward their dreams, whether from excitement or readiness to change or just desire to avoid inertia, then there’s me waving over in this corner, often stuck in place by fear of the unknown, potential failure, or just plain change.

When I get really stuck, I have a hard time deviating from the path I’m already on, even if I know the path is at best boring and safe and at worst destructive. Oh, how I envy the runners! It’s just not as flashy to be a tip-toer.

But my meandering motivation, while occasionally frustrating and often inefficient, actually works for me in a lot of ways. So a few years back, I decided that rather than cast off the shackles entirely that I might just slightly refine my motivation around the edges, which led to my current motto: “Be Elisabeth, but be brave.” That is, scaling back on work to have one more day per week to practice my writing might not be the very moment that everything cracks wide open. But after a career of mostly safe, if successful choices, pausing for a moment to say out loud that I’d like to be writing more, and then taking the additional step of telling people, feels like a big, scary adventure.

A friend of mine is a filmmaker, and for a long time, she made a movie every day. Just with her phone, nothing fancy. She filmed a window in the building on the corner that might make a great opening frame someday. She filmed subway doors closing, and trash blowing across the street, and the light changing outside her office. She made all these tiny movies of something and nothing, without any intention of ever doing something with them. If something came of them at some point, if she remembered a shoot and found a way to incorporate it into a larger project, then so much the better. But mostly, she was just doing it to remind herself when it got complicated that she’d always loved making movies, and that was where it all began

I love this story, because it reminds me to think back on my own scribbled little paragraphs when the blank page feels insurmountable. No one else might ever read about the time a little old lady burst out laughing after I dropped all the safer sex supplies on the Q train, or the day K and I found a secret path in Prospect Park, or the look of unguarded surprise and love on my dad’s face when my brother slung his arm affectionately around him on a beach day long ago, but I will. The practice of putting a few words to paper every day might not be dramatic or immediately successful, but all those tiny changes always lead to something bigger for me, even when I don’t know what it is yet.

On my second Monday out of the office, I rode my bike to the park, devoured a beach read while slurping a lemon ice, and watched as the light slanted across my legs. And then I thought of a few final sentences I wanted to add to this post, which I’d written in bits of creativity over the course of a week, and rode home to submit it to APW, inching toward a dream.

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  • Laura C


    “Hazily articulate your goals and dreams, put them in a little box that you keep close by, tiptoe around it every once in a while, and as the weeks go by, peek under the lid a few times but not so much that you scare yourself off.”

    That has always been me. Until the last few years, when I haven’t really had any goals or dreams. I’m not sure if I’m just in a good place or if I’m in an incredible, unhealthy rut. I’m pretty good at working toward the small stuff — eating healthier, going to the gym more — but it’s hard to know how to work toward your dreams when you don’t know what they are.

    • BD

      I think whether you’re happy or not really makes the difference. I don’t have any specific goals in my life right now either, but I’m also pretty happy with things as they are, and I’m not stressing over my lack of direction or goals. There’s nothing wrong with being content with your life as is! It’s when you’re not content, yet you have no goals/can’t realize how to achieve your goals that it becomes a problem.

      • Laura C

        Yeah. I guess maybe I’m starting to feel like I should have dreams, even if I don’t currently. Like I’ve been where I am long enough that I should be thinking bigger — even though where I am totally looked like the dream just a few years ago. So I’m not sure where I actually am and where I just feel like I should be.

    • I’m starting to think that I put those dreams in a little box and buried them so deep that peeking wasn’t allowed. I wrapped them up in a scarf of judgment and another scarf of pain and thick blanket of excuses like financial insecurity and loneliness and failure and I just let them go. “I didn’t want them anyway. Talent doesn’t get you anywhere. Hard work should only be spent on financial security.” Ah. Do I even know where that box is anymore?

      • KC

        I’m not sure, but maybe check in the back of the cupboard under the kitchen sink, behind the drain cleaner?

        (j/k. I find that dreams/ambitions change over time legitimately, and that’s okay. But if I start to feel like I’ve squelched them or have been ignoring or being too busy to be me-ish, then spending 5-15 minutes per day with an idea sketchbook and writing down every possibility that comes to mind tends to resurface the important stuff – at least the important ones for right then? Session 1 or 2 is rough [aaack! all my creativity and ideas are gooooone! I’m not me anymore!], but your brain gets better at digging things out the more exercise you give it. And then if you forget again or need a jump-start, you can flip through your notebook.)

        (alternately, look under the bed, behind the biggest drift of dust bunnies…)

        • Thanks. One of my creative project plans was to make myself a little book of ideas, affirmations, things to remember, reread and come back to. I often let my ideas get a little too complicated or get a little too wound up in perfectionism to start. I think I need to come back to this, like, now.

    • Emily

      Me too. Just so exactly what I do. Except I’m sort of in the opposite position: all my life I’ve never had any true goals or ambitions and it always made me feel like there was something wrong with me… and then in the last year I’ve suddenly found myself in a real career path with identifiable goals, and it’s terrifying.

      Elizabeth, I hope you don’t mind if I steal your motto — I really need to work on being a brave version of myself. This past year I’ve finally summoned up the courage to go after a job that challenged me, and now I need to summon the courage to figure out where to go from here. I’ll be rereading this gem whenever I need a reminder to take it slow and be kind to myself. Thank you for writing!

    • Jade

      Oh gosh, me too. I’ve always had The Dream but over the last couple years all my passion for The Dream has frittered away into… a sort of haze of contentment, I guess? Sometimes I wonder if The Dream was actually The Dream In Lieu of Love, and now that I’m in an amazing relationship my desire to “make my mark” has gone way down.

      • carolynprobably

        Hm, this is so interesting to me. I’m sure we all admit that goals and shift when you go from flying solo to instant family, but I’m really fascinated by what you say about feeling the need to make a mark. Not posing this to Jade in particular, but is it that The Dream is to be happy and the way to achieve that changes? Is it that we (or at least certainly I) crave validation to feel important, and having a partner builds that validation into your life?

  • msditz

    I am glad you are taking the time to write more, because this is a wonderful piece of writing! I currently have a little dream sitting away in a box that I peek at every now and then, and this has reminded me that I really need to be brave and take it out.

  • js

    I am usually a runner, except when I’m scared. Aren’t we all and boy, are there so many things to be afraid of once you’re old enough to know better! I ran towards my current dream, smacked everyone, including myself, in the face with it, got it and now I don’t know what to do with it. There’s no worse feeling than realizing your dream might ruin the lives of those around you. There’s something to be said for a careful approach.

    • Right. It’s not just me falling on my face anymore. I take my husband and soon to be baby with me down the dark unpaid spiral of failure. But the , everyday I don’t I fail just as much.

  • Sarah E

    A resounding “Amen!” from another tip-toer. There’s so much more risk of falling flat on your face when you run full out. And then everyone will know, either from the sound of the splat or the bruises you acquired. It’s really easy for me to come up with big dreams for how I want life to look 5 or 10 years from now. It’s a lot harder to look at my schedule for the week and see what I can do to get there, then make it happen. If I don’t try, it’s only me who is disappointed, and I can hang on to the ungrounded thought that I probably could achieve those goals if I *did* try. But if I try and fail, then everyone knows and could be disappointed and I’ll know I can’t do it.

    • Sarah E

      . . .and then the first Instagram pic that pops up when I check my feed is the quote: “The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it.”

  • Lindsay

    I don’t know how APW always manages to post just the essay I need right when I need it – but you do! This is me to such a T. And I don’t know how much time I waste berating myself for these very same tendencies. And of course Elisabeth unwinds this in such a beautifully thoughtful and self-away way. Keep this up, please! You may think that you’re only doing this for yourself and your own goals, but you may not realize just how much you are helping others through the process.

  • moonlitfractal

    “Of course, I did not write even one
    word throughout the whole day. But you know, I thought about writing the
    entire time, so it totally counts.”
    ^me every day

  • Stephanie B.

    I definitely needed to read this. Thank you for sharing this with us!

  • notquitecece

    Yes — I needed this today. I have a big career change coming up (chosen!), but it’s on hold for a few months. This in-between part is tricky.

  • I love your writing! And I love your brand of ambition; I adhere to the same brand. I’m neurotic, terrified, restless, anxious, but can’t NOT accomplish my dreams. Sigh. I saw a quote a few months back that shot straight through my heart: “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire the communicate and the desire to hide.”

    • Erin

      Astonishingly accurate quote.

    • Emily

      I just googled the quote because it is so perfect. It’s by Winnicott. It’s now hanging in my office–thanks for sharing it.

    • I love that quote!

  • lady brett

    i started working part-time almost two months ago; it was the big step towards our dream, the result of acknowledging my wants and needs and then actually acting on it (shocking). so its failure to crack anything open was mildly terrifying, and led to anxiety and second-guessing. but i’m beginning to see the strains around the edges. it’s not likely to crack open dramatically at all, but i can see little hints that it might get wiggled open a bit in the long run.

    • I would LOVE for my spouse to be able to do that. Right now she has an incredibly hard schedule with barely any time for a “life” of her own. The problem is, we don’t have the funds for her to attempt to make a career switch and it’s not the type of job she can cut back on. It’s hard to feel so powerless when you want to make it better for her. Congrats on making that step!!

  • Emily

    I love this. I felt like you were talking directly to my soul. Thank you. This made me laugh: “. . . then there’s me waving over in this corner, often stuck in place by fear of the unknown, potential failure, or just plain change.” That is so me, except I might not even be in the room! I envy people who can run hard at something. I used to hate being asked “Where do you want to be in five years?” in job evaluations, because I don’t even know where I want to be in three months, much less five years.

    I’d love to read the story of the woman laughing at the safer sex supplies… in exchange, I’ll share the story of the time I dropped a dozen eggs in the grocery store and an older woman whispered to me “just walk away.”

  • Cleo

    I get this essay. I really, really do. I am someone who, when I get close to a goal, I can feel myself putting my mental brakes on. I’m someone who struggles to put the extra 2.5 lbs. on the barbell at the gym because pushing myself is scary. I read how-to books as a substitute for doing something. I read Glamour and Cosmo because reading about how I wanted to be is easier than being who I wanted to be.

    So I do get this essay. But it really stings me on a personal level.

    I work 50 hour weeks and sometimes have to put in additional time on the weekends. But writing is important to me. I want more than anything to be a published author. So I no longer allow myself to read how-to books about writing. I no longer allow myself to buy any magazines that aren’t Time, Newsweek, Psychology Today, or are strictly for specific research. And I’ve carved out time for myself. I have put TV on hiatus. I wake up 2 hours earlier every morning so I either can go to the gym or have 2 hours to write. I don’t put on Hulu during my lunch hour; instead, I write while I shovel last night’s leftovers into my mouth. And it’s tiring, but I feel great. I’m DOING it. I’m finding time where I thought there was none. And I’m pushing toward my goal 10 minutes at a time because 10 minutes might be all I have in one day.

    So seeing someone write about how they just do a little bit (and a little bit is progress, which is great!) when they have a day, a whole day, to dedicate themselves to working towards a similar goal…I am seriously jealous and even a little angry. You have such a gift of time! Don’t let this fear stop you from taking full advantage of this opportunity. Because it’s a brilliant opportunity.

    • Erin

      Ah-mazing! Thank you so much for this. I think powerful things can happen we simply decide to do something- get up two precious hours earlier, shut the tv off, safeguard what we read and allow to influence us. Cleo, you’re a powerhouse and an inspiration. I think both ways are valid. Elizabeth’s essay resonated so much with me and I so appreciate your response- it’s like a little kick to get moving. Thank you for posting

      • Cleo

        “powerful things can happen we simply decide to do something”

        Awesome. This is now living in my inspirational quote “collage” (in quotes because it’s super messy and not pretty) on my desk :)

    • No offense, I think you efforts are completely amazing and I wish you all the luck in the world, but it sounds like you’re a runner. We aren’t all runners. And some of us have blocks to get past, chains to free ourselves from.

      • Cleo

        I’m not a runner…I did have a head start on the process of forcing myself to sit down and do the work because I knew what I wanted to do when I was remarkably young (probably since 4 years old?). And I know I’m lucky in that respect because my dreams haven’t changed and I never lost sight of them in a big way. And I’m also sure I sound really effing, g-dd-mn insufferable about now (especially because I didn’t fully write out the curse words).

        I also know that as I’m approaching 30, I haven’t accomplished what I wanted to by this age because I didn’t put in the time I should have. I didn’t finish projects I should have; I didn’t do the work. And I regret it. Of my 25 years of knowing what I wanted to do, I was focused only during 4 of them and only have about a year under my belt of being as committed as I am now.

        So as a person who had blocks and chains and fears (e.g. I don’t want to write this because it’s never going to be as good as I imagined it could be), I really get all of this.

        But as a person who’s come out the other side, after MANY MANY years of holding back, I want to share what I’ve learned in hopes that a few less regrets will exist in the world.

        The solution is simple (not easy, but simple) — show up, do the work. If you don’t feel like it, do what I do when I really don’t feel like going to the gym — commit to 15 minutes of doing something. If, at the end, you still hate life — you’re done! No guilt! If you still want to keep going, then do it.

        Runners — people who just do things — don’t have a clear path; they have roadblocks they’ve overcome that you’re not aware of. Everyone has their own stuff to deal with. Everyone has blocks and chains. If you want to free yourself, choose to find the key.

        • Emily

          Honestly, your first post did come across as ‘insufferable’, and I thought you were being rather antagonistic. But the above has cleared things up for me and I do find it pretty inspiring that you’ve been able to push through your fears and hurdle those blocks. And I am determined now that I need to start committing to 15-minute challenges. Brilliant.

          Reminds me of something my FMIL did, that I plan to do with my future children: when my FH would say ‘no thank you’ to something at the dinner table, he would receive a ‘no thank you portion’ — just a small helping of the offending vegetable or what-have-you. After all, they say that once you’ve tried something 7? 13? times you’ll like it. Maybe the same is true of writing exercises? Working out? Cleaning house?

          Thanks for the inspiration, and good luck to you!

          • Cleo

            I LOVE this “no thank you” portion idea. It is one of my little fears in life that my future hypothetical children will be horribly picky eaters. I’m saving this idea for then.

            If you find the secret to liking cleaning house, please tell me, but 15 minutes at a time…man I should do that (in between all my writing and working and working out…the cleaning has really slipped by the wayside; also I hate it and since my dad did most of the daily cleaning when I was younger, I was socialized to think it was man’s work, so it’s been a weird, bumpy road to cleaning more).

            Thanks for the inspiration back at you and good luck also!

        • So you’ve learned to become a runner. That’s fantastic. But I think you misunderstand the meaning of runner, at least as I read it – runners aren’t necessarily people who just do things without a clear path, they are people who do things without fear. And that’s fantastic for you. I’m with Emily though, you’re first post came across as antagonistic and somewhat insufferable. I’m pretty sure Elizabeth wrote this essay for all of us who have’t pushed through like you have. Maybe this essay isn’t for you because you have surpassed that point, but it is for me and a few other people here.
          Frankly it’s very simple to say “if you want to free yourself, choose to find the key.” And that IS antagonistic.

          • Cleo

            Well… I am feeling antagonistic towards this post because I am really REALLY jealous of the situation Elizabeth has created for herself (bravo lady…for real!). That is something I’m not proud to share, and I feel gross about it, but because maybe I wasn’t the only one with similar thoughts, I decided to put it out there. On the positive side (because I’m also optimistic, sometimes insufferably so — just ask my boyfriend), if you felt that antagonism, I guess I did my job as a writer.

            I don’t mean to sound like I’m putting people down; that’s the last thing I want to do. I was expressing my own frustration and then my own experiences. And I’m truly sorry if you felt discouraged.

            I was hoping to share a different perspective in the comments space and then perhaps encourage people.

            The idea of “show up and do the work” is simple, but getting there is not easy and never will be, at least not for me. I’m glad you found something that resonated with you in this essay. I hope you find whatever it is you need to bust off your chains.

        • Emily

          It sounds to me like you’ve gotten there, Cleo. I don’t know what your path was to getting there, but you talk about man years of holding back. I am still working through that. I’m trying to do the showing up (I’ve written four days in a row!). But getting there is a process for all of us. I hear you saying that you wish you had more time. I wish that gift comes about (in a good way) for you!

          • Cleo

            Congrats on your streak!!! I’m going for 365 days of writing starting on my 30th b-day — I’ve never done it continuously due to taking breaks between drafts, etc.

            And best of luck :)

          • Emily

            I don’t know if you saw this, but I found it very inspiring! http://99u.com/articles/30801/how-i-kept-a-373-day-productivity-streak-unbroken

          • Cleo

            I did! Thanks! That’s actually what inspired me to go for 1 year. :)

    • breadwinner

      I agree. My partner is a writer and I regularly work more than he does, and that mostly works well for both of our preferences in terms of our creative pursuits and overall quality of life. But he takes his writing pretty seriously and works hard at it. If I felt like he wasn’t actively working on his goals and I was working hard outside of the home to sustain leisurely free time that only he got to benefit from, I would start to feel resentful that the terms of my working more to support his writing dreams weren’t really being fulfilled.

      • Cleo

        You’re my hero for supporting your husband like that. Having someone that believes in you is so crucial when you’re in the trenches, thinking your work sucks, alternately hating it and loving it and being afraid to love it because it’s probably awful, and then hearing “not for me” x120938 when you’re querying.

        • breadwinner

          Thanks! We both work freelance so we’ve traded off supporting each other (and seeing it as supporting our team) over the years, and he was working hard earlier this year when I out of work for medical reasons, so I don’t want to come across as any kind of martyr. He would also be content with a much more starving-artist lifestyle and home than I would be, so that’s some of my incentive to contribute more :) But right now he’s working on his writing and I’m working outside the home, but I think we’re both putting in a ton of time and effort in our respective areas and I know they’ll both pay off in the future.

  • I love this. And I love the story of your filmmaker friend. I think this was what I was doing for 116 days worth of selfies. I really wish life hadn’t gotten in the way so harshly for me. But I guess I have to think about getting started again. Not that I know what I’m starting but…

  • Erin E

    I’d read Elisabeth anytime, anywhere… three cheers for your small steps towards making writing a bigger part of your life!!

  • carolynprobably

    Love your writing, Elizabeth. It’s always a joy to have you back. And a pleasure to join you in the corner with all the others who are terrified of change (even when it’s for the better).

  • Stacey H.

    Sometimes I refer to myself as the little duck in Bambi– I WANT to go join the others but the water is just so chilly!! It’s only until someone/something “splashes” me, or I see how far ahead everyone else is that I gather up the desire to just hop in.


  • Rather off topic, but how do you come up with a personal motto?

    We have a family motto, “Be good and learn something,” that came about because it’s something we say frequently upon parting.

    I’ve seen article about writing family and personal mission statements. But mottos fit on business cards or t-shirts. How do you come up with a motto.

    I think having a personal motto for this time in my life would be good, give me direction, but I have no idea where to start.

    • I think it’s kind of like when Rachel wrote last year ( http://apracticalwedding.com/2013/01/goal-setting/ ) about choosing a word for the year. I feel like a motto can be something like a mantra, something you feel you need to remember and do repeatedly through your life. And, you could always change your mind.

      I like your family motto. I don’t have anything like that.

      • I’ve done the word thing for a while. Last year’s was “Wonder” and this year’s is “Grow.” I put it at the top of my weekly to-do list every week. When I’m meditating my mantra is “peace” on the in breath and “calm” on the out breath. In college I joked that my motto was “Don’t get hit by cars” and would make up metaphysical meanings for cars.

        I think my motto problem is I’m not sure what direction to take next with my life, or how to articulate the direction I’m currently going. It’s definitely something to think about.

  • Amy Elizabeth

    I <3 this so hard. I used to run at my dreams hard, but severe health issues stopped me in my tracks. I've been trying to get back on the horse but haven't known how to do it when I can't run at it hard anymore… This articulates the path I've been slowly finding and helps me to embrace it more. Always love your writing Elisabeth, thanks so much!

  • frances kirk

    I have recently gone down to 80% at work and the change has been so incredibly wonderful in unexpected ways. An excellent reminder that time can be worth more than money.

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  • Jennifer St. Germain

    This was really beautifully written. You captured all of these little moments perfectly — the romance novel, the friend who makes movies, the lemon ice, the light slanting across your legs. Sounds like those Mondays off did you well, because you’re an excellent writer.

  • ThatsWhatEESaid

    THIS MAKES ME SO HAPPY and motivated – maybe it’s cause my name is Elizabeth, but mostly because I am working on this too! Finding time to satisfy myself out of work but it is super rewarding through YouTubing and podcasting. IT IS WORTH IT. I would like to say, that your motto should be BE ELISABETH & BE BRAVE. Not the but..it sounds more positive to me that way. :)