Mindset and Success

Photo credit:Tim Mossholder, Unsplash

Have you ever wondered why some people are successful, achieving all the goals they set for themselves, while others flounder by starting and stopping? Or why some become paralyzed with fear, unable to take the risks that could completely change their lives for the better? How do some people stay positive and focused in the face of obstacles and self-doubt? And why can some take constructive feedback, using it to grow and learn, while others resort to the blame game, making excuses or criticizing others in an effort to put the blame on anything other than themselves? When it comes to relationships, why do some thrive, growing better with each passing year, while others dissolve? Or even why some people cope better with life’s struggles? Is it that some people are simply stronger, more talented, more intelligent, have a better personality or better character?

Author and psychologist Carol S. Dweck answers these questions in her book Mindset – The New Psychology of Success, a must read for anyone human, but especially for those parenting, running businesses, playing or coaching sports, going to school and in relationships.

Dweck provides research and case studies to show that intelligence, character and personality are NOT FIXED unless we believe they are. Our success in life, in all the different areas, depends on whether we have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Sure we may have different aptitudes, and some people have more opportunities than others, but we CAN become more intelligent, artistic, creative, athletic and knowledgeable in whatever area we choose with enough experience, training, personal effort and help.

First, what is a fixed mindset? It’s the thinking that who you are is a fixed trait. According to Dweck, this is why we shouldn’t label children, not even when we think we’re giving them positive labels like smart, talented, and intelligent. If a child is labelled intelligent, there is that constant need to prove that intelligence. It can make them risk averse, unwilling to learn new, or more difficult tasks so as not to look deficient. It can become all consuming to constantly prove intelligence in the classroom or later, in the boardroom.

The growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can improve upon through your efforts, strategies and help from others. It cultivates a passion for stretching yourself and learning. It is “believing people can develop their abilities.” It is praising effort and trying new strategies when old ones don’t work. It is about guiding people/children toward other strategies and resources that can help if learning is not happening. It is never about judging, labelling and criticizing nor is it about undeserved praise. It is the mindset that mistakes and failures are opportunities to grow and learn without feeling like a failure. It is a way of thinking that goes something like this: I didn’t do well this time. I wonder what I can do differently to be successful next time.

Dweck notes that we all have a mixture of both mindsets. The key is to note where we have a fixed mindset, be aware of what triggers it and change the dialogue. For me personally, I think of all the times I’ve told myself and others that I’m bad at math, as if that is something I was born with, as if it can’t be changed through effort and learning. Yet, I fully believe that I’m capable of learning to be a better writer, a better mother, a better wife and a better teacher. The goal is to learn the growth mindset in all areas of our lives. This process is a journey and it doesn’t happen overnight.

What does this mean for parents? Instead of praising children for a trait, praise them for their efforts and improvement. Tell them they are getting smarter because they are learning something new and learning from their mistakes. It’s important to do this because many people pass up opportunities because of their fear of failure. Children (and adults) with a fixed mindset are more likely to cheat on tests. They are less likely to see their own faults and flaws and have little interest in actually learning. They also tend to fold when the going gets tough and are less likely to take action to overcome depression. They are the people who tend to assign blame, make excuses and feel good when others fail.

Children with growth mindsets are more likely to learn from mistakes, and even when distressed by a failure, they are “ready to take the risks, confront the challenges, and keep working at them.”

The worse thing we can do then, is to call students an A student, a B student and so on. Or, to tell a child they are not good at a particular subject. I picture a class where everyone is excited to put up their hand. No one is afraid of being ridiculed by either the teacher or their classmates. The love of learning becomes more important than the grade.

Why do we not pay more attention to this? We now know the brain is constantly developing, that learning never stops, that skills and intelligence are learnable. We know the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use. One reason, says Dweck, is that we love the idea of natural talent. We look at all these sports stars and CEOs and think they were gifted, born that way. Dweck cites many examples of people with natural talent who did not achieve great success in their field. What makes a person successful, whether talented or not, is the belief in themselves, that with time, experience, training and help, they can reach their goals. She gives examples of people like Michael Jordan who seem so talented (and he surely is), but the real reason for his success was sustained effort and hard work, along with his willingness to learn from each failed shot.

Dweck says she sees bright children paralyzed by setbacks. “In some of our studies, they just have to take the simplest action to make things better. But they don’t. These are the children with the fixed mindset. When things go wrong, they feel powerless and incapable.”

Growth mindset people, both children and adults, are not afraid to take new courses, learn new skills, and pursue their dreams. They know it’s not about winning or judging themselves. It’s about learning and improving, on focus, determination and hard work. Failure is an opportunity to learn.

How do we encourage a growth mindset in children? According to Dweck, there are several strategies to achieve this.

Ask:

-What did you learn today?

-What mistake did you make that taught you something?

-What did you try hard at today?

-Talk about things you’re struggling with and making progress on.

-Talk about mistakes you’ve made and what you learned from each mistake.

-Discuss your own strategies for learning and your setbacks.

-Become aware of your own internal dialogue. Notice when you’re saying things like: I don’t need to learn this. I’m already smart. I’m right and they are wrong. I’m a failure. I’ll never learn this. I’m not good at this.

-Realize that changing mindsets is a process that never ends. It takes work and commitment.

Dweck’s book covers so much material in its 500 pages (in simple every day language) and gives in depth information on how to move from our fixed mindsets to growth mindsets in several areas. It has been invaluable to me in changing how I speak to my children and how I speak to myself. It has reminded me that I am a person who loves learning, that I don’t have to be perfect immediately when learning a new skill and that I can try something hard. Dweck has reminded me that I don’t need to shy away and avoid hard things. I can get better at what scares me, and teach others, especially children, that they can do hard things too.

Bias and the Durag

My son Liam, age 15

My son Liam came back from the barber one day and asked me to buy him a durag. “A do what?” I asked. He googled a picture and showed me. The barber had recommended it for his new haircut to create and protect his waves. I hesitated. Where I grew up, I didn’t see durags. Even when I moved to the United States in the eighties, I don’t remember seeing anyone wearing one. But I sure saw enough of them on TV, where I consumed a media diet of African-Americans portrayed as criminals, gang members and thugs. You know the type of images where African-Americans stand menacingly on street corners waiting to assault the unwitting victim or sitting in a beat-up-old car about to commit a drive-by shooting. My husband didn’t want our son wearing the durag in public. We felt people might label him and treat him differently.

“It’s only your generation that thinks that way,” Liam insisted. “Everyone in my generation knows what a durag is for.”

We didn’t agree, but we decided to let him wear it to his baseball game. I was watching for it, but I’m sure it wasn’t my imagination that the umpires gave him one of those funny looks of suspicion. Now I’m not blaming the ump. After all, haven’t I felt the same way when seeing a man in a durag? I’m not racist, am I?

Most people don’t think they are racist and feel insulted when that accusation is levelled at them or their organization. It’s more helpful to understand how the brain works with regard to racism. It’s also more helpful to use the term implicit bias which means bias is present but not plainly expressed, rather than racism which is a set of beliefs that one race is superior to another. It’s more acceptable to admit that all of us have an implicit bias in some way. A simplistic explanation for this is that our brains are designed to keep us safe. If it looks like a sabre tooth tiger, it probably is, so avoid it. When we are fed negative images of certain racial groups, those images are stored in the brain where it categorizes people and events as familiar and safe, or unsafe. What the media shows us has a profound effect on how we view our world.

I like to think of the brain as having two main parts: the primitive brain and the reasoning brain although I know the brain is much more complex. The primitive brain is the part that when triggered, makes us feel fearful or anxious. We are more likely to behave in a way that is biased when we feel threatened. The rational brain, the prefrontal cortex, is the part we use to tell ourselves to stop being ridiculous and that there is a better, more rational way to think. If this is how our brains naturally work, why should we feel badly about our implicit biases? What can bias do?

You can accuse a child of taking home (stealing) your child’s library books because no one else was in your house. Then you feel dumb when you find the library books behind your bookcase. This happened to my daughter. She was the accused. Or you can look suspiciously at a child and his father, peering into their car, after asking if they’ve seen your child’s sport equipment because said sports equipment disappeared – only to find out your child left the sports equipment on the field and the coach picked it up. This happened to my son. He was the accused. Or, you can be walking in the park and it’s twilight. A man is coming toward you in a durag. There is a moment of fear, of suspicion and mistrust. But then there’s the realization that you’re being foolish because your own son wears a durag. There is also the realization that the young man wearing the durag now passing you is a boy. Just another teenage boy trying to protect his hair. You feel silly. Guilty even. Then proud because you’ve realized that you have challenged your implicit bias. You’ve used your prefrontal cortex instead of giving way to the primitive brain and allowing fear and mistrust to take over. On more reflection, you get worried imagining someone being afraid of your own son. Your kind, sensitive son who always reaches out to touch your arm and ask if you’re okay on those days when you feel crappy. The same son who is willing to help you do the laundry when you’re exhausted. You hope that if someone is ever afraid of this lovely child, they will use their rational brain. You’ve seen what happens when people don’t. Reasoning shuts down and emotions take over. Being accused of taking something is hurtful but minor compared to loss of life. You then realize you have to write this blog, even though it has taken six months. It’s an uncomfortable topic, one you’d rather not address, at least, not now. But when? So you do it to tell the world these things:

A durag is worn to protect curly/kinky hair and to create and maintain waves. (I have no idea how it does this, I just know it works).

We all have biases, but we are capable of challenging them. It’s not easy, nor is it comfortable but it’s possible. It doesn’t end with anti-racism and cultural sensitivity training that workplaces nowadays are providing for employees. It’s much more helpful to have conversations with others who are not like us.

Feeling guilty about our biases is counterproductive. Feeling compassionate to ourselves and others, and curious about learning why we behave the way we do and how we can change our biases is much more helpful and satisfying.

Sometimes it’s exhausting to think about this stuff, but if we want a more equitable world for all, it’s necessary.

How to Master Relationships and Gain More Peace

There I was in the restroom/washroom at a restaurant washing my hands and an inebriated woman handed me a paper towel.

“Thank you, but I can get my own,” I said smiling, because after all, we are in a pandemic and I have been known to be a little anal over not getting Covid. She looked at me askance and then it dawned on her.

“I don’t have this covid thing. I’m totally fine, but alright,” she shrugged. Then she asked the question that everyone is asking nowadays. “Are you vaccinated?”

“Absolutely. I have my two doses.” I fully expected her to say the same. Just then another woman walked in and I watched these two women high five each other, shouting with glee, dropping f-bombs and declaring with enthusiasm, “I ain’t getting that f—king vaccine. I ain’t giving that … vaccine to my kid.”

“I’m outta here,” I said to no-one, because they weren’t even listening.

At first, because I’m human, I was a little upset, thinking that if only everyone was vaccinated, then we could hopefully eradicate COVID-19, much in the same way that polio and smallpox have been eradicated. Like everyone else, I want this pandemic to be over. There is one thing however, that will never be over. It is our erroneous expectation that people will somehow think and act the way we do and then when they don’t, we’re somehow surprised, annoyed, angered or offended.

The same way we are free to think, say and do whatever we want (within reason of course), so are other people. This means that if we want our lives and our relationships to work, if we want to be content, loving to others, and at peace with ourselves, we have to live and let live. This is harder than it seems. It means that when people say or do things to us that we would never do to them, don’t take it personally. It means not allowing our anger and disappointment to ruin our day.

I’ve chosen to get the vaccine and to vaccinate my children. I feel safer this way. But I also acknowledge there are people who are fearful of the vaccine, people who do not trust the vaccine, people who know other people who have been harmed by vaccines in general, people who say they are so busy they don’t have time to get the vaccine and I could go on and on. The reality is each person living his or her life will do exactly what they want to do for their own reasons. We cannot impose our will on anyone else. So the next time you disagree with someone’s vaccine views, the best thing to do is simply acknowledge how they feel and change the subject. You won’t be able to change their minds. This is not to say someone’s mind can’t be changed about the vaccine, but they’ll change their own minds when they’re ready.

One of my students told me that she doesn’t get along with her father because he doesn’t call her, ever. Her mother calls her every day. I thought it was a pity that she measured his love for her by a phone call. But then, I thought about my own father and how I did the same thing a long time ago. He rarely calls and back in my twenties, I measured his love for me by how often he called me. As I got older, I realized this was ridiculous. He loves me whether or not he calls. If I miss him, I’ll call him. Some mothers call their adult children every day. I don’t. It doesn’t mean I love my children any less.

This is important for all kinds of behaviours and all kinds of relationships. You may bring your spouse coffee every morning and get annoyed when they don’t reciprocate. Maybe they have a different way of showing love. (This is why that book Love Language is so popular). It takes a helluva lot of work to allow people to be themselves, to look for the good and not the negative, to actually try and understand someone else’s point of view.

It is inevitable that someone will piss you off. For me, it’s when I’m in a public restroom and someone rushes out of the stall and doesn’t wash their hands. I get self-righteous and irate, thinking I would never do that and how gross. Unless you’re going to take action like my Aunt C and remind them that the soap dispenser works, the best thing to do is realize there’s not much you can do to change another adult person’s behaviour. They are free to not wash their hands as much as you are free to wash yours. Getting upset isn’t changing them, but it’s making your life a little more unpleasant as you silently fume, wishing you could call them out and haul them back into the washroom like a child.

And so, whether it is vaccine views, hand washing habits, work ethics, discourteous behaviour, blunt and thoughtless words, bad driving, etc., our relationships and peace will improve when we realize that we are all free to think, say and do what we want. Two, we cannot expect other people to do what we want them to do. Three, since we are all free and do what we want anyway, don’t take any of it personally. None of it. Shrug it off and focus on your goals. Don’t waste a minute of your precious energy wondering how other people can be so different from you.

Live your life. Let others live theirs.

Cinderella and other fairy tales almost ruined me

Cinderella and Other Fairy Tales Almost Ruined Me

One day in my early twenties I was driving in Kingston, Jamaica with my father. I was feeling particularly overwhelmed that day; life was not going the way I thought it should and I was morose. I turned to my somewhat cynical father and asked, “Does it ever get better? Life, I mean. It doesn’t get better does, it?”

“Nope,” he said without a glance in my direction.

I was of the idea that the older I got, life would magically get easier. I don’t know where I got this idea. I thought that by the time I hit 20, everything would fall into place. All the struggles that I’d previously dealt with, all the failures, the break-ups, the disappointments, would all fall by the wayside and the rest of my life would be perfect, exactly how I wanted it to be. I can’t imagine where this came from, but since I read so much, I think I absorbed this message, at least partly, from reading fairy tales where many a time the story ended with “and they all lived happily ever after.”

I truly had no idea that it is 100% normal to feel happy 50% of the time. The other 50% is whatever crap you are feeling that is unique to your situation. Why else would we get the saying “to wake up on the wrong side of the bed.” I thought I was never supposed to wake up on the wrong side of the bed, never supposed to feel anxiety or fear or the strong desire to avoid the hard things that need to be done (including sticking to an exercise and writing routine). I actually thought something was wrong with me.

(Caveat: This only applies to normal life situations. This does not apply to relationships, people and jobs that are toxic, draining and no longer work for you. In those cases, get out. Run like the devil is after you and never look back.)

Many years later, I realize that life does get better with age but I’ve had to do the self growth work to get there. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel those negative feelings, but I’m learning how to manage them. Sometimes I wake up and before I get out of bed, I start worrying about my to-do list. I’m learning how to stop this barrage of anxious thoughts, slow down my breathing and say a prayer of gratitude. But never mind all this. This blog is not about my personal growth. It’s about saving future generations from the erroneous message at the end of those beloved fairy tales. I’ve come up with some proposed amendments to Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty that I think will be really helpful for future generations. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

“…and they lived happily ever after half of the time. But it was still a great life because everyone knows that no-one is happy all the time.”

“…and they lived happily together (but this doesn’t mean they didn’t have challenges that they had to work on, especially after the children came, and believe me, running a castle and managing staff is no fairy tale).

“And so Cinderella and the Prince were married, and they lived happily ever after. But sometimes Cinderella got moody because she wanted purpose in life. She devoted her time to helping out in the community and giving back to the townspeople. She discovered that this really added to her happiness.”

“…and they lived happily ever after. But some days were just blah, like when it rained for days, and the time when the castle needed renovating and the workmen never showed up on time.”

“…and they lived happily ever after. But they still realized they needed to set goals with deadlines, and follow through, even on days where they wanted to do nothing. Luckily, they never had to cook, do laundry or housework, but they had other stuff to do and sometimes it was hard.”

I’ll stop here because I could fill pages with this. I’m off to live happily ever after, and do hard things that I really don’t want to do like exercise for thirty minutes but I’m going to do it because that’s the pathway to the happily ever after.

Why I Wrote Bushyhead

Bushyhead is available on Amazon

Our youngest daughter Meadow has the most glorious head of hair. It got curlier and bushier as she got older, and had a will of its own. We were going to make sure she loved her hair. It was going to be different from my own childhood where society made me feel that my curly hair was less than perfect. I spent years wishing for straighter hair. We wanted Meadow to embrace her natural curls and not feel as though her hair needed to be fixed. 

Meadow and her beautiful curls

As parents, we can only do so much. Society takes over. At daycare, a black woman approached me and told me she could help me with products to tame Meadow’s hair. I know she was trying to be helpful but it sent the wrong message. Then on another occasion, a South Asian hairdresser told me she could put in a chemical just to tame Meadow’s hair a little to make it easier for me. 

“No. It’s okay,” I said thinking this was the last thing I’d do.

“Really, it will still be curly but not as much.”

“No, thank you. We like it like this.” I looked at Meadow hoping she wasn’t thinking something was wrong with her hair.

“It will be much easier for you. It won’t take long,” the hair dresser insisted.

“Nope. Definitely not. Her hair is perfect as it is.”

I could control situations where this happened and explain to Meadow that her hair didn’t need taming and straightening. It didn’t need fixing. But I’d forgotten I couldn’t control the school yard. She was teased because of her hair. So were my nieces Elya and Jisele. They were told they couldn’t be princesses from ages three and four.  Princesses, they were told, didn’t have curly hair. As adults, we see the illogic in this but little girls can’t. As Meadow got older, the teasing got worse. She was told her hair was doo doo hair, shit hair.

I remember the day she got pink and purple braids. She felt like a princess until she went to school and was harassed by the class bully who got people to taunt her and call her the name of some rapper with pink and purple braids because she dared to be different. “They teased me all day long,” she said when she came home. This continued for many days until it escalated to a point where things got physical and I found myself on the phone with the principal trying to solve a difficult situation. 

This narrative that curly hair is somehow less-than needs to change. It doesn’t matter that some people say, “but I love curly hair.” It’s embedded in our psyche. I read a sci-fi book where perfect humans were created and to make them perfect, their curls were removed. This is nonsense and pisses me off. We’re born with what we have. A world where everyone looks the same would be incredibly boring. Let’s give each other the freedom to wear our hair the way we want. I’m the first to admit I haven’t always felt this way. I remember going to Fiji in 1993 and seeing all these women with Afros. My initial thought was, “Haven’t they heard of hair relaxer, cream, rollers, hot irons?” It was not the norm for me to see black women wearing their hair naturally in the 1990s. But I’ve changed.

This is why I wrote Bushyhead. This book has been within me for a very long time. As I release it into the world, I hope that the message is clear: curls, coils, and kinks are beautiful and don’t need fixing.

You Can Always Go Another 20 Minutes

We need people to get us up and down the mountain, literally and figuratively. 

In November 2019, I went to Arizona with my son’s baseball team. We were new members. The coach said that before the game, we’d do some sightseeing. We were going on a little hike to Camelback Mountain. This is an important lesson in semantics. I pictured strolling leisurely through a cactus field and so I packed a heavy backpack with my water bottle, my journal, a book and other non essentials. Turns out a hike can be different things to different people. At the foot of the trail, an enormous mountain loomed ahead. Behind that mountain appeared to be several peaks. I noticed we were about to embark on the most difficult trail. I felt trepidatious but I figured I could do this, especially since Coach Mike said his mother did it at age forty and had no problems. Since I was just meeting the team, I wanted to put my best foot forward, to appear fearless and to make light conversation along the way. That didn’t happen. What did happen was I kept asking like a kid on a long road trip, “How much longer to the top?” Coach Mike said, “twenty minutes tops.” Two hours later as I struggled on, it was still twenty minutes tops. Later, he said that most people can, if they dig deep, always go another twenty minutes.” 

Putting my best foot forward went straight out the window as it often does when we find ourselves in situations that are highly demanding or stressful. I was determined to keep going physically, no matter what, although I did wonder if this is where I’d take my final breath. My thudding heart felt like it was going to explode in my chest. That was not my greatest concern. I was terrified of falling and breaking a limb. My mouth became dry with fear and exhaustion. Worse than the physical battle was the mental battle. My mind kept throwing scenarios at me. What if I slipped off the edge into the abyss and returned to Canada in a body bag?

One of the dads took my backpack to ease my load. I moved like a newborn deer, tentatively, as if the earth beneath my feet would suddenly shift. I clutched the mountain like a blanket. I sighed and complained and over-analyzed every step I took.  Every time I got over a chunk of mountain, another mountain appeared in front. I watched a man in his seventies, lean and sinewy, jog past me. Many times, I thought it was time to retreat, to give in and make my way back down. From what I remember, coach Mike would say things like: “We’re almost at the top. The hardest part is behind you. You got this. My mother wasn’t in the greatest shape and she made it up the mountain. It’s ok. You’re going to make it. You’re not going to believe the view from the top. It’s worth it.” 

At the top of Camelback Mountain, Phoenix, Arizona

And so I made it to the top. We took a group picture and I was elated. The view was magnificent but then, the panic set in. I still had to get back down. Coach Mike and the rest of the men took off and were down the mountain in no time. He said his job was to get us to the top. We had no choice but to come back down. Going down was almost as frightening. Thankfully, one of the other mothers got me down. She stayed with me the entire time while I talked endlessly about how scared I was. It was halfway down the mountain when I turned to her and said, “Oh my. I complain a lot instead of just doing what I need to do.” She was patient while I dithered on what path I should take instead of just moving along. Sometimes I wanted to stay close and hug the mountain but that path was actually more perilous than venturing on the path closer to the ledge. I watched people run past me and who made the climb look easy and I watched people lag further behind, struggling as I was. 

Once I made it down, my son looked at me in embarrassment. “What happened to you, Mom?” he whispered. “You took so long.”

“Nothing, except you’re thirteen and I’m fifty,” I said. 

But on introspection, my son had a point. Something happened, something I was determined to fix. I felt mentally weak. My negative thoughts were as high as the mountain. My own self-doubt and fear almost kept me from getting to the top and it sure hindered my progress and enjoyment of the climb. 

I called Coach Mike the other day. We’ve nicknamed him ‘Tony Robbins’. “How did you get us up there?” I asked. 

“Sometimes  you have to lead from behind. It’s not all about leading from the front. For those who wanted to climb, I was going to get them to the top and I knew I could only go as fast as the slowest person. The mountain is just the mountain. It doesn’t care about you. If you keep looking up at what’s ahead, at the unknown, the mountain will win. It’s relentless. For some, it’s physically tough. For others, it’s psychologically tough, or even both. It’s a mental game. But God is able to pull stuff out of us that we can’t do on our own,” he said. 

As for me, I’m grateful for the people who got me up and down the mountain, the coach who carried my backpack, the Mom who stayed with me and Coach Mike. I couldn’t have done it without them. We need each other. 

The mountain just is and no amount of overthinking and complaining will make it go away. Climb one step at a time, even in the face of fear. Some will make it look easy and some won’t make it up at all. Keep going even though at times, the climb feels relentless. And if you’re one of the “make it look easy” ones, encourage those that are struggling.

Failure Makes You Better

I hate failing. I really do. All the self help gurus say you must love failure to learn and grow. I’ll never love it and I’ll go even further and say I’m afraid of failure. Somewhere along the way, most likely as a child, I received the message that it is not okay to fail. I’m not alone. So many of us are so afraid to fail that we miss out on life’s greatest opportunities. We stay in our comfort zone instead of trying new experiences and becoming the best version of ourselves.

Once, I failed big. It was humiliating. I was asked to speak at a school after recently publishing my children’s books. My audience was an entire gym of kindergarten and first graders, and not a classroom where I was most comfortable. If you’ve ever presented at a school, the younger and larger the audience, the more difficult it is. I decided I’d wing the whole presentation since it was only kindergarteners. I had young children, I knew my books, how hard could this really be? I walked in without any preparation and of course, it went badly. Since I hadn’t prepared, I had problems with the technology and no back up plan. I under-anticipated how hard it was to present to young kids who couldn’t sit still. I cringe when I remember that moment and the look of disappointment on the face of the principal who hired me.

After I’d packed up my books and walked back to my car, I sat in the parking lot thinking, “This will never happen to me again. No matter what it takes, I never want to feel like this again.” It was pointless to cry or even complain because I realized that I was one hundred percent responsible for my failure. (Ok, I did complain a little to my supervisor and friend. We’ll call her N.) N said, “Why don’t you join Toastmasters?” And so I did.

I learned how to speak in public. But I did more than that. I googled how to present to children. I googled and read about public speaking. I watched other public speakers. I learned something that I should have known, and probably did know but didn’t want to put in the time to do, which was to practice. It may seem obvious that my lack of preparation caused my failure, but I thought maybe I could be like my father; he says he never practices before a speech and he’s pretty good at it. The truth is that it is the rare person who doesn’t have to practice to master a skill.

Today, no matter where I’m presenting (virtually or physically), on what (a talk, my books or a poem) and to whom, I practice extensively. I usually don’t want to practice at first. There are days of procrastination and agonizing over this extra thing to do. It gets tedious to repeat the same speech over and over again. It’s time consuming. But I do it and not at the last minute either. I practice because I never again want the feeling of standing in front of an audience lost and discombobulated. I need to know I’ve done my best.

Sometimes my kids will see me facing the mirror and ask, “Who are you talking to, mom?”

“No-one. I’m practicing my speech/poem/presentation.”

“Oh.”

The first time I practiced my speech in front of the mirror or in front of my hubby or kids, I felt a bit self-conscious but I’m so over that. It’s more important for me that my kids see that practice is necessary. They see that I’m choosing not to be self conscious and that I’m investing in myself.

Without that epic failure (Ok. Maybe it wasn’t epic. I didn’t lose my life savings), I wouldn’t be able to deliver the talks that I do today. I would still be paralyzed by fear and insecurity. The failure was my feedback. I had to do something differently. In this case, it was practice and preparation.

I don’t think most of us love to fail, but our failures make us better, stronger and a lot wiser. Failures give us our stories and point us in the right direction. Failures make us cry, laugh and once we come through on the other side, we look back in amazement at the people we once were and, more importantly, whom we have become.

Bonus: Sometimes other people learn from our failures.

I walked past my son’s room the other day. I heard him talking to himself in French. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“Practicing my presentation,” he said.

“Oh,” I nodded and quietly closed the door.

Miracle Message

It was New Year’s Day: January 1, 2020. I hadn’t yet heard of the coronavirus. My hubby and I went for a walk by the lake. The day was cold but sunny and bright.

“I need more quiet time,” I told my husband. “I think that’s what is missing from my life.” Life seemed to be one big rushed routine. I was juggling two jobs, trying to write, which always came last, take our children to their activities, all of which consumed my time and left me exhausted.

“What is my purpose here?” I asked my hubby. “What is my life’s purpose? I wish I knew if I even have purpose. I think God wants me to be more giving,” I said wondering if God even existed. It’s hard for me to have faith in things I can’t see. By giving I meant reaching out to people beyond my circle, by giving my time and my money to others in need.

“But how can I give when I feel so financially insecure?” I asked. We stopped at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop on Lakeshore and sat down for a coffee and donut. I wrote my goals in a new 2020 diary I’d recently bought.

Later that evening, I looked for the diary and couldn’t find it anywhere. My hubby and I searched the car and our home several times.

“I’m going back to Tim Horton’s,” I said. “I must have left it there.” I entered the coffee shop and saw three men sitting at the table where we’d sat that morning. They appeared to be homeless and looked scruffy and bedraggled. I approached the counter and asked the server if a diary had been turned in and I explained that I might have left it at the table where the three men were sitting. He looked doubtfully at the men. No diary had been turned in but he told me I could ask the men if I wanted to, but that I should be careful.

“Excuse me,” I asked standing awkwardly at the table. “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you’d seen a diary. I think I left it at this table this morning.”
“No! No diary,” said one man gruffly.
“Okay. Thank you,” I answered walking away.
“Wait,” one of them called out. “I have a message for you. I have a message from the Big Man Himself.” He got up from the chair and stood before me.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this. I stepped back. He looked as though he hadn’t bathed in days but his unshaven face was joyful and he was smiling. He looked kindly at me.

“You are so busy in your life with your children and everything that you’re doing. God is trying to speak to you but you’re too busy to hear him.”

I was stunned. How could this man know about my life? I said nothing. He reached out his arms to me. “When you give with this hand, you get back with this hand,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to give. You have purpose,” he said. “You are loved.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“Thank you,” I said. “I got the message.”

“It’s not from me. It’s from God. Can I have a hug?”

I walked toward him and he gave me a bear hug. The server rushed over. “Ma’am. Ma’am, are you okay? You don’t have to do that.”

“I’m okay,” I said still stunned that God had answered me. “I’m okay.”

“You were meant to come here looking for your diary,” the homeless man said smiling.

When I went back home, I searched the car again for the diary and found it in a place we’d previously searched – in the back on the floor.

I realized I’d got the answers to my prayers, answers that I’d been seeking for a long time. I realized I’d experienced a miracle.

I haven’t shared this story with many except my family and closest friends especially because we live in this secular society where many don’t mention God. But it occurred to me that I got this message before the pandemic. It came at the right time. It’s what I’ve held on to in all of this past year’s uncertainty and fear. It’s what I hold on to every time I begin to lose hope or faith. I woke up this morning thinking of this message and decided I needed to share it widely. I want the world to have hope and faith. I want the world to know these things:

Have no preconceived notions about a messenger’s appearance.
Give freely.
You have purpose.
You are loved.
Make time for God.

Black Genes

My daughter is dating someone. He’s Eastern European. I told her to make sure he knows she has black genes because I don’t want any stupid situations. By that I mean the stupid situation of my cousin who doesn’t appear to be black, he’s that light-skinned who married a woman whose parents cut her off and their three blond, blue-eyed grandchildren. They could not accept that their daughter had married a “black” man and chose not to attend the wedding or be a part of their lives. I shake my head in disbelief and disgust. My daughter being half Norwegian, doesn’t appear to be a person of colour (although someone in Norway did tell me once that she’d be considered ‘exotic’ since it was clear she wasn’t 100% Norwegian – she had dark eyes and her hair wasn’t white blonde).

“Just make sure he knows,” I reiterate, “because I’m not having that racist crap in my family.”

“My mum said to tell you I have black genes,” she told him.

“Okay,” he said, a little confused. He wasn’t sure why having black jeans was important.

I feel I have to say it. I didn’t have to say it in Jamaica. But here in North America, it’s necessary. I say it because unfortunately I’m more aware than ever of the silent yet persistent dislike of people of colour. Before I had children, I was blissfully unaware, going through life living in my own head, not always seeing things as they really are. It took having children in North America to see what I’ve never acknowledged. If a racist incident happened to me, it was one person. That one person was probably uneducated and knew nothing about the world. If people treated me badly, I thought it was because they were rude and their parents had not instilled good values and manners. Even when I worked in a factory to earn myself enough money to go around the world and a worker kept telling what he called n***** jokes in my presence while glancing at me for my reaction, I convinced myself it wasn’t about me. But it’s hard to ignore when someone tells your son to go to the back of the line because he’s chocolate. Or someone tells your daughter that it’s a shame she has monkey blood. Or someone tells your niece that she can’t be a princess because of her bushy hair. Or someone calls a little girl a n*****. It’s hard to ignore then. Because it’s not one person. Although people think only America has this problem, it’s here in Canada too. It’s just more subtle. As my Syrian student told me in his halting English when he tried to talk about racism, “In America problem on table. Everyone can see. In Canada, problem under table. No one can see, but still problem.”

The problem persists and it’s here in the country where I live. But one thing for sure: I don’t want it in my home, in my family or my inner circle and that’s why I tell my daughters who don’t look like people of colour: Mek sure you tell dem you have black genes, you hear. Tell dem.

Staying Silent is Not an Option

I once had a comedic friend who regaled us with jokes. His company filled us with laughter until he cracked some jokes at our expense: racial jokes. The joke I remember most often is ‘the Jamaicans have moved in. Everybody lock your doors.’ At first, I laughed. He made jokes about everybody. But the second and the third time weren’t funny. Then I noticed other things he said. “She was black but attractive.”  Or when he made reference to someone being a lazy Jamaican. He would lower his voice to a whisper when he said the word ‘black person’ as if the very word made him uncomfortable.

I often wonder why I never told him how his racial jokes made me feel: annoyed, reminded that society thinks people of colour are inferior, that we’re stereotyped the way the dominant race rarely is. Was it because I wanted to avoid confrontation? To be liked? To show I had a good sense of humour? To avoid stirring up conversations that make us all uncomfortable? Probably all of the above. It’s akin to someone hurting you but you stay quiet so that the behaviour continues. How will the person ever know that they’ve done something wrong? Now that the world has become aware of how pervasive racism is in our institutions and belief systems, it’s time for us to have those uncomfortable conversations. Yes, there will be awkward moments as we start challenging hurtful behaviours and words, but I, more comfortable at home than in any protest, think we need to be activists, acting to make the world a better place for everyone. Like the saying goes, ‘you’re not growing if you’re not uncomfortable.’ It was hard for me to publish this blog. I’m uncomfortable but silence is not an option. Not if we want a a fairer more equitable world for everyone.