Don't Do As I Say...Or As I Do

I’ve always been a doer.

The more I do, the happier I am.

I was a complete joiner as a kid. My brother and sister and I all took piano lessons starting at age six, mostly because our mother felt we should know how to read music. Later, we all took up second instruments because we could—for me, it was clarinet. I loved the smell of the black, fuzzy inside of the case and the wax I could rub on the corks, tightening the clarinet pieces together.

With my swinging clarinet case, of course I had to be part of Band, because that’s what you do if you play an instrument in fourth grade.

My sister and I had also started ballet lessons at age six—that was before people started having kids take ballet at three. I remember the unique sound our tap shoes made on the wooden floor and learning to dance the Can-Can. One of my Russian teachers clearly liked to be active too, because she chain-smoked through every class.

If you can read music, and carry a basic tune, you also sing in the school choir. So I added that in fifth grade. I was a Soprano—the safe kind.

But to be well-rounded, I knew you couldn’t just pursue the arts. I had to develop my physical skills, so I also played basketball—I was a guard. But in seventh grade I realized I had no future in basketball because of my height so I became a cheerleader for other people who had a future in basketball. In eighth grade, I added field hockey, and gymnastics and tennis in high school.

Of course, there were school plays—I was Merlin in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, andCecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest and some other character in The Dining Room that I don’t remember.

And I was a Girl Scout through all of this—that’s where I learned about three kinds of firewood, how to sing Taps, cook and sew, say hello in four languages, and even interviewed some writers, and learned about binary coding from my neighbor who worked for Byte magazine.

In high school, Student Council was calling my name, and of course I had to attend writing conferences because I was aspiring to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. And I worked at a day camp in the summer and held down a part-time job at a stationery store.

Phew! It’s exhausting even to write about it!

So what was the point of it all?

All of that frenetic activity kept me taking the late bus home. It helped me develop some social skills and confidence, but most importantly, helped me feel like I was contributing.

These days, I sometimes ask my 16-year-old son D., usually when he’s playing PC games, “So what did you do to be a productive member of society today?”

I’m half joking—but two-thirds serious. I value activity. Even if D. did just one focused thing, like write the Great American Novel, I’d be okay with that. But I ended up with a kid who is decidedly not a joiner. He had no interest in learning how to play an instrument, or being in drama, and he decided at six after two meetings that being a Tiger Cub was boring. I haven’t been able to get him to join one single solitary high school club (“Are you sure you don’t want to join INTERACT? It would look so good on your college applications!”). D. does play football, and tennis, and now has a part-time job teaching tennis, so he’s not a slacker, but he generally avoids joining anything as much as physically possible.

So what happened to my joiner genes? Where did they go?

On the other hand, there may be something I can learn from D.

I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to learn how to NOT do stuff all the time. Years practicing yoga (four different kinds, of course: In order, Kundalini, Kripalu, Astanga, and now Bikram) and working with meditation has enabled me to slow down (some), and periodically experience a quiet mind. For years, I had trouble writing because I didn’t like to just sit still long enough to do it.

I’m learning that sometimes there is more value in not doing than in doing. Blaise Pascal had figured this out back in 1654 or something: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

(Of course, I could struggle my way through Pascal’s Pensées if I had a French dictionary because I made myself study that language for seven years and minored in it in college. But brilliant Blaise would say that is not the point.)

I heard an echo of his ideain an audio book I was listening to this week, Matrix Energetics, when Melissa Joy said: I am a door, not a doer.

That really resonated with me—even in my work as a consultant, I am doing doing doing all the time. I am addicted to my Outlook calendar and my GPS because they keep me sane and on a straight path when I have 12 meetings and calls in one day. But I sometimes ask myself, if I weren’t so darn busy all the time, if I weren’t a doer but a door, what would open up?

I have a piece of artwork hanging on my wall above my desk. It says, A new phase of life resides beyond the door, revealing infinite potential.

I’m starting to open that door.