Author Archives: Teresa de Onis

About Teresa de Onis

Welcome to my blog! I am an artist and a marketer who believes marketing is more art than science. I invite you to join me as I chase my paintbrush - real and symbolic - to share my point of view and discoveries on the creative process in the studio,at the office, and everywhere else in-between.

How a serial planner learned to live one day at a time

SelfJournalI was obsessed with planning. I sought out the best paper planners (the Self Journal is the best I’ve found so far) and supporting iPhone apps (I love Trello) to keep my life in forward motion. I became an expert at setting goals and achieving them or learning from the mistakes of not achieving them. And I prided myself on making weekend and vacation plans far in advance.

All that changed with my mom’s prognosis of terminal pancreatic cancer. I have had to do a 180-degree turn and learn how to live one day at a time. I have had to learn to follow her brave and noble example of how to live one day at a time. A terminal prognosis forces it for both the patient and the family members. We don’t have a choice. We come face to face with mortality and can no longer focus on the future, much less the past and regrets. We must live one day at a time or the sadness of what is happening and what we know is coming will overwhelm and debilitate us. We can become so consumed by what is coming and the little control we have over it that we miss out on the joys that today could bring.

Living one day at a time and viewing each day as a gift has been necessary to remain strong and calm. Don’t get me wrong: There are days when it’s just too much, and the anger and sadness take over. But I have learned over the last few months that waking up each day and worrying only about getting through that day – and absorbing the experiences fully – is healthier than trying to control a situation that will not be controlled. Taking each day as it comes has been such a reversal for me that I wanted to share what I’ve learned. If you are going through a difficult trial or just want to be more mindful throughout each day, maybe these suggestions can help.

  1. Do morning pages. I’ve been practicing this ritual for six years. Before I do anything else, I do morning pages to clear my mind of its clutter, fears, and worries. Writing in the early hours gives me a sense of gratitude, peace, direction, and perspective. I vent my anger at my mom’s cancer, reflect on what’s happening, recall events, and ask God for help. I sometimes just use the page as a sounding board for my sadness and lack of control. Getting everything on the page helps me face the day.
  2. Set only one goal for 13 weeks. This is a key principle of the Self Journal. Instead of having multiple goals that I’m juggling for an entire year (a year is a long time in my world right now), I have only one goal for a few weeks: find energy so that I am able to be fully present for my mom and family, rejoice in each day, and be better prepared to handle what is coming. The shorter time frame of 13 weeks is comforting. It helps me ignore the future by staying grounded in today. I’ve been focused on this goal for four weeks by exercising each day, sleeping more, and eating healthy foods. I keep track of how much I’m exercising and sleeping and what I’m eating, and it correlates directly to an improvement in my energy level, which in turn helps me be there for my mom and family. It also helps me look forward to the next day. Instead of dreading the three-mile walk with my dog or the fifteen laps in the pool, I look forward to the release of endorphins the activities provide, to the warm sun on my skin as I hit the pavement, to the cool water as I glide through each lap.
  3. Use pencil. After morning pages, I fill in my calendar for that day in pencil. I have made it a habit of leaving white space blocked on my calendar. Because my situation is so emotionally draining, I need time to decompress and recover after meetings and deep work in order to remain productive at work and deliver on all my promises there and at home. I move things around to accommodate my energy level and state of mind and take more frequent breaks than I used to. I have become much more flexible with my schedule and have also learned to say “no” to things that won’t work for me right now.
  4. Use one post-it note for the day’s to-do list. My tasks must fit on a post-it. This is important for three reasons. First, it helps me break down big challenges or problems into small steps that are achievable so I don’t become overwhelmed and paralyzed. Focusing on what I have to do today keeps me grounded in today, in a moment-to-moment mindset. I’m not worrying about resolving problems over an extended period of time. I’m only worried about what I must do today and I do those things one at a time. Second, it helps me prioritize so that I can immerse myself and achieve a state of flow on something important. This is the ultimate positive distraction from grief.Third, and most importantly, it ensures I fulfill my daily work obligations so that I can devote precious time to my mom and family.
  5. Let go of certain social media conversations and the news. Letting go of certain social media conversations and the negative news is a decision I finally had to make last week. From Trump to Orlando to gorillas and alligators to Brexit to Louisiana/Minnesota/Dallas, the negativity was chipping away at my energy, which I have been working hard to reclaim and build. But there are also so many uplifting conversations on social media. From the shared experiences of friends to the heartfelt wishes of commenters on a story about hospice in The New Yorker to the beautiful advice I received on the Self Journal Facebook group page about how to use the journal during this period, my online expressions of grief and troubles are an important part of the grieving and healing process. While Facebook status updates can’t do justice to what my family is going through, and a Tweet can’t summarize the sadness or fear, and an Instagram image can’t express the pain, I’ve learned it’s okay to turn away from the negative social media conversations and towards the positive, uplifting ones.

Embrace the gift of today. Journal. Look after your health. Treat yourself with compassion. Be honest about the goals and tasks you set. Step away from the negativity. And hug or call your family members.

You are not your job

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My mom calls her terminal pancreatic cancer her constant companion. It’s an acknowledgment that it’s a part of her identity now, and it got me thinking about her full identity, all the things that make her who she is. And I realized that “teacher,” her profession for forty years, hasn’t been a topic of conversation in a long time. My mom was told she had just a few months to live in February, and since then, she hasn’t talked about her work at all.

Whether we are alone lounging at home, or having meals with family, or attending Mass on Sunday together, she doesn’t talk about her past work life. Here we have a person who is facing the end of her life and who was a remarkable teacher. She taught first grade all the way up to college level over the course of a forty-year career and made a difference in so many lives. But as she looks back on her life, embraces the beauty of the present, and faces the inevitable, she doesn’t talk about the job she went to every day. I find it fascinating because she was very passionate about her career, loved her work, and was a master at it. She lived out her professional calling and left a lasting legacy through her work. It  has also jolted me given we live in a culture that places great emphasis on defining ourselves by our work.

As my mom faces the end of life, she is not defining herself or her self-worth through her work. She is defining herself and her life by her family, her values, and her experiences.

She talks about her childhood in Santa Fe, both the difficulties of being the oldest of three daughters to an incredible woman (my grandmother) who, for her safety and that of her children, had to separate from her husband – unheard of in those days in a Catholic community – and also the joys of living surrounded by her grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and the beautiful scenery and seasons at 10,000 feet. She talks about experiences: taking trips to Spain, Italy, Portugal, New Mexico, California, New York, and Hawaii; attending symphonies; visiting museums. She talks about food: recipes she likes, the best meals she ever ate, the pleasure of eating whatever she wants now. She talks about books and poetry she has read in the past and books she’s reading now. She talks about philosophy, spirituality, classical music, the arts, politics, interior design, fashion, jewelry, and makeup. She talks about faith in eternal life and angels that protect us. She talks a lot about Game of Thrones! She is determined to make it through season 6!

Most importantly, she talks about people: us – her immediate family and grandchildren – her sisters, her friends – lifelong and new – and her hospice team. This is the only time she talks about her profession, in the context of the people, particularly the students she felt she impacted or who had an impact on her. She doesn’t talk about the day-to-day, or the accolades and promotions she received, or how underpaid she was, or how hard she worked, or cranky coworkers, or the pain of grading. She definitely doesn’t say she wishes she had worked more or harder.

Nearing the end of life, my mom knows that she was not her job. Her legacy lies in her 52-year marriage, her children, her grandchildren, the people she nurtured and touched and who nurtured and touched her, the values she stood for and instilled in others, and the experiences she cherishes and that serve as a beautiful reminder of a life well-lived. She is a whole person, not just a teacher.

This is such an important lesson and it is one that we KNOW. Yet it is one we forget every single day. We forget it every time we meet someone and the first thing we ask is “So, what do you do?” We forget it every time we lose sleep over petty work issues. We forget it every time we fail at work. We forget it every time we feel anxious about losing a job.

So, bookmark this post and refer to it when you’re feeling defined by your profession. You are not your job.

 

Ignoring the lizard brain

My beloved mother will die from pancreatic cancer. Her time in this life is being measured in months. I will write more about this in the future as I have so much to share about my mother’s journey towards the inevitable we all face. Her love, bravery, peace, and spiritual strength is quite an experience to behold, and I know that my character and my contributions – my legacy – will be different and better for witnessing it. I feel I have a deeper understanding of life and death, but I have been too paralyzed by grief to write about what I’ve learned or to even write about creativity, what this blog is supposed to be about. My father keeps urging me, “You must write about this.” I reply, “I will…”

Yesterday something happened that made me want to boot up the laptop, and decided I would write about my lizard brain again. It’s the amygdala, the oldest part of the brain, the part responsible for most irrational human behavior. I’ve written about it before and how we need to tame it if we are to move forward.

Last week, after months of research, planning and coordination with my neighbors, I led a long overdue home improvement project to replace a 23-year-old decaying fence with a new one. The investment on my end was substantial as only one neighbor out of four was able to contribute to the cost. One of the neighbors who did not contribute hasn’t thanked me for the effort or the financial contribution. Instead, I have received complaints about trivial matters related to the fence, in strangely worded emails that imply I’ve done something wrong and will be held responsible.

I have spent time responding to these minor complaints and gone above and beyond to resolve them with the fence company. This is good because being a good neighbor is important. I have spent time reading Robert Frost’s Mending Wall (the origin of the modern proverb “good fences make good neighbors”) and smiling at his irony and that of this situation. This has been good as I ended up reading quite a few of his poems one night.

I have also spent time alone and in the presence of family obsessing over my neighbor’s ingratitude and communication style, to the point of losing sleep over it. This has not been good. Last night, I finally realized this trivial matter has been consuming me and is such a waste of energy. I chastised myself, “I’ve got bigger issues and way more important things to spend my mind and heart on. Haven’t I grown spiritually and developed a deeper understanding of life to not allow myself to be consumed by absurdities? Why am I letting this get to me?”

Because of my lizard brain, that darn amygdala. The lizard brain sees silly neighbor drama and points and screams, “Squirrel!!” It sees a distraction from grief, frustration, helplessness, and anger, and it eagerly scurries towards trivialities that waste time and energy. But my heart – love – is stronger than that. It can quiet the lizard brain and even protect me from it so that I can set aside the small problems to focus on the bigger picture and what matters.

The lost art of convalescence: 6 things I did while I had pneumonia

con·va·les·cence /känvəˈlesəns/ noun: time spent recovering from an illness or medical treatment

Glass Beach 2

 

Every January in Austin, I and thousands of others wage war against the cedar pollen that explodes across central Texas. This year I armed myself against these nasty nostril and lung invaders with a regimen of Claritin and Flonase that began in early December. But the medicines were no match for the record-breaking spewing of pollen these vile trees perpetrated against my fair city and her citizens. By January 9, the mild spring-like weather had generated a yellow-orange cloud over Austin that had me choking and wishing someone would set fire to every single Juniperus ashei in sight.

A few days later, I found myself in urgent care getting a chest x-ray and confirmation that I had pneumonia. I now understand what the big deal is about the illness. I thought the flu was bad, but pneumonia is in a league all its own. The fever, chest pain, cough, and weakness are unlike any illness I’ve ever had, and I can’t even talk about the strange grunting sounds one makes while trying to sleep. Antibiotics came to the rescue, and a week later I was on the road to recovery. And that is one of the biggest problems of our modern world.

Antibiotics are amazing because they cure the infection, but they also make us feel like we are better and can return to our normal lives. The doctor warned me that a bout with pneumonia is different, and it can take weeks for the lungs to heal and the immune system to recover after the initial infection has cleared. I took this to heart and lay low for two weeks before resuming my normal schedule. It wasn’t enough. I relapsed, and this time, the doctor put me on bed rest. I prefer the old-fashion term: convalescence. She insisted I needed the time and space to rest, to treat myself gently, to avoid people with germs, and to recover thoroughly long after the antibiotics had done their part. My boss was 100% supportive, so I let go of the guilt of taking the time off and hit pause to honor what my body and my doctor were asking me to do.

Being still, letting go, listening to my body – convalescing – was healing and restorative. It wasn’t boring; in fact, the time flew by. I feel like I’m more immune now than before, stronger than before even though I’m still quite weak, and more in tune with my body than before. Convalescing properly was an important lesson I learned, so I’d like to share my top tips for being great at it if you, heaven forbid, fall ill, or just need a respite.

  1. Sleep when you’re tired and eat when you’re hungry. I would go into a deep sleep early, around 8:30 pm – sometimes earlier – until the sun came up, and I would also take long afternoon naps.This benefited me more than anything. I didn’t even get up to let the dog out at her normal 6 am time. I ate a lot of oranges, broccoli, carrots, pears, raspberries, tomatoes, and soup. My body hungered for green, orange, and red fresh foods. It also wanted lots of yogurts, to keep the good bacteria from being annihilated by the antibiotics.
  2. Weather permitting, get your vitamin D. The sunny spring-like weather continued in Austin in February, so I would wrap myself in a blanket and sit outside on the deck of my backyard, my face toward the sun, sipping tea. It made me feel like I was living in an earlier time when illnesses like pneumonia were treated with the respect they deserve. I would stroll around my yard feeling very 19th century-ish.
  3. Let others do things for you. This one is hard for me because I’m so independent, but I had to accept the role reversal and let others help me. Loved ones did my grocery shopping and errands, my daughter took care of all the dog’s needs and learned to do some light cooking, and friends drove my daughter to and from school and theater workshop rehearsals. It was liberating to be relieved of so many responsibilities.
  4. Watch lots of good movies. I watched many movies I had saved to my iTunes wish list. From 2003’s tragic and haunting House of Sand and Fog with Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly to all three of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s latest films (About Elly, A Separation, The Past – who knew Iranian cinema was so good?) to finally seeing Al Pacino return to being the great actor he is for Danny Collins to weeping at the predictable triumphant ending of Disney’s sports drama McFarland USA. But I was really disappointed in French film Amelie, a movie about which I had heard great things but that I found trite and ridiculous. Amelie is a stalker and she’s creepy, not cute and charming.
  5. Read. I read business books (Deep Work by Cal Newport was my favorite), my prayer book, a mystery (Sue Grafton’s X), a delicious bestseller (Lianne Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret), Laura Hillenbrand’s historical and biographical Seabiscuit, and articles on Content Marketing Institute, 99u, Houzz, and Harvard Business Review. I wasn’t able to read until the worst part of the illness was over as it was too tiring to concentrate, but once I felt a little better, I was grateful for the time to enjoy my reading list.
  6.  Thank your dog. They know you’re sick. My dog wouldn’t leave my side during the day, watching over me like a mother whose child is in the hospital. She happily let my daughter take her on her daily walk, asked to go outside only when she really needed to, and kept vigil downstairs at night.

While convalescence may seem like a bygone concept, it shouldn’t be. While it would have been nice to do my convalescence the 19th century way in a cottage by the sea, strolling along a glass beach, I am grateful for the time I had to recover at home, with so much support and encouragement from my family and friends, doctor, employer, and colleagues. I’ve had to cut back from my normal routine, and I will say “no” to a lot of things for the next couple of months, but it’s great to be breathing again and letting go of self-imposed “shoulds” and feeling like a slacker for taking the time to properly recover.

What about you? Have you ever had a period of convalescence? What did you do and what did you learn?

Blame the amygdala, but then lean into uncertainty

“Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.” – Voltaire

Maximize Your PotentialI’m a big fan of 99u, Behance’s website and rich content offerings that help empower creatives to make our ideas happen. I just finished the second book, Maximize Your Potential, in their three-part series on making ideas happen. I was again impressed with the quality of writing and advice in this book of essays. The book is organized into four sections:

  • Creating opportunities
  • Building expertise
  • Cultivating relationships
  • Taking risks

Today I want to focus on taking risks. I’ve never been shy to take risks and embrace failure; my career and personal life are full of those examples, and I’ve even left roles where I was not allowed to be an active change agent. I’ve been struggling with a subset of taking risks: uncertainty. Ever since my employer announced a major acquisition (the largest in tech history), I’ve been quite uncomfortable with the uncertainty and ambiguity such an endeavor creates. This has manifested itself as fear: fear that my team’s work won’t live on in the new organization, fear that my role (which I love) will change or be eliminated, fear that I won’t make the right decisions for my career and family during this intense period of flux.

I’ve been in high-tech marketing and sales for 20 years, so why, after so many years of living with constant uncertainty and ambiguity, am I filled with such anxiety now? While this is a “go big or go home” type of uncertainty, it’s really not that different from other scenarios I’ve successfully lived through. I have felt the same three fears I describe above many times in my career, so why am I not used to it by now?

Maximize Your Potential and the much-needed respite provided by the holidays have helped me figure this out. Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson call this anxious state “impact bias”:

“…people consistently overestimate the negative impact of such events. And since we expect such failures to be more painful and drawn out than they actually are, we fear them more than we should.”

In the past, this has turned out to be true. Acquisitions, mergers, and reorgs were not as painful or drawn out as they were feared to be in the beginning. Essayist Michael Schwalbe affirms that humans underestimate our resilience and ability to find silver linings, rationalize actions, and find meaning in setbacks. We also find it hard to imagine the pleasure we will get from our next venture and other daily activities when we are in the throes of fear.

Essayist Jonathan Fields confirms I’m not alone. He says that most people are wired to have a low tolerance for uncertainty, and he describes what happens to us physically: We experience it as pain, fear, anxiety, and doubt. The primal fear center in the brain, the amygdala, lights up when we are faced with the need to coexist or act in the face of great uncertainty, sending chemicals through our body that make us physically and emotionally uncomfortable and fatigued. Yup, that pretty much describes me.

What does Maximize Your Potential advise? Lean into the uncertainty. It’s the only way to keep creating great work. Anxiety and inertia are the enemies of creation.

  1. Understand the psychology of the process so you can be more mindful. There are powerful chemicals at work and knowing this can help you move from inertia to action at a pace right for you.
  2. Reframe uncertainty as possibility. Fields writes, “Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity, was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done. In which case, you’re no longer creating, you’re replicating. And that’s not why we’re here.”
  3. There is no formula that tells you how to move along the uncertainty curve. What’s more important, Fields says, is that you clearly define the resources and constraints; cultivate the mindset, workflow, environment, and lifestyle needed to fuel action; then act, and elevate learning as a core metric.

My anxiety has greatly lessened as I recall and appreciate how quickly I adapted in the past to these types of situations and how I have the power to make the outcome of any decisions a success. How have you dealt with the anxiety, fear, and doubt that organizational uncertainty and ambiguity can cause? I would love to hear from you in the comments.

 

 

Unlocking the mysteries of motivation

Many of us are counting down the hours to winter break, and I’m sure many of us will use the downtime to think about our goals for the new year and the vision for our life in 2016. I’m excited to share with you a guest post I wrote for UT’s Human Dimensions of Organizations blog In the Loop. In “Unlocking the mysteries of motivation,” I talk about how the latest UT HDO seminar helped me get unstuck in my creative life.

I hope you enjoy reading it and that you have a wonderful holiday season. Thank you for reading my blog!

Treat yourself with compassion

I’m finally painting again, thanks to a lesson in self-compassion that I received after attending my third seminar (out of four required) in UT’s Human Dimensions of Organization “Thinking Smarter” certificate program on November 13. I’m hoping to guest blog for HDO’s In the Loop as I have in the past, so I’ll hold off revealing all the reasons why the latest course – Behavior Change and Influence – had such an impact that I picked up my paintbrush in earnest again.

The course is based on instructor Art Markman’s new book, Smart Change. I recommend picking up or downloading this book now and using the Thanksgiving holiday to begin working through it. You’ll be more than prepared for the desire and pressure that arrives every December to develop and activate New Year’s goals if you start now.

Dr. Markman opened the class with a truth we all intuitively know: We are sent out into the world after college to think and motivate and influence without knowing a thing about psychology – how minds work, how people think, and why they behave in certain ways. The premise of these HDO seminars is that we would live better lives if we knew how our minds work. Understanding how my mind works got me motivated to paint again.

There are many reasons why it’s been hard for me to paint the last year, but they boil down to the fact that I acquired new habits during and after my mom’s fight with pancreatic cancer, which also coincided (in the same month) with the end of my art classes as my instructor Michael moved to Kansas City. Dr. Markman explained that our brains are designed to spend as little time thinking as possible. So when my environment changed drastically with my mom’s illness and the end of art classes, my behavior changed with it. No classes meant no set time to create art. And as I dealt with the stress of my mother’s illness, I couldn’t find the energy or joy to paint.

Not painting became the new habit, and so it’s been for a year, as I fell into what Dr. Markman calls the “what-the-hell effect”. We’ve all been there: this is where you elevate the failure of a specific accomplishment (“I didn’t show up to the easel again today”) to the status of the failure of an entire contribution (“I can’t be an artist”).

Dr. Markman’s class and his book helped me see that the path to changing my behavior is straightforward but not easy. He also helped me see that I need to have more self-compassion. I must look at my failure to paint the last year as a combination of things that were out of my control and the actions that I took or chose not to take, not as an assumption that there’s something fundamentally wrong with me or my ability.

Study of Georges Rouault's Head of Christ, oil on canvas, 36" x 24"

Study of Georges Rouault’s Head of Christ, oil on canvas, 36″ x 24″

I’ll write more about the lessons of Smart Change in future posts. But today, I want to close with the message of self-compassion and encourage my readers to reflect on it, along with gratitude, this Thanksgiving holiday. In deciding to treat myself with compassion as I make my way back to the easel, I chose the most compassionate subject there is for my new painting.

This week, I completed a study of George Rouault’s Head of Christ. The blogger The Ohio Expressionist was lucky enough to see the original up close. He remarked, “Rouault’s Christ looks me in the eyes until he finally has my attention, and says, ‘I suffer with you. I love you.'” Regardless of your religious beliefs, I hope that you enjoy my study of this beautiful painting and that the message of self-compassion resonates with you this holiday. Happy Thanksgiving.