An Ordinary Poppy | 49

It’s okay to not be exceptional — really. Also, our metrics for success are really odd, and don’t forget about art.

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Episode Transcript

This is The Good List — I’m Tsh Oxenreider.

This is an idea.

When I first announced in January that 2020 would be my long-running blog, The Art of Simple’s, last year, after 12 years of consistent publishing, I thought it would be the longest year thus far in my writing life, that I’d finally say all the things I’ve wanted to say but kept tucked in my pocket, that I’d have all kinds of brain space to reflect and debrief about what AoS has meant to me the past decade-plus.

Of course, I didn’t know what 2020 would bring, and that with it, this blog’s last year would be an afterthought for me. Not that I wouldn’t care — I would, deeply — but that, like so many of us, much of my brain space and energy had to focus on a new way of survival.

So, here we are in October, and I can scarcely believe that in two months, I’ll be keeping just a few lights dimmed for those who want to continue reading the archives (of which there are many). And I’ll admit that it’s been hard to know just what to say on the blog this year.

With all the everything around us (gestures widely), from the global pandemic and quarantine to our country’s election and everything in between, it’s been challenging to walk the tightrope of saying encouraging things without being trite, of saying things that need to be said without being another loud voice.

With two months left of keeping AoS an active blog, here are a few things I’ve learned about working well in a sort of year I never expected for its last one.

1. It’s okay to not be exceptional.

More than okay, actually. Many of us in our thirties and forties grew up with a notion that we needed to be remarkable and “live a big story” in order to make sense of our lives, to make a dent in our short time on earth. This idea is rampant in the world of entrepreneurialism, digital publishing, and self employment.

In order to stand apart in the fiercely competitive business world of the internet, you have to constantly scale your work — it has to grow, find new and more fans, and continually evolve to stay relevant. Boy, that’s exhausting.

It flies in the face of all the current advice about running a business, leadership, and digital platform growth, but I say it’s perfectly okay to be ordinary. In fact, some might say it’s a sign of mental health when you eschew the pressure to stand out from the crowd.

Every day on our Literary London trips we pause for a deep group discussion. So far this trip has been for women artists, entrepreneurs, and leaders, so the conversations revolve around the things these sorts would care about. A delightful Aussie was part of 2019’s trip, and she told us about a common idea in Australia and New Zealand that I still think about regularly. It’s called Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Essentially, it’s the idea of disparaging someone for choosing to elevate or rise above the expectations of their peers. Being a “tall poppy” is negative because it’s seen as thinking too highly of yourself.

In my mind, being a tall poppy is both negative and positive, in that it promotes egalitarianism yet it can also discourage reaching one’s full potential. But I think it’s interesting that this is even the widely-held belief of a culture because I can’t think of anything more opposite to the American mindset of overachievement.

Here in the States, we are infused with the idea of being tall poppies, and to not want to be a tall poppy is to settle for ordinary. This year more than all my other years of writing online (but it’s gradually been coming the previous three or so), I’ve learned to embrace being an average-height poppy.

If being an ordinary poppy means not being a slave to continual growth, obsessing over metrics, and feeling like I always have to say something and constantly post, I’ll take it. I’ll be over here, blooming just fine.

I’ll talk about the other two things I’ve learned about work this year right after this short break — be right back.

[AD BREAK]

Okay, so the first thing I’ve learned about work this year is that it’s okay — in fact, more than okay — to be an ordinary poppy. Here’s the second one.

2. Our metrics for success are really odd.

I won’t spout again my current feelings about social media, because it makes me feel like that “old man yells at cloud” Simpsons thing. If you read my newsletter or follow me pretty much anywhere on the internet, you already know I side-eye its role in our culture.

But only recently I had this realization: the metrics of social media are also just …weird. It really is. For us to ask our business leaders, politicians, artists, writers, or any other sort of community member to publicly say something witty, important, pithy, funny, groundbreaking, controversial, comforting, or wise at regular, near-daily intervals — and then for us to “vote” on them with thumbs and hearts and for us to measure its success on that number displayed — is a strange way to decide what’s important in our society.

Yet we do it all the time. And it can really mess with our heads. It was rumored not too long ago that certain platforms like Instagram were toying with the idea of hiding numbers publicly, and I am such a fan of that concept, yet I don’t see it happening right now. Not sure if it’ll come to fruition.

Regarding work, and specifically in my line of work of mostly writing, it’s not just the idea of whether social media is morally good, evil, or neutral — it’s also the idea that it’s distracting.
Yes, it’s good to cultivate and communicate with an audience that likes your work. I’m so grateful social media has helped me do what I do (though it doesn’t hold as powerful a place as it purports itself to have). But its never-ending-ness and its screams for attention pull so many well-meaning artists away from doing the things they’d truly rather do: create something that stands the test of time.

I like social media when it allows us to talk to each other. I loathe it when it keeps score on who matters based on how addicted they are to it. This year, I’ve chosen to give it less attention, and I’ve paid a bit for it. I’m hedging my bets, though, that my work will be better off in the long run.

3. We all crave art.

In all this entrepreneur-ing and creating and publishing, we still long for beauty in our lives, and we’ll pay the price if we focus too much on content-creation for other people without savoring art ourselves.

Work daily, yes, work smart and hard, and do the thing you’re meant to do — of course. I’m all for that. But stop every day, and just enjoy life. Always carry a novel with you so you have something to do besides the anxious scroll. Light a candle or listen to music as you work, so you remember checking off your to-do list isn’t all there is. Go on a walk every day so you make sure you daily step on crunchy leaves and look at grass and trees and maybe a neighbor.

Work well, and then be done with it, and take care of yourself with a regular, daily dose of art of all types. You’re not a machine. You don’t exist to check off a to-do list. The purpose of your life is not productivity.

These are the work-related things I’ve learned in the last year of this blog, perhaps more than anything else.

[ LISTENER COMMENT ]

Hi Tsh, this is Alicia calling from Long Island, New York and I have an idea that I’d like to share. I know many of your listeners and you included are readers and love books and this summer the book club that I’ve been a part of for the last couple of years has done things a little different and this is the idea that I want to share. We have met weekly every Saturday morning for what we call Books and Breakfast. We meet at 8:30 and the idea behind this change to our normal monthly, let’s get together and discuss a book, is the pandemic and the lack of books that we’ve been able to access because our library has been closed here in New York so we got together on a Saturday morning. Our first meeting was just to discuss what about people had been reading while they were shut home and were staying at home during the pandemic and the libraries were closed. But coming together each week just to talk about what we’re reading has been really fun. And another cool part of this idea is that we’ve been sitting outside on the porch because it’s pretty nice here in the summer time and still is in many parts of the world. There’s been no pressure on the hostess to have to put together food, you know a beverage or food items, we’ve just all brought our own. It’s got the BYOB aspect to it. So you bring your books that you want to talk about, you bring your own beverage, you bring your own breakfast. We sit outside and we just talk about what we’ve been reading and so each week we establish a scene. So for instance, last week people were talking about travel, memoirs and favorite books in that category. We’ve talked about cookbooks. We’ve talked about gardening. We’ve talked about nonfiction, we’ve talked about fiction, but if your book club feels like it’s in a bit of a rut this could be a really good change-of-pace and it has the fun of just hearing what people, what books they’ve been sharing and reading lately and then also the element of not having to host with preparing lots of food items. That’s all fun and good and in fact, our group is going to come back in September and discuss a book that we’ll all read, but this has been a nice interlude just to change things up. We were all so desperate to see each other and coming together weekly and just sharing more and more book titles has been very rewarding and all of TBR lists have blown up. So I offer that as an idea to listeners that they may really enjoy just this change of pace for Thursday if you’re used to meeting only monthly, maybe do a month where you could meet weekly and just talk about other types of books that you’re reading and go from there. So anyway, that’s my idea. I hope it’s something that can be beneficial to other listeners as well. Take care, bye-bye.

Thanks so much to Alicia for sharing with us what’s on her good list. A little reminder that Advent is coming up fast! It’s November 29 this year, so now is the time to get my latest book, Shadow & Light: A Journey Into Advent. Go to shadowandlightadvent.com for details, including how you can join a new thing we’re doing: an Advent community, so that you have support, ideas, and encouragement for walking through Advent in your own home in a way that works for you. I’d love to have you join us. Again, that’s at shadowandlightadvent.com, or just use the link I’ve got in the show notes of this episode, #49 of The Good List.

As a reminder, I’m on twitter @tsh and every now and then on IG @tshoxenreider, but I mostly like to connect with you through my free weekly email called 5 Quick Things, which I send it out most every Friday morning. To get it, go to fivequickthings.email and sign up for free, or again, find the link in this episode’s show notes.

Music for the show is by Kevin MacLeod, and thanks, as always, to Caroline TeSelle and Kyle Oxenreider for their help, as well as my furry intern, Ginny. I’m Tsh Oxenreider, and I’ll be back with you soon — thanks for listening to The Good List.

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