Surprises and affirmations from the Gratitude Challenge

September 21, 2009 2 comments

On the eve of World Gratitude Day, I’m officially wrapping up my 21-day Gratitude Challenge. I know, it’s been more than 21 days since I started the challenge.  But I’ve been hesitant to end it.  Then I reminded myself that the Challenge will live on, for me, and hopefully for others, for much much longer.

During this challenge, I’ve blogged, Twittered, Facebook’ed.  I’ve taken an A to Z inventory of everything I’m grateful for in the course of just one day.  I’ve verbally expressed my appreciation for others at every opportunity that I can remember to do so.  I’ve fought battles with mommy guilt.  I’ve even tracked down my high school counselor from 20-years ago and reached out to him with a belated “thank you”.

And how has this exercise changed my life?  On the surface, not much.  Didn’t win the lottery.  And gratitude didn’t do my laundry or put home-cooked meals on the table every night. But I don’t need to scratch much deeper beneath the surface to know that I have changed in profound ways.

The expected.  Life’s little moments, like the way my toddler demands to listen to “opera” but calls it “ABBA”, has become so much sweeter.  The experience of not taking people for granted and expressing how I feel has become addictive.  The ability to see the silver lining in every situation has been enlightening.  Witnessing how others deal with adversity with grace and optimism has been awe-inspiring.  These were the types of rewards I hoped for when I first envisioned the Challenge, and I was delighted to confirm and experience them.

The unexpected.  The Gratitude Challenge surprised me with some unintended consequences.  A dozen folks from Tiny Prints participated in the challenge, and many of them on the Marketing team.  The original intent of the Challenge wasn’t for team-building, but I think that’s the byproduct we got.  I feel that we have a much stronger team as a result.  The Gratitude Challenge helped us build closer relationships.  The process of disclosing and sharing intimate reflections and details of one’s life allowed us to get to know each other as people much more deeply than we otherwise could have.  This I hope will help us trust each other more and appreciate each other in our entirety.  The Challenge has also given us a common goal and focus.  Even for those on the team who did not officially participate, they still cheered each other on from the sidelines and lent a hand of support.  I hope the team will agree that it’s been really fun to march down a shared vision together.

So on the last night of the official leg of my Gratitude Challenge, I feel especially grateful for the opportunity to work with the team at Tiny Prints.  I  feel very blessed to have the opportunity to integrate personal passion with work, and see those two meld together to produce something that is rewarding both personally and professionally.   And to top it off, I got to do it with a great group of people whose inner worlds I have gotten a glimpse of in this journey and whom I appreciate so much more deeply as a result.

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Response from College Counselor

September 14, 2009 1 comment

For those who read my September 4th blog entry and asked me if my HS college counselor ever received or replied to my letter of gratitude…   I did successfully track him down!  The experience of expressing heartfelt gratitude has been profound for me.  I realized my default mode in life is often to take the easier, lazier route — not reflecting on the impact others have had on my life, let alone expressing it.  I think when one goes through life this way, all the stuff you wish you had expressed but never did form a hard shell around you…  The exercise has been a freeing and powerful, and  somehow has made the soul feel lighter…

So with no further ado, here’s Mr. Tim’s response to my September 4th letter:

Hi Anna!

I do remember you!!  And what a lovely letter you wrote me.  Old teachers, especially retired old teachers… being remembered by their students, esp when they are remembered the way you remembered me — in the context of “the red wheelbarrow”…mean so much to me, to us.  Your remembrances seem somehow to validate all we try to do, all we dream about accomplishing. No matter what the profession.  Your remembering me in a strange way remembers all of us …

Your life sounds exciting and stimulating.  Mostly, your life sounds GOOD because it is not self-centered; it is structured around Gratitude, around others, thanking them for the small role or roles they have played in your life.  Perhaps I should join the gratitude Challenge since gratitude is what I am filled with because of your kind and dear letter, so eloquently written.

What I am doing now is writing (trying to write) poetry and volunteering at Hospice in Middletown, where my goal and dream is to help bring some sense of undying-ness about life to those who are at the brink.  It is desperate work sometimes. Very rich work – like meeting one day an Anna in my office who forever changes my life by the very lively, alive, response she gives to something I believe in deeply.

Well this is all just to say thank you for your incredibly wonderful and inspiring and life-affirming letter you wrote to me.  I will hold you in my heart and I will owe you  a debt all of my days.


Not sure if my letter deserved this nice response or if it’s true that my life is not “self-centered”…  I’m just really glad to have made the leap and reached out to give thanks to someone who has made an impact on my life.   I am looking forward to continuing this exercise for many many years beyond the Gratitude Challenge, and have already made a list for future gratitude letters 🙂

I hope this entry inspires you to write a gratitude letter or two.  And if you do, please do drop me a line and share your experience!

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The Trouble with “Yes We Can”

September 8, 2009 Leave a comment

The trouble with “yes we can” is that if you truly believe it, the logical conclusion for the next step has to be “yes we will”.

This point really hit home with me as my team at Tiny Prints and I struggled to figure out where to take the Gratitude Challenge next.  Despite our audacious dream of turning our little social experiment into a widespread grassroots movement, and despite the overwhelmingly positive outpouring of support we’ve gotten from people who have participated or followed our journeys (including you, dear readers of my blog), the task of taking this challenge to the next level still seemed too daunting.

Our list of reasons for hedging our bets and taking the easy route grew with every minute we spent thinking about how to make our dream happen.  All we kept coming up with were reasons why we shouldn’t do it.  Too expensive.  Not enough time.  Not enough resources.  We might fall on our face.  Not enough people care.  No one cares…  And so on…

Just as we were ready to give up  instead taking the easier route, something synchronicitous happened.    As if he had been reading my mind, Seth Godin, the bestselling marketing guru whose blog I read religiously, wrote a post about the problem with positive thinking. This thought-provoking entry posits that “negative thinking feels realistic, or soothes our pain, or eases our embarrassment. Negative thinking protects us and lowers expectations.”

This last sentence struck me like lightening.  In a moment of insight ignited by Seth Godin’s post, I realized that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.  Hiding behind reasons of why not to do something, because it’s scary and unpleasant to contemplate failure.  The easier thing to do is soothe that fear and go for a safer option.

This is also the same reason why the Gratitude Challenge has been, well, challenging.  It’s easier to keep your feelings to yourself.  Avoids the discomfort of having to confront your and other people’s emotions.  For me, it takes a lot of guts to disclose how I actually  feel about other people.  The same recurring recording plays in my mind with each blog entry I write.  What if my feelings of gratitude are not reciprocated…?  What if others develop an unflattering opinion that I’m just “soft” and “touchy feely” (attributes somehow seemingly unfitting of effective leaders)…?  Or worst yet, what if people just plain don’t care…?

Mr. Godin doesn’t offer any remedy in his  post about how to overcome negative thinking, other than to suggest that while positive thinking is harder, it’s worth it.  So I was left on my own to solve my dilemma:  How do we silence our inner (or sometimes not so inner) critic?

The answer for me was to drown out the voice of the critic.  I began listing all the reasons why we dreamed our audacious dream in the first place.  We wanted to honor our belief that we ought to “be the change you want to see in the world”.  We believed that the world was full of like-minded people who shared this belief.  We thought “the gratitude way” would be something easy to start adopting immediately yet profound enough to sustain a lifelong practice.  We believed gratitude to be the foundation of love.  And most importantly, we believed that we could be effective messengers of this important message, with our marketing know-how and all…

Focusing harder on “why yes” vs “why not” gave us the strength to take the more difficult route.  Now we are concentrating on how to make it happen vs. whether to make it happen.  Can’t say I’ve completely stopped losing sleep over it yet, but I am more energized than ever to go after the BHAG.

So tonight I am grateful for Seth Godin, whose timely wisdom provided the bridge I needed to go from thinking “yes we can” to actually commiting to “yes we will”.

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20 Years Late: Note to College Counselor

September 4, 2009 5 comments

This post is in response to last week’s challenge to send a note of thanks to someone I haven’t talked to in a long time (in this case, 20 years!)  It took me a while to track down my college counselor, to whom I owe the title of this blog and many thanks that were never acknowledged…

Note to Tim:


My name is Anna Fieler and I graduated from Choate class of 1990.  You became my college counselor almost exactly 20 years ago today.  I recently tracked down your email address from the Choate college counseling office.

You don’t know this because I have never expressed it.  But you have made a lasting impact on my life, aside from getting me into college.  In the Fall of 1989, I walked into your office with a copy of my half-baked college application essay to Brown in hand.  The essay probably waxed poetic about some grandiose adolescent  thoughts. You read it and said, “this reminds me of William Carlos Williams’ poem “red wheel barrow”, do you know it?”  I resonated with the poem so much that unbeknownst to me at the time, it went on to become a true north of how I have aspired to live my life ever since.

That episode in your office was a small but critical moment for me.  As a 17-year old who was abruptly transplanted into a New England prep school from Taiwan by way of the Dominican Republic , I was uncertain of who I was and floundering trying to navigate my way around a new world that didn’t come with an instruction manual.  Brown’s simple, open-ended essay question — “Tell us about yourself” —  felt particularly intimidating.  I remember feeling very vulnerable when I walked into your office that day, embarrassed by what I had written in my essay.  However, instead of dismissing my grandiose adolescent thoughts and encouraging me to write about something more tangible, you recognized the kernel of truth in it.  You gave me the gift of the “red wheel barrow”, which not only helped validate but also elevated what might have otherwise gotten lost as a passing sentiment.  Beyond the college essay, every interaction was just as insightful.  Visiting your office had become a favorite activity.  Our discussions about which college would be a good fit ended up being more about my journey to finding myself and reclaiming my voice…

You might wonder what compelled me to track you down and write you 20 years after the fact…?  Through work, I recently launched my own blog.  You guessed it, I named it “Red Wheel Barrows” and wrote about the poem in my debut entry. The blog is in response to the Gratitude Challenge my team is sponsoring.  As soon as I wrote my first entry, I knew I had to find you and express my gratitude for the role that you have played in my life, and to share this experience on my blog.  Your influence helped pave the foundation for who I am today, giving me the courage to put myself out there again and again, to not be afraid of expressing what I really believe, even if it  seems naïve, idealistic, or grandiose.  Perhaps kind of like this Gratitude Challenge.

So Tim, I would like to thank you for being one of the unsung heroes of my life.  You were a great college counselor, but even a better life counselor. I am grateful and privileged to have been under your guidance at such a critical juncture in my young life.

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Back on the Gratitude Wagon, eh, Barrow

September 3, 2009 Leave a comment

I fell off the gratitude wagon (or as my colleague Lea jokingly said my “red wheel barrow”) the last week.  Not sure if it’s any relationship, but I also gained 4 pounds during this same period…  (Tip to Lea, we should market weight loss/maintenance as an unintended benefit of the Gratitude Challenge.  I’m sure this will get the whole (at least female half of the) world participating in the Challenge!)

I have so many excuses and really no excuse.  Hubby has been traveling for work so I’ve been a single parent…  Had to step up my game and end my prolonged nanny search with school back in session next week, and interviewing +20 nannies a week has taken a lot of time…  Work has been insanely busy with our big Holiday season and 2010 planning around the corner…  I can only live off of four and half hours of sleep a night for so long.  My list of whiny excuses goes on and on.  The truth of the matter is, when it comes time to choose, things I do for myself,  such as writing which I so enjoy, or exercising which I so don’t enjoy, are always the first to go…

So it’s very apropos that today’s  Gratitude Challenge task is:  “Take the time to focus on yourself”…

I thereby recommit to the Gratitude Challenge, recommit to giving myself the permission to indulge in doing things for me.  And besides, I desperately need the high from being in the gratitude zone to keep me away from Tiny Prints’ well-stocked kitchen full of sugary snacks.

You can expect me back on my red wheel barrow, in style, from hereon until the end of the Challenge, and maybe even much longer.

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Hoop dancing down memory lane…

August 27, 2009 Leave a comment

The gods overseeing the Tiny Prints Gratitude Challenge must have been conspiring, arranging a meeting between myself and my long lost friend Janet for a while…  Day 4 of the Challenge asked that we see the good in something “negative”.  Day 6 asked that we connect with someone we haven’t in a long time.  Re-uniting with Janet was meant to be, helping me meet both challenges.

A few days ago, some unexplained bug on Facebook caused me to inadvertently spam EVERY single person I have ever corresponded with via email, inviting them to “check out my photos” on Facebook.   I mean everyone.  My mortgage broker, CEOs from companies I interviewed with once in the past, ex-boyfriends…!  I can’t overstate my embarrassment and subsequent episode of anxiety attack.   Out of the disaster did come some good.  I did pick up some Facebook friends as a result, all actually from people  I had meant to invite anyway.   But there was one reply that surprised me.  From Janet.

Janet was my very first hire back in my ad agency days in New York over a decade ago.  We worked together during the day.  We hung out at night.  We walked down the streets of Manhattan buzzed on cosmos (it was the 90s after all) and picked out cute guys to talk to for each other.  We were inseparable for a while.  Then life took us in different directions.  Janet continued to live the glamorous life in New York and Shanghai, while my path took me to settle down  in suburban mommyville.   In Janet’s email she said that she happened to be in the Bay Area and wanted to meet up.  I jumped at the opportunity.  We met tonight and caught up on a decade of life over wine and biscotti.  I so enjoyed hearing about Janet’s adventures, her career as a marketer, pilates instructor, and now most impressively a hoop dancing teacher. The evening ended with us in my yard, me  hula hoop dancing to her instructions.  It was the most fun the Fieler household has seen on a school night in a while (ok, at least since last Tuesday’s lu’au.)

After Janet left, I got to thinking about how much I cherished our brief time together tonight.  I almost felt as if I got a little piece of my self back.  For a couple of hours, I felt I was back in my 20s skin again– the sense of embarking on an exciting adventure to Destination Unknown, the wide-eyed optimism for what my future held, and the zest with which we just pursued pure fun, tonight in the form of hoop dancing…  Ironically, reconnecting with Janet also made me realize that at the core I am still that very same person I was a decade ago.  This realization made me smile inside.   It rekindled a spark that I now promise myself to keep alive.

So tonight I am grateful for old friends.  Old friends hold the magical power of bringing back bits of yourself that you may have forgotten are part of you.  How wonderful is that?!

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Week One Re-cap: Beauty, Love and Magic

August 25, 2009 1 comment

I have been following the Tiny Prints Gratitude Challenge for seven days.  I haven’t found the silver bullet to a new and improved life yet.  I still have dark circles under my eyes from lack of sleep.  My kids still don’t have play dates and fun activities lined up for the rest of the summer.  My inbox still reads “103 unread” emails though I just got it down to “0” at 1am last night.  One of our cars still has a big dent from a fender-bender that happened on April 17…

But I do have something to show for.  Three words.  Beauty.  Love.  And Magic.

Beauty.  These little gratitude exercises my team designed, and the very act of naming my blog and writing these posts, raised my antenna for beauty.  Consciously or subconsciously, in the last seven days I have begun to look for it everywhere.  There is the obvious.  My daughter’s impish grin, the dahlias at the farmer’s market, the gusto with which my four-year-old tosses a water balloon, Cecilia Bartoli singing Mozart arias…  Then there’s the not-so-obvious.  The beauty that comes from contrast and from finding the silver lining in the process.   Living the trade-offs between career and motherhood (previous post), battling loved ones’ serious illnesses (maybe future post), and aching so deeply for something long ago lost (maybe never a post)…  The conventional wisdom of “you find what you look for” held true the last seven days.  The Challenge asked me to look for good and negative things to appreciate every day.  And I found more beauty in the process.

Love.  This has been a by-product of The Challenge.   Sounds totally sappy I know.  And probably makes me lose credibility with anyone from work who reads this post.  But this is the honest truth. In the past seven days, I have become more aware of how much love surrounds me.  Though my kids are two and four-going-on-five, we’re still working through separation.  No goodbye of any type takes fewer than a good 10 minutes at our house, with kisses, hugs, hearts, “nonnies” (Eskimo kisses) of every variety each performed at least a few times by each kid.  This ritual used to make my blood pressure rise a little bit.  In the morning my heart would be already in the office as I got ready to walk out the door, worrying about being late for my first meeting.  At kids’ bedtime my heart would be with the hubby who might be waiting with a glass of wine on the couch…  I would always be living in the next-moment.  But in a conscious effort to appreciate, I’ve had to try to ignore the next thing and just focus on appreciating.  So I revel in those kisses, hugs, hearts and “nonnies”.  I sing a couple of extra lullabies.  I snuggle a few minutes longer at every opportunity.  And I found so much more love that was already there…

Magic. There’s a level of naivite in the premise of this whole gratitude exercise.  I see so much implicit hope, optimism and appreciation twinkle in my kids’ eyes.  Everything is magical.  But with age, skepticism developes as we pile on layer upon layer of “stuff” that dim the twinkle in our eyes.  The Gratitude Challenge has demanded that we strip away some of those layers and show some vulnerability.  You have to admit that sharing these seemingly sappy sentiments takes courage on my part.  But I guess it’s worth it if it restores some magic in the proces.  I feel my eyes twinkle more often now with hope, optimism and appreciation as I find more beauty and love in my life.

Seven days.  Three words.  No new and improved life.  But who needs it when you find the beauty, love, and magic that’s already there?

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