Renovating your brain: building new habits of mind

Published by Lori Pickert on March 11, 2013 at 10:07 AM

I have been getting a lot of feedback about this series, and the bulk of it is along the lines of “How did you get inside my head?” “Do you have a camera in my house?” and etc.

My secret for getting inside your head: I have my own head. And the inside of it looks remarkably like yours.

I don’t have to sit anyone down and say, “It’s okay. I’ve pulled the curtains. We’ll film you in silhouette. Now please explain to me what it feels like when you’re terrified of failing. Let’s explore those complex emotions you undergo when you have to expose all your ugly little ambitions. Here’s a box of Kleenex in case ugly crying ensues.”

I don’t have to do that because HELLO, I have already experienced all these things. I have learned first-hand why failure is absolutely unavoidable. I have had to struggle with my own haters and overcome my own worst enemy, which was, as is the usual case, myself.

We’re really all the same. Artists know this. It’s how they get into our heads, too — not by research, but by living. They expose their own lives and feelings and their audience recognizes themselves in what they write or paint or sing.

But — for some reason, we are determined to believe 1, that we are special (it’s different for ME), and 2, that other people who succeed have some magical combination of luck and ability that boosts them higher.

Those two beliefs work together beautifully to keep us mired where we are, unable to get going. We both gift ourselves with an abundance of excuses about why we can’t and gift others with superpowers and riches that allow them to soar.

From yesterday’s Debbie Millman excerpt:

Every once in awhile — often when we least expect it — we encounter someone more courageous, someone who chose to strive for that which (to us) seemed unrealistically unattainable, even elusive. And we marvel. We swoon. We gape. Often, we are in awe. I think we look at these people as lucky, when in fact, luck has nothing to do with it. It is really about the strength of their imagination; it is about how they constructed the possibilities for their life. In short, unlike me, they didn’t determine what was impossible before it was even possible.

There’s nothing special about you, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. This is a theme we will explore again and again, because that feeling that the normal rules don’t apply to us regenerates over and over again — and so over and over again we must slough it off.

Everyone has to go through the difficult parts. Everyone.

My only comfort was the knowledge that I was not alone. Huddled in the smoky hallways and making the most of our pathetic French, my fellow students and I engaged in the sort of conversation commonly overheard in refugee camps.

“Sometimes me cry alone at night.”

“That is common for me also…” — Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris

We have some idea that there’s a difference between us and the people who make it. There isn’t.

It isn’t about who has more money, more time, more connections. It’s about who is determined to do the work and who gives up. Whatever your circumstances — lack of money, lack of time, small children — they’re just your circumstances. They’ll change across your life. These problems will fade away and be replaced with different problems — health issues, elderly parents, teenage children. Other people have their own circumstances. Hardly anyone is living your fantasy life of free time and a dedicated studio. Let it go.

Successful people have all the same thoughts, feelings, problems, struggles as people who fail — they just don’t quit. If you fail and quit, you’re a failure. If you fail and keep going, you’re just whatever you are: a writer, an artist, a photographer, a chef, a gardener, a builder, a maker, a doer.

We’re all the same. We have the same thoughts and feelings and struggles. We’re much more alike than we are different from one another. This isn’t just another pep talk. There are important reasons why we have to ingrain this in our minds:

You need other people. And if you stay convinced that you’re a special snowflake and ordinary rules don’t apply to you, you can’t find or build community — because community is built on what we have in common. You can’t seek help and you can’t offer it. You can’t be part of things. You can’t contribute. And these are all things that you need to do. This series isn’t about you sitting alone in your house baking a perfect scone. Whatever your talents are, whatever your abilities are, you need to share them. To repeat: The world needs what you have to give.

You need to get comfortable with your flawed humanity. Making excuses so you don’t have to start so you can forestall pain and humiliation just keeps you out of the game. And once you’re in it, if you think success means pretending everything is easy for you and nothing hurts, you’re wrong. What binds us is our common experience. The only way to build intimacy is through vulnerability. When you lift your chin in the air, you can’t look anyone in the eyes.

You need to mentor and be mentored. Sharing your work means connecting, and you need people you can help and people who can help you. It’s a continuum. You never stop learning and growing. You never stop trying to help the guy behind you. 

You need to break the excuse habit. Every time you find yourself sliding back into that thought rut of “they’re different” or “I’m different,” just stop yourself. If someone else can do it, you can do it, too. If you can do it, you can help someone else do it. It’s not about being rich or popular or having loads of time or money — it’s just about what you do. So do the important thing. Do what matters. Do more of it. And keep doing it.

We can (and will) talk about concrete strategies for doing our meaningful work — creating a supportive environment, getting mentors, building community.
But so much of what holds us back or helps us succeed falls into the category of habits of mind: how we’re inclined to think or react. Our habits of thought form the foundation on which everything else is built.
The reason we want to help children direct and manage their own learning is so they can strengthen those habits of mind. We’re a little older; we are doing more renovating than building. We have to tear down those thoughts and beliefs and habits that aren’t working for us and replace them with better ones. So here’s one bad thought you can concentrate on tearing out and replacing: that belief that some people have advantages that you don’t, that you have it a little harder than everyone else. Even if it’s true, is that thought really helping you? Replace it with something that will: It’s what you do that matters. So do something that matters today.


Comment by amy21 on March 11, 2013 at 12:07 PM

LOVE THIS!! "When you lift your chin in the air, you can’t look anyone in the eyes."

I love the whole piece, but *that* sentence resonates. I can get trapped in the habit of thinking of everything I have to do/have done on my own/without help and the number of times I've asked for help and not gotten it... but it's more useful to say, Yeesh. I just haven't asked the right people. I need to make sure I'm not all stiff stoic chin about it so I can *see* the right people to ask. Yes? Am I getting it, oh wise one? :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 11, 2013 at 12:49 PM


I need to make sure I'm not all stiff stoic chin about it so I can *see* the right people to ask.

you know, i was thinking more about people who put their *nose* in the air, too — people who think being successful means acting like they have it ALL together. but your interpretation works just as well. because the whole point is not looking other people in the eye — whatever feelings we’re feeling, whatever we’re struggling with, whether we think we’re not good enough or nobody likes us or we have to pretend we’re better than other people — none of that is working for us.

I can get trapped in the habit of thinking of everything I have to do/have done on my own/without help and the number of times I've asked for help and not gotten it...

i think one of the most important themes we’re discussing in this series is how we need to be a little less emotional and a little more objective — if things aren’t working well for us, we tend to attack ourselves and make ourselves feel worse. we come up with big explanations about how everyone hates us and no one appreciates us and etc. when really we just need to stop, take a breath, and break it down — something isn’t working, so try something else. quitting doesn’t get you anywhere; changing your strategy might.

Comment by amy21 on March 11, 2013 at 12:57 PM

As I was writing that I was thinking specifically of how much I do without help (ALL OF IT) when my husband is away, and how I've asked for help and not gotten it so my default response is now, How can I handle everything all by myself because I can't depend on anyone? And the answer I often don't even consider is that I haven't found the right, ie dependable, people yet and I never will if I give up on the whole idea. But it's a mindset that leaks into everything, and it can spin into self-pity and just paralyze me with all WOE IS ME and I DIDN'T CHOOSE THESE CIRCUMSTANCES and, well, get over it, Amy. That sort of thing.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 11, 2013 at 05:19 PM


the answer I often don't even consider is that I haven't found the right, ie dependable, people yet and I never will if I give up on the whole idea


i’ve seen this happen with community building as well — if a bad experience makes you quit, then you are NEVER going to be able to build that community. because bad experiences WILL happen.

we must be tenacious.

Comment by amanda {the hab... on March 11, 2013 at 02:12 PM

"There’s nothing special about you, and I mean that in the nicest way possible."

My dad always says something along those lines, about how we're all really just mediocre, middle of the road until it comes down to determination and motivation.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 11, 2013 at 05:24 PM


i hope it’s clear i say that in a loving tone. ;o)

i think “there’s nothing special about you” sounds mean if you’re talking about someone’s talents/abilities/interests. but when it comes to your fears/problems/troubles, then it’s really comforting to know you’re not alone. we all suffer from the same things.

so much of this is just magical thinking. i want to push people away from feeling helpless to a more pragmatic place where we can say “oh well, brush yourself off, it’s all good, nothing too surprising here, let’s have a snack and then get back in there and try again.”


Comment by lisahassanscott on March 11, 2013 at 04:23 PM

What I love about this piece is your emphasis on vulnerability and failure as the keys to connection. As you know, these are central themes in my own writing, and your post inspired me to blog again today about the value of letting down our guard as mothers.

If I can make one mother feel that she is not alone, that she is normal, that there is solidarity between us-- well, then my work here is done.

I really value that you write from a place of experience and self-awareness. It's what makes your writing so honest and inspiring. Keep it up.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 11, 2013 at 05:26 PM

thank you, lisa :)

Comment by Michelle on March 11, 2013 at 08:23 PM

The word I keep coming back to up there is courage. Having the courage to know BEFORE things jump in your way that you're going to get back up and find a way around them. Realizing that there will always be "stuff" means you get to choose how you're going to deal with it. No more waiting! Waiting stinks.

I have the cowardly lion's emerald city speech stuck in my head:
"What have they got that I ain't got?"
No, the correct answer is "Nothin'."

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 11, 2013 at 08:52 PM



what a great point. if we know these things are going to happen (and they are), we can come up with strategies for dealing with them. much better than hoping everything goes as planned and then ending up flattened and feeling bad.


Comment by Rach on March 13, 2013 at 03:45 AM

"You need to break the excuse habit". So true - there will always be some reason that you can come up with to prevent yourself making the crucial changes. I heard about "the status quo bias" the other day. Most people prefer to keep things the same. They fear that if they make a change they will regret it. that they will regret having made the change. "If it aint broke, don't fix it", "when in doubt do nothing" - these are strong, crippling messages we've received all our lives. That leads people to make all kind of excuses to justify our bias towards non-action. How can we change this? JUST DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT, and lo and behold that will become your new status quo. If we can't beat this bias, maybe we should just harness it.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 13, 2013 at 07:12 AM

rach, i love this so much — build yourself a new status quo! that could be a rallying cry for this series. :)

Comment by Rach on March 13, 2013 at 09:22 AM

Oh Lori thanks. I can talk the talk, but can I walk the walk?

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 13, 2013 at 10:06 AM


Comment by Renee @ FIMBY on March 15, 2013 at 03:52 PM

Did I lose my comment? Maybe I was too busy tweeting with you and distracted. Darn, hate it when that happens. I said some nice stuff. Then I said it again in twitter.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 15, 2013 at 04:04 PM

lol — darn, it’s gone! oh well, i will treasure your tweets. ;o)

Comment by Christina @ Int... on March 21, 2013 at 03:30 PM

Thanks so much for this today, Lori. I really needed it- especially the part about how I'm not different than other people and that I'm only a failure if I give up.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 21, 2013 at 03:55 PM

thank you, christina — glad you found it when you needed it! :)

Comment by Stacey B on May 30, 2014 at 10:35 AM

I needed to reread this post this morning, thank you.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 30, 2014 at 12:56 PM


Comment by Zilver on January 13, 2016 at 03:54 AM

We have to tear down those thoughts and beliefs and habits that aren’t working for us and replace them with better ones.

Exactly! It's been almost a decade since I realized I was dealing with negative programming in my own head, and I have made a conscious decision many times to replace it with positive thoughts, but over the years I have grown more and more bitter, resentful and doubtful.

Then I had a child. And suddenly the stakes were raised. It became important. Every time I found myself having a negative thought pattern I searched the internet for how to deal with it. I found self-improvement blogs and articles and thanks to the millions of links within each article I just kept on reading. It's now been 2-3 months of reading something positive almost every day. Often it's the last thing I do before I fall asleep, and sometimes the first thing I do when I wake up. I can honestly say it's been a while since I felt heavy with negative thought patterns.

When you can't change your own thought habits, let someone else do it. Read, read, read, read, read everything positive that speaks to you, let the positive thoughts wash you over and convince you that it's okay to feel positive. It really is.

I'm not bitter anymore. I'm excited.

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