When I was a child, I had an umbrella with panels in different colors of tinted plastic. That umbrella made it great fun to go out in the rain, holding a panel of a particular color in front of my face to see everything around me in that color, while pretending I had traveled to the Purple Planet or the Blue Planet for the day.

The world didn’t seem as colorful after I got older and spent most of my time just getting things done, rather than letting my mind wander wherever it liked and having fun playing pretend. It took me a while to realize that they are not in fact mutually exclusive options. There’s no reason why we can’t get things done and have a playful mindset too, whether it is a rainy day or not.

Word-art that says "Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain."

Nurturing Thursday was started by Becca Givens and seeks to “give this planet a much needed shot of fun, support and positive energy.” Visit her site to find more Nurturing Thursday posts and a list of frequent contributors.

Today’s corporate culture places a high value on continuous improvement, which generally means learning how to question existing practices and determine whether something else might be more effective. To gain some experience with it, I am currently doing a beginner-level continuous improvement project that involves gathering and analyzing data on how my coworkers track their time and fill in the weekly timesheet. The objective is to find ways of making the process easier and quicker, which may save the company a little money if there is wasted time that can instead be used to get more work done.

While this is just a small-scale project and won’t bring about any major changes, it’s useful anyway as part of a cultural shift toward questioning why we do things in particular ways. Before I started the project, I never gave any thought to time-tracking and whether the process was as efficient as it could be. I simply jotted down my work hours on a notepad that I keep in my desk drawer, entered those hours on the timesheet at the end of the week, and took for granted that was just the way it was.

Small spiral notepad in desk drawer with pen.

This cultural shift goes far beyond the workplace. Because today’s world gives us far more access to information than at any time in history, we’re always encountering facts that suggest our old familiar assumptions are likely to be incomplete. Expanding our worldview takes time and a considerable amount of mental effort. After all, our ancestors evolved in a world where things changed very little from one year to another, so they had no need to work continuously on redrawing their mental maps. The human brain’s decision-making process, still rooted in those primitive origins, relies on subconscious assumptions to a much greater extent than we generally realize.

Whether in the workplace or in the broader culture, it all starts with questioning. Diversity programs, for example, give the participants more familiarity with other cultures, which in turn leads to reflecting on the factual basis of assumptions and developing a better-informed perspective. For some groups, such as the LGBTQ community, questioning is expressly seen as an early step in forming one’s identity—although Q can mean queer, it also stands for questioning. The field of Disability Studies has to do with critically examining society’s assumptions about disability in the light of real people’s experiences. In April of every year, the Autistic community celebrates Autism Acceptance Month, which involves questioning cultural myths about autism and seeking to create a more informed and accepting society.

Because the complexity of the modern world requires so much effort to understand and adjust to what’s going on around us, sometimes it gets overwhelming. We need enough simplicity and comfortable routines to keep our stress levels manageable, but that’s not easy when we always have to deal with something new. Questioning our assumptions, whatever they may be, can get uncomfortable because we’re afraid others will judge us harshly if we have been wrong about anything.

Continuous improvement seeks to streamline the process by using familiar and well-defined methods, while looking at the data objectively and avoiding criticism of ideas as bad or existing workplace practices as wrong. We tend not to take it too personally when these projects identify more efficient ways of doing our work based on analyzing the data. In general, we don’t feel emotionally invested in small workplace details such as whether we use a notepad or something else to track our hours.

When our cultural assumptions are challenged, however, we don’t have a clearly defined process for updating them and are far more likely to get anxious and defensive about being judged. No matter what side we may take in today’s political conflicts, we often feel that our culture and worldview are under attack. Global corporate leaders, by contrast, generally look upon information about cultural differences in the neutral light of the continuous-improvement framework. Like other kinds of information, they’re seen as useful data points to inform efficient practices and higher profits.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should cultivate in our personal lives the emotional detachment of the corporate mindset. On the contrary, it is natural and reasonable that in these stressful times, many of us feel strongly motivated to preserve our cultures and traditions. We can, however, benefit from occasionally reflecting on our personal views and how they relate to society, within a calm, non-confrontational setting such as a discussion group. After all, cultural differences do not necessarily have to result in conflict; there are many possible ways of framing and addressing the issues, and in general, questioning is the first step toward discovering what might be possible.

I woke up to a dark, cloudy morning on Wednesday and felt gloomy for much of the day, brooding about past occasions when I had felt stuck in bad situations. Although that happened many years ago, it still bothered me that I had let myself get into such a negative pattern rather than taking timely and constructive action to deal with problems as they came up.

The sky brightened after a while, and I went rowing with my husband after work. We had to go slowly and carefully because the river was full of large logs and other debris that had floated downstream since the last time we were there.

Large log in the river.

By then it was late in the day, but I still hadn’t managed to shake off the gloomy thoughts. As we returned to the dock, it occurred to me that some impulsive decisions I had made recently could be seen as related to that old pattern—or, more specifically, could be seen as my subconscious mind forcing the necessary action to break the pattern and ensure nothing like that would ever happen again.

“Okay, subconscious mind,” I said to myself, continuing the internal dialogue, “if you’ve been so busy protecting me from myself by any means necessary, then what was your reason to leave me feeling so totally blah the entire day?”

“To recognize the pattern, of course.” The answer popped into my head right away. It was not followed by a “Duh,” but sounded as if it might easily have been. Then the gloomy feelings instantly vanished, in what had to be the fastest mood swing ever. I felt fine while putting the boat away and getting into the car.

By the time I got home, though, my back muscles had tightened up for no apparent reason, making it hard for me to move around all evening. I don’t ordinarily have back problems, and I certainly hadn’t exerted myself too much when I was rowing very slowly around that obstacle course of monster logs. So what the heck was going on here?

Then another thought came to mind, which was that this drama had Dame Shadow’s fingerprints all over it. As I described in a December blog entry, Dame Shadow is one of my angrier and more defensive past selves. She feels like it’s her responsibility to protect me from the world’s evils when she thinks I’m not doing enough to take care of myself, which is often.

When I last had an imaginary conversation with Dame Shadow as she was getting ready to charge into battle with an army of mythological creatures in a landscape from an empire-building computer game, I came to the conclusion that she wanted recognition for her efforts, and I promised to show respectful appreciation the next time she had something to say. Gratitude for a sore back wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind, but that seemed to be where things stood for now. So I took a moment to meditate and let my mind quiet down. Then I thanked the Dame for kindly offering advice and told her that I was sorry, but I didn’t quite grasp what she was trying to tell me.

She didn’t step out into the light of my conscious mind, but I heard the fabric of her long skirts rustling somewhere not far away. “What or whom are you carrying on your back? You may want to think about that,” she remarked cryptically; and that was all I got out of her.

I realized that my back did indeed feel weighted down, as if someone had come up behind me and jumped on it. No particular images came to mind, though, and I spent the next couple of days pondering the question. Was it a younger self, heavy with old emotional baggage? Maybe another person that I had been trying to please without knowing it? Or a more general metaphor, such as having a monkey on one’s back?

Then I decided that I didn’t really need to have an exact answer; just thinking about the question was useful in itself. My back felt fine when I woke up this morning, and I wondered if perhaps the lesson might also have to do with patience—that is, setting aside any expectations that I ought to be able to get things sorted all at once. After all, everything always has another layer to it somewhere!

Okay, I haven’t really gone exploring in the desert recently; but the way I see it, a little prodding in the direction of a more adventurous mindset is all for the best.

Word-art showing a hiker in a desert that says "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone."

Comfort zones do have their benefits, in that having predictable routines helps us to avoid stress and be more productive. Still, it’s important to find a healthy balance and not get stuck there!

Nurturing Thursday was started by Becca Givens and seeks to “give this planet a much needed shot of fun, support and positive energy.” Visit her site to find more Nurturing Thursday posts and a list of frequent contributors.

Now that the last remnants of winter finally seem to be over, I’ve been wanting to spend a day on a nice long rambling springtime hike. However, this is just another ordinary workweek and I’m not in fact taking a day off, so instead I put an image on my art display that shows the bright cheerful greenery of Kerry Way Trail, Ireland. It certainly looks like the earth springing to life, don’t you think?

Bright springtime green of Kerry Way Trail, Ireland

Even though I’m not really gazing out my window at this wonderfully inviting trail, I can at least get my subconscious mind halfway believing that I could just step outside at any moment and be right there!

Sometimes it gets kind of scary in our fast-changing world. Even when we just keep on doing the things that we enjoy and are good at doing, all kinds of doubts pop up. Jobs can disappear, skills can get obsolete, and the culture can change so much that others no longer appreciate our talents or see us as being useful. There’s no way of knowing what might happen.

Even though the future is uncertain, we shouldn’t let ourselves get overwhelmed. The world is full of amazing possibilities too, and changes that seem scary can end up opening doors for us that we never imagined. Instead of letting those doubts get to us, we need to trust, and just keep on.

Word-art that says "Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best." -Henry Van Dyke

Nurturing Thursday was started by Becca Givens and seeks to “give this planet a much needed shot of fun, support and positive energy.” Visit her site to find more Nurturing Thursday posts and a list of frequent contributors.

With so many things changing around us in today’s world, sometimes we can feel unsettled not because of any problem in particular, but just because it seems like there’s no way of knowing what might happen next. It’s hard to imagine what the future might look like when living in the present is so complicated already, and getting more so all the time.

But the upside of all this complexity is that we have more options than at any time in history, and every few years they increase exponentially. Even if we haven’t yet discovered what many of them are or will be, somewhere in that ever-changing future, if we keep an open mind, we can expect to find creative ways to shape our lives into new and wonderful patterns.

Word-art that says "Don't wait for the right opportunity: create it." -George Bernard Shaw

Nurturing Thursday was started by Becca Givens and seeks to “give this planet a much needed shot of fun, support and positive energy.” Visit her site to find more Nurturing Thursday posts and a list of frequent contributors.

They’re predicting more wintry weather blowing in on Thursday, with temperatures falling all day, rain turning to snow, and howling winds. Seriously? I want summer already! Wah! But since the forecast is not cooperating, I’ve decided to go on an imaginary vacation and turn my art display into a window of a comfy beachfront cottage, where I can breathe the salty ocean air, smell the tropical flowers blooming on the balcony, and watch the waves roll in.

Ocean view with a corner of a wood balcony.

Ahh… now that feels much better! If you’re also in a place where winter just won’t give up, I hope you stay warm and safe, with plenty of fun distractions to keep you cheerful.