The Story Economy Blog

Letting Go of Upside-Down Possibility

she let goThe last few weeks of the year may be filled with twinkly lights and bright-eyed kids playing with new sets of Legos, but for me, they’ve always felt like a bridge between the old and the new—between the stuff you carry with you into the new year, and the stuff you leave behind. Last week, as I sat in my office on Christmas Eve day, working on my Fresh Start 2014 Pinterest board, what I was thinking about most was what I didn’t want to take with me into 2014. Two things topped that list: too much thinking about where I’ve been and too much thinking about what could be.

A Pinterest board with inspirational sayings and images was a great start. But it wasn’t enough. To truly let go in a real way, I knew exactly what I had to do: purge my files. For normal people, this would be a normal thing. For record-keeping weirdoes like me, it’s a big event.

When I say “files,” I’m talking about more than 10 years of notes from magazine articles and photo shoots. I’m talking about correspondence, brainstorming captured on paper, and paper trails that represented how I made my living for a decade. My hopes and goals and achievements, neatly filed into colorful folders, stacked carefully in batches all over my office. I’m talking about the physical matter that represented who I was, everything I thought I wanted, and what I was working toward for a long time.

It had to go.

When Holding On is Holding Out

The thing is, I’ve inherited my late father’s extreme record-keeping tendencies. The man wrote down his mileage and gallons pumped every time he got gas; he had like 50 years of gas mileage history. He kept his notes from every single college class (my sister and I are going to decoupage them onto something). In these past few months, as we’ve been sorting through the plethora of what he left behind in those file cabinets we were never allowed to mess with, I’ve started to get what I didn’t get before: that I don’t actually have to be this same way if it isn’t serving me anymore.

There is a balance, of course. Records and pieces of the past are good. Very good. They’re lovely, in fact. But in abundance, this stuff is an anchor—and not necessarily a productive one. I think it goes to two things: (1) an obsession with how things were versus what life really is right now, and (2) the possibility of what could be (I must save these things because they represent the possibility of possibility and I don’t want to miss out!). It’s not my place to say what holding onto things did or didn’t do for my dad. But for me, it’s not doing anything great anymore. It’s keeping me in “holding out” mode, tethered to the idea of how my life looks on paper (which is linked to the fear of being judged, I’m sure) and in an unhealthy relationship with holding on to possibility.

The problem is that possibility is such a beautiful word, especially when contemplating a new year. Drop it on a page in a pop of saturated color, and you’ve practically got a brand. It feels great to say it. It’s a word of poets, after all. Emily Dickinson wrote: “I dwell in possibility.” Who doesn’t want to crawl inside that sentence? It’s beautiful.

But Emily, for all her talent, is not the kind of person I want to be: hidden, sensitive, and waiting for something to happen. Possibility has lovely sheets and pillows. But it smothers you if you’re not careful.

Let me explain more what I mean. In David and Goliath (a book I highly recommend!), Malcolm Gladwell talks about the “inverted U” phenomenon. So, take something that we think of as very, very good, like having a smaller number of students in a class. On the left side, at the bottom of the upside-down U, we have big class sizes. Classes that are too big (say 32 students) = worse performing students. At the top of the inverted U is the sweet spot: a small class size (say 18 students), which equals higher performing students. But if you keep reducing the class size to really small, to say 10 students, you head back down the curve to the other side, right back to the bottom again, where you have worse performing students.

Basically, too much of a good thing isn’t.

possibility“Possibility” exists along that exact same upside-down U-shaped curve (see my interpretation of this in my lovely diagram). It seems like more is better. But actually, too much leads you right back to the place you were before you had any. Actually, a lot of concepts exist along this curve: stuff we prize as good and desirable (like responsibility and loyalty), but too much turns out to be almost as bad as not enough.

It’s hard to move forward in a career and step into something bigger when the possibility of the past and the record of your life as it was is so ever-present in your day-to-day surroundings. So, for me, there is no clearer way to move on with my career and the next steps I want to take than to purge my beautiful files. But it isn’t just about throwing them away (well, recycling technically), it’s acknowledging that they served their purpose, but now, it’s time to make real room for the different work I’ve been doing these past few years, and for what’s new. It’s trading the possibility of possibility for actual possibility.

I, for one, couldn’t be happier to see 2014. I’ve got a recycling bin full of old files, a chunk of cleared out space in my soul and in my office, and an upside-down “U” to dangle my feet off the top of.

So . . . what’s possible for you this year, if you simply let go of possibility?

Happy New Year!

PS. Don’t you love the “She Let Go” illustration? It’s by Kate at Inspired Design (posted here with permission).


  • Kathleen Case

    Posted by Kathleen Case on 01/03/14 1:47am

    Judy - This posting totally resonated with me! I'm an ENTP with lots of P for possibilities (or perceiving). I am going to sleep on this (a favorite thing for perceivers to do) and awaken tomorrow morning to consider what I am ready to let go. Thanks so much!

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