life lessons

Life lesson number seven: Life is too short to save anything for best

I used to have a cupboard full of candles that were too important to burn. 

I used to save my favourite dresses for that one amazing day in the future that never came.

I used to keep the 'star baker' spoon (bought for me by a friend) out of the kitchen because it seemed too precious for the job for which it was intended.

I never touched the good pans (even for the good meals).

I used to have a pile of beautiful notebooks that were always too beautiful for my ideas. 

I spent so much time waiting for the right moment. But, even now, I’m not quite sure what I was actually waiting for.

I know I am not alone in my desire to put things in a ‘best’ category. But, the trouble is, when they achieve this coveted position, they are pretty much never seen again. 

When I was going through cancer treatment, I began to realise that the best may never actually come. ‘Best’ is a word that is almost impossible to define. Just saying it takes away the hope of there being something better in the future.

Good days can be great days if you fill them with your favourite things. Candles can bring light into cold winter evenings, if you just choose to light them. Notebooks can make ideas special if you just choose to use them. The clothes that fit best can make you feel more confident before you’ve even left the house. ‘Best’ things can make every day better – if you stop categorising them as such!

A special occasion isn’t something you wait for, it’s something you have to create – not just once in a while, but everyday. 

I remember a friend once telling me that she always wears good (and matching) knickers and bras just in case something happens to her and she ends up in hospital unexpectedly. Now, this might seem slightly macabre, but I like her thinking. What I like is the idea that matching underwear actually means something to her. And, by wearing it every day, she is celebrating that fact every day.

So whatever it is (pants, socks, pens, notebooks or even glasses), I challenge you to stop thinking that the best is yet to come, and start bringing a bit of your best into daily life. 

If you’re waiting for that moment, chances are you’ll never get it. And, if you aren’t, who knows what doors will open for you when you’ve injected a little more happiness into your day? Please do post and share your favourite things. I won’t be posting a pic of my favourite knickers, but I can tell you I have a ‘best’ mug, dress, hat, pan and notebook (for starters). I even have a ‘best’ dishcloth (knitted by my mum). 

I’m off to drink tea out of a special mug, eat my special chutney before it goes off and write on the first page of a special notebook (that’s about six years old). All while wearing a special top. Daring I know!

I actually wrote about this subject for Breast Cancer Care’s BECCA app, which has been designed to help people move forward after breast cancer. If you - or someone you know - could benefit from an app packed full of life hacks, why not send them the link. 

Life in a list: What would you say if you had to write a line a day?

My 35th birthday was more than just a mid-thirties milestone. 

It was the day I closed my five-year line a day book for the last time.

This little green book has been a great companion over the last five years. Every entryholds a memory of the day, a more thoughtful 'note to self' or life lesson and a rating (out of 10). I appreciate this may be stretching the definition of a list somewhat, but I do sit it firmly in my 'did it happen?' set of lists, the important ones that hold you to account and help you capture the past so you can shape the future. 

This little book has seen great happiness and success. This little book has seen cancer, loss and moments of real sadness. This little book has seen brilliant sunsets and terrible storms. This little book has experienced delicious dinners and skipped mealtimes. 

It may be small, but with more than 1,000 life lessons in here, this little book might just contain a pretty accurate definition of happiness - mine that is. 

Am I the same person who started writing in it at the age of 30? No. 

Am I happy about that fact? Absolutely. But, what is great about this book of moments is that it tells me exactly how I was feeling each and every day, which is a far more accurate record than a brain that can't even remember what it had for dinner last week. 

Rather than tuck it in a drawer with old diaries and 'I'm-sure-they-will-be-useful-one day' notebooks, I have started sifting through it. Typing out all the lessons, spotting trends and reminding myself of what it is that really makes me smile time and again will take time to explore. So, I thought I'd start with a few of the 'notes to self' or life lessons to give you a snapshot.

Here are some of my favourites (not all profound and without cliche):

1) Balance in life makes everything better (2015)

2) A good day at work can be as satisfying as a day off (2014)

3) Happiness isn't always fun (2015)

4) Just start and then you'll be excited to finish (2016)

5) Don't check email on the way to bed (a happiness hack right there and many a sleepless night caused when I didn't take my own advice) (2013) 

6) You can have cancer and be happy (2014) (obviously not a route I would recommend but an interesting observation for someone seriously ill at the time) 

7) Step back and enjoy the view (2016) 

8) Work those edges (2016)

9) Hard work isn't always enough (2012) 

10) The world is full of incredible people if you know where to look (2016)

11) Great flavours are not to be underestimated (2015) (Great to be documenting this more than a year after losing my taste buds to chemo) 

12) Knickers can be lucky (2012) (Maybe not a deep life lesson, but it made me laugh) 

13) If it's in the routine, it's easier to keep up (2013) (habits give you energy for other things) 

14) Anticipation is everything (2013) 

15) There is always time for friendship (2016) 

16) It is ok to not be ok (2014) 

17) The explanation is always better than the assumption (2012) 

18) You don't need butter to make a light and fluffy cake (2012) (not a metaphor for life, you can come here for baking tips too) 

19) You are the only person who can put you first (which is where you belong) (2015) 

20) Adventurous days make better stories (2016)

And the one that made me laugh out loud:

21) I'd pay to have Imelda Staunton act out scenes in my life (2012) (I had just seen her in a play so it wasn't as random as it sounds). 

I may not have analysed the last five years in detail, but I can already spot some interesting trends. I like things organised. I have a strange obsession with time and making the most of it. I like to push myself. Friendship and family are really important. I am quite fond of smiling and good food (particularly making bakes). I need to not procrastinate. Oh, and it seems I have a soft spot for Great British actresses. 

I think I am getting wiser (from lucky knickers to the importance of friendship). But, I think I still have much to learn. 

Ask me again when I've finished the next book! 

And, why not make 2017 the year you start your own 'line a day' book? More fun than a diary, less time-consuming than a journal and more insightful than not writing or remembering anything down at all! 

I look forward to hearing how you get on.

(By the way, I love Kikki K stationery if you're looking for a thoughtful brand to make record keeping even more enjoyable.) 

Life lesson number six: Say yes unless you really really should say no

It's not every day you post your Lycra running bra to a celebrity, so that she can sew it in to the running wedding dress she's making for you so you can run a marathon. 

But, today was one of those days.

I confess, three years ago, I could never have imagined writing that sentence, let alone living the life behind those words. 

But, when something challenges your life, you really do begin to think about what that life is all about. 

It's easy to say no. It's easy to stick with the routine that sits you firmly in your comfort zone. It's easy to think that tomorrow will be a better day. But, the truth is, today is the only day that matters.

Of course, saying yes to everything is not the answer (unless you wish to feel constantly guilty and never able to relax). But, saying yes to things that might push you, that might take you in different directions and encourage you to meet new people is a yes worth saying!

That little word has had a huge impact on my life these last three years. I have spent quality time with friends (rather than worrying about the laundry). I have appeared on the TV. I have met my MP to talk about breast cancer and the absence of data collection. I have seen the sun set over parts of the world I never thought I'd see. I have won an award for me (not my work). I have made crumpets. I have found my voice and the things that make me smile. 

So, when the amazing charity Willow said Frankie Seaman (professional figure skater and Dancing on Ice star) would like to chat to me about my running wedding dress plans, I said yes. 

And, when that same charity asked me to stand on a stage at a ball and tell hundreds of people about how they helped give me back my smile at a time when my body had other ideas, I said yes too. 

I live a life in technicolour because of the decisions I have made. The good 'yeses' not the ones I almost feel obliged to take. 

And, the great thing is, so can you. 

My house isn't clean, but then having a clean house is not something I'd be proud to put on my gravestone. 

All I know is, I am ready to walk through the right doors as they open.

Life lesson number five: There is fun in failure

One of the things I loved most about growing up was gymnastics.

This has nothing to do with skill (I frequently came last in competitions and was a bit clumsy). This has nothing to do with fitness (I remember falling from the asymmetric bars at 8 and breaking my arm so badly I needed two operations).

This has nothing to do with the 80s shell suit (red, white, blue and slippery) or the fact that I once appeared in our local newspaper vaulting in a very ungrateful spread eagled position. (Yes, sadly the photo below is me and not the beautiful lady on the beach.)

Screenshot 2016-11-06 13.58.14.png

 

This has everything to do with the fact I could turn up, enjoy the company of friends, get some exercise and never expect too much from myself. People loved it when I entered competitions because they never came last. People cheered when I cleared the vault because I wasn't ever going to make Olympian. To many, I was invisible - and I loved it. Every little bit of success meant so much, because it was so hard won. 

Now, I confess if my life imitated gymnastics I'd probably be less than pleased. But, for a self-confessed perfectionist, not being great - or, more importantly, not needing to be great - was hugely liberating. 

So why not try embracing the things that don't go well? 

Because, when things do go well, you'll appreciate them all the more.

Maybe start with something that doesn't involve a beam, strange hand guards and Lycra though...

Life lesson number four: Success needs a new definition

If I asked you to describe the life of a successful thirty-something, you probably wouldn't include cancer scars alongside the list of society-approved achievements.

With a good career, loving family, nice house and engagement ring on my finger, I thought I understood what it was to be successful. 

Turns out, I didn't have a clue.

The greatest piece of advice about success that I have ever received came not from a high-powered executive but from the nurse who cared for me after my mastectomy. That nurse had, herself, suffered great sadness, and had turned to nursing as a way of giving back to the world. 

As I was reaching for my Blackberry just 24 hours after surgery, she turned to me and said: 'What is it you really want your gravestone to say?' Certainly a sobering statement so soon after life-saving surgery, but the right one. That sentence has stuck with me even years later and greets me each morning. 

Working hard shouldn't really make the shortlist for the final words that are chiselled about you in marble. Question is, what should? 

I have just been reading Arianna Huffington's book Thrive, which focuses on her attempts to redefine success. In it, she talks about the idea of the 'Third metric', a third measure that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power, and consists of the four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder and giving'. 

I couldn't agree more. 

She goes on to explain that 'the Third Metric is one lived in a way that's mindful of our eventful eulogy... We may not be able to witness our own eulogy, but we're actually writing it all the time, every day. The question is how much we're giving the eulogiser to work with.'

If you asked me now, whether I think I am successful, I would say yes - but not in the way you might think. Success for me now is living every day according to my values. 

I would highly recommend you spend some time identifying and honing your own values. Search online and you will be able to find lists of relevant words to get you started. (The Daily Greatness diary also has an exercise to encourage those values to surface).

The hardest part is narrowing them down.

My values are as follows - set as a daily reminder on my phone to focus my mind each morning:

1) Generosity and purpose: make a difference each day and you'll find that a little bit of kindness can go a very long way

2) Energy and health: only once you have put your oxygen mask on first, are you qualified to look after others

3) Achievement: being able to declare at the end of each day 'I did that'

I genuinely believe I am the sum total of my imperfections - the bits life didn't get right first time. Those imperfections have helped me find my own definition of what it is to be successful.

Let's hope the eulogiser agrees...

Success definitely does need a new definition - yours!