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Woman Up Ice Sculpture

Photo of an ice sculpture from WomanUp event in Asheville, NC USA

Rebecca Ryan, APF

[Dear reader: Two months ago I was waiting on pathology results from a uterine biopsy. Statistics said I had a one-in-five chance of having cancer. One morning as I was fretting about an upcoming speech and thinking about the biopsy, a question flashed through my mind, “What if this is the last speech I’d ever give?” This is a modified version of that speech.]

Woman Up Ice Sculpture

Photo of an ice sculpture from WomanUp event in Asheville, NC USA

I was scheduled to talk with you about the future of women. But with your permission I‘ll move from my head deeper down into my heart and treat this like the last speech I might ever give. Here are eight lessons I’ve learned from my life…so far.

Lesson #1: My presence is enough

The greatest gift I can give anyone is my complete presence. Not my talking. Not my advice. My presence.

But as a woman — and I do think this is a particular gift of our gender — I want to help. So badly. Anne Lamott’s advice is right, “Stop getting your help all over people.”

There’s a self-help group for women who try to help too much. Their mantra is WAIT, W-A-I-T. It stands for Why Am I Talking? The older I get, the more answers I think I have. But I need to shut up. Being fully present is usually enough.

Lesson #2: The things that drive me crazy about other people are things I don’t like about myself

It’s really just that simple.

Lesson #3: Pay attention to your amazing life

Earlier this year I’d fallen into a rut: I would experience feelings of melancholy, sadness, or frustration…and then stay there. It’s not where I wanted to live. Why was I so unhappy?

I remembered reading, “The opposite of happiness is not unhappiness, it’s boredom.” Was I bored with my life? How could I become un-bored? How could I stay more awake, to notice what was awesome and magical in life?

Mary Oliver To Pay Attention Quote

I started using this journaling technique from award-winning cartoonist and Wisconsin treasure Lynda Barry. Every day I write*:

  • 7 things I did
  • 7 things I saw
  • 1 thing I heard, and
  • Draw a picture of 1 thing I saw

This is…exhilarating! On Monday this week, I wrote something my friend Lance told me at breakfast, “I accidentally poisoned myself over the weekend.”Yesterday my friend Carrie texted me something she’d overheard a mother ask her two young sons, “Which one of you does the pull-my-finger fart joke?”

My life — my hilarious, inspiring, heartfelt life — was there all along, I just needed to pay attention.

*Update: 16 journal notes eventually felt more like a chore than a joy, so now I keep a one line journal entry, usually something I hear.

Lesson #4: Stability is a trick

In 2014, my 50 year old brother Ron dropped dead from a heart attack. Six weeks later my partner in life and business told me she was happier without me.

There were moments when I felt my ribs nearly cracking from the pain. I became agoraphobic. It’s hard to admit now because it seems so far away, but I was afraid to leave my house, afraid I’d run into someone I knew. So I stayed inside.

Lao Tzu Endings and Beginnings

One afternoon I noticed hundreds of fruit flies circling the compost bucket next to the kitchen sink. To empty it, I’d have to walk outside. It took me almost a half hour to decide what to do. When there were no cars on the street or pedestrians on the sidewalk. I walked outside, crossed the front yard, and started emptying the compost.

Out of nowhere a thunderclap in my head said, “Trust.”

It wasn’t a verbal message and no one was around. But it came through loud and clear.

Time stopped. My visual field brightened. My neck and shoulders relaxed. Some sort of message from the Universe acknowledged that yes, two people whom I thought were firmly and permanently in my life were suddenly gone. But there was something else — something invisible — happening and I, like Jonah being swallowed by the whale, simply needed to trust.

Stability is a trick. We are all in transition moving from this to that. Sometimes it just becomes more obvious.

Lesson #5: Don’t wait for the right time to be with people you love

Some of the people we love most don’t live down the street. You have to make arrangements to see each other. But “the right time” or the “right weekend” never comes.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of good. Yes, I’d like to spend two weeks with my sister Sara eating our way through Italy, but I’ll settle for two days, two nights, and two pedicures visiting her in Tucson. Happiness guru Gretchen Rubin notes:

Better to make many short visits than to “save up” for the rare long visit.

Lesson #6: Everyone is busy; please stop talking about it

Yesterday I was boarding a flight and overheard this exchange between a flight attendant and a passenger.

Flight attendant: “Good morning, how are you?”

Passenger: “I’m exhausted, it’s been a long morning.”

Flight attendant: “I can identify.”

Passenger: “I was up at 5:15 am.”

Flight attendant: “3 am.”

Passenger: “Yea, but I woke up in Milwaukee.”

Flight attendant: “I woke up in Dallas.”

You can see how this conversation goes; we’re in some sort of unspoken, never-ending competition to see who’s busier, more tired, more this or that.

Please stop telling each other how busy you are. We’re all busy. Instead ask each other, “What makes you come alive?”

F Camp 2016

Lesson #7: “Five balls” is still true

As I was helping my dad and my family during my dad’s death, a hospice nurse permanently re-arranged my priorities when she said:

“Rebecca, in life we are each given five balls, one is rubber and four are glass. The rubber ball is work. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The glass balls are your family, your friends, your health, and your integrity. If you drop one of those, it doesn’t bounce back.”

Glass Ball RR

[You can hear a more complete version of this story at the start of my TEDx talk.]

Lesson #8: Choose your biggest life

My friend Jodi is an improv teacher and comedienne. Like all good friends, she’s a life coach, too. Not formally, but have you noticed how our best life coaches are camouflaged as dear friends?

One of Jodi’s life commandments is “Choose the experience that will give you the best material.” If you have a choice between going to bed early or going to an avant-garde art show rumored to have nudity, go to the art show.

Following this advice is how I became an accidental professional basketball player. I was in Budapest, Hungary studying economics and political science in 1992, just a few years after the Berlin Wall fell. It was a heady time. After classes, a couple of my guy-friends and I would go to the gym and shoot hoops.

One afternoon, a Boris Yeltsin lookalike wearing a blue janitor’s jumpsuit came through a side door to the gym and starting yelling at us. We didn’t speak Hungarian yet, but we knew he meant get off the gym floor. We retreated to the bleachers and started changing out of our court shoes.

Then it happened: a back door opened and into the gym jogged the tallest group of women I had ever seen in my life! My friends and I sat there, silently staring. Once we got over their sheer size, we watched these women play beautiful basketball. The next day, same thing: we played pickup, Boris yelled at us; we changed our shoes; the enormous women came in and started practicing.

By the third day my friend John said, “You should try out for this team.”

“Nah,” I said. My dream was to play in the NCAA, but that didn’t pan out.

“I double dog dare you,” he said.

The Catch Trapeze photo

A photo of a woman in mid-air, moving from one trapeze swing to another

That got my attention. So during a break in practice, I walked out onto the floor and asked, “Does anyone here speak English?”

The point guard came forward and I asked, “Can I try out for this team?”

She hailed the coach and said something to him in Hungarian. They went back and forth and eventually the point guard said, “You can try out, but only if you’ve never played in the NCAA.”


I signed some papers (allegedly) confirming that I hadn’t played in the NCAA and started tryouts the next day.

Hungarian Team

I made the team. I wasn’t a starter. I was more like the mascot, a reliable and cheerful mute who would play the last minutes of a game if we were winning by 20 points.

But back to the lesson: when given the choice, choose the experience that will give you the best material.

Many of you reading this know that there’s a bigger life waiting for you. You’re facing a fork in the road, or maybe you’re trying to ignore a nagging whisper beckoning you toward a happier, more fulfilled, and creative version of yourself.

Go ahead, listen. Choose the bigger life.

I double dog dare you.

Lily Tomlin

P.S. My test results were clear. My hysterectomy is complete. Thanks to all the wholehearted women of greater Asheville for our beautiful morning together in November 2018.

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Rebecca Ryan, APF
Rebecca Ryan, APF

Rebecca Ryan captains the ship. Trained as a futurist and an economist, Rebecca helps clients see what's coming - as a keynote speaker, a Futures Lab facilitator, an author of books, blogs and articles, a client advisor, and the founder of Futurist Camp. Check out her blog or watch her Q&A on how NGC helps organizations prepare for the future using Strategic Foresight. Contact Lisa Loniello for more information.

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