Three years ago I knew something needed to change. A lot of somethings, really.
I’d been published, by Penguin, a couple of years before. But my books had failed, my publisher dropped me, and I wasn’t writing. At all. For the first time since I was about ten years old, I was seriously considering just doing something else with my life.
Only, I felt so sick, I wasn’t sure I could do something else with my life. I was in pain all of the time. I woke up every morning so exhausted that I just wanted to cry. I often did. I weighed 368 pounds and I was afraid for my mobility. I couldn’t stand long enough to make dinner. I couldn’t walk far enough to make it to the end of a parking lot.
This is me at the point where I felt the absolute worst. I’m in New York City here, with my daughter (who is taking the picture) and all I want is to go back to our Air BnB and sit down. I’m in so much pain. Only our Air BnB is in New Jersey — at the top of a steep hill — and the idea of just sleeping on a subway to avoid trying to climb it feels like a decent one.
I had a job that I earnestly hated. I was working as a teaching assistant in a high school special needs classroom(because I wouldn’t let myself just go ahead and be a classroom teacher — that meant, in my mind, that I’d really given up on writing.) I made less money, by quite a lot, than my son did working at Wal-Mart at the time, and the job was awful.
I loved the kids, but the teacher was a burn out who hated me because I brought her students books to read on my second day of work. (For real.)
We were also drowning in debt. Credit cards. A couple of loans. Braces. A car note. We were paying all of our bills, but we were standing on the edge with our toes hanging off. A lay off, an illness, would have dumped us off the cliff.
My mother-in-law got sick around then. Sick enough to be in and out of hospitals and nursing homes for a year. Part of her illness included delirium, so I sat with her all day, everyday, so that she wouldn’t have to be physically restrained to her bed.
And while I was spending sixteen hours a day sitting with her, I realized that her illness was caused by something she could have avoided if she’d changed her life when she was my age. In her case, smoking. Her fifty-year, two-pack-a-day habit had caused her vascular dementia and severely high blood pressure.
I realized I could do something, at 43-years-old, that would make my life better when I was in my seventies. Not just one thing. A whole bunch of things. I could change my life, if I just thought about the next steps and took them.
I was five years younger than my mother was when she died of breast cancer. I latched onto the idea of making some major changes over the next five years. (I called it 60 Months to Ironman, but it’s so much bigger than that.)
I went to my doctor. I was diagnosed with sleep apnea and given a CPAP, which made me look like Darth Vader and a vacuum cleaner had a baby, but after one night wearing it, was my new best friend.
And I was referred to a weight loss surgeon.
I had weight loss surgery six months later. I lost 120 pounds in the next six months after that (which was weird and not particularly fun, btw.) The pain went away. I didn’t need the CPAP anymore, because with weight loss my sleep apnea resolved itself.
I also started Ninja Writers. I knew I needed to write again. I wanted a community. I couldn’t find one, so I built one. That experiment has been the most amazing thing I’ve ever been a part of. Ninja Writers are my people. And I was writing again, for real.
Between Ninja Writers and my books, we were able to pay off all of our debt.
I went back to school, too. For an MFA. I’ll graduate in August. I hope Ninja Writers and writing are my work for the rest of my life, but if I ever need a job again, I won’t have to be a teaching assistant under a burned out teacher who hates me ever again.
Last year, I wrote a book. A middle-grade book called The Astonishing Maybe. I found another literary agent. She sold my book to MacMillan. And another one, too. I earned enough from them to make sure I won’t have to get a day job again for at least two years.
Long story short, three years ago, I decided to just start taking the next step to change my life. I did that, over and over and over. And it worked.
I lost 120 pounds. I wrote a book that sold to a two-book deal to a major publisher for two years income. I earned an MFA (well, I’ll graduate in August, but the course work is done!). I started a business that I flat-out adore. My husband and I paid off our consumer debt.
I had lunch with my best friend a couple of months ago and he said that he barely recognized me. I’m so different from when we met. And I thought to myself — I’m the same. I’ve just chipped away at the stuff that was masking my shine.
Here are some steps, in case you find yourself in a place where something has to give.
- Evaluate where you are. Be honest. Now’s the time to really look at every aspect of your life and notice what’s working and what’s not. As miserable as I was three years ago, I had a lot going for me, too. A supportive family. A safe place to live and enough income to live there (even if we were on the edge.) An education. I knew what I wanted to do with my life, which I know is a true gift. Despite how I felt, I was relatively healthy. No diabetes or heart disease or addiction.
- Let your imagination free. Really think about where you want to be in five years. I love the five year timetable. It’s far enough away to let you really make huge changes — and to have some space for forgiveness if you stumble. And you will. I did. We’re only human.
- Make some big, hairy goals. I mean, big. Don’t worry right now about being reasonable or about managing your expectations. It’s okay to dream. There is value in dreaming big, even if you don’t end up exactly where you thought you would. But, try to make your goals something you have control over. For instance, a goal of writing a book and submitting it to agents (which is only up to you) is better than a goal of being a bestseller in five years (which depends on so many people who aren’t you.)
- Think about the next step for each goal. Just literally, the very next baby step. Let’s stick with the goal of writing a book. The next baby step is to develop your idea. Then after that, plot your story. Don’t worry about writing it. Just plan it for now. If ‘plot your story’ is too big — you’ll know, because you don’t actually do it — then narrow it. Plot one scene at a time. Then when that’s done, your next step is to write for ten minutes. That’s all. Don’t worry about the step after that (the next many, many steps will look the same anyway — write for ten minutes.) Do that, for every goal.
- Be brave. Change is hard. It’s scary. Human beings are hardwired to seek out the status quo. You don’t have to be brave enough for the end goal though. Not today. You only need to be brave enough for the very next little step. Before I had weight loss surgery, I was terrified. What if I died? What if I had the surgery, but didn’t lose weight? But it wasn’t so scary to set an appointment with my own doctor. Or to ask her for a referral. Or to go to the refferal. Or to call my insurance company. And on. And on.
Those steps all boil down to this one thing: Keep doing the next thing.
I have this thing — I call it the Secret Weapon. It’s a bunch of printable tools I created to use myself. I still use it everyday. Maybe it’ll help you, too.
Where would you like to be in five years? Share it in a response, if you want to. Sometimes writing it down, makes it real.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nationand the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer. You can be a Ninja Writer, too.