Last week, the poet Mary Oliver died and I’ve had the last line of one of her most famous poems running through my head.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
It’s colliding with a question I’ve been asking myself ever since I read James Clear’s book Atomic Habits.
What would That Shaunta do?
I’ve come so far already.
Four years ago, I was making $15,000 a year working 27.75 hours a week as a teacher’s aide under a burned out woman who had no business working with children. (27.75 hours a week, because if I worked 28 hours the state would have to give me health insurance.) It was a toxic work environment that was slowly killing me — and paid me less than my son made working at Wal-Mart.
Four years ago, I weighed 368 pounds and I was in so much pain that I couldn’t stand for more than a few minutes. I had undiagnosed arthritis in my hips. The gap between the things I wanted to do and the things I was physically capable of was so massive.
Four years ago, my first novels had quietly flopped and I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to write again. I was paralyzed by the idea that no one would ever publish me again. For the first time since I was a child, I just stopped writing.
James Clear’s book has a little antidote in it that struck a chord with me. He talks about a friend of his who lose 100 pounds by asking herself what a person who was already healthy would do — and doing that.
That’s what I did four years ago. I didn’t articulate it. I didn’t do it on purpose. I didn’t write about it in my journal or in a blog post.
I just did it, because something had to give.
It started with my health.
My mother-in-law got sick. Very, very sick. She had smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for nearly 50 years. That habit impacted her brain and in her 70s she was diagnosed with vascular dementia. For nearly a year, she was in and out of the hospital — suffering from delusions that required her to be retrained if she was alone.
So I sat with her 16 or 18 hours a day. And I thought — if she’d only stopped smoking twenty years earlier, when her husband did. He went cold turkey after a heart attack. She smoked three packs a day for two more decades.
During one of those long hospital days, I watched a marathon of My 600 Pound Life.
And something clicked. I could do something drastic in my 40s that would keep my kids from sitting with me in a hospital wishing that I’d done something to help myself when I was younger.
If I wanted to be That Shaunta when I was 70, I needed to do the things she’d do in my 40s.
I went to a doctor. I started a process that ended with me losing 120 pounds.
That Shaunta did not spend her entire life working for $40 a week above minimum wage. I started throwing everything I could at improving that part of my life. And it worked. I started Ninja Writers three years ago and it has become the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.
That Shaunta doesn’t have to work in toxic conditions anymore. Not only because I started a business, but because I went back to school. In August I graduated with an MFA. A degree that, at least, will let me be the teacher instead of the $9 an hour assistant, if it ever comes down to that.
And working on a graduate degree meant writing again. I wrote a book that sold to a major publisher. It’s coming out in March.
That Shaunta writes every day. She’s brave enough to risk rejection. She doesn’t let a failure derail her.
I’m still not That Shaunta.
I have debt that I wish I didn’t. I would like to never have to rent a house again.
That Shaunta doesn’t have to worry about whether or not she’ll ever get another book contract.
That Shaunta is an athlete.
But I’m working on getting there.
Here’s what I’d like you to do today.
Sit down and think about who That You is. Really think about your life. What’s working that you can expand on? What’s just not working even a little that you need to figure out how to change?
What does a day in the life of That You look like?
And as you go about your day ask yourself what That You would do.
That Shaunta would go to the YMCA today and get signed up so that she can start swimming. And she would work on a book she has no idea whether or not she’ll be able to sell.
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.