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What's on Your Front Burner?

On the panel for International Women's Day race relations mental impact discussion, pictured here with Rosaline Onijala and Taunya Rutenback.

“If your brain was a stove, what would be on your front burner?” While this is probably the worst pick-up line I’ve ever heard, it was the woman’s answer that really floored me. She thought over the question for what seemed like an eternity, as I held my breath to hear her answer. When this young, conventional blonde beauty finally came up with a reply it was, “I don’t know…shopping?”

It’s not that I never have “shopping” on my brain, but I wouldn’t necessarily give it “front burner” status. Well, maybe occasionally. I’m not being judgy about anyone’s priorities, I was just astounded at how long it took her to come up with that answer. I’ll give her that the question was weirdly worded, and we were in a bar, so it did probably take a minute to translate it into, “What’s topmost on your mind?” Perhaps she had her own reasons for choosing to answer the question that way, that has nothing to do with was really on her mind, like signaling that her love language is gifting. That's what I'm choosing to believe.

Although this question seemed ridiculous to me at the time, it’s interesting how often it still comes to mind. What indeed is on the front burner of my brain? I met recently with a brilliant woman who specializes in social media marketing. During the appointment, she mentioned that to stay up with this everchanging technology she’s constantly reading articles and thinking about social media. It made me think about what I’m spending my brain power on.

So, I did a little audit and started paying attention to what I’m paying attention to. It was enlightening. Feeling anxious and overwhelmed about what's going on the world, I've spent too much time reading the news. I've decided this isn’t good for me because this nearly insatiable curiosity loop is feeding into the anxiety by feeding it anxiety. Just the thought of that makes my head hurt. Figuring that out has helped me decide which issues are most important to me, and to limit the precious time I give it.

I’ve always loved the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” It reminds me to be mindful about what I’m thinking. What I’m listening to. What I’m reading. Just like we are what we eat, we are also what we think. Here’s what I’m going to spend more time thinking about:

I’m setting boundaries around what I’m mentally feeding myself.

The Finishing School has helped me realize that setting boundaries for myself is just as important as the boundaries I set for others. Rather than think of these boundaries as “rules,” which doesn’t get along well with my rebellious side, I'm thinking of them as self-care. I’m going to take care to protect myself as much as I do everyone else I love. That Mother Bear that lives inside me, that’s a fierce protector of others, needs to take a turn to come to my self-defense.

For example, I’m limiting the amount of time I have to read news articles to 10 minutes at a time, rather than going from story to story for unlimited amounts of time. I’m also limiting the kind of information I’m paying attention to. I won’t watch programs or read books that are overwhelmingly, senselessly violent or cruel. I already know that behavior is out there without putting those images in my brain.

I want to spend more time understanding other’s realities.

We all live in a bubble of our own reality and see others through that lens. That’s just how our brains work. If we let ourselves get too caught up in thinking that everyone’s experiences and lives should live up to our own, it makes it hard to see anyone else’s reality. Reading books like “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker and “The Good Earth,” by Pearl Buck has helped me see life through other perspectives. Even better than reading is taking the risk to talk to actual people, engaging in uncensored discussions, just like the panel discussion I was part of last Saturday.

The International Women’s Day/Race Relations event, sponsored by Black Women Empowered, was an amazing experience and I’m honored to have been a part of such an open, honest, and respectful discussion. There were about 50 engaged women and one man in the room, talking about the racial divides between us and how we can come together to make all our lives better. There are so many misunderstandings, myths, and lies we’ve all been told, and we must listen to each other to move past this. We all left the event hungry for more dialogue.

I want to be more intentional about where I put my focus.

When I was a kid, my cousin’s and I would decide what to do when they came over by making a list of the activities we wanted to play with. We’d cut the paper into strips and put them in the dryer and turn it on to mix up the options. Someone would randomly draw a strip out of the dryer and we’d spend the next hour on that activity, drawing a new idea when the time was up. It was a goofy, gameshow way to take turns, and it worked.

I'm going to try something similar for where I want to put my focus. When an idea occurs to me about what I want to study, I'm writing the ideas on slips of paper and putting them in a jar. When I'm looking for something to do, I’ll pull one of the ideas and go to work. Just like having food ready to go when I’m hungry, rather than pulling into a fast food drive-through. I’ll have ideas ready to go instead of mindlessly binging on actions that don’t take me closer to my goals.

I’m going to ask myself more questions.

I'm going to get more curious about the things I don't understand, and that makes me feel uncomfortable. Rather than setting these things aside, I can take some time to think about what's going on and what it means to me. Writing these questions down in a notebook, and bullet-pointing answers are one of the best ways for me to think things through and I always feel better when I have a plan.

I think it's interesting that people get smack for "daydreaming.” People think that unless we’re constantly in motion, working on something, that we’re wasting time. But when we’re in motion all the time, it’s too easy to ignore the important stuff. Sometimes I feel guilty when I feel like I’m doing “nothing,” but then I remind myself that I am doing something. I’m thinking.

I’m going to pay more attention.

I'm going to ask others more questions too. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but other people do. Who can help me better understand the questions I have? Who has expertise in what I want to learn? I’ve found that there’s no faster way to get information than just talking to someone. These conversations often give me clarity or take an idea in a direction that I would have never thought of.

A big part of paying more attention is actively listening - to answers and opportunities. Really listening to people shows them respect, making them more willing to disclose more. It also slows down the conversation to give time to make important connections, and fully take in what the person said – not just what we want them to say.

Twenty percent of the energy we have available to use every day, is taken up by the brain just to keep things running. As we learn new ways to think, the brain has to “work” to form new connections, using more precious energy. This is why learning can be exhausting. It’s also why our brains try to “protect” us from change by ignoring what we don’t want to hear and looking for information that reinforces the viewpoint we hold. By asking myself the question that seemed ludicrous when I heard it as a pickup line, I make the decision of what to put there, and how to spend my brain power.

What’s on your front burner?

Headmistress Jill

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