The Messy Middle

The middle is messy, but it’s also where the magic happens. Brene Brown

This storefront filled with whole oranges ripe and ready for use contrasted with these piles of messy rinds grabbed my attention during a recent trip to Stockholm. We’d pass it every day as we walked through Gamla Stan (old town) filled with narrow, windy cobblestone streets and buildings from the 1700s. Many people might think it an unkempt way to display your product, but why not show the mess created in the process of making a yummy, juicy treat? 

I love seeing the behind the scenes or the process of learning or creating something. Other people’s messes fascinate me. When it comes to my own process though, I have no patience for mess. Intellectually, I understand what Brown communicates here. As a teacher,  I’ve witnessed the magical moment that happens in the middle of the mess whether making a connection between ideas or feeling the flow of a juggling pattern for the first time. I’ve even occasionally experienced it myself. But remembering it when in the depths of my own mess and having the patience to stick with it presents more of a challenge. 

In Dare to Lead, Brene Brown defines vulnerability as “the courage to show up when you can’t predict the outcome or control it.” In other words, showing up when you can’t prevent, organize, or curtail the mess. She also states “the only way I know to get knowledge into our bones is to practice it, screw it up, learn more, repeat.” 

Which leaves me with the question, how can I shift my mindset to not only be more patient with the mess, but actually experience the magic and dig into the juiciness of it? When it comes to travel, I have no problem doing this. For me, the magic of being in a new place overshadows the inconveniences of not knowing one’s way around or not always knowing local customs or language. Our week in Sweden had tons of magical moments from getting a little turned around and then accidentally discovering that our metro pass gave us free ferry rides around Stockholm to visiting a nearby town on the day they happened to be hosting an international festival. 

Maybe I need to experience my day-to-day life with the same “explorer” mindset. What if imagined the messy middle as new territory to explore and anticipate with excitement instead of a dreaded area to avoid? What would I do differently?

  • Ask for help: When I’m traveling to a new place, I have no problem asking people for suggestions about places to see, eat, etc. Whether it’s someone that I know has already traveled there or a local waitstaff or other travelers we meet along the way. That’s often when I find the magical, off-the-beaten path experiences and feel more connected to the place. Yet, when I’m learning a new skill or forced into other types of messy situations, I tend to not want to admit when I don’t know something. For some reason, I think I should already know how to navigate the new territory and assume everyone else thinks I should, too. Yet when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I’ve learned invaluable information while deepening connections. 
  • Keep Moving: During our trip to Sweden, my niece who we traveled with named me a “walk-a-holic.” While traveling, I typically want to experience as much as I can and make the most of my days in a particular place (a lot of times on foot, hence the name). I don’t necessarily rush around trying to see everything a guide book tells me, but I definitely don’t spend a lot of time on social media or watching television. At the end of the day, I return to the room ready for a hot shower and the bed after a long, active day of exploring. When working at home on creative projects (like this blog post) and things start to get messy, I have a tendency to waste time bogged down by doubt, second-guessing previous choices, and/or overwhelmed about “getting it right.” Jumping over to social media becomes an alluring alternative. Instead of focusing on moving my body, maybe I can focus on moving the thing I’m working on - not to the “perfect finish,” but just a little further forward. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I find setting a timer for 20-30 minutes and committing to that is enough to get me started. It might still be messy, but it’s more likely that a little magic happened if I worked on moving it forward than if I had been using that time playing solitaire.
  • Stay Open: One of the days in Stockholm, we had walked all day. Exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, we realized that we hadn’t really thought out a dinner plan. One of us had paid for international cell service and did a search for a local restaurant with good ratings and reasonable pricing but it was a mile walk. We decided to go for it. I could have hunkered down, put blinders on, and focused how yucky/messy I felt. Instead, I tried to stay open and keep paying attention - looking around at the new part of town we headed into and realizing how hungry I had gotten as we passed another restaurant with people sitting at tables on the sidewalk. When we finally got to our destination, it lacked ambiance and didn’t have much of a menu selection. We could have settled for an okay meal, but I remembered the cafe that we passed. If I had let the negative take center stage like it usually wants to do, I might not have even noticed the other option and we would have missed out on what ended up being a most delightful and delicious evening.

I reread this post and thought to myself, “I don’t really need the whole bullet section. Do people really want my suggestions on an ‘explorer mindset’ and does it make the post too long? Instead of going into the explorer mindset, I could compare the perfect oranges in the window to the images we put out on social media compared to the rinds/reality…”

You get the idea. For the sake of keeping things moving and sharing with you my rinds, messy as they may be, I will leave the post as is. Hopefully, it helps you find the patience to experience a few more juicy, magical moments in your own mess.