Darcy Lewis Design

Adventures in "Good Enough" Design

National Park Queen Quilt

You’ve seen those gorgeous Riley Blake National Park vintage poster fabric panels?

Riley Blake Rocky Mtn Nat'l Park panel, showing Long's Peak in the background with yellow aspen trees in front of it, and a big elk in the foreground.

Well, I wanted to make a queen quilt as a present for some dear friends. They love the Parks and we’d all been to Rocky Mountain National Park, and I’m from CO, AND we had recently traveled together to see the fall foliage, so the Rocky Mountain National Park panel seemed like a great symbolic piece to center the quilt design around – representing many fond memories.
I really struggled to find a design for the whole quilt that would center the panel but also make it merely a part of the whole. I loved the idea of continuing the panel’s design into the quilt whole, making it look like a sharpened snapshot of the park, set off in a frame, while the wild park continues around it.

The panel from the first picture set in a quilt, where the image continues to the edges - blue sky, at the top, then a row of mountains, a row of dark green pine trees, a row of yellow aspen trees, grassy meadow, a small deer in the background and large elk in the foreground, bottom portion is large blocks of various brown and green fabrics in irregular wedges layered on each other.

I put the batting with the top, quilting as I went, then did another layer of ‘outline’ quilting when I added the backing. This provided lots of structure and stability without making the backing too cluttered (you can see from the top thread density just how messy it would look otherwise!). The quilting is all done with glossy embroidery threads, ombre and solid. The fabric is not fused down, simply placed and stitched. It is raw-edge applique because nature does not have neat, finished edges, it’s raw and rough, so this is too (although everything is quite tightly trimmed and fairly tidy 😜).

Detail view of mountains, pine trees, and aspen trees, with fabric applique and lavish detail stitching.

I backed it with a mottled dark red flannel for warmth, and did the backing and binding all in one (an incredibly easy method I will be using again!!). The dark space sky portion at the top was so dark you wouldn’t really see the quilting necessarily, so I decided it was perfect to insert some personal jokes – so the quilting there is in the shape of a satellite, a rocket with an alien inside tethered to a space-walking man, a planet, and similar space-y things.

Picture of mottled red flannel back with stitched outline of rocket, with flames out the bottom, and a small round window with a little round antennaed alien head showing.
The back view of the antennaed alien in the rocket 🤣

It took about 4 months of hard work, SO. BLEEPING. MANY. spools of thread, lots of gorgeous fabrics, about 5 machine needles, some blood, much cursing, MUCH sighing over it and falling in love with it, and I am SO thrilled with the results! This is one of the most beautiful ways to “Give Warmth” – not only does this gift literally keep them warm, but everytime they see it they will tangibly feel my love.
It looks absolutely amazing in their bedroom and totally “at home”!!

Shows the full quilt draped on a bed.

Voiceprint Quilt

I’ve waited a long time to show you this one! I made this very special quilt for a friend to wrap themselves in our love – in a literal fashion – with a voiceprint quilt! This is one of the best, and most literal, ways to Give Warmth (our movement to encourage sharing love)!

Picture of a queen-size quilt in dusty black with long blocks of color representing a voiceprint.

The friend this was for speaks both Russian and English, so first I tried my husband and I saying it together in one language, but the result wasn’t visually interesting enough (in either English or Russian), so I decided to record my husband and I saying “We love you, Mari” in both Russian (husband) and English (me) at the same time. The resulting voiceprint was this:

Picture of a voiceprint

I then measured out how big I wanted my quilt to be (queen size – roughly 89″x95″), and manually broke this down into a grid where the voiceprint was the full width of the quilt, but did not distort the height. I blocked it out in columns and measured the predominate average height of the blue lines in each column, and then cut my colored strips to that height. If you look closely at the voiceprint, you will see that they are not symmetrical off the center axis, so I staggered my placement to match the actual print, so the pattern is assymetrical top and bottom on purpose. (My husband assumed the voiceprint would be symmetrical off the central axis and thought I had screwed up 😉 )

I used a pack of rainbow cottons, interspersed with some ombred cottons, all set in with dusty black poly faux suede to give it a more upscale look and feel than pure cotton. Because the black is VERY ravelly, I had to serge all the seams. I used cotton soft and toasty batting, finished it with a very colorful speckled pink backing and binding, added a little quilt tag, and chose a pattern that looked similar to the voice waves for the quilting. I love the finished result and our friend does too!

Yummy No-Knead Quick Bread

While I escaped the pandemic baking frenzy, I was thrilled to recently come across a very simple no-knead bread that is so forgiving, quick, easy, and easy to flavor! You can do anything you want to it! This is my own adaptation of a recipe from Bowl of Delicious. The trick to this is to bake it in a Dutch oven, as that provides additional heating which gives it a fabulous crunchy thick crust. If you don’t have a Dutch oven, you can probably get away with a regular baking loaf pan, but it will not have the crunchy delicious crust!

5 minutes prep time, 1 two-hour rise, and about 1 hour in the oven, and 1 hour to cool. Ready in as little as 4 hours.

* 1.5 cups warm water
* 1 packet quick rise yeast – at room-temperature (If, like me, you store your yeast in the fridge, take it out about 20 minutes before starting to warm up, or if you are REALLY like me and forget to prepare in advice, take the yeast packet out of the fridge, stick it in your bra or pocket or under your arm while you get the other supplies together, and it will warm up quite quickly!)
* 1/2 (.5) Tbl table salt (if you are making a savory loaf could double the salt for a little more depth of flavor)
* 3.25 cups regular all-purpose flour
*optional additions. See footnote.

* Take 1.5 cups of warm tap water. Use a thermometer to check that it’s around 100 degrees F (no hotter than 110 degrees as you don’t want to kill your yeast!).
* In a medium bowl, add the water to 1 packet (.25 oz) ROOM-TEMPERATURE yeast.
* Add .5 Tbl table salt.
* Use a whisk (or fork) to beat vigorously until yeast and salt are both totally dissolved, water should be slightly bubbly from the yeast at this point.
* Dump in 3.25 cups regular all-purpose flour, and any dry seasonings* you want to add.
* Use your whisk (or fork) or wooden spoon to mix in until thoroughly combined. Dough should be wet and loose and smooth, with no lumps of unincorporated flour. NOTE: You can just mix with the wooden spoon and keep your hands clean, but it gets a much better texture if you use your hands and knead it for just a couple of minutes. You will actually see the difference as you work it, the dough suddenly ‘snaps’ together and becomes smoother and more elastic quite quickly.
* Stir in any wet additions* you want.
* Cover bowl with a kitchen towel and set aside in a warm place to rise for at least 2 hours, but can be left overnight.

About 40 minutes before you are ready to bake, take a piece of parchment paper, and put it in your Dutch oven (called “the pot” in future to avoid confusion with the actual oven itself), firmly pressing it in to the shape of the pot. The bread won’t make a mess of your pot, so no need to worry about covering more than the bottom, but it makes it much easier to remove the bread when done. Pressing it in firmly to make sure the paper holds the shape and hugs the sides, will make it much easier to turn your dough into the pot without the paper getting in the way and getting baked into your bread. With the paper still in the pot, put the lid on it, and put it in your oven and preheat your oven to 450 degrees F. Once the oven reaches 450F, keep the pot in there about 20 min.


Take your bowl of risen dough, and use a silicone spatula (since it’s sticky) to gently scrape down the sides and bottom, loosening the dough from the bowl. Try to poke it into a ball, but don’t worry about forming it perfectly or anything!
Take the HOT pot out of the oven, CAREFULLY!!! Take the lid off the pot, your parchment paper will be browned but don’t worry, it’s still fine, and turn the ball of dough into the pot. I use the spatula to clean out any bits of dough left in the bowl and smoosh them onto the ball of dough and poke it into a round shape. Avoid too much poking, stirring, or otherwise messing with the dough as you will knock the air out of it and lose that rise and air pockets in the middle.
You can use a razor to cut some slits in the top if you want more crustiness, but not necessary.
CAREFULLY put the hot lid back on the hot pot, and put it back in the oven without burning yourself!
Bake until bread looks beautifully golden brown (depending on my additions and the mood of the oven, this can take between 45 min and 1.5 hrs).
Remove the pot from the oven, and CAREFULLY (don’t burn yourself!) slide your bread on to a cooling rack. The bread should not stick to your pot at all, and the parchment paper on the bottom should help it slide right out with no effort.
Let cool well (about an hour) before cutting, otherwise bread will be “wet” inside and not recover. (Paul Hollywood would be very disappointed in your doughy bread!)
Cut, slather with butter, ENJOY!!!

Photo of the salsa jar

We have only made savory versions of this so far, but could easily add some raisins/currents, cinnamon, chocolate chips, etc. for a sweeter loaf.

Garlic Basil: Add 2-3 Tbl each of dried garlic powder, fried garlic bits (found at the Asian markets), dried basil, and/or onion flakes or fried shallot bits (Asian market). Makes it very flavorful and really not overwhelmingly garlicey.

Salsa Verde: (our current favorite) Add in one ENTIRE 6.36oz jar of Spanish (not Mexican – totally different thing!!) salsa verde (a rich pesto of garlic, parsley, and oil)(I use Montealbor brand shown right). I do this in the wet stage and make no other adjustments to the recipe. The dough will be very oily if you put the whole thing but delicious, you can make it a little less oily by draining off the extra oil from the salsa before adding it to the dough, SO delicious!!! Warm or cold. My family devoured this loaf immediately, and now I have to make it constantly!

Olive Garlic: Another family favorite! One jar of the Spanish salsa verde above PLUS olive bruschetta or tapenade (I used Murray’s 8.1oz Olive Bruschetta because that was what was available at my grocers 😉 )

Color Hugs for Winter! UPDATED!

I have been struggling to do anything for myself (as opposed to doing things for others), and feel a bit down lately, so I decided this past weekend would be a great time to take a few hours and do something for myself. I had some pre-cut colorful cotton and black poly suede strips leftover from another project (the Voiceprint Quilt!), so I sewed them all end to end – the only rule being to grab at random without looking, and can only pick color enough to make sure I don’t sew two identical pieces to each other.

I decided to make it 60″x80″, so I measured 80″ down the first strip, and cut it off there, and then sewed it down the long side to the next strip, cutting them off at the bottom. Again, I did not allow myself to fuss about placement or colors, other than to try to avoid putting too much of the same color strips next to each other. I kept going until I ran out of strips, resulting in a quilt top that was 80″x90″!
Because the black poly was ravelly, I serged the long strips after they were sewn together.

I really adore the way the colors just glow when the light hits them!! I love the bright cheerful colors, and it felt wonderful to make something pretty for myself. I smile even thinking about it. It’s impossible to be gloomy while staring at this beauty!

Here is the finished and quilted version!! It is actually available for sale, as I decided making it was enough color hugs for me and I didn’t need to keep it besides 😉 Has the most gorgeous watered blue and purple backing, and the binding is a black and white stitching pattern.

New Year’s Resolutions for 2021

With the close of 2020, many may be thinking about their New Year Resolutions. I wanted to share mine and offer that you may want to adopt it too.

My resolution is just to try to get through 2021, and to show more loving kindness to myself.

Let’s be honest, we are still in the grips of a deadly pandemic. It will be months yet before the vaccine is widely available. New mutations of the virus are emerging, which may require tweaking the current vaccine and it will certainly be months before we feel safer from this. Meanwhile, we constantly hit new records in numbers of dead, thousands face long-term complications from this virus, millions face the devastation of economic uncertainty including hunger and homelessness. Mental health is, unsurprisingly, at an all-time low, and suicides from illness & mourning, economic despair, and social isolation will continue to climb. Politically and socially there has been additional upheaval and uproar that has sapped what little strength we’ve had left. Our lives and society have been thrown into chaos, and we will be feeling the effects of this for decades, not just months.

In the midst of this insanity, we are all trying to navigate as best we can, compounded by work and school schedules that are so on-again-off-again, it makes planning impossible. If you have done nothing else this past year but hang in as best you can, you are a rockstar. Despite this, I have been shocked to see how hard people have been on themselves – straight A students are upset at getting a B+ or A-, parents angsting that their household is full of snippy, cranky, anxious people – little and big – and are not ‘model homes’, workers upset that their productivity is down, or that they bought supplies for a hobby project that never happened, and on and on. All of which are COMPLETELY unsurprising in the middle of a pandemic that has forced us into unprecedented adaptations on the fly (now we’re learning from home! and remote working! and figure out all the technology, and buy more devices, and upgrade your internet, and money is tight now? too bad!) and a daily uncertainty about everything. The worst part is that people seem to feel there is a competition. If my life is not the absolute worst, I have no right to complain.

This is not only not true, but incredibly toxic & unhealthy. Your feelings are real and valid. This is not a competition. Just because someone has it worse (spoiler, there will ALWAYS be someone who has it ‘worse’) does not mean that you cannot be upset at whatever is bothering you. You do not need to be the poster child for a charity before you can feel sad/angry/upset/frustrated/annoyed/irked/distraught/ anxious/scared/overwhelmed/traumatized or anything else! Aside from how unhealthy it is for us to try to force aside our emotions because we are not “sufficiently oppressed”, think about the message this sends our friends, family, and especially our children: Until you are at the bottom of the barrel, your negative feelings don’t matter and are inappropriate. Is that really the message you want to send?! Does this hold true for happy feelings too? Is our happiness invalid because someone else has it better?? Do you see how silly this line of thought it?

When we say, “I’m really anxious and cranky lately”, and a well-meaning person replies, “At least you still have a job!”, they may be trying to help and have no idea how else to comfort you (I’m fairly sure I’ve been guilty of such glib responses in the past). However, they cannot shame or dismiss you without your cooperation. It is up to you to accept that your feelings are valid – even if you do still have a job – and let yourself experience and work through the emotions you are having. Please embrace where you are – wherever that is – and stop feeling the need to defensively, shamefacedly, preface things with, “I know others have it so much worse right now, and I feel really guilty for saying this, but….”.

Like everyone else, I have been guilty of expecting too much of myself. I am demanding pre-law school, pre-pandemic, levels of performance from myself, with little or any acknowledgement that I was severely burned out going into this year (so burned out I actually fell asleep in the middle of the bar exam and couldn’t process the text I was reading!), and that being in self-lockdown for the year is very stressful and NOT restful and I have not fully recharged or recovered. It is ok that things didn’t get accomplished. It is ok that I have been doing the BARE minimum.

We must accept that uncertainty and stress – which nearly all of us are dealing with at abnormal levels – can cause disease and is having a massive and serious impact on our productivity and energy. We MUST therefore cut ourselves some slack and recognize that this is not a ‘normal’ time and that this will not be normal for a long time. Even if you are still working, healthy, have a roof over your head and some food on the table, things are not normal. If any of those things are missing, the load is significantly worse. By placing unreasonable expectations on yourself, you are exacerbating the stress load and setting yourself up for failure by creating this vicious loop: I am not getting enough done -> I feel like a failure -> Feeling like a failure compounds my exhaustion which makes it impossible to get enough done -> So I am failure…. Worse, this loop tends to transition us from being a ‘person who gets things done and succeeds in your life but who didn’t get something done this time’ to a ‘failure’. This loops transitions us from our accomplishments to our fundamental identity (which in turn depletes us further, and exacerbates the loop).

So, please, join me in declaring that your New Year’s Resolution is to be kinder and more forgiving of yourself, and to lower the bar this year on your accomplishments. Just focus on surviving the year, anything else you achieve is a bonus. Wishing you all peace and a good year.

Japanese Full Apron Tutorial

I decided I really wanted a more full-coverage apron that would protect my clothes from stray cooking splatters. So I started with a 1-yd remnant of this very pretty indigo pinstripes utility twill from Beautiful Textiles, and added some self straps that criss-cross across the back. This was a super-simple project you can do in an hour.

Because my fabric was about 60″ wide, I was able to rotate it so the 60″ width was my length from chin to shin, and the 1 yard length wrapped around my torso – which for me, was enough coverage across my front. I did not shape it in any way, it is just the rectangle – which is why it lays a little “funny” (bunching very slightly under the armpit, belling out in front). If this bothers you, you can shape your apron front and cut away the sides under the arms a little.
If your fabric is narrower, or you want more to wrap around you, you will need to think about how much fabric you need and how to best orient it.
I actually used a little less than the 36″ width, and cut a long strip from it to be my neck straps.


  1. Figure out the size you want your apron to be, and how to orient your fabric. If the fabric needs it, be sure to finish your edges and hems – except for the top edge.
  2. Using strapping, webbing, or a strip of the apron fabric, make a strap for your neck. My strap is about 1″ wide finished, so I cut it 4″ wide. The length depends on you. Because the neck of the apron is so high under my chin, I was able to get away with using just the 36″ length of the fabric to get 2 straps out of it (but just barely). (Read Step 4 to figure out how to measure this). Fold strap in half, long sides together, press. Open, and fold both long sides in to the center and press again. DO NOT UNFOLD, just fold it in half again along your original press line. You should now have a long strip that is about 1″ wide and 36″ (or whatever you decided) long, four layers of fabric thick.
    Run a line of stitching down the open long side to keep it a nice strap (see first illustration in Step 4).

    Because this apron is just a pull-on with no ties, there is a lot more stress on the strap than with an apron that goes over the head and ties around the waist. So you need something sturdier than ribbon – like webbing or fabric.
  3. Prepare the top edge by folding it over .5″-1″ and pressing. I took a strip of cardstock (you can use a manilla folder) that was 1″ wide, and used that as a guide to fold and press the edge.
  4. You want the sides of the apron to be secure and not flapping, so take your strap from Step 2 and stick the cut 1″ wide end up under the fold, close to the edge, and sew it down securely. (See illustration – far right). (You can use a safety pin at this point if you are just trying to measure and do not have your actual strap ready yet.) This is your back strap position.

5. Mark the center front of the top edge (a straight pin is fine), and line it up with your sternum. Pin the apron to the shirt you are wearing, with the top edge where you want it to be when the apron is finished. Take the strap (which should now be securely sewn to the top edge outside on one end), and pull it over your opposite shoulder. Pull it up and pin it to the front top edge of the apron where you want it to be (usually this is about where your bra strap hits). This is your front strap position. Experiment with the length so that the apron hangs the way you want.

6. Take off the apron, trim the strap to be about 1″ longer than top edge of the apron (enough to fold up and out under the top fold), tuck it under the top edge fold, and sew it down. Measure the strap (adding 2″ for sewing it to the top fold), take another piece the same length, & sew it to the outside edge under the top fold on the other side. Measure the distance from the center mark you made in Step 5 to the front strap position you determined in Step 5, and measure that same distance from the center mark on the other side to place the other end of the strap.

7. Sew all strap ends securely, and top-stitch down the top edge fold all along the length.

8. Add any extras you want. I added a large patch pocket (in utensil print) and a loop of 2″ of narrow 1/4″ black elastic so that I can tuck a towel into it for convenience.

This is the first draft of these instructions, so if there is anything that is unclear or something that I can explain better, please let me know! Leave a comment or send a message!

Happy Sewing!

Spiced Palmier Cookies – Deliciously Easy!

Palmier cookies look fancy, but are very easy to make! The spices make them extra delicious, and a perfect holiday cookie!

Spiced Palmier Cookies:

2 Cups Sugar – (I prefer extra fine Baker’s Sugar, but regular granulated white sugar is fine too)
1/4 tsp Kosher salt – (the big, soft flakes work well, but table salt is fine if you don’t have)
1 package (2 sheets) frozen puff pastry, defrosted
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ginger
1/4 tsp cardamom
1/8 tsp allspice (substitute nutmeg or cloves if desired)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
Combine all spices, salt, sugar, in small bowl, mix well. Pour half of the sugar mixture into a large flat tray with sides (I use a huge flat baking sheet with low sides that came with my oven so that I can corral the sugar, but you can even just use your countertop if you don’t have a suitable tray), smooth it out to evenly cover the bottom. Open puff pastry, unfold one sheet, lay it on top of the sugar mix, pour half the remaining (1/4 cup) sugar on top and press the sheet firmly with a rolling pin or your hands, embedding the sugar in the dough, top and bottom. Turn sheet over and press/roll it again, scooping up more sugar from the tray to cover the top if needed.
Fold both of the short sides to the middle, then fold to the middle again, then fold one half over the other (see my “amazing” illustration if this is confusing!). You should now have 6 layers.

Crappy line art showing how to fold a palmier

Slice your “log” into cookie slices, about 3/8″ thick, and place flat side up on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake the cookies until nicely browned on top – about 5-10 minutes depending on your oven, and then flip to brown the bottom. If the top does not seem to be sufficiently brown, flip anyways to make sure you don’t burn the bottoms. Leave in longer if desired, but keep rotating to avoid burning. Remove, cool on rack, EAT!!

While first batch of cookies is in the oven, repeat the sugaring process for the second sheet, using up the remaining sugar. Fold up, slice, bake.

THERE WILL BE LOTS OF SUGAR LEFT OVER! This is ok and totally normal. I pour it into a jar and save for the next batch.

DELICIOUS (BUT NOT PRETTY) TIP: After slicing the cookies, press both flat sides into the sugar before putting them on the pan. This will cause the sugar on the flats to caramelize and burn a little. It makes a super delicious extra shell if you like the nutty taste of slightly burnt sugar, but they do look much less “professional”. We caramelize ours as you can see from the burnt bottom of the cookie on the left 😉

Palmier cookies - one with slightly burnt bottom

Part 3 of Life Advice: Competency

This is the final part of my serialized advice I was recently asked for. While the person this was originally written for is in the medical field and thus framed in those terms, this is applicable for anyone! I hope something here helps you, too!

Whether you are fresh out of school, starting over with a major career change, or even moving to a new country, it is easy to feel incompetent – that your education or previous experience did not adequately prepare you to handle the day-to-day tasks of your new position. This feeling is particularly overwhelming if you were very competent in your previous career or in your home country, and now suddenly you find you don’t know how to do anything right, and the ground under your feet is treacherous.

It really is very common to feel totally incompetent in a profession, ESPECIALLY in any technically-complex profession, like medicine or law. School mostly teaches you theory and the details behind what you do (for example, what is required to certify a class action lawsuit, or what kind of questions and tests you might consider for a patient who presents clutching the left side of their stomach), but it doesn’t teach you the actual details of your job – how to properly file and answer a lawsuit, or how to look at the whole patient to figure out what the real underlying issue is rather than just treating the one symptom they are complaining about. You are expected to learn that stuff on the job, and is exactly why a bankruptcy lawyer will be completely at sea if you ask them to help with your divorce, or why a transplant nurse may not recognize what ails your baby. In both of our professions, this is why your first few years in practice are under the supervision of more experienced professionals. Please do not worry that you have only theory and no idea how to apply it!!

When I interned for a judge, I was asked to draft legal memos and write arguments and research the law that applied to a particular case. At first, I was utterly at a loss and felt woefully inadequate for such important work (people’s lives and millions of dollars hung on my work!), but I soon realized several things:
1) I didn’t have to start from scratch. I had access to previous memos, arguments, and research and could see how I was supposed to write and structure my work, and I just copied those outlines!
2) I had a supervisor AND the judge. The fate of the case was not resting on my shoulders and it was hubris (and terror) that made me think that. I was merely the first step in the process. My supervisor would read my work and point out areas of improvement. She was very experienced and so would be able to spot things I hadn’t even thought about and apply the information I provided in new ways. I learned from this very quickly and improved my work to the point where I was tasked with helping train the other interns. And the judge! The judge was no slouch simply waiting for my report, he too had decades of experience and did his own research and work on the case, my work was simply to help him clarify points. I would sometimes be called in to his office and expected to answer questions about my research and arguments and to defend them.
3) I knew more than I realized. As I worked, the theoretical knowledge from school that had felt so lofty and abstract abruptly clicked into place when confronted with real world examples, and I realized I had a much better grasp on things than I had thought I did. It was such a great feeling, to be reading a complaint and hear the warning bell go off in my brain and a fragment of my half-remembered lectures play in my head alerting me to the real issue. Just like in medicine, in law people frequently muddy the waters and obscure the real complaint and real redress they are seeking. It is up to the attorneys and judges to try to figure out the real issues and causes of action that are in the story presented. And THAT is competency!

I PROMISE you, it does get better, and you are more competent than you think. You just need some real-world experience to help the theory of school slot in to place. Good luck on this new path!!

Self-Care: Time Management & Making Time for ‘Fun’

There are many things in life that will suck away ALL of your time, energy, and life, if you allow them: Your kids, school, work, etc.

The trick, then, is to recognize that there is ALWAYS more you can give, and that it will NEVER be enough. Settle on a standard of “Good Enough” and strive for that. I espouse the philosophy of Good Enough in my personal and professional life, as my website puts it,

              “Good Enough” Design is my philosophy of art and living.  In a nutshell, reaching for perfection, constantly striving to better your technique and craft, to hone your skill, is what we should all be doing as artists and as people.  Regardless of what you do, you should always try to be better, to do better, than you were/did yesterday.  HOWEVER, we should recognize that this is an ongoing process, and NOT fall apart when we make or do something that falls short of that ideal (as it inevitably will). 

Muslim artists traditional included a deliberate flaw in their work, as a recognition that only God can achieve perfection.  Bloomingdale’s Department Store used to employ knitters to hand-knit very expensive men’s socks, and they were hired with the express instruction to include flaws in every pair so that they could be recognized as handmade.  So why do so many of us berate ourselves and denigrate our work for its imperfections?

I am not saying that if someone hires you for a custom project you fob them off with work you know to be substandard.  Set standards for yourself and hold yourself accountable to meet those standards.  But don’t make those standards so impossibly high you will always fail.

 Good Enough is recognizing that while you have not achieved perfection, you have done your work to the best of your ability and you find that acceptable.  Since you learn from everything you do, you know that next time it will be better, but you are satisfied with this piece right now.  It is essentially recognizing that you have reached for the moon, but you are okay to have landed among the stars, to paraphrase Les Brown.”

When I started law school, I had very ambitious plans of doing all the reading, summarizing it, drafting case summaries, and reviewing the material weekly in preparation for final exams. School started in early August, by mid-October I was way behind, I was burnt out, and I was dead. I gave up totally – I just didn’t have the energy. And I noticed that I was still doing ok in class – I could answer questions, think on the fly to cover my studying shortcomings, and only very rarely was caught totally unprepared. I found a happy medium where I did just barely enough work to be prepared for class, and gave up on everything else. I immediately became less stressed, I made it a priority to keep doing things I loved – going to concerts, the occasional art project, socializing with friends, etc. And life got a lot better.

Most of my classmates kept working hard, and gave vastly more time to their schoolwork – with no better results. I quickly accepted that I wasn’t going to be the star pupil I had hoped to be, but that graduating with my sanity intact was far preferable. I did ok, my grades were good enough to be acceptable, and I performed well in class, I got involved with many extracurriculars, and even managed to cram my schedule so tightly I could graduate an entire year early – also saving my sanity. Did I suffer by not being the top student in a very competitive environment where top students are rewarded with lucrative internships and job offers? Maybe, but if I had killed myself to get there, would I have gotten those offers? Probably not – I’ve learned that being “old” and female, especially in combination, is deadly in this industry and results in fewer opportunities. But I also made peace with the fact that my younger peers had less going on in their life – fewer obligations, fewer distractions – and therefore could afford to devote more energy to this than I could.

But I also remember learning this same lesson in undergrad, and spending a lot of time on a wide variety of extracurriculars and doing just enough of the readings to get by, and doing just well enough on my exams to get where I wanted. The truth is there is always more you could be doing. At least in law school, professors have said that for every hour you spend in their class, they assign 4-5 hours of homework. Multiply that by the number of class hours you have in a week, and you quickly find that it is actually almost impossible to do everything – especially if you are a slower reader, or trying to take notes as you go. Perfection is out of reach for all but the lucky few whose brains are wired for the topic, or who are willing to completely sacrifice their life in pursuit of perfection.

I don’t want to sacrifice my life in pursuit of any single goal. I will never be the internationally-recognized top expert in any field. I will never get the top award for the most brilliant work. And I am ok with that. Instead, I have chosen a life that is rich in other rewards – the joy of spreading myself thin over a variety of interests and passions, making time for concerts and theater (in the non-covid world), making time for social engagements with the family I care about and enjoy the most (and giving myself permission to be too busy for the people I do not enjoy), focusing on running on my own business, traveling, reading, always learning, and always exploring the world around me in various ways.

So I strongly encourage you to think about what your goal is with school – do you just want your degree, do you want a specific class standing, do you want to get in to a very competitive position, and plan your time and life around your goals, rather than allowing life to force you into a schedule not of your choosing. People tend to get caught up in the expectations they face, and don’t stop to articulate what they really want and where they should make sacrifices. I had classmates who drove themselves into the ground, but never wanted to be the top student, they just got caught up in the routine of “we are in law school, this is how we study”. One student I know would skip class if she had not entirely finished the reading – both a waste of her time (since class was far more useful than the readings, which you could always read later), and a massive source of stress for her – unnecessarily. (And no, you did not need to finish them to come to class.)

I think the biggest act of self-care is to decide where your priorities are, figure out what the BARE MINIMUM you need to do to pass is, and then allocate your ‘additional’ time accordingly. It’s nice to say, “be sure to take time for yourself”, but it’s meaningless if you haven’t figured out what your bare minimum is, and also what activities actually replenish you. Being in school/Having a new baby/Major life change is a WONDERFUL excuse to cut people and things that are weighing you down out of your life. Like Marie Kondo’s “Does this object bring you joy?”, you need to ask that about the people who are in your life, and the activities you do. We tend to get stuck in routines that include having relationships with long-term friends or family members that you have outgrown or diverged from, or do things because we always do them that maybe no longer serve your needs and interests. People who would not otherwise accept you pulling back from the relationship and activity are very understanding when you cite school as the reason you no longer have time or energy for something (and Covid is certainly helping! It’s actually the good, caring, and responsible thing right now to avoid people and group activities!)

The last thing I want to say is to reiterate that failure and quitting IS OK!! There is a popular attitude that “failure is not an option!” or that “only losers quit”. Failure is a key way we learn! If you aren’t failing, it means you are never taking risks, never stretching yourself, never growing, never trying new things, never trying to master new skills. Edison failed ONE THOUSAND times to create a lightbulb, only succeeding on the 1,001st effort! And as for quitting, it is ABSOLUTELY OK to decide that something is no longer working for you, that it is not the direction you want to go in, that it is simply wasting your energy to pursue and to quit! In our society, that may be a revolutionary act, and it can be a very courageous act.

Recognizing that you are no longer served by the path you are on, or the method you are trying, or anything else, and quitting and refocusing your efforts on what DOES serve you better is the most healthy and intelligent choice to make!

Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

Wow, we have been away for a long time! Life has been…crazy (I completely agree with the internet joke that 2020 is the result of a time traveler who accidentally screwed things up and keeps trying to fix them, but making things worse every time).

Someone recently approached me for advice, and in the hopes that it can help someone else too, I will be sharing it in a series of posts. Please feel free to comment or contact me privately.

Imposter Syndrome

What can you do when you start doubting your own skills and experience and thinking you are just a failure who should give up before your incompetence is publicly proven?

  1. Recognize that this is the voice of Imposter Syndrome (and/or Depression and/or Anxiety), and tell yourself that you don’t listen to liars who are only trying to undermine you. Try to interrupt that voice every time it starts up. Try shutting it down with rational arguments, or turn up some music and tune it out, or do a pleasurable activity that will release happy brain chemicals. Try to fight it and not let it get a toehold.

2. I bought myself a very pretty little notebook, and I started several lists in it:

  • A list of all my accomplishments (they can be as big or little as you like);
  • A list of my good traits;
  • and then two lists of failures: things that make me FEEL like a failure, and, of that list, things that REALISTICALLY are failures (turned out to be a much shorter list!!). Whenever those voices in my head get to be too much, I reread the relevant lists. Be sure you keep that notebook handy and leave plenty of space to add to your lists!! Remember that it is nearly impossible to achieve any kind of real success WITHOUT failures along the way.

Remember to be realistic – if a friend came to you and told you what happened, would you tell her she was a failure? Would you secretly think it? Or would you tell her that given all the other things on her plate, it was no surprise that she was struggling right then and advise her that she had not failed or, if she did, that she could recover, learn, grow, move on? Why are you being so MEAN to yourself if you wouldn’t see it that way if it was someone else’s story?

I keep this notebook by my bed, and reread it in the middle of the night when the negative voices in my head are the loudest. It helps me separate what is real from what is a lie my head tells me. Sometimes, it helps to look for concrete examples – “that voice in my head is insisting I’m incompetent and can’t do this, but I figured out what was really bothering that patient and I treated that other person correctly, so I got this!” Or even, “I was wrong about what to do last time, but I am new to this, and I learned from that and now I know what to do next time!

3. So what if your incompetence is publicly proven? We are surrounded by examples of mediocre people rising to great heights and going from success to success EVEN when they are public failures. CEOs routinely come in, destroy a good company, get a golden parachute and move on to the next company! One of the Southern states just elected a representative who thinks the GERMANS bombed Pearl Harbor and has said other ridiculous things that every 4th grader would know better – but they elected him anyway! Do not be so afraid of risk – or public humiliation – that you keep yourself from achieving and living! There are almost no failures bold enough to destroy your life. You suffer a temporary setback, go back to your corner for a moment if you need a rest, but then come back out swinging! I noticed something years ago, when actors or clowns or magicians pick out someone in the audience to have fun with, the audience cheers WITH that person so long as they are a good sport about it. Even if the performer ‘embarrasses’ them, so long as they handle it gracefully, the audience’s support and admiration is still with them. BUT, if the audience member is a poor sport and is actually embarrassed or annoyed, the audience feeling quickly turns against them. So, whatever the situation, if you can handle it gracefully and with aplomb, even if you’re thrust unpleasantly into the spotlight, public feeling will be with you. My point? Really that only YOU can embarrass yourself, not other people. There is no public display of incompetence if you don’t allow it – everything else is just learning, and it’s ok to learn in front of others. You make the wrong diagnoses or botch the IV or make the patient’s rash worse by not seeing the allergy note – apologize gracefully, learn from it, accept any professional consequences, and keep going. Don’t deny, get hostile (which we often do when we feel ashamed at being in the wrong), or quit. Only by internalizing it as a failure does it become a failure!

4. Talk to others. Sometimes therapy can help with a lot of things, but don’t forget to talk to mentors, teachers, and other professionals in your field. Ask them when they started feeling competent, ask how they learned to practice – in school, on the job, something else?, ask them how long it took before they felt competent to fly solo. You are not alone; you are not the first person on this path. Your path is full of other people, but because everyone keeps up a social mask, you never see who else is also struggling. I was shocked when I learned that the person I really looked up to, who totally had her life together, who was a recognized expert in her field, still had moments where she struggled with feelings of inadequacy. It was such a powerful realization that even when you’re on top those doubts can flood you. That what others see from the outside may bear no relation to what is going on on the inside. Recognizing that there may not be a day when you suddenly achieve “it” and all those doubts disappear is important. Realizing this is a life-long process is key to setting up your expectations and how you manage this.

Next week, Competency, and then Self-Care!

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