Openness and Thriving

Does your level of openness affect your ability to thrive? Here’s a little more food for thought as we ease into the rhythm of this new year.

I love tests! Back when filled a website with tests, I took a LOT of them! Personality tests are some of my favorites.

Like me, you may have run across personality tests that identify the big five traits – openness, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Dating sites sometimes use a measure of these characteristics to generate matches.

Some of us are very agreeable. Some of us are only slightly agreeable. (When I’m hungry, I can confidently say, I’m 100% DISagreeable, but that’s another conversation.) Where each of us fall on the spectrum of these traits appears to be 40-60% inherited, and 40-60% environmental.

There is no perfect combination of traits and possessing almost none vs. an extreme amount of any of them is neither good nor bad. You can easily get through life without knowing where you fall in any category.

But what if knowing could make it easier to thrive?

Let’s take openness for example, also referred to as openness to experience. Those who are more open to experience are more likely to be imaginative and spontaneous. They’ve also been characterized as curious and unconventional. They may feel practical, routine things are boring or unnecessary.

The idea of climbing Mt. Everest or being a space tourist could appeal to someone who’s open. Or they might marry someone they just met on a cruise. But it’s not as if you can pick someone out of a lineup and immediately know how open they are.

If someone has a high openness score coupled with a high conscientiousness score, the experiences they embrace will most likely be tempered by discipline. I would think that commercial pilots would have high scores in both openness and conscientiousness. They, in fact, do score highly in conscientiousness, but I haven’t found a correlation with openness yet.

That particular combination of traits would seem to be well-suited to careers in research as well. Someone who embodies curiosity and imagination as well as a careful, disciplined approach would be a natural fit for acquiring knowledge through adherence to the scientific method.

Of course, we all sail through life when our everyday circumstances fall in line with areas in which we are comfortable. It’s when we’re faced with something that feels foreign, unnatural, or hard that we struggle. It stands to reason that minimizing the clash between personality mismatches and life circumstances will increase our chances of thriving.

Since we can’t always control our circumstances, it’s important to understand that we can shift our basic personality to reduce our discomfort. The 40-60% of us that has been determined by environment, is more malleable than we sometimes recognize.

This malleability can have both good and bad results. In abusive relationships, the results will most likely be to the detriment of both the perpetrator and the victim. No one comes out of an abusive relationship unchanged.

I’m not suggesting that it’s possible to be your best when you’re embroiled in a toxic, or abusive relationship or that you should alter your personality in order to stay in one. On the other hand, shifting your traits for a short period of time may save your life.

Yes, the cost is huge and long-lasting. But if you must shift while you put an exit plan in place, the cost may be worth it. While this idea can create a feeling of shame, just remember that saving your life or the lives of your children is never anything to be ashamed of.

But malleability is not always detrimental. When we say we want to be better people, aren’t we saying we want to change something about our personality that isn’t measuring up? So many of us say we want to be better and then fail miserably at becoming better again and again and again. Perhaps that’s because we fail to get to know ourselves well before we begin the process.

That’s where openness circles back into the conversation. The more we are open to a new idea of ourselves, the more likely we are to be able to change toward that idea.

Being more open will also improve our comfort level when adapting to new jobs, new babies, new diets, new exercise routines, and new health requirements. Being curious can pull us collectively forward. Think of all the scientific discoveries that are the answer to someone’s curiosity. And being open to the ideas and interests of others will go a long way toward winning us friends.

I often think of openness as receptiveness. Am I receptive to learning, changing, feeling, and stretching my comfort level? Am I receptive to compliments, accolades, and praise? Am I receptive to novelty, the unexpected, and the beauty around me? Am I receptive to friendship, companionship, affection, and love?

Does my idea of myself allow me to be open to the idea that I deserve all of the above? If not, would my life be better if I were?

The answer to that question will answer the question that started this whole thought journey – does your level of openness affect your ability to thrive?

For me, the answer is yes.

There are Many Ways to Serve

On this national day of service in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s worth noting that there are many ways to serve. The pandemic may leave you feeling at loose ends without the familiar avenues in which to engage with the community. Like all change, a lack of the usual avenues brings an opportunity to shift, explore, expand, and learn.

When I’m not sure how best to contribute to improving my community, I look backward at the things that have influenced, bolstered, and supported me. This list will always include books. Books gave me a view of the world outside of my family and our surrounding small town.

This opening to the larger world help me gain perspective on my experience using knowledge that was out of the reach of my environment. I have relied on my ability to use resources beyond myself to gain insight, maintain balance, agglomerate encouragement, and amass courage. Books allowed me to envision possibilities I never would have otherwise imagined.

Words and stories create narratives that shape the future. Writing can be of service.

When I look back at my decision to start my first business, I think of the office my grandfather set up when I was four or five in an outbuilding behind my great grandfather’s house. By that time, the house itself was rented to strangers, but the outbuildings and farmland were his to tend.

Directly behind the house was a long series of rooms each opening to the yard, unconnected to the one on either side except for a common wall. I don’t know the original purpose of these rooms, but my grandfather designated one as our office. In it, he put a wooden table, chair, typewriter, and adding machine. With adhesive letters, he added our names to the door – his, and mine.

There I am with the state’s first lady!

My dad also owned a small business. While much of what I know about running an enterprise comes from working for him, the vision of my name on that office door is what I think of when someone asks my how I had the courage to go out on my own. My grandfather took me with him to vote and let me pull the levers. He took me with him to Lions Club and to meet the governor. He sent me door-to-door to campaign for him without adult supervision when I was eight and he ran for state representative.

Repeated acts treating me as though I belonged in the room or on the campaign trail just like any trusted adult imparted the ability to trust myself and believe I am a valuable team member even in rooms that are filled with men. There were many forces that attempted to undermine me during those years, but my grandfather consistently set me up for success.

I can think of no greater service to a child’s success, or to an adult’s for that matter, than repeatedly and consistently treating them as a competent and important contributor.

My grandmother modeled service in other ways. On Sunday afternoons, she visited older relatives in long-term care. At least once a month, I was expected to go with her. I remember the smell of urine hanging in the air as I walked down the halls. When I took over the care of my mother’s cousin in 2016, it was with that model in my head.

My family lived on a farm. About halfway to our dirt road was another road of farms. On that road was a large, once impressive house that was now slowly rotting, sagging, and falling apart. Mr. Green, the sole occupant, had no means of support and no car. About once a month, my grandmother and I would go to the grocery store, buy groceries, and deliver them to Mr. Green.

What my grandmother provided was a lifeline Mr. Green could count on. The security of knowing she would show up was as important as the staples in the grocery bag.

Small, consistent acts of kindness may not make headlines, but they make a difference.

When I look to improve my community, I also rely on my strengths and experience to create opportunities.

Organizations often need some particular expertise. I have edited newsletters, designed invitations, and worked the door of events. I created recipes and did a cooking class for disabled students soon to be heading for college. I’ve also connected a lot of people with new sources or new jobs.

Many nonprofits need someone to enter and maintain data. If you’re good at details and software, this could be an avenue for contribution even while staying home.

Never underestimate the power of kindness. Fresh baked cookies left on a neighbor’s porch, cards sent for no particular reason, or a regular Saturday morning phone call can all have more impact than you may imagine.

Sometimes I feel motivated if I am serving a goal more specific than improving my community. Perhaps I will act in service of peace, or gratitude, or inspiration. Perhaps I will act in service of improved health.

Improving one thing about which you’re passionate will contribute to bettering the community as a whole. And if each of us follows different passions, growth will expand in many directions. In this, with consistent, continued practice, we’ll learn that the whole becomes better when we all contribute.

Choose one thing that will better someone else’s life. Practice that thing consistently. This is the definition of service. There are many ways to serve.

Can Lasting Improvement Stem From Commitment to a Process?

Steak in the Ground

Where will you put your steak in the ground in 2021? Most years at this time I reflect back on events that have happened since the previous Christmas. This year, my memories have wandered much further back. I’m not sure why, but it seems to be having an effect both on how I view 2020 and on how I plan for the year to come.

I remember the smell of the fire burning before my mom switched the fireplace from wood to gas logs. Christmas never felt the same after that. I remember putting up the Christmas tree and decorating it alone while my parents were at work, then wrapping all the Christmas gifts for the entire family without ever peeking in the boxes for me. Perhaps it’s the similarities between Christmas 2020 and many from my childhood that have taken me back.

For whatever reason, everything seems to remind me of something from the way way back. A food poll published by FiveThirtyEight triggered the memory of an oft told family story reflecting upon an incident in which a relative’s girlfriend was dumped for nothing more than ordering steak well-done (with steak sauce, gasp). I don’t know if that story is true or just a way to elevate the teller’s and listeners’ reputations as a discerning diners.

What does feel familiar is a comparison between the percent of poll respondents who said they prefer their steak medium-rare (38%) to the number of people who, according to Longhorn Steakhouse, ordered it that way from May 30, 2016 – May 21, 2017 (22%). One could argue that this is because Longhorn Steakhouse orders do not accurately reflect the orders of those polled. That is certainly possible but saying one thing and doing another also rings true.

If 2020 has made anything clear, it is that as a culture we’re more than comfortable seeing evidence of something and behaving as if it were something else than dealing with difficult truths. Unfortunately, this doesn’t just keep us from getting the steak we prefer, it can lead to victim blaming, risky health choices, escalating violence, political chaos, and continued social injustice. Because we must first see a problem before we can solve it, denial will forever keep us from making forward progress – personally, professionally, and as a community.

Denial is a powerful tool for maintaining the status quo. But as 2020 has also shown us, change is inevitable. When we face change by holding onto the past with white knuckles, we miss the opportunity to make the future better.

We already know that much of 2021 will be similar to 2020. Given that, it seems foolish to develop a long list of intentions for the New Year. Instead, I intend to let myself see what is and face difficult truths. That is enough. From that pivot point, I can address any problems that arise in informed, prudent, and productive ways. If we use this approach collectively, we can improve all our lives. This is where I intend to put a steak in the ground (and yes, I know it’s stake).

Wishing all of us the strength, clarity, and the insight to improve individually and as a whole in 2021.

The Frost is on the Pumpkin

The frost is on the pumpkin and tomatoes are off the vine. Tonight we’re expected to have the first real freeze of the year. My cherry tomato vines have been by far the most prolific producers in the garden, but I grew them from seed and they got a late start.

That means the harvest began late. In August it started to pick up steam. Even today, you can see tiny yellow blooms mixed with a host of tomatoes. In anticipation of the freeze, I pulled most of the green tomatoes off the vines – 185 of them to be exact. Now the question is…

What can I do with green tomatoes?

While I didn’t want to leave them outside to freeze, I will preserve some in my freezer. If they were full size, I would wash them, remove the stem, and slice them before placing the slices in layers separated by wax paper or plastic freezer wrap. I can follow the same process for the smaller cherry size or I can quarter them.

Once they’ve been frozen, the tomatoes will be mushy and/or slimy. They won’t be suitable for a salad but they’ll be great for other things. If I want some for frying into a bite-size appetizer, it will be best to slice them. If I’m going to use them in salsa or pesto, quartering will work fine.

But before I begin the process of preserving, there’s no reason not to enjoy a few right away. Using a cup of quartered green tomatoes, a firmly packed cup of fresh arugula, a half cup of walnuts, a fourth cup of olive oil, a clove of garlic, and a fourth teaspoon of salt, I can create a scrumptious pesto. The lemony notes of the green tomatoes balance the peppery bitterness of the arugula. There’s no need to add cheese so this is a great lower fat, dairy-free pesto option.

Although salsa verde calls for tomatillos, it can be made with green tomatoes. They’ll need to be roasted, preferably charred slightly, and the rest of the ingredients remain the same – onion, cilantro, lime, salt plus some kind of pepper like jalapeño or serrano. My neighbor is willing to share the overabundance of serrano peppers she grew, so that will be my choice.

If the freezer is full, you may want to give some away. Pesto or salsa in a jar makes a great holiday gift. I like to include a card or label listing all the ingredients so it’s easy for anyone with a food sensitivity or allergy to identity a potential problem before they consume the gift.

For those with very sensitive tummies, green tomatoes may not sit right when eaten raw. They contain the toxic alkaloid tomatine. While you’d have to eat pounds and pounds of raw green tomatoes for the toxin to harm you, it could cause tummy upset and/or a headache for some.

Tomatoes are part of the nightshade family. Nightshades like tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant can contribute to inflammation and make some people with autoimmune disease suffer with related aches and pain. If you can’t tolerate potatoes, you may also want to avoid tomatoes whether green or ripe.

On the flip side, if you can tolerate them well, green tomatoes are a great source of antioxidants and at least one study has shown they inhibit human cancer cell lines of the stomach, colon, liver, and breast. They also contain vitamins A and C, potassium, iron, magnesium, calcium, and minerals along with fiber.

While I’ve been talking about unripe tomatoes, there are some varieties that are green when ripe. These are not common in the stores or gardens I frequent but don’t be surprised if you run across one somewhere.

I feel fortunate to have so many healthy, tasty tomatoes at my disposal. I just learned that some of my crop will be used in pozole next door tonight. And I now have serrano peppers awaiting me on my porch. It seems like its time to retrieve them and get back in the kitchen so I can finish some salsa before there’s frost on the pumpkin tonight.