how to eat an elephant.

For all of you who read the title and gasped, have no fear. I don’t condone, in any way, eating elephants in the literal sense. So you can relax, tell your heart to start beating again. I rode an elephant in Thailand and think they are some of the most amazing, intelligent, sensitive creatures on earth.
The type of elephant I’m talking about eating is actually a big project. We’ve all run into them before: assignments, jobs, tasks, goals, etc that just seem absolutely overwhelming. Well let me just say, when I’m done here, I’m going to be able to give one hell of a talk on how to take on projects you don’t feel ready for.

I should have expected it really. I know myself well enough to know that I’m a master at biting off more than I can chew. A perennial over-achiever. Addicted to the thrill of not knowing whether or not I can pull something off. Committed to being over-committed. A professional at fitting 10 lbs of sh*t into a 5 lb bag (as my dad would say). So I really shouldn’t be surprised when I look around and find myself hip deep in a project of proportions I’ve never before attempted. It’s definitely the biggest elephant I’ve ever tried to eat, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared.

I remember being a sophomore in high school – just laying the foundation for what would become a lifetime of being over-involved. I was in the car coming home from school, and my dad was driving because I didn’t yet have my license. Sitting in the passenger seat, I distinctly remember suffering the first waves of stress and anxiety: am I going to be able to finish all my homework and go to basketball and manage the new member list for International Outreach and get in my service hours for IB/Service Club and on and on….Honestly, I don’t even remember the things I was stressed out about. Undoubtedly, they were mere shadows compared to the bigger and more vital things I’d take on later in college and life, but to me at the time, they were of huge importance. I was scared. Just like I am now. And my dad gave me advice that rings as true now as it was then: start with one thing. Focus on it. Complete it. Move to the next thing. Move from task to task until you’ve done all you can do for tonight. Then go to sleep.

I’ve never gotten better advice on how to deal with a big project or problem. It helped me deal with the stress of beginning to take personal responsibility for life and my place in the world when I was in high school, and it’s going to help me now as I attempt to craft my life and career into a message that’s worth the world’s attention.

Step 1: Make a list
Step 2: Make lots of lists
Step 3: Make sure you break down your list items into quantifiable, complete-able tasks
Step 4: Then start checking them off, baby. One by one.
Step 5: Sleep**
Step 6: Repeat

(**This step may, in extreme circumstances, be replaced by a high coffee intake, thought this is not advisable too many days in a row…It could lead you to do things others will find questionable, like balancing pillows on your head while parading around your apartment in your underwear saying, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Not that I know from experience or anything.)

I’ve come to accept that the type of fear I’m feeling now – when you’ve got a lot riding on your shoulders, and you’re pushing yourself outside your comfort zone – isn’t my enemy. It’s what drives me to make those lists. It motivates me to be creative, innovative, and persistent in checking off those tasks. And when I can go no farther and fall into sleep (hopefully), it’s what gets me up early the next morning to start again. I might be scared of what I’ve begun. I’m afraid that I won’t have what it takes to complete it successfully. Am I too young? Too inexperienced? Too naive? Maybe. But one thing is for sure, they’ll never be able to say it’s because I didn’t work hard enough.

So I’m off to make lists. I’m off to answer emails and read curriculum and design M&E. I’m off to write grants and network and plan. To make timelines and budgets and workplans. Then I’m off to sleep before I get up tomorrow and do it again. And again and again and again, because the people I’m working for are worth it and the good things that could come of my success are too great to not give it my all. I might be afraid, but I’m going to try to bring fear along as my friend instead of desperately trying to leave it in the half-unthought thoughts of near sleep. Together, we’ll make it.

Have you ever faced a project like the one I am? What strategies did you use to combat the anxiety and self-doubt that comes along? I hope that my philosophy sounds like a sound one. I’d love to hear your input, and if you’re busy eating your own elephant, know that you’re not alone in the struggle. We’re all together in that one thing at least – the ways we strive to make ourselves better people and the world a better place. We all get scared sometimes, but that shouldn’t be enough to stop us from dreaming big.

Dream on. Struggle on.

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