That unfinished thing? Follow the simple directions.

one step at a time, up the mountain to the top

I love when someone writes with a request.

Could you please write a Grace Note about when you delayed getting your degree finished on time?

While everyone has a unique experience of course, it’s a deeply stressful belief that it would be terrible to not finish something of great importance On Time.

Or, ever.

Something you enrolled in and spent lots of money for.

Something that was maybe supposed to change your life, your work possibilities, your future.

I entered a two-year master’s degree program, took all the classes and all the exams, but got pregnant my second year, and postponed writing my thesis.

Writing the master’s thesis meant I needed first to complete a very big research project in culture and personal change as a part of a group or organization somewhere. Followed by writing a book about it.

Believe me, it sounded like a ton of work.

And there were a few stressful thoughts.

As the due date loomed on the distant horizon (I had three more years to finish) my mind would start cranking away at the possibilities.

I would see visions of all the arduous, dreadful work ahead.

I would say things like “it will take a year for me to finish the thesis project, I should start right now!”

But I can’t start yet, my baby is so small.

How can I be breast-feeding and going all over to graduate libraries, teaching workshops to analyze and deliver change, and write an 8 chapter thesis?

Fortunately, I also saw something that for me was very powerful, and alarming.

I saw myself five or ten years into the future without any degree at all, because I didn’t do this thesis project.

I saw what would happen if I continued to believe the thought that this work was too much for me.

It seemed like a terrible vision.

The degree had cost thousands of dollars. I had paid for half of it myself, with my in-laws generously paying for the other half. It had been a huge effort, a big decision, and I had loved tons of what I had learned.

Now there was just this one final push.

And it would be a push.

No denying it.

It involved contacting an organization with a proposal to sweep in, make a positive change through individual meetings, group sessions, retreats, coaching, expertise in behavioral science.

Then after all that was completed, I would analyze the outcome, research my theories, explain the before and after, and what happened, and write about the whole entire thing. An entire book’s worth of material.

I kept thinking it’s too much. I can’t stand it.

Then I’d see that picture in the future of having no master’s degree, after all the classes and tests and reading I had done and all that money spent and all the hours learning up to this point.

Only this one part left.

I had to do it.

What I knew to do at the time was one step, then the next.

Make a list of organizations I’d love to work with.

Call them all. Talk to the executive directors, or whomever makes the decision.

Make a contract to come in as a consultant, discover their difficult spots, and help them find solutions.

Arrange the babysitter (a sister and my mom stepped in, awesome).

Set up the training schedule. Fill in the calendar. Pump breast milk.

Arrange meetings at the organization to find out everything about it, meet with all the staff, take tons of notes.

Make the plan for “change” with the director.

Arrange three retreats (they were held at my mom’s house, she had a big enough living room).

Conduct the retreats.

Give my summary, give suggestions for upgrades and change, shake hands, say goodbye.

Write an entire thesis about what just happened over that 6 month period….the writing took another 3 months.

Bind the book, turn it in, meet with faculty to explain and defend my entire year of this project…..


It surprised me when I cried tears of pride and joy when I walked across the stage. My second brand new baby was just born, right after the meeting with the faculty when I handed in my bound thesis.

I walked across the stage with my baby daughter in a sling.

That was one heck of a project and a huge accomplishment for me.

If I had 100% believed that I couldn’t do it, or it was just too big of a hassle, I wouldn’t have had that amazing experience of receiving that degree with my family in the audience clapping.

When I look back at it now, it feels like I had an end result in mind, VERY determined to get there, and when I felt terrified I couldn’t finish, I kept doing the next thing, then the next thing, then the next thing.

Kinda like Matt Damon in The Martian (a movie I so enjoyed last weekend).

You solve the next problem, then the next one, then the next.

There is always only today’s problem, and you working on it.

This moment now, today.

It is not an entire year of work for me, all balled up into one terrible moment. That year of “work” had weekends, evenings, many moments with my new baby, discovering I was pregnant with my second baby (fueling the need to get this all done before the deadline even more) and lots of every day life changing diapers.

The mind will see these horrible workloads, the impossible effort.

But it wasn’t actually true.

I loved those retreats, and the meetings I had with the organization I chose to work with who accepted me, a graduate student, coming in and giving them advice (still grateful to this day for them all).

I loved the feeling of having earned every bit of that degree. I felt like I was a master of Applied Behavioral Science because it required me to do what I didn’t think I wanted to do, or what seemed “hard”.

Sometimes……it’s right to walk away from something.

But often, it’s more fun to question that it’s too hard, or not that important, or impossible.

What if Mark Watney on Mars had thought it was too hard, or impossible?

We wouldn’t have that awesome story, with the great ending.

Sometimes you just want to put the flag in the ground at the top of the mountain.

You want to do it. You want to achieve it. You want to stay alive.

There is absolutely no guarantee, and no way to tell if you’ll ever make it. It might even seem quite UN-likely.

Without the belief that it’s impossible, though… do what you are able, today, and go to sleep and start again tomorrow.

Each day sweet.

Each day unfolding as it does. No way to tell what will occur, when it will happen, if it will happen the way you want (it probably won’t).

The truth is, I never had one single Too Hard day in all that time of completing that major life project called finishing a master’s degree On Time, just before Deadline.

I love that I did it. I did it because I knew to do it, for myself.

Really, it couldn’t have gone any other way.

I’m not sure I had anything to do with it, I just followed the simple directions.

“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.” ~ Tao Te Ching #9

“If I don’t know why not, I do it. And I don’t know a lot about why not.” ~ Byron Katie

Much Love,


4 Replies to “That unfinished thing? Follow the simple directions.”

  1. Ah but you know regret is a stressful thought to question. This situation I write about is only the one where the future is unfolding still, and you’re aware of thoughts you can question as it unfolds. I would deeply take the story of regret to inquiry. Is it true? Can I absolutely know it’s true? Who would I be without the thought? Degrees are not required for a happy life, that’s for sure. Notice how lovely life is here, right now, even though that degree was not finished. It was truly not required (you may notice what brilliance your life was without that degree). All those thoughts you find difficult, you can wonder what it would be like without them, and find the turnarounds.

  2. That one rings all sorts of regret bells for me, Grace Bell. Feel like the sabotage comes from all sorts of attitudes.

    While as Nike says, *Just do it*, covers a lot of territory…so does *I don’t like jumping through hoops for people I do not respect*
    …and *though I want to learn about this, I really don’t care for their entire curriculum*,

    ah (and this big one), *I’m too old for this kind of stress in my life*,

    not to mention *I don’t think I’ll succeed because I already KNOW that people find my ideas as DIFFICULT to face*.

    There are no visions of sugar plums dancing in my head.

    But I do wish I had finished my masters and submitted to those fools and just got it over with, years ago.

  3. Wow! How did you know I needed to read this??? I’m just starting something I have MAJOR doubts about and fears that I will not complete it. ( like so many other things I’ve not finished) This addressed all my concerns and then some. Thanks to the person who asked the question and many thanks to you Grace for answering it with your wonderful example. :)
    I’ll print this and have it within reach for the next 9 weeks of my class!

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