Zoo-notable: The Big Thing

Right before the world shutdown and everything closed, I was fortunate enough to visit a library and picked up a small stack of books which piqued my interest. Most of these books were about writing or the creative process, and through the shelter-in-place period in April and May, I read most of these books. They were mostly inspiring and definitely pertinent to my writing life.

But then I read The Big Thing by Phyllis Korkki. Her book focused on how she managed to complete a huge creative project, despite her self-deprecating sub-title “If you’re a lazy, self-doubting procrastinator like me”. But I found it interestingly appropriate for anyone pursuing a “Big Thing”. And my immediate thoughts went to those who are looking to get into the highly competitive field of animal care—zookeepers, animal trainers, researchers, and animal care technicians.

So, I thought for my next Zoo-notable, I’d share some of the big ideas which stuck out at me from the creative book The Big Thing.

First, let’s hear from Phyllis Korkki herself:

The Big Thing refers to a major project that is personally meaningful and requires sustained effort to complete. Just as each person’s creative project was personal and unique, so was their way of working on it. Once you buckle down and try to do (your Big Thing), you are confronted with uncertainty and imperfection at every turn. Those who work on a Big Thing experience limits that can be accepted and also harnessed. Even if the limits seem to be a negative, they can be transformed into something positive.”

What’s Your Big Thing?

Do you have a Big Thing you would like to accomplish? While Phyllis spoke of creative projects, I felt your Big Thing could be any dream you are pursuing—creative, health goals, a career. As Phyllis explained—it’s a major project that is personally meaningful and requires sustained effort to complete.

I remember when I was five years old, I saw my first dolphin show at SeaWorld and I was hooked. I knew exactly what I was going to do when I grew up. That became my Big Thing for the next 25 years. I never wavered in my dedication or diligent perseverance in pursuit of that dream. But if I had had a book similar to this which helped me in any small way to keep my sanity, my health, and my passion alive, I would have felt so much better.

Whether your Big Thing is to be a zookeeper, or to write a book, or to create a fitness program centered around the principles of zookeeping, there are tips and tools which can help us along the way—keeping us healthy, productive, and yes, sane, through the entire process.

Here are the quick 5 big ideas:

  1. Take Care of Yourself so You Can Take Care of Your Big Thing
  2. Remember the Journey Over the Destination
  3. Celebrate the Small Wins
  4. Willpower, Procrastination, and Focus
  5. Rejection is Part of the Process

Big Idea #1: Take Care of Yourself so You can Take Care of Your Big Thing

“I paused to consider my physical state. My shoulders were hunched, my back was tight, I was breathing shallowly. I was worried about all the things I had to do that day, and my body reflected that.”

Phyllis Korkki The Big Thing

I feel like a broken record here, but the idea keeps popping out at me, all the time. You can’t take care of your Big Thing (the animals, your family, your dream, the planet, whatever else you care about) unless you take care of yourself.

Mindfulness Over Matter

The obvious aspects of taking care of yourself are eating, moving, and sleeping. In fact, Phyllis interviewed several experts in preparing for this book, and they all shared how important it is  to care for your fundamentals. One aspect people often don’t consider in their fundamental health and well-being is meditation and breathing. In fact, practicing mindfulness, along with posture (presence), eating right, and sleeping (we’ll get to that in a minute) are key to fulfilling our Big Thing. Living in this modern world distances us from some of the most obvious things. The body affects what the mind does, and vice versa.

Mindfulness about being in the moment. It is nothing more than paying attention, and I really don’t know what Big Thing anyone has where paying attention couldn’t help them out just a little more. I myself am guilty of what Phyllis calls “endgaining”—straining ahead to the end result rather than living fully in the moments where I am working toward my Big Thing.

Mindfulness meditation helps train the brain to focus and be present. It’s what I call station-training for the brain—to bring us back to the present, stop procrastination (which is just a way to avoid being in the moment), and focus on what’s important now.

Now mindfulness doesn’t supplant the need to take care of our physical bodies. We must prioritize our health and wellness if we want to achieve our Big Thing. And the most important fundamental? That would be sleep.

“It is a myth that depriving yourself of sleep can make you wildly creative. Rather, it can lead to mental illness, and even suicide. Sleep is essential to your mental health, and your creative health.”

Phyllis Korkki The Big Thing

In Bed With the Big Thing

I was looking forward to seeing a familiar name in the chapter titled “In Bed with the Big Thing”. Matthew Walker is probably the leading expert on sleep. His book Why We Sleep changed my life and my husband’s life for the better (I am working my way to doing a Zoo-notable on that book soon).

He told Phyllis in pursuit of your Big Thing that when work deprives people of sleep, they pay for it in the form of lost efficiency, inability to focus, and reduced productivity. Ironically, the more sleep deprived you are, the less you realize how sleep deprived you are. Your ability to judge your level of impairment is also diminished. Sleep enhances our learning and ability to do our job well. Depriving yourself of sleep is not a form of willpower, indeed, you need your sleep to strengthen your willpower muscle. It is not a sign of laziness to prioritize our much needed rest.

Now according to Phyllis, sleeping wasn’t so much the issue, but using sleep to make ourselves more productive.

I love to sleep, and I don’t want to see my bed become a place where productivity is prized over rest. It seems to me I’d be better off simply using my bed to get a good night’s sleep. Wouldn’t this prime my mind to work more creatively at my desk?

Phyllis Korkki The Big Thing

So, how do we ensure we get good quality sleep and make a difference in our lives, and our Big Thing? Matthew Walker shared some great tips (and served as a great reminder for me).

Tips for Hitting the Hay

  • Dark bedroom with thick curtains to block out the morning light (or evening light if you are an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of person)
  • Keep your room cool. Turn your thermostat down a little. It helps you sleep and saves energy (a win-win idea to connect our sleep to conservation).
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol at least 6-8 hours before bed
  • “Perhaps the most important thing for stable sleep, however, is a constant wake-up time”
    • Even on the weekends? Yes. If you get up at 6:00 am on weekdays for work, it will help you in the long run to create a biological rhythm every day and avoid mental jet lag.

Sleep can even help you figure out problems which are ironically “keeping you up at night”. As Phyllis put it “no one ever says ‘stay awake’ on a problem.” There is an exercise which I have only successfully attempted once that really hit home with me, especially if your Big Thing is a creative or problem-solving project.

Incubation Ritual for Problem Solving While You Sleep

Here’s what you do:

  1. Write down the creative goal or problem in a brief phrase or sentence and place it near the bed
  2. Go over the problem for 2-3 minutes, last thing before you turn out the lights. If possible, visualize it as a concrete image, or gather actual objects that are connected to the issue
  3. Just as you are falling asleep, tell yourself you want to dream about the issue.
  4. Keep pen and paper on nightstand. Just as you are falling asleep, visualize yourself “dreaming about the problem awakening, and writing on the bedside note pad”.
  5. Upon awakening, lie quietly before getting out of bed. Note whether there is any trace of a recalled dream and invite more of the dream to return if possible. Write it down.
  6. Don’t worry about what you’re missing. Always focus on what you’ve got. (General good advice for everything…)

So, whether your Big Thing is to write the next great epic American novel, save rhinos, or become a rhino keeper, make sleep a priority. It will give you the focus, the clarity, and the inspiration you need to achieve success.

And with that we move onto to Big Idea #2

Big Idea #2- Journey over Destination

“All too often I was seeing writing as merely a means to an end: a published book. I wanted to have written the book, not be writing it…I project myself so far ahead into an imagined future that I lose sight of my experience in the present.”

Phyllis Korkki The Big Thing

Oh, if there was only one thing I could take from this book and had to rid myself of all the other ideas, THIS idea would stand alone. It’s about the Journey, not the Destination. This concept is universal. One of Phyllis’ contacts, a creator and writer Scott C. Reynolds, stated that our Big Thing is a journey. It’s a passion. “I ultimately realized (that without the passion), it’s like someone wanting to be a rock star to be a rock star—not because they love playing the guitar or they just have to write a song.”

I think it was this concept which I related to animal professionals the most. It’s okay to want to play with animals, but without a commitment to the hard work associated with this career, we aren’t likely to be successful, or honestly very happy.

Visualize the Process

Dog scooping poop.jpg

We all want to be the zookeeper, or the author, or the influencer. No one wants to be working towards that dream. But the reality is even once you achieve your dreams, it’s still going to require work and dedication.

Lanny Bassham, a gold medalist for sharp-shooting and creator of Olympic-winning coaching strategy called Mental Management speaks openly about this exact subject. Instead of focusing on what it’d be like to stand to receive your Olympic medal, envision yourself making the efforts it takes to achieve that medal. Envision taking aim and hitting the bullseye, then go out and practice.

I’ve started incorporating this practice into my work. I do tend to fantasize a lot about getting published, or having ZooFit become a big program at a zoo or fitness center. While it’s enjoyable, it’s not productive. Instead of imagining being on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah, I focus on what I’m feeling as I write. I imagine completing a story, or editing a video. Is it as exciting as picturing my first traditionally published book in my hand? No, but it is a lot more motivating to do the actual work.

If visualizing yourself doing the work necessary to achieve your Big Thing doesn’t do the trick, Phyllis has an exercise to help you discover if your Big Thing is really your Big Thing. If you want to achieve something and you just aren’t motivated to do it, like, at all, then maybe this Big Thing isn’t really what’s important.

Is Your Big Thing Your True Big Thing?

Here are three questions to ask yourself in relation to your goal:

  1. Do you have the ability or skill to do this Big Thing, or the motivation to learn and practice the necessary skills?
  2. Do you have the commitment and drive to work on the Big Thing at least somewhat steadily?
  3. Is it worth the sacrifice you will have to make—whether that be time, energy, or money—to complete it?

These questions focus on the journey your Big Thing will take, not the destination. It’s also a bit of a reality check. Will you still want to do your Big Thing if you know it can take 10-15 years before you see any results? If you have to work continuously for 10-15 years before you see anything show from it? Many people don’t want to wait or work that long for something. If you can and are willing to, then roll up those sleeves, and let’s dive in. You’ve got a Big Thing waiting for you.

Big Idea #3- Feelings of Progress (Celebrate Your Micro Wins and How Far You’ve Come)

Your Big Thing comes down to two aspects: baby steps and routine. It’s essential to break your project into smaller parts…These actions are small incremental. They, too, add up over time. Marshal those pieces into a larger whole. Daily actions create a meaningful structure over time.

Phyllis Korkki The Big Thing

When we are working on a big project— whether it’s a creative Big Thing, or a lifelong dream Big Thing—it can be frustrating when we don’t see progress. This frustration at best leads to what psychologists call “structured procrastination”. At worst, it leads to people giving up on their dreams and ambitions.

Structured Procrastination

First, let’s conquer the small issue of structured procrastination. This is a short-term activity—answering email, doing the laundry, fixing meals, or cleaning are examples of structured procrastination. It gives us a feeling of progress and completion we often lack with our long-term efforts.

Feeling accomplished is super important when working on anything, much less our wildly important goals. And while doing laundry or cleaning is necessary, they become distractions when done to procrastinate working on our Big Thing. When the progress on our project is slow, a great way to calm down the urge for structured procrastination is to find the micro-wins along our way.

Shaping Our Big Thing

Zookeepers and trainers do this when working on a new behavior with their animals. They visualize the completed behavior, and work backwards, creating a progression of steps for the animal to take while learning the new behavior. As the animal learns each step, the trainer rewards, or reinforces these steps, which makes learning the next step more motivating.

So, if you have a huge project which is exciting but overwhelming to you, break it down into smaller steps. What one small action can you take right now which will help you achieve your Big Thing? Then go do it. And then celebrate. You’ve accomplished something big. Yes, that small step is worthy of celebration. It’s actually a huge victory. So many people give up on their dreams before they’ve even begun because the challenge is too daunting. By breaking our Big Thing into smaller, easier to achieve portions, we see how we are progressing toward the end-goal, and have more fun doing it.

Look How Far You’ve Come, Not How Far You Have to Go

As you begin to piece together all the small micro-wins, you may still find frustration in how far away your goal still seems. Chris Baty, the creator of the internationally celebrated National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo as it is called in writing circles), has some great insight.

“Some people come to me, in a manner of a confessor to a priest, admitting that they *only* wrote, say six thousand words.” (The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write a full first draft of a novel, or about 50,000 words.) “But that’s six thousand words you wouldn’t have written otherwise. You’re still having this experience of prioritizing creativity.”

I one hundred percent agree. Instead of focusing on how far you have to climb, which is a punishment mindset, focus on how far you have come already. Develop the video-game player’s mindset. Tell yourself “I haven’t won yet.” But with enough experience points, you will defeat the Big Boss and complete your Big Thing. And the victory will be all the sweeter for it.

Big Idea #4: Willpower, Focus, and Your Big Thing

We need to place more value on unitasking— working steadily toward the creation of one thing—as it is more important then ever in our spliced-up world. Concentrating on one thing creates a structure inside our brain and provides structure in our daily lives.
But as I tried to work on my Big Thing, it was so easy to become distracted. I kept wanting to check Facebook and Twitter and my text messages and the news sites. This is a normal tendency, passed down from when we were evolving primates. Back then, a little bit of information out there in the wilderness or the savanna was extremely important. It might be a tiger or some other animal leaping out at us. Our brains haven’t evolved to keep up in the kind of environment we have now with all its technological distractions.

Phyllis Korkki The Big Thing

With so much drawing our attention away from the actually important things in life, it’s really a wonder anyone finishes their Big Thing. Procrastination and distraction are highly prevalent in today’s society. According to Earl Miller, a neuroscientist as Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, to remain focused, we need to practice focusing. There are some natural dispositions for focusing, but the brain is just like any other muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The more you practice focusing on the task at hand, the better you will get at it.

Flexing Our Willpower Muscle

Of course, this practice takes a good deal of willpower. And while training your brain to focus strengthens it, relying too much on willpower depletes our energy. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney tell us in their book Willpower “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it…When people have to make a big change in their lives, their efforts are undermined if they are trying to make other changes as well.” So the lesson to stay on track is to start small, and build your willpower.

Start small, and remember to give yourself some mental breaks. Not the procrastinating breaks where you zone out on YouTube for an hour, restorative and restful breaks. Take a walk to break away from studying. Get up and stretch or exercise after working on your resume or manuscript. Take a nap after an exhausting interview. Give your brain a well-earned opportunity to recharge.

Stretch your focus, use your willpower wisely, and watch your Big Thing get closer with every step.

Big Idea #5- Rejection is Part of the Process

It currently takes me about six weeks to get over rejection. Paulette Sherman., a dating coach psychologist says it’s because I’m not used to it. When you put yourself out there (dating, interviewing for a job, or querying agents for a book) more frequently, you find it’s part of the process. If you look at your Big Thing as a process that takes time, it’s not as taxing.

Phyllis Korkki The Big Thing

Whether you are an aspiring author, zookeeper, or entrepreneur, you may be rejected many times. But you have to be willing to accept the no’s in order to find that one who will say yes. You need to have that sort of resolve.

Yes Lives in the Land of No

Your “Yes” is out there, in the middle of the Land of No.

It reminds me of Steve Chandler’s “Yes lives in the land of No”. Think of a huge area where your Big Thing is located, or the completion of your Big Thing. It’s a vast land of mountains, valleys, rivers, and fields. This is the Land of No. And because of its name, not many people are willing to forge ahead. But this is where Yes/Your Big Thing lives. You have to travel through the land of No, and risk the occasional meet-up with obstacles or challenges. You may be one of the lucky few who goes for it, enters the land of No, and doesn’t meet a single rejection. It’s rare, but it’s possible. However, you have to be willing to risk it in order to achieve it. Yes lives in the land of No.

And trust me, I know rejection. I know it well. When I was an aspiring animal trainer, I applied and interviewed for the same entry level position seven times before I was hired. I don’t know if I hold the record, but it was basically unheard of. Many people would have given up. In fact, many of my potential colleagues did give up after 3 or 4 rejections.

But the tenacity and commitment I held finally landed me my dream job. Each time I was rejected, I learned a little bit more about what I needed to do better.

Fail Like an Optimalist

Now, I’m not denying that rejection hurts. OMG, it’s devastating. I touched on this in my previous Zoo-notable on Tal Ben-Shahar’s book Pursuit of Perfect. He said “No one likes to fail, but the Optimalist understands that in order to win and achieve success, we must be willing to fail along the way”.

So, how do you get the courage to trudge ahead with your Big Thing knowing that the hurt of rejection is around every corner?

Phyllis interviewed Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, who helped with answering this question. “You have to separate yourself from the outcome. It has to be first and foremost about the process and the experience.”

If Fate Allows It

This reminds me of the Optimize philosophy of taking aim at your target, doing your best to aim straight and true (doing the work to prepare for the shot), but once you release your arrow, the outcome is completely out of your hands. This is important to remember, as you traverse the Land of No. Rejection is not a reflection upon your self-worth or your abilitiy.

There’s another gem from Lanny Bassham (seriously, I need to do a note on With Winning In Mind) where he tells us “when something bad happens, it’s not happening to us, it’s life working for us.” You don’t know why you were rejected. It’s highly possible fate intervened because it has something absolutely phenomenal in store for you just a little further down the path. The question is, are you an Optimalist, pursuing your Big Thing no matter what? Are you willing to see what life really has in store for you, and to travel through the Land of No to get to your Big Thing and the Yes! that accompanies it?

Wrap-Up and Quotes

That just about sums up my thoughts on Phyllis Korkki’s book The Big Thing. If this book intrigued you, check out your local library or local bookstore. You may also like a few books mentioned in the note itself—Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, Lanny Bassham’s With Winning in Mind, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s Willpower, and Tal Ben Shahar’s The Pursuit of Perfect. You may also like books by Steven PressfieldTurning Pro, Do the Work, and The War of Art. I also get a lot of inspiration and great ideas in pursuing my Big Thing (ZooFit) through the Optimize Program. Find out more at optimize.me.

I’ll wrap things up with a couple great quotes I found while pondering the big ideas from this book.

Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step”.

Lao Tzu, Chinese Philosopher

Fred Rogers, the creator of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood once wrote in his journal about being creative.

“Am I kidding myself that I’m able to write a script again? … After all these years, it’s just as bad as ever. I wonder if every creative artist goes through the tortures of the damned trying to create…. Get to it, Fred, get to it.”

Fred Rogers

Let us get to it. What’s your Big Thing? And how can you start working on achieving it today?

Thanks for reading. Zoo-notables is a ZooFit program to dispense a little more wisdom aimed at zookeepers and animal care professionals to them be the best versions of themselves for their animals, community, and the planet. But you don’t have to keep to care. Take care of yourself, and take care of your Big Thing. Your passion, your love.

Today, tomorrow, and forever.

One Comment

  1. There is so much wisdom here! It’s taken me months through the Optimize program to understand most of it, and I’m still learning. What I’m loving most about this book is that it can be applied really well to artists. We artists easily get caught up in all the technical of increasing our skill level and lose site of our Big Thing, the reason we started creating in the first place. I loved the analogy of someone just wanting to be a rock start just to be a rock star, not because they love to play and write music. It’s like being an artist just to be an artist! NO, we are artists because we have a need to create and communicate through our medium.

    Awesome read! Thank you!

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