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is the right fit the right answer?: lessons from crosswording

 "Life can be so much like a crossword puzzle.
It's perplexing and tiring and you're never quite sure
if you got the right answer."  



Lately I've been spending my mornings crouched over the kitchen counter at my parents' house, mesmorized by the daily crossword puzzles in The Washington Post. Never before have I been interested in crossword puzzles, but lately I've found myself sucked into them on an almost daily basis. Clearly, I'm a fan of words (being a writer and all), but what I love most about crosswords is the little tricks -- the clues that seem so clear, but when the right word is finally discovered it's linked to a definition I'd never even considered (or known!). 

With my new-found love for crosswords, not only am I learning new words -- and completely random facts I'll probably never have use for -- but I recently I had a crossword-related revelation: even when I'm 100% sure I know the word, even when it fits perfectly in those little squares, and even when it aligns flawlessly with the clue -- sometimes the answer I pencil in ends up being wrong. Clearly these puzzle-makers do this on purpose to make them tricky, but it can be frustrating. How can something that fits so well be wrong? 

This seems-so-right-but-is-really-wrong concept happens not only in crossword puzzles, but in life as well. There are moments when something (a relationship, a career choice, our words or actions, etc.) seems to fit so perfectly that you're certain it couldn't possibly be wrong. It matches up with all the other letters, it makes perfect sense with the clues you've been given, but later you discover it's completely wrong and there's an even better answer that you never even considered. When other puzzles are solved, when new words are added, you discover that the answer that seemed so right is, in fact, trumped by an even better solution. 

When this idea -- that something that fits perfectly might not necessarily be right -- first dawned on me, I was a little unsettled. I started wondering if the seemingly "right" aspects of my life might somehow be wrong. Just because something is a perfect fit doesn't mean that it's the right answer. 

How do you know if the right fit is really the right answer? 

The truth is: you don't. At least not always. At least not right away. With my crossword answers, I usually discovered an answer was wrong only after I'd completely other parts of the puzzle and concluded that the answer I was once so sure about no longer seemed to fit. In many cases, I remained certain my answer was correct until the following day when my parents and I would look over the answers and realize that seemed right was actually wrong. 

In life there are many situations where there's no way of knowing if the right fit really is the right answer. (On the contrary, there are often many situations where we know it's not the right answer but we desperately try to make it fit in order to have completed the puzzle. Don't do this. A forced fit is never the right fit.) However, just like the crossword puzzle, there are a few things we can do to figure out if what fits is really what's right. 

Get a second opinion. 

Sometimes the only way I realize an answer I'd been certain about is wrong is when my parents discover a better solution to the puzzle. For the most part, I think we know what's "right" for us in our lives, but it doesn't hurt to get a second opinion. I can't tell you how many times someone else has interpreted a crossword puzzle clue in a way I never would have considered. If you're questioning any of the perfectly fitting pieces in your life, don't hesitate to ask someone else for his or her opinion. A fresh perspective could be just what you need to determine if what fits is really what's right. And if a second opinion doesn't offer you a new answer, it has the potential to either confirm that your answer is, in fact, the right one -- or open your mind to thinking about the clues in new ways. 


Double-check connected clues.

Most of the elements in our lives are connected in some way. Some examples: your personal relationships can impact your work; your workday can influence the mood at home; your relationship with your parents can affect your relationship with your partner. It's important to look at the elements of your life impacting the seemingly perfect answer to see if those elements might also be the perfect-but-not-right fit. With the crosswords, sometimes by changing another answer  I realize my perfect fit wasn't so perfect after all. When attempting to ascertain if the perfect fit is the right fit, don't isolate your thoughts to one element of your life -- look at the whole puzzle, or at least the connected elements.  


Use creative thinking. 

One of the things I love most about the crossword puzzles -- and find immensely frustrating at the same time -- is that the clues are often multidimensional and much more clever than they appear at first glance. To get the right answer sometimes you have to think outside the box and consider alternate definitions and possibilities. Likewise, if you want the right answer for an element of your life, you have to consider alternatives and be open to ideas other than the first and most obvious answer. When an answer seems to fit so perfectly, it can be challenging to see the clues from a different point of view, but putting the effort to think creatively is much better than settling for the first thing that comes along. 

Take a break. 

Whenever I'm stumped on a crossword puzzle answer, I find that taking a break from staring at that newspaper page often helps me to clear my mind and actually come up with the correct answer. Similarly, if you're struggling to determine whether or not the right fit is the right answer, removing yourself from the situation for a bit will help you to clear your mind. When you come back, you'll usually be even more certain about your answer or be able to come up with alternate ideas based on a fresh perspective. When things seem to fit well in our lives we don't often want to step away from them to evaluate, but doing so could prevent a lifetime of living with the wrong answer. 


It's quite possible that the perfect fit isn't the right answer -- but it's also quite possible that it is right. It's important to be aware of what's happening in your life and review even the seemingly perfect parts of it, it doesn't do any good to constantly worry and wonder if what seems to fit is actually wrong. What I learned with this crossword puzzle revelation is not to question everything, but instead to be open to the idea that the perfect fit isn't always the right fit. It's not about creating a culture of doubt, but learning to be more aware of what's going on in our lives -- even the parts that seem to fit perfectly. 

10 tips to help you conquer a quarter or midlife crisis

A few weeks ago a Positively Present reader contacted me and asked me to write a post about coping with a midlife crisis. Though I don't think I'm quite to that midlife point yet (though I guess you never know!), I have had the pleasure of battling a what I'd call a quarterlife crisis. Between the ages of 22 and 25, I really struggled. I was in a job I disliked, my dating life was constantly up and down, my choices were reckless, and I was just flat out unhappy. I hated who I had become and I had yet to figure out who I wanted to be. Around age 25, I started to realize that this whole crisis thing I was going through wasn't just going to sort itself out. I had to do something.

The problem was that I had no idea what to do. I started reading blogs and websites about how to become happier. I picked up books like Quarterlife Crisis and Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis and 20 Something, 20 Everything (all of which were actually really helpful and made me feel so much less alone). But even while reading these and learning that other twentysomethings were feeling the same way I was, I felt silly and vain for claiming to be in the midst of a "quarterlife crisis." I had a job, a boyfriend, friends, a social life -- and I was still so young -- so what could I possibly be having a crisis about? I had my whole life ahead of me, right?

That's the thing with these crises -- quarter, mid, whenever -- there doesn't have to be a good reason. You don't have to have some terrible event happen to you (or any event at all). They just hit you, out of nowhere, and you're blindsided by them. In the media, a midlife crisis is portrayed in a comical way -- new haircuts, younger spouses, fast little sports cars -- but in real life, midlife crises (and, from my experience, quarterlife crises), are no laughing matter. They creep in, dripping into every aspect of your life, and suddenly you are soaked with the realized that this is your life and it not at all what you thought it would be.

Battling this realization is no easy feat. It's broad and sweeping and seems to cover pretty much every aspect of your existence, leaving you with little to hold on to in terms of hope. It makes you feel as if everything you've ever done -- and everything you're going to do -- has been a waste of time. It makes you want to start over, but you can't because this is your life. You are here now and you have to figure out a way to accept what's happened to get you here -- and find a way to conquer the thoughts that have made you feel like you are lost in your own life. 

It took me a long time -- years, in fact -- to get to a point where I can honestly say I don't feel as if I am in the middle of a crisis. Life is far from perfect (and how boring it would be if it were perfect!), but it's stable and sane and happy. I wake up and I know why I'm here, what I'm doing, and how lucky I am to have the people in my life supporting me. I wake up and feel happy. But I had to make an effort (a BIG effort) to get from crisis to calm -- and here are some of the things that helped me along the way.  

10 Tips to Help You Conquer that Crisis

1. Don't give up hope. When everything in your life seems like a mess and you have no idea why you are where you are, it can be so easy throw in the towel and let yourself slide into the quicksand of negativity. Don't do that. You deserve more than that. You deserve a second chance at your own life. Even if it's a teeny, tiny thread, cling to whatever hope you can find. It will save you. 

2. Find a new activity. Doing the same things over and over and over again can be emotionally draining (and damaging). If things aren't what you thought they would be, if you want your life to be different, you have to make it different. Subtract an activity that's bringing you down and add in an activity that will bring you up. Not sure what will bring you up? Try lots of different things 'til you find a perfect fit. 

3. Surround yourself with positive people. Crises can be brought on by the people around us, dragging us down. Evaluate the people you spend the most time with. How do they make you feel? What do you spend time doing together? If these feelings and activities aren't positive, find some new friends. A crisis is hard enough without a lack of support from positive people. 

4. Seek professional help. Finding the right therapist can save your life. When you're really down and out, the unbiased, objective advice from a trained professional can be just what you need to get yourself back on track. Don't try to talk yourself out of it or let negative judgments about therapy get in your way. Sitting on the couch can be just what you need to get you back up on your feet. 

5. Believe in your abilities. Scrub "I can't..." from your vocabulary. The more times you tell yourself that you can't overcome this crisis, the more times you'll be setting yourself back. It might seem impossible at times, but you will get through this and end up on the other side a stronger person. Don't ever stop believing in your ability to conquer this crisis. You can -- and will! -- do it. 

6. Change what's not working. You can't live the life you've always wanted to be living if you keep doing the things that you've always been doing. You have to change. Hard? Yes. Possible? Definitely. Figure out what's not working in your life -- the bad job, the toxic relationship, the negative thinking -- and change it. And don't stop at one thing. Change all the things that aren't working, one at a time. 

7. Figure out what you really want. Clearly a crisis isn't what you want. No one wants that feeling of isolation and frustration. But what do you want? We often whine about not being happy with our lives without giving much thought to what would make our lives happier. Make a list, keep a journal, tell a friend -- do whatever you need to do in order to figure out what you really, truly want in your life. 

8. Take it one day at a time. Every day will have it's ups and downs, but every day you start focusing more on the positive, making changes in your life, and surrounding yourself with the right people is a step in the right direction. Don't dwell too much on the future. Take each day as it comes and, little by little, you'll find yourself putting that crisis further and further behind you. 

9. Treat your body right. It's oh-so tempting to eat what we want, drink what we want, do what we want. After all, when you're in emotional pain, don't you need some sort of physical treat? No. No, you don't. What you need is a body that's in peak physical condition so it can help you battle those unpleasant emotional monsters. Eat your veggies, don't drink too much, get rest, exercise. No excuses. 

10. Join a club or group. There may be people out there struggling just like you are. Find them and work together to conquer your crises. Can't find a group of people going through what you're going through? Start one. It doesn't have to be crisis-specific (what about a happiness project?), but it does have to be something that will inspire, uplift, and support you. 


A few months ago, I was editing my bookshelves -- getting rid of old books to make room for the new ones -- and I came across my quarterlife crisis books. In previous editing sessions, I'd left them on the shelves, thinking, "I never know when I might need these again..." but this time I pulled them down, blew the dust off of them and thought, "I should donate these. Someone else might be going through what I was and could really use them." I added them to the stack of to-donate books, not thinking much of it. When I think back on that day, I realize that it was an important act, donating those books. It meant I'd made it through -- finally -- to the other side of that quarterlife crisis.

Maybe I would have a midlife crisis. Maybe I wouldn't. But making it through those turbulent early twenties gave me one thing I hadn't had back when I was a teenager: the realization that I could survive a crisis and come out stronger, better, smarter. For me, the old cliche had turned out to be (quite literally) true: what didn't kill me made me stronger. Strong enough to take those books off the shelf and pass them on. Strong enough to sit here and write this. Strong enough to know that those of you out there struggling will conquer their crises -- just like I did.

5 life lessons from the hunger games trilogy

Hunger games


Though I'm an avid reader, I've always avoided the series books that have been so popular in recent years -- Harry Potter, Twilight, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and even The Hunger Games. About a week ago I spotted The Hunger Games on a shelf at Target and picked up a copy, turning it over and scanning the back quickly. I caught sight of the price, dropped the book in my red basket, and thought, "Hey, for seven bucks, it's worth a try."

And for the past seven days I've had my nose buried in The Hunger Games. Followed by Catching Fire, which I ran out to purchase when I got near the end of The Hunger Games and panicked at the thought of not knowing what was happening to Katniss and Peeta. Followed by Mockingjay, which I purchased the morning after I finished Catching Fire, a book I stayed up way, way past my routine 10pm bedtime to finish and spent the entire next day paying for by feeling exhausted. 

Clearly, I was hooked. When my boyfriend came home from work one afternoon and saw me not in my my usual spot on the couch with my laptop on and the TV blaring, but curled up on the bed, my nose in Catching Fire, he laughed and then said, half-serious, "I'm starting to get concerned." And perhaps he had good reason to be -- I was into these books. Though I read all the time, for the first time in a long time (perhaps since childhood!) these books transported to another place, and their stories left me thinking about the characters even when the books were closed.

The Hunger Games books are filled with many things I strongly dislike -- killing animals, killing people, violence, places void of all hope -- but despite all these things, I've found myself inspired by Katniss and her endless adventures. Reading the books, I've been reminded of some important life lessons I hope never to forget. 


5 Lessons from The Hunger Games

1. You are stronger than you realize. Life is going to throw some crazy things your way. Maybe they won't be an arena filled with mutts or a just-for-TV love affair, but crazy things will happen. That's life. But what we so often forget -- and Katniss continually reminded me as I read through the trilogy -- is that we're all so much stronger than we realize. When I look back on my life and recall some of the things I've been through, I'm sometimes shocked that I've made it to where I am today. I never consider myself particularly strong or brave, but I was -- and still am, I suppose. And you are too. If things are hard, remind yourself that you really are stronger than you realize. 

2. Enemies can become friends... In The Hunger Games trilogy it's sometimes hard to tell who is on the side of good and who is on the side of evil. Real life can be like that too. Sometimes the people who you think might be the enemy end up being your biggest supporters. While reading I realized that it's important to give people a little bit of credit. I'm inherently a distrustful person -- a wonderful quality, I know -- and I find it hard not to think suspicious thoughts about people I don't know well. But while reading this trilogy I was reminded that things aren't always what they seem and judging people without fully understanding their motives can be downright dangerous. 

3. ... and friends can become enemies. On the flip-side, the trilogy also reminded me of the opposite of #2: sometimes the people we love the most, the ones we put our trust in, can turn on us. In real life this lesson might not be so extreme -- perhaps it is just that a friend has become someone you can no longer trust or you've lost something essential to keeping a relationship alive. As painful as a friend-turned-enemy situation can be, it's part of life and something many of us have to deal with on occasion. People change; we change. What I was reminded of when reading was that everything happens for a reason and, even though it hurts, we are strong enough to get through the changes in relationships. 

4. One person can make a difference. At the beginning of the first book, Katniss (and readers) had no idea how important she was. As time went on, her actions and reactions showed that her presence was more than just a pawn in a game. She was a symbol of change, a rebellious spirit who had an opportunity to change thousands of lives with a single act. Now, I know this is fiction and we're not all destined to be heroic warriors, but Katniss's bravery and determination reminded me that we all have power -- a power we can use for good or for evil. This power is choice. With every choice we make, we are impacting not only our lives but all of the lives touching ours. However small you might think you are, you have more power than you realize and every choice you make can impact others so choose wisely. 

5. You can be a hero even if you are saved. This is my favorite lesson from the trilogy. Katniss was strong, brave, and often fearless. She saved lives and constantly put her own at risk for the greater good. But there were times when she, too, needed to be saved. After studying fairy tales and gender for years, I'd come to the conclusion that being rescued or saved was a bad thing, a sign of weakness, a symbol of women not being strong enough. But this trilogy reminded me that's just not true. Katniss was a fighter -- clever and courageous -- and still she needed to be saved at times. In my mind that doesn't make her any less of a hero -- and I think that should apply for real life too. You can still be a hero even if you need the help of others along the way. 


Whether or not you've read The Hunger Games, you too can probably glean some wisdom from these lessons. With every turn of the page, Katniss made me feel motivated and inspired. I recently saw this iPhone alarm setting that reads "If Peeta and Katniss can survive the hunger games, then you can get up." It made me smile because that's how I felt while reading the books -- if these people could get through all of these hardships, then I could certainly overcome my piddly little problems.  If you haven't read the books and are contemplating it, I'd recommend them. They're chock-full of motivation and inspiration -- and will certainly help you put whatever you might be going through into perspective! 

Have you read The Hunger Games?
Did you learn any lessons?