Pop Culture

Want to be happy? Take out the trash

“If you want to grow, you gotta let go” is the mantra of life coach Gail Blanke. In her book, “Throw Out Fifty Things,” she shares tips on eliminating the clutter — physical and emotional — that holds you back, weighs you down and makes you feel bad about yourself. An excerpt.

Whenever people ask me to describe my coaching “methodology,” I tell them I use the Michelangelo Method. Inevitably, especially if they’re human resources people, they look puzzled and say, “What the heck is that? I never heard of it.” And I always respond with, “Of course you have. You remember that wonderful story of Michelangelo who, shortly after he’d finished sculpting the statue of David, was asked by a local patron of the arts who had been completely awestruck after first viewing the statue, ‘How did you know to sculpt David? I just don’t understand ...’ And Michelangelo, being a straightfor­ward, honest sort of fellow, allegedly responded, ‘Oh, well, David was always there in the marble. I just took away everything that was not David.” And that’s my job as your coach: to help you let go of all the extraneous marble; to chisel your way through the stuff, junk, and clutter — physical and mental — that stands in the way of helping your very best self move into the next glorious phase of your life.

Our lives are so filled with the debris of the past — from dried-up tubes of Krazy Glue to old grudges — that it’s a wonder we can get up in the morning, never mind go to work, care for our children and parents, and just put one foot in front of the other. And living in the Information Age doesn’t help, either. We’re constantly bombarded from every direction by flying debris in another form: the news, the media. On television, on the radio, on our cell phones, online, and in the air, we’re deluged with what too often turns out to be life marble — garbage might be a better word: all the stuff that’s gone wrong in the world, gone wrong in ourselves, gone wrong in our lives. Or could go wrong. Oh, I’m not saying we don’t need to be informed. We do. We’re citizens of a planet on the move, and we must know what needs to be done to keep it spin­ning forward. But we can’t move forward, we can’t move at all, if we’re locked inside a block of marble, largely of our own making.

So what can we do? It’s time to chisel our way out, to blast through the stuff we’ve heaped upon ourselves, and step out into the clearing. It’s time. Now. I’m not kidding. The arteries of our lives are blocked, and that blockage threatens our ability to be happy, to make oth­ers happy, and to play our part in moving humankind forward.

Look, I come by this urge to let go and to urge others to let go naturally: My mother was a Virgo. You should have seen her drawers. If she asked you to get something for her, she’d say, “It’s in my bureau in the third drawer on the left on the right-hand side, in the back on the very bottom of the stack.”

A record player and a music system with CDs

And she’d be absolutely right. I’m an Aquarian. Oh, I’m not saying we’re the slobs of the Zodiac — I mean, I put things away in my drawers — I just don’t always know what things are in which drawers. And if you’re a certain sign, does that mean you’re going to have messy drawers? Maybe. Anyway, once when I was about thirteen years old, my mother threatened to turn all of my drawers upside down on the floor of my bedroom to teach me to finally get them organized. Thankfully, she didn’t actually do it. (And unfortunately, my drawers will never hold a candle to hers.) But one thing she was able to teach me was to throw things out.

“If you don’t know what to do with it, or where to put it or why you ever bought it in the first place, or if looking at it depresses you, throw it out!” she’d say. “Never keep anything that makes you look heavy or feel heavy.”

As it turns out, my mom was right about a lot of stuff, and the throwing-things-out rule was one of her best. Oh, and whenever she asked any of us to throw things out, she meant for us to do it now, not later. We called it her Do it now or oh, brother! mood.

So it’s not surprising that when I coach people, I always ask them to throw things out. And not just a few things; I ask everyone I work with, at the end of our second or third session, to go home and throw out fifty things. “And by the way” — I usually look stern here — “magazines and cata­logs only count as one thing. You can throw out a hun­dred of them, but they only count as one.” People usually look at me with both horror and annoyance. (But go ahead and throw out fifty things anyway — you’ll feel like a million bucks.) “Look,” they’ll say, “I just went through my closets and I’ve already thrown out everything I can. Forget it.”

But I don’t forget it. Just like my mother didn’t. And not only do I ask them to throw out fifty things, I ask them to make a list of what they’re throwing out. Actually, it’s not that hard to get into the swing of it. Look, you’ve had that single earring for years and you keep hoping the other one will show up. It won’t. Throw it away. You’ve got all those socks with no matches. (I know, they were in pairs when you put them in the dryer. I’ve always wondered what happens to them. Do they pop up in someone else’s dryer? I don’t know.) Throw them out. You’ve got that single leather glove but you think it’s not right to throw away a leather glove; it’s okay, throw it away. You’ve got all that makeup from your old look. Toss it. And you’ve got that drawer in the kitchen. You know that drawer. There are receipts in there from years ago, there’s a bunch of change in there, and, yes, there are old dried-up tubes of Krazy Glue. And you know what else is in there? Keys. There are keys in there that haven’t opened up anything in decades. But you think it’s not nice to throw away keys. They’re heavy and make a clanking noise when they hit the bottom of the wastebasket. Never mind. Throw them out. Throw it all out.

Here’s why: Once you start throwing out a lot of physi­cal clutter — once you get on a roll, and you will — a new urge kicks in: “What about all the clutter in my mind?” you ask. “What in the world have I allowed to collect there?” And then you get into the really good stuff.

Of course it’s the mental clutter that drags you down and holds you back, that keeps you from stepping into the next great segment of your life — the one that’s filled with promise, joy, adventure, and best of all fulfillment. You can’t move forward into the future when you’re constantly sucked back into the past. So in addition to the socks and lipsticks, you’re going to throw out the old regrets and resent­ments, the resignation, the fear of failing or the fear of succeeding; you’re going to let go of the times when you came up a little bit short (we all have them). And you’re going to let go of the voices that remind you of your so-called limitations. You know those voices. Just when you’re feeling pretty spunky and sure of yourself — just when you’ve created a bold new vision for your life — that voice from the past says, “Not so fast, kiddo, you can’t do that! You don’t have enough time, you don’t have enough energy, you don’t have enough money, and anyway, they’ll never let you!”

A word about the voices: Whenever you’re out for something big, whenever you’re stepping out of your comfort zone and into your power, you’ll hear them. It’s inevitable. And it’s okay. In fact, I’d suggest that if you go along for months and don’t hear any voices, chances are you’re playing it too safe. Chances are, you’re hanging out in the stands when you should be strutting onto the field. The minute you enter the game, you’ll hear the voices. Congratulate yourself and say, “I must be about to live up to my potential. Let ’er rip!”

One more word about voices: Did you see the movie “A Beautiful Mind”? If you did, you’ll remember that the main protagonist is John Nash, the brilliant and world-renowned mathematician and co-recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics, played by Russell Crowe. Nash suffered from severe paranoid schizophrenia, to the point that he saw and heard imaginary people who interacted intimately with him and negatively influenced his life — almost ruining his career and marriage, even endangering the lives of the people he loved. Toward the end of the film, Nash is teaching at Princeton where he’d done his undergraduate work. A fellow from the Nobel Prize committee comes to have tea with him and to, un­officially, determine if Nash is more or less “fit enough” to receive the prize. He asks Nash, “So, do you still um, you know, uh ...” Nash finishes his sentence, “See them? Yes, they’re still there. But I choose not to acknowledge them ... That’s what’s it’s like with all our dreams and all our nightmares. You’ve got to keep feeding them for them to stay alive.” I figure that if on any given day, John Nash can see and hear those torturous people who attempt to derail his life, but choose not to acknowledge them — then we can, too. We can say to ourselves when those negative, Not-so-fast, Who-do-you-think-you-are?, Let’s-not-get­ carried-away voices flood our minds: “Not today. I’m not listening today. I have my own hill to take, my own rivers to cross. Not today.”

Here’s a good story: A woman came into my office not long ago with what was supposed to be her list of throw­aways but didn’t want to talk about it. She had taken a leaf out of John Nash’s playbook and was focused on what was important to her — and only on what was important to her. When she’d left my office a couple of weeks earlier, she’d been resolute about letting go of whatever was dragging her down or holding her back. At the time, I didn’t know how resolute.

“C’mon,” I said. “What are you throwing out?”

Finally she said, “Okay, okay, I’ll tell you. I went home after our last session and threw out the guy I’d been living with for eleven years! I finally realized he was the one who was holding me back and weighing me down.

“But Gail,” she continued, looking worried, “do I still have to throw out forty-nine more things?”

“That’ll do it for today,” I said. “Take the week off. Then you can get crackin’ on the next forty-nine!”

Okay, now it’s your turn. This is the beginning of the Big Letting-Go.

Excerpted from “Throw Out Fifty Things,” by Gail Blanke. Copyright (c) 2009. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing.