Friday, December 2, 2011

How to Eat an Elephant

By Therese Fowler

As we all know, life is filled with adversity and misfortune. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, and the number of opportunities for success always seems to be shrinking, and the price for a Starbucks frappuccino is just too damn high (let's not even talk about the calorie count for same).

On the other hand, life never fails to serve up success stories. Bill Gates drops out of Harvard and becomes not a barista (though there's nothing wrong with baristas) but a billionaire philanthropist. Oprah Winfrey is born in poverty and suffers sexual abuse as a young woman, and becomes becomes not a barista (though there's nothing wrong with baristas) but a billionaire philanthropist.

There are endless examples, big and small, of people who overcame obstacles and achieved significant goals of every kind. But when you're the one who's miserable, it can be really difficult to even see your goal, let alone pursue it. When I was a newly single thirty-year-old mother of two little boys, for example, it was all I could do to juggle their needs and schedules with my job and my debts--I was mostly just trying to avoid catastrophic failure.

And yet, three and a half years later, I graduated from NCSU at the top of my class. Five years after that, I completed my master's degree. A year after that, I sold my debut novel at auction and in almost a dozen countries besides. Now, I'm a billionaire philanthropist.

Okay, I'm not a billionaire, and my philanthropy is very modest in comparison to even the poorest billionaire's. Even so, I count myself among those who have overcome obstacles and found success. It's just a matter of scale.

A friend of mine who's forty-one years old and mom to two adorable young children was recently diagnosed with a very ugly, very aggressive cancer, stage IV when it was discovered. In between her first surgery and her most recent one, she endured chemotherapy and ran a half-marathon. She has been publicly scared and publicly brave, often at the same time. If anyone can beat this cancer, she'll be the one to do it.

I hope you never find yourself anyplace so fraught. If you do, though, it might help to remember that even if you're not hungry, you can eat an entire elephant one bite at a time.

(This is, of course, a figurative elephant. Don't hate on me about animal cruelty and such.)

1. Own your misery. That is, identify and accept whatever your circumstances may be. You have to know where you're starting before you can figure out where you want/need to go.

2. Consider your immediate options. My thirty-year-old self didn't aim to be a novelist; I simply wanted to climb out of the hole I was in. Going back to college was the first step towards that end.

3. When it comes to taking the first (and subsequent) step, never ask "why should I...?" but rather ask "why shouldn't I...?" Why shouldn't I earn a college degree? Why shouldn't I become a working writer? Why shouldn't I get on a plane last-minute and go to Miami for a week-long writing retreat? (This last is for me: I'll be doing exactly that in a few hours--so forgive me for not replying to comments until tonight.)

4. Own your mistakes. You will make mistakes, choose poorly, suffer setbacks. These are learning experiences.

5. Reset your goals as needed. (See #4.)

6. Fortify yourself. Read success stories. Eat healthier. Try to exercise a minimum of twenty minutes, twice a week. The journey may be a long, difficult one, so you need to be able to stay the course.

7. Reward yourself often, in small ways. Frappuccinos are delicious, and taken in moderation can actually be good for you--and the baristas who make them are usually lovely, sociable people. Who need money. Tip well.

8. Don't quit.

9. See #8

10. Share the wealth. Once you've made it to your goal, tell your story so that you can help those who are at #1 get to #10. We all need support, we need inspiration, we need to see that although the elephant is eighty times our size, we can eat the whole thing--and not gain weight, which would require us to give up frappuccinos.


Therese Fowler is the author of three novels: Souvenir; Reunion; and Exposure. She is hoping to see HGTV's David Bromstad in person while in Miami, as his first-ever art exhibit is taking place in her hotel.


  1. Wonderful, inspiring story Therese! Don't know that I could be as brave as your friend facing that kind of health challenge...congratulations on your success!

  2. As usual, Therese, your words are perfect! Enjoy the Miami trip, too.

  3. Love this, Therese!! Perfect timing for me to read, whilst in the midst of terrifying revision-land.... Have a wonderful trip! xoxo

  4. Very inspiring post. Miami sounds very nice right now.

  5. Thank you for such an uplifiting blog post! We really do need to encourage one another, especially in the cyber world where so often people can be negative (it's easy to be negative, of course!). You could consider yourself a bit of an emotional/inspirational philanthropist! There's a lot that needs giving besides money. Have fun in Florida.

  6. So uplifting! I also subscribe to the theory, 'and how old will you be in a year if you don't.', when someone says they are too old to (fill in the blank).

  7. Fabulous post, Therese, very uplifting!!!

  8. Thanks, all!

    I believe sincerely in being positive (just as you describe, Lisa--I use that advice too!) and giving back whenever possible.

    You all will be amused to know that I really did get to spend some time with David last night! He was so sweet and gracious, and I gave him a copy of EXPOSURE just to thank him for posing for pics and autographing an exhibit program for me.

    Now it's time to get busy with what I came here for. :)

  9. What an amazing post. I especially needed to hear #3.