Jenny Goodguts saved my life.
Jenny Goodguts, a doctor’s appointment, and a lucky New Hampshire quarter (face up!). Saved my life may be a touch of overstatement, but I can tell you with full confidence that they brought me back to life.
There is nothing Jenny told me that I hadn’t been told before. Who can ever explain why we are finally able to do something that seemed impossible or hopelessly unappealing at one time?
Here’s what I can tell you. I was reading the book SuperBetter by Jane McGonigal (more about this in future posts). Jane, a game developer, has researched the psychology and neuroscience of games for over 15 years. She had a traumatic brain injury and created a game to help herself recover. Her game worked so well at boosting resilience (etc.) that she shared it with others recovering from similar injuries and then even more widely. Her TED talk on SuperBetter has been viewed millions of times.
One element in the SuperBetter approach is to adopt a secret identity. Choosing a heroic nickname can help bring out your challenge-facing attributes (such as determination), while also helping you to connect with your sense of humor and take things a bit less seriously.
But I couldn’t think of one. I know Vera Voce was a possibility at one point. I felt a bit stuck.
Please remember, at the time I was reading SuperBetter I was nursing an addiction to iPad games that I was desperate to stop playing. I would read a chapter. Feel excited. And then the next day I would play the game. Read a chapter. Know this time I was going to really stop playing. Massage my aching shoulder/hand. Next day play the game. Repeat.
Then I went to the doctor. She had results from some lab work that involved my toilet, a small collection dish, and some spatulas. The results were not excellent. Basically my insides are populated almost exclusively by E. coli bacteria and almost nothing else. I’ve been working to protect biodiversity in nature for 20 years and there’s none left in my own body. I didn’t like this. I also didn’t like a couple of things she said about markers for cancer and so I bought the pills she prescribed (all over-the-counter stuff) and came home.
I looked in my kitchen cabinet at the other supplements she had suggested five months prior. The ones that I had taken occasionally on a random morning if Mercury was in retrograde or the wind was right. I knew it was important, if I wanted my body to work, if I wanted to stop being tired and depressed, if I wanted to be able to do good work in the world, take care of my family, enjoy my life, stop playing those freaking games, I knew I needed to buckle down and take care of myself.
So of course I took one of every single supplement that she had recommended from November through March and then went on with my day. I went to the grocery store and bought kefir and sauerkraut. I went to sleep.
I woke up the next morning, and there she was. Sitting right next to my bed. Jenny Goodguts knew exactly what I should do. She told me to make an excel spreadsheet (I’m pretty good at that). The spreadsheet was divided into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There were checkboxes at the appropriate times for all of the actions required to rebuild my gut flora. I made the spreadsheet as directed, taped it to my kitchen wall, and within a week my skin felt different. My skin looked different. I was eating sauerkraut every freaking day.
But I was still playing the game. About a week after meeting Jenny, I found a 2000 New Hampshire quarter face up outside of a Trader Joe’s. Once again, Jenny to the rescue! She knew, as we all do, that one cent equals one lucky day, 25 cents equals 25 lucky days. Face up, of course. I’m not sure if face down is half the number of days or just nothing, that’s never been clear to me. But 25 days of luck! Well, you don’t just squander that. Jenny had me tape the quarter to a piece of paper, write 25 empty spaces underneath, and tape the paper on the kitchen wall, right next to the excel spreadsheet. Each morning I would check off one space and she challenged me: You cannot play the game during your 25 days of luck or else no luck!
I did not play the game for 25 days. Oh buddy was I tempted. I would walk to the former scene of the crime (the corner in the kitchen with the 3-second warning before detection) and I would crave that dopamine/seratonin hit. I would want something to distract me from myself, from the decisions I can’t make, the work I’m not doing, the work I am doing, some of the monotony of my current life situation (laundry and dishes, anyone?). But the quarter was staring right at me from that very corner. And it worked.
Were the 25 days lucky?
For me, a 25-day (and continuing) game-free streak was all the luck I needed. I also developed this blog, from scratch, and figured out how to send posts via email, something I had been wanting to learn for over two years. I got my first non-spam blog comment from a reader I don’t know. I found out that the caffeine in kombucha was responsible for my insomnia, rather than all of my good ideas keeping me awake all night. I learned about some great local places for adopting a dog. I talked to more people. I asked more questions. I reached out. I tried things. Other things happened and I might not even know yet if they are good luck.
The cool thing about the quarter experiment was living in a way that encouraged good luck to happen. When you think you are possibly in a lucky streak, and you want to make the most of it, you get off your butt and do stuff. And it turns out that is more satisfying than planting wheat on your farm to make into a loaf of bread because you need two loaves to make a hamburger.
Dear readers, please rest assured that Jenny’s primary mission is not balancing gut flora. Though she can definitely come up with some pretty convincing arguments for why this is important to saving the wider world. Jenny works for good and she’s got guts (and she, incidentally, does have a full complement of healthy microbes). As soon as I met her, I connected with the name and it gives me energy so there you have the full explanation of where she came from!
I have been wanting to make challenges and secret missions for myself and my friends for over a year (or maybe a decade, or four). I’m not a super hero. I often have trouble making decisions, I often have trouble following through with (all my ‘good’) ideas, I have trouble eating enough veggies even though I KNOW it makes my life so much better all around. I just ate chocolate for lunch.
But if I sit down and have a few minutes of quiet and ask Jenny what to do, she mostly knows. She is definitely a results, not reasons, gal (more on this later). She can make a list and say: if you do this, if you stick with it, if you have a spreadsheet, or some stickers, you will get to the other side, you will learn, your life will be more in line with your heart, and you will feel good. And if you get other people onboard, well, watch out! It’s still partially a serotonin/dopamine thing, but the good kind.
So this blog is the story of my (ongoing) adventures with Jenny Goodguts including multiple excel spreadsheets, quests, missions, banks, bicycle helmets, a songwriting teacher named Karl, resistance, and more than likely some stickers. Stay tuned for the first mission — basic training!
Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life (TED talk)
Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world (TED talk)
SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully