I’ve got a good friend, Ayo, who told me, “Don’t use your head to break a coconut.”
As I wrote about in my memoir, Blue Yarn, I lived in Lagos, Nigeria, for almost four years, and I met Ayo there. Ayo is a very smart woman and a voracious reader and she is full of good advice. Ayo is what they describe in Nigeria as “a serious person.” A serious person in Nigeria is one you can trust, someone who can be relied upon.
The advice Ayo generally gives, however, annoys me because it challenges the way I think.
“Have you considered going on YouTube?” Ayo asked me. My impression of YouTube video blogs (or “vlogs”) was that they were made by hyperactive young men with lots of tattoos. It annoyed me that Ayo thought I should do something so totally out of my comfort zone.
She persisted. “People are hungry for distraction. Even your cat waving its tail will get viewers.”
Now I was mildly insulted. She seemed to be implying I was almost as interesting as a cat’s behind. Plus, the whole idea scared the heck out of me.
But then I saw a vlog put up by a woman at least 15 years older than me. She told a funny story about a marmot and I thought, “Wow. I could do that. That would actually be fun.”
So, I am going to start a vlog (once I figure out how to run the camera!) I’ll let you know how it all turns out.
Then, more recently, I told Ayo everything I was working on and she said, “Don’t burn yourself out. Give yourself permission to stop. Don’t use your head to break a coconut.”
This really annoyed me. I was working hard — wasn’t that what I was supposed to be doing? What did Ayo know? Only after I thought about it for a while did I realize that what Ayo knows is that I am a perfectionist — because she is one as well.
When I was growing up, my father would sometimes say: “Just do your best.” I know he meant well, but I found this advice terrifying. What was my best? Couldn’t I always do a little bit better? In school, I read about a fellow named Pheidippides who ran the first marathon to Athens to let them know about the victory they had won in battle. He delivered his news and died.
“Okay,” I thought, “there’s a guy who did his best.”
And now here’s Ayo, with her smarty pants advice, telling me I’m breaking coconuts with my head, when I’m thinking if I just try a little harder — if I do my best — I can almost certainly pack one more thing into my day.
But as I looked at my schedule, I realized I was working hard without really focusing on what was important. Instead of questioning whether something needed to be done, I would beat myself up by asking, “What? Are you too lazy?”
Ayo made me realize that I’m not lazy. I was just using my head for the wrong sorts of things.
So now I’m trying to do better. It’s liberating to realize I don’t have to do everything at once. It’s great to realize there are things I don’t need to do at all. When I’m not racing towards Athens, I’m actually more productive and I certainly enjoy myself a lot more.
And I’m keeping that image of a coconut handy, for the next time I get tempted. (Of course, I won’t admit this to Ayo.)