Spelling Tests & Gold Stars


I have been thinking about spelling words. (I promise, this relates to you.)

See, I have a kiddo who learns very differently than most people do.

And I have seen with blinding clarity that English is the most arbitrary, maddening, and illogical language on the planet and was clearly designed by a bunch of sadistic mental patients.

And then I fantasize about lighting a dictionary on fire and hurling it at the Spelling Police. 

Because spelling tests, like so much of life, are a binary proposition. 

Correct, or incorrect.

Done, or incomplete.

Good, or not good enough.

But those yes-or-no labels are so misleading!

They only show the thinnest skin of what’s really happening. 

It reminds me of being the parent of an infant, when I spent hours every day wiping, cleaning, rocking, soothing, changing, feeding, wiping up, et cetera– but anyone who walked through the door would only have seen a sticky, crying baby.  In other words, a motherhood fail.

To return to the vagaries of the English language for a moment, consider the following attempts at the word ‘exciting’:

  • atskaytymg
  • eksyteen
  • exsiteing
  • exiting
  • exsiting

They’re all wrong.  They’re all EQUALLY wrong.

There’s no way to show that actually there’s major progress happening here.  In fact, the final one is actually really, REALLY close– it even has a correct placeholder after the ‘x’– (which it should not even need according to the laws of phonics ahem)– it just happens to be the wrong one.

A lot of us feel like we’re getting big red Xs on the spelling tests of our lives.

We work out and work out and we still can’t fit into our favorite jeans. 

We edit draft after draft of a piece of writing but it still gets rejected. 

We go on interview after interview but still don’t get the job. 

We file and file and file but there’s still a stack of paper on our desks. 

We have day after happy day with our kids but they have a public meltdown when the grandparents are watching. 

It’s so easy to feel like we’re failing ALL the time.  Because in the world out there, what mostly defines us are those external labels.  How we look.  The grades we got.  The job title we told.  Our marital status.  How big our house is.

Or, depending on your community, the signs and signifiers might be very different: how long your dreads are, whether your kid’s lunch looks like a work of art, or whether you drive or cycle (oh hello, Portland!).

That’s why it’s so important to cultivate a space inside ourselves where we know the truth. 

We need a witness inside ourself who…

Applauds every single brave email, blog post, and next draft as a huge triumph of courage. 

Values every single kiss and kind word above how your kid looks in the Christmas letter. 

Counts every meal, laundry, carpool, suitcase packed, bill paid, and litterbox changed. 

Acknowledges all those invisible efforts that the rest of the world will never know about.  

Which is all a roundabout way of saying:

Don’t be discouraged, dearheart.  

If you keep working and working at something and can’t seem to cross that magic finish line where the whole world sees what you’ve done and applauds it as ‘good,’ you have to start listening inward for a different sort of applause.  You have to start giving yourself gold stars for effort, not just for achievement.  (It turns out this is true for kids, too, but I digress.)

And here’s a very practical way to do that, since the compassionate witness in us can be a slippery, elusive little wraith:

Start tracking what you do, not how it looks. 

Back when I had a very little one, I actually started counting how many diaper changes, feedings, and cleanups I did every day.  I had a piece of paper on the fridge where I kept track with little tally marks.  The results blew my mind and helped me realize that I wasn’t a total loser– I was just doing a Sisyphean task.  It turned out I wasn’t lazy or incompetent– I was just doing a HUGE amount of work that was completely invisible to the outside world!

If you’re feeling similarly overwhelmed, whether by a baby, a new business, or a crazy project at work, try this simple little thing: 

Start tracking every little thing you do.  Scribble down notes about how many hours you’re in meetings, how many emails you answer, how many hours you’re in the car, how many times you buy groceries or do laundry or make appointments– write it all down.

Every single one of my clients who has done this– even the ones who were afraid to, because they ‘waste so much time’– ended up feeling enormously proud, amazed, and relieved.

For the past three years, a friend and I have been sending each other weekly summits, in which we write up all the things we did that week and set goals for the next one.  It’s unbelievably cheering to know that one other person is witnessing my hard work, even when the fruits of my labor are nonexistent yet.  You might like to get an accountability buddy of your own; I highly recommend it.

We have to claim the reality of what we do; we have to believe it more than any labels the world slaps on us.  That’s how we get to write our own damn labels. 

I don’t know about you, but my label says ‘epic fucking badass,’ and I’m keeping it.  And in the meantime, I’m sending you a whole constellation of gold stars.

much love, 

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Hey there, I'm Katherine.

 I’ve got five kids, I’m a queer feminist, and I just might be the only life coach in the world who doesn’t believe in the Law of Attraction.

I write things for women with big, gorgeous, COMPLICATED lives.

I help women become epic fucking badasses… but I still retain my right to cry at every diaper commercial ever made.


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