brain freeze: thawing out after years of endless winter

I can’t seem to get myself to actually create even though I know it’s my calling. Any tips to get me out of this long freeze of too many years?

Tips, maybe. A story, yes.

Tips never go far enough. They never really tell you what you need to know. If all it took were tips to make meaningful change in our lives & businesses, we would cultivate a garden of tips and harvest when we needed them.

Sadly, we’re left with little bounty.

Filling in the gaps with stories and example is the best way to learn. You have to work harder to apply the truths to your own life. You have to connect your own dots. But, in the end, you’re left with something more satisfying and much longer lasting.


I graduated from college with a BA in Religion, honors, the respect of my classmates & professors, and a full ride to graduate school. I was poised for success – life plan was in order. I was at the top of my academic game. Ideas were fast & furious. Writing was effortless & fun.

I left my college town to spend the summer with my mom before moving out of state. The local Borders Bookstore took me on as a part time barista and I spent hours learning to make coffee and soaking in the smell of beans mixed with books. You don’t smell it after a bit…

I became completely enamored with this job. The people. The knowledge. The flow.

I saw the opportunity for something greater than what was presented on the outside. I was seduced.

There was also the high of a regular paycheck.

Three weeks before I was set to leave for grad school, a full-time job opened at Borders. My will crumbled.

“An academic?” my brain questioned. “Who do you think you are?”

How will you support yourself? How will you find a job? What hope have you for success, for stability?

I sent an email to my professor, an alumni of the school I was to go to.

I can’t do it. I’m not ready. I’m not cut out for this.

Looking back, it was such bullshit.

But I couldn’t articulate what I was really feeling. Sitting, weeping, on his couch, his wife and he tried to understand what I was missing, what piece of the puzzle had come loose. Please don’t do this. We know you’re scared.

I balked.

I walked.

I abandoned what had been my goal since I was 12.

I accepted the job as a supervisor at Borders. I was making $7.50 per hour in Fall 2004, writing orders for milk, cleaning sinks, and taking inventory of chocolate bars. I was at rest for a few months.

It didn’t take long to realize that – whether or not I “should” have gone on with school – I had seriously interrupted my momentum.

An object with momentum doesn’t necessarily have a destination in mind… just velocity and mass.

One year passed. It included 2 promotions. I became a manager.

My time, sanity, and will to live were stretched to their breaking points. I entered the worst bout of depression I have ever faced. I lost 30 pounds – going from a size 10 to a size 0.

Creativity, ideation, the pleasure of learning & growing were no longer part of my life. I pushed them out in favor of the conventional. The sure thing.

I knew I needed those pleasures in my life. So I started looking for them in another job.

I worked my resume over & over again. Changing my objective, punching up my skills, concentrating on the positives.

I sought out jobs & fields that played to my strengths without requirements that would immediately discount a Religion major.

No one would have me. No non-profit, no library, no university. I couldn’t communicate my value. I had lost touch with it completely.

But at least I had started the process, I started seeking out failure. I started learning from each foray into – what seemed like – utter foolishness.

In 2007, I spent 8 months with a different company. Instead of running a $5 million dollar business, I ran a $150,000 business. I wasn’t just executing orders. I was creating them. I had almost full reign over my operations, ordering, and marketing.

And I took advantage of it.

Something started blossoming. Spring had sprung.

Did I know what I was doing? Well, sorta. Did a lack of expertise hold me back? Nope.

What changed was not just the company I was working for but the self-determination that came with the job.

How can you be creative? How can you discover your own path if first you don’t have a sense of self-determination?

I returned to Borders before I left the traditional employment world all together. I spent 9 months gestating. Ideas. And a baby.

When I left, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I knew I could do whatever it was that I decided on.

Because it was me and only me determining my future. No one was going to tell me what to do or how to do it. No one was going to question my ideas. No one was going to question my ability.

Not because I was self-employed (I wasn’t) but because I was self-determined.

Self-determination breeds creativity.

Self-determination thaws the frozen.

And it doesn’t require you working for yourself. It requires you to take responsibility for where you’re at. For what you’re doing. It requires that you see every day and every situation as an opportunity. A miracle waiting to be realized. By you. By no one else.

Once I realized my own self-determination, I never looked back. How could I? I was hot. Turned on. Still am.

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22 comments on “brain freeze: thawing out after years of endless winter

  1. Linda says:

    True, truer, truest.
    It’s you kiddo. Just get going and DO THE WORK. Jump in. It’s scary. It’s risky. It’s hard. But nobody is going to do it for you. Freeze…block…whatever you want to call an excuse. Stop whining. Take a walk. Take a shower. Take a drive. Then…GET TO WORK. and remember…we love you

  2. A barista? Learned something new about you.
    I agree that you are sizzling – glad you found your determination. I’ve benefited from it.
    Good story – the kind I’ll be looking for in our interview for the Confidence Chronicles: True Stories of Becoming Strong.
    Great to meet you live on Monday! Tuesday was also a good day at the Conference.

  3. iamtamisha says:

    Tara ~ I love your story. Thank you for sharing it with us! I love the part about taking responsibility for where you’re at. That is often times where we get stuck because we stop there and resent the responsibility (at least I do @ times). But I think the key to continuing to move through the discomfort is doing what you said – seeing it as only an opportunity to do something SO much greater. Then using that self-determination to make new, better, and more focused decisions.

  4. Ann McMahon says:

    Great story Tara. So glad you find your way home…. in a place you probably didn’t expect

  5. Thanks for sharing, Tara! I love when a well-respected, successful person is willing to tell their story with such authenticity.

  6. Thanks for the inspiration, Tara! I love that you’re willing to share your story and experiences, they are such an encouragement for someone like me, just beginning to find my place in the world and learn how making money (and the process of getting there) can be beautiful. I always look forward to your emails/posts! Xo, Katie

  7. Bee says:

    Hi Tara,
    Your message came in perfect time. Different story, same fears. I’ve just completed my PhD. I’ve realized a while ago that I did not want to pursue academia…but I don’t know what to do. I fear no one would want me outside of academia. I fear I can’t communicate my value…Frozen as you call it.
    Thanks for sharing your story, it inspired me to move with self-determination…once again. The same self-determination that got me through graduate school and my dissertation.

  8. Laura says:

    Thank you. Truly what I needed to hear.

  9. Two very important words ‘self determination’ – thanks for the background story to ‘now’ Tara – best regards Elwyn

  10. Annette says:

    Tara, I should’ve recognized a fellow Borders ex-pat when I met up with one. Six years for me, five as a GM, the last two as GM of a Learning Center store. Invaluable experience running an $8mil location, but my time there preceded yours, and when I left in early 2000 I was already pining for “the good old days” of having much more autonomy. Still, it was a large part of getting where I am today.

  11. ana says:

    What an inspirational life story. Thank you Tara

  12. Elinor says:

    I’m about halfway through my PhD and just the thought of transcribing interviews, writing up themes or reading an academic article makes me want to run screaming.

    Linda: it’s not an excuse, it’s terror: terror of not being good enough, terror of being fixed in academic aspic, terror of the consequences of leaving the PhD partway through and doing my soul’s work, terror of whatever choice I make being the wrong one.

    Maybe I just need a week off.

  13. LeAnn says:

    Thanks so much for the words of inspiration..this was timely for me as I am ready to write the story without the labels of the past! It is definitely worthwhile to figure out the story AND putting your own end on it.

  14. Oh Tara- just the thing I needed to read right now- I am so in the middle of my own dessert of fears, and I need to have enough faith to take responsibility for my own vision. It’s bloody tough- thank you for the push and the inspiration- sqeeze hug-xxoo

    • Chinh Pham says:

      Hi Annamaria,
      I experience fears on a daily basis! You are not alone. It’s the toughest thing out there: having the guts to follow your dreams despite the temptation of a steady income. You are BRAVE so keep on trekking!

  15. Chinh Pham says:

    Wonderful inspiring story Tara! Yes, everyone needs to be accountable for their own actions. Once they realize that, they’ll be empowered to take charge of their life and change it if they want. By the way, loved your ebook, The Art of Earning. You brought such a different perspective to viewing money that doesn’t make me feel guilty, but helps me feel empowered. Thanks!!!

  16. Jeanette says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. Its exactly what i needed to hear. Fears and insecurities can hold you hostage if you let it. I am guilty of stoppinh my own progress because of fear. Thanks again for sharing.

  17. Katie says:

    Hi Tara, a great inspiring story, but do you not feel that it’s only in retrospect that the story becomes clear and coherent? When we’re in the middle of it, it’s all a mishmash of different influences and decisions, and it’s hard to see the shape and direction. For the person who sent you the initial query, I’d say that a day will come when you’ve found your way, and you’ll have a story as inspiring as Tara’s. But for now, explore your creativity, and don’t fall into the trap of forcing it. Keep an open mind about where your creativity might lead you – the great thing about the Seth Godin/Tara Gentile approach is that you don’t have do be doing arts or crafts to be a great artist and true creative in your work. It could be the boring old day job that you transform into your muse and your creative future. Stick with it, play with it, see where it leads you. And good luck.

  18. Reading about your run with Borders made me smile and remember my own run with Borders. I too was a manager at the now-closed Union Square San Francsico store.

    I worked at Borders to support myself after I left the monastery in 2000. At that time, I was filled with major self determination. I was going out to publish my kids books and the thought of failure never crossed my mind.

    Until it crossed my path.

    Not final failure, because I’m still hammering away on the project 10 years later. But the failure that burns off the dross and clarifies your vision.

    I’ve found that self determination makes it possible to endure failure. Self determination, not success, has carried me. The clear sense of what I need to do to be me has continued to grow more clear, and each bout with failure has polished it up just a bit more.

    I really think that’s how you know you’re on the right path: failure doesn’t stop you.

    It makes you want it more.

    I’m still not “successful.” But I’m more determined than ever.

    Thanks for sharing your story. I really enjoyed reading it.

  19. Marylène says:

    Hi Tara! I was deeply touched when I read : « Creativity, ideation, the pleasure of learning & growing were no longer part of my life… So I started looking for them in another job. » beause that’s exactly what I am going through. But can you tell me more about that self-determination thing and how you found it? It might be because English is not my first language but I need to know more – there is something missing for me in that part of your post.
    Thanks in advance!

    • tara gentile says:

      Hi Marylène!

      For me, the self-determination came from having a job where I was not only responsible for execution but for strategy. I had the opportunity to make my own decisions, observe how those decisions affected people & business, and then learn from those decisions. Upper management encouraged this and invited me to teach others what I was doing.

      I acted & was treated as an “intrapreneur” – someone who is an employee but has the ability to grow & shape the business from within.

      It’s not that that specific circumstance was particularly necessary for my own reclamation of creativity but it was the vehicle for it. It’s much harder to make excuses & be down on yourself when you’re the one responsible for your own (and others!) success.

  20. Penny says:

    Damn! You’re good …”Self-determination breeds creativity”… love it, gonna live it, gonna breathe it. Way to inspire Tara!