Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves: The Best Motivational Reads for Women

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“It’s a man’s world.” Etta James

Well, at least it used to be when it came to the genre of self-improvement books.

The concept of a written guide for readers on solving personal problems has been around since the pyramids. Some of the mid to late 20th Century classics, books like Dale Carnegie’s 1936 confidence-boosting classic, How to Win Friends & Influence People,  Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, and Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People are still widely read today. I know I use many of Covey’s strategies to keep my life on track.

12188169_1251257811567054_8247993140834606883_oOne of the most powerful books on coping with great loss, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner, holds a place of honor on my book shelf.

But up until the last 15 years or so, it was definitely a man’s world, and I didn’t personally connect with these authors as individuals who could really empathize with my unique experiences, as a trusted friend or confidante.

According to Psychology Today, one of the most important factors in any good self-help book is “the author’s ability to connect with you as though you are in a relationship, to communicate understanding and compassion,” and for me anyway, to feel a recognition, a feeling of “You get me, you really get me.” Or, “I get you.” In the parlance of social media, you’re part of my tribe, or “squad”.

10897052_1251257844900384_7545959439673354695_nThat’s how I feel about Liz Gilbert, the best-selling author of Eat, Pray Love and The Signature of All Things. I call her Liz, because simply by having read her books, and following her on Facebook, I feel like we are the best of besties. I know her. Her posts are a daily treat that I indulge in – guilt free. It’s a conversation where she writes thought-provoking, motivational messages in a letter to us, her “Dear Friends”. And she responds to many commenters. Who does that? I want her to come to my house for the holidays.

Eat, Pray, Love was a memoir/travelogue/inspirational novel, and The Signature of All Things, an epic work of fiction, is Gilbert’s homage to fearless, bold, ambitious, intelligent, curious women; family; love; history and botany. But her latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, was probably the most motivational, joy-affirming, “stop with the excuses  and live your dreams” book I’ve ever read (as you can probably tell by all the Post-Its I used to mark up my favorite passages).

Big Magic isn’t just for writers, artists, and starry-eyed dreamers. It’s a book for anyone who wants to break out of the rigid confines of grown-up life, with all its expectations and restraints. Gilbert proclaims that you don’t have to quit your day job to live a creative life. She didn’t. She leads by example. The other day at the bookstore, I accosted a woman when I saw her pick up Big Magic and put it back down. I told her, “You MUST get that book! You’ll LOVE IT! It’s a quick read because of Liz’s conversational style, I don’t know if you’re a writer, because if you are, you have to have to own it. But even if you’re not, you’re just looking for a creative outlet in your life, something that feeds your soul – then you need this book. If you’re into crafts, or ice skating, or photography, you’ll feel like your best friend is giving you the best pep talk ever.” Needless to say, the woman was probably a little frightened to put the book back. (Note to Liz’s Publicist: Not that she needs the help, but I’m available to stalk book stores and drum up sales).

I felt the same way the first time I heard author Brené Brown’s TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability. She is sooooo intensely relatable. If you haven’t watched this 20-minute video, give yourself a gift and watch it.

12196186_1251257838233718_9001777228001757311_nHow many times have you heard the debate about whether a woman can or can’t have it all? How many times have you felt the pressure to do everything, and to do it perfectly, and then felt shame when you fell short? Have you either not done a thing, or found yourself paralyzed to do a thing, because you were afraid it wouldn’t be JUST RIGHT? After watching Brené’s Ted Talk three years ago, I bought every book of hers I could get my hands on, including The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. The book teaches us to stop being so hard on ourselves, and understand the difference between “healthy-striving and perfectionism.” Brené talks about how perfectionism paralyzes us, “because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect.” Just think of “all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing.” She talks not only about the “power of vulnerability”, but also the power of shame, of being judged, or blamed. Read everything she’s written! But start with the Ted Talk and this book first.

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So you’re already pretty happy with your life? That is awesome. But what if you could be even happier? Not “Pollyanna Slap-Happy”. But what if using the wisdom of the ages, and in a fun, “what have I got to lose, I’m already happy” kind-of way, you could challenge yourself to focus on giving some thought to and making some simple adjustments to one area of your life, each month, for a year? That’s exactly what Gretchen Rubin did, and she chronicled her findings in the book, The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. 

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Cheryl Strayed (New book, Brave Enough, YAY!), Oprah, Alexandra Stoddard, Marie Kondo, Karen Salmansohn (follow her on Facebook and Instagram for daily inspirational posters!) – there are so many women out there who speak to me and inspire me. I could go on. But instead, I want to share a famous quote from inspirational author Marianne Williamson that has guided me for almost two decades now:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be…Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

I hope whether you read any of these books for yourself, you continue to make your life better every single day.

Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee, is giddy with optimism and trying her best to live a creative life.

How to have a spooktacular, spine-tingling Halloween!

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Did you know Halloween is second only to Christmas in terms of holiday sales?

Think about it. Retail stores start peddling giant bags of bite size candy bars, countless costumes & props, and spooky decorations right after Labor Day.

Suffice to say we’re really into this holiday. I guess some folks just enjoy being scared out of their wits, while others like to dress up as gory and ghoulish characters to fulfill some macabre fantasy. If you look at the barrage of horror flicks dominating the box office year after year, and our growing and somewhat mind-boggling fascination with zombies (The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead … need I say more?), it comes as no surprise that Halloween seems to be rising in popularity.

Dressing up is my favorite part of Halloween and nowadays you can find an amazing array of costumes for infants through adults and even some awesome outfits for your pooch. Then there are the hundreds of online stores that focus solely on Halloween! If you plan on buying your costumes this year, Smart Perks’ featured partner this month is Costume Discounters. Use promo code SUPER25 and receive 25% off any purchase.

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However, if you want to try your hand at making homemade costumes, Pinterest is chock-full of ideas for creating some really clever costumes. There are some of the most adorable and imaginative costumes for kids I’ve ever seen! The old man from the Pixar’s movie “UP” is a personal favorite.

il_570xN.778343910_k16x comic book character

If you want to be super-scary, makeup is the key. Buzzfeed.com has lots of fabulous makeup tricks to try from creepy to cool. I love this one, featuring a comic book heroine that looks just like Roy Lichtenstein’s “Crying Girl”. The resemblance is AMAZING.

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I also look forward to seeing our neighborhood decked out for Halloween every year. I can’t believe the work some people put into it. Yards filled with makeshift gravestones, frightful motion-activated lawn ornaments that moan, howl or growl, ghosts, bats and skeletons hanging from trees, glowing jack-o-lanterns, and the Grim Reaper guarding front doorways. It’s amazing! I admit some of this stuff scares the bejeezus out of me, but that’s the idea, right?

All I can say is people really put a lot of thought and creativity (and money) in their Halloween décor. But, if you want them to be unique and save some dough, hand-crafted decorations are the way to go.

Again Pinterest is an excellent source for do-it-yourself decorations. My daughter’s family made these clever Halloween lanterns out of old milk jugs. First they drew faces on each jug with black marker then placed glow sticks inside so they light up at night.

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As for celebrating Hallows Eve, a lot of establishments host costume contests and some cities even have zombie pub crawls. Yes, people actually dress up like zombies and go bar hopping, often leaving a fake limb or earlobe behind. Zombie-Pub-CrawlTheme parks and malls (like the Mall of America here in Minneapolis) often offer special Halloween events for kids and adults, and you can usually find a number of haunted venues in major cities and suburbs throughout the U.S.

If you prefer to celebrate at home, you’ll find all kinds of recipes and party ideas for Halloween at Foodnetwork.com!

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Still looking for more spooktacular fun? Pop Sugar is a great source for fun and cheap ways to celebrate Halloween.

Happy Haunting!
Catherine “Cat” B, a Smart Perks employee and Good Witch-In-Chief

Iconic Slow Cookers: The Audrey Hepburn of Kitchen Appliances

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Sausage, Bean & Pasta Stew. Click for the recipe. Photo Courtesy of Food Network.

Thinking deep philosophical thoughts this morning.

Like, “Do people in southern California love the Crock-Pot® as much as the rest of the country?” Because right now, in addition to sweater weather, changing leaves and football, people are going nuts over the start of Crock-Pot season!

Seriously…is there a more universally beloved counter-top appliance than the slow cooker?

Sorry toaster. Not even close.

The mere thought of walking in the front door after a day at work and that rush of delicious aroma, from a hearty satisfying soup or stew, enveloping you like a warm bath sheet or downy comforter, is pure bliss.

CrockPots

Clockwise from left to right: Cheetah Print from QVC ($39.99), Bella Diamonds from Kohl’s ($29.99), NFL Crock-Pot from WalMart ($39.42) and Purple Polished Stainless from Kohl’s ($29.99).

The slow cooker is unmatched in versatility. From pot roasts, soups and stews, to desserts and warm beverages, the Crock-Pot is the go-to appliance for any occasion.  People are even baking bread in a Crock-Pot these days. Is there nothing this little wonder cannot do? My new must-have is the darling little Crock-Pot Lunch Cooker. In pink! When I see a product this cute, and something every office worker MUST HAVE, I have to buy one. Christmas gift for the hard-to-buy-for? HELLO. What else are you going to get that is so adorable, functional and will last forever for $20?

Crock-Pot Lunch Cooker $19.99 @ Target

A good Crock-Pot is timeless. It never goes out of style. It’s the Audrey Hepburn or James Dean of the cooking world. However, like shoes, you can never have too many crock pots.

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The Crock-Pot Little Triple Dipper Food Warmer $34.97 at casa.com

I own 5 slow-cookers. Two mini-dip warmers, which only have one setting, a round 5-quart and oval 7-quart Crock-pot, for potlucks and smaller Sunday meals, and then the granddaddy of them all, the 6 1/2-quart All-Clad Programmable Slowcooker, the Mercedes of slow cookers with the weight of a Mack truck.

At one point I became convinced I couldn’t live without the three-crocks-in-one heating unit buffet server, until my mother bought it for me. The box was the size of a small car. Where is one supposed to store that thing? It was ginormous.

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Black rose Bella 6-qt. slow cooker $39.97 at Nordstrom Rack online.

However, if I had a bigger house, a larger family, or did more entertaining, that beast would be mine.

Even though I do own an All-Clad Programmable that cost over $150, another Christmas gift from Mom (thanks, mom), I’ve found that the smaller 5-6 quart manual slow cookers are every bit as good, despite having fewer settings. Plus, they cost a lot less.

The best thing about Crock-Pot cooking is how simple it is. When is the last time you made an appetizer in 5 minutes? AND got rave reviews for it? Trust me. This recipe for Sweet & Spicy Meatballs is a perennial favorite at holiday potlucks.

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1 14 oz. can Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce

1 12 oz. bottle of Heinz Chili Sauce

1 2-lb bag frozen, pre-cooked, cocktail meatballs

Directions: Place meatballs in the slow cooker. Combine sauces and pour over meatballs. Cover and cook 4 hours. Prep time 5 minutes. 30 appetizer servings.

Another of my fall favorites, perfect for a Sunday afternoon of leaf-raking or couch-surfing, this slow cooker French Dip from the Let’s Dish Recipes blog. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a tiny pink Crock-pot to buy.

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Hello Gorgeous!

Blogger Mel B,  a Smart Perks employee, never met a counter-top appliance she didn’t like.