A lesson from a Disney princess and the produce aisle.

Cinderella’s castle in Disney world with sun behind
Cinderella’s castle in Disney world with sun behind
Photo by Cody Board on Unsplash

Growing up, I never wanted to be a Disney princess. Sure, I watched the movies, but I never had the same obsession with them as some of my friends and classmates. The Princesses were a tangential part of my youth only. One year for Halloween, I think I might have been Cinderella, but I can’t even be sure; the only evidence exists not in my memory, but in the puffy blue dress in my childhood dress-up box. I watched Disney movies, but on a limited basis since I couldn’t make it through The Lion King without crying, and Ursula was just a little too mean.

All of that to say, they were never a compass in my life. Not in the least.

Which is why I have to chuckle when some of the greatest advice of my adult life came from an animated Scandinavian Disney princess (technically queen?) who shoots ice out of her hands. As probably every parent, babysitter, sibling, and human being with access to media knows, Elsa from Frozen sang a whole song about needing to “Let it Go.”

I could use this time to write an analysis of what exactly the lyrics mean, and how Elsa’s life compares to mine, but I’d rather look at it out of Elsa’s context and completely within mine. I haven’t always been great at letting things go; it’s the blessing and the curse of being a recovering perfectionist. I’ve always been exceptionally detail-oriented, so when the little things are out of place, it’s not easy for me to look away and let it go. I can usually trust that the big things will get handled, so it’s the army of details that march through my brain and keep me up at night.

At my last job, I worked on a project that appeared to have been all but designed to prey on my perfectionism. My teammates and I used to often joke that some days we’d gotten lost and stumbled down Alice’s rabbit hole, unraveling what had previously seemed tightly woven, landing at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. It seemed as though no matter how carefully we worked, or how many hours we poured in, I was always playing an excruciating game of whack-a-mole with the details. A glance here or there, usually looking at something completely unrelated, frequently began an exhaustive journey of questions that launched more questions that provided fewer answers.

I don’t remember the exact circumstances, perhaps because they’re far less important than the actual message, but one colleague and I began to use let it go as a reminder that we couldn’t do everything and we couldn’t be perfect (painful as that was for me to admit). When things were overwhelming and we were swirling in the whirlpools of deadlines, when the little things were torturing my mind, or when we just needed a plain reminder that the emotional energy wasn’t worth it, we could simply write to one another: let it go.

Sometimes instead of writing the response, I would send a GIF of Elsa running up her icy staircase, waving her arms to build it as she ran. This eventually was shared with other colleagues in the office, who needed to hear the same sentiment. It was one late night, with multiple teams in the office, that Elsa became a household figure. One of my other coworkers very cleverly mimicked the way that she runs in the animation, throwing their arms to the side one at a time and saying “left handrail, right handrail.” And thus, a new call and response was born.

We didn’t even have to say let it go anymore — born from late-night architect speak, we could simply say “left handrail” and someone else could respond “right handrail.” We knew it meant it was time to let it go.

Not everything is easy to simply let go. If ignoring typos or misaligned drawings (what my teams know I so passionately hate and affectionately refer to as “plan wiggle”) is a challenge, you can imagine how difficult it is for me to let go of being let go. As I’ve already written about, that is an ongoing process, but one that started off from a place of not even knowing where to begin. It felt in that moment as though everything I thought I knew about myself and my life had been shattered, run through and left cold by an icy blade. As someone who feels things very deeply, it was hard to even begin to imagine how I could crawl away from this shock and pain.

And then I went in my kitchen and happened to look in my fruit basket. Perfectly placed on just one of my bananas was a Frozen II sticker.

Life’s got jokes.

I sent a picture to one of my coworkers and in our short exchange about this stupidly poignant banana sticker, I laughed. I laughed at a time when it felt like my face would crack if I ever tried to smile again (which is of course dramatic and unrealistic, but these are trying times). I will be forever grateful to that friend and that banana for breaking through that night.

Somewhat ironically, it was either earlier in the day I got let go, or only shortly before, when the last time let it go came up at work. I commented at the time that I thought I would use the lesson, and phrase, for the rest of my life. I didn’t know then that it would be needed so soon, or that a piece of produce would use it provide comfort, but I know now that I need my handrails more than ever.

There are a lot of things I have to let go. I have to let go of the shame and embarrassment of being laid off. I have to let go of little questions that plague my mind and the mixed emotions I have about what could have or should have been. I can’t hold on to the idea that nothing matters, that no matter how hard you work, you can still be let go as if everything you ever did was never enough. I need to find a way to move forward without holding on to what I planned and hoped would be, the broken life plan, my specific goals and wants. I have to let go of the uncertainty in my brain — about me, my work, my industry, my world.

It’s just simply not a time, when everything is upside-down and we’re all playing a game of mad croquet, to hold on. I have to let it go.

Left handrailRight handrail.

Designer, thinker, and doer based in Richmond, VA.

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