Spinning Plates: Navigating Life's Obstacles with Grit

Elli Milan stands in her renaissance art studio painting in her sketchbook

I remember when I first began almost "adulting." I was around 21 years old and finishing college. John and I had saved all year to take our first trip to Greece together. We planned to travel for two months all around the islands and had saved to buy a moped to get around on. Up to this point, I had studied for finals, worked to put art shows together, moved across the country from Hawaii to college, traveled abroad a few times, and felt like I had lived a bit for someone my age. But planning this trip and preparing to leave for two months was overwhelming.

I felt like I was spinning far too many plates and everything felt out of control. I had to finish my projects in school, pack everything, leave the house ready to be vacant for two months, find places for my two dogs, make sure we had our paperwork in order, and get a ride to the airport.

I made checklists, constantly vented to whoever would listen about all my stress, and lost sleep over the fear of forgetting something. I felt in over my head and like I couldn't handle one more thing.

The Journey of Self-Discovery

When I look back now, I think how ridiculous I was. The planning, orchestrating, and doing were literally nothing! Today, I could spin that plate with my eyes closed.

In my early years, I seemed to stress over the smallest things. I wanted everything perfect. I wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything. I had a lot of fear about being capable and able. But somehow, all through my life since I can remember, I pushed myself at whatever threshold I stood at to do more, have more, or go further. Since my earliest memories, I have wanted to fill space to the max - fill a schedule, fill a suitcase, fill my plate, and then add more plates. I'm the 'my cup is never full' girl.

When I was a child and off to spend the day at my grandma's house, I didn't want to be bored and would fill a bag with things to do and projects. I brought every art supply I owned, every crayon, loose paper, and scissors, and then I brought books—not just one book, but multiple books—protecting myself from even one minute of boredom or empty space. I have been a doer since the beginning of time.

Overcoming Life's Obstacles

I spent my 20s stressing and my 30s self-examining. I was 33 years old with four children under the age of seven, and I felt like every plate I spun would shatter. It was beyond bearable. I thought about stopping all the insanity and pulling my way back from everything. Simplify my life. Stop achieving. Just rest and do as little as possible.

I would wonder, "Why am I this way? What am I avoiding? What am I escaping? Am I a classic workaholic? Am I trying to prove something?" I dug into my childhood. I took a long, hard look at my daddy issues. I questioned everything I could find.

When I thought about pulling back and doing as little as possible, it felt terrible to me. It didn't feel like a relief. I felt lost. I felt like I was missing out, like life would happen all around me, but I couldn't join in. I saw my destiny twirl about me while I stood lifeless and lost. I didn't want to sit on the sidelines. I wrestled with all the popular talk of self-care and work-life balance. If I disagreed with these fashionable thoughts, was I headed for burnout?

Embracing the Hustle

Elli Milan sketches "Awakened by the North Wind" a painting concept inspired by Song of Songs

By the end of my 30s, heading into my 40s, I was tired of the roller coaster of stop, start, work, rest, restart, stop, guilt, and obligation, and I had yet to feel settled and at peace. After a decade of questioning myself, trying every balanced schedule and time management advice I could find, and reading countless books on striving, I made a final decision. I was going ALL IN!

I decided, first and foremost, that I am ME. I'm not her, and I'm not them. I have my own unique destiny and calling, and it requires a lot of hustle. And guess what? I LOVE to hustle. I'm at my best when I'm busy and things are flying all around me. I'm a turbo tornado, and I like it! I decided to embrace myself and never question how much I work again. I decided I wasn't headed for burnout if Monday was my favorite day of the week.

Eliminating Energy Drainers

I made a list of all the things on my schedule I didn't like, and that sucked me dry. Teaching children (YES, that's right! I don't like it, and I don't feel guilty about it either!), emails, website management, admin, taxes, spreadsheets, cleaning, church, drama, stretching canvas, and some friendships. I immediately eliminated everything on my list that I could and circled the things that I would work to eliminate. I made a goal to craft my life into only doing what I wanted to do, and that brought me energy and joy.

It took a few years, but I slowly eliminated everything that held me back and stressed me out. Then something shocking happened. I could spin a lot more plates. I mean, a whole lot more. I was doing more than I ever dreamed and loving it.  felt like I wasn't doing things in my own strength anymore. My life increased to the point that all the plate spinning wasn't just manageable; they seemed to spin on their own, and I touched a few with my finger now and then. Something powerful beyond me was at work. I didn't feel this freedom until I eliminated everything that drained my life force.

More Spinning Plates

This week is probably one of the most eventful weeks of my life. I'm prepping for my immersive art exhibition, "Song of Songs," at the Milan Art Gallery this Friday and Saturday. My schedule is packed with adding the final touches to my new paintings, the last little details for the show, prepping for this week's workshop, attending meetings, mentoring, packing for my trip to Zurich, and moving into a new house on the day of my show! The number of plates spinning around me is too many to count. I've stopped counting and looking.

I just step out each day and do my best work. I wake up before the sun, work out, ride my horse, and stay away from time wasters. I'm driven by my vision and am very blessed to have the best people around me. I don't feel stressed at all, and my Oura ring confirms it!

A Life of Intention and Action

Looking back, I have no regrets, but if I could talk to my younger self, I would tell 30-year-old Elli, "You are not those ladies at church. You don't have to be coiffed or a stay-at-home mom. You don't have to do your kids' science fair project, and you don't have to make them lunch with a special note inside. You are YOU! You can trust your heart. Your heart knows what it wants. You saw your destiny. Your dreams were given to you so that you could achieve them. You are NOT just a dreamer. You are NOT thinking too big. You are NOT a troublemaker, and it's fantastic that you stir the pot! This is YOUR life to live, and you can fill your cup, bag, plate, and schedule as much as you want."

"If only I took it easy, rested more, held back, shrunk myself, and watched from a distance," said NO ONE ever.

Can you recall a moment when you felt overwhelmed by life's demands but found strength in your unique abilities?


  • Jax

    Thanks for sharing Eli. It all rings true for me too.
    I have always thought I was the black sheep. People
    Said I think too much. I have always doubted myself, needed others approval to feel secure.
    Sad really but true at the time.
    I too have started to removed things that are working for
    Me especially
    People. It is so very empowering to do that!
    It comes at a cost as
    Now I realised how few friends I actually do have and being single for 22 years is taking a toll. I only have myself to rely on but I guess that means a lot less disappointment …. lol
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    It takes courage to do that! The quality of friends matters more than the quantity. Your journey of self-reliance and empowerment opens up space for deeper, more meaningful connections to come into your life! 😊

  • Cheryl Ann Hunter

    Elli, you are singing my song! I am that overachiever, have been since a very young age. Now that I am 64, I have finally managed to eliminate the things that no longer serve me. I was challenged nearly two years ago by a life changing decision. My adult son with Autism was not able to attend his day activity center for more than a few hours a week following strict Covid parameters and staff shortages. Since his father and stepfather (my hubby) are younger than me, and still working to support the families, it fell to me to leave my full-time job as the director of our city’s senior center to become Jason’s full time care provider. I was old enough to take social security early and fortunate that California allows me to be paid as his care provider. This opened up a door of opportunity for me to paint and write more, and to enroll in the Milan Art Mastery program. I was so depressed for years before this happened and felt like I was going through the motions of life, no direction, no purpose and no zest for living. Having worked in a professional setting for thirty years and owned a business for another twenty, I was burned out and didn’t like myself much. Now, being able to zero in on helping my son to become as independent as possible, while honing my art skills and achieving my fantasy of being a “real” artist, hope and enthusiasm has returned. Thanks for everything that you do, you touch so many lives. Hugs!
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Hi Cheryl. Thank you for your heart felt message. It sounds like you have had some seriously large plates to spin! I’m so glad you found the mastery program and it is bringing passion back into your life!

  • Aruna Mettler

    Dear Elli,
    I am inspired by your experiences, struggles and accomplishments. At the same time I am intimidated and feel I will never be a good artist. I am learning and have learned a lot from you, Dimitra and most of all John DJ, my mentor. I love your family. Everyone is so kind and understanding and really care about all the artists in the program. Thank you.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Aww Aruna! I believe you have the potential to be an incredible artist! Believe in yourself like we believe in you!!

  • Em

    This blog has come at divine timing! My 40s feel different and I’ve never fit into any mould, I have tried but I’m exhausted now. Guilt has eaten away at me but I think it’s more me trying to fit the mould instead of being the person God sees me as. Your honesty is refreshing and inspiring, thankyou!!! Xx

  • Erika Espin

    Hi Elli, this is Erika Espin. I’m currently 36 and I can relate to so much of what you’ve mentioned in your blog. I even teared up. I love how you’re able to put this all together in words. I was never able to explain this to my family, not even in therapy to how i feel or what i am going through. I started the mastery program last year in March and I’m a few months behind. Had to move across the country, taking only what I could fit in my car, figure out what to take and leave behind, having zero help, figuring out where I would live, and on top of it all doing this as a single mother with 2 under 2. It’s so easy to beat yourself up for not doing things according to plan. Regardless of being behind on my mastery program I am not giving up. And I just want to take this moment to thank you Elli, for your inspirational blogs and Monday motivation emails. I look up to you so much, I can connect with you even though we have never met. You help me feel less crazy, less alone and stronger. It’s amazing how much I have grown mentally this year. Thank you.

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