2013: Lessons to Take With Me

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Part two of my annual round-up. For part one, check out my annual review for 2012

The last year, or two, weren’t easy–and full of lots of mistakes–but incredible and far better than the first half of my twenties. I’ve mused lately, in my 29th yearwhat this decade will add up to. What have I done? What does my daily life look like? How have I changed? Have I made a mark on the world? 

By and large, the latter half of the decade was far more psychologically and personally satisfying–coming into stride with many of my quirks and idiosyncracies, delighting in saying no in order to stay at home and work on a project purely because my soul wanted to, and deciding to skip, sing, hold hands and lie on the floor when I felt like it–all of this slowly built a foundation of happiness and glee I wasn’t accustomed to after coming off of years of teenage (and early twenty-something) angst. It’s worth saying, however, that much of the groundwork for many of my leaps and bounds between age 25-29 came through several years of dedicated, isolated, and non-public personal and professional efforts in my younger years.

In short: it gets better. For those who work hard, and who are exploring and taking chances, it adds up. Keep going. Learning compounds, (the right) friendships deepen, people stop caring if you have acne or armpit sweat or if you spit a little when you talk (or they tell you, directly and kindly) and generally they care more that you’re passionately geeky about something, that you take your energy and focus it on making things happen, that you’re crafting both an identity and a legacy in the world, albeit through trial and error. If you’re in a slough–and I’ve had years of undulations, so I understand the melancholy that can come from not understanding just-quite-what-to-do-next–stick it out another season, and keep experimenting.

In the meantime, here’s what I’ve gleaned along the way, particularly lessons that have solidified over the last year. In looking back through the essays on this site and musing over what I’d like to take with me, here’s what I’d like to carry with me for this next spin around the sun.


Almost everything is far easier said than done.


It can take a year or a decade to learn a lesson and build a practice or a habit I joke that it takes me a year to learn a habit because I’ve got twelve months to try 30 days over again, and by the 8th or 9th time, I’m almost there. Yoga took me four years to get into. Running took me three years. Blogging, two years (or ten, depending on how you count and whether copious emails and live journal count as blogging). Every lesson I’ve learned I had to learn personally. reading other’s wisdom didn’t cement the idea into my soul, my being.

So for everything below, I’ll write the lessons–but in all probability, you’ll also have to learn them yourself.


Simplicity is also about specificity.


The art of minimalism isn’t about simply owning (or being) nothing; it’s about knowing and discovering what is most important to you, and letting everything else–the chatter, the clutter, the race–go softly by the wayside. There’s a beauty in being precise and not having too much or too little. Gaining clarity about what’s important to you–by knowing what you want and more importantly, what you don’t want. If you don’t truly enjoy something or love something, let it go. It’s not about more. It’s about the right things. Clear your closets (or life) or the rest. For me, this year was about learning that one coat and one pair of boots is more than enough; learning that I prioritized writing and wine over haircuts and deodorant; and that some times, living off of oatmeal and grits was the greatest freedom of all. The things I love most are not often THINGS.


Working smarter and working better are more important than working more.


The 9 to 5 doesn’t make sense; in an information society, we must gain clarity about when our most creative work times are and be ruthless about carving out time for creation. Tara Gentile points out that hustling isn’t an effective long-term strategy: while hustling can be great, you also need to learn how to prioritize and strategize. For me, this means realizing that in addition to focused hustling, downtime is essential. Follow your energy and bliss, take working vacations, realize that working the midnight oil will burn you out if you do it for too long, and perhaps think about changing up the systems you use in the name of experimentation. In this world, the only constant is change, so we might as well stop with the BS and stop “working harder” and start working better. Some thoughts from various essays to further this point:

  • Sometimes a little bit is a lot.
  • Not everything needs to get done. It’s equally important to know what to do as well as what not to do. When you have clarity over this, saying no to things that don’t matter becomes easier.
  • No one will do the important work for you.
  • Sometimes you need to create something just to see it exist in the world.
  • Habits. Habits are crucial. As much as you push and challenge yourself, you are what you repeatedly do, and the more you can build excellent habits, the better you’ll do. Build in mechanisms for success. Check whether or not you are learning.
  • Know when it’s the right time to hustle and get to the hard work. Hard work won’t kill you.
  • Consistency. To get different results, you need different or more consistent inputs.
  • Procrastination can take over your life. You’re either doing something, or you’re not.

Prioritize learning, exploration, travel and context-shifts whenever possible. 


Reflection abounds when I step out of my given context and look back and where I’ve been. Short trips and retreats and bending your environmental inputs can affect your outputs. This doesn’t necessarily mean taking a ginormous trip somewhere extravagant; an internal weekend retreat without internet can do the trick, too. Some big life lessons for me came from Big Omaha, attending WDS and The Feast, and teaching workshops on storytelling. It also came from ample time alone, long conversations one-on-one, reading a million books and wandering outdoors as much as possible. 


Do it Yourself. 


The only way (and there isn’t only one way, see paradoxes, below) to learn a lesson is to do it yourself. You can accumulate as much second-hand knowledge from other people through reading, but lessons learned must come from action.


Being uncomfortable doesn’t always feel good, but it is not bad to be uncomfortable.


In fact, it can be good for you.

Discomfort teaches you your edges, what you don’t like, and can make you stronger.

Often the best gifts come through tenacious hard work. Humans are also beautifully designed machines that crave challenge and growth over stagnation and repetition; challenge yourself. Push yourself into a bit of discomfort. Easy isn’t the goal.


The Internet can be a place of incredibly serendipity and connectivity.


We’re living in an incredible time. Systems are changing (although not always for the better, and with much creative destruction). Meet new people. Push yourself beyond your edges. Find communities you love online.


Doing things for other people feels wonderful. Not everything is about money.


Some of my favorite memories are the times when I put together a day of calls with people for whatever they can afford, and when I give away things freely and openly. When I walk to the street corner and sit against the concrete, slouching in sweatpants in the sun, and watch people of all ages wander by just to delight in the urban sensations. When I sing gleefully in a church at the top of my lungs with hundreds of other people. When I skip down the waterfront and sing to myself, when I get on my bike, when I read books for hours, when I curl up in conversations with other people about the future of cities, the psychology of people, the geeky details of the email templates and organization systems I use. When I forget about time. When I spend hours in manual labor, building something for someone else. When I’ve been part of a team to build houses for people who need them. I love, love, love doing things for people, for no other purpose but seeing the surprise and delight on their face, or simply from imagining how wonderful I hope they feel.


The more you follow your heart stirrings, the less everything feels like work.


When I’m in the midst of flow and wonder, and following those strange sensations that culturally seem awkward, but my heart tells me to do anyways–I start to lose track of time and feel deliciously wonderful.


Life is a balance of tensions and paradoxes; almost every truth has an equal and opposite truth.


Nothing is as simple as a tweet, although their perfunctory nature resonates and titillates.

Everything is a paradox. Nothing is always everything or something.

Not everyone will understand or support you.

Pithy statements are often also false.

The scripts around you are often loaded.

 

Not all time is the same.


Structure and self-discipline can unlock freedom and potential.


The importance of structure, or Cadre (French), creates a place of freedom. Habits can create possibility. Frames create space for creativity. The morning writer’s ritual, the same-ness of your patterns, the obligation of a weekly exercise routine–these can create space for abundance. A clean desk creates a clear mind. Waking up at predictable times unlocks powerful spaces for productivity. Not expending mental energy on deciding to do something, but simply doing it, means you can achieve more with less thought.


Choose doing great work over being well-liked.


A great, great mentor of mine reminded me to prioritize my great work over being well-liked.

I still have lots to write and say about this.


Write to learn, not to be known.


Writing teaches me about myself, solidifies my ideas, allows me to re-structure and re-frame thoughts through my own mind, and is largely a selfish endeavor. I will write to explore ideas and continue to dance into more and more dangerous territories, and likely eat my words as I phrase things inaccurately or change my mind. Better than all this, however, is the dedication to forming my mind through the ritual of daily writing and thought. Check out the conversation with my sister on four writing mantras for any writer, the page I’ve built on storytelling and narrative, and practice using better vocabulary as you develop your voice.


Hold yourself to the highest standard of accountability and integrity.


You will fail. That’s okay.

Hold yourself to high standards. No one’s standards matter but your own, and the prevalence of mediocrity should not lend you satisfaction over a slight rise above mediocrity. You know what you’re capable of. Push yourself there. It’s okay to work hard. Challenge yourself to be the best you possible can be, and do better if necessary. It feels good to make things, and to be really good at something. Give yourself permission to chase it. Don’t settle. Be better.

Posts and thoughts:

  • I is for Integrity.
  • Are we busy, or just not saying No because we’ve forgotten? And should I really meet you for coffee?
  • You are the most important. Show up for whatever YOU think is most important. Say no to everything else. 
  • Failure will not kill you, but regret might swallow you.
  • Remember your own uniqueness. The advice for one person isn’t the same as the advice for another person. Take all advice with a grain of salt and realize it may need to be custom-built for you, including every word in this post (thanks to Jeff Riddle for his thoughtful advice on this idea).

Cultivate kindness, generosity and compassion.


Holy yourself in the highest honor. Hold your heart gently in the palm of your hand; you are responsible for both being your biggest critic and your biggest advocate, and the practice of gratitude and openness towards yourself is critical. Learn how to love yourself. The world is far lonelier if you don’t love yourself. Find what’s wonderful in you and magnify it. Strive to be better. Practice unnecessary kindess. Engage in daily gratitude rituals to re-wire your brain. Write thank you letters to your bosses. Raise money for charity. Tell the people you love that you love them. (I love you, Alex.) Remember that you are loved, and to find space to love the people around you because everyone has something, and we’re all on this planet, working together.


Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up.


  • Brain teaser: why do cars have brakes?
  • Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up. 
  • A little is a lot.
  • Patience. Sometimes it takes a full year or longer just to learn a single lesson. Or even discern that a lesson is being taught.
  • If it’s overwhelming, just do a little bit. Start somewhere. Don’t give up in the face of fear, but find a way to do just a little. You’ll figure it out, eventually.
  • It doesn’t matter how many times you read a lesson, it matters how many things you do.

Cultivate a practice of observing, listening, and reflecting. 


The more you wonder and marvel, the more fun everything becomes. “Learning makes a man fit company for himself,” says Thomas Fuller, and Sydney Harris writes a similar thought: “The primary purpose of a liberal education is to make one’s mind a pleasant place in which to spend one’s leisure.”

Sartre said it again: “If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company.”

Let me say it another way:

Learn, learn, learn! It makes the world abound in awe and joy, unlocks worlds and realms you never thought possible, and makes your brain and mind a wonderful place to spend time. Spend time developing yourself. The words “Self Help” are tinny compared to the opportunity you have to really craft a beautiful essence, being, and life. You are a work in process. Get to it, fill up!

Here are some posts to get you thinking:


Stories make the world go round.


We don’t just tell stories–we crave stories. We re-write our brains to tell stories about the past, we dream about the future in narrative sequences, with predictable rises and falls, we cry out against storylines that are unfair, and we engage in the rhythm and pattern of common hero’s narratives in almost every conversation we share. Learn how to communicate and tell your story and unlock the power of reaching other people’s minds.

  • The importance of story.
  • What I do–my story.
    You can learn a lot about a person by what questions they ask. If someone around you seems boring, change the questions you ask.
  • It takes a while to develop your voice. So get talking.

Boldness is genius. Go on, do it.


Prioritize action and getting started. Make things happen. Show up. Do it. Not a lot happens in a day, but a lot can happen in 30 days. What do you do when something doesn’t exist? Make it happen. Things change in two years. Things change fast.

It takes years to learn each of these lessons, yet only minutes to write them.

Onwards and upwards…

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