Self-Help and Mentoring

About four years ago I was traveling through Italy, biking, farming, and just generally exploring life. I didn’t have a lot of direction other than south, but life felt good. As I started seeing more hamlets and monasteries on the tops of cliffs and mountains, I realized something: I needed a mentor. I felt that my life could go all sorts of wild places, and that it would be valuable to have a wise soul to guide me through the process.

This is actually Greece, but you get the idea. Same trip, at least. The Meteora.

I made a note of this in my journal and promptly forgot about it for several years. I never sought out any person or community that I thought would be able to guide me through my explorations, and nothing materialized on its own. I didn’t think about a mentor in a serious way until a few weeks ago. Instead of renewing my resolve to find a guide, however, I realized that I have already been seeking the advice and lessons from numerous mentors.

“Self-help” has a terrible ring to it. It is full of negative connotation, an admission that one isn’t able or competent enough to deal with the difficulties of life. It doesn’t even make sense – it isn’t self-help if someone else is telling you how to do it. And a lot of it is probably garbage, especially considering the number of shelves dedicated to it at the bookstore. Luckily for me, none of the sources I was using called themselves “self-help”, so I snuck in without realizing where I had gone.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been drawing from a number of sources, gradually improving my life and state of mind. I feel that I’m now reaching a new stage of contentment and freedom in my self, and I am excited to see where things lead from here. The other day I was describing to a friend that the daily vocal training I’m doing was creating all sorts of new openness and range in my voice. I realized that this was in fact true of my whole life.

So what have I been doing? I’m tackling some of the skills I’ve wanted to have for a long time, but never really practiced, and I’m being open to good advice where I find it. Some of the people I’ve drawn the most from are:

Jason Crandell for yoga. I do yoga almost everyday on my own, listening to his podcast. Little things like folding your palms in front of your chest and lifting the skin over your sternum make a huge difference in the practice. When I got these they were free, but it looks like you might have to pay for them now.

Ken Perlman for guitar. I came upon his Fingerstyle Guitar book by chance, and have followed it with his advanced book. I’m playing guitar in ways I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. Also, what a mustache.

Betty Edwards for drawing and perception. I’ve written about Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain before (here and here), and it has allowed huge leaps in my perception and ability to recreate that on a page.

Steve Pavlina for consciousness and inspiration. This guy might be a wacko, or he might be full of wisdom (or probably somewhere in between), but either way his ideas have inspired me. His blog posts often sound hokey, but they have definitely got me thinking and actively pursuing life.

Timothy Ferriss for fitness, confidence, and life/time management. This is the 4-Hour Workweek and 4-Hour Body guy. Not everything in those books makes sense for every person, but some of his suggestions are spot on, and his workouts are surprisingly effective.

Brett Manning for singing. I just started his speech-level singing course about 5 weeks ago. He’s super cheesy in an L.A./Hollywood way, but like I said, all sorts of new openness and range. Very expensive, unless you can borrow it from a friend.

This week I also started working through Julia Cameron‘s The Artist’s Way. It’s a spiritual approach to nurturing creativity. I’m excited about it – even reading the introduction made me want to sit down and paint all day.

The fear with seeking advice and guidance from strangers is that their thinking will take over your life and you’ll end up joining a cult or something. This is more true of the life-coach type sources than the skill-specific ones. I think the key here is to take it all with a grain of salt and to draw from multiple sources simultaneously. Doing so makes it a lot easier to distinguish the good ideas from the fluff without necessarily buying into an entire lifestyle. The fact that they are mostly free (or available at a library) helps. I definitely don’t have plans to pay for this kind of advice any time soon. Again, specific skills are a bit different.

While I would still be open to having some kind of personal mentor, I feel that I’ve found a workable alternative through these various sources, and I’m sure there are plenty more I haven’t found yet (and I welcome suggestions – especially on writing, painting, and song-writing). I’m continuing to cobble together a kind of personal philosophy, and I expect to be doing so my whole life. It’s exciting and fulfilling. Still, I’d rather not call it “self-help.”

Bold colors, drips

Good Work Takes Time

More and more, our society indulges in instant gratification and constant interconnectedness. In some ways, this is quite good. It allows exchange of ideas without barriers, flexible scheduling, and incredible access to information, among other things. One thing I keep coming back to in my journey for creative fulfillment, however, is this: good work takes time.

I used to have a pretty decent understanding of this idea. When I was most serious about cello in high school, I knew that I wasn’t going to make progress without daily effort. That doesn’t mean I actually put in the effort consistently, which is part of the reason my cello playing fizzled out a bit in my early 20s. In art classes, I was happy to go slowly, to be careful with my eye, to revisit incongruities. Even if progress on a specific piece went quickly, I knew that improvement over the long run required patience and persistence.

In the last several years, this idea of dedicating time and effort to something meaningful has become more foreign to me. In the world of consulting, there is generally not time to take things slow, to evaluate and reconsider. Time is money, and more specifically, billable time is money. In large part, the work I’ve done in the past few years has not required any major cognitive leaps or breakthroughs. It seems that in the era of email on your smartphone, people are looking for a quick response rather than a thoughtful one. Of course, the ideal is to deliver both, but for involved and creative problems, it’s just not possible.

Getting back into art and music has reminded me of this consciousness and slowness necessary to dig into something big. The work demands a clean and solid foundation, a place to allow ideas to expand and follow tangents and be nurtured. Had I stuck with some of my recent work longer, or developed more of a passion for it, I could imagine getting to a similar place of focus with that. The break-neck pace and incremental demands, however, made this quite difficult.

For now I am reveling in the slow progress that comes with creative practice. I’ve been doing daily vocal training, drawing exercises, and stream of consciousness writing. None of these skills can improve instantaneously, and none of them will be spurred forward by being able to look something up on a smartphone. But I can already feel myself making progress, chipping away at some big things that I want to have meaning in my life. My brain is adjusting to a slower pace and rewiring itself to tackle different kinds of problems than it has in the past few years. It’s a transition that will take time, but it feels good. Patience, young grasshopper.

Meditate with Max!

Taking the Plunge: Update

I’ve been trying some new things lately. It all started a few weeks ago when I scaled way back at my job. Results so far: awesome. Who knew 5:30 AM could be an appropriate time to wake up?

I gave notice at my job in late July so I could focus my energies on creative endeavors, and after some conversations decided to stay on part-time two days a week. I started the new work schedule and lifestyle after returning home from hiking the Wonderland Trail in the beginning of September.

While I was hiking, I came to a few things I wanted to try incorporating into my lifestyle, especially yoga and meditation. I had some ideas about the creative aspects as well, but hadn’t fleshed out how that was really going to work. So I started with the morning yoga on my first day back in town. I decided 7 AM was a reasonable time to wake up for it, but I found myself waking up earlier naturally from being on trail time. I also tacked on 15 minutes of meditation after my hour yoga session, figuring my mind would be in a good place for it then.

It has been wonderful. My body and mind feel completely ready for the day after stretching and clearing them both. My hamstrings and hips are getting to a place they’ve never been before, and my head feels correspondingly open and free. I’ve found that I love the morning, and that I want to see more of it. I pushed my wake-up time forward from 6:30 to 6:00, and now to 5:30 AM. The glow of sunrise just starts to come through the trees just when I’m transitioning from yoga to meditation. I’m adding a minute onto my meditation session each week, figuring I’ll be able to sit longer as I become more experienced with it. Even when I have trouble keeping my mind clear (most of the time), I come out of it feeling refreshed and content.

After meditation, I make a quick breakfast and sit down to do some writing. Sometimes this ends up being stream of consciousness, sometimes an outline of a longer piece I’ve been thinking about, and sometimes just a sketch of what’s on my mind. It feels really good to put some words on (virtual) paper, though, and I’m usually ready to move on by about 7:30 AM. I used to struggle to be awake by 7:30. Even if I have trouble finding productivity later on, I feel good about how my morning went and use that as a springboard for positivity and motivation. Of course, my evenings have been truncated a bit, but mostly I’ve lost movie-watching (I don’t have internet at home, so being distracted by Youtube videos and NYTimes articles is a thing of the past). Being in bed with a book by 9:30 PM feels terrific. Maybe I’ve turned into an old man in my quasi-retirement?

The rest of my endeavors have definitely benefited from having an early schedule. At any time of day, it as been easy to get my mind in a place to write, paint, or make music. The two days a week of work is perfect for keeping me disciplined and making my free time feel valuable. Having some rent money doesn’t hurt either. So, win-win.

I’m curious to see if I can keep up the energy and motivation, and what kind of long-term effects I might see from such a different lifestyle. I’ll let you know. Looking forward to it!

Hiking Wonderland

I spent the last ten days in the woods of Washington state hiking the Wonderland Trail. It is a 93-mile loop around Mt. Rainier, and is considered one of the most spectacular hikes in the world. It was certainly one of the most beautiful places I’ve been, but what was most special about the trip was the mental evolution it allowed. The combination of the natural beauty and the length of the trip allowed me to break through the crust to deep layers of mental clarity.

The trail itself is relatively difficult, including about 22,000 ft of elevation gain (and loss) over the length of the loop. Ten days is a moderate to easy length for the trip. We saw some people doing it in five, and others taking twelve or thirteen. Ultra-marathoners even do the whole thing in twenty-four hours. That would be a different kind of experience, though, and ten days gave us ample time to enjoy the gifts of the mountain.

Rainier from the southwest.

After some last-minute injuries, our group ended up being four strong. I knew all three of my travel companions before the trip, but had never taken on such an adventure with any of them. This added some uncertainty going into the trip, but worked out better than I could have hoped. The group dynamic was wonderful, a real joy. The team was positive and supportive, which made the camping easy and gave a lot of space for play and reflection.

Columnar basalt formations at S. Puyallup River campground.

I started the trip not knowing what to expect. I had never been on a backpacking trip longer than five days before, and I had never done any hiking in the wilderness surrounding Mt. Rainier. I summited the mountain a couple months ago, but that was very much about going up and down quickly, not taking time to circle around. I approached the trip with an open mind; I was very excited in an abstract way, but without concrete expectations.

I love rocks.

We started the trail at Longmire, a populated put-in at the southern edge of the mountain. Preparations had gone smoothly and we had two food caches waiting for us at patrol stations along the way. This meant we would never have to carry more than three days’ food at a time – a luxury for long backpacking trips.

Our schedule gave us two short days right off the bat to get warmed up to the trail, which was a great way to loosen up our legs. These first days felt like typical day hikes. We were still close to society, both physically and mentally. The vistas were gorgeous, but I got antsy being socked in by the forest for long stretches in between. The uphills were tough, so we took our time and our legs adjusted. We did a good amount of lounging about on the ridges and around rivers, knowing that our longer days ahead would not allow for it.

Spray Falls near Mowich trailhead.

Things felt good. We were getting used to being in a group together. We made jokes and started making references to jokes we had already made, slowly building experience and camaraderie. By day three or four we comfortable as a unit and realized that each person could hold their own in the woods.

The team at our Spray Park lunch spot.

Around day five things started to coalesce and we began to get deep into the flow of the trail. Each day’s walk became more enjoyable than the last. Physically, our legs had become strong and loose. Time began to feel more fluid. We would occasionally look at clocks to get a sense of how we were doing, but the day was no longer broken up into fifteen or thirty minute intervals. There was morning, midday, afternoon, evening, night. Each had its own joys and unique feelings associated with it. Every minute was filled with the beauty of the national park.

The landscapes we walked through began to take on a whole different character. The ridges brought unparalleled beauty. The views were almost too vast to comprehend, too picturesque to feel real. They were literally breathtaking. As we approached a pass connecting the northeastern corner of the mountain to the eastern side, we were exposed to an expansive view to the south. Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood stood clear on the horizon, our path crept for miles ahead through snow patches, rocky ridges, and lush valleys of wildflowers. The air was pulled from my lungs in awe.

Forests no longer made me antsy, rather just the opposite. The long sheltered uphills and downhills laid the best foundation for introspection. They gave me a chance to process the unbelievable vistas from the ridges and to empty my mind of built-up clutter. The trees were gorgeous: thick, coarse, full of life. We chatted a lot, talked about movies, solved riddles, but there was plenty of opportunity for silence and deep breaths. The forest trails were soft on the legs from pine needles, and they became a place for active meditation.

Sunrise from Summerland camp.

On day 7 we camped at White River on the north side of the mountain. This was the same spot my previous group had started for the summit a couple months earlier, and it is a popular car camping area. Seeing so many day hikers and cars was overwhelming. We had very much closed ourselves off from the outside world in the past week, only interacting with each other, the mountain, and a few other groups of hikers. It was only by seeing these hints of society that I realized how simple our hike had been. Each day we would walk, eat, and sleep. Occasionally we would play a game of cards or sing songs. We had no access to the news, the media, text messages or traffic. Only with the pressure of these everyday stimuli lifted did I realize that their weight had been enormous. It doesn’t seem like much to fit one little worry in our minds at a time, but the collective burden of all these small things we think about everyday is enormous.

Same sunrise, other direction.

Losing these distractions had been so easy. They vanished without my realizing that they were gone, and in their place my mind expanded into calm and clarity. Stress was nonexistent. All this clutter in my routine back in society was not making my life better. Rather, it was making it harder to live life consciously, hardly to appreciate small joys, and harder to be honest and playful in my interactions.

So much depth.

One of the benefits of traveling with a group that I hadn’t experienced on my solo hikes was this access to playfulness. With so little stress and such simplicity in our day to day lives, playfulness and joy moved closer to to surface of our interactions. We spent lunches laughing to the point of tears, something I rarely approach in my city life. Our conversations could be serious and playful and the same time; sarcasm and irony melted away. Our time was full of joy, and our relationships grew much stronger because of it.

We covered a lot of mileage on the last couple days of our trip, and were treated to some of the best views we’d had. I was glad to have a chance to process some of the thoughts that had come up during our brief encounter with the outside world. I resolved to take some concrete steps to living closer to simplicity at home, such as incorporating yoga and meditation into my daily routine and giving away some of the physical clutter in my apartment. I also realized that creating more access to joy and play will likely be a theme throughout my life, and that a trip like this does wonders for reinvigorating those ideals.

Made it!

By the last day of the trip we were surrounded by day hikers and cars for large periods at a time, but we had come to terms with our reintegration into society. It was terrific to see that so many families and children were enjoying the beauty of the National Park.

My favorite.

We stopped at a diner for some greasy dinner on the way home, and realized that we hadn’t stepped indoors, sat in chairs, showered, or been in a car for ten days straight. No wonder our bodies and minds felt so good.

Taking the Plunge

Last week I gave notice at my job. It was a good job in an industry I had been excited about. It paid well and had all sorts of perks like subsidized bus pass, health insurance, and unlimited free coffee and Advil. Something wasn’t working for me, though, and after a good deal of confusion and mental processing, I decided to leave. I have a plan.

I have come to similar moments in my life before. I usually feel a need to explore and expand after I finish a big thing – college, grad school, internships. These moments are wonderful. I find new passions, meet new people, stretch my comfort zone, and learn a little bit (or a lot) about life and myself. I tend to wander a bit and eventually find a mold of a life that I want to lead next.

This time is a little bit different, though. For the first time, I am initiating the transition from within. I am not finishing a conveniently timed graduate program, but rather taking a plunge and creating a life shaped around my own values and passions. I want to build the mold myself, and make it out of something that is pliable over time. I’m taking a big step into the unknown, and I’m excited about every part of it.

Here is what I want to do. I want to live a life where I have control and freedom. I want to create things that are valuable to me, and I want to learn how to deliver those things to other people who value them as well. Maybe at some point there will be money exchanged; that will be part of the learning process. I want to explore and share my experiences. I want to live fully and courageously. And I think that I am creative enough and smart enough and disciplined enough to make it work. Or maybe just stupid enough to try.

I am going to start with art and music and writing. I have dabbled in these creative pursuits my whole life, but I have never dedicated myself to them completely. I’m pretty sure that dedication is the only way to actually make them work. I’ve got some money saved up from working at desks and on construction sites, and I have about as much spatial and temporal flexibility as I’m ever likely to have again. So now is the time. I’ve always been curious about delving into these creative endeavors, and I feel like I won’t be satisfied until I’ve tried and know that it works or doesn’t work or isn’t for me. Or that it is a hard way to make a life, but is nonetheless exactly what I want to be doing.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Suggestions welcome.