Year in (P)review: Reflecting on This Year and the Next

A year in review, a year in preview. I’m gearing up to do this in the next couple weeks, and I hope you’ll find a chance to do so as well. The basic idea: take some time at the end of the year to reflect on the year gone by, and to set some intentions for the year to come. Maybe people do a version of this by having a New Year’s resolution, but I’m talking about a much more in-depth thing. Not just coming up with one item for a to-do list as you clink glasses on New Year’s Eve.

Instead, it’s a drawn-out process involving substantial reflection and introspection from a variety of angles. It can involve movement, meditation, long walks, bubble baths, sitting by a fire. Activities that turn us inward and allow us the opportunity to be quiet with ourselves. Sans smartphone.

I like to start with the year gone by. It can help to organize the internal conversation by asking some questions. Start simple. What happened this year? What were some of the big events? What were some of the small events that made a big impact? What was the overall feeling in the year, and how did that evolve?

Then, we can get into more substance. It helps if you went through this reflection process a year ago as well, but it’s by no means necessary. What was I hoping for this year? Did I move closer to that goal? Did I realize I needed to pivot those intentions? What worked? What didn’t? As Bob Ross said, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” No need to think of the things that didn’t work as failures. They are places for growth and learning.

But we do need to get into them. We won’t gain much from our failures unless we allow ourselves to examine them. If we repress, we lose the lesson and build up future pain. What would I have liked to have done more? Done less? What was valuable to my life as a whole? What took a lot of time, but proved not to be valuable? Again, no judgement against the self, we just recognize these things.

Asking these questions allows us to get a deeper impression of the year. We can begin to ask some less tangible questions. What brought me joy? What did I love? Who were the most important people in my life? What can I do to express that to them, to show gratitude to them? How can I show those same qualities to myself?

There are unlimited questions we could ask ourselves about the year gone by, and it is valuable to come up with a few yourself, based on what’s important to you. At a certain point it is time to transition from the year gone by to the year to come. I’ll try to take at least a day for each. Not necessarily sitting at a journal all day, but having that intention for the day. Bringing it with me to yoga class, to the coffee shop.

The year to come represents enormous opportunity. One could argue that the transition to the new year is purely theoretical and arbitrary. Sure, I agree. The solstice is Tuesday, New years is in a week and a half. There are all sorts of other landmarks around this season that can be used. But regardless of what is arbitrary or true, the idea of transition and new beginnings can be very effective for bringing in new energy to our lives.

Imagine: if you wanted to, you could change everything in your life in just a matter of the next few weeks. If you are out of shape and overweight, you could start on the path of health and fitness by exercising every day. You could make that part of your life and your routine, part of who you are. You can start a new hobby, a new craft, and eventually make that into your life’s work. Never done much art? You could start painting every day, again making that part of who you are, and by the end of the year you would have enough talent and work to begin to sell art in a real way. These things won’t necessarily be easy, but they are achievable.

Or the changes could be much more modest. You could spend substantially more time with your family, your kids. You could cut out habits, get away from screens and pocket vibrations. You could start jogging regularly or learning how to throw pottery. All these take a strong will and a set of powerful intentions. They take more than a half-hearted New Year’s resolution. But New Year’s is still a great time to do them.

As we begin to look forward, we need to keep in mind the reflection we’ve done on the past year. Frame the questions in a similar way. What do I want to do? What big events would I like to accomplish? Any travel? What are some small things I could do that might make a big difference?

And get bigger: How do I want to live? What are going to be the main focuses of my energy? Who do I want to share my life and my love with? What one thing would I do every single day, if I could? What do I want to create? How do I want to grow as a person?

If you’d like, come up with a word for the year to come. Something that embodies the values and intentions you’d like to live.

There is reason to be optimistic. We have the power to create our own lives. Even with the complications and guidelines put on us by society, we always have the opportunity to choose how we respond to the world. We can create an internal state that is resonant with our values and with the people we love.

I encourage you to give it a try. Even if it’s just an hour sitting down with a notepad for the past year and one for the next, this exercise has enormous potential. The days are nearly the shortest they’ll be all year, and this is a natural time for reflection. Treat yourself, and have some fun with it!

Writing, Act 2: Back in the Habit

These words aren’t going to be perfectly laid out, and I’m okay with that. Actually, that’s kind of the point. Here’s the deal (there’s always a deal): last winter I got into this amazing habit of writing 1,000 words everyday, rain or shine, in sickness or health, where ever in the world, or in Portland, I was at the time.

Sometime around March or April, I fell out of the habit. But not before finishing the first draft on an entire book and drafts on several shorter eBooks. One of those has since become an actual virtual thing: Kickstart Your Home Meditation Practice. I haven’t put much love into my full book since then, but I’m planning to kick off draft two this winter.

But more importantly, I’m committing to get back in the writing habit. Okay, fine, I commit to things like this all the time, and they don’t always stick. I hope this one does. In fact, I would love to have some accountability partners on this one to get it going again. Let me know if you’re interested.

So what got me back to thinking about this? I found this reddit post. Classic. It’s a nice description of what my work could look like right now if I had kept up the practice all these months. Hundreds of thousands of words. That’s an immense amount of practice. Sure, most of them wouldn’t be that good, but they do gradually get better and better.

This reminds me of a rather cheesy self-help book I’ve read, The Slight Edge. Let me sum up 150 pages for you in a few sentences: The only way to work on big things is little by little. If we do a little bit to reach our goals every day, we’re bound to get there. If we improve our life by a tiny amount each day, before long we’ll be realizing our greatest dreams.

Cheesy, but absolutely true. The reason we don’t often see these dreams realized is because we stop working on them. We allow ourselves to slightly decline each day, rather than growing. I have to say, it feels like that’s the direction I’ve been going over the past couple months. Wasting time, not keeping up with the things I do care about like writing, running, yoga, and art.

Do you want to be an artist? Do art every day and at some point you’ll have created so much art that some of it is bound to be good. You’ll gradually amass so much practice and experience that more and more of it will be profound and meaningful.

Do you want to be a yoga teacher? Do yoga everyday. I’ve done it, and it’s amazing. After three months of daily practice, you’ll be more than prepared for a Yoga Teacher Training. To be a good yoga teacher, at that point you’ll also have to add teaching every day (or close to it).

Do you want to be a writer? Well you’re probably getting the point here. Last year when I was writing 1,000 words every day, I started to feel like a writer. I started to say that I was a writer. I started to believe it. Now that I’ve let the practice languish, it feels less true. My LinkedIn page still lists it as a primary occupation, but my heart hasn’t been in it. The practice hasn’t been there.

So I’m back on it. Here’s the reality of writing 1,000 words. It takes between 30 and 60 minutes, unless you allow yourself to really get stuck on some wording or a specific idea. Sometimes the last couple hundred words feel hard to get out. But if you allow yourself to flow, eliminate other distractions, and just let your fingers type away, it happens fast and painlessly. It becomes wonderful and (often) easy.

And it adds up. Standard book-length is about 50,000 words. Taken as a whole, that feels insurmountable. Taken in 1,000 word chunks, in 30- to 60-minute increments, it’s less than two months of work for a first draft. That’s six books a year. From there, a whole other world of challenges opens up, but getting that draft done feels amazing. They might not be masterpieces. They might need a ton of work to even be readable, but they are all fantastic practice.

This is what I did last winter, and it’s my plan moving forward. I’m not sure if the writing will take the form of another book, or some shorter guides, or what. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to write so many words that I’ll be able to fill whatever kinds of pages I want.

A quick word on comparison. Ira Glass has some beautiful words on this. If we allow ourselves to compare our work to existing, published, vetted work by established authors, artists, etc, etc, we’ll become too discouraged to even start. That’s because our work is not going to be good. Their work is already great. And as Ira says, those masterpieces shaped our taste, so we know that our work is bad in comparison.

Guess what. That novel you read and loved that seemed so well put together, with such lovely language? That took a LONG time to make. It took so many drafts and revisions. Dozens, even. Literally written and rewritten over and over and over and over and over again. Years in the making. And it wasn’t only the author who did it. The agent helped, the editor helped, the test-readers helped. It was tried out and changed, and probably looks very little like the first draft from whence it came.

So be gentle! I know I need to do this. Not all my writing will be great. Some of it will be awful. That’s a great place to experiment. If it’s already bad, going off the deep end can’t make it much worse, right? Picasso produced more than 50,000 pieces of art. I guarantee they aren’t all good. And if you or I produced 50,000 pieces of art or writing or anything else, I also guarantee that some of them would be amazing. The trick is actually sitting down and doing it, every day.

The Inner Self vs. The Outer Self

Yesterday I listened to a podcast while painting a bathroom. This is the great thing about podcasts — they make you want to write blog posts. This particular one was “On Being” with Krista Tippett, and for the bathroom-painting episode, she was interviewing Seth Godin, who is hugely popular in certain internet circles, especially for his ideas and writing about authentic marketing.

Seth and Krista were chatting about how to get your message out, and who to connect to, and what makes that connection meaningful. If you want to know all the details about this, I recommend listening yourself. The super boiled-down version that I took away was: it’s not about how many people you connect to. It’s much more about connecting with the right people, with your tribe, and feeling part of that community.

This is not a new idea for me. I doubt Seth invented it (if he did, bravo!), but it’s at this point it’s widely dispersed on the web, and I’ve even written around the idea before. But something clicked for me this time. An analogy, or parallel, or metaphor (oh, the power of metaphor!), that I’ve experienced personally with the disconnect between the inner self and outer self.

Basically this: so often, we do work because we’re good at it, or because we think more people will like it, or like us. I do this all the time. All the time. And on the surface, it’s useful. It makes it easier for people to like us, it makes us relatable. These are great things! They contribute to meaningful relationships. But this bending of ourselves also has negative aspects to it. Over the long-term, it wears us down. It keeps us from intimately knowing our deeper selves. It allows us to repress things we don’t think will mesh well with everybody else, and I would argue, from developing a strong sense of character.

And for me, sometimes I do feel like I lack character. I worry that I’m boring. That by being some kind of meditation/mindfulness guide, I’m not supposed to have strong opinions about things, or at least not express those feelings. I love guiding meditation and leading mindfulness workshops, but I worry that I give the impression of being chill and passive all the time. Don’t worry friends, I am not always chill and passive!

Here are some things about me that are not encompassed by this mindful/deliberate internet persona I’ve somewhat intentionally created:

  • I love long, intellectual novels. Infinite Jest is my favorite book even though everyone says it’s pretentious. Anna Karenina and War and Peace are tied as my favorite Tolstoy novels, and I think Proust is a baller.
  • I’m often pretentious and arrogant. I think I’m right about a lot of things, even though I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself I’m not right about everything.
  • I’m a huge fan of Bernie Sanders, and consider myself to be a socialist. I think capitalism is evil, and exploits humanity’s most base tendencies.
  • Sometimes I care a lot about money and capitalism.
  • I don’t meditate everyday, and sometimes I go weeks without doing it at all. I do notice a difference in my life (things aren’t as good) when I’m not meditating regularly, but that isn’t necessarily enough to get me to get back in the routine.
  • I exercise a LOT (ideally twice a day), and believe that that is the number one most important thing we can do for our mental and physical health. Way more than meditating.
  • I keep meaning to see a therapist, but keep avoiding it.
  • I like getting absorbed in board games, and I’m good at them. Some combination of being competitive and good at math.
  • I’m good at math.

As you can see, this is kind of a silly list and the things are not a big deal. I doubt any of them are going to cause me to lose my “tribe.”

So, let me pose a question. What are the things about you that you repress, or don’t like to bring into the public eye? Why is that? Is that something you want to change? It’s not necessary to do so, but I think it’s a good thing to acknowledge and be aware of. There’s the mindfulness coach talking again…

Crisis of Values vs. Crisis of Inspiration

When embarking on any great endeavor, there will always be setbacks and doubts. Whether it’s traveling, a new job, moving across the country, or following our dreams, there will be moments when things don’t feel right.

I’ve experienced this over and over again this past winter and spring. First, with writing a book. “Is this worth doing?” “Am I ever going to finish?” “What am I doing with myself??” Etc. And again later on with starting my business. “Is this a valuable creation?” “Will people pay for mindfulness training?” “What does this mean about who I am?” I still feel it sometimes.

When the doubt really gets going, it can start to feel like a crisis. Everything feels wrong, and we begin to question what we’re doing with our time and our lives. Have you ever felt this way? I’m guessing you have.

In my experience, this self-doubt is a result of one of two separate things: either a crisis of values, or a crisis of inspiration. They both feel really bad. Bad enough to derail a major project, even if it’s almost completed. But they mean different things and should be treated differently, so we have to be able to differentiate them.

The crisis of values happens when we begin to realize that we’ve changed, or our work has changed, and what we’re doing no longer aligns with who we are and what we believe in. This is a deep, existential struggle, and it demands a full shift of perspective to be able to see clearly.

We may need to redefine the values in our lives, to regain a sense of ourselves through conversations with loved ones and old friends, or perhaps to take a long trip to clear our heads and get some distance from the day-to-day. I experienced this a few years ago when I decided to leave my office job to pursue writing and art, and eventually yoga and meditation.

The second is a crisis of inspiration. This typically happens when things are hard or moving slowly. Perhaps there is no end in sight for a particular project. Things may feel stagnant despite the constant slow churn of effort.

This can happen at a traditional job, but I’ve experienced it more with big personal projects. They are ideas I still strongly believe in, creations I want badly to bring into the world, but I’m tired of them. They feel like Sisyphean tasks. The projects have demanded a huge amount from me, but are not yet bearing fruit.

This crisis does not require the major life-altering decisions to fix. It may demand a shift of perspective or a reinvigoration of values. Most of all it demands inspiration. This can come from an outside source, or it can come from inside.

External sources such as friends, personal development blogs, and books on the subject are all excellent places to start. Getting back to the important parts of life can also do great things: exercising, spending time with friends and loved ones, cleaning the house, finishing up some other lingering projects.

The thing to avoid, however, is mistaking one crisis for the other. If we treat a crisis of values as we would a crisis of inspiration, we’ll find ourselves continually trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. It just won’t fit. Best case scenario, we’ll eventually realize that and treat it for what it is. Less-best case, we’ll build up lots of resentment and eventually something will break.

The other situation is more dangerous. If we treat a crisis of inspiration as a crisis of values, we may end up abandoning a cherished project, job, or business too soon. We may not give it time to grow and be nurtured, to truly come into its own. If I had a nickel for every book half-written and every business idea abandoned, I would need to rent storage space to store all my nickels. Paying nickels to store nickels does not sound like an awesome business strategy, so I would rather avoid this.

Next time you’re feeling doubt about a big project, take a step back and ask yourself what you need the most. To change your whole life? Or to find new sources of inspiration?

Surfing the web

Don’t Read This! Delving into the World of Non-Promotion

I’ve been experiencing a disconnect between my work and my intentions lately. I love writing, and I try to write about topics that are important and relevant. I love it when people read, reflect on, and respond to my work. But I’ve been getting an unsettling feeling when I browse content on the internet, and I’m afraid I’m contributing to the problem. That I’m just another piece of media to be consumed in a binge of time-wasting and procrastination.

Basically, internet content tries to be as attention-grabbing and click-baiting as it possibly can. We’ve all seen them: “Ten Shocking Recipes You Can’t Live Without.” “This One Surprising Fact Will Transform Your Sex Life.” “Clicking On This Blog Post Will Make Your Life Unbearably Good And Happy.” This is all bullshit. And it’s the way the internet works now. Advertisers have poured money into figuring out how to get people to click, because clicks are money (Somehow this is true. I still don’t fully understand why this is, as I’ve bought a totally about about ten things on the internet ever. I guess I’m a bad example of consumption).

For a writer, clicks and likes and followers are how you show a publisher that you’re a good bet for selling a book. You have to be a master of social media and marketing in order to get your word out. Nowadays, writers have to do most of their own marketing unless they’re already a huge name. I’ve been dipping my toes into this world over the last few months since finishing writing my book, and it doesn’t feel good.

I believe that paying attention to social media and marketing is exactly the OPPOSITE of how we should live. It is the greatest time-suck of our generation. Scrolling through Facebook updates and shares, following chains of click-bait ads, watching videos that do nada to enrich our lives, consuming, consuming, consuming. I would love for people to be excited about my writing, but I have no interest in shoving it in their faces or jamming their already-overfull inboxes.

This makes my work pretty much un-findable on the internet unless you already know me. And now harder to find even if you do — posting on Facebook has become effective for getting the word out only if you’re willing to pay for it, which I firmly am not.

This is the paradox of creating something which is by nature opposed to the structures that allow it to exist. There are good things about the internet, but by and large I believe it is making us less happy. It is diminishing our personal relationships, reducing our concentration and presence-of-mind, and basically allowing us to waste away in a sea of anti-social media. Online banking is great. Using Facebook makes us unhappy. (Don’t click that link! I just put it there to verify that I didn’t make it up! It’ll waste your time!)

I could start a list of email subscribers. This is one of the top suggestions for how to grow and monetize a blog. Maybe some of you would even appreciate if my writing would come to your inbox instead of being posted on an obscure personal website out in the ether. Publishers would certainly love to see that I have a large list of subscribers who might potentially be interested in buying my book.

But I don’t want you to spend time sifting through emails. I don’t even want you to read these posts if the alternative is something that allows you to grow: going for a walk outside, being with friends, cooking a meal with loved ones, reflecting on life, or going to a yoga class. I want you to take action! To find your own happiness! To create beautiful things.

So it will continue to be hard to find my work. I probably won’t be appealing to a publisher. I’m going to keep writing because I love it. Maybe I can perfect the subtle art of non-promotion and find a way to barely support myself with it. Maybe people will find my work when they need it, and use it to inspire a burst of creativity, or to get over a plateau in life or work. But I would so much rather that you take action in your life than waste time skimming through loads of internet articles that are designed specifically to grab as much of your attention as they can at the lowest investment to the producer.

And at the same time (ah! The Paradox!), I would love for you to share my work with someone you think might benefit from it. I do want people to be able to access my writing if they are getting something out of it. What I’m ultimately asking is that you’ll browse responsibly. That when you find an article you like (mine or not), you’ll read the whole thing without getting distracted by the other million things to do and look at, and that when you’re done, you’ll close your browser and go out and take action on what you’ve read.

Unless you’re stuck in a cubicle all day — then feel free to click away. JUST KIDDING! I hope you have a job you care about and value deeply. Don’t be a robot.