As of a few days ago, I’ve been on this earth for thirty-five years. The math is stunning — 12,775 days, 306,600 hours. The logic of the numbers doesn’t disguise the bittersweet. My body is tingling with fear and excitement and loss. There is no way to know what percent of that time was spent doing things I loved, felt obligated to do, or were necessary. Those ticks on the clock matter, and they cannot be re-spent. Perhaps they can be made more meaningful by reflection in hopes of coming to a deeper understanding of their meaning.
All those days on earth have given me a little perspective. And when I say a little, I mean a little. Every day I realize that there is more that I don’t know than I do. As with each thing I “know,” I don’t always follow my own advice. Each day some things slide into focus while others fall to the side. Here are a few things that I’ve learned over the past three and half decades:
- The process is the product. I struggle with perfectionism, wanting what I create to be great. Slowly I’m coming to the realization that it is more about the process than it is the product. The act of creating, making, writing is what I seek. When I don’t get caught up in the result before I start, I make better things. And the outcome is not as important as the journey. The freedom of creating. The escape of the ordinary. The expanse of possibilities. It’s okay for your hobbies to not be productive. Not ending up with a perfect product doesn’t mean you wasted your time. Every day I try to remember this. I like what Ira Glass has to say about the creative process.
- Don’t pay for things you hate, with money or time. What awakened me to this realization was a bad brazilian. It wasn’t even that bad relative to what a brazilian is. It was just coming to the realization that it is never enjoyable to get a brazilian. Not only is it something I don’t look forward to, it’s something I dread. And it’s time consuming — lord knows I was driving all over the city to go to the cheapest place to get hair ripped out of my vagina by the roots. And it lasts for days, weeks at best. Isn’t bush back, anyway? And the body hair removal industry has a history of racism, misogyny, and perpetuating self-hatred. While this is a long-winded example of something I paid for in time and money that I didn’t like, there are many more examples. Food you don’t like, anything from the diet industry, spending time with people who don’t fill your cup, etc.
- Follow your fear. What you’re scared of is what you’re drawn to. It’s something calling to you. Not all fear, but the good stuff. The fear that is purpose-driven, the type of fear that propels us to go after an idea. If I’m scared of something, I know it means something to me. Often I find I’m more afraid of not doing that thing, or failing at doing that thing, than the actual thing itself. Growth is in discomfort.
- Use envy as a tool. It’s no good to get pulled down into feelings of jealousy and wanting. But, take an analytical look at the people you envy. What do they have in common? What is it that you want that your mind is allowing you to see in someone else? When you dig deep, you can turn your “I wishes” into “I’m going tos.” I envy people with creative jobs, who create things that move people as their living, while traveling and connecting with people. That’s what I need to seek.
- Don’t pursue a challenge that doesn’t pursue your purpose. Oy, this one is difficult for me. I always want the next thing — title, promotion, money. Usually I’m spiralling trying to figure out how to attain that thing before I actively consider if it’s something I truly want. Do my values align with a c-suite title? Maybe, but it’s worth thinking about before hammering out a cover letter. On the other end of the spectrum, pursue challenges that pursue your purpose with your entire being. Let yourself work on projects that fill your soul without worrying about what that work will do for you. It is already doing everything it needs to.
- Turn off notifications on your phone. Because I am addicted to my phone, this one has serious ebb and flow in my life. What I know for certain is that less screen time has a direct correlation to my happiness. Notifications are built to keep you on your phone as much as possible. That red badge icon is maddening — get rid of it from every app. Turn off message notifications, and respond to people when you consciously make time. Doing this reminds you of what’s urgent and what’s important. Urgent does not equal important. When your phone is constantly buzzing, it feels like you need to respond right away. With them off, it’s amazing what falls away. Most things don’t require an instant response. Heck, a lot of things don’t even require a response. As it turns out, not much is truly important and urgent. Turning off notifications makes your phone a tool for you, rather than having you be a slave to it.
- Be a believer, not a cynic. It is easier to tear down than it is to build, but we need builders. For decades, we didn’t believe that running a four-minute mile was possible. Scientists, athletes, and others believed that the human body was incapable of the feat. Then in 1954, Roger Bannister crossed the finish line in 3:59.4. A few months later another runner broke four minutes. Then another. And another. Since then, the mile record has been lowered by almost 17 seconds, and more than 1,400 athletes have crossed the finish line in the “impossible” time. Our beliefs limit our potential. When we believe something to be possible, it enters the realm of reality.
- Think kindly and speak your mind. The way you think about others is the way you think about yourself. If you’re always criticising them, it won’t be long before you are doing the same to yourself. Reframe judgemental thoughts into curious thoughts. Being interested or curious about something usually makes it difficult for me to be angry.
- Create morning and bedtime routines. It took me so many years to recognize the importance of a good night of sleep. I heard phrases like “you can sleep when you’re dead” enough to give me an ulcer. This is about more than sleep, though sleep is a big part of it. Bedtime routines help your brain separate the day from the night. If you have four steps in your bedtime routine, eventually your body will come to expect sleep after step four. It will be ready, and you will be rewarded for your regiment. The reverse is true for the morning. How you get up sets your tone for the day. Create structure for your mind and body by doing the same few things in the same sequence every day. You will feel alert faster. When I’m practicing healthy morning and night time routines, the rest of the day falls into place.
- You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. The people you spend the most time with shape who you are, what you do, and how you see the world. They determine what topics and conversations come into your domain. Eventually you start to think like they think, behave like they behave, believe what they believe. A silver lining of the pandemic is that it is making us evaluate what relationships we miss, and note which ones we truly value. I can see my friends and family in myself, and I can see my perspectives shift when the people around me do. Choose wisely.
- Optimism is contagious. And so important. I’m not talking about that toxic positivity ish, but genuine optimism. Expect things to work in your favour. Let yourself hope and dream, and share those hopes and dreams with people who care for you. Anticipate success, not failure.
- There is always a way. It might not be what you pictured, but almost every problem can be solved. Design thinking exercises are a great way to move forward. Come up with a problem statement — what problem are you actually trying to solve? Then brainstorm as many solutions as you possibly can. This helps to move past the one idea that isn’t working that you’re fixated on. This ideation and resourcefulness is creativity flexing its muscle.
- Talk to strangers. Engaging in casual connections with people we don’t know seems less likely every year, between phones, enhanced privacy, and the pandemic. This is a loss to us. These encounters can be special, if only for a moment. Casual connections help us feel like we belong to a community. Whenever I talk to strangers, they pique my interest. Author of “Consequential Strangers: The Power of People Who Don’t Seem to Matter … But Really Do,” Melinda Blau makes a case for connecting with people outside of our sphere. ”Consequential strangers anchor us in the world and give us a sense of being plugged into something larger. They also enhance and enrich our lives and offer us opportunities for novel experiences and information that is beyond the purview of our inner circles. They are vital social connections — people who help you get through the day and make life more interesting.”
- Make gift giving meaningful. I love buying my friends and family gifts! On the flip side, there is no worse way to spend money (or time!) than sprinting around a mall on December 23. If it is causing you stress, don’t buy something. Buy gifts for people when you think of them, regardless of birthdays or other celebrations. It’s so thoughtful to receive a gift when someone was reminded of you. Gifts are great, when they’re meaningful.
- Talk about real things. Don’t do small talk. Ask questions that you care to hear the answer to. Lord knows we all know what the weather is like. I want to know what interests you, how you’ve been hurt, and what you love to do.
- Art is essential. Consume it every day. Writing, painting, clothing, textiles, design, all of it. Art is the one thing we can consume indefinitely without losing ourselves. You don’t need to go to museums and galleries (though that’s great too) to experience art. See art everywhere.
- Let it go. You will get through this. Depending on the problem at hand, you probably won’t even remember it a few years from now, much less be able to summon the intense feelings of fear, anxiety, or dread you experience in the moment. Think about the will it matter in five years rule. If it won’t, ask yourself why it seems to matter so much right now.
- Don’t play it safe. Often what we think of as playing it safe, isn’t safe at all. If you’re not doing something that you want to be doing, it will eat away at you. I know, we can’t all quit our jobs to read, write, and travel. But when opportunity arises that excites you, try it. Even if the financials don’t run the same, even if that means you can’t have something else.
- Tell people how you feel. And do it often. If you love them, tell them. I often leave a party (damn, remember parties?) calling out “I love you all!” over my shoulder, and I’ve never once regretted it. It may have been inappropriate when I did the same signing off of a video meeting with my colleagues, but I didn’t lose my job. I want the people in my life to know that I love them. Other feelings are a little more difficult for me. For instance, if someone hurts you, it can be important to tell them.
- Other people’s emotions are not your problem. Where are all my people pleasers? Many of us have the feeling that our personal needs are weird and inconvenient to others. Whether we need more time, space, or something else, negative responses to these requests early in life can put us on edge. We feel like we should speak fast to put others at ease, tell them they’ve done well so that they feel good. It’s okay to make people feel good, but you don’t have to if it’s exhausting you. In order to truly honor someone else, it’s better for us to let them feel their emotions in their entirety. Allow them the space to have their own choices, reactions, feelings. It’s okay to feel shitty — for you and people in your life. Instead of constantly trying to fix a situation for someone, I’m trying (and often failing) to just listen.
- Don’t take your phone to bed. It steals creativity and destroys intimacy. Most of us are addicted to our phones. Would you recommend an alcoholic keep a mickey on their nightstand? Hell no.
- Follow your gut. Gut, heart, intuition — whatever you call it, it’s valuable. And if you stop listening to it, you will stop hearing it. Sometimes, you just know. That feeling within your body that tells you something isn’t right / this person isn’t the one / that job isn’t for me / I’m not safe here. Your intuition is your own north star. Trust it, it’s usually right.
- Language is power. This one is its own essay, but I’ll just put a few incohesive sentences together, anyway. The way we use language has major implications in our social interactions, work scenarios, and digital spheres. Online, we can use its power to change buying decisions, perceptions, and algorithms. The content we feed into the world comes back at us tenfold. My rule is to use inclusive language that does (or attempts) no harm. Words that dehumanize people — druggie, trash, slurs — have no place in our vocabulary. Women tend to speak in apologetic tones. I make an ongoing effort to cut out weak words. “I just wanted to check in…” becomes “Is that report finished?” “This seems to be” becomes “This is”. Switch your pronouns. When I first started reading Seth Godin, something stuck with me, though it took me a while to realize what it was. He used sentences like, “When you go to your CMO to ask her for more budget, she’ll want data.” Eventually I realized it was his pronoun usage. Even in hypothetical situations, we don’t often put women in places of power. Watch for it as you’re reading, and try to replace he with she, his with hers, etc.
- No makes way for yes. This one is so hard for me — I’m a yes lady all the way. And saying yes has been good for me, brought me so many opportunities. But, when I say yes to something, I realize now that I’m saying no to something else. Yes to that networking event means no to bedtime with my son. Yes to more work means no to my own writing. The opposite is true. No to that party means yes to creative time.
- Get on the bus. I learned this one working in a fast-paced tech environment. Disagreement and debate was encouraged — we wanted to find the best solution, the best path forward. But once we decided on a plan, we all had to get on the bus. Meaning that if the plan failed, no one could say I told you so. If I’m pushing a vision for a campaign or creative idea at work, I present my argument in the most compelling way I can and try to convince people that this is the best way. But when we choose another direction, I get on the bus.
- Know that you don’t know. It’s boring to be the smartest person in the room anyway! Imagine rounding up the most brilliant doctors of 1800 and asking them how to cure common diseases. Their answers (bloodletting and leeches?) would probably be laughable today. So why do we think the gaps in our knowledge are any smaller? Understanding that there are very few things I understand has helped me be more open to other perspectives.
- Be kind. Always and to everyone. This one got easier for me when I had a baby and realized that everyone was once someone’s baby (mind = blown). Everyone started out as a perfect little nugget, then the world made them who they are. Giving people grace has never made things worse. This should be followed by set boundaries, but I haven’t learned that, yet 😉
- Nobody has it all figured out. I have friends that I look to and think, wow, you’ve got it way more together than me. Like, way more. And they might, but they don’t have it all figured out. We’re all trying to figure out this one beautiful shot at life that we’re given.
- Perfection is boring. We seek it though it’s not attainable, but achieving perfection is perfectly boring. Do you know anyone who is good at everything? Do you like them? We don’t love people despite their vulnerabilities, we love them because of them. When someone allows you to see their shortcomings, failures, and vulnerabilities, we’re more likely to bond and develop feelings of closeness. Insert everything by Brene Brown here.
- Commercials are absurd. Even the good ones. I’ve been in advertising for more than 10 years, and I love a good commercial. But overall, the medium is outdated and ludicrous. It’s rare for me to watch cable TV now, and when I do I pay particularly close attention to the commercials. As I watch each one, I think of how many people had to okay that concept, those visuals, that final product. Some products are more insane than others (Febreeze and pharmaceuticals at the top), but the two minute journey is absurd in itself. Each individual time slot attempts to create a story arc and evoke an emotion. You can find yourself mourning a car accident seconds after laughing at a fast food commercial seconds after being inspired by a Nike ad seconds after experiencing fear from an insurance commercial. What an (unnecessary) emotional toll. There’s no context to the story, no reasoning to the order. As we all move to streaming, brands need to find unintrusive ways to get our attention. That being said, I hope to one day work on a commercial with national reach.
- Done is better than perfect. There will always be critics. Ship it! People will always critique what you do and what you say. Don’t wait until you have something perfect to share it. This article for instance is by no means perfect, not even finished! There is always more you can do, but done is better than perfect. Sometimes I choose a date or time box an activity so that I know I won’t rework it / procrastinate it forever.
- Don’t judge others. Respect their choices, no matter how inconceivable they seem. If you assume you don’t have the answers, this gets way easier. The more embedded I am on a subject, the harder this is. In politics, for example, it’s difficult for me not to dismiss someone’s opinion because I don’t see my values or logic reflected in their views. When I ask questions out of curiosity rather than trying to poke holes in their logic or persuade them, the conversation is way more interesting. Become the learner, not the teacher.
- Develop empathy and understanding around addiction. Addiction affects all of us, either directly or via someone we love. Dismissing it as a series of poor choices isn’t helpful. Gabor Mate’s work has been formative in helping me to understand that all addiction is based in trauma. Compassion and a cognitive understanding of addiction helps reduce shame in ourselves and others, the most harmful of all emotions. When I see an addict, I see their pain. Addiction is defined by preoccupation and relapse. Seeing it in yourself or someone else makes it easier to understand. Continually I’m frustrated by the lack of resources for mental health and addiction. Having a population who understands addiction and is compassionate is the best resource we can offer
- How you do one thing is how you do everything. On weeks when I’m not inspired, I hate this saying. When I’m putting the same load through the washing machine for the third time. Hitting snooze on my alarm. Downing the third coffee that I know will give my anxiety. Checking Instagram again. It comes to mind often, maybe because it’s true. I try (and fail and try and try) to be present in each moment, allowing myself to do a task, be with someone, feel my feelings.
- Connection over consumption, experiences over things. If you can give someone a gift or spend an evening with them, choose the time. Experience a new place or get a new TV, get on the plane. The connection and the experiences are what you will remember. They are the moments you reflect on, the things you look forward to. They are what changes you.
The number 35 is so round and complete looking. When I pictured 35, I didn’t see my life as it is now. It’s better and worse, different and the same, unique and mundane. The things I’ve learned have shaped me, often in retrospect more than the moment. One of the things I know for certain is that you are nothing without the people you love.
I’d love to hear your learnings.