Well, Another year has come to an end, along with another decade. Now we’re looking square into the face of a new decade, the 2020’s.
This is a special year for me, and full of symbolism to boot. They say hindsight is 2020, and as the new year unfurls its sails, I’ve done my share of looking back on what has been and what was to have been but has not materialized over the past months and years of my life. Suffice it to say, regrets, I’ve had a few.
But 2020 also connotes perfect vision, clarity and focus. Ultimately this is the quality I wish to imbue on this, my most important year ever. More on that in a minute.
I never intended to write this blog to emulate the content churned out by the cult of personality and social influencers that tout conquering the world, mastering health, ecommerce and spiritual well-being all in one foul swoop. I won’t deny the attraction of such content, and it’s become a huge industry on its own: Extend your life with keto. Make it big in ecommerce. Build the ultimate physique with this 8 minute HIIT workout. Attain ultimate freedom through self-discipline. Become a social media influencer by creating viral posts. Work less and earn more passive income as you travel the world inspiring people, being the best parent and finding the true meaning of life. Tim Ferris, Joe Rogan, Marie Kondo, Jocko Willink, Tony Robbins, Pat Flynn, John Lee Dumas, they all have things dialed in. They seem to have it figured out. They have what we want. They have what I want. Heck, I want all the things I laid out above – money, freedom, discipline, influence, wisdom, great parenting skill, perfect health, the life of my dreams.
But there’s just one thing. I don’t have all of that. I’m not them. I’m a loser. I fail. I say all the things I wanna do and be, but usually, after the initial enthusiasm wears off, I just end up – me. No money, struggling with my weight, stressed out at work, sometimes even feeling like I’m failing at the thing that I love the most – being a parent. I can already see some of the qualities I’ve wished I could vanquish in myself appearing in my young son. I want him to be better than me but – well you can see the quandary.
This perhaps overly pessimistic interpretation of myself and my life illustrates the biggest problem I have with the legion of self-improvement /motivational personalities who profit – to the tune of a billion-dollar industry - from our desire to be better than what we are. They ignore to a large extent just that glaring fact: ultimately they achieved what they did not simply because they implemented methods that they can now offer to us and thereby we can simply and easily boost our lives to new levels of success and happiness. No. They achieved what they did mostly because they are who they are. They had the programming, the drive to become what they would, and though the methods or systems they discovered may have affected the course of their particular river, it was always a fait accompli that their river would reach the ocean someday.
We are made different. We have different qualities and capacities, doled out by natural selection in the form of DNA, and while we can direct our lives – I’m not completely fatalistic – we will always have certain tendencies. We’ll always find ourselves wanting to revert to a certain mean. We’ll never stamp out our worst traits completely. Otherwise we’d all be “crushing it”.
The good news? The world needs us non world beaters. Without us everyone would be average.We validate the uniqueness of humans. The quirks, the faults, the shortcomings, collectively fill a lot of valuable real estate in the affairs of humanity, providing unexpected solutions, catering to unimagined needs. Take for example my friend Kevin. He was never interested in books, and he struggled as a student. He was patient, steady, simple. He barely made it out of high school. But he’s one of the best welders around, and he enjoys it. He’s worked for the same company for almost 30 years now, earns good money and benefits, gets off work early and enjoys a pint of beer at the pub. Simple life. Happy life. The point? The world needs welders. For now. The "How to cope with automation" article is coming later!
So lets get back to the point: this blog is not for the aspiring world beaters. I mean, they’re welcome too, but there are plenty of gurus for them. How about the rest of us? The homebody army of unmotivated, socially awkward over-eaters who have consistently fallen short of the lofty ideals modern connected society has erected for us to make us feel bad? Well, this blog is for YOU! We are going to be better, get better, live better, in 2020. However we’re not going to feel bad about what we are. We’re going to tackle the little things that we can within our imperfect frameworks. And we're going to look forward with a clear view to what matters to US. Not THEM. US.
Here’s where we get back to 2020. Where it forced me to look back, to feel bad, to regret, it also crystallized some things for me. The ringing in of this year spurred me to get all that self-loathing out of my system and to see myself clearly, honestly, and finally, sympathetically. I have a lot of good qualities. I have a lot of bad qualities. I am who I am. So let’s look forward with acceptance of who we are, and an eye to making the kinds of small changes in our habits that can have the maximum beneficial impact on our lives.
- Know yourself and what you want. Accept yourself. Love yourself. But know that you can be a better version of yourself. And for God’s sake, know what success means to you! Be realistic, we’re not all meant to be billionaires or Nobel Peace Prize winners. What is the life YOU could feel satisfied with? That’s your success.
- Do an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, and what aspects of your life are most negatively impacted by your unique imperfections. Are you lazy? Are you impulsive? Addictive? Paranoid? Timid? Too conservative? Petty? Envious? Selfish? Lacking in confidence?
- Determine what small changes you can make to give you maximum positive effect. Envision a new habit that you could start with minimum time, effort and disruption to your current lifestyle and schedule.
- Implement them one at a time, and don’t add a new habit until you’ve established the previous one. If you can’t keep something going for 3 months, it’s not a habit yet. Keep it going! If you stop, start again!
- After 3 months, measure the effect of the habit you’ve changed. Do you feel better? Has it been worth it? If so, take the time to reflect on that, appreciate it, celebrate it! Be proud of yourself. But not too proud. What’s next?
Oh, why is this year such a big deal for me? Well, I’m hitting a big milestone this year. One that I’ve tried to ignore, and hide from everyone where possible. Big birthday. Huge. That’s all I gotta say about that. Suffice it to say I’m motivated to optimize some things in my life.
Here’s an example from project me:
- Know yourself and what you want: As described above, I went through this process entering this my most momentous of years. I have swung from loving to hating to loving myself again, but one constant has been introspection and the desire to be better than I am. It’s hard to keep that feeling of “I know I can be better than I’ve been” without it spilling over to self-loathing. So, accepting – and forcing others to accept – that I am fundamentally what I’m going to be, and being ok with that, is crucial. Small improvements, baby steps, refinements are all I’m looking to accomplish. Phew. I can feel the load lightening, can you?
So, given that to some extent I yam what i yam, what’s my success? What’s the life that I can be satisfied with? Well it goes something like this:
- I don’t need riches. I only need enough money to live and save without worry – and I want an income stream to pass on to my son when the time comes. He’s 6 now, and I can’t wait for us to be partners someday. Hope he agrees! I have a regular office job now, but I’m looking beyond, to my permanent “unretirement”, the period when I’m living my ideal lifestyle of earning income on my own schedule. Two income streams, one active, that I’ll have to show up for, and one passive, that I can automate as much as possible.
- Time. This is the priceless gem that we all should make the crown jewel of our lives’ aspirations. Unlike money, we can’t compound it, we can’t hoard it, save it for a rainy day. It just drips, drips, drips away - and if we don’t cherish it, poof! It’s gone. Of course the best way to expand our time is to expand our freedom to choose how we spend it, reducing the hours we need to exchange for dollars, reducing the hours we need to spend cleaning and maintaining our “stuff”. You need to decide what the optimal use of your time is, but for me it’s simple – I want to spend as much time as possible with my kid and my family. This growing up period is irretrievable. I need to be there for as much of it as possible. I need for him to remember that too, even after I’m gone. And of course, I need some alone time with my favorite person – myself! There’s something to be said for a few hours of complete independent freedom every week. Some people live that way by default, but that’s not my ideal. I just need to feel that unfettered, unmonitored freedom enough to not forget it. That’s purity of experience, essential living. So how should MY time be allocated, given my wants and needs? A typical day might require:
- 4 hours dedicated to maintaining and perhaps increasing my income streams. That’s less than half of what I spend now, and what we’ve been conditioned to expect – but I think it’s achievable. Living in a place where meals are relatively cheap and one can get around without a car are huge benefits in that respect.
- 2 hours per day for cleaning, laundry, personal care and maintaining my living space seems reasonable. I’d include exercise here, as I think it should be consider one of those fundamental housekeeping activities that you don’t even question – like showering or brushing your teeth. I’ll explain why below.
Another 4 hours of quality time with my son – heck, it’s all quality time...you just need to be there and be present, you don’t have to be perfect. Cooking dinner, shower time, checking homework, and play. That’s my typical evening, and by the time I get him to bed, I’m spent too. ZZZ.
So there’s 10 hours of getting stuff done in my self-styled day. That leaves 8 hours for sleep and (dare I dream?) 6 hours of…freedom! Freedom to choose, time to spend however I’d like! Writing, flying a kite, reading a book in a coffee shop, taking a class.
Well I’d consider my life a success if I could attain these humble goals. I wonder what’s held me back from achieving this a long time ago? Oh ya. It’s me. What are your goals? Are they realistic for you?
- This can be tough, but it’s necessary if you want to move forward and increase your level of life satisfaction. What are the things about me that cause the greatest harm to my well-being, or pose the biggest obstacles to my success? I’m not lazy, but I’m scattered, unfocused, forgetful and easily distracted. The effect is the same – my life is an unproductive mess. This is the biggest issue preventing my progress towards my life goals.
I am overly sensitive and emotional. I attribute too much meaning to the actions of others, and direct that meaning back to myself. Incessant questioning of motives, self-reflection about blame and the resulting guilt and anxiety – this is not conducive to productivity either.
Strengths? I’m passionate, open-minded, creative, and fundamentally optimistic. I’m a mediator. I’m logical. I’m loving.
How can I use this information? Well, as stated this is not a blog about how to be a world beater. It’s about how to keep moving forward and make ourselves, our live a little better, a little closer to our happy state. So assessing ourselves honestly can give us a realistic idea of what small changes are within us. For example, my unfocused nature requires I set things up as simply and clearly as possible – reduce complexity.
Here’s where the real fun starts! I had to ask myself, what’s the first small change I can make to kickstart my success train? I’ve decided it’s exercise. Although eating is the main factor for weight control, which in turn affects overall health, exercise for me creates a cascade of effects that I hope will catalyze future gains. First, it helps to alleviate stress and anxiety in a healthier and more effective way than any other method, it improves health, energy levels, vitality, confidence, and sleep quality. I need help in all areas, so this is an easy pick for habit changes to commit to.
I either wake up 20-30 min earlier than normal, or, failing that, in the evening after work - and go for a jog around the university campus near my home. It’s only about 2 miles, takes 20 minutes out of my schedule. And it is already making a world of difference for me. It’s not like I’ve never exercised before, but being a chaotic individual careening between optimal and car wreck for most of my life meant getting way our of shape, then devising an intense workout system to get myself back to fitness again.
That approach allowed me to lose almost 50 pounds in 3 months – on multiple occasions. But it wasn’t easily sustainable, and I got…distracted.
So now I’m re-setting my baseline to something I can commit to long-term - better basic health. I feel less anxious, more positive, my recently crappy sleep quality is improving. Almost 1 month into 2020, I’m feeling better. Now to keep it going for a few more weeks before I commit to my next small change.
What’s one small habit you can change or adopt that you think would give you the best impact!
-Illustrations by Charlotte Shen