Starting from a small life

The impression I get from people’s descriptions of their lives or careers is that many people (or at least the ones who talk about stuff like this) go for a big goal. They want to influence lots of people. They want to make a big difference. Sometimes it works out really well, but there are plenty of cautionary tales too: people who get what they strove for, but who’ve sacrificed their health, happiness, or relationships along the way.

It seems, based on the prevalence of these cautionary tales, that it’s quite rare to find healthy ambition. This is an assumption, though. Is it true or false? I think it might be false. There are probably lots of examples of people who dream big and have wonderful, happy lives, but they don’t get written about as much. (Something about news and schadenfreude, maybe?)

Anyway, an alternative might be to start small and build a solid foundation along the way. If I look around, I can see lots of good examples of this, although people some are more deliberate about it than others are. Instead of moving towards a specific, large goal that’s a big jump from your current positions, you develop capabilities and gradually expand in interesting directions.

2015-03-06c Growing slowly from a solid foundation -- index card #purpose #influence #success #growth

2015-03-06c Growing slowly from a solid foundation – index card #purpose #influence #success #growth

You start with a solid foundation of self-care. You cultivate a good community around you, and then you grow at a sustainable rate.

I used to have hang-ups about opportunity costs or wasted potential. Now I reason that if I don’t get around to figuring out XYZ because I’m growing too slowly, someone else is probably going to figure it out, or it wasn’t needed anyway.

Another danger, perhaps, is complacency. After all, if you’re growing outwards from a strength or a position of comfort, it’s easy to say: “Why not just stay here a little longer?”

I think it helps to think of some skills or areas you can improve at each stage, since you’ll be making progress on multiple stages all the time anyway. It’s not like you’ll master self-care and then move on to relationships. You learn a little of one, you try a little of another, and you build up different areas gradually.

2015-03-06d What does that progression look like -- index card #growth #success #purpose

2015-03-06d What does that progression look like – index card #growth #success #purpose

For example, I’m pretty happy with my self-care skills of understanding, being happy, learning, and reflecting. If I get better at health, everything gets better too. I’m getting the hang of enjoying vegetables, and I’m back to biking – yay! Similarly, I can practise getting better at thoughtfulness in close relationships, and at asking for help in terms of connecting with a small community. For expanding the communities I’m in, I can practise sharing tips and lessons learned.

Another thought about slow progress: it might be okay even if I’m taking things more slowly than I think other people do (or that a hypothetical Sacha might do). If I’m accelerating, I can do interesting things later on. So, that leads to these questions: Am I accelerating? If so, how?

2015-03-06e Am I accelerating - If so, how -- index card #growth #success #acceleration

2015-03-06e Am I accelerating – If so, how – index card #growth #success #acceleration

Compared to myself from five or ten years ago, I think I’m improving my self-care skills at a faster rate. Learning more about tools for thinking has helped, and I’m picking up life skills too. In terms of close relationships, I’m accelerating in terms of W- and local friends, but not in terms of family and friends in the Philippines. In terms of a tribe or small community, I think Hangouts accelerate things a little, and so does asking questions or thinking things through out loud. In terms of community, I accelerated more over the past few years (experiments with publishing and knowledge management) than I have in the past few months, but there might be ways I can play with that.

Back when I was a whiz kid (probably like most people who were into programming at an early age), I occasionally thought about those fast-growth success stories like 30 Under 30 (or 40 under 40, or Young Presidents’ Organization, or…). There’s something to be said about being on the fast track, demonstrating momentum. The narrative is clear. The goal burns bright. It’s easy to prioritize.

This other path of slow growth and neighbouring possibilities has its own challenges. It’s easy to get distracted and drift. I’m curious if I can do it well, and what I can learn from the process. I imagine that if it plays out beautifully, I’ll have a rich tapestry of a life while being able to trace the threads that connect the different sections. People are great at rationalization, so I can connect the dots going backwards.

In the meantime, looking forward, I imagine that I’ll grow steadily and solidly, with the occasional leap enabled by trust and safety nets, and with a community of people I admire, learn from, and help. I imagine that my impact will grow as I develop my capabilities, so I don’t accidentally end up screwing up thousands of people’s lives or wasting millions of people’s time. It might feel embarrassingly slow at moments (or even most of the time), as I take tiny steps or cover the same ground. But it’s a life, and it might be an interesting one.

If I’m curious about this path, how can I explore it more effectively? I’ve sketched a few areas to focus on, so I can work on those. And then there’s reminding myself that it’s okay to write about the small steps, the lessons learned, the reviews… Let’s see how it works out!


  • Michelle Ockers

    You’ve prompted me to think about the distinction between tribe and community. It feels like you are suggesting that your tribe is a subset of your community – those that you feel closest to and learn the most with / from. It this consistent with how you see it Sacha or is the distinction something different for you?

    For me progression comes in fits and starts, according to my needs and circumstances. Sometimes it’s a slow burn where I focus on one element above others – of course, if I have neglected my self-care (especially my health) that shall reassert itself at some point as a top priority. My focus shifts depending on what is happening around me, what is important at the time, and where opportunities are arising. The more years I live, the more that relationships and connection matter to me. I will be 50 next year (which I find astounding!) and feel that there are many wonderful experiences and insights ahead of me. We should never lose our sense of awe in the world – be it the magnificence of nature, the “everyday” certainties we take for granted in the developed world (Wow – I turn a handle and water comes out of a shower head EVERY TIME – that’s truly amazing), and the ongoing innovation that allows you and I to be connected like this across the globe. Trust your intuition as to what to focus on at any point in time and how slowly or quickly to make progress.

    • Mmm… There’s an entire spectrum, isn’t there? =) At one end, there are people whom I interact with enough so that I can make reasonable mental models of them – what they’re interested in, what perspective they have, how they might respond to different situations. I think of those as close relationships. A subset of those people evoke some kind of active response in me; I’m moved to help them. On the other end of this spectrum, there might be people who drop by my blog once in a while or who contact me through e-mail or social media, and who don’t have much information online. I’m happy to help or share notes, but I don’t have a sense of what else they’re interested in or of our continuing conversation. This is similar to “audience”, I guess, but I don’t like the broadcast-orientation of that word, and I prefer to hope for increasing interaction – hence “community”. In the middle are the people I’ve interacted with a number of times where, say, they have a blog I can subscribe to (so I can keep learning about them) or they’ve shared a lot with me over time so that I can get a better sense of them as a person. I think of these as my tribe – a community I might regularly bump into. Does that make sense to you?

      Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights. =) Yes, indoor plumbing is one of my favourite examples of ordinary amazingness! Also, supermarkets regularly boggle me. =) I mean, I’ve enjoyed these things all my life, but it’s still awesome to think of the complex systems that support them and the people who invented them or continue to make things happen.

      I’m getting even better at following that intuition (even though sometimes it can lead me to embarrassing mistakes) and embracing whatever progress I make, no matter what speed. I’m curious about what life would be like if I got really good at being me (while working on getting even better), instead of getting frustrated by the gap between where I am and where a hypothetical Sacha should be. Seems to be working out wonderfully. =) I really like my closest relationships and I’m enjoying learning more about friendships, although I think the relationships with my parents and sisters still feel a little like something’s not quite sorted out. Room to grow. =)

      Looking forward to sharing this grand adventure!

  • Ryan Rix

    Reminds me a lot of the apprenticeship/journeyman pattern WRT software craftsmanship, but taken in to the whole context of your life. You might enjoy some of the patterns in this book that I’m reading:

    • Oh, that’s an interesting metaphor that I hadn’t considered for this aspect of my life. Thanks! =) You’re right – I’m learning about learning, and what people have learned about apprenticeship (emptying your cup, walking the long road, accurate self-assessment, perpetual learning, and constructing your curriculum) will help me a lot along the way. Thanks for the reading recommendation! Looking forward to reflecting on it and sharing my notes.