Category Archives: life

Learning to live slowly

Sometimes I feel a little duller around the edges, not quite as alert. It’s a little harder to think, to reason. I feel slightly out of focus. I talk more slowly, move more slowly.

And yet, living more slowly, I feel like I live more gracefully as well. None of the sharp jitters when my mind works at its fastest, none of the zigzags and interruptions, none of the words tumbling over themselves in their haste. More meditative.

I know why this is so and I don’t seek to avoid it. The real question is: How can I embrace this state? How can I make the most of it? It is natural, and will only become more so over time.

Coding currently feels better with a sharp mind, but there are still a myriad tasks to do and things to learn even when I don’t feel at my peak. Over time, I’ll learn to code in a reflective state instead of the intense one I carried over from competitions and quick prototyping. I think this will be good for my growth as a developer. After all, speed is not as useful as insight and care.

Reflective writing feels better than rapid writing. I don’t feel brilliant, but I feel methodical: following threads slowly, watching my own thoughts.

Cooking has become something that gives me pleasure. It’s one of those activities that I can indulge in, knowing that I can reliably create value where sometimes writing or coding does not. There are no blocks when it comes to cooking, only the steady slicing of ingredients and the textures and tastes of alchemy.

This slowness is perfect for listening, for talking. When I was younger, I felt an almost physical itch to be elsewhere, to be away, to be within the world of a book or a computer instead of in conversation.

Tidying benefits from deliberate thought. I organized my closet and my drawers by colour, and suddenly the patterns are visible. It takes just as much effort to maintain this order as it would to mess it up, and so I keep it.

Most days, I get very little done. But somehow, looking back over the week, I find that I’ve covered more ground than I thought.

I have the perfect foundation for learning how to live slowly. Few commitments, few expectations. I’ve lived this first part at a speed that other people have found remarkable but also, perhaps, uncomfortable: speaking, reading, coding, enthusiasm. It might be interesting to experiment with the flip side of that: the kind of stillness that the nuns in my grade school carried with them, the calm of late-night relaxed conversations, the serenity of quiet. I think I can translate the things I’ve loved about my faster life. Enthusiasm and delight don’t need to be breathless. The world is frantic enough. Let me learn how to be contagiously restful. =)

Alternatives to sitting meditation: How I clear my mind

The Lifehacker article “Try a Writing Meditation If Sitting Still Isn’t Working For You” reminded me of how I’ve never quite resonated with the popular advice to clear your mind, meditate, and be mindful. When people ask me if I meditate, the word makes me think of doing yoga or sitting zazen or taking deep breaths – none of which I do. Maybe I’ll come around to those ways eventually, but in the meantime, let me share a few of the ways that work for me just in case they might help you too. =)

2015-01-16 Thinking about why I don't meditate -- index card #reason #meditation

2015-01-16 Thinking about why I don’t meditate – index card #reason #meditation

I generally keep my life low-stress. Frugality gives me a buffer from most of life’s financial stressors. Low expectations and personal responsibility make happiness easier. Stoicism helps me focus on what I can control.

I do like relaxing and being more appreciative. Everyday activities like doing the dishes, cuddling cats, spending time with W-, and following my curiosity give me that sense of abundance and fortune. They also help me slow down my thoughts and bump into interesting ideas. This reminds me of the relaxing side of meditation.

As for becoming aware of and addressing my self-talk or my thoughts, writing and drawing do a great job of bringing those thoughts out there so that I can acknowledge them or do something with them. I think this is like the self-awareness side of meditation.

Still, sometimes something perturbs my calm more than I’d like. When I’m miffed at something, that’s really more about me than about something else. It’s a good opportunity to take a look at my thoughts to see where I was lax or mistaken. This is like the clarifying side of meditation.

So I guess I do meditate, but I don’t do it in the stock-photography-meditation sort of way. Here are some other tools I use to shift my mental state:

2015-01-27 Resetting my mental state -- index card #emotions

2015-01-27 Resetting my mental state – index card #emotions

Activities that move my body or my mind make it easy for me to move my thoughts, too. For example, walking gets me breathing fresh air and looking around. Cooking immerses me in tastes and lets me enjoy doing something tangibly productive. Reading takes me inside someone else’s experiences. Helping someone shifts my focus from myself to someone else.

2015-01-25 Walking in High Park -- index card #relax

2015-01-25 Walking in High Park – index card #relax

(In particular, walking to a nearby park will almost certainly result in seeing lots of really happy dogs. There’s something about seeing a dog with a big grin and an even bigger stick.)

What is it that I’m really doing when I choose these activities? I think I’m quieting my brain enough so that I can think with less distraction. Then I can pay attention to the thoughts that I find odd or that I’d like to address, to see if I can resolve them.

In addition to responding to life as it comes, I sometimes think ahead about the way I’d like to respond to life. This is because my life has so far been pretty awesome. I don’t want to take it for granted, and I also don’t want to be blindsided by challenges. From time to time, I think about more difficult situations that I could find myself in so that I can try out different responses. This is the contemplative side of meditation, I think.

2015-01-29 Being okay with unfair -- index card #stoicism

2015-01-29 Being okay with unfair – index card #stoicism

So that’s how I “meditate,” I guess. No relaxing music, no super-deep thoughts. Mostly just everyday activities and the occasional bit of reflection. Seems to be working for me so far. =)

If you don’t meditate with a capital M, what do you enjoy doing instead? =)

Cultivate memories deliberately

How much can we influence the memories that come upon us unexpectedly or the ones that we bring up when we reflect?

Sometimes, in the middle of washing the dishes, I remember standing on a footstool in my mother’s kitchen and washing the dishes there; she’d taught the three of us sisters to handle different stages of the dish-washing assembly line. I can see what prompted that memory. The connection is easy to understand. Other times, I’m not sure what drew me back to a time or place I’d forgotten. Some memories make me smile. Others remind me where I could’ve done better.

I’ve been thinking about long-term happiness, experiences, and memory. I imagine that at eighty or ninety years old, you’d want to have plenty of good memories. What’s worth paying attention to? What’s worth creating experiences for? How can you smooth the edges of rough memories and intensify good ones?

Here are some of my thoughts about the memories I want to cultivate through attention and understanding.

2015-01-31 What's worth remembering -- index card #memory

2015-01-31 What’s worth remembering – index card #memory

I’d like to remember, clearly and distinctly, the things that contribute to happiness: connection, mastery, triumph, little moments of joy. How can we get better at things like that? Paying close attention, and creating the situations where these memories can arise.

I’d like to remember the storms – not to dwell on them, not to feel a victim, but to remember that they’re temporary and that we’ve weathered them in the past. (No Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for me!) I don’t write as much about these (in public, or even in my journals), but that doesn’t mean I don’t think of them from time to time. By not writing about them, though, I miss out on the opportunity to make sense of them, to fit them into a coherent narrative that helps me move forward.

I’d like to remember the things that will help me make better decisions: ideas, assumptions, consequences, lessons learned. Since it can be hard to remember details and one’s mind is often tempted to rewrite things more favourably, writing about these things is a good way to extend my understanding over time.

I have a lot of mental clutter. The time in school I wanted to experiment with fixing a memory with intense clarity, choosing (of all things!) the speckled ceiling to focus on. Many embarrassing moments, like the time a friend teased me for having mispronounced “adolescent” in a moment of inattention. Every moment contains a lesson, but I’m not sure that these lessons are worth the attention my mind gives them. I don’t dwell on these thoughts, but they skitter across my brain from time to time. It would be good to be able to acknowledge them and their underlying thoughts, and then put them on a mental shelf. Then, when they escape, I can say, “Oh, hello again! Do you have anything to add? No? Back you go.”

2015-01-18 Narratives -- index card #storytelling #perspective

2015-01-18 Narratives – index card #storytelling #perspective

By thinking about memories on my own terms, I can make sense of them my way. The narratives we tell ourselves have such power. If your story is “Everyone’s against me!”, it’s easy to find memories that fit that pattern, and you’ll feel worse and worse. If your story is “Actually, things are pretty awesome,” it will likewise be easy to find memories that fit. By thinking about the general types of memories that come up and connecting them to a positive story, it’ll be easier to respond to them positively when they come up at other times.

In addition to cultivating your existing memories, it’s also good to deliberately create good ones. The impression I get from how other people do this is that people plan Big Memories. The awesome vacation. The ascetic pilgrimage. The conquered marathon.

My life tends to be about small memories. The in-joke picked up from the movie W- and I watched a few years ago, blended with the pun of the moment. The amusing situations our cats get themselves into. Cooking with friends. There are big memories mixed in there too (family trips, graduations, weddings), but the small ones… How can I explain this? The small ones seem as richly flavoured as the big ones are. Big memories are easier to tell other people about, but the small ones are more plentiful.

(Unless you’re like my dad, generating big memories by the bucket-load because you’re always on interesting adventures.)

What would it be like to be a big-memory-full person, a bucket-list-crosser-outer, a grand adventurer? Maybe I’d go refresh my memory of a night sky so clear you feel the dimensions of space. Maybe I’d splurge on eating interesting food at wonderful restaurants. Maybe I’d go to more parties (some of my friends throw themed ones, even). Maybe I’d bike around more in the city, or take the train and try biking near Niagara. Maybe I’d get back into the habit of having birthday parties.

In “Memories Make Your Life Meaningful – Here’s How to Have More of Them, Ben Casnocha writes:

  • Prize novelty. Novelty leads to memories.
  • Take on challenges; endure struggle; feel intense lows and highs.
  • Do things with people. And use people as a key variable.
  • Seek novelty, yes, except when novelty itself becomes routine.
  • Review and re-live memories soon after the fact.
  • If you consciously focus on creating a great memory in the moment, it sticks.

More novelty, more randomness, more challenges, more people, more review, more attention. This slows life down, makes it denser with memories, and expands joy.

Cultivate memories more deliberately: make sense of your existing memories, and consciously build new ones. What would you like to remember in twenty years?

Back to sewing!

I’ve been thinking a lot about clothes lately. This was partly motivated by a dress-up extended family dinner. W- dusted off the suit that he hadn’t worn in years. I realized I wasn’t happy with any of my cold-weather dress options, so we checked out the shops. Dealing with the overwhelming array of choices, none of which I liked, I realized five things:

  • Because it’s difficult for me to find simply-styled, good-fitting clothes in small sizes, I should buy them when I find them, even if they’re at full retail price because the season has just started
  • Likewise, it’s probably worth increasing my clothes budget, considering things even if they’re more than a hundred dollars a piece
  • If I shopped more frequently instead of waiting until I needed something, it might be less stressful
  • Medium-term, I should learn what alterations can do and how much they would add to the price of an item
  • Long-term, I’m probably best served by learning how to sew. Then I can make the basics of my wardrobe in whatever styles and colours I want.

2015-02-10e Shop or sew -- index card #clothing #sewing #shopping

2015-02-10e Shop or sew – index card #clothing #sewing #shopping

2015-02-11d Do I want to invest in clothes or in sewing -- index card #sewing #clothing -- ref 2015-02-10

2015-02-11d Do I want to invest in clothes or in sewing – index card #sewing #clothing – ref 2015-02-10

I ended up wearing my office clothes (a blazer, blouse, and black slacks) to the family event, and that worked out just fine. But I didn’t want to end up in this situation again, so I decided to work on desensitizing myself when it comes to this shopping thing. After all, I remember going from “Waah, this is overwhelming!” to “Actually, this is pretty interesting” in terms of shopping at Home Depot, so maybe I could do that with clothes as well.

While organizing my wardrobe, I realized that I had donated many of the T-shirts that I used to pair with skirts. I had a lot of technical tops, but they didn’t go with slacks or skirts. For example, I didn’t have anything to pair with the purple skirt I’d stored with my other summer things. I added T-shirts to my shopping list. When I saw a nice relaxed-fit pink V-neck shirt at Mark’s Work Warehouse, I figured it would go with the purple skirt, my brown skirts, and my jeans. I also picked up an aqua shirt, a light blue shirt, and some khakis. Still couldn’t find any other items I liked, though.

Although there are quite a few beginner and intermediate sewing classes in Toronto, I decided to see how far I could get by learning on my own. After all, I’d already made a couple of skirts and dresses I was passably happy with. If I got stuck, I could always check Youtube for tutorials or reach out to friends.

I remembered struggling with sewing before. Sometimes I’d do something incorrectly out of impatience or ignorance, and then I got frustrated trying to fix things. It was hard to pay enough attention to details. But I’d noticed myself mellowing out over time. I felt more patient now; I acted more deliberately and spoke more slowly than I used to. Maybe it’s growing older, maybe it’s because of the abundance of time in this 5-year experiment, maybe it’s because I stopped drinking tea… Whatever the reason, maybe sewing might work better for me this time around.

2015-02-11c What were the friction factors for sewing last time, and how can I improve -- index card #sewing #kaizen #reducing-friction

2015-02-11c What were the friction factors for sewing last time, and how can I improve – index card #sewing #kaizen #reducing-friction

I knew I’d enjoy things more if I could start with a small success, so I looked for a simple pattern: cotton, no buttons, no zippers, nothing finicky. None of my stashed sewing patterns met those criteria. I thumbed through the patterns at the Workroom (a small sewing studio near Hacklab), but they were more complex than I wanted to start with.

Eventually I found the free Sorbetto pattern from Colette, which also served as my introduction to downloadable patterns. I printed it, cut out my size, and doubled the pattern with newspaper so that I didn’t have to mess about with folds. I’d previously decluttered my fabric collection, but one of the remnants I’d kept was large enough for the pattern.

I deliberately slowed down while making it. Instead of cutting around the pinned pattern, I chalked the outline of the pattern first, and then I cut that. Instead of cutting on the basement floor (where cats would definitely interfere), I cut on the large square coffee table in the living room. Instead of trying to use the sewing machine’s guidelines for my seams, I chalked all my seam lines. Instead of eyeballing the darts, I chalked the dart lines and the centre lines. I cut and picked out the mistakes I made in staystitching or basting. I neatened the thread tails as I sewed. Instead of using store-bought bias tape, I made bias tape from the same fabric. I zigzagged the other edges instead of using my serger.

2015-02-23 13.48.13It took me a while, but it was a pleasant while, and now I have a top that I’m happy with wearing either on its own or over a blouse. More than that, I have a pattern for as many tops as I want, and the knowledge that that’s one less thing I have to worry about buying when the stores have the right style, the right size, and the right colour.

I think I’ll make this in:

  • black (to pair with a black skirt, if I need to be more formal),
  • white (to pair with everything),
  • red (because that’s fun),
  • and maybe some geeky pattern that’s in line with my interests, to wear to Hacklab and events as a conversation piece? Even better if I could wear it to the office and still blend in as I’m walking through the corridor. Maybe a subtle print? Spoonflower has lots of geeky patterns, but none of them particularly appealed to me because they signal geekiness without actually being my flavour of geekiness.
    • Not really me: chemistry, circuit boards, moustaches, hornrims, calculators, video games
    • More like me: Emacs, tracking, cats, cooking, doodling, blogging, Greek/Roman philosophy

So maybe I’ll stick with solids for now. =)

I turned some scraps into a hair clip, since that felt like a more restrained way to match things than to have a scarf of the same print. Matching things tickles my brain – my mom can tell stories about how I wanted dresses with matching bags when I was a kid. Even now, I like it when people echo colours in their accessories. I’m looking forward to playing around with that through sewing, although maybe with more solids rather than prints.

Whee!

Related sketches:

Trying on common goals

I’ve been thinking a lot about goals lately, thanks to a few discussions with friends. I don’t feel particularly driven by big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs). Instead, I focus on small wins and low-hanging fruit, accumulating progress. I don’t have a clear picture of exactly where I’d like to be in 40 years. Instead, I have a multiplicity of posibilities.

But maybe I’m not a special snowflake, and I can learn from the kinds of goals many people have. It’s fun to put on a different hat and try things out. By trying on common goals instead of rejecting them off-hand, maybe I’ll figure out more about what I really want and how to get there.

2015-01-21 What if I tried on common goals -- index card #popular-goals

2015-01-21 What if I tried on common goals – index card #popular-goals

Aristotle says that happiness is the ultimate goal.

2015-01-21 Playing with popular goals - Happiness -- index card #popular-goals

2015-01-21 Playing with popular goals – Happiness – index card #popular-goals

I find it helpful to think of happiness as a response to life instead of as an external state to pursue, so this goal feels a little odd to me. But it’s interesting to imagine a happy 90-year-old Sacha and what that life would be like. I think it involves building specific warm-and-fuzzy memories, maintaining a good perspective, and minimizing stressors.

Let’s take a look at other typical goals: wealth, power, fame, and knowledge/experiences.

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Wealth -- index card #popular-goals

2015-01-21 Popular goals – Wealth – index card #popular-goals

This might be the easiest of goals to desire, since it’s popular and measurable. Based on my reading, I imagine that conspicuous wealth will bring more problems than I’d like, so I don’t aspire to high-flying lifestyles. I value freedom, so it makes sense to have a financial buffer and to avoid becoming too accustomed to luxuries. That increases my security, which allows me to do more experiments. (I’m already privileged as it is!) Tools can be good investments, and it’s great to be able to strategically use money to make a bigger difference. Money also makes decisions easier: instead of worrying about cutting into your safety margin, you can try things out and see what happens.

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Power -- index card #popular-goals

2015-01-21 Popular goals – Power – index card #popular-goals

Power includes determining your life and influencing other people’s lives. I definitely care about having power over myself, but I’m not driven by the idea of making big decisions that affect thousands of people’s lives.

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Fame -- index card #popular-goals

2015-01-21 Popular goals – Fame – index card #popular-goals

I think I care more about depth of connection (tribe) than about breadth of fame (celebrity). I’m not sure about legacy. On one hand, it’s good to do things that are remarkable enough to help or inspire people throughout the years. On the other hand, what do we do that will matter after a century, and how can we get things to even be remembered for that long? I’ll think about this a little more while reading history. What makes essays resonate with me even after all that time, and how can I also reach across the years?

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Knowledge or experience -- index card #popular-goals

2015-01-21 Popular goals – Knowledge or experience – index card #popular-goals

I like the goal of learning more so that I can appreciate life better, maintain my independence, contribute meaningfully, and make better decisions.

I focus more on knowledge in the sketch above, but I think the popular approach to this goal is to focus on experiences. Bucket lists are practically all about experiences: seeing this country, climbing that mountain. That’s why travel is so big, I guess. What kinds of experiences would I like to have if I were to travel more?

2015-01-24 Thinking about collecting experiences -- index card #goals #experiences

2015-01-24 Thinking about collecting experiences – index card #goals #experiences

I currently don’t like traveling, but it’ll probably be less of a hassle now that I’ve gotten my Canadian passport sorted out.

2015-01-23 What would help me enjoy travel -- index card

2015-01-23 What would help me enjoy travel – index card

Still, with J- in school and three cats at home, it’s hard to plan. Maybe this will be something for later.

2015-01-25 On the other hand - travel -- index card #travel #learning #cooking

2015-01-25 On the other hand – travel – index card #travel #learning #cooking

Besides, I’m not totally convinced that travel is the best way to learn these things. It was fun being immersed in a language and going to local shops. But traveling to learn more about cooking seems a little wasteful, since airfare alone will buy lots of ingredients (and even personalized cooking classes). Staying home means I focus on cooking dishes I can enjoy long-term, and I can take advantage of our kitchen setup. So there’s an advantage to staying home, too.

What about other intrinsic goals?

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Health -- index card #popular-goals

2015-01-21 Popular goals – Health – index card #popular-goals

Health makes sense, since your enjoyment of many things can be curtailed by poor health. I probably won’t strive for buffed-up awesomeness, though. I’m mostly focusing on functioning all right, with maybe a little effort here and there to do a bit better.

2015-01-21 Popular goals - Meaning -- index card #popular-goals

2015-01-21 Popular goals – Meaning – index card #popular-goals

People want to make a difference at work and in their relationships. Many people feel that their work doesn’t matter a lot. Despite the abstraction of my work (I move bits around? I crunch numbers and questions? I write tools for a tiny, tiny fraction of the world?), I’m pretty good at convincing myself I have a small impact. =) Do I want to trade up by focusing on work that has a bigger impact (either for more people, or deeper in people’s lives? I don’t know yet.

2015-01-21 Popular goals - tranquility, equanimity -- index card #popular-goals

2015-01-21 Popular goals – Tranquility, equanimity – index card #popular-goals

I like this goal the most. Stoicism tells me that it’s the one thing under my control. It transforms the ups and downs of life into opportunities for growth. It doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy things, I just shouldn’t get so attached to them that I become afraid. It doesn’t mean that I can’t be sad, it means I can try to take a different perspective on things.

Hmm. Trying on popular goals helped me take advantage of the collective centuries (millennia?) of thought that have gone into those goals. I still have to come up with my own specifics, but it’s good to be able to quickly test what resonates with me instead of trying to formulate everything by myself. If tranquility, happiness, and knowledge are my major goals (with health as the goal I know I should have), I can focus on coming up with specific ways I want to explore those areas.

Do you resonate with some common goals? What are they, and what are you learning from that?

Different dimensions of scaling up

When I was coming up with a three-word life philosophy, learn – share – scale felt like a natural fit for me (Nov 2012). Learning and sharing were pretty straightforward. I thought of scaling in terms of sharing with more people, sharing more effectively, building tools to help people save time, connecting the dots among people and ideas, and getting better at getting better.

A recent conversation got me thinking about scale and the different dimensions that you can choose to scale along. For example, startups often talk about scaling up to millions of users; that’s one kind of scale. There’s saving people five minutes and there’s launching people into space; that’s another kind of scale.

What kinds of scale I see myself exploring? Here’s a rough categorization. (With ASCII art!)

Category Left Where I am Right
Size “This might save someone five minutes” X--------- “I’m going to help people get into space.”
People “This might help 1,000 people.” -X-------- “I want to help 1 billion people.”
Time “This might help 1,000 people over ten years.” X--------- “I want to help 1,000 people tomorrow.”
Team “I’m going to gradually develop my skills.” -X-------- “I’m going to build a team of people.”
Performance “We’ll start by doing it manually.” -X-------- “I want to get to sub-second response.”
Focus “I’m going to explore and see what comes up.” X--------- “I’m going to focus on one idea and knock it out of the park.”
Variety “I’ll put lots of things out there and people can tell me what they value.” --X------- “I’ll choose what to put out there and connect with people who need that.”
Demand “I’ll come up with the idea and find the market.” ----X----- “I’ll find the market and then come up with an idea.”
Pace “If I grow slowly and steadily, I’ll build a solid foundation.” --X------- “If I grow quickly, I’ll have momentum.”
Time/money tradeoff “I’m going to make my time more valuable.” ---------X “I’m going to make something outside the time=money equation.”
Risk “If I mess up, things are still okay.” X--------- “If I mess up, people die.”
Empowerment “I’m going to do things myself.” -------X-- “I’m going to support other people.”
Teaching “I will build systems so that I can catch fish for more people.” --------X- “I’m going to teach more people how to catch their own fish.”

Hmm. This is similar to those visions of wild success I occasionally sketch out for myself as a way to test my ideas and plans. Wild success at scaling up for me (at least along my current interests and trajectory) probably looks like:

  • Learning about a wide variety of interesting things
  • Writing, drawing, and publishing useful notes
  • Getting better at organizing them into logical chunks like books and courses so that I can help more people (including people who don’t have the patience to wade through fifty blog posts)
  • Reaching more people over time through good search and discovery in my archives
  • Getting updates to more people through subscriptions and interest-based filters

What would an Alternate Universe Sacha be like? I’d probably keep a closer eye out for problems I run into or that people I care about run into, and practise building small websites, tools, systems, and businesses to solve those problems. I might start with trying to solve a problem for ten people, then a hundred, then a thousand, then ten thousand and more. I might look for medium-sized annoyances so that it’s worth the change. I might build tools instead of or in addition to sharing my notes. (After all, The $100 Startup points out that most people don’t want to learn how to fish, they just want to eat fish for dinner and get on with the rest of their lives.)

Hmm. Alternate Universe Sacha makes sense too. Since I’m doing fine in terms of Normal Universe Sacha and scaling up here is mostly a matter of gradual accumulation, it might be interesting to experiment with Alternate Universe Sacha sometime. Maybe during the next two years of this 5-year experiment, or in a new experiment after that?

It’s good to break down a word like “scale” and figure out the different dimensions along which you can make decisions. Are you working on scaling up? If so, what kind of scale are you working towards?