Category Archives: life

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!

Related:

What do I want to get ready for next?

I’ve been thinking about what I should prepare for during the fourth year of my experiment. The first year was about exploring business. The second year was about digging deeper. The third year focused on self-care. I still don’t know what shape my life will take in my fifth year and beyond, but I can plan for the probabilities.

2015-03-28b Imagining the fourth year of my experiment -- index card #experiment #vision

2015-03-28b Imagining the fourth year of my experiment – index card #experiment #vision

Here’s what I know:

  • The stock market has been doing well. This is not likely to continue, but I don’t mind investing for the long term, and I should be able to weather dips.
  • I continue to provide good value through consulting, even though I’ve reduced my hours. It’s nice to know that it’s doable.
  • This year I’ve had excellent quality of life, and I like it. I learned a lot about cooking and thinking. I revisited sewing and yoga. I loved having the space to deal with complex thoughts and issues.
  • I want to tackle health. It would be great to move on from the fourth year of my experiment with good habits, strength, flexibility, and stamina.
  • I want to collect good people and interesting ideas.

What signs should I watch for to know when I’m ready for a transition? How can I prepare?

2015-03-25c When do I move to the next phase, and how -- index card #experiment #plan

2015-03-25c When do I move to the next phase, and how – index card #experiment #plan

I’m reasonably certain that I’ll move to the next phase. I’m just not sure when. In the meantime, I can prepare by keeping my eyes open for people and ideas, developing skills, and learning more about what makes me energized.

What kind of business would I like to build next? I like our life too much to sacrifice it needlessly, so any business needs to either fit around this lifestyle or be worth it in terms of making a difference.

2015-03-25h Imagining my next venture -- index card #experiment #vision

2015-03-25h Imagining my next venture – index card #experiment #vision

Businesses sometimes develop lives of their own, so I want to be careful about the patterns I set up for myself. As tempting and straightforward as it would be to follow the usual plan of working intensely over a short period of time, I wonder if there are other ways.

I suspect a business makes sense for me to build if there’s a problem that I want to solve at scale, and if solving that problem involves money. There are lots of problems I can work on for free or pay-what-you-want, so I might want to lean towards working on those while I can.

There are different ways to come up with ideas or recognize opportunities. I respond better to specific individuals than to abstract markets, concepts, or even personas, so it makes sense to be on the lookout for people to work with or serve. I can also start cataloguing strengths, resources, and needs (for myself and other people) so that I can play a large game of connect-the-dots. Here are some of the strengths and resources I might be able to build on.

2015-03-29b What strengths and resources can I use to help others -- index card #strengths #experiment #business

2015-03-29b What strengths and resources can I use to help others – index card #strengths #experiment #business

I’m particularly curious about the strengths outside technology. I feel like I’m getting better at being specific about language, teasing out differences and organizing thoughts while learning out loud. I enjoy exploring different scenarios and identifying adjacent possibilities, reining in perfectionist tendencies or analysis paralysis with satisficing. I like making small improvements, organizing things in sequences for easier flow and learning. I haven’t invested as much in supporting other people or building relationships outside the household, but it might be interesting to try that.

So, if I were to apply myself with more ambition, what could that look like?

2015-03-29d What would more ambition mean -- index card #ambition #experiment

2015-03-29d What would more ambition mean – index card #ambition #experiment

I can improve my physical habits to increase energy and joy. With a solid foundation of self-care, I can connect more deeply with more people, helping them grow. This will help me develop empathy further, making it easier for me to write, draw, and share things that are more useful to more people. It will likely also involve getting the hang of writing, finishing, and spreading books/courses, since people benefit from organized paths. I might run into ideas for tools and platforms along the way, so I can build those if my capabilities catch up to my wants and my wants outpace existing technology. If that generates additional cash, I can look into converting that into more advantages.

Mm. I think that could work. Bringing it back down to the level of things I can do right now:

2015-03-28c How would I like to take things to the next level -- index card #improvement #experiment

2015-03-28c How would I like to take things to the next level – index card #improvement #experiment

I’m making good progress on doing a bit of yoga every day. (~30-90 minutes over the past 6 days so far!) To improve our quality of life even further, I’d like to get better at transforming the meals that we cook. As the weather warms up, I want to enjoy more park time and shared reflections with friends, and to use my focus on quality of life to help friends who are going through difficult times. (Friendfeed indeed.) I’ll continue saving up so that the next steps will be easier – but I’ll probably get even more out of a deliberate effort to catalog people’s people’s interests, skills, and needs, especially if I can practise helping people accelerate.

Mm. Sounds like fun.

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: