“[…] just as it is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind.”
While I’ve never made new years resolutions per se, I’ve always found the beginning of the New Year to be the best time for goal setting. I think this is simply due to the fact that during the hectic day-to-day of the workweek, I rarely make the time for reflection that I can during the holidays.
According to Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D, reflection is critical to self-improvement. He explains that creating change requires not only the goal itself but also the awareness of where one currently is in order to evaluate the gap between the two. In other words, “we cannot reach our destinations without knowledge of our current location on the map.”
This year has been a true roller coaster. I made a massive career change (marketing to software development), struggled to learn a foreign skill (coding), and wrestled with bouts of crippling self-doubt along the way. Reflecting on what I achieved in 2014 as well as where I fell short, I’ve compiled a short list of lessons learned that I thought were worth sharing. I’ve drawn heavily from Stoicism for this post, specifically from Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, which has been immensely valuable in helping me articulate how I feel as I embark upon the New Year.
Lesson 1: Time Slips Away Unless You Make an Effort to Grab Onto It
“It’s not that we have a short time to live, but we waste a lot of it […] life is long if you know how to use it.”
Throughout 2014, my friends and I have consistently marvelled at just how quickly time seems to be passing. For most of my closest friends, this year has been one of massive career or personal change (or both). New jobs, new businesses and new relationships have left most of us with seemingly less free time than ever. In my case, months – even seasons – passed without seeing friends that I once saw on a weekly basis. Though we’ve all achieved personal milestones this year, most of us also feel uneasy about our changing perception of time’s pace, like it’s literally slipping through our hands quicker than we can grasp onto it. While I can’t speak for my friends, I attribute the source of my unease to not having lived enough this year, having spent most of my time indoors working, studying and just generally being preoccupied. According to the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, “Living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man; yet there is nothing which is harder to learn.”
I believe my single greatest failure this year has been not checking enough items off of my bucket list. Up until now, I’ve been content to just continue adding items to this list, without making enough of an effort to check them off. Seneca expresses this common behaviour of the preoccupied: “You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.”
“Just as travelers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it; so it is with this unceasing and extremely fast-moving journey of life, which waking or sleeping we make at the same pace — the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.”
As most of my preoccupation over the past year has been in the name of attaining what I desire, it’s justified, right? Perhaps. But if I were to find out that I was going to die in five years’ time, would I stop putting some things off? Absolutely. That wouldn’t necessarily mean throwing out all of my longer term goals, but I would definitely make the time to fit in many more of my other ones, some of which I really have no reason to put off any longer.
So how can you start living more while at the same time continue to pursue your longterm goals? To start with, Seneca explains that we don’t guard our precious time closely enough: “People are frugal in guarding their personal property, but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are the most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
Though I consider myself more productive than most, I certainly waste time. But a careful distinction is required here, which Tim Ferriss made in one of his most recent podcasts: watching a movie or grabbing a beer with friends isn’t wasting time if you’re enjoying yourself. Rather, “[wasting time] is when you want to do one thing – or you plan to do one thing – and then you end up doing another.”
In addition to being more careful with one’s time and not putting things off, Seneca advises that we have to be mindful of time’s passing and invest our time wisely: “You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.”
With Seneca’s words in mind, 2015 is going to be a year of setting up the right dominos to knock more items off of my bucket list. Doing so is going to require a lot of work, so I’ll have to be extremely careful with my time and implement processes to get more out of it. I need to ensure that I’m striking the appropriate balance between the attainment of short-term goals, such as travelling to a bucket list destination, and longterm goals, which I may never get a chance to realize. Your last day really could come at any time, so you should live in such a way that you’ll be ready to “meet death with a firm step” when it comes. Seneca reminds us that life, however short, “is long if you know how to use it.”
Lesson 2: Invest in the Unknown While You Can Afford To
“[…] the question is: is it better to optimize your strengths or to invest into the unknown, into places where you’re weak?”
— Kevin Kelly
During the first six months of last year, during which time I quit my job, enrolled and graduated from a coding bootcamp, and began to search for a new job, the above question, posed by Kevin Kelly (Co-founder of Wired Magazine), is one that I asked myself on an almost daily basis. Starting from scratch in a new industry while struggling to learn a skill in which I had absolutely no background is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Was it a good move?
Six months later, I can definitively say yes. And while optimizing for what you’re good at is the saner, more reasonable thing to do, Kelly suggests that due to our increasingly fast-changing landscape, “the only way you can get to a higher, more fit place, is you actually have to go down. You actually have to head into a place where you are less optimal, you have no expertise …”
The key to arriving at my own answer to Kevin Kelly’s question was in sticking with this less optimal thing long enough to see it bear fruit.
Until age 17, my main focus was illustration, and over the years, I became quite good at drawing. There was nothing more satisfying to me than being able to draw whatever I wanted to – to have it turn out exactly how I had seen it in my mind. I wanted to learn to code so that I could create things, yet four months into software development, I felt like my skill level was on par with a child who could barely draw a stick figure. Every step I took felt like extremely hard work, and achieving the level of skill that I’d need in order to build the things that I wanted seemed like it would take years.
And then things began to click. Each month, the problems that I was working on would have seemed impossible the month before, and I discovered that I was able to start building some of the things that I had wanted to on my own. This gave me a huge confidence boost. My desire to keep learning skyrocketed, creating a positive feedback loop of learning and motivation. Before you can decide whether or not you like a new craft, I believe you have to get marginally good at it.
Of course, not everyone can afford to take such a risk – I’m 26 with almost no obligations – but if you can, I think you owe it to yourself to at least consider it. You can always return to what you know you’re good at. The less obvious choice sometimes holds greater opportunities, as Peter Thiel explained in his guest lecture at Stanford this year: “Don’t always go through the tiny little door that everyone’s trying to rush through, maybe go around the corner and go through the vast gate that nobody is taking.”
If you’re having a difficult time deciding whether or not investing in the unknown is worth the risk, Neil Gaiman, my all-time favourite author, offers a simple method to determine whether or not a given path will take you where you want to go:
“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.
And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time. “
Lesson 3: The Obstacle is The Way
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
— Marcus Aurelius
At the same time as I was wrestling with the Kevin Kelly’s question, I began reading Ryan Holiday’s high-level introduction to Stoic philosophy, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.
The book gets its title from the above quote by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, which appears in Meditations, a collection of his personal writings.
The book’s message is a simple one – every obstacle is an opportunity – but it came at just the right time for me. In my case, self-doubt on my path to becoming a software developer was my main roadblock, and overcoming that self-doubt was the key to achieving my goal.
In addition to Marcus Aurelius’ timeless message, I found another quote from Neil Gaiman to be especially helpful when dealing with self-doubt or paralysis in the face of an intimidating task:
“Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.
So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.”
I’ve never been more excited to start a new year. Overall, I’m very pleased with 2014, but I need to be more mindful of the passage of time and make a real effort to strike a balance between my longterm and short-term goals.
What lessons did you learn in 2014? I would love to read them in the comments.
P.S. On the Shortness of Life and Meditations are two of the best books I’ve ever read. Although they’re 2,000 years old, their messages couldn’t be more relevant. Human beings have had and will always have the same questions about how to live a good life, and some of the best answers are in these two books. Check them out – they’re both short reads.