A Year of Growth

Today is my 33rd birthday, and to celebrate I’d like to take a moment to present some thoughts and heuristics that have served me well this most recent year of my life.

One thought that’s been immensely useful to me over the past year, especially considering everything that’s been happening in the world of politics, technology, ideology, and so on, is “it’s not your responsibility to convert the world to your way of seeing things.”

I think most of us ascribe some sort of moral significance to the act of proselytization and conversion, but in most cases a hardcore, tribe-focused, us-versus-them campaign is more likely to be stressful than valuable. And that’s true for everyone involved: you and the person on the other end of your drum-banging.

Instead, I find that putting ideas into the world, presenting them the best way I know how, and then letting people take what makes sense to them, if and when it makes sense to them, works better in terms of getting that information a fair evaluation, and augments my own sense of wellbeing, too. My psychological wellness isn’t tethered to someone else’s way of seeing the world, their opinions and beliefs—things I can’t control—and my life doesn’t revolve around needing to make other people see things from exactly the same perspective from which I see things.

I’ve also been reminding myself that society won’t fall apart if I don’t comment on every new topic of the day. Causes I think are important, for good or for ill, won’t live or die based on my attention, my tweets, my comment on a Facebook post.

This doesn’t mean such conversations are never valuable and that I’ll never participate in one. But I tend to approach them more intentionally, more slowly. I like to determine, first, if I have an informed opinion, rather than an emotional response to share, and second, if I’m able to add something new and valuable to the conversation, or if all I’d be doing is adding to the noise. More often than not, I discover that the latter is the case, so I avoid diving into that chaotic, outrage-jumble, opting to spend my time on other things.

That said, I do think there’s a lot of amazing work of all kinds, in all mediums, being done in the world today. And I find a great deal of satisfaction in being able to amplify other voices: people who do know what they’re talking about and who do have valuable information or perspectives to add to these conversations. This allows me to “participate” in some discussions, but rather than adding my own, contextually unproductive voice to the noise, I’m increasing the volume of the good stuff.

In a world in which there’s no shortage of hubbub, I find that investing time and effort in cutting through the less-valuable to curate the valuable is often a better use of my time and resources than the alternatives.

I’ve been focusing a lot on personal capability, of late. Learning new skills, honing old ones, looking for weak spots in my capacity for self-reliance. And I’ve been trying to fill in those gaps and reinforce my foundations.

Learning to cook, getting the more boring aspects of my finances in order, adjusting my fitness regimen and eating habits to better align with the lifestyle I want to have today, and tomorrow. Some of the skills I’ve been picking up are very focused and specific: learning how to do basic repairs and maintenance on my car, for instance. Others are incredibly broad and open-ended: formalizing my approach to learning, for example, is kind of a meta-skill I’ve been working on, and it’s helped me grow in a variety of ways I wouldn’t have known were possible a year ago.

Over the years, I’ve periodically recalibrated my habits to improve my health and fitness, and each step has been effective enough that I’ve looked back at how I did things previously with a sense of wonder that I managed to survive so long while treating myself so badly. Funny how quickly our perspectives can shift when it comes to that kind of thing.

Past health-related pivots have included quitting fast food and soft drinks, swapping out energy drinks in favor of black coffee, developing a workout routine that doesn’t require access to a gym or any specialized equipment so I could perform it from anywhere and in about 15-20 minutes, and segueing toward a diet that’s mostly but not quite vegetarian, which my body seems to prefer on multiple levels.

I’ve made some new transitions in this space over the past year, and two of the most impactful of those changes have been consuming far fewer processed foods and carving out time for a daily run.

The processed foods thing kind of evolved naturally, as I started making every meal I consume a little over a year-and-a-half ago. As I got better at cooking, I also got better at choosing my ingredients, and the development of knowledge and skill in this space seems to nudge you naturally toward working with less messed-with ingredients, allowing you to have more control over what you’re making.

It was a strange, empowering moment when I realized I could not only name every ingredient in all the food I was eating, but also the precise amounts of that ingredient used, where it came from, how it was stored and handled, and so on.

My running habit evolved out of a decision to expand upon my usual, nightly workout routine, which I realized was heavy on bodyweight resistance but lighter than I would have liked on aerobic exercise.

I used to run five to ten miles a day, back in my college years, but it was a routine with a flimsy foundation, and I found myself exhausted and injured more often than was prudent. So instead of revisiting my old “run a lot, as hard and fast as you can, and then take time off when you inevitably hurt yourself” approach to the habit, I decided to ease myself into it and slowly build something sustainable. I bought some cheap running shoes and put myself on a treadmill for a half-hour per day. After a week of incline walking, I started running: first a quarter-mile, then a half-mile, then three-quarters of a mile, adding another quarter-mile every four weeks, and continuing to incline-walk before and after my run.

Research has shown that aerobic exercise increases the rate of adult neurogenesis, meaning it allows our brains to grow and change, developing new patterns of operation, helping us learn new things; both information and ways of thinking. Bringing running back into my life in a sustainable, slow-growth way, was intended to allow me to benefit from this sort of growth long-term, while also bringing balance to an aspect of my life that felt like it had fallen out of equilibrium.

It’s possible to find a resting pace and continue at that pace forever, maintaining a certain level of mental or physical fitness but never growing past that level.

It’s also possible to set an extravagant goal and jump right to the finish line, pushing yourself well past your current capabilities and then injuring yourself, burning out, or feeling discouraged that you can’t seem to make it work, wondering if perhaps you’re not capable of this sort of thing after all.

It’s a good idea to reinforce your position after you arrive at a new height, but staying there forever—either for fear of not making it to the next milestone or because you seldom stray outside the comfort of the familiar—that’s a sort of paralysis. It’s stability to the point of immobility.

Far better, in most cases, to push just beyond what’s comfortable, what you feel is your limit, and to build up the muscles require to make that your new normal. Pushing against your boundaries, but not with a harmful intensity. This approach takes more time, but also tends to be more sustainable than the alternatives.

My relationship with technology has continued to evolve this year, and I’ve found that my best-fit resting point with my smartphone, with the mobile internet, with technology in general, is ensuring I have access to these things but not allowing them to have access to me.

What that means in practice is turning off all notifications, understanding exactly how I want to use these tools, and then letting that guide how I use them.

Removing all the blips and bloops and pings and screen-flashy wizardry that allow these devices to pull you away from all the other things you want to do helps a lot all by itself. Even better, though, is being clear with yourself about why you’re using the devices so you can set appropriate guidelines that ensure you’re not denying yourself anything important, but also not succumbing to clever tech-enabled triggers.

I don’t want my focus interrupted by a phone ring or vibration. I don’t want an endless number of colorful, attractive entertainments to drown out the more effort-intensive, but ultimately more satisfying ways I could be spending my time.

This doesn’t mean I aspire to be a luddite. On the contrary, I enjoy experimenting with new technologies, and trying out all kinds of crazy gizmos for limited periods of time. But I am brutal about removing these things from my life when it becomes clear they either don’t provide me with any value, with any new powers that amplify my ability to do the things I want to do, and/or if they actively interrupt those efforts. If they’re not useful, or if they use me instead of the other way around, they’re gone.

This balance has allowed me to enjoy the fruits of living in the modern world, while also helping me avoid many of the accompanying pitfalls. It’s an imperfect system that requires constant recalibration, but I find those downsides and that effort to be worth the benefits and flexibility.

In general, I also find spending time and energy in the following pursuits pays extraordinary dividends: working toward balance; better knowing myself, what I believe, and what I want; giving gifts to my future self in the form of internal and external investments; taking the time to enjoy the payoffs of investments made by my past self; remaining open to personal redefinition and stripping myself of labels and tribal affiliations whenever possible; exposing myself to new ideas, people, art, and knowledge; maintaining a student mindset; slowing building up and being aware of my own capability while also understanding my limitations and potential for future growth; making things that I’m proud to have made; spending my time with people who inspire me, projects that challenge me, and ideas that make me uncomfortable.

This year has been absolutely amazing. I can’t wait to see what the next year brings, and who I’ll be at the end of it.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter, in which I also announced I’ll be going on tour soon.

Recent Posts

  • Simmer or Sear
  • Some Final 2023 Thoughts
  • Taking Time
  • Instrumental Flute Era
  • Rearviews