2017 was fast. It was mechanical, consumptive, and prescriptive. It was empowering, frustrating, and sometimes lonely.
I turned up the curiosity dial and nurtured a habit of reading, listening to podcasts, and exploring new music. Along the way, I pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone. I developed a taste for country music, started reading poetry, and bought a guitar. I taught myself to build websites and became a product designer. I learned what it means to work with a team; how to read body language, how to navigate workplace politics, and how to see your team as humans first, coworkers second.
I looked outward to see the world become increasingly close-minded, polarized, and insular. I looked inward and found myself increasingly open-minded, but often isolated.
In a way, this is my annual thesis. The goal is to help me formulate loosely-related thoughts into a cohesive vision. It is a tool for making myself more vulnerable, holding myself accountable, and rallying people to help me improve. Here are my big ideas from 2017 and how I plan to use them in 2018.
A recent tweet by technologist and Y Combinator founder, Sam Altman, echoes my present feelings about technology, “Digital addiction is going to be one of the great mental health crises of our time.” There were times this year where I felt physically and mentally drained from overstimulation. I crammed my brain with information and crowded out the ability to think for myself. I took over 100 hours of online coursework in the first 6 months of 2017, listened to 500+ hours of podcasts, read countless blog posts about business, and too many self-help articles. I binged on Netflix and laid in bed on Sunday watching Snapchat stories.
I don’t know if it’s related to working at a tech startup, being the first generation to grow up with phones, or lacking discipline, but I feel distracted, tired, and resentful of the technology which allegedly improves my life. I feel broken, taxed, and unsatisfied.
Through personal overconsumption of media, I learned to be cautious and cherish quiet time. Through neuroscience, I learned to think differently about consumption. I read David Eagleman's best selling book, The Brain: The Story of You. It empowered me to think differently about my digital consumption. Eagleman brilliants explains principles like; pattern recognition, brain plasticity, synesthesia (cross-sensory perception), and collective consciousness. What I absorbed was: our brain isn't static, mysterious, or inaccessible. It's flexible, powerful, and attentive. We can very easily define the patterns and filters our brain utilized to turn randomness into meaning.
The Podcast 99% Invisible, does an amazing job of illustrating how this works. It highlights ideas and designs that shape our world but go largely unnoticed. The episode on “Knox Boxes”, illustrates my point. Knox boxes are secure lock boxes emergency responders use to access commercial buildings. They are a ubiquitous and nearly universal feature of modern buildings, but prior to listening to the episode, I had never seen one. Since listening to the episode, I see them everywhere! If viewed as a conversation, this mental adjustment would look something like this:
Me: Hey brain, can you keep an eye out for these weird box things from now on and let me know every time you see one?
Brain: Yeah, I got you, bro.
Another example of brain reprogramming and the single most important thing I learned this year, was how to process negativity in a positive way. Very early in the year, I read Sprint by Jake Knapp. In one chapter he describes a design technique known as HCW statements (How can we statements). The premise is simple, when you identify a problem or obstacle, rephrase it as an opportunity by starting the sentence with “How can we”. I can’t overstate the implications of that simple mental switch for someone, like me, who wants to be an entrepreneur (ie. someone who benefits from solving a person or group of people’s problems).
Our lives are the product of the information we choose to absorb. How we absorb information is a deliberate choice. In 2017, I programmed my brain to see opportunities in problems and to never miss a “knox box” outside of a commercial building (among other things ). In 2018, I’m excited to evolve the way I see the world; to develop pattern recognition for things that matter; positivity and happiness, opportunity, oppression and injustice, fakeness and bullshit. I want to see the world more richly, listen to music more knowledgeably, and binge on Netflix in a more meaningful way.
If overconsumption and thoughtless consumption are on one end of a growing problem, then “under-creation” would logically sit at the other end. Creativity in its rawest form is being overshadowed by the monopolization of creative industries and a constant barrage on our attention span.
Around March of this year, I suddenly and unexpectedly became a designer. To better understand my new role, I ordered a handful of books which explore what it means to be creative. The first book I read was Creative Confidence, by David and Tom Kelley. In plain terms, David and is brother Tom make the cases that creativity is accessible to anyone if we simply allow ourselves to try.
“It turns out that creativity isn’t some rare gift to be enjoyed by the lucky few—it’s a natural part of human thinking and behavior. In too many of us, it gets blocked. But it can be unblocked. And unblocking that creative spark can have far-reaching implications for yourself, your organization, and your community.” - Davi Kelley
The second book, which left a lasting impression was The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp. A world-renown ballet dancer and choreographer, she demystifies creativity, by highlighting the habits and rituals which nurture it. Contrary to popular belief, creative excellence is rarely the product of an epiphany, innate genius, or natural talent. She makes a compelling case about creative habit and incrementalism. Her message is simple; pursue creative structure and discipline in order to find creative freedom.
For a long time, I’ve considered business to be my creative outlet. Through MadeByAdventure and other projects I’ve explored the creative potential of business, particularly tourism. This year I want to expand my creative pursuits to cover a wide range of things. I’m guilty of guarding my creativity at times, but I hope to change that. Here are a few small ways I want to be more creative in the coming year
- Teach myself enough guitar to write basic songs
- Sing outside of the shower
- Take up piano again
- Plant a garden or grow something
- Cook a meal(s) for someone else
- Refurbish or build physical thing (ie. using my hands for something else besides typing)
- Plan a badass trip with my friends
Creativity is the physical manifestation of the ideas, aspirations, and feelings inside us. In 2018, let’s think about creativity differently. Creativity is a rebellious act against a system which profits from stealing our time and attention. Creativity is the antidote to infinite scroll, the news feed, and Netflix autoplay. It is an opportunity to share a flicker of your soul and make the world richer for others.
Embrace good fear
I know I’m a good swimmer, but my biggest fear is jumping into a cold pool. I’m a sharpshooter who doesn’t take the shot. A runner who doesn’t make it to the starting line. And a ladies man who’s scared to talk to women.
Regardless of the analogy, you get the point.
Breaking the ice, taking the first step, and being an initiator is hard. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who feels this way. We all let irrational fear dictate the rhythm of our lives. Internally, I’m tropical house and pop hits, but to the outside world, I might be a downtempo blues playlist. A handful of my best friends get a glimpse of 140 BPM Max, but most people will never see that. And that’s kind of messed up.
I don’t want to paint the picture that I’m sort of hermit or homebody, who walks the streets in fear. I’ve done some pretty socially-challenging things, like solo-backpacking southern Africa at 19 and moving to Austin after graduating to start a company with a dude I met at Illegal Pete’s (shoutout Jon Maser). But here’s the thing, a meaningful life is written in the details not in the chapter headers.
And that’s what I’m realizing. I’ve been focusing on big moves and big challenges to hide from the daily fears that make life hard. I’ve applied the wrong filter to my worldview; one focused on major milestones rather than daily successes. While recently shopping for a new domain name, I landed on the work of Ben Arment, who several years ago must have been in the same place as me, when he proclaimed, “Fear diminishes with repeated exposure. We think the antidote to fear is courage….the only antidote to fear is to put one foot in front of the other, and to take action, and to expose yourself to fear.” Full talk here
If it’s not apparent by now, perspective is king (or queen) and small actions matter. In 2018, I’ll be asking “How can I view fear in a positive light?” and “How can I expose myself to constant, low-level fear?” Can I view fear as a necessary evil (or actually good) and nurture the willingness to embrace it?
Exceptional people live on the frontier. I’ve been too comfortable for too long. I'm ready for a little heat.
Lead with opportunity
Despite my philosophical ramblings, my 2018 motto is actually really simple: Have fun and do cool shit with passionate people. Let me further break down this eloquent manifesto:
- Have fun = stop taking life so seriously. You’re 24. Relax.
- And do cool shit = we can do better than working all week and drinking all weekend. This is a pathetically mediocre and unoriginal way to live.
- With passionate people = show me you give a shit about something
I’m kind of a social moocher. I’m lucky enough to have incredible, thoughtful friends who invite me to a lot of things, get me to come out of my shell, and involve me in their lives. My social invite ratio was probably 5:1 this year; 5 invites I accepted to every 1 I initiated. That’s pretty bad, even for an introvert.
It’s not my nature to be a follower, but I’ve been playing the part. Sometimes I’m so drained by the end of the workweek that I jump on whatever plan is available, regardless of whether or not I’m interested. I've found myself far too many times throwing back gin and tonics in a crowded bar while attempting to talk over shitty EDM music or sitting around watching a movie on a Friday night. I hate that.
I want to be camping in the mountains, watching live music, or drinking a glass of wine at a modern art gallery (boujee AF). I want to see stand up comedy, chow down at a hole in the wall restaurant, and go bowling at a rundown bowling alley. I think you do too, but we settle.
In 2018, I will take initiative (there’s that word again) and lead my friends out of the darkness of boring activities into the promise land of actually memorable social events. I will rekindle the MadebyAdventure spirit and put together adventures that my friends will never forget. Most importantly, I will build fun into my routine.
That sounds simple and naive, but I think it's important. If I can optimize for what makes me happy I can turn down the habits that dull my life. Spending time on social media might give me a minuscule dopamine bump (scientifically speaking ), but it doesn't provide lasting happiness. Drinking might be an easy social lubricant, but it isn't the best.
In the war against loneliness, digital addiction, and quarter-life angst, fun is a powerful weapon. Through creative planning and ongoing invitation, I intend to use it.
2018 will be different. It will be rich, expressive, and uncomfortable. I will challenge myself, invest in people, and peel back a few layers of the protective shield that reluctantly suffocates me. I will re-connect with people who I’ve neglected, grow my network of passionate friends, and create memorable opportunities for others.
Help me get the ball rolling. Now that you know how I feel, tell me how you feel. Am I the only one feeling over-stimulated and under-inspired? Do other people share my aspirations to live more engaging and creative social lives?
What big ideas changed the way you think? What scares you about the upcoming year? What excites you?
Click the button below to see all my questions and respond to ones which appeal to you. You can submit anonymously if you want and I'll never share without consent. Let's kickstart the year with a meaningful conversation.
** I’ve pulled these main themes from smaller ideas documented throughout the year. If you want to view my works cited, check out my favorite quotes and ideas of 2017.