Two thousand and sixteen was my best year. I intended it to be. It was not 100% perfect or without difficulty by any means. Part of the reason it was my best is that throughout the year I prioritized learning and investing in self-improvement.
These are the top 5 things I learned in my quest for self-awareness, creativity, fitness, fulfillment and happiness.
“If you know about something but nothing’s changed, then you haven’t learned it.”
1. Reading is Not Synonymous with Retention
It’s not what you’ve read, it’s what you remember and comprehend. Just because we read a piece of information does not mean that we actually stored it for later use or application. That “top 6 productivity tricks” article you read 6 months ago—try and recall more than 2 out of 6. Not so easy. Turns out that wasn’t a very productive read after all.
WHAT I LEARNED:
This was a major area of learning for me that has been building for some time now but crystallized in 2016. I love to read, but at best I can remember a few key takeaways from books and articles. That deteriorates over time. Pretty soon I’ve forgotten what I invested those minutes and hours in, or can barely share a concise summary, let alone repeatedly apply it to my own life. In our modern digital age, we are barraged with information constantly and this is only valuable if we can utilize this information and recall it when the opportunity arises.
The real productivity hack is to write everything valuable down and review it. Now when I read I take notes on 4×6 index cards. I also frequently and liberally underline or take notes within the book itself. Periodically I review these and refresh my memory of the most valuable insights I deemed worthy to write down or underline. I did not create these systems by any means, I directly modeled them from two amazing people. Ryan Holiday and Maria Popova. Just click their names and I’ve linked to two articles that got me going in this direction.
2. Action Bias—From Wishing to Willing
I have a large scale vision of what I want to become, contribute, and accomplish in life. That isn’t a problem—unless I’m not taking action towards it. It is easy to have dreams. It is easy to wish. We need our willpower, effort, and action to ever make it real.
“…Huge difference between knowing about something and knowing how to do it.”
WHAT I LEARNED:
Starting is half the battle. Look up Lao Tzu’s famous quotes and you’ll see the 1000 mile journey one. Beginning something that is important to us when we feel under-qualified, under-confident, and under-funded is not easy, but it is necessary. Everyone who’s ever accomplished or created anything started somewhere. Their conditions were not perfect, even if they have a tremendous success story that makes it seem like they are holier than thou. Starting wasn’t easy for them, but they did it. I had to start my writing dream for real in 2016. I just did it one Wednesday. Now the ball is rolling, now the momentum is building.
Simplicity. Start practicing with low stakes frequently. As skills build, raise the stakes. Think about what life will be like looking back with gratitude for having begun something that matters. Now imagine looking back knowing you never started and feel the pain of regret. My solution was asking myself the question: Do I want it or not?
I’m intense. I relish this as a strength, but it is also a weakness. Intensity can be draining, it’s a pace that’s past sustaining. In my past, I frequently have given everything I have for as long as I can, and then burnout. After I’m exhausted I find myself still with mountains to climb.
WHAT I LEARNED:
Pace is the name of the game. Two runners embark on a 5-mile run—the one who sustains a consistent output will have better results than the one who sprints until exhaustion and needs time to recover then repeats the same pattern. Consistency was a weakness of mine in many areas I aimed to reverse this and make it a strength.
“Intensity cannot replace consistency.” —Simon Sinek
I will keep my intensity but aim to practice and produce continually at a pace that I can handle. Intensity is an asset, but it cannot be all I rely on. My solution is to be intentional and decisive with my time—always making time for what really matters. Chipping away at the bigger picture, rather than swinging a 100lb sledgehammer trying to do it all at once.
4. The Importance of Priorities
I want so much in life. Not materialistically, but experientially. There is a finite amount of time for all of us. 24 hours in a day, and ballpark 80 years to live if we take adequate care of ourselves. The problem is when to do what. What to be patient with and what to do now. My problem is doing too many things at the same time, not truly focused on the deep work it requires to manifest what I’m after.
WHAT I LEARNED:
I would rather accomplish or take action towards the key factors that make me happiest and most fulfilled. That means eliminating things. That means not everything will get done. That means learning to ignore the part of my brain that spurns me towards attacking 10 projects at a time and cutting that down to 3 at most. My personal bandwidth is exceeded by my ambitions. I download faster than I upload. My ideas come in tremendous flashes of insight, but my actions and ability to execute on these ideas are more like building a fire with friction—lots of time and energy must be expended before it starts to become real.
Continually asking what is most important? I do this several times a day, and it is now my go-to question when I have a major decision. There are secondary questions that stem from this too. What is most important right now? What is the most important long term? (1 week? 1 month? 6 months? 1 year? 6 years?) What is most important for others? The last question I need to ask a lot more. I’m overcoming a selfish behavior bias and it’s not all about me. I wrote more about The Reality of Priorities here.
5. Frame of Reference
“What things mean to you is always determined by what you compare them to, or contrast them against.”
We are constantly filtering what comes into our experience through our own beliefs, past experiences, and our prejudices or fears. We need the ability to detach from our default frame of reference to understand and empathize with others. Looking at our own flaws in our worldview is not easy.
WHAT I LEARNED:
This is going to be something I write a lot more about in coming pieces. Frame of reference is like a thesis I plan on spending a lot of time on. I think I learned this based on my expectations of myself and how generally I can’t expect the same from others. I have put myself through some very challenging situations, seen some extreme wealth from up close, and explored who I am as an individual in depth. These factors determine how I view the world and interact with others. I can’t expect someone who’s never challenged themselves to completely relate to who I am or what I’m working towards. I can’t expect someone who’s never seen the insidious dark side of wealth to understand my growing admiration of minimalism and anti-consumer rhetoric. I definitely can’t expect someone to understand me who doesn’t understand themselves.
“To influence someone you need to understand what already influences them.”
This quote helped bring awareness beyond my own frame of reference. I have a somewhat optimistic and positive bias (deliberately) that many do not share. The worldview we bring with us can be of great service, but we need the awareness of what influences our own worldview. Where did it come from? Did I consciously choose it or was it just what I became by default? Two people can look at the same event, and see different things. One might perceive an opportunity, the other a crisis. If part of our belief structure is not beneficial we can put in the work to re-evaluate and re-create our own beliefs. How do you see the world?
This list of 5 learning experiences has all been part of a journey towards self-actualization. I am not perfect. I am not better than anyone.
I am learning.
I am growing.
I am working on giving and contributing more, at levels beyond myself.
That’s why I wrote this. To share some things I’ve been focused on and have helped me dramatically with happiness, fulfillment, and inner peace. I wish the same for you.