“Less talk, more walk”: on ninja habits & gratitude.

A visual aggregate of 365 days’ worth of reflection, using Wordle.

It’s Canadian Thanksgiving tomorrow! In the spirit of celebration, I dug through my personal archives for a very precious (and unintentional – hence the “ninja”) project, that became a defining piece of me for a time. The below is based on the daily practice from January 26, 2011 – January 26, 2012 (365 day span) that I kept up on Facebook. Each day, I would physically type out something positive that happened / something that I was grateful for, always starting with “Today I…”.

I have, since writing this back in February, deliberately moved away this daily habit (so some things make more sense in past tense). Regardless, most of the principles still hold to the present day.  So without further ado…

~~~

After crossing the threshold of one full year of daily updates, the data nerd in me got a bit curious. So, I decided to get *really* meta on this reflection thing. Here are some of the results, and the background info.

Top 5 “Today I…”
1.  … remembered that you don’t have to wait ’till something is gone to know what you’ve got. Realize. (July 31)
2.  … caught myself saying “I can’t”. So I stopped, and instead used “I can” & “I will”. Boom. (September 26)
3.  … left behind family, friends and the fully familiar. Adventure time. (November 19)
4.  … rediscovered the danger of a single story, and the liberation that comes with the discovery of multiple perspectives. (November 24)
5.  … experienced an inexplicable feeling of excitement, calm, gratitude, possibility… all mixed in to one. One thought that crossed my mind earlier about sums it up: “This is my life right now. And I absolutely love it.” (August 10)

BACKGROUND
“My Daily” (as I refer to it my head) is my conscious effort to focus on one positive aspect unique to the day that just came to a close.  WHY?

It makes me pause. There are days so jam packed that it’s tough to stop and really think, if even for just a few minutes. My Daily forces me out of the now, to somewhat meaningfully reflect on my past 24 hours.

It keeps me on my toes. Any man who knows a thing knows he knows not a damn thing at all” – K’naan Sometimes something happens early in the day that I think “this is it – what I’ll post about tonight”. But life happens, and reminds me to never, ever assume. The beautiful unpredictability of life is that, good or bad, unexpected can always happen: something that means more to you than what has already passed. There’s no real way to anticipate that, but being aware of this is huge for me; my Daily is a tangible reminder of this.

It is usually not easy. These posts are always authentic. Making shit up would just be me lying to myself and anyone reading.

the good Some days so many good things happen that I don’t know what to post about – that builds a ridiculous amount of gratitude. Most days, it just reminds me how obscenely lucky I am in the grand scheme of things, and that I’ve really got nothing to complain about. Instant whine-stopper.

the bad Just like anyone else, I have those days. One shitty thing happens after another / you’re hit with so much apathy that you can’t get yourself to accomplish anything / you’re hurting / tears are involved, etc. They’re tough, because sometimes it’s hard to pick myself out of that. But pain, loss, anger, frustration… just parts of life. I find confronting them / acknowledging them (or even ignoring them for the time being) and focusing on one positive thing pretty empowering.

the ninja Then there are the ‘whatever’ days. The ones that leave me feeling like “nothing really happened today. I just went through the whole day with nothing remarkable (good or bad) to differentiate it from any other.” Those days are probably the toughest; I really need to dig deep to find something to authentically post about. No matter how long it takes (once it took me a good hour+) I don’t stop ‘till I get it done.

It is a foundation. This exercise is a now-solidified routine in my life. I’ve since been able to use it as a springboard & reminder for other habits. Baby steps.

BENEFITS OF ‘GOING PUBLIC’:

1. I have an ulterior intrinsic motivation to post. Not only for the process itself, but the tangible product – a post a day; something to show the world. Also, it’s measurable data. Nerd attack.

2. Anything I’ve done that I viewed in the “just for me” silo has never stuck. Eventually something more social (work, school, family, relationships) would take precedent. Self-development on Solo Island isn’t for everyone. I now feel like My Daily goes beyond just me — but I’m still getting what I want & need out of it every day. Win-win.

3. It’s hard for me to consistently stay accountable to myself long-term without some external influence sprinkled in the mix time & again. Public posting was an easy way for me to mitigate that – even if nobody actually reads it, the mere possibility of others consuming what I put out there was enough for me to feel supported & accountable.

4. It’s become one of my ‘things’ now. I’ve always been pretty hyper-aware of others’ perceptions of me. Since I can’t be sure how many people (if any) are following the post on any given day, a neglected post could be very visibly missing. Image maintenance is a powerful thing, and I’m basically harnessing my need to be viewed a certain way into something that benefits me. Plus looking back at this consistency now makes me one happy clam.

5. My posts have become a catalyst. Whether a specific post or the “Daily” habit itself – good conversations with friends & acquaintances have come of it. Talking about pop culture, memes, food, politics, world issues… it’s all well and good. But oftentimes, more meaningful conversations for me involve the driving forces behind everything – aspirations, ambitions, hopes, fears, challenges… the ‘deeper stuff’. Everything stems from the human condition. I love it, and will happily talk about it ‘till the cows come home. This makes it that much more likely.

6. My ‘practice of pause’ has made others do the same. That’s why I keep most of my posts “horoscope-like” vague; too specific to me, and they lose personal relevance to someone else. Some of the most memorable conversations I’ve had stemming from posts involved someone’s radically different interpretation of my post as applied to their own life. If by publicly sharing something I do anyways can impact someone else positively, even remotely, then a thousand times yes. It’s pretty selfish of me to be honest – makes my life more interesting.

…I did this first and foremost for my own benefit, and honestly didn’t intentionally start it to be a long-standing habit.

POSTS
Total daily postings missed: 8
Total status ‘likes’: 464
Total status comments (not including my own): 151

PEOPLE
Unique individuals interacting: 139
Impacted enough to use this as a model for own daily reflection: 2
Things I hope to get out of this: Questions. Challenges. Conversations.

~~~

As is the unfortunate reality in many of our comfortable & privileged lives, we tend to focus on the gaps & what is missing rather than reveling in what we have – and it inevitably takes something jarring or tragic to focus on what really matters. My catalyst was a health-scare with my dad – a close-to-home reminder of the fragility of life. It started me on a different mental path, which grew into a daily gratitude practice. I can honestly say it changed my life.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Humbly (and with thanks), ~ H

P.S. The above was edited/added to for length & relevance. If you’re curious enough for the full, unedited version as I wrote it in February 1, 2012, it lives here.
P.P.S. It’s kind of funny, looking back, to realize that I was blogging before I gave myself permission to be a full-on blogger. Ain’t that always the way?

The big dots of the post

Constant practice will make a truly lasting impact. Ergo, be aware of what you constantly do.
Figure out your own strengths & weaknesses, and exploit the heck out of that knowledge to get what you want.
There is always, always, always something to be thankful for… It’s almost intoxicating.
Sometimes doing something for yourself is doing something for others, too. You can never quite know who’s watching, or how far your ripple will reach.
 Habitual practice over one-time shows. Every time.

How do you practice gratitude? 

Related:
Past behaviour is the best predictor of future performance (on behaviour-based interviewing)

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How to make every day great

Have you ever noticed how sometimes the best days are those completely arbitrary ones, like that random Tuesday in March? Those days that don’t hold much expectation for anything extraordinary happening per-se – and nothing particularly extraordinary (in the oft-defined sense) happens – yet the resulting joy is somehow completely ninja and so special?

Making yourself inviting means letting go of your attachment to the outcome of your desire. When you can engage with someone without expecting any particular result, you can receive any reply without taking it personally.

(Marinade in that for a bit.)

Some things that jumped to my mind? Soliciting feedback on something (that first attempt at making roast lamb / leading a 250-guest event). Asking someone out. (These are the people-focused ones.)

I also extrapolate this to engaging with something – a day, an event, a book, an experience, a trip – without expecting any particular result. The “reply” can then be how a road-trip plays out, what you get out of a concert / conference experience, how that dinner party went that cutie the other night, etc.

Hopping back to the opening idea of ninja-happy days, I propose a few examples:

Your bestie surprises you with a small and incredibly thoughtful gift. (This could be the gift of uninterrupted time on a phone call amidst mutual schedule chaos.)
It’s a wonderfully sunny day.
Some stranger you’ll never see again initiates a pleasant conversation for a few minutes during your day.
Your partner clears their Thursday evening so that you can both do anything – or do nothing at all – together.

Warm & fuzzy, right?

Now imagine the impact of each of the above if:

It’s your birthday.
It’s your wedding day. Outdoors.
You’re at a mingler event.
It’s your anniversary.

Do things change? Should they? The happenings, unchanged, suddenly range anywhere from being just a “drop in the bucket” to absolute day-makers… and I contend that it’s all on us, as the recipients. We actually have full control. (Awesome.)

Note: I distinguish between (a) not being attached to a specific expectation and (b) not having any expectations, period. The latter I view as extremely useful, especially when striving towards a goal or ambition. It’s a fine line, but I’m more swirling in the former, which for me equates to letting go of a sense of entitlement.

So I propose:

Enough of the unhealthy expectations.
Enough of the vice-like grips on that one result / outcome.
Enough of the entitlement.

Instead, live with a wonderful lack of expectation just a little more often. Take in life with open eyes and gratitude. Reclaim “ordinary” and tack on the “extra” yourself.

This plugs into the whole “the journey is the reward” concept for me. By being more inviting (living & interacting more flexibly in our expectation of outcomes) we make it much easier for ourselves to see the extraordinary in the everyday. I see so many good days ahead.

Humbly, ~ H

The big dots of the post

Expectations are not so bad. It’s when they morph into entitlement that we sabotage great days.
Take back ordinary. Marvel in what’s around us all the time.
Redefine extraordinary. Try living your next big event (anniversary / Mother’s Day) as “just another day” and see how incredible it becomes.
Be a little unconventional. Don’t wait for the “special” day to do something for others. (Those days are expectation booby-traps anyways). Delight someone with a birthday-caliber surprise on any old Wednesday.
If you hit “change something” in the flowchart above, here’s the empowering tidbit: the thing we change is us — total control. BOOM.

How inviting vs. entitled do you think you are? In this wonderful mess called life, how do you balance this notion of “letting go of expectations” with being “ambitious and driven”?

Related:
A note from the ever-lovely Amber Rae

~~~

The above quote was one of two striking lines from an article written by Charlie Glickman. You can read it here. The second line is waiting its turn for the next post – for the sake of brevity, and to give these thoughts the space & time they deserve. So, connect away. More from me next week.

The tiny shift that changed my life

What’s this about? A simple little substitution with ridiculously disproportionate effects in my life – for the better. Will it change your life? Probably. What is this magic, you ask?

The shift

“I have to…” → “I get to…”

That’s it. It digs into one of the points from my last post – that our thoughts and words often play a bigger role than we sometimes realize (or admit to).

The effect
The power of this is that it re-frames… everything. It immediately takes something from obligation → privilege. This is what gratitude in practice looks like for me.

• I don’t have to pay my bills. I get to – because I actually have a smartphone, access to transportation & the Internet, a place to live, etc.
• I don’t have to figure out my life. I get to. How many people have this freedom to steer their life trajectory?
• I don’t have to go to the bank or the grocery store. I get to – because I actually have money of my own to deal with and easy access to food.

Note: I still complain about these things sometimes – I’m human. I’ve just gotten better at realizing when I am, stopping, and going through the reframe-for-gratitude process.

Fair warnings
Making this shift will change your relationships – and this can go either way.
“Ugh, I have so much stuff to do tonight” ← this is relatable. “I get to clean, cook, write a report for work, and do my readings; I’m so freakin’ lucky” – not so much. (It might earn you one of these.) Of course what it actually means is: I recognize that I have a home to clean, food to prep, a job to contribute to & earn from, and the privilege of education… But where I’m from, defaulting to misery & complaining is always a lot easier.

So expect a few feathers ruffled when you’re going against the masses. You might become irritating to some. Obnoxiously positive to the point of extremely annoying, even; any current relationships based primarily on co-miserating will have to adapt or die. But that’s what happens when you think different. That – and being viewed as someone with a rainbow stuck up their butt – was a risk I was willing to take. I’m just doing my due diligence to let you know some of the consequences of taking this advice. There are too many up-sides for me to do it any other way.

Putting it into practice
Still want to do it? Brill. It can be simple, but I found it hard to do at first. Assuming you’re coming from the same “woe is me” privileged sense as I, you’re up against re-programming a habit ingrained through years of practice. There’s no flick of the switch that will undo that – it just takes cultivating a new habit to override the old one.

Bad habits are overcome by learning new routines and practicing them over and over again. – Timothy Wilson covering Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit

While we’re at it, let’s step back from a quick assumption: that “tiny” = “easy” or “inconsequential”. See: butterfly effect.

Step 1
: Take a few days to just become aware of how often / seldom you say “I have to ___”. The toughest step is usually to recognize that. Count if you must.
Step 2: Start subbing in “I get to ___” instead, and go down the quick path of ‘what that actually means’. Resist the urge to roll your eyes at yourself. (It can seem ridiculous when you’re in the throws of an all-nighter to stop and think “I get to study for this, because I’m lucky enough to be in school. Do it anyways.)
Step 3: Repeat steps 1 & 2.

Don’t just take my word for it
I Googled “i have to i get to” after drafting this post and lo and behold – someone’s thought this exact thought already. Beauty. So if you’re on the fence about taking my word for it, perhaps backup from a New York Times best-selling author holds more clout for you (it’s a spot-on post, I suggest a read). Many others have thought the same, of course. Sometimes it’s not about who you choose to believe, as long as the message gets across. I always gladly connect people to other great thinkers if the alternate source will be taken more seriously. I’m just trying to make change happen.

So read. Believe. Do.

Humbly, ~ H

ps: Another wildly powerful “little swap” was when I got more deliberate about “I don’t / I won’t have time” → “I don’t / won’t make time”. BOOM. More on that next time…

The big dots of the post

Think in a certain way long enough and I swear you’ll start to believe it – for better or for worse.
Co-miserating is usually easier than co-marveling. The latter is way more worth it.
Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. It always starts small.
It’s about being happy with, and grateful for, “now”, even as we look forward to different things “one day”.
Yes, it might actually suck. Who said privilege was supposed to be easy?

What do you get to do? What do you make time for? Any other powerful swaps that have been game-changers for you?

Related:
#firstworldproblems
Everything is amazing and nobody is happy (start at the ~2 min mark)

Gentle Reminders from Ramadan

A bit of context

I grew up in a Muslim family. Though I don’t categorize myself as faithfully religious, I do practice many of the traditions and customs of Islam because they hold personal meaning and align with my values. Observing the holy month of Ramadan is one that has been a constant since grade school – one that I look forward to each year, and try to practice humbly when the time comes.

For me, it is physical meditation; a palpable practice of mindfulness, compassion, gratitude; it is community, connection, solidarity; a delicious juxtaposition of control and surrender. Ramadan also has a knack of kicking my propensity toward big / random / abstract thinking up a notch. So, naturally….

On to the Lesson(s)

Many of us have the luxury of knowing this during our month of practice:

Fast all day; abundance awaits at sunset.

Last night, my mom & I had our first Iftar of 2012 (1433 Islamic calendar). About halfway through, we exchanged a “wow, my stomach kind of hurts” sentiment. The irony of this was not lost on either of us. That this came from having too much, too fast, not yet 15 full minutes removed from an 18-hour day of abstaining from all food and drink… a sort of growing pains, if you will. We were now aching a similar ache — but for a very different reason. Cue head-shaking.

On the menu: Spinach, cucumber, tomato & baby shrimp salad; Rice noodle & veggie soup; Mixed fruit (peach, mango, kiwi, cherry, raspberry) & yogurt; Apple slices with cheese cubes. Dates (not pictured). Water. A far cry from the traditional Bengali-influenced Iftar we’ve historically had.

I will never forget my mom telling me once, years ago (this is the 90s, people) about the realities of many of the beggars in Bangladesh. About how sometimes after fasting all day in the sweltering heat, all they have to break their fast with is a  glass of water (not Vancouver-sparkling-clean, either); maybe some rice or lentils or some bread, if they’re lucky. There is no clock ticking down to “GO”, letting them know the instant they can dig in to the feast within arms’ reach. No 30-day countdown until “things go back to normal”. I heard this sitting at the Iftar table: warm and safe, hungry and waiting.

(Aside: I’m so grateful for my mother being such a vivid and impactful storyteller. She somehow intuited that my sister and I were in humble — rather than self-centered “I’m so hungry, CAN’T THAT CLOCK TICK ANY FASTER?!” — mode, and delivered those few powerful and sobering words that shaped the way I try to live my life to this day.)

Last night, I was feeling guilty about my abundance, my luxury, my relative gluttony. There I was, too full to eat everything we’d prepared for ourselves, knowing that in that instant, poverty and food security – local, national, global – were very real issues for countless others. Knowing that this was not just a far-away, “them” problem; knowing that for some it doesn’t end when Ramadan does. Knowing what it can feel like, and then easily being able to move on to the other side, like a visitor… a poser. I dwelled on the guilt for awhile. Turned it over in my head. Then I stopped, and re-framed.

This is privilege, in all its glory – the simultaneous blessing and curse. Acknowledging this, I chose gratitude over guilt.

Stepping back to a global big-picture: I could easily be living a very different life. Considering the sheer chance-filled & arbitrary nature of the major decisions that shaped my family’s trajectory, it’s kind of a wonder that I’ve landed exactly where I am today. It blows my mind on the daily.

I think we’ve all been in those situations when, no matter how badly we want to change the it (or the world), in that instant we just can’t. The only thing we can change is ourselves – how we think, feel, act. My guilt in that moment was not going to feed those without access to food (it could act as a motivator for future action, but that’s another topic). The only thing it was doing was robbing me of fully appreciating the gift I’m living. In that moment, in choosing gratitude, I chose acceptance. (I hurry to add: this is not the same thing as complacency.)

I understand that my fortune is privilege, is opportunity, is obligation. My struggle is in seeing my own place on the spectrum of inequality, in negotiating empathy and compassion with circumstantial powerlessness. My struggle will always be in remembering this momentary discomfort that connects me to the daily stories of millions. These are just some of gentle reminders Ramadan affords me.

The biggest loss last night wouldn’t have been the unfinished food; in that moment, it would have been my not learning from my blatant little brush with over-abundance, my not appreciating right now. This is my life, my reality (and I ain’t afraid to show it…) – I am ridiculously blessed, and I know it.

Humbly, ~ H

The big dots of the post

We want (or feel we need) much more than we actually do. Life is a constant dance with the concept of enough.
That saying “Poor little rich girl” holds such diverse meaning; struggle and fortune can be physical, mental, emotional, ethical.
We’re so damn fickle sometimes.
Gratitude seems to have this magical ability to make the current moment perfect.

Have you re-framed something in your life recently? Chosen gratitude over something less giving? Changed yourself when you couldn’t charge out to ‘save the world’?

So, what are you…

As I stretch and settle into this blog, I’m still searching for my voice. This post is maybe a bit more story-telly & me-centric than the tone I’ll strive to hit. Or it could be the magic right here right now. Regardless, it comes straight from the heart, as the first has and the rest will. So, I post – in all its imperfect glory. A day not challenged is no way to live.

My recent past has been filled with conventionally-questionable activity. A quarter-century into this adventure we call life, I am not in school, nor am I working full-time – both of these by choice, and much to the chagrin of my well-meaning South Asian parents. (Don’t get me wrong: I love them, they love me, and they want what’s good for me. I know this and am so grateful; it’s just tough to negotiate that gratitude with the challenges & tensions that come from me going off the beaten path and not quite having a satisfactory answer on lock.)

So what am I doing?
I ask myself this question sometimes every morning now. (I should have been asking it more often before this little adventure started, but that’s for later.) A snapshot of my life as of today looks like me living, learning, and working by:

Ÿ Reprogramming many of the habits & personal scripts that had historically held me back – proudly doing some major damage to my bucket list & life goals as a result.

 Following a cross-disciplinary, self-curated curriculum consisting of online courses, conferences, seminars, workshops, events, books, scholarly articles, websites, videos, TED talks, blogs, conversations with incredibly intelligent people… learning more diverse content than ever before and honestly just becoming a big life-nerd.

Ÿ Doing lots pro-bono work with some great organizations.

Ÿ Getting creative (e.g. bartering) to keep things I value in my life during a time where my budget is quite… exclusive.

Being better to my body than maybe ever before, by making sure I eat, sleep, and sweat – well, and enough.

Ÿ Nurturing relationships with countless ridiculously amazing people who I’m somehow blessed to have as friends, family, mentors, thought-twins, tribe members, co-conspirators…

Ÿ Having many barrier-shattering, candid conversations about the stuff that really matters, with people I used to have my “Everything’s fine! I got this!” facade on around – and realizing that true strength lies in being really vulnerable & vulnerably real.

So, the more fitting question would be “what am I being?” since the common theme has essentially been “figuring out this thing called life & learning how to BE.” Specifically on the career front (the thing on the front-burner of my obsessive mind), I’ve been:

Ÿ Honing in on that sweet spot where my passions, knowledge, and skills intersect. (I feel like I’ve figured this out for the time being. The fun part is – it’s always going to change. Consider it a never-really-checked-off item on the life To-Do To-Be list.)

Ÿ Quieting the voice inside that keeps nagging at me with “you think you can actually do this?” and to just go out there and DO, guns blazing (having researched proper firearm use & safety precautions; I’m nothing if not thorough).

That last little point has been my biggest hang-up. I roughly know the steps I need to take. I’ve got a solid skill set to start with, a good foundation of knowledge, enough sense of direction to forage forward; I have value to offer. I just need to put myself out there, occupy my right-now niche, and find my audience (oh you elusive bunch!).

For better and for worse, this is one of the most important parts that my reprogramming hasn’t quite addressed yet: undoing ~20 years’ worth of training that helped me be a little too good at being loss-averse, at minimizing risk & avoiding failure – the exact things that need conquering to really live life out loud. Blazing a trail and creating something new – in relationships, in work, in life – is equal(?) parts romantic and terrifying. I’m still living somewhere in the negotiation process, as I have been for a few months now. When getting disheartened or frustrated, I remind myself that things worth doing are rarely easy, or quick.

Luckily, I also have the love and support of many wonderful, intelligent, no-nonsense (WINNing) people that push me to see myself as they see me (you know who you are, and you should know that I can’t get enough of you). They are my champions, who hold me to greatness so that I can reach my true potential.

[If we overestimate and overrate man, we promote him to what he really can be…] (Idealists) are the true, the real realists… If we take man as he is, we make him worse. But if we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be. – Viktor Frankl quoting Goethe, circa 1972. Check out the video – so spot on.

I am an instigator. I strike up conversations about passions. I catalyze people getting to their “point B”. I share everything I know with anyone open to hearing it. I feel like the conversations I’ve been having with said WINNing people, and the mutual lessons we’ve shared and reinforced, are just too important not to broadcast so I’m just bringing real-life me online. If this brings you, questioning & pondering the same things, into the conversation or acts as a starting spark, then I’m a happy puppy. I’m certainly not the only one creating community around this, and maybe not the all-round “best”. But this is as selfish as it is selfless, and is uniquely m; that’s enough for now.

Humbly, ~ H

Ps: In writing this big post, I found (of course) that specific phrases sparked giant thought tangents that could easily fill up entire other entries. Adopting a sane method, I will thoughtfully package & post each in turn, rather than turn this one into an encyclopedia (losing my 3 readers in the process). So, look out for the future postings that I know will inevitably link back to this one.

After all, thoughts are dots; the connections are everywhere.

The big dots of the post

Regularly checking in with yourself and asking the “What am I doing / being” question should really be mandatory of everyone. Personal opinion.
Letting go of ‘should’ and being really vulnerable & vulnerably real is one solid path towards success. Being held to greatness is another. (Once you get over the little – or HUGE – hurdle of terror at the prospect.)
Great ideas are timeless.
Struggling with putting ‘work-in-progress’ and ‘imperfect’ out to the world is still a vice. I stare right at that fear and charge along anyway.
There is not a chance that I could do any of this without much support & encouragement. No man is an island, and I owe oceans to countless; my cup runneth over.

Where do you think you fall on the un/conventional spectrum? Is there something about yourself that you’d love to reprogram? Thinking about your own champions… have you told them lately?