“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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Here, now. Go.

Deep breath. Calm yourself. Now: go.

Hi friends. I’m happy you’ve joined me here. After much thinking, talk, and hesitation, this blog now officially exists outside of my own head. Some may thinking “Um, starting a new blog? That happens about… 8 times a second?” The answer to which is: likely. But throw in a modicum butt-load of fear of doing things that make me feel exposed to ridicule (I won’t even start on perfectionist tendencies here), and an apparent baby step easily transforms into something much more. Thanks for leaping with me.

Past

I’ve been by-the-books and obedient of categories & authority more often than not throughout my life: – the product of a unique mix of eastern cultural influence / family dynamics / personality / societal dictations (among other things). So throughout high school and university, I got great at tapping into that to become a master of checking off the boxes, seeking definitions, meeting (or exceeding) the clarified criteria, figuring out what other people wanted and delivering… basically, I got very good at working the system, doing what I was told, and getting things DONE. These are great skills to be sure – but lacking as stand-alones.

Until a few years ago I feel I largely lived, studied, and worked as if business, sciences, design, computer sciences, engineering, arts, etc. were mostly independent disciplines. They have overlap of course, but big picture: they just don’t mix. I mean, they’re in separate faculties for a reason! A scientist has no business working with an artist in the real world… (sadly this false assumption seems to play out heavily in the actual ‘real world’). In the same vein: school, work, volunteering, family & friends, life – these were somewhat siloed categories that I struggled to juggle; they just didn’t fit together in a way that made good sense, and a couple of things always took the backseat.

I was somehow missing that crucial piece of knowing: the relatively recent overarching understanding that it all ties together, and that everything makes everything else make sense.

A lot of people… haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have. – Steve Jobs on interaction design, 2005

The funny thing is, I had had plenty of diverse experiences throughout my life, giving me plenty of dots to play with. Doodle-potential like you wouldn’t believe! But I did what many kids do in high-school and onwards: cultivated an identity that fit in instead of standing out, that looked good instead of odd, and then worked damn hard to make that truth. This was especially salient for me as a third-culture kid as I tried to piece myself together from two often-conflicting “menus”.

And that’s the sad little catch-22 right there, isn’t it? In all our haste to conform, to fit into the mould & go after the big ‘success’ and ‘happiness’ pieces, we oftentimes sweep aside the very things that would actually make us successful. Packed away in a chest with the other frivolous things, in shoe-boxes under the bed – because now it was time to get serious, get in the game, and get ahead! So my dots stayed largely unexplored & unconnected; a treasure trove of incubated potential patiently waiting while I was off trying to conquer the world.

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run — in the long-run, I say!— success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it – Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)

Recently

My unconventionally unconventional journey began somewhat accidentally. Allowing myself the freedom to step back and take a brief break, I slowly shifted from a focus of (over)”doing” to one of “being”. (This territory may include lots of introspection, thinking, reading, asking why until you’re sick of hearing yourself say it, etc.) In the process of pulling those dots out of storage and connecting with myself, the hazy silo-veil that I’d been perceiving the world through also began to lift away.

Now, progress is always incremental, sometimes so stealthy that we don’t notice, but always sprinkled with milestones that stand out in retrospect. An important event for me to recognize was a self-definition breakthrough I had in March; a seemingly innocuous exchange with someone at a conference made me really stop and realize: I’m seeing connections that some others are missing. Others with titles, with expertise, with insight. I have unique value to offer; I’m creative. (This event was a one-two punch in importance, because the ever-important event description didn’t include me as an invited type of audience; I thought it would be valuable and went anyways – a daring move to by-the-books me of yesteryear).

Fast forward >> this was my day just shy of three months ago, on April 18th: hit with such inspiration and drive that I actually felt it viscerally, I sat and started writing like a crazy person. Ideas were pouring out of me; cue cards were everywhere. It seemed to be the product of that incubated potential, unleashed. The phrase “jotting down thoughts; connecting the dots” flashed through my mind… and lazily hung around.

From the perspective of the brain, new ideas are merely several old thoughts that occur at the exact same time. – Jonah Lehrer on memory & creativity, How We Decide (2009)

thoughtsaredots was born to embody the constantly eye-opening, awe-evoking, knock-me-back realization that everything is connected. If this is a “no, duh” statement to you – beauty. I want to be more like you, and hope we get to chat one day soon. For those who didn’t roll your eyes all the way into your head, you’re closer to the space that I’d come from. Because when I say everything is connected, I do literally mean everything. Sometimes overwhelming, yet awesome in the truest sense of the word.

Here, Now

Thankfully, I’m still great at all those skills that my formal training helped me hone in. But now I’ve pulled back my lens to bring more diversity & potential into focus. Paired with a recent propensity to disregard divisive labels and bend boundaries – there’s really nothing stopping me but me (much more on that to come). I sometimes struggle now to to see things as parceled into separate entities. There’s not a single thing that I’ve experienced over the years – studying biological sciences & arts psychology, dance, event management, various leadership roles, acting, philanthropy, personal relationships, Bikram yoga – that fails to coalesce…

So here we are. This blog will be as I am: a work in progress. Part personal, part pondering, all genuine. Stick around if you’re curious – we can see where this goes together.

Humbly, ~ H

The big dots of the post

Ÿ It’s always the right time to shift perspective, to change trajectory. I’m a 20-something born-again dreamer and reforming realist, mindfully overriding my old perfectionist & procrastinatory tendencies to make big things happen.
Ÿ There’s a place where life and diverse disciplines like the arts, sciences, business and technology intersect; I call it home.
ŸŸ My path is my own – not fully “conventional”, nor fully “unconventional”. I’m negotiating this as I have all the countless other in-betweens in my life, making my self-identity as a creative connector that much stronger.

What about you? Do you feel you’re stuck in silos  or do you draw diverse connections all the time?  Has any stealthy progress crept past your radar lately?