There and Back Again
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Self-employment is a personal journey. You really have to overcome a great deal of your own hangup and weaknesses. Sometimes you can (and must) do that on the fly, busting down the walls that only you can see. Other times it requires deep introspection in order to bring forth that growth.
In my own case, I was startled to find that a lot of my personal “studies” were made a long time ago; either in school or shortly after. Nothing wrong with that– in fact, that’s the ideal time to do them. But I was dismayed to find that they had nearly stopped altogether. I still had things I was interested in, concepts and ideas and models that I wanted to explore, but that I hadn’t made the effort to study. I would read something, think it was really cool, write a note to myself to explore it “later” and then never get back to it. I was busy building businesses. Making a sustainable living for myself.
That’s what the priority is supposed to be, right?
But, stupid me, I realized that part of what made me a successful business person was the studies (self and otherwise) that I had made when I was younger. The deep research I had done on group dynamics, human motivation, organizational methods, cognitive biases, linguistic coding and much more, was responsible for a great deal of my success. And in my shortsightedness of making bank, I had neglected what I’ve come to call self-edification.
Self-edification is one of those delightful practices that seem dreadfully selfish and unproductive on the surface, but which are actually quite valuable. Potentially invaluable, but of course you can’t know that yet.
Self-edification is, at the most general scope, the pursuit of excellence for excellence’s sake, exploration for exploration’s sake, and reflection on knowledge and experience in order to live more fully and deeply.
What that looks like can differ a great deal from individual to individual. Because I’m a lover of words, writing is my métier. I need to not only do a thing, I need to examine it verbally. That’s how I learn, and that’s how I experience life, through language; a written journal. Other people might do it through art, through an artist’s notebook, and some people might not even need words at all (although I confess I don’t quite know how that works, I have know people who have done it.)
Being self-employed, there is a certain impulse to submerge myself into my business. I love it. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do what I do and I’m grateful every day to be so privileged.
But when you have little to talk about other than business, that’s a concern. I know I didn’t used to be so one dimensional. I used to write about all sorts of things, but gradually I drifted to only writing things it “paid” to write. Instead of a gift I gave myself, writing became a form of currency.
And maybe some people get stuff all figured out and no longer need to do any self-examination, or learning, or experimentation. Maybe they don’t need to become aware of their habits and ways of thinking and weaknesses and strengths. Maybe they can go through life simply doing. But I can’t.
I also know that there’s stuff about me, and the world, that I still want to understand, non-work-related goals that I still want to achieve, and so on. When did I stop paying attention to those things? I’m not sure. But it’s been a while.
One of the weaknesses in Your Next 6 Months Forever that I mentioned, was that I show people how and why to envision and write down their personal goals at the 5-year and 1-year mark, and then I completely ignore them. I basically say, “So, you’re going to want to figure out how to accomplish these personal goals, but that’s not really something I can help you with. Try not to forget about them, though!”
Part of the reason I couldn’t help you with that is that I didn’t have a system myself to manage them. Treating personal goals like work goals is a good way to become a royal bitch, in my experience.
To be honest, I’m not sure what triggered the realization that I really needed to focus on self-edification. I have told several clients about something called “kaizen journalling” which is an absolutely wonderful thing– it eventually became the backbone of my edification system. In part, I think, was that I started using Evernote and suddenly it seemed possible to have a well organized dashboard, a sort of virtual brain where I could keep all my plans and lists and dreams and research and spreadsheets. In the same way that Leonardo DaVinci’s notebooks could contain plans for helicopters and illustrations of physiology and notes on experiments and lists of things to pick up at the market and books he wanted to read– suddenly I had a place to do that and I realized that I wanted it, desperately.
It was like a thirst that I’d ignored for too long. It burst out of me and demanded my attention. All of it. it refused to be ignored. And soon, I was addicted. It enriched my life in ways I can’t even describe, and I can only imagine how much more valuable it will be after a few months or years.
Because, you see, I’m smart. I’ll admit it. I solve problems, I think profound thoughts, and I have tons of ideas. I do little tests all the time, as do other people, I think. But the question is never, “do you have knowledge?” it’s “what can you do with this knowledge that you’ve accumulated?”
I think far too often, people are moving swiftly from one goal to another, one situation or crisis to the next, without ever stopping to take inventory. What did I learn? How can that knowledge be applied elsewhere?
And what about the other side? Sometimes we get stuck in a rut. But self-reflection can help that. You can say, “What do I like about my life? What do I not like? What would I need to change to be really happy with where I’m at in twenty years?” And then, you can set little goals, make little experiment to see what works.
Right now, I’m testing to see what spending at least twenty minutes outside, every day, does for my life. (Preliminary results are feelings of contentment, more exercise, and a sense of well-being that permeates my days) Another test I’m doing is paying attention to my arousal levels to ensure that I am not over- or under-stimulated, as being in the sweet spot tends to trigger the flow state more effectively. I am also testing a henna shampoo to see if I can go red again without having to piss around with dyes and salons (Problem: I like having auburn hair. But I hate the cost, inconvenience and maintenance of dyeing. Henna shampoo is a possible solution I am testing.)
I feel so fucking alive. I am so conscious of my thoughts, of my experiences. I feel like I’m taking a far more hands-on approach in my life without having to be so calculating and driven as having business goals tends to make me. I have one friend who’s been blogging for 6 years. Nothing special, just his thoughts about whatever he’s reading. He says that his life, since he began, feels more vivid than before. He has a more fully developed inner life, more thoughts about his experiences, which of course make the experiences all the richer.
That’s what I want, too.
But more than that, I fully expect this sort of explosive consciousness-raising to have a marked effect in my business. I don’t know what that will be, yet, but I greatly suspect this habit is one that will spawn inspired business decisions, even aside from whatever lateral opportunities it brings me; I think self-edification is the sort of hard work that makes you lucky.
The system I’ve developed over the last little while when I dropped off the map is still a bit vague. I’ll tell you more about it later, if you’re interested. But I want to know, how vividly or consciously do you feel your experience of life is? Do you have some process of self-edification, or journaling? Do you think I sound like a pothead puffing on some wicked chronic? =P