Don’t you love it when a thought spiral finally resolves? This one has been swirling around in the background for weeks. I realized it’s been a thread stringing all my recent ideas together, when I noticed I’ve linked to like every blog post I’ve written in the last couple months in this one post.
I’ve been thinking of how to define or contain my own personal philosophy. I’m not quite a minimalist, although I do tend toward simple living. I’m still a new zero-waster, but reducing excess has floated around in my mind for at least the last 10 years. I believe in design and strategy and focused effort. Yet, I also believe in people and taking a soft approach so that changes are welcomed and easy, not a full on emotional assault. This has all been floating around in there making me wonder what exactly am I? I know I didn’t want to define it, but I wanted to understand it more deeply.
Now that I’m getting things out in writing, I notice they’re not lingering around, distracting me on drives and keeping me up at night. At least the loud ones aren’t, but the quiet ones, the more complicated ones, have settled to the bottom of my consciousness. That’s where all this is coming from. I could feel something tiny bouncing around in there and it finally crept out.
Before I explain what it was, we need to go back in time so you’ll have some context. This is probably like my 8th blog. Each one was promising and started strong, but picking just one focused topic or audience to write for was usually not enough to sustain my interest long term. I’ve found that I’m all over the place. I like to evolve. I like to chew on ideas and then spit them out if I don’t like it and try another one. I explore through writing and the blog you’re reading now is the first time I’ve put it up for others to read. I believe I do my best writing for myself as an exploration in how to become a better person. I’ve been writing this way in private notebooks for almost 20 years!? Yea, it’s been a long time and one of my most consistent and enduring habits.
So yesterday, Luis needed something to take notes and I’ll be damned if I didn’t have any paper anywhere, because I went paperless years ago. Coming from the girl who used to have about a million Kero Kero Keroppi notebooks, this felt like an accomplishment. I had to dig up one of my old notebooks from 10 years ago in which I had distilled some of my favorite wisdom from at least fifteen other notebooks.
And it was that notebook that I picked up and started reading. Isn’t there something so lovely and comforting about reintroducing old thoughts into your mental space? I remember when these things occurred to me for the first time and I felt it was poignant enough to write it in my best cursive. These musings were like old friends and when reunited with my new thoughts, I recognized that there is something eternal in what I value. The new and the old became fast friends and I noticed how similar they still were. I was still thinking about the same things, efficiency, focus and all that is essential. I had a lot more theories then because I didn’t have any experience, but I was proud of myself for having put these untested theories collected from books into practice for the last 10 years and refining them.
There was one thing in all of the piles of wisdom that helped me close a couple mind loops and start on a journey to more deeply understand myself. Here’s the first:
The quality of a person’s life is only as strong as their weaknesses.
I’ve been neglecting my weaknesses lately. I been working on maximizing and improving what I’m good at but it hasn’t been enough to get me where I want. Focusing effort makes sense, but it is incomplete. I knew this, but I’ve been forgetting to practice it. I thought going fast and furious was the way, but it creates a lot of wasted resources and energy. I touched on it earlier this month:
The path of abundance isn’t the path that maximizes velocity. It’s the path that minimizes friction. If you try to maximize velocity, you end up maximizing friction too, thereby causing massive amounts of heat. Ultimately, you burn up.
My frustration with my lack of progress has been mounting since March so I don’t think it’s coincidence that I started going zero waste around the same time. In the past, I’ve made the most progress when I focus on what is coming in and what is going out so I believe by going zero waste, I was subconsciously summoning those habits. I’ve been focusing intensely on maximizing everything and minimizing waste and lo and behold, I’ve advancing my leaps again. My mom always said that if you respect money, more money comes to you. I don’t think this is true about just money. I believe if you respect what you have and make the most of it, you’ll find much more of everything will appear out of nowhere. I’m finding more time, money and energy, but I had to cut out all the ways I was wasting it.
This got me thinking about why I’ve been so obsessed with competence since I read about it mid April in the Strategic Review. I’ve re-read the email about a dozen time, but I couldn’t figure out why I found it so fascinating. That is, until now. Here’s an excerpt that we’ll need to continue:
People don’t become competent because it takes work to become competent.
Napoleon was born in 1769. In 1793, he was promoted to Brigadier General – at the age of 24 years old.
When he was given command of France’s Army of Italy, things were in disarray. The soldiers lacked discipline, order, and even the most basic of supplies – ammunition and shoes.
The soldiers were not paid on time, and often looted – sometimes enemies, and sometimes friends – to survive.
While it sounds so basic and trivial, Napoleon found a way to get his soldiers in shoes, get their wages paid, secured enough ammunition and food, improved sanitation, dismissed unruly and incompetent officers, and otherwise just got on with the business of soldiering.
There was no particular magic to it, though the effects would be dramatic.
Likewise, while known for some of his brilliant maneuvers, Napoleon often just out-worked his adversaries. He planned more. He did more reconnaissance. He engaged in more diplomacy. He trained more. He marched more.
Unsurprisingly, fixing these very basic of problems led to a better fighting force, which led to victories, which led to momentum and morale, which led to more victories.
It didn’t start with brilliant maneuvers – it started with getting shoes, getting the soldiers he inherited to stop committing crimes, and paying them on time.
Competence. Mere Competence.
I think I only know one person who is truly competent in every way and now that I think about it, it’s because he doesn’t neglect the basics. If there is a fundamental skill he should know, he learns it. He doesn’t make excuses about why it’s so difficult or try to find a fancy workaround to compensate for his weaknesses. He creates a plan, prioritizes and makes time to get it done. It’s so simple! If you focus on practicing the fundamentals, which everyone else is neglecting, you’ll get to where you want to be.
Which brings me back to weaknesses. I need to shift from offense to defense. Rather than finding a way to get more, I need to find a way to lose less. I need to get back to basics so that I can move forward. For me the most basic elements are those which I can’t live without. I will start there and do the slow boring work. I’ll write a post on my weaknesses after I do a thorough assessment and lay out a plan for how I plan to address them.
This came out in a conversation with my dad the other day. I was telling him about how I got a composter and how I’ve been trying to cut down on all the extra crap in my life because it’s making me unhappy.
My dad, like a boy scout, is prepared for everything. He has so much stuff, just in case like: specialized tools, extra parts, things for the apocalypse…we’re not talking all out hoarding, but it’s a lot more stuff than I would be comfortable managing. He also gathers a lot of it at yard sales, swap meets or he keeps an eye out and finds useful things discarded all over the place so it’s not just rampant consumption. It’s a lot of really useful things and I’m lucky because I get to borrow it. So when having this conversation, I didn’t want to totally diss on his way of doing things, even though he’s my foil.
When we were talking, I wanted to explain what I was doing so I could frame my actions in a personal context. Not that I owe anyone an explanation, but my dad will help me achieve my ends if he knows what they are, even if they are different from his.
So I said something along the likes of “I feel like all I do is work, buy stuff, throw it away over and over an over. And I’m tired of spending my Saturdays going to store to replenshish my stock or running errands to maintain my stuff when I could be doing fun things. Is this all there is? Is this all my life has become?” To which one of his replies was, it’s interesting that path that each of us (my siblings and I) have taken.
I took it as a wise way of looking at weird ideas. How he can see things differently from me and still support them, the way he accepts each of us. There was no rebuttal or suggestions.
I also thought it was kind of funny too. Years ago I used to go head to head with my dad all the time about what was expected of women. Here I used to be the fierce little feminist in my youth, (which I still am BTW) but in a lot of ways, I’ve become quite the domestic goddess. I thought expecting women to maintain a perfect happy home was a little trick employed by the patriarchy to keep women working on small trivial household things instead of on the awesome global things we could accomplish. To an extent, I still believe this is partly true, so I try not to strive for domestic perfection, yet I see how an efficient home, can help me be more successful. (Important side note though, I don’t try to have it all by doing it all myself. I believe a good domestic partner is the key to making it work, but that’s a post of its own.)
I can work longer and focus better with a stomach full of homemade food than I do with processed junk food and microwaved boxed meals. If I keep things organized and well stocked, I can get what I need faster and free up more time to write. If I make my own products with bulk ingredient I don’t have to spend as much time going to buy them. Reducing waste was the next logical step to give me more time to focus on what is important to me. Even though it means I have more domestic duties, it enriches my work, makes me a better manager and delegater, and forces me to focus on my true priorities. I now believe regular chores give you the discipline to do great things.
Deep down, my ideals have been the same since I was teenager, I just didn’t know how to achieve them. As it turns out, achieving some of them meant doing things I thought I should avoid. I didn’t see that a household is a tiny business where I could practice my ideas before I tried them in the real world. I thought it was a tiny prison, which it can be if you let it. The thing is that it can be a haven or a prison or both or neither. I’m now starting to see how labels and absolutes and fixed paths are silly when any path can and should be modified to suit the individual. No one will end up going right down the middle. I think older people know this. When you’re younger and in the midst of the confusion that comes from choosing a path, this is less obvious.
Now thinking back on it, I’m more sure of where I’m going, but I’m not so worried about the map I need to get there. I have no idea if I’m going to end up where I say so I don’t give the end place a name. I’m still pretty young and figuring it out and I might get there and find I don’t want to be there, which has happened before.
What I know right now is that I like it when my life takes care of itself. Ending cycles of consumption has made my life easier because I don’t have to manage supplies. I’ve tried to close loops whenever possible so I can get out of the rat race one day. This means durable lasting solutions. Cloth napkins means I won’t forget to buy them again and again or have to write it on a list somewhere or remind my partner to get it when he goes to the store. It means fewer trips to Target and also less trash. It’s just done. Done all the time too so that I can get on with my life. If I could do this for everything my life could become something else. Less consuming more creating.
Is this all my life has become?
I think this question comes up when we’re working too much and not ending up with enough of what matters most to us. The thing is that I’m getting a lot out of life lately. I’m creating, writing, gardening, cooking and working on interesting projects, maybe that’s why the bad stuff sticks out like a sore thumb. I want even more out of life. If I can squeeze out the remaining crap and disposable stuff and clutter and make more room for the things that feed me, that would be awesome. And instead when I think is this all my life has become rather than feel empty and tired, I can smile confidently say, yes, yes it is, isn’t it wonderful?
Your belief at the deepest level about how you relate to the universe and your duties and destinies here, this becomes the wellspring of your feelings – those become your thoughts, and those becomes your actions.