Notes: Owning Yourself and Stripping Away False Identity

In an article featured in Your Money, Your Life, Adam King writes about how after failing several times to make a living online, he discovered his real problem: he wasn't owning anything of himself.

The concept he shares towards the end, that of uncovering layers of false identity through testing our assumptions, ideas, and beliefs, is incredibly powerful and it's something I intend to actively practice.

I met a successful entrepreneur for brunch in Chicago and she proceeded to fillet the problem wide open for me. "You're not owning anything of yourself," she said. "Own your words, own your vision, own your life."

It didn't take long after that talk for me to uncover the root of all the exhaustion, overwork, stress, and physical breakdown over the past ten years. Simply put, I was pursuing pre-conceived visions of an ideal lifestyle.

Each of my offline businesses was aimed at producing particular experiences tied to a lifestyle vision that I had adopted from other people or from the expectation of the crowd associated with that type of business. The same thing happened when I moved things online. I was pursuing what I was told was the ideal internet lifestyle but, again, it was someone else's ideal rather than my own.

Chasing lifestyles is exhausting because it drains your knowledge, abilities, emotions, and time into bottomless pits. There's no way to achieve the ideal lifestyle of someone else without massive sacrifice of your own truth and happiness.

It's taken time to remove the layers of what I thought I was supposed to pursue so that I can tap into the raw and powerful realizations of what I've actually wanted all along.

One of those layers is identity. In the past, everything I pursued in business and in life was all tied to what is assumed I should obtain due to that identity. If I eliminate the idea of being a writer, artist, designer, or whatever I might call myself, and just focus on mastering that craft, then I grant myself the freedom to achieve the lifestyle I desire outside of the realms of identity and in spite of the social expectations that come from that particular genre or crowd.

It's difficult, being honest with myself about my desired lifestyle. Guilt was a huge factor in holding myself hostage to the work and life I thought I was supposed to have. But the reality was, adhering to that guilt was keeping me from bigger and better things.

In reconstructing my own vision for my ideal lifestyle, I've been learning about the path of people like Derek Sivers, Richard Branson, and even Abraham Lincoln. Doing this has revealed their paths have piles and piles of failed businesses, elections, pursuits, ideas, and dreams behind them.

But in the end, it's those failures that were necessary for success. Each one was another layer of false identity being stripped away to reveal their core truth.

And that's really the key to stopping the pursuit of other people's lifestyles. Be willing to test each idea and inspiration as far as it needs to go in order to learn what you need to learn. Then repeat, often and always. This will quickly peel away the superficial that's hiding the truth about where you want to go and what you want to do.

The Wandering Mind and the Wild Horse

What's important? I've been asking myself that a lot lately. What is important to me and what am I doing with it? If being fully invested in present is important to me, where am I right now?

These questions weigh heavily on my mind after an unusually varied week, full of everything from writing, to answering an a high volume of emails, to strolling and running through a state forest, to completing freelance web development projects, to playing with my nephew and helping my brother-in-law fix home wiring issues (and getting electrocuted in the process; there's no room for pride in science).

The question of importance is inevitable when the demand on our attention (whether from others or from ourselves) exceeds what is available to us. But there really are no excuses to misdirected focus. As I wrote in my latest essay, our system of keeping time doesn't determine when we act; we determine when we act.

The concept of time is a subject I could talk about for hours. I could run circles around what it is and what it isn't, why it matters and why it doesn't. But one fact remains: I will die. 

This physical body will eventually break down and stop functioning; it will eventually cease to act as a vehicle for life. My true self may be timeless and limitless, but this physical body definitely has limitations; its lifespan is restricted by the framework we call time.

How we spend our time and energy within those limitations is influenced by what is, or what isn't, important to us. We can take a reactionary approach to life and simply spend our time doing whatever calls our attention, or we can take a proactive approach and decide where that energy will be focused.

In reflecting on this for the past two weeks, I've found myself spending less time paying attention to my phone; less time checking and answering emails; less time on social media; less time worrying about how to respond to this person or that person; less time wondering what's next or where I should focus my energy tomorrow; less time reading; less time writing. 

I find myself spending less time and conserving more.

Things that are not present don't receive as much attention because that attention is being redirected here, where I can be present. Instead of volunteering my time and attention to long elaborate email responses, never-ending to-do lists, phone calls, people, projects, and goals, I find myself reserving that precious commodity for here, right now.

I find myself holding depth in conversation as something worthy of great respect, an outpouring of energy that cannot simply be dumped into every email, comment, and conversation, but rather something that is reserved for special occasions where some passionate voice inside becomes inflamed and pushes that pent up reservoir over the edge.

A few days ago I began my morning playing with my nephew. When I'm visiting my parents I usually play for a minute or two before rushing off to start working on my laptop, catching up with emails, figuring out what project I need to complete for that day, and otherwise "spending my time and energy" doing whatever I think needs to be done.

About two minutes into playing with my nephew, I felt the pull of "this other stuff"; it was stronger than usual. I had stuff to do, things to finish. The morning was already getting late and there was so much to get done.

Instead of giving into this pull, I allowed myself to feel overwhelmed, to "fill up" with this sudden self-imposed surge of demand on my attention; I resisted the urge to get up and go (with lots of help from my 2-year-old nephew).

Instead of getting up and going, I got down on my hands and knees; my nephew climbed on my back. 

Then the reservoir tipped. 

Wrapping his arms around my neck, he tried to stay on my back as I marched around the room like a wild horse. Laugher spilled from the both of us as he repeatedly slipped off and then jumped back on. 

This went on for more than 15 minutes until both of us were exhausted from laugher.


There will always be other stuff to do, people to meet, conversations to be had, stuff to learn, places to experience, work to be done.

But there will only be one now. 

We need to be fully invested in that, in the present. Instead of letting it wander aimlessly, we need to bring our mind home.

What's here in this moment is gone in the next and unless we decide to experience life from that perspective, the perspective of the present, we cannot live a whole life.

We can invest in the future and even in the past, but we need to invest that energy carefully and with intent. Unless most of our energy is being invested in the present, where are we really?

I'm going to practice expending less energy in areas where energy easily dissipates. I'm going to practice more proactive conservation and focus, less reactionary and aimless expenditure. More here, less there; more now, less then.

The past and the future do not really exist; what exists is now.

Notes: Running a Lifestyle Business

Thom Chambers' latest magazine, How to Run a Lifestyle Business, is a goldmine of motivational and thought-provoking ideas from many different leaders. I've highlighted my favorite parts below:

As Simon Sinek explains, people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it. It's not the new features or the best-in-class that gets us, it's the story we tell ourselves when we buy or use a product or service. Sinek uses the launch of the iPod by way of example; while other mp3 players were there sooner and cheaper, they were focused on 'what' the product was: a 5GB mp3 player. Apple, meanwhile, sold the 'why': 1,000 songs in your pocket.

'What' is all about reason, about rationale. It's the classic nice-guy-finishes-last syndrome: he can display to the girl all the logical reasons that she should date him, from his good job to his nice house, but nobody ever fell in love based on a list of features and benefits. Rather than coming from this place of practicality, 'why' connects to emotion.

Starting with why means saying, "I believe this", then creating products and services that make that belief a reality. Those products and services are the 'what' of your business. They're the physical manifestations of your beliefs, nothing more.

When you start with why, suddenly everything changes. It's no longer about trying to pack more features into your product or to offer your services at a lower price than your competition. It's about stating your beliefs loudly and proudly, then acting on them. Do this well enough for long enough, and people who believe the same things will align themselves with you and your business by becoming customers and fans.

Simon's TED talk, How great leaders inspire action, is a must-watch.

Professionals, as Steven Pressfield notes in The War of Art, are those who turn up every day, no matter what. They do the work, relentlessly, knowing that each day is a battle against the Resistance that tries to get you to procrastinate, avoid the hard work, and settle for less than you desire.

When things gets tough, it's easy to look for excuses not to work. Isn't this meant to be my lifestyle business, my utopia? Surely it should always be fun?

As Pressfield explains, "the more important a call or action is to our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it". Building a successful lifestyle business is one of the biggest evolutions you can undertake, so you can be damn sure that you'll encounter plenty of Resistance along the way. Fight it. Do the work.

Or as Julien Smith would say, don't flinch.

In the following section, Thom is talking about Seth Godin's concept of finding just ten people to share your idea/message/product with and how those ten people will be enough to determine if what you have will succeed.

Perhaps the best way to look at it is this: you're replacing promotion with creation. Leo Babauta has written about this on Google+, calling for a less in-your-face approach to selling work. Make it, make it available, and let the fans decide if it's worth spreading. Then get on with creating what's next.

The idea of 'first, ten' means that, in Seth's words, "the idea of a 'launch' and press releases and the big unveiling is nuts. Instead, plan on the gradual build that turns into a tidal wave". He also acknowledges that this might mean your growth ends up being "not as fast as you want". But if you're in this for the long run rather than just the big show that tries to make-it-big-quickly, then you'll certainly grow fast enough to succeed.

What I got out of this is the need for focus. I seem to have a hard time focusing on something long enough to turn it "into a tidal wave". But that just tells me I need to decide what's worth focusing on and then make a commitment to seeing it through.

It's about having the attitude of an artisan instead of an amateur, as Thom explains in the next bit.

When it doesn't require a huge financial or time investment to get started, it's easy to be less committed to a project - "this website only cost me a few bucks, so it's not the end of the world if it goes wrong. I'll give it a shot and see how things turn out".

This is where your attitude comes into play. You can have this attitude, the attitude of the amateur - or you can have the attitude of the artisan.

The artisan doesn't have much money, but is still relentless about quality. The artisan sees her small size as a phase, a stepping stone towards success, and acts accordingly. Even when she's starting out, she's conducting herself as she would if this were a fully-grown business.

You're always told to dress for the job you want, not the one you have. In the same way, you need to write and create for the business you want one day, rather than the business you have today.

When you hear about a startup that sold for a hundred million after six months, remember: you're not playing that game. When you have the chance to spam your list to make a few affiliate sales from someone else's new product, remember: you're not playing that game.

Which leads us to a simple question: what game are you playing? The answer is found in one of the great overlooked conflicts in every lifestyle business: the conflict between the artisan and the accountant. The artisan creates work that brings satisfaction and pleasure, with no concern for money. The accountant creates work that brings money, with no concern for satisfaction or pleasure.

In most traditional businesses, to a greater or lesser extent, the accountant is king. Money matters most. When you choose to start a lifestyle business, though, you embrace your inner artisan. You see that money isn't everything, that lifestyle, happiness, and satisfaction are just as important.

For some, starting a lifestyle business is the start and end of their inner artisan. They focus entirely on building their business in a way that best pleases the market, or brings the owner the easiest life. The extreme of this are niche site owners, who find profitable markets and run affiliate or AdSense campaigns. They 'set it and forget it'.

For others, the artisan takes over and they focus on doing work they love without worrying about the market. The extreme of this is the blogger who gives everything away without any business model in place, hoping to make money somehow, someday.

The artisan refuses to compromise; the accountant will do anything for the sale. The artisan wants a headline that reflects the mood of the work; the accountant wants a headline that goes viral.

Both are valid in their own way; it's up to you to choose the point at which you're happiest between the extremes of pure integrity and pure income.

Losing Focus Through Association

Where is my focus? Am I focusing on the right thing? Am I putting too much effort in the wrong direction? Am I inadvertently stunting my growth?

These are questions I ask myself quite frequently. I'm not sure when I started asking these questions or even why, but I do know that asking them often leads to recognizing areas of my life where I'm stagnating or where I'm otherwise unconsciously holding myself back or underutilizing my potential (or simply walking in the wrong direction).

The world is full of people who want to tell us how to do things. And I don't think that's bad. I don't think they're doing it with malicious intent: sharing what we know is an innate human quality. I also don't think it's bad to listen to what others have to say: I've grown so much in my life thanks to the advice and experiences shared by others.

But I think there's a danger in following too closely, in listening too intently, in modeling our life too closely around the lives of others. We lose a bit of ourselves through association. If we permanently associate with anything but our true selves, we will easily forget why we're doing things we're doing. We will lose sight of what feels innately important to us.

To really get at the core of what matters, to really focus our energy on growing in the right directions, we need to strip away everything, all the labels, the assumptions, the role models, and the beliefs. 

Who am I? 

When I strip away everything, I just am. And when I approach life from that state, I become a paint brush and everything else becomes the paint. There are no labels, no genres, no niches, no must-haves and have-nots. There are no limitations, no restrictions, no "this is who I am" or "this is who I am not". There just is, and pure potential.

Setting the Right Intention

If you set the wrong intention, you'll feel like you're going somewhere without actually going very far. Setting the wrong intention leads to unsustainable effort.

Without the right intention we won't be able to set the right priorities, and without the right priorities effort will be made in all the wrong places.

It's the reason why so many people set the intention to get in shape every year only to return to their old lifestyles within a few weeks or months.

It wasn't a lack of effort or inability to commit that eventually turned them away from getting in shape. It was that getting in shape was the wrong intention and as a result they set the wrong priorities. The thing they felt was so important quickly became not important enough.

Often something that we consider important becomes not important enough because we set the wrong intention. (It's not "get in shape" that we should be focusing on, but rather "change my lifestyle".) 

Changing your lifestyle takes a bit more work than signing up for a gym membership, but that's why the former often results in transformation while the latter results in wasted time and money.

If we set the right intention, we'll set the right priorities and our time and effort will propel us towards our goals. But how do we set the right intention? I believe it starts with taking a look at the bigger picture and understanding the why. Why is this important to us?

Leaning into the Flinch

What's the difference between the people who are remembered by history and those who make up the silent majority who simply live and die? 

I don't believe history remembers people by chance. I don't believe some people are born with better ideas or more capable skills or that it requires a unique set of circumstances to do great things.

Many of us -- perhaps most of us -- have incredible ideas, world-changing visions for how things could be better. We think many of the same thoughts that memorable people throughout history have thought. 

So why aren't we doing anything? Why are we just living out our lives, caught up in the daily grind?

I think the answer lies in our reluctance to believe in ourselves and face our self-doubt. We see the possibility in our idea and we get scared that it just might work. As Julien Smith calls it, we flinch. We see the possibility and then pull back from going any further.

I read Julien's new ebook today (it's short and free [edit: it's not free anymore, but you can easily find it for free by Googling 'the flinch']; a great read) and there were lots of things about his idea that rang true for me. For example, in one part of the book he talks about leaning into the flinch and allowing that instinctive desire to retract to point us in the direction we should push forward.

The last time I clearly remember leaning into what I would've normally pulled back from was when I wrote my first ebook, Small Ways to Make a Big Difference

The idea for the project came suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere. I was sitting at my laptop in the kitchen of my hosts house, only a few days after arriving in Kathmandu, Nepal. 

It certainly wasn't the first time I'd had a spontaneous idea for an ebook, but what followed the idea this time was much different. Instead of over-thinking and considering all the reasons I shouldn't do it, I immediately sent an email to 60 people inviting them to participate in the project.

That one action, that leaning into what I normally would've pulled back from, essentially opened the door to the completion of that project. It took three weeks of obsessively working on it every single day, but there wasn't a single moment in that entire three weeks where I thought of quitting. I kept leaning into the flinch until I was done.

I think the people who are remembered by history are the ones who don't stop pushing. They see something, or have an idea, and instead of doubting themselves or the possibilities, they lean into them. 

Despite the entire world pushing the status quo onto them and doubting the usefulness of their rebellious nature, these few people push back. And they don't stop pushing. Ever.

Failure doesn't make them flinch because they're leaning into failure. They're walking in the direction they expect to fail while holding onto a belief that what lies ahead is something worth it. And they're usually right. What lies on the other side of failure is usually what helps them change the world.

Notes: Entrepreneurs: Picking Something vs Being Someone

I've read a lot of stuff over the past few years about building a business online. Most of it talks about the need to identify "our niche" so that we can focus on talking and selling to our "right people". The problem was, settling on a niche meant giving up my multi-faceted self and I wasn't prepared to do that.

So when I came across Abby Kerr, I loved the way that she broke that status quo. She still talks about 'right people' -- which is a concept I agree with, to a point -- but she also takes things a step further and embraces expansiveness in nichification.

Her newsletter comes with a fantastic free e-Course called Creating a Truly Irresistible Niche. All of the emails in the series had something fantastic and her style of writing is one of the few styles that I find really engaging and fun. The highlighted piece below from the email series really hit home:

I don't think wannabe entrepreneurs should just pick something.

I think that wannabe entrepreneurs should be someone.

And the best part about being? Being is an evolutionary process. It's never stagnant. It's continually changing by nature. All beings are born from a process of change and are destined to change, forever.

And really powerful, sentient beings {like you and me} don't just evolve, they create revolutions, and they have revelations. And they help their Right People to have them, too.

I like to look at my entrepreneurial niche, and yours, as an ongoing evolution and revolution {of self, ideas, and ways of doing business}, full of revelations.

This isn't just playful phraseologie.

This is a complete approach to claiming your entrepreneurial niche in this moment, living what you believe to its fullest, being a great friend to those you help and serve and create for, while embracing the reality that because you are not a stagnant being, neither will be your business.

Claiming a niche, the Niche of You, allows you to continue your own growth process. You can explore your niche, be expansive within it, play with it, turn it on its head just for kicks, break it down into its many facets and go deeply into each one.

Remember, even the smallest bits of earthly matter are a universe unto themselves.

And so are you.

And so is your niche.

Notes: David Foster Wallace on Life and Work

This article in the Wall Street Journal was adapted from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College.

Although the concepts are a bit difficult to follow at times, they're incredibly insightful, especially the whole point about how much our perspective influences the way we see the world around us.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"


If you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line -- maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.

Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible -- it just depends on what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important -- if you want to operate on your default-setting -- then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.

Dreaming big or just big enough?

If you always felt you were born to do something big, something really, really big -- something so big that your existence would end up shifting human history and leaving a dent in the fabric of time -- what would you do? 

Would you think about what your best career options were, what things you were good at, and go from there?

Would you stress out over money or financial concerns or hunker down and save your money?

Would you focus on doing things that made you comfortable or ensured that people would like you?

Would you limit your focus to things that you could achieve this lifetime?

Would you be realistic?

Or would you think about the biggest, most crazy thing you could imagine? Something that seemed so unlikely for a single human being to achieve but that, when you thought about it or talked about it, filled you with spine-tingling, eye-watering, goosebump-making surges of energy that seemed to emanate from some unknown source deep inside?

That thing that despite being so unrealistic and crazy lingered on your mind, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.

If you ever asked me in person to share my biggest dream, I'd probably tell you that I would like to reach the end of my life and see humanity more connected and forward-looking, to have an end to poverty, hunger, and inequality at least somewhere in sight, and to know that my actions played at least a small role in making that movement happen.

But if you asked me again, what's my biggest, craziest, most wild dream, I'd likely change my answer.

I'd tell you that I'd like to see humanity not only more connected and in tune with nature, but also exploring and stretching off planet Earth. I'd want to stand on planet Mars before I die and feel that humanity as a whole finally recognizes its precious potential. 

I'd like to witness the beginnings of humanity-level cooperation taking place, pushing the human species forward together to eliminate silly things like poverty, hunger, and inequality so that we, as a species, can move on to bigger and more important things like exploring the universe, not just the universe around us, but also within us.

This is Star Trek type stuff, yes, but if you really asked me what my biggest, craziest dream was, that's what I'd honestly tell you. I'd like to know that I played a part in moving the human race forward, towards something that my intuition tells me we'll eventually arrive at anyway.

But you'd never guess any of that reading my writing or even communicating with me online. In fact, very few of my actions in life really reflect that level of thinking.


Because I gave up on that dream long ago. It was too unrealistic, too "out there". If I was going to use my potential for something great, why would I throw it at something so preposterous?

Following that thinking was always a series of justifications, a train of logical reasoning to back up the impossibility of that thinking:

"I'd need to become heavily involved in entrepreneurship and business and investing and money... I just don't like any of those enough to do something big with them."

"I'd probably need an engineering degree and that would be too much of a time commitment... I'm too old and my time is running out fast."

"If I failed to achieve my dream, I will have wasted my time and energy."

"If I fail, all my potential, my whole life, will have been for nothing."

"Nobody else is doing this kind of stuff -- or even attempting it -- so it must be unachievable and silly to even consider."

I've gone through this process more times than I can count -- throughout my whole life -- often justifying the process itself by telling myself that some dreams really are just too big, but that it's healthy to think about them anyway. 

However something changed in the past year. Before I returned home from India last year, I won a chance to see one of the last Space Shuttle launches in Florida. 

That experience led me to connect with a whole new circle of friends who were passionate about space and who lived with those futuristic dreams on their minds every single day. 

Those events led to my learning about Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal who, with a real passion not focused on being entrepreneurial and making money but for making humanity a multi-planetary species, went on to found SpaceX, now the leading private space company in the world.

Yes! That's exactly what I should be doing! But (and here's where the fear and self-doubt steps in)...

"That's just not me..."

"Space exploration is so disconnected from the immediate humanitarian needs here on Earth that I really care about..."

"I can't possibly focus on addressing world poverty if I'm focused on getting people into space..."

"Elon Musk was rich and had tons of money to start with... I'd be starting with nothing and that would make it impossible..."

But Elon is moving the human race forward.

He's chasing his seemingly impossible dream because that's what he believes he should be doing. He's running his business the way he believes it should be run, telling employees and investors face-to-face that he and his business are not in it for the money but for the legacy of humanity.

In the past year I've connected with so many people who are fascinated with space and I've learned about people like Elon who are taking their dreams and pushing them forward. 

All of this has rekindled within me the "impossible" dreams that I've held inside for so long. It's made me reconsider them and start asking myself questions about what I'm doing and why I'm here on Earth.

Why can't I become someone who builds businesses that determine their success not based on monetary profit but rather on the welfare of the human species as a whole? 

A space company that addresses humanitarian needs? Why not? So what if nobody else has done it or if nobody thinks it would work.

Steve Jobs said, "stay hungry, stay foolish". Perhaps to really stay hungry we need to chase dreams that are unrealistic and seemingly impossible; perhaps to stay foolish we need to believe in dreams that seem a little crazy but that call to us, like a whisper from the future, asking us to do the impossible.

Notes: End up at the right destination

I've long resisted using social media in a way that didn't match how I socialized offline (which is to say, not very much). Despite all the online advice telling me I needed to be heavily involved in social media to grow online, I've refrained from this because it didn't feel true to my core.

This bit from a recent letter by Thom Chambers, How to be Antisocial and Become a Better Writer (subscription required), explains succinctly what I felt intuitively:

Your business is your chance to create your very own utopia, your ideal lifestyle. When it comes to your writing, it’s far more honest to have a setup that you want to maintain indefinitely. If you were a best-selling author, would you tweet?

The answer to that may be "yes", in which case great. But if you’re just putting on a facade of sociability in order to build an audience, then two things will happen. One, you’ll build the wrong sort of readership who come to expect you to be someone you don’t enjoy being. And two, you’ll probably get found out.

Being antisocial might very well mean it takes longer to get where you want to go. But at least you’ll end up at the right destination.

Design by Imitation and Rethinking Complexity

After launching this Journal a few weeks ago, I realized that I was beginning to diverge from the simplicity I so highly valued on my site. I now had Thoughts and Reflections, Essays and Journals, Poems and Marginalia.

I found myself feeling more and more suffocated by the complexity. Should I publish this as an Essay or a Reflection? What if the writing was informative but not reflective? Do all my Reflections need to be reflective? Do all my Essays need to be long?

Leonardo Da Vinci said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. I think in my attempt to simplify, I added unnecessary complexity by assuming that I was adding sophistication.

The complexity became a creative barrier that discouraged me from remaining open-minded. Instead of just writing, I had to write and think inside boxes.

I didn't want that! I wanted to stretch and breathe, to write and share.

The idea for segregating my writing was born earlier this year when I learned about a new feature in WordPress 3.0: Custom Post Types.

The old way of displaying different types of content in WordPress was messy: If I wanted to publish 'Thoughts' and show them separately from regular posts, I needed to create a category called 'Thoughts' and then hack the WordPress theme to display posts in that category separately from regular posts.

With Custom Post Types however, my writing could be logically separated into different types. Instead of fiddling with Categories, I could simply create a new post type, publish my writing there, and then use the standard WordPress templates to design how the content should appear.

(In retrospect I realized that this thinking was a classic example of discovering a new tool and then looking for, or creating, a problem to solve with the tool -- a common habit that sneaks up on engineers.)

How could I simplify my approach? What could I learn from others? How were other online writers organizing their published work?

Seth Godin writes different length posts but doesn't separate his blog post writing into different types; he publishes different lengths and calls them one thing.

There was no need to separate my writing into Essays, Reflections, and Poems. I write poems so infrequently that publishing them as Essays will be fine. So, I got rid of Reflections and Poems and combined them into Essays.

My home page was previously set up to show my latest Thought, Reflection/Poem, and Essay, but what I really wanted it to achieve was a quick overview of my published content, a clear method of subscribing, and a clear way of connecting with me -- a long list of my essays wouldn't achieve that.

How could I simplify my approach? What could I learn from online publishers whose home pages I loved?

Craig Mod has a beautifully simple home page. His liberal use of whitespace makes things clear and it encourages you to scroll down and explore.

You'll notice how the further down you go, the denser the content gets -- the further you commit to exploring, the more content he gives you.

Photo: Craig Mod's Home Page

I also love how when you hover over his name at the top, you're presented with a clear way of connecting with him on Twitter and Google+.

Photo: Craig Mod's Header

I now had ideas for home page simplicity, but I still needed a way to present my latest work. Even though I had simplified my types of writing, I still had Essays, Journals, Thoughts, and Margin Notes to work with.

How could I display my recent work in a list format that was easy to read?

Chris Pearson's sidebar contains lists of various posts in beautifully color-coded sections. I love how the color of each section is reinforced when you hover over the items in that list. The angled cut on each header also makes them easier on the eyes.

Photo: Chris Pearson's Sidebar

Using those design ideas, I sat down yesterday and spent 10 hours redesigning my home page.

I tried Chris' colored headers, but I realized they were too loud for my style.

I didn't like Craig's Twitter and Google+ buttons at the top of the page, so I put mine at the bottom.

Photo: My New Recently Published List

Photo: My New Subscribe Area

Photo: My New Connect Area

My home page now feels congruent with my core style of simplicity and cleanliness and it solves the problem of presenting my latest content. I started with a clean slate, took ideas that I loved from other designs, and added my own twist.

When it comes to design, much of what I create is inspired by something or someone else. When I come across a design or element of style that I find aesthetically appealing, I stop and ask myself why I find it appealing.

Understanding why something looks nice -- or why something is comfortable, or why something is easy to use -- not only helps me better understand good design, it also helps me understand myself.

I often tell people that I'm not a designer, but I'm beginning to believe that we're all designers in one way or another.

To design is to envision something that isn't there and then pull together pieces of the universe to create it. The more we understand ourselves and the world around us -- the more we release what we think we already know -- the better designers we will be.

This extends to other areas of life as well: If we don't understand why we do, or do not, enjoy something, then how can we effectively design our life?

If we don't know why we're writers, or coaches, or designers, or programmers, or explorers, or entrepreneurs, or connectors, or yoga teachers, how can we pull together the pieces of the universe necessary to live a life in harmony with what makes us who we are?

Notes: Digital Suicide and Understanding Your 'Why'

My friend Ali Dark recently asked a circle of friends on Google+ if anyone felt he had made a difference in their life. He was feeling digitally suicidal, which meant that he wanted to delete his online identity and start from scratch. Here was my response:

You've made a difference in my life by being an example of someone who continues to push forward despite feeling unsure. You have a similar online personality as I do, someone who comes up with a great idea, thinks they've "got it down", and then charges full force down that path. It's only when you're half-way down the path and you look around and notice that nobody else is with you that you start doubting yourself.

It's a lot like hiking a big mountain: In the morning at the trailhead, there's lots of cars and other hikers preparing for the hike. You feel a sense of commonality, a sense of community. You're all there to hike this mountain. As you start hiking, you'll find lots of other hikers, either passing you or you passing them. Again, you feel a sense of community, a sense of shared struggle.

But eventually, the trail gets tougher and more narrow. It gets steeper and you start slowing down. As you start focusing on the path in front of you, you walk one step at a time. If you stop and look around, you'll notice there are no other hikers around, nobody passing you and nobody you're passing. On a straight part of the trail, you might look up and see others hikers struggling further up, or if you look down the trail you might see other hikers pushing through the part you've already passed.

It's in those lonely times when you need to remember why you started in the first place. It's then that you need to look inward and trust that your decision to hike this mountain was a decision you made for you, not for the other people who have their own struggles to deal with.

The closer you get to the summit of the mountain, the more hikers you start meeting. When you eventually make it to the top, it's crowded and you quietly exchange smiles and a sense of accomplishment with other hikers that you met earlier that morning. All of you know that you're there not because of each other, but because you all made it through the tough parts relying on nobody except yourself.

It's when the going gets tough that you need to ask yourself why you do what you do. If you're not sure you're on the right path, ask yourself if that unsureness comes from a lack of commitment or from an external distraction. You make a difference in the lives of others by making a difference in your own life. Are you making a difference in your own life, or are you doubting the difference you make?

It's OK to pause and take a break from your digital life. It's OK to change direction without asking for permission. Hikers on the trail stop and take a break all the time, but most of them get up and keep going up the trail. If you're always stopping and asking for someone to give you validation for continuing on, then you'll find yourself making little progress and being frustrated with every stop you make (as opposed to feeling refreshed and invigorated to continue).

These are the lessons I've learned and I share them with you because I think I understand exactly how you feel. For me, it was the realization that I was making zero forward progress by doubting myself and throwing everything away over and over that finally pushed me to adopt the mindset I have now. Now when I make changes, it feels like I'm simply making course corrections while continuing to move forward, instead of restarting my journey -- digital or otherwise -- from scratch.

Currents of Chaos

On a bed in the middle of an emergency room, a small boy sits. Around him is total chaos: people yelling, nurses running around, trauma to the left and to the right. Everyone is moving with urgency while the boy sits motionless and watches it all unfold. A nurse notices and assumes he must be terrified. "Don't be afraid," she reassures him. The boy looks at her calmly and replies, "Oh I'm not afraid."

If we're not participating in the chaos -- if we're not being wrapped up and swept away by the current along with everyone else -- that doesn't mean we're inadequate, missing out, or living in fear. But in the busyness of life, that's easy to forget. It's easy to unconsciously allow our lives to be written by the currents. It's easy to assume that if everyone is riding them, they must lead us in the right direction.

Those assumptions allow the currents to affect our energy levels and our work schedules, our eating habits and our career tactics. They influence our skills, the possessions we own, and the actions we condone. They cause us to assume that life is chaotic, a competition, a race against time, and a mad dash to the finish line.

Let go of the expectation that life is an endless chaotic current. Give yourself permission to be still. Walk through your day observing the currents of life, holding your ground and allowing those currents to sweep past you like the wind sweeps around a tree. Be like the boy in the hospital quietly observing the chaos. You are not helpless and adrift. You are conscious, strong, and fully capable of directing your life.

Sensory Minimalism

Everything is noise until we understand it. To put meaning to the meaningless, our senses process noise and help us find direction. But when our senses are constantly being overwhelmed by noise -- the noise in our head; the noise in our lives; the noise of the status quo -- their sensitivity decreases and they become unreliable instruments.

Practicing sensory minimalism, that is stepping back and observing the noise instead of trying to process it, increases our ability to focus on what matters and awards us with a better sense of direction.

The skill of observing noise is best learned through frequent changes in our perspective: When experiencing something new and unusual, we have no choice but to release ourselves from the noise and take a step back.

Change your perspective and you will expand your consciousness. Escape the patterns and you will minimize the background noise. Place yourself in new and unfamiliar situations and you will have no choice but to reflect, observe, and regain awareness of where you stand in relation to what matters most in your life.

The Business of Life

Business is not synonymous with monetary profit. If you're in the rat race, your business is that of perpetuating the rat race and your profit is competitiveness, repetition, and conformity. If you're a couch potato, your business is that of being a couch potato and your profit is weight gain and an unhealthy lifestyle.

Usually you get to choose your business. If you don't want to build houses, you stay out of the business of carpentry. If you don't want to fix computers, you stay out of the business of information technology. If you don't want to live an unhealthy lifestyle and run circles around a cage, then you stay away from the couch and ignore the status quo.

But there is one business we're all running whether we choose to or not: the business of life. In this business, profit is the sustainable balance and welfare of everything that supports life. Since all other businesses rely on life, any business whose profit does not directly contribute to life is, in the long-run, harmful and unsustainable.

In the business of life, monetary profit means nothing. We cannot buy health, happiness, or social equality; we cannot buy a new Earth. In the business of life, we are the most valuable asset. Our value to this business comes from our ability to prioritize time and shape the world around us; to be selfless and compassionate; to put life, social equality, and the greater good of all humanity above everything else.

There is a private space company in the United States and a social enterprise in India, both whose top priorities are not monetary profit. Do they earn money? Yes. But both their founders will tell you that the businesses exist not for making money but for the people. They exist to serve as instruments and vehicles for advancing humanity. Their employees and investors understand and accept these priorities and many are willing to sacrifice personal gain for the greater good.

Whatever your business, shift the focus towards the greater good, towards that which you value instead of what everybody else seems to value. If your business supports other businesses who don't have a focus on life (the rat race comes to mind), then change your business. Instead of thinking in terms of monetary profit, think in terms of life profit. How can you leave a legacy that contributes to the long-term welfare of humanity? How can you contribute more to the business of life?