Friends, over the next few days I’ll write an article called “top 10 things I learned in 2015.” Will you write your own? I want to read it!
— Ken Tabor (@KenTabor) December 29, 2015
So what the hell — why not accept the challenge? But first…
I learn new things every day. Most of the time it’s like, “Okay, I see how this new feature for this application works, so I can now document it.” That’s not exciting to write about. Neither is discussing how I learn to fix more things and do more things each week. As I get older, I find it’s not so much the new things I learn that carry me, but the things I already know and build upon that matter most to me.
What I mean: I jettison a lot of what I learn.
I need to learn this thing in order to do this task, and then I’m not giving it much space in my head because it’s information I needed for only this moment.
If I remember how to do some things from old jobs, fine; if my mind clears it out to make room to let something more important live in its space, wonderful. (I can always come across it down the line, if needed, and be like, “Oh yeah, I remember this…” or simply learn it again in its new form. Some say that’s inefficient, but there’s only so much room inside the conscious parts of a brain, and I like to make sure the things that matter most to me stick around.)
I guess that’s a nice way of saying I’m fine not learning big, new things all the time. I always welcome challenges, and each time I write something new I learn more new things through research than some people might learn in a year, but very little of it is like, “Oh, where has this been all my life?!” By the time one reaches middle-age, I think they should be fine with fewer epiphanies and big, “life-changing” things. They should work well with what they [largely] already have.
I appreciate the routine of writing and the other things that mean a lot to me, like podcasting and juggling. I’m always learning, but it’s not like, “Oh, this is worth writing about!” Much of my list is going to be more of a reinforcement of things I already know and do, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important to me. And because some of these things are related to writing, I’ve decided to post this on The Juggling Writer instead of my personal website.
The Top 10 Things I Learned in 2015
1. Deadlines Matter
The weekly podcast I do with a friend crossed the 150 episode mark this year. We’ve never missed a week or even been late posting an episode because we decided we would always post by 11:59 p.m. on Thursdays at the very latest. Nothing happens if we don’t make that deadline, but because we agreed on it together it’s a deadline we keep.
I also started a new podcast this year, and I have set specific deadlines for that as well.
This year, however, I didn’t have as many set deadlines with writing. And it shows…
In early 2015, I wrapped up a rough draft of a novel I’m working on because I said I’d have it done by a certain time. (Granted, I finished a little past that time, but having the deadline mattered enough that the book was written.) While I had an initial deadline, I didn’t have as strict a deadline with the rewrite of the novel. Sure, I told myself, “I’ll have that by year’s end,” but I never put milestones in place to force myself to look at my progress. So, with new things going on in 2015, I now sit at the end of the year without the readable draft I tentatively told myself I’d have.
I know it looks like I do a lot of things (and I suppose I do), but really — I’m one of the more lazy people you’ll ever know. It’s only through a love of a handful of things and deadlines that I get anything done at all. When I don’t make deadlines matter, I don’t do even the things I want to do.
So yes…deadlines friggin’ matter!
There are at least three other podcasts I’d love to do in addition to what I’m already doing. There are other novels I’d love to tackle. I think about new hobbies and other things waiting for me to jump into. Here’s the thing, though: the people I know who do too much rarely do anything at all.
If I have a to-do list longer than three things, I’m probably not doing any of the things on the list. When life feels like a never-ending slog, it’s usually because I’ve taken on too much. It might sound funny to some, but if I don’t have time to lie on the couch and think or read (or nap) for at least an hour a day, I know I’m either temporarily busy and need to make sure it doesn’t become habit, or I’ve reached a point of needing to cut some things out of my life. (We should all have at least an hour of absolute slack time a day.)
It’s a nice thought to have 537 hobbies and take part in 278 meetups and other things, but as a juggler, I know three things is a wonderful foundation. You can add more, sure, but that smaller amount is where the best work is done.
By focusing on the things that matter most to me, I know at the very least — in the end — I won’t have common end-of-life regrets.
I used to write articles and do some other things on the side for money. (Minds out of the gutter!) In recent years, I made the decision to say no to writing for other people. I had found myself working more on other people’s content instead of my own. Sure, I made more money, but what good is money when you’re not doing what you prefer?
My wife is an artist, and monetizing every aspect of what she once did killed her love of art. She’s back at it after stepping away for years, now doing art only for herself because she enjoys the challenge and it makes her happy to create something new.
When I mention saying no to things, I don’t always mean someone asking me to do something and me saying, “Nope!” It’s setting my phone to not even buzz and killing most push notifications so all I have to do when I write is turn my phone face-down to avoid all distractions. It’s only accepting one or two social engagements most weeks — if even that — because I like the solitude that comes with writing. But mostly, it’s not letting others dictate how I spend my time.
There are times I miss the extra money from writing articles, but outside of my day job as a technical writer — when I sit down to write — it’s all about my own projects. It’s like the opening lines from that 311 song:
You’ve got to trust your instinct
And let go of regret
You’ve got to bet on yourself now star
‘Cause that’s your best bet
4. I Waste a Lot of Time Online
Okay, this is something I actually learned in 2015 (to some degree, anyway).
If you read this blog with any regularity, you know I take [somewhat] frequent social media breaks. I’m aware that time online is a thing in my life (I even work, in part, online), so I try to not allow it take over.
2015 is the year I added Mind the Time to Firefox and actually tracked how much time I spend on various websites. Time spent here or on my podcast sites is fine, but time spent on sites that are really more about killing time than anything else? Yeah, seeing the actual numbers was a bit staggering.
If you say you don’t have time to do things, actually track how much time you really spend online, look at those hours, and ask yourself if you’re okay with that. (Nothing wrong if you are; for me, though — outside of the things I make online — I’m happier if I’m not online as much.)
We got a lot of flooding in Texas last spring (and it continued into fall and winter after a late summer reprieve). Nearby hiking trails my wife and I like have been underwater for much of the year, meaning we haven’t been out as much as we prefer. It was not lost on me how much I missed the trails.
At the same time, we got our canoe out of storage for the first time in years and took advantage of the flooding. Those mornings on the lake were some of the highlights of 2015 as well as another reminder of how important being outside in nature is to me.
I let the day job get in the way too much in 2015. I may not have been that guy who was always connected to work and keeping at it through weekends, but even technical writing takes solitude, which can be hard to find with the constant interruptions of email, instant messaging, and other things. So I found myself doing day job work in the evenings more than I prefer. I put even simple things like evening walks off at times.
My wife and I love an evening walk. I cannot think of a time — even when I really didn’t want to go for a walk because I was doing something else — that I walked, came back home, and thought, “Well that sucked!” Whether it’s in 95-degree heat or a 25-degree chill, even something as simple as an evening walk outside energizes me like few things in life — and spending a day (or multiple days) outside is one of the most fulfilling things I know.
When I give a talk, I spend a lot of time going through it over and over (and over and over). By the time I’m before a crowd, if my slides were somehow totally gone, I could still give a good talk without anything visual because I know the material that well. But I’ve been to meetups and even conferences I’ve paid for where it seems the speaker was pulled off the street and told, “Give a talk about this and that.” It becomes clear very quickly who never practiced.
I used to be able to juggle 7 things. I can no longer juggle 7 things because I no longer practice juggling as much as I used to. I’m a confident writer because I practice daily. Much of my life is practicing and refining. Chances are, others doing the same things I’m doing are smarter than me, or potentially better than me. But I generally hold my own in the things I decide to take serious because I’m willing to work 5 – 10 times harder than others doing the same thing.
If I show any semblance of confidence in the things I do, it’s only through practice that I reached that point.
I’ve mentioned that I sometimes miss the old writing group I used to attend. Not enough that I’ve sought out a new group (the benefit of the group I was in was being with people who knew me and my goals as a writer), but I miss a monthly get together. In place of the writing group is the annual writing retreat with one of the people from the old group.
Part of the reason I gravitated a bit more toward podcasting this past year is finding like-minded people to chat with. A weekly [or more] email exchange with Rick Coste is my podcasting equivalent of emailing the guy I go on writing retreats with about writing. Creative chats with my wife (an artist) always leave me feeling excited about what I’m doing. Other people I know (online and in person) round things out.
So much of what I do is done in solitude, but having like-minded people who understand what making things means to me (and to them in return) is one of the best things in my life…just as long as the talk isn’t just talk. (Without action, all these conversations and support would be a waste of other people’s time).
I write best when I take social media breaks — so much so that I’m considering kicking off the new year with a total break and avoiding Facebook entirely in 2016. (I flip-flop with the Facebook thing, and then I think, “It will be an election year,” and it makes the thought a little easier to stomach.) I’m at my best as a juggler when I can practice all day, uninterrupted by others. When my wife and I are working on things that matter to us, we can totally ignore each other all day long, even though there’s usually only a door separating us.
I love the quiet of early mornings. (Late nights, too.) I don’t mind being in long lines with nothing but my thoughts. When an old job sent me to Atlanta on my own for two months, I definitely missed my wife, but I otherwise enjoyed the experience (especially on weekends when I was truly alone). It’s not that I didn’t have friends as a kid, but I was more or less left to run feral, so I spent a lot of time alone.
I’m amazed when I’ve taken the Briggs Meyers test for past work-related things that it pegs me as an extrovert (ENFP last time I took an official test). I don’t simply like solitude — I crave it. It’s not even because it’s by being alone that I can make the things that make me happy; I’m comfortable with my thoughts and quiet moments for no other reason than they exist.
The things I do best are things mostly done in varying degrees of solitude. But even when not doing those things, I’ll [usually] take an evening reading and thinking on the couch over a social outing.
It’s through solitude that I’m okay with who I am.
When I talk about knowing enough, it’s not a call to stop learning new things. At the same time, I think many people flock to “new” because it often seems more fun than what we already know.
I’ve mentioned plenty of times, here, that I don’t necessarily find writing a novel fun. There are fun moments along the way, but it’s not like, “Yippee, I get to write!” — at least in the same way I’d be excited if I took up kayaking or something completely new. But there is nothing more satisfying to me (creatively) than finishing another novel; in part, because it’s a culmination of so many things I know well and have worked harder than most to attain.
I learn many new things with each novel I write, but I no longer comb the Internet looking for writing tips. If I come across something that makes me think differently, cool, but it’s in reading challenging fiction that I learn most. Seriously, I would not be offended if you never read another thing I wrote here because you became more focused on very good literature.
By the time you reach your 40s or 50s, you should have at least some of the bigger things in life figured out. That’s not to say learning new things stops or that you can’t improve upon what you already know, but what we know is probably enough if you apply it to things that matter to you.
One of the best compliments I’ve ever been given is this:
If you were a dog, you’d be a black Lab.
Some might be offended being compared to a dog — and a goofy, hyper-friendly breed at that — but it’s an accurate comparison when I’m at my best.
I’ve seen people completely change who they are in order to get what they want. I have no doubt I could be further along with many things I do if I played games, but the effort of being something I’m not seems exhausting. The pull to be like everyone else (or what you think others want) means you’re probably going to be on the high side of mediocre at best. I’m only half joking when I say if you’re like everybody else, what you do will probably be replaced one day by a robot.
I used to believe the way I’m wired limited me (and in certain situations it probably does), but taking chances and being true to who you really are doesn’t just make your life interesting — it makes the lives of others better, too.