When I grow up, I’d like to be more fun. I think I take myself too seriously most of the time. I’ve spent so much of my life focused on growing up that I’m not sure what grown up is meant to look like. I’d really like to be good at playing.
I’d like to be the life of the party and live in the house that everyone is always drawn to for game night and holidays. I’d like to be kind and wise and help people feel at home, at peace, comfortable. To help them find rest when bodies and minds and weary. When I grow up, I’d like to be able to be generous whenever I feel like it, with my money, time and resources. I’d like to be certain I’m living in a good direction, that my actions are pointing to a hopeful kind of destination.
But mostly, when I think about the future and growing up, I think about what it would be like to not carry all the responsibility. I grew up in the opposite direction and now I’m trying to grow down.
I learned way too young that eventually we are all responsible for ourselves in every sense – from self-love to finance to decision-making. In every sense, once you grow up the kind of human you are is determined largely by your own response to whatever circumstance you find yourself in. I started living in that enormous responsibility when I was very young. Despite the reality that I’m still prone to irresponsibility from time to time. But I live into my irresponsibility without a failsafe, a backstop, a safety net.
Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t grow up entirely and it wasn’t a terrible thing to take responsibility for myself from such a young age. It took me a while to work out things like finances and how to love myself. But what I find myself trying to grow down into is how to be slightly less independent in that responsibility.
At the end of the day, I often find myself incapacitated for decision-making because I’m exhausted by all the decisions I make each day. Decisions for clients, decisions for myself. What to eat, wear, spend money on. I’m still procrastinating on booking a flight next week because I haven’t decided in which direction to head. Because every single decision is up to me.
That’s just a touch too much independence for my liking. I think we’re better when we are always learning to compromise for the sake of someone else. It’s also lonely to be making all these decisions all the time. But I’ve not known any other way of being since I was 8 years old. I don’t ever remember a time that I wasn’t worried about managing other people’s expectations or demands of me.
I’d like a second run at being a kid when I grow up. A chance to trust others to take care of me for a while, to give in to tantrums and whims. To play freely without a shadow of tomorrow’s decisions weighing on me.
I’m scared of dying without being finished but mostly I’m scared of missing the point. Of missing the opportunity that was destined for me, even despite the fact I don’t think the world works quite that way. But fear is irrational until we figure out how to disarm it.
It’s part of my personality type, this ongoing wrestling with the possibility of what is missing that prevents me from finding deepest satisfaction with what is. Although most of the time I’m healthier than that, the risk is always there. It’s a temptation to slip back into an old way of thinking about my life that is no longer true. It’s simply not compatible with the life I have.
I used to think I was afraid of being alone but in reality, I’m no more or less alone than most other people. I just thought I was afraid of being alone because everybody else seemed to be. Now I think they just didn’t realise how alone they already were. We’re all alone, just us inside our heads. Some of us do a better job than others of working out way out and into conversation, but for the most part, we live alone inside our heads.
We might live into a family unit, but each of us sees life entirely differently, even when we share experiences we do not share the exact same lens. No pair of siblings have the same parents, each person experiences something different of mother’s or father’s expression and identity in their interactions. For most of us, what we think we’re afraid of is already happening to us in some form. I think it’s helpful, when you know what you’re most afraid of, to be able to identify where it is already happening in some way or form.
I’m afraid of missing the point because I know I’m already wrestling with what I might be missing out on with the sacrifices and choices I have recently made. I’m already living into a reality where missing out is a possibility. But naming anything disempowers it. I’m afraid of missing on something wonderful because I’m distracted by something ordinary. Yet there were no markers to help me navigate towards wonderful.
For me, missing the point would look like getting to the end and feeling like I was still a million little projects strung together. I want my story to have a narrative arc that makes sense – an integrated, beautiful life. A life that breathes deeply for the last half of life. I’ve made too many friends who are forgetting to breathe they are so busy chasing something that I might also be missing out on.
The bravest thing I do is choosing to be brave and breathe and let what is uncomfortable take it’s time.I don’t want to feel like I’ve missed out on something but fear can paralyse me in place so I miss out anyway. So if I am to believe the Stoics, the way through my discomfort is to follow the discomfort. Embracing experiences regardless of agreed and acceptable amendments. So here I am, terrified of missing out on something but choosing a course inevitably bound for disaster anyway. Because we have to keep trying, even if we miss the point the first time.
What’s the difference between begging and praying? I was once taught that we pray so that our desires might align with God’s plans; in other words, prayer is a long slow submission. I don’t beg people, I mostly have begged God but usually with resignation. By the time I get to begging, it seems to me I have already given up on an alternate.
I don’t beg much in person. I think I’m too proud to ever let me guard down enough for anyone to see me that vulnerable, to see me in that much ‘want’. The substitute for begging is complicit silence. However I am no longer convinced that silence can be strong.
I don’t want to beg because begging seems already resigned to a negative outcome. I don’t want to beg because I’m too proud. I don’t want to beg because it feels demeaning to everyone. Unless it’s me begging me. That I can do because I don’t mind my own vulnerability and authenticity.
I’m begging me to stay true to the course and not give up. Honestly, that’s what I’m begging. I’m resigned to the inevitability that I will give up. I will give up on certain desires and certain plans because all seems lost and futile and pointless. I’m begging me to see things in reverse. I’m begging myself to change my perspective on begging, just so I’m prepared to give myself another chance.
I’m begging for endurance through the early mornings and the long, late night phone calls that come with the career choices I’ve made. I’m begging for strength in the middle of loneliness, when doing the right thing feels worse that doing the wrong thing. I don’t want to judge but I’m judging away – I don’t want to fail where others have failed or become another ‘coulda been, shoulda been’ story. I’m begging myself to break the mood and the pattern woven into my code – I want to take the path untrodden and make my own way through the forest but it sure as heck gets dark out here sometimes.
I want to believe that I’ll make it through – that I won’t succumb to the fate that haunts me. Sometimes I do think about what I’ve come through so far and how it hasn’t happened yet – the day I can’t quite climb over the shadows, but I haven’t given up yet. Not quitting requires more energy than anything else in my life. But what would I be if I just gave up?
It wouldn’t be one of those peaceful, effort relaxations into a calmer pace of life. It would be a slamming, screeching and anxious race to the stop sign. So I beg myself not to quit and I’m begging you not to let me either. Don’t let me give up on myself or the dream. I’m begging you not to let me go too long without sunshine or love or playfulness. Don’t let me get too close to the cliffs or to the rocks – on the day I can’t go any further, don’t let me give up.
I grew up on the sound of trains, which is probably why I like riding them so much. The rumble forward and the side to side roll of the carriages jostling along has always been comforting to me. Like a carriage of one hundred conversations I guess, that rumble always seemed like the train was talking in it’s own voice.
I take the train from Union Station in Los Angeles to San Diego and watch the Pacific swell and crest through the windows, that oceanic bridge between home and away. I also take the train from outside my apartment in New Zealand to downtown. I walk amongst hordes of office workers, school children and all manner of people on trains.
When you think of public transportation, it’s too easy to think just of the commute to work. But really, public transportation is any way of getting somewhere that you don’t get complete control of the journey or your fellow passengers.
I once took a train for four days across the Australian desert from east to west. That time I was lucky – my fellow travellers were a group of beautiful humans that I still pay attention to today. I took a train to the Lake District earlier this year and made conversations with a stranger but mostly on trains, I just pay attention and observe.
Trains used to be great observation stations of human culture and interaction. They are less about human interaction than they used to be. It used to be that you could see what books someone was reading or the newspaper and share a knowing glance, even a passing smile. Sometimes there was even chance to smile and maybe flirt a little, with the same people you see every day.
Now, you step onto the train to rows of bowed heads and headphones designed to drown out noise and flood the listener with some other distraction. Trains are quiet places now, because hardly anyone talks back.
I watched a heavily pregnant woman (yes, I was actually thinking through how I would help deliver a baby if it came before we left the train) stand in the stifling humid London heatwave while a carriage full of people ignored her. We’ve become so good at ignoring each other. I guess I used to think of public transportation as a shared journey, a shared experience. But now I think humanity is becoming far too good at being alone together.
We miss all the small chances for connection and human engagement throughout our day – we’ve forgotten the art of small talk because no one has time for it anymore. We just learn to be alone in the midst of being together, refusing to engage in shared experiences.
Public transportation makes me lonely, because I already spend too much time in my own thoughts. I sit on that train and rumble towards the next stop; watching the dozen or so people in my carriage with their heads bent. I wouldn’t recognise them on the street because I only see the top of their heads or maybe the toe of a shoe. And I watch people travelling together but entirely alone.
I remember talking out loud when I was young, in imaginary and practice conversations. I still do that, practice talking to the people who matter or the stories that are important to tell. I remember talking to God at five years old and I distinctly remember not talking to God for a while when I was eleven.
The first onstage performance I can remember, I was about 6 or 7 and all I had to do was deliver three simple lines. But I walked onto the stage and the microphone set up for me to speak them into was about a foot over my head. That was my first break into comedy.
I remember singing, no – I can’t remember ever not singing. And talking. I remember debating politics age eleven on the phone to my friend Sarah. We were both planning to be journalists; she wanted to write about sport and I wanted to write about politics and how to change the world. Sometimes I got confused as to whether I wanted to write about changing the country or just change the country.
I remember the warm hum of a microphone and the precise, obnoxious sibilance they bring to every word. I remember my voice in that microphone through a headset on my first radio show and then my second. I remember the sound of my voice on cassette tape as I listened to air check tapes. It requires stoicism to learn to appreciate your own voice instead of hearing everything that falters.
I remember the first time I read an advertisement and nailed it in two read-throughs and when the audio engineer said ‘can you give me something a little sexier?’, and I realised, listening back to the take, that I could. I could read it sexy or funny or smart. I remember the first time and the last time I walked onstage to a crowd of 5000 people and caught their attention with my words and how to still a room using timbre and tone.
It’s not the notes alone but the silences between the notes that make the music. I remember the first time I felt silenced and unheard. I can picture the look on his face when I saw my words fly past his ears. I remember the feeling of words flying but mine being powerless. How it felt as my voice shrank inside me. For a while, I didn’t have words for conversations between friends or even a phone call. I couldn’t read it sexy or smart or even half-alive for a while there.
It felt like a tearing and stretching burn when I started to use it again. It was like my trachea was still recovering from how searing my words had been the last time I spoke up. My tongue was heavy and soft, it had lost all it’s sharpness and dexterity. Like learning to walk again, it hurt at first.
Eventually someone asked and I walked up to the microphone again. I said yes out of muscle memory but I wasn’t sure muscle memory was going to be enough to get me through. But they liked it, the sound I made and the words I gave were hopeful, they said. Sharp but bright and hopeful. It sounded good to them. So I did it again, then one more time and another time after that. Until I was back to myself and perhaps better than that.
It’s my voice, you see. The sound I’ve been listening to my whole life. It doesn’t make sense when it goes away or if I shut it down. It can be sexy and sad and smart and funny and brave. And that’s the soundtrack of my life, the one I’m getting ready to turn up.
So I’m a couple of days behind in #thedaily500. Some life happened that required my attention. Because most of what I’ve been writing for these vignettes has been accumulated experience, it’s been challenging to create enough distance in the last few days to make sense of what is happening right now and what I might learn from it in the coming weeks and years. Sometimes the liminal space is just a matter of the words I do write and the words I don’t. It’s kind of fitting, given that I’ve spent the last year in creative hibernation rebuilding from one of the last learning experiences of my life. So today’s topic is something that changed me forever – but it also includes a unique tradition and a recent good read.
I’ve made a practice recently, of sharing good books on Instagram and Twitter. It seems appropriate somehow to capture it there, sharing the bloody good reads. I consume books like oxygen. I have rules that help me here – on domestic flights, I read. No listening to music or watching anything. I absorb a lot of fiction this way. Lots of it is average but I try to help myself out by engaging a little strategy. I buy books from the bestseller lists, not from the bargain boxes and I buy them at the airport. I avoid pulp fiction where possible and tend to purchase based on my mood at the time. It means I read a wide variety of books. The first unique tradition I have is buying these books and then gifting to them to other travellers or to the people I met wherever I land. I have given away books in airports, rental car centers, in the offices of clients and to the shelves of friends. But there is a book I carry with me around the world (mostly because there is no Kindle edition). The book is by Henri Nouwen and it’s called “The Inner Voice of Love.”
It’s not a self-help book or a workbook or a textbook by any ordinary measure. It’s the journal of a wise and compassionate man who at a time of deep disappointment, elf-realisation and heartbreak – wrote letters to himself and to his soul, to remind him of what was true while he was living in the midst of the Fog.
You know the Fog. It’s what descends on us (or sometimes we walk right into it) as we find ourselves somehow having to walk into a deeper reality of who we truly are. We spend our whole lives becoming; it’s what we become that is a matter of choice. We can either walk closer towards integration of our full selves, finding peace in bringing our disparate pieces together – or we try and walk away from ourselves and find peace what is external to us.
The Fog can look like clear skies on a crisp day, until the clouds roll in. Even on a blue sky day when we think we see the horizon clearly, it’s amazing how a storm can roll in form the distant West and reveal something we didn’t see before. Rain and mist rises and what seemed like the way is suddenly not the way.
Here’s my unique tradition: I go back to the same book and the same journals I’ve written and I remind myself of the path I took to here and what reality is. And most of the time, making my way through the Fog means incorporating some new truth to my reality. It’s not the truth that changes, but how much I see of it. So I return to the signposts that are trustworthy.
Nouwen writes about navigating pain and loss and hope and frailty; reminding me of what I need to remember about myself from all the times I’ve walked this path before. This book is my Leaning Tower of Pisa. When you walk up the tower, you actually climb a circular staircase and this strange triangulation of physics creates an optical illusion. The first 16 or so flights create such a microscope change in angle that the view of Duomo de Pisa (the Cathedral beside the Tower) appears unchanged. But by the 20th time you circle the tower staircase, you can begin to perceive the difference. This is the beauty of exponential equations.
Which brings me to the subject of today – something that has changed you; or me, forever. In my case, there is a long list of breathtaking experiences and a longer list of circumstances in which I let myself down, let others down or was disappointed in someone else. There are circumstances too; simple calamities of timing and misalignment that created havoc – but in those stories, there is no one, not even myself to blame and they are far less interesting for it. It is when people are involved that things become the most interesting after all. I could choose any one of them about tell you how it changed me. I write journals and collect data on myself and others. I’ve been doing it for years and therefore could tell you how the lessons I learned from a single interaction 20 years ago are still changing me today. But those stories are just a smaller example of the bigger idea.
Exponentiality is what changed my life. It’s a made-up variation of a word. I made it up myself – to express the principle of what happens when you apply an exponential equation to the human experience. By the time this essay is finished, it will feel like a real word and concept that you understand. And that is the power of exponentiality.
The common human experience is to want more now; to get the most reward as soon as you can. It’s really a question of momentum – that moving through Now quicker will get you to Then, which is assumed to be better than Now because in the Western world we are also driven by forward progression. (There are about 1000 layers or more underneath forward progression as a principle in life. I’ll happily unpack them with you sometime.)
Exponentiality dispels the necessity of forward momentum and focuses on overall outcome or reward. It’s a percentages game. We have a tendency to assume that a greater percentage gain faster leads to the greater potential percentage gain overall. Exponentiality is a focus on the overall percentage gain regardless of momentum.
In a $1000 dollar investment, 5% return per annum over 5 years garners greater overall gain than the same investment that gives a 10% return in the first year and decreasing returns each year after.
It’s the same way with lessons. Apply the lesson once and you might gain a quick 10% return. But apply the lesson over and over at a consistent rate and over time you’ll see greater overall impact. In other words, don’t rush too fast over your lessons and you’ll experience greater transformation as a result.
Exponentiality has taught me not to rush through what is uncomfortable or less than ideal in the first instance but allowing consistency to create exponential growth.
I re-read Nouwen over and over because I learn lessons from him and my own experiences that are worth checking in on, to ensure I’m still reaping the benefit of that investment and time. And finally, by the 16th time around the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I start to see that yes, I really am much higher than I was before. The perspective and the view is different. Mostly that lesson is about learning to listen and live into my truest self. Becoming is the hardest work of my life and is frequently tested.
Without exponentiality, the temptation is to run from one experience to the next without allowing that lesson to take hold and bring maximum impact to life. Sometimes lessons are painful and despite my ability to live in the shadow side of life, no one really likes to dwell there for long. It’s far too tempting to give lip service to change than to actually change. Or we try to shortcut our way through. Here’s a tip: quick 10% gains will often fail to compound over time if we don’t consolidate. Most of the really important stuff we ought to be learning and double down our investment in actually needs a little more time and attention. In other words, don’t try to run up the Tower of Pisa. Take your time. Walk. It will be better for you in the end.
So I recently re-read an old favourite book, because when something painful and familiar comes along it’s become my tradition to double-down and ensure I’m rising above it and gaining more perspective. The view will eventually change altogether. That’s exponentiality at work – compounding lessons and interest on the investment.
And this has changed my life forever – not the first circumstance that brought me to this self-reflection or even the second. It wasn’t any one person (myself or anyone else) that let me down that created catalyst for change in my life – it has been and will always be the investment in learning from those circumstances and remembering to check my view each time I climb another floor in the Tower.
So that’s where I was for a couple of days – checking the view and checking in on my investments. Something to read, something to repeat and something that has changed me forever.