I had the most heart-warming beginning to 2020 watching people share the books they love and participating in something I fashioned out of my thoughts in a few days. I’m talking about the giveaway that I conducted where I promised to give away my top 5 books from 2019 to 5 bibliophiles (mission accomplished!). If you were wondering why I posted that out of nowhere, here’s your answer.
I’m a deeply reflective creature who errs on the side of over-analyzation. But, it has served me well in certain circumstances, like now. I thought about the three impactful lessons I learnt in 2019, and it all stemmed from the books I read.
#1: Don’t try to change the world before you change yourself.
This elongated quote by Anglican Bishop says it all: “When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser I discovered the world would not change. So I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country, but it too seemed immovable. As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it. And now I realize as I lie on my deathbed, if I had only changed myself first, then by example I might have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement I would then have been able to better my country, And who knows, I might have even changed the world.”
We are all haunted by existential questions that bubble up during moments which at first may seem random, but upon reflection seem oddly justified. At least for now, I think I found the answer. I want to spend my life finding ways to add value to the people I love and the world itself. I want to be in the front line when we make advances to our cognition, but be cognizant of the prisoners of birth who don’t have access to it. I want to build literary bridges for them to walk through. So many wants indeed. Yet, how can I hope to change the world if I cannot change myself to continue to become a better version of myself? Not to attain perfection; but to always tend towards it.
I also realize that this applies to the people I spend most time with.
We are the average of the five people we spend most time with.
I cannot expect to work at the library on a Sunday when the people I spend most time with prefer going to bars and watching television all day. This is something I’m still working on, and has been specifically hard after Columbia.
Pick your five right.
#2: Attention informs the self which directs the attention.
The intersection of space and time is exemplified by attention.
If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them. – The Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In the early years of our childhood, we had minimal control over where we focused our attention on. Strapped to a chair, we saw our mother laughing as she spoke to us, our father feeding us while making funnily scary faces, our brothers and sisters wheeling themselves around in a kiddy bike. As we grew older, we got exposed to more information and knowledge, and autonomy in filtering out what to absorb. A trip to the zoo with your father might have planted a seedling in your mind, a precursor to your predilection for animals. This influenced the way you spent your attention at school. Subjects on zoology caught your attention more, and in turn the things you learnt transformed predilection to passion. Now, having graduated from my academic life, I’m more frugal than ever in the way I direct my attention.
This involves making hard decisions. This involves religiously unsubscribing from email newsletters (even the ones I like), refraining from watching most TV series and movies, giving up books halfway through that don’t produce value. It might feel stressful at first. When I gave up reading the news online and resorting to newsletters and magazines, it made me anxious. What if I miss out on the latest in politics, or business? Would I become less literate? This is the opposite of the phenomenon of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). In fact, it has a name: JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out). The “joy” in JOMO won’t be felt right away, but I assure you.. it will hit you.
Money is valuable. But, time is invaluable. Don’t waste that on consuming too much or too little information.
Random fun fact: The word dilettante stems from Italian and means ‘person loving the arts.’ But today, it is thrown around with a negative connotation against people who try to learn diverse skills. I strongly reject this notion, and feel it is crucial that we are all multi-dimensional and spend our time learning different skills with equal vigor rather than have a tunnel vision.
#3: Vulnerability is a skill that you need to practice everyday.
To quote the fictional character Barney Stinson from the hit series How I Met Your Mother, “Whatever you do in this life, it’s not legendary unless your friends are there to see it.” Truer words have not been spoken. I realized that nothing I do in life would matter if I didn’t have my support system. We all want to be loved, respected, and cared for. But to do that, we also need to love, respect, and care for others. We need to learn to open up. We need to be vulnerable. But it requires more than just thinking, Okay, I’ll be vulnerable from now. No. It requires factoring it in into the tiniest of decisions we take.
After a long day, when I get home, all I want to do is shut down my brain for a while and rejuvenate. At that moment, I get a call from my father. What do I do? I’m about to meet my friend and tell him about the promotion I received at work. But as soon as I see him, I notice something is wrong. Do I share the news anyway or ask him what happened? These tiny decisions seem like a no-brainer in hindsight. But hindsight doesn’t take into account the minutia of details of the moment. At least for me, I’ve found it really hard to open up and be vulnerable and be all in. Brene put it perfectly when she called vulnerability a tight-rope.
When we stop caring about what people think, we lose our capacity for connection. When we become defined by what people think, we lose our willingness to be vulnerable. If we dismiss all the criticism, we lose out on important feedback, but if we subject ourselves to the hatefulness, our spirits get crushed. – Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
Vulnerability is excruciatingly hard, but anything else is impossible.
These three are not my New Year resolutions. These were lessons I learnt throughout the year, which finally can be written down on this occasion (albeit a little late…). I don’t want you to follow these unless you see meaning in them. Rather, take a piece of paper and write down the things you learnt in 2019 that you hope to embody in 2020. In fact, if you’re feeling a little experimental, try writing down your 2020 goals using the concept of air, earth, fire, and water. Happy terribly-late 2020!