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Discomfort is a compass

Having lunch alone at work. Waiting on a diagnosis after a doctor’s appointment. Networking at events.

I no longer fear having to do these. (Okay, I’m a little afraid of seeing my doctor.) They’re all part of being a functional adult. But they’re only the start of a long list of things that make me feel uncomfortable. I do all I can to put them off as long as I can.

In her TED talk, Priya Parker talks about building your resistance towards discomfort. When we’re in public, our first instinct is to reach for the phone and blending in with everyone else. It’s easy. What’s hard is drawing attention to yourself and being okay with it.

Parker suggests singing — not too loudly — but loud enough to be heard. Your heart will start to pound as people zero in on you. Training yourself to get used to this feeling will build your discomfort muscles. Luckily, you don’t even have to sing in Tesco to try this experiment.

“It’s he or she who’s willing to be the most uncomfortable can rise strong.”
— Brené Brown

Discomfort is a compass. It helps you navigate why you deliberately or subconsciously avoid something.

  • Why do I get nervous at networking events? I take a long time to warm up to people and it might get awkward.
  • Why do I take so long to be myself around new people? I don’t spend much time talking to people at events.
  • Why do I want to meet other local artists and designers if it makes me nervous? I want to learn from them.

By shifting the focus towards leaning into discomfort, you stop relying on motivation. Instead, your goal is to see it through.

I’m always nervous around new people, so I prepare for the possibility of awkward moments. I speak up whenever I’m curious. Even if I all I do is ask people about themselves, I can learn a lot by listening. And it ends up being fun.

Instead conquering your biggest fears, why not start the new year confronting something that makes you uncomfortable?

Make an adventure out of the mundane

I came across an app called Fabulous a few years ago. You go on quests towards leveling up your energy and productivity by cultivating healthy habits. The habits give structure to your days as you go about living your life. Being an avid gamer, I love productivity apps that gamify real life. But after a while, it was too much work. I lost interest.

Fast forward to 2016 — my best friend drew me into an online game called Guild Wars 2. But it wasn’t the immersive world of Tyria or the dynamic, collaborative gameplay that kept me coming back. It was how your progress in the entire game could be measured — every quest, every story, every new area traversed.

I played everyday for the “dailies”. Complete a random list three of tasks and you were rewarded in gold. Sometimes the tasks were easy and I’d complete them before breakfast, boasting to an unimpressed husband. Sometimes, I had to spend hours traversing treacherous lands. I looked forward to being assigned a new set of dailies every day at 8 am. Completing them gave me a small spark of achievement I wasn’t getting from my job.

However, over time I no longer got a sense of achievement from the game, let alone any joy. On weekends, I could spend half a day on my computer, accumulating experience points while my real life went nowhere. I wished I could have that kind of dedication towards achievement in real life.

Then it hit me. I could.

I re-downloaded Fabulous. In the years I had been away, it had become smoother, sleeker, and most importantly — more fun. It’s illustrated like a storybook where you get to be the main character. Once I saw it as a game, I saw no barrier to diving right in.

The first three days you’re told to drink some water as soon as you wake up and read letters telling you you’re brave for making this first step. It was already a habit of mine (the only one left over from the first time I tried Fabulous) so I was itching for something more challenging.

Next, I had to make a point to eat a healthy breakfast. I started waking up early just so I could take my time whipping up a wholesome meal for myself.

A grueling challenge came three days later — eight minutes of exercise every morning. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had gone to the gym. But you’re allowed to keep it simple. I did yoga in my living room and danced to my favourite songs when I didn’t feel up for twenty sun salutations. If I fell sick, I opted for light stretches.

I eventually had to go on go on a “journey” — a set of challenges centred on a chosen goal. I chose to build my up focus and concentration.

  • The challenges weren’t always easy.
  • Write a to-do list every morning. (Easy.)
  • Identify 3 of the most important tasks on your to-do list. (Easy to do, difficult to carry out.)
  • Work for 25 minutes with no interruptions three days in a row. (Difficult.)
  • Block out distractions five times this week. (Extremely difficult. I don’t know how to live without wi-fi. It took me weeks to complete this.)
  • Write down what you’re grateful for every night. (Easier than expected. Today, I’m thankful for cakes.)

My therapist checked in on me and said I looked happier. I was pleased — I felt happier. I was much healthier, no longer waking up lethargic in the morning. I tried things I had only dreamed of. I made new friends in new places and connected with old friends. I began to express my creativity outside of work, something I had not done in a long time.

What began as a few simple habits in the morning had trickled into other parts of my life.

Make an adventure out of the mundane. It might be fun.

The best lessons are tucked away in books

There is nothing like getting caught off-guard by a good book.

On loneliness

Ryu Murakami, or “the other Murakami” as he sometimes known, makes poignant observations of humanity in his novel Audition.

Apparently what the Japanese wanted wasn’t a better life, but more things. People were lost in infected with the concept that happiness was something outside themselves, and a new and powerful form of loneliness was born.

 

Any of these things could be yours if you were willing to sacrifice a little, and many people ended up sacrificing a lot.

 

Audition by Ryu Murakami

On intuition

Anne Lamott writes with a self-deprecating savage honesty. Bird by Bird is equal parts a writing manual and a guide to life.

When we listened to our intuition as children and then told grown-ups what we believed to be true, we were often corrected, ridiculed or punished. God forbid you should have your own opinions or perceptions better to have head lice. And you nodded because it was important to stay on the adults’ good side.

 

If you asked innocently, “Why is Mom in the bathroom crying?,” you might be told, “Mom isn’t crying; Mom has allergies.” Or if you said, “Why didn’t Dad come home last night?,” you might be told brightly, “Dad did come home last night, but then he left again very early.” So you may have gotten used to the habit of doubting the voice that was telling you quite clearly what was really going on.

 

It is essential that you get it back.

 

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

On being yourself

Alternating between autobiographical speech and whimsical short story, Jason Erik Lundberg discusses speculative fiction and what it takes to write it. This piece of advice addressed to his daughter is wonderfully sweet.

Embrace your strange, whatever that might mean. Love the things that you love, unashamedly, unreservedly, and infuse your love in the art you make.

 

Embracing Your Strange by Joseph Erik Lundberg

On happiness

Desiderata, Max Ehrmann’s gentle instructions to living life, was written in 1927 and has become truer with age.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

 

Desiderata by Max Ehrmann

Rein in your productivity

Copperplate calligraphy comes with strict rules – light upstrokes, heavy downstrokes, measured movements. You repeat the same strokes over and over so they become muscle memory.

All to achieve one thing. Perfection.

For years, I had taken everything I knew about copperplate and applied it to brush pen calligraphy. And then it occurred to me you could break every single one of those rules with a brush pen.

Exulted by what I had discovered, I began practicing nonstop. I sketched and inked furiously, ignoring the dull ache that had formed in the middle and ring fingers of my right hand hours later.

I have carpal tunnel syndrome, a souvenir from engineering school. If you use your hands a lot, you run the risk of getting CTS. Repetitive motions like typing and drawing can compress the nerves running through the wrist. I do stretches every other morning and wear a splint whenever my wrist acts up.

At my best, life goes on ostensibly well.

At my worst, I showed up to Object Oriented Programming in C++ with both wrists in splints, much to the horror of my classmates.

I knew better, but I kept going even as the telltale pain made its way up my elbow. Close to midnight, it felt like someone had strung metal wires from my fingertips through my arm up to right shoulder. My hand was shaking. I could barely draw a straight line if I wanted to, let alone draw the alphabet.

I couldn’t even glorify the fact that I had produced quality work because I was five hours overdue for a break. It will take a fortnight of rest before life can go on ostensibly well again.

Rein in your productivity. There’s excitement over making things, and then there’s pushing yourself too hard. Doing a week’s worth of work in one night is not only unsustainable. It stops you from producing your best.

What I should have done was taken breaks when before my hand began to hurt. Called it a night and tucked away my sketches somewhere safe. Returning to them a few days later with a fresh set of eyes would allow me to judge my work with the objectivity it deserves.

All to express one thing. Creativity.

Everything has to start somewhere

My partner once asked me, “What would you do if you weren’t a designer?”

I thought for a while. I wasn’t particularly good at writing, nor had I much experience doing it professionally. I just liked it.

“I’d be a writer.”

Last October, I promised myself I would write every single day for the rest of my life. Writing gave me clarity, helped me flesh out ideas, and made me more confident running my own business. I stopped writing after getting a day job. I didn’t have the time for such trivial tasks.

It has been ten years since I ran a blog of my own. 2017 was a difficult year that forced me to reexamine every facet of my life. The prospect of writing in public feels equal parts daunting and cathartic. I wanted to get it out there, but I also wanted to get it just right. If there was anything I was more afraid of than people, it was their opinions. I had to force myself to ignore the end product, throwing myself into the process.

I delved into unfinished books on writing. I signed up for courses and workshops. I dusted off my trusty Nikon and charged the batteries. I picked up the habit of writing daily, hoping for the same clarity it had given me in the past.

It wasn’t quite as eye-opening this time around — after all, it wasn’t clarity I needed, but focus. I wrote 16000 words in November, more than I had written all year. Finally, I scheduled my first post for the 3rd of December 2017. Today.

I might never get my blog right. But I could get it written.

Everything has to start somewhere. I’m starting here.