100 Dreams, Revisited

I recently finished listening to Laura Vanderkam’s new book‌‌ “I Know How She Does It”, and in it I was reminded of her “100 dreams” idea.

A little while back, I made a list of 100 dreams. It’s what it sounds like – basically a bucket list. But instead of putting on a bunch of arbitrary “shoulds” (I don’t need to skydive or see the coral reefs), it’s a list of 100 things that sound awesome to me, big and small. Things that I’ll actually make a point of doing, whether this year or in 30 years.

The last time I created such a list, I‌ got stuck around number 60. It was frustrating, but then something wonderful happened – the frustration evolved into an existential crisis. What am I doing with my life?‌‌‌‌ What’s it all for? The list pushed me to excavate to the truth. What‌‌‌‌ do I really want? Not just what looks good to want on paper?

So I‌ pushed for bigger ideas and ended up with 107 dreams by the end of it. It felt great and allowed me to re-examine my priorities. It gave me tremendous clarity in my day-to-day life and with my longer-term goals.

But the dust settles; the profundity of such an experience fades. That’s why, after listening to Laura’s book (excellent in the audio format), I decided to give the “100 dreams” list another go.

No existential crisis this time, but a surprising amount of my ideas changed in the year or so between lists. Things I wrote on the first list no longer mattered much to me (what do I‌ care if I‌ have a Stella McCartney handbag?). New ideas hopped on the page that I couldn’t have imagined the first time around‌‌‌ (build an energy-efficient house on several acres of land).

If you’re interested in creating your own list, here’s how I‌ did it:

1)‌‌‌ Divide your list into categories. These are the ones I‌ used:

 -Home

 -Family/parenting

 -Relationships/friendships

 -Career

 -Creative

 -Personal/professional development

 -Travel/adventure

 -Health and food

Once you have your categories, start coming up with ideas! You might discover additional categories along the way – use whatever headers and themes matter to you. 

2)‌ Make a note beside each of your 100 dreams on where you’re at with it.

  -In red, I‌ wrote anything that I‌ wasn’t actively pursuing.

  -In yellow, I‌ wrote things that were on my horizon or that I‌ wanted to do, but wasn’t doing.

  -In green, I‌ wrote those things that I’m already doing.

3)‌ Come up with a secondary list, “Dreams I’m actively pursuing”.

Put this list in a prominent spot and revisit it at least weekly, if not daily. Here’s where you put all your green ideas, and whichever yellow ones you’ve decided to take on and start integrating into your life.

When I created this secondary list, I‌ also craved more clarity. Instead of writing, “Learn about gardening”, I‌ drilled down and wrote, “read at least 5 books‌ on permaculture and take notes‌‌” (I have a notebook dedicated just to this).

Here’s an example of how I condensed the “home life” dreams section:

Home life

  • Purchase several books each month (use my Indigo card in Nov)
  • Purchase land and build house (huge ongoing project; broken into next steps on Nozbe)
  • Research at least 5 books on fruit and vegetable permaculture

4)‌ Put your projects or habits into your daily task manager

I’ve talked about Nozbe before, which I’ve used and loved for years. It allows me to arrange some of my dreams/goals into projects, and also create recurring habits (such as “meditate every day”).

This means that, as long as I’m checking my to-do list on a daily basis, habits I’d like to incorporate pop up on my daily list – no mental energy required to remember to do something. I like to review the secondary list weekly, in order to look over some things that might not neatly fit into my to-do list, but this process takes away most of the ambiguity around my goals. I see them every day; I know if I’m moving toward them, or not.

I want to restate that this is not a bucket list – at least not in the conventional way bucket lists are used (and ignored). This is a list of things I‌ really want to do, but things that I might not do without some long-term consideration and a little bit of planning.

For example, I want to meditate every day for an entire year. I‌ find the idea of creating a 365-day streak inspiring (and intimidating). At the end of it, I’ll have a well-established habit of meditation, which is great, but I’ll also have the experience of having meditated every day for a year – also great. Or maybe after a year I’ll say, “that was fun but I’m done with this meditation thing”. That’s fine too – it’s all part of the learning experience.

A long-term goal that I‌ wouldn’t be able to achieve without careful planning is getting a licentiate diploma in piano performance. I am a long, long ways away from that point. But I‌ like to keep it on my radar, and take tiny steps in that direction in the meantime. Maybe I‌ don’t get there for another 30 years – that’s fine. But I’d like to keep it in my head, and move toward it slowly but surely.

This process has been enormously helpful to me both times I’ve gone through it, and highly encourage you to do the same if you have a feeling of fuzziness, a feeling that you’re aimlessly drifting. It’s challenging, but it’s also quite fun – and what’s more important than that?

-Allysia

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What Do You Want?

What do you want?

This is the easiest question, this is the hardest question. 

(It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.)

 

-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

List of 10 ideas

As I ate my big bowl of morning oatmeal, I penned down yet another “list of 10 ideas”, a habit I’ve adopted at James Altucher’s suggestion. Sometimes the process is challenging – when you’ve spent a couple months making lists, you’ve exhausted a lot of the good and obvious ideas. You’ve hit the point where you need to dig deeper.

This morning, though, I was inspired by the (audio)book “Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable“, written by Michael Jordan’s personal trainer. He was talking about being the absolute best at what you do (someone he calls a “cleaner”). It reminded me of Cal Newport’s “So Good They Can’t Ignore You“, one of my favorite books.

The idea of being “the best” at something stuck in my head, so I decided to make a list of 10 things I could be the best at.

Since we’re all friends here, here’s my list:

  • Best parent
  • Best wife
  • Best piano player
  • Best piano teacher
  • Best piano website/channel
  • Best non-fiction writer
  • Best fiction writer
  • Best script writer
  • Best personal growth leader
  • Best vegan chef

Being the Best Ever

As I looked over my list, I realized that I wouldn’t actually want to be the best ever at most of these. I don’t have the desire to be the best parent or wife ever. I want to be a great parent and wife, but I don’t feel the need to be the best. For now, good enough is good enough.

And as much as I love cooking, I don’t need to be the best at it, either. My husband is a better cook than me and I don’t even feel the need to be better than him, let alone better than everyone. So scratch that.

Thinking about being the best piano player is laughable. It’s just impossible. I don’t have what it takes, and I have no inclination to compete at the back-breaking level necessary to get there.

Here’s what feels like an actual possibility: Having the best piano website/channel. It feels real because I can visualize it. I can come up with 100 ideas of things to do over the next 5-10 years to become the best. And then I can come up with 100 more.

This is something that feels within my grasp to be the best at. And it’s different than being the best piano teacher or piano player. I need to be good at both of those to have a relevant website/channel for piano players, but building an online business, recording videos and creating courses and events are unique to having the best piano website/channel.

Yes, this is one that fires me up.

But there are a couple ideas on my list that scare me.

Follow the Fear

Be the best personal growth leader? How could I ever hope to be better than David Allen or Stephen Covey? I’m a little baby and they’re giants in the field.

But there’s a difference between a scary thought and an impossible thought. Being the best piano player is an impossible thought. Being the best personal growth leader isn’t impossible. It’s scary. And where there’s fear, there’s something to examine more closely.

Can I be a better non-fiction writer than Cal Newport or Michael Pollan? Would I even want to play in that league? The thought makes my blood run cold.

Thinking like this changes everything.

I write every day. I read every day. I’m obsessed with personal development. But journaling and blogging with the intention to have fun and introspect is one thing. Writing with the intention of becoming the best is a completely different thing.

If I wanted to be the best writer, what would I do differently? Would I journal differently? Would I read different books? Would I take classes? Would I spend more time writing, or would I spend the same amount of time writing differently? Would I need a mentor? How would I go about getting better, aside from repetition? How would I earn a living from writing? Would I have to drop everything else? What if I could never be good enough? What if people said I was a terrible writer and that I’m wasting my time? What if I built my whole life around being the best writer ever and it was all for nothing?

These are scary, scary thoughts. Because making decisions here means rewriting my life. It means living differently.

It means getting clear on what I want.

That’s the scariest thing.

Quantum Superposition

It’s fun to daydream about all the could-be’s. I love taking 20 minutes imagining all sorts of futures, just me and my brain. It’s one of my favorite quiet activities and I engage in it several times a week, usually as my daughter’s falling asleep for a nap.

Sometimes I’ll imagine traveling to beautiful places. Sometimes I’ll imagine having an abundance of wonderful friends. Sometimes I’ll visualize my perfect office or library or piano room.

These could-be’s are lovely because they’re ephemeral. It’s one thing to dream up a lovely future and watch it disappear as pleasantly as steam from a cup of coffee. The moment passes, the coffee cools, and nothing changes.

But if the thing you’re dreaming up is no longer a could-be, it’s a will-be – that’s scary. It means making decisions. It means saying yes to 1 thing and no to 100 other things.

I want to stay in a state where anything is possible. It’s the most comfortable place in the world to be.

But if I choose to be the best writer, I’m doing so at the expense of being the best at pretty much everything else in life.

If I decide to become the best writer, then I will probably never become the best piano player. Not ever, not someday. Never.

What’s more scary than the death of infinite possibilities?

This is why deciding what you want is the hardest thing. It’s a “yes” to one delicious meal, while saying “no” to every other potentially delicious meal on the menu. And you can’t come back to the restaurant ever again. At least as far as you know.

Thinking about what you want is fun. Deciding what you want is something that most of us avoid. I know I have. I know I do.

But I must observe the quantum particle. I must take it from the state of infinite possibilities into flesh-and-bones reality.

What do you want to choose?

“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver

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I Will Never Retire

The concept of retirement has always baffled me.

Granted, the concept of having a 9-5 has always baffled me. They’re two sides of a coin, peas in a pod.

I will never retire, and I will also never have a 9-5.

It’s not because I’m a crazy hippie, and it’s not because I’m lazy. I love to work. But I also love time, which is much more valuable than money. Time is non-replenishable, and life pays us in time alone.

The high risk of retirement

For starters, retiring is risky. Not the retirement itself, but the postponement of non-work experiences.

People talk about what they’ll do when they retire, where they’ll go, the pleasures they’ll get to enjoy. How many times have I come across an adult piano student who has saved the learning of an instrument until retirement, and then must battle their stiff and sore muscles through the process?

Why wait?

There’s not enough time. Life gets busy in the 9-5. Work and sleep eat up equal portions of your day, and that remaining third of a pie slice must be divided between family, children and life chores like cooking and cleaning. At the end of it you just have a tiny fraction to spare toward hobbies. Productive hobbies usually win out – things like exercising, things that have a tangible benefit.

Pursuing activities with harder-to-pinpoint benefits, such as learning piano or exploring watercolors, tends to get left by the wayside. Exercising is quantifiable – doing so will help you live a longer, healthier life. Practicing piano? Less quantifiable, more ethereal. Because of this, we tend to de-value it. But art is deeper, richer. It’s an activity that can make you really feel like you. It’s maybe even more valuable than practical hobbies.

Retirement is one big postponement. All of these hobbies, all of these non-productive activities, you’ll get to them when you’re 65.

This is incredibly risky. You might not be alive at 65. You just never know. You could get cancer. You could get hit by a bus. This is life we’re talking about. For all you know, it’s the only one you’ve got. Isn’t it a gamble to postpone precious life experiences for decades?

If you are alive at 65, that’s no guarantee you’ll be in perfect health. You could be grappling with chronic illness, joint pain, carpal tunnel, any number of things.

And if you’re alive and healthy at 65, there’s no guarantee you’ll have money. Pensions aren’t 100%, and most people don’t have them – only 13% of Americans do. Most people don’t have any savings, either.

The worst-case scenario is that you’re working just enough to get by at a career you don’t care about, only to get stuck in that career indefinitely because you’re unable to afford retirement.

Let’s assume the best-case scenario. You maintain excellent physical fitness, consume the healthiest foods in the world, practice stress-reduction techniques and good sleep hygiene, and limit alcohol consumption. You’re fit and healthy even at an older age. You’re ready to take on the world! Congratulations, my friend. You made it to retirement and will be able to enjoy it fully.

But why not enjoy all those things (health, wealth, etc.) before you retire?

Meaningful work

The idea of retirement is coupled with an unsettling question:

If you want to retire, are you actually doing meaningful work you love?

I’m incredibly passionate about the work I do. I get a thrill from it. Teaching piano to people all over the world, writing about it and making videos? It’s great. It’s challenging. There are a lot of tech things I’ve had to learn. Who would’ve known I’d be learning about coding and automated email sequences? About Chopin and ConvertKit?

But – and this is a big BUT – the best thing about my work is that I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 10, 20, 30 years from now. I teach on the internet, and it’s anyone’s guess what the internet landscape will be in a decade and beyond. I’ll probably have to learn a whole new set of skills. I might not even be teaching piano.

Some people would point to that unpredictability and call it a downside, but I disagree. Loving what I do – without knowing exactly what I’ll be doing in the future – means I’ll always love what I do.

It I was making piano videos for 30 years straight, I’d understand retirement. I’d definitely want a break from that. 30 years is a long time to do anything.

I think that’s one reason people switch jobs so much – the average person goes through 15 jobs in their working life. Most of us can’t stomach the idea of doing the same thing forever. We crave new experiences because new experiences bring us alive and make us more interesting. For many people, that involves hopping around the job market until retirement time, when they can finally stop the hopping.

If you love what you do, and what you do is a fluid thing, then wouldn’t you want to keep doing it indefinitely? Wouldn’t you want to be contributing in the ways you’re best-suited even in your 70s, 80s, 90s? Wouldn’t you want to keep sharing your gifts with people, making the world a better place?

I love writing and I can’t imagine putting the pen down. Of course, it was a pen when I was a child and teenager, evolved into a typepad from my teen years to now, and who knows what writing will look like in 20 years.

I love playing piano and exploring new repertoire. Pianos will almost definitely continue to exist beyond my lifetime, but the way we consume music might change drastically. There will be new genres emerging. Maybe less people will be interested in piano as time goes on as we wade deeper and deeper into the synthetic pool. Or maybe piano playing will undergo a renaissance in the future with people craving a more organic musical experience.

Luckily I also love teaching. So even if people start setting fires to pianos, there are other skills I have that I can use to earn a living.

Maybe that’s the riskiest thing of all with the 9-5/retirement coin – you’re putting all your eggs in one basket. A career is great until the market changes, until higher-ups decide you’re expendable.

Some careers aren’t going anywhere, sure. We’ll always need nurses and teachers. And we’ll probably always pay them chump change despite the indispensability of their work.

But even for the stablest of career paths, there’s still a distinct lack of freedom. If you’re a teacher, you’re doing essentially the same thing for 30 years. Different kids, different classrooms, but the same work. Even the most passionate teacher would want a break from that.

Circling back around to the original point, then, if you want to retire, doesn’t that imply that your work isn’t deeply fulfilling? If your work was deeply fulfilling, why would you want to retire?

Or maybe it was fulfilling, but after doing it for 30 years you’re done with it?

Work, then, needs to be fulfilling AND novel. It needs to provide value to others while also giving us a rich tapestry of new experiences. This is the kind of work no one would want to retire from.

Which leads me to my third objection with retirement.

Postponing pleasure

My husband is a teacher and plays with the 9-5/retirement coin daily. We have discussions like what you’re reading in this blog post all the time.

He enjoys his work and finds fulfillment in it. Despite the fact that his income potential is limited, despite the fact that he has almost no control over his schedule, despite the fact that he has a boss and co-workers and isn’t always able to make autonomous decisions, he likes it. It baffles me, but enough people do it – there must be something to it.

Here’s my biggest issue with conventional careers. What if you want some time off? What if you want to go live in India for a year? What if you want to have sabbaticals every five years or so? What if you want to go on an impromptu vacation? What if you want to spend a month taking an intensive course on creating bonsai trees? What if that Spanish class you really want to take is only available at 11am every Tuesday?

Conventional careers force you to wait until retirement to do these things. Want to travel to India? Cool, do it when you’re 65 (55 if you started young). You don’t have the freedom or flexibility to live your life as it happens, to explore your hobbies and passions as they bubble to the surface. You can only watch the bubbles form and pop and think, “I’ll get to that later.”

And then your youth is gone.

I’ve worked conventional jobs before. I was a waitress, a popcorn peddler, I chopped veggies in a catering kitchen. In all of these jobs I had no control over my schedule. It was suffocating. How do people do it? I think about this often. Really, how?

Is the trade-off – financial security – really so worth it?

Most people I talk to tell me that their job is a necessity. They need their work to live. But is that really true? Or does it just seem true because the alternative would be really, really hard?

Losing financial security to pursue what you really, really love? Yeah that’s hard. But it’s also doable. So saying your job is a necessity is really just a good excuse.

What if you could create financial security without sacrificing all of your time, without having to postpone big pleasures until retirement?

This is the “what if” I’ve been asking since I was a teenager.

I would rather live with little and be the captain of my own ship, than to have wealth with time constraints. If choosing between money or freedom, I’ll choose freedom every time.

It’s worked for me so far. My twenties were spent having crappy apartments and big adventures, pursuing meaningful hobbies while my peers were buying houses.

But people who have things are afraid to lose them. When you have little, you have little to lose. I was able to take more risks in my twenties because of that. I’ve experienced a life sans-luxury. With secondhand everything. But with enough.

When you live with little, what you come to realize is that money isn’t really that important. It’s a means to an end, not a pinnacle to achieve. Even with little money you can still have rich, wonderful experiences. Some of my best memories happened when I was broke. Friends, family, art and books. It’s all free.

Now, in my thirties, things are starting to even out in my peer group. I make more money. And I’m really starting to come into my own potential. Skills I’ve been building for a decade are starting to pay off.

The kind of life where you work 40-60 hours a week at a lukewarm, time-restricted career and save up all the big adventures for retirement is a life I reject. It is not the only way.

And who knows – maybe next year I’ll take my first big step into exploring that freedom I’ve built for myself with a year-long gallivant across the globe.

I will never retire. But I will never have a career that I want to retire from. I will never work back-breaking hours and sacrifice the relationships that mean the most to me. I will never sacrifice the hobbies that mean the most to me. I will never value money above time.

I will never subscribe to a “someday” of retirement when that “someday” could be next year if I simply lived my life differently.

-Allysia

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If You Don’t Love What You Do, You’re Not Trying Hard Enough

If you don’t love what you do, you’re not trying hard enough.

The highway looks wet in the distance, but that distance never arrives. You never reach the wet spot. It’s a mirage, an optical illusion.

In your life, you say, “When I’m doing what I love, then I’ll try hard. Then I’ll be happy.”

And you keep your eyes fixated on that wet spot in the distance. You don’t arrive, so you don’t try hard and you aren’t happy.

All the while your life is flying by, one kilometer after the next, this constant journey. You don’t see the sky, the signposts, the deer in the ditch, the wildflowers. You just see the wet spot.

Effort = Satisfaction

Maybe you’re working as a fry cook right now. And you’re saying, “Allysia, this is garbage. I’m not happy because I’m a fry cook. It’s a miserable job. This is about as far away from living my dream as it gets.”

So you show up miserable to your fry cook job, and you put in the minimum effort required before miserably returning home, and then repeat the cycle miserably.

The radical idea I’d like to suggest is this: What if you said, “Today I’m going to be the best fry cook in the world.”?

You show up for work, determined instead of miserable. You give it your all. I’ve never been a fry cook so I have no idea what this means in actual terms. Maybe it means you’re more precise. You’re really paying attention, you’re really being present inside each moment. You’re focusing on positive and helpful interactions with coworkers. Maybe it means listening to high-quality podcasts or audiobooks.

What happens at the end of the day? Do you miserably slump your way home?

Probably not. Maybe being a fry cook isn’t your dream job. But there’s a deep satisfaction you get from doing a job well. So instead of slumping home, there’s a spring in your step. You gave it your all.

You were present. You lived your life instead of disparaging it.

Being a fry cook forever

What if you never reached your dreams, and you were stuck living as a fry cook forever?

What if it were literally impossible to do anything else? Maybe someone’s holding a gun to your head and saying, “You have to be a fry cook forever”. That’s basically the only scenario I can imagine where it’d be impossible for you to opt out of fry cookery.

Yes, that would be a sucky fate. But you know what? Some people have sucky fates. They lose both legs, they’re born with cerebral palsy, they’re given a cancer diagnosis. Any sucky scenario you can imagine has probably happened to someone. There’s probably even someone out there who had to be a fry cook forever.

What do you do with that? Bemoan your fate? “Life sucks, I have to do this stupid job forever.”?

You have a choice

The thing is, even if you can’t chose your circumstances, you can choose your response to those circumstances.

Your job might suck. But whether or not you’re miserable because your job sucks is 100% your decision.

There might be two fry cooks in an identical situation (gun to head, fry cook or die). One is content, the other is miserable. How is this possible?

They make the choice – be miserable or make the most of it.

This isn’t my own original concept. In his powerful book Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl talks about life in a concentration camp, one of the suckiest fates of all. He observed how some people were kind, generous and upbeat despite being in a concentration camp, whereas other people withered in misery.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
-Vicktor Frankl

Love Fry Cooking

Ironically, learning to love your life as a fry cook can be the very thing that brings you more opportunities. It can help you move toward your dreams.

People tend to think, “If I embrace fry cookery, then I’m resigning myself to that life forever. I need to fight my life as a fry cook in order to change it.”

But the complete opposite is true. By bringing your “A” game to whatever you do, even if it’s not your dream job, you’re telling life that you know how to be happy with what you have, regardless of what it is. You’re saying, “Whatever you throw at me, life, I can handle with grace.”

Life says, “Okay, awesome. You’ve passed that challenge. Here, let’s move on to more interesting challenges – such as how to channel your ‘A’ game motivation to something more interesting than fry cookery.”

Putting your all into a job, regardless of it it’s your dream job or not, will bring you daily satisfaction. The mere act of doing your best is satisfying. With this, you start noticing the road instead of just the wet mirage in the distance.

My job history

I’ve worked a lot of terrible jobs. And I’ve spent most of my adult life not having very much money.

I’ve waited tables, peddled popcorn, answered phones at a call centre, chopped endless pounds of vegetables, and sorted through thrift store clothing. Eventually I stumbled upon piano teaching and that was finally not terrible.

I’m proud to say I’ve always brought my “A” game. I showed up on time and I did the work as best I could (even when I hated the work). I wanted to be the best and most efficient server, and I hustled hard. I didn’t really know how to be a popcorn-selling master, so I chose to enjoy the summer sunshine and constant socializing. Sorting through clothes was boring, but long conversations with my friend at work was not.

Even if I was gun-to-head forced to keep peddling popcorn, I would probably have a pretty good life. Not a lot of money, but fresh air, cheerful interactions and great blues music. I could still have a rich family and social life. I could still read tons of books and play music and do all the things I love.

How to find happiness and love what you do

When you’re satisfied on a daily basis, you get unstuck. Misery is stuckness. Miserable people lack ideas and creativity. They lack the ability to say, “What can I do next? How do I change this situation?” They spend all of their energy being miserable, which perpetuates the misery.

When you work hard and do your best, it’s hard to stay miserable. You’re moving. You’re creating momentum. That momentum then spills into other areas of your life.

Suddenly you’re trying your best in your personal life, in your day-to-day relationships. You’re bringing your “A” game to parenting. To cooking. To your leisure time. Suddenly your life is infused with effort. You care. You’re trying. You’re doing things. You’re moving.

This motion is what moves you beyond fry cooking. You learn new skills and have interesting new experiences. New doors open. You come up with creative ideas.

You’ll learn how to kick that guy holding a gun to your head in the groin, skip town and change your name.

You’ll learn that the mirage in the distance isn’t going to make you happy. How could an illusion make you happy?

It’s the process, the day-to-day, the working hard, the doing your best. That’s where you’ll find it.

-Allysia

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