The less stressful way to accomplish your goals

It’s almost a new year, which means it’s time for random strangers on the internet to offer you unsolicited advice on setting big goals. Time to join a new gym! Lose weight!

Meh.

Instead, here’s the low-key approach I take to achieve improvements in my life, calendar turnover be damned. It works for anything, be it financial, physical, or a skill I want to learn like speaking Italian or playing piano.

For me, it breaks down to a simple difference in mindset: daily progress vs. an end goal. That simple trick takes a pressure-laced situation and unfolds it into a pleasurable activity.

  • Relationships: Not “I want a great marriage,” but “I strive to be kind to my partner in the daily interactions.” (Yes, even when I’m hangry.)
  • Business: Not “I want to double revenue,” but “I will double the number of potential clients I connect with.”
  • Writing: Not “I want to write this many blog posts or gain this many new readers” but “I want to write most mornings about things I am enjoying or improve my life.”
  • Fitness: not “I want to lift this much or achieve this race pace” but “I’ll try to stick to this training plan most days.”
  • Language: Not “I want to speak at a C1 fluency level by ____ date” but “I’ll study my Anki flashcards consistently and take a weekly lesson.”
  • Piano: Not “I want to play the (devilishly fast) Liebestraume by Lizst” but “every day, I’ll try get my hands on a piano to practice technique and work on repertoire.”

What I love about this is that it takes away the pressure. Down with arbitrary deadlines to speak this well or play that song or send that rock climbing project or hit that business revenue goal.

As Chuck Close said, ““Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.” But screw that, amateurs can tap into the magic as well!

By focusing on what I can control—daily actions—I trust that I’ll make progress. No more gripping the reigns with white knuckles and gritting my teeth, just a daily practice that moves me forward. (It ties neatly into designing your perfect day.)

As a bonus, there is also far less recrimination attached to daily goals. If I miss working out or piano or Spanish study, I do it the next day! Consistency builds resolve, routines become rituals, and progress follows naturally. Journey, not the destination.

In other words, I just sit down and practice my scales. I enjoy it, even REVEL in the knowledge that note by note, pushup by pushup, and word by word, this is how songs are learned, muscles are strengthened, and books are written.

(Additional reading: my blog post about Boulders of Awesomeness.)

Want to suck less at skate skiing? Get dragged around by your more skilled friend allll winter long.

Designing my perfect day

Recently a friend mentioned their goal of aiming to create perfect days. Not an indulgence-filled last day on earth (we’d eat too much cake!), but a repeatable, enjoyable, productive day that moves a life forward. A typical Tuesday.

Like Annie Dillard says,

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.

I started thinking about netting my perfect day. I’ve considered general items before, but never pondered it and written things down. 

These perfect days of course change I’m traveling. However, for this time in my life when I’m home, here’s what mine looks like. Blocking out calendar times makes me feel like a robot, so I think of my day as malleable morning, midday, and evening chunks to be used in a more free-form fashion.

My Perfect Day

Starting with my energy turned inward with learning and creativity:

  • Morning reading with a cup of tea, a fruit plate, and listening to piano music.
  • Piano practice
  • Writing, either stream of consciousness or a blog post/newsletter
  • Anki study for Italian, Spanish, music theory, and other things I’m learning (here’s my how-to for setting it up)

Shifting my focus outward later in the day:

  • Connection with Chelsea, friends, and family
  • Exercise, ideally outside
  • Reading my favorite newsletters
  • Handling work
  • Moving one “adulting” thing forward
  • Cooking healthy food

An evening wind down:

  • More piano
  • A walk with Chelsea
  • Evening drawing session with tea and piano music
  • In bed early to read, ideally some fiction

Overall, I’m striving for what Ryan Holiday says in Stillness Is The Key,

The truth is that a good routine is not only a source of great comfort and stability, it’s the platform from which stimulating and fulfilling work is possible. Routine, done for long enough and done sincerely enough, becomes more than routine. It becomes ritual—it becomes sanctified and holy.

What a goal! Ritual, every day that we can. Yes please.

Is it still groundhog day if you’re having a ton of fun?

Things I’ve noticed about my perfect day

After aiming for a perfect day for awhile, I’ve stumbled upon some preferences:

  • Painting an exact picture of the activity (“reading while enjoying a fruit plate”) makes it even more desirable than just “reading.”
  • Days where I don’t look at my phone for the first few hours usually feel more satisfying.
  • Having non-negotiable practices anchors my day. For me right now, that’s piano and Italian study: no matter what derails me, accomplishing those makes my day feel successful.
  • I meditated daily for awhile. Lately, it hasn’t felt necessary or valuable, so I dropped it (probably to my detriment). However, the mental state I get into with piano centers me in a powerful way, so I’m going with it! (I realize they accomplish different things…my Buddhist mom is rolling her eyes at this paragraph for suuuure.)
  • At this moment in my life, I don’t feel drawn to passive entertainment like T.V., movies or social media. With so much I want to study and learn, those things make me feel like I’m wasting my time. I’ve enjoyed them to some degree in the past, but right now they aren’t in line with how I want to spend my time.
  • I’m doing things (I think) my future self will thank me for. That they also happen to be activities I’m really enjoying is probably a function of doing them because I want to, not because I feel like I SHOULD..
  • I’ve dropped activities where my obsessive, competitive side surfaces like a deranged Leviathan from the deep. (Cough, chess…)

What about your perfect day?

Can you design yours? Not an ideal Saturday or beach day in Hawaii, but a normal weekday.

Is it possible to start with things you want to do before adulting swamps all efforts to pursue creativity, exercise, learning or whatever else floats your boat?

Things to consider:

  • What one or two things make any day successful?
  • Can you nudge one thing forward each day?
  • Is there an energy flow that works best for you? (e.g. I like to spend mornings alone)

Have fun dreaming! Here’s to perfect days, or as close as we can realistically get to them.


Building solid friendships (the right way)

A recent evening drawing of mine.

During the past three years, two of my friendships blew up. One major reason sticks out: I started setting boundaries…and holding them.

For instance, when I asked one friend if he could call me for a conversation instead of sending lonnng monologue texts, he responded, “I’ll call or text whenever I fucking want to.” Say. Whaaaat?

It went downhill from there. Shockingly.

Oddly enough, I was culpable as well! Since I hadn’t set and, more importantly, held boundaries before, I’d allowed people into my life who didn’t respect them. Or at least respect mine.

Boundaries as feedback generators

You know that process of making a friend? It starts out shallow with, “where are you from, mutual friends, the dreaded ‘what do you do?’” question.

As the friendship deepens, you each show more of your true colors via vulnerability—sometimes sending people scrambling to escape through a window—or keep it at acquaintance level with activity buddies or colleagues.

In all new relationship, there are moments where you have opportunities to define who you are and what you expect from a friend. For me, some boundaries were easy to set, while others were difficult.

Values-based boundaries around drinking or not eating animal products were easy. The non-values based stuff was tougher: not wanting to go ski when it was shitty out, but doing it anyway. Not wanting to let people down by declining an invite to, well, anything, then regretting it. Hosting when Chelsea and I needed some down time.

In retrospect, those type of boundaries sound so easy! When I first start exercising them, and then more difficult ones, it felt like bench pressing 400 pounds after starting lifting weights a week ago: overwhelming and even dangerous, like I could get smashed under the pressure.

The good news: I realized that setting boundaries acts as a friend filter to prioritize the people you want in your life.

Because every time we set boundaries, the other person’s reaction is useful feedback. Flexing that muscle gets easier each time, and the feedback helps determine if we want to continue investing in a friendship or shift energy elsewhere.

Looking back at both former friendships that failed, I realize my lack of boundary setting encouraged (or at least allowed) behavior out of line with how I wanted to be treated. If I’d set them earlier and held tight with clear communication (“when you do this, I feel this way and need this moving forward”), I suspect the friendships would have fizzled far earlier.

On the flip side, a remarkable aspect of boundaries is they allow other friendships to shine. When I set boundaries with people and they respond respectfully, it adds more mortar to the friendship trust bridge between us.

With my closest friends, that mutual respect has grown to the point where we can drive a truck over the trust bridge. All the boundary setting is 100% worth it.


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A better side of envy

For a long time, I struggled with envy. People with money, people who took cool trips, people who did Ironman triathlons…color me jealous.

Along the way, I (slowly) realized something: those people either carried baggage or made tradeoffs to achieve those things. Plus, as Joseph Epstein said, “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.

Identifying those helped me unwind the knot and recenter:

  • A rich college friend had a terrible relationship with his dad. Later, friends with the big house and fancy car worked nonstop.
  • Taking far-flung, expensive trips meant not investing or saving as much money for a house, which I wanted.
  • Training for an Ironman required untold hours per week of panting along at a low heart rate to build a huge fitness base, eschewing other hobbies or relationships along the way.

But how do we deal with envy?!

I love the idea from James Altucher for dealing with it: simply envision trading lives with the person. ALL of it, not just the positives.

Are they famous? Well, you also get the pain of never going anywhere without being bothered. (Better to be rich than famous!)

Do they have a rippling 12-pack and beach ball biceps? You gotta get up at 5:30 am to work out and never eat dessert. Sad face.

Brilliant musician? Hours upon hours of solitary, monotonous practice. (Damn you, Chopin.)

For me, the act of mentally flipping the Success Coin to the other side is a potent cure against envy. Nothing fantastic, be it wealth, fitness, fame, or skills, is handed to us without tradeoffs.

A better side of envy

Forget envy. Practice compersion! (Say what? Did you just misspell comparison, Dakota?)

Nope.

From whatiscompersion.com:

Compersion is our wholehearted participation in the happiness of others. It is the sympathetic joy we feel for somebody else, even when their positive experience does not involve or benefit us directly.

In other words, awesomeness isn’t a zero-sum game: when friends, colleagues, and others around us experience success or have amazing experiences, we can CELEBRATE them. Yep, even if it doesn’t benefit us!

Rising tides lift all boats, but swamp the captains tied to the Pier of Envy.


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Gyotaku

Personality flipping

Learning the Japanese art of gyotaku at a friend’s during a road trip to the coast.

The Myers-Briggs test classifies personalities into 16 distinct types. It can help us understand why we are who we are and why we do the things we do.

In college, my results were ENTJ: Extroverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging… aka The Commander. Analytical, efficient, decisive, motivated to accomplish things. (And boooring.)

This week, my results from 16personalities.com were almost opposite, ESFP: Extroverted, Observant, Feeling, Prospecting, aka The Entertainer.

From the site: “The Entertainer loves vibrant experiences, engaging in life eagerly and taking pleasure in discovering the unknown. They can be very social, often encouraging others into shared activities.”

Fascinating: in 20 years, I’ve completely flipped my personality, minus the extroverted aspect. I should mention Chelsea is an ISFP (the Adventurer), my introverted counterpart!

Obviously nuances abound and these assessments aren’t spot on. Reading the descriptions, aspects of both still ring true for me depending on the situation.

My take: for my first test 20 years ago, I was a broke college student in engineering school about to embark into adulthood. I wanted financial security and emphasizing The Commander was the best way I knew for achieving that.

Two decades later, I’m in a much different place. I’ve circled back to becoming more like my parents: less money driven, creative, musically inclined, living in tight social community.

The Commander no longer serves my goals except in specific situations. Otherwise, he just cruises in the background, keeping tabs on things…and occasionally sniping at Chelsea for inefficiency transgressions.

This shift feels like a positive development! I only hope my creative, sensitive side develops further and the boring Commander recedes further into the background.


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backyard garden

Before and after

Recently I found a 2020 photo of our backyard prior to our garden revamp. Crappy lawn, no plants, no wildlife.

Today, it’s a veritable jungle with birds flitting about and bees bumbling flower to flower. A complete transformation…thanks to untold hours spent working our butts off.

Testing out planter bed height in April 2020.
A few (hundred?) hours of work later…

That got me thinking about before/afters from other projects. All required time, energy, and commitment. Some also required sweat and swearing at inanimate objects.

Eyeing the rearview mirror, they all feel worth it.

A few of them:

  1. Building out our empty Sprinter van into a mobile adventure rig.
  2. Starting a blog in 2013 at the start of our van trip, now up to 200 posts (plus another 100 newsletters to boot).
  3. Physical adventures like bike tours with Chelsea, mile by mile. In total, almost a year of fond (and hard!) memories of bicycle journeying together.
  4. Toiling away on a business that allows us lots of freedom.
  5. My studious phase the past two years: Learning to speak Italian. Hundreds of hours of piano practice. Notebooks full of drawings…

So many times where I was tired or unmotivated, but did it anyway. My current self thanks that tired-but-doing-it past self!

Blank van slate in 2013…gulp.
Enroute to Idaho in August with all the gear.

I see three common threads for all these before/afters:

1.   They involved creating something via perseverance and effort (memories included) vs. one-off enjoyment.

2.  All of them are experiences or facilitate future experiences (e.g. van trips, hanging in our garden, playing music).

3.  All involved building a skill.

Also, in no way were they fun all the time. Sifting rocks from free top soil during our garden project comes to mind…sigh.

All these goals took on a life of their own. I didn’t intend to befriend blog readers or fall in love with piano and bikepacking… It’s all blossomed from having enough fun (and being stubborn) long enough to create a habit.

A reminder that we often become passionate about something after we’ve invested energy in it.

Similar to asking, “what are the decisions that most positively affected my life,” I think looking at the traits of our most satisfying before and afters is a useful lens for guiding our lives.

Pretending there isn’t another giant climb right around the bend in Spain, 2019.

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BS investing, or my crypto misadventures

An evening drawing from last November.

After the recent crypto crash, I did a postmortem on my behavior. What started as casual interest and minor research in crypto last May morphed into me caught up in the wave of greed and irrational exuberance by November.

I thought I’d left that behavior behind after dabbling with (ill-informed) day trading in 2007?

Nope.

What’s fascinating is that I didn’t need to change our investing approach—stocks plus commercial real estate were working great—but I got sucked in anyway.

Mostly I invested in “blue chip” (ha) crypto like Ethereum or Bitcoin, but I still feel embarrassed to have put (and lost) money in projects like Terra or some alt-coins that…uhh, didn’t do well.

Luckily, I only played with a small portion of our money. I didn’t mortgage the house or force a change in our lifestyle. A reminder to everyone: diversify!

My new #1 goal with investing is to do NOTHING, ZERO, ZILCH if I’m excited by a project or an investment. Before committing, I want to scrub the delusional new relationship energy from my brain.

All in all, I’m treating this as a cheap lesson with life-long impacts. It’s fascinating and instructional to see this chink in my armor. I think I’ve patched it, but shall remain vigilant!

All this leads me this excerpt from this excellent piece, On Bullshit in Investing.

Bullshit in investing, be it wild over-optimism, deception or fraud, is as old as time, precisely because it is hard to resist the promise of easy returns and to tell the difference between innovation and make-believe.

The first step in avoiding being taken for a ride is to recognize that you are a mark for people trying to get rich off your money.

Burn the principle into your brain that financial markets are large and competitive and have a lot of smart people in them.

Easy money-making opportunities are almost never real; professional mercenaries would have found and exploited them first.

High returns with low risk explained away by complicated and nontransparent strategies deserve great scrutiny.

Ask questions; be skeptical; do not assume that just because brand-name firms or authority figures are involved that all is well.

If this is 40, I want a refund

Don’t get old, kids

My first trip to the emergency room, I was a freshman in college. My appendix blew up, but modern medicine won. The following two decades were smooth sailing.

My on-ramp for my 4th decade was a fabulous long weekend full of friends, tasty food, and outside time. A perfect start.

Then last Friday I woke up nauseous, passed out at the bathroom sink and smashed my neck on the shower threshold’s metal door track. Chelsea found me splayed out on the floor totally unresponsive. A terrifying sight.

To the hospital we zoomed. I passed out again on the way there. WTF?! She broke a few traffic laws and wheeled me riiight into the ER.

Five hours of brain, neck, heart and blood tests later found…(drumroll) nothing but an elevated white blood cell count. Picture of health, minus almost breaking my neck.

The ER doc’s best guess was a strong vagal nerve reaction to an undetected virus (COV-19 test was negative). The consensus is that I’m going to be fine, though I’m wearing a heart rate monitor this week and doing follow up tests. I’d love to hear your experience if this has ever happened to you!

I share this experience not for shock value, but because it’s kicked off so many thoughts. I keep returning to the fickle nature of life, how quickly good fortune can pivot.

I’m also interested how detached from the potential severity of things I was. “Well, if it’s a brain tumor, we’ll cross that bridge. If my heart valve is weak, I can get an ebike or play piano. If my neck is f’d, I can still read or play chess.” I didn’t expect that.

They say happiness usually returns to previous levels after an injury. My mental space accepting things seems in line with that. Easy to say without actually getting bad news.

—–

On my 40th birthday, I deeply felt how valuable close relationships are. This episode hammered that home again—friends dropped off food, picked up groceries, offered medical insight or their personal experience, or just checked on me daily. I felt surrounded by love and support.

Chelsea is a self-proclaimed barnacle after my fall, keeping me close. Thinking your husband is dead will do that to you! I sure appreciate our wonderful life together.

I’m intrigued to see what else surfaces for me as I continue processing the experience. I didn’t glimpse the proverbial white light at the end of the tunnel, but who knows how close I was to it. A couple inches in a different direction with my fall could have changed everything.

Overall, I’m thankful to have modern medicine (plus the means to pay for it), supportive family, friends and partner, and the luck to walk away from this with nothing more than a very stiff neck.

Still kicking!

Juggling It All

One of the guys I mentor is in life setup mode and is juggling an incredible amount of obligations and hobbies. When I observed this, he asked me to list them…and was surprised to hear such a long list.

Yup. Sometimes we boil away in the pot and don’t realize how overwhelmed we are.

This reminds me of a quote from Oprah: “You can have it all. Just not all at once.”

There is time to dig deep into many things in our lives, but scattering our energy all at once doesn’t allow deep diving, potentially creating dissatisfaction. Embrace the seasons for what t

Which brings me to this wonderful poem that Austin Kleon shared awhile back. Substitute anything you enjoy for the three…and then choose two.

You Want a Social Life, With Friends

by Kenneth Koch

You want a social life, with friends.

A passionate love life and as well

To work hard every day. What’s true

Is of these three you may have two

And two can pay you dividends

But never may have three.

Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends–

To find the time to have love, work, and friends.

Michelangelo had feeling

For Vittoria and the Ceiling

But did he go to parties at day’s end?

Homer nightly went to banquets

Wrote all day but had no lockets

Bright with pictures of his Girl.

I know one who loves and parties

And has done so since his thirties

But writes hardly anything at all.

playing outdoor chess in Christchurch

Playing life like chess

How approaching life with a chess mindset helps focus us on achievable goals

Playing chess in Christchurch, NZ as a youngster back in 2005.

After enjoying chess in my youth, this winter I returned to playing online with friends. The nuances of the game and geometric beauty of the positions fire my brain up.

Whoa, I sound like a chess nerd. YES.

One chess concept is called “working backwards to forwards.” Basically, you picture the achievable checkmate type based on the pieces you have (e.g. a knight and a rook). Then you work backward to the moves needed to achieve the goal. Different pieces, different type of checkmate.

What if we applied this to our lives? We all have unique constraints (e.g. work, family, pets, skills, finances, desire for particular activities). How often do we look at our available “pieces” and think, “My achievable goals are ____.”

Personal example: both Chelsea and I are hankering for long-term travel. We also have an 18 YO cat who requires frequent care, including subcutaneous fluids every other day. He’s going to live another 10 years at this rate, so we need to readjust.

Just like I can’t checkmate an opponent with only my king and a knight, I can’t currently can’t travel with Chelsea. If I beat my head against the idea of long-term travel given my pieces on the board, frustration descends. Checkmate…on me.

Instead, I reframed things. We’ve traveled a ton and we’ll do it again. I can still bikepack with friends or take solo van trips, which I always enjoy. When I’m home, my piano beckons from the living room and Bend is a fabulous place to live and recreate.

Knowing the constraints helps me eliminate “ohhh, I wish I could do ____” and narrow it down to “this is what I can accomplish now.” I’m finding that it’s quite useful.

And when I get back to Christchurch for an outdoor chess rematch, I’m gonna be ready.

Tips for New Cyclists

My first post-college bike. A fixie (sigh), aka no gears. I’ve learned things since.

The writer Austin Kleon posted recently about buying a bicycle (his first as an adult) and getting obsessed. He’s a total beginner, so he put out a call to his readers asking for tips.

I’ve ridden my fair share of miles on a bicycle (30,000+ by last count), so I decided to weigh in. I pulled from many arenas: daily commuting in the rain in Portland, cross-country bike tours, mountain bike day rides and longer bikepacking trips…but no unicyles.

Here’s my response:

YES TO BIKES! Careful, you’re going to be planning a cross-country tour before you know it.

You can ride a bike without a bunch of fancy gear, but the right equipment makes it a) far safer c) more practical for errands and c) comfortable. As a long-time cycling fan(atic) who has ridden tens of thousands of miles on roads and trails, I’d recommend the following:

  1. Get a rack and some panniers to haul stuff like groceries and books to the bookstores. Ortlieb makes the best panniers IMO. (I’ve commuted and toured the world with mine for 10,000 miles with zero problems.)
  2. Get lights that can blow cars off the road. Front and back. 600 lumens front and a cherry bomb rear are perfect. Check out these reviews.
  3. Get a sweet bell like a Spurcycle. Pedestrians and other cyclists know what to do with bells, but ON YOUR LEFT makes them step left. Always.
  4. Get padded shorts aka a riding chamois…AND get chamois butter to rub on said bike shorts and nether regions before rides. That stuff is magic for reducing saddle sores, especially for new riders.
  5. Study basic bike maintenance. Learn how to change a flat and tune up your shifting as a bare minimum. Lots of bike shops offer them and YouTube is your friend.
  6. Always have chain lube on hand and use it frequently. Finish Line is excellent.
  7. Find your city’s best bike routes and stay away from cars as much as possible. Learn those routes so well you don’t need to look at a map.
  8. If you need a map, a phone coupled with Quadlock’s products are the bomb. Mount your phone on your bike so you can follow Google Maps hands-free.
  9. If you want to get faster, find experienced cyclists to ride with. Go get your ass kicked trying to hang on their wheel.
  10. Get a bike rack so you can take your bike anywhere you travel.
  11. Find and support (if you have the means) your city, region, and state bike advocacy groups. Great sources for maps, routes, bike info, and events, plus they’re likely the groups fighting for bike infrastructure. (Someone added this to my list and I stole their excellent idea!)

#bikenutalert

There are of course many more ideas, but this will get you rolling!

california coast

Hard choices, easy life

Anytime stress rains down, I feel pulled to chill beach vibes. The ocean always grounds me.

It’s been a full-on start to 2022 in Traipsingville.

Drama for my business, tenant trouble in a rental property, a couple of minor surgeries for Chelsea, and more.

Curveball after curveball. My dad reassured me that I’ve always excelled at hitting, but wow.

Along with my “this is why I get paid” mantra, I also returned to this one:

Hard choices, easy life.

You can sit and watch a situation in your life grow increasingly difficult. Or you can choose the harder, better choice, the one your future self will thank you for.

Step up to the plate and smack those damn curveballs.

Pick up the phone and make the tough business calls.

Say goodbye to a bad tenant.

Get the surgery for the belly button hernia you’ve had since birth that flared up when your pushy husband made you hoist a heavy solar panel up to the roof. (SORRY, CHELSEA.)

Just do it.

None of those actions are easy. They require confrontation, research, stress, and potential conflict.

Ah, but the result? An easier life, back on cruise control until the next fork in the road.

A stronger, more resilient business.

A stable rental property (screw that, we’re selling ours…which is even harder).

No more worrying about a physical ailment.

Hard choices, easy life. The way through is action.

Onward.

Laughing with troublesome friends

Austin Kleon shared this 2-min video of Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama laughing gleefully during an interview. At one point, Tutu is asked,

“What is it about your friendship that allows you to have this extraordinary joy?”

He ponders a moment and says, “He’s always troubling me…” and then cracks up.

I just love that. Because what’s better than a friend (or life partner) to laugh uproariously with one moment, then turn around and be intellectually challenged by them in the next?

(Clearly this is my interpretation of what Archbishop Tutu means.)

Some of my closest friends come to mind. In fact, I’ve realized I struggle to get close to people who can’t both go deep and be humorous. An interesting filter for who I invest time in.

I am oh-so-very biased here, but I couldn’t agree more with the below line. It’s from the co-author on a book about Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama spending a week together called The Book of Joy.

“Having worked with many spiritual leaders, I’m tempted to see laughter and a sense of humor as a universal index of spiritual development.”

Douglas Abrams

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Forget goal setting, invest in skills

Goal: Bikepacking the Colorado Trail. Skills to do it? Acquired over many years.

Ah, a new year! A fantastic time to hate the old us: let’s whittle away our bloated physical bodies, quiet our ping-ponging minds, change our crappy jobs, and eat celery while taking cold showers and doing pushups.

Meh. I don’t buy it. Can’t we just be happy with who we are and still be on a personal growth path?

Maybe that’s why I loved Mark Manson’s recent thoughts on goals vs. developing skills. As he says,

“What are you improving at? What are you learning and gaining?

Instead of thinking about what you want to achieve in the new year, ask yourself, “What do I want to be good at that I’m not?” Then get to work on it.”

Mark Manson

Goals are things you want to accomplish. Skills are things you DO. (Which, incidentally, can help accomplish goals.)

Want to lose weight? Skill: learn how to cook three healthy meals.

Want to make more in-real-life friends? Skill: Learn how to be more vulnerable and listen better.

In the past, I’ve prioritized freedom and flexibility over a strict schedule. Game for an outdoor adventure or a friend hang at any time. Benefits, yes…with the downside that I wasn’t consistent with skill development.

Last year, I booked weekly Italian/piano lessons and committed to drawing consistently. I didn’t miss a day of studying my Italian flashcards with Anki and slowly but surely learned 4,000 vocab words. Thanks to that, I made tangible and incredibly satisfying progress. Small, consistent efforts lead to real skills.

I’m not as available now, but the tradeoff in schedule flexibility is 100% worth it. Now the days where I barely play music or skip a drawing session feel incomplete. I can’t imagine going back to the old me.

Which reminds me of this quote from Stillness is the Key…

So: to hell with goals. What skill can you commit to developing this year?

I’ll go first: I want to improve my portraiture skills, so I’m starting 2022 with drawing a portrait every day in January. Gawwwd they are hard!

A young Franz Liszt (composer and virtuoso pianist).

The power of sharing your thoughts online

Have you ever considered sharing your thoughts publicly via a newsletter, blog, podcast, or vlog? Based on my experience doing so, I can heartily say make. it. happen.

Why? Well…

Publishing Traipsing About for the past eight years has added so much richness to my life. Almost 100 newsletters and 200+ blog posts in, things just keep getting better. (By things, I mean my T. Rex drawings, not my jokes.)

T. Rex tries to brush his teeth

I have good friends who initially found me through Traipsing About. A cousin I’d never met randomly read my Italian citizenship blog post and I discovered a whole side of my family I didn’t know existed! (Pretty sure they’re New Jersey Italian mafia.)

An extra bonus: writing consistently keeps me connected with friends and family. They witness my antics and keep tabs on me even when kids and jobs make staying in touch difficult. It sparks email exchanges and connection. Sure, Facebook and Instagram kiiiinda work, but it’s not the same depth as longer-form media.

There’s power in putting thoughts down and sharing them publicly. It clarifies things in a way that a private journal sometimes can’t.

I’ve gained so much from following others who also share their thoughts and struggles, so it’s satisfying to be part of that great internet diaspora and pay it forward.

I also love getting random emails from you when I share things I’ve screwed up learned. It fascinates me how my personal experience with money, travel, relationships, or social media use can impact someone if it hits them at the right time.

People want to hear what you’re thinking. Put it out there! Substack has free newsletters, podcasting can be done with a $40 microphone, YouTube only requires a smart phone, Twitter takes 37 seconds to sign up…

What better time than now?

Here’s to the amateurs

Beethoven bad portrait
Early drawing efforts in an old notebook my mom gave me.

In today’s full-tilt culture, amateur often carries a negative meaning. If a hobby doesn’t morph into a monetized side hustle, what’s the point?

Take drawing, for example. I’ve always wanted to learn how to draw something beyond stick figures. To test the waters, I’ve sketched almost every night this year. Then I text a photo of my creation to my college roommate, Eric, who is doing the same.

I’m a total noobie. Eric, a long-time artist, is amazing. The contrast between our drawings is, errrr, obvious…

But you know what? It doesn’t matter! We crack each other up, share moments from our daily lives, and flex our drawing muscles in the the process. I’m improving, slowly but steadily.

It’s like getting a cardio workout while playing basketball: if you’re having fun, it doesn’t feel like a w.o.r.k.o.u.t. Try feeling that way during solo wind sprints.

Amateurs have it better

The word amateur has Latin roots in “love.” In both French (amateur) and Italian (amatore) it’s not about skill, but love and passion.

Compare that to the stress of professionals. I’ve read about pianists whose nerves are so bad they throw up before performances! I may get some nerves while playing for friends, but I tend to keep my dinner down.

Historically, the amateur was considered to be the ideal balance between pure intent, open mind, and the interest or passion for a subject. The gentleman scientists (think Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin) were amateurs in the best sense of the word, following their curiosity whichever way it went.

Those guys set the bar high, but they didn’t start out discovering gravity or evolution. Initially they looked at falling apples and studied mollusks.

Me? I study dinosaur mobility.
(Every T. Rex hates the sit and reach test.)

Why is art different?

What I find fascinating is that people spend their time on so many activities where they’re distinctly amateur without feeling a pressure to make money. Chess tournaments, local 5k running races, strumming the guitar. Few people get paid for those hobbies.

But creating physical ART?! No way, dude: that’s a waste of time. Maybe it’ll be worth it if I open an Etsy store or sell an NFT?

PFFFFT. I enjoy drawing (and writing this blog, playing piano and so on) because they’re satisfying and fun creative outlets, not a source of income. I don’t have to think about marketing, customer acquisition cost, or…

Sorry, I drifted off with all that boring business crap. NONE of which I have to do as an amateur!

The next time you’re going deep on a hobby and someone asks when you’re turning it into a business, be proud of your amateurishness. Remember, nothing wrecks an enjoyable hobby like turning it into work.

Whoa, what happened to Amelie’s eyes? DOESN’T MATTER, I’m an amateur. BOOM.
Amelie, take 2. Ignore the (amateurish) watercolor seep through… Still having fun!
making soy yogurt

Sharing the Mental Load

At some point in the past decade, I read an eye-opening article about how mental load, the invisible labor involved in handling a household and family, is usually carried by women. It suggested that for those of us without it, mental load is the water we swim in, unseen and natural, the actions helping the household hum along without a hitch. 

My initial reaction was, “That’s not MY situation. I love my wife and value her time the same as mine. I’m a woke-ass 21st Century Man! I read Brené Brown!”

How wrong I was. 

Looking at my to-do list versus Chelsea’s simply astounded me. Mine was simple; hers ranged from shopping lists and thinking about Christmas cards and gifts to cleaning the house and writing departure checklists prior to trips. The sheer quantity of things on her mind scorched my brain. (It still does.)

I won’t describe mental load further: this brilliant cartoon does it perfectly. 

Taking the Red Pill

In the classic movie The Matrix, Neo is offered The Red Pill, a dose of unalloyed truth that exposes reality. It ain’t pretty.

Realizing I was swimming in the water of Chelsea’s mental load was my Red Pill. Luckily, I immediately understood that and jumped right in to help.

NOT. My first reaction was defensive and bristly, pointing out allll the things I helped with. “I take out the trash, I fix stuff, I… ummm.” 

Like many men, I overestimated my contribution and it took many conversations and personal honesty to scale that wall and see the truth behind it: I had gotten lazy and accustomed to the comfort created by someone else. 

Sure, I’d created a business that supported us. I worked out and DID stuff, but I did it all outside the house. At home, I was actually quite useless. Sure, I’d install a bookshelf or change a bike tire, but Chelsea contributed far more in terms of who did most of the necessary house chores. 

No surprise that I had this mindset. Looking back, I noticed this widely accepted uneven task distribution everywhere: in the books we read, the popular culture references we absorb. For me, it was even present in my grandparents’ relationship as my grandma served my grandpa hand and foot as he read the newspaper.

This isn’t medieval times: we Westerners are in relationships built around love, not the need to heal a political rift with a neighboring kingdom. If I valued Chelsea’s life energy equal to mine, things needed to change.

Don’t Ask “How Can I Help?”

Surprisingly, asking “How can I help?” without offering suggestions didn’t actually help. It simply made me an unpaid, unskilled intern wandering around asking for projects. This made everything harder on Chelsea, who had to spend MORE time on each task because she had to talk me through it. It wasn’t even worth having the free labor!

I’d joke about being terrible at doing dishes/cleaning/cooking, but I was dodging the simple reality that I wasn’t willing to carry my weight or put in the time to learn simple, useful tasks.

Now I can see why some women throw up their hands in frustration and let their partners sit around and be served. Learning is messy and slow and watching ineptness is difficult to stomach.

Instead of asking, “How can I help?” start by paying attention. The best interns observe, learn about their field via research and talking to employees, and then show up with a list of ideas for how they can contribute. They see a pain point, then ask if addressing that might be useful. The same applies on the home front.

People currently carrying the mental load, take note: your partner is going to fail miserably at things. They’re going to make the kitchen look like a Jackson Pollock painting when washing the dishes and wander around grocery stores like a poorly-programmed robot when they first start doing their share of the shopping.

Although you’ll be justified in a few exasperated sighs and an occasional “I’ll just do it, get outta here,” your help and patience will maintain enthusiasm during their learning process.

It certainly did to me. With Chelsea’s help—and lots of patience—I expanded my skills. I noticed things the house needed, started refilling toilet paper when it ran out. I made bad meals, bought the wrong kind of broth at the store, and did a terrible job cleaning our bathrooms.

But I improved!

Fundamental Levels of Adulting

At some point, our mommies stop wiping our butts. We get jobs and pay our own car insurance, but somehow some of us forget there are other understated skills involved in adulting, skills that make us more independent.

Part of my transition to adulthood, the one I didn’t think I needed, consisted of learning how to shop and cook for myself and how to be totally fine if Chelsea had a family emergency across the country. (Without her needing to leave me food in the fridge.)

I’ve been contributing much more. From adding household staples to Anylist and throwing sheets in the laundry to handling food shopping and cooking more, I try to anticipate household needs. I even clean bathrooms, and they don’t need to be (re)cleaned after me!

I made mistakes and asked Chelsea a lot of questions early on—especially in the kitchen—but now I can hold my own.

I’ve learned that household tasks are skills, not just demeaning labor that’s below me. My appreciation deepens when I spend the time and effort on them. Especially cooking! These days, I can host a four-course dinner party for six and all Chelsea has to do is set the table and prep some beautiful flower arrangements.

It’s empowering! Now I’m oh-so aware of the imbalance I see in relationships around me, which makes me admire my male friends who are bucking the trend and cooking, handling childcare, and contributing in other ways.

Of course, anyone not experiencing mental load wants to maintain their kingly status, whether mindfully or without thinking. Hot meals, a clean house and not worrying about life logistics? Sign me up. Wars are fought over maintaining power and the status quo. 

Do I prefer cleaning bathrooms to playing piano or going for a bike ride? Not a chance.

Still, if we value our partners and want to support their best, most-fulfilled life, we owe it to them to step up to the plate and swing at some curveballs, even if we whiff at first.

I’m not ready for my own cooking show yet, but making delicious vegan soy yogurt sure is fun.

The Benefits of Sharing the Mental Load

It’s easy to think, “oh, that’s beneath me…” But someone in your house is doing that work, and you’re choosing to be in a romantic relationship with that person. 

Why is your time worth more than theirs, regardless if you earn more or do “more important” work with your time. An hour is an hour is an hour. What dreams is your partner side-lining—or unaware of—thanks to carrying a large share of the burden? 

In our case, the answer became painfully obvious once I started doing my share. Chelsea now commits to animal protection and social justice causes. She helps organize conferences and retreats, host potlucks and women’s groups, does political canvassing. She gardens and hikes up a storm with friends.

She also feels comfortable lying on the couch after a long hike while I make dinner and clean up, because she doesn’t feel like she has to use all her free time productively. As a result of me being less of a child, she can kick back and use the time that’s rightfully hers to work on her dreams as well as to relax.

And that gives a whole new meaning to doing those few tasks, no matter how “beneath me” they might subconsciously feel. The way I look at it now, not doing my share is akin to actively stopping Chelsea from doing something she likes. 

I wouldn’t do that, so scrubbing toilets remains on my weekly to-do list. Figuring out the logistics isn’t always easy, but the idea of giving each other a gift of time by consistently showing up for the mundane moments as well as for the shiny, fun ones makes it all worthwhile.

Taking the First Step

Sure, I could survive on my own before—on a diet of burritos and stir fries—but now I’m capable in the kitchen and helpful with household tasks. It didn’t happen overnight, it wasn’t easy, but what’s the value in supporting your spouse while gaining life skills for operating confidently and independently? Priceless!

I started small. I considered how I could help out. I got shooed out of the kitchen. Trust me: the help will eventually be appreciated.

Excuse me, gotta go. Time to go load the dishwasher. Which I still suck at. (I try, really!) But I’m not giving up.

——

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bikepacking colorado trail

Sayonara, Instagram: Why I Left Social Media

I remember the glee and rush of dopamine from my first hits of Instagram in 2012. People cared about what I shared! (And not only my biggest fan—hi, Mom.)

Beyond travel blogging I cranked out in 2005 during a world trip, Instagram was my first foray into sharing creative work with strangers. It encouraged me to put my own personal touch on a place, an experience, a vista. Filters, yeahhh.

Our three-year van trip coincided with the platform’s rocketing popularity, so although I was new to the ‘Gram and Chelsea wasn’t comfortable with the look-at-me approach, any photo with a van, a #vanlife and a pretty view yielded hundreds of likes. AND LOTS OF DOPAMINE.

On top of this like-induced rush telling me to love it, I also thrilled at the opportunity to meet driven, compelling people. The possibility of meeting intriguing people in-person initially hooked me.

And yes, hooked is absolutely the right word. Instagram felt irresistible. My good intentions to set boundaries with the app and post in the mornings and respond to comments (aka check likes) in the evenings spilled into, no, flooded, any free moments I had throughout the day. 

Perhaps you know the compulsion to pull your phone out during any pause, or while wandering around the grocery store? (Chelsea calls me frozen when I stop mid-activity with my head buried in the phone.) What about pausing a conversation at a party ostensibly for a bathroom break, but really because you haven’t looked at your phone for an hour? Yup. I’ve done that. Sigh.

Coming Down

Gradually all these moments added up to significant screen time. When my iPhone time tracker started alerting me to an hour a day, sometimes a worrying 10+ a week, I started thinking of all the skills or knowledge I could have gained in those 500 hours a year instead. Learn piano? Speak another language? (I tried not to think about all the video games I played in my youth.)

Surely a path existed to deal with this like an adult? I experimented with digital minimalism and setting boundaries. App timers, deleting the app…all of it. I took three months off the ‘Gram one year, six months another. Like an addict, I kept coming back.

I also struggled with the ephemeral nature of Instagram. Google doesn’t index IG posts, so I was creating short, useless information relative to writing long-form blog posts. When I blog, some of my newsletter audience reads and shares what I’ve written. The true power is the cumulative build of people finding my site via search, where posts get ongoing traffic years later. Because of that, the time and effort I put into blog posts feels useful and far more satisfying. In comparison, writing Instagram posts felt like a blip; a #LOOKATME moment.

I want to be clear: I don’t think Instagram (or social media in general) is wrecking humanity. It features beautiful long-form work and astonishing photography. Social movements surface on it, people get discovered, businesses grow. Friendships blossom. 

This is simply my reaction and experience, although I don’t seem to be alone in thinking this way. Popular self-development writer Steve Pavlina actually walked away from a large social media following with an explanation that resonated with me:

The thought of investing another decade in those services made me cringe. I feel that these services were interesting to try, but I don’t expect that continuing to use them would be a serious growth experience for me.”

And if that’s not a good reason to leave, I don’t know what is. Do I want to be good at posting on Instagram or foster other skills?

By the way, dig these kinds of posts? Sign up for the free Traipsing About newsletter for posts like this, plus future outdoor adventures..that I won’t be posting about on Instagram.

Making the Cut

What it really boiled down to for me was asking myself WHY I used Instagram vs. what it was COSTING me.

If you think of what something is costing you vs. what you’re gaining from it, you might decide not to use one of the newest kitchen gadgets that are launched every 12 seconds and stick to stirring soup with a spoon. Or, in more general terms, you will not use a tool just because it’s new and everyone is talking about it. Whatever the example, a cost vs. gain analysis is illuminating. Here is mine for Instagram:

  • Why I used Instagram
    • Positive first: a creative outlet for my photographs, short videos and tidbits of writing. Inspiration. Entertainment. Opportunities to connect in-person with inspiring people (unrealized most of the time, whereas I’ve met and befriended many blog readers).
    • Negative: Validation that I was doing something interesting or worthwhile. Easy to feel falsely productive creatively.
  • The cost of Instagram
    • Hundreds of hours consumed each year with no tangible skill development.
    • Prioritizing “friends” with large followings over “normal” people.
    • Distracted by my phone while around Chelsea, my family, friends.
    • An out-of-control feeling. Those software engineers are smart AF and know how to keep us jacked in.
    • Pulling creative time away from longer-form projects for quick, easy hits of dopamine.
    • Loss of downtime for my brain to spin, dream, create new thoughts. Instagram, the great solitude killer.
    • No control over the platform or its algorithm changes. When I blog, I own my work.

After this, the only argument standing could theoretically be that I could miss out on meeting captivating people if I left. Except there are so many other ways to do that. When we first moved to Bend, I played ping pong with and befriended the inventor of the Quik-Clamp systems that I use all the time for projects. That doesn’t happen via Instagram.

Similarly, I met my friend Martin outside a sustainability conference in Portland, bought him lunch, and he became a close friend. If I’d merely asked for his Instagram handle and then liked his photos for a few years, we’d likely still be acquaintances and he wouldn’t leave lasagne in my fridge when I return from a trip.

The way I look at it, there’s an opportunity cost for any time we spend connecting with people, no matter how we do it. The ultimate decision is whether we want to go wide but shallow, or reach fewer people and have a deeper connection with them. I used to go with option A and spread myself incredibly thin with friends, maintaining a dizzying communication load with social media in the mix. I “knew” a ton of people I’d likely never meet in person, at a cost to my personal time and deeper connection with people around me.

My experience with Instagram (and all social media) echoed what Sherry Turkle describes in Reclaiming Conversation: “Technology gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”

I’d rather encounter the demands of friendship than suffer something shallow (at best) or fake (at worst).

The Other Side

Pulling the plug wasn’t easy, but I left Instagram in fall of 2019. Then I stopped posting publicly on Strava, followed by leaving Facebook. No more social media for me. Tear off one Band-Aid and the others are easier to remove.

The result? Better connection with fewer people, of course. Also, more time for new hobbies. I learned how to play the piano and speak Italian. I’m dabbling with drawing. (It’s all mind-bending difficult, and yet so satisfying.) Even better, I’m spending time on things I care about without wondering what others will think. I do it for me, not for an audience. Sure, I blog about trips and share thoughts via my newsletter, but the intention and long-term usefulness feels different. It suits me.

Do I occasionally feel a pull to share a moment? Of course. However, leaving social media helped remind me that I already KNOW when a view is beautiful or a bike trip is badass. I don’t need a thumbs up or a heart icon to tell me that.

These days, I prefer dopamine hits from a sunset on a bike trip or by laughing uproariously with a friend over a dumb joke. For me, that’s #incredible.

One of my happy places: a sunset descent while bikepacking the Colorado Trail.
Beethoven portrait sketch

Ditching a Self-Bullying Mindset

monteverdi composer sketch portrait
As part of learning to draw and reading about music history, I’m doing a quick daily portrait of a composer. Here’s opera pioneer Monteverdi and his badass beard.

I’m one of those Type-A people who enjoys filling a 30-day calendar challenge with X’s. Solidly motivating for me, or at least a simple reminder to practice my Italian!

Recently I saw a challenge with a different take: a repeating loop of “do activity, get less awful.” (Paraphrased.)

I found it funny…until Chelsea pointed out how that mindset is essentially bullying myself. Which hadn’t registered at all for me. 

In fact, I often beat myself up for falling short of self-prescribed expectations. I want to be GOOD at things. But what does that even mean? 

If we think we’re not “good” at something, is there a finish line? There’s always someone more skilled at a hobby, richer, fitter than us.

How freeing would it be to drop all (or at least most) comparisons and be happy with our efforts and current abilities simply for the joy of the activity? Enjoy the journey, not the results. Draw composers because the process entertains me, not for the finished sketch.

Would you trade it all?

Reminding myself how much effort and sacrifice goes into proficiency – much less mastery – of anything helps me gain perspective. As Ryan Holiday writes, would you permanently swap your entire life with someone – negative and positive aspects – to have their talent?

I sure wouldn’t trade all my hours of travel and outdoor adventures for portrait drawing ability or the wizardry to play Beethoven piano sonatas. (Welllll…how many hours are we talking here?)

This felt like a powerful reminder that approaching life’s activities with a negative mindset – “I’m not good enough, so I need to improve myself” is a recipe for life-long disappointment. “I’m bad at piano, so I need to practice” pales for long-term motivation next to “this process is satisfying and I’m excited about learning it no matter the progress.” I want to practice the latter.

What if we talked to ourselves the way we talk to a best friend? Supportive. Inquisitive. Loving us for who we are and celebrating us as a human being, not a human doing. If we can do that for our closest friends, surely we can do so for ourselves.

I’m still aiming to put the X on the calendar to keep my streaks alive. And also to feel fine if I miss a day or struggle with a piece of music.

Practice–>Enjoyment–>Practice–>Enjoyment. That’s a loop I want to be in!

******

P.S. Check out this podcast with Jim Loehr from minutes 25-30 for more insight on our inner voice. From the chat: “Would you broadcast what your inner voice is saying on a Jumbotron?”

Beethoven portrait sketch
Beethoven! Looking a bit stern and with six fingers because hands are impossible to draw. Just ignore the bike flying over his head.
Pandemic hair

Begone, 2020! Looking Back at an Intense Year

2020 in a nutshell. (Choking haze courtesy of wildfire smoke.)

Good grief, how do I write about 2020 without sounding like a jackass? It served up so much: social unrest, wildfires, the election battle. Did I forget anything? Oh yeah, THE F’N PANDEMIC.

Talking about what I experienced and learned this year feels self-indulgent when people are hurting and the damndemic rages on. Still, 2020 marked a dramatic shift in my life and so here goes with a look back at my year.

If nothing else, I promise a picture of my ridiculous covid hair.

So Much to Do and See

I kicked off 2020 with PLANS. My friend Mason’s generous gift of an all-you-can-fly pass on United burned bright in my pocket, group workouts and friend hangs cranked along, van and bikepacking trips beckoned…

So much potential fun. And also a repeat of the same activities I’d enjoyed since we moved to Bend four years ago. 

I’d ridden faster and longer, trained harder, learned how to ski. But what was next? Shaving a few seconds off my Strava times, climbing a harder route at Smith Rock, a trip to a new place?

What more could I learn from those things? 

Since college, I’ve experienced three distinct phases: business-building, travel, and this most-recent, intense athletic activity. In Bend, land of fit people, I was surrounded and supported by people whose primary focus was outdoor pursuits. Now, I felt a pull away from those things.

I needed a shift, a reset.

Well, screw you, COVID. I didn’t need quite this big an intervention, you scurrilous virus!

Lockdown Arrives

Pandemic lockdowns felt like a Tasmanian Devil’s tornado at first – everything in disarray, all plans nixed, everything unsure. Initially, life felt surreal. We scrambled to buy supplies, sort out food, and help our families do the same. With no kids and remote work, our dislocation was nothing compared to others, but like most everyone, we were affected.

My energy verged on mania, with a long daily checklist to help me focus and stay productive, dammit. No downtime! I used the SPAR accountability app and rushed from activity to activity. “If only I could do pushups while meditating and stretching!” It wasn’t healthy.

At least our hair was…interesting. Thanks for the calendar, Jules!

As weeks rolled to months, I settled into a balanced, less frenetic routine. I trimmed back the items on the checklist and stopped using SPAR. I kept meditating (I’m at 280 days straight!). We launched our Great Garden Project, which consumed giant swaths of spring.

I identify strongly as an extrovert, but strangely, spending time alone felt good. I didn’t freak out. (Chelsea watched me for cracks, straitjacket in hand.) I recentered, turning the energy inward. I stayed physically active, but devoted far fewer hours to time outside and more time at home being creative. When I did venture out, I left the headphones behind and let my legs and mind spin.

Whereas in the past I’d have chafed at such a low-key life, focusing time on life-long skills like cooking, music, writing, gardening, and reading filled me with satisfaction. I made soy yogurt and cashew cheese, learned about pea varietals, dove into the Circle of Fifths. It was fun, challenging, fresh!

Giving Myself Permission to Do Different Things

In 2017, I met a blog reader from Washington named George. He’s built his own houses and welded the porch railings; dinner was served on a table he’d built. A meal that included bread he’d baked in a brick oven and wine he’d made with local grapes. You get the idea.

Yet he’s not homebound: every year, he and his wife Patti journey to places like Colombia to bike tour for a month or two. Then they return home to tend their homestead, nurture their giant garden, see friends and family, and cross-country ski.

In short, the picture of balance.

After a recent newsletter of mine, George emailed me:

“Your process of evolution intrigues me. Learning new things is the life-long adventure. Shifting from a tech-savvy, adventure shredder, van man, and blogger, I find your discoveries considerably more valuable now.”

It’s gratifying to know that someone I admire noticed – and appreciated – my evolution. Even more so because after we landed in Bend, I felt constrained by the previous focus of travel and van life and also afraid of losing blog readers not interested in my new life.

However, nobody wants to be stuck in a niche when it’s not their reality, especially with a passion project. For me, the newsletter helped refocus my creative energy and share thoughts other than travel, a richer, more authentic side of me beyond “adventure #vanlife MTB shredder.”

Hanging with George outside one of the homes he’s built.

2020 Realizations

I suspect 2020 will represent a turn in the road for many of us. Here are a few specific things that greatly improved my life during this very challenging year:

Ditching Social Media

I finally admitted to myself that I use social media (especially Strava, an athletic community) partly for connection, but mostly for validation. I wanted people to know I was an athlete, that I did hard bike rides.

I’d considered dropping social media before, taking breaks, then returning for more dopamine doses. Closing my accounts freed me up to do whatever I wanted without thinking about sharing it. I can’t emphasize enough how empowering this shift has been! 

As a huge bonus, the time I spent on social media now can be invested in creative projects.

Doing More Household Work

This is a topic worthy of an entire blog post, but in short, for the past few years, I’ve aimed to contribute more to the household and decrease Chelsea’s mental load (<–link to a fantastic comic).

This includes cooking more often, handling food orders and grocery pickups, and trying to anticipate the needs of the household without asking Chelsea what needs to be done (a task in itself, I’ve learned). 

All things she’s disproportionately handled while I enjoyed the fun things in life. When I started thinking about how I was basically being lazy and my life partner was shouldering an unfair share of the burden, I started making changes. 

I certainly prefer bike rides to cleaning toilets, but feel way better about myself as a husband and human.

Letting Go of My Business (Even More)

In the face of roiling financial markets and so much financial pain, I’m tremendously lucky that my business did ok this year. I feel for people who couldn’t go to work or HAD to work in unsafe environments.

We experienced dislocations – like many people, my employees lost their childcare and the whipsawing markets created tons of drama – but we were able to weather the storm. I’m grateful for that.

I’ve delegated a lot of my work over the years, but clung to certain tasks. Right before the pandemic arrived, I took a deep breath and handed a few seemingly important items off…and encountered no issues whatsoever. I can only think, “Why the HELL didn’t I do this earlier?!”

Realizing (accepting) that I was not particularly special and many people could handle those tasks only took me six years. #businessgenius For anyone running a business, I urge you to honestly appraise your role and what tasks can be delegated. This will allow you to focus on your true value and the unique abilities you bring.

Better Connection with Family

Prioritizing connecting with family stayed center stage this year. Thanks to phone calls and Marco Polo, I’ve talked more frequently with my parents than ever before. Maybe even more than when I was a teenager!

Beyond that, Chelsea and I stuck with a 3x/week FaceTime exercise routine with her parents. A perfect way for all of us to stay strong and also connect.

Creating Our Dream Spaces

Anyone else go big on DIY projects in 2020? From a massive backyard garden to Chelsea’s indoor jungle and other home improvements, we finally invested time and money into a house!

In the past, we’ve always had other priorities – trips, friends, activities, maybe we’ll move somewhere new –  so this commitment to a property is different. We’re saying, “We love our town and our life here and we’re going to stay.” It feels good. 

(Disclaimer: if there’s another pandemic, we’re buying tickets to New Zealand!)

The results of our labor on the garden project! This was just a lame lawn before…

Consistent Creativity

On top of the DIY projects, I invested many hours into creative pursuits this year. Ranging from music to cooking to writing, I spent many enjoyable hours pretending I was Beethoven immersed in learning and projecting.

Chelsea’s birthday gift to me of a digital piano launched a passion for music that is only deepening. I’m enjoying music theory classes through Skillshare and have practiced piano for hundreds of hours. (Just 10 minutes a day is 60 hours a year!) For a sense of my infatuation level, last night I fell asleep with chord progressions in E minor swimming through my brain.

On the writing front, I fired up my basically-defunct writing practice and published 25 newsletters and a dozen blog posts in the second half of this year. Committing to consistency isn’t always what I want to do, but cracking myself up with dumb jokes, developing a satisfying body of work, and connecting with all of you makes it so worth it.

To anyone considering a creative project, all I can say is start now! Your future self will thank you for making the effort to build life-long skills. It’s hard to believe I’m seven years into blogging on Traipsing About and I’m glad I’ve stuck with it all these years.

Looking Forward

I’m inspired when I think about these small changes cascading into other opportunities to learn and explore my creative side. Ebb and flow, seeking that ever-elusive balance. 

Like George said to me, “Learning new things is the life-long adventure.”

And with that…onward!

Browder-Ridge-hike-Oregon
And don’t you worry: we still enjoy getting outside. (Browder Ridge trail)

BUH BYE to this stinker of a year. Here’s to vaccinations and a better 2021. Happy New Year!