I turn 29 today. Not to be dramatic, but I look back on the past year and feel like I died and came back to life multiple times. In many ways, this year was one of the hardest I’ve ever experienced. It also required more courage than I ever thought possible.…Continue Reading
When it comes to making thoughtful decisions and pursuing our goals well, good advice is something we crave. We also want to be the kinds of people who offer that good advice to others— it can be such a rewarding way to contribute.
I recently joined the advisory board of an organization and took part in an all-day meeting. Various staff members presented on projects and ideas for the board’s reflection and critique, which made me feel a deep level of ownership over my role as an advisor. In addition to that experience, I’ve informally advised numerous people and organizations– many of us have.
I’ve also relentlessly sought advice from people whose insights, skills, and experiences I value. We’re taught at a young age that adults know better, and for a while this mindset follows us. Sometimes I wonder if we’re still looking for the “adults” in the room, forgetting that we ourselves crossed that threshold years ago.
But here’s the challenge with advice, as with anything: its quality runs the gamut of the fullness of humanity. Advice is fueled by inspiration and wisdom at best, and tainted by biases and pridefulness at worst. It can be the product of thoughtful research and reflection, or of sloppy thinking and inattention. When spot-on, advice is something we want to live and die by. When it misses the mark, it can be incredibly distracting and even destructive.…Continue Reading
Year 1 of my MBA program is in full swing and I feel like a bit of a phony. I’m surrounded by classmates who worked really hard to get here. Conversations often dance around the battle scars of merger-induced all-nighters or volatile client crises that eventually devolved into a night of drinking enough to obliterate the miserable associated memories (not recommended). Meanwhile on my proverbial farm, I used the years between college and graduate school to refine my values, develop consistent practices of compassion and hospitality, and dream of the impact I wanted to make. I did some work too.
But what I’ve noticed about the work-to-death culture here on campus is that in some professional settings it’s the norm, not the exception. The nonstop 15-hour days here are new to me but not to everyone else. In fact, some would probably be shocked that I kept my weekends sacred with rhythms that involved the things I’ve come to love: community, harvest, creativity, reflection. True rest is something I’ve written about since the inception of this blog, and now I’m only more convinced that it matters.
When the world around us doesn’t seem to slow down, rest is a courageous act. But it’s not rest alone that brings meaning to these long days or the pages and pages and pages of schoolwork. In order to sustain ourselves holistically through the challenging nature of work, we need to find ways to live deeply. My definition of living deeply is a combination of self-awareness, spiritual conviction, faithful dedication, and communal connection. It brings meaning where meaning is absent. It breathes life into words on a page that only describe “effective leadership” or “change management”. It gives our currencies– talent, money, and resources– a cause worthy of growth.
So how do we live deeply? I’ve been working on the following:
Stay close to art, stories, and the non-quantitative capacities of humanity
As a society, we’re becoming increasingly obsessed with data. But Einstein is still a genius: not everything that counts can be counted. And expressions that dare to explore the uncountable tend to be creative, tender, vulnerable, and beautiful. I love reading poetry, attending performances, perusing galleries and sinking my teeth into a late-summer tomato. I choose to create as well: expressing my ideas through writing, trying a new recipe, taking photographs, or even composing mini reflections on Instagram. These things help me re-center my own convictions that we are all part of a story that matters.
Explore your community and seek to understand it.
I’ll be honest: we weren’t super excited to move from Los Angeles to New Haven, Connecticut. Despite LA’s flaws, we’d grown comfortable with our proximity to diverse communities, close friends, and delicious produce (those darn tomatoes!). But now that we’re here, I want to actually be here. I want to understand the community– from the Italian-American generations that call pizza “abeets” (still figuring that one out) to the various immigrant populations that came to Connecticut instead of New York.
When we know more about the land on which we live, we walk with an awareness and appreciation for the stories that have transpired here. We become a part of it. We’re no longer here just for ourselves. We’re here as a part of the story that is still unfolding.
Choose vulnerability even before anyone else does.
Vulnerability is no piece of cake. Being vulnerable first is even tougher. This past week, I encountered someone who seemed a little too absorbed in self-promotion. I was tempted to avoid him, but saw value in the perspectives he brought and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn from him. Rigid and put off at first by his attitude, I decided to let down my guard and be vulnerable. So I affirmed him and said that I needed his expertise in something I was working on. He melted immediately, and now I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing him again.
I wonder what would have happened had I not gone first, if I had let my own shame and insecurity keep me from pressing into a chance at friendship. Vulnerability is a risk and doesn’t always open doors, but it pushes us to live openheartedly and invites others to do the same.
Return to your convictions and pursue the truth.
If you are so fortunate as to be able to make decisions based on your values, it’s important to remind yourself of those values often, even while allowing people and experiences to help you refine them. This is a crucial case of both-and. We can be both openminded and anchored by conviction, seek other perspectives and pursue the truth.
At the end of the day, we all need beliefs and convictions that can stand the test of difficult seasons. In my particular case, the fact is that many of my classmates will go into careers where job satisfaction levels are below 50%. Given these stats, it’s not uncommon for high achievers to find themselves at mid-career deeply dissatisfied with their choices and lost in a sea of demands, expectations and “great” opportunities. That’s when their answer to “why?” needs to come to their rescue.
It’s true that most of us have to put our heads down and complete tasks we dislike at some point or another; but consistently making choices that are ultimately bad for our wellbeing is a symptom of fear or a lack of conviction. Conviction isn’t necessarily static; it can move and breathe with us, but it must exist and we must cling to it.
Let’s live deeply.
While the lifestyle I’ve chosen isn’t exactly popular, I’ve come to realize that it still somehow inspires. Even if living deeply means stepping away from the crowd, forward in vulnerability, and out in creativity, we become another point of reference for what life can look like.
Here’s my posture, at least: you can always come over here, take a breath, and remember that this moment actually means something.
Sometimes I wonder whether there’s anything I fear more than failing in plain view of others. And I’m not talking about your average “this is my first time” failure; I’m talking about “I worked really hard and I did not succeed” failure.
Maybe it was because I grew up dancing, tumbling, and playing the piano. The performance arts do wonders for your presentation skills and self-awareness, and they also make failure– especially in front of an audience– the worst possible outcome. You can practice the same pirouette a hundred times a day, only to miss a step in the spotlight. You can trill Baroque melodies to the astonishment of your piano teacher, only to slip on the keys at your own recital. In utterly results-oriented activities, failure feels fatal.
There are a few ways we performance-oriented people can respond to our conditioning. First, we can be private: don’t let others into the story until success is absolutely on the horizon. Second, we can disengage: don’t let others perceive how much we care and how hard we’re working.
Third, we can choose vulnerability: allow others to speak into our process, share in our burdens, and lament over our losses.
Over the past several years, I’ve started to more openly explore Option 3. Because as much as I’d like to be the principle dancer twirling through each life stage with ease and elegance, opportunities constantly abounding and never a misstep, I know too much about the world to believe it’s actually possible. So if I’m to portray such perfection, I know I’m choosing solitude. And I don’t want to be alone anymore.
Just tell people everything. That’s easy for the openhearted, extroverted, perhaps slightly narcissistic personality to say. Because there’s actually a tradeoff when it comes to vulnerability.
When we choose vulnerability, we let others see our true level of performance. It’s all too easy to give off an air of excellence when in fact, we are struggling or falling behind.
When we choose vulnerability, we allow others to see our true level of investment. Some people say success comes with a certain degree of obsession– the kind that can feel overwhelming to a bystander. Not everyone wants to go there with you. Not everyone approves of how much you care.
When we choose vulnerability, we invite others to enter into a story and stay for as long as they want. There’s the inevitable “how are you doing with that?” or “any updates?” or “are you still trying to…?” Questions can feel condemning, condescending, evaluative, or loaded. But the door we opened doesn’t close. At least, not on our account.
What makes vulnerability worth it
Vulnerability is worth it when we’re done being alone.
When we’ve decided the facade of perfection (which no one probably buys anyway) isn’t worth our anxious, quiet suffering.
When we’ve decided it’s better to receive empathetic insight and wisdom than empty praise and admiration.
When we’ve realized we need other people in order to accomplish anything of significant meaning in the world, and we shouldn’t wait until we’re perfect to ask for their help.
Vulnerability is worth it when we start perceiving life as a series of opportunities to try new things, rather than a string of stunts to pull before a crowd of critics.
I’m still learning this. In the meantime, here are a few practices I’m adopting:
1) Name the motivation, the action, and the emotion.
When we choose vulnerability, we need to tell the whole story: why we’re doing something, what exactly we’re doing, and how we feel about it. If it affects others, let’s be honest about that, too. Not sharing the whole story keeps us protected– and still alone.
2) Lead with mutuality and live in the tension of others’ successes.
All too many people try “vulnerability” by divulging every last detail of their lives, while showing no interest in the lives of their listeners. This doesn’t lead to deeper empathy or more meaningful friendships. So even when we’re working through a challenge, let’s remember that those walking with us have stories, too. And– whether eventful or not– let’s hear those stories.
3) Commit to the unformed narrative.
There’s always a temptation to reframe our failures as insignificant in light of graver realities, or part of a bigger story, or otherwise not as important as they feel. It’s a bit like retouching a photograph of ourselves: we clean up the scars, bumps, and discoloration to reveal an enhanced version of what was originally captured.
Some people in our lives only need the retouched version. Others– the ones with whom we’re choosing vulnerability– deserve the untouched version: emotions, frustrations, self-doubt and all.
The failure becomes the gift
Vulnerability allows us to move through defeat. It helps us to see that– even though we failed, embarrassed ourselves, or made poor judgments– we’re not alone, and the story is not over.
I’ve experienced much more courage when I rise up with people around me excited to see what’s next.
In what ways have you experienced vulnerability as a strength?
We’ve just returned from an 18-day trip around the world. Aaron discovered an unusual route that would take us east from Los Angeles to Rome, Rome to Taipei, Taipei to Shanghai, and Shanghai to LA. All nonstop.
So on December 12th, we packed our bags and left for the longest international trip we’ve taken since 2015. And it was not without stress and apprehension that we sat down in our tight middle-aisle seats on the Norwegian flight to Rome. The past several months have been exhilarating, exhausting, and somewhat isolating. Projects carry into the new year. Results await us on the other side.
I myself have been caught up with a particular project that has been all-consuming. Its intellectual demands leave my writing pen dry, and its emotional weightiness leaves my spirits low. As the deadline looms close (very close), I expect to feel some amount of relief, despite the commencement of a period of waiting for results. That’s the lesson I have yet to truly learn: efforts and outcomes are not the same, and we can celebrate the former regardless of the latter.
The more we travel, the more clearly we see
This was my fourth time to Rome, a city that caused me to fall in love with travel nearly 15 years ago. The infamous chaos of Rome, try as it might, fails to fully overwhelm its grandeur. Everywhere you turn, you stumble on something stately and beautiful. The more closely you look, the more details come to light. A painting of the Madonna on a wall. A tucked-away cafe. A basket of flowers.
As we wandered through the backstreets of Rome’s heart– Trastevere– I couldn’t help but wonder: What is the future of the Eternal City? Living in Rome appears to be less an opportunity proposition than a lifestyle choice. People love Rome for the voracious carpe diem of Rome. There is always room for another plate of pasta, and a main course after that. There is espresso and cigarettes for breakfast, and tiramisu in a jar. There are more ancient ruins than we’ll ever find without bulldozing the entire city. But what’s next? Will tomorrow be just a fuller, busier, more chaotic version of today?
Shanghai, in some ways, is the opposite of Rome. It’s a fast-moving city for fast-moving people, with impossibly high rent to show you just how fast. Within the walls of its best bars and restaurants, you’ll find a generation of obscenely wealthy young people (what do they actually do?) whipping out Tom Ford lipsticks and flashing their gold iPhone Xs. Outside those walls are ordinary locals trying to make a living, zipping through Shanghai’s backstreets and boulevards on little motorbikes.
The region around Shanghai is stunning: there are water towns that date back a thousand years and more; gardens built for political officers back when scholars ruled China’s culture; a lake with a hundred myths that shroud it in mystery and a thousand paintings that celebrate it. These days, remnants of Old China are yielding to the new, becoming a playground for locals with means. Streets are cleaned up, canals patrolled for trash at dawn, and several Four Seasons await even the most squeamish travelers.
As much as travel inspires, it also breaks my heart. As the human race breathes in and out, fumes fill the skies (in Rome and Shanghai in particular, but also everywhere else). The hustle for bigger, brighter, and better is seductive, its fulfillment always elusive. If we all follow our instinct to be first, and if not first, then next, where will that lead us?
2017 in retrospect
Before Fall 2017, our year was already full. We spent a few days in Mexico City again, and I traveled to Cambodia with some of my best friends. Several months later, Aaron and I took our first flight to Oaxaca in Southern Mexico, where we encountered unbelievable local cuisine and streets bursting with celebration. I then took off to visit Guatemala with Noonday Collection, where we met our artisan partners and learned their craft (which I have no future in).
Our community group continued to grow this year, and it has been an honor to share joys and sorrows with others. We continue to ask questions of the heart, questions that matter to God: How can we live faithfully? How do we become better sisters, wives, friends? What is the right next step for our families? How can we make a difference in our local and global community?
In addition to learning in community, there were a few books that powerfully changed my perspective:
- The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan: a work of fiction that made me cry, a woman’s story of resilience in China
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: a must-read and powerful narrative of the African-American experience
- Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee: a close look at how to truly make a difference for the poor
- Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr: a writer’s experience of Rome, absolutely beautiful and hysterical
- Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle: heart-wrenching stories from Greg Boyle’s experience in gang intervention
Dreams for 2018
I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, as I believe commitment to be more about grit than about timing. That said, there are several goals I’m holding for the year as I look ahead.
1) Removing pressure where it need not be applied. One of my tendencies is to be overly results-oriented, even in areas that don’t really matter. I feel immense pressure for all of my tasks to reflect excellence; and while this is helpful in some areas, it’s unhealthy and stress-inducing in others.
2) Deeper honesty and vulnerability with friends, and in general. Tied to #1, I hope to continue to grow in being open about the challenges I’m facing, even if I’m still facing them. So many of us like to tell the success story: we once struggled with X, but now we’ve succeeded because of Y. This can be incredibly isolating; so even if it means sharing complicated, unfiltered thoughts, I desire to more openly articulate my journey.
3) Cheering for others whenever I can. In a digital world of likes, views and shares, it can become less of a habit for us to verbally encourage each other. I already have the tendency to think well of others but forget to tell them on a regular basis; I hope to be able to do so more consistently in 2018.
4) Continued growth spiritually, professionally and intellectually. There are so many unknowns for us in 2018. But regardless of the circumstances, I want to continue to grow. This means setting up (and bolstering) practices in meditation, service and prayer; seeking opportunities to always do my best at work; and reading and learning constantly outside of what’s required of me.
What about you? What are your plans, dreams and reflections for 2018?
We live in an age where we feel as though everything matters and nothing can wait.
Between headlines, notifications, and the regular demands of our work and home life, it is all too easy to go through an entire day (or week) doing nothing other than responding to what feels like crisis. Our rhythm begins to sync with the pace of requests that fly across our screens, and we react. We can spend hours simply reacting.
Of course, some of these things are important. It’s important for us to know what is going on our world. It’s important for us to respond to our loved ones who need us. And it’s important for us to do our jobs well.
But in living reactively to the stimuli that constantly interrupt, we lose the ability to live intentionally. What we experience, over time, is an indomitable chaos for which no one, it seems, has charted a path of escape.…Continue Reading
Purpose and perseverance are two weighty words. And we need both.
But we often overlook their value until we’ve lost them. Without purpose, I am predisposed to overachievement. To gratify myself somehow with the hustle to prove my worth. Without something greater to work toward, I find myself spinning outwardly in.
Without perseverance, I find myself frustrated and powerless. Because perseverance is dogged determination– the commitment that accompanies purpose– that keeps us in the game when giving up is much more attractive. It’s the lane guards that help us to continue barreling forward, however clumsily and imperfectly. When we say, “Someone else can do this better,” it’s the voice that says, “No one can do this exact thing other than you.”…Continue Reading
When it comes to self-care practices, I’m not an expert. Self-care isn’t even a term I love; for some reason, it turns up in the files of my brain along with the same search terms for “me-time.” A part of me still bristles when anyone says, “I can’t. I need a little me-time.”
But here’s the thing. None of us can work, plan, and give all the things, all the time. Furthermore, whether we often resist self-care out of selfishness or pride: a desire to have it all, do it all, and prove it all. Can you relate?
And when we fail to tend to our bodies, our minds, and our souls, we do not have capacity for the kind of greatness we aspire to. Lack of discipline leads me toward impatience, exhaustion, and even closed-mindedness, when every new challenge becomes just another problem on my list to fix….Continue Reading
My husband and I are foodies. We’re also enthusiastic home chefs.
We own too many cookbooks and more appliances than the average person. Our entire wedding registry is mostly in the form of a kitchen tool. And we use all of it.
But here’s the thing– we believe in simple food. And this actually squares quite well with how much time we spend in the kitchen.
Ever since I started working in sales and marketing, I’ve become much more aware of how businesses manage to sell us things. This process is so ingrained into our existence that its nuances nearly become invisible to us. Everyday, we use and consume products. It’s part of what it means to be alive. We eat, we wear clothes, we go places, we use tools.
The minimalist in me is simultaneously wondering how exactly we go from Point A to Point B– namely, how do we make our purchasing decisions? And how do businesses move us down that path?
Every successful business is deeply human.
With the obvious exception of corporate giants that have cornered the market (which aren’t few– I’ll admit), many successful businesses aren’t cold, robot-run establishments. Instead, they heavily rely on resonating with your inner person. Their strategy is deeply dependent on shared human experiences. And when it comes to sales and marketing, no one is more in tune.
Because the truth is, we engage with our world in holistic ways. We process information mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and relationally.
And the inside of a good marketing campaign takes all of these into consideration. The goal is to resonate, compel, and invite.
We can put them to the test.
But just because big, successful brands are constantly thinking about our feelings, desires, and interests, it does not mean we have to settle for what they’re offering. Most business owners will say they’re open to a challenge. Many of them want to raise the standard in their own industry anyway– and we can encourage that.
You see, whether your goal is to purchase as few things as possible, or simply to purchase more intentionally and wisely, you have to understand what triggers you to buy particular things in the first place.
Furthermore, it’s becoming more and more of a marketer’s world. The corner shop used to provide everything our grandparents and their parents needed. Nowadays, our purchases are influenced by forces (and people) all over the world.
So understanding how things are sold to us is a huge step in understanding our own spending habits. Because even if we are not entirely sure why we purchase what we do, the people we purchase from are definitely thinking about it.
5 ways businesses get you to buy
1) They build trust.
Unless a company is the only viable one in its industry, the first step to converting someone into a customer is to build trust. This can manifest in a number of different ways: customer testimonials, an authoritative voice, friendly staff, great return policies, and promises to deliver.
Think about the brands that you return to again and again. Why do you trust them? What makes you believe their product to be better than others?
Test it out: On what grounds is a particular business hoping to gain your trust? Are they a great value? Are they ethical? Put them to the test by making comparisons and asking yourself what leads you to believe them. What makes them more relatable to you than an alternative?
2) They appeal to common human emotions.
You’ve probably heard this one before– and you’re probably thinking of clever commercials that made you feel a certain way. But before you write them off as master manipulators, consider this: the goal of a any ad campaign is to get you into a mental state– possibly one you’ve been in before– that reminds you of a need or problem you have. Why? Because they’re presenting a potential solution to that problem.
Sometimes, it’s not a real solution. Soda won’t actually hydrate you on a hot day, and a car won’t make you invincible. But they want to bring you to that moment anyway, to make you more likely to purchase.
Test it out: If an ad makes a promise and you expect it to deliver, pause for a moment. What actually is the problem that the product hopes to solve? Are you equating the product to the solution you need for a far greater problem?
3) They drive with vision.
In Start with Why, Simon Sinek argues that the most successful companies do just that. They don’t start with a product and then generate a compelling reason to make it; they start with a compelling reason that eventually leads to a logical product.
The thing about a company’s vision is that it actually matters– and it should matter to you, the customer. Unfortunately, so many vision statements are lip service that never gets translated into real practice. You might even work in an office that feels this way.
But on the customer side, it’s important to consider whether the brand’s vision actually compels you to buy. Do you love it? Does it resonate with your own sense of purpose?
Test it out: Next time you’re about to purchase something, consider whether you selected this product because the vision reminds you of your own aspirations. Sometimes, the product can actually help you get there (that’s a successful business). Other times, it’s just lip service.
4) They cater to different levels of engagement.
These days, most sophisticated marketing departments have a customer tracking database. They know everything there is to know about your interaction with their company– from the products you’ve viewed, to the emails you’ve opened, to the ads you’ve clicked on. Yes, it’s a bit creepy.
But they’re not stalking you for no reason. They want to make sure they’re sending you the most appropriate amount of information that will lead you to take a next step with them. You might subscribe to their emails, but only open one a month. You might open all their emails, but never click on anything. Perhaps you’re the customer who has purchased a few sale items over the past year. Or, you’re on their site making purchases every weekend.
Regardless how engaged you are, you matter to them. And they want you to feel comfortable about how often they market to you, and the materials they send.
Test it out: Being intentional about your subscriptions and your web browsing is just as important as being careful with your spending. With each action, you tell companies what kind of customer you are. Don’t want them to come knocking? Don’t give them the impression that you’re interested.
5) They solve real problems.
Are you surprised by this?
Businesses that sell things without providing real solutions are called scams. They’re not popular, and they don’t last forever. People who are in business for good reasons are usually committed to meeting a real, felt need. And those of us who return to the same companies again and again, can attest to their ability to continue to solve our problems.
A problem can be as simple as needing a protective case for your smartphone, and as complex as providing a tailored education for your child’s specific needs. Or replacing broken dock parts on large 18-wheelers (I actually have a friend who does this).
The products that sell– in the long-run– solve real problems. There’s no trick to this; they do their job.
Test it out: You’re likely in the habit of purchasing certain products on a repeated basis. You might have a magazine subscription, or standard grocery list, or a monthly Costco run during which you pick up the same things. Every once in a while, evaluate these purchasing habits. Are these products still solving your problems?
The bottom line: you’re in charge.
If you’re reading this post, you likely have the resources to parse out how and why you’ve become a customer to every business you purchase from. In other words, it’s up to you.
A company can create an amazing product, build a compelling campaign, and win your loyalty fair and square. It can also create an average product, over-promise and under-deliver, and still win your loyalty because you’re not paying attention.
So put them to the test. Ditch the brands and products that don’t pass.
What other ways have companies convinced you to purchase their products?
My husband and I spent the weekend in Las Vegas.
Through a series of unexpected events, we had found ourselves with a free stay for the 3-day weekend. As much as Vegas is the antithesis of what we love and live for, we also appreciate so much about the city. More on that later, maybe.
The moment that inspired this post occurred when we were in a cab on the way to the Strip– the main stretch of road with all of Vegas’s hotels and casinos. It was early evening, and the sun was sinking behind the parched, craggy mountains of Nevada. As dusk arrived, all of Vegas’s twinkling lights– so unnatural and strange in natural daylight– began to fit.
Beckoning from left and right were monuments to every human pursuit. A fake Eiffel Tower. The names of famous fashion houses. Scantily clad women and men. The promise of winning. Of significance.
There was music booming from the fountains of the Bellagio hotel, which boasts an incredible aqua ballet every fifteen minutes at night. Sinatra, Fitzgerald, and other American classics played as spurts of water danced in perfectly coordinated choreography.
The windows of our cab were slightly cracked, letting in the noise of the Vegas Strip bustle. Suddenly, a song came onto the radio. It was a soft, familiar tune that spoke of another world.
Here I stand, knowing that I’m your desire
Sanctified by glory and fire
And now I’ve found the greatest love of all is mine
Since you laid down your life, the greatest sacrifice
I felt my ears strain to pick up every last word of these unexpected old lyrics. Words that promised something so far and away from every beckoning call on the boulevard.
Your grace has found me just as I am, empty-handed but alive in your hand.
Forever I am changed by your love in the presence of your majesty…
For a moment, it felt nearly laughable that this reverent, faith-filled anthem was carrying us down South Las Vegas boulevard like a vehicle from another universe. Then it felt completely right. It was as though in the mix of the city’s grand, daring, dangerous, and illicit pursuits was exactly where this quiet invitation belonged.
Here I stand, humbled by the love that you give
Forgiven so that I can forgive…
I looked up beyond the winking lights and animated billboards to witness one of the most stunning sunsets I had seen in a while. Pinks and crimsons were strewn across the textured desert sky.
I was still straining to hear the remainder of the song, but found it echoing somewhere deep inside my heart. I suddenly felt aware of the words, the imagery– emanating from the inside-out.
Intentional living begins with listening
This is my story. And it may or may not be your story.
But, what I know to be true is our desire to live for the words that reverberate from within us, echoing many more words outside of us. We want our personal anthems to join a larger, collective anthem.
Even if you never step foot in Vegas, you’ll likely come across options that aren’t the real thing. They’re not what you want to live for, or they’re merely images of what you think matters most.
For many of us, those false invitations aren’t in the form of slot machines, poker games, or affection that we’ve paid for. They’re not even in the highest levels of performing arts, impeccable food, or natural beauty. (Vegas has all of the above, by the way.)
Rather, they’re in the forms of things that we like, but not what we love– or want to love. We start failing to live intentionally when we’ve exchanged like for love.
So how do we live intentionally in the face of so many distractions? Perhaps it’s exactly what I found myself doing: listening. But not just listening to any and every voice amplified by a megaphone as we drive by; just the voices that we know are resonating with strands we hold most dear.
Focused living begins with knowing what to listen for. And eventually, we start hearing that anthem– the story in which we place all of our trust– everywhere. No matter how faint, we teach ourselves to give ear to the voices that keep us living the way we wish to live.
And none of this prevents us from dialogue, or learning, or even changing our minds. It simply informs the way we move, speak, and make decisions. We need this at our core in order to live on purpose.
“Clutter” is sometimes too kind a word. Sure, the pile of items that gather on counters and coffee tables are worthy of the name. But the false notions of purpose we get when we’ve replaced best with good enough? We can call them lies.
How to start listening more carefully
There’s a principle in leadership that the purpose of affirmation is not simply to congratulate someone on a job well done. It’s to call out a quality in someone in hopes that it’ll grow ever stronger.
When someone hears that their work is valued and appreciated, they’re likely to increase their level of effort in response.
In the same way, focused listening comes from reiterating to ourselves where we find our greatest hope. Perhaps for you this betrays a blind optimism, but I hope it’s more than that. The more we call out these truths from the people around us, the more we see and hear them. The more we repeat these truths to ourselves, the more we’re able to experience the world through them.
The best kind of listening does not always start with a clean slate. Rather, it starts with a hunger that knows exactly what will satisfy it. And it keeps pursuing that one thing.
This could mean reading, writing, and reflecting in quiet spaces. It could mean surrounding yourself with others who share your anthem and can encourage you in it. It could mean taking practical steps to live in the implications of what matters most to you.
And it is with this soft determination, this patient practice, that we’ll find ourselves more focused, more centered, more faithful.
As we enter into Christmas weekend, I’m noticing a trend. Photographs are shared that harken to that holiday feeling we all love and hold in our hopes. Tales of travel (or pilgrimage, perhaps) unfurl as friends go near and far to spend these days away from work. And somehow in the midst of it all, we perpetuate this warm, bright ambience that the world is supposed to experience this time of year.
“I don’t really feel it,” said someone I’ve encountered on our current getaway to Lithuania.
How could you not FEEL it, I might ask. Vilnius, Lithuania’s beautiful capital, is covered in snow, decked out with lights, and revolving around a lovely little Christmas market. Fathers and mothers parade about with hot mulled wine in their hands and their candy-gnawing children. The light dusting of snow over the city’s medieval buildings should be able to light up the heart of even the most stubborn grinch.
But that’s not always how the holidays feel.
From feelings to faithfulness
The Christmas season fills many of us with anticipation every year. When I was growing up, I wanted every Christmas to be my best one yet. Decorations had to be grand and perfect. Gatherings filled with laughter and genuine connection. Food, of course, impeccable.
But as I’ve grown, I’ve realized that while expectations can land where we want them to, they are not always met. It’s simply a fact that not every holiday season will be easy. Not every holiday gathering will feel sincere. Not every Christmas table will have all those we wish could be there. And not every Christmas memory will be healing.
What we have instead, are choices we can make in the moment– this very moment.
I’ve been dabbling in mindfulness thinking (mostly thanks to my Ph.D.-pursuing husband who studies it as part of his research). While I am by far no expert– barely a novice, in fact– I’ve picked up on quite a few general principles of mindfulness that have been proven effective in difficult emotional moments. So I’ve tried to translate these ideas into mental steps that bring overall peace.
4 simple steps to holiday peace
1) Embrace your plans (or lack there of), fully.
Learning not to simply be okay with, but to fully accept your holiday plans can be harder than we might think. This is a unique challenge when social media reveals some friends galavanting around the world (if that’s what we want), while others gather around hearth and home (if that’s what we want). The candles on others’ table may seem to shine brighter; holiday traditions in other countries seem to capture the spirit in realer ways.
Embracing your plans means truly coming to terms that this year, this time, you are where you are. You are in this one time and place, and joy is possible.
2) Accept those around you for who they are, not who you wish they were.
Traditionally, the holidays are when families gather. We all want to live in that hallmark card where fathers and mothers are still married, where children laugh and play while grandparents look on with generosity gleaming in their eyes. If this is your story, I hope you know what a unique experience you have. If this isn’t your story, you’re likely to find yourself disappointed– perhaps heartbroken– by the truth.
Accepting people for who they are– not who they could be or even who they used to be— is part of bringing peace to the table at Christmas. It doesn’t mean allowing them to treat you poorly, or giving up on them if they need to change; but it does mean committing to them in their current state. Even if it means they no longer fit in your picture-perfect story.
3) Find moments of solitude to experience gratitude.
Am I grateful? Sometimes it takes a while for me to realize that I am not. Being grateful doesn’t simply mean remembering a thing or two that you enjoyed in the last week. It means truly taking the time to acknowledge the beauty and grace experienced in brief moments and over time.
Solitude can help with these realizations– when we have no one to entertain and nothing to prove. Whether you choose to journal or simply sit in silence, take time apart from everyone (I find early mornings or late nights best for this) to remind yourself of all there is to be grateful for.
4) Make your holiday other-centered.
Part of the reason we wrestle with the holiday season is likely because we make it about ourselves– and inevitably always come up short. The imperfections we notice, the unmet expectations, the situations we find awkward or difficult, only ever have power to “ruin” a holiday that we’ve expected to be the true and ultimate thing that makes us happy and fulfilled at the end of the year.
But this season doesn’t have to be about that. It can be about others. It can be about God’s invitation in Jesus for us– and thus the world– to be made new. It can be about celebrating those who are uncelebrated, quiet heroes who are faithfully loving and serving the weak. It can be about bringing unlikely characters to the table in true resonance with the anthem, we are more alike than different.
So wherever you might find yourself this weekend, however you end up spending your Christmas and New Year’s Day, remember this. There is always a choice and an invitation.
Some believe that life should be easy. In fact, so many proponents of minimalism appear to advocate for simple living so that life can be easy. Or at least, easier.
And those writers do have a point: our constant consumption complicates our lives. Our acquisitions have to be cleaned and stored. Our assets have to be managed. And our income has to continue to keep up with the lifestyle we seek to project. Many of us live in the shadow of self-inflicted debt and under a pile of self-induced clutter. And we should stop that.
This well-placed anger toward clutter (and the habits that induce it) is often channeled into an aesthetic minimalism with simple-looking tabletops and blank pages, complete with latte art from hip coffee shops and hand-lettered prints, all encouraging others to pursue “what matters most.” I know, because I’ve been guilty of this presentation of simplicity, too.
Is creativity only for vocational “creatives”? I used to think so.
I used to love the word creative, while also regarding it as a lifestyle for people far different from me. Be creative? I hardly have time to work out and sleep enough, much less finish that long to-do list.
But what if creativity is not limited to crafting, painting, composing, photographing, or other traditional art forms? What if it’s so much bigger– and so much more necessary to living lives of purpose and meaning than we ever thought?
Creativity is precious (and sometimes fleeting)
I do believe there are people who are naturally better at generating new content quickly; they’re constantly pushing the boundaries of what we understand to be conventional, expanding definitions as they go. But I also believe we all have creative abilities, and those abilities need to be protected. Exhaustion and overwhelm can quickly squash creativity, leaving us to spring for whatever is fast and easy.
The solution? Practice creativity in your everyday life. I work with a handful of vocational creatives who inspire me regularly to think outside the confines that I’m familiar with. They take verbal risks. They re-conceptualize old structures. They make everything beautiful and more compelling.
It’s already happening. The holiday season with its celebrations, expectations, and impositions looms overhead as we progress into the second half of October. And if you’re like me in this season, you’re feeling tired. Perhaps you’re also stressed and swamped, and the leaves haven’t even changed color yet.
Despite our best efforts, the holiday season is almost inevitably packed. On top of our own expectations (mine are baking with friends, hosting guests, sending gifts, writing letters, and attending gatherings), we have everyone else’s, as well. On top of that, corporations and marketers are at our doorsteps asking us to choose them for gift-giving.
So what can we do?
There’s one thing that’s certain: the only people we can change is ourselves. We can’t force others out of their packed schedules or their family hustle. We can only do what we know is best for us– gifting ourselves a season of quietness, quality conversations, generosity, hope, and rebirth. I don’t know about you, but I could really use some of what the holidays are really about. Perhaps our communities will eventually feel the same.
Avoiding overwhelm, breaking the cycle
Our society is in a relentless pattern when it comes to this time of year. We gorge ourselves, inundate each other with gifts nobody needs, exchange invitations, spend too much money, dash from one event to another, gorge ourselves again, and then launch the New Year with ultimatums that we will never do any of that again.
But what if this time could be different? What if we actually stopped the rush? What if we stayed away from the long Black Friday lines? What if we stuck with our budget and continued our self-care practices? What if we ate well and heartily, but without gluttony?
It could happen, but we’ll have to be intentional. No one is going to help us achieve the goal of feeling rested after the holidays. No one is going to ensure that our conversations with loved ones are restorative, or that our time away from work and school leads to rejuvenation.
We have to make it happen.