What I learned in March

Now that April is more than halfway over, I finally have a minute to share my insights from last month!

March was enlightening for me in many ways. I was able to observe myself and my work habits more objectively – looking closely at what they really are and how I operate – in order to build around who I am instead forcing myself to work the way I think I should.

I learned that I work best when I have no ultimate final output in mind. Diving into the process with no solid vision of what I am doing or where it is going is the most fun I can have. It’s where I constantly find myself inspired and excited, and where I smile and laugh as I see the form of a project bubble up from the work I’ve done, not knowing what it wants to become until it does. I love watching it emerge.

Along the way, I found a few tools and techniques that helped me get into this process and stay there longer. They made my work much more enjoyable and focused, eliminated a large percentage of distractions, and helped me stay more organised – all so I could experience more time with that beautiful spark of creative inspiration.

1. Tools

Split screens on Mac

No need to get all fancy with multiple monitors, you can get the same benefits using Mac’s split screen (there might be PC options for this too. Definitely worth looking for). Just hold the green dot down until you have the option to choose another screen. Whichever one you select will sit side by side with the other (with the option to change the ratio or swap them around for whichever view suits you best). I tend to put research on the left and writing on the right. It looks like this: Continue reading

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Sprinkles

If you were going to make a cake, what would your first step be?

Alex Trebek and I will give you a second to think about it.

Ok. Whatcha got?

Maybe you said you’d need to find a recipe, go shopping, or turn on the oven. Perhaps the more seasoned chefs out there jumped straight into mixing up ingredients. I’m not really a cake baker (or a cake eater – much prefer pies), so I’m not here to say what’s right or wrong. What I’m willing to bet, however, is that, when asked the first step you’d take in making a cake, you didn’t say: grab a jar of sprinkles.

And yet, I watch myself and other creatives and entrepreneurs repeatedly fall into this trap. A new project or business idea comes to our mind and, instead of getting down to the nitty-gritty business of making it happen, we run straight for the sprinkle cupboard, buzzing with excitement. In our minds, the project is already complete and now we’re happily decorating our beloved creation with all the bells and whistles and adornments we can imagine.

Here are some sprinkles-first errors I have witnessed in myself and others: Continue reading

Happy February!

I love February. I might be slightly biased because it is my birthday month, but I think it’s a pretty great one. Sure, there is still snow on the ground (not if you live in Oman, though!), but the really dark days of winter start to evaporate, the sun comes out more and, depending on where you live, you might even start to see some signs of life returning to the garden. I hope that wherever you are, the veil of winter is lifting and you can see warm days ahead!

As one month is officially over, I thought it might be a good time to round up all the things I have done so far this year. I mentioned at the beginning of January that I didn’t make any resolutions for 2016 and, instead, I am working on doing what seems really relevant and valuable to my life at the moment. I’d like to share with you what I was able to accomplish with that approach because I am really pleased with myself and, I’ll admit, even a little bit proud.

Here we go. In January, I:
  • Got new eyeballs – It was scary, it was gross and it was the best thing I have done for myself in years. I can’t believe how instantly different my life was after the big surgery. If you are thinking about doing it, stop thinking and do it. It’s incredible.
  • Read three books – I used my new eyeballs to do some reading. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and two books by Haruki Murakami (Wild Sheep Chase and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). I enjoyed them all too, particularly Big Magic, which helped liberate my creativity in a wonderful way.
  •  Travelled – We spent a night camping on a cliff side (spectacular) and a weekend in Dubai (not quite as spectacular, but necessary). We’ve also booked our next holiday (Sri Lanka!) and are soon to book our summer excursion to Indonesia for a diving extravaganza!
  • Wrote – For years I have said I wanted to write one post a week on my blog and every week when I’ve sat down to write I’ve felt burdened and heavy. Without that one-a-week demand hanging over me, that “have to do” pressure of sitting down to write something every week, I have written 9 posts! That is crazy to me! I wasn’t stressed and frustrated. I didn’t feel I needed to do it. I just wrote because I had things I wanted to say. It’s been lovely.
  • Met new friends – Part of the reason I have written so much is because I have thrown myself into the blog community in a truer way than in the past. I’ve found people I love to follow –Happy Fish TarotSabiscut’s Catalog, Two Brown Feet, Violet’s Veg*n e-comics, Travel-Stained – and I love catching up with them online. It’s great to meet real people who have valuable things to add to the online world and to see life through their eyes. It is because of reading about their lives and their experiences that I have been to write so much more than I ever could before. Thanks, guys!
  • Created a Morning Routine That I Love – I started to write about all the things this means to me and how I went about it but it is starting to become a post all of it’s own. It looks like I will be writing about this shortly, but in the meantime, know that this is by far the thing I am most proud of accomplishing this month and the thing that has made the biggest impact on my life, although it is probably the most mundane. Weird how that works, isn’t it?

That’s about it for January!

What about you? How did your January go? What were you able to accomplish that you are proud of? Even the smallest things are fabulous to stop and appreciate. I hope it was a good month for you!

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Just Because

I am currently working on a project that has been stirring in my periphery for years. I don’t know why I feel compelled to do it, I’ve just kept coming back to it over and over for so long, and now feels like the right time to take it on.

It’s a project that will probably bring delight only to myself and a very small handful of other very specific nerds. It is taking up hours of time every week. I am not getting paid for it. It is something that other people have done versions of already, but none the way I want to do it. No one told me I have to do it. No one is waiting for the finished product.

So why am I doing it? Just because I really want to do it.

This isn’t my first time to the Just Because rodeo. When I was making my way through the Congestion Zone project, I was constantly asked, “Why?”

There were two camps of people who wanted to know.

Some dove in with questions: why do you find it interesting, what made you want to do it,  how are you going about it, where do you walk, how do you record it, what do you see, who do you talk to, what is it like??? Tell me all the things!!

Those were the people who, although they wouldn’t necessarily want to do the same thing themselves, enjoyed experiencing it through my eyes and wanted to feel like they were there doing it with me. They were the ones who got it. They were the ones who lit up as much as I did when we talked about the process of it all, the pleasure of doing it just because it sounded fun. They were my people.

The other side of the coin were the people who just couldn’t get their head around doing something Just Because. These people jumped straight to the end result. What happens when you’re done? What will you sell? What will you make? How will you validate this project when it’s done? How will you show that it was worth your time and energy? How can you monetize this?

These people were very confused and frustrated when I couldn’t give any other reason than, “Just because. I’ve really want to for a long time.”

Had I read Big Magic before this adventure, I would have had a nice little canned response for them. A real zinger that would make me feel good about myself, that would make me feel okay about there not being a “good” reason to give them. It would have been this:

If you can’t see what I am already getting out of this, then I’ll never be able to explain it to you.

How succinct! How lovely! How liberating!

That is not at all how I replied, however.

Sadly, I totally bought into their money-driven view. I completely capitulated and let them run wild with their ideas about what I should make or should build or should sell at the end (I have developed an allergy to the word should in my life now. Be wary of it, my friends!).

Their adamance about what I should be doing with my project, their very strong opinions that I was missing the plot, that I was going to have nothing to show for myself, made me question my approach. Maybe I did need to consider the end result. Maybe I should write a book, or make a map, or make an app. Which meant I should be taking more notes along the way. And doing things differently on my walks to gather all the information I would need.

I would love to say that I stood my ground and that I was able to see through these people straight away, but I would often leave these discussions feeling really stressed out. Depending on the strength of the person’s opinion, it would knock the whole project off kilter for days, sometimes weeks. I would work myself up into a frenzy of Things I Should Be Doing and as, a result, nothing got done.

Why? Because I would start to feel trapped by all the things I should be doing. I didn’t want the project to be about the end result. It was something I was doing just for my own pleasure. I would stop walking just to avoid this inner conflict and began to mourn the loss of this project that brought me so much joy. But, thank god, when I caught myself grieving, I snapped out of it and remembered that it was, in fact, MY project and they could all fuck off.

I would strap on my shoes and walk out the door to explore the streets of London. Just because.

What I want to say to you – you friends out there who are working on projects that you are doing just because you really want to – is not to be like me and buy into this crap about projects needing to have a “purpose.”

Find a big can of fuck off and throw it in the face of anyone who tells you your project isn’t valuable because they don’t understand why you are doing it.

The people who get it, the people who get excited about it with you, who cheer for you even though they don’t really understand it, they are your people. If you don’t think you have those people (though, I can almost guarantee you do) you are still doing for you, just because you want to. And that is enough.

Know Your Agenda

Last week I realised that I have the power to take on work that aligns with my agenda. What I had a hard time pinning down was exactly what my agenda is.

I’m a creative person so, at any given time, I have about a billion and one ideas about what I could spend my energy on. I’ve got ideas for blog posts, podcasts, videos, books, products, businesses, you name it, rolling around in my head constantly. I never have a hard time filling my time.

What I do have a hard time filling my time with is things that are actually important to my life overall. I’ve gone off the rails a bit recently and started bingeing on junk food projects instead of focusing on the meat and potatoes that will sustain me emotionally, physically, mentally and creatively long term.

The thing about meat and potatoes projects is that they fall into the icky category. Not icky in their purpose but icky in their execution. They matter more, but they take more time. Lots of time, usually. They need to be broken down into smaller chunks and you need to be patient and keep your eye on the prize. I would rather eat a whole tube of Pringles, Cookie Monster-style*, than wait for a pot roast to simmer for seven hours. I’m not a patient person.

If you’ve ever read Wait But Why – particularly his posts on procrastination (links here for 1, 2 and 3) – you might pin me down as an Impostinator. And you’d be totally right. I can find a dozen things that I want to be doing right now because they feel urgent for one reason or another. It often cripples me from doing the actually important things for my life as a whole.

So this week, I sat down and really looked at the important stuff in my life, the big-ticket items that will take some time but that ultimately provide a well-rounded diet for my life.

Here are the Top 3 things I came up with:
  • Opening our dive centre – This is huge for us. Chris and I have talked about it for ages and it is something we both want in a very real way. We’ve started laying out our plans and making decisions that will take us in this direction. It’s scary, it’s complicated, it’s exciting, it’s the biggest, most important thing in our lives right now. I’m crazy excited about it.
  • Enjoying our time in Oman – Things here are slightly unstable, not for us so much as for the country as a whole. While low gas prices are great for many people, for those selling the gas it means a huge financial strain. We know we’ll be here for this year. We don’t know what will happen after that in the job market. That means we want to really explore and enjoy the country for the time we know we have in it. There’s still so much to do!
  • Quality time with my peeps – This one is slightly tricky as most of my peeps live across a really big pond. It is incredibly important for me to nurture my relationships with my friends and family, no matter how far away they are. It means a lot of Skype dates, a lot of texting at inconvenient times, and a lot of navigating through the world of keeping-in-touch apps that never seem to do exactly what I need them to do for everyone I talk to. It’s a pain. But I love them enormously and I can’t do any of the other things in my life that matter without them in it.

Narrowing my agenda down to these three actually important things means that I can now check any opportunities or project ideas I have against this list. If they push these things forward, I’m on it. If they take away from them, no way. It’s a really useful tool for knowing what to say yes to and, much harder for me, knowing what to say no to.

It also lets me see how I can double up on my energy. For example, if I had an opportunity to work at a dive shop in Oman it would benefit both our future dive shop and my enjoyment of Oman. Bonus! If I had a chance to explore Oman with my friends here, it would be a double win. Sweet! And opening our dive centre means having a place where friends and family can come visit on the cheap. Fabulous!

Knowing what my agenda is has made it crystal clear what I need to be working on – and what I don’t. It gives my work a focus and my energy a direction. It cuts through the crap and gets to the heart of my desires and hopes for the future.

It also makes me feel exposed. Seeing what actually matters to me has highlighted how much energy I’ve spent on other things in an attempt to avoid diving into some icky jobs. It’s so much easier to sit on the couch and eat junk food than spend hours in the kitchen slaving away. But I’m finally hungry for some meat and potatoes, no matter how much work it takes to make them happen.

*Cookie Monster knows his agenda.

What will it be?

There is something I feel compelled to make. It’s been simmering in my subconscious for almost a year now.

The catch?

I’m not really sure what it is or how to go about it.

I know this: it’s a story. I woke up one day and watched the whole thing unfold in front of my eyes. It was a weird experience. But I saw it. Fully formed. There in front of me. Made. Done. Dusted. Out in the world. And I somehow knew that I was the one who made that happen.

Here’s the thing though. That’s all I know. It could be a book. It could be a short film. It could be lots of things – all of which I have absolutely no idea how to make.

The second catch?

It has no words.

Everything I see about it is illustrated. It’s all in images, no dialogue. But I am NOT an illustrator. Okay, I spent a lot of time last year practicing illustration because of this idea. I took drawing classes. I sat every day and doodled. I practiced drawing my breakfast, the view from my window, anything I saw. Still, I don’t know that my skills are up to this task.

That means I have three choices: get my skills up to the task (that could take a really long time), do it anyway even though I don’t think I have the talent, or find a collaborator, someone who does know how to illustrate and who could capture the idea in the way I saw it.

All of these things are freaky for me.

I really have no idea the best way to go about any of those. I don’t know that I will ever have the illustration style I envision for this project. I don’t know if I would be happy with it if my attempt doesn’t capture what I see in my head. And I don’t know if I trust someone else to feel the essence of the story clearly enough to draw it out.

It’s a conundrum. But I do feel really drawn to this project (pun accidental, but I’ll leave it). So I guess I don’t have much of a choice. It’s either do it or don’t do it, and the doing it will happen as it happens. I’ll just have to see where it goes and how it unfolds.

Watch this space.

Have Your Own Agenda

Ira Glass wrote something that stuck out to me. Have your own agenda.

We all want to work for ourselves. That’s the dream. But even when we are working for other people, we can still have our own agenda.

I used to do this all the time. I saw my jobs as tools that I leveraged to get the things I wanted. I got a nearly-free Bachelor’s degree from one, cheap hotels from another and all the chocolate I could eat from yet another. I always took jobs that  gave me more than a paycheck. Even my application decisions were calculated. I didn’t see any other way of doing it. If I was going to give them my time and my energy, I wanted to get things back that added to my life as a whole. Free books. Free public transport. Whatever it was, I always had an agenda. There was always an angle I was working. And why not?

Now that I am not working in a traditional way, however, I find that I am all over the map. I throw out energy hither and thither with no real reason or purpose. I have things I want to achieve, yes, but I seem to latch on to anything that promises a little bit of money in the short term and I no longer weigh big picture factors as heavily.

I haven’t had as much choice in my jobs lately, so much of it has been a matter of survival. I get that. But I realised today that even in the midst of this situation, even when I really need a job just to pay the bills and save up for the future, I still have a choice. I can still find ways to get more than a paycheck out of the jobs I am doing. And if a potential job doesn’t match my agenda, I can say no to it and use my energy more effectively, putting it into things that serve the bigger picture, not just the next paycheck.

Many Topics, One Blog

My blog often feels all over the map. I’m a traveller, an expat, half of a diving duo (hoping to open a place of our own), a doodler, a curiosity seeker and many others. Trying to fit that into a blog that makes sense, that has a sense of cohesion has been tricky for me and often the result is that I don’t write as much as I want to because it feels like there is no focus. I am reblogging this post because a) it is incredibly helpful, giving ideas for how to organise a blog like mine b) is a great reminder that it’s okay for your personality to be the focus, not a topic and c) because I don’t want to lose track of it in the future when I need reminding again. It’s a great help if you are like me and think that pretty much everything in the world is wonderfully fascinating and worth writing about!

The Daily Post

We all deal with blogger’s block sometimes. But what about the opposite, when you have dozens of things you want to blog about? Are you going to turn your audience off by blogging on a range of topics? How can you have a focused brand if your posts are all over the map?

You had your focus all along!

Some blogs take a narrow look at a particular subject, because of the blogger’s interests and goals. Others are wide-ranging reflections of their authors’ interests. If that’s you, it doesn’t mean your blog has no focus — it means the focus is, essentially, your point of view.

(Does that sound self-centered? I think about it like this: I blog not because I think the world needs Michelle’s Precious Opinions*, but because telling my stories connects me to other people in a way that makes both our lives richer.)

*They are pretty great opinions, though.

We’re drawn to blogs…

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It’s That Time Again

New Year’s Resolutions

They come from a good place. They arise from our desire to make our lives something more, to grow as people, to do more for the world, for ourselves, for others. But they almost immediately become a trap. They chain us to something that may not remain relevant to us for an entire year. We look back on them and get angry with ourselves for not staying true to them, for not fulfilling our promise. It’s not healthy. We create a cage and then punish ourselves for not wanting to be in it.

This year, I have been working hard to cut away ties from the past. I’ve thrown out old ideas for blog posts I’ve collected. I’ve trashed notes one creative projects. I’ve cleared out old emails, old documents, old photos that I was holding onto only because they were attached to some future plan.

It’s not been easy for me. I tend to hold onto ideas (and to physical items) that link me with feelings I had about how my future would be. In other words, my present is holding onto past ideas of my future.

The problem with that is that it makes my present about everything but the present. When I am not sure what I want to work on, I go to those lists for “inspiration”. But those ideas came from a place I am no longer in, so they are not relevant to my current situation. I’ve written about this before, when I first started this process: outdated ideas are the opposite of insightful.

Still, getting rid of past ideas has been a really hard thing. I have seriously struggled to do it. I’ve worked on it all year and still have things I hold on to “just in case.” When it comes down to it though, I’m using those ideas to hold myself back.  Having those lists is the best distraction in the world because it allows me to look for ideas there instead of digging into myself and acknowledging what I really need to be working on now, in this moment.

I am working hard to really look at the moment I am in, what I am interested in now, what makes me curious now, what makes me excited now and do that thing. New Year’s resolutions don’t fit the mold for that. They are the cart before the horse. On December 31st, we decide all the things we need to do for the next year, despite the fact that we have no idea what will come into our lives, what will inspire us, what will move us, what will light us up with creative energy. They tell us what we have to do without allowing room for change, for growth, for diversion.

This year, instead of making a list of creative projects (and this is seriously the hardest thing for me!), I am going to create a space where I document the things I end up doing over the course of the year.

I like this approach for two reasons.

It feels so open and full of potential! The future is suddenly allowed to become whatever it wants to. My creative energy isn’t forced into something I may not be interested in after a few weeks.

It also means that at the end of the year I will have a list of things I did that I never planned to do – things that I accomplished purely because I found them interesting, because they sparked my curiosity, because they were exactly what I needed at that moment.

I love the surprise that brings. Instead of knowing what I will be doing (or not doing and feeling guilty about), I will watch a list of things grow over the year and be able to look back on these things that made me happy, made me excited, made my life sparkle just a little bit more.

I have no idea what I will get up to over the next year in my creative life, but I know I am looking forward to seeing that list at the end of the year and smiling at how life takes us to unexpected places when we let it.

See you next time,

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Our Big Dream

There’s something I’ve wanted to share with you for a long time, a story I want you to be a part of,  involved in, helping to direct. But I’ve been really freaked out that it is not that interesting for you, that it is me just talking about my life and that’s not a very exciting or meaningful thing when you’ve got all kinds of other things going on in yours.

I don’t know why I’ve cared so much, but I have.

Maybe it’s because I really want to include you in the story, make you a part of it, get your ideas and your insights, learn from you, share with you and interact with you along the way. The idea that you might not find it remotely interesting, that you will be bored to tears by it is just too much for me to handle.

I’ve finally decided to tell you anyway.

What I want to share with you is our dream. Chris and I have a dream that we have talked about for years. It’s something that lights us both up in a way that nothing else ever has. When we start talking about it, the vision is so clear, the purpose of it so strong that it feels like it is anchored in my chemical makeup. It feels like the thing I am meant to do with my life. It feels like what I was put here for. But, it is not going to be easy. It’s going to take some time. It’s going to take some dedication, and it’s going to take a lot of pushing when we might feel like we’re out of gas.

What we want is to create a place that makes a positive difference to a community (two communities, actually) and the surrounding environment. We want to create a home away from home for travellers – a place where they can feel completely at ease and where they can reconnect with nature. We also want to create a place that adds value to the surrounding area –  a place that builds up the people who are associated with it and puts that value back into the community and environment.

Our dream is to open a small guest house (maybe 10 rooms or so) and accompanying dive centre somewhere in east Asia (probably). We don’t know where yet, that will depend on timing and funds. We don’t know how yet – we are both totally freaked out but crazy excited at the same time to see how it unfolds.

We do know a few things though. We know we want it to embody some fundamental concepts:

  • It will support the local economy. We will hire locals and use local vendors. We will decorate with local artists. We will support local businesses by teaming up with them. We will tap into the knowledge of the people who have been there forever and give them fair compensation for their time and effort.
  • It will be as eco-friendly, sustainable, etc as possible. We have a lot of ideas about this and we have a lot to learn to make them happen, but we want to eliminate plastic at our hotel, organise clean up dives for the reefs,  and educate locals and visitors alike in the value of respecting nature.
  • We want it to be about people. We will create a welcoming environment that helps people unwind and relax but also helps them meet new people, learn about new places and cultures, and feel at home no matter how far they have come to get there. We will treat our staff well, pay them fairly, give them holidays and sick leave, ask only for reasonable working hours and give them an education that they can build on in the future.

That’s it. That’s our dream. That’s where we’re headed and where we hope to end up. We mostly don’t know what we’re doing, but we know we want to do this. We also know that we’ll need a lot of ideas and support from other people to make it happen.

My big dream in sharing this with you is that you will journey along with us and help us make it the place we envision – help us choose our location, cast your votes for the hotel design, share your ideas for eco-friendly systems we can use to make it even more green, maybe even come and visit us when it’s all said and done.

Who knows. Maybe it’s possible to do it without you, but it would be a whole lot more fun to have you along for the ride.

See you next week,

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