My favorite place to write is on a plane. Not necessarily because it's where I feel most inspired, but because it’s one of the few places where I can count my distractions on one hand. No Wi-Fi, no cell service, nobody I know or need to try to impress. It’s here my thoughts run wild. Here I am, on a plane again, my head spinning with thoughts to share.
A few years back, I was introduced to a nonprofit called The Giving Keys. This organization exists chiefly to serve those affected by homelessness. By recycling keys and turning them into jewelry, The Giving Keys creates jobs for individuals in Los Angeles who are transitioning out of homelessness. Every key is engraved with a word. If you’re purchasing jewelry from The Giving Keys, you select a word to engrave on your key, and from there, the goal is to live out that word. When you feel you’ve accomplished this, you are to give your key to someone who needs it more than you do. For years, I wore the word “Listen” around my neck. The goal was to learn to better listen to my body, and to the people and the world around me. Every once in a while, I’d ask myself whether I felt it was time to pay my necklace forward, but I never felt ready. I still had listening to do. A few weeks ago, I lost my necklace. After years of listening and learning, I guess I was finally ready.
If you follow my writing, you may have picked up on the recurring theme of vulnerability in my posts. I am absolutely fascinated by the way vulnerability shapes our inner and outer worlds. Being honest with ourselves and others, admitting our shortcomings and fears, opening up…I believe these are major contributors in creating a meaningful life. If you’re someone close to me, you may also know that I’m not an oozing emotional wreck. I’m actually pretty out of touch with my own emotions, and am not someone who enjoys sitting down and discussing my feelings. Rather, I love talking about ideas and getting shit done. For me, being vulnerable is less about being emotional, and more about risk-taking. While Listening, I learned a lot about my most deeply rooted fears—most of which, I realized, are actually pretty universal fears: Fear of rejection, fear of being misunderstood, fear of never living the life I imagine for myself.
By nature, I question everything. I started to ask myself: Why are these things we’re constantly afraid of? Why do we let fear rule our lives? Are there any advantages to hanging onto these fears?
Evolutionarily, we carry these intrinsic fears as a means of survival—we have to protect ourselves to be successful, which in evolutionary terms, would be defined as staying alive and reproducing. There is safety in numbers, so we try to fit the mold. That said, we’ve come a long way since we were cave-dwellers living in small tribes with limited access to the resources we rely on to stay alive. Today, the potential negative repercussions of risk-taking are far slimmer. Sure, when it comes to taking physical risks (ie. jumping off a cliff), the potential negative outcomes of those risks have not changed much. Our fears serve us there, in talking us out of doing things that could actually be life-threatening, but beyond that, I’ve decided that letting fear steer the ship is pretty useless and boring.
Fear is a part of us. Whether we want to or not, we can feel fear in our bones. Thankfully though, we are not powerless to it. The more you look fear in the eye and leap anyway, the easier it becomes to leap again. Start proving your fears wrong, and they’ll slowly start to unravel. Even taking small risks helps to build resilience.
Losing my Giving Key prompted me to think about what my next word should be. I’ve decided upon “Intention”.
To set an intention, you have to know about what you want—what you want to be a part of your story, and what you won’t put up with. In Listening, I learned that spending time doing things mindlessly does not serve me. If I spend an hour scrolling through social media feeds with no actual purpose for doing so, I feel crappy afterwards. If I spend an hour making small-talk with someone, I walk away feeling like I wasted precious time. If I show up somewhere starving and eat whatever is put in front of me, I leave with a belly ache. The thing is, I do these things a lot. Why? Well, because it’s so much easier to live mindlessly than intentionally. We’re creatures of habit because choices are mentally taxing. It’s a hell of a lot easier to be on auto-pilot than to actively make choices all the time. The problem I see in this is that we do these things over and over until we come to the conclusion that that’s just who we are. We tell ourselves things like, “I have no self-control,” which is a narrative that gives us permission to keep living that way (ie. we can’t help it). What a cop out.
We do so many things on auto-pilot day in and day out, I won’t bother to try listing them. There’s no point in self-sabotaging and regretting the things we don’t do well every day, but there is definitely a point in noticing them as a means to improve. After all, this is the path to making sure we do get to live the life we imagine for ourselves.
Naturally, I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out why we do what we do. Why do I spend hours scrolling on my phone when I know that this is not what I consider time-well-spent for myself? I’ve been devouring podcasts and articles about persuasion and design as related to social media. These outlets are literally designed to suck us in. Designers know the human psyche, and build their apps around these constructs. Think: People crave acceptance and fear rejection. “Likes” are like pulling the lever on a slot machine, opening the floodgates to endorphins, leading us to become more and more reliant upon these means of external gratification. When we get sucked in, they win.
Here lies an opportunity to exercise control over your own story—to choose your agenda over the agendas of money and power-hungry companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google. I invite you to join me in thinking about how you want your social media presence to affect the people you care about. How can you rethink the way you use these outlets so that they’re exclusively adding value to your life and the lives of others? That’s my definition of living intentionally.
Working on restructuring the way I use social media is one small step towards living intentionally. It’s vulnerable and fear-defying because it’s a lot harder than it sounds—we’re legitimately addicted to the reinforcement these apps give us in feeling seen, heard and accepted. This seemingly miniscule paradigm shift has helped empower me in other ways too. It’s helped me realize that I actually already harbor a lot of self-respect. I see and hear and accept myself. I’m not going to be eaten by a bear if I tell you I’m crazy about you or that I want to be your friend. I won’t lose my support system if I post something vulnerable or cry when I’m having a bad day. Challenging myself to provide the love and acceptance I crave has been teaching me to be more straightforward and not give a shit. To love others more whole-heartedly and openly, without the absolute need for reciprocity. If I tell you I’m crazy about you and you don’t reciprocate, I don’t lose anything if I’m operating from this lens, and let me tell you something, it’s working. It’s making every risk less daunting. It’s drawing better people into my life. It's allowing me to form more meaningful relationships. It’s empowering me to live more intentionally on a larger scale.
I’m sure it’ll be years before I’m ready to pay my new word forward, maybe even a lifetime. But I’m okay with that. We’re all a work in progress. I’m lucky to be here and I want to live, pay attention, and contribute while I’m here. I hope you will too.
Interested in learning more about time-well-spent and design ethics? Listen to this mind-blowing Sam Harris podcast episode.