This is part of my recurring series on more philosophy/reflections on life. I’ve included more of my work at the end of this article. If you liked these, definitely check out the others. Until then. Enjoy your read.
So all this COVID-19 stuff kinda came out of nowhere. We went from a busy, bustling world to a sudden halt. Many of us have found ourselves at home, keeping to ourselves, and social distancing to stop the spread of this virus as best as possible. But with all our free time, what can we do that’s beneficial for us?
You’ve probably read fifteen hundred different blog posts, YouTube videos, or Instagram stories calling for you to start building healthy habits: exercising, meditating, juggling, learning to shuffle, etc., etc., ad nauseum.
While those have merit, at this point we’ve all got the message. So, I’d like to offer something sliiiiightly different. Self-reflection is an extremely beneficial practice to partake in, and a common theme amongst many of the great thinkers and leaders in history (Winston Churchill, Anne Frank, and Saul Alinsky to name a few). Yes, you’ve probably heard of the habit of self-reflection before: but I’m willing to bet that there’s a lot of you out there that haven’t participated in any self-reflection exercises. But with your extra free time and likely solitude, you can do some of these exercises! They’re helpful for addressing aspects of your life that often go overlooked, gain clarity on who you are and change you might want to make, and help you define your direction for your future.
PSA: the majority of these I have collected over time from other writers, thought leaders, and public figures. I will reference where I am able to, but I want to make it clear these aren’t mine. I’m sharing them in the hopes that they benefit you as much as they benefited me.
Each of these exercises requires the following:
- Paper, a pen or pencil, and an eraser (just in case)
- Some time by yourself (early mornings or evenings work well)
- Something warm to drink if you’re in colder climates (love you Canada) or cold to drink if you’re in warmer climates (I hate you Canada)
The drink is optional, by the way.
Alright, let’s jump into it.
The Second Self
This exercise is one of the more profound and philosophical of the list, and one I had a lot of enjoyment completing. It’s from the Academy of Ideas YouTube channel, a phenomenal channel that educates the public on the ideas of great thinkers in a way that we can use in our lives.
The premise of this exercise is to gradually, through research and reflection, develop an “ideal character” that you will emulate. By determining how an improved version of yourself would act, think, and be, you can begin the process of developing the needed qualities to become that self.
The important part of this process is determining your own strengths and weaknesses. The second self needs to have a degree of realism, so identifying what you’re good at (EG: an outgoing and friendly personality) and what you’re not good at (EG: setting boundaries, calling out poor behaviour) is the first step to fixing that poor behaviour while avoiding changing any positive behaviour. By writing these out, you can gain a better overall picture of you and what you want to become.
One of the recommendations is to search for figures that inspire you with qualities you’d like to emulate. They can be real or fictional, alive or dead. All that matters is that you have a solid grasp on their identity and what you like about them, and then use them as inspiration for your second self.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of Abed from Community. One of his greatest qualities is his level of self-understanding, to the point where he can comfortably take on new roles and responsibilities because he knows what he’s about. See below:
My interpretation of this scene is that Abed knows who he is at his core and that he is a valuable human being with something to offer: so shaping himself to connect with the group is easy for him, since he knows he won’t lose himself in the process.
As mentioned in this article, I got this exercise from the Academy of Ideas. I’ve linked the video in the title, so make sure you go check them out. I’ve done this exercise twice now (the first time in a different capacity) and I’ve noticed not only an improvement in behaviour (such as taking things less personally and staying calmer in chaos) but greater emotional investment in my day: because when I “turn on” and emulate my second self, I’m way more tuned in.
Writing Out Your Rules for Life
One of the patterns I’ve noticed that has fascinated me is the rise of mission statements for businesses and organizations. Each time I learn about a new business, their mission-visions-values make an appearance fairly quickly (Make-A-Wish, Ideo, and Disney to name a few). Mission statements, or at least a fundamental and communicated understanding of the reason for existing, is at the core of many of business strategy. Many startups and new organizations are prioritizing this as well, and rightfully so: how can you explain yourself to potential customers, or your own staff, if you don’t know what you’re about?
It’s great to see people care about what their company is about. But how come, when I ask them what they’re about, they can’t give a good answer?
It’s easy to define what a business is and isn’t, and what rules they operate by (customer satisfaction, work-life balance, etc., etc.) but it seems that people struggle more with defining what they are and aren’t. What that often leaves people with, is a lack of clarity on what matters to them, on how they’d approach a certain scenario, or what makes them happy. But knowing what we’re about isn’t far off.
We all have a “code” deep within us that makes us who we are. We know it because we know when we commit to it, and even more when we don’t. But we spend little time taking these deep-rooted feelings and pulling them out of the ground to examine them, determine them, and re-plant them (for anyone saying that’s a terrible metaphor and I ruined the roots, deal with it, I suck at plant stuff). We also know what we’d like to be: we see our heroes and inspiring figures take on major challenges, and announce to ourselves how much we want to be like them.
This next exercise seeks to solve that. I learned it from Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle Is The Way, Conspiracy (one of my all-time favourite books), and The Daily Stoic. It’s simple enough: write out things that matter to you, what you believe is right, what you believe is wrong, and what you want to measure yourself by. Take inspiration from great figures, from philosophy, from your mentors and family or friends: doesn’t matter where, just seek what you want to be, and write it down. Distill these values into core principles that you’ll live by.
- Focus on what you can control
- Seize the day
- Remember the passing of time (I use this to remind myself that all things end, so enjoy the moment if it’s good, and endure the pain if it is not.)
- I shall either find a way or make one (I used to stop when I hit an obstacle, now I look for new ways to succeed)
- “Civilize the mind, but make savage the body” a quote of Chinese origin that I’ve used as a guideline to shape my life: I exercise to develop a strong and capable body, and I study/meditate/reflect to develop a calm mind.
In the end, you’ll arrive at a list of rules: a set of commandments, if you’d like to get religious, to live by. Then all you have to do is live by it. Every year or so, revisit them and determine what you want to change, or want to keep. Give it a shot!
The Control Chart
Determining what is and isn’t in your control is a lesson found in many stoic thinkers (Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Dr. Viktor Frankl to name a few). As simple as it is, it’s a lesson we often ignore (I know I have). We get caught up in he-said-she-said, the current state of affairs, or the failure of a project (if only Jennifer did her part of it, we’d be fine!). Yet, we do little to fix the scenarios we find ourselves in, even going so far as to ignore the parts we failed to commit to. By giving up our energy to focus on what is out of our control, we let ourselves be dictated by external events. We lose control over what we could have had because we stop focusing on the few aspects of us we have command over.
This exercise seeks to address that. It’s simple enough. Grab a piece of paper and draw two columns on it: label one “what’s in my control” and label the other — you guessed it — what’s not in my control.
Now, think about different scenarios: your current DIY projects, challenges at work, responsibilities as a parent, etc.
Write down what’s in your power, and what isn’t in your power. Each point you write, examine it with the utmost scrutiny. Over the course of this exercise, you’ll find the column on the left is much shorter than the column on the right.
And that’s the point. By determining the few things we can control, we’re challenged to do those things well. And the rest will fall into place. Or maybe it won’t. That part isn’t up to us.
That’s not to say we should check out when it’s out of our power. The wonderful reality of life is that we’re often responsible for things out of our control (IE someone drops a baby on your doorstep. You have a moral obligation to do something for that baby: take it in, raise it you choose to, or ensure it gets to a hospital or foster home safely. But you can’t just leave it). But, by focusing on what you can do, you’ll find yourself accomplishing more than you would have expected.
I’m sure many of you know about this exercise, or at the very least know the person who popularized it. Tim Ferris is an accomplished writer and thought leader in the realm of skill development, studying and learning from world-class performers on optimal ways of living and doing. Several years ago he spoke at TED about an exercise he does around once a quarter that he calls Fear Setting.
I won’t go into too much detail because this video outlines the exercise in its entirety, and Tim does a much better job of explaining it all than I do. We’re on lockdown, so I know you have the time to watch this.
Start thinking of things you’re afraid to do (travelling, asking someone you’re interested in on a date, applying for new jobs, moving, etc.) and then do this exercise.
In a meta turn of events, doing this exercise is one of the reasons I started blogging. I wanted to share my thoughts and experience for a while but was too afraid to do so. But after doing this exercise, I realized that the positives outweighed the negatives. A year and a half later, here we are.
(Sidenote: the idea of thinking of what can go wrong is the basis of a chapter of Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth, where I was first exposed to this way of thinking. The power of this exercise was much easier to understand because of Hadfield’s book.)
Mapping The Journey (AKA: Next Steps)
We’re all familiar with goal setting. We’ve been beaten over the head at this point with the concept, so I won’t spend much time talking about the merits of goal setting. Instead, what I want to talk a bit more about is the step that comes after goal setting, that I don’t see discussed as much.
It’s easy to dream up what we’d like to accomplish (make a lot of money, buy a tesla, travel the world, run for office, etc.), but the problem lies in stopping there. Without any strategy to accomplish our goals, we’re much less likely to achieve them. With your free time take a look at your goals and map out ways you’ll increase your likelihood of achieving them.
This requires a lens of pragmatism. If you want to make a lot of money, you first have to determine what that’ll be (is it $1,000,000 in the bank or just to have a certain amount in savings so you can live stress-free?). If you want to travel, where do you want to go? Simplify and specify until you have a tangible goal to chip away at.
Next, connect the dots. Figure out different ways you can reach your goal (remembering that life throws you for a loop sometimes, and also that there’s more than one way to climb a mountain), and write it down. Review each step to make sure it’s feasible, and when you have options, save them and work at them bit by bit.
For example: I want to learn how to do handstand walks. I used to be able to do them when I was younger, but I lost the skill over time. I’m a fairly active and fit individual, but my obsession with strength movements slowly took over my overall athletic capabilities. So I want to be able to do something with my body to express my physical capability, and also add an exciting project to my fitness goals.
Now that I have my goal, I can map out ways to progress on it over time:
- Figure out what I can feasibly do at this moment (EG: am I strong enough to hold myself up? Do I have the balance necessary?)
- Get used to being upside down by doing handstand holds against the wall
- Practice once or twice a week with walking handstands in an open area, overcoming the fear of falling
- strengthening my upper body by doing Pike Pushups
- Learn new methods from my Crossfit gym, or coaches such as Carl Paoli
Keep practicing, and if things are progressing, great! If they aren’t, go back to the drawing board and try new methods. This is a simple example, but it shines a light on the process of achieving a goal. I’ll report back when I get a handstand walk.
That’s basically it. Take your list of goals and make them tangible, then map out how you’re going to achieve them. What you need to do, what you can feasibly do, and how you can accomplish them without overloading yourself.
Personal reflection is one of the most important habits you can cultivate in your life. Embracing introspection — sitting down and working through what’s going on in your life — is a process that can have an unexpected impact on yourself and those around you. It can take you out of a negative & unproductive state of mind, it can help you start a business, it can get you to and through public office… Or it can bring you peace of mind in the chaos of modern-day life.
With this pandemic spreading all over the world, we’re all tasked with doing the right thing and staying home when we can (except for our healthcare workers and essential staff on the front lines making sure we’re safe, which I am forever grateful for). Let’s use this extra time productively, by taking time to turn inwards and be with ourselves.
Until next time,
Carpe diem, kids.