Set the World Ablaze

“If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze.”
-St. Catherine of Sienna

Reading through another blog post about how to emulate somebody else’s routine, in hopes it will pass along to you, destroys your own offering.

Taking advice on how to imitate others is nothing more than a denial of yourself. It strips you of any dignity and sequesters you to a lifetime of resentment. You will never be that person.

The life of another, while appealing from basic appearances, doesn’t convey the millions of nuances that has shaped it. Nor are you completely aware of the deep seated consciousness that reveals the secrets of their soul. This in itself may be enough to haunt you.

However, the news for us has always been extraordinary. We have been called to be something more and when we accept this invitation, life becomes challenging.

The world does not want you seeking something greater. It wants you to resolve yourself to a life of mediocrity and conformity. You can be good… but you can’t be great.

Taking even the smallest step towards a greater awareness of yourself, and what you should be, will result in stifling attacks. While these will be coming from well-meaning people, they do not understand the joy found within the depths of this path.

When we defend ourselves accordingly, continue moving towards what we should be and avoid the traps that give us doubt, you become invincible in your resolve.

Then you build a following.

Then the world changes.

Waiting for a Solution

How often do we passively wait for an all-encompassing solution to fall on our laps?

If we’re honest, we do this quite often. Think about how hard we research a product before making a decision on whether we buy it. We start by filtering out the low-end products that break easily or were met with overwhelming dissatisfaction.

Then we narrow down our choices to a top chosen field… and nitpick. Any of the choices would be more than acceptable, especially if we didn’t know what we were looking for to begin with, but we can’t stop there.

Each minor imperfection is counted against the one minuscule difference it has over another product. It gets to the point where we don’t make a decision, or make one and then are immediately dissatisfied.

We do the same thing in life.

We try to make the best decisions, but are stifled at the thought of making the wrong one. It’s a giant pro/con list we run in our heads (or on paper for those who take it to that end) with no clear victor.

A mindset shift is needed.

There is no all-encompassing solution to meeting our needs. Instead, we must take what is available and use it to the best of our ability while adjusting, modifying and adapting as we go.

When we work in that vein, we create a solution for ourselves.

How to Read 100 Books a Year

I saw a question on Quora recently where somebody asked what it takes to read a hundred books a year.

Reading a hundred books a year is at a level reserved for those who consider reading an essential part of their life. My wife often accuses me of being a “book with legs,” to which I happily accept as a compliment, so I’ll tip my hat into answering this one as 100+ books a year was my norm up until recently (children have that effect of wanting you to pay attention to them).

Looking at that number doesn’t faze me because it equates to roughly two books a week (with some weeks off). However, and here’s the key, I don’t build my reading life around the number of books I read in a year. It just happens.

While I do set challenges on Goodreads and track the books I’m reading, while leaving reviews, I purposefully set that number low because I read for enjoyment.

My students read because my passion for reading bleeds out to them. They (somewhat) trust my suggestions because of how wide and deep I’ve read in many genres. My goal for them, however, is to not hook them on a particular number. It’s simply to get them to read for the love of reading.

I do also include challenges for them along the way (read a book published the year you were born, read a book with a number in the title, read a book of poetry, etc.) to push them beyond their boundaries.

Inevitably, they will slowly discover the number of books they did read surpassed their own expectations.

If you are adamant to meet the challenge of a hundred… or any number of books… here’s some of my own tips:

1. Only read books that will be of interest to you.
Be incredibly discerning and if there’s nothing in the book to hook you (I give books a fifty page audition before I give up on it), try another one. You won’t finish the book unless you actually like it.

2. Ignore What Others Think
Just because somebody (or some list, or review) tells you it’s a “must-read,” that’s still a purely subjective opinion. On the same token, reviews and suggestions to avoid certain books are also subjective. It’s not beneath some people to purposefully leave bad reviews on books just to debase the author for personal reasons.
This is really an extension of tip number one.

3. Don’t find time to read – make it.
I read over my breakfast, lunch, bursts of time throughout my day (five minute increments usually) and before bed. If I’m up early enough, I’ll read in the morning as well. Reading is what I do instead of looking at my phone, watching T.V. shows and getting sucked into the black-hole of the Internet.

4. Don’t speed read.
It doesn’t work as well as you think and the value of reading many books goes out the window when you do it. Being a fast reader is simply a matter of following tip number three.

5. Try Audiobooks
I listen to these on my commute and once you train your brain to focus (avid podcast listeners won’t have an issue here), they become a joy.

6. Challenge Yourself
Try reading a book this year just outside your comfort zone or one that will challenge you a bit more than what you normally read. If the book makes your brain hurt, consider it a growing experience.

7. Don’t Get Hung Up on a Number
If you manage to read twenty books this year and you normally read two… that’s a huge accomplishment. If you fall just short of your goal and are feeling defeated, do the following:

Get the number of books you did read and make a giant stack out of them.
Take a picture.
Post it somewhere to show the world how much you’ve read.
Be proud.

Now go pick up a book, or an e-reader, open to the first page and enjoy.

No Need to Crawl Into a Hole

“This world is going to hell and we’re all screwed.”
“I’m never having kids. This world is beyond repair.”
“I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.”

I’m sure if you were to drop those quotes into any era in human history, many people would be in agreement with you.

“No, no. This time it’s the real deal,” someone might argue.

The world has changed… drastically… that much we can agree upon. The data states it’s been for the better. The subjective experience of some say it’s been for the worse.

I think we live in the most exciting time in human history and look forward to seeing what the next fifty years brings. If I were to guess…

Some things we thought were good turned out to be horrible.
Some things we thought were going to cause the downfall of society, didn’t.
Literacy rates worldwide will go up.
Crime will go down.
And somebody will still boldly proclaim this world is going to hell and we’re all screwed.

A Thousand Ripples

“Hey, you know how you always said anytime? That time is now.”

I remember getting the call from a friend to head to his place immediately. It was the call where you know everything had just gone wrong in his life and he’s cashing in your promise to always be there.

The news wasn’t good and we spent a long time hashing it out. Since that night, we’ve only spoken once. I’ve known him for enough years to anticipate we’ll be in contact again at some point whether the news is good or bad.

What hits me hard about that situation (aside from the fallout) was his desire to call me. He’s been friends with many other people for much longer.

I attribute it to the amount of time we made contact with each other through visiting, watching sports games together or enjoying a beverage somewhere. There were a thousand points of contact (what I’m calling ripples) from day one.

“I’ve never seen a student body attach themselves to someone so fast.”

I was taking over as chaplain of a high school. The role demands many things from you and different areas, however, I chose just one: build rapport with students.

This was done by stepping out of my office and making contact with students in the halls. I didn’t stop moving and didn’t stop conversing. In that month, I must’ve hit the thousand ripple mark because students began flooding my office to hang out.

The next year I was dropped into another school with the warning, “it’ll take a while before students open up to you. They have great barriers in front of them.”

Two months later, I heard the comment again:

“I’ve never seen these students warm up to someone so fast.”

Another thousand ripples.

Strong relationships are built on constant, authentic contact. You can’t make a ripple in the water by looking at it and talking about it. You have to be willing to reach out and disturb the surface.

It might backfire.

A thousand touches later, however, you’ll find a rhythm.

Then you will have made an impact.

The Gazebo in the Backyard

The first time I saw Neil Gaiman’s writing space, I wanted it.

Prior to this moment, I languished in the thought of having a traditional study, built on the handiwork of master woodworkers and modeled after the academics of the 1920s. Considering the style of house needed for that study to even exist, and the severe unlikelihood of ever owning such house, the gazebo became the new desire.

However, given my current arrangement of living in suburbia with a postage stamp backyard… half of which is taken up by a stamped concrete patio… this desire is not coming into fruition anytime soon. Also meld this with young children, one salary and the fact my skills at anything handy are on par with my two year old (although I think he’s probably better).

As a long term goal, it’s in the realm of possibility. For right now, some creative thinking must come into play. So what can be done?

First is to look at what the gazebo represents.

For me, it’s a place of solitude where I can allow my thoughts to simmer. It’s a place of freedom from interruption where some serious writing can be done.

Given those two points, it’s time to look at the second step:

Is there some way to replicate those representations without the physical space?

The answer is yes.

Getting up an hour before the rest of the household allows time for me to enjoy a cup of coffee while my thoughts go to play. Staying up an hour later gives the freedom from interruption to get some serious writing done after those thoughts from the morning have spent the day working through my subconscious.

The physical space may be the counter-top in my kitchen, but mentally I’ve created the gazebo. When it comes time to building the physical space, I’ll be prepared to use it for its purpose.

If you’re looking to create a gazebo in your backyard (metaphorically speaking here), you must mentally prepare the space first.

Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than a novelty that never gets used.

That’s Not How You Use It

Dungeons & Dragons is a peculiar game.

It involves a story teller guiding players along on an adventure, placing roadblocks along the way to heighten the excitement. It’s a give and take relationship where the players and story teller are always reacting to each other.

That’s not the peculiar part.

The storyteller is in charge of creating the world and the adventure. They do their best to account for the multiple branches the players could venture towards in the game. However, the story teller is always stifled by one rule:

If you’ve thought of twenty solutions to a problem, the players will think of twenty one.

Items or situations they never even conceived at the time are suddenly thrust into the game and a decision must be forced out of the story teller. They must answer the fundamental question the players are asking:

Are you going to let this happen?

To which the storyteller will respond, “That’s not what it was meant for.”

However, they must be flexible in their thinking to allow such seemingly random procedures to be given a fair opportunity. It might even lead the players and story teller towards a path even more exciting than was once conceived.

Or it could end in disaster.

It has to be permitted before the reveal can occur.

How often are we told that a certain tool must be used a specific way?

While there are safety measures to some tools (i.e. keep me away from all power tools unless you want to be driving my clumsy self to the hospital), that is different than how they are used.

Divergent thinking is the reason “the new norm” occurs. Consider IKEA hacks, Instagram poetry, craft beers, spreadsheets activities and molecular gastronomy.

All those were a result of finding new ways to use the same tools as others, without anybody getting in the way.

To me, it’s going back to that Dungeons & Dragons game. Some of those attempts may have ended up in disaster (as I’m sure happens often), but different avenues have opened up thanks to the willingness of the storyteller.

We are the enablers of creative ways of thinking.

“That’s not how you use it,” is one way to stop it from happening.

Creating the Environment

**NOTE – parts of my post yesterday deleted itself after hitting the publish button. It’s been fixed now if you want to go back.**

My first run at teaching came in high school when I signed up for a course that made you a teaching assistant in a classroom. Depending on the teacher you were paired up with, the responsibilities and lessons they provided you with changed.

The first attempt I made at a lesson, I had this great idea to do a game show and the contestants would be chosen by students throwing a paper ball to a target. Closest one to the target got to go first.

The lesson was hectic and didn’t go as well as I planned. In debriefing with the teacher afterward, he had this to say:

“Your lesson was chaotic because you created that environment at the beginning.”

It’s a lesson I’ve been able to apply in many facets of life.

If you want the environment to be a certain way, including the way people treat you socially, you need to create it at the beginning. If I want people to treat me in a more casual manner, I will be more relaxed and joking with people right away.

If I’m looking for more professional attitude, the language and posture I use will change accordingly.

If I want my students to feel focused, the classroom will be setup in a way that eliminates distractions (I often get accused of having a “minimalist” room for this reason). If I want them to feel welcome, it’ll look, sound and feel more like a coffee shop than a school room.

The environment you bring people into will always determine how they will treat it. It’s up to you to create it accordingly.

Lessons from a Month of Digital Minimalism

The month long digital minimalism (or declutter) challenge from Cal Newport is now over.

While I wrote about my thoughts about it a week in, it’s taken me about a week to process what I’m walking away with at the end.

First, I must acknowledge that I am part of a generation that straddles the divide between pre-Internet and full access, all the time, no matter where you are in the world. At the end of high school, we were just beginning to talk about the future where even your refrigerator would have an IP address and be connected online. One of my friends even made a video (1999) for a project about how your PDA (remember those?) would cover every need in your daily life.

In the video, he showed an imagining of what it would be like to turn off the lights in his house, hook up your device to your car and play music through it and pay for purchases. I might put the video up one day just for laughs, but I called him a few years ago to make some predictions about the future again just so I can invest appropriately.

Our teachers talked to us about the potential for paperless environments and being able to login from home to attend class. We still had computer labs and the expectation for assignment submissions had changed to double spaced essays with Times New Roman font (size 12).

Chat programs were all done through desktop computers and high-speed Internet had only just rolled out (my hometown was the testing ground).

Computers were functional devices and being online was a novelty understood by the most hardcore of nerds or teenagers looking for a different avenue to communicate without their parents listening in to their conversations.

All this to say, for me, this challenge was an opportunity to return to the spirit of that era – using devices for functional purposes and ridding yourself of the novelty.

Now it’s time to re-introduce some of that clutter in a purposeful way. Here’s where I stand with each one:

Social Media

Not logging into social media was perhaps the easiest part. Since I was already deleting most of my accounts anyway, this was a way to give myself permission to stay away completely.

The only thing I missed were the Facebook updates from family and friends, but logging back in again after a month and seeing the same deluge of viral videos and clickbait articles made me realize that a weekly (or bi-weekly) check-in was all I needed.

Oddly enough, through heavy coercion, the staff at my school convinced me to rejoin Twitter for professional purposes. Twitter had been a big addiction mainly as a result of always trying to think of the next great tweet and the potential for more followers. Now that I don’t care for metrics on that channel, I have a better grasp of how to use it appropriately for my needs.

No social media icons sit on my phone.

Cell Phone

I still kept up with group chats with my family and used the phone for… well… mainly just a phone. It has such a grip that it took close to two weeks before I stopped picking it up to check on it.

There were no notifications and no apps with updates, so there was literally nothing to check, but I kept feeling compelled to do so.

My cell phone now sits in a desk drawer for most of the day without me even thinking about it.

Email

I went from checking ten times a day to twice without a feeling of missing out.

Blogs

My Feedly reader (RSS reader) was, what I considered, a carefully curated selection of blogs I looked forward to seeing daily. However, after the month, I realized there were only two sites I wanted to read updates on.

A once a week check on both their websites easily replaces checking in with the feed reader on a daily basis.

News

With a digital subscription to the New York Times, giving up the daily news updates was a matter of unsubscribing to the email blasts. Instead, every weekend I would pick up a physical copy of The Globe and Mail (dare I say the NYT equivalent in Canada) and it would provide all the updates I needed about the world. This was a change I enjoyed and will keep doing.

I still have the digital subscription, but only because I haven’t made the effort to cancel it. That’ll be my next step.

Podcasts

No app on my phone = no reason to listen to them.

I did miss them on my morning commute to work, but I still haven’t downloaded the app or checked to see what updates I’ve missed. Still sitting on this one on how I’m going to re-integrate it purposefully in my life, if at all.

Random Web Surfing

I admit this is where I get caught easily. All it takes is one search:

“Battery life of Chromebook vs. Macbook Air” (my work issued laptop broke) and two hours later, I’m reading forums about editing shark week videos.

The month away forced me to only use the Internet for very specific purposes and while I’d like to say I broke the habit, I’m not there yet. If there’s one major reflection over my biggest weakness, it’s being able to extract what I need from this wonderful source and let the rest be.

I’m glad I forced myself to take part in this challenge. While Newport told us to avoid bleeding this experiment into your work life (and that would be difficult for me considering all correspondence with my school board and documentation is done online through Google Suite), it still did and in a good way.

I’m able to differentiate between what is essential and what can be promptly ignored.

It feels like I’ve gone back in time… except slightly wiser… and with less hair.

Avenues at the End of the Day

The crazy thing about life is every day delivers something radically different.

While the routines and structure may be the same (for years in some cases), the nuances of everything that happens changes. Your morning coffee spills over the floor, the person you normally get along with is giving you the cold shoulder, you’ve been frustrated at a problem and can’t figure it out… or any other number of items.

One avenue of debriefing from the day is to gather with others and dwell on it. Go over every single detail and admonish how the world is a stupid place with no hope for survival. Such cynicism will continue to invite more of it and the feeling becomes an endless feedback loop.

You take that debrief home with you and it’s still festering in your mind, unable to let go. Waking up the next morning, your mind is full of dread at the thought of another day.

Another avenue is to shift mindset completely, just as a person who needs to be somewhere (i.e. the airport) right at the end of their workday. Thoughts of what happened are quickly filtered as the next task comes into view and occupies your worldspace.

There is no time to dwell or reflect upon arriving at home, but anxiety strikes the next morning whereupon you wonder if there was anything you needed to complete or think about the previous night.

The avenue just beside this one asks that you reflect on your day, understanding it cannot be taken back, decide to start fresh tomorrow and be done with it.

Provided there wasn’t copious amounts of caffeine or activity to keep you up all night, your mind will settle into a restful slumber. The next morning will be looked upon as an opportunity.

Your mindset for the day actually starts at the end of the previous day.

Decide what avenue to go down on the way there.