Thoughts & Observations

A Year of No Expectations

A year ago today, I had this ticket in my hand as I boarded the plane:

One-way from LA to New York.

I could say that I arrived in the city with a couple of suitcases and a dream, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate.

It was more like five suitcases (plus carry-ons) and not much of a dream at all.

I didn’t arrive with a dream of changing the world. I didn’t arrive with a dream of building a business that would take off. I knew I wanted to live in New York, and that was about it.

It seems a little bit strange in way, when I look back over my year, and realize that I didn’t plan any of it. I didn’t set any goals or benchmarks. I didn’t write down what I wanted to achieve and then work methodically towards accomplishing it.

That may seem counter to the standard advice for getting things done, that writing things down and mapping out a plan creates better results then flying by the seat of your pants. And while I believe that to do lists and work plans may be great for project management and to add shape to goals once you decide that you want to do something, if you apply them to life in general, it often backfires. Those lists can create artificial fences and be so limiting that you miss all of the good stuff because you’re concentrating too hard on item number three on your life to do list.

Living with no goals or expectations over the past year has led to an embarrassment of riches: a man that I love, a circle of friends and a community that inspires me, a job that I adore, a place to live that makes me happy every time I walk through the front door.

And yet I’ve come across people who find it hard to believe that I’m not harboring a secret desire to do something huge, to launch a startup or build schools in Africa or have a high-level position at a famous company. It’s like there’s this expectation that most people are just biding their time doing something for now until they can finally do what they have always wanted to do.

But that’s not me.

It’s also not that because I have no expectations, or that I’m living a life without vision. I have a vision for what the organization I lead can become over the next year – but it’s visceral first and to-do listy second. And I have a vision for what I think the most essential components of my life are: my relationships, work that is challenging and peaks my curiosity, and exploring things that make me feel alive (like cooking or bringing interesting groups of people together). That vision helps me be incredibly open and intuitively make choices without putting up unnecessary barriers.

Living this year of no expectations has left me with a tremendous sense of gratitude. For the things that have happened. For how much I have learned. And for the amazing group of people who proved my point about having no expectations because any bar I could have set for them would have been a bar set too low.

Thoughts & Observations

A Framework for Choosing

One thing New York is not short on is choices.

Having a plethora of choices is one of the main reasons why I wanted to move here: an abundance of choices means an abundance of possibilities.

But the main problem with having so many choices is that you eventually have to pick something. I could walk out of my apartment and eat breakfast at any one of dozen places within a couple of blocks, but I can’t eat breakfast at every place at once. There are three events I want to attend tomorrow night, all happening at the same time, but the laws of physics (and public transportation in New York) prevent me from being able to get to all three in one night.

The science of how we decide tells us that the more choices we are presented, the more stressed out we get, and I will admit that one of the only things that has been stressing me out just a little bit over the past two weeks is trying to decide what to do with my time.

I was thinking yesterday about a very successful friend who has his life goals clearly outlined from where he wants to be at the end of this year to where he wants to be five years from now. He was pushing me the last time we met up to make much faster choices about what I was going to be working on over the next few months and he wanted an answer on the spot, but I found coming back to him with anything concrete incredibly difficult.

There are lots of reasons for my hesitation: I just had the disruptive experiences of stepping away from a long-term job, long-term relationship, and long-term home almost concurrently. I had also been totally caught up in the insulated world of Girl Scouts and now feel like I’m a little kid, discovering the world for the first time.

But this morning I had a big realization: it is very easy for my friend to make fast choices because he already knows with extreme clarity what his goals are. When faced with the choice between meeting with one person or another, or spending time blogging or building a network on Twitter, he can make a decision in a split second because every day he is in the habit of testing his choices against how they align with his goals.

When you don’t have clarity around where you see yourself or what you want for your life in the future, it becomes infinitely more difficult to make choices.


Thoughts & Observations

The Validation Trap

This morning, I sat looking out the window watching the snow come down. My heart felt happy and there was something that just felt right about being exactly where I was.

There is something to be said for listening to what your body and your heart tell you. Whether a place is right. Whether what you are doing is right. Whether who you are being is right.

And not right for other people. Right for you.

There is so much noise around us all the time, pointing us in one direction or another, that our own internal voice gets drowned out. We are almost always judging ourselves by what the rest of the world tells us is right for us. Yes, climb up that corporate ladder. Yes, take that job because it pays more even if it means you never see your kids. Yes, work 80 hours a week because someone in the company will recognize your work…eventually. Yes, be miserable for forty years because then you can eventually retire and sip tropical drinks under a giant umbrella.

But we don’t stop very often to ask ourselves if those are things we actually want, if they are things that make us happy or give our lives meaning. Instead, we blindly follow this unwritten guidebook to life that has become part of our collective subconscious. Why? Because by following it we feel at least partially validated.

But our constant search for validation is a trap. The outside world can never make us feel completely, totally validated. Not everyone is going to be your fan. Not everyone is going to think you are doing the right things all the time. You won’t get a five-star “you’re totally valid” rating from everyone you meet.

That’s why there’s something very special that happens when you stop looking at the rest of the world for validation and you think with clarity about who you are and what gives your life meaning.

Understanding yourself in that way isn’t a selfish pursuit. If you think about it, if one of our key interests in life is contributing something of value to the world, we have the highest likelihood of successfully doing that if we contribute whatever comes from our authentic selves. If we contribute by just following whatever path society has dictated for us, we are not as likely to contribute with our highest levels of energy, insight, and creativity.

The more we seek validation, the farther we get from actually finding it. We are looking everywhere for it, except the one place that matters.

To thine own self be true. -William Shakespeare