The Slow Realization of Who We Are | #129

🚶‍♂️ Reflections on walking around Taiwan & re-learning the lessons of life

February 20th, 2021: Greetings from Taichung! I wandered around quite a bit this week and wrote about it below. Here is a packed food market from this week. It felt good to be around so many people again.

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#1 Daring To Ask The Questions

At 27 I realized that the path I was on was a trap. It took me another five years to know what to do with that realization.

David Foster Wallace would call me lucky: “the ultimate way you and I get lucky is if you have some success early in life, you get to find out early it doesn’t mean anything.”

At 27 years old I was graduating from MIT with an MBA and a MS in Systems Engineering and I had a job paying me $125,000 a year. I had graduated with honors from undergrad and worked for two of the companies that people said produced the most CEOs, McKinsey and GE.

I was lucky because I knew it didn’t mean anything.

How did I find this out?

First it was losing my grandfather at 25. A traumatic event shared with all my family members. We were all together to see him pass. That was a moment that meant something.

Second was losing my health. Two weeks after starting that job that paid me almost $500 a day, I started feeling sick. It would take me a couple years to recover.

That recovery was painful and it was enlightening. Sitting in bed for hundreds of hours wondering if I would ever feel normal again. I was confronted with the deepest questions about life and chose to grapple with them.

What matters? Who am I? How should I live my life?

I was embarrassed by much of my attention, energy and who I had become had been centered around being a successful student and then a successful worker. Over time it had narrowed my imagination for life.

I zeroed in on as work the prime aim of life in college when I found out about the elite world of prestigious institutions - the kind of places that make adults pay attention. I reverse engineered the kind of person I had to be and then set out to become that person.

On that path I lost parts of who I was. Or rather, I never tried to figure out who I was in the first place.

I hid behind the identity of a successful worker which is to say I was no one at all. The day to day reality of this path is always focused on the future and always caught up in modes of abstraction. The combination of busyness and jockeying for the next steps is the greatest script in the world to appear to be living fully while ignoring the questions that really matter.

It seems most of life is a continuous journey of trying to find out who we are and then remembering what we learn. Live long enough on this planet and loss, heartbreak, pain, and sometimes if you are lucky, wonder, will knock your off your feet and force you to go deeper. We can sometimes ignore these invitations and stand right up and pretend nothing happened but the next time you just get knocked down twice as hard.

At 27 I was dealt the double whammy of heartbreak and then a two year-long battle for my health. Without active career planning to distract me I was forced inward. After a few months of wallowing in pity I realized that my only choices were to drift deeper into depression or try to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be.

Sitting alone in that cramped Boston apartment at 27 years old I was broken open.

Over several months it seems as if I understood many things about the way my life was headed. Yet the reality is that it is never that easy. It’s taken me almost ten years to take action and articulate what was cracked open in those months.

It took five years of experimenting and playing with the edges of my reality to realize that there were no edges and only a mental prison of my imagination.

This essay took me 45 minutes to write but also eight years.

I sat down to write this essay on Thursday after wandering around the city of Taichung, the hometown of my wife who I happened to meet after I had burned down that mental prison and started from scratch.

That was the third day in a row of taking a long walk in the middle of the day. When I first moved to Taiwan I had no work, no income and no goals. It was in these moments that I walked. I walked from one end of Taipei to another and then got on a bike and rode to another part of the city, only to walk some more. In was in these months that the idea of a “pathless path” started to mean something in my bones.

Walking seems to remind me who I am and remind me of the simple joy of being alive. It’s also a reminder of how confusing life is. For most of my life I thought that the aim of life was fun and by that I mean entertainment. To go to events, to go party and get drunk with friends, have plans every weeks, and always be eating good food. Yet when I think back to all these experiences not many of them stand out. Instead I remember the times I cried, the times of shared joy, the deep conversations, and the moments of solitude.

So this week I remembered to walk. We can get so busy in our life with activity that we forget that most things we aim towards won’t be the things we look back on so it might be worth pausing to look around. To see who we are with, what we see and where we might be headed.

Here is where people typically offer a quote about walking from someone like Nietzsche but when I went to goodreads this quote from Ellen seemed a bit better:

“My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She's ninety-seven now, and we don't know where the heck she is.”

I hope I’m still walking at ninety-seven. That sounds lovely.

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Book Update: As I’ve gone deeper into the book writing process I’ve realized that I was a bit naive that writing a book would be similar to writing a long blog post. Although it seems obvious now, trying to fit together 50 different threads is a level of complexity beyond my current capabilities and thus its going to take a bit longer than 8 weeks to write and launch a book.

Book Pre-Sale: $9.99

Note: All newsletter paid subscribers will be getting free copies at launch.


#2 A Photo From Mars

How cool is this? From the Mars rover this week:


#3 The Cost Of Stepping Out

I stumbled upon Salman Ansari’s post on the costs of not having a narrowly defined interest with your life or work:

Society wants you to stay in your lane.

When we’re unsure if we’re ‘allowed’ to do something, we seek permission from others before we even try. We wait for the world to tell us it’s okay. I can tell you from experience that you’ll probably never get that permission.

In order to defy the social norms and unspoken rules, you’ll need to dig deep within yourself. As Emerson teaches, you’ll need to build self reliance, and give yourself permission.

The best place to start?

That thing you secretly want to do.


#4 Good News / Reader Corner

📩 I am a sucker for reflective newsletters and I enjoy reading Jen Vermet’s. She writes about a range of topics but you might enjoy this issue on a weekend where she disconnected from technology

🐤 Deepu Asok wrote a guide to getting started on Twitter that he’s offering for free

🎨 Luke Butler is writing 30 mini essays on the battle for the soul of the creator economy. Watching with interest!

📹 Sanjeev made this video about product meeting that made me laugh. Kudos to him for sharing despite being scared!

👶 Mike Tannenbaum had a damn good day and it involved hanging out with his daughter. Can’t beat that.

👨‍🌾 Max Joles worked a trade of digital skills to farming know-how in Main with the Maine Farmland Trust.

📚 Ben Parry just got 20 subscribers on his newsletter where he does short and long-form book reviews. He also made his first money online. Nice. Maybe we can get him to 40?

🚶‍♂️ Richard Hugessen quit his job this week and is designing a personal 6-month “grad school” for himself and immersing himself in writing and reading.

Fabijan tested negative for Covid this week after a scare and also started working with a great new client (I think the client it me 😂). He does awesome digital marketing work with his partner in Croatia.

💉 Rory’s parents got vaccine appointments and he shared it was a huge sigh of relief for him. I hope they all go dancing next month.

🏫 Christian Lemp, studying a PhD in complexity science, just started “collective dynamics of complex systems” taught by Hiroki Sayama and is really enjoying it while being surrounded by snow in Santa Fe

📩 I received an e-mail this past week from a young person I’ve been exchanging e-mails with in Bangladesh. He writes:

“I really appreciate your honesty and effort in reaching out to me. The world needs more people like you. A lot of people do say things about helping each other out and showing empathy but few actually follow through with it.“

Damn. I really like this life. Let’s keep it going. See you next week.

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