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Did 2020 Suck or Are We Looking at it Wrong?
Hello, good people. Welcome to 2021!
Today I’ll look at a common New Year’s mindset that may be setting us up for disappointment. Also, there is a discount code at the end of this email for our 30x30 daily habit program. Now, without further ado, let’s jump in.
ONE ABOUT THE AGES
John Little on the insights born of learning history and the power of parental influence.
“To all those who seek to see their lives in total perspective; who eschew dogma and prejudice and who desire the wisdom to understand and the understanding to forgive.
To my parents, William T. Little and Corinne Little, who instilled in me a love of literature, art, science, and philosophy, thus sowing the seeds of appreciation for the life, work and message of Will Durant.”
Source: The Heroes of History, by Will Durant
***Note: Little wrote this in the dedication at the beginning of The Heroes of History, by Will Durant. He found the manuscript for this book 20 years after Durant’s death in Durant’s granddaughter’s garage.
ONE FROM TODAY
Founder of Headspace, Andy Puddicombe, on why we need worthwhile challenges.
“We may think we should always be happy, but that isn’t the nature of life. In accepting this truth, we discover a sense of ease in challenging times.”
ONE FROM US
When I work out, I usually catch up on sports by listening to The Best of The Herd Podcast with Colin Cowherd and Joy Taylor. Their New Year’s eve episode began like this:
Joy: It’s the last day of this wretched year. Peace out 2020. Good riddance.
Colin: I feel the same way.
Joy: Great things ahead.
Colin: Great things ahead. Not good things. Great things ahead.
Joy: We made it guys.
Colin: We did. We got through it.
Joy and Colin are successful and, usually, insightful. But this intro struck me as particularly naive. As if we should expect the changing year to initiate some cosmic shift that alters all the trajectories we’re currently riding. Now that it is 2021 everything will not just be good, but great. This sort of speak into existence, mirror mantra stuff sounds nice, but it speaks to a common mental pattern that is more harmful than you’d imagine.
After a year of COVID and civil unrest, hopes for a better year seem more justified than ever. Certainly, if you have lost a business or a loved one, your grief is greater than most. But such notions are typical of every year, not just 2020.
Near the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns, I wrote This is Life: Putting Chaos into Context, in an attempt to uhh… put the chaos into context. In it, I reference the sort of conversations I always hear around New Years:
“Every year right before the New Year we see all those annual recaps - montages of the most dramatic news stories of the past year and tributes to all the famous people who died. We look back at the inevitable natural disasters, awful shootings, and divisive jury trials. We add to them the deaths, illnesses, and traumas of those in our own broad social circles - and most conclude: “Wow! 2019 was a rough year. In fact now that I think of it, last year I said the same thing. Hopefully, 2020 is better!”
Yet, on a living planet that hosts over seven-billion people along with another nine-million or so different types of organisms, crazy stuff is bound to go down. Heroes will die, storms will ravage, Kanye will rant incoherently. Our hunter-gatherer brains just aren’t evolved to make sense of this global, news-saturated world. Furthermore, what the montages don’t capture is how charmed our existence is. On a planet of over seven-billion people we are more likely to eat ourselves to death than to die of starvation. Complex institutions keep us safe, elaborate industries compete to keep us entertained, and central air keeps us in that 69-73 degree range where we aren’t oppressively uncomfortable.”
As I go into throughout the article, the best thing about studying history is that it provides context to make sense of life and gives you a sense of the volatility that characterizes the human experience. With the benefit of a historical lens, you come to expect a bit of chaos, but also, to appreciate just how uniquely charmed life is today. We all take for granted the many luxuries - political freedom, washing machines, protection from mortal threats - that we have never been without. History reminds us that these weren’t always guaranteed.
It is a miracle that we have received so much from the world even during a pandemic. The food supply was basically constant, Zoom and other video options kept us in contact with loved ones, Amazon delivery and Doordash allowed us to purchase almost anything without leaving home, curbside pickup allowed us to get groceries without going into a grocery store, HVAC workers and plumbers continued to service calls, the government sent us money, and we all had a little more time to read, listen to podcasts, or learn new skills through masterclass.com, or a billion other avenues.
Each of us faced hardships as well, which taught us about ourselves. In March, April, and May I doubled down on extensive revisions for my book. But despite working from 4 to 7 am every morning and again from 10 am to 2 pm, I found myself struggling to think clearly. Having cut out meditation and daily bike commutes and added in the constant chatter of two toddlers, my mind went constipated. As my frustrations mounted, I was reminded of how important my health and mental training habits are for me to work and live well.
In late October, when my entire family got COVID and we got to do lockdown again, I took a better approach that proved far more fruitful to my writing, parenting, and wellbeing. We were lucky to have very mild symptoms, great weather, and Neely and I even got curbside voting. They literally brought a voting computer to the side of the curb so we could vote out of the minivan window.
But it isn’t enough to simply know we are lucky. Every 10-year-old knows that starving children would happily eat their vegetables and that they are lucky to live in a free country. Likewise, I’ve mused about how magical it is that I can press a button on an aluminum device and talk to my mother, 2,000 miles away. Still, most days, I think nothing of this. We can grow numb to any common experience. To resist the descent into entitlement and under-appreciation takes a system for greater intentionality and reflection.
Gregg Krech, author of Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection, suggests Naikan - a series of three questions that are especially powerful for changing your relationship to events and programming a more aware operating system. I’ve found the practice to be quite helpful. The first question - What am I receiving right now? - has become a recurring mantra that I ask myself before meals and intermittently throughout the day.
In every moment we are receiving so much - heat, health, eyes to read, long deep breathing, love, the ability to easily gain knowledge, confidence in our next meal, refrigeration, the lessons and curiosities born of past mentors, electricity, hygiene, sunshine. It is fascinating to absorb how much the world seems to be taking care of us.
But all of this can feel like a lot of pressure - like there must be something wrong with us to overlook how lucky we are. On the contrary, this hedonic adaptation is a natural mechanism for keeping us improvement-oriented. It doesn’t do any good to beat ourselves up for being human or to try really hard to feel freaking awesome all the time. Expecting or pursuing a feeling has a way of pushing it away. Naikan emphasizes just practicing the exercise without trying to spark any specific feeling of gratitude. You can hear Krech explain more about Naikan training and how to incorporate it into your daily routines in this phenomenal podcast episode.
This year I plan to add a more specific Naikan reflection to the end of my meditation every morning. I’ve always done mental gratitude but I think going through a written process will keep my focus better and make the practice more impactful. I’ll end each morning’s reflection and this newsletter with the question I ask myself every morning:
This is your life. Who do you want to be?
Thank you very much for reading. Please share if you think someone else would enjoy this.
Life is too short to be normal,
Heeding Justin’s wisdom, I eliminated the first half of this piece where I went into my annual thoughts on New Year’s resolutions. Still, I want to emphasize how important taking the right approach can be. 80% of resolutions fail by February, but they don’t have to.
Right now everyone is excited about who they could be, so they feel like committing to the most aggressive plan possible, but that excitement will wane leaving us to face the timeless predicament best stated by Nacho Libre: “I want a hot body, but I also want tacos.” This applies to far more than just eating. We want perfect credit and a large savings, but we also want to shop. We want to read more books, but we also want to scroll social media. We want a better relationship with our spouse, but we also want to be right and avoid sacrifices. For success that lasts you have to take a more reflective approach.
With that in mind, I want to highlight some resources:
Our free e-book: Making Changes that Stick
The 30x30 Daily Habit Program - In just 30-minutes per day, this 30-day program features a small daily dose of our core habits: exercise, education, and a gratitude meditation. The daily lessons give you a mastery of essential principles so you are in control of your future.
And for anyone looking for free, short workouts, Justin and I have made a ton. These should get you started: