Sprout proceeds to gallop around the house cheering.
Me: Can I have a hug?
Reaches up for me.
Sprout: (deadpan) I’m still waking up.
Ever since watching Big Hero 6, Sprout has become obsessed with being a scientist like Honey Lemon/a science teacher.
This morning she decided to use some “chemicals” to show us, her class, how to make lava.
If you want to follow along at home, you just need the following supplies:
Right now, I’m just glad that she’s showing an interest in STEM careers. Although I’m also a little concerned about what Crime Juice is supposed to be.
Explanation Checks Out
Our family made a very clear deal about all Santa talk a long time ago. We won’t actively feed her information, but if she has questions, we’ll let her come up with her own answers. (Look, there were a whole lot of conversations about honest, trust, etc. involved.) Which leads us to:
Sprout: How does Santa’s sleigh fly?
Me: What do you think?
Sprout: I think it’s the reindeer.
Me: So the reindeer make it fly? Not the sleigh?
Me: And how do they do that?
Sprout: Their noses.
Me: Their noses?
Sprout: Yeah! (matter-of-fact) They have motors in their noses.
It’s a new mantra I’m trying on, because I have a lot of ideas, and sometimes they get lost in the shuffle.
Between this year’s re-reading of David Allen’s Getting Things Done and checking out Cal Newport’s Deep Work, one of the recurring themes was the notion that putting to much front-and-center in a to-do list makes the doing part more difficult.
You set an obligation for yourself, and the longer it sits there, incomplete, the more weight it puts on your mind. Even if you don’t realize it, an incomplete obligation takes up space in your mental RAM, and can distract your focus.
So I’m telling myself to choose to take on less, and to get more comfortable with walking away from ideas.
If there’s a project I’ve started but haven’t moved forward on for a long time (say, a month), I’m going to ask myself a simple question:
Is there something you can and will do today that would move this forward?
If the answer is no, it gets deleted.
If I want to make sure I realize more of my ideas, I need to be honest with myself about the limits of my time and focus.
But I also need to hold myself accountable for making sure that I use what time I have for things that matter to me. If I’m saying no to an idea, I want it to be because I’m working on something I’ve decided is more important (and not because I’ve spent a bunch of time faffing around).
If I tell myself that something is important, I either need to work toward completing it, or be okay with deleting it.
There are billions upon billions of planets in the observable universe. Most are inhospitable to life.
They’re in the wrong position relative to the nearest star, they have the wrong atmosphere, or their surface doesn’t have the right component elements. Out of all those potential sites for life to flourish, we have the only planet where all the conditions worked out favorably.
Here we are. We exist.
You’re here, reading these words, doing whatever you did just before this, and about to do whatever comes next.
And you’re as unlikely to have ever existed as life itself.
Think of the slow transfer of human genetic material through generation after generation for thousands of years (because let’s not completely blow our minds and go all the way back to add single-celled organisms to our family tree). Think of all the events, both historical and common, that lead to the exact DNA cocktail that brewed you.
A chance meeting of two people. A war forcing a family to flee their homeland. The work of a savvy matchmaker. A natural disaster. The thoughtful consideration of future parents looking for a donor.
These are just a few of the potential steps on the journey to get to you.
It’s something I think about a lot, given that my dad is the keeper of his family’s genealogical records. And if it ever stops seeming strange to me, I think about the fact that I’m a Mayflower descendent and my daughter happened to be born in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
We are all part of a larger conversation with this history of unlikely existence. We all come from somewhere, and whether or not we personally have children, we all shape the world that new people will be born into.
But it wasn’t necessarily going to be this way.
Earth could have been hit by a huge chunk of space debris at just the wrong moment and wound up with a different orbit. The boat carrying your ancestor across the ocean could have capsized. Some misaligned chromosomes could have prevented the cell division that allowed you to grow and flourish.
You are not just part of a line, but a singular point. You are a marvelous improbability.
Even if you feel like a disappointment to the people most important to you. Even if you can’t find work that feels meaningful to you. Even if your family refuses to use your proper pronouns, or people won’t take you seriously as the protagonist of your own story, or you face disrespect based on your skin, your speech, who you love, or the place you were born.
Even if you have to fight an endless battle with part of your own mind that believes you’re worthless and don’t have any right to exist.
Remember that you are a marvelous improbability.
You get to be here.
You deserve to feel awe and wonder at the very fact of your own existence.
I get it. People buy in, hook, line, and sinker to this craze the way marketing used to tell kids shoes would make you run faster and jump higher.
But it’s genuinely pleasant.
Does having a nice keyboard make me a better writer? Not in and of itself.
But does having a nice keyboard make me feel like my time spent writing is more enjoyable, encouraging me to favor this activity over other ways to spend my time? You bet!
The only thing that helps a person work on their craft is time and deliberate practice. You could argue any tool that helps create those conditions has some degree of positive impact.
But there’s also the nostalgia.
It reminds me of that feeling of the first time I learned how to type, working on a Commodore 64 in my parents’ living room. The chunkiness of the keys. The orange glow of the text when I fired up the word processor to do a research paper on Mars. The satisfying click as I made things happen on screen while following along with one of the library books that said they would teach me how to program in BASIC (Ron Howard Voice: “They did not.”)
It’s not that I wish that the computer I was using had the same limited capabilities as that old machine. What I wanted from purchasing a mechanical keyboard was comfort and joy.
There’s a strong sensory connection between the tactile experience of the keyboard and the sensation of enthusiastically discovering something new. An attempt to trigger those beginner’s mind feelings, even after years and years of using a computer.
Because there’s still so much to learn.
But even without any guarantee of that, I can say for certain that sitting down to type feels more joyful. It’s no longer just the pleasure of actually taking time to write something down and work out my ideas. There’s a rhythm to the keys that keeps me motivated just as much as any well-crafted writing playlist.
It’s a healthy reminder that we’re not just content-creation algorithms, trying to spit out data for dopamine rewards. There should be joy in the process. An awareness and appreciation for not just our ideas, but the tools we use to make them tangible.
Little touches can make a world of difference, like the right coffee mug.
My favorite breakfast place in the entire United States is the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, MA. If you’re familiar with the love Leslie Knope has for J.J.’s Diner, you have a general idea of how much I rave about this place.
On my family’s most recent trip out to the east coast, I made sure that I took home a mug from Deluxe Town, because it is the perfect mug.
This isn’t just nostalgia for the countless brunches over sour cream waffles or their perfectly tender and juicy in-house corned beef hash.
There’s a satisfying weight to the mug. It doesn’t make coffee taste better, but it makes the act of lifting the mug up to my lips feel substantial. You pay attention to the feeling in your hand and your arm as you raise it up.
You can’t ignore this mug. It’s not a paper cup. It’s not a cheap ceramic nothing. You are aware that you are drinking a good cup of coffee (so long as you put some good coffee in it).
If I appreciate my tools, the objects I surround myself with, they help me to remain present in time and space with them.
It’s not about the price tag. This isn’t a call for unchecked consumption, or for an endless deep dive into the world of The Best X You Can Buy listicles.
It’s a call to look for those objects and moments you interact with that matter. To consider how best to appreciate the tools of your trade.
What do you touch every day? Do you pay attention to it? Does it matter? Should it matter more?
When you are asked to give more and more of your mental energy and presence to things happening away from where you are, what things help anchor you? What objects can you use to keep yourself from drifting too far away, or getting lost down rabbit holes?
I am drinking this coffee. I am typing these words. I am here.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
The more we learn about an idea, or a process, or an art form, the more it can constrict our thinking. That which has already been proven, or has already been done, suggests boundaries for what can still be learned or done.
It limits the questions you ask, or the solutions you attempt.
While I can’t deny there is value to be had in deep study of anything you want to work with, be it a creative medium, a scientific field, or any job with its set of processes and requirements, adhering to strongly to “the way things are done” can stifle novel solutions.
The best cinematic expression I’ve seen of this comes from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. While training on Dagobah, Luke whines to Yoda about how he couldn’t possibly lift an X-Wing using the Force. He says that even though he can lift rocks with it, an X-Wing is much heavier.
Luke knows the weight of objects, and he knows his capacity to physically lift objects. He applies these rules to how he thinks the Force works.
And Yoda attempts to convince him that his strict adherence to just these facts isn’t helping him.
In this example, Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp using the Force to make a point: This is something new to you that you don’t yet understand. It isn’t a muscle. It doesn’t use your body. You can’t hold onto the same rules you learned from interacting with heavy objects using your body.
There’s a method to test and explore ideas. To not feel like everything is already decided for you, or that what you already know is an impenetrable wall, halting your progress.
Anchor your ideas in what you know, but test those boundaries of possibility. Ask questions, the way Sprout did.
Think about what happens if something you see as a hard rule could bend, just a little.
Then chase that notion.
It’s mental jujitsu. Use the weight of the knowledge you already have against itself, and try to swing it to the side to see if it will make way for something unexpected.
To be clear: I do not have all the answers to this, or a simple, listicle-friendly process for people to follow. It’s something I wrestle with regularly, too.
What I do know is that some ideas are less solid and impenetrable than they seem, and it’s important to be able to test your ideas to understand them as they truly are.
It does you no favors to look at a suggestion and see it as a rule, or vice-versa, like the difference between a stop sign and a yield.
One caveat: This doesn’t mean that all ideas formed in this Beginner’s Mind state are great ideas.
I can’t tell you how many times since having this conversation with Sprout that I’ve had to stop her from straddling Luna in preparation to actually try to ride the cat.