Composing a Life

On an episode of one of my favorite podcasts On Being’ I heard the guest speak about composing a life.’ I appreciated this metaphor; so often it’s been easy for me to fixate on this or that monolithic aspect of my life and view that as the arbiter of everything important… defining myself by a single relationship or a job say. What I like about trying to view my activities\life as a composition is that it brings renewed attention & interest in all the little things I do, it relieves some of the anxiety that any one thread has to be ‘all-fulfilling’ and reassures me that I have innumerable options by which to reach better balance. Today, I wanted to discuss three different practices I engage with to compose my life.

First, I practice gratitude. Gratitude is the best brain hack I know and there is no better mechanism to guide my attention. Expressing gratitude never fails to improve my day (or the day of the person I’m thanking for that matter). Especially in moments where I’m mistrustful of my emotions, in moments where I’m not sure what to say… finding something to be grateful for provides a handy guide.

Growing up, my Mom used to write thank you cards’ and while I appreciated her instructing me about this there was always an element I didn’t like. Her approach was formalized, what one ought’ to do and seemed to me to have an element of obligation which I didn’t care to experience (and even less wanted to induce in someone else). I have a light allergy to the rules of politeness’ so I’m always interested in extracting the scrap of values that exist within ritualized manners and making something of my own out of it. To that end, as part of practice of gratitude earlier this year I bought a set of one hundred classic sci-fi novel cover post-cards, and I’ve been working through sending these out as thank yous.’ These are great; each has geeky/fun imagery, and post-cards are a wonderful step up from text or email while staying informal enough that nobody feels obligated to respond… like they might be with a thank you letter.

Another practice I make a conscious effort to engage with is a practice of vulnerability. I learned a lot about vulnerability from the writings of Brene Brown but my best way to explain what I’m thrusting at with this practice is to paraphrase an idea I took form a book called ‘Finite and Infinite Games’ — With vulnerability, I’m trying to counteract the ways in which I’ve armored myself against surprised and growth. It’s an extremely human foible to treat interactions & relationships as though there were win\lose states. Because of my temperament and personal history I am prone to running endless simulations of people and encounters in my head and I’m ever tempted to limit my behavior to only that which I have a strongly predicted outcome. This severely hobbles my opportunities for intimacy, this would –ultimately- curtail me to a shallow half-life. A large part of practicing vulnerability, for me, means to (elegantly) try to engage with people beyond what I can safely predict which generally means sharing more of myself and trying to create space where they feel comfortable to do the same.

At its most basic, practicing vulnerability means (especially in the modern era means) allowing people to see beyond my highlight reel’ – the carefully curated and sterilized story of me that social media in particular makes it oh so simple to sell.

The last practice I want to highlight today is writing. This is perhaps the most multifaceted practice I engage with and writing has reshaped (and continues to reshape) me in dozens of ways. Journaling has been highly effective therapy for me, I use it for the chance to see myself from the outside and attempt to counteract the fragility, the vagaries of memory. Also, I think that manipulation of language is manipulation of thought. And I know that I often write to figure out what I think in the first place.

In my writing life, this past month I have had more success’ (as measured in terms of both attention and monetary reward) than in the previous 16 years of writing & selling (or more commonly attempting to sell) what I wrote. This is something that I am both extremely grateful for in addition to being something with which I greet with vulnerability.

There are other practices I use to compose my life, but these three are particularly important to me and have been on my mind of late. One of the quirks about being human I think is that the vital, internal changes we might wish to see in ourselves are almost impossible to ‘simply’ will into existence; we don’t generally get results by merely deciding we want to be happier or to worry less. Instead, engaging in a practice –a set of conscious, repeated actions to which we pay attention to and reflect upon- is the necessary lever by which we gain leverage over ourselves. And as I consider how I compose my life, as I pull together the disparate threads into a composite weave; I like to remind myself that the little things’ matter… that they all blend together into a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

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