March 1st marks a significant one year milestone for me. Over the past year I have made several lifestyle changes as a sort of major "course correction" that has had a profound impact over my general well-being and outlook on life. I made the first intentional and tangible change on March 1, 2017. However as I am writing this I am remembering other actions taken slightly earlier that seem more significant now than they did at the time. Still, March 1 seems like a good solid checkpoint. Mainly for the fact that I can actually remember it!
One byproduct of these changes has been a near halt in blogging over the last year as well as a significant cut back in open source contributions made on my own time. So I thought this one year mark may make a fine occasion to share the changes I have made, what led me to make them and how I think those changes are shaping a new life for me now.
This is not going to be a technical post by any means but I think that what I have to share may resonate with others who find themselves in self-defeating patterns of spending far too much time working at their jobs or contributing to open source or other "side projects" in their free time and are feeling a lack of connection and meaning in their lives like I was feeling a year ago. This post is also an opportunity for me personally to process the last year and to try and better make sense of what all has transpired in order to better understand the place where I am today so I can better plot a path forward.
So let's go back to February, 2017. What was going on at that time that would prompt me to change course? I had not exercised regularly or even semi-regularly in 5 years. It's worth mentioning that just prior to then I was an ultra-marathoner and had completed 100 and 50 mile events. I was heavier than I had ever been - not morbidly obese but uncomfortably over weight, well over a healthy BMI. I worked constantly - not necessarily work I was being paid for - but it could indeed be called work: blogging, open source contributions, answering forum questions, troubleshooting packer builds. Every day I brought my laptop to bed and would usually work myself to sleep. Sometimes I would wake later in the night and work some more and then I would start working again just after waking. I was always disappointed when weekends or a vacation showed up and was relieved on Mondays. Oh and I was generally miserable and knew it. I felt like a failure in every area of my life.
I could now spend several paragraphs going into some detail about how the events over the preceding 10 years led me to this state. Believe me I did and I just cut them all out. You don't want to read all that. Let me see if I can sum that all up in a couple sentences. I thought and hoped that maybe if I worked hard enough, I could create something great. This started by dedicating some personal time to an open source project and I loved the experience but also stopped exercising to buy more time for the project. Eventually one project led to another and next I was contributing to several projects and actively blogging. Now I'm averaging 4 to 5 hours of sleep a night.
As time went on I lost track of what I was trying to accomplish. I was working constantly and had no clear vision of where I wanted to go. Eventually all the constant work simply became habit and a new default state. Eventually I was conscious of the fact that I had lost any clear long term goal. I was just chasing multiple "personal" assignments and feeling like I was drifting about getting nowhere. Simultaneously I felt totally out of shape, uncomfortably over weight and a failure as a father and husband. Something had to change.
I had a general idea of what initial changes I needed to make for years prior to this. It was simple: Change my diet, start exercising regularly, sleep like a normal person and sit down and think hard about what I wanted for myself and my family and figure out what I needed to do to get there. Again I could get very philosophical and explain over many paragraphs why it took years for me to actually make a move. I just couldn't let go of the terrible habits I acquired. I was afraid of what I might be giving up. What if stopping my work plunges me into a void of mediocrity. Well on March 1, 2017, I made the first move and have kept on going ever since.
As I mentioned above, there were actually a couple important changes I made prior to March, 2017. At the end of October, 2016 I changed teams at work that allowed me to focus on some technology that truly stimulated and interested me during work hours which made me feel less compelled to seek technical satisfaction after hours. As I very slowly weaned myself off of some open source projects I soon instituted a new personal rule: don't bring my laptop to bed. At the time that was not part of some great plan to alter my habits, it just seemed like the right thing to do, but the impact was huge. You see, in my line of work, it's really super hard to work without a computer.
I have made a lot of changes between now and last March. These all transpired rather gradually. The first changes were all physical. The very first change was cutting out my daily habit of drinking two glasses of wine with dinner. This wasn’t so much about eliminating alcohol consumption. Rather it was a strategy to keep me from eating too much. After a couple glasses of wine, my self-control would disappear and my appetite would spike and I'd slip into a semi trance state of eating fatty foods and sipping wine. In terms of improving my eating habits, this move seemed like the lowest of all hanging fruit and a good place to start. My rule was simply no drinking at home. That seemed like it would squelch my nightly binge habit but allow me the occasional drink at social events. I had been wanting to make this particular change for months but could just never do it. By the time dinner time would roll around, the thought of denying myself those two glasses of wine just seemed cruel.
Well for whatever reason I was now properly motivated and managed to successfully drop the habit. After just a few days I was feeling better and perhaps more importantly felt like I had dug myself just a tiny bit out of my hole. Every week I would make some other change to my diet. Like replacing my breakfast of Starbucks lattes and pastries every morning with home brewed coffee and oatmeal. After a few months, my diet was pretty much what it remained until today: mostly whole, unprocessed plant based foods. I'll eat dairy or fish when I'm out or if someone else cooks it but not as a staple.
In addition to dietary changes, I managed to carve out a daily exercise routine. This had been a real struggle over the past several years. I went from running 60 miles a week for years to intentionally dropping to zero so I could get more work done. Then years later and realizing how bad an idea that was, I just couldn't maintain a regular exercise habit. Over time my fitness digressed to where I could not run more than a couple miles without injury and then couldn't run at all. Well in March 2017 I started a daily walking habit that became a mix of walking and running and by mid June I was running four miles a day. Oh man this brought me so much joy and I remember ending those runs feeling so much gratitude. I had thought my running days were over but now I was clearly back in the saddle.
While these physical changes in diet and fitness were super great, I still felt an uncertainty and an overall lack of vision regarding the forward momentum of my life. For so long I had been razor focused on open source projects with a hope in the back of my head that eventually I would just fall in to some great opportunity that would provide moderate wealth and total independence. In March, along with the health related adjustments, I mostly suspended my "extracurricular" open source involvement. Part of my overall plan was to completely reassess my goals and essentially recalibrate my personal mission. I was and am still passionate about windows server automation but I wanted to envision an end game and perhaps it would be something bigger and broader than writing code. I knew I needed to explore what it was I wanted to contribute to the world in my lifetime as well as what was the life I wanted for me and my family. Then I needed to determine what path was going to get me from where I am to that future vision.
This turned out to be a very difficult endeavor. I just didn't really know how to answer many of the questions that needed answering and I was the only person who could possibly answer them. I knew some of the basics: I wanted financial independence, to provide a nurturing environment for my wife and children, have more time to spend with family, and generally make the world a better place. These are great things to want but do not make for very actionable goals in themselves. I felt incredibly antsy and restless. I wanted something tangible I could do and apply myself toward that would propel me in the direction of obtaining all of these things, but I had no idea what that thing or activity could or should be.
I'm pretty good at setting goals and achieving them. I'm not always good and choosing the right goals. This has especially been the case in the past few years. Most of my life has been a migration from one obsession to another. I find an interest and fully submerge myself in it. It's both my biggest strength and weakness. So being in a state with no obsession to nurse felt empty and unsatisfying. Now that all being said, I felt oddly on the right track. Despite my restlessness, I felt the most positive I had in years. With my newly recovered health, I felt like I was standing on a solid foundation and like I was observing life and my surroundings through a new and more clear lens. With this more centered outlook, I was confident some action plan would reveal itself in time.
This search for a "mission" led me to make more changes to my daily routine. If diet and exercise changes could make me feel this much better, what other positive changes could I make to move this trend forward? First, I replaced listening to technical podcasts on workouts and while driving my car with listening to books from audible.com related to a variety of self-development topics. I've listened to about 40 to 50 books over the last year. The topics have been all over the place: popular psychology, philosophy, finance, religion. I've listened to some incredible books and also some real duds. All in all it has been a true journey. One book will introduce new concepts or authors which will lead me to another set of books. These have taught me a lot about a variety of topics and exposed me to a ton of new ideas.
In June, another new routine I took up was meditation. Years ago I had a daily meditation practice and I stuck with it for several years. However as my career blossomed, it eventually dropped away. But now, as I found myself seeking to learn about myself and discover a new path in life, it seemed like a good activity to take up again. Remembering back to my previous practice years ago, I recalled the honest introspection it could cultivate. This seemed like something sorely needed now. As I looked around myself for a meaningful way forward, I wanted to proceed with brutal honesty and authenticity. I did not want to choose goals that just made me feel good or would allow me to gain approval from others, I wanted to find and live my unique self, grounded in what was transpiring around me and not a fantasy of some future state to which I wanted to escape.
I am going to assume that the audience reading this blog may not have direct experience with meditation. That is totally ok and I will try to describe it in enough detail that you can have a sense of what I am talking about. The topic of meditation is immensely broad. There are a multitude of different meditation disciplines and traditions. Some differ so much from one another that it is hard to say that both are the same thing and many others may appear almost identical. While I dabbled in a few forms of meditation in my early twenties, I began what I would call a formal Zen meditation practice in the mid-nineties. I lived less than a mile from the San Francisco Zen Center and practiced there regularly for a few years until I moved back to Southern California where I continued to practice on my own for several more years. Zen meditation, from a "logistical" perspective is very simple. You typically sit on a cushion but may also sit in a chair or on anything that allows you to sit in an erect posture with your back straight. As you sit, one typically places their concentration upon their breath - paying close attention to each inhale and exhale. The intent is not to find or discover some "understanding" but to remain in the present moment. Inevitably thoughts will arise. Thoughts about some event or interaction that happened or about some future fantasy or dread. In meditation, we don't try to avoid these thoughts because that is futile, rather we observe these thoughts without attaching to them or repelling them. At least that is the idea. In actual practice, attachment and repulsion are vibrant realities that are yet more fodder for observation. We catch our mind wandering and becoming absorbed in various thoughts and emotions and then gently bring ourselves back to the breath.
That’s all I'm going to cover on the mechanics of meditation. If it is something that interests you or you are curious to learn more, there are a ton of books, blogs, and YouTube posts on the topic that can do a far better job explaining things than I can. There are several "flavors" of meditation that all follow roughly the same technique I described above. They are sometimes grouped in their more contemporary and secular label: Mindfulness practice - so you might include that in your googling. A couple resources I think are great for beginners: Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World and an audible lecture series The science of mindfulness - A research based path to well-being.
This practice proved and continues to prove itself very powerful. I don't know if I just forgot my experience of meditating years ago but this time things seemed more focused, energetic and penetrating. Honestly, I think the experience of the past few years brought a sort of brokenness that breathed a deeper level of honesty and surrender into my practice.
Just before I started meditating again, I began taking walks with my dog Ocean in the afternoon and evening. Shortly after beginning a daily morning routine of sitting meditation, I started treating these afternoon and evening walks as a mindfulness exercise. I'd try to focus on being present during the walk instead of daydreaming about the future or obsessing about something that happened that day. Of course every day I have varying degrees of success and failure with that intention, but that’s OK. It's the intention that is important.
These new non-physical habits have unfolded a surprisingly fascinating internal journey. It's helped me to identify some of the warped ways I interpret my experiences and gain healthier insights on how to view my life and how to act in the world, but I really feel like I have just scratched the surface. This does not at all down play the benefits of my changes to diet and exercise and I sort of think I would have never gotten off the ground without the changes made to my health. While this was by no means my strategy, they gave me small attainable goals that had a tangible and measurable impact. This not only made me feel better physically but it gave me confidence in myself and left me wanting for more positive change and positivity in general.
So now after a year of making all these changes, have I found my mission in life? Have I received transmission of my grand path and redefined life purpose? Well not really, but that does not indicate failure. On the one hand, learning to just allow myself to live more fully in the present moment without the need to constantly focus on some future state is a sort of "goal" in itself. That sounds really paradoxical and may be a completely wrong way to phrase it but I honestly believe we can get stuck in becoming "human doings" and lose sight of what it is to be a human being. I could almost describe my entire workaholic epic as just that. I was stuck thinking I needed to do, do , do in order to achieve some incredibly vague idea of myself in an unknown future state that was never real at all. That does not discount everything I did or judge all my actions as misguided, but the predominant energy I was tapping into was an energy of supporting and chasing an image of myself that was entirely illusory.
Maybe tomorrow I will wake up and I'll have a lightning flash of insight into "the thing" I need to do or maybe over the next several years, circumstances around me will shape themselves and guide me unknowingly into an entirely different future from the present I live in now. Either scenario may be equally valid but I believe that in either case, a genuine "calling" emerges form an understanding of our true self and such an understanding best arises out of a spirit of surrender and letting go to the present.
Please don't get me wrong. There are absolutely some who are in a bad place and need to take responsibility and act in order to get themselves to somewhere else ASAP.
Here is another possibility: maybe the ultimate path of truth is right in front of us right now doing just exactly what we are doing now. As we let go into the present, we become transformed from the inside and the outside starts to look very different. Maybe as I learn to live in the present, I approach my current day job as an opportunity for meaningful global change no matter what that job is. Its where I am right now and therefore is the absolute best place for me to be and exercise my unique talents. I, like all of us, bring something unique to my present that absolutely no one else has and by embracing that truth, we may become truly great at what we do. How many of us are climbing a ladder to nowhere and feel an utter failure we have not arrived at a somewhere we cannot even define. Maybe we need to just dust ourselves off and fall off the ladder to be rescued by right where we are now.