Looking ahead to 2021

I was going to write this post last week, but then the events of last Wednesday happened in the American capital, and that put a damper on any positive feelings I had for 2021. But over the weekend a friend of mine sent me a link to Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day, which ends with the question you may have heard of: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? So, if I can’t have any meaningful positive impact on the world at large, I can at least keep my own little corner of it in order.

As I’ve noted earlier, in 2020 I got better at sitting with myself and my emotions, especially the negative ones. In particular, instead of trying to ignore, run away or even fix them, I learned to let them be. I learned to treat them as signals of things that were bothering me, rather than as imperatives that had to be acted on. After years of trying, I finally started to be able to respond, instead of react. In my best moments, I felt stable, even when things around me were much less so. Oddly, as far as I can tell, this really kicked in around Thanksgiving for some reason. In 2021, I want to take this stability and build something on it. In 2020 much of my effort and energy was focused inwards, and in 2021 I want to focus it outward.

First things first, I want to get my attention back. The last few years, including the last one, have really done a number on my ability to concentrate, especially on the kinds of hard, intellectual problems that bring me joy, and are also how I earn my livelihood. Thankfully, I’ve been meditating more consistently and with a regular group over the last few months, and as a result I have been getting better at noticing when my attention has wondered off. I am also able to better feel when I am focused (like I am writing this) versus when I’m in a state of continuous partial attention (like when doomscrolling for hours). Much like bringing my attention back to my breath when my mind wanders during meditating, I want to get better at bringing my mind back to the task at hand when I notice I’ve become distracted. And once brought back, I would also like to get better at holding my attention for longer. I have some thoughts and things to try to practically achieve this, but for now, my main theme for 2021 is to be present, now.

My second theme for this year is to be complete and whole, in and of myself. I typically describe as an outgoing introvert. I’m happiest when I have a vibrant social life with a core group of friends, but can also have lots of private alone time. So you can imagine that the last year was less than ideal. It was made worse by the fact that I moved a year and a half before that, and was still in the process of building a social life and making new friends. Last year made me realize that I had gone from being happy when I was with other people (either friends or in a relationship) to being actively unhappy without them. That’s something I’ve been starting to unlearn over the last year and would like to keep up this year. I want to discover more about what I enjoy and like, and put more time and energy into those things, rather than just being sad when I’m alone.

As an aside: I stopped making New Year’s resolutions a few years ago (or at least specific ones). They’re almost always more pressure than they’re worth. If they’re habit you’re almost certainly going to fail at them sometimes, and thinking of them as a big “resolution” makes it easy to guilt-trip yourself and makes it harder to get back on the train. If they’re goals, it’s easy to feel like a failure until you reach it. Instead, I have a general theme for each year. In 2019, my theme was stop feeling like a complete mess, and to start to learn to be happy again. That led me to therapy and meditation as a way to really explore my mental state and understand things that had bothered me for years. But while I felt validated that my problems were solvable with the right efforts, and that I could learn to reliably be in better mental states, I also realized that it would take a lot of work to do so consistently. Last year, my theme was to put in the work to make that happen, and it’s bearing fruit in the feelings of stability and self-understanding that I’ve been talking about so far.

Ok, general themes aside, here are some concrete things I want to do, keep doing and not do in 2021. Yes, I cribbed this idea from elsewhere.

What I’m going to keep doing:

  • Meditate, journal and exercise regularly, preferably daily. Sometimes life gets in the way, and that’s fine. Also in the absence of a proper gym my definition of “exercise” has become rather lenient and that’s fine too.
  • Continue to live frugally. With no travel, commuting, and much less eating out, the last year has been unexpectedly frugal for me. I’ve built up a decent financial cushion, and that feels good.
  • Keep reading on psychology and philosophy. In some ways, I’ve always been interested in the question of how to live a good life, but in the last few years I’ve become systematic about it and started putting what I’ve been reading into action. It’s going well, but will probably be work of a lifetime (unsurprisingly).

What I want to do:

  • Keep a more regular schedule, balancing work, play, maintenance and rest. My schedule went to hell in March, and though it recovered somewhat due to teaching a class in the Fall my days (and weeks) are far less organized than I would like them to be. Paradoxically, making and sticking to a schedule doesn’t come naturally to me, but I am happier when I have one.
  • Publish some papers. I currently have four research projects in flight that I would like to see bear fruit. Last year was far less productive than I hoped it would be. And while I’m grateful that I have understanding colleagues and I also was kind to myself, I also don’t want a second year of that.
  • Find an academic position. I’m planning to be on the academic job market this year. My preference is for a tenure track position at a strong research university, but I wouldn’t be entirely opposed to a permanent research position in a different setting. So if you’re reading this and have open positions, let me know!
  • Get Colophon to a usable state and transition this blog. I’m getting increasingly frustrated at how WordPress is becoming more for “content management” than writing. Last year I started working on my own ideas of what a good system for presenting writing online should be like. This year I want to get it robust enough to have a public-facing release and feature-rich enough to use it for everyday writing.
  • Cook more meals. I’m eternally grateful that my housemates have been doing a lot of cooking the last few months, it’s not exactly a longterm solution, and I do like food a lot. Though my scrambled eggs are pretty good now, I’d like to expand my repertoire.
  • Reach out to friends & family more often. It’s not quite the same as having a vibrant social life, especially when everyone’s spending lots of time on video calls anyways, but I at least want to ask my friends how they are doing more often.

What I don’t want to do:

  • Mindlessly binge-watch TV. Don’t get me wrong, I love good television (and movies) and always will, but I want to actually watch and enjoy it, not just mainline it through my eyeballs. So I’m going to try to watch less, more mindfully, and also not while doing other things.
  • Multitask. Key to getting my attention back is to be able to be fully focused on one thing at a time. Luckily, I’m getting better at telling when I’m focused versus not and using that as a guide to change my behavior.
  • Worry about things I have no control over. While some amount of stress and anxiety over what will probably be a turbulent year is inevitable, I don’t want to be paralyzed by things I can’t affect, both in the world at a large, and also on a personal scale.

I’m mentally preparing for this year to be a hard one, probably even more so than the last one. But I would like it to be hard because I consciously did a lot of things that are important to me. And I hope that by the end of it I have some good answers to what I’m doing with my one wild and precious life.

On Living versus Existing

While reflecting on 2020, I said that throughout the course of the year, I felt like I had just existed, rather than lived. Some of my friends have asked me what that means, so I thought I’d take a moment to try and explain how I see it.

Ultimately, this is a subjective feeling, but based on ideas of what I think I’ve achieved externally, as well as how my mental state has been internally.

Standing on the outside and looking at my life the last year, I feel like I haven’t made much progress in my life in the last year. At least, I didn’t make much progress in the ways that I had wanted to at the beginning of the year. I didn’t have much of a social life due to COVID, didn’t really develop new friendships or relationships, and didn’t publish any papers. In a lot of ways, I was operating in survival mode: doing the bare minimum I need to get by and not drop various balls. That’s not something I’m proud of.

On the inside, I spent a large part of the year trying to deny or rage against the state of the world, rather than trying to make the most of the situation. Even when I made some measure of peace with the fact that there was very little in my control, it was hard to put effort into the things that were still up to me. Fundamentally, it’s this that leads to me feel like I existed, rather than lived. To me, being alive means growing or making progress in some important area of my life. It means actually doing the things that I can do, rather than just waiting for things to change or get better on their own. Unfortunately I don’t think I did as much of this as I could have, or would have liked to.

I was talking about all of this with a friend, when she remarked that she didn’t understand why I felt this way. She noted that to her, it seemed like I had done a lot of things: I did a lot of “inner work” which improved how I see myself and my perspective on life, I taught a semester-long class on my own for the first time, I moved to a larger, work-from-home-friendly house, made smart financial decisions, and had a nice Christmas tree in my own home for the first time. I managed to occasionally see some of my friends in a safe, socially distanced way and I also had a number of new experiences, liking playing video games online with people, for the first time.

And so we’re back to why this is a subjective feeling. Making progress and taking action in meaningful directions is important to my sense of feeling alive, but it’s often hard for me to recognize when I’m doing things that don’t fit into a pre-defined mold. I have a strong type-A streak: there is a (short) list of things that I feel like I should be doing or working towards, and anything else doesn’t really count. If I do things that aren’t on that list, it often doesn’t quite register as meaningful activity. For 2020, the main items on that list were (re-)building a social circle and relationships, and making research progress, both of which have been stymied by COVID and related stresses. I didn’t put much stock in things I did that weren’t on that list until someone else brought them up. This forms a feedback loop: because I don’t see the things I do that aren’t “on the list” (looking from the outside in) it feels like I’m not doing anything at all (looking from the inside out). And so the subjective feeling is that I am just kinda existing in the world, without doing anything to meaningfully engage with it, even if the more objective reality is more complicated and balanced.

I suppose all of this is a way of saying: be careful what you pay attention to. One of my themes for 2021 is to be more careful of being in the present moment, to pay attention to what I am currently doing, even if it seems boring or mundane, or not exactly what I would like to be doing. I don’t know what 2021 has in store for me, but I am hoping that instead of obsessing over what I can’t do, I manage to embrace what I can. More importantly, I hope I can give myself credit for the things that I do manage to do, even if I’m not checking off an ideal list. After all, as I’ve noted before: just to be alive is enough.