2021 was the hardest year of my life.
It all started, as so many things these days do, in 2020. Our entire lives changed within the span of a few months that year, from moving back to the U.S. from Mexico City in March, to buying and moving into our first home in May, to welcoming our son Caio in October.
On top of all this personal change, the business exploded in 2020 as online education rose to meet the challenges of the COVID pandemic and lockdown. We expanded our marketing, hiring, and operations to meet the demand, thankful that we were spared the impact that hit so many other businesses.
I thought we handled all of this very well in 2020. Little did I know, all this change was building up like a deep underwater swell. In 2021, that hidden swell became a tsunami wave.
Looking back, the common factor in everything that felt challenging this year was chronic sleep deprivation. For the first few months after his birth, Caio slept like an angel. With the help of the miraculous Snoo, an intelligent bassinet that rocks babies to sleep based on their movement and sounds, we floated peacefully in the calm before the storm.
Around February of 2021, the Snoo stopped working, and our lives were thrown into chaos. Caio started needing multiple attempts to go to sleep, and then awoke several times throughout the night. At around 5 or 6am, he would wake up for good, which meant at least one of us had to be up and about.
Even with the help of books like The Happy Sleeper (affiliate link), which I summarized for quick reference, and plentiful advice from our moms who together raised 9 children, we struggled all year to get enough sleep. This chronic lack of sleep in turn took a toll on every aspect of our life – Lauren and I made worse decisions about what to eat, skipped exercise because we were too tired, felt more reactive and temperamental at work, and were less patient and understanding with each other.
I found that sleep deprivation is cumulative. It builds up and compounds so that 2 months of insufficient sleep is more than two times worse than 1 month. It’s like being jetlagged, or drunk – a pervasive cognitive tax that makes everything seem more dramatic, more threatening, and more overwhelming. Sleep scarcity makes everything else also seem scarce.
Instead of taking things easy and giving ourselves more time, we hit the gas pedal on the business even harder. From the moment I signed a book deal in April 2020, it has felt we are on a fixed timeline marching toward publication. 2021 was the pivotal year to finish the manuscript, build our team, design and launch the promotional campaign, and open the earliest pre-orders for the book. None of that was going to wait, and I didn’t feel like I could either.
This meant that the months of peak sleep deprivation coincided with the period when I needed to do my best thinking to finish the book manuscript. On many days I struggled to get through even just one page. The result was too many days spent in survival mode this year. Too much time when I felt my time horizon shortened, from months or weeks to days or hours.
I often found myself ignoring everything that wasn’t needed to get through the day. I ignored the consequences of my short-term decisions, whether that meant letting the laundry or dishes pile up, ignoring household maintenance, or ordering takeout for the fifth time in a week. Living in survival mode is like spiraling into debt. Each day adds to the pile of future problems you know you’re going to have to face
It doesn’t matter, because you know you won’t be around to experience those future consequences if you don’t make it through the next few hours.
In last year’s review, I wrote: “It’s become very clear to me that becoming a ‘family man’ is a decision. It doesn’t happen automatically just because you have a kid. It’s a distinct identity shift that I think has to be by choice. My intention for this year-end review is to lay the foundation for my shift from a work-obsessed to a family-centric life, with my son and wife at the center of my universe. I want everything else in my life to be in service of them, simply because nothing else matters as much as them.”
Oh how naive I was.
The truth is that it’s taken me a full year since the birth of our son to even begin to truly understand how he’s changed our lives forever. If I’m honest with myself, a lot of the reason the year was so hard is that we didn’t make the lifestyle changes needed to accommodate him.
For example, it’s now clear that we are going to be waking up at 6 or 7am for the foreseeable future, which means we need to go to bed much earlier, around 9pm instead of our usual 11pm bedtime. We put Caio to bed at 7pm every night, and we got in the habit of treating 7-11pm as “our time.” When in reality we have only a couple hours after he falls asleep before it’s time to begin our own bedtime routine.
There are so many other changes that we only began to integrate in 2021. Travel is far more complicated than before and even short trips require a lot of preparation and planning. The daily routine of feedings, naps, and walks is paramount, and disrupting it is hardly ever worth it. We lived relatively carefree and adaptable lives before Caio arrived, but now I’m learning that a rigid routine is a gift to all of our circadian rhythms.
Despite all these challenges, 2021 was also the best year of my life. Paradoxical, I know.
Having kids is like taking a massive fisheye lens to your life. Everything gets exaggerated, for better or worse. The good parts become amazing. The not-so-good parts become truly awful. Very little is left unchanged or untouched. The small moments – the first time he laughed, the first time he flipped over on his own, the first time he crawled – impart an almost incalculable joy at the most unexpected times. So many everyday moments feel infused with meaning, as I remember my own childhood and share in the delights of his discovery of the world.
Let’s begin this year’s review by revisiting the goals I set in the last one.
2021 goals revisited
Grow my email newsletter list to 100k
A year ago I wrote, “In 2020 I averaged 86 new subscribers per day, taking into account unsubscribes, and to reach this goal in 2021 I’ll need to approximately double this to an average of 164 per day.”
What actually happened? We grew the email list from 39,909 to 54,880 subscribers, or a 37.5% increase. That comes out to an average 42 new subscribers per day, net of unsubscribes. Instead of doubling our growth rate, we halved it!
Obviously this isn’t what I wanted, but I also understand why it happened. I was barely able to give email growth any attention this year, and the fact that it did even this well is a testament to the power of evergreen content. We’ve just made our first full-time hire focused completely on audience growth, and I expect we’ll turn this around in 2022.
Maintain our focus on our two flagship courses
A year ago I committed to focusing on our two flagship courses, Building a Second Brain and Write of Passage, and to not create any new courses or products. We did that successfully, and experienced tremendous growth and innovation as a result.
The two online programs I helped launch in 2020, The Art of Accomplishment (taught by Joe Hudson) and the Keystone Course Accelerator (taught by Billy Broas), held their second cohorts this year with incredible results. I’m beginning to see these 4 programs as a larger ecosystem, amounting to something like a complete education for anyone seeking to develop and share their ideas online:
- First people take Building a Second Brain, learning how to master their knowledge workflow and develop new ideas over time
- Second, they take Write of Passage (taught by David Perell) to learn how to express their thinking and expertise in writing for a public audience
- Third, if they want to go deeper into the personal growth that always represents the true bottleneck on entrepreneurial growth and creative self-expression, they take The Art of Accomplishment
- Fourth, if they want to follow in our footsteps and make an impact on others through their ideas, products, or services, they take the Keystone Course Accelerator and learn how to effectively market and scale their course, coaching, or information product
Altogether, these 4 programs represent about 22 weeks of instruction, and cost somewhere between $20,000–30,000 depending on the pricing tier and add-ons selected. In other words, it is comparable to a single semester at an elite university in terms of time commitment and cost. While offering, I would argue, vastly greater benefits for the investment versus what any university can offer.
I currently have no intention of centralizing these courses into a single curriculum or formally linking our offerings together. Every student is on their own unique learning journey, and it may only partially intersect with ours. And each instructor has to be free to evolve their course in the direction they see fit. I’m sharing this mostly as an observation, that individual courses that have individually found an audience can be combined into something much greater than the sum of their parts.
Launch 100 cohort-based courses through the Keystone Course Accelerator
After two successful cohorts of Keystone, it’s become very clear that the ideal target market for this program isn’t fledgling course creators. You have to have a product that’s already working before it makes sense to scale it. Billy has pivoted towards existing, mature course instructors who are ready to invest in creating a marketing flywheel, so this goal ended up being ill-conceived.
Going forward, it won’t be so much about bringing new courses into existence as much as magnifying the impact existing courses are having. Keystone remains my top recommendation for anyone seeking to follow in my footsteps and scale an online education business.
Run a live cohort with 2,000 students at once
We very nearly did this, with cohort 12 of Building a Second Brain counting more than 1,600 new students and returning alumni combined. From that first small cohort of 30 people, we’ve now taught more than 5,000 learners from more than 100 countries how to build a Second Brain.
I wrote last year, “…we’re going to have to reinvent many of the ways that traditional universities have scaled learning in the physical world. We’ll need teaching assistants who can cater to the individual needs of students, labs that take the theories and apply them experimentally, self-organized study groups where students take the initiative, electives and seminars that students can mix and match into their own majors and minors, etc. The key is that the quality of the student experience has to get better, not worse, as we scale.”
Yeah, no kidding.
We made a huge number of changes and improvements to cohort 12 and 13 this year, which you can read about in depth here. At the same time, I’ve realized that we’re relying on the cohort to do too many things at once. Every 6 months we have to simultaneously:
- Iterate on the learning design and student experience
- Improve the core material based on past feedback
- Reactivate the community, which lies mostly dormant between cohorts
- Recruit and train new course staff and a new group of alumni mentors
- Plan and relaunch a whole new marketing campaign to communicate all these changes
Trying to do so much for each cohort makes them chaotic and stressful. Our desire to make the biggest possible improvements conflicts with our need to reuse and capitalize on existing assets. There is little continuity in staffing between cohorts, because we can’t afford to keep people employed for such long periods without new revenue, which means we have to retrain them every time.
All this has led me to conclude that it’s time to develop a new educational offering. We are envisioning a subscription-based, private learning community that makes the experience of building a Second Brain into a longer term, slower and steadier, more self-guided path. While pairing it with a community and roster of coaches to make sure that people get the feedback and accountability they need to be successful. We’ll share more about that soon.
Make operational excellence and customer service central pillars of our business
The truth is, the systems and people needed to scale to our current size are quite far beyond what I can manage or even understand.
I’ve gone from teaching and managing everything myself, to leading a team of over 40 people, including our own team and a group of freelance coaches and volunteer moderators. To navigate that growth, I’ve relied heavily on our Director of Course Operations Monica Rysavy, who joined early in the year, and on Course Director Steven Zen, who joined in September just before cohort 13.
We now have a centralized database of student records in Airtable that combines and integrates student data from over a dozen separate sources, including things like Zoom attendance, Teachable transactions, Circle submissions, and ConvertKit email engagement metrics, among others. We have a unified profile for each student that takes our course that shows us their choices and behavior across all the different platforms we use to deliver our program. We’re just at the beginning of what this database will allow us to do in the future.
A year ago I wrote, “To have the impact we want, we have to rely on frictionless operations to prevent trouble before it arises, to help customers solve their own problems, and to use content and education to make customer support a value-add instead of a backup plan.”
We’ve built the systems to deliver on the first part of that promise, and next year I want to use it to make our customer service the best in the industry.
Redesign BASB brand identity and apply it to new website
We barely got this done before the end of the year, but I’m proud to say we now have a beautiful, comprehensive, deeply thoughtful visual identity for all things Second Brain! You can read all about it here: The New Building a Second Brain: Brand Reveal.
I previously wrote about this project, “My goal isn’t simply to have a pretty looking website. It is to unify the customer experience across all the different platforms and formats we use to deliver our education. A reader of the Building a Second Brain book should be able to finish reading, decide they want to go deeper, and sign up for the course without any friction or confusion. Branding is really about creating a world for people to inhabit, and making it as easy as possible to move within it toward what they’re seeking.”
We absolutely delivered on that goal, in partnership with designer Maya P. Lim, and I’m certain the new brand we created will powerfully support our efforts for years to come.
Hire Director of Content
Last time I wrote, “…after years of slow, organic growth based on my individual efforts and word of mouth, I believe we have all the major pieces to create a truly global, transformational media platform for teaching people how to work smarter in the 21st century.”
Along with Monica, we made three other key hires this year to support that vision: Marc Koenig as our first Director of Content in charge of all our content creation and distribution, Steven Zen as our new Course Director, and Julia Saxena as our first Marketing Manager focused on marketing and audience growth.
Back then it was only a wish, but with the dream team we’ve put together this year it now feels like an imminent reality. It’s difficult for me to overstate how much trust I have in this group of people to blow through our wildest ambitions. We have the benefit of drawing on an incredible community of people who already know what we do and believe in our mission, which has made it possible for a small, bootstrapped startup like us to recruit world-class talent.
Grow YouTube following to 50k subscribers
Not everything went so according to plan, and that applies primarily to my video ambitions.
Last year I wrote: “I’m going to make a major effort in the second half of 2021 to post more videos and grow my YouTube following. This will be partly the responsibility of the Managing Editor mentioned above, because the post-production process of downloading, editing, preparing, and uploading videos is one of the main bottlenecks to my current output. A second piece of this is the home studio we’re building in our garage, which will give me a space to set up the equipment without having to constantly take it down. And third, I’m going to look for a video editor that I can outsource editing to.”
I set a big goal for 2021 – multiplying our YouTube following by more than double, from less than 20k to 50k subscribers. The interesting thing about goals is that the level of ambition you set your sights on right at the beginning determines the very first steps that you have to take to be able to reach them.
For example, if you set a goal to sell 100 chocolate bars, you’d probably just start making phone calls and walking door to door in your neighborhood. You know that you easily have 100 chocolate bar buyers in your personal network, so there’s no need to build anything bigger.
But if you decide you’re going to sell 1 million chocolate bars, that’s an entirely different picture. Suddenly, it makes sense to start by building systems: striking a bulk deal with a local distributor, creating your own promotional assets, publishing a website, writing promotional copy, hiring a sales force, etc. It might be months before you sell even one chocolate bar.
Which means that paradoxically, the bigger your goal, the longer it will be before you make any visible progress on it. Now this is a very dangerous situation, because it is SO EASY to fool yourself into believing that you are responsibly planning and preparing, when in fact you are procrastinating on taking the most important action. On the surface, these two paths look the same, but they lead to entirely different places.
There are a few principles I use to make sure that my “planning and preparation” is not procrastination in disguise.
First, I always try the DIY route first to make sure I understand what’s involved in the new endeavor. I produced all my own YouTube videos for the past few years, 109 in total, doing everything from filming to editing to audio to uploading. That included my own complete mini-documentary, which I debuted last year, to make sure I truly understood everything involved in making in-depth videos. All these efforts led to a decent audience of 20k subscribers, which I felt was enough to give me a lay of the land.
Second, I always try to involve others as collaborators, feedback-givers, and accountability partners. Working completely on my own, it’s far too easy to keep postponing hard decisions and repeatedly miss the same blindspots. I knew that I needed personal accountability to get to the next level of video creation, which is one of the main reasons I hired our first Director of Content this year.
Marc made several visits to our home in Long Beach in 2021, including two of them to coincide with the remodel of our garage into a home studio, and a consulting engagement with studio design expert Kevin Shen to set up all the new cameras, lighting, and sound gear. All in, we invested over $100k in our home studio to make it the ideal venue for shooting live video with minimal fuss (including about $65k for the remodel itself, $10k on furniture and interior design, $15k on equipment, and $10k on consulting). We’ve also recruited two experienced freelance video editors who we’ll be working with on our post-production starting early next year.
This has all taken FAR longer than I expected: 5 months to remodel the garage, 3 months to recruit and onboard Marc, 2 months to set up and figure out how to use the AV equipment, and another 2 months to find a video editor. The amount of documentation and practice I’ve had to do to operate all this equipment has been staggering. To give you an example, we now have an over 100-point checklist we run through as a team before every live class session of our course, in order to ensure every little setting is right.
We’ve made tremendous progress, and our live Zoom setup now rivals platforms like MasterClass. Here’s an example:
But a side effect of focusing on the needs of the course was that we didn’t publish a single new YouTube video in 2020, except for a few informal interviews and updates. We are creating a system that should soon be capable of pumping out a steady stream of super high-quality, engaging, educational videos, which I hope to unveil for you soon.
Hire a personal trainer and work with them 90 times in 2021
I hired a personal trainer in early February, and mostly stuck to a schedule of two weekly hour-long workouts for the entire year. Minus a couple trips and sick days, I worked out with him 74 times this year. This is definitely the most consistently I’ve ever exercised in my life, and I’m the strongest I’ve ever been.
One thing I’ve learned is that exercise by itself isn’t enough to maintain excellent health. I also gained the most weight ever, due to a poor diet and neglecting smaller bouts of exercise (such as jogging) on my off-days. This is an interesting side effect of outsourcing my willpower to a professional: I felt less motivated to exercise on my own, knowing that the next “gym day” was right around the corner.
I recently spoke with a friend who described the 3 pillars of health: excercise, diet, and sleep. I plan on continuing to work with my trainer in 2022, and turning my attention to improving the other two pillars of diet and sleep.
A few other goals were abandoned or put on pause, mostly due to my lack of interest or inability to give them enough attention:
- Launch a second group of Praxis Fellows
- Establish Growth Board for Forte Labs
- Complete “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” exercises
- Record my first music album
- Meditate every day for 30 minutes
And we reached a few milestones this year that weren’t part of my official goals, but were rewarding nonetheless:
- Our first 7-figure course launch
- Released Season 2 of the Building a Second Brain podcast (which has now had over 300k downloads total)
- Made my first 3 angel investments in promising edtech startups, including Maven, SchoolHouse, and Circle
- Bought our first minivan, a Toyota Sienna, to transport our growing family
- Held our first team retreat in Escondido, CA
- Got our first dog, an English Lab puppy named Ximena
- Received over 2,000 pre-orders for my book Building a Second Brain (I previously estimated 4-5,000, which I learned was an overestimate)
- Hosted my first in-person meetup since the start of the pandemic, in San Francisco
- Signed our first three international book deals (in the United Kingdom and India, with the others to be announced soon)
My top lessons learned
Don’t underestimate the difficulty of moving atoms versus bits
I had to learn multiple times this year that any project taking place in the physical world is far more complicated, risky, expensive, error prone, and lengthy than those that take place digitally.
Not only with our studio remodel, but with the first two homes being built by my brother Lucas’ company Forte Shelter, I saw time and again that the physical world is a much less forgiving place. As I consider other projects that require moving atoms, not just bits, I’m tempering my expectations and preparing myself to spend more time and money than I expect.
People can do the jobs I delegate to them far faster, more deeply, and with more joy and enthusiasm
We crossed a threshold this year as we hired our first full-time course staff beyond a Course Manager. That seemed to unlock a new layer of the business, where for the first time, each person could afford to focus completely on one aspect of the product.
It’s been amazing to see just how deep we can go in areas like operations, marketing, curriculum design, mentor training, live streaming production, graphic design, and others when we have the collective bandwidth. I’ve seen our team begin to explore possibilities that I never would have thought of, much less been able to execute on.
Along with that, I’ve begun to let go of the feeling of total responsibility for every tiny little detail of the course. It’s not my responsibility to bear alone anymore. I don’t have enough caring to spread across all the people and all the needs that the course now encompasses. I get to borrow the caring of my team as a kind of extension of my heart, not just my mind.
The most surprising thing I’ve noticed is how different people are, and that a job I can barely tolerate, someone else can usually do with enthusiasm (or at least less aversion). This is a remarkable thing about humans working in groups: there is a fit between certain tasks and people’s minds, and my job as a leader is to create an environment where that fit can be identified quickly.
You cannot spark the entrepreneurial spirit in someone else – that is 100% their responsibility and only they can choose that path
Over the past couple years I’ve made a number of attempts to “help people become entrepreneurs.” I assumed self-employment was the best path for everyone, that I was uniquely lucky to have found it, and therefore I had the responsibility to show others the way.
I still want to share how I did it, if they want to follow it, but I’ve also learned that I absolutely cannot take responsibility for that inner spark of entrepreneurial drive that they must have if they’re going to succeed. If I try, I end up robbing them of their agency and setting them up for failure with too high of expectations.
Going forward, I’m broadening my definition of “entrepreneurship” to include any kind of self-started, creative, challenging endeavor, whether that is an actual business or side gig, an ambitious project at work, raising a family, or creating a life you are proud of. That wider definition allows me to share what I know without feeling on the hook for the specific business outcomes people produce, which no one can guarantee.
The community we’ve created is a vibrant and deeply heartfelt one
One of the few public events Lauren and I went to this year was a comedy show by Hasan Minhaj at the Microsoft Theatre in downtown LA. It was a jarring experience being part of such a huge crowd after so many months of avoiding groups of any size.
The show was sold out, and the theatre was packed with 7,000 raving fans who had all come together to see Minhaj perform. His style of comedy isn’t to tell jokes so much as it is to tell stories. Those stories are funny, but also vulnerable, heartfelt, meaningful, and relatable.
It reminded me, if I dare say so, of myself. This is what I do in my courses – tell stories that can be funny, but at their best are also heartfelt and meaningful. Stories are such a powerful means of teaching because they don’t rely on outside authority for their credibility. They are judged to be true or not true, useful or not useful, based on how they resonate with the listener. When you feel the truth of a story inside you, you don’t need to be convinced or persuaded to learn from it.
It was powerful to see a reflection of my own experience in Minhaj’s performance, but then I heard a voice in my head say, “Yes but he’s reaching a far bigger audience than you.” But then I turned around in my chair, looked at the vast number of people sitting in that theatre, and realized that the number of people who have taken my course isn’t so far off.
Feeling the collective energy of so many people, all aligned behind one cause, it hit me in the gut how powerful of a community we’ve built over the last 5 years. It’s easy to forget when it’s abstracted behind metrics and subscriber counts, but we’ve gathered one of the most formidable groups on the planet committed to capitalizing on the full potential of their knowledge.
Two questions have kept running through my head since that day: “What can 5,000 smart, dedicated people accomplish in the world?” And another, even more powerful question: “What can 5,000 smart, dedicated people not accomplish in the world?”
Ask “What is the unique role I can play?”
As the business has prospered and we’ve built up our reputation, a question I increasingly find myself asking is “What is the unique role I can play?”
I no longer want to do anything that anyone else can do just as well or better. I no longer want to waste my time replicating the past or future efforts of others, trying to excel in areas where I’m not excellent, and playing defense instead of offense.
As I look at the field I’ve found myself in – the emerging niche of personal knowledge management within the broader productivity ecosystem – it’s so clear to me what my purpose is within it. My role is not to develop or refine the technology or tools. It’s not to push the state of the art in advanced knowledge management frameworks or concepts.
There is really only one thing I feel uniquely equipped to lead – the popularization of PKM from a tiny niche into the broader mainstream culture. On a scale of 1-10, my job is to get people from level 0 to level 1 in their knowledge management skills, because once they are there, they will have the tools and the motivation to find all the other answers they need. So many others are doing such incredible work at levels 2-10, but with my story and my skills I am an ambassador that invites foreign travelers into this strange and magical land.
This is, honestly, a relief. I don’t need to stay on the absolute cutting edge of rapidly evolving technology. I don’t need to track all the new ideas and concepts emerging from the field. There is far too much going on for any one person or even company to keep track of. Instead, I get to pursue what I enjoy and use the Second Brain I’ve already created to live the life I want to live. And by doing so, I have the chance to be a role model for others. To teach by example, through who I am and what I do, not just by what I say.
What triggers you in another person is what you don’t allow yourself to feel
On a more personal note, I’m learning a lot about an idea called “projection”: that anything that irritates, aggravates, or triggers you about someone else is usually just a part of yourself that you haven’t yet learned to accept and love, which is being “projected” onto the other person like a mirror.
I’m often triggered when others present themselves as victims. Their helplessness feels threatening to me because I haven’t learned to completely embrace my own sense of helplessness, which is a normal and natural part of being human. The consequence of that is I fear any situation where I feel not capable, or uncertain of how to make progress, or simply too tired to give it my all. Which means that I miss out on a lot of opportunities for growth and enjoyment in domains where I’m not already experienced, and have difficulty accepting help from others or even recognizing when help is offered.
Lauren and I recently took part in a weekend couple’s retreat facilitated by a mentor of mine, Joe Hudson. One of the main themes of the retreat was that anything that triggers you about your partner can be seen as a chance to “own a projection.” Instead of treating triggers as something to be avoided and feared, we can welcome them as opportunities for growth. In long-term relationships especially, recurring triggers are like reminders of a part of ourselves we’ve rejected, which we have the chance to forgive and welcome back into the fold of our self-love.
There’s one more thing I’ve noticed through the process of owning my projections: everything you do to avoid an emotion is what invites it. You don’t want to feel rejected by others, so you hedge your statements and hold back from full commitment, which is what ends up getting you rejected. You don’t want to feel like you have power over others, so you avoid stating your wants or insisting on your boundaries, which ends up making you passive aggressive, a far more insidious and hurtful form of power. And by “you,” I mean “I.”
Working out regularly is not enough to be healthy – diet and sleep are the other essential parts of the equation
I often run an experiment to try and determine, in an area of my life that isn’t currently my focus, what is the absolute minimum I can do? It’s a much more fun and interesting experiment than the far more common “What is the most I can do?”
I ran that experiment with my health this year, in the midst of all the other new projects and responsibilities I took on. I hired a personal trainer to work with me twice a week to “outsource” my exercise to an external accountability partner, and signed up for a healthy meal delivery service called Methodology (which I highly recommend) to automate our eating.
The results of my experiment were clear: my health needs more attention than that. I learned that weight-lifting twice a week isn’t enough, no matter how hard I push myself during those sessions. I also need regular cardio and yoga or stretching to feel good. And while we love meal delivery, there is simply no substitute for home-cooked meals.
We’re making changes in the new year to pay more attention to all three of these main pillars of our health, and thinking about them as a family instead of only individually.
Your capacity may theoretically be unlimited, but the more important question is, “Do you want to make the tradeoffs necessary to expand your capacity?”
One of my fundamental, most deeply held beliefs is that human capacity is inherently unlimited. I don’t know where I got this belief, but I think it is part of the core engine of motivation that fuels my research, writing, teaching, and growth.
After the most punishing year in memory, I’m revisiting this belief and adding some caveats. I still believe that human potential is unbounded, subject only to the limits of physics (barely). But an important question that I want to ask myself next time I take on so much growth and change in a short amount of time is, “Do I want to make the necessary tradeoffs?”
Am I willing to have my limits tested and pushed? Am I interested in letting go of assumptions and limiting beliefs at the necessary pace? Am I able to depend on other people to the extent necessary? Do I want to take on the additional risk? Do I want to create the systems and routines in my life that will be needed to support that level of capacity? Am I willing to change how I think, how I work, how I lead, and how I delegate at the scale of the goals I’ve set for myself?
The crux of these questions is that they have to be tradeoffs I want to make, not just ones I am capable of or willing to make, which is the filter I used in the past. The main driver of my goals and ambitions is shifting from my needs, which are already more than fulfilled, to my wants, which are far more powerful and able to be shared by so many others. To tap into that greater source of power, I have to be completely aligned with my wants, my desire, and my source of pleasure in all areas of my life.
Boundaries don’t have to be policed or enforced; they exist because you said so
Another theme we explored in our couple’s retreat is boundaries. I thought I knew what they were – militarized psychological borders patrolled by heavily armed guards day and night, warding off the constant threat of invasion.
In one exercise, Lauren and I practiced saying “no” to each other over and over again. I found my “no” was hard and severe, like a wall of ice. This was because I believed subconsciously that the strength of the boundary was equal to my ferocity in protecting it. I found that at the moment of saying “no,” I dissociated a little and withdrew my love for a moment. Which left me with the unspoken impression that in order to protect my needs, I had to withdraw love from the people who matter most to me. It’s no wonder I’ve felt reluctant to enforce my boundaries.
As we iterated on our “no” over and over and over again, I discovered to my surprise that there were many flavors of “no.” I could say “no” softly, even affectionately, without withdrawing my affection for the person for even a moment, and it was just as strong. The power of that “no” came from its honesty, not its ruthlessness. I got in touch with the intensity of the self-love that lies behind every “no.” I saw that saying no is a radical act of self-care. And found that when I model such self-care for myself, the people around me feel permissioned to practice it for themselves.
Another word for “boundaries” is “needs.” Needs are your birthright. You don’t have to explain them, don’t have to justify them, and don’t have to earn them. You deserve your needs for the same reason you deserve to live.
I always like to frame my explorations as open-ended questions, which I call my “favorite problems.” This year, I’m adding the following questions to my list:
- What does the simple version of this look like?
- What is my want?
- In this moment, how can I value presence over prep?
- What can 5,000 smart, dedicated people not accomplish?
- What is the unique role I can play?
- Do I want to make the tradeoffs necessary to expand my capacity?
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