Letting Go of Perfect

I grew up in a world where perfection was taught as the ideal. I was surrounded by critical (yet loving) adults during my childhood, and each shortcoming that I had was never missed, and pointedly brought to my attention. While a positive take on this particular upbringing would include a constant desire for continual self-improvement, to which I attribute my acquisition of a wide array of knowledgeable tidbits and how-tos, I would like to argue that perfectionism in excess could be damaging to any human being, and even more so, to a child.

We are all human. Meaning we all make mistakes. Perfection is not attainable by any means. Yet it is societally portrayed as an achievable goal. At an early age, we are taught to reach for perfection. Examples of this include staying within the lines when you first learn to color. Using a ruler when drawing a line. Organizing your desks into rows and columns. Dot the I’s and cross the T’s. Aim for 100% on every exam. An A+ is the most covetable grade, would you not agree? This extends into our later school years, when we have to practice our speeches before we present. When we try out for Club sports teams, or for a part in the school play. And so the cycle goes long after we’ve graduated. When we see coworkers getting promotions, friends buying new cars or new homes, advertisements showing off the latest gadgets, Instagram photos of so and so still looking fly at age 30 while you’re trying to hide the dark circles under your eyes. We get graded our whole lives, judged, measured against our peers, our progress monitored with the hope of seeing some improvement. Alas, I am not saying improvement isn’t good. I am only saying perfection is not.

For the entirety of my first decade on earth, and for the majority of the second, I believed that creating a life as close to perfect as possible will yield a very successful life. I remember my personal frustrations when I would fall short of perfect. I would throw tantrums, loathing myself for my humanness. I would watch kids close to my age and aim to beat them in everything I can. My competitive spirit urged me to fight, until I left everyone behind in the dust. If I lost a game, I would be livid. If I didn’t get the highest score on a test, I would not allow myself any joys. Once I did start getting the highest scores on the test, it stopped being enough. I also had to be the first to turn the test in. I had to be the kid with the highest grades in the highest classes with the most volunteer hours while balancing multiple jobs. I was doing well at striving for perfect. I now realize that perfectionism is unsustainable, and if I had continued down that path, I would end up exhausted, burnt out, and defeated, because I would have never, no matter how hard I tried, ever reached the point of perfection. I would have spent more years of my life, afraid of being judged, but being judged anyway.

I got to a point in my early teens where I felt I was never good enough. My ego was deflated to something akin to paper thin. I think if striving for perfection is forced at a very early age on children, it can lead to a number of insecurities that, misguided, could have life-long detrimental effects. I, luckily, am not such a child, but how many teenagers today feel a vast emptiness in their lives? How many people develop eating disorders, depression, or suicidal tendencies? How many adults play “Keeping up with the Joneses”? How many people spend every day trying to be somebody they’re not? I was able to escape the rabbit hole towards perfection before it all together consumed me. It did however, define my early teen years. I was a very shy young girl, who was not confident at all in my abilities, despite achieving more than my peers. I felt like my accomplishments always fell short, although I kept on trying, and because of that, I had a tendency to undersell myself. More importantly, I lived in constant fear that whatever I was accomplishing in life was not good enough by other people’s standards. Because of this, I kept my accomplishments mostly to myself. I was afraid to share ideas, to ask questions, or to take a risk when opportunities arose. I was hesitant to meet new people, to start trends, and to step outside of my comfort zone, avoiding activities such as sports or acting. Public speaking scared the living daylights out of me. I once had to stand up and give a speech in front of a class for Academic Decathlon. I was so afraid, I remember shaking like a leaf. A funny classmate of mine yelled, “Is the wind blowing in here?” I remember starting to cry in front of twenty other students. Not exactly the best impression. The teacher never made me do a class presentation for the rest of the year, and I was forever ear-marked as a sensitive student. Ironically, six months later, I won third place for my speech, in all of Orange County, out of more than five hundred students. It’s not that my speech wasn’t good the first time, or that I improved my delivery dramatically by practicing for the competition. It was because I was presenting in front of twenty peers who I was afraid would not understand my writing style, my topic, or my delivery, VS speaking to two judges who I felt understood multiple writing styles, topics, and deliveries. I would have forever been doomed to this constant, insecure state, if it weren’t for art.

My savior came in the form of an art teacher in 11th grade named Mr. Welke. He was an older fellow who had a gray handlebar mustache, wore a leather jacket, a white tee, and jeans every day, played guitar, and rode a bright blue motorcycle to school. He was my hero. I decided to take art class because, well, I loved to draw, and paint, and make things out of nothing. I didn’t take an art class before that point because it wasn’t considered “productive”. I was only able to take it when I was finishing up a majority of my requirements to graduate and I still needed a fifth period class. Creativity has always been an attractive soul mate, a kindred spirit that stayed the course with me from childhood until now. My problem was that whenever I created something and showed it to a grown up, there was always room for improvement. Additionally, if I ever created anything remotely avant-garde, it would be scoffed at for being a bit too creative, which, little did I know, does not exist. Repeatedly redirected to copying other famous artists’ work, or redoing mine own to be a bit more perfect, I fell into a cycle of non-creativity. I was told I was making art, when really, I was RE-making art. The same art that already exists.

When I started art class, I thought I was going to be great at it. I thought it was going to be an easy course to add to my five AP classes (zero period included), and will allow me time to relax at school. However, for the first few months, I struggled. Not because I had awful hand-eye coordination or lack of attention to detail. Mostly, because my fear of falling short of perfect crippled my ability to produce anything. I fell behind due dates, turning in assignments such as drawing vertical lines without a ruler and making circles with the left hand very late. I remember I struggled most when we were asked to make a self-portrait of ourselves in pencil. I must have stared at myself in the mirror for a hundred hours, scrapping every attempt I made because I felt like none of them resembled a hard-copy photograph of the mirror. I think he recognized my struggles, and one day told me that I was trying way too hard. He gave me a small speech and though the words are now lost to me, the message never left.

You cannot be an artist and perfect at the same time. Aiming for perfection will handicap you in more ways than one. You will not be able to produce, and you will not be able to create. You can only copy what has already been done, and continue to re-do it forever and ever, because there is no end with perfection. True art, or any form of expression of self, cannot coexist with something so definite. If you want to be a genuine creative, you have to let perfect go. The point of art is to produce. At the end of the day, if you made one thing, regardless of what it looks like to others or to you, you have still made one thing. It’s a product that you can sign, or not sign, share, or keep to yourself. You can do whatever you want with it, because it is yours and only yours. A true artist needs to learn to genuinely express what is inside their being, without fear of being judged. An audience should never shape what you are trying to make, or else they will rob you of your true self. You would be a complete waste, if you do not create for the rest of your life.

While it took me many years to start implementing this advice, and I continually tweak it even today, it taught me what it meant to be the real me. At first, I applied it solely to my art. I started to turn in paintings and drawings that were unfinished, but on time. I learned that to finish something, I had to stop spending my time lolling, overthinking, overanalyzing, and scrapping. I stopped running in circles until I was ragged, and started drawing straight lines without caring about their lack of straightness. I stopped being so hard on myself, and I started to love the freedom of making a blob and calling that art. I started to answer questions, then ask them myself. I started to challenge multiple thoughts, and reach out to other people I didn’t know. I conquered the fear of tackling any task that might initially seem too big. I stopped believing in limits. I started living life, one day at a time. My goal is to no longer be perfect. My goal is to be free. Every morning, I wake up with one mission. To be slightly better than I was yesterday. That’s it. I don’t have to reach a milestone. As long as I work towards improving myself in even the slightest bit, then I have already created a better me in a better place. I can put my signature on it, and share it with the world, or keep it to myself. By wanting to become an artist, I learned to reach for something beyond perfect. I started to reach for something completely human.

Thoughts on: Inspiring Change

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I don’t write for the sake of writing. I write about things that I want to change. Frequently, the topics I embrace include less plastic use, refusing fast fashion, supporting eco-friendly practices, buying fair trade products, standing behind ethical companies, amidst other things. I write not just for myself, but for the world, for young generations, and for future generations. The birth of this blog, and its subsequent series, did not come from a day of boredom, neither did it come from a place of self-interest. It comes from a desire to help people see the effects of their actions in a different, and more insightful, light. The hope is to at least get one person, if not a whole group of people, thinking about the impact their everyday life decisions make on the world. May Martin Luther King, Jr. be an inspiration today, and every day, to progress towards a better tomorrow.

  • To be inspired, read Martin Luther’s letter from a Birmingham jail, here.

If you have the day off today, and decidedly want to spend it browsing Netflix, might I suggest some documentaries that I watched last year that changed the course of my life in one way or another?

Plastic Ocean

Chasing Corals

The True Cost

The Minimalists

If you prefer to spend the day cozying up on the couch, might I suggest some of my favorite, most recently read, books?

  • The Measure of a Man by Sydney Poitier
  • The Book of Joy by Douglas Abrams
  • Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaras
  • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

And lastly, if you are going out to spend this beautiful day with friends and family, might I suggest outdoors, in nature, responsibly and environmentally consciously?

Have a wonderful day celebrating the King.

 

Thoughts on: Why perspective matters.

I took an unpremeditated photo of my husband today as we were sitting over a cup (or three … each… ) of coffee. Waving my camera around and snapping random moments in our lives is a commonplace occurrence, to the annoyance of my husband. Unfortunately for him, it yields an extremely high number of candid shots (of only him), all of which I find attractive, some of which he does not. Either way, I was photographing our usual coffee scene (from above, as all Instragrammers do), when I noticed his flippant hair. Tousled and forgotten momentarily as he was scrolling through his phone for the next song on our queue, I decided to photograph its wild and crazy nature. The original photo looked like this:

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Half an hour later, my husband went downstairs to wash his car and I pulled out my cell phone and flipped through some of my most recent shots on my Sony Alpha 6300. I landed on the above photo and decided to post it on Instagram, with the caption “Wild thing” in mind. Then I went to crop. Accidentally cropping off too much from the bottom, I landed on this:

MIKE FLOATING HEAD

Immediately, my perspective changed. By cropping out the shoulders, the image looked like a floating head. Initially, I was slightly shocked, then excited. Suddenly, a whimsical and fairly meaningless photo became a work of art. If one stares long enough, the floating head is all they see. And without any context as to the original photo, I could see this one being featured in some gallery, with viewers ONLY seeing the floating head. Which then inspired this blog post, about the importance of perspective.

A change in perspective can turn your worldview upside down.

MIKE FLOATING HEAD upside down

I like to think of one’s perspective as a lens. We have our own realities, which are created by our individual perspectives. A person can see the world through a different lens from your own. Is that not true? Having the ability to see the world from a different perspective, ie: someone else’s, is a super power that can not only increase one’s empathy, but can also increase one’s happiness. The world can use more of both.

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Usually, when we are frustrated by someone else’s actions, it is because their actions do not mirror our own values. Our frustration, and anger, comes from our inability to understand why they would do such a thing or act in a certain way. A person who grew up in a well-off community may have difficulty understanding what a teenager is doing by roaming the streets as part of a gang at the age of fifteen. The first may see the latter as a rebellious vagabond who threw his life away. But perhaps seeing that this teenager comes from an abusive family may help one to realize that he isn’t rebellious, but rather, is lost, and finds the meaning of family in the only group that supports him and protects him.

Whenever you feel like criticizing any one…just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.     –Scott Fitzgerald

 

As always, I can relate this easily with dentistry. A patient can walk in and refuse to take their mandatory radiographs every 18 months. They read from the internet that radiation can cause cancer, and they want to limit the amount of radiation they receive. A dentist can argue that the amount of radiation received from a set of radiographs equals the amount of radiation we receive from sitting in front of a television for ONE day. The radiation is only received once over the span of 18 months, while the average American sits in front of the television screen for more hours than that over the same time span. A dentist can also argue that the pros of taking radiographs (through early detection of tooth decay) can overcome the cons of the comparatively minor amount of radiation received. Without understanding the source of the patient’s aversion towards radiographs, a dentist can easily (and wrongly) assume that the patient is being non-compliant for the sake of being difficult. Not understanding the dentist’s interest of early prevention of caries formation, a patient can just as quickly assume that the dentist is only trying to make additional money by ordering the radiographs. Without seeing the other’s perspective, one can see how the patient can get offended that the dentist “doesn’t care for his well-being” and how the dentist can arrive at the conclusion that “I must dismiss this patient”. All of this leads to frustration, anger, and mistrust. Both the patient and the dentist may feel equally disrespected. By changing your perspective and understanding that the “non-compliance” stems from something else, something deeper, some different reality, you can bridge the gap between the two different schools of thought by simply asking, “Why?” By trying to understand another person’s perspective, we can begin to increase our empathy towards others. I like to think that people are not being difficult, for the sake of being difficult (also read as: for the sake of pissing you off). People are difficult to understand because YOU are lacking some missing piece that will relate you to them. This is how I like to practice dentistry, and how I try to treat people in general.

You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.  -John Steinbeck

 

From here you can see that changing perspective can increase one’s happiness. At the very least, it decreases the frustration, anger, confusion, disconnect, mistrust, bitterness, etc. that one feels when they refuse to look through a wider (or different) lens.

The Dalai Lama expresses in The Book of Joy that perspective is a pillar of happiness. It was actually listed as the first of the 8 pillars. The Dalai Lama was exiled from his home country, yet reacted not with anger, but with the realization of the opportunity to meet extraordinary people. Likewise, by realizing that someone is suffering, we are able to recognize a part of ourselves within their suffering.

Empathy is the lovefire of sweet remembrance and shared understanding.     -John Eaton

 

I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve been there before. I’ve felt lonely, misunderstood, neglected, and judged. You too, I presume. And from that suffering, we can experience happiness. We are more grateful when we are not in the same position that the other is in, because we remember how it felt to once be in their shoes. How many times have we said, “Thank goodness that didn’t happen to me!”? Usually, it’s because we recognize how it felt when it did happen to us in the past, and thus, we can extrapolate or conclude what it must feel like for the other person in the present. But we must go one step further, past the selfish happiness. Realizing that we have experienced suffering before, just as they do now, we can connect with others, and thus transcend pre-conceived differences, that are actually not differences at all. After breaking down those barriers that once separated us, we can help each other in our suffering. The social value which that brings is the one immeasurable thing that can increase our own happiness. And this is why perspective matters.

 

Empathy is the only human superpower – it can shrink distance, cut through social and power hierarchies, transcend differences, and provoke political and social change.     -Elizabeth Thomas

 

So next time you feel frustrated because of something happening in your life, try to change your perspective, become more empathetic, and experience more happiness, with the realization that we are a reflection of one another, in some way.

All of this, because I took a candid photo.

Shout out to my husband, who is always there to take photos of. Without which, this blog post would not have been inspired, and consequently, would not have ever been written. Sorry about posting your head shot a zillion times (not sorry). 

Thoughts on: New Year Resolution, Single Tense.

New Year’s is one of my favorite times of the year. Admittedly, that largely has something to do with the list-making and goal-setting, especially when handwritten frantically in early morning light. Additionally, it also has to do with the exuberant hope that spills from, well, what is now a collection of newsfeeds, but what was then age old friendly conversation. As a person easily inspired by positivity, the general atmosphere is euphoric, at worst. Listing goals and resolutions is what I live for, and it is constantly being done and redone throughout the year, ad nauseum.

Particularly, I reflect on my shortcomings in the past year and try to make a devotion to turn it on its head and make it my strength in the year to come. Quite like that loaded interview question, where they ask you to state your biggest weakness, and you think that the smart response would be a weakness disguised cleverly as a strength. The most lose-lose question in the world. Except there’s no losing in this scenario.

Like any other human being, I had many shortcomings. Luckily (or is it so?), this year, I can easily pinpoint my weakest attribute of 2017 and I will safely say that 2018 would be much improved, if only I lived more forgivingly. Not living so much in absolutes, for the world is not made in that manner. I think the world at large could use a whole lot of forgiveness.

To be happy – The stress and anxiety that so consumes us could be attributed to having too much expectation, too much ambition. If we only loosen the reigns, then we will find the room to breathe.

To be successful – We start the year with a list of resolutions, then give up by the following week on all of our goals. Trying to maintain a strict regimen, we suffocate the positivity that could be discovered in the change, and the motivation is snuffed out. We begin the year already exhausted, disappointed, and hopeless. If we just learn to allow ourselves a slip up, forgive ourselves for our failure, then we can continue on to success, rather than lose all hope.

To be present – By being more forgiving in our game plan, I guarantee that we can enjoy the present moment more thoroughly.

To be kind – Similarly, just as we forgive ourselves, we can be more forgiving of those around us. For who is to say that what’s right for you, is right for anyone else. Who is anyone to have the liberty to categorize others into good and bad? For no human is better than any other human. We are all equal, but different.

To be human – There aren’t many things in this life that are forgiving. Time is not forgiving. Justice is not forgiving. Success is not forgiving. Money is not forgiving. Traditions are not forgiving. Even religions, most times, are not forgiving. We have a choice to be the forgiveness that the world seeks. That we all need.

Starting with me.

Thoughts on: The word negligible.

Mike and I see eye to eye on the big things, such as our familial ties, the values we hold, our personal goals and overall lifestyle. But we usually approach life in polar opposite ways, which is wonderful in a sense, because we bring the best of both worlds to our extremely balanced relationship. One view in particular separates us into distinct methods of going through our day to day lives, while trying to achieve the exact same goal. It’s a difference that shapes our individual worlds into completely different entities, and our personalities into two people who you’d assume would not see eye to eye at all.

I consider myself an optimist, which is an understatement. Mike would call himself a realist, but in my reality, anything short of an optimist is considered a pessimist. So I would consider Mike a pessimist, which I suppose, then, also makes me an extremist. On the opposite end of the spectrum, or rather, always in the middle of the spectrum, sits Mike, who is never extreme about anything. If you ask him how he enjoyed his disliked event of social gathering, his response would be the same as when you ask him how he enjoyed his best life experiences, which is, “It’s cool.” Said placidly, with hardly any inflection or as much as an eye twitch, nor a hint of a smile. Then you’ve got me. Bubbly as champagne, shrill as a train whistle, energetic as a playful puppy. Confused for extroversion, my high propensity for empathy and my animation, as well as my optimism, is a trait much valued in our culture, and it is partly with this that I attribute a lot of my life successes and relationships. Unfortunately, Mike’s humble practicality and stoicism is extremely undervalued in typical work culture, but much valued by me. It is this balancing personality that attracted me to him. He has consistency and a very factual approach to his life. Every decision is extensively researched, and every reaction is balanced. He will hardly stray from the middle of the spectrum, in terms of expression, and it makes him a very reliable measure on just about every aspect of life.

While this balancing characteristic is necessary for my life, and likely one of the many reasons I ended up falling in love with him, it just won’t do for me. Which brings us to the main topic of this post, and that is, my thoughts on the word Negligible. Negligible is a word that Mike uses frequently to describe the consequences of our day to day actions. As a person enthralled by the smallest of details, my focus on life is to tackle the details that lead up to the big picture. A result of my optimism, I look at the smallest things and obsess continually about resolving them before moving on to the bigger subject at hand. Tackling my student loans, I address the minutest ways to save, by turning off the lights to lower the electricity bill, avoiding driving as much as possible to lower gas and car maintenance costs, skipping on buying lunch or coffee (most of the time) in order to save a few dollars, and asking to borrow stuff from friends and family to avoid buying more stuff. I even avoiding the use of plastic to try to combat plastic’s impact on the environment. I come up with all sorts of minor life hacks to try to increase mindfulness and limit human impact on our environment, while decreasing personal spending. And which each new idea, he laughs and says the same thing. “It’s negligible.” The few pennies you save collecting bottles to recycle, or the few minutes you decide to switch off the lights make no difference in the grand scheme of things, the way adding a drop of warm water to the ocean does not change its temperature. But I’m not convinced. I mean, think global warming. The temperature will change, eventually.

I strongly believe in something referred to in the bloggosphere community as the “aggregation of marginal gains”, a term introduced by James Clear. I did not know this is what I believed in until I came across this blog post via Choose FI’s podcast. Calling it whatever you’d like, it’s the idea that making a minute change in your day to day habits leads to an aggregation of changes, which over time delivers results. The more minute changes you make, the faster you will see results, and the larger those results will be.

Success is usually measured by results, but people value only the most immediate of results. A minor change will not show an impact today, and because of that, minor changes are under-estimated and under-valued, and thus considered “negligible”. I do not believe in the word negligible, and that’s the honest truth. I also don’t believe in its synonyms: trivial, insignificant, trifling, unimportant, and inconsequential. Many people believe that the only meaningful changes are those associated with visible outcomes. Losing fifty pounds, paying off your student loans, working as an environmentalist, or writing to your senator about public policy changes are all considered meaningful actions. But viewing change as these outright visible entities puts a lot of pressure on people to only take actions that will lead to these changes in a short amount of time. Mike will argue that turning off the lights when you leave the room will not reduce electricity usage in California. But I like to argue that it does, in fact, quite literally, reduces the electricity usage in California, even for a few minutes. I like to argue that scrounging up those few dollars will get me to paying my student debt faster. That refusing to buy plastic will reduce the overall plastic consumption, maybe not by the decrease in plastic I consume, but possibly by the inspiration it brings to others to do the same. An impact which I’ve witnessed, firsthand.

James Clear wrote about David Brailsford’s focus on improving everything by “1%” to reach his goal of winning the Tour de France with his team of British cyclists. They went so far as to find the pillow that optimizes a night’s rest, and carrying said pillow to hotels when they travel. Or finding the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection or sickness. His goal was to win the Tour de France in five years. But he won it in three.

There is an exponential difference over time between someone who practices habitual changes that lead to marginal gains and someone who doesn’t. There IS such a thing as marginal losses as well, for people who continually make bad decisions on a day to day basis. If you found yourself stuck with poor results, it usually is not due to a mistake you made overnight, but a string of bad choices you’ve made that accumulated and led you to that moment. And likewise with success. I am not as smart or quick to pick up on things as Mike is. Because of his ability to learn quickly, he coasted through his elementary school years and can see results and cause change at a quicker rate than I can. Growing up, my siblings called me the “dumb one in the family”. Which is true, I AM daft, at times. But I was also the work horse, the optimist, and perseverer in the family. I know my weakness, but I also know my strength, which is to apply every ounce of my day to day actions, consistently, winning small battles, and accruing a series of accomplishments that, over time, resulted in achieving more than my peers. And it’s a habit I continue to practice today. I’ve achieved my dreams of becoming a doctor by 26, volunteering to make a difference in third world countries, starting my own corporation, finding someone to love, but I don’t stop there. That’s the good thing about habits. Once you get started, it’s hard to stop them from continuing on. When we were in college, my habits were strong enough to allow me to coast through it, while Mike struggled. It isn’t because Mike wasn’t smart. It’s already established that he is smarter than me. But because it took a lot of work, which he wasn’t used to. Mike is great with short cuts and common sense, while I toil away in the corner via the path of step–by-step procedures to deliver consistent results, at the expense of pace. Slow and steady wins the race. Even today, after seven years of being together, Mike views my methodical way of approaching life via minimal changes as negligible. I don’t blame him. He creates similar levels of change with less work. Honestly, I’m just not that good. Arguably, I’m a little bit better at maximizing my ability to change the world. Luckily, he’ll call it negligible, making me angry, frustrated and exasperated, but hop on board anyway. He’s joined me in refusing plastic at grocery stores, saving money by packing lunch, turning off lights when he leaves the room, and walking to the grocery market. So let him say negligible. It’s the little compromises that make marriage work. An aggregation of marginal gains, you could say.

 

Thoughts on: Less and Happiness

When I tell people that I have found more happiness in less things, I usually get a blank stare, followed by grilling questions, and finished with a sort of resistance. I’ve successively proceeded through multiple stages of redefining what brings happiness in my life within a relatively short time span. The following are real life examples of people’s responses to some of the lifestyle changes that I have started to implement within the last year that required living with less.

Me: “I’ve started to de-clutter everything I own that I don’t love or that serve me no purpose.”

Response: “You are going to miss those things in a few months.”

Me: “I started to practice minimalism.”

Response: “You mean, getting rid of all your stuff and living with nothing?”

Me: “I am recently trying to give up drinking alcohol.”

Response: “How are you going to have any fun?”

Me: “We are being selective with which social occasions we go to with our friends, because we don’t want to waste money on things like dining out, disguised as hanging out.”

Response: “So you don’t hang out with your friends anymore?”

Me: “I am going to give up shopping for one year. I don’t want to buy more clothes, for the sake of keeping up with the fashion trends.”

Response: “I could never do that.”

Me: “I am going to attempt to do all my grocery shopping without purchasing plastic.”

Response: “That’s too much of an inconvenience. Good luck with that.”

The consensus? People generally do not like the idea of less.

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Thoughts on happiness. 

The 2017 World Happiness Report measured happiness using six variables: social support, income, healthy life expectancy, trust in government and business, perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity. Only one of these categories involves money, which most people unfortunately and truly believe will buy them happiness. The problem is that as people try to increase their income, other variables that are used to measure happiness decrease. Most people have a social support system that consists of their family and friends. Sometimes, if they are lucky, they will also find a social support system at work. For example, I work with dental assistants and treatment counselors, and we have each other’s back when it comes to delivering good dentistry. When it gets crazy busy, everyone helps the other out, and I don’t care if I’m a doctor, I’ll clean rooms, scrub instruments, and set up trays like everybody else. But for other people, they go into work and sit at a desk, and work on a task individually, then come together in group meetings and present their work. So usually for this type of work, the more people work trying to increase their income, the less social support they have.

I watch people overwork themselves to earn “enough” money to “barely get by”, but I also see these same people going out to Happy Hour for “reduced” prices, hitting up sales to get “great deals”, buying Disneyland passes and lining up for the new Iphone. As people try to increase income, they apply a lot of stress in their lives, wear themselves down, get sick often, and usually get less exercise. These factors decrease another variable, which is a healthy life expectancy. Okinawa, a Japanese island, has the highest life expectancy in the world, 86 for women and 78 for men. It is also considered one of the happiest and most laid-back communities in the world, built around community, dancing, and music.

I always hear people complain about going into work or hating their job, and I think to myself, why don’t you just quit? When I ask them this, many express that they can’t leave because they need to pay their bills. What they don’t realize is that their bills are so high because they there is a certain lifestyle that they try to attain. I see parents who work five days a week in order to buy their kids that video game system they want for Christmas, instead of staying home and spending actual time with their kids. And then they complain that the kids grow up so fast, and they don’t have the time or energy to watch them grow. Most people who are unhappy with their jobs have a decreased perceived freedom to make their own life decisions. The more money becomes the reason you work, the less you are likely to leave, voice your opinion, challenge your superiors, and work creatively. The more tied you are to your job, the less likely you are to reduce your hours, move to a different city, state, or country, say no to co-workers, and so on and so on.

Lastly, generosity. It is difficult to be generous when one’s time is occupied by work or when money is valued so highly. It is difficult to give back when it feels as if every dollar needs to be spent on “necessary” things, when it feels like you’re broke. But we aren’t broke. Broke is when you have not had something to eat for days. Broke is when you don’t have a roof over your head anymore to shield you from the cold. Broke is when your children can’t go to school because they have to work or help out at home. We are not broke. I believe that it is this last and final variable that will bring the most happiness. We are a compassionate species.

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Thoughts on less.

What I have found in my path to living with less, is the happiness that came with it. Uninvited, unexpected, but one hundred percent welcomed.

  • When I got rid of a majority of my clothes, I found that I wore something I love every day, and getting dressed in the morning was no longer stressful, because the decisions became easy. Remember when we were kids and we just started dressing up for school on our own and we had a favorite shirt? It feels like wearing your favorite shirt every day.
  • When I started to focus on experiences rather than things, I found that I accomplished more in the last year than I have in the last five years. I traveled extensively to New Zealand, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Palm Springs, Mexico, Hawaii, and Germany in the last year, all for leisure. I learned how to do yoga on my own (no longer am I paying for classes at a ridiculous rate of $20/class or $165/month) and take joy out of deciding what poses come next or what part of the body I will focus on that day. I learned how to do ceramics with my own hands, how to play guitar (at least I can dabble), how a latte is supposed to be poured (I can make a leaf, on a good day), how to use a calligraphy pen, how to speak German (well, enough to understand signs in Germany), how to make tortillas out of scratch, and more. Because I wasn’t out spending my money on time-sucking tasks like shopping, dining out, going to Disneyland, I have found ways to add to my skill set and rack up some pretty cool and diverse abilities under my belt. I find happiness every time I learn something new, meet a new person, and achieve an accomplishment or a goal.
  • I started to refuse out-sourcing things. I love the challenge of fixing something without buying an additional gadget or paying for a service. I once paid $180 this year to clean our loft by professional cleaners. It was seriously the worst $180 I spent, retrospectively looking at it. It was nice because it saved me time, but arguably, the time it saved me was probably used doing less efficient activities anyway. I told myself I don’t want to continue doing that anymore. Now whenever a home improvement task comes along, I learn how to fix it on my own, and I just feel so proud knowing that I am capable, resourceful, and all sorts of frugal.
  • I realized that alcohol was starting to make my stomach queasy the next day, or that skin rashes resulted from being too dehydrated (also the reason why I gave up caffeine and started drinking decaf). I tried to eliminate alcohol consumption completely as of June of this year (the only exception was a beer or two in the weeks I travelled to Hawaii and Germany), and found that I enjoyed the social gatherings as much as when I used to drink. Heck, I was even more engaged and developed deep conversations and connections with people. Plus I feel totally fine the next day.
  • We started being more selective with which social gatherings we go out to, which then started to shape who we hung out with. We realized that we were hanging out with groups of people who really enjoyed spending their money on bowling nights, fancy dinners, happy hours, and other activities. We also realized that we no longer wanted to spend our money on those things, and to spend them instead on other prioritized experiences, such as travelling and new hobbies. We started to say no, and we were okay with that. Our friends who were really close to us found ways to hang out with us without spending money. We established a new group of friends (who I happen to work with) with whom we meet up every Wednesday night with at someone’s house to play board games or video games. How many people nowadays have time set aside to meet with their group of friends, once a week, every week? Very few people I know do that anymore. We found that the friendships that were truly meaningful became more connected and stronger, and those that were less meaningful fell out of our lives. Some people question us for this decision the most, but it was probably the best decision in my opinion. You are as good as the people you surround yourself with, and we just couldn’t surround ourselves with people who would prevent us from living our best lives. We didn’t dislike those people. We just had different goals. It wasn’t a compromise we were willing to make.
  • I created a personal challenge for myself, which was to not buy an article of clothing this year, which later turned into not buying anything for myself. Once I de-cluttered everything, I did not want to spend that much time doing it again. The most important thing about minimizing is not how much you let go, but how much you add in. When I started doing this challenge, it felt like I was a recovering addict. Seriously. Which is probably why most people’s excuse is, “I can’t do it.” It was a very difficult thing to do. I didn’t realize how easy it was to get sucked in by advertisements and notifications which I have set for myself via email or Instagram telling me that I need to buy more stuff. I checked my favorite companies and websites continuously, and added things to my cart and I physically ached for things. It took me a few months to stop feeling this way. And even some days, after I was better about it, I would turn to Mike and say, “I miss going to the mall.” But I no longer allow myself to go. Because it is truly an addiction. This particular scenario may not apply to other people, but maybe the weakness is Amazon, or video games, or car parts, or happy hour. Whatever it is, once I felt better and got over the burning desire to purchase stuff, I knew that I cannot go back. Admittedly, I did fail once so far. I bought myself a used, vintage dress from a local small coffee shop. It was spontaneous and highly unnecessary, but it was a mistake I thing I had to make. I loved the dress and wore it once a week for the rest of summer, but I also knew deep down that it was money that did not need to be spent, and it grounded me and furthered my resolve to say no. This is usually when people assume my life is awful because I am depriving myself from things I want. But I’m not. Consider all the things I have accomplished this year and the places we have been. I am just re-writing my life for things that I want more.
  • And lastly, giving up plastic. I’ve had people laugh in my face, scoff, roll their eyes, ask me “Seriously?”, sarcastically tell me “Good luck!”, quietly judge me, or whisper about me in the middle of the check-out line as if I can’t hear every word they were saying. I’ve also had people support me, get on board, genuinely tell me “Good luck!”, and thank me for “Saving the world” (my favorite lady at the register). I’ve gotten people to watch documentaries about plastic and started many conversations about how to do it and why. And it just feels good. It feels good to be intentional and mindful and to just feel like you’re making a difference, even if others don’t see it that way. It feels good to be optimistic about everything.

I consider myself happier than a lot of people I know. I consider my husband happier than me. I consistently hear the same loud complaints or murmurs of dissatisfaction about the same few things. Work, money, health, relationships. I can’t convince a person to change their life, neither do I want to. I do want the people around me to be happy about their lives. I want everyone to be happy. We are all responsible for our own happiness. Discovering a world with less emphasis on STUFF earned me a higher level of happiness. The one thing I can do is to verify that this is doable and true.

Interested in other thoughts on happiness? Right this way. To see what traditions you can give up this holiday season, come hither.

Thoughts on: The Blackest of Fridays.

Today is a sad day, and will likely continue to be a sad day for me for the rest of my life. It is with a heavy heart that I reminisce on past Black Fridays that I regret ever participating in. Growing up, my family held a huge emphasis on acquiring material goods and symbols of social status and wealth. Hence, Thanksgiving was never the real holiday. The real holiday was the day after turkey day, Black Friday, and it consisted of doing only one thing. Shopping.

I remember as kids, we were told to go to bed early on Thanksgiving so that we could wake up early to hit up the stores for their sales. Me and my cousins would all wake up early and, in a flurry of excitement, get dressed and pour over discount advertisements at the breakfast table while we ate left-over food for breakfast. Then we would all hop in vans and be driven to the outlets and malls by our parents and dropped off. We would separate into groups, with me managing the money my parents gave for myself, my sister, and my little brother. We spent the whole day walking, visiting every store and checking out the best deals. We wouldn’t make our decision until the end of the day, when we have exhausted every deal out there and picked the best deal that we saw, or the item we ended up most wanting that day. Some days, we would go to multiple outlets, then return to the outlet with the store with the supposedly best deal. What a waste of gas and precious time. We weren’t going out there to shop for something we actually wanted. We went out there with a mission to spend a certain amount of money that we were given on something that gave us the best-short-term-longing-feeling. And we HAD to spend it that day, otherwise, we would “miss out” on a good deal, and that money would be “wasted”. Talk about experiencing the real FOMO as early as 13 years old.

In addition to being taught awful habits regarding spending money, as well as de-valuing money throughout this entire process, you would not imagine the stress we went through on the blackest of Fridays. First world problems, I know, but seriously, it’s a true problem! We ran ourselves ragged, searching for the perfect thing. I was holding all the cash for my siblings and myself, and they would be running back and forth to me asking for a certain amount of it, and returning the change, and asking me how much they had left. I was a walking calculator zombie, not a human being. And then imagine the amount of thought and aggravation that went into deciding what to buy. The constant doubt of whether I was spending my money “wisely” on the best deal possible. The debate between getting a bang for your buck, or something you actually like (I say “like” and not “want” because I doubt we truly “wanted” any of that stuff. Don’t get me started with “need”). And oh, the comparisons afterwards! We would sit together at the end of the day, at In N Out or some other harmful fast food restaurant, and discuss what we spent our money on and how one deal was better than the other. It would pretty much be a show of who got the best thing, as if that was a measure of our self-worth, as if it was equivalent to our best life accomplishments.

Rather than spend time with each other, we spent time alone, in our own minds, as well as physically. The parents would drop off the kids and the kids would separate from the parents. In order to pursue and peruse our different interests, the kids would break up into groups. A group would enter a store, and then the individuals would look on their own. The only time we ever came together was when we wanted to gather all our resources or divvy up allocated money. Sad, sad, sad, I told you this was sad.

And now, Black Friday begins on Thanksgiving Day in the evening. I think of future generations and wonder what they will learn from all of this. I understand getting a good deal on something you may need, but watching videos of people line up, race through the doors, kick, shove, push, fight, I mean, is that really what life has turned into? It’s like the scene from Mean Girls where the shopping mall turns into a jungle scene. Now that I’m becoming less and less attracted by typical American consumerism, I sit back and can’t help but feel slightly disgusted with my past self. Our day of thanks is slowly turning more into a day of thanks for things rather than for things-that-truly-matter.

This year, Mike and I made sure to set aside time for our family and friends, the only things that really matter to us. We opened our doors and offered our home to everyone, as a way to say, “This is what we want to spend our time doing. The doors are open for you to come into our lives any time.” We have no desire to go out today, on the blackest of Fridays, to shop for ourselves and buy things we do not need. I have no desire to be surrounded by demanding customers and exhausted teenage clerks. I am not trying to depress myself the day after Thanksgiving. We both have the day off, and I think we are going to go out on this beautiful 85 degree weather (in late November! Thank you California) and enjoy the outdoors, at the park or the beach. Something to acknowledge all the blessings we have in our lives. And to spend time with each other, after spending the past few days with everyone else.

If you must go out there and get some early Christmas shopping done (I am still an advocate of getting to do lists checked off), then please consider shopping for meaningful gifts. Companies have started using Black Friday as a way to give back to charities and communities. Consider the following companies, so that at least the money you spend is used for a greater good somewhere where they don’t have money to spend.

 

Pantagonia – 100% of sales* to grassroots organizations working to create positive change for the planet in their own backyards. We’re determined to use every means at our disposal to defend our world’s climate, air, water and soil. In these divisive times, protecting what we all hold in common is more important than ever before.

 

Everlane – This year’s Black Friday fund goes towards building an organic farm in Vietnam, where pesticide use is so out of control that it is difficult to find safe food.

 

Check out more stores, here, and here, if you must. Or better yet, volunteer your time to an organization this holiday season, and give back what you can. Consider making a donation to a charity under someone’s name. More meaningful gift guides to come in the future, perhaps.

 

Thoughts on: Simple. Spirit.

The first time I ever heard about Spirit Airlines was on February 18, 2017. I remember the conversation well. One of my best friends had come down to visit and to celebrate Valentine’s Day, which coincidentally is also her and I’s anniversary date. She pulls out a book, Simple Matters, by Erin Boyle from her backpack and handed it to me as our anniversary gift. She proceeded to tell Mike and I about Spirit Airlines, which she used to fly from the Bay Area to Orange County. She told us, “Never fly Spirit Airlines”, with disgust in her voice. The airlines apparently charges additional fees for things such as a carry-on bag, for checking in at the airport, and for picking your seat. The airlines also had no complimentary beverage or snack, and the seats are “super thin and uncomfortable”. “I am never flying Spirit Airlines again,” she vowed.

I nodded and booed and awwwed with her during her grievous tale, and then later forgot about it. A few weeks after that, I was trying to book a flight to visit another best friend in her new home in New Orleans, or as we would later learn to call it, “Nawlins”. I was equally shocked as I was disappointed at the high cost of airplane tickets, ranging around $400-$500 dollars per person. Then I came across tickets that only cost half the price, at $215 per person. Spirit Airlines.

All of a sudden, I recalled the dissatisfaction my friend had with this airline, and a wave of doubt washed over me. I quickly googled the airline and found that my friend was correct in saying there were additional fees for everything. You could only carry a personal item (such as purse or backpack) with a maximum size of 18”x14”x8”. Additional carry-ons have a surcharge. You would also have to pay extra to choose your seat so you could sit with your travel buddy, which in this case was my husband. And you had to pay for water, or other drinks and snacks that you’d like to have on the plane. They did in fact also charge you extra for checking-in at the airport, which I have never even heard of before. But I decided to book it anyway, because of the amazing price tag.

I told myself that this would be a really good way to practice intentionality. Intentionality is defined as “the fact of being deliberate or purposive”. I have written a lot about down-sizing and minimalizing my life in the last year, and I thought to myself, why not put this same practice to use? I was determined to use the price cut to my advantage. I planned ahead and was very deliberate in my actions, and our packing. And I found that I absolutely loved the airline.

What Spirit Airline gives you that other airlines do not is the OPPORTUNITY to save money. All the other flights for that weekend were almost double, if not more than double, the price of Spirit Airlines. The more expensive airlines included a free drink and a bag of pretzels on the plane, an overhead bag, and a screen on the back of the seat in front of you, but that cost was reflected in their fee. Spirit Airlines gives you a choice. A choice to be mindful of your decisions. We were in New Orleans for an entire weekend, and I packed more than I needed, and then some, in my backpack. I had in there all the outfits that I needed for the weekend, plus an extra pair of sandals, an extra purse, and an extra outfit. On top of what I needed, I also had a 32 oz refillable water bottle (eco-friendly, and provides me with water on the plane), my camera bag including extra batteries and a charger, a thick novel (approximately 400 pages), a baseball cap, and all the necessary makeup and toiletries. Now you might be saying to yourself, “But Sam, you are 5’1” and your clothes and shoes are teeeeeeny”. Let me tell you something. My 6’3” husband was able to pack all of HIS necessary items, plus a chapter book and an extra pair of flipflops (size 12) anddd an extra outfit, in a smaller backpack than mine no less! And I think here-in lies the problem. We have a tendency to believe that we need MORE than what we actually do need.

On the way to New Orleans, I sat next to a girl (I had a middle seat off course) who was about my age. She turned to me and said that when she told her parents that she was flying Spirit Airlines, they had rolled their eyes at her and told her it was going to be an awful experience. She said so far it has truly been terrible, because she had to pay extra for her carry on. She said she would (ALSO) never fly Spirit Airlines again. Throughout the flight, she pulled out an extra pair of socks from her purse and slipped them on, and then switched into flip flops. She revealed that her purse can hold a large 8×12 spiral notebook, which she retrieved when she got bored. She also a pencil case that was full to the brim with what must have been 20 pens. Over the course of the next 2.5 hours, she used a single black sharpie. She got up at some point to use the bathroom, and came back with 2 mini Sky Vodkas, and a can of juice. She was upset that no free snack was included. And all I could think to myself was how, earlier this morning, my own husband turned to me and said, “Do you think we get free pretzels on the plane?!” with this worried look on his face.

It’s interesting to realize just how much we, as a society, expect. I think we have a tendency to have expectations that are too great. We expect amazing service and demand it to be available right at our fingertips. For example, we expect to be able to check in for a flight at the airport terminal. Spirit charges extra to do that, to pay for the time their people have to spend at the airport checking those guests in. But you can check-in online for free to save yourself the money, and hey, it saved us the hassle too! I think if I went around and asked people what they expected of an airline, most people would answer, “the bare necessities off course!” But are these really bare necessities? Do you really need them to serve you water or soda, and a bag of pretzels? Is it so awful if they didn’t? Couldn’t you plan ahead to bring an empty water bottle and fill it up at the terminal? Is that too much to ask?

I mean, to put it into perspective here, they are flying you from destination A to destination B at 500 miles per hour. That is a privilege in itself. Some children have to walk on foot for days at a time just to get water from a lake in a desert. How, then, could you complain about having to PAY for an alcoholic beverage. Or having to PAY for the ability to have whatever you think you need in your carry-on bag at your fingertips.

I heard a story from The Minimalists’ podcast about their experience with flying on a flight that made WIFI available for the first time. This was years ago off course, but before the airplane took off, a flight attendant’s voice came on the overhead speaker, and was proud to announce that this is the first time that airline was able to provide WIFI to their passengers. The crowd cheered and there was clapping and whooping and hip-hip-hooraying. Ten minutes into the flight, the WIFI went out. All of a sudden, people were booing and complaining and getting angry, saying “This is Bull***! I can’t believe the WIFI died.” Ten minutes ago, they were cheering because something they have never had before was made available to them. And within those same ten minutes, they started to believe that it should be a given. Something they never had before, they now thought was a REQUIREMENT. Their expectation changed within TEN MINUTES, and they assumed that they deserved the WIFI, and from here stemmed their anger. How quickly we are to assume that we deserve or have a right to certain commodities and services.

It is here that I’d like to take a moment to reflect on what we consider a bare necessity. It is also here that I’d like to recognize that assuming we need/deserve/require more than the bare necessities can cause much of the frustration, anger, and disappointment that we feel in our lives. Happiness stems from gratefulness in our ability to have a choice in this world. I am so happy I flew with Spirit Airlines. I am grateful that they gave me a chance to save money. I like that they gave me freedom of choice. I was able to travel without costing us an arm and a leg. I was able to re-connect with my best friend, which is what really matters at the end of the day. I wasn’t STARVING on this four hour flight to Nawlins, and even if I was, could a bag of pretzels save me? The seats were comfortable enough, I had leg room, access to a working bathroom on the plane, and they got me SAFELY to a destination 1894 miles away in under four hours. I’ll fly Spirit Airlines again, any day.