2016, experiencing, healing, productivity, purpose, rest, routine, slowing down, small things

How I Learned To Be Productive While Doing Nothing At All

“And one more thing: Don’t expect to do anything in the first few weeks after surgery.”

“Okay.”

It was a Friday morning in late July, and I was staring at a monochromatic image on a computer screen. An orthopedic surgeon was sitting next to me explaining the image. My heart was racing; my mind was numb.

That morning, I had woken up at 5, done some exercises to strengthen my injured leg, gone for a swim, made coffee and breakfast, and edited the final draft of an article. It was only 9:30 in the morning, but it suddenly felt like the day had closed in on me.

“What do you think?”

“Oh. Um.” The surgeon had finished explaining. He was looking expectantly at me. I hadn’t heard his question. Whatever it was, his could wait. “What are some possible dates for surgery?”

My daily happiness is characterized by a feeling of productivity—the knowledge that I’ve used my brain in healthy and meaningful ways. Until this point, I’ve observed my most productive days are the ones that I have planned with intention. And for me, productivity manifests itself in various ways including cooking a new dish, challenging my athletic ability, writing a new piece, having a good conversation, reading a thought-provoking excerpt, discovering a tangible or abstract novelty, spending quality time with a friend, or making progress with my teammates at work. Whatever it is, I have always believed that I am the master of my productivity. My decisions get me where I want to go each day.

It was unsurprising that in this moment of shock, my brain could only think about how it would achieve this daily sense of productivity.

We set a surgery date a few weeks out, and from that moment forward, I started to think about how I would be strategically productive during those few weeks of “nothingness” post-surgery: Maintain a daily blog, finalize the draft of my children’s book, research new recipes, learn a new language, listen to a queue of podcasts, send cards to friends, read The Fountainhead (after completing the Harry Potter series), and watch all the series that were continually being recommended to me, a non-TV watcher.

I packed an entertainment suitcase to take with me to my parents’ house where I would be living for the few weeks after surgery. It included my laptop, books, notebooks, postcards, and pens.

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Five days before surgery, two of my friends came over with a thoughtfully curated care package. One set of items was a coloring book and colored pencils. I smiled when I saw it. There is nothing like the thought of coloring to take you back to the comforts of childhood. I can’t imagine that I’ll actually use this, I thought. Still, it felt wrong not to pack it into my suitcase.

Minutes before my surgery, an anesthetics specialist came in to tell me what to expect.

“Essentially, we’re going to turn your brain off temporarily. We’ll do the surgery. And then we’ll turn your brain back on.”

I outwardly smiled at his nonchalance. Internally, I was freaking the f&#* out. Nothing productive in my life involves my brain shutting off.

The surgery went well.

After a good night’s rest, I woke up the next morning at 6 ready to start attacking my plan. I had the entire day, and several days following, to execute. Before I could make a decision as to where to start, excruciating pain started attacking my knee. I instinctively yelled out in pain. I couldn’t even intelligently process the pain, let alone anything else.

In letting out that scream, I let out something else: All my previous plans for productivity. Much like my anesthesiologist had turned off my brain, I needed to consciously do the same thing. What I hadn’t foreseen was that the most productive thing I could do was to recover.

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And so, that day, I alternated between drinking smoothies, taking pain medication, and napping. This was my general routine for the first week after surgery, though my waking hours slowly extended. In those moments I was not asleep, I colored. In the lines. Outside the lines. Mindlessly. With no plan. It enabled me to do nothing by doing something. It allowed my brain to pour all its energy into something far more productive, without my interfering. Today, twenty-four days after surgery, I no longer spend entire days coloring. Still mostly immobile, however, I take little breaks through my day to turn my brain off . These moments jumpstart my otherwise monotonous days.

I’m still healing, but now with the brainpower to reflect on those initial post-op days. In those moments, I redefined my understanding of productivity. Being productive doesn’t always need to stem from a conscious, deliberate behavior. Sometimes, productivity comes from trusting your body or the world around you to take its natural course. Allowing my brain to effectively turn off was the most productive thing I could have done for myself. It empowered every cell in my body to rush to the needs of my healing knee. It gave me permission to wholly provide for my body’s productivity.

This notion of “turning off” doesn’t need to be back pocketed for traumatic life events or calendared vacations. Find little moments in your day to empty out and restart your brain. When you do, you’ll find that you reenter your previous thoughts with new perspective. And don’t feel guilty about it. The art of doing nothing is, perhaps, the key to productivity.

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2016, change, childhood, experiencing, real world, strengths, success

How I Learned That It’s Okay To Ask For Help

In my childhood home, my dad’s office den was the most exciting forbidden room of the house. While it wasn’t hard for us to keep away from the expensive machines and important papers that filled a majority of that room, my brother and I found it impossible not to sneak in and play with his (yes, my dad’s) toy collection (he called them “desk props” and “paper weights”).

Among them included a small plastic crate with a small hole and square button. Through then hole shown an eye, representative of a creature trapped inside the crate. Pressing the button made the crate start shaking uncontrollably while the creature cried, multiple times, “Excuse me, excuse me! Will you let me outta here!!”

Don’t hurt yourself trying to imagine this:

 

My brother and I found endless pleasure in tip-toeing into my dad’s office, pressing the button, then scurrying out and giggling in the hallway while the audio track finished.

The crate wasn’t entertaining to me because it was meant to be or even because it was a forbidden pleasure. It was entertaining because it provided a darker, sadistic humor. The notion of confinement reminded me of my freedom. I had power that this trapped “creature” did not. I was strong, and it was weak.

You see, at age nine, my definition of “weakness” was “in need of help.”

Unlike my brother, I was the “hands-off” child. I voluntarily did my homework and laundry, I chose which books to read, and I came up with my own views on religion and culture (which boiled down to writing letters to God when I wanted intangible things and Santa when I wanted tangible ones). Over the years, my parents and teachers credited my independent actions and thoughts to my strengths as a student and my well-roundedness as a little human. Over the years, I conflated “independence” with “accomplished on my own.” For me, asking for help was a sign of weakness. Failure.

This is the perhaps the most foundational misconception that I’ve had to relearn as an adult.

I will never forget my first ever meeting with corporate executives. It was my first product management role and I was to present the initiative I would be working on for the following six months. My slides were a trainwreck and my voiceover was the Titanic. I hadn’t requested that my manager review my work beforehand because I wanted to demonstrate how capable I was. How independent. After all, I had been making slideshows since the sixth grade. As we walked out of the room after the meeting, my manager told me to come see him later. “I’ll teach you how to make a slide presentation.” It is one of my most glamorous failures to date and success would have been no more difficult to attain than asking for help early on.

Last year, I started working at IDEO, the most collaborative place I’ve ever worked. I received a flurry of “new employee” advice from veteran designers when I first joined. All danced around a similar theme, and one way of phrasing it leapt out from the rest: “Never hesitate to ask for help. People here fail when they don’t ask for help.”

This was perhaps the first time in my personal or professional life that I had been encouraged to ask for help, and more importantly, that needing help was no indicator of capability, strength, or success. It was a life-changing revelation.

Since then, I’ve striven to identify opportunities to ask for help — whether it’s on a piece I’m writing, a business model I’m testing, or a meal I’m preparing — and associating them with moments of strength rather than signs of shortcoming.

We forget to tell kids that asking for help is a voluntary decision. Not asking for help whispers ignorance. When we choose not to ask for help, we choose to confine ourselves in a crate. “Help” screams independence. Asking for help is how we help ourselves.

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change, experiencing, psychology, social connection, technology

How Social Media Tells Our Life Story — Whether We Like It Or Not

Last weekend, I attended a wedding. A number of guests were people to whom I haven’t spoken in months or even years, for no reason other than the fact that our daily lives don’t intersect. As I anticipated the reunion, I imagined a Romy and Michele-style experience in which conversations would begin with, “What have you been up to since 2010?”

And I was nervously excited about that.

But these conversations took an unexpected path. I was greeted with opening lines like, “You were all over the place this week!” and “What was that dinner you made?” or “I love that book you’re reading.”

They were knowing remarks, as if we had shared those experiences together. The tone was familiar, though not in the “it feels like no time has passed,” sort of way. My expectation of reunion-type conversation was grossly inaccurate.

Recent MomentsI shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was — these questions all stemmed from recent instagrams or blog articles I’ve shared. They were undeniable snapshots from current events in my life. Despite this obvious justification, something simply didn’t feel right about the conception of these conversations, and in the moment, I couldn’t understand why. For whatever reason, they weren’t topics I would have chosen to lead with. Still, the company — and the conversations in themselves — were delightful.

Sunday after the wedding, I returned to my apartment for the first time in a week. I passed my roommate on my way in.

“Hi! Was this weekend one of the weddings?” She asked.

“Yes! It was a great time.”

“And were you gone during the week too? I wasn’t sure.”

It sometimes happens that we don’t cross paths during the work week, even when we are both in town. When my roommate asked the question, the peculiar feeling I had with those wedding greetings suddenly returned.

“Yeah, I was in Ohio. I’ll tell you all about it, and I want to hear about your week too.”

How ironic that I had gone dark on this person who is deeply entrenched in my daily life, while those who follow from afar seemingly had not missed a beat. The difference between her and them? She doesn’t have instagram.

We can all agree and accept that social media presents a curated version of our life experiences. We know that there is more behind what we filter out. In fact, I see my social presence as a completely different entity from my living and breathing one. My real-life story intentionally has different chapters than the ones I share online. And people in my day-to-day world know that.

But for geographically and figuratively distant friends, what they see is the only — and entire — story.

This is what caught me off guard at the wedding.

It has me wondering whether social media is not just presenting a curated version of our life experiences, but also creating a curated version of our reality. The fleeting, caption-worthy moments we share for Likes are the ones people (setting aside close friends) know us for. They serve as a jumping-off point for our in-person conversation. It is what they ask about, and what we tell them about.

Whether they intend to or not, others write the story of our lives, and their perceptions of them, by what we share. And we do the same to them. We overlook the existence, let alone the significance, of people’s unshared moments.

In most cases, that’s where the real story lies.

While I initially struggled with this truism, I’ve decided that this is the status of social media. There’s nothing we can do about it, whether we like it or not. We can, however, remind ourselves that people have unshared stories. We can account for this by leaving blank pages in the life stories we craft for them. And we can encourage them to tell these stories, should they desire.

Monday evening, my roommate and I ate dinner together at home. We regaled one another with the goings-on in our lives, taking care to mention what we deemed meaningful. Perhaps what made the conversation most captivating was that none of it could be found in a caption. We established the filters of our stories. Not social media.

And that feeling of connection was anything but fleeting.

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design, experiencing, friendship, humans, psychology, trust

What Product Design Can Teach Us About Designing Ourselves

Under My Umbrella Ella EllaWhen Rihanna released an award-winning song whose catchiest word was “umbrella,” I was perplexed. Not only is the word ugly, but it also refers to a boring utilitarian item that is associated with bad weather.

Living in Philadelphia at the time, I had a miserable relationship with umbrellas. They literally turned on me when I needed them most. During the wet seasons, I resolved myself to a monthly cycle of disposing and purchasing umbrellas. I never spent more than twenty dollars on an umbrella and never expected it to last longer than a few windy rainstorms.

I moved back to California five years ago, and given the drought, hadn’t quite needed to use an umbrella until this winter. In mid-December, my existing umbrella mysteriously disappeared from my doorstep. “Here we go again,” I told myself as I logged on to Amazon, “Back to the umbrella-buying loop.”

My complaints were quickly put to rest when I found that one of the highest rated umbrellas also met my twentyish dollar budget. But I was more surprised by the fact that it claimed to be “unbreakable” and came with a lifetime guarantee. Lifetime. I always thought that the entire umbrella industry relies on untamable weather.

Dubious, I purchased the Kolumbo on Amazon. The worst that would happen was that it would break and I would need to buy a new one. The worst case scenario was my status quo.

Four days after my purchase, I got a personal email from a customer service representative from Kolumbo. Though I’m by no means an Amazon power-user, I’ve never received a message from anyone other than Amazon regarding and Amazon purchase or shipment:

From Greg

This, from an umbrella manufacturer. My heart flooded with positive feelings. Already, I was a fan. A few days later, I received my umbrella and thankfully (both for the drought and for my eagerness to use the umbrella), it rained the day after. The only thing more magical than pressing the button for it to open was pressing the button for it to close.

This umbrella is phenomenal.

It quickly became a conversation topic for me and I even made one sale.

And while I’ve only had the umbrella for a few weeks, I’m almost confident that should this unbreakable umbrella break for, I can replace it through my trusty friend Greg.

After my umbrella purchase, I started thinking about all the long-term products in my life — That denim jacket I’ve had since I was in elementary school, the years-old hand-me-down espresso maker, a gifted journal  — and what makes them special.

What makes them special is that they are always there for me, no matter what, whether it’s while standing on the windy Golden Gate Bridge on my fifteenth birthday, after waking up feeling like I need another night’s sleep, or when in search of a silent listener. Our bond is unconditional. In some, anthropomorphic way, they are my trusted friends.

Which brings me to real humans.

In the hustle of our everyday responsibilities, it’s easy to take the people in our life for granted. Sometimes I feel that I don’t even have enough time for myself, let alone other people. Other times I’ve also been left out to dry when I’ve needed a friend the most. Life has a climate of its own and at times we find ourselves basking in sunlight with an umbrella to spare, while at others we’re caught in a storm with no umbrella at all.

While product design can take great inspiration from interpersonal relationships, the opposite is also true. We can learn from good products. There’s something comforting about knowing from Day 1 that you are interacting with a product you can trust. Something grounding about knowing from the get-go that a product will shield you through even the gustiest of winds. Something heartwarming about realizing that in its company, you are the priority.

We humans are nothing but products designed to share beautiful moments with one another.

Consider the version of yourself that’s out in the world right now. Are you the product you want to be? Are you the product you expect others to be? If so, shine on. If not, simply take some time to close up, flip around, and open up a different way. You, like my new umbrella, have impressive power instilled in you. And more importantly, you, like my new umbrella, have a lifetime guarantee.

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2015, acceptance, adaptation, adventure, exercise, experiencing, gym, routine, running, San Francisco

What Quitting Running Taught Me About Living Life

Distance Traveled

This year, I ran from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.

Well, kind of. I ran the distance between the two cities over the course of ten months. This certainly isn’t a lot for a professional runner, but it is a lot for a person who somewhat recently started running for running’s sake. Not on a treadmill, but outdoors. Not as “exercise,” but just because.

After graduating college five years ago, I found myself in need of a new form of physical activity. Up until then, I hadn’t ever sought out exercise. It was naturally built into my extracurricular life by means of soccer teams and dance groups.

Without a gym membership or really any idea how to exercise, I took up running.

At first, they were more like walks with a couple jogs sprinkled in. Slowly, they turned into huffy-jogs with a walk for a block or two, then jogs, then runs. My speed, endurance, and total distance concurrently increased over time. While running one mile without stopping was once an accomplishment, I was eventually running six or seven miles without even realizing it.

exerciseBy the beginning of this year, I was practically “blacking out” my runs. No, I wasn’t running drunk, but what I mean is that they were over before I even realized they begun. I couldn’t tell you who or what I had seen along the way. A few months into the year, I started doing weekend “long runs” and had my mind set on marathons.

And then, after a minor fall while on a hike in October, a consistent pain in my left knee ejected me off my runner’s high. Even a one-miler was a struggle. Unlike me, my knee didn’t appreciate frequent and intense runs up and down the sidewalks of San Francisco.

So, I quit running (for now).

The first few weeks were tragic. Unable to think about anything but running, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t remember a time that I didn’t just wake up and literally run out the door at least a couple of times a week. I complained to anyone who would listen. I felt sorry for myself. I lamented the impending loss of my fitness. Trudging around with a perpetual lump in my throat, I was slightly depressed.

When I finally accepted the reality (which required a “deal with it” moment from a friend), I opened my mind to alternatives like yoga and low-impact strength and cardio classes at the gym, activities in which I hadn’t participated in months or even years. While their novelty was uplifting, they couldn’t replace the feeling of a runner’s high.

Walking Workout RecordOne Saturday a few weeks after I stopped running, I woke up with a dire need to experience my weekend-run-long-route. Not the run, but the route. “Maybe you can just walk it,” I negotiated with myself. I decided that the walk would be the ugly stepsister of the beautiful run, but with no better choice, I did it anyway.

It took me one and a half times longer to complete, but still, walking my route was like an overdue reunion with a lifelong friend. Like an animal released from captivity, I turned my attention to every sight and sound. I noticed details like an apple tree, a Rothko-painted gate, whimsical decor, inspiring signage — for the first time. The walk was unpredictably refreshing.

And like that, I found a new hobby in long walks to and through San Francisco neighborhoods, especially ones I rarely frequent (measured by unvisited coffee shops). I walk further than I typically ran, effectively spending more time “exercising.” Notably, the walks provide me with necessary introspective time, allowing me to reset and refresh in ways that my “blackout runs” could never provide. They give me a new kind of high.

Love Life

Beyond forcing me to reconsider my exercise routine, my hopefully temporary running hiatus serves as a microcosmic lesson for living life itself.

It has shown me that distance traveled is sometimes more valuable than the time it takes. It has encouraged me to osmose the journey before arriving at my destination, if a destination must be set in the first place. It has proven to me that slowing down is not necessarily doing less. It has reminded me of the rarity, danger, and questionable benefit of an intense high. And most importantly, it has taught me how to discover and fall in love with little peaks along the way.

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