Lessons from my 35th year
I recently turned into a perfect square, and my birthday plus year's end prompt a reflective mood.
First, I reread the lessons from last year to ground myself and make sure what I write this year is different or additive. Much to my surprise, all of yesteryear’s lessons feel very real and true today. I'm sure there will come a time when I reflect on an earlier lesson and think it naive or primitive to a new understanding.
Here is what I have to add as lessons gleaned from my 35th year.
Choosing invitational over exclusionary excellence
I have the incredible good fortune of being regularly surrounded by individuals who are exceptional in a divergent variety of artistic, academic, business, and other professional realms. As I witness and marvel at the many expressions of excellence, I found a new spectrum to explore. How invitational is my flavor of excellence?
Exclusionary excellence is easiest to recognize as a felt sense that the "excellent individual" is so good that you could never meet them on their level. That's not necessarily an expression of ill will or malice - it's simply that the way they express excellence reminds you of the gap between their skill and your own.
Inclusionary, or invitational, excellence is the felt sense of feeling inspired to play along plus a gentle, almost unnoticeable, updraft on one's own capacity. If you usually sit still at a concert, you might recognize invitational excellence when you find yourself absent-mindedly drumming your fingers or tapping your legs, especially in unexpected (to you) rhythmic structures. If exclusionary excellence reminds you of the gap, invitational excellence chuckles at the concept of a gap between you and me. And in so doing, hones an uplifting baseline of non-judgmental example and invitation to try that gently yet notably levels ups others.
Mastery is hard to reach, and I admire those who choose the path of mastery in any tradition. This is another layer to master on top of the skills or crafts themselves. Not everyone prioritizes that and, with limited time and life force, optimization presumes carefully weighed tradeoffs.
For me, it has been deeply profound to recognize that there exists a flavor of mastery that invites and welcomes mastery in others. Game theoretically, when solving for a more masterful and excellent individual / family / community / society, programs and structures that inspire invitational excellence are a strongly dominant strategy. From a lived and felt sense, it's more fun and playful - not to mention productive - to hang out with invitational masters.
Part of that invitation is, well, the invitation. This year I felt inspired to write a Code of Excellence so folks get a sense of who I am and how I like to operate. For those who read that and think or feel an emphatic YES!!, let's jam :)
Meaning is arbitrary
This year I experienced a number of self-authored rituals. My peak experiences and most meaningful moments are typically far from what most conventional [pick an identity label from my grab bag - American, immigrant, Jew, Soviet descendant, man, cis, etc.] would do. Yet my self-selected divergence from taught cultural norms does not make my arbitrary concepts of meaning any more or less than that of any other.
Considered fully, this understanding is deeply troubling and very liberating.
This comes alive as recognizing that I can always choose what is meaningful to me right now and walk in that direction. I can author my own rituals and celebrations that align with the value system I hold dear. Those who find resonance with that base note will harmonize and join in.
More importantly, arbitrary meaning invites me to reconsider any time I have felt somehow "better" or "righter" on any topic. Much more likely that I haven't taken the time to understand someone's value system and a deeper sense of self than that I've made the perfect argument for their worldview.
In shared identities, like workplaces, nations, faith groups, etc, we look for the shared values and meaning that bind us together.
If meaning is arbitrary, I can take ownership of genuine curiosity to learn what is meaningful for you. It also means I can arbitrarily paint success for me and then live in my own landscape. And extra fun (and useful) to know where we overlap so we can explore new terrain together.
Understand what stimulates and feed what nurtures
Before grad school, I knew for a while that I felt undernourished with intellectual stimulation. It's why I did all those cohort-based courses and one of the reasons I applied to business school.
There is a certain Life intelligence to knowing and feeding what nurtures. Understanding what is important to me, then selectively focusing on experiences and priorities that feed where I feel most starved has been hugely empowering.
What surprises me is the compounding effect of an overflowing cup in multiple domains of importance. Feeling the harmony there I have much more energy and capacity for creativity, productivity, and persuasion. Having greater scope and resources, I gain access to new levels that stimulate and nurture my growth. A breath-giving virtuous cycle.
The hardest part for me has been clearly understanding what will feed me now and why. Once I know that, it's largely logistics and diligence from there.
Cultivate generative feedback loops
Experiencing the rapid acceleration in personal and professional growth from my grad school program, I have lived the compounding force of carefully designed positive feedback loops.
Both excellence and mastery require a lot of time, energy, and creative life force.
Seeking efficiency is a generative loop. If I am more efficient, I have more time (because I do more with less) and I can do that much more in the time that I have won (because I do more with less). Bounded appropriately, this is a powerful compounding skill.
Seeking energy-giving is a generative loop. If there is an activity that creates net positive energy within me, then I have done something useful and I can do even more useful things.
Compound interest is a generative loop. By reinvesting earned interest, you are making more money on even more money.
By definition, generative loops are net positive for the system. Even better is the fractal nature of generative loops of generative loops.
Carefully studied, the domain of systematically erecting generative feedback loops is both productive and illuminating.
Travel and novelty feed me, to a point
I find it very stimulating to experience new people and new cultures. Travel is awesome and my 35th year had A LOT of extra awesome travel.
At the same time, travel breaks routines that make it harder to make linear progress. The path to mastery in the traditions I seek requires quiet focus at the dojo, not on the road.
Looking ahead I want to find the appropriate balance of travel stimulation that feeds and doesn't drain me.
Aim for adaptive or aligned
In my quest to eradicate judgment, I have toyed with removing "better" or other vague comparatives from my vernacular.
Evaluation is not judgment, and the reach for excellence requires accurate self-assessment and improvement. So what words are simultaneously less value-land and more precise on paths to improvement?
Looking back, the vast majority of the time I've substituted "better" with "adaptive for ..." or "aligned with ...". It forces me to succinctly articulate the values and standards by which I understand success while implicitly acknowledging that other originating premises can yield different conclusions. It leaves room to question if the ... is even what we are trying to solve.
So now I often ask myself - is this choice or behavior adaptive? Or aligned? And with what?
Change is hard and certain - stewarding change is an adaptive skill
A habituated behavior is the tip of the spear of an entire lifetime. It is a groove etched into neural pathways that make activation energy specifically lower than other thoughts or behaviors. It is genuinely difficult to change, as for individuals so too for groups of individuals at every scale from a couple to a nation. Everyone has felt and lived "change is hard".
In addition to being hard, change is the only unequivocal certainty of our future. My old age will be vastly different from that of my parents, my children's lives will be vastly different from my own childhood, and that delta is a whole lot of change.
So if something is both very certain and very hard, it is adaptive to long-term survival and thriving to excel in that function. Practically, that suggests it's useful to cultivate the skill of stewarding change.
Of course, that starts with stewarding change in myself. I've done much of that already and I am blessed with a lot of opportunities for refinement. There is an additional art and science to supporting others in stewarding change for themselves and their organizations.
Becoming more adept at stewarding change is a generative loop.
Triggers are guideposts for internal unresolve
Whenever I am triggered to the point of reaction over response, I have found that 100% of the time this points to something within myself that I need to process or otherwise resolve. Recognizing this pattern, I now use triggers as a measuring stick and a guidepost for interpersonal refinement.
Note: Disliking a situation or a set of behaviors is very far from being triggered. If someone says or does something and I find it distasteful, I can choose to communicate my displeasure or remove myself from the situation. The moment I can no longer control my response is when I know I've been triggered and need to look within to further digest energies and contexts that do not serve.
Music is the next step of my study
It's become bluntly clear that my next level of capacity in every direction is informed by my study of Music.
This was a strange and unexpected finding, until the moment it was equally strange to consider anything but the exact opposite as obviously true.
Before, I could not fathom how much my study of Music is really a study of Life and relationships. Now, I see that every lesson and diddy is immediately transcribable to the key of Life.
I have no idea where Music will take me and I open myself with quieted self-judgments and infinite curiosity. I release into a well-integrated sense of how, knowing without any shadow of a doubt that the journey and destination will be stunningly beautiful beyond my wildest imagination.
I am deeply grateful for these lessons and look forward to mastering these insights in my perfectly square daily life.