I’ve been experimenting with something new for my new year’s reflection: typing in the dark with my screen off, answering the question “What choices did I make last year?”
I’ve got over a hundred lines, each starting with “I chose”.
I think it’s worth reflecting on the impact of the choices as well, but I’ve started just by listing them. Maybe I’ll go back and try to think about the impact of some of these choices, but of course it’s very hard to actually run the counterfactuals, including what would have already needed to be different such that I would have made the other choice?
So far it’s been a very rich process. This article has two parts: first I’ll remark briefly on my experience doing this private reflection, and then I’ll share five choices that I made last year. The latter section represents my 2018 Yearly Review blog post, and also has some in-depth reflections on relationships and productivity.
Some periods of weeks have no notable choices in my memory, even though everyone is always making choices continuously. Other times, I’m very aware of a dozen choices I made on just one very intense day or weekend.
Some choices need to be made continuously & ongoingly, such as the choice to maintain a habit or to achieve something that takes a lot of planning or preparation
Some choices didn’t feel like choices at the time! This has a few variants:
Some choices were very historic/monumental: they really felt like they could have gone either way and my life is forever changed because of what I chose.
Other choices felt inevitable but there was still a moment of the choice becoming real. (eg when someone says “I do” at a wedding altar… by the time they’re there they’ve already chosen, and yet it’s still meaningful to enact it with that speech act)
Some choices lacked… oomph. I may have claimed to have chosen something but I didn’t really mean it or I was still conflicted. (Failed New Year’s resolutions are a canonical example of this). In some sense, this can be understood as more like “I chose to announce some intention, but didn’t fully choose to realize it.”
It’s very possible to choose something whose consequences or implications you don’t fully understand, and you still have to live with those consequences.
“What do I choose?” and “who am I?” are more closely coupled than I used to think—and differently. I knew people often make choices based on implicitly asking and answering What would a person like me do in a situation like this? but hadn’t taken in the extent to which the reverse is true: by choosing, we define ourselves and what we value.
Rethinking my year in terms of choices has been interestingly empowering, particularly since there have been various parts of my year where I felt like I sort of went with the flow or where something felt unintentionally deprioritized (eg my lack of blogging from March onward).
Some of the things listed above seem sort of obvious once written out, and yet I think I’m grokking them on a deeper level by revisiting over a hundred choices I made (and I’m not at the end of the year yet in my reflection).
I’m aware that I have an overpowered sense of temporal memory, which is probably what makes it make sense for me to do this in the dark. For most people, it would probably be aided by reviewing a calendar. I’m thinking it might be worth it for me to do another pass where I actually do look at my calendar (or my Complice history).
I’m also thinking that I want to incorporate a lot more thinking about my choices into my daily, weekly, & monthly reflections. Haven’t yet decided how I plan to do that, but it almost certainly will be integrated in my use of Complice somewhere, since that system already has reflections on those scales.
I wasn’t sure how to write a yearly review blog post this year given that I’ve had a weird year that I’m still not sure how to tell the story of even to myself, but since I’ve got a six year streak I thought it would be good to tell the world at least a bit of what happened for me this year, without trying to be exhaustive.
So! Here are 5 choices I made last year.
The tap water in the whole city of Waterloo is kind of gross (“…but it has water in the name!” — “…ah, but did you notice it has loo in the name?”) due to some weird minerals or something. We used to have a filter system but it broke awhile ago. Some of the other people in our house already had a practice of buying large jugs of spring water from a local store, and I had treated myself to a glass from their water to drink during a deep meditation on the nature of choice. While reflecting and tasting the water, I considered my future and discerned it was worth it to me to contribute $20/mo to their water system so that I could drink the spring water instead of the tap water.
(Note: most places have reasonably tasty tap water; I only do this in Waterloo and I almost never buy small bottles of water, which I usually find taste like plastic.)
It’s a small thing, but I feel like it improves my quality of life and ensures I stay:
This is one of those choices that gets made gradually over the course of a year. Early in the year, I chose to start working on a major improvement to the Complice New Tab Page extension that would include a bunch of gorgeous images and other cool things. It’s still not complete, and is probably holds the title of The Project I’ve Spent The Most Time On That I Do Expect To Ship Eventually But Haven’t Yet. (Which doesn’t mean that it’s “behind”. Nothing is behind.)
But at any rate, it appears that I chose that I would not finish it in 2018! When did I make that choice? Well, it was a bunch of little choices. In February when I was working on it, I chose to do it in a way that took longer than other approaches but which I figured would yield better results. In March, I chose to focus more on my mindset training and related work than Complice. April I chose to prioritize some other Complice stuff, then much of the summer I again chose to mostly not focus on Complice. In the fall I chose to start working on Complice again, and it was relatively high on the queue, but I chose to bump other things up instead (and now Complice is very close to working 100% offline).
I also chose not to go to Vancouver. (This is a throwback to an old post on self-authorship where I describe the importance of being aware of options one continually choses not to take.) I didn’t at any point seriously consider going to Vancouver, although I did become closer with some people who live there!
There are other projects at various stages of ideation or completion that also got set aside last year. These included…
There are multiple reasons for why these things didn’t happen, but one of the main ones is:
I had a few challenges for 2018 that were geared towards learning more about how to leverage money to create tangible value (beyond just “buying something”) and I decided to explore that in part by investing in a Burning Man camp that I’d camped with the year before. This was also partly an experiment in organization and teamwork.
The most tangible thing that came out of this was a dozen swamp coolers (DIY evaporative air-conditioners made from bucket+pump+fan+foam+water) that I bought the materials for and did most of the construction of. These devices made a huge difference to the air quality in our structures, not just cooling & humidifying the air but also clearing some of the dust out of it (which I hadn’t even realized when I decided to make them!)
I feel quite satisfied with that choice as part of achieving my challenge!
In addition to the financial investment in the camp, I also became very core to the team making sure the camp would actually happen. This wasn’t my original plan, which raises an interesting question related to choice! Inasmuch as I found myself working a lot harder on something than I explicitly remembered intending to do, at what point had I chosen that?
This was one of the situations I pointed at in my list of things I’d noticed above, where I initially found myself thinking “I got dragged along into this.” and then I consciously reframed that as “I chose to get way more involved in the burning man camp than I had originally intended.”
I chose to get dragged along.
Reframing it this way will, I think, make it more clear in the future when I notice a situation where I’m getting more involved in something than intended, and make it easier to consciously decide if that’s what I want or if I want to take a step back (or sideways).
Part of what’s challenging about situations like this is that what was happening was far from just a product of my choices, but rather the output of dozens of people making different choices, sometimes coherently, other times confusingly, other times totally chaotically. Me working more than I’d intended was partly due to betting that other people were going to do more work, and then realizing they weren’t, but then it didn’t make sense for me to let something just fall.
Enormous waste and pain comes from people being unable to coordinate their choices together, which means that learning to do so effectively is really important. Which brings me to…
(Trying to write this section of my blog post has been really challenging for a lot of reasons. One of them is the need to write something that would resonate not just for me but for Sarah and for the other people in my life. Another reason it’s been hard is that the whole purpose we’re pursuing here is the creation of entirely new models of what relationship even is, and I’ve come to realize that by attempting to say something meaningful about my relationships I have tasked myself with the challenge of communicating something of that model, which hasn’t yet been fully articulated and feels like an odd thing to try to insert as a sidenote to saying something else. And yet, here I am, doing it anyway. I appreciate your willingness to join me in this semantic adventure!)
This important choice I made last year would have surprised Malcolm from a few years ago, who at that time hadn’t had an experience of connection with someone that generated a sense of “I want to be life partners with you.” and didn’t even fully realize that was a thing that I’d been missing in my previous relationships.
My relationship with Sarah in particular is certainly the one that reads most legibly to the old/mainstream models of “what relationship even is”, as a lifetime romantic partnership, which is part of why I’m talking about it first…
…and yet… last year I also got a deeper sense of life partnership with other people in my life. The ecosystem I’ve been part of in Waterloo has talked for a long time about “relationships for life” (this has both the temporal meaning and the sense of “not just for ________ but for all of life”) and I don’t think I’ve really understood that clearly before or trusted it.
Sarah was, it seems, the first person who could propose such a relationship to me and have me take it seriously without being scared away due to fears of losing my autonomy, which was possible given the level of resonance I mentioned above.
And yet, I had previously used my so-called autonomy as a kind of threat, saying “if I don’t get what I want I will leave this relationship (or make it sufficiently unpleasant that you want to leave).” My current sense of integrity is that I wouldn’t stay in a relationship that I was honestly willing to do that to, and yet old habits die hard and so I’ve needed to consciously assess the extent to which I have found myself enacting subtle or not-so-subtle threats in my relationships. And this is what Sarah was challenging both of us to do when she proposed we take our relationship seriously as a relationship for life.
This means making a bet together on each other and each others’ commitment not just to each other but to the principles that we understand as being necessary for effective relating. Because being stuck in a relationship that is undermining itself is terrible. Many of us don’t know anything different though, so we settle for that. (Or we guard our autonomy fiercely, which itself can be part of the undermining of the relationship.)
As I said above, it’s hard to talk about this because it’s not just telling you about my relationship but trying to explain a new model of relationship that most people will have at most a vague taste of what it would be.
This new model of “relationships for life” ends up creating a sense of a kind of consciously chosen family—noting, of course, that what “family” means is also different than in the old model. The similarities are of relatively dense networks of relationships that have a sense of ongoing continuity and a sense of collectively making an economic bet together.
So, having pointed somewhat at that, I can now hopefully gesture at least broadly and say that I also have a sense of life partnership with Jean and Julia, who are the other people at the core of this project here in Waterloo. Then there are other people here that they have relationships-for-life with directly, which makes those other people kind of like an extended family for me, separate from our direct connection.
So my choices affect not just me but the other people I’m in relationship with, and the people they’re in relationship with, and part of what it means to take these relationships seriously means accounting for these impacts on each other of all the choices that we make, including choices of whole else to be in relationship with.
This is a whole different relationship-basis. From here, questions like “are you monogamous or poly?” feel like being asked if I’ve replaced the horseshoes on my car. Of course, if I don’t want to try to explain, I might just say “poly”, because sure, I put on new tires and so “yes” is probably a better answer than “no” (depending on the context and what I’m trying to convey).
My relationships-for-life, including with Sarah, are first and foremost oriented around a sense of shared purpose that we have, as part of a shared context. Whatever other components of intimacy are part of any relationship come after that. And I came to realize that in some sense I expect to be in lifelong relationships with other people I’ve met (though I may not know who yet!) and people I haven’t, based on them sharing that purpose and coming to share this context with us.
(EDIT: I’ve since written up the core of this model as Relationship Panarchy)
And that purpose and context are fundamentally about the final choice I’m going to talk about in this post:
This section is also hard to write… for related and different reasons. In addition to new models, parts of the subject-matter itself also appear to be somewhat ineffable (cf. Looking). So I’m going to point at it a few different ways.
It represents a kind of commitment to a path of awakening, which could be called “spiritual awakening” although might not be contained in everybody’s concept of spiritual awakening. This path or its destination could be called “not daydreaming”—to interact with reality, not just my projections. It could be called simply a commitment to approaching life as a learning process, rather than from regret.
There’s a serious sense in which the simplest way that I could summarize it is I became a monk. Although it’s not the central concept people would have for “monk”, and it might be a kind of monk that’s almost entirely novel to this particular phase in history (which is not to say that I’m the only one). The understanding of “monk” that I’m using here is one that comes from a conversation Sarah & I had with Soryu Forall, the Guiding Teacher of MAPLE (the Monastic Academy for the Preservation of Life on Earth). He said (slightly edited from a transcript of the conversation):
The most important thing from my perspective is simply… that you have certain people who are honestly willing to do whatever it takes to live in accord with God or Nature or the Dharma or True Self or whatever you’re going call it. That’s a monastery.
We’ve been talking about what we’re doing here in terms of Grassroots Zen for a few years, and this conversation with Soryu gave us a deeper level of a sense of how we could understand ourselves as a monastery.
Another way to illustrate this is an excerpt (from memory, written the next day) of a conversation between a friend and I awhile ago:
Malcolm: I want to express to you… that I’m painfully familiar with the experience of feeling like it’s of utmost importance to continue showing up, and then not showing up. And feeling that worriedness. And… I said that we would find you, or we would find me, if we were lost, but in truth that’s hard, and it doesn’t happen right away, and… yeah. You can’t actually pull someone out of it directly, from the outside. Jean has had a lot of experiences of many people, including me, not showing up, and her seeing that, and holding space for them to show up, and sometimes it happens, and sometimes… it doesn’t.
And somehow, Jean keeps consistently showing up, ready to build together.
My friend: It seems that… Jean wakes up every day and actually takes in reality.
Last year I chose to do that too. It didn’t happen at one singular time, although I can point to a few moments that were significant. It also happened in each moment that I chose to not lose my presence to my fear. Which wasn’t every single moment, but I have a new kind of resolve and a new sense of the downhillness of this. It has been, and will be painful at times, to take in reality. It’s also thrilling, and deeply necessary, for creating the future we want.
I’m going to close with two quotes that have been part of our context here for years, that are of obvious relevance to everything I have said above. I feel touched by you taking the time to read this piece of reflection on choices and my life, whoever you are.
“Meaning is all we want.
Choices are all we make.
Relationships are all we have.”
— Sandy Schuman
“All we own is our impact.”
— Jean Robertson
(EDIT Dec 2021: with minimal but non-zero disrespect to what I meant when I wrote this 3 years ago, I’ve since untangled something about the nature of mindset choice and now see it as being fundamentally a confusion.)
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.