12 months ago, I set my stall out for 2017 by calling it The Year of Action. For too many years, I had sat on an ever-growing list of side-business ideas and personal projects without actually doing anything.
Nothing on my list stood out to me as my life’s calling, and as a result I sat in a prolonged state of severe choice overload regarding which one(s) to prioritise.
To overcome this, I gave up on trying to prioritise and decided that in 2017, my focus would simply be on bringing projects to reality. I’d start with whatever was occupying my brain the most, work through the projects from there, and see where that led me.
I like to think of this as putting my project ideas through a kind of survival of the fittest test, and letting that be a facilitator of self-discovery and personal growth.
Launched Dengpao Media — a boutique translation & marketing agency focused on helping Western startups & SMEs enter the Chinese market, and vice versa.
Released 3 songs in Chinese that accumulated 50k+ views across various social media & got approached to sign one with of China’s largest KOL agencies.
Took our streetwear brand Aoye to the end of one road (manufacturing our own custom headwear range) and established a much clearer and more viable route in a different direction.
Designed and launched the 什么鬼? brand concept and starter t-shirt range.
Produced a series of t-shirts with 张若琼 as the basis for her own clothing label.
Crossed out a ton of other side projects ideas that, as a byproduct of the above, I realised weren’t right for me.
This process of doing led to a year of learning and self-discovery. I’m far clearer now on what’s important to me, how I want to structure my life, and what direction I want to take it; as well as having more refined ideas about higher level topics like purpose and happiness.
Off the back of this, there are a number of concepts relating to personal growth and living a better life that are resonating with me right now.
I share them below.
Creating builds momentum. In fact, if you’re in a state of inertia, creating just for the sake of it can build enough momentum to propel you out of it.
What you create (your output) sets your value. Taking an idea from conception to reality shows others you can be trusted, and they’ll start seeking you out for paid projects or collaborations — allowing you to create more output and further increase your value.
Creating that first piece of output kickstarts a process of obtaining feedback and iterating on that feedback, allowing you to further improve the quality of your output. It also sets you out on a journey of learning, development and new opportunities.
Excess consumption meanwhile drains your time, energy and capacity to create, and thus your value.
For me, the types of consumption I actively avoid and spend less than 3% of my time on are:
Excess consumption I’d like to reduce in 2018 is:
I’m already at the point where about 40% of the time I’m almost immediately mindful of when I’m consuming and not creating. It’s then easy to nip the consumption in the bud and shift over to what I’m supposed to be doing.
I’d put this increased mindfulness down to the very limited amount of meditation I’ve done in the past few years.
In 2018, I want this to continue governing everything: Be a creator, not a consumer.
Note: I started thinking consciously about this concept after reading an article 6 months or so ago, but I can’t find it. So here’s a similar article that I quite like on the topic.
Random creation can get you started, but narrowing your focus and creating on a consistent basis is what leads to longer-term, and more tangible, growth and success.
This was the key lesson I learned from my foray into the world of Chinese social media.
The person that immediately comes to mind when I think about this concept is Ali Gordon. I’ve known Ali since we were teenagers and have watched from a distance as first his following, and then his value, have grown to very impressive heights.
Underlying Ali’s success has been years of unwavering commitment and world-class consistency (no exaggeration). That’s what took Ali from being just one of tens of thousands of fitness models on Instagram, to now being a regular fixture with the top fashion brands in the world.
I used to too often dismiss social media success as just taking pictures, posing or making stupid videos, but for most of the people who’ve made a success of it, they’ve arrived there off the back of years of relentless consistency, and I’ve come to consider that as 1/2 of a proven formula for personal growth.
This concept is intrinsically linked with #2 and was summed up in an interview with Rio Ferdinand I read recently.
Talking about the success of Man United with and without Alex Ferguson, he said:
“He was a master of psychology and had an amazing ability to get motivated straight away when he won a big trophy… He was thinking about the next title the minute he got his hands on the trophy and that mentality ran through the club.”
What resonates with me here is the idea of not dwelling on your success — not celebrating, patting yourself on the back, or stopping for too long at each milestone — but going straight back in and starting again.
This feeds momentum and maximises the gains to be had from compound interest — a concept Tom McGillycuddy has been talking about recently and one particularly well-articulated by David Heinemeier Hansson on the Tim Ferriss Show.
I’ve “suffered” from perfectionism my whole life.
Only being willing to put my name against the perfect version — be it an article, a drawing, an idea, a process — or only being willing to release it in optimal conditions — has in many cases stopped me from starting, and finishing, anything at all.
As a result, I’ve missed out on a ton of growth and potential opportunities that ultimately arise from putting something out there with your name on it.
In 2017 I decided to take a different approach: The 70% Rule.
Whatever I’m working on: once it’s at 70% perfect, get it out there. Don’t dwell on it, just get it out there!
This is basically taking a Lean Startup approach to personal projects, with the 70%-mark representing the MVP of your work.
I’ve found this to be a far more effective way of working, rather than constantly striving for perfection.
There are 2 fallacies underlying perfectionism:
1) Unless you’re a seasoned pro, you usually don’t have the technical ability to execute what you think is perfection, so you’re wasting your time and effort insisting on trying to do so.*
Indeed, the process of releasing your 70%-version, getting feedback, iterating on it and releasing it again, is inherent to developing your skills and experience to a level where “perfection” is actually achievable.
2) What you think is perfection right now is most likely far from it.
As you learn more about the real use case for the product you’re building, or your technical skills and experience improve, you likely come to realise that initially you were coming at things from the wrong angle.
For instance, you were trying to optimise your product for design, whereas — after getting feedback from actual users — you realise functionality is what’s most important. You’ve spent all of this time making it look great but have missed the bigger picture.
So for me now, I’m consciously driven by this 70% Rule and feel it’s done wonders for my output.
*Richie Grieve tells me this is a key concept discussed in Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art.
Extra: I just did a quick search for “70% rule” and turned up this article by Taylor Pearson, which comes at the concept from a more scientific standpoint.
The idea here is that we hinder our ability to cultivate better habits and behaviours by being inconsistent in how we apply them.
Instead, by applying the same behaviours consistently across different aspects of life, we reinforce those behaviours such that they have a better chance of becoming second-nature.
Richie told me recently how he is trying to cultivate greater focus by prioritising completing the task at hand without distraction, whatever its importance.
For example, previously Richie might switch his phone off while working on writing articles (his important work), but has it out when doing morning stretches (not so important work).
With his phone out, he falls into the habit of sending a few texts after each stretch. His mind is elsewhere, and the stretches take 50% longer than necessary.
By removing the distraction of the phone, Richie is more focused and not only completes the stretches in faster time, he has a higher quality stretch session with his mind not elsewhere.
As he starts treating all of his daily tasks with the same level of importance, he proactively seeks to minimise distraction regardless of what he’s doing.
He now gets things done faster and has more time to spend on the things that matter, as focus becomes a more instinctive part of who he is.
Based on my own experience, this greater focus on a micro level soon spills over into other parts of life, and helps bring greater focus on a higher level, like to your long-term goals and how you reflect on the state and direction of your life at any given time.
I tend to favour a DIY approach to learning — teaching myself web development using online courses; building my own study systems for learning Chinese vs conventional classrooms and textbooks; picking up graphic design skills as part of my various projects.
But I’ve come to appreciate the limits of this approach — you can waste a lot of time on trial and error that doesn’t actually contribute to learning.
As a result, I’m a jack-of-several-trades and master of none.
This year I want to enhance the DIY approach by seeking out relative experts, paying them to give me training and fast-tracking my path to proficiency.
This article paints a better picture of the whys and hows (thanks to Sebastian for passing it on).
Incidentally, another alternative to paying an expert is to work with them e.g. an internship.
Just because you have x years work experience in your career to date, you’re a newbie in the context of your new skill, so drop any airs and graces and get stuck in as an intern!
She took a pay cut to work with relative experts and both fast-tracked her learning and saved herself thousands of dollars in fees compared to the conventional alternative of signing up for courses at a school or university.
Give 100% to the person in front of you, “for nobody knows whether s/he will ever have dealings with anyone else”.
This principle drawn from Tolstoy’s The Three Questions was shared with me a few weeks ago by my friend Chris.
It struck me immediately.
How many conversations do we have where at least one of you is half-listening, playing with your phone and not giving the other person your attention?
How many relationships are eroded because of this? How much love is lost over time?
What’s the point in even being there?
I’ve tried to keep mindful of this concept in my daily interactions and the experience is infinitely better.
It ties closely with focus—treating whatever you are doing with equal importance and focusing on the “task” at hand.
I wrote about this in a standalone article here.
For at least the last 5 years, I’ve tried to let my heart guide my life decisions.
I recently read this article about the Winklevoss twins and gained a massive amount of respect for they way they live their lives.
In response to questions about their positions in Bitcoin, Tyler Winklevoss said:
“We still think it is probably one of the best investments in the world and will be for the decades to come. And if it’s not, we’d rather live with disappointment than regret.”
This “we’d rather live with disappointment than regret” struck me as simply being a more tangible way of saying “let your heart guide the way”.
The point is to not shy away from what you want to do or believe because others doubt you — or to choose career-house-marriage-kids because it’s expected by those around you when you really want to live an alternative type of life.
This is the big one for me.
In the last few months I’ve been obsessed with this concept of alignment.
The way I see it — alignment between these things is a prime recipe for personal growth, with many of the principles discussed earlier in this article falling into place as a byproduct.
That’s based in part on my own experience and observing others.
To me, it also represents a formula for a happier existence. A way to structure your life to bring you greater fulfilment and into a more persistent state of flow.
In the very simplest form, it’s alignment between mind, body and soul.
I started thinking about alignment after reflecting on my current personal situation and identifying that misalignment was at the heart of my discontent:
1) Most of my productive time is spent working my day job for a healthcare startup.
2) While I truly believe in the cause and long-term viability of the product(s), it does not fall within any one of the above bullet points for me.
3) My role (Marketing) is not something I have a competitive advantage in. Compared to other things, it’s not what I’m good at.
4) It’s what I do for money.
5) Our corporate HQ and customer base are in Australia — so you could say that is where my mind is.
6) However I’ve been spending most of my time in China — so that’s where I am physically.
7) I’m in China to work on my number one interest — learning Chinese. But I have very little time to spend on that because I’ve been working full-time on my job and the other projects.
8) While China isn’t the best place health-wise long-term (primarily because of air quality issues) it’s not an immediate issue. I can still workout and occasionally play football. But I’d like more time to pick up sports with more practical value like swimming and martial arts.
9) My longer-term goal is to have a series of passive income streams running that can cover my cost of living, freeing me up to spend my time exploring my interests and passions. I’ve made little progress on this since setting it as a primary goal in 2014.
So as you can see, not very aligned at all!
In 2018, my main goal is to rearrange the core components in my life so there is far more alignment between them, and start working properly on setting up these passive income streams.
Not long ago, I discovered that this concept of alignment — or a variation of it — has been more formally defined by the Japanese term, Ikigai. This article does a great job of explaining it. If you’re feeling discontent, frustrated, like you want to do more but can’t — try reflecting on how well aligned the core parts of your life are and see what you can do to move closer to your Ikigai.