Birthdays, like new years, are a potent time for reflection. We assess the year that was and contemplate what the next will behold. More accurately, for many, we ponder the question, "What will I become now that I am ____ years old?"
What aspects of myself will I successfully change? What bad habits will I rid? Will I become a better version of myself? Will I overhaul the parts of my life that bring confusion or discontent?
When I interviewed singer-songwriter Lisa Mitchell, I asked her what she would change about herself or her life. She responded thoughtfully: “I’d really like to change wanting to change myself! We all give ourselves so much crap all the time, so I’d love to just leave myself alone.”
As I sit in a café in Brooklyn on my 28th birthday, I’m reminded of Mitchell’s words. My bullet journal is open and ready to receive the annual list of what I’d like to change about myself in the year ahead (under the guise of ‘Life Improvements’).
But I stop myself in my tracks. What parts of us are hurt, stunted or suppressed when we constantly fixate on changing them?
Are we getting in our own way when we tie ourselves to a nebulous sense of success, progress or accomplishment – and then try to fit it all into a neat annual calendar? Yes, I failed last year, but this year I will be free from flaws and wounds and hiccups and setbacks.
It sounds like a setup for failure.
I'm reminded of the evening before my birthday. I attended The Universe in Verse hosted by Maria Popova of Brainpickings. There, singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash read Adrienne Rich’s poetic tribute to Marie Curie, “Power.”
The final line speaks to this sense of relinquishing this need to constantly change ourselves in order to find our place in the world.
“She died a famous woman denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power.”
– Adrienne Rich
To be fully and creatively present, we must learn to see our weaknesses as strengths. Work with our flaws rather than fixate on changing or improving, or continue to weave long lists of all that is ‘crap’ (as Lisa Mitchell puts it) about ourselves.
As Cheryl Strayed surmises: “Adrienne Rich … did not die a woman who denied that her wounds came from the same source as her power. In fact, she spent her life making power from those wounds [but] Marie Curie… didn’t have that luxury — she had to deny that in order to be who she was in her time. But we don’t. And I think so much of the work I’ve done … and the work I hope I continue to do, is about writing into those wounds.”
Acknowledging this luxury, I cross out the beginning of my list and begin to write another. It's the beginnings of an evolving list of things I'll stop trying to change about myself, and I hope it inspires you to create one for yourself.
An evolving list of things I'll stop trying to change about myself
An all or nothing approach honed over a lifetime
There will be days I work in a fury, days I do seemingly nothing. Times when I run every morning, times where I barely move from my desk. There will be periods where I experience a sustained creative slump, and periods where I can't keep up with my own ideas.
I’ll forever find it difficult not to binge on the high and the low – on Netflix, on ideas, on takeaway food, on remunerating thoughts, on having a busy social life, on having a quiet social life. This an approach ingrained for decades, and instead of trying to change, I'll finally see that the feverish periods balance out the steadier, and vice-versa. That our lives and our days are cyclical, and we can't always be everything, if ever.
Being a listener not a talker
Being quite reserved, I find it difficult to talk about myself in person and at great length. I’ve often thought this is something I need to change and improve in order to 'promote myself' or connect with people, but I’m learning to feel more comfortable with being the listener, with holding that space, and discovering more about others to help fuel my work. It's okay if our personality, opinions and thoughts come out in droplets, not waves.
Working very little on weekends
Often I’ll make elaborate plans for the weekend to work in order to catch up on the week’s work I didn’t get to. But what happens every weekend without fail? I don’t do the work! I go to brunch or catch up with friends – all tainted by a sense of guilt for not powering through an unrealistic to do list. I’m going to stop trying to change into a weekend worker and instead enjoy the leisure that inevitably unfolds.
Not always seizing the day
I have a tendency to leave events before giving mingling a proper chance, mostly out of a sense of shyness or awkwardness. Afterwards, I always feel as if I haven’t seized the moment and berate myself for it. Instead, next time I leave something a little too soon, I will remind myself of Tim Kreider’s words in his book We Learn Nothing:
“You can’t feel crazily grateful to be alive your whole life any more than you can stay passionately in love forever— or grieve forever, for that matter. Time makes us all betray ourselves and get back to the busywork of living.”
Feeling uncertain about what I’m doing with my life
Experiencing uncertainty isn’t a personal flaw, it’s a condition of being human. I’ll stop trying to change, manoeuvre and control every inch of my work and life in a naïve attempt to inhibit a sense of uncertainty. Nobody knows what they are doing with their life.
Trying to influence or guess what other people are thinking
I often try to guess what people are thinking, remunerate on it, and then craft a response to better an assumption I've dreamed up in the first place. Worrying about what other people think and trying to change yourself (or them) to suit some imagined ideal is only wasting your own time.
Needing a lot of sleep
I'll put an end to the futile attempts to transform into a morning person or get by on very little sleep – I feel best with nine hours between 11pm and 8am, and that may never change.
Being a single woman
I used to be convinced that there was something inherently wrong with me for being single. Year after year, I’d wonder if this would be the one where I meet that someone special. Now, I realise it’s not personal if you're not partnered. What is more, I’ve learned that the life of a single woman has a rare richness and it’s something to cherish over settling for the wrong relationship.
Being haphazard with daily practices
The more I study routines through interviews with successful creatives, the more I uncover about the ad-hoc nature of our lives. Some people thrive on set routines and it’s a necessary ingredient for creativity; others know they could implement more routine but find it difficult to stick to, and some thrive from ever-changing days. I’m somewhere in that middle category. I know that I’ll constantly fumble, not matter how many experiments I do, 'perfect routines' I draw up, or daily practices I try to implemented. But I’ll also remain constantly curious.
Not being overly outdoorsy or adventurous
I’m one to sit on the beach and read rather than swim, stay on the ground cheering if friends are climbing a fence. It turns out your preferences for fun don’t make you inherently boring or exciting – they’re just simply preferences.
Enjoying a Friday night in
One word: Kalsarikännit
To be continued... and now your turn. What will you stop trying to change?