Vacant Mind, Busy Hands

A few days ago, I posed a question to myself and to my readers: If you had a full year and $100k, what would you do? Since that posting, the universe has sent a few signs to remind me to slow down and focus on the next 24 hours, rather than trying to plot out my entire life in one sitting.

First, several comments pointed out that I clearly have absolutely no idea what I want to do with my life. That is true, and it’s also totally okay.

Blogger stolzyblog suggested I carve out 3-4 weeks for travel, encampment or a mini-project that would allow me to decide how wish to spend the rest of the year. It might involve exploring, interviewing professionals or launching a project to reflect on this inflection point in my life. The goal of the one-month hiatus would be to answer the question: how can I grow next? 

Six months is a very short commitment in the course of the average lifespan, yet it is more than enough time to delve into an interesting topic and definitively decide whether the project is worthy or further effort. It’s not an obligation to define my purpose outright, but an invitation to sit down with a single interest for an hour or two each day and become intimately familiar with the topic across those 180 days. It’s an opportunity to invite more flexibility, focus and discipline.

Yesterday, my doctor told me about one of her patients who just achieved a degree in nursing, at age 64. The doctor insisted that it’s not too late for me to go back to school, change careers or otherwise start over. Even if it took me another 35 years to discover my calling, it still would not be too late. 

Earlier this week, Seth Godin wrote a blog post about a sign at the airport cafe, which asked, “Are you in a hurry?” Before opening the email, I silently sighed as I nodded in agreement.

Seth argues that “hurried” is a state of mind–it doesn’t matter how many minutes until the flight someone is hoping to catch. What matters is their perception. And the same thing hold true for commuters, creatives and those in search of their life’s purpose.

We’re either in a hurry or we’re not. People in a hurry–whether at the airport in rush hour traffic–are stressed, distracted and no more likely to reach their destination on time than their relaxed counterparts. At work, on the other hand, people in a hurry avoid getting sidetracked and may be more likely to take calculated risks. Thus, Seth recommends, we should work to turn on our “hurried” state of mind when we need it, and turn it off when we don’t.

This concept made me realize that I don’t need to be in a rush to define my mission in life, lay out a 20-year plan or follow a linear path. Rather, I should focus daily on remaining focused, disciplined and committed to moving forward–however small or haphazard those steps may be.

Brandon Stanton, the mastermind behind the popular Humans of New York blog, was featured on the Tim Ferriss Show podcast this week. Though I’m currently only halfway through the two-hour interview, the discussion has already struck a chord with me. In his early 20s, Brandon felt debilitated by uncertainty. He spent all of his time–including the time he should have been in class–thinking about the big, existential questions and imagining that he must be destined for more than the rote memorization of business terminology.

Eventually, Brandon become so overwhelmed that he decided to limit his focus to the next 24-hours. He let get of  finding “meaning” and focused instead on practicing “discipline.” He exercised every morning, read 100+ pages daily, and completed homework assignments (even when they seemed pointless). It was through his commitment self-growth that he was able to stop grasping for answers to the big questions, and finally start living.

This discipline led to new interests, hobbies and opportunities, which eventually grew to a photo-blog with over 25 million followers. When he stopped caring about making an impact in the world, he was able to direct his efforts towards developing the skills, the voice and the network that are now allowing him to inspire others and make a difference.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Genius without education is like silver in the mine,” meaning that we’re all endowed with some form of genius, but we must individually put into the work to recognize, develop and share our own unique gifts. Silver in a mine is valuable, but it far more useful once it’s been extracted from the mine and refined.

Today, I received a newsletter from Srinivas Rao containing The Unmistakable Guide To Career & Purpose. He explains that our education is generally structured as an “if/than” statement, designed to spit out the best career path given a set of skills. Most people thinking about developing a career focus on what they’re able to do, but not what they’re made for. Srini believes that, “when you discover a calling you tap into a childlike curiosity and infectious enthusiasm that can be felt in everything you make and is infused into everything you touch. It draws people to you, and they can’t help but be inspired by it.”

If it’s true that passion follows engagement and meaning follows mastery, than the first step on the journey to one’s calling is to develop the discipline to engage fully in one’s life. Rather than blindly seeking meaning, it would serve us well to go above and beyond our job descriptions, read books when we get home, start projects that have nothing to do with our career and focus on building our craft instead of achieving success. 

Across the board, the message has been clear this week: Focus on practicing discipline and building skills today. Then trust that such daily habits will gradually unfurl to reveal a purpose at some point in the future. So, that’s my plan.

  • Commit to daily reading, ideally 100+ pages.
  • Exercise 5-7 days per week (once my lungs are healthy again).
  • Leave my soul-sucking job ASAP.
  • Stop thinking about purpose and start living life.
  • Spend a month in isolated exploration (and feel good about using the money I’ve saved up for this very purpose!)
  • Choose a project that excites me and commit the rest of 2018 to that project.
  • If the project is still exciting come December 31st, keep it up! If not, rinse and repeat with a new project.
  • Remember that perfection is the enemy of progress. Keep moving forward, even is the path is rocky and winding.


4 thoughts on “Vacant Mind, Busy Hands

    1. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m realizing. If I commit to doing ONE THING and doing it well, I can end each day feeling good about the gradual progress without feeling burned out over overexerted. Thanks! 🙂


  1. To help poke your brain about this plan…say you don’t like your project come December 2018 and you want to start a new one. What’s your time frame for making the same decision on your new project? Is it six months like this time frame? Is it a year for a nice, tidy ending? Just something to think about as you embark on what looks to be an ambitious (yet doable, hopefully) plan.


    1. Good question. At this point, I think six months is a good time frame. It’s enough time to go deep into a project, but a short enough commitment that I can choose something new if I don’t find it as exciting after those six months. Obviously, this may change. This is something I’ll definitely need to ponder a bit more.


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