Quality Over Quantity

Quality Over Quantity

My life has grown smaller in almost every way. Fewer belongings, fewer activities, fewer friends. In most arenas, I’ve combed for necessities and discarded bloat, ever reducing as I make pass after pass.

A slow, tectonic shift is occurring in my values, favoring not options but certainties that feel solid and strong and good. I’m more willing to work on relationships that add value and reject those that drain because I don’t need quite as many tendrils reaching quite as many places as a young me once did. Maybe it’s age. Maybe I’m simply learning what nourishes and which wells run dry.

Still, I reach sometimes, deep into vast emptiness, plunging after something I know must be there, if I just stretch a little harder, extend a litter farther.

My whole life, I’ve plunged. I’ve sought and yearned and chased impossible things—the understanding of my father, affection from people without resources to give it, validation from those who’ve thought little of me. I’ve hit sandy bottoms and withered there, unable to accept the reality of this dearth. This death. Nothing here will give me life, and I cannot leave.

Even with improvement, I occasionally find myself in a wither. I recently chased the receding waters of a once-fruitful friendship, and today I struck bottom, forced to face a drought I should have seen coming. I should have heeded the signs and surrendered long ago, but parts of me resist wisdom, resist the knowledge of better ways to be. They lean heavily into old habits, chasing, striving, wasting energy in dark depths when I could be basking in sun.

Progress isn’t perfect.

Today is a difficult day as I retract another tendril, retreat from yet another well that once seemed bright and alive and promising. Quantity diminishes once more. I am smaller, even than yesterday, and it doesn’t feel like a victory yet.

Over time, that conserved energy will feed me. I’ll learn to heed signs earlier and avoid withers before they begin. My smallness will become hardiness. I tell myself this as I observe all that I lack, the blank spaces around me where others expand. Do they find nourishment in more places than I could, or do they, like a younger me, spread themselves to weakness, looking everywhere for something found only in a few select places? Are they seeking and plunging, too?

Comparison does disservice to growth, I know. It’s another dry well from which I must retreat, more emotional bloat to abandon, wisdom that must be heeded despite every impulse to ignore, resist, press on.

I am smaller, yes, and stronger and surer, too—maybe not than they were, but certainly than I was—and that’s progress.

Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes

“I keep looking to see if you’ve written about me,” a friend said. “Where’s my blog post?” He was joking in a way that feels true, like when a partner “jokes” about a forgotten anniversary but it doesn’t quite come out right because VISIONS OF VENGEANCE dance in their heads.

I teased him for needing recognition, for wanting to be witnessed by strangers he’ll never meet, and for having a GIANT EGO I HOPE THIS POST SATISFIES. At the same time, I understood the feeling of existing behind someone’s scenes, of being invisible on the public stage of their world and watching them play their part and take their bows, while waiting—hoping—for a wink and a nod.

I exist behind his scenes as much as he does mine.


Recently, I stumbled across an article on wealthy people’s obsession with endurance sports (tl;dr our lives are so cushy and aimless, we crave PAIN TO FEEL ALIVE, just like every teenager in every middle-class suburb in America), and a particular passage stood out to me:

“The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence has been known to make a man quiet and easy,” writes Crawford, who in 2001 quit his job in academia to become a mechanic. “It seems to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He simply points: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.”

Chattering interpretations. I love that.

Many of us spend our entire days involved in some form of “chattering interpretation” or other. We’re increasingly called upon to present ourselves in filtered images, 15-second videos, and 140-character tweets.

While never simple (I imagine), self-revelation has become a complex and ever-changing puzzle that requires us to adapt at racing speeds—like Tetris at some expert level I never had the patience (or skill) to reach. (Does everyone know what Tetris is? I want to ASSUME it’s part of our shared cultural lexicon, but one time a 19-year-old asked me what Monster Mash was, so apparently nothing is sacred and I am one million years old.) To exist in our current social landscape, we learn to play to audiences and present only pieces of ourselves that create a certain image or mystique.

A casual follower will see the expansive landscapes and remarkable highlights of my cross-country road trip, but they won’t see the unshowered binge-eating, frantic texting, and intermittent crying from a depressive episode last week. They’ll see allusions to romantic moments with ethereal characters, but they won’t see the lackluster lunches, unwashed sheets, and occasional halitosis of real human relationships, which exist outside the frame of fantasy.


In another article, I read today’s teens aren’t having as much sex as older generations. They aren’t spending as much time with friends. They’re choosing their phones over real-life experiences. And they’re more depressed than ever.

No wonder. Before they’re old enough to form their own understanding of the world, of friendships and relationships, they’re inundated with glamorized highlights of others’ seemingly real experiences.

An aimless drive around the city pales in comparison to your friends’ vibrant and seductive selfies. Their eternal laughter mocks you through a single, frozen frame, and you think you must be doing something wrong, that you’re missing some critical element of life and youth and fun, even as music wafts through the cool night air and your friend points out that bench where you once saw a pigeon attack some old lady’s hair. Boring, you think. But look at Shay’s instagram—THEY’RE having fun.


When that friend asked to be included in the blog, what he was really asking was to be recognized as a good part of my life, as something to brag about and make others jealous. He wants to be the loud instagram, not the quiet drive. He wants to be a chattering interpretation.

But relationships, to me, aren’t public. They aren’t labels or declarations. They’re moments, created and shared. They’re the running engine you poured hours into building, and look—you have a thing. It’s not glamorous, but it’s sitting in a room with you. It’s holding your hand. It’s cruising along the parkway humming This Charming Man.


In a world that demands self-revelation and self-definition in public spaces, omissions can feel like erasure—like anything not trotted before an audience couldn’t possibly be real—but I think it’s the opposite.

Chattering interpretations stream past us all day every day. They’re futile efforts to grasp at meaning and make ourselves known. They connect us in only the most tenuous way to some greater humanity, some larger idea about how we should coexist and move through this world. They reveal patterns and help us understand theories, shining light on the concept of being alive.

Actual living is a different thing. It’s tactile and ephemeral and uninteresting to behold. An orange-lit bridge against a gray-blue sky. Bulbous spiders and sugary vodka drinks. Laughter about nothing at all.

A collection of boring details that look like nothing but mean everything.

Life’s best parts happen behind the scenes.

Tribes

Tribes

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent time with dozens of people from wide-ranging walks of life—from my brokest, most liberal friends to my blue-collar, conservative family members, from suburban high school buddies to that one Porsche-driving, senior executive pal (you want him to be an asshole because UGH RICH PEOPLE AMIRITE but then he’s one of the greatest people in the world, which is both infuriating and why he’s one of only two men to be featured on Adrift on Purpose so far), from West Coast to Midwest, from lifelong connections to new acquaintances—and while some interactions leave me full, others leave me depleted.

Especially at home in the Midwest, conversations haven’t felt as fulfilling as I’m used to. I think it’s because I’m talking to so many people outside my tribe—people who, through no fault of their own, aren’t able to relate or even understand me or my experiences.

In California, I surrounded myself with like-minded people who were also queer or liberal or vegan/vegetarian or sardonic or dealing with mental health struggles or just trying to find ways to relax and be happy. I found a lot of laid back, compassionate, and ambitious people. People who sought adventure and were health-conscious and maybe a little woo-woo. People who had a lot of relationships. People who lived to entertain. The people I chose often responded to anecdotes with some version of, “Yes! Me too!”

I’m just now realizing the power of that kind of validation, the way we relate to each other through shared experiences and grow by finding people who bring out certain qualities we want to expand in ourselves and stretch us to become who we want to be. When you share some common ground, the Yes! Me too! helps you feel connected and normal, like you’re on the right path.

Conversations outside the tribe often feature responses like:

  • “Wow.”
  • “Interesting.”
  • “Neat!”
  • “Weird.”
  • “You’re so brave.”
  • “That’s cool.”
  • “Huh.”
  • “What’s that like?”

You end up volleying unrelated stories, interviewing one another, or talking about the most mundane common ground, like other people or the weather. (To be fair, the weather in the Midwest is BANANAS. We’ve gone through three climate changes in the time it’s taken me to write this far.)

Nothing is wrong with this kind of conversation, and it’s an invaluable life skill to be able to talk to anyone at any time (one I’ve certainly not mastered but which I try to improve by forcing myself to creep around the edges of conversation circles at networking events until someone politely lets me in so I can pretend to be equally enthused about the future of automated email marketing). You just can’t expect to get the same kind of connection from an interaction like this as you do from talking with a person who really understands the nooks and crannies of you.

Part of the goal of nomadism is developing a better understanding of the world and the space I want to inhabit within it. While I don’t want to be closed off in one of those much-maligned Liberal Bubbles (terrible places where we RESPECT EACH OTHER and EMBRACE DIFFERENCES), I do want to prioritize time with the tribe. Those are the people who keep me grounded, who help me push forward, who make me feel like everything is okay. Even when I’m adrift in every other area of life, I feel anchored by a simple, “Yes! Me too!”

When you’re understood—really, deeply understood—by another human being, you begin to feel like the world is friendly and you have a place in it. I’ve been lucky enough to experience that feeling, and now I can’t do without it. I won’t.

 

Performing happiness

Performing happiness

My favorite days on the trip so far have been those spent in other people’s homes. A few friends have been kind enough to let me crash on their sofas, and dropping into the warmth of a place where people actually live—with its personality and memories and myriad little markers of daily life—has been such a welcome respite from the sterility of places where people stay.

Each time, I’ve left completely refreshed and on high, even when I’d thought the only thing I could stomach that day was isolation in the form of snack-scarfing and an epic Netflix binge. (God that sounds good right now.)

 

Earlier this week, I hit a low. Through a series of events that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with circumstances in someone else’s life, a person I love cut me out. It was done swiftly, unceremoniously, and without warning. This person had been among the most important people to me this past year—someone whose presence had direct and profound influence on my growth—and I’m left with a hole where friendship and unshakable faith had lived. My week was a thundering cloud of betrayal, grief, and heartache. I wanted to hide from the world and nurse my wounds in private, not roll around playing Happy Tourist for Facebook.

Still, the road needed to be driven. Work needed to be done. And people needed to be visited. I had no choice but to rally.

When you drop into someone’s home, you can’t bring a stormcloud with you. You can’t show up and mope and cry and complain about how DEVASTATINGLY AND UTTERLY UNFAIR it is that someone turned their back on you. I mean, you can certainly tell your story—and believe me, anyone who would listen this week heard mine—but you can’t wallow. You have to be alert to the moods and rhythms around you and try to contribute something positive, or at least be an innocuous addition, to the environment you’ve been welcomed into.

In the throes of my pain, the energy required to be even neutral seemed impossible. I remember sitting in my car in Portland before meeting a friend for dinner, which would be followed by a night on her sofa. Fatigue pulled my face into a sour droop, and I felt hollow. As I sipped the coffee required to work up an ounce of enthusiasm, all I wanted to do was curl into a ball and cry. I couldn’t imagine actually socializing like a human. I was a PAIN GOBLIN.

But then a funny thing happened. I did it anyway.

I went to dinner and behaved in a decent, verifiably human way. (I think? Maybe she has a different read on it, and I was unwittingly goblining it up.) We had nice conversation and went to her home, where her wife and children were so bright and beaming and lovely, my heart burst into a million pieces.

At some point, the effort to perform happiness turned into actual good feelings. I left elated, ready to face the world again.

A similar thing happened in Seattle. I was one again reeling from The Drama™ (look, I, too, thought I was too old for the phrase “blocked me on Snapchat” to feature into my life in any kind of way, much less elicit real tears, but here I am, MILLENNIAL AF) and didn’t necessarily want to take a ferry out to a remote area to stay with someone I barely knew. But I went. And I put on my happiest, most charming face, because the less you know someone, the more value you have to offer to earn your place on their sofa. Plus, I was determined to have a good time dammit.

You know what? We had THE BEST TIME. We enjoyed a lovely dinner overlooking the harbor, reveled in being the only two single women in a bar full of hilariously thirsty men (my favorite was the dude who approached and said, “My name is Lee, what’re yours?” then shook our hands and said, “Okay, I’m drunk, that’s all I’ve got,” before scurrying off to steal someone’s drink from the table next to ours), and visited a farmer’s market in the morning. The entire stay was a delight, and I once again left on high.

I’ve seen the concept “fake it till you make it” applied to happiness, notably from Gretchen Rubin, and I think there’s truth in it. Part of what I liked about corporate life is that it forced me to present as someone calm and put together, and in a way, I started to become calm and put together. I don’t know if it works the same for everyone, but I seem particularly susceptible to performing my way into an emotional reality.

On the road, when you’re alone for long stretches of time, it’s easy to let yourself become consumed in the emotions swirling around your own head. You don’t have anyone to fake it for.

As I plan my journey (and life), I’ll have to make a point of adding Performance Touchpoints along my path—time spent in environments that force me to behave like the person I want to be. To wit, I’m on my way to Vancouver for Design & Content Conference, where there will be friends and warmth and at least three full days of performing my Networking Best. I imagine I’ll leave there an emotional camel with a hump full of happiness that will carry me all the way to Minnesota and the comfort of my family.

As for The Drama™, I’ve mostly managed to put it out of my head. I’m coaching myself to remember that betrayal doesn’t erase all the good that came from a relationship. I’m still allowed to hold onto that and to the moments we shared. Whether or not we ever speak again, those belong to me, to us, and that’s all I can comfort myself with right now.