Essentialism

Book Review: Essentialism by Greg McKeown
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

To be honest, I was disappointed in this book. McKeown presents some good points, but you really have to hunt for them between the fluff and “essentialism” marketing hype. It felt like the key points of this book could have been more succinctly summarized in a long-form journal article; as it was, it seemed like the same idea was rephrased six different ways in each paragraph, making it feel a bit like the author was talking down to his readers. It’s a shame, since it seems like McKeown has lots of interesting anecdotes from his consulting experience, and I wish there had been more of a focus on that.

My other main gripe was that a lot of the advice seemed inapplicable to the everyday reader. In part this was my fault for misunderstanding the target audience for this book — I picked it up in what seemed to be the “self-improvement” section of the library, not realizing that Essentialism is primarily written for business leaders and managers. McKeown assumes that his audience has the luxury of being able to do things like take time off from work to sort out their priorities and make meaningful decisions in what they invest their time on. While it’s true that anyone has a choice in what they focus on, those choices are also constrained by circumstance — you’re not going to be able to (as easily) choose to pursue your creative passions if you have to take care of an ailing family member or support your kid through college. It would have been nice to at least see an acknowledgement of these kinds of differing circumstances.


TLDR;

If you’re in a leadership position and want a book that promises a way to have it all while simultaneously chiding you about the impossibility of having it all, read Essentialism. Otherwise, I’d say give it a pass.

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Digital Minimalism

Book Review: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
My Rating: ★★★★★

An equally accurate title for this book would be Digital Mindfulness. That seemed to be Newport’s main advice for readers: to pay closer attention to what technology we allow into our lives and how we use it. Maybe I’m biased because this is a topic I think about a lot, but I really liked this book. Newport showcases research that shows the ways technology companies have engineered their products to be attention-sucking, and offers a compelling argument for why we should closely consider the effects that technology has on us.

Unlike some other digital self-help books, Newport also offers concrete and feasible suggestions on how to “practice” digital minimalism, such as:

  • Taking long walks
  • Leaving your phone at home when running familiar errands
  • Journaling, or as Newport calls it, “writ[ing] letters to yourself”
  • Fixing or building something every week

Newport also recommends that readers take a 30-day break from using all non-essential technology (that is, anything you don’t need in order to do your job or communicate with the people you need to be in contact with day-to-day), and then slowly re-introduce technologies into their life as needed. This is based on an experiment he ran with 1,600 volunteers from his email newsletter subscribers. I didn’t opt to do this exercise since I was in the middle of a busy senior semester of college, but I did take his advice to implement some rules for how I use technology.

Putting technology on a leash

Newport suggests applying three criteria to each technology we use:

  1. It must serve something you deeply value.
  2. It must be the best way to use technology to serve this value.
  3. Have rules for when and how you will use it.

I found the third rule the easiest to implement. I like to spend a lot of time browsing Tumblr, to boost my mood and get inspiration for art. However, this habit can get out of hand if I start browsing blogs instead of doing work. After reading Digital Minimalism, I decided to set a rule that I would only use Tumblr on my phone, and logged out of the website on my laptop. During the first few weeks, I often caught myself mindlessly switching tabs to Tumblr while working, but since I was logged out of the site I didn’t get sucked in the way I would have in the past. It was a little unnerving to notice how often I used to let myself get distracted during a particular work session. I now feel a lot more focused when I’m at my computer, and have less of a tendency to procrastinate.

Get your hands dirty

The other part of this book that really resonated with me was the chapter titled “Reclaim Leisure,” which talks about the importance of having non-digital — and more importantly — hands-on hobbies.

Ever since I changed my major to computer science, I’ve almost certainly spent more time behind a screen than away from it. I try to make time for hobbies like art (especially non-digital art like watercolor painting) or reading, but it can be tricky to tear myself away. Luckily, this semester I took a 3D Fundamentals course where I got to learn more about how to use power tools and a laser cutter.

At first, it was a frustrating process. It turns out that wood is much less forgiving than paper, and designing in three dimensions required me to flex mental muscles I’d rarely ever used before. Despite this, there was something immensely satisfying about having to slow down and be methodical and precise when measuring wood, cutting it, sanding it down slowly, and waiting for the glue to dry. I found it almost meditative — I could let my hands just do their job while my mind went blank.

Newport argues that becoming “handy” in this way is one way to unlock a variety of satisfying high-quality leisure activities, which just means activities that give you a sense of inward satisfaction when you complete them. Watching TV would be a low-quality leisure activity, for example, while knitting a scarf or going hiking would count as high-quality.


Book cover for Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, showing the title and tagline "Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World" in a white circle surrounded by a yellow striped pattern.

TLDR;

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in a new perspective on the role technology plays in their life, whether they are making an effort to live more intentionally or just curious!

Mindset for the New Year

Happy New Year, everyone! This time of year is always self-reflective, and I’ve been rereading some old favorites as a way to reset my mindset for 2018. Among these:

  • Show Your Work by Austin Kleon
    I really admire Kleon’s writing (particularly his blog posts, which are a breath of fresh air whenever I’m in a creative funk), and this book offers solid advice on how to stop overthinking and get back into making art and sharing it.
  • Mindfulness by Ellen Langer
    Langer’s research is insightful and in-depth, and I definitely recommend reading this book for yourself. What resonated with me most on this reread was the recurring theme of focusing on process over product, including being aware of the decisions you make along the way. What an elegant way to shut down FOMO.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Self-Reliance
    There’s a lot to take away from this essay, but I keep coming back to, “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” It’s a good reminder that there is value in trusting your intuition and letting yourself pursue what matters to you, without worrying about what others may think.
  • Some Rules for Students and Teachers by Sister Corita Kent, inspired and popularized by John Cage
    My high school IB art program first introduced me to this list, and each point still rings true today. Right now I’m most drawn to rules four and nine: “Consider everything an experiment” and “Be happy whenever you can manage it.” Good reminders not to take life too seriously.

It’s harder to maintain this kind of exploratory, unapologetic mindset once the holidays are over and the daily demands of work and life set in, but I think it can be done. Here’s to creative confidence and enjoying the process in 2018!

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Glimpses of Russia

This summer I got the chance to visit my grandparents in Russia. My last trip there was a whole three years ago, and it was strange to see that everything is exactly as I remember it, even while I (as a person) have changed so much in the time that’s passed.

Russia is hard to describe. The people smile little, partly because that is the culture, but mostly because their lives are hard. The land, on the other hand, is expansive and open: endless rolling fields smattered with forests. Small villages dot the highway at intervals, but are increasingly empty as people scatter to cities to find different work than the back-breaking agricultural labor their forefathers carried out. The trolleybuses in the cities are full of these grim-faced crowds that work, and drink, and find love, and survive.

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Travel Sketchbook Snapshots

While studying abroad I kept an almost daily journal / sketchbook.
Here are some of my drawings.

Reflecting on Lyon

Last Sunday marks exactly one month since I came back from studying abroad in Lyon. I saw Katherine’s lovely reflection a while back and thought I should write one as well.

It was a transformative trip. Though at times it was tough to balance schoolwork with traveling and exploring Lyon, by the end I managed to figure things out and enjoy my time there. When signing up for this program, I was worried that six weeks would be too short a time to get to know a whole new city. I still don’t know Lyon as well as a local, but I have a slightly better understanding of the city and the mindset of the people who live there. Honestly, I’ve come to think of Lyon as another home.

I was lucky to find a group of friends with whom I could explore Vieux Lyon on a bank holiday or plan weekend excursions to Marseilles and Barcelona. At the start of the program, we talked excitedly about doing homework outside in the plazas or while sipping coffee in cafes. Unfortunately, the reality soon hit that we’d actually be spending a minimum of six hours at school each day: a two-hour morning class, an hour for lunch (not enough time to go far), a second two-hour class, and then at least another hour to work on homework and meet with our project groups. At times, I felt frustrated to be spending hours studying when all I wanted to do was get out and see Lyon! Weekends and scattered evenings out were not enough to get to know the city like a local.

Fountain

What snapped me out of my workaholic routine was my friend Jackie visiting from London. Suddenly, I was very aware that time was precious! I only had five days to spend with her and three of those I’d be in school. She explored on her own while I was in class, and afterwards we’d meet up and wander around Lyon in our own version of flânerie. One of my favorite memories from Jackie’s visit was when I had to study for a midterm exam for marketing. I’d spent at least an hour and a half lying on my bed reading through flashcards and skimming my notes while Jackie lay on the trundle bed and painted. I could feel myself sinking into the mattress with each minute that passed, and the air felt stifling. Abruptly, I threw my books down and asked – “Do you want to go for a run?” I lent Jackie a pair of shorts and we jogged down the apartment steps into the cool post-rain air. The ground was wet and the sky was pink and blue reflected in the Rhône river as sunset neared. We ran from Jean Macé almost to the city center at Hôtel de Ville, carrying nothing but the apartment keys. Just soaking it all in.

While Jackie was visiting, we made the most of every hour we had. After she left, I began to notice all the pockets of free time I had to spare. I thought about how many days passed with me sitting in my room studying while the city of Lyon bustled outside, and I resolved not to let another day slip away. I made a list of places I wanted to see, and set out to visit each one before my time abroad was up.* Doing that research and making a definite plan of what to do helped motivate me to set my homework aside and go out while museums were open (most close at 6pm, gift shops and all) and the sun was still out. I knew I could get all my assignments done in the evening. I only wish I could be that productive back home in New York and Boston!

MetroAs Katherine mentioned, Lyon’s super-punctual metro system and our unlimited metro passes were a blessing for exploring the city and being able to go anywhere in the city on a whim. But even further, being able to speak and understand French was what really opened the city’s doors to me. When eating out in restaurants with my friends, I often acted as group translator – helping explain the menu items to the best of my ability and asking for vegetarian options for my friends. I could also go to museums like the Institut Lumière without worrying about the lack of English captions.

JoranneEtCha2One of my favorite parts of the trip was one such French-only event: I went to the Lyon BD [Comic] Festival and had the chance to see an interview with webcomic artist Boulet! While I was there, I also got to chat with two other young artists – Joranne and Chakare. They were super cool and fun to talk to (though we had to switch to English because I was having trouble finding the right words in French) – turns out they had recently been to New York, as a matter of fact! They even signed and drew in the copy of Petites choses du Japon that I bought from them; I love the little “hen”/”haine” pun.. Meeting them was one of my absolute favorite parts of the trip, and I am so happy that I had the opportunity to go to the Festival BD! {Plus, I just saw that Chakare drew me in one of her comics – the jeune americaine is me! Merci beaucoup, Chakare, je me sens tellement honorée!}

Thanks to my new drive to explore, I started going to more places alone. Before, I’d often worried about not finding anyone on the trip that shared my interest in say, comics or graphic design, and I felt like a bit of a loser to be walking around on my own. But toward the end of the trip I came to understand that if I wanted to do things like the BD Festival, I’d have to go by myself. And what’s more – I realized that I didn’t mind breaking out on my own! When our schedules aligned, it was definitely fun to go places with friends – like visiting the Chamourai Cat Cafe with Olivia – but I realized I didn’t have to rely on having company to go out and do interesting things. Plus, exploring on my own let me recharge after a day of classes, and it was nice to embrace my quiet side.

I learned so much on this trip – not just in class, but about Lyon and about myself as well. I would say that I feel like a new person, but it’s more that I feel more fully me. Thanks to studying abroad I’ve had the chance to experience so many new things – from a local jazz club in Lyon, to a vintage market in Marseilles, to clubbing in Barcelona, to being surrounded by a thunderstorm at Lake Geneva. There have been times of amazing fun and incredible frustration, but I am so glad I had the chance to go through all of them.

Before the farewell dinner on our last day in Lyon, I went up to Vieux Lyon and La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière one last time to say goodbye to the city. The basilica stands on a hill overlooking the city – like a protector – and it felt only right to say thanks to her for watching over the city and over us students. I felt peaceful as I looked out over the Lyon skyline… even though I then had to run to catch the funicular down and find the restaurant for dinner. Though I definitely miss Lyon, I don’t feel sad about leaving the city. It feels like a fact that I will come back one day.

Panorama


*P.S. Here is my list of what I simply had to do and see in Lyon: