Disclaimer: this is a long post
One of the topics that fascinate me is the new breed of Personal Development blogs. That is basically the new term for the self-help industry right? Some of the blogs I regularly binge on are Chris Guillebeau’s Art of Non Comformity, Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You How to be Rich and Tim Ferris’ Four-Hour Workweek. (I just noticed that most of these blogs are written by North American men, if you have links to Personal Development blogs by more women, I would love to read them)
Anyways, I’m a sporadic reader of personal development blogs and it will depend entirely on my work, travel and personal schedule and my mood. But, as with all good marketing, most of these blogs cater to aspirational lifestyles for people who often feel stuck and not sure where to go. Which is awesome for some but also leads to an unhealthy pressure for others to always be happy, working towards specific goals that they feel pressured to make or even to have an unhealthy understanding of aspirational lifestyles. While of course, I would theoretically love to live in <insert country name> and travel all the time, have a 4- figure income while writing a blog and running an online business, I don’t think this is the right formula for everybody or at any time of your life. In fact, I truly believe that this the wrong formula for the vast majority of people (I also think that if the majority of people actually did these things, the world economy might in fact collapse but I’m not an economist so don’t quote me on that). Mostly, because the vast majority of people in the world don’t live in North America or Europe and have a very different cultural context to contend with. However, I do believe that if even 2% of the people reading those blogs are able to achieve their dreams using those tools, all the power to them. But I think what most people crave in their life is not necessarily luxury vacations or a continuous income from side sources but a better relationship with control.
What is Your Relationship With Control?
I have written in the past about my difficulties with depression. One of the things I’ve learned in the past few years in my fight against the black fog, is that I have a love-hate relationship with control. When things don’t go the way I’ve planned them to and it happens over and over again, I feel powerless and that I don’t have control over my life, which leads to a self-hate spiral. Ramit Sethi speaks often about invisible scripts that guide our lives and I think one of those scripts is that we should always be in control of what we are doing. But as we all know, that is not always possible (or very fun really). Letting go helps you to discover new people, places and yourself in ways that planning meticulously will never really do.
The (somewhat) Myth of Control
It is also somewhat of a myth that we control our own destiny. This isn’t the truth for the vast majority of people around the world as we deal with structural issues that will often contribute to power imbalances and local contexts that we have no control over, including financial, political, social, cultural, emotional, gender differences in the system. You simply cannot tell a poor farmer in Ethiopia that they have complete control over their destiny. I mean, I guess you could, but in terms of where they are, what they believe, the vast majority of them would probably just not understand what that means. I still can’t tell my mom that she can control her own life or destiny because culturally, she doesn’t believe it due to deep invisible scripts and other social issues that exist around her. In all, it requires a tremendous amount of energy to break free from the societal pressures that sometimes weave themselves around your life. And I think that sometimes, putting your energy into things you can control is probably the best option.
Things I have control over (and fought/fight for control over)
- MY JOB
First of all, I love my job. It took me a while to get here, to actually realize that I loved it and I know that might not love it forever. But right now, I love my job. I had control over this.
HOW #1: Surf the Web with Purpose. For years, I have subscribed to numerous job list-serves and have combed through job descriptions on a weekly basis. I always look at least one or two professional grades above where I am right now in order to see what skills and experiences are needed for jobs I would really want to have. And I seek out opportunities to develop those skills in the present time.
HOW #2: Mission and Values Matter. Looking through these job searches, I would also look through the organizations and make a list of those I should consider in the future due to their mission and values. I cannot stress this enough. I love my job because I work with an organization that I truly care about and want to be a part of. I have always been extremely careful about this and have declined job offers in the past for much higher salaries because I did not believe in their mission, how they treat their personnel or the environment. Am I idealistic? Yes, extremely. But I think that’s a strength and not a weakness,
HOW #3: I worked in finding jobs and opportunities that were directly related to what I thought I wanted to do. During my undergrad, I worked 3 days a week at a CEGEP (college) in their International Education department and helped to manage grants, wrote reports, updated websites and did design work on international and education related issues. This work paid me more than double the average salary for a person my age (19 at the time) and helped me apply to much higher level entry positions than I could have otherwise for summer internships and future jobs. I cannot stress enough how much the skills I acquired in this job helped me to launch a career.
I also volunteered for organizations that I really cared about, including Engineers Without Borders and End Poverty Now, both really helped to supplement my learning, understanding, attitude and values towards international development and poverty alleviation work. I worked for organizations I thought I liked but ended up not liking at all and took that learning in note.
HOW #4: I tried to stay debt-free. I cannot stress this enough. In my choice of university, I chose the one (granted it is one of the top in the country) where I had to pay the least amount of money and where I received the most scholarship money. Although I could have gone on to a college in the US, that would have meant taking on much more debt than I was comfortable with. While at McGill University, I lived more than an hour and a half away from school so I could live with an amazing family that helped me more than I can thank them for rent-free. I was literally in public transport for 3 hours a day for 4 years during my undergraduate degree. I used my work money to pay my tuition. I spent a year as a part-time student so that I could get much lower in-province tuition rates. I took side jobs like designing newsletters and translation so I could also save up for summer internships in international development and travel. For grad school, I went to the one that I received the most scholarship for and again, where I would be able to take on side jobs or consultancies. I did end up having to take some debt for graduate school but not uncontrollable and I will finish paying it within a year. Being debt-free has meant everything to me. It meant that I was able to be choosy when applying for jobs, that I was able to take on a much lower paying position that I cared about.
HOW #5: I maintained relationships and networks of people throughout my life. One of the people who reads this blog regularly is a teacher from grade 4 (special love to you). I am not joking. I am not a socialite by any means at all. But I am extremely loyal to my friends and try to be in touch with them as often as possible. I lived with a friend’s family throughout my undergraduate degree who became my own family and it was because I gave up “independence” for a family life and relationships with people I love. I would do anything for them. The job I have now was due to a reference from a friend from university. Keep in touch with people. It will pay dividends.
HOW #6: I gratefully accepted help. I have been incredibly lucky in my life and am incredibly grateful to the people around me. When I got accepted to UWC Pearson College on a 80,000$ scholarship at the age of 17, my family could not afford the plane ticket across the country. My next door neighbor used his air miles to buy me plane tickets there and back for 2 years. As mentioned before, I lived with a family during my undergrad who took me into their lives and would not accept rent from me. They treated me (and still treat me) like their own daughter. The first day when I met her, my second mother said, “I don’t expect anything from you except that you will give this opportunity to another person one day and help them.” I hope to be in a position to do even a quarter what she has done for me. I lived with my uncle and aunt during my internship in Washington DC.
HOW #7: I asked for help. I didn’t use to be very good at this but I have learned to ask for help. If you do, people will answer. Whether it is finding a new job, connecting with other people through their networks, reviewing a resume or deciding between options, I ask for help from the people around me. For example, while I was debating whether to take my current job or not, I called and asked more than a dozen people for their help. This said, I also evaluated what they said against my own criteria and made sure I listened to my reactions to their suggestions.
- My RELATIONSHIP
HOW #1: I was clear about what I wanted from the beginning. R and I joke a lot about how our relationship started (rather unconventionally) but basically the very first evening we spent together (after talking online for months and having met a few years prior to that), I straight out asked whether we were in a relationship. It might not work for everyone but I was very clear about my rules of engagement (ha, pun non intended). Thankfully he also wasn’t afraid to say, “Yes.” But even if he had said “No”, I’m not good with games so I needed that clarified.
HOW #2: We communicate everyday. Since the very beginning, R and I have been doing long distance. Thankfully, this stopped for a few years but we are back at it again now. Long distance does not work for everyone or even most people. But I was anal about talking every single day. It annoyed both of us to an extent my need for being connected constantly. But it also meant that we are extremely open about our feelings.
HOW #3: I let go of things. I have a terrible memory. Seriously. I forget about most grudges and don’t hold on to things that happened most of the time. That doesn’t mean that if I am feeling bad about something, I won’t tell him. I will and I won’t mince my words either! But after we’ve argued or discussed, I make dinner or we watch a movie and I usually forget what happened.
HOW #4: We discuss what we want together. R helped me and helps me enormously all the time in challenging myself and discussing what we want in our future together. What we do in the present must in some way relate to our future together and where we want to go (loosely). He is super supportive of the work I do (emotionally and financially). Since I don’t get paid as much as he does, he is basically supporting me financially. But this is also part of where we want to go and how my positions will (hopefully) progress.
HOW #5: I was in love but I chose a partner based on criteria. I didn’t literally go about putting a checklist for my partner. But dating and loving R was not the easiest option at the time. In that I come from a Muslim Bangladeshi background and was expected to marry someone from a similar background. I fell in love with R but was still rational about our life together. Some things that were important to me in a partner were: financial stability and attitude, willingness to travel and live abroad, attitude when we fought or when we were in disagreement, willingness to change attitudes regarding chores and household tasks, habits and how they fit in with mine, things he did for fun, did we get along with each others friends…
- MY ATTITUDE
HOW #1: I try to do things for others without expecting anything in return. I love being able to give back. I have mellowed out a lot over the years but I try not to expect others to give back anything in return. Whether it is cooking dinner for my housemates or helping out someone during their job search, I help others out because I really love helping others. Not because I expect in any way that they will do the same back.
HOW #2: I try to listen. I try to listen to others with judging them. I care genuinely about the people in my life and try to understand what they are saying beyond just their words.
HOW #3: I am honest. If something is bothering me, I will let the other person know. This means that I harbor very few grudges against others. It sometimes means that people get a bit flustered or uncomfortable around me (not too often) but usually are very happy that I was honest with them. It usually actually builds a better relationship.
HOW #4: I spent time alone. I am not afraid to spend as much time alone as I need to. Whether I’m sleeping, reading, writing, praying or drawing. I draw a lot of strength from being alone and it helps me cultivate a better attitude because I have had a time to reflect, think and plan.
It is important to analyze the parts of your life you wish you had more control over, understand what you do currently and then implement some best practices that work for you in order to have more control over those things. It is of utmost importance to actually keep in mind that control is not always possible and to have a contingency plan in case things spiral out or just to breathe and have an attitude that allows you to take stock and move forward.