What I forgot from the cabin

Insights, fear, and relapsing into our old ways.

There are two types of quiet.

The first is an external quiet. Turning down the TV, silencing notifications and tempering the voices of those around you. Then there’s the second kind of quiet. The kind that you can only feel inside. A steadiness of being, a contentment. A feeling of direction, conviction, and stillness.

That’s what I was seeking when I rented a cozy little cabin, at the base of a crystal clear lake, on the other side of the world.

My partner, Ash, and I had decided to make this small outpost—on the South Island of New Zealand—our home for 7 weeks. The nearest highway was an hour’s drive, and the nearest airport was three. Our closest neighbors, for nearly two months, were lambs, chicken, and deer. Aside from each other, we rarely saw another soul. All that’s to say, things were very quiet.

This was the perfect place to explore both the beautiful natural landscape outside, but also my immediate landscape inside.

What I discovered

The town we lived in was called Wānaka, and when we were there, I knew exactly who I was. I could see clearly what was most important to me, and the direction I needed to take forward to pursue it.

Isolated—on the other side of the world—without any financial pressure, or obligations, with nothing but my partner and free time, one thing became obvious to me. I wanted to write. I wanted publish long, thoughtful essays. I wanted to hone my skill, and ultimately get published in magazines.

Now, do I know anyone who writes for magazines? No. Do I follow anyone who writes for magazines? Not to my knowledge. So your guess is as good as mine for where this idea came from. But when I felt it, alone and isolated, uninfluenced and unobstructed by the outside world, I knew that it was true. I knew that this was coming from within, not from without.

I would go on long walks every day, contemplating this idea. Basking in the prospect of doing meaningful work. Excited to orient my life around something I finally knew was true.

And then I came back home.

And I started meeting new people.

And I started going back online.

And I realized, I actually have a big event business to run.

And I realized that other people had been growing their event businesses while I was away.

And I realized that if I didn’t also grow mine, I would soon be forgotten.

So, unthinkingly, I got back to work. I shelved my hard won insights. I forgot what I learned in Wānaka—when it was quiet.

I didn’t write a single word for 3 months.

I began meeting new people. And in these meetings they would ask me questions like, How does your business work? or What makes you different? To which, I would repeat the same line, over and over.

“The most important thing I do is write. It’s the glue to my life, and to my community”. And each time I said it, I knew it to be true. And each time I said it, I knew I was betraying myself.

A brief, yet critical, digression

Here’s a little digression that you might find interesting. Something I share with very few people. The secret sauce to my business, if you will.

This newsletter—the one you’re reading right now—is designed to get people to unsubscribe. That was not a typo. And since it was not a typo, it probably calls into question literally everything you’ve ever heard about newsletters, or community, or business in general. Why would someone want less people on their email list?

Because I believe writing is a beacon.

It works by both attracting those who are aligned with a certain set of values, and repelling those who think values are a waste of time. In this way, the newsletter is the heat that evaporates water from a fine whiskey. It’s a distillation. So, with each new essay, there’s a greater and greater density of thoughtful, caring, and kind, people in our midst.

This is why writing is the most important thing I do.

However, it’s no easy task. Not because writing is hard (which it is), but because no one gets acclaim for thinking smaller. No one gets recognition for building a little community, or hosting a little event or writing a little newsletter. No one brags about having fewer Twitter followers.

And this is the central tension.

How do I fight to do what is truly meaningful, when playing all the other games are so much more fun, and lucrative, and sexy, and rewarding?

The voices that tell us who we are

When I came back home, and began to stray from the path I had set, it was because I was reintroduced to my reference groups.

We all have them.

If you work in marketing for example, you have a group of people who also work in marketing, that you look to for direction. This reference group sets the norms, and expectations, for how all marketers should look, act, and behave. These groups aren’t just limited to just your profession. If you’re a mom, you’ll have a reference group of other moms. Same if you’re Hispanic, Jewish, gay, a man, or a millennial.

These groups are like the cool clique in school, and you, no matter how successful, will always be the nerdy kid on the outskirts, looking for their acceptance.

Reference groups aren’t all bad though. Striving to be a part of these communities can provide a real sense of psychological safety and assurance to our actions. When we’re lost, they are particularly useful. Their collective knowledge will light a safe path for us to walk, in a very dark world.

Yet, the pressure to adhere to the norms of our reference groups, can pull us away from who we are, and have us moulding ourselves to a persona we don’t fully subscribe to.

Only through tremendous effort can we break away from these groups. Doing so would take a dramatic act. Something like flying to the other side of the world, blocking social media, and living out of a cabin for two months.

Passion or Panic?

You can do a lot of work—a lot of good work for that matter—out of fear.

You can build a great company, out of the fear of letting your parents down.

You can build a great physique, out of the fear of not finding love.

You can build a great audience, out of the fear of being forgotten.

But a hallmark of fear motivated work is that, it’s the wrong work. Instead of being pulled towards your goal by play or passion, you’re being prodded forward by the end of a scythe. And it shows.

Work motivated by fear, is inherently scarce. It turns us into a street performer, pulling tricks, and gags out of our pockets in a frenzied attempt to be whatever the audience needs us to be. The irony is that, in our attempts to be exactly what the group wants, we repel them with our desperation.

Feeling the dissonance

It’s annoying to think that, I can’t just intuit my way to better behaviors. That I have to learn the same lessons over and over again. That the fear of exile from my group, looms so large in my subconscious. That—even when I know better—I get lured back by the siren song of vanity, expectation, and comparison.

Why did I relapse? As best as I can tell, it was some combination of the following: fear of being forgotten, fear of not having enough, fear of falling behind, fear of disappointing my spouse or my parents, fear that I would let down a community that has come to expect certain things from me. And as a result, not only did I betray myself, but I became scarce. My fear was palpable. I could smell my own desperate stench. And when you can smell yourself, you know it must be bad.

Thankfully though, I could recognize it. The fact that my fear was palpable, woke me from a mindless hedonic trance. It restored some semblance of lucidity, and gave me the opportunity to step back. To parse out what I was doing for myself, and what I was doing for everyone else. And most importantly, to remember what I learned in Wānaka.

I’m writing again.



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