So I’m a couple of days behind in #thedaily500. Some life happened that required my attention. Because most of what I’ve been writing for these vignettes has been accumulated experience, it’s been challenging to create enough distance in the last few days to make sense of what is happening right now and what I might learn from it in the coming weeks and years. Sometimes the liminal space is just a matter of the words I do write and the words I don’t. It’s kind of fitting, given that I’ve spent the last year in creative hibernation rebuilding from one of the last learning experiences of my life. So today’s topic is something that changed me forever – but it also includes a unique tradition and a recent good read.
I’ve made a practice recently, of sharing good books on Instagram and Twitter. It seems appropriate somehow to capture it there, sharing the bloody good reads. I consume books like oxygen. I have rules that help me here – on domestic flights, I read. No listening to music or watching anything. I absorb a lot of fiction this way. Lots of it is average but I try to help myself out by engaging a little strategy. I buy books from the bestseller lists, not from the bargain boxes and I buy them at the airport. I avoid pulp fiction where possible and tend to purchase based on my mood at the time. It means I read a wide variety of books. The first unique tradition I have is buying these books and then gifting to them to other travellers or to the people I met wherever I land. I have given away books in airports, rental car centers, in the offices of clients and to the shelves of friends. But there is a book I carry with me around the world (mostly because there is no Kindle edition). The book is by Henri Nouwen and it’s called “The Inner Voice of Love.”
It’s not a self-help book or a workbook or a textbook by any ordinary measure. It’s the journal of a wise and compassionate man who at a time of deep disappointment, elf-realisation and heartbreak – wrote letters to himself and to his soul, to remind him of what was true while he was living in the midst of the Fog.
You know the Fog. It’s what descends on us (or sometimes we walk right into it) as we find ourselves somehow having to walk into a deeper reality of who we truly are. We spend our whole lives becoming; it’s what we become that is a matter of choice. We can either walk closer towards integration of our full selves, finding peace in bringing our disparate pieces together – or we try and walk away from ourselves and find peace what is external to us.
The Fog can look like clear skies on a crisp day, until the clouds roll in. Even on a blue sky day when we think we see the horizon clearly, it’s amazing how a storm can roll in form the distant West and reveal something we didn’t see before. Rain and mist rises and what seemed like the way is suddenly not the way.
Here’s my unique tradition: I go back to the same book and the same journals I’ve written and I remind myself of the path I took to here and what reality is. And most of the time, making my way through the Fog means incorporating some new truth to my reality. It’s not the truth that changes, but how much I see of it. So I return to the signposts that are trustworthy.
Nouwen writes about navigating pain and loss and hope and frailty; reminding me of what I need to remember about myself from all the times I’ve walked this path before. This book is my Leaning Tower of Pisa. When you walk up the tower, you actually climb a circular staircase and this strange triangulation of physics creates an optical illusion. The first 16 or so flights create such a microscope change in angle that the view of Duomo de Pisa (the Cathedral beside the Tower) appears unchanged. But by the 20th time you circle the tower staircase, you can begin to perceive the difference. This is the beauty of exponential equations.
Which brings me to the subject of today – something that has changed you; or me, forever. In my case, there is a long list of breathtaking experiences and a longer list of circumstances in which I let myself down, let others down or was disappointed in someone else. There are circumstances too; simple calamities of timing and misalignment that created havoc – but in those stories, there is no one, not even myself to blame and they are far less interesting for it. It is when people are involved that things become the most interesting after all. I could choose any one of them about tell you how it changed me. I write journals and collect data on myself and others. I’ve been doing it for years and therefore could tell you how the lessons I learned from a single interaction 20 years ago are still changing me today. But those stories are just a smaller example of the bigger idea.
Exponentiality is what changed my life. It’s a made-up variation of a word. I made it up myself – to express the principle of what happens when you apply an exponential equation to the human experience. By the time this essay is finished, it will feel like a real word and concept that you understand. And that is the power of exponentiality.
The common human experience is to want more now; to get the most reward as soon as you can. It’s really a question of momentum – that moving through Now quicker will get you to Then, which is assumed to be better than Now because in the Western world we are also driven by forward progression. (There are about 1000 layers or more underneath forward progression as a principle in life. I’ll happily unpack them with you sometime.)
Exponentiality dispels the necessity of forward momentum and focuses on overall outcome or reward. It’s a percentages game. We have a tendency to assume that a greater percentage gain faster leads to the greater potential percentage gain overall. Exponentiality is a focus on the overall percentage gain regardless of momentum.
In a $1000 dollar investment, 5% return per annum over 5 years garners greater overall gain than the same investment that gives a 10% return in the first year and decreasing returns each year after.
It’s the same way with lessons. Apply the lesson once and you might gain a quick 10% return. But apply the lesson over and over at a consistent rate and over time you’ll see greater overall impact. In other words, don’t rush too fast over your lessons and you’ll experience greater transformation as a result.
Exponentiality has taught me not to rush through what is uncomfortable or less than ideal in the first instance but allowing consistency to create exponential growth.
I re-read Nouwen over and over because I learn lessons from him and my own experiences that are worth checking in on, to ensure I’m still reaping the benefit of that investment and time. And finally, by the 16th time around the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I start to see that yes, I really am much higher than I was before. The perspective and the view is different. Mostly that lesson is about learning to listen and live into my truest self. Becoming is the hardest work of my life and is frequently tested.
Without exponentiality, the temptation is to run from one experience to the next without allowing that lesson to take hold and bring maximum impact to life. Sometimes lessons are painful and despite my ability to live in the shadow side of life, no one really likes to dwell there for long. It’s far too tempting to give lip service to change than to actually change. Or we try to shortcut our way through. Here’s a tip: quick 10% gains will often fail to compound over time if we don’t consolidate. Most of the really important stuff we ought to be learning and double down our investment in actually needs a little more time and attention. In other words, don’t try to run up the Tower of Pisa. Take your time. Walk. It will be better for you in the end.
So I recently re-read an old favourite book, because when something painful and familiar comes along it’s become my tradition to double-down and ensure I’m rising above it and gaining more perspective. The view will eventually change altogether. That’s exponentiality at work – compounding lessons and interest on the investment.
And this has changed my life forever – not the first circumstance that brought me to this self-reflection or even the second. It wasn’t any one person (myself or anyone else) that let me down that created catalyst for change in my life – it has been and will always be the investment in learning from those circumstances and remembering to check my view each time I climb another floor in the Tower.
So that’s where I was for a couple of days – checking the view and checking in on my investments. Something to read, something to repeat and something that has changed me forever.