You know what? / These negative thoughts can get aggressive like celebrity t***s / Posted up rent-free in my psyche / Tryin’ to weather the course / I need a team, like them letterman jocks / My own entity, the life of a boss / Can I ask, how much a dollar really cost / I need to win the lottery for all the calls / To exude greatness and make do and be patient / And every now and then the quick thoughts of time wasting / And old heads say your twenties is the s*** / They say, “Live life to the fullest,” I wish / Now I’m reclaiming my time to the max / Unapologetic ’cause I don’t give myself enough credit / Don’t wanna be that woe-is-me Jones / So I pour a Fireball and Rum Chata when I’m home / Peace and quiet joys of living on my own / Kick my feet up, escape the thoughts of running laps through the dome…
-Lyric Jones, “Adulting”
NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert series has kept me sane through this unprecedented year. I actually began a weekly ritual of catching up on all the latest episodes as a sort-of New Year’s resolution. I’m always trying to find great music that I haven’t heard before; the best way to gain my respect is to give me a song recommendation when I ask you for one. As I’ve become homebound for my protection and the protection of others and artists have shifted to their home studios, the intimate connection that comes along with pure music-making has turned into a welcome relief from the rampage that is the news cycle. I’ve certainly spent more than one quiet quarantine evening with a couple craft beers (okay, sometimes more than a couple but only because I buy really good beer) and a concert set list to put a song in my head and my mind at ease.
Lyric Jones’s set is one that I’ve found myself going back to again and again. The LA-based, self-proclaimed hustler just gets it. She articulates and reflects on what she’s gone through this year with honesty and humility. And her track “Adulting”—the second song of her Tiny Desk and the source of those lyrics you just read—couldn’t be more real. She and her producer Nameless released the song on GA$ MONEY last year when things were still normal, and she admits that it was originally written to vent about just wanting to relax at home amid the pressures and expectations that comes with being a young adult. But in 2020, with the immense stress of health, finances, and social justice thrown on top of everything else, the song becomes a reminder that we can and should relax during this time just to keep it together.
While Ms. Jones’s rhymes speak volumes (by the way, I transcribed those lyrics because I couldn’t find them written anywhere—apologies if they aren’t perfect, but they’re close enough to get my point across), her commentary on acting with intention during this strange time stuck with me. Oh yeah…no one knows what’s going on! Nothing like this has happened in anyone’s lifetime! Everything we put out during this time is a bookmark in history! Her simple reframe blew my mind—put me at ease, really. No matter what happens to us this year or how we respond to it, 2020 will mean something all of us for the rest of our lives. It will mark a crossroads in every major facet of society, and will do the same to our own lives, stories, and relationships.
Even for those of us who aren’t gig economy workers and have transitioned to our home offices and Zoom happy hours, we all still face our own crossroads during this surreal year. We’re lying if we say 2020 hasn’t passed with its share of emptiness or doubt, and it’s tough to gauge improvement as a person or professional when our physical presences have become so much more limited. But remember that a crossroads is not a dead end—it’s just the path ahead, and the direction to take is only revealed when we are true to ourselves and live with intentionality and authenticity. Lyric Jones’s call is one that all of us can answer, and I’ve learned through my professional growth as an architect and my lived experiences as a young adult that living out this truth comes down to two simple practices.
See the details in the world around you.
See the big picture in yourself.
My dad is a minister at a church in Daytona Beach, Florida. He has served this church for eight-plus years, but has known the previous minister (now retired) since his youth. The two bounce a myriad of stories back and forth every time our families get together, and one of my favorites goes something like this: During the previous minister’s first year at the church, everyone was getting ready for Palm Sunday. Someone exclaimed, “We forgot to order palm fronds! We don’t have enough time to get the palm fronds ordered!”
The minister said, “Look around you. Grab some shears and get to work!”
The church property is lined with palm trees.
Understanding and responding to context is incredibly important for designers. When we architects begin a project, the first step is to go through a rigorous pre-design process to identify all the rooms and components that have to be set a certain way in order for a building to work the way the client needs it to long before drawing a wall, door, or window. We’ll identify which rooms and activities need to be placed closest to each other and coordinate egress, structural, and mechanical systems to best accommodate the necessary spatial organization. We’ll seek to find out as much information as we can in order to identify connections and relationships, not just to know everything for the sake of knowing it. I think that’s why architects are often such a peripatetic bunch—we pay attention to details and try to understand how surrounding context shapes behaviors. When we start to display these findings graphically, they resemble a web—a whole network of pieces and parts, but each one has meaning and connection to another that keeps the whole structure in place.
A design without meaning has no chance of becoming reality. Your life is your reality—it has meaning and context, even when it doesn’t feel that way.
Try drawing your own web. Have fun with it. You don’t have to show it to anyone, so get messy. It will include physical spaces like the ones architects are paid to draw, but should also incorporate anything that takes up your time. Write them down rapid-fire and connect them just as you think of them. Grab as many pieces of paper that you need, but erase as little as possible. In elementary school, we all learned the different types of questions—your web should address all but one of them. Graphically represent the who, what, when, where, and how of your life.
Your web has probably changed pretty substantially since mid-March—gotten more virtual, gotten more cautious, gotten more woke. In fact, it’s probably gotten easier to identify the connections between all the important elements of your life because some of those connections have been upended so drastically this year. Think about organizing your relationships the same way that an architect thinks about organizing rooms and activities. Which ones need to be closest to you, and which ones can be more distant? Are there some that have grown distant and need to be closer again?
So you’re done with your web. Psyche—no you’re not. Dig deeper into each element you’ve identified. Think about the colors, smells, sounds, and emotions that each element exudes and link these up. Keep going until you aren’t even at the center of the web anymore because your life is the web. I hope your mind is racing and a smile is on your face from all the great memories this exercise is bringing back. You’ll know what designers and creatives call “being in a state of flow.”
One of my favorite real-world examples of taking a whole bunch of seemingly random connections and piecing them together to create a cohesive meaning is that of Forward Madison FC, my hometown’s professional soccer team (and I’m not just using them as an example because I’m a soccer junkie). In a city where so much regional imagery is dominated by the badger or the Capitol’s silhouette, the team branding takes on a symbol which has been present for decades to anyone paying attention to Bascom Hill or lawn ornaments on the isthmus: the plastic pink flamingo. The team (typically) plays home matches at Breese Stevens Field: A WPA relic whose grandstand could might as well date back to when the glaciers last receded, but now sits among the recent Capitol East neighborhood building boom and at the center of Madison’s nascent young adult community. Even the mesmerizing Drip Kit resembles the tones of a sunset rippling across Lake Mendota on a summer evening.
I got to meet and introduce Peter Wilt, founder of Forward Madison FC and several other professional soccer teams across the Midwest, as a speaker at the Madison YP Week Speaker Crawl back in April 2019. It was just a couple weeks after the team’s inaugural season began—even their infamous home opener in the snow still lay ahead. He told the audience about how solely advertising Forward Madison FC as a soccer team isn’t enough—why would someone who follows the top leagues in the world shell out $30 for a minor league soccer ticket? For him, it’s about marketing an experience that Madisonians can latch onto, have fun with, and tell others about—even if they don’t get up at 6:30 to watch their favorite Premier League team. These senses and experiences that define the team’s branding were all there before the soccer team and would all remain if the soccer team left. Combining and artfully amplifying them, however, strengthens the sense of place and belonging that 4500 fans can feel as they cheer on their team. It’s meaningful and impactful.
Crafting a life of intention and an aura of leadership is about fitting your goals into the detailed and interwoven context of everything going on around you. The intricacies of your day-to-day experience play a major part in shaping your demeanor. Though life or world events may shift them around, they are still connected and form your web no matter the circumstances. Be intentional about how they define your life and dictate your path forward.
the big picture
So you’ve examined everything that shapes your life to the point that you’ve become a small fragment within your own undulating web. Now, it’s time to flip the camera to selfie mode and get more “macro” with your thinking. If you do this next exercise right, you’ll be answering that last type of question from elementary school: why.
The bestseller Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans lays out a series of activities that help the reader identify not only where they are currently and what they excel in, but how to take these tenets and craft a life well lived. The first chapter, simply called “Start Where You Are”, concludes with the first and probably the easiest activity in the book. You just figure out how things stand for you—right now—and whether or not you’re okay with it. Burnett and Evans outline four gauges for the reader to evaluate and fill from empty to full: Health (physical, mental, and spiritual), Work (what you get paid to do, but also anything else you spend time doing with a clear objective in mind), Play (what brings joy just for the pure sake of doing it—no objective in mind), and Love (primary relationship, family, friends, community). These are four broad topics that may even seem cliché, but their definitions are reframed just enough to keep you honest.
Remember that web exercise you just did? The one you crumpled up and threw away before your roommate could see it? Go get it out of the dog’s mouth and start sorting everything you jotted down into those Health, Work, Play, and Love categories. Don’t kid yourself trying to make everything come out even. Maybe you spend a lot of time doing something that was “Play” when you first signed up but has now turned into “Work” with the responsibilities you’ve accumulated. Maybe your daily commute is when you get your head right and clear your mind, giving it a “Health” attribute in a spiritual sense. Both the web exercise and filling in these gauges only help if you’re brutally honest with yourself.
Finish the web and the gauges and put them side-by-side. Hang them on the wall and take a step back if that’s your thing. They should communicate something in the abstract to you, like your favorite song or the batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage “slash line” on the back of a baseball card. Do all the connections you discovered in the web translate to a well-balanced state of being? Are your favorite senses, experiences, and emotions outweighed once you sort everything you don’t like doing into these gauges? These graphics visualize what you have been valuing, but do they visualize what you value?
These exercises should communicate the same thing to you whether you’re proud of them or not: direction. They tell you why 2020 has been so hard on you. They tell you why you need to rest. They give you a reason why you bring something in or take something out of your lived experience. What you’ve completed is an authentic analysis. What you do about it is an intentional response.
There are two more key takeaways that I (and Bill Burnett and Dave Evans) hope the gauge exercise makes clear for you. First, the perfect setting for all four of these categories to be at for you to be happy is yours and yours only, and you have to figure out what is best for you—mainly through trial and error. For example, I know I’m doing best when all four of my gauges are between half and three-quarters full, but that may not be a realistic metric for someone with chronic illness. Second, managing the details of your web and the big picture of your gauges is an art in itself. Your web will change frequently whether you actively choose for it to or not, and it’s probably pretty easy to notice when it does get an overhaul (i.e. a global pandemic). But those gauges ebb and flow much more gently and over longer stretches—it isn’t one change that throws them out of whack, but it isn’t one change that gets them right either. A change to your web may be somewhat transactional, but also be conscientious of what that move will do for your wellbeing.
In my maturation both as a design professional and as a young adult, I’ve learned that design thinking isn’t about appreciating the details more than the big picture or vice versa, but in understanding how they relate. Taking an authentic, intentional concept to heart, one which you’ve taken the time to uncover and define, is how you bridge that gap, convey meaning, and exude confidence.
See the details in the world around you.
See the big picture in yourself.
By my last year in college, I was BUSY. Like, awake at 8 am and moving constantly from one activity to another until 1 am every single day for an entire semester. I thought I needed to fill my days like this in order to stand out, and I guess something about that worked because I had a job lined up right after graduation. After the flurry of getting settled in a new city, I had some work from eight to five, Monday through Friday—and that was it. I tried doing the same activities that had filled my time in college, but there just wasn’t anywhere left to go with them. Pretty soon, I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere with anything. I was stuck, I was depressed, and I had the ridiculous notion that pausing to take care of myself was counterproductive.
I was seeing a big picture—one beyond my reach—in the world around me. I was seeing the details—primarily the negative ones—in myself. Consequently, my life felt the opposite of authentic and intentional. While sorting out what my post-grad life would be, I thought all I had to do was plug into the right port and everything would magically light up. If I didn’t get it right, then I wasn’t busy enough and my options were to either fill up my time with as many activities as possible or feel like a failure. I wasn’t seeing myself as part of a web that I had any control over, where I could make calculated decisions that all impacted one another and crafted a unique, meaningful experience.
My move to the Upper Midwest yanked the plug out of the port. I was taking back my experience as my own, and the personal and professional growth that I’ve gone through as a result have been tedious at times but tremendous in the long run. I’ve become much more intentional in how I spend my time, devoting it to projects and groups where the end result is achievable and rewarding—or just using it to rest when I need to. My Madisonian web still has plenty of room to grow and shift, but I now live knowing that these things take time and need the right balance. When I think about where those four gauges are for me now—like, right now, in two thousand and freaking twenty—compared to where they were during my last year in college, my first year out of college, or even this time a year ago, I realize how a series of small changes in those contextual details add up to seismic shifts in my mood, wellbeing, and creative energy.
In this time of physical distancing and hourly news cycles, becoming more authentic and intentional takes on a personal responsibility. It means understanding the context in which we live with such detail that we can mold our lives to amplify our most distinct and valuable qualities. It means a deep understanding of ourselves and each other as vivid, complex, and ever-shifting. And it means being kind and giving yourself the space and time to get through this. Whether your Never-Ending March is something you’ve been discerning for a long time, a crossroads you haven’t reached yet, or just the month that the world shut down, lead a journey that is intentional, authentic, and truly yours.
You are enough. Go do great things.