I recently returned from a trip completely offline—my first since May 2019 (not proud of that).
I traveled to northern Minnesota to canoe, portage, and camp with two friends and Ei colleagues, Zak & Will, in a part of the country called the Boundary Waters. If you’re unfamiliar with portaging, the word portage is derived from the French word “porter” which literally means “to carry.” It’s the act of paddling from water to land, and then carrying your vessel overhead, along with all of your gear, to the next body of navigable water. It looks like this:
Our trip was pure adventure. There were no signs, no markers, no guides, and no tech. Once we were dropped off at our entry point, it was just the three of us, a folded map in a ziploc bag, and the food and supplies on our backs.
We’ve all camped before, but this was our first trip of this kind. And though we’d done our research, we were still swallowed by the complexities and quirks of the landscape. At one point, while traversing an especially rugged trail, I looked up only to find William’s left leg entirely submerged in a pit of thick, black, mossy goop. It was like the scene in The Neverending Story, except Will managed to pull himself out. Another time, while trying to cautiously paddle through a small opening in a beaver dam, I lost my balance and flipped into the mucky waters with our gear. Luckily, the river was only chest deep and my bag kept our supplies dry.
For all of the quirks (I haven’t even mentioned the swarm of nightly bugs), it was a special trip. We hardly saw another soul, we caught more fish in an evening than I’ve caught in my lifetime (not saying much), and we took the time to discuss some of life’s deepest topics.
The Role of Retreats I believe, wholeheartedly, that everyone has a place in this world. And that we should help one another thrive with the tools needed to solve problems and make a living. On this journey I was reminded, once again, that those pursuits should include opportunities for rest, wellbeing, and kindness.
Lately, our team has been invited to start designing offsite retreats for some of our workplace learning partners. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. This fall, barring any shut-downs, we’ll be designing experiences in Denver, Park City, and Philadelphia. There won’t be any portaging (maybe there should be?), but we will be combining learning, community, and play beyond everyone’s usual schedules and environments.
How About You? What retreat do you need? For yourself, your community, or your teams? Where do you need to go and what do you need to experience?
Life is busy, but remember, a retreat is taking a step away so you can take a better step forward.
Every year around my birthday, I look back and write lessons I learned (or re-learned) throughout the year. These are mainly for me, but I thought you might find them helpful too.
Thanks for being here.
1. Instead of looking for what’s best, look for what fits.
2. When working from home, designate a pair of shoes as your “work shoes.” Put them on as if you’re going to work. Take them off when you’re done with work. It’ll help you set clear lines of when you’re off and on.
3. Being attracted to something is the mind contracting. Being aware of something is the mind expanding. Awareness is more life-giving than attraction.
4. If something is hard, just remember that’s not all it is. That’s only the side of it you’re looking at right now.
5. Good lighting in your home is worth every penny.
6. When starting something new, give yourself deadlines that involve people you respect. Schedule recitals, presentations, blog posts, etc. You’ll be much more likely to reach your goal or at least get closer to it.
7. Before buying anything, ask yourself if you can make it — or at least, what would it take to make it. We’re all too used to the idea that everything can just be purchased and sent to us.
8. Balancing vulnerability and optimism is the most critical (and challenging) thing leaders must do.
9. If you want something badly, ask yourself why. The reason is far more important than the thing you want.
10. A good walk is magic.
11. Thoughts are only as heavy as you make them. You can focus on them, or let them pass like leaves in a stream. It’s up to you.
12. Sleep determines everything about your day.
13. Grace is a muscle. And the best place to build it is with yourself.
14. Ambition needs pruning. Otherwise, it can take over.
15. Good air quality is part of mental and physical health. Invest in an air purifier and/or get into nature as much as possible.
16. Nuance is beautiful. Nothing is just black and white, and that’s not bad. Look at things from different angles and you’ll end up offering the same to yourself.
17. Adapting to new situations is like good jazz. Whatever you’re doing isn’t about playing the right notes, it’s about bouncing off of the things around you and enjoying the music.
18. Catering meals around the holidays is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.
19. When vetting contractors, do as much due diligence as you possibly can. Ask for a reference. Review past work. And talk about your project in very specific detail. Go with the best contractor you can afford.
20. Every new project has three costs: financial, mental, and emotional. Calculate all three before starting.
21. Being kind and being bold aren’t separate. The world needs more people with conviction who can also honor one another’s humanity.
22. Always give other people credit.
23. When learning the piano, place it in your favorite room. You’ll practice a lot more if it’s where you spend the most time.
24. It’s ok to be quiet until you know what you want to say.
25. It’s not ok to be quiet when you know something needs to be said.
26. The job of most CEOs is to cast a vision, build teams, find work/money — and to do all of that with conviction and courage.
27. It takes a moment to fall down and a lot of time to fully get back up.
28. Find a friend who can sit with you in silence.
29. If you feel stuck in a rut, think of someone you greatly admire and imagine the first three things they would do if they woke up in your shoes tomorrow. Do those three things next.
30. Be surprisingly generous. It’ll always come back to you in the most unexpected ways. And most of the time, you won’t even make the connection.
31. It’s ok to get what you want. But a sign of real growth is wanting something and being ok with not getting it.
32. HR directors are becoming the new deans and companies are the new colleges. The faster we embrace that, the faster we can finally do away with massive financial debt for higher education (and lifelong learning)
33. You don’t need more accolades, connections, or resources. You need to start.
34. Valuable doesn’t mean expensive.
35. Every year, around your birthday, find a quiet spot and write out things you’ve learned from the prior year. It’s ok if you have some repeats. This is more for you than it is for anyone else.
Thanks for reading. And thanks to Nic, Zak, Katie N., Sara, and Katie C. for helping me edit.
PS: Next week, I’m announcing a few changes around Experience Institute. If you’d like to be in the loop, add your name here.
I was never the smartest kid in school. Nearly every traditional topic required extra tutoring and help. The only thing I had going for me was my curiosity. To the chagrin of most of my teachers, I asked questions about why or how nearly everything worked—especially if they were slightly tangential to the topic at hand.
One day, my math teacher had a stroke of genius (or just reached her limit). She moved my desk to a corner of the classroom and announced that I would be the “keeper of all class questions” unrelated to the regular class assignments. Anyone who wanted to ask anything non-traditional would need to give me their question. Then we’d work through them one-by-one during class breaks.
Our class took her up on the offer and my desk was flooded with the most random questions (some of which were wildly inappropriate…it was high school after all). Still, the thoughtful questions led to some of the most meaningful discussions I’d ever had—in Math class. We discussed everything from personal stories, the history of math, to various school policies. It was an open-forum that unleashed our curiosities. And “emceeing” the conversation was a perfect role for me.
Growing up, I felt like I could never quite get ahead academically. It turned out that solution for me wasn’t to do more, but instead to pause and let my questions surface, no matter how quirky they seemed.
In a time when the prevailing message is you don’t know enough, do enough, or earn enough, it’s easy to feel like the only solution is to try harder and grind at an unsustainable pace to get some existential grade.
But what would happen if you took your current situation and stepped back to ask “why,” or “how might we do this differently?” Maybe some of your most meaningful moments and best work could surface. And if you took the opportunity to actually explore those ideas, who knows what would come next?
You don’t have it to have it all figured out. You don’t need to be the smartest or furthest along. You just need to start with a few questions.
I moved nine times growing up. Mainly throughout the midwest. Which means I got pretty good at “first days.”
First days of school. First days of soccer practice. First days on the playground. First days of the new bully who thought chubby brown kids were fun to pick on.
You get the picture.
By the time college rolled around, I didn’t even care to visit the campus before I made my decision. How different could it be from all of my other moves? I packed as many things as could fit into my dad’s suv, and we left little old Nixa Missouri at 5am and headed for Chicago.
Before the semester formally kicked off, I was enrolled in a program called First Year Transition. The entire first week of my college experience was designed to help me adjust to college life — silly games, free pizza, and lots of swag. I think I still have one of those stress balls lying around somewhere. Like all institutions, my college had its quirks, but this is one thing it did well.
FROM SPACE TO SLACK
There’s a utilitarian word for the “first” experience. Onboarding — as in boarding a ship. The term was actually first coined for getting onto spaceships. Cool.
But today, we’re not really sending people on adventurous missions to far out galaxies. We’re bringing people onto video calls or slack groups. “First days” of school or work are much flatter than those college days — quite literally. Still, firsts are one of the most important parts of any experience. Meik Wiking of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, writes in his book Art of Making Memories, “First experiences stick better to our memories […] we are better at remembering the novel and the new, the extraordinary days when we did something different.”
We’re all facing a lot of firsts these days. It can be easy to just scrape by and blame our current global situation for lame first days and to view these subpar experiences as ones you never wanted. I mean, let’s face it, who really wants their first team lunch to be over Zoom? Who is excited for their first team happy hour to happen in their home office? Who wants their first robotics class to be held over a video call?
But what if we could embrace Wiking’s insight and use these times to create even more meaningful firsts? Sure, there are new constraints, but with the right mindset you can work within them.
Designing Firsts in 2020
What do your students need on the first day of school? Can you create community norms for courageous conversations? Can you help everyone connect on a deeper level beyond just the content you’re teaching? How about the first days of a job or project? Can you bring your teammate into a project with an extra dose of kindness, support, and care?
As Wiking mentions, those firsts will be seared into memories. Thinking about them carefully will lead to better learning, better work, and better communities.
What first do you need to redesign? Maybe it’s time to start now.
Every year, around my birthday, I look back and write lessons I learned (or re-learned) throughout the year. This little practice is mainly just for me, but I thought you might find them helpful too.
It’s a complex time in our world and history, but I still feel so lucky to be here. Thanks for remaining part of my life and work. Even though I don’t know all of you, I’m grateful for you.
34 Lessons From Being 34
1. Anything flies with energy and commitment. Anything.
2. Include your friends in seemingly mundane decisions. Discuss your finances. Talk about health checkups. Discuss your career path. Talking about those things regularly makes them easier to approach.
3. If you’re starting a business with your friend, ask a coach/advisor to join you. You *will* disagree on things and it’s good to have a third-party “coach” before that moment surfaces.
4. If you don’t plan to have kids, start a savings account for your friends’ kids. Put a small amount of money in that account every month, enough to have $1,000 or so by the time they graduate. Then around that time, take each person out to dinner and tell them they can take a trip anywhere in the world — you’ll cover airfare. It will be wildly special to share this moment you’ve thought about for years.
5. Get good at asking for what you need.
6. College is broken on nearly every level — costs, admissions, outcomes, etc. But I believe in linking arms with these institutions to be a part of their evolution. Find the people who are really working to change things for the better at your university and join their efforts.
7. It’s ok to be a nice person. The world needs more of us. But “nice” does not mean you can’t be bold, disciplined, fight for what’s right, and hold people to their word.
8. Find a few older friends, people who’ve lived a good life. Befriend them. Care for them. Ask them questions. They will be some of the most special people you know.
9. The world is not your oyster, it’s our planet.
10. Do your very best. That’s all you can do.
11. It’s time to pick a side and point of view regarding equity and justice for Black people. That doesn’t mean your views won’t shift or grow, but you can no longer sit on the sidelines and watch Netflix until this is over.
12. Kids don’t need heroes, they need people who keep showing up and know how to say I’m sorry.
13. If you’re in a position to get a credit card, be smart about how you set it up. Take time to find the ones with the best sign-on bonuses and cash back and use them for things you were going to pay for anyway. It really is worth a few hours of research.
14. Set a process for how you store files on your digital devices. Especially your laptop. Clean your desktop at least once/month. Close all of the tabs on your browser regularly. Shut down all tech a few times a month for at least a day. It’ll improve your workflow and make you less stressed.
15. Whenever possible, use basic organizational functions to make life easier. Organize your spices alphabetically. Organize your fridge by size of items. Organize your closet by color and item. The idea is to reduce strain on your brain for the easy things so you can focus more on the hard things.
16. Infuse your home with textures. Wood, brick, stone, paper, plants. Do what you can to remember that the glass and metal in your hand is just a fraction of what exists in the world.
17. Everyone is making it up. Even the person you most admire. The only difference between them and you is they kept trying.
18. You don’t have to be especially charismatic to make someone feel welcomed or cared for. And that’s all anyone really wants when they’re around you.
19. If you’re going to be late, let them know. But generally, be early.
20. Take 20 minutes to write down on a sheet of paper what “winning” means to you. Sit with it for a week and make adjustments as they come to mind. Then give the list to one of your best friends. When you feel lost or defeated, call them to remind you of what you wrote.
21. Decide what a healthy day looks like for you. (ie: exercise, shower, breakfast, meditate, write, make things, emails, make more things, dinner, unwind, sleep). Sometimes that gets tossed to the side because life happens. Pause, reset, and get back to it.
22. Give credit as much as possible. The people who helped you get here are part of your family. Treat them as such.
23. Obsess about your customers’ needs.
24. I never thought I’d say this, but it’s ok to keep white Christmas lights up beyond the holidays. Especially to brighten your home during shelter-in-place.
25. Your results are directly tied to your commitments. If you are always trying to “save” your partner, you are committed to being in a bad relationship. If you eat unhealthy, you are committed to being unhealthy. If you don’t take the time to meditate or journal, you are committed to being anxious. The only person who can change those commitments is you.
26. When planning an adventure trip, start with the hardest part of the adventure. Then end with something you can indulge in. And make sure it’s long enough to feel rested before going back into normal life.
27. Never paint a wall in your home a stark white. Stick to 10% gray. It’ll still look clean, but hide just enough of the daily wear.
28. Don’t pay someone to take care of your plants or garden. There is nothing better than coming face-to-face with an object whose entire life and beauty needs nothing more than a bit of slow care and attention.
29. If a friend asks you to officiate their wedding, say yes. Watching your friends walk down the aisle from the vantage point of an officiant is an unforgettable moment.
30. Travel with your parents. Watching their faces light up in new places will be some of the best experiences of your life.
31. Launching a new product is 10-15x harder than you think it will be. Kickstarter is a great way to see if you’re actually serious enough about bringing an idea to life. Whatever you do, just remember that a product is not ready until it’s been in front of your customers multiple times.
32. Doing things out of obligation leads to resentment. Feeling resentment leads to entitlement. And living in entitlement makes you a shitty person. Instead, do things out of CHOICE. That will lead to gratitude, and gratitude leads to generosity. And generous people are the best.
33. Even the most productive people take naps.
34. If your birthday plans get cancelled because of COVID, ask your friends to just send you a story of their favorite memory with you. Tell them to write it as if they’re sipping on their favorite beverage or smoking a pipe. Don’t open any of the stories until you’re in one of your favorite places, maybe on a rooftop you’ve visited a thousand times. Read the stories slowly. Laugh. Cry. And soak up all of that good energy for the next lap around the sun.
PS: For the next 24hrs, everything at the Ei store is 34% off and domestic shipping is free. Just use the code 34Lessons. Hope you find your new favorite tool.
Usually on my birthday, I share a list of lessons I’ve learned from the past year. And though I’ll do that soon, today is different.
Today would have been Breonna Taylor’s birthday. She would have turned 27. Instead of celebrating with her family and planning her future as an EMT, she was senselessly killed 12 weeks ago. She’s just one name on a long list of names whose birthdays should be celebrated this year.
The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are the clear result of a racist and prejudiced system. Being Black in America has been synonymous with being the “enemy” or “unsafe.” It’s been that way since a boat filled with Black men and women landed on these shores centuries ago, not as explorers, but as slaves.
How does a society travel the sideways path of believing it’s ok to treat people so unequally? When does someone adopt the idea that an entire race should have to fight harder for their safety and security? And how am I part of the problem with my own biases and privileges?
If you’re struggling to understand the depth and breadth of racism, there are a slew of resources that are being shared by brilliant Black authors and leaders. If you need a starting point, watch this video by Trevor Noah, or this simple animation, and then sift through the resources in this doc.
As for me, I know I speak on behalf of the entire team at Experience Institute when I say that we believe Black Lives Matter. We stand with our Black students, leaders, and friends during this time and always, and are examining how we might redesign our current programs or build new ones that imbue equity and justice.
Every year on my birthday, I look back and write lessons I learned (or re-learned) throughout the year. These are my own opinions and reflections—each with its own story of why it surfaced. I hope a few are helpful reminders for you.
Thanks for being part of my life, work, and world. I feel really lucky to be here. Victor
Good, lasting growth almost always takes time. Deep roots have to push through a lot of soil.
Pay attention to what you pack when you travel. The things you bring reveal what you like and value the most.
Most of life is about managing down your wants.
A person only needs a few nice things.
Sit in the sun as often as you can. Even for a few minutes.
Sometimes you’ll need help. The sooner you ask, the easier it is for someone to jump in. If you think you need a hand, then you probably do.
There is no special formula to love and relationships. They require a lot of attention and work. But if you stick with them, they give much more than they take.
If there’s an app on your phone that’s taking too much of your time, delete it during your most important times in the day/week. Then re-download it during your down-times.
Don’t do email on your phone.
If you’re having trouble completing something, give it a specific deadline. Then add a reward to completing it and add a consequence for not completing it. Make sure you actually gain or lose something you enjoy. Finally tell someone you admire to hold you accountable to the task at hand.
Only control what you can control. That list is longer than you think. And the most important thing on that list is your perspective on any given situation.
Comparison is toxic. But in small doses, it can teach you a lot about yourself and whatever you’re working on. You’ll know you’ve allowed too much when you stop celebrating how far you’ve come or being grateful for what you have.
When hugging someone you love, hold them one extra second longer than you think you should. That moment is a mix of slightly awkward and magical.
When the sun is setting in a beautiful place, think about someone you care about deeply. Later, call that person and tell them you were thinking about them while the sun was setting in a beautiful place.
Moving your body isn’t optional.
Find one or two days a month where you turn all technology off. Make no exceptions.
Use conditioner daily and shampoo weekly.
Stress can be toxic. It will eventually impact your body in ways you never expected. Nothing you’re doing is really worth that amount of stress.
Be nice to people. Life is complex.
Attention is a commodity. You own it. Everyone wants it. And it’s finite. Use it wisely.
Loneliness isn’t a bad thing. How you handle loneliness can be.
If you feel down emotionally, it’s ok. Love that version of yourself fully. Then begin to work through it using art, conversation, exercise, etc. But you’ll never find your way out if you don’t acknowledge and accept where you are.
When you have someone to kiss, kiss them slowly and often.
Bringing people together for a meal is always a worthwhile way to spend your time.
Don’t wish you were someone else. It’ll sell short who you are and were meant to be.
Own whatever you can. Your home, your data, your most valuable things, etc. Everything you don’t own is controlled by someone else.
Hope brightens life. Whatever fuels your hope, do more of that.
There are people and circumstances that bring you to peace. Spend more time with them.
Some people confuse brashness with strength and warmth with weakness. But you can be strong without belittling or dividing people. Despite who the media highlights, the ones who can balance strength and warmth are the ones who change society, business, and lives for the long run.
When you lose a loved one, they show up again and again. On the train. During a movie. On a flight. In the waiting room. While biking to work… That can be both one of both the most painful and sweetest parts of life.
Read a lot. Say a little.
Take time to understand where you find your worth. If it comes from bad places or people, you’ll find yourself doing awful things you never thought you’d do. If it comes from good places, you’ll attempt amazing things you never thought you could.
Every year, around your birthday, take an hour to write as many lessons as you can. Keep them somewhere safe.
After my December break, and reviewing my own Wednesday Words from the past four years(!), I’ve decided to take a longer pause from these weekly writings to try a slightly different direction. I’ll be studying, writing more poignant pieces around higher education, career navigation, and storytelling, and sharing those writings on a more infrequent rhythm.
By doing so, I hope to create more researched pieces, helpful downloads/tools, and richer stories that nudge you forward. Personally, I hope to grow into a better writer, educator, and communicator throughout the year.
In the meantime, the team and I will still share occasional updates about Ei. The things we’re building for the workplace, Stanford, and a new university partner will hopefully be helpful to you or people you know.
So keep building and stay tuned for a few fun experiments.
It’s hard to believe how much has happened over the past 12 months. Experience Institute took our largest leaps to date. Some things landed better than expected. Other things hit the ground and shattered. On the personal front, I lost my father to cancer, settled into my first real home, and joined a new team & class at Stanford. It never ceases to amaze me…how much can happen in a year.
Now it’s time for a break.
Every December, I press pause. I stop publishing, delete my social media apps on my phone, and just let the fast-paced holidays run their course.
Doing so has become a healthy rhythm. It creates space for personal reflection and to check in with close friends, past students, and people I admire. And it gives you one less thing in your inbox during this busy season.
Do you still work during this time?
Yep! It’s an exciting time around here. Next week, we’re shipping over 1,000 copies of The Shapeless Shape. Our team is graduating our 10th class of Leap Programs in the workplace. We’re writing a new business course with one of our favorite partners. And we’re gearing up for some of our most meaningful work yet for college & grad students.
I’ll also be taking a ceramics class, binge watching the 2nd season of Stranger Things, reading a few biographies (Biden, Cranston, Einstein), and popping into some of my favorite cities to see some of my favorite people.
One last thing…
This little outlet to write about life, learning, and the making of Ei continues to be a simple way to stay connected to remarkable friends, acquaintances, and heroes (aka: you). It’s a space I cherish. Thank you for another year of reading, replying, sharing, and nudging.
Now, go enjoy December with family and friends. I’ll see you in 2018.
Last Friday, I co-hosted a friendsgiving for the new group of incredible Masters students I’ve been been working with at Stanford. Everyone chipped in to help. The Executive Director and I planned the event. The staff organized the turkey and the space. And students brought their favorite dishes and helped transform one of the studios.
(Yes, that’s a Scandinavian fireplace video playing on the screen…)
We took the time to reflect on the celebrations we cherished and the food we enjoyed. We also debriefed the new “Leap” program we’ve been prototyping together. Over and over again, I’ve been challenged and inspired by the staff and students during my first two months on the team. I’m really grateful to be part of their world.
Before we feasted, we read a few words together. It reminded me of the power of pausing before special moments to set the tone. Below, you’ll find the passages we read. I hope these words or something like them will come into play during your time with friends and family this holiday.
Wherever you are this week, the Ei family and I wish you a warm, full, and joyous Thanksgiving.
Thanks for being here with us. We are beyond grateful for you.
This might be used to open your Thanksgiving meal:
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.
It turns what we have into enough, and more.
It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.
It can turn a meal into a feast,
a house into a home,
a stranger into a friend.
It turns problems into gifts,
failures into successes,
the unexpected into perfect timing,
and mistakes into important events.
It can turn an existence into a real life,
and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons.
Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.
– Melody Beattie
This might be used to close your meal:
May you experience happiness.
May you bring light to someone else’s life.
May you abide in joy.
And may you allow yourself to feel gratitude,
and to multiply that feeling by sharing it with those around you.