My creative energy is highest whenever I know that I make progress towards whom I want to become. Over the last weeks, I have been on a quest to increase my self-understanding, to become clearer about who this person is that I want to be. I implemented careful reflection moments, and moments of more consciousness, into my everyday experiences. I feel grateful for the opportunity and incentive by the university course "Reflection on Designing" at TU Delft, led by Marieke Sonneveld and Paul Hekkert. By increasing my self-understanding, I can become a better designer but also aspire to be a better person. Over the period of 6-7 weeks, I have been diving into new books, taking outdoor strolls just for the sake of doing so, picked up my camera more regularly again, critically summarized papers and news articles, and much more. I paid more attention to my own patterns, dismantled my thoughts, and drew conclusions about whom I want to become. Here is what I learned.
I am striving to be a proactive listener. When I reflected more on the conversations I had with other people over the last weeks, I strongly felt the value of being a good listener. I am fascinated and interested in the diversity of approaches and other people's ways of thinking about all kinds of topics. But more than that, listening needs to happen proactively for it to translate into understanding and empathy. I need to be actively engaged, willing to understand the other person's perspective as thoroughly as my own, to be a proactive listener. I noticed that although I would consider myself a good, proactive listener, I can definitely build more empathy in highly emotional topics.
Being a proactive listener is strongly related to another characteristic that I want to be a core value of mine, regardless of what happens in the future: humility. When I explored who the people were that I found inspiring and why, humility was a recurring theme. I like the approach of people like Barack Obama, Rafael Nadal, Daniel Kahnemann, or Warren Buffett who are all very successful people while keeping a down-to-earth, modest lifestyle and approaching other people like they were equally important. There is not much I dislike more than arrogant, aloof people. The way I am striving to approach other people is the following: Every person is more of an expert than myself in at least some topic; so I want to always treat him or her like he or she can teach me something.
Whether it is Daniel Kahnemann devoting his whole life to researching into our minds, or Stephen Hawking on the quest of the one formula of the universe. Whether it is his long-time wife devoting 20+ years of her life to take care of Stephen, or my girlfriend on her quest to helping children from all backgrounds to have equal education, I am inspired by extreme dedication. Powerful and meaningful purposes as well as perseverance and determination to reach them, are things that I admire a lot in other people. What the goals of these people have in common is that they influence the lives of other people, something I will talk more about in the section about success. For me, meaningful goals are those that have a positive impact not only on myself but on the lives of others as well.
I admire how other people genuinely appreciate the small things around them. Walking around in my neighborhood in Delft, I realized how much it increases my well-being when I pay more attention to the small things around me: the wind breeze, the people laughing, the sun reflecting off building windows, and much more. I want to include these moments of genuine appreciation more deeply into my life so that they happen automatically. I strive to take fewer things for granted, which I believe can have a positive impact on my well-being as well as on the well-being of the people around me. I want to be more appreciative of the people around me, the things I own, and the overall quality of life I have.
Last but not least, I strive to be fully autotelic, as described by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi: "someone who easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains his inner harmony. A person who is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on, and in "flow" most of the time." I have found that to be and stay happy, I need to have my own goals that came up within my consciousness, not being goals shaped by biological needs or social conventions. I find happiness in a strong psychological fundament of goals and needs that make me resilient against potentially threatening, outside events.
What I need in my life is a balance between routine and non-routine activities. Experiences that make me happy and fulfilled include components of novelty and curiosity, from visiting a new country to playing around with my newly acquired HomePod mini. On the other side, I also need some routine in my life, which exponentially increases the speed of me reaching my goals. If I want to finish a book or become fitter, I have to build habits around the activities to reach these goals. Knowing that I am making consistent progress towards my goals is what drives me every day. Since time is limited, I often have to compromise routine for non-routine or vice versa. I cannot stick to the morning routine that makes me most productive and at the same time plan a sunrise photoshoot at some new location. I need a balance between both of these kinds of activities.
After multiple explorations followed by reflections, such as taking a stroll through Delft with my camera, reading a new book, or going for an evening run, I found that I am seeking active-reflective self-developing experiences. I am thinking and rethinking many of the things I am doing throughout my days, and I like activities that automatically trigger such a reflection (e.g. reading a book or observing the environment). At the same time, I enjoy being actively engaged in an activity; physically, mentally, or both. I recently appreciate what Cal Newport calls "Reflective meditation", which, for me, is a run or any other physical activity where I focus my attention on one single, well-defined thing. This "thing" can be a problem, an idea, a past conversation, or anything basically. My ideal experience is not only one that is active-reflective, but it should also contribute to my self-development. I want to ultimately learn as much as I can and be the best person I can be. Self-developing experiences lead towards these goals.
Most of my creative energy is stimulated, and I feel best when I am surrounded by people who are very close to me. I found that the people with whom I can be my true self, unbounded by social conventions, rules, or expectations, make experiences most joyful. In terms of actual experience, there is not much that comes close to a city trip with my girlfriend, such as we did last weekend in Amsterdam. I also believe that the people like my girlfriend, family members, or longtime friends, are some of the richest sources for learning and self-development. I can only agree with the statement of Csikszentmihalyi that "it is in the company of friends that we can most clearly experience the freedom of the self and learn who we really are". What I enjoy most in other people is a similar positive, life-loving, energetic attitude. However, I also discovered that from time to time, I enjoy solitude. Solitude makes it easier to stick to routines, build discipline for the autotelic personality, and it can be essential for reaching certain goals.
Last but not least, I want my experiences to include a sense of discovery. This need for discovery shows itself most strongly in my passion for travel. I love to explore new parts of the world, and get to know different people and cultures. I am deeply fascinated by the diversity of our planet, and I want to experience as much of it as I can. From road-tripping through Australia to discovering new eating spots in a familiar place like Amsterdam, I'd love travel to be a recurring theme in my experiences. This need for discovery also manifests itself in my passion for technology. I always become overly excited to play around with new tech devices and the new possibilities that accompany them. Throughout my explorations of these last weeks, I have noticed that I have an irrational (and even unreasonable) approach to the money I spend to satisfy my need for discovery, especially when it comes to travel or technology. A few weeks ago, I spent 300+€ to make my apartment "smart", and I was as excited as a little boy. The functionalities, however, did by no means justify the spending of this amount of money. Moreover, having interesting conversations, acquiring new skills or establishing new habits can also include discovery as a component. In fact, it relates a lot to me seeking self-developing or (self-)discovering activities.
I define personal success by how intentionally I spend my time. I am a firm believer that time is my most precious asset, and it is everyone's. If I spend all of my time doing meaningful things that contribute to my happiness, then I will have been successful. A few years ago, I realized that I spent much time in activities that I did not enjoy. Partly, I did this to comply with social conventions or because I did not have clear goals, but it also had to do with me not being in full control over my time and attention. At the time, I could not distinguish between all of these reasons. It especially bothered me how I got lost in watching TV or scrolling on Instagram for hours on end, which neither made me happy nor productive. I started to question how I spent my time and how other people, products, and companies influence it. As a result, I since spend as much of my time as possible with great diligence. Reflecting on my recent activities, I realize that I nowadays have a much greater awareness of how I spend time. I keep rethinking and reorganizing everything around it to streamline it towards happiness and productivity. When I get lost on Instagram, I am way better at refocusing on what I really want to do and what really makes me happy. The time on this planet is limited, and the more I can exploit its potential, the more successful I am. It is also why I have chosen to become a designer: I want to build products and services that help people spend their time meaningfully.
In the broader sense, I want to ultimately measure my success by how much of a positive impact I have on other people. I get inspired by people who pursue meaningful goals that positively affect other people, and I aspire to take a similar path. I would love to make an impact by helping others to also spend their time more intentionally. I believe that the knowledge I build around topics such as cognitive psychology, and the experience I develop around designing my time, can help others to exploit more of their potential as well. I am committed to creating products or services that help people reach their goals, and/or writing books about such topics. These blog posts already intent to pave the way towards that goal.
That is it. That is whom I want to become, at least as I imagine it right now. It has been an incredible journey to write this. As the following months and years come, I expect some of these things to change slightly, or other aspects being added to it, but the core of it staying as it is now. Let me now take on this mission.
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. Flow. 2008.
Joshua Foer. Moonwalking with Einstein. 2011.
Charles Duhigg. The power of habit. 2012.
Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow. 2011.