Write mediocre things now 

boredI never thought of myself as one of those writers who’s afraid to put their writing out there.

I’ve published over 1,100 posts on Tech Cocktail and hundreds of posts on my personal blogs. Fear is not my problem – right? 

But the other day, I was toying with an idea for a blog post about “should” – a phrase I use all the time in my head, which may not be the best motivational strategy. And I realized: I was afraid. 

Not of trolls or scathing refutations, but of mediocrity. 

I often get my fiance to read my posts, and when he responds with something along the lines of “Hm! That’s nice,” I feel like I did something wrong. Somewhere in my head, I want all the posts I write to be the musings of a genius. I want to be creating new ideas, challenging assumptions, and evoking more than a “Hm!” And, as a perfectionist, I’ll always push myself to take the ideas further, to categorize and define, to find the connections that lie just below the surface. 

But maybe I’m too hard on myself. Maybe I have to write lots of mediocre stuff before I someday arrive at my magnum opus, my book, my profound revelations. Maybe writing is just like a form of public practicing, where I get better at the actual writing and the idea development each time I click “publish.” 

Paul Jarvis, who published an ebook for creative entrepreneurs last November called Everything I Know, says, “Einstein wrote thousands of research papers and most were considered either awful or simply average. It wasn’t until he had tried several ideas and explored many new paths that he finally came upon his genius.” When Jarvis felt like a weak web designer himself, he responded by building more websites – practicing. 

The student doesn’t walk into physics 101 and expect to invent a new theory. As bloggers and writers, maybe we need to see ourselves as students – particularly if we’re hoping to become experts in a certain subject. While I aim for the fascinating, today I may have to settle for the mildly interesting. 

Photo by Flickr user TRF_Mr_Hyde

I tracked my mood every hour for a month. Here’s what I learned about happiness

Ubud rice terrace

On a plane somewhere between Hong Kong and Toronto, my iPhone timer buzzed for the 431st time in February. It was February 28, 11:16 pm Hong Kong time, and this would be my last moment of self-reflection for the month. I recorded the emotion that I’m sure a few of the other passengers shared: “Hoping for a meal.”

At the beginning of February, I had embarked on an experiment in self-knowledge. I believe strongly that knowing yourself is a major component of happiness, but how do you go about doing that? Understanding my feelings and emotions sounded like a good place to start.

So (nearly) every hour in February, I stopped to jot down my current emotion, then set a timer for another hour. Sometimes I forgot, and I went a few hours ignorantly un-self-aware. But I never missed more than a few. In addition, I used a service called AskMeEvery to record my daily level of stress and happiness. I kept track of my sleep, and I could also see how many happy moments I shared on Happier (acting like a gratitude journal).

Looking back, February was a packed month. I spent three weeks in Bali, devoting my daytime energies to helping my boss write a book and immersing myself in Bali’s beauty and warm weather on nights and weekends. I spent the last week in February in Hong Kong in the tiniest hotel room you could possibly imagine, hurrying to finish the book manuscript and prepare for another big SXSW conference. When all was said and done, I had recorded a total of 176 positive emotions, 216 negative, and 39 neutral. I had 14 days that were a 7 out of 10 on the happiness scale, eight days that were an 8, and six days that were a 6. And only five times during the month (approximately) did I yell at my phone for its constant buzzing.

Read the rest of this post on Medium 

The most important thing 

train pathThe other day, I was sitting in a café sipping a chai latte. It’s still winter here, but the sun was shining and the baristas had optimistically opened the front door to let in the fresh air. I was doing some reading for work, tucked in a cozy table sitting on cute vintage furniture.

But I wasn’t happy, because I was stressed. I’m not sure why I was stressed, but I was. And I was struck with an insight that’s been pattering around my mind for the past few weeks. 

Happiness is the most important thing. Learning how to be happy is the most important thing. 

In the midst of work, I can take five minutes to pause, or meditate, or go for a walk – because happiness is the most important thing. I can leave one item on my to-do list unfinished instead of rushing to complete it before the café closes at 7 – because happiness is the most important thing. In the long run, rushing, cramming, packing life so full of productivity that it bursts may make me successful, but it won’t make me happy. 

Learning to be happy not only means dealing with stress, but also managing emotions. Should I wallow in worry or annoyance, or let the feeling pass? Happiness is the most important thing, so I try to see the bigger picture even though the negative emotion seems “deserved.” I try to cultivate a knack for seeing the positives and smiling at them, from a sunny day to a friendly cashier.

In the end, the biggest accomplishment we have is who we are. Am I someone who knows how to be happy, patient, calm, kind? Or am I someone who “has it all,” but is unhappy, impatient, stressed, and rushed? 

That’s the foundation. Everything else is just details. 

Photo by Flickr user Zahid

Live each day as if it were a do-over

Do-over[SPOILER ALERT for the movie About Time - highly recommended!]

When I turned on About Time on my flight to Hong Kong, I was expecting a fun romantic comedy with some time travel thrown in. What I didn’t expect was a profound lesson about happiness. 

When Tim finds out that the men in his family can time travel, he sets to work fixing his own love life. He can only travel backward in time, so all his bumbles, missed opportunities, and creepy pick-up lines get redone until he finally lands himself a lovely, bookworm girlfriend (Rachel McAdams). 

As Tim’s father nears death due to lung cancer – something he can’t go back in time and change, because then he would have different children – he gives Tim some advice: instead of trying to fix major things in your life, make a habit of living each day over again. The second time, drop all the stresses and worries and just savor the good things.

“Savoring” is something we’re taught to do as students of happiness, seeking out the good experiences and taking the time to appreciate and be grateful for them. But it’s not easy: how do you put yourself in the right mindset? What if you don’t feel like savoring? 

For Tim, it’s easy to savor because he’s gone through the day before. He’s experienced it through the negative lens, pronounced it a “hard day” or a “bad day,” and seen that focusing on the bad stuff doesn’t make him happy. So the second time, he makes more jokes; he smiles at strangers; he sees beauty around him. After some time, he discovers the final secret of happiness: instead of living days twice, he only lives them once – the positive way. 

That’s what all the rest of us are trying to do, albeit without the benefit of a time traveling education. But we can ask ourselves in the moment: will I have a “good day” if I behave or respond this way, if I focus on this worry or that problem? When I climb into bed later, will I regret that I wasted my time? How could I act that would make me happy at the end of the day, not wanting a do-over?  When we’re tempted to indulge our frustration or stress, it’s a helpful heuristic. 

The 6 best (cheap) restaurants in Ubud, Bali

“Cheap” is in parentheses, because it’s not something you have to search for in Ubud. You can easily find meals in the $5-10 range, and you don’t have to sacrifice on ambiance. Some of our best meals in Ubud were under $20 total for two people, at a place that could have been a four-star resort in the States.

We spent about a month in Ubud at a hotel – that means, no kitchen – so we must have eaten out at at least 30 different restaurants. Here are the top six – all of which feature delicious, cheap food in a beautiful setting.  

Siam Sally

Siam Sally is a Thai restaurant with a range of traditional dishes. We went there twice on Thursday nights to hear the Cool Tone Blues band, our favorite in Ubud. It’s a two-floor, open air restaurant with lanterns, wicker chairs, and a friendly staff who enjoys grooving to the music. Although I’m not vegetarian, I enjoyed the creamy vegan green curry with eggplant and sweet potato, and a nice and sour tom kha gai soup (both with enough coconut to satisfy my obsession). 

Address: Jalan Raya Pengosekan

Prices: Vegan green curry (46,000 Rp), tom kha gai soup (34,000 Rp), pandanus chicken (58,000 Rp) 

Siam Sally

Siam Sally

Siam Sally

The Pond

The Pond is an Indonesian restaurant overlooking (you guessed it) a pond, as well as some open ricefields. They serve up a large menu of Indonesian and Western dishes in an open-air setting (they’ll happily grab you a mosquito coil if you ask). I thoroughly enjoyed the laksa – skip the tofu, it tastes odd – the crispy duck (possibly the best in Ubud), and the ribs (with a spritz of lime, of course). 

Address: Jalan Raya Pengosekan

Prices: Laksa (42,000 Rp), black pepper beef (55,000 Rp), crispy duck (75,000 Rp), surf and turf (85,000 Rp) 

The Pond

IMG_2919

IMG_2917

The Pond

IMG_2998

Bebek Bengil (Dirty Duck Diner) 

Bebek Bengil is where you go to have duck in all its incarnations. We ordered 24 hours in advance and were quickly served up a huge plate complete with duck, vegetables, chicken skewers, crackers, and a fruit smoothie on the side. The place is enormous, with a bunch of different seating pavilions with gardens in between, and we ended up on a second-floor table overlooking the ricefields. 

Address: Jalan Hanoman 

Price: Smoked duck (220,000 Rp for 2 people) 

Bebek Bengil Dirty Duck Diner

Bebek Bengil Dirty Duck Diner

Bebek Bengil

Bebek Bengil Dirty Duck Diner

Cafe Wayan

Café Wayan is famous for being mentioned in Eat, Pray, Love, but we didn’t realize that when we arrived. We just saw a beautiful, huge restaurant – it extends far back from the street in little pavilions intermixed with lush gardens and exotic statues. The Sunday buffet was a huge spread including curry, satay skewers, vegetables, fruit, and dessert. After you think you’re done, they bring you a bowl of creamy vanilla ice cream. 

Address: Jalan Monkey Forest 

Price: Sunday night buffet (150,000 Rp each) 

Cafe Wayan

Cafe Wayan

Cafe Wayan

Cafe Wayan

Cinta 

Cinta specializes in grilled foods, from finger-licking ribs to buttery seafood. Before our food arrived, the owner came and started telling us the story of Bali’s volcano, Mount Agung. A serene Buddha statue welcomes you in, something you’ll see at many Ubud restaurants. 

Address: Jalan Monkey Forest 

Prices: Pork ribs (150,000 Rp), grilled seafood (125,000 Rp) 

Cinta Ubud

Cinta Ubud

Cinta Ubud

Ibu Rai

Another open-air restaurant, Ibu Rai is enchanting at night with its beautiful spherical lanterns out front. This is probably the smallest restaurant on the list, but the food might be the best – the quality is gourmet, with touches of spices and sauces that elevate it to another level. 

Address: Jalan Monkey Forest 

We ordered: Spring rolls (29,000 Rp), grilled prawn (78,000 Rp), laksa (63,000 Rp) 

Ibu Rai

Ibu Rai

Ibu Rai

The jelly to my peanut butter

On our first date, Fred and I discovered that we were both INTJs, one of 16 personalities in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Hooray – we could understand each other perfectly!

Well, not really. Six years later, it turns out we aren’t as similar as we originally thought. It’s been a process of “I don’t get why…” and “Wait, what are you doing?” and “Huh, really?”

Here are all the differences we’ve discovered – so far. Maybe you recognize some in your relationship.

1. I’m theoretical; he’s practical. I want to figure out problems; he wants to go out and solve them. We both like learning and creating, but my prominent mode is thinking and his is acting.

2. I like routine; he likes variety. Yes, I’m ordering the sushi for the fifth time this month – I’d get it every day if I could. And yes, I want to go to another cafe this weekend.

3. I plan; he’s spontaneous – at least in the realm of leisure. As we’re enjoying an activity, my brain already goes to what we’re doing next, what’s for dinner, and when we should leave. Fred’s a fan of “just-in-time thinking.”

4. I judge; he explores. Even though we’re both Js, Fred is much more open to new ideas than me. He reminds me to keep an open mind and not be so critical so fast when someone (including him) expresses an idea I disagree with.

5. My instinct is to follow rules; his is to question them. Small case in point: the pool at our hotel supposedly closes at 7:30 pm, but we wanted to swim later. Fred said we should just do it; I wanted to ask permission. (We ended up asking, and getting permission.) Fred makes me more flexible when I realize some rules are dumb.

6. I’m risk-averse; he’s risk-tolerant. When Fred decided to venture through malaria land on a bus, I had to grit my teeth – and stay home. When I paid $1,000 for a rabies vaccine, he was the one gritting his teeth.

7. My mood is variable; his is consistently positive. I’m happy when Fred’s mood rubs off on me, but I’ve had to assure him that it’s okay for me to feel down sometimes.

8. I work constantly in moderation; he works in spurts in excess. I can do 9-5 all year; Fred prefers binge working for six months then taking a break. I had to learn that those breaks weren’t lazy or unproductive; they were a needed counterbalance and recharge.

9. I abstain; he indulges. I have to sit by while Fred eats many small desserts throughout the week; he has to resist the urge to tell me to “live a little.” (And I do – just once a week.)

Recognizing these things was the first step. Next is actually, genuinely, wholeheartedly believing that your partner is entitled to their own approach. You may think you accept something, then discover rogue thoughts and feelings in your head when the difference comes up. It’s a process – so why not celebrate your differences this Valentine’s Day?

Mur des Je T'Aime

“Don’t get your hopes up” is only half the story

don't get your hopes upLast Friday, I treated myself to a 45-minute reflexology massage in Ubud. Luckily, being a veteran of Asian massages by now, I expected this to be painful. I’m normally quiet as I get tenderized and prodded, but this time I couldn’t help but shriek. 

American masseuses would stop in their tracks if you yelped in pain. Indonesian ones take it as a sign they’re doing it right #ow

— Kira M. Newman (@KiraMNewman) February 7, 2014

What would have happened, I wondered, if I had gone into the massage expecting your normal, everyday, American massage? It would have been terrible – painful and terrible.

It’s not that my expectations would have been too high – a Balinese massage isn’t worse than an American massage. They’re just different. In fact, they have entirely different purposes (at least in my mind) – one relaxes me, the other loosens up my tight muscles.

“Don’t get your hopes up” or “Your expectations are too high” are common pieces of advice, but they don’t account for cases like this. Here, the problem is that your expectations are simply wrong, not high or low. And I think these cases are fairly common.

When I was living in Montreal, I remember one time when Fred planned what he called a “surprise.” I was expecting something romantic, and was dismayed to discover a surprise bubble blowing meetup! (Creative and awesome for sure, just not what I had in mind.) It’s like when you pack for cold weather and it turns out to be warm – that’s not a worse situation, but you aren’t equipped to deal with it right away.

Maybe our brains simply have trouble with the discrepancy, and with being wrong – something akin to cognitive dissonance. Then it’s a question of how quickly we can adjust and adapt. I’d suspect that the people who suffer from mis-expectation are the same people who don’t like big surprises.

We might be tempted to believe that the remedy is having no expectations, but I think that’s impossible. We can’t help it – everything that’s happened in the past causes us to make predictions for the future, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to cross the street or guess our friend’s feelings. Expectations also seem to come from desires – like whatever you happen to be expecting for Valentine’s Day this year. Instead, we just have to try the tricky process of untangling and naming our own expectations and asking ourselves whether they’re realistic – and maybe communicating them to our boyfriend so he can go buy some roses, chocolates, and unicorns.

“Managing expectations” is something that great businesspeople do. If it reduces stress and smoothes things out in the workplace, why not in everyday life, too?

Photo by Flickr user Benson Kua

Fran Rugo’s calling is to share her positivity with the world

This is the third in a series profiling positive people and attempting to discover what exactly “positivity” is. If you know a positive person we should write about, email kiramnewman @ gmail.com! 

Fran RugoOne of my first interactions with Fran Rugo was at the SXSW conference last year. Tech Cocktail was putting on a huge event, and I arrived around 7 am to help out. Fran, an event consultant for us, had already been there for an hour or so. She was probably exhausted, and we barely knew each other at that point, but she greeted me with a big, genuine Fran smile. I liked this girl.

It might have been obvious to me that Fran was a positive person, but she had only just realized it at that point. “For me, it’s just how my mind works,” she says. Her friends insisted her positivity was unique, but she couldn’t see it – until a personality test confirmed that out of 34 strengths, positivity was her #1.

Fran was lucky to grow up with happy, grateful, hardworking parents. But her brain rebelled against the little negativities she sometimes heard from them – a complaint from her father about a B on her report card, or her mother repeating the Italian phrase “If I live to see another day.” She made a conscious decision to always do her best, and be happy with the outcome: a combination of hard work and acceptance.

I learned from Fran that her big smile dates all the way back to high school, when she went out of her way to cheer other people up. Walking through the hallways, she would think, “Well, I’m going to smile as much as I can because hopefully if someone doesn’t have a smile, I‘ll be able to make them smile.”

These days, Fran is working as an admin assistant at DePaul University’s Student Leadership Institute. When students come into her office complaining about stress or boy problems, she shares her positive advice. Things will probably work out in the future, she tells them; haven’t they worked out in the past? And if they don’t, maybe it’s a sign to take a different path.

That’s the same thing she tells herself when something bad happens. She sees every failure or bad experience as an opportunity for learning. When Fran found herself without a job after college, her response was: I guess I’ll have to learn something about this whole getting-a-job business. You accept reality, then you do something about it.

That can be hard to do in the moment, but Fran has a little ritual that helps. Almost every morning, she wakes up with a song in her head. As she gets ready, she turns on the song and sets an intention for her day: a goal she wants to accomplish, or something she’s looking forward to. Sometimes she records it on her blog, which is named after her favorite quote: “A coeur vaillant rien d’impossible” (“With a willing heart, nothing is impossible”). This routine is Fran’s own gratitude ritual, inspired by setting an intention in yoga. 

Fran believes that we all have unique talents to share with the world, but sometimes we forget what they are. A psychology test opened her eyes to her positivity, but it turns out it’s not just her #1 strength. Sharing positivity with others has become her purpose in life, whether it’s through mentoring students at DePaul, helping out at Tech Cocktail, or just widely, genuinely smiling. She says, “I hope that by being aware and sharing my positivity I am able to contribute to the world – even if it’s a small change.”

Are you a happiness addict?

Smiley coffee

My name is Kira, and I’m (sometimes) a happiness addict.

When the latest episode of Downton Abbey comes out, I’m itching to watch it and then it’s done – another week to wait until the next installment. As Friday nears, I start setting my sights on the luscious free time I’ll have to work on my blog, relax, and eat a rare dessert (preferably chocolate). Sometimes – just sometimes – it feels like my life is a series of waiting, highs, and disappointment-that-it’s-over.

That sounds a bit like an addiction. In fact, Elizabeth Lombardo, author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, calls the afterward part of this cycle a “happiness hangover.”

Yet the beforehand part – the anticipation – is supposed to be one of the major components of happiness. The New York Times advises you to “Find Happiness in the Pursuit”; Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project says “Get More Bang for Your Happiness Buck: Revel in Anticipation.” One Dutch study found that planning a vacation can boost our happiness weeks or months in advance.

According to The Optimism Bias by Tali Sharot, anticipation is greater the more pleasurable the anticipated event, the more vividly we can imagine it, the more probable we think it is to happen, and the sooner it will be happening. To boil it down: this is why brides can’t sleep the night before their weddings.

So what’s going on here? How can anticipation be so good, yet seem like it’s part of a vicious cycle of happiness addiction?

I think the problem is something that Nataly Kogan, the CEO of Happier, often talks about. She says that she created the app for sharing happy moments because she wanted people to stop saying, “I’ll be happy when…” and start saying, “I’m happy now because…” This usually applies to two separate events: you shouldn’t say, “I’ll be happy when I have $1 million” but rather, “I’m happy now because I get to hang out with my son.” But it can also describe two types of anticipation: the healthy type and the unhealthy type.

In healthy anticipation, we think something like, “I’m happy now because I’m looking forward to meeting my friend tonight.” We actually feel happy, because we can imagine the pleasure it will bring. The unhealthy anticipation goes, “I’ll be happy when I see my friend.” We don’t feel the pleasure now; we’re just waiting out our bad day until we can reach the oasis of our friend’s company. We’d happily skip all the in-between time and get right to socializing. To maximize happiness, we need to embrace healthy anticipation but avoid the unhealthy kind.

The happiness hangover afterward is a little trickier, but I think some things are more likely to cause hangovers than others. Anticipating something short – like a meal or a one-hour TV show – will probably induce a hangover, because the moment of happiness is so fleeting. Afterward, we wonder, “What was I so excited about?” Even vacations can be problematic: that Dutch study found that happiness generally goes back to normal after a vacation; the most we can hope for (if our vacation was very relaxing) is a short, two-week boost.

So avoiding happiness hangovers might boil down to focusing our anticipation on more permanent things: finding the right job, moving into a new apartment, being (not getting) married. Though the initial novelty may wear off, at least you won’t experience the disappointment of losing the thing you were so looking forward to.

Are you a happiness addict?

Photo by Flickr user OnyRod

I’m pale, introverted, and serious. What are you?

Umbrella for the sun Here in Bali, if you go into a pharmacy, you’ll see a lot of whitening products – not for your teeth, but for your skin. Whitening lotion, whitening face wash – the same type of products I saw in Hong Kong and China two years ago.

I remarked on this to Fred, who was perplexed. Why do Asians (who are tan) want to be pale, while Americans (who are pale) want to be tan?

It’s simple, I explained. It’s a law of womanhood: if you have straight hair, you want curly hair; if you have curly hair, you want straight hair. You want what you don’t have, I guess.

So Fred told me to jot this down for my study of happiness: accepting yourself is the first step.

It makes sense. To make any life change, you need to accept the place you’re starting from. And if you start from a place of not accepting yourself – being unhappy with the body you see in the mirror or your professional skills – it doesn’t matter what else happens. Even if life hands you the best of circumstances, you can’t be fully happy.

So what do you need to accept about yourself?

I’m pale. I use umbrellas not only for rain, but for sunshine, too. I don’t tan. In some photos, I look like a ghost.

I’m introverted. I don’t really like parties. I’m bad at small talk. I don’t like to network, even when I should.

I’m serious. I don’t think some things should be laughed at. I work a lot, and I don’t really like stupid movies or stupid jokes. I think about the meaning of life.

At some point, I didn’t accept all these things about myself. But I’m getting there. I can take umbrella jokes in stride, leave the party without guilt (most of the time), and ask deep questions without having to downplay them. If I’m the quirky quiet one who always carries around umbrellas, so be it.

What are you?