Many of you likely do annual reviews. Chances are, you do it the panoramic way—try to rise above the weeds and climb to a hard-earned wide-angle perspective of your life and work. If you are a fan of GTD, for instance, you might start down in the weeds by taking stock of your various inboxes (while driving them to zero) and assessing the state of play of various activities. You might then attempt to rise above it all to a grander view of your life. Framed perhaps in terms of missions, visions, five-year plans, and other such panoramic mental constructs. The effort is not unlike the effort of climbing up a hill. This approach is perhaps especially tempting in the current environment, given all the uncertainties around us. Setting annual goals will definitely provide some relief for a few weeks. Hell, maybe you’ll even set interesting five-year or ten-year goals. Those are not bad things to attempt, but let me suggest an alternative that you could try instead of, or in addition to, such panoramic reviews — an appreciative-myopic perspective.
Rather than attempting to rise above the fray of action by forcing it into a transient legible state, consider just pausing and taking a close-up, myopic look at how you’re entangled in your world. At least for a while. Stop doing things for a bit, but don’t step back. Instead, step aside. What does that look like? What does your life look like in profile view, from a close adjacency, as opposed to a panoramic top-down view?
Curiously, there seem to be no systematic techniques for this. But I have a few ideas, based on what I seem to do naturally when I get stuck and panoramic perspectives don’t get me unstuck. Look at your desk and your chair. What do they say about your life? Which books are within arm’s reach? Why? Which books seem untouched and forgotten? Why? Pick up one of those long-untouched books and live in that adjacent possible life for a moment, in which that book was one of the heavily used ones. How many pens and pencils are in your pencil stand? Why that number? What’s the story of each pen or pencil? If you favor pens, when was the last time you used a pencil or vice - versa? Try writing something with the less-used instrument. Do you have a favorite shirt? What about a shirt you almost never wear anymore? How about trying that on for a couple of minutes? How has your life environment been disturbed by Covid, and what has that taught you about your life? Where do you hang your masks? Where is the bottle of hand - sanitizer? What used to be where those new things are? Where are those things now? Forget your five-year plans for a minute and look around at your furniture. Did you buy any new furniture in the last year? How did it alter the flows and energies of your life? I bought a whiteboard and workbench for my home office in 2020 and that definitely rewired the energy flows of my life. Take a look at your inbox without attempting to drive it to zero. Who is emailing you and why? Look at your sent and drafts folders. Who are you emailing and why? What would a forensic investigator think about your inbox? What might they find sad about it? What might they envy about it? Take a little walking tour of all your inboxes — the paper ones, the places where bookmarks accumulate, the various messaging apps. If you do any sort of journaling or writing, dip randomly into the contents. Forget processing any of it. What do the patterns of your communications say about where your attention naturally flows? Before you dive in to judge, reshape and optimize those patterns, ask yourself — what do those patterns mean? If a novelist were to weave those patterns into a character study, what sort of literary invention would emerge? Pretend you’re a consultant in your own life, attempting to make sense of it from the outside, based on the clues in the arrangement of things. You’re not trying to organize things but interpret them, like tea leaves. Look at your life, but imagine that the risks and responsibilities embodied by those things belong to someone else . What sort of person are you looking at? What detached advice would you give them? You’re looking at the potentialities of your life, asking what-if questions about it, like any good consultant. What are the lives-not-lived next door to the one you’re living? What are the latent possible worlds adjacent to the one you inhabit every day? The worlds that would take you only a slight shift in perspective to inhabit?
One of the weird things about the free-agent lifestyle is the amount of readily accessible potential you can access right next door to the life you live but don’t. The meanings latent in your life environment are much less constrained than those in a salaried person’s life environment. Going indie is the big step, but it is often easy to forget that it is a big step primarily because so many smaller next steps open up once you take the big one. There are many lives you could live, but none you have to live. All next door to the one you are living. Yet despite the close presence of potentialities they work so hard to access, indies often end up living lives that are no more complex than the ones they left behind. All that risk, so little to show for it. All that extra optionality, so little extra dimensionality.
Is anything really stopping you from living that life instead of the one you are? Look at your life environment like a crime scene or an archaeological dig. Does it reveal your life to be neat and tidy, or messy and chaotic? Does an anxious or serene person sit in that chair? What sort of person lives here? What other kinds of persons could possibly live here? Could you be one of those adjacent possible alt-you’s instead of the person you are? Try messing with things a bit. Turn your chair around so it faces the other way. Does it make you anxious or feel surprisingly more right? Drink coffee from a mug you haven’t touched in a while. Rearrange the icons on your computer screen. If you’re an everything-in-folders type of person, open all the big folders up and tile them so it’s overwhelming. Stay with that feeling for a while. If you’re an everything-in-view type, try shoving it all into a directory to experiment with the way a clean desktop makes you feel. Stay with that feeling for a while. Disturb your life ever so slightly, and watch how it vibrates around in its adjacent possible band. Listen to the music of those vibrations. What key is it in? Could it be tuned to a different key? Resist the urge to judge, organize, make to-do lists, or tidy up. Hold off on those resolutions and goals. Don’t ask yet whether it sparks joy. Ask what all of it means and what it could mean. Rather than taking stock of your world, to reshape it top-down, which is the point of panoramic perspective-taking, appreciative myopia is about re-sensitizing yourself to the flows of your world by making yourself a stranger to it. Surprisingly, even though we spend hours and hours every day in our life environments, we get so used to inhabiting them with an action-oriented mindset, seeing them only in instrumental ways and in light of the next thing we want to do or worse, our five-year plans. We rarely ever see them for what they are and what they reveal.
The older and more set in my ways I get, the harder it gets to see the grooves and ruts of my life and the easier it gets to just flow along in them, even though changing course would not be as hard as it once was in another life. The panoramic perspective is easy. I don’t have to stop to take stock to simply rattle off all my major projects and activities and their respective current states. Off the top of my head, I can approximately tell you the state of various gigs and the overall financial condition of my consulting practice. What I can’t see are all the little things that have crept in and accumulated unnoticed, as the emergent ruts and grooves. The fields and flows shaping the tempo of my life . The big picture is not the hard picture to stay aware of.It’s the little picture. The close-in, close-up environment of life. The tip of your own nose. The weeds are hard to see, both when you are caught up in them in the heat of action and when you attempt to step back from them in a spirit of earnest contemplation, rationalization, and optimization. Stepping back from your life is easy. Stepping aside from your life is hard. Stepping back inevitably takes you towards the detached view, the panoramic view. And the legalizing, confining, palliative intervention. But stepping aside? It makes you a stranger to your own life, able to see it once again for what it is and could be, rather than what it does. As a state of being rather than an instrument of doing. As a functionally unfixed situation that can mean many things, rather than the state of play of a specific grand plan that can mean only one thing. In an era when visiting family and friends has gotten harder, maybe the thing to do is to visit a very familiar stranger you probably haven’t visited in a long time — yourself.