Obviously, 2020 has sucked so far.
And while I haven’t had it nearly as bad as others, I’ve struggled too.
But these struggles have led to some eye-opening realizations about myself, so there’s been some major silver lining for me.
Which leads me to my brand new beard.
This may not seem like a big deal to most people, but let me explain why this has completely rocked my world.
See, the men in my family are not known for our facial hair growth. The common saying is that no one in the family can grow facial hair due to having Native American blood in our ancestry. (Something that may actually be a myth.)
This belief became something that was part of my self-talk as I grew up. I always wanted a beard, but I never tried to grow one out because it seemed futile. The men in my family supposedly couldn’t, so I couldn’t.
So I turned my lack of facial hair into a joke, leading with it so that no one else could tease me about it.
I have done this with many things in my life; my height, my stutter, my size (both when thin and when husky). So it makes sense that I would have the same MO with my inability to grow facial hair.
Then COVID-19 hits, we are on lockdown, and I am struggling.
While not as great or as painful as it has been for some, I still suffered a loss of revenue. Everything seems uncertain, and I am watching way too much news.
I kept up shaving for the first month or so because, well, habits, but then I decided to stop.
I remember looking at myself in the shower and thinking, “what is the worst that can happen?” A useful question that we should all ask more.
At the same time, I was trying to take back control of my mindset. One of the ways I do that is by reading.
Detaching myself from my phone during this time also helped a great deal with all of this.
I took “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday off the shelf and started to read. This book had been recommended time and time again to me. I had read another book by this author, “Ego is the Enemy,” a few years ago and really enjoyed it.
Stoicism was something I had been hearing about for a while, and it had a lot of overlap with how I thought about some things. This seemed like as good a time as any to do some navel-gazing.
Incredibly early on in the book, in the freaking preface actually, I read a section that changed me completely.
Before I tell you the line, I need to talk about journaling for just a moment.
Journaling and I have a sorta odd history of starts and stops and misunderstandings.
There is a stigma that journaling and diaries are for girls only. I thought so too growing up.
In 8th grade, I had a teacher who made us journal for 5 minutes each day. She told us to write whatever came to mind. I remember writing “I can’t fucking think of shit to write” in a juvenile attempt to be humorous. Despite my immaturity and terrible handwriting, my teacher made a note that she liked how I was not holding back and that I was following directions. I thought that was pretty cool.
But I didn’t keep up the practice.
Fast forward to 2001, when I came home from my Army training. I told my grandmother that I wanted to be a writer. She gave me “The Artist’s Way” which also talked about stream of consciousness journaling as a way to shut down your inner critic.
I tried and struggled with it for a bit before giving it up again.
Later, in 2014, I started working with a sales coach who talked endlessly about the need for journaling as a mindset tool. Mentally, I thought this was complete bullshit and couldn’t be less applicable to selling. I didn’t even bother this time.
But then in 2016, everybody I looked up to was talking about journaling. My sales coach never let it go, all of the influencers that I followed did it. It felt like people had been telling me to do this thing my whole life, so I finally decided to put some real effort into it.
I started to journal regularly. This was affirmational journaling, kind of like the Stuart Smalley skits on SNL as a kid of the ’90s.
Looking back, this was incredibly impactful to me, although it didn’t feel like it at the time. I was mostly just doing it to keep up the streak I had going. (There was some accountability attached to it. If you’re curious, check out Morning BIL, a YouTube accountability call a buddy and I have every morning.)
Unfortunately, it stopped being helpful to me in 2019. I still did it as a cool conversational thing. Much like meditation and sensory deprivation tank experiences, helpful but more about the story than anything else.
So, 2020, I’m struggling with COVID-19 and deciding to try and sharpen my mind. So I pick up Obstacle and start reading it.
The exact line that changed my life (and journaling practice) is: “The exact location is not important. What matters is that this man, known today as the last of the Five Good Emperors, sat down to write. Not to an audience or for publication, but to himself, for himself.”
The man who he is talking about is Marcus Aurelius, the writer of “Meditations,” one of the key readings for people interested in Stoicism.
So, wait a minute, this guy wrote this book, a book that has had such great influence on so many hugely successful and important people for centuries, on accident?
And I’m over here struggling to write in a journal just because I’m not sure if it is helpful or not?
The timing of the beard experiment, COVID-19, and reading this book was incredibly lucky for me.
As I’m reading it, stroking this stupid beard on my face, I begin to ask myself a lot of different questions. So, naturally, I start writing them down.
The very first one was about the beard. Was the idea that I could or could not grow a beard helpful to me? I don’t live in a society or culture that says you are not a man without one. I didn’t need it to provide for my family, or even to start one, so why was I so worried about it?
And what was stopping me from just letting it grow before?
Then I started to ask myself other questions. Why do I believe this? Why do I dislike him? Why haven’t I tried this? Things like that.
Before long, I find myself writing out all these ideas and beliefs that I took as fact or ingrained, and I started turning them into questions. Maybe I’d been wrong about a lot of things?
Turns out, I was. And still am.
Like how I was wrong about being able to grow facial hair and look and feel good about it. As seen above, I even took a selfie the other day, something I never do.
The beard has been such an interesting experiment because I was SO sure about something that turned out to be not true. Not only could I grow one, but I could grow one that people actually like.
What other areas could this be happening in?
I was writing a page or two of questions each night that would either lead to some eye-opening answers or me asking myself bigger questions.
In short, it kind of turned me into a philosopher.
If you have seen “The Good Place,” you are familiar with one of the main characters, Chidi. He is a moral philosophy professor, and he has maybe the best definition of philosophy that I have ever heard.
“Philosophy is the act of questioning what you take for granted.”
We were watching this show again recently and that line forced me to pause, jump up, and go journal.
After all of the searching I had been doing for self-improvement, I never stopped to question my beliefs about myself and the world around me. I just always tried to shift my thinking in other, more positive directions.
Aside from the opening quote, the entire book made me rethink my former betterment strategies. The whole concept of Obstacle is that the thing that stands between you and your goals is not an obstacle to move past with no thought. The obstacle becomes your goal. You must attack it with the same focus and intention that you do your main goals.
As mentioned earlier, separating myself a bit from my phone and social media helped tackle these new revelations a lot. Without that break, it’s too easy for me, (and most people), to get wrapped up in the news and other people’s lives. It’s hard to think things through when you’re focused on your phone.
Sitting in silence and forcing myself to hold these ideas in my head is the only way that I can get it done. Each night, after Alice goes to bed. I sit at the kitchen table with noise-canceling headphones on, and I read a bit to start the philosophical juices going. Then I start asking questions and writing them in my journal.
And I do this almost every day. I actually look forward to all day.
The big thing here is not that I grew a possibly shitty beard.
It isn’t that I struggled.
It isn’t that I wrote in a journal.
It is about how changing one foundational belief caused me to want to look at all my other beliefs, hold them out, and ask myself if they are holding me back or helping me.
I’m a naturally curious guy, so asking questions is generally easy for me. But journaling with questions was new and, quite frankly, mind-blowing. It allowed me to wonder if I could be wrong.
You don’t have to journal like I do to be effective. There are plenty of ways to journal. But turning your thoughts and beliefs into questions helps to open your mind about them. When you write statements, it’s harder to change your mind about it.
At the base of it, figure out what you take for granted in your life and start to wonder what it would be like if you didn’t take it for granted, if you assumed it was just going to continue the way that it always had been.
If you do this for long enough, you end up questioning some pretty crazy important things in your life. Our core values are huge and important. They’re the things our parents taught us, our teachers taught us, and the things we learned growing up. But they can change. Especially when you start to ask yourself if they are serving you or harming you, holding you back from bigger, better things.
It never hurts to ask the question, right?