Self-Directed Life: Building the Foundation
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First, an update on what’s been going on around here…

I got way off track this year when my mother became ill, had emergency surgery (followed by two more in the following two weeks), received a serious diagnosis (two primary cancers AND heart disease that appeared out of nowhere), and my sister and I moved in to take care of her until she was taken from us much too early.

(I say “way off track” but of course I was on track — the track just didn’t go where I thought it was going to go.)

Shout-out to the caregivers in the crowd — it’s not for the faint-hearted, is it?

I have thought about writing a blog post about this but it’s too big and too close still. I will say, though, that having a family foundation of kids doing self-directed work and parents and kids supporting one another was incredibly helpful.

The choices we make build the foundation we live on.

While we went through this bumpy, uncertain, often painful time, the boys were able to continue with their meaningful work because they were used to working independently.

I supported them from afar, and they supported ME tremendously. We’ve always helped each other with our projects — PBH isn’t a one-way mentoring relationship. And this was a sort of project — not one I would have ever chosen, and full of life lessons I never wanted to learn, but still a definite learning experience. My sons were practiced in paying attention, asking good questions, listening, making thoughtful suggestions, and just lending their loving support.

Self-directed learning and working, regular project time, family meetings, support without taking over, shared responsibilities — these are foundational habits. Once they’re in place, you can build a life on them.

We often talk about investing in children’s interests, but PBH also invests in relationships. When you go through difficult times, you’re supported by that infrastructure you built up — the same one that helped your kids make a stop-motion movie or a cosplay outfit. You have a routine and an environment that support independent working. You have a ritual of meeting regularly to offer mutual support, and a respectful way to communicate and share ideas without steamrolling.

These pieces you put into place help you accomplish all the big stuff you have to do, even the stuff you didn’t choose.
So how do you build this kind of foundation?

We talk a lot in the master class about making small but powerful changes.

We look for BIG returns from a very SMALL (but frequently repeated) investment.

Small changes are

     â€¢ easier

     â€¢ faster

     â€¢ simpler

     â€¢ less overwhelming

and have a better chance to defy procrastination. The bigger the plan, the more desperate we are to stall getting started.

But can small changes really make a difference?


Here’s a great example I read about this week:
People can benefit even from very short experiences in nature, such as 10 to 15 minutes per day. In fact, some research suggests that it is repeated short experiences that are most helpful. — This is what happened to my brain when I spent more time in nature
A very common goal — getting outside more. It’s a simple ritual that can improve every other part of the day. It’s also a great example of something we can get too ambitious about (weekly family hikes? bicycle ride this weekend? where’s the pump for those flat tires?) and end up pushing off till later.

Meanwhile, we could be reaping the exact same benefits if we just opened the door and stepped outside.

The article also notes “forests or large parks aren’t necessary for most benefits.” We don’t have to take our kids to Yosemite … or even to the park. We can just sit on the steps for awhile. Hang out in the backyard. Take a walk around the block.

When we think about making improvements, we are attracted to BIG change — the perfect outdoor family activity, perfect art experience, perfect workspace. Inspirational!

So we pin a bunch of things and write a bullet list in our journal … but we don’t actually do anything today. Because obviously big change requires big preparation. To prepare, we spend today thinking, planning, and making lists.

We don’t want to prepare for change — we want to change things today.

All that work required for big change sounds hard, so we put it off. We’ll do it later, when we have everything in place, when we have more time, more energy.

We get magicked into fussing endlessly with our Really Big Plan instead of just doing the thing.

Does it seem like anything you could accomplish in the next 10 minutes would really make a difference?

But hey, it’s just 10 minutes. If it’s just 10 minutes, we could do it every day.

And all of those chunks of time add up. All those small efforts create change.

Your life is your lab. Do an experiment and see. Spend just 10 minutes focusing on one of your top goals — do something right now that is imperfect and not pinnable but a tiny investment in what you want to grow.

Here’s another example of the value of repeated small experiences:
Buy many small pleasures rather than fewer large ones. — Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness
[T]he thing about happiness is that small, repeated…pleasures are the bread and butter of human happiness. — Laura Vanderkam, All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Wealth
We quickly acclimate to big purchases (new house, giant TV) — we get a big bump in happiness but it quickly fades.

In contrast, a series of small purchases (movie, book, music, flowers, art supplies, a great meal) can provide us with a steady supply of happiness over a much longer span of time.


Relate this to project work. You dream of that big project where your kids do something really impressive and intellectual. But how happy would you be if focusing on meaningful work was a daily occurrence in your home?

Which would give you more happiness, a one-time impressive project or a new family culture?

You can’t do a Really Impressive Project this afternoon. But you can have project time. You can begin creating the critical habit of coming together to share ideas and do meaningful work.

It can be hard to set aside your Really Big Plan and invest in THIS day, THIS hour — it can feel like you’re giving up your dreams of something really spectacular. But in reality, we build our dream life with small daily efforts. What we normalize becomes our life.

Months break down into weeks which break down into days which break down into hours which break down into minutes. Minutes are the building blocks of years. What we do today becomes our life.

Small changes lead to big changes. You’re building the foundation now that will support you later. Invest 10 minutes in the way you really want to live.
A classic post from the blog with the same message: The Non-Extreme Path Toward Success. “Right here. Right where you are right now. With whatever you have in your pockets. Begin now.”

Interested in reading more about the spending bit? Check out this paper by Dan Gilbert and colleagues: “If Money Doesn't Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right.”

Brian Wansink’s book Mindless Eating (highly recommended!) is another great example of implementing small but powerful changes and tweaking what you’re already doing vs. trying to do something completely different. “[T]he idea of eating better is do-able. While eating right is a long-term goal, eating better is something we can start today.” While reading this book I kept highlighting sentences like this and thinking of PBH. Just doing better is something we can start today.

The “small but frequent” approach could help you achieve your meaningful work as well — e.g., write a page a day and you could finish a book in a year. Read an excerpt from Walter Mosley’s This Year You Write Your Novel here.

I published a new blog post recently, which is a pretty momentous event these days: Are we obsessed with children’s interests? No, we’re not.

Sir Ken Robinson supports what PBHers already know: You must have a culture that supports the kind of learning you want kids to do.

Austin Kleon wrote a post about how creative work has seasons — this is true of children’s meaningful work as well. Parents struggle with seeing their kids “doing nothing” or seeing work hit a plateau. They are frustrated when children “quit” before the parent thinks they’re done. But children also need time to absorb, reflect, think, play, dream. No creator, child or adult, is producing 24/7/365. From the book: “You…need to respect the ebb and flow of natural learning. Your child can’t be ‘on’ 100% of the time, always making, always building, always creating. You must allow for what Barbara Ueland calls the ‘dreamy time’ that comes before creative work, when your child is ‘letting in ideas.’ There must always be time to explore and play.”

Another nice thing Austin shared — The Rights of the Reader. “If we want our sons, our daughters, all young people to read, we must grant them the same rights we grant ourselves,” says Daniel Pennac. (Now replace “read” with learn, make, create, communicate, share, strive…)

More posts about kids and reading on the blog here.

Check out my tumblr Self-Directed Life if you want to see some of my favorite quotes about self-directed learning and living.

We’re currently enrolling the fall session of the PBH Master Class and we’d love it if you could join us! :"D)
People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing. — Dale Carnegie
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