Musical instruments, new skills, new sports, I can’t get enough.
One of my latest hobbies is amateur woodworking. I say amateur because my brother in-law knows what he’s doing, and I just pretend. I’ve been collecting tools and slowly learning how to make things. It’s actually a lot easier than you would think.
I often think about the difference between something that’s good and something that’s excellent.
Whitespace is one of those things that can take something from being just ok to being amazing.
What do I mean by Whitespace?
I mean silence, emptiness, void, quiet… you get the picture.
For example, sometimes you listen to a song, and it blows you away. Not by the amazing notes or riffs or carefully crafted harmonies, but by the pauses and the carefully missed notes. Those missed notes are just as important as the ones played, sometimes even more.
Think about a song you love, and now listen to it again – this time listen for things like dynamics (songs getting louder, quieter), silence, and restraint. You’ll probably notice that the silence or quietness makes the song that much better. If your music doesn’t have silence, try listening to some Blues.
Whitespace is everywhere.
Designers often talk about a design having great whitespace. Purposefully designed emptiness to make something look excellent. Cluttered design looks… bad.
Life need whitespace.
Research has shown over and over again we have our best ideas in the shower, when we’re walking, driving, when we are in silence. I think the reason for this is that void creates space for new things. If our minds are constantly filled, there’s no room for anything else.
If you pack your backpack so tight with things, there’s no room for what you might find on the way.
Some of the best memories I have with friends and loved ones happen when nothing was planned, and we were doing nothing – silence makes space for great shared memories.
I got my first cellphone when I was 24 and I remember leaving it at home and treating it like a home phone. Why? Because I didn’t want to be bothered while I was out with friends or doing other things. Now I carry my smartphone everywhere I go, and I sometimes wonder if for all the great things it can do, it actually might do more harm in the long run.
I live in a world that’s begging for my attention – watch this, read that, do this, eat here, play, stream, run, track your steps, get more points, but rarely does it ask me to just sit, enjoy, relax, or unwind.
I think there’s great strength and beauty in learning to cultivate whitespace in our lives.
The majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.
It didn’t matter if the subjects engaged in the contemplative exercise at home or in the laboratory, or if they were given suggestions of what to think about, like a coming vacation; they just didn’t like being in their own heads.
One of my favourite theologians, Louis C.K., says it this way:
You need to build an ability to be yourself and not be doing something
About 6 years ago, I took a 7 day excursion to the Salar de Uyuni. It’s a salt desert located in Bolivia and for the excursion you’re shoved into a Land Cruiser with 7 strangers and you drive about 40 hours on salt to arrive at, you guessed it, more salt! You also get to see some flamingos, and eventually a volcano. It’s a beautiful, difficult, tiring, journey and it usually involves some kind of food poisoning.
Getting to the Salar was the first challenge. I got on a bus in the city of La Paz, and we drove 11 hours south to the town of Uyuni. The ride was so bumpy and so long, that my iPod, which had a moveable hard drive in it, died about 1 hour into the trip from moving so much. That made the 11 hours feel a lot longer. I had to watch poorly dubbed Spanish movies on the bus instead of listen to my carefully curated playlists for the ride. It’s also incredibly difficult to fall asleep while you feel like you’re inside of a dryer set on low heat for an endless cycle.
Once you arrive at Uyuni, the top of the salt desert, you begin your journey through the desert. Not only are you now about 11 hours from the closest hospital, you are also now tasked with getting used to being at an elevation of 12,000 feet above sea level. I was getting dizzy just walking around, and many people faint just from walking.
I found my way to my designated Land Cruiser, met the 7 people and the driver who I’d have to become BFFs with over the next week, and we started driving through the desert. The driver excitedly put on his Abba cassette into the tape deck, and pulled out a large bottle of beer to quench his thirst. No GPS, no map, and barely sober, I asked him how he was able to know where he was going.
He looked at me like I was crazy and said “you just go that way”.
I can barely drive in a city without my Google Maps app telling me what to do every 30 seconds.
Throughout the trip, we would arrive at certain destinations of interest. We’d arrive at a lake, or an unusual island, and get dropped off to explore the area. The way this generally worked was that everyone would get out of the vehicle with a camera in hand, and take as many pictures as possible for as long as we were there.
At first this was exciting.
Wow – my friends are going to be so jealous of these pictures.
Many people on the trip were mostly concerned about capturing the moments, not experiencing them – including myself.
Some would go to great lengths to take the perfect picture, with elaborate camera gear and props. Often they would take so long composing these shots that they would miss out on exploring the whole area.
It made me think about how our consumer culture has shaped and changed what was once a sort of spiritual pilgrimage through the desert into just another Facebook photo album that you want to tag and upload as soon as you’re back on WiFi.
I wanted to rebel against this so I started to put my camera down more often – and even left it in the vehicle so I would have more time to take in the beautiful scenery and truly experience the desert instead of consume it.
Being in the wilderness is daunting. You’re exposed to a kind of emptiness that you don’t find in the city or the suburbs. There’s a silence that made me uncomfortable and I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with it.
I think I was uncomfortable because I hide from it as much as possible when I can. I’m reading through Flipboard in the bathroom, checking my Twitter at the line-up or going through my WordPress Reader in bed.
The question I have is – when I do those things… what am I missing?
How many times do we go to concerts and spend more time taking pictures of the band than we do listening to the music?
How often are we in museums and we’re more concerned with getting through all the exhibits than we are about learning from them?
There’s a danger in consuming our experiences instead of letting our experiences shape us.
So I’m making an effort to live more in the silence. To let it make me uncomfortable, to urge me to disconnect, and to enjoy the nuances and simplicities of life that are there every day, but that I can’t always see.
I have spent a lot of my life pursuing knowledge. From the early years of struggling learning how to speak in two languages and knowing which one was appropriate at what time – to studying music theory in University and having to memorize note intervals – learning was my life.
From time to time I was even tested on my knowledge – how well did I actually learn? These tests would surely measure my success.
I have spent a lot of time learning to play badminton, learning how to run, learning to play new instruments, and learning how to be a good husband.
One of the problems I encounter over and again is that I have to un-learn just as much as I have to learn.
Un-learning, to me, is the process of getting rid of things you’ve been taught were “the right way to do things” or the “right answers” to your questions, to make room for new ideas.
Without getting rid of these bad habits, ideas, doctrines, and processes, it’s almost impossible to learn.
When I got married – I had to un-learn how to be single. I was great at not doing dishes, eating whenever I felt like it, and never making the bed. (My wife would probably say I’m still great at that) – but the things I learned how to do so well didn’t suit me very well anymore.
It’s hard to un-learn.
I’ve had to un-learn religion. I went to a school that taught me that science was bad, that God hated certain people, to be scared of everything, and that dinosaurs co-existed with people.
It takes time to un-learn.
I’ve had to un-learn how public transportation works. I grew up in a country where people don’t wear watches, where buses come and go as they please, and where siestas are part of every day life. I live in a country where being 5 minutes late is very rude, and if you’re napping in the middle of the day you’re lazy.
It takes patience to un-learn.
It’s hard to give up things you hold on to, especially the things you thought were right for so long. It’s hard to apologize to those you hurt with your wrong ideas.
It takes guts to change your mind about your opinions and to let your friends know where you’re at. I’ve lost jobs for things I’ve un-learned, I’ve lost friends, but most importantly I’ve gained an open mind.
I’ve learned that being wrong is ok.
I’ve learned that admitting that I don’t know everything is more powerful that knowing it all.
I’ve learned that the most important thing is to keep learning (and un-learning).