What I Learned about Writing from an Eleven-Year-Old

My nephew is a wonderful pianist, but sometimes, he really hates to practice.  But he loves music. He loves excelling at the piano. So he practices at random times of the day, no routine involved, no inspiration needed. He just applies his tush to the piano bench, and starts going.

Here’s a video of him playing Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu in the early morning, before he even brushed his teeth, before he even combed his hair:

This video was shot when he was a wee eleven years old. He had just learned the piece a month or two prior. And he is simply amazing. You should hear what he sounds like now at age twelve – WOW. He understands music theory the way a mathematician understands fractals.

What I learned from him is this: if you want to excel at something, just do it. Practice. Even if your breath stinks, even if your hair looks like a nest built by an incompetent bird (quoting David Sedaris). And especially if you have absolutely no inspiration or motivation and simply don’t feel like it. I know I don’t love writing (it’s hard!), but I love having written. I’m at peace when I’ve finally put words down on the page.

After performing this piece beautifully, he ran outside to play. One minute he was a maestro of music, and the next, he was any eleven year old tossing a football with his uncle. He practiced his music without fanfare, without complication. So often, I wait for the conditions to be “just right” before I start writing. I wait for silence, for emails to be addressed, for the muse to come along. This is all just procrastination. Don’t wait for perfect conditions. Just do it!

Will STUFF make you happy?

I’m embarrassed to admit that when I was a kid, my number one fantasy went like this: I wake up, and my parents tell me we have to go to Toys R Us to “run an errand.” When we get there, all the employees are standing around and smiling at me. My parents then inform me that I have exactly fifteen minutes to fill a huge shopping cart with everything my little heart desires. Everyone cheers and claps as I race down the aisles, filling the cart with toy chemistry sets, video games, maybe a Barbie styling head because they always kind of fascinated/creeped me out, etc.

You can probably guess that this never happened. Not even close. We couldn’t afford any excess and my dad is the type of person who keeps a pair of pants until it splits down the rear. And then his pants would get sewn and transformed into shorts. This overarching policy applied to everyone in our household, so I had many shorts that had previously been pants.

So when I became a working adult and got my first corporate job at a law firm and my first paycheck, I splurged on myself: shoes, clothes, trips, gadgets, you name it. And after years of stuffing myself silly on materialism, I finally grew sick of the bloating.  It didn’t happen overnight.  It happened gradually, where after another shopping spree, I’d feel disgusted with myself.  This feeling of disgust kept getting stronger and stronger, and the only relief I found was when I returned the items and got a refund.

Then it became clear: it was time to shed the excess.  

It was time to stop allowing ads and my surroundings to push me into consuming, when I already had enough.

I began to search online for people who also wanted to live in a way so that they weren’t burdened with stuff, and landed on several great websites.  The most helpful websites I came across were becomingminimalist.com and mrmoneymustache.com. They gave testimony after testimony of people who were much happier after they learned to see these advertisements (aka false messages) for what they really were: a way to get you to part with your well-earned money, a way to get you to focus on meaningless consumerism and to detract you from your true passions and talents, a way to breed envy among friends and acquaintances so that the consumer machine would keep chugging along.

Wouldn’t it be great to be free from materialistic urges?  Join me in future segments where I’ll discuss practical steps. And one day, together, we’ll get rid of piles of stuff and be FREE!  Yeah!

I leave you with a hilarious clip of Jerry Seinfeld talking about STUFF:

What I Learned While Living Abroad (and then quickly forgot when I returned to the U.S.)

After college, I lived in South Korea and then in Paris. In both places, I quickly learned one stark difference between the U.S. and probably the rest of the world: they don’t live with huge closets.  People in other countries simply don’t own as many clothes/accessories/shoes as we Americans do. It’s not uncommon to see a very fashionable person in either Paris or Seoul repeat the same outfit the next week, or even the next day. And it’s not viewed as “ew.” Whereas here in the U.S., I have coworkers who go entire months without repeating the same outfit. That means their clothing inventory is HUGE.

When I first started living in Paris, I was baffled.  How can there be so many beautiful boutiques, and yet none of my French friends were shopaholics?  Even those who had the means to shop their hearts out never did.  Instead, their approach to shopping was methodical.  They would research exactly what they wanted, and it was usually an expensive item that would last for years. And then, when the need or strong desire came up, they would buy it. Their (small) wardrobes contained very high quality items, but in limited numbers. 

I remember there was one glamorous French girl who wore the same Hermes scarf with a lot of her outfits. She was from a wealthy family, so she definitely could afford to buy twenty scarves, but she always wore that one. At first, I thought it was amazing restraint, but then I learned that it’s just the way things were with everyone. In most Paris apartments, built-in closets were rare, even in those posh 18th century Hausmannian buildings. So everyone used wooden wardrobes. With such limited storage, over-shopping was not appealing.

Also, they made their possessions into their beloved signature items. For instance, take perfume. I have American friends who rotate among five to ten different perfumes. For the elegant French lady, there’s only one signature scent, two at most.

So I did as they did. I had one coat for the entire winter I was in Paris, and three sweaters, and that was perfectly fine. I didn’t feel the urge to shop because I was too busy having a blast doing other things, and also, spending hours in a mall just wasn’t part of the culture.

When I returned to the U.S., I quickly forgot everything I learned.  Assailed by sales and ads and friends who loved to shop, I started spending hours at the mall with friends who wanted to go and “just browse.” I shopped to the point where my closet brimmed with clothes I hardly wore.  Consumerism is a huge part of American culture and we’re even urged to shop to “keep the economy afloat.” It’s hard to resist the sales that scream “get an extra 40% off all sale items!!”  But haven’t you noticed that these sales go on all the time?

So you have to put on some armor.  Acquire only items that you need or absolutely love.  And buy the highest quality you can afford, so that you don’t have to constantly replace cheap goods with more cheap goods. Try putting yourself on a shopping moratorium for a month or two. I did. It was really refreshing. 

So for the past few years, I’ve been trying to re-learn what I’d un-learned.  I’ve been busy donating items and selling things I never use or wear, just to get down to the core essence of what I want to be my “signature.” I want to get back to that disciplined approach of consuming only what I need or absolutely love.

I’ll always love a really nicely-made handbag or a buttery silk blouse, but I don’t need ten of each, and neither do you.

Here’s a photo of panic striking in front of the LV shop in Paris.  If you look closely at the steel dinosaur, he’s surrounded by luxury bags and is even holding a few in his mouth: