A: What the Civil Rights movement, personality psychology, and The Santa Clause movie have in common
The other day I had the great privilege of hearing Civil Rights activist Diane Nash speak at the Chicago History Museum. (I also had the equally great privilege of sitting among my thoughtful colleagues after the talk and discussing our reactions.) Of the many wise things Ms. Nash said, I want to highlight one that stuck out to me in the current context of my life, though it was far from what she defined as the most important component of social movements. One audience member asked how to create unity in a movement, and Ms. Nash said unity comes from movement and action; it does not precede those things. In other words, don’t wait around for other people to join your cause before you take action. People join a movement when they BELIEVE change is possible, precisely because you have shown them it is through your action. This statement is simultaneously obvious and profound, and, in practice, a lot harder to achieve than it sounds. At times, we are all beset by hopelessness - in the face of societal problems, personal problems, you name it - and it is a tall order to be asked to believe change is possible; to visualize and sacrifice for something you believe will happen but have no physical proof will come to pass. I suppose this is called faith.
The reason this concept resonates so strongly with me right now is because of the personality psychology research paper I’m working on. Part of the paper asks whether mental health services can lead to positive, long-term personality change. We didn’t find good evidence that they do, though previous studies have presented contradictory findings. But in the process of trying to explain our particular findings, I stumbled on a theory of self-regulated personality development in adulthood that posits certain requirements for personality change and may help explain why this change is so difficult. The theory states that a person must view the act of changing personality trait-related behaviors (i.e., showing up to work on time is related to the trait of conscientiousness) as desirable or necessary, and, on top of that, feasible. Only then can an individual change his or her behaviors, and it is only after these self-regulated behavior changes become habitual that personality trait change occurs. (For those who are curious, this is the paper that published the theory: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/per.1945)
The key word is feasible. According to this theory, a person has to BELIEVE that they can and will change their behavior in order to bring this change into being. You cannot wait for proof that you are changing; you have to believe that change is feasible, and only then will you see this change. This framework reminds me of one of my favorite childhood films, The Santa Clause. In the film, a young boy full of Christmas spirit, Charlie, ends up at the North Pole with his bah-humbug dad, Scott Calvin. Little Elf Judy says to Charlie, “Seeing isn’t believing. Believing is seeing.” To me, this explains why Charlie can see the beauty of the North Pole; he believes in Santa Claus, in elves, and in Christmas magic, and when he visits the North Pole, that’s what he sees. But Scott Calvin, who sees the same physical reality Charlie does, cannot believe that what he sees is real, and is therefore confused and grumpy when first arriving at the North Pole. Now, I’m not telling you to believe in Santa Claus, and I’m not telling you that non-believers (in social change, personality change, the North Pole, etc.) will not become believers upon seeing evidence to the contrary. But I am telling you that first letting yourself believe (in change, in human kindness, in anything) will make the process of seeing (a change in your life, evidence of human kindness around you, anything else) much easier. If you believe and, in the end, do not see what you visualized, yes, you will feel disappointed. But the consequence of not believing, in an understandable attempt to protect yourself, is even more dire. The world is so much more than just the physical reality around us, and a life without belief is a life half-lived.
This week, we tried something new: we came up with questions for A’s friend Matt, who just started a wellness blog called Make It Your Own Vegan (makeityourownvegan.com), and we’re posting the highlights of A’s conversation with him. We thought it would be great to interview him because he, like us, is in his early 20s and going through a life transition. We highly recommend you read the home page of his website for context before reading this post. (“The Make It Your Own Story and Philosophy” - https://www.makeityourownvegan.com/my-story/2018/4/9/the-make-it-your-own-story-and-philosophy)
Long story short: he worked in San Francisco at a content marketing job that was not a good fit for him for a year and a half and suffered from serious digestive issues, and then he quit and found greater emotional and physical health. He has really interesting perspectives on yoga, food, money, social media, freelancing, art, serving those experiencing homelessness, and other topics. Enjoy!
On how his previous job (content marketing) and life experiences shape his work with Make it Your Own Vegan:
It’s a lot of skills I already have, so I’m trying to do different things. Like social media, for example. I’m not very good at it yet, and I’m working on it, just because I never really was on social media. Now I’ve kind of come to terms with it. I just had to change my perspective on the whole thing. It’s a way to connect with people, reach your audience, interact with other people’s lives. It’s a way to share your story because your story matters. I feel like growing up, I didn’t think my story mattered that much. And a lot of what I was posting was kind of ego-driven. And so I was very insecure about the whole thing. And I still get that way now. But I try to hold myself back and say, you just gotta keep learning, learning how to adjust what you’re posting and how to better reach the people you’re meaning to reach.
And so in terms of my background in content marketing, I would say the most applicable skill I have from that is positioning towards my target audience. I write headlines for my posts that are kind of catchy... and in terms of actually writing the posts, most of the time I just do what I am passionate about in that moment. The people that do realize you’re passionate about a post, they feel it, and it doesn’t matter how many people there are. For example, when I did launch [my website], I had two of my two high school colleagues reach out to me. They said good things and were happy to hear I’m just being me, 110%, and exploring the parts of me I want to explore. Right now, for example, I want creative freedom. I have to do my own thing and be my own boss, otherwise I feel so stuck and I get really stressed.
On the conflict between freedom (especially creative freedom) and security (especially financial security), and how to make it work as a freelancer in San Francisco:
So right now I have a lot saved up, luckily. I wasn’t spending much money when I was working [at my previous job], just because I was so exhausted that I had a weird relationship with money. I thought if I had more money I’d have more energy, but it was the opposite. Now that I have a lot of energy, I find myself spending more money on the things on love, and the things that help me fully express myself. But other than that, I actually am freelancing a lot. So I’m writing blog posts for a local herb shop called Scarlet Sage Herb Co. And I will eventually be a content marketing advisor for them.
Yeah, so I’m using my past experience to work with the groups of people I love and help them out. Another thing that I probably will be working on is helping the San Francisco Buddhist Center. I’ve been working with them on creating an Instagram and reaching a younger audience, which is their goal... For me, I’m starting to realize that I need to probably invest in some sort of third party system for Instagram, so it’s easier for me, because it’s really exhausting posting every day. I have a lot of posts that I’ve done, like today I’m planning to post two things. But if I have one day where I’m very post-heavy, I can schedule it all in advance and not worry about it during the week. I try to do that.
But anyway, I also reached out to this one lady creating a healing center in San Francisco, it just randomly fell into my lap. I saw they were working on their Squarespace website and I knew I could help them with that. And I also tweeted this magazine, a new plant-based, leisure magazine - they post about vegan wine, vegan spirits, weed, and just how people use things to relax, which I totally support. I like food posts as well, so a lot of it would be restaurant reviews, places you can eat as a vegan in SF. So yeah, it’s all happening.
On helping others, especially artists and people experiencing homelessness:
I’m actually working on a product part of my website, which is to elevate artists. That’s my whole goal in general right now, to elevate other people doing good, and also to share my good, as well. So I have a friend who does pottery and ceramics, and I’m going to try really hard to sell her stuff so she can make some money from that. She has things that are just sitting on her shelf, and I was like, well, you deserve money for your hard work. And she’s a great artist, and I want to write about her just because her story is very similar to mine. A lot of people have experienced what she has experienced and what I have experienced, just kind of feeling burnt out, but then realizing you don’t have to be that way, you can change your life.
Anyway, that’s kind of what I’m working on, I know it’s a lot. I also have another idea, I’m not sure when it will manifest, but I really want to help the homeless in SF. So I’ve been tweeting Dominque Crenn [a San Francisco chef]. She’s super cool, she was on Chef’s Table [a Netflix documentary series], and she seems very responsive, so I might try to figure out a way to meet with her. My idea is actually using the leftover food from her restaurants, and just taking that - stale bread, day-old produce - and preparing the food in her kitchen, or in any nice kitchen that somebody will donate, and then taking the food that we make and either inviting guests into the restaurant or figuring out a way to kind of distribute it out around the city, [the latter of] which I think will probably be the best way. The girl who does ceramics, she told me about something like that in the South Bay now, cooking for homeless people, so I’m going to go there this next week and learn about that.
On conquering fear of failure and learning from his past sickness:
It’s about taking the risk and trusting the feeling in your gut, as I’m trying to do with this blog - just go for it. I might fall flat on my face, I might fail, all these things I’m talking about - some might not work, some might soar, but I’m okay with that at this point.
Me being sick really taught me that. At the time it was just constant pain, and it was hard to get out of bed - it wasn’t depression, it was just physical exhaustion; my body didn’t have what it needed. I was always tired, and that taught me to be resilient - to be more determined and to listen to my body more. In the end what happened - and this was the best thing ever - was I realized, oh, this isn’t right. I shouldn’t be feeling this way, I shouldn’t have to feel this way.
And since I haven’t been working [at my old job] my health has improved a ton, and I’ve learned even more about my health and I continue to learn more. And the things I do surround myself with - yoga and meditation - keep me going, because they keep me in the present. I know how cheesy that sounds, but I also I know I’m going to make money, whatever way I need to make money. I’ll figure it out. I don’t know if I’ll pick up a job at Whole Foods, if I’ll end up freelancing like crazy, or teaching flute for a day a week, or what have you. But what I do know is I want to stay true to myself, and I think that’s the most important thing for everybody. You can listen and find your inner voice. And things like yoga and meditation are what have helped me the most to listen to my body, to myself, to unlock that and keep unlocking it. Because right now, I have to keep working at it - it’s not like oh, I found it, I’m alive, I have my purpose and I am perfect! It’s like, oh, I hear it, and sometimes I don’t hear it as much - what my inner voice is telling me - and I have to bring myself back, just keep coming back to the things I love: using my tools and my community to elevate myself so I can help other people elevate themselves.
On how soon his physical and mental health improved after leaving the content marketing job:
This is gonna sound crazy, but immediately after I set foot outside of the door of that job, I was like, oh, my body is healing. I felt a weight lifted; I finally could breathe again, breathe fully. And the next morning I went to yoga - which is my routine, which I’ve been doing since I’ve been in the city - and at the beginning of class we sit down in a seated yoga posture called easy pose, and we come together and breathe and all chant “Om.” And before that even happened I was literally bawling, it was just a euphoric experience. I let go, I let go of the thing that was holding me back. I finally could relax and cry, and I felt overcome with positive emotions. That’s what made me realize I have to do yoga, I have to become an instructor. I don’t know in what form, but it’s gonna be something that’s a part of my life no matter what. Those things that are meaningful - which a lot of people say, oh, that’s just your hobby, meaningful things are hobbies - I don’t believe that. I believe that your job, in whatever way, has to have meaning. You have to be making your impact in a positive way on the world, and that will fulfill you.
But like - I was still sick, I have to say. I still have to work at it, work at listening to my body, I still have to make adjustments. Like after I finished [the job] I was so happy, I was so productive creatively, I was writing random thoughts that came into my head, I was waking up at 5 in the morning, I was doing a bunch of stuff and loving life. I felt so at peace, and then the real world came back in, and I was like oh, shit, I have to make money somehow. I need to make this website successful, I need to pay bills, I need to do all this. And then I started to feel sick again. And I was like, oh, okay, I have to bring it back, do my yoga, come back to the present. And then I started to feel better again. It’s about being mindful of the money, not being driven by the money. It’s respecting the fact that you need money to feel safe, to feel secure. And if you don’t feel secure around money, you need to figure something out to help you make money with the things you love. So for me, it was those freelancing things I’m working on.
On yoga and why he doesn’t need other forms of exercise:
So, I used to run. And then this yoga teacher in her sixties, I go to her classes and she’s more in shape than I am, and she said, “Running is for recreation, yoga is for your whole life.” So I kind of dropped running. I still might run here and there, but yoga has pretty much been my only form of exercise, and it’s really all I need, I think. A lot of people think yoga is lying on the ground, resting. No, it’s not! Some of it is really hard. You can break a huge sweat. And, for me, yoga is a form of therapy, just because it opens up parts of your body that need to be opened up, so you can breathe into them. It strengthens areas that are weaker. And the type of yoga that I do - the two types - are hatha, which is more about holding a pose and getting your alignment right so that your body can have strength in the best way it’s made to have it. And the other kind is kundalini yoga, which is a new discovery for me. I just started doing it after I quit my job. And honestly, the amount of healing and energy and self-learning that I get from just doing kundalini yoga is incredible.
For me, yoga is all I need. I take it with me throughout my day, trying to be meditative, for example, when washing and drying my face. That whole philosophy has worked for me and keeps working for me. I strongly believe that yoga coming to the West is the result of business and the result of sick human beings. Because we all need an escape, a place to release the negative energy, to loosen tight muscles.
On photography and how long he’s been working on it:
Not very long. But in some way my whole life, I guess you could say. I mean, I took pictures on my phone, I continue to take pictures on my phone. But I didn’t use the DSLR [digital single-lens reflex camera] a lot. I mean I did use it when I first got it, I put pictures on Facebook and that type of thing. But a lot of the photography I’ve done more recently is I’ve been looking at stuff, looking at people’s photos and going on Tumblr a lot, learning how people take pictures of nature and beautiful things. And so I have that in the back of my mind when I’m taking pictures. But honestly the thing that’s unlocked a lot of it is being very meditative about the whole thing, just seeing the world in a very instantaneous way when I’m looking through the lens. Like, look at that moment there! and I just take it. I don’t even look at the pictures then, and then later I’ll look at them and pull out the pictures that really sing to me. And I think also letting go, knowing not every picture you take is going to be perfect. A lot of the pictures you see on my blog are one of a hundred, or fifty, or however many. Some of them are pretty amateur-looking and I haven’t done much digging into learning how to make them better. Right now it’s about building up consistency, so when there is a perfect moment I can take it and not worry about missing it.
On the mission and future of Make It Your Own Vegan and whether he has thought about wellness coaching:
Right now - because I don’t have the certifications, the training, the background in certain forms of medicine - the point is to share parts of my life, my perspective, and to share beautiful things. To share art, the stuff that I already have a background in, photography, that type of thing. I think all of it, all of the tabs [on my website] are meant to be healing, to be a way for people to enjoy themselves a little more, to think a little differently, to listen to something new, to learn something about herbs and supplements. I’m going to start writing more about herbal medicine, so that will be something I add to the blog - just because I’m going to start working for that company [Scarlet Sage Herb Co.] - and this lady is very supportive of me. She’s given me books that I can look at to make my blog more research-based. But overall I definitely need to get certified. I’m pretty sure I’m going to go to school for kundalini yoga.
On the target audience of Make It Your Own Vegan:
Anyone who wants to find some better way to express themselves, anyone who is hurt, anyone who needs some help, anyone who wants to talk. Honestly, my target audience is whoever comes through the front door. Ideally I think the group I would like to hit most is the people that work in tech right now, just because I worked in tech. I understand that people are under such high stress, and the conditions are so terrible... And I feel like if they do what they love, and they don’t feel like they have to do anything [they don’t want to do], maybe the world would be a little bit brighter. I don’t know how many people I can affect, talk to, or speak to, but the hope is to elevate others. That’s the whole point. And if my audience ends up being people in their 60s, then, yay, I love people in their 60s. If it’s young people, just 18, that’s cool too. But I think just how I write and where I’m at in my life, I’m more in the 20-40 age demographic. That might be a bit wide, but just because of who I’m reaching right now, that’s who I’m trying to get to.
On his life philosophy, summarized in one core idea.
Love, listen, and live... Oh, and learn! Fit that in where it sounds best.
If you’re interested in learning more about Make It Your Own Vegan: