Last year, I tried my hand at the Theme System. It was conceived by CGP Grey of YouTube fame and Myke Hurley of Relay FM fame. I first heard about it while listening to their Cortex podcast. The goal is to throw off the high-pressure, low-results shackles of annual resolutions and instead embrace, as they say, “an idea of how we would like to approach each year or season.”
I think it can be a stellar system if it’s done the right way. In fact, it’s quite hard to do the wrong way, which is nice. Instead of deciding on a single make-or-break goal to complete before the end of the year, you give yourself a guiding principle, or theme, to live by throughout the year. There are no other objectives than to do right by yourself, however that means to you.
Want to live a year of less? Then feel good about cleaning out your closet, buying fewer things, or decreasing the amount of stress you have in your life.
Think a year of gratitude is more up your alley? Be mindful of the things you appreciate and the people in your life.
Or maybe it’s even something like a year of elevation. Raise the needy people around you, or heck, climb a few mountains.
Whatever the case may be, try to adhere to these suggestions:
I tried to live a Year of Growth in 2020. When I came up with the idea, I had my business in mind. I wanted to grow Dandy Cat, garner some attention, and start earning some money. In this way, I did not succeed at living a growth year. The business stagnated,1 and I didn’t grow its audience any larger than it already had been. That was a real disappointment.
It’s taken me a while to understand that a lack of growth in my business doesn’t mean I didn’t live a year of growth. That’s sort of the beautiful thing about the Theme System. It can be vague. Maybe not too vague—there should be some measurable success—but pretty vague. My then-fiancée/now-wife and I moved in together. I learned a lot about my country’s government.2 I started podcasting with a great friend of mine. If that’s not growth, then I don’t know what is.
Getting over the feeling that I didn’t live up to my hopes for the year is a hard thing to accomplish, though. I did a lot of great stuff, but I didn’t achieve what I was hoping for. Did I fail, though? Ultimately, no, I don’t think so—I did a lot of growing!
Maybe I can consider coming to that realization a moment of growth. Hey, extra theme points coming in out of nowhere. Score!
I’m planning on making this year a different story.
2021 is my Year of Understanding.
Last year was rough on just about everybody. I wish it could have been a lot better, but that just wasn’t in the cards for us. Instead, we’ve gotten a rampaging virus, shaky governments, and insane unemployment rates. We’ve all had to face many tough truths about the world and the people in it. It was a banner year for getting smacked in the face by the cold, indifferent hand of the universe.
2020 also gave us all the opportunity for self-reflection, and I hope you took the time to ask yourself some tough questions. Reflecting on the answers you give can allow you to learn more about yourself.
I tried to take advantage of that tumultuous year to ask myself a few questions. These have been on my mind because they’re the most important ones I need to answer at this point of my life. They’re also damn tough to crack, but I’m going to give them a go. I want to answer those questions because I want to gain a greater understanding of the world and my place in it.
To feel accomplished with my Year of Understanding, I’m going to tackle at least four topics:
There’s a lot I don’t understand about my life and the world. Usually, I’ll just feel upset that I don’t have any answers. I’ll also feel upset that I let my lack of understanding get to me. It’s a pretty unpleasant cycle.
Instead of just feeling frustrated about my ignorance, it’s important to do the harder work of learning about these issues. Gaining understanding without trying to earn it is a rare thing. It’s not worth counting on. Instead, understanding is something that needs to be built, maintained, and allowed to flower.
My Year of Understanding may end up being a difficult one. Asking yourself tough questions and giving yourself tough answers is a hard thing to do. Most of the time, we don’t ever want to broach these subjects. They’re painful. There’s a fair chance they’ll take the shine off the images we hold of ourselves.
But what good is living in this world, and surrounding yourself with other people, if you don’t try to be better than you were before?
I want to be a better person, and the first step I need to take is understanding myself more than I do now.
Unfortunately, this was born out of gloom.
My company, Dandy Cat Design, had been an instructional resource intending to help people design their most productive lives ever. Since very nearly the beginning, it’s a blog that I enjoyed working on and sharing with people. I’ll never stop finding it delightful to hear what others think about what I’ve published. I’ve written a fair amount about starting a blog, why I think a blog is just as meaningful as ever, and why it’s important to start your own (if writing is something you want to do). I won’t get into that again here.
Dandy Cat Design has been lots of things since its inception. The business began as a Squarespace website design service. It then became a place for me to sell Squarespace CSS plugins and business building guides. Most recently, it turned into a blog bent toward the topic of productivity.
The whole thing, too, was born out of the gloom I felt after the death of my father in February 2018.
I put more hours than I can count (mostly because I don’t do a good job of tracking my working time) into Dandy Cat Design. It’s been a tool that’s given me a weekly routine, a creative outlet, and many tasks on which to focus. Unfortunately, it’s also never really caught on and snowballed into the financially stable business I hoped it would become.
This has been discouraging for me, to say the least.
A couple of years into working on Dandy Cat Design, I discovered an educational course from someone named Melyssa Griffin. It’s called Pinfinite Growth. Its intention is to help you grow awareness of and engagement with your business by flooding Pinterest with images of your blog posts/products/website. Stick with it long enough and you may just have the chance to catch the attention of Pinterest’s algorithm. Once you accomplish that, the growth potential can be huge. I started the program because I saw it as a way to bring attention and money to my work. Unfortunately, the only increased engagement I saw with Pinterest was from sharing other people’s content. My website saw no significant uptick in visitors.
(On a side note, Ms. Griffin recently sent out a notice that she’ll no longer be developing or offering this course. She still believes in the power of Pinterest, but she’s focusing on other aspects of her business. She’s come to understand that teaching others how to game an uncaring algorithm isn’t quite as important as helping them become better business people, from the inside out.)
The gloom I felt set in soon after seeing a negative turn in my analytics on Pinterest. Results for a course like the one I took are never guaranteed—how could they be?—but it was still frustrating to pay for it, follow the recommendations, and not succeed.
I felt aimless and stuck, much like I did in my early 20s when I had no idea what the hell I wanted to do.
In truth, Dandy Cat Design wasn’t created to be fulfilling in one of those deep down, personal ways. It was created to make money. If I could one day feel personally fulfilled by whatever work I do, then that would just be a cherry on top of my life sundae.
Speaking this way tends to feel blasphemous to certain kinds of creative people who have been told by other creative people that their art should always come before, and sometimes in place of, earning a living.
Art above all else. Righteous fists to the sky, and all.
The thinking is that creativity should be all about The Struggle. Without The Struggle, how will you ever be able to understand the grinding, dismal truth of the world—life is pain. Without The Struggle, how will you be able to know how to display that truth in your work?
The general feeling is, if you’re having a rough go at it, then good job! You’re doing art the proper way. Alternatively, If you become successful, then you’re a sell out. Nobody ever mentions that money helps alleviate the need for The Struggle, but then, if everyone had enough money to be comfortable, how could the richest people ever bank more wealth?
It’s a damn shame that artists have let themselves be tricked into thinking their work should be done only for noble reasons, instead of also a paycheck.
I got closer to my 30s than I should have before I realized what a load of harmful nonsense that is. I spent too many years wanting to just create things, and damn the lack of compensation. My art would sustain me!
I wanted to be an actor. No, a cinematographer. No, an illustrator. No, a web designer. No, a… And so on. I leapfrogged from interest to interest without a thought of what I would do to keep from drowning when I finally landed on something at which I had some talent.
I’m supportive of art and its creation, but you’re going to have a hard time creating art if you’re not able to pay for life. The world isn’t really set up, at least not now, to help people who don’t already have some cash in their bank accounts. Life is going to be damn tough if you don’t have at least one eye on the money ball. Money may be the root of all evil, as they say, but it’s also the genesis of life, happiness, and freedom.
I don’t know what will ultimately become of Dandy Cat. Try as I might, I’m still unable to see into the future (which is a shame because I’d really like to win the lottery). Perhaps this place will wither away to nothing in the future. Maybe it’ll click with the right people and become the uncontrollable snowball of success I think it should be.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for the second one. That would be really cool.
What I do know is, if I’m intent on wanting to create things right now, I need to do it for good reasons. My driving force with Dandy Cat was to become financially independent doing something I enjoy. That’s a fine reason to do anything. While I started it in the hopes of making money, there was also a stink of desperation around my actions. That’s not a good reason to do anything.
Behind every decision I’ve made has been a thick thrum of anxiety. It sounded like this:
“I hope this will all finally work out for me.”
“I hope this move will let me pay off my student loans before I’m dead.”
“I really hope getting into Pinterest will help me reach the point where I don’t have to keep depending on other people for money.”
Basing my decisions off fear instead of level-headed introspection was never going to be a good idea. I usually don’t like the outcome of those choices. I’ve learned that what I’ve done with Dandy Cat up to this point hasn’t helped alleviate my anxiety. In fact, it was growing anxiety, and I was losing interest in the business because of that.
What can I do to make Dandy Cat healthier for me in the long term? What’s a good reason to keep this going? Those are probably the most important questions I need to answer.
I recently took some significant time off to relax, think a lot, and figure out what would be best for me. I also got married, but that’s a whole other big topic. During that time off, I learned that Dandy Cat as it had been before my break was not bringing me fulfillment or happiness. In fact, it was beginning to feel like the sort of work that I don’t want to do. If I can create something, then I should make sure it’s to my liking.
I realized that what I was writing about and sharing—namely productivity tips and tricks—were, at best, only bandages applied over a greater issue. I wasn’t discussing why someone would and should want to become more organized and productive. Instead, I was suggesting that cleaning out your junk drawer would totally transform your life. Not only is that untrue, but it’s irresponsible. I was following the lead of so many other bloggers out there—only discussing tools and not issues. Junk drawers aren’t the underlying problem; the problem is deeper down. Coming to this conclusion helped me reach another one: I like being organized and productive in my life, but I don’t particularly feel like writing about it. Not weekly, anyway.
I feel like I shoehorned the topic of productivity into Dandy Cat’s stated mission. When I settled on productivity and organization, it was because it felt like a popular topic at the time. Hey, it was working for Marie Kondo, so why couldn’t it work for me? I didn’t choose it because that’s what I’m thinking about all day, every day. Instead, I chose it for superficial reasons and that’s why my enthusiasm for it waned.
Now, I want to do what’s healthier for me, and that means writing about whatever the hell I want to write about. I’m more interested in Apple, technology, movies, tv shows, music, books, podcasts, animals, my life, and yes, sometimes even a cool new task manager app. I’m impressed with and love the work John Gruber does on Daring Fireball, Jason Snell does on Six Colors, and Jason Kottke does on kottke.org. I don’t mean to be a facsimile of them, but I do mean to try to live up to the quality of their work.
I’m at a different place now. I want to know what it feels like to do something for the gosh darn, roll around, throw confetti in the air joy of it. If I want to continue creating things, I need to do it for my enjoyment first. That means figuring out what I really like talking about and publishing that. It’s probably not going to be cleaning tips.
Furthermore, this may mean that Dandy Cat isn’t my only job. Remember, money is still important.
I’m also going to pull the trigger on something I wrote about in a Dandy Newsletter a while back: Dandy Cat Design is now, simply, Dandy Cat. It’s cleaner and now more representative of the topics I’ll be talking about, or rather, won’t be talking about. The word “design” doesn’t fit anymore, so it should go. From now on, you can go to dandy.cat to find my work.
Writing this has been cathartic. I can’t think of a clearer sign that I should do more of it.
I can’t promise myself that I’ll remain gloom-free forever, but I can turn that feeling into something healing and meaningful. I can try to walk out of the gloom and into the sunlight.
And hey, I didn’t need to eat an enormous carton of ice cream to feel better either.
Happy belated birthday to me! If you’ve got an iPad Pro, I couldn’t recommend this keyboard enough. It’s everything I was hoping for and more. I think this iPad is now my favorite computer ever (and I had some pre-butterfly keyboard MacBook Pros).
Happy birthday to both myself and, as is my annual tradition, Robert Pattinson. We’re both turning 34 today. He continues to be the best friend I have that doesn’t know I exist. Hats off to us! 🎂🎉