The tools I use to build a better life

One of the great disappointments of our formal education system is that it does not effectively prepare us for life.

I’m not talking about our careers, but messy, uncomfortable, terrifying, marvelous life.

The core subjects in school are mathematics, science, Language Arts and social studies, but when I think about the core subjects of my life, I think of my relationships, purpose, adventure and exploration.

What kind of world would we live in if we intentionally learned how to have good relationships, how to give and receive love, how to live with empathy, how to be vulnerable and what vulnerability really is, the price of shame, the impact of media, how to understand our emotions and how to build habits and behaviors to give us more happiness and satisfaction in life? I firmly believe it would be a better one.

Although I believe the good school teachers try to address some of these ideas and behaviors, we simply do not have an infrastructure in the U.S. to teach these things, and I’m not certain the formal school setting is the best place. Religion has been a way to teach some of these things for hundreds of years, but we’re living in an age when fewer and fewer people are actively religious.

Perhaps we’ve thought our parents can teach us these things or we’ll naturally pick them up as we grow up. I have not found the latter to be the case (in fact, quite the opposite), and not all of our parents have these things down. We need a village, as the saying goes, and we need to learn these lessons again and again.

As a deep thinker and naturally curious person, I’ve used the resources around me to delve deep into the psychology and sociology of our culture.

And I’m not alone. With the popularity and rise of organizations such as TED and a desperate desire of many of us to throw off the “shoulds” and “supposed tos,” there is a wealth of information available if we want to take up our own education.

The more I understand about myself, shame, vulnerability, emotional intelligence and the impact of history on our current society and culture, the more calm I am and the more adept I am at navigating through life with satisfaction and sanity.

Simply accepting stress and anxiety is enough to feel less stressed and anxious.

My expectations are essentially lower, or in a nicer phrase, more realistic. For example, I don’t expect a relationship to complete me (thank you, Disney, for helping perpetuate that myth). If I cannot be whole on my own, another person cannot make me whole, and counting on that is dangerous. We ask an awful lot from our relationships: lover, best friend, business partner, servant (when it comes to chores, even sharing them), cheerleader, co-parent — the list goes on. Can we honestly expect all of this from one person? No. So let’s stop trying and figure out a healthier way to have a relationship.

These are the tools I use to understand, change my perceptions, build new practices and habits and, ultimately, build a better life:

TED talks

The first TED talk I stumbled upon was Susan Cain’s revolutionary talk, “The power of introverts.” Although I already knew I was an introvert and valued it, her talk helped explain why people saw me as reserved or aloof, why my job is so exhausting and how I can better manage my personality in this extroverted world. Her work helped me understand why I felt so conflicted about my desire to stay in on a Friday night rather than going out to the bar (I’ve since stopped feeling guilty about staying in). If you are interested in introversion, check out Susan’s new endeavor, Quiet Revolution.

Brené Brown’s talks on vulnerability and shame actually changed my life. I had been one of those folks who perpetuated the”vulnerability is weakness” trope without realizing I actually lived a life of great vulnerability and courage; all I had to do was change my perspective. Her talks also showed me how shame damages all of us, and that’s made me a better feminist and human being.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk “We should all be feminists” was not as personally revolutionary for me because I agreed with everything she said. This was the talk that I share because Chimamanda so eloquently voiced my own views on feminism. Her first talk, “The danger of a single story” is another must-watch about stereotypes and judgement.

My other favorites include Taiye Selasi’s thought-provoking talk on locality and nationality, “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local“; Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s funny, honest talk on unconscious bias, “What does my headscarf mean to you?“; and Colin Stokes’ frank talk “How movies teach manhood“.

Nicole Antoinette

I found Nicole’s work through her former blog, A Life Less Bullshit. She swears and is honest, funny and awesome. She’s transformed her website into a new brand with her own name and has a great podcast called “Real Talk Radio.” It’s about being authentic, creating good habits, running, health, mental health and more.

The Book of Life

My newest find, and a glorious one at that. The website has piles of content connecting history, work, education, government, economics, love and relationships to psychology and growing our emotional intelligence. I cannot describe how excited I was to find this website and have only begun to scratch the surface of it.


I live and breathe stories. Media can be dangerous in promoting unrealistic expectations of love, what we look like and how we life. But like anything, the stories we create through books, TV shows, movies and music can provide fascinating glimpses into the human condition.

Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice offers an incredibly interesting take on relationships and how we can so easily judge one another. There’s a reason this novel resonates with people even two hundred years after she wrote it.

Star Trek may seem like a show about space travel and adventures, but at its core, Star Trek is an examination of the human condition. The Prime Directive of Star Fleet is a philosophy I believe we can all live by. The characters in Star Trek deal with cultures and people that are vastly different and must learn to deal with them effectively without imposing their own beliefs and values onto others, even if they have private reservations. Captain Picard is the ideal leader, and I take away lessons on leadership and life from him. It doesn’t matter that he isn’t real. Plus, Klingons.

Adichie’s novel Americanah taught me about life as an immigrant and non-American black in the U.S., making me think about race in America in a more personal way. The main character, Ifemelu, also reminds me about the likability of women–and its dangers-because she’s not focused on likability and being nice to please others.


Writing in a journal (I hate the term “journaling”), a notebook and a Google Doc help me throughout my days to work through my emotions and feelings in a helpful way. It’s not venting so much as laying everything out so I can look at it more calmly and rationally. Writing by hand makes me think and move more slowly, and it’s incredibly relaxing. My journals are not transcriptions of my day, but of my feelings in my experiences. I keep a Piccadilly notebook with me at all times for random scribblings, essays and poems on any number of subjects where ever I am. Having a notebook in an airport or a dentist’s waiting room is much more interesting than scrolling through Twitter on my phone.

Habits and rituals

Finally, my regular habits and rituals: Running, making tea, gratitude and heading to my cabin in the North woods. These are the actions in my life that provide me with stability and tranquility. We all need anchors in our life to return to in times of anxiety, sadness and stress.

Running provides a place for me to have adventures and explore both the outer world and my inner world. Training is a massive commitment, and running marathons is one way I achieve my dreams.

Making tea is a simple thing; there’s something wonderful about heating water in a kettle, warming the pot and steeping loose tea. Tea is a calming ritual.

I take a minute or two each day to think about what I’m grateful for. This works to make me happier every day.

As an introvert, I find I need to get away from the chaos of the world. The woods are a perfect place for me to relax and let my brain rest. I need constant recharging, and I’m grateful to have a place to go.

These tools have helped me immeasurably. What have you found that works? I’d love to hear about them.


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