The Importance of Personal Projects, Goal Guidelines, and Creative Courage
What if I told you that in as little as five minutes a day over 100 days, you could significantly improve your craft?
Last year, I wrote 100 haikus in as many days as part of the 100 Day Project (a personal challenge to do something creative for 100 days in a row). I shared them on my Instagram account, and at the end of it all, I realized I had grown my creative confidence and skill level significantly. It felt so good, in fact, that this year I wanted to do it again.
This time around, I decided to find a new word each day — a brand new word; a crazy word; a familiar word I’d never taken time to find the meaning of. And then I’d write a sentence or paragraph or poem using that word in a way that resonated with me. It meant that I would be writing every single day, something I’ve found helpful in keeping my creativity tendrils green.
I pride myself on being a wordsmith. It’s what I do for a living; it’s the thing that makes me a passionate and excited human. But I don’t kid myself into thinking that there aren’t thousands of words out there I’ve never heard before or have been using incorrectly my entire life. (Example: I left for university thinking that “torque” meant water pressure because it’s the word my family had used growing up. I’d never looked it up, because why would I? My new engineering friends looked at me pityingly when I told them our dorm room showers had surprisingly good torque.)
So what if I took the one thing that I felt like I might be an almost-expert in and totally flipped that skill on its head? What if I manufactured a royally humbling experience to continually improve myself? That’s where this challenge began.
I told myself that with my two word-of-the-day calendars (one at home, one at work, naturally) and my avid reading habit, it would be easy to find a word to use each day. I was right in the sense that I was able to find a word each day. But of course it wasn’t easy.
Finding a word each day
For starters, little did I know how picky I am about words! I’d usually scoff at my daily calendars’ suggestions. Most were too obscure, too obvious, or just plain ugly. I wanted words that ricocheted around the walls of my brain because they were too striking to be forgotten; words that were so beautiful that I couldn’t help but read them aloud.
I started a practice of looking up every. single. word. I came across that was unfamiliar to me. Even if I thought I knew the word and would be able to give a vague definition, I’d look it up. I can’t even tell you how many times I Googled “define ______” on my phone, or how many screenshotted definitions I now have in my camera reel.
There were words I’d always thought I’d understood, when really I had no concept of their depth. I found new meanings for common words; words so specific that they summed up an entire paragraph of emotions or concepts. Some were from other cultures. Some were storytelling words. Some were just plain weird, and some were words that most people have heard in some capacity, without understanding the entirely of their usage opportunities (like “tough” which can be used as a noun, as in a “young tough”).
There were words I thought I knew inside and out, that I didn’t really understand at all. It was an interesting journey to understanding that I don’t need to be the one with all the answers, and that often, asking questions is more valuable.
Each day, I chose my word and paused to think about how I wanted to use it. I’d often write a couple of drafts before ultimately choosing one. Context is so important — for example, on Canada Day I looked for a word that meant something similar to patriotic and found “jingoism.” I almost used it, because it’s fun to say, before realizing that there is a definite derogatory connotation to that word.
When I came up with a draft I liked and a design I was okay with (thanks for the help with that, Notegraphy), I’d publish. The narcissist within would wait for the “likes” — the number of people who would give validation to my project. They came few and far between. I had some incredible supporters who provided messages of encouragement along the way, but external validation can’t be your primary driving force for a truly creative project.
What I realized is that it is so, so easy to double-tap an image of a good time; a lakeside, a selfie, a sweaty drink. There’s no real commitment involved; you just press the little heart and move on. It’s a little, “So cute!” or “So cool!” that you give with very little on the line.
My project, however, was sometimes more difficult to like. By that I mean that “the ask” (having people “like” what I posted) was much more significant. I think maybe people felt weird about double-tapping on a dark piece of prose. Or a word they were like, “What the fuck?” about. What’s awesome is that many people privately messaged me mentioning how interested they were in my project. But publicly, it wasn’t the type of thing most people were prepared to support.
This ended up being super helpful once I got over it. I learned not to gauge my day’s success based on how many people vouched for my entry. It became all about what it felt like internally. Did I feel proud of what I’d written? Did I at least not cringe when I reread it later on? There were some days, looking back now, where I’m really proud of what I came up with… and other days, not so much. But at least I was creating something that was mine.
The importance of goals
One trait that most highly successful people have in common is the practice of writing down their objectives. Not just having goals, but actually committing to them publicly. We are such social beasts that things that only exist inside our own heads may as well not exist at all. Get those dreams down on paper, in your phone, or on your laptop. (If you need a tool to help do this, Best Self Co. has a journal that will guide you through everything you need to know to set an effective goal.)
I think too many people wait for New Year’s Eve to roll around before thinking about goals they want to, and will, accomplish for themselves. I also think that some people make the mistake of setting goals that are too large, without tackling smaller stepping stones that allow you to actually achieve them.
The 100 Days Project has not only taught me the value of setting goals for myself, but also some best practices to actually set myself up for success with those goals. Because really, setting a goal itself is nothing to be proud of. It’s the grunt work that allows you to get there that should really be celebrated.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about setting goals:
- Write it down and post it somewhere. Probably your bedroom. Maybe your bathroom or your desk. Put it somewhere you will see it every day. Alongside my official 100 Day Challenge, I set myself a bunch of other goals for that same timeframe — to work out five times per week, to read at least two books per month, to ride a horse at least once, to finish sanding and staining bookshelves for my massive library that will soon turn me into a real life Belle from Beauty and the Beast… I’ve hit a surprisingly large number of these goals because they were staring me in the face each and every day.
- Embrace the BHAG. That stands for big, hairy, audacious goal. It’s the one that seems crazy; the one that makes you giggle nervously every time you look at or think about it. Stretch goals are important, because they extend what you are capable of. You may rarely hit them, but holy shit, when you do.
- You need a timeframe. Don’t just tell yourself you’re going to do something, tell yourself when you’re going to have it done. Make sure it’s realistic — you don’t want to beat yourself up because you weren’t able to accomplish it in a month (when you would have been able to do it in two). Otherwise, it remains this abstract, swirling concept in your brain that you never really hold yourself to because there is always still time to do it.
- Accountability counts. If I hadn’t publicly announced I’d be defining a new word every day, I’m sure I would have dropped off. There were days when the last thing I wanted to do was find a word and write something. Those are like the days when you’re like, “You know, I thought about going to the gym, but I’m not feeling that great, so maybe I won’t go today.” Announcing goals out loud is the equivalent of signing up for a paid workout class; you’d feel like an idiot if you missed it. Eventually and hopefully you will learn that you, yes you, are important enough not to let down, but until then (and even after), it’s okay to recognize that you may be more motivated by not letting other people down.
- No one is as interested in your goals as you are. Don’t set goals for glory. Set them for the things that make you come alive. Because, as stated in my favourite quote of all time from Howard Thurman, what the world needs is people who have come alive. Don’t worry about how many people “like” your goals or acknowledge how hard you’ve worked to achieve them. It comes down to you, and the type of person you are constructing yourself to be.
Here are a few of my favourites from throughout the hundred days:
…. Aaaaand in the interest of self-deprecation, I thought, why not embarrass myself by pointing out some of my creative flops?
These ones are from those quirky days where I couldn’t resist flashing my inner weirdo.
I can’t say I wasn’t relieved when my 100 days were up. Some days I was totally inspired, and some days I carried out the exercise as if it were a chore; as if I was cleaning the cat litter. But I still did it.
The importance of being true to the things you want to accomplish is immense. If you don’t pause to work on yourself, to dedicate yourself to learning new things, guess what? No one is going to do it for you. Once you’re out of school, no one will stand up at the front of the room and tell you what you should be trying to learn. You need to actively seek out your education, and by that I mean all the new things and concepts and words that you digest in your brain to make you a better and different person than you were the day before.
We are made for learning and growing. Sometimes when we get busy, we think we’re accomplishing a lot, when really we’re just checking the standard to-dos off our list. Don’t forget to challenge yourself. Don’t forget what it feels like to be so, so uncomfortable in your skin because you’re in totally uncharted territory. Those moments are the ones that will have the greatest impact on you, I promise.
What about you?
I hope you can relate to my word project in some way. A lot of this is just for me, so that I know I’m learning; that I’m charting my progress and taking steps towards improving myself. But the less selfish part of me hopes that maybe it’ll help you, too.
So I’ll leave you with a personal challenge of your own: What goal or task could you realistically accomplish every day for 100 days that would help improve you as a person, an academic, or a creative? Write it down. Get to work. I know you’ll be glad you did.