Writing Recipes for New Learning and Personal Growth

Typically, I don’t follow recipes. I like to reference a few, come up with my own twist on how to make something, and then learn through trial and error. At other times, I follow the recipe as closely as possible. After building some confidence (and maybe a fraction of competence) making it a few times, then I start to experiment with other options. Don’t get me wrong. I’m rarely in the kitchen, and I tend to make things that don’t require much of a recipe. Recently, while transitioning jobs and living away from my family for an extended period, I lived off of 3 smoothies a day, the exact same smoothie for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As much as I seek out and value new challenges and experiences, sometimes I have so much novelty and change in my life that it is nice to not have to think about something like what I will eat that day.

Over the last ten years, I’ve been spending a great deal of time creating and then following a different type of recipe. In fact, I’ve created and tested well over a hundred of them. I don’t typically use the word “recipe”, but I’ve come to learn that the word connects with people’s prior experience, making it easier to grasp than while I typically call them, which are “life experiments.”

It started when I discovered this beautiful intersection between three areas of interest: 1) emerging research about well-being from positive psychology, 2) my intrigue with alternative and innovative education practices, and 3) my ongoing value for ancient wisdom and practices that seem to transcend time and place. This occurred around the same time that my son was born and I suddenly experienced an existential crisis about my own mortality (that is a story for another time). Those closest to me know that it was not my best moment, but it did motivate me to explore research on well-being, gratitude, grit, having a growth mindset, and so much more.

The more I read, the more I wanted to read and learn. Only I knew that my current personal crisis needed more than reading and new knowledge. I needed to cultivate new habits and ways of being. That meant turning some of this knowledge into practical experiments that I could conduct to see if they could help me learn, grow, and work through some of this new anxiety and depression that competed for my time and attention. There is more to this story, but I’ll save that for the introduction to yet another book that I’m working on tentatively called The 12 Quests.

[For the record, I’ve never enjoyed a writing project more than this one, and it is completely different than anything that I’ve written before. Of course, true to form, it is slowed by the fact that I realized that I needed to write a second book to explain the vision and philosophy behind the first book, and that is the one that I’ll likely finish first. That one is tentatively called, Breathe: 7 Priorities for Inspired Living. If there are any editors or publishers reading this, no I don’t have a contract yet, and yes, I would love to explore the possibilities with you.]

Back to the point of this article. So I started to take these positive psychology (and other) ideas about well-being, and I wrote out recipes for how I could test them in my life. I came up with recipes for things like:

  • experiencing more wonder in my life by watching sunrises and sunsets,
  • cultivating more optimism by bedtime journaling,
  • gaining motivation and order by making my bed in the morning,
  • showing more appreciation and experiencing more connection with others by sending daily thank you messages to people,
  • creating more times to celebrate the small things in my life,
  • systematically overcoming specific fears,
  • adding more gratitude and mindfulness by taking daily pictures of things for which I am grateful,
  • cultivating and planning for new experiences (there is a TON of research about the importance and benefits of novelty and new experiences, by the way),
  • and the list goes on, to now what is well over a hundred different life experiments.

Each recipe or life experiment included 3 to 10 steps, and I tried to make any critical element explicit. For example, I quickly realized that, to ensure follow through, I needed to add steps in each recipe for planning and scheduling. That might mean a step like, “Create a list of 10 possibilities, and then narrow it down to the 1 that you want to use for this experiment.” and “Now that you have your plan, block off 30 minutes on your calendar for each of the next 10 days.” I also included steps that reminded me to pause and journal about what I’m observing, feeling, thinking, experiencing, and learning (an incredibly important step!). At the end of each recipe, I created a “tips” section where I recorded words of encouragement, suggestions for working through what I anticipated to be potential roadblocks, etc. I also added to the tips section after each experiment, giving myself reminders for the next time.

The more I wrote recipes, the more I figured out what worked best for me. I got it down to an art, science, or maybe a blend of the two. What I know for sure is that I become intrigued by writing recipes for myself and then testing them out, sometimes refining them a couple times. I rarely shared these experiments with others. I’ve historically shared so much about my life on this blog and elsewhere, that I enjoyed keeping this one part of my life to myself (that is until now, as I’m working on the new books).

I’ve also decided to start sharing my past, present, and some of my forthcoming recipes or life experiments on a separate blog to see if others might be interested in trying out some of the recipes as well. If that interests you, head over the the What is in the Air? Blog. At the time of writing this, What is in the Air? is less than a year old. Since I have so many recipes scribbled in a dozen or more of my old idea journals, I’m beginning to transfer some of them to the digital world, and I’m excited to see if others might like to try them out, give some feedback, or maybe even suggest some of their own recipes / life experiments.

So much of modern education is biased toward knowledge acquisition, but so much significant change happens when we convert knowledge into habits, practices, rituals, and direct experiences. This recipe / life experiment approach is my effort to bridge those two worlds.

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