Peeling the Onion
I like to think of writing as peeling layers from the onion of my mind. Each layer is meaningful, but it is just one layer of many.
This framing suggests not taking any single layer too seriously, for there are so many others to come. When I look at writing in this way, it fills me with the energy of curiosity. I become genuinely interested to unveil the mystery of myself.
If what I’m writing now is just the outer layers, what lies hidden beneath?
What will I be writing about twenty layers from now? How about a hundred, or a thousand? When I think of writing this way, it becomes a fun game of mystery, where publishing is more of a side effect than a goal, like beating a level to reveal the next world.
Curiosity is a powerful driving force. It’s deeply personal, and so when we follow it, there is an intrinsic joy and satisfaction that makes the journey worth it. It is a mode of being that is conducive to joy. Seth Godin once shared that “You can’t be curious and angry at the same time.” When we choose curiosity, we choose a mode of being that is conducive to joy, and averse to anger. I try to choose it as often as possible, and center my creativity around it.
This ‘peeling process’ does not happen automatically. One has to intentionally approach writing from a personal lens—reflecting, exploring, and revealing the truths of ourselves. This doesn’t mean only writing about ourselves and our experiences. It is the lens that matters, not what the lens is looking at.
When you share your view of the world, you reveal yourself through the things you notice (and the things you don’t.)
When I wrote Finding the Courage to be Disliked (an essay about the book The Courage to be Disliked), instead of just writing a book review or summary, I wrote about my own personal struggles, and shared only the specific ideas within the book that strongly influenced me. I ended up learning about myself in the process of writing it, and it made for more engaging reading.
I’ve been taking an introspective approach to my writing for several years now, and it’s become an incredible part of my own personal growth. At first, it felt challenging to share personal stories—I was tempted to stick to the safety of sharing abstract ideas. But over time it became easier, like exercising a muscle. And the more I did it, the more interesting places my writing took me.
I want to focus on two key benefits to this approach: making space in the mind to invite the unknown, and building self-awareness to fuel self-improvement.
Making Space for What’s Next
There is gold to be found in the hills of the unknown. The problem is most of us don’t have the the space let it in. We’re too busy carrying around all of our existing thoughts, worries, and work. The backpack of our mind is too full—we simply don’t have the space for anything new.
But what if we could lighten our load? What if we could lose some of the rattling junk that is always tied to us, hanging on to us, haunting us?
Writing is the ultimate mental spring cleaning. The deeper we dive into ourselves, the heavier the incision we can make, the fatter the load we can shed. We can write to let go of the weights we carry around.
There’s a catch, though: We don’t know what our writing might reveal. We can’t predict where it will take us. And yet, it’s the mystery that makes it fun.
Looking back, I now see connections in the chaos of my own writing journey. What seemed like a bunch of random things I explored for fun are now points in a long thread that lead to where I am today. Life is funny like that. It’s tempting to look back now, and say, “See? That is why I did all the random stuff.” But that would be rewriting history. I had no idea where these things would go.
The key was to keep publishing. Even when I wasn’t sure where I was going, I kept walking. I had to learn to trust the unknown.
Back when I first started my blog, I figured I’d be writing about startups, because I’ve spent most of my life building them. I wrote a couple of posts on leadership and hiring, but quickly found that I didn’t really want to be writing about that. And so, a period of emptiness formed. Through that emptiness, something else started to appear—I began writing about self-awareness, creativity, and philosophy. I had let go of the ideas I thought I “should” be writing, and made space for what I really wanted to write.
The emptiness made my mind feel comfortable enough to wander, to roam the empty fields like a dog let loose.
One day, I was on a walk, and a story about a bird appeared in my mind. I hadn’t written stories before, so it was quite unexpected. But there it was, clear as day. I realized that it wasn’t just any story, there was a special lesson in it—it was related to an idea I wanted to write about, but couldn’t quite express. Unlike my essays, this story expressed the idea in an abstract form. I had found a new form factor for ideas—fiction. I sat down later that week, and wrote a draft of the story. It would end up being the first of many fables I would write. Many months later, I would begin writing and illustrating a book of fables. I’m now a year in, deep into the editing process. I can’t wait for you to read it!
If you asked me a couple of years ago what kinds of things I’d be writing, fiction would not have appeared on the list. Such is the mystery of the mind, when we let it run free.
Sometimes we need to write about things simply to get them out of our system, to prevent them from rattling in our minds for eternity. We need to make space for what’s next.
Self-Awareness is Public Service
Beyond the friendships and the opportunities, introspective writing is a superpower for self-awareness. It’s like an attentive friend that asks me interesting questions, listens carefully, and helps me grow as a person. The more I write, the more I learn about myself. In doing so, I become increasingly self-aware.
But the benefits of self-awareness are not limited to the self. When I change my understanding of myself, I change the way I view my own actions, and (usually) I change my behavior as a result. By altering myself, I alter the person I present to others. When I see myself more clearly, I am in stronger alignment with reality, and present to others more authentically.
Self-improvement seems like it’s focused on the self, but it is also a service to others.
When we improve ourselves, everyone around us reaps the rewards.
As I look back on my writing journey, I’m reminded of an essay I wrote years ago on the value of working in public, Why Bother, in which I wrote about following my curiosity:
Sometimes I feel like I’m walking in a desert clouded with dust. I want to know what’s on the horizon, but I can’t see how I’ll get there. This is my challenge, and in it lies my opportunity.
For now, all I can do is keep walking.
So here I am, years later, still walking, peeling another layer of my onion, trying not to cry.
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy:
- Versioning Myself — We contain multitudes, and by embracing them we become fully alive. But instead of doing everything all at once, we can let some parts ourselves hibernate, while others blossom into their springs.
- Listen to Yourself — We notice the most subtle cues from the world around us. Yet we miss the signals that come from within. With a little courage and a lot of practice, we can learn to follow the guidance of our inner North Star.