The Year of Getting Messy, and Four Things I Learned in the Sandbox

The Year of Getting Messy, and Four Things I Learned in the Sandbox

Written by Kristin Wong

Topics: Adventure

“Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.”  

Gandhi didn’t say that; neither did Oprah. Tim Ferriss? Close, but nope.

One of my all-time favorite role models, Ms. Frizzle, was an eccentric 4th-grade science teacher at Walkerville Elementary School. She drove her students around on a Magic School Bus, where they would sometimes travel back in time. With a lizard! As a kid, this cartoon was my after-school ritual: Capri Sun, some stale chips I found in the cupboard, and the The Magic School Bus.

Years later, this ridiculously simple mantra comes to mind more than any motivational quote I’ve ever read: Take chances, make mistakes, get messy. I’ve always been pretty good at the first two. I take chances all the time, and mistakes—oh, I make plenty of those.

But getting messy? As a box-checking, list-making, organization-is-my-middle-name neat freak, I’ve never been great at getting messy. In a way, I admire my free-spirited friends with their unorganized lives and chaotic workspaces. (Seriously, papers everywhere. It’s like a hamster cage.) But that’s just not me.

Why You Need to Get Messy

But this past year was different. After finishing a marathon career milestone—writing my first book—I found myself wondering, “now what?” only to realize I enjoy pursuing things more than I do reaching finish lines. So I needed a new pursuit, something new to sink my teeth into.

New pursuits shouldn’t be a problem for multipods—we’re people who thrive on trying new, different things—but it can be tough to figure out which of those things is worth the challenge. You might like animals, photography, astronomy, cooking, and travel, but what are you most passionate about?

That’s the question of the hour, and I don’t think you find the answer sitting behind a computer all day, mindlessly carrying out the same routine.  So this year, I vowed to climb into the sandbox, tinker around a bit, and get a little messy. Here are some of my takeaways from a messy 2018.

Lesson #1: Say Yes to Things That Scare You

After you write a book, sometimes you have to talk about that book. Publicly, in front of real, actual human beings. Sometimes even crowds of them. Yikes.

Like many people, I’m terrified of public speaking, so when I was invited to speak at a few different conferences this year, I thought of a million reasons why I couldn’t do it: I was done promoting my book. I didn’t have time. They didn’t pay enough.

These were legitimate reasons to turn down the opportunity, but my gut told me to summon my inner Shonda Rhimes and say yes anyway. Despite the handful of perfectly good reasons to say no, I could think of one excellent reason to say yes: It was an opportunity to conquer a fear.

And I had every reason to be afraid. At a women’s money retreat in New York, I talked so fast that my speech was fifteen minutes too short. During a conference, my inner Texan came out and I used the word y’alls in front of hundreds of East-coasters—I could almost hear the room cringe. At a bookstore in my hometown, I read a joke from my book and looked up, getting ready to take in the roaring laughter…

The entire room stared back at me, blankly.

I felt like a mess, but I continued to pursue these gigs. Each time I flopped, I used what I learned to troubleshoot the next one, until finally, I found myself working a room full of hundreds of people at a conference in Boston. This is tinkering at its finest—doing something just for the challenge, just for the sake of understanding it. Maybe it turns into something, maybe it doesn’t.

I have no plans to be the next Tony Robbins or Brené Brown, but that’s kind of the point. I tried something new, learned new skills, and had a good time doing it. And in the future, maybe I’ll apply my new speaking skills to something else I enjoy doing, like teaching.

If your goal is to get a little messy, fear is a good indicator that you should do something. The kids on that magic bus were always terrified, but they had great adventures.

Lesson #2: Not Everything Has to Be a Hustle

In May, my husband and I took an epic trip to Quito, Ecuador, and then to the Galapagos Islands. It was a childhood dream come true. And I nearly ruined it with my workaholism.

My book published a couple of months before we left, and it wasn’t selling quite as well as I hoped. Maybe if I just promoted it harder, I thought. So I became obsessed with the hustle— expanding my reach, building my platform, bolstering my influence. Hustle culture lends itself to an obsession with metrics like social media followers, blog traffic, and rankings. I checked my book rankings several times a day and compared myself to other writers and authors. I couldn’t stop checking my email, looking for notifications, thinking about numbers.

My obsession hit a peak when I found myself lying awake one night in Quito, not thinking about the delicious empanadas we had earlier that day or the cloudy mountains we trekked across. Nope, I was thinking about work. Who was emailing me, and what my online metrics looked like.

Hustling was killing my spirit, and I had to stop.

For the rest of the year, I stopped trying to turn everything into work. After my trip, when a friend wanted to launch a podcast, we did it without a big end goal in mind. We set deadlines, sure. And yeah, we wanted people to listen. But mostly, it was an experiment. And our only mission was to explore the topic and share what we learned with other people. So that’s what we did, and we had fun playing around in that sandbox. If it were a hustle, I don’t think we would have enjoyed it nearly as much.

Sure, sometimes, you have to hustle. I wanted to publish a book and selling that book and following the numbers is part of the deal. But I didn’t have to ruin my vacation over it—that part was on me. Hustling doesn’t have to be so unpleasant. You can even enjoy it if you don’t take it too seriously. But if like me, you have a bad habit of turning everything into a job, it’s good to pull back and try to just have fun with stuff.

Lesson #3: Do Things Without Finish Lines

When you put a finish line on things you enjoy, it’s sort of like giving yourself an expiration date for fun. As an ambitious person, I naturally crave finish lines, but they also take me out of the moment. Instead of focusing on how pleasant it is to write with a cup of tea in my office, I’m focused on reaching a BIG ASS GOAL. It’s like speed reading a really good book. I rush through the best parts to get to the end, but when I get there, I’m bummed because it’s over.

Okay, sometimes finish lines unavoidable—a book has a due date, the speaking gig is over, your project has a strict deadline. But this is precisely why I think it’s important to play with activities that don’t have finish lines. If you like to write, but your writing has a due date, add some freewriting time in your schedule.

Or just flex your play muscle with a totally different activity. I’ve always enjoyed photography, for instance, and part of the reason it’s fun is that for me, it’s totally boundless and free. There are no goals I’m trying to reach, no milestones to hit. I just take pictures of stuff.

Lesson #4: You Have to Make Time for Inspiration

We tend to think of inspiration the same way we think of the joy of finding five bucks in a coat pocket. It’s nice when it happens, but it’s not something you plan.

But I firmly believe that if you want to be inspired, you have to slap on some pants, get your butt out of the house, and put yourself in situations where inspiration can happen. For example, inspiration always hits when I travel. I’m in the air, clouds next to me, en route to wherever, and suddenly I feel a jolt of creative energy in my belly. “Oh, I remember this feeling,” I think to myself. “Whoa, I didn’t know I needed it again.”

It’s easy to forget how inspiration and excitement feel, and how necessary they are to your well-being, if you haven’t felt that way in a while. If that’s you, you’re in what’s called a comfort zone… and nothing terribly exciting happens there.  

But you don’t have to travel across the country or hop on a flying school bus to get out of your comfort zone. You could go apple picking. Or see a play. Or call up an old friend. Or talk to a kind stranger in line at the grocery store. You never know what’ll get you ticking and jumping into a new project or interest, or just doing something different.

Getting messy means shaking up your life in small but uncomfortable ways—tinkering with random interests just for the sake of tinkering. It’s about conquering fears. Less hustle, more experimentation. In the end, I didn’t have some grand epiphany about the meaning of my life or even my career. I did, however, channel my own inner Ms. Frizzle. At least a little. Some things don’t need to be measured, quantified, or turned into a goal. Lately, I feel like a mess. I’m learning to be okay with that.

Your Turn

Readers, I’d love to hear from you. How do you make time to tinker in your day-to-day lives? If you’re a Type A multipod like me, how do you get over your need to systematize everything and just have fun? Sound off below.

Need some help getting messy (or staying on track) with your 2019 goals?

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neil_2017_2Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, NBC News, and Glamour magazine. She’s the author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. Kristin is a writer, but she’s also an amateur photographer, speaker, podcaster, and recovering workaholic. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram @thewildwong.

11 Comments

  1. Eurobubba says:

    Don’t ever be ashamed to say *y’all* — the defective language is the one that *doesn’t* have a second person plural!

      • Emilie says:

        y’all is also nice cause it’s gender-neutral. I’m a fan.

        • Maryske says:

          Um… “you” is gender-neutral as well, as far as I know. Unless I’m missing something…?

          • Emilie says:

            Y’all typically replaces “you guys” in common speech. Like “come on, y’all, let’s go get some ice cream!” :) “You” wouldn’t work in this context.

            Y’all is very handy when you’re hanging out with non-binary folks (and you might always be, so)…

          • Maryske says:

            Yep, I did miss something! ;-) Thanks for explaining!

            Personally, since the dialectish “y’all” doesn’t really seem to be part of my active vocabulary, I’d probably use “everyone” in your example sentence if I specifically wanted to be gender-neutral. That works, too. :-)

            Btw, I know you’ve lived in Denmark for a while, but have you ever considered Sweden? They’ve even invented a special gender-neutral term for the 3rd person singular!

            han = he
            hon = she
            hen = either, or both!

            It’s in pretty common use by now.

  2. Kimberly says:

    This was extremely well timed! I have real trouble with Lesson 2 and 3. Each time I want to start a new project I think to myself “but what’s the point of investing my rare free time in this when I don’t even know if it will work, or if no one will ever see it?” and as I’m thinking it I know it’s not a helpful thought, but it really affects me being able to start.

    On another note though, I’m one of those people who loves public speaking but I don’t get any opportunities to do so, so this year I’m planning to somehow make that happen!

    • Kristin Wong says:

      Same here – I can’t help but think, “What’s the point if I’m not making money?” I’m so money-driven, and sometimes that works in my favor, but it’s really gotten in the way of just having fun with stuff and getting started on projects, as you said.

      Thanks for the comment. And best of luck with the speaking opportunities in 2019!

  3. mania says:

    It was so good and great
    Actually I think I am messy or maybe a timid but not that stric. Sometimes I just let it go. I plan everyday for my works to get them done but I learned to not set time for them so I enjoy doing my things and tik my goals without any presure. But when there’s a set time that’s when It hurts because the prossess of letting go of time makes you slow and you just want to play around alot, so be greatful because you can do your things without fear of failing for not finishing in time.
    But again if you like to be the free spirit enjoying the moment just start to enjoy the moment.
    How?
    Just want it it will come.
    Gragually you will be the one you like.
    So my answer is just let go.
    The same thing you did in your trip when you realized you’re so into your work.
    Just enjoy

  4. Marilú Námoda says:

    HelloS,
    I am the messy friend and I am not happy at all! I quite my job last year and I am planning to get in the immersive mode. But when? Still have tasks to conclude from the job. And as I am becoming a freelancer, I already have work to do. + ideas, more and more inresistable project ideas are popping in my mind _ I am about to cry_ Dunno what to do. I have being postponing ma dreams too long, today is Jan 10th and I haven’t conclude not even one of my tasks! I am getting crazy. But I also don’t want to work too much, I want a balance ??? where is it?

  5. Kacie says:

    “I enjoy pursuing things more than I do reaching finish lines.” This is sooooo me. I need to figure out how to harness this and use it for a career.

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