Part 1: Examine Your Life
Ask: What Is It?
Looking closely is an editor’s best tool. To revise a thing, whether a poem or a life, means literally to look again. It is a way of creating enough distance to see clearly.
Often the author sees a writer frustrated with a project and wanting it to be something that it’s not, and the best gift a good editor can give is to point gently to what it seems to want to be. Only then we can find its true form.
This, then, is our work with our lives. To look at the facts as neutrally as possible, without judgment; to look again; to see the direction in which our life desires to grow; and to prune along its natural shape. To ask questions whose answers will give us good information, such as: What does it contain? What boundaries confine it? What does it feel like to live it? What are its energy sources?
Ask: What Could It Be?
One of the greatest problems that can trouble a piece of writing is not knowing which way to take it. Avoiding this albatross requires the serious work of sifting through all the possible avenues forward to determine which one makes the most sense, both for the needs of the project and the writer’s skill set. There are infinite choices—and the writer must choose which one is their first-choice version. Their “moonshot.”
This is no small job. Infinite choice in theory sounds intoxicating—like everyone’s favorite genie wish of being granted endless wishes—but in reality, it can feel paralyzing. Modern life presents more choices than a single person can possibly handle. See this friend or that one? Pursue this job or that other one? Read which of these thousand books? This is what psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice.
Ask: What Is Needed?
When you edit your life, you think for yourself about what is necessary and what will make your life richer, lovelier, and most aligned with your true nature. This is not easy. We live in a time and place that spends a great deal of money on advertising, which presents a want as a need, and it can do so brilliantly. It bids for our attention and taps into our collective insecurity about whether we, and our life, are enough, so we fall prey to other people’s definitions of what is necessary for us.
Very little, it turns out, is actually indispensable. Moments of crisis realign us because they teach us that. In a pandemic, when you cannot go into the world as you once could—and when home feels like a trap for some people, and a lost luxury for others—we are all wise to ask: What is essential?
In research studying the lives of centenarians—people who are healthy and flourishing at age one hundred or older—one recurring theme is that they can identify “enough” in terms of activity, food, objects, and more, and they stop there. In Okinawa, where an astounding percentage of people live healthfully beyond age one hundred, there is even a saying before meals: Hara hachi bun me, translating to: “Let me stop eating when I am 80 percent full.” We can ask this of any area in our lives, to dictate what feels like our “enough.”
Part 2: Edit Your Life
Edit for Clarity
Your guardrails stem from your first choices: those absolute-value certainties about who you are, based on close examination of your life.
We all have invisible guardrails: we can find them easily because they protect the tender spots and guard important emotions. When a guardrail is tapped too many times, we get angry or frustrated, because some vital part of us has been threatened. When this happens, it is well worth asking what is on the other side of that guardrail. What does it protect?
On the other side of a guardrail is a cliff you fall down, or a breaking point, or some unsavory consequence. It need not be dire or punitive, but it has to be real. To make an invisible guardrail visible, we need to consider an emotion or situation that we wish to avoid, then set the simplest possible barrier in front of it. Ideally our guardrails prevent us from toppling off this particular cliff into the unpleasantness below.
Edit for Growth
No matter what life you live, some growth out of your comfort zone is necessary in order not to atrophy mentally and physically. We all have versions of ourselves that we wish to stretch to be: braver, kinder, smarter, calmer, healthier, wiser, more creative, more fun. We may never be these people to the full extent of our imaginings. But stretching toward these expanded versions of self can and will happen with practice
What is the thing out of your comfort zone—the brave thing—that you can try to do? One person’s brave thing may feel easy to you—or it may feel impossible. Adjust for who you are and where you wish to grow. In the words of Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Better to follow your own version of brave than someone else’s. There are certain hard boundaries for all of us, things we can and cannot do. It is worth asking: What is the direction of your “brave thing”—and what challenges for yourself (small or large) could be necessary to reach for?
Edit for Generosity
When we eliminate spending—of energy, time, money—that does not align with our essential loves and needs, we see more clearly what we wish to produce, what beautiful or useful thing we can add to the green of the world. Or put another way: We are better able to ask little and give much. To show up with more—more cheer, more attention, more utility, more patience, more wine—than we intend to take.
The green is what we leave growing. The green can be one’s children, grandchildren, one’s creative work, one’s community, or one’s encouragement. We add to the green by our work, our play, our love. If we create something that moves or helps people, we add to the green. If we feed people, connect with people, nurture ideas that sprout actions—we add to the green. By shifting energy from “mine” to “ours,” we invariably add to the green. If we think of our money, our work, our power, and our ideas as tools for adding to the green, we invest in the world that will outlast us.
Part 3: Enjoy Your Life
Enjoy the Ordinary Days
Your today self is the bridge between your yesterday self and your tomorrow self. Accept the responsibility and privilege of being that bridge. Our yesterday self recognizes the need for these systems and sets the tasks. Our tomorrow self benefits from having done them. Our today self has the job of doing them.
The goal is to have a few good systems that help the rest feel like natural habits. Of course, there is and will be system overlap. Sometimes we must drop everything. But when we edit well, we do today’s work today, in the most important order. As a consequence, we respect both our yesterday self and our tomorrow self. This can be a hard one. Think how we assume that our tomorrow self will want to do all sorts of things that our today self has little interest in doing! This leads to procrastination and not trusting ourselves and our systems. It never feels good.
The best practice to respect the tomorrow self is to think from the end, backward to today: What do I want my life to have looked like? What should it contain? How do I feel? What matters? Plot it. Work back from there, as well as possible.
Accept the Exceptions
Voluntary change is one thing. But what about involuntary change? Times when the world shifts without your planning for it to—often suddenly, sometimes beautifully, sometimes terribly, and always leaving tracks?
There are both happy and sad days that change everything, that create in our lives a sort of before-and-after. These are the exceptions—we remember them in almost cinematic clarity among the years of ordinary days that we will likely remember in a hazier, more general way. Often when people look back on unhappy exceptions—surviving great suffering or hardship—they speak of both the compassion and the clarity that come with the act of accepting the irreparable loss and sifting through the ashes to create a new life. The same clarity may come too, with happy exceptions.
Whatever the exception is—a happy one or a hard one that leaves us reeling—there are a few ways to cultivate a mindset of compassion, resilience, gratitude, self-trust, and willingness to see the world as it is, coupled with a nimble readiness to pivot fast, to tilt without capsizing, and to find perspective.