A Make Believe Reality: Thoughts & Reflections on the Themes of 2015-2016

(Finally finished this long post. Whew.)

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Happy to have finished the 2016 Make Believe Reality calendar! It’s a continuation of sorts from the one I made last year. I don’t intend to have this become a tradition, but I still like the concept and it’s a good year-end exercise for me to reflect. So I guess I’ll keep making them as long as they still feel right to me.

The months cycle through a string of themes that are intentionally organized. This year starts with a state of sober solitude, enters a phase of acceptance and discovery, and ends with balance of perseverance, peace and hope.

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This “reflection” post turned into a lengthy philosophical-ish post, so here’s an image gallery in case you just wanted to see the quotes used ^^*

01 Solitude- DubrovnikJAN | Solitude

“ It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

A significant personal development that has happened over the past year is my appreciation for solitude. I used to think being alone was not desirable. But now I consciously carve time out from socializing to have time alone. I’ve discovered I’m actually pretty introverted in the sense that while I am social and like to be around people, doing so uses energy rather than gives me energy (i.e. extroverted). Also, I find it’s very true that in order to think deeply about something, or to do some forms of work earnestly, I need significant dedicated time alone.

But as with all things, there is a balance. I like this particular quote because so many solitude quotes seem to be about hating people (haha), being sad or generally being a hermit. For me personally, it’s not about that at all. Solitude gives me time to think about what I believe in, where I want to be going. And once I’m refocused, I can jump back into the crowd and look forward to being around people. I can’t say whether I’ve drawn more creative inspiration from being alone or being around others; they’re equally important to me.

So if anyone feels solitude is something to avoid or be embarrassed about, I hope you also eventually discover that’s a good thing.

Location: Dubrovnik, Croatia


Processed with VSCOcam with a6 presetFEB | Fear

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.” – Henry Ford

Last year’s themes centered a lot around bravery, courage, facing fears, etc. One thing I’ve realized is that never stops. There’s always going to be another fear to face. That can sound daunting, but in another way it’s not so bad. Challenge is what brings change and growth. There is such satisfaction to land somewhere, look up or look backwards, and see that you have survived. Hopefully for the better, but at least survived.

Talking to people who have taken leaps of faith or done something they feared, the story is almost always the same, that actually doing it wasn’t nearly as scary as the thought of doing it.

This photo is a detail of a interior castle wall in Austria. The little fern you see is about the size of my thumb. I like this idea that a lot of fear has to do with perspective and relativity. Once you place your fears in context of a bigger picture, I find they’re easier to grapple with. For example, sure I had/have a fear of pursuing something I truly want to work for (and the accompanying exposure to failure, judgment, etc.). However, that fear is greatly outshadowed by my fear of the idea of being on my deathbed and deeply regretting having lived a safe but unfulfilling life.

Location: Wall at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, Austria


03 Choice- StairsMAR | Self-Determination

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” – Lao Tzu

I’ve realized that for many of us, who we become in our early years is molded by the opinions and perspectives of people other than ourselves: teachers, parents, friends, acquaintances. Then suddenly we’re in our 20s and actually look at what our lives have become.

Ideally you are happy with what you see. However I find more often than not, it’s not the case. But by that time, for many of us, it becomes too scary to reject our identity because it’s the one we have, even if we might not feel it is actually who we are.

This quote (of questionable attribution, but let’s take it at face value) is meaningful to me because it puts so simply an obvious truth that is very hard to see, much less act on. If you are unhappy, you can change who you are. If it seems impossible, it’s likely because of a socially/self-constructed identity you have to step outside first. Let go of that construct and you may find yourself free to work towards becoming who you truly are.

I’m the first to admit it’s hard. One example for me is that it has been hard for me to feel comfortable being called an artist, because that was not my identity for much of my early adult life. I held the word “artist” to such a high standard and never felt I deserved the title. However, a lot of this is mental. I still remember the first time I introduced myself as an illustrator (when I had technically been illustrating for a while already), I felt rather nervous, like someone would jump up and say, “no you’re not!” ::Disney villain music:: But the people in the room (it was a typography class, so a bunch of designers) just smiled and nodded pleasantly and that was it. As I grew more comfortable saying it, even to myself, I realized the truth in this quote.

We’re in control of who we are to a great extent. Another quote I was debating between was this: “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” If you are truly unhappy with who you have become (whether it’s career or character), it’s futile to blame anyone for it. Just do something about it. We’re lucky to be living in a time to have that seemingly selfish option. But I think if we act selfish in that way, it will lead to unselfish benefits for all.

Location: Munich, Germany


04 Humility- AlpsAPR | Humility

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” – Rumi

The past two years have been a lesson in humility to me. I thought humility meant always being nice, always being modest when you receive a compliment, and never boasting. So, I did these things, and thought, hey, I’m humble! (Honestly though, humble people probably don’t go around thinking they are humble people :)) But I don’t think I fully was, or even fully am.

To an extent, it is those things I mentioned. But there’s other sides to humility that I’ve only recently started to get to know, and that’s reflected in this quote popularly attributed to Rumi. It’s easy for us to look at others/the world and point out faults, but much harder to do so to oneself. I don’t mean “I hate my body” and other self-conscious insecurities we are susceptible to. But rather our character flaws and weaknesses that can be addressed from the inside, as well as strengths to discover and nurture. Those are much more constructive self-criticisms to have.

For me, one realization is that I think I was always fond of finding what was wrong outside of myself and trying to fix it, feeling like I was going to save the world in some way. If anything challenged me, there was an exterior excuse or reason for it in my mind. I don’t think I’m “wise,” but I am wiser, and these days my competition, my antagonist, my fixer upper, is myself. And I hope whatever good I can contribute to this world radiates from that.

Another more technical aspect of my ongoing lesson in humility is just learning how much hard work goes into absolutely everything worth doing. I always underestimate how long it will take to do something the first time I try it, and I’m truly humbled by the painstaking effort that people put into their craft. I still have so far to go.

Location: South Tirol, Northern Italy



05 Gratefulness- Plitvice Lakes

MAY | Gratitude

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” – John F. Kennedy

A lot of thought leadership out there concludes that gratitude is the foundation of happiness. Not exorbitant wealth, good looks, exotic travel, etc., but gratitude for whatever you do have. I think that’s true. Happiness is perspective. I think we’ve come to use the word “happiness” too loosely, to expect that happiness means to feel joy all the time (I did anyway). That is impossible, and when we experience sadness we presume we are not happy (I did anyway). I’ve found that balance is not to avoid sadness, but to feel gratitude whatever the situation may be, and move forward from that.

But it’s beyond just saying, ‘yeah I’m grateful, I’m making a choice to be happy.’ There’s a tone of reluctance to that. Instead, I find to actually embody that gratefulness really takes conscious and considered practice. You have to really assess your life, your understanding of the world, and your beliefs to firmly conclude that yes, even this very breath is a miracle. To not feel that gratitude is a hokey consolation prize for when you didn’t get what you actually wanted, but rather to find that once you genuinely live by your gratefulness, you find life really becomes much more wonderful. And it’s invigorating, because instead of leading to passive contentment as you might expect, it motivates you to make the most of everything you’ve been given (more on that in October).

It’s hard to really live gratefully, and hard to keep it up through rough times, which is why I think this quote is worth bearing in mind.

Location: Plitvice Lakes, Croatia


06 Meditation- Budapest

JUN | Meditation

“Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well.” – Gandhi

Gandhi has also put this as “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

To me, this is the idea of being true to ourselves, so neither our actions nor words are betrayed by our thoughts. When we aren’t afraid of people discovering what’s in our mind, or who we truly are, because that is the same person as the one we show on the outside. That’s confidence, security and peace. I believe we all want to feel good about ourselves at the end of the day, even when we are alone with our thoughts in the dark, and this is how.

I selected this quote for the theme of “meditation” because it requires a lot of introspection and reflection to achieve and constantly re-assess. First, you must know your thoughts and have conviction in them. But then, your thoughts may evolve with experience, your understanding of right and wrong will mature as you grow older, and your ideals will change with time. I think that’s ok. The harmony of thought, word and deed is something to constantly work towards.

The way this has personally manifested for me is to understand who I really am, on my own. What I personally find important in life, and what kind of person I want to be. For a long time, I didn’t feel who I came across as reflected who I felt I was or wanted to be (mostly career-related, but also relationship-related). This made me unhappy at a deep subconscious level even though I was happy on a day-to-day level. I can’t say I have achieved perfect harmony, but I can feel myself moving closer to it.

It can also come out in small things. For example, I now make a conscious effort not to have unconstructive negative thoughts about anyone or anything (e.g., anything that if said out loud would sound like talking shit/gossiping). I don’t think I had a lot before, but now I notice that people slip these statements out all the time without a second thought. If I find myself forming one, I push it out of my mind. I know this sounds very gushy, but it’s for selfish reasons if you think about it. One, harboring petty thoughts of others does not benefit me in any way. Two, I would never want someone to know I had negative thoughts of them (if it’s not constructive), and I don’t want to be hiding things in my mind. Thus, I seek to rid my mind of them. I slip up I’m sure, but in general I honestly feel happier this way.

Side note: What is it about having negative thoughts of others that brings us an artificial satisfaction? I think it’s an interesting aspect of human nature. I think it has to do with our own unhappiness. I believe a lot of humanity’s unhappiness stems from people not liking themselves, and that feeding into “misery loves company.” Something I feel really passionate about and really troubles me deeply is the idea of bullying. Which is a little strange because I’ve never actually been bullied, but I digress. Humans who derive pleasure from intentionally hurting others they perceive as weaker than them—I hate it but I also feel sorry for bullies in a way. When I think of bullies in school, in the workplace, on the streets and now online, I honestly can’t think of any truly happy person doing any of those things. Why would they need to? A happy person derives no joy from making another person unhappy. Only troubled people who hate a part of themselves do, whether they can consciously admit it or not. So I believe to encourage people to find the internal peace Gandhi describes would lead to great societal benefits for all.

Location: Budapest, Hungary



07 Curiosity- Alps

JUL | Curiosity

“The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.” – Albert Einstein

I like children because they see the world through bright, curious eyes. I like adults who are still children inside because they have managed to maintain that wondrous gleam though they have gone through years of life trying to dull them.

I personally feel that this life is so much more fun and incredible if we always live in wonder. To let ourselves be marveled by little things (like ants, ants are so interesting). To feel tiny next to the universe’s giants (ugh Cosmos gets me every time). To not be so focused on whether or not there is an actual god but rather just be awed by what we know, be excited by what we’ve yet to know and be humbled by what we’ll never know.

(For what it’s worth, I believe there’s some sort of god, but not in any way our human minds can fully comprehend, and I would not try to convince someone else that I am right as it is inherently unknowable. All I know is our universe is astounding/crazy/infinite whoas. Thus it personally brings me greater peace to believe there is a god rather than not.)

Live in wonder. Stay curious.

Location: South Tirol, Northern Italy


08 Discovery- Plitvice Lakes

AUG | Discovery

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” – Carl Sagan

This quote, popularly attributed to the incredible man who humanized science for the masses, is simple yet striking.

While this statement was made in context of scientific discovery in space, I think the enthusiasm it inspires can be widely adopted. There is so much to discover in this world at every level, from your backyard to a distant solar system. I’m perplexed by people who are bored with life. Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known [by you]!

Locaton: Plitvice Lakes, Croatia


09 Purpose- Vingtar Gorge v2

SEP | Purpose

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” – Pablo Picasso

For every time you’ve wondered what is the meaning of life, and for every time you’ve wondered what your purpose is here, why not let this be your answer.

Sure we can spend time getting theoretical about the meaning and purpose of life, or debate the various religions. I think that’s valuable too. But for what’s actionable while we’re conscious, I think this is a safe explanation to bet on. We don’t know what happens after we die, but we do know our thoughts and actions in this world can have consequences far beyond our own lives. So find that gift, make it the best it can be, and give it away.

I do want to say, I don’t think “gift” needs to be some grand genius or epic achievement. I don’t agree with people who suggest finding your “Why” needs to involve some creative/entrepreneurial success story. I just think it should be something you consciously consider, discover, and pursue. Your gift might be being a wonderful mom/dad to your child. Your gift might be making people feel better at a safe home. Your gift might be being an awesome assistant. I don’t think these are any lesser gifts in the grand scheme of this universe (well, hopefully your gift isn’t being an awful destructive asshole 🙂 ). It’s just about what gives you meaning and purpose in your own lifetime, and how your giving it away will affect the world.

Location: Vintgar Gorge, Slovenia


11 Perseverance- Split

OCT | Passion

“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” – Nelson Mandela

Here is a story brewing in my mind. I like to believe we are all given a set of seeds. Our seeds are different from each other. Each set pulls from the same repository of seeds, but no two seed sets are alike.

What we do with those seeds is up to us. We may leave them dormant. We may grow some and not others. We may grow some, find it is difficult, and abandon them. We may one day wish we had grown some seeds and find it’s too late. Ideally, we’ve grown the best garden we could possibly have grown given what was and was not in our control.

The “passion” I refer to for this theme is a passion for life and a respect for the opportunity to live it. What this quote means to me is to use everything you have to do everything you can to be the best version of yourself you can be. That is something different for each of us. It’s your free will to do what you want with what you’ve been given.

Location: Split, Croatia


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NOV | Discipline

“The miracle, or the power, that elevates the few is to be found in their industry, application, and perseverance under the prompting of a brave, determined spirit.” – Mark Twain

Discipline. Determination. Perseverance. Persistence. This might be the most boring of all the themes, but when it comes to work and self-improvement I believe it is the most important. Not inspiration, courage, curiosity, wonder. Dreams are easy to have. Discipline is not.

I don’t have a boss right now other than myself. I work long hours every day without being told to. I made up a morning routine for myself and try to stick to it. I also try to be sure I am healthy and make time for play. I sound disciplined, but discipline doesn’t actually come naturally to me. I naturally enjoy staying in a warm bed, procrastinating online, eating unhealthy foods. Same thing with perseverance. I naturally want to give up a task once it becomes challenging. But I’ve found gaining any great skill requires discipline, and achieving anything worth having requires perseverance. So they are traits I’ve admired, desired and work towards having. And with time, they become your natural tendencies and habits.

It’s not easy, but it’s doable. The inclusion of this theme is really more for me to keep on top of mind and focus on this year. As they say, it’s a marathon, not a race.

Location: Dolomites, Northern Italy


12 Peace- Alps

DEC | Peace

“ A peace above all earthly dignities, a still and quiet conscience.” –William Shakespeare

Inner Peace. Another woo-woo sounding term but it holds its ground. I wanted to end the year on this note because before all the dreams we’ll chase and all the battles we’ll fight, starting from a place of inner peace will allow us to best approach all of these things.

I grew up without much thought about inner peace. I was mostly satisfied with life. I took few risks, and had no real conflicts. I had some unpleasantness in childhood but didn’t think it really affected me as an adult. I think I had a relatively simple/superficial view of things.

That all changed in the past few years, where several significant things happened at once (some by choice, some not). These changes forced me to face who I was, to question things I believed in and to reassess what I wanted to be. Without trying to sound dramatic, I went through a lot of silent inner turmoil. Looking back, I didn’t realize how long this period would last (and maybe will continue to linger in some form). But it has shaped who I am and I am grateful for it. I was immersed in it in 2014, and at the end of 2015 I feel like I started to come out on the other side. Tides were/are turning. I reached a certain level of inner peace. Key realization? Honestly, it is to always think, feel, and act from love and kindness, and not from pride or fear. Again, one of those gushy sounding things that are actually true once fully considered.

To find the right solution, the right place, the right person, you must first find your right self. A peace above all earthly dignities, a still and quiet conscience. I believe that is the starting place to seek.

Location: Julian Alps, Slovenia


201 Make Believe- Doubtul Sound

JAN | Make Believe

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl

The last one, but also the start to a new year. I don’t know if people expect that my little calendar holds all the thoughts I’ve been writing about, some rather sober and decidedly non-fluffy. But I will always end the story on a hopeful note, one of glittering eyes and a belief in magic because it’s who I am. I have experienced dark, I’ve known sadness, I’ve struggled with challenge. I think they are all valuable. But at my core I’m a happy, hopeful person that seeks to discover as much magic as this world has to offer in one lifetime. Yay 🙂

Here’s to a new year of ever more growth, understanding and, of course, awesome adventures. 2016!

Location: Doubtful Sound, New Zealand

Note: I started to write more about the process behind creating this calendar but decided to save that for a separate post (preview here). This post is purely about the images, quotes, and what they mean to me. As always, they are not written as universal truths by any means, just my personal perspectives and thoughts at this point in time. 

2 thoughts on “A Make Believe Reality: Thoughts & Reflections on the Themes of 2015-2016

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