Whose life are you really living?
The key to a meaningful life lies in your ability to unlearn and think for yourself
A special welcome to the 1,000+ conscious thinkers who have been a part of this weekly series for months now. I write this newsletter in hopes that it serves as inspiration, or a much needed weekly reminder, to keep creating a meaningful life on your own terms and questioning the status quo.
If you arrived here through a FWD’d email, why not join in on the fun?
2021 is only 5 weeks away now…many of you have gotten to know me quite a bit at this point, and as you can likely predict, I’m not someone who will wait until the new year to make improvements. 😉
I’ve been thinking about all of you and about how I want to contribute to your lives, however small the contribution may be.
This newsletter started in March 2020 to support those who had been laid off due to the pandemic. I wanted to help people find hope in a new world of challenges and uncertainty.
But around August, I started noticing that many of you aren’t just looking for hope or a new job; this pandemic actually has you questioning what type of life you truly want to live.
Similarly, I’ve been questioning how I navigate a rapidly changing world.
I see our society’s “information” systems—from our government to our schools—all struggle to make sense of our new world. I see each of us struggle, too. Not sure who to believe, many of us have felt confused by conflicting news, poorly researched conclusions, and misinformation.
I don’t like feeling that way—reliant on someone else to help me make sense of the world. So for most of this year, I’ve invested in learning how to think for myself and develop the confidence to navigate life well, no matter the circumstances.
Funny thing though, the most effective part about this learning journey has been the amount of unlearning I’ve done.
I’ve grown a lot this year, probably the most I’ve mentally grown compared to any other (recent) year of my life. A big part of me feels like I’ve broken through the matrix, and have finally started creating a life on my terms.
As I look ahead at 2021, I’m most excited about growing exponentially and paying it forward wherever I can. In the conversations I’m having with my family and friends, I’m constantly referring to this growth as the Edvolution: evolution that results from unlearning and re-educating oneself.
So moving forward, I’ve committed to sharing my Edvolution publicly, in hopes to support anyone who is on a similar journey to create a meaningful life on their terms.
We’ll question the status quo and rethink narratives we’ve readily accepted. I’ll continue sharing personal stories, what I’m unlearning, learning, and exploring each week.
It goes without say, but I’m gonna say it anyway: I’m so grateful to have you here! 🙏And I’m stoked for all of the exciting growth in front of us. Thank you for being on this journey, and I hope it’s everything you need it to be.
As always, if something resonates (or doesn’t), feel free to reply to this email and let me know. I respond to every single one and value your opinions.
With that—I want to kick off this series with the question that sparked my Edvolution, and ignites most people’s as well.
👉 Whose life are you living?
I was 21, about to graduate, and the universe sat me next to Marissa.
For anyone who went the college route, you know how stressful that last semester is. It felt like everyone was asking me,
“What are you going to do after graduation?”
“What are you going to do after graduation?”
“What are you going to do after graduation?”
Two months before I threw on the cap and gown, I attended a dinner with different mentors from USC’s business school. The universe decided to seat me next to a woman named Marissa. And of course, just like everyone else, she asked me, “What are you going to do after graduation?”
While I’d usually give a traditional, half-lie response, this time I decided to be honest.
I told Marissa I was excited to go full-time with a startup I had launched as a student, but I also felt pressured to pursue the traditional consulting route.
I explained, “Everyone around me, people who love me, keep voicing their doubts and opinions. They feel the best route for me is to start a ‘9-5 corporate job’ and get two years of experience under my belt first.”
Marissa shook her head and with a smile said,
“Shireen, you're going to realize many of the things you’ve learned from society, your school, and the opinions from people around you—you need to unlearn. You need to create your own life; don’t live someone else’s.”
She told me, “Unlearning is just as important, if not MORE important than learning.”
That conversation changed everything for me. Yes, I ended up going full-time with my startup, a decision I have never regretted. But more importantly, I began leaning into the concept of unlearning.
All my life, I was taught that learning is the most important. So what did Marissa mean by unlearning? I looked up the dictionary definition, and found the following explanations:
Not educated; an unlearned person
Losing knowledge of something
Does she mean, I’m supposed to dumb myself down or forget what I’ve learned over the years?
Of course not. The dictionary had failed me.
So I began talking to people, folks from all walks of life, about what unlearning meant to them. Here are the most common explanations I heard:
Unlearning means to re-examine the “facts” you were taught in school, by your parents, or adults around you, and find your own truth.
It means moving on from opinions you’ve held your entire life that blind you from seeing how the world really works.
Removing toxic habits, reactions, or thinking that makes you miserable and keeps you from being your best self.
Learning to not default to the status quo and develop your own way of thinking.
These made much more sense to me, and although I knew little about Marissa, I had a feeling this is what she meant when she recommended unlearning.
“Unlearning is just as important, if not MORE important than learning,” she had emphasized.
I don’t know where Marissa is today, but I do know that she’s influenced my Edvolution from that day onwards. I’ve unlearned quite a bit over the years and as a result, found clarity in my values and how I wish to live life.
To give you some examples of very tangible unlearnings, here are just two tiny but transformative ways I’ve unlearned during the pandemic:
Taking Back My Mornings
Like most people, I used to wake up every Monday morning feeling anxious—and not just on Mondays, but most days during the workweek, too. In early April I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I asked myself, “Why are you feeling this way, Shireen?” I zoomed outside of my experience and examined the workweek morning narrative that I knew: people rushing around getting ready for work, throwing on the coffee maker, helping the kids get ready for school—a steady vibration of stress and anxiety. This was “normal” and the status quo definition of “Weekday Mornings.”
Then it hit me, I have to be OK with that popular narrative not being MY narrative. Especially since the default narrative was not working for me.
This was the first step in my “unlearn the weekday morning routine” process.
Once I gave myself permission to unlearn, I got to decide what I wanted my mornings to be. I wanted to wake up excited. I wanted to spend my first hours in my own space, journaling on my balcony and enjoying a cup of coffee in stillness. So that’s exactly what I started doing. I didn’t focus on waking up earlier to make time for myself; instead, I recreated my typical morning by resetting expectations with my coworkers and partners so they know the first hours of my day are reserved for me.
Since I made this decision, my mornings have transformed. Each day begins on my terms and now I’m excited to get out of bed every morning. I even get more done in the day because excitement and calm fuel me, not anxiety. I found what works for me, simply by allowing myself to unlearn a routine I had held as “normal” for 25+ years.
Re-thinking Social Media
People are ALWAYS talking about how social media impacts our sense of self and emotional wellbeing. Platforms that were made to joyfully connect us to other people are now seen as sources of sadness, envy, isolation, timesuck, and annoyance—but under whose authority?
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve fallen prey to this narrative as well.
But accepting this narrative only made me more frustrated and negative. Social media started to feel like a bad habit that needed to be controlled. Just like the data says. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Then it hit me, I have to be OK with the popular narrative not being MY narrative. Deja vu? Exactly.
I decided to unlearn my default reactions to social media. I wanted to use social media as an opportunity to connect with interesting folks and learn. I wanted to genuinely be happy for people. So, every time I felt a twinge of envy while scrolling, I said in my head “That is AWESOME for them.” I started scrolling with a lens of wholehearted support. I also started following very diverse accounts that each teach new perspectives and ways of thinking. Fun side effect: the social media algorithm now shows me super diverse accounts, instead of reinforcing the same stuff.
Now, my social media narrative is about learning, being supportive, and loving. I’ve redefined social media and use it on my own terms. I’ve met incredible people through it, and learned SO much by following people and accounts that inspire me, make me think differently, and remind me about the important things.
🤔 CHALLENGE YOURSELF
Over the next few days, carve out time to jot down 3 narratives you have readily accepted but want to rethink:
As you write, you’ll become more aware of the changes you really want to make in your life. This is the first step in unlearning—it can feel uncomfortable, maybe even unnatural at first, but it’s all a part of the process.
Pssst: If you’re feeling brave, let us know in the comments section (or reply just to me!) how the challenge goes—I’m here to cheer you on. 🎉
12 weeks later, when I literally was getting physically sick because I hated [my elite, 9-5 job] so much, I had to tell my dad that I was going to quit this incredible job. That was a really pivotal moment for me in my life. I'm not really quite sure where I got the courage to do it. Probably desperation. You know, desperation is often the mother of innovation.
-Deborah Benton, Partner at Willow Ventures, former COO of Nasty Gal, Shoedazzle, and a dear friend
🎁 PARTING GIFTS
A round-up of hand-picked, highly recommended tools, and inspiration to help you own your life.
A Twitter thread I can't stop thinking about. Shane Parrish (a favorite of mine) talks about what it means to live, not merely exist once you stop limiting yourself to the reality others have created for you.
Jen Glantz’ You’re Not Getting Any Younger podcast. Heartwarming, honest, and open conversations with people who are making big changes, starting with small things. Hop into the world of someone else who is on a similar journey to you.
Personal Learning, by yours truly. Start unpacking “facts” and any of your default narratives; learn where they come from. This software tool is built to help you re-ignite your curiosity and consciously learn.
A Twitter thread I just stumbled upon. Jaclyn A. Siegel, a social psychologist talks about how she unlearned everything she thought she knew about research. A reminder that unlearning moments can sneak up on you.
👋 See you back here next week to explore:
Is work-life balance actually a thing to strive for?
The Human Behind this Newsletter
❓ Got a question you want to unpack together? Tweet me, @shireenjaffer_.
🎤 Want to share your story? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org—I’d love to feature you in an upcoming newsletter.
💜 This newsletter was crafted for you while soaking up the warm Florida breeze on my balcony. Share with a friend who inspires you daily—and let them know it.