Lessons from 10 Years of Journal Entries

January 29, 2016


A couple days ago I stumbled across a journal I had kept since 2005. I’ve journaled on and off for much of my life, but a lot of it seems to have disappeared and I only recently discovered entries from 2005 to 2008 (whereas I knew I had 2008 through present day). It wasn’t long before I was sucked in, and instead of stopping at 2008, I kept on reading.

I’m not entirely sure what I was looking for, or what I hoped I’d gain from it. Maybe it was just the entertainment of it. But something told me I might learn a thing or two. To back up and digest one’s own reflections over ten years of life… well, there had to at least be a gem or two, no?

Lesson 1 – It took so long…

I’ve kept a journal on the computer, and I type a lot faster than I write by hand. This has made me not so economical with my words. Reading through ten years was like reading two full books. But I digress…

Lesson 2 – It’s a bit like being a gift by your past self / selves

This is not a pitch for keeping a journal, but I thought it was worth it to pay it brief mention. Over the last ten years, I went through periods where I regularly journaled and then swaths of time where I went dark. The real reason I’ve journaled has been as a way to process my day-to-day life. But in reading entries about hilarious events I’d long forgotten about, or entries from when I first met the woman who would later become my wife, I realized it was like a past me left a future me a gift.

Lesson 3 –Trying to sum up ten years, let alone a lifetime, is a fool’s game

One might think that a decade in review, or an entire life in review, offers that much more complete of a picture, such that you can distill your observations and takeaways down to something even more fundamental and absolute, that you can get down to the real essence of it all. But what I found is the opposite.

If forced to sum everything up in some kind of pithy takeaway, it would end up being really generic, like “The more things change, the more things stay the same.” “Life is ups and downs.” “Old habits die hard.” “Life cycles like the seasons.” “You become more like yourself every year.” Why is it so hard to sum things up? That brings me to my next lesson…

Lesson 4 – Life isn’t actually about the big events

We tend to think about our lives as being defined by big events – graduations, a new job, a romantic relationship or getting married, having children, buying a house, the death of a loved one, and so forth. These are the very same things we tend to strive for as goals. And while they do alter the course of our lives and bring us from one phase into a new one, they aren’t really the defining characteristic.

I say this because hardly anything I journaled about was a big life event. If I did, it tended to be focusing on some future goal. But when it came right down to it, most of it was about navigating the day-to-day.

If you’re honest with yourself, most of life is colored by the day-to-day. And most of the day-to-day is pretty ordinary… going to work, dealing with a challenge, spending time with friends, spending time with completely different friends than you had a few years prior, getting in arguments, resolving those arguments, driving children to school or soccer practice, watching a movie, going grocery shopping, and on and on it goes.

So perhaps the real goal posts are not the big life events so much as how we approach these small, seemingly inconsequential goal posts we are faced with each day. Did I approach the day with the right attitude? How did I handle that interaction? Was today a reflection of how I want to live my life?

No wonder it’s difficult to distill ten years down. How could one distill the almost infinitude of ordinary days into something neat and tidy?

Lesson 5 – There’s probably a lesson in your recurring desires

In my life, I’ve had difficulty figuring out what I wanted to do from a career standpoint. It dates back to a lack of clarity of what I should major in during college, and it’s been a pattern ever since.

I journaled often about this dilemma. I wrote about what wasn’t working for me in whatever job I had at the time. I wrote about a handful of ideas of what I might do next for work. I tried some of those ideas over the years. I ended up in jobs I knew were not for me and many times stuck with them well past their expiration date. I remained confused much of the time.

But reading the entirety of ten years of journaling, and seeing this question come up over and over again, I saw some themes emerge. I talked about the same interests and passions over and over. I talked about the same desires. The same things kept coming up year after year for ten years.

And I can’t help but think that if I handed it to you to read, you’d tell me “You’re an idiot, it’s so obvious.”

Maybe I am an idiot. Maybe some things just can’t be clear until you have enough years of hindsight strung together. I am certainly impressed with my own ability not to see what’s right in front of me. Or to ignore it. Or to simply not act on it. That might still happen even with the blindingly obvious realizations that have just come from this session of reading ten years of journal entries.

So my takeaway is simply this:  there might be a lesson in those recurring desires that keep coming up in your life over and over again. And it might be worth listening to them.

Lesson 6 – Your “most important thing”

Do you have a most important thing in life? A core value or set of values that is most central to who you are? A goal that orients your life? An absolute highest priority?

I imagine that not everyone has a most important thing, or they’re not sure what it is. And for some it probably changes over the years. But if you were to read ten years of your prior self reflecting on life in the form of a journal, I’ll bet your “most important thing” would come out pretty clearly.

I was blown away by how clearly my most important thing came through, and how consistent it was over the years. Even in my darkest or most confused times, it was still like a light cutting through the fog – sometimes very faintly, but undeniably there.

It was always there. I find that incredible. Of course, I didn’t always treat it like it was the most important thing. Sometimes I ignored it and focused on other things that actually weren’t as important to me.

Interestingly, when I was most confused, or down in the dumps, those times tended to line up with when I was most estranged from my most important thing. Ignoring it or focusing on other things actually caused me quite a bit of pain and strife.

But here’s the thing I learned about the most important thing. It’s not yours, you’re its. You don’t have it, it’s got you. Even if you stray or you focus on other things, it continues coming back over and over to reclaim your attention and knock some sense into you, as if to say what are you doing focusing on all this other nonsense? Come back and focus on me. You know I’m what’s most important.

I wish I had listened to it more over the years. I wish I had focused on it more. It probably would’ve made things easier. But regardless, it was almost like the force of gravity. I was never actually outside of its influence. And sooner or later, it would always pull me back to what was most important.

* * *

I could go on, but perhaps I’ll leave that for another time.

And instead of wrapping this up and trying to put a neat and tidy bow on it, I’ll exercise another lesson I learned in my journey through ten years of journal entries…

It’s very tempting to want to come to some conclusion and sum everything up. Our minds seem hungry to have everything all packaged up in the form of conclusions. But that’s exactly what tricks us into looking at goals and life events as though they are some kind of finish line. When you look closely, there aren’t really conclusions in life, except perhaps for that Big Conclusion nobody likes to talk about. Even the little threads of our lives are usually left dangling. Sometimes there is resolution, but very often there isn’t.

The real essence of it all is whatever is in front of you right now, right here, right in this moment.

So you should go ahead and get back to that. I’d hate for you to miss it.