MedellĂ­n, Colombia

June 9, 2019

Reader Roundtable: Finding Space

Hey there,

Every week I send out these letters to a whole lot of wonderful people. Somehow, there are now more of you than I can imagine all at once, and it blows my mind every time I think about it. :)

With each letter I send, I also hear back from a bunch of you. Every time, I'm amazed, inspired, awed, and humbled by the simply awesome human beings who I have the joy and privilege to share this journey with.

You all make me laugh, cry, smile wide, think, and learn - and I am so grateful to have this community.

Somehow, I've lucked into connecting with an amazingly diverse group. Right now, reading alongside you, there are people aged 18 to 92, on every continent, and from at least 40 different countries (and that's just what people have told me!)

Between all of us, there is a fantastic mix of experience and curiousity, and I've been thinking for years about how I can share you all with each other and not keep all the good stuff to myself. So over the next six months, I'm going to try a little experiment - reader roundtables.

Roughly one letter each month, I'll bring forward a question or weird thing about life, share what I've been wondering about, and ask what you think. A few weeks later, I'll send out a "roundtable answers" letter that shares what I've heard back - the most common thoughts, great insights, perspectives and questions.

As with any experiment, we'll see how it goes - and please let me know what you think of it!

This week's our very first roundtable.

Our topic? Finding Space.

One of my biggest "secrets" is that I'm an introvert. Generally, this confuses people because I don't look like one. I have big, spiky hair, a sometimes booming voice and I used to be a bartender. I'm socially adept - you can drop me in a conversation with anyone from the CEO to the guy cleaning toilets, and I'll be fine.

But I won't want to be there.

Social interactions - any social interactions - are expensive for me and introverts like me. Things like parties and networking events, sure. But everyone thinks of that. It's also smaller stuff like getting groceries or taking the bus.

Every interaction with another person - no matter if I enjoy it - takes a lot out of me. And when I'm out, I'm out. Either I recharge, or I'm a wreck. I can't write well, do quality work, emotionally engage, or really be of much use to anyone.

For me, the only way I can truly recharge and refill my batteries is to get some time completely, totally alone.

... which leads me to this roundtable's big question.

In your own life - whether it's with a partner, roommates, family, or friends, how much time do you need alone? How much time with people?

How do you find it? What works? What doesn't?

In my own life - particularly with these travels - I was able to find and keep a really great balance of alone time - maybe 90% of my waking hours. And then I met someone, fell in love, and got married. And my balance hasn't been the same since. :)

See, my partner is an extrovert - they need time with engaging other people to recharge their batteries.

Since they think I'm cool (and I think they're cool too), they'd love for some of that people-connecting-recharging time to be with me.

You can see the tension.

Navigating our different needs has been one of the biggest, most difficult things I've ever tried to figure out with another person, and I don't even think we're very far along in having good answers. We try experiments - crazy ones, like me living in Argentina and Colombia for four months or having separate apartments in the same city. More normal ones - like having separate offices, and carving out quality time. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. We keep trying.

In the spirit of sharing stuff that I've found, here's a few things that I've found along the way:

  • I need a lot of alone time. In an ideal world, 8-10 hours a day. Four is an absolute minimum for any significant period of time. Critically, it is always more than I think it is - I never overestimate how much time I need.

  • It's sort of like sleep - I don't notice I haven't gotten enough of it until it's too late. Often, I'll end up saying yes to things with my partner or friends because I really like them and think they're great, only to realize well into the week that I've overbooked things, am cranky and not present and generally not showing up. I find saying "no" while I feel good to be a really tough thing to do, even though I know that it's important.

  • Making defined, quality time every week with my partner is really helpful. Whether we're in the same house or on different sides of the world, we make an uninterrupted block of four hours every week, with no phones and no distractions just to catch up. That time has been super useful because it's ensured real connection that meets in the middle on our needs. I think, "only four hours". They think, "four whole hours." :)

  • One person can't meet all my needs for space or connection. I can't ask my partner to provide all the space I need. It's an impossibly hard emotional ask, and it's not their job. I have to advocate for the space I need it, and do the emotional labor to make sure I get it.

    Similarly, they can't count on me to meet all their human connection needs. They need to prioritize and spend time cultivating other social connections, and engaging with them.

  • Shared physical spaces are hard. Hard enough that nothing we've tried yet has fully worked. We both work from home; this makes things a lot harder. Quality noise-cancelling headphones help. They are not a panacea.

  • The goalposts keep shifting. When we met, my partner was a veritable social butterfly. They'd have people over most days of the week, meet up for coffees, lunches, and god knows what else. Social connection was part of the fabric of their day.

    When we met, I'd just come from Japan, where I'd spent the last few months finishing up the book on depression, and generally, I only left my apartment once a week to go to my favorite Okonomiyaki restaurant.

    Now, a few years later, we've both shifted, in subtle ways. I've really come to realize the value and connection I need with community. They've realized that sometimes, they really enjoy a quiet evening on the couch with a video game or a book.

    I suspect these goalposts will keep shifting, just as soon as I think we've got them figured out. :)

Navigating the needs for space and connection has felt like one of the trickiest, most important challenges I've encountered in my life. What about you?

I'm so curious to hear your experiences and thoughts - both wisdom and wonderings. :)

I'll be pulling together the replies I get from everyone over the next few weeks, and then sharing them back. (If you're not already on my list, you can reach me at my first name at this website.)

I can't wait to hear from you. :)

-Steven

p.s. The best thing I read this week was this interview with Glen Phillips, the lead singer of a band you may never have heard of, Toad the Wet Sprocket. I was struck by how well he captured the experience of growing older, making art, and the way the grass always seems greener.

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