On Growth and Happiness

For me, happiness comes when I live intentionally. Not only do I feel pride when I accomplish my goals, I look forward to designing a life that is centered around growth.

What I consider growth, others may consider a setback. If the point of existence is to find happiness, growth is the road that leads there.

I will frequently take inventory of my life and the values that guide it. If there are pieces of my life that have unhealthy levels of stress, I work to understand why and make the effort to grow in that area.

  • Instead of living paycheck to paycheck, I’ve learned to live beneath my means and use the surplus to save, invest, and spend on opportunity.
  • Instead of trying to amass possessions, I try to amass experiences.
  • Instead of avoiding pain at all costs, accepting it as part of life, and at times even welcoming it as a friend.
  • Instead of sitting around and snacking, I’ve found the enjoyment of adopting an active lifestyle and pushing my boundaries.

Although the pain periods of growth can be arduous, looking back, it’s always been worth it. Growth is happiness.

Is it? Does it? Will it? Do it.

No, that’s not the chorus to the latest pop song. These questions are my life’s rubric, my guide, my North Star, my Polaris.

  • Is it good?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it moral?
  • Is it ethical?
  • Is it true?
  • Is it helpful?
  • Is it honest?
  • Is it worthwhile?
  • Is it healthy?
  • Does it bring me joy?
  • Will it make me a better person?

When struggling with a decision, I run through this list. By the end, I know my answer. Over time, and as these questions have become more familiar, decisions have become instinctual.

That’s not to say I always make correct decisions. Sometimes what at first seems right, turns out to be wrong. Perhaps I didn’t have all the information, or the outcome ended up being different that I initially planned. Life happens. Learn and move on.

Very rarely am I disappointed in myself if after having answered all the questions, things go sour; after all, failure is progress. However, if after answering these questions, and despite my better judgment, I still proceed to engage in behaviors that go against my rubric, without fail, I end up disappointing myself, and often others.

The F Word: Not as Bad as It Seems

My daughter asked to interview me last night for a school project. After thinking it over for a few minutes, I said yes. Nah, who am I kidding? I didn’t hesitate. Not only would I do anything for my daughter, but let’s get real—I like the attention from my kiddo.

What I didn’t expect were the type of questions she asked me:

  • Have you ever had a failure that hurt?
  • Have you ever had a failure that taught you something?
  • When you have a failure, how do you learn to move on?
  • How has failing made you a better person?
  • What advice would you give to someone who is afraid of failing?

Damn. And I was expecting something easy. 😐

Earlier that day, I had been reading Josh Waitzkin’s book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance  (affiliate)—which I highly recommend, by the way—and how he spent months learning Push Hands by failing at it over and over again, learning to take a hit, and being pummeled. It inspired me and helped me realize how important failure can be to progress. Josh calls it an investment in loss.

Having just read this passage, and the unexpected depth of my daughter’s questions, I decided to answer thoughtfully instead of just rushing through them. I’m glad I did.

Here are the high-level gists of my responses:

I have failed publicly, in moments that it counted, and still come out alive. It hurt like hell, I was embarrassed, I wished for things to be different, and I wished to hide. Being called out on it multiple times afterwards hurt even more.

The only times I’ve not learned from a failure is when I’ve let pride get in the way. I learn when I sit back and accept my humanity and shortcomings. It’s only then that I’m able to break my failure down into bite-sized chunks, analyze, and try again.

I’ve never had a failure result in any tragically permanent or lasting consequences. I tend to think to myself, “What’s the worst that could  happen?” And it’s never quite as bad as I imagine. Sure, it stings and you feel like a spread of fly-infested poop for a while, but my desire to learn and progress keeps me moving forward.

More than anything, failing has taught me to connect with other people and myself. I’ve learned how to sympathize with others because I’ve been there. I can relate to them and teach and ask questions. I’ve learned how to engage in positive self talk and maybe even convince my inner critic that I’m worth my time.

Understand that failing is okay, and is integral to progress. Yes, it can be scary. Yes, it can hurt at times. Yes, it can suck. But it can also be exciting. Each failure is a lesson about yourself and your process. Each failure is an opportunity to refine your approach and bring yourself one step closer to mastery.

In my mind, failure always looks like a big, bad, foul-breathed demon with razor-sharp teeth, ready to pounce and rip me to smithereens. It lurks in the shadows, in the unknown, so I sometimes try to avoid it. Yet when I finally meet it face to face, I realize it’s more like a big fuzzy kitten that knows how to slap you around a little bit, rough you up, and then help you see the proper way. Okay, that was a weird analogy. My point, again, is that failure is never as bad as it seems.

So, yeah, last night was a bit of a journey for me, learning about myself through the most unexpected of places—my daughter’s homework assignment.

Why? Because It’s Difficult

I think it’s natural to shy away from accomplishing the many items on your life’s wish list: learning that language, writing that book, starting that business, becoming that friend.

There are so many things you want to do, and in so many areas. I applaud you. You have a good heart and the desire to do good. You want to make a difference, you want to prove to the world that you matter; that’s awesome. Yet, despite these desires, you have yet to take action. The years go by and it’s the same old thing day after day, week after week, month after month.

And each day you’re still wanting to achieve something meaningful. You’re happy, but you could be happier. You’re living, but you’re not living according to how you want. You’re stuck, and you don’t like it.

Each item on your list has one commonality: it’s difficult. And it’s for that reason that you haven’t done it. You know it’s going to take work, but you secretly want the easy answers, and that keeps you from action.

If you’re tired of letting life live you, and you want to start living, then you’re going to have to start somewhere. Perhaps the best place to start is not proving to the world what you can do, but proving to yourself. Build your confidence by doing one of those list items. Just one. Forget the rest for now. Begin today, start small, you can do it.

Prove to yourself that you can handle the difficult tasks: The ones that require strain, the ones that push you to the next level, the ones that exercise your mind and body. Yes, the ones that bruise you, make you question your abilities and doubt yourself, the ones that force you to focus, reevaluate, question, and grow.

Do this for yourself. Give yourself the gift of accomplishment. Give yourself the power of self-respect, routine, and drive. Treat yourself to the gift of learning and knowledge.

Remember that all those small practice session add up. You can do this not because it’s easy, but because it’s difficult; you are capable of accomplishing everything and anything you want—everything that matters, everything that’s difficult.

The Difficult Things

I do difficult things to prove to myself I’m capable of more than I think.

I became fluent in a second language to connect with another part of the world, and prove I could do something unique.

I’m learning my third language to prove to myself that my mind is not stale.

I wake up between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m. every morning to push my body more than I think possible to prove I can be more than I already am.

I push myself because it’s hard. I test myself because through failure I progress. I do the difficult things because I want to live.

On Disappointment & Freedom

When people say they’re disappointed in you, it’s because you’re not acting according to their expectations of you.

In most cases, these people’s opinions simply don’t matter. Live your life the way you choose to live it. I was trapped by my parent’s expectations and dogma for 30 years before I came to my rescue.

I knew as a teenager that what I wanted was different than what they wanted, but any time I stepped out of line, they put me in my place with that “disappointed in you” routine. I was disappointed in me too, but for opposing reasons. I hated not having the courage to be different—to be me. And I lived that way through college and into the first 10 years of my marriage.

It hurt to be me, and until the pain caused by betraying myself outweighed the pain and disappointment I would cause my parents by living true to myself, I remained trapped.

When I finally had the strength to break free from their expectations, I found myself and I found my happiness. Their disappointment in me hit an all-time low and remains there, but for the first time in my life, I’ve been able to look in the mirror and not feel shame and disappointment for living someone else’s life.

And for me, that freedom has been worth all the disappointment in the world.


One of the best parts about where I live is the drive home. My house is at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and they tower above me as I head home. I’ve always lived near the mountains, and they hold a lot of memories for me.

Today as I drove home, I remembered my Grandpa. He was both stern and gentle. He didn’t tolerate time wasting or goofing around when it was time to work. There are a lot of folks like that in farm country.

Despite his stern nature, he allowed us all to make mistakes—sometimes really expensive ones: broken tractors and machinery, bent pipes, and crashed motorbikes to name a few. He brushed these off like they were nothing and taught us how to fix them all. He was patient, and viewed mistakes as a natural part of life.

Around him I felt safe, and I knew that no matter what happened, he’d have my back.

Although my grandpa has passed away, his influence lives on. As I raise my own children, I’m often put in situations where I turn angry or even want to micro-manage their actions and projects. As I reflect on how my Grandpa would handle these moments, I realize that the best action is to step back and let my kids make their own mistakes. Along with those mistakes, they will find that just like my Grandpa, I too will be there to support them, no matter what.

Who Am I?

“Who am I?”

“Who. Am. I?”

I ask myself this question far too often, and not often enough. Depending on my mood or the events leading up to my self-reflection, the answer changes.

When I’m feeling lost, helpless, and disconnected, I respond with, “I don’t know.”

I yell my name during moments of triumph and achievement. “I am Nolan Speaks!” In these moments, I know who I am, and there’s no stopping me.

This morning, I’m lost. I don’t know who I am. I know what I have to do, but my creator is stuck and feels like overeating and binge-watching Netflix. My consumer agrees. Those two bastards have been in cahoots since August.

Now I sit here thinking of ways to feel better, but I recognize that all my ideas are simply avoidance tactics, elaborate as some may be. It’s experience that tells me there’s only one way forward and out of this funk:


Not all the things, just some of them, starting with easy victories that help me regain my confidence. I need to start easy and gain traction over the coming weeks.

Experience also tells me that I habitually take on too much at once, and then retreat when it all comes crashing down, but not this time. I recognize where I went wrong. I learn from the past, I look forward to the future; I can figure this out. I can do this. I will do this.

I am Nolan Speaks! I know who I am.

Staying Motivated

Of all the things I personally need, a magical motivation pill is at the top of the list. I’m good at staying motivated for a few weeks at a time. When those weeks end though, I hit a slump and feel stuck there for at least as many weeks, if not more.

So yeah, I wish I knew the answer to being and staying motivated. I don’t. Something I’m experimenting with right now though is thinking myself through the slumps. I rewind my brain to the reasons I began in the first place.

It appears to be helping: I’m reminded of the passion, the drive, and the desire to help others and to do good; I’m reminded that when I let go of expectation and embrace the here and now, I have fun and my work improves; I’m reminded of a simpler, more energetic me. And I like that.

On the flip side, focusing on external factors sends me into a downward, bummed-out spiral. Money, what others think of me, who is doing better than me, and “success” (whatever that means), all fit that bill and weigh me down. I lose confidence and focus. And I hate that.

I’m learning that if I want to stay motivated, I have to stay true to me. I have to identify the areas and behaviors that make me happy, and remember the simple things that make me tick.

Everything in Its Place

They key to an uncluttered home and an uncluttered life is to place things where they belong, the moment you’re done with them.

Recycle paper when you’re done with it. Hang up your coat when you’re no longer wearing it. Wash your dishes the moment your meal is over. Give or throw away all things you haven’t used in six months.

Every evening have a place for your keys, your phone, and your wallet, and in the morning, you will know exactly where they are.

Accept into your life only the things which make it better: it’s okay to say no; it’s okay to say yes. You have only one life that’s certain. If you keep your life uncluttered to begin with, dejunking becomes a non-issue.

Allow people into your life that are good, inspiring, and supportive. Let relationships that pull you down, entice you to do wrong, and attempt to bend you to their will fade away. If that relationship is important to you, make a plan to salvage it. If that fails, let it go. Your life will be healthier for it.

When everything has a place, and everything is in its place, your time is used doing what you want with the people you love, instead of searching for the things you need.