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🦊 Peeling the Onion
#75 — Discovering ourselves through writing, one layer at a time.
I feel alive again! After two years of isolation, life in America seems to be opening up. All of a sudden I’m seeing friends in person, jumping between weekend activities, and making travel plans. The transition happened so fast—I feel like we went from zero to a hundred overnight. My mindset is still cautious (I wonder if/when another wave will send us back into isolation), but I’m doing my best to enjoy this moment while I can.
Today’s letter is the 75th edition of Quick Brown Fox! 🎉 I try to use these milestones as a reminder to be proud of my progress, and take a moment to reflect, so I asked myself: What keeps me writing?
The first answer that came to mind is that writing helps me find and build friendships. I spent last week in Los Angeles visiting friends, most of whom I have known online for years, but met in person for the first time. Thanks to writing online, I’m able to form deep friendships online, some of which can turn into opportunities for collaboration. On this LA trip, I saw that play out in real time:
I had dinner with Will Mannon, who I’ve known for years through the online course Write of Passage. We caught up to chat about writing, books, and ideas for the future. I recently finished my second round of being a Mentor in the course, and planning to channel the ideas from my mentor sessions into my essay writing.
I also had the pleasure of spending a day with Nate Kadlac. We grabbed coffee, went for a hike up to Griffith Observatory, and then feasted on some hard-earned tacos. We had a whirlwind conversation on creativity, writing, drawing, and ways we could collaborate. The very next day, we shared a link to our first collab project: Drawing for Writers, a YouTube live session on how to draw visuals to aid your writing (like the onion drawing below!) We’re both really excited for it, and we’re eager to see where else it might take us. (Update: You can signup for our new Drawing for Writers course here: writersdraw.com.)
I feel lucky to be seeing the seeds of friendship bearing fruit in new and interesting ways. Since I’ve already written about the power of online friendships in my essay, Friends over Followers, I want to dive into a different angle for what keeps me writing: writing for self-discovery.
In today’s letter, I’ll explore how I think of writing as peeling an onion—discovering and revealing ourselves one layer at a time, and growing along the way.
Peeling the Onion
I like to think of writing as peeling layers from the onion of my mind. Each layer is meaningful, but it is just one layer of many.
This framing suggests not taking any single layer too seriously, for there are so many others to come. When I look at writing in this way, it fills me with the energy of curiosity. I become genuinely interested to unveil the mystery of myself.
If what I’m writing now is just the outer layers, what lies hidden beneath?
What will I be writing about twenty layers from now? How about a hundred, or a thousand? When I think of writing this way, it becomes a fun game of mystery, where publishing is more of a side effect than a goal, like beating a level to reveal the next world.
Curiosity is a powerful driving force. It’s deeply personal, and so when we follow it, there is an intrinsic joy and satisfaction that makes the journey worth it. It is a mode of being that is conducive to joy. Seth Godin once shared that “You can’t be curious and angry at the same time.” When we choose curiosity, we choose a mode of being that is conducive to joy, and averse to anger. I try to choose it as often as possible, and center my creativity around it.
This ‘peeling process’ does not happen automatically. One has to intentionally approach writing from a personal lens—reflecting, exploring, and revealing the truths of ourselves. This doesn’t mean only writing about ourselves and our experiences. It is the lens that matters, not what the lens is looking at.
When you share your lens of the world, you reveal yourself in the things you notice (and the things you don’t.)
When I wrote Altering Your Reality (an essay about the book The Courage to be Disliked), instead of just writing a book review or summary, I wrote about my own personal struggles, and shared only the specific ideas within the book that strongly influenced me. I ended up learning about myself in the process of writing it, and it made for more engaging reading.
When we share ideas with a personal lens, we reinforce them for ourselves, and clarify them for others.
I’ve been taking an introspective approach to my writing for several years now, and it’s become an incredible part of my own personal growth. At first, it felt challenging to share personal stories—I was tempted to stick to the safety of sharing abstract ideas. But over time it became easier, like exercising a muscle. And the more I did it, the more interesting places my writing took me.
I want to focus on two key benefits to this approach: making space in the mind to invite the unknown, and building self-awareness to fuel self-improvement.
Making Space for What’s Next
There is gold to be found in the hills of the unknown. The problem is most of us don’t have the the space let it in. We’re too busy carrying around all of our existing thoughts, worries, and work. The backpack of our mind is too full—we simply don’t have the space for anything new.
But what if we could lighten our load? What if we could lose some of the rattling junk that is always tied to us, hanging on to us, haunting us?
Writing is the ultimate mental spring cleaning. The deeper we dive into ourselves, the heavier the incision we can make, the fatter the load we can shed. We can write to let go of the weights we carry around.
There’s a catch, though: We don’t know what our writing might reveal. We can’t predict where it will take us. And yet, it’s the mystery that makes it fun.
Looking back, I now see connections in the chaos of my own writing journey. What seemed like a bunch of random things I explored for fun are now points in a long thread that lead to where I am today. Life is funny like that. It’s tempting to look back now, and say, “See? That is why I did all the random stuff.” But that would be rewriting history. I had no idea where these things would go.
The key was to keep publishing. Even when I wasn’t sure where I was going, I kept walking. I had to learn to trust the unknown.
Back when I first started my blog, I figured I’d be writing about startups, because I’ve spent most of my life building them. I wrote a couple of posts on leadership and hiring, but quickly found that I didn’t really want to be writing about that. And so, a period of emptiness formed. Through that emptiness, something else started to appear—I began writing about self-awareness, creativity, and philosophy. I had let go of the ideas I thought I “should” be writing, and made space for what I really wanted to write.
The emptiness made my mind feel comfortable enough to wander, to roam the empty fields like a dog let loose.
One day, I was on a walk, and a story about a bird appeared in my mind. I hadn’t written stories before, so it was quite unexpected. But there it was, clear as day. I realized that it wasn’t just any story, there was a special lesson in it—it was related to an idea I wanted to write about, but couldn’t quite express. Unlike my essays, this story expressed the idea in an abstract form. I had found a new form factor for ideas—fiction. I sat down later that week, and wrote a draft of the story. It would end up being the first of many fables I would write. Many months later, I would begin writing and illustrating a book of fables. I’m now a year in, deep into the editing process. I can’t wait for you to read it!
If you asked me a couple of years ago what kinds of things I’d be writing, fiction would not have appeared on the list. Such is the mystery of the mind, when we let it run free.
Sometimes we need to write about things simply to get them out of our system, to prevent them from rattling in our minds for eternity. We need to make space for what’s next.
Self-Awareness as Public Service
Beyond the friendships and the opportunities, introspective writing is a superpower for self-awareness. It’s like an attentive friend that asks me interesting questions, listens carefully, and helps me grow as a person. The more I write, the more I learn about myself. In doing so, I become increasingly self-aware.
But the benefits of self-awareness are not limited to the self. When I change my understanding of myself, I change the way I view my own actions, and (usually) I change my behavior as a result. By altering myself, I alter the person I present to others. When I see myself more clearly, I am in stronger alignment with reality, and present to others more authentically.
Self-improvement seems like it’s focused on the self, but it is also a service to others.
When we improve ourselves, everyone around us reaps the rewards.
As I look back on my writing journey, I’m reminded of an essay I wrote years ago on the value of working in public: Why Bother. I wrote about the path of following my curiosity:
Sometimes I feel like I’m walking in a desert clouded with dust. I want to know what’s on the horizon, but I can’t see how I’ll get there. This is my challenge, and in it lies my opportunity.
For now, all I can do is keep walking.
So here I am, years later, still walking, peeling another layer of my onion, trying not to cry.
I’ll leave you with a sketch from a new story I’m drafting. It’s about a boy, a witch, and a boulder named Bodah with vines for arms. He is not an onion, but I love him all the same.