Ira Hillman -

Aug 10, 2021

Learning to Read at 50

I have always been a planner. I love researching a problem to find the best solution. And I do not like surprises. I also have an overwhelming fear of missing out, which just makes me plan more.

So, it came as no surprise to people who know me that when I turned 49 in August 2019 and was staring down my 50th birthday, I had a plan for how to celebrate. Fourteen days after my 49th birthday, I launched a quest to do 50 new things in the 50 weeks leading up to my 50th birthday. This project included accomplishing another goal of visiting all 50 states, of which I had seen 43. I mapped out itineraries to visit six states before a celebratory cruise to Alaska would take me to my 50th and final US state on my actual 50th birthday.

When COVID forced the world into lockdown and social distance, it also destroyed plans of any kind. I postponed visits to two of the remaining states. The Alaskan cruise was canceled, along with my family’s Passover seder, my children’s summer camps, and so much more.

I filled the time in new ways. I spent more time with my husband and kids, finding innovative ways to stay connected during COVID. Like many others, I did a lot more baking and cooking. I also took up reading a bit more during 2020 to fill those quiet evenings at home. I had never been a reader, but perhaps I was ready for a change. For my 2021 New Year’s resolution, I set a goal of reading 50 books in the 52 weeks of the year ahead.

When Less Is More

In the past seven months, I have read more than 30 books which have taught me so much, not just about the world, but about myself.

Getting to 30 books required me to change my approach to my free time. I was fortunate to come upon lessons from both James Clear and Nir Eyal about easy ways to convert plans and aspirations into action. In his book, Atomic Habits, Clear pushed me to create easy and satisfying goals like reading a book before bed with no page minimum. Starting small and simple – and using a Habit Tracker – has helped me shift my evening attention from Facebook to whatever book I’m reading. Eyal, in his book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, explains that the opposite of distraction is traction. So, by making the time for the things I value and making them easy, I keep doing them and don’t feel a void that needs to be filled with the things I wanted to subtract or minimize. Even though my habit dictates no page minimum, once I get reading, I often won’t stop until I finish a chapter or two.

Several other books I’ve read this year have helped me further reexamine how I make choices about what fills my time. FOMO and my desire to be helpful have often led me to say, “Yes,” to every invitation. My own son has observed, “You’re in like five groups and there’s only four of them!” Having lived most of my life as someone who was eager to please, my most treasured ideal was always harmony, and saying, “No,” ran counter to that.

It was reassuring to learn from Leidy Klotz, the author of Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less, that most of us are wired to add, induced by the scarcity that existed in our ancestors’ time, the recognition and visibility of adding, and the pressure to always-be-doing. Yet, the art of subtraction can be learned. “Subtraction,” Klotz says, “is the act of getting to less, but it is not the same as doing less.” He argues that taking things off your schedule can give you the freedom to spend more time doing the things you prioritize. “Getting to less often means doing, or at least thinking, more.”

I have been working to reconcile this idea of subtraction with Adam Grant’s directive to “Think Again.” At first, I saw Grant’s instructions to look for alternative views beyond the ones we typically consider as adding more steps. But Grant reminds his readers that he is not advocating rethinking “why” which usually just results in making us “emotionally attached to our positions and dismissive of the other side.” Rather, he urges us to reconsider “how.” Similarly, Klotz doesn’t advocate that subtraction is always better, but that it is often overlooked as an option. I hear Grant and Klotz together saying that we need to train ourselves – think again – to consider both addition and subtraction as different means to achieve our goals.

It takes some work, but for the first time in my life, I am getting comfortable with saying, “No.” Not just to checking Facebook or other social media whenever I touch my phone, but to other unnecessary obligations. Now, when I plan or am invited to a meeting, I hear Priya Parker, the author of The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, in my head asking, “What is the purpose for gathering?” A standing meeting (“It’s the monthly committee meeting!”) does not a purpose make. Parker’s question applies equally to all manner of time obligations: I now try to pause, explore the purpose of the request of my time, and answer based on the match of the purpose with my own intentions. Sometimes it’s best to decline the invitation.

Savoring the Present

“Crucible moments ... are challenging moments in our lives that shape us in some deep way and shift our lens on the world. They are stories that define us in our own minds – and that, nevertheless, seldom come up in the ordinary course of conversation.” Priya Parker, writing in 2018, distills the truth of what many of us experienced and are still living through due to COVID.

For all of us, the pandemic was a crucible moment. Through my reading in 2021, I have had numerous micro-crucible moments that have shifted my lens on the world. In every case, however, it wasn’t a lesson or didactic teaching that opened my eyes to a new way of thinking. It was a story, well-told by an author that vividly described people, places, and ideas, leaving me with a visceral memory of the challenges, opportunities, and choices within each tale.

At this intersection of purpose and defining moments, I have pondered how to bring intentionality to my life without the plan or the goals or the checkboxes being the measure of success. Rather, how might the accumulation of the stories and crucible moments be the prize I seek?

Enjoyment is great, but it is often fleeting. As I considered the ideas I collected from my 2021 reading, I came to realize that savoring is what I am after. How can I create the sense memory that will stay with me over time and shape who I will be? Part of the process is one of reflection and sharing the moment with others. It’s also about subtracting the noise. Klotz describes the beauty of the Washington Monument not just being the pillar itself, but the empty field that surrounds it. So, too, can moments of connection with others more readily become crucible moments when they have more freedom, unburdened by too many time-bound commitments.

I now appreciate how intentional moments help us see our individual humanity – and our identity – in a new light. Who am I going to be in my second half-century? I am a reader. I create traction in my life. I subtract (and add) with intention. I think again. I plan gatherings with purpose. And I am learning to savor absolutely everything.

My 51st birthday is later this month, and my family has planned a trip to Maine – a state our kids have never seen, in a part of the state neither my husband nor I have visited. My first half-century self would be scouring the internet to find everything we could possibly do in four days. I would plan meals at all the best restaurants, see every sight (what if we don’t ever go back to Maine?), and schedule each hour of every day. In my second half-century, I am thinking differently about how to plan an enjoyable vacation. I am planning an anchor moment for each day, an extended experience infused with meaning and purpose, and then letting everything else happen more spontaneously. Perhaps nothing else will happen, and the activity of the day will stand out more against the blank space of the restful hours before and after. Maybe I’ll even have some free time to read a book.

Ira Hillman leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Bonding strategy. Learn more about our work in Bonding and more about Ira. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Ira’s blog posts.