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Mine Your Acre of Diamonds

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The response to last month’s “Depth Year” article caught me off guard. It went viral immediately and quickly became the most popular article of the year.

I’m still sorting through emails from readers sharing their intentions to go deeper instead of wider with their pursuits in 2018: reading unread books, tuning up the piano again, resuming Spanish lessons, calling up old friends. Someone even started a Facebook group to discuss Depth Year plans with others.

This level of enthusiasm made me feel a bit sheepish, because I intended it more as a thought experiment than a serious proposition. I wanted to point out the mirage of novelty—that emotion of newness and possibility we get when we start a new project, buy the supplies for a new hobby, or order a new book.

Novelty—essentially the feeling of “Oh how life will change now that I’ve added this to it!”—is a very gratifying emotion, and we experience it frequently in our consumption-focused society. But it usually contains a vital miscalculation: acquiring access to some new thing doesn’t guarantee we will ever enjoy its full value, or even a fraction of it. 

That feeling of newness and possibility only makes sense if we assume we will indeed go deep with this new pursuit—we will read the book, complete the course, keep up the workout regimen, or learn to play the instrument well enough that others want to hear it.

Nobody buys a book with the intention of leaving it unread, or a guitar with the intention of learning a few half-songs and leaving it in the attic. But that’s the fate of most new pursuits. We still love that feeling of promise and possibility, and we’re willing to pay for it, but most of the time we don’t supply the follow-up work to make the promise true.

The fictional “Depth Year” tradition was meant to draw attention to this discrepancy: we have plenty of encouragement to seek fertile new lands, and precious little encouragement to cultivate them.

But reading many of the heartfelt accounts I received, it became clear that idea of literally dedicating a year to this philosophy resonated in a way I hadn’t expected. People really wanted to do this. Right now.

One of these accounts was from my mother. She became immediately serious about making 2018 a genuine Depth Year—a year for resuming dormant creative projects, fixing things that are broken, and nurturing partly-learned skills towards mastery. She saw the potential for depth in places that hadn’t occurred to me: finally using old jars of dry goods in her pantry, for example, and investing in existing relationships rather than always trying to “meet new people.”

The depth-first mindset created a persistent sense that abundance already existed in every area of life she looked at, it just wasn’t always being cultivated. In her words:

Once I decided to take this year to go deeper and work with what I already have, instead of flitting off to try something new, I felt a sense of calm settle over me. I no longer felt that frantic need to try everything, to buy something better, go to every event that comes along, to give the best gift, to make the best meal, to try every new skill that’s strikes my fancy, to do and be more. I started to pay more attention to the things around me and see them with much more love, satisfaction and gratitude.

This feeling reminded her of a parable she had heard many years earlier, sometimes called “Acres of Diamonds.” There’s an article about it here by Earl Nightingale.

The parable is about a man who was so dazzled by tales of prospectors striking it rich that he sold his land and set off in search of diamonds. The farmer who bought the property from him, a more humble and attentive man, noticed a glint of crystal in a stream while he was out walking his new fields. It turned out to be a vast deposit of diamonds.

These sorts of fables always leave me a bit confused, because I don’t know where the analogy is supposed to end—what if I’m not sitting on a rare geological formation that happens to contain priceless jewels? That’s not the point, of course. The difference between the two men isn’t the respective plots they ended up with, but the direction in which they looked for their wealth and fulfillment—outward to the horizon, or downward to the ground they already occupied.

The unintended insight behind the Depth Year, the reason why it resonated, I think, is that some part of us already knows we’re standing on untapped riches. We’ve certainly spent enough of time (and money) acquiring. We just find it easier to stay in prospecting mode—as virtually every outside influence encourages us to do—than to stop wandering and begin to work the land.

The bookshelf next to my desk is so packed I’ve started to lay books across the tops of the vertical ones. Their colored spines are so familiar to me, so boringly mine, that it often seems like they’re part of my past—already emptied of potential, even if I never read them.

Looking at the bookshelf with a depth-oriented mindset, it appears as a tower of abundance: years’ worth of adventures, stories and ideas, waiting for me to finally receive the value I paid for long ago. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Susan Cain’s Quiet. Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book.

Aside from the initial buzz of novelty, the things we acquire don’t deliver any value until we cultivate it, which is a different kind of work than acquisition. So any feeling of “not enough” may not be from missing important parts, as marketers would have you believe, but from not using the parts that are there. What a discovery it is, to suddenly see the wealth buried in your own house, or even lining its walls.

Do we need more and better possessions, relationships, homes, hobbies, skills, and opportunities, or do we simply need turn our efforts towards cultivating our land, rather than prospecting for more and better places to dig?

My mother’s new motto (and now my own) is “Mine your acre of diamonds.”

We don’t need a large, sprawling estate, especially if we’re not getting the most out of what we’ve already got. And what a relief that is—that the wealth is already underfoot. I know the areas I want to mine. I’ve known them for years. My Depth Year is this year, and I am serious about it.

As the Nightingale article argues, maybe the grass is greener over there not because the land is better but because it’s better cared for. “Besides,” he writes, “while you’re looking at other pastures, other people are looking at yours.”


Photo by Dave Robinson


Have a lot on your mind?

A few times a year I offer a simple, 30-day mindfulness course called Camp Calm. The idea is to develop a modest but consistent meditation practice and a few mindful living habits, at a gentle pace of about ten minutes a day. No experience necessary.

You should check it out. We’re gearing up for a new season. More info here.

Greg January 16, 2018 at 2:22 am

It’s a bit ironic because my guitar has been waiting for a few years… I always feel guilty when I accidentally saw it in the closet. I have many such items. It is really struggle – should I do something with? or get rid of it? It is like letting go part of myself… a promise someone I could become. Better version of me? On the other hand all those things drain my mental energy… tough choice. Do or not do?

Steven Schrembeck January 16, 2018 at 5:03 am

There’s a difference between not doing something because you simply never made time, and not doing somethinb because you never had an interest.

A person of mutual interest once said that we should to learn to let go of all the people we will never become.

You have limited time and cognitive resources. Decide which of the future yous you will try to become, and finally erase the rest.

David Cain January 16, 2018 at 9:14 am

Yeah, it’s a tough one, and even deciding to do a depth year doesn’t answer the question of which pursuits to finally dive into and which to properly abandon. Most of us have already begun far more pursuits than we can ever take seriously, so some of them are never going to be taken up properly.

The truth is we can’t do everything, so I think the important part is to make sure you do something with real seriousness and intention. It may be the guitar or may be something else, but choices have to be made.

ianca January 16, 2018 at 3:44 am

This last part resembles Voltaire’s Candide or We must cultivate our garden. I think the same principles were laid down there as well, wrapped-up in an adventure story. :) I love your articles, always a pleasure and a valuable insight to read them!

David Cain January 16, 2018 at 9:14 am

Hehe, Candide is staring out at me from my bookshelf, unread

Heather January 19, 2018 at 9:30 am

It’s a sign!

Lois January 16, 2018 at 3:52 am

And what about the novelty of embarking on a depth year? its really just a new project with a new goal. At least it will save some money for anyone who manages to see the goal through. Its actually a wonderful idea. I love your blog and I enjoy reading your ideas when you post them.

David Cain January 16, 2018 at 9:16 am

Right, it could definitely end up another novelty too. We need to make sure we are applying the idea of follow-through to the depth year itself.

Priscilla Bettis January 16, 2018 at 4:47 am

When I started taking care of our imperfect, weedy grass (and home and car), I started appreciating our green grass more. Earl Nightingale’s article is correct. I no longer see others’ grass as greener.

David Cain January 16, 2018 at 9:17 am

I loved that extension of the old grass/fence analogy

John Esau January 16, 2018 at 6:56 am

I’ve “played” the guitar for nearly 70 years…never well. Now, with arthritis making that quite difficult, three guitars sit unused in a closet. But I paint…some of them beautiful I am told (others I should start over or discard). You’ve helped me, though, to now make learning and improving my skills more and painting more of the many places I’ve traveled…to make THIS my Depth Year, lest my paints and brushes and join the guitars tucked away. Thank you.

David Cain January 16, 2018 at 9:23 am

Wonderful! I’ve been “playing” guitar for only 20 years. It’s not (or at least not yet) a part of my depth year plans but I’m not getting rid of it. My watercolor set is definitely going to get some use though.

Dax January 16, 2018 at 7:10 am


Great post! Thought provoking…

I had missed the “Depth Year” post. I have a few self-improvement projects that I had started but let languish. This has inspired me to revisit them…


David Cain January 16, 2018 at 9:24 am

Best of luck with them Dax.

Drew January 16, 2018 at 7:24 am

Your emails are always welcome. Your writing provides such value.

This post reminds us not to consume for dopamine hits. We are reminded to wear out and not rust out.

This should apply to our own bodies. Learn to use them deeply to their full potential.

Thank you! A great way to start the day.

David Cain January 16, 2018 at 9:27 am

One of the four areas I’m focusing on the year is bodily fitness — I’m usually on some sort of exercise regimen, but I have never actually taken one truly seriously. So I’ve defined a modest regimen and I want to master it, rather than half-assedly keep up with a more ambitious one.

Rocky January 16, 2018 at 7:40 am

I think this “Depth Year” idea dovetails nicely with the Marie Kondo theory of relativity….
Thanks David

David Cain January 16, 2018 at 9:29 am

Definitely… the Kondo method forces you to confront your actual intentions towards your things. Am I ever going to use this?

Tonya January 16, 2018 at 8:23 am

One of the best books I ever read was the Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, and the author touches on that a lot. That that is the root cause of a lot of our stress is constantly feeling discontent with our lives, money, living situation, relationships, etc. And that finding the “newness” is what can break you from that thought pattern. I’ve heard, “approach everything from a beginner’s mind.” I think it’s easier said than done but I like keeping that in the back of my mind when I start to feel restless about my life, which is more often than I’d like to admit.

David Cain January 16, 2018 at 9:31 am

It’s interesting that that sense of “newness” can be very predictably achieved by simply buying something, but it can also be rediscovered in what we’ve already acquired. It’s a matter of perspective — looking at everything with “beginner’s mind”, as though you just woke up to this house and this selection of things, and can explore it anew.

Charles Klonowski January 16, 2018 at 10:45 am

And as we, neophyte crusaders, set off on our respective voyages of depth, to read and bake and paint and play with mastery? What of the troubles, the struggles, the failures and pains? What about all the boring tales and sunken cakes and awful canvases and discordant notes?

Agreed, a proclivity for novelty is a mirage. Well put. It is a fleeting emotional buzz, and when it wears off we are left stranded under an attic of unused paraphernalia. But without mention of the difficulty in deepening any skill, I take a similar fleeting emotional buzz. Rekindled are those same hopes once held. Hopes just as vulnerable to the adversity that dashed them before.

Would this seem more like a harsh repudiation if I assured that it wasn’t? I’d rather it be taken as the insight of a Fool, whose capacity is to offer unpopular opinion.

David Cain January 16, 2018 at 1:52 pm

Uh, it’s hard to see a clear point through your faux-literary style here but I gather you’re saying something like, “But wait, going deeply with any pursuit is hard.”

Yes, compared to starting everything and finishing nothing it’s hard. But ease and difficulty have a paradoxical relationship, which I’ve written about before. When you make a lifestyle about doing only the easy parts, life gets hard. When you make a lifestyle of doing the harder parts, life gets easy. Going deeper rather than wider means you are reallocating the energy and time you used to spread among dozens of pursuits so that you can put it into going deeper with fewer pursuits, which entails engaging with hard parts you avoided the first time.

So yes, in one sense it’s harder, but also easier in many other ways. It’s much more rewarding, because you’re working up with the higher-hanging fruit. Your time and money goes much further. You don’t feel so thinly spread and you’re not plagued with the guilt of unfinished projects, and the deflating feeling of constantly starting over and never gaining traction.

Geri January 16, 2018 at 11:48 am

OK, both my daughter in the Australian bush and I in my own Sierra bush are deep into the deep gig. I love what your mum said about Acres of Diamonds. I read it years ago. I must confess that my book shelves are stuffed to the gills with books I ordered and then didn’t dive in. And my guitar, God bless its dusty strings is now singing again. Yahoo and thanks.
We can mix the new with the old, but it is changing the focus and appreciating what we already have that makes the true difference.

David Cain January 16, 2018 at 1:52 pm

I like the thought of dusty instruments making music again :)

Annie January 16, 2018 at 1:32 pm

This is the year I have determined to bring in any new books and will finally finish reading the books I have squirreled away and pass them along when I am done with them. Not only do I plan to “mine my acre of diamonds”, I plan to share the wealth!

David Cain January 16, 2018 at 1:53 pm

Excellent. There is so much potential joy and enrichment on a single bookshelf, it’s almost unbelievable. And it multiplies if we pass it around.

Frogdancer January 16, 2018 at 4:18 pm

What’s that they say about great minds thinking alike?
I’ve already started a similar thing with reading books I already have, (if a kindle library had weight mine would be positively obese!), using craft items I’ve stuffed into cupboards instead of going out and buying more and, like your Mum, using up those packets of dried beans and lentils that have been hanging around in the pantry forever.
It feels good, doesn’t it?

Mohammed Jabir KK January 16, 2018 at 11:08 pm

Thank you David…you are new to me but you have brought about a paradigm shift in my inner landskype. I owe you a lot for whatever I am going to do for the rest if my life.

Elroy Barrera January 17, 2018 at 12:30 am

Good to read!

Annie January 17, 2018 at 3:30 am

Thanks for the article, timely reminder. I started the year off intending to do a Depth Year but nearly three weeks in I realise how quickly I’ve been sucked back in to the, ‘I need….’
reaffirming to myself that this is something I’ve been hovering around for some time now and I really want to engage with the process more deeply. Looking forward to unearthing all those unread books, unfinished projects, things I’ve saved for later and yes, like your mum, delving deeper into my pantry for all the hidden produce that has been forgotten :-)

devo January 17, 2018 at 5:17 pm

great follow up article amigo! and props to your mom (perhaps my first legitimate use of that term).
i was delightfully stunned when i realized the double entendre in the phrase “mine your acre of diamonds”.
the term “own it” has become a mantra for embracing and taking responsibility for one’s actions. in this example, “own” becomes a verb. “mine” is a statement of ownership that can also be transformed into an action word. anyway i look at it, the message here is to stop pondering and get moving on one thing.
…and to do it now.

woollyprimate January 19, 2018 at 12:10 pm

I have made a vow not to buy any more yarn for the remainder of the year. I am going to knit and crochet what I have, and I also have fiber to be spun into yarn. I buy yarn to make a project, then I find another project that catches my eye and buy the yarn to knit that. I end up with a bunch of yarn and not very many finished projects. I’m going to knit from my stash, as they say, and I’m even learning new knitting techniques to deepen my understanding of the craft.

Based on a comment above, I think I will also not buy any new books this year, either. I have plenty that I haven’t read. And the library is free.

KG January 19, 2018 at 1:04 pm

I’m intrigued by everyone’s comments and love that your ‘Depth Year’ article went viral!!

Abhijeet Kumar January 19, 2018 at 11:16 pm

Realizing what we have, what we bring to the table, the role that we are playing in the totality, is the most hidden, yet vital experience of a life. It turns out we have to go through periods of not knowing, before we can look back in retrospect what we brought to the table. Everyone always does bring something unique.

bruce January 21, 2018 at 5:04 pm

Heard you on CBC Tapestry today…. good interview… I’m retired and last year started reading my old books again; as i’m getting older… I find that many of my books seem like new…. sentences and paragraphs that I have underlined, I had forgotten about and it is good to read them over again….
Also, much of my interest in Zen Buddhism is in tune what you have been writing about… It’s sad to see so many young folks these days walking down the street all “wired” up, or “texting” and missing the real life world that surrounds them… Also, liked what u had to say about doing the dishes; the practice can be a form of meditation…. Old Zen Quote: “When doing the dishes, just do the dishes…”

David Cain January 23, 2018 at 9:33 am

Health experts are becoming more and more seriously concerned now about the psychological effects smartphones are having on the generations that never lived life without them. They might even be causing permanent developmental issues. I think we’re going to look back on this era appalled.

Tammy January 22, 2018 at 7:41 pm

I feel like hearing your interview on CBC, and then reading the associated articles here, has made me switch from a sort of robotic “acquisition phase” to a mindful “absorption phase”. I am sitting here looking at my newly reorganized books and feeling so happy about the idea of digging into them vs. buying more, more, more! There is a sense of permission to disconnect from the power source that pushes my consumerism.

David Cain January 23, 2018 at 9:34 am

I feel that too. Supposedly we acquired all these things so we could absorb their value in some way, but most of us own things from which we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of the value we’ve gotten from them.

Brenda January 31, 2018 at 9:38 pm

I’m thrilled to have discovered you recently.
I needed to hear what you’re writing, and take specific action in my own life.

The last line of what you wrote reminds me of moving into this house 15 years ago – HUGE to us at the time. We were in awe of the high vaulted ceilings and the many windows. Over time, toddlers grew to older teens and our once spacious home now seems cramped. From time to time, I remind myself of the awe I felt initially, and specifically of the reaction of a young friend living in condos down the street who peered in to the front room with it’s 2 story high ceiling and said we lived in a CASTLE! My goal is to reclaim that joy and wonder, clear out and care for THIS home, and remember that like you said, while I’ve taken it for granted, (or even coveted a larger, newer one we won’t need since the boys will be all off to school soon) someone else would be thrilled with it. Need to practice gratitude for my diamond field.

Nick A February 2, 2018 at 10:37 am

I have taken the decision not to read any books for the forseable future, instead just enjoying my life, keeping my activities very simple, seeing all time as my own and not constantly ‘looking forward’ to the evening where I can ‘relax’ / ‘looking forward’ to the weekend etc. I have reached a point where I am quite happy to have things take as long as they take or if something unexpected crops up to take it in my stride. I have also dramatically simplified my possessions, got rid of things that I know I will never do/use. I feel like I have my life back and even enjoying things like doing the washing up (‘doing the dishes’). I also take the time to sit and ‘be’.

Marvin Dennis III February 7, 2018 at 3:57 pm

Newness is very short lived. That adaptation principle hits all of us. Too quickly, too often.
So, combining this with the “How to treat yourself in 2018” post, my treat will be the time to go deep.

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