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Why the Depth Year Was My Best Year

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Towards the end of last year I proposed an idea that unexpectedly caught fire: what if, for a whole year, you stopped acquiring new things or taking on new pursuits. Instead, you return to abandoned projects, stalled hobbies, unread books and other neglected intentions, and go deeper with them than you ever have before.

The “Depth Year” was supposed to be hypothetical—a reflection on how our consumer reflexes tend to spread our aspirations too thin. Because it’s so easy to acquire new pursuits, we tend to begin what are actually enormous, lifelong projects (such as drawing, or language-learning) too often, and abandon them too easily.

This chronic lack of follow-through makes us feel bad, but worse than that, we never actually reach the level of fulfillment we believed we would when we first bought the guitar or the drawing pencils. Instead we end up on a kind of novelty treadmill—before things click, we’ve moved on to the exciting beginning stages of something new.

People immediately resonated with this dilemma, and its hypothetical remedy. The original article was read by a million people. I went on national radio to talk about it.

But what surprised me most was how many people told me they intended to actually do this Depth Year idea. One reader started a Facebook group for people to discuss their year’s progress, and there are over 900 people in it now.

I felt somewhat responsible for all this enthusiasm, so I did it too. It’s now the end of that year, and I can honestly say my life has changed. Going deeper rather than wider for a year was indeed transformative, but not quite in the way I expected.

Depth is a Mindset

If you read people’s accounts of their own Depth Years, on their blogs or in the discussion group, the first thing you notice is that everyone has a different idea of what “depth” means. To some it’s simply a strict moratorium on new books and new hobbies. To others it’s a more general pruning of waste, a suspicion of the impulse to acquire, and a refocusing on what really matters.

So it’s not surprising that people reported a lot of different outcomes. There were a few common themes, however:

People started making art again. Long-inactive writers, painters, makers and doers of all kinds got their supplies out and actually made stuff again. Later on in my year I started drawing again—after a 25-year hiatus. (There is definitely a curious link between depth and creativity, but I’ll get to that.)

People reinvested in their friendships and relationships. “Meeting new people” is something we tend to try when we’re feeling isolated or stagnant. But there are already great people in our rolodexes, and it’s easy to take them for granted.

People noticed how much they already have. With depth as a guiding principle, we naturally start to look for value in what’s already available to us—in our closets, bookshelves, and address books—and invariably we start to appreciate how much was already there.

That last one probably captures the central insight behind the Depth Year experience: there are vast reserves of untapped value in what we already have. We just need to cultivate it.

The unread stories on your bookshelf alone could change your life—if you read them. You could spend the next few decades enjoying ever-new breakthroughs in a single hobby, such as drawing, writing, piano, or yoga—if you went deeper with those pursuits rather than taking on new ones. 

Cultivating that dormant value, however, requires us to stay the course through certain dry and tricky parts where we once stopped and did something else. It is at those moments, those forks in the road between breaking new ground falling back on convenience and predictability, when we can choose depth.

My Depth Year

I didn’t follow the original premise of the Depth Year, which is “no new hobbies, no new possessions.” Instead I simply tried to keep depth at the front of my mind when I made decisions.

To my surprise, my habits began to shift quite naturally. Depth wasn’t so much a game of persistently striving to top myself, it was more like a new lens for looking at the tools and opportunities that had always been there. Essentially, I saw more possibilities everywhere: in my pantry, in my wardrobe, in my bookshelf, in my plans, in the different ways I might spend a spare hour.

Enjoying ordinary things seemed to take less effort. Without anything resembling striving, I derived more satisfaction from meals, furniture, cups of tea, walks to the store, hellos and goodbyes with friends, even odd details like illustrations in books and the shape my own handwriting.

In hindsight I attribute this effect to a deceptively simple shift in where I was expecting to find fulfillment: here, rather than there. As I got reacquainted with the things and people already around me, I started to let go of a certain background belief—pervasive in our consumption-driven culture—that fulfillment is something whose ingredients still need to be acquired.   

These changes were all positive and welcome. The real value of my Depth Year, however, didn’t come from this new level of gratitude, or the rewards of taking certain pursuits a little deeper. Something much more significant happened.

Without going into the details, I’ll just say that this year, several lifelong personal issues began untangle themselves in a way I didn’t think was possible. I feel more free and more confident than I have since… jeez… childhood?

A number of factors contributed to this rapid untangling, and the subsequent flood of epiphanies. It couldn’t have happened without the Depth Year lens, though, because of a particular demand the pursuit of depth makes on us: we can’t go deeper in a given area without coming to terms with why we were never able to before.

In other words, we end up having to figure out what’s really stopping us. Why do we tend to back off at a certain depth? I assumed it was simply because it’s always easier to spread out and enjoy the rapid progress at the beginning of something else, than it is to tough it out with irregular French verbs or tricky guitar chords.

Presumably, it is sometimes only that. But I think more often we stop digging because we find something extremely painful about working past a certain point, and we don’t want to sort it out. We don’t want to run into our limits, we don’t want to feel dumb, we don’t want to get rejected. We don’t want to put our hearts on the line if we don’t have to, and all the important things involve our hearts.

Relationships, for example, can only go so deep when you’re afraid to risk rejection, say what you really think, or reach out to people who might respond badly, or not at all.

Creativity is easy to turn away from for the same reason. It’s risky. Trying to draw something for the first time in a decade is terrifying. Showing people your work is even scarier.

So we live in great danger of inadvertently keeping our most cherished pursuits, the ones that promise the most fulfillment, buried down there in the realm of “potential,” where they’re safe from the real world and its limitations. In the meantime, we find other things to do—things that offer less meaning, but more assured outcomes—and we just get older.

Going deeper means finally seeing what’s really going to come of it. And that’s damn scary. Existentially scary. It is our one life, after all.

This is all pretty new to me. But I can tell you two things: as a rule, fulfillment awaits us downward from here, not outward; and from now on, every year will be a Depth Year.

***

Photo by Marco Assmann (cropped from original)

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{ 52 Comments }

Brian December 30, 2018 at 9:31 pm

Heard your piece on CBC.
I’m going to do a freeze on new acquisitions for the 2019 year and see how I feel…perhaps I can live the balance of my life by just putting to use what I already have.
Brian

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David Cain December 31, 2018 at 8:56 am

Best of luck with it… If you think about what you’d do if you suddenly couldn’t acquire anything new for a year, I’m sure it would become quickly obvious how much is already at your disposal.

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Dave Hughes December 30, 2018 at 11:29 pm

It’s amazing what an impact this concept has had on so many people’s lives, including your own. While I didn’t embrace the concept as thoroughly as many people did, I have significantly reduced my purchases of books and CDs throughout the year, and I’m really enjoying rediscovering many of the CDs I own that I haven’t listened to for years.

Thank you for being such a deep and observant thinker and for sharing your insights with the world. You have improved my life and many others’ lives.

As a final note, I think it’s humorous that in last year’s article, you wrote “Maybe he’ll finally read his copy of Moby Dick,” and in the right sidebar, I see that you have recently finished reading Moby Dick.

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David Cain December 31, 2018 at 8:58 am

Haha I did read Moby Dick! I’m excited for all the other dormant stories awaiting my on my shelf.

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Celia December 31, 2018 at 2:31 am

Brilliant.

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Belladonna Took December 31, 2018 at 2:43 am

I missed the post you refer to, but I think I was still too busy floundering, trying to decide how to do ALL the things, to be able to commit to something like that. Now… Well, I’m still bang in the middle of one of the toughest challenges of my life, and I find that my response is a strong, intense and urgent desire to get rid of clutter and open up space for calm, in my home, my relationships and my life. So I guess I’m heading into a depth year too. I like that idea!

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David Cain December 31, 2018 at 8:59 am

Follow the urge! The original article is here: https://www.raptitude.com/2017/12/go-deeper-not-wider/

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Ann December 31, 2018 at 3:38 am

Hi, I love this idea. I remember reading David’s piece last year and whether consciously or not, I have spent the last year reinvigorating an old friendship by asking New questions of my friend so that I can really get to know her better.
I have also “rediscovered” books that I already read as a teenager and am amazed to see that my perception of and reaction to the books is completely different now and that I have found ideas in them that I hadn’t known were there in my teens!
My project for retirement (I’m still 10 years away;)) will be to rediscover hobbies, interests and pastimes I loved in the past.
Thanks David.

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David Cain December 31, 2018 at 9:01 am

I can’t tell you how great it’s been to just start drawing stuff again. I used to do it every day, and stopped when I was a teenager, I guess because it felt increasingly “childish” when I was trying to be all grown up. But that same sense of freedom and creativity was still there when I picked up a pencil and paper again. It just took some guts this time.

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Lindsay MacGregor December 31, 2018 at 4:03 am

Perfect. Thanks David.

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Lina December 31, 2018 at 4:32 am

I remember reading your article “Go Deeper, Not Wider” last year and thinking to myself that I should try it. It was actually the article which brought me to your website.

I bookmarked the article and kept returning to it every now and then, but without fully embracing the philosophy/practice. But I intend to make 2019 my depth year.

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David Cain December 31, 2018 at 9:02 am

Great! If you want some reminders/accountability, join the Facebook group (linked in the article).

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Accidental FIRE December 31, 2018 at 5:28 am

This is great. I’d like to think I went deeper on my graphic design side hustle and my writing, and I didn’t take o anything new. Now whether or not I got any better is a whole different matter…

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David Cain December 31, 2018 at 9:03 am

I think as long as we’re not just going through the motions, we’re getting better at anything we do, as long as we do it. Sometimes I don’t realize I’ve gotten better at something until I look at my old work.

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Rocky December 31, 2018 at 6:04 am

Howdy David….I think you should consider writing a book on this subject.
Depth being the primary theme, but also involving some of your other concepts to help people in the pursuit of depth. I think there’s more substance here than in many self-help books. Also an avenue for you to go deeper yourself. Many Thanks

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David Cain December 31, 2018 at 9:04 am

I am considering it ;)

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Rocky December 31, 2018 at 1:07 pm

If Marie Kondo can make millions off a book about tidying up the house, I think you’re looking at large potential here. I know I’ll buy it :)

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Anne January 5, 2019 at 1:41 am

Yes! That would be great! I love Marie Kondo’s books and I would read yours, too.

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Andy December 31, 2018 at 6:59 am

Brilliant, thank you.

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Rama Ramakrishnan December 31, 2018 at 10:07 am

Loved the original Depth Year post and loved this one too. Thank you.

Inspired by this …

“You could spend the next few decades enjoying ever-new breakthroughs in a single hobby, such as drawing, writing, piano, or yoga—if you went deeper with those pursuits rather than taking on new ones.”

… I have listed some ‘spend the next 5 years on’ candidates this morning and will pick or two to go deep on.

On a related note, I am curious if people who like the Depth Year concept tend to be more introverted (e.g., prefer to hang out with a few, deep friends rather than with lots of acquaintances).

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Sharon Hanna December 31, 2018 at 10:10 am

Wow. Many things you spoke of in the blog “happened to me”, not the least of which were epiphanies similar to what you mentioned about lifelong personal issues. Have been loving even just writing grocery lists, holding pens, have the paint brushes out – still need to buy paint. Have taken ancient CDs to work and am re-appreciating them! Along with digging how steam curls out of the coffee cup and the birds on the feeder outside – mindfulness stuff – there seems to be much more calm. Thanks again for your work, David.

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David Cain January 1, 2019 at 11:02 am

I love writing grocery lists too. It’s so interesting how the depth lens aims our gaze much closer, to what’s right in front of us.

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Clay Nicolsen December 31, 2018 at 11:03 am

I’ve been doing the same thing over the past year or so, essentially without being aware of it. It started with Marie Kondo’s book, and that progressed to “no more new stuff…no more new things.” I read your essay on going deeper not wider, and it resonated with me as part of the same goal; stop burying myself with stuff that is keeping me from what I really want to do.

This year I’m going to focus a bit harder. Thanks for the little reminder.

Clay

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Steven Schrembeck December 31, 2018 at 11:27 am

I started writing again and I’ve been working on my first novel consistently (almost) every day for a few months now. Thanks to you and David Clear I’ve become much more focused on consistently pouring time, every day, into just a few habits. Studying machine learning, writing fiction, excercising.

It’s been great! Thanks so much (again)!

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David Cain January 1, 2019 at 11:02 am

Hey way to go Steven. Do you mean James Clear? His book has been a big influence on my year

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Esther Nagle December 31, 2018 at 1:13 pm

I adore this. I am going to use ‘depth’ as my focus for 2019. In 2018 I realised that I have ADHD, and boy does it show! At first I thought that the discovery was a blessing, that it explained so much about my life and all the things I hated about myself. But in time it seemed that the more I thought about the ADHD the more it seemed to have me in its grip….the shiny objects got shinier, my focus diminished and my life seemed ever more scattered. So I reckon that if I give as much energy in 2019 to thinking about depth as I have to thinking about ADHD in 2018 then life can only improve.

There is much that I want to achieve in my life, and I know I can’t do it all at once, despite what the ADHD tells me. I know that if I apply the depth year idea to my life, and use this to curb the shiny impulses, and double down on the things that I really do want to achieve more than anything else then I can use this to enhance the superpower qualities of ADHD, and combat its more destructive aspects. Thank you for giving me this gift. Happy new year to you!

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David Cain January 1, 2019 at 11:04 am

I would love to hear how this goes for you. We live in a world of abundant shiny new things, and I would imagine ADHD only makes them more attention-grabbing

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Timothy Crosby December 31, 2018 at 2:24 pm

Thank you David! My Depth Year was refreshing as it pushed me too find ways to release some of the locked-up value in my life (and to stop trapping more value needlessly). It leads me now into 2019 for a Year of Yoga where I plan to work on being even more present and mindful by developing a consistent practice of walking, yoga, & breathing.

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David Cain January 1, 2019 at 11:06 am

Cheers to your year of yoga! I’ve been a daily meditator for a long time now but this year I’m going deeper with it, and embarking on a teacher-training program.

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Marco A Rodas December 31, 2018 at 2:33 pm

Dec 2017 to now has been especially difficult for me. I blamed it on reaching 50 years old. Not it [sigh]. And yes, anxiety and depression runs through my system like Mercury. But that’s not it either (I do take my meds every day, go to work, eat, etc.). The “Depth Year” seems ‘new’, although I see similarities with E. Tolle’s “Stillness Speaks”. I hope that similarity makes it easier to apply to my 2019 journey, MY Depth Year.

Thanks for sharing.

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Amit January 1, 2019 at 3:49 am

Fantastic write up David.

When there are TOO many things on ones plate, all we are doing is juggling them, with the express desire to complete them,before moving on to the next ones.
I was going through some reddit posts regarding the huge backlog of games that people end up buying in their steam library, only to realize that they will NEVER be able to finish even half of what they have spend money on.
Thankfully I don’t have that problem,but this made me pause and question my purchase decisions in other areas.

Way back,around 25-30 years ago,when there was no internet,and no distractions,my weekends would be spend in starting and actually finishing a book that I had set my mind on.
Nothing would pull me away from this task that I had planned.
I remember how single minded and focused I was on the task at hand.
Finishing the book late on Saturday would feel like actually successfully completing and enjoying the task to my hearts content.
This is the feeling that I was missing for years…and all due to the ‘distractions’ of the consumer world.
In all honesty I and only I am to blame for this approach and behavior.

Even re-reading the books was not a chore since I wasn’t hopping from one task to the next…in a mad dash to consume (in my case more and more books)

Stopping and ‘smelling the roses’ is a lost art in today’s world unless one actually realizes what one is missing, actually stop consuming and re-learn to enjoy the things that we already possess.

I think the best way to go deep is to have just a few hobbies (that you can consciously devote time towards), instead of wanting to do a whole lot of so called ‘experiences’.
You will automatically be grateful for all the things that you are able to spend time on, when you have few distracting ‘experiences’.
The focus on ‘experiences’ to enhance happiness instead of ‘stuff’ is well known, but the way it is presented in today’s social media obsessed world is imo warped.
When we die, we will NOT have experienced a million things.
Focusing on a few things that you are enjoying or plan to enjoy instead of what you haven’t or aren’t able to (due to money/time/health) will diminish the joy from the things that you actually do enjoy.

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David Cain January 1, 2019 at 11:12 am

That’s what it’s distilling down to for me… there are a few things I want to do a lot of and get good at, and I’m willing to let go of quite a bit in order to do those things well. Part of it is seeing through that illusion that we will be able to reach the full depth (eventually) of everything we try — I know that when I buy a book, I assume I’ll read it. When I buy a musical instrument, I assume I’ll get good at it. But this is a big assumption that is usually wrong if you go by the numbers. There are a few things we will take really deep, though, and a few is enough.

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Jonas January 1, 2019 at 10:39 am

A principled question: How do you decide which projects/ideas/things to deepen and which to abandon? I find this difficult. I suppose I should listen to my “inner voice” but how do I know that this voice isn’t simply the voice of laziness, fear etc? For example, I have been trying to learn a new language but I am starting to question if it is what I truly want since I feel so unmotivated, but then I question this questioning in turn as it could be simple laziness that motivates it…

Have you written about this somewhere else?

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David Cain January 1, 2019 at 11:14 am

There’s no easy answer for that, but we do need to let things go. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with just picking one for the time being, doing it with the intention to go deep, and see what’s really there. If it’s not the right thing, you’ll know sooner or later. But I think we need to try (with some seriousness) to know, for any given project.

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Amit January 1, 2019 at 11:02 pm

In my experience cutting down on distractions and focusing on just a few things helps immensely.
Once your mind is clear of all distractions, you can focus on the few things that actually give you pleasure, peace and satisfaction.
FOMO and constantly being on social media aggravates this problem.
Stop caring what others are doing and just try out a few things that interest you.
You should be able to zero in on the things that you really enjoy (despite the occasional slump or hardships) and see rapid progress in them,while the ones that you find boring and unenthusiastic will be dropped and you wont even feel bad about dropping them.

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Milos January 1, 2019 at 5:34 pm

We always consider that new is better, and we rather watch a new movie even though there are hundreds of better old classics we have not seen. Same is with music, books, people, etc., as we are slaves to our reward system favoring the discovery of new, and our Fear of Missing Out. We have already invested time to select what is of our interest and filled out our shelves, read-later lists, bookmarks, watch-later queues, so instead of looking to top-up each of those, it does make sense to give out FOMO and just go with what we already know we like.

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David Cain January 2, 2019 at 12:53 pm

I know! It’s unbelievable how much is already out there. Even if they stopped making music, movies and books today, there’d be enough great stuff for many lifetimes. I guess one cornerstone of a capitalist society is the emphasis on new and novel, because it’s much better suited to moneymaking.

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Daniil January 2, 2019 at 4:56 am

That’s pretty interesting and a bit frightening concept. I do realise that most of my long-term hobbies came to a halt due to long commutes and having a kid. Perhaps that why I somewhat switched to videogames. The frighttening part is whether one can become at least a moderately good at drawing (for example) doing it while commuting in self-taught mode.
One voice screams that it’s too hard to do => a waste of time, but maybe experience itself would be worth a while.

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David Cain January 2, 2019 at 12:55 pm

I think we get better at things much quicker than we think. I could almost guarantee you that if you drew one thing a day (even if you only spent five minutes on it) you’d be significantly better after a year, and pretty great in a few years. The time is going by anyway, so we can either fritter away that time into forgettable apps, podcasts, and rumination, or we can use it. It’s the opposite of a waste of time :)

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Carla Creith January 2, 2019 at 12:31 pm

As I listen to you on CBC I am in my bedroom purging my closet and dresser. I have found the sorting and clearing out very meditative. I have realized how little of my stuff speaks to me and makes me happy. I feel this purge, combined with my resolution of no frivolous spending for a year, will help clear my soul.

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David Cain January 2, 2019 at 12:56 pm

Behold the power of radio!

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joiedusoleil January 2, 2019 at 4:09 pm

As one of your many blog followers, I was pleasantly surprised to hear you on “Tapestry” today, on CBC Radio. Using your “Depth” concept will help me to get back to a long-neglected calligraphy project, which has been stalled for years! On my desk I have a sign (in calligraphy, of course!) which says: “Do one thing well. Concentrate on the one thing you are presently doing.” This is going to take discipline, but I’m going to enjoy it!
Thank you, David.

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Ashley Kung January 4, 2019 at 4:34 am

The grass isn’t greener on the other side. It’s greener where you water it.

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Anne January 5, 2019 at 1:43 am

Thanks, Ashley. I’m going to remember this.

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karam malkon January 4, 2019 at 6:46 am

I applied the depth rule to one part of my life to keep it simple and that is “acquiring” new hobbies. I stuck with the latest hobby that interested me last December and have been practicing it since.
I can’t describe the fulfillment that I felt and keep feeling every time I make a photo that I’m proud of, it’s unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
Thank you for the inspiration, David!

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Shannon D January 5, 2019 at 9:03 am

This. I need this. Thank you David for your writing.

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Susan Telfer January 6, 2019 at 8:08 pm

I heard you on Tapestry and am intrigued by the depth year. In the past two years I started ukulele and watercolour painting for the first time. I will definitely keep on working on those areas. I am a poet and stopped writing after my son was seriously ill two years ago and I felt poetry had abandoned me in the time when it was supposed to be most helpful. I am now rereading an poetry anthology I found on my bookshelf (Risking Everything) and remembering there are lots of poems that are deeply meaningful to me.
Also, so much mind space is saved by little things like sticking with the same bathroom product, or favourite cookbook, instead of constantly being prodded to try something new.
Thank you for your good work.

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Peter January 7, 2019 at 6:04 am

Thank you for this article. It has come to me at the right time.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently in the context of mastery and the idea that it takes a long time of practice and reflection to really understand something.

The spark for this was a quote from Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh in his book the “Art of Living”, which I read before Christmas. He says acout how his practice has changed over the years and how he had a different understanding of Buddhism after 45 years compared to 10 years.

So that got me thinking about how reliant I’ve been on easily digestiable web content for the last 10 years (learn Buddhism in 15 minutes, learn Korean in an hour!) and how I then felt dissapointed that my understanding was not as good as I thought.

I had already resolved to pare down my interests this year and go deep on a few subjects. For example, my partner and I are doing the 10 x 10 board game challenge (which originated as a counter to the cult of the new) where you play 10 games you already own 10 times each and really try to understand and enjoy them.

So thank you for providing this framework David. I look forward to the rewards of depth against the ease of shallowness.

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James Bailey January 8, 2019 at 11:02 pm

Hi David,
I read the depth year article on the heels of a developmental retreat with a dozen other people for three days. For the past 15 years we’ve been coming together for three days in December to work with each other on different “themes” as well call them. For example, we’ve worked with Faith, Presence, Play, Intuition, Love, Forgiveness, Compassion, to name of few of our distinctions.

In the context of deepening our way of being in these areas, and our way of embracing and manifesting these distinctions, we read from many sources such as Mark Nepo, Parker Palmer, and Tin Nhat Hanh.

I wanted to express gratitude and appreciation to you for your contribution to lives way beyond what you know. Over the years we have read and shared many of your writings as well – and our lives have been furthered by your contribution to us. In the case of the depth year, we just gone done meeting and plumbing the depths of “Presence” this year, and last. There is much closeness in depth and presence, and I might add fulfillment.

Thank you again for being who you are and sharing your meaning out into the world for all of us to be touched by.

You are a true gem.

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David Cain January 15, 2019 at 2:57 pm

Thanks James. On my end, I’m just trying to share ideas that resonate, ones that people might put to use in their lives. But I just put those ides out there — I don’t really get to see how and where the ideas help, if they do. So it means a lot to me to hear they’ve made a contribution to your well-being. Thanks for sharing my work and I wish you a deep and present new year.

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Charlie Rogers January 15, 2019 at 6:10 pm

I did this unknowingly for 2018 and it changed my life.

I got tired of starting something new and never following through with it, I had so many projects that were never actually completed.

I believe it was the excitement of starting something new and fresh, and I believe my ego got in the way of the desired result.

So I looked back at a few projects and passions I wanted to pursue and I stuck with it.

Halfway through the year everything I began to get that excitement I got when I first started, I began to get good at something and it really gave me more motivation to keep going forward.

It’s ‘the shiny ball syndrome’. People love the idea of something but find it difficult to follow through.

Thanks for this post it was really helpful!

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Jasmine January 16, 2019 at 10:28 am

I started my 2019 with the depth lens in place, but reading this article focused it. It’s been interesting to see how so many of us are on the same wavelength of stepping back from possessions and the seductive trappings of newness — all of us letting go of what we don’t need and finally being able to see the treasures we still have. I want to get good at a few things this year — well, one thing, really — and decided to funnel all my energy toward it. I can’t imagine where I’ll be in a year if I stick with it, and that prospect is so much more exciting than the idea of picking up something new.

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