Vipassana Meditation and the Nature of Happiness

Photo by Kosal Ley

Have you ever been doing something for an extended period of time and found yourself lost in thought about something entirely unrelated to what you’re doing? This sometimes happens when we’re carrying out a mundane task like cleaning or organizing clutter. Other times, it happens while we’re passively waiting for something to happen. Some researchers have compared these kinds of states to Flow States, states where we become so immersed in one activity or thought process that we lose our sense of time perspective and surroundings. Other researchers have argued that this may be the basis of stress in what is called Stimulus-Independent Thought. But a rather curious question to ask yourself about these kinds of mental states is:

Did you choose to have these thoughts?

Philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris recognizes processes similar to these as stimulus independent thought, that is, brain activity which takes place in the midline regions of the brain, namely, the medial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex. Stimulus independent thought occurs most often when we are disengaged with intentional activity and are doing nothing more than biding our time. In the research of Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth, using a smartphone app which enabled people to monitor their ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions, Gilbert and Killingsworth concluded that, “…people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and … doing so typically makes them unhappy.” The study actually determined that people spent roughly 46.9% of time lost in these stimulus independent thoughts, thereby dramatically increasing experiences of unhappiness. This means that while we may have the illusion of being in complete control of our thoughts and ideas, we actually spend about half our waking lives in thoughts that we did not necessarily choose to have.

Neuroscientists Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze, and John-Dylan Haynes carried out experiments that involved having test subjects decide on a switch to press from a set of options. At the finale of the study, the researchers concluded that, “…a network of high-level control areas can begin to shape an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.” They summarize their study with, “…the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 [seconds] before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.” What this suggests is that our decisions, however intentional they may seem, actually begin to culminate in brain processes that begin well before the decision enters awareness. What does this mean about our experience of the world and of our lives?

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The GRV Method: How to Take Control of What’s Most Important

For years, I’ve struggled with indecision. In the few years after my college graduation, I almost blindly led myself into several irrational career changes as a result of frequent cognitive dissonance. Perhaps some of you have experienced the same kind of problem: You see someone that you respect and admire doing well both professionally and personally. What they’re doing with their life sounds interesting. Immediately, you decide that you’re not doing enough, that you need to do more, that you’re doing something, or some iteration of the three. This is where our problems begin.

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

What I’ve learned is that if we don’t first decide what’s important to us right from the very beginning, and figure out how to keep this in mind as we go about making important decisions in our day-to-day, we’ll find ourselves pushed and pulled back and forth into one life decision after another, one thought after another, and never actually get anything done.

This system first began as a tool that I created for some of my students who also struggled with stress and indecisiveness, but quickly turned in to a tool that I began using myself. The moment finally came when I realized that it was time to stop following every single opportunity that came my way. As counterintuitive as it may sound, I had to start saying no to more things. I had get clear about what I needed to get done based on the roles that I already filled in my life. Everyone has long-term goals and plans, but unless we do exceptionally well at what we’re already responsible for, we’ll always be paralyzed by over-analysis. It’s about “taking control of [your] circumstances instead of passively awaiting for them to decide [your] fate.”

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Fear, Goal-Setting, and Incremental Learning Theory

Photo by Arnold Exconde

Most people have trouble believing me when I tell them that I didn’t actually read a book cover-to-cover until sometime during college. This used to be something that I was deeply ashamed of because I once falsely believed that my ability to read was commensurate with my level of intelligence. Conversely, the hidden lesson of these kinds of painful experiences have the potential to reveal an immense amount of insight into our lives. Today, I am an avid reader with an extensive library spanning a wide range of topics. In fact, some of the most frequent questions I get from students and readers are about books. Today, I spend a large majority of my time reading. I even credit most of my personal growth as a person to the insights I’ve gained from reading books through a constant application of the ideas I’ve collected from them. If you had told me twenty years ago that I would one day be an avid reader as an adult, I never would have believed you. Today, it’s a way of life.

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External vs. Internal Standards of Happiness

Photo by Zachary Young

What I’ve noticed most in both myself and other young professionals is our obsession with this thing called “happiness.” Due to the largely convoluted system that educated us for almost two decades, we’ve been conditioned to think that happiness and success are arrival points that come to us only after the fulfillment of certain prerequisites. We’re taught that learning, studying, and achieving certain compliance requirements are the items necessary for experiencing this happiness and success. This unintentional conditioning continues for years and gradually becomes embedded into nearly every aspect of our lives, often to our own dismay. While I don’t discredit the value of hard work or the school system altogether, what I do disagree with is hard work towards things that are entirely unimportant to us from the start. It seems absurd at face value to strive tirelessly to meet standards of society that are in reality wholly disconnected with our intuitive desire for self-realization and self-expression. Most have had the confidence and the foresight to study what they love to do in college and end up working in careers that they enjoy. Others, succumbing to external pressures from parents, friends, and counselors who have misaligned incentives, end up working in careers that they know they do not enjoy, but unfortunately cannot escape due to the pressures associated with identity and fear.

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An Ode to Noise

This article was originally featured on the El Paso Herald-Post.

I first started playing drums sometime right after my 6th birthday. My dad, after months of being constantly begged, finally decided to buy me my first pair of drumsticks from a local pawn shop.

From that day on, everything in the house became some kind of percussion instrument. I remember drumming on every hard surface I could find, experimenting with timbres and textures, somehow managing to land free lessons with a kid who lived across the street and played on the drumline where I eventually went to high school.

I learned the correct way to hold the sticks, how to think about rhythm and sticking patterns, and even how to do some of the flashy stick tricks I’d use much later on in my playing career.

When I first wanted to join the school band in 6th grade, my teachers were amazed that I knew so much without any formal instruction. I eventually went on to study music for my undergraduate degree, perform with world-renowned musicians, play under the batons of some of the most respected conductors in our day, and eventually earn a living through teaching music full-time.

But of course, any parent who has had a child who played a musical instrument knows that all of this comes with a great cost: lots and lots of noise.

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The Guide for the Financially Perplexed

In 2015, Forbes published an article online outlining what they called 7 Frightening Millennial Money Trends. In in, they detailed some surprising realities, including:

  • Almost half of all millennials are not saving for retirement
  • The millennial generation has a much larger delinquency rate on bills than any other generation
  • Since 2008, student loan debt has risen 84%

The greater and more frightening reality, in my observation, is that these trends don’t only describe the millennial generation. Financial problems like lack of a retirement nest egg, delinquency on bills, and massive students debts are all problems shared by a vast majority of people in the United States. An APA survey in 2014 showed that 72% of individuals living in the United States state that money is among the top stressors in their lives. My question is: Where did all of this come from?

Being close to the millennial generation myself, I first faced the reality of the consequences of poor financial habits after graduating from college. While still in school, I had the opportunity of meeting people from all different majors and backgrounds through my involvement with various student organizations. What I found most startling was how many of my friends had squandered away their earnings and savings potential in the few years following graduation. It seemed that very few of them, despite their apparent aptitude, had figured out how to plan for retirement, invest and save strategically, or determine if a purchase was a smart one or not. I recall one of my personal financial advisors telling me how much of a shame it was that so many people in their early twenties were making such respectable incomes, yet losing it all as a result of poor financial decision making.

In almost all of my work as personal strategist, the first thing I teach people is personal finance. As this is the single-greatest stressor in most people’s lives, I find that if this area can be put under control, many other “problems” we think we have naturally dissipate. For most of my clients, it’s hard to see five to ten years down the road when they don’t know how they’re going to pay all of their bills this year. In those first years after graduating, I spent almost two years studying the best financial books, interviewing the best financial advisors I could find, studying investment strategy, and at one point almost decided to make a career move into financial consulting.

The truth is, we shouldn’t have so many financial problems. What I’ve learned is that a majority of our financial problems stem from a few key areas:

  1. There is no true financial education in school
  2. Most of us lack an awareness of our spending habits
  3. We think that money is far more complicated than it really is

After several conversations with friends and clients, I’ve decided to put this post together for anyone who has ever stressed about money. These ideas are a summation of everything I’ve learned, applied, and taught to clients in the past three years. This strategy is simple, but is nonetheless the result of many hours of study and interviews and has proven to be effective in many of my clients and, not to mention, myself included. It has undertones of Benjamin Graham, Daniel Solin, Warren Buffett, and Dave Ramsey. All in all, this is something that I hope everyone takes for themselves, develops, and executes. Money shouldn’t be the greatest stressor in our lives. The fact that it is is just an indicator of far greater problems in our society. On the contrary, money should be a tool to get us what and where we want. Bearing this in mind, remember that the longer that we defer making serious financial decisions, the far greater our problems become down the road. At the end I’ll also include a reading list of some of the most important books that I’ve learned from for all of you overachievers who want to go learn more about portfolio theory or basic economics. I would love to hear back about questions and points of clarification. This is for all of you, and if there’s anything I can add, please do let me know.

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Our Ethics and Global Warming

The National Wildlife Foundation estimates that the United States is the second largest global contributor of carbon emissions, though only comprising a mere 4.4% of the global population. It seems that the apparent dangers of rising sea levels, devastating coastal floods, damaging wildfires, destructive hurricanes, and increasingly threatening heat waves somehow all seem to fall short in providing the necessary motivation needed for a global coalition on energy reform. The international conversation on global warming can at times seem discouragingly pessimistic. While the scientific community shares the consensus that global warming is indeed a critical global issue, it seems that the movement for an international communal effort has only begun to gain momentum. Meanwhile, newer green technologies are continually competing in broad markets against other long established companies and products. Even worse, unequal tax burdens for existing energy companies, as well as a failure of the market to value green energies to begin with, are only some of the contributing factors that are slowing the global green energy movement.

The reasoning behind the argument against energy reform stems from two basic beliefs: first, that the science is wrong. Surprisingly, there is still a large population of people who either deny the implications of rising carbon emissions or deny the scientific community’s findings altogether. Second, the more pragmatic critics note that while it may indeed be in our best interest to accelerate the transition to more efficient sources of energy, the reality of capitalistic interests, insufficient technologies, and unscalable initiatives seem to be the unsurmountable challenges that many are not yet willing to face.

Considering that the effects of carbon emissions are affecting the planet, this brings up an unavoidable question: Are we humans the only ones who are suffering from this global phenomenon? The International Union for the Conservation of Energy estimates that nearly 21,000 species of animal life are at risk of extinction due to rising CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. While this number does not include plant life, with such a huge proportion of the natural kingdom in such alarming danger, the question must be asked: Do we have an ethical duty not only to ourselves, but also to the other species of life on this planet to do something about our carbon emissions?

In light of these considerations, many countries are making strides in addressing these issues. On January 1st, 2017, The Costa Rican Electricity Institute reported that 98.2% of the country’s electricity generated in 2016 was created by renewable energy sources. Costa Rica’s eclectic mix of efforts include hydro, geothermal, wind, solar, and biomass energy sources. Even with such great efforts, Costa Rica currently ranks 42nd in the 2016 Energy Trilemma Index, a study that ranks countries in three domains: Energy Security, Energy Equity, and Environmental Sustainability. Countries leading the globe in renewable sources of energy include Denmark, Switzerland, and Sweden, each scoring a perfect A in each of the domains, per the 2016 index. The United States came in 14th place with the weakest domain being Environmental Sustainability, which the council defines as, “…the achievement of supply- and demand-side energy efficiencies and development of energy supply from renewable and other low carbon sources.”

While an all-or-nothing approach seems to be a looming inevitability, the global leaders in sustainability seem to have already come to the realization that the longer we wait for a global coalition, the greater the danger we are in. Countries like Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, and Costa Rica seem to be hinting to the world that we have more control over our future than we might think. Indeed, this is the mentality that we as Americans should keep as we make decisions that affect lives other than our own. Websites like suggest ways in which individuals can reduce their own carbon footprint, including ideas for our driving habits, traveling, home ownership, and even weddings. Surprisingly, a 2005 study completed at the University of Chicago discovered that switching to a battery-powered vehicle, like a Toyota Prius, saves, on average, roughly 1 ton of carbon dioxide per driver each year. The study also showed that switching to a plant-based diet saves, on average, 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, a much more inexpensive and healthy option than switching vehicles.

The quality of our lives in the future depends entirely on the decisions that we each individually make today. Perhaps the longer that we wait for an international consensus on global warming before acting, the greater and greater our future challenges may become. The choices we make about what we put into our bodies each day, the kinds of companies that we choose to buy from, and the way that we choose to live our lives as conscious consumers all do indeed affect other conscious, living beings. As we have seen, a little change can go a very long way. I am always disinclined to end essays with quotes, but I am strongly reminded of the anthropologist Margaret Mead who said,

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The time has come for us to shift the conversation from disappointingly delayed global efforts to the kinds of things we can each do in our own lives to contribute to the greater good. It us up to us to lay down a brighter future for those who will inherit this planet after us.

The Rise and Fall of the Artistic Experience, and What We Can Do About It

This piece was originally featured on The El Paso Herald Post.


I was at an art gallery recently, an event put together by a new friend of mine who is serving as the director of cultural affairs and interim director of the art museum in El Paso, Texas. In a very genuine attempt to combat what I believe to be art’s greatest foe, my friend organized event that was based off of Andy Warhol’s infamous Factory, and actually featured original prints and polaroids of the famed Warhol. The event was complete with a DJ who was spinning on vinyl, a cash bar, and a very diverse crowd that brought people from all different ways of life.

It was an eventful evening, and a very successful attempt to bring the El Paso community together in a way the El Paso community might not have seen before. In a very special way, my friend was inviting the El Paso community to see art in a different way, a way that isn’t commonly understood or accepted, a way that most think can’t exist.

While looking at one of Warhol’s prints, a member of the very flamboyant line of Queen Elizabeths, I overheard a conversation between a couple about their thoughts on Warhol. Now, I’m no stranger to prints, nor am I a stranger to art in any capacity. I have studied music since I was six-years-old, gotten my degree in music and education before my 22nd birthday, been great friends of incredible artists, and consulted for musicians, artists, bands, and creatives from all avenues. Personally, I can honestly say that I understand art in a way that is very unique to me, a way that no one could probably understand no matter how much I tried to write it out or explain it in detail.

The couple was going back and forth about how Warhol was pretentious, about how he was no one special, and how his techniques are not very impressive when you think about the overall development of art over time. Of course, everyone is entitled to opinion, but when people begin referring to those who have been dead longer than I have been alive with such overambitious adjectives like “pretentious,” I think it’s time for us to stop and have a good look at what we’re really doing here.

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A Time to Reinvent Yourself: Forging Your Own Opportunities (and Never Needing a Résumé Again)


I had a conversation with a close friend of mine recently about the advice we wish we had gotten earlier on in life. On the drive home, I began seriously considering what this advice could have been.

When I ask this question to people I interview, (what advice do you wish you had gotten earlier in life?) I’m met with an unbelievably vast array of answers, many of which are seldom in unison with one another. My study of logic has led me to believe that this might just mean that there really is no such thing as that magic advice. There really aren’t any words you could get, “earlier on.” The truth is, whatever advice we get today is the only advice we can act on. Perhaps if we only worked more diligently at putting it to use, we wouldn’t be having so many conversations about, “What if?”

One of the most popular questions I get from readers, usually those who are about to graduate from college, is any variation of, “It’s time to start looking for a job. What do I do?”

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The Art of Not Knowing What to Do Next: A Guide for College Graduates


I’ll never forget the one morning in May of 2013 when I had the ineffable experience of walking across a stage to receive a cardboard folder from a woman whom I had met only once before. Truthfully, it was altogether an anticlimactic and inefficacious experience, like being hysterically drunk and making memories with your closest friends, only to wake up with an atrocious hangover the next morning. According to my friends and family, this was one of the most important mornings of my then 21-year-old life. To me, it was an ironic commencement of what would soon become the dawdle of adulthood.

When I first graduated from college, everyone stormed me with the question of, “So what’s next?” Truthfully, I knew in my mind what it is that I wanted to do, but I had nothing concretely arranged yet. It was like being helplessly suspended over the jaws of reality while trying to hold on to hope as tightly as I could.

I’m frequently reminded of what a commendation it is that I got my college degree so quickly. To put things into perspective, I was only 21-years-old when I signed my first real adult work contract to become a teacher. People often assume that I’m some sort of whiz who had the ability to beat the seemingly impossible feat of finishing college in four years instead of five, which to me seems like a no-brainer, but I also understand that things just aren’t as simple for some people. If I had to be most truthful, though, the only reason I finished so quickly is because I just couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Being in college is like playing house for years. It’s an innocent and convoluted game that seems to never end. The feeble efforts we make in college and the illusory strides we think we are making are mere impressions that are not quite coterminous with the challenges of our real lives that are to come after college, especially for those of us who choose to pursue what some people might call a, “real career.” It’s a place where you can party recklessly on weekdays and show up to exams hungover, get A’s on just a few moments of work, and build relationships with the right people who can scoot you to the front of the line when you need it. It’s also rather exhausting to keep up with all of the titles and accolades we rack up which we’ll immediately forget and dispose of the minute we leave the grounds of the university and embark on the journey of being a contributing member of society. We get to play pretend and imagine that we have it all figured out for just a second, while we guiltily defer any thought of post-graduation plans for next week, a time that never seems to come until you have a diploma in hand and no idea what to do with it.

I didn’t really begin to panic about my future until I had the opportunity of meeting one of my biggest heroes for the first time during my junior year. In a short conversation that I had with him, he joyfully reminded me that everything I was learning in school would immediately become obsolete the minute I exited the university doors and that even if I had gone to a top tier university, no institution is adequately prepared to ready me for the challenges that await me in the real world to begin with. I found it most amusing that he called it the “real world,” as if what I was currently navigating through was a fake one, a substitute for real living.

But this ceased to dishearten me, because somehow we all manage to figure it out. Just when we least expect for anything good to happen, someone throws us an opportunity and out of our insane duty to fear, we take it. It seems like we always have a plan for next month, but as we all know, nothing ever goes according to plan. Perhaps it’s the mere act of organizing and being proactive that becomes so therapeutic to us that we feel better if we just wash our cars, even though we know there’s a storm coming.

I’ve watched peers, former students, and even my own teachers change dramatically in these times that I like to call the “in-betweens.” College, in its own special, tortuous way, is just another in-between. I frequently joke with friends that if I didn’t want to be a teacher I would have skipped out on the whole college charade altogether. I would have just dove right into whatever else it was that I wanted to do, probably one of the crazy ideas I think up in the shower, or the deranged plans that I construct in conversation with my girlfriend. College was yet another in-between for me when I got to pretend that I knew exactly who it was who I wanted to be, only to meet an entirely new version of myself in the years after graduating. Of course, it wasn’t the college experience itself that changed me, it was the month and a half when I was with a degree and unemployed with no plan that truly taught me about life.

Of course, I am no stranger to the fact that being unemployed with a degree is a first-world problem, and that I probably sound like a capricious ass-hole for highlighting on the fact that I was only unemployed for a month and a half before I got my first opportunity that I could take seriously. The point I’m trying to make here, however, is that it wasn’t the degree or the college experience that changed me, it was the time in between it all. It was the fear and the insecurity of not knowing what was to come next, and not knowing what I would do if in fact nothing came at all.

On the day that I am writing this, it is the first official day of summer, and that means that all over the country there are hundreds of thousands of former college students with degrees in hand who are all experiencing what might be the first real in-between in their lives. A good friend of mine just finished spending six months studying for a major professional school test only to figure out that he wants to “do his master’s.” I’m not saying that graduate school is wrong or that we should stray away from higher education in any way, but what I am saying is that everything in our lives is fleeting and everything which we now consider to be stable can easily go just as easily as it came. More importantly, who we are during our in-betweens is where the true test of our lives awaits. Everyone is brilliant and thoughtful in times of security, but what about when we have nothing to grasp on to? What then?

They say that the only two certain occurrences in our lives are death and taxes, but if we really thought about it, in-betweens are equally as certain. After all, at this very moment, you’re already in between two major occurrences in your life. Perhaps you’re in between relationships or you’re in between jobs. You might be in between places to live, with one lease expiring and another soon to begin. Maybe you’re a lucky college student with a degree in hand, but unfortunately no job. The in-betweens are certain to always occur, and how we deal with them is how the quality of our lives will be defined.

If you’re ever gone on a the ride at the amusement park that takes you up really high and unexpectedly drops you at freefall speed, then you already know everything you need to know about life. In-betweens are like those few seconds when the machine stops traveling up and you have fractions of a second to grasp your neighbor’s hand and inhale for the scream that’s about to ensue as you plummet back down to where you started. It’s in those short fractions of a second that define everything. As in life, it’s what we do with the fractions of our lives when we’re in between the rise up and what’s to come after it when we get to decide who we want to be. You are either stuck in a purgatorial period of precariousness and are about to suffer the worst pain of your life, or you get to experience the greatest thrill you’ve ever known.

When I was experiencing my own in between period in the weeks between graduating and finding a job, I had frequent conversations with mentors and close friends. I spent lots of time conversing over strong beverages and reveling in the moment, sometimes embracing the unavoidable reality that I actually didn’t know what was to come next, an experience we can all relate to when we’ve found ourselves saying, “Fuck it.”

It was during these conversations when I noticed a lot about myself. Sometimes, I would shoot down ideas for no apparent reason at all. Other times, I would find myself being overly critical of myself without any rational thinking behind it. I also learned that while I am often the most optimistic person I know, sometimes I can be the most doubtful. Ultimately, after the fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds of drinks, we would start to talk about the things that truly mattered, the things that no one talks about in the office or at dinner parties. These conversations consisted of questioning life and our own purposes, and I reflected deeply on who it was who I wanted to be, not only after the in-between was over, but in the time that was to follow. After all, in-betweens are only temporary, and at some point, we’ll have something else to grab on to.

I had many conversations with many people, conversations that always returned to the question of, “What am I going to do with my life?” While I never really got any answers out of these dialogues, when I think back to these conversations, I find that what I’m most grateful for are not the laughs and the great stories I heard and told, but simply that I even had someone with me to begin with. As it turned out, all of these people who I valued so much during my in-betweens, the people who I chose to make important to me in my most vulnerable days, turned out to be the ones who helped me to find the next thing to hold on to, thus ending my in-between period of uncertainty.

Still today, while my life and plans change faster than I care to admit, it’s not the books and the grades and the GPA that make life make sense, it’s the people who I share my most greatest growing pains with, something I think we’re all afraid to do if we would just be honest with ourselves. I’ve learned more about who I am through watching my girlfriend laugh at my jokes, or through seeing my family’s reaction to my bewildering uncertainty about my post-graduation plans. Sure, I’ve spent countless hours diligently studying investing, networking strategies, or how to plan effectively, but what has shaped me the most is how I got through my most vulnerable in-betweens of not knowing, and instead, just being human with other humans.

Today, while many in-betweens loom about in the near future for me, I can’t help but be eager for all of the many sit downs with friends and mentors that I’ll have, for long nights of beer tabs over conversations about how to solve the world’s greatest problems, or for sometimes saying, “Fuck it.” Ultimately, all opportunities are given to us by people, and only people. All success begins with someone saying, “Okay, let’s try it.” The ironic thing, however, is that while we know that what truly matters most in life is people around us, they are the frequently the first who we turn away from during our in-betweens, probably because we’re too ashamed to admit that we’re experiencing an in-between, despite the fact that they are as universal as death and taxes.

Looking back, I’m going to be forever grateful for turning straight to the people I cared about most when I had no idea what to do with my life. Considering that I’m always going through some sort of in-between at all times of my life, perhaps I should consider making people a bigger part of my life to begin with, not just when I’m vulnerable. Maybe when all is said and done, we can all put down our barriers and openly talk about how we’re all just making it up as we go along. Maybe it’ll be just a little bit easier to be in-between.