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Narrating Your Growth: Lifelong Lessons from Keeping a Journal
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Saturday, 20th of February 1999. 11pm
“I have long worried that if I were to lay down my thoughts in the pages of a journal that would give anyone a gateway into my most intimate musings, and I was afraid to risk it. Until now… I do believe that writing will give my future self an opportunity to go back in time, to re-live the past, to understand it not just with the mind of my future self, but through the eyes of my present self.
Perhaps time will make my memories fade and my grown up self will look back on my teenage years with a completely different perception than my own right now. I’m hoping this journal, which I am starting tonight, will help me better understand my own children when they get to the age I am now. Perhaps it will help future me bridge the ‘generation gap’ …”
This is the first entry in my first-ever journal. I started it when I was 16. My worry that my parents would read it was smaller than my worry that unless I did write, I would forever lose the memory of my teenage self and, with it, the proof that I had looked at the world in ways that seemed incomprehensible to the grown-ups around me at the time.
Through my eyes, adults seemed to be afflicted with a strange sort of amnesia, that had erased any trace of their 16 year-old-selves and made them incapable of understanding the anxieties, passions and visceral intensity of regular teenagers like me. The thought I would one day forget too was terrifying. The journal was an attempt to hold my future self to account, but also my best shot at looking out for the children I knew I would raise someday. I didn’t want them to ever feel as disconnected from or misunderstood by the adult world as I did back then.
That first journal evolved into over a dozen notebooks, spanning 24 years of my life and keeping a record of my becoming. Journaling became the one habit I was able to maintain through life’s highs and lows. I journaled through joy, hope, my first love, through my first heartbreak. I journaled through the death of loved ones, through divorce, through professional highs and the depths of despair. I’ve journaled about dreams that seemed impossible and then came true and journaled through failure and pain.
I’ve journaled when pregnant - when I got to re-read my earliest journals and cry in gratitude for the priceless gift my 16-year-old self had left me. It’s a gift that to this day is helping me be a more conscious mother and keeps amnesia at bay. When my daughter turns 16, I’ll likely share my journals with her and let her make sense of them for herself. Perhaps my own 16-year-old will be a better partner for her at that stage than my middle-aged self. I also secretly hope she’ll start her own journal one day. I’m pretty sure I’ll be journaling for as long as my mind can reflect and my hands able to write. I’m looking forward to adding another shelf for my journals and, in the process, stepping through life as consciously as I possibly can.
I have come to consider this one of the simplest and most powerful developmental practices and credit it for much of my growth. I deeply wish more people considered making it part of their lives. And here’s my case for why.
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Over the years I’ve shared my love of journaling with countless teams and leaders. I’ve met people who had experienced the benefits of the practice themselves and were true believers. I’ve met many others who believed it might be useful but were convinced they could never muster the discipline to do it. And yet others who associated journaling with childhood or youth and could not see how a grown-up, with countless responsibilities in the world, could benefit from putting their thoughts to paper.
I’ve heard many reasons not to take it up. People who say they are not gifted writers. Those who feel silly writing about their day. Those who don’t know what to write about. And those who don’t how to do it. I think all these obstacles can be overcome, but I also think that, before we dive into the HOW, we need first explore WHY it’s worth considering this practice in the first place.
Why journal? The Research
There is plenty of research on the benefits of regular journaling, and there are many of them too, including reducing anxiety and breaking the cycle of rumination, improved awareness, emotional regulation and a host of health benefits such as lower blood pressure, better lung and liver function, fewer depressive symptoms and higher wellbeing. Journaling has even been shown to be an effective intervention to support recovery from addiction.
The actual mechanisms of what makes journaling so useful are not fully understood, it is suspected they serve a valuable role as an outlet for emotional processing and cognitive reframing. When I started my research in vertical development, exploring the journey of a subset of 35 leaders (of a total of 200) going through a 6 month long executive program, I was very keen to use journaling as a way to record research participants’ lived experiences of growth over time. No previous study had taken a longitudinal look at vertical development and none had attempted to capture the subjective experience of development over a longer period. And journaling seemed the perfect tool to achieve that.
I offered participants a series of reflective questions over the 6 months - one question every week. They would receive a prompt on their phones, inviting them to pause, think back on their week and use the prompt question as a trigger for introspection. They would then record their answers and share them with me on the spot. Their journal entries became the most precious data source of my entire study because they always shared things that happened to them that week, their reactions, their moments of wisdom and their moments of break-down and I could see their evolution from one week to the next and from one month to the next.
When I interviewed them at the end of the study, none of them remembered specifically what they had written in their journals. They offered broad reflections on their learnings and life experiences over those 6 months and I could, from my researcher's perspective, witness (with amazement) how memory distorts and deletes and how precious it is to record the things that happen to (and within) you at the right time. This experience validated my early observations that, unless we capture its journey, our evolving self shifts and moves fast, slipping through our fingers and in between the cracks in our memories. Whatever we remember about our lives and pivotal moments is a mere fragment of the rich tapestry of experiences that makes us US. This only served to reinforce my belief in the value of journaling as a memory-preserving tool.
But something else happened that I didn't expect. When I interviewed my research participants and asked them what were the most valuable parts of their program experience - a surprisingly large number of them mentioned the journaling exercise as a highlight of their learning and credited it with insights and behavioural changes they were able to make through the program. Most of them had come to think of the journal as an integral part of the program design (not as a mere research tool) and mentioned feelings of developmental discomfort, welcome reflection and even profound insight from those 10 short minutes they spent on it every week.
They shared how the regular writing made them more aware of their behaviours, helped them consider decisions or dilemmas in a new light and even prompted more conscious, considered actions. All of them also acknowledged the weekly nudges and prompting questions were valuable - as they helped direct their thinking and in a sense forced them to slow down and take that reflective time.
While no existing study has explored the value of journaling for vertical development (I might just invite this community to help me run that very study in 2024!) I suspect several benefits of this practice for our long-term growth :
Journaling helps you make your thoughts/emotions ‘object’ instead of you being ‘subject to’ them (check out Bob Kegan’s theory on this) - which means you can ‘look at’ that which before you were ‘looking through’ - a mechanism that lies at the core of vertical development.
Journaling also helps you slow down your ‘doing’ and just ‘be’ - reflecting on what is going on within you instead of numbing through keeping busy all the time. This helps develop your self-awareness and the capacity to be in action and reflect on your actions at the same time - a core aspect of adult development
Most importantly, journaling is a powerful meaning-making tool, helping you sense into your ‘edge emotions’ - those emotions that arise at the end of your comfort zone - bring some curiosity to those messy spaces, allowing for more room for developmental discomfort and unlocking critical reflection, insight and ultimately action.
How to do it?
People often ask ‘how to journal’ or ‘what to write about?’. It’s worth remembering that this is not a contest and nobody is coming to assess your writing. Nobody is even going to read your writing! The value of journaling is in the writing itself. So what I found works best is that you write just as you think. Take your thoughts and put them on paper. They may be disjointed. They may make no sense. Just pull them out of your mind, where they often get crowded and start taking up too much space - and put them on a piece of paper where you can see them. Once you do that, there are a few principles that I found useful over the years and I invite you to test them:
There seems to be much value in the act of handwriting versus typing (that being said, if you’re just more comfortable with typing, by all means, go ahead and do it!). The very act of your hand creating words on paper helps thoughts settle and insights emerge. So if you can, buy yourself a nice notebook and use it, especially for this purpose. I suggest you don’t mix your journal with your work notes or any other notebooks you might use for other purposes. This beautiful practice deserves a space of its own.
Don’t censor your writing! It can be as messy as you want - both literally and figuratively. You might never want to go back and re-read what you wrote. There’s no need for your writing to be logical or follow a clear thread. You might just jump around from one idea to another, in no particular order. Trust that it works and welcome the mess!
Write about whatever is on your mind that day. It doesn’t have to be profound or insightful. Some days you’ll write about mundane things and other days about the biggest existential questions. All your writing has value as it’s you making sense of your world.
Don’t make journaling a chore! You don’t have to write every day and not even every week! I did find that, to make it a habit, it does help to have a certain frequency (my rule of thumb is a weekly ‘download’), but once the habit is there you’ll just go to your notebook when you feel the clutter in your brain getting too confusing, or when you’ll simply want to work through something that’s on your mind.
Keep your notebook handy! You never know when the need to reflect strikes! I keep mine on my desk, in sight. I find that it’s so much easier to remember to reflect when I can use my notebook as an anchor to take me off auto-pilot. That’s why I make it a point to choose notebooks with colourful covers, objects that stand out in the landscape of my home office. My physical journal itself becomes a nudge for reflection.
Write with no expectations. Don’t wait for something groundbreaking to occur and don’t place any pressure on yourself (or your journal) to get ‘somewhere’. Journaling is like the decision to eat healthy food and move your body - you do it constantly, all of your life, and you are bound to see the positive impact on your health. It’s not a race to a short-term goal. It’s a way to live consciously.
An experiment: 20 weeks of journaling.
Once I had proof of the value of journaling (beyond my love of this practice), I started making it an integral part of all my long-form organisational development programs. And I’d love to take the opportunity to invite you to experiment with it too.
I’ve created a version of the original questions I used in my study and invite you to a 20 week trial of the value of this practice. Why 20 weeks? Because that gives you enough time to build the habit and also see the impact. If, after 20 weeks, you find it’s useless, the most you’ll have lost is a pretty notebook and a few minutes of writing time every week.
I suggest you create a recurrent reminder in your calendar (preferably towards the end of the week) when you pause and take 10 minutes to reflect on how you showed up that week. The reflective question will help focus your attention on one particular aspect - some weeks you’ll reflect on relationships, other weeks on your emotions and others on your challenges/moments of wisdom and moments of fallback. You might want to copy the question in the calendar, so you can see it along your reminder. You can download all the questions here. Alternatively, you can print/save the posters below and put them somewhere you can see them, so you can grab the relevant question for each week with minimal effort.
If you don’t like the question for a particular week, feel free to change it or simply free-write. These are not meant to be a prescription, but merely a nudge to get you going.
I hope you take this invitation and jump into this experiment. I’d love to hear your learnings and musings along the way. Feel free to post them in the comments section.
The next step for the “How Grown-ups Grow Up” Newsletter
As I was writing this post, I started considering what might be next for our subscribers’ community and how else we might collectively help bring vertical development to the places where it’s most needed. I want to start creating more opportunities for us to interact around the articles and podcast episodes, to share our experiences and learn from each other and also I would love to conduct more research - we still have so much more to learn about the ways humans transform! But to do that, I need time, resources and a dedicated community of partners in exploration.
Some of you have already pledged and expressed your interest in becoming paying subscribers, and I am very grateful for your support. I have been reluctant to turn on paid subscriptions because I don’t see this newsletter as a source of income. Its mission is to help raise awareness of the value (and practices) of vertical development and that will always be my main focus. This means that all the articles and podcasts will always be free for everyone.
At the same time, the community around the newsletter is growing fast. I would love to create time and space for dialogue (through Substack Chat, dedicated Q&A sessions, webinars - to name just a few avenues) with those of you who feel called to go deeper into some of these practices and conversations around adult development. I’d also love to partner for research with those keen to dive into the academic exploration of this field. Enabling the paid subscription option will allow us to create a smaller community where we can nerd out, share our learnings, inquire together and join hands to fund future research.
Before I take any steps in that direction, I would like to investigate if it’s something this community is keen on. If you’d be keen to become a paid subscriber when the time comes, do express your interest by pledging your support.
If you have a minute, please fill in this poll and let me know if having an audio version of my articles is worthwhile for you. I am testing the voice-over feature of Substack for those of you who might prefer to listen rather than read:
That’s it from me for now! Can’t wait to hear about your experiences around journaling! Do share your learnings, if you have been practising for a while. Add your tips and tricks to my list and, if you do try out the 20-week experiment, please come back and let us all know how you are going!
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