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  • Writer's pictureWinona Rajamohan

As a teenager, 26 felt grown. My mom had me when she was this age, so I naturally stepped into 2023 curious if anything would change, if things would click

In hindsight, I knew better than just to expect things to change, but I guess that’s just what you do when you’re anxious. You pray for nature to do its thing because it’s less scary than the idea that these big feelings and milestones only happen when you force yourself to find them. 

The transition from your official mid-twenties mark to the official start of your late twenties is a momentous one in my book. It’s a special kind of chaos and confusion that I think left me a lot wiser. It’s not glamorized like 15 to 16, not liberating like 20 to 21, but it was the most grounding — and a firm surface to plant my feet is all I need right now. 

Last year, I learned that perfection is my worst enemy.

I started 2023  year with a long list of goals. I drew out a timeline, I mapped out ideals that would transform my life for the better, and I painted a picture that I swore would come to be if I used my time right. 

My motto was “Do things with intention.” I wanted everything I did to have a clear purpose — because life is short and fleeting, and my time is precious, right?

Purpose was supposed to help me find peace. But I soon learned I had conflated purpose with an unforgiving definition of productivity.

I optimized time for purpose until it became a chase for perfection. There’s obviously nothing wrong with wanting perfection and productivity, but it does come with a caveat:

Can you handle yourself when perfect falls out of reach? 

In this long list of goals, there was a designated space for everything to fit into — every decision, every win, every loss. Some people are great at turning life into systems and frameworks, but outside of work and my physical fitness journey, this approach wasn’t for me. 

I have big, confusing, feelings that don’t always fit the boxes in front of me. I’m compelled to explore ideas and characters that appear to me in dreams and idle minutes spent staring blankly into space. Perfection fell out of reach often because there was so much that I wanted to include in my definition of it, and when I couldn't, it felt like I failed.

I enjoy spontaneity and find my creativity most comforted when firm roots touch the sky through messy tangles of long, intertwining branches. But I wasn't giving this honest side of myself an opportunity to discover who it could become.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I don’t necessarily want to dictate all aspects of my life around outcomes that I can only reach with defined paths. 

I want to keep the light within me bright, and sometimes, that means perching on a branch not because it’s the fastest way to get to the top, but because it catches the light just right when the sun shines. 

This year, I learned that there is importance in the unimportant. 

The minutes have been moving faster lately. The days have been getting shorter, the years that flow past blur together, and I find myself following the crowd, picking out moments to remember. We pick our favorites from our 365 days and condense them into highlights, numbers, pictures, and reels. 

We look at our lives like a book, if you will. Our favorite novels (or movies) don’t detail the lives of their main characters every second they’re awake — only on days when a narrative takes shape. We don’t know if they brush their teeth every morning or if their back hurts when they roll out of bed. But based on what we read or see, we piece together an assumption of the thoughts running through their mind as they move from one chapter to the next.

I’ve learned that it’s easy to do the same with my own life. I remember time as a collection of highs and lows, good years and bad years. 

But recently, I’ve been recalling fragments I can’t fit into the story I thought I knew. 

I don’t know what’s prompting me to call on them, and I doubt they have any real significance to the dreams I hold now. These moments were simple but distinctively mine — not captured through any lens, yet they dance around my memory more than the captured moments do. 

So, in 2024, I want to pay extra attention to the moments we like to label as mundane.

These are the threads of time that we think shine less brightly in the sun. Their colors paler, their voices softer, their weight on the palm of your hand seemingly lighter. 

But these threads run long, and they don’t snap easily. They fall to the ground in climbing heaps, with no end in sight even if you put the edge to a flame to watch it slowly burn. 

These moments are seemingly too unimportant, yet these are the moments that we find ourselves in the most — the moments where we’re at our most vulnerable, unguarded, unprepared. These threads of time flicker in the light, filled with uncertainty, powered by a source dependent on what unfolds around it. 

These are the moments that make us human, that work consistently to build our perception of the world. They’re the routines we take for granted, the sights that slowly etch themselves in the back of our brains as we walk the same paths repeatedly. 

These moments form our reasoning, understanding, compassion, and ignorance. I want to be certain of all of these things as I make my way through a world that waits for no one. 

Wrapped in the softer falling petals of time, I want to give my ambition more room to breathe. I want to give myself space to work hard, grow, pause, and nurture my energy. 

Here’s to a slower, more meaningful 2024.

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  • Writer's pictureWinona Rajamohan

In 2012, Facebook went public and acquired Instagram, the new kid on the block I was trying really hard to impress.

I was 15 at the time, a timid high schooler in Malaysia — the country with the world record that year for the highest average number of Facebook friends per user. I heard about that on the 6 a.m. radio show on my way to school.

It was the year Somebody That I Used to Know by Gotye played every 30 minutes.

It was the year I first got a boyfriend, when I first started taking selfies, when too much money went to buying Polaroid films before parties, and when all my posts were pictures of Polaroid pictures.

I remember 2012 so clearly because it was an inflection point in the way I perceived myself. It felt like the best year of my life, but also the worst.

I felt beautiful but ugly, confident but insecure, loud but shy, and intelligent but boring. I got my first taste of living life through a screen, where worth could be clearly defined in numbers and falsehoods were easy to hide.

In this curated little bubble, I was more seen than I ever had been before. But I developed the skill of treading with caution — I developed it so well that for a very long time, I lost touch with the girl that did things for herself. With every post, every like, and every reply, I built a new understanding of where I stood in this world.

But now I stand before a new inflection point.

Ten years later I’m dismantling every conclusion I’ve made about myself through the lenses of the platforms I use. I’m choosing to unlearn all the calculated habits born out of a desire to control the narrative others have of me.

Social media is the most universal language we know, and it’s not going anywhere. But our understanding of its place in our identities remains extremely shallow. If this continues, worth and hierarchy will continue to fester in deeper, darker ways, dragging fragile souls like my own down a behemoth of bad habits, ugly truths, damaging falsehoods, and scorned hatred.

To find a way out is to redefine what an online world means. It calls on us to hold our character up to the light, to examine how it splits between the spaces we’re most present in — the world beneath our feet and the world beneath our fingertips.

Bred by nostalgia, fed by rebellion, and spurred on by the irrational fear of losing time, there’s an evolution bubbling, one that challenges the status quo of how we’re living on the internet.

This evolution isn’t loud. It’s a choice to be a little more silent.

Which social media did you thrive on?

Instagram founder, Kevin Systrom, told The Guardian in 2015 that the company was founded to capture “what was going on in your life, as it happened.” But describing our profiles as digital diaries of “life as it happened” sounds naive now.

Or maybe it’s a joke — I suppose life can be metaphorically likened to a game of prime advertising for the highest bidder and algorithm wins over substance.

The platforms we use have changed a lot. They’re flashier and noisier, each slowly morphing into the other. Instagram becomes Snapchat and Tik Tok, YouTube becomes TikTok, and Tiktok becomes YouTube and Snapchat.

But the biggest change of all has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with silent choices, our decisions to take a step back, to worry less about our feeds, and to capture the colors of life that captivate us the most, even if they stray from the standards we’ve been so conditioned to having.

Social media is changing because our understanding of self-concept through social media is changing too.

Psychologist Carl Rogers believes that self-concept is formed through our interactions with others. We live our lives riddled by the anxiety of a self we often don’t see through our own eyes, largely depending on the expressions reflected back at us.

When I imagine self-concept, I think of a large unflattering piece of patchworked fabric. In hopes of a semblance of identity, we blindly piece fragmented moments together and assume that the pieces fit.

But online, it’s easy to feel as though the blindfolds are finally off. There’s an uncomfortable relief in perceiving value and sentiment in terms of numbers and reactions. In other words, I’d call social media the breeding ground of self-concept.

Self-concept is a collection of beliefs one holds about oneself and the responses of others. It embodies the answer to the question: "Who am I?" (Source: Verywell Mind)

Rogers believes that self-concept is made of three different parts: self-image, ideal self, and self-esteem.

Personally, my relationship with social media has been a phased journey searching for each of these components. I came to the realization that the platforms I use moved in the same way, mirroring the rat race we were all on. The race for something exciting, new, and limitless.

That’s how businesses work after all.

Early 2010s: The early days of self-image

Self-image is the person we think we are at a certain point in time. The modest beginnings of social media were the only time Systrom’s idea of “life as it happened” fit the part. We were excited to show people who we were because we never had the chance to do it so unapologetically.

When I first got Facebook and Instagram, everybody I knew posted a lot. We updated our statuses every hour and took pictures of everything, writing on each other’s Facebook walls way too much because it was fun and new. We didn’t know how to talk about ourselves the right way, and we didn’t know how to address an audience so big. Scrappy and chaotic, we were brave enough to make bad choices because a bad choice was the best choice we had.

Post-2014: The chase for the ideal-self

The demise of our self-image happened when those early choices became mistakes, or worse yet, when they fell into a pit of complete silence. This phase of social media was all about the self-image wanting something more, something else.

We knew what to expect because the bars had been set — there were those who made it and those who didn’t, the speakers and the listeners, the light and the moths.

The declaration of the self-image became a chase for the ideal self, and we ourselves in a transactional exchange of adoration and attention with those who drew influence with numbers. The technology that drove our platforms matured, building a space that fed the ‘ideal,’ an illusion to fill the hollow cavity between the person you think you are and the person you want to be.

The 2020s: The rebellion for self-esteem

This is the social media we’re on today, a melting point of self-images and ideal selves, coexisting in a digital terrarium of hierarchy and conflict. We’ve mastered self-optimization, and we’re Jedi-level growth hackers — until one day, we lost all the patterns we knew how to work with.

In 2020, we finally faced a question I didn’t think I’d face this soon.

What would social media look like if the world stopped?

Would we lose a portion of our self-image? Would we give up on the chase for the ideal self?

Confined within smaller spaces, stuck in the same routine, social media took on a new shape in my life. I had less to prove, bigger things to care about, and not enough time to lose to the fear of being perfect online.

I wanted inspiration, not validation. I wanted to explore new ideas and learn from stories and people I resonate with and believe in. I wanted to do it on my own time, at my own pace, and in my own space.

Over the past two years, my social media feeds have taken on a new color of creativity, passion, and honesty. From where I stand, it looks like everybody is after the same thing. Society has changed, and our expectations of the media have changed with it. The search for self-esteem is a phase we need to perfect, and it starts with understanding the systems of change that have shaped our online habits over the past ten years.

Healthy and unhealthy change

Until recently, I’ve noticed that my relationship with social media was largely motivated by a darker relationship with change. Khe Hy describes this perfectly in his essay on habit formation. In an attempt to curb his love for skinny margaritas, he dissects James Clear’s four stages of habits — cue, craving, response, and reward.

Hy likens the craving for a drink to craving social media. In both scenarios, some form of desire is unmet, causing us to act on the difference between the way we feel right now and the way we wish we felt. “We turn to our bad habits because we want to feel differently,” Hy summarizes.

Ironically, ‘bad habit” was a common description of social media.

It did feed a craving. The gap between my self-image and my ideal self was amplified by a desire to be perceived as someone different. To be someone different.

As I sat idly at a crossroads, restless in my inability for self-love, I latched onto social media, searching for ways to change into someone that I recognized less and less.

So, what is ‘healthy’ change?

I believe healthy change is driven by fulfilling a sense of purpose, not a gap between states of mind.

Healthy change is born out of spaces that feed our curiosity with autonomy and empowerment. The quieter corners of the internet are often overlooked by the prevalence of cancel culture and tribalism, but they’re present and they’re growing louder.

Discussions around mental health and wellbeing are more prevalent, a shared appreciation for literature has been revitalized, photo dumps are shifting the tides on our definition of ‘picture perfect,’ and creativity has never been more rewarded. These are only a few of the new standards changing the dynamic of how we consume and participate in the social media economy.

Healthy change can also be seen in the rise of Substack over the past two years. Nathan Baschez writes that Substack “was about creating a morally superior playing field that could help heal our minds from the damage done by social networks.” In this new system of media, Substack’s founders were adamant to move away from a model run by advertising and engagement algorithms — both designed to appeal to spur-of-the-moment cravings for more. Here, writers and readers have the ability to build deeper relationships, born out of choice rather than a calculated face-value suggestion.

Once the old rules are gone, a new world of possibility opens up. (Chris Best and Hamish McKenzie, A better future for news)

What comes next?

I don’t think the answer to better online communities lies in any web3 or metaverse mission statement. In fact, I don’t think the biggest takeaway from the past ten years of social media should be about platforms at all.

Everything starts with people. How we treat ourselves in this space. How we treat others. How aware we are that everything we do has consequences that bleed into things bigger than what’s on a screen.

Can we mend the broken bridges between the person in the mirror and the person we become when we’re online? Do they support each other? Do they bring out the best in each other?

In an ideal world, the intersection of our physical and digital worlds should strengthen our grasp on reality. It’s a powerful combination of knowledge, reach, awareness, and communication. But this power rests on fragile soil that needs to be watered, nourished, and loved.

Our self-concept needs a check-in every now and then. We need to rest, reset, and remember why we act the way we do. The failure to do so feeds our demons and surrounds us with things that make us angrier.

I’ll end this post with a few ways you can do that right now. Pick up your phone and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Pull out your most used social media platform today and take a look at your posts. Point out two in particular: one when you were happy, and one when you weren’t feeling your best.

  2. In both situations, what was your motivation for hitting the ‘post’ button? What did you want to change?

  3. What impression did you want to leave on the people who followed you?

  4. Forget all those people completely. What did you want to do for yourself?

  5. Think about your self-concept right now — who you see yourself to be, who you want to be, and what drives your self-esteem. Would you change anything about these posts to make them seem more authentic to you?

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  • Writer's pictureWinona Rajamohan

In a 2004 interview for The Paris Review, Haruki Murakami — my favorite author — said that "writing a long novel is like survival training."

And it really is.

Survival training teaches you how to make it in the wild with the bare necessities and a strong mastery of basic skills. It instills discipline, caution, and a sense of urgency to always be prepared for what’s ahead. There are rarely any shortcuts to help you hide. You’re pushed into a sharp corner, staring straight out into the truth of what you can and cannot do.

It’s scary and uncomfortable, but you learn how to find an oasis in the discomfort. In the wild, that oasis guides your instincts to find basic needs, defend yourself against threats, treat wounds, and regulate your body temperature.

Ultimately, it’s not about how strong or gifted you are when you begin the program. It’s about how you end, how you make it out with the basic elements that make up the world around you — breathing in life from the air, your feet rooted on the earth, heart set aflame, and the mind fluid, both calm and dangerous like water.

Writing works the same way.

It doesn’t matter how gifted of a writer you are or how great your past works have been. Without discipline, caution, and a sense of urgency, nothing new makes its way to the page.

Writing is born from perceptions of the world. The way the air feels, how the water flows, the sturdiness of the earth, and the sharp licks of fire that engulf how we live in it.

Yet all these perceptions fight to survive, desperately clinging on claims of inspiration to beat the fate of an incomplete idea or a forgotten draft. It takes work for these ideas to make it out. So much like the perception of the world, my stories take shape in, my training regime for productive writing mirrors the four elements too.

🌬 to find excitement, to write as weightlessly as air

Over the years, a dreaded epiphany would seep in every now and then like a thick curling fog. A writer's worst nightmare. The bane to a pending existential crisis.

What if I’m getting bored of writing?

Boredom doesn't always mean a lack of interest. More often than not, it cloaks a sense of hesitation, one that stops you from clawing through collapsing tunnels in search of a breakthrough.

Boredom can be utterly indecisive and easily swayed. And on those days when inspiration spills over in abundance, boredom becomes a distant, unfamiliar inkling. So, the moral of the story? Begin any writing project by unclogging the boredom pipe.

Finding something that's ‘exciting’ is extremely vague, I know. But I found clarity by combining lessons from writers on all mediums. The first thing I noticed was that most of them had a niche that they wrote diligently and consistently about. So if you have a niche area of expertise, then great! Half the battle of excitement is already won, and it’s up to you to be consistent with translating that excitement into valuable writing.

That wasn’t the case for me, and rather than listening to myself, I got caught up in the chase to become an established writer for one particular domain. Finding a topic to write about became a daunting and exhausting task. It made me put off the idea of writing until I found something that seemed like it was enough.

So I added another vital lesson to the equation, one I picked up after hours of staring at blank drafts and walking away from my laptop in defeat — waiting for inspiration is never the answer. I didn’t wait for a niche. Instead, I wrote about what it felt like not to find one.

This is what that ended up looking like. A piece about discomfort and exploring the anxiety I felt when things felt far beyond my control, which then unfolded into a five-part series of posts diving into my methods to finding calm amidst the chaos.

Sometimes the best way to see a problem is to remove yourself from it completely, even for just a minute. Like the eye of the storm, you see more clearly when you’re sitting at the quiet epicenter of your worries. You’re looking in from the outside, taking on the role of the observer and not the hot mess of a writer choking on water ten feet beyond the safety circle.

It helps you see what the storm has been sucking up, information that needs to be discarded, callings that aren’t yours. You also see the patterns in which the storm moves, and you might discover areas in which you’ve been strung in the wrong direction all along.

🌎 to find focus, to ground yourself in the earth

Sometimes boredom is the farthest thing off from the problem. You’re excited, you have the outline of an idea itching at your fingertips, you’re ready to shout it from the rooftops.

But when you sit down, the outline disappears. Solid lines become blurry and the floors become porous, your idea is disjointed and you’re not sure where to begin or how to find the words.

If I could describe the sound of a writer's block, it would be the exact opposite of cricket sounds. A writer's block sounds like standing in the middle of a music festival without a plan. There’s music coming from every direction, lingering smells in the air, people having fun, people having a bad time, and you don’t know who you want to see or where you need to be.

At this stage, getting into a state of flow feels close to impossible. There's a lot of noise from things completely unrelated to writing. The quickest way I spot a lack of focus is when I catch myself…

(a) not knowing (or forgetting) what drove me to a particular idea

(b) finding something else to do before I've made any progress on the idea at hand (like spending the next 30 minutes of my 'writing block' building a playlist to get me into a writing flow that never happens).

Focus can be lost at any point of the writing process, regardless of whether you’ve written thousands of words already or none. It’s a variable heavily influenced by countless factors. But if those factors happen to be within my control, nine out of ten times they’re driven by a loss of purpose and a dimming motivation.

It’s hard to focus without a ‘why.’ A great idea rarely translates into a great outcome unless it's aligned with the expectations you have for it. By knowing these expectations, the path to get there becomes clearer. It becomes easier to distinguish answers from noise, inspiration from distraction. It becomes easier to focus.

So in the spirit of survival, I like to prepare ahead and get my ‘why’ packed up and ready to go for those stuffy piercing hours when all words are lost.

Before tackling any ambitious idea, I dedicate some time to answer a few questions and note them down in a doc. What are my goals for writing this piece? How would I define success for this project? What’s going to set this piece apart from the others?

This doc ultimately becomes a working space for me to turn ideas on their heads based on those answers. I look for gaps to fill obvious and missed opportunities to be seized, transforming them into stories I can proudly say I created. Stories are born from here rooted in a strong foundation.

🌊 to build an idea, to let it take the shape of water

Focus time leads to the most exciting and most difficult stage of writing: building an idea.

The ‘why’ comes in handy here because that’s where it all begins — the goal. Why are you writing this? Why should this topic be of interest to anyone? These questions typically fill the gaps in my opening paragraphs and in each of my subheadings.

The next ‘why’ is for the people I want to share my work with — why would they care to read my work and what outcomes would I want them to have in the end? This would give my story the most substance, populating the meat of my paragraphs to tie it together into a conclusion that makes sense.

This is what some of my initial notes looked like for this piece.

Next, I word vomit any remaining thoughts. All the pieces that don't fit but have potential. Sentences don't have to be complete or in order. It's less active thought than it is a necessary purge of whatever is taking up space in your head. I do this until somewhere on that page, something makes a little bit of sense, and the blurring lines gain enough weight to sketch out the outline of something bigger than you began with.

🔥 to fight the fire of insecurity

Despite the lengthy and often tumultuous process to produce a single satisfying draft, my biggest roadblock to writing comes at the very end, when all the writing is done.

Insecurity. The fear of stumbling upon another piece of work that makes yours feel elementary and half-baked. The fear of comparison and critique. It’s almost impossible not to imagine what the words on the page would say if I had the mind of someone else for a day.

To bring this post full circle, facing insecurity takes me back to the first element: to have my writing feel as weightless as air. I remove the pressure of producing work only to mirror what I think others expect from me.

The hardest pill to swallow as a creator is arguably the most liberating — there’s always going to be somebody out there who can out-skill you, and there’s always going to be somebody out there who doesn’t like what you do.

I spent years running away from this bitter truth only to realize that coming to terms with it was simpler than I imagined. There could be million people out there who write better, who have better ideas, who work harder, who work smarter, or who have bigger networks of supporters.

But there’s only one me.

Knowing this gives writing freedom, making it weightless, exciting, conjured out of a place that’s distinctively mine. This is how I learned to take pride in all the imperfect versions of my work. Ultimately, I work with intentions that I can accomplish on my own, even if it’s not appreciated today — it gives me more reason to work harder tomorrow.

It could be a risk I’ve never taken before, a challenge I never thought I'd complete, or a message I needed to get off my chest. This is what drove me to finish my fiction novel, I’m Chasing Myself.

Writing a book is something I've always wanted to do (and I have years’ worth of stray miscellaneous chapters of fiction stories to prove it). But I wasn’t at my best self when that novel was published, and insecurity prevented me from doing the most with it.

It’s taken me two years to see that the writing process for my novel was far from weightless. Despite the ideas I had, I was out of focus and struggling to find my work satisfactory. But when it was all over, I knew I had something to be proud of. The book was a piece of me, a testament to everything I love doing, and proof that I can finish something I've started and turn one chapter into ten.

That’s enough for me to keep going, even if I have a long way to become the writer I want to be.

Writing is hard, but with good reason

"In reality, every reader, while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument, which he offers to the reader to permit him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself." - Marcel Proust

I found this quote printed gingerly on a page breaker of a book I'm reading at the point of me writing this post, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

The lesson this quote provides is one of responsibility. When writers find excitement, focus, creativity, and confidence, who benefits from the world that they’ve unlocked? Readers.

Although scales of reader-centricity differ based on what you’re writing for (a fiction novel may be a 5 while content marketing would be a 10), all public-facing writing delivers an experience to a reader who wants to enjoy it, learn from it, or relate to it.

This doesn’t take anything away from what you personally want to gain out of writing. When you’re driven by purpose and genuine desire, you channel the truth of readers who share the same motivation as you. You’re building a community through words that come alive.

If there’s someone out there who wants to see the world through your lens, your responsibility as a writer is to find them within yourself. Place your readers on your side of your desk, talk to them, learn from them, follow their experiences like a compass, and show them a world that they’ve never seen before.

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