Wednesday, March 15, 2023

How I Run Solstice, Step by Step

This is a writeup of how I run Secular Solstices, in as much detail as I can muster. I think most of the existing guides to running Solstices are now somewhat outdated, and not as step-by-step "this is what you need to do when"; I hope this one is a helpful addition.

This post assumes you are basically familiar with what Secular Solstice is and what tends to happen in one; if you aren't, I'd recommend checking out the post The Arc Breakdown first for a rough description of what it is like.

Who am I and how am I qualified to write this?

I was in the Bayesian Choir for about 6 years. As part of that, I participated in 4 Secular Solstices in the Bay Area plus one online in 2020, performed solo or in a small group in 3 of those, and organized / sang in several songs in the 2018 Bayesian Choir spring concert. In addition, I have run my own independent small Solstices several times: one in DC in 2015, a small one in the Bay in 2016, a tiny outdoor social-distanced one in DC in 2020, plus two mid-sized ones in DC in 2021 and 2022. In other community and ritual stuff, I've also run meetups for a long time and have run two Rationalist Seders with custom content.

I don't have much experience with running big Solstices (50+ people), but because I was in the Bayesian Choir for a while, I have at least a vague idea of how things go at that scale.

How far in advance do you need to start?

The step-by-step timelines in this post are the ones that I use, targeted towards a Solstice size of 20-40 people, with a substantial amount of music practice and a moderate amount of polish involved. But you can get the time down A LOT if you bring down the production value. You can reduce the amount of musical prep time by having fewer musicians, smaller groups of musicians (one person leading a song can practice on their own, instead of meeting for a rehearsal), hiring professional musicians, or just by doing everything a cappella or singing along to karaoke tracks. You also might need less lead time on a venue if your group is small enough to fit in someone's house, for example.

I'd recommend starting the planning process a few months in advance, just to figure out those possibly-time-sensitive details first; if you find out you need less lead time than you thought, then just relax for the next month or two!

For a bigger Solstice, more time is needed, more like 6 months up to almost the entire year for planning. Venues for 100+ people often are booked very far in advance, and it takes time to coordinate the number of volunteers you will need to put on a larger event. Even with this many people, though, there are ways you can decrease lead time substantially: (a) decreasing the number of volunteers drastically and (b) living in a large city with lots of venue options. In any case, if you're putting on an event of that size, I doubt you need or want my advice.

Logistics (3-4 months out)

Your venue is the biggest piece here, and you should figure it out as soon as you can, because larger venues tend to book up early. And many other logistics depend on it.

The first thing to do is to get an estimate of your number of attendees. If you live in a city that hasn't had a Solstice before but has had meetups, take the typical number of attendees at a meetup and multiply by 2-3 as an initial guess. Or if you can, try to estimate the total number of distinct attendees across meetups in a year. Typically people will make more effort to show up to a once-a-year event.

With 10-30 people, you can cram into someone's house. If you're okay with more crowding or have a big house, maybe you can fit more.

Around the 30-50 person mark there are a bunch of smaller venues that aren't too expensive, like churches and such (this obviously depends on your local area). You might not want a venue with explicitly religious imagery, but there are some denominations that don't do that kind of thing as much (Quaker/Unitarian Universalist, for example).

Other places may work too. I really like doing Solstice outside, because you can use the sun as your lighting change for the first arc.[1] However, outdoors may be cold, have other weather issues, or be logistically difficult. For example, near where I live, you can rent out picnic areas, but most parks close at sunset, which makes it tough when so much of the ritual really needs to happen after dark. We did do one tiny outdoor Solstice in DC in 2020, which worked remarkably well despite being extremely cold; I brought a lot of blankets and told everyone to dress warmly.

Other logistics to figure out very early on:

  • Decide if you want to serve food, either beforehand, at Solstice, or at an afterparty. That will change what time of day you want to run Solstice, which can affect what time you reserve the venue for, and it may also affect your choice of venue if you want to have food there.
  • Consider the sunset, if you are either outdoors or in a space with lots of windows. Typically sunset is around 4:30pm in my part of the world during this time; the Solstice arc calls for the lights to go down, and I like timing it to start at 4pm so that we can use the sun for that and turn up the artificial lighting at the end, which is thematically appropriate as well. 
  • Think about afterparty logistics: it often makes sense to have an afterparty at a separate venue, either someone's house or another casual location. This doesn't have as many prerequisites as Solstice, so you can probably plan it later on, but it might be helpful to have a vague sense of your intentions about it going in in case it affects the timing.

Program (3 months out)

Many things depend on the program, such as: how many musicians you need, how many speakers you need, which people you should ask, what kind of preparation and legwork you need to do, etc. So it's best to get at least a rough outline several months in advance.

Selecting a Theme

Having a theme is helpful for picking out song and speech choices, and for writing material specific to that year.

You don't necessarily need to have a specific named theme (although if you have paper programs, it's nice to have something to put on them). The important thing is knowing what you want to address in your Solstice, what your creative goals are for it, and what things should therefore be included and what should be cut. 

For example: In 2021, my co-organizer and I wanted to address the aftermath of COVID, while mostly moving on from talking about it directly. So we went with a theme of "healing from trauma," which led to the ritual elements she designed and helped us structure the other parts of the program.

It's nice to have at least a little bit of introductory material that the organizer writes themself. The simplest thing to do is to introduce what Solstice is and talk directly about the theme a little bit. 


Consider how long you want your Solstice to be, in order to determine how many pieces you will need. I usually aim for 75 minutes and end up closer to 90. This typically means a total of around 20 "items" (songs, speeches, and ritual elements) of 3-5 minutes each.

Most Solstices do 90-120 minutes. If it's more than 2 hours, you probably need an intermission for people to pee and stuff, which you would then need to place carefully so it doesn't interrupt the arc, etc. For that reason I'd recommend keeping it fairly short. If you want it even shorter, I think you could do a decent version of the arc in as little as 45 minutes. Just make your selections carefully. 

Have two separate times for "doors open for socializing" and "the Solstice ritual begins." I usually give about a half hour between the two. Start the ritual on time and let the latecomers fall where they may.

When reserving a venue, don't forget to leave time for both setup and takedown.

The Solstice Arc

The Solstice arc has shifted a little over the years, but it usually has more or less this shape:


There's a happy part at the beginning, then it gets serious, then it gets REALLY serious and sad, culminating in a Moment of Darkness (and silence). Then at the end we reopen with hope, and end with joyful songs about being together.

This post is quite old at this point, but it gives a good idea of the original notion of how the Solstice arc should hold together: The Arc Breakdown. (I think some of the logistical advice and song choices are pretty different from what I'd suggest now.)

You can play with this general shape, however. The length of the different sections; the exact tone you take in each one; etc. In a couple of Bay Solstices, the arc looked entirely different and was mostly focused on a more triumphant/hopeful tone, with only a brief break for sadness closer to the beginning.

If you want to stick closer to previous iterations of the Solstice arc, there are plenty of examples of full programs on the Secular Solstice Resources page, which you can crib from as much as you want. I also highly recommend the Masterlist of Solstice Content, maintained by mingyuan, which is a spreadsheet of Solstice songs that's a bit easier to navigate than the content on Secular Solstice Resources.[2]

My Solstice arc "paint by numbers" system

There are many other ways to put this together, but this is the way I usually think about structuring a Solstice program:

  • Light 
    • Icebreaker exercise. Force people to interact a little.
    • Couple of happy songs that are easy to sing along with and somewhat thematic. "The Sun Is A Mass of Incandescent Gas," etc.
    • Intro speech explaining what Solstice is and introducing any thematic elements that I'm emphasizing.
  • Twilight
    • Songs that are more musically and thematically complex.
    • Speeches that go further into the actual usual themes of Solstice and/or a particular theme.
    • If you have custom ritual elements, this and/or Evening is a good place for them to go.
  • Evening/Night 
    • Increasingly depressing stuff.
    • Sadder songs.
    • More serious/intense ritual elements.
    • I like the a cappella "repeat after me" songs for the end of this section (Beneath Midwinter Midnight and friends); it creates more of a sense of focus for people to put down their lyrics sheets and look at the lead singer, and it means you can have even less light.
    • Usually the second-to-last item is a Candlelit Speech, a particularly depressing speech that a speaker reads with one single candle lit in the darkness. It's helpful for that to be personal or specific, but I have also reused Beyond the Reach of God for this on several occasions. You can also reuse speeches from prior years and other speakers. In 2020 I used a translation of a Twitter thread from a doctor in Italy whose town was overrun with COVID cases (link).
    • End with Moment of Darkness.
  • Dawn 
    • Brighter than Today and/or Endless Lights to open from Moment of Darkness.
    • Hopeful speeches (1-2). 500 Million has become almost compulsory over the years; it goes well paired with Ballad of Smallpox Gone.
    • End with some happy songs that are easy to sing along with and that emphasize how surviving our harsh world is better together. I like "Lean on Me" for this, though I've usually ended with "Still Alive" because it's fun to sing and just about everyone knows it, even if it's their first Solstice. (Note: everyone knowing Still Alive may be specific to my age bracket. I should find some songs that work this way for younger nerds.)

Getting help (3 months before)

Figure out who you need to help you, based on at least a loose idea of the program. If you're doing music, you should have plans for this a few months in advance, because that's how long it takes a musical group (who are amateurs and all have full-time jobs or similar) to get together and practice. How much time this takes goes something like (1/musical skill * how many pieces you want * how much polish you want * (number of people in the group)^2). 

My philosophy on volunteers: It's a good idea to spread things out among many different people, to promote a sense of community and greater participation and involvement. All else equal, you want to farm out as much as you possibly can. Sometimes the help is even actually helpful, but I view that as something of a bonus.

Send out emails early to recruit, preferably 2-3 months. If you need to recruit musicians, you need to know who they will be, especially because this may affect your program selections (do you have anyone who can do the piano part on that song? Do you have enough singers for that harmony?). It's all interdependent.

Get clear on how much commitment you want from people, and ask them for it, directly. ("We're having rehearsals every other week for the next 2 months, can you commit to that?") Don't dither around about "what works for you?," it typically just wastes time if both sides are wishy-washy. If what you're asking is too much for them, you can negotiate or they can say no. If they ghost you, assume you're not hearing back.

Putting in the legwork (3 months before, up to Solstice)

If you've done things right, you will have a month or three in between all the big decisions and Solstice itself to do the remaining work, like writing speeches, designing ritual elements, finishing up the program, and doing all the music rehearsals.

Finishing the program 

Any speeches and rituals with a "TODO: write this" on them get written during this period. (The more you steal, the less you have to do here.)

Finalize what's going to be in it. If you want to rearrange the program and add or delete items, try to get that done as early as possible, especially if this will affect other people who are speaking or performing. You can postpone decisions that only affect yourself for longer. But anything you add will need enough notice and rehearsal time to prepare for.

Another thing to consider adding: In 2022, the Bay Area Secular Solstice had Scott Alexander as the creative director, and he wrote connecting speeches explaining what was going on between basically every item on the program. I haven't seen any other Solstices do this, but it seemed to work really well! Consider adding connecting speeches to your program, if you have the time and inclination to write them.

Music rehearsals

Running rehearsals and directing a musical group is a skill in itself.[3] If you happen to have anyone in your community who's already experienced with this, that's a huge bonus. The percentage of musicians who are reasonably experienced will also help a lot. If the musical director isn't you, it's important for that person to share your vision of what Solstice should look like and the creative vision for each song. (You don't have to have opinions on every song, but when you do, you need to have alignment about them.)

I personally feel that it's important for the musicians to come from the community itself. There are those who disagree, and think hiring outside help is no big deal. Here's why I think it's better to use community members:

  • Outside musicians might not understand what the themes in Solstice are supposed to mean, and this can come through in how they play and sing, especially singers.
  • Having community members as performers adds to the experience for the audience. They're not just watching a performance, they're watching their friends perform, which I personally find much more special.
  • Having community members perform gives them the opportunity to level up. This is close to my heart because it helped me a lot, and I want to give these opportunities to others at a reasonable challenge level as well.

There are some other pros and cons that may be relevant to you, though I regard them as ultimately less important:

  • Con: Professional musicians cost money. If your Solstice is small, this could cost as much as the entire rest of your budget (several hundreds of dollars).
  • Pro: Professionals can do stuff at the last minute and with little prep. Amateur musicians, or semi-amateurs who haven't worked together in this specific group before, need a lot more handholding and rehearsal time to pull together something adequate. Professionals can be handed some chords and some music and, with a little direction, throw something together in one rehearsal. So that may also affect the calculus for you.

Of course, the best option would be to have a professional musician from within the community, who's perhaps even willing to work for free or cheap. There aren't too many of those last I heard, but if you're lucky enough to have them in your area, do what you can to recruit them. (They might have more opinions on the program, though, so you'd still want to give them some advance notice to discuss!)

No musicians?

There are a couple options if you have few to no musical resources. Some Solstice songs might have karaoke tracks available (especially those that are not Solstice originals). Others you can do pretty well just by singing, with no backing. It doesn't have to be perfect! You can have a good and powerful Solstice event even if you don't have any professionals involved. Sometimes it's more important what you're singing or saying, and who you're doing it with. This kind of Solstice might just be held at someone's house, using their speakers or TV for karaoke tracks, or using nothing at all, just singing together.

If this is the way you want to go, I'd suggest going through the list of songs you want to do and figuring out which ones are karaoke-able or just singable independently, either by you or someone else who is confident enough to lead a song. Ask for help either with leading songs, or with managing the technology system if you need that. And then go ahead with it. You shouldn't need as much prep time -- just a little bit for the person leading each song to get extra-comfortable with it. I'd suggest nailing down your song choices and leaders 3-4 weeks in advance if you go this route.

It does help a lot to have song leaders, even if they're not particularly better at singing than everyone else: just having a Schelling person to start the song helps keep things moving.

Funding (depends, maybe 2-3 months before, maybe 0)

If you're the financial backstop for the event, you can handle this at the last minute. If you need to apply for grants or do crowdfunding, you'll have to do it near the beginning of the planning process, after you've selected your desired venue but before you have secured it.

You should ask for donations. I feel that having some community contributions is important and encourages attendees to feel more invested, compared to one person or an outside organization funding the entire thing. Plus, it's not fair for an organizer to backstop all of it themselves when they're also spending so much time on it.

I have only ever done either "organizer pays for everything" or "organizer pays upfront and requests donations to cover costs." If you're not in a financial position to do either of those, you have a few options, all of which will take more time.

  • Ask for help in your community, see if anyone is willing to backstop for you
  • Apply for a grant. EA Infrastructure Funds are one source that may help.
  • Do a Kickstarter or similar. This is probably a better option for bigger, more involved events, but is also a lot of work. I hear these are most successful if you do a nicely-produced video.

Requesting donations

Make an estimate of your costs and attendees to get a "suggested donation" number. I would advise having a "pay what you want" option to be inclusive to those who are hard-up financially. It's also nice to add a 2x suggested donation option phrased as "cover someone else's ticket."

Having been an organizer for longer now, I think having a "youth" or "student" ticket might be a good idea, too; fresh blood is important and you want those people to know you value them, plus younger people usually have less money. 

There's also the option of actually selling tickets in advance. This is likely helpful if you have a larger group (I have never had to do this). It helps to know how many people are actually going to show up, especially at larger scale. You can add a "free ticket" option on some platforms, so people don't have to pay but effectively have to RSVP.

Our last Solstice of around 35 people cost around $550 total, though we'd estimated it at $700 ahead of time. We asked for donations to help cover the cost, with a suggested donation of $20 per person, and covered the rest of it ourselves (me + one other organizer). We ended up getting roughly 80% of the costs covered by attendees.

Other logistics (1-2 months before)


This depends on your local group's demographics, but I think having kids included is important for the health of the community. However: Solstice is only partially kid-appropriate, plus kids might not be able to sit still and quiet enough. You don't want them disrupting others' experience. IMO, having a separate kids' area with paid childcare available is the best solution.

At our last Solstice I encouraged people to bring in their kids during the kid-appropriate part; my spouse brought our baby son up for the fun songs at the end and it was wonderful to see him while I was performing.

How much time you need to arrange this will depend on your personal situation. If I didn't know anyone at all who could do childcare, I'd start asking around a couple months in advance to generate some leads and figure out who would be the best choice. We had last year's Solstice at a religious venue that had a regular childcare provider, and she was also able to cover our event. That worked out really well, since she was already familiar with the space and it was easy for everyone logistically.

We considered the childcare part of the cost of Solstice; it was available for anyone bringing their kids.

Another potentially good option, along with childcare for small kids, is to do a minified version of Solstice put on for the kids by volunteers in the community. Prior art.

Optional: Pre-parties

Bay Area solstice has sometimes hosted pre-Solstice singing parties to get people familiar with the songs so they can sing along at Solstice itself. I haven't done this in the past but I think it can be nice.

Advertising (at least 1 month before)

You get better attendance if you advertise further in advance. For a big event like Solstice, I suggest one month as a minimum to maximize the room in people's schedules. Then, at a minimum, send a reminder at the one-week mark.

You may also want to send additional reminders/requests if anything specific comes up that you want to tell people about, like requests to join a potluck, information about the program, etc.

Polish (1-2 weeks before)

You can decide how much polish you want. You probably want more the bigger your Solstice is.

Things that improve polish: Have people practice speeches beforehand so you know how long they take. Do a dress rehearsal for the music. If you're planning any AV or recording devices, even as simple as buying a recording device and turning it on during the performance, test that out beforehand to check if the technical setup is good. (If you have a real venue and a lot of people, you probably want one or more people on sound, and some time at the venue to do an AV rehearsal beforehand.) Are people supposed to sing along? Where do they get lyrics? How are you setting that up?

Will you have paper programs? Those can be helpful to tell people what to expect, plus they can serve as nice mementos and a record later on. How will you get them printed? When will they be finalized? These should ideally contain the names of everyone who participated in making Solstice happen -- you want to double check the spelling of names before you get it printed.

Are there material components you need? Candles? Props for your ritual or icebreaker? Who will be handling any lighting changes, and do they need to practice beforehand? Figure out who is going to do any other tasks that will need doing during the ritual (grabbing the X prop from Y location and handing it to person Z, holding the light for person W who will be busy playing an instrument, etc.).  Remember that you may be busy during the ritual, so try to get as much help as you can for these little day-of tasks.

Actually running it

Show up on the day and do it!

The organizer needs to show up early. Think about how much time you will need for setup and A/V. Sound checks take time, even fairly simple ones. Add a little extra buffer if you have a lot of people volunteering. Err on the side of more time if you're not sure and haven't done this before. As you get better at it, you can start leaving less slack than before.

Don't forget to thank everyone who helped, especially if you have anyone who isn't in the program for whatever reason. It's very, very important to show people who help out that you value them and appreciate their work!

Feedback (1 day after)

Collecting feedback is nice, although it's hit or miss how much you'll actually get from attendees. More importantly, you want to talk to everyone involved in actually running it or performing and ask them what could have been done differently; they are likely to have some very specific opinions about it.

It's better to collect feedback as quickly as possible, so people's memories are still fresh. You can have paper forms at Solstice, or talk to people afterward, or do a Google form posted quickly afterward.

Updating Secular Solstice Resources (<1 month after)

Technically this isn't mandatory, but it is highly recommended :-)

Please do send your Solstice program to Secular Solstice Resources, so it can be archived for posterity and used by others running Solstices. You can do this in the form of a pull request to the Git repository, if you have the technical expertise. If not, you can send your Google docs or whatever to Daniel Speyer (dspeyer at Google's email service), who maintains the archive. Ideally, you should include all the text of your speeches and songs, plus any additional resources you have, such as sheet music. But even just a listing of what songs and speeches you used is helpful.

[1] One of my favorite Solstice concepts, which unfortunately did not have quite the effect intended and resulted in one casualty, was to have it outside, use the sun for the initial "get darker" arc, and then after the Moment of Darkness, move the group over to a place where the city lights were visible and sing Brighter than Today in front of them. I still think this could work. If you live in Berkeley, check out Cesar Chavez Park by the Marina. (And watch out for tree branches in the dark.)

[2] I view Secular Solstice Resources as more of an archive, with all of the Solstice content on a saved, publicly accessible website forever, with no broken links or Google Docs moldering on some random person's Drive. This is super valuable, but it's unfortunately not very easy to browse and use. I would love to have something that works both as an archive and an easily-browsable, searchable, filterable resource that you could use directly for building a Solstice program. Something for the code monkeys among us to consider in their spare time.

[3] I've only run a total of 6-7 rehearsals for one Solstice, so I would call myself only very mildly experienced with this skill. But if anyone's interested, I could write a followup post on what that was like.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

My Experience With Loving Kindness Meditation

I've heard some scary stories about potential bad outcomes from meditation. These outcomes seem to mostly be from people practicing insight meditation for very long periods of time, though.

So I figured, hey, a few minutes here and there of loving-kindness meditation should be totally fine and not scary, right? I've never heard of anything weird or out-of-model happening to your brain from just sitting down for less than an hour to think about how much you love people.


I had a strange and slightly frightening (though overall positive!) experience on just my third time doing loving-kindness meditation. On the prior two occasions I'd done it for less than ten minutes at a time. This time, I decided to hold out and do it for longer -- at least half an hour, or up to an hour, the full duration of the Quaker Meeting for Worship session I was in.

(I usually do something very different in my head during Meeting for Worship, which isn't meditation at all. I'll probably write more about this later.)

In the first few minutes, I had similar experiences to what I'd felt before. I focused hard on the sensation of compassion and empathy, which was difficult, but felt good.

Then I started having more success. The feelings of love and compassion grew stronger as I found better mental focuses. I was focusing on some memories of my infant son laughing, smiling, and playing with me and my spouse.

After a while, the feelings dimmed. It seemed like I had "used up" the power in some of these memories, so that they didn't trigger the same effect in me.

But I kept going, and the feelings started intensifying once more. It felt better and better. I started thinking about feelings of love and compassion towards other people in my life, even people who had annoyed me before, and I started to feel transcendently, uncontrollably happy. It was great. But then it kept going. Suddenly the feelings kept on getting more and more powerful without my having to do anything. It felt like there was a balloon of happiness inside me, swelling and getting larger and larger.

This was the point at which I got scared.

I felt like something strange was about to happen, something I couldn't understand or control, and I was absolutely not okay with that. I did not want to find out what would happen if the balloon popped.

So I opened my eyes and did what I used to do when I had panic disorder: I tried to ground myself. My breathing was fast, and I slowed it down. I looked around at the other people in the Meetinghouse who were still sitting calmly. I reminded myself that there was a world around me and I was going to be back in it.

The balloon subsided.

I was able to bring myself back to a normal-ish state, but I felt physically shaky for the rest of the day. It felt very strange talking to other people, yet also easier and more fluid than normal. I started saying "I love you" to my son much more often than I did before.

For the rest of that week, just by concentrating briefly, I could bring back some of the physical sensations I'd felt during the intense meditation session -- a warm glow in my chest, flowing outward to the rest of my body -- and re-ignite some of the feelings of love I'd felt.

The most intense effects died down after a week or so, but I think I've retained some of them even now. This was about six months ago.

I researched and asked friends who do meditation about what, exactly, was happening to me. It sounds to me like I came very close to the "Arising & Passing Away" described in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. I was very worried for a little while that I would experience the depressive and unpleasant side effects described in that chapter, but I never did; this, plus a few differing details, makes me think that my grounding technique averted my actually experiencing an A&P event.

Some of what I experienced sounds similar to "jhanas". It would be odd for me to have attained a jhana after so little practice, but I suppose it's not out of the question.

I do wonder if I had any predisposing factors that would have made this more likely. I have sometimes wondered if I have bipolar II disorder (I've experienced what I'd call depressive and hypomanic episodes, lasting a month or more), which could be a factor. I've also spent lots of time in Meeting for Worship throughout my life, which isn't meditation, but might cause some other changes to one's brain. Lastly, my son was only four months old when this happened; it's possible the intensity of hormonal changes and feelings that come with being a new parent made this more likely.

I'm overall happy that this happened, and I've continued to occasionally practice loving-kindness meditation since, but I'm also very glad that I stayed mostly in control.

I'm posting this to share my experience, and as a warning of sorts that even "tame"-seeming forms of meditation can have surprisingly intense effects that it's good to be prepared for.

I'm also curious if any more experienced meditators or practitioners have comments or possible explanations for this phenomenon.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Book Review: The Renaissance Soul

I have a very short list of books that have actually changed my life substantially -- three so far. I think The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine is going to be the fourth.

This book is fundamentally about solving a dilemma I've had my whole life, namely: if you are interested in too many random things, how do you get a meaningful and satisfying amount of depth out of them, without having to sacrifice all but one or two? So far, it's been nearly impossible for me to just choose one or a couple of things to focus on for a long time, because that feels like boxing myself in way too much. But then I'm left with a constant worry that I'm never going to achieve anything real, because I haven't taken enough time to dig into a specific subject. And in fact, this probably is true, and I feel sad about not having gotten far enough in most areas to get any real satisfaction from them.

So that's the problem. What solutions does the book offer?

It's a deceptively simple system:

1) Pick just 4 things (she calls these "Renaissance Focal Points") to focus on for a medium amount of time (several months to a few years).

2) Re-evaluate and let which 4 things you're doing change over time.

There's a whole lot more that goes into it, though. The supporting material in the book really helped me work through some blockers I had preventing me from doing something like this before.

Some mental blocks that I had that the book helped with:

  • Anxiety about long-term commitment locking me into things I won't want to do anymore.
  • Anxiety about overcommitting myself, even temporarily.
  • Anxiety about losing interest in things too soon.

I would strongly recommend buying it and reading it if this is something you've struggled with. That said, here is a quick summary of the algorithm with the most important parts for me.

Figure out your values

 The first step is to define what's most important to you in life. Renaissance Soul has an excellent "Five from Fifty" exercise, where you choose no more than five values that are most important to you from a list of fifty possibilities (plus, you can optionally add your own if none of them fit). This really helps narrow down and clarify your priorities.

Lobenstine emphasizes that it's important to recognize when you value things in life that are undesirable or you might want to admit to others that you're pursuing. For example: money, fame, wealth, and power are all on the list. If those are things you want, it's better to be honest with yourself about it!

This has some similarity to other "write a mission statement" type exercises in books like "7 Habits of Highly Effective People." I find these exercises quite helpful. This one is particularly nice because it's simple and doesn't require you to do too much writing.

Choose focal points

 The next step is to choose "focal points". These are something like "projects" or "areas" or "hobbies". How vague or how specific they are will depend on your life circumstances. For me, focal points have varied in specificity from "Go hiking more" to "Be a better parent" or "Do $SPECIFIC_PROGRAMMING_PROJECT" or "Music". They can be something at your job, if something at your job is genuinely important or inspiring to you, or they can all be non-work-related and personal. You want to choose them while keeping in mind the values you chose in the prior step. Make sure you have a spread of things to work on that fulfills your values, and doesn't leave any neglected. But at the same time, you don't want to be doing too much.

Lobenstine recommends exactly four (4) focal points. If you have more than that, you're going to be stretched too thin. If you have less, you might get bored. That said, less is also okay if you feel happy with it! I personally find it hard to stick to just 4, so it seems like a good limit to me.

An important thing to remember here is that these focal points are not forever! They are for a few months to a year at a time; the idea is that you will reevaluate what you're focusing on periodically, and let it evolve based on the results of past projects. So you don't have to feel like you're missing out by dropping all the other projects you want to do.

Make a structure with blocked-out time

 The book has a lot more detail about this, but in broad strokes, the next step is to think about how you will make time for each Focal Point in your life. Do you have specific commitments related to it that you will have to fulfill at scheduled times? Or if there are no external commitments, can you block out a few hours each week to work on it independently? How will you work around other features of your life (job, family, etc.) to make time for it? Do you need to ask other people for help or support? Do you need to make sure you have a pot of tea ready for yourself when you're going to work, or set up your desk more nicely, or ... ? This is basically the "plan how this will actually happen" step.

Have weekly check-ins

 Lobenstine recommends keeping a Focal Point Notebook. In this notebook, each week, take one page and make a table, where each focal point is a column. In each focal point's column, write down what you'll be doing this week. Then the next week, check in on how you did, and repeat the exercise. This helps keep you accountable, and helps you figure out what works for you and what doesn't. Plus, it helps you remember the progress you've made and celebrate it!

Re-evaluate values and focal points

After 4-6 months, or after some specified commitments have passed (a semester, or a specific deadline, etc.), go back to your current list of focal points and values. Hopefully by now you've gotten some solid work done on them, and have enjoyed the process so far! How are they working for you now? Are these still the things you want to focus on, or is it time to pick some new ones? Redo the above exercises, and make a new plan for where you are in your life now.

Other helpful things

The book also covers a lot of ground on the issue of "How do I do this while still making enough money to live and support myself?" This part wasn't relevant to my life circumstances at the time when I was reading, so I skimmed it, but I'd definitely recommend checking it out. Sometimes the solution is to just get a J-O-B that you're only doing for the money and focus on your hobbies in your free time; other times, there are ways to make some money from your hobbies, shift your day job to be more exciting, or scale down your day job to make more time for other things. I'll probably be coming back to this part of the book in the future, and maybe I'll write a more in-depth review if I do.