A Life of Firsts
cognition | social life & social media
James Norris is on a quest to experience life as much as possible. He has been tracking life events for 15 years. In this talk, presented at the Washington DC QS meetup group, James describes how he tracked many significant experiences and what he's learned from 1,500 of "firsts."
sticky notes | Word
To start this story I actually have to start with my very first kiss. But before that moment I actually have to tell you how I remember that. Let’s go back a few more years. When I was 13 I forgot something and it made me a little angry. I knew about sticky notes, but I did not carry them on my person. I decided from then on to carry sticky notes. Every day since then I have been carrying them around. This has been my external memory and it’s been with me forever. I became a Quantified Selfer when I was 13 when I started writing things down.
Fast forward to the first kiss. I became obsessed with my first kiss when I – I’m not going to tell you the whole story, but I had a good night. I met this girl at a debate conference. We hit it off and we were playing truth or dare. So what actually happened was the person that was running the game said, "you guys need to get out of the room and go and do something." So we went off. It was a good night. End of story.
But I wanted to remember that, so on my sticky note I wrote "first kiss." I went home and I was like, "What do I do with this?" I decided to write it down and made a database and started tracking my firsts from then on. Basically, every first I ever had – the first time I ever shaved was a week later. The first time everything else just kept on happening.
The first time I went to the national capital for fireworks was just a few weeks ago. That was an amazing experience. The first time I went to the Grand Canyon. The first time I decided to do a sand dune rolling race. This is not a good idea by the way, we learned that there is no winners in sand dune rolling races. The first time I became a cartoon for a talk I did. The first time I was on top of a train. So I’ve had a lot of firsts and I had a really amazing blessed life.
My number, if you care to guess, is 1500, exactly. I did not plan this whatsoever. Last night, I hit 1500 and doing this talk I’m 1501, because this is the first time in my life that I’ve actually told this story in any depth in public, so thank you all for helping being part of this.
Enough about that. The story for the Quantified Self talk is about "what did I do?", "how did I do it?", and "what did I learn?". In this case, all I did was track every first I had and set a personal threshold. It wasn’t just the first time I met a person, it had to be the first time I met a prime minister or something of significance. I started doing that and I had a pretty solid number, and I kept that consistent throughout the whole time.
How did I do this? With sticky notes, with Microsoft Word, and with a certain framework of where to track the date, time, location, my age, and the person or reason that helped me do this; who facilitated this first.
With that kind of data, you get a lot of context. But the key is "what did I learn from doing all this?" It’s a lot of sticky notes and a lot of lessons learned.
This is me, plotting my life's firsts. I told you my first kiss. I actually backtracked and put a few more in before that, like selling candy at recess. Nineteen was when I let myself go wild. I was in college. I built clubs, I didn’t go to class and I had a lot of fun. Then I did start-ups which was a great lesson. But around 26, you see what happens. The magic moment there was when I decided to go on a world trip with a mentor. Travel is amazing if you want to put in firsts. I ended up moving to Singapore, which is that big spike. That was one of the most inspirational and amazing parts of my life.
It dipped, if you notice, and that meant I wasn’t getting much novelty and I wasn’t learning as much. I wasn’t growing as much. I needed to leave. And I did, so now I’m back on track and I’m hopefully going to gamify it and keep on extending, and upping the numbers as much as I can.
The times are interesting. I actually tracked the time that a first occurs. Six o’clock was my big number. Eight o’clock, 11, and there is a 4 AM. I am a night owl. I used to go to bed at 7 AM at sunrise and wake up in the afternoon. I was an astronomy major – a long story. But generally, it's a fairly even spread of firsts throughout the day.
Now this chart of who I've had firsts with I find more interesting. I don’t have x-axis labels. They are people who have really had an impact on my life. I didn’t want to force rank this and show who is top and who is not. On the far right, I’ll tell you, that’s my dad. I only have three firsts with my dad that I remember, which may mean that he’s not very interesting. Or that I didn’t remember to catch those. Or that the "first" happened with other people and the "seconds" happened back at the house. On the far left there is actually someone in the room. It’s fun when you live and work with people. You and your colleagues end up growing together quite a bit. There is a spread and it’s a long tail. These are only the top 34. There are over 100 people that have actually had some impact on me, so I’m grateful for all of them.
These are family members, colleagues, mentors, people who wish they didn’t know me. Lots of different people in my life and we’ve had a lot of fun together. I’ve learned and grown with them and they’ve also hopefully grown as well.
So I’ve had 1500 "firsts." I have 56 pages in Microsoft Word with a 8.5 font size. If you want to count all that, that’s not the best way to track this stuff. This is what I did. This is the PC version. You can tell I did a lot of using, hopefully not a bad way. I was using tools and technologies and things like that.
I went to a lot of events and conferences. And yes, women were involved. I ate a lot, as you can tell, and Singapore is a big part of that too. When you go to a different country, you start getting a lot of new experiences. This is a meaningful graph for me, at least. It’s a word cloud for me.
Here are some of the lessons learned from this kind of crazy experiment. First of all, our firsts worth tracking? Yes, they are absolutely worth tracking. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one of the main ones is it feels like I have lived more. I would have forgotten all of these crazy and amazing things that I’ve done. Just by going back and looking to 1999, I can now get a glimpse back into that past, and that’s been really helpful for me. On the cheap, I can live these amazing experiences again. I don’t have to fly there. I just get it. If I didn’t do this, I would lose those memories forever.
Research shows that if you actually practice savoring your cause of experiences, you will become happier. There is a lot of research on this, so it’s a very easy way to help change your baseline. The other part is "firsts" really help with my creativity and my courage. Pushing for "firsts" is hard to do. It’s not easy to get on top of a train or other random things. I am constantly pushing my boundaries to become a different person and grow.
Here is how I get more "firsts." It’s really easy to get "firsts" when I travel because I am going to a new country, a new culture, a new language, new foods. It all comes with the territory. I try to keep a ridiculously open mind. It’s not always easy to do this. I try to get a little bit outside my comfort zone to make it work. The other part is involving friends. If I tell my friends, "Hey, you just help me get a first, let’s do another one." And it’s a good way to keep me accountable. The next time they see me, they can ask me, "What is your latest 'first'?"
I always have my sticky notes on my person, because if I don’t capture it right then, I will forget. My data will, otherwise, have lots and lots of holes.
And then I cheat. If I just went to that event and I met this really crazy interesting person, and I can get two, three, or four "firsts" in one. That’s okay in my book. As long as they are unique salient experiences I'm fine with it. So cheating is perfectly fine, and it’s only for me anyway. I can’t really cheat myself.