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Touchstone Word of the Year 2023

Today I’d like to share something that you can turn into a superpower. It’s a goal setting strategy that may change your life.


I don't say that lightly. As a PhD neuroscientist who studied the neural basis of learning and motivation, I’ve seen so many different approaches to personal goal setting: SMART goals, vision boards, strategic plans, New Year’s resolutions….


Some people love these kinds of efforts. They truly work in some settings. But none of them compares with what I’ll teach you today. Not. Even. Close.


Ready?


The personal goal setting strategy that has the power to change your life is ...


... create a touchstone for the year.


A touchstone is a single word to serve as a guidepost for the year. Jason Fox calls it a fuzzy contextual beacon. Think of a touchstone as a North Star set by a wiser, better, future version of you that can guide your wanderings and growth this year. (Psst… If you want some guidance to create yours, Tutti and I are hosting a free, 90 minute workshop on December 12th to do just that!)


2022 Year of the Bard

Last year I chose Bard as my touchstone for the year. I took inspiration from William Shakespeare’s word wizardry, Lin Manuel Miranda’s creative power, Amanda Gorman’s charismatic eloquence, and Audrey Hepburn’s vulnerable grace. I felt some inner music destined to burst forth into the world. I suspected that my inner music had something to do with all the different facets of who I am: neuroscientist, human teacher, facilitator, leader, dancer, mom, writer, speaker, and so much more. And, as bards of the D&D fantasy variety wander from town to town telling stories, I felt that becoming a Bard would fit right into our Gap Year of travel with plans to visit Boston, New York, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, New Zealand, and Hawaii.

How did it go?

In March 2022, I had absolutely no clue what my inner music might be. My hyper-achiever was screaming. And to be perfectly honest, so was the imposter syndrome. I lamented my complete lack of “bard” capabilities to a dear high school friend. She’s a musician, actor, and incredible creative. If anyone could help, it was Karla.

She asked, “Well, what do you love to write?”

I thought for a moment. “I love writing my Gap Year blog,” I replied. And I truly did. I had a devoted group of Facebook followers and was having so much fun sharing our adventures with them.

“Then, maybe that’s how to start becoming a bard.”

Hmmmm. Intriguing! That conversation with Karla planted the seed of my book, Brain Tripping: How Travel Can Change Your Brain WIthout Ever Leaving Home, a quest to understand the hard-core neuroscience and psychology behind why travel makes us engage with life so vibrantly. It is also my personal quest to find transcendence through our family Gap Year. Finally, it’s a hopeful quest to help others come alive in their everyday lives. Think Eat, Pray, Love penned by Oliver Sacks.

My book is my inner music. I’ve discovered that my book is also the magical beating heart of my business. While travel absolutely catalyzed transformational brain changes in me and my kids through our Gap Year, I have the very same brain now that I’m home, right in my own backyard. What I do, what I’ve always done, is help my clients, my community, and myself bring the same passion, curiosity, and magic we feel when we travel into our work and everyday life.

While I’ve got a long road still ahead to becoming a true Bard, and though I will never reach the mastery of Shakespeare, Lin Manuel Miranda, Amanda Gorman, Audrey Hepburn, I can now hear my inner music and know how to share it with the world.

Why (scientifically) do touchstones work?

I claim that touchstones work better than SMART goals, vision boards, strategic plans, or New Years resolutions for personal growth. Why?

First, a touchstone is simple. Our working memory, that part of our mind which stores plans for the future, has a severely limited capacity. Many goals and strategic plans are typically unwieldy, multi-layered, detail-oriented things. For instance, SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. It’s super effective for organizational planning, but definitely not simple. A single goal might be represented by the following MadLib’s style statement: “In order to achieve ____(relevant strategic goal)____, I want to change __(specific change you want to see)___ by ____(how much)____ by ____(date)____ as measured by ____(metric)____. To do this, I will need ____(supports and resources necessary for achievability)____.” That’s too much to hold in most people’s working memory. It’s a great management tool to set clear benchmarks, but it must be written down. You can’t carry it with you as you move through the day. In contrast, a single word touchstone or phrase can be recalled and held simply, easily, and readily anytime anywhere. I thought about ‘becoming a Bard’ all the time. In the shower. In the car. On a walk. In conversation. As I wrote. Whenever I encountered a master of the craft that I admired on the stage, page, or screen. Achieving one’s goal is as much about keeping your goal present in working memory as you move through work and life as it is about making a goal to start with.

Second, a touchstone is flexible. That’s so very important in these times of great uncertainty and change. I think the most important thing the pandemic has taught me is how to stay flexible – to keep the larger big picture goal in sight, and continue moving forward towards it despite whatever crazy the Universe throws in my way. We’ve all seen our meticulously crafted plans laid to waste by powers beyond our control. A touchstone allows for flexible problem solving in a way that a New Years Resolution doesn’t. A touchstone is ‘Bard’. A New Year’s Resolution is ‘write 500 words every day’. A touchstone is broad versus narrow. Qualitative versus quantitative. Heart-led intuition versus head-led analytical reasoning. Long-term end results versus short term next steps. The built-in vague abstractness of a touchstone allows for flexible rapid-pivoting, while staying on target, just when you need it most. All of this is managed by a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. It’s the part of your brain where motivation, attention, and cognition meet. When the anterior cingulate cortex is damaged, animals and people struggle to flexibly shift their behavior to match changing environmental circumstances. When a clear touchstone is held by the anterior cingulate cortex, it becomes possible to survey the current landscape, assess your options, and choose which action is worth taking based on prior experience.

Finally, touchstones are motivating. Rarely do SMART goals, strategic plans, or New Years resolution make you feel authentically inspired. Touchstones, when crafted with care, inspire and motivate. That’s because all those others are aspirational things to do, but touchstones are more than that, they are an aspirational way of being. The vision of being someone new, a transformed, better version of the you that you are today, activates the mesolimbic dopamine pathway in a positive way, sustaining incentive salience and motivation towards your goal.

What about vision boards? To be honest, vision board are great! Simple. Flexible. Motivating. The difference is that a vision board is an abstract visual representation while a touchstone is a linguistic representation of a goal for the year. Do both if you can.

Together, it’s these qualities that makes this goal setting strategy something that can truly change your life. It has done so year after year for me. May your touchstone do the same for you.

All that said… what’s your 2023 touchstone Irene? My word for the year is Weaver.


2023 Year of the Weaver

There’s something both comforting and magical about crafting a shimmering scarf or gorgeous tapestry from the simple action of over-under-over-under with starting material as mundane as yarn. Thus, for 2023, I wish to become a weaver. Throughout the year I shall take individual strands of yarn – stories, people, ideas, identities – and weave them together into gorgeous tapestries.


I shall be a story weaver like the legendary Anansi, the African God of Stories. I shall take the form of a spider weaving irresistible stories on paper and on stage such that the audience is caught in my web and changed for the better by the tales. My book is primary amongst the stories I shall weave and I hope to have an agent, a publisher, and a complete first draft in 2023.


I shall be a community weaver. I weave people together to find collective wisdom, compassion, and connection. Myself included. I do this by creating safe spaces for people to gather: safe havens and warm taverns, tower rooms and great halls, mind-blowing retreats in extraordinary places where time stops and magic begins.


I shall be an idea weaver. I weave ideas together in ways that bring insight to myself and others. My signature uniqueness is in my identity as a scientist. Thus, a science thread shall find its way into every tapestry. But I think that I will be able to use this touchstone of weaving as a way to weave all the facets of my identity more visibly into the tapestry that is me.

Three Principles

“I encourage fellow Questers to identify three Principles to adopt for a year… If your Word serves as a kind of ‘North Star’, your Principles are like the constellations clustered around it. Your Principles are what you turn to when at a loss as to what to decide or do. Life dishes up plenty of perplexity, ambiguity, paradox and doubt in any given year… Your Principles ought be simple statements that evoke a certain quality of guidance, which in turn might influence the kinds of decisions you make in the year ahead.”

My three principles this year are three experiments to try as I weave. I think of them as three styles of weaving that I might adopt throughout the year.

Magic. My gift of magic encourages the light within others to shine brighter. My superpower is finding the spark within each person that makes them shine, and blowing on it gently until it is a roaring flame that lights the night. I shall weave spells that make others feel alive with wonder, awe, delight, beauty, adventure, and passion so that together, we can make this world an even better place.


Light and shadow. Like Rembrandt, I weave with light and shadow. I am not afraid of the dark because I am filled with so much light. I use darkness in my weaving because without it, there is no shadow to make the brightness pop. I weave in multicolored hues that go beyond the rainbow, into colors only mantis shrimp can see.


Time. This is an infinite game, and I know how to play it: I must slow the passage of time when I weave. My book is my newest tapestry. It will take many months to weave. Every single day, no matter what, I shall lay down a few more lines to add to the fabric. I shall set daily and weekly intentions with care and stick to them with centered purpose. Slow is smooth. Slow is present. Slow is luxurious. Slow is spacious.


An invitation to me

This year, I wrote myself an invitation to claim my identity as a weaver. It’s as if me at the end of 2023 is writing myself a note here and now. That future me is already a master weaver. She’s that story weaver, that community weaver, that idea weaver I wish I could be. I’m not there yet. So she’s writing to me from my future to invite me to step forward and claim my touchstone for 2023. Here’s what she wrote.


Dear Irene, This is a sacred invitation to fully claim your identity as a weaver. You are Arachne. You are Anansi. You are magic and science interwoven. You weave stories and spells, communities and spaces, ideas and time, light and shadow. You are an integrated, enchanting, illuminating, utterly unique masterpiece tapestry. You already have everything you need, including an amazing team gathered around you. Step forward into 2023 and join me. Let’s show the world what we can do.


Read More

Here’s two fabulous Nature Neuroscience articles about the anterior cingulate cortex and about the inner workings of your working memory. They’re pretty academic. So if you want something lighter, try this article on creating a vision board.


Going Further

I’d love to invite you or someone you know to join me and fellow executive coach and my best friend, Tutti Taygerly, next week December 12, from noon to 1:30 pm Pacific Time for an intention setting workshop! We’ll guide you through a process to find your 2023 touchstone. Give yourself the gift clarity, for closure, and self-compassion this holiday season with this FREE workshop.


I’m offering a half-day workshop all about the neuroscience and psychology of giving and receiving feedback this January 2023! You’ll have your choice of in person or on Zoom. Bring a friend from your organization and get 20% off! Sign up today!

If you or someone you know loves my writing, please subscribe. Upcoming articles include a holiday one on savoring, a powerful journaling exercise, and more on feedback. Don't miss out! Insights and ahas. Not too often. No spam. Promise.




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