Life is a journey of self-discovery. It seems most of what we must spend our time on as we’re living life is learning how to live it better, both within and without. The plethora of self-help available in bookstores and online is a poignant reminder of just how difficult that can be. Part of my attraction to tea as a hobby in the early days was as a new avenue for personal growth and discovery.
What I didn’t expect was to find my demons waiting for me here, too.
You see, I’ve got something of an issue with uncertainty. More to the point, I dislike not knowing the answer. Not just any answer, but the capital “A” Answer. At first I thought maybe I was, at worst, something of a know-it-all. After all, my desire to know things fuels a strong curiosity, which has lead to me to learn and do many new things. It drove me to start this blog, so that I might share what I’ve learned with others interested in shared experiences along their tea journey.
But this blog quickly morphed into a source of anxiety rather than one of pleasure.
Before long, I felt a deep and abiding need to be authoritative on any subject I wrote about, even though I couldn’t possibly be authoritative on something as new to me as tea. Furthermore, focusing simply on the pursuit of academic tea knowledge is really only half the pie, as I would later discover.
It’s been a struggle for me to stay afloat in an environment such as this.
In the beginning, I craved authoritative sources and objective sources of tea facts. I found some, such as MarshalN and Cwyn’s Death By Tea blogs, but even respected community members such as these were careful about statements of fact.
Left to my own devices, I started by focusing on tasting notes. Reading blogs, watching videos on YouTube, perusing Reddit and Instagram left me with the idea that if I can taste well and write compelling notes then I can say I “know” tea. Check my earliest Instagram photos for examples of this.
I was content to pursue this path until I encountered David Lee Hoffman (LINK), who, in a single Saturday session, upended my notions of what tea meant to me and sent me spiraling down a path that has changed me deeply in ways I still can’t fully express.
Yet even as a window opened to new ways of experiencing and thinking about tea, I sunk deeper into my desperation to know what I was doing and where I was going.
Cultivars, growing regions, characteristics of the tea market, professional knowledge surrounded me and threatened to swallow me as I hopelessly compared myself, a fledgling tea enthusiast with a full-time job in something other than tea, to those with decades of experience or whose livelihood depends on their knowledge of tea.
My writing on the subject of tea ground to a halt. Every post I attempted to write or idea I tried to expand on ended in fear of judgment or reprisal. “What will ‘they’ think of me if I post this,” is a thought that had made its home deep in my psyche. This thought, recognizable as “The Resistance” by fans of Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” or the “lizard brain” by readers of one of my favorite business minds Seth Godin, countered my every creative thrust with ease and struck back with laser precision, touching on every one of my fears and insecurities. Thus entrenched, all pathways to creative fulfillment through writing about tea remained effectively blocked.
My Instagram profile, which lists me as a “tea enthusiast and blogger”, became more of a reminder of my persistent failure to produce work rather than something I owned with confidence. I’ve debated changing it more times than I can count. I posted on Instagram less and less, hoping that if I stopped showing up in feeds people would forget I wasn’t doing anything to deserve that self-appointed moniker. Yet I persisted in checking the numbers.
The likes became something of an affirmation that people still cared. The numbers in Google Analytics told me people were still reading. More remarkable were those who were subscribing to my email list, who signed up to hear from me only to be met by silence for weeks and months after.
The ideas persisted. I wrote drafts. I talked about concepts for tea-related projects I’d like to work on, even mapping some out and making plans for how I’d bring them to life. The drafts are still unedited or incomplete. The projects look great on paper.
As of February 2019, I’d reached the end of my rope. My fears and anxieties began to manifest in something of an existential crisis. I frequently pondered my mortality. The finality and uncertainty of the experience was (and still is), to me, the ultimate unknowable, and that is truly terrifying. These ruminating thoughts were frequently accompanied by bouts of panic so severe I would sometimes cry out in fear and anguish.
I was broken. I feared irreparably.
I confided in a close personal friend of mine and he concluded I was afraid of uncertainty. Deeply afraid to the point I had arranged my behavior and my personality to avoid it. The conclusion was revelatory to me. It shocked me in its simplicity and truth, and made clear to me I needed to change everything about the way I was living.
The first and most important change I had to make was in employment, so I quit my job. After three years working at one of the fastest-growing tech companies in Silicon Valley, I’d had enough. Sustained personal and professional challenges, struggles with physical and mental health, changes in the work environment, and shifting goals in life led me to an inflection point. I decided to take the fork in the road into unknown territory–admittedly a strange move in light of all I’ve just described about my struggles, but that’s precisely the reason why I felt I needed to do it.
On my last day at work I had lunch with the man who had been both a boss and a mentor to me during my time at the company. We sat across the table from one another eating delicious sushi and he told me I needed to stop trying to know things. He told me I need to be creative. As a fellow musician, he told me I need to play music again–another part of my creative soul trapped by the overwhelming power of the Resistance.
Spending my last meal with him as an employee focusing on my weak points wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed, but I knew it was his way of preparing me for what would come next.
Two weeks later, on a beautiful April day, I ventured over to Berkeley to meet with Scott, also known as @cutechajin on Instagram, at the Far Leaves teahouse. Scott is intelligent, eloquent, and extremely knowledgeable about tea. The dude knows how to hand grind his own white tea to precisely the right size in order to brew it whisked in the traditional Song Dynasty style. This is a guy with a deep and abiding expertise on tea that comes from both research and experience.
We got deep into the subject of the tea history classes he teaches, usually at Floating Mountains teahouse in NYC, and how he might approach structuring his course to make it approachable for the layperson and enlightening for the informed. We talked about writing on tea and blogging and so on, and I asked him: how do we write about tea when it’s so hard to know things about tea? His answer gave me the second major shock I’d received in a long time.
Don’t write authoritatively on things you aren’t authoritative about, he said. Instead rely on experience and things you know to be “true” based on experience. He poured water into the tea pot in front of him and put the lid on. He then pointed out the little disc of water that formed on the spout, how it bulged and then receded. This was itself a detail I’d never observed before, but he knew it would happen because, in his experience, it always happens.
I thought back on the various creative projects I’ve started and stopped. I thought back to the professional struggles I’ve had. I realized I have a way of constantly challenging myself to be more and do better, which is good. On the flip side of the same coin, I realized I have a deep insecurity that comes from feeling unqualified or under-qualified to take on these challenges.
I don’t know what I’m doing, is the constant refrain singing in my mind. Since I think I don’t know what I’m doing, I have to pretend. Fake it ’till you make it, right? And here lives the imposter. He is always one mistake away from being found out. The threat of exposure hangs over him like the Sword of Damocles. It’s no wonder my body had literally started to attack itself. Thinking itself the enemy, it went on the offensive.
The rest of the day was wonderful and worth remembering in its entirety, but that particular point stuck in my mind. It sunk, slowly, into my core, where my creative subconscious latched on to it. Awakened, it drew the idea forth like a blade and wielded it before the Resistance.
“I know these things to be true because I have lived them,” it said in defiance.
“Nobody cares,” shouted the Resistance in return.
“It doesn’t matter. I will write them anyways.”
And so here we are. Wait, where are we, exactly?
We’ve arrived at a destination, and we should talk about what this means for the blog. The Resistance has not been defeated, but with every word I write, every thought I give life on paper and in pixels, it loses ground. This piece is a beginning, one of many to come. I have a considerable amount of thought put into various subjects related to tea, such as tea culture in the United States, tea experiences for one’s self and others, and books written about tea. I also have numerous experiences to share, including almost 3 months of classes in chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony), and a couple projects I’d like to play around with. I’d even love to write on some topics that are tea-adjacent, such as mindfulness, minimalism, design, art, and aesthetics.
None of this may sound interesting to some of you. For whatever reason you came to this blog, the above may not be among them. If you decide not to visit anymore, I understand. But I appreciate that you’re here now, and if you’ve made it this far then you’ve done me an incredible service in reading this entire post.
Thanks for coming along on the journey. We’ve only just begun.
Mike Newton, Tea Blogger