My birthday always makes me feel a little reflective. I’m turning 31 today, so it’s not exactly one of those big-deal birthdays that ends in a zero or a five or means I'm suddenly eligible to drive or vote. 31 is one of those birthdays that’s best celebrated by a quiet afternoon walk by yourself in the park, thinking back on who you’ve become and who you’d like to be in the year ahead.
My 30th year didn’t deliver much in the way of earth-shattering drama, or long-worked-for accomplishments, or any of the sort of once in a lifetime events that you call your grandma about. I didn’t start an amazing new job like I did last year when I joined Strong Towns. I didn’t achieve my single greatest dream of publishing my first novel, like I did the year before. I didn’t buy my first home — that happened the year before that — and while I did buy a rental property (just a few days ago!), and I hope, soon enough, it will help me achieve another dream of providing quality-managed affordable housing, I’m still far too deep into the unsexy parts of new homeownership to start celebrating yet. There are way too many utility bill transfers and sewer lateral repairs to take care of before I start popping the champagne.
So it wasn’t a bad year, but it wasn’t a monumental year.
And what working at Strong Towns has taught me is this: years like this last one are what life is really about.
Our lives, like the communities we love, are made out of ordinary days. Planting persimmon trees in the yard, walking the kids to school, showing up to neighborhood meeting and listening to a stranger speak. We make thousands of small choices an hour, and sleep and wake and choose again. Over time, the choices sum up to something bigger. They pile like leaves on the lawn, slowly taking shape.
We remember the storms of life, when the leaves get kicked up and the trees are ripped out by the roots and it feels like our small, daily choices don’t matter a bit. We’re human, after all: we’re conditioned to try to control the weather.
But what happens when we recognize our small, everyday choices are what shape our communities the most? What happens if we become just a little more thoughtful, a little more creative, a little more brave, every time we have a chance to choose?
Let’s say you’re like me. When you look back over the past year, you might not have memories of starting a revolution in your place. Maybe you didn’t raise a skyscraper or level a slum. There’s no photo of you shaking the governor’s hand and no front page of a newspaper emblazoned with your name.
But that doesn’t mean you didn’t change the world.
For my birthday this year, and I’m asking for two things. First, I want you to think of something small — I’m talking as tiny as you can — that you could do right now to make your town stronger. Make it as small as a couple clicks: share a Strong Towns article with your alderman. Make it as tiny as the step you take outside your door to talk to a neighbor while they mow their lawn, and ask them how you could be a better neighbor to them.
You do things like this every day, of course. So do I. But see how it feels to be just a little bit more intentional with these moments, to treat them each one as if it’s the most important thing you’ll do all day.
And then, if you like how it feels, do it again. Practice small actions; a few more this hour, a handful tomorrow. Repeat this practice, day after day, month after month. And more importantly, watch how your community changes when you pay attention to the impact of these moments, and challenge yourself to learn from what you witness.
The second thing I want for my birthday is this: I want you to join the Strong Towns movement.
You might be reading this and thinking, so what? You might hear words like incremental development and your mind might translate it to band-aid solution. Maybe the problems your community is facing are so huge, you can’t fathom that your small, intentional actions will even scratch the surface.
Here’s the thing: you’re right. They won’t.
But when you join us, you join a community of people who are doing it too. You’re entering a space where your handful of small actions every day are being added to the millions of small actions being done by 2,177 people and counting, all around the world. Members of the Strong Towns movement are not alone. And they recognize the uniquely astonishing things that can happen not in spite of, but because they happen every single day, just a little bit at a time.
For my banal, milestone-free 31st birthday, this is what I want: to grow this movement, a little bit at a time, every single day. Whether I’ve changed one mind with this article or a hundred, whether you have $5 to give or $5 million. Because milestones are great, of course. But what’s more important is the path we’re on, and that we’re moving forward.