By Hayah Al Shihabi
The book of strangers’ mottos
A life motto, also known as a saying one lives by, can say a lot about a person. The way I define a motto is a phrase that captures one’s current mindset, biggest realization, or most impactful life lesson. In fact, I think asking for one’s motto is one of the most potent questions a person could answer. My fascination with mottos started in 2012, when an outstandingly vibrant woman in Times Square was singing on the street and handed me a piece of paper quoting, ‘Follow your heart, always’. This led me to buy an empty book at the nearest corner shop, and begin the journey of asking strangers to handwrite their life mottos in it wherever I travelled. Since that year, I have managed to collect over two hundred mottos from the people of New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and London, with no limits to age, nationality, race, gender or physical appearance.
I can definitely say that this journey has opened my eyes by giving me the enlightening experience of connecting with strangers in an instant. I have heard it all; from a woman opening up about her arranged marriage and hopes to be an actress, to stories of aspiring musicians selling their records on the street, to having a heart-to-heart conversation with an elderly woman. This book enabled me to truly listen to various peoples’ perspectives on life, as defining one’s life motto can incite the deepest of conversations.
After analyzing all the mottos, I found that they could be categorized into three common themes: happiness, challenges and people (in order of the most frequent).
Happiness – The fundamental recurring theme was the significance of staying happy throughout life. The mottos encouraged doing what makes you happy, the power of positive thinking and to live in the moment as we only have this one life, and it is too short to waste.
Challenges – Many people stressed the magnitude of working hard, appreciating the growth process that comes with challenges, turning problems into lessons, and brushing off the small things to get back up again. Some also mentioned not working too hard so as not to lose sight of what really matters in life.
People – There were numerous mottos promoting being considerate and treating others as one wishes to be treated. Many people wrote the popular karmic phrase, ‘what goes around comes around’, and that the world’s treatment of you is a reflection of how you treat it.
Do we actually follow our mottos?
If your motto is your optimum way of thinking, are you currently applying it throughout your daily life? With all the social media-provoked insecurity and subsequent wasted time, are we actually ‘living in the moment’ or does scrolling down our newsfeeds result in inverse effects that make us less happy? Are we making the best out of every challenge, or are we carrying too much stress and regret with us wherever we go? Are we actually treating others with as much respect as we can?
I urge you to constantly self-reflect and realign your desired mindset within your daily life, and then embody these ideals.
The people of this experiment who were open-minded enough to answer genuinely tie in with another concept I constantly investigate: living honestly. This reminds me of an Ed Sheeran interview when Ed was explaining his writing process and said, “I had to be as honest as possible in that song because otherwise what’s the point? There’d be no anger or pain in that song if it was just very sweet and nice. The whole reason people connected to it was because everyone’s been that angry at one point”. This particular quote deeply inspired me, and led me to question why we do not plant this raw honesty in our daily lives. No matter what conversation or activity is taking place, if we are not being honest, then what is the point? You will not get real if you are not being real. Although being real does not always guarantee reciprocity, you will definitely not get it back if you do not even try. The significance of being honest, in my opinion, is that practicing honesty is the only real chance of getting it back, forming a connection and experiencing authentic growth.
Although I would have considered myself a non-judgmental person before, first impressions inevitably get created but are often biased and sometimes utterly wrong. Many people agreed to write their mottos when I expected them not to, and vice versa. Similarly, many of them gave me perspectives on life that I would never have imagined.
Naturally, with projects like these comes rejection. You just have to learn not to take offense to it. Plus, those that did participate made it all worthwhile.
I would strongly recommend trying out this experiment for yourself, or at least be open to truly connect with others and live by your best mindset, always.