Reflection: Developing Self-Awareness In Nature

Written by TKS Toronto student, Isabella Grandic (email:

I was sitting on a hill, with flowers on it, and 5 hours went by.

During these 5 hours, I accidentally discovered how to live my life and I re-defined everything. I just sat on a hill somewhere in Como, Italy reading Zero to One by Peter Thiel. (I finished it in one sitting) but that wasn’t the “life-changing” part of my five hours.

The recipe to my life-changing on a slightly elevated piece of land in Italy was actually a bunch of flowers.

Ok Isabella, how did a bunch of plant cells teach you about life?

Firstly, I had no intention to “change my life.” The best things seem to happen by accident. An excellent way to start changing your life is to sit in a random spot and have a few activities unrelated to changing your life loosely planned.

Pretty basic hill in Como, Italy

My “place” happened to be some weird hill in the middle of rural Italy, but any unusual spot will do fine. And my activity was reading a book and writing in my journal.

I really sprawled out

I then participated in my “loosely planned activity.” I soaked in the Italian sun, finished my book and took notes. I even threw in a quick high-school musical jam sesh, just for fun. It was a soothing 3 (maybe 4; I lost track of time) hours.

Once I finished my book and felt satisfied with my relaxation period, I was ready to walk back to the rental. I got up and began to drift away. I looked at the sun(without sunglasses; I’m a rebel, I know😎) and I breathed in the fresh air (one of my favourite pass-times!).

However, since I had my travel journal, I was inspired to write about my surroundings… so, I sat back down from my quick walk-and-breathe-session, and I wrote in the journal. I’m likely never going to go on that hill again, so, I wanted to include every little detail; I started viscously observing. What I noticed around me was beautiful, but it had a more significant meaning than beauty. Flowers.

I’m not a flower whisperer, I didn’t even know what types of flowers I was looking at. But that didn’t affect my observations and the value of this experience.

When I first came on to the hill, I saw a TON of white flowers and disregarded them. I ignored them for 3 + hours when I sat and read my book. The flowers didn’t cross my mind.

I was in autopilot mode. I never analyze nature, so even in beautiful environments (like the hill), I ignored the beauty covering it.

I’m accustomed to North America’s fast-paced culture; stopping on the street to look at flowers is unheard of.

It was my instinct to ignore flowers.

But, when writing, I looked at the flowers carefully. The white flowers were pretty. I wondered how I could’ve ignored them before??

There was also a collection of some yellow flowers, which I initially didn’t spot in the sea of white flowers. These yellow flowers were even more pretty than the white flowers because they seemed more exotic.

I jotted every detail of the white and yellow flowers.

While I was staring at the ground, I stumbled upon this tiny little purple-pink flower. It felt so rare. My eyes lit up like I was starring at a million dollars or a bunch of brownies. (Same reaction)

I’ve never cried looking at flowers, but I do recall shedding a tear… or two. Maybe I was just overly emotional.

After literally watering flowers with my eyes I laid down and stared at the sky for a few seconds.

By laying down and glancing around me, I ended up realizing that a few of the white flowers had pink petals underneath them, but white petals on top. You could only see their pinkness looking from beneath these very short flowers; a tight angle to reach if you have knee problems.

The white flowers were everywhere; they seemed bland. But looking at them from a different angle, I got to see that they’re not all the same, and they too have some unique beauty.

Pretty flowers, but what the heck do those observations mean?? Here comes the good part…

Good thing I’m a n̶e̶r̶d̶ learning enthusiast and I analyze everything. I found greater meaning beneath the flowers I sat on for 5 hours:

  1. When something exists in abundance (white flowers) we often ignore it as it’s harder to appreciate (there are so many, you never feel like you’ll live without it. You only really appreciate things when you don’t have them).
  2. It’s easier to divert our attention to the few (yellow flowers) rather than to the many (white flowers)
  3. Unique things (tiny purple flower) are found in seas of average (white, yellow), and they’re more memorable.
  4. Things are different than they might seem; gain perspective (white flowers seem bland until you look at them from a different angle (bottom) )

Oh… but that’s not all I learned…

You won’t find what you’re not looking for

I first got on the hill to read my books. I almost left. But some magical force caused me to write about my surrounding scenery in my journal. I actively observed everything around me, and these observations led to powerful lessons.

By starring at the things around, me I got to learn about myself and the world. Everything starts with observations, without them, you can’t have conclusions.

For example, unless you’re looking beneath the white flowers, you won’t realize a lot of them have pink petals as well.

Once I took the time to stare and think about the flowers, I was able to come up with valuable observations, and I had an enjoyable afternoon.

The takeaway: make time to pay attention to random things and think.

Less is more

There were thousands of white flowers;

tens of yellow flowers;

And very few purple ones. They were rare, but they were also the prettiest flowers.

There are two parts I learned about “less is more”:

1. The best things are simple
2. Items that appear less are more unique and more exotic

The “prettiest flowers” weren’t super crazyyyyyy. They were delicate, purple, small and smelled fresh. In other words, simple.

Over the past few months, I’ve had the delight to notice the simplicity of life. My favourite friendships are the ones with no strings attached. My favourite nights out aren’t exotic; they’re just good food + good people. I could go on with simple favourites.

I hadn’t realized that the best things in my life were the simplest ones until I really thought about the simplicity of the purple flowers. But when I internalized that less is more, everything clicked.

My conclusion: Life is simple. I should always be straightforward with how I feel, and the things I do.

I should have a few solid friendships rather than 100 mediocre ones.

I should spend my time doing the few activities I love rather than the 100 I think are decent.

I also don’t need to be complicated and 100% unique to be different. I just have to be slightly different than everybody else (in other words, not average) — and it’s proven by nature. Purple flowers are different than everyone else, and they’re the most memorable.


There’s more to beauty (and everything)

I spent many hours on the grass on the hill, and it was very itchy. The flowers were surrounded by the itchy grass; and also bugs + weeds. It’s not all sweet scents and bright colours on the hill. Although the grass was itchy, the warm sun, fresh air, and pretty surroundings out-weighed the itch, so I stayed there for a while.

Beauty is not effortless nor painless; it always has some suffering. Some of the beautiful flowers I yanked out of the ground because I wanted a closer look because they were pretty. They will later die because I took them out of the earth.

Sorry Mother Nature, I don’t mean to be a flower murderer, but they’re just so pretty, and I always forget to put in my contacts, so I needed a few closer looks.

In nature, there are so many beautiful things; there are also several, not heavenly things. These flowers made me realize how easy it is to assume someone with “beauty” has it easy. False. Everyone has something going on that we may not first understand.

I only realized the itch of the grass by laying on it for so long. The flowers probably go through so much more suffering; more than I can even understand. It’s hard to empathize with flowers, but it’s so easy to compare our whole selves to someone’s outside self. Jealousy happens when we compare ourselves. The grass always seems greener on the other side. But guess what? It’s probably as green and as itchy on your end too. Relax. Everyone has some itchy grass.

The complexity of nature reminds me that everyone has their own little challenges and that we have to be mindful of each other.

Looking up into the sky on the itchy grass reminded me that the world we live in is unfortunately full of suffering which we can’t get rid of. We need to learn to make the pain worthwhile; we need to learn to adapt to living with it.

Some pain will 100% come, and you can’t change that; what you can change is how you respond/adapt to the anxiety.

Everything is interlaced

I was already aware that everything is powered by the sun, nutrients, blah, blah, blah. However, I never internalized how interlaced/dependant the world was on all its elements.

Ex. Flowers need sun, oxygen, food, water, and so many things. While looking at the flowers, I thought about all the requirements/resources they need to live.

I understood that to grow the flowers it takes a lot of resources. Similarly, to make a cup of coffee, it takes an insane amount of people. A.J Jacobs actually went out and tried to thank every person who was responsible for curating his cup o’ Joe. The number of people involved is actually crazy to think about: check his book out!

Nature is a big fat system, but the flowers were dependent on each other in other ways too.

All of the flowers mattered to discovering how to live my life. The white flowers helped amplify the beauty of the yellow and purple flowers, their pink petals helped me learn about perspective, and they illustrated how easy it is to overlook averageness (When everything is a white flower, they lose their beauty and their appeal).

I needed the grass and bugs to understand pain, and the purple flowers let me comprehend uniqueness.

It doesn’t matter if a flower was the best-looking white flower, it was entirely overlooked by the purple flowers. Being a perfect, mediocre flower doesn’t make you more noticed than a rare, unconventional flower. The lesson: be really good at being the best at things people aren’t doing. If you’re the best at being average, you’re still going to be average.

I learned it’s ok to be dependant on other people. You can’t expect to strive in a very interlaced world all by yourself. Ask for help. And, you’re also not and never going to be the center of the universe. The world is one complex system; sometimes the conditions will favour you, other times they won’t; but you’re not the only person/thing alive, there are other “flowers” sprouting around you.

It’s easy to get in your own head and be certain you’ve got it figured out. Don’t go through problems and crises alone.

It’s also easy to get annoyed when things don’t go as planned. It’s hard to notice the things that do go as planned (most things do).

In my observatory moment, everything went right. The sun was shining, my cells were functioning, the flowers had nutrients, and there wasn’t a tornado or a mass shooting. I wasn’t getting chased by a bear or an angry Italian after I stole too many breadsticks from the restaurant. Everything went smoothly, and I didn’t even notice.

Most of the time, systems (“the world”) function properly. But, nature is random so sometimes things will screw-up. In general: appreciate every moment, because the very interlaced world is complicated; it’s a lot easier for things to go wrong than for things to go right, yet somehow, things almost always go well.

After this realization, I stared at the blue sky, and the neighborhood rooster (Robert) went “cockle-doodle-doo.” I giggled as I saw Robert chasing one of the neighborhood chickens (Roberta) down the street. Robert and Roberta did lots of hugging. The next morning there were tons of eggs for breakfast!

Robert and Roberta were just partying it up on that Wednesday afternoon, minding their own business, and they ended up helping us with breakfast Thursday morning.

You are your experiences

Whatever you spend your days doing; you’ll become a master at.

If I spent every day sitting in the sun, reading books and observing flowers, I wouldn’t become an astrophysicist, painter or a government official. I’d become damn good at looking at flowers (and maybe occasionally watching birds chase each other). How you spend your time correlates with who you become.

I’m so glad I had the flower experience. It’s going to shape every decision I make moving forward. Everything that happens next in my life will be influenced by the lessons I learned looking at the flowers, and if I walked away, I wouldn’t have learned any of those lessons in that context.

If you recall, I was damn close to walking away, but I stayed.

How scary! If I walked away, everything would be different. I can’t even begin to describe the importance of the things I learned that day. I also can’t even begin to imagine the number of meaningful, life-changing experiences I’ve missed out on because I’ve walked away.

You don’t know what you’re missing out on. If I walked back to my rental I would have no clue what I walked out on.

So just experience as much as possible.

If plant cells could make me think super deeply, your socks, cups, and earlobes probably have a lot more value to offer than it might seem. At the surface, you never know what something is capable of. Dive deeper into things.

Dive deep + understand the world around you!

I tend to leave the “shocked at what’s beneath the surface” effect whenever I bake stuff. I made my mom’s birthday cake one year, and people’s reactions to my cake were priceless! They called it “incredibly surprising” — some even said, “I never knew cake could taste like this.” Everyone thought the cake was so different and unanticipated they concluded it was too good for their tastebuds and it should be savored. Everyone took their slices home after a few bites — I presume to keep it in a museum display or something. They probably want to limit their daily intake because it was such a rare cake. For some reason, no one has ever asked me to cater an event again.

Back to the flowers…

I learned that extracting value is a superpower. If you’re able to learn from any experience, whether it be drinking some milk or shining your shoes, you’re going to be continually learning. If you’re continually learning you’ll be steadily growing; so you’ll exponentially be becoming a more refined person.

If you were a pencil, you’d be pretty sharp!

Something I realized was you don’t need a super elaborate activity to have a life-changing experience. I learned from freaking plant cells people.

Some of the simplest things will be life-changing (less is more 🥴). You just need to make a choice to investigate the objects most people ignore.

My conclusion is to just live life, and I’ll find things along the way. If you’re able to continually learn, you’re golden. A part of this skill is turning bad situations into a good situation (I.e., a life lesson or a turning point).

You can’t just go to bed one day and wake up the next as Beyonce or Elon Musk. These people weren’t super-humans right when they entered the world; they worked hard to be who they are. Humans are just an accumulation of their experiences.

So… live in the moment: take advantage of every breath of air, and every flower in your environment; don’t end up walking away…

Imagine how many times you’ve walked away from a situation that could have possibly changed your life. Maybe it’s avoiding a scary conversation with your boss or significant other — which could have been the key to getting a promotion or becoming engaged.

Living a successful life is about reducing the number of missed opportunities; understanding the situation and living presently. I’ve exhausted this sentence but just look at the freaking flowers ok.

Extract Value out of everything

A few months back I was in a botanical garden in Arizona. One volunteer spent 45 minutes talking about a flower when I asked her “what type of flower is this?”. I regretted asking; I thought she was insane. But I admired her passion. I wasn’t listening to the information about the flowers, but I was just observing this woman’s energy for a tiny piece of nature. I didn’t understand her passion; it didn’t seem relevant.

Cut scene, staring at flowers for hours “changes my life.” The lesson here is don’t decide what’s relevant to you. Your unconscious bias will likely stop you from having essential experiences. I probably could have observed flowers 2 months back in Arizona. But I didn’t see any impact, so I walked away.

Some wishful force called me back to the flower scene, and I’m very grateful. This just means I need to be careful with my decisions. I got lucky because the universe gave me another chance to look at flowers. The only thing stopping me from reaching my full potential, and experiencing new things is myself.

Note to self: the only thing that I know is that I know nothing, so stop assuming specific experiences are valueless; often the most surprising/revolutionary experiences are overlooked and simple.

I’m in charge of my life, the same way you’re in charge of yours. It’s our responsibilities to live life, learn and look at flowers. It’s effortless to forget to do these simple things.

Life is a cycle of two things: Living & learning. How you live varies. How you learn is equally important to living, and it will often improve your next cycle of living. Because by learning, you’ll iterate your style of living so you don’t make the same mistakes twice.

Often times we’ll live without really living. We’ll either be caught up in the future or past. I’m guilty too. But the second you start to live in the moment, you’ll sniff those flowers and notice their delicate petals — nothing else will matter.

I went from not caring about flowers to mother nature being my homie 😎.

We’re tight… she doesn’t pull any of this on my watch:

Be in charge of your life; live presently and learn. That’s the great recipe. I learned it straight from nature.

What I loved about Italy is the lack of connection to time. When I was over there, nothing mattered but the present moment. Being genuinely present can bring so much value to your life; Those moments on the hill just let me forget everything, and genuinely enjoy Robert and Roberta running in the sun.

I also realized I don’t need people to be happy and unplugging from wifi for a few hours has tremendous benefits. Seriously, imagine how far our society would be if once a week — even once a month, people went on a walk alone or some shit, and observed the world to the extent that I did. I think I got 10x smarter from that short period.

Maybe if people got off their phones, we’d realize that the world is so much more than snapchat filters and followers.

TL;DR ~ my life plan:

  • Spend time in the present moment, and observe a lot.
  • React well in situations + get the most out of all experiences
  • Be good at what people aren’t doing (be the purple flower)
  • Reach out in times of crisis. Don’t struggle alone.
  • Stop comparing myself; everyone has itchy grass
  • Ask for more help. This is my time to learn and get mentorship/guidance.
  • Spend more time off-grid and have peaceful observation sessions.

Italy helped me gain perspective, and I realized how badly I need to pop my North American bubble. In Toronto, we don’t sit for hours looking at flowers. We barely have time to sit and talk with families. Everyone’s busy these days…

But go on a walk. Immediately (or as soon as you can), and observe something about the world, don’t stop the promenade until you have discovered something new. Share this so we can #makewalkscoolagain.