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An Annual Series of Micro Quests : Nancy Howell’s Way of Thinking About Birthdays

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This is a quest case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Over the last decade, Nancy Howell has dedicated the first five months of the year to completing an ever-growing series of micro-quests: adventures and new experiences that take her outside her comfort zone and daily norms.

Tell us about yourself.

For the past 10 years, I’ve embarked on annual “micro-quests.” The number of micro-quests is correlated to my age—so every year, I do one more. Starting on the first of the year, I give myself five months to complete my quests, and the last item on each year is a trip to a place I’ve never been. These quests are as small as learning glass-blowing and as large as a trip to Aruba.

What inspired you to start going on micro-quests?

As I approached the age of 30, I found most of my friends were married and starting families. In contrast, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone on a date, and I’d never had a long-term relationship. I flash forwarded to the months leading up to my birthday, imagining myself brooding until then. Distracting myself with thirty new things sounded like a much better plan.

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Do you still feel like the micro-quests serve as a distraction?

The purpose of the micro-quests still sprouts from the tiny seed of distraction. But over time, my goal has grown to become about experiencing as many new things as possible. My mother’s approach to birthdays is happiness because, in her words, “it beats the alternative.” My quests embrace that way of thinking and celebrate another year alive.

Is there a structure to your micro-quests?

Every year, I try something new from the culinary world (might I recommend mussels and absinthe, though maybe not together?). I also alter my appearance in some way, try a new craft, learn to cook or bake something I haven’t tried before—ice cream cake was a fun one.

I also try new music, visit new cultural sites, and I’m making my way through AFI’s top 100 movies list, and the Modern Library’s 100 best novels and 100 best nonfiction lists.

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But there are always wild cards. Like the year I made my movie debut as an extra in the movie 21. There’s a scene of an airport security line—I’m in the shot for about a second—and it gave me such a thrill to see myself on the big screen when the movie came out.

One time I got a tattoo at a convention. Walking the aisles and seeing hundreds of artists inking hundreds of different sorts of people inspired me to get the Chinese characters for “inner strength” tattooed on the back of my neck.

How have you dealt with low points in your quests?

Honestly, the lowest point for me was before I started the micro-quests. I’ve lamented my birthday since the age of 17, constantly worried about old I was. My 30th birthday seemed like a new low, because I couldn’t stop comparing myself to the people around me. They had decent jobs, partners, and homes. And there I was: single, sharing an apartment with a friend, and living paycheck to paycheck. Now, I make each birthday, and really each year, much more interesting and positive.

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How do your quests change the way you live?

They’ve opened my eyes to new interests and hobbies, like genealogy. I had no idea I was going to become addicted to unraveling my family’s history. A few years ago, I went on a silent retreat at a monastery. I now go once a year and look forward to spending a few days in silence, just “being” with myself.

Also, after I’ve completed my quests, I notice I’m more open to seeing, doing, and trying new things for the rest of the year. I love being a tourist in my own city and discovering obscure museums and historic houses.

Keep up to date on Nancy’s micro-quests at This and That.

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