I’ve been holed up in my basement doing some custom WordPress theme modification for the past couple of weeks, which was somewhat outside my comfort zone. “I’m not a developer,” I said, “You probably should find someone who specializes in PHP and WordPress theming.” But apparently my overzealous approach to documenting what I am doing was, for once, appreciated, and now I’m up to my eyeballs in weird data structures and APIs. I didn’t expect to enjoy it, and for a while I didn’t, but looking back on this I’ve had a few realizations about the hard work of pushing forward that I’d almost forgotten.
Mental Pain is Gain
A few years ago I started going to the gym for the first time, and became aware of the curious phenomena of my body lying to me. After the first two minutes on the elliptical machine, my body was telling me to stop. And I would have, if I didn’t have one of the gym’s personal trainers there to tell me I should keep going. At the five minute mark, I was pretty darned sure it was really time to stop, but the trainer was unmoved and indicated I should keep going. At the 10 minute mark, though, he relented and it was time to try another machine. Over the next few weeks, as I worked out my cardio routine, I came to recognize the resistance as transient. In fact, my body was not really lying to me; I was misinterpreting the stress as something unpleasant. It was only with experience that I realized the unpleasantness was just a new sensation: light stress plus resistance that I wasn’t used to.
Last week I realized that a lot of the resistance and pain I feel when making something for the first time, be it code or visual design, was very similar. I have started applying a 5 minutes of pain rule for these projects, to try to lower the perception of the gigantic amount of effort involved in starting them. I find that after 5 minutes, I tend to want to keep going; I just have to steel myself to work past that mental resistance.
The greater realization from this is that I have always silently associated resistance of any kind with the notion that I’m just not talented enough. This is a discouraging chain of thinking that I used to descend into as an adolescent, telling myself, “If I was really any good at this, it would come easily.” And there were plenty of people around me to tell me I wasn’t good at it: the disapproving looks of math and history teachers, when I was either confused or bored out of my skull by the material. I eventually shook that off, but the pattern is still deeply embedded in my personal outlook; it takes a mindful exercise of will to redirect the initial downer reaction through the wisdom of experience. And even then, I keep thinking I should be faster at learning or doing.
I’m not sure how common this feeling is, but now that I’m more aware of the greater pattern I’m thinking of the principles that I can put into place to counteract the negative feelings. These are the ones I’m thinking:
1. Everything that’s worth doing IS hard, takes a lot of time, and generally is painful the first time through. Experience bears this out; it’s only after getting through the hurdle of learning and doing that clarity comes to me. This might not be everyone’s experience, but it is what I go through. There are many final exams I’ve taken when the point of the material became clear AFTER I turned in my papers. And I know that there is a huge difference in the amount of time it takes to prepare an experience compared to the time of experience itself. In doing motion graphics, for example, I know that it can take me up to 50 hours to produce one minute of good animation, and the number can go much higher. Creating something worthwhile is a time-intensive task even when you know what you’re doing, and if you have to acquire the know-how beforehand it will take even longer. Note to self: DUH. Now get over it!
2. If I’m not feeling the resistance when I’m making something, I’m probably not making real progress. There are things that come easy to me. Writing is one of them, and it was a tremendous moment when I discovered that I liked writing in the blog format. The way I write is pretty much stream-of-consciousness, linking thought-to-thought as they occur following the structure that my mind naturally imposes on my thinking. This means that I can produce words fairly inexpensively, as far as mental resistance goes, but it doesn’t get anything else done: the fancy Printable CEO updates I’d like to do, for example, or learning how to play improv piano, or figuring out the best practices for implementing a database for a software application I’d like to design. This stuff falls into the “hard, makes head hurt” category, and my pleasure-seeking self tends to put it off. Seeking the path of mental resistance, as it is with physical resistance at the gym, is what yields actual personal development.
These are fairly obvious conclusions, the sort of thing you could read in any “take control of your life” self-help book, but I always have to learn things the hard way. And, I have to overcome the pervasive expectation that things are supposed to be easy. This is a consumer mentality fostered by excessive marketing of convenience in an economy that is overflowing with easy solutions to complex problems. As a designer, I should know better, but it’s hard for me not to be swayed by the layman client’s expectation: instant solutions that can be tailored from nearly-free off-the-shelf materials. While I love a deal as much as the next person, carrying this mentality into creative work is self-defeating. It causes me to question the craft of the work, to try to hurry the creative process, and stresses me out for all the wrong reasons.
So that’s what’s on my mind right now. I’ve been rebuilding my productivity routine for the past month, but instead of blurting out every half-baked idea as it popped into my head, I’ve just given it time to play out.