A Quiet Reflection on Failure, Part I

As 2012 wanes, I’ve been thinking about the seven year anniversary of my blog-driven, freelance design shot at the big time. In 2005 I’d lucked into blogging, finding it agreeable and rewarding. And with the modicum of recognition I’ve gained for my productivity tool designs I thought, “Hey, maybe I can turn this into an awesome, passionate life! Maybe I should find out!” I’ve written 1700 posts, spanning over a million words according to the word-counting plugin I just installed. Seven years is long enough to complete a Ph.D. program, and this has put me into a reflective mood: What have I learned? What have I contributed to my field of knowledge? Or have I spent seven years to earn a de-facto degree in navel gazing?

At some point I’d like to review those million words, but I’m ready now to make a major conclusion about the time I’ve spent chasing passion: I’ve failed to discover my passion and make it work. I’ve given myself seven years to let nascent opportunities and niche interests twist themselves into the semblance of a passion/love/interest-based work-life balance. I’ve had a few promising ideas, but I noticed this year that I’ve started to repeat some of the same thoughts. This indicates to me that perhaps I’d been doing the same song and dance for too long. I’m ready to move on. I’m tired.

I’m not giving up, mind you. I’ve just come to the conclusion that the ideal work-life balance is the one that you can make work, not a magic bullet or philosopher’s stone. And realizing that it hasn’t worked as I thought it might is quite liberating, as it frees me up to try another approach. So don’t shed any tears for me. This is just part of the assessment process.

Anyway, I’d previously thought that “finding my passion”, “following my bliss”, and “doing what I love” would answer a lot of the nagging questions that bedevil me. For example, if I knew what my passion truly was, I imagined that a whole host of benefits would emerge:

  • I’d want to wake up every day and jump right into work. Every single day.
  • I’d find inspiration and motivation inside of me.
  • I would have clarity and certainty about what I wanted to do, and what direction to move in.
  • I would be energized, happy, and at peace doing what I loved.

I’ve had moments of this, but they have been as fleeting as they were exciting. To reliably have these feelings recur, I’ve found there are cycles of work and applied effort, and even then the cycle is not guaranteed to remain. I recently was re-reading the second and third parts of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, an excellent book about the difficult nature of doing creative work. These are the parts about getting serious about applying the same standards of professionalism to your creative work that you do with your day job, and the necessity for putting in the hard time so that the Muses take note of your efforts. The last part a little “out there”, but I have firmly come to believe it this month. Before, I thought my own cleverness would get me out of the tedium of working hard and stupid. It’s only now, as I’m feeling somewhat defeated, that these chapters are suddenly making a lot more sense.

I have been more appreciative of hard and stupid with the completion of NaNoWriMo, the national novel writing adventure that a few hundred thousand people steel themselves for every November. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in a first draft of a novel in 30 days. The point isn’t to write a good novel, though. The point is to start something and finish it by working on it every day. To get to 50,000 words you need to write a minimum of 1667 words every day, which is a pretty significant commitment. Being pretty confident of my typing speed, I did no preparation on story, character, locale, or plot so I could experience the full-on challenge of writing from scratch. I learned right away that when you don’t know your character’s first name, you quickly get stuck. It was a challenge to scramble to fill those first few thousand words, and also demoralizing. However, I disabused myself of the notion that I was going to write a good novel, and just focused on the process of producing those 1700-odd words every day first thing in the morning. And you know what I learned? If you’re writing terrible stuff, and you push through it despite you wanting to ditch it and start a new, you find ways of digging yourself out so it’s less terrible. That in itself is wonderful. And if you keep at it, chipping away at the problem, something eventually happens. I did come up with a few interesting ideas that I could develop further in a rewrite of the story, now that I know what it’s about, and that is the writing lesson takeaway. NaNoWriMo is a perfect example of the creative process: you start out not knowing jack, uncertain and unsure. But you push on and scratch out something and see what you got. And then, you work with what you have to push forward some more. After a while the unfamiliar becomes more familiar, and opens new avenues of exploration. It is the process of learning without expectation, fortified with the intention of seeing where it ultimately goes.

I think I could have told you that this was how the creative process worked even a few years ago, but I would have been telling you something I understood intellectually; I hadn’t really experienced the process without doubt about my ability to achieve effortless excellence. NaNoWriMo is one of the first times that I’ve gone through the creative process without worrying about it, and discovered that excellence is the eventual byproduct of putting in the time. Again, DUH…I could have told you that years ago, but I would not have been speaking from true belief or experience. I believed that the pursuit of excellence was an unpleasant, tedious task that I didn’t want to put myself through, because it was hard and I therefore wasn’t naturally suited toward it. I would have tried to think of a clever way to bypass all the boring parts. But now, I’m starting to embrace the idea of doing the work, if only because I’ve exhausted all the tricky ways that I have previously used to bypass the dull-seeming bits. So I’m ready to buy-in: all the “good stuff” that I want, it seems, can only be had if I push through the obfuscating clouds of uncertainty to see what is on the other side. I won’t know unless I do the work of pushing through to see what’s there.

There is one trick, actually, that has helped me. I think of it as de-emotionalizing my response to work.

In the past, I allowed myself to think of work as either “fun” or “tedious”. Washing the dishes? BORING! Setting up a business banking account? TEDIOUS! Learning modern Javascript and HTML web technologies? MIND NUMBING and TIME CONSUMING! I’ve tried to find ways around learning that stuff by outsourcing, partnering, and communicating with like-minded folks but you know what? Those things don’t go away. I find that if I choose to NOT have an emotional reaction to “cleaning the cat box”, it’s a lot easier to deal with. And now that I realize that I really DO need to learn more about HTML and Javascript so I can start building those systems I wish existed, de-emotionalizing my response to THAT is essentially. Applying the daily NaNoWriMo-like attention to it, following that old piano teacher saw that practicing 5 minutes a day is better than 30 minutes a week. Why? Mindfulness, I suspect. Daily engagement is important for maintaining continuity, and boy do I need myself two heaping scoops of that goodness.

So that is where my head has been recently. It’s the end of an era of a certain naivete on my part, and the dawn of a new age of certainty about what works for me. Though I technically regard the past seven years as a failure to achieve the kind of passionate clarity I wished for, I have nevertheless ruled out a lot of things that didn’t stick or didn’t work. And I have the inkling of an idea that the reason I couldn’t find my passion is because it doesn’t exist yet. Not as a searchable keyword, anyway. Maybe it is the New David Seah Movement that I’m formulating, and its qualities are SO unique to me that there are no labels for it yet. And that might be what I’m truly passionate about, this unknown, unlabeled, yet-to-be-discovered grand unified theory of self-mastery…

Time to come up with a new plan :)

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Articles in the "Quiet Reflection on Failure" Series

  • Part 1, in which I ask myself what I've been up to for 7 years.
  • Part 2, in which I probe the nature of what I'm thinking of as "failure" to gain some sense of closure before moving on.
  • Summary of Part 1 & 2, a distillation of the main points in parts 1 and 2.
  • Part 3, in which I probe some possible new directions.
  • Part 4 Conclusion

17 Comments

  1. Karin 3 years ago

    For sharing your pragmatical quest. Thank you! A seasonal greeting: I wish you a paved path for the muses, to you.

  2. Betsy 3 years ago

    David, I think we are always chasing our passions. I chased a dream in the late 90’s and made it a reality of living in a different country and obtaining my PhD. My passion was for Scotland and now after completing that dream, I too am trying to find that next mountain to climb. I’ve stagnated for five years now, in a job that I do love, teaching but really not the people around me. It wasn’t a best fit. I feel them stifling my creativity to the extreme.

    And there are several avenues in which I want to explore, writing and motivational speaking or motivational writing. Yet, money is an issue and that really puts the brakes on my desires. Long story short I want to give you the pep talk I give my students.

    Play to your strengths, your passions. Do not lose sight of those passions and nothing is impossible. How else did I get to live in Scotland for 6.5 years? How else did I this past week send off a book proposal? Sometimes, failure, in all its forms (and I know believe me!) is a good thing. We cloak our setbacks and label them failures, when in fact they are not. They are just learning opportunities to success. You cannot have success without failure. But play to your passions. I love photography, I love to write, I love to create worlds that I hope others would like to read about. If not, then for my own simple pleasure to get through the mundane aspect of our lives. Your passion exists, you just need to remember what made you truly happy as a kid, find that one thing that you always turned to and gave you comfort. Might I suggest a book for you to read…Michael Gelb’s, How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci and do his 100 questions. Noodle in Google, you will find the exercise. Your passion is there believe me. I think my problem is that I do not want to truly reveal my passion because I think I can’t handle the rejection. I need to stop that before that nasty bitch rears its head and cackles in my face. It is a constant struggle for us all.

    When I found your tools last week, I was like, ‘damn’ finally something I can use to help get me out of this deep rut. Something I could apply to use and get me in gear, help to motivate and see my way clear of this stagnation. I loved the templates and thank you for having examples for download. I have a wealth of student loans and $14 right now…is tough…you might understand. So I gobbled them up. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for that.

    So, don’t discourage. I admire your page here and the work you do. You took the road and obtained an education whereas I am a self-taught web geek. I pour over books and just get ahead with a doggy paddle. I wish I had your talent. My forms are no where near as lovely as yours. Yes, they are beautiful in their simplistic design. I wade through html 5, css3, javascript…and try my best. You’ve got talent I envy.

    I loved this post and you would be surprised how many of us out there that really follow closely your mind and spirit at work. I hunger for the next form or what you create. I know in the next year, I want to find these creative people in order to find my own spark again. As you say, finding those five minutes a day instead of thirty might get you more.

    So I ranted a lot but I wanted to tell you, you are not the only one. Been there, need to create the tee shirt. Talk to you later…

  3. Mike Robinson 3 years ago

    I think, and a fair amount of my experience backs this up, that doing the work is a good way to become passionate about something; to figure out where your passions lie, where they don’t, and what you’re willing to put up with to get to do the ‘good bits.’

    I do like the idea of de-emotionalizing the response to work, and that’s something I’m finding I need to do more of.

    Thanks again for thinking aloud in public.

  4. Avrum 3 years ago

    “I recently was reminded of the difficulty when re-reading the second and third parts of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art”

    Yesterday, while slogging through the editing process of my book – http://learningtocommit.com/ – I caved, and purchased the audio version of The War of Art. I’ve read it a couple of times, but I thought an aural experience would produce new insights. Funny we’re both doing this at the same time.

  5. Larea Arnett 3 years ago

    David, first I want to thank you for your great designs, and the years of entertaining and thought provoking essays that make me want to get up and shoot for the stars again. The description here of what your passion should do for you sounds more like utopia. I believe that finding your passion gives you the strength to slog on when you don’t want to and to keep trying when your head hurts just thinking about it, but I don’t think it can take you to a world where you are in the zone 24/7. Am I asking for too little or are your expectations so high that you won’t know it if you’re there? You can drive yourself nuts looking for the one thing, maybe there are a lot of things and not just one. Anyhow, you are doing better than you think, it shows in your writing. P.S. I hate to admit how much I liked your white shoeboxes!

  6. Lynn O'Connor 3 years ago

    How I still love reading your patterns of thinking. It’s no comfort for you I”m sure, but every year, at least once, or more, I find a student who is stuck, procrastinating on his or her dissertation proposal, or some other less tedious assignment, and I call for a meeting with him or her, just the two of us. I pull out the various PCEO forms and demonstrate how I continue to use them, as needed (and it is not so infrequently that they’re needed) and I can see a light go off, like “there are solutions” or “there are tangible remedies.” Of course that is not all of you, hardly. But you should know the uniqueness of your contribution; it’s simplicity, availability, immediacy, my students call you “Lynn’s bubble man.” And you continue to make a difference. This might not even begin to give you gratification years down the road, but please do recognize how many more use your products each year. And for me, I continue to relate personally to all the trials and tribulations you express so eloquently. So keep writing, keep talking, keep creating, for people like me (and my students).

    Lynn

  7. Author
    Dave Seah 3 years ago

    Thank you, everyone, for your comments. I am reminded that I’m not walking this path by myself, but with other like-minded souls. I’m very blessed, I know, to be able to share my thoughts like this and find a responsive audience.

    I just read through what I wrote after taking a few days off from it, made some corrections and clarifications, but it still captures the essence of what I was feeling and thinking: looking back, there’s been a lot of ground covered and it didn’t turn out as neatly as I once hoped, but those lessons learned are pointing me in new directions. The next post will start to describe some of them…looking forward to sharing them :)

  8. Mark West 3 years ago

    Hang in there, Bubba…..doesn’t get easier…. nonetheless, regret nothing and keep a sense of play, humor, and fun. The reward is the work and you do good work.

  9. Penny 3 years ago

    Hi Dave, I’ve been reading your website on and off since – well since you had the old header – and you might be interested in some of the things Cal Newport has to say about finding your passion http://calnewport.com/blog/

    His basic premise is that it is bad advice to look your passion so you can then follow it. Probably better to read what he says:

    eg http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/30/jobs/follow-a-career-passion-let-it-follow-you.html?src=me&ref=general

  10. Author
    Dave Seah 3 years ago

    Penny: Thanks for the link! His advice from the NYT article is a good summary: “Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.”

    I don’t think this is a complete assessment, though, particularly given that he seems to have skipped the pursuit of passion himself. The Kindle sample I read is limited to the introduction featuring an anecdote about a monk that found his search for passion unfulfilling. This anecdote by itself wasn’t very convincing, but that doesn’t diminish the possibility that passion follows the work. It’s a good thought.

  11. George Coghill 3 years ago

    Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts on this struggle that you indeed share with others. It’s encouraging to hear these honest thoughts. It’s very easy to look at the people around us and the positive personas that are on display and feel as if we are doing it all wrong.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that your experience (and mine) is more prevalent that we’re aware of.

    Also, was glad to see the reference to The War of Art in your post, I’ve only recently discovered the book (and the equally excellent Turning Pro), but Pressfield is on to something in those books.

  12. Kumar Gauraw 3 years ago

    Wow! You started blogging in 2005 and after 7 years of R & D, sharing those views, your thoughts on your journey so far is amazing. I thank you for sharing your honest thoughts and your own personal struggles.

    I think I got a vision for myself reading your post. I need to work on my own plans for 2013. Thank you for the sharing. I am not going to move onto your Part 2 on this post as well.

    Thanks again!

  13. Roberto 3 years ago

    Stop chasing the wrong things and maybe the right ones will catch you up.

A message from Dave:

I really believe we all benefit when we share our own perspectives on common experiences. It would be great if you added your own anecdotes and comments, even if you don't necessarily agree with the premise of the post; that's just good conversation in my book. The house rules are "treat each other with kindness and respect" and "enjoy the flow of ideas!"

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