Setting the Tone for 2014, Part III: Identity & Mission

Up to now, I have been feeling immense indifference toward 2014 due to a measure of dissatisfaction. Not that 2013 was a bad year; in fact, the game plan for 2014 is the same: achieve “creative independence” by learning how to sell products based on my design work. A key insight is that it will take more time, focus, and discipline.

While my adult brain accepts this, the inner child wants cookies right now. Lil’ Dave hates platitudes like, “Be patient” and “The journey is the reward”. And there’s something else eating at me: it takes a lot of effort to put in the work now without any idea when this will all pay off. The combination of uncertainty and lack of payoff is a major source of procrastination. And on top of that, just what am I working toward, specifically?

I really have no idea. I have nothing to look forward to other than the sense that I can pay my bills. I want to believe that life can be better if I learn how to become a self-sufficient business entity guided by my own values. However, I’ve forgotten what that means as I have become consumed by the immediate details of the struggle. I have forgotten my cause, and over 2013 I have become accustomed to struggle and frustration.

It’s no wonder, then, that I’m feeling apathetic toward my own future plans. It’s time to do some internal goal restructuring.

Missions of the Past and Morale

Blame my missionary parents and the science fiction/fantasy books I read as a child, but I tend to gravitate toward having missions. A mission is particularly useful in the absence of immediate reward, because it frames current actions in a greater context.

I’ve had three major missions in my adult life. The first was to become a computer game developer, which started sometime around the 7th grade in 1982 and ended in 1998 when I exited the industry. After that, I flirted with the idea of becoming a bad-ass interactive designer and consultant, which ended around 2003 when I developed a severe allergy to marketing. Then in 2004 I discovered blogging, and in 2005 I discovered what it was like to be recognized for things that I made according to my own personal values. I liked the feeling of authorship, so in 2007 I started doing my Groundhog Day Resolutions to help guide my efforts into making a self-sustaining blogging business entity. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but last year I dubbed this the quest for creative independence as means to creating the freedom to pursue my personal projects all the time.

Last year I was really excited about starting my Groundhog Day Resolutions, and knew what I had to do. I had the knowledge and the skills. By the end of the year, though, I was mentally exhausted and in a foul mood. The discipline I was able to muster fell short of my expectations. I lost interest in my personal projects and stopped writing about my own interests, even though I knew this was important in maintaining a reserve of personal enthusiasm about life. The slow progress was discouraging, and the feeling that I was behind made doing anything “fun” feel like “wasted time”. My heart just wasn’t into the work, and over the holiday break I spent a lot of time binge-watching television shows and video games because at least I felt a twinge of something. By the end of 2013, I was bored of everything and every effort felt like it mattered not.

So what’s a guy to do?

Facing the Grouch

While I make my decisions based on feelings, I spend a lot of time assessing them before I act. So, my first instinct is to ask myself pointed questions and write down my gut responses, no matter how dumb or incriminating they may seem in the eyes of an outsider. It’s important to face them head-on without fear or shame, otherwise you’ll never get to the bottom of things; it’s part of my “investigative design” process.

A good way to start is just pick something and ask WHY it is, then follow the chain of questions.

  • WHY am I dissatisfied? I don’t have the money to feel free. I don’t have a feeling that I’m doing anything interesting or important.
  • WHY don’t I have the money? Well, I do have money, though I don’t have a large nest egg to draw from. The point of “creative independence” is to create a source of continual income that allows me to do things I want without worrying about it so much.
  • WHY am I not doing interesting/important things? I don’t know. Everything is interesting to the point of it not being interesting. Progress is slow. I am impatient. I’m always cranky about the difficulty of acquiring good references or parts, and this fills me with rage.

Having acknowledged my current thoughts, a natural follow-up is to check my thoughts about the future?

  • WHAT explicitly would I do if I had the money and the means to pursue important projects? Um. I don’t know. There isn’t anything that I feel excited about starting. Making a video game, maybe. Learning to build physical products out of metal. Maybe buying a new car, building a workshop, something?
  • WHY NOT start something now? Do I need to wait? Well, probably not. But I lack the motivation and initiative to do it, apparently.
  • WHY do you lack motivation? I am tired. Of thinking. Of every possibility being the same. Of nothing seeming to complete. Of the meaningless of it all. Of the fleeting nature of satisfaction.

Then, reducing my reactions into a set of clearer statements:

  • I’m tired from pursuing this 7-year creative independence track without a feeling when it will be done.
  • I want to do something interesting/important to prove something to someone, but I don’t have a clear idea what that is. It’s creative, impressive in some way, and has social value in whatever circles of interest I find interesting.
  • I’m lacking in a specific mega project, because I can’t muster enough personal interest.
  • I have no technical reason why I can’t do anything I want. I just don’t know what I want.
  • I’m bored. So bored. But I don’t want to fall victim to mindless consumption. That is just a cycle of death.
  • Is there anything really worth doing that has lasting meaning?
  • In short: “Blah”

It appear that my ambitions, which are based on acquiring merit through authorship, are at odds with some kind of existential feeling of ambivalence. It is like I am seeing my goals and desires from a very great distance, and I have disconnected from any immediate pleasure because I see it as (a) distant/uncertain and (b) transient/meaningless.

Trying a Different Perspective

This isn’t the first time I’ve been here, and in the past I’ve usually found some way to rah-rah myself into action. The typical pattern is designing an experiment to test an insight into my personal strengths/weaknesses, derived from writing something like this very post. One thing that’s great about experiments is that they’re (1) novel and (2) deliver reward in the form of experimental results.

This time, though, I want to try something different. Let me start by reminding myself there are universal truths that will bring about the fruition of creative independence:

  • Doing any work and making any progress tends to work out in the long run.
  • Opportunity comes from practice, and is often on the other side of uncertainty.
  • Continual daily practice and mindful effort is the root of all progress.

I have seen these truths in action in all my past experiments, and I accept them, but they have all the appeal of steamed meatloaf. This is not a remedy for my ennui, as my heart is busy complaining about being bored bored bored. That’s the pattern I need to break.

Choices

If you accept the three truths I’ve written above and want to jump right into action, you pick something specific and measurable, and start tracking your progress on them at least every other day. The tricky part is picking the right metrics tied to a challenge with clear steps yielding results that are tangible. The hard part is doing it consistently; that’s where discipline comes in. What makes it easier is having a mentor, coach, or teacher that keeps you pointed in the right direction, to monitor and share the experience with you, and help you through difficult transitions.

As I am trying to do something that is an odd blend of technology, writing, design, self-exploration, and entrepreneurism, it’s difficult to find a mentor to make it easier. I could perhaps find someone to help with PIECES of the puzzle, but in the end it comes down to ME doing the frustrating work in isolation. This might be a childish way of thinking of it, but I feel that this is an ordeal that I either learn how to overcome by myself, or I am not worthy. It’s my self-assigned rite of passage.

My first thought is that I need to re-center, so I can re-establish “who I am” and “what I live for”, but I think I already know the answer: my rite of passage is figuring out how to make “creative independence” work. It’s a mystery I want to solve! It’s the gateway to future opportunities! However, these aren’t very tangible goals, like your mom promising you, “there will be a cookie, someday” instead of, “there will be warm chocolate-chip hazelnut cookies, slightly caramelized on the bottom just the way you like them, as soon as your finish your homework…”

An obvious approach would be to make goals more tangible. I could imagine desirable rewards that are simple to acquire, instead of expensive week-long stays at a nice AirBNB destination or acquiring custom hand-powered tools to make boxes. That requires money, which is dependent on having achieved creative independence. Instead, I could use yummy dinners as a reward, and learn to discipline myself to defer my enjoyment…but I think this is a false direction. I don’t want to be a person always chasing carrots on sticks. I want to be able to pursue my life wholeheartedly and enthusiastically. Maybe I have to ask myself what someone who has attained creative independence would do. What defines a person who achieves creative independence of the kind I want? What does that person stand for? This is a question of identity, which is intimately related to personal mission.

Another possible approach is to stop worrying about this so much. My friend Sean sent me a post by Maria Popova, whose New Year’s resolution is to stop measuring days by degree of productivity and start experiencing them by degree of presence. Popova’s post draws upon the writings of Alan Watts, a Western scholar of Eastern Philosophy that I am unacquainted with, but that won’t stop me from interpreting the gist of the articles as follows:

  • Thinking about the future creates anxiety because the future isn’t real, and being in the fully engaged in present is to ground one’s self in what IS real and true.
  • Thinking about the self leads to withdrawal for the present. That includes thinking about the future, thinking of self-improvement, and being aware of one’s own thinking. Since this draws our attention away from the present, it is a source of a host life-diminishing anxieties.
  • Thinking of self-improvement (and any meta-like assessment of one’s own thoughts and state of self) leads to a separation between life experience and the individual. And this is what leads to feelings of insecurity.

The feeling of separateness is one with which I can identify with. I don’t feel that my experiences connect with those of others. I spend a lot of time thinking about the future and self-improvement, and perhaps this time spent THINKING instead of DOING creates a smaller pool of experience points to draw from. If one was in the present, seeing one’s self and the surrounding society as they truly are, and acts in the moment without concern for the uncertain future…that might be pretty awesome. It would be the ultimate commitment to taking one’s life and letting available nutrients shape it. The only necessary ingredient is moment-by-moment mindfulness unencumbered by growth-stunting negative attitudes.

What does this all mean? Here’s my preliminary thinking:

  • If I were after optimum efficiency and productivity, I would train myself to establish metrics, periodically define tangible goals, and develop the discipline to make daily progress. I would place my faith in the universal rules of work to see myself through the low points, and in a year I’ll see that I’ve made progress. Perhaps I will even achieve creative independence, and I’ll be able to look back on this post and chuckle. I will have achieved my goals.

  • I could recognize that I don’t have absolute control, and decide that I don’t want it. I could be mindful in what I am doing at any given moment, strip myself of negative attitudes, and apply my mind to whatever is in front of me with gladness. However, I still want my fancy laptops, and I want to continue to acquire skill-building experiences. That means I am going to think about the future and use what I have to take anxiety-inducing risks. But perhaps I can reduce the negativity I feel around the timetable. I will see what goals emerge, instead.

I’ll have to sit on this for a while. Which approach do I want? Or can both approaches be merged? What do I believe?