Musings: Deconstructing ‘Should’ and Picking Roles

You are reading a Stream of Consciousness (aka SOC) blog entry. These are written from a personal point of view when I am right in the moment of figuring something out. People unfamiliar with my writing over the years may find it hard to follow. All are welcome to read, but keep in mind that these entries are raw and not representative of how I may actually feel/think about a given topic.

Yesterday, I had the insight that perhaps my pursuit of goals was not actually working for me, and that the pursuit of my art was a better approach. I had been experiencing what I’d thought of as goal fatigue, though burnout is probably just as accurate a description.

Reader Nicole left a comment on yesterday’s post that got me thinking: “Maybe your goals need to be more art-related and less tied to what you feel SHOULD be doing?” I found this question interesting because the term “should” required some additional personal definition. I already reject sources of “should do” when they come from other people’s assessments or value systems; I try very hard to maintain my own sense of what is right based on my own understanding of how the world works. The next level beneath that is questioning whether my understanding is still tenable. I might be missing the point of Nicole’s suggestion, but that’s where I’m going with it. So let me reassess my belief system regarding what I should do, and how that relates to what I want. After that, I’ll look at some new strategies to consider.

Deconstructing my ‘Shoulds’

As I currently understand it, my overarching goal is creative self-supporting independence, ostensibly so I can be happy doing what I naturally like doing. The basic conditions I have defined are freedom to choose what I do and enough money to live without worry, along with more money to buy what I want to pursue my interests. In this regard, I think I’m actually doing OK! However, now that I am in this favorable position, I am somehow dissatisfied and unmotivated. And here is where “should” arises: I feel I should be happier and more productive with the freedom I have, and yet I am not. I am actually feeling depressed.

There are two different aspects of “should” that are at work here:

  • The first ‘should’ is the feeling that I’m wasting opportunity that is, as I think of it, a blessing that I have not entirely earned, and disrespect by not living the opportunity to the max. This is a form of guilt tinged with unworthiness, a blessing that maybe I haven’t completely earned on my own merits and am wasting. There’s shades of imposter syndrome in there too!
  • The second ‘should’ is a kind of surprise that with everything the way it is, why aren’t I happier? What is missing? It is baffling!

I can talk myself through the first ‘should’; there’s no rule that says that everything HAS to be earned to have merit. Everyone is born with a set of opportunities and circumstances, and we collect blessings and curses along the way. Life is, I believe, about making the most of it by whatever means despite what baggage we are saddled with. What is hard for me is asking for help, but Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking has been good therapy for that. It’s the second ‘should’ is really the one that has me befuddled. I have all the opportunity I need, and yet I am depressed and unable to summon the buoyant optimism that I believed was at the core of my psyche. So what the hell is going on?

Well, let’s consider some possibilities:

  • Maybe my goals are actually wrong – Hence, yesterday’s thought that maybe I need to pursue “the art of what I do” rather than the specific goals I had set out.
  • There is something else blocking my happiness – Is there something draining my energy that prevents me from really being happy? Something I’m worried about? Some kind of personal self-limiting belief? The guilt I mentioned before about having opportunity and not using it is a form of that.
  • There is something else needed to catalyze my happiness – I’d had the thought before that community building was a big part of what I needed to realize my happiness. It’s actually baked into my 2024 Resolutions, and I am working on it, but to date this magical community has not materialized quite in the way that is satisfying.

As I wrote that, I realized that the feeling I have is that I am pursuing all these various goals by drawing on my own personal reserves of money, time, and energy. I am wiped out. In hindsight, it’s not that surprising that I fell off the wagon regarding my 2016 Groundhog Day Resolutions. I’m coming off of three months of mentally-taxing personal projects too: the Taiwan “reclaim my culture” Trip, the Living Room Cafe, and the system engineering I’m doing for some NSF grants. I am going to forgive myself for that right now! The implication of this is that there are more ‘shoulds’ on my Big List of Shoulds:

  • The third ‘should’ comes from the belief that I have the capacity for limitless goal-seeking and execution, if I just put my mind to it. Stupid mind is falling short. I should be able to do this.
  • The fourth ‘should’ is that I believe I have the responsibility to make everything happen by myself, since it is for myself. This is a version of “I deserve only what I can make for myself”, which is related to a strong desire for self-sustaining creative independence. It’s also related to the belief that no one really cares or understands what I am doing, and wishing for that is a waste of time.

Ha ha! Once I say it out loud, I can see how ridiculous that third ‘should’ is. I am a capable person in many respects, but I have lots of limits and idiosyncracies. I have mapped them out quite well over the past 10 years. So let me disabuse myself of that notion right now. While I do believe we are all powerful and luminous beings capable of great things, there’s a limit on THE AMOUNT OF POWER that can be delivered at any one time in a sustainable/predictable manner. Compounding this issue is that my own output is quite unpredictable, as it is the way my mind works. If I am going to “pursue my art”, I have to embrace the unpredictability and systemize the means of collecting the results. I keep trying to systemize the means of production instead, which is a losing proposition.

The fourth ‘should’, however, is troubling. It is a major block.

Practicing my Art, Revisited

So I think I’ve come to a newer understanding of my ‘shoulds’, and the takeaways are that I can not worry about being systematic in my production and I have limits to my energy, so there. However, I am still currently depressed and am seeking a catalyizing external source of energy. I have been running on batteries for a long time, and my batteries are now flat. I need a jump. Rather than wish for that to happen, I am compelled to look for or design a system that will do that, because I am a huge nerd.

Let’s start with the givens: I KNOW that I am missing a sense of community. I don’t like to do my projects without someone to talk with, which is probably why I like blogging in the first place. I have been engaging in a number of projects that hopefully will increase those interactions, from the Living Room Cafe to online video communities to relaunching the blog. These are all very exhausting (to me) activities, and they are going to continue to deplete my battery before they recharge it. I am limping along on the barest of charges, and I am feeling the despair that comes from that.

In my fourth ‘should’, I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform. The third and fourth ‘shoulds’, in fact, are a core part of my personal identity: this is who I believe I ‘should’ be. I have to admit that I can not live up to it 100%…and I think I’m entirely OK with that. I am not superhuman.

When one is not superhuman, grander achievement becomes possible only by communing and working with other people. This I know intuitively, but to date have not been able to unlock for myself. I don’t like organizations in general, and am rather introverted. And yet, I keep looking for connection and community despite being disappointed. Here’s what I’ve tried:

  • I have started to join more communities, like local game developer meetups and online video game chat channels. This has helped to some degree, but it has not yet yielded ‘creative communion’ that I think I want. It’s more of a fun social distraction than a catalyst.

  • I have thought that it was leadership that I needed to step into again. I’ve also avoided it because it is extremely time-consuming and drains more energy than it restores (and energy is the resource I am lacking). If I was in-charge, I could direct the organization and recruit the rare people that would contribute to my co-prosperity sphere of creative happiness. This strikes me as a bit elitist and discriminatory though, which bothers me. On the other hand, setting a vision requires this kind of thinking

  • I have been building attractions. I have planned to rebuild my website to put more of my interests on display, so other people can find me through random means. I’ve met a lot of interesting people through the blog, and adjusting my web presence to support my current interests would be great. I’ve also been buying more nerdy/geeky t-shirts as a way to telegraph what I like to people who see me around coffeeshops and the like. The living room cafe is another way I am building an attraction; the hope is to draw people in to share food and projects in a comfortable environment.

A fourth approach came to me last night. I am pre-occupied by identity, and have constantly sought to answer the question WHO AM I, as I thought this would solve a lot of questions. This is a distinct question from the more usual what am I good at and what do I like to do that is most attractive to other people thinking that I see around me. It occurs to me today that maybe WHO AM I can be rephrased as WHAT ROLE DO I WANT TO PLAY. That is an easier question to answer, and it’s more action oriented.

I’ll think about this more tomorrow.