Setting the Tone for 2014, Part IV: Last Call Before GHD!
You know what tomorrow is? It’s Groundhog Day, which means it’s almost time to set my goals for the year with Groundhogs Day Resolutions! I take the month plus 1 day after New Years Day to have some time to decompress from the holidays and get myself put back together; this year I’ve written three pieces about setting the tone for the year, because I was feeling weary and unmotivated and wanted to work out the reason behind it so I could start 2014 in a good mood.
In this post, I review the past writing in this series, then summarize the new thoughts I’ve had since about the nature of being connected with people. This is followed by a breakdown of “who I am” and “what I want”.
I first acknowledged that I am feeling tremendous resistance to doing the work, even though I “knew better”. I feel no shame at admitting this, and chose to face the issue directly.
Next I evaluated sources of my procrastination. I also realized that there are two universal truths that apply to creating something of worth: the work is unavoidable and the time it will take is unknown. There are no shortcuts when it comes to creating something of worth. I identified one form of resistance that was disguised as responsible project management: a proclivity to assigning and measuring the cost of even the tiniest step. This made every step seem expensive. So, I stopped doing it.
Then, I contemplated my missing sense of purpose and mission, and realized that I have been deferring my enjoyment in life. I didn’t even know exactly what I wanted to do should I even achieve my goal of being “creatively independent”. To move forward, I had two choices: pick something specific and plan to make it happen with active engagement, or just stop worrying about it and try to be actively in the moment of experiencing a connected life.
New Insights on Connectedness
Since writing those posts, I’ve had some new insights regarding what it means to be connected in a good way.
It is good to talk to people who are ALSO trying to solve their version of “creative independence”. The problems I’m facing are not unique, but it rare to find people who seek to use their skills to create an independent and sustainable life outside of a normal company structure. Reconnecting with creative independents has been immensely reassuring. On a side note, I have recently been introduced to Brett Terpstra’s Systematic podcast, which is about a lot of the same issues that I’m facing. It is pretty awesome.
I flew out to Austin, Texas to have a programming summit with my colleague Ben of Inquirium, a learning software consultancy in California. Austin is about halfway between California and New Hampshire, so we spent a few days in a nice AirBnB rental working on our latest project. The experience reminded me that yes, it is wonderful to work and eat with people that you actually like and respect, who keep you on your toes and are driven to deliver an excellent product. I also got to live in a nice condo that was free of clutter; when I got home I was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of non-essential junk that was in my workspace. So, I removed as much of it as possible, and I’m finding it’s a little easier to work. All those tiny inconveniences from clutter really add up, and sap one’s energy.
I’m a Taiwanese-American that doesn’t really understand Taiwan, so I recently got the New Information and Cultural Insights Entrepreneurs Need to Start a Business in Taiwan e-book for $10. I figured that I might learn something about my cultural heritage and history. Unexpectedly, I also found a missing piece of philosophy that I really needed. Apparently, my values and sense of identity are very Western, which comes from my uniqueness. I have always been looking for my place, and what I can do to bring about change for the better. I have the belief that if I dream it and have the will to stick it out, I can make anything happen. In Taiwanese culture, the “basic unit of humanity” is the family, not the individual. In this context, to be fully human is to be comfortably intertwined with the lives of the people around you. The role of the individual within this context is to create connections that raise the bar for everyone within the trust circle, purposefully creating chains of giving and receiving that form long-term relationships. In Western terms, Taiwan seems to have “relationship marketing” baked right into the fabric of society. The very idea of being a die-hard individualist living by only one’s own values and views would horrify a hypothetical Taiwanese, who is used to viewing action from the perspective of other people’s needs. This actually explains a lot of weird disconnects I’ve had with some of my relatives in Taiwan…oops! The takeaway for me is that my Western notion of individual self-empowerment and improvement has some holes to fill-in. It gives me ideas of how to incorporate leadership and sacrifice into my plans without feeling like I’m just creating more headache for myself.
All these experiences helped lift my spirits. With this boost, I was ready to look at my lack of motivation once more.
Back to the Individual
Despite my doubts about the future, I do know who I am and where I am falling short:
- I like it when people feel they can express their unique weirdnesses and find their happiness through it. If I can be a catalyst or conduit, that makes me happy too.
- I have a yearning to be an explorer, but I lack the confidence to play the role completely. To date, I have focused on attaining skills and related tools, but I fall relatively short in having the funding and the attitude to don the leather jacket and whip as I stride confidently into the field.
- I have the desire to be respected as the creator of strikingly-original and wonderful goods. I have again focused on the acquisition of skills and tools, but have not fully embraced a single area of expertise and built it to master level.
- I make decisions based on emotional criteria that lead to the advancement of good character and harmony with people I like. I continually apply a set of principles using logical and analytical processes in the service of those criteria. It is a constant process of observation, distillation, and synthesis.
- I am drawn to new insights and experiences that reveal aspects of excellence and personal character. I am fascinated by the decisions people make to get from where they are to where they want to go. I believe that the world is filled with tremendously wonderful things made by unique people, and I want to experience and understand it. I want to be more of a part of it, and be immersed in its flow. I find this very exciting to think about, though I am not as active in participating in it as I could be.
I also know what my “end game” goals are. They are synonymous with “creative independence”:
- I want to be recognized for creating original works for a discerning audience.
- I want to receive all my income through selling my own work.
- I want to attain a satisfying level of mastery in what I do.
- I want to have all the time and money I need to pursue and develop my interests.
I am very confident that most of my activities and thoughts fall somewhere in these two lists, so I can stop wondering if I’m doing the right thing or not. The trick, I think, is to create a harmonious mix between the “who I am” and the “end game” goals. I have been focused more on finding the means to achieve creative independence, giving it priority in my consciousness. However, this has been at the expense of feeding the totality of what makes me tick. I haven’t been able to enjoy myself at all, deferring my rewards for an unknown future reward.
On a side note, I have picked a first reward when creative independence is up and running: I’m going to go hang out in cities at different AirBnB locations for a week at a time, and just see what it’s like. The Austin trip was a good test, and I’m happy to say it worked. I just need to be able to afford air fare, a weekly rental, food, and a rental car. Or, I could just drive around and do the same thing. No expectations other than that.
Reducing the Resistance
Getting back to the task at hand…
Although I’ve gained confidence in what I’m doing and why, the ability to overcome resistance and do the work is still an issue. I have some energy back, but I still have to face the dull and mundane work. No worthwhile challenge is doable without that effort.
I know from experience that it’s taking the first step that is the hardest for me, so that’s what I want to work on improving this year. It’s not a problem when there are external pressing motivators; when someone asks me for something, or I am responsible for leading a team, then the first step feels much more visceral because other people are involved. It’s no longer just about me, and I take that very seriously. It’s not a problem when my curiosity is piqued and an opportunity to get an answer is readily available; that first step happens right away. It’s the solo projects that have no dependencies except for me that I have problems starting. No one gets hurt except me if I whiff a personal project, but as the years of non-progress pile up this will only lead to regret.
So what’s so hard about that first step? It happens to embody a lot of things I don’t like. Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of things I don’t like in general:
- things that suck / are inauthentic / are designed to exploit people
- disappointing anyone by not hitting the mark set by their expectations / desires
- feeling trapped by anything or anyone
- being an outsider, whether on purpose or not
- feeling uncertain and therefore stupid
- being held back by dependencies
- accounting/bookkeeping, periodic maintenance/chores
- being limited by mediocrity, stupidity, or dogma
- compromising my ideals of fairness, truth, responsibility, and character
- being forced to use bad materials / bad processes / bad documentation
- any cold call / meeting with strangers / socializing for socializing
- excuses, even in myself, and related bad attitudes.
- lingering issues that never resolve because someone can’t make a decision
And here’s the list of corresponding irritations I have about taking that first step; they parallel the first list pretty closely:
- It’s unclear what to do first.
- It’s hard to be sure what the best approach is.
- I am going to feel stupid for a while.
- I feel like I am expending effort for no guaranteed reward.
- To understand most documentation, you need a world view you don’t yet have. This is because the writers forgot you didn’t know. Or, they don’t understand the world view themselves and miss the point in their technical writing.
- I seem to always need something I don’t yet have.
- It’s the first of many steps, and I don’t know how many there are. Therefore, I don’t know when I’ll be free again.
- The ultimate reward is deferred way into the future. No cookie!
- It’s often tedious or unglamorous.
- I don’t even know how it will come out.
- There’s always something more interesting and more rewarding, even if it’s not on the path.
- I have to let the project linger and come back to it, because there are other responsibilities and chores to take care of, which increases my level of irritation.
In other words, it just feels automatically bad to me. I don’t like feeling trapped, lingering issues, uncertainty, or feeling stupid. Who does? While I have a set of productivity tricks that help me keep going, none of them address the “take that first step” resistance directly. Here’s the list of productivity tricks that I use:
- I give myself permission to quit if, after 15 minutes, I am not drawn into the work. 99% of the time, I’ll keep going. It’s like a money-back guarantee!
- I work on one thing at a time. I don’t let myself worry about time cost, effort, or other projects. Focus comes from eliminating thoughts that have nothing to do with the selected problem. Productivity ensues.
- I allow myself to document copiously as part of the process, because writing is the foundation of my thinking process. It also feels productive, though the overhead of writing means that it might take longer for me to get something done. On the other hand, if I don’t write then the knowledge would be lost.
- I remind myself that this is worthwhile work, and I have faith that the work will pay off in the long run. That is true even when the desired result is still not in view. The creative mission is a journey of exploring uncertainties, not eliminating them.
How can I directly address starting tasks? All the above are about mindset after the project has started. I need some way to make the very act of starting something notable.
Adjusting the Production Model
I would like to feel productive by getting something done every day. However, I think I need to redefine what I mean by “getting something done.”
So here’s what I’m thinking: instead of scheduling and planning long project timelines with deferred final rewards, why don’t I start with a simple metric: how many project “first steps” have I taken today?
For my purposes, a “first step” is any action that starts an chain of further actions that provides a result that isn’t the finished deliverable. I hate not having a finished deliverable, but the nature of challenging work is that there will be a lot of intermediate steps that move very slowly or are a dead end. It is the nature of the creative process.
To make starting a top-of-mind priority, I will see how many stuck projects I can start/restart every day. I won’t care that they don’t get done. Just getting used to STARTING something, and diminishing the resistance that comes from all my completionist fussypants thinking will be the goal. Can I do 5? 10? 15? Will this result in more productivity overall?
This may lead to inefficient multitasking or leave me with too many unfinished projects, but I am going to embrace the uncertainty and just see what happens.