(last edited on April 29, 2014 at 1:27 am)
I was feeling very positive on Friday; Never before has my path seemed so clear, with so many things within my grasp. It was thus with great confidence I predicted a landmark productive weekend. The power I felt on Friday, however, began to resemble more a rolling blackout by Saturday, followed by grid failure as I slipped into total couch potato mode. What happened?
When I am doing a self-diagnostic of this kind, I try to remember other times in my life when similar things had happened. While I don’t entirely trust my memory to recall specific details and sequences of events, I do have a pretty good memory for emotional tone. In other words, I can remember what situations made me feel a certain way. This is sometimes useful when doing graphic design. Anyway, I mentally ticked-off the specific sensations I had felt over the weekend:
- wanting to be distracted
It’s a familiar feeling that I associate with not knowing what to do. I have a pretty clear plan, though, of what it is I can be doing to move things forward with my life. There’s all the cool Printable CEO things: new forms, books, and software! There’s the awesome people who are out there doing cool things that I can partner up with that make me happy. Plus there’s stories to create! New ideas to outline! Principles to share! As I’m typing this, I’m absolutely amazed at the wealth of options I have available to me from a creative perspective. They are all things that I know I would enjoy doing, and I would even be good at doing them.
“Meh”, says some part of my brain, lurking somewhere in the darkness and oozing ambivalence like a leaky nuclear reactor. It’s toxic, and it’s lodged somewhere in my system.
On a whim I looked up depression (mood) and clinical depression in Wikipedia to see if this was what I was going through; I had caught a piece of a show on NPR that was talking about an instrument called the Beck Depression Inventory, which is a self-administered test that determines just how depressed you are in (I guess) medical terms. A lot of the symptoms sounded familiar—I had just listed them above—so I probably should keep this in mind next time I see a doctor. On the other hand, I don’t want to take any drugs to correct any “deficiencies” in my mood. I don’t even know what I should feel like, so maybe it would be worthwhile to define what I think that is.
If I were happy, I would think it would be something like this:
- contented and fulfillment
Hm, that’s interested…these are largely words that are related to being connected to other people. As I read through the list, there is a kind of intimacy that I feel is part of the definition. So my feeling of “meh” might be explained by a feeling that I’m only doing all these interesting things for myself, because I should. I know that they’re all very good things to be doing because they’ll make me stronger, but in examining my happy list I end up asking myself: but for what? It’s like doing it for myself isn’t enough. Interesting…very interesting.
I’d read recently an interesting definition of happiness: happiness is not being bored; it’s being excited by what you’re doing. I’m clearly not excited by all the things that I’m doing, because I’m having some difficulty really feeling that it’s worthwhile.
The reason I started freelancing in the first place was to gain my independence so I could do things that I thought were important and worthwhile to me. What I seem to have discovered is that I apparently don’t have an important tangible goal, and have metaphorically missed my exit off the self-reflection highway. As a result, I’ve ended up in a place named after a dead philosopher’s theory of existence. Or I’m somewhere near Buffalo, New York. Part of my brain is saying, “I told you there was nothing out here, we should have gotten off at Tonawanda”, while another part of my brain insists, “No, there is something good just up ahead. We have to keep driving.”
I used to go to grad school in (you guessed it) upstate New York, and have driven solo from Rochester to Boston a few times. It’s not a particularly long drive, maybe 7-8 hours. The feeling of being on the road by yourself, unsure of what you’re going to be doing with your life, but knowing at least that you’re heading east down the I-90, is a lot how I feel now. I’ve grown used to the solitude of traveling by myself toward a destination, and I think I’m at that point where I’m just really sick of it. I think I really want to be on a road trip with someone else in the passenger seat, maybe taking turns driving, and so on.
I guess I’m saying I’m becoming increasingly aware of being alone. I’ve been alone for great swaths of time during my life, being always out of place or not quite understood by the people around me, and I’ve grown quite used to the solitude. It’s only in the past few years that I’ve deepened new relationships and had a taste of what it’s like to be around people who vastly improve the quality of the day-to-day existence. I’ve enjoyed visits from my sister and her cat on holidays, and Dad came to spend several months with me. I became re-acquainted with the human element. I’ve also met women who made me smile, and gave me something to look forward to beyond myself for a time. As I’ve grown more comfortable with myself, I’ve been able to see the value of close human relationships, and now that I’ve tasted that…I’ve been spoiled. It’s like when I tasted my first really excellent chocolate croissant, or had a really fine piece of aged cheese: I could not go back to the supermarket stuff. In fact, the supermarket stuff makes me kind of angry.
“Why bother? It’s not worth it.” whispers that dark part of my brain.
So I am pretty sure that one of my major bottlenecks right now is due to this feeling of loneliness. There’s not much I can do about it overnight, but at least I know what the challenge is, and can put it out of my mind for a time.
I can also redefine my game plan. It had gone something like this:
- make myself stronger financially…
- so I can fund the things I think are really worthwhile.
The raw assets I have are my ideas, my writing, and my design work. I had thought the challenge was creating a product that I could sell and feel good about in exchange for income, but I can see that this is too narrow a definition: I need to also consider the creation of strong face-to-face human relationships as an integral part of the game plan.
Now, I’ve talked in the past about finding people to collaborate and so forth, but I have probably held myself back because I didn’t want to get burned by the possibility of a bad project relationship. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the right guidelines or set of principles that would ensure a “quality working relationship” based on metrics like similar level of skill, compatible background experiences, shared ethical standards for work, imagination, and so forth. These are all pretty useful metrics, and I still plan to use them, but what it comes down to is this: both parties are equally committed to making the relationship work above everything else. That’s really it. If you don’t have that, all you have is a social contract. I have been using these skill criteria as a shield against forming relationships intimate working relationship, because I was afraid of getting hurt.
Now, I’m not saying one shouldn’t be prudent in choosing their working partners. There are moments when recognizing a discrepancy between intention and action will prevent you from really getting taken advantage of. However, if you want to form a close relationship of any kind, you’re going to have to make yourself vulnerable to the other person. In a way I’ve started to do that on this blog, by writing about things that could be considered rather personal. However, my comfort zone with writing what I think and feel tends to be rather broad. Where I have difficulty is expressing my deepest fears: that I’ll be alone and misunderstood, and everything I’ve tried to do will be for naught.
Practically speaking, I know I’m not alone, and that there are plenty of people who do understand and appreciate what I say. I’m blessed with excellent, excellent friends that I trust deeply and implicitly. I am a lucky, lucky person that happens to be going through another wave of self-doubt and loneliness. The thought that goes through my mind is that I really have not learned to trust my own assessment of the situation, or that I haven’t stopped to appreciate my blessings in quite some time. And I know that everyone’s gone through this misery at one point or another.
And with this insight, I can finally visualize the miniature version of myself exploring the nooks and crannies of my brain, shining a flashlight into the most ancient and darkest corners. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the little boy version of myself, confused and sad and feeling like an outsider, huddled next to a particularly nasty-looking knot of fears and anxieties.
“Yo”, I say.
The little boy version of myself stares back, the hollow look on his face telling me he’s not quite aware of his surroundings, but I can also see that he’s expecting nothing useful to come out of my mouth. I know that there’s nothing I can say that will make any sense at all because the boy has not yet experienced what is to come, and that it will be mostly good. But I can’t say that…it means nothing in the moment. So I offer my hand and say, “C’mon, let’s go up where it’s not so dark” with all the warmth I can muster. It’s not an answer, but it’s a start.
To sum up:
I’ve been feeling down because, I think, I’m feeling lonely and isolated from people. This is despite all the dozens of people who I’ve met or have written to over the past couple of years. There’s an additional element of relationship that I am looking for, and while I believe I’ve been pretty open, I have probably been putting entirely too much emphasis on criteria than commitment.
My “master plan” to date has focused on what I can build to bring in revenue, because revenue will give me both the resources and freedom to effect further positive change. The resources I have now are my abilities to think, write, and create media to convey ideas and processes. However, it never occurred to me that I could use the same skills and opportunities to also build deeper relationships; I’ve tended to see the work more in terms of revenue and/or barter. In the past I’ve taken on projects because I’ve wanted to “help” people out, but this hasn’t always worked out. My revised approach will be to take on project because I want to create stronger personal relationships; this is more mutual in intent.
That was so beautifully eloquent and so honest and so very like my own current mental state and life perspective. Thank you for sharing it, and I will print it off and read it again whenever I feel exactly as you described, as I could never put it into words like you just did.
Sometimes what helps me when in this state is to indulge myself with doing something or listening to something very sentimental. It can help complete the cycle to approach the more positive state, for a time. Also, as you mentioned, to focus less on what is missing, and more on what is present and valued.
As you have mentioned in other posts, being a person who strives for meaning and purpose in everything, can be very exhausting and lonely but there seems no other way to exist. I try to tell myself to be more frivilous and lighthearted which is how I feel when I am happy. But they seem to be the by-products of happiness which has arrived when I wasn’t looking, and impossible to maintain as an existence.
Freakishly I was also having the same ‘find a work partner’ type of discussion with myself today, but always end up saying ‘later when the time is right’.
Maybe some of your mood could be due to the back and forth of the weather we’ve been having. Now that the sun is out perhaps you should spend some time in the park…might meet someone nice there as well!
I know Ian is busy but we should try to get together soon to discuss the next BarCamp as well.
David, I think there’s another factor at play that must be considered: the cyclical nature of human energy.
As much as we’d like to be “on” all the time, it’s just not possible. We go through waves of high energy and low energy. It’s part of what we are.
In my experience, fighting against a low period only makes me tired and frustrated, and draws the low out. Instead, accepting the low for what it is (a natural part of life), and working with it seems to help me move more quickly back to a high.
The lows suck, and the temptation to search for WHY is extremely strong. Just for kicks, try this: don’t question why you feel low. You can’t think your way out of it. Just ride it, and before you know it, it will be gone.
You hit the nail on the head. The feeling of “meh” is one that I’m overly familiar with. There’s plenty of things for me to do, and as I wake up in the mornings and get ready to head into the office, I’m often thinking of things I’d like to do that day to move projects along. But I hit my office and frequenly the feeling of “meh” hits hard. Some days it’s easier to move beyond that feeling than others.
But your insight about working alone is the key, perhaps. I know it makes sense to me. I’m an attorney, and I have plenty of work to do. But I seem to enjoy doing the work more when I’m working with one of the other attorneys jointly on the project. If it’s just me on the case, it’s less interesting and I’m willing to wait for a court-imposed deadline to motivate me to move forward.
You’ve given me, at least, and hopefully others, some good insight into what’s driving the “meh” attacks. Now that we might have some clue as to the cause, we can overcome them more easily.
Keep up the good work!
On stronger project relationships:
I’d second what Peter said above about the natural cycle of energy – just to be aware of it potentially.
And I’d add two other angles: Orson Scott Card says that if he gets writer’s block, sometimes he backtracks, and removes a paragraph or two, or a page – because often, for him, writer’s block is him subconsciously telling himself that he should go back to the previous intersection and try something else with his charcters. Maybe the next immediate thing you should try is different from what you thought it was.
And also, what if life were easy? What if life were completely simple? And suppose you could choose any next step that you wanted to choose …Then what might you be doing as a next step? What might you WANT to be doing on the weekend? What might be exciting at this point? What could be the easiest next thing to do that still moves you forward in some way?
I think of those two things pretty frequently – the OSC backtracking and the “what’s the easiest thing right now?”
Just commenting on the depression part – if you just feel like “meh” and two days later get productive again, it’s quite unlikely your clinically depressed. Depression means “I’m in a black hole, I can’t move anywhere. And even if I would, it’d be useless” – times ten.
Your flood of twitter posts on sunday speaks to the contrary ;)
Adam: Thank you for the kind words, and I’m happy that you found something in this. I think I will take your words to heart next time, regarding “indulging” with something very sentimental. This reflects some of what Peter and Senia say too.
Jeff: Going to the park is an excellent idea. I think I’ll go check out Greeley Park and see what’s actually there.
Peter: That’s really interesting advice, to ride out the lows. So instead of feeling like I’ve somehow pooped out, I can accept that it’s just one of those times and as you suggest, don’t question it. I’ve never been very good at accepting things as they are, so I think this is exactly what I should try. Thanks!
Bill: Maybe we’re the type of people who thrive under “the buddy system”. I think I derive meaning from seeing how people react. “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to see it, does anyone care?” The funny thing for me is that I didn’t used to think I was a “people person”, because I’m so interested in systems and how they relate…people are the ultimate systems, maybe. And, I have a growing fondness for their idiosyncracies.
Mark: Thanks for the link. I’m not quite feeling the connection though.
Senia: That’s a very neat idea of doing a backstep and doing something different. What may have triggered my feelings yesterday, though, was that it seems my entire month seemed to be made of backsteps. The engineer in me abhors backsteps. But maybe I should admit that I’m only an engineer when it’s convenient, and accept that I’m more of a flower sniffer than I thought. Thanks, thanks! :-)
Robert: I’ve had periods of time when I’ve felt like that, but never to the point of complete paralysis. Thanks for the perspective!
Thanks everyone for pointing out that there ARE natural lows. From now on, I will enjoy them as much as I do natural highs :-)
I’ve been reading your blog for some time now; I think with what you wrote about tonight, David, you’re on to something that has the potential to change your life much more profoundly than you may realize at this time.
I used to me a lot more solitary myself, and have therefore developed skills that I now implicitly use to make money and survive. Even though I’m really excited about what I do, after a while it loses the novelty factor and I decided to explore different things, such as forming closer relationships with other people, both romantic and platonic.
This proved to me much more difficult than I had initially assessed, since I found myself to be innately familiar with technology and interactions with computers or other inanimate devices. But humans, not so much.
I came to this realization again last weekend when I realized that if really put my mind to it, I can be much better at human-human interaction. I can apply some of the same principles I apply with computers: when I sit down at a computer I have this immediate sense of emporement, I feel that I’m in control and that I can do whatever I want without fear of being stopped and without the fear of failing. When it comes to computers, I simply don’t fail.
It’s strange, however, because when I sit down in front of a person and start a conversation, my feelings and attitudes are very different. I feel that the outcome of my interaction is strongly influenced by the other person, which is an element I have absolutely no control over. So I find myself in a situation where I have to submit myself to someone else’s (to me) arbitrary whim, which immediately makes me very uncomfortable. I can’t always use familiar logic to determine what I should do or say to achieve the desired response, since the response will vary from person to person and from situation to situation, even given the exact same input.
This is the primary challenge I face with other people. Over the last few years, I have made it a point to go out of my way to interact with other people, so I force myself out of my comfort zone, otherwise I really would be lonely all the time. This has worked well. Now that I have acquired more advanced skills in interacting with other people (although this still doesn’t feel ‘native’ to me), I often find myself in situations that are completely unforseen. I’m still not used to dealing with the ‘human’ element, which introduces a degree of entropy into the flow of events.
Going back to my first point, I think it is this entropy that may lead you down a path that could change your life in a much more profound way than you may want or predict at this time. When you form closer relationships with other people, you not only make yourself vulnerable to them, you also give up a certain degree of control of your life. Sometimes a great degree, depending on the type of relationship. This, especially with romantic relationships, I have found to be more of a problem for me than making myself vulnerable. Most people aren’t out to specifically wrong you, but most people are out to do what is best for them, and that may not always be what is best for you.
To sum it up, humans are extremely complex. Personally, I recognize that I am well-trained to deal with computers and I do well in situation that are logical and structured in a predictable manner. Often having a close relationship falls outside of the scope of what I’m trained to do and this has often lead to very unforseen, sometimes detrimental, but often exhilarting experiences.
Just my $0.02 :-)
“…but I have probably held myself back because I didn’t want to get burned”
I can’t think of anyone I know who’s reached any kind of >>real<< fulfillment in life without having fallen on their face or been burned hundreds, if not thousands, if not tens of thousands of times. I know you; you’re a control freak like me, so it’s hard to accept the consequence for things that might be outside of your control…things like other peoples actions. But you have to shed this hesitancy like old skin and rely on your natural resilient tendencies as a living/breathing animal.
For me, one thing that has helped is consciously altering my frame of reference. As you know, I have always had a tendency to fixate on the most minute details. A quick motorsports analogy—> Imagine being a racecar driver traveling around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 240mph. That’s 352ft – more than a football field – every second. The green flag drops and 33 fire breathing machines are unleashed three abreast down the front straight. Now imagine you and all your driving peers were to focus solely on the patches of pavement immediately around you. Remember, you’re moving 352ft per second. What might you expect to happen? At the very least, everyone would be slow (relatively speaking), no where near reaching the cars’ full potential. And, more than likely, everyone would crash into each other. At 352ft/sec, what’s immediately in FRONT of you…352ft out even…has already happened! So why look there? Pick your head up and LOOK WHERE YOU WANT TO GO. Sounds simple, but can be quite challenging in practice. In motorsports, as in chess, drivers are making decisions 3, 4, and 5 steps ahead. This does not mean they lose sight of what’s immediately around them. If anything, they see what’s immediately around them even better. The effects of consciously shifting your mindset are both mental and physical. You’ll here athletes speak about being “in the zone”. This is what they’re talking about. Talk about increasing productivity! Imagine if you could slow down time!? You can.
Point being, in your writings, you clearly articulate where you want to go. My sense is that when you actually sit down to take the first step, you fixate on the immediate task at hand and lose sight of your end goal. The result is “inertia, boredom, restlessness, isolation, disconnectedness, sadness [sometimes], tiredness, and wanting to be distracted”. Why? B/c oftentimes, the daily/dirty work sucks. But that’s not why you’re doing it. If only you could see it. Trouble is, you can’t b/c you’re staring at your shoelaces. By shifting your line of sight, the interim tasks almost take care of themselves, leaving little time to feel any of the above. Again, easier said than done and a constant challenge for me personally. But with disciplined practice and conditioning, achievable.
When all else fails, I’d concur with Jeff L. Perhaps a stroll through the park on a sunny day might help. Who knows, you might meet someone. Better yet, first adopt yourself a puppy then go for a stroll. I guarantee you’ll meet someone ;-)Pretty sure that one’s right out of “Dating Secrets for the College FreshMAN” – a classic.
Patrick: Very interesting observation about entropy leading to interesting places…I’m a recent convert. Once I accepted this basic premise, I found talking to people became a lot easier. I think initially, I played a kind of “interest matching” game, which is kind of a reductive way of looking at human relationships. Once I switched to “finding interesting connections”, this opened up a whole world of random possibilities…far more additive and exciting! Thanks for writing up your approach…it’s quite instructive!
Seuss: Altering my frame of reference to see where I’m going as in motorsports…that’s a great metaphor, dude! I think you might have jogged m off the track though in a good way…I may not be that excited by my end goal. Intellectually it sounds good and is achievable, but it just doesn’t set my heart on fire in a lasting way. The excitement I sometimes have may merely be temporary excitement about having found a better-fitting solution (a tactical victory).
So it comes back to this: I’ve figured out again what I like and what mekes me feel good, but there is possibly another level that is about excitement. Damn it! Is JJ Abrams writing my life script?
I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and this post has made me come out of hiding. I used to go through bouts of sadness, stress, boredom, ‘depression’ and loneliness pretty frequently.
I’m a freelancer/graphic designer/web designer and although being a freelancer is wonderful, it does give you extra time to focus on yourself and bring up negative emotions for no specific reason. There’s too much time available to over-analyze. Not being one to go to a shrink/therapist or drink prescribed medication, I started incorporating better eating habits, exercise, and a variety of vitamins into my diet. I also eliminated sugar and others ‘evil monsters’ from most of my food so that my life is controlled by me and not uppers and downers. My moods have benefited from the change and I recommend it.
The most important change I made was to go easy on myself. I had the habit of being my worst enemy and at times, was too hard on myself. I now accept and welcome my ‘meh’ days as a natural process and have learned to accept them as part of my evolution into a better human being.
Have you read April 9th’s Forbes article called ‘Patient Fix Thyself’? (shrinks and patients everywhere are probably rolling their eyes). The old ‘Woody Allen’ psycho-analysis days are over. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is where it’s at. CBT basically states that negative emotions about ourselves are a distortion that our mind has created. ‘Depression, boredom and anxiety aren’t the cause of debilitating thoughts – they are instead, a result of the same. Eliminate bad thoughts and you can short-circuit bad feelings.’
I don’t plan on going to a CBT specialist any time soon to work things out because I believe in self analysis, but I am bringing in some of CBT techniques into my life to help me get rid of any negative perceptions I may have created of myself.
If you can’t read the article, let me know and I’ll ‘lend’ you my member login. :)
By the way, thanks for T4HWW recommendation. I pre-ordered it and am anxiously awaiting it. Yay!
David, Thank you so much for your post. Once again, I feel that you are speaking exactly how I am feeling. I don’t think I can add to what the other commenters have said, except Thanks.
“but what it comes down to is this: both parties are equally committed to making the relationship work above everything else. That’s really it. If you don’t have that, all you have is a social contract. I have been using these skill criteria as a shield against forming relationships intimate working relationship, because I was afraid of getting hurt.”
That reminded me of the link I posted. I agree that it’s not especially relevant to the overall theme of your post, but that concern about commitment in a client or development partner reminded me of that sort of explicit agreement to commit to a project that was proposed in the link.
As for some further thoughts (I was only on the computer quick this morning before putting in a full day working on the kitchen)…I think location is a huge factor. I’m really familiar with that drive on the Thruway and I-90, because when I moved to Boston in ‘00 my family was in NNY and my girlfriend in Syracuse. And with that, I hit the road most weekends and didn’t make a commitment to Boston.
It took being in the right neighborhood (Brookline) and having an existing friend recently relocated there to trigger that commitment. Maybe a move is in order? I see the attraction of NH, but if it’s not working for you, and is in fact possibly working against you, that hurts.
I want to move inland from the coast, and the city, with my family so that we can have land, a yard, a nice little town, our own house…But I constantly worry about losing my Boston proximity, even though I’m working at home pretty much every day. We can’t stand living on the North Shore, but we have friends close by here that aren’t going to venture far, that are in the same place as us age-wise and family-wise that it’s very comforting to have nearby.
People and places are immensely important. And selecting them can’t be a purely objective endeavor.
I’ve gone through several bouts of being a couch potato and then hating myself for it…reading a bit about Constructive Living as a life philosophy has helped me get moving. CL focuses on both being thankful/appreciative AND doing what needs to be done. Plus, it lets you to acknowledge your feelings (of boredom, anger, etc.) while encouraging you to get your butt in gear. Check it out: http://boat.zero.ad.jp/~zbe85163/dkr2.htm
I sometimes know the feeling and see only the good things in what others have done while not acknowledging the work I myself have been doing. Additionally, most of my friends are not freelancers, so they cannot understand what it means to work on your own pretty much most of the time.
What helps me a lot is staying connected. Meet people for lunch. Work on projects where you meet your peers fairly often and have a beer or two in the evening. Build personal relationships with your clients in a sense where it is okay to not only talk about work but also about things you enjoy (spare time). And choose hobbies which involve relationships with others.
As far as procrastinating goes, well, I guess I mastered this art. Sadly I did not find the perfect cure for it either yet. But as long as you manage to get the work done you are supposed to do in a fashion which generates value, even if a little bit too late, then you should be fine. And if it can stay off your radar screen for quite some time, maybe it is not worth pursuing at the moment or even at all?
I’ve hit these kinds of blue moods before and in retrospect, every single time it was because I felt stuck in a situation that was sapping my energy, and didn’t feel like there was anything I could do to change it.
There is a positive side to these kinds of moods: they tell you when there is something you need to change that you’ve been trying your best to deny. For a lot of us, it has to get really bad before we’re willing to make a change away from the familiar…even if the familiar isn’t working for us.
I’ve been a freelancer for about 10 years.
I find that I’m not lonely much of the time, and I think one reason is that I’m very engaged with my extracurricular commitments. I am a big-time volunteer and have found committees for causes I enjoy. I don’t make websites for the groups I volunteer with, because that’s what I do every day for a living; but I do try to do substantial, ongoing things that have “homework” because it just helps me stay engaged.
Also, it can be great just to get out and have lunch, dinner or board-game dates with friends and colleagues.
It’s very prosaic, but I do suggest that you try finding other commitments outside of work that involve spending time with people, making connections, and getting outside your working brain.
Good luck with it!