Groundhog Day Resolutions 2008: Closing Out With Charlie Brown

Groundhog Day Resolutions 2008: Closing Out With Charlie Brown

Today is Veteran’s Day, November 11, which also happens to be the last “official” day of Groundhog Day Resolutions Reviews 2008. At this point, the American High Holidays–Thanksgiving through New Years Day–loom over me. so I rest my side ambitions until February 2nd. The original idea behind Ground Hog Day resolutions is that on January 1st, the traditional time of making resolutions, I’m so tired from the holidays that I’m still catching up with everything I didn’t finish last year; I need some time to chill and reflect. Besides, Ground Hog Day is my favorite holiday, and it is under-celebrated.

Fractal Patterns of Perceived Failure and Recovery

2008 was the second year I launched GHDRs, and I maintained the follow up review days for March, April, May, June, and July. It was a mixed run, largely one of disappointment masked by the power of positive thinking ;-)

After July, I decided to go on blogging hiatus due to an increased project load (largely mental, in retrospect), and suspended my GHDR Review Days at the same time. When I review the wistfully-optimistic first months of 2008, I find the following themes appearing:

  • March: The acute need to focus, to attain mobility, and to battle the forces of loneliness.
  • April: The recognition that I needed to be more specific to achieve goals. Also, the decision to reduce my material needs (a necessary aspect of mobility), and to commit to writing as a vocation, whatever that means.
  • May: Why oh why do I lack motivation? Theorizing on internal and external sources of said motivation. Gah!
  • June: Acceptance that there are certain “go-getter” attributes I lack, a decision to find alternate routes other than the “just do it” approach.
  • July: Ground down, I rediscover part of my core, and am surprised to find what’s there.

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because last week’s Productivity Reboot repeats the entire cycle of fevered commitment – perceived failure – diagnosis – acceptance – return to core – re-dedication. If I were to look back at the 1200+ blog posts I’ve written over the past three years, I am pretty sure that I’d see the same cycle repeated, fractal-like, in everything I do. This I find fascinating, and at the same time it’s kind of alarming because at first glance it seems that I’m not going anywhere. Yikes! Have I discovered my predestined pattern of doom?

Sparky to the Rescue

I flew to California last Sunday for a week of on-site work with Inquirium, which I look forward to for the shared working environment. While waiting for a change of plane at Chicago Midway, I happened upon Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis. Although I had enjoyed Peanuts as a child, I had never known much about the cartoonist Schulz himself and had mentally categorized him as “too popular to be interesting, coasting on past success”. However, seeing the book reminded me of my buddy Brad, who in the early days of our acquaintance had been working hard to get into a cartoon syndicate, and I decided to pick up the book to gain some insight. What I gleaned from my reading was profound insight into my own nature, by gaining a reference point of understanding about the nature of ambition and self-doubt.

Charles M. Schulz, for all his success in life, was a man who seemingly kept himself from feeling actual happiness. He was a shy boy raised by emotionally-distant parents who demonstrated their love through duty, hiding their own insecurities behind thick walls of silent denial. Highly intelligent, talented but surrounded by people who couldn’t imagine–and therefore couldn’t emotionally support–the notion of cartooning for a living, he nevertheless was lucky enough to find himself in employ of a company that allowed him to mature his drawing as an unwitting means to express his own pantheon of insecurities; the book is liberally illustrated with strips that echo the goings-on of his life. Throughout his life, he insisted on thinking of himself as a regular guy from Minnesota who had done OK with a modicum of talent, though underneath the surface he was highly ambitious and competitive to the point of meanness. He held grudges against the people who he perceived to have bullied, slighted, or belittled him. When he was a child, his own doubts and insecurities were fed by people who he later realized were limited in their life perspective and experience, and despite his rise to massive success he just could not accept that he’d made it and was adored by millions. Although a gracious and generous person in spirit, he had a constant need for affirmation; without his cartoon, he said, “he would be dead.” He died in 2000, and one of his last interviews regarding how he viewed his life achievements produced a statement that struck me rather well. Paraphrased: “I took the talent I had and did not waste it.” Producing his comic strip was an intensely personal affair; he did not seek help or advice on his work, because in his mind it was the one thing that he did himself that provided affirmation that he was doing something right.

I can see a lot of parallels between myself and Schulz’s conflicts about his desire for understanding, for affirmation, and being the best while being in conflict with his Midwestern values of being humble and unassuming. Instead of rationalizing them away, as I’ve been trying to do, Schulz actively appeared to embrace them, using his unhappiness to drive his muse. What’s interesting too is that the biography makes a point of distinguishing unhappiness from depression. I still can’t quite wrap my head around the distinction, but to be depressed I gather is to not be able to muster the energy to do anything, while unhappiness is something less debilitating. In my own case, I am feeling similar doubts about my direction, and I am also beset by desires to be the best at what I do for recognition by the world. I want a calling, and I don’t want to fail. At the same time, I wonder if I am being immodest and prideful in a way that will damage my soul or, at the very least, bite me in my hypocritical ass: I want to be a good person, but I also want to be the best. And like Schulz, I want to the be the sole author of my creations, because this provides me with affirmation that I am capable of doing something right as well.

After reading the biography, I was struck by a few thoughts:

  • Schulz, for all his insecurities, persevered through his unhappiness and consistently produced work day-in, and day-out. What drove him was an ideal of customer service he had absorbed from his father, a barber who meticulously found comfort in the daily routine of giving his customers individual attention. In time, Schulz worked it out and found success. My own belief that producing tangible things as a means to create opportunities and connections with people is similar; consistent production of items of value, as appraised by other people, is very important to me. Otherwise, how do people know what you’re capable of?

  • Schulz belated matured, growing out of his boyish ways as he took on responsibilities in WWII. He became a well-liked squad leader because of his intelligence, competence with weapons, and ability to listen to people who learned they could come to him. This is a model of leadership that I like, and it mirrors the sentiments I’ve been reading about in Seth Godin’s Tribes (I have 3 copies of that book now, one for me, and two for loaning to people).

  • If someone as massively successful as Charles Schulz could be deeply unhappy and beset by numerous demons, at least I was in good company. I lack the ability to hold a grudge for very long, and I’m not really that unhappy or depressed at all. But I am at times lonely and isolated, and seek affirmation and understanding. It would be great if I could find that affirmation in myself and be done with it, but there’s something else missing. However, I don’t want to be soooo dependent on external affirmation that I am a slave to it; reading Schulz’s biography has put that scenario into perspective, and I want nothing to do with it. That is itself a self-strengthening realization.

  • There is a commitment to excellence in Schulz’s work, both artistically and in the pursuit of deeper truths. When he first started attempting syndication in the early 1950s, people tried to get him to steer his creations in more “popular” directions; his own mother suggested that he needed to draw sexier girls. But Sparky stuck to his guns, and when Peanuts (nee “Li’l Folks”) debuted in the 1950s, his work was regarded as a kind of anomaly in comics of the time. His audience grew steadily, then explosively, over the next 25 years, and it is (I imagine) because his work wasn’t made to appease the surface desires of a large audience, but because he constantly pursued personal truths in himself and in his observations of the times. His art was the means through which he strove to portray these truths as clearly as possible. For myself as a blogger and writer, I’ve struggled with the ideas of writing shorter, easier-to-digest, more digg-able, top-ten list style posts for the purpose of growing audience, but I don’t. I’m well aware that I could write shorter and more concise articles, but there is something about the way that I write now that is truthful to myself; creating shorter articles that jump right to the point is a different product entirely, one that will come later. I am still very much in my formative years as a writer, deciding what truths matter to me, and learning to express them to unknown people far away. My best days are yet to come; this is the lesson I’ve learned from Schulz’s biography. Artistically, I now have the sense of purpose that I need to keep doing what I’m doing.

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p>What does this have to do with Ground Hog Resolutions? I think they’ve evolved into something else. I mentioned that Ground Hog’s Day is one of my favorite holidays, and this is partly because of the movie Groundhog Day, which is a fantastical movie about self-realization and improvement. In the movie, Bill Murray’s self-centered character moves from surface cynicism to something deeply truthful about himself and his needs. It’s the continual pursuit of these personal truths that, I suspect, drive me. I am compelled to follow them. I have no idea what kind of “business case” I can make for this, but I am making a bet that if I continue to express these truths through my writing, design, and personal interactions, I’ll be OK. And so, I can distill all my future Ground Hog Day Resolutions into a single Master Resolution that goes something like this:

Seek the truthful essence, and make it artfully visible so others can see it too.

So long as I do that every day, in some form, I’ll be doing what I’m supposed to be doing, the equivalent of Sparky Schulz getting up every morning and producing his strip for 50 years.

10 Comments

  1. Y.A. 11 years ago

    Hi David,

    Thanks for not being that 5-bullets-how-to kind of guy that lies too much out there. Your blog is my favorite one because you’re so yourself and so not self-conceited. That makes what you write much more interesting — and also because I’m a work-at-home freelance too that goes through the same non-answered questions and incompatible feelings.

    You mentioned your writing style. I do like it! It remembers me how I write in French: long and twisted but still elegant phrases, like the flight of a butterfly. If it’s how you think and speak, don’t try to change it other way. It would otherwise kind of denature your sayings and you would not get the feeling that it sounds what you mean.

    As for personal truth pursuit, continual disatisfaction and the need for peer understanding, I get to believe its the curse of those who think beyond the edge, like explorators, inventors or artists. And I’m afraid there is no known work-around.

    Do you have that tiny voice in the back that says : “it can’t be right just because it is, there must be a better way”? That’s why you spend so much time in perfectionning your work. And that’s also why you can’t keep from jumping from an idea to another, to go explore unknown lands that may be better or more exciting than what you do know. Both are time and energy consuming.

    If you want to get more things done, I think you have to switch off that part of your brain first and enter into a “dumb mode”, with no thinkings, no feelings, just plain dumb work. Easier said that done. The only way I found to reach that state is to work late at night when I’m too tired to think about other things than or question what I dedicated my time to, and also when I’m drunk ;) But both solutions bring their own load of social and health problems. Not quite sustainable, though.

    Keep up the good work !

  2. Cricket 11 years ago

    I go through fractal cycles, too, somewhat influenced by external events. I try to to take advantage of the best features of each phase of the cycle. When I feel creative, I create. When I am fed up with the state of the housework, I clean. I keep tabs on what needs to be done regardless of phase. I try to be realistic about the amount of work set aside for another phase. I have ways I can reduce or extend the duration, and reduce or enhance the features, of most phases, but there are limits I have to accept. Most importantly, I have faith that, if the current phase is miserable, the next one will be good. That’s expressed very positively—that’s the phase I’m in.

    It’s like the story of Solomon’s Ring. http://www.wscribe.com/parables/pass.html
    I prefer a more optomisitic ending: The King wore it till the end of his days. When he felt grand and powerful, the ring reminded him to be humble. When he felt despondant and worried, the ring reminded him to be hopeful. And with this reminder, the King ruled wisely and fairly.

    I like how Schultz’s father found meaning in the job he had.  I think part of GenX’s problem is the myth that the perfect job exists. It will reliably pay your rent and fulfill your calling and provide meaning and be filled with people you love to work with. We need to work with what we have. It’s more realistic to make the job as fulfilling as possible, and look elsewhere to fill the rest of our needs. Volunteering is a great way to explore other callings which may have more meaning for you. Even if the first few volunteer jobs you take turn out not to be your calling, you will have contributed and made connections.

    I wonder if the Tribes book is related to the Tribes Learning Communitees the school uses. If so, awesome!

    The most important questions for an author are about your intended audience and how you want to affect them. Who are they? Why are they reading? What do you want them to do after reading? Is 100% of those who prefer your format over the popular format better than 5% of those who prefer the popular format? Are some audience members more important than others?

    I find your style is easy to speed-read. You use topic sentences and bold type effectively, both as maps and signposts.

  3. Gilbert 11 years ago

    David, as I was reading your post, Songbird decided I should listen to “You’ve Changed” by Eva Cassidy (off her posthumous “Imagine” album).

    I’d have to agree with @Yoann—don’t change for anybody. The authentic you is much more attractive than anything driven by a formula (for comparison, look at the current state of Disney and then remember it at the creative peak when Walt was still alive and the company had a soul that came through in it films, TV, and amusement parks).

    Reaching back to the discussion about “The Fountainhead”, your job isn’t to make things that make people happy. Your job is to make the things that make you happy and then the people who can and will appreciate it will gravitate toward it.

    You are remarkably talented and I still continue to derive inspiration from your work (Printable CEO and Emergent Task Planning got me thinking about how to streamline my own work and give it the same sense of playfulness that yours shows) and from yourself (shown in your blog and Tweets).

    WRT depression as opposed to unhappiness, depression for me is that glass bell jar that Sylvia Plath wrote about that isolates me from everybody else and makes things seem remote and hollow. It’s an oppressive fog that permeates and dulls everything I see, feel, taste and touch. It leads away from action. Unhappiness, on the other hand heightens my senses and makes me hyperaware of some things. Unhappiness usually forces me into action, frequently without enough thought. Civilization and progress are made by unhappy people who refuse to accept things as they are.

    This also reminds me of the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is dependent on circumstances—people and things can make you happy. Joy is an acceptance of things without regard to circumstances. In the depths of the concentration camps, in the midst of misery, hunger and death, there was joy. Joy comes unexpected and unsought when you take responsibility for the things you did and accept the things you had no control that got you where you are.

    Sorry for the length of this comment. (Is proxlixity contagious?)

    Have a GREAT day!

  4. Elaine 11 years ago

    Dear David,

    I am really glad to have read this post. Thanks for sharing in a genuine way. I found your site after hearing a recommendation for the Printable CEO stuff, and I’ll let you know what I think.

    Just wondering if you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s recent writing in the New Yorker on “Late Bloomers?” I hope it inspires you!

    http://www.gladwell.com/2008/2008_10_20_a_latebloomers.html

  5. Cricket 11 years ago

    That reminds me of Bujold-McMaster’s Chalion trilogy. Best read in order published. Two of the protagonists are ready for a quiet retirement. Even the youngest is looking forward to leaving the physical stuff for the next batch.

  6. Dave Seah 11 years ago

    Thanks for the thoughtful and encouraging comments, everyone! I’m glad that I struck a chord with some of you. I wonder how many subscribers I’ve lost though ;-)

    Y.A. “Dumb Mode”…I like it :-) I try to trick myself into it by dropping all expectations, but it’s hard…something for me to work on! I find since writing this post that I haven’t been so preoccupied with what’s the right thing to do, because I feel like I have a good handle on it.

    Cricket: I like the idea of the modified Solomon’s Ring.

    Part of me wonders if I really want to even things out with rationality and perspective, instead wanting to hurtle (or waddle) with all available speed toward a singular destination that’s fulfilling. I feel like I can now act to accrue constantly over time, through highs and lows, rather than to comfort myself nowing I can get through things. But perhaps I’m deluding myself…I’ll have to think about this some more.

    I’m not sure I agree about the most important questions about audience are intended audience and how to affect them. This reminds me of something I heard about someone who wanted to be “interesting” to people; it’s far better, said the wise man, to be “interested” in people. That really struck a chord with me.

    Gilbert: That statement regarding the difference between happiness and joy…wonderful! Thanks! I do like the idea also of allowing myself to make what makes me happy; it’s sometimes hard to remember what that is.

    Elaine: Awesome link! It was very inspiring, thanks for sharing it!

  7. Cricket 11 years ago

    Ah, but to be interesting to people, you have to know what interests them—in other words, be interested in them.

    And you’re right about needing to keep moving rather than bob about in one place, but it’s a different sort of movement. When the wind falters, we can rest and mend the sails, so we’re ready to take full advantage of the wind when it blows again. We can also check the weather forecast—maybe paddling is the better option.

  8. Katrina 11 years ago

    Can’t write much this visit, so here is the short version.

    – I love the way you write, it feels like it is the way you talk.  So I can hear it as a conversation from a friend and fellow traveler.

    – Yeah, we all have cycles.  Hurray to you for discovering yours!

    – Re:Gilbert, I call it inexplicable joy.  It is the juice that feeds me and leads me.

    – I am working very hard at not trying to *make* anyone happy, I think happiness is a by-product of pursuing joy.  And joy can be found almost anywhere.

    Katrina

  9. Ben 11 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    write what feels authentic and truthful to you. It mighn’t be to each reader’s taste, but truthfulness and authenticity is better than shallow slickness.

    Also what is more important the goals to be completed, or the lessons learnt on the way?

    One of the paradoxes of life is that oneself is the best affirmer of one’s efforts, while oneself is also one’s harshest critic of one’s efforts. I’ve been wrestling with this paradox for the majority of my life and will continue to wrestle with for the rest of my life. So you’re not alone in this.

    Cheers

  10. William Seville 11 years ago

    Two points

    1. If you want to be really good it takes ten years of obsessive behaviour.  And good mentors.  Success also requires some right place/right time as well.

    2. Motivation is a problem for anyone who is not either narcissistic or a go-getter (and the later have to avoid busy-work aka OCD).  Depression has shades of grey but being able to get out of bed is a good start.