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.
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.