(last updated on April 29, 2014)
Yesterday’s post about sucking it up ended with a declaration of intent: I would wake up no matter what and start the day! And when I woke up, the alarm clock read 6:30AM, which was a little later than my target, but still early! Encouraged, I closed my eyes in contentment and then reconfirmed that it was indeed…1130AM? Apparently my body had a different idea about how much sleep I was to have, hijacked my motivation, and did me in. Bummer. But the day ended up taking a hopeful path.
Serial task switching
I had a 1PM appointment with my music teacher, Angela, for a mutual “project regrouping” session. We met at Bonhoeffer’s, a local coffee shop, where I was planning to work for the rest of the day. What was on her mind was her upcoming professional website, a distillation of her public identity as a music teacher to the most impactful essentials. What was on my mind was maintaining weekly continuity with my music education, despite my piano practice being shoved aside due to my project work.
I suggested that we ping-pong between our individual project discussion in 3-minute chunks, based on my thoughts yesterday regarding merciless time-blocking. In other words, she would get to talk about her immediate web site goals for 3 minutes, and then I would get to talk about my music lesson challenges. To maintain context between switches of topic, we each had a small whiteboard to write on.
Three minutes, as it turns out, is just about enough time to get a thought going and draw it to a tentative conclusion. It’s not enough time, though, to really go off on a tangent because you feel the time pressure. The resulting meeting ended up being rather exciting and dynamic, with excellent momentum and lots of passion. What was surprising, in retrospect, was that the discussion was not disjointed in the least; I would have thought that the “hard context switch” would prevent natural continuity from developing. Angela and I have similar conversational styles, jumping from thought to thought, so this kind of serial task switching may not work for everyone. I could see this working very well, however, in a group brainstorming session. Having the whiteboard to record where we left off was critical, and the dissimilarity of topics may have laid a foundation for creative random juxtaposition. It rocked.
Personal versus impersonal inspiration
When I mentioned to Angela that I believed I needed to close personal connections with people so I could focus on work, she suggested that I find inspiration elsewhere by going to a concert. This would be an intermediate form of human connection; I realized that merely seeing inspiration etched across people’s faces would likely uplift me as well. And there’s another advantage: time-consuming personal conversations are not required. Now, I love having long conversations with people about their lives and their aspirations, but it’s a big time commitment that occupies a lot of my mental reserves. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could draw energy from inspiring public events, and this reminds me of my good friend S, who once told me that she likes to go to noisy public events to “be alone”. It totally makes sense to me in this context; sometimes you need the external source of energy to feel what you need to feel, without having the commitment of a one-on-one human connection. In my case, I am energized by expressive energy, passion, imagination, and inspiration. In the past I’ve gotten that primarily by maintaining very close relationships with multiple people, but as I said there is a time cost.
Counseling the inner child
After Angela left, I settled down to do some programming. The problem was that I was hugely inspired by the quality of the previous communication, but rather less inspired by the world of Visual Studio and C#. I caught myself checking my email, Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr accounts—the automatic impulse to reach out for personal connections—and then stopped myself. The coding mindset requires an unusual clarity and singularity of purpose, and my mind was not cooperating.
I recalled what I had written in my last Groundhog Day Resolutions post about shedding my armor, which had involved a mind-clearing technique I’d made up. The technique had given me a significant bit of insight about myself…maybe it would help clear my mind so I could write the GUI base classes I needed to implement. I jotted down an impromptu process to follow:
- Close my eyes.
- Identify each surface thought, and then respectfully tell each thought to fade away for now.
- Find what feels like the center of my consciousness.
- Note pains, tensions, and other discomforts. If they are not 911-level emergencies, tell them to fade away.
- Try to count up to 33 after getting to this state. This was an arbitrary number I picked.
- See if anything interesting happens.
The experience was like peeling away the layers of an onion. The end result of identifying each thought was that I drew into myself. Once I’d tagged and cleared those thoughts, I was in my own mental space, and could then hear the little discomforts, pangs, and things going on in my body that I usually ignore. I determined whether these discomforts were life-threatening (which they were not), and dismissed them. I never did count up to 33, because I became aware of feelings and impulses that were unnamed and unknown. Strange denizens of the emotional deep, I imagined them, that usually do not see the light of consciousness. I listened.
The foremost emotion, I am almost embarrassed to say, was a desire to cry from an ambiguous feeling of loneliness and abandonment. The second underlying emotion was an unspecific fear of failure, a feeling I was not “measuring up” to anyone and everyone. There they were, wreaking havoc with my sense of self.
A couple of years ago I had the epiphany that I could split myself into a parent and a child. As adults, we’re used to thinking we know how to deal with the complexities of life in a responsible matter. We also crave being in comfort zones of competence and security; this is one measure of how “together” we feel our lives are. When faced with a challenge, we can cope by either telling ourselves a “look on the bright side” story or plan a “this is how I’ll get out of this” escapade. I have a good adult coping mechanism, but yesterday I came to believe that coping treats symptoms, not causes. To treat the cause is to treat all the symptoms with finality. The process starts by finding the root cause of the problem, calling it out, and dealing with it directly. In my case, merely naming these fears was enough. Once named, I could acknowledge that they existed, understand what they indicated, and move onward.
It’s difficult to admit to yourself that you feel like crying because you’re lonely and unconfident about the future. The common wisdom is that this makes you weak, but that’s only the case if you are whining like a victim. This is my situation, as clearly as I can express it:
The boat I’m rowing toward my grand vision is empty except for me, and it sucks because I realize that it’s been empty for a long time and I have no idea if and when the situation will change. My first response was the raw emotional one: the desire to hide and be sad. The optimistic response, however, is to recognize that even though I don’t know the future, that is no reason not to believe in something better. And unlike a child, I have the means and the experience to actually do something about it. All I need is the courage to choose, for myself and for people I can connect with in the future. Even if those steps ultimately fail, even if I’m sad and demoralized, it’s of utmost importance to me that I choose to act. To give up, throw in the towel, escape in personal indulgences, and so forth is to choose failure, and that is not the kind of person I imagine my best self to be. The stories we are all writing about ourselves should not end this way.
I closed all my browser windows and started writing code.