A Menagerie of Resistance Monsters

A Menagerie of Resistance Monsters

SUMMARY: I’m getting a jump on next week’s task of adapting prior design work into some digital download form, but I’ve been here for what seems like MONTHS. What’s wrong? I debug my resistances to this specific task by naming demons, which are cancerous forms of otherwise-good intentions.

It’s a beautiful Sunday here in New England, but I’m at my favorite Starbucks. The reason I’m here instead of playing outside is that I’m pulling myself together for one good charge forward toward my personal productivity goals. Lest you feel sorry for me for being inside, this Starbucks has two enormous floor-to-ceiling windows that meet at the corner table, buttressed by a bit of wall that acts to block the sun. I am bathed in light and surrounded by people to watch. It’s very much like being at an air-conditioned beach, with the gentle roar of cars ebbing and flowing in the distance as sunbathers bask in the reflecting sandy white concrete. The barristas, who all know my name, are behind the counter getting stuff done as Reggae music thumps out of the overhead speakers. I can’t think of another place that is such a powerful intersection of comfort, noise, familiarity, possibility, and humanity.

That said, the coming battle is meeting what my friend Colleen calls The Resistor, her personification of all that stands in the way of everything she wants to do. I’m borrowing her personification because I don’t have my own yet, and I think now’s the time to label some internal demons. Perhaps I have watched too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I think labeling a personal demon is kind of like knowing its true name and gaining power over it. And, magical rationalization aside, human beings do seem to draw comfort from being able to say what something is with certainty.

But I digress…this month’s task, as I stated in my Groundhog Day Resolutions earlier this month, is to create digital download versions of the PCEO for sale. This is the second of three income-generating strategies I’m pursuing in 2010, and despite the financial promise of this goal I find I am facing great resistance. Or rather, I’m finding myself procrastinating HARD, and I am not exactly sure why. So, I aim to name the root causes into submission and hopefully press on.

Dante’s Procrastinatory

First of all, I have to admit that my gut reaction to the idea of making digital downloads for sale feels lame. After some reflection, I think it’s because I tend to want to give everything away instead. I can probably point a finger toward my missionary upbringing for that. It took me 40 years to realize it, but my family’s immediate circle of friends and relatives is filled with rather exemplary individuals. I don’t think I’ve seen any of my close relatives ever ask for anything; they constantly worked and gave without making a big deal of it. That’s the environment that wordlessly shaped me. You’d think I would have followed them into the missionary work, but in my younger days my attention instead was imprinted on the small minority who constantly asked for stuff, demanded special attention, and expected recognition and adulation for little work in return. Instead of following the quiet, positive work of the makers, I was quite incensed by the injustices that the organization seemed to allow from a handful of self-entitled jerks. The weird and baffling side-effect: the very idea of asking for things goes against my youthful conditioning, which subconsciously associates “wanting things from people” with “being an asshole.” Instead, my subconscious believes the way to earn something is NOT to have want for it. WEIRD AND MESSED UP, I know. And the name of this feeling is Purity. Who would have thought something like this would stand in my way? I was expecting Darth Vader, not June Cleaver.

A second manifestation of resistance: the digital downloads I am planning are untested and unreviewed, and I never feel comfortable offering something that I can’t say has been tested scientifically or tied to observable principles. The upshot of this discomfort is that I want to seek its comforting opposite: I want to offer a guaranteed solution that is based on sound research and a refined methodology. For now, however, I can only offer anecdotal evidence based on my personal experiences. The resistance I’m feeling is the thought that I need to be more scholarly in my approach, perhaps going back to school for a Ph.D. in Social Neuroscience or something like that. But the counter-reasoning is that I know I don’t need that kind of credibility to make things, and a great deal of the academic experience is expensive overhead; I’ve been through grad school twice already, and am still paying for it. I suspect someday I’ll go back to study, but now is not the time. There is a lot I can do on my own recognizance. I shall name this feeling of not having enough or not being enough Nakedness. In spite of the sense of vulnerability, I know that I should accept the consequences of what I put out there under my own name. I’m very conscious of this and ordinarily have no trouble with it when the consequences are are largely limited to myself. This is, however, feels somewhat broader.

The third form of resistance: the entire process of making these digital downloads is boring and unfun. I’ve been sloughing through my list of things to do, and it feels very tedious. To top it off, I’m not entirely sure what I am making, because I can make practically anything. It doesn’t help that I have those two other demons hanging around, creating a feeling that I’m going down the wrong path. There are also unknowns that I’m not looking forward to solving because they are practically guaranteed to be frustrating. First, the digital download e-commerce side of things is new to me and I’m anticipating at least a few hours fighting the system to make it work the way I want due to a lack of documentation and flexibility. Then, I have to design an HTML shell that works around them AND looks good. The real clincher is that I have only a foggy idea of how it will function, therefore I can’t imagine what will make it look good. Did I mention also that it’s sunny outside, that there’s plenty of stuff to watch on NetFlix, and I have not yet seen Ironman 2? There are two resistance demons that I can name here: Guaranteed Frustration for Unknown Reward applies to the unfun side, and The Hooky Monster is all too happy to suggest things I can do to escape the drudgery.

The fourth form of resistance I can identify comes from prior experience: I am in for at least 8 hours of frustratingly-slow progress that will, sadly, result in a mediocre-looking product. I’ll have to spend another 12 hours tweaking it. Although I know intellectually that this is the price of creation, I’m still loathe to buy into it. Perfectionism expresses itself by saying that I shouldn’t do anything that is not innovative and beautiful, and since I’m not sure what that IS in this case, I am stuck in a cycle of frustration.

The final form of resistance I’m seeing is subtle, because he’s in charge right now: Reason. While I’m thinking about the problem, I’m not acting. I am hoping, though, that the result of this hour diversion will be a strategy that I can put into effect. I must be careful not to fall in the trap of thinking that the act of identification is actually a form of progress. Emotionally I think it’s a good self-diagnostic exercise, but what matters to my future self is getting the stuff done. I must apply my self-reflection process in a manner that promotes action as soon as I’m done writing this post.

I think that’s pretty much all the resistances I can identify, and I’m already exhausted. Taking a deep breath, getting a coffee refill…

Rallying Against the Monsters

So how do I disenfranchise the monsters of resistance?

First, paraphrasing what Colleen pointed out to me recently, I recognize that these feelings are always going to be part of me, which I think is a reasonable baseline assumption. And I can’t help but notice that each monster has a good side; it’s just that too much of a good thing tends to become cancerous. Purity, for example, is a wonderful ideal, but the world of commerce is not an ideal place for it; strict purity becomes a barrier to entry. Likewise, Nakedness raises the valid concern that I am overly exposing myself; by not providing a guaranteed solution backed by years of accredited scholarship, I am opening myself to reputation-destroying ridicule. And Perfectionism? It is the well-appointed political lobby for Excellence over all else. That leaves two monsters that are actually more primal in nature: “Guaranteed Frustration for Unknown Reward” and “The Hooky Monster”. Together, they are the desire to escape to something easier when confronted by any form of resistance. I could label them together as either “Comfort” or “Cowardice”, the two negative aspects of procrastination that causes me to question my own character. However, I am also pretty sure that everyone experiences these feelings in some aspect of their life. As an animal, humans are not naturally inclined to seek discomfort, and we are also wired to seek tangible reward NOW over reward in the future. These are very primitive urges, as books such as Stumbling On Happiness will tell you. The difference is that we have the ability to choose. And having gotten all the way to this point in my reasoning, it’s exactly here that I’m stuck. The insight does me no good at all.

Or does it? I know I have the ability to choose. Lots of people have the ability to choose. The problem always comes down to having the motivation to exercise the choice to completion when that choice is completely optional: self-improvement is not a matter of doing what your boss is asking you to do, finishing a contract, or fulfilling a family obligation. Those are all external motivators. And so it is doubly frustrating when I have the time and end up doing other things that I know that are not in the best interest of my future self. This is a cycle that I must break, but it is at the expense of something that I value and enjoy. It’s selfish, and I’ve been somewhat conditioned against this by my kindergarten teacher and all the beautiful and generous people that contributed to my upbringing. But you know what? I think it’s OK. I do. I keep telling myself that, anyway. For me to be strong enough to do the things I want to do in the future, which includes those people, I need to make the time for myself. That’s the what the monsters have been trying to keep me from.

With that out of the way, the first deal I need to make is to recognize that I want to be comfortable and I would prefer to have the reward right now. There are many ways to trick myself into making this medicine easier to swallow, but I KNOW they are all tricks and therefore they have lost power. I find it easier to accept that yes this sucks and then choose to be a grown-up about it. The discomfort won’t last forever, and I have control. By choosing to act, I accept I have control of my future. And the second part of this deal is to know that you’re deliberately choosing yourself, and that for this to stick in the face of comfort, other people’s needs, and sheer uncertainty…you have to stay the course if you want to make it through to the other side. Although I don’t have a real visceral feel for what it’s like on the other side of this task, I know that being there is where I want to be. Time to hold my breath and make the dive. I am on the very end of the diving board, looking down. Commit or get off, something whispers to me. Hoo, boy.

The next deals I need to make are with the individual demons, and the approach I’m taking is to balance them out with complementary truths, and speak to them directly:

  • Purity – Purity, I know you believe that giving genuinely is the highest form of being a good person. For the David Seah Unit (DSU) to survive, however, we must accept that we are not self-sustaining and must seek replenishment ourselves. To maintain purity, we can offer digital downloads and tell people exactly what they are and what we believe to be true about them, no hype. If people like them, they’ll buy them. We are not coercing anyone. We can still do the best job we can, and see revenue as a form of appreciation. I know it feels wrong, but purity can also be carried through practicing transparency of our intention. Not everyone will get it, but we shall do our best.

  • Nakedness – I know that you’re worried that we might be making the DSU vulnerable to ridicule, or that we are selling something that will not actually help people in the way they hope. However, like I just told Purity, we can tell people exactly what we’re selling and trust that they are capable of making their own decisions. This is a form of respect, and at the same time we can be good sports about it. So just start offering the goods, label them simply, and we’ll figure out how to build the product line to cover those areas which are exposed. That will take more research and development, and the products will improve in time.

  • Perfectionism – I know you want everything we do to be imbued with Excellence and add resoundingly to The Legend of David Seah, but you know as well as I that the way that we will earn that is through long practice. It is foolish to wish for mastery and not want to put in the work. So, we must put in the time and iterate our way to the end. We will not succumb to shortcuts, because we expect the same level of commitment from our heroes. Like I told Nakedness, there will be more R&D to improve the products over time. Iteration is the key to good design; we can’t know everything ahead of time. Perfectionism is shaped over time, through risk and hard use. To walk the path toward Excellence is more noble than being labeled Excellent.

  • Reason – Yes, these are all tremendously insightful suggestions. But there is a time when insights stop and action begins. Now that you understand what’s going on in our head, it’s time to shift into tactical execution mode, and let the body start doing things. In other words, you must relinquish control once the emotional monsters have been defanged and clarity of action has been re-established.

Tactical Execution Mode


p>The working principles are set:

  • Don’t worry about how it looks. Just make it, and accept it’s an iterative process.
  • Defer the need for instant gratification. It’s just a few hours, and the result is something that we can use to move toward our goals of independence.
  • Let the work speak for itself, and do not apologize for what it is not. It is an iterative process of continued refinement, and this is the way of Excellence.
  • Don’t worry if you don’t know how it will come out. It’s an iterative process. And remember, the first iteration is the sacrificial one that leads to further iteration. You can pretty much start anywhere, and then adjust to get closer to what you want through progressive refinement.
  • It’s a blessing to have the choice to do what I do, and by making that choice I am walking a path of independent will that I believe in. I make myself stronger with every choice I carry through.

That said, the first order of business is to build something that can stand by itself. We shall see what Monday morning brings.