(last edited on April 29, 2014 at 1:25 am)
It’s surprising how much I don’t know about my own creative process, particularly in the context of meeting new challenges. The most surprising part? Just how little it takes for a task to be new to me. I’m really just getting started on the path to developing my process for continuous invention, and this has required a hard look at the four main resistances that are blocking my way.
I just finished the rough draft for the instructions for “Inexpensive Artists Websites II”, my second attempt to provide affordable websites for local artists. I hated the chore of putting it together right up to the point when it was suddenly complete, some 60 hours after I started it. Originally I thought it would take me around 4 hours back in April, and it’s been a mental burden for all this time.
It’s not a particularly stunning piece of design work—I have it here if you’re curious—but the pieces are there and suddenly, I can start approaching artists and having them try it out. That was an option that didn’t exist until yesterday. I knew that this was the whole point of doing the instructions in the first place, but it wasn’t real until I was able to print it out and hand it off to someone.
This got me thinking about the resistances that had plagued me throughout the process.
Our Smug, Adult Selves
I’m 43 years old, and as an adult I feel I am in-command of my life. Mostly. However, I’ve been thinking that this attitude interferes with my ability to learn. As adults, we tend to have the expectation that we’ve already masters of our own destiny, independent and free. We know what we like and what we don’t like, and we know the routine of living independently. We (mostly) get to choose who we associate with, coming and going as we please. When we have a job to do, we know what we’re expected to do and can master it. When the money is flowing, life is pretty damn good. So long as we don’t deviate from the pattern we’ve learned to live with, we do fine.
Over time, the pattern becomes a comfort zone, which can turn into a rut. Getting outside the realm of the familiar means learning new things that you are not good at. This experience can be demoralizing because we’re used to feeling like we’re in charge and knowledgeable, and the feeling of being weak and lost is a sensation we’d sooner avoid in our day-to-day life. Who wants to feel that way? If we have a choice–and as adults we generally have all the choice we need–it’s a lot easier to hop on NetFlix and watch an entertaining movie than feel really dumb.
As a child, lacking choice and feeling really dumb is a lot closer to the daily experience. There is no choice but to suffer through it and develop some kind of mastery and sense of belonging. That mastery can lead to a life-long avocation. When I was 11 or 12, I discovered computers and poured my attention into learning how they worked. I had peers who were trying to figure out what these things could do, and we had knowledge to share. Mastery was palpable through the demonstration what we had learned how to do, and this developed into an attitude of confident curiosity. It’s that mindset that carried me through college, and in the years since I have added onto it. I’m very comfortable with a wide range of computing applications, and it’s my primary comfort zones. Even my graphic design grew out of computing, because it was a comfortable environment for exploration. I never would have gotten into it if I’d had to touch a magic marker or use transfer type. Yuck!
What I’m doing now, though, feels completely different. I want to become an inventor of sorts, a creator of physical things and tangible experiences. Computers may be involved, and they are part of the toolset I can wield to build…well, I don’t know exactly what it is. That’s the new and scary part.
That not-knowing is uncomfortable, because I’ve grown used to feeling like I know what I’m doing. I really don’t like the feeling of being ignorant. I associate that feeling with incompetence. It doesn’t help that I know there are people out there who have mastered the skill of being independent and successful, as this just reminds me that I have a long way to go. And I wonder if I have what it takes, whether there is some difference between me and them that will prove to be my undoing.
Having admitted that, to myself, I can try to identify the sources of uncertainty and squash ’em. That converts not-knowing into self-knowledge, which is just the sort of thing I like to do.
Resistance 1: The Ambiguity of My Own Expectations
So I say I want to be an independent maker of things. The obvious thing to do is to just make lots of things, right? I’ve got a nice collection of forms I’ve designed, and I even have a physical product on Amazon. This is progress! What’s lacking, to use a chess analogy, is a detailed strategy for a successful end game. And because I lack strategy, my middle game suffers from muddled tactics. I’m just pushing pieces around on the board, hoping that something good happens. For example, I make a new form, post it, and see if people like it. That’s not building a business empire.
Here’s the challenge: When I don’t know what the fruits of my labor are going to be, I’m not terribly motivated. And when I don’t know exactly what the rules of the game are, I’m trapped by the feeling of being incompetent and ignorant. I’m not even sure what is supposed to happen in the game, other than some vague sense that “I do the right things, and then success happens”, an expectation imprinted on me by various business magazines. But what are those right things?
There are plenty of people who would be happy to sell me something that they claim is just what I need, and there are plenty of people who give me advice about what I should do, but what it comes down to is me stepping into the unknown and getting comfortable with the discomfort. And to do that, I think the key is to shift my mindset from expectation to exploration. Expectations work great when there is an actual game with actual rules, but last time I checked there is no Game of Dave I can buy. I’m going to have to make it myself. Ditching the chess analogy is probably a good idea. This ain’t chess…this is ADVENTURE!
My stomach hurts just thinking about it…but I’m getting used to it.
Resistance 2: The Foggy Path to Next Action
Sometimes, I am just not sure what to do next because there are SO MANY CHOICES, and the outcome of each choice is difficult to predict. Like most people, I’m naturally wired to want the BEST possible choice; when the choice isn’t clear, uncertainty sets in and motivation suffers.
When I catch myself falling into this cycle, I remember that it doesn’t matter which choice I make, because they all lead to something good. In other words, I will never know ahead-of-time which choice will have been the best use of my time, but I remind myself that ANY action will take me further down the path. Some tricks:
- Adopt the exploration mindset in addition to having expectations. This is helpful especially when the expectation is going to take a long time to come to fruition. I hate waiting, and I’m super impatient. Exploration gives my mind something immediate to latch onto.
- Paying attention–using the mind actively to ask and answer questions from all angles–is what accelerates the learning process. When I am bored by a mundane task, I find I can ask myself a question about it that makes it suddenly more interesting. For other people, turning the chore into a game works. It doesn’t work for me because I tend to see games as systems that are already solved, and that is uninteresting to me. But discovering something I didn’t know before? That’s my catnip.
- There’s that phrase I like, if you knew the answer, what would it be? This is great for getting unstuck, as it encourages a certain seat-of-the-pants approach. If death isn’t likely, not a bad way of breaking out of the shell of uncertainty. Make stuff up! Try it!
- For large and complex tasks, getting started is tough because it’s not clear where the starting point is. That’s when it’s useful to remember that starting anywhere works; you may make a few false starts, but it doesn’t take too long to find a productive path. A mere 5-10 minutes often leads to insights that lead merrily down the road of productive tinkering.
In the process of moving down the path, I move past the fog. What I find on the other side is often unexpected and exciting. I’m shocked at how few times I’ve really done this in my life, having resigned myself to fogginess when it didn’t need to be that way.
Resistance 3: The Anxiety of Potential Poor Performance
Even when I’ve mustered the courage to walk down the path, it’s hard not to wonder what disaster is about to befall me. The one I fear the most is that what I’m making is going to suck. I hate it when I make stuff that sucks. It’s demoralizing and frustrating, and I feel like a failure.
I’m relearning that just slugging it out is a viable option when faced with something I’m not loving. The temptation is to scurry back to a non-challenging, good-feeling place to lick my wounds. It’s easy to read another book or surf the web for inspiring stories. I’ve learned to just stop, roll up my sleeves, and finish the damn thing, to just make it. It will start ugly and incomplete, but I’m surprised at how often this becomes the foundation for learning what makes the beautiful. I suppose elegance needs a foil to be truly appreciated, and the pain of transformation is what makes it real.
Even with that understanding, making ugly stuff takes time, which is incredibly aggravating. I tell myself I’m learning something new, forming new neural pathways that lead to a more nuanced understanding later. As an aspiring architect of awesomeness, I want to make original things that I have never seen before, and I have to remember that my first pass will not always be pretty. It might be pretty good, but I shouldn’t lose heart if it isn’t. Learning something new and being stupid about it is par for the course. Gotta start somewhere.
It’s here where I have to shut off my engineering background, which prefers certainty, and replace it with the spirit of creative synthesis: sure, I don’t know if what I’m going to make will be great, but the challenge of making is part of the process. It is probably going to burn and fill my eyes with smoke and tears, but it will be all the more worthwhile if I stick to it.
So I have to remember to be fearless, and be confident that all the experience I’ve accumulated to date will be available to make the end result as good as possible. The more I do it, the more confident I become.
Resistance 4: The Belief that If It’s Right, It Should Be Easy
I used to think that if I found the perfect thing to do, it would be really easy. Natural! Predestined! Focus would come automatically, and I would rapidly advance toward happiness as all the pieces of my life fell into place.
This might have happened for some people, but it hasn’t happened to me. I’m relearning everything takes effort, particularly the things that are worth doing. Trying to forge a new path for myself is going to be really hard because there are no easy patterns to follow.
Lately I’ve been thinking how skewed the ratio of production time to experience time is when making something truly noteworthy. In our consumer-driven world, we have so many high-quality experiences available at our fingertips that we forget how long it takes to make something great. For example, that perfect 3-minute pop song you just listened to (your experience) took a lot longer than 3 minutes to put together (production). Gaining a realistic sense of how long it takes to make something of quality, I think, is useful in calming my own anxieties over how long it seems to take me to do anything.
When I used to do corporate digital media, we had a rule of thumb to help us estimate cost of production: a minimum of 40 hours per minute was needed to produce just 1 minute of finished animation. That is a ratio of 2400 minutes of work for every minute of experience, and that was for pretty dry corporate animation. Doing something really amazing, like a big Hollywood movie, will take way more time. I’m pulling these numbers out of my butt, but say that 250 people worked full-time for three years, assuming an average rate of pay of $50/hour. That’s 6000 hours per person, for a total of 1.5million hours. Multiply that by $50/hour and you get $75 million worth of crew labor, which seems like it could be in the ballpark for a blockbuster movie with a $200 million budget…anyway, the ratio of 1.5 million hours to 1.5 hours of viewing time is a million to one. Therefore, I can hypothesize that the ratio of production time to experience time ranges from about 1000:1 for “pretty good” to to 1,000,000:1 for “OMG”.
Doing a quick gut check, if the theory holds writing ten minutes of great reading material (about 2000 words, assuming a 200 words per minute reading rate) should take between 10 thousand and 10 million minutes to produce. 10 thousand minutes is 166 hours, which seems pretty high to me, but if that includes research and synthesis, maybe that’s believable…but I digress. The point is that it takes many more hours of time to produce an experience than the actual time it takes to enjoy it. The better that experience is, the more time it probably took to make it. Sure, sometimes serendipity and synchronicity drops something amazing in our laps, but waiting for that to happen is not a strategy. I want to make things happen on my own terms; it’s helpful to remember that the effort takes time. Lots of time. Knowing that, I can prepare myself mentally for the work.
That sums up my thoughts on the resistances I’ve been facing. I’ve still got a ton of work to do on the websites project, but I’m starting to get a sense of pacing for it. It’s starting to get exciting! Can I apply the lessons learned to the projects that are lingering on my todo list? I’m hopeful.
Once again I feel like somehow you managed to assess the tangled yarn in my brain and managed to unravel it to reveal clarity and insight. Thank you, thank you!!
“What’s lacking, to use a chess analogy, is a detailed strategy for a successful end game. And because I lack strategy, my middle game suffers from muddled tactics. “
You somehow have the ability to slow-motion your thought process and write out what you thought a split second ago. It is so comforting to read line by line, the analytics of our thinking process. I keep coming to your blog for many years, just for THIS kinda stuff. Thanks for this Dave. :) By the way, I’m a perfectionist-procrastinator too, trying to find super efficient solutions. I’m still to en-grain this idea, that starting ANYWHERE is the key to progress, instead of finding the critical path to success.
Your documentation on the mini-websites is extraordinary, Dave — I had a look last night. Your ability for self-reflection is also beyond what I’ve seen before. I love how your mental focus goes back and forth between process and product!
Side note: Any way you can make these posts Facebook-likeable directly rather/in-addition-to than clicking through to your Fb page, then liking your post regarding the article?
OTOH, this was so good I did both :)
Bev: Yay, glad you liked it! Though I’m thinking that the analogy isn’t strictly applicable when you’re making up your own rules as you go. I’m not sure what that would be called. Improvisation?
Arun: Wow, thanks for the feedback! I sometimes wonder if these kinds of posts just drive people away, but I’m glad to know that you are enjoying them. I’ll keep doing them!
Elise: Thanks for the vote of confidence! :)
Greg: Heh, OK! I have added FACEBOOK LIKE tech to the blog.
Dave: I also keep coming back to your site for that kind of posts. It’s really inspirational, so please keep writing if you can.
This is the new must-read for my teaching residents.
Dave, add me to the list of appreciative readers. I think this post is very insightful. Your four points definitely resonate with me. I suspect that there’s some overlap between accountants and engineers ‘ brains ;-). In the spirit of Point #4, it’s taken me a fairly ridiculous amount of time to compose a comment that I felt was worthy of your post!