Facing the Blankness

SUMMARY: I’ve decided to be a stationery designer…yay! But I’m finding it tough to put it into action, despite having the freedom to do so. I outline several stages of realizations as I drill down to a point just shy of having a to-do list.

I declared my intention to “be a stationery designer” this year, and now that the initial excitement has worn off I’m facing several realities:

  1. It’s going to take time. It will probably take more than a year to see how this ultimately shakes out. In the meantime, I’ll need to maintain the other business: that of being a designer/developer for interactive.

  2. I’ll need to do the unpleasant work. The fun parts alone aren’t enough to build a support structure that will allow the stationery designer to have fun. The biggest hurdle I face is just talking to people to tell them what I can offer them. The second hurdle is putting together the supply chain and accounting methods to make sure that I’m doing OK.

  3. I’ll need to self-motivate and execute on the unpleasant work. A lot of the work I need to do is clear in its utility, but ambiguous in process details. For example, I know I need to find and talk to retailers to expand the market for my stationery, but I’m not exactly sure what to say.

So what’s stopping me? I’m facing a mixture of uncertainty and fear: the uncertainty is in what to do, and the fear is related to rejection and appearing foolish.

Facing The Blankness

Although the above diagnosis seemed to capture the true essence of my blockage, it didn’t really help me see a solution. So, I went to Starbucks yesterday to clear my head, sitting in the corner chair with my eyes clamped shut and my hand furiously scribbling down thoughts as they occurred. The very first thing I wrote was BLANKNESS, because I had no clue what to write at first. I then dubbed it THE BLANKNESS, for emotional drama, and then realized that it is NOT malicious. It’s merely the unprocessed form of opportunity, the raw idea that need to be somehow converted into something that actually works. The feeling of blankness is like having the idea to make an incredible cake, then acquiring a bag of flour without the foggiest idea about what to do with it.
  • The Blankness offers no helpful suggestions.
  • The Blankness does not let you know if you are doing things the right way.
  • The Blankness doesn’t give a crap about what you want.
  • The Blankness doesn’t want anything on its own.
  • What you do with The Blankness is entirely your fault.
There are lots of ways to deal with The Blankness. You could go work for someone who already processes it and get a job following someone else’s instruction. Or you could acquire the knowledge yourself, find the right recipes, and go into business for yourself. The way I seem to be doing it is through exploration, creating my own recipes from scratch because I’m stubborn that way. This is more difficult, slower, and possibly an inefficient use of my time, but I think this is where I am. I’m like the erstwhile baker who has acquired all the equipment I need to open a bakery, but haven’t figured out how to operate it to keep things humming along while generating a sustainable revenue stream. I scribbled down four structuring statements in an attempt to define some operational parameters:
  • To do good work in a timely fashion in a predictable manner.

  • To produce longer-form, meticulous, and excellent works that stand up to scrutiny.

  • To be in control of my own time and impulses, maintaining balance and sustainable productivity.

  • To find the joyfulness in work, and put playfulness into my processes.

These are principles that I think will lead to the production of excellence. They do not, however, tell me what to do. So let me add some operational intention, the justification for having principles in the first place:

  • To maintain a production queue of things that can be released to the world as “finished”.

  • To pick specific tasks that, when they are completed, add to the assets that a successful stationery designer would have: revenue, products, delighted buyers.

Doing is Hard when You Don’t Know What to Do

I can make up some tracking forms for this, make lists, and develop some good habits to try and maintain my energies. However, I also need to acknowledge that DOING things is hard when you don’t know exactly what it is you’re doing. This is where a lot of the theory about definition and focus collapses for me. Definition and focus, I think, come in hindsight. To get to that place, my current belief is that I’m missing two qualities:

  • Mental perseverance in the face of uncertainty, so you discover what you should be doing. Especially necessary when there is no recipe to follow.

  • Enjoyment of the process. Necessary for maintaining maximum energy and momentum, and to some extent for excellence.

Right now, as I’m writing this blog post, I am actively fighting the mental perseverance issue. I feel myself getting very sleepy, which I have come to recognize as a physical reaction I have when doing something difficult or uncertain. Pushing past this is a decision I have to make. I have forced myself to reread this post over and over until it starts to make sense. And it IS starting to make sense, in a top-down fashion. And interestingly, I am re-energized. The mental fatigue has vanished…it was a manifestation of uncertainty, apparently. Amazing how real it feels. The lack of enjoyment, on the other hand, is something of a surprise. I’ve been seeing work as a grim exercise of willpower, not a joyful exploration and packaging of experience. If there’s anything I know, it’s that joyfulness is one of the best parts of being alive. I have tended to judge my work based on value, utility, and timeliness I can bring to my clients. While I think the sentiment is appreciated, it doesn’t lend itself to creating joy. There are a different set of attitudes and control mechanisms that go with the value/utility/timelessness formula; they may be more familiar if you think of the old contractor maxim, “cheap, good, fast: pick any two.” It’s a defensive, negotiation-based approach that I find stressful at times. I can’t get entirely away from it, but I certainly could stand to think of how joy can actively drive the work process. It is completely necessary if I’m going to make this work.

Facing Imagined Backlash

Finally, I need to make a commitment to a small set of actions. Just typing that sentence out gave rise to a boatload of doubts:
  • What are the right things? I want to choose the ones that give me the most bang for the buck!
  • Will I mess up? Will the effort be wasted?
  • Will I be mocked or judged based on what I tried to do?
  • Will they work quickly and bring in revenue?
  • What if people don’t like it?
  • What if people think I’m wasting their time?
I think when anyone is doing anything that is uncertain and outside the norm of experience, they are going to think these thoughts. They will be thinking in terms of losing credibility, status, acceptance, or reputation. They will cope with this possibility in different ways. My way, apparently, is to write long blog posts about what I’m thinking. This helps me see what I’m facing, and I am hopeful that other people may see something in themselves in it and know that they’re not alone. I’ll tell you right now, I don’t want to cold call retailers and ask them to carry my product. I don’t even know what that means, and I imagine things like having to commit ten thousand dollars I don’t have to take a bet on a production run, or being made to feel small and insignificant. But I also know, having written that out, that I can say “no” to that without any problem. There are always other opportunities. However, those opportunities aren’t going to present themselves unless I go out there and start talking to people. It’s Concrete Goals Tracker rule #2: “Show what you’re doing.”

Coping with Feeling Stupid

I know that there are people who have no qualms about doing things like this, and it may be instructive to imagine what the process might be like for them. It might just be like riding a bike for the first time, allowing yourself to be in the noobie-fear state until suddenly you master it. And then, you are free. The resistance and fear itself are indicators of the magnitude of the reward! As a man in my 40s, I am less embarrassed about asking questions and being bad at stuff when I first start, because I already feel secure in knowing how to do some cool stuff already. However, there are areas where I am very sensitive, and I think it’s related to the desire to be accepted and to fit in. I want to matter and not feel diminished. Joining any kind of club, for example, where there are long-standing members, produces anxiety of this nature. Meeting attractive women creates a similar anxiety. The anxiety I feel in talking-up what I do comes from a lack of confidence in that my work is relevant at all. As I said, I would like to feel like I matter and am not diminished in the eyes of others. I have a few coping mechanisms.
  • The first is recognizing that I don’t need to appeal to 100% of the world. This is a lesson I learned from blogging and back-fitted into my social relationships. I know there are a handful of people out there, maybe 200 or so strong, that actually dig what I’m doing. That’s probably something like half a percent of all visitors. Everyone gets their half-percent, no matter what they do or are into. To put this in another perspective, how many best friends does one have? All friends can’t be best friends. There are a select few, a small percentage of the people you know, that fit in that way. You can probably “get along” with a higher percentage of people, which is nice, but they are not intimately part of your life. The same is probably true of the world of retail I’m entering. That’s just the way things are. You can only go up from your 1/2 percent audience. You just need to meet a lot of people, and show what you’re doing, and keep improving as you go.

  • The second is not to take things so personally. Instead, project the positive beliefs you have outward despite what you think might be coming back. So instead of imagining that people are judging me harshly (which they may well be doing), I can instead choose to ignore them. They’re not in my 1/2 percent, or even in my 10% or 20% audience of simpatico people. That’s OK.

  • When I’m faced with actual combativeness, I can see their point of view and shift into a critical mode. It becomes more of a conversation about perspectives, and agreeing to disagree without disrespecting their opinion. I often learn something. In the cases where it’s just deliberate hostility, I can recognize it and disengage the conversation. However, I do dwell on it for days, and it can be difficult to recover from. That’s when it’s good to know who is in your 1/2 percent. And have a good friend to buy you ice cream.



p>So I’ve identified a bunch of shortcomings, fears, and operational flaws in my 2012 approach. Having identified them, I can see what to do. I can also see it’s nobody’s fault. I’m not going to blame myself…what purpose would that serve?

Operationally, though, I can see that there are changes to make. I have a few new mental tricks to deal with The Blankness, and I recognize I have to commit to doing some difficult specific tasks that, for one reason or another, are rooted in childhood fears and anxieties that I know everyone has.

So let’s see how this goes.