A Quiet Reflection on Failure, Part I

As 2012 wanes, I’ve been thinking about the seven year anniversary of my blog-driven, freelance design shot at the big time. In 2005 I’d lucked into blogging, finding it agreeable and rewarding. And with the modicum of recognition I’ve gained for my productivity tool designs I thought, “Hey, maybe I can turn this into an awesome, passionate life! Maybe I should find out!” I’ve written 1700 posts, spanning over a million words according to the word-counting plugin I just installed. Seven years is long enough to complete a Ph.D. program, and this has put me into a reflective mood: What have I learned? What have I contributed to my field of knowledge? Or have I spent seven years to earn a de-facto degree in navel gazing?

At some point I’d like to review those million words, but I’m ready now to make a major conclusion about the time I’ve spent chasing passion: I’ve failed to discover my passion and make it work. I’ve given myself seven years to let nascent opportunities and niche interests twist themselves into the semblance of a passion/love/interest-based work-life balance. I’ve had a few promising ideas, but I noticed this year that I’ve started to repeat some of the same thoughts. This indicates to me that perhaps I’d been doing the same song and dance for too long. I’m ready to move on. I’m tired.

I’m not giving up, mind you. I’ve just come to the conclusion that the ideal work-life balance is the one that you can make work, not a magic bullet or philosopher’s stone. And realizing that it hasn’t worked as I thought it might is quite liberating, as it frees me up to try another approach. So don’t shed any tears for me. This is just part of the assessment process.

Anyway, I’d previously thought that “finding my passion”, “following my bliss”, and “doing what I love” would answer a lot of the nagging questions that bedevil me. For example, if I knew what my passion truly was, I imagined that a whole host of benefits would emerge:

  • I’d want to wake up every day and jump right into work. Every single day.
  • I’d find inspiration and motivation inside of me.
  • I would have clarity and certainty about what I wanted to do, and what direction to move in.
  • I would be energized, happy, and at peace doing what I loved.

I’ve had moments of this, but they have been as fleeting as they were exciting. To reliably have these feelings recur, I’ve found there are cycles of work and applied effort, and even then the cycle is not guaranteed to remain. I recently was re-reading the second and third parts of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, an excellent book about the difficult nature of doing creative work. These are the parts about getting serious about applying the same standards of professionalism to your creative work that you do with your day job, and the necessity for putting in the hard time so that the Muses take note of your efforts. The last part a little “out there”, but I have firmly come to believe it this month. Before, I thought my own cleverness would get me out of the tedium of working hard and stupid. It’s only now, as I’m feeling somewhat defeated, that these chapters are suddenly making a lot more sense.

I have been more appreciative of hard and stupid with the completion of NaNoWriMo, the national novel writing adventure that a few hundred thousand people steel themselves for every November. The challenge is to write 50,000 words in a first draft of a novel in 30 days. The point isn’t to write a good novel, though. The point is to start something and finish it by working on it every day. To get to 50,000 words you need to write a minimum of 1667 words every day, which is a pretty significant commitment. Being pretty confident of my typing speed, I did no preparation on story, character, locale, or plot so I could experience the full-on challenge of writing from scratch. I learned right away that when you don’t know your character’s first name, you quickly get stuck. It was a challenge to scramble to fill those first few thousand words, and also demoralizing. However, I disabused myself of the notion that I was going to write a good novel, and just focused on the process of producing those 1700-odd words every day first thing in the morning. And you know what I learned? If you’re writing terrible stuff, and you push through it despite you wanting to ditch it and start a new, you find ways of digging yourself out so it’s less terrible. That in itself is wonderful. And if you keep at it, chipping away at the problem, something eventually happens. I did come up with a few interesting ideas that I could develop further in a rewrite of the story, now that I know what it’s about, and that is the writing lesson takeaway. NaNoWriMo is a perfect example of the creative process: you start out not knowing jack, uncertain and unsure. But you push on and scratch out something and see what you got. And then, you work with what you have to push forward some more. After a while the unfamiliar becomes more familiar, and opens new avenues of exploration. It is the process of learning without expectation, fortified with the intention of seeing where it ultimately goes.

I think I could have told you that this was how the creative process worked even a few years ago, but I would have been telling you something I understood intellectually; I hadn’t really experienced the process without doubt about my ability to achieve effortless excellence. NaNoWriMo is one of the first times that I’ve gone through the creative process without worrying about it, and discovered that excellence is the eventual byproduct of putting in the time. Again, DUH…I could have told you that years ago, but I would not have been speaking from true belief or experience. I believed that the pursuit of excellence was an unpleasant, tedious task that I didn’t want to put myself through, because it was hard and I therefore wasn’t naturally suited toward it. I would have tried to think of a clever way to bypass all the boring parts. But now, I’m starting to embrace the idea of doing the work, if only because I’ve exhausted all the tricky ways that I have previously used to bypass the dull-seeming bits. So I’m ready to buy-in: all the “good stuff” that I want, it seems, can only be had if I push through the obfuscating clouds of uncertainty to see what is on the other side. I won’t know unless I do the work of pushing through to see what’s there.

There is one trick, actually, that has helped me. I think of it as de-emotionalizing my response to work.

In the past, I allowed myself to think of work as either “fun” or “tedious”. Washing the dishes? BORING! Setting up a business banking account? TEDIOUS! Learning modern Javascript and HTML web technologies? MIND NUMBING and TIME CONSUMING! I’ve tried to find ways around learning that stuff by outsourcing, partnering, and communicating with like-minded folks but you know what? Those things don’t go away. I find that if I choose to NOT have an emotional reaction to “cleaning the cat box”, it’s a lot easier to deal with. And now that I realize that I really DO need to learn more about HTML and Javascript so I can start building those systems I wish existed, de-emotionalizing my response to THAT is essentially. Applying the daily NaNoWriMo-like attention to it, following that old piano teacher saw that practicing 5 minutes a day is better than 30 minutes a week. Why? Mindfulness, I suspect. Daily engagement is important for maintaining continuity, and boy do I need myself two heaping scoops of that goodness.

So that is where my head has been recently. It’s the end of an era of a certain naivete on my part, and the dawn of a new age of certainty about what works for me. Though I technically regard the past seven years as a failure to achieve the kind of passionate clarity I wished for, I have nevertheless ruled out a lot of things that didn’t stick or didn’t work. And I have the inkling of an idea that the reason I couldn’t find my passion is because it doesn’t exist yet. Not as a searchable keyword, anyway. Maybe it is the New David Seah Movement that I’m formulating, and its qualities are SO unique to me that there are no labels for it yet. And that might be what I’m truly passionate about, this unknown, unlabeled, yet-to-be-discovered grand unified theory of self-mastery…

Time to come up with a new plan :)

Articles in the "Quiet Reflection on Failure" Series

I wrote these articles in 2012 after spending 7 years pursuing my 'Groundhog Day Resolutions' goals, and not feeling that I'd gotten very much done. What followed was a deep dive into motivation that ended up clarifying quite a lot!

  • Part 1, in which I ask myself what I've been up to for 7 years.
  • Part 2, in which I probe the nature of what I'm thinking of as "failure" to gain some sense of closure before moving on.
  • Summary of Part 1 & 2, a distillation of the main points in parts 1 and 2.
  • Part 3, in which I probe some possible new directions.
  • Part 4 Conclusion