It occurred to me today that a lot of my barriers to productivity comes from a misunderstanding of how adventure works. I have the desire to have achievements of an epic nature, and it’s really easy to imagine the Oscar-award winning version of the movie playing out. The only problem is that movies are highly-edited pieces of distilled experience, capable of conveying years of effort into a few seconds. Most books and movies don’t detail days of waiting, being stuck, or otherwise lost and without recourse. That would be boring. Instead, movies highlight selected moments that draw us into the world through cinematic spectacle, underscored emotionally with stirring soundtracks and deft editing. It’s exciting! There is a constant barrage of inspirational stories, themselves highly-condensed versions of a person’s epic struggle, that together warp my sense of time and effort.
The reality is much different.
The Adventuring Life
I’m not really the kind of person who likes traveling to new places and exploring them without some kind of plan, and in that sense I’m not very adventurous. Instead, I travel so I can have a first-hand encounter with the original source of concepts that have captured my imagination. A simple example of this would be traveling to a restaurant that has some claim to fame, such as serving the world’s best Whoopie Pie (rumored to exist somewhere in Maine) or a great regional roast beef sandwich (Nicks Roast Beef, in Beverly Massachusetts). Largely, I travel to feed ideas and interests that I already have, and they tend to be pretty specific.
On a related note is my desire to create works of conceptual epicness. Great software! Effective and beautiful design that moves hearts and minds! This desire is what motivates me to learn, and it also frustrates me because it just takes so long. The frustration is a result, I think, my media maker’s mindset: storytelling—and by extension, communications design—is my profession, and I understand the world through this lens. This approach emphasizes the highest highs and the lowest lows to create dramatic tension, with expectations raised only to be toppled by the character-building challenges that were ominously foreshadowed in Act I and then resolved by Act III.
The very act of thinking about my work in this way, while useful for highlighting the critical plot and character development points in my creative life, diminishes the time and effort aspect. There’s a huge difference between the minutes it takes to watch the dramatization someone’s life story and the lifetime of experience has took to accumulate that much material. I really need to recalibrate my life experience time scale from “Story” to “Realtime”. Realtime is the raw unedited footage. Achievement, to extend the analogy, is the relatable and thought-provoking story that can be told in a few minutes of well-edited documentary.
Here’s the movie that is playing in my head.
- I have an idea
- I work on it, learning what I need to know
- I find a few lucky breaks that are what I need
- Maybe I meet the right people and find a new direction
- After the building montage, the idea is released on the world
- Failure ensues, but there is a silver lining!
- Eventually, the idea makes it out to the world in a refined form
- It is well-received, and success creates a new stage of creative independence in my life.
It’s so easy to write an outline like this. The reality of it is that each of these “plot points” is incredibly messy and unpredictable. Start with the first plot point, “having an idea”. This is probably the most exciting part of starting a dream, having the idea in the first place. The movie writes itself, at least in outline form. But we’re forgetting the hours of drudgery that gave rise to the idea, and what about the “working on it” part? Most of the time, not a lot is happening, and this seems like stuff that should be edited out of the final cut. Really, who is patient enough to sit through 20 hours of someone ping-ponging back and forth between subtle variations of an idea? Not me! Not even if I’m doing the work in realtime. I want things to hurry along and get resolved. I want to see what happens next.
This is utterly the wrong attitude to have, and I think it’s one of the contributors to my procrastinating ways. The story feels wrong, too slow-paced and bloated with momentum-crushing detail. It’s not going the way it should be, the production is not going well, and time is ticking. This makes me feel incompetent as well…shouldn’t I have been able to nail it in one take if I were as good as I thought I should be?
It’s time to let those feelings go. As a source of anxiety and self-recriminatory analysis, they do me no favors.
Changing The Model
Let’s look at the reality of the experience, the real-time footage that I’m just beginning to understand is, really, the way of it:
- Wanting the work to be awesome from the first stroke, but it ends up not very exciting instead.
- Not having an idea of what to try first, or how to start, or how long it will take, or if it will even work.
- Finding the work distasteful
- Facing hours of preparation followed by trial-and-error, only to find that it doesn’t work.
- Discovering again and again that progress takes longer due to circumstances you can’t control, or because you haven’t had the insights you need, regardless of your own desires.
I have ways to deal with each of these challenges, but I had never shaken the idea that something wasn’t working right because I was taking too long. I was drained by the frustration and negativity I was feeling from living my life, and this bitterness was created by my own story-lovin’ sensibilities.
The adventure begins when I own-up to this mistake. Long dusty roads that seem to go nowhere is part of the adventure. The hours of study and training that go into building my character into a protagonist that’s a force to be reckoned with. The days and days of trials against stubborn code libraries and bad documentation. I had seen these as problems to be optimized away, but I see them now for what they are not: parts of my experience that need to be edited-out, otherwise I’m wasting my time and blowing my shooting budget on sequences that add nothing to the final cut.
Nope! Keep the cameras rolling and capture everything. It’s part of the creative process, including every dull moment and seemingly-wasted effort along with the creamy highs and devastating lows that make for good reality television. This is the adventure! This is the job! Let’s see if this helps me improve my attitude toward the work. There is certainly a lot of it; any improvement will help.