Summary of “A Quiet Reflection on Failure”

I wrote this summary to see more clearly what the patterns of my complaint were about. Onward in Part III!


In 2005, I used blogging, an activity I found I enjoyed, as the starting point in a search for an “awesome, passionate life”. I wrote over a million words, documenting everything I found interesting or thought-provoking. By the end of 2012, I was not sure what I had accomplished. Had I wasted a lot of time?

My initial analysis: I failed to discover my passion and “make it work”. While I have had some success, it now seems that I am going in circles. It does not feel like I have attained the object of my search. I am dissatisfied.

I am not giving up on my search. The conclusion I made is that the “ideal work-life balance” is the one that can be made to work. It isn’t found and practiced, as I may have presumed. It is made through consistent practice.

Previously, I believed that gaining clarity on what my passion, bliss, and loves were would help answer questions I had about my place in life. The work, then, would become easy. I have not found this to be the case. However, I am still not sure what my “passion” is. When I discovered something that felt like passion, it was fleeting. To have these experiences regularly, I needed to put energy into having them.

Two recent experiences support this:

  • I reread The War of Art, taking note of the going pro and muses sections of the book. I realized I had been negligent in applying the same standards of professionalism I would have from a “real job” to my own situation. Likewise, I had also not put in the hard continuous work that “The Muses” would notice and reward. I had tried to avoid the hard work by being clever. This has not worked out.
  • NaNoWriMo taught me the value of daily, consistent work in the face of uncertainty. The simple goal of word count and the commitment to produce 50,000 of them in 30 days required discipline. Because there was a daily quota to keep the challenge manageable, I learned to push through bad spots and keep writing. And I found that pushing leads to new solutions, if you are persistent in doing it. The NaNoWriMo experience taught me that I had not really understood the creative process in my heart. I had approached creative projects with worry, anticipating frustration and battle, and while blamed myself for the lack of requisite talent. It turns out that creative process can be described as pushing through uncertainty by doing whatever work can be done in the moment. You see what is on the other side afterwards, and move forward.

Helpful tricks to help with doing the work:

  • For work I did not want to do, I learned to de-emotionalize my response to it, choosing not to have a negative emotional reaction. This made the work easier to start, because I did not resent it.
  • I discovered that doing something every day, even for just 15 minutes, can produce results beyond what frustration and anxiety would have you believe. Doing the work every day is progress, which reduces anxiety. A time-limited daily approach can also keep the scope of the work small, so it is not daunting.

Though I have failed to achieve the “passionate creative life” I have been searching for, I have refined my understanding of myself and other approaches.

I also have a new theory as to why I haven’t found it:

  • I may not have a passion.
  • The passion may be unique to me and does not have a label, making it difficult to find.

Perhaps my passion is finding “The Dave Seah Way”.


Part II looks at what may have contributed to failure. In the previous part, I had accepted failure. But exactly what did I fail at specifically?

I recalled my starting insight in 2005: I liked blogging, particularly about subjects that caught my interest. Because this was something I seemed to do naturally and well, I believed that this was the beginning of something, hopefully leading to a satisfying, self-sustaining work-life. [The popularity of the blog, which I found to be the most rewarding and well-known achievement I’ve ever done for myself, appeared to validate my premise.]

I started doing Groundhog Day Resolutions every year, attempting to have specific goals to make purposeful progress on this premise. Initially, the goals tended to focus on achieving a state of being that would lead to insight or opportunity (e.g. “be part of projects bigger than myself”). After a few years, I thought I needed to focus on making tangible works to attract opportunity, so goals became more quantified (e.g. “make 10 digital download products for sale”). Despite these plans, I failed to make regular, steady progress on my resolutions.

Despite the lack of regular progress, I thought it was OK because I was still posting new thoughts and designs; I just didn’t do it predictably. My work output was triggered by randomly-occurring bursts of inspiration.

Such “impulsive productivity” is difficult to harness. I wanted sustainable productivity, assuming that this would result in more rapid progress. I have been incapable of doing it, which is the nature of my failure. Collecting my output on the blog is the best I have been able to do, though the impulsive way that the blog has expanded has lead to severe navigation problems that have lingered for years.

If I could not be more predictable, I thought I could increase the frequency of impulsive productivity moments. That would theoretically give me the same increase in productivity WITHOUT changing the way I seemed to work. Being around creative people helps, and so I increased my social involvement. I found that sharing stories and helping with others’ projects was inspirational and motivating. However, the energy cost is high, with unpredictable results. It was also a distraction from my own work, which still did not get done.

Taking a step back, I looked at my situation as if I were an employee at a company. Would I be satisfied? No, I would be angry and want to quit. However, the company has the great benefit of freedom. The alternative to quitting is to change the way the company works; I am the owner, after all.

Moving forward, I want to define a qualitative metric: feeling satisfaction. To make it measurable on a daily basis, I need a practical metric; the number of projects, for example. I believe the two metrics are correlated closely.

I developed three further principles that I think will help set the tone moving forward:

  1. Developing Discipline : By committing to a daily review my goal for 15 minutes every day at the same time, I hope to develop better discipline. This is the driving habit that I believe will produce sustained productivity. The methodology is based on the NaNoWriMo experience and a story Colleen Wainright told me about working with her publication coach. It is also supported by my “Waking-Up Early experience” and books like The War of Art and The Creative Habit. The time limit also prevents me from over-planning.
  2. Getting Over Myself : I have time and talent; I just don’t start the difficult personal projects. This is due to the negative attitude I’ve had toward the work itself, which I find tedious or uncertain. My lack of professionalism toward my own projects will be addressed through discipline and improved attitude. I am learning to get over my personal aversion for uncertainty by de-emotionalizing my response to the work, and am soothed knowing that pushing past the fog yields unexpected benefits once you’ve worked through it.
  3. Acknowledging Desire : How do I know I want a passionate, creative lifestyle? I only know for sure that I am feeling it, and that I am dissatisfied that I don’t yet have it. I could chose to remove this desire by evolving past it, but frankly I would rather not. I like my yearning, and I want to strive for it. It feels incredibly important to me. This is what this article series is about: dealing with the desire for that creative, passionate, and self-sufficient life. I have decided to go for it.

I believe the actual methodology to will come in three parts: Resources, Mastery, and Acceptance of a Way. It may also have something to do with Faith, as well.

Continued in Part III

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