Screaming Bloody Murder

This morning when I dropped Wobbles off at daycare, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Wobbles has not been to daycare in over two weeks and in that time, she has received a great deal of very individual attention. So much so that she’s grown quite accustomed to this trove of attention that she alone commands. When it became apparent she was going to spend the day not at home with Grandma or mom or dad, all hell broke loose. When I left, I could hear the tears practically hitting the floor from the hallway.

Yet I know that within five minutes, she was happily playing with toys and her teacher, the momentary discomfort of being away from me completely forgotten. She is at a stage where she is uncomfortable with change or the unknown but within a short time, forgets this discomfort and goes on about doing fun things. As long as you don’t leave her sitting in a Pack-n-Play with nothing to do, she will even find away to entertain herself fairly quickly. The moment of fear is exactly that, momentary, and then life goes on.

Will Smith recently roared through social media with a description of what it is like to impulsively decide to go skydiving. and the resulting fear that consumes you. Constant worry and anxiety. Will I die? Should I back out? This was a ridiculous thing to have done. All words expressed by the internal critic. Then you step out of the plane and fear disappears. The actual event causes no fear, only the expectation of that event and the narrative story built in your head about all the terrible things that could happen along the way. That narrative and the internal critic that writes it, they are the genesis of fear.

It is the same with writing or coding or any number of other creative activities. It is the same with any activity we do that is outside our comfort zone. The fear exists before the event, created by an overactive critic with an unjustifiably loud voice. But the moment the activity starts, or worst case a few moments later, the fear is gone. If focus remains, if concentration can stay stable, there are no thoughts of “what if this doesn’t work out?” or “What if this is terrible?” The only thing that remains is text and the characters and where they lead us.

Often I am overwhelmed by the thought of the scope of a project. But in the moment of writing or coding or digging a flower bed, there is no thought of the scope. The current moment is all that matters. Through a continual parade of those current moments, the scope is harnessed and contained. Even creating for five minutes is worth more than worrying for those five minutes about how much work is left.

There is a picture on the wall of my kitchen of what looks like a Dust Bowl farm. There are buildings, a road, a barn, little else. It is the picture of my grandparents farm shortly after they moved in, an empty, barren landscape, shot from a helicopter, of their chunk of the Oklahoma Panhandle. It is a symbol of a beginning, of what a blank page looks like. It shows hope and possibility. It also shows fear and emptiness. Once upon a time, there was a corresponding photo, taken 17 years later of a lush, green vista with large trees, an overflowing garden. The work and effort of two human beings, not young and full of energy but old and retired, shows the effects of daily work over a long period of time. Growth does not happen without the combination of time and effort contrary to the desires of our overstimulated attention monster. But something great can be created with small amounts of work, applied regularly to a single problem over the course of time. The important part is not to think of the end goal. You don’t even know the end goal. My grandparents had no idea what that farm would look like in 1998 after 17 years of living and working there. They only knew that each day gave them the opportunity to create something. What it was became emergent through their efforts and dedication. Creativity is no different.

A way that my generation’s lives have changed from our that of our grandparents is in the amount of choice we have on a daily basis of how we spend our time. We are overwhelmed by opportunity of activity, most of which is meaningless and even disquieting. Our attention is divided among too many things, even on the best days and with the best intentions. My grandparents never went and picked up their phone to see if someone was on it. They were too busy doing actual work. A 2014 study added fuel to the fire that the mere presence of our cell phones during a complicated task led to decreased performance. Even if the cell phone is turned over or out of reach, our monkey brains wonder if something important has happened on it. This distracts us from our task at hand. Distraction is easier to come by in our ever connected world and distraction will always necessarily be easier than concentration. Yet it is concentration and focus that results in the creation of things that are important to us whether it’s a work of art, a coding project or a relationship. Often that ease of distraction prevents us from even beginning something.

The hardest part of creating is the actual part about starting. Worry and fear can keep you from ever beginning, not only IN the beginning, but at every moment along the path. Fear keeps you from producing by telling stories about “30 minutes isn’t enough time to bother” or “There’s always tomorrow.” These stories become self-fulfilling as you allow them to become the narrative of your creative life. If every time that Wobbles screamed bloody murder when I walked away, I turned around and comforted her, neither one of us would ever grow. So it is with creating. The critic screams bloody murder every time you try to drop him off at daycare. He doesn’t want to be left alone. He doesn’t want to play by himself. Yet, when you refuse to listen to him and begin to create, he will slowly become more silent over time. He my never become completely silent. But he will be a more mature, supportive being that encourages your creativity. You just have to ignore the screaming part for a little while. It’s too important not to.

On Silence

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. — Dylan Thomas

I have been trying to write unsuccessfully this month, something, anything really. It seems that I have run out of ideas. Or perhaps out of steam. My attention is diverted in too many ways to allow for the required focus to actually produce anything. I have become a consumer. I have noticed in recent months that my ability to control my own mind is growing weaker and weaker to the point where at any given moment, I might drift off into a state of unpresentness. So I have fallen silent. This is almost entirely my own fault as the urge to pick up the phone and look at Twitter or Instagram or the markets is completely my own. These things of no real importance have become the moments of my spare time. So much so that when I want to actually do something productive, my physical energy level can only stand a few moments before needing a break. How can one hope to create something interesting when allowing only five minute increments in which to do it? Even while writing those 177 words, the urge to pick up my phone or gaze out the window thinking of anything else was immense. Concentration is both a skill and a habit and the harder you work on the latter, the stronger the former becomes. But like physical exercise or diet control or anything else, it is easier to allow it to lapse, knowing of course somewhere that the longer it lapses, the hard it is to regain.

Strength in all things comes through effort and trial. Weakness comes in comfort and sloth. I’m rereading Antifragile and one of the tell tale differences between fragility and antifragility is psychological comfort versus psychological discomfort but with a sense of adventure. I realize that much of my adult life has been focused on gaining as much psychological comfort as possible. Physically at times I have veered into discomfort through training and effort and those times have been some of my most proud. Rarely psychologically have I done the same. That sense of adventure is missing. Even during my sabbatical, I did comfortable things. This hit home recently when I saw Tim Ferris’s TED talk on fear setting. In it, he talks about his process for identifying and effectively destroying fear as opposed to finding goals to chase. Fear setting is the corollary to goal setting but few of us ever explicitly do it. We let our fears unconsciously sabotage our best efforts. We worry about all the terrible things that might happen from action but fail to examine the terrible things that might also happen from inaction. It is easier to imagine ourselves as humiliated because of some action we wrongly took than it is to imagine ourselves as bitterly regretful over things we were too afraid to do. Yet those results of inactivity are what lead to a disappointing life. No one who ever wrote a terrible book later wished they had sat on the couch watching TV instead. But plenty of us will look back and wonder what might have been different if only we had written a terrible book. Replace book with any goal. Inactivity, the silence of our actions, is what we will one day look back on with regret. And regret is the most awful emotion.

My silence comes from a division of attention and an internal critic with a deafening voice so overwhelming as to have become normal, as if the deafness of my creativity is how it has always been and not an artifact of being shouted at all the time. I am afraid to write a terrible book or play terrible music or draw terrible things. But literally doing those things can result in no real harm. The worst possible case is that I will have written a terrible books that my friends won’t even read while saying nice platitudes like “Wow 360 pages is a long book, I’m sure that means it’s good.” If your ego can’t stand doing something terrible at first, you don’t have to worry about doing anything great.

Much of this fear comes from being externally motivated. It’s why I once wanted to be an actor. I loved the feedback. But hidden within that is a desire to be a craftsman, motivated only by the excellence of the work. The internal critic has no power there because I alone am the judge of the craftsmanship. Unleashing that intrinsic motivation, the desire for excellence, could be a key to unlocking the silence. Overcoming the fear of being wrong or terrible can be done by just focusing on the work. The happiest artists are those who are consumed with the excellence of their work and not the reactions to it. Worry less about what horrible things might happen when you take action and focus on the work.

Humans are bad at examining the effects of inactivity. It will always be easier to see the results of some action than at some point in the future see the results of not having taken an action. The “what if” can never really be answered which makes it so intractable. But by focusing on the worst case, which is what Ferriss prescribes, we can see with better focus what might happen if we take no action at all towards our goals. What might life be like in 3 or 6 or 12 months if you take no action at all towards your goals? The easiest answer is that life will be exactly like it is today. Am I satisfied with that or does it terrify me to think of being in the exact same place a year from now? Where is the sense of adventure in that?

Silence can be deafening in that by remaining silent on our goals, we become deaf to what our true potential might be. There is a time for silence but it should not be the norm. Make loud, raucous noises towards your dreams as often as you can. That is one key to a fulfilling life.