Feel like you’re going to cry? It’s okay. Don’t run from it.
Feel blocked, stuck, unable to create? It’s okay. Don’t seek distraction or try to find inspiration. Stay empty and see what fills you up.
Have an overwhelming sense of anxiety? Or boredom? Overcome by anger, frustration? Don’t turn your back. Instead, try to inhabit the feeling. Or rather, let the feeling inhabit you.
It’s easy to write these words. It’s not so easy to live them. See, I have problems doing this myself. For the last forty five minutes, I’ve sat, staring at a blank screen, listening to the same song on repeat, wondering what the hell I was going to write. Several times I almost got up to make a cup of tea. Often I thought about ending my writing session prematurely and hopping on social media. Multiple times I was poised to pull out a book and flick through. Or browse my collection of quotes and ideas written on 4x6 index cards. But this time, for the first time, I didn’t do anything. I sat. And I’ve begun to see this as a solution to many of the problems in my life.
So often, it’s easier to respond to a problem or feeling with instant action. Not necessarily intentional and deliberate and effective activity. Just action. Just something. We feel that that’s the right thing to do. When we’re pushed by something, the instinct is to push back. But sometimes, a lot of the time, that instinct needs to be over-ridden.
I used to be overcome by a wave of anxiety just before lunch time every day. I’d have completed my morning ritual, done my writing, worked on a project, and then had to decide what to do for the rest of the day. Such open-endedness would collapse my spirit. So I’d read for a bit. Then flit around online. Then check my emails and social media. Then have a snack. Then watch some jiu-jitsu. I’d do this until I come out of the funk several hours later and could work or focus again.
No more. Now I’ve learnt the value of inaction when I’m tempted to avoid a feeling via action.
A lot of the time, when we feel compelled to run, to react, to move, to do, what we actually need is to be still. To sit with our problems and delay our response. In that gap between action and response, in that stillness, we can either formulate a more effective response, or discover the root and witness the dissipation of the problem altogether. In that space we can see that the problem wasn’t really a problem, just a passing storm of undesirable feeling.
Whatever your problem is, try not reacting. Try not distracting yourself or chasing down some other avenue. Turn off the music. Turn off the TV. Disconnect from the internet. Take time and find space.
Our problems present themselves as an unstoppable force. Try being an immovable object. Whatever it is, sit with it.
If you ask one hundred people how good a driver they are, the majority will say they are above average. Which makes no sense. We can’t all be above average.
This observation (which I’m sure has been tested and given a proper name that I don’t know) is just a micro instance of a macro pattern: we overestimate our own abilities, and underestimate other’s.
That applies to how we view our own character, not just skills like driving. It manifests itself in the belief that we are better than everyone else. That we are kinder, more compassionate, wiser, smarter, more patient, more generous, more humble, more curious, and more intellectually and physically courageous than the people around us. Which, as you will probably agree, is bullshit. Someone has to be worse at all these things. (Just not you or I, right?)
While I was thinking about this, I first thought it would be a good idea to propose the opposite. That instead we deliberately underestimate ourselves and overestimate others. But there’s not much wisdom, or utility, in false modesty. Pretending to be less than you are is almost as dumb as thinking you’re more than you are.
Which leads to my next suggestion: practise seeing yourself exactly as you are. Assess how good a driver you are, how kind you are, how curious you are, and accept the answers. If you’re worse than average at something, accept it. If you’re better than average, accept it. But there’s a problem with this too. Us humans aren’t known for our ability to objectively and accurately measure our own capacities. It takes more than the typical human lifespan, and more than the typical human, to crack the Western philosophic dictum and know thyself.
So if we can’t see ourselves as better, worse, or exactly as we are, what can we do? Here’s a suggestion: maybe we should stop comparing ourselves to others, and others to everyone else.
I get it. Comparison is a useful tool. We can use it to mitigate our weaknesses and reinforce our strengths. What do you think competitive sport and business is about? It’s about being better than everyone else at what you do. And one way you can achieve that objective is via rigorous and consistent comparison to your competitors. But such a mindset shouldn’t apply to our personal lives.
In our personal lives, I think we’d all benefit if we stopped comparing ourselves. If the meek stopped placing everyone above themselves, and the arrogant stopped building their pyramid of ego atop negative opinions of other people’s worth, wouldn’t we be better off? If we, as people who consider ourselves neither meek nor arrogant, stopped trying to place ourselves in the hierarchy of human goodness and just focused on being better people than we were yesterday, wouldn’t the world change for the better? I think so.
I recently heard about someone who wants to be an illustrator. He doesn’t do much drawing now, but he’s decided to go to university to study the craft. The more I thought about this, the more bewildered I became. I began to ask myself a question: Does he want to study it or do it?
If it was my ambition to be an illustrator, do you know what I’d do? I’d buy a notebook—whatever I could afford—and start drawing. I’d draw anything and everything. I’d draw the things around me, and the things in my head. I’d grab a domain name, create a basic website using one of the done-for-you services (like Squarespace or Weebly) and put a drawing up every week. Or every day. I’d watch online tutorials and documentaries. I’d read articles and interviews. I’d go to art museums. I’d read comic books. I’d learn about visual design in videogames. I’d find other illustrators whose work I admire and study it. I might even reach out to them asking for recommended resources or specific advice.
All of the above can be done for free, or with just an internet connection. And maybe after I’d done it for a year or two, if I felt it was necessary, I’d consider going to university. But by that point, maybe I wouldn’t need to…
It’s the same for most other professions. If I want to be a writer, it’s simple. All I have to do is read a lot, write a lot, and publish some of what I write, somewhere. If I want to be an entrepreneur, fine. I can start coming up with ideas. I could aim for ten a day. Or I could try and fill out one business model canvas each week. Or I could study and dissect existing businesses, and imagine how I would improve them.
The options are limited only by your imagination and the willingness to explore. But the point is, studying a thing and doing a thing are not the same. And ideally, you want to be doing the thing for a long time before you commit several years of your life to studying it.
If someone, if you, really want to do something, there’s only one thing in the way: yourself. There’s no reason why you can’t do what you want, right now. Or maybe you can’t do it in full, but you can definitely do it in part. And in the beginning, that’s enough. Because early on your primary objective is to keep the fire burning, and so giving it a chance to swell and grow into something bigger.
I’ve come up with a beautiful metaphor for creativity:
It takes two people—barring current and future technological capabilities—to conceive a baby. But only one person is responsible for pushing it out.
It’s the same with creativity. On the road to conception, we open ourselves up to as many inputs and influences as possible. We read books, we consume articles, we listen to interviews and podcasts, watch shows and documentaries, engage in dialogues on social media, contribute to specific communities, and have conversations with friends, colleagues, mentors and others that we cross paths with. The knowledge and understanding that arises from this constant give-and-take fuels our ideas. It informs our perspectives, evolves our mental models, and alters the stories we tell ourselves about the world we live in and the work we do.
But at some point we have to shut it all off. Shut it all out. We have to dam the river of new inputs, and do something with the old. In this moment, we become alchemists, transforming old ideas and influences into something new, something original, something unique, something we can call our own.
Our creations are conceived in a crowd. But bringing them into this world, making them a reality? That’s a solitary struggle
There’s one very simple way to assess someone’s trajectory. To determine whether they’re going somewhere or going nowhere. Here’s the question to ask of them: What do they do with the answers they receive?
“What do they do with the answers they receive?” implies that they ask questions in the first place. A good question is like a cheat code for the game of life. It allows you to level up way faster than normal. Undoubtedly, those who don’t ask questions are on a flatter trajectory than those who do. They’re more likely to be going nowhere.
But you can have too much of a good thing. You can ask too many questions. Those who ask too many questions aren’t much better than those who ask none. The important thing is how you use the answers, not how many questions you ask. See, the proper sequence for development is as follows: ask a question, act on the answer, repeat indefinitely.
It’s pointless asking one hundred questions and receiving one hundred answers. What am I going to do with a hundred answers? Can I use them all? No way. Think about the scientific method. I can only test the impact of one variable at a time. If I alter ten and it changes the outcome, how do I know which of the ten, or which relationship between the ten is responsible? I can’t. It’s the same when it comes to personal improvement. There’s no point me implementing ten new ideas or strategies. Better to choose one thing, one answer to test in my life and focus on. If it works, great. If it doesn’t I can try another.
The quest for mastery and improvement is already complicated. Don’t make it more difficult by obscuring the path you need to walk on with a flood of answers. Ask a question, act on the answer, repeat indefinitely.