0593 – learn from your experience

I have a todo item titled “what experience teaches you”. I was reading somewhere about how as you get older, your enthusiasm gets tempered by experience. When you’re younger, you’re eager and excited and haven’t been burnt by failure yet, so you’re willing to start all sorts of new things, jump into new commitments and projects and encounters. It’s easy to ditch one thing for the next new exciting thing.

As you get older, it begins to dawn on you that you’re not going to complete all of the things that you set out to do. Your days are numbered, your accomplishments are going to be finite. So you have to pick and choose. You have to discard a lot of things, including many things that you thought you held dear. A lot of alternate possibilities wither away. This can be a little painful– okay it can be VERY painful, particularly if you happened to have had a lot of expectations and ideals.

I’m re-reading Obama’s Audacity of Hope and he talks about experiencing this himself – you get to a point where you’re not making progress on your goals nearly as fast as you hoped, and you start taking the good stuff for granted, and the painful stuff (in his case, being a community organizer and taking long drives to meet a tiny handful of people, or giving speeches that nobody listens to) starts to weigh on you. And you realize that either you need to recalibrate your expectations like a grown up, or otherwise you’re going to end up as this sort of sad old grumpy and slightly pathetic person. (I wonder if he had anybody specific in mind when he was writing that description. He probably did.)

Experience teaches you about effort shock. Whatever it is you want to do or accomplish, it’s going to be harder than you might think. You’re going to encounter more unpleasant frustrations and difficulties than you had in your rosy eyed view of the world. Growing up is about facing those painful moments and moving foward anyway. Sometimes you may find that there’s no way to move further, and then you’ll have to figure out what you’re going to do. It may be that you have to settle and just be okay with where you are, and then make the most of what you’ve been dealt. (Obama talks about this too.) Otherwise, you may have to take some drastic actions to shake things up. (An “up-or-out” moment was how he framed his Senate run to his Michelle.)

Experience has taught me that I can actually only achieve a very few, limited things each day. I fantasize all the time about some magical day where I get a ton of things done, and I’m sure over the course of these 590+ vomits I’ve described that fantasy several times. It’s a sort of hope that’s not grounded in any sort of evidence or reality. I can’t live with my hope indefinitely – it gets battered by every meeting or review I have with people where I have to say, “No, I’m sorry, I haven’t finished the things that I said I was going to do.” It gets hammered by my own daily life, where everyday is somewhat similar to the days that preceded this.

To change this I’m going to have to do things I’ve never done before – the main thing is going to be doing regular reviews. Tomorrow I’ll be doing my second weekly review in a row, in a document that I have pinned in my web browser that I do look at everyday. The challenge is to do this again and again, over and over, every single week. I also need to have some sort of daily review, which I’m including in that document. I have a bit of experience experimenting with this – for a period of time I had a daily email review with my boss where I’d talk about what I’d accomplished for the day, and that kept me productive. I need to internalize that process completely and have a daily review with myself. I’m now planning to do 400 word vomits in 100 days.

My experience in my life so far has taught me that I never accomplish these goals that I set for myself over 100 day periods. The longest I’ve been able to do something super consistently has been maybe 1-2 months. So this will be new territory for me. And I have learned that entering new territory isn’t just something that’s interesting or cool (though it IS those things), it’s vital to happiness – at least with my current mental model. Revising my mental model altogether is an option, but it’s a costly one and I can always do it later.

Working hard now is the other option, and I ought to try it. Try it again and again until I get it right. I need to change the configuration slightly each time but I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it. I have certainly done several of the things that I set out to do several years ago – it just took longer than I had hoped. A part of this is unexpected difficulty, but I think the main thing is just a lack of focus. As Steve Vai said, the success that you have at anything is a function of the degree that you were able to focus on it. So I need to focus on this.

What else has experience taught me? One great day is hard to come by, and it’s never enough. It may be true what I said in an earlier vomit – that I work in bursts, that my productivity might be seasonal. Those things can be true. But I also do frankly believe that I am more than capable of writing 4,000 words a day. One way to do it would be to get into a random internet argument with someone and then just keep going. Well, I need to learn to treat myself the way I treat random internet strangers – I need to go after myself with something to prove. I want to persuade me of something, and I’m not going to stop until I’m done.

There were a couple of bullet points in my task for this post – one is that life is long and that you can’t make epic proclamations about the future, because everything changes to degrees you do not expect. The other was that crises are inevitable – you can’t predict when exactly they’re going to happen, but they happen sooner or later and you have to be prepared for them.

Preparation is a way of diminishing the amount of work you’ll have to do when the shit hits the fan. And experience has taught me that shit always hits the fan. So be goddamn prepared. It’s the smart lazy thing to do.

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