0583 – be clear and honest about desired end-states

In the previous vomit I began to start thinking out loud about what my greater vision for my writing was. I began to frame it in grand terms – that I wanted to become an effective communicator who would see things differently and challenge people to see, think and do better. That’s not new, that’s just a restatement of what has always been fundamentally true. That doesn’t make it redundant, I think it’s important to remind yourself of the big picture so that you can see whether you’re making decisions consistent with that bigger picture or not. If it seems like EVERYTHING I’m doing is consistent with it, then maybe I’ll benefit from narrowing down my scope a little. So let’s narrow my scope. How am I going to do the above?

Well, there are some constraints with regards to what I can see and what I can talk about. I’m not going to give the world a new and interesting perspective on Palestine. I’m not going to tell an amazing story about things that I don’t know, that I don’t understand. So first I need to be clear about what I do know, and what I do understand, and what I am on the brink of understanding.

If I’m not careful though I could fall into the trap of writing things that are trivial, that I know too well, that aren’t all that interesting. At some point I said that I wanted to understand procrastination better than anybody else, and that I wanted to write a great guide for it, and I wanted to lift other guys like me out of their funks, to spare them the pain and frustration that I experienced. I think the underlying sentiments behind those things are decent, but I’m also a little wary of that path now – because while I’d definitely like to be helpful, I don’t want that to define who I am and I don’t want it to become my focus. I would like to hang out with and work with high-functioning people, and challenge THEM.

This reminds me of a conversation I used to have over and over again with my boss at our 1-1 meetings. I often said that what motivated me was figuring out how to cross the river in front of me, and then going back and helping others cross that same river. He asked, why not go forward and cross the NEXT river instead?

On hindsight it’s obvious that he had some context and understanding of the scenario that I didn’t. Suppose I wanted to become an expert at helping teenage boys become great at dating, because I felt I wasn’t that great at it myself when I was a teenager. That’s doable, but then you spend your time and energy getting good at something instead of something else. There’s an opportunity cost there that isn’t apparent when you aren’t paying attention to what’s ahead of you. It’s nice to feel good about what you figured out, but you should typically spend the bulk of your time figuring out what’s NEXT.

Is this true? Yes I think it’s true. Life should be lived forward not backwards, especially when you’re young. When you’re old and weary you have plenty of time to sit around and write life advice for young people, if you’re so inclined. In the meantime it makes more sense to think, well how am I broken, how can I reach the next level? Because each time you reach the next level you realize that the last one was just a stepping stone to this one. What’s less obvious is that this current stage is itself a stepping stone to the next one. We get a little philosophical here, pondering about whether one should live in the moment or not, whether one should seek to be blissfully detached, or seek a deep attachment. To inhale or exhale. Obviously you need a balance of both, in some sort of back and forth configuration. Life would be boring if it were really all about one or the other.

I paused writing this at this point to start an outline of “Visa 2020 vision doc”, where I wrote down what I want my life to be like at age 30. I know that I want to be a writer, maybe a full-time writer, but realistically probably still working full-time while writing like a beast in my spare time. I know that I want to commit to eventually becoming a full-time writer, which means narrowing down non-writerly pursuits. Almost everything I do, apart from putting food on the table and a roof over my head, should be focused on helping me become a better writer, and/or helping me reach my goal of becoming a full-time writer in my mid-30s.

Examining the lives of successful writers, there are broadly two paths. One set of people work in a completely unrelated field, and they switch off about it. They work at the post office, or the butcher’s, or they’re a civil servant or something, and then they write at night. Others work in a related field – journalism, copywriting, etc – and they build their chops at work. I need to be clearer about how I manage my time, how I manage my own boundaries. I need to be honest with myself about my career goals. Right now I’m doing software marketing. I love the work environment, I love my boss, I love my colleagues. I don’t 100% love what I do, but if there’s anything I’ve learnt in the past decade or so it’s that “100% love” is an unrealistic and unhealthy target. Whatever you love doing, there’s going to be a bunch of shitwork around it. If you love writing, you’re still going to have to do editing, and keep up with deadlines, and all sorts of things that will be a pain in the ass in its own way.

But the point is… I have to be honest with myself about what my objectives are, what I really want to achieve, where I really want to focus my efforts, how I really want to spend my time. I’m not doing anyone any favors by being half-hearted in everything. I do believe it’s possible for me to give my best at work AND do great writing at home afterwards, but I need to be clear about the goals on both counts.

 

0582 – think strategicially about writing projects

While I haven’t been writing, I’ve definitely been doing a lot of thinking – at least subconsciously, or semi-consciously, or pre-consciously… well it’s been simmering on my backburner. I’ve been thinking about what my future is going to be like, and actually what the future of my writing is going to be like. I feel like I’ve achieved a bunch of things that I had set out to achieve with my word vomit project, with my marriage, home ownership, and at work. The overarching question weighing on my mind in all cases is, “Well, now what? What next? Where do we go from here?”

With my word vomit project – I’ve grown rather weary of thinking out loud about myself, examining my own habits, my lifestyle, my day-to-day life, my identity performance, my existential woes and so on. I want my writing project to serve my future writing projects. I know I want to become a published author. I’m not yet 100% sure if it’s going to be fiction or non-fiction, but I know that it’s going to have narratives, it’s going to have characters, it’s going to be about events, it’s going to have settings, it’s going to challenge and move readers to think in somewhat new and interesting ways. So I have to work backwards from that. I’m not particularly obsessed with the idea of having a physical copy of a book published, although that would be a nice tangible output. It’s possible to overoptimize for that and write something not-great for the sake of it just to publish something. I definitely don’t want to do that. What I want is to write something that satisfies my own taste. And that’s where the gap comes in – it’s possible to use “this doesn’t satisfy my taste” as an excuse for never publishing anything ever. That’s sad and unproductive and misery-inducing. So… no. What I want to do instead is publish lots of little experiments in writing that get me closer to what I want to do. I know that on my deathbed I’m still going to think, “Ah, that stuff I published wasn’t nearly as perfect as I wish it were.” It’s going to be 10% of what I wanted it to be. That’s just a limitation of reality and I’m going to have to work with that. Let’s just get that out of the way as early as possible.

I want to write essays, trains of thought, assessments of things, evaluations, interpretations, what-ifs, observations, hypotheses. I also want to develop a taste for… describing tangible things. I read somewhere that some author would spend his days verbalizing whatever he was doing. I guess you could call this the development of a narrator’s voice. How do I describe people? How would I describe my colleagues, my commute, my work, my marriage, my home, all of those things? I don’t have a lot of practice doing that. I write in a somewhat abstract way, describing concepts and ideas rather than details. So I guess I want to get better at describing details. Maybe I should take a few vomits just describing objects. That does sound like fun to me. Although I’m not sure if it makes sense to devote an entire vomit to a single object. That sounds like it would be stretching it.

Well, that last paragraph was me taking something wispy and vague in my mind and making it precise by putting it to pixel. I appreciate that. I think that’s one of the coolest, most magical things about writing. I want to keep doing that over and over again. I find myself thinking “I would like to spend a year doing nothing but that.” To which my second thought is “I better be careful what I wish for, because that might just get boring fast.”

Which makes me think about this interesting tension between committing to a project and seeing it through (which I am doing with the 1,000 vomits – I’m going to finish it even though at times it felt like I should abandon it to do other things) and allowing yourself to change and adapt and evolve your idea about what you’re doing. It’s the challenge of project management, and I see my boss and colleagues doing it every day over the course of months and years. Some things just have to be abandoned, but other things have to be revisited over and over again even though it’s tedious. How do you find a balance?

Well, you need to have a vision of what you want, where you want to go. That can change over time, but you shouldn’t change it every day. You should figure out what your invariants are. So if you want to build a great software business, and you’re committed to doing that, you shouldn’t change your mind next week or next month and decide to do a consultancy instead. Well… it’s complicated and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to do justice to the nuanced system of thinking and planning within the context of a single vomit. I’m not sure my mind is clear enough about it.

But here’s what I think I know. I know that I want to be a writer, for example. I’m quite comfortable saying that that’s never going to change. I may eventually develop into becoming a screenwriter or a playwright or something specialized like that, and that will require developing some specific skills that I might not foresee. But the grander vision that contains all of that is – to develop myself in the art of seeing, in the art of thinking clearly, in communicating effectively, and to use those skills to say things that aren’t being said well, to say things well in a way that moves people, that helps people see things in new ways, do new things, transcend old ways of seeing and being. That vision is pretty much unchanging, I can commit to that. So the devil really is in the details, which I’ll get into in another vomit.

 

0581 – July 2016

I haven’t written a word vomit in almost a month. I don’t really like writing “I haven’t been writing” passages, because it’s the same old thing over and over again. It might make sense to write a one-size-fits-all passage for that and then just reference that. Maybe I’ll write it now and then never write it again.

Why do I stop writing? Sometimes I just get tired or bored. I feel like I’ve been repeating myself a lot, and I’m no longer very interested in what I have to say.

What have I been doing instead of writing?

1. I had to take a week off to do my reservist duty, which was an interesting sort of “flashback quest” of sorts. [1]

2. I’ve been watching a lot of Game of Thrones – I only started watching it after Season 6 had already ended, and I just finished watching all 6 seasons together with the wife. I’ve enjoyed it. I sat down to write a vomit entirely devoted to that, but I started with some preamble and I guess I’m going to flesh out an entire preamble vomit first.

3. I was reading a little. I finished up Understanding Comics, which is a great book about making sense of a medium (visual storytelling) and its various unique traits, its history, conventions, tropes and so on. I started reading Anna Karenina, which is a lot more engaging and compelling than I thought it was going to be. I somehow always assume that classics are going to be incredibly difficult and intimidating, which I think is a shame. Classics should be read for pleasure, in pursuit of curiosity, not out of some sort of solemn obligation. Literature departments are often terrible for Shakespeare, except when passionate teachers teach them. I’ve been reading Leading by Alex Ferguson. I’m not a football fan, but I am certainly a fan of successful managers of all kinds. I guess I’m hoping that I’ll learn something interesting or useful that I can apply to my own life, to manage myself and my life better.

4. I spent some time with my in-laws. I’m not sure if I’ve written very much about it – my wife and I have had a poor relationship with her parents ever since we started dating over a decade ago. They’ve finally begun to warm up to us and welcome us into their lives, which is a little confusing to navigate but I think it’s something positive.

5. I bought a fitbit. I’ve been writing and thinking for years that sleep is one of the most important things that I should fix, and I figure that tracking it makes it likelier that I’m going to manage it better. There are still probably some things that I’m overlooking.

6. I haven’t been working out as much as I want to. I was done with my remedial training, and I’m done with my army reservist, so I have the next 10 months or so to get into the best shape of my life. I want to do that. I’m thinking about how, for a long time it was an incredibly painful limiting factor for me to have very weak, skinny legs. I’m still skinny overall but I’m not so weak anymore. I managed to squat something like 80 or 90kg. I’ve lost some of that strength from disuse– I think I trained a little too hard at the time, but I’m confident that I can get it back and I’m eagerly looking forward to getting it back. The next big limiting factor for me physically is cardiovascular fitness. I’ve never been able to run 2.4km in under 12 minutes, as far as I can remember, and it’s a great source of shame for me. I haven’t run it in under 13 minutes in recent times. I don’t know if it’s something to do with my mitral valve prolapse (it’s a minor heart condition where some blood backflows a little after each pump), or if it has to do with me being very long and lanky and having low blood sugar, etc. A part of it in the past used to feel like it was a lack of leg strength, but my legs are a lot stronger now from squats. Anyway it’s something I want to work on for the sake of breaking limitations. I would like to go to my next reservist and be one of the fittest men there. I reject the assumption that middle-aged men have to be flabby. I want to be a really fit old man.

7. I have been doing some home improvement DIY stuff that I was procrastinating on. I finally drilled up my guitar hangers in my study/lounge room. I was putting it off I think because I was worried that I was going to get it wrong, that it was going to be sloppy and I was going to hate how it looked. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t able to get it perfect. Some of the distances aren’t quite right. Maybe I could have spent a little more time measuring and doublechecking and troubleshooting. But actually, now that I look at it, I’m much happier that it’s done than not. It still looks good, just slightly imperfect. But such is life.

Wow, guess the floodgates have opened and I’m writing again. Onwards to the next vomit.

[1] You know, like in those TV shows or video games where an episode / quest is spent sending the protagonist back in time, either to flesh out some backstory, or just for a change of pace. I am always fascinated by the passage of time and space. Over time, we tend to move across different spaces. It’s always interesting to revisit an old space – it brings back memories and thoughts from an older time. Wearing my boots again was an interesting experience. Visiting a friend who lives near where I grew up was an interesting experience. I’m not sure if I want to go through all of those thoughts right now, but I imagine I will sooner or later.

 

0580 – skip the potholes

I was looking through some old notes about my goals, and one of them was “help younger versions of me skip the potholes that I fell into.”

Well, what are the potholes? Off the top of my head: Bad diet. Bad sleep. Lack of exercise. Poor social skills. Lack of discipline. Lack of focus. Inability to plan and to execute on my plans.

Here’s what I know about diet, and I’m not an expert. Excessive sugar is a bad thing. When I was a kid I used to eat at McDonald’s all the time, because it was familiar, easy to order. And I guess I was pretty much addicted to carbs and sugar. I used to drink Coke all the time, and eat ice cream, and skittles and cookies and candies of all kinds. I’m amazed that my teeth are somehow still intact.

When I look back on my teenage years a lot of it was literally a blur, especially around ages 16 to 19. I was just constantly sleep deprived, constantly having sugar crashes, constantly irritable. I picked up smoking and I think I used it to help regulate my blood sugar levels. I didn’t eat breakfast, usually because I woke up anxious from not having done my homework the night before – I’d be worried about what sort of trouble I was going to get into at school. And it was just this endless cycle.

Diet was one thing that could have helped that. If I could go back and be a big brother to my younger self, I would get me to eat more proteins and fat, and less carbs. I would eat something more substantial for breakfast every morning – maybe 2-4 soft boiled eggs and a glass of milk.

I slept late all the time because I liked staying up late all the time, because that’s when I felt I had some sort of freedom and control over myself. It was really temporary, and illusion. It was time spent in the Dark Playground. But in those hours I felt “safe”, I felt like “me”. It seems really silly on hindsight but at the time it meant a lot to me. How would I change my mind about that?

Exercise. Oh boy, this is one way I could have made a huge difference. I would go to the gym, but I would only ever do a bunch of upper body stuff. The biggest thing I would do was the bench press – and then I’d do bicep curls, tricep extensions, shoulder raises, things like that. What I should really have been doing is squats, which I was terrified of doing because a part of me thought I was likely to get injured, and a part of me was embarrassed at how skinny and weak my legs were. And so I had a “looking for my keys under the streetlights” problem – I avoided doing the thing that most needed doing, and instead focused on minor things that felt more comfortable. As a result I feel like I’m years behind in terms of how fit I could be. I started doing squats late last year and it was life-changing. There’s something about squats – it uses the most muscle groups, it puts weight on the spine, it stresses the body fully in some good way – I don’t know the precise science of it, but it just makes me feel really good. It makes me feel stronger in a very fundamental way. It increases my testosterone levels, I’m sure.

Lack of discipline. It would be disingenous for me to tell my younger self to study harder, because the things I’m doing in life now are completely unrelated to what I did in school. In fact, if I could go back in time, I’d spend even less time in school, and less time worrying about my grades and whatnot. What I should’ve done instead, though, is be more discplined in pursuit of my own interests. I was interested in playing the guitar – I could have made a lot more progress and become a much better musician through some deliberate practice. In fact this is still something that applies to me – I still have so much of progress to make as a musician. I mean, there’s always progress to be made, but I haven’t even really plateaued as a limit of my abilities – I’ve plateaued because I’ve been too lazy to take the trouble to be focused and disciplined about what I need to learn.

If you think about it, progress is quite simple. It isn’t complicated or mythical at all. Progress is simply being able to do more than you were able to do better. If it’s in the context of a single piece, it’s being able to say more with it, being able to emote it more strongly. Being able to do more with less, and so on.

Inability to plan and to execute on my plans – I’ve only made some progress on this, and I’ve made it very recently, but I think it’s enough to inform my past self a little better. The big mistake I made over and over again, and continue to make now, is to try to plan too big, too large. That’s setting myself up for failure. If you can’t run 2.4km, there’s no point trying to run a marathon. You’ll just be overwhelmed, disappointed, see nothing but red flags, red scores, failures. If you can’t make and execute big plans, that’s fine. Make and execute small ones. Plan your next 5 minutes, and achieve that. Then plan your next 10 minutes, and achieve that. Do those little things over and over. If that sounds stupid to you, just do it anyway. Just keep increasing the scale and scope of your plans incrementally, and execute them in a tight feedback loop. It’s like playing a video game – you can’t just jump into level 50 and hope to get it through trial-and-error. There’s simply too much to handle, and you’re going to screw it up every single time. You need to work your way up from level 1. If you think you’re better than starting from level 1, demonstrate your finesse by blazing through it with an epic speedrun.

Poor social skills. I recommend reading the 48 Laws of Power – not because you want to have power over others, but because you want to have power over yourself. That’s really the only power you ever really have. You want to see how you’re affecting other people, how other people are perceiving your supposedly clever or important actions. And you’ll realize that you’re not as big as you thought, you’re not as important as you thought, and most people have a less-than-positive impression of you. And if you want to achieve great, cool things, you’re going to need to win people over. That requires humility. That requires listening.

 

0579 – have something to live for

More than a couple of friends have asked me if I’m depressed, or if I’m experiencing some sort of existential crisis. I’m not sure. I think I could easily qualify for those things if I sought a diagnosis, but I’m not particularly interested in getting diagnosed. I remember being particularly depressed in 2007, when I was a teenager- I’m not sure how I managed to function back then. Everything was just a blur.

Life now is better in many ways. And yet it also seems bleaker in some ways. Not that it was less bleak then- I’m just more sharply aware of the general bleakness of things. I feel more weighed down by responsibilities and obligations – and these things were always going to happen. They were always on the horizon, I just maybe wasn’t paying enough attention to them. Or maybe you really just never properly realize it until it happens to you.

I just finished watching Season 2 of Bojack Horseman. I enjoyed the show. And I related a lot to a lot of the characters, who are broken, selfish, self-loathing, incompetent and all sorts of negative, lousy things. I see myself in them. But that’s not who I want to be.

After Bojack I caught a bit of President Obama addressing the Canadian Parliament. And he spoke about a bunch of inspiring possibilities – of the progress that humanity can make if we rally together and work hard. And I found myself thinking, I wish I was more like that. I wish I could be someone who contributed.

Now I’m zooming out and trying to be real about who I am and who I want to be. I am not a good person. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. I’ve hurt a lot of people, upset and disappointed a lot of people. I’ve caused a lot of pain and suffering to other people. And some of that I simply will never be able to rectify or make amends for.

I’m thinking now of the anime Samurai X, where the protagonist is a former assassin who killed loads of people, and then turned over a new leaf and fought in a non-lethal way for good and justice and stuff like that. And the thing about it is– no matter how much good he does, he’s never able to undo the deaths that he previously inflicted. So it goes. That’s all you can do. The most you can do is do better next time. And that’s how I have to approach my own life. I haven’t killed anybody. At most I’ve annoyed and upset people, but life goes on for them and for me. Wallowing in my self-pity or self-loathing is actually the selfish, egoistic and unproductive thing to do. What I should do is get up, dust myself off and resolve to make a positive difference moving forward. Every day is a new day, every moment is a new moment.

Zooming out. What do I live for? I actually once answered that in an interview – and I think back then I said I lived for good conversations, for moments of inspiration and connection. I think that’s still true, but the problem is that I’m no longer satisfied with the conversations I used to be having. Those conversations were starry-eyed, hopeful conversations about what the future would hold. I’m living in the future of my past-self now. And while some of my circumstances have exceeded my expectations, other parts of it have proved overwhelming and painful. And I’ll just have to deal with that. It’s an inflection point – how I deal with this disappointment is going to determine what my life is, who I am, what I’m worth, what sort of person I become.

I’m 26 years old. More than a quarter of a century old. If I’m really lucky, that’s a quarter of my life. But I might die tomorrow, too. People better than me have died at younger ages. Every day is a gift, an opportunity, and I continue to squander many of them. I can’t confidently say “No More!”, because I’ve done that a few times in the past – I invariably end up disappointing myself and then fall back into old patterns, old routines. So that’s not the way forward. It’s cheesy but true that the way forward always requires radical self-love – even if you did things that nobody will ever forgive. You have to believe in yourself before anybody else can. You have to believe that something different can happen. And then make it happen, bit by bit by bit.

I like to think that I’m an idealistic, optimistic, big-picture person. But my big picture has gotten smaller over the years. The idea of the heat death of the universe forced me to realize that legacy isn’t something worth obsessing over. With each passing year I realize that the list of possible outcomes for me in my life grow smaller. I can no longer become an Olympic athlete. It’s unlikely that I’ll become an astronaut. It’s unlikely that I’ll climb Mount Everest. (Okay, that one is actually still achievable if I decide to devote a decade to it, but it’s not really something I care about so I can comfortably say that it’s never going to happen.) The list of things that are never going to happen just keep increasing. And I need to learn to find some sort of grace and comfort in that. It should strengthen my resolve to achieve the things that I CAN still achieve.

The voice in my head then goes, “But why bother achieving anything? Everything is garbage, you’re going to die anyway, the universe is going to die too, everything is for nothing.” That’s a painfully strong voice. And I don’t want to get rid of it through medication or through some sort of distraction. I want to face that voice head on and live through it, live past it. I don’t really believe in grand ideals like Freedom, Liberty, Justice and things like that. I think we live in a chaotic world that’s cruel and unfair and lots of bad things happen to good people. We’re kind of a disappointment as a species, in some ways.

But the species isn’t homogenous. There are differences in people and in places and cultures and whatnot. There are people who do good, people who are kind and helpful and full of love. I am not such a person but I want to become such a person. I would like to spend my time with such people, and grow old with such people, and die surrounded by such people.

I was reading an interview with Bill Gates back in 1994, and the interviewer asked him about his motivations. He said something like, you can’t be motivated by cheap things like wanting to win, or wanting more money. Part of what excited him was the vision to have a person computer on everybody’s desks, and that took 15 to 30 years and still excited him. And part of what excited him was that his company hired smart people and gave them interesting challenges to work on, and he felt alive in that environment.

We’re simple creatures. We’re capable of grandiose thoughts, but we’re simple creatures. We need sleep. We need to eat. We pee and poop. We’re animals that way. And part of what it means to be a social animal is to be driven by a need for kinship, peers, to be loved, to be admired and respected. And I suppose that’s all I can ever hope to achieve, to strive for. For a good life. What is a good life, how should we live? My answer to me is this – seek out the best possible peers you can, and earn their respect and admiration. Support them. Challenge them. Love them. And be loved.