(Started last week, finishing this now.)
The title is a title of a book by Marcel Proust. I believe I first heard of it while reading something by Nassim Taleb – probably The Black Swan. Apparently it was a very influential novel, published in France in the 1910s and 1920s. I haven’t read the book, but I have read what others have written about it. It seems to be a book about a narrator reflecting on the passage of time, on the nature of memory. Virginia Woolf was a fan. I find myself thinking of Christopher Nolan, who I think is a modern-day version of someone who contemplates such issues and perspectives.
I’m talking about this I think because I feel like I’m getting older and like I don’t have a lot to show for it. Isn’t this the age where you’re supposed to be partying, supposed to be adventuring and so on? I experience a sort of wistful longing for the life that I’ve not led. I try to talk to other people who’ve led alternate lives, and I do find that basically everybody feels the same way. Everybody wonders if they’re on the right path. Everybody worries about the mistakes they might be making. Well not everybody, but everybody that I care about and relate to, for sure.
A colleague has mentioned to me a couple of times over the years that 27 tends to be the year that you really wisen up and go “oh shit, I’m a full adult, I’m responsible for myself and my life, I can’t be a drifter any more”. I’m 3 months away from being 27. I recall writing similar-ish blogposts about myself at ages 16, 18, 20, 21, 25 – every year is a year where you’re supposed to grow up a little, be more mature, be kinder, more gracious, more responsible, more competent, more of a genuine gift to the world. I refuse to be a person who turns 30 and is still listless, lost and confused about life. Of course, you don’t want to have a fake sort of confidence – that’s exactly what leads to a terrible midlife crisis. If I contemplate my life strategy so far, it might be fair to say that I’ve basically been elaborately trying to avoid running into a mid-life crisis. Which I think happens when you’ve been buying into a certain narrative that you’re sold – you assume certain things about how life is going to be, what is going to make you happy or fulfilled – and then after 20 years or so of that, you’ve been so invested in something, and you start to worry that it wasn’t quite right for you… and so you start to freak out and try to make some sort of drastic change at that point. Get divorced, quit your job, buy a sports car…
Yeah. So I’ve always been very skeptical of the straight path that most people seem to accept quite naturally. I don’t know if it’s because I’m some sort of ‘natural misfit’ that could just never do it, or if it was the way I was raised, or if it was the books that I read… probably some weird loop of all of the above, feeding on itself. I still remember being incredibly uncomfortable in Junior College. I’m probably misremembering it somehow that I’m older, but it seems to me now that it seemed to me then to be quite the farce. I think I had a snowball’s hope of getting into law (3-5%), and hoped to get into media (mass comm) or political science (NUS or SMU). It didn’t really occur to me that you could do really well, get a scholarship and study abroad. On retrospect, if I could live my life over, maybe that’s something I’d have aspired towards. I didn’t personally have any close family or friends who advocated for that, most seem to set their sights on local Uni. But again I might be misremembering all of this.
Where was I going with this?
At the highest level I just wanted to reflect on the passage of time, and how things change, and how things are so fragmented and multi-layered and multi-faceted, and how we remember remembering things, and we misremember things as we go. Sometimes I get the thought that I’m not going to live very long; like I’m going to get cancer or some other weird disease and die at 40 or something. I’d like to make it to at least 110 so I can live to see the year 110. But every day is a privilege, every moment is a miracle and I don’t want to take any of it for granted.
I find myself reflecting on my youth more and more these days. What was I trying to do as a kid, as a pre-teen, as a teenager, as a young adult? Where am I going with everything? What is my mind trying to wrap around, if it is at all? How are things going to change, how am I going to see things differently? What is going to surprise me? I think the big looming spectre is “parenthood” – do I want to be a dad? I actually feel like I’d be quite okay with it either way. If I don’t end up spawning my own little humans, I think I’d still find ways to get involved and help out with younger people’s lives – maybe foster kids at some point. At the same time, I have been feeling antsy about the fact that I haven’t done much travelling in my life. I’ve been mostly busy trying to stay employed. I don’t think I regret that. But I think I want more out of my life moving forward, and so I have to be a lot more deliberate about how I do whatever I do.
I wonder how I’ll feel reading this stuff a decade or two from now. I wonder if this project will be something I just lock away in the digital attic, or if it’s something I’ll revisit. I think I’ll enjoy hitting ‘random post’ from time to time.
(I started this a few days ago, I’m going to finish it now.)
I was watching a video by Ramit Sethi over dinner earlier. I can’t remember when I first encountered Ramit, but I remember that when I did, I thought he seemed a little sleazy and unlikeable. I think it was probably something to do with the title “I Will Teach You To Be Rich”, which seemed presumptuous and bullshitty. But over time, the more I’ve encountered him, the more I’ve found that he has a pretty compelling style and approach to things. I particularly like the way he constantly asks questions on Twitter.
Anyway – the takeaway I was getting from reading his material and watching a couple of his videos (I don’t know if this is the main thing he was trying to communicate, but it was what was already on my mind) was the title of this post – which is that if you’re not beating a fear, you’re hiding from it. I’m thinking now about some other person’s point about how, if you simplify greatly, there are only two emotions – fear and love – and everything else is just derivative of that. It kind of makes sense. Love is tied with gratitude, fear is tied with anxiety and paranoia and what-have-you. I’m thinking now also about Chris Hadfield’s TED talk, which opened with “what is the scariest thing you’ve ever done”. He talked about how a person might overcome their fear of spiders by first doing the research and then deliberately walking through spider webs, deliberately handling spiders, and how that would then allow them to function in nature more comfortably. Fears, he pointed out, are often irrational and hold us back from living a fuller and more complete life.
Now I find myself thinking about this video I saw of this lady trying to confront a different fear each day for a 100 days (or something like that). And I remember how heartening it was to watch, how quickly we root for somebody who’s doing something like that. Now I’m thinking of the TV show Fear Factor, and how that was so compelling to watch. Those fears were very physical and concrete – fear of creepy crawlies, fear of gross food, fear of heights, and so on. But I think the real Fear Factor that we all live every day is far more insidious. Fear of being forgotten. Fear of failure. Fear of being ostracized, mocked, laughed at, cast out. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of guilt and shame. Fear of not measuring up, not being good enough, not being worthy of love and affection. All of these things sound a little silly and superficial when you write them down in a text editor while you’re lying in bed on a saturday night, but the reality of it is so insidious. What is stopping me from living a better life? What is stopping me from turning my life into a canvas that I then paint with all sorts of beautiful, interesting and exciting things? Fear! Fear is the primary thing holding me back. It’s easy to write it up as all sorts of technical things – I don’t know this, I don’t know that, I’m too tired, I’m too broke, I have too many commitments… but at the heart of it is always fear. And fear has to be faced head on. You have to introduce yourself to your fears. You have to say YES, hello, I am afraid of you, but I am going to face you anyway, and I am going to win.
A life where we run away from our fears is not very interesting. It’s not very compelling. It’s quite sad. We turn to cigarettes and alcohol and distractions and video games because we are afraid. I mean, those are not all necessarily horrible coping mechanisms – a little bit is always nice from time to time – but if you’re honest with yourself and you take the time to really breathe, meditate, pay attention to yourself and your life, it should be clear what you’re afraid of.
When I say you I’m talking to myself, of course. I can’t speak on behalf of anybody else. I’ve encountered some people in my life who seem pretty fearless. Or they’re really good at managing their fears. Chris Hadfield is an obvious one. Malala Yousafzai comes across as incredibly fearless.
It’s interesting also to think about the fear profiles of other people in your life who might have made your own life difficult. Think about what your parents, your spouse, your in-laws are afraid of. What are your friends afraid of? Surely everybody is living in some kind of fear. The great fear of course is death, the inevitable unknown. Sometimes I almost think that I look forward to death, because it’ll allow me to say “You know what, fuck this shit, none of this shit matters, none of it ever did, it was all one big joke, one big laugh, the universe entertaining itself” – and as I write this I find myself wanting to say “I wouldn’t recommend it tbqh”, but I can’t stand by that thought. Well, I don’t know what the alternatives are. Perhaps there’s a parallel universe out there that’s way more amazing than this one. We’ll never know. What I do know is that the current life I’m living is definitely shaped by my fears, and that is not something that I enjoy.
As I was getting to this point I wanted to remind myself to think about childhood fears. And young-man fears. I remember being afraid of my parents. Being afraid of school. Being afraid of looking bad in the eyes of my peers, being afraid of losing friends. I distinctly remember being afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get a job that I liked, that I was going to be stuck in some shitty dead-end job and turn into some rambling old man that nobody liked. I remember being afraid of food, being afraid to cook, being afraid to do squats with heavy weights, being afraid to run. All of those things are fears that I can face and conquer. And I think maybe if big, audacious goals might be a form of escapism, then a small but potent goal is this: to face my fears one at a time, and conquer them decisively like a boss.
I was writing a blogpost for work earlier today – and during my research phase I found myself effectively plotting the outline for something that could’ve been 10,000 words or more. This amused me. I’ve been writing blogposts for work for 4 years now, and yet I haven’t figured out a simple, sticky system for making sure that a blogpost is properly designed for reader consumption. This strikes me as a glaring flaw in my skillset that ought to be fixed.
When I think about this I realize that this is a symptom of a much bigger problem I’ve had all my life – my inability to make good projections about things. Lots of people post on Twitter and Tumblr and Reddit about how they have similar problems, but that doesn’t mean that everybody has the same problem – there’s a selection bias there. 
Anyway, the point is that I really ought to fix this problem in order to live a better life. A lot of the stress in my life comes from bad planning, from saying yes to things that I cannot handle, from drawing up projects and scopes in my head that are far bigger than necessary – often perhaps because it’s never clear to me what “enough” is. I’m recalling know a funny-sad conversation I had with my wife about work, when she asked me “how do you know when you’re done? what does done mean?” and I didn’t have an answer. I suppose in the absence of an answer, the real always was “I’m done when I’m utterly exhausted, when I’ve overshot the deadline and I’ve disappointed myself and everybody who was foolish enough to give me any semblance of responsibility.”
This is not a way to live. Life is too short to be spent agonizing internally about things that the world doesn’t actually care about.  
So (and I’m certain I’ve said this before in a much earlier vomit, but it bears repeating) I need to get in the habit of delivering on what was initially promised. A problem here is that initial promises are often vague. So I need to take into account the amount of time and resources I have to get any particular thing done. A decent blogpost on any given topic shouldn’t have to be more than 1,000 words. It shouldn’t have to quote more than 10 people. Once you get into that territory you’re working on something more substantial. Which is fine, but you need to be clear with yourself that that’s what you’re doing.
I find myself thinking now about Carl Zimmer’s point, about how writing is like building a ship in a bottle. You do a ton of research and reading, and you have all that information in your head about everything there is to know about a topic – but then you try to start writing and you’re stuck in all sorts of contortions, because it’s simply impossible to convey that much information one word at a time in a series of a few thousand words. All the research really lets you do is figure out the story that you want to tell. And that story is necessarily going to be a mere shadow of what’s inside your head. You have to be okay with that, really early on. And you have to be prepared to discard and start over.
I believe there’s a school of thought in programming or some form of project management that you should plan to throw your first iteration away, since you’re probably going to end up having to do it anyway. This reduces the stress and anxiety you’ll have when trying to figure out precisely when you should start over. Da Vinci said that all art is merely abandoned, never finished. But this process of abandonment shouldn’t have to be so agonizing. As creatives we should know how to be ruthless without breaking our hearts at every single instance of iteration.
I haven’t been writing as many word vomits as I’d like, as frequently as I’d like. I still haven’t quite figured out how I’m supposed to feel about it. A part of me feels that I should obviously be shipping at least one vomit a day, however bad it gets. That’s the professional thing to do, and I want to be professional. So I’m not going to make excuses for that. I’m just going to describe how it feels to do it, so that I can understand my situation better and subsequently (I hope) perform better as well. The reason I’m slow with publishing vomits is because I’m not clear about the scope of what I should be writing in a given vomit. Sometimes it feels like I’m almost always writing inside my head, even when I’m not writing in a text editor or on pen and paper. That “writing” happens in a very subconscious way – just ideas moving around inside my head, shuffling back and forth, almost imperceptibly. I don’t actually know what is going on. But if I sit down with the word processor, I feel stuck.
(Is this true? Is this really true? How often do I really sit down with the intention of writing? I think I might be making excuses for myself here. I think if I really sit down – if I tell myself that I need to write something in half an hour’s time or else – then I’ll have something lined up inside my head. What I do know is that this process makes demands of the subconscious.)
So I do need to sit down and write every day. At least going through the process of a thousand words a day I think gives me a sense of what can be achieved in a few minutes in a given space. Anyway, tonight I’m hoping to crank a few out. It’s now 840pm. Let’s go.
 People with our specific problem seem to have a propensity to talk about the problem that we have. And we dominate online conversational spaces, so we’re definitely overrepresented. You don’t hear from the people who are quietly going about their lives, getting shit done. All conversational space is dominated by edge cases – you never see “dog bites man” as a headline, only “man bites dog”. And so it’s easy to infer, erroneously, that there are all sorts of epidemics of dog-biting men.
 And the world cares about some really silly things, too. But you get the idea.
 I’ve enjoyed the past couple of uses of footnotes. My mind has a habit of thinking divergently and exploring those offshoots of thought. This sometimes leads to something better than what I had originally set out to do. But it more often than not leads to a lot of frustration and anxiety.