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Meaningful Work

While heading home from picking up a pizza, another driver sped up and swerved in front of me.

It’s a fairly busy stretch of road with two lanes going each way. I kept watching this driver weave in-between the other cars in front of me, sometimes signaling, other times not. Moments later, they slammed on the brakes at a red light.

I got to that same light about five seconds later, having stayed in one lane, traveling the speed limit, and leaving ample room between myself and the car in front of me.

This isn’t a story about bad drivers or being considerate on the road.

Think about the number of decisions the driver had to make to change lanes five or more times in that stretch of the road we shared.

Each time, they had to judge the distance between themselves and the other cars to avoid an accident. They had to decide if they felt it was necessary to signal, how fast they needed to go, and how soon they would need to change lanes again.

What were they thinking about as they worked to thread themselves up through traffic, trying to get ahead just a little bit faster than everybody else?

Were they annoyed? Nervous? Focused less on the current moment and more about where they were headed?

For all that effort, all they gained was five additional seconds spent waiting at a red light.

Did that satisfy whatever desire motivated them?

When we worry about optimization

Regardless of their exact circumstances, this driver wanted to feel like they were headed toward their destination as fast as possible, even if it didn’t get them there any faster.

They wanted to put their effort into optimizing speed in the moment instead of looking for ways to get tangible benefit.

Sure, you could race between cars to make it to a red light a little faster than everyone else, or you could find a way to get in your car and start driving a few minutes earlier.

We can’t be certain that any one change will definitely result in a better outcome, but we can try to put our behavior in line with better possible outcomes by focusing on actions that are more likely to matter.

Doctor Strange Looks Into The Future
Because we don’t all have an Eye of Agamotto to figure out the best course of action. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s easy to confuse action with progress

It’s the difference between being busy and getting meaningful work done.

If I spend my time color coding a bullet journal, or arranging a cascading hierarchy of tags in a task manager app, how long will it take for those actions to show substantive improvements in the way I do necessary, rewarding work? Are they a layer of distraction, or a tool for focus?

How many passes and revisions can I make on a set of pages, or a blog post before all I’m doing is making things different instead of making them better?

The siren’s song of optimization is like pressing your foot a little harder on the pedal. You’re feeling acceleration, but you’re not necessarily reaching your destination any earlier.

But how do you tell the difference?

The tasks with meaning aren’t always obvious, but they never lie to you after they’re finished.

Busy tasks always try too hard to assert their importance, like a compulsive liar who peppers their speech with admonishments to “trust me.”

They shout at you that these five life hacks will help you finally clear your inbox…

But the time you spend reading that article could be used to answer two or three of those emails, or asking yourself the question about how necessary is it to reach Inbox Zero.

You could look through a gallery of dozens of great new themes for your website…

Or you could grab a pen and some paper and start coming up with new content to put on that site.

You could read all about how people whose success you wish to emulate schedule their day, or what bullet journal notebook and software they use…

Or you could do work with the tools you have and the time you have, and test things to see what works for you.

Better or Different
Busy work turns time into an I.O.U. where you promise yourself that you’ll eventually get around to what matters.

Meaningful work leaves something behind. It transforms time into something tangible that you can point to.

Shout it from the rooftops: I did this. I made this. It is here now where it wasn’t before.

I did this I made this
Celebrate finishing something, no matter the scale.
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Non-Duality (For Writers)

 

On my flight back from Boston a few weeks back, I was reading my copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression. A man across the aisle from me asked if he could talk to me about my book, and I did something I rarely do on a flight: I struck up a conversation.

It turned out that he was also a survivor of depression, but he said he could never read a book like that in public. “I’d have to be in my bedroom with the door locked.”

For the next 45 minutes in the air, and then for a few more minutes around baggage claim, we talked about depression, our families, finding community in new places (he had recently retired to Israel after living in Canada for most of his adult life).

And there were definitely times when I could tell we could have had a contentious turn in the conversation. Flash points where it would’ve been easy to veer into an argument. But the sparks never landed on kindling.

We found we had something in common that was worth exploring.

A little over a week later, I found myself in the hospital. Long story short: I was losing blood faster than my body could replace it. Doctors needed to find the leak and plug it.

In-between procedures and transfusions, I spent time in a room separated by a curtain from an older man with breathing and mobility issues. My roommate and I had little in common. This could best be summarized by the time he woke me up at 4 AM, watching a televangelist encourage people to “send a donation; plant a seed of $58 to become one of the eleven-hundred and twenty-eight miracles,” or something similar.

I could have dwelled on our differences, or my annoyance with being woken up at such a weird time. I’d had no real food for almost two days, been poked, prodded, and had cameras peering into every corner of my digestive system. I had plenty of reasons to react with anger.

But I thought about the why. I thought about the times he’d spoken to his visitors about how he wished he could get out of the hospital and get home for some real healing. Some “soul healing.”

He was looking for comfort. He wasn’t writing a check. He just wanted something to take his mind off being in that bed, being woken up for his breathing treatments, and not knowing when the Doctors would finally say he was well enough to go home.

And I could relate to the idea that real healing doesn’t necessarily take place in the hospital, where your sleep is interrupted by new tests, new hypotheses for your care, or just the sounds and smells of illness.

There’s a Buddhist concept of non-duality I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

As best I can explain it, it’s the idea that labelling the differences between yourself and others reinforces false notions of the self.

In Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gumarantana describes it this way:

“The ego sense itself is essentially a feeling of separation — a perception of distance between that which we call me and that which we call other. This perception is held in place only if it is constantly exercised…”

With these encounters, I could have focused on the differences between myself and each of these men. Differences of age, religion, attitude, political views, and so on. I could have drawn up many lines between us and left it at that.

But both of those times, the value of engaging with the moment came from recognizing that for all the things that separated us, we were all in need of healing. We were all connected to a desire to live and be well.

If I build a wall between you and me, I’m not only establishing a false idea of who you are based on my limited perception, I’m clinging to a potentially false notion of who I am.

This is one of the reasons I stress thinking about empathy with my writing students.

Screen shot from one of my powerpoint slide decks titled All Writing Must Begin With Empathy

When writing, I want my students to remember that every character should be a specific individual, and to remember that not everyone thinks and behaves exactly as they would. In this way, I am teaching them about separating themselves from others.

But at the same time, there is a need to ground your writing with the perspective of that other fictional person in order to make an honest attempt at depicting their actions and reactions.

Part of that process needs to be seeing the center of the Venn Diagram:

How are you not so different from this other person?

Austin Powers 'We're not so different, you and I.'

If you base their uniqueness only on a representation of their difference, you miss the connections they could have with other characters in the story, or potential points of connection with the audience.

A villain is more engaging if we can see something of ourselves in them. The relationships between characters becomes more complicated if they see there isn’t just difference between them, but common bonds.

The X-Men stories wouldn’t be nearly as engaging without the central friction between Charles Xavier and Magneto: two mutants who both want to protect those like them and help them see their potential, but whose difference emerges from how they view The Other (humans).

Or see the potential for comedy in this play between difference and commonality, like in Home Alone where Kevin’s mom, Kate, rides back to Chicago in a truck with Gus Polinski and his polka band. These characters couldn’t seem more different, until Gus talks about how the whole band needs to spend the holidays away from their families, too. But Gus’s attempt at finding common ground also sparks his story of trying to relate to Kate by telling about the time he left his son behind on accident, just like her… Except that Gus left his kid in a funeral home. For hours. Alone.

All of these things combined take a seemingly one-note polka band gag and use that common ground to give it dimension and resonance with the rest of the story.

But non-dualistic thinking can also help with another bad habit of writers: envy

In Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he writes:

We compare our looks with others, our success, accomplishments, wealth, possessions, or IQ, and all of this leads to the same state—estrangement, barriers between people, and ill feeling.

The meditator’s job is to cancel this unskillful habit by examining it thoroughly, and then replacing it with another. Rather than noticing the differences between oneself and others, the meditator trains him- or herself to notice the similarities. She centers her attention on those factors that are universal to all life, things that will move her closer to others. Then her comparisons, if any, lead to feelings of kinship rather than of estrangement.

A writer looks at someone whose work they appreciate, and get disheartened at their own lack of skill or achievement.

A writer looks at people they consider their peers, and seeing their accomplishments, feels frustration that they don’t see themselves matching up.

A writer looks at their own work in comparison with what they’ve done in the past and sees a failure to recapture who they once were, or a failure to progress beyond who they think they once were.

All of these envious moments focus on difference: There is you and there is me. There is me then and me now.

But what if it were possible to focus on something other than those differences? To find those pedal points in both of your songs that resonate deep within the both of you?

Because if we only focus on the success of others, we erase their struggles, which could show us how alike we may be.

If we only focus on part of our past experience, or on part of our desired future, we skip over any number of valuable moments that inform us, shape us, and give us something worth saying.

When you encounter envy, ask yourself what you have in common with this person. What do you share?

Try not to use this as a springboard for the thought of “If we’re so similar, why are they so better off?” That’s falling back on reinforcing difference.

But seeing what you have in common can remind you of the positive things you see in yourself. If you can focus there, you can turn envy into admiration, and share some of that admiration with yourself.

And, especially when dealing with your peers, envy is the enemy of community.

Anything that can highlight the difference between yourself and others that you wish to work with or share something with will start building that wall between you.

That dualistic thinking and envy can spill out in the workshop session, on social media, in your work with others. And these spills aren’t often easily wiped away.

But your actions and your effort to see what unites you with others can also spread. And if you practice that, you may encourage others around you to practice that same kind of radical empathy.

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How am I not myself?

Ever since I started using streaming music services, I’ve wondered about how much of my listening choices have been shaped by the service. Am I really listening to what I want to, or have I been going with the algorithm’s flow, listening to minor variations on what it knows of my past preferences?

Then again, I was never really picking songs out of nowhere.

There was my father’s record collection in the basement, where his taste shaped mine. There were recommendations from friends. There were the songs on the radio, selected by tastemakers and marketers. There was what was available to me in local stores, or who I might see perform on the tv shows I watched (which were determined by the people who booked talent for those shows, and the network executives that decided what shows to produce).

Other people already shaped my taste, but I could exert control by saying yes or no to their suggestions.

The same goes for films that I watch and re-watch. Sure, Netflix may try to suggest what it thinks I would like to see next, but I have final say. Like with music, when it comes to film, I never made choices in a complete void. I was influenced by everything from professors in school, my friends, the “Best Of” list books I pored over, the programmers at Turner Classic Movies… And so on.

What I was exposed to created a rubric for me to interpret my reactions and opinions, but in the end I would get to say yes or no.

And I’m thinking about this more when I question why it took me so long to make the leap and try antidepressants.

While growing up, people would talk to me about the way my brain seemed to operate differently than other people’s. That it was unique in a positive way.

During one long night in high school, working on a homecoming float, a friend took me aside and told me that I shouldn’t ever take drugs, because “They’ll just make you like everyone else.” It was a pretty odd PSA moment, but it stuck with me.

For a long time, I consciously connected the idea of drugs that alter your mood or perceptions as changing something essential about you. Maybe it had to do with the way I identified as a creative person, and there were so many creative people who were heralded for making beautiful art out of their pain. Creative people who talked openly about their disdain for the idea of doing anything to alter their relationship between their mind and their work.

And there were direct testimonials from people whose work I respected, like when reading David Lynch’s comments on drugs (in general) from Catching the Big Fish:

We all want expanded consciousness and bliss. It’s a natural, human desire. And a lot of people look for it in drugs. But the problem is that the body, the physiology, takes a hard hit on drugs. Drugs injure the nervous system, so that they just make it harder to get those experiences on your own.

The messages about how drugs (of all types) work sunk in. That altering your chemistry altered something essential about you. I had a fear of becoming somebody else. Dulled. Losing my edge.

And I lied to myself that it was worth all the suffering so long as I could hold on to those occasional moments and fight through it to think up something beautiful or original.

But at some point I had to ask the question out of I Heart Huckabees: How am I not myself?

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If other people, other stories, other choices, other influences touch my life every day, but I’m still somehow essentially me, why should medication be any different?

It was a risk I was finally willing to take, because of two things:

  1. Acknowledging that the version of myself that I became without some kind of intervention had become someone incapable of properly doing the things I care about, or being helpful to the people I care about.
  2. Acknowledging that nothing is permanent, and that if one intervention doesn’t work or has negative side effects, there are other methods to try.

And I feel different. I feel more resilient. More able to grasp moments of happiness.

But am I myself?

When am I not?

To say that medication makes me no longer myself is to suggest that a person has little to no free will, that we’re just chemical processes dancing with our reactions to our environment. If changing the internal chemistry of my body makes me a fundamentally different individual, then so would taking a vitamin C supplement or an aspirin.

A person has to be more than their chemistry, their DNA, their “programming.” Otherwise, there would be little difference at all between a human and an algorithm.

There’s no difference between what’s inside a bedroom with the lights on or off. It’s just that when you turn the lights on, the shadows stop looking like monsters.

 

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Other uses for seeds that don’t sprout

This morning, I watched a squirrel eating helicopter seeds off the ground.

Look, when your mind latches on to an analogy, and the world around you seems to be prompting you, just run with it.

The tree made the seeds to try and grow more trees. Instead, that tree was feeding a squirrel, so that squirrel had the energy to keep running around, being a squirrel.

When the helicopter seeds come raining down heavy, on a windy day, or in a storm, sometimes they can clog the gutter on a house. Maybe that causes the owner of the house to climb up on a ladder to clear the gutter, changing the shape of their day. Maybe they go to a home improvement store to buy some gutter guards, creating another project that takes some of their time (and moving money around in the economy).

The seeds aren’t fulfilling their intended purpose, but they’re not without purpose.

Pages might not make the finished draft of a story. Your script might not make the cut for the next round of the competition. Your tweet might get a lackluster number of Likes.

Only attaching value to an action if it gets the desired result diminishes your ability to see inherent value in the action itself. It diminishes your ability to see value in yourself.

Don’t get discouraged. Do the work. Clog the gutters.

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On continuing to try

Out for a run this morning, I watched a helicopter seed spiral out of a tree and land on the concrete.

Nothing will come of that seed. It has nowhere left to go.

But the tree has hundreds more seeds to drop, just waiting for the right breeze.

Any one of them might land somewhere that it might take hold and sprout, but the tree needs to keep producing seeds, regardless of where each one lands.

And that’s what I want to think about when I try to remember the importance of valuing the process and the habit of work instead of only valuing the end results.

Because a helicopter seed can spiral gracefully no matter where it lands.