In the same way I crave salt, fat, and sugar I crave work. It can be attached to periods of time I haven’t been productive. Like a way of making up for vacation. Other times it’s the desire to move a project forward.
I even have cravings for physical work. I need to get outside, go to the gym, or work with my hands. As much as I appreciate the white collar work I could potentially do into my 70’s, I love having a tangible outcome from a day's work. Staring at a spreadsheet or filling out paperwork just doesn’t have the same satisfaction as stacking wood.
The downfall to this craving is the equally shiny distraction. Yes, things like television, but I’m talking about the difficult to identify distraction. Things like laundry, cleaning the bathroom, or even starting a new project rather than finishing the one in mid-progression.
Work is a reverse bell curve.
Starting a project provides a dopamine spike. Enough to motivate starting the project. Due to the nature of the project I need to take a break. It’s too big to finish in one sitting, I have to wait for the glue to dry, or I get stuck on a problem I can’t immediately solve. This slump is enough to end the project completely. Even with the craving it’s hard kickstart the motivation to finish. That second dopamine spike is a bitch, and it’s never quite as satisfying as I want it to be.
But the reason to complete a project, to get back to work is much bigger than the dopamine rush I get from starting. There is a deep fulfillment to completing projects. Looking back on what’s been done and knowing the work it took to get there. It’s the same fulfillment that creates nostalgia and reminiscing. Like years after the 50 mile hike and going out and to eat with the same group of guys to allow the stories to come flooding back.
When I crave work, that’s really what I’m craving.
Everyday we tell ourselves and others stories. It’s the way we process information and make sense of the world around us. Many of these stories that inform the way we show up to the world come early influencers; our parents, friends, teachers, books, movies, church leaders etc. It doesn’t take much to dive into our past and find the time, location, and influencer that solidified a belief we have ourselves. This belief turns into a script that is repeated as we navigate where and how we fit into the world.
There stories can earmark our superpowers positioning us for success:
I don’t tell students to become actors because they starve, but I really think you need to act.
You’re studying public relations, I thought you would have done something bigger than that, like a lawyer.
I can see how you’re communicating with your partners, and there’s wisdom in it.
Or they can shed light on our weaknesses and our potential downfall:
What kind of person needs that much attention?
If you put a fraction of the energy you put into performance you might actually be able to do something.
Why did you say I would stand up for you? I’m not going to do that, you’re on your own.
Repeated over and over again these scripts become part of the fabric of our stories as we play them out daily. This repetition is a feedback loop that reinforces the belief and the story of who we are. Over a long enough time frame they become the perception of our reality.
Decision fatigue is real. Any way we can eliminate the decision making process will free up our capacity for important decisions.
A sure fire way to do that is by making the big decision of purpose before the little decisions crop up. Figuring out the reason for the thing you’re trying to accomplish should provide enough direction to make smaller decision easier. If the purpose is difficult to define then there isn’t enough clarity to begin with.
Not having a clear purpose is similar to having a cluttered desk. It’s harder to focus on the work.
When things are in their place focus can be deliberate and directed.
We all have a narrative running in the backs of our heads. This narrative helps explain our nuances and quirks. Things like why we hate the color green, or are afraid of commitment. These stories justify our actions and simplify the complexities of our own human experience.
In many ways these stories project who we are and how our life turns out. Like a self fulfilling prophecy.
Our stories are grown out of experiences of our formative years when we are trying to figure out the world and our place in it. These events can stick with us our whole lives. It’s these stories that are the reason for therapy.
I think it’s important not to judge these stories. We can’t help it. We will always make up a story to explain the things we can’t explain. In many ways these stories are how we can understand our experience in this life. This process of understanding comes alive when we read or watch a story that resonates with us. Just as a story can be freeing they can also limit our perspective. Blinding us of opportunities.
Sometimes I can get overwhelmed by my professional work. Feeling an onslaught of emotions creates a story of my lack of abilities. Obviously if I’m feeling that way it must be some indicator of who I am and proof that I can’t do what I do.
But that’s not always true. They could just be feelings from situations I haven’t experienced before. The story about my inabilities is nothing more than an explanation for those feelings. The story is a way for me to justify why I’m feeling anything at all.
But, the story is just a story. It could be a story about anything. It’s not that the story is bad it’s what the story is about that may or may not be helpful.
What is helpful is knowing the story isn’t permanent. The story can change, and be whatever it is I need it to be.
As a humans familiarity is king. We are more likely to stick to what we know than to venture into new territory. Familiarity creates safety and comfort. Which are both good. But they’re not always right.
Breaking tradition and what’s been done before, especially if it’s working, is not a reason for change. As the adage goes
The only constant is change.
If change is inevitable then it’s a requirement to know the best process to facilitate change. This is why it’s important to learn design.
Design is not a process to create the “look” or the “feel”. But rather a process to get to the heart of the problem. From this problem comes a “look” or a “feel” that is part of the solution.
The reason we should all learn design is because of the assumption that adults, experts, and professionals know the answers. Assumed answers tend to mean assumed problems. When we assume we know the problem chances it’s easy to get suck in feedback loop of assumed solutions. Never seeing the change we wanted to see in the first place.
One of my favorite examples of this is 30x40 Design Workshop’s video on interior design. Where he talks about the importance of having a design concept (identifying the problem).
Developing a concept is away to create constraints on a project. These constraints turn into rules around how to make decision or why a decision is made. Being able to rely on a foundation of principles provides a clarity when the process get muddy. Working on any complex problem it’s only a matter of time before things get muddy.
Social interactions aren’t complicated until we overthink them. Thanks to a global pandemic I overthink every social inaction I have.
A small town lends itself to blurry social rules. Sure you’re a lawyer now but I remember when you flunked our 7th grade math test.
There’s more information that feeds the narrative and the interaction. This blurriness of lines makes for a more complicated but potentially more fulfilling interaction. It’s also the same structure that makes family so amazing and devastating.
The pandemic drew very clear lines around what was okay and what wasn’t. And it provided a box in which we work. As humans were very good at playing by the rules. They let us know when we’re doing it right and provide a positive feedback loop for when we’re questioning: at least I wore a mask.
Now that we are on the other side of the pandemic I find myself trying to find a clear set of rules for new human relationships. I am stumbling and letting past experience define my future interactions. I hesitate to dive into conversations and interactions. Worrying I’m comeing off too strong.
My experience is that most people want to belong. Getting to that belonging as an adult who doesn’t interact with the same people in a variety of different contexts isn’t helpful. It takes longer. It also take a level of courage that I haven’t relied on since high school.
Showing up with the same people everyday in a variety of contexts despite what happened previously.
I ran into a colleague at my daughter’s school. I introduced him to my wife and then described his job completely wrong. I felt embarrassed, as it’s something I should have known. I didn’t know what else to say to him after that. We sat next to each other in silence.
I can only assume he wasn’t angry, or offended as he didn’t storm off. He’s kind and generous. The only thing preventing me from continuing the interaction was my judgement for my huge mistake.
The trick now is to get over the embarrassment and remember that the I will likely never forget what he does. I will always be able to introduce him.
There have been a handful of times when I have felt so angry about something that it took weeks for me to shake it. One of those times was when I read the Zen phrase:
“The way a person does one thing is the way they do everything”.
I had a visceral reaction. For me a visceral reaction is a sure sign I am running from the truth. I am ashamed of the way I do things. Like when I avoid conversations with my kids or my wife. Or when the first thought that pops into my head when I meditate is oral sex. If that was the way I did everything then what kind of person am I?
What this phrase gets right is that I am a creature of habit. I’m not in control of my daily actions. I rely on my automated programming. It’s this programming that hits the snooze button, chooses sandwiches for lunch, and pulls out my phone when I poop.
It’s also this programming that allows me to adjust to the needs of the student while discussing how to choose the right college.
This kind of programming makes me more efficient by making assumptions about consistencies. Giving me fewer things to process in the moment. Our brains developed these traits for survival. If I know that rustling bushes has the potential to kill me I’m guaranteed to survive if I run.
At the end of the day It doesn’t matter if I hate this, it’s the way I function. These are the rules to the game I am playing.
I didn’t like this phrase because I thought all that mattered was my outcome. If my results were good then why does process matter?
If my process doesn’t matter then I’m not beholden to any one way of doing anything. I can be flexible, adapt, let the spirit moved me.
The problem with this is a lack of consistency which produces inconsistent (mediocre) results. No matter how good the one-off result, inconsistency kills momentum and improvement.
If that’s the case then I need to focus my energy on my process, on the “way I do everything.” Letting go of my death grip on my outcomes. Especially because I have very little control of my outcomes but my process I have for more control over.
A recent example of this has been my writing. For years I committed to writing 750 words a day. Most of that writing was freeform. It was good practice in get the ideas out of my head and onto the page. It helped me get over my fear of starting from a bank page. But there was a turning point where I wanted more from my writing.
I wanted to share. In order to do that I had to take my writing to another level. My writing practice changed to get to a different result.
In this shift I realized there is a balance between process and outcome. They are each valuable on their own but together they are more than the sum of their parts.
The back and forth between the two can provide a useful feedback loop for progressive growth.
Where I continually get stuck is chasing a specific result that I don’t have control over. Or overthinking my process and not allowing myself the wiggle room to play and fail.
My ego latches on like an angry pit-bull unwilling to let go. When this happens it stops the cycle. I become self-critical, overanalyze and throw everything away. I pull back only to start back up again a day, a week, or a month, later.
I struggled with this balance because of my misunderstanding of meditation. I originally thought meditation was the outcome of a still mind. Through practicing meditation, I realized my brain is naturally going to wander. Practicing meditation is recognizing when it does and pulling it back to focus on stillness.
This is the purpose behind paying attention to the breath. It gives my brain a place to come back to when it starts thinking about my to-do list, or what I shouldn’t have said at that meeting. My breathing becomes an anchor.
This discovery quieted my inner critic giving me permission to meditate in a way that was helpful for me. Letting go of the how I thought it was supposed to be.
As you get into new projects or reevaluate the things you are currently working on see if you can find this pattern. If you get frustrated, see if you can observe the hand-off of process to outcome and back to process. Maybe that will help identify the source of your frustrations and help to alleviate them,
When the world shut down and my team and I went into lockdown we needed to shift the way in which we worked:
The nature of everything we did shifted and more or less turned it upside down. I was asked on many occasions:
To most of those questions my answer was, “I don’t know.” I have never been through a pandemic or a massive shift to online work. I had never used many of the tools we learned to use to organize a remote team. All I knew was that we were going to have to do it and I’d keep trying until we figured it out.
But even when I have an idea of how something is going to turn out there are still a million variables that can turn it around and make what otherwise would have been a success, a failure.
There is no guarantee.
Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
This prospect, especially when there has been proper training can be stymieing. It can be discouraging to not know how things will turn out or if the method we have in place is going to work. If it’s not going to work then why do it at all?
This is the sentiment behind the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. And where ignorance can become a superpower.
The best solution I have found to combat against the discouragement of the unknown is focus on process instead of results. My process is really the only thing I have control over. The most helpful part of the process is pivoting.
Over the past few years the real success I have experienced has come from my ability to take current information and respond to it by pivoting away from my original plan.
A few years ago a friend of mine and I ran a Kickstarter for the cologne company Musk & Hustle. We knew within the first few days that we weren’t going to make our funding goal. At that point we had two options:
We opted for the latter and while the second kickstarter didn’t have the funding we were originally hoping for we did get funded and were able to move forward with next steps in the business.
Developing the skill to pivot start with knowing there will never be “a” solution.
My own discipline has the ability to impact others. But not if my intention is to make an impact. My discipline must have a selfish intention. One where I am looking to do the work for myself.
In my annual evaluation this year my boss asked me to write out my leadership and management philosophy. My approach to these is based on the ensemble work I did in theatre, primarily improv. One of the benefits of working in an ensemble are the close relationships built while doing the work.
When I see others perform at their best I also want to perform at my best. When they are dragging and performing at a lower level then typical it can also affect my performance.
I am affected by those I surround myself with, becoming an average of them.
Often I lose sight of what I’m capable of until I see my peers perform and create great work, pushing me to be my best. My discipline is not just my discipline, but belongs to the groups I’m a part of. My family, friends, and colleagues.
There is an educational philosophy where students will fit into whatever expectations are given to them. I used to think this was all mental, like the power of positive thinking. But expectation is built by example and communication. The expectations I have for myself, the standards I hold myself to, and the choices are I make are more than just good thoughts, but habits I develop over time.
They are my discipline and my practice.
I started a couple of different writing projects when the pandemic started. Over the last couple of years they have evolved. The circumstances of those years has made me keenly aware of my transition process. Not out of choice, but in trying to figure out what the hell was going on with me.
One of these transitions halted my writing projects. Something had to give in order create space and give attention to, what I now know, was a definitive ending and move into what William Bridges calls the neutral zone.
To help makes sense of this movement I’ve put together a digital zine that illustrates what it feels like.
In his book Transitions, Bridges outlines the process in three steps:
What I have discovered is that I will do just about anything to avoid the neutral zone. To emphasize I prefer Richard Rohr’s language for his transition model:
On a very visceral level my body will fight against the movement to disorder. Despite having plenty of experience in disorder (growing up in the Air Force) I will convince myself I can skip it and jump straight to the beginning.
What ends up happening is my beginning is short-lived because I’ve never fully embraced the ending and moved on. I straddle the divide, riding a pendulum from one to the other and back again.
It’s only after some heavy convincing (forced) that I finally let go, embrace the end, and fall into the growth-enabling disorder.