How Fear Blocks Action

We’ve all got it: a list of things we hope to do. In some ways it’s a great thing to have. We can carry around this list and it gives us hope of a future brighter than today. When we finally write that novel, or make that movie, or start that business or painting, then we’ll really show the world. Then the world will turn around and pay attention.

And so we keep these ideas for future actions locked up deep inside our heads. You keep a few of them so they’ll be there when you’re feeling down. “This job sucks, but when I finally write the Great American novel, my life will be so much better and different.” So long as you keep the idea inside, you can always seek solace in the certainty that you’ll someday do this great thing and the world will finally give you the rewards you so richly deserve.

The single best piece of culture on this phenomenon, by far, is this episode of The Show with Ze Frank about “Brain Crack”. Sensitive viewer should be aware the video includes a fair amount of profanity. All viewers should know that there are fair number of irrelevant inside jokes.

The video is just a masterful clarification of the concept, its problem, and the solution. I should stop writing, because I feel that I probably won’t say of this better than Ze’s seven-year old video does. I’m afraid I’m wasting your time.

And fear, as the title says, is what this is about. You’re so afraid of this brilliant idea of yours working out — or failing to work out — in exactly the way you picture it, so you never really do the thing. Fear stifles action. Fear — of success, of failure, of doing the work, whatever — is a devastatingly powerful impediment to progress.

There is a very real possibility that the project, or life-change, or whatever you’re dreaming about will land in the world with a heavy wet thud.

So what do you do? We practice, slowly but surely, getting intimate with fear. We try to trust that while this project may not succeed spectacularly, it also will not be our end if it fails. We push through our doubts, and accept that this idea, no idea really, is going to change the world.

Unlike the somewhat concrete and physical projects you’re probably dreaming of accomplishing, your idea has no weight. It doesn’t even have an existence outside your head. It has no impact on the world, and no real likelihood of having an impact while it remains only an idea.

There is a very real possibility that the project, or life-change, or whatever you’re dreaming about will land in the world with a heavy wet thud. And you’ll undeniably and reasonably be disappointed. But the effort of trying to make this brilliant idea real — at least so long as your idea isn’t a life-threatening stunt of some kind that doctors would strongly discourage — is guarunteed not to kill you.

In fact, for most failures the world just doesn’t notice. So do it. Do it now. Your first failure to make the thing that’s so perfect and beautiful in your head will be at least three times as valuable to both you and the world as the idea of it in your head. Because even if the world totally ignores what you make, you’ll have it, the concrete product you can show history, and a lesson learned about one particular way in which this idea will not successfully change the world.


Of Ideas and Word Counts

MousyBoyWithGlasses (CC-ASA)Feel Life Poem

I think that every person at every time has only so many words they can spend on an idea before they end up repeating themselves.

A quick example: consider the stereotypical young male bachelor. When he’s single, the number of words he can or will spend on the topic of romantic love probably doesn’t go above 15. When newly smitten, he’ll spend hours to the topic and for any ear willing to hear. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but I think you can infer the point from it.

And this has implications far beyond the amount of love poetry that exists in the world. This relation between ideas (which we could also call topics) and word counts regularly affects what I do here. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve started writing something only to find that I had only a few paragraphs of stuff worth writing on it.

Sometimes, I can’t even write more than a sentence. And I’d like to say that this means that those topic go on some shelf to wait for me to have more to say about them. Usually they do. Sometimes they don’t.

Sometimes, for lack of a better idea, I feel the need to pad an idea I don’t have much to say about. To pull and prod it and hope that suddenly I’ll find something new to say. I rarely do. But somehow I find my way to rather imaginary line of “long enough”–I’d estimate that for this space it’s about seven paragraphs, though it really depends.

Given how much poking and prodding I have to do to my ideas to get them to that relatively short length, I can’t imagine what anyone ever manages to write a whole book about. I’d estimate that a days writing here is less than a page in an average book, and I’m sure that a year of this somewhat-random writing wouldn’t make a very coherent book.

One of the things I’ve always liked about poetry is that it’s the purest distillation of ideas you find almost anywhere. The word count of most poems is even less than my average word count here, but done well it easily eclipses what I do in terms of depth and thoughtfulness.

Poetry and books feel like the opposite ends of the spectrum to me. A poem–at least the kind I like–is as succinct as it possibly can be. A good book, on the other hand, is extremely verbose. Exhaustion of it’s topic is, generally, the goal.

For now, I’ll probably stay where I am. In the middle of these two more common forms. Not sure which, if either, would better fit my style than what I’m doing right now.

personal, ruminations

On Writer’s Block, Procrastination, and a Solution

Writer’s block is a funny thing. When you don’t have it, you tend to wonder what everyone is so upset about. When you do have it you wonder how you ever managed to write anything.

There are certainly a number of possible causes for the disease. The most likely, if you want my opinion, is that it is caused by lack of confidence. Doubt about the quality of the writing you will manage to tap out, doubt about the quality of the writing you have managed to tap out, and doubt that you will ever manage to tap anything out again.

For me, this seems to be the cause. When I know I have a strong topic to write about, I’m often eager to do the work to put out a solid piece of writing. The issue comes with the fact that this is not so easy as I might like it to be.

Sometimes I’ll worry that what I thought was a great idea yesterday really isn’t so today. Sometimes I’ll worry that I won’t be able to do justice to this great idea. Sometimes I just can’t seem to make a single sentence that seems coherent when read.

I can’t escape the feeling that writer’s block is a natural part of the process. I doubt that you could find a person in the world who hasn’t at one time or another suffered from writer’s block, or it’s good friend procrastination.

For me, and many others as well, procrastination is engendered by fear that what will actually be produced won’t be worth the time that has been spent on it. For that reason, I tend to hold off as long as possible–that way any perceived lack of quality can be justified by an artificial lack of time.

Few things cure either writer’s block or procrastination better than deadlines. The trouble is, they have to be substantial and useful deadline. They have to be deadlines that you as the procrastinator actually are concerned by. An artificial deadline that you create, one that you know to be artificial will never work.

What’s needed is a deadline enforcement system. A service that will hold you to your deadlines. When you fail them you will begin losing things that are valuable to you. Maybe they could begin to drain your savings account. Maybe that could rough you up. Maybe they could just be really disappointed in you.

I don’t know why such a service doesn’t exist. Perhaps I’ll make it.The trouble is I have to create it. Creating an anti-procrastination service without an anti-procrastination service? This may be the most difficult test a procrastinator could ever undertake.

american society, big ideas, personal

Changing the World with Ideas

I was raised Catholic. And, for a time, I convinced myself that I was a saint. Not just any saint, I went further than that. I convinced myself that I was the Christian Messiah. I was the second-coming of Christ. To the extent that I understood such things as the immaculate conception and virgin-birth, they didn’t matter. I was Jesus Christ.

And while my messianic tendencies have declined since I was in the first grade, they are not dead. Though I’m no longer a Catholic, I still think, from time to time, that I’m rather saintly.

Perhaps we could blame my ephemeral convictions of my own importance on how children are raised “today.” The way they tend to be praised more and scolded less. Loved more, encouraged more, impressive more.

Please don’t take me as someone convinced that children are soft these days. Though I don’t disagree that I had it far better than my grandparents, I don’t think they would want me to go through all they did.

They, like most, realize that to the extent that society has made us soft, it’s also given us more comfort and time. And whether we use it for good or bad, this is a nice state of affairs.

But if I may, I’d go back to the Jesus thing. Though I’m no longer convinced of my religious significance, I still think that I can and should do something for the world.

But where two years ago I was convinced that I could fix it all, the whole world, by myself; and where one year ago I was convinced the world was hopeless and I couldn’t save it; I know recognize that no one, no one, can change the world alone.

At the risk of angering some, I would argue that Jesus certainly didn’t change the world by himself. To the extent that his teachings came to matter, it was through the concerted effort of his early followers, and later, Roman and then Church bureaucrats.

But he did offer the world something. He offered ideas that have had positive impacts in human lives for hundred of years. I’m not arguing in favor of Christianity, but rather in favor of ideas. Any idea that resonates with people and forces them out of their own little world.

I believe that ideas have transformative effects far beyond any single person.

Ghandi didn’t end British control in India. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t end segregation. But the force of their ideas and the courage of their convictions turned the tide. Helped to push others to ask themselves about their thoughts, their beliefs. What was right, what was wrong.

I still don’t know if I can save the world. Or if I can change even the smallest bit. But I believe that if I do, it will have to be through ideas.