Just Keep Swimming

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

Writing at the cigar lounge for a few hours a couple times a week just doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t. It’s too damned easy for me to get out of the swing of things in the interim. I end up spending more time just working on my own head to reestablish the writing habit than I do actually just putting down what I could put down.

It wasn’t like this for the first few months. A couple/few days a week was quite enough to keep it coming.

I think…now that I think about it yet again, if perhaps from a slightly different angle, that what’s going on is that I’m expecting more from myself.

When I started writing like this (in this particular incarnation, which I mark as having started back in September or so) I’d sit here and agonize a bit because there’s a bunch of bullshit on my mind. I have to write through the bullshit to get down to the good stuff.

So I do, I write the bullshit out (the Same Old Post that really just has a hundred permutations on this site) and by the time I’m done THAT I’m down in to actual thinking. Cool!

A few days later I come back here, get all set up and yeah, there’s a little bit of crap on the top of my head, but I get through that in short-enough order, then back to actual writing. Cool!

Then I get into the groove where I’m excited about actually thinking anything at all, in stark contrast to the kind of reactive surface nonsense that seems to rip through my mind most of the time.

But now it’s…what…seven or eight months since I’ve started doing this and the hole is narrow and deep, but the sides keep falling in. Part of me is still just excited that I’ve gotten to any depth at all. But I’m growing increasingly frustrated (again) by the fact that I’m not really coming up (out) with anything new at all.

So I think back to the beginning and have to work pretty hard to remind myself that I really am just operating from a much higher baseline than I was back a few months ago.

As I go farther/deeper/higher the measure of what constitutes “the cruft” that gets in the way between sessions gets more stringent. I now seem to have the same amount of nonsense in the way, but it’s what I’ll call “deeper nonsense.” What six months ago would have counted for an interesting insight is now something that’s such banal horseshit that it’s barely worth getting to.

But it’s really only now that I’ve noticed that it’s my standards that have changed. I’ve been spending the last few months going over the same thing again and again because six months ago it’s what passed for actual thinking.

Then I hit post and am chronically unsatisfied because the feeling of progression isn’t quite so naked. It’s like the weight loss I’ve experienced (over what’s notably the exact same span of time) except for the fact that I get on the scale every day and see the change over time.

With weight loss I can measure in a very concrete and precise way what my actions and subsequent accomplishments are. I write down a list of what I eat and I write down how much I weigh every day so there’s really no arguing with it.

The analogous task with my writing would be to reread everything I’ve written up until now every morning and see the progression over time. Well that’s not exactly practical. I do spend more time than I used to think was strictly healthy rereading my old writings. But I’ve slacked off of that practice a bit as it used to be really just indulgent self-congratulatory crap. (This leads quite naturally into yet another discussion of why I want to keep my writings in a wiki with tag clouds and such, so that I can see at a more simple glance what the progression is across posts. But I’m not going to do that here. Or, well, now.)

So I really don’t have a metric against which to measure thinking and writing progress aside from some nebulous feeling that it’s just the same thing over and over again.

The funny thing about this is that what triggered this realization (albeit on a 24 hour fuse) was the programming session I had yesterday.

I’ve been working on a pretty complex piece of software and yesterday I got sick of my code base the way it was and started it again from scratch. This may sound extreme to a non or novice programmer but it really isn’t. What happens with that kind of thing over time is that you design a piece of software the way you think it should work then start plugging away on features and tests. Over time it takes something close to the shape you had in your head. But with the introduction of things you hadn’t thought through all the way warts and abnormalities start to appear, infecting the design with considerations that just hadn’t come up.

I realized as I was plugging away, having gotten through the rote task of setting up things in minutes that had previously taken me months, that NOW I was actually thinking. I was advancing the ball down the field on the larger time horizon.

I had to get the horseshit out of the way. But yesterday’s horseshit was the advanced thinking of six months ago.

Once I had that groundwork laid out (coded to the point where the idea was locked down) I was free to think about it in far more interesting terms. That is to say far more deeply.

So I carried yesterday’s realization forward to today and realized that the reason I feel so damned dissatisfied with my efforts here at the cigar lounge was because my standards had changed so damned much that the old successes just weren’t enough, even as I was engaging in only the old behaviors.

The challenge of moving forward is always the same, no matter where you are in the line. You can either decide to push yourself or you can backslide. There’s no stasis to be found anywhere.

So while this blurt of words feels quite like every other damned one I’ve had in the last six months, I can zoom out and see that it’s actually different.

  • It does represent (or at least include) a new realization, however poorly expressed.
  • I wrote over 2000 words and didn’t post it, instead spending an hour and a half (and counting) cutting out paragraphs and sections I enjoy quite a bit because they had at best a tangential relationship to the point, rearranging and rewording the rest.
  • While it still feels like a surface-level rant, I can see the larger point just around the next bend, beyond a couple/few more ideas I have to crystalize into words and get out of the way; to, in essence, make them yesterday’s ideas.
  • Word count is…while not irrelevant, certainly a trivial concern. In September it took some serious bleeding to get a thousand words out. Now two or three isn’t even really something I notice until I look down and nod.
  • There’s less fucking whining. Seriously. The fact that no one’s called me out on that garbage is amazing to me.
  • I don’t feel the need to congratulate myself overmuch. (A bit. But not overmuch.)

So what are the next steps?

  • Write outside the cigar lounge more.
  • Let the words take me where they will. I’ve avoided getting too deep on some things because my audience has expanded. But if there’s something the posts of a couple weeks ago taught me, it’s that The Good Stuff is expensive to write.
  • As a corollary: Worry less about how things are received and more poignantly what the backlash might be. Just don’t be a jackass intentionally.

It takes some courage to go deeper, especially in the realm of self examination, because your identity is on the line. Yet that is exactly what is called for.

The feeling of being someplace and looking ahead to the difficulties and rewards of the work you need to undertake always feels the same, even once you’ve progressed towards or even through those rewards. You can’t rest on your laurels, especially if they were granted by other people. You need to intentionally push and stretch, to “cut away more dead wood” as Peterson says, to progress.

To keep yourself on the path you need a way to measure the progress you’ve made. It’s tough with something like writing, especially this kind of self-absorbed journal based writing.

Maybe there’s an end to it, a point where I’m actually getting to the point where I’m marginally satisfied with it all. I don’t see it. But that’s okay.

It’s the progression that is the success.