I am writing as much for myself as for the readers. Anna envies the quality of therapy my writing provides. Currently, in my forties, I am reevaluating my own life choices. Some of them I love more, some less. Being responsible for my choices, I am making peace with that responsibility. So I am making small research for my personal use, and I want to share some of the insights. Probably you will want to read more here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
The drive and the failures.
As we are new to something, we occasionally experience immense drive. I remember, when I just started to work I could work fourteen hours per day six days a week. There was something magical in the experience of turning a vision into my head into something working, that can influence people and has a life of its own. This magic is there in any creative work I do: programming, writing, designing, and other activities. However with time, I started to dislike my work because of the alternative costs: the time I could be gathering unique experiences, socializing, and spending with my family. When we are in the state of “flow”, the productive drive can consume us and leave almost an empty shell willing to be in bed and rest during the weekend. So I started to change the drive was almost gone. Then I failed. I was crushed. Lost more than I could afford, but after collecting the pieces I felt younger, more alive, and more driven than ever before.
Recently I found an article describing a similar experience, by a musician, not a programmer. I quote:
If they end up becoming successful, in almost every case, they’ll begin producing less and less music over time. This happens for one of two reasons: (1) Their focus shifts from why they’re writing music to what their music has brought them. Consequently, they are either satisfied with their results and no longer have the drive to write more. Or, they desire to make more music but the fire (their “why”) is gone, and thus, they can’t create the same depth and quality they once did. (2) They become perfectionists and paralyzed. They fear their best work is behind them. Elizabeth Gilbert describes her paralysis in her beautiful TED talk. After the mega-success of Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert couldn’t get herself to write. She knew she wouldn’t be able to replicate the results of Eat, Pray, Love. This paralysis is where many, many people get stuck. (!) However, Gilbert is different from most, because, as she explains in her TED talk, she continued forward in spite of her success. In order to do so, she forced herself to fail a few times — just to “get it out of her system.” Once she did this, her emotional blocks were gone and she was able to continue her creative career.
Holes in our knowledge.
The choice is not always conscious. With enough perspective in hindsight, we can see when we got bored, when we could not handle the stress, and when we became anxious and sabotaged our own progress. When we take ownership over our conscious decisions, we can feel a sort of pride. We are shaping our own actions. We decided to go for an unreachable goal and failed glamorously. It is almost a sort of an ego boost.
And then there are decisions that were the result of temporary blindness, cockiness, or serious character flaws. Accepting imperfection is very fashionable. People are often more than happy to proclaim having ADHD, being neurotic, or extreme introversion. Once we can put a label on our imperfection, we release some of the responsibility. What about the imperfections that do not have a label? Our abilities are often a sort of swiss cheese, full of holes. The big holes can have glorious names, but the small holes may be responsible for our mess. Quite often we can see a hole in our logic. It is there, visible in all its glory, yet it should not be there if the things we believe in are true.
After understanding the nature of electricity in the late 19th century, the scientists working in various fields of physics felt that the excitement is gone from their science. All the physical phenomena have an explanation, except for some small and bizarre observations on the fringes of their knowledge and far from the interest of contemporary science. They should not have been found. They could not be explained. They were easy to dismiss. They were almost dismissed. These anomalies gave birth to the theory of relativity and quantum physics, arguably the most exciting scientific revolution of the 20th century.
Why do we need x10 goals?
Very few people who have extraordinary achievements and many people who never risked or achieve anything great propose to strive for audacious goals, goals that change things x10. The logic behind this risky proposal is quite simple: if you need to raise a lot of money and convince a lot of people, you need to give them a grand vision. This is definitely a viable path for someone with the right character traits. Especially if you are not the person that needs to follow that path.
Many great people were utterly miserable. Nicola Tesla, the proponent of AC electricity that all of us use, died poor and reclusive. Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of television, died pennilessly as a broken man. Farnsworth’s wife Elma Gardner “Pem” Farnsworth fought for decades after his death to assure his place in history. And there were myriads of others, whom we simply do not know about.
In 2001 Jim Collins wrote a bestselling book: “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t”, describing the traits of the greatest companies of his time. He has chosen companies for being successful, but these companies had also a history of audacious risk-taking. A decade later, most of these companies were gone.
When Albert Einstein build his four miraculous theories in 1905 he did not need huge budgets, and he was not trying to impress people. He was simply probing the assumptions of the physics as he knew it. Quite likely he was as surprised by his own results as the rest of the community.
“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” – Albert Einstein
Momentum vs transition
Momentum is present in most success stories, and also in most failure stories. Each new success opens up new opportunities and new threats. Confidence is a direct reflection of past performance. We chase the opportunities to the new success and do not want to slow down. The threats accumulate. If we progress sufficiently fast, somebody else will handle our unfinished businesses. Eventually, if we do not progress fast enough, the unfinished businesses can undo us.
We learn from failures, simply because so many of our mistakes become painfully clear. We need to find the ability to transition and learn from our mistakes, without losing the motivation and optimism. I quote:
Transitions are not just meant to be endured, but rather to be welcomed and embraced with anticipation and excitement for the potential. The transition is an internal process that informs us that it’s time to move on, that we are ready and committed to leaving behind old behaviors and patterns. As part of the process through the transition, we shed an old identity—who we’ve thought we were up until the change. Essentially, the energy that has powered an outdated role, status, or persona needs to be released in order for it to be available for what we are to become. This process may leave us wondering, “If I am not who I once thought I was, then who am I?” A real sense of loss for what once was may accompany the process.
Was their life a waste?
When the soviet union collapsed in the 1990s many people around me felt a colossal loss. All their lives, their energies, their beliefs, and hopes for the future became irrelevant. Whole nations needed to shed their identity. Seeing these historic events as a child I was torn between two feelings: a great hope for the better world and great anxiety that my own life and the lives of people around me will also be wasted chasing the wrong vision.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said: “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forwards.” Eliminating waste altogether means total avoidance and utmost productivity, which means achieving all the wrong goals, and that would probably not be a good life. Happiness is fueled by our experiences. To generate powerful and meaningful experiences we need to take some chances and accept the waste that accompanies them.
Suppose we could improve our brain to the point where we will generate experience quickly and avoid most of the mistakes other people make. Would that be a great life? I am not even sure that life would be human. What makes our experiences so valuable is the price we paid for getting these experiences, how rare this experience is, and how we cherish each of them. Generating experiences in bulk is very similar to watching television or playing video games: fun but does not feel real or important. People from the Soviet era often told me with the utmost pride stories of them finding several rolls of toilet paper, as it was rare and valuable. We have as much toilet paper and we can wipe and more – yet we experience no special pride of ownership.
Anxiety or serenity?
Once we own our choices, conscious and subconscious, we have one more choice to make. We can choose anxiety or serenity. In the first scenario, we are focused on our choices. We can let our risks and possible consequences build up, hopefully controlling which event triggers which belief. Then we can journal the whole chain of events, and try to deal with beliefs generated by past traumas. Alternatively, we can switch off our minds and focus on what we experience: breathing, weather, small joys of life. The big things will happen, either way, at least we will make sure we count the little things.
Both approaches are equally viable and can be combined as we wish. We can choose to take further risks and deal with anxieties or to avoid and count the small things. As we gain or lose momentum or simply get tired or bored we can transition, changing our position. There is no glory in avoidance, but occasionally the glory may be overrated.