When I write here on the blog, I am guided by a simple rule; “tell it from experience”. If I haven’t lived it I feel kind of fraudulent writing about it.
Some years ago when I thought that I wanted to be a business man I was always going along to meetings, seminars and workshops about how to do business better. It took me a while to realise that although most of these events were being presented by people who could certainly talk the talk; very few of them i.e. none of them, were being run by people who had any direct experience of what they were talking about; it was all theory and regurgitated, non original theory at that, a lot of which could well have been originally theorised by someone without direct experience also!
This led me to only go along to events that were being presented by people who had a documented history of success (or spectacular failure) on their chosen subject. I essentially started listening to gurus or wannabe gurus, people who had done the hard miles learning from experience and not theories.
One guy I listened to impressed the room by lighting a candle out at the front and then disappearing up to the back of the room before imploring us to concentrate hard on extinguishing the candle. After about 5 minutes of deep concentration by 50 of the best business minds in Scotland(or so they would have it) the candle resolutely refused to even flicker. It was at this point the that guru returned to the front of the room, licked the tips of his fore finger and thumb and snubbed the candle out before stating: you can think about it all you want, but until you take positive action…fuck all will happen!
I could have left then; as although the candle was now extinguished; a new light was shining brightly in my mind. It’s so damn obvious of course that most of us spend our lives overlooking it; taking positive action towards achieving our dreams everyday is the only way to ever achieve anything. However, since I had spent 50 quid on gong along and there was a “free” lunch included I decided to stay and see if there were any further light bulb moments to come…what a boring day it turned out to be, full of the same old crap about business plans blah blah and the “opportunity” to network with 49 of the most boring bastards I have ever met. Then an amazing thing happened; I got talking to the guru himself at lunchtime and after the small talk was over I asked him what was the single biggest problem he encountered when he consulted to big companies, football teams etc, to improve performance. Was it lack of cash, lack of good ideas, lack of skills and education, problems with suppliers and marketing? His answer was again obvious, so obvious that I hadn’t seen it in 35 years or so of life on earth; the answer was “people who didn’t really want to be there, didn’t have any interest in what they were doing” and that stretched all the way back up the ladder to the boardroom in many cases. He’d even met top league footballers who had really always wanted to be musicians but had somehow fallen into their current line of work by chance.
I left during the afternoon coffee break, because I knew by then that there wouldn’t be more than two light bulb revelations in one day, didn’t want to get caught in the rush hour out of Glasgow and I had enough to go on and do what I should be doing with my life.
The thing is that this wasn’t actually two revelations at all; this is stuff that we all instinctively know already. But instincts are animal and we’ve been force fed rhetoric all of our lives that tells us not to trust the ancient animal part of our brains. However, if you get the second revelation about doing what you love, the first one i.e. getting things done isn’t going to be an issue. The real mind stretcher is actually taking the step to change your life around, overcome the lifetime of conditioning and indoctrination you have had to stay with the system, breaking down barriers, crossing boundaries.
These barriers are created by the mind, the “self”, which in Buddhist teaching doesn’t actually exist. When we are conceived our minds are like blank canvasses waiting for the artist (every experience of any kind we ever have) to start to paint in the detail; and it is this detail that forms our ego, our “self”. That means that your mind carries a lot of stuff put there by others and all of the influences that they have had. If left to your own devices, you wouldn’t actually go along with or believe in a lot of this, but you spill it out as if you have actually experienced it. Some of the most powerful of these negative influences are centred on our place in society, our social class and our in built limitations…but we shouldn’t listen to them, we should do our own thing.
Even after overcoming the major, if ultimately false hurdles the self puts in place for us, there is an even greater force hell bent on slugging us right back to our “rightful” place in the world. In his brilliant “the War of Art”, Steven Pressfield calls this force “The Resistance” and it can show up in many different ways, all of which can be loosely labelled as procrastination of one kind or another; but how can this be possible? Its pretty easy to understand procrastination in terms of putting off stuff you simply would rather not do like emptying the dishwasher, taking the dog out when its raining etc, but this is surely different; you are finally doing what you love, what you always wanted to do, the thing you would do for free if push came to shove…what the hell is going on?
Well, its your old friend “the self”, the internal voice, the little devil on your shoulder, think of it how you will and its telling you that if you insist on doing this “new” stuff you will make an arse of your “self” and nobody will like the results and you will be humiliated and you will be a big FAILURE! Just get back to your job at the supermarket and all will be fine; you will be back in your rightful place in the social order and nobody need know that you were ever here in the first place.
Steven Pressfield has a lot of great advice about how to overcome this force, but even he is brave enough to admit that it never really goes away and that the battle must re-commence every day; but listen, this is a battle worth fighting and there are some really positive and enjoyable things you can do to gradually overcome your “self”. However, there are also a lot of things you can do to fool yourself into thinking you are overcoming the force of resistance your ego creates for you everyday. These usually take the form of tools, gadgets, self help books and productivity theories and within them is hidden a grave danger…more resistance! I like to think of it as Getting Ready to Get Ready and its really just another, but possibly more insidious form of procrastination. The key premise of all of these is that they are helping you to get organised, to prepare the way for your great work of creativity to come, but think of this; J K Rowling scribbled out the first Harry Potter book sitting in a café in Edinburgh, because her flat was too cold to work in and she wanted to conserve her money to heat the place at night when her kids were there. She didn’t wait until she could afford a Mac book Air and a Manhattan Apartment. Ernest Hemingway scribbled out his manuscripts in pencil in stolen moments in Paris cafes, the Beatles played 8 hour gigs night after night in smoky, shit-hole, basement bars in Hamburg, Bruce Springsteen once played to a “crowd” of 25 people; we need to stop getting organised; we need to just get on and do it, and that brings me to the subject of “routines”, the dreaded things that we thought we were getting away from after all of these years of dancing to the beat of someone else’s drum!
Most people need some sort of routine in order to get things done even if it’s a really loose one. I think it might have been Graham Greene who, when asked “do you have a writing routine or do you just write when the muse takes you?” replied “oh of course just when the muse takes me, but fortunately for me, the muse takes me at 9.00 am to 1.00pm every day Monday to Saturday”! So there is another example of a positive routine, a routine followed out of love of the work and a very enjoyable result from it.
The really grating thing about the routines most of us have come to hate; you know, get up at 6.30, get the kids ready, get ourselves ready and get on the train at 8.00 isn’t the fact that they are routines; it’s the fact that they were invented by someone else on our behalf. Positive routines are good for us; my morning routine at the moment (winter) starts when its still dark; I walk down to the field about 50 yards away to feed my donkeys and lambs, then back to the house to let the hens out, fill up their water, collect the eggs and then back to the donkey’s with a net of hay to keep them going through the day. Then I pick and pack the books I have sold during the previous 24 hours, get the kids to the school bus on time and then write until lunch, watch bargain hunt and on to the afternoon’s activities. Of course every day is different and the routine can change to suit, but the core activities are ones I enjoy and by and large make a bit of money from. I do a meditative walk in the afternoon before picking the kids up again from the bus and I don’t consider that my day is over until I’ve put my book down and switched the light off. I don’t make a distinction between work and play…it’s all just my way of life.
I would make a distinction here between routines and systems. Systems are those horrible things that business people tell you about. If created and implemented effectively they make your business run like clockwork, even if you are not there. Now that’s great in theory, but not in practice for a lifestyle business like yours and mine, because that sort of business is about “us” and not about any Tom, Dick or Harry being able to act like clones of us when we are not there.
The really dreadful thing about systems thinking is that resistance quite often creeps in disguised as a system; a new spreadsheet to monitor your progress, a new add on for outlook to track your achievements, to help you set goals, a new gadget for you to record your innermost thoughts in, a new paper trail set up by a book keeper to deal with bad debt and collect your money on time…all of these “systems” can be ways for you not to Do the Work, which is incidentally another brilliant book by Steven Pressfield which is recommended reading for all of you creative geniuses out there. More incidentally, the debt collecting stuff is easy…pick up the phone and say hey, what was wrong with the stuff I sent you? Nothing? then where is the money for it? Better still make sure that you only deal on a payment first basis…job done…paper trail system useful for lighting the fire tomorrow.
I now consciously try to catch myself getting wrapped up in these new systems of procrastination. If I feel drawn to a new tool or gadget, a new kind of notebook with slightly different lines, a new filing system, a new kind of pencil, I know instinctively now that this is my inner self trying to fuck things up by stopping me from creating and giving me something seemingly “useful” to do, which of course is rubbish because what it is actually trying to get me to do is to procrastinate.
This is actually a mechanism we build in for ourselves to avoid failure; if you don’t try something you can’t fail at it can you? The old saying that “no-one ever got fired for buying IBM” is so true, but think what the potential could have been if some of those people bought Apple instead!
The only answer is to implement our ideas as and when we have them. We need some new routines; just enough to give us a jump start. Making these habitual is a good thing. I’ve been walking 4 miles every day for a whole month now and it is a habit I can’t break easily…a good habit of course. If we can make sitting down at a particular point in the day a habit; whether it is to write, paint, draw, build, program, or create whatever it is we create then we are on to a winner and we can feel good about that.
Making our life our work still needs some of the discipline that was enforced on us in the old days, but now its good, freedom orientated discipline…we need to get stuff finished and out the door every day as part of this freedom lifestyle.
Practically, this is how a project gets done in my world:
- I scratch out a mindmap very quickly in my notebook.
- I then draw the details from that into some sort of logical order in a list.
- I identify which of these details are still too big to do in one sitting and split them down into single sitting actions.
- I tick the actions off a list; yes just a paper list with a pencil…no gadgets.
If you’re worried that this sounds a bit too mechanical, a bit clinical and non Bohemian, this is actually the process that many musicians go through when learning a new song or piece of music. If I want to learn to play a new song on my guitar here is what I do:
- Download a tab from the internet.
- listen to the song
- divide the song into distinct sections
- Learn to play the sections individually…slowly, sometimes not in the right order.
- put the sections together into the full song
See…it is arty farty enough after all…get to it…Implement!