Obviously, I have nothing against people getting opportunities. However, let me caution you about a type of opportunity that you might want to pass up. There is a type of opportunity that we have to carefully consider and approach. It is an opportunity that is way beyond our current skill level and very unlike anything we have done before. We all can stretch some to press beyond our limits but none of us can jump the Grand Canyon.
How It Unfolds
A great opportunity comes up. This comes because we have made an idea pitch or because someone knows we work within particular creative field. It is a project that is so great we can’t pass it up. We are so flattered, so excited. A breakthrough is right around the corner if we can deliver. At last, we are getting the recognition we have deserved.
But we have to slow down and look clearly and honestly if this project is right for us. I know, I know, this sounds like such heresy. It is so hard to get people’s attention or get them to say “yes”, who wants to slow down? Speed up, speed up! our head and heart screams.
It is so tempting, but listen to me, someone who has been in this situation more than once, an opportunity can turn into a curse.
How to Turn a Great Opportunity Into a Curse in 13 Steps
Step 1: Accept the offer.
Step 2: Be overjoyed that you got “the nod”
Step 3: Party for a few days or week(s)
Step 4: Start working on the project you promised to deliver by going out and getting the materials you need
Step 5: Start working.
Step 6: Enjoy the first few days of the project as you explore your bright-new materials, ponder the project, and continue to bask in the glow of opportunity seized.
Step 7: Do o.k. for a few days but….get “distracted”, “called away,” or go in search of “inspiration.” Progress stops.
Step 8: Discover that you like the idea of the project more than the idea of working on the project.
Step 9: Intend to get back to your project of promise but…this work, hurts. It is slow, taxing, and challenging. Ouch.
After a few weeks have gone by:
Step 10: Avoid the friends and family members who celebrated with you in step 3. Fear they will ask: “How is that project of yours going?” Ugh.
Step 11: Avoid even thinking about the project. Ugh.
Step 12: Ask yourself: “What’s wrong with me? How did I let this opportunity slip away? I blew it! Idiot!” Ugh.
Step 13: Repeat Steps 10 to 12 about 10,000 times, especially when already feeling down or filled with doubt. Cringe.
A Look at the Curse
What went wrong? We had a great idea, someone else agrees with us, and we have been given an opportunity. What stalls us out?
It starts with a very rational, but unconscious realization that we have never done a project of this size or complexity before. We get push back from within that says something like:
-”Are you crazy, you have never done this before?”
- “This is going to be very, very, very hard.”
- “Do you really want to give up x,y,and z to do this?”
- “Do you know how to start?”
- “Do you see the end?”
- “This going to be painful, do you know how to handle this pain of hard work?”
- “Where are you getting your confidence from?”
These statements rattle around and we can hear them whispering or shouting at us. Or, they can run silent. In all cases, it is all too easy to avoid the project, not really commit to the job, and to stick with our old, usual ways. Unless we are prepared through a history of regular work in our creative field, these voices and our ways of avoidance will overwhelm us and drive us to inaction.
It is too much. We are unpracticed in many of the technical skills but also in the skills of creative work. We are weak. Using an analogy, we are being asked to run a marathon. We may love to run but we have never gone over a 3.2 miles in a single run! Can we fake our way through a 26+ mile run without prep, without knowledge?
How to Turn an Opportunity into a Blessing in 3 Steps
We need to prepare to be ready for opportunities when they pop up and as we cultivate them:
- Start a daily routine of working a bit each and every day, NOW! Fifteen to thirty, well used minutes per day will be make you stronger and stronger with each passing week. Working muscles of body and mind will be built.
- Start learning the methods of getting things done. This is different from studying creative technique. It is an art and science unto itself. Read, go to workshops, and ask people in your creative field: “How do you get things done and not stall out?”
- Right-size your opportunities. Don’t accept projects (be honest here) that are way out of your reach. Be reasonable. Do take projects that require a decent stretch to a new personal best.
- Get support to get it done. Find an accountability partner, support group, mentor, etc. to keep you moving and believing in yourself and your project.
Curse be gone!
Limitless is a perfect expression of our base fantasy: Without work we can achieve great things; without work, our trapped genius can be realized and released; without work, we can know and do everything and anything. Plus, the world knows how great we are.
Is there a word like porn for ideas that keep us dumb, lost, or chasing our tails? Please send so I can add it to this post to more accurately describe Limitless.
Plot summary (no spoiler): Bradley Cooper is a guy with a book contract but no ability to sit down and work. Nor does he have the wherewithal to clean his apartment or pay his bills. Sound familiar? A chance encounter with a drug dealer ex-brother-in-law gives him exactly what he needs for the remaining 90% of the movie: a pill that unlocks every block and barrier. Apparently, the more days you take it the greater genius you are.
O.k., Limitless is fun to watch, but does it provide the prescription we need to get started and keep moving with our projects. Bet none of our ex-brother-in-laws have such a pill. We need to look for creative healing to wellness somewhere else.
Ancient Secret Formula
Perhaps Limitless II (if that happens) could show a true prescription for creative productivity. Something that has been tested throughout time and around the word (only a few listed below):
- Develop a habit for consistent work (do this daily)
- Develop patience because getting good takes time, lots of time. Can’t rush this time. (do this daily)
- Envision where you want to be/do generally and envision specifically your project as it enfolds and becomes clearer to see/understand (do this daily)
- Plan your work but also trust the surprising directions you will be drawn to as you invest more of yourself into your project. Leave the door open. (do this daily)
- Consider your work as a journey with all sorts of landscapes; you will face ups, downs, quick sand, whirlpools, easy flatlands, etc. (do this daily)
Within procrastination research there is an awareness that we overestimate our future. We assume we will and can do something later because our future will have perfect or at least fine conditions for our creative work. But how can we be so sure?
-our health can change to the negative
-our home conditions can change to the negative
-our time availability can be less
-our life may end
-our fortunes may change to the negative
-our minds may change to the negative
We might not have the great tomorrow to do our work. That’s a chilling thought but…
Discipline, in the sense of having set boundaries in time, behavior, or quality is fine. It is the Yang of the tao of creative productivity. We need this to give us something to push against and to aim for. It gives a particular shape to something where indecision, lack of clarity, and sometimes chaos live.
Yin is the softer force. Softer force…hmm…that seems contradictory. It is but it makes sense and it is a reality.
Dedication is the attraction (as I define it, at least) that keeps us coming back. It is the glue that binds us to some finite collection of objects, places, people, process, and ideas. It is the great point of fascination, hope, and curiosity that captures our thoughts, dreams, and heart.
Dedication is hard to quantify, examine, or compare. It’s part of the world of wishes, desires, needs, and the province of the unconscious.
Dedication makes procrastination less powerful and far, far less relevant. Dedication increases resilience, that strange force that allows us to get up after “failure”, “hopelessness,” and “helplessness” and loss to stumble again into the studio, to the desk, the work bench, the easel, pen, to the business, and instrument when we aren’t sure what to do next. It is the place we had to be despite a 1000 reasons not to show up.
Dedication carries with it responsibility. A responsibility that at a minimum, demands that we must be jugglers. Juggling ideas, processes, an instrument of our creativity, understandings, and more.
Dedication is yin-like in that it signals our love for what we do, who we are, what we want to offer from our creativity.
If hard to quantify, examine, and compare dedication is all of that, perhaps other, hard to see and hard to trust yin soft/powerful forces have a chance, too. Optimism, trust in one’s ability, the future, self-worth, courage, and confidence begin this list.
Yin is darkness in its full range. In darkness is where much of our work is done. In our minds, invisible to everyone, and sometimes invisible to ourselves. Working quietly, frequently alone for long stretches. And our end products that sometime get to migrate the long shadows from completion to the light of public attention.
Getting to Dedication…how-to-do-it….comes in a later post.
Jerry Seinfeld gets credit for a simple tool. The story goes something like this: Jerry had reached a level of fame and a new comic went up to Jerry and asked him for any secrets Seinfeld knew for getting better as a comic. “Don’t break the chain,” he answered. The chain he was speaking of is a string of days in which he set aside time to write and practice material. A link of the chain was a check mark he placed on the days he worked on a calendar. His goal was to work in long blocks of unbroken check marks, a chain. Skip a day of practice, you break the chain.
This secret anyone can do with a paper calendar (free download), a desktop computer-based calendar (cc-chains download), or now, with numerous phone apps. Phone apps include: Don’t Break the Chain by Rogue41; Don’t Break the Chain by Matt Cowlin; and Seinfeld Calendar.
The Bizaro Jerry Refinement
The don’t break the chain idea is great approach. It is a simple way to accomplish a couple of things. First, it puts an emphasis on consistent effort. Consistent effort feeds our unconscious the stuff it needs to grow our skills and produce the psychological ties to what we do. Secondly, it keeps our work top-of-mind, another huge factor in keeping us focused on our project and on the creative work we love. Lastly, it gives us a sense of accomplishment for not only the one day but also for the larger period when we hold to our goals. Oh yeah, one more thing, it gets us to play a game, a competitive game, with ourselves. Can’t break the chain. Made it two weeks last time, this time I’m going to make it three weeks!
Let’s improve a great idea to an even better tool. Regular Jerry’s approach of focusing on our work days doesn’t tell us about the days we don’t work. A day not worked breaks the chain and is not desirable, but is that all we can learn from that day? Bizaro Jerry comes in now. As you might recall, the bizarro Jerry episode picked up the theme highlighted in DC comics where a super hero such as Superman, had to face his polar opposite who came from a polar opposite world. So let’s take the same theme and apply it to regular Jerry’s calendar.
Instead of marking down only the days we work, let’s mark down the day’s we don’t. A real adherence of the bizarro theme would have us really going out of our way not to work but I’m not going to be that loyal to the polar opposite thing. I just want us to put a lot of attention on days we don’t work. Why did we not work? I don’t mean this question to be something that leads to shame or frustration, but to simply logging a reason for each day we don’t work. We will always have things we must do or want to do instead of working. That’s fine but we need to have a clear view of what those reasons are.
Reasons will be a plenty. Many will be a reason that comes from within. Some of those will be clear but a lot will start to form around: “I just didn’t feel well”, “I just wanted to do other things,” “I don’t know why didn’t work but I just didn’t feel like it”, etc. Once a week or so, look at your log and see if there is a pattern. Are there regular external or internal distractions we can get rid of, avoid, or put off for a while? Which are hard reasons (visitors from out of time) versus soft reasons (I wasn’t drawn to my work that day)? Do we often not work without a reason not to work?
Bizarro Jerry’s calendar also makes it very clear that time flies when you are not working. It is easy to take some time off but usually we take off far more time than we intend or realize. A couple of days, unless we are tracking it, becomes a week and a half. A week becomes two and a half weeks. “A bit of a break” becomes three months. We are pretty terrible at telling time by days when we set our mind to “off”. Things we don’t think about slip away.
Bizarro Jerry keeps us from a fogged understanding of our non-work days.
Regular and Bizarro Jerry Combined
O.k., polar opposites would probably explode or something if they combined but we have to give it a try. Find a calendar, paper or electronic one, that allows for both recording working days and non-working days with a check mark or similar indicator and a log for days we don’t work. Make a bright red check mark to celebrate your working days. Ideally, find a gray ink to mark days not worked and write down whatever reason you had for not working that day. Simply capture the why and do be honest with your answers. Somewhere in that log will be information you can use to better understand yourself, your “process”, and how our days relate to our work.
Robert Dilts, expert in hypnosis and its recent variants, has made a study of the working mindsets of all sorts of people, of the very past and the recent past. He found that Walt Disney had a distinctive way of keeping hard boundaries between stages of creativity and creative production. The boundaries protected one stage from being contaminated by others too soon in the creative process. This allowed Disney, and therefore his staff, to give each phase its due, taking a project in all directions and depths without worry about how that stage would fit with the others. However, when the time was right, Disney would pull away the boundaries and let things mix.
This makes great sense. How often have we killed a good idea within minutes of it popping up? How fast have we moved from creative vision to creative destruction brought on by the Inner Critic? Disney held off the critic (inner and outer) until it was time for the critic to enter the stage.
Holding boundaries between parts of the creative process we let our creative juices to flow unfettered. Sometimes that means keeping up boundaries for an hour, a day, a week, or even a month. With this approach, we can: immerse ourselves in an idea; this immersion will fire up other creative insights, and, not to be overlooked, we can have time to enjoy our work.
Ideas need: space to grow; time to develop; energy to percolate; other ideas to relate to and mingle with; a dark place to incubate.
Walt Disney kept boundaries with conceptual personas in mind.
Disney’s personas included:
- The Dreamer - the visionary who brings creativity into the world
- The Realist - the pragmatic producer who makes things happen
- The Critic - we all know this one; the critic refines or convinces us to dump ideas
I think his Realist can be cast into better terms: The Builder, The Doer, or The Mechanic capture the notion that this persona puts their focus on getting things built and done, turning a vision to a real thing.
Personas of What, How, and Wait, Let’s Take a Close Look At This
The Dreamer is the what of creativity. What are you seeing/envisioning?
The Builder is the how of creativity. “Ok, I get your vision, here is how it might be constructed.” Caution: Most of us bring the critic along with The Builder. We ask, “Do I know how? I don’t? Kill the idea immediately.” Or, “I’ve heard it is hard to build this so….dump the idea.” Let’s keep the Critic out of the picture (boundaries, remember boundaries). How can we go about building the idea without concern? We can concentrate on the assumption that our dream can be built. Now is not the time to question, now is the time to figure how the heck the vision can brought into this world.
Enter the Critic. The Critic differs from the Dreamer (the what) and the Builder (the how) and gets into the issues of: why, probabilities, comparisons, weighing, testing, leaving open uncertainty so we might be driven to look at other options (the good side of doubt), and slowing us down to look both ways before we race across the street. Not fun stuff but must be done.
The Critic should not be confused with the painful Inner Critic. The Critic brings purposeful, healthy, and sound examination and judgment to the process. The Inner Critic brings fear, doubt, and pain to the situation that has been haphazardly programmed into our brains to stir our heart and guts when we get out of line, in its opinion. The Critic is like an accountant or lawyer at work whereas the Inner Critic is like the drunken bar-room brawler.
-Setup a safe zone in terms of time, judgement, and even space (Disney had a room set aside for The Dreamer and non-dreamers were not invited in).
-Setup a safe zone for your builder and don’t let your dreamer come in and constantly revise the vision you are building towards until you have given a dream time to be figured out logistically.
-Setup a safe zone for the critic and don’t let it be smashed by the dreamer or builder because each is disappointed that it can’t go ahead. That disappointment can be very hostile and hostility is not very open minded.
-Set a safe time for each persona to thrive, without criticism from the others.
-Go deeper with your imagination and turn these conceptual personas into flesh and blood characters in your mind. Give them a face, a voice, a style. This well make boundaries more real and more air-tight when you need them to be sturdy.
-Set a time to mingle personas to learn what they all have to offer. You will have to revise, rebuild, or maybe, drop an idea.
For more, see:
Detailed paper by Robert Dilts on the whole Disney method
Dilt’s CD on Disney’s method and includes a guided imagination to work with each persona
Dilts on YouTube
To do any sustained work, a pace has to be selected. A pace can be very light, say: “I will work on my project on Saturday afternoons from 1 until 5.” Or it can be quite dense: “I will work every day from 10 am till 1:30 pm.” The latter pace is something for pros and semi-pros to keep up with. The rest of us shoot for a middle pace: “I will work two days during the work week and four hours on Saturday or Sunday.”
Pace is like a wedge. The wedge/pace will, by necessity, move things out of the way.What it moves is everything we are doing before interjecting a working pace into our lives. It has to be this way because: 1. everything takes some time, 2.our time is limited to so many hours in the day, 3. two things can not occupy the same time slot. I know what you are thinking: “I can multi-task; I can fill one time slot with 5 things.” We are talking about high quality effort and creative exploration here, not knocking things off the to-do-list. Quality work is demanding and will not share time slots with something else. With this new activity, our old lives will be changed. Lower priority activities will be dumped or crunched and our creative work will assume that time. Something(s) will have to give.
If you are thinking that you have “free time” so you can work this pace in without any giving whatsoever, that is not true. Our free time has been carefully, consciously and unconsciously sculpted over many years. “Not doing” is still doing something with your finite amount of time. Our unconscious is more in control during free time than is our will and reason of our conscious mind. The unconscious is doing things with this time whether we realize it or not.
Pace changes our life and change is not easy. No matter how strong we want to do something or how ready we think we are, adding something new with a regularity takes a lot of work to assimilate into our lives and to adjust many of things we were doing before that addition. Returning to wedges, pace wedges up-turn the prior order of our lives. If we set the pace way too high, which almost out of a universal law, we always do, some our energy goes to sorting out a new order. If we are pacing to high, our cat will get angry because it feels ignored, our clothes will hang more often at the dry cleaners than in our closets, and our bills will have bills. Many things get stirred up to the point we are finding that we are spending increasing amounts of time and worry playing clean-up, catch-up, and repair of what and who the wedge has moved aside. So, just as we cut loose with a pace, again, 99% too high, we have to juggle our creative work at greater intensity and the wedge-victims, sentient or not.
Why do we set pace too high? Because we are ambitious and because we have no real knowledge of what each level of pace entails. For instance, lets assume (and that would be right) I want to loose weight. Twenty pounds has a nice ring to it. Twenty shows I’m really serious and it is a nice even unit of measure (whoever sets their sights on losing 18.79 lbs?). Also I “ought” to lose that much and I “should” be able to do it. With that pace target in mind, I pick up something like: The Bollywood Fast and Easy Diet Plan. In that writing I learn that I “should” be able to lose 2 lbs per week because the author’s sample group, stars and starlets in India were able to accomplish this feat. Let’s review: the first part of my pace was set because 20 lbs has a good ring to it and the second part of my pace, shedding two pounds per week, comes from stars and starlets of India. What do you think my odds are to hit my pace, right out of the gate, to have a smooth and easy transition making this lifestyle change, and to hold to the pace most weeks?
Odds are low (or is it just me?). Not because of lack of discipline, that can be there as well, but because of the unexpected turmoil and unanticipated complexity of what I want to do. Not only do those things catch me off guard, I have little practical experience with the required logistics and how my body and mind will handle these changes. Very early on I will feel that something is wrong and I won’t understand why I can’t hit the pace and handle the changes. I will fail a lot. I will be filled with doubt about the diet but especially about me. Why can’t I do this? What’s wrong with me? With lots of failure, confusion and self-downing, the conditions are ripe for me to give up on this diet and perhaps any diet.
Getting to Your Best-Fit
1. Sit down for five minutes and talk to yourself about how pace setting is a refinement process. That it will take time to get it right, for you. Also, talk to yourself about how you will be failing a great deal in the coming days, weeks, and months and that is o.k. It really is o.k. You will work hard to hit the pace but you are also working hard to adjust towards the best fit for you.
2. Set an initial pace. Stop! Don’t implement it! It will be wrong for you!
Do one of these:
- Adjust Downward – Take your initial pace that you think is “sensible” and cut it in half. Next, cut that in half. Use what remains for your pace for a week or so. If you can’t keep up, cut the pace in half. Once you can hit the pace more often than not, adopt that as what works for you.
- Adjust Upward – Pick the most absurd smallest pace you can think of. Do that for three days. Only when you have done the most absurd pace are you allowed to adjust that pace. Think of three other absurd small steps and add them to your initial absurd pace. Do that for a week. Continuing adding small chunks until you hit the right pace.
3. Observe everything, every time you use a trial pace: what happened when you worked at that pace; how close you got to it; what held you back; what supported you; what got wedged out of the way to make room for the pace.
4. Adjust downward or upward again and roll-out your new pace.
Watch how your feel about the pace. If it is still driving you nuts after a week or two, adjust. If the other things in your life can’t handle you working this pace, adjust.
If you are more frequently than not, missing your pace, adjust. If you feel in pain, overwhelmed, guilty, self-critical, and ready to quit, immediately adjust. If your creative work feels dead or wrong, adjust. If your creativity had been flowing easily before this pace and now it runs like molasses, adjust. If you are always scrambling to make up for missed work sessions, adjust.
5. S…l…o…w…l…y… you will find a reasonable pace that is your pace. Keep adjusting until you got it.