Words to be written, not read

I’m caught in that moment when you want to get something out of your head but you can’t find the words to unlock it. It’s like they’re tied in a knot and will only come out in a particular sequence. But where do you start when you can’t find either end of the string that’s tied in the knot?

Each weekend I sit down to write, to let all the pent up creativity out of my brain and into the computer. It feels, during the week like it would gush out in a raging torrent.

But then I carve out some time, from the sheer rock of a jam-packed existence and suddenly not even a drop will come forth.
It’s not that the pressure isn’t there, it’s that I can’t unlock whatever is holding it back.

It’s like there is the energy, but not the vehicle with which to move it.

And so I get distracted and frustrated, trying to find the key, the code, the sequence which will unlock the fucking ideas. I trip down hundreds of rabbit holes, chasing one end of the knot.

If only I can get it out, then I won’t feel this crushing pressure, this burden of potential, boiling inside my head all day.

This is The Resistance that Steven Pressfield describes.

This is a manifestation of my fear of failure. My fear of creating something unreadable and mediocre. My fear of not having enough time to get out the ideas worth sharing. My fear of not contributing anything worthwhile. My fear of not living a good life.

It’s crazy that something as small as wanting to write a short story could so quickly be traced back to an existential purpose (and crisis), but it’s true.

There is no cure for this except to write. I know this in my heart of hearts. To just sit down and pound out words. They don’t have to be on point or purpose, they just have to be words on screen or paper. To start the process of testing keys in the lock, of feeling the knot for one end of the string.

Just write anything.

Adrian Calear told me that when I can’t think of anything to write, I should describe the inside of a ping-pong ball. “Faced with that prospect,” he said, “ideas will suddenly step forward.”

That is in many respects what this post is. It’s just an exercise to get the fingers moving. They are words to be written, not words to be read. I’m sorry if you’ve gotten down this far, looking for some other meaning. There is none to be found.

No other meaning except that you just need to do the thing you’re trying to do. Run, write, cook, read, fix, draw, glue, sew, compose. You just need to get the words out. The only way you’ll feel the string at the end of the knot is to undertake the task itself. Sit down and start doing. It ok for it to not be right.

When you’re paralysed by choice, it’s not important to make the right choice, it’s important to just make any choice.

So to answer your question, yes, it worked. This sentence is going to finish and I’ll be starting another sentence in another document immediately.

557 words written, just to unlock thousands more.

The value of a non-binary outlook

We’re binary creatures who like to think in absolutes:
Yes / No.
Black / White.
In group / Out group.

It’s an easier way to think about the world. Once we categorise something, we tend to fix it in position. That way, we don’t have to spend time and brain resources re-classifing it each time we encounter it.

If that plant is safe to eat today, let’s assume it will be safe to eat tomorrow.

If our Alice is trustworthy today, let’s assume she will be trustworthy tomorrow.

Since there are only two options, there has to be a pretty fundamental shift in circumstances for something to switch. And we’d notice something that fundamental. Wouldn’t we?

A binary outlook helps us to reduce the ongoing burden of thinking, but that comes at a cost. It means we fail to account for the fact that most things exist on a spectrum. And they shift. Constantly.

That plant isn’t always safe to eat.

Jill isn’t always trustworthy.

Having a binary perspective also blinds us to lessons which we need to relearn.

We “know” that family is important.

We “know” that exercise is good for our health.

Our binary outlook would tell us that these are things we know, principles we value. But our actions might betray a deeper truth. We know something intellectually, but we haven’t yet realised that knowledge. We haven’t put it into practice. We haven’t made it real.

Or, more likely, we’ve been overtaken by circumstance and have forgotten what we “know”.

The pressure has mounted at work and the importance of family or excercise or eating well has receded into the background.

It’s easy for us to get caught up in the moment and for our knowledge to become difficult to access. When pressured or stressed we can forget what we know and act out of character.

This is why it’s important we keep a non-binary view of our knowledge and beliefs. Because our knowledge (like most things) exists on a constantly-shifting spectrum. Because there are lessons which we need to re-learn over and over and over again. Because knowing something is a continual process, it’s training.

We need to remind ourselves of things we already know. We need to re-learn lessons and move our knowledge up the spectrum towards being realised.

The more we can adopt a non-binary outlook, the more successful we will be in navigating a world which refuses to conform to fixed binary notions of black and white.

Ideas are great, but executions are wonderful

1863 Alexandre Cabanel - The Birth of Venus

Within the mind, our ideas remain perfect. They have neat form, divine purpose and they fulfil their destiny flawlessly.

With such perfection as a starting point, it’s understandable why we hesitate birthing them into the world. Not only does it take effort, but the real world is messy, complicated and brutal. It is merciless towards newly realised ideas. At best it is indifferent, at worst it is openly hostile.

So why do we bother ever trying to bring our ideas into the world when they will almost never live up to our visions for them?

We do it because an idea realised, even poorly, is more valuable than one never realised at all.

When an idea is realised, it gives us a benchmark. It gives us learning, proof of concept, inspiration and a path which both we and others can follow.

Ideas are valuable compared to nothing, but are nothing compared to execution.

The centre of our own universe

Although we are loath to admit it, we’re inherently self centred.

It’s not just that we’re selfish and that we pursue individual agendas, but that our entire worldview seems to begin and end with our own Ego-centric model of the universe.

We sit at the middle of our own experience and assume that the full extent of everything expands out from ourselves. Everything exists in relation to us. Its position, its meaning, its function.

This viewpoint isn’t necessarily our fault per se, it’s the effect of our culture on our perspective and it’s so deeply hardwired that it’s tough to unwind.

In fact, given how entrenched it is, it’s often tough for us to even recognise that there might be other viewpoints – other modes of function.

A great example of this is how sufferers of schizophrenia from different cultures tend to view auditory hallucinations (voices in their head).

When our individual nature is given absolute primacy, these other voices can’t be interpreted as anything other than an affront. They are invading our sense of self. An assault on our precious ego.

But what if it didn’t have to be this way?

A study of the interpretations of auditory hallucinations experienced by people from different cultures, found that our own society’s view of the self has a huge impact on the experience of hearing voices.

Participants from Ghana and India often reported that the experience of the voices could even be a positive experience because they were representative of their more relational and collective view of the world.

Instead of the voices being an intrusion, there were playful or even divine. In these cases, the voices are a boon, not a curse, because they represent an amplification of what is culturally important, not a challenge to it.

This is a potent example of how our deeply entrenched cultural viewpoint has a huge impact in how we interpret and then respond to an experience. It’s also an illustration of how fundamentally our own view of the world might be biased in ways we can’t even imagine.

In order to solve some of the world-sized problems that we’ve created, we’re going to have to develop some equally large solutions. And by large, I don’t mean scale, I mean that these solutions might fundamentally challenge some of the core beliefs we hold about ourselves, the world and our place in it.

Our view of ourselves, isn’t based on logic built up, brick by brick, from first principles – it’s based on assumptions. And we need to be prepared to challenge some, many or even all of those assumptions if we are to break the bonds which prevent us from looking at the world in rich, new ways.

Striking out from the safety of the harbour

When life overwhelms, it crashes right over our heads like a wave – sweeping us off the deck of our ship and dumping us into a cold, stormy sea.

It’s an awful experience, made all the more insidious by the fact that it can be triggered by the smallest things. No matter who you are or how much money you have, circumstances can rush in on a king tide and sweep you off your feet at a moment’s notice.

Given that complete overwhelm is such a disorienting and all-consuming feeling, it’s natural for us to want to avoid it. It’s reasonable for us to choose paths which allow us to remain in the sanctuary of a harbour where the waters are calm. To not take on anything which might overwhelm us. To keep our hands clean and our legs dry.

But in her wonderful essay We were made for these times, Clarissa Estes reminds us of some important perspectives which we often seem to lose sight of.

…we were made for these times… For years we have been learning, practicing, in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plane of engagement.

While we often feel ill-equipped for the challenge, we’re more prepared and more able to make a difference than any group in history.

We just have to remember to not be daunted by its scale.

It’s easy for us to be weakened and disheartened by what is outside our sphere of influence. But in doing so we forget that larger things are improved by focusing on own immediate interface with the world.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world which is within our reach.

And that dramatic change doesn’t require everything, from everyone, all at the same time.

…but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second or hundredth gale.

We’ll face gales that whip us around and lash us to the rocks – but we are build to withstand even the stormiest of seas.

Our job is to show up, repeatedly. To show up and to bring the best combination of ourselves to face the challenges before us.

…to be fierce and to show mercy towards others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

It’s a long battle before us, but it’s the most worthwhile battle there is. To make things better. To contribute to a critical mass of enduring good. To leave things better than when we found them.

And in those times when it would be easier to seek the quiet life and avoid confronting all this trouble, we would do well to remember:

When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

Read her full essay We were made for these times.