Getting back to the fundamentals

Colourful children's blocks

When we learn anything, we learn the basics first.

We learn how to put one foot in front of the other, how to cast-on wool, how to pay attention to the body and breath, how to chop vegetables, how to read the notes, how to draw basic shapes.

These basics are the fundamental building blocks upon which all the other skills and knowledge rest, so it’s important that they’re as sound as possible.

We work at the basics until they are mastered, and then we move on to the more advanced areas, developing our skills and advancing our exploration of the area in which we’re engaged.

But in the midst of our advanced study, it’s always worth coming back to the basics – it’s always worth coming back and honing our mastery of the fundamentals.

When we learn the basics the first time around, we absorb all the nuance all the detail. But some of that detail inevitably falls away as we move on to the advanced topics. Old details are replaced with new basics, so we need to come back again and again.

This isn’t a failure of our learning, of our dedication or practice. This is our dedication. This is our learning. This is our practice.

Understanding the value of going back to the fundamentals is one of the most advanced lessons we can learn.

What comes first, the inspiration or the work?

Lightning on an urban horizon with machinery in the foreground

It seems like inspiration should come first.

It seems like you should wait for it to strike and then make as much space as possible for the output which it will fuel. “Clear the decks,” you yell, “I’ve got a full tank of inspiration and I’m not stopping until it’s dry”.

But that’s not how it works, unfortunately – the work always comes first.

Inspiration doesn’t push the work; work drags inspiration into the world, sometimes kicking and screaming.

You show up, you start working and then the inspiration comes.

If you wait for inspiration to show up, you’ll be waiting for a long time.

If you wait for inspiration to show up, you’ll be forever afraid of it running out. It will seem like a precious resource that needs to be handled like eggs. You’ll wrap your inspired ideas in cotton wool and smother them before they have any chance of growing.

If you do the work first, you’ll learn that inspiration is free and plentiful and should never be hoarded away. You’ll learn that inspired ideas should be unwrapped and exposed to full sunshine as quickly as possible so you can determine which will grow and which need to be discarded (yes, some great ideas need to be discarded – they might not be for you).

If you do the work first, you can be generous with your inspiration and the ideas that follow, because you know there’s always more where that comes from.

If you do the work first, everything else will follow.

And since you’re going to be starting this work, most of the time, without inspiration – you’d better start to love the work.

Outing the imposters

3 women in carnival masks

There’s a feeling which comes, every so often; a deep, undeniable, twisting which snakes around your shoulders and whispers in your ear – telling you that you’re a fake.

Suddenly, for no perceptible reason, your confidence is on the floor and there’s a sinking feeling that at any moment, everyone around you is going to realise what a fraud you are and the game will be up.

Sound familiar? If you’re doing something remotely out of your comfort zone (and getting away with it – even barely), then it’s probably a little too close to home.

It’s the insidious whisper of imposter syndrome, the feeling which we (all) get when we feel out of our depth.

It’s a horrible feeling, but a strangely useful indicator.

Useful? How?

It’s a sign you’re stretching – that you’re growing and developing.

Imposter syndrome tells you that you’ve reached the edge of your knowledge, skills or abilities and that you’re taking steps into a larger world. Without those steps, we don’t grow, we don’t improve.

Imposter syndrome means that you’re in the right conditions to develop quickly, which means that it becomes a useful signpost for those who want to expand their abilities or improve existing skills.

The only way to avoid imposter syndrome is to only do things which are completely within your comfort zone. This avoidance of discomfort will mean that ultimately only the safest choices will seem like viable options. Over time, your ability to respond skilfully to new and difficult situations will rapidly diminish as your confidence will calcify around your pre-existing skills – which will in turn weaken those skills by not exposing them to new challenges.

Imposter syndrome is a guilty secret of anyone who’s pushing their own boundaries, so start to treat it as a friend rather than an enemy. Think of it as a messenger who brings good tidings wrapped in foreboding language. It’s uncomfortable to hear, but the message is ultimately a positive one.

If you’re feeling like a fake, then you’re on the right path. If you’re completely comfortable, then perhaps it’s time to hit the accelerator.

Getting back in the saddle

Old, worn bike saddle

We fall, all the time.

We fail at things we attempt and we miss the things we stretch for.

The sad thing is, not that we fail, but that we let that failure stop us from achieving what we’re pursuing.

Failure interrupts our momentum and momentum is what helps to make things easier.

If you’ve exercised on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then it’s easier to exercise on Thursday because of your momentum. If you spent Monday to Wednesday doing something else and then beating yourself up for not exercising, then exercising suddenly becomes a more difficult choice. It feels like the universe is pushing against you.

And it’s hard enough if you chose not to exercise Mon – Wed, but it’s worst if you feel like you had no choice; if circumstances made it impossible and you’re now the victim.

Now your momentum is shot and starting up feels hard. Now the momentum is with “not doing”, with inaction.

Well, in the kindest possible way – fuck momentum.

Start again and start now. Don’t wait for the conditions to be right. They’re never right.

Start small. There is new momentum in a single step.

Get back in the saddle.

Always have a back-up plan

Just in Case by Sheila Sund -

Things fail, it’s just one of the realities of life.

Software, brakes, people, plans, fire alarms, auto-pilot systems, batteries and parachutes can all be working one minute, but useless the next.

It’s an important lesson to learn, we just need to make sure the lesson doesn’t turn us into cynical, paranoid, lunatics. Life is full of risk, and risk of failure is one that we just have to accept.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t prepare for failure; there aren’t too many scenarios when it doesn’t help to have a back-up plan.

This is especially true if we reflect inwards and consider our own motivation, drive and commitment. There are lots of forces which can motivate us to act, both intrinsically (from within us) and extrinsically (from outside ourselves). And while many of them will seem, in any given moment, like constant forces which will always be there, it’s important for us to remember that they’re not.

It’s important for us to remember that our motivating forces are as capricious and fickle as a summer breeze, and so it’s useful to have a couple operating simultaneously. It pays to have a back-up plan.

One way we can do this by mixing up the sources of motivation so that a failure in one area doesn’t mean a failure of the entire system. An example might be that we make sure that all of our long term goals are fuelled by a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. You might be driven to create something artistic by intrinsic creative forces, but you might also tell someone about this project or commit publicly to a deadline which imposes an extrinsic motivation as well.

Both of these motivators have the capacity to fail, but they’re not inextricably linked. What causes one to fail doesn’t necessarily bring down the other. So on a day in which you’re not feeling inspired or creative, you might be motivated by the deadline. Other days, when the internal fire is burning bright, you might happily chip away without giving the deadline a second thought.

This diversity of motivation can be a great, multilayered defence against failure. By ensuring that there are few, decoupled systems in place, we can decrease the odds that we’re every jumping without a chute.