The Blog You Must Read Before You Die

“Let me not seem to have lived in vain” – Tycho Brahe, one of history’s greatest scientist, dying words

It’s important to know your mythology, because it reveals what cultures care about.

One of the running themes throughout the Old Testament is patience. This is because it was written for cultures feeling terribly oppressed and abandoned by their god, so their stories are about how patience pays off even when you think it can’t possibly. Samson is promised by God he will destroy his enemies as long as he keeps the faith. He disobeys, then loses his great strength, but at the last moment, has a chance to destroy his enemies. When all is lost to a conquering king that God promised to kill, Judith marries the victorious Holofernes, gets him drunk and cuts his head off. And when Abraham is promised a son, he gets older and older, and even when he and his wife are nine hundred years old, God delivers on his promises, with a son called Isaac.

Now, previously, like Samson, Abraham had disobeyed God and lost the faith, telling his wife to sleep with another man. So God is, as is often the way, wary of Abraham’s faith, so he devises one final test to check Abraham has learnt the lesson that God always fulfills his promises, and orders Abraham to kill Isaac. Spoilers: once it is clear Abraham is on board, God relents at the last second, and presumably Isaac grows up with severe trust issues.

Modern eyes find the story of Isaac difficult to deal with and it leads to discussions about the nature of trust in a deity – but those discussions tend to be grounded in the idea that what Abraham is doing is an abomination because he is killing an innocent. But that’s NOT the point of the story. The point of the story is Abraham is asked to destroy the very thing he wants most, the thing God promised him eight hundred years ago: descendants. Abraham doesn’t care about life, not his own, certainly. He lives in a culture where death is a constant and the only sense of assuredness and constancy is passing your name onto children and grandchildren.

The story of Abraham dates from somewhere between 1500 to 600 BC. Fast forward a thousand years and Jesus has a very different message in his philosophy, where he promises an individual salvation from death. Society in the Middle East is now at a point where death is no longer so certain that nobody cares about it. People want to live forever. Skip forward another 1600 years or so and it’s the 17th century. The Dark Ages are over, the 100 Years War is Over, the religious wars of Europe are ending, and the plague is now so rare its extremely localized appearance is a scary minor event, not a world-ending apocalypse. People now think they really can live forever, because they just don’t see death everywhere they go any more. In many cases this causes people to turn away from religion, meaning it has to be reformed; while others becomes straight-up humanists and atheists. Other parts of culture are horrified by this trend so they invent the memento mori: the inclusion in every work of art of a skull or another symbol of death to remind the viewer they are going to die. It’s considered very important in some cultures to include this, lest the beauty of the art without it seduce you back to thinking you’re immortal. They literally refuse to let you forget you will die, because they think that will kill you and society.

Fast forward another four hundred years to the late 20th century. Modern medicine is unbelievable. We destroy the Third Horseman by eliminating polio and expunging smallpox. Life expectancy shoots through the roof. The implementation of plastics and universal plumbing make hygiene possible at unimaginable levels a century ago. Random death is so uncommon or great fears coalesce into the one disease we seemingly can’t cure – cancer. And some of us are so sure we’ll live forever we stop vaccinating our children. We’ve lost our fear of death even on a population level – and that can be dangerous. But mostly we talk instead of poor health outcomes. For many, a life lived in pain or weakness is far more frightening than death. Euthanasia is on the table because as a culture we believe there is something worse than death: a life of suffering, or fear, or regret.

And those things are bad, but every society has its unthinkable horrors that must be warded against. Abraham feared nothing so much as being childless. 17th century folk did fear their souls going to Hell. And we fear our lives being wasted. And when we have those kind of all-encompassing existential fears, there are those who would turn them into cultural touchstones and cult-like beliefs. We have our own memento-moris of this age. We have a series of books and shows listing hundreds or thousands of things to do BEFORE YOU DIE, lest you live a life of lower value. A life lived in fear is a life half-lived. Begin it now, the self-helpers demand, lest you waste a moment not beginning. Follow your dream and your bliss. Quit your job and roam the earth before you get too old. Live like there’s no tomorrow. Don’t die still wondering. Take a chance. Live life to the fullest. You should be writing.  Just do it. And have a Coke while you do.

Like most things, there’s some truth in this. It’s important not to settle for a reality filled with pain, suffering and abuse, and to seek out support and tiny ways to spiral upwards away from such things. But like most things, it’s exaggerated and expounded and shoved down our throats to a terrifying and disgusting degree. And it’s just not helpful. Not for most people.

And it’s enormously unhelpful to a large section of people. People who can’t begin it now. People who don’t have the privilege of money or health or freedom that you do. People who see suffering every second so they need no memento-mori to remind them. People who instead need memento-vivas, reminders that life is okay as it is. Pictures of puppies and kittens, for example. (Of course, advertising likes to tell you to embrace the status quo just as much as it likes to cast you as the hero of just doing it, but advertising ruins everything.)

Nothing has been more damaging to my writing career as the pressure of being told to do it and do it now. That brings it with it a terrifying sense of urgency, a sense that your ideas are a limited resource, and those ones burning and bubbling out of you every second will be lost if you don’t write them down. That your duty is to eternity and every lost moment is betraying yourself and everyone else. Make great art, ordered Neil Gaiman, but you must add Joss Whedon’s addition: don’t write a story if you don’t have a story to tell. I’ve sat at blank pages and gripped pens and screamed at my body to make the words, because everything else was the most disgusting thing, the most unbearable thing: to live a life half-lived, to not create, not use my gift.

I was born a gifted child so from the very beginning educators beat into me with emotional wounds the sense of wastage. But I have learnt, at last, through bloody battles, that nothing is wasted. Ever. And if you are going to create, you need to know that. Your ideas will seem to go nowhere. They will bubble out like steam and appear to fade into the ether. They will die on the page or never make it that far. And it will look like the garden is empty.

But life goes on and those ideas and attempts lie dormant and wait. And sometimes, they come back to life in the most amazing ways, but only when they are ready. You cannot pick the fruit before it is ripe. The Divyavadana, Buddhist scriptures written in sanskrit in the 2nd century BC provides the quote I keep beside my desk:

“What we have done will not be lost to all eternity. Everything ripens at its time and becomes fruit at its hour.”

Seven years ago I started work on a project for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, a supplement for Estalia, the Spanish-equivalent of the setting. It’s finished now, an epic tome of 144 pages that took an amazing amount of work. Several times I completely abandoned it. Several times I knew it could never be done. And I needed to think that, or it could NOT have been done. I tried to give it to others so that the fans would not be denied the product they wanted, but others didn’t want it. I asked for help, and got some at some time, none at others, and then at last, the right help at the right time, when I was strong enough to use it. Because you see, they didn’t want the book, they wanted MY book.

But not even that; apart from a few posts in approval, nobody really cares. Ultimately, we don’t make art for our audience, it doesn’t make sense to do it like that. And while it’s wonderful to see that this project ripened at its time, it’s the ripening that mattered, more than the finished product. I’m proud of it, but I’m more happy with the process. I learned more from the process and I cherish the process more. Which is why it wouldn’t matter if it had died. It was only once I let go and accepted it might that I had space to heal and ripen to a point where maybe it could be done. Once I knew I could live without it, I could make it. Once I knew my life was not betrayed by stepping away from my dream, I could live authentically enough to have art within me.

Tycho Brahe was one of the greatest astronomers the world had ever known and his measurements were so precise that they weren’t bettered until the 20th century. Without his work, his colleague Johannes Kepler could never have discovered elliptical planet movement, and Newton could never have discovered gravity. But Brahe lived his entire life in fear of being forgotten, of being a nobody, and on his death bed, he prayed to God and all who would hear him that he might mean something. Kepler, himself neurotic and afraid, found understanding in his friend’s last words. And Kepler’s reflection also sits beside my desk to remind me what matters.

“The roads that lead a man to knowledge are as wondrous as that knowledge itself”

See the road, and walk it haphazardly. You can’t force it. You shouln’t be writing; you should be growing to a place where writing is natural, and safe, and joyful, and how you get there is yours to discover. Don’t let anyone tell you they know the best way for you to go – or that you need to start going now, lest you waste your precious time. You’ll go when you’re ready. You really do have time. And anything else is madness.

And I hope you enjoy Swords of the South.

 

 

Emotional Environmentalism, or The Care And Feeding of Your Creative Urge

Pollution is something we talk about a lot these days, but sometimes we forget what it means. If an oil tanker crashes on the road, and the oil leaks out, that’s not pollution, because it can be contained. But if the oil catches fire and the smoke goes everywhere, that is pollution. The difference is containability. What makes it pollution, in other words, is that it is all-pervasive. Inescapable. It is part of our environment, where we live, eat, drink, breathe, and so becomes part of us. And we know, now, that these things can make us very sick indeed, even kill us, even if they are invisible, because we live with them. Eat enough fish and you can die of mercury poisoning even though the doses themselves will be tiny.

So we’re learning – slowly – to control our environment. To ensure that our air and our water are clean, because we take them in so often we can’t afford anything less.

But what we also need to think about is emotional environments, and the pollution that gets into that.

Emotional health and physical health have much in common. Particularly in that they have levels of resistance, and that that resistance can be overcome both with single strong attacks and by long-term small ones. And when that resistance runs down, we cease being able to function properly, and need to hole up somewhere safe until either the threats die down or the resistance builds up again.

We’re familiar with the big, strong attacks to our resilience. Some of them are massive, crippling attacks, like the loss of a loved one, or a sudden change in our lifestyle. They’re the getting hit by a bus attacks. Then there’s the thumbtack in the foot attacks like negative feedback or breaking your favourite thing. There’s the slow cancer of not liking what you see in the mirror. We know these ones.

But there’s others. Some we can’t avoid. There’s missing the bus even when you ran for it. There’s the elevator being broken and there’s vomit all over the stairs. There’s not having a shirt without a hole in it to wear. There’s the screaming kids in the restaurant, the rude person at the traffic lights. The cold look from a stranger who decides to disapprove of you. Coming home to a messy kitchen, where the doorknob’s still broken and the stove smells funny all the time. All the little things that fill us with weltschmertz as the Germans call it: the sense that things are not necessarily bad, but not what they could be. Bad enough to notice.

This is emotional pollution, and like the mercury in fish, it can build up and up, and it can – it absolutely can – kill.

One thing I’ve learnt in the last few years with my excellent psychologist is there are two ways to attack mental health. One is building up your inner resistance – making your self image, self resilience and self esteem strong so it can repel attacks. The other is reducing the attacks coming in. Avoiding or lessening the attacks. And where possible, purifying the toxins from your environment.

Some toxins will always get in. No matter how much you plan, there’s always going to be a bus you miss; eventually there will be a soup splash on your favourite shirt. But some of these things can be fixed, but we often don’t think to, or we think they’re too small to bother with, or that they’re just part of life. And then they build up, and then they kill you.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that dealing with a lot of these things takes emotional strength in the first place, so sometimes we’re so worn down we can’t solve these problems, or can only tap away slowly at the tiniest levels. It’s also really important to note that most of these things require money to solve, and if you’ve ever been poor you’ll know what I mean. All the little things that money could solve, like catching a taxi when you miss that train. Buying a new shirt when the old one tears. Having insurance so you don’t have to worry so much about running for the bus on a slippery road. Being able to afford the gym so you don’t have to go running in the cold, freezing rain. If you’ve been poor, you know. How they break you down and kill you by inches, and how just trying to stop them wearing you through to bone uses up every resource you might have used to fix them.

Being depressed is a lot like that, too. It is a poverty of emotional strength, an impotence to change anything at all about your environment. Depression’s friend, anxiety, is more like having massive immunodeficiencies: everything is an attack, or a potential one. Together they make your environment so poisonous you can barely breathe, and give you no strength to do anything about it. Little wonder we depressives retreat to the comfort of bed – like the boy in the bubble, it is the only way to survive.

But for those of us who are doing better, all of this is still useful, still important. If you’re struggling with something, if you’re going beyond yourself, if you’re pursuing something creative or ambitious, you are running your emotional reserves ragged. Whether it’s a marathon or a sprint, you need your reserves strong. And while we often do a few things to pep us up (like taking some vitamins for the soul) we often forget to control our environment.

It can be simple, tiny things. If you are trying to write something, and you can see the dirty washing pile, your mind may turn to something else you “should” be doing. It can be big, life-planning things, like having a day job or savings so not every word is life and death. I’ve done that kind of writing – where if it cannot be sold that week you will literally starve – and it kills creativity and enthusiasm pretty fast. The environment is too toxic, there’s too much terror of survival, eating away at your emotional reserves. But it doesn’t have to be that critical; it could also be that you’re not going to write your best with your current computer because the keyboard sticks a lot or the screen flickers; it could be your novel isn’t going to come until you’re in just a generally nicer house or better neighbourhood or can afford some new shirts, because right now, your goal to live in a nice place or better clothes is eating those reserves and you can’t eat into them further.

It can be adding the positive, by hanging up motivational posters or making plans for the future or visualising goals. It could be giving yourself restoratives, like buying yourself lunch on the day you do your big writes, so you don’t have to lose that tiny bit (or not so tiny bit) of your reserves making your lunch. It could reducing the chances of attacks, like taking a taxi on writing days so there’s no chance you can miss a bus. It could be as simple as walking home a different way so you don’t see the cold strangers or hear the screaming kids. They are tiny things so they might seem frivolous, if you even think of them at all. But again, it’s about pollution: if you eat the tiny thing every day, it might not kill you but it will make you weaker.

A lot of writing is learning to be a resilient writer: to write every day no matter what, no matter how sick you are, or tired, or whether you have no ideas or no motivation. That’s the resilience part. But you can’t learn resilience when you’re being attacked all the time. Yes, I’m sure the fire makes the steel, but the human body doesn’t work like that. If the wound isn’t cleared, the blood can’t clot and the scabs can’t form. You have to wrap it up in gauze and keep it clean and dry. Writing – designing, creating, changing, striving – is much the same.

A better metaphor might be keeping a plant. You need one with strong roots, but you also need a good pot, good soil, potting mix, water, sunlight, and to protect it from all the things that could hurt it. You know how to spray the aphids, yes, but sometimes we leave them in too hot a sun, or above the exhaust fan. These are the little deaths, the slow, invisible killers. Yours are out there too. Some of them you might have to be a millionaire to fix, or at least well off. Others you might need to think really hard or wait a long time for them to get better. But if you’re aware of them, you might be able to do the tiniest thing.

There are spiders in my backyard. Every day I go out that way, they take away a bit of my strength. It’s a tiny thing. But it matters. And all I have to do is remember to go out the front door instead, and I stop that bit being chipped away. And I grow stronger, bit by bit. Day by day.

Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part Three

“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it” Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven

I’m not an expert in beating procrastination, just an expert in suffering from it. So here’s the part where my insight becomes even less applicable to all of you. And remember that what we’re dealing with here, as discussed in parts one and two, is breaking down an entire culturally-coded mindset towards work and creativity. So it’s not going to be easy. It takes a lifetime to rewire your brain. But what I’m doing is starting to make a difference, for me.

The answer, unfortunately, is time management and scheduling. Unfortunately, there’s no way around that. But the trick is doing it well. One of the reasons we hate schedules is because almost always, the things we schedule are the boring things. If your schedule has nothing on it but TIME FOR ICECREAM, you might learn to like scheduling. That reminds me: in 18 minutes, I have to eat ice-cream.

There’s an old stunt they like to do in time-management classes. They take a jar, and fill it with golfballs until they can’t get any more in. And the jar is full! But then they add ballbearings and they go into all the space between the golfballs, until you can’t get any more ball bearings in. Jar is full! Then you add sand, and once again, you can add a lot to the jar, even though it was already full. And for the final demonstration, they show that if you put the sand in first, there’s barely room for any ballbearings, and no golfballs after that. The metaphor is banally obvious: look after the pounds and the pennies will look after themselves, as it were. It is not unuseful advice: you can, in fact, take your eyes off the little things if you keep the big things in line. The gigantic problem with this visualisation is they forget the important part, which is figuring out which things in your life are golf balls, and which are sand.

And most people get it backwards. Because we’re taught to.

Think about it: if you put “play Civ 5” down as a golfball, you sound shallow. Silly. Childish. No, those golfballs have to be big and important. Jobs. Security. A future. Or “fulfilling”: love, family, spiritual meaning, connections, saving the rainforest. And for some people, that might work. You might put those things in as your golf balls and somehow, you just naturally fill in everything else without thinking. But a lot of us aren’t like that at all.

Like I said last time: as human beings, we need and deserve leisure time and rest. We depend on it. Without it, we wither and die and can’t do anything else. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to make it the biggest golf-ball of all.

So you schedule it. You put it in first. Also important: a good night’s sleep. That goes in there. And also, you can even schedule procrastinating activities, those non-engaged activities that are just fun to do while your brain is asleep. Stuffing around on the internet. Checking email. Watching TV. Lying in bed thinking about Spiderman. Eating ice-cream. Licking ice-cream off interesting body parts. These are the things that go on your daily schedule. And probably nothing else, at least to start with. Because everything else is the sand. It’ll get done. It’ll happen. But only if you have the strength to tackle it.

And what you find is two-fold: one, you really work harder at the sand when you know you have to stop and think about Spiderman in ten minutes. The motivation is built in, and the excitement drives you on. You forget about achievement and output because you don’t have time to think about them. You have ice-cream coming up. You have to move or you’ll miss it. Second, if you schedule your ice-cream, boy, do you enjoy it more. Because it’s guilt free. Right there, on your timetable: half an hour to eat ice-cream. You don’t have to worry about what you should be doing, because you’re DOING what you should be doing. In fact, you may engage so much with the activity, you may even want to do it less.

Think about it: most of the time you stop playing a game because you’re no longer engaged, or because it’s time to do something else. What if you couldn’t stop, because you’d scheduled 2 hours to play and you had to fill those hours? You might actually get bored. You might distract yourself. Do a bit of sand-stuff, so you can fill out those two hours. You might even be less keen to rush back to the game for the next two hours because you remember the drudgery at the end. You might stall a bit in your writing, go over time, just so you don’t have to do quite so much Civilization. Like sand, the writing slips between the cracks, filling in those precious little seconds. And it gets done. Because you’re not fighting against what you do and don’t deserve any more.

I have two minutes left, so I’ll finish there. Like I said, it might not work for you. But it’s really not as crazy as it sounds. Figure out what is important to you to DO, not to have accomplished, without judging or shame, and give leisure its deserved role. Then schedule that and only that. Then let the sand be sand. And see what happens.

Good luck.

Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part Two

For the most part, we as a society are learning that to abjure the stick. If you know anything about dog training, you know that punishment training – negative reinforcement – is not used any more. Not because it’s cruel, although it is, but because it rarely works, and if it does, it works far less efficiently. And it’s true of all animals: we respond better to rewards than we do to punishment, of an order magnitude more.

But we still use the carrot, and getting rid of it is a lot harder. Partly because it does have it uses. It’s very important for young children, for example, and for animals, because simple minds have trouble with cause and effect. This is why babies love peek-a-boo: they have no idea, when you go away, that you’re going to come back. Learning that kind of cause and effect is part of growing up. That to get the drink to your mouth you have to concentrate on holding the cup. That to be able to find your coat you need to put it on the right coat-hook. That thinking and working in advance leads to good things in the future.  We’re a primitive species and we like experiencing pleasure. When we eat the spoils of the hunt we get a lot of dopamine released so our body knows this is good for us. When we have to go out and hunt, our bodies are under attack and working hard, and so we don’t get the dopamine release, otherwise we’d get addicted to hunting and either work ourselves to death or get eaten by the lions. So we learn: hunt first, eat later.

The problem comes when we apply the carrot idea to everything we do. Beyond the simple and beyond the child. As we grow older, and our work and our play and our minds become more complex, the model ceases to apply, and breaks down. Think about it: when did you really first notice you were procrastinating? For most of us, it was high school. Not because of high school (although that plays a part) but because we were going through puberty and becoming fully rounded people, and the old ways stopped working. And for a lot of us, what happened next depended a lot on how we handled that problem, or avoided it.

There is a lot of emphasis on the carrot, so you may not believe me it’s so bad. Here then are some reasons why it’s so bad at what it does, and destructive to good habits.

1. It turns the “work” into a bad thing.

Go back to the metaphor itself: the carrot is there to make the donkey walk forward, pulling the wagon or the cog-wheel. The donkey does not want to do that. It is a terrible chore. Importantly, it is not what the donkey would naturally be doing. That’s important because of some of what the donkey would naturally be doing would still not be “dopamine stuff”. The donkey would naturally work, it would go around finding the best grass it could and use its muscles to tear it out, and so on. What the donkey is doing is WORSE than working. Every time you use this metaphor, even if you don’t voice it, subconciously you’ve decided that the work that needs to be done is pulling a terrible heavy load, in a way that is unnatural, that is outside what you consider good for you. Even if it was already an unpleasant task, it becomes worse, and happy tasks become drudges. We’ll come back to this mischaracterisation of the process later.

2. It makes the work suffer by comparison.

To get the carrot, we must do the work. Therefore, the carrot has to be better than the work. Now we’ve put two things in front of us, two ideas. If you’ve ever seen a cop show, you know about good cop bad cop. This is fundamental human psychology: if you present a person with a bad thing X and a less bad thing Y, they feel drawn to Y, even if Y is not necessarily in their interest. We are built on comparison. So if you put up two ideas – write my RPG or play Civ 2, say – you can’t help compare them. And since you were clever enough to think of an excellent fun reward, because you really want to motivate yourself, your carrot will be a wonderful thing. Once again, the result is you make the work task look worse than it actually is. You’ve mischaracterised it as a burden, a chore, and as something you don’t want. You ache now for your carrot more than you ever would if you could choose it freely. And that sense of constrained desired is yet another emotion that drains your strength, and makes you weaker, and less able to do anything at all.

3. It is dangerous to our self-esteem.

We are creatures of hope. The way we deal with pain and suffering it to rely on a great and fundamental truth: pain and suffering do not last forever. We are suffering now, we will be happy later. But somewhere along the way, our pattern-loving minds turned this into a cause and effect. We think I will be happy later BECAUSE I am suffering now. Or worse, in order to be happy later, I MUST SUFFER FIRST. I’m using poetic language, but the carrot teaches us this same thing: in order for me to have happiness, leisure, entertainment, relaxation, dopamine releases, time to myself, etc, I must first do this thing which is drudgery, unimportant, unvalued, unshiny, this thing I have cast as a terrible chore, that makes my time belong to something else, some higher code that I have somehow set outside what I actually want, or require lots of reminders as to why it is important (constantly waving that carrot in my face). We start using words like DESERVE and EARN and SHOULD and ALLOWED. I am not ALLOWED to play Civilization until I have EARNED it.

We are human beings. We are born with the right and the need to be happy, to relax and have leisure time. We deserve these things unconditionally. We need them to survive and be our true selves. We need them to be strong. We need them to make the world better. And anything that tells us differently is bad for us, for our mental health, and our sense of self and for the goals and outcomes we want to reach.

There are standards in life, both external and internal, and they are useful and worthy. But the moment we use them to punish ourselves or diminish ourselves, they become dangerous, twisted and hurtful, and they can make us achieve less, not more.  We’ll come back to this, too.

4. It fetishizes the outcome over the process.

We’re outcome-oriented, as a culture. Part of that is capitalism: a process is hard to sell, a product is easy to sell. A finished product is easier to move around, to conceptualise, to admire. Artists in particular are at the mercy of the outcome. It is laudable for a nurse, say, to spend her life doing nursing, but if you spent your life playing music but never recorded a song, people will label you a failure who could never finish anything. Completed projects go on the resume, time served does not.

To some extent, this is fair: what makes art art is that it can be shared, and a process is hard to share. And what can cripple art is not sharing it and getting so involved in a process that we never allow our ideas to be given to others. Finishing IS important, is more important for artists. But if we forget the process, or worse, demonize it (via the mischaracterisations mentioned in 1 and 2), we kill our art, and we kill ourselves.

Studies have shown that there are five basic returns people get from jobs, five values. They are: financial return, being important (either social status or having a large effect), being the boss and making decisions, working in an enjoyable environment for you socially, and doing something where the work itself is engaging and fun. The important thing is not everyone cares about these things equally. And the carrot theory is basically all about the first two: that the work you do will lead to a return later. But if we’re creative types, we don’t usually care much about money or status, but we really care about being engaged and having fun. So our motivation theory is ass-backwards.

Think about it: we’re encouraged to write novels, publish games, to make art. Even if you remove commercial success, critical acclaim or the audience applause – which we almost never do – we are told that the point of being an artist is to create an outcome. And everything becomes about that. That’s the carrot. To finish the novel. To publish the game. And everything before it is the cog-wheel. We do the cogwheel to get the carrot.

But what does that do? That demonizes the process and champions the outcome. It tells us that finishing something – ie not writing – is fundamentally better than working on something – ie writing. So every single day when you get up and think “well, I still don’t have a novel done, so I better do some writing”, you’ve sent yourself that message, loud and clear. That writing is bad, and not writing is good. That writing is suffering, and only if you suffer enough, you get your reward – because you certainly don’t deserve one now. You’re not worthy of that.

Is it any wonder, then, that you don’t want to write?

To paraphrase an old saying, a lot of people want to have written a novel, rather than want to write a novel. Because then they get to say, hey, that’s my novel, that’s proof of my success. Part of that is human nature (and healthy). Part of that is the nature of art. And a lot of it is because we fetishize the outcome, and demonize the process. And every time we do that, we make it harder and harder to do the process. We make the process into a chore and we turn ourselves into failures. And the only way to escape those horrible feelings is to feed the procrastination monster instead.

And he’s a nasty thing, but it’s our own behavior – our constant focus on the carrot – that made him strong to begin with.

In Part 3, we’ll actually talk about how to solve some of these problems. There are other options.

Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part One

Procrastination is a big thing. We often joke about it, but it can do a lot of damage to our life if we let it, or we worry about it too much. And it can certainly eat away at our reserves – our time AND our energy – to do things like writing and designing, things we often put last on our list, but also feel most pressured to do, as we are constantly told THEY ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT. There is a lot of advice out there on dealing with procrastination, and a lot of it is bullshit. Or rather, a lot of it is just what worked for one guy or a few people. But procrastination and the issues that make it up are a big, big thing, and it is wired into fundamental aspects of how we approach ourselves and everything we do in life. Which means there are multiple ways to attack it, and everyone has to do what works for them and their mind. What’s more, we’re all on our own journey to untangle ourselves, and you don’t only need to have the right idea for your brain, but the right idea AT THE RIGHT TIME. So my advice might be useless to you. I’m sharing it anyway, because only by getting lots of ideas can we all find the best way for us to untangle things.

I’m certainly not an expert on breaking procrastination, but I am an expert on procrastinating. It’s something that’s played an enormous part of my life, in many different arenas. Indeed, it is fairly true to say that my particular mental disorder, depression/anxiety, is an extremely heightened form of procrastination. You become so afraid of certain thoughts, emotions, feelings and situations you lock your body into a perpetual state of numbness (or panic, in the case of anxiety) to avoid those things. I’ve been on a long journey to work some of these things out, so in that context, my advice has some experience.

The first point to deal with is this: how we think about procrastination is typically very wrong.

Let’s imagine for this discussion that there are three activities. There’s W, the work we don’t want to do. Like say writing your RPG. There’s P, the procrastinating activity. Maybe it’s surfing the internet. Then there’s F, the fun activity, like maybe playing Civilization 5. To pick entirely random examples that certainly don’t reflect my life at all. Now, a lot of the time, people don’t have P and F as separate activities. Sometimes they are the same activity done in different ways or experienced in different ways – for example, when you can’t really enjoy yourself when you go out for a drink because in the back of your mind you feel you should be studying. Or you don’t get really into playing X-box because you’re just looking for a low-level distraction to keep your mind busy. This still might not be you, but go with me here.

Generally, our thinking about procrastination is this: I keep doing distracting thing P because I don’t want to do hard, painful, difficult thing W.

This is false.

Most of the time, what is stopping us from doing W has little to do with W at all. Don’t get me wrong, the anxiety curve is a big deal, especially with big, hard to grasp projects (go read up about the curve, it is also part of this subject). But what keeps us doing P is less about fear of W and more about our shame and guilt at doing P. And the more P we do, the worse we feel, and the worse we feel, the less we are able to act.

This is pretty obvious when you think about it.  When our body is injured, it stops doing things. It wants to fall over and lie still because then it can concentrate on getting better. Likewise, when we feel upset, we don’t want to go out and do things, we want to crawl into a foetal ball, hide in our room and eat candy. Our mind is just like our body: when it feels hurt, it devotes all its resources to healing itself, and devotes no resources to going out and doing things.

So the more you do the P activity, the more your brain feels attacked by feelings of guilt and shame, and thus the weaker you become. Your body now has no strength to do W, or to do F, or to do P even. You become less and less engaged with F and P, so the bad feelings work stronger and do more damage, so you become weaker and weaker. We wait for motivation to strike, but it now has an enormous uphill battle, because unhappy people are difficult to motivate. Sometimes impossible.

I’m going to say that again because it’s very important: the worse you feel, the harder it is to motivate yourself, or be motivated by others.

It’s important because so much of our mindset and culture are wrapped up in a very different idea of motivating. We believe in the carrot and the stick. And the carrot and the stick are all about suffering and being unhappy, or at best, fearing more unhappiness. We must do the hard task W, lest we feel pain from the stick, or so we can deserve the carrot. This point of view is burned into us at a primal level, and we accept it instinctively.

But everything we know about the human mind and human motivation tells us it is not only a poor model, it is a model inherently destructive to our health and our happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, the carrot and the stick are not entirely without merit, in very specific situations, at very specific times. It teaches us about cause and effect when we are children. But now we see through a glass darkly, and if we keep trying to walk as a child, we make everything worse.

That’s a big idea and I’m already at 1000 words, so there’s more in part 2.

Beginning is not the hard part

The world is full of aphorisms.

Pretty much all of them are false.

Not just because they boil down wisdom to a soundbite, but because they’re designed to run on faith. They’re designed to keep you alive when the rockslide buries you. Articles of faith are always lies. And that’s fine, as far as it goes, because they can help. But it’s not fine because it builds false hope. And when you hit the reality, you suffer because nobody told you.

So allow me to disabuse this notion about beginnings.

They say that the journey of a million miles begins with a single step. This is true, technically. But it is then followed by a journey of a million miles, minus one step.

They say beginnings are hard, and they are. Getting from zero to one may be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. But what they don’t tell you is that every single step after that is just as hard. Comparatively, beginnings aren’t hard. Beginnings are, at most, just as hard as everything else. But usually, they’re easier.

They’re easier than the point ten steps in when the joy of starting wears off. When every new step only confirms the pointlessness of the endeavour. When every line of creation only makes the work more inept and disgraceful. When the exhaustion sets in and every inch burns. Oh, and my personal favourite, when you’re close to the end and thus failure is a million times worse because it will waste everything you’ve done. And when you’re inches from the finish line and the terror of crossing it is slightly more agonizing than crawling on the broken glass in front of it.

Beginnings? Beginnings are hard, yes. Beginnings are all the fear and none of the knowledge, all the pressure and none of the distance. Beginnings are hard.

And then it gets much, much worse.

 

Money Matters

The makers of the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game want me to review their game. I want to review their game. It means more press for them, which means more sales, which means a stronger industry, which means more work for me, potentially, plus I get a copy of the game which I might also use to promote it further. But I gave up doing that because I can’t afford it any more. No game company can afford to pay reviewers. Few, if any, gaming sites or magazines can either. Whereas the thing I’m writing this week is for a Real Magazine (TM) and so will pay for my rent this month, and food, and boy, do I like being able to afford food.

Now, if, say, forty people put ten dollars each into a Paypal account linked to my old email at catstesha@yahoo.com, then I’d have rent for this month and could totally review the game and support the industry. But that’s unlikely and I’m not going to set up a kickstarter for every review. So what’s the point of this post? I guess just another reminder that every time somebody says RPGs are too expensive, another writer dies of scurvy and malnutrition. And that a lot of the time, creative types in this industry actually have to choose between putting food on the table, or content on the web. That’s the reality.