I ended 2021 with some weird posts about the general apathy most people are feeling towards the new year. We’ve been burned before. Maintaining hope for positive change in the face of practical concerns takes more effort.
One of my favorite phrases, from Moby Dick, is the call to
“Lower the conceit of attainable felicity.”
Generally, the novel views Captain Ahab as a madman for setting big, impossible goals, while the other characters take a more reactive position to the actively maleficent universe.
This has always been the main cultural battle: do we accept with gratitude what we are given?
Or do we strive for more?
Faust’s desire and striving was originally meant as sinful pride; the same as Lucifer (in Paradise Lost’s) quest for personal justice. But that all changed at the beginning of the 20th century, with new, positive ideologies of the creative struggle and desire towards mastery: the self-improvement agenda has been strong for nearly a century.
Since, perhaps, the last plague.
I wrote in a tentative Facebook post,
“My optimism has been blunted.”
And judging by the memes about 2022, I’m not the only one.
But out of all the dark humor and fatalism, I saw ONE positive post, which at first seemed optimistic and nearly delusional. But it stuck with me.
That’s a really big ask.
Because I’ve been feeling a lot of nostalgia for fun, exciting times.
I went out last night, in my small town, with the same people. I told someone, I like to go to new places where I don’t know people, where I can watch strangers; because it’s only in the unexpected that magic can happen. The delicious anxiety of the unknown.
Hope for better, and fear of worse, governs most of human behavior. My PhD thesis on Paradise Lost traced the history of that idea, seeking out the quest for a beyond. A place where real change is unattainable.
Maybe we are in some kind of purgatory.
Our sharp blades of desire and sweet expectation are worn down.
Carving out any sort of personal triumph, glee or satisfaction takes more effort and leaves you exhausted.
Life gives us lemons, but our tools are too dull to make practical use.
So the lemons pile up and go rotten.
There are, hypothetically, two solutions:
- Wait until the fruit gets softer
- Sharpen our blades.
The first is easier, and safer. In the short term.
But dull tools are dangerous to use, and take more effort.
(I have a few scars on my knuckles from woodworking tools).
A keen edge, sharp edge, comes from fiction and pressure – but deliberate and focused.
Maybe that’s why I like this one simple prompt:
“What would it take for this year to be my best year of my entire life?”
A four-step goal setting exercise
A week ago, I dared to make these plans, and brainstormed four categories.
- Work You Control
- Skills that Need Practice
- Unexpected Benefit
- Exciting Dream
You need to pick goals you feel enthusiasm for. That pull you forward.
Mine look something like this:
- work you control: finished 3 series (about 5 books). This is something well within my abilities; challenging but not overwhelming – based on past performance. If this is your first time doing something, it’s hard to estimate your progress. The first book might take 10 years, but they get faster.
- skills that need practice: for me, this is advertising – I’m nearly breaking even with ads now, so when I finish some series, this should mean I can scale to a profit. But with slim margins and big competition, I’ll need to get better at this. Practice is very expensive, so I’ll probably invest in books and courses.
- unexpected benefit: I have this weird idea of scaling break-even ads up and earning a ton of airline miles, for free lifetime travel. Scaling up ads for a small profit isn’t very exciting, so this potential extra benefit is motivating.
- exciting dream: ask yourself, “what would it look like if everything worked out much better than expected?” This is your irrational goal, the biggest thought you can think; the galvanizing dream. Mine is buying a castle.
Poker: Bet or fold (stay in control)
A recurring theme at our weekly poker nights is that you need to be an active player or you’ll get reckd.
Smart players will judge your behavior and take advantage.
If you have the cards, you’ll raise.
If you don’t raise, you don’t have the cards.
Sometimes it’s a better bet to raise with a losing hand, than to slow play a good hand and lose anyway.
I’m a casual player, so a friend of mine said something that resonated with me:
What’s the most fun I could have right now?
This is a pretty decent factor to consider.
What pulls you forward? It’s not that different from ‘chase your bliss’ or ‘do what makes you happy’ – which are unsatisfying platitudes, because most of us can’t just do what we want all the time.
But I have it in my office as a reminder anyway (do more of what makes you happy). Because there’s a huge, invisible, opportunity cost when you do things you dread or dislike; they leave you tired and drained. Even if they should be simple or easy; your emotional costs will differ, and they might not be worth it.
“Fortis fortuna adiuvat” – fortune favors the brave, but being brave is scary.
New adventures force us to learn and grow, but carry their own momentum and enthusiasm. You must leap before you’re ready for the journey to have meaning and purpose. T
That can seem easier when our base needs are met; and more difficult when they aren’t.
The opposite question to “would it be more fun to do the thing, or not do the thing” is…
What are you willing to trade for survival?
Think of all the things you want to do this year. Then figure out the motivations.
– for others
– for money
– because I should
– because I have to
– because I want to
You might have lots of big ideas that don’t spark joy.
These will be the hardest to sustain.
Think about your inner child. Imagine it was their last birthday.
What wouldn’t you do to show how much you loved them?
When was the last time you showered them with affection and attention?
Isn’t it about time?
Figure out what you want. Avoid everything else.
The Anti-Work Movement
Previously, people were generally OK trading their time for survival because they could look forward to or hope for an improvement. The Faustian desire for more, better, for future or sustained pleasure, which was originally seen as a sin (In Paradise Lost, Lucifer’s hubris quest for personal justice). But since the start of the 20th century, there was a shift towards personal or self-improvement that is still popular today, which champions the idea that we deserve everything and can have anything we want.
This illusion that we can make positive change and that we are responsible for our circumstances has been enough to sustain us… at least since the last pandemic, until the previous one.
In the first year of lockdown, we tried to use our time and focus on habits or guilty pleasures.
But there’s been a growing “anti-work” movement as people have come to terms with the fact that there is no better (for some) because the system is labor exploitive.
Most creatives need to juggle their passion projects from their paying projects: those they do for love and enjoyment, and those they do to pay the bills. Often, the more they hate the work, the more they feel they need to charge. So there’s a balance between high value, well-paid creative work and spurious shavings of *anything* they can sell.
A few years ago I shifted from very profitable active services, to a meagre passive income that gives me more time for my own creative projects.
I could charge very decent rates to do the work people want to pay me for.
But I’d rather not.
I’m kind of like the infuriating character in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the employee who just responds to every work-related request with
“I’d prefer not to.”
This is the weird space within which most creatives exist:
It’s true I need money to survive.
But I don’t need YOUR money.
I have a right to fire clients, just as employees are realizing they can fire their bosses. Before the pandemic, this was crassly referred to as “FU money” – to build a freelance side-gig big enough to tell your boss to go screw himself.
After the pandemic, it’s no longer about having an alternative source of income. It’s more desperate than that. It’s about being treated as a human being, as a person of value; about not being abused and exploited for corporate greed.
Companies have long tried to make quitting difficult for employees; most Americans have little savings and are forced to work because otherwise, they couldn’t afford healthcare, education or child support – all things guaranteed and provided by many other nations that are absent in the USA.
I wrote several posts recently about the general apathy and malaise I’m feeling, which I think is broad and deep and shared. I can’t say the pandemic is the reason I often don’t check my emails for a week, but it hasn’t helped, either. I usually respond to most queries with something along the lines of
“I could help you, but I won’t”
This feels honest, but also embarrassing for me, and I know I’m letting people down, but it’s my truth.
I could help you, but this stuff is much better done on your own; I could help you but my time is more valuable than you should reasonable invest in your project; I could help you but I’m writing a vampire fantasy – or simply binging Netflix for a week eating cake and folding into my couch cushions.
Some people are used to more expedient correspondence, and they sometimes get upset. Maybe they send several emails a day or find me on Facebook and urge me to get back to them. It’s not their fault, but they are assuming that as a potential new client thinking about giving me lots of money, I already owe them my time and enthusiasm.
I’m very good at entertaining possibilities, so I enjoy discussing potentialities – but that doesn’t mean I’m committing to them. I’m a font of great ideas and seeds of creative insight, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stick around and help you plant and cultivate them.
There’s a lot of great quotes about creative productive and positive mental thinking for artists, but one of my favorite passages – which seems more timely than ever – is John Galt’s speech in the Atlas Shrugged.
Basically it’s about artists and intellectuals refusing to let their mind and work be exploited, in order to “stop the motor of the world.” I think we could argue this is happening, and I hope these words invigorate you to step up and claim this year for yourself.
Take bold risks, to attain more felicity than you’ve ever received.
A love letter to creatives
“I am speaking to those who desire to live and to recapture the honor of their soul.
“Now that you know the truth about your world stop supporting your own destroyers. The evil of the world is made possible by nothing but the sanction to give it. Withdraw your sanction. Withdraw your support. Do not try to live on your enemies’ terms or to win at a game where they’re setting the rules.
“Do not seek the favor of those who enslaved you, do not beg for alms from those who have robbed you, be it subsidies, loans or jobs, do not join their team to recoup what they’ve taken by helping them rob your neighbors. One cannot hope to maintain one’s life by accepting bribes to condone one’s destruction.
“Do not straggle for profit, success or security at the price of a lien on your right to exist. Such a lien is not to be paid off; the more you pay them, the more they will demand; the greater the values you seek or achieve, the more vulnerably helpless you become.
“Do you wish to continue a struggle that consists of clinging to precarious ledges in a sliding descent to the abyss, a struggle where the hardships you endure are irreversible and the victories you win bring you closer to destruction?
“Or do you wish to undertake a struggle that consists of rising from ledge to ledge in a steady ascent to the top, a struggle where the hardships are investments in your future, and the victories bring you irreversibly closer to the world of your moral ideal, and should you die without reaching full sunlight, you will die on a level touched by its rays? Such is the choice before you. Let your mind and your love of existence decide.”
“In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this word to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. Do not lose your knowledge that man’s proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads.
“Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.
There’s a good chance that your priorities have changed; the landscape has shifted. The goals you set years ago may feel trivial and pointless. They may not inspire you with enthusiasm.
It’s OK to let them go.
You may not have discovered new ones to replace them with yet.
Check your road and your battle.
What are you willing to fight for?
What really matters to you?
Make sure you’re doing them for the right reasons (and for me, the *only* right reason right now, is to spoil your inner child with attention and love). Because you can’t do good work without great joy, and you need something you’re truly excited about and looking forward to.
PS. I heard a fun story the other night about some guys who went camping, but couldn’t get their fire started; one of them was a professional bassoonist – he’s spent years training himself to blow sharply down. He was blowing on the fire in vain, without adding the necessary oxygen for combustion. Even though he was trying really really hard. His expertise got in the way, and was limiting an otherwise very simple task. There’s probably a metaphor in there, but you can dig it out for yourself.
Fine I’ll help: you don’t necessarily need to do more, or learn more, or try harder. Do less, but pay attention.
CHALLENGE: use my 4-goal challenge above to brainstorm some ideas for making this year the best ever. The best of your *WHOLE* life. What would it have to take to make that happen? What does that actually look like for you? What do you want to *STOP* doing in 2022?
Refusing to do a task that drains your energy without providing worthwhile benefits (in the form of beneficial life improvement) is a challenge and a triumph in itself. The terrain is rough; your backpack is full. What are you willing to leave behind?
But sometimes, you don’t need to do anything at all. A friend of mine posted a picture of a cool feather she’d found on her doorstep that she took as a sign: anything can be a sign if you expect good things and ascribe positive meaning to events; if you believe the universe is conspiring in your favor to bestow everything you’ve ever wanted. Look for confirmation that life is magic, and you’ll find it.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.