I don’t think it’s unusual for anybody to feel like the last two years haven’t been great. I generally agree with the sentiment, if all you’re doing is surviving, that’s enough. I also don’t think we always need to productivize our creativity.
There’s a perversion in the modern compulsion to Always Be Improving. But mostly it’s because, once upon a time we had few choices, and now we have the illusion of many – an infinite plethora of ideas and an insurmountable wall of limitations keeping us from reaching them.
I’ve felt stuck for several years – probably nearly a decade. And it’s not like I’ve done nothing, but none of the ambitious, practical, achievable goals I’ve set seem to pan out. Mostly because I’m not actively working on them – but that is a symptom of its own problem; that the motivation or energy to make meaningful product is missing. I don’t want it enough; even if I tell myself I should.
As we near the end of 2021, I’m procrastinating from a novel I need to finish. I’ve spent months of the year fighting a general ennui. I’m not depressed. I know what soul-crushing depression feels like. I’m not unhappy. I just don’t particularly see the point of anything, and I’m content to exist, avoid pain and stress, and spend most of the day binging entertainment content (Netflix, PS5, etc).
I’m aware the world is on a decline into chaos and anarchy. It might all be fine. It might not.
I’m of the opinion that it probably won’t; but I’m of the hope that *somehow* greater heads will prevail and start making smart decisions for the human race. It all feels so big, and makes my trivial pursuits and ambition seem purposeless.
Three years ago, I wrote an optimistic post: 7 empowering insights to help you have your best year ever!
Younger me was making some realizations, and they’re pretty good ones. But of those goals I set myself for 2019, I partially finished 1 out of 8… and it took three years. My goals haven’t changed exactly, but something is shifting inside me recently.
I should be writing or doing all the things.
Instead I got distracted with a total website redesign. I tend to harness any small pocket of inspiration I can find, so if I suddenly feel like completely rebranding myself, I’ll accept the insomnia and ride the mania. These are often not deliberate, conscious choices. This didn’t have to be done now.
On the other hand, I’m acutely aware that all the goals I’ve set that I want to accomplish simply aren’t getting done through my own efforts; what I’ve been doing hasn’t been working. Partly, that’s fine: I know writing fiction will get easier when I finally finish some series, and that it’ll take another few years to do that.
At the same time, I feel like I’m coming to terms with the idea that it’s OK to give up, to let go, to stop working. Anything you feel like you should be doing but aren’t doing, just creates stress. My todo list is a book in itself of a thousand different things. Instead of always wrestling with your muse and putting things off, it’s OK to cross things off the list without finishing them. Just let them die.
Sometimes there are better, easier things.
Sometimes, the entire system is broken and you need a fresh start. A new blog. A different career or hobby.
What if our new year resolutions could be focused on doing less, instead of doing more?
A different kind of pandemic
Tonight I’m ruminating on the fact that we are facing a different kind of pandemic. An ADHD pandemic. This year I’ve learned a lot about writing with ADHD, but basically, people with ADHD have a hard time *doing* anything because our dopamine receptors are broken, so carrots and sticks don’t motivate us.
The foundational support of hope and fear as a driving force for creative change and action, I’ve discussed at length. For most normal (neurotypical) people, it’s not that hard to find *something* to hope for that excites us. But what do we do when the world keeps telling us that there’s no point? Take a look at the Anti-Work movement – people are quitting their jobs in record numbers, because why deal with the stress and effort, only to take home a paycheck that isn’t enough to cover basic costs of living, while at the same time the big companies continue to pillage a world at the edge of a climate crisis?
I’ve seen some big influencers talk about ADHD recently when I never would have guessed they had it; and I wonder if it isn’t becoming *cool* to be “on the spectrum” – I argued about this with a guy at a poker night recently. There’s a tendency to say everybody has trouble focusing sometimes or everybody gets depressed, which minimized the very real, constant challenges of people who have life-disrupting conditions or need real medicine and treatment to function.
On the other hand, I think it’s a sign that many people – even most people – are starting to experience some things that some of us have been wrestling with all our lives. Maybe we all have broken dopamine receptors. We’re desperate for connection, for hope and meaning, but each new thing we are looking forward to can get cancelled in a moment with a new outbreak, or a financial crisis. Video games or movies we’ve been looking forward to all year are pushed back. Events are postponed indefinitely. Any hopeful optimism is immediately tempered by rational doubt and semi-bitter acceptance. This isn’t the first time we’ve been disappointed, and it won’t be the last.
The instability is not great for our creativity, and there’s even a shortened feedback loop as many of our favorite TV shoes and movies (which we are binge-consuming to fill the void) are focusing on the very feelings we’re trying to avoid: that we’re in the middle of a never-ending period of massive uncertainty, and things may never go back to normal.
South Park’s Covid special is centered around a time-travel narrative, where the characters aim to stop the outbreak that changed life forever. It concludes with the idea that we can’t change what happened, and can only reframe our mindset to be more forgiving and accepting, of ourselves and others (with the conclusion that giving away free weed is better than giving out free vaccines).
It’s funny in its absurdity, but only for a brief minute of unexpected humor, before reality continues: weed may get us through this but it doesn’t actually solve anything. The same could be said of *any* of the major crises our species is facing. We are doing nothing, but we haven’t the power to do anything.
And the powers that be are creating sophisticated systems to keep us occupied in an entertainment industry competing to trigger our broken dopamine receptors with ever deeper, more emotional stories and content. Next year will be the beginning of the metaverse, and in 10 years we’ll have a robust digital online profile that is both dystopian and chilling, but also convenient and satisfying.
Why was 2021 so terrible?
In 2020, we were reacting to and getting used to these huge social issues. We had to make massive changes to our lifestyles. But it was, at least, novel enough to keep us distracted.
Most of 2021, it just kind of felt like, nothing was happening – us being at home more, consuming more media, stopping and stopping various projects or hobbies. Waiting for a reprieve of sorts, for some good news that hasn’t yet come. At the end of 2021, rather than a stock rally, we’re getting a market crash based on *new* covid fears, a weakening dollar, and the collapse of some foreign real estate bubbles – hundreds of billions of dollars in unpayable debt; built cities standing empty, prepared for a future wave of residents that never materialized.
If I was feeling poetic, I’d compare this to Ayn Rand’s the Fountainhead: John Galt’s mission is to “stop the motor of the world.” Well, it has stopped. Or at least, it’s having a heart attack – the Ever Given stuck in the Suez Canal with its billion dollar cargo, is a terrifying and comical symbol of our unsustainable system.
John Galt’s mission was a little different though – it was to stop business interests from abusing and stealing from creative people of genius and talent, under the guise of welfare or socialism (that great art should be shared). While I continue to support that sentiment, the current issues are not really about work of the mind: it’s the retail or “low-skill” workers of action, that are feeling the worst of this crisis, with absolutely none of the social supports or guarantees that most countries adopted decades ago and the USA has refused (people say Ayn Rand isn’t popular, but America has a deep root of rugged individualism and it’s clear she’s been influential).
“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. 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.”
– John Galt, the Fountainhead
This was written in 1943, and fits the current theme of the anti-work movement: when companies are finally being forced to come to terms with the fact that their workforce is not so easily replaceable, and that a bad social media story could tank their profits; when employees are no longer willing to be ground up and spit out merely to earn a basic survival. If it feels inspirational, its only because it addresses the depth of the problem, the cancer inside us that whispers we are worth more.
I thought this post might be too dreary, but the social media memes this week have confirmed how a lot of people are feeling at the end of 2021: a lot of posts like “wtf?” and memes about taking care of yourself; that you matter even when you aren’t productive; that sometimes self-care is doing nothing and spending all day in bed.
So, why set goals at all?
I’ve already sort of mentioned the answer earlier. Without hope, there won’t be any enthusiasm; without enthusiasm, there will be no action. But this is a great time to reflect on all our commitments and projects, and ruthlessly cut any that don’t spark joy. Write down a big list of everything you’d like to achieve in 2021 (and beyond), then focus on each item at a time. Picture it. Feel it. Do you feel energized and pulled forward? Are you smiling? Or do you feel resistance, dread, frustration?
Something it took me years to learn, is that those *easy* little projects I should be able to do myself, are responsible for hundreds of hours of procrastination. There is a huge opportunity cost in keeping them on my list instead of purging them fast and early. Most things on my list still feel like this, which is why (on top of the ADHD and INTP personality, and the constant war between my Capricorn and Sagittarius tendencies) I mostly can’t be bothered to do anything.
With that in mind, I’m posting this along with my goals for the next three years, as a reminder to myself that visualizing a positive future is one of the best productivity hacks for everybody; while also allowing myself to resist the idea that forcing myself to finish projects I have no energy for isn’t absolutely necessary.
I’ve spent most of the last 2 years standing by and waiting for life to go back to normal. It’s been, perhaps, a long, slow process of deflation and desensitization.
But somehow caring less has made me less reactive; which means I can proactively decide to be and do whatever I want, rather than focusing so much on solving other people’s problems.
The truth is, I love what I do – book design, editing, writing – but I’m not using my own platform nearly enough to attract the type of projects I want to work with. At this point, I have quite a bit of traffic, and rather than allowing them to get lost in the mire of my midnight rantings, rather than the self-deprecating relatability or humility I’m known for, I feel like stating the impressive skillsets I’ve acquired more deliberately.
Mostly, this means raising my rates and limiting my availability; and also setting boundaries with my time. Not because I don’t want to help people, but because I can be devastatingly effective if I’m allowed to do my best work at my own pace.
Rather than feeling like a failure because I can’t scale or get ads to work, I want to focus on organic traffic by actually posting content more than a few times a year. I also want to share more of my self and my stories, so I can appreciated as a “good writer” and not just a “publishing guy.”
One year plan
1. regular blogging. personal, charming stories. high quality, effective, professional blog.
2. organized lists of books and courses; cleaner landing pages. be seen selling.
3. finish 3 series. Honestly this is the only one I care about, because writing full-time is the only thing I want to do, and I’d happily shut off all extra income sources when I’m abundantly wealthy. This would be about 5 books in one year, which is definitely possible for me.
Three year plan
4. become the G.O.A.T – the greatest in my field. This would mean,
– a kingmaker with a 100K email list
– 100K traffic a month
– 10K/month passive income (book sales, courses)
– my books constantly on the bestselling lists, with profitable ads
– spend $100K a month in ads, make $110K in sales ($10K profit), earn airline miles or rewards
– trad published book in bookstores
– a cabin filled with cats in the woods where I can quietly write fantasy. Also an apartment in the city for convenience and dinner parties.
I feel like I’ve seen these goals before.
I’ve written them before. All of them seem attainable, but it’s weird to know I’m basically in the same place I was three years ago and not really all that much closer to achieving them. Partly, it’s because I’ve been working on long term goals and projects.
Partly, I wasn’t acting with intuitive confidence.
Sometimes, even if you understand what you need to do and how, it still just doesn’t all come together. Until one day, suddenly, it does. I feel like this next year might be my year for that. My limping, broken, unfinished projects have quietly been picking up steam, even if they’re not what they were supposed to be.
I can clean-slate my sites and projects, instead of simple tweaks or changes, I’ll buy a pretty WordPress landing page or theme (design matters SO much). And it doesn’t ever have to be perfect. It has to be just good enough to scale, with just enough profit to stay in the green.
I’m not there yet. But I’m also not stressed or worried about it. I feel like, maybe, it’ll just happen. Maybe it’s about directing my focus to the things that really matter, and allowing my energy to direct my actions into my zone of creative courage, where I feel like I’m effortless producing my best work.
At any rate, that’s how I’m feeling.
*If this post seems tinged with a melancholic dysphoria, it’s because for the past week I’ve been researching expired domains to purchase for their SEO juice. It’s sad to see – especially – writing blogs from authors who have died; a rich wealth of content that they spent years developing, which is now lost.
I have no illusions of becoming a classic, famous author, though I wouldn’t turn down a Netflix deal if it comes knocking. And maybe it’s just a mid-life crisis that’s nudging me towards introspections on mortality (or the trip to the emergency room this week for a kidney stone crisis).
In my finer moments, I can acknowledge and even stir up some gratitude for the things I have achieved: I’ve managed to create some digital assets that produce just enough passive income that I (usually) don’t have to worry about money, as long as I’m living somewhere cheap. And I’m getting a considerable platform and amount of traffic, considering I rarely blog or polish my materials.
I’ve published over a dozen books in the past two years, which isn’t nothing – unless they all fail to engage readers or make any money, and even then, I’ll have learned a lot about craft and marketing (the wrong way) as long as I’m paying attention and willing to learn and improve.
I tell people all the time, that it’s normal to feel depressed or lost or stuck or overwhelmed, either halfway through writing a book or soon after completing a big creative project. That you can’t expect your brain to burn the midnight oil without sleeping through the next day.
It is *normal* to experience burnout, it may even be necessary. It’s part of the process, and not something to be avoided. Burnout isn’t something to push through or try to recover from. It’s a symptom that you need rest, and that you probably deserve it.
For my part, I’m not really even recommending setting goals to achieve more. A lot of it, is about changing your opinion of yourself and focusing on a positive mindset that makes you feel good about what you’re attempt to accomplish. In other words, it doesn’t require more work or energy. You just need time for reflection, and quiet to hear the soft whispers of your soul’s true desire.
For me personally, I feel like it’s time to take myself and my brand more seriously. Not to *pretend* to be a bigshot in the publishing world, but to *embrace* the fact that I already am one: abundantly over-qualified in my wisdom and knowledge, and fortunate enough to be adding value to hundreds of brilliant, successful authors who are on parallel paths.
PS. This could be a whole new post but I’ve written in the past about Badiou’s cyle of identity, which is like an engine that spins from courage and anxiety; nihilism and fatalism. Briefly, if we imagine creative energy as something that must be generated, it’s the *friction* involved in our forced-optimism, against our fear and doubt, that creates our enthusiasm, but also consumes it – then picture yourself cranking a wheel or spinning like a top. The energy will run out, or else need constant attention.
So, if nothing ever changes, it’s because you’re in a rut or a cycle – but this is a necessary vehicle for action and experience. YOU change; in the repetition and practice; in the knowledge and understanding. But you may find no energy for continuing when you’ve not yet seen the expected results.
I’m not saying to force yourself to do it anyway. But the previous goals you set may not be motivating to your current self, because the things you thought you wanted aren’t bringing you joy. You, like everyone, probably have different priorities right now than you did 2 years ago. Like connection, community, and security.
If you stay on the same path, at least rewrite your narrative of what that path looks like.
Or let the path grow roots and be consumed by the forest, and embrace the celebratory friction that comes from hacking through a new, undiscovered area, dreaming about what treasures lie beyond.
What about you? How are you feeling?
Will you be setting any big goals for next year?
What are they?