If you’re anything like me, you take on too many projects.
I’ve always done this. And when I say “always”, I’m not only referring to my adult, professional life. Since I was old enough to want to do anything at all, I’ve wanted to do too many things, and I’ve tried to do them all at once:
- Learn to play guitar and start a band.
- Write stories, novels, and screenplays.
- Draw and make animated films.
- Study science and mathematics.
- Become an architect and design buildings.
- Program computers and make video games.
- Get married, raise a family.
You know. Learn Japanese, go live in Japan for a year or so. Climb Mount Fuji.
As a child, I was surrounded by love and encouragement. The adults in my life told me I could do anything I set my mind to, anything I wanted. I took their encouragement literally and without moderation.
For the next forty years, my mental roster of projects never had fewer than five things on it. I couldn’t spend much time on any one goal, but I was passionate and persistent. I could manage just well enough to sustain my hope that I would someday achieve all my grand ambitions.
However, as I approached my forty-fifth birthday, I found I hadn’t achieved nearly as much as I’d anticipated. It felt like I’d lived on the edge of success my whole life. I was determined as ever, but I was tired. I found myself asking the same questions over and over again:
What do I really want to do?
What can I realistically expect to accomplish with whatever time and resources I have left?
I obsessed over this more than I like to admit. I wrote countless journal entries. I tried one personal organizational system after another. I harangued my poor, patient wife with a perpetual, self-indulgent monologue, verbally assessing and reassessing how I might accomplish all the things I wanted to do.
I was stuck in a state of frenetic indecision. I tried whittling my long list of goals down to a single project, something to which I could dedicate all my time and effort: My One Thing.
It seems like a good idea, doesn’t it? If we can make steady progress on a half-dozen things, what might we accomplish if we focused all our attention on a single, solitary goal?
But that One Thing never remains one thing. Over time, other projects wend their way through our defenses, sprouting up like weeds. Instead of cultivating a single idea, we find ourselves tending a diverse, chaotic, and wholly unintentional garden.
Back in October of 2015, after a long creative dry spell, I faced facts. Working as I was, I would never achieve anything. It was depressing but incontrovertible: I had to prune my project list all the way back, not to one thing, but to zero.
My overgrown garden of ideas had to go. It was time to clear the land and let the soil lie fallow for a season of rest.
I hated the thought. I knew a respite would be good, but I didn’t care. I was terrified that, without my ambitions, I would degenerate into a soulless and apathetic drone, just one more dispirited cog spinning in an aimless societal machine. I reassured myself this wouldn’t happen. This wasn’t the end. I would eventually return to my work, focus and passion renewed, and find the success I sought.
Honestly, I had no clue how that was supposed to work. All the same, I closed my eyes and pulled the plug. I proclaimed that, from that point on, I was officially doing nothing.
And it worked. Shutting down was unsettlingly easy. After a lifetime of dutiful care and devotion, all my old habits abandoned me. I didn’t even have time to wish them goodnight before they were out the door and down the lane. And then, with some embarrassment, I realized they had stayed so late only because I had so selfishly clung to them.
If their absence left any vacuum in my daily routine, it didn’t last. My day job readily expanded to fill the hours. I had a long backlog of games to play and books to read. I spent long, contented nights writing in my journal about whatever and everything.
I hoped for revelation or catharsis, any spark that might light the way ahead. But none of my efforts led to any insights or change. I could only clear my head, quiet the inner cacophony, and wait. Time and patience would have to do the rest.
Gradually, as the sun set on all my naïve overambitions, faint insights appeared out of the dusk. The clear night sky above me had been there the whole time, yet it was wholly unfamiliar. I spent the next six months in quiet observation, charting and tracking personal constellations, but otherwise pursuing no specific end.
Much of what I learned in that time was intensely personal. But the point I’ve reached and the road that led me there are both well-worth sharing.
This is part one of a three-part series. You can read part two here.