Leaving Nothing Behind

This post is part three of a three-part series. You can read part one here and part two here.


Try to boil an ocean and you won’t have enough hot water for tea.

I spent most of my life demonstrating that simple truth, taking on one personal project after another. In October, 2015, I finally grew tired of stoking those metaphorical fires. I doused the flames, buried the embers, and set off on a six-month trek down a quiet stretch of beach.

I grew up along the way. I could finally see the harm I had done in trying to make every little thing part of something bigger. I realized how much we all need quiet and solitude, both around us and within. And I finally realized that, through everything, I had been doing my level best to cheat my way past the natural limits of my mortality.

“Nothing” turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Necessary and helpful as my Nothing was, I never intended to take up permanent residence there. I wanted to find my story, not abandon it. I sometimes wondered, would there be signs when I should turn around and head home? Would there be some overt signal telling me it was time to move on? What would I move on to? Going back to my old project list didn’t seem right. Everything I had learned told me my list was broken.

I couldn’t make a plan to end my period of project abstinence. Had I tried, my Nothing would have been just one more “Something” in my queue. It had to be absolute. My effort—or lack thereof—had to be distinguished by it’s complete and total Nothing-ness.

In the end, my return trip out of Nothing was accidental, and that was as it should be. The nature of my commitment required it. Anything else would have looked suspiciously like someone breaking their diet, declaring victory as they made a dash for the cookie jar.

Here are the first three steps I took in my journey back from Nothing.

PDX at Night

I’m glad it was late Autumn when I made the transition. It afforded a natural, supportive symmetry between my decision and the world around me. The leaves turned and fell as I let go of long-held aspirations. Short days and cold weather made for long nights spent writing by lamplight under a warm blanket.

The hallmarks of impending change appeared at work, too. People began to disappear as they claimed their surplus vacation time. The dull tedium of year-end administrative tasks began. Along the way, I relinquished my cubicle to make room for an office reorganization. I would have been content to roam for a season, laptop in tow, but my boss graciously arranged for me to use a private office, the first in my career.

It was amazing. There is much to be said about the inspirational power of a closed door.

I left my office open during business hours. I work as a manager. I want people to know they can walk in any time. But at the end of each day, at around five o’clock, I conducted a ritual ceremony of glorious solitude. I turned the lights down. I drew back the blinds to reveal a full nightscape view of Portland, Oregon, the city and its bridges veiled in sheets of rain. And then, as I closed the door, the soft click of the latch was like the sound of shackles dropping to the floor, and it set my introverted mind at ease.

I spent those peaceful evening hours cleaning house. I cataloged all my ongoing work, all the ostensibly important goals I had accumulated in the past year’s rush and scramble. I hadn’t gathered them together in one place like this, and it shocked me. There were over forty projects in all, and that didn’t include any of the work I had finished.

I had been unaware of the load I was carrying. Worse, for all I’d done, I had no sense of satisfaction or accomplishment. I regularly put in overtime. I was proud to have reached “inbox zero” every day (or nearly so). But now, looking back, all those days of fuss and bustle hadn’t added up to much. I felt about as accomplished as someone frantically scooping buckets of water out of a sinking boat.

At least I hadn’t drowned, I guess.

Upon reflection, the alternative to this mindless and perpetual state of hurry seemed straightforward enough.

Be intentional.

When we overload ourselves, we become vulnerable to the tyranny of the moment. Excessive and conflicting demands dull our focus and distort our perspective. We don’t allow ourselves time to consider our situation. In that state, we’re prone to fall back on pure intuition and gut reaction. That can be great for getting ourselves out of a pinch, but it’s no way to live.

Being intentional is the opposite of this. It is decisive action motivated by a conscientious decision. Whatever we do, we do because we choose to do it.

To be clear: Being intentional isn’t about getting work done. It’s not a productivity tool. Being intentional isn’t about control, either. You can be intentional whether you’re in control or not (and so often we’re not).

Neither is intentionality a sure path to some vain notion of personal fulfillment. It won’t make you a better person. People can be narcissistic jerks just as intentionally as others can be thoughtful, kind, and generous.

Rather, there’s a peculiar benefit that comes from being fully aware of the choices we make and the actions that follow. It enables us to fully experience our accomplishments. Without intentionality, it’s hard to feel any lasting sense of satisfaction in what we do.

Of course, it also lets us fully own our mistakes and failures. But—as I would soon realize—that’s as it should be.

But intentionality doesn’t only impact the serious matters of work and achievement. Making a conscientious decision to do anything makes the time we spend that much more satisfying. Play isn’t play if you’re not fully in the moment. Intentional sleep is a wonderful thing.

At home, for the first time in far too long, I played video games. I mean I really played them. For fun. I didn’t play to analyze their design (though I can’t really help myself there). I didn’t play to study. I simply lost myself in Fallout 4’s virtual, post-apocalyptic wasteland: going on quests, fighting super mutants, and building entire settlements out of scrapped fencing and coffee pots.

My work life improved as well. Realizing I couldn’t possibly finish all the tasks I’d taken up, I scrubbed my list and removed almost half the items. As important as they once seemed, none of them mattered much in the end. I put another third on indefinite hiatus, freeing my time and attention to focus on the remaining few that were the most promising, the most actionable.

Around the same time, I developed a new habit, one I highly recommend: I started a daily audio journal. This, in turn, led me to the next step on my return trip.

PDX Skyline and Traffic

I kept a recorder with me during my 45-minute commute into Portland. Each morning, I would hit Record, recount my previous day, and talk myself through the day ahead. It was simple, enjoyable in itself, and it fostered the conscientious attitude I was seeking.

Of course, I didn’t limit myself to the topic of work. Once I finished going over my schedule for the day, I would move on to whatever was at the forefront of my mind: games, friends and family, health matters, and whatever I’d done to pass the time the previous evening.

For several days in a row, I found myself talking about the same thing. I had been toying with the notion of writing a comic book script. The subject matter for the story came from personal insights I had gained over the past six months. I chose the format after reading a sample script in the back of a comic I enjoyed. It was so similar to the way I already wrote development notes for my stories, I thought my lifelong writer’s block might be less of an issue. It sounded possible. It sounded fun (in a lots-of-work kind of way).

I was still wary of taking on any personal projects, but I found myself stuck in a loop. Without intending to, I was reporting back to myself each morning on the previous night’s progress. At each step, I maintained a clear idea of what I wanted to do next. I wasn’t “allowing” myself to do anything, but I was doing it anyway.

I decided to make it official, and unwittingly took the second step on my return trip out of Nothing:

Make small, achievable commitments.

When you’re trying to get anything done, do anything. Do whatever is possible, no matter how small a step it might seem.

But whatever you decide to do, commit yourself to it.

I always found it difficult to start work on anything that would require a long, sustained effort. I simply didn’t believe I’d be able to maintain my interest and singular focus over the long haul. In my mind, I had already failed, so why bother starting?

The key was to make a personal commitment, not to the whole journey, but to the first step.

Do you want to write a novel? Don’t commit to the novel. Commit to a chapter. Or a page. Or a paragraph. Scale your goal to suit your situation. Forget ambition; be realistic. Never mind whether anyone else thinks it’s “real” progress or not. Achievement builds upon itself; success breeds success.

Small commitments also let you steer. As you make progress, your experience will inform your path. You’ll learn as you go. You may even find some of your most cherished ideas changing or falling away, not for lack of attention, but because you can now see them in a new and revealing light.

And if you end up making five, ten, or twenty successive commitments that lead you to work on twenty different ideas, who cares? Look at everything you did! If one of those ideas proves productive or interesting, you’ll see it, and you’ll be free to pursue it as you choose.

By focusing on small commitments, you’ll also minimize the distraction of grand, overzealous ambition. For example, no matter what I’m working on, my brain torments me. I can’t help but think of the next big thing I want to do, how great it’s going to be. That used to derail me. Now, knowing that I can choose a new direction at each step, I have the perspective and mental capacity to set distractions aside and finish what I started.

But you have to be firm in your commitment. It has to be meaningful or it won’t work. If you know someone who will really listen to you, someone who will follow up and ask you how things went, that’s great. But it’s no one else’s job to hold you accountable. It’s far better if you can figure out a way to make a firm commitment to yourself.

That was always the tough part for me. At work, I have no problem keeping commitments. Once I tell my boss or a coworker I’m going to do something, I do it. I don’t want to let them down, and I don’t want to earn a bad reputation.

But I could never reliably commit myself to anything. Until, that is, I recorded myself.

I don’t know why, exactly, but when I record a commitment, it matters. I believe it, it sticks, and I get things done. What I find curious is that it works even if I never share the recording or listen to it myself. Recording an audio journal is a kind of improv performance. Performing for anyone—even a purely virtual audience—has a kind of significance and weight that’s hard to ignore.

So try recording yourself. Or find a good friend to listen. If that doesn’t work, make smaller commitments. But keep at it. In time, you’ll find what works for you.

My third step was perhaps the most significant. It was also the one I had successfully avoided my whole life.

Typewriter

I had a million reasons not to write a comic book script. Before I started, I hadn’t regularly read comics in decades. I’m not an artist. I have little sense of layout or anything else that matters in comics and graphic novels. I don’t know what people like to read. I don’t know any illustrators. Very few publishers accept unsolicited scripts without illustrations.

I ignored them all, because a comic book script was the one thing I seemed able to write.

Something in the format worked for me. Instead of holding the interest of a reader, I had to imagine how I would inspire an illustrator. I began training myself to focus only on what was absolutely necessary, leaving as much creative headroom as possible. I loved the idea that my script might inspire entirely different visualizations from different artists.

It was hard work. I had so much to learn. Progress was slow, but steady. For the first time I could remember, I didn’t wait for the muse to arrive. Instead, I treated writing like the job it was: I sat down at the same time each day, opened up a file, and wrote.

There were some great moments during that time. I can remember the exhilaration of finding just the right turn of phrase, seeing my idea grow in detail and clarity as it emerged. I also remember digging deep to let difficult memories bleed onto the page. One night in particular, I was shocked at what I’d written. But when I went back to read it again, and then again, it held up. It was painful. I couldn’t imagine sharing it with anyone, but it was grounded in truth. I learned something about writing that night, something I’m still struggling to reproduce.

And then it all stopped.

For a few days, I found myself getting caught up in endless cycles of editing without writing anything new. A week passed. Then, two full weeks went by with no new material. I tried reducing my already modest goals. I switched to research, hoping to stir up some new ideas.

Finally, after three weeks with no progress, I realized just what I had to do.

Fail.

My whole life, I cheated myself out of failure.

My incomplete projects weren’t outright failures so much as long trajectories descending asymptotically toward oblivion. They never crashed, but neither did they ever touch down and land.

Hard failure would have been an improvement. It would have forced me to assess matters, to take constructive action. By trading in failure for unattainable success, I’ve denied myself opportunities to learn and grow.

Be open to failure. You may be surprised how liberating it can be. Failure can also be educational, but don’t stew in it. For that matter, don’t revel too long in your successes, either. However things work out at each step, just set the next course and move on.

So my first post-Nothing endeavor failed. That’s fine. I don’t feel bad about it in the least. Maybe that’s hard to understand. Maybe it sounds like defensive rationalization. Or maybe it sounds like the product of a culture that awards everyone trophies for participation. Whatever people may think, failing was, for me, a rite of passage. It was a milestone. I took an honest look at my work. I declared failure.

And then, I moved on.

Sand, Waves, Sky

The past six months have been fascinating like no other time in my life. I’m glad to say I’m in a much better place now than when I started.

In my original post, I said I started down this road because I hadn’t found the success I hoped for. That’s true, but it isn’t the whole picture. My frustration began a long time ago as a struggle to find some worthwhile way to spend my time. Left unchecked, it eroded into a subtle but destructive form of idolatry.

(If the word “idolatry” in that sentence strikes you as odd or anachronistic, look at it this way: Anything can become an idol when we willingly offer up our devotion and sacrifice.)

I let an idealized vision of my own future become my idol. I devoted myself to it. I sacrificed most of my time and energy in pursuit of it. And now, I’m glad to finally be free of it, more than I can say.

I know I’m not alone, either. I like to think the lessons I’ve learned can help others who find themselves stuck in similar situations.

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:34 (NIV)

To anyone who feels trapped by their own ambitions: Stop. Let go. Make your own proclamation of “Nothing.” Then wait and pray; watch and listen. You’ll be amazed at what you discover.

Thank you for reading!


Credits

The image depicting Portland, Oregon and the Steel Bridge at night is a modified version of a photo by Terence T.S. Tam that is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The image depicting the Portland, Oregon skyline and highways is a modified version of a photo by Ian Fisher; both the original photo and this modified version are licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The image depicting a typewriter sitting on a desk is a modified version of a photo by Antti Kyllönen and is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

 

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