Monday, September 8, 2008

Trying

mechanics

I struggle with what to write here. It's the same internet home I roughly built, a year ago. Same space, same pale blue backdrop, same absurdly pumpkin-colored links. I started this because I wanted to be online. I needed to know how the internet worked, and how I worked on the internet. So I embarked on a naive and ambitious year-long project to "figure out the internet."

And along the way, astounding things happened: ROFLCon, the wide-eyed thrill of someone you respect respecting you too, and a world of friends (real friends) I never could have predicted; never could have hoped for. I am shocked that all this came about, considering my early days of thoughtless product reviews and ineffectual projects. I am deeply grateful for any measure in which I've somehow, in spite of all that, managed to live up to Jack Shedd's calm reminder that "If you’re worth reading, someone will read you. If you’re worth watching, someone will watch you. If you’re worth hearing, someone will listen." I am grateful, and relieved. But I would like to live up to it more.

I've paid attention, lately, as Merlin Mann has put into words his intention to do everything better. I've paid attention, too, as he has put this intention into action. I will not hesitate: I admire him more than words can say. And so when I blankly fired up my RSS reader this morning, only to find a letter from him to the internet, it made me realize that it's time to write my own. Merlin's written 43 Folders for four years now, of course. I've written this for one. But still. It is time for a conscious, deliberate change of course.

Incidentally, this change of course is not so much about this. It's not about the blog. It's about what happens after you "figure out the internet" as a system—as much as you want to, anyway—and can go back to the wide world. I don't regret this past year at all. It has opened me up to an extraordinary universe of people and possibilities. But it's only one realm, one among many. And there are other places I'd like to go, now, too.

So: where do I go from here? More importantly: what kind of person do I want to become along the way?

These are big questions. There is no way around that. It's hard to think about trying to answer them at all, let alone trying to answer them in words. Even as I try to grasp them, I can see them fragment and float and drift, becoming even more unanswered things. But here are the questions, at least. At last.

1) What universe will you build around yourself?
2) What is your trusted system? How will you trust yourself?
3) What will you make?
5) How will you treat others?
6) How will you treat yourself?

1) What universe will you build around yourself?
In the long lately, I wrote about paper and pens, and dream homes, and fiction. The longings there were real, you know. I really do long to read fiction; imagine dream homes; write on paper with thick black pens. But here's what I'm wondering: if I long for those things, why haven't they happened yet?

The answer: they do happen. But they only happen sometimes. Not reliably. And when they happen to happen, they always feel like hard-won afterthoughts. I'm sure this is because I exist in a world of noise: a world I built. I spend my days reading rough-draft blogs, rather than watching good films or listening to incredible music or making an effort to see, and learn from, admirable people.

Not all blogs are rough drafts. And even then, the roughness is part of their charm. But there is so much out there, beyond 500-word posts with unclear conclusions. This has been the Year of the Internet, it's true. But to be honest, I haven't really filled my world with signal since I was thirteen. That's the last time I can remember reading books for pleasure, as a matter of course. It's the last time I can remember watching movies regularly.

I've been dabbling this whole time. Somehow, I've managed to learn things anyway. The internet, of course, isn't all bad. But it is, it always will be, a shortcut. Fast, immediate; form suggesting substance, or its absence. Not necessitating it. But suggesting it. I need to learn more.

This does not mean abandoning the internet. Not at all. It does not mean abandoning my keyboard. The fact that the internet is fast means it's powerful. It's bewildering and wonderful to think that I can write something and post it, and then months later—like a lovesick teenager discovering a short story tucked in among the records at a used record store—someone might read it. Better yet? More often than not, I'm the lovesick teenager; I'm the one shuffling through the milk crates, waiting to find something I didn't expect. The internet accelerates serendipity, and for that I admire it deeply. But still. It's important to remember that it's not the only thing.

I've had a hard time coming to terms with this. Not because I doubt it, but because it's horribly confronting to think about all the time I've "wasted." Lately, though, I finally found a way to reconcile my habits these past years with the reality I want to pursue. The key came in a guest post on—where else!—43 Folders, in which Matt Wood described his attempts to exit the steady ocean of information. The result? It didn't work—not for long, anyway. Distractions flew, but so did ideas.

The time I spend browsing the internet, I realized, is like a mechanical extension of my imagination. It's a way to travel down garden paths, encounter unexpected fields, get lost in the beauty of how it all connects. The fact that we yearn for new information is good; it is admirable. It means we are curious about the world. It's absurd to me that my heart still races every morning when I wake up, flooded with the blind hope that something new will have appeared while I was sleeping. And yet, it does. This is not something I would want to change about myself, ever. But I do want to learn how to let my heart race more slowly, in the anticipation of other sources of information that—while not new—are new to me. It is worth remembering: this includes almost every book ever written.

So how will I build a high-fidelity universe? Adjust the levels. Turn down the noise, seek out stronger signals. It is so vastly simple. It is only difficult because the easy shortcut is so persistent. Before adjusting the levels, then, there's something else I need to do: develop a healthy suspicion of shortcuts. This, I hope, is how I will start to drain the ocean of noise.

2) What is your trusted system? How will you trust yourself?
I am fascinated by systems; I adore them. I especially adore any system that promises to free its believers from worry. To elevate them to a higher plane of productivity, excellence, and creativity. Two years ago, I threw myself into a system you will probably find familiar. I will resist capitalizing the words, abbreviating them to the bat-signal of GTD. But still. The system was a revelation. For a moment, I was elevated. And then the piles of paper fell apart.

What followed: two years of trying and giving up. I didn't want to throw myself into anything again, until I knew it would work. Eventually, just to keep some measure of control over my life, I defaulted into letting email be my one trusted system; the only place I could put things and be sure I would find them again.

This was a terrible idea. It was a terrible idea because email does not reflect your priorities; it reflects everyone else's priorities. It is an inbox, but not the holy kind. The hackable kind. I found myself scattered and unsatisfied. I was not spending time on anything I wanted to do.

The solution, if it is a solution, came slowly. I thought hard about all the systems I'd heard about over the past two years, all the tools. I thought about the resistances I'd found within myself, and wondered about what it would take to help me feel on top of my imagination. All of this helped, but something else helped even more: meeting someone extraordinary, at exactly the right time.

Aside from being deeply intelligent and kind, Tantek Çelik also happens to be immersed—all the time, it seems—in trying to be better and do better. It was meeting him, and hearing about his own system, that helped me recognize a pattern: every successful, honest, admirable person I know seems to have read this book on getting-things-done. More importantly: every one of them believes in it.

So I reconsidered. I decided that I believe in a few things. One is that humans are very good at reading long blocks of tiny text. (Much better than we give them credit for.) The other is that we intuitively know what we can and should be doing at any given moment, just as long as we're given the opportunity to see the bigger picture.

Fortunately: those pictures can be drawn in blocks of tiny text!

It has taken me a long time to discover the system that works the way my mind works. This system involves text files and a universal datestamp and the incalculable magic of Quicksilver's append-to-file command. But the system is far less important than the idea: keep everything in one place. And once you have everything in one place: trust yourself to know what you need to do next.

Scanning over a list that contains everything I could possibly need to do in a moment, I can feel the contours of fear and avoidance and hope and enthusiasm. I learn a great deal about myself. Confronting those feelings is hard, but it helps me to know how I really feel about things. It helps me to renegotiate how I spend my days. And most of all: trusting that the story is comprehensive enables me to trust myself, to trust that what I'm doing is really what I want and need to be doing. That is powerful, and calming, and freeing.

3) What will you make?
When I was small, I knew I would someday be a writer. I knew this with a certainty I can now barely fathom. I planned assiduously for this vocation, assuring one elementary school teacher that I "needed to be in Writer's Workshop to prepare for my future career as a writer." Recently, I discovered this shard of clairvoyance from 1995. I was eight years old.

future plans for 21 in 1995, age 8

I am 21. I have not started writing books.

This is not a disappointment; not in any sort of global way. I am still a student. There is still time.

But when I finally watched the late Randy Pausch's Last Lecture—How to Really Achieve Your Childhood Dreams—I found myself inexplicably devastated. My mind raced, trying to figure out how, whether, what I'm doing now maps to my childhood dreams. When Pausch reached the end of his lecture, the devastation was doubled, and then lightened by hope. It is not about the specific dreams, after all. It is about whether you're reaching toward something that lets you live in a way you can believe in.

I am not yet sure what my new childhood dream will be. I am trying to figure it out.

4) How will you treat others?
With kindness.

5) How will you treat yourself?
With kindness.

But really: really. Kindness. After thinking about it all the time for a long time, though, here are the slightly more elaborate answers.

4) How will you treat others?
I believe it is possible to move about the world in a thin, spherical film of sunlight. The way to do this is by becoming a radioactively-glowing source of honesty and kindness.

It is hard. Especially when it is raining, or the bus is late, or a great sadness has just taken place. But still, I do my best to set the tone of every interaction at "extremely considerate." I try to do this even when the initial tone has been set at "less considerate," either by the other person or—more often—by circumstance. It is amazing, how often the other person will respond in kind. You can actually live in a more slightly more pleasant world by doggedly attempting to be considerate with everyone you meet. By not unnecessarily impinging on their time; by thanking them when you're grateful, apologizing when you're sorry, and smiling if the mood strikes you.

Auto-pleasantness is a start, but I don't think it's enough. In order to be truly considerate, you have to consider every situation in context. That is what I try my best to do. It is very hard. I end up spending a lot of time by myself, just trying to regenerate. I still stare ahead, lost in thought, on subways. But I do try. At the very least, I try to smile.

5) How will you treat yourself?
After falling in love with the Desiderata long ago, (when I was younger, and even more impressionable), and rediscovering it recently, and falling in love with it again, I think it is safe to say that this piece is very powerful. It is worth reading. Maybe, reading every day. But I cannot shake the most powerful words of all:

"Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself."

Be gentle with yourself.

All of this trying, trying and trying and trying to become better, is incalculably important. But we are trying to become better, in the end, because we want to be better. And so there is no reason to be harsh with ourselves. We are already on the way. And tomorrow, we will be on the way again.

* * *
With great thanks to Merlin Mann for changing the conversation; Tantek Çelik for starting it; and my extraordinary friends, for having the conversation with me in the first place.

9 comments:

hitthosekeys said...

Good thoughts. I've been musing on Merlin as well today: http://www.hitthosekeys.net/wildkeys/2008/merlinsmeltdown/

But I like what you've written here better. It goes deeper into what I meant to say.

atp said...

"I send my love to you; I send my hands to you; I send my clothes to you; I send my nose to you; I send my trees to you; I send my pleas to you; won't you send some back to me?

Send your ways to me; send your calls to me; send your days to me; send it all to me; and when I'm high and square; when I would have you there; you will be"

--Will Oldham

Daniel said...

what's the opposite of "tl;dr"

deligtfully long and wonderfully enjoyable?

Ice Piq said...

Ms. Kimball,

Terrific post. Honest, hopeful, insightful. I'm afraid it's making me re-evaluate my methodology, and that's making me grumpy because I'm already really busy. But that's the best time to do it, don't you think?

-IP

DAL said...

Brilliant (in both senses). Hear echoes of myself here.
Trading off speed for something like "breadth of audience" or "effectiveness of translation" is a real challenge. You definitely tackled it here.
Thanks for the sunshine.

Joshus said...

I figured out quickly, as a child, that nothing I built with Legos ever became real. And more importantly: nothing I built was ever finished. I was always missing a piece, or wasn't quite what I had originally imagined. And thus, in building my universe in small blocks, I managed to develop a philosophy of never being convinced something is complete, and committing to being unsatisfied with that.

Unfortunately, that spilled over to the web once I was introduced to it. My only real goal, at one point or another, was to figure out how it worked, and maybe to a less extent make my mark on it. With neither rhyme nor reason to my web exploits, I built a number of small, almost pointless pieces that I thought were useful, but never finished. And with an unwillingness to set boundaries and goals for my projects, it seems I've built a disjointed, unpolished, and altogether confusing universe, on the web and elsewhere.

I can only aspire to develop some better method to organizing my noise, perhaps such as those you mention here. However, I can't subscribe to the thought that any system(s), sophisticated and proven it may be, can change or even improve upon my current best efforts without some manner of sacrifice I wouldn't be willing to make. The constant upkeep of my current systems is sacrifice enough.

David Adler said...

This is an honest blog. But let me warn you against the danger of Ehrmann's ontology. (And it's an ontology, let's not be naive.) If you think you're young, and you think there's still time, then you're not ready to write. You will be--soon--but not now. "gracefully surrendering the things of youth." Tsk, tsk. Anything you write--and you will write--will be about clawing back at those things of youth. And you'll claw back because you'll suddenly change, realizing that the only real perspective from which to write is one of terrified hope for the honesty of the past.

I've bookmarked your blog. Keep working.

Leonicus said...

Awesome that you found a picture from Humana Ex Machina from CSUF.

Great writings by the way.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1AAmzx8RUQA

statix said...

hi,

you are inspiring..cant say more.