You have either decided on your primary skillset or it has decided on you. This has already happened.
What do you do when faced with a disaster?
So many of us tend to disregard the emotional impact of negative things. As though it shouldn’t matter how you feel. We make practical excuses to disguise the emotional decision we have made. But why? Emotions are a huge part of us, and why should it be a bad thing to acknowledge that they inform our choices?
When faced with a major setback in a project, it is normal to want out. No matter how strong your desire and conviction to pursue your goal, your emotional commitment can be waylaid by a disaster. Knowing that this is temporary, and allowing yourself to acknowledge the feelings but wait them out before making a decision to walk away, is the responsible way to handle it. Throwing up your hands and making what could be a solvable problem into a permanent defeat is the cowardly way.
The work of coming back from catastrophe is in itself a confirmation of your commitment, and a reaffirmation of your conviction. Even if you do it badly, just the act of doing it puts your heart back where it needs to be.
Sometimes that work is made worse by the degree of the disaster. Sometimes, it’s hard, back-breaking, filthy work. I wrote about such an event that happened to me shortly after I started work on my log cabin. You can read about it here.
I like touchin’ stuff. Do you?
I remember the first time I touched a bass guitar with the intent to use it. I was twelve. Nothing I did sounded good, and the songs I was learning were ones I didn’t like much. But there was a complete sensory experience involved in having the instrument strapped to me, and laying my hands on it. The weight of it. The finished wood of the neck. The strum in the amplifier. The smell of metal on my fingers.
It is intoxicating; the experience of interfacing with a reality that holds a potential for you. Linking with a corporeal present that you could bend into the shape of an as yet impossible future.
I wrote about this in my log cabin chronicles this week. You can check it out here.
Welcome back to The Octopode. If you’re joining us mid-topic, here’s a summary:
Last week I made the claim that the value of hard work lies in the way it forces one to culture self-esteem. I then drew a direct line between everyday modesty and the denial of the self. Today I’m going to proceed from this premise to make the original point clear.
In another topic I recently I stated, “Emotionally, the value of successfully working toward a goal is far greater than the value of successfully achieving that goal.” In that statement I was invoking the value of hard work, though tangentially. I was implying that the act itself carries great value, and it does. The mechanism by which it does this is by culturing self-validation, and proving to the self that it has value by proving that it is effective.
The formula is very simple: Stated Goal + Hard Work = Accomplishment ±Result
Like a proverb, the above seems simple and intuitive, yet in application the effects are broad and deeply significant. It is a basic truth of our psychology and a fact of nature, not nurture. That is to say that it’s as human as farts and you don’t need to be told how to do it.
The plus-or-minus symbol preceding the Result in the formula is of great significance. The result of the hard work, while important, is not required for this formula to work. Cumulatively, human societies put far too much emphasis on the result of labor rather than the labor itself. Consider the way this devalues the work itself, and by extension, the worker. Imagine how crippling total primacy of the result would be for the one who undertakes the task of reaching it. And this is true of the writer who is so concerned that their book must be a success that they find themselves unable to write at all, to the farmer who isn’t sure that their crops will yield enough to pay for the winter’s resources and spring planting. The threat of a failure that to some extent is beyond the actor’s ability to prevent takes away their ability to act, for fear of consequences outside their purview and prediction, always looming and developing.
But it is in the work itself that the value is received. And there is where the emphasis should always be. This is because the work is the more significant accomplishment. The writer who failed wrote a book. Yes, the market rejected it. Or the editor did. Or it sucks, the author realized after the fact. So? These outcomes were uncontrollable from the get-go. The writer succeeded in doing what they set out to do: write. The farmer is similar. Though his failure will result in more concerning outcomes, and this makes it difficult to de-emphasize the result, he has still done what he set out to do. He has toiled hard and farmed the best he could. He may now be faced with poverty, but he has validated himself and, hopefully, another opportunity to make his house whole again will come to him soon.
The writer whose book fails and the farmer whose yields fall short of budget have reached accomplishment, and if they bemoan themselves or become angry with themselves, it is because of only two possible reasons: they did not do their best to begin with, or they put too much value on the result.
I know, I know. It’s easy for me to say, since I’m not a farmer trying to support a family. And you’re right, and I have no defense for this. But I hope that this example helped pare away the fluff surrounding the concept of self-validation that I have attempted to elucidate.
Hard work takes time, and whole-self dedication. It requires that one apply themselves rigorously. And afterward, you feel positive. Not just because you have this thing you’ve worked on, but because you have worked on this thing. It validates you. It forces you to acknowledge the efficacy of you, even if the work does not lead to a useful result. It is a mirror that shows you the value of doing.
There is this psychological concept of flow as a state a person enters into when applying themselves fully. It is the basis of occupational therapy. There is a peculiar set of things that occur to someone who is in flow, or in “the zone”, as some call it. It is a profoundly positive thing, and the basis of self-esteem. The proof that you are capable, effective.
And that is the grounds upon which my original claim lies. When you work hard, you prove your value to yourself whether or not you want to believe it. Even the self-deprecatory or self-hating individual must go out of their way to devalue themselves after working hard and truly applying themselves.
Those of us who loudly endorse the value of hard work do so because we have felt the way it fills us with esteem. The way it gives meaning to everything in our lives. And we despair to see it lacking in others. Some would go so far as to say that there is a great sadness in the world that comes on the back of modernity directly due to the leisurely lifestyles of the privileged in a world that no longer forces them to sweat and bleed just to get by.
What do you think?
Today I’m going to bring up a very old value and explore it with you a little. What I’d like to discuss is the idea of the value of hard work.
What is it? Where does it come from? Why do those of us who know what it is feel so strongly about it?
I have developed a theory about it, and it’s coming today because it flows naturally from the assertions I’ve made in this blog in recent weeks. I propose that the reason those of us who value hard work do so with such force, is because it prompts us to short circuit the guilt and self-denial that robs us of the ability to achieve real self-esteem.
It comes down to being able to savor your own accomplishments. We all know people who can’t do this. You might be one yourself. Always giving credit where it’s due unless in regard to your own achievements. Mild rebukes to appreciation like, “Nah it was nothing,” or, “I was only doing what anyone would have done,” or the like are assumed to be expressions of modesty, but are they really? Is modesty even virtuous?
To that last question I would answer: sometimes. As long as credit is given where it is due. Being unpretentious is fine; it is a form of honesty. But denying the value of your deeds is not.
These folks tend to be assiduous in giving credit where it’s due because they believe in the principle of doing this, and this underlines the significance of their own rule of not accepting credit for their own labor and/or wise/generous choices. They know that a good turn deserves appreciation, and so their denial of it holds meaning.
They tend to be achievers too. Do-gooders are often this type. Looking out for their fellows, and keeping themselves in order well enough to continue in this fashion. Stringing along accomplishment after accomplishment, and sidestepping the reward offered by those whom they have helped.
What they are really doing here, is denying the self. They are committing themselves to the absolute altruistic ideal that the self does not matter, only what one can do for others. They are acting “selflessly” in an effort to do the right thing, and therefore it would be the wrong thing to accept credit for it. And indeed, we live in a culture that greatly values denial of self, destruction of pride, omission of ego, and total dedication to the betterment of anyone but oneself. That is a rather involved subject for another discussion perhaps, but for the sake of this conversation let’s just agree that accomplishments are good, helping others is good, giving due credit is good, and holding oneself accountable for all one’s good deeds, is also good.
There is nothing morally positive about discounting one’s achievements. Modesty, when it is a denial of reality, is a corollary of self-killing altruism. These people throw away the value of the good they’ve done and believe this is a righteous act (notice also that acting righteously is itself a contradiction of modesty). They work to do what they say they believe is right, then belie the same act’s rightness by blanking out the goodness of the act. It is a lie, and it is done under the pretense of a lie, which is rooted in self-hate.
And the negative effects beyond this are long-reaching. It may result in an irrational fear of death due to failure to meet real goals, as per the topic discussed here in the last two weeks. It may result in failure to state one’s goals and think them through, preferring to evade that kind of self-oriented thought. This results in a life filled with a long string of small accomplishments and the failure to do what is truly important to the individual. And the scope of one’s own life is not considered, since no goal-planning is effectively conducted. We talked about the value of this in the Grok Death topic.
Today I’ve drawn a line between self-hate and what is typically considered virtuous modesty. This is the first step in making the point I stated at the beginning of this entry, which is that the value of hard work lies in the way it forces one to accept self-esteem. Next week I’ll tie up these assertions to show the mechanism.
Hello again and welcome to the second and final part of this topic. Last week I left you with some questions, the same ones I’ve asked others in person. They could be summed this way:
Why do you (and everyone else) fear death, and how does it affect your choices in life?
I think that it has to do with your goals.
My claim, in a nutshell: a person’s fear of death (not dying, but death itself) is inversely proportional to the degree to which they estimate they have accomplished their life’s goals.
What this means is that the more you do what you really want to do, the more comfortable you are with the eventual arrival of the end of your own life.
Widely, those who have seen their dreams come true do not fear death. But those of us who set aside their hopes and aspirations rather than actively pursuing them, foster and develop a deep fear of death, and I believe this is because they fear losing the ability to act on those dreams before it is too late.
The signs are there. The way they build defenses from even thinking about what they truly want in life, let alone actually making a plan to address those things. The way the elderly enter into a malaise leading to senility when they realize they are no longer able to do the thing that may make them happy. The way that so many people wither away mentally (followed by physically) once they no longer have a job or someone to take care of.
But I have also witnessed evidence in myself, and to me, this is the most compelling of the lot. In the last few years, I have seen my health decline. Not precipitously, but significantly. I am in my thirties, but I am beginning to sight the end of my life, be it in my sixties, eighties, or whenever (let’s hope a long time from now). The concept of my death becomes more real with the passage of time, and strangely, the penultimate loss that I can remember associating with it all the way back to my first understanding of death as a child, has waned.
Concurrently, I have seen some of my major life goals come to fruition: I graduated college with a degree in science in 2003. I wrote a book. Two, actually. I published one in 2013. I recorded an album of my own music in 2007, and several more since then. I taught myself to record and thereby took control of the entire creative process for a number of my projects. The first one that I helmed without assistance, start to finish, was released in 2015. I fell in love. Real, soul-jacking love, tore myself apart trying to survive its end, and did, barely. That was a few years ago. I moved to a new location and made it there, on my own, back in 2004. I locked in a dependable, lucrative career in 2015 that uses a portion of my training and skillset. In 2000 I adopted and raised a dog from a pup, gave him a long, happy life, and in a short time I will help him leave it behind. And I will endure that pain, and survive to find happiness on the other side, because I have learned how to do that.
Some of those are failures that I spun into a kind of victory, by handling the failure the right way. Seems like a cop-out, but it’s quite valid and in retrospect it is doubly so. One must give up to truly fail. Therein lies a wonderful truth we may rely on in our lives: the person who works toward their success with honest rigor cannot lose, even if success does not come. The idea almost sounds like political propaganda, but it is coming from a place far from there. Emotionally, the value of successfully working toward a goal is far greater than the value of successfully achieving that goal.
These accomplishments I’ve listed mean a lot to me, and this is largely because I set them as life goals before I undertook them, and when they came to pass, I recognized their importance and truly enjoyed the significance of their completion. To a large degree, the second part of that last sentence is dependent upon the first: you must declare your goal before you tackle it if you are to reap the full benefit of the accomplishment. There is a vital time element here. You must choose a journey before a journey chooses you.
Nowadays I have other goals. Some of them are improved repetitions of ones I’ve already tackled, but they’re there, and I am working toward them. They are not lessened by others that have passed. The creation, expansion, and maintenance of this website is one of them. But my point here is that I now see myself as having actually completed some of my life goals. What this means is that as an achiever, I am done with a portion of my life’s work. That fact puts me at peace, and it helps me cope with the fear of dying. My death, if it happened today on the way home from work, would not be metaphorically the same as quitting a book while still in chapter one. It would be chapter four, or ten, or something along those lines, if we wanted to extend the metaphor. I have accomplished something. And I am truly proud of that. That pride, that accomplishment, erodes the fear of death.
Death is an implacable foe. This is the only defense against death we can ever hope to have: to achieve.
Today I have claimed that the fear of death is caused by failure to meet one’s goals. Not as offensive as some of my prior claims, but possibly a very challenging one, depending on you.
What do you think?
Why do you think people fear death?
This week’s blog is a note on the elasticity and, unfortunate whorishness, of our emotional states.
Depending on what you choose to do with your life, if you do give yourself a goal and purpose, there are seminal texts you must read. If you’re a writer, you are expected to have read The Elements of Style. If you’re an economist, you are expected to have read The Wealth of Nations. But if you are someone who hopes to do anything at all, I make the claim that it is essential for you to read The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.
Pressfield describes in great detail the mechanisms by which we stop ourselves from achievement, and he lumps them into a single entity called Resistance. Feel like what you’re doing is pointless because it’s been done before? Feel like starting the work would be something better done tomorrow than today? Find yourself making excuses or easy-outs for actually putting your nose to the grindstone? These are Resistance.
And it is ubiquitous. Once you have learned what it is, you see it everywhere. Its presence is so enormous in our lives, that it is astounding how little we perceive it. But that too, is part of it. It disguises itself.
Anyway, this blog entry is not about The War of Art. What I am writing about here is our emotions.
Last week I sat down to do some writing. Some fiction writing. That, my friends, is a big deal for me. I quit writing under duress years ago and have been trying to get back to it for a long time. During that hiatus I read The War of Art, and let me tell you, I am loaded with Resistance. I think you are too–all of us in fact–but the point here is that I have a lot of stuff going on in my brain that stops me from doing the work of really writing.
To overcome that stuff by brute force can be daunting. Overcoming Resistance is a mindfuck. You have to work, you have to push, you have do what feels like hurting yourself. It’s the psychological equivalent of getting out of bed in the morning when you have had little sleep and want nothing more than to remain under the cozy covers. It is anathema. But necessary, if you are to do something with yourself and not sleep all day, or live a creatively absent life.
I sat down in front of a word processor and started to write a story, after years of “meaning to get to it”. Resistance flared up so deeply, I couldn’t help but marvel at its intensity.
Once I had stamped “bullshit” on every excuse and delay that came to mind, and declared in a clarion voice that I had no reason not to write, and actually marched to the place where I’d begin doing just that, Resistance clutched at its last resort: an all-out war of emotion.
There was no reason, no rhyme, no convenient truth and corollary excuse. I had set all that aside. So I was battered by unfocused, unattached emotion. The sense of being forced away from my work was stifling. I lost every single ounce of motivation. I wanted to put away the computer and never return to it. I was emotionally ready to quit writing for the rest of my life. There wasn’t even the vaguest flicker of desire to work.
The inspiration for the story was wiped away from me like rain off a windshield. I was dry, and so repulsed by the idea of writing that I even felt the blank screen like a physical assault on my senses. I’d have done anything–any other thing–to get away from it and do something else. Anything. Eat. Sleep. Chew on broken glass. Whatever.
But in my head I knew that I wanted to write, a purely academic thought. This is a trick I learned in therapy. I declared my desires before actually facing the prospect of making them into reality. And then clung to the statement when the desire left. I knew that I wanted to write but could not feel it yet. I knew that my mind was racing from the act, but that I had to wrangle it and force it to happen, or it simply never would.
So I did. I was as rusty as you could be, and lost. I could not feel the story at all; it was like speaking another language. But I put word after word, and kept going because I knew it was what I had to do.
After three hours I had a single page of copy. Exhausted and beaten, I quit and congratulated myself on winning the war of art for one day. After a couple days I returned to the text for a first revision, and found that though it was indeed rusty, I still managed to bring out the character of my narrative voice fairly well. I finished the story, and a revision of the finished draft is next on my list. Resistance has relaxed its deathgrip on my writing a bit, and is now busy helping me put off losing weight.
So I suppose I lied when I said that this entry was about emotional elasticity, as I’ve spent the length of it talking about the struggle to be creative. But the thing that got me there was the fact that my emotions, my honest, real feelings, aligned themselves with Resistance so completely and easily. Resistance was lying to me to stop me from working, and my emotional mind just hopped right onboard that train and took it all the way to the station.
Our emotional selves are curious things. Though this example was a particularly visible one to me, I also know that our feelings are constantly in this state of utter tractability. We are all emotionally fragile, and constantly at work to manage, conceal, and stifle the tumultuous output of our myriad profound emotions.
Well that’s it for the topic. I don’t have anything more to say about it, so here’s a picture of a cute puppy: