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.
Greetings, everyone. Thanks for dropping by The Octopode today. If it’s your first visit here, I hope you’ll take a look around and see what’s available. There’s music, and fiction, and this blog, which contains many discussions, rants, and explanations of things that have worked their way into my brain and begged to be worked back out of it and into words. In the months leading up to this post I’ve talked a lot about psychology, morality, and goal-oriented thinking. But now I have a new topic to present to you, that I have long anticipated discussing here.
Today’s blog post will be the first in what I hope to be many, though mayhaps not consecutive, posts about Salamander City, which is the name I’ve given to a couple acres of forest in the Adirondacks that I came to own in 2015. The plot has on it an old, unfinished log cabin that has been neglected for a long time. It is my goal to complete, restore, and build out the property into a getaway, second home, and emotional oasis.
I know that a lot of you out there can relate to my desire to do this. You may also relate to me in that I have very little knowledge of woodworking, landscaping, or construction. Aside from a few simple projects I completed in woodshop way back in high school, I came into this challenge with no know-how. What I did know is that I was capable of learning. And the rewards for tackling something this huge and so far from my working understanding would be enormous. I just had to focus, think, plan, work, and learn by trial and error. We’re all capable of this, but I find that not many of us are willing to admit that.
It’s my hope that you’ll delight in reading about the project and what it means to me as I move forward with it and, in time, reach my goal. Along the way I’ll discuss the work itself. The tools, the materials, the practical methods. I’ll describe the problems I encounter, the plans in development, and the accomplishments, as they come. I plan to share pictures and even video to better transport you here and show you what I’m up to. And of course, foster discussion. So many of you can offer me real advice and helpful instruction. My course is often altered and improved by comments that come from unlikely places.
So, let me wrap this up by sending you to a new page set up here at The Octopode for Salamander City, where you’ll find an introduction, some pictures, and over time a growing menu of blog entries like this one that are about the project. I hope you’ll return again and again!
Click on the cabin to go there now:
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.
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:
Greetings ladies, greetings gents
Spread your blankets, pitch your tents
I am in the business of measuring things. That is my job, I measure. I make money doing this. I have been trained, I have performed feats of math and science sufficient of one who is charged with working in a lab where measurements are performed and the performer must do the mathing and the sciencing and the sleuthing and figure out what exactly a measurement is.
And let me tell you, no measurement is perfect. I look at precision instruments all day, and I use advanced technique to evaluate them. Sometimes I put a stamp of approval on it. Most often, I adjust the instrument before doing so. And it’s always to a level of what they call tolerance. This means that it can be inexact as long as it is within X units of perfect. They designate this because nothing is perfect. Nothing is ever exactly what it is meant to be. If you look close enough, you can find how far off it might be. Sometimes you don’t have to look very close at all.
So one thing I learn from this job is that though many things are “made to measure”, nothing really does it perfectly. Not even me. With careful consideration, an uncertainty is derived on every measurement I might do. So I take your one pound weight, and I use highly specialized equipment, training, and thoroughly vetted technique, and I tell you that it weighs 1.001963 pounds. Plus or minus 0.000032 pounds, because that’s how much I might be off by, if you consider the accuracy of the equipment I was using, the standards I was comparing it to, factors that may contribute to error like air buoyancy, magnetism, and things related directly to me, like the training I’ve received, and my observed capacity for error.
It’s all a balance of how far off can it be. The goal is not to get it exact, because you can’t do that. This foe is beyond any of us. How like life, yes? Damage control. If you’re good at this game, you can play it and still stay focused on the good things without withering under the illusion of perfection. And the damage control is a means. You pedal the bicycle, but you keep your eyes on the scenery, the smell of the air, the things that come and go and the beauty of all of this stuff. Most of us give in to some degree, however, to the urge to focus on the strain of pedaling. Or, the more enchanting distraction: the place you’re headed.
That one is truly beguiling. You’ve heard the questions. What’s it all for? What is the meaning of life? And you see these people pedaling along, hearing that the journey and the wondering itself is the point and hoping that’s right, yet feeling emptiness from never truly internalizing this platitude as an answer. Gotta wonder about those deathbed regrets. The sadness for not achieving lifelong goals that were never set. The continued blindness to the beautiful life that came, went, and is over.
But they don’t train you for that in school, do they? They don’t teach you to validate yourself. They don’t instruct you not to idolize perfection. They don’t teach you to work toward the impossible goal, yet somehow realize that the work is the real goal.
Of course they don’t. That stuff is orders of magnitude outside what they can do for you in school. Even just the rudiments that begin you working toward understanding higher-order concepts like these are hard to successfully imprint. And as any teacher will tell you, students are already being taught harder, deeper, more formative lessons at home. And parents? Forget about it. Just the fact that the bromide “these things don’t come with instruction manuals” (in regard to having children) is a thing should indicate the level of expertise we’re bringing to the table when rearing a new member of a future society. But why don’t they come with manuals? Why don’t we have required primers for raising kids?
Anyone who has taken any psychology course has had to grapple with the unhappy concept that our psyches are largely composed of things outside not only our understanding, but our awareness as well. The amount that is going on behind the scenes in our minds would, I think, send us reeling were we to know its proportion. How much of our personalities is unconscious. How much of what makes John Smith John Smith is stuff John Smith has never known, thought about, or will ever consider. And this stuff is learning, growing, adapting, updating, changing all the time. Our consciousness is like a spotlit pinpoint on a vast stage, and though behind the curtains there is a constant din of footsteps and conversation, all we can see and hear is the one actor in the spotlight.
Acting. Well, that’s another topic.
But we think we are so aware! Our consciousnesses delightfully frolic through the world, smugly satisfied that it’s all within our ken, and all is well because we understand everything or are at least capable of it, and what we’re not thinking about at the moment, we somehow understand it all by extension (read: categorize and ignore). This is what we are programmed to do. We see what we see, and attach all significance to it. All the significance. There is nothing else, nothing that transcends your understanding, says your ego. Only things that fit into it at different places.
Yet, imagine a mind that is simultaneously aware of the thoughts of two people at the same time, to as great a level of detail as both those peoples’ minds. The sum of two minds. You cannot. It is outside our ability. You understand the concept as I’ve described it, but cannot actually grasp its breadth. Now imagine a mind that could do this for a hundred people. A thousand. All humanity.
We are so committed to this conceit, this concept that our understanding is universally definitive, that even our fiction, which should be as far flung as our writers can conceive, rarely depicts anything that challenges it. And when it does, it’s usually described as incomprehensible, because human minds do not brook such challenges. We just categorize each new thing into the understanding we already have. Perhaps this is best. I mean, imagine if an author could create a description that could reach outside your paradigm and show you something truly uncategorizable.
If I ask you to imagine a squirrel that has been magically made self-aware, what level of understanding do you give it in your imagination? Something akin to your own, right? Or at least measurable against your own. You have some concept of what part of existence and the world you consciously understand (effectively all of it as far as you’re concerned), and you judge the squirrel’s against that. And in that judgement is everything, because all significance is contained within your understanding.
So here we are, on our stage, carefully (such delicate, deliberate, detailed care!) manipulating the actor in the spotlight, while the vast majority of our minds/psyches are busy, developing, existing, and interacting with the world just outside our perception. Kids are doing this too. Only they’re starting with an untrained stage crew, so they’re learning bigger lessons, more formative ones. And they do this at home, for the most part. Kids are programmed to learn from their parents. You know this, but you don’t really understand how much they learn. And they’re not aware of it. It’s just happening while they’re asking for a cookie or mommy’s attention. Ever had any really deep therapy? Learn a few hard lessons about yourself? If so, you know where I’m coming from here.
But kids are in the care of their parents and nobody in the whole village is helping them by showing them even the most rudimentary steps toward raising an emotionally effective human. Just the body language and subtle manner you exhibit when you respond to requests for attention will have dire consequences on the child’s ability to form intimate relationships as an adult. But the parents don’t know that. They don’t understand it. What’s more, they were raised in a similarly dysfunctional way and are expressing those resultant deficiencies as adults. Most of the time they’re playing their psychological problems off the kid. It’s all considered normal, too. How many of the stereotypical dispositions you have encountered are the result of severe emotional dysfunction?
As for the child’s raising, it’s a crapshoot. Even as we build a world where we are able to protect our families from the elements, disease, even lack of opportunity or insufficient stimulation, we are still taking the same chance that a mother wildcat does when rearing a litter in a shallow depression in the dirt of the desert plain. We are grimly, totally, inexorably exposed to a harsh, brutal psychological battlefield, and we are all of us scarred, limping, barely escaping utter destruction.
And we do this by protecting ourselves. By categorizing everything we perceive (vast!) into the context of our purview (teeny!). By attaching all significance to what we understand (thanks, ego). By fearing, attacking, hiding, and acting. Like the mother wildcat’s kittens, we play and growl and bite and feed when we can, because we are constantly beset by danger and the threat of injury and death.
You can see it, right? Those kittens, they don’t grasp that you understand more of the world than they do. They have an understanding of it, and that understanding IS the whole world to them. All significance is contained within it. And it should be. Without the conceit of a comprehensive worldview, no living thing would have the audacity to exist.
Now, and thanks for reading all that up there, now that you have just read it, let me ask you this: how important is where you’re ultimately going in life? When do you think you’re going to die, and do you think you’re going to perfect anything you’re working on in yourself or your life by then? What use is setting perfection, in anything, as your goal? There are things you’d like in life. What are you waiting for? You really think it’s gonna get easier? Or that there’s a better time than right now?
You constantly judge things in your life; you should be, that’s good. How else will you know the value or position of anything, along any standard or range? You are in a constant state of measurement. But let’s face it, you suck at it. We all do. It’s what we rely on, and we need it to exist. But we aren’t very good at it. It’s only useful in the context of our own lives. The kitten on the desert plain feels proud that it killed a mole rat and thus it can eat. That pride is a measurement, and it exists mostly to emotionally reinforce that kitten so it confidently attempts another kill. By what rubric do you measure these values?
In regard to our own, personal goals, we’re all kittens ready to accept that killing that mole rat is everything. It is worth every ounce of our selves to accomplish. But you’re afraid. Maybe you don’t admit it, but you are. Likely, you blame other things for getting in the way. This is fear too. Some fear is good, but some fear is paralyzing. And here’s why: you measure yourself against your accomplishments.
That same apparatus you use to measure the value of that kill is the apparatus you use to measure your value. And you confuse the two. The kitten that fails to kill the rat does not do very well the next time around. And the time after that? It’s a downward spiral. This is a helpful tool for wildcats and cavemen. But like so many other evolutionary advances that once assisted us, in our world we have outgrown its usefulness, and it now hinders us.
Let what you do be your work, and what you are be what you are. Let your shitty, incredibly biased measurement system decide your value not based on the successfulness of what you do, but on the fact that you want to try, and you do try, and you accomplish some good things some of the time. Because you are living in a world where the mole rats are already killed, and served to you whenever you want one. But you’re still the feral kitten, battered by an unforgiving world, driven by a dire need to succeed, and ready to hinge the value of your whole self on the attempt.
I am in the business of measuring things. That is my job, I measure. I know that the work is frightfully uncertain, but it only needs to reach a specified tolerance. After that, the next measurement awaits. And though I cannot achieve perfection, I can become quite effective at meeting tolerance. So that’s the script for the actor in the spotlight. Realistic goals, realistic valuation of a very limited grasp of the world, and the understanding that I will sadly, unavoidably, and appropriately, attach all the significance I can conjure to only the things inside it.
So, have I just taken a long-winded approach to defending setting low goals? Or defended the erection of some sort of psychological defenses? Is this all a blustery huff-and-puff display, designed to ward off fear of failure? Or perhaps is there a nugget of gold in there someplace? Hmmm. Well, thanks for reading it anyway. Hope it gave you some ideas.
Until next time, kittens.