Raising the Standard
Over the last half a year, my mental space has mostly been occupied with bettering myself. This ranges from mini-improvements, such as “I need to learn to like avocado” (success there) and “I need to sit up straight” – you know, the things good middle class adults should really do – to the more reaching “I need to be better with my family”, but underlying all of them that has been a grander, life defining aspiration.
Just after my maternal grandma died back in 2006, I started thinking a lot about what it was I really wanted to do with myself. She went far sooner than I expected, but one of the last things she told me is that she was happy with what she’d done with her life. So what was it that I would do that, if I were to die, I could say I was happy with what I had done, or at least was attempting to do. I guess that’s when I first making designs on film school, but really what I landed on is that I’d be plenty happy just setting out to being great at something. Not competant, not good but genuinely great at it. Some people find that thing they’re great at when they’re young – thinking of sportsman and prodigous artists – but I certainly hadn’t. I was always excited about writing and did kinda well at it, but I knew it wasn’t great. Though I’ve gotten better over the years, and especially over the last year, I still haven’t written anything I’d call great…I’ve done stuff that works and that I’m mostly pleased with, but not a piece that makes me brush my hands, sit down and go “Yep – that’s killer.” To my mind, to be able to get to that point requires a seemingly paradoxical combination of a strong self-critical faculty and overwhelming confidence. Basically, you have to sell yourself the idea that your work is worth it, even when it it isn’t yet, on the hope that one day it will be. Til then, you keep cracking away, hoping that somewhere in your ditherings you’ll stumble into the temporary high of a state of Flow. What’s that then?
There is a psychologist, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi*, who is best known for this concept of ‘Flow’, which is basically looking at what differing levels of skill and challenge in ones working does for their state of being. Here he gives a TED Talk about fulfilment in your work. (If you can’t do a video, here’s a little breakdown). It’s an idea that I subscribe to, especially since it defines creativity very broadly – you don’t need to be an artist to be creative with your work or to be fulfilled by it. To quote from that second link:
I’ve always wanted to be successful. My definition of being successful is contributing something to the world … and being happy well doing it … you have to enjoy what you are doing. You won’t be very good if you don’t. And secondly, you have to feel that you are contributing something worthwhile … if either of these ingredients are absent, there’s probably some lack of meaning in your work.
(Norman Augustine, former CEO Lockheed Martin)
People want agency, and a sense of worth i.e. something worth doing and the ability to do it. When I was younger, business gave me both and while it might do one day again, I’ve never felt it so strongly as with my writing. To me, that’s enough to try making a career from it and worth making the time to be good at, so that one day I can call myself great (with perhaps a little pinch of self doubt to keep the drive going). Csikzentmihalyi reckons it takes 10 years (like Gladwell says 10,000 hours). I look forward to being 36.
One thing that I certainly need to get better at is letting people take pictures of me. Not quite sure when it happened, but I hate having my photo taken these days to such an extent that I can’t even smile properly when its attempted. I keep trying to dodge these pics, so they usually end up a blur of my face in a very “startled rat” like expression. I guess I probably got so obsessed with my own shooting that I can’t handle it anymore on the other side. This is all a bit silly – who doesn’t like a nice photo of themselves? I need one for my CV too, n’all, so best sort that out.
Currently Reading: Ogilvy on Advertising. Insightful book, insightful man. Love it so far.
I’m aware there’s been too many musings and nothing interesting re: writing these last few weeks….that’ll all change soon, promise….
* I still can’t pronounce his name. Credit to Farokh for introducing me to him though.