Overcomplification Series (5 of 5): Play, Experiment & F**k up well

Goals are not a cure all for everything that ails you. They are not mana from heaven. They will not remove blemishes or clean red wine stains from white upholstery (unless your goals are to remove blemishes or clean red wine stains from white upholstery). As hard a sell as I have given goal setting, there are two points that should be made.

First, effort is required. The best-laid plans just lay there without work. It seems self-evident, but I still feel it need be said.

Second, you are going to screw up. Yep. Even if your goal is to be perfect, you aren’t going to make it. The original title of this series was how to NOT write & produce your play in five easy steps. In the past four years, instead of writing my play, I helped establish a theatre group, orchestrated fundraisers, found co-producers, directed a show and so on, with very little writing. I have also overextended myself on freelance writing projects, took on assignments that didn’t actually advance me professionally, and ended up unemployed twice.

In short, in spite of goal setting I have messed up a lot, but more importantly, I have learned from those failings. This entry is about learning through Play, Experimenting & F**king up well to manage and learn from mistakes (even big ones, like accidentally starting another Chicago theatre group).

Play: While I was working on this entry, I attended an event Embracing the Physical | Digital Divide at IDEO: A Design & Innovation Consulting Firm. Speakers & audience alike were very geeked by the possibilities inherent in design (admittedly, I was there because I’d been geeked by the possibilities inherent in design after having read Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind). I was impressed by the presentations, demonstrating a creative convergence between art, engineering, marketing, and invention— (seriously, what is not to be excited about?)—but, what really impressed me is how much fun these folks seemed to have. Even scrambling under the pressure of a virtually impossible two-week deadline pulling virtually impossible hours to make it happen, they seemed to be having a blast.

They embody the spirit of play. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell writes in his book CrazyBusy about how technology invokes that in many of us:

Watch people on their cell phones or Blackberrys as they walk down Fifth Avenue or wait in airport lounges; there’s still a little bit of a kid at play in there. Talk on the phone as you walk down the street? Awesome, dude! Way cool. I can’t believe I can really do this! Look at those people walking by me looking at me as I talk on my phone….

Watch the stock trader multitasking, shifting from his phone to his email to the streaming stock quotes on his Bloomberg to typing on his PC to talking to someone who pops his head in the door. This orchestration of activities in nothing if not thrilling, at least for most people who do it (& call it work)… Watch the journalist putting together an article, finding in milliseconds on a Google search what used to take hours or days to research, cutting and pasting in seconds what used to take many minutes and painstaking attention to accomplish.

When I was out-of-work awhile back, I got sick of interviewers asking: “So, you’re a writer, what else do you do?” If it had happened once, I’d have written it off, but that it happened repeatedly— something was going on here.

They were talking, of course, about new media. I didn’t catch on right a way that the fangled interweb stuff that I was doing for fun was what they were asking about in interviews. When it finally clicked (after a rather painful interview experience), I subscribed to Wired and got busy… playing. I learned all the toys, tools, gadgets, and wa-hoo-ees that I could get my apps on. Now that my job actually involves Facebook-ing this is even truer than it was during my bout of unemployment, but maintaining a spirit of play is critical to keeping a level head about it. In fact, I am writing this entry right now because one of my close friend’s, John and I have been playfully “competing” (mostly against ourselves) for who is the most consistent blogger.

Don’t take my word for it though, here is IDEO founder Tim Brown talking about the link between creativity & play at the last TED conference:

Experiment: Goal setting itself, for me, was an experiment. The subsequent yearlong replication & even this ambitious five-year plan, both are experiments. I conduct random experiments with my life all the time, which end up helping improve it or getting abandoned quickly. I started applying David Allen’s Getting Things Done, as an experiment two-years ago (I am still applying many of the techniques), but if I hadn’t been able to apply them, they’d quickly be forgotten. I am applying Richard Wiseman’s Luck Factor (download a .pdf copy here) to my life right now as an experiment. This blog is an experiment.

The beauty of experimentation is that you can be uncommitted to a lifestyle change. It takes the pressure off of personal transformation. You introduce small tools, techniques or skills into your life, like the trial order on a TV shopping program, but return it with a lot less hassle if it doesn’t pan. That is how I was able to ply so many therapeutic techniques to my daily living as a counselor (see PART 1 for details). Experiment allowed me to try a technique for a little bit, choosing which to commit too, adopt and teach with no loss when the rest were abandoned.

F**k up well: Seth Godin’s rapid-read The Dip is slim enough to devour in half a sitting. The theme encourages readers to make it through the drudge, take risks and learn from mistakes. That, Godin contends is a recipe for success.

My takeaway from starting a theatre group, instead of writing a play, was simply that there are no shortcuts. In some convoluted way, trying to launch a Chicago-theatre group seemed like a quicker, easier route to getting my play on stage than writing, submitting, participating in fests and actually working the scene. It should seem self-evident, but it took 6-months of traipsing in the wrong direction to catch on. It makes sense, it seems easier to land a producer and do-it yourself than to pay your dues. The drudge, the work, the slogging through, the getting-there—that is Godin’s Dip!— and it pays off far more in the long run than a quick fix would.

The term overcomplification, to which this series owes its title, comes from author Stephen Graham Jones, http://www.stephengrahamjones.net. Also, Wired just ran a fantastic story with “Jack Donaghy” on the cover that is all about failing well. It is a great read and well worth checking out. The themes surveyed in this series will be visited again in this blog.


Overcomplification Series (4 of 5): When the going gets tough, a Taoist moves slower

Chuang-tzu, the classic Taoist tome, expresses the Mastery of Nurturing Life by telling the story of a butcher. The king watches as a particularly skilled butcher is carving up an animal carcass. He is incredibly impressed by his technique and asks how the butcher can be so good. The butcher replies:

The Way (Tao) is more advanced then any technique. When I first began to cut up oxen, all I saw was an ox. Even after three years I had still not seen a whole ox. Now I meet it with spirit rather than look at it with my eyes. When sensory knowledge stops, then the spirit is ready to act. Going by the natural pattern, I separate the joints, following the main apertures, according to the nature of its formation. I have never cut into a mass of gristle, much less a large bone. A good butcher changes cleavers every year because of damage, a mediocre butcher changes cleavers every month because of breakage. I have had this cleaver for nineteen years now, yet its blade is as though it had newly come from the whetstone.

It is a gruesome way to illustrate the Mastery of Nurturing Life (especially for the vegetarians in the crowd), but the core of the lesson is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined Flow. Flow is “a mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” Across disciplines this is the moment where the practitioner is completely immersed in their performance, often to the exclusion of everything else happening around them.

Peak athletes in the zone, that’s Flow;

actor’s embodying their characters, Flow, too;

musicians connecting with the song they perform, Flow.

The question Chuang-tzu’s butcher brings us back to: how do we tap into Flow when we are overwhelmed, run down or distracted?

The answer, move slower.

Whenever I come to a knot, I see the difficulty to doing it. I am careful to remain alert, with my gaze steady. Moving slowly, I exert a very slight force, and the knot has come apart, like the earth crumbling into the ground.

The king said, ‘Excellent! Having heard the words of a butcher, I have found the way to nurture life.’

In Part 5, we will talk about goals, flow & f**k’n up.  The term overcomplification, to which this series owes its title, comes from author Stephen Graham Jones, http://www.stephengrahamjones.net. The Chuang-tzu quotes come from the Thomas Cleary translation of classic Taoist works.

Overcomplification Series (3 of 5): Accidental Accomplishments of an Inadvertent Goal Setter

Check out Part 1 and Part 2

How the mind works is by making connections. It creates shortcuts in memory, usually through narrative, between ideas. It would be impossible to manage all the inputs and stimulus encountered in a single day if your brain didn’t have a system in place to process all of it. Anything that is new or isn’t familiar to your brain gets related to something that has been experienced. So, for example, if you are traveling in another part of the world, filled with new experience and stimuli, your brain processes these sights, smells, sounds and language by accepting what is familiar first. A train is a train, a street is a street, and a cow is a cow—anywhere you go— which makes the new experiences more manageable.

When I got in trouble four years ago, launching myself into a career that I wasn’t completely prepared to handle, it wasn’t surprising that my mind reflected on a similar experience. As I discussed in part 2, I had my first full-time job in social services before I had earned my degree. I had to sign a contract saying that if I became a counselor than I would graduate that semester. Managing the immense pressure and demands meant fanatically managing my time. It meant working with my brain and maximizing overlap.  Everything became a cycle. This was my life as a feedback loop.  I learned something in the classroom or textbook and I applied it to myself. Journaling the results, discussing it with my clinical supervisor, introducing it in session with my kids, the experiential learnings informed me in a way that just reading alone never could. Then, I wrote of these counseling sessions and the results for class assignments. Every experience fed everything else in my life.

Using this same approach as a grant writer, I found myself weighing in on a program design by applying curriculums to my own life. In a tattered notebook, another feedback loop life was created, working through multiple professional development exercises. In the weeks the program director and I went through this mini-accelerated course, we learned business communications, conflict resolution, anger & anxiety management, goal setting, and personal (& personnel) motivation techniques. We had made the deadline and I chucked the notebook in a drawer.

I was straightening up when I noticed it. Purging messy piles, tidying the office, when the discovery hit me. On a wrinkled spiral page in a rumpled spiral notebook, per those exercises, I had written out a list of goals. As if by magic, in three months time, every one of them had come true. I felt as if I was holding some fantastic grimoire in my hands and had become a supreme Mage with powers to manipulate the Universe itself. Seriously. As a result, I did something that I never thought I would do. I sat down and wrote a year worth of goals. By year end the replication was successful. I landed a better gig with more loot that I’d have believed was way out of my league. I accomplished some of the most far-reaching objectives I’d set to writing. A door had been opened.

In Part 4, we will switch gears a bit and bring it back to the Tao by talking about handling big projects. Initially, this section was actually going to include a “how-to” on goal setting, but I recently stumbled across Chris Guillebeau’s “Brief Guide to Global Domination,” which so eloquently expresses everything I would have on the subject that I have decided not to reinvent the wheel. Personally and professionally, I spent the last four years devouring hundreds and hundreds of pages on the subject (the job I landed at year’s end was working for the national leader in transitional workforce development, creators of the best-practice curriculum) but still think Chris’ book is the best thing I have ever read on goal setting.

Overcomplification Series (2 of 5): Accessing the Inner Guinea Pig

Part one in this series can be found here

When I was a counselor, I played guinea pig. I was in my early-twenties— only a little older than the teens I was working with— and I hadn’t even finished my degree yet. I was still very green and it wasn’t easy… being green. I got challenged a lot by desperate parents in difficult situations, because I did not have enough life experience to understand them. I got challenged by the kids I was serving because my life experience, culture, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status was different than theirs. My clinical supervisor broke me out of my frustration with a
too-the-point observation:

You don’t need to have been a drug addict to help someone recover, you just need to know what works. If you are successful, the results will speak for themselves.

To get up-to-speed in a short amount of time (between carrying a caseload, a course load, and a bit too much of a personal life) I immersed myself in every technique I could. I read everything I could, applied the techniques to myself, and evaluated the outcomes and results before applying them to my clients.

Deep relaxation, I practiced it.

Self-hypnosis, I practiced it.

Cognitive restructuring, I practiced it.

Meditation, biofeedback, time management, motivational interviewing techniques, (check, check, check, check) I practiced it. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy— from the classroom to my life to my clients— I practiced it. It was probably one of the single most explosive periods of personal growth second only to when my voice started cracking. And my clinical supervisor was right, it worked, I got results.

Flash forward a few years (& back a single entry). I am holding my first professional job as a writer. Overwhelmed, under deadline, up against the wall my mind automatically defaults to this approach. It sounds like a rather complicated strategy to be endorsing in a series about overcomplification, but it worked.

As the clock ticked rapidly toward a submission date for a workforce development project that needed funding, I had begun to assess, evaluate, and adjust my own work habits. The three of us tasked with the tall order of re-vamping the entire program and writing the proposal accordingly had to choose between several possible 8-week curriculums written for a very different population. The group we were writing for lacked basic life skills, they were young with no professional experience and in some cases, they had a serious record against them. We had less than a month to choose the curriculum, recreate it for this population, design a program and submit the proposal.

The workforce development director and I divided the curriculums and applied them to our own lives on an accelerated one-week timeline. We chose the best of each curriculum based off the exercises that were the most user-friendly, accessible, and relevant. We built our program around that framework, wrote the proposal, and made the deadline. It was guinea pig style to the rescue.

In Part 3,  the guinea pig style exercise is all but forgotten, until some unanticipated results occur. And, keep coming back for the rest of the series to find out how guinea pig style actually simplifies life. The term overcomplification comes from author Stephen Graham Jones, http://www.stephengrahamjones.net

Overcomplication Series (1 of 5): In writing & In life

I am a chronic researcher. The hours I have lost reading articles, tutorials, essays, studies, and so forth before I write word one on a project – staggering. Even to the point of reading an entire 200 + page book for what ends up being a single paragraph. I get a kind of geek rush when some story or article leads to another leads to another leads to where I want to go. It’s true! That is totally the kind of thing I live for.

Four years ago, I took a wrong turn in the multiverse and ended up in a dead end. I was working in my first professional writing gig—a sink-or-swim kind of job. Slammed with crushing deadlines, complicated medical, social & economic issues (I was writing on) and limited resources, I was sinking fast.

Something had to give. The workload wasn’t going to let up. The volume wasn’t going to slow. The deadlines weren’t going to go away.  As a grant writer, livelihoods were on the line (besides just my own); a blown deadline could mean out-of-work colleagues, it could also mean neglected clients. I started paying attention to the only thing that was in my control, my work habits.

Knowing my pattern of over researching, I built in measures to keep this in check. First, I write and research as I go. Sometimes this means leaving ______, _____, ______ where I know I will need more information. Sometimes that _____, _____, ______ is paragraph length, but at the very least a product is emerging as I embark on my circuitous journeys. This balance makes meeting a deadline far easier and often primes me to locate the exact information I need.

Second, I specifically define what I am looking for online and limit the amount of time there. Since the Interweb is designed to chase one topic into another without end, NOT setting parameters on my search often means following one topic after another after another (where does this hyperlink go?)/ Oh, so that is how they built the pyramids/ so on & so forth/ (what was I looking for again?) Now, if I do get sucked into a search (& really, what is the fun of going online if you don’t occasionally make new discoveries), I know that I have to pull myself out of it by a certain time.

Adopting these new work habits allowed me to keep my job (& other folks as well), but more importantly they had a profound impact on me. In part 2, I elaborate on how those easy steps transformed my life completely.

The term overcomplification comes from author Stephen Graham Jones, http://www.stephengrahamjones.net

Avoid Overcomplification: In writing & In life

The term comes from author Stephen Graham Jones. It is exactly the way it sounds. For Jones, it means unnecessary plot twists, turns, blindsides, and even characters, which I have been guilty of in my fiction as well, but it also applies to any writing, really (& to life as a whole).

There is a reason I have started five blogs that have written themselves out of existence, before they really got started. There is a reason that I struggle with how to start an article, essay, proposal, or any large project when I don’t have a deadline barreling down on me. There is a reason my play has been shelved at a couple dozen pages and my novel is in a file cabinet. Overcomplification.

To complicate it further, this applies to life as well.

How many times to we bog ourselves down before tackling a life goal with all the firsts we have to accomplish?

I’d love to take up mountain biking, but I am too out of shape.

I have to quit smoking before I join a gym.

I have to join a gym before I quit smoking.

I would like to take a class on web design, but I need to learn more about the Internet first.

These sound like lame excuses, yes, but I have heard (or used) all of them. And in your mind, at the time, it sounds perfectly reasonable to believe that you have to do one thing before the other. Four years ago, I started catching on to this attribute in myself and in my writing and doing something about it. This series is about how I simplified my life over the last four years ago and started setting and accomplishing my goals.

Haci Maci it’s Pecha Kucha!

Pecha Kucha pronounced “pe-chak-cha” is a presentation style that is basically Powerpoint on crack (20 slides for 20 seconds totaling 6 minutes, 40 seconds). It is all content, no frills; minimal aesthetics with barebones basics. (Read more here). I just finished creating/ scripting my first today and I am kind of digging the terseness of the form. One of my creative writing teachers used to argue that the editing process (even in fiction) is all about cutting down. You just start hacking until you can make every sentence advance the plot by providing some new piece of information. It is fantastic challenge to any kind of communication: making less mean more.

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