Middling

This probably won’t be the best thing I’ve ever written. And that’s okay.

I mean, it probably won’t be the worst either, but something about comign to terms with that is extremely freeing. A friend of mine, a PhD student and super duper smart lady, retweeted something that said along the lines of “Your next job probably won’t be your last job. In fact, it probably won’t. And that’s okay”, as mostly a message towards academics not to worry about being locked down into a singular research/teaching oriented job their whole lives.

Now, as the eleventy-hundred other posts about the topic might have alerted you, I struggle a lot with anxiety and procrastination. It makes me dread doing the things that give me joy as well as the typical drudgery stuff (in fact, in a lot of cases, the drudgery stuff ends up feeling EASIER to do). I’ve wracked my brain to figure out why I have so much trouble, and I think a piece of the puzzle lies in the above frame of thinking.

Thinking of the next thing I create (the next video, the next blog article, the next test) as the thing I’ll be defined by, it turns into this BEHEMOTH of a thing that will make or break me, and, like someone avoiding the final quest in a game because they don’t want it to end, I find some way to put it off or force myself to momentarily forget that it exists.

But the reality is that, for better or worse, I’m not going to know whether or not this is The One, or just another of the thousands of iterations on my way to it, until well after the fact. Hindsight is 20/20, but I would add the addendum that forecasting is fantasy. No one knows the impact or irrelevancy of anything that they do until after they do it (beyond a certain point anyways), least of all with art.

So basically, my fellow lovelies, my passionate artists and headcases of every stripe, I would say: Make mediocre shit until you make something that isn’t. There’s a good chance you won’t know the difference until you’re finished anyways.

Inspire Through Struggle

I had a bad day today.

Not because anything in particular happened, but rather because it didn’t. I’ve done just about nothing all day, despite having the whole thing to myself. Doing basic stuff like shaving, brushing my teeth, and getting some milk from the store constituted the most productive things I’ve done today.

Essentially, I’m dealing with a lot of negative self-talk in my head. In particular, the re-appearance of one of my longest running mental “scripts”; that being the “you’re not working hard enough, doing enough, trying hard enough, you’re lazy/you could be successful if only you’d try harder” script. It’s a voice I’ve been hearing going back all the way to elementary school, and any day where I don’t completely clear off my to-do list (and some days when I do) it comes roaring back. I’m working through some exercises in the book Superbetter by Jane McGonigal, and they’re helping, but this is such a deeply rooted script that it’s going to take a long time and a lot of work to dislodge.

Continue reading

Cult of Positivity

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of positive thinking. Particularly because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. It seems like a fairly reasonable idea at first glance (“If you’re sad, why not think happier thoughts?”), but I think at the end of the day the problem with it isn’t that it’s WRONG rather than oversimplified. At my work (which shall remain nameless for obvious reasons) there’s a lot of lip-flapping about “creating a positive atmosphere for customers/members/workplace, etc”, but the practice of this version of positivity usually involves the punishment of those who speak of anything negative or critical of the company or its management to anyone other than the management in a one-on-one basis. It’s this sort of thing that led to my realization that a lack of negativity and the presence of positivity are not the same thing. All it resulted in was this latent tension as everyone is aware of things that are wrong but are too afraid to say anything (or are cynical because they’ve followed the prescribed procedure and nothing was done to improve it). It’s almost more stressful than an outright negative environment because of the amount of fakeness and performance involved.

But aside from the specifics, I think the cardinal sin of those in the cult of positivity is failing to understand the factors that lead to a positive mindset. And I think that’s it: having a positive (or Challenge, credit to Jane McGonigal and her book SuperBetter for teaching me that word) mindset is different, more complex, and more difficult, than the kind of fast-food drive-thru advice that people give when they say, “Just think positive!”

Essentially, it’s a means, not an end. It’s a result of a hundred different little skills that all take effort, to overcome a hundred little nightmares that haunt the people who struggle with them. The steps also vary from person to person along with how their struggles manifest, and I feel like that’s what not a lot of people understand. That even though one person may not find X problem a struggle, that does not make it less real or difficult for person Y. Especially with mental and emotional health, I think one step we can take towards better understanding is getting rid of the illusion that all pain is measured on a singular scale, rather than branching out like the subway from hell.

I get the distinct feeling whenever I hear that bullshit prescription, the only good it’s doing is helping the person who is saying it to think that they’re elevated in some way above the person asking for help. And it’s the perpetuation of that illusion that makes me pity them the most.

 

Stimulus/Response

One of the things I’ve noticed on one of my walks is how often I’m running from things. Not literal things. God no. If that was true, I’d be in way better shape than I currently am. For me, it’s sensations.

Feel tired? Immediately respond with caffeine.
Feel anxious? Immediately react by vegging out to video games for hours.
Feel depressed? Go out and get some form of carby, sugary junk food.

These responses have become so ingrained that I barely even think about them anymore. It’s like a little “click-whirr” motor in my head that goes off like a Rube-Goldberg machine and sets it in motion. Half the time, I’m three quarters of the way to the corner store before I even ask myself whether or not I’m actually hungry, or whether I can actually afford to eat out again for a while (spoiler: the answer to both is mostly no).

But I continue to do it, and so I had to ask myself why exactly that is. The conclusion I’ve drawn is that I’ve developed such a strong… aversion to any kind of internal unpleasantness that the MOMENT one of the aforementioned feelings arises, the subconscious first response system kicks in and I go into one of my coping mechanisms.

I’ve tried to replace them with more healthy coping mechanisms, with little success. What I think now is that I’ve skipped a step; namely, addressing that frantic, almost animal-like need I have to flee, run, hide from whatever I’m feeling in that moment by whatever chemical means necessary. Whatever I’m doing (or wanting to do in that moment) immediately gets pushed to the back of the list when this emotional fight-or-flight mechanism takes precedent.

As you can imagine, it makes it very difficult to do any work when I feel at the whims of my sympathetic nervous system. Medications help, but they’re only part of the solution. I think another component, the one I’m trying to address now, is the ability to not only be present and mindful (something I’ve been trying to do for a very long time), but also to… endure when being in that present moment forces you to have to share space with something unpleasant, uncomfortable, or even scary. It’s like being stuck with a smelly, hairy, oversized commuter on a bus who is constantly twitching and murmuring abusive things at you. Add the fact that there’s not even any guarantee that being willing to sit next to your very own Hobo of Self-Destruction will make him go away, and it doesn’t sound like a very appealing sentiment.

However, what I’m just starting to understand is that while those feelings may not abate entirely, being willing to endure them in that moment at the very least provides me (I don’t want to speak for anyone else) with the powerful knowledge that you can weather the storm. That if you decide to not hit that oh-so-tempting eject button and go hurtling towards your coping mechanism of choice, you won’t fall to pieces. And once you withstand the hurricane and find you’re still standing, it can take a lot of the wind out of its sails the next time it tries to pay you a visit.

Thoughts on A Philosophy Blog? (And Philosophy in General, I guess)

So, I’m a philosophy minor. More than that, I’m a big fan of thinking about things (sometimes too much, as the number of posts on here about anxiety will attest) and picking them apart. However, one thing that bugs me about mainstream philosophy (if there is such a thing), is how…. limited in scope it is.

I find as I ascend in years at university, I find the questions get smaller and smaller. For instance, in a Theory of Knowledge class I had, the question that the entire semester revolved around was that of what the professor called “Epistemic Akrasia”, or the question of whether or not you could rationally do something that you were aware was against your own self-interest.

Now, to me that question DOES sound interesting. But the class, as philosophy often does, devolved into minutia about questioning the definitions of “rationality” and “what we could define as ‘awareness’, as well as the usual questions about free will that normally seep into many a philosophy class like a gas leak (and potentially just as explosive). That in itself isn’t necessarily BAD per say, as one of philosophical thought’s most valuable traits is teaching the ability to tease out people’s assumptions about meaning and put them to the test. The problem I had was the heavy feeling I had in the pit of my stomach after the class was done. The feeling of “Where did we get to? What was the point of this?” and the general dread that it felt like a pointless exercise in nigh-masturbatory nitpicking.

I feel like when we engage in philosophical questioning, a good thing to do might be to take a step back and also ask “Why are we asking these questions?” “What are the implications for operations within the real world for the things we might glean from their investigation?” Too many times I’ve read a philosophical paper or essay that included the statement that “Answers to question X may have important implications for A, B, and C”, but then fails to go on and give any kind of detail as to what those might be. For a sub-branch of philosophy as potentially useful as epistemology for affecting how we relate and engage with one another both individually and societally, to spend hours and hours quibbling over the definition of “aware” not even in general, but for the hypothetical purpose of a single PAPER, seems like a tremendous waste of mental energy.

Meanwhile, so-called ‘serious’ academics scoff at what someone might disparagingly call “self-help” philosophies, notably the rise in the interest people have in scholars like the greek Stoics. As if it’s a sign of weakness or intellectual frailty to look to philosophy for ways to live a good life, to improve our outlook on the world, or deal with its pain and difficulties. I feel like I have to ask: if philosophy isn’t making peoples’ lives better, what GOOD is it? Having dealt with the usual assumptions from people outside the field that we’re all a bunch of closeted eggheads with interest only in pointless discussions, views such as the above make me shake my head. Is it any wonder that universities defund philosophy programs, or that people don’t want to even talk to philosophers, when all we talk about are topics that have exactly ZERO relevance to the average person’s existence?

It’s in this line that I’m wondering about making a dedicated philosophy blog. I use “dedicated” in the loosest possible sense, as I mentioned above that I’d want to keep it as open as possible in terms of topics and ideas. Philosophy is something you can do with ANY topic, no matter how personal, cultural, or global, and it can help provide comfort and healing in times of darkness, perspective in times of confusion, and a potential path forward when the road seems muddled and confusing. I just… don’t want to start it, and then be afraid to start writing because of potentially having an audience. Ugh.

What to Write About (When There’s Nothing to Write About)

I want to make writing in here a regular practice, but I have this problem of not knowing what to write about when I’m neither in the middle of a full-blown meltdown and need to do the creative equivalent of venting nuclear gas (bonus points to those of you who, like me, got a mental flash of that episode of the Simpsons where Homer becomes morbidly obese), nor inspired by a particular idea.

Though many people use their blogs as a digital journal, which is totally fine, I kind of want this to be something more than that. Given, a big part of the content is me talking about the emotional comings-and-goings in my head, but I feel like that’s such a huge part of what goes into my creative work that it’s something beyond a simple “Dear yawning abyss of the internet, today I X’ed…”

“What to write about when there’s nothing to write about.” Hm. I mean, that in and of itself is an interesting topic, given how many creators (myself included) have a crippling fear of a blank page. It’d be easy to ascribe that to a human fear of the unknown and be done with it, but I feel like the comfort of unused potential is a particularly artistic flavor of psychosis. It’s like… so long as the page is blank, I lose nothing. But the moment I start putting something down, trying to realize something in my head, or even just noodle around in my sketchbook, I make myself vulnerable by simple fact of engaging in the artistic process.

I feel like that’s a big part of why it’s so difficult to be creative or artistic when you’re intentionally TRYING to be. It’s like TRYING to be happy, in the sense that it’s something that happens out of the corner of your eye when you’re not expecting it, and then suddenly “I accidentally a whole editorial.” I forget the person who said the quote (it occurs to me I could take two seconds and Google it, but I’m on a roll here), but the idea that “the moment you ask yourself if you’re happy, you cease to be.”

I think a similar sentiment could be applied to art. I mean, in some sense you have to make a conscious decision to start drawing, or writing, or filming, or whatever, sure. But when you’re in the middle of the process, the moment you start second-guessing yourself, the whole thing comes to a screeching halt while you erase that eyebrow 50 times because IT DOESN’T LOOK QUIZZICAL ENOUGH, DAMMIT.

A lot has been made of the idea of Flow, the state where you’re utterly lost in the moment of whatever task you’re participating in. I find it a useful concept, and it gels well with the readings on Zen and Taoist philosophy that have informed my current worldview. However, I do find myself having trouble reconciling it with the necessity of conscious practice to develop skill. When we (or… I, I suppose I should just speak from my own experience) feel stuck and unable to create, there’s a good chance that it’s because I’m thinking too much about it, and just need to breathe, go with the flow, and see what happens. The thing about practice, though, is that you NEED that conscious self-reflection to process the new techniques you’re acquiring. To refine them, straighten out any kinks, and to truly connect the dots and gain a deeper understanding.

So how do you Flow enough to get out of your own way, but be present enough to get everything you can out of it?

Anyone?

Seriously, I was asking you, because I’m still swamped by the question as much as anyone.

Well, if I can just spitball here, maybe that letting go is crucial to the INITIALIZING of the creative process. Like, if you’re scared that no matter what you put on the paper, it won’t look as good as in your head, that you don’t have your ideal materials, or workplace, or you don’t have enough time… something will ALWAYS find a way to get in the way. So that’s the point where it might be useful to take a breath, set out your tools, and see what happens. When you’re in the midst of making something and you hit a roadblock, or something isn’t coming out the way you want, maybe then it’s time to put away the artist brain for a moment and ask yourself why. Is it a perspective problem? Plot? Characters? Inking? Deconstruct it into as simple components as you can, try different things, access some resources online or otherwise, whatever. Try looking at it as a puzzle instead of proof that Uncle Gary was right all along and you’ll never amount to nuthin’ tryin’ to draw them funny pictures.

Do I know if it’ll work? Not even slightly, but it sounds at least plausible. At the very least, it’s better than sitting in a steamy stew of existential dread, staring at a blank page.

The quote was John Stuart Mill, by the way.

Vince Smith is an aspiring writer, podcast host, psychology/philosophy student, and dyed-in-the-wool geek of all trades. You can check out articles and Let’s Plays by him over at The Rogues’ Gallery, or drop by his Facebook Page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman for other musings from the catacombs of the Internet.

Creativity and Mental Illness

I think a lot about the number of people I’ve heard, whether on podcasts or in real life how they’re afraid to get medication to help with their anxiety, depression, etc, because they’re afraid without it, they’ll lose the “true” emotional core of who they are that allows them to express themselves creatively. But what if it’s the other way around? What if it’s the capacity, the mind set for creativity that predisposes people to be vulnerable to certain emotional struggles?

A number of different studies have drawn links between the two, but I always wondered that the nature of the relationship was. In particular, when I took a couple of Theatre courses in the past year, I had an interesting talk with one of my professors that led me to think it’s something like this:

If I had to define creativity, I would think of it in basic terms as an ability to take two previously disparate topics, two things you wouldn’t normally connect with one another (be they material things or abstract concepts), and associating/combining them in a way that most people wouldn’t consider. Now, apply that notion to a chronically anxious individual, say someone who’s nervous for their next job interview. They feel like if they can’t get this job, then it’s their last hope, then no one will hire them, then they’ll lose their apartment, end up on the street and live a lonely, forgotten existence. Sounds excessive, but that’s the kind of catastrophizing myself and many people I know do in their heads.

When you then talk to someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety, there’s a good chance they’ll respond with something like, “Isn’t that a bit of a leap? Just because X happens doesn’t mean that it’s going to lead RIGHT to catastrophic conclusion Y!”

Exactly. That’s exactly it. That capacity, that propensity to link two or more only tangentially related things into a cohesive whole is analogous to the kind of thinking that leads us to think that “shitty but manageable thing A will inevitably lead to B, C, D… all the way to life-ruining outcome Z.”

One way of thinking of it is the old “it’s a blessing and a curse” addage, but I think maybe a better way of considering it is like a really awesome, but really specialized piece of software. You have this awesome program for making breathtaking art, revolutionary inventions, and solving dastardly problems, and it does a fantastic job at that. But you feed this machine a question about the true nature of, say, Existential Ethics, and it might just fizz out and explode, setting things ablaze and taking out the printer two rooms over.

That doesn’t necessarily make it defective (though you should probably call someone to see if you can fix the whole exploding thing). It just means that you need to be aware when you’re using a certain tool to try and solve a problem that it simply doesn’t have the capacity to solve. I’m not a big fan of the whole right-brained/left-brained thing (largely because it’s been shown to be vastly oversimplified), but there IS value in thinking of your mental skills as modules in some way.

So next time you find yourself enveloping mentally into “my life is DOOMED” or something like it, maybe consider the possibility that you’ve got the wrong disc in. Take a moment, take a breath, and do your best to engage the linear, procedural reasoning part of your brain, or at least be aware of the possibility that some of the catastrophic thoughts you’re thinking are NOT, in fact, products of the situation, but of your own fears. That way, you can attempt to switch the focus from your perceived “DOOOOOOOOOOM!! (yes, I’m going to keep capitalizing it) and onto the reasoning that fuels that fear. There’s a good chance that digging at that root of the problem will get you a lot further than thinking up new and complex ways of torturing yourself emotionally.

And as always, don’t worry, I know. I should follow my own advice.

Vince Smith is a writer, podcast host, and dyed-in-the-wool geek of all trades. You can check out other articles and videos by him over at The Rogues’ Gallery, or drop by his Facebook Page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman for other musings from the catacombs of the Internet.