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  • Writer's pictureLihong

On maintenance and the real work

'How would you maintain that?'

Is often the question posed to a new idea, and for good reason. Most of the time, coming up with an idea or solution is the easy part, and following through and maintaining the efforts is the hard part. Maintaining implies a sustained effort, and it might mean repetition or tedium. Or sometimes the tedious part only happens in the brain and not in the actual doing...

Over the years, I've learnt more or less how I operate. I make associations and combine ideas and come up with new ones very quickly, but find it harder to 'do the work' because I don't get as excited about it. Novelty can be addictive when you're not fully engaged in your environment.

Problem is, it's hard to have meaningful developments with shallow explorations. It's like a plant. If the roots aren't allowed to grow deep because it hasn't been put in the right soil, given nutrients and water - and time (!) - then (a) it's easily uprooted by a bout of bad weather, and (b) the roots don't grow into a network that go in search for more nutrients that eventually help the plant grow strong. (No botanical fact checking has been done, just trying to use the first analogy that springs to mind. Could talk about rhizomes and fungi but some people are squeamish about fungi. It also reminds me of a particularly gruesome episode of Hannibal the series where the murderer had a very twisted interpretation of spiritual connection involving fungi.)

So how to avoid constantly making false starts? One way that mostly works for me is to introduce some structure. This is harder than you think. Most of us who've grown up and studied and work in formal structures and institutions spend a lot of energy trying to break away from them. It makes sense at an intuitive level, because structures can hold a lot of stored energy (e.g. creative energy that can be destructive in a job function that just requires execution of an already established plan), and our bodies and minds instinctively want to find an outlet for that. Some people call the outlets 'escapes'. I think of it as just part of a dynamic system that is constantly trying to arrive at an equilibrium, whether it be a healthy or unhealthy one (yes, there's such a thing as an unhealthy equilibrium, but usually it is not sustainable as its longevity is undermined by some aspect of it. Think about unhealthy relationships sustained by some toxic behaviour.)

How do I balance the need for exploration with discipline, without stifling creativity? One way I introduce structure is to set some rules for exploration. Perhaps it's an attempt at setting up the tubes and pipes to channel the flows so the energy actually goes somewhere I want (okay, I know this analogy does not appeal to everyone, but it appeals to the part of me that finds comfort in connecting the dots between physics and everything else.) What does that look like? Setting up and keeping to a routine helps, although some flexibility is definitely needed or I would also feel too locked into something stifling. It's also important to not lose myself in the anxiety of breaking out of routine, but just to observe that oh it happened, but then I did gain something from not doing what I usually do. Like when you take a longer route home and discover a cool new shop.

Before setting up rules for exploration, I thought about the stumbling blocks to deepening my explorations. One of them was the impatience to become good and feel good doing that I have just started doing right away. Usually the beginner's high wears off quickly and if there isn't a grounded motivation for continuing, it quickly feels like a chore. I try and connect to myself at this point and interrogate the underlying motivations for doing what I'm doing. Is it enough for me to want to sit with the tension of struggling through the middle part?

One thing that happens to me often is starting a bunch of projects of varying learning curves, which can be very overwhelming. My brain can be overloaded trying to rewire itself in too many directions. This is where you can use the 'boring middle' of another project or endeavour, where you are mostly cruising, as a counterbalance to the higher amount of energy you need to give to the new project.

This is all a continuous reflection and I certainly don't have my mind made up about anything, even how I function as that's still a subject of study. It's also nice to sometimes see how I surprise myself. But some things I think I can be sure now:

  1. I definitely work better in collaboration with people than alone.

  2. I blend learning in public with learning in private (check out these readings I got from Irsyad's website for what I mean), and I'm still getting to know the mix that works for me.

  3. Very often, I just have to make it known to others what I would like to be involved in, and people come knocking on the door.

  4. I have to map my resources (time and energy!) and learn to say no (without feeling like I am missing out). Intention is one thing, having the resources is another.

  5. Of course, for the above to happen, a lot of time (years, in my experience) needs to be spent getting to know yourself, building your community, experimenting and having fun (you can't sustain anything without joy).

How do you work? I'm always curious to know about other people's process. Let me know by sending me an e-mail (don't laugh, some people do this! Like me for example), text, or when we're chatting in person!

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