Not knowing your future is a feature, not a bug.

Over the holidays I got to see one of my nephews. He’s a fantasic young man, but visiting with him, especially in my home town, brought me back to when I was his age and trying to work out my place in the world. This post, and hopefully a few others that will follow are both a letter to him, and the voice of an older man attempting to pass on all the wisdom that 48 years of hard knocks and stupid mistakes can provide.

A long time ago, at least as reckoned in internet years, I worked in the software industry. It was an interesting field to make a living in, especially at the small “startups” where I worked. Its a field custom made for people who like to wear a lot of hats, can think on their feet, and can learn quickly. One of the phrases I learned from that experience was substituting the term feature for the term bug. It was used when someone complained about a bug in your software. What you did was deny there was a bug, and instead claimed it was an undocumented feature. The concept is nothing but pure marketing bravado. The phrase was referred to often by everyone in the industry, but I never actually saw it in use. It is an inside joke about the nadir of software marketing finesse, and it is an expression of the deep anxiety that one feels when they know they are selling a less than perfect piece of software.

That being said, the saying does have its uses. And one of those uses is in looking at your future.

You see a lot of people go around with the annoying confidence that comes of knowing what they want to do for a living. It is trifling easy to be angry at such individuals, especially if you are like me, someone who has never known what they wanted to “be”. And it is easy to look at yourself and assume there is something wrong with you for not being like those other “knowers”. After years and years of living as a “not knower,” I now contend that the bug of not knowing is actually a feature; that not knowing is actually better than knowing.

To support this contention, lets us first look at the causes of not knowing.

Not knowing your future avocation does not stem from a lack of ability. Far from it. In fact, not knowing usually stems from an overabundance of ability. It is when you can literally do almost everything and anything that choosing a direction has a consequence. Those poor mundane souls with less IQ and raw ability do not share our quandary. They do not wake up thinking, “Fuck! I wonder if I should be a brain surgeon?”  Why? Because they recognize it is not something they will ever be able to do. They understand their choices in life might be between being a auto mechanic and a security guard. Being a brain surgeon is simply not on their list, more importantly neither is the existential angst associated with making that choice. When your choices are fewer, you have a lot less to get wrong. Which can be translated to, when you have less options, you have less to be depressed about. True, you could be an auto mechanic, if that is what makes you happy, but you can also be a brain surgeon, and therein lies the rub. You at least, have the option for both choices, and because of this, have the anxiety that goes with it.

So not knowing is a position of ability, not disability. It carries with it an anxiety based upon a greater risk than most people face; a greater chance of success (and presumably failure) than your less well thought peers. Fortunately for us, we both have been though therapy, and have a decent idea of how to deal with anxiety. Who knew that depression would eventually prepare you for a career? Funny how that works, eh?

But there is another reason why not knowing is a feature, not a bug, and that has to do with a thing called change.

You see, one of the ever constants of the universe is change. It is easy to miss this as a young man (I know I did), or to discount its value, but either position would doing yourself a disservice. By change I mean that we all face several massive changes in our lives, and quite frankly most of them we are not expecting or well prepared for. This is just how life goes. An auto accident, a random chance with cancer, a bit too much alcohol, a casual word misspoken, all of these things (and more, much much more) can, and will, fuck up our lives. Hey, shit happens. The thing is, our avocation is just as open to big change as any other part of our lives. For you, having to change careers would be a pain, maybe even a major inconvenience, but it would not necessarily be crippling. Why? Because you are not “set” on a particular career, you are merely doing the one that came along (and looks best) now. Now imagine the poor slob who, unlike us, knew exactly what he wanted for all of his life, and suddenly discovers he can no longer work in that field. What will he do? Panic, I tell you. That and more. Depression would be the least of his issues, as his self-identity will be taken out from under him. Why? Because he is now facing what you and I have had to deal with for all of our lives; not knowing. Only he will be terribly unprepared for this ordeal as it will be new to him. And “new” is not a nice word to those who have their lives all planed out. In essence, change has brought this man down to our default position (not knowing) and it is terrifying to him.

So who is the strong one here, and who is the weak?

There’s more to my position than just the two arguments above. For instance, there is a very good chance that 20 years from now you will have a thriving career in a field that has not yet been invented. Don’t believe me? This is exactly my position. 20 years ago there were no digital retouchers. Today there are thousands. There was no school, no college, no way of learning what I do for a living, short of trying it out and seeing if you could do it. What engineers call trial and error. And yet, I make very good money at it, and find the job deeply fulfilling. I see no reason why you cannot have a similar experience as my own. Based on the rate of change I see happening today I suspect you have a much great chance than I ever did, of working a job which has not yet been invented.

And when such future jobs become available, who do you think is going to be better prepared to switch to them from the field they are in? A knower or a not knower? Who is going to be less entrenched in their field? Who is going to have less of their identity tied up in their job, and more of their identity tied up in themselves? The answer to all of these is the not knower. In other words, men like us.

So you see, knowing you future doesn’t necessarily give you one.

Solo or group?

The fantasy author Kate Griffin has an interesting blog post on what it is like for an author (normally a loner by nature) to work in a group environment. This came out the same day that Sarah Hoyt did a marvelous piece on maintaining the creative process, which she refers to as not being a machine. All of this reminds me of my own perilous attempts within differing milieus of creativity, and what I have learned from them.

For starters, one can create by themselves, or in a group setting. In some instances, one can do both. The dynamics for group creativity are significantly different from those of creating on one’s own. This difference is important, I would go so far to say essential, for finding one’s creative niche. However, before I get to this let me explain more about what I mean.

Solitary creative tasks are easy to spot. They are writing (especially fiction), song-writing, painting, etc. Anything that ones does on their own. Solo. Just you and your muse. This is different from a group creative environment, which ranges anywhere from playing music, to making movies, to designing advertising art. Yes, I am aware authors often collaborate with each other (making it a group process), and that song-writing also falls into both camps. This is because most creative forms can be done in a group, or by one’s self. Some however, cannot. For instance, one can play a mean oboe solo, but one cannot never play the oboe part of a symphony, and have it be a symphony. The same is true for any rock group. One instrument alone does not make the experience. Only a group can do that.

I make this point because how a person interacts with the creative process (group or singular) can be just as important as doing the creative process itself. For instance, I have been a musician on and off several times in my life, and have two close friends who both have followed music for most of their lives. What is interesting is that for my friends being involved in music is something they liked to do on their own. They are both happy to write and play music with no one else in the room. In fact they thrive on this. But see, I never could. Practicing for me, especially by myself, was just plain boring. I hated it. Even as an adult with a clear idea that it was a much needed ends to a much beloved means, I still had a hard time with it. But put me in a group, and suddenly whamo, I’m ready to go. Moreover, I’m ready to create new ideas, go off in new interesting directions, take on new worlds, as it were. But only in a group. Never alone.

The funny thing is, I am more than happy to work alone creatively as an author. Its not that I cannot create by myself, I just can’t do it well with music. It’s just not all that fun for me, especially compared to being in a group.

Way back when I was in my early 20s I was lucky enough to play in a band with a couple of really talented guys, Justin Souter, and Alan Williams. Playing with them was always a joy as they were so darn good. But what I enjoyed most about playing with them was the process we developed for song-writing. We would just start jamming, and run a tape recorder. Usually I played bass while Justin player guitar, but sometimes we switched. As we bumped up against each other’s ideas, the music started to blend and swirl until it would reach some form of consensus, and thus a section of a song was formed. It is a very democratic process to write this way. There is no form or direction. The ideas are tossed out, and they either stick or they don’t. Eventually something will click, and a piece of music will take shape.

Anyway, that was what I liked best about being in a band. The group creative process. I found it frustrating that Justin and Alan also found happiness in doing music by themselves, but I could never find that part fulfilling. Eventually our band broke up, but I carried with me that love of group creativity and when I eventually stumbled upon another creative process done as a group (advertising design), I made that field my vocation.

All of this to say, if you are doing something creative, and not finding parts of it fulfilling, perhaps you need to explore doing that work either solo or as a group. In essence, do the opposite of whatever you have been doing. You may find it doesn’t work well, you may find it does. Like me, you may find that it only works for you one way, but not another. That’s all well and good. In the end you will know more about yourself, and will have a better idea about what makes your creative process work. Both goals leading to the same thing, a better you.

mush for brains

My brain feels like it has been used as an ashtray at the smoker olympics. Just plain stinky mush. Too many things going on with our son, and his school, and their spectacularly ill informed view of homework.

We spent a healthy (if that is the word) amount of our time this weekend pulling together a project for his class. I’m glad Trevor got to study American Indians in more detail, but the work was WAY over the top. Its bad enough that its like pulling teeth to get him to focus, and do the work, but this much EXTRA work just makes him that much more resistant. I mean, if your goal is trying to get my son to hate his school, hey good job there.

Anyway, lots of other things going on, and not a lot of time to write. Not even for my fiction. Hopefully that will end soon. We’ll see.

Forget the toast, which side falls up when you drop a cube of butter.

We at Chez Tolladay are civilized enough to keep the butter dish in the cupboard, not the refrigerator. This morning we discovered that if said butter is dropped from waist height it makes the most interesting pattern on the floor. A nice round circle, with the remainder of the cube stuck in the middle. It looked, for all the world, as if it were a high speed photograph, freezing the action half-way through the splash. Fortunately the floor was cold enough for me to scrape most of it up before it spread further.

Alas, I didn’t think about taking a picture until after I cleaned it up. 🙁