“with fears and frustrations”
Of the many reasons why I live in New York, “project management” isn’t in the top 100. Hell, it isn’t even in the top 1,000; the top 10,000. On a list that includes “being able to attend theater every night” and “walking across the Brooklyn Bridge” on one end and “being stuck on the wrong side of 5th Avenue during the Puerto Rican Day Parade” and “six-dollar pints of light beer” on the other, “project management” falls much closer to “six-dollar pints,” maybe a notch above “waiting for the 7 train on one of those outdoor platforms in Queens on a windy night in January,” but just barely.
I am here to write. To surround myself with other artists; to subject myself to other artists, yes. But mainly, importantly, to write.
In the same way that Christians periodically retreat in an effort to remind themselves of their commitment to Jesus, so too do I have to occasionally step back and take stock of where I am and what I’m doing. I don’t require a What Would Mamet Do? bracelet to remind myself of my devotion—and, even if I did, the wiser course is probably What Would Mamet Not Do?—but every so often a mental check-in is valuable, nonetheless. Such a renewal of vows, as it were, does not require the public spectacle of, say, a Promise Keepers meeting, where I realize the sheer numbers are supposed to enhance the experience, though I’ve always thought they diminished it, trading, as they do, the intimacy of individuality for the Leni Riefenstahl-like mass of up-reached hands and streaming tears.
No, any issue my priorities and I have are strictly between me and my priorities, though I could maybe be talked into an AA-like support group, if things were to ever bottom out.
“Hello, my name is Kirby.”
“It has been three months since I’ve written anything that was worth shit.”
In their current form, however, the check-ins are brief, usually nothing more than an internal “What are you doing with your life?,” and they usually occur after things that really don’t matter—things like work—begin to seem as if they actually do. A blown deadline that nags more than it should. A prolonged stretch of going in early and/or staying late. Just generally not leaving it all behind at 5:00. Nothing at work should ever affect any part of my life that doesn’t happen at work.
|"Project management" is at the opposite end of a list that includes this near the top.|
“Every complex system whether it’s a factory tool or a computer or a human being, has to be congruent,” writes Robbins. “Its parts have to work together; every action has to support every other action if it’s to work at peak level. If the parts of a machine try to go in two different directions at once, the machine will be out of sync and could eventually break down.”
The great curse of my life—other than the fact that I can’t play guitar—is that society fails to value the skills that I possess enough for me to parlay them into something like a living. I don’t know how to buy or sell stocks. I don’t know how to scrape out the carotid artery when it becomes too constricted by gunk or even how to read a blood-pressure pump for that matter. I can’t throw a ball fast enough or jump high enough. I can tell you generally why the Ten Commandments shouldn’t be displayed in public classrooms, but I can’t argue precedence. Speaking of God, He sure knows I can’t carry a tune. I know enough about a few things that I feel capable to teach what I know to others, but I lack the requisite certification to make that transfer of knowledge official. I can’t really build anything. If I hammer a nail, it’s going to be crooked; if I saw a board, I’m going to lose a digit. I have no big idea for a business of my own. I don’t even have any small ideas. I barely understand how my bike works, let along my computer.
You know what I’m good at? Here’s what I’m good at: I can fix your sentences (and write a few of my own), and I’m really, really good at noticing when the font that’s supposed to be Calibri is actually Cambria or when that 12-point heading is really 11 or when the period is mistakenly bold.
I have degrees in English, writing, and philosophy, which means I can read, write, and think. Plug that trifecta into a Craigslist search and tell me how many rewarding, full-time opportunities emerge.
“We can learn to produce the most effective behaviors, but if those behaviors don’t support our deepest needs and desires, if those behaviors infringe upon other things that are important to us, then we have internal conflict, and we lack the congruency that is necessary for success on a large scale.” That’s Robbins again, obviously, in a line that stings not a little but a lot, for, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I’ve been incongruent my whole life.
|Tell me something I don't know.|
I had occasion recently to sift through a number of old notebooks. They stretched all the way back to my freshman year of high school and then extended forward through my four undergraduate years and multiple graduate programs. As I flipped through, I was struck by how similar their contents were throughout those 15 years: The information in the first third of every spiral was the official notes for the class. Whether it was Journalism or Western Civ until 1660 or Psych or Soc or Algebra I or Biology or Performing American Culture or Contemporary Southern Women’s Fiction, I had all of the sanctioned information right up top, in enough detail that, give me two hours with any given notebook right now, and I could still ace the quiz.
In the back of the notebooks, however, that’s where I kept the important stuff. In the back, without fail, for as many years as I have proof (and probably for even longer than that), I have story ideas, song lyrics, character sketches, snippets of dialogue. I would sit in class, give a shit for as long as I could stand to give a shit, and then flip to the back where I would release that which had been at the fore all along. Thankfully the quality of the back-of-the-notebook material improved from Ms. Admire’s ELA class in my ninth-grade year to that which appeared in the back of Dr. Schultz’s 19th Century American Novel class as I was finishing up the course work for my (never completed) doctoral dissertation. But the general idea stayed the same: What I was supposed to care about up front; what I actually cared about in the back.
The only time this didn’t hold true was when I was at Carnegie Mellon, where I studied playwriting. During those two years, everything that mattered was up front. There was no back. Those were two good years, where people thought of me as a writer and where it was my job to write.
The problem is that they were only two years, and once I entered the workforce, the old habits re-emerged: crack a notebook from my five years on the job, and you’ll find meeting notes up front and a revised outline for Act I in the back. Right now—I shit you not—right at this very minute I am hunched over a cramped cubicle on my lunch break at a temp gig, writing in longhand on the back of an agenda from a meeting we had last week (Item 1: Training Update).
It doesn’t take a world-renowned guru to see that my life might possibly maybe lack congruence. Huh, do you think?
|Get congruent, baby.|
“It’s easy for people to put things like this [deep-seated goals] off and get trapped into making a living rather than designing a life,” Robbins writes. And elsewhere: “A lot of very smart people spend their careers totally frustrated because they’re doing jobs that don’t make the best of their inherent capabilities.” I like “designing a life,” by the way. There’s poetry in it. The Avett Brothers express the same idea, if only a little more melodically: “Decide what to be, and go be it.”
I know people who live like this. Ask them at a party what they do and they’ll tell you that they’re a painter, when in reality the only canvas they’re in charge of is an Excel spreadsheet. I’m an actor. Oh, yeah, what restaurant do you work at? That kind of thing. I know writers who think it’s appropriate to apply for a copyeditor position by submitting a resume that lists their recent workshop productions. They aspire to nothing more than temp work, just in case they have to attend an out-of-town tryout ahead of their Broadway premiere. Ride the Greenway, and every cyclists who buzzes by—“on your left, your left!”—is wearing a yellow jersey.
I admire the hell out of these people. I love them for the ego it takes to blindly deny reality and to instead embrace their self-created fantasy. I love too that they refuse to be defined by what they do. I wait tables. That does not make me a waiter. Talk to me at a party and, firstly, I’m going to lead with my passion, not my occupation, and, secondly, fuck you for trying to pigeonhole me anyway. They would scoff at Robbins and his ilk, but really they’re not so far removed from one another. Robbins would applaud their ability to control their own minds. He might even include their story in the next version of the book: Unlimited Power 2: Electric Whoosh-a-loo.
I wish to god I were more like these people. I wish to god if, when you asked me what I do, I didn’t avert my eyes and sheepishly say, “It’s really too boring to go into right now.” I wish you didn’t have to wait for some other subject to come up before somehow I eventually allowed, “Oh, yeah, writing. I mean, I dabble.” But I’m not wired that way. I don’t believe that things are true just because I really, really want them to be true. In fact, quite the opposite. On the rare occasion that I do actually let myself envision something good happening it’s almost guaranteed not to. The surest way for me to lose something I think I’ve got a shot at is for me to picture myself getting it. If I didn’t cleave them in two after reading the words “we’re sorry but,” rejection letters would be crippling: It’s not that you didn’t give it to me; it’s that in my head I already have it, and you’re taking it away.
According to Robbins, this defeatist attitude means that I’m getting what I deserve. My life is a self-fulfilling prophecy: I refuse to envision the best; therefore, the best will never come. My Pulitzer is an elbow-patched Tweed jacket away, but I’m just too stupid to realize it. As is so often the case with this book, Robbins undoes a keen observation with a gross oversimplification. Being a writer or fulfilling any kind of professional goal is not the same as being a reality-tv star, not even if your professional goal is to be a reality-tv star. You don’t call yourself a writer and then start writing. You write. That’s it.
Even if all too often it is relegated to the back of the agenda.
For now, anyway.