Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
The blank page. It grips you in its empty gaze. It confronts you head on, as if taunting you. Threatening.
Without a doubt we’ve all experienced the tyranny of the blank page. No one, it seems, is immune. Ernest Hemingway, no less, when asked to articulate the most frightening thing he had ever encountered, answered: “A blank sheet of paper.”
Faced with the emptiness of the page, it can prove at times impossible to get started, and – the longer one confronts the page – the harder starting seems to become, until what faces you, stretching out ahead, is a seemingly insurmountable task, beyond your reach.
Regardless of what is before you – be it words you’re wrestling, pixels you’re pushing, or code you’re committing – that first step, into the unknown, is the hardest. How do you move beyond that endless expanse of emptiness? How do you confront ‘the fear’?
The first thing to acknowledge is that ‘the fear’ is understandable. Everything you put out into the world is, inevitably, judged. The works you share – regardless of their form – shape you, as I explored in the very first article in this series, Designing a Mind. This fear of judgement can, at times, however, prove debilitating.
As Alain de Boton puts it, in his in his excellent book Status Anxiety, we all suffer – to a greater or lesser degree – from, “An anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser.” de Boton calls this ‘status anxiety’, and I can certainly relate to it. I’m sure you can too.
So, faced with this anxiety, how do you proceed?
The Road Ahead
The answer is to break the task at hand down and, by making it more manageable, build a blueprint for future success. As Anne Lammott puts it, in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “Just take it bird by bird.”
The road ahead might appear daunting at first, but – like any task in life – if it’s broken down into small, manageable pieces it’s achievable. Think of any successful new venture as a successful attempt on Everest. For the mountain to be conquered a number of carefully planned pieces need to be in place: a clear plan of attack, articulating your strategy, needs to be defined; a base camp, from which you’ll build, needs to be established; the supplies you’ll need, to ensure a successful journey, must be prepared; and a few helpful sherpas, supporters on the journey, should be lined up.
With those pieces in place, an attempt on the summit can be made and, with attention to detail and care given to all of the pieces of the puzzle, that attempt will – Godspeed! – prove a success. The real battle is with you, as Edmund Hillary put it:
It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.
To succeed in the task at hand is to focus on both the big picture and the details simultaneously. It isn’t easy, but with the right frame of mind, and the right blueprint, it’s possible.
The mistake we often make is failing to build that blueprint, leaving the task ahead to grow, mythically, in the mind. Soon, the simplest of tasks has spiralled into something unattainable, and all because you didn’t take the time to break it down.
Take that time and your mythical task becomes something altogether more mundane, well within your reach if you only chip away at it, day by day.
One Small Step
One small step, every day, is all it takes.
Get something down. Anything. It doesn’t matter (at this stage) if it’s right ot wrong. It’s a start. From there you can course correct, modifying your output until, soon, you’re moving along at a steady pace, honing in on your goal. The importance is to keep moving forward.
Find a ritual that works for you. A morning coffee? An evening whiskey? Everyone is different, but the ritual can help, it eases you in. It’s not about hours, mythically battling the myriad demons of the mind, it’s about the multiplied effect of those minutes. They all add up.
As Mark Forster puts it in his indispensable book Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management: “It is surprising how easy it is to forget that the way to get things done is to do them.”
Of course, the observation is obvious, but I’m sure you’ll agree there’s more than a grain of truth to it. Forster suggests a simple three step process that – should you adhere to it – will maximise the likelihood of achieving your goals: 1. Do. 2. First. 3. Every day.
Step one recognises you need to do something. As Forster puts it: “It really doesn’t matter how much you do on any given day as long as you do something. Doing something keeps the initiative alive.” As long as you resolve to do something every day, you’ll maintain the momentum you need to move forwards towards a conclusion.
Step two recognises you need to prioritise, doing your something first, before distractions set in. Step three recognises you need to keep moving forward, every day. Forster states: “Doing something every day is the way to ensure that it progresses.”
Put simply: Take one small step, first thing, every day and – soon – you will have journeyed far.
By avoiding the blank page and fearfully ignoring it, you achieve nothing. To move forward, you simply need to start.
Often, the only thing standing between you and success is inertia, and, it should come as no surprise to learn, that standing still gets you nowhere. The failure to start, leads inevitably to failure to deliver. You need to get the ball rolling in order to build up momentum.
That first, small step means everything and it is the difference between those who achieve their goals in life and those who, instead, merely talk. If there’s one word of advice I could offer it would be to abandon fear and get started. What’s the worst that can happen?
You can achieve a great deal by periodically stepping away from the digital distractions that deflect us daily. Switch off for a while, take a walk, get your thoughts in order and put the pieces in place.
Build a blueprint.
With your blueprint in hand all you need to do is to act upon it. Think of it as your map, showing you the way. All that remains is to begin the journey on the road ahead, no distractions. As David Hieatt puts it:
Treat distractions as the enemy. Luckily each electrical device you have comes with an off button. Remember, your time is limited, but your ability to be distracted is infinite.
Switch off for a while, concentrate and put one foot before the other as you embark upon your next, exciting adventure. To paraphrase an Irish blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face.”
To move forward you must confront the blank page and make your mark. Take it bird by bird, take it one step at a time; if you do, you maximise the chance of success. One thing is certain: You’ll have moved beyond the blank page you started with and have achieved something.
I’m looking forward next month to exploring the importance of writing as a tool for clarifying thinking and, more importantly, embracing its potential as a means of ‘writing yourself into existence’. See you in a month for the next step of the journey.
One year ago
I was always a worrier, but I used to be a young worrier. Now I am not so young. I still find things to worry about.
I find myself more and more concerned about my future as a developer.
As I’ve gotten older, I don’t stay up so late anymore. I spend more time with my family than on the computer (despite what they may say). I help in my community on a local school board, and I organize events for an open source interest group I started.
I think about how I used to fill my time with coding. So much coding. I was willing to dive so deep into a library or framework or technology to learn it.
My tolerance for learning curves grows smaller every day. New technologies, once exciting for the sake of newness, now seem like hassles. I’m less and less tolerant of hokey marketing filled with superlatives. I value stability and clarity.
At my day job we primarily use Python for our server side stack. I like the language, but I still feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing with it. I have 15 years of PHP under my belt, so I often know what I want to do, but not how to make it happen in Python. I don’t feel like I really grok the module system. I definitely don’t understand the class system. What the hell is a generator and how does it work the way it does? I am so lost.
Don’t even get me started on DevOps. Have you ever tried setting up something on AWS? There are a billion buttons and settings and new, invented words I don’t understand. I have no clue how any of that stuff works.
All of these problems would be solvable, given time and motivation. But motivation determines how I use my time, and I am just not terribly motivated to use what spare time I have to change the situation. There are other, more important needs in my life that are not related to programming languages.
What I’m most scared of, though, is being left behind.
Did you know I used to be a “designer?” Seriously. In 1999 my skills were decent enough to be called that on the web. I used to design CD art for an indie record label. Somewhere around 2005 or so, what passed for Good Design on the web flew right by my skills. I stopped putting “designer” in my bio a couple years ago, because it was ridiculous.
Things change when you’re part of a team. It makes tons of sense, but I do miss it. I miss being able to play at design and HTML and CSS and see it into production. I miss being able to tweak server configs to see if I could squeeze extra performance out of PostgreSQL. Now I feel terribly specialized, and there doesn’t seem like much point to exploring those things if I’m not going to actually use it in my day job — especially when there are few other opportunities to do anything with the tech.
I’m scared that either the job “web developer” is outpacing me, or my skills are atrophying.
I hope I still have something to offer. I don’t know what it will be, though.