10 Aug 2015
The Long Middle
I’m in the cove of a Maine lake, standing on a dock. The far side of the cove is 300 yards away—not far, but then I’m not a great swimmer. This is my English Channel. I focus on the opposite shore and slip into the water.
* * *
Beginnings and endings are the exciting bits: the potential of a new project, and then the thrill of completion. The trouble for me is the stretch in between. I almost always find the middle to be long and tedious. I focus on the destination, with little patience for the journey. I walk fast, I work quickly, and I’m not kind to myself when I take too long. I just want to close the gap.
Thing is, beginnings and endings are fleeting; we spend our lives in the middle. It’s the middle where the work is done, where the puzzles are solved, where the words are crafted. Halfway through my fifth decade, it’s only now starting to occur to me that I should develop more patience for the middle—perhaps even affection.
* * *
I’ve only been swimming for a few minutes, and I’m already panting. My slow, awkward strokes barely seem to move me toward the other side. Focus on your target, Josh, just push through.
* * *
I just finished my latest book. It took me much longer to write than I’d planned—a big, fat middle to slog through. Now that it’s done, I’m proud of how well it came out, excited to see it ship in a few weeks. I’m glad I did it, but I didn’t enjoy doing it.
For me, writing long is a punishing process—a self-punishing process. I spend much of the time feeling slow, dumb, inarticulate, waiting waiting waiting for the words to emerge and the ideas to gel. The longer the book takes to write, the more the self doubt creeps in: will the words still be relevant; am I really cut out for this writing thing; did I really just eat two whole bags of Cheetos; do I even have anything meaningful to say; why am I so awful at this?
Thing is, I actually love writing. I’m good at it. I’ve begun to realize that my problem is not with writing but with my perspective—and my process. The process of writing a book, like tackling any other big project, is one of milestones large and small. Manuscripts are made up of chapters are made up of sections are made up of pages. I tend to focus on deadlines and daily quotas to power past those book landmarks. I obsessively watch the word and page counts pile up (or not). In other words, I write a book by trying to sprint to an endless series of destinations.
Turns out that’s a terrible way to write. It’s a perspective that drains the joy and satisfaction out of crafting words. Instead of investing so much intellectual and emotional energy in the future—in the deadline—perhaps I should do more to reconnect with the pleasures and challenges of the moment: of actually writing, thinking, puzzling, making.
Be here now, my extraordinary wife often tells me.
* * *
My arms feel heavy, and I’m not even midway across the cove. I flip over to my back to coast a little, to rest. Why am I even doing this?
* * *
I love my work. I’m an interaction designer, and my whole job is to collaborate with others to invent the future. We craft new and better ways to connect the digital and physical worlds. The work is fun, challenging, and all about releasing untapped potential.
Like every job, though, mine comes freighted with process, politics, personalities. All of those things need to be tended. They’re critical parts of getting the job done, and I’m good at managing those pieces. But they’re not the work. They are the pressures and stresses and constraints of the project. They shape the work, but they’re not the work.
Too often, in the long middle of a project, I let my perspective be molded by those external forces, by the deadlines and the milestones and the phone calls and the contracts. So while I’m fortunate to have such creative and fulfilling work, I’m also foolish enough not to enjoy it as much as I might. Because come on: this is when the puzzles are solved, where experiments are floated, where the new is invented. That’s what the middle is made of.
But I often let the rest distract me from the pleasures of the work I do. I’m doing dream work for dream clients. I can let myself enjoy it, to remind myself that, hey, this is not just a job; this is work I love to do. Lighten up.
* * *
Gradually, I start to work a little less hard at pushing myself through the water. I relax a little. I find a rhythm and a sustainable pace. I’m slow—wow, so slow—but I’m steady. The other side is still a long way off, but I’m starting to listen to my body instead of focusing on the finish. This feels good.
I’m passing the middle of the cove now, and I let my senses shift from the far side to what’s right around me. Sun-dappled water. Impossibly purple dragonflies skimming the surface. A loon’s call is the only sound breaking the stillness. It will be a nifty accomplishment to reach the other side, but right now in this moment, I’m in the middle… and the water’s fine.