I’ve been struggling to get started writing a new book. I find it all to easy for my time out of work to be nibbled away, seconds and minutes and hours, by genuinely intriguing articles, blog posts, videos, comments, TV shows, work, and games. Like a lot of people, I have the urge to complete tasks and fill up progress bars, but with the internet and media, the progress bar can never be filled. And so I never end up starting that book, even though I have plenty of notes and (I think) good ideas.
But maybe that’s not the real reason. I did write a book a few years ago, after all, and I don’t recall being any less busy or distracted back then. Perhaps it’s because the media environment has become even more distracting – who knows?
Coincidentally, I heard Elizabeth Gilbert talk about this very subject on the Longform podcast. I’ll first admit that I only knew one thing about Gilbert beforehand, which is that she wrote the highly successful Eat, Pray, Love; a book that turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts, which a lot of people whose opinions I trust found very shallow. So I was skeptical when I saw the episode’s guest, but not so skeptical that I deleted the episode out of hand; the Longform people have earned that much trust from me over the years.
Here are a couple of good bits from the episode, firstly on being multitalented:
…When it comes to deciding what you’re going to be, it helps if there’s only one thing you’re good at… I know a lot of multitalented people… but I do think it’s hard to them sometimes to know where to put their energy. And it’s easier if you’re not so great at a bunch of stuff.
I confess that I think of myself as multitalented. I like to think that, given sufficient effort, I could become pretty good at making videos or games or writing or whatever. I like learning new things. And for me, that makes it hard to decide whether my next big personal project should be a game or a book or something else.
Another good bit is about inspiration, and why it’s valuable to identify the things that you really care about when it comes to taking on a big personal project:
The calculus has to be, what’s the thing that makes me want to get up in the morning, what’s the thing that I’m psyched that I get to do this…. It’s about being very awake, about being very alert. The work is clearing your life of distractions enough so you are actually capable of feeling that excitement when it arrives. That you haven’t overbooked yourself in ten different directions so that you are so exhausted that you wouldn’t know inspiration if it punched you in the face. You can’t do that to yourself. It’s about being sober. It’s about being hopeful. It’s about a certain faith, it’s a way of being, which is about being ready.
And it’s about trusting your own curiosity enough to follow it, even if it doesn’t make sense. Even if the inspiration that you had doesn’t align with anything you’ve done before, even if it doesn’t seem like it would be marketable, even if it’s something that you can’t even believe you’re interested in, but you sort of have to have full faith that if you’re curious about something, it’s for a reason, that it’s a clue on the great scavenger hunt, and that you follow that clue and then the next and then next.
The tricky bit is that you have to start from a place of ‘this is what I’m most excited about, this is what I’m most curious about’, and then you have to recognise and know what will happen, which is that six months into it, it’s going to feel very boring and tedious because making things is often boring and tedious.
Another idea is going to come along very seductively, and do the dance of the seven veils in the corner of your studio, and say, I’m a much more interesting, much more exciting idea, why don’t you abandon this project that you’ve been working on for six months and come and run away with me to paradise. And you have to be smart enough to know not to do that, because six months from now that project will also be dull and boring and another idea will come and seduce you have to be able to stay through it thorugh the boring part to get to the end, so when those other seductive new ideas come along, you have to tell them to take a number, that we’re doing this now. And until this thing is finished, I’m not going to run away with you.
First it’s the excitement, then it’s the discipline… I have this theory that everything that’s interesting is mostly boring. So, life is filled with all these really interesting things and we chase the high and the buzz of the excitement of that thing, but 90% of that thing is boring.
None of this is new to me. In fact I’ve given similar advice to other people. But sometimes you need to someone else to tell you what you already know, and Gilbert did that pretty damn well in this podcast.