When I was in college I studied pretty hard and got pretty good grades.  I once astonished a roommate by telling him that before every important test, I convinced myself I could afford to fail it.  I would say that what I was afraid of wasn't that bad.  Only then could I relax and tell myself, "I can do better than failure."

On Monday I'll be in another state, at an important meeting.  I'll be the point man for about half of the meeting.  I cannot convince myself that I can afford to fail.  This isn't just a grade.  The stakes are too high.

When I wrote "I can do better than failure" above, I tried to keep writing:  'if I study, I might do better.'  Or 'I have nothing to lose by studying.'  But I didn't write those things because they didn't make sense.  "If", what, or if not then what?  "Nothing to lose by studying", as opposed to what?  What did I think my alternatives were?  Freeze in terror?  Run away?  Keep thinking about the consequences until I could visualize a tolerable outcome after failure?  Keep thinking about my options until I came up with something other than studying that would make the outcome more tolerable?  It's strange how the mind works.

Basically I studied, every time.  And I'm prepared for Monday.  I can make this presentation - not without looking nervous, but I can make it.  Wish me luck.


8.  A ragged chord arose.
7.  My scalp tensed as each string came into tune with the others.
6.  With his right hand he reached up.
5.  He'd plugged it in - the band was on a break - and its sagging strings groaned.
4.  There was a blast of noise.
3.  He took down the oily rickenbacher from among the memorabilia.
2.  The man in the fraying jacket approached the wall of the bar, head down, sidelong.
1.  I finished my sandwich and turned to leave.

The difference between joy and entertainment

"Positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, to inauthenticity, to depression, and, as we age, to the gnawing realization that we are fidgeting until we die."
 - Martin Seligman

Addiction is, among other things, the attempt to achieve happiness by increasing the number of happy moments in your life.  The above quote relates why it doesn't work.  Long-term happiness comes from actually doing something that arises from your character and leads to a positive result.

Positive psychology and the win-win game

Along with some friends, I'm currently reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman.  Upon looking at the jacket after it arrived from Amazon, my first thought was that I've finally become my parents.  My mom was about this age when she started reading self-help books.  That's how it's marketed, but before I was through the preface, I could see that this was no self-help book.  Those books are about subtracting negatives from your life.  This one is about adding positives.

In the book's first sentences, Seligman lays the groundwork:  "For the last half century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only - mental illness - and has done fairly well with it. [...] But this progress has come at a high cost.  Relieving the states that make life miserable, it seems, has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority."  This book is about positive psychology:  the study of positive emotions, traits, and institutions. 

I say it's about time.  The world needs this.  If you never stop thinking about broken things - even with the good intentions of fixing them - then all you ever see is broken things, and that's depressing.  Eventually you'll lose your motivation to keep fixing.

One way this shows up is in the difference between "win-lose" situations and "win-win" ones.  A win-lose game is a competition:  you date the hot girl and somebody else doesn't.  You get the promotion but not your coworker.  Some situations are competitive by nature, but not all are.  Sharing your enthusiasm is win-win because you energize the people around you.  Helping somebody move into a new house gets the job done and makes you better friends.  OK, fine.  But the key thing to realize here is that you can choose what to focus your attention on.  If you focus on dating the hot new girl, and helping your friend move takes a back seat, you've just chosen to turn somebody into a loser instead of helping someone. 

To take it a step further, not only can you choose between win-lose and win-win situations you're presented with, you can actually create win-win situations.  Start a how-to site on the web.  Run a meetup group to bring together passionate amateurs.  Make the world a better place, and you can't help but win.

An artistic medium is a partner

In "Free Play", Stephen Nachmanovitch points out that making art is like loving a person:  the drive to create something goes hand in hand with the limits of the medium and the painful self-discoveries along the way.  The tensions and vibrations of a violin, the colors and textures of paint, these are the things that artistic technique turns into expression. 
"...Falling in love with our instrument or with our work is much more like falling in love with a person, in that we experience the rapture and delight of the discovery, but then we are saddled with the effort of fulfillment, with love's labors and the hard lessons in which illusions are stripped away, in which we confront diffucult pieces of self-knowledge, in which we have to stretch our physical, emotional, intellectual stamina to the limits, in which our patience and our ability to persevere and transcend ourselves are tested."
Nachmanovitch also says that this is exactly why it's easier to love someone else's artwork:  at the end of the day you can walk away from it and go home.  You are not committed to it, driven by it.

I mentioned the other day that having preferences makes interacting with a medium more like a partnership, where it helps you and responds to you, and less like using a tool that would do the same for anyone.  A violin is not a terribly customizable thing, but the choices a musician makes while playing it create a set of limits:  key, time, etc.  These constraints are the artist's partner in creation.  Watch when children play a superhero game:  you can fly and I have super strength!  Their narrative grows within these constraints.

I'm thinking now of the English language and my partnership with it here on this blog.  The range of meanings available within my diction constrain my narrative.  For my first couple years doing this, I called it a "creative outlet", not trying to make too much of it to anyone.  Now I'm not afraid to call this art.  My facility with written English allows me to achieve a certain amount of flow.  I'll go one step further:  I've been using Microsoft Excel so much, for so long, that I can pretty much do whatever I want in it without thinking about the method - only the desired end result.

That probably sounds ridiculous.  But think about your tools.  What are you so good at that you work towards a result, not against a technique?