Thursday, March 16, 2006

Death in a Pile of Unfinished Projects

I've known for a very long time that I have a problem with "finishing" things. Often it's because my vision keeps moving forward as I approach it -- I'm always seeing how much better the thing could be than what I've done on it so far.

But there are other reasons, too. Reading a bit of The DaVinci Method with Leslie last night, I read for the second time a bit about how the DaVinci type tends to fear completion as a form of death.

Yeah, right. At least, that's what I thought the first time I'd read that bit. The book's author, Garret LoPorto, had said that he was deriving a lot of his book from the work of Otto Rank on "the artist" or "total human". (Rank apparently also used the term "productive type", but LoPorto didn't mention this.) Anyway, Rank was a pupil of Freud's, so I initially dismissed the whole death-fear idea as being typical of the Freudian fetish for symbolism and Great Meanings in the most minor of things.

But something that caught my eye on the second reading of that passage made me rethink that position. If you get past the death-symbolism of the idea and focus on the strict mechanics, it makes a lot more sense. What struck me last night was that I hadn't made the connection between clutter and completion. You see, I tend not to put things away when I'm done with them... because I never really feel "done with them".

One of the traits commonly attributed to persons with ADD/ADHD is that they "put things down and don't remember where they put them", and I do this all the freakin' time. But the reason that I do that, is because I expect to come back to that thing in just a moment. But I never do. I keep piling new interruptions on my mental stack, and never backtracking. Thus, my life tends to resemble a giant "stack overflow" periodically resulting in "garbage collection" to free up some physical or mental space.

So, as soon as I realized this, another idea smacked me upside the head: if the "productive type" is thrill-seeking by nature, then it should be possible to obtain great pleasure from facing this fear directly! And, I realized that in fact I do get that pleasure whenever I actually clean up. Yes, it's nice to have a clean and uncluttered work space, but that's never really been all that motivating. What really happens is that the process of making decisions about all this "stuff" frees up mental energy that was tied up in the unfinished thought processes -- a common theme in David Allen's Getting Things Done, where he calls them "open loops".

But back to the fear of death. I don't think that it's death per se that I've been afraid of; I think that's just an excess of Freudian symbolism. It's finality that I've feared: mistakes that can't be undone, words that can't be unsaid, decisions that can't be unmade. In the words attributed to an Egyptian proverb about the three worst things in life, "to try to please, and to please not."

Death is merely an example of that broader concept - and not a particularly relevant one. In fact, I'm pretty sure I fear death less than I do finishing my projects. I can only die once, but I have a lot of unfinished projects! (Heck, right now I've got *115* tabs open in *9* FireFox windows right now, not counting all the ones I just closed while I was counting!)

All kidding aside, I don't really fear a conscious death in a good cause. Laying down my life for someone I love or something I believe in, now that would be a good use of total commitment - a true completion. (Which is probably why I often cry when somebody does that well in a movie, like Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in that "I'll drown so you can have enough oxygen to drag my body back to the habitat" scene in "The Abyss".)

So what I actually fear in the smaller things is that my commitment won't be total; that what I produce will be less than whatever it is ultimately possible to create. I fear to make now, what will be promptly rendered inadequate and obsolete by my "better idea" tomorrow -- a theme that LoPorto also writes about in The DaVinci Method.

And what I realized last night is, I've been taking that fear completely the wrong way. If I'm the type of person that was meant to be a thrill-seeker, I should embrace that fear and meet it head-on, and should find it deeply enjoyable and fulfilling to do so. As a child, I learned to suppress and reject my sense of adventure in order to please my fearful, obsessively protective mother. Eventually, I began to adopt her attitude that whatever can go wrong, will, no matter what precautions you take. And furthermore, that no risky activity could possibly ever be worth it.

Thankfully, LoPorto's book has given me a kind of permission to remember and acknowledge this side of myself more fully, and to realize that many of the things I've been treating as annoying chores are in fact an opportunity to confront my fears, face challenges, and conquer them. While there will probably never be an "X-Games of Clutter and Unfinished Projects", I can still get a small adrenalin rush from each book or other item I put away or throw away.

I've learned, in other words, that it really is okay to be dramatic about what I do. That's simply who I am. I don't mean that I need to create interpersonal drama, I just mean it's okay to make bold moves, dream big dreams, and set my sights back on my personal mantra of "TWD": Total World Domination. Not to mention all the "big ideals" stuff that I stopped thinking about so I could survive the last few years at my corporate job. Stuff like Truth, Beauty, and Love. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Live Free or Die. All that good stuff. "These are the old days, the bad days, the all-or-nothing days. They're back!" Yeah, baby!

So I'll see you at the top. In fact, I'll race you. Are you ready?