Clifton StrengthsFinder

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, al... In December, following up on an offer by coach Dave Kaiser, I took the Clifton StrengthsFinder online test. Dave recommended the $9.99 version that gives you your top 5 strengths out of a menu of 34.

The StrengthsFinder is a 100+ item test that purportedly feeds back those parts of your personality that most dominate your outlook and behavior.

The test items are not questions, really; they're  choices along a spectrum. So, for example, a pair of statements for an item might be "I have a commitment to growth" and "I have a commitment to values." You then select whether either statement Strongly or Somewhat describes you, with Neutral there in the middle.

(For the record, I already know what my values are and I believe I live my life according to them. So I'm not worried about my values. I am more worried about stagnating and not growing. So I strongly identify with a commitment to Growth.)

Knowing one's strengths, one can then theoretically leverage them more consciously and not fight against oneself. Knowing that my strength is Achiever rather than Deliberative, for example, means I can stop beating myself up for not thinking things through and instead take pleasure in action, which probably comes more naturally to me. This echoes an idea from business success literature I was reading 10-15 years ago, to make your strengths stronger rather than spend precious time and energy to shore up your weaknesses. You're better off finding a partner or delegating to someone else those activities that do not play to your strengths.

There are, as there should be, skeptics of this test with well-founded criticisms. These strengths do seem skewed to the business world and isn't there some value in finding, for example, that Empathy may be a weakness? Isn't a sense of humor a strength? But, as the saying goes, "all models are wrong, some models are useful (some of the time)". I chose to look at the test as perhaps providing a perspective on me that I might find useful.

My top 5 (oddly worded) strengths:

  1. Restorative: I like to fix things, solve problems, and create order out of chaos. This is pretty true, as far as it goes. I could not fix the big communications problems that hit a board I served on, but I could set up a network of volunteers who could efficiently deliver flyers to most houses in the neighborhood. This is probably the most action-oriented, outward-pointing strength I have.
  2. Intellection: Intellectually active and introspective. Very true.
  3. Empathy: Sense other people's feelings. Also true, to the point, however, of stifling my own opinion so I don't upset others.
  4. Input: "Have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information." Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.
  5. Learner: Desire to learn and continuously improve (yes). Here's the interesting quote: "The process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them." This actually helped explain to me why I continue taking banjo lessons even though I have no real desire to perform. I do find the learning process itself fascinating.

So, having received this wonderful information collected before me, what learnings and ideas can I draw from it to solve my life's little problems? (See what I did there, didja, huh, didja?)

Dave gave me some good advice on how to use this information in my goal of starting a side business. Look at past jobs I've had, for example, and make lists of what I liked and didn't like, then map those to the strengths. Chances are that the tasks I most enjoyed relate back to my strengths. Can I use that information to create a business that therefore plays to my strengths?

Or, similarly, pick any thing that I might want to do, and then look at solving the challenges through the lens of my strengths. I would not be a good car salesman, for example. But I would be good at researching, being a subject-matter expert, and perhaps sharing with others who need to know what I've learned.

Good, tidy stuff. But of course, I can't stop ideating and intellecting all over the place. When does a strength become a weakness? As Dave said, when it's misused. My strengths would not help me at cold-calling, for instance.

The strengths would not help me if I'm in the wrong environment. My Learner strength was strongly opposed to the PhD environment I put myself in because I'm a student, not a scholar.

I see a dark side to too much thinking and ruminating, not enough action; too much input, not enough reflection; too much emotion, not enough detachment; too much problem-solving, not enough problem-understanding. (Too much blog writing, not enough money-making? But I digress, which is another of my hidden strengths...)

I'd say the StrengthsFinder did highlight what I indeed feel are the dominant aspects of my personality. What I do, or don't do, with my strengths, is up to me. However, as I daydream about what I might want to start doing later this year, I will be keeping these strengths in mind.

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Furlough Diary - Day 10

I work for a government contractor, and we were sent home at 11:30am on Tuesday, Oct. 1. The company (rather generously, believe it or not) covered everyone's hours that week. This week, we're taking mandatory vacation. No indication yet what next week's plan is. I've not been that disturbed. Oh, I'll pay for this time off, no question. I will wind up owing the company hours or days, or I won't have any vacation pay over Christmas. But for now, I am quite simply enjoying my time. I also know that this is a temporary problem, unlike being unemployed (which I have endured). I have the feeling I'll be back at work soon enough.

(On a related note: I avoid much of the news surrounding the shutdown. I can't do anything about the situation, apart from write to my representatives, which I did. So I'm letting them handle it while I get on with my life.)

Last week, I focused on creating a set of emails for the neighborhood association's upcoming community meeting. I devised a set of twice-weekly emails, wrote them all, sequenced them, and then set up email reminders for myself. My system will remind me when it's time to post an email to the neighborhood listserv and then I'll take care of it. It took way longer to do that than I thought it would, mainly because I was procrastinating on writing 8-10 emails. But once I got started, I was able to push through and get them done.

Which then left the problem of what to do with acres of unscheduled time. Is that a problem? It doesn't have to be. But I've discovered over the years that if I don't have a project or some structure to my day, I do go to pot pretty quickly.

This would be a golden time to update my LinkedIn profile. I could also call that entrepreneurial non-profit and set up an appointment to talk to them about starting their program. Right now, all my eggs are in one employer's basket; it might be better for me to start my own endeavor that puts me more in control. I've written the email to the non-profit, but I've not sent it yet. I don't know why.

I have a creative project I had set aside so I could focus on the neighborhood project; I'm trying to not chase two rabbits anymore. I've been ramping up the research and writing on that project. I find the mornings are the best time for me to write and edit, or sometimes later in the evening. Afternoons are for housekeeping, laundry, desk cleaning, reading, and, if possible, a 20-minute nap at 2 or 3 pm.

I also charged through a few motivational books by the coach Steve Chandler on my Kindle. I'll probably write them up here sometime. I'm reading a third book of his to see if the same themes recur.

I've also taken the opportunity to meet friends and acquaintances for coffee, without feeling the need to hustle back to the office. Running errands has also been less stressful. I do like to leave the house at least once a day, even if it's just to put gas in the car, otherwise I get cabin fever.

The weather lately has been cool, due to Tropical Storm Karen, so I set up my office on our screened-in back porch. It was lovely. Whenever my eyes or shoulders got tired, I could set the MacBook or Kindle aside and look out at the trees and the bird-feeders and just relax. It's so odd to have so much less thinking going on in my mind. The job takes the best hours of one's day, and the days are filled with a thousand decisions related to problem-solving, writing emails, deciding where to go for lunch, returning phone calls, etc. With less on my plate, with fewer problems to solve, there's subsequently less on my mind and my god is it peaceful.

Tomorrow is my banjo lesson in the morning. I will shop at the grocery after to get the food I'll make for supper tomorrow night. And I'll have time to write, read, have a nap. It's not like floating down the Mississippi on a raft, but for me, it's pretty good.

Pretty much a perfick day

Up early and walked down to Patti's house, where we carpooled to the Creative Entrepreneur Expo 2013, sponsored by the Durham Arts Council. When I first saw the email advertising this half-day workshop, I thought, "No. I'm not a 'creative,' and I am not selling any services to creatives. So there." But then Patti forwarded it to the neighborhood listserv. And then Liz reforwarded it to me. At this point, the knocking on my door is getting so loud I can't ignore it any more. So I arranged with Patti that we would buddy-up and attend together. My intention was to have no goals or objectives about the day; I just wanted to expose myself to what was going on and see if anything resonated with me. I have a coffee while we examine our materials and a young woman, Heather, walks up, introduces herself, and asks what our businesses are. Patti explains her business and I say, rather smugly, "I'm just exploring today. Just want to see what's out there and what's going on." She nods. Heather tells us about her business, which helps artists grow and manage their businesses.

Several memories and ideas bubble to the top of my brain and collide: this is an opportunity to try out ideas in a non-judgmental space, what can it hurt to put myself out there a little, follow the energy, one of Mike Uhl's early urgings to me to become a time management coach, since he'd benefited from our frequent conversations about his workflows and habits at the office, if the next thing I say isn't interesting then I can tweak it for the next person, oh come on what could it hurt.

So I tell Heather that, well, if I were to sell a service, it would probably be something like this (dredging up the old marketing template of "I help X do Y so that they can Z): "I help artists and creative entrepreneurs solve their time management problems so they can get more of their creative work done." Her eyes widened, she smiled, she leaned forward -- I'm on to something! I mention it again later to an artist who we talk to; she's immediately enthusiastic and suggests a few venues where I could hold small roundtable discussions on the topic with artists.

Met a few of the vendors and talked to one fellow who's part of a non-profit that helps veterans get their own businesses started. I rattle off my spiel to him. He nods his head, leans forward, says I could register as a government contractor to teach stuff like that.

We go in to the keynote and receive some fabulous information on Durham's "Creative Vitality Index": in short, compared to the rest of the state, similar cities of our size in the Southeast, and the US, Durham is incredibly energetic and vibrant as more artists settle here and more revenue is generated from arts and culture activities. I don't know how they gather their data. I note that technical writers count as a creative jobs category and the numbers of technical writers in this area have decreased markedly since 2006, which confirms my observations.

I heard one of the vendors say that way more people showed up than they expected, and the second-floor theater was indeed packed. The keynote speakers were entrepreneurial gurus who have started their own organizations and teach at Duke. Their aim appeared to be to introduce common business  concepts and jargon to the artists, with their core message being that with the decline of traditional industries and revenue in this geographic area, the arts and culture are taking up the slack by bringing in increasing levels of revenue; therefore, more opportunities may arise for profit/non-profit collaborations.

It wasn't the first time that day that we would hear about how artists need to manage their work as a business. Fred Hathaway of Entredot gave a presentation on the basics of business, with the (to me) comforting idea that there is a method here and no one needs to create a business plan from the start. He echoed the keynote speakers' advice to stage lots of small experiments, fail quickly, and iterate often. Plan while doing and do while planning.

For me, the star presenter was Tivi Jones of Tivi Jones Media, who gave a great talk on creating a marketing plan. She called on people at random and asked me, "Sir, what is your business?" I cheerily waved my hands and said, "I don't have a business. I'm just observing." She moved on to  someone else and I was instantly besieged by thoughts: Why did you do that? This is the perfect place to try out the pitch. The energy in the room is great. You're never going to get a better opportunity than now. Just do it.

So after she posed the next question on her worksheet -- What problem does your product or service solve? --  I raised my hand and said I'd changed my mind. I said something like, "I help artists and creative entrepreneurs figure out custom time management solutions so they can end their days feeling more productive rather than tired." (In talking with Mike about elevator speeches, we'd noticed that the most memorable ones included a built-in duality or contrast.)

Even before I finished my pitch, Tivi sort of yelped and said, "I need this!" The woman sitting beside me asked for my contact information. A man asked me later for a card (I didn't have one! I was only going to explore!).

And oh, my brain is buzzing.

I'd already decided to take the rest of the day off from work. I check out a book from the library. I go by Parks & Rec to pick up free tabloids and giveaways for our Sunday neighborhood association meeting.

It's now 2pm and I've not had lunch. I grab a hotdog and eat it in the parking lot with my windows down. A woman in scrubs asks me to help her get a traffic safety cone unwedged from under her car. Why the hell did she run over the cone in the first place? Nonetheless, I crawl around on the pavement and somehow wrestle it out.

I go home, prune some tree limbs, and cut the grass, since light rain is being forecast every day for the next week and I hate cutting wet grass. I shower and nap.

Liz comes home and we go to a new restaurant for us, Dain's Place, which has awesome hamburgers. I debrief Liz about my day and show her the stack of papers, business cards, leaflets, etc. that I collected.

As we walk out, we see Peggy Payne walking down Ninth Street in a cobalt blue sequin party dress and cape, handing out cards advertising her new novel, Cobalt Blue, and inviting us to a reading she's giving with her friend Carrie Jane Knowles, whose novel Lillian's Garden has also been released. (Peggy and I were both in a creative writing class taught by Lee Smith in the mid-80's.) Liz and I agree: when you're invited to the party, say "Yes."

To pass the time before the reading, we go to a near-empty Francesca's and get ice cream. Thence to the Regulator Bookshop for the reading, which is very well attended and entertaining. I also see David Halperin there; I'd last seen Peggy at the book launch for David's novel.

What a rich, bizarre day for me. I met more people today than I normally meet in a week. I made a list of at least three new people I want to take out for coffee and a door has opened for me to ... do what? I don't know. But someone was knocking, and I opened it. I did some hard physical work that also made the house look good. We went to a new restaurant on a Thursday night (!) -- very out of character for us -- and diverted ourselves to an impromptu book reading.

Thence home, where I checked my email for the second time that day and saw that there really was not a lot worth spending my time on at all.

Thence here, where I wanted to write up the events of this day before their freshness faded.

And so to bed.

"My whole life is a coping strategy."

While seeing my physical therapist the other night, he asked if I liked my eating habits (an odd way to ask the question, but it got me thinking) and I babbled for a few minutes about the little things I've picked up on eating, hunger, diets, and the like. b/w line art drawing of coping

I told him about how I was at 250 lbs. in my mid-20s, my work with a nutritionist where I learned that starches shot my weight up like nobody's business, the various diets I've been on in my life, how food and money are both lifelong meditations since I tell myself so many stories about what they say about me, how fasting one day a week has taught me the difference between hunger and cravings, and the little tactics I weave into my life: make a plan for how to navigate the dessert table at the family reunion, put a hand on my belly and ask myself "Am I hungry?" when I stand in front of the candy machine (for some reason, I can't lie to myself when I do that), using the No S diet eating plan when eating normally through the week. And on and on.

He smiled and said, "Sounds like you have some great coping strategies, there."

To which I replied, without thinking, "My whole life is a coping strategy."

(There's probably a blogging rule somewhere about not making the punchline the title of your post, but I'll deal with the blog police later.)

I repeated this line to my mastermind group later and they laughed and said, "You're right."

Not quite sure what to do with this self-appraisal that bubbled up out of nowhere, but it's something more to meditate on.


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On realizing when my vacation started

December has been an unusually stressful month this year, what with jury duty, a rather punishing work schedule, and the usual Christmas shenanigans. One of our Christmastime rituals is driving down to Florida to visit Liz's brother and sister-in-law. It's about 750 miles, door-to-door, and we do it all in one day. In the past few years, we've driven on Christmas Day (less traffic, generally, and no road work), but this year we drove down on the Sunday before Christmas. The traffic was denser and pushier, with about three slowdowns through the I-95 deadlands of South Carolina, a few necessary rest stops, and so on.

The next morning, the 24th, I ran out of hot water about halfway through my shower. We then went to the Publix grocery store to buy some necessities for the week and ingredients for a dish Liz would make on Christmas Day. Shopping and navigating my cart through the aisles reminded me of driving through Orlando the night before (i.e., dense, crowded, lots of defensive driving, and being stoical in the face of madness).

After the shopping, we went next door to the Mexican restaurant for lunch. We ordered, I drank my iced tea, and I started to slow down. At some point, while sitting at that table, eating chips and salsa, I relaxed because I realized -- for the first time in a couple of months -- I was not in problem-solving mode anymore. I didn't have to plan my work for that afternoon, craft a last-minute PowerPoint presentation, juggle time to buy Christmas presents, deal with my insurance company, calculate car lengths and speeds on the fly, or endure a surprise cold-water shower.

For Liz, her vacation started the minute our wheels turned for Florida. For me, it started when I had the leisure and space to just sit and relax and enjoy what was in front of me.

"Merry Christmas from the Kensingtons"

My friend, the novelist Lewis Shiner, has a new Christmas short story up on the Subterranean Press site. It's titled "Merry Christmas from the Kensingtons" and is Lew's own Christmas ghost story -- particularly the ghosts of Christmases past as lived out in a series of annual family photo postcards. [ C ] Joseph Cornell - Penny Arcade (1962)

It's a haunting story, and in reading just the simple descriptions of the family members as they age and grow, I found myself writing each person's lifestory in my head.

Lew said he had bought such a stack of family photo postcards at a flea market and the images, showing each family member growing older and with their personalities inevitably peeking through, year after year, haunted him.

I share his fascination and deep imaginative involvement with found objects. I've always found art installations made from found objects more interesting than other types of sculptures, for example. I also enjoy such items as densely collaged artwork and Cornell boxes; contemplating the original objects and sorting out my reactions to them, and then to their new associations and relationships within the artwork, can keep me staring for hours.

The power of Lew's story -- and of those found images -- shook loose a memory from my own mental lumber room of when I cleaned out the attic of our rental house before moving to our current home.

In a far corner of this huge attic I found posters and birthday cards from the 40th birthday of a previous resident, a woman named Timothy. "Lordy, lordy, Timmer's forty!" was one of my first clues, doncha know.

It was amazing the story I was able to piece together from these remnants -- she worked as a nurse at Duke, was taking a job in Virginia, and there was a touching birthday card from a young woman (I assume young) who had turned down Timmer's profession of love but still wanted to show her affection and respect.

It was surprising and a little sad to find these relics in a far corner of the attic -- they meant enough to her to save them, at one time. But maybe she'd forgotten about them or she had to leave town in a hurry.

I also remembered a box of personal memorabilia I had found years ago in my parents' basement. It contained  letters I'd received from a Doctor Who pen pal named Bobbie, who had placed a pen-pal-personal ad in some DW fanzine or other in the early 1980s. As she wrote me later, she had broken up with someone, was feeling sorry for herself, placed her ad, and then found herself writing to lots of feeling-sorry-for-themselves guys. She and I wrote for several years until she got married and then our correspondence ran its course and dried up.

I met her one time only, at a DW convention in Columbus, OH, where she lived. This  would have been a few years after we'd started writing to each other. It was a little awkward at first -- pen-pal correspondences are not conversations, after all, but exchanged soliloquies.

We eventually were able to spend some time together and chat. I don't remember what we talked about, but I do remember that, at some point later on during that first evening at the convention, that she was in my car and we circled the hotel parking lot just talking, and then she went back into the hotel.

When I found her trove of letters in this box 20-odd years later, I re-read them and decided to send them to her. Not knowing her married name, I found that her mother still lived at the old address. So I mailed her a package with Bobbie's letters and a cover letter telling her how much Bobbie's letters had meant to me at that time. Since I had enjoyed them the first time I'd received them, and enjoyed them again 20 years later, I thought it was only fair to share them back to Bobbie so she could enjoy them too.

It was a weird little project, I guess. But it felt like the right thing to do.

I wound up getting an email from Bobbie! She was kind of flabbergasted that I'd saved the letters -- OK, no argument there. But I was the kind of person who liked Doctor Who, had pen pals, and saved paper ephemera, so I already dwelled beyond the boundaries of "normal" society.

In her email, she said she found that re-reading her old letters reminded her of events and feelings she'd forgotten, so she was grateful to have them.

She also tantalized me by saying that there was something I didn't know about that night in Columbus, something she was a little embarrassed about sharing but that she'd tell me in her next email. I wrote her back with my thanks and said I'd love to hear whatever she wanted to tell me, if she was comfortable doing so.

Alas, she never wrote me back and never replied to any of my subsequent emails. So I'll never know what happened or didn't happen or might have happened that night in Columbus.

And therein, I suppose, lies the power for me of found objects (which I just now mistyped as "fond objects") and untold stories -- they tantalize by showing just enough clues to suggest a story but never enough to solve their mystery. And it's the mystery, for me, that endures.

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On hitting 50 (blog posts, that is)

Inspired by Shannon's example, I decided to forge ahead and write M-F blog posts for 10 weeks. And rather remarkably, to me, I hit that goal without missing a day or calling for a do-over. Last Friday I posted my 50th entry. What surprised me about the experience:

  • I thought I would exhaust my list of 20 or so ideas. I now have about twice that many on my list, plus about 15 draft posts in various stages of completion. Which proves what I said in my first post: the more I write, the more I can write.
  • The time between me getting an idea and then creating a decently readable post shrank. I experimented with ways to plan out long posts so they weren't so exhausting to write, though with mixed success.
  • I can pretty much tell within about 20 minutes of writing whether I can finish a post in a sitting or whether it needs more time.
  • I thought I would need fancy software but the WordPress setup has served me quite well and it gets better all the time. I still like starting some drafts in nvAlt, but I tend now to keep my drafts in the WP Dashboard.
  • I tend to prefer the longform essays.
  • Continuing to discover little idiosyncrasies in my style (such as my love of parenthetical asides or constantly adding "and" clauses to sentences) and occasionally surprising myself with a felicitously turned phrase or metaphor.

What pleased me:

  • I restarted the blog in response to creative constipation; I had stuff backed up I wanted to write about but didn't know how. The regular writing unblocked whatever was jammed and the words and ideas simply gushed out for the last two months. (Here endeth the metaphor unsavourie.)
  • Whenever I've felt blue, it's usually because I've not been exercising my creativity muscles. Shortly after restarting the blog, the dark cloud lifted and I began enjoying the process of planning, experimenting, and publishing. Writing is mood-altering!
  • I like going back and reviewing the stuff I've written. I often forget what I've written about, and it's like finding lost treasure.
  • I suppose because it was the last week of mandatory posting, I pushed out several posts that I had started in Spring 2011 but had never had enough reason to actually finish. The Davies and prospective memory posts had waited a long time to be given their due and each flew near the 2000-word mark. The satisfaction I felt in finally publishing those ideas and opinions -- really committing to them and then marking them as done -- felt so good.
  • I really like being able to go back and fix a typo or rephrase some clumsy sentence. A blog post is never finished, only abandoned.
  • Instead of my evenings being spent watching cat videos on YouTube or moving all the icons on my desktop 2cm to the left, I've spent them creating and producing things. What I always thought of as my distractible nature never bothered me while I wrote. And I felt much better about how I spent my time.

What I wish I could have done:

  • I would have liked establishing a routine for writing every day at the same time. But since I typically wrote in the evenings, then perhaps that was my routine time.
  • I wish I could have written shorter posts. The longer posts took a lot out of me and I sometimes felt kind of stunned the next day. I just like to blather on. I guess.
  • I wish I could have found better graphics and maybe more multimedia. I like illustrations or pictures with blog posts and while Zemanta can find some interesting stuff, I sometimes just settled for what I could find in a hurry.

What I won't miss:

  • Spending almost every Monday through Friday evening staring at a computer screen! There was one period where I successfully stayed one day ahead of schedule, and I remember one glorious patch where I had three short posts all lined up and scheduled for publishing through the end of the week. I was never able to repeat that.

What I still want to play with and figure out:

  • I want to invest in the Thesis theme or something similar and more plugins. I would like to play around more with the site's look and feel. It's a rather bland looking site.
  • My friend Mike Uhl, who writes two very focused blogs, continues to urge me to commit to a theme. Not for this site, which will remain a repository of jottings and fancies, but perhaps my next one.
  • A Creative Commons notice and how to attach it to the end of every post.

A few remaining points:

  • I will continue to write posts, but not to a schedule. I look forward to a break. One of the great things about this project is that I now have a new hobby. If I'm ever at loose ends and wonder whatsoever shall I do -- writing a blog post is the activity that will leap to mind.
  • I have purposely not promoted the blog. I haven't advertised my posts on either my Twitter or Facebook accounts. This blog has been my private lab where I could try things out, play around, and generally make lots of pots while letting the process work its magic on me. When I start a more focused blog, it will be to support my side-business and then I will be more interested in the social media side.
  • It's not the goal that's important, after all, it's who you have to become to achieve the goal. In the past 10 weeks, I've become someone who spends his free time writing, getting better at writing, and sharing what he knows (or thinks he knows). And it's been great.
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If you were born on this day...

From today's News & Observer's Horoscopes by Jeradine Saunders: Français : Signe du Zodiac Balance

LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 22): You are perched on the brink of success. Have faith that precious plans for the future are viable even when it seems that core values are briefly opposed by others.

 Woo! It continues:

IF SEPTEMBER 24 IS YOUR BIRTHDAY: You have the power to pursue your dreams in the year to come. You might be caught up in a romantic fantasy, or you could be held in the grip of some new business idea. In either case, work hard, study hard and pay your dues, but hold off on making new commitments or irrevocable decisions. In December, your penchant for fantasy could distract you from what really needs done.

do have a dreamy temperament, so they pegged me there.

Other Sept. 24 posts: 20082009, 2010.

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Progress Report: But is it fun?

At a recent mastermind meeting, my fellow blogger Mike Uhl asked what I felt about having crossed the halfway point of writing 50 M-F blog posts. Did I feel great about accomplishing that milestone? Was I having fun doing this thing? I've always had a tough time with "fun."

I was once asked years ago what I did for fun, and I really had no answer. I don't think I'm a drudge or mechanical person, but this was a question I never thought to ask myself. There are many things I enjoy -- reading, comics, museums, eating out, sitting on the back porch during a thunderstorm -- but "fun" is a different type of word that suggests abandonment of self, losing oneself in an exciting activity. I’ve always thought or believed that people were referring to roller coasters or white-water rafting or some other intensely physical activity when they referred to fun. It was just something I never really noticed in myself.

"Ain't We Got Fun" (sheet music) pag...

(Perhaps my life has been lived minimizing pain rather than maximizing pleasure? Discuss.)

So, let's overthink about this. I like the idea of breaking "fun" into "fun-fun" and "serious fun." This paper defines serious fun as "play with a purpose."

Serious fun goes beyond the apathy of strict order and the over-excitement of chaos to generate an ordered chaos that permits freedom within structure and fun within limits.

Fun-fun has no purpose beyond itself. Which is great. We need this. For me, that can be laughing till I hurt at a Flying Karamazov Brothers show or, from my distant past, performing in a play. The most fun I ever have, I think, is talking to friends, losing myself in conversation and connection with other people. My 50th birthday party last year was one of the peaks of 2011 and I enjoyed every minute of it -- the anticipation, the singing, and the remembering it later.

And while I enjoy watching a movie or TV show or most performances, I don't call that fun-fun. My years as a theater and movie reviewer, and as someone who enjoys thinking about writing fiction, have enforced a habit of judging, balancing, guessing where the narrative or performance is going, and then evaluating its execution. It keeps direct experience at an arm's length.

When I think about how I spend my time, I lean more toward "serious fun." I enjoy losing myself in an activity, but I want that activity to have a result. I can happily lose myself in emptying my bookshelves and then putting all the books back in some new ordering scheme. I can rename a folder full of PDFs so they sort just as I want, and time flies. I can also easily lose myself in writing, whether it's fiction or a blog post, and enjoy seeing what I produced.

I can't say that I have fun-fun writing these blog posts; there's no sense of physical abandon to the writing (more like stiffness and eyestrain).

But I have serious fun. I enjoy finding something out and sharing it on my blog. I enjoy taking an inchoate idea and surprising myself by shaping it into something like a mini-essay. I enjoy documenting the Byzantine curlicues of my baroque thought processes, though I am often dismayed at how complicated I make my life. I like documenting my little habits and routines; each post becomes a message in a bottle that I will look at years from now and go, "Huh. I forgot all about that."

Merlin Mann had this great P.S. to a blog post:

Has anyone ever figured out that 90% of the posts on this site are actually (notes|pep talks|reminders) to myself? I sometimes think not. The site definitely makes more sense once you get this.

I enjoy losing myself in the activity of writing, in creating this object. The fun at the start of the writing, which is playing with the idea and being surprised at the words it collects around itself, eventually gives way to the more serious business of making this machine work. From the first paragraph, the reader enters a contraption from which the only escape should be the last paragraph.

The crafting of that machine, the polishing and fixing -- it takes focus and time. Even for short posts, I think about placement, context, wording, sentence rhythms, etc. What I hope is that, after I hit Publish, I can feel good about the time and energy I spent. The result of my efforts can be several hundred words of adamantine prose and unblockable metaphors, plus a feeling -- a satisfied feeling -- that my time was well-spent.

When I look at the calendar to the left of the post and see another day in bold italics -- signifying a new post -- I am pleased with myself for sticking to the plan.

When I peruse the finished object later in my feed reader, I hope to lose myself again in what I created --  this time, as a reader.

When I scan my ideas and drafts for the next post, I start feeling that little tingle of excitement -- what will I write next? What do I want to share? How long do I want it to be? What's interesting to me today? What idea has been ripening for a while and is ready to fall?

That moment just before I decide -- like the moment the curtain goes up just before the show begins -- is probably the most fun moment of all.


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Sad necessities and the comfort zone

For many years, I've taken shameful (or shameless) advantage of Top Shelf's annual $3 web sale of comics and graphic novels from their catalog. Not everything is $3, of course -- but a large number of selected items from their catalog are remarkably discounted, with some inventory they've never been able to shift cut down to $1. Graphic novels on display for sale in a specia...

I scanned the list yesterday and started filling out my mental list of stuff I wanted: Eddie Campbell's omnibus volume of the Alec stories and a Jeffrey Brown collection, and a few others.

But I caught myself. I didn't feel that little thrizzle I used to feel when anticipating the comics I wanted to buy. Sad to say, I felt a little hollow in there. I also felt a little sad knowing I didn't really need any of them.

Beyond the financial calculation, I'd also computed the space, time, and interest calculations. Space: I'm already maxed out on my bookshelf space and have dozens of great comics and graphic novels I haven't processed yet. Time: I've had some of those books for literally years, yet I haven't read them. So what makes me think that I would treat new books brought into the fold any differently? Interest: I'm certainly curious about these books, but the visceral interest just isn't there. I'm simply more interested in other things now.

I think the time for profligate reading is behind me. At least for now. I feel more drive and interest in solidifying my career (as a contractor, I always work on shaky ground), spending more time with family and friends, and generally being more active. In some ways, I'm reading as much as ever, but the time I can devote to reading is shrinking and I am finding it easier to shrug off some items that I previously considered necessities.

Getting out of one's comfort zone by trying some new behavior or activity is the modern panacea for self-improvement. I've certainly adopted it in the last few years by taking on leadership roles, trying new activities, and taking on bigger responsibilities -- all while feeling anxious and ill-prepared. Moving out of my comfort zone by doing these new things stretched me and expanded my sense of what I could do. I'm glad I did them.

A slightly different aspect of expanding the comfort zone is not doing things that previously brought pleasure. Addicts of all stripes know that abstaining is an active struggle; it's the struggle that moves you out of the comfort zone.

My struggle this year in deciding what comics to buy at the Top Shelf sale turned into a non-struggle. I found it sad, necessary, and surprisingly easy to set aside my desire for a yearly jolt of color and novelty. I wondered what I would replace that activity with. Which is when I started writing this post.




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