On the morning of April 4th, my “self reliance” ritual was cut short when I looked at the calendar and saw the day before was an empty box, where there needed to be a checkmark. I felt a dull ache rising in the back of my gut.
“Did I forget to write yesterday?”
“Did I break my unprecedented 123 day streak?”
“No no no! This can’t be!”
My panic rose steadily, but I simply wasn’t sure. So, I seized the benefit of the doubt, slowly filled in the missing checkmark, and went about my days, trying to forget this lie I told myself.
It’s now 3 weeks later. My mini-habits of writing, programming, and exercising daily have lost all their former power. Even my morning ritual is starting to slip.
Rationally, I know that one misstep shouldn’t matter. That I should brush it off, learn from it, and keep going. But I can’t stop myself from feeling that it does matter.
Worse, this pattern is disappointingly familiar.
Something is deeply wrong here…
All or Nothing
A year ago, I was on a walk with my wife and raving about some new productivity system.
“What happened to the old one?” she asked.
“Well, for starters…” I began, and proceeded to list all its flaws.
She paused, and then said “It seems you get excited about a system, until you find the first major flaw. And then you drop it completely.”
She was, of course, absolutely right. It was a pattern found in a great many of my failures.
In high school, I slept through almost all my classes. With every new teacher, it was the same: I’d be completely passed out on my desk, my arms marked like seams by the spiral bound notebook, a little bit of drool puddling up on the desk.
“Adriano!” my geometry teacher, for instance, would say sharply.
I’d pull my head up groggily, and wait.
“How do you prove this theorem?” he’d ask, pointing at a tangle of lines on the board.
I’d glance at the board, devise and deliver the correct answer, and put my head back down before I could see the stunned expression on his face.
Twice is all it usually took for them to leave me alone.
The only classes I didn’t sleep through were the ones where the teachers asked me questions not to see if I knew the answers, but because they seemed to want to learn.
On graduating, I was named both “Most Likely to Be Successful” and “Most Likely to Fall Asleep in Class”. This was exactly what I wanted. It wasn’t enough to be seen as having superior intellect… it had to seem effortless as well.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
– George Bernard Shaw, Maxim for Revolutionaries 
This form of inflexibility is something I always took for strength. I’ve always tried to change the world around me, to suit me better. There’s a related thought I think often, but express almost never in order to maintain the appearance of humility:
“That sucks. I bet I can do better.”
If I don’t like it, I’ll change it. No matter how big or small “it” is. This arrogant response to the world has also served as the source of most of my creative work.
- Problem: Unable to work in a cubicle with my peers.
Response: Have my supervisor pay for a remote network, sneak my monitor and office chair out of the building, and work from home.
- Problem: Unable to maintain a writing habit?
Response: Create my own habit-tracker software: HabitShaper.
- Problem: Having difficulty selling HabitShaper?
Response: Abandon Windows-only desktop app, and develop a web-app version.
- Problem: Struggling to write a paper for publication?
Response: Academic publishing is a scam anyway. What we really need is a new medium for scientific collaboration. So, I started the SciStream project.
- Problem: SciStream isn’t selling?
Response: It must be because it’s not unique enough. After all, I originally envisioned a hierarchical document! Enter Gingko…
Plans That Come to Naught…
And now, for a sorely needed reality check:
- Did working from home make me more productive, or simply serve to disconnect me from my colleagues?
- Where is HabitShaper now? The download, the web app, the iOS “Smoke Signals” version, and the SMS version are sitting on my hard-drives, abandoned.
- In 8 years as a graduate student, I never managed to publish a single paper.
- The SciStream project died, and the team fell apart.
Today, I find myself struggling to:
- Improve Gingko’s front-end features.
- Improve Gingko’s data model for offline and version history.
- Improve Gingko’s sales and revenue.
And lo, I seem to be consumed by three new parallel obsessions!
- Rewrite Gingko’s front-end using a novel language and architecture that fits my mental models better.
- Rewrite Gingko’s back-end using a model that combines the power of Git with the ease of Google Docs.
- And last but not least, to change the way the economy itself functions, in order to fairly compensate creators for their work.
For each of these, I’ve come up with original and, I do actually believe, valuable solution starting points. But I can’t help asking the followup questions:
That’s nice, but where is Gingko Offline?
In the last few months, what major feature have I added? How am I to compensate others when I’m struggling to compensate myself?
The truth is, I’m in danger of doing to Gingko, which is both a passion and my livelihood, what I have done to all the projects that came before it.
It feels like deja vu. Like I’m 31 years old, but back where I started: as a teenager who imagined a great 3D animated short, but never got past rendering the first scene. Who had a great idea for a novel, but never got past the first chapter. Who had a natural talent for painting, but never got past the first still-life.
I’m back at where I started, and it’s frightening. I don’t want to be back here again in 30 years. Having gone around in a great circle, only to find myself holding greater ambitions and wilder dreams, but standing in the same spot, only older.
It brings a darker tune to mind:
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun
And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death
– “Time” by Pink Floyd
I’m deeply ashamed of my arrogance. Not only is it unwarranted, it is clearly incredibly limiting. I’ve always know this at some level, but was afraid to really see it.
To a perfectionist,
the most terrifying thing to face
is a mirror.
Fortunately, my wife is always by my side; where I’m blind to myself, she truly sees me. In one of our walks, she recommended I read “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown. The book led to a revelation:
Why do I drop systems when I slip? Because they must be flawed. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have slipped. The logic seems always seemed impeccable.
But why do I drop anything that is flawed? Because my mind simply cannot turn to face the alternative conclusion:
I am also deeply flawed.
Brene’s work is all about understanding that we are all flawed, but yet, we are “enough”.
But there was still one more layer to uncover:
Why couldn’t I bring myself
to accept my own flaws?
In writing this post, I stumbled on the final piece.
My writing habit is important to me in part because it allows me to share the real struggles behind the creative process, and open them up for all to see, and I hope, learn from.
But it’s also important because it’s a process of self-discovery. I frequently start a post with an idea or a problem, but no solution in mind. It is by writing that I discover it.
Years ago, I heard about the book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck. The premise was simple: people are either of a “fixed mindset”, believing that their attributes are inherited and static, or they have a “growth mindset”, where they believe that you can always learn and improve your basic attributes.
Which did I have?
I didn’t need to read the book to know. I was the guy obsessed with productivity. The guy who’s primary strength based on the StrengthsFinder test was “Learner”. I’ve read more on self-improvement than anyone I know. Of course I have a growth mindset.
The idea glanced off my psychic defenses, and returned to the cloud, leaving me unscathed. Until yesterday.
I wish I knew what brought it the idea back to mind. All I know is, while trying to understand why I couldn’t accept my flaws, I found myself searching for “growth vs fixed mindset”, which led me to a brainpickings.com article.
An infographic there made me realize “Huh, maybe I do have a fixed mindset”. I made a mental note of this, to follow up on another post, and continued on my search, because it didn’t seem directly relevant.
Hours later, exhausted from Google/soul-searching, I caved, broke my own rules, and checked my email.
A newsletter from Trello, contained the following link:
I usually skim and quickly archive newsletters, but I was in an exploratory mode, so I clicked. I don’t believe in gods or fates or a universe that cares, but if I did what I saw there would have seemed to be a clear message from him/them/it.
It was an interview with Amy Hoy, author of “Just Fucking Ship“.
Here speaking directly to me, was the understanding I was seeking:
To Amy, the self sabotaging that leads to delays in a final product stem from a threat to one’s identity. In the theory of fixed vs. growth mindset, people with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence or talent is innate, and that it doesn’t evolve over time. This mindset is a huge deterrent from taking risks and challenging oneself because the potential for failure is perceived as a threat to one’s own identity.
For people with a fixed mindset, the fear of not shipping is rooted in thoughts of self doubt. “Otherwise, writing a book and no one buying a copy wouldn’t be scary because it would just mean you didn’t make any money. It’s not actually a loss,” Amy explains, “but if you have a fixed mindset, what it is saying to you is ‘I’m not as smart as I thought I was’ and you have to live with that perception forever.”
This finally did get through to me.
It was really quite simple. I have a fixed mindset, which tranforms the protection of my ego into a survival instinct. With a fixed mindset, if I fail, in some way a part of me dies. If it can’t be done perfectly and effortlessly, it won’t be done at all. With a fixed mindset, it feels safer to stay in the same spot, than to venture and risk. And it is safer, to an ego that cannot recover from setbacks. If “I am” is instantly transformed in my mind into “I always will be“, I cannot afford the risk of seeing my own flaws.
It turns out that, in trying to escape the lie of a single checkmark, I uncovered a much greater deceit.
I said to myself and to others, “I am constantly changing for the better.” And it was a lie…
It may seem like I’ve hit a Catch-22.
Where do we go from here?
How does one change the belief that one cannot change?
Rather simply, in fact. No matter how steeped in the fixed mindset, study after study has shown that it takes extremely little to shift into the growth mindset. It’s then a question of doing this often enough that it becomes a habit.
It will take a lot of work. It will be challenging, and I will slip and fall. Repeatedly.
But my choices are clear: accept the challenge and grow to overcome it, or find myself stagnating, and end my life in regret.
I can’t let that happen.
I choose to grow…