I don’t feel like writing anything today

Keyboard with no letters - The Stone Mind

After breakfast Sunday I waded desultorily through my mental list of possible blog topics, and all I could think was, “I don’t feel like writing anything today.” My wife and I took the dog for a walk and ate some leftover saag paneer for lunch. Then I thought some more about writing and decided to read another chapter of Dune and take a nap.

It was just one of those days. I wasn’t feeling inspired. Then I remembered that thing Chuck Close said in a letter to his 14-year-old self, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Which is a weirdly inspiring thing to say.

So I sat down at the ol’ laptop and clacked out, “I don’t feel like writing anything today.” Even as I typed it, a second half of the sentence jumped onto the page: “I don’t feel like writing anything today… but I’m going to do it anyway.”

From there, the thoughts began to roll. I followed one thread, decided I didn’t like it and backtracked, followed another one. I started reading some blogs on the topic of inspiration and motivation. I re-watched some videos that touched on similar ideas. Connections started to make themselves and ideas spawned new ideas. I wrote the better part of a blog and deleted it and then wrote this one.

In that same letter to his boyhood self, Close wrote, “Every great idea I ever had grew out of work itself.” It’s worth pinning up over your desk, or carrying around in your wallet or something.

In a post celebrating his blog’s three-year anniversary, my friend Brendan wrote, “Basically this thing turns three today because I’m too stubborn to not let it turn three.” His very popular blog, semi-rad.com, is by turns uplifting, insightful, hilarious, and touching. And it would not exist if not for stubbornness.

Stubbornness gets a bad rap. When someone stubbornly refuses to admit they made a mistake, for example, it doesn’t do anyone any good. But all those people society holds up as great and significant were, I guarantee, stubborn as hell. It’s the only way to really accomplish anything in a world heavy with inertia and full of seemingly good reasons to give up on whatever it is you’re interested in doing.

I think stubbornness can be an excellent attribute to cultivate, though, because it allows us to move forward even when everything seems to be pointing in the other direction, even our own desire. Often people attribute the drive to push ahead to passion, but that’s really only half—or less than half—of the story. There are too many days when the passion just isn’t firing. You gotta be stubborn, unwilling to bend to the whims of the moment. Confident that you’ll thank yourself later, as when the alarm goes off for dawn patrol.

In a TEDx video, pro skater Rodney Mullen explains that for every few seconds of success on a skateboard, there are hours and days of failure. “What we do is fall…all the time. And we get back up,” he says. Climbers engage in the same quixotic pattern, stubbornly chasing the moment when impossible becomes possible. To do anything well and explore it deeply, this ability it required.

It’s of primary importance to show up again and again and do our thing, whatever that may be, with earnest effort and open mind. Dig deeper, work smarter, think different—yes, yes, and yes… but first you have to show up. And sometimes that’s the hardest part. It was for me when I started writing this.

In the end, if we’re stubborn (and lucky) enough, the result might be something revolutionary or ground-breaking or world-changing. Or it might simply be a life well-lived, which I think is even better.

The Freedom of Constraints

Notebook with pocket watch, pen, and whiskey - freedom and constraints - The Stone Mind

I’ve been extra busy lately. On the road for work, helping bring a new employee up to speed, revamping processes in our department. I haven’t had much time outside of work for personal things like climbing and reading books and writing this blog. Such a time crunch is a constraint, a challenge, a frustration even. And at the same time, there can be a freedom in it.

Every week I write a post for The Stone Mind. Sometimes I write it in advance, sometimes the night before it’s published. Sometimes I have free time aplenty to write, and sometimes I have precious little. Often when time is lacking and energy reserves are running low, I feel a certain sense of dread at the task of creating a blog. I fear it won’t be good enough or well received. More dreadful still is the thought that I’ll have nothing to say at all.

And for all that, the truth is that every goal big and small is accompanied by constraints, by parameters such as time, budget, motivation, politics, physics, legality, and so forth. But the freeing thing about it all is when you stop seeing the constraints as your enemies, but as tools for focusing your energy.

For this blog post, time was the biggest constraint. I worked through the weekend at a climbing festival in Las Vegas and arrived home late Sunday to a lingering worry about my ability to put something together before Tuesday’s deadline.

Then I realized I could flip the challenge. Instead of the meandering creative process I usually use to generate blog posts, I decided to go a counterintuitive direction and limit myself even further: I’d give myself one hour or less to write this week’s post, and whatever I could accomplish in that time would be what you’d read come Tuesday morn.

No, this post isn’t full of links to quotes and other bits of researched materials. It’s born entirely from my own firsthand experience. Still, I think it carries as important a message as any post I’ve written.

It’s easy to get preoccupied with all the reasons the task before us is too hard, or to complain that the conditions under which we’re working are not ideal. But the truth that any creative person or entrepreneur will tell you is that there’s no such thing as perfect. We never have all the time or tools or skills we wish for. And while this can seem like a negative, in reality it’s precisely these challenges and limitations that give shape to our goals and keep us focused, keep us from floating off into the infinite vacuum of the possible.

There is no endeavor without challenge, and no satisfaction without difficulty. If things are easy, they’re bland. Viewed from one perspective, adversity is a source of stress, anger, and disappointment. But turned for a different viewing angle, it becomes the texture of our lives.

No one knows this better than climbers. Our goals are entirely arbitrary, and their shape determined entirely by their difficulty. The highest peaks and steepest rock walls are valuable only inasmuch as they give us a foil against which to strive and exercise our will.

I think John F. Kennedy put it well when he described the reasoning behind his goal to send humans to the moon. “They may well ask why climb the highest mountain?” He said. “Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? … We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”

And so the constraints of my life as it is now have served to organize and measure my energies and skills for yet another week. When taken with this attitude, the constraints are less stressful and more simplifying. I have only a little time, and so I work with what I have.

What else is there?

Taking A Break

Panorama of the lighthouse at Fort Williams Park

Every Tuesday for a year and a half, I’ve posted a short essay here. Most of them have revolved around the intersection of climbing, outdoor life, psychology, and philosophy. One blog a week probably doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you have a busy desk job and a home life and a persistent climbing habit, putting in four or five hours a week to write something that you’re not even sure anyone will read and that you’re certain won’t make you any money can, at times, wear on one’s spirits. Still, it’s a labor of love, as they say, and always worth it in the end. I learn something (and not always what I expected) with every post.

But this week, I’m going to phone it in. Why? Because right now I’m on vacation. It’s the first real vacation—during which I sleep late and hang out by the ocean and don’t check work emails—I’ve taken in a while. And you know what? It feels good… important, even.

So I’m not going to offer up any climbing-themed life metaphors or decision trees or top-10 lists this week. This is it—a picture of a lighthouse by the ocean here in Maine and a message to you: If you’re a working stiff, a go-getter with dreams of saving (or dominating) the world, a driven soul who reads and studies and collects experiences like there’s no time to waste, you need to take a break from time to time. It’s as true in general life as it is in climbing. Without rest, there can be no recovery. Without stepping back and away, we can’t achieve that all-important broader perspective.

So what will my perspective be after this little reprieve? I can’t really say. But that’s the point, after all…

Farewell, Summer Weekend. Adieu.

 

Scarcity can create value, any economist will tell you, and so it is with weekends. The working stiff must wedge into two days all the daydreams (and, alas, the chores and obligations, too) accumulated in the course of the workweek. Thus, each weekend hour is heavy with possibility, dense and precious as a gold doubloon. And of all the year’s weekends, the summer weekend, with its broad swaths of daylight and its jovial warmth, is perhaps the most precious of all. It beckons us to backyard cookouts, jaunts into the high mountains or wind-combed beaches.

But take note! As you read this, there remains but one last weekend to the year’s warmest season. In the northern hemisphere, the astronomical summer meets its end on Friday, the 21st of September. As the sun sets on this final sunny summer Sunday, who could but pine for more days of freedom? ‘Tis understandable, but as one wise old wanderer once scribbled in his leather-bound journals, “Waste not your precious minutes lamenting the weekend’s brief respite! Instead, cherish what time ye do have.”

With that in mind, I’ve here compiled a much-abridged inventory of those things that make me impatient for the next weekend before this one be yet over. I’d much appreciate it if you’d add to this list with your own favorite summer weekend things in the comments below.

  1. Ignoring your alarm clock, set for the typical and ungodly workday hour, and sinking back into sleep until sunlight fills your room.
  2. Having the time to take your dog for a long walk to an open field and play fetch; the sight of your dog’s tongue lolling out of his mouth, flicking slobber pearls onto the dry earth; satisfaction as he flops onto the cool grass in the shade of a tree.
  3. The long breakfast. Or even brunch.
  4. An unhurried tie-in for the first climb of the morning, complimented by the smell of chalk, pine, sun-warmed lichen on stone.
  5. The midday nap in the shade, preferably in a hammock or in the grass with your head propped on a pack.
  6. A beer chilled in a cold stream after a long day on the rocks, or perhaps a late-night whisky, neat, imbibed out-of-doors and containing, faintly reflected, the 300 billion (give or take) stars of the Milky Way.
  7. Grillin’.
  8. Tomatoes from the garden, sun-warm.
  9. Spending a whole afternoon reading that book that’s been loitering on the bedstand.
  10. Orange mocha Frappuccino™!
  11. Just before leaving for a weekend trip, you check to see that the front door is locked one last time. Then, that moment when you turn towards your car and see your travelin’ companion in the passenger seat, shades on, head nodding rhythmically to this song.
  12. Storm clouds billowing up into their customary anvil shape, as if taking a deep breath to blow slanting rain and lightning bolts down onto the earth. Also, the alien yellow-green light that precedes these storms.
  13. Meandering campfire discussions with friends, punctuated by the wood’s fiery crackle, your faces lit from below.
  14. Flip flops.
  15. Sitting down to work on a piece of writing in the afternoon and not lifting your head until your wife turns on the light in the now-dark room and gently asks, “Will you be ready to eat, soon? It’s getting late…

 

 

A Little Busy Right Now. Here’s A Picture.

Work has bled over into the evening hours lately, so I haven’t had time for personal writing and editing. Therefore, here is a photo for you to enjoy.

This image was captured during a video shoot on Antelope Island, about 30 miles northwest of Salt Lake City. I used a Nikon D7000, a 50mm f1.4 lens, and a reverse grad ND filter I recently purchased. The filter used to belong to Garrett Smith, who was the first person to show me how to use filters for landscape photography. (Thanks, G.)

For more on Antelope Island, which is rad, see this post. I have plenty of bloggy irons in the fire,  too, so don’t be a stranger.

— The Blockhead Lord

Sunset from Antelope Island
Sunset from Antelope Island

10 Reasons to Work From Home

home-office

Working from home can be valuable for employee and employer alike. Employers should consider extending this benefit to their employees where possible, and employees should consider requesting it where reasonable. However, it’s important to keep in mind the potential pitfalls. Some people don’t work well from home, as they see their domicile as an escape from work. Know thyself, as the saying goes. Also important is the need to treat working from home the same way you would working from the office. If you take advantage of your employer’s flexibility and slack, you’ll likely find the privilege rescinded. (Or, worse, you could even get yourself canned.) So if you do get the chance to work from home, make a list of tasks as big or bigger than you would for a day in the office, and then get it all done by the end of the day. With fewer interruptions, this should be no problem. It will allevate any fears your boss might have about the concept and help open the door for others who might want to try it. Personally, I enjoy and appreciate being able to work from home every once in a while. Below, ten big reasons why. (And if you have any reasons for or against, leave ’em in the comments!)

10. Access quality coffee, snacks – Most offices brew up crap coffee like Folgers in crappy coffee makers that burn the coffee within ten minutes of brewing. (Call me a snob — it’s OK, I can take it.) Then they give you free powdered creamer and bleached sugar, with which you can almost mask the bitter, acrid taste. Yum! For sensitive liberals who can’t stomach swill, access to a good drip system or French press and a fresh bag of specialty coffee is like a little ray of black, caffeine-rich sunshine. Plus, you can access on all manner of foods you love when the ol’ rumble-stomach starts to distract you from the tasks at hand. Chips and hummus with sriracha sauce is my snack of choice.

9. Get some exercise – I work for an outdoor company that understands the importance of an active lifestyle. We have a workout area and a bouldering wall on the premises. Pretty sweet. But most people don’t have this luxury, and busting a cross-fit routine in your cubicle will probably get you strange looks or worse. At home, however, you can take ten minutes here and there to do some highly effective exercises. Push-ups, sit-ups, squats, some light weights, or even a run around the ‘hood at lunch — all of these can help make the long day in a chair a little less destructive to your physical and mental health.

8. Spend quality time with your pet(s) – It has been shown that interacting with dogs is good for your health. A recent study even found that playing with your dog helps your body release oxytocin. Plus, there’s the matter of being a good pet owner. I have a blue heeler named Bodhisattva (Bodhi for short). He is representative of his breed in that he’s smart, hyper, and a real pain in the ass. Because my fiancée and I both work desk jobs, he sits at home all day. I feel less like a bad parent when I work from home, as I can give him attention and a little play time. On winter days, I can watch him “get the zoomies” in the fresh snow out back. Priceless.

Snowdhi gets the zoomies
"Snowdhi" gets the zoomies

7. Spend quality time with the house/apartment – If you hate where you live, this isn’t a good reason for you. But I quite like the little bungalow we rent in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood.  I pay a fair chunk of my income in rent, so it’s nice to spend a little extra time in this space. The sun shines in the window behind my desk. My fiancée’s new painting lies half-finished on the floor. The sounds of the heater blowing and the fish tank filter trickling are preferable to the fluorescent-light buzz of the office.

6. Listen to the sounds of silence – If you have small children, this might not be a good reason for you. But for the rest of us, real quiet time is often enough to increase productivity significantly. The “open office” design of most of today’s workplaces, mine included, is conducive to information exchange with co-workers, but it’s also highly frustrating when you’re on a short deadline and concentration is required. At that point, the best thing to do is don your headphones. But for some reason this always leads to co-workers coming up and pantomiming their requests, or that universal signal for “take off your headphones”, which is even more annoying than their chatter when you’re not wearing headphones. Of course, if you want to listen to music, you can do so with impunity when you work at home, sans headphones. There’s something so nice about not having a big pair of cans strapped to your earholes when you’re jammin’ out to Skrillex or Llana Del Rey. More comfortable and easier to hear the phone ringing, the ice cream truck jingling, and yourself thinking.

5. Save the planet – My commute is thirty-five miles each way. Every single day I don’t have to make that drive is a win for my wallet and the air quality in the already obscenely polluted Salt Lake City Valley.

Picture of Earth
Earf

4. Save time Commuters, again, win out when working from home. Thirty, forty-five, fifty minutes each way every day? It’s rough. If you drive alone, you can do what I do and dictate ideas for stories and blogs into your phone’s voice recorder like a nerd. But then you’re burning all that gas just to haul one body to the office. If you carpool, you’re pretty well resigned to doing nothing for over an hour each day. If you ride public transportation, you might get something done, or you might get someone’s coffee spilled on your laptop. A better option is to work from home and spend zero minutes commuting. Then you can use your precious hour saved to exercise, call your mother, or finish that diorama you’ve been working on.

3. Get “other stuff” done – At home, you can accomplish a variety of household tasks without interrupting your work flow too much. In the office, everyone takes periodic breaks to use the restroom, talk to co-workers, get coffee, or eat a snack. At home, with the same amount of break time, you can get all the laundry done, do the dishes, or pick up your messy living room. It doesn’t take long and it saves you from having to do it over your two precious days of weekend.

2. Increase productivity – In my workplace there are two common reasons that things don’t get done as quickly as they should. One is the constant flow of email requests. Working from home won’t change that. But the other big work killer is the drop-ins that happen throughout the day. “The modern workplace is structured completely wrong. It’s really optimized for interruptions,” says Jason Fried, founder of 37 Signals. “And interruptions are the enemy of work. They are the enemy of productivity, they are the enemy of creativity, they are the enemy of everything.” (Watch a video of Fried’s very interesting talk on this topic here.) Granted, some of these drop-ins are important — hot items that need attention ASAP — but most of the time, they’re not, and the main thing they accomplish is a twenty-minute disruption that can take even longer to recover from. Assuming you don’t have screaming kids at home, you should be able to clear out a few of those attention-intensive projects that have been dragging on for days or weeks.

1. Maintain morale – According to a study by Jessica Pryce-Jones, author of Happiness at Work“The happiest employees are 180% more energized than their less content colleagues, 155% happier with their jobs, 150% happier with life, 108% more engaged and 50% more motivated. Most staggeringly, they are 50% more productive too.” (Source: Forbes online.) Most of this probably seems redundant (happy workers are happier with their jobs? Who could’ve guessed?!), but the productivity thing is a major point. And working from home, for most of us, increases happiness with one’s job. It is a benefit, like good health care or a public transportation stipend. Employers should considering offering work-from-home days to employees who don’t need to be in the office every single day in order to do their jobs. It’s one of those things business people like to call a “win/win.”