Arrows and Options and Vomit, Oh My

Everybody in the world's commenting on this essay by Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, so I figure I might as well bumf around on it too.

I stumbled across it via the Radiolab iPhone app (which is excellent) in the middle of a pisser of a day: low focus, bad workout over lunch, and kicked off with this post from Rands in Repose in my RSS feeds. The Rands post announced that he will now start advertising jobs as a way of monetizing the site that might actually benefit his readers. He asked this question:

There are many forms to not being busy. You might just be getting your day started with a cup of coffee, you might be on your lunch hour, or you might have seven precious minutes to take a deep breath amongst your crushing responsibilities, but here’s my question: is the lack of busy more fun than your job?

And I was just getting my day started with a cup of coffee, but I thought, well...yeah. And then I went back to navigating my way through the best career advancement opportunity I've ever been handed. Yeah, I know.

I was feeling more than a little down on myself -- bad workout, bad focus, bad answer to that Rands question. Then I found Jad's essay.

It's about how Radiolab started and the deep existential dread Jad felt trying to get it off the ground and make it good. It's about the joy of not having a plan.

In it, he brings up three ideas that kept me standing still until I'd finished reading the whole thing: pointing arrows, the adjacent possible, and running toward things that make you want to vomit.

Pointing Arrows

I'm a messy person. My house is a wreck, and I'm lucky to have kids to blame for it, but it isn't their khaki shorts on the bookcase. Still, there are many places in my life where I crave order like it's oxygen, particularly when I am contemplating a new project or task. I don't need (or want) all my days to look alike, but when it comes to the important stuff, I do need to know the plan. I need an anchor point. An outline, a process diagram, a syllogism, something. That's what my brain craves: logic, sequence, order, plan.

That's precisely what frustrates me about living. I often grope for a plan for my life but have yet to grasp one. Truth, I normally can't see beyond the next move or two in my own career or personal life. And so my life has mostly felt like a chain of back roads I've meandered along. I was okay with that when I was young and immortal. No more.

My hope? Looking for that moment when something seems to shift, when a chance encounter illuminates a possible way forward.

My life has been pierced here and there by those pointing arrows, as I bet so has yours. Those little moments open up possibilities that make my brain pay attention for a change. They invite me to go left instead of right, often without a hint where I'm being pointed, just a glimmer that it could be important. Listen up. Pay attention. It feels like something important's happening.

This job and my last one were pointing arrows from the first interview. Falling for my wife, of course, was a pretty big one. So was that Back to Work podcast I wrote about before that completely changed my life. And so was Jad's essay.

I always follow those arrows. I never regret it.

The Adjacent Possible

I love that term. I love the concept more. It's the change right next door, the one you can make right now. I love it because it's what makes the uncertainty tolerable for me.

When I'm overwhelmed with frustration because I don't know where I'm headed or what my life is finally going to amount to, I am calmed with a simple thought: What can I do now? What can I change?

It usually ain't much. The answer is often "keep heading this way and see where it leads". Sometimes it's "you've hit a dead end and you should have planned for this weeks ago". But sometimes it's something new.

My adjacent possibles are easy to enumerate because they are few. I am a husband and father, which pretty much trumps all other considerations. That takes away a lot of sexy (and probably therefore illusory) possibilities. It means I don't have time for hobbies, let alone something like starting up my own business, but it also keeps me from doing anything truly stupid. It's one thing to do something that scares you. It's quite another to do something that could hurt your kids.

But that's another thing, too: my job is to protect them and provide for them, but it's also to lead by example, and that example has to include that you go for the thing you think you should be doing. Trouble is I don't know what that is. I'd love it to be doing something like this, but as of yet I have no way to monetize it. File it under "things I hope I work out one day" and keep writing stuff like this because I love it and I think it's important.

So I keep my eyes open. I look for what's next door and hope it leads to a good place.

Anthony Hopkins once asked a priest "Father, what is the shortest prayer a man can pray?" The priest replied: "Fuck it."

It's okay that I'm not a master of life strategy. It's easier to make choices when you're not surrounded by dozens of possibilities and terrified of getting locked into one. Speaking of terror:

Gut Churn

Fear's a tough one. Fear and self-doubt have been my most faithful companions in life. Making a step toward something that terrifies me is, well, terrifying. But.

I don't know if it's the need to be a good role model to my kids, my growing awareness of my own mortality, or simply that I'm getting to be too old to give much of a damn, but these days I find myself more inclined to push myself toward doing things I find scary. Or at least I find myself telling myself that I should.

I've been quietly working on a thing with a guy that scares the shit out of me, a thing that I very much want to see the light of day and may die if that doesn't happen, a thing that seems silly to care that much about and won't earn me a goddamn dime. No, it's not a thing I'm going to tell you about. Even you, Mom.

But it's a pointing arrow. It's an adjacent possible. It sure as shit churns my guts when I think about it. It may lead nowhere; it may lead somewhere merely pleasantly distracting. But I have to see.

I'm scared of it, and right now I kind of suck at it. If (when) you behold the first couple of efforts, you'll detect both that fear and the suck. But that's why I have to do it. It's the monster in the closet, and I'm not going to kill it. I'm going to ask it to dance.