Another day. Another day of looking at an empty blog post screen. It has been many days, and there have been many half-written and half-baked paragraphs, all followed by a sigh, a shake of the head, and the inevitable [x] button. The urge to create is there, almost maddeningly so. But nothing worthwhile comes out.
“Why don’t you write about all the things you are doing and how they may seem random but are great parts of a puzzle?”
My muse, the lovely Eva, sent me this reply when I poured out my wretchedness to her on Whatsapp. I thought about it. I reread parts of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, on creating despite fear. I thought again. I opened my laptop, got ready to type, and realised that I had left my charger at home and there was insufficient battery to do much. I closed my laptop, stared at my empty coffee cup, and thought some more.
I’m now at home, flanked by cats (always helpful), the laptop is charging. Maybe whatever that’s in my head is ready to come out now. Here we go.
About ten years ago, I read this book What to do when you want to do everything by Barbara Sher, which shed light on generalist types that she called “Scanners”, people who have wide arrays of interests and can’t seem to hold on to one interest for long, as they flit from a professional field to another, a hobby to another, or an unfinished project to another. In the world that reveres specialists, or Divers as she called them, Scanners appear fickle-minded and unable to focus. Oftentimes, the Scanners even delve deep enough into their interest to produce a book, or a thriving business. But then they lose interest, and move on to the next big project, “throwing away” what they had accumulated so far.
Sher saw no problem with the Scanner model, to her it was simply a different wiring of the human brain that the Scanners have compared to Divers. Without a predisposed judgment against Scanner types, it then becomes a problem of time management, to fit everything that Scanners want to do into a realistic schedule with realistic resources.
This book remains to be one of my favourite books of all time. I remember thinking with wonder – so there’s nothing wrong with me after all. I am allowed to do things and walk away when they no longer interest me. And even if it does not interest me anymore at this point of time, it is possible that the same interest may cycle back, and I would just pick it up from where I left off.
That was ten years ago, and since then I had approached life and learning with a kind of laissez faire which basically amounted to going with the flow, wherever the flow brought me. 既來之，則安之. Academically and professionally, I hopped around in several fields, from information systems engineering, to public policy, to trust-building in social media, to sustainable development, to human rights. It has not been easy, but it has always been interesting.
In my spare time, I’ve dabbled with dozens of different things, so many that I’ve lost count – in sports (taichi, dragonboating, capoeira, yoga, etc.), DIY (knitting, electric circuits – for the purpose of building an AM radio, solar cooker, skincare products, cooking, etc.), art (crayoning, carving soap, sketching, zine-making, etc.), languages (Japanese and Spanish being my main target languages; and others that I have worked on sporadically or at some point picked up and let go: French, German, Thai, Turkish, Estonian, American Sign Language, etc.) and other uncategorised stuff (Rubik’s Cube, Go, ukulele, gardening, etc.).
Most of the time they never amount to anything. I attack the fad of the moment with the enthusiasm of a puppy playing fetch, sometimes naively believing that this is the one – which it rarely actually is. But with the heat of the moment, how could I believe otherwise? For a year I woke up at 5:30am a few times a week to practise taichi, that was the commitment that I gave to it – and I have not done any taichi for the last five years. But it’s okay. I accept that I don’t have the time and energy for everything in the world, and I made the decision to enjoy learning and detach when I don’t enjoy it/have time for it anymore.
So, as I was saying, laissez faire and mostly unconcern when it comes to learning and doing things, that’s how I’ve lived mostly for the past ten years. If I’m inspired to learn it, I’ll learn it. If I’m paid to learn it, I’ll learn it. Nothing is too far out. But this year, I found myself hit by a sense of unease which did not dissipate for weeks.
Let’s examine the situation a bit.
I had just left a job, one that took up a lot of my time and energy, and that for various reasons left me feeling drained constantly for most of last year. That I was suddenly in possession of my time again, unadulterated time for me, until my next job, felt liberating and downright scary at the same time. On one hand I could do anything I wanted. On the other hand, I could do anything I wanted. The responsibility felt like a million tonnes of lead on my shoulders (side note: it also felt like a million tonnes of cotton candy on my shoulders). I felt like I should do everything. Immediately. Right this second. Yet I could not choose from ten equally interesting possibilities of how to spend my time, and I was experiencing what Barbara Sher had described as a kid starving in a candy shop because she couldn’t choose one to eat. Sudden shock and analysis paralysis.
At the same time, I had decided that I spent too much time consuming content and not creating content. In other words, I was demanding output from myself. I recognised that I had not written non-work stuff for years now, and I missed writing just for the sake of writing. All those books that I had read – and I had devoured seven books in the space of the first two months of 2018 (plus a few others that I’m halfway through) – those had to amount to some original thoughts right? Or, if I couldn’t write, I should still produce something. A drawing? A zine? A diagram? Something that I could employ my new markers for?
I took ten days off from this state of frenzy to work on a research proposal, which I finished and submitted. Then I threw myself back at it with renewed fervour. Enrolled myself into a ukulele class. Bought some bars of soap to carve. Contemplated taking up programming again. Went to the neighbourhood art school (catered mostly for kids) to check out their syllabus for adults. Dreamt up mini research projects. Read. Read some more.
While all of this was happening, there was always an open blog post ready to capture any ideas that may pop up. Nothing popped up. And while all of my endeavours to fulfil myself creatively were exciting and welcome, they also served to propel myself further and further into a state of existential doubt – what is the purpose of all of this, if not just syok sendiri (self indulgence)? If there were no outputs to my inputs, then what were the inputs for? What is the red thread that runs through everything that I am trying to do? Indeed, what is the red thread that runs through everything that I’ve done so far? What is the purpose of life? Why are we here anyway? (It seems that many questions boil down to these last two eventually.)
To be continued.