Taking the long view

Dustin Wax posted this article on Lifehack.org, leading off with the perennial “where do you want to be in 5 years?” and moving into a discussion of personal development. 

There are many potential responses:  Why, as a creative, would I care? Why should I think about where I’ll be in five years, and how I’ll get there?  Because if I don’t, it’s a pretty safe bet I won’t get there.

Taking Dustin’s bait, I started drawing out a timeline… of the next twenty years.

With young kids, it pays to take the long view.  I began by mapping out milestone birthdays for myself and my kids. Then I mapped out when they would be getting braces and drivers licenses, then graduating from high school and college.

I’ll be 50 when my youngest graduates from college. He’ll start college during his sister’s senior year, so things might get interesting if their 529 accounts don’t perform well.

I dug out a plan from my someday maybe file that would let me pay off my mortgage 10 years early by paying $200 extra to principal each month. Realizing that my payoff date would still arrive after my daughter graduated, I upped my forecast payment to $250 per month, and my projected payoff date hit just as my son started college. Perfect.  Plus, if their 529 accounts cover their college expenses, we’ll be in a strong financial position, with low expenses at the height of our earning potential.

Now I just have to convince my wife that it’s the best use of that $250 each month.

Wondering when I might retire comes second right now.  Sure, I want to have the best retirement I can, and make good decisions along the way.  Meanwhile my plan is to have a full life, and to look for opportunities to take on fun and interesting projects.  Taking a realistic look at my life and knowing where I can fit in creative work will be more satisfying than ignoring the future and getting frustrated at a lack of opportunity.

Study Time

Frame and PanelOne of the lessons GTD has taught me is that at any given unscheduled, unoccupied moment, I should take on the task I have time and energy for, the task that’s appropriate for the current context. So for example, I have a list of the phone calls I need to make when I have time and access to a phone, and a list of tasks I need to perform in the workshop to move my woodworking projects forward.

But it pays to think carefully about context, and how we really define it.  Lately I’ve begun thinking of my workshop more as a studio: as a place to explore, to express my creativity; as Merriam-Webster defines it, “a place for the study of an art”.  The interesting thing about seeing a woodworking shop as a studio is that it invites one to explore.  So if I don’t have an opportunity to move projects forward in my studio because I’m waiting for a finish to dry or glue to cure, what do I do in the studio?

A few nights ago, I had such a moment: It was too cold to finish or glue, I was too tired to do precision joinery, but mentally I was still engaged.

I began exploring, experimenting with my tools and materials: a scrap of cherry clamped in the vise, a spokeshave with a throat made fine with a thick aftermarket blade. Could I imagine an edge treatment more subtle and more sensitive than I could produce with a router? Could I make it curve gently this way, slope inward that way?

What other tools might complement the process? A few wooden planes, received gratefully from a friendly chap in Britain who keeps his eyes out for such things… They were so crisp and well cared-for that I nearly didn’t sharpen them for use, but this night, I realized they were begging for use. I sharpened them, working the concavity with a slipstone as one would a carving gouge. Sharpened, I put them to use in my experiment, the shavings spilling off to the right.

I didn’t move my projects forward at all that night, and I didn’t cross any task off my list. However, I developed an idea for a future project, and explored the potential methods for achieving the results I might want. Best of all, I did it when I had the energy and enthusiasm for that particular task, not when I was committed to some larger project with other tasks.

Creativity and corporate life

I was talking with a friend today about blogging, and realized I had a few topics simmering just below my level of conscious awareness.  I love that part of the creative process: ”cogitatio”, as I’ve come to regard it. 

Working in a corporate environment, I realized I was a self-conscious blogger in two ways.  As a cubicle dweller, I’ve had a certain reluctance to let down the boundaries between my work life and my creative life.  These are such vastly different parts of my life.  I am equally passionate in each pursuit, but I’m reluctant to discuss work issues here out of respect for my employer: I’m not authorized to speak on their behalf, and I wouldn’t want to. 

That said, there’s a certain impulse in corporate life to be “hard core”, and it’s too easy for some in that environment to dismiss the creative process as somehow “soft”.  Fortunately, I believe, the realities of the knowledge economy, whose primary product is intellectual capital, have forced the corporate world to begin to embrace the creative process as another way to work, equal to the regimented production line and buttoned-down cubicles.  Leaders of vision know to measure the value of a person’s creative output without regard for the path they took to get there.

On the other end of this relationship between the corporate career and the creative life, I find myself at times fretting over my credibility as a creative:  I haven’t made the ultimate commitment to my art, trying to earn a living from my creative work. 

In my more lucid and thoughtful moments, though, I dismiss the concern over credibility. 

As fantastic long-time mentor Priscilla Riggle reminds me, there’s plenty of precedent for the non-creative career both stimulating and funding the creative life.  I can let the non-creative daily routine lead to creative expression that ebbs and flows in a natural rhythm.

That I don’t feed my kids through my creative work is actually liberating: I can focus on what’s in me to create with little concern for what is marketable.  If I want to write a poem, I write a poem.  If I want to make a desk, I make a desk.  I can be, in Jim Krenov’s words, an amateur of a certain sort, doing my best work without regard for salability.

That seems to me to lead neither to a complete embrace of the avant garde nor to a satisfaction with rear-guard recitation.  I find a coherent inner dialog pointing toward a third way.  Mostly, I don’t want to say something obvious.  I have little patience for the obvious.  I want to create interesting things, whether its in words or wood.

Living at the intersection of corporate work and creative life, another of the benefits I find is in the field of productivity.  Strategies such as Getting Things Done work wonderfully in both creative and corporate settings.