Unfinished creativity is living with a cloud over your head.
Why You Can And Should Pursue More Than One Passion
I ran into a bit of a funk this past week. Bit of an expected funk—you’re a few steps into your journey, and you know this is unpaved road so you’re expecting a few bumps. But expecting and experiencing are two different hings. What is this feeling of having left something undone, even as you’re in the middle of getting stuff done?
For anybody who has stopped and started multiple projects, you’ll know the feeling.
For anybody who has ever felt passionately about more than one thing (and who hasn’t?), you’ll know the feeling.
So I was in the middle of my first practicum assignment for my Ultralearning project, when I kept running into a Block. We talk about writer’s Block, about the general creative Block, and we argue about the Block—does it exist, is it just laziness, or amateur hour, or an excuse?
Well, it’s certainly a hurdle. And if you haven’t trained for hurdles, you end up with halted progress and at least one bruise.
So there I was, vision suddenly clouded, ego bruised, frustrated at my inability to keep my fingers on the keyboard. My eyes felt clammy, my chest cold, utterly dissatisfied with whatever progress I slogged through. Even switching to a video game for a little while, even closing my eyes for five minutes, even having dinner, even restlessly organizing my wallet, taking the dog out, placing a phone call—absolutely nothing could shake this feeling that something was wrong, life was blue, creativity was lonely. Something was missing.
Like almost all epiphanies, it shone a light while I was tossing and turning that night:
I was stifling my instinct to write.
Whoah! I just started a super ambitious project. I needed to be focused, clear, get to Cal Newport’s lauded “deep work” state. I couldn’t go traipsing off again, spending an afternoon working on a short story, to only haphazardly switch back to coding the following day, then back again, never reaching a milestone in either pursuit. Right?
And besides, didn’t writing this blog count? What about journaling? What about just writing again in the future?
But it wasn’t so much the act of writing that was missing. It was the finished product. All my life I’d chosen one clear vocation: I was a writer, I was going to be a writer, my writing was going to be read. And here I was, pursuing a new goal, not necessarily giving up the old goal, and the ghost of what-was-not wouldn’t unhaunt me.
(It really does feel like that—like you’re being haunted. Maybe just the silly bed sheet variety; which is why thoughts of clarity often arrive under the comfort of a blanket).
How could I pursue this new undertaking when I hadn’t kept other promises to myself? When I had very little psychological foundation, the small wins, that I could rest on, look back on, take inspiration from? It was like going straight into a triathlon without the muscles, or with the scantest training possible.
What I’m trying to say is: can’t do one without the other. I have to produce writing and I have to produce progress in game development.
That’s what I set to find out this past week.
Pursuing More Than One Passion: The Triathlon Approach
I started thinking about triathletes. They pursued more than one sport and then combined everything into one super project, one super test: the triathlon. Swimming, biking, running. Sure, you can lump them all under “sports,” “competition,” “endurance,” but if you ever compare a pure runner to a pure swimmer you’ll notice pretty big differences between their physiques, schedules, even their temperaments. And there’s a special amalgamation when it comes to triathletes. They’re like Renaissance Athletes.
So, if we can learn from any group on how to pursue more than one passion, we have at least two models to pick and choose from.
Renaissance men, like Leonardo Da Vinci, show us clear examples of pursuing multiple passions, often to the point of mastery. My two projects—game development (which is already a combo of several sub-fields, from coding to art) and creative writing—are decidedly creatively bent passions.
So Renaissance men, OK, yeah, that’s a given. But what can athletes teach artists? Athletes train themselves in procedures, in muscle memory, for physical activity—that’s completely different from the more conceptual skills like those involved in programming and story development.
But there had to be overlapping principles—bottom lines of success, universal rules. So I set out to find them.
When triathletes sign up for a triathlon, they don’t immediately set out the following day and attempt a mock triathlon.
They break down their tasks, apply it to a schedule, and do things one day at a time.
And then when they get to completing those daily tasks, they condition their bodies by starting with where they’re at and not (immediately) where they’d like to be. Conditioning.
What does conditioning look like for an artist? I can’t speak for everyone—some of you may be here because you’re interested in what I find works for writing and some may only be interested in the game dev side of that. But let’s take one extreme example, for writing this time. Ray Bradbury once gave this advice to beginning writers: write one story a week. His logic? It’s nearly impossible to write 52 bad stories in the course of a year.
That is an example of a condition to meet—an exercise schedule, if you would. You write throughout the week and finish one story by the end. Rinse and repeat the following week, etc.
Now, add to that another passion that we want to pursue. In my case, it’s computer science (with an emphasis on game development).
The toughest part here may simply be sticking to a schedule for pursuing these passions. I’ve been guilty of writing up a schedule that slots me to focus on programming for two hours in the morning followed by two hours of writing later in the day. But then I wake up in the morning and I’m in the mood for writing instead. And the whole day turns into an attempt at writing, because I want to “take advantage” of my inspiration. So that creates a pattern of unreliable scheduling and chasing the muse.
How could I condition myself to work on an isolated subject at one time and another subject later? And do this every day, regardless of the inspiration or lack of external pressure to continue doing so?
An athlete breaks down their muscles into groups, and exactly which days they will be worked on and which days they will be allowed to rest. Can the same be applied to mental exertion as does physical exertion? I think so. But I wanted something concrete. The danger with conceptual activities is that it’s easy for everything to remain a concept. So many “how-tos” for artists and writers on the internet are usually filled with generic advice rather than concrete guidelines. “Follow your passion,” “put butt in seat,” “set a word count goal,” “learn by doing.” How does one do?
I thought about it. I read about it. And here’s what I came up with.
Here are the areas that artists of all stripes can condition:
A) Focus: “The ability to make timely progress on cognitively demanding tasks and produce more results in less time.”
Case in Point: Stephen King writes 2,000 words every morning. On a bad day, it might spill into the afternoon, but he’s honed his schedule and craft to a point where he usually meets his daily goal before lunch. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, came to this conclusion: "Three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all that it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives."
How To Practice:
Game Development - If you don't currently have a project you're working on, or continually find yourself more in Google/blank stare mode, you're not getting a Get Out of Jail Free card. Instead, you can always find time to hone your ability to code and code at length by completing code challenges, on sites such as CoderByte, Codewars, Codefights, or Codingame. (Reviews of these forthcoming).
Writing - Ah, this one is so simple it hurts. And, unfortunately, there's no guaranteed results. Flannery O'Connor, for instance, would do this every day for two hours, and some days she said she didn't get out a word. And that's what this suggestion is: settle down for an allotted time each day with the intention to write. You may not actually get anything good--but the important part is to sit down the whole time and deal with whatever pops up, whether than be genius, drivel, boredom, or the flow state.
B) Intuition: “Solve any problem by finding the underlying pattern, not fiddling with the particulars."
Case in Point: Swiss educational reformer (and one of Albert Einstein's early influences), Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi once said, “Visual understanding is the essential and only true means of teaching how to judge things correctly." Basically, thinking in images is preferential to thinking in words or numbers. We first learn through images and sensations, only later learning symbols for these things--the written word, the Arabic numerals.
One common factor among geniuses, from Albert Einstein to Richard P. Feynman, wasn't that they were memory machines, human calculators, or mysterious magicians. They developed their intuitive senses. Yes, it's something they were born with. But we're all born with intuition, and we all can choose to practice our intuition.
How To Practice:
Game Development - There's a popular term in coding that comes straight from science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein's "grok." Transported from Heinlein's novel to the Oxford English dictionary, to grok is to "understand intuitively or by empathy, to establish rapport with, to enjoy with".
Well, there's actually quite a few programming/computer science books centered around the idea of "grokking" subjects, such as algorithms and the like. And they do so through pictures and real world examples. I suggest starting with Grokking Algorithms--it's even available in an audible version (which I have--and I'll tell you if it's worth it without the pictures).
Writing - Writing itself is an intuitive process, but what better way to hone your intuition than absorbing the work of countless artists before us? It is easier to write stories when you're in the habit of digesting them. Read outside your genre or preferred medium--try plays and poetry, science fiction and literary. Try telling your stories through images--or, better yet, illustrate them outright. Read your stories out loud, not just in your head. Write backwards. Do anything to flip the script and think from a different angle. It might feel like a lot of sideways fuss when you'd rather be plowing a path straight to the end of a particular project, but the whole point of conditioning is starting with where you're at (and we've got some weaknesses to work on, y'all) and working deep, before we're able to execute quickly and intuitively at a later date. This is time well spent.
C) Overworking the Problem: “Practice something more than necessary and it’ll stick around for good.”
Case in Point: Students who take higher-level math courses score better in lower-level math refresher courses because the higher-level courses force them to use lower-level concepts to a point that goes beyond earning a grade or getting the gist. They have to know how it applies in more than just isolated situations, but how the concept of them builds into more complex problems.
How To Practice:
Game Development - Choose a difficult concept. Watch the same video, read the same paragraph every day for X time. Keep watching/reading every day, even if you feel like you understand it. Build the same project over and over if you have to. Do something often enough till you're sick of it.
Writing - This one applies to your editing process, usually reserved for the very end of a project, but BOY IS IT GOOD. When you finish a story, take out a fresh page and start re-writing it. You can go word for word if you want, but you'll often find yourself intuitively editing as you go along. But you're in the mechanical flow of writing as well, so you're working at multiple levels. You're not limited to your own stories either. Practice by copying established short stories, pretend you're role playing as George R.R. Martin or Jane Austen. Whatever. It's a psychological release as well as a practical exercise, and you'll be surprised by what you learn.
D) Memorizing Core Patterns: “Roses are red, violets are blue, certain things are a given, cite the facts and you’re through.”
Case in Point: Some things you just gotta know. The trick is to filter out what's fluff and keep what's essential. Richard P. Feynman memorized basic logarithmic calculations to make seemingly impossible calculations in ten seconds or less. He didn't actually calculate that fast; he just memorized more laborious outcomes to simplify future problems. It's like memorizing multiplication tables, or mnemonic songs that help you get through the periodic table, or the simple fact that Kyoto is the capitol of Japan.
How To Practice:
Game Development - Algorithms. Data Structures. Conditionals. Design Patterns. Exposure, exposure, exposure. This one is just going to take time.
Writing - Yes, that dreaded word: analyze. Actually, I used to hate writing exercises, isolated paragraphs and dialogue exercises and half-full notebooks. Ugh. I just wanted to write what was already in my head. But when you come to enough dead-ends and head-scratchers, you start wishing for just about anything that will keep you keep writing and start to demystify why you struggle in some areas when you're doing so strongly in others. And sometimes that means not writing at all, or doing one of those dreaded writing exercises. This is a writing exercise that doesn't involve writing: analyzing your favorite short stories (you could attempt novels, but you might be here longer).
Break down your favorite short stories into the Hero’s Journey, use word count to find out how long each section is before breaking, cite any specific authorial flourishes (Catherynne M. Valente’s weirdpunk terminology, Hemingway’s bare prose and lack of background story, Lovecraft’s use of mannered verbosity broken up by alien mania, Diana Wynne Jones’ chatty style over top structures dense in magical systems and literary allusions, how C.S. Lewis wrote for children vs. how he wrote for adults, etc). Do this for at least one story.
II. Overlapping and Tangential Skills
Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how and what we’ll do when pursuing more than one passion project--pursue, not dabble. We’re not finger painting on Saturdays and writing an essay here and there. We want to make masterful progress in more than one discipline, and we want to be smart about it.
The reality is—we only have so much time in a day, and large chunks of that are occupied by commuting, sleeping, eating, socializing, working. When we only have small chunks of time, how can we make that time count, especially when we’re tracking more than one subject of interest?
I experienced some lull during work on Friday when I came up with some small things I could reasonably perform when I wasn’t needed at another task and waiting on customers. Using scrap pieces of paper, I started working on puzzles designed to help sharpen my problem-solving skills. In V. Anton Spraul’s Think Like A Programmer, he dedicates the first two chapters to riddles and conceptual puzzles. It’s not enough to be able to figure out certain set problems and textbook exercises, or to copy and paste common coding solutions--you'll be smarter in the long run if you build the mental habits that allow you to break down “puzzles” and put them in order.
Problem-solving, in the form of riddles and puzzles, is an example of a tangential skill. In this case, it specifically applies to my aim of being able to program the ideas I have in my head. Tangential refers to something that is slightly connected to the main topic of interest. Coming up with the correct answer to the Sphinx riddle didn’t make Oedipus a programmer, for example, but an aspiring programmer working through different kinds of problems—those posed by the Sphinx, by a chess board, by a Sudoku puzzle—are practicing the same mental muscles needed when programming new solutions, in addition to teaching their brains patterns of logic. It can’t replace actual coding, but when coding is a no-go, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Now, overlapping skills. These are the skills that apply to more than one area of study. What are the overlapping skills one can practice if they want to become a better programmer/game developer/creative writer?
Triathletes are working on tangential and overlapping skills all the time. Bicycling strengthens their leg muscles, which helps them endure longer swims, which strengthens their lungs, which helps with the whole running bit, etc., etc.
But what about our subjects?
Well, working on a short story has very little impact on my finishing a coding project. Unfortunately, I cannot reasonably complete both at once. This is precisely what I struggled with this past week.
However, a small win in one category provides confidence in another.
Writing, in general, is a skill promoted to top-tier importance in almost any field you are looking into. A film director said that once--forget the camera and the acting connections, just write a dozen screenplays. If I could quote the guy, I would.
And you know what skill you can't teach a computer? How to write like a human being.
But, to be more concrete, I came up with the following lists below (please feel free to comment with more--I could always use fresh ideas):
III. Small Wins
We touched on "small wins" a few paragraphs ago. I was watching Joyce Carol Oates' Masterclass on short fiction writing when she talked about the importance of writers working on short fiction--because completing something (and short stories are easier to complete than novels) gives a "very necessary psychological boost" to a writer. Hey, completing writing for the day feels great, but completing an entire complex idea, a short story, is even better.
Again, we can find examples of this in the world of sports. Athletes train to beat their own records--it's not the same as racing or even winning the triathlon, but it's a smaller goal that they set out to complete on the journey to the bigger goal.
It's not enough to just have one big goal. Along the way, we need to set realistically small goals so we can realistically attain small wins. It's those boosts of glucose we need to keep running the good race.
IV. Exhaustion and Rest
Working a muscle to exhaustion is the first step in strengthening it in the long run. And the second step is to rest it.
We talked earlier about overworking problems to get the concept behind it at an instinctual level. Renowned physicist Richard P. Feynman created a natural intuition for physics and problem-solving by doing more work than was expected of him at almost any given math problem. Essentially, he went through the act of "discovering" and "inventing" the solution to the problem rather than relying solely on existing solutions and common proofs. This took longer, but the results lasted pretty much forever.
Though failures and setbacks often feel more annoying than rewarding, it's when I've failed to get a piece of code to work or a story to launch that I learned the most about the process behind it. Don't get me wrong, I still yearn for shortcuts--when you've got a lot of interesting problems and ideas queued up, you're impatient to get started on them all. But slowly I've learned that going deep on initial problems builds up a library that is in increasingly easy access.
For example, most of us are pretty good at typing because we use computers all day long; back in the day, only typists could claim such exclusionary value. Typing is an example of a "problem" we've overworked.
Children are also naturals at overworking problems. They'll ask a million questions on one subject that we long ago tucked away as "obvious," so we no longer think deeply about it. The first five years of our life, however, are an example of extraordinary cognitive expansion. And it just comes from relentlessly observing and asking questions and tracking down answers.
Above I've already listed a few ways to overwork some problems within game development and writing; we can start there. Add to this an exhaustive write-up of all the questions you want to ask. The more curious we are, the more motivated we are to get to the bottom of things.
The Perfect Plan vs. The Actual Execution
There’s actually a pretty strong scientific case to only master one thing at a time. More accurately, to build one new habit at a time.
There’s a lot of conscious effort at the beginning. Already facing down old habits, resistance, time changes.
In light of this, I think it’s just as important to learn how to mentally deal with failure.
Here are four principles:
1. You Still Have One PRIMARY Pursuit (RE: You Will Make More Progress In One Area Than Another)
Don't think of perfect percentages or a neatly sliced pie. The reality is you can't parcel out your time evenly, and in order to feel any real sense of progress you're going to have to prioritize. There's only room for one at the top. For me, I'm not sure if that will be writing or game development right now. Game development has the most room to grow and go, but the small wins are found within writing, as it's a skill I already possess and the resources needed are extremely simple: pen and paper or a simple word processor will do. Figure this out organically.
2. Focus On The Three Most Important Tasks (Day, Week, Month Editions)
Don't kill yourself with an ambitious to-do list. Every day, give yourself the Top 3 Tasks. Anything beyond them is a bonus. This can be extended to the week and the month, saving you precious mental space to focus on the tasks at hand instead of constantly bringing back up a list of disparate errands to remember and evaluate.
3. Don’t Hold Yourself To Hardcore Deadlines Till You’re Halfway Through
Reiterating this point from Blog #4. This is productivity guru Scott Young's advice--when you start a difficult project, don't hold yourself to any deadlines till you're 1/3 to 1/2 way through. Because it's nearly impossible to set realistic goals when you're still a novice.
4. Any Progress Is Still Progress
Fr. Mike Schmitz has a great video about dealing with setbacks and going off your chosen path, and much of the advice is universal--particularly his point about any resistance to a bad habit and an effort in a good habit counting toward the end goal. You're on a diet and you waited two hours before eating a donut? Most people assume they are diet failures at this point; Fr. Mike's point is that those two hours of resisting made you stronger for the next go-around. So don't underestimate the fact that you are facing numerous battles and may not win them all--not only are you battling to understand, you are battling to get your butt into seat, you are battling to get out of bed, you are battling to read just one more word, or concentrate for one more minute. And all of these efforts count, even if you don't hit your goal. Any progress is still progress.
1. Make A Simple Visual UI in Visual Studio
1. Write 3 morning pages every morning
2. Break down three short stories, each from different authors, and compare them, using the writing example above under “Memorize Core Patterns.”
Bonus: Take one of the stories you picked to analyze and copy it word for word. Enjoy the process of getting inside the words and watching the story literally build before your eyes.
In Excelsis Deo.
K.W. writes novels, short stories, the occasional ode, game scripts, and (with actual evidence!), this here blog.