Starting something new requires that we stand on the shore and look out over a great ocean between where we are and where we want to be. This creates tension.
Jigsaw puzzles put the outcome right on the box, promising us that the work required to put the pieces together will amount to something whole. We literally see the progress we’re making, piece by piece. But we aren’t afforded that luxury of foresight with most things.
A little tension is pleasurable. The most addictive video games work this way. Within the confines of an artificial system, game makers consider the amount of work a player must put in to achieve a reward. Think about the the number of hours we’re willing to pour into Farmville or Minecraft or Candy Crush or World of Warcraft. We feel good about investing our precious time in these systems because the game artificially shortens the reward cycle. This brings the amount of tension we must endure for a payoff into a sweet spot that we perceive as pleasurable and engaging.
In the real world things aren’t so easy. The tension is prolonged and threatens to crush us. But it’s also an incredibly transformative force, if we can learn to sit with it.
Have you ever seen someone walking a dog, and the dog decides that he’s just not going to go any further? He lies down and the owner tugs at the leash, trying in vain to reason with him. The dog, panting, just sits there, staring back blankly.
When I was working on a startup a few years ago, my co-founders and I would say “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”. A platitude, yes, but one that’s soothing when you’re exhausted and beat up and grasping for anything that feels like a win. The trouble was, we said this so much because we were sprinting, all the time, for miles and miles with no end in sight. I tugged and reasoned with my creative spirit, but it just sat there, exhausted.
At the beginning I couldn’t sleep because my mind buzzed with excitement about what we could build with the million dollars we had just raised. A year in, I would drink whiskey and cry while binge-watching Friday Night Lights to try to find sleep. By the end I was having panic attacks and fantasizing about jumping out of a window.
The funny thing is, my panic attacks were triggered by being in places or situations where I couldn’t easily escape, at least not without awkward social consequences. Subways, planes, meeting rooms, theaters, churches, doctor’s offices, stuff like that. I’d sit there, spiraling inward, while a forever-rising pitch of terror would turn my hands numb and send my heart into palpitations. Too much tension pulls us apart.
Embarrassingly, at the start of building Basic Weather, I thought this little “emotional weather app” would just take a few weeks to hack together. By being disciplined about keeping it simple I thought I’d narrow the distance of the passage I had to endure. I even put it in the name of the app to remind myself.
But as I dove down the rabbit hole of complexity, I realized this was not going to be the “three-hour tour” I had hoped. And I desperately wanted Basic Weather to not die the sad, quiet death of many of my other half-finished projects.
For most of my life until then, I thought mornings were anathema to creativity. It seemed much more romantic to work at night. I would stay up until ungodly hours, my eyes screaming from too much caffeine and the piercing blue light of the laptop screen. But it was never sustainable.
By happenstance, I started working in the mornings. If I stayed up a little too late the night before, it was nearly impossible to pull myself out of bed early — a natural fail-safe for getting enough rest. Also, I was forced to make progress in the hours between my first sip of coffee and heading off to work on time, so there was a natural deadline built in. I got in the habit of mentally blocking off tasks in two-hour chunks. Often the very last thing I would do before closing my laptop was to write a quick synopsis of what I had worked on that morning, any new thoughts that had come up, and exactly what I needed to do next. The following morning I could pick up right where I left off. By accomplishing something first-thing, the stakes were lower for the rest of the day. The right amount of tension propels us forward.
One of the most effective techniques I know for dealing with the onset of an anxiety attack is not to fight it, but to invite it in. Instead of hiding from it, to stand up and look it in the eye and say: “do your worst!” and deflate its power. We can learn to dance with the tension that threaten to pull us apart. It always pushes you towards that distant shore.