The Work You Do While You’re Waiting

So after getting really excited about Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign (and his plan to give every American a $1,000/month Freedom Dividend, plus Medicare for All) I began picturing the future.

I saw myself going to Yang Gang meetings in Cedar Rapids.

Attending the Iowa Caucus, which I’ve never done before.*

Standing in a room filled with balloons and pizza boxes and all the friends I’d made along the way, watching election returns.

But it’s going to be a long time before any of that happens, if it even ends up happening. The Iowa Caucus isn’t until February 3, 2020. A year from now.

A year from now, I might be sending advance copies of NEXT BOOK to industry reviewers. I’ll be one year closer to my goal of being financially independent by 47.** I’ll have been part of at least three and maybe four Chorale Midwest concerts, including our upcoming performance of the Brahms Requiem with Orchestra Iowa. I’ll have taught more classes and written more articles and connected with more people and done many of the things I’m currently hoping I can accomplish.

And my mind has given me pictures of what all of this could look like, down to what I’m wearing and how long my hair might be.***

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that generating a highly detailed mental image of the future you want for yourself actually eliminates that future from the realm of possibility.

Every conversation you rehearse in your head is a conversation that will never take place as rehearsed

You’ve had those conversations in your head, right? You imagine yourself saying something, and then you imagine someone else saying something, and so on?

At some point — and I don’t know exactly how I put this together — I realized that every conversation I imagined was a conversation that would never take place in the real world.

Because people aren’t ever going to follow the script I wrote in my head.

So every time I imagined a conversation where I set a boundary and then someone else got really angry with me (for example), I reminded myself that by generating the conversation in my brain, I had pretty much guaranteed that it wouldn’t happen in real life.

This isn’t to say that the other person might not be upset or disappointed with the boundary I set. But they probably wouldn’t react at the level I had imagined, and they definitely wouldn’t use the exact words I had written for them.

Likewise, I might in fact end up wearing a Yang 2020 T-shirt to an election party, but the party will never look exactly like the one I’m currently dreaming.

Nor will NEXT BOOK look exactly the way it did when I first thought it up. I can follow the plot structure I outlined for myself, and build an emotional journey for the reader that’s similar to the one I had when I told myself the story I wanted to tell, but it will still be a different book than the one I initially imagined, because exposing something to the world always changes it.

(This is why so many stories include antagonistic forces — parents, governments, societies — that try to prevent people from learning about the world.)

You can’t have the future you imagine, but you can work towards the future you want

So. Creating some mental image of my sitting at a table with a stack of NEXT BOOK next to me, ready to sign copies for a queue of readers, does in fact guarantee that this particular scenario will never happen.

But it doesn’t prevent a similar scenario from happening.

It doesn’t prevent me from doing the part of the work that might someday get me to that table with that stack of books, e.g. spending one hour, Monday through Friday, working on my current draft.

And when that part of the work is done, turning that hour into editing-and-revisions time.

And, because that part of the work isn’t so far in the future that I have to imagine what it might be like, I can decide what it will be like. Right now. When it will happen and where I will sit and whether I’ll turn my phone and email off while I work.

Likewise, I can decide that today I’m going to do my bit for Yang 2020 by sharing the link to Andrew Yang’s Reddit AMA (which will take place at 2:30 Eastern today, go ask him anything), and I’m also going to share a fun article with my mom on Facebook, and tomorrow I’m going to ask my sister and nephew if they want to do a FaceTime call this weekend.****

HERE’S WHERE IT GETS REALLY INTERESTING

This method works for the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. That terrible scenario you imagine happening to your job or your loved ones or your small business? Those hours/days/weeks you spend waiting to hear back from doctors or lawyers or potential employers? Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Whatever horrible thing you just imagined will never happen. Or, at least, not in exactly that way. No, it won’t happen in the slightly different other way you imagined either. It might still be stressful and difficult and complicated and a lot of work, but it won’t be whatever you just visualized. It can’t be.
  • You can still do small things, every day, to get yourself closer to the experiences you want to have right now — the tasks you want to prioritize, the connections you want to strengthen, the time you want to take to care for yourself, etc. — and those experiences will help you deal with the hours/days/weeks ahead.

I’ve found this to be one of the truest things about life I’ve ever learned. The balance of what you can’t control and what you can.

So that’s what I’m thinking about this morning, mostly because last night I was thinking about how long it was between now and next year, and how I didn’t want to have to wait for what I wanted.

Then I reminded myself that I didn’t have to wait to write another 1,000 words of my draft, or pitch another client, or send my mom something nice on Facebook, or any of the stuff that I thought I wanted in the future but actually wanted — and could go after — right now. ❤️

*I grew up in the Midwest (before leaving to bounce from one coastal city to another and then decide to move back), but I did not grow up in Iowa. My hometown is actually in rural Missouri, a two-hour drive from where I live now.

**My current projections indicate it’s more likely I’ll hit financial independence — aka “the point at which I can live off my investments” — by 50, but that’s just incentivizing me to try to beat that target.

***I’m growing out a pixie cut. “How long my hair might be” is a relevant concern.

****Why not do all of this stuff today? Because you can’t do everything today. Nobody can.

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