Going to the edge of my courage: recovery from a really bad essay

Eight months ago, I made, what felt like an enormous, cosmically weighted choice to go back to uni after more than three years. I imbued this decision with a ridiculous amount of existential significance and fought off tonnes of stressful thoughts throughout my first semester. I told myself I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t have the smarts to make it work, that I wouldn’t be able to afford to eat, that I’d quickly grow tired and stressed and be a colossal downer around my friends and family, that I was "different" to my classmates.

But, try as my mind did to convince me that it was all the logistical, external things that needed to change for me to feel at ease, the truth was that I was terrified of feeling the inevitable pain that comes from working towards something of value. It hurts. It had hurt before, and I knew it would hurt again. And I didn’t want it to.

My first semester was hard. It hurt a lot. Mainly because I slogged it out for an undefined number of hours every weekend and developed subtle tricks to resist feeling feelings that necessarily appear when you try to accomplishing meaningful things.

Throughout the winter and spring of 2016 I felt unclean most of the time. Like some part of myself that was difficult to get to was dirty.

I remained distracted while I wrote and kept multiple tabs open in the event of something bigger and more important needing special attention.

These included but weren’t limited to:

·      Facebook

·      Three of four email accounts

·      Music that promised tranquillity with a beat

·      You Tube videos of a media phase I was enslaved by

 

And the quality of my work suffered.

My lecture’s comments from my final essay of the semester went something like this:

“This seemed to me to be an oddly uneven essay. Some of it was very good; some of it really wasn’t. I’ll start with the writing—in some ways the simplest aspect to deal with. At times, you string together some very effective sentences: vigorous, perceptive, sophisticated critical prose. Then there are sentences that are marred by some persistent problems. Maybe if you had turned this essay inside out, so to speak things might have been different.”

 

Maybe if I had turned myself inside out things would have been different. Probably!?

The cliché platitude says that time heals all wounds, and in my case my wounded ego recovered from my terrible essay.

After the semester ended I flew to Perth to be with my family and read and fell into an obsessive affair with Deep Work.

Deep Work is a call to arms to become great at your chosen craft by resisting distraction and engaging in what Cal Newport terms, Deep Work.

Cal’s main argument is that with the advent of distracting digital technologies our ability to devote ourselves to cognitively demanding things for long periods of time (like writing a novel, working out a difficult problem, learning a musical instrument or even reading something challenging) has been significantly impaired, and if we don’t do something fast, it could be lost.

Social networking technologies like Facebook, Twitter and even our email accounts are engineered to be addictive. They deliver targeted information on an unpredictable and intermittent schedule, so we never know what’s coming next, but we can be guaranteed that it will be algorithmically defined just for us.

It’s no surprise to learn that these technologies and the undisciplined behaviour we have around them, checking them each time we’re standing in line or waiting for the train, rewires our brains to constantly need novel stimuli.

In short, these technologies render our brain unable to go deep, even if we wanted to.

Cal’s message made it evident to me that there were simple, practical steps I could take to write better essays. It wasn’t that I was an awful writer, and I didn’t lack dedication, I was just working dumb, addicted to digital technologies and devoid of clear methodical steps for a way out.

I read Deep Work twice (maybe three times) and then set about implementing some rules and rituals into my study sessions that now involve things like:

 

·      No Internet

·      No phone

·      No email checks

·      A hearty breakfast

·      Scheduling in my deep work blocks at the end of each week for the week following (this  ensures I don’t have to make on the spot decisions whether to do them or not)

·      Marking my sessions with a big bold X, on a massive wall planner, tallying up my hours at the end of the week (this introduces a healthy dose of competition with myself)

·      Shutting myself in a room that is quiet and conducive to going deep

·      No email after the day is done

·      No work on weekends

·      I quit social media for good

Although Cal’s work has helped me greatly to establish a writing routine and to power through at an unprecedented speed, as my supervisor Chris pointed out it’s a tad utopian.

For starters, not everyone has a deep work project, like writing a novel or a dissertation. That said, there’s no shortage of deep projects out there, so maybe this is objection is a distraction from a more insidious fear about how much it might hurt.

Secondly, people have families. My personal circumstances, in working for myself and not having a family dependent on me, means that I can go deep whenever and wherever I like; the only person’s needs I need consider are my own. That said, expressing your needs is hard, but not impossible and the people who love us most, do genuinely want to see us succeed, so perhaps the trick here is to be brave and ask for the things.

Thirdly, Cal’s philosophy doesn’t consider a person’s current state of health and wellbeing.

I am only able to go deep now because my body has had twelve months or more of big rest. No exercise (or very little), lots of good food and plenty of sleep.

This rest followed many years of endurance exercise and Paleo type restrictive, trendy diets-my body wouldn’t have had the energy required to go deep a year ago even if I had pushed it.

In short, small amounts of depth might be ok, but the balance may be precarious and difficult to get right if you’re health is compromised.

Lastly, if you own a media company or live in a remote part of the world and are running a business, social media may be the sole means you have for marketing your products or services (this argument I’m not entirely convinced of… I have addressed the objection that you need to be on social media if you run a business in a recent blog post).

Objections to Cal’s philosophy aside, by opting out of using Facebook and Instagram, Twitter and NOT tuning up the tranquillity with a beat while I’m attempting to work on things of meaning and immense personal value, I have noticed a rather interesting side effect.

I no longer have the urge to buy anything I don’t need.

I don’t know whether this is the result of not being constantly bombarded with advertising targeted to my latest Google search, or viewing highly curated lifestyles on Instagram. But since deep working, I have felt a quietening of the mental fuzz that used to pervade my brain; it has been replaced by a kind of celestial fulfilment.

And because of that, I’m sticking with working deep and facing the truth that if I want to create things of original creative value I need to go to what my friend Murray terms, "the edge of my courage." 

And the edge of my courage is probably going to hurt.

 

To read more about Cal’s work and philosophy I would highly recommend his blog, Study Hacks.