An enduring question when encountering a new acquaintance is, “What do you do?” (This is especially true if you live in North America). Answering that question—particularly if you want your answer to be compelling and memorable—can be hard. The safe answer is to go with a functional description of what you do. Even comprehensive statements of job function can sound still sound vague and abstract (and be in no way unique). When you want to stand out in your answer, you need to reframe how you define the question.
Creative work is some of the most important work that we can do. It can also be the hardest. When you pour part of yourself into your work, you open yourself up to criticism. You can tie yourself in knots anticipating the feedback, critiques and suggestions of others. You can try for perfection, or you can put off the work until the time is right and you are in the space to get it done. In the long run, you are engaging in avoidance and sabotage. In no way do you escape the worst critic of all.
We are all familiar with the expression “the elephant in the room.” It is something that I have come to expect and even seek out when facilitating others. The reality, though, is that we each have our own personal pachyderms that dutifully follow us through life and haunt our work. The longer that we put off doing things, the more that we defer problems and the longer that we avoid pursuing our goals and ambitions, the larger and more omnipresent becomes the grey mammoth in our grey matter. You can learn to make the elephant go away. First, though, you need to recognize it for what it is, and what it represents.
I seem to have a bit of a thing for metaphors lately. Particularly metaphors of exploration. This week, I found myself challenged in ways that I haven’t been previously on several fronts that I currently lack sufficient expertise. Any one challenge might have been daunting. Encountering all of them at once was downright intimidating. That put me in mind of a movie that I once loved. In that, I began to find some answers.
I have been down the rabbit hole, exploring my process of note taking, systems and organizing over the last few weeks. It has been an intensive and extensive journey, and one that I have detailed here. It started with a frustration with the continued dysfunction of my files and references, and expanded into a more general indictment of how I take notes. Sönke Ahrens’ “How to Take Smart Notes” provided some valuable prompts about what is possible with notes, and in particular underscored for me an essential function that I had long been ignoring. I find myself at a solution that I believe will work for me, which is what each of us needs to find. What I’ve learned may not serve you directly, but it may offer some insights for your own journey.
It is a little astonishing how this happens. You start with a problem, work back to first principles, figure out how to proceed forward and then find yourself back in the same vicinity of where you left off. In my case, I started with a systems problem around files that turned into a much broader exploration of notes, ideas, thinking and how I work. Now that I’ve landed on most of an approach that I think can work for me, I’m trying to figure out how to manage and organize that in reality. This brings us right back to software and systems, and the realization that what I hope to do may not be quite so easy as I had anticipated.