Change and terror

I seem to have reached a corner, someplace to turn in a new direction.  The last few pieces I’ve done (they’re going up as their own post so they don’t get lost in this one) are suggesting to me that the concern I’ve already mentioned—that I can feel narrative and longer works starting to creep back in—is more and more a possibility.  And I’m trying to be okay with that, but it isn’t easy.

Where I work, we had a consultant—and not some dimwit motivational speaker, but a guy with an actual PhD in neuropsychology—come in and give a seminar on some management skills, and he had a particularly interesting take on the basic cycles that people go through.

The cycle goes like this:  exaltation, terror, boredom.

It starts with either being hired or getting a promotion; either way, the person is effectively in a new job.  And they are generally ecstatic.  More money, more privileges, more of every new thing.  But this only lasts so long.  After a few days, the excitement generally goes away…you might still be pleasantly surprised when looking at a business card or responsibilities chart and seeing your name under a title that just weeks or months ago wasn’t the case, but for the most part, exaltation only lasts as a primary state a few days at most.  Within a month, that larger paycheck is the norm, and still not enough to let you live the life you wish to become accustomed to.

And then terror kicks in.  The realization that, yes, you’ve got a new title, more money, more privileges…and more responsibilities, more things to do, many of which you’ve never done before.  You may have gotten the job or promotion because you were working at a higher level than was expected at your prior job or position, but now, instead of operating at 110% of what was expected, if you keep on doing what you were doing, you’ll only be doing 10% of what was expected of you.  You’ve got to shift into an entirely new gear, one that no one—including you—is sure you’ll be able to reach…

But for the most part, you’re able to do so.  And just like your last job or position, you over time grow to master what’s required of you.  There’s no more terror at whether or not you can do it, just the stress of whether or not you’ll have enough time/resources/help to get it done as and when it needs to be.

And that’s when boredom starts to set in:  when you already know how to do what you need to do, and there’s no new challenges right in front of you.

The point of the initial seminar was that, as managers, you should strive to keep your employees in the terror state of the cycle as much as possible…I know how it sounds, and so did he, he was actually a very good guy.  His point was that exaltation only lasts a few days at most, and generally doesn’t lead to much work getting done:  you’re too busy ordering new business cards, updating email signatures and staring at the extra numbers on your paycheck.  And boredom is the worst state to be in:  that’s where complacency sets in, and mistakes are made, and your most dissatisfied workers are those who are in the boredom state long enough to just stop caring.

It’s when you’re in terror that you’re at your most productive; you’re constantly striving to accomplish something you haven’t done before, thinking through things in a new way, and pushing hard to master what’s before you.  You don’t actually have to be in “terror” in this state…it’s more about being fully engaged and committed to giving the work in front of you everything you have…though that seed of uncertainty in the pit of your stomach is certainly a good motivator.

And I happen to think that this cycle description matches up with most things in life, no matter how great or small.

Say you’re teaching yourself some basic cooking techniques and recipes (that’s the hiring/promotion/exaltation part)…you start out with tomato-based pasta sauces (very easy and tasty), trying different ones, cooking for the people you live with, even branching out to create new ones that don’t come from a recipe in a book (that’s the terror part).  Until you feel like you’ve got a good handle on them, there’s nothing really new to learn (not without adding some exotic new ingredients or taking a trip to Italy…that’s the boredom part)…so you decide to try out some cream-based sauces, or even adapting the sauces you already know to non-pasta applications, like braises or marinades.  And so the cycle begins again.

Or, say you’ve been married for a few years (the exaltation part), and decide to have a child (the terror part)…and, well…actually, I don’t think the boredom part ever sets in for this example, at least it hasn’t for me and my wife after five years…but you get my point.

When something new shows up, we’re excited by what’s new and how things change.  And then the change actually happens, and it’s discomforting, and scares us a bit, and shakes up our lives.  And then we get used to it (for the most part), and boredom and complacency set in, until something new comes along.

To be honest, the way that I’ve actually integrated this into my life is not to focus on the cycles (though it’s a good way to place where either I or someone I know is in their life, and hopefully better relate to them), but to use them as markers:  when I start feeling bored, or complacent, or even just that I have a pretty firm understanding of what’s going on…that’s when it’s time for a change, for something new.

And I know I’ve only been pursuing this strict, pure P.E.M. thing for a little about two months now, but it’s no longer really scaring me…I’m feeling more and more comfortable with it, and have a pretty clear idea of what I’m trying to accomplish and how to do it…which means it’s time for this to evolve, and for me to set different goals with my work.

I think the last two pieces I’ve done have been sketches more than microfiction.  I like them, they’re exactly what I want them to be right now, but they’re not finished, and that lack comes not from a few missing words or lines.

The point of a sketch—at least as I understand it, though I should caveat that I have so much visual artistic talent that my 4 year-old daughter can already draw better than I can—isn’t to form the skeleton of the final piece of art.  It’s not intended to in any way actually be the final art, or a meaningful part of it.  It’s so you can get whatever it is that’s chewing you up inside out of you, into the flesh, so you can let it sit, and breath, and then later come back, with deliberate intent and some perspective, to create anew the actual art you were intending to.

And that’s the case with both of these pieces.  There’s a larger story here for both of them…maybe the same story, just different days, different places.  That part doesn’t matter so much, at least not right now.  What matters is finding some way to feel okay with their brevity, with the threads of essence I can still see surrounding them, waiting to be woven into a larger whole.

And then to dive head first into the terror and try to figure out exactly what that larger whole is.

I don’t feel like I’m done with these pieces.  And I’m not.  But what I have right here, right now, these sketches…they’re done.

And maybe putting them up here will help get them fully out of me, give them flesh, so they can sit, and breathe.  And we’ll let later take care of itself.


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