On focus

Hello hello and happy Friday!

Do you still not know what you want to be ‘when you grow up’? Do you ever get the feeling that your focus is being pulled in a thousand directions – possibly by everyone but yourself? Are you worried that recording your new EP might interfere with your latest batch of Kombucha?

I’m not making fun. As usual on this site, I am pretty much describing myself and inferring I’m not the only one.

It struck me recently that our generation (millennials, or whatever garbage thing you want to call us) is characterized in large part by Jacks of all trades. Everybody is a slash and/or a multi-hyphenate.

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Miranda Sings is a modern quintuple threat.

Performance artists Colleen Ballinger (aka Miranda Sings) listing her 5-threat talents is my favorite absurd example, but there’s a real chance that virtually everyone you know has a similar list.

Here’s mine: I’m a Russianist/polyglot/writer/editor/visual artist/communications professional/drag queen/singer-songwriter/electronic musician/YouTuber/postmodern gender theorist, and, oh yeah, anti-suicide blogger (welcome!).

But am I?

Yes and no. And what I’m going to argue for today is the power of no (or no more).

I am or have been all of those things up there, but – well, since I’m talking about myself, I’ll be honest – I only actually do a few of those things well, or with any distinction.

Do you have to be good at something to do it? No. In fact, you shouldn’t be good when you start out.

But unless you are a rara avis indeed, you are not going to become a master of all those domains. And in fact, I would argue, the attempt makes it even less likely that you will succeed.

Why am I not a rich and famous Russianist/polyglot/writer/editor/visual artist/communications professional/drag queen/singer-songwriter/electronic musician/YouTuber/postmodern gender theorist, and, oh yeah, anti-suicide blogger?

Because that’s several lifetimes worth of passions, and I’m not even that passionate about all of them. Some of them are just things I saw other people being successful at, and reasoned I could, too.

My internet history is littered with the abandoned shells of Tumblrs, Twitters, podcasts and other attempts at riding the latest wave. I tried in earnest for a couple of years to take off on YouTube (which for me meant getting more than 300 views on a video lol), and yet, challenge video after challenge video and makeup haul after tutorial, my subscriber account always hovered around ‘meh,’ and I never even had to learn how to draw on my AdSense account.

Surely inadequate equipment and inconsistency played their parts, but I personally believe I failed because I was trying to squat in someone else’ corner of the internet several years too late.

Or put even more simply: I didn’t actually care about what I was talking about. I got the formula backwards: trendy challenge and tag videos were lazy things for existing popular personalities to do on a busy day, not an entrée into internet stardom. These people had been cultivating their audiences since the inception of YouTube, and I thought I could just slide in after the fact and do b.s. on camera for ad money.

I’m saying this because, in the meantime, the things I actually cared about atrophied. While I was busy trying to be YouTube-iest drag star that I could, I went years without publishing a story. Distracted by what was hot – and what seemed to offer easy fame – on the internet, I substituted by own interests for the ad-sponsored center constantly splashing across our vision.

In part we have become multi-hyphenates because good careers in our chosen fields aren’t just falling out of the sky. Millions of people just like me graduated with the old-fashioned degrees we were always told we needed, only to find ourselves in the midst of the 2009 recession, and nearly a decade on, many of us are still in arrested career development. We are adapting to the (frankly shitty – sorry to editorialize haha) gig economy, and using every skill we can think of to help us get the next gig.

But we are also surrounded by a crushing din of oddball success, confronted every day by ads for the latest expensive DIY hobby, and our own friends’ (or, let’s be real, one-time fellow party-goers’) own ventures in Pinning/Etsying/indie touring/TED talking. Everyone on the internet is more interesting and accomplished than you, so the answer must be doing everything they’re doing.

Except that’s ludicrous. Almost everyone who finds real success in their field has done so at the expense of other interests.

I am never going to be a rich and famous Russianist/polyglot/writer/editor/visual artist/communications professional/drag queen/singer-songwriter/electronic musician/YouTuber/postmodern gender theorist, and, oh yeah, anti-suicide blogger, and realizing that means making some serious choices.

I am extremely lucky to already know the thing I love doing the most: writing short stories. Identifying that as the thing I could not live without was the first important step.

So what does that mean? It means I can’t learn every language I want to or master every makeup technique or get on the YouTube home page or hit number one (hundred and eighty-five) on the Billboard indie charts. I can’t make sourdough bread from scratch every day or remodel tiny houses or crowdfund my own charity backpacking trip.

But I can write.

I can’t tell you how to find what that thing is for you, but I can say it’s probably a common element among many of your interests. When I look at all the things between my own slashes, the common element of the majority of them is putting words in order to deliver some kind of message – i.e., writing.

I then further refined this to the kind of writing I value the most. Unfortunately, writing short stories might never pay my bills, but it is what I would do if I had my druthers – and really, no one stands between you and your druthers.

This has been one of my key realizations, and something that’s brought me more peace than a lot of other attempts: you can do what you really want to do, even if no one is paying you.

Don’t know what you should do? Think your passion won’t pay the bills? Following other people’s lucrative passions won’t do you one bit of good. Without whatever drives them to their own unique success, you probably won’t succeed in someone else’s field, and you’ll probably let your own skills and passion go to waste in the meantime.

So here’s the good news:

You can stop doing shit you don’t care about at literally any time.

Oh sure, you still have to pay taxes, and you might have to do your insufferable job until the next one comes along. But there’s a lot more to you than taxes and your shitty job, and any number of other things we do primarily for someone else.

You can quit that religion that makes you feel bad. You can kick the drug habit you and your friends share. You can get off the self-improvement treadmill and stand still long enough to see what really needs attention.

TLDR: You can fake it, but that doesn’t mean you’ll make it. You can’t cultivate every skill and interest, and you’ll get in your own way trying. Your time is your own, and it is finite, at least in the observable world. And you can save a lot of it by checking in with yourself to see what you actually value.

Peace be with you,

Schlomo Steel, founder and editor, I Won’t Commit

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