“The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.
Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how. We have all heard novelists testify to the fact that, beginning a new book, they are utterly baffled as to how to proceed, what should be written and how it might be written, even though they’ve done a dozen. At best there’s a slender intuition, not much greater than an itch. The anxiety attached to this situation is not inconsiderable. “Nothing to paint and nothing to paint with,” as Beckett says of Bram van Velde. The not-knowing is not simple, because it’s hedged about with prohibitions, roads that may not be taken. The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives …”Donald Barthleme, Not-Knowing: The Essays and Interviews
Writing & Not-Knowing
Skilful Management of Attention
If you, like so many each year, were diagnosed with early stage cancer you would be forgiven for dwelling in each moment afterwards on how close death is to you and, by extension, your family. Only natural, right? But when the writer Winifred Gallagher stepped out of hospital some years ago after she received her own diagnosis she resolved to not allow the cancer to “monopolise” her attention. Instead she focused on what she called “the skilful management of attention.” Rather than chemotherapy, she focused on her daily walks; rather than thoughts of her funeral, she focused on movies and the occasional 6:30 Martini.
To the best of my memory I’ve resisted positive thinking ever since I first heard about it and my best guess for why that may be is that a good portion of my identity is rooted in so-called “negative” thinking*. Were you to ask me to think positively you’d get a flat “no”, but ask me to manage my attention skilfully and, if we can agree on what “skilfully” means, I’m all ears.
The anthropologist Carlos Castenada once said “The trick [for happiness] is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.” I think it’s easier for me to think “negatively” because I’m accustomed to that way of thinking but, as Castenada points out, the amount of time I dedicate to making myself miserable (by how I allocate my attention) is the same amount time it would take to make myself “happy” by instead directing my attention, over and over, to those things that comfort and please me, even in the face of devastating circumstances.
*Perhaps the dichotomy of positive and negative is too simplistic of a model to apply to things as complex as thoughts?
See also: I wrote a short essay for StoneWater Zen a few years ago in response to a prompt by David Loy, a Buddhist scholar: When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us.
Out of Work? These Mental Models Might Help
Picture a black box with two open ends. A CV goes in one end and out the other, after some time, comes a rejection or an interview invite. If it’s a rejection you have no clue why it was rejected because the box doesn’t supply feedback so you assume, since this is probably your twentieth rejection in a row, that you’re unemployable and maybe you should just give up if only you weren’t slowly going broke. The box, if you hadn’t already guessed, is the employment system.
Thanks to a once in a century pandemic many businesses worldwide have gone bust and unemployment has soared as a natural, although distressing, consequence. In one chapter of Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann’s book Super Thinking they write about natural selection and how the model applies to society:
“Beyond biological evolution, natural selection also drives societal evolution, the process by which society changes over time. In any part of society, you can trace the path of how ideas, practices, and products have adapted to ever-changing tastes, norms, and technology.
You will live through many more societal shifts: economic cycles, waves of innovation, evolving norms and standards. With more people than ever and everyone more connected through the internet and globalization, these shifts are happening faster than in the past. You must adapt to these changing environmental pressures to be successful.”(Weinberg, Gabriel; McCann, Lauren. Super Thinking (p. 100). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.)
Right now we are living through one hell of a societal shift. It can seem inappropriate to talk about natural selection during a pandemic as the phrase is often synonymous with survival of the fittest but, in its intended context, what the model emphasises is that we always need to adapt to the circumstances we find ourselves in if we wish to survive and thrive. How we actually go about doing that is the tricky part because even in normal times adapting to a changing economy is not as simple or easy as it seems.
Another mental model that can shed some light inside the black box that is the employment system is first principles thinking. With first principles we question and deconstruct our assumptions until we are left with irreducible truths or facts about, in this case, earning a living in a post-pandemic world. If, for example, we question the assumption that employers should give specific feedback to us as a courtesy otherwise we remain trapped in the purgatory of unemployment we realise that they can’t. There’s just too many people applying for jobs for employers to offer specific feedback.
With assumptions like that questioned and disproven we can eventually resume our job hunt from a better, and hopefully more successful, starting point.