On Silence

5 minute read

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. — Dylan Thomas

I have been trying to write unsuccessfully this month, something, anything really. It seems that I have run out of ideas. Or perhaps out of steam. My attention is diverted in too many ways to allow for the required focus to actually produce anything. I have become a consumer. I have noticed in recent months that my ability to control my own mind is growing weaker and weaker to the point where at any given moment, I might drift off into a state of unpresentness. So I have fallen silent. This is almost entirely my own fault as the urge to pick up the phone and look at Twitter or Instagram or the markets is completely my own. These things of no real importance have become the moments of my spare time. So much so that when I want to actually do something productive, my physical energy level can only stand a few moments before needing a break. How can one hope to create something interesting when allowing only five minute increments in which to do it? Even while writing those 177 words, the urge to pick up my phone or gaze out the window thinking of anything else was immense. Concentration is both a skill and a habit and the harder you work on the latter, the stronger the former becomes. But like physical exercise or diet control or anything else, it is easier to allow it to lapse, knowing of course somewhere that the longer it lapses, the hard it is to regain.

Strength in all things comes through effort and trial. Weakness comes in comfort and sloth. I’m rereading Antifragile and one of the tell tale differences between fragility and antifragility is psychological comfort versus psychological discomfort but with a sense of adventure. I realize that much of my adult life has been focused on gaining as much psychological comfort as possible. Physically at times I have veered into discomfort through training and effort and those times have been some of my most proud. Rarely psychologically have I done the same. That sense of adventure is missing. Even during my sabbatical, I did comfortable things. This hit home recently when I saw Tim Ferris’s TED talk on fear setting. In it, he talks about his process for identifying and effectively destroying fear as opposed to finding goals to chase. Fear setting is the corollary to goal setting but few of us ever explicitly do it. We let our fears unconsciously sabotage our best efforts. We worry about all the terrible things that might happen from action but fail to examine the terrible things that might also happen from inaction. It is easier to imagine ourselves as humiliated because of some action we wrongly took than it is to imagine ourselves as bitterly regretful over things we were too afraid to do. Yet those results of inactivity are what lead to a disappointing life. No one who ever wrote a terrible book later wished they had sat on the couch watching TV instead. But plenty of us will look back and wonder what might have been different if only we had written a terrible book. Replace book with any goal. Inactivity, the silence of our actions, is what we will one day look back on with regret. And regret is the most awful emotion.

My silence comes from a division of attention and an internal critic with a deafening voice so overwhelming as to have become normal, as if the deafness of my creativity is how it has always been and not an artifact of being shouted at all the time. I am afraid to write a terrible book or play terrible music or draw terrible things. But literally doing those things can result in no real harm. The worst possible case is that I will have written a terrible books that my friends won’t even read while saying nice platitudes like “Wow 360 pages is a long book, I’m sure that means it’s good.” If your ego can’t stand doing something terrible at first, you don’t have to worry about doing anything great.

Much of this fear comes from being externally motivated. It’s why I once wanted to be an actor. I loved the feedback. But hidden within that is a desire to be a craftsman, motivated only by the excellence of the work. The internal critic has no power there because I alone am the judge of the craftsmanship. Unleashing that intrinsic motivation, the desire for excellence, could be a key to unlocking the silence. Overcoming the fear of being wrong or terrible can be done by just focusing on the work. The happiest artists are those who are consumed with the excellence of their work and not the reactions to it. Worry less about what horrible things might happen when you take action and focus on the work.

Humans are bad at examining the effects of inactivity. It will always be easier to see the results of some action than at some point in the future see the results of not having taken an action. The “what if” can never really be answered which makes it so intractable. But by focusing on the worst case, which is what Ferriss prescribes, we can see with better focus what might happen if we take no action at all towards our goals. What might life be like in 3 or 6 or 12 months if you take no action at all towards your goals? The easiest answer is that life will be exactly like it is today. Am I satisfied with that or does it terrify me to think of being in the exact same place a year from now? Where is the sense of adventure in that?

Silence can be deafening in that by remaining silent on our goals, we become deaf to what our true potential might be. There is a time for silence but it should not be the norm. Make loud, raucous noises towards your dreams as often as you can. That is one key to a fulfilling life.