Reflections on Aphorisms #38

Today I’ve had some more work to do, and I’ve also been trying to get through some writing backlogs. As usual, I sort of go in scattered motions toward everything simultaneously, so I’ve been polishing off a freelance project, getting back into work on my own games, and starting a master’s program simultaneously.

I’ve also been listening to An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Amazon affiliate link), and there was a quote in it that matched up to an article in the Harvard Business Review I also read recently. I’m falling into a bit of a rut on the productivity stuff, and I should get back to exploring my horizons now that I’m moving more concretely in the right direction, but I’ve found it to be really valuable.

Aphorism 61

Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive.

Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Interpretation

This probably doesn’t need a whole lot of interpretation, but it relates to my personal struggles with productivity quite a bit.

I am a worrier. I will lose sleep over social interactions that other people probably weren’t even paying attention to, how I signed my name in a guest book, if I should have gone to bed earlier, and various other sundry things.

I’ve also got a strong neurotic tendency. Things bothered me a lot when I was younger. Sometimes they still do (I have somewhat idiosyncratic things that bother me that I know aren’t logical), but I overcame most of it by simply adopting the counter-point and choosing to let go. If something bothered me, I would either deal with it or decide that it didn’t matter and actually orient myself around that (as opposed to suppressing my emotion and burying it). The result was that I became very decisive and active in many ways.

You can’t do the same thing with worrying. There’s something very valuable to be said about living in the moment, and wiser people than me have talked about the virtues of emotional detachment, but I don’t think that it’s a good idea for most people, especially because worrying does play a role in our lives (even if it’s something that extends well beyond its right purpose in most cases).

Rather, the solution is active consideration, what Hadfield calls “anticipating problems” and which bears resemblance to the Stoic methodology that I’ve been talking about recently.

The secret is that worry can’t be a passive state. If you let yourself slip into anxiety, as I am often prone to doing in my own life, you move yourself away from what you should do. I have a really hard time asking people for assistance that isn’t strictly their responsibility (I’m a master at being needy, though; I’m just not willing to impose), and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that I’m thrilled when people ask me for help but I don’t let that logically percolate through. If being asked for help thrills me, it will probably thrill others, or at least let them know they are respected, and I can always ask in a way that does not invoke commitment on their part.

Moving on, however, there’s another step here which falls into the notion of self-actuation. Solutions are important, not just problems. I’ve heard it said that drowning people are focused more on the fact that they are drowning than on the ways to recover gracefully, which is why they tend to drown without help in even seemingly unlikely conditions and can be dangerous to others who are trying to help them. Only having one close call myself, I don’t recall this from personal experience: I didn’t consider myself to be in any risk, though apparently my swimming was showing signs of issues; it’s likely I was in over my head metaphorically but not yet literally.

However, the key here is that if you focus on the problem, it’s difficult to take the action that leads to the solution. As a teacher I got to see examples of this all the time in practice, both in myself and in those around me.

As for myself, I often had issues with classroom behavior my first year teaching. The class was a notoriously rough one (and I had less support than would be nice because my position had changed mid-year), and I was definitely in the drowning person’s shoes more often than not. My focus was on whatever the greatest incident of the day was (and there was an incident, small or large, every day), rather than the steps that could be taken to prevent those incidents.

Even by the next year, I had realized that a reactive response didn’t work. I learned what other teachers did that worked, tailored it to my needs, and changed my style. It worked well enough. I still had a couple kids who were considered “problem students” and didn’t live up to my standards, but I’d hear horror stories from other teachers about those students in their class doing things that they never even thought of doing in my classroom. Finding solutions, rather than focusing on problems, worked. I was able to be respectful toward the students and approach them rather than their behaviors, and to an extent that their adolescent brains were capable of following the classroom structure they were respectful back and approached my class as a holistic experience rather than just viewing it as a confrontation with me as an overbearing authority figure.

Basically, the distinction between worrying and productive anticipation is how you frame it:

Worrying looks like “It sucks that my life isn’t going the way I want it to.”

Being productive in anticipating looks like “My life would suck less if I wrote for two hours a day.”

It’s not an obvious distinction, but if you combine the latter with actual steps toward action you get a potentially great result.

Resolution

Blame myself for my failures, then forgive myself and improve.

If I can’t find a solution to something, find a solution to something else and quit wasting my time on the first problem.

Don’t slow down when things are unclear; quickly decide whether to change direction or stay the course.

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