A little chip, a rough edge, a few more passes and then…
Yes! There! You can see! The delicate curve of a cheekbone, the shadow of an eyebrow. A face emerges, slowly, one detail at a time from… granite?
It’s Sasha Goldstein, and I’m writing to let you know that I am not dead, nor stricken with COVID. Just painfully overcommitted, and very busy.
I missed not one or two, but EIGHT publishing deadlines and let you all down. Egad!
But fear not, brave Night Readers. I am here to thusly put my (proverbial) pen to paper once more, albeit — with more brevity, and just a touch more haste.
As writing doesn’t keep the lights on over here in expensive British Columbia (insert jibe about housing prices), I am forced to make a living elsewise. This is something I have tried unsuccessfully to write about from several different angles. Suffice it to say that although there is much to unpack regarding the wielding of multiple vocations/identities, it will have to remain packed for the foreseeable future, until such time when epiphany strikes, or until I find a good therapist.
For now, we will simply proceed with the facts that I am, by day, a designer, mostly of ephemeral digital things (websites, apps for your smart devices, and the like). There is currently much to be designed.
Extreme Ironing, Plate Spinning, Being the Donkey
A million years ago in January, I wrote about collimation. Sometimes, every once in a rare while, it seems that life itself is collimated: circumstance and intention point in the same direction and you can just float with the current, or if you are smart — swim very hard with it.
At other times, life just isn’t — and in February, mere weeks from the time when I was congratulating myself for work well-done and momentum gained, looking forward to twelve inspired months — the current, as it is apt to do, violently shifted. The reasons for this are perhaps instructive.
This newsletter launched in November of 2020… but it really began 8 months prior. The beginning of COVID had knocked everyone off their chairs, and like everyone, I was searching for something to do, some way to avoid dwelling on apocalyptic muttering. It was like an unexpected hyphen in the middle of a sentence: building toward action, and then —
In the time since this project began, I have come to think in terms of life before that gap and after it. After all, a year is a long time.
Before The Gap, none of this existed. No Desk, no Night Letters. Saji was stagnating on a shelf in my office and had not yet seen daylight. The Gap was unanticipated, and disruptive, and scary, but it was also an opportunity, and I, like many others, worked my butt off to make the best of it.
The funny thing about gaps, however, is that, sooner or later, they end. As we crept ever closer to normalcy here on the West Coast of Canada in early 2021, I began to find myself on the other side of The Gap.
And then, The Gap was gone: the economy woke up and work took off. I had made a litany of commitments prior to The Gap, the largest and scariest of which was a twenty-hours-weekly value investing course (more on this in future letters). All of a sudden, my perfectly collimated entrepreneurial and writerly efforts dissolved into chaos. I was working seventy-hour weeks, exhausted, and still not keeping up.
So I did what any self-respecting ostrich would do when overwhelmed by threats: I dug a hole in the ground and stuck my neck into it.
Now, eight months later, I am beginning to emerge, and in doing so I am reflecting on the silliness of it all. My mistake, in hindsight, was one of myopic short-sightedness: in the blissful abyss of The Gap, devoid of most personal, social, and career obligations, I committed to a level of effort that I could not possibly sustain outside The Gap. And although I knew that it would eventually end, I chose to ignore that reality.
This brought a particular demon of mine into sharp relief: I am highly committed to my endeavours, but a terrible judge of how much I can realistically take on and survive. So I pile on projects and commitments, and frequently take on far too much. This stems from my unwillingness to choose one thing and commit to it.
Derek Sivers wrote about this in his fantastic collection of short essays titled Hell Yeah or No. He relates the 14th-century parable of Buridan's ass: a donkey is standing half-way between a pile of hay and a bucket of water. Since the poor animal can’t imagine the future, he doesn’t realize that he can sate his hunger first, then quench his thirst. Unable to decide which to choose, he eventually dies from thirst and hunger.
From the essay:
If you’re thirty now and have six different directions you want to pursue, then you can do each one for ten years, and have done all of them by the time you’re ninety. It seems ridiculous to plan to age ninety when you’re thirty, right? But it’s probably coming, so you might as well take advantage of it. […] Most people overestimate what they can do in one year, and underestimate what they can do in ten years.
This wisdom, of course, is easy to grok but extremely difficult to integrate — particularly because it requires such enormous patience, a virtue not encouraged by a society that values instant gratification above all else. After all, who wants to wait a decade to start pursuing their dreams or goals?
It is widely held that true, long-term focus begets success, but waiting ten years to deeply focus on something doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it or engage with it — it simply means that it must remain, carefully, a hobby, with commensurate affordances of time/energy/money.
The difference here is semantic: a casual pursuit, or hobby, is a pursuit intended to entertain and not bound by demands of performance. What Sivers calls a “direction” — or what I would call an “active pursuit,” is a pursuit oriented toward a particular goal or objective (usually: progression, mastery, financial success, public recognition, et cetera). That might be building career capital, raising a family, investing in a relationship, or like John Roberts and Ben Gibbons in 2001, setting records for extreme ironing (in this particular example, the two adventure-seekers ironed a Union Jack flag 17,800 ft up Mt. Everest, which holds the record for both highest altitude ironing expedition and silliest reason to ascend Everest).
Sivers writes in another essay in the book, on making space for things that matter:
“…when you find something you’re actually excited about, you’ll have the space in your life to give it your full attention. You’ll be able to take massive action, in a way that most people can’t, because you cleared away your clutter in advance. Saying no makes your yes more powerful”.
I am beginning to suspect that the discipline with which one is able to de-prioritize casual pursuits is directly correlated with the success of active ones. This may seem obvious, but most of us don’t actually live with such distinctions. Instead, we lead lives consumed by a litany of competing number-one priorities based largely on what we are feeling inspired to work on or react to when we roll out of our beds each morning. Casual pursuits can become appealing alternatives to working on the boring, repetitive, or difficult stuff, which is precisely the stuff that is most important.
Of course, we all need balance to some degree or another. Hobbies allow us to explore things that give us joy without the pressures or demands of ambition. They can be enormously re-energizing, but for those of us who tend towards plate-spinning in all areas of life, an overabundance of hobbies and casual pursuits can be perilous.
This is why I have become, these last few months, fixated on the power of saying no, or at the very least “not right now.”
Which brings us, finally, back to the present.
Writing — good writing — is a little like stone carving. One doesn’t simply barf elegant prose into a word processor or onto a page and call it finished. Rather, one creates a basic, crude shape and slowly, painfully refines that shape, draft after draft, until the details start to emerge. This project is a joy, but it requires a Herculean amount of focus, attention, and no small amount of time & effort.
During these months of oratory silence I have been considering, seriously, what I am doing here. What do I even want out of this unruly thing? What will it take to get there? Where is this pointing? Heady thoughts for issue number 5, indeed.
I had intended to spend 2021:
- Writing and releasing essays monthly on The Desk
- Evolving The Workbench and exploring the viability of Saji notebooks
- Continuing to explore and develop this newsletter community
- Publishing some exciting new projects
Given that most of the time I have to devote to these objectives has now evaporated, what is my new plan?
- This newsletter will continue, but the format will change a little. Instead of long-ish expositions, I’ll be sharing interesting ideas and anecdotes in shorthand, and occasionally shorter essays. The same basic themes and thoughtfulness will persist, but in “lite” version. These will (theoretically) take me less time to produce and will take you less time to consume — but more importantly, they will allow me to be consistent, keep doing the work, and continue publishing.
- I’ll do nothing with The Workbench — I’ll simply step back from actively developing it for a few months. The worst that will happen is that sales will stagnate (this has already happened), and I’ll pay some operational costs while I work on other things that will enable me to fund this project and others in the future. This seems a worthy expense.
- I’ll think about topical new projects and publishing formats that are (a) interesting and (b) do not require enormous, ongoing time commitments, particularly those that require low polish and a high publishing frequency, as perfect-before-publish has been my longstanding achilles heel (one format I have been toying with is Craig Mod’s excellent photo-letter).
Someday these letters will feel more pedestrian. More consistent. Fewer epiphanies in each episode. That’s what a project really looks like when it’s working… it’s boring: the process is consistent, the unknowns are known, the edges are smooth. It's a light jog, not a maniacal sprint.
But until then, stick with me. Given enough time, we’ll figure it out together.