The Big Boring Middle

In my last post, I wrote about the problem of starting and how it's often fear that keeps us from starting things. This fear will keep us from starting things we really want to work on, not just the garbage that we feel is wearing us down. 

A lot of folks shared that post and wrote back to tell me that was just the pep talk they needed. This is one of the things I like best about this blog. I can reach an audience of people who matter to me.

It was nice to learn that I’m not the only one who gets a little spooked by starting something. It’s also nice to know that a little nudge is all it takes sometimes.

When I was living in Oklahoma, I started hearing an interesting new (to me) regional phrase: “fixing to.” Someone might lean back in a chair and announce that he was fixing to change the oil in his pickup. Or someone else might be fixing to take all that brush out to the burn pile. I quickly learned that this meant they weren’t quite gonna do it yet, but they were about it. Someone who is “fixing” to do something has a starting problem. Could be lassitude. Could be the heat. Could be that it doesn’t matter that much.  

Once you’ve moved past fixing to and come to doing it, there’s the matter of commitment. Once you get the job, you’ve got to show up for work. Once cracked open the Coke, you’ve got to drink it. Once you’ve asked the girl to marry you, you’ve got to show up and say, “I do.” Once you say “I do,” you are obliged continue doing until you’re done. For marriages in my faith, this means forever. Death doesn’t absolve you of the obligation, or the benefits.

Being a creative person brings with it a lot of obligations and duties, which is not something they tell you when you’re getting started. There is this idea floating out there that creative people are flakes. I’ve seen my share of people who start things but don’t finish. I’ve seen plenty of folks lose interest in their projects and move on to some other new thing. 

When I was just starting my master’s degree, the director of the program, Geoff Chase stopped to talk to me in the hallway. He wanted to check in and see how things were going. I don’t know how the conversation started or really what we talked about, but I do remember him saying, “Todd, there are a lot of really smart people with unfinished graduate degrees. This race doesn’t go to the swift or to the brilliant. It goes to the persistent.”

Those three sentences carried me a long way through my school work, my cancer treatments, and then through the process of getting tenure and full professor at my present institution. Starting is one thing, but you can’t finish if you don’t hang in there. I think about this principle every time I’m on a long international flight. It’s exhilarating to take off and have your journey underway, but after the first hour you have to start getting your head and your body ready for the eighth hour and the time when all you want in this world is not being on an airplane anymore. 

Lao Tzu said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That’s a great way to encourage a person to start. But if you’re coaching somebody, you can’t leave them there, because a thousand mile journey is a hell of a long trip, like walking from Chicago to Denver or from Amsterdam to Rome. After that first step, however, this hiker is going to have one million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine more to go. This is not some kind of smart alecky comment. On average people get about two thousand steps per mile, times a thousand, so it's just math.

laotzu.jpg

People who plan on going the distance need to know what they’re getting into. They also need to know they can do it. Starting is an impulse. You can just throw yourself into it. Middles take another kind of thinking. Middles are about endurance, persistence, fortitude, stamina, tenacity, determination, resolution, and grit. For every project that never comes into being because somebody won’t start, there are a bunch that die on the vine.

In my last post I used the parable of the Ten Talents to talk about worrywarts who won’t start anything because they are afraid to fail. Another parable is equally instructive here for middles: the Parable of the Sower. In this one a sower tosses out some seed (good for him, he got started). Some of the seed falls by the way side and the birds gobble it up. A few hit stony ground, sprout and grow fast, then wither in the sun because they don’t take root. Some of the seeds get tossed in with the thorns. When these ones grow, they get choked out by the competition. A few of those seeds land in a good place with good the right soil, water, light. These ones do great.

Ideas are like this. Which is why you can’t really be a creative person if you’re only carrying around one idea. The way this parable ties into middles is this: once your project lands in the right ground, which means once you have the right resources, then the project has a chance. But this parable doesn’t go on to talk about the nurture that is necessary. In the wild, a plant is tended by its environment. Alas, my ideas and projects don’t tend themselves.

Long projects are a serious commitment, and it’s easy to lose interest, or more precisely it’s easy to become enticed by the novelty and allure of a new project. There’s a thrill to it. It’s work to keep your head in a project. Familiarity breeds contempt. There is often clarity in the start of something. The first step is to simply leave town, and it’s easy to tell which way to go. You drive one direction until there’s nothing, and then you keep going. 

Most people quit soon after they start. Not many people stick with it, which is why the world is littered with the first chapters of of a trillion unfinished novels.

The middle of any project is what separates the poseurs from the genuine article. People are much more interested in the thrill and adrenaline rush of beginnings and are soon distracted. You have to keep coming back again and again and again. You can’t even think about product or finishing because it’s too disheartening. You better love the daily work. This is not like being a janitor, where you can clean the building, lock up and leave. 

In the middle of a big project, there’s chaos and boredom. You better be okay with that. Making things takes dedication, because like most work, it’s repetitive. When it’s not being repetitive, the work often feels like it’s not working. I spend most of my time in the middle of a project thinking that I’m wasting my time. I have no clarity on the whole.

The most wisdom I’ve every been given on the matter comes from my old guitar teacher who said, “Music is like riding in the back of a pickup truck. You can only tell where you’re going by looking at where you’ve been.”

The guy on the right is Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo). my crazy guitar teacher in college. You may recognize the next guy over as Captain Beefheart. Bill is, to this day, one of the most influential teachers I've ever had. Every day I don't practice I feel ashamed.

The guy on the right is Bill Harkleroad (Zoot Horn Rollo). my crazy guitar teacher in college. You may recognize the next guy over as Captain Beefheart. Bill is, to this day, one of the most influential teachers I've ever had. Every day I don't practice I feel ashamed.

When you’re in the middle of a project, you sometimes can’t even see the backwards. In their book A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari talk about the distinction/relationship between smooth and striated space, which like so many of their concepts have a proliferations of possible meanings. 

One way to hack the concept of smooth space is to use it to describe a project/action/system as seen from afar. Striated space is the project, when you are down in the weeds. It is where there are delineations, chunks, periods of work, items to check off of a list. Progress is made in the striated space. In the smooth space there is coherence, flow, comprehension. When you’re in the middle of a project, you must give yourself over to the striated. You won’t see the end from the beginning. You won't have access to the smooth until you're done, and maybe not even then.

You’re like a ship that has been hugging the coast and has now turned away from the known. The horizon lifts and obscures the starting point. Ahead there is open water. And as you forge on, more open water. You put in a day’s work and retire. You rise again, more open water. A storm strikes. You let it run its course. You collapse from exhaustion and in the morning rise again; more open water. 

It will be this way for a long time. You will make progress, but it will be hard to tell. There are long waves rolling underneath your hull. Clouds blow past in a variety of directions. You can count days, like someone in a prison scratching marks in the wall. You can also transcend and lose all sense of time and fall in love with the work. The second path is a better one.

This feeling is, at the same time, why so many people quit in the middle and why so many people return to large projects. They endure to the end, not because they are “hanging in there” but because they have fallen in love with the process.

And when it seems like you're never going to make it, you'll see someone out there in the distance, who has. You can use them as a guide.

Winslow Homer, "The Gulf Stream" (1899). Oil on canvas; 71.5 x 124.8 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art