Creative Bankruptcy

Commiting to a rambling blog entry at 7a without sleep is always a good place to start.

Music: Matthew Good – Non Populous

TLDR: When it feels topsy-turvy, it’s time for a break. It’s okay to take a break.

Thursday, August 22: “Man, this stuff + work drama makes me so want to quit all of this crap. ever feel that way?” .. “Yes.”

I spent a large part of the year working on a half-dozen personal projects in my spare time, enjoying myself quite a bit – until I didn’t. I could have been stretching myself too thin, it could have been that my latest career move was a bad one, it could have been that the projects I’d kicked out earlier in the year didn’t bring results, it was probably all of the above. Truth is, the reasons, the who and why – they don’t matter. The thing that matters is that I wasn’t enjoying myself or these personal projects anymore.

A few years ago, a coworker I knew would regularly declare “social bankruptcy”. Like most software engineers (myself included), he was an introverted type – perfectly happy to sit at home alone for a full weekend. The problem was, he also enjoyed hanging out with his friends, and he couldn’t seem to find the balance between social and non-social personal time. His solution to the problem was social bankruptcy. When he felt overwhelmed by his social life, he’d tell his friends he’s declaring bankruptcy on social life for a little while, he’d promise to be back, but he’d make it clear that he was going underground for a while. He’d go underground, seemingly dropping into non-existence while he recharged his batteries on his own, and a month later he’d be back at it – ready for another 3 months or so of a busy social schedule.

For me, my creative efforts and interests have always been cyclic. There are definitive high and low tide moments from time to time – be it code, music, photography, whatever. When the tide’s growing towards a peak, I’m intensely prolific to an almost maniacal and occasionally intimidating degree. As the cycle wanes, my heart’s no longer in it, and at some point it feels I’m investing time into something that no longer makes sense.

This, for me, is one of those times.

My friends and I have collectively spent the past few years pumping out quite a few apps, websites, novels, albums, and so on – and it seems for many of us that 2013 is a very low-tide year. There will be another prolific creative cycle, and I will again feel my heart accelerating in excitement over some idea or another. But, it can’t be forced.

The downside to the low-tide is that it often feels as if something is wrong, something’s broken. Even though I logically know that my life runs in cyclic patterns, I worry that the last high-tide was the last there will be. In my experience, there’s no cure to the worry, except to stop everything, and wait it out.

Large, successful companies take a yearly inventory and figure out what’s next. This voodoo magic looks great to stockholders and gives c-level executives something to do besides fight PR fires. The important thing about the inventory is that it’s a self-assessment, it’s taking a little time to reflect on what was planned, what was done, what worked out, what needs a little help or a change, and what’s next.

I’d love to say that taking inventory is the solution to skip over the “wait it out” phase of the creative doldrums, but in my experience, trying to logic it out just makes things worse. There are some things that just take time.

There aren’t too many lightweight first world problems such as these that an occasional cocktail won’t help even out for a moment or two. Here’s my favorite recipe, or at least the one I’ve been trying of late:

  • Playing video games with friends, and on my own. Of late, borderlands and the ps3 edition of diablo 3 with friends, as well as diablo 2, luigi’s mansion 3ds, and pikmin 3 on my own.
  • Getting out of the house, vacation style – visiting friends and family both nearby and afar.
  • Dropping the to-do lists a few days a week and just being.
  • Taking long walks with my spouse and our dog.
  • Watching all of breaking bad in two weeks.
  • Exercise.
  • Listening to music or watching movies that help break the emotional dam for a moment, recent recommendations: into the wild, black rebel motorcycle club’s latest, anything matthew good, and/or a douglas coupland novel.
  • Experiencing a place with manic weather, like Seattle, better yet, camp in it.

The general idea is to relax the personal commitments and goals for a little while, minimizing the to-do list to only things that *must* be done, and taking some room to breathe. It’s not a cure, but it helps minimize the stress until the next worthwhile idea comes along.