Learning to be constructive

I believe it is much better to present a vision and constructive solutions than simply to criticize and point out failure. Astute readers of Without Leukemia may notice that I am dipping my toes in the waters of hypocrisy here, as many of my posts are critical responses to political statements, government policy or other tidbits I stumble upon throughout my day. In many cases, I do provide an alternate vision, point of view or course of action but I admit that, even to me, it often feels like I spend more time criticizing than I do trying to solve problems.

This is admittedly a small thing in the grander scheme of things. I am finding, however, that this tendency is again increasingly finding its way into other areas of my life. Before I was diagnosed with leukemia, I think I could easily have been classified as cynical and critical. As I recovered I noticed I had a much more constructive attitude; in most cases I managed to have a sense that, given enough thought and effort, some sort of solution could be found for most problems, that there was always a reason for hope. I'm not sure if this is something I did consciously, or if it was more a matter of realizing how lucky I was (and how privileged) and just sort of subconsciously wanting to make the most of my good fortune.

Lately, however, I have been finding myself slipping into some degree of despair, mostly in the context of my work (or alternate ways of making a living) and feeling almost trapped and hopeless. In my worst moments I find myself longing for when I was sick, and I wasn't expected to bear any responsibility, when I didn't even have to think about work, or where I would work, or whether I would enjoy it. When I find myself thinking like this, I know something has to change.

Currently, my problem seems to be more one of focus and consistency than anything quite as serious as outright despair. At the same time, I know that the lack of direction that comes from drifting around as I am now is often what leads to that sense of despair; I would really like to avoid that this time.

A couple of pieces I have come across recently have given me some guidance and a new energy to rethink how I am approaching things and maybe give me a positive framework through which to view what I do every day, as well as a better sense of what I want to be working towards. Understanding what motivates me, what makes me happy, and keeping my eye on getting there is, I think, really the key to maintaining my enthusiasm as well as holding on to my sanity.

The most recent thing I came across was something that was tweeted by my "friend" (in the virtual 'we've never really met or engaged in conversation, but we follow each other' sense) Glenn Gleason. He passed on a link to a Readers' Digest piece interviewing Malcolm Gladwell about his latest book, "Outliers: The Story of Success." There are a couple of his points in the interview that caught my attention, most notably the idea that success is essentially about lots and lots of practice and also the accumulation of advantages. The idea being, as I understand it, that there is really no such thing as an "overnight" success: In reality, success is built on being able to work and practice at something you enjoy and that inspires you, and building from there.

While I have enjoyed various things throughout my life, I have never really stopped to think about what it is that ties them together, or to find the one thing I enjoy most. In the end, I mostly zip from here to there, dabbling, but never really investing enough time and energy in at any one type of activity to really excel at it. At best, I suppose I excel at having broad interests or, perhaps, at not excelling at anything.

At the end of the interview, the article presents "Gladwell's Five Steps to Success." They are, in order:
  1. Find meaning and inspiration in your work
  2. Work hard
  3. Discover the relationship between effort and reward
  4. Seek out complex work to avoid repetition and boredom
  5. Be autonomous and control your own destiny as much as possible
Steps one and five struck me most, in terms of how they apply to my current situation. The more I think about it, however, they all offer lessons to me in terms of bringing some focus and energy to my work life. The greatest frustrations I have, and that are least in my control, relate to step number 5. And really, it isn't that my autonomy isn't within my control, it's just that it is a much longer-term project to gain some autonomy (which involves institutional structures and weird personalities) than it is to reframe my approach to my work to find meaning, work hard, realize the effort-reward link and seek out complex work. Those aren't easy for me either, but they are pretty much all about me and within my control in the short term.

I've also been intrigued lately by the series Merlin Mann is doing on CBC Radio's Spark about building on online presence. In the series, he has talked about refining and focusing, and really concentrating on what you are passionate about. He talks about thinking about who your audience is, and even about deciding on one person that you would most like to enjoy and appreciate your work, and using what you know about that person as a filter to help you do your best work. Most of his comments are in the context of blogging but really it seems to me that it offers a good lesson applicable to life more generally.

I think about my work, my interests and this blog and it occurs to me that what is missing is a good understanding of what, exactly, I am trying to achieve. At the end of the day, what is the core issue I'm getting at? Who do I want to influence? What do I really want to change?

It is a little ironic and frustrating that one of the strong feelings I get from time to time is that I would really like to be recognized as an expert in some field of knowledge or practice. Given this, flittering around from topic to topic, and activity to activity probably isn't the most constructive use of my time, nor is it likely to get me what I want.

Bringing this all around to where we started, I think that my frustrations with my increasingly critical attitude ties in with this lack of focus. Without a real sense of purpose, and perhaps even a waning self-confidence, it is easy to lash out critically at the work of others. It's also hard to offer your own constructive perspective. After all, those without a strong sense of purpose or worth have no way to evaluate themselves except as relative to others. Of course it is necessary to be able to view the world critically, since there are choices to be made. I think this sort of critical analysis is much different, however, than approaching the world primarily through a critical lens.

The way I see more focused life playing out is that, as I am more able to understand what it is I really want to accomplish, I will be able to engage as a productive member of a community working in this area, instead of floating on the sidelines thinking everyone should be doing things differently. I hope that I will feel confident about my knowledge, as well as in the impact that I will have by applying myself with conviction. At the end of the day I would like to be able to consider myself as making a constructive and useful contribution, rather than as an armchair critic, hurling stale nachos at the tv in frustration.

I've already had some thoughts about where I might be able to find this focus, but I'm going to save those for another day. I think that, rather than reacting and coming to any emotional conclusions today, I think I'll spend a couple of days (and cycles of enthusiasm) considering it. If it is going to be something I am going to be able to really invest myself in, it should hopefully be able to sustain my interest through the weekend, at a minimum.

So there you go: Another post about me trying to figure me out. Does anyone else have these issues? Do you feel like you're spinning your wheels? Do you wish you could do more?