Scott Stevenson’s article “How To Finally Make Something” came up in a Twitter conversation that started with a tweet on problems with most productivity stuff by Sasha Chapin. In the article, Scott claims that people struggle in their creative process and their most important work because they engage in so-called fantasy games. These games seem to help us progress towards goals, but they can often be a distraction and become a method of procrastination. Scott identifies learning syndrome, tool syndrome, process syndrome, and maintenance syndrome. In a nutshell, people spend time learning (e.g., reading books, taking courses), improving their setup and toolchain, figuring out the best productivity system, and getting bogged down in small maintenance tasks (that they could probably delegate, automate, or remove). If you want to read more about them, check out Scott’s article.
I want to extend his thoughts around these fantasy games, focusing on why we engage in them. A common explanation is that they are easy, and doing the real work is hard. When the real work is creative, we’re putting ourselves out there, making us vulnerable. Our work can be a hit or fail, and unpredictability can be hard to swallow. If we’re unsure about the goals, there may be negative emotions associated with it (which was Sashas point in the original tweet). These are all great points, and I have observed them within myself. Around a year ago, I wrote about “exploration and exploitation”. I connected exploration to procrastination, communities, and the self-help industry (in a follow-up post, I talked about exploration and FOMO as a trap). Reading Scott’s article somehow gave me an epiphany and a new perspective on them.
Let’s talk about the industry first. People understand the value of education and good tooling, so it’s evident that we sell them. Authors, toolmakers, and course creators typically make profits selling their products and not through the outcomes of their buyers and students. Yes, they need success stories or testimonials, but buyers who don’t follow up on their intentions have still brought them money. And those addicted to buying tools and learning material drive down prices for everyone. There’s no criticism of anyone involved here, but we need to understand that there are economic incentives that drive these fantasy games as well. Even if you’re not in the business of selling information, if you want a visible personal brand and be known for something, the best way is to curate information. Your work doesn’t provide enough content to get started (and likely under NDA anyway).
Now let’s talk about community. Of course, commercial communities around exploration are a part of the industry. But even if we remove the profit incentive, humans are (generally speaking) social creatures who like to be part of a network of like-minded peers. Now, there’s the catch. Social connection relies on conversations, but what should the subject of these conversations be? Work is a prominent topic with people in a similar field, and you joined a professional community for that purpose.
Talking about your work to show what you’ve done and asking for feedback can be challenging and makes you vulnerable. It can also appear selfish if everybody talks about that. And now we’re back to the fantasy games. Tools and processes can provide unlimited fuel for conversation and create bonds and sub-identities, all without the discomfort that comes with revealing too much of what you do. A tech industry veteran and a recent boot camp graduate can fight or bond over whether vi or emacs is the better text editor or whether you should indent code with tabs or spaces. If you’re not in tech, I think you can find plenty of examples in your industry or creative field. As I already said earlier, your work doesn’t provide enough talking points, and you don’t want to appear full of yourself, so it’s essential to consume a lot of stuff not just for its own sake but also so you have things to talk about that others may know as well.
Now here’s the flip side of the coin. If you want to build community and bond with peers in your field, it can be instrumental to geek out over tools and processes. The minimal investment you need to make in these areas to do your work may not be sufficient for contributing to a community that rewards knowledgeable members and opinionated takes. Of course, you don’t need to be a top community contributor. You can be happy and productive toiling for yourself and not care about status games and peer recognition, but I believe it makes it harder to socialize. It’s a trade-off.
This realization (which makes sense, I hope) is vital for me. I think I am not very prone to these fantasy games. Sometimes I feel that I should learn more stuff, but I quickly understand that it won’t help me with my goals because I need to put what I already know into action. I also realize that the tools aren’t what is holding me back. If anything is stopping me, it’s perfectionism or lack of resources (due to trying to do too much). I feel I’m now on the other extreme, and sometimes investing a little more into processes and maintenance could be beneficial, but that’s a topic for another day.
For now, I’m getting at the following: I feel I’m not good at socializing and connecting with peers because I’m focused too much on myself and my work and don’t pay enough attention to the talk of the town. Yes, this talk might be just gossip that’s distracting me, but I still feel I want to join the conversation. However, doing so would demand making myself more dependent and connected to what others do and think, something I generally avoid and that would feel inauthentic to me.
I wish I could offer a conclusion to this blog post, but I don’t have any yet. It’s just a point that has gotten clearer to me, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.