Several days ago, when I was feeling stuck about something, I texted my friend S. We have a recent history of being very existential with each other. I asked him: “I’m trying to think outside the box. Any suggestions?”
He replied, “Don’t think just do.”
Urgh. I’m very good at thinking.
I was a very strict kid growing up. I suppose a lot of kids have a streak of this sort. I was bossy with my younger siblings, and I had a black and white view of the world. Things had to be a certain way, and I knew precisely what that was.
During school hours, kids had to be in school, unless they were sick. Similarly, one went to college. One played by the rules, and got a degree, so one could get a job. I didn’t much stop to consider what kind of job that would be. The occasions when I did bump up against concrete questions about future work were unsettling. I dunno — I want to be a writer. What’s this work business? I presumed I would be in an office. That’s where other people went to work. What would I be doing there? Office things.
When I graduated and was in an office – though not with any greater clarity about what I wanted to do there than before — I was amazed at the people outside the “office” at all sorts of working hours. Looking down from the windows of my building in New York City, I could see them, pausing at stoplights, crossing streets, going in and out of shops. I felt like I did when I was out of school sick. I was mystified. What were they all doing?
Years, some more school, and another serious job later, I was still amazed at this phenomenon. When I quit and began keeping nonstandard hours and a schedule of my own devising, I found the quantity of non-office-bound people frankly astounding. In Montreal, my schedule regularly included time at either the central or a local library, at least partially during business hours. The people I saw weren’t all students. Were they unemployed? I wondered. Stay-at-home parents? Job-seekers? Was everyone a writer?
In school we all liked to complain about the standardized tests we were stuck taking every year. But I was good at them. In high school, we griped about how SAT scores weren’t so much about actual knowledge as they were about how to take the SAT. But that didn’t bother me. A test, I knew from experience, was about what the teacher wanted me to know. Whether I agreed with it or thought critically about it was irrelevant. They weren’t scoring me on that.
I found this structure comforting. It wasn’t until recently that I took another look at the education system and began to see it as an arbitrary set of parameters that encouraged convergent thinking. No wonder I was having such a hard time playing Free Willy. Absolutely nothing in how I had learned to study or be good at things applied to creating work from scratch.
Or to creating from scratch.
It’s amazing how rooted I am in all sorts of conventions, and conventional thinking, even as I rail against the constraints of this mentality. It’s hard to break a lifetime habit.
Even now, as I’m spreading my wings, I find myself taking breaks to nestle down in small, familiar mental boxes. Voluntarily, I’ve been thinking contained. Constrained.
It’s amazing how a part of me feels happy there.
On tests, one of the answers for every multiple-choice question was always right, even if it wasn’t really an answer: “E — none of the above.”
My life isn’t a piece of paper, though. Where does that get me?
Sounds like an office.
Books don’t magically get written because I have a good resume. Blogs don’t spring to life because I show up to my assigned desk by nine AM.
Having a boss doesn’t increase the value of my work.
Time to stick my head out of my own self-imposed cubicle. It’s tough to get a view of the open road from in here.
Don’t think just do.