Master of None #7: Getting back on track
Falling off the wagon and getting back on the horse!
I started writing around November on Revue. I really liked the newsletter pop up on Twitter. It lacked some features, so I moved to Substack after my last post. Oh, how I loved my last post! I managed to be vulnerable on a deeply personal topic.
It resonated with a lot of people, and I got excellent feedback.
I spent the following week basking in all the great feedback it got me. This is also the worst part of it because now, all my dopamine hit came from that post itself.
When I started out in November, I purposely refrained from sharing posts. Not only was I not sure where my voice really landed — I wanted to prepare a queue of articles without pressure so that at least for a while, I could just push them out regularly. I could totally avoid feeling a sword hanging on my neck to write on time. Since the last 2-3 articles though, I had started to share with more and more people. The last one was shared on multiple social media channels. I found that I was satiated with having written that. All my discussions following that week were about what I had written. It doesn’t bother me that I didn’t write one week but when it gets pushed to two weeks, I start to feel nervous.
It didn’t help that we spent the past 2 weeks really struggling to get full sleep. I have no idea how people operate with less sleep. With or without caffeine, sleep is non-negotiable for me. I just cannot do life! So, I had an excuse too!
As Sunday ended yesterday, I had the sinking feeling creep up somewhere behind the haze of sleep induced brain-fog. I had fallen off the wagon!
Falling into a well, with high walls made of fear
I started to think — this has been a steady theme in the way I’ve done life.
Feeling shitty about not doing anything → Getting motivated → Creating something in a burst of intensity → Share with people who themselves struggle to create → Get a neat dopamine hit because “Hey! At least I did THAT” → Bask in the glory and don’t do anything after.
Instead, I should have stuck to my schedule!!
Cue, simmering in self-loathing and panic subdued by repeat TV and doom-scrolling!
James Clear writes in Atomic Habits, your habits reflect who you think you are. If you think you’re a person who works out, you’re more likely to work out and stick to your own plan. I found myself to be the guy who says big words and doesn’t do things from around the age of 12-13 till 21. Different people from friends to teachers pointed that out. It was true in some sense. I had a high sense of agency with which I explored whatever caught my curiosity till a point in school. Then the re-alignment of rewards to performing well in school/competitive exams made me say, “yeah its all nice and good to talk about these things that I like but the real prize is in what the adults are asking me to look at”. Soon, that became a pattern.
I remember the first semester exam of Digital Logic Processing. I studied for the final by writing an emulator that was in the syllabus. I scored average on the test though. By the following semester my grades had gotten so low that in a state of panic, I reverted to the desire to perform better in exams. Neither did I do that, nor did I get back to hacking sufficiently.
In the last issue, I talked about the courage angle of this switch to low-confidence-poor-performance rut. The reason courage even became a factor was that confidence (read belief in an identity as a person who did things) had started to wane.
Every single time I went on to pick up a new habit - working out, writing, coding, reading — there was a part of me, that knew I was about to fail. I didn’t fear it. I PREDICTED my own failure going forward. It is 0 surprise that when I ran out of steam, found myself full of dopamine from feedback, or just lost track for a bit, I was easy to say “OF COURSE, you were gonna end up like this. Time to stop and revert to being mediocre!”
Over time, without being able to produce exceptions, I allowed that to become my reality. Until recently, this fear was enough to prevent me from getting back to trying.
There’s another aspect at play, which is applicable to me somewhat, but I’ve noticed to be more potent in others. Binary thinking! I’m EITHER writing regularly or not! I can’t be struggling to find the right process. Someone stuck with this line of thinking would find their switch revert to I’m not X the moment they fell off the wagon. Till they find the strength and motivation to give their own self another crack at things, they’d stay down!
Plus, writing is precious to me. It is so important because it has the most consistent output for me. I have an easy creation → reception feedback loop. It is the simplest way for me to get into a habit of putting myself out there. Everything else can be built with the processes I discover in this pursuit.
Clawing back up, holding on to scraps of counter examples.
The ironic part is that the inflexion of my trajectory was achieved by my pursuit of fitness. What I achieved with about 5 years of trying to work out and eat well is debatable. But it did demonstrate to me, some semblance of consistency. Not only that, it has been a story of growth for me. Perhaps the only story in which I have consistently shown some improvement in understanding, and most importantly in showing up! I realized this month, that I didn’t fear falling off the work-out wagon anymore because I had figured out how to climb right back up! Without that fear — that barrier — to overcome each time I had to come out of an inevitable hiatus, I found it really easy to get back on track. I’d be prepared for lower performance and higher soreness initially and I’d be back!
Meditating on my capacity to come back from that hiatus, and how there is progress despite hiccups pushes me across the barrier.
Today, despite feeling somewhat sleepy, I pulled out the editor and started typing.
Follow Through: The search for a niche!
Life and content both seem to compete to find niches in which they thrive. All my creative efforts — writing, software projects and sometimes even cooking — are stifled by the existential search for “but what will I write about/make/create?”. I had phases! There was the poetry phase (cue cringe!) in college! Another time, everyone was writing Medium tutorials on specific kinds of systems they designed. In the past 2 years, I tried a blog chronicling what I learnt while developing my website with one big hit that I wrote explaining AlphaFold.
This is so far the most number of times I’ve written in a single (lack of) theme. I have earlier feared putting out what I had to say because I felt that my general musings on life, while interesting to my close friends would be found trite by most other people. Also, after a point, I started to feel I had no authority to say what I had to say. Putting myself out there regularly helpful in subduing that feeling. I had the pleasant accident in finding the account of Visakan Veerasamy on Twitter. I’m yet to go through a lot of his content but to me it was an instant “connection” in that I found him to talk about disparate observations about life and write them in interesting ways. Most people observe patterns in life but writing and articulating them allows you to create meta frameworks on which higher order patterns can emerge. I think that the existence of that niche as evidenced by his voice and that of others like him gave me the confidence that I too could have a meaningful voice to put out there!
This discovery gives me the final thrust required to climb out of the well and on to the horse!
Getting off-track in making a new routine, especially of something hard is extremely daunting. It really helps to contextualise the fears surrounding getting back. Nothing succeeds like success and it helps to use each successful attempt at getting back on track as an antibody to 10 memories of failure. Revisiting what motivates you to do the thing you’re doing can add the extra amount of thrust required to reach escape velocity!