Plans, Furniture, and Walls
Few things are as challenging as trying to plan a life, yet here I am trying to figure it all out. Maybe I'm dumb for trying; it seems like there's an advantage to spontaneity. Stephen King, one of the best to ever write, describes his characters as the leaders of the story—not him. As the author, he's just documenting what they would do if they were real. There's no "plotting" the story beforehand.
As he reads, revises, and rewrites, he pays more attention to find underlying themes to emphasize accordingly. But it wasn't premeditated. It's a result of him following the story first and then realizing it's significance.
Mr. King, that's a grand strategy to write a fictional character's life, but if I followed the same plan for my real life, I can't go back to revise and rewrite. Once a chapter of my life goes by, it has to be right. There are no revisions. Only me and the story.
I've only been working here since June. It's a mid-August hot-as-hell Friday afternoon in downtown Austin. We're a company of 15 people—of which only about four come in to the office on a typical day—and for months, we've been talking about rearranging the office. There are pressing issues and emails to be answered, but it's been too long. They decide we'll set aside this afternoon to finally do it.
Instead of moving furniture around willy-nilly, it feels like we ought to have a plan. What if we shifted these desks nearer the door and pushed the couch to their spot? I think we need to put this big table somewhere else. Maybe splitting up that group of desks is a good idea.
Planning could go on forever, but if you know about tech startups, you've heard about "minimum viable products" and "agile development." In a way, the same principles apply here. Instead of opening AutoCAD and drawing up the room down to square-inch precision, we decide to make small changes first and iterate along the way. We start by rotating some of the desks that were near the door.
(The room is one big box—you can see clear to the back from the entrance, where the windows overlook 6th Street. On the left side of the room are three groups of desks, each made up of four tables horizontally situated. Directly to your right, there's a short sofa perpendicular to the door, a large massage chair struggling to hide in the corner, and a tall table that measures about 8 feet long and 5 feet wide with folding stools surrounding it. Near the windows in the back are small "rooms" separated by thin walls, glass and sliding barn doors. When I came in to interview here, I sat in the room on the left side, and when I walked out to meet the folks in the neighboring space, they already knew everything about me.)
While making that first move with the desks, we realized it was nice when that space opened up. We decided to remove the desks completely and try the couch in that spot.
Once the couch was there, we realized it wasn't such a good idea, but it might fit well where the tall wooden table is now, so we moved it there. Before we knew it, the entire room was in disarray—as it should be during a big change.
It all started with one catalyzing moment of moving two desks from a wall and adjusting from there.
"Do you know what I like about chaos?" asks the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). "Chaos is fair."
It's true—chaos has no favorites and gives nobody time to plan. Other than perhaps, the man who embraces it. It's one of those villainous lines that makes you think, deep inside: that makes more sense than I wish it did.
Right now, I feel stuck because there is no chaos. Nothing is going on, no villain, no war to fight and no battles to win. If there were, at least something would be happening. It might not be progress—depending on how you define the word—but it sure would be action, and that's something.
Though I can't rewrite the pages of my own life once I've written them, I can adjust quickly. I dropped out of high school, but any college will take money for me to go back to school, get a degree, have some student debt and struggle for a job to end up in the middle class. (Not a bad idea, but not my primary goal.)
I could also leave for Croatia to become a sailor, or run away to Maine and write novels for the rest of my life. (Don't ask me how, but these things are possible.) The problem isn't the ideas, it's the fact that I haven't made a move. There are two sides to this coin:
- There might be other opportunities lurking in the shadows. There are unknowns in my life that I know will become clear in the coming months, and once those developments come to pass, they could give me direction. Maybe I should prepare for them so I can seize the initiative when they happen.
- There might be nothing to anticipate. It could follow that I make no progress because of developments I expected to happen, so instead I'll have to force myself into a situation where change happens.
I'm not sure who the story was about or whether it's true, but I hear there was an author who would gamble away all his money soon after writing a novel to motivate himself to write again. It goes that since he knew comfort and contentment afforded him by success would make him complacent, he put his back against the wall by gambling and forced himself to write again—to survive.
It's the same, for example, when you give yourself a deadline on a project. If I tell you that you have to read an entire book by tomorrow or else you will die, all of a sudden, the rest of your priorities fall away and you'll find every hour to read the book. I've had similar days—not that anyone threatened me with death—where I pushed myself to my limits by telling myself I had to. Procrastinators know this. With their backs against the wall, they focus and get the job done with intense energy, meeting the deadline and sometimes producing excellent work.
It's about time I put myself against the wall. I live with my parents, so my overhead is low, and I feel no pressure for money. That's probably a good thing since I'm motivated by myself to get a job (and as of this writing, I have a great and enjoyable one), but that probably means I'm not moving as much as I should. In fact, I'm a bit obsessed with saving money at this point. I worry about going to church because it's 15 miles each way and I don't have that sort of money. (Or at least that's what I tell myself.)
Getting out of the house would put me in a new room and put me around some new furniture. I'll be forced to learn new things and be responsible for myself. I'd see new people and have a bit more (and less) freedom in many ways. There are plenty of disadvantages, but I'd create some velocity, and that's what matters.
Why don't I do it? I'm scared, that's all. I think I need a plan because planning my life is as easy as planning and improvising office furniture. But here's what I tell myself, knowing that it won't turn out like a fairy tale:
I'll never be able to rewrite the pages of my story if it all goes wrong,
but I sure as hell can keep writing.