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My Anti-Affirmation Manifesto


I hate Stuart Smalley.

Or rather, I love Stuart for his mockery of people I think are kinda silly. Stuart was a motivational speaker character on Saturday Night Live famous for his catchphrase “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.” He stood in for “fake it til you make it” gurus like Tony Robbins, who preached that if you can just tell yourself that you’re good enough or smart enough, then maybe you can act with confidence rather than whimper in a corner unproductively. Some of the best moments of the sketch paired Stuart with gods amongst men like Michael Jordan, the joke being that it’s absurd that Michael would need to fake confidence: Michael’s awesome!

In one sense, I applaud the Stuarts and Robbinses of the world. Confidence is a vital human need. The problem is that the method is fundamentally dishonest. What if you think you aren’t good enough? What if people don’t like you? Robbins’ advice equates to pushing that thought down and ignoring whatever evidence you might have of a real obstacle, ie repressing the thought. The obstacle remains, though now ignored. If you have ever come across an overly aggressive salesman who just doesn’t seem to listen, just keep in mind that the sales world is littered with advocates for fake it til you make it.

Bare with me for a second, because I’m about to get even more sappy than usual.

Instead of blind affirmations, I think that what you need in order to be confident is strategy–knowing how you will deal the obstacles to your goal if they come up. In a sense, while the “fake it til you make its” advocate ignoring reality, I think you need to plunge into it. To that end, I think that gaining confidence is all about asking honest questions and demanding honest answers. Instead of telling yourself that you’re good enough, the question is what are the skills you know you have that you can rely on here, and what are your strategies to avoid or lessen the impact of any weaknesses? Instead of saying that you’re smart enough, the question is what do you know, and what important material do you not know that you might be able to read up on quickly in the next five minutes? And how do you build skill in the future so that there really isn’t a question of whether or not you’re good enough? And instead of telling yourself that people like you–well, screw ’em anyway.

That’s a joke, and how you deal with whether or not people like you is a whole ‘nother topic, but I think the pattern is clear. You can’t pretend obstacles away. But if you look at them directly, then you can do something even better with your obstacles. You can deal with them.


Does Creativity Require Time Constraints or Freedom?


In the last week, I have come upon two completely opposing views on whether creativity requires strict time constraints or the freedom to work without limitation, but I think both are right.

In Jon Stewart’s view, creativity comes out of time limits, not freedom. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Stewart said that the Daily Show staff follows a highly regimented schedule, always meeting at 9 every morning to review the previous day’s events, identify the very few items they are to make jokes about, and then get to work on a rigorous process of writing and rewriting. Without this rigorous process, the Daily Show would be left to spin its wheels and create nothing of merit.

In contrast, Ayn Rand once recounted that she was unable to write creatively if she knew she had an appointment later that day. Her subconscious needed the knowledge that she would be able to pay off the huge effort required to gear up to write. With a looming appointment, she always suspected that she would have to stop just as things were getting good.

I respect the craft and output of both, so as far as I’m concerned, both must have had effective processes. So is this a case of different strokes for different folks, and there is no one right method? Or is this a matter of working as a team versus working by oneself? Or are they tackling different parts of the problem? Or maybe they are working on problems of differing difficulty?

Here’s my best guess, from my own experience. Creativity and motivation require highly defined problems and clear deadlines, but those deadlines have to be loose enough that you feel you can actually throw all of yourself into the solving and follow your thoughts wherever they may lead. When one’s deadlines are too tight, you are forced into a mode of efficiency, where your solution must be the most obvious and rote available. In essence, you absolutely require time constraints because that’s part of the definition of the problem, but you don’t want those constraints to get too constraining.

One important additional point here: productivity blogger Merlin Mann’s said once that the point of all the productivity stuff he writes about (like task management systems, for example) is to help you carve out big blocks of time to do good work. I think that productivity systems are clearly really important, but finding the time to do good work is still a big problem. If you want big chunks of time, you basically need to do that work on days off, become independently wealthy, freelance, or work for Google (or a similar company that allows you freedom). As I’ve said before, I write this blog in the margins of my life, and work often needs to be broken up into small chunks. I think that can and does still work, but it requires making sure that the goals you set for that period of time are appropriately sized.

So that’s my big advice for the day: time limits are both necessary and good–an important part of having a well-defined problem. But whatever time you have, if you want to do work that is better than the most obvious and rote solution, make sure to choose goals for that period that can be accomplished with time to spare.

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