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Spring #3: What if there's nothing wrong with you?
Making sense of the parts of ourselves that cause the most trouble.
Welcome to Spring, Issue #3 of Making Time. Each week, I share a seasonal perspective on the creative process. This month, my theme is Garden. If you’d like to follow along on this year-long experiment, you can subscribe for free.
The ground is slippery with mud, the air is damp. It promises to rain soon. I lace up my sturdy boots and heft a backpack onto my shoulders, which is stuffed with a random assortment of clothing and, pressed against my back, an iron plate weighing 20 pounds.
For the next few hours, I carry it down the country road and into the woods, where there are some barely-discernible trails. I’m trying to train my body for the first backpacking trip of the season, in just a few weeks. My brother has chosen a trail marked “strenuous” and of course I said “sure”.
But I am scared enough to spend my Sundays getting used to a fair bit of physical misery. By the time I get home, I’ve walked through a hail storm, my hands feel frozen, and one of my knuckles is bleeding from a passing bramble that grabbed me. I wonder, why do I do this kind of thing to myself?
A couple weeks ago, I shared a link to an article in Psyche about the downsides of being a person with a lot of self-control. It seemed some of you felt the same way I did, that the article overly emphasized what other people might think of you, rather than the emotional costs of being overly disciplined. When a “positive”, adaptive characteristic becomes extreme, it can wreak havoc.
At the other end, there are characteristics that are often seen as negatives but that actually provide people with an advantage in some circumstances. In Barking Up The Wrong Tree, author Eric Barker calls these traits “intensifiers.” They are the strange, annoying, idiosyncratic qualities that make certain people into the outliers who change the world through art, sports, leadership, and innovation.
One example is the musician Glenn Gould. Celebrated as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, he was also known as an eccentric who wore winter clothing year-round, including hats and gloves, even in Florida where he was once arrested for possible vagrancy. He was a hypochondriac who carried a briefcase of pills with him while he traveled. He insisted on extremely particular conditions for his performances, down to the height of his chair and distance from the piano. He detested audiences and social functions. The list goes on.
And yet, in spite of these unusual behaviors that would likely inhibit most people from reaching success, Gould was lucky enough to have parents that recognized and nurtured his creative gifts. They spent an extraordinary amount of time and money on his musical training, allowing him to become one of the greatest musicians on the century. No doubt, his obsessive tendencies allowed him to fully commit to the piano and become such a celebrated artist.
The lesson most people take away from stories like these is: “a lot of geniuses are also a bit bananas.” And that may be true, but what struck me about the idea of Intensifiers is something applicable to all of us non-geniuses too.
It’s the idea that most of our qualities are not inherently “good” or “bad”, but that what matters is that they’re appropriate to the context.
I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time trying to overcome, work around, or simply berate myself for characteristics I deem to be “bad.” These might include things like selfishness or laziness. Other times, I might criticize myself for my perfectionist or overly ambitious tendencies that keep landing me in difficult situations over and over.
Yet, in some situations, these traits work for me. Laziness lets me find easier ways to do things, or forces me to take breaks. Selfishness, when not extreme, helps me set boundaries. Perfectionism really does work to push me sometimes. Even tendencies that are completely unhelpful now probably served me at some point in my past.
As Eric Barker points out, context is everything. He writes that most characteristics are like knives. A knife is a tool that is neither good nor bad. It can be used to prepare dinner for your loved ones, or to inflict violence. It’s about how you wield it.
Sometimes there are parts of us that behave in extreme ways, totally out of tune with the current context we’re in. This is often because it’s something that’s worked for us before, or works for us in moderation, or in a different situation.
Learning to recognize the ways I’m wielding all the knives in my own personal swiss army knife of a personality, then finding the right one when I need it, seems like a way forward.
Head, Heart, Hands
Things to make us think, feel, and do.
Be dignified, as a rule. I like this framing of “dignity” as a positive antidote to rushing, convenience, cheapness.
The age of average. So much yes to this. We live in a time of extreme aesthetic conformity. There’s so much more to say about why this is, and what it says about what we currently value.
VIDEO: Watch the creation of a hand-painted sign by Bryan Yonki at Buddy’s in DTLA. Why is it so relaxing to watch a craftsperson work like this?
I’ve been doing some embroidery lately! I just came across these cute napkins on Etsy (which are machine embroidered) and love the simplicity of the little hearts.
Here’s the sweater I recently finished knitting and wore for the first time yesterday.
I made the clementine cake from Benjamina Ebuehi’s The New Way to Cake for family dinner this weekend, and it is so good! It has that nuts-and-citrus, bittersweet quality of a lot of my favorite southern Italian desserts.