Possibility Paralysis

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-01-30 08:00:00-05:00 No comments

Most of you know about "decision indecision" or "decision paralysis", where you stand there in the supermarket and waste an hour trying to figure out which of 32 different kinds of toothpaste to buy (most of which are actually not different in any significant way except for the flavor). Creative people sometimes have a first cousin of the same problem: they look at all the different possible projects they could work on, and they vapor-lock. Or they look at the encyclopedia-ful of characters and situations and things and possibilities they could include in their new work, and they have no idea which end of that sandwich to begin biting into.

Too many choices are as bad as no choices at all, because they amount to the same thing: no real agency. Bad enough when we're buying toothpaste or pulling voting levers; far worse when it's something we're supposed to have agency over in the first place, our own creative works.

People fear lost opportunities. FOMO, we call it these days. Doing justice to this possibility means not doing justice to that possibility, since you only have ten fingers to type with and twenty-four hours in a day to use them. The only way to get anything done is to get something done, but the something you're getting done always feels like it's getting done at the expense of that other really cool thing also getting done.

Time management and productivity gurus talk a lot about journaling and work tracking. So do mental health professionals, and for related reasons. Most of what actually gets done in a given day tends to vanish into the blur of that day, so it's too easy to work your tuckus off and not feel like you've accomplished anything. If you log what you actually did do that day, even just in cursory form, it's more obvious in retrospect that you did in fact accomplish something.

What I'm saying is this: Shedding the "how do I do all the things" mindset isn't a matter of becoming more efficient. It's a matter of seeing more clearly, taking more direct satisfaction in, one's efforts. Working on a smaller story that you have more direct control over (if only because it covers that much less surface area), instead of a larger and more ambitious one with everything in the world in it, is not a "compromise" if you realize you'll end up with a better story as a result, because you can more completely do justice to it.

Few people talk about motives in creative work: why do you do something? Most people, if grilled about why they chose this story to tell over that one, would usually respond with one of a few stock answers: because it was a cool idea; because it seemed like a fun thing to do. We tend to take those replies as being honest on their face, and not ask people to reflect on whether or not they are doing something simply because they want to be spoken of as the one who did it, whatever the cost to them or the work. And because we live in a world that rewards outsized ambition over modest, focused creation, it's too easy to grow up thinking the best books are the biggest ones, and that you have nothing to offer if you can't fill a thousand pages by next year.

Tags: creativity creators writers writing