So. I have given birth twice this year. Two books – one easy, one hard. The hard one is really twins, as my co-author and I wrote the book in English and then translated it into Dutch. It was a beast of a project, far greater than either of us expected when we got started (the beast got hold of her several years before it got me) and being the principal players in designing and publishing it, too, has made us feel much like the iron and steel the book is about: heated, beaten, flattened, currently cooling off. What was born with us in the fire is beautiful, filled with what we think is interesting stuff, it is being printed at top quality and we cannot wait for it to set sail and find its readers. But by goddess are we happy it is done.
Coming out the other end, I find myself wondering how hard things have to be to deliver good results. I tend not to choose the easy path. In fact I think I have always chosen the hardest one. I made a conscious decision when I was young not to be conventional, not to replicate others’ lives, not to make it obvious. I also grew up somehow believing that working hard was important, though my country’s education system does not favour the driven and Dutch culture instils a deep sense that one should never raise one’s head above the crop or it will get mown off. I moved abroad. I plunged myself into a strange culture, then left that one to plunge into another, making myself a double alien in the process. I got into a good university and left it during my first year even though I was getting good grades because I felt I was repeating a learning pattern I had absorbed already and was certain the other half of my brain needed more training. I didn’t think I was throwing career opportunities and a possible salary level to the wind. I felt I needed to be stretched in other ways and was convinced that my life would become better as long as I kept challenging myself, that I would get the most out of myself and out of life as long as I aimed high and did not make things easy.
From what currently feels like ripe old age I look back in confusion. How much of that was healthy ambition, how much utter foolishness? Was it bred in the bone? Certainly my family was not pushy. Excellence was expected, but not dictated; appreciated and rewarded, but not openly striven, let alone strategised, for. I do think people with a lot of energy need to burn it or they wilt and I have the kind of energy that gets in the way if it is not used up. From a fairly young age I must also have had an inkling that using all you have will bring you the greatest joy. But always taking on the maximum is not the way to do it.
This is a mistake I seem to have made time and again. Unwittingly, for the most part, though sometimes out of pride. You see people do things and think ‘I can do better than that’, though you have no idea how they did it or where your limits lie. Getting in over your head may be a requirement for making it big, but you don’t know what that means either. You just row like mad with the oars you have and jump in when you get a chance. The perpetual outsider trying to prove yourself, you give it whatever you can muster. Gradually you start to see that you are too generous, too open, too forgiving. People steal your energy, your ideas, your style, your money if you let them, and give you little or nothing in return. Strong partners are hard to come by, but you have to keep swimming, so you go it alone. Then years later you look up and you realise you’re constantly doing the work of five people and projects you care about deeply fail because you are not superhuman. Too tired, you make the wrong decisions. Uncoached, you try to jump too high. You end up with knots the size of plums in your back and an extra set of buttocks on your bottom. You no longer go on holiday and you stop having fun.
“Don’t try so hard.” Yeah. A sense of ease has to be part of it all. Diamonds are made under pressure, but nuts crack and frankly most of us are not diamonds. The bastard thing is that if you are used to fighting, a sense of ease is not easy. And yet the breakthrough may come mid-fight. I discovered this, somewhat to my surprise, over the summer. For the first time in a very long time I found myself somewhere near the sweet spot, hanging back while working my arse off, knowing I had this one, even though nothing was certain. Getting paid for it, too. One of the useful things about being under the gun since forever was that I began to feel more like a reporter and less like someone trying to reinvent the wheel. After all the searching and researching I just banged it out, tried to be accurate, give the information completely and succinctly, sift the imagery and find the right thing for the holes; I shifted and cut until the puzzle fit and moved on. For pretty much the first time in my life I saw that as long as I put the hours in I would get the product I wanted. They were long hours, my battery ran low and my patience wore thin, but in an odd way I realised I could relax.
I don’t know how much of this is a result of trying and trying again for years. There must be some truth in the 10,000 hours thing, that you have to put in at least that many hours of hard graft to master a craft. Not that the learning ever stops. But perhaps some part of success is in discovering the difference between brilliance and getting it right. You become a bit dispassionate. You stop trying to do something extraordinary and just try to make something useful, solid, complete. You know that, no matter what, you will find errors in your work soon after you declared it finished. You also know that even if it makes a mark it will likely be forgotten soon. And very few people really care what you do. So chill, a bit.
Ian McKellen says that each role “must cost you”. Somewhere between that knowledge and not trying so hard lies a Holy Grail. One thing I know for sure is that being able to work on that edge has a massive amount to do with the team you have around you. Good feedback makes everything a hundred times easier and the right cohort really will give you wings. But as I shuffle my way into my next project, I am setting myself one task above all: to practise making things easy. See what happens when I take the path of least resistance. Hope that making things difficult for years will shield me from becoming complacent or disingenuous. And in my spare time I will prioritise activities that are particularly impossible without a combination of effort and ease. Sing. Cook my way through Nigella. Spend vast amounts of time with kids. Maybe learn to surf and get rid of those extra buttocks while I’m at it. And enjoy whatever I do as much as possible.
Photo credit: Jeremy the koala being treated for badly burned paws during the Sampson Flat bushfires near Adelaide, January 2015. Photo supplied by Aaron Machado of the AMWRRO. Sent to me by my Dad.