43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Driving Around the Buffalo

It's purely coincidental that today is my 42nd birthday, right? Eh. Maybe.

Still, seems like as good a day as any to tell you what I've been thinking about, so, here's a little present to myself.

My uncommonly smart psychiatrist (hereafter, "The Shrink") informs me that, in addition to suffering from a modest and manageable case of ADD (ICD-9-CM Diagnosis 314.00), I also have a less well-defined condition that he has called, "an artistic temperament."

I wanted him to laugh along when I said that sounded like some serious Theodoric of York shit -- possibly involving humors and stomach trolls. But, he just smiled in that way that he does when I'm trying way too hard to be amusing. I get that smile a lot.

Still, it made sense in context. Especially since I'd just spent the previous 30 minutes rambling about the terrible time I'd been having with this first-world problem of getting back into the swing of making things.

I explained how, not long after making a big show of my interest in changing the direction of the web site that theoretically constituted my "job," I'd unexpectedly been conscripted into a half-dozen of those all-consuming personal and business projects in which a man of my advancing years so often finds himself.

And, I told him how, even as I started to pull myself out of seven emotionally exhausting weeks, I discovered that my ideas and my words weren't returning with the clarity and cut to which I'd grown accustomed. I told him how my mood during this weirdly dark brown study had been sickeningly reminiscent of the months I'd spent not writing a book. I told him how unusual it was for me to ever feel anything approaching the D word for more than a few contiguous minutes. And, I told him that I'd felt scared.

Author's Note

At this juncture, your narrator will remind you that he is a grown and college-educated man who had boisterously announced an intention to write about the habits that enable admirable persons to have long-lived and successful careers in which the “work” focus of their “creative work” ensures that they (almost) never succumb to bush-league problems like “writer’s block,” serial procrastination, or an inability to generate and execute new ideas in a timely, polished fashion.

[You did get all that, right? The part where I was having trouble writing about how real artists never have the problem that I was having of being suddenly unable to think cogently about a problem that people shouldn’t be having? Good. Just wanted to make sure we’re shuffling through the same asylum here. Back to The Shrink’s office…]

So, then, I told The Shrink about how I'd finally figured out that my hang-up had involved a surpassingly stupid instance of what Stephen Covey has called putting your ladder against the wrong wall. Or something like that. I never finished the book (four times).

I told The Shrink how, even when the time to make had been restored, I kept hanging up on a huge expectation I'd made for myself -- a buffalo-sized corpse in the road that was preventing me from moving forward, let alone getting into a groove. That dead buffalo turned out to be the content well of the American website you're reading right now. See? Buffalo.

I hate that it took me several fractal weeks to realize the irony of feeling bad about my site that's meant to help people feel less bad about themselves. So, here's what I think right now.

Thinking about the work and habits that help industrious people repeatedly create things they love still obsesses me in the best way. And, I still want to contribute whatever I can to helping other people identify and remove the barriers to doing their best work. Obviously, to a certain point, this helps me very much, too.

But, I also need to chug giant glasses of my own medicine by practicing these ideas every day — not just burning cycles on retyping them for a fucking web site. At a time when I didn't totally have the ears to hear it, advice arrived in an email from a wonderful friend. I might have it framed:

If I may offer something that might appear as criticism, but really isn't meant that way: the Internet's meta-content is fattening my eyelids like nothing else these days...

Commentary is always a few frustrating notches below creation. There's a quote from Darwin on why he spent years researching barnacles, and it goes something like, "one should not write about species who hasn't studied many."

Anybody can have a blog and post observations about things other people said first. I did it just now, and I want to do it again. Maybe, at some point, I can even manage to do it without all this self-referential belly-aching.

But, I'm also going to take my friend's advice and quit acting like the world of ideas will wither if I'm not there to rephrase it in a slightly fancier way for my blog. I'm gonna post stuff here, but I'm also not going to sweat it or let it define me. I want to do that with other stuff that you can evaluate on its own terms.

So, my birthday gift to myself today is an unlimited mulligan whenever I play the links here at 43 Folders. From now on, the expectation I'm setting for myself is to go out and spend the next year, first and foremost, making things that delight me and that, from time to time, may even delight some of you. I'll put stuff here when it suits me. Like today.

But, even as I strive (and often fail) to do better work across the board, I really need to approach that with the knowledge that nothing is allowed to get bottlenecked behind a self-generated anxiety about updating a blog. That's mental.

So, anyhow, I told The Shrink how I was feeling so much better about everything now that I'd given myself permission to drive around the buffalo. And that, in the insanely dumb way that only my mind could operate, I felt energized. Not just with a renewed brio to go make some videos and learn photography and maybe even play around with fiction and verse and vest-pocket entrepreneurship. But, that I was excited about 43f again. To maybe start returning to the original idea of sharing my trail of inspirado with the folks who might enjoy it here; without worrying whether I do it in a way that makes me look enough like a thought leader.

But, still. Focusing on the good stuff and trying mightily not to waste anyone's time (or inflate traffic). More as a way to own the ineffable process by which almost anything we encounter can eventually turn into something good -- even when it starts as something weird that you don't really understand. But maybe it turns into something. If you work really hard, manage expectations, and give yourself unlimited permission to try things, fuck up, and start over, again and again and again.

Maybe it's not really a coincidence that today's my birthday. Or that my shrink, and my ladder, and my buffalo, and my goddamned website about whatever-the-hell-it's-about-today all make so much more sense when I stop thinking about thinking, and start doing things. It's a lesson I'm prepared to learn and re-learn for God knows how many more times. But, anyhow, today, I'm 42, and I'm in the mood to forgive myself. So suck on it, buffalo.

End of throat-clearing. For today. (I'm also done with predicting the future for a while.)

The next voice you hear will belong to Twyla Tharp, and it will come out of a video that I posted recently on another site (which had turned into my secret hidey-hole for stuff I thought was too "trivial" to put here). Tharp is a woman whose book so utterly inspired me this summer -- well, I guess I'm embarrassed to admit how transparently I'll be lifting and rephrasing her ideas here. Not sure anybody needs this site when such a wonderful book already has all the best stuff.

So, happy birthday to me. And, just for the hell of it, let's give this another spin. And, God bless the "artistic temperament" in all of us. Without it, I might still be idling behind an unseemly line of buffalo.

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »