Looking back on my life, there has been a slow gradient of change over the last decade. At the very beginning of 2010, I was in a steady-state where I embodied the disorganized eccentric lifestyle we’ve come to know and love in Sherlock Holmes, Ernest Hemingway, and Tony Stark. My environment was a barely held together mess with occasional bouts of reorganization. My table reflected my mind, with the last two side projects I was working on still strewn about it, hurriedly pushed to the side to make room for whatever I was currently doing. Each day looked nothing like the last, with my day cycles ranging from 12 to 35 hours and no consistent amount of sleep. I would work for long stretches at a time, often forgetting to eat or sleep.
The similarities probably ended at the lifestyle, but the thing is: I believed they didn’t. I believed that my lifestyle was a big part of why I could do the things I did. Not consciously: I wanted to be better at organizing my life, but looking back the reason I couldn’t move forward was that I had subconsciously connected my work to my lifestyle - in the wrong direction.
I’m sure part of it was the media-influenced perception that being creative required disorder and chaos, and that true work should consume you. True work was expected to leave you with no time to organize your life. However, the biggest part of it I now think is my complete reliance on a single type of energy; a singular kind of drive, one I’ve come to call Flow Energy.
We’ve all experienced it - the rush of learning something new that lets you make strong consistent strides, of being deep in a codebase where you can hold every nook and cranny in your mind all at once, the runner’s high of being truly lost in the thing you do, that you forget yourself.
I relied on flow energy to do almost everything. I’d wake up searching for things that energised me, things I loved, and there was a lot right with it. This was a time of unbounded learning, or building new projects and finding new things to do with my body and mind. Yet there were problems I didn’t really see. Alternatively, I think I recognised and rationalised them away. I looked at the stash of unfinished projects and considered myself a creator, not a maintainer. I wore the irregular schedules, random bouts of productivity and constant tardiness as a badge of honor. (I’m exaggerating slightly here, to present things as they feel in retrospect; in reality I’m forced to concede that things may not have been this bad.)
Then came a gradual shift, to where I looked around and decided to fix things. At the time this meant building better habits. Clean more, make a stronger effort to keep time and be healthy. This worked, but the more it worked and the better my life became from this respect, the more it seemed to suffer in all the things I held in high regard. I couldn’t work as much as I used to: the constant maintenance felt draining. I wanted the rush and the flow I used to have, but like the genii of ancient rome, it only showed up when it wanted to. Once in a blue moon our schedules would match up and I could get some things done. I was more organised, but less productive and less happy.
This only reinforced my belief that the two were incompatible. As a result I began living in phases, almost unintentionally. I’d have phases of organisation where I would clear out the cobwebs of my life and mind, and others where I let things rot slowly as I focused on the pursuits I had put aside. I cannot thank enough the people in my life who put up with this without complaint. I’m either lucky enough that I managed to meet expectations and hide the chaos, or I’ve had exceptionally kind people around me that picked up the pieces. If either of those things is true I overwhelmingly believe it to be the latter.
What happened after was partly the result of an almost boneheaded decision (at the time) on my side, and life events that caused a gradual erosion of the values that had led me up until then. I decided that I would make the two meet, if it killed me. If I was to give up on finding inspiration at the expense of maintenance, it would not be because I didn’t try everything I could. I experimented with pomodoro, different sleeping schedules, journaling, nootropics, everything that was suggested.
Somewhere along the way I became involved in the deepest personal relationship I have had until then, and started a company.
These things seem unrelated, but together they eroded my belief in creation as something superior to maintenance. I began to value the act of keeping something together against the forces of market and entropy over the act of simply creating it. I valued the people who built something, and instead of running away put consistent effort every day of their lives into making it. I stopped wanting to be the artist who should stop chiseling when the work is done; I wanted to be the gardener who had the perseverance to grow something beautiful.
I picked up new habits that were surprisingly easy to keep this time around. Working out, cleaning and meditating became easier when seen as the end goal and not the things you do so you don’t die. Diet is still a little elusive, but I’m sure it’ll come around.
Into a few years of doing so, I now find myself with more energy of different kinds. Most importantly, I find myself with more residual energy. I find myself wanting to do things even when they don’t fill me with the rush of a good problem. Most importantly, I find myself wanting to live - in all its moments. Not just the ones that feel right out of the Sound of Music, but also the ones that remind me of Office Space. Flow energy is still around, and if anything it burns brighter and more often. I’m the most productive I’ve ever been in my life, but also the healthiest.
None of this is meant to be a rejection of other ways of life, just a recognition of something that I’ve found untenable. There’s a good chance the tedium will catch up with me and things will need to change again. This is just a reminder to myself, and perhaps to anyone like me that there are things we seem to forget when we glorify the creators: that most of life is maintenance, and that’s not a bad things Look behind the biggest accomplishments of the humanity and I promise you there will be men and women who carried that dream into reality and then provided customer support.
It’s something that took me a long time to learn, but I spend more of my life as a maintainer now than as a creator. I believe I’m better for it.