Posted by Peter Himmelman
Here’s a question from Melanie R. of Baltimore, Maryland:
“Dear Big Muse what’s the best way to actually finish something? I walk around with all these ideas for things I want to accomplish creatively but I can’t seem to see them through.”
Melanie, without knowing what you’re working on specifically, I’m going to take a guess and say that in general, your problem might be that you’re dreaming too broadly.
Notice I didn’t say that you’re dreaming too big. One never wants to limit the scope of their aspirations, at least not from the outset. What I mean by broadly is that ideas come into being just like starfish, poison mushrooms, and wildebeests:
They all start from very tiny pieces.
That is, they grow into complexity from microscopic parts. In the case of living organisms, I’m referring to individual cells - but even they can be broken down into smaller and smaller components: molecules, atoms, and quarks. But for now, let’s not go there -as a matter of fact Melanie, let’s never go there.
How does this relate to your problem? Here’s an example I often use from the world of songwriting which might help shed some light on what I mean.
Let’s say I want to write a song and I’m motivated by two factors, one of which will be helpful in terms of my finishing the song and one less so. See if you can tell which is the more effective motivation:
1. I have a desire to become FAMOUS! I want to become the greatest songwriter of all time.
2. I have a desire to write a song for my Mother for her 75th birthday party which will take place at my brother’s house in Minneapolis on Tuesday April 17 at three pm where there will be about thirty guests at the party and if I were to perform a song about my Mom there -a lovely song that captured her wonderful energy, her kindness, her beauty, and the love we all have for her, then I would feel special, my Mom would feel like a queen for a day, and I could bask in the love and the appreciation that everyone would have for me.
Sorry for the run-on sentence but do you see where I’m going? In the second motivation, I’ve begun to break down my desire to write a song into small pieces. Not quite cells or quarks, but small do-able pieces that will no doubt motivate and stimulate the completion of the task.
In the first motivation, the one where I want to be (FAMOUS!) there is a big dream, which as I said earlier, is a great thing and you need that impetus to fuel the overall cause. But without breaking the dream into specific components, the chance that a song - or anythng else- will actually emerge hovers around zero.
The specificity of need has to be identified.
Why are you doing whatever it is you want to do? When do you need it done? And perhaps, most importantly, for whom are you doing this? Who will benefit from its emergence in the world? If you can answer those questions you will be well on your way to “finishing things.”
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July 10, 2012 | 6:00 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
The Ethics of Our Fathers, an ancient Jewish text, tells us there are four distinct types when it comes to anger:
Can you see yourself? The best of the bunch is number one. This person hardly ever gets angry and when she does, she’s easy to cheer up. At the bottom of the list is of course, the least desirable type. Easily annoyed and very difficult to assuage.
I’m number three. It takes a lot to make me angry. I pride myself on the fact that I only get steamin mad about once every three or four years. The bad part is that when I do get angry I go a bit nuts. Three years ago I got so enraged that I heaved a cedar picnic table across the width of our backyard. See if this little incident would have made you angry too:
I needed to rent a short-term apartment for our family and after the owner and I had agreed upon a price, we shook hands. Part of the agreement was that I’d need to move in the following Sunday. Our family worked like dogs to get our things packed, rent a van, contract some (non-refundable) movers and show up at the apartment -only to have the owner tell us he’d rented the place to someone else. They’d agreed to pay thirty bucks more a month.
That’s when I became a cartoon character - eyes bulging, hair on fire, and smoke billowing out both ears. After a fruitless phone conversation which ended with the apartment owner threatening to sue me for slander, I flung our picnic table with the same adrenalized strength a mother gets when lifting a minivan off her infant.
OK, that’s what happened in the distant past, now here’s me last week:
I drive to my favorite ethnic market and purchase two bags of cheese that I’d be using for some home-made pizza I was planning to make (yes, I make the dough and everything, - relax, it’s easier than you’d think.) I open the first bag and there’s a big wad of green mold at the top. The second bag didn’t have any visible mold but it smelled of decaying muskrat. No big deal I think to myself, the pizza can wait and I decide I’ll take the bags of rotten cheese back to the store in the morning.
I get there early and the guy at the register tells me he can’t do an exchange because I don’t have my receipt. My pulse rate goes up slightly.
“Well, can you please get the manager because I spend a fortune at this store and it would be incredibly stupid on your part not to do an exchange” I say.
The refrigerated foods guy comes to the register and says the same thing. “No receipt, no exchange.” Pulse rate goes up further.
“Guys,” I say. “I understand that you’re obviously parroting the owner’s general rule but in this case intelligence dictates that you abandon dogmatic principle for a broader view. Namely, that you’ll be in better stead with the store owner—the guy that writes your checks—if you exchange the rotten cheese then you will be by losing my hundreds, if not thousands of dollars of business over this matter.”
Blank looks all around until the cashier says, “the owner just walked in.”
“Thank God” I say. And to the owner, “It seems we’ve got a little problem here with an exchange.”
He looks at me and says, “Do you have a receipt?” Now, there’s smoke -not a lot- but definitely some smoke, starting to leak out of my ears.
“Receipt?!” I say. “You gotta be kidding! All I want to do is exchange these moldy bags of cheese. I’m not trying to rip you off, I just want two new bags of cheese!”
The storeowner’s remarkably calm and it just pisses me off all the more. He says, “that’s our policy, how do I know where you bought this cheese and how you stored it? Maybe you left it outside for a week.”
“Oh my God” I shout. “You’ve got to be fu*&ing kidding (smoke, much more smoke from the ears) “Why on earth would I be driving around town with two bags of moldering cheese? How could I possibly profit from a scam like this? What, I’m the guy making millions by doing exchanges on cheese, two bags at a time? Do you have any idea how much money I spend in this place?”
The more I become enraged the calmer the storeowner seems be getting. “I’m not calling you a liar,” he keeps saying and of course, that just makes me crazier.
Finally he says, “If your wife comes in and buys as much as you say she does, than she can come find me and if I see that her cart is full, I’ll exchange one of the bags of cheese.”
I slam the two bags I’d been holding on the counter.
“Now you couldn’t get me to shop here for all the money in the world. You’re totally insane!” I shout as I head out to my car.
Back home I call the credit card company to see exactly how much we actually do spend at this store. A lot. Close to five grand a year. I begin writing a letter that’ll make this loser see just what a total moron he is, just what an insane person he is, and how he sacrificed five thousand dollars for two bags of rotten cheese. Fortunately, I have the presence of mind to forward the letter to my son who’s studying out east. He tells me it’s a great thing to be able to vent, but under no circumstances should I send the letter.
“You sound like a raving maniac” he says.
It’s true, I do. And what’s worse, I really like shopping at that store. Who’s the loser now?
Slow to anger, slow to pacify indeed.
Is that condition of mine,—slow to pacify—an indelible part of who I am, of how I must behave?
I don’t think it needs to be. I’d like to be like a number one once in awhile: slow to anger, quick to pacify, and so I slowly begin to think in a way that’s totally unique for me. I start to consider MY part in bringing about the situation.
The first thing I do is to develop a sense of empathy for the storeowner. Here’s my thought process:
I called him and I apologized.
I didn’t cast any blame on him – or on myself for that matter. I simply reiterated one through six on the list above. I found the results astounding. Here’s what he said:
“You have no idea how happy this makes me. No one understands the kinds of pressure I’m under with people running into my store every minute to exchange things they didn’t even buy here. I would have gladly exchanged your cheese but it wouldn’t have been possible to do so in public. Please,” he said, “come back to my store, I’ll exchange the cheese, we’ll sit and have tea and some cake.”
I had been freed from the burden of my anger. I was happy because I was able to express myself and I was relieved that he was grateful. I can go back to shopping at that store again and best, I feel like a tiny tear in the fabric of my own, and possibly the world’s humanity, has been restored. I’ll be damned if I don’t feel like making pizza tonight.