At the age of six, I wanted to be a cook. At seven, I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.Salvador Dalí
You like cancel culture? Try canceling everything. No more side-projects. No more project-projects, either. Marie Kondo didn’t go far enough. Get rid of each and every thing regardless of its joy-sparkles. Down with goals. Death to visions and the boards they rode in on. Come to complete and utter stillness.
(Tell me a part of you didn’t sigh with relief at the idea of doing this. I often dream of opening my task manager and hitting Cmd-A, Del.)
By my estimate, this one-step transformation will clear your to-do list, bring your project completion rate to 100%, and get your messy inbox down to zero, all for free and in no time flat. McKinsey would singlehandedly devastate human society to achieve results like that. (Too late.) Am I truly crazy to suggest such a radical move? Ask yourself: how many of your creative dreams have you actually fulfilled doing things the old way: suddenly feeling motivated to do X, deciding on a whim to do X, and then stuffing X into your life like one last milk carton into the recycling bin, hoping you can make it fit if you just push on the lid hard enough.
We all want to have done all the things. For me, simply writing this newsletter every week takes up about 112 percent of my surplus motivation, energy, and time. How’s your scorecard looking? Don’t be hard on yourself. This isn’t a lack of discipline. It’s an overabundance of ambition and enthusiasm in the face of exciting new tools. You can record, master, and distribute an entire album on your phone! You can publish a book internationally in a few clicks! You can become a TikTok star in minutes just by doing whatever TikTok is! In the face of all this unprecedented possibility, it’s hard to face reality: ten fingers, two eyes, 24 hours in a day.
If we’d just wanted to do one thing in our lives, we’d do it and get back to everyday life, content. To Kill a Mockingbird: One and done. As for those who do all the things, take Winston Churchill. Politician. Military officer. Historian. Best-selling author of a novel, two biographies, and three volumes of memoirs. Accomplished painter of Impressionist landscapes. Amateur bricklayer. Butterfly breeder.
You know what else Churchill did? He drank twenty ounces of champagne and a brandy at both lunch and dinner plus three or four ounces of whisky at 11 a.m., tea time, and bedtime. He wasn’t very nice to India, either.
So let’s not lionize the polymathic high achievers, shall we? It comes at a cost.
I’ve been stopping over the last few weeks. Half-read books, half-finished projects, into the bin with everything non-essential, turning my ambition way, way down. Clearing the decks is energizing. My problem is that it doesn’t last. Ambitions multiply. Squash one and two more skitter out from under the floorboards. Give up on learning to play the harmonica and soon you’ve decided to code an app that let’s you play your iPhone like a harmonica. (Tuesday nights are free for coding lessons because that’s when you used to have harmonica lessons.)
There’s something inside of us that makes it impossible to leave a blank space, on our calendars or in our minds. None of our dreams have the opportunity to ferment before we act on them. We habitually jump the gun and then wonder why we sputter to a halt. We’re so optimistic and vigorous and excited about making amazing things happen that we go from whim to turning the bathroom into a podcast recording studio in one click. Next day, we realize we’re not all that excited about interviewing famous authors in our bathroom. Here’s a typical night in front of the TV for us:
Wife: What are you doing on your phone?
Me (tapping away): Almost done. I’ve decided to become a chess boxer because I read a blog post about the pro chess boxing circuit. I’m just ordering boxing gloves and a chess board on Amazon. Oh, and…chess…pieces. There. Also, I signed up for chess lessons and boxing lessons. You’re not going to see me on weeknights for a while.
Wife: Gotcha. Good luck with that.
There needs to be a hard limit. We should budget our time and energy as closely as we budget our money. Otherwise, we’re writing checks for a resource we don’t have in the bank. It would be one thing if you could set some time aside each month in an interest-bearing account and then, boom, you’ve earned like an additional year for a sabbatical. But no. Time is stubbornly finite.
With all this in mind, what we really need are certified time-accountants to help keep us on track. Mort works out of a dilapidated office in downtown Brooklyn surrounded by old gray file cabinets and boxes filled with manilla envelopes:
Me: Mort, I’ve decided to write screenplays for Kevin Feige at Marvel. With all the movies they’ve got planned for Phase 4, they’re probably desperate for the help. Step one, learn how to write screenplays.
Mort (pulling out a calendar): Sorry, Dave, you just don’t have the hours for that particular whim. You’ll have to let go of one of your other commitments. Granted, chess boxing was a good decision now that you’re a champion chess boxer, but your harmonica iPhone app is still in beta and the reviews haven’t been kind.
Me: Find me more time, Mort. Who’s going to write She-Hulk if I don’t step up and learn how to write screenplays, Mort? Are you suggesting I wait until Phase 5? By that time, Marvel movies will be way too popular for a total amateur like me to get the chance to write one. Now’s my chance to get in on the ground floor.
Face reality. Try canceling everything and see what happens. Wait for one thing to aggressively insist on being reinstated. Even then, be suspicious of your ambitions, your “side hustles.” Make your ideas work for the privilege of being realized. Wait till they beg and claw their way back into your mind. Then, defend the winner from all the other notions trying to seep their way back into your calendar and your brain. Ready your fists. Arrange your pawns. Chess-box your way to writing She-Hulk.