Define Your OWN Constraints
Today is an exercise in constraints. It’s a physical one, in that I am only allowing myself 60 minutes to write this reflection.
I have more time. But this weekend I officially turned 40, and I’d love an opportunity to catch a bike ride with my wife today (what with it monsooning all weekend). I am also having a friend over this afternoon to play some music and stretch the celebration out as long as I can.
The final bit of birthday frivolity is a trip to a casino. My mom has kindly (and a bit sentimentally) taken over the role my dad once played, as his birthday fell a week after mine. He and I would find a day between our birthdays and either go check out a new casino or hit whichever one was closest. My mom doesn’t mind gambling, but she doesn’t have the same itch my dad and I had/have for it. Mom even floated me a few dollars as a birthday present so we can go.
The cash I got for my birthday is the only cash I am taking to the casino.
The trick about gambling is you always enjoy it more the less you do it. If you can walk away while you’re ahead, then you feel like a million bucks (And y’know if you’re lucky, but I’ve never walked away with even a comma in the amount). But if you lose everything you came with, that feels pretty deflating.
And to be fair, I’ve been constrained financially for the better part of fifteen months now. My wife and I both went through unemployment. Mine is still in progress. Nothing clarifies your focus like figuring out how to pay the mortgage. Any cash for a casino feels like it could be applied elsewhere (Kelly doesn't ever chuckle when I ask if I can go buy some 'magic beans' over the past year when I felt even a trip to the corner store was frivolous)
I acknowledge I am blessed to have a wife who is also very much a partner, and we have tackled more challenges than we can count on all four of our hands (and recently celebrated the 12th anniversary of our first kiss!).
I find creative constraints particularly interesting. I love musical instruments. They are beautifully engineered to make different tones and timbres. Have you ever been completely unskilled at an instrument and picked one up? Tried to make it make sounds? Some are easier to make sound decent than others...
When I was younger my mom asked if I wanted to come to her office for a few days in the summer (I would later learn this was cheap childcare), and of COURSE I did. Tagging along was a treat to either mom or dad’s workplaces. My dad would serve delicious foods and occasionally put us to work making desserts or boning poultry (haha, yes seriously) and slide us a few dollars for our efforts.
At mom’s though, I had access to the universe.
My mom was a musical therapist. If you’re not sure what that is, you’re not alone.
That said, music therapists do a range of work but it's a somewhat literal job. She is a trained therapist (and now a clinical professional counselor) who performs therapy through music. At the time my mother was working for a state psychiatric facility that had inpatient units. Her office had a boombox and shelves full of music of all genres.
But that wasn’t the prize.
In her storage room was an orchestra worth of instruments. Drums, guitars, woodwinds, shakers, screamers, laughers… ahem, sorry. Mallet instruments, keyboards.
She could leave me in that room for hours unattended. At that point I had just enough knowledge to operate most of the instruments, but it would be arrogant to say I could play many of them. And yet I relentlessly and tirelessly trudged through this sonic playground without once asking to go somewhere else or do something else. It stoked my interest in studying music in school ultimately.
Studying music didn’t open my mind to musical ideas, though. In a lot of ways studying music is a practice in constraints. That’s not a bad thing per se, although I ultimately abandoned formal musical study altogether (part of it was teacher dynamic, my Theory II teacher and I did not get along well...)
Music theory was difficult for me to process. The frameworks and rules of western music theory were evident in all the music I saw around me, but the practice of composing music by theoretical framework felt so limiting, so constraining. This instrument plays all these tones, but if you play any of these notes first you can never play these second.
Of course, this was just an arbitrary aesthetic, but it’s one that shapes all western music whether we realize it or not. It’s why a song feels a certain way. If it’s “weird” it’s not following these rules.
Learning the rules helped unlock a world of creating music that I would never have had access to, but it also came with knowing which rules are OK to break.
In general, the constraints are there because they work.
I guess in a very literal way a path is a constrained way of walking through a forest. Sometimes that path is formed by the experience of many others, and sometimes that path is formed by just one person and willed into existence through repetition. Sometimes the path is beautifully engineered and paved/maintained, sometimes it’s barely noticeable from the spidery paths of individualistic hikers (these spidery paths notably eventually return to a 'trail head', but I literally have no idea what I'm talking about in terms of nature trail mapping).
When I was first interested in the cannabis industry, the first question that stymied me is “what do you want to do?”
The truth is I was thinking about my “Path” as some vague direction and not a series of concrete steps.
I saw a shrine on top of a mountain and a grey haze in front of me.
You can connect with people at the shrine, but they either don’t remember how they got in, or they believe you have to find the path yourself (A few enterprising guides have emerged but you can never quite trust if they’ve actually been to the shrine or are just profoundly unethical con artists).
I walked at the edge of this grey haze for the past six or seven months. I started asking myself whether I even had any business visiting the shrine. But no, of course I do.
So I tapped my network, and I connected with a dear former colleague that also happens to be a career coach.
Conversations with him have been innumerably helpful in imposing constraints on my anxieties by taking practical steps forward.
He asked why I hadn’t been earnest in networking, and it was because I felt uncomfortable talking about cannabis in professional settings. So he talked with me about it. He credited me for the knowledge I already learned, and encouraged me to continue my learning journey.
He validated the work I’d been doing and he shaped it and pushed my efforts to places beyond which I was comfortable. I began learning how to learn. I began learning how to better build and leverage my network.
Like I’ve said before, all skills are learned by a combination of putting in reps and failing forward. Of course I might have made some stumbles on my path, or left strange first impressions, but I have been doing so as myself, and it’s been incredibly energizing to feel like I’m engaged in something again.
Before sitting and talking with Matthew (my friend/career coach) my imagination ran rampant about the gnarled, snaky, inaccessible paths I would have to travail. The skills I would need to quickly build to keep making steps forward.
That can only exist in my anxieties for now. Because I realized as I talked with Matthew that I was no longer walking at the perimeter of the grey haze anymore. I have begun cutting my path towards the shrine.
I no longer feel constrained by expectations of who I am supposed to be. But that doesn’t give me unlimited opportunity, it merely allows me to exercise my own constraints in defining who I am supposed to be.
Sometimes it takes the better part of a Sunday to write this reflection. And today I am writing this in an hour.
In brief scan it isn’t a whole lot shorter. It may not be as coherent, but it’s an expression of what emerges when we put limits on ourselves.
I love seeing what can spark from imposing constraints. It immediately reminds me of those “deserted island” thought experiments or that wonderfully dark 6-word short story commonly attributed to Ernest Hemingway:
“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
Ay, I won't leave you on a totally morose note.
The weekend has been wonderfully refreshing, the rain hasn’t washed away our budding garden, and it looks like the weather might just hold out long enough for us to take a little bike ride.
Thanks for stopping in as always, dear reader.
Jonathan “Doc Wattson”
The Native Stranger