Prioritizing My Ambitions

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Being 66 and retired gives me a lot of free time, yet at the end of every day, I always wish I had more. My lifelong, no-so-secret ambition has been to write a book. I’ve had plenty of ideas, and I could have found the time, even during my nine-to-five years. Yet, I haven’t. Why? Because I fritter away my goddamn time. I have a personality that loves to do what I want when I want. Some people call that laziness, but it’s essentially poor time management. Somehow I need to learn how to prioritize my time to succeed.

Most people must achieve their ambitions before forty. Most big ambitions required the peak performance of youth. Generally, writers must also succeed in bloom, but there are a few outliers that give me hope. Writing is one endeavor where late bloomers have an outside chance. So, if I don’t want to go to my grave still fantasizing about the books I want to write, I need to conquer time management.

All that’s required is focusing, working diligently, and ignoring all the distractions. Of course, that’s easier declared than lived. I’ve mind mapped how I spend my time. What I need to, is Marie Kondo its branches.

Time Mind Map

I write best in the mornings, but to maintain my health I must exercise. My self-control wanes quickly during the day, so if I don’t do my exercises in the morning, there’s little chance I’ll do them at all. In fact, I’m skipping my morning bike ride to write this. That bike ride gives me vitality, something in short supply. And if I don’t do my physical therapy and Miranda Esmonde-White exercises, my back will go out. Maybe one reason people don’t succeed after forty is that we have to spend too much time on body maintenance.

I need to completely get over this ingrained habit. I need to write in the mornings and exercise later in the day. I doubt I have the mental and physical energy to write more than four hours a day, maybe only two, even if I give it my best hours. Somehow I need to make those writing hours the #1 activity in my day. After that, I have to make exercise #2.

I have a friend whose life-long ambition is to live abroad. She’s finally getting to do that because she’s getting rid of everything she owns here. Part of my time management problem is possession management. According to minimalists, owning less is more freeing. That’s true, For example, I’ve been spending a lot of time and mental energy researching buying a new television and computer, or what books and magazines to collect. I need to stop that. It would also help to get rid of all the stuff I must spend time maintaining.

If you study that mind map, you’ll notice I consume a great deal of fiction. Generally, I rationalize television and reading by claiming I only do it when I’m too tired to do anything else. I need to make sure that’s true.

Looking closer, I also realize I spend a great deal of time socializing. I’m not sure I can give friends up, but I need to make being with them more efficient. People are just as essential as food, but some of my social activities are junk food.

Many of the activities listed above are mostly ambitions I just piddle around with at best. Maybe it’s time I give up thinking I’m a programmer. I spent my work years programming, and I think of myself as a programmer, but I really don’t program anymore. I want to. If I gave up writing I’d want to program. But I can’t have two ambitions. There’s not enough time.

If I’m really serious about writing a book then I need to prune the crap out of that mind map above. Meditating on it is very revealing. I should print it out and study it first thing every morning when I wake up. I should reread this essay every morning to remind myself of the lessons I’ve learned writing it.

I find it most rewarding on waking up if I make two goals for the day. It used to be five, then three, and now two. They can’t be too big either. And sometimes I have to waste one on things like grocery shopping or seeing a movie.

If my mind map was smaller, with fewer branches, it would be easier to be ambitious with my limited resources. It’s going to be painful to give up so many possessions and activities. But if I really want to succeed with my goal, I can see from studying the mind map, that’s the price.

Afterward:

The two goals that came to mind this morning, were to write a new blog, and finish a scanning project and submit it to Internet Archive. This accomplishes one of them. I think of blogging as writing. I’ve always said blogging was piano practice for writers. Yet, I see it’s not working on a book. I’ve got to start blogging outside my morning writing hours. Blogging is essential to my my mental agility. It has to be #3 after morning writing and exercise. But I positively have to stop blogging in the morning.

If I can’t make writing in the morning my #1 activity every day, I should Marie Kondo my ambition to write a book. To be honest, I must prune my ambitions too.

Maybe I’m really doing what I want, and the desire to write is what I should give up.

Not yet.

JWH

 

 

Overcoming Inertia in Retirement

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 19, 2016

In retirement you can do whatever want – if you’ve have the drive. Otherwise you do what you feel. That distinction might be meaningless to many. (I imagine old hippies replying, “If you’re following your feelings, you’re doing what you want.”) The difference defines ambition.

All too often I feel like kicking back in my recliner to daydream about writing while listening to favorite songs on Spotify, rather than actually writing at the keyboard. Just now I was lazing in my La-Z-Boy when this essay occurred to me. I told myself this morning my number one priority was to finish the essay I’ve been working on weeks for Book Riot, and then finish an idea I have for Worlds Without End. (I do have growing guilt over not working on them, but writing this is what I’m feeling.) The trouble is both Book Riot and Worlds Without End each have an essay in the can waiting to be opened, so the pressure to write another isn’t that driving. (BTW, I’m not blaming my laziness of them.)

countdown to ecstasy

In the middle-third of my life, I hated being trapped in the nine-to-five world of work. Before that, in the first third, I hated being imprisoned in the K-12 school system. But I’ve got to admit without that outside pressure I never would have learned much, or put in my 35-years of work. (At least I’m honest about my laziness.)

If this sounds like I’m wishing for someone to crack the whip over me, I’m not. Na, I’m just whining about my own lack of drive. I didn’t have it then, and I don’t have it now. I’ve always admired people who live like guided missiles, always on target. And that’s the confusing thing about retirement. It feels like I’ve reached the target. The social security years can feel like being in the queue for nonexistence. How we fight that is important. It defines the game in the last third of life.

Don’t assume I’m depressed. I’m never bored. I go to bed every night near midnight, regretting the day is over, and wishing I had more time. Every day I do get a few things done I want, but mostly I overindulge my whims. And that’s quite satisfying too, in a heroin kind of analogy. My problem is I have too many things I both want to do, and feel like doing. My lament is I spend too much time with Ben & Jerry’s, and not enough with broccoli. (Not literally, just another analogy.)

Being the puritanical atheist I am, I’m hung-up on doing productive work in my existential random existence.

Most people think retirement is all about not working – not me. I might have a minor guilt trip about being unproductive, but I’m not about to get a job, paid or unpaid. I won free-time millions in the retirement lottery, and just need to figure out how to wisely spend them. This means creating my own definition work. Right now, I gauge productivity in essays. Any day I finish an essay, feels like a productive day. Even if I write a navel-gazing one like this.

If I actually write a hard-to-conceive, hard-to-implement essay, that takes great effort and research, I feel like I’ve climbed a mountain. That’s when I believe I’ve won out over inertia. It’s how I redefine rolling my rock.

JWH

Living Life As It Happens Versus Making Dreams Comes True

Do you measure happiness by the number of dreams you’ve made come true, or by accepting life as it comes to you?  It’s very hard to control reality.  If your whim is to go to the movies, that’s not to hard to make real.  But if your whim is to travel to Europe, that requires a lot of effort to make into a reality.  If your dream is to become a Nobel Prize winning scientist, then you’re moving into the world of chance, no matter how hard you work.

life2

Recently, my wife and I were talking about our regrets, and things we wished we had done when we were young.  We are both lazy, and neither one of us have strong motivational drives.  I said it’s a shame we didn’t do more when we were young, but maybe we did the things we really wanted to do, like watch TV, go to the movies, play with our cats, hang out with friends and family, read books, and so on – just ordinary everyday things.

Our friend Olivia has been on hundreds of vacations, while Susan and I have probably been on less than 50 each in our whole life.  If you measure success in life by where you’ve been, then we have little.  We know many people with beautifully decorated homes that we envy, but our house has the couch potato décor of two TV watching experts.  We’ve met rich and successful people, and by those yardsticks we come up short too.  But have they read the thousands of books I have?  I’m a bookworm, so I live to read.

If success in life is measured by making fantasies come true, we haven’t done very well.  The trouble is I have at least a dozen good fantasies a day – that’s about a quarter million daydreams in my lifetime.  Which ones should I have made come true?  You see, I think our society is too bamboozled by desires.

Because of television we see how millions of other people live and we think we should have their lives too.  If we see someone go to Colorado for a ski trip we feel bad if we can’t too.  If we know someone with a Porsche we feel bad we don’t have an high performance sports car too.  Susan’s brother and wife are going on their second trip to Europe, and Susan probably feels bad we’ve never had our first. 

Me, I feel I go to Europe all the time.  The two books I’m currently listening to are from Russia and England.  The last movie I watched from Netflix was French.  I regularly read The Guardian.  I watch a lot of TV from England, read a lot of books by European authors, and regularly read histories about Europe.  I love European painters, and have seen many of their great work here in traveling exhibits.  I’m studying classical music, most of which has European origins.  In high school I studied German, and in college Spanish.  And I can’t count how many documentaries I’ve seen on European history, art and science.  I once started an internet business with a guy from Paris.  It’s not like I don’t know about the place, I’ve just never been there.  I’m fascinated by Western civilization, but have little desire to see the relics, and if I did, the main reason would be to see the paintings.  Most of what I actually like about Europe is in books and music, which transcends space and time.

One of the things I realized from my discussion with Susan was that I live in my head, and I think most people don’t.  To Susan and most of my friends, the real world is where they can see, hear, touch, smell and taste external to their bodies.  Success is measured by experience or accumulation. 

I live in a different world.  I think life is philosophical, and you live it as it happens.  Success is measured by how well you digest it.  It’s not what you see, but how you see  it.  It’s not what you earn, but how you earn it.  It’s not who you know, but how you know each other.

What’s funny, is by my method of measuring, or theirs, no matter how much external or internal success you find, it’s never enough.  If you don’t die with regrets, then you never looked very far.

JWH – 4/19/14 

Twenty Feet From Stardom–Six Films About Wanting to Make it Big in Music

Have you ever wanted to be a star?  Have you ever wanted to be on stage in front of thousands of admiring people?  That fantasy is a nightmare for me because I’m so shy, but some people crave the limelight.  Recently I’ve watched five films and read one book with a related film about people getting very close to music stardom but not being famous names to us all.  For these people, this can be crushing, especially the ones who get inches away from achieving their dreams.  Some of these people chronicled in these films actually liked being twenty feet back.  Not every studio musician or backup singer wanted to be front and center on the big stage, but many did.  These films are:

Twenty Feet From Stardom is about backup singers, Standing in the Shadows of Motown and The Wrecking Crew are about the musicians that played on most of the hits of the 1960s.  Searching for Sugar Man and Big Star are about three artists that made artistically great albums in the early 1970s but were completely ignored by record buyers.  And finally, Inside Llewyn Davis is a fictional account of a folk music singer during the heyday of the folk revival who painfully could not grab the brass ring no matter how hard he tried, or how many people he used or hurt.

The gist of these films are about people climbing Mt. Fame, and even having the talent to get within sight of the summit.  Failing to achieve stardom after getting so close creates a psychological crisis that all of these people dealt with in different ways.  To me, the most tragic was Chris Bell of Big Star.  Sixto Rodriguez’s story in Searching for Sugar Man is so unbelievable that its stunning, and I can’t help but wonder if he’s the reincarnation of the Buddha. 

After seeing Darlene Love, Marry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Patti Austin, Judith Hill and many others in Twenty Feet From Stardom I went to Rdio and played their records that I could find, and surprisingly, there were many.  There are so many records out there that never make it to the top of the charts that are still worthy of your ears.  This is the true value of Rdio.  But this also teaches us something.  Evidently there are more great singers than there are hit songs.

Watching Standing in the Shadows of Motown and reading The Wrecking Crew, both about studio musicians who played on the defining songs of my teen years back in the 1960s, just crushed me emotionally.  These guys never even got liner credits for the most part, yet all the wonderful riffs and melodies that are burned deep in my soul were created by them.

All of these people deserve more fame, and luckily we have film makers that are helping them to finally get the spotlight.  And like I said before, there are more great singers and musicians than there are hit songs.  A hit song, the kind that tens of millions will notice, are a combination of songwriters, singers and musicians.  But what makes a star?  Time and again in these films they talk about the drive and ego it takes to become a star.  These films are about many people who had talent, but the lacked something to go the last twenty feet.  What separates Bruce Springsteen from Chris Bell and Sixto Rodriguez?  What separates Aretha Franklin from Darlene Love?

Standing in the Shadows of Motown was illustrative.  It had the original musicians playing the original songs, but got other singers to sing them.  This showed both the importance of the musicians and the singers.  If you’ve ever listened to recreations of original sixties hits it’s so apparent that something is off.  Hit songs are extremely hard to make, and most often it’s accidental I think more than intentional.

Thanks to YouTube, I can give you a taste of each of these films.

 

 

 

My favorite song from Standing in the Shadow of Motown

 

 

 

My favorite Chris Bell song.

 

 

I hope The Wrecking Crew comes out soon because I’m very anxious to see it.  I’m curious if younger people will like these movies, because essentially all of them are about people from the baby boomer generation.  I’m sure one day there will be films about Katy Perry’s musicians and backup singers, but for now, these are the stories we have.  And I’m grateful to Netflix, because documentaries are not widely distributed.

JWH – 3/28/14