I suspect that each of us carries some best thing around inside, some thing that we want to develop not for glory or riches but because it would mean ripening to fruit the finest thing that we feel capable of growing. If we could only bring it to the surface, we sense that this thing would fulfill us in ways that other things cannot.
Last semester I diagnosed why it is difficult to accomplish the things we really burn to do when we are young, in part because, bursting with health and arrogance, we don’t admit to ourselves how short our lives are. I quoted a Buddhist proverb that says we are like fish swimming in ever less water. It’s almost impossible to see the water level dropping from day to day, but our little fishbowls will run dry.
I also quoted Nietzsche, who compared the dying philosopher or artist who had truly put the best of himself into his work to the owner of a safe that is being robbed: He smiles because he knows that his treasures have already been moved to safety. We race to get the best part of ourselves out into the world before the water runs dry, before time, the invincible cat burglar, cracks us like a safe.
So last semester I posed the problem, and here I hope to suggest a practical solution. And it is just this: When you identify that best potentiality within yourself, whether it is directed toward art, science, music, business or whatever else, and no matter what else any given day demands, do something (anything) each day “” even for 10 or 20 minutes to begin with “” to help develop it. Do this because your dreams are perfectly happy to wait ahead for you, off in the distance, forever. They are too innocent to know how finite your time is. They will never budge an inch closer to you on their own.
Time is a villain when you are unproductive. It slurps a little water from your fishbowl and leaves nothing in return. But when you make and meet small, concrete goals every day you make an ally rather than an enemy of time. You are harnessing a tiny bit of the earth’s massive power of periodicity and you experience the accretive effect of adding piece to piece over time. And after a while it is not just the charms of addition that you experience, but also, strangely, the power of compounding.
That is, your work does not just add up, but it also grows richer over time, very slowly at first, but more exponentially as weeks and months stretch into years and decades. This is because you are gaining the mastery of your subject that comes from years of consistent practice. If you have a long time horizon, and you do, then you can make a lot out of a little.
But perhaps we avoid working toward our passions because the stakes seem too high. We would rather put off that special thing than to begin working on it and discover that we have no talent for it. How disappointing that would be!
But I think that working a little bit every day lowers the stakes dramatically. You don’t have to achieve perfection; you only need to demand from yourself a little bit of work. Nobody ever has to see all of the crappy stuff you come up with at first. You’re also allowed to have a lot of crappy days. At the end of the year you can write them off like a tax deduction; by then you will also have had a lot of good days, too, and you’ll have gotten better at what, at first, you had dreaded being bad at.
One night when I was in grad school, there were several students around somebody’s table. A clock ticked in the hallway of a duplex on Buffalo Street in Ithaca, New York. I forget what else was said but I’m sure that we were doing the thing that graduate students raise to a fine art: complaining. Politics, dissertation directors, other graduate students, even the pure, driven snow: We must have made it through all the typical topics of grievance before one of them said, “I know what makes me happy. It’s getting my work done.”
It was so succinct. And it turns out that a dissertation is a good analogy for the kind of thing I’m talking about. You cannot write it all at once in a fit of inspiration. Nobody else really cares whether you finish it or not, but it matters tremendously to you. Nobody is there to set deadlines for yourself, so you must do it.
Happily, it’s enough to start by making small steps. In our post-romantic age, we are learning to calculate the formula for achievement not in the number of fading coals blown red by the winds of inspiration (Shelley), nor by the rate at which powerful feelings spontaneously overflow within us (Wordsworth), but rather in quantifiable hours, days and years of passionate practice. Malcolm Gladwell estimates that whether you are Jordan, Jobs, John Lennon or just the average Joe, it takes about 10 years of daily craft to have an outside chance of becoming great at anything. I understand this to mean that worthy accomplishments are made not in one fell swoop, but rather through meeting modest goals with brazen regularity.
Try this: Tomorrow, get up early and do something little that works toward your big dream. Start a notebook or a journal. Set a few realizable goals. Be kind to yourself. If you meet one of these goals before breakfast, then the rest of the day, whatever it brings, might feel like a bonus rather than a reproach for what you are failing to do.
You are probably tired of hearing that little voice of reproach by now, anyway. I doubt you’ll miss it.
David Rando is an associate professor of English.