When The Muse Don't Come
I seem to recall a lot of stories from the Bible where the hero is tested while being alone in the wilderness. And I’ve noticed that some days as a programmer are like that, where my programmer mojo has left me, and I feel alone in the wilderness of big problems that aren’t solving themselves.
For example, I have this one problem of how to join data from two APIs that’s causing me fits. Now, a more experienced programmer would look at this and say, “What’s the problem? Just do blah blah blah.” Only I don’t understand blah blah blah, because I’m still in the wilderness. It’s like I haven’t learned to speak Coptic yet, and that’s what I have to do to understand what blah blah blah means.
Resistance is very strong at times like this, when you’re all alone in the wilderness. It’s very easy to seek comfort in the arms of distraction, to empower Resistance and not do my work. But that’s the wrong choice.
The exact choice that our Higher Self wants is to earn that inspiration, to hold out and try a little harder ourself before we get the boost. There’s that tiny hero inside all of us who wants to go for the home run with the big cut rather than play it safe with a bunt.
I think that’s what the test is really all about. I think it’s about satisfying the hero within. There’s a part of us that wants to prove ourselves, to go it alone. I think that’s part of it at least.
The Stubborn Part
Yeah, that’s the other part. And it’s purely resistance. One subtle side-benefit when we go it alone is that no one sees us, or so we think. We’re playing the solitary genius, doing great things in seclusion. But that will not lead to happiness. It’s fine to be a genius, but true genius collaborates with fellow human beings and the tribe. The point of being a genius is to share it with whoever can use it. And, hey, can’t we all use a little genius? So more often than not, give some genius when you have it, and you’re more likely to have some shared with you when you need some.
Like when you’re in the unsolved wilderness.
Show Up Every Day
It turns out that voices like Steven Pressfield are everywhere. I’m pretty sure the ideas are older than he is. But I saw a YouTuber’s studio with a sign on the wall: “Show Up Every Day.” That’s as much of a “Pro Sentiment” as I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if Steven Pressfield every wrote that, but I’m sure he meant it.
Days of unsolved wilderness are perfect for this maxim. You show up expecially for days in the unsolved wilderness. The days when you’re not in the wilderness are easy. Unsolved wilderness days are when you really pay your dues. These are the days when you earn your self-respect.
One more thing:
The Shame Stick
When I was a little kid in second grade, our teacher, Mrs. Hutchinson, had a yard stick. If we didn’t learn our spelling words for that day, she would take one of our hands, bend the fingers back so the palm was good and exposed, and then crack the yard stick onto the palm for about 4-5 good whacks.
This was public shaming at its worst.
Is it any wonder so many people can’t spell? Or do arithmatic? They probably had a Mrs. Hutchinson in their past.
Over the years there have been many Mrs. Huffmans, and they each have a voice in my head. I hear plenty of echos from people who would like to give me the shame stick. But I have to remind myself that these voices are frail and rather dim-witted. They’re just terrible ideas that lead nowhere I want to go. These voices come from sheep, not scholars.
Perhaps the shame stick is a distortion of a much more compassionate idea. In Zen meditation, there is a stick or slat made of flexible wood, called the Keisaku in Japanese, that is the opposite of a shame stick. Keisaku can be translated as “warning stick” or “awakening stick” or “encouragement stick.” During long periods of meditation, the keisaku is administered at the request of the meditator by bowing his or her head and putting the palms together in gassho, and then exposing each shoulder to be struck. The stick is not a punishment. It’s a compassionate means to reinvigorate or awaken the meditator from distraction.
When I’m doing my daily pomodoros, it’s important to take those 5 minute breaks. They are a sort of keisaku to the shoulder. Or I could just find a yard stick.
My point here is that shame and resistance go hand in hand. They are best buddies. They are allies in conspiracy to cause failure and unlived lives.
The Unsolved Wilderness is where we choose between the Shame Stick or the Keisaku.
We can bow our head in shame or bow our head in resolve and humility. One leads to abandonment and isolation, while the other choice leads to eventually to leaving the wilderness and solving the problem. It leads to rejoining the tribe and to programmer chops.