This is a summary of the most important advice I’ve received in the last 3 years. Like most advice, it won’t apply to everyone, but for some of you it might be just what you need to hear.
- You are full of ideas.
- You enjoy learning new things and can pick them up quickly.
- You spend a lot of time reflecting.
- You love philosophical conversations.
- You are interested in so many things you don’t know what to focus on
- You have a hard time planning for the future.
- You don’t have a clear identity.
- You get super excited about things but then you lose interest.
- You find it hard to get down to work.
Then you’re probably a Neurotic Creative and this essay is for you 1. If you don’t identify with these traits, then you should send this essay to a friend who does!
In college, I studied Biology but couldn’t see myself getting an M.D. or Ph.D. Instead, I was fascinated by the entrepreneurial culture and knew just enough biology and software to get a job at a small biotech startup and move to San Francisco. One year in, I was laid off. I struggled for a while to find a job without much experience or expertise, but managed to land a job at Zymergen as an Automation Engineer, and continued picking up more Software skills.
Things were good, but I always had ambitions of doing something of my own. Inspired by Nas Daily and Casey Neistat, I started making vlogs. For a while, my dream was to build a following and make enough money so I could quit my job to travel and make videos. But while balancing a full time job and making videos I found that I wasn’t giving 100% to either. I wrote some software at my job, but wasn’t good enough to be considered a Software Engineer. I wasn’t confident that I could get another job if I quit. I felt stuck.
Then in 2018 I discovered Jordan Peterson. His book 12 Rules for Life was great, but what helped me more were the various youtube videos leveraging his clinical psychiatry practice to give advice for people struggling with various problems. If you decide to stop reading this essay and only take one thing away, you should watch this clip where he gives advice for neurotic creatives during one of his Patreon AMAs.
Peterson’s advice helped me get out of my rut and set me on a path towards becoming a Senior Software Engineer and developing my confidence to pursue more creative projects today.
Here’s a summary of the advice that helped me the most, and how I’ve applied it to my life.
1. If you don’t know what to do, just pick something
It’s hard for creative people to catalyze an identity… the problem with being everything is that you’re also nothing at the same time because you never specialize… I think being a jack of all trades is pretty damn useful, but it’s also necessary to buckle down and find one primary mode of discipline. If you can’t figure what you should do, then guess. Just pick something you think you can hit hard and concentrate on. You don’t have to be perfect at it, you don’t even have to get it right. Pick something rather than nothing. Pick something rather than all things.
It’s like the Buridan’s ass scenario where a donkey that is equally hungry and thirsty and placed in the middle of food and water and starves because it can’t decide which one to go to first.
Don’t be Buridan’s ass.
Cal Newport also touches on this in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. He argues that following your passion is bad advice, and instead you should invest in building up valuable skills that open the door to more satisfying work in the future
“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”
For my career, this involved making a commitment to deepening my Software Engineering skills for a year and temporarily holding off on video making and other creative pursuits. Once I gained more confidence in my skills, I allowed myself to branch out and explore again with a strengthened safety net.
“Just pick something” also applies to day to day decisions. I have a list of essay topics that I want to write about, but struggled to decide which topic to choose. Instead of toiling over the decision, I used a random number generator to pick the topic and boom! Now we’re here.
Being decisive is often much harder than it sounds. Anytime you choose one thing, it can feel like you are closing the door on every other thing. It’s ok to acknowledge and grieve the lost opportunities, but remember that the door is not necessarily locked shut forever. When possible, turning choices into time-bound experiments (e.g focusing on software for 1 year then re-evaluate) can help ease the pain.
2. Add structure by scheduling your ideal week and day
People higher in neuroticism have a stronger negative response to uncertainty2 . I identify this with a general feeling of malaise and anxiety when I don’t feel like I know what I should be doing at any given time. By adding more structure to your life, you can keep the chaos at bay.
The right way to decrease your neuroticism is to increase your conscientiousness… so I would say… Clean your room. Organize your life. Get a routine. Get up everyday at the same time. Go to bed at the same time. [make a] Schedule… Sit down, open the calendar… and design a week of days I’d really like to have.
You should establish routines and rituals that are meaningful enough to provide value, but not too bloated to become burdensome. For me, the most useful practice I started was scheduling out my week and days.
Each week, I open up my “Weekly Planning Page” in Notion and write a few sentences with intentions and goals for the week. Each day, I create an hour by hour schedule in my physical notebook to achieve those goals, and my best to follow the schedule without being too hard on myself.
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
I’ve also found that a very simple morning routine helps. (footnote fun fact I made a parody of when morning routines are taken too far.) My current one is
- make tea
- journal for ~10-30 minutes
- meditate for 10 minutes.
I don’t always uphold my routines. Like with all structures, they will eventually crumble and yield to the chaos of life. Perhaps the most important thing to remember when adding structure to your life is to not be too hard on yourself when you fail. You must avoid the spiral into oblivion and just get back to it - over and over again. This takes practice too.
3. Write down your ideal future and read it every week
In addition to mapping out your ideal day and week, it’s also a good idea to plan your ideal longer term future. Write down in detail what your ideal future looks like in 1-3 years if you are diligent and productive. What have you accomplished? What does your career look like? Your social life? Print this out and keep it by your desk. Review it every week or so to remind yourself of the bigger picture: why do any of this at all?
He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
Having a vision of the future that you are excited about will also help in times of procrastination. Finding a very compelling “why” is more effective than finding ways to avoid distraction. This tip is inspired from my experience working through the Self Authoring program, which guides you through various writing exercises and reflections. I highly recommend it.
It feels a bit strange writing this post because I feel like I haven’t mastered my own advice: I still have bouts of indecision, some days I fall off of my routine, and some weeks I lose sight of the big picture. Now that I have a stronger foundation in software, I am now starting to branch out and explore creative pursuits again- writing, starting a company, making videos. I still feel the same challenges as I did before, but now I’m more equipped to handle them. Life may not get easier, but with the right tools, we can be better prepared to show up every day and get it done.
In the Big 5 personality scale, these characteristics correspond with higher Openness and Neuroticism ↩︎