Constraints breed focus
Published: May 15, 2016
I used to think I hated lists. When friends and strangers link to Buzzfeed on Facebook, I cringe.
15 Hedgehogs With Things That Look Like Hedgehogs
12 Reasons Why Sam The Cat With Eyebrows Should Be Your New Favourite Cat
20 Slightly Incorrect Names For Food
Those are real lists. Real human resources were spent making them. Real human resources were spent consuming them. What a waste of energy.
But then I realized I publish lists all the time. I’ve surrounded myself with lists. Shopping lists. Goals. Ideas. Potential projects. People to call. Things to write. Books to read. Movies to watch. Lists are everywhere in my life. I guess I don’t hate them as much as I thought.
Here’s a peak at a few of my lists. A snapshot of things that interest me right now. A Polaroid of future influence and inspiration.
These are the movies I most want to watch. More than anything else out there right now. They’re ordered by height. All lists in this post are ordered by height, actually. Images with more pixels appear before those with fewer. So really, order doesn’t matter.
Lots of documentaries here. About movements and freedom fighters. About art and sacrifice. About privacy and patriotism. About liars and the lengths they’ll go. About hate and the suffering it brings.
I love documentaries. I love how they teach while being entertaining. The good ones do at least. When the credits roll, I love the feeling I get of understanding my place in the universe just a tiny bit more. There are so many great documentaries out there. These five beat out all the others to make the list.
This is an eclectic group. Science fiction. Horror. Humor. Fantasy. A little bit of everything.
I used to think I didn’t like fantasy. I put Lord of the Rings down after one book, for instance. I didn’t care much for all the verbose lore Tolkien included in his writing. I thought fantasy just wasn’t for me. At least not the epic story/dozens of characters/medieval setting variety. Then I read Game of Thrones and fell in love with Westeros. I’m not sure why, but George RR Martin’s stuff sank its direwolf fangs in deep. And since it seems like we’re not getting a book six anytime soon, I need to get my fantasy fix elsewhere. I’ve heard good things about Brandon Sanderson’s work.
I never finished Harry Potter. I read the first five, put it down at book six, and then never picked it back up again. I’m not sure why. Maybe I grew out of it, if growing out of Harry Potter is something one can even do. Book six released around the time I was starting high school, so maybe I thought Harry Potter was for children, and high school was my time to put away childish things. I don’t know. But enough people I trust have recommended I go back and finish it that I’m actually going to go back and finish it. It’s been a lot of years, so I need to start from the beginning though.
I couldn’t commit to just 10. Making the last 5 cuts was too hard, so this is a list of 15.
Sapiens, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and Capital are monstrous books, so this list probably represents the next two years of nonfiction reading for me.
I think I’m most excited to read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I can’t articulate all the reasons why, but the thought of throwing away half my shit, everything that doesn’t bring me real joy, is super appealing. I’m not sure I ever want to live a true minimalist lifestyle, but I definitely want to take a few steps down that path. At least once in my life I want to know what it feels like to carry my entire life around with me in a backpack.
Those who know me well might be surprised to find a book about Christianity on this list. I don’t consider myself religious, and I haven’t for a long time. At least not in the traditional sense–the organized religion sense. I don’t believe ancient texts written thousands of years ago provide definitive answers about anything, especially not about the ultimate fate of humanity. I think our understanding of the universe and our place in it has changed so drastically in recent centuries, and continues to evolve so rapidly, that it’s foolish to claim to know with certainty how everything started and how it’s ultimately going to end.
I also don’t believe religious texts hold the keys to morality. I think it’s dangerous to judge right and wrong based on words written at a time when many still believed the earth was flat and medicine was synonymous with magic. That world is unrecognizable compared to the one we occupy today. I think answers first and foremost should come from a place of rational thought. They can be influenced by past experiences sure, but just because something used to be a certain way doesn’t make it right by default. Before we do anything, we need to consider the harm we’re causing others.
My personal belief system is constantly evolving. As I take in new information, that information informs and remixes and sometimes completely rewrites my previously held beliefs. I strive to make my views of the world as dynamic and collaborative as possible. To me, organized religion is the opposite. It’s made up of monolithic institutions that are very slow to change and are typically uncompromising (read: uncollaborative) in their belief systems. I don’t want to live like that.
I know religion is different things to different people, so it’s impossible to cast a blanket over it. I promise that’s not what I’m trying to do. If you’re religious, I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m not convinced I’m right. I’m also not claiming you believe any of things I’ve just written. There’s no judgement here. Just a snapshot of my current feelings about organized religion. It’s here to provide background for why including Mere Christianity on my list is a surprising choice.
I don’t ascribe to any particular religion, but billions of others do. And just because I don’t believe something doesn’t mean it isn’t worth digging into and learning more about. Learn more about it is precisely what I intend to do.
Why am I posting this?
For selfish reasons mostly. Writing this was easy. Well, relative to my last post it was easy. The last one took a long time. I’m proud of it, and writing it was a rewarding experience, but if all my posts were that ambitious, then I’d only publish four or five times a year. That’s no good if I want to develop a writing habit, which I do. I want to write every day and publish something on this website every two weeks. That’s the dream at least. I’m not there yet.
It takes me a long time to write something and send it out into the world. Picking interesting topics is hard. Outlining and getting a first draft on the page is hard. I second guess myself a lot. I change topics often. I start and throw things away more than I should. To get better, I need practice. This post is me practicing.
Another reason was simplification. Admittedly, it’s a very very small simplification, but a clean house starts with sweeping a single corner, right? Before writing this, the list of movies I wanted to watch wasn’t 10, it was 100. Same thing with books. And they weren’t all living in the same list either. They were spread across many lists in many places. There were some on my phone, others on my laptop, and even more inside Evernote, Workflowy, Letterboxd, and my Amazon shopping cart. They were everywhere! The whole thing was a mess. Worse, it was intimidating.
I had lists of things I wanted to read and watch, but when it came time to pick a new thing to start, I’d rarely consult my lists. Why? I had too much to choose from, and choice can be a scary thing sometimes. Rather than face the uncertainty of choosing, I’d opt to aimlessly browse my bookshelf and pick the first thing that jumped out. Usually a book already read or a movie already watched. There was so much I wanted to do, to watch, to read that in the end, I did none of it.
This is a common problem that extends way beyond movies and books. For any new project, creative or otherwise, infinite possibility can be a major roadblock.
Write a short story. That’s a hard prompt.
Write a short story about a coconut who dreams of leaving the island it grew up on in 1000 words or less. That’s much easier.
Constraints breed focus, and eliminating choice often leads to higher quality work. At the very least, eliminating choice leads to work period, which is far more desirable than not creating anything at all. While I admit having a hard time choosing my next book to read is hardly a problem, solving it is preparing me to simplify and find focus in other aspects of life. For instance, what should I write about next? What new skills should I learn? Where do I want to be five years from today? Where do I want to live then and what do I want my days to look like? What’s one thing I can do right now to help make my desired future possible?
I wanted more focus, and writing this post helped me find it in one aspect of my life. For reading and watching, the things listed here are my priorities now. Knowing that makes my life just a little bit easier.
Image credit: Austin Ban