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Here’s something I don’t often say out loud: I’m starting something new—actually, two things. The first is something I've done before, and I'm thrilled to get to do it again. The second, well, let’s call it a project. I’ve told a number of people about the first; I’ve told almost no one about the second.
Because you’ll get excited! You’ll laugh at me! You’ll ask questions. You’ll be nice. You’ll give me a look, or make a comment, or raise an eyebrow—in just such a way—that I’ll stay up all night wondering if you think this new thing is a bad idea and I really shouldn’t be doing it, and suddenly, well, I’m not doing it.
I’m just worrying about it.
Do you have a new thing? Do you have a dream or a plan or a gleam in the back of your mind? Do you have a thing you haven’t told anyone about?
A lot of people do, apparently. I typed into Google How to start—
These were the first five things to come up:
Maybe you want to start one of those. Or something else, like a diet, a class, a memoir, or One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Here’s the one thing you shouldn’t do: Google! Yes, I know; you need to know what kind of podcast microphone to buy or how to register your company with the IRS. You can Google that stuff—the easy stuff. What you shouldn’t Google is the hard stuff—the real stuff.
I read a dozen blogs this week about starting something new, and, hoo boy, was the advice all over the place. Make a plan before you start! Don’t make a plan; just start! Do it whenever it strikes you! Do it at the same time every day!
I’m not saying that this advice is bad. Half of it is probably good (though which half?). It’s that most of this advice is about habits. Habits are important, but they're not the only factor that determines whether a new project succeeds or fails.
The biggest factor is what's in our heart, or our soul, or wherever the realest part of us lives. None of the standard advice gets at what lives there--the poetics and danger of starting something new new. The fear--and thrill-of it.
Who does captures those feelings?
Maslow, that’s who.
Abraham Maslow is somewhat misremembered today as the creator of his famed hierarchy of needs. He did that, of course, in 1943, when he introduced the idea that people are motivated to fulfill their basic needs (food and shelter) before moving on to their more advanced needs (fulfillment and actualization).
Maslow, the oldest of seven in a family of Brooklyn Jews from Kiev, stressed the importance of focusing on the best human qualities, not the worst. He anticipated the popularity of positive psychology and the happiness movement by fifty years.
Here, based on his work, are three things to do when you start something new.
1. Be a Paper Towel: Absorb!
For what seems like decades now, Bounty has advertised its paper towels as being “2x more absorbent.” I’m not qualified to address the veracity of that claim in the kitchen; what I do feel qualified to do is to endorse that advice for new projects. Do something that will absorb you, consume you, captivate you—not all the time, of course. Sometimes, the spills will sting a bit. But you should be absorbed enough to keep coming back.
On Maslow’s list of behavior that leads to self-actualization, the top quality was: “Experiencing life like a child, with full absorption and concentration.” He once asked his students:
A new thing should feel like that, at least some of the time. Which is why, as I wrote recently on The Nonlinear Life about New Year’s resolutions, if your new thing is more utilitarian, you’re more like to follow through with it if you attach that goal to something loftier and richer.
2. Yes, Un…!
The phrase “Yes, and…” has become trendy of late as a rule-of-thumb in improvisational comedy that says a participant should accept what another participant says, then take that idea in a new direction. Maslow has a related idea in his writings about what it means to do things that bring us the most satisfaction: Do things that make you feel uncomfortable in some way.
Maslow’s list of characteristics that self-actualizers share has an uncommon quality: many words have the prefix un-. There’s uncertain, unconventional, unusual
And it’s no wonder. Studies of creativity for decades have found that those facing adversity in their lives often suffer from social exclusion, a feeling of being out of sync with those around them. While painful, those feelings give us more freedom to take risks, to experiment. To start something new.
If you are heading out on a new adventure, you are, by definition, changing certain ways you’ve been conducting yourself recently. Don’t be surprised if others find that unsettling.
3. Transcend Dichotomy
Like a lot of mid-century academics (and more than a few contemporary ones, too), Maslow loved an opaque phrase ever now then. One of those was dichotomy transcendence. While it may not roll off the tongue, it does get at a deep truth.
Maslow used the phrase dichotomy transcendence to mean those who are happiest avoid the opposite. They sidestep highs and lows, being selfish or unselfish, doing things that are typically “male” or “female.” Instead, they integrate these seemingly opposing qualities.
One of the greatest dangers of starting something new is jumping to extreme conclusions—I’m awful at this! I’m quitting right now! I’m brilliant at this! I’m winning the Nobel Prize!
Here, for example, is how Stephen Sondheim described Jonathan Larson's views of Rent as he prepared to share it with audiences: "He felt that way any author does in the middle of rehearsal. It’s terrible, it’s wonderful. I’m ashamed of it, isn’t it great?"
Dichotomies are normal. Your job is to transcend them.
If you do that, you won't lurch between the old you and the new you.
You'll be both, and.
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