Better than better than

The hardest part of adulting is learning to let go of things. But it’s so important.

Someone hurt you and now you have some coping response?

Well too dang bad, because unless you take responsibility for it, you’re going to do it to someone else. Blame deflection and coping behaviors are ticking time bombs.

As evidence: I had to unlearn all kinds of things from family and peers growing up. I was paying trauma forward and had to own that so I could stop living in other people’s scars.

I had a friend who got genuinely hecked over by a family member, financially. Badly.

They kept blaming the payments on that loan for all their problems. It was bad, but they spent a lot of time dwelling on it. They spent a lot of time dwelling at me about it as an explanation for why they had no time to deal with the consequences of how they hurt me in a previous, untold story.

Of course, at the time, this person was someone I considered a good friend. I’m pretty good at writing, at research. I offered to help them job hunt, to edit their resume, to practice interviews, as a way to help get them out of that job that they spent plenty of time complaining about. I had plenty of free time.

In retrospect, I should have asked them to chill with complaining about it because it was wrecking my mental health. The excuses. The topic of setting boundaries is a post for another day! I wasn’t good at it then. They didn’t want my help, and rebuffed offers just bred resentment on both sides.

I’m not into and have many concerns about the modern Stoic movement, but I think the idea of taking responsibility for what you can control and trying not to fret what you can’t is solid. You can’t go back and make better calls, but stress and bad financial decisions are a cumulative loop. When you live in past errors, past traumas, it keeps you from dealing with the consequences and moving past it.

That person is no longer a friend because their scars became my scars, and they refused to make time to help heal them. They refused to even acknowledge what they did. I couldn’t heal them on my own with them in my life, so they didn’t get to be a part of it anymore.

I had to let them go. The years since that last conversation have been the most productive, most healing time of my life despite covid and a major life crisis (another story for another day).

Every person I got a bad behavior from was worse. Almost all of them I tried to talk to about it denied they were doing anything wrong. It doesn’t matter if you’re less abusive than your abuser. It doesn’t matter if you’re less unreliable than the people you couldn’t depend on. You still have to stop projecting it forward. Someone has to be the one to say “wait no, I messed up, I can be better than this” and break the chain.

You really need to deal with your shit

Self-hate. Judgement. Refusing to learn to let go of anger and hate. Projecting your traumas forward. Misunderstanding forgiveness as being about another person rather than being about moving forward, and the other person can come along if they’re willing to learn from whatever needed forgiveness.

Fixing all this is long, hard work. I didn’t start until my late 20s, and I’m just getting ahead of it in my 30s. It doesn’t matter how old you are. And, truthfully, not doing this will shorten your life. Every year you put into it might be a year you gain from better habits, better thought processes, and an improved disposition toward life.

The usual suspects:

  • Failure to set boundaries. Time, interpersonal, expectations. I can do about one long post like this a month with shorter ones weekly, and I know this from all the times I burned myself out and produced absolute garbage trying to force it. This is where a Thing helps: make things that are unique enough, and nobody will care about output. Yes, it’s true, Posting Regularly grows things faster, but then you’re stuck. You feel like you have to keep producing, so your quality suffers…and then people unsubscribe. I only write here when I see enough interconnected points to draw a map in text, but it’s too rare to be my thing.

  • Failure to diversify. In marketing terms, you’re looking for verticals: different things you can do with your skills. One big newsletter a month is fine because the newsletter isn’t really the thing. I post ideas here. If I stopped getting ideas, I wouldn’t post. If I came to depend on it for a living, I would split it up into distinct post series with defined formats that allow me to fill it out. This is why lists are great! But I don’t plan to do list posts. For now, it’s a high quality input I offer to others in the hopes they return the favor with good responses. Storytelling is my thing, and I have plans for it that bring all my skills together to create enough distinct verticals to fill out a steady content calendar.

  • Mistaking a skill for a thing. When I ran out of things to write or things to shoot, I wrote about writing and photography. It was almost all garbage. And that’s the key lesson here: garbage in, garbage out. You probably have to produce the garbage to figure out your thing, but go in with the knowledge that it might just be one intersection on something bigger. There’s little you can’t learn better by doing, and doing will bring you in contact with people who know a little bit of the map that’s still hidden to you.

  • Spending too much time lamenting the garbage. Nobody looked at the garbage. I poured everything into it, and nobody cared. You don’t even care about what you make yet if you’re still at the level of worrying about what other people will think. It’s fine. Move on. It’s practice. Ignore all your dashboards and stats thingies. I could have compressed 20 years into a month if I’d known back then what I know now about how big the map is and how little I could see from where I was. I took everything way too seriously and got too disheartened when no one noticed the things I put out. The map is always changing, and you have to learn its patterns.

  • Keeping it to yourself. Your output is communication. Some people will put up with something that’s not quite the thing yet because they see what you’re getting at even if you can’t quite make it there. And they communicate back. A good bit of feedback can shave years off your thingseeking. Subject yourself to an editor at least once in your life.

  • Not curating inputs. Even if you’re sitting on your ass all day, you can still work on your inputs. Spend all day on Reddit, but make sure the subreddits are good ones that help reveal some of the map. Spend all day on Twitter, but make sure you follow people who can show you the way.

  • Not accepting your part in the consequences for your bad inputs. Finding your real thing is really finding yourself, and it’s just as hard. If I find myself frustrated or angry, or feel like I’m wasting time, then an honest analysis usually finds a bad call I made earlier. It usually starts with opening Twitter, Reddit, or any other input without a purpose. I know I’m not the only person who’ll open a tab to go to Twitter until there’s several Twitter tabs. Yes, the modern web mines this tendency for profit, but it’s something I did back in the Web 1.0 days with plain old stateless forums in the age before anyone had a notion of growth hacking. They abuse the innate function of my brain, and they do the same to you. They won’t stop, so you have to.


Life you learn from isn't wasted

I used to consider the hours and millions of words I poured into forums, Reddit, Hacker News, and Twitter wasted.

But then something happened.

My last 100,000 or so words have each been better than anything I’ve written before. Insights come out easier. Structure mostly tends to itself. So all those years that felt wasted, that I beat myself up over, were easy to reframe as practice.

There was probably a better way to get here, but my ADHD brain didn’t allow it. The lure of yet another argument online was too strong. But now it’s a little easier to disengage. To put those thoughts down into a file instead, or even into a newsletter draft like I’ve done here.

I’ve also come to appreciate brevity. What can I say about a new phase I’m still getting used to? It’s too new an experience to really share any learnings other than to say that all that time you feel like you’re wasting might be practice for what comes next. And instead of letting it lure you in and use more time than you need, be more intentional in that practice.

That’s about 200 words. What’ll the next million look like?

Unlearn Helplessness

I could get mad at him. But…it won’t help. It’ll just make me more stressed, and it won’t register with him that he needs to be better any more than the thousand other times.

This is, unfortunately, life. Sometimes it’s family. Sometimes it’s a stranger. A coworker. There is usually an individual responsible for the specific thing that happened.

You can sit and mope about how unfair the world is. You can live in other people’s damage. You can keep reenforcing and projecting forward the generational trauma that led to your current misery.

Or. Here’s a cool idea. Take charge of your own responsibility in that chain of events so old no one remembers where it started and reduce your exposure to other people’s damage as much as you can, then learn to let the rest roll off as much as you can bear. Grey rock it when you have to, break the script and take the bait less each time, and work on carving out spaces to be soft and fluffy.

You can’t live as a rock, but sometimes it’s the only way through the fire. A little bit at a time. One minute, one hour, one day at a time. One conversation you direct to, at worst, a stalemate at a time. One time you refuse to follow the script and let the neural pathways that hold generational trauma go fallow.

The little changes really do add up. “If you think I’m bad, you should see my parents” is the best most people ever manage, but only because settling for not as bad is part of the script.

Most people opt to keep going one way or the other. So, since you’re in it, you have to decide how you’re going to deal with it. Living in trauma stinks. It makes you feel bad. It makes the people around you feel bad. It leads you to make choices that drive you deeper into the situation. There’s nothing good about it.

We are weird chemical machines who perceive our reality mediated through a slab of meat in our skulls and a weird alien biome in our guts that science is just starting to figure out. Everything you do and everything you think carves new pathways and strengthens old ones. That “two wolves inside” story is bullshit cooked up by a dead fascist to sell the faulty good vs evil narrative to his fringe cult followers, but there is something to the idea that you are who you act. The more you’re pessimistic, the easier it becomes, and the harder it is to maintain a balanced perspective. You don’t have to be happy, but you can stop punching yourself.

As I work on this draft almost two months later, I don’t even remember what got me so mad I started this article instead. I used to lose days to anger over little things like whatever it was. Change is possible. Sometimes it’s slow. My own change started in earnest in the 2010s and it’s only paying dividends in the chaos of the 2020s.

Make a different choice every once in a while. It adds up

You can't monetize your entire hobby

There’s a quote in one of my favorite TV shows, Halt and Catch Fire: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” -  Joe MacMillan (played by Lee Pace), Halt and Catch Fire

Music was the thing that got me to the thing. I had a lot of hobbies and interests, but picked music to carry that weight because:

- I’m good at it.

- I’m fast.

- I don’t burn out on it easily.

- Selling it doesn’t bother me the way it does for other hobbies.

And that worked out…mostly. Even after all that, it took a lot of gifted money to finally get there. I was burned out, ready to give up. But you know what? Had I paced myself and paid attention to my physical and emotional state, it would feel less like a Pyrrhic victory. I got the tools for the non-music thing, but now I can’t look at my music tools without wanting to curl up into a little ball. The fun and enjoyment that got me into music in the first place is gone.

The burnout will pass. I hope. I miss making music right up until I try. Right now, I’m focused on learning to apply my tools to the thing—mostly writing—while using this newsletter to turn my experiences and perspective into something useful for others.

If you ever decide to follow my path and turn one of your hobbies into money to get you somewhere else, be prepared for the possibility that it’ll take longer than you expected. I had to bust my butt at it for years releasing hundreds of hours of music just to have enough saved from it to even think about buying a computer that didn't struggle to handle the thing. Now I’m absolutely fried emotionally on the subject of music.

Don’t do it the way I did it. Don’t get desperate. Don’t pump out 30 things a week for a month every few months hoping something clicks enough to make it all worth it. Pace yourself. You don’t want to be ruined for that hobby on the other side.

What I would change knowing what I know now

So you still want to ply your hobby as a trade.

Fine.

Okay.

Whatever.

Here’s some ideas.

My mistake, I think, was trying to turn the entire hobby into a money-making machine. See, my first “beats,” as the kids say, were nice little loops. These served as focus music. I would whip one up in the morning, then do something else. I wrote a 50k word novel with that! A draft the world will never see, but I still got it out.

And then I shared the music with some friends.

“You should sell this!”

Oh no.

And so I did. I had a little Bandcamp. I had a little Patreon that quickly rose to $4/month. I saved that up to buy some proper mixing headphones. Then I used that to make better music, and then suddenly it was $30/month.

Oh dear.

So I used that to buy a little MIDI keyboard. I used Reaper and the free Synth1 to make music at the time. The keyboard came with Ableton Live Lite. I’d wanted it for a long time, but never had the money. I rationalized that using my hobby to fund my hobby would make my music better.

But what really happened is I felt an ever-increasing obligation to produce, and at ever-rising quality. Flash forward to a year ago and I’m rocking Ableton Live Suite—sweet!—on a nice laptop with the good but not best edition of Komplete 13. Mostly paid for with gifts, but the new tools already paid for about half of what I spent on them.

What I would do now, and what I’ll probably do in the future, is keep making my little loops, but save the more substantial stuff for paying commission work when I’m able to start doing that. It’s still fun to help someone else navigate their music tastes to figure out what kind of music they want me to make for them. I tried designing and selling sound packs, stuff like presets and sound effects, but it wasn’t any fun and nobody bought them.

I was happiest playing around in LMMS with its ridiculous half-assed copy of Fruity Loops’ interface, so long ago, before some A/V nerd associate put me on a sound quality kick that led me to Reaper. I had no idea what a chord was, but I sure did make them!

So that’s it. If you must sell your hobby, keep whatever got you into it for yourself. If you loved making focus music, keep it to yourself, and make a job out of the parts you don’t have an attachment to yet.