Three Expectations That Lead to (My) Downfall (Part 2 of 3)

So I’ve been thinking of renaming this series of blog sharing, but nothing else I’ve come up with has had a better ring than this, so I guess this overly dramatic title will do for now. A week after Part 1 was published, I still don’t think I’m anywhere near my downfall, but I hope I’m just not being delusional about it lol.

(You can read Part 1 here)

While writing today I was remembered a line in the movie “Never Been Kissed”, somewhere towards the end when Drew Barrymore’s character narrated that as a journalist, she was taught to “write what you know.”

What I know is that each of us has our own view of the world and how we think it works, created and reinforced by a combination of our upbringing, our environment, our education and our life experiences.

And while we may intellectually know and understand that our worldview isn’t accurate, it’s only human that we unconsciously can’t help making conclusions about reality from our biased perspectives.

This week I attended an online talk about Shaman consciousness, and the speaker said that when we think of communicating with animals and what they would talk about, we almost always project our human consciousness as a framework to understand animal consciousness.

I guess it’s the same when we try to put ourselves into someone’s shoes — we’re really bringing in our own frameworks as a way of trying to understand what we think that person is going through.

The only way we can truly understand the worldview of another person or an animal, is to let go of our attachment to our ideas and perspectives, so we can tune into their frequency and experience it for what it is.

Letting go sounds so simple, but it’s not easy. When we’ve spent most of our lives viewing ourselves and the world a certain way, it becomes comfortable and natural to us, and as creatures of habit, this has unconsciously shaped the way we live our day-to-day, and thus unfold the rest of our lives.

This is also where our expectations come into play, and when they are not managed, it can lead to our downfall.

One of these things for me is what I’ll share about today:

2. I expect that my usual way of getting results will always work for me.

I was a straight A student all through my school years. (Except for Chinese, my second language.)

I managed to get straight A’s not because I’m the most disciplined and hardworking student. In fact, I always tend to do what I like first (reading, writing stories, playing) and leave the difficult stuff for later; until there isn’t much time left, and I’d rush like mad to complete it. Out of fear of getting in trouble with my teachers or disappointing my parents, I’d always finish my work to the best that I can. It’s just almost always crammed into the last few moments before the deadline.

This was the same for me all through university, where I’d stay up the entire night before rushing to complete a paper or study for an exam. (By then I was no longer a straight A student, but I got good enough grades to graduate).

This was the same behavior that got me through years of my training in classical piano, where I’d practice only in the last few hours before my weekly lessons. (My sister was the same way, and our lessons were on the same day with the same teacher, so hours before we’d both be fighting for the piano lol).

This was the same pattern I repeated with my first solo exhibition, waiting till two days before the exhibition setup to varnish all 30 paintings.

Despite this pattern, I still managed to produce results. I did well in school, I performed well at piano exams and recitals, and my first solo exhibition was a success.

Over time, this has reinforced my worldview that despite the last minute effort and its accompanying chaos, I will always deliver results that meet the expected standards.

Thus even though I know I should practice the piano everyday, and start studying for exams a few weeks in advance, and that it’s always better to start and finish things way ahead of time just in case unforeseen circumstances crop up, I’d still somehow always procrastinate and put things off until it’s critical that I get started on them, and it’s now become normal for me to lose sleep and sanity in those last-minute moments.

There’s nothing inherently “wrong” or “bad” with this system of getting things done. But it’s become such a big part of my worldview and my identity that no matter how I try to schedule tasks ahead of time, and tell myself that I should start on a project today instead of next week, unconsciously I’ve always returned to my usual last-minute-scramble method.

This last-minute system works well for one-off projects that have a clear deadline. But what happens when I’ve got three concurrent projects with similar due dates? What happens if I have projects that don’t have a deadline? Also, as I get physically older, I no longer recover as quickly from pulling all-nighters as I did in my twenties.

When I spent 5.5 months in Europe last year painting six Dream Tree murals in four countries, it hit me really hard that my last-minute system of working isn’t at all sustainable for the long haul.

While you can’t really put off painting a mural to the last minute, I always underestimated how much work I had to complete, and by the time I started on each wall, I’d end up finishing it the day before I had to pack up and travel to the next location, or just hours before the presentation.

The last-minute scramble is still workable to pull off one project at the last moment, but when there are six back-to-back ones, coupled with traveling to new places and getting re-settled into new environments, creating consistency to better manage the chaos becomes even more essential.

By the final week of my time in Europe and the completion of the final Dream Tree of 2019, I had pretty much overstressed my physical body to a breakdown which lasted for three days. (My head was swimming and fuzzy, I had lost my appetite, and all I could do was lie in bed and stare at the ceiling.)

I realized then I had to train myself to develop a different way of working, one that is based on consistent effort and the discipline of steady progress over time.

With my current project of producing an animated art story, I don’t have any external deadlines (at least not at the moment), thus this was no longer a motivating factor to complete the work, and without a due date, I had no reason to employ my usual last-minute scramble method.

In order to fulfill this project, I’ve set myself a daily practice of working on it for 2 hours every day.

First I wrote out the entire sequence of tasks that need to be done — a really long and detailed list where I can see how far I am from the finish line. Then I set a time in the day when I must show up to the studio to work (which sometimes gets delayed because I don’t like routine). And when I show up to the studio, I refer to this list of tasks, and continue where I’ve left off.

All I tell myself to focus on is just to fulfill those 2 hours today, and check off some items on the list. If new unforeseen tasks come up, I add them to the list, which means the list of tasks keeps growing until the project is finished. Which also means that until it’s done, I must show up 2 hours every day to do this work.

I’m still not used to this way of working. For the past two weeks, out of 14 days, I’ve managed to fulfill my 2-hour commitment eight times. But I don’t berate myself about this, because I know it will take time for me to overcome the unconscious worldview I’ve developed over years of doing last-minute work that still got me results. If I miss a day, I tell myself to try again tomorrow. I tell myself to just continue where I’ve left off on the list, until I reach the finish line for this project.

At the end of the day, it’s not about rejecting the old way of working, and completely switching to a new way.

It’s really about expanding my view of myself and my world, such that I can now have two working methods (and various combinations in between) I can employ depending on the situation that arises.

Knowing that I can produce results with last-minute work is useful when unforeseen circumstances come up that need to be handled urgently.

And knowing I can also produce results with consistent efforts over time allows me to take on more projects concurrently, while maintaining a system which also allows me to rest, recharge, take care of my sanity and well-being, and enjoy other parts of the journey along the way.

Part 3 coming soon! (Sun 12 Jul)

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