Sunday, October 14, 2007

In the Beginning Was the End (parte quinta): If You're Standing You Ain't Moving.

...or 'Every journey begins with the first step.' Or 'If you don't get your ass into gear, don't blame anybody else.'

Though standstill may act as a suitable hindrance to precipitous action, it is only if it exists as that transitional state that it becomes our servant instead of our master. Only old and tired men think that prolonged standstill is beneficial. Life is movement. Only in death will you find stillness. Thanks, but no, thanks!

In the course of one's life standstill takes a number of forms. I am here referring to those visible in the context of 'developed western civilization'. Said restriction is deliberate, since I'm acutely aware that at other places and other times in history things are and were different. So, please take what follows with these cautions.

One area of 'standstill' is 'professional' and I'll stick to that, because it's illustrative of a much wider area of human endeavor. People do stuff and they keep on doing it just because they started doing it and/or because they ended up being some sort of 'expert' in it; or because they are comfortable doing this because of it's something they know and therefore not scary; or something along those lines.

Also, and one should not underestimate the influence of this, people tend to get typecast by those employing them or prospectively employing them. I had to do serious battle to be allowed to become a 'documentation' person or a 'technical writer'—which is my current professional label—when all people ever saw was a 'programmer': a role I slipped into by contingency, and not by choice to begin with. Right now, of course, I'm being labeled a 'technical writer'—and that generally means people don't expect you to understand stuff having to do with, for example, 'design', because you don't have the requisite credentials; and tech writers aren't expected to 'do' or know much about design of a visual nature. Which means that people expect you to be able to 'write' and understand about technology and science, but not to know anything about the difference between RGB and CMYK or global or spot colors; or about aesthetics and making things look good and snazzy and appealing; about the secrets of 'layout'; 'style'; 'flair'; proportion...

'Specialization is for insects,' wrote Heinlein, but if you don't specialize these days you're basically right royally screwed, because you're battling every step of the way to make your way into professional areas jealously guarded by those who have spent good money to earn the appropriate degrees that give them the keys to said professions, and who have a vested interest in promoting to consumers of their services—i.e. employers—the notion that such degrees are basically a prerequisite for being able to do certain jobs. Well, it's bullshit; pure and simple. Fact is, I do better 'tech writing'—without ever having had any acquaintance with any form of training in that area—than just about anybody I know; and I do better 'design' than a crapload of those who do have degrees in that area. (Pacem, daughter mine: you are not among them! But you know as well as I do, that a lot are. So, please, no flames, OK?)

At the same time the subtle matter of aesthetic taste is, I believe, not something that can be 'taught', despite what others—again, those with vested interests in convincing you otherwise—would have you believe. Aesthetics is not a matter of knowledge acquired, or of some appropriate training or conditioning, but of having a 'feeling' for the right and the wrong; almost an additional sense, that you either have or you don't. It may be genetic. I do stem from a family of artists, but I was the renegade 'scientifically' inclined offspring. And what did I end up doing in my private life, as opposed to 'professional'? Ha! Do I hear maniacal PTB-laughter ringing somewhere?

But more significant even than professional typecasting by potential employers, is that inflicted upon oneself by oneself. Believe me, I know what it feels like to feel truly and honestly stupid, useless and out-of-your-depth in a job you've just taken up. Been there, done it—several times. Each time it happened when the job involved something I was prepared to do, in terms of qualifications and background, but about the specific details of which I had to learn basically everything. And, allowing myself to construe a possible, though unlikely scenario, say someone has a contract for someone more in the 'graphic design' area than strict 'tech writing' and they were desperate enough to hire me, say because they can't find anybody else and so tell themselves that I'm still better than the alternative candidates... Say that were to happen, and suddenly all the accumulated, but 'unofficial', knowledge of mine in the area of doing visual design were put to the real test of an environment where my 'writing' skills would be of little use, and where I'd really have to pull out all the stops in those areas that up to now were only exercised in the context of designing book covers and in various other private projects, as well as doing the various web and for-print design jobs I've done in the context of 'documentation development'...

It's a scenario I would, frankly, welcome; though it won't happen, of course, because that's not the way things work. But would it be scary to be thrown in there? Absolutely. Would it be a definite challenge? No shit! Would I, personally, do it tomorrow if the opportunity offered itself? Abso-damn-lutely. I get excited just thinking about the possibility. Is this a form of advanced neophilia? Don't think so. Just adventure and the desire for some real damn challenge that one can rise up to. For when you get to the stage that you can do things in your sleep—even if the material is in some way 'novel' or something you haven't worked with before—then it's time to move on; for all you'll do in the job you're doing is, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, leaving ever-deeper footprints. But you're not going anywhere. You're just playing it safe.

'Adventure' is about not knowing what's going to happen. Adventure is about saying 'yes' to something you think you might like to do; which you think you'd think you'd have the competence of doing, despite the slippery steep learning slope you're going to be facing. Adventure is about saying to yourself that, no matter how scary it looks, you'll do what it will take, so that after the adventure opportunity has been offered you'll not only grab it, but put every bit of action where your mouth and intentions are. Don't 'dotry'. Do. Adventure, if it isn't scary, is not 'adventure', but pretending. Adventure is about not minding being scared—and of being willing to leave the comfort of predictable security behind. No need to be stupid about it, of course; but some security has to go. If you can't live without security, forget about adventure. Just sit life out and wait to die—which, for all you know, may be in a few minutes from now. We're all on borrowed time, and there are no second editions and the 'afterlife' is bunk.

But if you're of a mind to start on that adventure you've got to stop doing something else first. After acquiring the competence required to equip yourself for the adventure and whatever it is you're trying to start—said acquisition being a matter of good sense, unless you're really wanting disaster to strike!—you will have to say to yourself one day: no more of this; it ends here and now and henceforth I will only consider that.

Just because you're good at something isn't a sufficient condition for you doing it. What you 'ought to do' is what you need to do—said 'need' being seen in the context of whatever it is that will allow you to fit yourself into whatever happens to be your destiny at the time. Sometimes that means a crap job just because you've got to feed yourself and/or the family, and that's what matters above all. Other times it doesn't. You've got to figure out which is which. And when. That may be the hardest thing of all.

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