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Fake Plastic Trees
I'll give you fair warning on this post: if you don't like "the making of" pieces or introspection, you likely won't get much out of this post. I'm not sure how it's all going to fit together or whether I'm going to be providing anything useful.
I'll also admit that part of this post is to relay a more personal aspect to what's going on with me. The posts I enjoy most from other people are those in which they actually talk about what's been going on with them, yet I don't do it very much. It's not as though I'm really scared of revealing what's going on, but there's always that lingering question for me: have I said or done anything that's actually helped my readers? I've already warned you that that answer is likely going to be negative for this.
I've been in a bit of an existential funk the last few days. It hit me really hard Friday night and Saturday morning, but I'm doing better now. I think the major issues are those of authenticity, sustainability, and friendship. Not sleeping well last week probably weighs in on it, as well.
The issue with authenticity mostly relates to the content I work on with this blog. Almost ten years of training as a philosopher has prepared me for living a life in obscurity and questionable usefulness. Now that I'm blogging, I find that I'm having to fight the tendency to sit in a hole and hope I've helped someone and instead start marketing what I'm doing.
This is a very hard switch for me mostly because the blogging industry is founded primarily on self-interest. It takes a long time for people to read your blog before they actually believe that you're trying to provide useful, informative content out of a desire to help people accomplish their goals precisely because everyone's trying to make a buck off of blogging. I expect that, even as I write this, you're wondering whether this is some kind of ploy to trigger an emotional response to help me make money somehow.
Which would be precisely correct when I started this blog. I started blogging solely to make some extra money and gave up when it became clear that Google's payment of nineteen cents wouldn't go very far. I had better things to do, even though I still wanted to help people.
Fast forward to January. A general graduate student malaise struck me, and I wasn't doing anything besides what I absolutely had to to get by. Mostly that meant I wasn't writing or researching anything, even though my dissertation is looming over my head like a summer storm. But I also had unlocked some kind of creative ghost within me and I wanted to write, as it's the outlet that I'm most comfortable using to capture what I'm thinking and feeling. Interestingly, what was motivating me to write was my desire to help others through writing. Perhaps I figured since I wasn't helping myself any, I might as well help others.
Things were going well, again, until some other things fell through. Despite the fact that I genuinely want to help people, the fact of the matter is that my wife and I are broke. Remember how broke you were in college? Imagine spending twice that amount of time in school, and then some, and you can see how one can land in this position. I'll save my rant for how graduate students are exploited labor for another day.
The saving grace for us has been the fact that I've been in the Army National Guard. The reality of the situation is, though it can be a really big pain in my ass sometimes, the twenty or thirty hours a month that I spend doing it pays more than my full-time instructor position does. This boon, however, comes at a severe cost, and it's why I think so much about productivity: I've got a lot more to do and maintain to support our existence than the average PhD candidate.
The last yarn of this cloth is that I really, really enjoy writing about the stuff I've been writing. I've been more alive from the fire within than I have in a long, long time, and I love even more that I may have helped a few more people actualize their goals or improve their life.
So, the tension is that I love doing this and would do it a lot more, except for the fact that it's not paying the bills. Granted, I'll make more than nineteen cents this month, but not enough to do anything besides buy another book. The only way that I can create more income from this blog is to market and monetize what I'm doing. But, even though I'm swimming against the herd of people who are doing this solely to make a quick buck, I'm still in the pool with them and have to play the game.
Yet I can't and be true to myself. I could probably write well-crafted, shorter, hacky posts to propel to the front page of Digg, but that's not my voice and my way. And, in the time it would take me to do that, I could produce two or three other posts that I think would be far more beneficial to those loyal readers that I do have and who are graciously willing to work with me and be patient as I try to work what I'm thinking about or working on out.
So, what I've been struggling with is what my Most Wanted Response from you all is. On the one hand, I would most like you to read what I've written, think about it, and go apply or try some of it in your own lives. If it helps you, great. If it doesn't, come back and let me know so that I'll stop recommending stuff that's not helpful. Yet the reality is that my financial situation is such that I really also would like to make some money off of this stuff. This bothers me, but it is what it is.
And this never became more clear to me than when the Heatmap post hit it big, at least for this blog. My traffic went from around 100 views a day to 9,695 views after that post made it on Lifehacker and PopUrls. So, I did as any other blogger does when they have a major surge of traffic: I checked my stats every thirty minutes for several days to see how viral it would become. I did all sorts of inane things that wasted time due to the excitement of actually being noticed. I lost it and became stupid for a few days, trying to figure out how I was going to strike while the iron was hot.
Which leads me right into the sustainability piece. In the last week or so, I've spent something like 120 hours working on, or around, this blog. No, that's not an exaggeration, as it hasn't been uncommon for me to wake up at 0600 and work until 10 or 11 pm. The frustrating thing is how much of the time was wasted on things that really didn't matter and produced absolutely no value for anyone. How can I write about focusing on what's important and a lot of the other stuff I've written in the last couple of months when I lose it under the pressure of traffic crack? Not only is it disingenuous, but all that came at a cost of other things that are very important to me.
Like my relationship with my wife. She's had to put up with my cognitive distance from her for a while now simply because I've been either so lost in thought or braintornadoing when I've been with her, despite how hard I've tried to be 100% with her during quality time. It's far easier to separate yourself from work when it's not coming from within you, and this past quarter has been the only time in which I've walked this road alone, as my awakening did not result in hers. She's patient and forgiving, but I want to make it such that me pursuing my passion is not at such a high cost to her and our relationship. Hopefully, I'll get better at that, because I'll let you know right now if I'm placed in a position such that I can't have healthy relationships and do this, I'll very quickly (but reluctantly) drop this.
You can probably also guess how much non-blogging work I got done this last week. Enough to get by. Enough said.
The tension with friendship has many agents. First, having braintornados about friendship and how it relates to flourishing has a tendency to make you evaluate your own friendships and how good of a friend you are. Of all the virtues, I'm probably the weakest at practicing friendliness for a few reasons. One is just how busy I am. Two, I can be far too giving and very easy to exploit, so I'm cautious with letting someone inside my circle. The last is that I really only choose people that I can establish meaningful relationships with and I don't find a whole lot of people that I really click with holistically.
That last reason and the authenticity problem conjoined make an even bigger problem for me with online relationships. I'm developing relationships with other bloggers, and I'd like to develop explicit groups, but those types of things can fall apart very quickly when you discover that people aren't reciprocating and are really only in it for quite divergent reasons than your own (namely, their, and only their, self-interest). Et tu, Brutus?
A couple of other things related friendship. I have the annoying habit of commenting on and sharing good posts, and the other day I tried to help another blogger by digging their post. I really, really bungled the job. I was tired and wasn't paying attention, with the result being that I probably thwarted another chance for that blogger to get Digg candy. I was informed in very, very clear and curt language that I had screwed them. I'll post next week on what not to do when submitting a post to Digg, since I did learn what I did wrong, but I hate when I get in the way of people's success. Now I worry about how many others I screwed when I was tired, when my whole point was to try to help them. (The plus side is that I've learned that my Stumble authority is pretty high--I'll be sticking with that, as Digg is probably a waste of my time.)
And then I learned that my best friend's marriage may be coming to an end very soon. We've offered our home to him, as he'll have to move out and get back on his feet, and he's taking us up on it. I'm happy that we can be his refuge, but that means I'll be losing the office I just completed in my basement since it is configured to be a bedroom. Not only that, but he's going to need a lot of emotional support, and I'm not sure whether I'll be able to give it to him while maintaining everything else I have going on. But he'll not be alone in this transition, even if I have to put a lot of other things on hold.
I started feeling better yesterday. I stepped away from everything and went into timeout with myself. My wife and I also went out on an adventure last night, and though it was an expensive failure, it was one of those good failures that closes doors that need to be closed. And, as I complete this, I feel a lot better, as writing this has helped me work some things out. Thanks for giving me a bit of your time and a place to clear my head.
(For those that are wondering, the title of this post is a reference to Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees." I've been playing that song on my guitar for the last few days since it's been helping me order my emotions.)