Efforts and Goals and Joy
There was joy in concentration, and the world afforded an inexhaustible wealth of projects to concentrate on. There was joy in effort, and the world resisted effort to just the right degree, and yielded to it at last. People cut Mount Rushmore into faces; they chipped here and there for years. People slowed the spread of yellow fever; they sprayed the Isthmus of Panama puddle by puddle. Effort alone I loved. Some days I would have been happy to push a pole around a threshing floor like an ox, for the pleasure of moving the heavy stone and watching my knees rise in turn.
— Annie Dillard, An American Childhood
I find it ideal to always have more ambitions, plans, and projects than one could possibly accomplish. Aspirations — even unlikely ones, maybe especially unlikely ones — are an essential part of living well. When we are at our most ailing, we are reduced to thinking and talking only of our ailments. When we are at our most vigorous, our most alive, we think and talk of our goals and aspirations. Over long time frames, the pessimist becomes an unobservant man, and the optimist creates the world.
If you make lists of lofty goals, it can be easy to leave them to accumulate, as happens sometimes, into a mountain of to-do’s and notes and half-forgotten plans. Dreaming alone is seductive, even a little sweet, since it lacks the pain of trying. So it feels proper to prize attempts more than dreams. You should have ideals, but you cannot only love an idealized future, you must cultivate a love of effort, too. If you really want something, then the soul must make demands of the body.
I have a great regard of professional craft, but I am even more fond of amateurs — and every professional was once a person with the courage to be an amateur. I maintain a religious respect for effort, process, and the willingness to try. On these lines I think of what to do in the new year. What can I attempt that will be worthwhile, serious enough that it might end in failure? What will, as Annie Dillard said, resist effort to just the right degree, and yield to it at last? What will be spectacular if I can pull it off?
For a little while I published lists of goals around the new year (an example), but what I found is that the most interesting goals tend to be a bit slippery, temporally speaking. They get accomplished, but rarely in the year that I expect. So instead, I’d rather have a few new goals big enough to follow me through the years. The two on my mind at the start of the next year, are the creation of a rose garden, and a small setup to start making more of my own furniture. (Though I have built a barn, I have never built the smallest thing that required glue or plywood. Most of my woodworking does not rely on having a flat surface either, because I have had none.) These pursuits may not beat fruit for a year or longer — especially the garden, I have ordered over fifty bare root roses, and probably none will flower until 2025, and much of the in-between spaces will be filled with bulbs that may not be planted until late next year. I will be cultivating patience along with my effort. But I hope to have something spectacular to show you (and the whole town), eventually.
Happy New Year. I hope you find joy in effort,
footnotes without numbered feet
mountain of to-do’s and notes: A note on notes. I like note-taking, both apps and paper, but there is maybe an over-reliance on them. Note taking often feels like doing something but also gives an excuse to not put forth your own thoughts or effort until you have all the pieces. Often you will never have all the pieces. Or the notes become so large they are impossible to put into another form, and all you find yourself doing is slowly adding to the pile, when you should be breaking it apart so that it becomes actionable. Sometimes the more time spent in a note-taking phase, the less supple the thinking or doing.
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courage to be an amateur: I am paraphrasing a Wallace Stevens quote: “It is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur.”
Courage is an interesting word choice, but I think its the right one. Confidence might do, except confidence is more the result, not the process. Relatedly I know of only two ways to deliberately build confidence:
— Set aggressive goals and accomplish them
— Set aggressive goals and fail at them
Every difficult thing attempted is worthwhile. With success or failure, effort (and a little courage) gives you something vital in return.