Here’s the advice any ambitious person loves to hear:
“I get to the library and all set-up by around 5:30AM. I spend a few minutes in prayer and meditation, followed by a 5–10 minute session in my journal. The purpose of this journal session is get clarity and focus for my day.”
— productivity guru Benjamin P. Hardy
And here’s what we don’t want to hear:
“I don’t get up in the morning until I know exactly what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I stay in bed until about three in the afternoon, without any breakfast.”
— minimalist painter Agnes Martin
Who has the time for that? The patience?
Who stays in bed until three in the afternoon, staring out the window in silent reflection, without any devices or breakfast?
Agnes Martin’s approach is such a stark contrast to Benjamin P. Hardy, Tim Ferriss, Tony Robbins, and other self-improvement experts who have normalized the idea that it should take ten minutes a day to tee up our goals and blast off like a rocket.
For some people, sometimes, when the inner channel is open and ready to go, the entire day can crystalize in a handful of minutes.
But then there are other times. Times when we really don’t know what’s next or what we want. There is no vision, no picture, only emptiness. Or the opposite: we are totally overwhelmed. We have competing goals that fracture our days, and our priorities are muddled in a way that no amount of journaling seems to solve.
In either case, there is disconnection from our sense of deeper desire. Maybe in the middle of it all, we forgot why we got into the game in the first place.
Faced with this situation, most of us ignore the inconvenience of not knowing, and pretend we do know. We go on auto-pilot, plowing ahead with our crazy schedule. This ignorance may be subtle and hard to notice. The ego may have attached to a belief that we have our shit together, even if it’s not true. To make matters worse, the ego loves the social validation of people around us believing we know what we’re doing and we love what we’re doing.
The beauty of Agnes Martin’s approach is that she sat with the pain of not knowing. Instead of running from it, she faced it. And by facing not knowing, it gradually became knowing again, on a deeper, more stable, more honest, more inspired level.
This flies in the face of most personal productivity advice. It does not happen on any schedule that the ego would prefer. But there’s always a deeper level of knowing available beneath the confusion or the emptiness on the surface. It may take months of 3pm mornings to find it.
Now, you might argue that Martin, in her life as a minimalist painter, adopted a practice of self-reflection that is overly deep and existential and totally unnecessary for us modern computer people. But, isn’t Benjamin Hardy advocating exactly the same deep connection to the self, allowing it to become our best source of creative flow and energy? Isn’t Tony Robbins’ message, beyond the theatrics, that we reconnect to our deepest self so we can jump out of bed every day to “unleash the power within”?
I think we’re all reaching for the same thing here: purpose, clarity, focus. And it’s just a matter of where we find it. That’s why I respect and admire the productivity pundits. They understand the power of it, they feel it within themselves, and they are here to wake us up to it.
But sometimes, we need to slow the fuck down.
Sometimes we need to be okay with not knowing.
Sometimes we need to go slower than we ever. thought. possible. or. sensible.
Just being silent and still can appear from the outside like an endless, self-indulgent, boring, and worthless pursuit. There is so much in the world that competes with stillness. If you want personal growth, don’t you have to get out there and grab it by the horns?
It took me a long time to recover from this idea. I left the startup world behind for a while and “lost my edge” on purpose. I shut off my alarm clock, cut out caffeine, made my phone boring, and finally learned how to meditate. Slowing down and really accepting the stillness was scary and frustrating and usually the last thing I wanted to do.
Now I treasure it. I know how special it is. To just be. To allow the mind to settle and to avoid jumping on the 1st, 10th, or 100th idea that comes up. To let them all pass by. And, ultimately, to allow the inner muse to emerge from the depths and to speak in a voice that cuts right through to the heart of who we are and why we are here.
And from there, to begin again.