February 09, 2022

My five year old daughter is obsessed with her letters, so she sits down often to do some writing or doodling on scraps of paper. She picks up her pen and starts pulling it down the page in what she wants to be a straight line. It comes out broken and scraggly. Ignoring any lack of semblance to the Platonic ideal, she connects the pen again and draws another crooked line. Then another. And then she grins up at me and says, “That’s an M”. If I squint, I can see an M. Undeterred and incredibly happy, she starts on her next letter. Another minute or two passes and we finally have her name - Maggie - diagonally down the page with squiggly Ms and crooked Gs. And she’s giddy. And she keeps going. And soon I can actually read her name and she’s drawn a pretty unicorn too.

Watching this process at work is magical. She just decides to do it and does it. I wish that just for 5 minutes every other day I could have the same kind of unselfconscious focus that my kids have.

Lately I’ve been struggling with productivity. A big part of this is that it’s the middle of February, the days are short, and my vitamin D is low. But the main thing is that I have this constant need to produce - to toil slavishly and to see output pile up. My work is only validated once it’s produced and measurable.

Let me tell you how I feel when I pick up a blank piece of paper now. I feel anxious. Even ten years ago I’d manage that brewing anxiety away and focus on the delight of opportunity. But now it’s just a recognition of the work that needs to be done. Needs to be. Not wants to be.

I’ve been searching for awhile to regain the magical middle ground that precipitates joy out of the desire to work and the blank page in front of me. My five year old has taught me that I’m searching in the wrong places. Joy doesn’t sit between the tyranny of productivity and the blank white page. It comes from somewhere else.

There’s all sorts of acronyms now for summarizing complex information: tl;dr, BLUF, and others. My favorite is ELI5 - Explain Like I’m 5 - because it focuses on explanation, not just summarization. I always try to use ELI5 to distill the essence of a thing.

I’m going to start using WLI5 now too. I want to write like I’m 5. No shame, no abashedness, no awareness of myself, and certainly no concern for what others might think. Who gives a shit. Put one squiggly line down after another and enjoy every second. There is a magical wisdom in the ability of children to think without thinking. It has nothing to do with productivity or work or goals or desires. Only joy and wonder.

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