Getting Started

Chaim Potok unwittingly pointed to this blog post when his narrator, David Lurie, mused early in the 1975 novel In the Beginning: “All Beginnings are hard…. Especially a beginning that you myeshivaake for yourself. That’s the hardest beginning of all.” David’s beginnings, as are ours,  were plentiful: starting life with delicate health, startin
g school amidst a den of bullies, initiating the study of Hebrew, beginning the path to becoming a rabbi, beginning the process of faith exploration in departure from his father’s traditional piety, and emigrating from Poland to begin a new life in the Bronx.

As I returned to the office this morning after a week’s beach vacation with our family, I asked myself what my blog topic would be for this week. This was not a new question, as I had asked myself several times over the last week what I might write about after the hiatus—work is seldom out of mind. Even though I keep a list of possible topics, I prefer to have a current, urgent topic that provides fuel for my fingers. Walking (in the shade as much as possible) across the office parking lot, it came to me: Getting started.

All my life, I have experienced a sense of dread, anxiety, and mental fatigue at the thought of starting something new:

  • Reading instructions for a new device or software application
    • How long will it take? Do I have everything I need to do it? Will I be able to understand it?
  • Designing a new course or program
    • Can I handle the graphic elements? Do I know the right math and programming language to write the necessary calculations? Is it really needed?
  • Returning a call from a customer or reader with a thorny question
    • Do I need to prepare for the call? Will I be able to handle to emotions and/or the details?
  • Taking on a home repair project
    • Do I have what I need? How long will it take? Do I know how to do it? Should I hire it out? Do I need someone to help me?

As an example, I left the large metal plant stand I gave my wife last December 25 unassembled for six months before finally taking the plunge. I feel a sense of weariness when I consider embarking on these new paths, so I put it off. Inevitably, however, once I begin and become immersed in the project, and put blinders on for the other temptations in my immediate environment, my course of action becomes clearer and clearer, and before I know it I have successfully completed it. The trick is setting aside everything else and just diving in—committing myself to getting started.

My father once told me about another student during his first year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That student would spend hours talking and moaning about how much work he had, how hard the courses were, and how he doubted his ability to master the material. Dad said the student was plenty bright, and if he’d spent the time studying that he spent playing “Ain’t it awful?” that he would have graduated. The guy flunked out after one semester, a testament to hard beginnings and the difficulty of getting started.

Perhaps the most famous instance of hard beginnings and difficulties in getting started is so-called “writer’s block.” mind mapI remember some time ago when a friend of ours served a prison term for a white-collar crime. I committed to writing him an old-fashioned letter (he wasn’t allowed to use email) weekly. At first, I struggled with what to say, and it took over an hour to compose the letter. Then it occurred to me to use mind maps, a technique created by Tony Buzan. I use them to get started in both planning projects and writing chapters in my books. I took five minutes to draw out a mind map, jotted down a variety of newsy items, then assigned them a sequence number, and wrote. I then generated a five-page letter in under one-half hour!

More often than not, the hard part of getting started is making up your mind to take the plunge—to get started. Once begun, I tend to flow. At the beach last week, I had to begin a new chapter in a book I’m writing. As I reviewed the proposed chapter title, I said to Jane, “How did I ever think I could write an entire chapter on this topic?” I was on the verge of deleting the chapter from the outline. Then I took the plunge—I shut out all distractions (I burn a candle when writing to let others know I’m trying to get in a zone), I reviewed my notes, began my mind map, and before I knew it I had enough legitimate ideas on the topic to write a 20-page chapter! It was like entering a library thinking all the shelves were bare, only to find it filled to the rafters!

When you start, the initial struggle is normal. The struggle separates those with grit from those who quit. Later in Chaim Potok’s book of 1975, the Rebbe (rabbi) comments: “A shallow mind is a sin against God…. A man who does not struggle is a fool.” Accept the struggle. Yes, the water is cold at first plunge, but you warm up to each other.

And, after getting started, when you feel stuck, more often than not you simply need a breather. When Thomas easy chairEdison got stuck on an electrical engineering problem at his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, he’d take a break and nap in his old, stuffed, easy chair in the corner of the lab, then return, refreshed, to his table and continue drawing, writing, and calculating. Sometimes all you need is backing away and getting fresh oxygen (i.e., fuel) to your brain. Let your recent work gestate and mingle for a few minutes while breathing fresh air. Then, see what emerges when the fog lifts. Aerate your brain and restart.

I get mentally fatigued just thinking about getting started. But once I jump in, the fatigue subsides and my thought processes take over. I am reminded of a cartoon that drew Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud walking the streets of Vienna. Marx was brooding that “Ach, Sigmund, religion is the opiate of the masses.” “Karl, my friend,” quipped Freud, “Just say no!” Well, what was true for Marx is just as true for my dad’s freshman friend and for the rest of us: Just go ahead and get started!

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