Space begets space
Like an anaemic finding iron, a week into this process I had a profound sense that I'd gained something in which I'd been chronically deficient. I started calling whatever it was that I'd gained, "Space".
Space is a condition of abundant uninterrupted time, with a free license to follow whatever thoughts arise when there is nothing external to take care of. This means removing anything that could provoke an unexpected context switch, and keeping tools close to hand to persist and peruse whatever comes up.
I had an isolated cabin, an empty calendar, empty inbox, empty to-do list, disabled internet, and weeks to think with no interruptions stretching far ahead. I had my laptop, index cards, blue-tack, pens, A3 sheets of card stock, and a kitchen table on which to lay it all out.
I could start a thought, go to sleep, and then pick up where I left off the next morning. If it was all too much I could leave it all alone for a couple of days, and when I felt ready have it right there where I left it. The closet of my half-hour walk to work had expanded into a warehouse big enough to hold as mind-splittingly large a question as: "Who do I want to be?".
A thought that took "4 days to think", was finally a thought that I was capable of having. Now that I had space.
Without space, I lack the combination of time, focus, and tools with which to follow a web of thoughts and feelings from A to B through Z. I can't step back and see how it hangs together in its entirety, nor how it should actually impact my life. I end up with a closet of dreams going stale, to chance upon occasionally and fret about until distracted.
Space allows the hints we encounter on the puzzle of life a chance to actually impact who we are, and what we do with our limited time.
For myself, realising the extent to which I needed this turned out to require a lot of space. This creates a pernicious dynamic, wherein a lack of space eats space.
Whenever I tell someone I took a month away just to stop and think, they respond:
"Wow! Yes! That sounds amazing, I really need to do something like that."
and I say "Well then, why don't you?"
to which they reply... "I'm too busy".
Even if taking a month to think is the most vital thing one could be doing, it never happens if you're too busy to realise it, schedule the time, and then protect that time from all intrusion. I saw I could have spent years trying to find space in the margins of life to stop and think on what mattered, unable to have the 4-day thoughts required to realise just how badly I needed space in which to have 4-day thoughts.
However, the good news is that the inverse is also true. Space begets space.
With space to think I could see just how valuable that was, and take the opportunity to make the structural life choices needed to ensure I didn't lose it. I could design for myself an ongoing concentric rhythm of space, setting aside 20 minutes each morning, a week every month or two (I call this Space Camp), and a month every couple of years. Guaranteed time, scheduled in advance to stop sprinting for a moment, step back, and assess how things are progressing.
A quick word of warning, if you plan on taking a dose of space you may experience some if not all of the following side effects:
Thrashing is when a computer is so overwhelmed, the overhead to manage the overwhelm becomes an increasing part of the problem, leading to a feedback loop of task switching and stalled progress. This can happen when I take space, and let everything I've not been thinking about out of the hard basket at once.
An interesting idea can be akin to finding a light. It's illuminating, it's warm, and there's a sense it leads somewhere interesting. Flickering is what happens when you follow a set of bright ideas (perhaps even around the world) and the light just all of a sudden goes out. This can feel profoundly disorientating, to have a strong sense of purpose and meaning lead you into the woods and then just vanish.
Entrepreneurial dissonance is the delta between how I predicted pursuing a vision would feel, and the reality of it. This can happen when I take steps on a project and experience Thrashing or Flickering, but can also be a product of practical setbacks, disagreement in teams, or realising I had an incomplete idea of what executing the vision would involve.
If you've taken space (or undertaken any project with uncertainty really) and feel this way, know that it's normal. It doesn't mean you're not cut out for it, or you're on the wrong track. All it just means you're exploring the unknown, and this is good news! For the unknown is where the treasure tends to be.
Inevitably after writing everything down and getting a good night's sleep or five; the lights come back on, the thrashing settles down, and ways forward begin suggesting themselves.
So, to sum.
Once I gave myself space to think, all I could think about for days on end was oh man... having space to think is really fucking important.
I saw a lack of space eats space, and while I had it, I had to figure out how to ensure I didn't lose it. It is for this reason that every morning I perform a peculiar ritual.
I place a leaf between my lips, sit at my desk, and read "mnestic.txt" a word at a time with as great a care as I can manage.
Coming up next: Mnestics