Saturday, October 6, 2012

Blueprints and Data Mining and Jigsaw Puzzles

There are many ways to go about finding something when the way ahead is not entirely clear. Some of my friends take a goal-oriented approach. Assess where you are now, define where you want to be, then make a detailed outline of the steps you need to take to get from here to there. That's great when you have a clear idea of what "there" looks like.

Some problems can be solved by diving into books and articles and advice from friends. Find out what someone else already knows, and use that to make your design. That's great when the question you want to answer is something that someone else has already answered.

My problem is that I seldom know what my goal will look like. I may have a general dissatisfaction with the way things are and a vague sense of what direction I need to go, and that's about it. The life I imagined for myself 30 years ago bears little resemblance to the life I have today, and that's not such a bad thing. I didn't have the ability back then to imagine this life. I discovered it as I went along.

I did the best I could with what I had, and every now and then I took stock of things and saw where the pieces fit together and suggested the outlines of a next step or two. It's been like solving a puzzle.

First, you clear out an empty space where you can work. It's much harder putting a jigsaw puzzle together on a cluttered table. The pieces don't fit because of all the stuff underneath. You can't see what fits where because there are too many things in the way.

When you begin, you don't have a clue where most of the pieces are supposed to go. You might not even have a picture to help you along. So you start with what you have. Edges and corners, pieces that are clearly part of a bright pattern, like a flower or a jewel. You fit those together, and the spaces between them suggest other pieces that might fit in. The colors along the edges suggest interior pieces that might fit that general area. You try pieces out, and sometimes they fit and sometimes they don't.

You take a break when you need to, then you come back and fit a few more pieces into place. Pieces that you wouldn't have known how to place before you put those first pieces in. Sometimes, you realize that the pieces aren't fitting properly, and you have to undo a section before you plow on ahead.

Little by little, the picture emerges. Maybe it's what you expected, maybe not. Sometimes, pieces get lost and you wind up with blank spots in your puzzle. As long as the picture is relatively clear, it's enough.

I cleared things out in a big way over the past couple of years. I cleaned closets and weeded out files and got furniture that harmonized and fit my space. I quit a job that was taking up too much space in my life. I made time for quiet, reading, long walks -- and blogging!

I have begun to fit a few pieces into this clear space:
Yoga and walking, for a quiet mind and a healthy body. I went from "plank pose is gonna kill me!" to "I can do this!" The balance poses need more work, but I'm getting better. A three-mile walk now seems very ordinary to me.

A new guitar and several new CDs,
for more music in my life. I feel self-conscious about playing my piano, especially with my touchy downstairs neighbors. My guitar is quieter -- and much more portable. I'm having to re-learn what little I knew about playing guitar from my few lessons in the 1970s, and I am in serious need of some finger callouses. That will come.

Movies, art exhibits, panel discussions, and other events for mental stimulation. Sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself. Sometimes, I come away with an idea for the next move in my career. Sometimes, I just come away feeling inspired and happy. Both are valuable to me.

Writing projects, because this is a big part of who I am. I have a fiction piece coming out online next month, and a nonfiction piece being published this month. (I'll put in some links when they go live.) I am getting small bits of inspiration for several stories in progress. And most mornings, I write Morning Pages (a la The Artist's Way), which vary from brain dumps to aimless meanderings to bloody brilliant.

Social media,
as a way of getting the word out there and reminding people I still exist. I'm learning my way around Twitter and news feeds and my very own website, and a professional FaceBook page. It's kind of disjointed right now, and I can spend way too much time just looking at other people's updates. Gradually, I'm getting a feel for how to skim the important stuff, avoid the negativity, and make a presence for myself. It's a skill, like anything else.

Little pieces of the puzzle, coming together. I'm still not sure what the picture is, but something is starting to emerge.


  1. I saw a blog entry on one of my career-redefinition searches that mentioned a concept I like... to fit with your metaphors, I guess I'll call it "flipping the puzzle pieces over." The blogger said it can be more important to look for the work environment that you are suited to than the actual content of the work. If you're working at a place that performs a service that you're passionate about, but in an environment that is seriously uncomfortable, that may be a worse job than working for a company that performs a service that you may not have even heard of before, but in an environment that suits you very well. Of course there are limits; if it's an industry that you find repugnant, even the most perfectly suited environment probably won't make it more palatable. But it's an interesting idea; refocusing on the way the work environment is set up. There are any number of industries that I'd be willing to support in my job, given the right environment. And I have turned down or left jobs in my supposedly preferred industry because the environment was (to me) completely toxic. So this concept really starts to ring true.

    1. That makes so much sense! I'm going to have to think about that. One thing I've learned over the years is not to over-define myself. That shuts the door to so many good possibilities, and it limits things to the limit of my own imagination. The world is so much bigger than that. Thanks, sees!

  2. I loved my first newspaper job and the environment, both work and non-work (the Jersey shore). Left for a bigger newspaper (which you were supposed to do, I guess). Liked the job, not so much the environment and the editors. Left for a job I stayed with for 30 years. Liked, sometimes really liked the job, and the work environment ranged from tolerable to very comfortable, depending on the time. Never quite as passionate as I was about my first job (it was my first, after all, right out of grad school), and had to settle for DC and not living a few blocks from the Atlantic. But what's the cliche, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don't go so much for your puzzle metaphor, but thought I'd share.

    1. Thanks, Gerry. I had a magazine editing job a few years back that I would have stayed with for 30 years if that was possible. It wasn't ice cream and unicorns every day, but it had enough of the things that are important to me that I liked it very much and didn't mind working hard for a modest salary. Unfortunately, that job disappeared when the magazine folded. Since then, I've had several jobs that were good enough when I started, but always seemed to turn toxic when leadership changed, budgets were cut, etc. That's why I'm trying to piece together something for myself.


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