4 Things I Forgot Last Winter

It was 5 months until sea kayaking season would come around again, and with no pressing engagements through winter, I had a blank canvas to paint on. This post is about the mistakes I made and the things I’d change next winter.

I’d spent a lot of time considering winter, but it wasn’t until time pressure forced me into decisions that plans were finally made. I opted for a couple of months of trekking and travelling in Nepal and India, followed by three months in Edinburgh working as freelance video-maker.

My trip east was fantastic, and I came back feeling invigorated for the new year, but the three months I spent in Edinburgh were less fruitful. I’d decided to try and earn some money making short promotional films for businesses – a hobby of mine and something I’d done for a couple of people in the Hebrides in the preceding months. How hard could it be?

As it turned out, it was hard. But, on reflection, I never really gave it a good shot. I lacked confidence in my own ability, I didn’t quantify my goals, and I shied away from inevitable rejection. So why did this happen? There were four main things that were missing.

Having a Routine: Without a routine to plan things around, one has to be self-disciplined and stick to self-imposed deadlines in order to work effectively. As a diligent planner, I find this relatively easy – as long as I’m in the right frame of mind, have had enough sleep and am not distracted by more exciting things or a new idea. But, when I drop the ball and don’t meet my own expectations, I feel guilt at having wasted my time; a self-fulfilling prophecy as the self-loathing that follows destroys creativity. It also means I have to refocus, re-prioritise and figure out (again) how my time is best spent. This can be difficult in itself, because without an overarching structure to direct your work, it’s easy to busy yourself with tasks of apparent importance that are actually trivial or even pointless. With a job, volunteer role or other commitment that involves people, this is (at least to some extent) taken out of your hands – allowing you to focus on the task in hand rather than figuring out what the task actually is.

Having others to answer to: I’ve always been quite independent and confident in making my own decisions, so working for myself seemed like a good fit. While I had some experience and the basic equipment required to make videos, I lacked a clear goal – something to aim for during this time period. It’s important to be ambitious enough to challenge yourself (and risk failure), but not so difficult that things become too onerous to even attempt. You have to figure out yourself, your ability, how you react to failure and when you are kidding yourself. Without co-workers or a manager to keep happy, it’s easy to let yourself off the hook and take the easier option under the illusion that it is the best way forward.

The best example of this was towards the end of January, when I thought that my offer to potential clients was too weak and unprofessional, and that instead I should spend at least a couple more weeks getting my editing skills up to scratch. While my offer may well have been weak, I effectively avoided the possibility of being turned down in favour of sitting at home behind the comfort of my computer where nobody could say ‘no’ to me. While this was still time well spent, it was not the option that would have challenged and tested me and ultimately helped me learn the fastest.

Spending time with people: This was my number one priority when I was planning winter. I thought that video-making would allow me the freedom and creative licence to produce work that I was proud of, while also working with organisations to deliver something that was of value to them. Video projects are specific to each and every client, and each step requires clear communication and discussion; in some ways similar to the sea kayaking tours that I had enjoyed leading over the summer. However, my lack of confidence in my own ability meant that I never pitched a proposal to a potential client, instead working on my own projects, with only the passing verdict of one or two friends to challenge me on what I had produced. I clung to the notion that “I know best”, and that people are welcome to their opinion but what I think is generally right. The longer I spend on my own, the easier this is to believe, and the harder it is to have somebody else tell you that you’re wrong. Interacting with others on a daily basis is essential for questioning your own ideas about work and life, creating new opportunities and learning new information or a new way of looking at something. 

Thinking more ‘non-selfishly’: In deciding how to spend winter, and indeed chart one’s own course through life, it is natural to put oneself at the centre of these decisions. What will make me most happy? How can I be successful? How should I best spend my time? However, this is where the paradox lies, because the broad answer to all of these questions is to help other people. Thinking back over what I’ve done, I have always felt most fulfilled when I’m working towards a common goal with other people. 

The strange thing is that I completely understand this on an intellectual level, but when it comes to committing time to something, I revert to the ‘me first’ way of thinking. What if the wind is good for kite surfing on the day that I’ve committed to a volunteer shift? What if the snow conditions are good the weekend I said I’d help a friend move house? If I forwent the ‘selfless’ option and went kite surfing or ski touring, I’d most likely have a good time. I’d be outside and active, enjoying all the benefits of adrenaline and endorphins coursing through my arteries. But I’d miss the subtle satisfaction of interaction; the passing greetings, the shared pots of tea, the sense of a job made easier with an extra pair of hands. But, to allow yourself those pleasures, you first have to let go of the idea that your own fun at the beach or on the hill comes first – something that can be difficult to do.

Our education system is heavily responsible for us developing selfish mindsets. From a young age we are incentivised to achieve good exam results in school, to go to a good university and command a high salary so that we can enjoy a decent standard of living for ourselves. It is centred around the individual, with the values of compassion and community taking a back seat. I think I’d spent too long thinking about how I could help myself, while in actual fact I probably would have been more successful if I had asked myself how I could help others. This is a key principle in Chris Guillebeau’s excellent book, $100 startup.

In conclusion, some people reading this may think I’m being overly analytical. Perhaps I am. But I think it’s important to reflect on past events in order to find what you are best suited to in the future. It’s easy to go through life reacting to what happens rather than making proactive choices; if you don’t decide then life decides for you. So, this winter, I’ll have the routine of a job or volunteer role where I can work together with others to achieve things. I’ll likely join a running club or climbing wall to spend time with others on a regular basis. And I’ll consider what value or skills I can bring to a situation, rather than what I can take from it. But the rest is still unplanned!

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