Thursday, June 19, 2014

Snatching Order out of Chaos

The other day I came across a blog written by an author whose work I hadn't read in years Steven Pressfield. In 1998 he wrote an astonishing book "Gates of Fire" about the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) in which just a few hundred Spartans held off  thousands of Persians. Mr. Pressfield is a gifted,  prolific writer.  With his blog "Writing Wednesdays"  he continues an examination of creativity he explored in his 2012 book "The War of Art."  There he  suggests  means  of overcoming the largely internal roadblocks that get in the way of any creative endeavor. These endeavors are not just writing, painting or composing but also include business ventures, such as, I would posit, running or governing a nonprofit.

Let's say you are a nonprofit leader. Demands pile up daily, from donors, the public, your staff. Deadlines loom - grant proposals, preparations for fundraising events and board/committee meetings. Then there are pressing obligations in your personal life. It all seems like chaos - a permanent state of disorder. Order it if you can.  How do you get work done - especially a major project that you have been circling warily for weeks?.

Drawing on his writing career and personal efforts to clear the hurdle, Pressfield  makes some intriguing suggestions in a blog entitled "Working in Chaos."   First he says "work in  the cracks." Find intervals in your schedule where you can write even one page or paragraph. That is "gravy," he says,where you have made at least  something out of nothing. It helps too if you are determined to think big with low expectations. He calls this "eagle medicine"- the view from on high, avoiding "mouse medicine" where you are simply tinkering with words. You might surprise yourself by what emerges.

Further he recommends if your time is limited not to work "in sequence."  Don't go to the project's next step - rather, as he puts it, "snatch something out of the air. " It might be good. Granted this improvisational approach can be nerve wracking.  It is useful if you believe, as he does, that chaos is healthy, and that the universe is self-regulating.

My father, Geoffrey Platt ( I am Jr.) had a distinguished career as an architect and later in his career as a leader in the preservation field. He was the founding chairman of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. After he died in 1985, I found tacked on his office bulletin board two quotations written out in his hand on index cards.  The first is  the famous " Never Give In...." exhortation by Winston  Churchill. The other is from Leonardo Da Vinci: "Tell me if anything was ever done." I have long pondered its significance to Geoffrey Platt. With Mr. Pressfield's  advice to snatch something out of the air, I am going to try here.

Apparently Leonardo  was a famous procrastinator. He was given commissions that he either never started or didn't complete. It took him 20 years to finish Mona Lisa. It took a threat from his patron to cut off  funds to get him to finish The Last Supper.  He doodled compulsively (and what doodles!).His contributions  to art, science and architecture are well-known. But  he felt he could accomplish much more. While reviewing half-finished projects he appealed to God :  "Tell me if anything was ever done."

So I think the quote that my father saw every working day on his bulletin board served  as  a reminder that procrastination, putting off important tasks in favor of  more trivial ones, is common, even practiced by the greatest of geniuses, but that one should avoid finding oneself in the anguished state that led to Leonardo's appeal to God. The internal blockages to finishing a project, ignored temporarily by concentrations elsewhere, can be assuaged by employing some of Mr. Pressfield's techniques detailed above.  In fact I have used them to succeed in finishing this blog. Phew. Some of the chaos can in fact be tamed. One snatch at a time.