Recently, a friend of mine has been struggling with how you know you’re making progress, and it’s been making me think – about achievements, about goals, about motion and momentum and today, about decisions. The importance of decisions hit me in a big way today. And, in its own way, it relates to what I intended to say. Intended consequences, and unintended consequences. Once you’ve read this article, you’ll know what I mean by that.
So, this is what could really be two articles, smooshed into one. I hope it makes sense to you; it does to me.
Week ten of Think Sideways: the Law of Unintended Consequences.
I’m not going to go into it today (see the reviews if you’re interested), but this lesson hit me in a big way, and I think is relevant to the whole notion of progress.
For me, it’s a very loaded word. On my bad days, it’s one of two words that float around my head, leering at me, taunting, laughing, reminding me of my failures. (The other word, in case you’re curious, is Productive). But nonetheless, it’s something that’s important, not only to writing, but to any career – and even to us as people outside of our careers.
Another way of phrasing it is growth. To get by in this life, we have to grow.
But how can we tell whether we’re growing or not? What are the markers by which we can measure ourselves, by which we can compare and say, ‘Yes, I have Grown’?
The first important thing to recognise is that usually, growth is a gradual process. Just like children, you don’t notice their growth every single day, even though they are growing. You turn around one day after several months, and go, “My GOODness! I swear you didn’t used to come up to my eyebrows!”
Growth is often slow, and requires patience. Some estimates place the writer’s ‘aprenticeship’ stage at ten years; that’s a lot of patience. But short of waiting out those ten years and realising how much you’ve done, how do you recognise growth, progress, when you see it?
Goals. And not just having goals, and reaching them. I’m talking here about the kind of goals you set, and how that changes over time. I keep a record of all my goals in a spreadsheet in my writing folder, and because of that I can have a real sense of progress even over the last year, just by examining the way in which my goals have changed. Sixteen months ago, I had never written more than 3,000 words together on any one project. Ten months ago, I had never completed a novel. Six months ago, I had never written a short story which I was proud of. Five months ago, I had never submitted anything for publication. By tracking the type of goals I’ve made, I can track the change in my focus, and that tells me a lot about where I am in my writing career.
Back to Think Sideways. This week is talking about the way in which you plan for surprises in your writing – because things that surprise you will most likely surprise your readers. To do this, the Law of Unintended Consequences comes into play: an action occurs, and most often we deal with the intended consequences. Bob gets the new promotion he’s been after, Bob gets more money and sense of prestige.
But to make your writing surprising, you need to also look for the unintended consequences: Bob’s new prestigious position requires more hours at the office; Bob’s home life suffers; Bob’s wife takes the children and leaves him. Or, if you prefer, Bob’s promotion means he is now entitled to a secretary; Bob doesn’t get so stressed out at work and can take time off knowing things will still be done; Bob takes his family on that holiday they’ve been planning for years; Bob’s children grow up with fond memories of their times together.
What hit me most about this lesson was the moment where we were asked to consider our own lives. What moments in time do we have in our own lives where a decision was made, and unintended consequences ensued, and our lives, for better or worse, were changed?
Stop. Right now. Close your eyes, and think of a time when you made a decision. What did you intend to happen? What actually happened? How has this changed your life?
Here are some of my examples:
At the end of 2005, I realised law was probably not the career for me. I decided that if certain things happened, I would drop law, finish my arts degree, and go train to be a teacher. The intended consequences of this were that I would be able to study English in my arts degree; I would have a career as a teacher which is more family- and writing-friendly than law. The unintended consequences?
I thought long and hard about this one. And you know what I came up with? Nothing less than the entire health and stability of my marriage. And that affects me not only now, but well into the future, and will impact my children, and thus their children…
How did this come about? You see, because I had already done some of my arts degree concurrently with law, I had only the equivalent of three semesters to go. Instead of doing that, and having to work for a semester before going to teaching, I decided to spread my subjects out, and do a three-quarters load for four semesters.
2007, the final year of my arts degree, and my husband’s final year of his architecture masters, was nothing short of a personal, private hell. Husband’s uni was messy and complicated and draining and unfair and horrible in so many ways (some of his classmates were put onto anti-depressants due to the stress), and I was called upon in ways I could NEVER have anticipated when we were married to support someone who had always been MY rock, MY stability.
By the grace of God we got through, and I am here to tell you right now that if I had been doing not only a full load, but law subjects as well, we would not have survived.
One tiny moment, where seeing the right friend in the right place at the right time prompted me to do what I’d previously been too scared to do and switch courses, and our lives were changed. This time, thank God, for the better.
So. Progress. How does this relate to the idea of progress? Decisions. Goals. Simply by dint of the fact that every single thing you do, every single choice you make, can impact your life in ways that you will never, ever appreciate until they happen. You might feel stuck in a rut, you may feel like your talent has plateaued, like you’ve been banging your head against a brick wall for so long now and nothing is going to change…
But change is the only constant in life. Things will change. And they will change based on the consequences, intended and unintended, of what you are doing right now.
Trust that, like children growing, any movement is motion even if it’s too small to see. Trust the consequences of your actions, and have faith in their ability to spiral.
Oak trees from acorns – massive success or failure based on one tiny moment in time.
You can be all that you ever hoped – or you can not.
The choice is yours.