Progress in the speed of real time is hard to see.

For years when I thought of the person I was back in college and the first early years out, I just imagined the same person I am now, maybe a little smaller, a little poorer and a little blonder (I was using Sun-In, one of the greatest follies of youth). Essentially though, I believed myself to be the same. I’d look pictures of the work I did at that time and imagine me in the work just the same as now. Some days it could feel frustrating to see myself stuck in sameness, not feeling the same clear progression I used to have demarcated by an academic calendar. This was partly the impulse for a return to such a place, where the promise of measurable and specified growth is inherent in the enterprise.

Yet… There are hints to the contrary:

  • Re-reading my directing notebook from The Ballad of Joe Hill as I prep the return to the piece now in 2013 I think about the fear I had that the work would all come crashing down around me. I realize how much more I’ve learned to love and trust intuition as a guiding force in my work.
  • Re-visiting my alma mater to teach or share work, I find myself talking with students and seeing more starkly the different between where they and I each are.
  • In a moment of fretting about someone else’s perception of something I’ve done or am doing, I catch myself, let it go, and think about times previous when that wouldn’t have been possible.

But mostly, I think our awareness of change is commensurate with its actual occurrence, meaning we acclimate to our new selves in the slow and steady forward tempo they are created. So our evolving selves seem to us a constant, even though someone who leaves and returns to us might be amazed by the effected change on us by life.  Easy to see in others, hard to catch in yourself except in passing or in shadow.

And because of this it gets easy to get frustrated with growing, easy to miss the reward of experience (which seems to have been so clearly a fixed part of who we are) and mourn the vigor of youth and the promise of potential. This happens big (looking at the major arcs of our careers) and small (looking at what we have accomplished in a week of work). We go back and give our younger selves the benefit of the intelligence gained and then find fault in current ourselves for not having the future predicting foresight to avoid new mistakes, forgetting that the old ones got the current knowledge to us in the first place.

It’s a fallacy, just as much as the perfect unformed, undone, artwork whose imagining will never be tarnished by the reality of actually doing it. But fallacy or no, it works on us. And here at Swim Pony, I like not only identifying a problem or trend, but trying to alleviate the problem.

It just so happens that last 7 days have found me at home working mostly on my own. Tracking the progress of anything is hard, doing so in a bubble with no outside contact even harder. So nearing the end of the week I found myself saying, “I’ve done a lot. I swear I’ve done a lot.” With less and less conviction. But happily, near the end of the week I stumbled on a lucky accident that I wanted to share.

I am a semi-luddite, with a dinosaur phone and an instinctual late-adopter policy on technology. My to do lists are one area in particular that has stubbornly resisted updating from analog. Which is why each morning for the last week I’ve started the day with a sheet of legal paper (it’s longer) folded in half, a pen and a highlighter. I re-write the things left uncrossed from the previous day’s list onto the clean paper, add anything that has since arisen, and then highlight the things that are most urgent for the day’s doing.

Day to day, this tool is functional, helping me keep track of what’s come up and what should be on my radar and the priority in which I should be aware of it. And day to day, this list is a kind of metaphor for my growth and progress on the larger scale: taking in new info and removing things completed or learned. But unlike my larger progress I was left at the end of the week with a tangible record of each day’s doings, each step along a week of accomplishments.

Last night I stopped for a moment to take stock of this catalogue of agendas. On first glance, I was a little disappointed to see that the list size from day one to seven was roughly the same and that the number of things removed from each day was also just about equal across each list.

But then I looked closer.

I saw how things I’d thought I needed were taken off based on new information. I saw things I had delegated to others to share the burned of work. I saw things listed early in the week too vaguely had broken down into specific steps that I could (and did) complete. I saw that each day had been a small piece of progress on a multitude of fronts that added up to some big advances in the larger scheme.

And then, just to see what would happen, I went back to the first day’s list and crossed off all the things that I’d managed to finish in the 6 that followed and I actually (if you can believe such silliness) gasped at my desk.

But for one task, everything I’d wanted to achieve at the start of that week, I’d completed.  What struck me so completely was that, yes, the lists were the same size today as they were last Tuesday, but my wants kept updating with the days’ lists as well. And a little posting here day after day, we add to the finished pile one piece at a time realizing only at the end that each little step does add up to a whole body of work completed.

Perhaps it’s worth taking such moments of stock once in a while. Perhaps it might be useful to record the state of the self, to define one’s wishes and ambitions and current capabilities as they are and then compare them with the same measures from the past. So that we do not only, as we are often encouraged, measure our current selves against the prospective ones we hope to be, but also see that we have become “future” selves, ones who can take a moment to go back and gasp and be proud of how far we’ve come.

– A

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