Leaving the Back-Door Open

The other day, I wrote about the importance of coming up for air.

I claimed that it was crucial to step away from what you’re doing once in a while, and that this was how you gain perspective, and how you grant yourself access to the kinds of insights and ideas that are impossible to come by when all you do is grind and grind without a break.

Well, I meant what I said, but today I want to clear up what I meant by a particular part of it, because it’s something I have misunderstood and paid the price for thousands of times and I don’t want you to do the same.

You see, in the past, whenever I heard this kind of advice from thinkers and writers – about the importance of the “big picture” – what I took that to mean was this: There’s the nitty-gritty stuff, and there’s the big picture stuff. Both are important in their own way, and so both must be attended to. To boot, knowing the big picture helps inform the nitty-gritty, and so the sooner you can nail the former, the greater ease with which you can nail the latter.

That’s all fine. Except I made a big mistake. I assumed this to be an instruction to spend time and energy chasing and hunting down the big picture. That this “coming up for air” didn’t mean looking away from what I was doing, but simply changing the glasses I was wearing. Going from writing to editing, going from acting to reflecting, going from being on the battlefield to looking down on it from 10,000 feet.

And that’s where I got really stuck.

Because as easy as I found it to get into the zone working at the nitty-gritty level, every single time I tried to shift my focus outward to the big picture, I just about capsized. Everything got real confusing real fast. Trying to better understand what it was I was doing, I instead felt like I lost any shred of understanding I’d ever had in the first place. I came to realise that – for me at least – this big picture stuff is like the sun: apparently vital, yet dangerous to look at directly.

Because it’s true: the big picture is crucial. Who cares how beautiful your sentences are if your story doesn’t work? Who cares what your company’s logo looks like if your products break after five minutes? And who cares how shiny your hair is if you’re a hateful bitch? The big picture is what ties together the nitty-gritty.

And to cut a long story short, in my experience, the big picture only ever comes of its own accord. Like a snooty cat, it does not respond kindly to being chased directly, but comes when it’s good and ready to – when it damn well feels like it. That’s not to say, however, that it comes randomly, or that it cannot be indirectly coaxed and encouraged. On the contrary, it’s like clockwork – it always seems to come thickest, fastest, and clearest when I divide my time between grinding on the nitty-gritty, and then leaving it completely alone.

That’s the distinction I’m trying to make. Your mileage might vary, but when I alternate between grinding on the nitty-gritty and grinding on the big picture, nothing works. It all falls apart. Instead, it’s about grinding on the nitty-gritty, and then when you let go, completely letting go, and instead of forcing it, allowing the big picture stuff to show up.

You know better than I do what works for you. But if you’re anything like me, set up a hard barrier between church and state. Have two modes – grinding on it, and leaving it alone. The big picture will come in through the back door.

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