At 2:15 AM, I woke up to a loud crash. For a few heart-pounding minutes, I lay there with my dog Bruno, both of our gazes frozen on the bedroom door, wondering if an intruder was about burst through. Well, I was wondering. Bruno was probably just scared because I was.
Eventually I told myself that I’m a grown woman who does not sit up awake in the middle of the night clutching her dog for protection, and got up my courage to go check on things. A large painting that had hung in my entryway for years had picked April 7th at 2:15 AM to come crashing off the wall for no apparent reason. The wall hooks and wires were still intact. It was as if a ghost had come by and plucked it off its perch and thrown it on the floor. Mysterious, but nothing to call 911 over, so I leaned it up against the wall so I could deal with it at a more reasonable hour. I slept fitfully for the rest of the night.
In the warm light of morning, I looked again at the painting. I’d always thought I really liked it. It’s a watercolor in earth tones of a seated woman. She mostly has her back to the painter, but you can see the curve of her cheek and her hair cascading over her shoulder. People always asked if I was the model for the painting. I wasn’t — it was a mass-produced thing from HomeGoods I believe — but the resemblance made me feel a connection to the piece. I could see myself in it. Through several rounds of redecorating (it’s a bit of an obsession), it always had a place.
But today I saw something in it that I had never noticed before. The painting is sad. The way the woman holds her arms, the set of her shoulders…you can tell that she’s hurting deeply. I sat in shock at the realization for a long time. I’d had a visual, daily manifestation of sadness in my house for years and despite all of my fiddling with my decor, I’d never questioned it.
This time, I didn’t put her back up.
Seeing ourselves in something can be exhilarating, especially for a driven person. We seize on that thing, thrilled at the prospect of finally achieving what we want. Never mind if there are a few cracks. Never mind if it seems a bit different than we imagined. Never mind if our instincts are telling us to hold out for something that’s a better fit. The intoxicating scent of satisfaction is in the air, and we will not be swayed from our mission. But at what cost?
When we see ourselves in something, we stop looking at it for what it really is. We discard our normal powers of observation and logic because we’ve decided it’s meant to be.We get so focused on our goal that we get excited when it seems to be within our grasp. We cling to a twisted, nightmarish version of our dream because we decided long ago that it was what we wanted.
There are so many opportunities in this world. They fly at us, fast and furious. It’s understandable that we just want to pick something and stick with it so we can be done. But we owe it to ourselves and our growth to continually re-examine our choices. I’ve made the mistake more than once of being so focused on a goal that I held a death grip on a particular path, even as the evidence piled up that it wasn’t what I’d once thought. I’d hear the inner voice screaming “This isn’t right. Turn around. ABORT!” And yet more often than I’d like to admit, I’ve continued for longer than I should have to sink resources into something that was doomed.
What is it about? Fear of admitting that I’m wrong? If there’s one thing being a programmer teaches you, it’s how to live with being proven wrong on a daily basis. I don’t think that’s it. If I boil it down to my biggest fear when letting go of a road that isn’t right for me, it’s impatience. I don’t want to start over. I don’t want to go through all of that preliminary work again. I don’t want to delay the victory party. I just want to form that partnership, hire that employee, finish that project, and check it off the list.
This kind of thing happens to rookie programmers all the time. It’s easy to get attached to a certain way of solving the problem. When that way turns out to be flawed, they can’t bring themselves to start over in a new way. They’ll say “It would take 20 hours to redo that. I can’t. I don’t have time.” They’ll desperately try patch after patch, hour after frustrating hour, attempting to duct tape the thing together, to no avail. But when an experienced developer sees the same thing, they just take a deep breath and start the rewrite.
The humbling part is that when we do finally admit our mistake and start over, it’s usually much quicker (and more successful) than the original path. I can set a timer when I hear the “it’ll be 20 hours” comment and know that the real number is probably around 4-6 hours and it will be done, and better than the original vision. The baggage of our commitment to the wrong path slows us down much more than we realize. Those “have to have it” attachments are like vampires, draining us of the clarity and energy we need to move forward on the right path. Once we set them down and free ourselves, we can move ahead with speed and confidence. And you know what? It feels good to finally be free to pursue what serves us.