Warsaw Dispatch: Success, an Experiment (10/16/13)


Oh, Ben Franklin and your worm. What if, like a bat, I prefer more agile prey? Today, I read yet another piece that equates success with early rising. Not in all my days have I been inclined to be an early, nor an easy, riser. From my earliest memories, my family called me Bear and warned any and all about the risks of monkeying around with a hibernating grizzly. Some time in the womb, however, I developed ambitions on par with a grizzly’s ferocity. They have fueled most everything I do with the exception of setting an alarm. Until now. I’ve grown weary of hearing that success will never be mine because I don’t catch the damn worm. I’m also genuinely beginning to worry that perhaps success will never be mine because I don’t. So, as is my m.o., I’m establishing an experiment. If I switch my metaphorical diet, and my literal schedule, for six weeks, will I be more successful?

Today’s article claims that the “super successful” accomplish five things before 8 a.m. I rarely see 8 a.m. let alone 1) exercise, 2) map out my day, 3) eat a healthy breakfast 4) visualize, and 5) tackle the toughest to-do’s. If I’m honest with you, I tend to rise between 10:30 and noon, often closer to noon. Moreover, if noon is my equivalent to 6 a.m., then I often don’t do any of those five things before the equivalent of 8 a.m. No, by 2 p.m., I may have accomplished a healthy breakfast, and if you count opening the back door, or walking down one flight of stairs to let the dog pee, then I will also have accomplished exercise. The toughest thing on my to-do list is always my creative practice, and I rarely get to it before 7 p.m. after I’ve done what is necessary to make a living. Often it’s 10 p.m. or so before I get down to my real work. As for visualizing and mapping out my day, I can make a valid case that I do this while I dream, and thus before 8 a.m., but my notion of these concepts is not likely to align with the article’s author’s definition, and so let’s just say that I don’t actually get to these activities.

So, am I super successful in spite of my habits? No. As the article implicitly predicts, I’m a grand failure. Two book manuscripts have yet to find publishers. I barely scrape by and often worry about money. I am not famous. I am not married with a beautiful family. I applied for several dozen jobs as I finished my PhD, the third graduate degree on my CV, and I received zero job offers. The only job I could find, other than my ongoing part-time gig for MQR, was working in home improvement retail for less than $10 an hour sans benefits. Additionally, as you will gather from the news and/or your Twitter feed, I have not saved the world. Ergo, I wonder: is the problem, and hopefully, the solution, my sleep schedule? And, I begin my experiment to find out.

As with any good experiment, we must first establish a baseline. If the coming six weeks will be the experimental period, then the last six will provide the baseline. From September 1 through October 16 what exactly did grand failure look like?

  • Schedule: We’ll split the difference and say that my days began at 11:15 a.m. and ended some time between midnight and 3 a.m. Few, if any, of the key “five things before 8 a.m.” occurred before my equivalent of 8 a.m., which is to say within the first two hours of rising.
  • Personal Achievements: Stayed in touch with a globally dispersed handful of friends. Established and maintained regular check-ins with a close relative diagnosed during this period with early onset Alzheimer’s. Touched base with several other relatives. Began successfully training my dog away from  fear aggression. Tended to a sick cat. Learned to cook and bake with ingredients packaged and marketed in a language I do not speak (or read). Initiated several new friendships for myself, cultivated doggie friendships for Janie, and met some neighbors. Traveled with Janie the Dog by train to the Polish countryside for the first time. Began a language course, and mastered preliminary conversation in Polish, reputed to be the world’s toughest language to learn. Successfully navigated Polish immigration to initiate the formal residency process.
  • Creative & Professional Achievements: Developed and created a video performance and secured a publisher for both the video and the four poems that comprise it. Produced a video-welcome to accompany the aforementioned video for a reading in the US, which I am unable to attend in person. Shot and began editing a video post-card about my Warsaw neighborhood for a travel site. Worked on an ongoing nonfiction project. Developed and implemented successful social media and subscription campaigns and edited and published seventeen blog posts for my employer. Applied for several jobs and fellowships. Established several promising professional contacts in Warsaw. Pitched a video project to a previous collaborator in Berlin. Paid all my bills.

If that was as boring for you to read as it was for me to recall and type, my sincere apologies. Scientific rigor made me do it. Now for the experiment.

Beginning tomorrow and through November 30, the petri dish will look like the following:

  1. M-F, I will accomplish the “key 5” by 8 a.m. I will 1) walk the dog farther than the nearest grassy patch, 2) diagram a plan for my day, 3) eat a healthy meal, although it will be hard to call something at that hour breakfast…maybe late-night snack? 4) visualize success, and 5) write and/or make stuff. Crucial to this plan, I will rise in order to achieve the key 5 rather than stay up to do them. In order to achieve this, I will pretend that I am in San Francisco where it will be mid-evening, and therefore my usually productive hours. Trickery will be necessary to keep the grizzly at bay, and nobody I’ve ever heard of who’s super successful is beyond trickery.
  2. Each week, I will document my findings, providing sleep deprivation doesn’t convince me to do otherwise.
  3. At the end of the 6-week period, I’ll report back with findings.

Before I close, no good experiment would be complete without a hypothesis. Here’s mine:

  • The structure and rigor that this experiment will impose is likely to have some positive effects on my creative output, providing I don’t collapse from de facto jetlag sans the excitement of actual travel.
  • This experiment is likely to provide useful fodder for my post-to-come exploring how and why the whole early bird rhetoric and model denigrates a wealth of options and visions for life and living in favor of supporting dominant notions of productivity and success.
  • I do not expect to become an overnight success. Nor do I expect to develop a taste for worms.

Photo credit: Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary http://oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com


originally published in The Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on October 16, 2013

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