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Has Your Fire Burned Low?

Has Your Fire Burned Low?

Sometimes it feels as if life is against you. Nothing works as it should. The people around you seem distant, preoccupied, and indifferent to you and your interests. There are constant hassles and upsets. Whatever enthusiasm you once had has burned to gray, barely-flickering embers. You have little energy and feel like giving up.

Many people feel this way. You can’t rightly call it depression or burnout. It’s not that dramatic. It’s more like feeling gray and dull all the time. There’s no spark. No sense of excitement or joy in life.

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I suspect that the commonest response is to try to ignore the feeling and hope that it will pass; to tell yourself you’ve maybe picked up a virus somewhere. To imagine that you just need a few less stressful days or a brief vacation and you’ll be fine.

Yet feelings like the ones I’ve described should not be ignored. They may not be spectacular, but they’re your mind telling you that you’re life is out of balance. If you’ve lost the excitement and pleasure in how you live, nothing will be better until you get them back. If you’re starving yourself of what you need to be happy and healthy—or living on a monotonous diet of hard work and stress—it’s only a matter of time before something more serious goes wrong: a bad illness, a breakdown, or the collapse of a cherished relationship.

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Every flame needs fuel, and your flame of creativity and joy is no exception. Thanks to the Puritan Work Ethic, many people are obsessed with working and studiously avoid allowing themselves sufficient time for pleasure. They’re too busy toiling and striving to lighten up and enjoy their world. Fun isn’t bad for you. Doing something for no other reason that because it feels good won’t undermine your moral fiber. Imagine trying to live by eating nothing but broccoli at every meal. However good it may be, a diet of nothing else would kill you. Every human being needs variety in their life as much as in their diet. Have a little fun. Go wild, once in a while. Goof off. Try something new. You won’t be struck down by a thunderbolt from heaven for that.

Here are some simple and practical ways to breath fresh life into your inner fires:

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  • Take time out to refocus. Think about what used to bring you energy and pleasure. What happened to it? How can you bring it back? Many people lose focus on what truly matters to them, because they’re wrapped up in what seems more pressing—like working to get ahead. Your career may be important to you, but it’s going to harm you spiritually, mentally, and emotionally—and maybe even physically—if you allow it to take over your life entirely. Let yourself go a little. You need more than a great career. You need enough of what truly makes your life worth living, however frivolous and financially impractical that turns out to be.
  • Learn to relax and let go. We all like to feel in control of events; to have stability and predictability in our lives. Give it up. It’s an illusion. Worse, it’s a dangerous one, because it encourages you to exhaust yourself trying to make things happen exactly as you want. You cannot do it, however hard you try. You are not in control. Accept it with a smile.
  • Reconnect with others. People who feel miserable and frustrated often isolate themselves. They think that they don’t want company, or that other people won’t want to be with them. Being alone with your problems is a poor idea. I’m not encouraging you to rush out and start unloading your wretchedness on others. That will isolate you, and extremely quickly. Just make sure you spend enough time in company, devoting your attention to someone other than yourself.
  • Try helping others who may feel like you. Teaching is the best way to learn; helping others is very often the best way to help yourself. Let your personal issues take a back seat for a while while focus on helping others. You’ll likely find when you return to your own problems that they’ve melted away.
  • Find a way to renew a sense of purpose. Actions—however successful—that feel meaningless will never be satisfying. It’s most likely that your sense of continual boredom and emptiness comes from suspecting that nothing you do has much real value in the long-term. The answer is to work through these questions:
    • Why did I go into the work I’m doing today?
    • What did I expect to find? Did I find it?
    • Are my expectations for my working life still realistic? What do I need to change?
    • What needs do I want to meet through my work and career? What is the next most obvious step to move towards them?
    • What can I do to make my life better? Why aren’t I doing it?

Above all, take action. Thinking about your problems makes them seem greater and more pressing. It also does nothing to change the situation. Only action can do that. Until you act, everything will remain as it is. Almost any action is better than none at all, for every action produces some result that you can use to learn what to do next. There are no failures, save the failure to do anything at all.

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If you build a fire, then merely sit and watch it, it will burn out. You need to feed it with fresh sticks and rake away the ash. Life’s like that too.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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