Sunday, March 25, 2007

Deep Focus, Motivation, and My Career

WHILE SCROUNGING FOR A legal pad Friday evening to record some job-hunting to-do's, I found one that had about 15 pages of notes I took from stock maven Jim Cramer's belated radio show. Around August of last year, I got curious enough about his theoretical stock-analysis talent to record, from his radio podcasts, his stock predictions. For a few weeks, as I headed into work on the train, you could have found me with my headphones on, yellow pad on my lap, jotting down Cramer's impressions of this or that security. I transferred these notes into an Excel table at work, along with closing price of the stocks on the day he made the call, and I planned to mark the position of the stocks at 1-week and 1-month points past his call to test his wisdom.

As it turned out, I need not have been so diligent, as Cramer's stock calls were also being recorded with price information on, and was transcribing calls made during his media appearances. And the news of the layoff forestalled any possible investment study and commitment of capital I might need for short-term survival. Still, the documentation remained. I read through these notes Friday and marveled at how deeply I had concentrated on this task. My notes were quite detailed; I had even made bullet points out of Cramer's evidence for or against a stock or sector. I took inspiration from this effort today.

I will give you another example. A photographer documented the disassembly of the famous Stardust sign days before the casino-hotel was demolished (RIP). As you can see, the order in which the workers removed the letters was unintentionally (?) comical. I thought this would make a great avatar for one of my online forum accounts. So I dragged the shot onto my desktop, fired up Photoshop, and did a simple crop job, like so:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I opened an Photobucket account, loaded the icon up, linked it to the forum, readjusted the image size again in Photoshop to prevent distortion, and I was all set. Some time later that day, though, I decided the crane had to go. Lacking work, I reopened my icon, and set to work. Though I am a tyro at Photoshop manipulation, my teammates at work have said that much of what they do in retouching shots is trial and error, just experimenting with tools, brushes, blends, and color sampling until they feel it's right. So I got right in there with the eyedropper tool, painted out the crane, and restored the T and A (har) on the sign.

This left a large blue gap where the crane had been, and where I knew, on the sign, there had been stars. So I searched up a picture of the intact, unobstructed Stardust sign as a guide, then copied, pasted, and touched up some of the stars on my original shot from elsewhere on the sign. The result was far better:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Granted, this is all child's play for someone who bangs out gigs of photo manipulations all day and night. It was encouraging for me, an autodidact on Quark, Illustrator, and InDesign, to see I could wade into Photoshop and get results, even on a small scale.

During this whole procedure, I lost track of time, the office, incoming email, anything unrelated to the task. When I checked the clock, it was well past my usual lunchtime. It was the deepest I had sunk into a task at that computer, in that office, in weeks.

I have noticed that, when I assume a task in a field that interests me greatly, my reserves of effort seem limitless. Few of my previous jobs at this company could harness this sort of focus. I worked on an accounting newsletter, which had a half-day turn on getting first-pass proofs out, on which I would bend my will intensely on crafting detailed tables of company information, generating pie and bar charts, and copyfitting. I always knew the clock was ticking, so I had to rely on myself to get details correct the first time, to avoid having to backtrack, redo, and thus burn schedule. I loved that title, despite the late nights and early mornings I had to put in for it. Sometimes, looking at the finished product the next day, I was surprise I had been able to accomplish something so complex in such a tight spot.

I've seen this trait in other endeavors of mine. Insanely detailed dungeons I made as a young adolescent for Dungeons & Dragons. A pages-long travel guide to Las Vegas written, on the spot and with minimal Internet research, for a friend with a visit cued up. Mix tapes laid painstakingly down, track by track, with more care than sound editors exercise on TV shows. Let's not even get into love letters. If my interest is engaged, my endurance and drive spike. If it flags, my mind wanders, I procrastinate, and the work suffers.

What does this mean for me? What I need to do is find a job — maybe even a career, if that's what it takes — in which I can align my interests with my labors. Yeah, I know a zillion career and self-help books and courses exist that preach this platitude. What is worth recording, and acting upon, is my noticing the trend, that I can still feel this passion for something in publishing and graphic design. What I did for this company, earlier accounting title excepted, was largely uninspiring, a self-inflicted wound I admit. I needed to see that there were tasks and projects in my field that could light me up like this silly icon job did. I need to know that the searching I do from this point won't result in another job where I feel lax, wasted, and uninspired by most of the tasks I do.

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