thrash early, finish well

Today was my creativity deadline. As of today, all artistic elements of the video project I do for our graduating seniors each year are locked down. In the past, I have come to the final days (before the seniors and their families gather to watch the presentation) with numerous plates spinning. Procrastination has repeatedly caused something to be significantly wrong, even if only I knew about it. One year I left one of the students off the DVD entirely, even though I had fully completed her clip. I accidentally mislabeled a friend that had spoken for one boy with another person’s name. Last year, some malfunction in the way the Mac created the format to show on our screens led to some bizarre warping of all of the video elements. Had I known earlier, I might have been able to correct it. Only I was bothered by it, but that’s exactly the problem.

In his newest book Linchpin, business guru Seth Godin devotes significant time to exploring how the “lizard brain” causes us to act in fear rather than rationality. One effect of this is that when we have a project of some kind, we often “thrash” about any number of aspects right up to the deadline (or as he calls it, “time to ship”). That is, we effectively sabotage our efforts by doubting that it is going to be good enough, and we begin tinkering with this or that, or allowing other parties to do so. Often the project become delayed or goes over budget. Case in point: I had so many divergent clips to manage last year that I (along with our high school ministry director) nearly had to spend the entire final night at my office to ensure the Mac finished processing in time. The last clip finished processing during an intermission for coffee and pie refills. WAY too close!

The lizard brain is Godin’s preferred way of referring to the amygdala, the locus of emotional reactions. While many attribute its function to evolutionary processes, I don’t know that you have to accept all the tenets of macroevolutionary theory to appreciate his point. As he puts it, “The lizard brain is hungry, scared, angry, and horny. The lizard brain only wants to eat and be safe.” Kind of sounds like the Christian doctrine of original sin to me… I wonder if the sin nature resides in the amygdala? Because this bundle of nerves controls emotional reactions as basic as fear, it controls our fight-or-flight reactions. I know by experience that reacting emotionally, especially when conditioned by powerful past experiences, can lead to the most insidious of self-sabotage.

As it relates to my annual all-consuming project, I had already decided to set an early deadline for the creative direction to be established before I even began listening to Linchpin. I now have a fantastic framework for getting all the “thrashing” done early. After a couple hours of near impasse in some elements of the motif, we had a breakthrough on Wednesday that will really put some fantastic icing on the cake. I think the families will be pleased, and so will I. The real accomplishment, though, is that I have experienced almost none of the constant stress I usually feel at this time of year. And because of my “digital Sabbath” practice, I can completely walk away for 30 hours each Sunday and not feel like I am losing ground.

I love the prospect of finishing well. It’s also the time of year when we prepare to release our group of 8th graders into the high school ministry. As often is the case, 8th graders (or 5th graders, and certainly seniors) can adopt a “too cool for school” attitude at church, at home, and elsewhere. While some of this is natural during any time of transition, I wonder if the frustrations we experience with older students could stem from trying to change up fundamental aspects of how we approach them when we could have done it long ago. Godin insists that we do our thrashing at the beginning so that the end of the process can proceed smoothly and effectively.

“Train up a child in the way he should go,” Proverbs says, and “even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Whether it’s as a parent dealing with the strong willed child entrusted to you, a classroom full of kids in need of boundaries, or a small group at church where clear expectations must be tested for young people to trust and feel safe within them, if we can nudge the struggle early on, kids may stand a much better chance of finishing well.

For more from Seth Godin on “quieting the lizard brain” see this video of a presentation he did.

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About andrew burden

andrew blogs about being a volunteer youth leader, teacher, video editor, husband, friend, child of God
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