Projects, Process, and the Deep Cleanse

I heard a story once about a mechanic. Calloused and worn, his tired hands were stained deep with grease and grime that told the story of his hard work. Though the water would run black when he rinsed his hands, the gritty industrial cleaner in his shop bathroom removed just the surface dirt and made little difference to their appearance.

He took vacation once per year and it was always the same. His parents had left him and his sister a small cottage by the sea – it was a single room, the kitchen not more than a lone burner and the bedroom a small cot next to the door. Each day would start and end with a long soak in the ocean. Sometimes he would swim against the waves with all his might, turning back only when the shore grew small in the distance and his strength began to wane; sometimes he would lay still as the sea ebbed and flowed, the buoyant salt water carrying him far down the shoreline for a slow walk home.

When the two weeks were finished, he would get in his car for the drive back to his daily life. He felt calm, refreshed, reborn. He would grip the steering wheel and, with some surprise, notice a pair of hands that did not seem his own – there was no trace of the grease or grime, the creases of his hands were clean and the beds of his nails shone white. Only the thick callouses remained, and he was grateful for that; they were hard earned, his protection against the sharp, rusty pitfalls of his work.

I always liked this story; it has stuck with me over the 14 years since I heard it, partly because I, too, feel regenerated by the ocean. Standing on the beach and looking out over the waves, any worry melts away as I breathe deeply and let the thick ocean air fill my lungs. I stare at the magnificent vastness, I think of the power of nature, I see the ships and think of the greatness of man. The ocean doesn’t quiet my mind; it drowns out the noise and floods me with possibility.

But the story has other meaning for me as well. I think of the mechanic – a man who, to some extent, lives in anticipation of his two week reprieve. How his work builds up on his hands, how he cannot seem to wash himself of its mark save this deep cleanse, how quickly the dark stains must accumulate upon his return.

My moments near the ocean feel like they will stretch on forever; in that instant, I cannot imagine feeling any other way. And I find that it is this way with all epiphanies – coming to some realization during a long talk with a friend, reading a particularly insightful book, marveling at the clarity of mind brought by a just-organized workspace. Yet the moments are always fleeting; we quickly return to our pre-enlightened state within minutes, or hours, or days.

There is a name for our ‘normal’ mindset – baseline happiness, the standard set of feelings we experience when we are not standing on the figurative beach. Despite any number of seemingly life-changing experiences or particularly insightful self-help books, we slowly regress to the mean that is baseline happiness. But there is an important reason for this quality – it is a survival mechanism against the dark parts of life, an unfortunate side effect of our inherent resilience, the mechanism by which heartbreak, loss, and tragedy do not stretch on into an agonizing oblivion. It is the reason that your worst fears – that a terrible heartache will never subside, that overwhelming grief will never fade – do not ever come true. All feelings taper towards a tolerable mean.

Baseline happiness is not unique; we have many other baselines as well. Baseline fitness and baseline optimism come to mind, these and countless others aggregating to define ‘baseline you.’ The sum of your parts determines the trajectory of your whole.

Personal development, I think, is the practice of lifting yourself above your given baseline, and, really, it is not insurmountable once you understand that you cannot change your baseline with a project – that is, something that has a defined start and finish, like going on vacation, organizing your desk, or losing weight.

And so I try to think in terms of process – that is, a specific action repeated on a regular basis, an improvement that stands the test of time. Try reframing one of your projects as a process: get in shape becomes go to yoga every day, declutter becomes put away one thing every time you enter the room, read more books becomes read for 15 minutes each morning. The truth is that all of your thoughts, wishes, and goals amount to nothing if they do not make the leap into your daily life.

These things are not hard; saying they are hard is an insult to the gut-wrenching things you will overcome in your life, a justification to choose the easy route of staying stagnant.

Still, I cannot help but identify with the mechanic. Standing on the beach with the waves washing about my ankles, the ocean gently pulls life’s worries away with the current. And that’s okay, we need a break, a pause from the hectic rush of reality, vacation, the deep cleanse. But you are what you consistently do. All of these momentary pauses add up to just a small sliver of life, the vast remainder – daily life – is where the chance at true happiness lies, and it is where the work has to be done.

Un abrazo fuerte,