a formless life

This year I witnessed a number of changes. I stopped going to the gym, began to eat poorly, and started ordering out more often. I do not really know why all of these things happened all at once. But the end result was what one could anticipate: unwanted weight gain and unnecessary credit card debt. Although the debt isn’t too bad at all, my weight gain has unnerved me for more than just superficial and vain reasons. What I’m finding frustrating is shifting out of a feedback loop of bad and worse habits. And it’s not simply because dieting and exercising are hard but because I’ve rarely had to work for anything.

Sometimes I find myself wondering if I have decided to become an academic because it allows me to economically make the most use of skills I already seem to possess, which I have developed over the course of my school work in mainly passive ways. I like reading, even if at times I find myself frustrated with the task of reading itself. I like writing, although I have the same relationship to writing as I do with reading. But most importantly, I’m smart in the ways we think academics are smart. Which means, I sound smart, both out loud and on paper, even if I don’t know what I’m talking about. And the capacity to “sound smart” is something I sort of have; it’s not a skill I’ve acquired, but a talent I’ve always possessed. And it’s the fact that I have talents that bother me, mainly because talented people don’t always feel the need to hone their talents. They’re inborn, which means they’re allegedly unchanging, unrustable…right?

I’ve discussed in other posts my fears of simply being “the smart black guy” and not having developed a personality which distinguishes me from other “smart black guys.” I’m fortunate enough to not have a sort of competitiveness with the few other “smart black guys,” as if one of us has to excel in this role at the detriment of others, and for this I thank God. But I do find myself questioning what that role means – how am I smart? The basic hermeneutical system for thinking about intelligence fall uses statistics as its foundation. I’ve always enjoyed higher than average test score, have been tracked from a young age to be in the group of highest achieving students, and have been admitted to some of the most prestigious intellectual communities. But I’ve also learned that book smarts are  only one narrow sliver of the kinds of intelligence that human beings enjoy. There is emotional intelligence, social intelligence, spatial intelligence, etc., all of which cannot be quantified by tests and exams. At the same time, most exams can be studied for and there’s a difference between the person who strolled in to take the exam cold and someone who has been training and studying for it – even if in the end their intelligence levels prove identical. This is what I’d like to get at today: the distinction between those who are “naturally talented” and those whose skills have been steadily and masterfully crafted; those who are gifted and those who are disciplined. For most of my life, I have been the former. Most would attribute this to a particular kind of intelligence that is perhaps more prestigious or more pristine than the intelligence of people who have had to work towards their goals. These are the people who get called “geniuses” or “savants,” with whom people who are discipline often feel they cannot compete. And I don’t really feel like I belong in this first category, mainly because I don’t find myself terribly impressive. But recent events have made me acknowledge that I am indeed in this first group, mainly because I lack any kind of discipline.

I define discipline as the mental fortitude with which people are able to move beyond impediments and towards particular goals. It is the drive which says “although this is difficult and I am frustrated, the end goal is worth it.” I admire this characteristic in others because it is the quintessential “go-getter,” meritocratic mentality which really enables an “anything is possible” mentality. Although I cannot help but find this ideology naïve, I envy the people who can inhabit such a world, mainly because they embody that feeling of “anything is possible” in ways I can only dream of. I find that these people do not worry about the same things as me, that their perspectives on the world are generally more optimistic and more faithful in the idea of progress than my own. For this I feel grateful, although suspicious. But in general, what I envy about disciplined people is their resolve in their own personal fortitude. A disciplined person feels as if they can accomplish anything with enough energy, perseverance and guidance. I do not feel this way, and it is the source of a lot of my problems.

Let’s go back to the issue of my sudden weight gain. I’ve been trying to begin working out this summer, and I’ve been met with a number of problems. The first is one outside of my control, which is a recent bout of chronic gastritis. I have been taking medication for it, and I’ve been noticing some improvements, although things are not 100% resolved. I find that I have to be mindful of my diet, and when I am feeling bad, I tend to eat foods that I know will not bother me – which are foods I am prone to eating – which, because of the past few months, have been unhealthy. So I am in the process of reconfiguring my microbiota to be more accommodating of healthier, whole foods while also dealing with a chronic condition which at times forces me to eat food I know I shouldn’t be eating. Fuck me, amirite?

I mention this only to say that my attempts at exercising have been difficult. I started jogging a few weeks ago on and off, and have enjoyed running. I did not anticipate this, and ran for three days before I stopped to “take a day off” and never started again. When I had first started working out, I found that my main issue was being consistent. So I went to the gym everyday, maybe taking a day off every three or four days just to rest my muscles. But if I went for thirty minutes, that’s how long I went – I wouldn’t push myself arbitrarily, and was in the process of making a habit of something I did not find terribly enjoyable. My dilemma now is reintroducing that back into my life, but knowing that it is nothing something I have to work towards. Going to the gym is significantly more difficult now that I don’t live across the street from it, and running is harder because I’m not confident of my form, nor am I confident of my body, and therefore don’t want to be out, although being out and running is necessary for me to build that confidence.

I think of this all as a lack of discipline, though. Starting new things is never easy, but I’ve found that my life has been remarkably easy and that I am not really used to having to work towards anything. I don’t have much of a work ethic, because I haven’t been in environments where having a work ethic is necessary. This, I believe, is ultimately related to the question of my intelligence and me being in grad school. Allow me to delineate this in neater terms.

  • I have rarely felt challenged because of my smarts.
  • Being an academic is a career choice which makes the best use of my skills and smarts.
  • Because I have these skills and smarts, I do not need to work towards things as much as other people.
  • Because I do not need to work towards things as much as other people, I find I exert less energy but arrive at the same end as other people.
  • Because I arrive at the same end as other people without exerting as much energy, I have learned to only apply myself as much as necessary.
  • Because I do not apply myself as much as other people, I haven’t had the need to develop a sense of discipline with which I can work towards goals.
  • Not having a sense of discipline has deprived me of the drive to push through events which are indeed challenging.
  • Challenging things frustrate me because I have rarely felt challenged because of my smarts.

I find my lack of discipline frustrating in grad school for more than these vain reasons, though. Now that I am out of coursework and working towards my dissertation project, I am becoming increasingly nervous about the more esoteric, interpersonal aspects of my career. I cannot just rely on my intelligence and natural wit to get me a job, but I have to develop new skills for which I possess no natural acuity. I am not terribly socially intelligent, and I don’t know how to schmooze or how to politely ask a professor I’ve never met to grab coffee with me. And the prospect of having to do these new things are terrifying, not because they’re new, but because they’re hard.

I’m not sure if this post makes a ton of sense, but I’ve been feeling down about myself for the past few weeks over my inability to really jumpstart things. At times I feel as if my mind is a prisoner to my body, but I also know that my mind is imprisoned within my narrow comfort zone. I feel like disciplined people feel powerful in ways I do not, and I want to feel that. But life is full of frustration, and frustrating things don’t feel worth it.

I use the word “structure” a lot because I find that it’s a useful term for thinking about how things are organized, kept alive, constructed, etc. I also like the idea of structure, although it’s something I fundamentally lack. I live a formless life, waking up whenever and going with the flow until I go to sleep at night. I surrender to whatever my body wants, eating when I’m hungry, sleeping when I’m tired, even if there are things in front of me which need my attention. This means I am not a good employee and that I tend to operate impulsively. I don’t really like this about myself, I won’t lie. So I want to add a bit of structure. It could be as simple as waking up when my alarm actually goes off and getting my day started. It could be a situation of “I’m only allowing myself to eat out two meals a week” or “every week on Tuesdays I go to a spin class.” I do want one of those regimented, “I can meet with you from 4:15 to 4:57” lives, but I do believe that an injection of backbone to my life will help to remedy these situations. But again, the way I’ve been living myself as gotten me this far, so someone, somewhere in me resistant to changing it. I find that I wrestle with the tension between being the best version of myself and  sitting with and coming to grips with the person I already am; there’s a conflict between progress and destiny.

The summer isn’t over yet, and there’s still yet a chance for me to get the ball rolling. I am feeling optimistic yet, although I find my own predisposition towards a suffocating and disarming flavor of inertia really disgruntling and just plain unattractive. But I’m young, and building stores of discipline now will prove invaluable twenty years from now when I’ll be pushing these books out every year like nobody’s business. And I’ll be grateful that I managed to find a way to be both naturally talented and systematically disciplined, even if I’ll be struggling with the balance for years to come.

Leave a Reply