September 13, 2022

Surrogate projects that prevent you from doing the real work


There’s something romantic about the fantasy of leaving civilization behind, renting a cabin in the woods for a month and hunkering down to get your work done.

It’s the classic isolation project. The exile narrative. All the greats have done it, too.

Emerson. Thoreau. Campbell. Hemingway. Dylan. Obama.

It’s a creative rite of passage. Retreating from the terrors of daily living to the comforts of nature, the stage is set to make your masterpiece. And shortly thereafter, you emerge back into the world rejuvenated with the definitive album, book or idea that catapults you into superstardom.

What a tranquil and idyllic escape. It’s the perfect setting to create something extraordinary.

Unless, of course, it’s just another ingenious form of resistance and distraction. Where renting the cabin in the woods becomes the surrogate project that prevents you from actually doing the real creative work you’ve been avoiding for five years.

Consider the sheer amount of effort, expense and planning that goes into the logistics alone.

First, you do hours of online research, evaluating cottage reviews, checking out upstate maps and finally discovering the perfect rental property.

Then you have to completely rearrange your life so you actually can take four weeks off at the end of the summer. That means sending memos to clients, coworkers and colleagues, alerting them of all the additional work they’ll have to execute in your absence.

Also telling friends and relatives that you’ll be off the grid and to leave a voicemail if somebody important dies.

Then there’s making arrangements to have someone stop by your apartment every few days to collect the mail, water the cactus and drop off the rent check.

Once it gets close to your departure date, you’ll have to buy supplies. Food, water, first aid kit, waterproof hiking boots, snake repellant, guitar strings, bear mace, flare gun, galvanized washboard, portable humidifier, powdered beer and glow in the dark toilet paper.

Then, when you finally arrive at this windowless, rotting shack in the middle of east bumfuck, you’ll spend the first three days settling in and getting used to showering with bucket.

And by day four, you should definitely be ready to sit down and get to work.

Funny how the reality of executing differs from the fantasy of imagining. Funny how easy it is to inefficiently progress in the wrong direction.

But people do this all the time. They get pulled by the nose by an unproductive obsession they thought was going to save them. When in reality, it’s just a distraction and resistance in disguise.

Now, it’s not that renting a cabin in the woods is an inherently bad move. I did it multiple times myself in my twenties, and still think there’s value to it. The question we have to learn to ask ourselves is this:

Is escaping to a new setting really going to motivate me creatively, or is it just another clever response to anxiety?

Because often times, retreating is the exact opposite of what the creative person needs. Rather than avoiding their feelings, they need to confront them head on, in their normal day to day lives. They need to be around trusted people who can reflect their reality back to them and help metabolize their experiences.

That should be enough creative inspiration to generate work they’re proud of.

Reminds me of something my therapist once told me: Anybody can meditate on a mountain.

Real enlightenment is being able to calm yourself in the midst of ordinary life. If you’re not disciplined enough to execute your creative work on a normal day, then disappearing to a remote location isn’t suddenly going to make you prolific.

Motivation is something that happens in you, not to you.

Where might you be unproductively obsessing in the wrong direction?