Cultivating the right itches

December 8, 2022

Spring, 2019: There’s a few weeks left in my sophomore year of high school. I just started unoptimal a couple months earlier and have been eagerly writing since. My parents gently suggest that I hold off on blogging in favor of school work for this end-of-semester sprint. That makes enough sense, so I comply.

Summer, 2019: I’m away at a pre-college summer program. The SAT and subject tests are looming in the distance. Over a video call, my parents remind me to study hard for those tests, and maybe spend a little less time writing. Reluctantly, I listen.

Fall, 2019: School is starting soon; it’s the infamous Junior Year. My parents advise me to focus on getting a strong start to the year rather than this writing I’ve been doing. Instead, I promise myself that I will write at least one post a month. I hold up this promise for 15 months.

I’ve always struggled to describe what all of this is. A hobby? A passion? A form of creative expression? None of those ever felt quite right.

But I recently figured out the right words to use: a yearning; an aching; an itch to create. And a semi-artificial one at that: one subconsciously cultivated through 15 months of developed tendencies — making stuff, reading articles, having deep talks with friends — and environmental positive reinforcement.

In the early stages, all it meant was passively thinking about making things. Whimsically chasing ideas wherever they led me. Cheering when it worked, and shrugging my shoulders when it didn’t. Oh well, maybe next time. And that was it.

But that itch quickly blossomed into a full-blown rash. Now, if I’m working on a project, I obsess over it until it’s done. When it’s done, I look for new projects. When I can’t immediately see one, I panic. When I squint my eyes a bit harder, I can finally exhale. This compulsion to scratch never goes away, even if I want it to.

Paul Graham writes about the importance of the top idea in your mind. For me, it always seems to end up being ideas, problems, questions, or lenses relating to whatever project I happen to be working on.

This has inconvenient consequences: it’s hard to pay attention in class. I struggle to believe in my extracurriculars (little leagues, perhaps) because I don’t organically think about brainstorming solutions for clients in the shower. It’s currently finals week, but writing this post feels infinitely more compelling than any other work. My neuroticism spikes without a project in the works.

I used to wish that I had some magical ointment to temporarily numb this itch. But I’m coming to terms with the fact that this isn’t how it works — and more importantly, that I honestly wouldn’t want that power anyways.

Because despite how inconvenient this itch has been at times, it’s also been exciting and invigorating — that is to say, powerful.

I’ve never enjoyed any form of work more than chipping away at personal projects. I’ve never experienced flow states this easily or consistently. I’ve never felt more motivated; I’ve never felt more alive.

This itch has been a massive energy source that trickles down to the rest of my life. But if I had continued listening to my parents or other external pressures — if I didn’t follow through on my self-made promise years ago — I don’t know if I ever would’ve cultivated it.

I frequently wonder what other people’s itches are. Maybe it’s a type of creation, like mine. Maybe it’s a certain thought pattern. Maybe it’s a habit. Whatever it is, I wonder how they deal with it. I wonder if it ever goes away for them. I wonder what it feels like for them to scratch and restrain.

I wonder how many itches never got the chance to develop. I wonder about the ones that wilt as you read these words. The ones that wilt without knowing it. The ones that do know it.

I want to encourage people to follow those instincts, callings, and feelings. If they are there somewhere, in any capacity, I think they should be let free. Otherwise they are going to just get negatively reinforced and eventually killed. And that’s really sad to think about.

Because if the question is how do you cultivate the right itches that make you feel alive, I see two approaches.

One being: listen to those people telling you to wait a bit longer or do something else, choose unhappiness over uncertainty, live your life like a resume, and believe that your ideal lifestyle will only arrive once a certain point or level of income is reached.

The other being: pay attention to what you pay attention to, explore and exploit, show up, don’t die, don’t quit, live an interesting life, understand that this is it, lean into things that resonate with you, play infinite games, and make time every day to live your ideal lifestyle in small, attainable ways.

Personally, I prefer the latter.