Or what Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse taught me about growing up.
I work remotely 99% of the time and I have a home office dedicated for that purpose, but sometimes, nothing beats working off the couch while videos play on the TV in background.
I love watching shows and movies. And if there is even a hint of the supernatural or sci-fi involved, count me all the way in. I will not only watch the shows, I will also spend days watching YouTube videos about those shows.
Weeks ago, I’m working and half-watching this video essay about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse…and it blows my mind.
As I put my mind back together over the next few days, I can’t shake the epiphany and I realise I just have to write about it.
So yes, I’m about to pull some life lessons from an animated Spider-Man movie.
But first, let’s go over the story quickly.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is about Miles Morales, a black teen boy who gets bitten by a radioactive spider, witnesses the death of the original Spider-Man and then has to work with other Spider-People to save the multiverse.
Some of the major themes in the movie are the evolution of identity and the trials and tribulations of coming of age. Our main protagonist, Miles is going through a bit of an identity crisis. He is stuck in that uncomfortable transition between who he used to be and who he is becoming. He is being thrust forward reluctantly, by time, by his parents expectations, by his new environment, by the radioactive spider-bite.
What he really wants to do, is stay comfortable, to regress. He feels out of his element in his new private school, so he tries to flunk out. He would rather be home with his friends in Brooklyn. He feels the weight of ‘great expectations’ and chooses to duck and avoid it.
But the spider bite happens and he is forced into this new reality.
He has to be Spider-Man. He has to save the world. But he is just a kid, and sure, he wants to do the right thing but he has no idea how to be Spider-Man. The one perfect Spider-Man mentor, the one with all the answers and keys, the one who promised to hold his hand through it all, was just pummelled to death by Kingpin.
It is Peter B Parker, a depressed, jaded, divorced, gut having, pizza eating, bathtub crying Spider-Man from an alternate dimension who becomes his reluctant mentor. And a bunch of other alternate Spider-People…(including a Spider-Pig) who enter the plot to help our buddy cop duo save the world.
But Miles is still out of his depth. He has to not only learn to control his new powers but also save the world. Big problem. He does not know how.
He does not know how to be Spider-Man. He doesn’t know how to grow up, how to take up this responsibility. He is not ready to be Spider-Man because he has not yet crossed the threshold.
He has not let go. Of his fear, of his anxieties, of his fear of the unknown.
There is an emotional scene where he is forced to stay back while the other Spider-People go to confront the villain, because he’s really still more of a liability than an asset at this point. Miles asks his mentor ‘when will I know I’m ready’. To which Peter B Parker tells Miles that ‘you won’t, it is a leap of faith, that’s all it is Miles, a leap of faith’.
He doesn’t need to be perfect, he doesn’t need to be Peter Parker’s version of Spiderman, He just needs to give in to the moment and be himself.
This resonated with me.
And since then, it has been growing on me.
This idea of crossing the threshold.
I am Miles. I rail against time internally all the time.
I am 31 now. I remember being 26, I remember being 28. I look in the mirror and I see how my face and body changes over time in subtle ways. I wish I could freeze time in my 20s. I wish I could be forever young.
Because I am afraid to grow old. I love the potential of the blank canvas and I cling to that for a long time. I am afraid of painting and messing it up. I am afraid to grow up and fail.
And so I avoid the threshold.
And there have been many of them, in different areas of my life. Places where I don’t take the step forward.
I am good at doing everything I need to do to prepare and then not doing the thing.
But time moves anyway. The clock is always ticking.
And at some point I can’t remain at the edge anymore.
I have to take the leap of faith.
I have to jump.
I have to be in the moment and let things unfold as they may. I have to close my eyes and dance, let the music and rhythm of life take me forward.
I always looked at my 20s as the best time of my life. I was young. my body is at its peak. Metabolism is on fire. The responsibilities are few. I did as much as I can to stay in this state. And not move forward.
I think I developed this aversion because I have seen too many people cross the thresholds in a cavalier way. Or in a mindless way. We do things because that is the way they are done. Few stop to ask why they must be done, how many ways they could be done, and in what circumstances should they not be done.
I think I just wanted to make sure I was crossing the threshold effectively, maximizing my chances for future pleasure and success. To mitigate pain.
But the truth is. It is good to learn, and place yourself in the position to succeed. But no mater how much you learn, you will always make some sort of mistake. It is just the nature of the human experience. Our knowledge always comes with blindspots innate to it. For every illumination of light, there is the darkness of shadows cast.
We must prep the best we can, and then fling ourselves off the ledge.
It is time to cross the thresholds.
In the movie, Miles crosses the threshold from a state of being unsure, and learning and looking for validation and guidance to a state of embracing his new identity and circumstance.
He lets go of the past, and his worry of the future, and embraces the present. He embraces what makes him unique and comes into his own as his own version of Spider-Man, a hiphop-bumping, graffiti-tagging, Jordans-wearing Spider-Man. Joining his friends, saving the world and embracing his destiny.
Because, it is not about who you think you are supposed to be, or what you think you are supposed to be doing. It is about where you are now. And the symphony of life you are going to make right where you stand.
Or how to change the past, the present and the future
One of the most important lessons that stuck with me from my time many years back as a design student in architecture school was something I like to term ‘the art of the reframe’.
Whenever we were given an assignment, we were implicitly encouraged to think much deeper about the problem or brief we were solving. To turn the issue around in our minds until we found an appropriate point of entry. So you weren’t just designing a school, you were designing a place or space of learning. You weren’t designing a house, you were designing a machine for living. And sometimes the solution wasn’t even a building.
It is this way of thinking that separates good designers from bad ones – a passion for discovering the core of a problem and a knowing that a problem well understood and defined is a problem half solved.
It is this concept that has the potential to radically change your life.
Changing the present
Here is a familiar example that I have touched on many times.
Every day, things happen in your life. Some of them you like, you call these things good. Others you don’t, they annoy you, they trip you up, you call these bad.
But really, things just happened. They aren’t good or bad, they just were. You give them meaning based on your interpretation of what happened.
If nothing in our lives has any meaning inherent to them aside from what we assign to them, then we can take control over the frames and lenses we use to interpret and understand the world around us.
It is like photography. The same flower or object can be captured in so many different ways, with so many different lenses and filters. The same object can be constructed to give multiple different meanings.
Let’s say you forgot your purse on the train and had to go back for it and ended up late for your super important meeting. Sure that is very inconvenient, but you don’t know the alternative. You know nothing of the parallel universe where you took your purse the first time and promptly got into a fatal accident on your way to work.
You simply don’t know enough to make a judgment like that. You don’t know enough to know what is truly good or bad.
With this understanding, we can use a simple question to turn every bad circumstance to something a bit more positive. We can reframe our perception of the event by asking ‘what is good about this?’.
Weeks ago, I was house-ridden in near constant pain. It was not a great experience. I could clearly see the bad. I couldn’t work at my usual pace or intensity. I couldn’t move around and see people. All my plans had to be placed on hold. Annoyance and despair were close companions.
As bad as that was, I also had to look for the good.
And there was some good.
The inconvenience of the pain apart from providing me the opportunity to practice the virtue of endurance, also forced me to pull back, to create empty space, to think twice before jumping into work. To respect the economy of effort. To focus on effectiveness over mindless activity.
I reframed a negative situation into a more positive and empowering one.
Changing the past
There are other ways to stretch the idea of the reframe. The previous example is about reframing the present – what is good about this seemingly bad situation? How can I reframe what is happening now.
But what if we could take it further. What if we could reframe the past, and…change it.
This is the essence of cognitive reframing – choosing new interpretations for past events.
As humans, we are natural time travellers, forever moving back and forth into the past and future in our minds, remembering things and event past and imagining those to come.
How about we travel intentionally, armed with skill of reframe.
Sure, we cannot actually go back in time and change things. But we can certainly change the way we interpret and look at it. And since we are predominantly sensory interpretation and story-crafting machines…isn’t that the same as changing the thing itself?
We can take a trauma, a decision, a season of our lives that we are less than proud of and begin to switch the lens with which we view it to find a version that is empowering.
So instead of being victims of a horrific event, we are survivors, we are the ones who have been to the edge and back, we are the ones gifted with the ability to heal others who go through it too.
Those years we wasted being lost becomes reframed as our season of searching, of living and growing until we were ready to evolve. The fact that we came to the game so late gives us a burning desire, a fire inside to make up for lost time, a passion that can burn brighter than those who have been at it for so long.
If we can change the way we look at our past, then we can stop resisting and start accepting it. Not resisting does not mean that we let the thing persist the way it is, it just means we stop fighting its existence. We accept it fully and then we deal with it, pulling on the threads of good that we can hold on to.
Changing the future
The art of the reframe is basically looking at the raw materials of life (the facts) and asking, what can I craft with this?
As we deal with our past and reframe our present, we can also turn our gaze towards the future. We take the stories we built our lives around all this time, strip it down to its core facts and construct a whole new story around it.
In my post about the stories we tell ourselves, I mention that we can build our inner narrative around our vision, our ambition and where we are going. As we play this story over and over again, it becomes our new reality.
Sometimes we refuse to cross the threshold and embrace the future, because we fear it. We are too attached to where we are, to what we have been, to let go and embrace something new. We fear loss, and we do not fully appreciate the good, the different, the deeper, richer and more nuanced things ahead of us.
The art of the reframe helps us combat this anxiety.
If our idea of the future looks hazy or bleak, we can work to bring it into sharper focus. We can ask ourselves ‘what would be good about this’, ‘what is the worst that could happen’ ‘what is the best that could happen?’ ‘What shall I do then?’
Many times, we find our fears are insubstantial and ephemeral. We fear ghosts lurking around the supposed corner.
Or we are afraid of growing up, of going to the next level. We can reframe this fear of the unknown and start to embrace the potential of the new, all the new experiences we are yet to have, the things we are yet to discover about ourselves. The places that we are yet to go.
In doing this, all things truly begin to work for our good. It doesn’t matter if it happened years ago, if we are in the thick of it right now, or if it is still to come. Every single thing can be reframed in a way that is empowering, in a way that calls upon our truest selves. We find some light even in the deepest darkness.
Or the art of doing nothing
For the past few weeks, I’ve been laying fallow. Just sitting back and doing nothing.
Okay, not completely nothing. I still went about my business, consulting and designing for clients, but about a month, I have not blogged. I eased up from writing, I even eased up from personal development (more on that in another post).
And as weird as that can sometimes feel – not constantly creating and publishing, doing nothing and disconnecting from your usual patterns is an important part of the overall creative and living process.
There’s a farming practice dating back to ancient times of leaving a land fallow after years of cultivating and using it. You would work a piece of land for a while and then leave it alone to allow it to rest, recover, and replenish its nutrients. This gives the land the chance to bounce back and be as fertile as ever when you begin to farm again.
Like the seasons, like farming, we have similar rhythms and cycles.
We spend a ton of energy creating things – writing that book, curating that exhibition, making that movie, executing that project. This creative process takes a lot out of us. And once we are done, we take a break, we rest. Then we pick things up and begin again. Sort of like our 5 days of work and 2 days of weekend.
But sometimes, a little rest is not enough. Sometimes we need a vacation. Sometimes we have to pause,disconnect.
Sometimes we even have to lay fallow.
Where we deliberately refrain from creation. We allow ourselves the extended rest, the extended break. It might seem a bit counter intuitive. It might seem self-indulgent and lazy. But there is a space for this practice of doing nothing, and it comes with a couple of benefits.
It allows you to recover
Our world and culture is mostly of busyness, of always being ‘on’ and available. If we are not productive, we feel guilty. We feel the pressure (and material need) to always be doing, so we jump from thing to thing, from project to project often without being able to take the step back to even think.
The path to getting what you want is a marathon, a lifetime of work and creation, of battles and challenges to overcome. It takes a lot out of us.
We get tired, then fatigued, then we begin to burn out. But the show must go on. So, we keep at it. Soon, we hate the thing we have created, we despise the work we do, and we begin to rebel in small ways. We lash out, we turn to whatever coping mechanism appeals to us. We spiral.
Our creative well dries up, and we take damage, our bodies and minds battered over time in the bid to produce and create.
The art of doing nothing, of laying fallow is an important antidote and counter balance to this ‘always on’ culture. It allows us to truly disconnect. To actually rest. To allow the body and mind to repair itself. To re-embrace rituals. To heal.
It cultivates empty space
Laying fallow allows us to cultivate empty space. An increasingly important and useful thing in a world so full of stimuli.
Our days are usually noisy. There are things we have to do just to sustain life, errands and work to be done. And then there are the relationships to attend to, the requests, the messages, the noise of the world wanting or needing things from us.
Over time, this noise, the ever urgent din of the world around us crowds out the truly important things. Going the opposite way, taking a break, laying fallow allows us to recover from the noise and eliminate it. It allows us to return to a blank slate, to begin anew.
It allows us to be bored.
It gives us the permission to live, to move around, to do something different, out of the usual.
It is this space of nothingness, of absent-minded play that allows us to collect new material, new inspiration, new points of view to integrate into our next work.
It is the space that allows creativity to happen again.
It allows us to see again
The forest for the trees.
Active creativity requires complete immersion in whatever we are making. Our work, our lives become our whole world. We become like the fish who can’t see the water it is in.
Laying fallow gives us some much needed distance.
To reconsider. To appraise and judge our work, our efforts, even our goals.
The empty space we cultivate in the fallow period allows us to be even more deliberate. To put our efforts where they are most effective. To design our lives, routines and affairs more skilfully, so we can accomplish a whole lot more with much less.
There are insights and perceptive breaks that only occur in a relaxed state. In the space where we have let go of active work and our subconscious can drift.
It is the time where we can integrate the experience we just had, the results, the lessons learned. In the empty space, the fallow period, these things settle and forge the essence of our new transformed self.
Be fallow, not lazy
The concept of being fallow is not an excuse to be completely lazy. Otherwise our fields become permanently overrun with weeds and we never return to productivity.
While we rest, we must maintain a balance.
The point in being fallow is to do nothing for a while in a bid to recover, gain some perspective and new inspiration, not to let our creative muscles wither completely.
In this period, we may be at rest, but we still do drills, we still practice techniques, we still study. We explore.
Until finally we are ready…to begin again…
A new challenge rises up, a new idea takes a hold of us, a new curiosity…and then we dive back into the creative space, refreshed, replenished, reequipped and ready for the new adventure.
There’s a wonderful short book, ‘The Four Agreements’ by Don Miguel Ruiz that outlays a very congruent way of living within its pages. In it, he puts forward 4 key habits or ways of being that allow us to live happier and fuller lives.
There is the first – Be impeccable with your word. The second – Don’t take anything personally and the third – Don’t make assumptions. All profoundly explained and expanded in the book, but here, I would like to talk about the fourth one – Always do your best.
For the past month and some change, I was in constant pain and essentially house-ridden. Which was very inconvenient to say the least. I had just moved into a new place, and was eager to hit the ground running, to dive right into my routines and aggressively work on projects.
But then out the blue, I get hit with health challenges.
And that’s life for you right?
You could do everything right, set everything up perfectly, and still be taken out the game by forces outside your control. It happens.
I was tempted to really feel bad about it, and some moments were really hard, but feeling bad wasn’t useful, it wasn’t going to change anything. I had to figure out what I could control, what the best thing to do was, and focus on that.
Clearly, the thing to do here, was to find a way to recover as soon as possible, and in the mean time, when it came to all my obligations and needs…just do my best.
The fourth agreement is about always doing your best, but at the same time, understanding that your best is a moving target, no two days or two moments are the same.
Your best when you are freshly rested, breezed through your morning routine and excited to get to work is much different from your best when you are at the tail end of 70 hour work weeks pushing to meet a deadline.
And it is much different when you are in constant pain and can’t focus or work at your usual pace.
But yet, life continues and we have the responsibility to rise up to our best in whatever situation, and not be too hard on ourselves. We do what we can, do what we must, and let ourselves off the hook for the rest of it.
Why torture yourself? Why beat yourself up for not being able to match your best when you were soaring high? Why get mad because you can’t do what you really want to do?
Do the opposite. Accept it. Embrace it.
Ask, what is good about this?
That is the thing to do when things go awry. Find the silver lining, the sliver of opportunity.
For all my pain and discomfort, I received some gifts from the ordeal. It forced me to ruthlessly prioritise, to push through the pain and get the absolutely necessary things done, while stress testing my capacity for discomfort.
It also forced me to not work as much. To sit back and lay fallow for a while (something essential to the creative process). To disconnect and watch YouTube videos the whole day. To fall into rabbit holes on the internet and stumble on weird content and interesting ideas. To step back and reconsider the business and the path forward.
Sometimes, the odds are just not in our favour. For no real fault of our own.
And yet, we must push ahead, we must keep going, the wheels must keep spinning. Well, maybe they can spin at half speed, or at a slow crawl. Maybe we can get someone else to spin the wheels while we take a nap.
Whatever it takes.
That is all is required from you.
To do your best.
Whatever that is.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about fear. I was triggered by the sort of conversation that forces you to confront things you’d rather not think about. And I started to mull over the feelings that rise up every time I take a step forward, every time I try to tackle an area of my life that needs to be worked on, an area that I may or may not have avoided for years – the fear.
I’ve stared it down many times and won, and I have also conceded my fair share of losses to it. But the fear never completely goes away. It rises up without fail, to greet us, every time we knock on the door of opportunity and possibility. Often, we are able to overcome it – by sheer grit and force of will. We press forward and push through to the other side, only to find out that hey, it was really not that bad after all. It was just an illusion, just a mirage.
But we have to face it again and again. And each time, we approach knowing that we have been here before. We know that if we press through the fear, there will be great power released on the other side. But it still feels like the first time, every time.
And beyond these spikes of fear, there is also the low grade anxiety that is always there, lurking below the surface. There is the mind that is so quick to fall into negative patterns. One minute you sitting minding your business, the next, you are being dragged for filth by your fear of loss or disappointment.
This is the constant battle with fear, the perpetual struggle against this force that exists to resist us every time we move towards the edges of our comfort zone.
And its biggest effect is to hold us back. It keeps us rooted and stuck, unable to move forward in case our worst fears come true. But this fear is really just imagination gone wrong.
What if there was an antidote?
What if there was a way to flip it, and instead of living with this force that pushes us back, we could embrace a different force that pulls us forward?
What is the opposite of fear?
At first I thought the answer might be excitement. After all, I once heard that the fear one feels before performing or public speaking or presenting is really just excitement in disguise. We just need to transform that nervous energy into a source of power that can charge whatever we need to do.
That could work, but it is not enough. The problem with excitement is that as the polar opposite of fear (anticipating the possibility an unfavourable outcome), it requires a level of denial about the possibility of failure (clinging to the possibility of a favourable one).
So, what could work better as an opposite force to fear?
Because curiosity does the opposite of what fear does. If fear holds you back, curiosity draws you forward, and it does so, in a semi-detached way. Here, we are not overly fixated on the outcome, but more on the process.
Curiosity allows us to approach our lives openly. In this mode of being, the idea isn’t – I really want to get this. It is more like, I wonder what would happen if I explored this. I wonder if I would get what I want. And if I don’t, I am just as curious about what happens anyway.
At the end of the day, I will either get what I want or I will get something else plus new information.
When you are curious, you don’t stake everything on a specific answer or result, you are really just vested in the process of finding out, the experience of discovery. You don’t care what happens, you just want to see what does. It is an intellectual stimulation. It is a call to adventure.
So, what if the next time you were greeted by your fear, instead of holding on to that tense feeling wondering if things will go your way, you were simply just curious?
What if you thought, “I don’t know if this is going to work, but I am willing to try and see. I might walk into that pitch and still not get a call back. But I’m not worried about getting it. I’m just curious to see what happens.“
Doesn’t that take a lot of the pressure off.
With this outlook, you start to focus on the actions, on the steps you must take. You get unstuck in your head and stop fixating on potential scenarios and simply surrender to what is. You are immersed in the now. No judgements, just experience.
And sure, even if you find something bad. Hey, it happens. We just keep it moving. We just keep fuelling our curiosity. Because even that bad, we can work with.
So that is the mantra I’ve been using a lot lately. Every time I feel that fear rise up within, before I take action, before I step out my comfort zone. I remind myself, to replace fear with curiosity. To replace expectation and entitlement with the sense of discovery.
Then I move.
Across many of Robert Greene’s books, there a reoccurring theme – to be effective in life, you have to learn to see the world as it is, not as you wish it to be.
Obviously this is easier said than done. It takes practice to develop and master this skill. We are naturally meaning attribution machines, we spin stories and see patterns to make sense of the events in our lives and the world around us.
None of us really see life as it is.
Or maybe there is nothing to see. Maybe nothing is real.
From a scientific viewpoint, there is nothing at the foundation of reality but the experiences created and interpreted by the observing self. Stimuli from an external environment filtered by the structure and capabilities of our senses, neurons and synapses, brought to life by the ego and consciousness.
But beyond physics and metaphysics, maybe nothing is real even from a social point of view.
The world around us, the one we think we live in, the one with the rules and norms and expectations, the one with the constraints and limitations, doesn’t really exist. We act like it does. We believe it does, and we eventually create it, by our expectations, beliefs and behaviour.
I think about this in terms of the market place and the world in general, questioning my preconceptions around brand, self-image and success in the real world. The battle as a creative, as a maker, is balancing the need to make things for the self, to create to learn and for creation’s sake, against making things that have wide appeal, that get famous, that resonate and succeed in a capitalist world?
How do we do that?
Some things work better than others. There are certain creative formulas that draw eyeballs and grab attention. Appealing to our baser instincts of lust, superiority, righteousness, indignation generally have a more immediate and visceral reaction than appealing to the sublime, or rationality.
Is it good or ethical to change ourselves, to change our packaging, change our story to achieve a goal? Does authenticity still matter, or should we just wear the masks we must, spinning the webs and illusions that get us what we want?
How long can you wear a mask before it becomes your true face?
Can we use this idea as a tool instead? Reaching forward to ‘pretend’ our way into the person we want to become. Is there an ethical way to ‘fake it before we make it’?
If nothing is inherently real, does that free us to be anything we want, anything we choose to be? Or is there a real self waiting to emerge? Where is the space for authenticity?
Is what we call authenticity just trying to hold on to a past story? Trying to make your actions today be congruent with the person you have always been?
If we must embrace forward-facing stories, pressing on to what we must be that we aren’t yet, then perhaps we can embrace the notion that nothing is real and just go ahead to create the new experience we desire.
Which means we second guess ourselves less. We are less tripped up by expectations, by the burden of our self-conception. We no longer use the excuse, ‘no I can’t wake up early because I am not a morning person’. We just go head and work our way to becoming early risers. We are free to change and be who we want to be moment to moment.
I read somewhere a while ago that behaviour drives emotion and behaviour drives desire.
It means that we can change desires. We are who we are now because we have conditioned ourselves through our choices and behaviours. We love junk food, or leisure or low-value entertainment and activities because we have behaved in ways that reinforced those desires in us.
We are also familiar with change, growing out of things and into things as we develop over time.
But if behaviour drives desire, then we can speed up change in the directions we choose. It will feel weird and horrible at first, but over time, after constant action, desire changes to match behaviour.
The more I workout, the more I enjoy it, the more I crave it. Something I would not have imagined possible years ago. The tricky part is that initial hump you have to push across. Doing something consistently enough to change desire.
If nothing is real, (and the timeline is malleable, which is another idea for another time having to do with changing the past) then we face the questions, what should we do, and how should we do it?
If nothing is real, then our fears are unfounded and unreal. It means there are no real lines, no real restrictions, just illusions, promises and agreements. We can honour them and we can break them.
Is there then no morality?
If nothing is real and anything is permissible, it does not mean that it isn’t without consequence.
So, perhaps nothing is real but everything has consequence.
The idea that nothing is real then becomes a liberating idea that allows you to morph and change as needed. It also frees you from constraints of expectation. If nothing is real, then its okay to create the image you need to get what you need to get done sorted. But know that what you create will have an effect.
If nothing is real, and you want success in a certain arena, if you want more eyeballs and attention to your work, to your brand, then you have to work and rework your brand until you find resonance. And that is not something to fight, it is something to embrace, to practice at until you get it right.
But whatever you create, must be aligned with your true values. If you are not aware of your values, you run the risk of building something empty, losing touch with that which is most fulfilling, the highest expression of your soul.