Making milk

In my younger days as a project manager, I knew a designer who liked to wander. We'll call him Calvin. Calvin and I worked in the same department though not ever together. Because I wasn't concerned about if or when he'd ever complete anything, I mostly just observed him. He could, and did, talk with anyone. He cracked jokes, he asked questions, he commented on everything. He designed amazing things but he never seemed to be at his desk, leaving everyone to think that he was unfocused and unproductive. 

One day Calvin's boss and I were discussing a large and unwieldy project with an equally large and confounding timeline. As managers of designers do, he was asking for more time for his team. As project managers do, I was trying to push.

Calvin wasn't on the team. But his boss used him as an example in his case to convince me to allow more time for design. I'm paraphrasing now (this was many years ago) but here is more or less what he said:

"People think that Calvin is always just goofing off. That he never focuses on his work. That all the time he spends just wandering around and talking to people is wasted, unproductive. But really, he's just making milk.

"Cows spend all day in the field, eating grass, standing or laying around. They don't look like they are doing anything particularly productive. They look lazy. But really, the whole time they are out there, they are making milk. They are very busy and active. It's just that everything is happening inside. And the output of their productivity isn't realized until someone sits down to milk them.

"It's the same with Calvin. It may look like he is being lazy and unproductive when he wanders around talking to people, when he can be found anywhere but at his desk. But he's really quite productive in those moments. He's thinking and plotting and letting the problems he's trying to solve seep in his mind and mix with potential solutions. He's processing and imagining and even designing when he's talking to you or seems to be goofing off. Everything is simply happening inside. He's making milk."

I can't remember now whether or not I did indeed give his team more time in the project plan (though, I probably did; I was flexible like that). But the story stuck with me. In recent years, I've applied it much more to my own creative process.

January is supposed to be an active, refreshed, energetic time during which we all jump back in with renewed verve and make some serious progress on projects, ideas, life. But in the first days of the year, I struggled a bit to meet what I thought was an acceptable level of activity. Sitting down at my laptop again and making serious progress on my chosen writing project for the month (a picture book I'm heavily revising) was incredibly difficult. It stayed difficult for the first week. And even after that, getting up early for the writing time I know I need, and making productive use of that time when I do manage to drag myself out of bed in the dark, has been an uphill climb. Rather than carving out new time later in the day, I've chosen instead to do yoga, try making bread for the first time, read, or paint with my kids. All lovely ways to spend my time but none of them felt particularly useful to making progress on my current WIP. Until the day when I finally did wake up early, sat at my computer, and the story flowed just as I needed it too.

It turns out that in the slower first days of the years, I wasn't being lazy at all as I struggled to get out of bed in the morning or chose reading someone else's words rather than writing my own in the evening. I was just making milk.

(Or, at least, that's what I'll keep telling myself.)

Tricia MirchandaniComment