One particular example is the nonlinearity of many professions. Take a writer, for example. A writer spends hour after hour, working on the new manuscript with very limited feedback. The feedback he does get, is essentially coming from friends, who have either willingly or through coercion agreed to read the book. Or, if the writer is at least moderately successful, some feedback might even come from a professional editor. But now, consider the income of writers. It is highly nonlinear: some writers - like J.K. Rowling – have their income counted in the millions. Most, however, make do with a few bucks here and there (or have a “proper” day job, and write at night).
Now, if you ask a writer whether their work is “going well”, or something similar, what could they say? I’m pretty sure that they have actually very little idea how it is going. Pages appear (and then disappear through editing). But the connection to the actual payoff is tenuous at best. Writing today means the book may come out next year – or in 10 years. Furthermore, there is little common knowledge about what makes a book good, or an author successful.
The key, we see here, is that the writer’s life is a nonlinear one. You can’t tell progress from walking backwards, because they look exactly the same. Of course, this is not true of just writers. In fact, this is true for almost any creative profession: artists, scientists, designers, or maybe even business strategists. They’re all living in the same nonlinear worlds: some people earn thousands of times more than others, and there’s very few signs that a result is good – other than its popularity.
The actual problem in relation to emotions is that our emotions love linearity. We love to see progress, and we’d like to see it every day. I presume this is why many creative professionals like renovating, knitting, or just something where you do stuff with your hands. Because, once we move from creating ideas to creating physical items, we enter the linear world. When you renovate a room, there’s only so many floorboards to replace – hence linear progress.
Fortunately, I think there are ways around the problem. You can create a – admittedly somewhat false – sense of linear progress. By thinking of actions that you constantly should be doing to improve yourself, you can also construct a sense of moving linearly forward. For example, I have as a goal every workday to do two things: 1) write at least half a page, and 2) read at least one article. Of course, these are not have truly linear payoffs: one day’s writing may be the turning point to a good publication – or just a lot of nonsense. Likewise, one article may be much more vital for me than another.
However, the point being that mentally ticking off these boxes (or physically in Habitica) creates an illusion of linear progress. This is false, like I said above. But, crucially, it helps to create emotional value, because I’m getting a sense of accomplishment every day from it. And even if it’s not true progress, it’s ok, because both of the actions are important enough for a scientist to never be a waste of time.