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Balancing new and familiar: Avoiding the Groundhog day syndrome

by Tom Johnson on Nov 7, 2013
categories: technical-writing

Groundhog_Day_(movie_poster)Do you ever feel like your life is just like the movie Groundhog Day? In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray has the same experiences over and over again each day. No matter what he does, he wakes up and experiences the exact same people, places, and other events on a repeating day. He interacts differently at times, which creates different (and comical) results, but when he goes to bed at night and wakes up in the morning, the same day repeats.

I often feel like the main character in that movie, and I'm guessing many others do too. This is why I often yearn for adventure and new experiences. It's why I often like to travel -- to experience new cultures, ideas, perspectives, and ways of living that may be very unlike my own.

While I may desire new experiences that broaden my perspective, there's a reason I often hesitate: It's much safer to repeat the same routine. Like a job I know well, continuing in that job poses little risk and stress. I show up, I know which way all the cogs turn, I apply my wrench now and then to tighten or loosen the right bolts, and at end of the day I'm done -- I go home and find my escape into otherness through television, movies, video games, or books. I wake up the next morning and repeat the same activities. It's safe like that.

About 8 months ago, when I left Utah for California, it was pretty stressful. Within a few weeks time, my wife and I traveled to California to interview for jobs, prepared our Utah house for rent, rented out our house, moved all our belongings to California, found a new place to live, started a new job, found new schools for the kids, made new friends, learned new systems and technologies, discovered how to live in half the space for twice the price, sold my car in favor of transportation by bike/train, discovered some amazing Thai and Indian food, and more. Though stressful, it was also exhilarating at times.

But now that so many months have passed, life is normal again. There's a routine we follow. I show up to work and know what to do. I have the comfort of well-known and frequently traveled bike routes. I have friends, places to play basketball, favorite parks, and more. My kids are well-integrated into their schools. I make their lunches each night, putting more or less the same items in them each day (a sandwich, applesauce, and fruit).

I've moved around quite a bit in my life. I grew up in Washington State (Burlington) and later moved to Tacoma for high school. I went to school at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and served a two-year mission in Venezuela (moving around within half a dozen cities there).

After finishing at BYU (and getting married), my wife and I spent a summer in Japan teaching English. Then we moved to New York City and I attended Columbia University. After New York, I taught college writing for two years in Cairo, Egypt, and then moved to Clearwater, Florida for several years (where my family had since moved). Then we moved to Eagle Mountain, Utah (near my wife's family) for five years, and now to Santa Clara, California.

Each time I moved, I had a great reason for doing so. All of this moving around has certainly led to new experiences that have enriched my perspective and attitude. There's nothing quite so exciting as being in a new place and circumstance, and having to figure out how to navigate it -- even if it's only finding food in a nearby corner shop.

But staying in one place also has its merits. You have more time to get your life calmed down enough so you can focus on important activities and people, like your family, career, learning new skills, writing, and more. Once everything else in your life is so routine you can do it semi-unconsciously, you can redirect your attention to often neglected activities. Like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, once you solve the basic needs, you can move up the pyramid to focus on developing finer skills.

In contrast, when you're in a constant experience of new, you often spend all your time just trying to adapt and adjust. That newness is fleeting and shallow. It can be an amusing distraction that keeps you from focusing on more difficult life issues. And that's when life becomes really fulfilling, I think. The desire to travel can just be a way of postponing a more deliberate life.

I plan to be in California for many years. This area is perfect for a career in technology, especially with technical writing (even if I have to perpetually rent rather than buy a home). To balance new with familiar, I try to remain open to new techniques, new methods, new tools, new systems -- these are all ways to break out of familiar routines and see things in new ways.

But when things get a bit boring and repetitive, like Groundhog day, maybe that's a sign that I can shift my attention to other areas of life. I can finally settle down and learn After Effects. I can learn to listen to other people when they speak to me. I can reflect about what's beyond the farthest point I can see. I can spend time sharing idle days with my children at a grassy park.

These times are not always a scramble-to-adapt-and-adjust type of scenario, however captivating that might be. It's a time to refocus and explore something new -- something that was always right in front of me but which I never had time to see.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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