Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Genealogy Goal Setting Rant

I was just checking in with some of my favorite genealogy blogs and ran across this post by Ros over at GenWestUK about setting genealogy goals. Her thought process was so much like mine when I first started researching, that I had an immediate reaction to it. 

Especially when she said "I can’t seem to stop looking everywhere, and focus myself somewhere."

So I started typing out my thoughts on the matter in her comments section. And typed. And typed. And stretched out the reply window again and again. Until finally, I decided that this is something that obviously struck a nerve with me, so I should probably just write about it here.

Here's how I feel about genealogical goal setting:

I've found that goal setting doesn't work for me... not only in genealogy, but in life. When I first started researching my Dad's line back in 2009, I set a goal. I wanted to write a book about my 2nd great grandfather, William Henry Waits.


  • I took a book that I read long ago (700 Sundays... sorry, Billy Crystal!), fashioned a "book cover" for his book, and taped it right over the top.
  • Beginning with the end in mind, I placed that "book" right next to my computer monitor and set out to discover as much as humanly possible about him so I could Write His Book. 
  • I dedicated a special page on my blog just for him (it's in my drafts here in my new blog, unpublished).
  • I announced it on my blog like goal-setters do, publicly making a declaration of my intention. 
  • I asked for stories and photos (and received the awesome photo that you see displayed proudly on the cover). 
  • I found out as much as I could about where he settled nearby here in Ruby, NE after the Civil War. 
  • I went to the Ruby Town Hall where residents today still vote.
  • I walked along the Tishue Block in Seward NE where he worked on the foundation as a stonemason all those years ago. 
  • I gleaned as much information as I could about where he was during the war and what his days were like. 
  • I even bought a book about writing a book! (awesome book, by the way)

I felt like I collected so much information, and yet nothing that really meant anything about how his life was. What was he actually like? Surely there were more photos out there than the measly 3 or 4 that I had. More paperwork from the military? More anything? I got so caught up in the details that I just... stopped. Eventually, when I focus on just one thing, I run out of gas. In genealogy, information becomes more and more scarce. For me, linear thinking just doesn't work.

It's more like this:

Left brain genealogy activities:

  • Goal Setting
  • Analyzing Census data
  • WHO: William Henry Waits
  • WHAT: b. 29 Sep 1845
  • WHERE: Miami, Clermont, Ohio, USA

Right brain genealogy activities:

  • Trying to figure out the WHY... the context... he was the 4th child, the 1st son. What did that mean to his family? What was his home life like?
  • Pondering the HOW... was he born at home? who was there? what was childbirth like back then? did she have an easy time of it? 
  • Using INTUITION to guide you to the next motherlode of information. 
  • CURIOSITY to help you dig deeper.
  • YEARNING for answers and hoping there's a secret stash of letters or a diary somewhere and if you talk to enough people, maybe... just maybe... you'll get a glimpse of what life was really like back then.
  • The tidalwave of EMOTION when you stumble across something with their signature on it.

And if you're trying to write a family history, you need CREATIVITY and an open mind to let the words flow out. Too much left-brain thinking stifles the right brain and makes writing sluggish, stale, and boring.

I was really hard on myself back then. I didn't finish my task at hand. Somehow I had an internal clock ticking that was keeping time and leading up to an imaginary alarm that could go off at any minute, announcing that your Time. Is. UP! I didn't realize it at the time, but a few months (or even a few years) is NOT enough time to write a thoughtful, cohesive, truthful account of someone's entire life. Creativity is on it's own time schedule... and it takes time to dig up the past, even in an electronic-immediate-gratification age.

And writing a truthful account of someone's LIFE is so much different than writing Fiction. You can't just make it up as you go along. There's a lot of pressure to get it right, along with a little fear that someone will be offended by what you have to say. And just wait until the skeletons start falling out of the closet!

Since my unsuccessful book project, I've really made an effort to follow my intuition with my research. I don't believe in coincidence. If someone pops into my head, I follow that clue. Unless I'm definitely on the trail of someone, I take a minute when I open up my family tree. I clear my head and set my intentions to learn something new. After a minute or so, one of the names will stand out from the rest and I'll go down that road. My seemingly willy-nilly research methods don't always make sense at the time... and I might not feel like I've accomplished anything... but down the road a bit, something comes up out of the blue and helps me connect the dots. Sometimes, I follow families that are offshoots of my ancestors and then a couple of months down the line, someone emails me and makes the modern day connection.

Whew... I've been holding a lot of that in for a long time...

How's this for a change?

I hereby solemnly vow to stop beating myself up about goals unobtained (that should totally be a word). I pledge to follow my heart and instinct in everything that I do. I promise to always do my best and to let that be enough. I promise to safeguard the covenant I have made with my Scanner self and to honor this oath forever.

Now, back to Ros's blog.

I did like the response that Alex Coles made. She suggested that she try a Gen version of NaNoWriMo (which starts in November every year) with no research for a whole month. I think that might bring out more of the Right Brain thinking that it takes to put together an engaging story. But I also think that the book will happen. All in due time. There may be some grand discovery just around the bend that's preventing the book from being written at this particular moment in time. Ros, ask for divine intervention. Put it out in the world. Ask for the words and the story to come to you. And then... WRITE. It doesn't have to be a complete story, or even perfect. Just put everything you know and feel down on paper and see what comes out. It just might free up that little extra storage space in your brain to let new information in. Nature abhors a void. Mentally download that story and get it in black and white (or green or purple). Then, just move on. You'll come back to it when you're ready.


  1. Amen! It's always OK to be the person you are, to capitalize on the gifts you have and pursue life your own way. Glad you got that off your chest. My brain must have a split personality because sometimes I'm left-brain focused, detail oriented and immersed in my data. Other times, like you, I follow a story that intrigues me. Sometimes I just look at all the people on a census list who lived in my family's neighborhood and wonder how they interacted as neighbors and friends. And surprising things happen - someone sends me a box of photos, or tells me a story about a person in my tree. It's all good.

  2. Thank you, Lynn! I never know what kind of issues are going to bubble to the surface until I start typing. I don't know how I went so long without getting everything out into the open! I have a split personality, too. I'm actually very analytic, but years of working a desk job and doing only that made me really crave balance... and to get that, I've gone the complete opposite direction and started building my creativity muscles. Maybe that's why it hit a nerve. Just because I'm good at something doesn't mean that it's what I should do for the rest of my life. -- Loved your story about the boxes of photos! Isn't it amazing what you can accomplish once you put energy into it? It takes on a life of it's own!