Love. Life. Practice.

Personal Development with Gray Miller

Archive for the tag “practice”

just do the next thing

I’m just no good at life! – almost everyone, at some point.

Eldest daughter has been having a rough time of it the last couple of days. With her permission, I get to share a little of it, because it’s a great illustration of a couple of solid survival practices.

But He’s My Little Baby!

First Grandson Harvey begins school in ten days. That makes it time to register, and if you’ve never experienced trying to get a child registered for school you’ve really missed out on some of the best examples of bureaucracy-in-action that our society has to offer. Health forms, questionnaires, releases, schedules, equipment lists, physical education waivers, instrument rentals, field trip forms…it’s truly a dizzying amount of paperwork. That’s at the best of times. My daughter was perfectly willing to jump through all the hoops and joyfully release her son into the wilds of the public school system, except for one obstacle: They didn’t believe in him. More to the point, they told her that she couldn’t register him without his birth certificate. She had his social security card, she had his immunization records, she even thought she could get a record of birth from the hospital in Arcata, CA, where he was born. But no, the administrator told her. It had to be a birth certificate. Nothing else was acceptable.

The Ragged Edge

Eldest Daughter's shared her crap with me since the day we met...

Eldest Daughter’s shared her crap with me since the day we met…

It was at this point that I’m very happy to say that Eldest Daughter called me. I’m happy that she thinks of me as a resource for her, and I talked with her about various options and strategies. We talked about the ways to try and get the record from Arcata (which looked to take months) but also about actions to take here. Who did we know in administration? Who could we bring with us to speak before the school board at the next public meeting? What were the options of home schooling him if we couldn’t get him enrolled this year? At the same time she was dealing with this overwhelming personal sense of failure. She felt that she had failed her son, that she’d ruined his life, that she was a bad mom. She said “I don’t know how you did it with the four of us, Dad, I can’t even do it with one!” That just about broke my heart. The last thing I ever want is for my daughter to hold up my experiences with the four of them as some kind of standard. Yes, I’m proud of the fact that they all ended up wonderful women – but that was despite the way they were raised, not because. However, I could give her one piece of advice: You wanna know how I did it? I just did the next thing in front of me. There was no big picture. The big picture was too bleak. The big picture was too much. But I could break it down into the next thing I had to do, and I did it. Over and over again, until it got less scary, until I started seeing those obstacles behind me, not in front of me. Fill out the next form. Cook the next meal. Wash the next dish. Whatever it took. So with Eldest Daughter we talked about making lists. There was a California list, with all the things that needed to happen to get the birth certificate. There was also the Madison list, with the phone calls and strategies for what to do if we couldn’t get the right paperwork. She calmed down, breathed, even when the dear boy came up and said “Mommy, why can’t I go to school?” I swear, children can be more cruel than anyone imagines.

Deus Ex Machina

This is the part where you know I am writing a blog about reality, not making stuff up. If I were creating this as a story, there would be a series of struggles overcome until a triumphant climax with lessons learned through perseverance and toil. Ad astra per aspera. Instead, a few minutes after I hung up the phone with a still-scared but more-prepared daughter, I got a text from her:

Oh good god. I just called the school back and asked “What’s it gonna take to let him start?” They put me on hold and she comes back and says “Oh, you know, what I said before was wrong – his immunization record will do fine.”

This was followed by another text:

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!

…which she later told me was the hysterical laughter that happened with the sudden relief of pressure. Because that’s the other reason to keep doing the next thing, and just keep doing it. Because there are forces out there moving in mysterious ways, and suddenly things can change completely. You can’t count on it – sometimes the miracle is just that you suddenly discover that you’ve done the last thing that you needed to do. But when it does happen, what else can you do but laugh? And then look around for what the new next thing is. When you don’t know what to do next, that means it doesn’t really matter. Just do the next thing, whatever it is.

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don’t let ritual get in the way of life

Gray Aft Agley

A little more than a month ago my partner and I had a very private commitment ceremony. After six years together, it was time to express the intention of continuing to weave our lives together. Being the theatrical romantic that I am, I decided to surprise her.

Just after dawn a close friend would bring her to a sacred labyrinth in a wooded clearing, where I would wait in the center with talismans of our commitment in hand and words of love on my lips. She would walk the path to reach me, we would share that private ritual, and we would trace the path out of the labyrinth together as we continued our joined lives.

That was the plan, at least. I’ve written about plans before, though, and this was no exception.

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Gray Plans; God Laughs

The reality had a few extra variables thrown in. Such as rain coming down when I arrived at the labyrinth. Coming down fairly steadily, in fact. Also, my dear friend and cohort happened to oversleep, which meant that I was standing there (in the rain) for much longer than I’d expected.

In fact, I gave up; I headed back to our cabin, and of course ran into my just-woken and very-apologetic friend on the way. After a quick re-calibration, they went to get my partner and I headed back to the labyrinth. Standing in the center, as the rain lessened to a soft drizzle, I watched and waited.

There is likely a special hell created for people like me who make plans for their partners at early hours when caffeine is not readily available. My poor partner had not had days and weeks of looking forward to this moment, and being faced with the task of tracing, without coffee, a path to where I waited in the center was somewhat daunting. Her words were both profound and prophetic as she moved unknowing, step by step, towards our declaration of commitment:

Where…whuh…I don’t understand why this…WHERE is this going? Why does it keep winding back and forth?!? I need coffee!

Every word rang so true!

When she arrived at the center, of course, she saw what I was holding, saw the look in my eyes, and everything from there on was as beautiful and poignant as an azure butterfly flapping slowly in the rain (thanks for that, by the way, powers-that-be. It was a nice touch).

And as I related this story to a friend over lunch today, she laughed with me at the way plans can go awry – but then she got a thoughtful look.

You know, it reminds me of how we sometimes let our ceremonies get in the way of reality. Sure, you had your plans, and they were all well and good – but what you got was not just the ceremony, what you got was real life!”

I’ve got very smart friends.

We practice for many reasons: to change habits, to reach goals, to polish the self-image we carry around. Yet it bears saying that sometimes the ritual can lose the original purpose and become an end unto itself. There’s nothing wrong with that – sometimes it’s just fun, or just feels good.

It’s important, though, to pay attention when things don’t go as planned. It’s entirely possible that things are actually not going as planned, but instead they’re going exactly as they should. In those circumstances, rather than trying to fight against life, perhaps it’s better to try a different tack.

Perhaps, to repeat the metaphor: it’s better to just join in and laugh along with God.

learning to wait

“WHAT DO WE WANT?”
“PATIENCE!”
“WHEN DO WE WANT IT?”
“NOW!”

courtesy Robert Dunlap, Flickr CC

courtesy Robert Dunlap, Flickr CC

As lovely as our technological information age has become, it’s certainly speeded things up. One of the reasons I enjoy reading about history is because it puts some things in perspective. When I think about the years my grandfather and grandmother spent apart, only connected by the occasional letter wending it’s way through World War II across the Atlantic, it makes “I just texted her. Why didn’t she respond?” seem a little silly.

I think we all have our particular bouts with impatience. Frustration at waiting in line at the bank, the delay while the server has the audacity to take another table’s drink order, wondering when that Amazon package will ever arrive because it said Two Days and it’s, like, 20 minutes past 48 hours right now!

Has anyone estimated exactly how much time we, as a collective culture, spend watching task bars fill or animated spinning color wheels and hourglasses rotate? It seems like a long time, but in reality, it’s not. I remember working in the early days of non-linear video editing, waiting overnight for a three-minute clip to render. Today on my desk it takes about two minutes…and yet I find the need to fill that two minutes with some kind of busy-work, because I can’t waste time.

The Ten Breath Trick

However, my real achilles heel in terms of cultivating patience comes during morning meditation. I love it, don’t get me wrong – for fifteen minutes my job is to just sit there. Not to plan anything, not to produce anything, but simply to be there now.

Ah, but the monkey mind is tricky. And the concept of now stretches into a worrisome question of too much time. I start to feel that perhaps I didn’t set my timer quite right, or my phone is muted, or any other number of reasons why I might be sitting too long. It’s supposed to be fifteen minutes, but there have been times when either through mishap or deliberate deception I’ve sat for longer than I intended.

Occasionally the brain monkeys convince me to actually check the phone app that I use to time my meditation; most of the time, I look at it right about the time that there are two minutes or less left in my time. And then I feel silly, and impatient, and like a Bad Buddhist.

However, I have developed a trick that works pretty well for focusing myself back on the here and now, while at the same time satisfying the Buddhist Overachiever sitting in “judgement asana”* in the back of my mind. It goes like this:

  1. Breathe in slowly while counting: 1-2-3-4-5
  2. Let the air sit in the lungs while counting again: 1-2-3-4-5
  3. Relax the lungs, letting the natural contraction slowly let the air out: 1-2-3-4-5
  4. Sit in that empty space of no-air, realizing there’s no rush to breathe: 1-2-3-4-5
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 ten times.

I’ve never actually gotten to ten breaths. Every single time I’ve done this exercise, whatever it is that I was waiting for – in this case, the chime announcing my fifteen minutes are up – interrupted the breathing.

It becomes a win-win situation. I’m no longer being impatient – I’m focusing on breath, on the now. It quiets the brain monkeys, and at the same time if I am able to complete the ten breaths it probably means that the thing perhaps is taking too long.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a nice little centering interlude.

It works for more than meditation, and I’d invite you to try it the next time you find yourself in some moment of impatience. Think of it as a low-tech version of Candy Crush, Angry Birds, Kindle, or whatever you usually do.

In other words, don’t fill time. Let time fill you.

the practice of respect

“I don’t just give respect. You have to earn it.”

I’ve never understood that idea. It requires a level of magical thinking that just doesn’t work for me: “I expect you to understand what I value, what kinds of actions I admire, and act in accordance with them before I will recognize your worth and value.” How am I supposed to know that? Sure, you could tell me – but at that point, am I taking actions that are authentically motivated, or am I doing them in an attempt to buy your respect through my actions.

It’s a common trope in dramas: someone, usually a son, does some heinous action or some complex plot to finally get some father figure’s respect (Inception, I’m looking at you). Or the flip side, when someone, usually a woman, chooses to take independent action (often sexually related) and is asked “Don’t you have any self-respect?

Um, yes. In fact, I know for a fact that it was when I was trying to live up to external expectations that I showed the least self-respect.

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courtesy grahamc99 via Flickr CC

Given, Not Earned

I would like to put forth the idea that respect is not ever something you can really earn from anyone else – not in any genuine sense of the term. Rather, I think that respect is something that can only be given. I can choose to respect someone, based on whatever criteria I choose. What is respect, anyway? I’m not going to choose the easy route and look it up – instead, just think for yourself: what does respecting someone mean? Here’s some of the things that I can think that it means:

  • Admiration, perhaps even emulation
  • Inherent Value
  • Acknowledging their right to self-determination
  • Seeking their counsel, or simply their presence
  • Listening to what they have to say, and seeking to understand it

Now, I’m not saying that one should admire everyone. Nor is everyone qualified to give counsel on any subject (present company included). But I also don’t think that there’s any reason not to acknowledge inherent value, a right to self-determination, and above all seeking to listen, not just hear, and to understand, not just respond.

I don’t see why that shouldn’t be a level of respect offered to any human being. Notice it did not excuse them from the consequences of their actions, nor does it have any expectation that they will extend the same respect to me.

They don’t need to. I have my self-respect, and part of it is the necessity of giving respect to everyone I meet and know, even those that I despise with a passion.

But it takes practice. Constant practice and vigilance, and there are times when I have to remind myself that respect applies even when someone is not present to feel it. Gossip doesn’t hurt only the subject of the comments – it lessens the people talking with each other as well.

If I were a better philosopher, I could probably draw some direct comparisons between “respect” and “compassion” – both as concepts and as practices. As it is, I just have this feeling that the two go hand in hand. On a hot July afternoon, that’s enough.

What do you think? Is it possible to earn respect? Or is it simply something that you can increase the odds of being given by leading a good life?

what I learned from Ignite

I realized the other day that while I had talked a lot about the Ignite talk I did here in Madison, I hadn’t actually posted the video.

Since giving the talk I also ran my own mini-Ignite event at a convention in New Jersey. The experiences had some interesting similarities as well as differences. Here’s a few of the thoughts:

  • Focus is exhilirating. One of the newbie mistakes I made with my first Ignite was trying to shoehorn an existing essay into the five-minute format. When I stopped and stood back and asked “What am I actually trying to say?” it suddenly all became crystal clear, and watching it all fall into place was immensely enjoyable.
  • Keep It Personal. The best talks were the ones that the presenter obviously was passionate about, and had a personal and direct interest in.
  • Rehearse, but not too much. The strongest Ignite talks that I saw were the ones that were not over-rehearsed – that is, they didn’t seem to have every word in place, or seem like they were just reciting from a script. It relates to the message being personal, and letting your feelings carry through.
  • Five Minutes is Enough. Every presenter was able to make their point within the time limit. Even extremely technical subjects such as nerve pathways through the arms were able to be clearly and dramatically expressed. This might hold some bearing the next time you or someone else thinks you need a long time to talk about something. Do you really? Especially when…
  • Five Minutes is Powerful. By the end of both events, my head was swimming with new knowledge, crammed into our brains by the presenters. It was like finishing a great book, or an engrossing movie, or losing yourself in some stage play where the actors really catch you up in what’s going on. If you really want to drive a point home, maybe it’s worth paring down the message to only five minutes, because the impact will be powerful.

What do you think of the presentation? Of the format? One last thing I found: it’s addictive. I can’t wait to do it again…

the practice of joy is hard

“Shared joy is increased…” – Spider Robinson

In some recent travels my co-presenter and I were discussing the idea of joy and misery. She remarked that there were times that the misery in the world seemed overwhelming because there was so much of it.

“But isn’t the world also filled with joy?” I countered. “Even in the most miserable conditions humans manage to find moments of joy, laughter, connection…that’s been proven time and again.” I’m a big fan of Maslow, as you might expect.

She nodded, but then shook her head. “I know. Maybe it’s just that I’m more sensitive to the misery…it’s just so much more noticeable than the joy.” It reminded me of my undergrad, when I was trying to create pieces about happiness and positive emotions in the midst of a cohort of angst-and-anger-filled dance students.

My professor at one point chastised me, saying that in order to make meaningful work I needed to stop chasing fluffy clouds. “Happiness is overrated!” he declared.

“Oh yeah?” I challenged. “Well, misery is easy!”

Something Happened

Of course, from a zen perspective neither joy nor misery are anything but the added layers of meaning we put onto things that happen. If I stub my toe in the night, is it because I was a clumsy idiot? Or because my partner thoughtlessly moved the table? Or because I’m starting to lose my eyesight, as indicated by my lack of vision in twilight?

It actually doesn’t mean any of those things – it simply means that the table met my toe at a moment in time. Everything else is a meaning that I give it, and even if it turns out that I am going blind, that is also simply a thing.

What that implies is that we do, technically, have the ability to remove the filter of misery from things that happen. I stub my toe, I say “OW!”, and that’s that. My toe and the table don’t benefit from worry, from blame, or made up stories.

But it’s hard to get out of the habit of dwelling on the misery, especially as you work to develop a practice of awareness. My co-presenter quoted a feminist slogan for me: “The Truth will set you free – but first it will piss you off.” The more you pay attention, the more awful and injust and downright bad the world can seem.

Practicing the Joy Filter

Plus, it’s entertaining. People want to hear about other people’s misery, hence the rise of journalism, reality TV, soap operas, epic fantasy, and the blues. We are surrounded by a miasma of portrayals of misery combined with marketing designed to convince us that we are also miserable – until we get that new phone, that new watch, that new thingummy.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice, once in a while, the joy filter. You don’t have to get all polly-anna-ish and declare only the good things. I think it can be more subtle than that. I think it has to be more subtle than that. One technique I’ve heard of, for example, is the practice of ending each day by writing down three things you’re grateful for. Supposedly that practice will change, gradually, your perspective on life.

It sounds worth it to me. Personally, I am currently in a place in my life where I’m more happy and fulfilled than I ever could have imagined. I look at my life just a few years before and wonder “What the heck was that guy thinking?”” Part of why I’m feeling so good these days, though, is because I was lucky enough to have the free time to really study how to be happy, and try to make it work.

Most people don’t have that luck. And yet even knowing this, I still sometimes fall into my old habits. If someone says “How’s it goin’, Gray?” my first reaction is to say something like I’m so busy! or Tryin’ to pay bills! or Overworked and underpaid!

Why is it so hard to just tell the truth: I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life, and it’s because of the people and work and play in it?

It’s because I’m out of practice doing that. So I try, in small steps. Sometimes when I’m heading off to some exotic locale (such as Piscataway, NJ, where I’m returning from as I write this) I hear someone make some comment like “Gee, rough life, eh, Gray?

I used to respond quite angrily to this: “I worked hard to get where I am! I have a right to what I’ve accomplished, and if you wanted it, you would do it too!” Thankfully I got over that, mostly, but then I would often respond with some long, drawn-out explanation of why this life is not actually glamorous, of the many pains and sacrifices and frustrations that come from self-employment.

But that’s not really helping either. I mean, if they look at my life and have an inaccurate idea of what it’s like, so what? By trying to correct their impression I’m just taking away from a happy thought.

So my conscious practice now is, when I hear someone say that, to respond with “Yes! I am a very fortunate man!” In my head this is said with cheerful smiles and a merry tone. In reality, according to at least two of my friends who heard me say it this past weekend, I’m still sounding grumpy and maybe even a bit whiny when I say it.

That’s ok. The practice of “fake it til you make it” is a time-honored method of habit change. It is a wonderful thing to remind myself that I have a great life.

After all, if you don’t notice the good around you, there’s no way you’re going to enjoy it. And wouldn’t that just be a shame?

What if you did it right, but actually planned it wrong?

via Jake VanderMolen (Flickr CC)

I keep forgetting #14. WHY CAN’T I REMEMBER #14!?!

“No kidding, there I was…”

I was lucky enough to spend the weekend at a retreat in Indeana with a few other performance art enthusiasts, including a very dear friend of mine from New York. He was talking about a recent show he did:

I really thought that was it – the best show I’d ever done, the most perfect expression of my art. It wasn’t until I got offstage that I thought of a couple of things that didn’t go the way I planned, two places where I’d done it wrong…

I looked at him and blurted out: “What if you did it right, but actually planned it wrong?

You Are Your Own Worst Back-Seat Driver

It’s not as though this was something that I’ve always known – it took hearing him say it in that way to make me realize it. When we are making plans, we are doing our best to predict variables that are, by their very name, unpredictable. Life doesn’t work like the old Mission: Impossible TV show, with every tiny step leading inexorably to the pre-planned goal. Life is messy.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan – it means that you should plan for everything, including the chance that things will happen that you haven’t planned for. There’s a strategy for that (OODA) which I’ll talk about next Monday. Right now, though, I want to talk about that evil version of yourself.

It’s the version of yourself that looks life and thinks that what happened should have matched what was planned rather than vice versa. It applies to more than performances; it applies to your entire life. I could sit here and look at how my career is nothing like the Web Design Entrepreneur plan, the Video Engineer plan, the Dance Technology plan, the Music Teacher plan, the Insurance Agent plan, the Emergency Medical Technician plan, the Career Marine plan, the Broadway Dancer plan, or even the Firefighter or Astronaut plan.

Should I really beat myself up because the plan that I came up with when I was 14 years old to get a senatorial recommendation to West Point didn’t work out that way? Was there any way anyone then could have predicted the variables, from the worldwide political landscape to the functioning of my thyroid gland?

More to the point, if I’m currently doing work that is meaningful and enjoyable to me, that provides me time to pursue other goals like family, friends, and movies, why would that be considered wrong?

It seems to me that if there’s anything that was “wrong” (such an unfortunate label) then it was the plan itself. That’s not really fair to the planner, though – would you let a 14 year old boy plan out the rest of your life? Why should the Published Novelist plan be any more accurate? It’s fine to have goals – but it’s not ok to beat myself up if life gets in the way.

There’s an old Zen adage: “Loose the arrow. What it hits, you call the target.”

Are you beating yourself up about plans that didn’t go right? Maybe it’s time to let that go, and look at it as practice for making better plans instead.

Connect Your New Habit to an Old One for Success

The key to strategy… is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory.’

CaviloThe Vor Game

I hate writing.

But I want to be a writer.

But I really dislike writing.

But I love having written. Let me tell you, whether it’s a clever tweet, a ridiculous filk song, a particularly groanworthy pun, or a blog post or newsletter or story or even, once in a while, an entire book, I find that feeling of creation sweeter than just about anything.

Steven Pressfield would call it “the Resistance.” Twyla Tharp wouldn’t bother to name it, she’d just tell me to stop whining and get to work. And they’re both right. But I’m a clever bloke, and it sometimes takes a lot to trick myself into doing what I don’t want to do but that I want to have done.

I tried a few things – setting aside a part of my day for writing (didn’t work), setting up penalties for not writing (I absorbed them without effect, curse you, Resilience!) and even guilt from people who I respected (my powers of rationalization and busy-ness are formidable, I have to say).

But now it’s happening. I’m in the process of picking out a cover image and editing a fiction book, and my other book, The Defining Moment, is finally several thousand words beyond the Table of Contents and towards a finished work.

How did I do it? I cheated.

Introducing: The Remora Technique of Successful Behavior Modification

courtesy Brian Snelson via Flickr CCOk, it’s not really new, but I do think I’m the first one to include actual sharks in the metaphor. Basically, I took a look at a particular habit I already had that was working. Specifically, this blog: I’ve been remarkably consistent in writing it for well over a year now. I’m not sure why; it’s not like it’s remarkably broadly read, or remunerative (hey, see that Patreon link over there?).

It’s a habit that, for whatever reason, I don’t need to struggle to maintain. It’s like a shark: constantly moving forward, devouring the words I type voraciously along with your eyeballs.

Ok, perhaps the metaphor lost a bit there…the point is, I took the book writing goal and hitched it onto the blog habit. Every wednesday we write a little more, another section. At some point, probably next year, I’m suddenly going to get to the end of the Table of Contents and realize that all those Wednesday blog posts add up to a First Draft.

It’s not the finished product. If my other work is any indication, it’s going to be a lot of work getting myself to edit it beyond that draft. But that First Draft will feel really good.

My suggestion to you this day: take a look at what you want to do. Then take a look at what you already do. See if the two can be connected. It’s possible that it’s easier than you think…

celebrate your style

"Script Studies" by the talented Christopher Craig. Click to see more awesome!

“Script Studies” by the talented Christopher Craig. Click to see more awesome!

Use Papyrus. Go to Jail. It’s the Law - graphic designers everywhere

A font says a lot about a person. There’s a particular reason that this blog features highlights in serif fonts. In case you’re new to the font game, “serif” means that the letters have little curlicues and bulges on the ends. A sans-serif font would have “cleaner” lines, something like this:

Notice how pre-formatted text just has lines, no ornaments.

I have nothing against sans-serif. I use for the body of the posts because it is proven to be easier to read on the screen. There’s a reason the iPhone default fonts are sans-serif, you know. But unlike your phone, which is designed to be digested quickly and efficiently, I don’t want you to read my words fast. I want your eyes to linger on every     turn       of          phrase and play around with rhythm and pacing and -

So I use a sans-serif font for the body…but not the easiest one. And I try to slow you down on occasion with a switch to serif.

 

This blog is also (perhaps impudently) in the tradition of introspective writers like Thoreau, Emerson, Twain…and so using an older typeface that hearkens back to the print days seems appropriate. That’s why the colors are earth tones (if you’re reading this on the site) and why I tend to avoid l33t speak or txt abbreviations even though OMG! that would be so much more convenient. I also tend to stick to a Chicago Manual of Style for my punctuation, though I confess to being overly fond of commas and often needing to delete a couple of extra “!!” when I’m making a point. It’s not that it’s hard to be an expressive writer – it’s that there’s so many tools (look at that, I was lazy, used italics for emphasis instead of letting the language do it for me). And don’t get me started on the crutch of conversational tone, parentheses, and ellipses…

Not Just Your Words. Choose Your Tone.

If you’re not convinced, just listen to the way your mind changes the tone of words when SUDDENLY THEY’RE ALL IN CAPS. IT’S KIND OF ANNOYING, REALLY, AND EVEN WORSE IF SOMEONE SUDDENLY BOLDS THEIR ALL-CAPS. IT’S LIKE THEY ARE SHOUTING DIRECTLY INTO YOUR EYES. Whew. That actually makes my fingers hurt to type. The point is that just as our font, word choice, and grammar set the tone of our written communication, our appearance, posture, enunciation, and more are constantly setting a tone. Certainly that applies to the interactions with others, but you’re fooling yourself if you think it doesn’t apply to yourself as well. I’ve written before about the power of talismans, but in a sense you are your own talisman. The time you take to prepare your appearance for whatever task you have ahead makes a difference in the way you act. It’s part of the whole “enclothed cognition” idea, as well as a reflection of some of the principles from sites like “Real Men, Real Style.” It’s fascinating stuff. Take a white coat, give it to one person and tell them it’s a painter’s smock. They will perform worse on mentally challenging tasks than someone given the same coat and told that it’s a medical doctor’s lab coat. For a more personal hack, you can try one of Antonio Centeno’s suggestions for improving your style: lay out your clothes the night before.

Click to get your own!

Seems a small thing. But, OMG!

A simple thing, right? Even a little childish, perhaps. But as the Adulting Blog puts it:

Overall, planning your outfit ahead of time just shows how put-together you are (even if you’re not … yet), it eases your mind in the morning (because that’s one less thing you have to do before you walk out the door), and it can help you do feel more confident, more adult.

If you’re skeptical, I understand. I was too! Incredibly so. But I’m all for trying things out, and when I saw a valet for sale at a local thrift shop, I decided to give it a shot. That first morning, when I walked over to the corner of my bedroom where my shirt was hung, my pants draped over, my shoes laid out…it was transformative. Rather than grabbing and shuffling through my closet it was all right there, at my fingertips. I didn’t have to think about whether it matched, whether it suited my day’s activities – that was already done. So instead I had that much more brainpower to visualize the rest of the day, what needed to get done, how I was going to feel – in a sense, to psyche myself up. It was magnificent. It was selecting the right font for the right message I wanted to send that day. Right now, as I’m on an extended road trip, I’m trying to figure out how to do something similar while traveling. Maybe you want to try the whole “select your clothes” thing. Maybe you already do! Regardless of where you’re at, take a moment to be more aware of what kind of font people are reading on you – and that you’re reading on yourself. Let me know what you find!

how to be a skilled creator

This is not original.

Let’s get one thing straight from the get-go: this is replicative content. I read a nifty blog article about “How the Internet, Dopamine, and Your Brain are Working Together to Screw Your Potential“, and it inspired the content in this post.

But that’s ok.

There Are Two Kinds of Creation…

Well, ok, actually there’s a lot more than two. And there’s also no such thing as creating in a vacuum, so anything “original” has pieces of other things in it. But for the purposes of the article, Anthony Richardson divides the world into two parts: Replication Creators and Skilled Creators. What’s the difference?

If you’re on stage at a conference, you’re likely the SC. If you’re in the audience, you’re likely the RC. Same goes for blogs, YouTube, Wikipedia and so on. The way that you are facing easily indicates your position.

Anthony then goes into a very enjoyable tangent talking about brain chemistry (aka “awesome sauce“) and how our reward system gets tricked into believing that replication is a better high than skilled creation. In his opinion, it’s not, and I have to admit he’s probably right. Frankly, part of the reason I enjoyed the article so much was because it highlighted some of my own particular foibles in terms of overworking.

“But I Didn’t Get Anything DONE!”

I don’t have a problem with being a Skilled Creator (as Anthony defines it). In fact, I have the opposite problem: my brain craves the reward of original creation so much that it often won’t let me relax.

I have a schedule, and a to-do list. There have been days when I’ve risen before dawn, done morning protocols, blog posts, worked on my book, worked out, spent time with my family, produced a podcast, and then realize it’s 7pm, I’m hungry for dinner, but I don’t think I’ve earned it.

I’ve learned, to some extent, the skill of stepping outside myself and saying “If you knew someone else who’d done this stuff, would you think they deserved a break?” Usually that’s enough to get things done. I’ve also finally started playing video games – spent 45 minutes on “Batman: Arkham Asylum” the other day! I’m inordinately proud of that enforced leisure time.

However, while I seem to compulsively want to do source work (skilled is a little too elitist for me) I also understand the craving to do more. So I’m going to put down my top 5 Habits of “Original” Creation, on the off chance they might help you get out of some replicative rut you might not want to be in:

  1. Write It Down. That idea you have. The one you’re thinking of right now, as you read this, maybe with thoughts like “Oh, I wonder if he’s talking about…” YES. I am. Write that idea down, be it story, outfit, color, song, or performance sushi. Cast your net wide, and when it’s time to create, then you’ll have a huge catch to pick from. Which brings me to the second thing…
  2. Make the Time. My assistant has been given the task of setting apart 90-120 minutes a day for writing. That’s my content time. Sometimes it’s content for clients, which is not quite as satisfying as content for me, but the money does help. I also have an hour here and there for “Other Work” which gives me a chance to do…well, whatever I may think needs doing. Now, I realize that’s a huge privilege to have that kind of time – but I also know exactly what I’ve done in my life to create that space. Now, it’s just a matter of doing something with it.
  3. Courtesy of ABMann, who is always cooler than me.

    Courtesy of ABMann, who is always cooler than me.

    Do Other Things. We love hearing stories about how other writers do their work. One of my favorites was about how Thom Jones worked as a janitor and therefore spent much time in his mind – so when it came time to create, he was more than ready. One of the benefits I get from volunteering at the VA Hospital is boredom – I spend most of my time just standing there, waiting for something to do. By the time my shift is done, I’m so eager to get back to the work I love that I practically leap at the keyboard. So try doing things that make you bored, so you want to create instead.

  4. Take Small Bites. This was a hard one to learn, and I’m still working on it. I like to sit down, ride the rush of creation, and have the product spring fully-formed and perfect like Athena from the head of Zeus! Unfortunately, that’s not really how it works. I envy people like my friend ABMann who is not only working on writing – he’s working on penmanshipNow that’s some careful crafting. I am learning to take things a bit at a time, incrementally creating, editing, polishing, and finally even timing the release.
  5. Make Stuff You Want. I’m sure there are people out there who create things, original things, knowing that they are creating crap (how else could you explain Batman & Robin?). But I also know that the times I’ve used my skills purely for money – designing web sites to sell time shares, for example, or trying to write romance stories under a pen name – I was miserable, and my work, frankly, was crap. I get much more satisfaction writing about stuff that I would want to read, working on causes I believe in.

That’s my top five. What do you use to create?

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