I do not remember the source of this story.
A middle-aged woman, distraught, goes to the village wise woman. “I fear my husband no longer desires me!” she says. “He has not lain with me for months, and I do not know what to do!”
The village wise woman says, “Listen carefully, for here is what you must do: tonight, you both must lay in the bed fully clothed when you go to sleep, on top of the covers, and do not touch each other. Tomorrow night you will wear your nightshift, but he will be fully clothed, both of you on top of the covers – not touching. The night after that you may lay naked under the covers, but he must sleep in his underwear on top of the covers – making sure your bodies do not touch. The night after that you may both lay under the covers, but lay far apart, so that no part of your skin will touch. Finally, the night after that, you may again touch each other.”
The middle-aged woman nodded eagerly and went off to follow the village wise woman’s instructions. Two nights later she was again at the door, in tears and even more distraught as before. “I tried to do as you instructed,” she cried. “The first night, we lay on top of the covers, in our clothes, and we didn’t touch at all. The second night I lay on top of the covers in my nightshift, and we both couldn’t sleep. We tried, we did, but there was just no resisting it – in the middle of the night we turned to each other and our passion was greater than it had ever been! I’m so sorry, we’ve ruined everything!”
The village wise woman just smiled.
NaNoWriMo? Not Much, What’s WriMo with You?
I’m not doing so well on my daily National Novel Writing Month goal.
I’m just over about ten thousand words. Which, in NaNoWriMo words, is like sleeping with all your clothes on on top of the covers. I knew that it would be difficult to do this kind of task this month in particular, due to other commitments – but I was feeling like my creative writing chops were stagnating, that I was spending so much time managing and promoting that the actual work of producing content was falling by the wayside.
I had good days – times when I would get into flow and the words would just pour out as the story unfolded. It was not the story I expected, not at all – the minor character I had thought would be in the background came to the front and demanded a voice. Then they took over the plot entirely. I found extra challenges in the way I presented them. Of course my old friend Imposter Syndrome showed up, telling me that the pacing of the story was too slow, too boring, too trite, or that I had no right to attempt to voice a character so different than myself.
I would try to carve out time here and there – 500 words, even just a paragraph – but the times when I had imagined myself writing I would often simply be too tired. Turns out it’s difficult to juggle a portable keyboard on your lap while you’re trying to write on your iPhone in a car driving cross-country – who knew?
- I re-committed to this blog shortly after the election, and that has resulted in thousands of more words and a recognition that I still have things to say.
- I’ve had my patrons for my podcast (with whom I’ve been sharing my novel-in-progress) write me and tell me they are enjoying it.
- I’ve had dreams almost every night that contained hooks that would make for great stories: what if every time you crossed the street you needed the consent of those around you to keep from shifting into alternate realities? What if you were at a garage sale and suddenly you could hear the voices of all of the items, telling you their history?
- I’ve had a past writing selected by the NaNoWriMo editors on Medium included in their choice of recommended works.
- I successfully scheduled a post to appear both here an on Medium last Friday, which makes me feel like I am Mastering Time and Space.
- This morning, when I woke early and couldn’t sleep, instead of laying there letting my brain go down corridors of insecurity, or mainlining dopamine via some social media, I got up, made coffee, and sat down to write.
In short: I’ve written only ten thousand words for this novel, but my writing habit is back.
Shoot for the Moon, Enjoy the Clouds
The moral of the story, for me, is that it doesn’t really matter if I hit my 50K goal. I’m not giving up, mind you. There was a moment in the middle of the Open Space I was doing in Columbus when I suddenly saw, clearly, what the next two scenes in my book would entail. I’ve got at least two thousand more words in that alone.
But if I get to November 31 and all I’ve got are thirty thousand words, have I failed? Only if I choose the most narrow and draconian definition of success. Instead, I’ve already succeeded in making positive changes to my habits through simply trying to do one very hard thing.
Think about that practice that you wish you did more of. Meditation, sharpshooting, knitting, encryption. Whatever it is, set yourself a goal that seems way out of the realm of possibility. Then pay attention to how the mere act of working towards that goal is, itself, a success.
Then keep doing it. Or not. There is no “final level” or “happily ever after”. Just a new story to tell yourself, every day.
In case you run out of time to read this blog, a writer for the Guardian pretty much summed up everything I’ve said or am going to say for the forseeable future:
Spoiler alert: here are the secrets.
- Get up at 5am;
- commit to an exercise regime;
- practice mindfulness and time management;
- nourish your body with wholesome foodstuffs;
- dress professionally;
- set personal goals;
- schedule quality time with loved ones;
So now that you know that – and now that I’ve said it, in many different ways – why are we bothering with talking about it any more?
We Are Not Cake.
“My work…it’s all about the ‘things that get in the way.’ I’m not about the ‘how-to’ because in ten years I’ve never seen any evidence of ‘how-to’ working without talking about the things that get in the way.”
– Brené Brown, the Gifts of Imperfection.
That’s why I’ll keep talking about it, and why I’m skeptical about the efficacy of things like simply emulating the Morning Rituals of successful people in order to become successful. Derek Sivers, in a recent podcast with Tim Ferriss, talked about how he’s started a list of things that people should simply do – without the pesky necessity of understanding the why or the burden of experience.
I’d heard great things about Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. But 450 pages about the history of food? Eh…Then two years later he wrote “In Defense of Food”. It sounded like a tighter argument at 250 pages, but… eh….Then he wrote “Food Rules”, a tiny little book that compresses all of his advice into 64 sentences. Hell yeah!
It takes only 30 minutes to read, with succinct advice like “Eat only foods that will eventually rot.” and “Avoid food products that make health claims.” Each point has just a few sentences of explanation. That’s all I needed, because I already trust him.
Compressing wisdom into directives — (“Do this.”) — is so valuable, but so rarely done. It feels arrogant and imperial to tell people what to do. Who am I to order people around? On the other hand, who am I not to? It’s useful to people, so do it.
I understand – it’s tempting. Unfortunately, that feeds right into the illusion of control – the idea that everyone starts with the same “raw materials” and if you mix them just right, heat them this much for this long, ding! out comes an identical success story – just google “recipe for success” and you’ll see just how far we’ve taken this metaphor.
Fortunately for us but unfortunately for personal development “gurus”, we are not made of flour, eggs, and water. There far more variables to each of us both by nature and by nurture to have any “sure thing” work out. Even brute-force experiments in Skinnerian behavior modification are only somewhat successful – and at a cost that makes it not worth it.
This is why I don’t believe in “The Morning Ritual”, I just believe that it might be useful to have “A Morning Ritual.” I also believe that meditation is likely a useful part of that morning…not because it’s going to automatically turn you into a great person, but simply because it will give you the space to figure out what you need and want.
I wish we could just all subscribe to Blinkist and get all the information we needed for perfection – as Mr. Sivers, put it, “if knowledge were all that were needed, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” Instead, though, I will share what Brené Brown calls “the stuff that gets in the way” – with the hope that together we can figure out how to get past the obstacles, maybe helping a few other people along the way. I also think that the way an idea is expressed or conveyed makes a difference. You can get people to imitate behavior, but I’ve got to believe that it’s going to work better if it’s coming from internal motivations rather than external.
What do you think? Do those kinds of directives work for you? I have to think it’s a case-by-case basis – so let me know what your case is!
If you found this post useful, please send it on to a friend!
I am not a tremendously logical man. I wish I was; it's probably part of why statistics thrill me so much. It's taken me a while, but there was always something about the whole If you follow your passion, you're very unlikely to be happy or successful because you'll be financially insecure argument. With the help of some Venn diagrams, I think I've figured out why it doesn't quite make sense to me.
If you look at this diagram, you can see the people who are “successful” (based on the idea of “happy and financially secure” as the measure of success) in the middle. To the left are all the people who listen to conventional wisdom and relegate their passion to a hobby, picking out someone else's dream to pay their bills. Most Americans are unhappy at their work, but a good portion are, so they fill a lot of the “successful” circle.
Then to the right is the much smaller circle of those who followed their passion, and the even smaller slice that are successful in that. Based on the discussions I've had with people on both sides of the “follow your passion” argument, I'm pretty sure this is accurate.
Here's my question: both the “follow” and “don't follow” sides have a lot of people who are not happy or not financially secure or both. What do those people do? They try to find a new job that will make them happy and financially secure (I'm not sure why I keep separating those two things; the argument of the “don't follow” folks is based on the idea that they are inseparable). If the new job doesn't fill the needs – either of enough money or of being a way they can handle spending their time – then they find a new job.
That cycle – of finding a new job until you find one that fulfills your definition of “success” financially – is the same regardless of whether you follow your passion or not. The fallacy with “If you follow your passion you will likely be poor and unhappy” is the implication that not following your passion will make you rich and happy. It just ain't so! Whether you follow your passion or not, if you live in the capitalist system you are going to keep trying to find work that satisfies your needs. That's how the system works.
Let's look at another measure of success, though:
I feel that a reasonable measure of “success” in life is the amount of regret you have at the end. Less regret equals a more successful life – let's stipulate that.
Again, research has shown that four out of the top five regrets of those living in hospice have to do with following your passion, things like I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings and I wish I hadn't worked so hard. Perhaps the most relevant is also the top regret:
I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
Obviously Twain's observation of “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” applies here. I can draw Venn diagrams all day and not convince people one way or another. I will even agree that by choosing to not follow your dreams you do increase your odds of being successful – at least in terms of there being a wider range of occupations to choose from.
However, I think it's pretty obvious that you would also be significantly increasing your odds of falling into that larger blue circle in the second diagram as well. It's a choice; just be aware you're making it.
Me, I think “No Regrets!” is a great battle cry…
The Narrative Recipe
Recently I read an excellent article about the author Ursula K. Leguin. She spoke of “five principal elements,” which must “work in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce great writing.
- The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
- The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
- The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
- The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
- The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.
Since we’ve already talked quite a bit about narrative life and writing your own tale (in fact, I’ve just started a company with the motto “Let’s tell your story.) it seems natural that these five elements might map to a larger picture.
To me, the parallels went something like this:
The Five Principal Elements of a Great Life
- The patterns of your character: the way your values and beliefs have developed over your life; the conditioned responses that you may or may not be aware of.
- The patterns of your environment: — Everything from the climate where you live (geologic, political, diverse) to your clothes, your desk, your vehicle, your kitchen, your favorite pen, whatever. These are the raw ingredients that your character has either acquired (or kept) in order to make up the story of your life, with all the sensory characteristics that go along with them.
- The patterns of your view: the way character and environment combine to shape how you see the world. Do you cope with a starvation mentality or embrace a philosophy of abundance? Is everyone out to get you, are you trapped in a job, if it weren’t for bad luck would you have no luck at all? Or are you a fortunate soul filled with gratitude for the wonder of the world around you?
- The patterns of the ideas: The kinds of ideas that your environment, your viewpoint, and your character combine to create. For example, “I need the new Xbox!” or “Wow, I could build a website…” or “I wish I had a better job, but I don’t know how to get one.” That last may seem to be a lack of an idea, but actually it’s an idea about a lack of ideas, and it’s definitely a product of the other principal elements.
- The patterns of the feelings: What we experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.
In the article, Ms. LeGuin went on to explain:
If any of these processes get scanted badly or left out, in the conception stage, in the writing stage, or in the revising stage, the result will be a weak or failed story.
One of the reasons this concept appeals to me is because it validates attention and awareness in all levels, from the arc of a life down to the choice of shoelaces, because it’s all part of the “Great Life.” When I’m surfing the IKEA website looking at desks, it’s not a waste of time – it’s my character wanting to shape the environment, because at a base level I know that it will trickle upward to my views, inspire new ideas, and that will make me feel good. It explains why there was one thing my ex-father-in-law said that has always turned out to be true: Buy quality and you never regret it.
None of it is trivial; instead, it is essential that all these parts be there working in harmony with each other with the goal of feeling- what? Ah, now there’s the question! What do you want to feel? Happy. Successful. Loved. Valued. Beautiful. Strong. There’s all kinds of answers to that. The real question should probably be: How well are the principal elements in your life helping you feel that way?
And the follow up is, of course: What are you gonna do about that?
Another reason the idea of writing as an analogy to life appeals to me is because it helps us understand some of life’s unfairness and variability. There are extremely well-educated writers who produce dreadfully dull work as well as authors who break all the rules yet produce masterpieces (Ulysses, anyone?). You can have someone who is celebrated as a fantastic writer with every award possible – but you, particularly, don’t like their work. Likewise, you can look at someone who everyone idolizes as being the epitome of a Great Life yet it doesn’t appeal to you.
That’s ok. The world is large enough to contain both Madhuri Blaylock and Irvine Welsh and even produce an Emily Dickinson every once in a while.
The Valuable Experience of Failing
In the article, LeGuin also adds:
Failure often allows us to analyze what success triumphantly hides from us.
…which is a long-known but oft-overlooked fact when we’re looking at Great Lives. The greatest are pretty much always built on failures, often tragic failures. Often it’s because someone is trying something unusual, something different, and it fails. What is different about the Great Lives is that failure is not the stopping point. It’s not “Oh, well, that’s that.” Instead it’s “Huh. That didn’t work so well. Why? Did any part of it work? Did it teach me anything about what might work better?“
One of the people often used as an example of a Great Life is Steve Jobs. Co-founder of the most successful company in the world, a man who changed our language and our environment throughout the 1st World. But, as an article in the Huffington Post reminds us:
Jobs developed the first computer with a graphical user interface, the Lisa, named after his daughter. It was way too costly and bombed. By that time former PepsiCo CEO John Sculley was in charge at Apple, and he fired Jobs because of the Lisa debacle…Having failed on a huge scale — the Lisa cost tens of millions of dollars to develop — he was now unemployed.
In order to prove he was still relevant in the computer world, Jobs started a new computer company, NeXT. Again, he failed. The NeXT computer barely sold. And worse, while he was gone, Apple had success with the Macintosh, which became the first successful computer with a graphical user interface.
Now, of course, we know how the story ends, at least in terms of Apple. But put yourself in his shoes back then – say, on a day when he sees the lousy sales reports for NeXT at the same time as an article about the wild success of the Mac? The times are no less dark. But you can be sure that he took what did work with NeXT (and having used them in college, I can tell you, they were pretty neat) and turned it into even more success.
One More Thing…
All of them are affected by one other element that is the same for all of us: Time. It’s moving in the same direction and at the same pace for everybody.It’s like the water that’s added to the seeds that are our principal elements. Put it all together, something will grow. Spend some time looking at the principal elements of your life, and remember that what Greatness grows is up to you.
Tangled Up & You
My partner made a joke about me recently, pointing out how some of the ways you write the letter “G” could look like a circular arrow. We decided if I was an old-school rancher, my brand would have been “The Confused Arrow” and I’d never lose any cattle because they’d always circle back eventually…
This is why I was pretty pleased when Banksy (the amazing street artist) recently tweeted this little gem:
It’s a useful reminder, especially during those times that inevitably come where we aren’t really sure what to do next, or if what we’re doing is going to get us where we need to go. The Narrative Fallacy is this idea that one thing inevitably leads to another in any story of success – but the reality is far different. It’s not the only thing that could have happened – it’s just what happened.
And almost every entrepreneur, hero, successful artist or parent will most likely admit that there were times when they really had no idea what was going on, they were just doing the best they could. One of the ways to make it easier on ourselves when we’re dealing with that kind of thing is to reframe it away from being “lost” (or even, as Davy Crockett put it, “A mite bewildered…”) and rather look at it as valuable information.
I either win, or I learn. I never lose.
It’s a well-known basis of the new economy that “whoever fails fastest succeeds first.” Not counterintuitive if you remember that every failure is accompanied by picking themselves up and trying again. Nor is it a new idea; Winston Churchill famously said:
Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.
After a few months where I was feeling like I was on the squiggled path, today the direction of my next steps in professional development came clear to me. It’s possibly not accidental that they coincided with my finishing the first edit of The Defining Moment book. While things are beautifully clear now (a path laid with an amazing number of to-do’s) the most gratifying part is knowing that all the weeks when I just put my head down and did the next thing have paid off, and I’m in a position now to do far more than I ever knew possible back there in the tangle.
If you’re in the tangle yourself, don’t worry. There’s more out there. And if you aren’t…spare a moment of mercy and empathy for those who are. All who are lost, after all, do not wander.
The Numbers Game, part 1
Any technique will work, so long as you relentlessly work it. It’s a numbers game. That is, success is a pure function of the law of large numbers. – Nick Murray
The Universe likes to play with synchronicity. Ok, not really, but our brains like to pretend it does, and so I like to think it was kismet that led two respected colleagues of mine to say the same thing in two different ways. First was a colleague who doesn’t even know I exist: Steven Pressfield. His books on creativity, his tales of the publishing world, and his ongoing blog have been a major inspiration for me. Recently he wrote a blog about The Game of Numbers. It’s a reference to a business book of the same name, and the principle is so simple that it’s unsexy:
The rule is: Pick a constructive aim that you can control; then do it and keep doing it, regardless of immediate success or failure. In the end, the law of large numbers will kick in and you will win…Do not judge yourself or your work. At the end of the day, ask yourself one question only: “Did I do my pages today?” If you did, you have succeeded. Simple as that.
“Simple” is right – simple and absolutely dreary. It falls right into the “do the next thing” idea, though it focuses it a bit. Before writing this post, for example, my brain tried telling me “the next thing” should be installing a new theme on my word processor. Or responding to that comment on my blog. Or checking for interesting tweets. Or doing pilates. Or anything but what was really the next thing: writing this post.
Making the Calls
A few days after reading the blog post by Steven I was having a great talk with a new/old friend named Tom Kastle. He’s a musician and sailor, and travels a lot. We were talking about the various aspects of being an itinerant professional, particularly along the lines of lining up gigs. That’s the thing they forget to tell you when they talk about the romance of working for yourself: there’s always this ineffable cold darkness on the horizon, just past your last scheduled gig. It’s traveling towards you quickly, and the only way to push it back is to line up another gig. Tom’s to the point where he doesn’t have to worry about it much – people are happy to have him all over the world, because he’s both talented and professional. I’m almost to the point of not worrying about it much – because I can fake professionalism and talent pretty well while I work on actually developing both. But Tom told me of another friend, a friend who was actually kind of annoying. He didn’t seem too pleasant in manner, in voice, in personality – but he was immensely successful. In fact, Tom said, he’d once claimed to have done something like 267 gigs in one year. “I told him he was crazy,” Tom said. “No one could have done that many. Especially being his own agent. He looked at me and said ‘Yeah? I made sixteen booking calls before breakfast today. How many did you make?’” The Law of Big Numbers doesn’t play favorites. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s a sure-fire way to succeed, as long as you show up.
How to Become an Overnight Success
That’s the measure of my success here at Love Life Practice: three posts a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. There is no big end goal, no expectation that there will be a big payoff at the end. There are smaller payoffs, like my Patreon supporters and getting closer to completing my Defining Moment book. There’s a podcast now, which has been downloaded a whopping fourteen times; that’s three times the last time I checked! It’s ok. I don’t need to have Oprah notice me, or suddenly go viral (when, exactly, did that word become a good thing?). If you need a practical reason why you, too, should pick something to persist at, maybe the story of Darlena Cunha will help.
I wrote daily, on my own blog and for outfits like The Huffington Post, Thought Catalog and McSweeney’s, for free, lucky if a few hundred people read it. I was working my fingers off, even as my loved ones started to suggest I try something else. It had been five years, after all. Just as I was about to give up: boom.
That “boom” was her post not only becoming popular, reprinted, well-read – it became the most-read story of all time in the Washington Post. Think about that, next time you feel like quitting your creative endeavor, shutting down that blog, giving up on your dream, whatever it is. Really, though, I prefer to think of the term “overnight success” in a different way – back to that idea of numbers. Today I needed to produce a certain number of videos; to write a 500-word flash fiction piece; to consume less than 1500 calories; to create this blog post. When those numbers are hit, I can rest easily in the successes of the day overnight. Tomorrow is another chance to become an overnight success all over again.
‘The key to strategy… is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory.’—Cavilo, The 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
Ok, 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…