Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.
We all want to succeed. We want our hard work to pay off, and we dream of the benefits yet to come. But in the present, we’re consumed by the immediate and the urgent.
Putting out fires takes up time and energy we could otherwise devote to fireproofing the walls or fixing the faulty stove. We prioritise the urgent over the important.
You know this logically, but what do you do about it?
You don’t have time for the strategic thinking in sector 2 because you’re overwhelmed by stuff that has to be done right now. You spend your time in sector 1 firefighting, at the mercy of whatever comes up in the moment. You’re on a hamster wheel of busy work and you’re exhausted.
You think the future stuff can wait. That’s a mistake you can’t afford to make.
Here’s how to shift your focus.
The Seed Is Not The Tree — Yet
Every tree begins as a single seed. The seed needs the right conditions to develop. But properly managed, it will grow into a plant many times larger than the seed it sprouted from.
The biggest input into growth is time. Given enough time, growth can be amazing.
We underestimate the power of compounding.
The chart shows the difference in return from investing the same amount of money at different times, with the same growth rates. The earlier you start, the bigger your return when interest is allowed to compound over time.
In the same way, repeated daily actions add up over time. Whether you invest in yourself or in something external, starting early and persisting is the key to finishing your novel or building up a pension plan.
How can you get compounding to work for you?
You Have One Job
Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant.
Robert Louis Stevenson
There’s something small you can do which will more than repay the effort now. Its effects will build over time to get you much further along your path, whether your horizon is measured in days or decades.
You might think big gestures get the winner to the podium. But more often, building one small deed on another over time brings the biggest rewards. No deed is too small, provided we keep doing it.
If you draw an apple every day, you’ll improve. If you write a story every week, you’ll improve. If you walk ten minutes daily, you’ll improve. With these baby steps you can go further each time, and eventually, things will take off.
Of course, you’ll feel like there’s no progress to start. You might get discouraged. Remember you will never reach the tipping point if you don’t keep moving.
Do one thing your future self will thank you for. Repeat regularly.
- Write 250 words on your current project
- Exercise for ten minutes
- Read a chapter of that book you meant to finish
- Wear sunscreen
- Plant something — a tree or a window box
- Save whatever you can afford each month — if only spare change
- Paint or draw a small picture
Any gardeners reading this will nod sagely, already thinking ahead to a new season in the natural calendar. Years ago I braved a bitter wind to plant a few bulbs that didn’t look like much. The pay-off was not immediate, unlike my frozen fingers. But now, with little to no extra effort, the flowers cheer up dreary winter days. And every year there are more.
So what will you do today, and tomorrow, and onwards to secure a better future?
Whether it’s saving £5 a week, or kissing your SO every day, you’ll be delighted with the return on your investment. Start now.
The law of harvest is to reap more than you sow. Sow an act, and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny.
A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.
When was the last time you got negative feedback?
You’ve probably had comments on your writing, cooking, driving, or that shirt only you like. It doesn’t feel good.
Feedback is crucial to improvement. You only know what needs to change by assessing what does or doesn’t work.
Creative work of any kind exposes you to one-star reviews, lack of engagement, negative or offensive comments. You hoped for praise but got something unpleasant instead.
Alternatively, you might be working with a mentor or in a group of your peers, and actively seeking constructive comments.
You know feedback is a good thing. But do you always want it?
Candy or Broccoli?
Writers crave good feedback. You want to hear how much readers loved your characters, plot, and description. Positive feedback (I loved this!) feels good, but like eating candy, it isn’t nourishing on its own.
But despite the supposed benefits, we’re less keen on hearing negatives. Like broccoli or high fibre cereal, we know it’s good for us but it doesn’t taste good.
Negative feedback cuts to the heart of your self-esteem. If you’re too closely identified with your work (writing is my life rather than writing is something I do) criticism of your work feels like criticism of your core self. Then you attack in self-defence — either the critic or yourself. Both options are painful.
Reviews and comments are an accepted part of life. The only way to avoid them is never showing your work.
Fighters work with a sparring partner to build their strength and skills. Ask for help from a trusted source. Each time someone points out a defect is an opportunity to learn and do better next time. Take feedback on the chin and emerge with your self-esteem intact.
There are ways to make feedback both palatable and useful, whether it was invited or not.
Here To Help
The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.
Norman Vincent Peale
Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
It is factual. It focuses on objective measures using rational language.
Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.
It is opinion given in emotive language. It may not be relevant to the work at hand. It is personal.
What does constructive critique look like?
- Timely — ideally given soon after the event
- Focused — limited to one or two points
- Objective — factual, uses respectful language
- Specific — gives examples
- Actionable — suggests targeted remedies
What complete rubbish. You’re useless, my ten year old could do better than this.
I enjoyed the story but found this hard to read. The sentences and paragraphs were very long and it looked like a solid wall of text.
Consider having one idea per sentence and three sentences per paragraph. That gives more white space on the screen, which is easier to read.
The first example is pure negative opinion and offers no useful insight.
The second example avoids insults and emotive language and suggests remedies.
Whether you choose to take the advice depends on the source and the quality of the suggestion. But it gives you something to work with. The new version might work better or not suit your style. Either way, you know more than before, and can make more informed choices in your next piece.
Take It On The Chin
- Allow time for strong emotions to settle
- Look for a kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept
- Consider the alternatives presented
- Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end
- If you decide to maintain your current position, know why
- Thank your critique partner for their time and attention
Not every comment deserves a response. Sometimes you just note it and move on. Remember you are in charge of your words. You don’t have to accept all of the critiques or make all suggested changes. However, review from another source can be invaluable in showing a reader’s view, which you as the author cannot experience.
Put Up Your Guard
Endless negativity, especially if mixed with personal attack and vitriol, says more about the commenter than the work.
The internet is full of people whose comments consist only of slurs and insults. Sometimes they start by being pleasant and complementary; when you take the bait they switch to attack. Being targeted by an online and probably anonymous bully is a painful and upsetting experience. The answer is simple; don’t feed the trolls.
Don’t respond or engage in a flame war. Don’t stoop to their level.
You risk hurting your brand among observers, as a reputation is hard to build but easy to destroy. And you open yourself to a stream of negative feelings that persist long after the encounter.
You can close comments, mute, block or unfollow, depending on the platform. Often silence is the best response.
Open Your Mind
A common response to critique is to become defensive or aggressive.
I worked all night on that and you didn’t even give me any credit so what’s the point?
Well, what do you know anyway? I’ve got a postgraduate degree in X so I think I know what I’m talking about.
A good sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them outright. You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight.
It might take some time to process the emotional hit, so take a breath. Remember that you’re here to learn. Nobody is perfect. Everyone can improve.
Learn to Love The Pain
The pain of discipline is nothing like the pain of disappointment.
Exposing yourself to feedback more often is the best way to increase your tolerance of it.
No creative is immune to the sinking feeling when they see just how many changes they need to make to a piece. You’re allowed to feel bad about it as long as you keep the end goal in mind. Constructive critique builds the strength to do better work.
You Are Not Your Work
You put something of yourself into your creation, but please separate your sense of self from the thing you made. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person. When you truly accept this, feedback is much easier to handle. Make another, a better piece using what you’ve learned.
You are not your work.
Everyone’s a Critic
Those who talk should do and only those who do should talk.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin in the Game
Dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving useful critique isn’t easy. Like all good teaching, producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions is harder than it looks.
So try writing a good critique by swapping with someone else. There are websites where you can submit your work for review, and earn credits by doing the same for others. It’s the tough love version of karma.
Follow the golden rule; be respectful.
Sharpen your critical skills, but not at someone else’s expense. Read other reviews to learn how to phrase your suggestions if you’re unsure. Even when you have points to make, imagine how your words would feel if you were receiving them. Empathy does not prevent you from being honest.
Whether you’re dishing it out or taking it, constructive feedback is central to your improvement and eventual success. You can learn to like broccoli. And dessert always tastes better after you’ve eaten your greens.
time to move on
You know success is out there but you’re not finding it no matter how hard you dig. You see others strike it big and assume they’re luckier or got a bigger shovel.
You could have the perfect tools and focus on your goals, but it won’t matter if you’re digging in the wrong place.
People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.
The Double-Edged Sword of Focus
You work hard, eliminate distractions, and focus on one area. This can be good and bad at the same time.
Take gold prospecting. Digging a one hundred foot mine shaft will keep you busy, whether the gold lies there or not. If there isn’t any gold, all your work will be in vain.
The same can be said for your writing.
How do you know where to invest your effort?
You need to go wide and then deep.
Trying new areas is the only way to know if a better prospect is out there for you.
The gold miners need to survey the whole landscape first. They go wide. The surveyors dig exploratory mines in promising spots. They only go deep when there’s a good chance of reward for their efforts, because they have to process a lot of ore to find nuggets of gold.
Then they study the landscape to learn the signs that tell them there’s gold further down, which makes it easier to spot next time.
For example, I wrote an article about being let down by a former friend. It was more popular than anything I’d written up to that point.
Friends shared it and reached out to me on Twitter. It wasn’t viral, but it was a little gold strike. Once I got over being amazed, I studied it to see how it differed from previous pieces and came up with the following points.
- Personal tale
- Readers like emotional stories
- Universal theme of betrayal
- Conversational style — written as a letter
- Shared to social media on a ‘quiet’ day
- Friend shared it on her Facebook feed
- Cross posted in several places — blog, Medium, Twitter
- Performed best on Medium
So now I have some pointers to what might do well, and where. I can choose to add the personal, and decide on the best writing style to use next time.
The other lesson is that it’s impossible to predict what will do well and where. Spread your net wide.
Want more? You’ll have to do more
Quality comes from quantity. You can’t hit the target if you don’t shoot, and the more shots you take the more hits are likely. Yes, a debut author might be nominated for the Man Booker Prize or get their first novel filmed by Steven Spielberg.
But these are unicorns, rarer than a lottery win and even less predictable. Working consistently is the best route to success.
There are two ways to approach diversifying your writing. You can explore your niche more widely, or move outside it altogether. Let’s look at that in more detail.
Challenge grows your writing muscles
Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.
Neale Donald Walsch
You want to do more. You want to achieve your potential, though you’re unsure what that might look like.
That means leaving the comfort zone and doing something new. Then assess your results and adjust your course. Let’s see what that looks like for a writer.
Try a new fishing ground
Writing divides into three very broad categories.
Writing fiction teaches imagination, how to move a story along, and how to tell the truth by hiding it inside a story.
Writing poetry teaches focus on emotions, how to condense expression, how to convey concepts in word pictures that show the world in a new light.
Writing non-fiction teaches structure, clarity of expression, how to make an argument, how to persuade and inform.
The best pieces include elements from more than one discipline and appeals to more of our senses and emotions. We write to change how people feel, so having more tools leads to better engagement with our audience.
Crossing the boundaries could look like this.
- Poetry plus non-fiction elements:
Structured poetry forms like sonnet, villanelle, tanka
Polemic — a poem with a strongly stated point of view
- Fiction plus non-fiction elements:
Tightly plotted fiction
Historical fiction with strong research base
- Fiction plus poetry elements:
Lyrical writing style
Highly descriptive but concise style
- Non-fiction plus poetry elements
Descriptive travel writing
Learn new ways to tell your story. Blur the boundaries. Take what you learn back to your chosen area and play with it.
Try a different corner of your own field
If you always write free poetry, use a recognised form like a sonnet. If you write technical pieces, write a think piece on your industry or an interview with a leader in the field. Horror and romance writers, switch genres.
Your next piece will benefit from a new approach.
Wave a flag and get noticed
This is a great time to be a writer. Gatekeepers might still guard the doors to traditional publishing, but it’s never been easier to choose yourself and get your words out there. That inevitably leads to a crowded marketplace, but there are ways to stand out.
Enter a competition
In a world of almost limitless choices, recommendations count for a lot. That’s why star ratings are so powerful. Winning a competition or even getting shortlisted in one can lead to new opportunities. A win says you can be trusted to tell a story.
In 2017 I won first place after entering the HE Bates Short Story Competition. The boost this gave my writing career and confidence continues even now.
The win raised my profile among friends and family, some of whom took my writing seriously for the first time. The story was published in a local lifestyle magazine.
I now write a monthly story for them and continue to build my portfolio.
It’s a virtuous circle in which success opens doors and changes attitudes, not least my own. And I bought some very fancy noise cancelling headphones with the prize money.
Competitions cover every kind of writing and writer and are held year-round. Writing magazines are good sources of information, and you can google by type. Many are free to enter so there’s no reason to pass on a chance for recognition.
Start a blog
Starting a blog is easier than ever, and can be low or even no cost. While it’s not easy to drive traffic to a blog, you can experiment with your style and start gathering fans.
If you’re querying agents for traditional publishing, they expect to see samples of your work if they Google you.
Your blog or website is the place to assemble your portfolio. Aim for consistent, high quality work rather than lots of rushed pieces.
Medium is one of the best places to expand your writing career. You can write for yourself, or for publications boasting thousands of followers.
Do both and spread your net wider. Look around and see where you could fit in. Try Smedian, a site that gathers useful information on publications plus links to joining them as a writer.
Submit to magazines
With a Little Help From My Friends
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Writing is a solitary occupation but sometimes it’s helpful to share the journey. Other writers understand the challenges and can be supportive, sharing ideas and information. Writing magazines host online forums where feedback and advice is given.
Many online groups exist, often run through Facebook. Real life groups get you out of the chair and offer social interaction.
Be prepared to stick with a group for a while to see if it’s a good fit with you and your aspirations.
Groups reflect life and can be breeding grounds for negative interactions, so if you’re experiencing overbearing or overcritical personalities leave gracefully and look for another.
Try It Now
Prompt: a person finds a key in the street.
Now write about it in 500 words or less.
Non-fiction writers, write a poem of any form.
Fiction writers, write a factual piece.
Poets, write a short story.
Take the Next Step
You want to improve and get to the next level?
Challenge yourself to do something new and stretch your muscles. Then employ that new strength in a new area. You never know, your real calling might lie in a totally different place from where you are now.
It’s time to get moving.
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
Every writer has been asked why they write, and what they write. Sometimes you ask yourself those questions. My question is why do you write what you write?
The superficial answers might be for a deadline, for money, for laughs. But consider why you choose particular subjects or ideas when you have a free hand, or maybe even when you don’t.
Of the myriad possibilities for your last piece of fiction or poetry, what drew you to one in particular?
Eyes Wide Shut
What is art but a way of seeing?
It started with a chance remark from a writer friend. She read my short story and commented, “Be careful what you wish for seems to be a theme in your stories.”
“Huh,” I replied.
That got me thinking. I’ve contributed stories to anthologies based on a deal with the devil, another about a wish come horribly true, and a ghost story with an implied wish embedded in the protagonist’s motivation.
Then in my poetry group, another poet asked if I deliberately included the sea in my poems, because beaches often came up in them.
“Huh,” I replied again, eloquently.
Beaches inspired my prize winning story All the sands that touch the sea as well as Deeper.
I checked back, and found the ocean figured in about a third of my works that year. How could I use that new insight?
An Invisible Centre
The theme of a story is what the author is trying to convey — in other words, the central idea of the story. Short stories often have just one theme, whereas novels usually have multiple themes. The theme of a story is woven all the way through the story, and the characters’ actions, interactions, and motivations all reflect the story’s theme.
In well written stories, theme gives a satisfying sense of ‘I know what that was all about’ in terms of universal ideas like love conquers all or family comes first. Theme is separate to plot or what happens and where. Love can conquer all in any number of different settings.
A story without an identifiable theme, even if well written with engaging characters, leaves the reader wondering ‘so what?’ On the other hand, a story written to a specific theme can come over as preachy, especially when political or religious. The reader feels they’ve been beaten over the head with a blunt instrument.
Most of us don’t examine our core beliefs on a regular basis, if ever. For a writer hoping to illuminate the human condition through stories, it might be useful to dig a little deeper into the beliefs that drive your behaviour. You might ask questions like
- what makes me happy?
- is my life the result of luck or choice?
- what is the strongest emotion?
- is ‘blood thicker than water’?
- are people essentially good or essentially sinful?
- are rules made to be broken?
Looking a little deeper will help you understand yourself and what guides your choices. And of course in fiction, you can use values to build a compelling character who behaves like a real person in the story.
A list of useful questions to ask and a summary of values can be found here at mindtools.com.
Through A Glass Darkly
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
Sometimes the theme is only seen when looking back at a work. During the first draft our job is to tell ourselves the story, as Terry Pratchett said. After a break, re-reading the story should reveal its point, if you didn’t write with one in mind. It might be something unexpected.
Your job then is to strengthen the theme using subtle hints in characterisation and dialogue, so that the narrative hangs together. On the other hand, if theme is too obvious, it may need toning down so that it fades into the background.
If genre is an ocean and plot is the wind steering the boat of characters, they can change course by their actions. But the theme is like a deep ocean current that will bring them to a particular shore, even though they can’t see it.
There’s the Sea Again…
Why does the sea reappear in my work? The beach is a boundary combining air, earth and water aspects of nature. It represents transformation, awe and fear at the power of the sea, and creation/birth vs. destruction/death.
For me it also represents time, childhood, escape. All this and more, before even considering the symbology of water itself.
You could use a sea theme to help with new works. A new story takes shape more easily once you have a setting. Set the story on the beach or on a ship. Use the idea of the shore as a liminal space to come up with a supernatural tale.
Whether it is romance, SFF, magic realism or anything else, be careful what you wish for has depths to explore. There are many different ways in which this might play out. Not all involve a deal with a devil, but that does make for a good tale.
Take your theme and brainstorm possible meanings and related ideas, to improve your writing and make it work on a deeper level.
If there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.
You don’t want to keep writing the same story. So periodically have a look at your values again. They change in importance and evolve as life does, and your art should reflect that.
Look at your works, or better yet ask someone else to read them, and see if a recurring idea or value reveals itself. You may be surprised. Then have a go at a new piece, keeping your theme in mind.
Your favourite themes mean something important. When you’re aware of them, you’ll find it much easier to generate ideas that resonate with you. That resonance makes your stories shine with authenticity.
Let theme inspire you.
Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
Raise your hand if you’ve tried self-improvement and failed at it? I have, more times than I can count.
I recall trying self-improvement but instead of gaining anything, I lost my way.
I started working with Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck. My life was super stressful with work and family challenges, and I felt defeated. The idea of resetting my internal compass was very appealing.
The book asked probing questions designed to reveal my true needs and aspirations. When I reached the chapter called Getting to Yes which asked me to create a best-case scenario for my life, I choked. Literally and metaphorically. I couldn’t go on, even though Beck had written about this exact reaction. Why?
Every positive scenario I thought of completely excluded the major elements of my life.
Whether it was work, family, or friends, I simply could not imagine how to improve my life without cancelling everything and starting with a clean slate. And I couldn’t cancel my life. So I was paralysed; unable to stay or go. I put the book away and tried to forget it.
Why couldn’t I change?
What Everybody Wants
I think we have a right to change course. But society is the one that keeps demanding that we fit in and not disturb things. They would like you to fit in right away so that things work now.
I was bound by ties of duty to be a good doctor, wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, boss, colleague, and more. But I didn’t want to sacrifice everything I valued for personal growth.
My only solution to this tangled Gordian knot of expectation seemed to be cut and run.
Expectation reduces the amount of thought we have to put into interactions. For example, you buy a sandwich every day from the same store. Both you and the cashier know roughly what to expect from each other, especially if you’ve met a few times.
Now imagine that the next time you hand over your money, the cashier asks you how you’re sleeping and what medication you take.
Or imagine that you visit your accountant’s office and find her painting in oils. She says, “Sorry, I didn’t finish your accounts because this is who I am now.”
Both these scenarios lead to puzzlement and/or anger on your part. Why is this person acting in a different role to what’s agreed, and who’s going to do your accounts now?
Everyone has a role they expect you to play, and it messes up their plans if you don’t go along with it.
If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you?
If you try to change yourself, you’ll find no shortage of people nudging you back into a place that feels comfortable for them. If you dare to step outside your box, society will discourage or even punish you.
Society runs on external validation and social proof, and it takes courage to chart your own path. When you do, you’ll find the people closest to you are confused. You act differently and they don’t know how to respond, so they try to bring you back in line with veiled or overt threats.
At some point on your journey, you’ll have to choose between what everybody else wants, and what you need. Are you ready to choose yourself?
Even if you cannot change all the people around you, you can change the people you choose to be around. Life is too short to waste your time on people who don’t respect, appreciate, and value you. Spend your life with people who make you smile, laugh, and feel loved.”
Roy T. Bennett
You’ve probably read that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, or you might lean towards the idea that it’s more dispersed than that. There’s definitely some influence, whether larger or smaller.
Imagine you’ve moved on. You don’t want to gossip over lunch or complain about your boss or otherwise play small anymore. But your colleagues are the same. You can’t change them. Habits are triggered by cues, so you decide to work out at lunchtime instead of going to the break room to whine. Which is great for your abs, but you just lost your social group at work.
Some self-improvement writers present this social drift as a virtuous circle. The more they improve themselves, the less they have in common with previous friends. So they find new, better ones more suited to their higher vibration. Which makes them even better, and so on.
That can come across as rather shallow and self-serving. Some relationships are temporary, but if you treat everyone as disposable you’ll never make lasting connections. Plus you risk finding yourself out of the circle once they move on, again. If you find it difficult to make new friends, discarding those you have has little appeal.
So can you change without giving up all your relationships and risking society’s scorn?
The Same But Different
People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them.
Stephen R. Covey
Most people don’t want to sell all their possessions and go meditate in a cave in search of personal growth. Maybe you don’t have to reconnect with your first love on Facebook and leave your husband and children behind to find happiness in life.
You want to live a truer version of yourself, not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Self-improvement is Michelangelo carefully cutting away all that’s inessential to reveal the glory of his David. It’s about finding the core of your self by discarding what no longer works and then living in accordance with your truth.
Change is evolution, not revolution.
Taking tiny steps and testing the waters is less daunting and likely to be more successful than a wholesale revision.
- Get clear about what you want to achieve. Finding the right guru is important, but you have to do the exercises in the books to refine your vision rather than just read without reflection.
- You will have to give something up to move forward. There’s no lesson in life that doesn’t cost something. Outdated ways of thinking and childhood programming are burdens you don’t need, but they can be comforting because they’re familiar and the unknown is scary.
- Reach out to your new tribe. Hang out where your people hang out. The internet makes this simple, no matter your location or interests. If you want to be a writer or a potter or a vintage car restorer, go find them. Lurk in online groups before introducing yourself and if the group isn’t for you, move on. The stakes are lower online, plus you still have your real life friends, right?
- Practise assertiveness. People will challenge your new behaviour. Don’t fold or apologise. When they accuse you of having changed, smile and say, “Thanks, I hope so.”
- Give yourself time to emerge. A snake sheds its old skin to grow only after the new skin has formed. It’s tender and delicate for a while and the snake will often hide until it feels safe again. Try out your new behaviours in sympathetic settings first. Read to your poetry group before entering a poetry slam. Visit the gym at quiet times before tackling that huge, intimidating spin class. Practise saying no to your annoying co-worker before your demanding boss. Note the response and adjust your aim next time.
Stepping outside the shared comfort zone of what’s expected will never be easy, but the pain of change is worth it. Approach with care, know the danger spots, and keep the end in mind.
Better to endure breaking down in the chrysalis and emerge a butterfly than refuse growth and stay a caterpillar forever.
I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want.
How much time do you spend doing things you don’t want to do? I’m betting quite a bit.
As a child, you race towards adulthood in search of a mythical time when you’ll cast off the powerlessness of childhood and start doing exactly what you want.
And yet, the older you get, the more you realise adulthood is more about what you don’t want. The shine wears off a job and lifestyle you thought you wanted. And to maintain them you’re bound to a whole series of actions you’d rather skip.
Maybe, as Thoreau said, most of us are leading lives of quiet desperation. From that position, the only act of power left is to say no. If you can’t get what you want, you can still avoid what you don’t want.
Is it that simple?
What Came Out In The Wash
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
George Bernard Shaw
We all know that communication is the key to good relationships. Despite that, we carry deep-seated assumptions and prejudices into our closest interactions without thinking to question or even acknowledge them.
In the early years, doctors in training work long, long hours. I recall when my partner was pulling a heavy on-call burden of two nights per week and two out of five weekends, plus commuting to the hospital. He moved in with me; I did our combined laundry and housework.
Things went along fine until I came home one night after my own stressful weekend on call, while he had been at home resting. My house looked like a bomb had gone off.
“Why haven’t you cleaned up or done laundry?”
“I’m tired and I just didn’t want to do it.”
His response gave me an insight into his mind. It was a rare moment of truth, though I was too mad to appreciate that right then.
Much later, I was able to break it down as follows.
- I realised that he relied on emotion to guide his actions.
- He assumed that I did the same.
- He observed me doing housework without complaint.
- Therefore he inferred that I did it because I liked it.
This isn’t so much about gender roles as emotional styles. His was if it feels good do it but more importantly if it feels bad don’t do it.
The problem is, that commonly held attitude won’t get you ahead in life.
Sweat The Small Stuff
You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.
You want to feel good and you don’t want to feel bad. That’s a basic instinct for every living creature. But the really good stuff lies on the far side of “bad” stuff. Any success is built on many hours of routine, boring effort. A great performance is an iceberg; one-tenth visible brilliance and nine-tenths hidden trial, error, and reiteration.
A painter cleans brushes, a gardener picks weeds, and a singer practises scales because these menial jobs build the foundations of their craft. Without a solid foundation, the most astonishing building will topple and eventually fail.
Without perseverance and the discipline to do what has to be done repeatedly, you’ll never develop the grit you need to succeed.
When you’re stuck with stuff that feels bad in the moment but still needs doing for various reasons, you need ways to take care of the things you really don’t want to do.
Feelings Don’t Work
Boxing is not about your feelings. It’s about performance.
Perhaps you think my story about laundry was just a silly domestic spat. We should have agreed a rota at the outset or something like that. You’d just get stuff done without fuss.
But I bet there is something that you haven’t done.
Something you should do, but you can’t bring yourself to start. A conversation, a letter, an action. Every time you think of it, your mind makes excuses and shies away.
You know this action will ultimately lead to a real benefit. You still don’t do it.
You’re trapped in an endless loop of feelings. No matter how trivial or important the task appears, it conjures up anxiety and avoidance that are usually symptoms of something deeper; fear of rejection, fear of failure, or shame. Those unnamed emotions lead to procrastination, which only amplifies them.
There are ways to escape this trap without therapy or suffering.
- Name your feelings and set them aside. This is the “just do it” school of thought. It is what it is. Push through your boredom or fatigue, load the washer, and get it done.
- Put a reward on the other side. Made a difficult phone call? Have a cookie.
- Focus on the outcome and not the process. You want clean clothes, doing laundry is the way to get them.
- Feel the fear. Perhaps there are bad consequences to leaving your task undone. You’ll get fired for coming to work in ripped jeans, or laughed at for wearing a formal gown to your retail job because your work clothes were dirty. Rather than avoiding the task itself, avoid feeling even worse by doing your laundry.
- Ask “Super Me” to do it. Super Me is you, but stronger. Super Me doesn’t agonise over a phone call or email, scared to make a fool of herself. Super Me knows that even if she stumbles a little, the world will not end. But she won’t stumble because she’s prepared and ready. Super Me knows how to deal with rejection and in that case, she’ll find another way.
- Review the need for the task. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be done by you. If you can reasonably delegate, do so. Pay for a laundry service. Teach your older children to do their own laundry, which is a basic life skill. If it’s a precious clothing item, maybe it would be safer if dry-cleaned.
- Drop it. This is only after careful thought that concludes this task demands much more input than the result deserves. Many “shoulds and oughts” drop into this category. It may be a friend who never listens and constantly demands your time; a relative you see out of duty; or drinks after work you don’t enjoy with people you don’t like. If the mere thought of dropping it fills you with relief, and you’ve been honest in your cost/benefit assessment, you’re on the right track. Go ahead and make a positive decision to decline gracefully.
Do It Now
If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.
Research tells us that willpower is a limited resource. Since procrastination is almost inevitable when it comes to doing the thing you don’t want to do, it follows that willpower needs careful management.
So when you’ve found the right strategy to do the thing, do it now. And if you can’t do it now, do it as early in the day as possible, before your willpower is depleted by forcing yourself to be civil rather than cursing at your co-worker or relative.
In other words, decide how you’re going to eat that frog and then, without hesitation, swallow it whole. It won’t taste as bad as you feared. As a bonus, everything else will taste much better, now that’s out of the way.
As for me and my partner, I explained that I subscribed to the “get it done” school and he needed to get with the programme. I despise domestic work to this day, but tolerate it in order to enjoy a tidy living space. We got on the same page, eventually. You can too if you can ask the right questions and listen to the answers.
You’re avoiding something. Get it done and off your plate. Get on with the next thing.
I believe in Karma. If the good is sown, the good is collected. When positive things are made, that returns well.
Are you an active writer on Medium or elsewhere?
If so, when did you last check your stats for votes, reads, comments or earnings? I guess that was today, maybe more than once already because we all like to see how we’re doing by whatever metric we prefer.
I have another question. Have you read anything lately? Did you clap, vote, comment, review, or buy?
And if not, why not?
You’re expecting to get something you didn’t give. Karma says what goes around, comes around. Karma says you get what you give.
The Silent Majority
Most people consume without creating, and they consume without responding. Around 5–10% of buyers leave reviews on Amazon overall. Even the most popular articles on Medium or Quora have a tiny percentage of comments compared to claps, and claps compared to reads.
Consider this article, which gained almost 21,000 claps in thirteen days but just 79 comments.
Since each reader can give from zero to a maximum of fifty claps, we can infer that at least 420 people read this piece, but the true figure is likely to be many more.
As good as it feels to be read, it feels great to get applause. And comments? Well, a thoughtful comment is the sweetest nectar of all. It can give validation and the dopamine hit we all crave, but it can do something even more valuable. It can start a conversation. And conversations lead to relationships.
So if there are all these positive outcomes on offer, why don’t writers engage?
Paved With Good Intentions
Excuses are lies wrapped up in reasons.
There are reasons why you haven’t tended to your writer karma. Few of them stand up to closer scrutiny.
- I don’t have time to read.
Stephen King said if you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time and the tools to write. A good writer, one who aspires to improve, must also read widely. It takes just a few minutes to read an article on Quora or Medium, or look at your favourite writer’s website. Step away from mindless scrolling and put that time to better use.
- I don’t have time to respond.
Really? It takes seconds to vote or clap. Even a brief message can make someone’s day. It would make yours, wouldn’t it?
- I can’t afford to buy a book.
Buying a book new at full price is the ideal, but maybe you don’t have resources. Buy secondhand, borrow from a library or a friend and review, tweet and Facebook post about it, tell your friends. You can download free books from Prolific Works and review.
Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads drive sales twice. First, because the algorithms favour books with more reviews. Second, because readers also favour books with reviews. In this era of almost endless choice, recommendations are even more important.
- Nobody’s reading my stuff so why should I bother?
See point 2 above. Feel good by doing good. Your following is built one reader at a time, one comment and relationship at a time. The best follower is one who is invested in your work, and the numbers are only one way of measuring impact. You never know who will be your new cheerleader.
Your tribe of like-minded readers and writers is out there, but it can’t find you if you’re hiding silently behind a screen. You’re a creator, not part of the herd of consumers. Act accordingly.Connect. Reciprocate.
Keep The Faith
There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.
You want to be a bright star, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes all you have is faith in yourself, faith that things will turn in your favour if you keep putting your work out there.
While you’re waiting, give what you want to see in the world. Acknowledge the impact someone’s words made on you. Be more than a silent consumer, because you’re part of the creative minority and you know how hard that road is, how lonely and unrewarding it can feel.
So don’t wait. You can improve someone’s day, right now, for free, and it only takes a minute.
the truth doesn’t have to hurt
Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.
They say write what you know.
Be authentic and write from the heart. But what if that’s too painful? What if, like many writers, you’re afraid to be exposed by your words?
It happened to me. I wrote a story that I was afraid to publish.
Not because it was risqué or difficult. It was honest and true. And that was the problem. It was too honest, too raw, and reading it over felt like dissecting a part of my heart and leaving it open for anyone to see.
As we all do, I drew on experience as well as imagination to create my world. Something sneaked past my filters and on to the page. I wrote it for a competition, but missed the deadline while I agonised over whether to let it go.
How could I be prepared to send this off to be judged by strangers, but hesitate to post it on my own media?
The difference was anonymity.
The story was too close to uncomfortable truths. I usually bury those truths within the lie of fiction, but here they were all too visible to me.
Many writers know this feeling. What if someone who knows me reads it?
I wanted my stories to be strong. But I didn’t want to write them with my own blood.
Was I right to hesitate?
All Eyes On You
Have you ever heard the expression: Walk a mile in my shoes, and then judge me? And write your own books.
You know how it feels when you’re anxious or shy. You feel as if everyone is looking at you and worse, judging you harshly. But that’s not true. Everyone is as consumed by thoughts about themselves as you are.
This is known as the spotlight effect. You hide because of the erroneous belief that everyone is watching. They’re not.
Remember that as the author you know everything about your story. You know where you found events and people that appear in it. Nothing is disguised. But the reader doesn’t have that inside knowledge. As long as you change details, especially about real people, the reader’s unlikely to draw the conclusions you fear.
You have to trust your story, and your judgement, and move forward despite anxiety.
Feel The Fear
You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
One day, heart pounding and mouth dry, I attached the story to a competition entry and pressed send. I felt sick.
Months later, heart pounding and mouth dry, I read that prize-winning story to an audience of writers. They told me how they had been drawn in by the emotions portrayed.
The dilemma we face as artists is the need to be authentic, to bleed onto the page, while retaining our emotional integrity. Deep connection with a story is visceral recognition, a punch in the gut that speaks more eloquently than any words could.
And it is the drop of your blood, the moment of vulnerability, that makes the connection true.
Channel real emotion into honest writing.
If you’re writing memoir, events can be portrayed as they happened, letting the reader experience them with you.
If you’re writing fiction, you need to get emotion on the page without revealing your source material. Change names and places. Combine elements of real people into a new character. Writers have the power to immortalise or demonise friends and enemies — but a libel suit or worse, an angry relative is best avoided.
When you write betrayal, for example, think back to when someone let you down. Allow yourself to experience it again and jot down the first words that occur to you. The first words are the true ones, before your brain has time to filter and censor.
How would your character express those feelings? The circumstances are different, but the emotion is familiar.
You don’t know how it feels to hide during an alien invasion. Or maybe you have been that person, frightened of being discovered or left behind. In any case you do know something similar; fear, despair, anger, hope. That’s what you write.
It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.
I don’t suggest you should spill every secret on the page. But some experiences have lessons worth sharing. In sharing experiences and lessons learned, we connect. We give people the chance to recognise themselves on the page, and feel less alone.
Show us a glimpse of your soul, show us what it is to be human.
When you hesitate because it feels too personal, write it.
When you pause because it’s still a little raw, write it.
When your heart pounds at the sight of those true words, write it.
Someone needs to read your words and recognise themselves within them.
Have a comment or suggestion? Leave it below.
A boo is a lot louder than a cheer.
Rejection is tough.
If you’re a creative, you’ll face a lot of rejection. Your pitch, query, design or article will be politely turned down, or worse, ignored altogether. You’re hardwired to remember the negative more than the positive. But you go on because nobody has a perfect hit rate, right?
You try again, and again.
One day, another rejection is the final straw. You’ve been slaving away to make your work the best it can be, and you just can’t take any more. You stop working.
Each no makes you feel like an egg dropped on the floor. And this time, you shatter so badly that you can’t put yourself back together again. You know mindless distractions don’t help, but you numb the feelings with food or alcohol or endless scrolling anyway.
What are you going to do now?
Never Too Big To Fail
The reality is: sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose. You’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens.
Nobody succeeds all the time. When we see the hits, it’s easy to forget all the misses. And we never see all the pieces that didn’t make it into the public eye.
You are not your work.
You’ve put time and effort and maybe a part of yourself into your work, but it isn’t you. A rejection of your work doesn’t pass judgement on you as a person or your overall skill as a creative.
Separate your work from your self-esteem and reframe the loss. Maybe the piece wasn’t a good fit, or it was the fifth similar piece that month, or it was overlooked. None of that has anything to do with you. Remember opinion is subjective and what’s wrong for one person is just right for another.
Have a mourning period if you need it and then move on to action.
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
The quality of the piece is something that is entirely within your control. Feedback on rejected work is uncommon but take it if offered. It’s time to review and rework your piece.
Could it be better? The answer is almost always yes. Look at it with new eyes, or pretend it belongs to someone else. When in doubt, cut the beginning. It might work better without it, or with a new opening.
Learn to self-edit ruthlessly and polish your work to show its best features. When you believe it can’t be improved further, you’re ready for the next step.
A New Home
Have you had a failure or rejection? You could get bitter. That’s one way to deal with it. Or…you could just get BETTER. What do you think?
Take your shiny piece and resubmit elsewhere. If you want to be published in a journal, you have to contend with a very low acceptance rate.
Let’s say your journal of choice publishes four pieces by new writers four times a year. Only sixteen of the hundreds or perhaps thousands of pieces they receive will make it. The same goes for contests.
The odds are against you so you’ll have to play more games to increase your chance of winning. A tiny proportion of players become winners, but that doesn’t mean that the rest have no merit.
Believe in your work and search for a better home.
Climbing From The Wreckage
It’s you vs. you.
So you sent your story out to do battle elsewhere, or maybe you concluded it wasn’t in fact good enough. Your next step is to regroup and renew.
Look around for the next opportunity — a contest or publication. Use prompts. Or indulge and write something just for yourself. Make something new and make it great. Setting a deadline forces completion.
A portfolio of completed pieces boosts your confidence and drives improvement in your skills. No words are wasted whether they are made public or not.
Do you keep an ideas file? If not, start one. Capture them all in one place, whether digital like Evernote or the notes function on your phone, or an old-school notebook. When you don’t know what to write, pick an idea and write without judgement.
Don’t be derailed by perfectionism. Your inner editor will whisper, “That last piece bombed, what makes you think this will do any better?” Ignore it. Your job is simply to write.
Spew out a messy first draft and keep going till you reach the end. You can’t edit an empty page.
The first draft of anything is shit.
You have more stories to tell, so get writing.
Your ability to adapt to failure, and navigate your way out of it, absolutely 100 percent makes you who you are.
What’s the real meaning of rejection?
It means you succeeded in facing the world. You took a chance on your own abilities and risked the pain of failure. Rejection is a lesson. It asks, “How much do you want this success, and what price are you prepared to pay?”
There’s no shame in giving up a dream, as long as you don’t give up on dreaming altogether. There’s no shame in failure, as long as you use it to fuel your work.
Every five or ten rejections, reward yourself for effort. It’s painful and you deserve to ease that pain, even if you accept it’s necessary for your growth. We all know the Beatles, Ernest Hemingway, and JK Rowling faced rejection before they found success. But it’s still hard when it happens to you.
Nobody bats a thousand. But winners keep swinging until they hit that home run, and then they keep going. Athletes who didn’t make the winners’ podium carry on eating clean and logging training hours so they can beat their personal best and win next time.
To make rejection work for you,
- Reframe the loss
- Review and rework it
- Resubmit elsewhere
- Regroup and renew your efforts
- Reward your bravery
Rejection is unavoidable, but you can work through it. Success is waiting, so keep writing.
A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step in the pursuit of success.