blog, productivity, self improvement

How To Survive and Thrive In The Modern World By Using 4 Key Skills

person jumping photo
Photo by Fru00f6ken Fokus on Pexels.com

What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.
Bob Dylan

What does it take to succeed in life?

How high is the skills stack you need to make it big?

Some say ten skills are enough. Others say twenty, or fifty-two. Maybe it’s a hundred or a thousand, who knows? These are arbitrary numbers.

One thing is for sure. Success is not found by wearing the same outfit, taking cold showers, or reading five hundred pages every day. These habits are correlated with some measures of success, but they don’t cause it.

Your definition of success is bound to vary from mine in the details, but deep down we hold the same desires. Once we satisfy the basic human needs for safety, shelter, and food, as described by Maslow, we look for higher level satisfactions.

The search for companionship in its widest sense, a sense of purpose, and above all autonomy, hide beneath many of our rational and less rational activities. We can dress up our motivations in fancy language if we want to, but it comes down to this.

We want to be safe. We want to belong. We want to matter.

Everything else is froth on the top.

So if everything we do can be stripped down to very simple drivers, what do successful people do that allows them to survive and then thrive in the modern world? I don’t know for sure. But developing as a whole human being, not a lopsided one with all the success in one corner, requires four keystone skills. Work on these, and see how far you grow.

Curiosity Won’t Kill The Cat

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.  
Eleanor Roosevelt

If you’ve ever shared living space with a kitten or a toddler, you know their principal quality is endless curiosity. They explore, get into tight spaces and sometimes even escape without help, over and over. They’re not very much afraid, until they learn to be.

Adulthood squashes your curiosity. If as a child you enjoy nature, books, or music, adults kill your enthusiasm with boring study and assessment. Forced to dissect books and poetry, learn the Linnaeus binomial classification, or study the life of Mozart, younger you learns a hard lesson.

You learn that study is pain, teachers are the judges, and parents aren’t interested in your interests unless they bring in top grades. Then interests become work.

You learn to mind your business and show no joy in anything, lest it be sucked from you as you’re forced to do anything but enjoy yourself. Play isn’t serious and it certainly isn’t preparing you for adult life.

Look again at the quote above. Every one of us comes into the world with that gift of curiosity. We ask questions that have no answers and some that do. But somewhere along the road to adulthood we lose our most precious gift.

Curiosity is an open mind and a sincere smile. The world is as amazing as ever, but you need to open your eyes to see it. Be amazed. Look up at the stars in wonderment, and down at a flower in awe.

People share incredible stories if you ask questions and wait to hear the answer. If you can be open enough to reveal a little of yourself, others are empowered to do the same.

Once, I made a flippant remark about how I’d rather be gardening to the woman sitting next to me in a boring meeting. We got talking and I discovered she was also a passionate gardener. Finally I had someone who understood my struggle, was sympathetic when my Meconopsis died before flowering, and was delighted to visit the Chelsea Flower Show with me.

Curiosity will also help you adapt to changes. Technology has disrupted industries and lives, often for the better. Sometimes it’s difficult to sift out the things that will help you from the mass of options.

Ask yourself simple, child-like questions about new things. What does this do? How do I do X with Y? What if I wanted to do something new, who could show me how?

Whether it’s a new food or a new country, if you attend to the basic need for security, try something different regularly. If you don’t like it, no worries. You have an opinion based on experience and since you’re an adult, you don’t have to do it again.

Curiosity and open-mindedness leads to the next keystone skill.

Feel My Pain, Feel My Joy

Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.
H Jackson Browne

We’re faced daily with the evidence of inhumanity both large and small. Opinions and positions are increasingly polarised, fed by echo chambers that spring up around algorithms showing us more of the same views we already hold. We are more connected but more divided than ever.

Cynicism and numbing of emotions are inevitable when we’re fed a daily diet of sensational news stories and disasters far from home that we have no influence over. Some even advocate a news diet to avoid the distress it causes.

And yet it remains true that humans want the same things. We may name our needs differently, we may take different routes to satisfy them. But mothers want happy secure children, adults want meaning in their lives, and no matter how twisted the expression of these desires they are at heart the same.

Most of us will never hold public office. But in the equally messy politics of our own lives, within our own circle of influence, we can choose to see the other side through a more empathetic lens. We can negotiate for win-win outcomes rather than seek destruction of the opposing side just because it’s the opposing side. After all, the last time someone wronged you the pain didn’t go away, did it? It went underground, festered and grew, until it found another way out.

An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.
attrib. Gandhi

Instead of raging, take a breath. Consider the possible reasons behind people’s behaviour that may have little to do with you as a person. None of this excuses or forgives wrongdoing, but it gives you the chance not to add to it.

You don’t have to practise random acts of generosity. Being kinder to the people in your life already is a big enough task for most of us, but one which is worthwhile.  Hold the door, let someone into traffic, make a drink without being asked. If you’d love it, chances are someone else will.

On the flip side, empathy allows us to share in the joy of others too. There’s no truer friend than the one who can be honestly happy for and with you. Why not be that person for somebody else?

Empathy lets us feel the ties that bind us. We have more in common than we think. We must not give up on ourselves, which leads to the next keystone skill.

Until The End Of The Line

The difference between winning and losing is, most often, not quitting.
Walt Disney

There’s a saying that A students end up working for C students. Consider person A, one of the hardest workers in her class. She was never in the top ten percent, and that kept her hungry. She learned at an early age that hard grind would be the key to success.  

Compare with person B. Gifted with intelligence, athleticism and charm, he excelled in sports and school almost without trying. But in those last three words were the seeds of his downfall. He struggled in higher education because for the first time it required effort. He never learned how to study and college seemed too much like hard work.

You can guess which person became director at a major brand, successful by their own and society’s standards, and which one has a great future behind them. They are separated not so much by IQ as by perseverance.

Call it grit, perseverance, persistence, bloody mindedness, or whatever you like. Winners don’t quit and quitters don’t win. If you give up before the tipping point, you soon find yourself back at the starting line, while others plod on with their eyes fixed on the finish.

If you have grit, the means to keep going, to stick it out, to tolerate not winning until you do, the road to success is open to you. It isn’t easy though it sounds simple; turn up, day after day. Write, train, sell, paint. Put it out there and go again.

Find your own ways to keep going even when you think you’re failing. Try a different approach if your current one isn’t working. If you have a habit of bolting when things get tough, try sitting with the discomfort. Journal it, dissect it, find the fear that sits under the surface.

If you think you’re not good enough, you’re afraid to fail, scared of success, worried about the future, panicking that you can’t do this – then welcome. Everyone feels the same and success doesn’t make that go away. Digest this fact, and get back to work. There are no medals for sitting on the sidelines.

Perseverance is a vital component for the last keystone skill.

pillow fight_allen-taylor

The More You Know

Examinations are formidable even to the best prepared, for the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer.
Charles Caleb Colton

You’re curious, open-minded, able to empathise and relate to others, and have sticking power. That’s great, because you’ll need all these to supercharge the final key skill for survival in the modern world.

Ageing is inevitable, but have you noticed how some people get old really quickly? Their world shrinks, they stop asking questions, and they’re not interested in anything except the pain in their hip and how terrible the kids are these days.

I met many people like this in family practice. Often they were men who had retired without planning their next life stage. Without the structure of work they drifted, annoying their wives and suffering low mood.

When I asked what their hobbies were, or what they did with their days, they were blank. They shook their heads. “Nothing.”

Or they were older women without family ties for various reasons. They had a hundred reasons why they couldn’t join local groups, go to tea dances, try pottery, attend church lunches or knit blankets for charity.

These were people without curiosity and who refused to learn. They had time, but their mindset was fixed. They believed those activities were not for people like them. And so they remained stuck and unhappy, unwilling to leave their very small comfort zones.

To survive and thrive you need teachability – the ability and willingness to learn.

Embrace a growth mindset that welcomes the chance to develop. You’ll need curiosity to find out what might suit you and try it. You’ll need empathy to understand that teaching isn’t easy, and other people are just as worried as you are under their social smile.

You’ll definitely need grit, because everyone sucks in the beginning. And we hate to suck, but it’s unavoidable until we get better. We only get better with practice.

Leaving your comfort zone can feel like being dropped in a distant forest with no map or compass. Think of learning as going to the edge of your map and looking out at unknown but interesting forest nearby.

You still have your home base, which holds all the skills you have already. Now you’re ready to explore, bit by bit, with your teacher or mentor or YouTube video showing the way. Still a bit scary, but not so bad, right?

Learning happens at the edge of your comfort zone.

Don’t overload your brain by going too fast, too soon. Go at your own pace, but keep going. The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know. That’s humbling, but also inspiring because there’s always more to learn, whether in your own patch or somewhere else.

Rule of Four

Now it’s time for you to apply these rules in your own life.

    • Ask more questions and listen to the answer.
    • Be kinder and cut people some slack occasionally.
    • Stick with things until they bear fruit and don’t give up too easily.
    • Learn something new and enlarge your world.

It’s a crazy world but also full of good things, should you choose to notice them. Sometimes, like jewels, magic lies under the surface waiting for someone to dig it out, hold it to the light and make our lives a bit brighter.


(originally published in Publishous on 20 March 2019)

blog, productivity, self improvement

How To Use Envy To Fuel Your Journey

comparison shows you the way

balanced tower of rocks with hands making another tower
image by Samuel Francis Johnson via pixabay.com

We’re only envious of those already doing what we were made to do. Envy is a giant, flashing arrow pointing us toward our destiny.
Glennon Doyle

How are you doing with your writing?

Are you earning four figures every month and counting thousands of followers? Or are you only reading about those who are?

You know you shouldn’t compare your behind-the-scenes footage with someone else’s highlight reel, but it’s just so easy. Social media sites thrive on peacocks preening under envious glances from the rest of us, selling us their secret sauce along the way. Everyone wants to be a beautiful unicorn, not a plain carthorse plodding through a humdrum life.

Comparison leaves you dissatisfied and unsettled. Far from being a motivating force, it saps the very energy you need to move forward – because you’re number one or you’re nowhere. As Roosevelt said, comparison is the thief of joy.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Me Me Me

You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.
Eleanor Roosevelt

You’ve probably done this. You look at X who has something you don’t. You feel envious because you deserve that thing, angry because they don’t deserve it, or ashamed of your lack.

Notice that all these emotions point back at you. X is out there doing what they do, and you’re beating yourself up over it. Comparison is a thief. It steals your peace of mind and uses your own energy to do it.

None of this helps you to feel better, or achieve more in your own life. Worse still, when you think about it you’ll see that X is unaffected by all your angst. You are both the author and the sole beneficiary of this bad blood.

You can redirect that energy for your own good.

Envy is a magic mirror that shows your true desires. If you think you don’t know what you want, use envy. What makes you angry when other people have it? What object or activity cuts so deep that you have to cover up the pain with sarcasm or sweetness, otherwise you’d scream?

That. That’s what you want.

And you can go for it, because other people are paying very little attention to you. The spotlight effect makes you feel as if you’re the centre of attention, but others are as consumed by their inner dialogue as you are by yours. Even when they scrutinise you, that critical gaze is really a projection of their own self-talk. Just like when you watch unicorns and covet their rainbow manes.

But consider this – what if you could be a unicorn?

unicorn-transparent_SabrinaSchleifer
 image by Sabrina Schleifer on pixabay

Fuelled By Envy

Find out who you are and do it on purpose.
Dolly Parton

I’m no writing superstar. I write and publish, and sometimes get discouraged. I have to remind myself to keep going even if there’s no immediate payoff, and to take pride in my achievements even when it feels like I’m failing.

Because one truth lies at the heart of my work – I’m a writer and that’s what I do, good days and bad, fair weather or foul. Still… good days are more than welcome. It’s been a grind recently, for numerous reasons.

A writing group friend came up to me last week and said, “I read your articles and I’m amazed you’re able to write so much.”

He went on to say that he’d been sitting on a story for a long time. Inspired by Medium, he committed to writing one hundred words a day, and he was delighted to have a forty-five day streak under his belt.

This struck me for two reasons. First, I’d been beating myself up for not writing enough; and second because that’s how I started my serious writing journey. I read Shaunta Grimes and took on board her teeny tiny goals. I kept going, and now I’m here.

Maybe you’re not at the goal yet. But perception is relative. The top of the mountain is shrouded in cloud, but you are a speck in the distance to somebody who’s just left the starting blocks. Maybe you’re even an inspiration to them. Rather than envy, they recognise a kinship which motivates them to go on. If you did it, so can they.

Wherever you are, you’re further on than the person who didn’t start yet, further on than you were. The only useful comparison is with your past self. Make sure you’re pulling away from your previous position.

Then you’ll find the unicorns are people like you. Yes, they ran faster and/or started before you, but they all began where you did – at the starting post. They’re on their path, and you are on yours, but remember that there’s room at the top for everyone who works for it.

So keep going. Be inspired by those ahead of you, and an inspiration for those behind.

 

blog, creativity, self improvement

Reboot Your Dreams To Get More Out Of Life

Photo by Paulin on Unsplash

Kids these days, huh?

They have it so much easier than you and I do, caught up in the humdrum world of adulthood. It makes you angry, how carefree and downright dreamy they are.

Under the anger lies envy. You long for something you lost long before you could even really appreciate it, and now you can’t see how to get it back.

Parents and teachers told you not to waste your time dreaming, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. They told you success comes from hard work here in the real world, doing serious jobs. You took that lesson to heart, put your head down and became realistic about what you could achieve.

You were caught in a trap and told it was the right place to be.

But your dreams didn’t go away completely. Occasionally you glimpse them out of the corner of your eye, when your brain drifts in a boring meeting or long commute. Sometimes the sight of someone else living your dream makes you envious or sad, and you can’t fully explain why.

You know, deep down, something’s missing from your life.

An Imaginary World

Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.
George Bernard Shaw

None of the technological and artistic advances we now enjoy were created purely by realists.

Sure, when it comes to implementation, refinement, and exploitation, a concrete approach is essential. But concrete builds solid foundations. It does not let us fly.

Everything that exists in the world begins as an idea. An idea can be as expansive as your imagination. In other words, ideas are limitless. Work must be done to manifest ideas in the real world, but dreaming is free.

Realism doesn’t produce innovation, it produces incremental improvement. To make something new, you must first dream a new dream. That’s how the world got cars, airplanes, telephones, computers, and video games.

That’s how you’ll get where you want to be.

Put Away Childish Things

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
Berkeley Breathed

When you decide how to behave in a given situation, the voices of caregivers and authority figures loop endlessly, and often unrecognised, in your inner conversation.

Your father no longer scares you so badly you can’t look him in the eye, but when faced by an aggressive manager that’s exactly what you do — without thinking. And you wonder why you can’t assert yourself.

School days are far behind you, but when you browse painting sets online your old art teacher whispers that you have no talent. And instead of wondering why you’re looking at paints, you click away. That’s not for me, you say.

Here’s the thing. You’re an adult now. No-one is the boss of you.

You get to decide how you act at all times, and you take responsibility for your actions. At some point, you need to stop blaming parents, caregivers, teachers or others in your past for how you respond to life now.

The past experiences and attached emotions that make up so much of your inner self-talk are no more than an outdated script. When you realise that your reaction today is based on the memory of a conversation that’s decades old, you can escape your past.

That was then and this is now. You can choose to respond differently and write a new script.

That’s when you grow up.

Start Your Second Childhood

The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them grown up. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world. The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child.
Julian Fleron

You’ve had your share of bad experiences that have shaped your life. Now it’s time to turn the page and write a new chapter with new rules. Acknowledge what feels bad and let it show you where you need to seek something better.

This means rediscovering your inner child. Try books from this list to guide your journey. Or let go of your old programming and try something new, like the artist dates described in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.

We are all innately creative. You can be a functional adult and still retain childlike wonder and creative flow. Both are essential to a sense of wholeness.

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

From Reality To Fantasy

Creativity is putting your imagination to work, and it’s produced the most extraordinary results in human culture.
Ken Robinson

Now you know that cultivating dreams is not only good but essential and nobody can tell you otherwise, it’s time to examine what that means for you.

Although dreams look very different on the outside, they can be stripped down to a small number of basic desires.

  • Security: safety, stability
  • Love: belonging, bonding, intimacy
  • Esteem: respect, confidence, achievement
  • Self-actualisation: spontaneity, knowledge, purpose, and meaning

Understanding your underlying drives will help you see whether different approaches to similar goals are right for you.

One person might value respect, another stability. The first is happier writing well-reviewed literary fiction, the other writes copy that sells. Their dreams might look like ‘my novel is featured in The Times Literary Supplement’ versus ‘I support myself by writing for others.’

Both are writers but their dreams lie on different paths. Our desires form a hierarchy of needs and we are happiest when the earlier needs are met before seeking out the higher ones. That might mean putting your dream on hold while you work on strengthening the foundations of life.

Look Inside

This simple visualisation exercise is designed to bring your dream into focus so that you can use it as fuel in the real world. I’m going to talk about writing, but it can be applied to anything you want to create.

Get comfortable and close your eyes. Breathe slowly. Future you has achieved your wildest dream. What do you see?

You’re typing on a new laptop in a cosy study, and your days as a wage slave are behind you. You’re holding a copy of your book in Barnes and Noble. A bus drives past advertising the film of your book.

Now zoom in on specifics. What are you wearing? Is the bubbly in your glass Prosecco or beer or mineral water? Use all your senses. Turn up the brightness and create a vivid picture.

In dreams there are no limits to what you can do.

If you want to be a number one bestselling author, touch the cover of your book. If you want to finish a triathlon, hear the spectators’ cheers. If you want to build a million dollar business, see your signature on the annual accounts below a seven-figure number.

In this place there are no limits to what you can do. And it can only come true if you first create it mentally.

When you have the picture and the feeling that comes with it, associate it with a physical sensation. Pinch your thumb and middle finger together firmly while picturing your dream in all its multicoloured glory.

Practice frequently until you can recall the dream with ease, simply by pressing your thumb and middle finger together.

Great athletes use visualisation to increase their chance of winning. They work towards a clearly defined image of success. They’ve lived it so many times in their minds that it already feels real.

Where Are You Going?

It doesn’t matter where you’re going, as long as the destination matters to you.

Once you have a dream fixed in your mind, check whether your actions move you closer to your goal or away from it. That might mean giving up socialising because you’re training hard, or putting your great novel aside for six months while you concentrate on financial stability.

Sometimes the way forwards is sideways or even backwards. As long as you stay pointed at that wonderful dream destination, you can still make it.

Either way, you’re in charge. You own your decisions and their consequences. You stop making excuses. Your destiny is in your hands.

Go get it.

blog

The Art of Letting Go – Moving On Without Losing Everyone You Know

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

What are you willing to give up in order to become the person you are meant to be?
Jim Kwik

Are you a people collector?

You have hundreds of Facebook friends. Your address book holds everyone from the girl you sat next to in English class to the couple you enjoyed drinks with on holiday last year. Keeping up with them all is easier in the electronic age but still, reacting to the updates takes time. But you’re happy to do that because you value connection.

Or maybe you’re a people curator.

You have a select friends group of whom an even more select few make it into your inner circle. You use the word friend like you use the word love – with care and intention. You nurture your small group and put effort into it because you value connection.

I wrote about the cost of personal growth recently with relationships particularly in mind. The connections that served the person you were might not support the person you want to become.

Then a reader commented that the article didn’t answer her question, “What about my old tribe, the ones I don’t want to treat as disposable?”

This prompted me to wonder again about letting go and moving on. How can we preserve relationships in the process of personal change without letting go of things we already value?

Circles Within Circles

Letting go means to come to the realization that some people are a part of your history, but not a part of your destiny.
Steve Maraboli

Someone at a party once told me she didn’t trust any woman who didn’t have a posse – six or eight female friends she shared everything with. You might agree and find this natural, or you might be horrified at the idea of living by committee.

Research suggests that we can maintain only five really close friendships, which form our inner circle. Outside this are wider circles where connections are looser, up to a maximum of one hundred and fifty people. Introverts and extroverts have varying numbers in their circles.

You share different things with the people in each circle. When you begin the process of change, your position relative to each person changes too. This might mean moving closer to them, as you share more, or it might mean moving away.

The conversation and connection is louder and stronger if you both move in the same direction. But you can’t expect they will follow you. That decision is theirs alone, and they have the right to stay exactly where they are.

That doesn’t negate all that’s gone before. You still have shared history. But your shared future has changed, because you’ve changed.

What held me back from even contemplating growth was the fear that I would be left without connections, by having to reject my entire life as it was then. All or nothing thinking kept me trapped.

There’s a better way to think about preserving relationships as we change.

Caught In a Web

There’s a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over – and to let go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its value.
Ellen Goodman

Most people resist change. We value the familiar. We need much more brain space to deal with novelty, even though we’re hard-wired for it. So we want the same but different, and this contradictory desire drives industries as different as movie franchises and hotel chains.

The same applies to people. Consider your circles of friendship. Rather than concentric circles, think of your circles overlapping like a Venn diagram. Some circles overlap almost completely, like your very best and oldest friend, the one you can call at three a.m. Some barely touch, like the person who always takes the bike next to you in spin class.

Shifts in common ground – the area of overlap – isn’t about making disposable relationships, using people only for what they can give you. This transactional approach to connection is common, but it’s hollow and lacks authenticity. We all hate to be a means to someone’s end.

You can do completely different things yet still share something with the person in front of you. Existing relationships can be maintained even if you share less of your life and current interests. New relationships can find their place in your network as you evolve.

However, time is the forgotten variable.

Some connections have an expiry date; work colleagues, soccer parents, neighbours. It’s okay to let these fade out and eventually exit the outer borders of your friend group, especially as others come to replace them.

Holding on to everyone you ever connect with is exhausting, and leaves less energy for those who matter most. Perhaps the biggest challenge of personal growth is leaving behind not only an image of who you were, but also a pattern of connections that served you well until this point.

You might also find that a relationship you thought was solid is anything but. Years ago I moved cities to follow my partner. I found myself adrift (before social media) without anyone I knew nearby or the much-needed job that would have helped me make the transition. I called my three a.m. friend and poured my heart out. She dismissed my struggle and returned to rehashing the same issue in her life that we always talked about.

I’d placed her in my inner circle of friends, but I was much more distant in hers.

Although I didn’t want to accept it, the signs were there. You need ongoing positive interactions to nourish friendships, and I’d been making excuses for her lack of interest to keep our friendship going.

We had some great times together, but our paths diverged. It was hard to walk on without her, but who said life was easy?

Embracing Old and New

Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.
Dalai Lama

Unlike Janus, god of doorways and transitions, we can’t look back and forward at the same time. At some point we have to leave the past behind, taking forward only what we have learned from it.

So you’ve decided to change, and that’s great. You’re becoming more of yourself by aligning more closely with the core of who you are.

While you do that, hold on lightly to ideas, behaviours, scripts, and relationships.

Be ready to loosen ties without letting go at first. If you stop calling your friend and making all the plans, see how they respond. Don’t prioritise people who don’t prioritise you. You have finite time and energy, so spend both on people and activities that give back.

When you change, the people around you choose how they respond. You don’t have to cancel everyone but you do have to re-evaluate where you stand now, and whether they have a place in the group of people who matter.

Whether you let go or are let go, be grateful for what you’ve learned. Accept that life’s lessons always come at a cost and let yourself mourn if need be.

Then face the future and keep moving.

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.
Tao Te Ching

blog, productivity, writing, writing process

How to Improve Your Writing Dramatically in Less Than 5 Minutes

little tweaks, big results

tulips -yellow_keila-hotzel
Photo by Keila Hötzel on Unsplash

Good writing is good writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t orchestrate it or tweak it.
John Travolta

Everyone’s a writer these days. Whether working on your novel or captioning your latest social media image, you’re writing every day.

How do you choose your words?

Do you always use the same few words, or are you a logophile who loves playing with shades of meaning?

Although it’s difficult to count the number of words in the English language, around 170,000 words are currently in use. An adult native speaker uses 20-35,000 words (source) depending on age, education, location and so on.

Yet you can improve your writing immediately by using fewer words. It might seem obvious to avoid long words, but what about small words?

Some small words reduce the flow and clarity of your writing. You might not notice them because they’re so common, they’re practically invisible. Before we look at them in more detail, make an exception for dialogue.

Writing rules are less strict when writing dialogue. Most people don’t speak properly all the time. You can make your lines sound natural is by reading them out loud.

No doubt you’ve been advised to write the way you speak, but remember that written dialogue is natural speech, polished.

Reducing the frequency of these four common words will sharpen your prose, whether fiction or nonfiction. No words are completely excluded – just use them with purpose.

That’s That, That’s All

Good writing does not come from verbiage but from words.
Jeff Lindsay

“That” is a common word which you can often cut without losing the sense of your sentence.

This is the plate that she told me to wash. I can see that it’s dirty.

This is the plate she told me to wash. I can see it’s dirty.

The sentence is more direct if you reword it.

She told me to wash this dirty plate.

Try your sentence with and without that. Rewrite if needed.

The Thing Is…

I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.
Vladimir Nabokov

What is the thing you’re trying to convey? Using “thing”  is imprecise at best, and at worst pulls your reader out of the writing. If he’s scratching his head wondering what the thing is, you’ve lost him.  Find a better way to express your idea.

The thing is, we’ll never know the truth. He may or may not have a thing for kale.

We’ll never know the truth. He may or may not love kale.

Look for thing and either define it or remove it, unless you aim to mystify the reader.

What’s the thing we all strive for? Happiness.

What emotion do we all strive for? Happiness.

Parts Of Possession

Notice the small things. The rewards are inversely proportional.
Liz Vassey

This tiny word is absolutely essential – but not all the time. You can’t speak or write without using “of” and this leads to overuse through familiarity. Consider these four examples.

  1. Informal

It’s not that big of a problem or  

It’s not such a big problem or

It’s not a big problem

Which sounds better to you?

The first example sounds ‘different’ to my ear, since I speak and write British English. I can use the difference to make my American character more believable. But if my English character said that phrase it wouldn’t be authentic.

The cadences of speech spill into our written words, so think about the effect you want to produce. Ask yourself who is speaking, and what’s the context?

  1. Wordy

The roof of the house. The sleeve of his shirt. The golden colour of her hair or

The roof. The shirt sleeve. Her golden hair.

Sometimes we over-explain. The reader can follow along if the scene is clearly described, and you don’t have to assign every detail.

  1. Archaic

I present Achmael, Lord Protector of Blein, Archduke of Nimra, Third of his name… or
This is Achmael Blein III.

The first example sits well in a high fantasy story, while the second suits a more modern setting.

  1. Cliché

The end of the day. The blink of an eye. The dead of night. A thing of beauty.

Watch out for clichés – overused, tired descriptions and metaphors. Rewrite the phrase and make it your own.

What Was Going On?

No words are too good for the cutting-room floor, no idea so fine that it cannot be phrased more succinctly.”
Merilyn Simonds

Writers often use the word “was”  paired with a verb ending in -ing. It’s natural in storytelling to say something like this.

“So I was moving away, and all of a sudden there was a loud crash behind me.”

Writing aims for a more polished delivery, and the style varies with the desired effect. Replace all was/am/were plus -ing verbs with the simple past tense, which is shorter and more immediate. If adverbs clutter the sentence, choose a stronger verb.

Thus “I was walking slowly” becomes “I walked slowly” or better yet “I strolled” “I crept” or “I hobbled” according to need.

For the examples above, a possible rewrite is this.

What happened?

“I ran, startled by the crash of metal against metal behind me.”

Of This and That and Other Things

Four small words –  that, thing, of, was – are indispensable in the right place. You’ll tighten your prose by hunting them down, shining a bright light in their eyes, and asking them, “What do you think you’re doing here?”

Only let them stay if you get a definite answer to that question. If not, you know what you have to do. Your clarity is at stake.

blog, self improvement

Sitting on the Sidelines: How to Defeat The Insidious Rise of Do Nothing Culture

woman eating popcorn holding remote control
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

I think the love-hate is fundamental. Everyone hates reality television, and everyone’s watching it.
Bo Burnham

Did you watch any reality TV this week? Whether drag queens on a catwalk, crab fishermen in a storm or brides choosing a wedding dress, these programmes are everywhere. They feature “real” people and film their reactions in varying situations.

In the UK there’s even a reality programme showing people at home reacting to TV shows, which is either very, very meta or imaginatively bankrupt. Not only is it popular, but more than one of the featured participants has gone on to (short-lived) solo TV careers.

Harmless fun and entertainment, right? But these programmes can be anything but. Reality TV can harm your health whether you’re on screen or in front of it.

In pursuit of viewers, participants are manipulated and stressed to exaggerate their responses.

Further manipulation takes place in editing so that the finished product bears little relation to the events as they happened.

My friend was featured on a house renovation show. She and her family were split up, kept waiting in different rooms, and denied opportunities for rest. There was no escaping the cameras.

Her partner was encouraged to have a beer in the garden at the end of a very long day, and the programme presented him as a disinterested drinker. Neither found the experience a positive one overall.

But you’ve had a hard day and you deserve some downtime. Why overthink things?

Watching The Box

I’m capable of living in the moment. And I’m especially capable of living in the moment of sitting on my sofa and watching other people’s moments.
Samantha Bee

We’re watching a lot of TV. The 2017 US average TV viewing time figures show Americans watch 7 hours 50 minutes per day, while the 2018 UK average was 22 hours per week. These figures don’t include streaming and social media use.

Watching TV is a passive activity that gives the illusion of participation.

Programmes showing rugged men diving for gold or surviving inhospitable terrain cater to particular views of masculinity. Programmes showing sexy twenty-somethings in skimpy clothing cater to particular views of femininity and relationships.

When the camera zeroes in on faces to show every micro-expression, you’re invited to feel the same emotions. When the tough guy swims across an icy lake and builds a shelter out of pine branches, you’re invited to feel that you too are braving the elements in a primal struggle for survival. Mirror neurons fire in your brain to make you feel as if you were there.

But you’re sitting on your couch, warm and safe, with snacks to hand. You’re not there and the supposed experience is an illusion.

The show-runners respond to our inevitable habituation by turning up the pressure; less time, bigger challenges, more remote islands, surprise evictions.

It’s the modern version of bread and circuses, in which the audience is promised ever more dangerous animals for the gladiators to face. The blood on the floor is all part of the show.

What happens to those reality gladiators and us, their audience, afterwards?

Fifteen Minutes and After

You will soon break the bow if you keep it always stretched.
Norman Vincent Peale

Contestants can struggle after the camera moves on. The unrelenting pressure to perform and keep strong emotions near the surface can amount to abuse, hazardous to even the strongest personality.

We don’t often hear about the dark side of reality TVSuicide of a cast member becomes fodder for the mill because “any publicity is good publicity.” Some argue that abusive relationships are being normalised by shows that present a human being as a prize to be contested and claimed, leaving the others as failures.

For you as a viewer, artificially evoked empathy for the unsuccessful contestant is fleeting and dulls your true responses. When we dismiss on-screen emotion as fake, our cynicism can spill over into real life.

At its worst, observation culture hurts all of us. We watch, we are numbed by over-exposure, and we are caught in the illusion of participation.

At its best, observation culture can enrich your life. You just need to approach it differently.

Watch and Learn

Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.
Jackie Robinson

There’s nothing wrong with watching reality TV or any other shows. As in so much of life, moderation is key. Sometimes you really need to relax and let your mind drift.

The less challenge and hazard we face in modern life, the more we’re spoon-fed distant dangers to compensate. But watching someone else climb a mountain can’t build your muscles, and you can’t eat that delicious meal on the screen.

Don’t fall for the magic trick which confuses observing with doing. Use your favourite show as inspiration for actual activity in the real world. Get off the couch and try it.

If you like cookery shows, try new recipes. Maybe you can’t cook a gourmet meal yet, but you could enjoy a new recipe or make your own bread.

If you watch survival, go hiking. You don’t have to fight off a bear or eat bugs to enjoy the fresh air and stretch your legs.

If you watch shows that hook you with strongly expressed emotion, remember those emotions are often the result of being stressed and cornered and filmed in HD for hours on end. People are more than characters in a soap opera; and actual soaps, movies and books exist to fill your need for empathywithout pushing real people to their limits and beyond.

Plan a trip somewhere you’ve never been. My trips to Lapland and Iceland were inspired by snowy Swedish landscapes in a programme featuring Ray Mears, a noted British survival expert. It sparked something in my heart I couldn’t forget. Because of that show, I drove a snowmobile, visited the original Ice Hotel, and experienced a blizzard on a glacier. And my children have never forgotten the thrill of husky sledding.

Now when I see these countries on TV, I recall wonderful memories. I was there; I know what the cold is like, and that makes me appreciate my central heating and plush sofa all the more.

Part of the reason watching TV is ultimately hollow is because you don’t participate. Your body knows the difference between muscle relaxation after actual activity and slumped tension after hours on the sofa.

Your favourite reality show can be more than entertainment; it can signpost a way out of boredom and disengagement. The things you yearn to do and the places you want to see are often right in front of you, disguised as passive entertainment choices.

As Halliday said in Ready Player One, people need to spend time in the real world because reality is the only thing that’s real.

By all means, rest in front of the box. Learn something new. But after that, go find a way to experience life.

To learn and not to do is really not to learn. To know and not to do is really not to know.
Stephen Covey


 

blog, productivity, self improvement

How to Turn Surprisingly Small Actions Into Dramatically Better Results

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.
Warren Buffett

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.

James Allen

blog, creativity, self improvement, writing

How to Turn Negative Feedback Into a Positive Experience

men s black and white long sleeve shirt
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.
Kenneth Tynan

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

 

Poor critique:
What complete rubbish. You’re useless, my ten year old could do better than this.

Good critique:
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.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

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.
Justin Langer

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.