Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago. Warren Buffett
We often make resolutions and set goals at the turn of the year.
Thinking about the future and planning for it is crucial to success. As a gardener and a writer, I know this is true. I can’t harvest what I did not sow, nor can I sow where I have not prepared the ground.
As January’s list of goals is forgotten and our resolve crumbles, there is one thing we all can do every day to get ahead. It is not cold showers, waking at five o’clock to meditate, or wearing the same outfit, which no doubt work for some but fill me with horror. Especially the cold shower.
Do one thing your future self will thank you for.
It could be a big thing or a tiny thing. It could be for the long-term or for tomorrow. But sometime between waking and sleeping again, despite being consumed by the busyness of the day-to-day, cast your mind forwards. Here are a few ideas.
Lay out your clothes for the next day
Write down that story idea or line of dialogue
Check your insurance is up to date
Make that call you’ve been avoiding
Exercise for ten minutes
Read a chapter
Drink a glass of water
Make your bed
Cook double quantities of meals and freeze half
Take the stairs
Put the laundry on before you leave
Tell them you love them
The gardeners reading this will nod sagely, already thinking ahead to a new season in the natural calendar. Years ago I braved a bitter day to plant a few bulbs that didn’t look like much. The pay-off was not immediate. But now, with little to no extra effort, the snowdrops above cheer up dreary winter days. And every year there are more.
We underestimate the power of compounding
The billionaire Warren Buffett is a financial legend. He buys carefully and holds for the long-term, much like a gardener planting trees. The value comes in compound interest and re-investing dividends. In the same way, daily actions add up over time to a significant return. Whether we invest in ourselves or in external achievements, starting early and persisting is the key to finishing our novel or building up a pension plan.
Often we think that it is the big gestures, the grand flourish that gets 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.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. Aristotle
So, what will you do today, and tomorrow, and on into the 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.
I’m sitting in a place that is nondescript. A place where many come, but none stay. Nobody claims this place as their own. The chairs are thin on padding. They do not encourage you to linger, though you might be here a while. No art adorns the walls. No music plays. I cannot wait to leave this place, and yet I must wait here, for now.
But if we could peel back the blank expressions of this silent throng, what would we see? The pallid grey and institutional green vanishes behind a burst of colour.
A young man with precisely styled beard and hair jams to the red, emerald and black of reggae music. The mother with puffy, pale face is lit by a burst of sunshine yellow when her baby smiles. In the corner, another woman nurtures a green shoot of hope. By the door, an elderly couple sit together in a haze of calm turquoise. Two seats away, a veil of dreamy pink settles around a stern suited and booted man.
Of course, there are other colours too. A middle-aged woman’s flushed cheeks echo the rage that pulses red at her temple. Navy blue clouds of sorrow surround her companion. And in the furthest corner, hunched and small, someone is engulfed by a black void from which no light escapes.
And there’s me. I breathe slowly, trying to replace flashing scarlet and orange anxiety with serene lilac and purple. People check their phones, look at the floor, perhaps glance in my direction. They don’t see me. Their internal worlds consume them, shouting for attention and greedy for validation.
We share this liminal space as temporary fellow travellers.
We are all here, together. We are all somewhere else, alone.
Film and music and theatre and books. All are entertainment, escapism often, a way to leave the humdrum real world behind and just have some fun. There’s no need to look for a deeper meaning.
But the stories that stay with us often have layers, some essential truth that we can take away and think about. It might not be the same lesson for everyone. In fact the very best of them have more than one idea buried in the glitz and action. They stand up to close or repeated inspection.
To a confirmed sci-fi fan like me, the more outlandish the concept, the more amazing the special effects, the better. Theatre is the opposite. The story unfolds in front of you with actual people in real time. Theatre is concrete and immediate.
Still, it’s good to broaden your horizons. So when I had the chance to see Kinky Boots (KB) at the Adelphi Theatre London recently, I went. I knew almost nothing about the story and hadn’t seen the film. Musicals aren’t really my thing.
I did not expect to have so much fun.
The cast sparkled with energy, aided by high kicking drag queens, amazing costumes, and more glitter than you could shake a six-inch stiletto at. Simon-Anthony Rhoden dominated the stage as Lola, and there was plenty of humour as well as spectacular dance numbers.
KB had many lessons that apply to commerce and creatives alike.
Find your niche.
Discover what your customer wants, and supply it. Innovate when necessary.
Ignore haters and critics. Play to your strengths.
It’s okay to have fun with your work.
Western culture prizes individualism above all. We’re told to be true to ourselves. Then we discover that we can only be accepted if we are true to a prescribed version of ourselves. This edited self discards or ignores large parts of who we are; sometimes, the biggest and/or best parts.
This editing usually begins at home, and continues in wider society.
KB explores disappointing our parents, whether by actively escaping their chosen path, like Lola and his father, or passively following someone else’s path, like Charlie and Nicola. Neither is a route to happiness or authenticity.
If you don’t build your own dream, someone will hire you to build theirs.
In KB the road to acceptance is fraught with detours and wrong turnings, but it’s a journey worth making. What do we long for, if not to be seen as we truly are and loved in spite of our scars? That’s the place we call home. Lola finds a home in the drag scene, but Charlie is caught between two versions of himself, and feels like a misfit in both.
We must make peace with our past in the present, before we can truly claim our future. That means accepting the ugly and painful truths as well as the pretty ones.
It means accepting your own self first as a whole person made of both light and shade.
The truth is out there
It’s easy to play safe, to stay in the middle of the herd and pretend we don’t carry a burning desire buried in our heart. What if people saw? They’d mock and laugh and we’d never live it down. Fear of failure and ridicule stops us from pursuing our dreams in case it doesn’t work out. Charlie must brave the fashion critics of Milan with something new. Lola must risk stepping outside the persona that has sheltered her for so long.
But what if it did?
There is certainly risk in pushing the limits of your comfort zone. Too many unknown monsters and well-meaning naysayers can have you scurrying back to what is familiar, even if it is slowly strangling the real you.
There is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path. Morpheus in The Matrix
It takes courage to admit you were wrong about yourself, change direction, and strike out from the herd. Charlie and Lola both face their own dark moments before they reach the triumphant final number.
The big prizes – authenticity, self-actualisation, happiness even – are all out there, waiting for you to claim your share. So dust off that dream and refuse to play small in life. Let your heart set the goal, and use your head to plan the route. You were meant for more.
Find out just how fabulous you can be.
Sequins and feathers optional – but in the spirit of Kinky Boots, you may as well look good while you’re killing it.
Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world. Risk being seen in all your glory. Jim Carrey
In 2017 I kept a simple writing diary to track my progress, as described in my earlier post Footprints in the snow . In it I recorded stories written, blogs posted, submissions made, and pieces published. Each entry got a colour coded spot. Published pieces got a gold star, because it’s important to celebrate success.
It was the first year using my Very Easy Tracking System™ and I’d call it a success. I kept it up for the whole year and it was motivating to look back and see what I’d achieved. Together with teeny tiny goals, I managed to write every week as well as posting here. For two months I wrote every day, but a weekly goal fitted better with life.
I recorded the books I read
I am a reader and writer of fiction above all, but not exclusively. So I read some books about creativity, because I like to be meta. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp spoke to consistent practice and careful preparation as the foundations of creativity. Tharp’s life is one of success through dedicated hard work.
Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon illuminated a new way of thinking about creating, exhorting us to do the work we want to see done and to be boring in order to get it done. His ten rules make sense. My favourite? Creativity is subtraction. So make it, then take some away. The work will always be better for thoughtful editing.
Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth was a totally different kind of book. For a lover of language, it is a fascinating meander through the history of words, and the way in which the English language enlarges, stretches, twists and bends to bring us the words and phrases we use today. And it’s funny too.
In fiction I first watched the film and then read The Martian by Andy Weir. Both were enjoyable, and I appreciated the firm grounding in real science, leavened by an engaging protagonist. The stakes are high from the very first page, literally life or death. Humour contrasted with the serious work of survival against the odds by methodical problem solving.
Somehow despite being a confirmed Ray Bradbury fan, I’d never read Fahrenheit 451. The writing style is a little dated, but the ideas remain scarily prescient. Video walls, TV characters that feel more real than actual relatives, the coarsening of societal attitudes and loss of true emotion all ring sadly true, sixty-five years after it was published.
But the book that made me think, that stayed with me long after I finished, was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. A Pulitzer Prize winner made into a film would not be a natural first choice for me, as I find most prize winning novels are dull duty reads that few people actually finish. This story is very simple. A nameless man and his young son walk through American landscapes burned by an unknown disaster to reach the coast.
Their world is carefully evoked; the despair, danger and deadness of a nuclear winter where no sun shines and nothing grows. The question is, when we have lost everything, what keeps us moving? Why should we live, how should we live? Despite the bleakness of the setting, this book has at its centre a message of hope. The writer achieves a lyricism not usually associated with post-apocalyptic settings, avoiding sentimentality with his spare prose.
I read more books of course, and the TBR pile grows daily. But The Road was the number one for me last year.
Give it a try
Track your reading this year, and think about what you take from each book. Jot a few notes about it in your diary or journal. It may be only one idea, but it might be just what you need to move forward on your own creative journey.
A certain shade of vulnerability
Dark smudged beneath a weary, teary eye
Faint fingerprinted hip where passion turned angry
A shadowed brow, but not like this
The place where things slid from binary
Into uncertain gradations
When did day surrender, when did light flee?
Night now, but let your eye adapt
And catalogue dim fractions
Pupils stretched wide until all the darks are one
Swallowed ghostly whole entire by dusk
Obscuring every boundary and line
You think you’ll know when
You think you’ll see it
But the shift is imperceptible.
first published in Poets Unlimited on Medium, 10 January 2018