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.
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
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. 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.
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.
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.
Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself. Rumi
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. Anaïs Nin
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? Not much.
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
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.