The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Change is wonderful at first.
You decide to head in a new direction, full of enthusiasm and motivation. You can do this. But after some time you feel lost, stuck even.
Welcome to the messy middle.
You’re still far from the new self you want to be. It would be so easy to slip back into old habits. You’re caught between two forces: push away from the old or pull towards the new.
Push forces are strong at first. You reject what you don’t want, whether that’s a job title or a health status. But the further you get from the old, the weaker that push force is. The pull of the new isn’t strong enough to persuade you to put in the extra effort to become a butterfly.
A caterpillar enters the chrysalis and leaves its previous form behind. In fact it turns into a mass with no form at all. But it is programmed to keep changing towards its goal of being a butterfly, even though to achieve it means enduring a stage of being unrecognisable.
Think of the messy middle as your chrysalis stage.
First look back and remind yourself how far you’ve already come. Celebrate progress because by moving forward you’re already a winner.
Then focus on moving towards your goal at all times. Picture your new self in full colour. Write a statement describing what you’re working for, and look at it regularly. Fix the destination clearly in your mind and let it pull you forward. The closer you get, the stronger the pull will be.
Embrace the growth mindset, which says that you are always capable of developing and learning new things. It’s not that you are ‘just built that way’ or unlucky. Your efforts will get you where you want to be.
Marshal Your Forces
Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.
Change requires a great deal of energy. If you try to make too many changes at once, you’ll be overwhelmed and end up making none.
For example, your goal is to lose fifteen pounds. From your current position on the couch, you plan to go to the gym three times a week, jog twice every weekend, give up smoking and alcohol, switch to a paleo diet, and chronicle your transformation on Instagram. And you’re going to do all this in eight weeks, when your vacation is booked.
You’ve just set yourself up to fail. The changes and goals are too far from your current position. Instead, set yourself up to succeed by choosing one small change and making it stick.
The Force of Habits
We live by habits, which are essentially short cuts through life. Habits free up brain space for other things. It takes on average about two months to form a new habit. Chain them together to outwit your natural reluctance to do things differently.
Take the example above. Choose one thing, in this case going to the gym. First, define the best time to go. If it’s after work, pack your bag the night before and put it by the door. You see it as you leave the house. Pick it up, place it in your car.
Choose one night a week and set an alarm on your phone. Tuesday night, pack gym bag. Wednesday night, go to gym after work.
When you’re accustomed to one night a week, add another. Schedule it and repeat until it becomes habit. Then add more sessions until you have the desired set of habits.
Similarly if you want to write, start really small. Block out a sliver of time to write a few words every day. As little as ten minutes and 150 words is enough. When that’s bedded in, add more time and more words.
Don’t overload yourself. Make each new step easy so you can’t fail. Only add bigger challenges when each habit is ingrained.
Build your habits one baby step at a time.
The Force of Time
Change often fails because it all takes longer than we wanted, longer than we bargained for. We are addicted to instant gratification and an easy fix.
Yes, there are people who gave up smoking overnight, or hit their goal weight in six weeks. These are not average results, but outliers. Far better to be realistic about timescales and manage your expectations accordingly.
The Force of Process
Even when you can’t rely on results, you can rely on your process.
It’s hard to get the ball rolling, but if we continue to apply force it will keep rolling. This is why momentum is so valuable. When you’ve done the hard work of overcoming inertia, maintaining forward motion is less effort than starting from scratch again.
When you can’t see your destination, focus on the journey. Put in the miles, put in the hours, keep training until you break through the plateau. In other words, do the work. Forget about results in favour of simply showing up, day after day.
Note any emotional reactions you have — and put them aside. Feelings will slow you down and stand in your way. They exist, but in this context they’re not useful. Do you wonder how you feel about brushing your teeth, or do you just do it? Apply that thinking. Write about feelings in your journal if you want, but the force of process is strictly mechanical.
If you can, do more. More words, cleaner diet, heavier weights. Nothing you do is wasted. The win you need is closer than you think, as long as you keep going.
Eating The Elephant of Life
There are three constants in life…change, choice, and principles.
Life is a succession of changes. Whether we choose the change or not, we have to find a way to live through it and come out better in some way, ready for the next one. There is only one way to approach such a huge task, and that is step by step.
Just as you’d eat an elephant bite by bite and not in one mouthful, you must look at shifts in life as part of a greater whole. There will be times when you’re in deep and can’t see an end to it. You’ll feel overwhelmed and tempted to run back to the safety of your old ways. Know that this feeling is normal, expected, and temporary.
To thrive in the unstable environment called life you must scan the horizon to spot coming challenges, stay flexible and open to learning, and keep faith in your ability.
Most important of all, never give up.
It doesn’t matter how long change takes. Time will pass anyway. What matters is that you’re developing and growing as a human, making the most of your one life.
Simple tips for maximising success as a creative
I want to be a cat in my next life. Cats are great role models. A well-loved pet would be ideal, but since I’m a cat that’s not essential.
I can rely on sharp claws and keen senses to feed and defend myself. I carry myself with supple grace, accept affection on my own terms, and find the warmest spot in the house to sleep. Sounds pretty good.
But in this life I set goals and strive to exceed them. Sometimes that works. Today I’m tired and a little disheartened, because the reward for my efforts is unpredictable and I can’t figure out what’s worth repeating.
You’ve probably had days like that too. Days when endless hustle and failing forward feel like hitting your head against a brick wall, over and over. Days when it’s hard to believe in yourself and stay motivated.
Can you rediscover your appetite for the hunt? Can you be more like a cat?
A Numbers Game
Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts. — William Bruce Cameron
Comparison might be the thief of joy, but we still have to track our stats. How else will we know where we stand?
Looking at numbers drives you to a kind of madness. Whether you count views, followers, pounds lost or lifted, or revenue, numbers draw you in. The world shrinks to a set of digits that you then equate to your own value.
If they’re going the wrong way, heaven help you and the people around you.
Peak madness is achieved by then comparing those numbers to other people’s numbers. You inevitably come up short because you only look at the most successful — those who you hope to emulate someday.
But you want someday to be today. You want the bragging rights, the book deal, and the interview on a popular TV show — now. Hasn’t it been long enough? Probably not. It takes much longer than you think or want to build success.
Remember when you longed for just one fan or even ten reads? Other writers are still there, hardly out of the starting gate. You’ve moved past that, and as long as you keep creating you’ll move past your next milestone too. Perhaps there are other measures of your impact.
Views and reads matter to writers, but they don’t map exactly to engagement. Look at comments, however brief. Out of your whole audience, those who comment are the most engaged fans. They take time to read, vote, and then reach out to you.
Treasure your commenters. Reply and thank them for their time and interest. Make a connection. I won’t pretend claps don’t matter, especially if money is involved. But when you’re still some way from your next milestone, the smallest dopamine hit of approval is welcome.
Like No-one Is Watching
A flower blossoms for its own joy. — Oscar Wilde
There’s deep satisfaction in doing something well. Craftsmen of old spent time making sure the back of an object, though not usually seen, was still beautiful. You can turn a finely tailored jacket inside out and find no loose stitches or raw seams. Every part of a created object reflects the skill and attention of its creator.
Writing can be art, but it must always be craft. Your writing should be the best you can produce. Live by the Beyoncé principle: over-promise, over-deliver, and keep on growing. Standards vary from day to day, but should never be less than good. Make it good, then make it better.
How do you know it’s better? On your down days, take your latest finished piece and compare it to your work of six or twelve months ago. Look at those older pieces and see how they could be tightened and polished further.
The same applies to losing weight, getting fitter, or learning a skill. Look back at where you started, review your SMART goals, and progress becomes clearer.
There’s a long way to go yet, but you’re on your way so give yourself credit for the journey so far. Take a reward for effort, and keep going.
You want to be known for consistent high quality. Henry Ford said quality means doing it right when no-one is watching. One day, those eyes will be turned on you. Be ready.
No Shortcut to Greatness
A few years ago I bought a car from a doctor at the start of his career. He was selling the car to help fund his planned attempt on Everest.
Wait a minute. Mount Everest? He wanted to be an Army surgeon. He also wanted to climb Everest before he was thirty. Both goals required a ton of hard work, so he made a plan that matched his impressive ambitions.
Now imagine someone builds an elevator that goes to Everest’s peak. Almost anyone can book a ride and stand at the top. How impressive is that? Not very.
The fact is, we value what we pay for. And the reverse is also true; we don’t value what we get for free.
How does that connect with writing or whatever business you’re in? It means the hard work you do is integral to the payoff you get. The harder you work, the sweeter the reward.
Now you can reframe the work as building a bigger payoff. Giving your work both intrinsic and future worth carries you through the inevitable gloomy days when the wind dies in your sails.
Don’t drift in the doldrums when that happens. What you do when you’re losing is the measure of your character. Get out the oars and start rowing.
Riding Out The Storm
But this time you can’t row. You’re caught in a perfect storm; work, health, relationship or financial issues make it impossible to do more. You’re barely surviving as it is. What to do now?
Maybe you can’t lean in, but you can limit backsliding. Three things will help you.
- Harness the power of a tiny goal. Write for five minutes, exercise for ten minutes, meditate for three minutes every day. Set the bar so low you’re bound to win. The little wins accumulate to stop your sense of mastery from fading completely. Choose your goal. Mark a cross on your calendar each day you achieve it. Winning streaks have power.
- Work on strategic aims. Get into the not urgent but important box of tasks you mean to do sometime but haven’t yet. Watch a tutorial on that software you bought but can’t use. Do some digital admin; clear out old files that clutter your desktop, file your receipts, check your antivirus is up to date. Use the Pomodoro technique and work in fifteen-minute bursts. Finish one job before starting another.
- Focus on the goal. Picture yourself at the finish line. What will you need to get there? Do you need extra training or equipment? A goal is a dream with a deadline, so don’t spend too much time thinking. Planning is a prelude to action and not a substitute for it.
Dreaming With Eyes Open
Sometimes you can fake it till you make it; other times you can’t. When the fears of not good enough and you’re going to fail take hold, you’ll struggle. Struggle is an inescapable part of life, of daring to hope for better. Hold fast to dreams, but know that they aren’t enough to get you where you want to be.
‘The principle of moving forward, as though you have the confidence to move forward, eventually gives you confidence when you look back and see what you’ve done.’ — Robert Downey Jr
A cat doesn’t make a jump by staring at its feet all day. It focuses on the landing. If it falls short, it digs in its claws and scrambles up. Then it sits and licks a paw as if it exerted no effort at all to reach the target.
Keep moving, whatever you have to do, however tiny the progress. Look back only to remind yourself how far you’ve come already, then turn your eyes forward to the peak. It’s always uphill to the top.
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In a time of destruction, create something.
Maxine Hong Kingston
The world is on f*cking fire — Bill Nye said it so it must be true.
When your house is on fire you grab your prized possessions and run. But when the world is on fire, there’s nowhere to run. Faced with the constant stream of bad news, you could be forgiven for simply giving up.
What’s the point of your life’s mission when everything’s going to hell? Your tiny contribution can’t hold back an endless ocean of misery.
It’s so hard to keep going when you’re not succeeding like you hoped, so you might as well binge on ice cream or gin or Netflix.
What’s the point of creating?
A Day In A Life
We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.
We’re given only a limited time to make a life. Life has the meaning you give it, no more or less. Meaning comes from finding and using them to do your thing despite all the negativity.
There’s someone out there who needs your thing, right now. That could be entertainment, the tools to do a job, or a map to navigate heartbreak. They see themselves in your thing and it gives them hope.
I once wrote a scene in which two gay men argued about being their authentic selves. A woman sent me a long comment saying she wept, thinking back to the compromises she made in earlier life. She felt it was her story, and for a moment she was less alone.
Emotional connection transcends time, gender, or place. Without connection and authentic feeling we wither and die. That might sound a bit dramatic when you look at a blog post or poem you just wrote, but you can’t know the state of the person who receives your message.
Who knows what your creation could achieve?
The Small Stuff Is The Big Stuff
If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.
Think back to a time when you read something that spoke to you. There was probably nothing Pulitzer-worthy about the content in itself. Yet on that day and for you particularly, those words sparked a feeling or a memory. You felt as though someone reached into your chest and peeled away the layers protecting a soft spot.
You felt seen and heard.
Those words were written for you, even though the writer didn’t know that. Like a singer who shatters a glass with a high note, words resonate with a frequency that the heart answers.
Now consider all the myriad ways we struggle each day. We carry our pain and that of others. We try to live a good life. We try to be happy. But often we fail. That’s when we need help.
Create something that can help, even if you don’t see how. Offer perspective, advice, or encouragement. Share your tools, your story and your gifts.
Remind people that there’s always beauty and hope to be found, even if you have to dig through dirt to find it. Remind people that the sun is hidden behind dark clouds, not gone completely.
Once you put your creation out there it no longer belongs to you. It’s a child of your imagination, and it will make its own way in the world. Your job is to make it strong, and let it go.
Lives can be saved and hearts repaired by the smallest of acts. You might never know who you reach, but they’re waiting right now. Defy the darkness.
(first published 26 June 2019 by Publishous on Medium)
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