blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, self improvement

Why Being Realistic Will Never Make Your Dreams Come True

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Adulthood isn’t all that.

From the moment of birth, you’re taught how to behave and be accepted in the world.

Adulthood means submitting when life knocks off the corners and edges that don’t fit in your assigned box.

Adulthood means growing up, and growing up means forgetting all those ridiculous daydreams.

Your parents and teachers told you not to waste your time dreaming, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. They taught you that 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 forgot to look up at stars and sky, and wonder.

You were caught in a trap and told it was the right place to be. Society rewards conformity with peer and elder approval and punishes the maverick with exclusion and ridicule. Who wants to be that guy?

But your dreams didn’t go away completely. Occasionally you glimpse them out of the corner of your eye, when your brain drifts during 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.

Deep down, you know something’s missing from your life.

No Dreams, No Wings

If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.
Henry Ford

None of the technological and artistic advances we now enjoy were created 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 has no mass. It can be as expansive as your imagination. 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 produce something new, you must first dream a new dream. That’s how the world got cars, airplanes, telephones, and computers.

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

Voices In Your Head

You can’t believe everything people tell you — not even if those people are your own brain.
Jefferson Smith

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 much that you never 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.

When you find yourself browsing painting sets online, an old art teacher whispers that you don’t have an artist’s eye. And you click away because that’s not for you.

Here’s the thing. You’re an adult — 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 much of your inner self-talk are no more than an outdated script. Once you realise that your reaction today is based on the memory of a conversation that’s decades old, you free yourself from it. That was then and this is now.

You can choose to respond differently and write a new script.

That’s when you truly grow up.

A Lost Child

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

Everyone has their share of bad experiences. You’ve been shaped by them to some extent. 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 find something better.

This means rediscovering your inner child. Try books such as these to guide your journey. Or you might need to let go of your old programming and try new ways, like Julia Cameron’s artist dates in The Artist’s Way.

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

From Reality To Fantasy

Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable.
Carl Jung

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 your dream is on hold while you work on strengthening the foundations of life.

Look Inside

This visualisation exercise is designed to bring your dream into focus so that you can use it 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. In the future, you’ve achieved your dream. What does it look like?

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. At a party, you say confidently, “This is my latest project.”

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.

There Are No Limits

If you want to be a number one bestselling author, touch the cover of your book. If you want to finish first in a triathlon, hear the spectators’ cheers. It can only come true if you first create it mentally.

When you have the picture and the feeling that comes with it, fix it in your mind with an anchor. The anchor is a physical sensation. Linking the sensation with the vision makes it easier to recall. 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 have a clearly defined image of success, and that allows them to work towards it knowing that they are heading in the right direction. And the image can be a comfort when things are not going so well. The prize is still out there, waiting for you to reach it.

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, you can check activity against whether it moves you closer to your goal or away from it. That might mean giving up chocolate because you’re training hard, or putting your great novel aside to make enough money to live on by writing copy.

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, self improvement

How Driving Iron Man’s Car Changed My Life

audi R8_Marlene Bitzer
Photo by Marlene Bitzer via pixabay

 

This isn’t life in the fast lane, it’s life in the oncoming traffic.
Terry Pratchett

I was Iron Man once.

It all started with an invisible birthday. You know, one where you have appropriately low expectations and still you come away disappointed. Instead of getting resentful or angry, I did the grown-up thing and bought my own damn gift.

Back then I was deep in the trenches of life, juggling my practice, children, spouse, and parents. Everything was top priority except me. While driving home late one evening a sleek black car passed me by, slung low to the ground with a restrained purr. I watched it disappear in my rearview mirror, knowing I’d never be able to own anything like that. Where would the kids go, and the guitar, and the cello, and the dog?

But a seed had been planted. Months later, I booked myself a supercar experience day. It was time to change the script.

Go Your Own Way

When I’m a bit sad I just go for a drive in the country, quite fast with my music up.
Calvin Harris

The world is full of people ready to tell you why you can’t do something just because they can’t envision themselves doing it. I turned up to an old airfield for the track driving day feeling both apprehensive and excited. Everyone I asked was busy that day so I went alone, and soon found that all the other women there were part of a couple.

Did they regard me with pity, disdain, amusement, or disapproval? I chose not to worry about those possibilities, and instead watched the cars flying around the track. We were all there to enjoy fast cars, and their opinions of me were unimportant.

Other people’s expectations and judgement will throw you off course. Often the best plan is to keep your own counsel. Don’t talk about what you will do. Just do it, and let actions speak for themselves.

In The Driving Seat

I am not reggae, I am me. I am bigger than the limits that are put on me. It all has to do with the individual journey.
Ziggy Marley

We listened to our safety briefing, and then the instructors came to collect each couple for their drive around the track. While I watched the first few people take their laps, a man asked me if I’d really come alone. I told him it was my birthday treat to myself, and he gave me a pitying smile.

“So there’s nobody to take photos of you? Well, never mind.”  

We say pics or it didn’t happen because modern society runs on proof that can be posted to social media. But photos are only a proxy for experience. Memories matter.

In the end, there’s only one person in the driver’s seat and that’s you. Don’t wait for someone else to agree, go out there and do your thing regardless.

A Helping Hand

I used to have horrible cars that would always end up broken down on the highway. When I tried to flag someone down, nobody stopped. But if I pushed my own car, other drivers would get out and push with me. If you want help, help yourself – people like to see that.
Chris Rock

Soon it was my turn to be called. Joe, my instructor, was totally unfazed that I was alone. He pointed out the controls on the Audi R8 and let me get used to the unfamiliar paddle shift.  Signs around the track reminded drivers when to brake and change gear, but with so much happening it was hard to take it all in.

That’s when the calm voice of my instructor cut through my adrenaline, giving instruction and suggestions. This intense driving experience took me back to being a new driver, overwhelmed by inputs from every direction. As hard as it seemed, I had to take a breath and listen, even as I also steered through curves and held on down the straights.

Find a coach or mentor for your activity, whatever it is. Be humble about your lack of knowledge and respectful of theirs. Open your mind and be teachable, and you’ll find yourself going further and moving faster.

Need For Speed

If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.
Mario Andretti

By the start of my last lap, I relaxed a little. The car was unlike anything I’d ever driven; more powerful, more precise, more responsive, more everything. My top speed of one hundred and thirty-two was more than enough to keep me happy.

My instructor had other ideas.

After steering through a fast chicane that was already a favourite, I accelerated towards the second last turn.

“Keep your foot down,” he said.

“Really?” I eased off, obeying years of ingrained caution.

“Not yet.” Joe seemed unconcerned by the rapid approach of the Brake Now sign.

We barrelled towards the turn, every red light flashing in my brain. Surely this was certain to end badly?

“You’re all right. You have time.”

At that moment time slowed down. Joe had put his life quite literally in my hands, so I had to trust myself too.

The brake sign was a distant memory and my mouth was dry, but I focused, listening for one word. Nothing else existed.

“Now.”

I braked hard. The car responded to my every command, following the curve cleanly and then bursting forward in an explosion of glorious speed that took me all the way to the finish line.

You can go further, harder, faster than you believe, with a little encouragement at the right time. Going beyond the limits you set yourself even once is exhilarating, building self-belief and the confidence to dare again.

So stretch your goals, ask more of yourself than you think you can do. If you can be that person urging someone on, do it. Show them the faith they don’t yet have in themselves.

Photo by Daniele Fantin on Unsplash

A Dream In Parts

A psychologist said to me, there are only two important questions you have to ask yourself. What do you really feel? And, what do you really want? If you can answer those two, you probably can leave your neuroses behind you.
Harold Ramis

I drove home buzzing after my track experience in a sensible family car that suited my needs at that time. Parking, speed bumps, vandalism and lack of interior space would have made daily ownership of a supercar impractical.

But any dream can be broken into parts, some of which are within your grasp even if you have to stretch. The first step is to know what you dream of. The second is to look for ways to make it happen.

The dream of owning an R8 that had been ignited by a chance encounter seemed impossible. I had to rethink the parameters.

Consider renting, borrowing, or sharing a dream.

For a short time, enjoy the benefits of a fast car, a beach house, or a city penthouse. Then give back the keys and walk away without having to worry about the grim realities of upkeep and insurance.  

Before you do even that, dig a little deeper. What do you really want? What does the car, the house, or the title of CEO really mean for you? Uncovering your motivations steers you in the right direction so you won’t spend time and energy in the wrong place.

For me, the car represented more than the money needed to buy it. It worked perfectly. When I asked, it responded. For once there was no compromise – I got exactly what I wanted. Having complete control was exhilarating.

Dream car = total freedom.

Every time I see an Audi R8 I smile and remember. That joy alone, repeated over years since my drive, repaid the cost and difficulty of making it happen a thousand times over.

So the next time you find yourself fantasising, ask yourself what does this dream represent? How can I bring it within my grasp?

Then ignore the naysayers and make it real, just for you. You deserve it.


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blog, self improvement

How To Know What You Want From Life

Colourful fruit tarts
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Oscar Wilde

Do you know what you want?

Our desires vary from the mundane need to scratch an itchy back to the intangible urge for self-actualisation.

You’re looking for satisfaction but you aren’t very good at figuring out what satisfaction looks like.

You’re like that person who can’t decide what to order. They look at the menu, ask what’s in every dish, wonder if they’re not really hungry, and bounce from one item to another until you want to scream.

Here are three possible reasons why you “struggle to order.”

  1. Wrong place
  2. Wrong timing
  3. Not hungry

Each of these issues requires a different solution.

Can I Get Extra Cheese On That?

You could have everything right but be in the wrong place. You think your business is no good, but really, the problem is your place is no good.

Fred DeLuca

When you’re hungry for pizza and you stop in the first restaurant you find, there’s a high chance that the menu won’t suit you. The more specific your desires, the less likely that you’re in the right place.

You might want to create something. Trying to write a novel when you really want to build a scale model of the Eiffel Tower will only lead to frustration.

Identifying the details of your desire means asking more questions. The 5 Whys technique is useful for getting to the heart of a matter. If you want to do something, ask why. Repeat up to five times until you reach the kernel of truth. That often manifests as an “aha!” moment.

It seems obvious, but you’ll get the things you want more quickly if you’re looking in the right place.

No Stars in the Daytime

In fashion as in life, the right thing at the right time is the right thing. The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing.
Tom Ford

Suppose you want steak and a glass of Chianti, but it’s nine in the morning and the restaurant is only serving breakfast. You’re in the right place at the wrong time. No amount of effort on your part can change day into evening.

Life tends to happen when you’re not looking. An unexpected pregnancy, change of job, or illness can derail your plans so that there’s no way to make them work at that time. The only way through is around. You’ll have to recalculate your route to the goal, taking time into account as a major variable.

Taking a longer view and reframing it as a definite goal helps to diffuse the frustration and disappointment of putting something off. Rather than vaguely saying you’ll do it later, take control and commit to specifics.

The statement “I will apply for X course in January 2021” feels very different to “This sucks – I’m missing school because of family issues and it’s not fair.” Sometimes it really isn’t your fault, but it’s still up to you to fix it.

Time is elastic. You have more than you think, especially when viewed from a lifetime perspective. There’s almost always another chance to do something, though you might have to approach it differently. As Oprah said, you can have it all – just not all at once.

You Can’t Get There From Here

If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.
Yogi Berra

Your meal is in front of you, but do you want what you ordered? Consider whether your hunger belongs to you.

If you’ve studied almost any subject at the college level, you know that some of the students don’t actually want to be there. They worked hard to be accepted because “everyone goes to college” or “you come from a long line of doctors/lawyers/engineers” or “it’s the best route to a good life.”

They may be feverish over-achievers or they may be failing, but they have one thing in common.

They are fulfilling someone else’s destiny at the cost of their own. The professions are full of unhappily successful practitioners. And it takes real guts first to admit you don’t want this prize that “everybody” says is so great, and second to walk away.

My undergraduate class in medical school harboured many who would rather be somewhere else. A girl consumed by anxiety and driven by expectations to become a third generation physician. A gentle boy who preferred music to science and drank every weekend until he passed out alone in a corner. A boy from a working-class family who was the first in his family to enter university.

Others hid it better. They all said and did the right things, and were praised. They all died a little every day to achieve something they didn’t believe in.

Only the working class boy got out. After the first year, he escaped life sciences for the greater rigour of maths and physics. His parents were distraught, but it saved his life. Others weren’t so lucky.

Be brutally honest with yourself about what you really want.

It’s very easy to fall in with other people’s plans if you have no internal compass or goal of your own. It’s very easy to delude yourself that the prize is something you value.

Sure, college, a life partner, children, a profession, a new car, and one holiday a year are right for some people, some of the time. Now you need to think; are you some people, or are you an individual, living in the world of now and the future rather than the rose-tinted past?

What worked twenty or even ten years ago won’t necessarily work today.  You’ll need a map of the current terrain, both interior and exterior. Here’s how to approach that.

Photo by Nicole Wilcox on Unsplash

A Big Adventure

Map out your future – but do it in pencil. The road ahead is as long as you make it. Make it worth the trip.

Jon Bon Jovi

You think you want something important? It’s time to test that want to destruction.

Use the 5 Whys

If one of your reasons is “to make X happy or proud” be very careful. Making someone else proud is neither necessary nor sufficient for your happiness. Their pride should be that you are doing what makes you happy. Pause before you sacrifice your happiness. Then do what you must to prioritise it.

Write in your journal

The bigger a goal and the more effort it requires, the more you need to be as sure as you can that it’s right for you. Write about any and every aspect and don’t hold back. That thing you can’t say? Write it down, because the truth lies close to the thoughts you don’t express. It’s safe on a page and you can’t be judged if you keep it secret.

Step into the future

Use a future visualisation exercise to imagine yourself at the goal. How do you feel? If your feeling is immediate dread, a sinking feeling, anxiety, or tightness in your chest, don’t do it – yet. It’s called a gut feeling for a reason, and it’s often more truthful than the justifications we come up with.

Use your head to figure out solutions, or to conclude that you need to look elsewhere. Spend more time refining or changing the goal until it aligns more closely with your true desire.

Find a guide

Ask somebody who’s done what you hope to achieve. Ask them what they wish they’d known when they started and what they enjoy about their journey. Be polite and don’t expect them to solve all your problems. The path you choose is yours to walk. Others can walk beside you but they’re not there to carry you.

Use the negative reality check

Finally, flip the visualisation exercise on its head. Imagine you didn’t achieve your goal. Your life stayed on its current track. Now step into that life five, ten, twenty years from now. What’s your very first impression? That’s the true one. Do you feel disappointed, regretful, angry? Or do you feel relief?

All the rational reasons in the world are nothing compared to how you feel about your goal. Why else would fame, money, and adoration fail to satisfy so many outwardly successful people? They are feeding the wrong appetite, living someone else’s dream while starving themselves of what they deeply desire.

We all have desires. Being satisfied is a matter of making sure that your appetite aligns with the food you choose.

Sometimes you drink water; other times you are thirsty. To be thirsty and to drink water is the perfection of sensuality rarely achieved.

Jose Bergamin

(Originally published in Publishous on 29 March 2019)

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, Pat Aitcheson writes, self improvement

How To Achieve Personal Growth (Without Giving Up Everything In The Process)

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

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.

Jim Rohn

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?

Photo by Zachary Nelson on Unsplash
 

Never Alone

Even if you cannot change all the people around you, you can change the people you choose to be around. Life is too short to waste your time on people who don’t respect, appreciate, and value you. Spend your life with people who make you smile, laugh, and feel loved.”
Roy T. Bennett

You’ve probably read that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, or you might lean towards the idea that it’s more dispersed than that. There’s definitely some influence, whether larger or smaller.

Imagine you’ve moved on. You don’t want to gossip over lunch or complain about your boss or otherwise play small anymore. But your colleagues are the same. You can’t change them. Habits are triggered by cues, so you decide to work out at lunchtime instead of going to the break room to whine. Which is great for your abs, but you just lost your social group at work.

Some self-improvement writers present this social drift as a virtuous circle. The more they improve themselves, the less they have in common with previous friends. So they find new, better ones more suited to their higher vibration. Which makes them even better, and so on.

That can come across as rather shallow and self-serving. Some relationships are temporary, but if you treat everyone as disposable you’ll never make lasting connections. Plus you risk finding yourself out of the circle once they move on, again. If you find it difficult to make new friends, discarding those you have has little appeal.

So can you change without giving up all your relationships and risking society’s scorn?

The Same But Different

People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them.
Stephen R. Covey

Most people don’t want to sell all their possessions and go meditate in a cave in search of personal growth. Maybe you don’t have to reconnect with your first love on Facebook and leave your husband and children behind to find happiness in life.

You want to live a truer version of yourself, not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Self-improvement is Michelangelo carefully cutting away all that’s inessential to reveal the glory of his David. It’s about finding the core of your self by discarding what no longer works and then living in accordance with your truth.

Change is evolution, not revolution.

Taking tiny steps and testing the waters is less daunting and likely to be more successful than a wholesale revision.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.

 

blog, creativity, productivity, writing process

Learn to Love Frustration

beating the block isn’t what you think

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

 

Do you sometimes feel like you’re banging your head against a wall?

Your puppy fetches the ball, but won’t drop it. Your golf handicap is stuck at 22 despite taking lessons from the club pro. You can’t get past 25K words in your novel.

Or maybe the situations are all internal. Despite resolving to work smarter, you can’t stop playing that online game. You resolved to write 500 words daily but you wrote barely 500 in the last two weeks.

All these situations share one thing; you’re not getting what you want. Instead, you have effort without progress. You’re tempted to shout in anger or walk away in disgust.

It’s just not working. And you don’t know what to do next.

So Close

Expectation is the mother of all frustration.
Antonio Banderas

You might assume that as you become more skilled or experienced, frustration lessens. Sadly, that’s not true.

The novice knows she lacks skill. She has everything to gain and getting it wrong is a necessary part of the process. She endures the frustration of failure because there is no other way to improve.

Now consider the skilled practitioner who wants to improve. She’s gone through the early stages of learning and she has a decent level of skill. Now she wants to step up her game. She knows what she wants to achieve and she’s confident, having done something like it before.

If she enters a new arena where the players are more advanced, she must return to the novice position. This isn’t easy, because it entails putting aside her hard-earned pride in her skills. The frustration in failing again at what ought to be easy is huge.

Some years ago I took a postgraduate course on teaching adults. A twelve-month course was condensed into eight. The students were all respected professionals with letters after their names. Enthusiasm varied but the course was mandatory and how hard could it be?

We struggled. Every one of us.

The academic writing style was alien to me and my tutor’s comments reflected that. We were used to working hard for top scores; what do you mean the marking range is 50–60 marks?

We couldn’t accept that a mark of 54% was deemed a reasonable pass, that 58% would be excellent, that 60% was perfect and impossible to achieve. The workload was tough, on top of demanding full-time work and managing both practice and teenage family.

One woman, traumatised by failing an assignment for the first time in her life, never returned for the second module. I was used to being a high achiever, and suddenly I was in unfamiliar territory with a hard deadline to meet.

I had to find another way, fast.

Beginner’s Mind is Only the Start

Needing to have things perfect is the surest way to immobilize yourself with frustration.
Wayne Dyer

Beginner’s mind is that state in which the student is like an empty cup, waiting to be filled. In it we accept that we don’t know; we keep an open mind.

In reality, we can’t jettison everything we think we know so easily. For expert professionals, a great deal of self-worth and ego is tied up in knowledge and competence, the things for which experts are respected and rewarded.

A pragmatic compromise is to separate things we know from things we don’t yet know. It’s tempting to let real skills in one area bleed into an assumption of skill in another. Hence pop stars try to act and actors try to sing, with varying results.

For me and my postgraduate student peers, it meant returning to a state we’d left far behind us; a state of ignorance.

I had to let go of my past behaviours and assumptions. The minimum needed to pass was an aggregate score of 51%. That miserable number still required a ton of work.

We could argue about which referencing style was superior, or we could accept that the university required the Vancouver style and get to learning it.

I still had my skills in studying, revising, and time management. I still had expert status in my own field. Being a beginner again didn’t negate those things.

I only pushed through my frustration after a clear analysis of the work and resources needed, but without overvaluing my past experience.

There’s no shame in not knowing, as long as you’re prepared to learn.

A Different Playing Field

You have expectations about the effort needed and the results you can expect from that effort. You experience frustration because either:

  1. You’re putting in an effort but not achieving the goal.
  2. Your actual effort is less than your perceived or promised effort.

1. Nice Try But No Cigar

You must figure out what is blocking your progress and then be ready to act, even if it goes against the grain. It’s okay to ask for help. High achievers have coaches and mentors on their teams.

Do you need to lean into practice? The very best practitioners in all disciplines practise over and over. They hit millions of balls, run thousands of miles, or write millions of words before the world sees them winning.

Moving up a level in your field rests on doing more. And then, when you’re sick of it, do it again.

Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.
Newt Gingrich

Improving in a new field means checking your ego at the door. Listen to the coach and follow instructions. You can’t win at baseball using a golf club or marathon running techniques.

2. The Lies You Tell

Are you guilty of complaining? You tell anyone who’ll listen that you just don’t have time to write, you’re too busy to work out, or you have special circumstances that stop you from doing what you said you would.

Before you can lie to someone, you first lie to yourself.

You already know what stands in your way. You prioritised it and did that instead. Hard work is hard and boring. You want an easy life — but here’s the thing.

You can have excuses, or you can have results.

You can have excuses, or you can have results. The choice is yours.

Other people have achieved what you want with fewer resources and greater challenges. So decide what you really want and commit to it fully.

Assume you’ll fall into bad habits again, then plan around your weak spots so you keep working.

Fill the fridge with healthy food options. Pack your gym bag at night and put it in front of the door so you can’t avoid it the next morning. Use distraction-free software to keep your focus on the words you’re producing.

Tell yourself the hard truth. You are the only one holding you back.

How Much Do You Want It?

Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.
Sumner Redstone

Why suffer through frustration when it’s easier to give up?

Because the obstacle doesn’t block your path — it is the path.

The obstacle is there to teach you humility, to test your resolve and strengthen your muscles, to drive your growth.

And the prize will be all the sweeter after the struggles you endured. It’s time to stretch for the higher fruit.


Have a comment or question? Drop it in the form below and let’s talk.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes

You Don’t Need Permission: Start Building Your Dream Now

girl sitting on a peak
NRThaele via pixabay

Take charge of your future

 

If only, you say to yourself.

If only you could make your dreams a reality. They may be small hopes, like seeing your favourite artist play live. Or they may be huge, like attending the premiere of the film version of your novel. Your dreams have the feeling of wistfulness about them.

You pick names for your fictional characters and decide who will play them on screen. Maybe you imagine walking down the aisle with that perfect person. Or crossing the finish line of the New York Marathon, exhausted and happy.

And you hide your dreams away, because dreams are for children and you have a real, adult life to attend to.

Dreams Are Not Allowed

From the moment of birth, you’re taught how to behave and how to gain acceptance in the world.

Adulthood consists of submitting when life knocks off the corners and edges that don’t fit in your assigned box.

Adulthood means growing up, and growing up means forgetting all those ridiculous daydreams.

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

You forgot to look up at stars and sky, and wonder.

You were caught in a trap and told it was the right place to be. Society rewards conformity with peer and elder approval, and punishes the maverick with exclusion and ridicule. Who wants to be that guy?

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 with your dream makes you envious or sad, and you can’t fully explain why.

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

Realists Are Failures

Not one of the technological and artistic advances we now enjoy were created 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 has no mass. It 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.

If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.
Henry Ford

Realism doesn’t produce innovation, it produces incremental improvement. To produce 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.

Time To Grow Up

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 that you never 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 don’t have an artist’s eye. 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 much of your inner self-talk are no more than an outdated script. Once you realise that your reaction today is based on the memory of a conversation that’s decades old, then you free yourself from it. 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

Everyone has their share of bad experiences.You’ve been shaped by them to some extent. 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. You might consult books such as these to guide your journey. Or you might simply need to let go of your old programming and try new ways, such as the artist dates in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.  

We are all innately creative. It is possible to be a functional adult and retain childlike wonder and creative flow. Both are essential to a sense of wholeness.

 

From Reality To Fantasy

source

 

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 your dream is on hold while you work on strengthening the foundations of life.

Look Inside

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

Get comfortable and close your eyes. Breathe slowly. In the future, you’ve achieved your dream. What does it look like?

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. At a party you say confidently, “This is my latest project.”

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.

There Are No Limits

If you want to be a number one bestselling author, touch the cover of your book. If you want to finish first in a triathlon, hear the spectators’ cheers. If you crave acclaim from family, feel the glow in your chest. It can only come true if you first create it mentally.

When you have the picture and the feeling that comes with it, fix it in your mind with an anchor. The anchor is a physical sensation. Linking the sensation with the vision makes it easier to recall. 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 have a clearly defined image of success, and that allows them to work towards it knowing that they are heading in the right direction. And the image can be a comfort when things are not going so well. The prize is still out there, waiting for you to reach it.

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, you can check activity against whether it moves you closer to your goal or away from it. That might mean giving up chocolate because you’re training hard, or putting your great novel aside to make enough money to live on by writing copy.

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.


I’d love to hear your thoughts about this post or anything else, drop a comment below!

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

If You Want To Be A Better Writer, Stop Writing

sometimes more writing isn’t the answer

Pascal van de Vendel on Unsplash

You’re a writer. You gave yourself permission, put your bum in the seat, and started cranking out words. They’re not perfect yet but that’s okay because you read advice articles that tell you how to do it better. You’re on your way.

Then you stumble. No matter how much advice you read and try to apply, the words don’t get any better. You’ve tried it all, and when you read your piece back you cringe. It’s dull, it’s bad, and it’s all yours.

Impostor syndrome sneaks up behind you like a cheap horror movie monster. It breathes down your neck. “I knew it. You’ve been found out, and not even the best advice can save you now. You’re no good. And you never will be.”

You stop trying.

Writing is too hard and you’re just not good enough. It’s enough to drive you to drink. Or back to Facebook and Netflix.

Invisible Growth — What You Don’t Understand About Practice

When something isn’t working, it’s tempting to give up. But you need to think about the way growth happens.

I used to plant sunflower seeds every spring with my young children. They were so excited, pushing seeds into the earth and imagining sunflowers higher than their heads. They looked at the picture on the packet, and they wanted all the flowers right now.

But the seed needed time to absorb water, develop roots, and grow a stem. On the surface, nothing was happening. The kids got impatient because progress was less than they expected. Under the surface, growth was already proceeding unseen. One day the shoot popped up, apparently overnight.

Then it grew really fast.

Source Evolution Partners

This type of progress in students as described by Thomas P Seager, PhD fits with my own experiences in the garden or the classroom.

Some students (black line) show linear growth at a steady rate. Others (green line) take instruction with little apparent effect until one day it clicks, and they take off. Soon they leave the others behind, despite being slower to start.

The move to higher levels of skill is often preceded by a stage in which nothing much appears to be happening. In fact a number of sub-skills are developing. When those skills reach critical mass they combine to produce a leap forward, followed by accelerated development.

In the early days of building a skill, a following, or a plant, progress seems slow. Patience and persistence are essential.

That means you must have faith and keep going. But although creativity is endless, it needs to be replenished.

Sometimes the best way to keep going is to stop.

Just Don’t Do It

You’ve read many articles about establishing a writing habit. You might know that Stephen King writes 2000 words every single day. All the advice says sit and write daily.

I suggest you do the exact opposite. Step away from the keyboard.

Just like any other human, a writer is the sum of many parts. The healthiest writers get out of their rooms and out of their heads regularly, and those experiences enlarge their characters and inform their writing. The more they see and hear of people, and the more things they do, the bigger their repertoire of subjects, characters, and situations to write about.

If you’ve been pushing harder but not seeing results, it’s time to change your approach. Staring at the blank screen for hours isn’t working. Rewriting the same paragraph isn’t working.

You need to move on and concentrate on another part of your skill set. Writing is more than butt in chair, just as soccer is more than kicking a ball. Stop writing and you’ll write better.

Three types of not-writing can help you reach the visible growth stage faster.

Get Physical

Mens sana in corpore sano
A sound mind in a healthy body
Juvenal

MatanVizel via pixabay

The brain weighs about 2% of body mass but needs 20% of energy intake to function well. In addition, we can concentrate fully for around 90–120 minutes. After that, we need a break to maintain focus.

You need to build two types of break into your writing routine.

One is a short break after ninety minutes. Get up, stretch, move around. Look into the distance to rest your eye muscles which have been working hard to focus on the screen. Take five slow deep breaths, allowing your belly to relax. Your brain needs extra oxygen.

Drink water

Research has shown that thirst is a poor predictor of dehydration and that dehydration reduces performance. Consider setting an alarm to remind you to drink more water.

Move your body

The second type of break is regular exercise. The type of exercise doesn’t matter; what’s important is that you engage regularly, which is more likely if you enjoy it. Some activities have a social element built in, which is very good if you sit alone all day to write.

Sitting for extended periods is known to increase your risks of premature death. That alone should motivate you to get moving. Walking, running, gym work, and yoga are all beneficial. Vigorous gardening and housework are alternatives.

Get enough sleep

Insomnia is a problem for many of us that tends to increase with age. However, finding and keeping good sleep habits is essential to mental and physical health. If you have problems start your search for help here or here.

Simple measures like regular sleep and wake times, keeping your bedroom dark and the bed only for rest or sex, and writing a to-do list for the next day can all help. Cut back on the nightcap because although alcohol might help you nod off, it then causes broken sleep.

My one best tip, gleaned from personal experience and professional practice as a family physician is this;

if you wake in the night, never check the time.

Your brain immediately starts working, calculating the time you’ve been awake, the time left before the alarm goes, and so on. Turn the clock away. Do not look at your phone. Slow deep breaths can help.

It’s natural to wake during the night and it will happen more often as the years go by, so have realistic expectations. Learning to go back to sleep is the skill you need.

Whatever your health status, you can improve fitness levels and give your brain what it needs to function more effectively.

Only Connect

Staying mentally fit and well needs to be a priority. It’s certain that you will have to navigate personal or professional difficulties at some time, while continuing to meet your obligations. It’s all too easy to withdraw from people, but if you write you already spend a lot of time with your own thoughts. Balance that with positive contact.

Humans are social creatures. We all need different amounts of interaction to feel our best, but looking at the same walls every day can drag you down, especially if you live where winters are long and dark. Figure out how much social interaction you need to be energised, not depleted. Then make sure you schedule time to get it.

Combine social contact with exercise by going to the gym or taking a class. Dog walkers know that pets can be a great icebreaker.

Stay in contact with friends and family. Avoid being hijacked by Facebook and Twitter by setting a time limit on checking updates.

Sit in a cafe and listen to people talking for clues on dialogue and people’s current concerns. You might hear a character or a problem for your next piece.

Join a writers’ group and interact with people who understand the struggle. Even difficult interactions can be a source of material for your writing.

Writers are often introverts who find being in groups more or less difficult. Online connections can be as real and nurturing as real-life ones, if not more so. Don’t let extroverts mock you for not going out all the time.

Part Of The Fabric

BrainyQuote

Maybe you’re a religious person. In that case, honouring your faith will be key to your wellbeing. Even if you’re not religiousfeeding your spirit is essential to wholeness. Finding meaning, a reason to go on with life, is a matter of realising that you are part of something larger than yourself.

There’s more than one way to tap into a sense of awe and wonder that enlarges your sense of being. Prayer works for some, while contemplating the natural world or spending time with a child or pet is preferred by others. Quieting the endless chatter in your mind can be achieved by gardening or stargazing or knitting.

Concentration on a single thing is the essence of meditation. It doesn’t have to mean chanting and impossible poses. Find the thing that absorbs your attention to the exclusion of external stimulus. Do that regularly.

Feeding your spirit might come from watching the ocean, singing along at a concert, or volunteering. It can come from seeing art or listening to music, or sending a supportive message to someone who’s struggling.

Don’t underestimate the value of laughter.

We smile and laugh much less as we grow up, and who can blame us? Adult life is tough. Share a joke with your server or your partner. Watch a comedy show before bed rather than depressing news. Humour is essentially linking familiar things in an unexpected way. It’s one of the most creative activities around and it’s calorie free, so indulge.

Connecting with people has an element of looking outward and giving rather than receiving. Altruism makes us happier by focusing attention outside our selves while making a positive contribution. Even though each one of us is a tiny part of the fabric of life, we can still make a difference.

And as writers, isn’t connection and making a difference all we want?

Burn Bright, Don’t Burn Out

Nobody can be ‘on’ all the time. Balancing work, rest, and recreation is the key to a healthy life for everyone. Sometimes before we can push forward we need to stop and catch our breath a moment.

Solutions often bubble to the surface after a period of letting problems percolate unseen. While you’re occupied in another activity, your subconscious is busy figuring out the questions you’ve been stuck on.

Your body will benefit from the improved physical health that comes from being strong, well rested and well hydrated. A healthy brain is more flexible and resilient, able to think faster and process the many different things it sees and feels. And creativity is about making new connections.

Creativity is just connecting things.

Steve Jobs

Now you have more material and a better machine to work with. Come back to your screen refreshed, and get growing.