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?
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.
Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.
We all want to succeed. We want our hard work to pay off, and we dream of the benefits yet to come. But in the present, we’re consumed by the immediate and the urgent.
Putting out fires takes up time and energy we could otherwise devote to fireproofing the walls or fixing the faulty stove. We prioritise the urgent over the important.
You know this logically, but what do you do about it?
You don’t have time for the strategic thinking in sector 2 because you’re overwhelmed by stuff that has to be done right now. You spend your time in sector 1 firefighting, at the mercy of whatever comes up in the moment. You’re on a hamster wheel of busy work and you’re exhausted.
You think the future stuff can wait. That’s a mistake you can’t afford to make.
Here’s how to shift your focus.
The Seed Is Not The Tree — Yet
Every tree begins as a single seed. The seed needs the right conditions to develop. But properly managed, it will grow into a plant many times larger than the seed it sprouted from.
The biggest input into growth is time. Given enough time, growth can be amazing.
We underestimate the power of compounding.
The chart shows the difference in return from investing the same amount of money at different times, with the same growth rates. The earlier you start, the bigger your return when interest is allowed to compound over time.
In the same way, repeated daily actions add up over time. Whether you invest in yourself or in something external, starting early and persisting is the key to finishing your novel or building up a pension plan.
How can you get compounding to work for you?
You Have One Job
Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant.
Robert Louis Stevenson
There’s something small you can do which will more than repay the effort now. Its effects will build over time to get you much further along your path, whether your horizon is measured in days or decades.
You might think big gestures get the winner to the podium. But more often, building one small deed on another over time brings the biggest rewards.No deed is too small, provided we keep doing it.
If you draw an apple every day, you’ll improve. If you write a story every week, you’ll improve. If you walk ten minutes daily, you’ll improve. With these baby steps you can go further each time, and eventually, things will take off.
Do one thing your future self will thank you for. Repeat regularly.
Write 250 words on your current project
Exercise for ten minutes
Read a chapter of that book you meant to finish
Plant something — a tree or a window box
Save whatever you can afford each month — if only spare change
Paint or draw a small picture
Any gardeners reading this will nod sagely, already thinking ahead to a new season in the natural calendar. Years ago I braved a bitter wind to plant a few bulbs that didn’t look like much. The pay-off was not immediate, unlike my frozen fingers. But now, with little to no extra effort, the flowers cheer up dreary winter days. And every year there are more.
So what will you do today, and tomorrow, and onwards to secure a better future?
Whether it’s saving £5 a week, or kissing your SO every day, you’ll be delighted with the return on your investment. Start now.
The law of harvest is to reap more than you sow. Sow an act, and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny.
You know success is out there but you’re not finding it no matter how hard you dig. You see others strike it big and assume they’re luckier or got a bigger shovel.
You could have the perfect tools and focus on your goals, but it won’t matter if you’re digging in the wrong place.
People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Thomas Merton
The Double-Edged Sword of Focus
You work hard, eliminate distractions, and focus on one area. This can be good and bad at the same time.
Take gold prospecting. Digging a one hundred foot mine shaft will keep you busy, whether the gold lies there or not. If there isn’t any gold, all your work will be in vain.
The same can be said for your writing.
How do you know where to invest your effort?
You need to go wide and then deep.
Trying new areas is the only way to know if a better prospect is out there for you.
The gold miners need to survey the whole landscape first. They go wide. The surveyors dig exploratory mines in promising spots. They only go deep when there’s a good chance of reward for their efforts, because they have to process a lot of ore to find nuggets of gold.
Then they study the landscape to learn the signs that tell them there’s gold further down, which makes it easier to spot next time.
For example, I wrote an article about being let down by a former friend. It was more popular than anything I’d written up to that point.
Friends shared it and reached out to me on Twitter. It wasn’t viral, but it was a little gold strike. Once I got over being amazed, I studied it to see how it differed from previous pieces and came up with the following points.
Readers like emotional stories
Universal theme of betrayal
Conversational style — written as a letter
Shared to social media on a ‘quiet’ day
Friend shared it on her Facebook feed
Cross posted in several places — blog, Medium, Twitter
Performed best on Medium
So now I have some pointers to what might do well, and where. I can choose to add the personal, and decide on the best writing style to use next time.
The other lesson is that it’s impossible to predict what will do well and where.Spread your net wide.
You want to do more. You want to achieve your potential, though you’re unsure what that might look like.
That means leaving the comfort zone and doing something new. Then assess your results and adjust your course. Let’s see what that looks like for a writer.
Try a new fishing ground
Writing divides into three very broad categories.
Writing fiction teaches imagination, how to move a story along, and how to tell the truth by hiding it inside a story.
Writing poetry teaches focus on emotions, how to condense expression, how to convey concepts in word pictures that show the world in a new light.
Writing non-fiction teaches structure, clarity of expression, how to make an argument, how to persuade and inform.
The best pieces include elements from more than one discipline and appeals to more of our senses and emotions. We write to change how people feel, so having more tools leads to better engagement with our audience.
Crossing the boundaries could look like this.
Poetry plus non-fiction elements:
Structured poetry forms like sonnet, villanelle, tanka
Polemic — a poem with a strongly stated point of view
Fiction plus non-fiction elements:
Tightly plotted fiction
Historical fiction with strong research base
Fiction plus poetry elements:
Lyrical writing style
Highly descriptive but concise style
Non-fiction plus poetry elements
Descriptive travel writing
Learn new ways to tell your story. Blur the boundaries. Take what you learn back to your chosen area and play with it.
Try a different corner of your own field
If you always write free poetry, use a recognised form like a sonnet. If you write technical pieces, write a think piece on your industry or an interview with a leader in the field. Horror and romance writers, switch genres.
Your next piece will benefit from a new approach.
Wave a flag and get noticed
This is a great time to be a writer. Gatekeepers might still guard the doors to traditional publishing, but it’s never been easier to choose yourself and get your words out there. That inevitably leads to a crowded marketplace, but there are ways to stand out.
Enter a competition
In a world of almost limitless choices, recommendations count for a lot. That’s why star ratings are so powerful. Winning a competition or even getting shortlisted in one can lead to new opportunities. A win says you can be trusted to tell a story.
The win raised my profile among friends and family, some of whom took my writing seriously for the first time. The story was published in a local lifestyle magazine.
I now write a monthly story for them and continue to build my portfolio.
It’s a virtuous circle in which success opens doors and changes attitudes, not least my own. And I bought some very fancy noise cancelling headphones with the prize money.
Competitions cover every kind of writing and writer and are held year-round. Writing magazines are good sources of information, and you can google by type. Many are free to enter so there’s no reason to pass on a chance for recognition.
Start a blog
Starting a blog is easier than ever, and can be low or even no cost. While it’s not easy to drive traffic to a blog, you can experiment with your style and start gathering fans.
If you’re querying agents for traditional publishing, they expect to see samples of your work if they Google you.
Your blog or website is the place to assemble your portfolio. Aim for consistent, high quality work rather than lots of rushed pieces.
Medium is one of the best places to expand your writing career. You can write for yourself, or for publications boasting thousands of followers.
Do both and spread your net wider. Look around and see where you could fit in. Try Smedian, a site that gathers useful information on publications plus links to joining them as a writer.
Submit to magazines
Study the websites for guidelines on what the editor is looking for and how to submit. Editors need good fiction and non-fiction every month.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Writing is a solitary occupation but sometimes it’s helpful to share the journey. Other writers understand the challenges and can be supportive, sharing ideas and information. Writing magazines host online forums where feedback and advice is given.
Many online groups exist, often run through Facebook. Real life groups get you out of the chair and offer social interaction.
Be prepared to stick with a group for a while to see if it’s a good fit with you and your aspirations.
Challenge yourself to do something new and stretch your muscles. Then employ that new strength in a new area. You never know, your real calling might lie in a totally different place from where you are now.
I do not always know what I want, but I do know what I don’t want. Stanley Kubrick
How much time do you spend doing things you don’t want to do? I’m betting quite a bit.
As a child, you race towards adulthood in search of a mythical time when you’ll cast off the powerlessness of childhood and start doing exactly what you want.
And yet, the older you get, the more you realise adulthood is more about what you don’t want. The shine wears off a job and lifestyle you thought you wanted. And to maintain them you’re bound to a whole series of actions you’d rather skip.
Maybe, as Thoreau said, most of us are leading lives of quiet desperation. From that position, the only act of power left is to say no. If you can’t get what you want, you can still avoid what you don’t want.
Is it that simple?
What Came Out In The Wash
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. George Bernard Shaw
We all know that communication is the key to good relationships. Despite that, we carry deep-seated assumptions and prejudices into our closest interactions without thinking to question or even acknowledge them.
In the early years, doctors in training work long, long hours. I recall when my partner was pulling a heavy on-call burden of two nights per week and two out of five weekends, plus commuting to the hospital. He moved in with me; I did our combined laundry and housework.
Things went along fine until I came home one night after my own stressful weekend on call, while he had been at home resting. My house looked like a bomb had gone off.
“Why haven’t you cleaned up or done laundry?”
“I’m tired and I just didn’t want to do it.”
His response gave me an insight into his mind. It was a rare moment of truth, though I was too mad to appreciate that right then.
Much later, I was able to break it down as follows.
I realised that he relied on emotion to guide his actions.
He assumed that I did the same.
He observed me doing housework without complaint.
Therefore he inferred that I did it because I liked it.
This isn’t so much about gender roles as emotional styles. His was if it feels good do it but more importantly if it feels bad don’t do it.
The problem is, that commonly held attitude won’t get you ahead in life.
Sweat The Small Stuff
You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction. Alvin Toffler
You want to feel good and you don’t want to feel bad. That’s a basic instinct for every living creature. But the really good stuff lies on the far side of “bad” stuff. Any success is built on many hours of routine, boring effort. A great performance is an iceberg; one-tenth visible brilliance and nine-tenths hidden trial, error, and reiteration.
A painter cleans brushes, a gardener picks weeds, and a singer practises scales because these menial jobs build the foundations of their craft. Without a solid foundation, the most astonishing building will topple and eventually fail.
Without perseverance and the discipline to do what has to be done repeatedly, you’ll never develop the grit you need to succeed.
When you’re stuck with stuff that feels bad in the moment but still needs doing for various reasons, you need ways to take care of the things you really don’t want to do.
Feelings Don’t Work
Boxing is not about your feelings. It’s about performance. Manny Pacquiao
Perhaps you think my story about laundry was just a silly domestic spat. We should have agreed a rota at the outset or something like that. You’d just get stuff done without fuss.
But I bet there is something that you haven’t done.
Something you should do, but you can’t bring yourself to start. A conversation, a letter, an action. Every time you think of it, your mind makes excuses and shies away.
You know this action will ultimately lead to a real benefit. You still don’t do it.
You’re trapped in an endless loop of feelings. No matter how trivial or important the task appears, it conjures up anxiety and avoidance that are usually symptoms of something deeper; fear of rejection, fear of failure, or shame. Those unnamed emotions lead to procrastination, which only amplifies them.
There are ways to escape this trap without therapy or suffering.
Name your feelings and set them aside. This is the “just do it” school of thought. It is what it is. Push through your boredom or fatigue, load the washer, and get it done.
Put a reward on the other side. Made a difficult phone call? Have a cookie.
Focus on the outcome and not the process. You want clean clothes, doing laundry is the way to get them.
Feel the fear. Perhaps there are bad consequences to leaving your task undone. You’ll get fired for coming to work in ripped jeans, or laughed at for wearing a formal gown to your retail job because your work clothes were dirty. Rather than avoiding the task itself, avoid feeling even worse by doing your laundry.
Ask “Super Me” to do it. Super Me is you, but stronger. Super Me doesn’t agonise over a phone call or email, scared to make a fool of herself. Super Me knows that even if she stumbles a little, the world will not end. But she won’t stumble because she’s prepared and ready. Super Me knows how to deal with rejection and in that case, she’ll find another way.
Review the need for the task. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be done by you. If you can reasonably delegate, do so. Pay for a laundry service. Teach your older children to do their own laundry, which is a basic life skill. If it’s a precious clothing item, maybe it would be safer if dry-cleaned.
Drop it. This is only after careful thought that concludes this task demands much more input than the result deserves. Many “shoulds and oughts” drop into this category. It may be a friend who never listens and constantly demands your time; a relative you see out of duty; or drinks after work you don’t enjoy with people you don’t like. If the mere thought of dropping it fills you with relief, and you’ve been honest in your cost/benefit assessment, you’re on the right track. Go ahead and make a positive decision to decline gracefully.
Do It Now
If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long. Mark Twain
Research tells us that willpower is a limited resource. Since procrastination is almost inevitable when it comes to doing the thing you don’t want to do, it follows that willpower needs careful management.
So when you’ve found the right strategy to do the thing, do it now. And if you can’t do it now, do it as early in the day as possible, before your willpower is depleted by forcing yourself to be civil rather than cursing at your co-worker or relative.
In other words, decide how you’re going to eat that frog and then, without hesitation, swallow it whole. It won’t taste as bad as you feared. As a bonus, everything else will taste much better, now that’s out of the way.
As for me and my partner, I explained that I subscribed to the “get it done” school and he needed to get with the programme. I despise domestic work to this day, but tolerate it in order to enjoy a tidy living space. We got on the same page, eventually. You can too if you can ask the right questions and listen to the answers.
You’re avoiding something. Get it done and off your plate. Get on with the next thing.
Self-improvement is everywhere. It’s a multi-billion dollar business and popular non-fiction niche on Amazon. There’s no shortage of people telling you how to achieve success in life, just like they did.
Picture person A, your typical guru. He’s young and healthy, with a bright smile and muscular arms peeking out of his short sleeved tee-shirt. He wakes very early, meditates, then writes in his gratitude journal before exercising. One cold shower later he’s ready to crush it! He has a blog, a book, and a course you can buy.
He has daily, weekly, monthly and life goals, and reviews them every week.
He reads. A lot. Business books, biographies of the famous, maybe a little light philosophy like Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.
Does this sound like you?
Or are you more like person B? You drag yourself out of bed, rushing around to get children and pets organised as well as yourself, before fighting with a million other commuters on your way to do something soul-crushing that pays the bills.
You haven’t read anything more than a headline in months, and evenings are a chance to collapse in front of TV before you do it all again. If you do read, you want light relief from all the stuff that weighs on you, not long words and tough concepts.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be more like the guru. The real question is, are self-help gurus the best guides for people like person B?
The Past Is A Different Country
He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past. Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
Memory is a tricky beast. Rather than fixed rail tracks, memories are more like paths worn through grass that are slightly different each time. Memory is approximate, and the passage of time makes it more so.
This means that when people look back to see how they arrived where they stand, it’s difficult to see the exact route. There are mileposts where something significant happened, and those memories are stronger. But there are also many days without particular events, and those are harder to recall.
Recall isn’t the same as a recording. We tend to over emphasise some points and downplay others. Some memories fade with time, making others look brighter, and often we tend to rose-tint the past.
So when someone tells you how he got from there to here, his account is likely to be distorted by emotion and time. Also he might downplay the difficulties or lucky breaks he had to make the journey seem more achievable.
Person A is an unreliable guide to his own history. We all are.
All Things Being Unequal
You can’t get there from here.
There are assumptions baked into most self-improvement schedules. Person A tells you that he reached his current position by following specific rules and behaviours, and you can do it too.
But can you?
Maybe your 5 o’clock morning is dark and cold for most of the year, and/or you’re up most nights with a child so need all the sleep you can get.
Maybe you’re not blessed with a mesomorph build and fast metabolism that responds easily and predictably to diet and exercise.
Maybe you have medical or physical challenges that make yoga a huge challenge.
Maybe you don’t have the temperament for introspection and you’ve never kept a journal in your life.
We all have different handicaps and starting points. There’s no level playing field in life.
The question is…what do you do about that?
Before You Climb, Sit Down
Never ask advice of someone with whom you wouldn’t want to trade places. Darren Hardy
You can and should challenge yourself to be better in pursuit of personal growth. But your journey isn’t exactly the same as mine, and there’s no single route to the goal.
Even more important, you need to be sure you’re climbing the right mountain for the right reasons. Only then should you pick a guide.
Your peak might be Everest or Kilimanjaro. You might aim for the very top or be satisfied to reach the foothills. Each requires different techniques.
Are you looking for inner strength, resilience, or a specific skill?
Get clear about what you want. Try the following, and if one doesn’t work try another.
1. Journaling is a reliable route into your innermost thoughts. It doesn’t have to be done first thing though. After dinner or before bed are good times to jot down a few thoughts about the day and what’s currently missing from your life.
If the idea of keeping a diary is a turn off, try this; once a week, write a list of the things that would make your life better. After six or eight weeks, see what comes up repeatedly. That’s a clue.
You could also try the future you exercise. Think about a future where you have everything you want. What does it look like? What are you doing, and with whom? Where are you living and how? Write it all down, in detail. This helps to crystallise the targets you’re aiming at.
2. Meditation is popular for stress reduction, improved mental health, and gaining insight. But you don’t have to do it in one specific way. The aim of meditation is a single point of focus to clear the mind. You can gain benefits from as little as ten minutes, as long as you practise regularly.
Apps are good for getting you started, but you can reach the meditative state through exercise (walking, swimming, running), prayer, or simple repetitive actions like washing or sweeping. Even focusing on the water raining down in the shower might work.
Or you can chant and focus on a candle flame. Do whatever works for you. The insights come not during your session, but later when your subconscious has had time to work out answers to the questions of what you want or need.
3. Talking might appeal more than endless navel-gazing. Choose your listener with care. You want someone who knows you well, but with less baggage and expectations than your mother or childhood friend.
A pet can be the best listener. They don’t interrupt and stroking them lowers your stress level as a bonus.
However you do it, form a picture of where you want to be. The question is, who will get you there?
Are You Gonna Go Their Way?
People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision. John C. Maxwell
Once you know what you want specifically, look around at the people offering guidance. Are they where you want to be? Did they share some of your challenges at the start of their journey?
If you can, look inside the range of books on offer. Is the writing easy to read? You might prefer an upbeat can-do style or something more measured.
Don’t automatically buy the best seller of the moment. Of the top twenty best sellers in self help on Amazon UK, only five are by female authors and one of those is about tidying up. Different authors have values, insights and goals that might not align with yours at all.
This can make the difference between success and failure. You must adapt the method to your unique circumstances and problem solve ahead of time.
If you have primary childcare responsibilities, pay attention to what the guru says about their family. If childcare doesn’t factor into their morning routine, ask yourself who is going to handle that in your life. Either someone else has to do it, or you’ll have to work around it.
If you’re not a lark, or you already rise at five to commute, the morning routine could shift into an evening routine. Try listening to books or podcasts while travelling. You could give up an hour a day of mindless TV in favour of working on your development.
Exercise is good for everyone, as long as it fits with your routine and current level of fitness. Don’t think of it as an all or nothing game. Simply walking has benefits if you do it regularly, and over time you can move on to more intense exercise in a gym or at home.
If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward. Martin Luther King
Start at the lowest comfortable level and set yourself up for success. Consistency is more important than intensity. Don’t overload yourself with too many changes at once. It’s still worth improving just one aspect of your current status quo, and the next change will be easier.
Choose Your Piece of the Pie
To achieve greatness, start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. Arthur Ashe
We can all be better versions of ourselves, but we have to be real about the process. Self-help is a crowded arena and every guru promises success with their methods. But you’re an individual and one size never fits all.
Remember caveat emptor — buyer beware. You don’t have to take on every suggestion — and you don’t have to do it all on day one.
Get clear about what you want.
Survey the options on offer.
Seek guidance from someone who’s overcome challenges similar to yours.
Make sure the guru stands where you want to be.
Adjust the route to fit your own needs and preferences.
There are many ways up the mountain — go find your best path.
Comment or question? Leave it below and I’ll answer.
In 2016 I went to see Beyonce in Dublin. It was one of the best lessons in pleasing your audience that I’ve ever been given.
We may inhabit the same planet, but Beyonce lives in a different universe. She flew in from London that day after watching Serena Williams win her seventh Wimbledon title. Then she performed at Croke Park in front of 75,000 fans.
Her show was an amazing spectacle. There were lasers and dancers on water. There was fire and fireworks. There was the feeling that comes from being part of a huge crowd, all of whom are focused on enjoying the same thing; a global superstar.
Yet her show wasn’t what I expected.
The Hero’s Promise
When you connect with your heroes through their work, you have certain expectations. When those expectations are met, you’re satisfied. If they’re not met, you’re disappointed.
Your feelings about that experience shape your future choices. If you’ve seen a movie, read a book, or attended a concert by someone you admire, you know how that plays out.
“That was amazing, can’t wait for the next one!” Or “It was all right.” Or “What a waste of time, next time don’t bother.”
All these responses are mediated by dopamine.
Dopamine is part of the reward system in the brain. It lights up the pleasure centres when we do something that feels good, and prompts us to repeat the behaviour.
Our brains have evolved to reward us when we engage in behaviour that improves our survival, such as drinking water, eating, and procreation. Nowadays we also seek dopamine hits elsewhere, in activities like shopping and gambling. For our brains, it’s all the same thing; if it feels good do it, then seek it out and do it again.
When you get what you expected, you get a dopamine hit. But it’s much larger when you encounter the unexpected. That’s why novelty is so important in life. That’s why gambling machines pay out unpredictably. Gamblers are hooked by a small win, and play on compulsively in search of the biggest win and the ultimate dopamine rush.
Why does that matter and what does it have to do with a pop concert?
No Rest For The Best
Beyonce is a global phenomenon. She could have milked the adoring crowd, played a few of her many wonderful old hits and forced a smile. She didn’t do that.
Instead of resting on her laurels, she raised her game.
She gave us more. More dancing, more costume changes, more new material. More dopamine hits.
We were dazzled by a smile that looked genuine and a gorgeous show that was underpinned by tons of hard work. She gave us her best and lived by her work ethic.
Her ethic says create a wonder, send it out into the world, then create another. Her ethic pays attention to the tiniest detail that 99.9% of consumers miss, but delights the 0.1% who notice. Her ethic says, “My audience turned out for me, and I am sure as hell turning up for them.” This is a creative philosophy we can all get behind.
Delight Is Tough
The secret of joy in work is contained in one word – excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it. Pearl S Buck
Building a body of work is hard. You have to keep going through stress and doubt and blocks. You have to go to your audience, shout for their attention, and then continue to deliver to keep their attention. Isn’t it tempting to rush through and cut corners? To say that will do and send it out anyway? That’s a mistake. While you absolutely must ship your work and avoid the perfectionist trap, it’s even more essential to maintain your standards. And to grow as a creator, you must push your limits and raise your standards over time. When you under-deliver, you risk turning people away from your future offerings. They won’t necessarily give you a second chance unless they’re one of your true fans – or feeling generous. When you over-deliver, casual observers eventually become fans who will amplify your message by sharing it with enthusiasm. The better you get, and the more you surprise even yourself with the quality of your output, the more pleasure you’ll have in your work. Put care into the details, and someone else will notice and smile. One of the joys of a good set of headphones is hearing all the intricacies that artists put into their music. Even though none of it can be heard on the radio or at concert volume, it’s there if you look for it. So to create delight, do more than is expected. Add extra information and references to blog posts. Layer meaning in every name in your fantasy world. Use the language of flowers in the bouquet given to your romance character. Don’t take attention for granted because novelty really does wear off. Try to find that extra 5% when you can, because it amplifies the whole experience for those who see it. The unexpected brings us joy. We’re wired for it.
Give us your best – plus a little extra we didn’t predict, to keep us coming back for more.
Comment or question? Drop it below and let’s talk.
It’s getting cooler now, autumn truly setting in as what’s left of summer fades away. Rain trickles down the windows. I stare out at the grey sky, and I don’t know what I’m doing or why.
I begin work.
Sometimes nothingness and oblivion are far more appealing than they should be. Have I had a good life, someone asks. I’ve been good. I’ve done good. Followed the rules. Not made a fuss.
I don’t know if that is a good life. If it is good for me.
I keep working.
It seems futile, shouting into the void, scratching symbols on the sand for the tide to wash it away. Hurricanes blow away human constructions, suck the very ocean from the earth. People talk feverishly of end times, booking places in the lifeboat of faith. They know they will be saved. All seems futile, all comes to an end, why not here?
I have not come to an end. I wake, and it is another day, and I go on working.
There are lean times, and times of plenty. There are droughts, and oases of green. There are things made of grey, and nothings made of black. There are places where all these co-exist, a Schrödinger dimension of ideas. My head is one of these places.
In the midst of death and endings, my fingers sprout new lives and beginnings that never were. I build word bricks into sentence walls and so construct whole cities of fanciful notions, airy and insubstantial and leaden. If I don’t spit them out they weigh me down and I drown in a sea of tears.
I must work.
Fly my pretties, out into an uncertain world of indifference and pain. Let me birth you one by one, sit gasping and bleeding in the road, then catch my breath and move on, never looking back. Another cuckoo grows within. I sleep, and life comes to me again with dawn. I rise, weary.
The work compels me.
If I have material or if I have not, it is the same. It is only the work, the creation, the what if spur in my flanks, that gives meaning to the day. I may turn my back, but it is always there.
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.
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:
You’re putting in an effort but not achieving the goal.
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.
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1. the action of working with someone to produce or create something. “he wrote on art and architecture in collaboration with John Betjeman”
2. traitorous cooperation with an enemy. “he faces charges of collaboration”
What comes to mind when you think about working in groups?
Collaboration can have both positive and negative associations depending on who you work with and for what result.
Writing is a solitary act. You close the curtains and lock the doors before exposing your inner thoughts and desires. Then comes the agonising process of deciding how much to show and how much to tuck away safely out of sight.
You set limits on displaying your truth, much like the spectrum covering those who walk around a changing room proudly naked and those who withdraw into a closed cubicle — or go home and keep their secrets.
Collaboration can feel like sharing that cubicle with a stranger, for a long time. The thought of inviting more people inside is even worse.
In the gym, people often work with one or two others or in bigger groups to achieve their aims.
Can that work for writers too?
All By Myself
Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. Helen Keller
Working alone is great because you can please yourself. And working alone is bad because you can please yourself. Who will call you out and make sure you show up if you don’t? Nobody will. You’ll simply make excuses and move the finishing line to tomorrow, sometime, never.
Promises to ourselves are much easier to break than promises made to others. That’s why we’re advised to make our resolutions public so other people can support us when we waver.
Working with someone elsemakes you accountable.
If you’ve agreed to meet up, write something, or complete an exercise, it’s harder to let yourself off the hook and disappoint your writing partner(s). In a small group you’re more visible and under greater social pressure to finish the task.
This alone can mean the difference between moving forward and spinning your wheels without any progress. An external deadline is a great motivator. In fact, for some people, it’s the only pressure that moves them from thinking to doing.
You know how hard it can be to start writing, and it’s even harder to finish. Self-imposed deadlines can work, but even the most disciplined person sometimes runs out of steam.
Then a scheduled meeting or submission date comes into its own because you don’t want to let someone down. Your self-image as an honest, reliable, trustworthy person depends on delivering.
So you focus and produce something. Perhaps it isn’t the perfectly polished jewel of work that you dreamed of, but that only ever existed in your head. Deadlines force completion.
Collaboration means accountability. Accountability means getting things done as promised. What does that mean for writers?
One Plus One Equals One
Collaboration on a book is the ultimate unnatural act. Tom Clancy
Presumably, Clancy was talking about fiction. If a novel represents one person’s vision, how can more than one person write a novel?
One example is the successful crime author Nicci French, made up of husband and wife team Sean French and Nicci Gerrard. They chose the female name combination because their first novel had a female narrator.
They talk here about how they make shared writing work. Strict rules are essential — for example, each must accept the other’s edits, preventing a constant back and forth that would be exhausting and result in no book at all.
Writing pairs remain the exception in fiction. If you’re compatible with another writer in terms of personality and style, you could attempt it as long as you agree on the ground rules from the beginning. Each of you will bring different skills and knowledge to the work.
But there are many pitfalls in trying to create a cohesive story with more than one writer. Is there a place for multiple authors in one book?
The Sum Of The Parts
The fun for me in collaboration is… working with other people just makes you smarter; that’s proven. Lin-Manuel Miranda
A short story anthology gathers a number of pieces into a single volume, with or without a unifying theme. Each writer works as an individual but is included by group membership or success in a contest.
The editing process is a collaboration aimed at polishing your work so it conforms to external standards. If you haven’t published anything before, working with an editor will teach you how to present your writing and save you time and effort the next time.
Writing groups offer support while requiring you to produce work regularly. I’ve found my real-life and online groups invaluable. They’ve challenged me to write in different styles, to a theme and deadline, and most importantly to engage regularly with other writers.
Sharing tips and problems improves all our work. And my stories have now been published in four anthologies, with more planned this year. Collaboration means opportunity.
If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
Writing is just you and a blank page at its simplest, but that isn’t the whole story. Collaboration makes you a better writer. It brings accountability, opportunity, and productivity into the picture.
Combine all three with your hard-won words, and you’ll go far.
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How special do you feel right now? Over seven billion people on this planet, and there’s nobody quite like you.
But unique isn’t always enough, is it?
You feel ordinary, nondescript, forgettable. Even though you’re trying hard to be more, make a difference, stand out somehow, it’s not working. You feel like a failure because the gap between where you are and where you want to be is so great.
So what do you do about it? Let’s start with what definitely won’t work.
Feedback Doesn’t Work
You’re realistic about what you can achieve.
Your goals are SMART. You write, but you’re not JK Rowling. You sing, but you’re not Beyonce. You play soccer, but you’re not Lionel Messi.
You take stock of your skillset and work on your weaknesses. You take on board the lessons of constructive critique.
Playing only by these rules traps you in a limiting cycle of assessment and remediation.
Can you recall being praised for doing something really well? How long ago was that?Yet being rewarded for doing something well makes it more likely that you will do it again.
Positive reinforcement works, whether we are learning to tango or training a dog to fetch a ball. Positive reinforcement rewards desired behaviour. Each time you do something that brings you closer to the desired standard in any way, you get a reward.
Rewards are tangible like money, or intangible like time or praise. Praise is one of the most potent rewards of all because it’s rare, and winning genuine praise from a person you respect is a great motivator.
Positive reinforcement rewards effort, not just the final result. Reaching a standard involves repeated effort that moves closer to the target, and rewarding the work done motivates you to keep trying even when the goal is still some way off. That’s crucial when undertaking a lengthy project or course of study.
Bad To Be Good
Some skills come easy. And we are conditioned to believe that if they come easy, they aren’t as valuable as those that are hard won. The teacher doesn’t praise your descriptive prose, she focuses on your weak grammar. The parent ignores your accurate scale model of the Death Star but focuses on your low grade in maths.
Over time your confidence in the things that you can do with ease, the things you enjoy, is eroded. You’re trained to discount your talents in favour of endless remedial work on things that are valued more. You’re forever failing. How does that feel?
Time to reset your approach and accentuate the positive.
The Humility Trap
Some people have a hard time identifying anything they’re good at. They feel uncomfortable even thinking about it. This usually relates to a time when they showed skill and were reprimanded for it.
Perhaps you were told to stop showing off, to be humble and modest, not to rub it in people’s faces. You remember how it felt to be slapped down for thinking you were better than the next person when you were probably worse.
Your discomfort is rooted in shame, a deep and pervasive human emotion. Shame is corrosive. Shame bypasses the behaviour and sticks to the person, leaving a sense of wrongness that’s hard to describe but easy to take on board.
Negative value judgements by important figures can lead to a lifetime of low self-esteem.
You learned to keep your head down because the tall poppy standing above the others gets cut down. Even heroes of popular culture are revered one day and vilified the next.
These comments are expressions of envy. Building strong self-esteem helps you shrug off the hateful comments. They hurt, but you move past them because you know what you’re here to do.
Performing a task successfully gives us a sense of being in control and achieving a goal. The more often we do this the greater our feeling of self-efficacy. It follows that performing tasks we enjoy and are good at increases confidence.
Achieving mastery of a task is one of the best ways to increase self-efficacy. It promotes a positive attitude to change, and willingness to engage with challenges that serve us well in every area of life.
You have the right to be good.
Every Facet Shines
An elite practitioner spends many hours working on their weaker areas. But they also work on their strengths, the things they are good at. To be elite is to grow in all areas, not just one or two. Exercising skills makes us happier, more attractive to others, and more confident.
People who possess confidence without arrogance and believe in their own abilities are happier than those who have low self-esteem. The belief that you can change and improve your own life is built on setting goals and reaching them. This confidence supports all areas of life, as long as you have a growth mindset. That is, you believe that you can learn and change throughout life; your skills are not fixed in stone.
A person with a growth mindset isn’t limited by where they are currently because they know they can learn new things. They acknowledge their skills, and then they amplify those skills. They value their talents, therefore they work on them and use them, which makes them happier and more likely to repeat the behaviour.
A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals. Larry Bird
Focus On The Right Things
What’s your superpower?
It’s the thing that comes easier to you than others. You don’t know how you do it, you just do. You learn and improve quickly, even if you struggle with other things. It might be part of a bigger skillset or stand alone.
Packing a suitcase
Playing a new song by ear after hearing it once
Knowing all your sports team’s stats for the last five years
Sense of direction
Affinity for animals
Making a meal from leftovers
You might not need or use these exact skills every day, but when you do they bring a smile to your face. You did it and you did it well. Why not smile and feel good about yourself more often?
Own Your Power
Think of your superpower.
What do you find easy and enjoyable? What makes you smile?
You’re going to do more of that. Take your sports knowledge to the pub trivia team. Get out your guitar and play along with the radio. Read that story you wrote last year and enjoy the descriptions you got just right. Bake a pie because you’re a dab hand at it, take it to work for coffee break. Buy a book of Sudoku or download a game to your phone and play to the end. Instead of buying a card for your friend, paint a tiny canvas instead.
Why do this? Because you can.
Doing a thing well is its own reward. If you do something really well, in a way no-one else can, money may follow. If money were the only measure of success, the rich would be happier in proportion to their wealth. We all know that money is important but not the whole story.
Focus on how you feel about yourself and avoid the trap of more money, less happy.
We’re not here to blend into the background. We’re here for a short time, and our only purpose is to make the best use of that time.
I want to marvel at your ability to compose rude poems on the spot or drink a yard of ale without spilling a drop. I want to see your beautiful calligraphy or hear you sing Happy Birthday in four languages. Then I want to see you smile and feel good. Isn’t that better?
We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. Marianne Williamson