I knew something was wrong the moment I walked in the door. I had about three steps in the hallway to feel that sense of impending dread, and then I saw him.
My husband was sitting on the couch, head hanging down, eyes closed, with his hands in his lap. He was holding a napkin. I knew he was hurt. Because of the napkin, I assumed it was his hand. “What happened? Did you tear off your thumbnail?”
“No, it’s my eye,” he replied, and it was almost like a lever switched over inside me into Action Mode.
There were just a few problems: I was pouring sweat because I had just come back from my workout; it was dinnertime; and our dog had apparently been extravagantly sick in the bathroom.
The other set of problems: I was scheduled to teach back-to-back workshops at a conference the next morning, and I had planned to spend the rest of the evening running through my slides.
What I do in crisis situations like this is to start talking to myself. I ran through the next obvious steps and made sure I had them in order. Call advice nurse. Find health insurance card. Take dog out. Give him a dose of metronidazole. Cut the pill in half. Clean up disaster on bathroom floor. Microwave quick dinner, feed man. Take shower and get dressed. Write down instructions from nurse. Make sure we both have our wallets, keys, and phones. Call Lyft. Most of those steps hit the list in random order, as I thought of them, and I mentally shuffled them into their correct place in the task list. Somehow I had accomplished all of it during the 40-minute hold for the advice nurse.
I did a perimeter check and two bag checks, grabbed a protein shake for myself, and we were off to the emergency room.
My husband was effectively blind. He couldn’t even open his eyelid, it was so swollen, and if he tried to use his good eye, the injured eye tracked with it. When the admittance nurse asked him to rate his pain, he gave it an 8. “He has a very high pain threshold,” I added, because we had both had a casual discussion about the pain scale recently and we agreed that a 9 was “involuntary screaming.” I knew he would never claim an 8 unless he had to.
We got to the ER at 9:00 PM, in the midst of flu season. An injured woman took one look at my husband, leapt up, and offered him her seat. I found us two adjacent seats around 12:30 AM. Until 2:00 AM, I was still thinking about how I was going to make use of this experience as an anecdote to introduce my workshop on “The Organized Leader.” We got to see a doctor at 4:30 AM.
By that point, my dreams of glory had been let go. I was prepared for a series of outcomes, including an admittance to the hospital; emergency surgery; the loss of my husband’s eye; and permanent damage to, or loss of, his vision. I had run through fallback plans for each of these, thinking of next steps and calls to make. Of course I had the good sense not to tell him any of that. I know him well enough to know that he was doing the same, and also thinking, of course I would never tell my wife any of this. We wouldn’t want to scare each other.
We’ve both learned many of these planning skills together, through life lessons and by seeking out information for the advanced scenarios. We spent three weeks backpacking through Iceland together; we took first aid and CPR classes together; we went to martial arts classes together. We both recognize ourselves as leaders, and leadership only really matters in emergencies, such as Someone Might Lose an Eye Tonight.
It turned out okay. My husband had a corneal abrasion, quite large, and I got to see it enhanced with glow-in-the-dark dye under the special lamp. Oddly, both our dog and I had had the same type of injury in the past couple of years! What I had, compared to my husband’s, was like a small paper cut versus scraping all the skin off one’s knuckle. Our dog had to wear a cone for a week. In this situation, I had true empathy, because I had literally shared his experience.
It helped me deal with the frustration of having to let go of my big opportunity.
We got home at 7:00 AM. The sun was already up. I helped my temporarily blind husband up the steps and got him home, just in time to take our dog out again. The veterinary medicine had worked, so at least we had that going for us. Then I emailed everyone on my team and texted my director to alert them that I wouldn’t be attending the conference. We finally got into bed at the time I would have been finding my seat for the keynote.
I knew I would be missing a lot. I had scheduled a planning meeting and a group photo with my team, all of whom were volunteering in various slots. My workshops were the result of a month of campaigning to include a new category of topics on the slate. Not only had I succeeded in making my case, but I was chosen to teach them myself. Plausibly I would be called onstage for a minute for one reason or another. It was the four-year anniversary of my foray into public speaking, and I had looked forward to celebrating this, vanquishing a fear and turning it into a strength. I’d stride confidently into a ballroom and deliver the material I had been polishing all week. I’d change lives! I’d send my audience out, transformed and inspired to tackle tougher problems!
Instead, I graduated into a new level of leadership. I passed the test. I demonstrated the value of everything I had put into my slides. It’s not our stuff or our calendars that we are “organizing.” It’s our relationships and our values. I was able to keep my head on straight and get us to the hospital largely because I keep an orderly home and manage my mental bandwidth. I strengthened my marriage. I even remembered the dog.
One day, I’ll present my workshop. Maybe I’ll be asked to teach it more than once. The material will only be improved by this experience, and my motivation will only have intensified. Being organized isn’t about making pretty binders or choosing just the right paperclip tray. It’s not about getting promoted. It’s about mastering the situation, about knowing what to do even when everything feels impossible. Leadership is about realizing the infinite power you have to help others and work toward a better outcome.
Unbelievable! I thought when I saw this book. The great and powerful BJ Fogg has finally written a book!!! This guy’s research on habit formation is mentioned constantly by other writers, and I used to wonder how they were able to get this special access. How Tiny Habits finally got written is addressed in the book, and it’s like meta-proof that this stuff works.
Of course habits have nothing to do with how fascinating, moving, and endearing this book is.
Personally I’m pretty good at starting and stopping habits, as soon as I realize what it is that I want to do. Tiny Habits had an interesting explanation for why that might be. I often do a little dance, make up a little song, jump up and down, or otherwise physically express how excited I am that I did a small thing, like hitting Send on an email that I struggled to write. Apparently this is the key to building a habit, teaching the brain that YES, this is the right step. Then I realized that I picked up this habit from my mom and it cheered me right up.
This book is loaded with diagrams and exercises that I found truly helpful. It’s designed for someone to learn it and also teach it to others, such as a team at work. I particularly liked the brainstorming method of the Swarm of Behaviors. The lists of sample habits aimed at people in different situations is terrific, and I think the list of little ways to celebrate is best of all.
Tiny Habits is based on years of extensive research, and it’s been tested on real people with real, shall we say, situations. It works on the tough stuff, like caregiving, grief, parenting for special needs, and health issues. It also works on the more light-hearted stuff, like wanting to eat ice cream every night. Amazingly, Fogg even includes research on how to help other people build their habits.
It is no surprise that Tiny Habits hit the bestseller list. I fully expect this book to stay in print for many years, to go through multiple editions, and to help millions of people create positive changes in their lives. Starting with me, and, I’m hoping you’re next!
There’s nothing wrong with taking bold action. Life and happiness occasionally demand it. But remember that you hear about people making big changes because this is the exception, not the rule.
One of my personal themes for the last year has been to “strengthen others in all my interactions.”
It’s a simple question. Why him? Why this guy?
If you’re a hiring manager, I’m obviously asking you why you want to extend an offer to this applicant. If you’re a police officer, I’m asking why you think this suspect did it. Fair to ask, right?
If you’re dating a male person, and someone asks, Why him?
...shouldn’t it be immediately obvious? Wouldn’t you have a list of reasons?
Wouldn’t you also wonder why the question came up?
I can think of several happily married friends about whom nobody ever asks, why that guy? Why him above all others? That’s because you always see them laughing together. They have a happy home and, if anything, they’re maybe a little smug that they’ve found each other.
Unfortunately, I keep meeting others where it isn’t so clear. I mean... really... why him? Can you please explain what you like about him?
The toughest of these cases are when the guy is checked out. Either you never see the two of them together, or if he is there, he isn’t participating in the conversation. He’s making no effort to make friends, share anything about himself, be amusing, or maybe even grunt in response. It’s always surprising how many couples don’t like each other’s friends! Like, what, did you expect that when we got together it would be JUST US forever, no social life?
Worse is when the guy is rude. Pointlessly rude to basically everyone: friends, coworkers, waiters, innocent bystanders.
Worse still is when the guy is rude TO HIS DATE.
Do you ever notice this? When someone is dropping little snarky remarks and sarcastic observations, about the person they’re supposedly in love with? When you stop to think about it, you can’t recall a single nice thing this person has had to say?
Maybe it’s just me. I feel like this happens a lot, though.
What I’m looking for when I see a couple together for the first time is simply what kind of connection they seem to have. Most couples have a hidden language, where they don’t even need to make eye contact to communicate. They have body language and facial expressions that nobody else can read. They may not always agree, but they do know what the other is thinking. A lot of family members can do the same. If these shared signals seem to be missing, then maybe this couple hasn’t been together long enough yet.
The next level is any sign of mutual positive regard. In a good relationship (friends, family, and especially romance), they should like each other, respect each other, and love each other. That seems pretty basic, not much to ask, but in reality it’s not all that common. You usually only see two out of three, sometimes just one, and sometimes zero.
Like him. You enjoy his company and think he’s fun to be around. You find him interesting. His sense of humor works on you. You can talk to him about anything. Ideally he feels the same way about you.
Respect him. You believe he has a value system and that he lives consistently with those values. You may not share all of them but you have a pretty clear idea of what’s important to him and what he believes in. The more you know about him, the more impressed you are. You’re proud of him for at least one reason. You’re pretty sure he feels the same about you.
Love him. You feel affectionate toward him, you feel a warm regard and want the best for him, your heart swells a little when you think about him. No question, you know he feels it too and he’ll say it loud and proud.
It’s a match when you both can check off all three boxes.
What tends to happen when someone is in a bad match, but doesn’t want to admit it, is that they start making excuses and trying to explain away evidence that this guy actually kinda sucks.
Why is he never around? Wherever you are, he’s not there. If you go to a party he doesn’t come. Doesn’t he share any of your interests?
Why does he keep making those negative comments about you? Does he think he sounds funny? Doesn’t he realize we’re your friends and we don’t want to listen to him pick on you?
So uh, no offense but what exactly attracted you to him?
(Since he doesn’t seem particularly into you, and he also doesn’t seem all that nice, or charming, or funny, or smart, or good looking, or...)
Is it true that he still refuses to say the L word for some pretentious adolescent reason? Like the normal type of relationship that every other human being has is somehow beneath him? He’s capable of some rarefied and pure love from another dimension, only nobody has reason to believe it because he acts cold and withholding?
It’s honestly shocking how many dudes hold back the L word (for months or years or forever) and still get 100% of the affection and attention of a normal man capable of normal behavior. You’re not original, you’re a manipulator. Just say it. Or if you refuse, get a bunch of t-shirts printed that say I WILL NEVER SAY I LOVE YOU, EVER, I MEAN IT and wear them on your next two hundred first dates.
What a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that a love match is about mutual connection. It’s about the other person’s behavior and how willing he is to engage, to reach out, to put in emotional effort, to communicate and build something just between the two of you.
It doesn’t matter what he looks like, what’s going on in his life, what job he has, where he lives, whether he’s a good cook or a talented musician or whatever. All of those things would be true whether he was single, dating someone else, or with you. The only thing that matters is what the two of you are like together, and it should be obvious. It should be obvious that you’re a good match together, that you like each other and you have fun together. You should be able to describe each other as friends.
When someone asks, Why him? What do you like about him? I hope you can say, He makes me smile.
Revenge doesn’t get nearly enough appreciation.
There are few motivations as deep and pure as the desire to get back at someone, to prove a point, to feel like you’ve come out on top. This energy can be harnessed for a lot of amazing things. In fact, for some of us, it’s the main reason we’ve ever accomplished anything.
This I’LL SHOW YOU energy can help propel us to better jobs and better relationships. It can make us walk taller, and certainly walk faster. It can also turn into one hell of a good workout.
Anger is not much good on its own. Stewing over something without doing anything is just punishing yourself. Like the original problem wasn’t bad enough! Taking action and focusing on a solution is much better, and in that case, anger can be like rocket fuel. For instance, we used our anger at our dishonest property managers to organize a rapid relocation. They quit being our problem at that moment. As much as we love our new apartment, we have an added dimension of satisfaction because our rent is no longer going to the old place.
Moving is one kind of strenuous workout. If we’d had to move away unexpectedly, we might have felt sad and mopey. Our reluctance would have made the job of packing and hauling boxes feel endlessly exhausting. Instead, I had us half unpacked on the first day.
HA! TAKE THAT!
In the gym, I call this type of workout “tantrum yoga.”
There’s an exercise I learned in kundalini class in college. It is extremely effective to do with little kids. Lie on the floor, legs together, arms at your sides. Set a timer for two minutes. Think of something that seriously makes you mad, like social injustice, your worst boss of all time, a traffic incident, or the random person who stole your lunch out of the office fridge. Physically tense up and tighten every muscle. Holding that angry memory in mind, pound your fists and your heels over and over as hard as you can, as fast as you can. Go ahead and vocalize if you’re in a place where you can do that. AAAARRGGHHHH!!! RAWWWRRRRR! Pound pound pound thud thud thud.
The trick is that you have to keep going for the entire two minutes.
Really get in deep into the memory. That wasn’t fair! I hate that guy! Hey loser, you suck! You just don’t DO that! Work yourself up as much as you can.
Inevitably, and I’ve seen this in class several times, everyone starts to wind down after only a few seconds. We have to keep being reminded and encouraged to sustain the tantrum energy.
Afterward, it’s possible to lie on the floor feeling totally washed out, rung out like a dirty rag. It feels impossible to carry that amount of raw anger. On a somatic level it starts to make sense that our anger only hurts us, that the person who inspired it walks away clean every time.
Many of us have such a storehouse of swallowed pain that we can generate dozens or hundreds of specific incidents like this, enough to sustain us through months of revenge workouts.
This is part of what I love about intense exercise, even though I used to hate it. I hated it when it was mandatory, when I felt like the indentured servant of rude mean gym teachers and school bullies. Anyone would want to avoid getting slammed with a dodgeball. It wasn’t until I discovered that I could choose my own workout and leave my bad feelings somewhere out on the trail that I got into it.
Forgiveness feels terrible when the concept is misunderstood. You mean they’re just going to get away with it?? It’s easy to buy into the idea that forgiving someone means letting them off the hook, making excuses for inexcusable behavior, turning into a doormat. Really all it means is freeing yourself from living in that moment forever.
It was bad enough when it happened. But then to live it over and over again hundreds of times? How unfair is that?
Forgiveness just means making sense out of it. It means turning to a new chapter and saying, That was then, this is now. It means, this would never happen to me again because now I can see it coming and I have a few... shall we say... nice little backup plans.
This is what I discovered in martial arts. I tapped into this well of hidden rage that had built up in me, from feeling bullied and victimized. I was always on the small side, one of the littlest kids in my grade, and I never knew what to do when some young punk decided to mess with me.
Oho, but I do now.
There are other things that ignite that desire for revenge inside me, but they aren’t personalized. I have a lasting vendetta against chronic pain, for example. I see my night terrors as an almost tangible force that I can punch. I used to ride my bike around town actually yelling at my thyroid nodule, YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME! GET OUT OF MY BODY! (Which it did).
The feeling that I’ve found through revenge workouts is total bodily autonomy. This body is MINE, not the plaything of some external force. It is my birthright to live in this mortal vessel. Any kind of diagnosis or health condition is an invader and interloper. It does not belong in me. Or at least I can get myself good and worked up thinking about it.
I had a client, when I was doing fitness coaching, who asked for my help. She was going to a New Year’s party and she knew her ex would be there with his new girlfriend. She had a clear vision of herself walking in, looking like a million bucks and strutting her stuff. I don’t need you, I can do better, good luck with him honey. That burning desire for revenge got her straight to her goal in only a couple of months. She sent me a picture of her party dress, and she looked like she felt: a winner doing her victory lap. I bet she thought of some little way he disappointed her during every workout, until you know what? She was done and ready to move on.
That’s how I feel about my cancer scare, and my fibromyalgia diagnosis, and my ankle injury, and all my various other physical setbacks over the past twenty years. The same way, in fact, that I have felt about my ex-husband and a few political figures. Get out of my life! Begone! Eventually, those emotions are no longer as fresh or vivid. What’s left is physical power, a higher energy level, and the inner knowledge that whatever it was can never catch us again.
Right around now, everyone deflates. Aw geez, I had all these great feelings on New Year’s Eve and now they’re gone. There was only one magic moment to make the perfect wish, but I didn’t have a tidal wave of motivation, I broke my only chance at a perfect streak, and now it’s too late for me.
I wish we all had this feeling around the entire concept of the perfect streak. Aw, gee, it sure had us all fooled. What a con job. Disappoint.
What is true is that we all have a tendency to let consensus opinion influence what we do or don’t do.
EVERYBODY KNOWS that resolutions don’t work, therefore I can only do an extremely narrow set of activities for the rest of my life no matter what.
Part of a resolution really does work, and it’s confirmed through research. That part is the ‘implementation intention.’ State the thing you plan to do. Most of us do it all the time, routinely. “I’m going for a coffee, care to join me?” “I can’t wait for the new episode.” “Going to Costco to eat all the free samples.”
All of these are clear and bright implementation intentions.
Does anyone doubt that these are going to work? Do we doubt that someone is going to go out for coffee, feeling convinced that they’ll come back with zero coffee every time? Do we doubt that someone is going to finish watching their favorite show? Do we doubt that Costco will continue to hand out free samples?
What’s the difference between these classic, common, and practical implementation intentions, and our New Year’s Resolutions?
Answer: they know HOW, they know WHEN, they know what to do if Plan A doesn’t work out, they’ll keep trying because any obstacle would feel like an anomaly, and they probably don’t have any naysayers. Unlike, in every way, all our shiny new resolutions.
I don’t know if you remember the first time you ever ordered your own meal, either from a restaurant or at a food counter. I do. It was hard! When I was a senior in high school, I decided to learn how to take myself out for lunch. I went to a cafe at the mall and I got a bagel sandwich. I sat down and ate it and read a book, and then I sat there for another 25 minutes because I didn’t understand what happened next. Do you wait until the server comes back to the table and brings you the check? Do you go up to the counter? How can you tell which kind of place is which? What do they do with your change? I felt very alone and young and dumb and incompetent, that is until I pulled up my socks and went to the counter. I FIGURED IT OUT! All by myself! I even left a tip!
The point of this is that at one point, every single thing that we think is easy, routine, or obvious was a part of the unknown.
What that means is that everything we’re unsure about today, is something we are still able to learn how to do. There are other people who know how, just like we know things that are confusing and unfamiliar to other people.
The question is really when.
When are we going to do all these great things?
The middle of January is when most people tend to give up on their resolutions. I think that’s because they realize they haven’t really made much progress yet. We often feel locked in to one single version of something, and if we can’t make it work then we think we’re just not cut out for it. Some very common examples are trying to wake up earlier (rather than go to bed earlier), trying to do one specific kind of workout, or trying to go from “zero to sixty” and become an instant expert.
It’s the new me! I wake up at 4:45 AM every day from now on, so I can run uphill in sleet and hail in the pitch dark, and then at the end of the day I cook gourmet meals entirely from scratch. Perfection or bust.
The vision that we have is a fictional character from a movie that nobody would watch.
Personally, I am useless in the early morning and I know it. I have been on the receiving end of absolutely dozens upon dozens of lectures about early rising, and always being early for things, and sleep hygiene. I don’t care because of three reasons: 1. I know what pavor nocturnus is like and I know that they don’t, because if they did they would definitely say so; 2. I’m probably more productive than this person and I have no shame around my schedule; and 3. I don’t care if other people disapprove of my habits in general. If you have the time to lecture me, that is proof that you have nothing better to do, which then automatically invalidates your opinion.
You know who sleeps from midnight to 8:00 AM? Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and moi. Billionaire hours.
The first answer to the question of when is, when do you feel the best and when do you feel the worst? What time of day are you more likely to be in the mood to do things?
Where we mess up is in punishing ourselves, trying to frame our desires in terms of willpower and motivation and moral fiber. What happens then is a series of fashion don’ts: feeling cruddy, not doing the awesome thing, and being less likely to attempt awesomeness the next time.
What works is to focus on how appealing you find the thing, whatever it is. Remind yourself what you like about it, what makes you curious, and why you’re drawn to it. Play around with it, exploring and learning before you attempt any kind of actual commitment.
Then, ask yourself, what time of day are you most likely to do this little experiment? For instance, if you want to learn hula hoop tricks, are you more likely to play with the hoop in the morning, at lunch, after work, right before bed? On the weekday or on the weekend? At a party or alone in your living room?
It really is that simple. If you aren’t sure what time of day you might do something, then you probably won’t do it until you can see yourself fitting it in somehow. No doubt you’ve always spent all twenty-four hours of every day of your life. You’ve spent them somehow. The question is when you’re going to take hold of your hours and use them toward what you want the most.
This is a window into possibility. There are infinite ways to think about money and to talk about it. This is ours. Maybe our way will make you feel cheerfully smug about how much better your way is working. Maybe it will boggle your mind. Either way, please accept this invitation to have your own strategy session.
We started talking about money together at the very beginning of our friendship, long before dating each other had ever crossed our minds. It was how we bonded. We were both stressed out and feeling broke and victimized, both recovering from divorce. I was sleeping on an air mattress at the time and he had two metal folding chairs at his dining table.
Part of what we both had in common was that we didn’t trust our exes about money. Both had been secret spenders and both resented us for wanting to save money or make financial plans for the future. We both resonated with the feeling that total transparency is good. It feels easy and light and clean to us.
We like talking about money and strategizing together. It makes us feel like a team and it makes us feel smart.
Not everyone is going to feel this way, and that’s good to know. If you’d like to avoid these kinds of discussions because your partner is not as focused on financial security as you are, then you can. You can just plan your own finances and set a good example. Maybe try to find a way to make the discussion lower-stakes and less tense. Or, like we eventually did, you can come to the hard realization that the two of you simply are not compatible.
Sometimes someone just can’t give you what you need.
No matter what you say or what you do, no matter how hard you try, another person may never fit with you. They have zero ability or intention to change because they are who they are. Their values are not your values, and they never will be.
The tough thing to realize here is that in this kind of situation, I may be the villain! My desire to change another person may make ME the bad guy. This other person never claimed to be any different, never agreed to change, never endorsed my values, and never signed onto my plan. Maybe this other person will have a difficult life because of this, but that is their right. Autonomy is their right. Why waste my time and life energy on this person, out of seven billion possible partners, when they don’t want what I want anyway?
On the other hand, maybe I’m the sloppy one, maybe I’m the one with no plan. In that case, it’s my job to figure out what to do, because it’s my responsibility no matter who I’m with, whether I’m single and alone or in any kind of shared situation. Trusting someone else to figure everything out for me means trusting in the illusion that that person is immortal, omnipotent, and immune to change.
The bedrock of financial strategy is asking, “Can I handle it?” In response to a list of scenarios, what would I do if that happened? If there is a way for money to fix that type of problem, do I have that money? If not, could I get it?
This is why we keep some small, crumpled bills in our go bags. We start with the assumption that in a major crisis, the internet may be out for at least three days and we may not be able to access any of our accounts. We need food and water and we need a way to pay for transportation. A gold brick would be useless in that kind of scenario, and so would a ten million dollar house or a fat stock portfolio.
After the emergency cash comes the default strategy. What if everything is basically fine and crisis-free for the rest of our lives?
We make sure our expenses are lower than our income, that we’re on track. If we kept doing what we’re doing, and we ignored our finances for several months, what would happen? Would it be okay or would it be a disaster?
Next is the part that takes actual concentration, and that is tax season. We sit down and do a little research. As time passes, our ages change and regulations do, too. Can we put more away for retirement? Have the contribution limits changed for our IRAs or our 401(k)?
There was definitely a time in my life when I felt like this type of question did not apply to me, and never would. I felt so broke that I could not imagine a different future. As a result, I missed a lot of opportunities to apply for better jobs, build credentials, or even make a new and improved financial plan.
Assuming I would always be broke almost guaranteed that I *would* always be broke.
There are two things that my husband and I do that most couples do not do. One is that we have a weekly Status Meeting when we talk about our finances. The other is that we took a financial workshop together a few years ago, and as a result we are living on about half our income.
We’re able to talk about our shared accounts cheerfully and with enthusiasm, because we have a working plan. Since our expenses are so much lower than our income, we have a lot of leeway. We can handle surprises (which, financially, are almost always the bad kind of surprise) and we can also “afford” vacations and treats. We live radically, in a tiny home, with no vehicle, and because of that we have almost no financial worries or stress.
Talking financial strategy raises a few extremely salient questions. Can I have that kind of discussion with my partner? Am I at least as focused and prepared as I expect anyone else to be? Am I ready to make changes to my core lifestyle? Do I have reason to feel optimistic about my situation and the future, or is this more of a time for brutal truths?
Financial strategy means caring for Future You, both yourself as an individual and “you” as future partners. It can be a loving gift that leads to long-term contentment. Eventually. And maybe with someone else?
Creative Calling is an incredible book. Chase Jarvis, founder of CreativeLive, shares everything he knows about creativity, building a life as a working artist, and dealing with failure, procrastination, and resistance. It feels like the sort of book you could just keep next to you as you work, occasionally touching the cover for reassurance.
Our culture somehow values all kinds of creative work with massive amounts of money, fame, and material support, while also doing its best to browbeat creative impulses out of people. I live in Southern California, and frequently visit Las Vegas, Nevada, and what both of these areas have in common is that they reliably churn out billions of dollars of entertainment sales. Working in the arts has the highest ceiling of almost any field. Yet we’re trained to doubt ourselves and feel that working in a creative field is unrealistic. “Don’t quit your day job.” It’s nuts.
A young artist repeated some of this pushback to me. We happened to be standing in the middle of Powell’s Books, a veritable temple of proof that writing pays. She didn’t think she could make a living as the extremely talented illustrator that she already is. I waved my arm around in a wide circle, pointing out that tens of thousands of books and products around us all, each and every one, had a professionally designed cover. Where do they come from? Even humdrum consumer products still have art on the label. Proof is all around us and we still struggle to believe that art is work.
I have two pieces of advice for hopeful creatives. One. Don’t tell naysayers about your projects. Two. Read Creative Calling. When in doubt, repeat.
Choosing to pursue every creative interest is equivalent to abandoning them all.
Who says you can’t do those things? And what have those naysayers ever done themselves?
When artists can’t figure out how to pay the bills, we all lose.
Your life is not a democracy.
Productivity has become a self-help institution that deals with the symptoms rather than the cause of our problems.
What you’re really struggling with is the willingness to value as-yet-unmade work.
If you want to understand your true priorities, look at two things: your calendar and your bank statement.
All you have to do is follow instructions and do the work.
Something weird has been happening on Words With Friends. I wonder if it’s just me. If I were an investigative journalist, I would undoubtedly dive in and make a little documentary about it. I’m lazy, though, and that’s not my beat. Maybe I’ll just do a little humor piece instead.
Mine is a Scrabble family. Both of my grandmothers were tile queens, basically unbeatable with their eighty-point plays. I grew up around the board. My aunties invited me to play as soon as I could write basic three-letter words, and they beamed with pride when I laid down my first legit move. My brothers and I initiated my nephew the same way, allowing him to keep score for our games with his sprawling numerals when he was still too little to spell.
That’s why I play Words With Friends. It’s a way to reach out to distant family.
I’d quit playing for a couple of years; I lost heart when my grandmother passed away and all my games timed out. I challenged my brother to a game for the first time in quite a while. I didn’t intend to play anyone else.
I started getting all kinds of game requests from strangers, typically five a day. It didn’t take me long to notice a couple of things.
One, they were all white men roughly 5-20 years older than me.
Two, they all wanted to chat, which, no offense, I hate and do not want to do.
Three, they were all really terrible at the game.
Ugh, another one! I would tell my husband. What are all these dudes thinking, trying to start games with me? I’ll stomp a mud hole in their board!
I accepted the first few, and then I started declining all of them. Three or four timed out. I wound up resigning the chatty ones as well because I just couldn’t stomach it. I didn’t want to block anyone and hurt their feelings.
See, I was still assuming these were real people.
I had this idea that some podcast or dating book was advising lonely older fellas to pick up women through Words With Friends. Huh, I thought, what must that be like? I’m 44 and super mega married, but if I were single I would go out and meet people face to face.
After declining a bunch of invites for several days, I thought, Maybe it’s my profile photo. For someone a decade or more older I might look reasonably appealing. I took a new photo showing only my ring hand. For the record, I wear the world’s most unambiguous wedding ring ever, a plain gold band. I’M MARRIED, is the idea here.
The weird invites kept coming.
“These guys can’t even play!” I told my husband, who at this point was bemused and had also gotten sucked in. We were playing each other, taking turns winning by over a hundred points per match. I think he blows his whole lunch break on our games. “What are they thinking, challenging someone at my level?” I’m not, like, ranked or whatever, but I do have nearly 40 years of experience. “Average word score, seven points? I played better than that in first grade!”
Finally, I got one! I was so excited. A challenge from a player with a higher average word score than me, that’s a challenge I’ll accept. He opened with a nice 59-point bingo.
The chat began immediately. “Hello beautiful Jessica.”
I threw up in my mouth a little, but after four turns this was shaping up into an impressive board. I thought, if only I can get him to cool the Lothario BS then we can get down to business. I replied.
“I’m extremely married btw. Just here to play. Impressive opening!”
He resigned with a 20-point lead??
I had been telling my husband about the exciting development of the Worthy Challenger. We both got some comedy value out of the situation. I wondered openly if this guy was using an app to make his plays, just so he could... make his plays. A new kind of “neg,” to make your opponent question her gameplay and think you’re some kind of stud?
They might be onto something, I thought. I used to tell everyone after my divorce that I would only marry a man who could beat me at Scrabble. Be careful what you wish for, wink.
It clicked for my husband before it clicked for me. It’s a phishing scam, he said.
These may actually be bots, or I suppose there could be a bunch of live humans hunched over their keyboards in some corner of the world, trying to lure in lonely old women. It happens on dating sites All. The. Time. “Oh I love you schmoopy, now please send me tens of thousands of dollars for plane tickets/bail money/my sister’s surgery” and goodbye retirement.
They obviously don’t know their gaming broads.
Personally it’s hard for me to imagine anything less attractive than a game request from an arrogant man, non-respecter of marriage vows, who can’t even freaking play. My parrot could run a better board, but then she cheats by feeling out the letters with her tongue when she draws her tiles.
You can recognize these invites pretty easily. They’re all professional headshots and I’m pretty sure every one of them has a beard, like the guy from the Most Interesting Man in the World ads. Several of them are snuggling cute little purse-dogs. Come on. If these were “real” men they would all be either holding a fish or leaning on their car.
I do play strangers from time to time. I have a regular partner, a woman about my parents’ age, who has been beating me by around ten points. Breathtaking endgame. I have another, no idea what gender/nongender they may claim, who plays well and also never chats. As far as I’m concerned, we can go on like this forever. My brother has one as well; they’ve been playing for several years.
I feel lucky to live in a world where I can play virtual board games, with my family, my husband, and well-matched strangers. I also feel lucky to be the kind of skeptical curmudgeon who is more or less invulnerable to flirtation. I hope you’re trying to flatten me, not flatter me.
I still haven’t done anything so far this January! I’m proud of this because sometimes it’s a difficult commitment to keep. It’s more important to me to work my goals ten months of the year than it is to try to maintain some kind of “””perfect””” “””streak””” starting on Day One. Because January is a basically impossible time of year to do anything, other than maybe sleep more or spend less money.
The one thing I have done is to reframe one habit by thinking of it as something else entirely. That’s where the News Machine comes in.
I have a terrible habit - actually many of them - and I also have a good habit, or at least one that I can invoke from time to time. This is part of my secret of habit change and personal transformation, the discovery that a good habit can be harnessed to flip over a bad one.
It’s called “anchoring.”
Peanut butter and... jelly.
Socks and... shoes.
Floss and... brush your teeth.
Trampolines and... ice cream cones. (Ooh, messy).
There is a reverse of this, as there is of most things, and that is when two bad habits are anchored together, or when a good habit triggers a bad one. If a pattern like this is recognized, then it’s time to brainstorm and figure out how to separate the two things. Like, every time I walk into the craft store I spend $40, or, every time I get a coffee I also get an ooey gooey pastry.
Usually the “bad” habit is the thing that we feel is an intrinsic part of our very personality. I quite literally AM an ooey gooey pastry! On the molecular level! I don’t ever want to be the kind of person who is not that!
This is why I usually refer to them as cute habits. Not “bad.” We weren’t born bad, we were born interesting!
Okay, so, confession: my cute habit is that I’d rather be reading than doing basically anything else. And the bad version of that habit is that the more I read, the more I bookmark, and the longer my “to read” list gets. The reason this is bad is that it interferes with my enjoyment. I start to think of my favorite thing as a must-do. Rather than having 100% fun, I start to feel like I “need” to get “caught up.”
Do you ever feel that way?
Crafty people often start to feel like they “need” to “finish” projects, like they’re “behind” on scrapbooking or “finishing” a quilt. What is supposed to be nothing at all other than a relaxing hobby somehow transmogrifies into a guilt machine. I promised! I owe! It’s late! Those emotions come from anchoring the hobby to something else, like giving gifts, showing affection to friends and family, trying to save money, or earning approval. The pressure also comes from shopping for materials, where the more focus there is on the hobby, the more accumulation of materials, and the more space they take up in the home. We think the only ways to relieve those practical and social pressures are to craft faster, rather than to stop buying supplies and stop trying to create 100% handmade gifts. Get back to making it about relaxation!
That’s turning into an entire separate piece, but I’m not going to claim that I’ll ever write it because I’m trying to reframe my personal concept of procrastination.
Why do I feel like I’m procrastinating on personal projects? Why do I sometimes feel this way even when there’s no deadline, nobody is asking for anything from me, and literally nobody cares but me?
Is this true for you, for anything in your life?
As with a lot of things, it’s easier to just go with it than it is to try to change the emotion. I recognize that I feel “behind” on my reading, and I figure out what I can do with that feeling that will lead directly to a positive action.
In my case, I use it to work out on the elliptical.
There! I said it!
I lied, I cheated! I’ve actually been crushing it this month down in the workout room!
I just didn’t want to admit it while talking about New Year’s Resolutions, because it makes other people feel bad. Like my weird little goals have anything to do with anyone but me...
I’ve found that I seem to read faster when I’m on the elliptical for some reason. It makes the time pass quickly.
I’ve tried other types of habits to keep me working out. I tried running on the treadmill, and it makes me feel like my brain is slowly dying. (Current gym does not have a treadmill). I tried the exercise bike but it makes me sore and I don’t think it gives me any results. I tried watching TV shows on the elliptical, but it makes me feel like every minute is really 18 minutes. The thing I’ve settled on is that I can read through news articles.
I can’t emphasize this enough. If you think in terms of “supposed to” and “because” and “everyone else” and “not doing it right” and “fail,” you’re stopping yourself before you start. Try thinking in terms of “works for me” and “not sure why, but” and “for some reason.” You like what you like and you’re allowed to like it.
This is why I’m not thinking about my workout as a workout. I’m thinking about it as the News Machine. When I change clothes, I’m thinking about how many articles I’m going to read, and *that* is my personal burn rate. My metric is that I started out with nearly 400 articles in my news queue, and now I’m down to 120. Yay!
After that, there’s my *other* news queue, and then my “read at leisure” email folder, and then my open tabs...
According to my phone, I’m burning 18% more calories per workout after only two weeks. That comes from the feeling that I call “getting the lead out.” Like I threw off some lead weights. If my starting goal had been to “burn calories” or “move faster” I’m sure I would have been discouraged and I would already be feeling like I aimed too high.
Instead, I’m really just excited about finally feeling that elusive satisfaction of being “all caught up.” I can see it, a month or two from now. If I can keep reading this fast, if I can keep getting a spot on the News Machine...
I’ll probably just keep adding more stuff and making my list longer. Because who would I be without a to-do list or a never-ending stack of things to read?
I’m working on my procrastination tendencies, and something struck me. There are basically two types of procrastination: letting yourself down or letting other people down.
The most commonly procrastinated tasks are financial planning and dealing with health issues. Those come from a lack of urgency, because we can’t imagine Future Self. When we think of an older version of ourselves, the one who will be suffering the consequences of our delays, it lights up in our brains as “a stranger.” Old Me? I don’t know her.
Other than these Future Self types of problems, most of the things we procrastinate affect other people. In this light, suddenly procrastination is less about our to-do lists and more about how we show up for others.
It’s one thing to put off making a dentist appointment. It’s my mouth, after all. It’s another thing to put off doing something when someone else is counting on it.
Not returning calls, texts, voicemail, emails, skywriting, singing telegrams, or whatever is not a task, not in the way that filing taxes is a task. It’s a refusal to engage. It’s a missed connection, a ringing phone that is never picked up, to put things in 1980’s terms.
Maybe that’s the difference?
In the Eighties, most of our missed connections would literally be a ringing phone or a knock on the door. We spent time together face to face. This is hard to imagine, but kids would walk over to each other’s apartments, knock on the door, and ask whoever answered, “Can So-and-So come out to play?” We’d call each other’s homes and literally anyone in the family might answer, because the phone was an object that sat in the kitchen or living room.
Now, a huge amount of our communication is textual. Social media, text messages, email. It feels much colder and more removed. The expectation may be that we do *not* reach the other person directly, that the response will be time-delayed.
While this may work well for most people, for others (including me) I think it makes it feel more abstract. Just a few letters of the alphabet, probably on a piece of glass, rather than another human face and voice.
When we think of a task in the abstract, it’s easy to forget that our participation matters to someone. The act of setting a bowl in the kitchen sink, wandering away, and leaving it there feels like something other than “I hereby choose to proactively annoy my coworkers/roommates/spouse who have already told me that they hate having dirty dishes in the sink.”
Maybe sometimes that act is done specifically because it bothers other people? Maybe we don’t feel so much like “putting this in the dishwasher takes five seconds, I can do it faster than I can actually make the decision” but rather “I DO WHAT I WANT.”
Is what we do, or avoid doing, built around asserting our autonomy?
Personally I feel that my autonomy is a resolved state of affairs. There is no debate around whether I do what I want all the time or not. Putting my bowl in the dishwasher is a way of marking my territory, and it’s the same if I wash up after someone else. This is *my* kitchen and *I* make the rules in this room. Or, I clean up after myself in other people’s homes because I affirmatively build my reputation as a do-er and person of action. If people are going to gossip about me, I want it to be about something far more interesting than whether I am a lazy dish-leaver.
For me, physical tasks are the easiest.
I like mindless chores because I can knock them off while listening to a book. I am good at practical things like sewing buttons, assembling furniture kits, or adjusting the brakes on my bike. I do these things because they make good puzzles and I’m a physically restless person. Whether I’ve made someone else happy by doing these small jobs is mostly beside the point.
There, I fixed it!
Where I have more trouble is in communication chores. I tend to convince myself that I need to choose the perfect time to have a conversation with someone. I’m going to write that response when I can really concentrate and get the details right. The longer I delay, the more it turns into a big deal, which makes it feel like it needs even more bells and whistles.
If you are my friend and you haven’t heard from me in a year, it probably means I really like you!
It seems like maybe there are two sides to this coin. Maybe there are people who would have an easier time doing abstract chores, like taking out the trash, if they realized that it really matters to someone else. It could be a gift. Not “I am doing this annoying chore” but “So-and-So will be pleased if I do what I said I would do.”
On the other side of that same coin, maybe people like me (and are there any?) would have an easier time following through on communication if we saw it more as a task to get done. Maybe thinking of a pending call or message as a loose button or a dirty dish would make that crucial difference.
Usually when I finally get back to someone, all they wanted was to touch base and say Hi. It didn’t need to be a huge emotional breakthrough, just a one-minute “thinking of you.”
How weird would it be if my various casual friends and acquaintances knew it’s easier for me to do something like, I dunno, cleaning out a drain than it is to just say HI back?
All of this probably comes back to our tendencies, to how likely we are to meet internal vs external expectations. In my case, I know that I will do anything if I’ve decided it’s a good idea. What is it that I’m telling myself when I put off responding to text messages? How can I convince myself to see this type of communication as a simple, straightforward social task?
How about you? What type of procrastination are you prone to? Would it be easier for you to get it done with someone else to keep you company? Or are you more of a lone wolf?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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