I saw Jeff Goins live in an academy at World Domination Summit, and he gave out copies of Real Artists Don’t Starve to all of the attendees. The list price of the hardcover was almost as much as the ticket price for the academy, making this an act of radical generosity. Either that, or it was a savvy marketing tool, as the book includes a flyer for… wait, what?? What was I just saying? I just looked at the website for Goins’s Tribe Conference and when I saw the lineup of speakers, I sort of lost my mind. Some of my totally favorite writers and artists will be there. Ryan Holiday, Leo Babauta, Marsha Shandur, Jon Acuff, Jonathan Fields, Tsh Oxenreider, I have the worst case of FoMO ever right now. I’m cross-scheduled or I would definitely be finagling to go to this event. Anyway, I started out with a review of Real Artists Don’t Starve, and that’s no time to be distracted thinking of all the successful, prosperous artists whose work I enjoy so much.
One of the main points of this book is that we don’t make art to make money, we make money to make art. The Starving Artist rejects money with a passionate hostility. (In fact, this doesn’t apply only to artists, but to most people with a scarcity mindset). The Thriving Artist understands that money allows for the creation of larger-scale projects. Pause for a moment and think of your favorite musicians, actors, writers, cartoonists, and other artists whom you admire. If they’re financially successful, why are they still working? Obviously it’s because making their art is the most interesting thing they can possibly think of to do with their time. The money means better equipment, higher quality supplies, bigger venues, more elaborate costumes, better sound systems, and the ability to reach a larger audience. We’re fans. This is what we want from our most beloved artists, right? Then why would we deny it to ourselves? We have to accept that it’s fair to bring in money in proportion to the value that we put out in the world.
Art is love. This is why we’re transfixed by it. It’s an outpouring of talent and skill and passion that could never be duplicated by anyone else. It is well and just that the creators of masterpieces, those who have dedicated their lives to their art, should accept as much as we want to give them. For some reason, though, we hesitate to think of ourselves in this context. Oh, sure, my favorite musician should be rich so she can go on tour and come to my city. But me? Sell out? Never.
My husband is an aerospace engineer. We’ve learned from each other that engineering and writing have everything in common: the continual urge to create, the equal need to edit and edit again, the frustration of hovering right at the edge of an insight and having no idea exactly when the missing thought wave will arrive. There are two differences. One, engineers actively seek out extremely critical peer review. Two, nobody ever asks an engineer to do anything for free. We’re pretty sure it never even crosses people’s minds. “Will you design this motor drive for me? It would be good exposure!”
Why isn’t it absurd to ask artists to work for free? Why?
Real Artists Don’t Starve. This is a terrific book by a man who knows whereof he speaks. If he gets his way, we’ll all start respecting our own work, thereby bringing dignity to the profession of working artist. I can’t recommend it enough. Now I need to go back to fantasizing about being at the Tribe Conference… sigh…
This book is definitely for you if you read the full title and feel a little ping of intrigue. How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up. Emilie Wapnick gets it. The person who has one dream job, gets hired, and then does nothing else for an entire career is a rarity! (The only person I know who ever fit that description worked as a programmer in the games industry, but then he was promoted to technical director, so that may not count anymore). Most of us are going to fumble around, feeling at least somewhat adrift and dissatisfied. How to Be Everything is a handbook for all of us who know we have far more to offer than could ever fit in one ordinary job.
Wapnick introduces the concept of the multipotentialite. This is a person with multiple interests. For instance, Steve Martin is an actor, comedian, and author. I personally would not want him to stop doing any of these things, or focus on one to the exclusion of others. I wouldn’t even want him to focus his writing on just plays, novels, memoirs, or anything else he chooses to write. While there is only one Steve Martin, alas, the world can certainly use more multipotentialites like him.
What I love about the book is, first, its embrace of people like myself who could never settle on just one thing. I’ve been called a flake and a procrastinator. Close friends greeted my plans with skepticism, until I learned never to announce a project until it’s complete. I was useless and bored as an office assistant, a job that will quite soon be automated away by artificial intelligence and software anyway. Right now, I’m a coach, organizer, writer, and entrepreneur, with (currently unpaid) side interests in illustration, public speaking, and comedy. In a few years I’ll probably be describing myself in a different way. I find it amusing that a significant part of my income derives from royalties and dividends, rather than regular checks, although I sure like those, too.
How to Be Everything is a manual for people who want to fit in more of their interests. There are several types of multipotentialites, each quite different, and the book includes profiles of many of them. We get windows into the ways other people have found to make a living around their various interests. I think I’m a Phoenix. [I’ve since changed my mind, or... have I???]. The book addresses issues common to creative types, like impostor syndrome, procrastination, burnout, and indecision. I highly recommend reading it right away.
I read this book and wrote this review before going to the World Domination Summit and taking Emilie’s academy. Now I love the book even more! That was one of the most highly charged rooms I’ve ever been in. Hundreds of us, chattering away, trading ideas, feeling like THIS IS A REAL THING. The most focused I’ve ever seen that many people was when we were directed to write a “master list” of all our interests. I have to say that meeting all these other multipotentialites and working through this material has changed my life and reorganized my brain. Thanks for that!
I got a birthday spanking from a drag queen. I love drag queens! Did I ever tell you that? I guess they’re the opposite of me in so many ways: extravagantly fabulous, self-assured, poised, stylish, and reveling in arcane beauty rituals that may forever remain a mystery to me. I just find them enchanting. For me, the excitement of seeing a drag queen is probably akin to the excitement that other people feel at the prospect of eating a cupcake or getting a pony ride. What? For ME?! YAY!!! They’re so marvelously dignified and wise and hilarious. At least a dozen of these elegant confections wandered the park. One in particular came within range of where I stood, pretty much just gawping.
She was strolling around offering, “Spankings! Who wants spankings?”
I replied, “It’s my birthday on Monday! I’ll take one!”
“Okay, on a scale of one to five, how do you want it?”
“I’m going with a one.” I braced myself.
This was great. She intoned, “May this spanking awaken in you the power to dominate the world!” Then she slapped my butt. Pretty solid for a one! Now, if and when I start dominating the world, you’ll know why.
I thanked her and she touched my elbow, gracious to the last.
This all happened during an intermission between keynote speakers during the main stage portion of the World Domination Summit. Apparently it was in response to a dispute with a caterer in a previous year, an unnamed entity that failed to provide a service and then insisted on charging for it anyway. So this is one possible response. “You refuse to honor our contract? Fine. I’m hiring a squadron of drag queens to do it next year, so ha!” I’m going to ponder this and keep it in mind if I ever get into a failed negotiation.
The event started with a short film that included Chris Guillebeau riding a bicycle through the streets of downtown Portland, barefoot and dressed in a zebra-print bathrobe. Assuredly that is going on everyone’s bucket list.
From my perspective, there are now two layers of appreciation when I watch a professional speaker. The first is for content. What are they saying? What can I take in from that message on a personal level? The second layer of appreciation is for stage presence and speaking skills overall. What can I take in from this that I might one day be able to imitate? I’m watching how they inhabit the stage space, how they time their material to sync with their visual aids, how they gesture, and of course how often they say ‘um’ or smack their lips. I can see myself up there one day: not this year, not next year either, but one day.
I’m skipping over the emotional impact of everything that we heard, although at one point I folded over and wept. Tomorrow I am posting something more relevant than a paragraph of me going “Ehrmagerd, I laughed and cried and it was totally awesome.” I can’t do justice to half a dozen incredible speakers by summarizing what they said. There’s no way I can affect you, my reader, in the way that I was affected through second-hand amateur reportage. All of which is to say, you just had to be there.
There is a break in the afternoon long enough to get lunch and do a meetup or two. We had a plant-based meetup where we made friends with two young ladies who are attending WDS for the first time. We were well met. The conversation turned into some pretty excellent ideas that may or may not have involved robots and luchador masks. Also: free cake.
Me: “Here’s my card.”
New friend: “This is going on my vision board.”
I went to a meetup called Ask the Literary Agent, by David Fugate. He’s the guy who sold The Martian for Andy Weir. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? The format involved sixty hopeful writers asking detailed questions about how to work with an agent and get published. I have never typed so fast in all my life. Sixteen pages of notes in an hour, interrupted briefly when I found out that I was the moron who didn’t silence her phone. 1. Almost nobody ever calls me and 2. My ringer has been in the default position of OFF for the last five years. I don’t even know how it got turned on; the switch must have gotten moved in my bag. By gremlins.
Then someone who attended my meetup on Monday asked to hire me and said that three people have asked whether I have a book out.
We went back for the afternoon session. We came out transformed.
Then we walked over to the restaurant where my uncle and I shared a family birthday dinner. Somehow, in all the bustle and hustle, there still seems to be time to fit in the most important stuff, which is showing up and being present for family.
Watch this space for an epic announcement tomorrow!
Somehow I wound up tightrope walking. By “somehow,” I mean that I saw the slack line and immediately felt a magnetic attraction to it. I sat on it for a while, my body balanced three feet off the ground on a three inch wide fabric strap, surprised that I could balance quite well with my hands in the air. Then I took my shoes and socks off and climbed up. My cousin, who is quite tall, walked with me so I could hold his shoulder. I made it all thirty feet without falling off!
This is how I make decisions. I have a general policy of pursuing anything that interests me, with a brief pause to ask, “Is there any reason why I should not do this?” Why shouldn’t I walk a tightrope?
We were at the opening party for World Domination Summit. A band played on the stage at the Edgefield, and someone in a T Rex costume wandered around the grass dancing with people. I saw a hula hoop, and the sign that I was deeply involved in conversation is that I didn’t wind up inside it. I took my cousin over to meet Chris Guillebeau, who was as usual quite gracious, although think how busy he must be this week! We rode back on the shuttle, a school bus transformed into a wandering karaoke machine with everyone singing “Don’t Stop Believing.”
In the morning, I attended the Sparked academy by Jonathan Fields of the Good Life Project. I started following his podcast last year when I saw that he would be a keynote speaker at WDS. I love the way he listens so deeply and draws out these incredible conversations with fascinating people. The academy drew on material from his upcoming book. The central question is, How can we align who we are with what we do in the world when we don’t actually know who we are? When we know more about ourselves, we can find a way to contribute in our work in a way that makes even a disappointing job into a source of meaning and purpose.
Also, an attendee shared that she has a stand-up desk on wheels that she rolls out onto her deck. We were all suitably impressed.
Usual scurrying to get lunch, running into people, meeting new faces, trying to eat before running back in the same direction. I caught up with my husband, who had no plans all morning and spent the time as a flaneur, wandering around and chillaxing in a park. He has vacation face now.
In the afternoon, he went to an academy called Afford Anything while I went to one called How to Make a Living Writing, by Jeff Goins, Tim Grabo, and Joe Bunting. MIND OFFICIALLY BLOWN. I took twenty-three pages of notes. The main takeaway is that there are plenty of ways to make a solid living as a professional writer, none of which have anything to do with our romantic rockstar image. One example was the literary novel that made lifetime sales of $85, followed by the non-fiction writing manual that earned $30,000. Also compelling: the fact that six out of ten Pulitzer winners interviewed made their living from teaching, not writing. At the end, Jeff Goins announced that he was giving each of us a free, signed copy of his book Real Artists Don’t Starve. Note that the book’s list price is $24.99 and we paid $29 to attend the academy.
This is abundance mentality in action. These three prosperous, successful men showed up to teach hundreds of wannabe writers how to make money in their own field. Potential competitors! They know that many of us will look further into their offerings, buying their books or purchasing their online courses or promoting their work to others. It’s not about the ticket sales on that particular summer day in 2017, it’s about wordfame - and the simple desire to teach and share and help other people to succeed.
Comparing notes with my husband later, there are some predictable themes that come up when talking about money. (He never really experienced scarcity mindset around money; he says that even as a little boy in a trailer in a rural small town, he always figured you could just go out and get a job and earn as much as you wanted). In his academy, where the premise was that it’s possible to “Afford Anything,” a number of attendees gave pushback about buying lattes. It’s the avocado toast problem, right? “Oh, if you want to afford things you have to not waste your money on stupid stuff like that.” Even when presented with charts and percentages, certain people are unwilling to let go of their preconceived notions about how money works. My husband and I spend an absurd amount of money at Starbucks - but we also save 35% of our income and I own a few shares of Starbucks stock. I’m not going to apologize to anyone for it, because 1. I do what I want and 2. I like Howard Schultz’s continual attempts to improve conditions for his employees, such as setting up the college plan. Also, anyone who wants to nitpick my spending is going to need to step up with hard numbers and transparency about their own cash flow. I’ll go there with you; I don’t mind.
We started our day with a pound of fresh blueberries, which we had because we woke up at 6:00 AM and my husband went out to pick them in my parents’ yard while I was blow-drying my hair. He had a relaxed and casual day while sitting in a park, enjoying the warm summer weather. These highlights of our experience did not cost money. The point here is that there are plenty of billionaire moments available to everyone, and much of the time, rather than enjoy watching the sunset or smelling an actual rose, we sit around complaining about all the stuff we can’t afford. Or why other hypothetical people spend too much money on stuff. Meanwhile I’m walking around wearing my FREE HUGS t-shirt and collecting all the free hugs. So yeah.
People are always looking for something new to read.
Millions of people have published a book, or several, and lived to tell the tale.
It creates jobs for publishers, editors, graphic designers, marketers, bookstore clerks, printers, warehouse stockers, truck drivers, and on and on.
Who are you to deprive the world of your work?
The worst case scenario is that nobody will read it, and that's HAPPENING NOW.
Another negative scenario is that someone will criticize it, but you can be criticized anywhere on the Internet or walking down the street for no reason. If it happens, at least it happened because you did something.
Is your unfinished manuscript really what you want to be thinking about on your deathbed?
Aren't you curious what happens in the last chapter?
You can always write it and then choose not to publish it.
You can always write another draft.
You can always publish it under a pen name.
The writing process makes you smarter and improves your writing skills.
Publishing a book is an opportunity to meet new people, people who like books.
Publishing a book is also a great excuse to lock yourself up like a hermit.
Compare it to training for a marathon. If you want an impressive achievement under your belt, which one is easier?
Writing is a much more interesting default behavior than most of the alternatives, such as watching TV or wandering around a shopping mall.
Get it out of the way so you can move forward. Maybe you choose never to write another book, or maybe you love it and you start another one right away. At least you're not stuck in the doorway wondering anymore.
You wouldn't even be thinking about writing a book if you didn't have a story somewhere inside you.
Your story deserves to be told. Your words want to be free.
You are not entitled to be the judge and jury of whether your story should be available to people. It belongs to the world. How dare you lock it away and leave your audience with nothing better to do than to watch reality television?
You are killing literature! You selfish non-writer, you. Where is it? Give it to me!
Start typing because we're out here waiting to find out what you have to say.
Heresy! I have razored pages out of a bound book! I have torn off the binding! Sacrilege!
Blank books used to be a major weakness of mine. I decided to start buying fancy bound books instead of cheap spiral notebooks as soon as I saw a stack of them at Ross for $2.99 each. Before I knew it, I had an entire shelf of them. I would be using one as my all-purpose writing notebook, but then I wouldn't have it with me, and I'd desperately want a notebook, so I'd buy a new one. The same project found its way into half a dozen books. Then there were the journals, the songbook, the poetry notebook, etc. It got a little out of hand.
I realized that bound books simply don't work for me as a writing tool. I could never restrict myself to only one topic per notebook, so all my work got mixed together. There was no way to rearrange pages or swap them between books, most of which were of different formats. I also went through a lengthy index card phase. Let's not talk about the various sizes of colored sticky notes.
If the goal was to track my work, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was to be able to easily find a specific note, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was portability and accessing my work remotely, notebooks were not working.
If the goal was to protect my papers from the action-oriented hands of professional movers, notebooks were not working.
The only thing that was working about the notebooks was that I liked how they looked. They had pretty covers (although they didn't look all that great next to each other). I have great penmanship. The notebooks made lovely props if my goal was to impress people with how writerly I am. Theoretically, that's what my published work is for, but in practice, people can probably tell by the way I mutter to myself and try to store multiple writing implements behind my ear.
I got a laptop. The paper note habit almost completely disappeared. I started writing about 5x more material. I developed a note-taking system that works for me, which is that I start a new note every month and label it with the month and year. IDEA LOG: SEPTEMBER 2016. Then I put the date each time I have something to write down. I can access it from my phone. I have successfully used the search function to track down notes. It's restful.
Then I started to feel more concerned about my older paper notes. I couldn't search them. There were several occasions when I wanted something off a paper note, but I was at the library or the cafe, and I'd have to wait until I got home. I couldn't always find what I wanted, because I couldn't always picture which notebook it was in. Madness, I tell you!
We had a problem with the sprinkler system in our yard while we were out of town one weekend. The landlord lives next door, and he noticed it and brought in a plumber. Meantime, the floor of our laundry room was flooded. The plumber was there when we got home, which was great, but my first thought was: "What if a pipe happens to burst in the wall right next to my files?" The thought of my sole copies of all those years of work suddenly soaking wet and running ink made me turn pale.
I've been scanning my old notes, and I'm nearly done. It's incredibly tedious. It does make good podcast listening time, though. Each time I label a file and store it in the cloud, I breathe a little easier. I'm that much more likely to be able to find something when I need it. That much more of my work is safe from ruin.
The process of going through twenty years of paper has brought up some interesting revelations. The sheer volume of it has finally convinced me that yes, I am a real writer. It turns out to be something that, over the last thirty years, I simply haven't been able to stop myself from doing. There were far more plays, stories, poems, song lyrics, timelines, and novel outlines than I had realized. Like, triple. The other thing I noticed was that I used to write very faintly in pencil, and over time, I switched to ink. It got thicker and darker over the years. It's almost like I gradually turned up the volume of my voice from inaudible to loud.
The drawback to that is that my earlier work doesn't scan well. I'm having to type it. Otherwise, I could pay to mail it off and have it scanned by a service for two cents a page.
I made the decision of whether to type or scan based on relevance. If I consider the project to be 'active,' meaning I have plans to publish it in the next few years, it gets typed and filed in the same cloud folder as the other notes on that project. If I don't plan to do anything with it, I scan it. I've changed my mind on older projects before, and they feel worth saving, but at this moment they don't feel worth the hours of typing I would have to do. It's also much faster to preserve them.
I took apart a bound notebook. It wasn't all that hard. First, I used a razor cutting tool to slice out the used pages. More than half of the book was still blank, which has been true of most of my notebooks. Then I tore off the binding, which I had cut up with the razor anyway. The pages with notes were much easier to sort into groups, based on project, and several pages went straight into the recycling bin.
How do we deal with the emotional pain of damaging a bound book, when we've been taught to revere books? We remind ourselves that the contents are what's important, and that storing a lone copy on paper makes it vulnerable to every kind of loss or damage. We don't want to be creating a home "Library of Alexandria" situation.
How do we deal with the emotional pain of "wasting" all that blank paper? We remind ourselves that we also wasted the paper on which we wrote. We remind ourselves of all the junk mail, brochures, takeout menus, and other forms of paper we've brought home over the years. We put it into context. What we're trying to do is to create a system that will cut back on paper consumption for years to come. We're recycling. We can't spend our lives torturing ourselves with guilt, dread, and anxiety over material objects. We redirect our focus and attention to PEOPLE and loving our loved ones.
The way I'm approaching my boring, time-consuming scanning project is to keep reminding myself that soon, I'll be done. Once I'm done, I'll never have to do it again. It's a blip. After an hour and a half, I feel like I'm losing my mind, and I stop and come back to it on a later day. Sometimes the next day, sometimes not until the next week. Inevitably, I start thinking about burst pipes again, and that brings me in to do another stack.
As I finish scanning file folders and bound books, I start letting go of others. I've been holding back certain notebooks because I wanted to keep them in handwritten form. They've felt like talismans of a sort. One is the poetry notebook I started in middle school and another is the journal I kept in Iceland. Today I looked at them and realized that the only way to keep them is to digitize them. The process has been more comforting than I anticipated. I only wish I'd started sooner.
The School of Greatness academy was scheduled for the last day of the World Domination Summit. We dragged ourselves in, exhausted from getting in at midnight after the previous night's after-party, brains full to overflowing after drinking from the fire hose of inspiration all week. We were expecting a live version of the School of Greatness podcast. That would be great, and also about all we thought we could handle at nine in the morning. It wasn't long before we forgot to be tired.
We answered questions and raised our hands. We partnered up and did group exercises. We found ourselves being drawn in, engaging in ways we hadn't expected. It's so easy to be cynical, awkward, flat, or distant from proceedings like this. Lewis Howes knows what he's doing. This is what happened:
A volunteer shared his experience with one exercise. He was holding himself back from something he really wanted to do, which was to start a blog. (Naturally, I perked up at this). He had decided to do it. "That's great. When?" Some hemming and hawing, which Howes wouldn't accept. "You're being vague about this." The guy was obviously squirming, as were the rest of us. Were we all going to have to take our turn in the hot seat? Were our own excuses safe? "Today," he said. "When today?" They went back and forth, and finally he committed: "By two PM." Whoa! That would be only two hours after the end of the academy!
Instantly I formulated a plot. I'm devious that way. I would go to him during the break and make him an offer he couldn't refuse. This is what I did. I went over and shook his hand and asked, "Will you do me a favor?" He'd never seen me in his life and couldn't possibly have any idea what I was about to ask. "My husband is thinking about doing his own blog, and he's nervous about it. I wonder if you'd be willing to be my guinea pig so I can show him how it's done. If you would do this favor for us, we'll buy you lunch." He was a bit gobsmacked, but he said yes. Another man had walked up while we were talking, and he said, "I was about to suggest the same thing."
So it transpired that the public commitment was made. Two perfect strangers both felt impelled to offer assistance. One was a writer and the other was a technical expert. We agreed to meet at the same spot after the academy, and everyone indeed showed up as planned.
This is where it gets funny. The hopeful blogger already had: a complete blog post written in his notebook; a registered URL; a WordPress account. Yet another perfect jewel of procrastination. I SO identify with this.
We sat on the lobby floor and I set up my iPad and watched as a writer did what writers do, which is to type really fast with a crinkle of intense concentration. THIS IS NO AMATEUR. It takes a long time before writers realize that we are allowed to call ourselves writers, that there's no exam to pass or certification to be stamped.
I couldn't pick up enough bandwidth to use my phone as a hotspot, so we all packed up and went to a Starbucks down the street. Over the next hour, we walked through all the steps and the dozen minor decisions. We figured out how to redirect the URL to WordPress. The blog was launched.
"We just made a baby!" I cried.
It's basically like this. 1. How often do you want to post? 2. Do you want to allow comments or not? 3. Are you going to use illustrations or not? 4. What do you want to call your blog? For some people, as in this case, there's also a 5: Do you want to post under your own name, or anonymously? Often, people have instinctive answers to these questions. Talking out the fuzzy areas with a disinterested, neutral party can be a big help.
When we think we're procrastinating, it really comes down to two things. We'll do anything if we want to and we know how. Sometimes, we're ambivalent about whether we really, truly want something, or whether we want something else more. Usually, though, it's a question of knowing how to do the thing. We get overwhelmed by the immensity of the project. We don't see a way to divide it into more manageable pieces. When we see that we're really facing a series of fairly simple decisions, it starts to seem clear and intelligible. We decide. We choose. It's up to us to make the rules about our own projects, to define the process and the finished product.
The trouble with watching someone else break through a block and produce something is that it's infectious. We keep saying, "You can do it! It's so easy! You got this!" Then we hear ourselves and realize we're really talking to ourselves. Note to self: Walk your talk. Now I have go home and publish my book.
This experience demonstrates several things. We can do a lot when we quit getting in our own way. We are constantly surrounded by potential aid and companions, whether we realize it or not. Helping people is really fun and fascinating. Art is its own independent entity and it wants to be free in the world. We can change our lives in an instant if we open up and allow it. Lewis Howes is a genius of emotional engagement.
Today was the first main stage event day of the World Domination Summit. There were so many speakers on so many inspirational topics that it was impossible to answer the question, Which was your favorite? The topic of fighting fear came up quite a bit, and of course that's the big one. Fear holds more people back from more things than anything else ever could.
I got into a conversation with a new friend about irrational fears. I shared my realization that I'm afraid of all the wrong things. I'm not afraid of spiders, dogs, snakes, jumping over fire, running a marathon, backpacking into the woods, traveling alone, being seen naked, going to the dentist, getting bit by a fire ant, climbing a rope, getting muddy, or a bunch of other common fears. I've been transforming my fear of public speaking into enthusiasm very quickly. On the other hand, I'm afraid of glamming up my appearance. As I shared, my friend responded that he was afraid of...shaving his head! He had been considering it because his hairline is receding (or so he claims), but was afraid to do it.
Hearing someone else's fear is often very funny. It's funny because until that moment, we've seen this person as completely competent and self-assured, and now we realize, Hey, every single one of us is paralyzed into inaction by something silly! It's also funny when it's something we don't fear ourselves. I've met people who were afraid of: balloons, moths, werewolves, and birds, of all things. People are often afraid of my parrot Noelle, which, to anyone who knows her, is patently absurd. Anyway, it seemed comical to fear shaving one's head, because hair grows back. I said, "What's the worst that could happen? You wouldn't like it, and three months later it would grow back." My husband chimed in, "Three weeks. In three weeks you'd just have a buzz cut." We collectively decided that he should ask a man who did shave his head regularly to tell him what it was like. You know, like what kind of razor did he use? Did he still use shampoo, or Turtle Wax?
We did a written exercise during the event. There was a picture of a circle representing your comfort zone. The exercise was to write something in the circle that you're comfortable doing, and then to write something outside the circle that scares you but that could be good for you. (Obviously, you should be afraid of things like taking love for granted, making life difficult for Future Self, or eating high fructose corn syrup). I wrote 'typing' and 'hair styling.' HEY! I'm making myself vulnerable here. Quit laughing!
Then I saw that my husband had written 'engineering' and 'blogging.' I laughed. "For me those would be opposite." He laughed, too, at the irony of it. Being expected to work as an engineer would be very intimidating for many people. I'm not sure he even realized at first that he had nothing to fear about blogging, because he happens to share a bed at night with someone who would happily walk him through the process. I told him during the break that I'd help him with anything he wanted. I'd even take dictation for him while he worked on his topic list. In five minutes we were able to determine what he wanted to call it, how often he would post, and a couple of people he would ask to guest post.
This is the great thing about collaboration. No matter the endeavor, parts of it will be easy, parts of it will be emotionally challenging, and parts of it will be mentally challenging or confusing. I'm convinced that we'll easily do anything that we 1. WANT to do and 2. KNOW HOW to do. What we often ascribe to lack of willpower or motivation, I ascribe to lack of enough ideas to figure out an approach. For instance, I'd happily go to live in Sevilla, Spain for a while, and I know my husband feels the same way, but at the moment we don't know how we would manage it. We know it's possible, we just don't know how it's possible for us any time in the near event horizon. On the other hand, if we did know how to do it but didn't feel the time was right, we'd wait, because we didn't want it. With the example of the incipient blog, my husband has the desire, and he can proceed without know-how, because he has a willing collaborator. He'll quickly know at least as much as I do, learning by doing. I pointed out to him all the ways he has helped me with various things, so he wouldn't feel like it was too much for him to ask.
Helping people is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and that's a hard fact of psychology. It is known.
An idea popped into my head, and it built throughout the day. I planned to host my own meet-up on Monday afternoon. I had the name of the meet-up, the location, my outfit, the verbiage for the app, and a list of exercises. By the end of the day, I was FIRED UP about this meet-up! I was just settling in to write up the submission, when I saw: a new meet-up. At the same time. About essentially the identical topic. This was equal parts disappointing and hilarious. Either I am tuned into the cosmic network, or my manifesting ray was turned on full force! I wasn't sure whether to be jealous or just to let myself be lazy and watch someone else do all the work. My idea could easily turn into a larger-scale project, which I may execute when I'm finished with my current gig. At worst, I'll learn something from someone else's presentation. At best, I'll be a great value-add who can validate the material.
This is what's become of my public speaking resolution this year. I've gone from a state of fear, dread, and inner turmoil to a state of anticipation and excitement. I now have the desire to be able to speak at a public event such as this. That's the fascinating thing about fear: greater knowledge makes the fear far less frightening. Sometimes it even starts to be appealing.
I was 37 when I bought my first (and current) laptop. I bought it with money from my first freelance gig, and I was so proud! It paid for itself with work I’ve done on it since. Now it’s not really keeping up with the demands I put on it, and I’m ready to go big. I’ll use it until I wear the letters off the keyboard. I’ll spend several hours a day interacting with it. It will be my spare brain. I’m using what could be a fairly ordinary consumer purchase as an organizing point in my life. If this upcoming fantasy purchase really has the potential to be a spare brain and transform the way I work, how can I use this time to create a watershed in my timeline?
Fantasy visions have a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ We tend to get caught up in just the ‘after.’ Wouldn’t it be nice if I could fly? Yes, probably! We’ll have to spend some time figuring out all the steps that come before “I’m flying” before we can make that happen. Same thing with any other dream that wants to become reality. If my ‘after’ is “I am changing the world with my keyboard every day,” where am I starting? If I pull up my map app and I want walking directions, I need both a starting location and an end destination.
The truth is that I’m currently caught between two worlds, the analog and the digital. I went paper-free as much as possible several years ago, and we’re pretty good about dealing with mail and incoming paper every day. The trouble is that I still have notebooks and paper files from the past that I haven’t integrated into my digital world yet. There is never a “good time” to deal with archival material; if it’s sitting there and it hasn’t been handled, that’s a 100% reliable sign that it hasn’t been needed. If I haven’t needed it yet, I may never need it. Still, when I’ve gone through these old notebooks in the past, I’ve felt that I wanted to keep the information. It happens that right now, I’m keeping it in a completely vulnerable, perishable, inaccessible format.
My paper files are irreplaceable. That means there aren’t any backups. If anything happens to them, they’re gone. I haven’t exactly memorized this stuff. We’ve had professional movers a couple of times, and for whatever reason, one of them took it upon himself to dismantle my file boxes and put all my paper notes in a moving box. In the process, a lot of papers got bent, crumpled, and smeared. The indignity of it all! Digitizing my notes is one way to protect what I see as their sacrosanct integrity. It will also make them accessible from the road.
We have another problem that goes beyond this full box of vulnerable papers. Photographs. It’s easy to see the point on the timeline when we got camera phones, because the hard copy photographs simply stop happening. What I’ve learned from dealing with old photos is that they have a lot of problems. Our old albums from the 70s and 80s lose their adhesiveness and the plastic page protectors get brittle and discolored. Whenever we pick them up, loose photos cascade out the bottom. I have an aluminum box with old photos and memorabilia in it. If these photos are damaged, that’s it. I once did a very sad clutter job that involved throwing away several years’ worth of photos. They had been left in a paper shopping bag in a garage and were pancaked together with damp and mold. We tried, but they proved impossible to peel apart without tearing. The irony of keeping things because we want to preserve them is that we often guarantee their ruin instead.
If you care enough to keep it at all, take steps to make sure it’s truly preserved. Water damage, mold, mildew, smoke, sawdust, paint, vermin, insects… Anything in storage that is not climate controlled and accessed regularly absolutely will show the effects of entropy and neglect.
We have tons of digital photographs, of course, and that’s part of what makes it easier to see the hard copies as less desirable. I can and do enjoy looking at photos of everyone in my extended family on a regular basis. We have hundreds of pictures of our pets. We don’t spend much time looking at older photos because the current ones are so fresh and available. The problem is that our photo folders are only organized by date, not content. I often find myself looking for a specific photo as an illustration, and I have no idea what year it was taken, much less which month. Part of this fantasy ‘spare brain’ project will be to consolidate the photos and tag them in a way that makes them more useful.
I have this fantasy project of making slide shows of the peak moments from different years and then watching it at the New Year. Maybe I’ll do it after I get the new laptop.
There are other digital things I would like to consolidate. It turns out that I have files on our shared desktop, my laptop, various thumb drives, a couple of formats of flash memory cards, a stack of data CDs and DVDs, my Dropbox, Evernote, and my phone. The stack of physical media has more mass than the equipment itself. A lot of it probably contains redundant or obsolete stuff. When I look at it, I’m sure I’ll wonder why I was keeping it, and maybe even where I got it.
Our office represents more than just a room. (It’s our pets’ bedroom, so a chunk of it is dedicated to a birdcage and a dog crate). What we wanted was a place where we could both work. What we have is more of a place where we store stuff we don’t want to look at in the living room. We both do most of our personal bureaucratic work and our side projects either in the living room or at a café on the weekend. Sometimes when the weather is nice I work on the back patio. Excavating some of the funky old electronic clutter could be a way of energizing the space.
Why am I keeping old paper notes? Because I think they’re relevant for some reason? If there are projects I intend to complete, I need to schedule time to work on them and set some deadlines for when they’ll happen. The longer I have them around, the less likely Future Me will even be able to decipher them. The more time that goes by, the worse I’ll feel if anything happens and they are destroyed. Why didn’t I protect and preserve them when I had the chance?? I could diligently sit and scan them all in a couple of hours.
Why are we keeping old CDs and electronic files? Because we think we’ll need them at some point? What’s on them besides photos? If it’s nothing more than a bunch of old backups, they’re probably redundant. If it’s something important, we’d better figure that out in case they get scuffed or cracked or the file formats become obsolete and unreadable.
Why do I have so many thumb drives? They aren’t labeled. I don’t have a system for keeping separate data on separate drives. Why do I have so many?
Looking at a stack of undifferentiated, unlabeled, untagged stuff is exactly like walking around in a confused stupor. It’s like a plastic sculpture of a disoriented, possibly hungover human brain. If my waking mind was that poorly organized, I’d be walking around in circles with my shirt on backward and my shoes on the wrong feet, babbling and playing with my lip. I should just put it all in a box labeled HERP DE DERP and then send it to the landfill.
The fantasy of a new laptop is the fantasy of mental clarity. It’s the fantasy of being current and not having old projects hanging over my head. It’s not necessarily procrastinating to choose not to spend time sorting old, probably irrelevant materials; at least 80% of that stuff I’ll most likely never need. Keeping it, though, is like keeping apple cores or empty cans. It represents the leftovers of time I spent, things I did, thoughts I had, and time that has passed. I’m setting myself the intention of liberation from these stale old calcified thoughts. ‘Decision’ means ‘to cut off.’ I’m cutting off the fuzz that clouds my workspace. I’m creating a space where I can feel fully confident that I’m working on the most important thing every day, that all my important data are readily accessible, and that there are no ancient tasks lingering around to distract me. That new laptop will be like a space shuttle to the future.
The most common interview question that artists are asked is where they get their ideas. To a creative person, this is a hilariously absurd question. It’s more a question of, how do you suppress the constant stream of ideas when you need to concentrate on something specific? Everyone has this innate ability. Not everyone recognizes it or knows how to tune in to it. This question of where ideas come from is a perfectly fair and reasonable question to ask. Good luck, though, finding someone who will give it the sincere answer that it deserves.
“There are no stupid questions,” says a friend of ours, “only stupid people.” I respond, in the immortal words of Weird Al Yankovic, “Dare to be stupid.” The place of not knowing is the place of emptiness. When we allow ourselves to be empty, there is room for stuff. What stuff? Who knows? Why not keep it empty and see whether anything eventually burbles up?
The place of emptiness feels like boredom. That’s important. Be bored! Be bored for a few minutes! Boredom leads the mind to wander. THAT is where the ideas start to pop into existence. What if? Why does? Who would? How would someone? Where is? When did?
Idea generation is our natural state. All tiny kids are really, really good at this. They will color pictures in whatever colors strike their fancy – until they are taught that “the sky isn’t purple,” etc. Sure it is, sometimes! Sometimes it’s white, gray, pink, orange, brown, black, yellow, and even green. Trees are purple too, sometimes, and I’ve walked under many a jacaranda in my neighborhood. As we get older, we’re taught standard unfunny jokes about spurious college majors such as Underwater Basket Weaving. Seriously, have you ever been to Las Vegas? Have you ever watched a viral video? If someone actually could weave a basket underwater, I would want to watch. Not much competition there. The other one is poetry. You should be so lucky if your kid grows up to be a poet, like Eminem or Jay-Z. You know who has a bachelor’s degree in English? Stephen King. Our kid is studying artificial intelligence. The career she’ll wind up with doesn’t quite exist yet, but it’ll be ready by the time she graduates. If she’d felt limited by what we were doing at her age, she’d be either a logger or a data entry clerk. With the benefit of hindsight, we see that creative inspiration actually extends to the boring, mundane business world. Inspiration and innovation, art and inventions, are the same.
Inspiration needs somewhere to go. It happens all by itself, unless we block it. The first way we block it is by telling ourselves stories about how impractical and useless our ideas are. What’s the worst thing that could happen if I have a useless idea? Nothing. It’s just a figment of my imagination. I have useless ideas every day. Often, they morph into useful ideas after I’ve had time to mull them over. Sometimes my useless ideas make me laugh until I snort. Sometimes a useless idea, like a dream I had about a non-functional riding reel mower, turns into a funny drawing. The key is to make a nonjudgmental space for ideas, in the same way we put out bird feeders even though they sometimes attract squirrels.
Good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas. We just have to unpack a bunch of the bad ideas so we can see them. If we stop when we generate a bad idea, we miss the opportunity for the good idea to spring forth. We cultivate an attitude of curious detachment. We are lying on our backs on a grassy hill, watching cumulus clouds and trading observations about what they look like. I see a swan, you see a Viking longship, we’re both right, and a moment later the wind kicks up and we see something else. We allow ideas to come forward, releasing the expectation that they will amount to something or be suitable for a specific purpose.
The grassy hill is a place where none of us spend much time. That’s because we pack our schedules past the breaking point. Sleep deprivation is the norm for 70% of us. If you are not sleeping enough, you are not going to have a steady stream of inspiration and interesting ideas. You’re turning off the flow of dreams, both the sleeping and the waking kind. Lots of famous people have had career-defining inspirations while sound asleep, and many of them took naps every day. When every moment is full of tasks, conversations, distractions, and passive entertainment, not much else can fit in.
A shower radio is a toy I’ve always found appealing, and I could have one tomorrow if I wanted. They keep coming out with more features at lower prices. I’ve made the decision, though, to avoid that sort of thing. The shower is reliably the place where I come up with the best ideas and most helpful insights. It may have something to do with lathering my hair. It may be that I’m not completely awake yet and I haven’t dived into the day’s work. It may simply be that it’s a block of time when I’m not reading or listening to anything. Maybe if I spent an hour sitting in silence and staring at the wall, I’d have more ideas. Maybe I’ll try it. I wonder what would happen…?
Getting out of default mode is a big help. Making a practice of trying new activities, constantly learning as much as possible, meeting new people, tasting new foods, listening to new kinds of music, and imagining oneself in various different lives are all potential ways to stretch the mind and make a little space for new ideas to come in. Unfortunately, the human condition is such that our default mode tends to consist of being annoyed with people, being annoyed by events, having hurt feelings, gossiping about what other people are doing, worrying what others think about us, complaining, reliving bad memories, and imagining negative future possibilities. There may be ways to get interesting ideas out of those activities, and if I spend some time on it, maybe I’ll think of some. Mostly, though, they’re static drowning out the pure chord of inspiration.
Ideas can work together like wheels on a kaleidoscope. Just as we can combine worry + any category of life, we can combine idea + idea and see what happens. Let’s do some common negative examples. Can you think of a way to worry about money? How about your family members? Different worry for each person? Great job! Can you worry about transportation? How about illness or injury? Lots of ideas there? Awesome! Can you worry about the economy, world affairs, and what various leaders might do? Mmhmm, I thought so. Nice work. See, everyone is creative, we’re just taught to focus it only on approved channels. Let’s take that amazing gift and try it out in some other ways. Imagine a person whom you know, just the first person who comes to mind. Now mentally rotate through other people you know and think about whether the first person knows the second person. If not, what do you think would happen if they met? This is one of my favorite games, and I’ve used it to introduce various people who have become friends. I see that two of my friends who live in different states both do the same type of workout. I see another friend make a joke that reminds me of someone else’s sense of humor. What starts as a random thought turns into a new friendship in the world. In the same way that strangers can become friends, random ideas can become friends, too.
We tend to rate other people’s ideas higher than our own. What comes naturally to us doesn’t seem special. Where artists have the advantage is that they focus on the idea’s desire to enter the world. The idea desires to be expressed. It is a seed that wants to sprout. We understand that we are not skilled at judging which of our projects will succeed and which will be duds. It’s not our job to criticize, it’s our job to execute. It’s our job to complete projects and release them. It’s our job to have ideas, allow them to be what they are, and record them in some manner. Usually we have to do this in private, because the natural predator of an idea is a fearsome animal known as the naysayer. They are venomous and their bites can kill. Naysayers are only big enough to bring down ideas when they are young and small. We foster them in safety until they are developed enough to stand on their own, causing the naysayer to slink away and skulk in the underbrush.
Inspiration builds on itself. The more time and space we allow for it, the more it happens. We start to trust the process and recognize the feeling. We learn to pause and take notes, because ideas that fluttered in so graciously will eventually fade and disappear. The notes begin to accumulate. It doesn’t take long before we realize that we have more ideas than we could ever use, and that they’ll keep on coming. Ideas are like pennies in the street, just as easy to find and just as easy to undervalue.
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.