The Problem Is Not the Problem

Or, Why You Need a New Perspective

What do you see when you look at this picture?

From https://mymodernmet.com/matthieu-robert-ortis-la-revolution-des-girafes/

You should see an elephant. Floppy ears, tusks, and a trunk.

But take a moment, and shift your perspective just a little bit, and it’s a whole different image.

That’s the power of perspective. You don’t always see the whole of a piece of art, or a situation, or an experience, from your position when you first encounter it. Sometimes, you need to look at it from a new angle.

Consider that challenge that’s bugging you. Maybe it’s your teenage son and his friends; you don’t understand why they go out of their way to avoid you, when just a few months ago he seemed like such a good kid. Or perhaps it’s an issue at your church. You know the Elders believe they’re doing the right thing with this new building expansion “to attract new seekers”, but you and almost everyone else thinks it’s foolish when there are greater priorities, like missionaries in the field.

Why don’t you speak up? Is it because you don’t believe strongly enough in the mission, the same way they do? Or is it something deeper than that? Might there be something you’re missing? If you knew more, would you support that decision? Maybe.

How do you get that missing perspective?

David C. Baker has an interesting analogy in The Business of Expertise. He describes a little human inside a jar. When you’re in the jar (whether that jar is your business problem, your relationship, your extra-curricular time, or your personal mindfulness journey), you cannot read the label on the jar. You just can’t. You’re behind the label, and you’re stuck.

So, what do you do? How do you get out of the jar?

You have to shift the conversation. You have to stop talking about the problem that’s the surface, and you have to start asking some more substantial, deeper questions. Like, “Well, yes, my business is struggling. Does that mean I need more advertising? Or more staff? Or a new product? Or does it mean I need something more fundamental, like a re-set of my whole business philosophy? What am I trying to say with this business, anyway? And does it even matter if I’m here to do it?”

These are deeper, more fundamental questions. They’re the underneath of the iceberg. They don’t get viewed by the general public, but in answering these questions – in thinking through these lines – you will start to take the steps to get yourself out of the jar, and moving towards a position where you can look back and read the label for yourself.

Let me give you another analogy, and let’s get a little abstract. Suppose you are an arrow, that’s on a flight path. Now, you can choose to fly in whichever direction you want, and you’ve decided to fly directly at whatever targets you’re trying to hit. To keep the analogy clear, let’s assume these targets are another set of arrows, which represent the best options for your life, in lots of different areas. They are all coming at you, directly, and you’ve got to hit something, anything, to make an impact.

What’s likely to happen? Are you going to hit them? Any of them? Or, is it more likely that you’ll just miss? Whiff completely?

You, and these best options, aren’t likely to hit. You’re not likely to get to the point where you meet whatever you’re shooting at, because you’re shooting at too small a target. I think there’s a movie or two where the arrows or bullets actually hit each other head on, but it’s such a slim chance, that it doesn’t really make much sense to rely on that as your strategy.

What if, though, you change your perspective?

What if, instead of facing the problem head-on, you got to the side? You approach it from the outside, from a perpendicular direction? What if, instead of having only one little point of contact which you could have the slightest chance of hitting, you turned it around? What if you came at it from the other way?

Instead of aiming directly at the oncoming problems, why not get out of the way, off to the side? Now, you’re traveling “up”, and the arrows coming at you are still going to the left. This time, though, you’re much, much more likely to actually hit what you’re aiming at! Look at how easy it is to intersect with all of those different things you want! Plus, now you have options. You can pursue one, or many, solutions in your time, rather than crying that they’ve all passed you by.

Allow me to share an anecdote. I recently talked with an old friend, and told her about this Trailhead Conference – how it’s a place for people to explore something new, to see problems from a different perspective, to understand something they didn’t know before. [note – the Trailhead Conference was planned for 2019, didn’t happen, isn’t planned for any time again – SJ]

And she related a story of her other friend, who had been struggling to lose weight for years. Diets, exercise, sleep, nothing worked. She kept the weight on, kept fighting, kept failing. Kept feeling like a failure, when, really, she was fighting the wrong battle. Eventually, though, she figured out the problem and lost the weight.

So how did she do it? Liposuction? Juice cleanse? Personal trainer? CrossFit?

Nope. Nope. Nope. And nope.

All of those were solutions to the wrong problem.

All of those assumed that the issue was caloric intake (too much) or expenditure (not enough), or metabolic cycling (irregular), or routine (need to “shock” the system), or something else.

All of those were actually trying to combat the symptoms – the tip of the iceberg – when, really, something needed to be done at a much deeper level, under the surface. Down inside, where the pictures aren’t so pretty and so visible.

So – what was it? What was the thing that finally flipped the switch and helped her to lose 30 pounds?

What was that radically different thing she did?

She got divorced.

Wait, what?

Now, I don’t know all the details. But there were significant forces at work, including emotional abuse, that led to weight retention. And it makes sense. The surface issue was excess weight and feeling bad because of it. The deeper, substantive problem was that there were problems in her relationship – maybe her finances, and spirituality too. Cognitive dissonance between what she wanted (a better relationship) and what she felt obligated to do (remain married due to religious tradition) led to feelings of inadequacy.

This showed up as weight retention, a physical issue, when, really, the solution was going to be an emotional one. Solve the relationship problem, and the weight loss happens naturally. So when her husband asked for the divorce, despite how much she didn’t really want to be divorced, she relented.

During the separation, she bought a new place and worked extra hard to renovate it. Additional activity, the right kind of activity, combined with the emotional freedom to be herself, led to her losing 4 dress sizes and showing up at the divorce proceedings looking like a new person. Which she, for all intents and purposes, was.

So I have to get divorced?

NO.

I am absolutely not counseling or advising anyone to get divorced, or to get liposuction, or to go on a three-week spiritual retreat to Namibia to “find yourself”. I don’t know that those are the solution to your problem.

I am, however, pointing out that often, what we think is the problem, really isn’t.

We’re aiming at the oncoming arrows, trying to hit sharp little points, when, instead we should step to the side and look at the problem from a different perspective.

We’re struggling, but we don’t know exactly why.

And that’s okay.

It really is.

It’s okay not to have all the answers.

It’s okay to question.

It’s okay to get intrigued and to explore something new for a while.

It’s okay to walk down that side road for a bit, learn that you don’t want to keep going, and change your mind.

You know, we have erasers on our pencils for a reason.

And we have a [DELETE] key on our keyboards, too, for the very same reason. I’ve used mine a hundred times in this post so far, and that’s okay. That simply means I’m open to considering new things, trying them out, and seeing what works. What doesn’t, goes away, and nobody is worse off.

Let’s not be afraid to try something new, and, if it works out, great! If not, let’s also not beat ourselves up about it.

That trying something new is how you get perspective. And perspective is, often, the only way out of your jar.

Cheers!

footnote – this post was originally written and published in June of 2019, when I was organizing a mid-life exploration conference. It ultimate didn’t happen, but if the web crawlers find this content and that content and try to ding me for stealing, this paragraph is proof that I didn’t. I (Stephan) actually wrote and published that same content before, just on a different platform. So there.

One Step To Being A Better Person

How many different motivational speakers and life coaches are in the world today? Approximately a brazillion.

I counted.

How many of them actually have something meaningful to say for your life?

Maybe 5 or 6.

Who are they?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Who knows. Those 5 or 6 will be different for everyone, and will touch everyone in a different way, at different times of their lives, impacting different spheres of experience: relationships, health, spirituality, career, finance, hobbies & play, etc.

I don’t know who they are, but I guarantee you they all have some 7 steps to success and happiness.

Their own flavor of 13 tips for living a better life.

A “27-point Foolproof Path to Fabulousness!”

Or something.

Do they work?

Probably.

For the right people

At the right time.

But for you?

Right now?

Not likely.

You want my advice? Just be a better person.

I was reading Reddit and came across this nugget of self-hate. [https://www.reddit.com/r/exredpill/comments/dqgyfr/i_dont_know_what_to_do_anymore/] I’m not going to quote it, but it’s basically some guy in his early 20s complaining that he doesn’t know how other people do it. Everyone else seems to be better than him, and he wonders why.

And how.

How are they better people than him?

I offered my (admittedly unsolicited) advice with 5 steps to being a better person. I will, however, quote myself, because I think it’s worthwhile to have the discussion.

What to do? Stop reading “self-help” books that are written to exploit your addiction to “self-improvement”. The industry only exists to convince you that you’re going to get better if you just buy their next new source of tips and tricks. In reality, they want to sell you more books because, well, they don’t sell you any more books if you actually, you know, HELP YOURSELF to get better. You want 5 simple steps? Here, here’s 5 steps to becoming a better person:

  • Read Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. It’s not a self-help book, but it is about being good with yourself.
  • Go for a walk an hour a day, every day, for a year. No music, no audiobook, but just think.
  • Write in a journal, not on the internet. Nobody here cares about you. you are the only one who does, so you are the only one who needs to know your thoughts.
  • Stop smoking dope and drinking alcohol. You’re poisoning yourself and using intoxication to mask your real feelings.
  • Stop swearing. It’s laziness. Put in the mental effort to think of a real insult. Swearing is simple, so it’s the mark of a simpleton. Be better than that.

So that’s my advice. But again, it’s “5 Steps to Being A Better Person”. And I realized, he doesn’t need 5 steps.

He doesn’t even need 3.

Or 2.

He, and everyone else, just needs ONE STEP to become a better person.

Are you ready?

It’s pretty radical an idea.

One that might revolutionize the self-help industry.

Here it is:

BEING A BETTER PERSON, STEP #1:

BE A BETTER PERSON

That’s it.

Don’t like who you are?

Change.

Don’t like your attitude?

Change it.

Don’t like your emotions?

Change them.

Don’t like your anger?

Change it.

Recognize that you are choosing, every moment of every day, what you are going to do with that moment and that day.

If you don’t like what you’ve chosen, choose differently.

Be different.

BE DIFFERENT.

Be a better person.

I’m not the only one saying this. Here’s the Holstee Manifesto, which says a lot of the same stuff, in a pretty picture:

The Holstee Manifesto (via Holstee.com)

Just be that better person.

No, it’s not easy.

It’s not laid out in 5, or 17, or 49 “simple” steps. Those specific steps might have worked for them. They might have worked, somewhat, for others around the world. But I’m 99.9% confident they won’t work for you.

It’s not that simple.

Because it can’t be.

My 5 steps don’t apply to you. They can’t. It’s impossible.

I don’t know what you want, where you’re starting from, and what you’re willing to put in to get there.

Only you know that.

Only you know what’s going to impact you.

Only you know what’s going to work.

And only you can do the work.

So –

Stop looking for answers in a book, or on a website, or in a seminar.

Stop searching for tips on how to be better, and just … start … being better.

Right now.

Don’t wait.

Nobody else is going to do it for you.

***

Originally published at my business website, sjmcopywriting.com, and then reproduced on my short-lived Medium blog.

Things You Didn’t Know You’d Learn Before Becoming a Father

How to recognize your children by not only their voice (obviously), but the sounds of their footsteps, their coughs, their sneezes, and the way they open and shut doors.

How to recognize who raided the pantry in the nighttime by what hour it is when you hear the noise.

Who has been snacking by what types of plates/bowls/utensils are still on the counter. And the associated crumbs.

Contrary to many popular culture references, your in-laws are pretty decent people.

You will never get enough sleep. Not even when the kid sleeps ‘through the night’. Because that just means they’re waking up at 5:37 AM with a full diaper and a full tank of gas.

How to really multi-task: driving, having a conversation, listening to NPR, and swatting an arm into the back seat to break up a fight.

The appropriate use of phrases such as “Don’t make me come back there!”, “When I was your age,”, and “Where’s the remote?”

You actually can survive being peed on, pooped on, vomited on, snotted on, and sticking your hand inside the crack between the car’s seats to search for a lost bubbie only to find a three-month-old deposit of ketchup that has partially congealed into what feels like a slug in the middle of decomposition.

The suburbs kind of suck. Despite that you’ll still choose to live there because you’ve bought into the fantasy of everyone having their own kingdom.

You’ll never finish washing all the dishes.

Baldness is hereditary. Thing is, all the scientists are wrong about the direction of transfer. In this case, you get it from your kids.

Everybody’s winging it. Yes, that means your parents and grandparents, who looked like they had it all figured out. Which also means that your children and grandchildren will look at you, right now, and believe that you really do have your shit together. Good job, duck.

What that last reference meant. And how accurate it really is.

Your Dad really did like those crappy gifts you got and made him for Father’s Day. Because even if you only did it at the insistent urging of your mother, it felt good to be recognized.

That benchmark “Cost of raising a child” being something like $225k is waaaaay off. The economics are just half of the equation. There’s also the emotional cost of worrying, planning, and letting go. The physical cost on your body because you don’t have enough time to work out like you did in your 20s. The social cost because your “friends” disappear and are replaced by associations with the Dads of your kids’ friends and teammates. The career burden because you’re always feeling like you’re not doing enough for everyone who depends on you, so you’re constantly seeking to support them more through a raise and promotion, a “better” job because it has less travel and shorter commute, when all you really wanted to do was just be good at your role and enjoy it. The psychological loss because once you have children, you stop being you and morph into Brayden’s father or Kelsie’s dad, losing your identity as a real person in your own right with your own hopes and dreams and fears, putting them aside “for the good of the children” because that’s what everyone else does, even though we all subconsciously understand that in doing so we’re propagating an emotionally-destructive, socially-negative paradigm that engenders a perpetual focus on making things better for the next generation but never actually stops to appreciate the things the generations before us made better, in some misguided view of our own worthlessness to have those nice things because of how much those generations tell us they’ve sacrificed in order to get to this point, ultimately condemning our children to perform the same charades that we decry and detest and wish someone else would change, doing it “for their children”, even though we intrinsically know that if everyone would just stop it already we’d all be better off.

Dad jokes are a thing because Dads actually like them.

Happy Father’s Day, my friends!

We’re Doing It Mostly Wrong

I think we’re setting our goals wrong.

I think we’re saying “I want to climb Mount Everest” not because we want to do the climbing of Mount Everest, but because we want to afterwards say “I climbed Mount Everest.”

No surprise, though. Our society doesn’t value the journey nearly as much as the destination, despite how many self-help gurus or mindfulness masters tell us that we should believe otherwise.

Sure, it sounds good to say “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” but if you examine where we spend our time, where we put our efforts, where we drip our perspiration, where we work until our muscles ache and our fingers bleed and our brains finally shut down from the effort, it’s far more likely to be found in the pursuit at the status-creating or status-affirming external symbol of “success” than at the process you took to get there.

Most of the things we set out as “goals” for our life, whether they be personal, interpersonal, or professional, are set not by what we want to do, but based on what we want to have done.

For quite a while, I’ve had end-goal related writing goals. I wanted to win a prize in the Writers of the Future Contest. I wanted to get a book contract. I desired membership in SFWA.

I wanted the wrong things. I set my yearly or quarterly or weekly goals around those visible end points. The problem is, most of those end points are completely out of my control. Case in point: a couple of years ago I set a pretty hefty goal for my writing: >100 submissions, edit & publish 2 books, draft another, and offer >30 critiques.

All of those are in service to very external judgments of “me as a writer”. They make no consideration at all as to whether or not I would have time and energy to do all of that.

Now, to say that I was overconfident in my capacity would be an extreme understatement. I could probably tick off everything on the list if I had absolutely nothing else to do. But I have a day job and children to raise, and a house to take care of and no supportive spouse. (That’s the #1 ingredient to being a “successful writer”, according to one such person who spoke at a workshop I attended.) Which means my writing time is rather limited. Plus my writing energy will be just as impacted.

And so compared to those incredibly lofty goals, based on what I wanted to have done (publications) and based on what other people told me would bring success (# of submissions), I failed rather quickly. By the middle of March I was behind, way behind. Being behind also had this psychological effect that it intimidated me from working on those things I could actually do, because I think I had the feeling that if I wasn’t meeting my overall goal, it was a waste.

I never caught up. Sure, you can blame the pandemic, but a greater factor was that the goals were just set completely wrong.

In 2021, I had no goals. I just was kind of floundering, sort of hoping that I would get some stuff done here and there, I guess expecting that my meandering would somehow lead me to some kind of enlightenment.

This year, rather than asking, What do I want to have done at the end of the year? I asked myself, What can I do?

And I’ve allowed that difference to be absolutely transformative in the way I set intermediate goals and execute on them. My goals this year center on writing practice, attending writers’ group meetings, and finishing new stories and essays, rather than books. All of these are much more achievable, because they actually feed each other and reinforce each other.

The result? I’m writing more consistently in writing practice than I have in years. I’m generating new stories more frequently. I’m submitting more often, to more places, and actually enjoying the research to find new markets I didn’t know about before. Basically, I’m winning 2022. I believe I can continue to do so for the next 9 months. And I think it has a lot to do with how I’ve set my goals.

A different example: at my local writers’ group meeting last week, I had the privilege to talk about writing as a practice. I talked about daily writing practice, just letting the words flow, just enjoying the experience, and leaving it inside the notebook at the end, without worrying about making it into some finished product.

Many people kind of nodded with me, sort of like, “Yeah, I see what you’re saying, but I’m not gonna play along.” I know it’s because the vast majority of people who don’t practice, say that they’d rather spend their time creating a thing. Working on a story or a screenplay. They want something tangible at the end of their hour at the desk. I heard many say, “I don’t really want to be doing something that isn’t going to be a story at the end.”

Now, I love me some tangibility, I really do. That’s why I have thirty empty pens in my collection, used up over the past five years, that remind me of what I’ve done. That’s why I have twenty full notebooks that pile up so high I can’t see around them if I stack them all on my desk, each one filled with the ink from those same pens, creating worlds that no one will ever explore. Birthing characters and immediately burying them between the covers. Drawing great and wonderful insights about the universe which could save humanity from itself, but because of where they were spawned will forever be locked away from discovery and application by the greater population.

But those things won’t make me “a writer” in the modern sense, in which I am creating stories which other people pay me for, and I earn my living doing so.

However, that writing practice is immensely valuable. It’s reps in the gym. It’s miles on the trail. It’s the unseen bottom of the iceberg that pushes the visible peak just that little bit above the surface of the ocean.

Most of the time we do whatever it is that we do, not for the thing itself. We do it most often because of the goal – the end point – the pennant we could hang upon the wall that proclaims we are the champions.

Why do I practice? Because that is what makes me a writer. Not if a story is published in Fantasy or Lightspeed. Not if one of my scripts gets picked up by a production studio. Not if two or two thousand people sign up on my Patreon to receive my musings. I am a writer because I write, not because someone else publishes.

In short, I’m achieving my goals. Because they were set the right way. Not by asking, What do other people say would make me a writer? But by realizing, These are the things I can write and the activities I can take with the time and energy I have, and actually doing them.

No, I’m not going to have books published as soon as I wanted. I’m not going to qualify for SFWA as soon as I had planned.

But I’m enjoying this process much, much more. And every week, when I meet with my writing group, I get the opportunity to say that I am still meeting my goals.


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Extremely Bad Advice – Grieving Dog-Dad

Dear SJ: What can I get my grieving father?

My dad is a veteran and a goofball who is not very in touch with his emotions. Our childhood dog passed today, and I want to send my dad something to show him some love. He often feels guilty for showing emotions and despite that, he is clearly heart broken about our dog passing today. He could barely tell me. Our dog was the best companion to our family the last 16 years and she really helped my dad as an emotional support dog, especially when he was struggling with PTSD. He lives far away, so I want to send him something to show him some love. Any ideas?? He’s not really a flower guy and I don’t think anything overly sentimental would be right either.

— Long-Distance Mourner

Broken with grief man dog owner is grieving sitting on a bench with the lovely pet collar and deep weeping about animal loss. Home pets relatives and love concept.

Dear Long-Distance,

Okay, clearly, this is a little out of my league. I know, I know, shocker that SJ would admit he’s not quite up to snuff! 

But, yeah, every once in a while even a blind pig finds an acorn. See, this seems to be out of my usual realm of expertise because it’s clearly not about you. You’re not trying to manipulate your father into loving you again, or it’s not one of those situations where he’s been moping around the house for three months because Fluffy died and the dishes are piling up and the toilet’s dirty and you just want him to get off his ass already and contribute again.

Those situations are right up my alley because, generally, the problem is not the problem. It’s a symptom of something deeper, and just manifests as emotional distance or laziness. If those were the case, I’d blame the dog’s death, rather than laziness or your father’s drinking problem or your own whoreishness that’s instilling a negative reputation upon the whole family.

But here, the dog has left the building and that is the problem. You want to know what to do? Let’s start with what to don’t instead.

Don’t tell him that “It’s okay, she’s in a better place now.” That’s just ridiculous, facetious, and doesn’t do anything for his feelings.

Don’t tell him not to feel sad. We don’t choose our emotions. They’re an evolutionarily-crafted signal about the environments in which we find ourselves. We can’t decide not to feel something. We can only decide how to act.

Don’t tell him to “Get over it.” Even if this funk or fugue lasts months, that’s not doing anything for him. You think he doesn’t want to just get over it? Fuck! That’s exactly what he’s been hoping for!

read the rest on Patreon

Extremely Bad Advice: Employer’s Reputation?

Dear SJ,

How can I deal with conflicting views of my employer? 

I work for an HVAC company that is in the Midwest that is pretty reputable in the metro area. I also have never personally been treated poorly from the company and am actually recognized as one of their most credited employees. The problem I keep running into though, is that not everyone is treated and/or sees the company I work for the same way. I constantly hear the same topic that the company is only about selling and not much on the service they can provide and both employees and customers say the same thing. The question I have is should I try and change the culture at the company I work for or should I look for a new job?

— Conflicted in Columbia

Group of Business show dislike or unlike thumbs down hand

Dear Conflicted,

Neither. You most definitely should NOT try to change the culture NOR look for a new job.  

I mean, why would you? Both of those require effort, and pretty low chance of success. What the hell are you, lowly installation tech that you are, going to do to change company culture? Are you gonna go get an MBA and work your way up to middle management where you can actually “do something”? By that time the only thing you’ll achieve is the realization that the stress-induced heart attacks, lack of quality time watching the kids grow, and the opportunity cost of missing out on 3 years of salary while you paid $120k for the status that comes with the degree, will never be offset by whatever marginally higher “satisfaction” you might get if you’re able to increase your company’s net promoter score a couple of decimal points over last quarter on the quarterly board report.

And why would it be any different anywhere else? You’re in HVAC. You’re a commodity. And your employer is a commodity broker. Sure, you could leave, but all the competitors are the same. Don’t pretend like they actually care about you. You’re a tool to be used for their purposes, just like the torque wrench and the nail gun and the flamethrower that you employ on a daily basis. Do you think those are special? Reputable? Worth telling anyone else anything about? Worth salvaging if they fall in the sewer? Nope, nope, nope, nope.

Read the rest on Patreon

Writing Practice – spontaneous plot treatment

For my writing practice today, I grabbed a line from the Writing Prompt Generator.

“A child is kidnapped.”

Immediately I got an image of a pitchman in front of movie studio execs, saying that line and just totally botching the pitch. So I started writing as if I was in the exec’s seat, just riffing:

***

“A child is kidnapped.”

Thanks, I hate it. From the overdone trope of kidnapping, to the use of passive voice, this is one pitch that isn’t going anywhere soon.

Want to jazz it up? Make me care about the kid first, his mom, or maybe even better his dad, single dad, who’s raising him alone because mom is overseas in some pointless war, patriot-like and all, and he’s taking Junior tot he park, or maybe the Strawberry Festival, for an afternoon out. They’re enjoying the sunshine, strolling through the crowds, and suddenly Papa runs into an old flame from high school. She’s back in town after a failed marriage, interested in catching up, pretending like it’s all innocent, but we int he audience can see the heat rising in her loins, even if Papa is oblivious.

Meanwhile, junior, inquisitive, and easily bored chap, curious about the world, starts following some kind of maguffin intended to distract us and him – a baby duck, maybe, or a puppy that’s romping around and playing around. Well, he meets up with another young couple, perhaps a few years older than we can see Mama and Papa are, and this intrusion into their idyllic life moment sets them off in to a crying jag. We as audience don’t get to understand why, because at that moment Papa comes swooping in and picks up Junior, shepherding him back and warily eyeing the older couple.

See, now this is a bit of a plotline beginning. We’ve got several sob stories, that could be explored, including kids growing up too fast, forgotten loves, heartbreak, devotion at the same time as betrayal, and so on.

One cool twist would be that Junior finds the couple live only a few streets away, so he starts hanging out with them. They end up, after they get to know him, admitting they had a young son a few years ago who would be about his age, but there were “complications” during the birth, so he died.

<At least, that’s what they say.>

Turns out, they have begun to suspect that this is their actual son, and so they surreptitiously obtain a little bit of his DNA (maybe a couple of strands of hair? a little fingernail? whatever) and in getting it tested they discover that he is, in fact, their biological son, but he didn’t know that he was adopted, etc.

Now we have an additional layer of conflicts, intrigue, fear, worry, burden, confusion, and an opportunity to build drama as these two sets of adults have to figure out how to navigate the lies and deceptions that their doctors fed them so many years ago.

I dunno, sounds like it may be a pretty interesting Lifetime Afternoon Special.

To get what you want, you have to stop wanting

You don’t get what you “want”. You get what you work for.

Magic lamp from the story of Aladdin with Genie appearing in blue smoke concept for wishing, luck and magic

A friend once said, “It’s not real unless it’s on the calendar.” 

For a long time, I “wanted” to do stand-up comedy. I would see the people on Comedy Central or late-night TV, and laugh, and think, “Hey, I’ve got some good jokes. I bet I could get a laugh or two.”

But then, I’d never do anything about it.

For years, I “wanted” to write good stories. But did I? Nope. Oh, sure, I wrote stories, but did I make them good? Did I get critiques? Did I revise and refine? Did I study the craft of plot, and characterization, and setting?

Nah, I just wrote whatever came out, and called it “good enough”.

For a long time, I didn’t really “want” to be an actuary. But I passed exams, participated in ethics trainings, completed monthly deliverables, cashed my paychecks, etc.

I was a hell of a lot more actuary than I was stand-up comic or writer.

So what’s the difference? It’s all in what you’re willing to work for.

See, when you “want” to be successful, or when you “want” to go to Italy, or when you “want” to someday do stand-up comedy, you’ve already achieved the goal. Your brain calls the “wanting” good enough and doesn’t worry about following through.

Mindset and deadlines give you something to work for.

With the stand-up comedy thing, I didn’t really have a deadline. Until I heard that there was an open mic at a bar on a night I was already planning to be at. So I put it on the calendar – I said, “I’m going to be at that open mic and I’m going to try my jokes!”

When it became I will instead of I want, it was real, and then it actually happened. I told a few jokes, got a few laughs, and I’ve done it a handful of times since.

The big difference was, there was something on the calendar. There was a real, concrete date with real, concrete expectations. And there was a change in how I talked to myself.

When it was Someday I want to do open mic, my brain did its standard shortcut thing and decided that I’d already achieved the goal. 

When it was Next Wednesday, I will be on that stage, my brain couldn’t ignore the reality staring it in the face. While my subconscious produced tons of doubts and fears that were trying to get me out of being vulnerable, my conscious mind said “You don’t have control in this situation,” and did the thing anyway.

The thing is, you never get anywhere by wanting something. You can only make change by doing something.

Lots of people want to be a world traveler. Or in a healthy relationship. Or a successful CEO. But they don’t actually do the things that would get them to that place. Again, I think it’s because when we think of ourselves as wanting things, our brains assume that wanting is the end goal and don’t see a need for more effort.

Instead, what if you thought in terms of “I’m becoming a…”?

I’m becoming a world traveler. My next trip is to Italy in the summer. Wouldn’t that constantly remind your brain that you’ve got to book the ticket, get the passport, buy the new luggage, save for the plane trip, and hit the gym?

I’m becoming a stand-up comic. I’m searching for open mic nights within an hour from me. Wouldn’t this demonstrate just how much opportunity there is, give you incentive to talk to the others after the show, and actually do something with that Twitter handle you registered years ago?

I’m becoming a newscaster. Wouldn’t this lead you to practice in front of your mirror nights and weekends, write and rewrite your copy, and make the LinkedIn connections you need in order to get the entry-level producing job that leads to the field reporting job that leads to the weekend desk job which leads to the 6 PM anchor position?

Nobody every got where they wanted to go just by wanting to go there. They actually worked for it. That’s the big difference.

Me? I don’t “want” to be a successful author. I am, however, becoming one.

So, stop wanting. Start becoming.

On Writing Practice

How to think about writing practice:

Yes, but why practice? (October 16, 2021)

The expectation is, or perhaps the assumption is, that once you’re good at something, you no longer need to practice in order to develop or refine the skills, in the same way as when you are learning. Sure, there is a reality to that, a recognition that drop-steps have become natural for the wrestler, that starts have become natural for the sprinter, that the G-7 major chord has become second nature for the pianist, that the sales lady no longer needs to worry how to close the deal, because she’s been doing it so long – so well – so flawlessly.

But the idea of not practicing [illegible] will be refuted by every professional, in every [illegible] industry, at every point. I heard an anecdote from a pianist, about practicing every day. Why not? he said. “If I miss a day, I can tell. If I miss two days, my wife can tell. And if I miss three days, the audience can tell.” What top tier actor would no longer rehearse lines? What politician would just assume that their presentation / speech / debate would go off without a hitch, exactly as planned, requiring zero need for alternatives or adjustments or preparations for pivots to a different focus?

So why practice? Who do writing practice, if I already know how to write? Why do this if nobody will ever see it? Why pursue? Why attempt? Why push forever and ever against incurring the wrath of fatigued brain, bored mind, exhaustion, spiteful muscles fighting me? Why do the same thing over and over and over, filling page after page after page, emptying pen after pen after pen, checking off mark after mark after mark, understanding so little of what I’ve scrawled, making no new ideas, seeing no advancement of my portfolio, spending no time making something for them (whoever they may be), and doing something that, to the outside observer would appear nothing more than a complete waste of time time?

Because.

Because I like it. Because I love it. Because it is exploration as much as it is preparation. It is a cleansing, a renewal and refreshment of me.

Yes,. there is a sense of duty here. Duty to the muse. Duty to myself and the promises I made, the challenge I accepted. More, though, there is a big, great, ‘Fuck you’ to all those who say something must be commercible to be viable. Screw that. Nobody’s going to see this. Good. So I write.

I write for me. I write for my old self, ten, twenty, thirty years ago, who had much to say but no audience. He held [illegible] ideas inside, and now they come out. Well done.

I write for my future self, a month from now, a year, ten, twenty, when I will look back at this time, this moment, and be proud of myself. Proud that I did not give into the minimalist thinking, proud that I did not [illegible] myself to a dollar amount. Proud that I did what I enjoyed; what I appreciated. Proud that I lived.

Proud that I made art – Good, great, shitty, awesome, awe-inspiring, mundane, existentialist, traditional, cutting-edge art.

And that is why I practice.

Extremely Bad Advice: Social Circle Jealousy

Dear SJ,

I am so sad seeing others happy. 

My ex girlfriend who cheated me by spending away my savings with her new boyfriend is doing well in her business. My parents are living with luxury with my hard earned money while I take abuse every day from my boss and colleagues. A deranged friend whom I lent 2,000 dollars in his troubled time is enjoying his time in the hills with lot of girlfriends. He doesn’t even remembers taking money from me. He is in and out of therapy so I can’t possibly get my money back now. I see street vendors happy with their lives while I am struggling with my midlife crisis. Being abused by others and with no clue to fix my own life is making me so miserable. How do I get out of this?

— Miserable in Milwaukee

Woman burning dollars closeup

Dear Miserable,

Listen, I know this is going to sound hard to hear, but … everything here is your fault.  

Your girlfriend spent your life savings? Your fault for allowing her access to that money. Your parents “living in luxury” while you’re toiling away at an abusive job? Your fault for staying in the job. And your fault for giving your parents anything at all! That “friend” who’s absconded with your two grand to go play redneck tickle-the-pickle – where do you think he got the cash from? It was your decision, right? You did that, right? You made that ‘gift’, right? Because if it was a loan, you would have written up a payment schedule and interest rate and you’d have some kind of enforcement mechanism that would allow you to get your money back.

But you didn’t. You didn’t do that, and you didn’t take precautions in any other aspect of your life, and now you’re upset at how things turned out.

Here’s the harsh truth: you’re not really sad at seeing others happy. You’re actually sad at seeing how many bad decisions you’ve been making over the years.

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